Aug 30, 2008

An Exercise in Parental Venting

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There are times when children's accomplishments make a parent proud, like a vocal solo at school concert, a fine play in an athletic competition, or when a child just says something heartfelt and memorable. I have many such fond memories, and they serve to punctuate the years of family love that sustains us.

Then there are the weeks in which you would swear your children are suffering from some collective illness that saps their common sense. The specific acts are less important than conveying enormity of the mass dementia that seems to have enveloped my otherwise lovable kids.

My wife and I have had some trying times of late with our progeny, all of whom have now reached the age of majority. Now, most of these issues are relatively minor, but I feel like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges: I just want to line the lot of them up and do one of those patented multiple slaps Moe was so good at.

I know that my perception of my own younger years becomes biased, but I cannot recall being as foolish and impulsive as my kids have been lately. True, maybe my middle-aged memory omits certain incidents, and maybe I just didn't get caught in some moments of questionable judgment, but I am certain I exercised better judgment between the ages of 18 and 22.

Maybe it's just the sheer volume of questionable decision-making in the past few weeks that is bogging me down and forcing me to "parent" my adult children on issues that we should be long past. I trust that in a few weeks time evidence will appear to verify that my kids do indeed possess the needed intellectual skills for making sound judgment.

Until that time, I am keeping open the Moe Howard option.

Aug 28, 2008

Electoral Ambivalence

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Am I ballyhoo-weary?

As an exercise in civic responsibility, I will watch the much-hyped Barack Obama speech this evening. I will hear of Obama's modest childhood, his dreams, his calls for change, and his policy proposals.

But I have to admit that I have not caught election fever.

This is not a swipe against Barack Obama, as I find him to be a thoughtful politician and a charismatic speaker. Yet his campaign has failed to really connect with me, and at this rate I may find myself yawning in November at my presidential options.

Perhaps this is a function of the fact that John McCain, a moderate Republican, does not appear to provide a significant ideological contrast with Obama (Iraq War excepted). Maybe we have a race to the middle this election, with both candidates avoiding declaring concrete policy proposals and doctrinaire political philosophies in an effort to woo independents like me.

Or maybe the problem is me, and I have become too jaded by the politics-of-negativity by both parties to even venture a hope that these candidates will ever spend time talking about what needs to be fixed in America. It is possible that my ambivalence is more like resigned cynicism, and that any words from the mouths of these candidates would strike me as calculated and insincere.

So if I nod off during Barack Obama's speech tonight, kindly nudge me and tell me to pay attention. The pundits say that this is the most important election in a generation, and I'd better do my part to stay informed, no matter how skeptical I am feeling.

Aug 27, 2008

Book Review: The Magna Carta Manifesto

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Linebaugh, Peter

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008


It would be a simple matter - though disingenuous - to dismiss Peter Linebaugh's latest book as a text that creates "Marxist infusions where they are not necessary," in the words of one drive-by Amazon.com critic. After all, the United States won the Cold War, so any political commentary left of, say, Milton Friedman must be the delusional work of a true-believing Communist relic, right?

Or perhaps in the manner of another commenter at the same lnk, we might huff and bluster and rhetorically ask how Linebaugh "would react if I 'commoned' his car or his house or his library."

Yet The Magna Carta Manifesto cannot be flippantly ignored as one might be inclined toward doctrinaire Soviet-era agitprop or the sort of one-dimensional Sixties sloganeering that makes aging hippies get misty-eyed. Linebaugh asks troubling contemporary questions about the concept of the commons, using the history of the usurpation of traditional rights enshrined in documents like the Magna Carta and the lesser known (but supplementary) Charter of the Forest to demonstrate how privatization and globalization have eroded constitutional protections once taken for granted.

Linebaugh's interest in re-examining the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest was heightened in 2003 with what he described as the "assault on Mesopotamia." In the wake of the bloody débâcle that is the Iraq War, Linebaugh reminds us of other disturbing sorties on other freedoms protected by the Magna carta, such as habeus corpus, trial by jury, and due process. Still, ignorance of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, notes Linebaugh, is not the sole province of American war hawks:
President Bush is not the only one who has forgotten his history lessons. We British historians have not done our job. Both neoconservative historians as well as feminists, critical legal theorists, social and economic historians have been derelict, ignoring Magna Carta and thus laying the groundwork of forgetting. As for the commoning provisions in the Charters of Liberties, they have been ignored as out-of-date feudal relics. The argument of this book says their time has come.
While one might debate the specifics of what exactly should constitute the commons, Linebaugh reminds us that devotees of what I like to call The Cult of the Invisible Hand would like to see every last vestige of the commons erased and commoditized, even such formerly sacrosanct items as water access, human knowledge, and public greenspaces. It is because these are powerful tools against tyranny and oppression that we should reclaim and defend these "Charters of Liberties," argues Linebaugh, instead of burying them as archaic footnotes in constitutional law. Read this book and open your mind to the new possibilities inherent in a digitally-connected world in which efforts to destroy human rights and the commons can no longer occur under the cover of information blackouts, corporate propaganda, and police-state thuggery.

Aug 26, 2008

Virgin of Montserrat

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One of the more unusual places I visited in Europe recently was the Santa María de Montserrat monastery in Catalonia. Visitors to the monastery can see up close the Virgin of Montserrat, which some Catholics claim was carved in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Christian church. Local legend holds that the statue was discovered by shepherds, who were drawn to the hidden relic by a heavenly light and sacred music.

Art scholars, however, hold that this black Madonna is a wooden Romanesque sculpture that dates from the late 12th century.

As I approached the religious icon, I set aside my skepticism for a few minutes, resisting the urge to liken the glass-encased sculpture to Zoltar, the animatronic fortune teller from the Tom Hanks movie Big. Instead, I said a silent prayer as I touched the wooden scepterheld by the Virgin.

My prayer might some day be answered, or it might not, but for the moment I suspended my disbelief and found at least some inspiration in the relic, and I did not suggest that the nearby holy water was simply collected from nearby kitchen faucets. I silenced my inner comic and pondered the many centuries that this statue has served to provide solace to pilgrims, including the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola.

Aug 25, 2008

Quirky Website - Virtual I-Ching

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The Quirky Website of the Week is a semi-regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

Sure, it's about as reliable as a roll of the dice, but the Virtual I-Ching website gives you another option in both time-killing and electronic prognostication. This certainly beats surfing the net for the best deals on bar sinks, doesn't it?

The I-Ching, or “Book of Changes,” is a collection of ancient Chinese texts that use a symbol system to predict the future, or, as I-Ching aficionados describe it, "identifying order in chance events." The Virtual I-Ching told me that impoverishment is in my future:
The Mountain absorbs the water of the Lake that is at its feet. The force of the Mountain can be turned into anger; the joy of the Lake can become passion. Control anger and passion by laying down a limit, and you will strengthen your mind. Benefits and losses are neither good nor bad in themselves. What enriches on the one hand impoverishes on the other hand. Do not be ashamed of your poverty and do not be bitter.
Not a bad call, given the state of the U.S. economy. The online oracle also gave me this piece of advice:
If you lose your self-respect when serving your superiors, you will become weaker and nothing good will come out of it. You must persevere in the same direction and not embark on new plans.
This one actually fit a situation in which I was involved today; I'm not ready to declare myself a devotee of divination, but it was interesting reading nonetheless.

Aug 23, 2008

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

I think I probably would have enjoyed to keep my own private pain out of my work. But I was changed by my audience who said your private pain which you have unwittingly shown us in your early songs is also ours. -- Pete Townshend

Aug 22, 2008

On Luck, Effort, and Personal Successes

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Luck, talent, or perseverance?

I bumped into an old work acquaintance the other day, and she said that she heard I recently got back from a trip to Spain and Portugal.

"Lucky!" she commented, somewhat enviously. "The rest of us are back here working!"

Part of me wanted to protest, making the argument that I worked hard the past year to save up enough money to afford to travel overseas, and that it has taken me eight years of undergraduate and graduate school to get to the point where I can set aside a few weeks in the summer to travel, if I so choose.

Instead, I just smiled, and I said: "Yeah - there's a little luck involved."

But as I mulled over the concepts of luck, effort, and success, part of me recognized that I am indeed lucky to some extent. I am lucky that I was born in the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet (at least for the moment). I am lucky I was born male, born white, and born to a stable two-parent family, all of which are linked to future financial success in life.

I was lucky to be born with a normal-functioning brain with a respectable IQ, and to have been born to parents who instilled in me the value of education (even if it took me a few years to remember their admonishments). I was lucky to have genes that made me grow to almost 6'6", as there is a statistical correlation between tall people and financial success.

Yet there is still much to be said for good, old-fashioned hard work. I may be a bright person, but I know people with higher IQs, just as I know taller people and people from wealthier backgrounds. One of the few areas I've allowed myself to be proud of is my willingness to work as hard as I must in order to succeed. There may be greater thinkers, more talented writers, or even people with Ivy League credentials competing with me for an ever-decreasing number of academic positions, but I can hold my head high and know that there are not many people who are able to out-work me.

And even in a land of diminishing opportunities, I still believe that hard work trumps almost any other factor.

So, to my ex-colleague, there is some luck involved in my trip to Spain, but I think it is best typified in the fact that the Spanair flights I recently boarded were not the tragic Spanair MD-82 flight JK5022, which inexplicably exploded Wednesday just off the runway at Madrid's Bajaras Airport.

That turn of events I would rather attribute to divine intervention than luck, as I could easily have stayed another week in Spain and found myself on the doomed flight.

Aug 21, 2008

The Great Ginger Beer Taste-Off

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I grew up in Detroit, so you should know that I came of age drinking Vernor's Ginger Ale. Nothing mixes better than Vernor's with vanilla ice cream, and Detroiters refer to this concoction as a Boston cooler.

But I digress.

While vacationing in Spain and Portugal, I chanced upon a drink in a convenience store known as Old Jamaican Ginger Beer. I immediately fell in love with its unique taste, and I vowed to procure some after I returned to the United States. Unfortunately, this product is not available in the US at this time, unless you are prepared to order online and pay exorbitant shipping costs (a 6-pack of Old Jamaican from online retailers will set you back about $50, though I am told this imported ginger beer sometimes shows up on eBay auctions).

By the way - for those unfamiliar with ginger beers, most fall under the category of non-alcoholic "bottled soda." There are a few purveyors of fermented ginger beer, but most of these seem to be local microbreweries.

Thus, I set out to find a suitable substitute for Old Jamaican, and I picked up three ginger beers that were recommended by a variety of consumers on websites. I settled on Stewart's Ginger Beer, Reed's Ginger Ale (my local retailer does not carry their ginger beer), and Sioux City Ginger Beer.

My wife and I did a blind, side-by-side taste test, and both of us picked Stewart's Ginger Ale as the spiciest and most refreshing of the three ginger beers or ales. We both liked Reed's next best, though I suspect that the Reed's Ginger Beer has more gingery bite.

Neither of us much cared for Sioux City Ginger Beer, which lacked the distinctive spice one would expect in a ginger beer or ale. This was a sugary, run-of-the-mill ginger ale taste more akin to Faygo than even the moderately spicy Vernor's I grew up on.

Thus, if you are looking for a beverage with a heady ginger kick, I suggest that you try Stewart's Ginger Beer, which was the best-tasting of the brands I tried. Feel free to offer other suggestions about ginger beers available in the United States that are worthy of experimentation.

Meet Ramón, a Rescue Dog

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Pictured is Ramón, a two-year-old beagle-bulldog mix (perhaps part Puggle) who is a stray that was rescued from a Northwest Ohio dog pound. This 30-pound boy loves to run, splash in water, and any other activities that the group wants to do.

Ramón appears to be housebroken, and so far has not had any accidents in his foster home. He is quite affectionate, and will gladly slobber you with kisses. While he is a good-natured dog, Ramón loves to wrestle, and he should be placed with dogs his size or larger, since his idea of fun involves romping and jumping.

Ramón does not appear to have any negative traits so far, and he will happily go for car rides, walks, or any similar activity. He can be a bit of a wanderer, so folks with fenceless yards should consider fence installation. He pulls a bit on the leash, so his new owners will need to work with him on appropriate walking behaviors. To learn more about adopting Ramón or any other Toledo-area rescue dogs, visit the Planned Pethood website for more details.

Aug 20, 2008

American Goldfinch

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My red and yellow sunflowers began blooming weeks ago, and their colors attract a variety of birds, insects, and squirrels. Among the visitors to my row of sunflowers have been some American Goldfinches, whose bright yellow summer plumage in the males is hard to miss.

Yet I had been unable to catch a decent picture of these lemon-yellow birds until this morning. I spotted several of them eating the sunflower heads, crept onto the front porch, and finally succeeded in getting some images worth keeping.

Almost as soon as the shutter clicked, this particular bird flew to a safer location in a tall pine tree. Of course, as soon as I put away the camera and took out the trash, the bird returned to its feeding spot. As if to mock me, joining the various birds at the sunflower garden was a Ruby-throated hummingbird, another of the neighborhood species I have been unable to photograph this summer that is so migratory in nature that it might invest in travel insurance.

That bird will have to wait.

Aug 19, 2008

Yellowjacket Stings

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Yellow jacket stings on a human leg Yeah, they don't look like much in the photo I took, but these German yellow jacket stings hurt like hell. I was cutting my grass a little while ago, enjoying the unseasonably cool August afternoon, when I ventured too close to a previously unknown yellow jacket nest.

Unknown to me, that is. The yellow jackets were quite familiar with their territory and home.

As my lawnmower and I passed the hidden nest, a flurry of angry yellow jackets swarmed me, stinging my legs and hand. I hollered and danced as the aggressive rascals stung me, and one hit me three times on the same leg. That took all the enjoyment out of a relaxing evening of yard work, and now I am debating if I want to finish cutting the grass or to sulk about the six stings on my swollen extremities.

My wife's uncle once ran over a yellow jacket nest, and unbeknownst to him, he was allergic to their stings. He got stung over 20 times, and he went into anaphylactic shock. Luckily his wife saw him collapse, and after the paramedics arrived, they gave him a healthy dose of epinephrine to combat the venom, which courses through a patient's veins like downloaded video on a high-speed Internet connection using CAT5e ethernet cables.

I took a Benadryl for the inevitable itching, and I applied a poultice of baking soda and water, which I read might help to neutralize the venom. It seemed to provide some pain relief as well, though any hopes I had of becoming a male leg model will have to be put on hold until I can wash off the smeared white paste.

I have never been stung more than once or twice at any given occasion, so I suppose I will have to be on guard for the next 24 hours. As for the yellow jackets, I predict doom for their future, and an angry Marsellus Wallace comes to mind:
What now? Let me tell you what now. I'm gonna call a couple of hard, pipe-hittin' n****rs, who'll go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. You hear me talkin', hillbilly boy? I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'm gonna get medieval on your ass.
Something like that.

Aug 18, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: TEMPUS FUGIT

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

tempus fugit (TEMP-uhs FOO-jit) phrase (Latin) "time is fleeting," "time flies."

I came across this inscription on a grandfather clock in Spain, and jotted it down so I could look it up later. What surprised me the most about this phrase is how common it really is, as I found over one million Google pages with the term, and how I managed to live for 44 years without encountering it in a meaningful way.

The earliest extant instance of this expression seems to be in the poem Georgica, penned by Roman poet Virgil: Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus ("But it flees in the meantime: irretrievable time flees”).

The phrase has found its way into a variety of pop culture references, appearing as the title for an episode of the television program The X-Files as well as a song by the art-prog rock group Yes. The expression is also the name of a California alcohol importer, should you need to imbibe on absinthe or some other obscure intoxicating liquid.

Aug 16, 2008

On Drinking Alcohol, Sobriety, and Quality of Life

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For much of my life I was never much of a drinker. Sure, there were some wild parties as a late teen and young adult in which I drank to excess, but by the time my first child was born I was all but a teetotaler when it came to booze. I never bought it, rarely consumed it, and lived a life of relative sobriety.

Except for the very rare night out when I would drink too much and pay for it the next day, that is. Some call that "binging," but I just thought this was just "letting off steam" or something.

Yet somewhere around the end of 1998 - what I like to call "the year of pain" due to the high number of traumatic and life-changing events I endured that year - I began to use alcohol as a relaxing, sleep-inducing ritual, and after a year or two I was drinking every night to go to sleep. No longer was I having a glass of wine or two, but I was probably drinking two fifths of vodka a week.

But hey, no problem, right? I never drank before sundown, and I only drank to relax, and my usual routine was to pound a couple of tall snorts from a hidden pint under the front seat of my car just before getting home, so I could rationalize my drinking by saying that "the alcohol has not reached my brain, and I must therefore still be sober behind the wheel." I never racked up a DUI, never caused an accident, and I kidded myself that I thus did not have a problem with my drinking.

But near the end of my drinking career I remember getting ready to leave a restaurant at which I worked, and walking to punch out while carrying a nice, tall, icy glass of Stolichnaya. I slipped on the wet tiles, and my main concern as I was heading to the floor was how I was going to save that glass of hooch.

BAM! CRASH! SPLASH!

In my efforts to protect my precious distilled spirits, I managed to collect 30 or 40 shards of glass in the palms of my hands. Blood trickled down my arms from the numerous punctures, and this should have been a warning sign to me: the booze was more important than my safety.

Then there was the time around 2001, right before 9-11, when I was getting some serious headaches, and I naturally turned to extra-strength Excedrin to deal with my pounding skull. Little did I know that I had bleeding ulcers, and that the aspirin and alcohol were making the ulcers worse, and that my headaches were a sign that I was anemic. When my wife finally drove me to the hospital, my hemoglobin count was down to 6.9 gm/dl (for reference, a healthy adult male should be somewhere between 14 and 18 gm/dl).

In short fashion - over just a couple of years - my unhealthy living was starting to kill me.

Now, I would love to wind up a Hallmark-type story here, with that the intravenous transfusion of two pints of blood waking me up, but by then I was well along the way to being a full-time drinker. It was only a matter of days before I pronounced my ulcers healed, and that I would rely upon a better diet and no aspirin to allow me my nightcaps. It took my wife's insistence that I change before I made the move.

Was I an alcoholic? Who knows. I certainly used alcohol in a self-medicating fashion for 2-1/2 years, and when I was drinking my uninhibited self was game for whatever other inebriants were around. I did not experience any withdrawals, but it was clear that the psychological dependence was well on its way. If I was not yet an alcoholic, I was probably only a year or two away from being a full-blown drunk.

I sit here, look back on the preceding paragraphs, and ask I myself: "Why are you writing this?"

Part of this post is an exercise in demon-exorcism, coming to terms with the person I was (and in some ways I still am). I have not consumed booze in over six years, but I occasionally still get a mild urge for a drink, especially after a stressful day. Yet I fear that even one drink will make it okay for me to have two, and then four, and then ... you get the picture.

But part of my reason for discussing this in a very public forum is to do what friends of Bill W. call "carrying the message." Maybe I wasn't an alcoholic, and maybe I was, and maybe I still am, but I know that my life is a hell of a lot better without alcohol than with it. I'm more productive, healthier, and most importantly: happier.

So, to those of you reading this post: take a moment to decide the reasons why you drink, and ask yourself if booze is causing problems in your life. Maybe you are just feeling guilty because some ex-drunk is hitting a raw nerve, but maybe your mind could use some housecleaning. Or maybe you are one of the "normal" folks who have an occasional social drink and who never progress to the self-medication stage.

If so, God bless you: not everyone has booze-related demons.

Aug 15, 2008

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Life is like Friday on a soap opera. It gives you the illusion that everything is going to wrap up, and then the same old shit starts up on Monday -- Stephen King, Duma Key

Aug 13, 2008

On Coming Home

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I just returned to Toledo after spending over two weeks in a variety of cities in the Iberian Peninsula on a trip that turned out to be spent far more on vacation than research, unless you consider cultural immersion to be a legitimate form of research. In that time I polished my skills in speaking Portuguese and Spanish, visited a ton of historical sites, and learned a great deal about places I previously only experienced through films and books.

Yet I missed my house, my family, and my dogs, and it was with considerable joy that I pulled up in my driveway late this evening after spending 14 hours traveling from Barcelona to Paris to Detroit.

I think that - at least for me - 10 days is a sufficient amount of time to travel, and that trips longer than this create more stres than they alleviate. I found myself increasingly looking forward to the day I flew back, and the last few days in Lisbon and Barcelona lost their novelty.

But being away from home conversely makes a person appreciate the place more, and I found myself drifting away from Iberian restaurants and castles, wondering instead what was happening at home. I especially missed the companionship of my dogs, whose absence made me seek out canines to pet in Spain and Portugal.

Finally, there is simply no substitute for the everyday comforts of home. I quickly tired of European-style single beds in which my lanky frame meant that my feet hung over the edges of the beds, and there is much to be said for having easy access to a washer and dryer. I washed my clothes in the sink for the past week, and - though clean - they still gathered a scent that can only be described as "funky."

Home, sweet home: perhaps sometimes dull, but everything you need is right there. The same cannot be said for even the finest cruises, although I wouldn't mind a maid and a ship's steward around the house.

Aug 12, 2008

Humorous Portuguese Sign

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(Santa Maria de Belém) There is something endearing about the seeming lack of concern by the Portuguese to idiot-proof this country. I have walked along the edge of vertical cliffs with 500-foot drop offs that had little in the way of barriers, and I have experienced the white-knuckle driving that is associated with Portuguese freeways, which are notorious for deathly-short entrance ramps, sudden turns, and drivers who think nothing of diving across four lanes of traffic as they exit.

Yet the pictured sign warns of a particularly dire hazard: a parking lot on the edge of the Tagus River that looms twenty feet above the water. More importantly, the parking area lacks those 8-foot concrete parking blocks that we take for granted in the United States in our parking lots.

I looked down, but I did not see any rusting vehicles in the water; either they have all been fished out, or Portuguese drivers are too smart to drive into the Tagus.

Aug 11, 2008

A Pilgrimage to Fátima

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Left: Crowd gathering for mass at the Basilica of Fátima

(Fátima, Portugal) As a Catholic of the Roman persuasion, I was previously aware of the religious apparition known now as Our Lady of Fátima, though admittedly my interest in modern Catholic miracles is something less than intense. Yet I also felt an urge to visit the site in the town of Fátima, especially given its close proximity to Lisboa.

I guess you might call me a conflicted Catholic when it comes to phenomena such as Fátima, as I ascribe to both rationalism and mysticism, depending on the context. In everyday life, I do not spend much time wrapped up in spiritualism and mystic pursuits, as I find these perspectives to be less than helpful for, say, painting a fence or grading exams. However, at the same time I believe that there is much more to the universe than can be fully explained by scientific rationalism, and I thus adhere to an underlying recognition that my five senses and my logical brain are inadequate to grasp deeper realms of existence.

Anyways, it was with a mixture of skepticism and wonderment that I journeyed northeast from Lisboa, anxious to learn more about this place called Fátima.

I noticed quite a few people with obvious physical impairments at Fátima, which is no surprise given the history of purported cures that have occurred here. Some supplicants crawl on their knees from the entrance of the site to the front of the basilica in an act of contrition and humility.

A visitor to Fátima can light a candle from an eternal flame, an act by which special prayers might be made. In addition to traditional wax stick candles, some folks brought with them specially-formed candles in the shape of arms, legs, or hands, ostensibly representing the body part they wished to be healed.

Left: A wax leg left at a side shrine to the Virgin Mary at the Basilica of Fátima

Yet it was the throngs of people - a multitude that had to number at least 30,000 souls on the day I visited - that most left me with a sense of amazement. Here were gathered people from all walks of life and from dozens of countries, all seeking some form of spiritual peace, divine connection, or just a bit of enlightenment. Despite the mini-industry that has evolved in the town with souvenirs, restaurants, and hotels, there was a palpable power I felt that I cannot simply shrug off as mass delusion.

I said my prayers in the basilica and momentarily set aside the cynical doubts I once held about what I used to perceive as ecclesiastical charlatanism. Maybe my prayers will be answered (I hope so, as they were for smeone much more in need of divine intervention than me), and maybe they will not, but I left Fátima with a little more hope and faith than I arrived with.

Even the commercial nature of wax hands, food vendors, and specially-designed Fátima toys could not shake the feeling I had of a fleeting moment of the presence of God this day, and I was glad that I made the trip.

Aug 9, 2008

25 de Abril Bridge

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(Lisboa, Portugal) Renamed to commemorate the Carnation Revolution, the 25 de Abril Bridge the city of Lisbon to the city of Almada on the left bank of the Tagus River.

The bridge opened on August 6, 1966 and a lower train platform was added to the structure in 1999. The bridge is sometimes compared to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco due to structural similarities and the use of the same construction company.

Until 1974 the bridge was known as Salazar Bridge after former fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, but there is nothing like a revolution to bring about name changes on buildings, bridges, and parks. Of course, a legacy of jailed and dead politial opponents - plus a history of stubborn insistence on colonialism long after this philosophy became discredited - were likely considerations in the collective rejection of Salazar as a political icon worthy of veneration on items like bridges.

On Clunky Translations

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Even the best language dictionaries cannot replace the fluency people obtain when immersed in the culture of the language they wish to learn. The owner of the Portuguese restaurant meant well in his efforts to convey the number of seats in the restaurant, but the resulting translation is a bit rough.

Of course, I am as guilty as anyone else, like when I used the quasi-epithet moreno ("dark-skinned person") instead of marron ("brown") in a general conversation about colors with a rather, well, dark-skinned concierge the other day. She was kind enough in her correction of my faux pas, but a more sensitive person might have misinterpreted my mistake as an intentional racial comment.

Thus, it is always a smart idea to get a native speaker to translate or proofread any text that you wish to display in public. Here in Portugal there are efforts to cater to English-speaking tourists, but sometimes the translations can have unintended consequences. At a restaurant last night, the English menu said that the local dish known as Bacalhau à minhota will "make you jumping with anticipate."

I trust that this is not a gastrointestinal warning.

Aug 8, 2008

Castelo de São Jorge

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(Lisboa, Portugal) I spent a few hours wandering around the Castle of São Jorge today. This was my first experience spending any significant amount of time in a medieval castle, and I walked away impressed with the architectural finesse associated with building such a massive fortification.

The castle walls and towers you see in the picture rise over 30 feet in the air, and I was hard pressed to imagine exactly how an attacker might scale these barriers.

The fortress also served as the royal palace of Portuguese monarchs, at least until Manuel I built the new palace by the Tagus River, Ribeira Palace. The facility later served as a barracks and as a prison, though it fell into disrepair after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

Aug 7, 2008

Lisboa Skyline

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(Lisboa, Portugal) This is my first trip to Portugal and I am finding the country a bit confusing, in large part because I read Portuguese much better than I speak the language. Fortunately, there are many English speakers here, and we can communicate without my linguistic butchery.

The accompanying photograph was taken from my room in the Hotel Corinthia, my first visit to a true 5-star European hotel. Looking north I can see the hills of Sintra, and to the west I can see the Atlantic Ocean. I am looking forward to seeing some of the places about which I have only known through books and maps.

Drivers in the city of Lisboa ("Lisbon" is the Anglified version of the city's name) are a dangerous bunch, though I suspect my lack of familiarity with the roads and the names of districts contibutes to my perception of their collective recklessness. Admittedly I say much the same thing when I visit New York, Boston, or any other major American city with which I am less familiar.

I am now off in search of a meal and some live fado. I trust that the Portuguese are less obsessed with jamon, as I have eaten as much Spanish cured ham as I can possibly stand.

Aug 6, 2008

Madrid Street Vendors

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(Madrid) There are countless thousands of street vendors in Madrid, and this city is really no different than any other metropolis with a population numbering in the millions. The pictured vendors on Madrid's Gran Via are selling a variety of contraband goods, though, as opposed to the folks selling abanicos or castanetas or the usual tourist trinkets.

If you look closely, you can see a thick string on the fabric upon which the vendors spread their wares. This is to enable a quick exit when the police inevitably arrive to break up the illegal trade in items like pirated DVDs of first run films, faux designer clothng, Manolo Blahniks, and gold-plated junk being passed off to unsuspecting buyers as solid-gold jewelry.

Within minutes of being rousted, this group of about a dozen vendors had set up shop three blocks away. I saw the police lights and sirens, and within five seconds the men drew their strings and bolted around the corner. The crowds parted and then swallowed up the men, whose departure and relocation took mere minutes, and I suspect that pirated DVD sales were little affected by the disruption.

Prostitutes and Prostitution in Madrid

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Prostitutes line up south of the Gran Via in Madrid, SpainLeft: Prostitutes line up south of the Gran Via in Madrid, Spain

(Madrid) In a city of over three million people, efforts to eradicate practitioners and participants in the world's oldest profession have been futile. The police in the Spanish capital thus use a different strategy, which appears to be to limit the sex trade to certain neighborhoods.

Now, I am not a connoisseur or even a novice in the use of such services, and my interest in the topic is mostly academic, though I admit to a certain rubbernecking curiosity about topics normally considered impolite in "normal" society; let's chalk this post up to my similar inquisitiveness with mass murderers, neo-Nazis, and other cast members of the freak show known as the human race.

I have read that in Madrid the police target pimps, while generally ignoring prostitutes and johns who pursue commerce and kicks while staying within the agreed-upon neighborhoods. While some local groups are trying to chase Madrid's prostitutes out of the red-light districts, other business owners fear the loss of traffic and retail sales from the hookers and their customers, while still other residents believe the police would be better advised to target drug sales and drug addicts.

My own observation of the Madrid sex trade is that there are many thousands of willing participants, and that police would be hard pressed to devote finite resources chasing around hookers and johns. Much like the myriad street vendors who hawk pirated DVDs and knock-off Rolex watches, Madrid's prostitutes meet the demand of a significant market, and even STDs cannot deter those who insist on seeking their sexual gratification on a metropolitan boulevard.

Personally, the fear of such diseases as AIDS, herpes, and syphillis are sufficient deterrents to me should my mind and libido wander, but I also find monogamy to be a better way of living. Color me repressed, if you must, but at least I've never had to dash off to the physician for a shot of penicillin or for counseling on contracting a deadly disease.

Aug 5, 2008

Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid)

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(Madrid) I spent half a day yesterday exploring the Royal Palace of the Spanish monarchs, better known in the capital city as the Palacio Real de Madrid. This facility is the official royal residence, though King Juan Carlos and the royal family actually reside in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela, while the Palacio Real is most often used for official receptions.

This is an impressive collection of artwork, architecture, and armaments from almost a thousand years of Spanish history. Of course, one might quibble that this grand display of wealth and culture owed much to the massive importation of New World silver - and thus to the associated exploitation of the labor of indigenous Americans and African slaves - but that is the subject of a different discussion altogether.

I continue to be impressed with the temporal depth of European museums and archives, which make their equivalents in the United States look like young upstarts. The cities of this continent are steeped in history, and most make a conscious effort to preserve and integrate history into modern municipal life beyond what gets captured in books.

Aug 4, 2008

The Least of These

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(Toledo, España) I usually have something of a hard attitude toward street beggars, especially the assorted crackheads and con artists one encounters in American cities. In Europe, there certainly are similar panhandlers whose seeming health and robust nature makes it hard for me to feel empathy when they try to cadge some change.

And then there are the pitiful cases, like the toothless old woman who approached me in front of the Cathedral of Toledo. Sure, she might be a regular in the local business of tourist-fleecing, but it was difficult for me to simply walk by someone whose life seemed so far removed from the relative wealth I enjoy.

Or consider the woman with extreme achondroplasia who was begging in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid today, and who used some form of metallic prosthesis to get around. How can you ignore such people, especially in the presence of a towering church spire or when their physical abnormalities preclude gainful employment in the "normal" world?

Matthew 25:40 (King James Version) comes to mind:

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
A Euro here, a dollar there; perhaps all I do is assuage my conscience, but I could not live with myself if I ignored every "least of these my brethren" I encountered.

Aug 3, 2008

Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família

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(Barcelona) I had the opportunity to visit the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família , an incredible church under perpetual construction in Barcelona that was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

Words cannot begin to capture the genius and madness of this scheme, and the knowledgeable tour guide who led my small group inside the cathedral said that quite a few residents of Barcelona would prefer that further construction cease, especially those folks whose properties might face eminent domain proceedings.

BTW - if you travel to Barcelona and want to see Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, go with a guide from the state tourist bureau. They are first-rate art historians and local residents, and can get you past the long lines of tourists clamoring to get in the cathedral.

Gaudi's dream began to take form in 1882, and to this day the cathedral might be considered only half-completed, even by optimistic supporters. The year 2026 is often bandied about as the completion date, which would be the 100-year anniversary of Gaudi's death, but I suspect that another five decades will pass before the cathedral is finally completed.

Aug 2, 2008

Barcelona Supermodel

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(Barcelona) While visiting Park Güell, the garden complex in Barcelona designed by the renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, I was surprised to see a fashion shoot, complete with stunning model. I have never seen a supermodel up close, which no doubt comes as a shock to readers of this blog.

Ahem.

I do not know the name of the pretty young woman, as I am not much of a connoisseur of matters related to fashion, and truth be told - I find the world of high fashion to be vapid and exploitative. Yet I found myself watching with more than a little curiosity the activity of the dozen people working to create unreality for some magazine advertisement or billboard.

Feel free to identify, if you can, the subject of this fashion moment, unless you would instead prefer to surf for electronic deals.

Aug 1, 2008

Barcelona Street Performer

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(Barcelona) I know that travelers are advised against hanging around the Barcelona district known as Las Ramblas at night, but I found myself out after dark anyways, and I enjoyed seeing the different sides of life that appear as the sun sets in Catalonia.

Among the more interesting (and less threatening) of the colorful characters that can be seen at night along Las Ramblas are street performers, like the angel pictured on the left. I also saw a 10-foot tall skeleton, a gilded angel, and a painted ship captain, complete with a faux fore and helm.

As I dropped a few coins in the white angel´s box, I was surprised with a deep voice that said "Gracias." I assumed that this was a younger girl, but hey - anything is possible on Las Ramblas. This is a zone in which you might buy live chipmunks as pets, or in which your passport can be swiped before you knew what hit you.

Thriving with life with just a hint of malice: that is Las Ramblas.