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.

The Quarantine Blog XII: August 10, 2020

Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly….     A TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE, Miguel de Unamuno


When Galata first arrived, from the Costa Brava where she had been surviving as a street cat, in her urine soaked travel case, and for a number of months after, she had no discernable personality. There was only one character component, terror. At that point she had snails in her lungs, crystals in her bladder, worms in her intestines and due to a botched hysterectomy she was in a state of hysterical, exceedingly vocal, nymphomania, 24 hours a day. She was one long howl.

Our vet told me she is four to six years old, in other words a grownup. He also showed me her mouth. All the teeth on one side have been broken, she tends to drool a little on that side, and one or two are broken on the other side. She is small and therefore looks younger to the human eye. The friend who brought her to me said that the boys in town would tempt her with food and then kick her when she came to take it.

She ate in huge inhaling gulps. I was afraid she might choke herself so I stroked her while she gobbled saying, “Easy does it. Slow down.” But she was sure some one, some thing was going to snatch her food away. She now eats more slowly, I still stroke her, but any alien noise or movement causes her to run, although not far.

I realized that, although Galata has spent some time in houses, not, I think, necessarily happy time, she is a feral cat because she does not know how to open a door. Any cat who has grown up in a house knows how to open a door.

An injection rid her lungs of snails, an expensive special diet eradicated the crystals, one pill killed the worms but she had to go in for a second hysterectomy. With each treatment she howled a little bit less frequently. It all took about two months but not only is she now healthy, she is no longer pooping in a corner of the living room, on the bare tile and she does not howl.

Galata comes to bed, if I bring her, but at first she would sleep as far from me as she could get. She liked being on the bed but was terrified. She liked being stroked–she purred–but was terrified. She liked being brushed—she purred—but was terrified. Her single expectation of me seemed to be that I was going to at any moment beat her to death.

As she came out of her most primal terror she would let me stroke or brush her but if I exceeded some undisclosed level of intimacy, or sensual capacity, she would, with lightening speed, lift a paw and rake me across cheek or eyebrow. Watching the motion of her tail was useful as an indicator but no reliably so.

The other thing she has done with her claws is turn the slipcover of the sofa bed into shag rug and the complexion of the living room carpet to a case of small pox.

The vet when I told him about the face clawing prescribed Prozac. I gave her half a tablet every day for a month sandwiched in a slice of butter. Our relationship improved. For a month she didn’t claw me.  We reduced the dosage to half a pill every other day for a month. All was fine until the end of the second month when Galata reached up and left a bloody track beside my right eye. Having done that, she spent some time looking at me thoughtfully. It seemed to me she was considering that this was not the right action.

After this incident the vet urged me to give her to the cat park near me. I couldn’t do it. It is now another couple of months and her tolerance for intimacy has increased so that I can lean down and giver her a spine scratch without her disappearing from the room. Indeed, in the morning she will back up to me, tail aloft, for a spine scratch, talking all the while in a contralto voice.

For a while she came to bed on her own but only after I had turned out the light, however, she then curled up against some part of me.  She has given that up but cold weather, I hope, will change that behavior.

She regularly joins me for breakfast in front of the TV to watch whatever animals are on Arte and try to steal a slice of fuete.

I was brushing her three weeks ago when suddenly she slapped me bloody on my right eyebrow. Again Galata spent time in thought. A few days later when I brushed her she took my hand in her mouth, didn’t bite, but held it there. I thought we might have arrived at an entent cordial.

A few days ago she slapped me across the face twice in quick succession while I was brushing her but her claws were completely sheathed. So, we have figured out how to behave in that situation to our mutual satisfaction.

Cats, unlike dogs who will give up something they want to please you, are the epitome of self-centeredness and cannot understand why you would give up anything you want for any reason. They remind me of my grandson who at the age of five, when I had told him he could not do something he wanted to do said to me as a complete explanation of the situation, which would cause me to reverse my decision, “But Nana, I WANT to.”

Humans are arrogant and apt to believe only they have feelings or the ability to reason. Cats can reason well beyond what one would imagine and they have excellent, memories. They can also be bigots. I had a female who despised human males. She wasn’t afraid of them; she held them in contempt and didn’t want to be around them. If I wanted to be around them that was my choice but she would absent herself.

My friend V had a Maine Coon cat, these are large, heavily furred cats who frequently have loving personalities. Sutton was not one of those. She didn’t think much of V, rather liked V’s daughter and really disliked H, V’s husband. The bone of contention was Sutton’s favorite chair, which H considered his chair. He would push Sutton off it, not lift her off to a cushion on the sofa, just shove her off.

Sutton’s response was to barf in H’s boots, not in his slippers, not in his shoes, all readily available, but always in his boots where he could not see the vomit, just step into it with a socked foot. Sutton did not do this all the time. She would allow long periods to elapse between barfs so H would forget and not look in his boot.

I knew a man whose cat, when he and his girl friend went away for a weekend, would lay a curl of poop neatly on his pillow to greet him on his return. Never did the cat poop on the girl friend’s pillow. The cat knew who was responsible for the absence and only that person was punished.

I had a cat who was home alone when some men broke into my Brooklyn apartment through the fire escape window. When I came home I couldn’t find her in the apartment but that evening, as I was roasting a chicken for my son and myself and mourning her, she came out from behind the stove.

A year later the superintendent of the building took a tenant down the fire escape to help her get into her apartment, which she had locked herself out of. The cat saw the two figures on the fire escape, leapt off the sofa and slithered behind the stove.

My father used to say that our lives are founded on decisions reach on the basis of inadequate information. The problem reasoning cats have is often limited information.  My previous cat, Shimi Moto (Cat Motor in Tibetan) observed that I turned lights on and off in the apartment. On a cloudy day in Barcelona she came to me in the library and complained. I got up from my desk and she took me to the other end of the apartment, to the terrace where she sunbathed, sat on the terrace and complained. There was no sun. If I turned on lights in the apartment why couldn’t I turn on this light, which was at the moment off.  She did exactly the same routine with her English babysitters who also figured out that she wanted the big light on.

Galata is what is called in the West a calico. In Japan they are called tabi mi-ke, triple fur, and are considered to have vehement personalities as well as supernatural powers. They frighten away ancestral ghosts, for instance.  99.9% of tabi mi-kes are female. All male tabi mi-kes are born sterile. What, I wonder, is that about?

I enjoy watching her personality appear bit by bit.  Even though a mature cat, she chases her tail, although she doesn’t understand what toys are. She is beginning to consider my hand under the sheet as a possibly pounceable, fantasy mouse. I don’t know yet whether she has a sense of humor. Some cats do. Although her personal parameters are changing, she definitely has them and therefore doesn’t hide under the sofa bed any more. She has learned to open doors. She is not secure enough yet to consider me staff but that will inevitably happen.

I am glad to have had a difficult cat with an emerging vehement personality during lock down. I am sure she has wept inwardly in the bad past and I hope she will laugh much in the future. Now she has the serenity in which to reason.

The Quarantine Blog XII: July 5, 2020

human kind

cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton

I am using this quote as a header again because I have been thinking about and having contact with various forms of mental…. What to call it? Insanity is too strong. Illness, yes but it does not seem a good fit. Madness, no. Perhaps, mental instability, a wavering between perceived realities, a nebulous hovering, havering.

Two factors caused me to focus on this, one was returning to my gym. It is absolute heaven—machines are spaced and all the windows are open. I can do my routine in an hour, not walk 10k, which requires two hours. Being able to work out on a more or less normal schedule has righted my listing mental ship but also made me aware the cant of my previous mental angle. The second was learning about someone else’s mental list.

My gardener who looks after the irrigation system on my small terrace, something I abjure all knowledge of, was supposed to come Monday. He is always on time. When he was fifteen minutes late, I called him.

In a panicked voice he said, “Oh dear, I forgot. I am at the hospital.  I have the virus.”

I talked to him for a minute but he was frantic. I called the friend who had recommended him. She was shocked saying, “But I talked to him yesterday. I’ll call him now.”

She did and got back to me. He had had a break down. He didn’t have Covid-19. I can understand being utterly alone for these months one might reach a point where it would be a relief to have the virus. Being in a state of suspense, waiting to GET the virus, it would be easy to imagine the symptoms into existence.

Sanity is an insecure, unstable point on a spectrum. By the time you are forty if you have not become aware that most humans are to one degree or another crazy, you have not been paying attention. The problem is how far off we are and how much craziness we are willing to accept in others. I have, for instance, pulled the plug on an acquaintance who is into conspiracy theories and delights in a website that claims Hillary Clinton has killed sixteen people, or is it seventeen. I have also distanced myself from someone who believes Covid-19 is a hoax. I have a friend who is avoiding a woman she thought charming until she discovered the woman is taking an elixir purportedly formulated on the basis of the Trump idea of drinking bleach. She isn’t dead, so it probably isn’t bleach she’s drinking.

I agree, at least in principal, with the physicist Richard P. Feynman who wrote:

I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell.  It doesn’t frighten me.

Often I find that idea exhilarating, but on occasion, such as the present occasion, it creates in me an extraordinary sensation of loneliness and, I am trying hard to find the correct words, living without any railings or grab bars in a space much too large for me. Does that make sense?  I have a serious case of agoraphobia.

What Covid has done is to dislocate us into a state where our usually self-invented idea of reality has been exposed as a fraud. Ordinarily in life we are allowed by circumstance to create a modestly secure capsule of reality in which we believe ourselves to have a certain amount of control. Simultaneously, and subterraneously, we usually know we are not in control. What is important is that we “feel” we are in control. The emotional factor is of primary importance. The actuality is that we are in control of almost nothing, not our health, not our money, not our loved one, and certainly not tomorrow. If we work hard we may have a fluctuating amount of control over our own mind.

If you look at the above paragraph dead in the eye what I am saying is that most, I think all, of us live normally in a state of self-induced delusion because inviting in the chimera of control allows us to feel comfortable. Covid ripped the mask off that illusion and left us with the reality of our powerlessness. That puts us into an anomalous, existential space, the walls are gone and we are floating, an astronaut who has lost his tether to his vehicle. What we are floating in is a reality that’s scary in its open endlessness.

The idea that we keep our sanity by dabbling in delusion, consciously or unconsciously, is a paradox but, I think, a true one.

The result of being deprived or our chimerical security blanket is not coherent thought but anxiety of a nebulous variety, fear and fear’s best friend, anger. We are in a state of continual existential dread that no one talks about, probably many just valiantly ignore. If it’s not comfortable don’t feel it. Couples I should think suffer less from this than single people; those with children possibly have so much on their hands that they escape from this state entirely. However, the best discussion that I have had of this ambiguous mental state has been with a married man.

There is nothing to be done about it but live, uncomfortably, with it.

It has made me grateful to the semi-feral, rescue cat with health and mental problems I took in just before the pandemic broke. Having another personality in the house to focus on, particularly a difficult personality, is a big help. But that’s the next blog.

The Quarantine Blog XI, June 20, 2020

human kind
cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”

This was a week of joy. Wednesday my house cleaner returned and I don’t have to give over one day a week to vacuuming and dusting and a second day to ironing and floor washing. The windows are unstreaked and shinning. But, in doing those two days of cleaning, which was not sufficient, I realized a) what an effort at my age it is for me to do the work, b) how easy over time it would be to let things get dirty and then have a massive cleaning up or, perhaps, not, just live with the dirt.
This awareness roused the specter of B, my now dead neighbor.
The couple who sold me my apartment, a Belgian-German combo, introduced me to my neighbors, a nice, as well as a good thing to do, mentioning in passing that there was a woman around my age living alone on the first floor, the Principal. Blanca was my introduction to a side of Barcelona/Spanish life I would not otherwise have thought about and an education to me as an American largely uninstructed in a social system close to unimaginable in my country.
Blanca was a little older than I, 3 to 5 years. She had no money and had not paid rent in years. Asking around about her. I found the gossip was she had once been wealthy, very wealthy. This was presumed because she had had a chauffer driven car. That’s a sign of wealth. Her family had owned a store that made hats. Her husband had died, the money had melted away and she, becoming poor, had also become estranged from her son and daughter because she was mean and nasty. That turned out not to be quite the truth.
She spent most of her time in the Catalan library housed in the hospital across the street researching the history of the immediate neighborhood. I wish I had her notes. As time went on I think she gave this up.
The first cause for my American astonishment was that B was still in the apartment, although not paying rent. In NYC she would have been on the street after two months nonpayment. If she did not qualify for a state home she would really have been on the street or in shelters and probably dead within 3 to 6 months. But in Spain she was “a statutory tenant” because she had some sort of eternal lease and because of her age. Her landlord whom I met a couple of times at building meetings, five us of own the building, had once owned the entire edifice. Over the years he had sold off the apartments. I am sure he wanted her dead. I could understand that, but he was so obviously a pinchpenny I didn’t have much sympathy.
I would find B, when I came home from coffee with a friend, sitting on the stair, her small grocery bag beside her, getting her breath back. I would offer to carry the bag up to her door for her. Immediately, she would protest fiercely with many no’s that she was fine and not in need of my help.
Although clean she wore clothes over clothes in the winter, the holes in the top layer revealing the colors of the under layers. Our one sympathetic point of contact was my hats, which she commented on appreciatively.
The man on the second floor had some rapport with her. She let him do a few repairs for her. He, at one point, offered to replace all the broken windows in the apartment for her, there were many, with no charge her. She refused.
Although she had water, she had no electricity, and no gas. She received food through a Meals-on-Wheels program, delivered every morning and hung on her doorknob at eight am. But with no electricity she had no heat, and there were all those l broken windows, all winter, every winter. Sometimes I would see the beam of a flashlight flickering when I looked down at her floor from the patio area outside my kitchen windows.
The second floor neighbor told me that he went by the bathroom with his head turned away.
Although winded by the stairs, she was in feisty spirits and better than adequate physical abilities when I moved in. Things deteriorated, of course. She was visited by her social worker but was so vehement about not being helped that they tended to leave her be. I suspect they urged her to leave the apartment and go into a home. Very sensible but that would have been anathema to her, a capitulation. We old, hang on to our independence, with despair and desperation, until it is in shreds.
I no longer offered help.
Perhaps five years later things had crumbled sufficiently so that they forced her out of the apartment for three days to live with her son while they fumigated it and all of her belongings.
When I met her son once, it took me under five minutes to realize he was crazy. He stood on her threshold trying to sell me a camera, an excellent old one. When I refused, he seemed to wake up to a muddled awareness that perhaps he should not have made that offer.
In her last two years I saw from time to time, in the afternoon, the Meals-on-Wheels bag still on her doorknob. I would pound on her door until she answered to tell her breakfast, lunch and dinner were on her doorknob. I was terrified one day I would pound and there would be no response; she would be dead inside. Sometimes I asked my upstairs neighbor to do the pounding.
She also had a daughter who wanted desperately to help her. She was rejected, as were we all.
When I was on one trip or another, she became ill. They took her to hospital and from there, of course, to a home. That was the end. It took months, but she died.
The landlord’s first action was to have the fumigators in. Everything that creeps, crawls and scurries, I am sure, had a representative in her space. However, it took the penny-squeezer a couple of years to sell the apartment.
Negative role models are important as positive ones. B was a negative exemplar from whom I acquired positive proposals for aging: take help; ask for help; listen to what people tell you and think; don’t reject out of hand.
Male or female, there are few good examples of aging. Shakespeare offers us, all males, Lear, Timon of Athens, pompous Polonius, Henry IV, although he isn’t that old, Prospero who breaks his staff, drowns his book. The crucial factor in his being perhaps the one positive exemplar is that of his own will he abdicates his powers, not waiting for them to be taken from him. Because giving up your powers before they are wrenched from you may be one of the cruxes of aging.
There are books on aging, many written by young people, most written by exceptional people in exceptional circumstances, which tweaks the story. Fear of death or of the process of dying is occasionally talked about.
I don’t see anything craven about fearing death. A woman I knew who fought off cancer for years talked to the Dali Lama about her terror of death. He told her he too was afraid of dying. Why wouldn’t you be afraid of the unknown, no matter how many people have gone there?
Sometimes people just lose interest in life. My mother was one of these. She told me in a bank on 42nd Street in New York one day when she was in her seventies, “I can go any time now. I am not interested in being alive.” No one seems to talk about this mind set. Others, like her sister, my Aunt Liz, are just curious to see how the sun comes up tomorrow.
Two of my role models for dying are Alexandra David Neal, the first Westerner to get to Lhasa, who died at the age of 100 during a nap after going over her royalty statements and Montserrat Abelló, a Catalan poet, who rose at, I think, 93 from her table after lunch saying, “I need a nap,” and never got up again. Naptime is a good time to leave.
I am finding eighty to be the age of elder adolescence, meaning that as in adolescence there are disruptive bodily changes. I don’t like this. It isn’t just that I wake up with aches. There are a range of changes to your surfaces and organs–your digestion as much as your sexuality. Your skin is drier, rough patches appear. You may grow little things as though you are a disintegrating pier with barnacles and clumps of mussels.
If female you develop a tummy, a sort of round lump at the bottom of your pelvis, possibly before you are 80, but you will definitely have it in your 80’s. Sometimes dancers are impervious to this longer. Men get it too eventually. Something that has been holding things up in your gut has decided to let go.
My two big dissatisfactions physically are the tummy and the considerable loss of energy that takes place at 80 and increases each year thereafter. The gym helps but certainly does not solve the problem. It’s as though my energy is cheese being nibbled by a mouse. I sleep more. I do less. I have no metabolism to speak of. However, if I allow myself to be resentful I will become angry and defensive, a variation on B and that is not the way to go.
A loss that saddens me sad is my hearing. When I take out my hearing aids, I cannot hear my new cat purr, only feel the vibration in her body. Due to glaucoma I have developed a little blind area in my left eye.
Then there are the mental changes. Words suddenly amble off like truant children. Maybe they go down to the sea to build Gaudi castles. I find that if I am patient they often return in a few minutes. Names, however, take longer trips. They can be gone for a couple of days, whether to Gerona or Biafra I have no idea. People of great mental power I knew at Columbia ended up not being able to read their own books. That is terrifying.
The two things I do not want to outlive are my brains and my money.
We think we are all right because we do what we have always done and the mind in its groove is quite happy to putter along but challenged to think in a different way, given an alien task, it may come to a full stop.
While dealing with these changes we, or certainly I, am trying to cope with the presence of death in my life. It has always been there, although not particularly central. If at twenty death is central to your life you are either hopelessly romantic or neurotic.
As I have aged death has moved out of the wings of my theater to center stage. What seems to happen is that I am walking around it, or is it walking around me, seeing it from different perspectives, but always in its presence. It is dominant. In the US there is talk of elder depression for which doctors give pills. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps if you are living in the sphere of death you are going to be depressed until you work out this relationship; it is a relationship and, I think, most of your experience in life so far is used to create that liaison. One can, of course, ignore the whole thing and many do. For each of us it is different. Old age is an amazingly individual time period,
Although I have little control over my aging situation, progression, what control I have is mental and amazingly important to my well-being and the continuity of my personality, who I am. I need to know how old I am but NOT accept any of the dictums handed out by my culture about my age. I must decide and work at who I am within that spectrum of what 80 can be. Does that make sense?
Then there is the outside reaction to our aging, the condescension of younger friends. When I went off on my five month solo journey to China, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and French Polynesia someone remarked, “Isn’t she cute to be doing that.” Another friend insisted that I must take someone with me, that it would be impossible for me to do it alone. I will not comment on what I felt but issue the curse that those who condescend should in their turn be condescended to.
I am closing with two poems one by an old friend, Harvey Shapiro, the other mine. Harvey’s is about breaking your staff and drowning your book. Mine is about what happens when you don’t.

He had a gig
but he was hurting.
His doctor said, play the date,
then check into the hospital.
That night, when the party ended
and the band packed up,
Charlie start to give stuff away—
his watch, his rings—to the women
in the room. Then
he circled the room with his horn
playing: “For all I know we may never meet again.”
At this point, the man who was telling the story
in the locker room at the Manhattan Plaza gym
and who had sung the line slowly, with
a pause between each word, began to cry.
Harvey Shapiro

There were no licenses when she learned to drive,
just straight dirt roads between green fields of wheat
that bent to her wind, which spurned with its passing heat
the ripe green heads and made the rabbits dive
into the thicket of swaying stalks. It was
her way to delete her mother, the world. Once wed
she drove away from arguments, buried
them in the speed of her anger, which became both cause
and effect. When she picked up the hitchhiker Death,
that beggar’s first demand was the alms of her eyes;
the cataracts were the blur of his breath,
his exhale shrinking her boundaries without reprise.
He shut her highways, lowered his border bar,
till the only way out was on his road, in his car.
Karen Swenson

The Quarantine Blog X: June 5, 2020

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When I left the U.S. I sent, a few weeks before my exodus, all my worldly goods packed into three-quarters of a container to Barcelona. I already owned my apartment, the renovation of which was supposed to be much further along than it was. My cat, Shimi Moto, and I slept on a futon, a rather narrow futon, on the floor of the library full of bookless shelves.

Shimi did not much approve of this situation, it was difficult for the two of us to fit on the futon, but she was an amenable cat, much traveled by rail, car and most recently plane, business class with her own seat. She only complained once on the flight. I opened her case so that she could see where she was. She stuck her head out into the cabin. The expression on her face approximated that of a respectable, Westchester matron discovering herself inexplicably transported to a male brothel in Tangier. She recoiled back into the case and did not complain again.

Shimi, I should explain, entered Spain, unintentionally on both our parts, as an illegal alien and remained so until her death some two years ago. It happened this way.

I had all our papers in hand and after I went through passport control looked about for any sign about entering animals. I saw nothing. I approached a young man in uniform, pointed at Shimi’s case saying, “Tengo una gata.” She was after all a female cat. The young man was a bit taken aback by the female form but adjusted himself and asked, “Tienes papeles?” I proffered her papers.
He opened the folder and went through them very thoroughly before turning to me, laying a finger across his lips and with his other hand pointing vehemently at the exit. So out the door into Spain we went and never looked back.

Somehow I had made my way with my lame Spanish through all the necessary labyrinths to get my goods passed by customs on arrival and then arranged through, I think, my superb architect, to pay for the street to be closed in front of my building for two hours so that an elevator platform could come and lift my belongings up to my window on the fifth floor where furniture, rugs and bulky things would enter the apartment over the balcon railing. Belongings in smaller boxes came up in the elevator, all the books, which the men unpacked and rammed any old way onto the shelves so they could take at least those boxes away.
But a few days ago I relived the thrill of standing in the middle of my bookless library watching sofa, after chair, after table rise solemnly up and the men reach out to pull each off the platform before it sank slowly down for the next load.
Only this time I was sitting at my desk as I-beam after I-beam went up swaying gracefully before my window. The street was blocked from all traffic for a specified amount of time, so that the compact little elevator, not in this case a platform but a series of arms and elbows which unfold, can park in the middle of the street, lean another arm against the building to steady itself and lift things up, with the help of a winch, to the roof.
Another event of this week was to see the most up-to-the-minute style in a hat shop window on the edge of Urquinoana. It was a sun-visor with an attached mask and clear plastic face shield. Absolutely au courant and chic.

But the big event, of course, was that Mendi’s the café down stairs opened. You can only sit on the terrace under the trees and there are not a lot of tables but what joy to have a café con leche with a friend while the cat ladies are cleaning out the cat park. It gives me needed distance from demolition noise.
I think they must be hollowing out the old convent to the walls and totally reconstructing it within that shell. Facades are protected in Barcelona; you are not allowed to alter them so often everything but the façade is destroyed before new construction begins.
They are still sending rubble roaring down a chute many times a day; along with drilling there are various tonal levels of pounding going on. This all appears to be happening in the tall, front building.

The little building in the back, which is only two stories high with a curved outside stair up to the second floor where narrow balcons open before tall, arched windows, seems to be, so far, intact. Between these two buildings is a court, which I cannot see into well but what I can glimpse suggests lots of rubble. On my side of that court is a roof, which serves as a bridge between the two-story and the tall.
Two spirited young men leapt happily yelling at each other crossed this bridge that connects the two-story and the tall, went to the rear of the two-story roof where there is a bit of projecting wall, went round the wall and disappeared. I realized for the first time that there must be a stair there. What they ran through used to be the nun’s garden. I had thought the nuns only had access to the roof from that bridge of roof. Interesting what you discover about a building you have never entered during its reconstruction.

By the way, Shimi and I slept on the floor on the futon for, I think, about two months. I remember it took me a week to shelve the books. Shimi spent her days, not unhappily, curled up in one or another of the boxes in what was to become the living room, coming to bed with me at night. After the books I shelved, so to speak, my clothes, in the walk-in closet with the help of a friend from Rome. Then the master bathroom was finished. Then the kitchen. One day Shimi heard the men, cats are acute about sound, moving the bed out of the living room. A furred flash she positioned herself in the hall to see where they were taking HER bed. That was the first time I realized it was HER bed. She watched the operation and surely less than a second after they hefted the mattress onto the bed, it’s a four legged teak, Thai bed with clawed feet, she was on it, washing up with an air of delicious smugness before taking a nap on HER bed.

As anyone who has owned a cat knows, the saying “Dogs have owners but cats have staff,” is one of the unalterable truths. I was most complimented by her belief through cars, trains and planes that finally her staff could be trusted to arrange events so all would be well for her on HER bed.
(Shimi Moto means Cat Motor in Tibetan.)

The Quarantine Blog IX: April 28, 2020

My cobbler opened this week, a good surprise, causing me to think, mangling Shelley, “if my cobbler comes can my flower lady be far behind.” Yesterday she was open. I bought two stems of tightly budded lilies and, as there were no lilies of the valley, too late in the season for them, three big mottled pink balls of peony buds. My flower lady is thinner, worn, her dark eyes large in her long face. The tension of this time has marked her. When she spoke of the future it was not with optimism but concern about the recurrence of the virus. But I am so grateful to have her back.

The lilies have been reluctant to open but the peonies are ruffling out like a closet of fin de siècle dresses in a Parisian closet. They even have a slight scent. When I was a child, peonies had a wonderful perfume but they have been improved until they are odorless.

My other memory around peonies is that they attracted ants and Japanese beetles. I don’t think the ants are harmful but the beetles, which have the most gorgeous, metallic, green and gold backs, munched right through the buds, destroying any possibility of bloom. My insomniac Aunt Liz used to drift out on summer evenings with a jar of kerosene to collect and drown them. She did this in her white night gown, a horticulturally appreciative ghost, a wisp of misty white in the gloam of the garden.

An aside. If you have never read about the Japanese beetle man in Gerald Durrell’s MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS you have missed a fine portrait. He is a hunchbacked peddler on Corfu who ties thread around the beetles and attaches them to his hat. He sells them to children on his route or at fairs since if you whirl them about they make a satisfying buzzing sound as they circle over your head.

Further gratitude. The café on the corner opened earlier this week. I had my first café con leche in over two months under the trees in the minute square containing the monument to Margarita Xirgu. When I make coffee at home I drink it black. The café con leche followed a lunch of callos with chickpeas and spinach salad. What heaven to eat what someone else has cooked. How superb to not have to wash up. The tables were properly separated and we smiled shyly at each other across the open spaces.

As if to prove that nature is in tune with us, opening up as well, the gulls brought their two fluffy babies up to the roof ridge of the hospital. There seems to be an equal amount of care from the parents, the one with the broken leg doing both guard duty and food gathering. She/he stands on top of a little metal chimney and screams at any with the audacity to come near or stands, meditatively contemplating the webs of her feet, until she regurgitates while the babies dance frantically about her squeaking in my imagination, “Throw up, Mommy, throw up.  Hurry up.  Throw up. I’m starving.  Hurry.”

But I don’t see them today. I hope everything is all right.

Before my flower lady opened I walked up to Valencia to see if the stores and the flower market there were open. I like just inhaling the their wet earth and greenery odor. But they were closed, sealed tight. However, it did give me an opportunity to admire the stained glass in windows on Valencia in that neighborhood, appropriately of flowers, iris I believe, which is exceptionally beautiful.

I did find a florist shop open near my cat food store on Aragó but the cat food was so heavy I was unwilling to add to my load. Also they didn’t have lilies. I am glad I was faithful.

Some stores seem to be open fitfully; the Chinese ones on Balmes, which bless them, are not at all nationalistic but have Thai, Indian, Indonesian ingredients, fresh as well as packets, boxes and cans. One, the smaller, has used the pandemic to do a thorough housecleaning, so thorough it was hard to find things. But I can never tell when I come by if I will find them open or closed. The pair form a sort of tiny Chinatown.

The disturbing event of the week was an email from a friend in Hong Kong that included a video of women demonstrating the apparent dangers of hand sanitizer as an inflammable liquid. My first thought was, have I heard of any cases of people being burned when cooking after using sanitizer? Or have there been reports of smokers with burned hands from lighting up after using hand sanitizer? Surely this would be all over the TV news as well as in newspaper headlines.

My friend had not fact checked the video, so I did. What I found was that the only danger from sanitizer being inflammable is if a bottle is in direct sunlight perhaps in your car or in an airplane. If you leave a bottle on your dashboard in direct sun your car will not explode but you may have a gooey melt down of bottle and plastic dash.

Much more disturbing was to find that this video is available in a number of languages with women whose faces are appropriate to the language. The one my friend sent me features women with Chinese faces. Another in Spanish features “Spanish looking women”.  In other words this video is being calculated to a linguistic audience. It is also telling that the women are not pretty, indeed a bit homely, as that makes the video appear more authentic, not like an commercial.

It is not an innocent video. It’s intent is to do harm by causing people to distrust and stop using hand sanitizer. It is a malignant video. I am nonplused by the desire to do this kind of gratuitous damage. I reminds me of the incident in the U.S. years back when strychnine, or was it cyanide, was introduced into Tylenol pills causing a small number of people to die horribly. The perpetrator was never found.

What is further alarming is how easily people accept these “informative” videos. My Internet attitude is, everything is suspect until proved innocent.

A young man I know, not the brightest button in the box, asked me this past week if I thought the Corona-virus came from a laboratory in China.  I was horrified that a man in Spain would have “contracted” the Trump lie. I told him I did not think it came from a Chinese laboratory but was a relative of the SARS virus, which never made it to the West.

Then there are those people burning cell towers in England and America because they think Covid is being transmitted by 5G technology. Some of us, and I suppose this will always be true, are mentally, emotionally and informationally in the 12th century. We might get a few Baptist preachers to rant at people that the virus is their fault; God is punishing them for their sins and issue them whips with which to lash themselves. The reference here is to a scene in THE SEVENTH SEAL.

I don’t want to end on this note. I had lunch again today at Mendi’s at an outside table from which I watched the cat ladies cleaning up the cat park while a small, white Scottie-type dog ran along the fence peering in at the cats with intense excitement and an elderly man with his mask covering his chin fed the pigeons. A gull came down to see what the pigeons were getting—the pigeons gave him backed off; the males even stopped chasing the females—ate a few large chunks of bread, it looked uncomfortable as it went down his throat, before deciding it was “pigeon food” and leaving.

The Quarantine Blog VIII: May 20, 2020

This past Sunday I walked to the Sagrada Familia and back, ten kilometers. After a morning of threatening clouds, the streets glowed with sun. People were out, couples walking together, fathers with strollers, mothers with boys on scooters, most with masks, including the children. I had not realized that at noon, perhaps only on Sunday, there is a small concert given by the carillon bells of the Sagrada, a melodious pealing to listen to as I stood beneath the moving green shelter of the street trees. Why should the shadows of leaves on a Barcelona street seem more emphatic to me than those in other cities?

Having read Clara Laughlin’s commentary, I was happy to go to see the church again. There’s lots I am not happy with in what has gone up over the last ten years but what I do like, even when I disapprove of other things, is the piece-meal effect of the building. That is in the spirit of the great medieval cathedrals built over a hundred or hundreds of years as people changed their minds about what they wanted in their building, as architectural ideas altered. I have never cared, for instance, for the finials on the steeples, although I appreciate the touch of color they give to the immense greyness of the building. They look like plastic geegaws to me. Now there is a white, bar like thing that I think is an aesthetic error.

But the Sagrada is a unique expression as Arthur Stanley Riggs, whoever he was, said. The Catalan architectural outburst, and I think it is an outburst of voices clamoring joyously in their own language, in the late 19th early 20th century is an outrageous singular occurrence whether by Gaudi or another architect of that time. I took an American architect friend to see the Hospital de Sant Pau y Santa Cru designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner. As we wandered through the buildings while I told him about it. He turned to me and commented, “This is astonishing. He was either crazy or on drugs.” A very contemporary compliment.


People were walking in a desultory way, enjoying the sun, the air, looking in shop windows just being alive under the balconies where geraniums bloom in fierce reds. There were cars but not many. I am not looking forward to the return of traffic.

And Monday the traffic was much greater as I walked up to my trainer’s studio. His wife was there with their baby who found me much less interesting than the spoon her mother was wielding. I had Alberto video me doing some exercises my grandson and I have discussed which help you keep your back straight. Alberto, since there is a distance problem, no longer stretches me. He has acquired a thing that looks like a sci-fi ray gun that massages you. It vibrated me furiously until I wondered if my vertebrae were going to be in their usual alignment when he finished. It also made me feel I was being reduced to the condition of tomato aspic in a violent earthquake.

Having worked out I had a thoroughly self-indulgent half hour at the basement grocery in Corte Inglés. I bought a Japanese steak, some of the biggest blue berries I have ever seen, the size of large red grapes, and two exquisite figs—I felt I should hire a Dutch painter to do their portraits, they were so beautiful—and other things, such as chocolate, before happily walking home in the sun.

Coming home down La Rambla I passed my florist’s little glass box. I keep hoping all those glass boxes will open up and pour their colors out onto the pavement in a panoply of bloom around potted orange trees, avocados and other ambitious tall, but usually gangly trunks available for purchase. Last week I saw her sweeping her box out, rearranging the orchids which seem to do well living there alone, and had a surge of hope that she would be open that week, but no. I am still waiting for her.

This morning I was startled to see an I-beam go swaying by my front window. When I went down to shop, I found the street was cordoned off and I-beams were being raised by a winch on the roof of the convent. Repairs are going along. My day is punctuated by the sound of pounding, drills and saws. The deconstruction part seems to be over. I am intensely curious to see what they are going to do with the part of the building I look down on.

On my route to the Boqueria I pass one of my favorite restaurants, Bacaro, an Italian place, small and boisterous with excellent food. I was first tempted through their doors by a menu that offered liver Venetian style, actually liver with onions. They do it well. I saw the steel door was raised and poked my head in. They are cooking for doctors in the hospitals while waiting to reopen. I touched elbows with one of the owners. His news is that he is thinking of opening another venue in Sariá.

There was something in the air today. The contacts with people sparkled, an intrepid warmth slipped out from masks that hid smiles, eyes above masks shone. We seemed in the beautiful day, customer and seller, to be so happy to see and be with each other. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of here we are after months still selling and buying carrots, still asking each other how we are, how the family is. There was a sensation of strength, of congratulation so far at mutual survival.

Coming home with my purchases I looked in my mailbox. One of my kvetches about living in Spain is that the mail service is terrible, particularly for things coming from overseas. I now tell people not to send me any package from abroad because I get yards and yards of forms on line from the customs office that never have anything to do with the book or gift I am receiving. This time I found the box stuffed with six issues of the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT which has been arriving two months late, and that is if I am lucky. Now I have lunchtime reading material for over a month.

I went up stairs, cooked, plugged in the fountain on the terrace; this is a green ceramic snake who wriggles down the wall, sticks his head out and sends a liquid chime of water into the bowl beneath him. I will read a TLS over my omelet.