The Quarantine Blog XVII: July 10, 2021

Re: the previous blog.

A dancer friend contacted me to say that in the original Paul Taylor production of the Andrew Sisters’ dances there were silhouettes of armed, marching solders behind the swing dancing, happy jiviness of the teenagers. That must have created a very different impact from what is now on YouTube.

On to the 1960’s.

This recollection of the 1960’s, primarily through music, is written by someone who was always, even before age set in, a little behind the times, a foot dragger, never in the vanguard.

Something happened as we neared the end of the fifties. It was subtle at first, scarcely more than an odor in the air. In music and in life there was a shift. Looking back at the list of Billboard hit records there is little sign of what’s coming. “Mack the Knife” made it onto the annual Billboard 100 hits in 1959 and that, even with Bobby Darin singing, was an odd item just vaguely suggesting change. But in 1960 “Teen Angel,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, and, one of my all time favorites, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bed Post Over Night”, were high flyers on the Billboard charts. These have the same relationship to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights as the teenagers jiving to the Andrew Sisters have to the marching soldiers of World War II in silhouette.

The U.S. entered the conflict in Vietnam in 1955 with less than 1,000 military advisors in the country. But our involvement was a bit like a leaking pipe in a dark, ignored basement of a suburban ranch house. The residents, now under Kennedy, didn’t really know it was there. By 1964 the water had deepened to 28,000 men and the Viet Cong had built the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1967 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam.

The Civil Rights Movement started in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. In 1960 four black students were refused service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina; in 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington DC giving his “I have a dream” speech; President Johnson created the Civil Rights act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (for which we are still fighting) and in 1967 Martin Luther King joined the Vietnam war protest movement.

The first ripple of movement on the face of mass culture started in the late 1950’s and was not rock, but a revival of folk music, which in the US covers a large, diverse territory – roots music, cowboy songs, spirituals, Cajun, gospel, Appalachian, blue grass—and is both black and white. What occurred was a revival of white folk music borrowing frequently from black music. But as the war protests and Civil Rights protests melded together the music was both black and white.

For years there had been folk music about but it was a niche event. I was almost totally unaware of it. I doubt I ever listened more than casually to The Weavers. I knew about Burl Ives, but more as a personality than as a singer. I don’t think I knew the names Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

If you go to YouTube and listen to The Weavers recording of “If I Had a Hammer” and then the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary you will instantly see what happened. Part of the change is, of course, this being America, the commercial element. The Weavers are relaxed, friendly, informal, and warm in their rendition of the song. Peter, Paul and Mary are slick. They are giving a performance. Their beat is strong, fast with an urgent drive lacking from The Weavers, the beginning of rock.

Ronnie Gilbert, the female singer of The Weavers, a group of 3 men and one woman, including Pete Seeger, is chubby faced, with a warm contralto voice and is clothed–these days that’s noteworthy. Her dress, however, is unnoteworthy; she does not seem animated by what she is singing. But she had an exemplary track record in protest having almost been expelled from high school for her resistance to being part of a minstrel show.

Mary Travers, singing with Peter and Paul, wears an interesting dress, with style, her long blond hair swings before and behind her as she sings, the music appears to work its way through her body and out of her mouth; it is a visceral part of her.

That energy has transformed over the years into hype rather than genuine feeling I fear.

In 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary’s album entitled “If I Had a Hammer” was in the top 10 on the Billboard chart for 10 months.

My theory is that this cultural shift started in the world of folk music because folk had a history of protest but I don’t think, uneasy as many of us were, we knew if or what exactly we wanted to protest—inequality, the war. We were unfocused. “If I Had a Hammer” is not in its lyrics at all a specific cry for change or a particular protest against any situation political or social. It calls out that there is “a danger”. It calls out “a warning.”  It is quite appropriate as an alert and did, I think, really embody our feelings at that time. I would bet few of us, certainly this is true for me, thought we would end up in the streets of New York and other cities marching and chanting, “Peace Now,” or, a chant that was hushed by the mothers accompanying their children on a march I was on in New York, “One, two three four, we don’t want your fucking war.” There was also the enlivening feminist chant invented by the women of Barnard College, “Put down the bassinet./ Pick up the bayonet;/ Give up detergent,/ Become an insurgent.” Few of us envisioned ourselves being on the Mall in DC in 1963 listening to Martin Luther King.

But musically the nexus of change was that young man, mentioned at the end of the previous blog, with the ugly, nasal voice and the harmonica on a frame around his neck. I disliked the voice. Joyce Carol Oates said that if sandpaper could sing that is what it would sound like. I don’t think so. Sandpaper isn’t nasal. To me it’s the voice of an adenoidal adolescent. Mick Jagger said, with English understatement, “He’s never been one of the great tenors of our time.” I think the harmonica is a horrible instrument, wheezily shrill, but it did not matter; Bob Dylan focused our and my attention as no one had in decades. Our unease was reflected in  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are a ‘Changing”. He took from his idol, Woodie Guthrie and forged a new sense of what music could be, what song could do.  He became the American voice of protest. Listening to the songs as they progressed and became more focused—”Masters of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—I am struck by how brilliant and clear the lyrics are, how they unwrap the connection between people in power, the powerless who kill for them, and the murdered.

Here are the last two verses of “Only a Pawn” about the assassination of Medger Evers.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game.

I think he deserves that Nobel Prize but I also think he is an egomaniacal ossified idiot who meanders from drug to drug—marijuana to born again Christianity. Fame is a disease for many people. Some die of it—Amy Winehouse most recently. Only a few survive its ravages. Far fewer manage to live with it with grace knowing who they are. Certainly Bob Dylan is not one of those. Joan Baez, however, somehow never seems to have taken on the goddess role her fans and publicity agents claimed for her. She sang other people’s protest songs but the most famous one she wrote was the poignant  “Saigon Bride.”

There were others singing both Civil Rights and Vietnam protest songs: Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” with the memorable lines “You don’t have to live next to me, /Just give me equality”: San Cooke’s beautiful “A Change is Gonna Come”: Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” whose lines “It’s always the old who lead us to war,/ Always the young who fall” encapsulates one of the realizations of the time: Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” holds the other realization of the era, “You’re old enough for killin’,/ But too young for votin’”.

The British, meaning The Beatles, made no contribution at all to these protest songs until Lennon brought out “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969.

My own life was being restructured at this time in ways that were typical of the times. I started working at The City College of the City of New York in a program, set up by Mina Shaughnessey, whose purpose was to take high school graduates suffering from inadequacies in written English and bring them up to standard. It was called Basic English and had three levels. At the lowest level one taught grammar, meaning subject-verb agreement. The second level concentrated on the idea of the sentence and the third worked on getting students to be able to write a cogent essay. The students who took these courses were by no means all black. However, Harlem had realized that there was a college in its midst that fairly regularly produced Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, but none of their population attended it.

I was almost as late as Lennon in contributing my mite to change by teaching in this program, which I joined in 1966 or 67. It totally changed me over the years, about 15 I think, that I worked in the program. I was a nicely brought up, protected, white woman, middle class, with no knowledge of black life. We all grow up in ghettos not knowing how other people, economically above us, below us, live. There had been only one black student in my high school; he become an alcoholic and worked on the town garbage truck. Given my background I had never really expected to have to work but once I became a divorcee it was necessary.

In my first class I had a heroin addict, Teddy, who nodded out in class. I realized he was a problem for me because the other students might well think me unknowledgeable about him and this would impair our relationship. I would not be a knowing person just another clueless whitey. I thought and thought for a subtle way to signal my awareness.

At the next class when Teddy started to nod, I turned to the board to write something down and sang in my beastly soprano, “Beautiful Dreamer, wake unto me;” the entire class cracked up loudly enough to jolt Teddy out of his nod.

The first essay I always asked students to write was 500 words, large groans at the number, about themselves, who they were, what they thought, what they hoped for. A number of times I received from this an essay that stated, “If I can graduate from college I will be the first person in my family to not be on welfare.” Such a statement created a burning impetus to help that student find his or her bootstraps and pull with all our combined strength.  

A few years after Teddy, I had another rude awakening. I received an essay, which was not on subject but milled around unable to find any beginning, middle or even an end. I couldn’t figure out, reading it, what was going on. It was early in the term so I did not yet have a clear sense of my students as individuals, but I did know this student was from Jamaica. Going into class I went up to him and said, “During the break, I would like to speak to you about your essay.” I often did quick counseling sessions in the corridor outside the classroom.

I was startled, as was the rest of the class, when he opened a newspaper to its full width and rattled it periodically during the first hour of class. This was a warning. When I called the break he bolted for the door. I followed him out to where he wheeled on me, pounded his chest with his fist and announced, “I am the Lion of Judah!”

I knew just enough about Jamaica and Rastafarians to realize what I was facing but I had no idea how to respond. I managed to say that his actual writing was grammatical and smooth; that was not the problem. This calmed him enough so that he went on to say something to the effect that I was like the Queen of Sheba. This really alarmed me, as I know what went on between Solomon and Sheba. At this point I was a bit desperate and suggested perhaps we should go upstairs to talk to his advisor. This was a piece of luck. It was immediately apparent that he was afraid of his advisor, a broad shouldered black man who had obviously played football in college. We were able to talk about the essay but I knew it was no use, that I was dealing with someone who had severe mental difficulties. Indeed, he disappeared from the class a few weeks later.

But it was when I spoke to his advisor that the full despair of the situation was brought home to me. I asked him if he had contacted the family. He gave me a look saying, “They know and they will just lock him up in his room until they feel he’s making sense again.  My calling will only make it worse.”

When I left City College I taught as Poet-in-Residence all over the U.S. for six years, driving back and forth across the country ten times in those six years.

One December when I came home for Christmas I was on the subway, damp with snow, crammed in with my fellow strap- hangers, looking down at a large, young black man sitting before me. Suddenly he looked up and queried, “Is your name Swenson?”

I answered, “Yes. What did I give you?”

He broke into a huge grin, saying, “An A.”

“You must have been good.”

Getting up to give me his seat he responded, “You were the last person who made me think.”

You can keep the Academy Award, the Pulitzer; I will take that sentence over them every time.

What happened at the beginning of the 1970’s musically can be understood by listening to Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, commemorating the four shot dead at Kent State in a peaceful protest, Edwin Starr’s “War.” You can’t understand the words because the music, the beat, has blotted most of them out. When words are subsumed into horns, guitars and drums the message is gone, no one hears it. The band has decided the words are not important. This signaled the beginning of the end of the era. Its last cry was probably Lennon’s “Imagine” in 1971.

I don’t read books about the 1960’s but I read every review about books on the 1960’s most of which decry the time as a period of chaos, of defeat for order, and most recently as a time when individualism killed off our sense of community. I am pro the 1960’s but let me tell you, particularly any of my readers who only mistily know these times, a telling detail about the 1950’s.

Every year of my youth a designer in Paris with whom we in Chappaqua, NY or Fargo, ND had no contact what so ever, decided that our skirt hems would go up an inch or down two. Once the news was out we in absolute unison raised or lowered our hems in strict obedience to our unknown leader. When I went to college I was one of the first to wear trousers to class. I wasn’t questioned but I was looked at. However, it got me out of the hem game. That kind of rigid, utterly taken for granted, conformity was the emblem of 1950’s non-think.

In the 1960’s that not only stopped, but women wore their hems at all levels—down to the floor, above the knee, mid calf. And, thank god, we have never gone back to that kind of conformity.

I remember the ’60’s as a time of intense community, a community, which stretched across color lines for the first time.  When the riots happened in Harlem black people took in white people to keep them safe. I was escorted to the subway by students.

Like most Americans I was naive about the world, politics, government. There were for me two enormously important things I comprehended through my ‘60’s experience. One was that black people in America had to fight at least ten times harder to just live than I did. The other was the mean, hard lesson that the government I elected was not going to listen to my voice, or my voice combined with 50% of America. It was going to pursue a war started by misinformation and continued by lies despite a growing awareness of the realities of Vietnam. My government was wedded, perhaps welded is a better word, to its lies and was run by men I now know were child like in their capacity to understand.

Reading David Halberstam’s THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST not only were the lies revealed by the childish thinking of these men, but Halberstam thought, in his simple mindedness, his colleagues must know what they were doing because they had all gone to Princeton. My mind is boggled by such a thought process sending me back to listen to the most apposite of anti-Vietnam War songs, Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy.” If you don’t know or remember it you can access it on YouTube.

Naivite is the primary American national characteristic, which leads us into a great variety of stupidities, particularly in foreign affairs, but still, I prefer it to, for instance, French cynicism, because it means we are always optimistic and I think optimism is preferable to cynicism.

One of the lessons that societies, certainly American society, don’t seem to be able to cope with is the fact that whatever is going wrong at the lowest economic level of your culture is going to work its way up to the higher levels. Just give it time. In my young life drug addiction was thought of as a problem peculiar to black, and white, jazz musicians, then a problem of the black community. Then my mother, by no means an acute observer, saw the son of prominent, respected, parents in Chappaqua shooting up in the railway station in town between trains.

I am not sure why we went from protests to drugs, perhaps disillusionment with our country and its inability to adhere to its ideals, but we certainly took a swan dive, to mix my metaphors outrageously, from Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” down the hole of The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”



The Quarantine Blog XXVI: April 5, 2021

And now, at last, the Andrew Sisters.

I desperately wanted to fit in with my classmates in middle and high school. Realizing my musical preferences, opera and classical, were making me “different”, causing me to be mocked, I suppressed any reference to the music I loved and listened, studiously, as though I were conjugating French verbs, to pop music, which was largely, but not exclusively, the Andrews Sisters. Every Saturday, or was it Sunday, evening I would tune my radio to the program many of my schoolmates were listening to, the Billboard count down of the most popular songs in the country. This was not particularly painful but it was boring.

In the 1940’s and the 50’s the Andrew Sisters were the prime pop group with hit after hit. To quote a friend, admittedly a New Yorker, “They were awful–mushy, cheap, and certainly not eye candy.” Until he mentioned it I hadn’t thought about the “eye candy” angle. It’s quite true. They were a curly coiffed, rigidly hair-sprayed, homely group. What they sang while “mushy and cheap” was also bland, banal and vapid. But their primary interesting characteristic was intense cheeriness. All their songs are happy sort of jump about ditties, full of bounce. That cheeriness is, for me, one of the salient traits of the 1950’s and I suspect what causes people to have such nostalgia for that period. We had come out of the Second World War triumphant and all was right with the world. The music insists, all is well; everything is fine, fine, fine. We are all happy, happy, happy.

The truth of the 1950’s was quite different from that—desperate single mothers unable to find work, lynchings in the south, acute poverty both urban and rural all over the country. The personal truth of the lives of the Andrew Sisters also contradicted this artificial happiness.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota they started singing very young for fun becoming commercial singers after their father’s restaurant business collapsed. They supported their parents for the rest of their lives. They were famous for their close harmony singing and performed all varieties of music from boogie-woogie to Country to Calypso. (You can find everything I mention on YouTube.) However, if you listen to the music they, and, their arranger, Vic Schoen, had an odd leveling effect on these styles making them sound similar.

If you listen to “Rum and Coca Cola” and then Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”, it becomes clear that although the beat has been retained it has been iron out so that it is not as pronounced. And, remember Belafonte was himself a popularizer. The “real” calypso was even more unique in style.

Of course, popular music, is just that, popular; to achieve mass appeal it can’t be heavily individual. What the Sisters did to “Rum and Coca Cola” was also done to classical music when it was adapted to popular song. I will only give two examples, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a Frank Sinatra hit, takes its melody from the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” sung by Eric Carmen, comes from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the third movement.

But the lyrics of “Rum and Coca Cola” are another problem. Here are some, not all, of the words the Sisters sang:

Rum and Coca-Cola

If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, beat it man, beat it

Since Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin’ mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, you vex me, you vex me

From Chicachicaree to Mona’s Isle
Native girls all dance and smile
Help soldier celebrate his leave
Make every day like New Year’s Eve

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar.

The fact that this song was about women prostituting themselves to American soldiers went right by the 1950’s listeners as well as the Sisters. “We neverthought of the lyrics. The lyric was there; it was cute, but we didn’t think of what it meant….” Maxene said in an interview. She points out that content went right over people’s heads, both singers and listeners. They paid no attention.

That perhaps sums up the 1950’s for me. It was an era when people didn’t think. They were oblivious particularly to the effect they were having on other people, and their lives

The Sisters’ first hit is an even odder instance of not thinking. In 1937, a year after I was born, they recorded “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” a Yiddish song from a Yiddish musical comedy titled I WOULD IF I COULD. However, Jack Kapp of Decca Records didn’t want them to sing it in Yiddish but in American vernacular English. Somewhere along the way the title was translated into German, becoming “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Not only did a Jewish song have its title translated into German but a Nazi pop band a few years later recorded it with “state-approved anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik” lyrics. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone in the American recording industry that taking a Yiddish song and translating its title into German was a bad idea. Of course it was just the beginning of the war.

The song sold seven million records and was on the Billboard Charts in first place for seven weeks. The title was incomprehensible to most Americans and according to LIFE MAGAZINE people went into stores asking for “Buy a Beer Mr. Shane” or  “My Mere Bits of Shame. ¨ I have had experience with this problem of consumer approximation of a title, having worked in a Doubleday Bookstore when BONJOUR TRISTESSE hit the bestseller list. My favorite interpretation of the title was “Bangor Treaties.

Other hits of theirs which may be familiar are “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and “Beer Barrel Polka.” A thought in passing. It is an oddity of popular music, for which I have no explanation, that it is always played at the same volume. It never gets louder or softer. It is always at a constant volume.

Another characteristic of popular music is sentimentality. Out of this period I remember “The Tennessee Waltz” as a prime example of saccharine drench. But if you have never heard Spike Jones’ satire of it, you have missed a good thing, again YouTube. At the time I didn’t know about Spike.

However the monsters of celebrity and money slowly gobbled up the Sisters. When their parents died, one after the other in 1948 and’49, they started arguing over money, solos and billing. Finally they split up and became estranged from each other, there were suicide attempts, and they never really reunited, although each had a separately successful career. It is an American story of ego arrogance and greed destroying relationships.

Now I have to add a caveat emptor here. Paul Taylor made a thoroughly delightful series of ballets out of these songs, performed to a recording of the Andrew Sisters singing. It captures the naiveté of that time period with its utter lack of sensitivity to anyone outside of the mainstream. You can see these on YouTube.

There was other music around, folk, jazz, but I grew up in the narrow channel of classical and knew nothing of these other forms until I was in college. When I brought home a record of Ertha Kitt my family greeted it with firm disapproval. I didn’t get to Dexter Gordon until much later. But they were just as opposed to Dave Brubeck. I knew of Burl Ives but had not heard him and even The Weavers were totally unknown to me.

Obviously, in my family there was a hieratic snob value attached to music, which I had not been aware of and the same was true, in a different way, of my classmates’ musical choices. If you liked a certain kind of music you belonged. Surely, using music in this way, or any other art form, to place people up or down in the hierarchy or to decide they are “acceptable” is a sad and grievous twisting of what art is.

The Quarantine Blog XXV: March 10, 2021

I started this blog about the Andrew Sisters and other music of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, with the best of intentions, but as you will see it veered into the intensely personal. I have decided to send it out anyway.


At my son’s request I am writing this blog about my ideas concerning popular music in the ‘40’s, ‘50’s,‘60’s and into the ‘70’s. I have been hesitant for several reasons: 1) I have no expertise in the area of popular music so what I am writing is sheer personal opinion. 2) It brings up emotional turmoil because, although I adored school, I had a hard time with my classmates partly due to the different musical content of our lives. And I am going to have to start with the trauma of those years, which is inseparable from my sense, feeling, reaction to the music of the time.

I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in the then prosperous, but not yet deluxe, suburb of Chappaqua about 36 miles outside of New York City. It had an excellent school system and taxes to match. In the late 1940’s and all of the 1950’s conformity was rigid in these communities, of course, more so among children. We dressed alike and all our tastes were supposed to be exactly the same.

I remember a boy in grade school wore a pair of knickerbockers one day, probably inherited from an older brother, since these had been popular ten years before but were no longer worn. He was teased. They were a signal of familial poverty. Knickerbockers, which still exist, are baggy trousers that end at the knee and are worn with knee-high socks. I have always wanted a pair in emerald velvet.

The smallest difference was mocked. Later in middle to high school I had a girl friend who also didn’t fit.

Her clothes were fashionable, rather than the prescribed skirts, sweaters and saddle shoes that were de rigueur. She came to school one day in a circular quilted skirt that was much ridiculed.  She would have been fine in New York City where diversity was/is largely accepted but the suburbs are/were more confining. She also had very long hair, which she wore down her back. This was pulled and tangled so much that she was often in tears. Her family finally removed her and placed her in a private school. Having your child come home weeping every day is not pleasant. I wanted desperately to follow her to that private school, but my family did not have the money, so I learned to tough it out. I didn’t tell my parents what happened to me in school until I was grown.

I don’t know what I was like at that age. I may have been superior or arrogant in my attitudes and offended my schoolmates. Besides liking opera another of my social solecisms was that my mother made me wear long, tan, cotton stockings which were held up by a sort of halter over my shoulders with garters attached. She thought I was too frail to weather the winter barelegged. A girl in my class, who was also a neighbor of mine, I have no idea why, and I suspect she doesn’t know either, talked some boys into throwing me into a ditch to pull up my skirts and see what held up the stockings. The instigator of my humiliation was totally irresistible because she had breasts, which a fair number of us did not yet have.

I am missing pieces of this incident. Did I try to fight them off? I cannot remember. What I do remember was that climbing out of that ditch, leaf mold on cheek and knees, in an agony of humiliation and defeat, I wanted immediately to erase the incident from my mind. I never wanted to remember it. This is a natural but not a useful reaction.

What I had been taught, however, was an important lesson, that while I thought I was autonomous, free to do what I wanted, I was completely at the mercy of any group that wanted to use their physical strength against me. I had never had to think about this.

It meant that the other effect of this incident was I became immediately and permanently on the side of all underdogs in my vicinity and, slowly, underdogs anywhere. Whoever was baited, blamed, ridiculed was my companion. This incident made me aware that I was living in a society that was lying to me. I was not free. I was not equal.

It lead me to teach in Harlem at City College, interview ex government prisoners in Burma, a writer under house arrest in Indonesia, causing me to acquire a police tail, and to confront the Minister of North American Affairs in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam about writers in prison there. The later was not a very good idea. It is also, possibly, the reason I reacted so violently to the situation I found when I came to Spain in 1960 and saw the fear on peoples’ faces and the Guardia Civil in their patent leather hats posted along the roads.

What my neighbor and schoolmate did to me changed me. It changed her as well.

Practically no one gets through life without his or her soupçon of trauma and one shouldn’t. Trauma is a necessary lesson about life. My schoolmate/neighbor, who many years later apologized to me (more later on that), had her own horrifying trauma around that time.

Her father brought his Russian father to the U.S. This would have been the time of Stalin. It must have been a complex operation both expensive and difficult. I am sure this was done with the best of intentions. He, the grandfather, was a little man in his late sixties or seventies. I used to see him alone, neatly dressed, on our road walking. He was the only Russian I knew, my only Russian reference, until I was in college, when my memory of him gave me an aperçu into Dostoyevsky’s characters, isolated in their suffering. He was also the first person I recognized as being, even though I didn’t really know him, detritus, cast up on the beach of history. I have known many in that despairing isolation over my lifetime.

He was utterly alone, no English, no tendrils of relation to the alien culture he found himself in. He had his son, but I imagine his grandchildren viewed him as something incomprehensibly alien suddenly dumped in their lives. He was cruelly isolated at the end of his life.

One day he went missing. The police were called, I believe, and his family and others on the road searched for him. It was my tormentor, his granddaughter, who saw the top of his bald head shining above the water in the pond beside their house. Like Virginia Woolf he had drowned himself by walking into the pond.

We all get our spoonful of trauma.

Years and years later my schoolmate apologized but went well beyond saying she was sorry. When she contacted me she told me she had carried the guilt of what she had done for years gnawing at her. The boys involved, now old men, never apologized. I can’t remember who they were; trauma wiped them from my memory.

 My former neighbor in apologizing explained, “I told my children and my grandchildren, ‘Don’t ever do anything like this or you will suffer terrible guilt all of your life.’”

I had no difficulty forgiving after such a confession.

That’s my introduction to the Andrew Sisters.

So after over a thousand words I have not gotten to the Andrew Sisters. I promise to be more on topic with the next blog.



Here we are in the New Year that looks much like the old year. In that old year I started a rabbit I would like to pursue, Mary Magdalene.

I grew up with her as the exemplum of female remorse in the Church, the bad girl who having reformed was either in eternal tears or a haggard saint. I am thinking in the later case of the statue of her, the Penitent Magdalen, by Donatello formerly in the Baptistery of the Duomo in Florence carved from white poplar wood. She looks like a famine victim, haggard, hollow eyed, emaciated. Her teeth are snaggled and she is clothed in her own hair. I thought the first time I saw her she was wearing animal skins. There is something odd about her being clothed in her own hair. It is not penitential dress but erotic garb for a woman to wear only her own hair, even when a bit matted, although the mattedness may signal eroticism gone rotten. I have no conclusion to draw. I am simply puzzled by this malingering carnality.

About fifteen years ago I discovered that the Magdalene I knew was a victim of a conflation creation.  In 591 Pope Gregory I in his Easter sermons melded her with two other women, Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:39) and the unnamed woman in the New Testament (Luke 7:36-50) who washed Christ’s feet and was considered a sinful woman. Being a sinful woman was not interpreted as being gluttonous, prideful, greedy, envious, wrathful, or slothful but as being a prostitute. The Church early in its career narrowed the focus on sin to sex. This is how Mary Magdalene became a legendary prostitute, through papal misrepresentation.

There was as well a second set of legends, of which I was ignorant, in which Mary was Christ’s wife and bore him children. This was a mythology, however, that never took root.

In 1969 the merging of Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman was retracted in the General Roman Calendar by Pope Paul VI. But you can’t revirginify your reputation from papal slander that easily after fourteen hundred years. She is still considered a reformed prostitute by most of the Christian world.

The little we have of written records of Magdalene in the canonical gospels, those accepted by the Catholic Church, tell us she traveled with Christ, gave him financial support, was in contact with the apostles, was witness to the crucifixion, to his burial and was alone or with others a witness to his empty tomb. The accounts of the last event vary widely depending on the gospel being read, but she is always the first to discover the tomb is empty.

In the gospels of Luke and Mark it is also recorded that she was exorcized of seven demons which may mean she underwent seven exorcisms or simply, because of secondary meanings of the number seven in Hebrew at the time, that she was in the power of these demons. Demons were in that era considered the source of mental illnesses. However, this exorcism and demons don’t appear in the gospels until the second century AD. They may be a second century invention.

That she gave Christ financial support means she was wealthy. At that time it was not unusual for well-heeled Jewish women to financially support synagogues. This also suggests they probably had more voice in the community than one might imagine.

Reading outside the cannon, however, things become more complex. The Gnostic Gospels include reference to Mary Magdalene and there is a Gospel of Mary that tells of Christ’s teaching from her perspective.

Gnosticism was a complex web of beliefs that preferred enlightenment through individual insight and understanding over fixed dogma. It considered the material world to be corrupt because it was created by a flawed entity, God. Adam and Eve did not bring evil into the world; it came from the Creator of the world who arranged that all living entities eat each other and are, therefore, in fear of each other.

Two forces exist, one for good, the Godhead and the other evil, the Creator God who is responsible for setting up the system of suffering which exists on earth. Christ is one of a handful of Messengers of the Light sent from the Godhead, which is an It not a He or She, to assist humans in their search for Gnosis, knowledge.

Despite their belief in Christ the Gnostics were declared heretics by the Church as it grew into the stunningly powerful corporation it has become. It may be the most successful in human history. What other corporation could have survived tearing itself in two. Could Microsoft have survived a CEO in Silicon Valley and another of equal reputation and following in Los Angeles? Years of exponential, blatant corruption did take its toll in the Protestant splintering but it is still a very healthy corporation today.

Although the Gnostics produced large numbers of written texts the Church destroyed them with such thoroughness that until the last two centuries all that was known about Gnosticism came from quotations of Gnostic texts in the writings of Christian prelates trying to refute Gnostic heresy. In the nineteenth century scholars attempted to collect these shreds of quotations in order to form an idea of the sect’s beliefs. In 1945 a farmer discovered the Nag Hammad library in an Egyptian town of that name. It consists of thirteen leather-bound papyrus volumes that had been buried in a sealed jar. The books include both Christian and Gnostic texts.

Among those books is the Gospel of Philip, a volume that meanders from subject to subject in a fashion quite confusing to the modern reader. Here is the section that mentions Mary Magdalene.

Two caveats before presenting you with this. One, Wisdom for the Gnostics was feminine, named Sophia, an emanation of the Godhead. Second, Christians and Gnostics greeted each other with a kiss on the mouth, the “kiss of peace”, and there was nothing sexual about it.

     “As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.’”

That is a fairly breath-taking put down of the disciples. It is apparent that Magdalene is being compared to Sophia or Wisdom. To segue to Buddhism for a moment, the Drölma, also known as the Green Tara, who could be considered an emanation of the Buddha, represents Wisdom, which Buddhists consider feminine and passive.

But Peter did object to Mary. There was a power struggle that existed and is apparent in the Gnostic gospels. I would say he won. The early Church, even in the time of Paul who had a copious and complex correspondence with women in positions of power among converts, had many women in its structure but it became more an more patriarchal over time and women were pushed off to the side.

A last tidbit is a legend in which, after the discovery of the empty tomb of the resurrected Christ by the three Mary’s—Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Ciopas—the three sailed from Alexandria with some say Joseph of Arimathea, others Santiago, arriving at a fortress on the French coast known as Notre-Dame-de-Ratis, Our-Lady-of-the-Boat. The name was changed over time to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer and then in 1838 to Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Here she was, so the legend goes, buried. Oddly the Gypsies also have a female saint here and come to celebrate her once a year.

The possibility of Mary, Christ’s mother, Magdalene and the third Mary packing up after seeing the empty tomb to cross the Mediterranean and become missionaries of Christianity seems most unlikely but it does give a different perspective to see these women as independent travelers over sea and land.

Rather than the Pope’s prostitute, out of this patchwork, swatches of possible lives, the Magdalena I envision is a well dressed Jewish matron, her wealth apparent in the quality of the fabric of her well cut dress rather than in its stylishness, wandering the shore and hills of Provence, talking to fisherman and farmers of the new faith. She has dark, expressive eyes and an authoritative manner that even men used to being in command find difficult to confront. There are lines of suffering and sadness about her mouth, but the dark eyes dance with humor and spiritual joy.

It’s worth noting what happens to an individual once she or he has gotten into the maw of an institution or corporation with a particular agenda. The winners write history, of course, but the amount of denigration meted out, the manipulation and excising that goes on is worth being cognizant of.

Her latest incarnation is in a song by the British singer FKA twigs in her album entitled  “Magdalene.”


Mary Magdalene

FKA twigs

A woman’s work
A woman’s prerogative
A woman’s time to embrace
She must put herself first
A woman’s touch, a sacred geometry
I know where you start, where you end
How to please, how to curse

Yes, I learnt you needed me
Yes, I’m here to open you
Yes, I know that your heart is blue
(So cold)

I fear before the fire
True as Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer to me
Step just a little bit closer to me
I can lift you higher
I do it like Mary Magdalene
I want you to say it
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

A woman’s hands
So dark and provocative
A nurturing breath that could stroke
Your divine confidence
A woman’s war
Unoccupied history
True nature won’t search to destroy
If it doesn’t make sense

Yes, I learnt you needed me
Yes, I’m here to open you
Yes, I know that your heart is blue
(So cold)

I fear before the fire
True as Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer to me
Step just a little bit closer to me
I can lift you higher
I do it like Mary Magdalene
I want you to say it
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

Ooh, you didn’t hear me now
Ooh, you didn’t hear me when I told you
Ooh, you didn’t hear me now

Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit, just a little bit 
Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

Ooh, you didn’t hear me now
Ooh, you didn’t hear me when I told you
Ooh, you didn’t hear me now


(I should explain. The date on a blog indicates when I started writing it, not necessarily when I was in the place written about.)

At breakfast I asked if I could have my eggs scrambled. The waitress had a moment of indecision but then she went for, “No.”

I walked to the museum wending my way through the now familiar streets of the old town, stumbling across the antique store I had not been able to find the other day. It’s all bits and pieces, old Lladro figures, jewelry, pictures, silver.  He had a footed silver box and I was tempted to add it to my collection but I have reached the stage of life where possessions are more apt to be a burden than a joy.

However, I saw a pair of Japanese house sandals at another shop and decided they were what I needed for the tile floors of Spanish hotels. Also they pack flat and though not warm keep your feet off the floor.

At the San Telmo Museum I walked through the Sert paintings again. Since then I have learned, from a friend who reads my blogs. about Sert’s other murals in the Vic cathedral and his first wife, Misia Sert, a pianist (1872—1950). She studied with Fauré. She was apparently a favorite portrait subject having been painted by Renoir, Bonnard and Lautrec. Her fashionable Paris salon was a resort for Ravel, Debussy, Picasso, Mallarmé, and Cocteau. He says there is a plaque on Sant Pere Més Alt in Barcelona commemorating Sert’s birthplace.

I went on into the hall with remnants of stone tools and arrows that flows into the lethalness of swords and armor and then the human homicidal tendencies are channeled into 18th century hats and headdresses that may still have been seen on occasion at the beginning of the 20th century. These are fun.

Some are real hats but many are concoctions made by winding white strips of linen around, I presume, a form to make a curved horn, a steeple straight up or a series of dumplings getting smaller as they rise and ending in a little curved horn. One mannequin looks as though she has a large muffin on her head beneath which folds of drapery enclose her from chin to chest. The face, male or female, is not covered but neck, hair and ears are. I spent time gazing, in part, because these heads reminded me of the girls who lean out of the walls of the stage at the Palau de la Musica with their harps, tambourines, flutes, and horns in all kinds of hats and hair adornments.

I took the elevator upstairs where, utterly alone with the paintings, I at last got to concentrate on this eclectic gathering of faces. There are some early paintings of the Evangelists. These are not gaunt old men in straitened circumstances hanging out with their symbols—the lion, the angel the bull and the eagle—but well fed, middle aged, scribes with thick, crisply curled beards in sumptuous brocade robes of deep, stained glass colors all of whom have, I noticed, large ears. They look as though in another part of their comfortable houses housekeepers are keeping things in order and seeing lunch is on the table promptly.

Around the corner is a startling Mary Magdalene by Tintoretto. I wrote in my notebook, “hilarious”, yes, but perhaps equivocal is a better word, although she did make me laugh. Your average Renaissance Mary Magdalene is a good-looking woman even when half drowned in tears of remorse. She may or may not be sexy—see Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio, Crivelli—but she is always pretty. This young woman, I would say she is a teenager– physically a woman but not there yet emotionally or mentally– is not particularly good looking, being a bit chubby about the face, but she is definitely of the flesh. She is ripe, about to drop off the tree. In modern terms she is, a la Madonna, a material girl. She is all gussied up in the way teenagers love. She’s been to the hairdresser and he’s given her, ringlets across her brow and beside her ears like spiral bands through which she has threaded pearl drops on a pearl chain. She is wearing a pearl necklace and her bodice is cinched with gold chains studded with amethysts. There are more adornments on the chest before her and I suspect a mirror that we can’t see that she is looking into with bland complacency. She is over the top and loving it. There’s no cleavage and no leg; she maybe spiritually and mentally immature but she is in season.

Behind her shoulders are big rose silk, opulent poofs, lined with gold brocade, like wings, suggesting that they are her current conception of wings. She’s a materialistic butterfly, not a numinous lofting spirit. She is unlike any other Mary Magdalene I have ever seen

Next door to her are three El Greco’s. I may have noted down “hilarious” in my book because of the contrast between Mary and these pale, attenuated saints, their eyes cast up to heaven, all of whom have hands like Glenn Gould. This is the first time that I made a connection between El Greco and Modigliani. The saints and Mary are polar opposites. They are almost transparent with spiritual transcendence; she is solid as a block of oak.

Across from this sanctified gathering is a portrait by de la Cruz of Phillip III, handsome, but with a thoroughly unpleasant glint in his eye, which is odd because I don’t think of him as one of the nasty kings, just another self indulgent royal who let his friends eat his country.

In the next room is an exquisite little Madonna and Child by Rubens. It has a strip before it which sounds an alarm if you lean too close which I did several times, although there was no one on the floor to hear or reprimand. It is an intimate picture whose characters are warmly lovable in the most cheerful bourgeois way. The Madonna is plump cheeked with a curvaceous mouth, baby all smiles in his chubbiness. Everyone is well dressed, comfortable and perhaps most important, happily content. They radiate well-being, wholesomeness and immense charm.

The floor below leaps into the modern era. A painting by Antonio Ortiz Echaqüe, Two Women of Tafilalet, shows a pair of women draped, twin pillars in different shades of blue with no flesh showing except their eyes, in the case of the younger, one eye. They are not veiled in the Saudi sense, but have drawn their shrouding mantles of blue across their faces as though in protest against the painter’s intrusion. They are mysterious and, of course, Islamic. Tafilalet is the largest Saharan oasis in southeastern Morocco and has a number of fortified villages. It was on a caravan route from the Niger River to Tangier. That is all I have been able to learn with nothing about the painter to be found through the usual Google channels, but the women have a statuesque, imposing quality that I found appealing.

More modern and western is a canvas by Juan Luis Goenaga of fish and divers with tanks strapped to their backs under the sea. It’s not your usual subject matter, which makes it fun. Quite different is Mari Puri Herrero’s Sobresalta a las Campistas. Herrero is a mistress of the edgy, disturbing image.

In the foreground of a greenly lush countryside are two men in dark suits, one with a bowler hat. They are as out of place as a pair of large pythons in Trafalgar Square. In the distance, hurrying away, are two women. I have no idea what this is about but it is worryingly sinister.

The museum then continues chronicling life and history in the Basque country. There are little videos on sheep and shepherds, on making cloth from spindle to loom, on labor movements, on women’s rights with exhibitions accompanying all. It is overwhelming and wonderful.

I had lunch at a place my friends E and V had suggested which had filling pinchos.  They were large and delicious. I managed to rediscover a chocolate shop I had seen to buy a bar with chili, very little chili, and an orange slice dipped in dark chocolate which I ate at a café on the esplanade with a café con leche. It is satisfying to consume coffee and chocolate with the perfect curve of the bay before you.

The next day I was leaving, therefore the morning was spent packing but at lunch time I went back to my first restaurant, Casa Vergara, and reordered my first lunch—oysters, ham croquets, grilled shrimp. It was just as good as the first time. I thought about paying again to revisit the Santiago pilgrim, but it was time to go back to the hotel, order a taxi and head to the airport.

Bon Nadal
Feliz Navidad
Merry Christmas

The Quarantine Blog XXII: November 23

The next day being Monday, the museum was closed, as was the buffet in the café, in its case, due to a lack of guests. However I could have whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted from the menu –coffee, croissant, eggs with ham, yogurt and muesli.

I have a friend in Barcelona who is exceptionally discerning on the subjects of restaurants and tenors, indeed, on anything about opera. He had suggested a restaurant, Rekondo, specifying that it was exceptional, a bit expensive and not to be missed. If P says a restaurant is exceptional, it’s a Michelin two to three star. I found it on my paper map and decided I could walk there.

Leaving the hotel I took off in the direction opposite to that I had been heading for the last three days, this time toward Igeldo, the promontory on the opposing horn of the crescent bay. On a whim I turned inland and found myself climbing stairs, if my phone is tallying truthfully, fourteen flights.

As I started up I noted a man doing his morning exercise by running up several flights and then walking down; cheaper than a gym, it certainly looked effective judging by the sweaty patch between his shoulder blades. The views out to the Concha, the bay, were fine but as interesting were the views of houses, their terraces. One looked up at them, down at them, out at them from all levels. Some were primly tidy with flowering plants and chairs drawn up to umbrellaed tables. Others were a bit blousy, straggling geraniums gone to seed or overwhelmed by blooming weeds with faded canvas chairs, or rusty tables on loose tiles. 19th century grace and 20th century modernity jostled each other up the hill.

At the top and along the way were a few 19th century villas muffled in undergrowth. They are probably too costly to renovate. Things became quieter, no cars; often I was alone with birds and trees looking down at that perfect bay. I took a street that turned down toward the Miramar Palace once the summer home of Queen Maria Christina, much loved here because she supported the town. Now a convention center, it has lots of turrets and roofs which make it interesting from a distance but it becomes less attractive as one gets closer and its resemblance to a 19th century suburban villa on growth serum becomes more evident.

It is surrounded by a park that pitches abruptly down the hill. As I left the bulk of the Miramar Palace I passed a clutch of men gathered about a group of cameras on tripods. On a bench in their midst, and I thought associated with them, was a white haired man in a blue plaid flannel shirt and a blue quilted vest. I am not sure why I noticed him; perhaps there was something authoritative about him.

I was able to follow my map to Igeldo Passealekua, the road on which the restaurant was located, through first an attractive small shopping center and then streets of recent bourgeois two story homes with carefully but not imaginatively planted front yards. It had that comfortable, solid look the middle class is so good at creating. But once past these I started up hill again through much less orderly surroundings, fewer houses and those often unkempt. Views of the bay were over scrubby trees and unpretentious buildings. There was a marginal feeling to this land, unkempt edge of city land.

I began to wonder how far away this restaurant was. There were, however, hotels that I passed, that were a comfort, and then there was a big sign, Rekondo, and a parking lot full of cars, next to a wide terrace looking down to the ocean shaded by a big tree.

I walked in and there was the white haired man I had seen among the cameras. I thought he must be another solitary dinner. I explained to the woman who greeted me that since I was alone I had made no reservation and hoped that was all right. She seated me and gave me a large menu with a selection of Basque and other dishes. Slowly I realized the man in the vest was the owner and that I was sitting in the wrong direction, looking into the restaurant rather than out to the terrace.

I decided to skip the first course. One of the main courses was venison, which I have not had in many years. It is not something that one sees on a Barcelona menu.

It was served with pears poached in a luscious brown sauce of great depth of flavor with fruit high lights. I have come to think of brown sauces or gravies as ambushes. They look innocuous but can be pools of grave disaster tasting of half cooked flour and burned vegetables. This was ambrosial. As I ate slowly, becoming enveloped by that luminous sense of bien être a superb meal gives you, the restaurant filled.

To my right was a room filling with a couple with a baby in an ultra modern pram, a pair of athletic looking middle aged business men and an older couple but behind me on the terrace there were young people, quite a large crowd of them chatting, going to the bar to order drinks in a celebratory mood. Directly behind me were two women in their fifties or sixties whom I could only glimpse. One was plain, a bit stodgy but the other had flair and was wearing a navy blue, soft, silk suit piped and cuffed in brilliant pink. I was disappointed to have my back to her.

As is true of most people my age I don’t usually have dessert but I realized that in this circumstance it would be depravity to be abstemious with such a kitchen available. I ordered a mille-feuille of thin, brittle layers redolent of almonds with vanilla cream between them and a papaya sorbet to one side, heaven with a café con leche.

P is never wrong.

This quality of food is rare these days anywhere in the world. Shanghai Tang’s restaurant in Hong Kong and the Thai restaurant in the Oriental in Bangkok are up to this standard, although neither are purveyors of Western cuisine.

When I was 24, pregnant and traveling through France with my husband who only ate steak and French fries because he was in a foreign country, it was possible to, from time to time, I am thinking specifically of a restaurant called Trencavel in Carcassonne, have a meal like this every couple of days as one drove across France. In that restaurant, this is a memory now 60 years old, they recognized I liked food and, ignoring my husband, went into conference with me before each meal. I had never been treated like this and I reveled in the attention. I ordered one evening a trout with mussels and tiny shrimp. Madame, bent over me solicitously and advised, “But after that you must have something simple, a little chicken perhaps.”

The trout was celestial, the chicken not far down the hierarchical scale. The memory of that trout has stayed with me all these years as one of the high points of my gastronomic life. The venison and mille-feuille have been entered in the same file in my memory.

A further digression. Trencavel is the name of the viscounts of Carcassonne, Béziers, Albi and Razès. Raymond-Roger Trencavel died after the capture of Carcassonne in 1209 by Simon de Montfort. The restaurant was named for the family. A French friend filled in the historical background.

My inner person beaming I walked down hill to the bay and then along the shore turning in at the cathedral, which is 19th century but has a reputation for beauty. However, despite signs stating that it was open from 8 to 8, it was not. Thinking I knew what I was doing I wandered off and became lost and entangled in rail lines and children coming home from school. I finally stopped at a gas station to ask my way.

It is always a good idea to get lost. In this case I saw a more plebeian section of town, more family oriented than where I was staying. Parents with dogs were picking up children bringing home satchels of books or paintings to be acclaimed by mothers. The streets were choked with young life being directed across streets by crossing guards. I stopped by one, mid street, and asked my way again. But I did get home.

I made a mental note to thank P for his recommendation. Tomorrow I was planning a return to the museum.

The Quarantine Blog XXI: November 12, 2020

Watching the view of the bay appear out of night into a grey and rose morning was calming. I started with the good buffet and the huge café con leche and then walked down stairs to the beach from the esplanade to make footprints on the sand. There were people in the water, astonishing considering the temperature; I was wearing a jacket. They were in regular bathing suits, although some were in wet suits but I could tell by the way the wet suits shifted about that their feet were uncomfortably cold. Many of the women in swimsuits were topless. I would have worn a wool sweater into the water over my topped bathing suit. A tough crowd these northerners.

There were lots of dogs, some in, some out, of the water. A small, Jack Russell type, in a red and white overcoat was wildly enthusiastic and tried to induce his fellows to express similar exuberance, but they were much more blasé about the sand and sea experience.

I went back up to the esplanade and walked over to the museum, passing a shop with the kind of hair fasteners that are difficult to find in Barcelona since the little store in the Boulevard Rosa Mall on Pasig de Gracia closed. The two women who ran it wore every kind of hair ornament transforming themselves into exotically crested birds behind their counter’s plethora of combs, barrettes, ponytail clasps, feathers and rhinestone clips. I miss them. The little shop I was peering into wasn’t open yet.

At the San Telmo Museum I wandered through an exhibit of etchings, engravings, paintings and drawings of Monte Urgull starting in the 16th century and ending in the 19th with the beginning of photography, showing from the shore Santa Clara and Urgull. The views portrayed were amazingly consistent. It didn’t seem that any artist had thought to move more that three feet in either direction or go out in a boat to sketch. This wasn’t what I had come to see but I continued to count on serendipity, which didn’t happen.

I then went upstairs to an exhibit of photos by Fernando Postigo Silva, a photo journalist, recording social and political agitation in the Basque area from 1977 to 2001—strikes, riots, demonstrations and terrorist attacks. This was educational because I know practically nothing about the Basque protests but there were many, many photographs, all relatively small and since I did not recognize most of the names it quickly became a blur. There were a lot of politicians, police and funerals. It was an amazing record.

But by now I had spent over two hours wandering, looking, but not seeing what I had come to see. I looked at the map they had given me at reception. I saw the section I wanted but could not figure out where it was. I went to reception and asked.

Since there were very few people in the museum they kindly led the elderly foreigner to the door, which was just outside the exhibit of views of Mont Urgull. I had seen it but since it seemed to lead outside I had ignored it.

My guide brought me into a cloister off of which was a church filled with dimly lit, enormous paintings, of enormous, striving figures. A bell went off in my head muffled by the passage of many years. Sensing my enthusiasm for what I saw, my guide said they were by Sert, the name rang no bell I am ashamed to say, and that there was a guide in English she would get for me.

I stood in the church with three other people gazing up at gigantic canvases on which huge men, sometimes women, performed all kinds of physical labor. The bell got louder. My guide brought me a pamphlet in English and French. I read the first paragraph of information but it didn’t help.

The huge laboring men over my head slowly focused into familiarity. I thought, “These are like the figures in the murals at Rockefeller Center. “ I did, however, associate the figures with Diego Rivera. But the penny didn’t drop until I came home to the hotel and Googled, “murals Rockefeller Center.” 

The murals are by José Maria Sert (1874-1945) who replaced Diego Rivera as the painter in the downstairs lobby of Rockefeller Center after Rockefeller fired Rivera objecting to the portrait of Lenin Rivera had incorporated into his mural and refused to paint out. I was reunited with a forgotten acquaintance from New York City. Since Sert was pro Franco he and Rockefeller must have gotten along well. Interestingly it was John Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, who suggested Rivera.

The canvases are full of physical power, the figures arranged rhythmically without much interest in individuals. The work is monochromatic making it more concentrated in it power. If he had worked with a variety of colors it would have been distracting. These are monumental, dynamic and visceral canvases but there is certainly irony in the fact that Sert, not a supporter of the workingman, produced paintings full of epic figures of laborers—ironworkers, fisherman, shipbuilders.  Humans are strange. But it is a stirring experience to be in the cavern of that church surrounded by massive paintings of men straining at all kinds of physical labor. Sert’s nephew, Josep Lluis Sert, is a famous contemporary architect.

By the way, should you go bring opera glasses. It will enable you to see details otherwise lost to height and dimness.

Now over three hours into my museum experience I was beginning to flag but I walked up a staircase that displayed rubbings of old gravestones before taking the elevator to the top floor and finding the painting collection. I decided to have a walk through and come back the next day. As I said to the ladies at the front desk as I left, they have at least two museums.

I cast a brief glance at a portrait of King Philip III, a Mary Magdalena by Tintoretto, three El Greco’s and around the corner a little Ruben’s Madonna and child. On the floor below were modern paintings and below that a floor of medieval armor and swords preceded by Neolithic stone bits. Then there were all sorts of byways with displays of everything from head ornaments for men and women to agricultural implements. By this time I was sagging badly.

I left the museum and fumbled my way to the Maria Christina, a 19th century dowager duchess of a hotel. I wandered its high ceilinged corridors for an appealing restaurant when, to my astonishment, I saw a decorous—everything in the Maria Christina is decorous—sign declaring Saigon Café.

One of my few complaints about Spain is that it is impossible to find good SE Asia food here. This is because the Spanish are, generally, as horrified by spicy food as many English. Any restaurant in the Maria Christina was going to be good, so I felt I could bet on the quality of the meal. Around me were groups of friends and families slurping up glass noodles with aplomb and looking eagerly under the bamboo latticework of steaming basket lids at pale, plump pillows of dim sum.

The menu was eclectic including Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. I ordered from my chubby waiter, whose nationality I couldn’t decide on, Tom Yum Gung, a spicy, superb Thai soup with shrimp and mushrooms and duck curry, which was the Vietnamese rather than the Thai edition of the dish. That is not a criticism. Rather than the watery, bland perversion of Tom Yum Gung I am served in Barcelona, I received a bowl of steaming soup glowing with droplets of red oil, that with its full-bodied spicy broth loosened my sinuses. The duck dish was so large I could not finish it. I apologized to my plump waiter and told him that I was, at this point going to switch countries and have a café con leche. My remark made him giggle which made me decide he must be Thai.

Thai men giggle. It is not a chortle. It is a giggle. This can drive a foreigner to teeter on the lip of insanity, or homicide under certain circumstances—i.e. trying to find out about a parcel in a Thai post office. It usually erupts out of embarrassment, in that case the embarrassment of having to speak English. But I like the giggle because it is to me a signal that Thai men are allowed freedoms Western men are prohibited.

When I first traveled in the East I was amazed at how men were interested in fabrics, not just male suit fabric. I went to have two out fits made by a Nepali tailor in Kathmandu. There is a lot of unemployment in that town and one of the places to hang out is a tailor’s. The men gathered around, admired my fabrics—two pieces of silk—and wanted to know what I planned to have made. They gave full endorsement to the proposed designs. I was amazed, since I come from a culture where men do not have the freedom to enjoy that kind of beauty and creativity.

Men are told in most cultures that they have the freedom to do whatever they want. No they don’t. I, of course, know primarily about American culture which keeps men, particularly those less educated, with less money in their trouser pocket and less knowledge of the world in a narrow trench where they are allowed hard work, violence, guns, alcohol in quantity but not tenderness, or to admire beauty in anything much beyond a nude  mammal calendar picture, or to explore different kinds of music or dance, certainly not poetry. Prisoners of the limitations of their class, chained to a denial of all but a few emotions, shackled by fear of not being “real men” they are told all the time how free they are. I am probably exaggerating, but not a great deal.  As one moves up the economic scale there is a little more freedom but it is never large.

I taught a poetry class once in a high school in a small town in Nebraska. (This was during my personal diaspora when I taught all over the US driving back and forth across the country 10 times in six years.) In this particular class there was a giant of a young man, tall, strongly built who when he heard he was going to have to try to write a poem started to gibber all kinds of sneering comments about poetry and people who wrote it. He was in fact having a hysterical fit of fear at the thought of even attempting such a task. His regular teacher with resignation written all over her face took him off to the library. I thought probably he should have been taken to the gym where he understood things.

There was one young man, intelligent and quiet, also a giant, who wrote a good poem. I praised him in front of the class for his performance and realized half way through my first adulatory sentence that I should not be doing this. He was not happy at being praised. Indeed, he looked grim. I realized I had enabled people to tease him for the next week.

Being asked to write poetry creates a threat to your manhood in the middle of America. Manhood is easily destroyed in red states.

The next day was Sunday and the museum was closed so I walked down the beach, and joining with another woman headed in the same direction, climbed a stair, whose metal grill steps were embedded with mussels, to find the gate to the esplanade was tied shut. Again there were people swimming and a small fleet of sunfish whose white sails were pretty as cast off petals against the blue green sea.

My intent was to walk around Mount Urgull. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the promenade of choice among the citizens of San Sebastián on a Sunday. There are expansive ocean views on one hand and precipitous rock on the other. One comes out near the Maria Christina Hotel. I had a moment of temptation to have another SE Asian lunch but friends had given me the names of a few restaurants in the old town so I decided I would find one.

I turned back toward the old town and after working with the paper map, which has the advantage of not suddenly changing direction, and Google maps, which flips this way and that causing my dyslexic brain much distress, I found the restaurant E and K had suggested, Janito Kojua. I had a good fish soup but it was not as deep flavored as I had hoped, and rice with little clams, which was excellent. The restaurant itself has a warm ambience, reflected in its rather motherly staff and is calm.  My waitress when she saw I had left a third of my rice oozed the sad but resigned disapproval of a mother who has done her best for a picky child.

I walked more after lunch totting up 9 kilometers. Then I went home to the hotel and had a long talk with my grandson in NYC, always a happy event.


I have just returned from five days in San Sebastián. I had never been, there are many places I have never been in Spain, and it seemed a good place to go. I needed out, badly. I have been irritable, something and discontent, feeling my psyche was made of some form of Jell-O that was being constantly agitated. Yes, the Covid numbers were high, but that would mean fewer people would be traveling, also the numbers in the Basque country were lower than in Barcelona. I am adept at rationalizing.

I organized a baby sitter for Galata while I was gone, a young woman, delightfully tall and slender, who viewed G with slightly less alarm than G viewed her. When A arrived G sniffed A’s proffered fingers but was having none of that touchy-feely stuff from an unknown human. In the five days A managed to stroke her once.

I was happy to be leaving from Terminal 1 since I find Terminal 2 scruffy and mildly depressing.  My cab driver was kindly solicitous of the aged and went to get me a cart. Checking in took one back in time, about 50 years. There was one person ahead of me and no one behind. The woman at the counter urged me to check my carry-on containing my computer. I equate traveling with a computer to traveling with an 18th century Dresden shepherdess. Who would put such an object into the hairy knuckled hands of a baggage handler who will immediately hurl it with his massive strength into the back of the airplane’s maw? I was lucky. I was one of the few passengers who retained their carry-on into the plane. Considering how few people there were on the plane I don’t understand why they were divesting people of carry-on luggage. Were they keeping handbags at a safe distance from each other in overhead bins? As I found on the plane they had not taken such care with the passengers.

I had far too much time to waste but the airport, a subject of dire discussions with friends, was empty and there were large spaces between people in the restaurant cum coffee shop. I bought a bottle of water, a yogurt bar, disinterring my slightly squashed spinach and egg tart, bought at my local bakery because of fear of food in the airport restaurant, from my purse.

I listened on my phone to some excellent music a friend had sent me and read in my latest Times Literary Supplement about how Virginia Woolf named her friends after animals. Of one she wrote, “Weasel has a lovely pink snout, & she shall dip it in a jug of cream if she is good.” I think Woolf is one of our all time geniuses and no girl should grow to womanhood without reading “A Room of One’s Own” but I find this Bloomsbury literary game playing revolting. It is so cutesy-poo and adorable I want to throw up all over it.  I am embarrassed, not because it lacks high seriousness but because it is so artificial, condescending and denigrating to those so named while with its cuteness trying to obfuscate the put down that is being delivered.

I was careful to be among the last on the line to board. The bus to the plane was a little nervous making but until we started the doors were open and the ride was short. Getting on the plane was not a mad crush but they had me in a row with a couple so we were three across.  Why would you do that? The plane wasn’t half full. The row behind had one man in it, so I sat there.

I managed after some confusion outside the airport to locate the beginning of the taxi line and stepped into an elegant, spotless car. It is about a half an hour to town but there are hills or mountains with conical peaks to look at and everything is green. The approach to San Sebastián is lined with 1950’s apartment houses of the grimmer sort along the river. Once in town the architecture improves with a number of erratic and purposeless but charming towers and cupolas.

The Hotel Niva is small and on the esplanade above the beach with a spreading view of the bay’s crescent. I had messed up my reservation, having made it for the 16th rather than the 15th, so they couldn’t at first find it. But it was fine.

There was an old fashioned elevator with inlaid wood and etched glass that silently lifted me to the sixth floor. The room had a white balustraded, narrow terrace with that same view which so totally entranced me that I left my small case outside the door and didn’t know it until the maid knocked on the door.

I unpacked and arranged myself before going downstairs to order too much for dinner. There was an elder and a younger waiter. The elder was having an expansive social time with his regular customers and found me a mild nuisance. But the younger wanted to know where I was from. It was fun to tell him Barcelona and then admit my New York origins.

I woke the next morning at 6:30 but lolled about, watching the bay appear out of the night, not getting to breakfast until 8:30. There was an enticing buffet with scrambled eggs, various types of ham, croissants, salmon, cheese, breads and more. I had a super sized café con leche to go with my heaped plate.

I walked along the esplanade above the beach toward Monte Urgull. The scene is esthetically quite perfect, a crescent bay with promontories at each end and Isla Santa Clara asymmetrically placed between them. Everyone wore masks properly. Only some bicyclists were maskless. There were lots of dogs. My favorite pair was a medium sized, placid mutt whose companion was a hyper, intense white poodle, obviously an incessant, enthusiastic chatterer. “Isn’t it wonderful to be out in the fresh morning, the sea smell sharp, the pavement wet under paw from rain? Isn’t it wonderful?  Don’t you love it?  So exciting? “ And on and on.  Enough to enervate any mutt.

I was walking randomly so it was serendipitous to stumble upon Santa Maria del Coro. It is so much more fun to stumble than to search out. The façade is Rococo with a San Sebastian full of holes above a sweet-faced Madonna. Everything is well balanced and symmetrical. Like the bay it is harmonious. I came into the church, which is 18th century baroque with classical elements, and paid to see the museum. Although baroque it is not of that glutinous, gilded variety that makes one feel one has had an encounter with a gilded octopus. The movement between classical and baroque gives the viewer a rest between complexities.

I either left my hat while buying the ticket or dropped it on my way to the museum.  I knew it would be at the entrance when I returned. San Sebastián feels like that sort of place.

The museum is small, simply arranged, ranging over seven centuries and contained, for me, three things of interest. The first was a surprise, a 13th century, small sculpture of a Compostela Pilgrim with his staff, hat, beard, bread and bare toes protruding from under the swaying folds of his robe. He was worth the airfare. He leans toward you slightly on his staff, perhaps, a foot and a half high balanced on his plinth from which he has been broken. You want to give him a hug and a little money for tomorrow’s bread.

The second is an El Greco of Saint Anthony with that painter’s typical writhing movement in the figures of the Saint and his companions who seem to be airborne against a dark and violent sky with which their serene faces contrast.

The third is a contemporary, bronze sculpture, hanging on the wall, by Jorge Oteiza of a woman standing bent forward slightly over an unidentified body, head turned to look up at something or someone. The title is “Piety”, yet there is nothing pious in the woman’s stance to me. I may be mistaken but for me her posture, the angle of her head, both, proclaim belligerence, defiance, resistance to the forces behind the death at her feet. Rage and rebellion radiate from her figure.

There is one further sculpture of note, a Descent from the Cross by Alonso Villabrille, 17th to 18th century, that is a group of figures once part of the Easter procession. Two men on ladders are lowering Christ from the cross down to a mourning, but not weeping, woman. It is dramatic, intense but compassionately human. The sense of movement among the men contrasts with the woman’s stillness.

When I went to leave I found the woman I had bought my ticket from had my hat.  She wanted to know if I was from Germany. This is unusual. I am sometimes thought to be British and sometimes French but rarely German. I told her I was an American from New York City and had lived in Barcelona for ten years. This is typical of the kind of interchange I had in San Sebastián, friendly, warm but limited. I had the feeling that Covid has made people apprehensive enough so that they curtail rather than extend themselves socially.

I went on to the Aquarium, half aquarium, half museum. I never had that much interest in aquariums until I found my grandson E is addicted to them. The museum half had models of various kinds of ships, exhibits of objects used at home and on ship board with a running history of the town as a port, a haven for privateers and a fishing center. This concludes near the skeleton of a tight whale strung up through two stories of the building.

Then you enter the aquarium. I am only good for so long because I get bored with fish but they had one of those tunnels through which you walk surrounded above, below, to right and left, by shifting silver fish shapes and the occasional dark shadow of a shark with its white belly and undershot jaw drifting over head. The last section was tropical fish, colorful, but by that time I was finned out.

I received a refund because my audio guide didn’t work.  I looked into the gift shop and almost bought E a plush octopus.

It was about 2:30ish and time for lunch. I went back to the old town in the neighborhood of the Iglesia Santa Maria looking at restaurants and their menus, although I thought I would go to the first one I had seen, Casa Vergara.

As I wandered I passed a young woman in a state of exasperation with her squirming daughter who was working her way with petulant noises out of her grasp rucking up her pretty pink top and beginning to ruck up her pretty pink face into a full fledged squall.

I have in old age developed a turn I do with preverbal children in this state. I stopped, looking Miss Pink in her tearing eye and said firmly, but in my adult to adult, not my teacher voice, “You’ve got it quite wrong. It really isn’t that bad at all. Actually, if you give it another look I think you will find, to the contrary, that things are very good indeed. You are in an excellent situation.”

As usually happens, this incomprehensible flow of verbiage, coming from a stranger, transfixed the girl and she stopped preparing the melodrama she had been intent on. This often gives the mother a chance to take preventative action. What I hadn’t expected was that the man sitting opposite the mother, probably the grandfather, said to the child in English, “You should listen to this woman.  She’s right.” I passed on vastly amused at us elderly persons.

I had lunch at the Casa Vergara—three briny, pellucid oysters, followed by three exquisitely sweet shrimp, two ham croquets and then goat cheese with quince jam. The cheese should have been sharper but otherwise it was a perfect lunch.

I then aimlessly ambled about the old town looking in shop windows, reading menus, and watching people. The shops are small and individual. One dress shop specialized in 1950 dresses with wide skirts, puffy sleeves and chunky Mary Jane strapped shoes to go with them. Children’s clothing stores displayed nostalgia inducing smocked dresses. Stores with costume jewelry, imitation tortoise shell hair clips, pins, and ornaments sold bargain perfume. An antique store with attractive, small silver boxes from the last century, or even before, one with little feet was particularly tempting. Slowly I wended home through square after square and then back to the esplanade. I had no interest in dinner, watching streaks of sunset was enough.

The Quarantine Blog XIX: October 5, 2020

I apologize for my silence. I had a violent attack of vertigo about 3 weeks ago accompanied by soaring blood pressure which I am now being medicated for. All is well.) A further thought about, and instance of, conformity has occurred to me leading into realms of memory. I went to Iran about ten years ago, invited by a friend, a university professor I had met on my first trip to Iran in 1974, when I went with my son to visit an American colleague on a Fulbright there. Since she had no room in the apartment she shared with her sister, my friend asked a friend to put me up. This made the visit twice as interesting. The friend, also a university professor, was Armenian, therefore Christian, rather than Islamic in faith.  The morning after I arrived when I dressed to go out I, of course, draped my head in a scarf. In 1974, under the Shah, I had not had to wear a scarf unless I went into a mosque. I wrapped it around my neck and tied it at the back of my neck thinking this would be good since the scarf would be less likely to slip.  My hostess when I came out of my room looked at me critically and said, “No one wears their scarf like that in Tehran.” My glance must have been puzzled so she continued, “Why would you want to look different from others?” “That,” I thought, “is a dictatorship lesson. Don’t be different. Don’t stand out. Blend in, be one of many, an important survival technique.” She also told me later the worst thing, she thought, for a child was to not be a member of the local culture. She gave me no examples of the kind of exclusion or prejudice she endured but both were implied in her remark. When I walk up Pasig de Gracia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, passing the fashionable shops, I wonder if the phenomenon I see in their windows, the unrelenting lack of color, is a legacy from the dictatorship when people adopted the camouflage of dullness so they would pass unnoticed by the Guardia Civil or whoever else was watching. Rarely are clothes in these windows in any shade other than black, grey, beige, navy, a dulled down pale blue. Rarely does one see yellow, orange, turquoise, emerald and if there is a red it, like the pale blue, has been muddied until it is with out spark or sparkle. I drove through Spain on the way to Morocco in 1960, with my husband at the wheel, in the seventh month of my pregnancy, in a Morris Mini Minor we had bought in England. We had been told Spain was dangerous, that we might be arbitrarily arrested but I think those were scare tactics by English relatives. I knew about the Civil War because it had been fashionable in my college years to huddle in dilapidated tenement apartments in New York City lit by candles in Chianti bottles to listen to the songs of the Lincoln Brigade. I didn’t know much about the Civil War, however, not who the Cuatro Generales were, except that the bad guys won. I knew nothing at all about Catalonia except that there was a book by George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, a title I thought beautiful. I think I knew it was about Spain. I had not read it, although I had read 1984. I was quite typically American in this—I had a knowledge of events out of context, little awareness of history, except for, in my case, gobbets of US, English, the Tudors, and Renaissance Italian. I knew who the Medicis were. I was a bit exceptional in having that much history. My peers in the US would have probably known less and had different gobbets—the American Civil War, the Irish Famine, the Alamo, the Communist takeover of Russia. As soon as we crossed the border from France I noticed while in France farmers’ carts had wheels salvaged from junked cars, in Spain the carts had great wooden wheels. These were beautiful but signaled an economic chasm between the two countries. The next shock, once we were out of the Pyrenees, was the first pair of Guardia Civil posted on either side of the road. I was lacking historically but I knew those soldiers from a drawing, an etching by, I thought until an hour ago, Goya. But I can’t find those soldiers in my book of Goya’s etchings. I knew, however, those capes, beautiful yet sinister, and the paten leather hats. When we saw the first pair we thought there must be a base just off the road. But then we passed the second, the third, the fourth, every twenty miles, or was it thirty, and we were confronted by the fact that we were in a jail and these were the guards. When my husband saw a pair in the distance, he would slow down. We didn’t want to give an excuse for our arrest. The wooden cartwheels signaled poverty but I had lived in Monterrey, Mexico for a year and knew about poverty, I thought. However, I had never been anywhere where men with guns were a constant presence. The scenery, we were inland having come straight south from Carcassonne, was rugged and handsome. That afternoon we came into Barcelona. I will quote my 24 years old self. “Barcelona is a dismal looking town, very brown and drab.” We spent the night, although I don’t know where. The journal was written by a twenty-four year old who noticed but was not thorough or adept at chronology. I do remember that we ate in a rather grand restaurant mostly lit by candles and were stared at, not unpleasantly but with a warm intensity, as though our fellow diners were inhaling the odd perfume of our foreignness. I think, but am not sure, that the restaurant was on Pasig de Gracia. I remember that street with its great wrought iron arched lights as having the air of a being reaching, stretching for something that was not there. I also recall those lights did not light up the street. Barcelona at night was a dark town. My father was an architect and architecture was part of the air I breathed as a child. I recognized I was in an architecturally extraordinary town but still, by day, it had a dusty look as though it were a neglected object in an abandoned room, lifeless moribund.  As we had driven into town I had seen, across what looked to me like rubble, as though there had been a bombardment, I may not have been wrong, the extraordinary silhouette of the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral constructed, like a beach castle, with sand dribbles to create the spires. It took my breath away over there across the bombed out land. It had energy. It was a clenched fist of vigor. But the next morning when my husband and I thought of going to see it, we decided we wanted to move on south and not stop. This was the first of many times we made this decision. We saw nothing but what was directly in our path in Spain. Some friends in Barcelona when I tell them about this first visit say,”1960? It wasn’t so bad in 1960.” This means to me that life must have been appalling before 1960. But I have other friends who listen to me nodding their heads. After Barcelona we traveled south along the coast which was frequently beautiful and dramatic but never prosperous. After Valencia, there is nothing in my journal about that town, we turned inland. The roads were bad but we had expected that.  Many were unpaved, rutted and clouded with red dirt that clung to people’s clothes and faces. The farms looked uniformly poor. No farmer owned a car and only rarely a motorcycle, just carts pulled by lean horses or mules whose harnesses chimed with small bells. The women all wore black, as did women in Mexico, with scarves over their heads.  Many, many men and women carried heavy burdens of firewood on their bent backs.  The 24 year old wrote in her journal, “It is depressing not so much because of the poverty but because of a lack of spark in the people themselves. They seem so heavily laden both literally and figuratively that they no longer make any effort.”  Yet the countryside was often beautiful with olive trees, their leaves turning silver in a breeze. I still didn’t quite understand the problem wasn’t just poverty. Later on that road going inland I saw an incident that gave me an aperçu into the core of the problem. “An old woman bent beneath her load of faggots, her black scarf almost covering her face, was hooted at by a passing truck. She looked from beneath its folds with such an agonized look of fear in her eyes that it hurt to see.“ She was in terror. Something began to stir, a sense that I had seen her terror again and again, modestly obscured by self-control, by the gauze of good manners, or civility in the eyes we encountered.  I became aware that we had not had one conversation since crossing the border that was not rooted in a commercial exchange. No one had asked where we were going, why we were driving through Spain. Curiosity was as still and flattened as road kill. I began to prickle with an awareness that I was passing through a country where everyone was afraid. This knocked the wind out of me and as it did I became aware that all of us were having trouble breathing. In Spain oxygen was not universally available. Lesson one. I told this to a man I know in Barcelona. His one comment, “You learn fear from your parents.  It is an inheritance.” That night we stayed at an expensive, beautiful hotel in Alicante, on the edge of the Mediterranean where the sea lapped the terrace wall outside our room, hushing us to sleep that night.  How “expensive” was that hotel? I kept track of our daily budget; rarely did we spend more than 11 dollars a day for the two of us, only occasionally did we get up to 15 dollars. We had a grand total of about 3,000 dollars, after buying the Morris Mini Minor, and it had to last us until January when we would go home. The baby was due in February. The land before and around Valencia was green with cotton, pomegranates, lemons, dates and olives. There was an enormous water wheel on a river. Near Valencia we stopped for gas in a town full of soldiers and Guardia Civil. We stopped whenever there was a gas station since you did not know when you would find another. An officer came over to ask if we would take a Guardia to a town further south. I did the talking in my excruciatingly rusty Spanish. I thought he wanted to go to Granada. It was obvious that one did not say no to an officer, however polite and smiling. A Morris Mini Minor is a small car. With two adults in the front there wasn’t a lot of room in the back and beside that we had our smaller cases on the back seat, the ones with toiletries. The Guardia who climbed in was over six feet, handsome, pleasant and spoke the most exquisite Castilian I had ever heard. As we drove hairbrushes and toothpaste tubes cascaded about his knees. This was lesson two. The oppressor may be handsome, well spoken and charming.  We drove with him through the province of Almaria, a place that took me to a new level of understanding of poverty. We were surrounded by big barren hills, like sand dunes, no trees, no plants, no green. The soil was grey. I thought a strong wind would yank the earth like a cloak from the back of a Guardia. There were goats, which would, of course, strip the earth further, turkeys and lambs. People were coming back from market not in carts but on donkeys with panniers heavily laden both with provisions bought and rejected animal skins and as many people as would fit on a donkey back. Looking out the window the Guardia had asked, “¿Es los Estados Unidos mas rico?” We were both dumb founded, replying simply, “Si.” We tried to talk but my Spanish was incapable of anything but simple phrases, my vocabulary so tiny that when our personal Guardia Civil asked us to stop,  I didn’t comprehend. The word I knew for stop was, ”Alta.” He finally got us to understand. We dropped him in some village where, I presume, he found a ride back to the town he wanted.  I understand from someone I know here now that people were starving in Almaria at this time. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Granada but did not go to the Alhambra.  By this time we were both tensely aware that we just wanted out of this country. That we would have to drive back through it made us both wretched. We agreed that we should do this by the fastest route we could find. Driving to Algeciras we saw a wedding in a small town, the bride and groom walking the dusty, rutted main street with family and the whole town celebrating in their best. It was the happiest moment we saw in Spain.  We arrived in Algeciras on a Sunday when there was no ferry to Tangier so we stayed over night in a grim hotel, El Termino. The town smelled equally of dead fish and the sewerage carried by a canal past our hotel to be dumped into the Mediterranean. Our room was clean but the food was grisly. We went down to the dock to watch a boat come in from Ceuta. The next day we took the ferry to Tangier. Half way across I remembered I had left a sandwich in the pocket of the car door.  Oh well, it would be waiting for us on our return in a week. We had an exhilarating time in Tangier with our friends. I learned I have the evil eye because I have green eyes. When men spat they put their foot over their sputum. That was all right but women covered their baby’s faces when I passed. It made me sad since being pregnant I was interested in baby faces. People were poor in Tangier, I remember an old man lying down on his donkey clothed in a couple of old sacks, but they were alive–men talking vociferously over small glasses of desperately sweet mint tea in cafes open to the street. Women stopped to talk and everyone wanted to know where I planned to have the baby. There was bustle and movement, a joy in life, that we had not seen as we drove through Spain. The journey back was accomplished in two days. The one incident I remember, it is not in my diary, occurred in a town where I got out to cash travelers checks in a bank. I was now quite large and unmistakably pregnant. As I maneuvered my awkward bulk out of the car a man, all in black, passed and gave me such a look of repelled disgust that I realized for the first time that I was the only pregnant woman I had seen from one end of Spain to the other. When we crossed with relief into France we both swore never, never, never would we go back to Spain. But that Spain is dead and, largely, buried. I am lucky enough to live in the new Spain. But the old Spain gave me a lesson, one that helped to form me. I have taken graduate degrees from Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea, that peerless instructor in the field.

The Quarantine Blog XIII: August 30, 2020

In the fifth century BC, in the Gulf of Taranto, in the arch of Italy’s boot sole, Hippasus of Metapontum was murdered for having discovered a mathematical truth. He was a member of the Pythagorean sect that had taken refuge in Italy after being persecuted in Greece for preaching vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol.
Mathematical mystics, they practiced a religion based on numbers, cosmology and geometry, concluding that reality, in which music and astronomy were prominent components, was based on math. Certain whole numbers equaled particular aspects of reality. For instance, 1 was the essence of everything, 2 was matter, 4 was justice, 5 was marriage and so on. I have been unable to discover what 3 was.
The core of their belief was that the universe could be expressed in whole numbers. Everything reflected the harmony between numbers, rational numbers; all was in ratio—the root of the word rational.
Hippasus, perhaps in working on getting the dodecahedron into a sphere, although the Pythagorean’s weren’t particularly interested in circles, discovered there were other numbers that could “not be expressed as a ratio of two integers”. These numbers had infinite, non-repetitive decimals that went on and on like the tail of a comet, like Pi. These have become known as irrational numbers.
However, what Hippasus had done by discovering irrational numbers, was to crash the Pythagorean belief system. His friends took him out fishing and drowned him, or so the legend goes.
The first human reaction on being faced with a provable, factual demolition of a belief is to kill the messenger rather than rethink the message. That is why the Dalai Lama’s statement that if a scientific discovery conflicts with something in Buddhism, it is the later which must adjust, is an extraordinary declaration from a religious leader.
Our need for perfection, built into our brains, psychology and emotions, is illogical, intense, internal and humanly eternal.  We want order. We do not want to live in an irrational universe. We want it to be tidy. I suspect this is because perfection makes us feel safe. If we cannot have perfection we will accept its drab replacement, uniformity. Often we confuse the two. However, either appears to build invisible psychological walls around us. Although why that should be true I don’t know, but it seems to be integral to our DNA. This human foible causes catastrophes, endless murders and massacres, yet we hardly ever notice it.
The human need for reassurance through perfection is not benign. The Inquisition, Senator McCarthy in the1950’s in the US, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia being three obvious examples. The level of uniformity desired is not, and this is what makes it blood curdling, think 1984, is not external. It must be internal as well, this conformity.
The first person I know of who actually “voiced” the problem of internal uniformity was China’s first Emperor, Quin Shi Huang. A man of extraordinary executive talents, he unified China in 221 BC when he was 38. He designed a military organization that created, possibly for the first time, a chain of command through which the man at the top could quickly locate anyone not effective at their job beneath him. With that army he conquered the severely chaotic states of China and then enlarged the territorial mass of the country. He created the title emperor.  Before leaders had been mere kings.
Having unified the country he began systematically to standardize the regulation of practices within his domain. He unified the various walls of the old states into one wall, constructed a massive national system of viable roads. He is most famous for his Terracotta Army in his grave. It is believed he burned books, banned them and executed scholars.
In the midst of all of his strenuous and brilliant managerial work, he realized that what he lacked was a method by which he could be assured that all the people in his domain would think the same way and that this was necessary for a continuous, peaceful state to exist. The execution of the scholars I would guess was an attempt in the direction of the perfection he was seeking.  He did not find a solution to this problem of achieving mental uniformity but various states have been working at it ever since, although most dictators have been perfectly happy to achieve apparent mental standardization through terror.
But the first Emperor was more philosophical, more humane. He was not a little Hitler exercising his ego. To him a nation’s purpose was to provide for people. It was a unit that to be efficient needed to be systematized. It was not a culture; it was a machine that needed to effectively function economically, supply people with work, a legal system and such necessities. Dance, poetry, books, ideas were not just superfluous but potentially dangerous. I suspect he was against emotion since all these arts and sciences are expressions of human emotions.  Emotions are messy and unregulateable.
I think Quin Shi Huang is an amazing, fascinating and thoroughly terrifying person. I doubt that he gave even a glancing thought to what such mental conformity would mean in terms of enormous cultural impoverishment. Society was a machine to him and the fact that people thought differently was the equivalent of metal protrusions on cogs causing friction and stoppages in the mechanism. That the eradication of those protrusions would eviscerate the richness of the arts and sciences, of life itself, was not of interest.  He wanted a smoothly running machine. It would not have occurred to him or interested him that this kind of regulation of people was dehumanizing. Confucius’ teachings were suppressed during his reign.
Probably he was completely aware that multiracial and multicultural societies, because of their built in diversity, require greater amounts of regulation than more homogeneous cultures even necessitating genocide should the population resist conformity. Genocide would have been for Quin Shi Huang merely a method, one of many to hand, like that array of picks and burrs one’s dentist lays out on her tray. The present Chinese government has embraced it, however, with some but not great reluctance, as an action of last resort for the Uighurs of western China. This may mean we have made some progress over the centuries.
In the US, because it is a young, unsure society of diverse peoples, conformity tends to be rigid particularly in the internal states. Individuality is psychologically punished and may be physically punished as well. In contradistinction, while Britain was homogeneous, or believed itself to be, “eccentricity,” provided it wasn’t sexual, was not only enjoyed but encouraged. Deviation was delightful.
Monotheism may be a result of this human perfectionistic urge. How messy to have a conglomeration of gods. Who should you pray to for your son’s health, your husband’s promotion? There might be three or four candidates. It is much simpler to have one entity to go to for everything. Monotheism and Amazon seem to me to have a lot in common as monopolies. The fact that under multi-god religions there was little persecution because of differences in belief while with the advent of monotheism the institutionalization of persecution, via civil as well as ecclesiastical organizations, to enforce religious conformity became standard practice is rarely noticed or discussed.
Many have been burned, tortured and cast out of their societies for spiritual nonconformity. The case of Hippasus and the Pythagoreans is an exact parallel to Galileo and the Catholic Church.
But this destructiveness results from our yearning for perfection, which we desire because it helps us feel safe. It is imposed by us upon us because we want to have a comfortable or comforting emotion. Yet practically never, at least in the West, do we acknowledge safety is totally illusionary. Buddhism uniquely deals with the facts of our lack of control.
Once conceived you, whether man or mouse, are at the mercy of the uncontrollable. You may be aborted, miscarried, strangled on your own umbilical as you emerge from the birth canal. Once out and breathing dangers multiply.
An acquaintance in the US a year or so ago contacted me about moving to Spain. Every third query was the same. “Is it safe?” I gained her eternal hostility by responding, “No. It is not safe. There is nowhere that is safe.” I find this fact just as upsetting as do most of my friends. The pandemic has made our awareness of our ineradicable insecurity more intense. My downstairs neighbor pushes the elevator button with his key. I wash my banana in the morning before I peel it. Neither action necessarily makes us safe.
But we live in a universe where “safe” is a non sequitur as is “perfection,” because they are not real but anomalous human inventions. What does the Horse Head Nebula have to do with perfection or the Grand Canyon or my cat, Galata? Perfection and safe are not among the concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy. What we yearn for does not exist except within the confines of our brains. They are our delusional inventions.