Search This Blog

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The IRS, the Place of Celebration, and Same Sex Marriage

I do not remember ever thinking this, but the IRS seems cool today. 
They, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, announced this week the rules for filing your federal imcome tax return in 2013.  If you were married in a place where the marriage was legal, then you can elect to file a joint income tax return.  This is called the 'place of celebration' approach, which I think sounds very festive for a Federal agancy so associated with grimness.  It means that they will consider you married no matter where you live if your marriage is recognized as legal in the place that it was performed--which does seem like a reasonable characteristic.  Since one of my sons recently obtained an on-line ordination in the Church of the Latter Day Dude (also known as Dudeism, a religion inspired by The Big Lebowski) for no money what-so-ever, and is able to perform marriages in over half the states, it can't be that hard to find someone to legally marry you.  You just have to be somewhere that recognizes you are marriagable.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia recognize and perform same sex marriages--with the IRS ruling, it means that if you are gay and live in a state where same sex marriage is not recognized, you can go to a state where it is and get married, the go home and file your taxes jointly.  Whether or not this actually saves you money or costs you money (the more similar a couple's income is the less financially beneficial it is to them to file jointly), it confers a sameness to the union and the members of that union that is priceless.  And for those whom it does make a big financial difference, the IRS specifically stated that same sex couples who fit their definition of married can re-file as married for their 2010, 2011, and 2012 tax returns (provided they were actually married in those years).  Thank you Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kennedy, and Breyer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The subtitle of this book is 'The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II', and should have included a .... even though they had no idea what they were doing.

The story starts with a couple of women in the 1930's who wrote papers describing the ability to enrich uranium, and how it might be done--the papers were largely ignored at the time.

This is the story of the plant in Tennessee that was erected almost overnight in 1942, after enough land had been confiscated under eminent domain that was specifically designed to 'split the atom'--to make the enriched uranium that was part of the Manhattan Project.

There were men involved in this story as well as women, but for the women it was much more of an opportunity.  There are two stories told within the book of women with the intellectual ability to go to the top of their professions, but that was simply not an option in the early 1940's.  One of them had parents who would not consider sending her to college.  The war offered them the opportunity to get out of their rural dead end towns, get out from under parents who had sons overseas and did not want to lose their daughters as well, and the job paid well--far better than anything else available to them.

The women were very successful at their jobs--the book points out that the Tennessee plant, dubbed Clinton Engineering Works, consistently outpaced the scientific teams aiming at producing the same enriched uranium--these women were trainable and they followed directions well.  The living situation was primitive--substandard housing at first, dorms for the single women, and no entertainment, but over the time that the bomb was being built they became a real community.

The part of the story that is not attended to is that these women had no idea that they were building a bomb that would be dropped on Japanese target cities that had not just military importance, but had civilian populations as well--the women who are interviewed touch on this in a very superficial way, but that is a real moral dilemma--that these workers might have psychological fall out from working on the atomic bomb.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Washington Irving in Spain

After some early success with his writing, Washington Irving, best know for his stories 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', traveled to Europe to experience life--I really love that idea--why weren't my parents more 19th century in their views?  His plan was to travel, and through the experiences gained  he would generate ideas and reinvigorate his spirit, and then write again, renewed by what had happened.

While I was en route to the Alhambra in Granada, we came upon a statue of this well remembered American author--I have never read any of his travel tales of Spain, but I did download them onto my Kindle while I was there--more on that once I have read them.  I was surprised to see him there, which made me curious about what the story behind that was--well, Mr. Irving actually lived in the Alhambra for a period of time in 1829.

Washington Irving first came to Spain in 1826, when he was lured by the Spanish government making documents about Columbus and the discovery of the New World were made available--it was a discovery that markedly changed the world at that time, and Spain realized that they needed to keep all the paperwork on such a remarkable period of time in their history.  Irving came to Madrid (the documents were subsequently sent to Sevilla) and he spent a number of years writing about what he found.  These books enjoyed popularity and he wanted to remain in Spain--but that was not to be his fate.  He took a diplomatic position in England and his relationship with Spain came to an end.  But it was nice to see his statue in Granada (the above photo was taken after we had spent a day climbing arounf the Alhambra--we looked markedly perkier on the way up the hill!).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Palace of the Countess Lebrija

This palace was built in the 16th century, rather than the 14th century, and there is spectacular tile work represented throughout the building.  There are literally dozens of different examples of the tile mastery that was available in southern Spain at that time.  I went to a museum exhibit of 16th century tile that was substantially less impressive than walking through this palace (which is gorgeous architecturally as well--you do not have to be a tile aficionado to  find this place fascinating).  Every wall of every hallway and every room has tile, and just when you think that you have seen them all, you find yet another new example. 

 In 1901, the Countess of Lebrija bought the palace and began extensive renovations that would end in 1914. She was an avid collector and traveller. In fact, she was passionate about archeology and the first woman to be accepted at the Fine Arts Academy of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary (founded in 1660).

Her collection incorporates many Roman mosaics found in Italica (currently Santiponce, 7km from Seville), Mudejar elements from the Arab invasion, traditional Andalusian tiles and even parts of an old convent.

The Countess actually rescued a big part of the Roman city Italica that had been sacked for two centuries. The biggest and best restored mosaic is the one in the main patio, the design of which relates to the god Pan. Apart from the mosaics, the lower floor rooms display some Etruscan and Roman ceramics, marble statues, antique jewels and military awards. The tiles decorating a few rooms, the main patio and the staircase are very beautiful and the palace entrance is quite spectacular because of the bright ceramics covering it and the iron gate.

This is a really lovely place to visit and it is off the tourist radar, so very uncrowded.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

This book is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed it.  It tackles a sweeping subject, the relationship between Ireland and the United States over the course of the 19th and 20th century, which is no small task to complete in a 300-page book, so where is occasionally falls flat, it has bit off more than is probably realistic to chew. 

I am working my way through the Man Booker Prize 2013 long list, and while there are not that many of those books available in the U.S. at this point, this one is, and I chose it because I liked his last book, 'Let the Great Wolrd Spin'.  McCann is a writer that is all about the prose.  He writes beautifully (which is a characteristic of the Man Booker Prize), which again helps when the story is more lossely put together.

The story shifts between three starting points, all of which are fact based--they are, in chronological order, Frederick Douglass' trip to Ireland shortly after he escapes slavery in 1845 (which is also at the beginning of the Great Potato Famine), the first transatlantic flight that was done by British pilots Brown and Alcock in 1919, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which was a major step forward in the Northern Ireland peace process.  From each of those starting points a story moves forward in time, so that there is essentially overlap between them all, and there are characters in each narative that are related to someone in the other ones--four generations of women are the glue that holds the narrative together. The story is pleasurable to read, and gives one something to think about once it is over.  Ireland is a complex place, and the book allows us time to ponder that.

Monday, August 26, 2013

No8Do, Sevilla

The universal symbol of Sevilla is No8Do--you see it everywhere.  It is a rebus of a motto, which seems unusual to me, but I am not terribly widely traveled--The '8' is said to represent a skein of wool, which in Spanish would be 'madeja', so if you are reading in an exaggerated phonetic manner, this translates to 'no me ha dejado', which means 'It has not left me'.

That could mean a lot of things.  It is generally interpreted to refer to King Alfonso X, then the occupant of the Alcazar,  said of the citizens of Sevilla when he was off fighting his son, Don Sancho of Castillo, in the 13th century--a family feud is always a good place to take sides.  Those were bloody times and taking sides could have dire consequences.  The towns and countryside in Spain changed hands a number of times over the generations, and proclaiming loyalty was potentially dangerous.

Wikipedia says that the motto is most likely an abbreviation of the Latin In Nomine Domini ("in the name of the Lord"), though the popularity of the rebus and its accompanying legend has obscured these origins.  There is no fun in this explanation, no romance, so I prefer to ignore it. Let's stick with the explanation that makes a better story--that is, after all, how history functions.  Everyone knows that Betsy Ross did not make George Washington a national flag, but it is a very good story, so we are sticking to it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cathedral and Salvador Church, Sevilla

The Cathedral in Sevilla is massive--it is the largest gothic church in the world, and has the third largest square footage of any church in the world.  This building, along with the Alcazar Real and the Archivo de los Indios, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   The trio perfectly epitomize the Spanish "Golden Age", incorporating vestiges of Islamic culture, centuries of ecclesiastical power, royal sovereignty and the trading power that Spain acquired through its colonies in the New World.

Founded in 1403 on the site of a former mosque, the Cathedral, built in Gothic and Renaissance style, covers seven centuries of history. With its five naves it is the largest Gothic building in Europe. Its bell tower, the Giralda, was the former minaret of the mosque, a masterpiece of Almohad architecture and now is important example of the cultural syncretism thanks to the top section of the tower, designed in the Renaissance period by Hernán Ruiz. Its "chapter house" is the first known example of the use of the elliptical floor plan in the western world. Ever since its creation, the Cathedral has continued to be used for religious purposes.
So here is a tip--the line to get tickets at the cathedral is always massive--but if you first go to the Salvador church, the ticket that you buy there allows you to get into the cathedral as well--the only down side is that you must muscle through a whole crowd of tourists waiting in the blazing Sevilla sun, not knowing that they could skip that part, and they think you are jumping the line.  Wave your tickets as you pass--it doesn't get you any fewer dirty looks but it makes you feel virtuous.

The Salvador church is gorgeous on the inside and reminded me of many churches that I saw on my spring trip to Oaxaca--the size was much larger, but the plethora of carved figures within the church was just as impressive.  It is a lovely church with much to see--whereas the inside of the cathedral, aside from Columbus' tomb, is not all that noteworthy, the Salvador church is a work of art.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

How Music Works by David Byrne

I saw David Byrne for the first time on the Talking Heads '77 tour in Providence, Rhode Island--the band was made up largely of Rhode Island School of Design former students, so the city was familiar to them even if the venue was not (they went from playing in dorm rooms to CBGB's in New York, and to my knowledge never played on the Brown campus prior to the night I saw them).

They were something to see--they had a jerky stage presence, a stark stage set up, and a sound that was all it's own--developed by Byrne as the majority composer of their repertoire.  I went on to see them several times more over the next decade, and always enjoyed them very much as performers.  This is a book that David Byrne wrote about the components of music, and it was on the New York TImes 100 Notable Books list for 2012, so I read it.

The book is as quirky as it's author--which in retrospect really should not have come as a surprise, but it is just uniquely written and put together.  Do not get this book as an audio book (even though it is available in that format) because there are dozens of pictures in it and they are important to look at in following the points that the author is making.  It also helps to be familiar with the Talking Heads music, because he uses that as the basis for some of his explanations.

Now to the content--it helps to know (and the author discloses this in Chapter 2) that Byrne self-describes himself as having Asperberger's syndrome--there is an abruptness to everything that he says that you will be better prepared for if you know that up front.  The other is that this is no touchy-feely book about the magic and artistry of making music.  It is about the nuts and bolts of making music.  The business, the recordings, the music itself, the performance, the costs, the professionalism, and the venue that it all happens in.  Each component is examined separately, and then the author moves on to the next piece.  There is a lack of sentimentality that I was surprised by, but overall, the book is a very interesting read.  It made me think about music (which I know almost nothing about) in a new and different way. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Orange Trees in Seville

Everywhere you go on the streets of Sevilla you will find orange trees.  The uniquely bitter Seville oranges that literally perfume the whole area.  Unlike the oranges you and I might find in our local supermarket, an orange from Seville is a Bitter Orange, which comes from the Citrus Aurantium tree. The tree is originally a native of SE Asia, but which has now spread its seed throughout many other warm and sometimes wet climates. Also known as the Bigarade, the Seville Orange has skin almost like a rhino. It’s thick and it’s got pimples and because of the much higher level of pectin, which is the cell-wall, it is perfect for use in preserve-making such as jams and marmalades. The strengths of the peel make the preserve set much better and, because of the highly concentrated sharp taste, a Seville orange is also great when making flavored alcoholic liqueurs.
The flowers of the plant also have a great use and made into orange flower water and the oils too are compressed into neroli oil, which is a great tool for aromatherapy and massage. Another rather strange use for the plant is in the world of weight-loss medicine. An extract of the peel is great for suppressing hunger and for many years, especially in Asia, it has acted in this medical way (I did not try this out on my trip, but after a couple of weeks of tapas, I should have taken some home with me).

One of the even more interesting uses for the orange ties in very nicely with the Andalucian's love of seafood.  Ceviche is a citrus-marinated seafood sauce made from the citric acid juice of the orange (although it is more often made using lemons and limes). Popular in Latin America, especially in Mexico and Peru. it has become one of the signature dishes in the former Spanish colonies. It remarkably manages to denature the proteins in the seafood and, after about three or four hours, actually cooks the food without a single flame being lit. Not too far away from pickling or other types of preserving, it’s another example of just how flexible and useful every single part of this orange is.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Alcázar Real, Sevilla

No trip to Sevilla would be complete without a trip through the Royal Castle.  The Alcázar of Seville was constructed during the 12th century Almohad reign, but was rebuilt in 1364 for the Christian ruler Pedro I ("The Cruel"--the liked to think of himself as 'The Just', and I suppose it is all in how you look at it--everyone got the same cruel punishment, but I would be hard pressed to call it just).  All that remains of the Almohad palace is a section of wall and a cross-axially-planned garden, but the rebuilt palace's plan, gardens, and decorative programme place it squarely within the tradition of Islamic palaces of Andalucia.

The one thing that really strikes you is the oppulence of the roomds, all wending in and out of a central courtyard--do not forget to look up because the ceilings are the most spectacular aspect of some rooms. The carvings and the paintings are something to behold, but for me the very best part of the tour was the extensive tile work on the walls throughout.  I am not sure what the ascethetic of the time was, but the patterns of the tiles on different walls within the same room are remarkably different.  I love the pattern shown at the right, which is from an entry way (which is why it appears to be framed)--these pieced masterpieces (much like a ceramic quilt on the wall) are mesmerizing for me--I love visually breaking down the single pattern, then seeing how the patterns all interconnect and fit together.  Such masters of the art form.

If the Alcázar in Sevilla reminds you of the Alhambra in Granada, you are not worng about that, and it is not a coincidence--the architects and artisans from Granada built the Alcázar in Sevilla, and in some ways, it is more spectacular inside (the setting of the Alhambra up on a hill cannot be matched).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tapas at Enrique Becerra, Sevilla

I read about this restaurant in every guide book that I had on Sevilla--Fodors, the Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide, Trip Adviser, Rick Steve's, you name it, this restaurant was touted in them.  T
here was something about the way they described the restaurant that put me off as a place where everyone in my travel party would be happy--I have an unadventurous eater who I really needed to find something for him to eat on the menu before we could really make it a viable option, even if that was just bread with olive oil and a dish of paella.  This did not seem to fit the bill when I read about it, but in the end, it was our overall favorite place that we ate amongst some very good options over the two weeks.

The first thing I got wrong was that the upstairs limited seating, limited menu restaurant is a very different place from the more spacious, more casual first floor tapas bar.  So it was quite easy to walk in off the street, after having failed at two previous restaurants to find a good fit, to get a seat.  We were then truly wowed by how inventively the tapas were composed--it was the first place that we ate in the two weeks we were in Andalucia that we ordered a second plate of a tapas.  That delicious.  We considered ordering a third round of a couple of things but we were just too full to be able to manage it--had we gone to the restaurant earlier in our Sevilla stay, we might have gone back--there were so many things on the tapas menu that we hadn't tried that we would have been very tempted to return.  Food that is fabulous, inspired, and yet still steeped in local tradition--highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Philida by Andre Brink

When I realized that the Man Booker 2013 long list had been announced and I had yet to come close to finishing up the Man Booker 2012 long list, I panicked.  In a good way, I think.  I really enjoy these 12-13 books each year.  The Man Booker comes the closest to my taste in fiction as any other prize that I have made an effort to read the finalists for--and I am not a huge reader, mind you--but I do always make an effort to look at the short list for the National Book Award, the PEN Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, the New York Times Best Books, and so on.  For me, this is the best.

So, back to the task at hand--to finish the 7 books I have yet to read.  'Philida' is my first success in that endeavor.  It is a very tough read, in that Philida is a South African slave who has been taken in by promises from a white master.  Worse yet, the master's son.  She was first raped and then the willing mistress to Frans.  Frans has promised her and her children their freedom, and when she catches wind of a rumor that Frans is to be married to a white woman and she is to be sold to a farm far away, she exercises one of the very few rights that were afforded black slaves in South Africa in the early part of the 19th century--she goes to court.

What Philida has failed to understand is the dynamics of slavery and sadism, and then how that mingles with sexual brutality.  Beating women and then raping them is an ugly but much recognized pattern of behavior that is played out here.  Frans is nothing compared to his father Cornelis.  Cornelis is a small man made big by his power over his slaves and his family.  Ironically, his mother was a slave that his father raped when his wife stopped having sex with him--Cornelis is a mulatto, but that does not soften him--he is a cruel man who is sexually aroused by violence, and that is a very bad thing indeed, both for Frans and for Philida.  Slavery has left everyone dehumanized--blacks, whites, and those in between.

The strongest part of the story is the first half--after Philida is sold to a kinder gentler owner, who is not at all keen to free his slaves when the time comes, but who treats them as skilled workers.  She begins to process her life and to look beyond getting her freedom to look at what she actually wants in life.  She starts to get an education.  She also becomes more angry about what has happened to her and other slaves--seeking freedom is not a crime, in her book.  But the emotional force of this story is far less powerful.

The book is well written--a hallmark of all Booker nominees--but the end of the story kind of peters out rather than getting wrapped up.  It captures South Africa at a time and place, and gives a context for what the future holds for the Cape of Good Hope.

Monday, August 19, 2013

General Archives of the Indies, Sevilla

The Spanish realized pretty darn quickly that the New World was a monumental discovery, a real game changer for the whole planet.  At some point not too long after Cristóbal Colón made his way back to Europe the Spanish were all over getting their men there, getting some colonies established, looking for riches to bring home, and bringing some religion over to get the native people started on what they thought was the path to God.

There was much correspondence that went along with the discoveries that were made.  The king had to be updated on all that was happening.  Once the Spanish moved from discovery to conquer mode, and they had sent Cortez in, they needed to keep the kingdom informed of what they were doing, what treasures they were finding, and keeping ledgers of what was being shipped back to Spain.  It was a prodigious amount of silver and gold, which was largely mined by native slave labor under the direction of the Spanish Conquistadors.  It is said in Potosi, Bolivia that enough silver left the Bolivian mountain and went to Spain to build a bridge from Spain to Bolivia.  I don't know about that, but the river that runs between Argentina and Uroguay, where much of the silver left South America, is called the Rio Plata, or the Silver River.

Cortes was a ruthless man who committed many atrocities, but the silver he helped bring out of the New World changed the currency and balance of trade of the entire world.  Spain was in her hey day.

It is possible the Spanish didn't realize it then, but by the mid-19th century they definitely knew--so what they did was amass all of the paper trail related to the discovery and what happened thereafter in one place--which initially was in Madrid, but was later moved to this massive and imposing building in Sevilla, across from the Cathedral that is Cristóbal Colón's ultimate burial ground, and near the Real Alcazar--inother words centrally located in the ancient part of the city.  There is not a lot to see there, but it is a free building to enter, and for an American whose family has been in the New World since the 17th century, it feels relevant.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cristóbal Colón is Buried Here

I really do not get the changing of Cristóbal Colón's name to Christopher Columbus--in this day and age, should we not call the guy by his actual name, rather than trying to give him an Anglo version of his actual name?

Well, first off, the Spanish gave him a new name as well--his Italian name is Cristoforo Colombo--which is closer to what we call him than what the Spanish called him, it is true, but should we not honor him best, if we are going to honor him at all, by calling him by his real name?  Not a popular sentiment either here or in Spain.

The remains of Colombo were not always here.  The cathedral is late 19th century Gothic (apparently if they couldn't build the biggest church in Europe, they decided to build the biggest Gothic church in Europe), and the  tomb was one of the last additions to the cathedral, installed in 1899.  It was designed by the sculptor Arturo Melida, and was originally installed in Havana before being moved to Seville after Spain lost control of Cuba.

But Columbo’ body has been on the move almost as much in death as it was in life.  It began its final rest in Valladolid, Spain where he died in 1506, and was moved shortly thereafter to Seville, by orders of his surviving brother, Diego--Colombo was in a bit of disgrace at the time of his death, and was not accorded a great burial.   In 1542, the remains were again moved, this time to Colonial Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, where they were installed in the newly completed Cathedral of Santa Maria. There they remained for a couple of centuries, near the spot that made him famous, both in his time and in ours.  Then, in 1795 when Spain lost control of the Dominican Republic, they were moved again to Havana, Cuba. One hundred years later, they made their final voyage back home to Seville, seemingly for good, but who knows.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Olive Trees as Far as the Eye Can See

There are many wonderful things to be said about the landscape of southern Spain, the abundance of olive trees must absolutely be commented on, if only because they provide the most important ingredient in Andalucían cooking--the olive oil.

How good is the olive oil?  It is so good that you simply put it on everything.  I read an article by Mark Bittman last week, where he wrote about a minimalist approach to cooking in one's vacation home.  The one absolutely critical ingredient that he insists that you must bring (and which will require you checking a bag, should you be flying) is olive oil.  He insists that it can be poured over ice cream and you will not regret it (he would add flaked sea salt as well--yet another crucial ingredient that cannot be left behind). 

It is so good that it makes everything it touches taste fabulous--and the most amazing thing is that I did not at any point on my most recent trip develop a hierarchy of olive oils that I liked--I really liked them all equally and effusively.  I usually pack my luggage full of the beverage that I have enjoyed most on a vacation so that I can enjoy them once again when I get home--but this trip I packed olive oil to bring home--the sun drenched hillsides of Andalucía can be tasted in each and every drop.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sometimes There is a Void by Zakes Mda

The subtitle of this memoir is "Memoirs of an Outsider", and at the end of the day, I am not exactly sure what he is referring to.  The obvious answer might be that due to his father's political activities he grew up outside of South Africa in neighboring Lesotho.  His is a typical African family with a complicated web of inter-relationships, but despite that Mda felt like he had been abandoned by his father, or at least he was not loved enough by him.  That might be the outsider status that he refers to.

Mda does not candy coat his story--nor does he really focus on some of the things that would be helpful to have a first hand account of.  Throughout the first half of the book, while South Africa is living under apartheid, there is very little detail about the effect that had on his life--and perhaps living in exile it did not have much of an impact, but he does write about people participating in armed rebellions, brothers being killed by compatriots, things that seem like a big deal, but instead Mda focuses on his personal life and his lack of ability to be a good partner with a woman.

The memoir is messy, as one reviewer tells it.  It is really about him and not the time he lived in.  There is very little background in this memoir, and at times I felt like he was using his access to a literary vehicle to make a case that his ex-wife was entirely mean spirited and he was blameless--well, a memoir does allow you to tell your side of the story, but ideally it is a story that others want to hear, and that was not the case for me.  I think you have to read his fiction to hear his thoughts on the political landscape of Africa.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Childhood Cancer Survivorship

My childhood cancer survivor turns 19 today.  On his birthday, the anniversary of his diagnosis, and the anniversary of his completing chemotherapy, I am compelled to reflect on where we have been as a family, what we are blessed with, what we have survived, and what we face in the future.

Every year is a gift.  This past year has been eventful in the life milestones arena, with the completion of high school (every trimester on the honor roll), admission to college (the University of Iowa), and completion of a couple of college classes.  It really feels like the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.  And with each passing year we are further away from his childhood cancer and further into adulthood.

It is always a challenge to know the right mix of freedom and control that is right for a parent with their offspring, but once the child is in college, the parent has less control over behavior, and so they are left withcontrol over what they will and will not pay for.  The balance changes dramatically, and allows young adults to figure out for themselves what will be the ingredients for their success.  With a childhood cancer survivor, the situations is a little different, because there are significant health risks that are associated with getting radiation and lots of chemotherapy at a very young age.

In June JAMA published the first large study of prospectively gathered data on the health risks that childhood cancer survivors face, and it tells a very sobering tale.  At age 50, 83% of them had heart valve defects, 81% had pulmonary abnormalities, 76% of them had hormonal abnormalities, 86% had hearing loss, and 40% had a diagnosis of breast cancer.  By age 45, over 95% had a health problem directly attributable to their cancer treatment, and some, like breast cancer, were occuring at an early age.  Equally scary is the fact that the study revealed many health problems that the survivor was completely unaware of, and some had potentially treatable illnesses that were unknown to them. 

So, while I look forward to Ethan taking over his laundry and meal preparation,  I will remain in the health care equation for the time being in the hopes that my child will not be one of those who does not know.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Longmire (2012)

I was reading the seventh installment in Craig Johnson's murder mystery series, "The Serpent's Tooth", featuring Walt Longmire, when I read on the back cover that A&E had made a TV series based on the books characters and setting.  Lo and behold, you can stream it on Netflix so I had the dubious honor of reading the book and watching the movie simultaneously.

The series takes place in a county in rural Wyoming.  The author lives in the Northwest part of the state, not too far from Sheridan, just south of where Custer made a colossal error in judgement and just north of Yellowstone.  I picture the books as being set in a similar topography and the show clearly has that nailed down well.

The strengths of the series are that the characters are all well cast and strongly acted.  Longmire himself (played by Robert Taylor) is a bit leaner than you would guess from the book (where he describes himself as having trimmed down from 260 lb. to 245), but just as taciturn and easily irritated as the character he is depicting.  His under deputy, Vic Moretti (played by Katee Sackoff) is perfect--she is feisty, brave, quick to draw her gun, even quicker to use her feminine wiles to get the information that she is looking for.  You definitely want her on your side in a fight, and you would be comfortable having her watch your back--that is true in the book and it comes through in the televised show.  She is a great female cop character and Sackoff plays her perfectly.  Longmire's long time friendship with a Cherokee who lives off the reservation is with Henry Standing Bear (who is played by Lou Diamond Phillips) and is a source of information about who lives on the reservation, what is happening there, and serves as the occasional liaison between the county and the tribal police.  All of that helps to balance out what I think is the real weakness of the show, and that is that it is in too short of a format to do an excellent job with story and plot--the shows are between 40-50 minutes, when the ideal length for this sort of show would be exactly twice that.  In order to get the whole story out in 40 minutes, you have to cut a lot of corners, and not go into too much depth of character.  Hopefully they will do some 2-segment stories in the current season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Castillo de Almodovar del Rio

Castillo de Almodovar del Rio is a classic castle, built up on a hill by Pedro the Cruel (he also built the Alcazar in Sevilla), and it is imposing from all sides.  Located just half an hour outside of Cordoba, it is a very fun 1/2 day trip.  There is parking right up at the top of the hill, where you can just walk in the front gate, but I recommend parking in the lower parking lot and walking up the 800 ft. high hill, because it is a really nice manageable hike and because it allows you to take in the gorgeous landscape and scenery, all the while thinking about planning a siege on the place.  It would be rough going--you would really need a lot of equipment to successfully launch an attack and it would not be easy.
The Castillo de Almodóvar is a grandiose Caliphal fortress, first built in 720 and erected on a high mound along the Guadalquivir River. Square towers flank its towering walls and the entire castle is surrounded by a large moat. During the years of occupation it was a Moorish stronghold and after the reconquest it became the medieval home for members of the Spanish nobility. It gradually fell into disrepair and much of it was plundered for convenient building material by the people of the town but the Count of Torralba rebuilt it a hundred years ago restoring the external appearance of the original Arab fortification.  So what it lacks in original materials, it makes up for in numerous reproductions of things that are congruent with it's history.  The day that we were there, there were dozens of school children visiting the castle, participating in skits and listening to stories of days gone by.  The imposing nature of the castle, and the ability to wander up and down the multiple stairways makes it a very fun visit.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tapas in Andalucía, Spain

The tapas in Southern Spain are ubiquitous--and that is a very good thing indeed.  In Granada, when you order a drink, alcoholic or not, it comes with a little plate of food.  In other parts of Andalucia, you order the drinks and the food seperately.  The thing I like best is that you do not get too much.  If you don't care for it, leave it--there isn't much there to begin with and it is not a terrible waste.  If you love it, order another one.  If you didn't order enough at first, order more--the food comes fairly quickly.  This leaves one open to trying things that you might otherwise avoid, or would not an entire appetizer portion of.  A tapas is more of a taste than an appetizer, and in many places you can place your order as one of three sizes--tapas, 1/2 portion, or full portion.  Once you  know what you like, you can decide on how much of it you want.

Unlike other places, the drinks in Andalucía are very reasonable--even if they did not come with a tapa they would be reasonable--and the tradition of food coming with every drink encourages one to linger in a cafe.  I like the culture of sitting down, relaxing, having a little something to eat, then moving on, and starting all over again a little bit later.  The pressure to pick the right restaurant is relieved by the ability to try a dish or two, and if it doesn't suit, then going elsewhere.  The ability to try multiple things is another advantage--it was easy to get used to eating in this way, and hard to go back to having only one choice.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

My mother recommended this book to me after her book group read it.  It is impossibly sad and you should definitely not read it if you want something with an uncomplicated happy ending, because this book is all kinds of complicated.

The story is about Louisa, a young woman who has basically turned her life over to ensuring the welfare of her family.  When she loses one job, she immediately goes about finding another one in order to spare them from having to support themselvs.  Midway through the story we learn that there might have been a traumatic reason for her exiting having a life of her own and devoting her meager work life to supporting her family, but none-the-less, that is who she is throughout the book.

But it ends up being okay because that is how she meets Will.  He is a man who is quadripalegic and morose enough to have attempted suicide and his family hires her to basically keep him safe and out of harms way.  He is insufferable at first but that changes, and he manages to wiggle his way into Louisa's life in such a way that she will never ever be the same again.What they each gain and how they gain it is well told.  the two major threads are how to get over trauma, and what makes life worth living.  Very nicely done and well worth reading and thinking about. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Maimonides in Córdoba

The Jewish Quarter in Córdoba is just as you would expect--very old, with impossibly narrow streets where no car can enter, small shops, lots of tourists, and an air of genteel charm.  For a place that dates back almost to the Romans, it is in terrific shape--but do not wear thin-soled shoes to walk around--the pavement is stone, and the years have not made the streets flat and even.  Of all that I saw in this part of Córdoba (still within the UNESCO World Heritage Site),  I especially  like the temple that remains--it looks very much like the Moorish architecture of the rest of the old city, with the stylized arches and the elaborate carvings in stone.  The one thing that is remarkably different is that the letters are not in Arabic, but in Hebrew.  That was my one and only clue that As you wend your way up one such street, suddenly it opens up into a plaza, Maimonedes Plaza, and a plaque that lets one know that the great man himself was born here, in Córdoba, at a time when the city was remarkable.  That ended soon thereafter, but it is the place where the seeds of the man he was to become were sown. 

Maimonedes was born into a distinguished and scholarly family--he was lucky in that respect.  He studied with his father, who was a well known educator and thinker.  All was well until 1148 when the radical Muslims of the time, the Almohads, invaded Córdoba--after that it was convert to islam, leave, or face the consequences.  Maimonedes family left--emigrating first to Fez, in Morrocco, and then to Palestine, and ultimately to Egypt.  Along the way Maimonedes beceame a physician (like many a good Jewish boy), which worked out well for his family, because that is how he supported himself.  Maimonedes is best known, at least amongst Jews, as writing the Mishnah Torah.  It is the only medieval writing that delineates all of Jewish observance, and remains an influential work to this day.  He wrote it over a 10 year period of time, starting when he was 23 years old, and after his father had died.  It was criticized by religious leaders almost immediately--they did not think it was adequately footnoted--but it quickly became the go-to source for what to do for a host of Jewish ceremonies and celebrations.  Go to Córdoba and walk the streets that the great man himself once walked. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Intouchables (2012)

This is a feel good movie from start to finish.  It has elements of Pygmalion.  It has some rags to riches components.  It is wise and funny and while much of the plot is predictable, the performances of the two main actors is so sweet that we forgive that.  And it has a basis in a true story, and we always like to see happy endings that have some basis in reality.

Philippe (Francois Cuzet) is a millionaire who was is a quadriplegic secondary to a para-gliding accident. Driss (Omar Sy) is a man out on parole for robbery, who applies for the job of Philippe's caregiver only so he can be rejected and get a signature on his application for unemployment benefits. As Philippe interviews one boring job applicant after another, many with ample caregiving experience but very little in the way of life experience, it becomes clear that Phillppe needs not only physical help but friendship and companionship. When you cannot perform any of your activities of daily living, the person who is doing them for you is someone you not only rely on for your very existence but also the person you spend the day with.  Driss' elan and irreverence is refreshing, and Philippe astonishes him and his own household staff by offering Driss the job.

So these are two men separated by almost everything: education, culture, money, you name it.  Phillippe has retained a sense of humor and Driss has retained his sense that he knows what the good life is--and that while money matters, there is a whole lot available out there that is free.  Good music, dancing, walking outdoors, sex, a little bit of marijuana--okay all of that is not free, but it doesn't cost the earth and you don't need to live in opulence to have access to it--Phillippe is afraid to take chance and Driss can't resist them.  Phillipe offers Driss a chance at a better life, and Driss offers Phillippe a way to re-engage with the world.  Which works for both of them.  It is not a deep movie, but it is a lot of fun to watch.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Mezquita, Córdoba

Córdoba began it's quest to be the city that everyone was talking about in the 8th century, after the Moorish conquest.  Part of that quest invovled building several hundred mosques and public buildings--for the greatest mosque of all, the Mezquite, they did the time honored thing--they built it on someone else's house of worship, in this case, a Roman church. By the time of the Mezquita,  Córdoba rivaled the splendours of Constantinople, Damascus and Baghdad (the other spectacular cities of that time).

This is an incredible building, where the repetition of a theme and the enormity of the finished work convinces you that some people really believe. The hundreds of arches made of alternating red and white stone are stunning to look at, and the whole effect was dazzling for me.  I quickly lost track of my family, myself, and what I was doing, and just let the atmosphere wash over me.  In the interest of full disclosure, no one else in my family felt the least bit in awe of the place, and they were all more or less ready to go soon after we entered the place.

The construction of the Mezquita wasn't quick--it lasted for over two centuries, starting in 784 AD under the supervision of the emir of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman I. Under Abd ar-Rahman II (822-52), the Mezquita held an original copy of the Koran and an arm bone of the prophet Mohammed, making it a major Muslim pilgrimage site.  When it was finally finished, the Mezquita was the most magnificent of the more than 1,000 mosques in Cordoba. But Cordoba was subject to frequent invasion and each conquering wave added their own mark to the architecture.  A minaret here, a courtyard there--they all wanted to leave their mark on this very special place.

In 1236, Córdoba was captured from the Moors by King Ferdinand III of Castile and became Christian once again. The newcomers left the architecture Mezquita largely undisturbed - they simply consecrated it, dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, and used it as a place of Christian worship.  No muss, no fuss.  The center of Córdoba is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a thank you from the modern world to the ancient one that they left such a special place intact.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Belgian Waffles

I really had no idea what a Belgian waffle was until I was in Belgium.  Up to that point I thought of them as having been cooked in a waffle iron that had a large square pattern rather than a small square pattern.  Since I am American, I was used to that version of a waffle.  I like a sparse amount of maple syrup evenly distributed across my waffle, so while I own a Belgian waffle maker, I did not much use it.

All that changed when I tried the waffles in Brussels--they are known as Liege waffles, and they are different from the waffles that I am used to as they are leavened with yeast, and they are denser, chewier, sweeter, and richer. They were made in 18th century history by the Chef of the Prince-Bishop of Liege. Unlike the Brussels waffle, the Liege waffle was adapted from brioche bread dough. It features pearl sugar chunks which caramelize on the waffle’s exterior when it is baked. This gives them a remarkable carmelized sugar exterior that is sublime.  They are served as a dessert rather than a breakfast food, and the very best have ice cream and fruit on top.  Surprisingly, Liege waffles are the most common type of waffles available in Belgium.

Averroes in Córdoba

Averroes, as he is known in the west, or Ibn Rushd as he is known in the Middle East, was one of the foremost thinkers of the age in which he lived. Born in Córdoba in 1126, Averroes has also been called the founding father of secular thought in western Europe, and described as one of the key influences on scientific and philosophical thought during the transition from ancient to modern methods. His work, along with the works of Moses Maimonides and Aristotle, would become crucial to the great universities of Europe.

But by the time of Averroes the Muslim empire had begun to crumble, and in 1236 Córdoba was taken by the Christians. A bishop ritually cleansed the mosque, and declared it the new cathedral. The heart of Al-Andalus had been taken. Over the next 600 years, beginning with Columbus's conquering of the New World, the Christian European world would spread.  This was the world that Averreos was born into and lived.  He was able to be educated in a multicultural intellectual environment that allowed him to synthesize and fuse several schools of thought.

Averroes was a defender of Aristotelian philosophy against Ash-Ari theologians who were led by Al-Ghazali (who was considered to be the single most influential Muslim after Mohammed)--which was a very big task indeed. Averroes' philosophy was considered controversial in Muslim circles. Averroes had a greater impact on Europeans and he has been described as the "founding father of secular thought in Western Europe". The detailed commentaries on Aristotle earned Averroes the title "The Commentator" in Europe.  Latin translations of Averroes' work led the way to the popularization of Aristotle and were responsible for the development of intellectual scholarship in medieval Europe.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Barnacles--The Food That Made Me Pause

I am not what I would call a particularly adventurous eater.  I certainly pale in comparison to members of my family, and two of them were with me on my recent trip to Andalucía.

Imagine their surprise when I ordered a plate of quite expensive barnacles and this is what arrived at our table.  My son asked "Who ordered the dinosaur feet?" I tried to look innocent, but the blushing may have given me away.  I did.  Can you  believe it?

 I am very glad that I was not on closed circuit television upon their arrival because I can assure you, my jaw dropped discernably.  I went from feeling able to eat anything to wondering just exactly how one even began to attack these critters.  And it was a sizable part of our bill that day, adding a financial dimension to the problem.

It may not be obvious from looking at them, but there is not an obvious way to eat these--the bottoms, what you would see if you are looking at them in their natural habitat, are rock hard.  The 'neck' of the barnacle, which is where they get their name 'gooseneck barnacles' from, is a tough lethery texture that you are absolutely certain that you are not meant to either chew or bite into.  So, what to do?  Thanksfully we figured it out before the waiter had to come rescue us (which would have led to eternal shame for being such barnacle rookies).  You bend them right at the juncture between the top of the shell and the bottom of the neck and they literally pop open, revealing an iside that is the texture of a large clam and the flavor of the sea.  Remarkably more delicious than they look.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Córdoba, Jewel of the World

In the foreground of the photo is the Roman bridge (those Romans left a lot of architecture behind, and the Moors followed suit) crossing into the great city of Córdoba.  It was a city ahead of it's time, a place that the world has yet to really recreate in terms of a truly intellectual melting pot.

Córdoba was known as the Jewel of the (Medieval) World.  It was a multicultural hot pot of international trade, intellectual growth, and cross-cultural harmony.  Which all came to an absolute end with the Spanish Inquisition but the peaceful turnover of the city left it's architectural beauty in place.

The Romans had loved Córdoba. In 152 BC they had founded the elegant city of Corduba, and made it the capital of their Hispania Baetica. Seneca, the philosopher who went on to tutor the insane Emperor Nero, was born here, as was the poet Lucan; for the Romans, Córdoba was not some barbaric outpost, like Londinium or Tingis (modern-day Tangiers), but a centre of their civilisation, where true Romans lived and raised their families.

The significance of Córdoba in the world's history springs from two things. First, it is the place where, for a few centuries, Islam and Christianity coexisted relatively peacefully, in the years before the more brutal religious extremism of the Crusades. But second, it is where the culture of the Arabs was brought into contact with the west, where Islamic thinkers gave consideration to the works of Aristotle, where they carried the flame of these works while the rest of Europe struggled through the dark ages. Islam too has played its part in the long history of rationalism; as Richard Fletcher has put it: "Modern science begins in 13th-century Europe, based firmly on the plinth furnished by translations from Arabic and Greek."

By the 9th century, Córdoba was the largest and richest city in Europe, with a tradition of learning and discourse that overshadowed Baghdad (the city that had taken Damascus's place as heart of the Islamic empire).  It holds that place no more, but it is a wonderful city to visit today.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama

This book was written at the end of the Cold War, with the essential thesis that now, after the failure of communism, we could finally say that capitalist democracies were the very best form of government.

Fukuyama used a concept that was proposed by Marx, that eventually mankind would settle on an ideal form of government--he thought it would be communism, but he was wrong about that.  He failed to take into account what Plato first identified--that each and every man needs to feel important.  Freud called it ego and Plato called it thymos, but what it really amounts to is that we all want to be on top of a heap and to be noticed.  Fukuyama asserts that while it is impossible for each and every person to be a celebrity, that at least a democracy allows you to have a voice in the process of government, so it is the form of governance that comes the closest to satisfying the need for recognition as well as the need for stability.  The book expands on an essay of an almost identical title that is a little more succinct in reaching it's conclusion, but this is a nice summary of the thoughts of liberal thinkers since the Age of Enlightenment.  The arguments in favor of democracy in general and capitalist democracy in particular have some flaws in them, many of which Fukuyama himself points out, but on balance, I think his argument holds water--to this point in history--what the future holds, we have no clue.  Remember, there was a time when an essentially leader-less form of goverment had many constituents, despite the fact that even socialism had been shown to be unworkable up to the point where Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Getting A Job

Today is my father's birthday, and this is a topic that is near and dear to his heart--Employment.

We all want to increase tax revenue in order to buy down the deficit.  In order to pay taxes, you have to have a job.  Easier said than done.

It is just not that easy to get your first full time job.   You are almost always competing with people who have had a full time job.  When an employer is looking at prospective employees, someone who has a reference that you can talk to is valued over someone who doesn't.  A lot of jobs that do not require a college education are not necessarily looking for someone who has been to college.  Being smart is not necessarily better than someone who knows how to show up to work on time and who can follow directions.

I have been thinking about this recently--I met a remarkable woman on a plane who had come to the United States as a refugee from Burundi. 
She had a college education there, but she knew that would hold little water here.  She was prepared to work hard, and she and her sister had a lot of children to support--her son was 3 years old, and she had three young siblings who would be full time students.

She had a good attitude. She wasn't expecting a high flying job--she applied to be a maid in a local hotel. When she was interviewed she was asked a lot of questions about her previous experience as a maid, of which she had none, and she was ultimately told that she was not qualified for the job.  She told me this story 15 years after it had happened, but the shock she felt then was palpable today.  She ultimately had the experience that you would expect of a highly motivated, very bright employee--she got an entry level job at a factory, and both she and her sister quickly rose up the ladder there, first becoming shift supervisors and gradually rising from there.

She was a dream employee--except that she did not want to end her career there--but she trained many employees under her supervision about what an ideal employee was like, and as someone who has employees, that is a very good thing indeed.

It is very hard to start off at the bottom of the ladder, and all of us who have the opportunity to give someone a break should exercise it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

J.J. Cale's Legacy

When J.J. Cale died last month, we lost an important figure in our musical heritage.  He was underappreciated in life--let's hope that in his after life we give him his due.

There are quite a few  music legends whose contributions to American music were not well appreciated in their life times.  Robert Johnson comes immediately to mind.  He was an American blues singer and musician whose landmark recordings from 1936–37 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians.  Johnson came to an untimely death in 1938 at the young age of 27, so it would have been hard for his artistry to have been widely appreciated while he was alive, but he cycles in and out of popularity to this day.  Let's hope that happens here.

J.J. Cale hailed from Oklahoma, and he brought his native musical roots with him when he left.  He was one of the originators of the Tulsa Sound (which is where Cale grew up), a loose genre drawing on blues, country, rockabilly, and jazz influences.  He brought aspects of each of those genres to rock 'n roll and changed it for the better.  Any one who loves Eric Clapton's 'After Midnight', a classic Cale song, can see what he brought to the musical table.  Cale continued to play well into his later years, so we have a substantial body of his work to look back on and learn from. 

May your memory be a blessing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Albaycín, Granada

The beautiful UNESCO heritage site that is the Moorish neighborhood in Granada.  the church in the foreground is St. Nicolas, and our apartment in Granada is far up the hill from this church.  The photo to the right is of Iglesia de Nuestra Salvador, and it was taken uphill from the church, on the terrace of our apartment.  Nicolas, our landlord, explained navigation in the Albaycín quite simply.  When you are heading up hill, you need to head for this church--from there we could find our apartment easily, even though there were several ways to get there.  The streets are small, winding, and interconnected.  When heading downhill, kepp the mountains at your back.  Simple.  And it was simple, provided you were not in a car--then it was all you could do to avoid scraping the car on both sides--the walls of the Albaycín are covered with the paint of many cars.

Driving in this part of town is not recommended.  When we managed to find our apartment, my spouse refused to move the car until we were leaving town--and he was right to be nervous.  Nicolas looked at our modest sedan and asked why oh why had we gotten such a gigantic car?  In the Albaycín it felt gigantic.  The best part of the neighborhood is walking around, sitting outside, enjoying the Moorish arches and the terra cotta roofs.  Such a lovely place.