30 December 2011

2012 "Update"

Last year at this time I decided to try a new type of New Year's resolution and allow myself to choose only one word to concentrate on in 2011. The word was "Ideate" (pronounced AHY-dee-aet) which is a verb that means "to form an idea of", "to think of", "to imagine" or "to conceive of". It is synonymous with "to dream", "to envision", "to fancy", to "fantasize", "to picture", "to visualize", "to conjure up", or "to see in your mind's eye". When used in the intransitive form (without an object) and in the imperative mood (command) it means "THINK!".

As it turned out it was a good resolution and the result is that I have "conjured up" all sorts of ideas about things that I would like to do before it's time to exit this life for the next great adventure. The word that I chose to continue this train of thought for the coming year is "Update" which is, of course, a verb that means to make something that was suitable for times gone by more suitable to the present and the future by adapting it to recent ideas. It is synonymous with "improve", "correct", "renew", "revise", "upgrade", "amend", "overhaul", "streamline", "modernize", "re-brand" and "contemporize". The first known use of the word goes back to 1941 but since it is such a forward looking word its age doesn't matter. Neither does mine. Last year I was thinking of retiring this year at sixty-four but then I checked  a number of  actuarial tables and they all seemed to agree that in the absence of divine intervention it is highly likely that I will live as long as seventy-nine years. Heck, there is still plenty of time to accomplish something positive so I think I will keep on working and not retire until I see the moving finger write upon the wall. They say that Mr.Death can walk no faster than three miles per hour. As long as you can still walk faster than that you'll be okay. Just don't look back!

The main thing that I realized this past year is that the pace of change is accelerating at such a high rate that five years from now the world as we know it will be turned upside down. With all the longing for the good old days there is no return to a way of life whose time has come and gone. I think that this fact is awfully hard for "Baby Boomers" to swallow. The more that I learn about history, the more I realize that the decline in the way of life that we were accustomed to is irreversible, especially in the short term. The past is still alive only through pretending, and I am talking about a past as recent as ten or fifteen years ago. People of the 1990's spoke a different language from a different age and we can wander through the melancholy of those ruins caught up in the longing of nostalgia, well watered by our tears, or we can get on with it. That is what my theme word "update" is all about. By the way, in Spanish the word is "actualizar".

If anyone is interested, the following is a partial list of the books that I read this past year that collectively raised my focus and my aspirations to a higher plane. I highly recommend all of them and they are all available for Amazon Kindle. I am excited about what the next few years may bring to those who prepare themselves and I invite you to join me in that regard.

by   Pamuk, Orhan  

Jerusalem: The Biography 
by  Montefiore, Simon Sebag

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable 
by  Taleb, Nassim Nicholas

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood  
by  Gleick, James

Secrets of Mental Math  
by  Shermer, Michael, and Benjamin, Arthur

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk  
by  Bernstein, Peter L.
You Are Not So Smart  
by  McRaney, David

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern  

by  Greenblatt, Stephen

On the Nature of Things  

by  Lucretius
The Calculus Direct    
by Weiss, John

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer

by Kurlansky, Mark

Salt: A World History  

by  Kurlansky, Mark

Like my dear departed mother used to say, 

"Onward ever, backward NEVER!".



28 December 2011

A Christmas Fish Story

A few days before Christmas my wife Gina and her sister Cheli (Araceli) went shopping for the ingredients to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal. They bought a smoked turkey (pavo ahumado), beef loin (lomo de res) and the ingredients for things like spaghetti with cream sauce and a dish called "romeritos" which consists of dried shrimp, sprigs of a wild plant known as "Romerito" (Seepweed in English), and potatoes all served in mole sauce. Cheli insisted that they also buy some salt codfish which they call "bacalao" because Nochebuena wouldn't be Nochebuena without bacalao.

The only problem with bacalao is that it takes a long time to prepare because you have to remove the salt that was used to preserve it. If you have ever been to a Christmas Eve supper where the guests took a bite of bacalao and then reached for something to drink you know that the bacalao was still salty. This dish goes back five hundred years or more to a time when the Basque fishermen had already discovered the cod-rich Grand Banks off of Newfoundland even before Columbus supposedly "discovered" America. Thus the dried and salted Atlantic Cod became a staple of  Portuguese and Spanish cuisine and an important trade item. The  Portuguese called the salted cod fish "bacalhau" and we know it in Mexico as "bacalao" which is also what it is called in Spain. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier "discovered" the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1534 while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient, he noted the presence of a thousand Basque boats fishing for cod. The Basques congregated at a place called Port aux Basques at the extreme southwestern tip Newfoundland. To this day both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Trans-Canada Trail have their start and end points in Port aux Basques.

As things turned out the task of removing the salt from the bacalao fell to me. To do it right you need to keep the bacalao in water in a cool place and change the water every three or four hours for a couple of days as the salt migrates to the surface. It is a bit like caring for a baby. One night I got thirsty just thinking about salt cod and I got out of bed to go to the kitchen for a drink of water. Gina woke up and asked me where I was going and I said, "I'm going to change the bacalao. I heard it crying". By the time Christmas Eve rolled around the bacalao was salt free but there was another problem. We were running out of time. Gina called Cheli and told her that if she wanted to eat bacalao she would have to cook it. Cheli was frantic because she was running out of time also but her husband Luis volunteered to cook the poor bacalao and so he sent their daughter Luis over to fetch it. All's well that ends well however, and the bacalao turned out to be delicious.

When people commented on how good the bacalao tasted both Luis and I claimed credit but Gina said "Este bacalao es como una misa de tres padres" or "This bacalao is like a mass with three priests" meaning that many people had a hand in the success of the bacalao. In the Catholic Church, especially in the old days, a solemn high mass required three priests and a bunch of altar boys and a choir and so this must have been a solemn high cod fish and THAT is my picturesque and colloquial phrase of the day.

27 December 2011

Picturesque Speech

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, the bathroom was where I learned to write because the bathroom is where my father kept his latest copy of Reader's Digest Magazine. While I was sitting there and "concentrating" I would simultaneously peruse Reader's Digest and my favorite section was called "Towards More Picturesque Speech". I just love poetic and colloquial expressions and the turn of a good phrase. I would pick out the best examples and try to emulate them in my speech and writing. No doubt as a twelve year old I sounded a bit strange saying things at the dinner table like "Hey Pops, Spring is coming around the bend like a speed skater rounding the turn on smooth ice". My father would sometime pause with fork in mid-air and glance at me quizzically as if suddenly startled. Nevertheless I never got over my fondness for words.

Now that I live in Mexico I have the double pleasure of savoring the intricacies of language in another tongue. I am never fully dressed without a pen and some three by five cards in my pocket and my ear is always cocked to hear something new. Hardly a day goes by without an interesting scribble or two. I thought I might share a recent example with my fellow students of Spanish.

My mother-in-law, Carmelita, is the Director of a state sanctioned preschool and kindergarten. Just before Christmas she was holding a "kermes" at the "kinder". For those of you that might not know, a kermes is a type of fair held by churches and schools to raise funds. The word "kermess" in English originally derived from the Middle Dutch word "kercmisse", a combination of the words "kerc" (meaning church) and "misse" (meaning mass) and the word was adopted by the English, French, and others and it denoted the mass that was celebrated annually in honor of the local patron saint. The Spanish spelling "kermes" uses only one letter "s".

While Carmelita was preparing for the kermes her good friend Angeles stopped by to give her a hand with the "tómbola". This is another interesting word. It comes from the Italian word "tombolare" meaning "to tumble". In several countries a "tombola" is a raffle where the winning ticket is chosen from a rotating drum that is "tumbled" by means of a hand crank. In Italy, the Italian version of Bingo is called "Tombola". Here in Central Mexico a "tómbola" or "tómbola de beneficiencia" is a charitable raffle in which you win a prize if the ticket you have bought is chosen and the number on it matches the number on the prize. There is generally some kind of a prize for every ticket so nobody leaves unhappy and often people swap their prizes. When the tómbola was almost ready Carmelita said to Angeles,

Estoy in punto de abrir la puerta y hacer la cruz. Elige usted el primero premio.
I am just about to open the door a make the cross. You choose the first prize.

In actuality Carmelita rewarded her friend for helping her by letting her have one of the prizes. Angeles chose a Pyrex casserole dish and was very content. The interesting phase in this instance is "hacer la cruz". If you have ever gone to the market in Mexico early in the morning and happened to be the first customer you may have noticed that when you gave the little old lady your money she kissed the crossed thumb and finger of the hand that held the money. She was thanking God for the first sale of the day. Carmelita used the phrase "hacer la cruz" in a colloquial manner to mean that she was about to sell the first ticket.

"Hacer la cruz" should not be confused with the regular words for "making the sign of the cross" which are "persignarse" and "santiguarse". "Persignarse" is to cross oneself with small crosses on the forehead, lips, and chest and "Santiguarse" is to make a full head and torso sign of the cross. Santiguarse means to bless yourself. Persignarse means to sign yourself. I go into this in detail in my blog post: Persignarse versus Santiguarse

There is another use for "hacer la cruz", by the way, that you have to watch out for. It means to cross someone off your list or to dump someone and in this case the cruz that is referred to is the "X" that you make over their name. And now here's a bonus for you if you have followed me thus far. Sometimes when people are bantering words instead of saying "igualmente" meaning "you too" or "the same to you" to be playful they will say "iguanas y ranas" or "iguanas-ranas" which means "iguanas and frogs" as a kind of play on words. Yesterday my doctor said to me "Iguanas-ranas dijo el sapo" meaning "Iguanas and frogs said the toad". Try it out. You will make someone smile.

20 December 2011

A Blue Christmas

The colors that most people readily associate with Christmas are red and green. For a certain percentage of the population these days (including yours truly) the color blue seems more appropriate as in "I'm feeling blue". I have heard it said by some that the feeling is triggered by the diminished hours of sunlight during the Winter Solstice but perhaps it also has to do with disappointment coming from the unfulfilled expectations of prior Christmases. I don't know for sure except that thanks to a new word that I learned I have a better way of expressing the feeling.

I am reading a book by a famous Turkish author named Orhan Pamuk who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. The book is called "Istanbul: Memories and the City ". The author talks about the Turkish word "hüzün" that is pronounced "hoo-JOON" with the letter "J" sounding a bit like the "su" in the word "sure". It is generally translated into English as meaning "melancholy" or "longing" or "nostalgia". The meaning of "hüzün" is related to the description of the "black bile" or "black passion" of the ancient Greeks and can be caused by any number of things.

According to Orhan Pamuk "hüzün" is a special melancholy that binds the Istanbul Turkish community together in a collective feeling of nostalgia for the glory days of the past and the anguish over the increasing decay of the present state of affairs but nevertheless with a hopeful outlook for the future. The word "hüzün" originated in Arabic as a longing for God and it denotes a spiritual loss or separation. It is not the feeling of a single individual but rather it is the common emotion of millions of individuals who are suffering the same dark mood.

I think that we may be hearing more about this word "hüzün" in the coming year as the tensions mount over the presidential elections both in the United States and in Mexico. In both countries there seems to be a growing gulf between the the people with sufficient means to live comfortably and enjoy life and those who struggle for their daily bread or as they say here "el pan de cada día". I don't know where one would draw the line between the two. I have read recently that the average family in the United States needs an income of at least seventy-five thousand dollars per year to meet the criteria of "living comfortably". In Mexico it is no doubt somewhat below that amount but not by as much as you might think. Then there are the modestly rich and I say more power to them. It is their energy, intelligence, and vision that makes a good economy possible. They are no doubt the role model that many people aspire to emulate. I have no quarrel with that. In these uncertain times I think that all three groups can share the feeling of "hüzün".

There is one more group of people who I don't believe can even understand the melancholy of the other three. The word that I choose to describe them is "hubris". This word means "extreme haughtiness, pride, or arrogance indicative of a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities and a complete lack of humility". It seems to me that when banks, corporations, and other institutions are labeled "too big to fail" they are tempting fate to the extent that their demise is inevitable and that they may have already begun their descent. Like the Titanic of one hundred years ago, all it will take is one big chunk of floating ice to bring them down. Being an optimist at heart I must have faith that they will not drag us all down with them like third class passengers in steerage. Thank God we have the Congress to save us, eh?

26 November 2011

Eye for an Eye

The other day my wife Gina went to visit a relative who has recently given birth to a baby girl and when she returned from the visit Gina exclaimed with incredulity "Ellos ya le pusieron un ojo de venado en su muñeca!" or "They already put a deer's eye on her wrist!". I was just as surprised as she was because the people involved are fairly middle class and well educated but apparently old superstitions and traditions die hard. The "ojo de venado" is an amulet made from the seed of a flowering vine and this seed is large and dark and about the size and shape of the eye of a deer. It's purpose is to ward off the "mal de ojo" or "evil eye" which is also called "el alojamiento". The word "alojamiento" means "habitation" or "lodging" as used in conjunction with the word "hotel" but in this particular case it means "something lodged in the eye".

The "evil eye" concept goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and most of the time it refers to envy. It is mentioned several times in the Bible in both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, in Proverbs verse 23:6 (KJV) it says "Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye" and in Mark 7:22 (KJV) it lists as sins "Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness". The "evil eye" is also mentioned in the Holy Qur'an and is something that the Prophet Muhammad himself was very well acquainted with. Verse 51 of the Sūrat (Chapter) al-Qalam (The Pen) which is the 68th sura of the Qur'an says "Those who disbelieve would almost trip thee up with their eyes.” The Angel Gabriel read an incantation upon the Prophet to protect him from the evil eye.

In Mexico, "el mal de ojo" occurs when someone who is weak, or an infant or a child, is stared at by a person with a piercing glance especially if the stare is a result of jealousy or envy. The stare is said to make the affected person's spirit sick. The symptoms of "mal de ojo" include headaches, high fever, fretfulness, and in the case of children, stomach ache, weeping, and a refusal to eat or sleep. This infirmity is often referred to as "el aliacán". The standard cure for "el aliacán" is the "limpia de huevo" or "egg cleaning". Someone, usually a grandmother, will take an egg (preferably from a black feathered chicken if available) and pass the unbroken egg all over the body of the child while reciting either the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed (whichever one is the local custom). Depending upon the specific situation sometimes they will use a bundle of an herb called "epazote" (Dysphania ambrosioides) instead of an egg. Afterward passing the egg over the body they crack open the egg and put it in a glass jar and set it under the bed (same with the epazote) and in the morning the egg will have become darker and one should be able to see one or more bubble-like "ojos" or "eyes". The epazote has no visible changes. The mother or grandmother then takes the egg (or the epazote) away from the house and throws it in a ditch over her shoulder and returns to the house being careful not to look back lest the "mal de ojo" return.

The "ojo de venado" is supposed to be an "apotropaic" (in English) which means "something to ward off evil". In Spanish it is called an "apotropaico". The charm is made from the dark brownish black seed of a plant whose botanical name is "Mucuna pruriens". In English it is generally called Velvet Bean or Cowhage. The beans grow in pods that have a covering of fine hair-like needles that are very irritating to the skin. Mucuna pruriens often grows near rivers or streams and when the pods pop open the seeds fall into the water and distribute themselves by floating downstream. They end up in the ocean and regularly wash up on beaches, where they are known as "sea beans" and collected as lucky pieces. They are round and flat and about the size of a U.S. quarter. The complete charm consists of the seed with a ribbon or yarn attached with which it is fastened to the body. Often there will also be a holy picture or religious symbol on the bean.

I can't say that I have ever felt the effects of an evil eye but I may have experienced something similar when I failed to put my dirty dishes in the sink or I tracked mud into the house. In those cases perhaps an "ojo de venado" might have helped help but I doubt it. About the only remedy that I have found effective for things like that is to apologize profusely and to beg forgiveness.

24 November 2011


When I was a kid the pilgrims and the good ship Mayflower and the turkey were all symbols of Thanksgiving but I remember that the main symbol was a "Cornucopia" or "Horn of Plenty". In Spanish it is called a "Cuerno de la Abundancia". There are various legends about its origin but the main theme seems to center around Greek mythology. When the god Zeus was a baby he had to be protected from his father, Kronus, who had deposed his own father Uranus and feared being deposed in turn by his own son Zeus even though Zeus was still a baby. Kronus's sister Rhea hid the baby Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete. He was cared for by a number of divine attendants, including the goddess of nourishment, Amalthea, who had the form of a goat and who fed baby Zeus with her milk. The baby Zeus was very strong and while playing with Amalthea he accidentally broke off one of her horns, which then had the divine power to provide unending nourishment, as Amalthea had provided to baby Zeus.

I find the counucopia appealing because I am "cornucopian" who believes that in addition to the continued progress and discoveries of mankind there is enough matter and energy on the Earth (by the grace of God) to provide for the Earth's population well into the future.

In the meantime I think it is fitting to pause and give thanks on this day just for being alive and for being part of this great puzzle. To those of you who can afford to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as those who find themselves in less than a thankful mood or in a difficult circumstance or environment, I salute you all in spirit and the hope for a brighter future for all of us.


20 November 2011

John Buridan's Committee

There is an old philosophical story named after John Buridan who was a French priest and philosopher in the 14th century that somewhat describes the present situation of the budget "Super Committee" in Washington, D.C. The name of the story is "John Buridan's Donkey". It is actually a satire on John Buridan's philosophy of moral determinism which stated that God always encourages virtue and punishes evil and therefore man can determine his reward and punishment through his deeds. John Buridan's critics argued that the rewards and punishments are mainly the result of random events because without random events there can be no truly free will. Their position was that there is no intervention by God since He is not interested in limiting free will through rewards and punishments that would set limits on the free will of man in making choices.

Buridan claimed that man can exercise his free will by delaying his courses of action regarding good versus evil and thinking about the morality of his actions beforehand and that a moral person who is faced with alternative courses of action by the very definition of a "moral person" must always choose the greater good and for this reason be rewarded for his choice through the satisfaction of having done the right thing as well as other potential rewards both spiritual and temporal as judged appropriate by God.

His critics seized upon his exercise in free will through delay and moral reasoning by using the story of the donkey which they named after him. There are some minor variations in the story but the gist of it is that there is a donkey and on one side of him there is a bushel of oats and on the other side there is a bushel of rye. The donkey is very hungry but since the oats and the rye are equidistant from where he is standing and the donkey not possessing much by way of the power of reasoning, the subsequent long delay in choosing which one to eat results in the donkey's untimely death by starvation.

This problem of Buridan's donkey stated in terms of mathematics goes "A discrete decision based upon an input having a continuous range of values cannot be made within a bounded length of time", that is to say, that given this particular problem there can be no time limit in making the choice and this doesn't bode well for the unfortunate donkey since the choice can be made at any time approaching infinity. In digital electronics the problem is called "metastability" or "unstable equilibrium" which involves the amount of time of a system can remain stable. In metastable states, the circuit may be unable to settle into a stable "0" or "1" logic level within the time required for proper circuit operation. As a result, the circuit can act in unpredictable ways, and may lead to a system failure.

Hmmm, "inability to make a logical moral decision before the time runs out and serious consequences such as a system failure as a result". If that doesn't sound like the "Super Committee" problem then I don't know what does. I just hope that they make a decision for the "greater good" before the final gavel sounds or else we may have to relieve John Buridan of the donkey and rename it something else... like "John Boehner's Ass".

25 September 2011

Good News from Googley

Here in Mexico many people still pronounce the word "Google" like they would if it was a Spanish word and it sounds something like "GOOG-leh" or "GOOG-lay". No matter how you pronounce it though, the people from Google continue to amaze me. I was having trouble with my Firefox web browser and I had heard that the Google browser named "Chrome" is much more stable and even faster. I downloaded Google Chrome browser and installed it with no problem and found that it is similar to Firefox and that I could even import my Firefox bookmarks very easily. Not only that but there are plug-ins and add-ons available just like with Firefox.

"So what?" you might ask. Well, I'll tell you. I noticed that in the Google search engine in the Chrome browser there is a little microphone icon. If you hook up a microphone to your computer or if you already have one you can click on the microphone icon and then speak into your microphone and enunciate whatever you are looking for. In a flash it will provide the links just as if you had typed in the search parameter with your fingers. It works so well that it is scary. I played around with it and you can even use it as a calculator. For example, to convert 72 degrees Fahrenheit into degrees Centigrade all you have to do is click on the microphone and say "72 F in C" and it will return 22.2222222 Degrees Centigrade. Suppose that you want to know how many kilometers there are in 5.4 miles. Just "click" and say "5.4 miles in kilometers" and it will automatically return "5.4 miles = 8.6904576 kilometers". There is a whole host of mathematical functions that it will perform in response to your voice commands.

Now, here is something for students of Spanish. If you go to "Google Translate" in the Chrome browser you can speak the English sentence that you want to have translated into Spanish and it will return the Spanish translation. For example, if you click on the icon and say "I am going to the store" it will immediately return "Voy a la tienda" and then if you want to hear it in Spanish you just click on the little speaker icon and a pleasant voice will repeat the phrase so that you can hear how the words are pronounced.

While I was at my local Walmart stocking up on supplies from China I found a stand-alone microphone that is used for conference calls for 54 pesos or about $3.87 U.S. I just plugged it into the computer and it sits on the desk and it will pick up a voice from anywhere in the immediate vicinity without having to speak into it directly. Now I just tell Google what I need and it is delivered to me as if I were a king. Hey! I am a king! So then why doesn't somebody king me?

23 September 2011

A failure to communicate

In the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” there is an unforgettable line that was used twice, once by the prison captain (played by Strother Martin), and once by Cool Hand Luke (played by Paul Newman). The line is:

What we got here is a failure to communicate!

Based upon some reading that I have been doing lately I discovered that I may have a failure in communication with myself…not my present self, but my future self. The theory goes that your present persona is not exactly the same as your future persona and may not be operating under the same set of circumstances. The emotional state, physical state, and environmental conditions surrounding your present self may be completely different from that of your future self. So how is it possible that our present self can communicate successfully with our future self?

I remember that when I was a little boy we actually did communicate successfully with our future selves through the U.S. mail, albeit that it was only one-way. Each spring at the end of the school year the Dominican nuns who taught at our school would require that we bring two unused “penny” postcards to school. In those days it only cost three cents to mail a letter and one cent to mail a postcard. The plain prepaid postcards were a manila color and they already had a one cent postage stamp printed on them. We would address these postcards to ourselves and on one of them we would remind ourselves to go to mass on the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th because it is a Catholic holy day of obligation…one of those days which the Church tells us we must celebrate in order to meet the minimum level of commitment to the Catholic faith. The Second postcard was to remind us of the date when school started up again after summer vacation. The nuns would mail the postcards a couple of days ahead of the target date and we would in this way notify our future selves of the event. A typical postcard from my present self to my future self would go something like this:

Dear Bobby,

Don’t forget that August 15th is the Feast of the assumption and you m
ust go to mass because it is a holy day of obligation. I hope that you are having a wonderful summer vacation.

Your friend,


Of course we forgot all about these postcards during the course of summer vacation and when they arrived in the mail it was a nice surprise. I always felt a little sad, however, that I couldn’t write back to my friend because he (me) was no longer there.

My solution to this inability to communicate effectively with my former self is to form a committee of present and former selves to impress upon my future self the course that we have collectively charted. Many of the decisions that we make regarding plans for our future are impulsive if not compulsive and are based upon the emotion, circumstance, or environment of the present. I guess that’s why some people say that you should “sleep on it” before you commit to a definite decision about anything.

I am going to try an experiment. Whenever I decide to make a commitment to do something I will start a log and record my present thoughts and feelings about the subject. Then I will wait a day or two and revisit the subject and note whether or not my new “present thoughts” coincide with my original “present thoughts” and make whatever adjustments necessary. After a few more of these exercises if I still believe that the commitment is worthwhile and desirable then my present self along with my committee of former selves will agree to commence. Every week or so thereafter I will call a meeting and review the log to see if the present results agree with former expectations and if not, an adjustment will be made. If at some point the thoughts of the present and former selves seem to indicate that the pursuit should be abandoned, the review process will continue for another week or so to see if the “committee” is still in agreement. In this way my future self cannot complain that the original commitment was not his but was something imposed upon him by my former self because in actuality he was with me every step of the way and hopefully…we will have no failure to communicate.

21 September 2011

Hoe to the end of the row!

In my job I am training an assistant who will take my place when I eventually retire. He is a very bright young engineer from the state of Veracruz. He is 25 years old and his name is Arturo. Among other things that I am teaching him I am helping him to improve his English. I made a pact with him that everyday I will teach him something but every day he must also teach me something. It is turning out to be a nice little game from which we both benefit. Today I made a comment in English about the necessity to complete projects to the last detail and I said that we must always "hoe to the end of the row". Then I needed to explain in Spanish what I meant by "hoe to the end of the row". There was only one problem. I couldn't remember the word for "hoe" in Spanish so I drew a picture of a hoe and Arturo said "Ahhh, un azadón". So once we established that the word for hoe is "azadón" (ah-zah-DOHN), I could get on with the explanation.

Naturally when talking about the hoe the subject of hoeing weeds came and that lead to a very interesting conversation. Arturo told me that labor for hoeing isn't paid for by the hour but by the "tarea". The equivalent English word for the Spanish "tarea" is generally "task" or "chore" and in the case of school children it means "homework". However when it is used in reference to farm labor it is a unit of measure used to denote area. Arturo told me that where he is from there are twenty tareas in one hectare and a hectare is a metric unit that is equal to about two and a half acres. He said that a man can hoe about four tareas in a normal day and five tareas if he works from sunup until early evening. That sounds just about right because I found some information from the University of California that states the average time to hoe an acre of a crop such as broccoli is twenty-two hours and four tareas is equal to about a half an acre so you can see that hoeing a half acre is a full day's work.

"Well", you might ask, What does all this hoeing pay?" The answer is like most othe things, "That depends". It is a negotiated price that depends on the type of crop, the availability of labor, the time of year, and other variables. Arturo did give me the current rate for cutting sugar cane and from that we might be able to make a good guess. He said that sugar cane harvesting is paid by the square meter but there are two rates. If the underbrush is burned off with a controlled fire before harvesting then the labor paid is forty centavos per square meter. If the underbrush isn't burned off first then the job pays a higher rate of fifty centavos per square meter. If we relate that to "tareas" we can calculate that since there are ten thousand square meters in a hectare and twenty tareas in a hectare then one tarea will equal five hundred square meters which at forty centavos per meter would yield twenty pesos per tarea and at fifty centavos would yield twenty-five pesos per tarea. There are about twelve two to three meter stalks stalks in each square meter and harvest entails cutting the stalks and removing the tops and leaves. If a man can cut four tareas of sugar cane in a day at the fifty centavo rate then he can make one hundred Mexican pesos or about seven dollars or so at the current exchange rate. That isn't much for a full day's work in the hot sun so please say a little prayer for the sugar cane workers the next time you sweeten up your cup of coffee.

Now, about hoeing to the end of the row, I hope that you enjoy this poem by Douglas Malloch published around 1926. The name of the poem is "Bill Brown".

Bill Brown

Bill Brown made a million, Bill Brown, think of that!
A boy, you remember, as poor as a rat.
Who hoed for the neighbors, did jobs by the day,
Well Bill's made a million, or near it, they say.
You can't understand it, well, neither could I.
But then I remembered, and now I know why.
The bell might be ringin', the dinner horn blow,
But Bill always hoed to the end of the row.

Bill worked for my father, you maybe recall.
He wasn't a wonder, not that, not at all.
He couldn't out-hoe me, nor cover more ground,
Or hoe any cleaner, or beat me around.
In fact I was better one way that I knew:
One toot from the kitchen, and home I would go,
But Bill always hoed to the end of the row.

We used to get hongry out there in the corn,
You talk about music, what equals a horn?
A horn yellin' dinner, tomatoes and beans,
And pork and potatoes, and gravy and greens.
I ain't blamin' no one, for quittin' on time,
To stop with the whistle, that ain't any crime.
But as for the million, well, this much I know:
That Bill always hoed to the end of the row!

13 September 2011

Well Hellooooo Dali

I read in the news where the Dali Lama recently visited Mexico and commented that contrary to what he expected from reading in the press he found Mexico to be a peaceful country with many friendly people. He went on to say that if he had just relied upon what he heard on the BBC and other news outlets he would have believed that Mexico was a violent country under constant attack with rampant bloodshed everywhere. However, one reporter pointed out that it is the duty of the media to report any kind of violence and to do anything less would be disingenuous. The reporter said that less reporting on violence in Mexico won't make it go away and that there is a phrase in Spanish that calls it “using your finger to block out the sun”.

For the benefit of my fellow students of Spanish who may not know the phrase, it is:

No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo.
The sun can't be covered with one finger.

In general it means that you can't correct a big problem with a small solution or in other words you can't minimize a serious situation by pretending that it doesn't exist.

Speaking of coverups...one of my favorite quotes that is attributed to Abraham Lincoln goes, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time". That would be a good one to use on the current crop of politicians in Washington D.C., or as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto said after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." I hope so. I hope that all the bickering in congress has awoken the giant to the extent that the American people get directly involved. I think it is high time for everyone to put aside their vain and petty differences long enough get behind President Obama and get the United States moving forward again. The rest of the world will follow.

11 September 2011

Thank you for calling...

The other day I encountered an intriguing video item from the AT&T Archives on the AT&T Tech Channel called "Now You Can Dial" about the change from operator assisted calling to the adoption of the dial telephone. The change took place around 1954 as a result of the development of the transistor in 1948 which made automatic switching systems possible. I remember the change very well. In those days we still received twice a day mail delivery that was very reliable so the telephone wasn't as important as it is today and was only used sparingly. I remember that we used "exchange names" in front of the phone numbers at that time. I still remember our phone number from when I was a little boy. It was "Capitol 7-3577". When we changed over to the dial phone it became "CA-7-3577". When my grandparents moved out to the newly created suburbs their new number had no letters. It was "299-2865". At the time we thought that was very strange and it took some time to get used to it. One thing that I am curious about. After they switched all the letters in the phone numbers over to letters why did they retain the letters? Do you suppose that the telephone company could foresee that one day we would be texting and using Twitter?

You should be able to view the video below. If not you can go directly to the AT&T page by clicking here.

09 September 2011

I think therefore I "Khan"

I have been very lax lately about updating my blog but not because I am lazy. I am busy learning new things. One of the things that I have been learning is the math involved in statistical analysis and probability distributions. That is something that I have always been interested in and I felt that if I didn't buckle down and learn it now then I never would. In searching for suitable study material I stumbled upon something called the "Khan Academy". It is a non-profit organization founded by a man named Salman Khan. He started out by making some You Tube videos to help his cousins with their homework and this activity blossomed into a full time teaching career using You Tube videos. The Kahn Academy now has over 2400 videos on a variety of subjects from math to biology, to civics, to chemistry, and many more. The current course that I am taking is covered by seventy videos that average about ten to twelve minutes each in length.

The thing about the Khan academy videos is that the teaching is great, the subject matter is very current, and you can learn at your own pace. You can also pause the videos whenever you want so that you can take notes and you can reverse them to repeat certain sections or you can replay them as many times as you wish to make sure that you understand. The nicest thing is that there is no charge for this. I love the format and I think this may say a lot about the future of teaching and learning. There is an overview of the Khan Academy in the form of a "TED" talk that you can access by clicking here. The home page of the Khan Academy can be accessed by clicking here. I am living proof that you "Khan" make an old dog learn new tricks and I urge you to check it out. In the meantime good luck and good learning. I'll see you at the top.

20 August 2011

A Blitz for Blitzer

Every day when I get home from work I flip on the boob tube to catch the latest world disaster while I peruse our daily newspaper to learn about whatever local crisis we may be having. I noticed that Wolf Blitzer of CNN always signs off on "The Situation Room" with something like "For our North American viewers John King will follow and for our international viewers we switch you now tho CNN International in Hong Kong" and then in Mexico we are switched to CNN World Report in Hong Kong. He continuously leaves Mexico out of North America. I am taken aback at this so I checked out what geographers consider to be the limits of North America. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by South America, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. North America does not end at the Panama Canal either. The continent is delimited on the southeast by most geographers at the Darién watershed along the Colombia-Panama border which means that all of Panama is within North America.

Why would a supposedly credible newsman make such an erroneous distinction? I decided to write to him and suggest that he might be mistaken. I went to the Wolf Blitzer contact page which can be accessed at http://www.cnn.com/feedback/forms/form4.html?2 and lo and behold I found that the "contact us" page also divides the U.S. and Canada from the rest of the world. If you are writing from the U.S. or Canada there is a drop down box where you can click on your state or province. All other countries a lumped together in one long list. I found Mexico between a country called "Mayotte" that I never heard of and "Micronesia". It turns out that "Mayotte" is a tiny island belonging to France located in the northern Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. There is also a box to check to tell Wolf whether your comment is positive or negative. Hmmm, which category do you think he reads? You can also e-mail him directly at wolf@cnn.com or Twitter him at @wolfblitzercnn. Either way however, I don't think he will include Mexico within North America without enough people pointing out his error and questioning whether it is a deliberate slight or just a gap in his understanding of what constitutes North America. Hasn't he ever heard of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that includes Mexico, Canada, and the United States?

Sometimes I wonder about these news guys and their hidden agendas. Let's put the "blitz" on Blitzer and restore Mexico to her rightful place on the globe.

¡¡¡ Viva México !!!
¡¡¡ Viva America!!!
¡¡¡ Viva Canada !!!

¡¡¡ Viva North America !!!


18 August 2011

Oh yummy!

It's time for a bit of slang today. In Mexican Spanish there are certain phrases called "modismos"(moh-DEEZ-mohs) that cannot be translated literally and you need to learn what a phrase means in total context and not just word for word. One example would be the phrase "echar de menos". The verb "echar" literally means "to throw" as in "to throw out" and "de menos" means "less" or "wanting" or "missing". Taken as an entire phrase or "modismo" the phrase "echar de menos" means "to miss someone".

Te voy a echar de menos.
I am going to miss you.

Te echaré de menos.
I will miss you.

Another interesting phase is "dormir a pierna suelta". Taken apart word for word, "dormir" is "to sleep", "pierna" means "leg", and suelta means "loose". Often "dormir a pierna suelta" is translated as "to sleep like a log" but that is not entirely correct because to "to sleep like a log" would be "dormir como un tronco". A better translation would be "to sleep soundly" because "dormir a pierna suelta" give the impression of sleeping very well with arms and legs extended all over as opposed to sleeping fretfully rolled up in a tight ball.

Esa noche dormí a pierna suelta y no oí nada.
That night I slept very soundly and I didn't hear anything.

Anoche dormí a pierna suelta y no me enteré de nada.
Last night I slept very soundly and I wasn't aware of anything.

So...as long as we are talking about sleeping, how would you say that you couldn't sleep? You could just say:

No pude dormir anoche.
I couldn't sleep last night.

Or...if you wanted to use a phrase similar to the English phrase "I couldn't sleep a wink" you could use the modismo "pegar las pestañas" meanig "to glue eyelashes shut".

No pude pegar las pestañas en toda la noche.
I couldn´t sleep a wink all night.

On the other hand...if you were "burning the midnight oil" you would use the modismo "quemarse las pestañas" or "burning the eyelashes" as in:

Anoche me estuve quemando las pestañas estudiando español.
Last night I burned the midnight oil studying Spanish.

But...what would you say if you want to take a nap? You could simply say "Voy a dormir una siesta" meaning "I amgoing to take a nap". Or...you could dress it up a bit with a modismo as in:

Voy a echar una pestañada.
I'm going to take a little nap. (I am going to shut my eyelashes for a bit.)

Voy a echar un coyotito.
I am going to take a quick little nap. (Note: "coyotito comes from the word "coyote" because coyotes are nocturnal animals that sleep only a few minutes at a time during the day.)

Voy a echar una jetita.
I am going to take a snooze. (Note: "jetita" comes from the word "jeta" meaning "mug face" or "slack face", or in other words the face of someone who is sleeping deeply.)

If you wake up a little crabby and woozy, and swollen faced from your nap you can say:

Me quedé bien jetón.
I am still half asleep and woozy.

Here is another modismo on a different subject. In English, when we have to walk somewhere, we say we went by "shank's mare" or "shank's pony" or we had to "hoof it". In Spanish they use the woud "pata" which means "hoof" or "paw" as in "andar a pata".

Voy a andar a pata.
I am going to walk. (I am going to hoof it.)

No tengo ni coche, ni moto, ni bicicleta, ni dinero para tomar un camión así que tengo que andar a pata a todos lados.
I have neither car, nor motorcycle, nor bicycle, nor money to take a bus so I have to hoof it everywhere.

That's about it for today except for a reminder that if you want to be hip you have to keep up with new phrases in Spanish just like you do in English. The latest modismo that I learned is "ñami ñami" (NYAH-mee NYA-mee). The word "ñami" means "milk" or "to milk" in the language of the Guarani people who are an indigenous people from South America's interior (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia). Paraguayan Guarani is actually an official language of Paraguay. As I understand it, the youth of Chile started using the word "ñami" to describe a sexy looking young lady in a manner similar to how Mexican males sometimes use the word "mamacita" to mean the same. In Mexico the word "ñami" has taken on the meaning of anything delicious or "yummy" especially when it is repeated twice as in "ñami ñami" (or "yum-yum").

Ese plato de fresas con crema parece ñami ñami.
That plate of strawberries with cream looks yummy.

Ah, fresas con crema...ñami ñami.
Ah, strawberries with cream...yum-yum.

One final word. Modismos can add color to your Spanish and be lots of fun but you must memorize them carefully, practice them first with friends who can correct you if you go astray, and you should be judicious in their use. Go ahead and enjoy them but be careful.

06 August 2011

Booby Fruit

In my last post which was entitled "Fanny Fruit" I wrote about the Fig, the Mango Manila, and in particular, the Mango Petacón. Today I am writing about another favorite fruit of mine, the "Mamey Sapote" (mah-MAY sah-POH-tay) which is commonly called simply "mamey". The mamey sapote looks like a little brown football. Whenever I see one I have to stifle the urge to pick it up and throw a touchdown pass to my wife Gina. The problem is that the people in the market frown on this practice and so does Gina. The outer skin has a texture somewhat between sandpaper and the fuzz on a peach. To choose a mamey you scratch the outer skin with your fingernail. If it is ripe the inner skin will appear red. Even though the inner skin is red, if the mamey is still a bit firm you need to let it sit for a day or two (or three) until it becomes slightly soft to the touch. You open a mamey the same way you would open an avocado. First cut all around it lengthwise down to the seed and then separate the two halves. Inside you will find a smooth and creamy orange colored treat that tastes sweet and musky. Some people say that it tastes like a cross between pumpkin and sweet potato but I say that a mamey tastes just like a mamey...it has a distinct flavor all to its own. I like to enhance the flavor by squeezing lime juice over it. Mamey can also be incorporated into milkshakes, smoothies, ice cream, and fruit bars. Yum!

The mamey sapote is indigenous to Mexico and in the native Nahuatl language mamey sapote is "tetzontzapotl". The first part "tezon" comes from the native word for tezontle which is a red volcanic rock that was used for constructing temples and also used extensively by the Spanish during the colonial period as a general building material. The reddish brown color of tezontle is similar to the color of mamey. The second part of "tetzontzapotl" or "tzapotl" is a Nahuatl term for a soft, edible fruit and it is from "tzapotl" that we get "sapote". In fact the Latin taxonomic name Sapotaceae for the the plant family that contains the mamey was derived from "sapote". So, where did the name "mamey" come from? Well, that too, is an interesting story.

These days the genus and species names for the mamey sapote are "Pouteria sapota". There are 188 species that belong to the genus "Pouteria". The name comes from the term "pourama-pouteri" meaning "eggfruit" in the language of the natives on the northeast coast of South America. Originally, however, the taxonomic name for the mamey was "Achras mammosa" back in the early 1700's when the scientific names for the plants of Central and South America were still being sorted out. The word "achras" means "wild pear tree" in Latin and the word "mammosa" is formed from the Latin root mamma, meaning "breast", with the suffix -ose, which adds the meaning of "abounding in", "full of", or "rich in". There was a mythical Roman goddess named Fortuna Mammosa who was purported to have such qualities. Since the mamey fruit really does resemble a pendulous breast the transition from "mammosa" to "mamey" was only natural. That is why I call the mamey "booby fruit". I just love those boobies.

30 July 2011

Fanny Fruit

Here in the earthly paradise of Irapuato in Guanajuato, Mexico it is the season for fruit lovers. The figs in particular are ripe. I love to eat fresh figs which are called “higos” (HEE-gohs) in Spanish. When I was a boy growing up in Chicago the only fig that I was aware of was the brown paste-like substance that could be found inside of a Nabisco Fig Newton. You’re darn-tootin’ there is just no comparison between the taste of a fresh fig and a Fig Newton. A sweet fresh fig will win every time. In fact, the fig is one of the first fruits mentioned in the Bible (after the “forbidden fruit", of course) and the fig tree it is the third tree mentioned in Genesis, the first being the “Tree of Life” and the second being the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”. The downside is that fresh figs are relatively expensive, even in Mexico, and when they are in-season and very ripe they spoil quickly and require delicate handling. Nevertheless, I would walk a mile for a fresh, ripe fig.

Another great fruit that is a lot cheaper than figs is the mango. The word “mango” is spelled the same in English and Spanish but in Spanish it is pronounced “MAHNG-oh” and not “MAYNG-oh” like we more or less pronounce it in English. The mango tree comes from India and there are many varieties. However, in the Midwestern United States, where I come from, some people still refer to bell peppers as “mangos”, especially in rural downstate Illinois and Indiana. That goes way back to the time when the only way that they could ship mangos, bell peppers, and other fruits and vegetables by rail was to first pickle them in vinegar. In the 19th century the phrase “to mango” something meant to pickle it.

In spite of there being many different varieties, or “ cultivars” of mangos, there are basically two shapes and the people here generally refer to mangos by either of two names, “manila” (mahn-EE-lah) and “petacón” (peht-ah-COHN). The mango manila originally came to Mexico from the Philippine Islands via the Spanish Pacific Galleon trade around the year 1565. It is a a small, flat, oval, medium size, green-to-yellow mango with a point called a beak. The mango petacón is a a large, sweet, round, somewhat oblong, and reddish-orange version of the fruit that is about twice the size of a mango manila and is often multi-colored to some extent in yellow, green, and red depending upon how ripe it is. Sometimes it is also called a mango "criollo" (cree-OH-yoh). In the supermarket the mango petacón often goes by yet some other name like mango "paraíso" (pahr-EYE-soh) meaning "paradise" or mango "florida" (flohr-EE-dah) because that particular cultivar was developed in the U.S. state of Florida. Nevertheless the word "petacón" encompasses all the mangos of the same relative shape, size, and color.

For me, the word "petacón" by itself is a very interesting word. To begin with, the root word, "petaca" can mean various things. Generally it means a container for something else. The word "petaca" comes from the native Náhuatl word "petlacalli", which means "caja de petate" in Spanish or "box made from petate". A "petate" is a mat made from dry leaves, or reeds, or grass. In the old days a mat of petate was carried by an "arriero" who was a person who transports goods using pack animals. At night he would unroll his petate and throw it down on the ground to sleep on while covering himself with his serape. If he died while on the trail they would roll him up in his petate and it became his coffin. The word "petaca" took on the meaning of a "covering" and it could refer to a petaca de pipa (tobacco pouch), petaca de purros (cigar case), petaca de cigarros (cigarette case), or a petaca de alcohol (hip flask or small bottle of booze). A petaca could also refer to a "cesto de mimbre" (wicker basket), a "baúl de cuero", (leather bound chest), or a "maleta de cuero" (leather briefcase or small leather bound suitcase).

In Mexico, if you use the plural form of petaca which is "petacas" (peh-TAH-kahs) it means "buttocks" or "rump" or in other words your "fanny". If you use "petaca" with the ending ón which indicates bigness as in "petacón" it has the meaning of big "rump" or "fanny". That is exactly what a pair of mangos petacones look like when placed side by side and viewed from an angle...fanny fruit!


26 July 2011

Do you Roma?

In June of 2009 I wrote a piece entitled "Do you Zote?" about a very versatile bar soap that is just about everyone's favorite here in the Bajío region of Mexico where I live. I decided to write a companion piece about a popular laundry detergent that is made by the same company who makes Zote. The name of the detergent is "Roma" and it comes in plastic bags in quantities of half-kilo, one kilo, 4 kilos, and 10 kilos. The detergent is in granular form and it is mostly white in color with specks of blue. It is a basic laundry detergent and is less expensive than many other brands. We currently pay 22 pesos for a one kilo bag which is about $1.89 U.S. or in other words about 87 cents a pound. My wife Gina and her mother Carmelita swear by it and won't use anything else for washing both clothes and dishes except that they use Zote bar soap for the more delicate items like me, for instance. I shower with a bar of Zote every morning.

Many ladies here are in the habit of throwing a handful of Roma into a corner of the kitchen sink and they use it to wash dishes by just touching the dish rag to the detergent so that a little bit sticks to the rag. It makes great suds and a little bit of this detergent goes a long way. Roma isn't very hard on their skin either and it is also biodegradable and phosphate free. The listed ingredients are:

Cleaning Agent - Lineal Anionic Surfactant
Water Softener - Aluminosilicates and silicate
Soil Suspending Agent - C.M.C
Optical Brightener

The company that makes Roma detergent and Zote bar soap is called "Fábrica de Jabón La Corona". It was founded in Mexico City in 1920 by a man named Esteban González. He named the company for a nearby public bath house called "La Corona". The company grew and grew and expanded into several plants and now employs over four thousand people people. Besides soaps, La Corona makes cooking oils, liquid cleaners, toothpastes, and fabric softeners. The company markets its products all over North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The most amazing thing about both Roma and Zote and the other products made by La Corona is that there is no advertising. All of their sales are made through word of mouth and customer demand. In Mexico their market share is much higher than any of their closest competitors. They must be doing something right, eh? You just gotta go with a winner.


23 July 2011

The Blessing of the Rain

There is a Mexican book author, poet, historian, and newspaper columnist named Armando Fuentes Aguirre (a.k.a. Catón) whom I consider my my friend and mentor although we only met once in person. True to my expectations he was one of the nicest, kindest, and interesting people whom I have ever had the pleasure to meet and I heartily shook hands with him to make sure that our worldlines were well connected. I have learned a lot of Spanish over the years just from reading his columns. I have also written about him at length on a previous post that you can access by clicking here.

Today his column "Mirador" contains a beautiful example of his prose and in the interest of introducing him to my fellow students of Spanish I have reproduced it here hoping that he won't mind. After the Spanish you will find my English translation. I had to use a little imagination and poetic license with the translation because if you just translate the "letter" of the Spanish and not the "spirit" the result in English is quite stilted and cannot even approach the beauty of the Spanish. No doubt that English is a very practical language but I am convinced that for shear beauty of expression Spanish is far superior.

Armando Fuentes Aguirre

Diosito decidió de pronto volver a portarse bien, y se hizo lluvia en el Potrero.

La casa quedó llena con el aroma de la tierra mojada, más grato para nosotros que cualquier perfume. Hasta las piedras del camino parecían alegrarse, y bajo el agua fulguraban con brillos de piedras preciosas.

Abrí la ventana para que entrara el paisaje. En mi cuarto está ahora la nube, y están la montaña y el pino. Los muebles tatarabuelos parecen oír el gargarear de la gárgola, y el panzudo cofre que guarda antiguas escrituras y amarillentos papelorios se pone orondo como un rotundo caballero que ha comido y bebido a su placer.

De tierra y agua estamos hechos los humanos. La lluvia en el campo junta en nosotros esas dos materias, y las vuelve espíritu. Recibimos con gratitud la bendición. Afuera huele a tierra húmeda, y hay en los aposentos de la casa olor a alma mojada.

The Dear Lord decided to do a good turn and make it rain in El Potrero.

The house was filled with the smell of wet earth, more pleasing to us than any perfume. Even the rocks in the road seemed joyful and under the wetness they gleamed like precious stones.

I opened the window to let the outdoors in. In my room there is now a cloud and a mountain, and a pine tree. The great, great grandfather furniture seemed to hear the gurgling of the downspout, and the big fat chest that keeps the old writings and yellowed documents became self satisfied like a plump gentleman who has eaten and drank to his pleasure.

We humans are made of earth and water. The rain in the fields unites in us both of those elements and revives the spirit. We receive with gratitude the blessing. Outside it smells like moist earth and in the rooms of the house it smells like moist soul.

Web Page for Armando Fuentes Aguirre (Catón) http://www.caton.com.mx/


17 July 2011

Cyber Socialism

I received a note from a contact in Pensacola, Florida this morning (hello tocayo) and he said something that has stuck with me all day. He said, "I'm not much of cyber socialist". Come to think of it, perhaps I may be a bit of a socialist in the political sense, but in the fraternal sense a cyber socialist I am not. I signed up for Facebook and Linkedin, and Twitter just to see what the fuss was all about but to be honest with you, beyond the novelty of trying something new and different I really don't understand the urge behind what is making people flock to social networking in greater and greater numbers. The problem with social networking is that it doesn't connect worldlines.

I have written about worldlines before. Albert Einstein had an interest in them in regard to his study of physics. A world line is the sequential path of a human through time and space that marks the history of a person, starting at the time and place of one's birth until their death. When we are born, our world line branches off from our mother's world line. When we die, the world lines of the atoms that make up our body disperse and move on. If you could actually see a world line it would look like a twisting meandering path with both tiny ringlets and big sweeping curves and with various zigzags and ups and downs in between. Imagine a child being born and the beginning of his or her world line. The path that the nurse takes as she carries the child from the delivery room to the nursery begins the world line but the earth is also rotating at the same time and so both of these movements are recorded. While the earth is rotating it is also moving around the sun and the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy which is also moving through time and space and all of these movements become part of the child’s world line. No two world lines are alike except, perhaps, for Siamese twins. Everyone (and every thing) else has its own unique world line.

Whenever we touch somebody our world lines intersect. Take for example two people shaking hands. In the three seconds it takes for a one pump handshake the Earth rotates about six or seven miles on its axis and moves almost sixty miles in its orbit around the sun which moves about four hundred and fifty miles in its orbit around the Milky Way Galaxy while the galaxy itself moves over five hundred miles towards an area in space known as "The Great Attractor"...which I like to think of as God Himself. While the two people are holding hands during this long, yet rapid journey through time and space the handshaking event is marked by the intersection of their world lines. In this day and age of computers and gigabytes and nanoseconds you could transmit a great deal of information in those three seconds. This thought led to my realization that if you had a computer big enough, and fast enough, and a cosmic positioning system like out modern Global Positioning System (GPS), you could keep track of everything in the Universe. It seems to me that perhaps this is how God keeps track of everything and since we were created in His image and likeness we will probably all become very computer savvy someday.

There is just no substitute for personal contact or for being in the same place at the same time whether you are having dinner with someone or sharing the atmosphere with an entire crowd of people. Somehow you need to be within eyesight or earshot to register a worldline connection. I have an idea though. I remember reading "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley many years ago. In this book he described the movie theaters of the future which he named "The Feelies". The seats in the Feelies will supposedly recline way back and the movie will be projected onto the ceiling. On each side of the seat there will be a brass knob and you will place your hands on these brass knobs and when the hero kisses the heroine you will be able to feel the kiss on your own lips. Now there is an interesting thought. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg could incorporate that idea to make Facebook more socially interactive. It might actually cure one real problem with worldlines. When I was in high school at a Catholic high school for boys, the Vincentian Fathers always reminded us that the the human mouth is connected to the anus via a long tube consisting of the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and bowels, and that every time we kissed a girl we were in reality sucking on a thirty foot tube half filled with fecal matter. So, you see? It just follows that cyber kisses would be much more sanitary.

Happy Socializing!


30 May 2011

Red, Yellow, & Black

This morning when I arrived at work I saw several people standing around and looking down at a couple of snakes that our watchman killed because he thought they were poisonous. When I took a look at the snakes I quickly dismissed the notion that they were poisonous but with this type of snake the mistake is quite common. In Florida and along the Gulf into Northeastern Mexico there is a snake called the Coral snake that has bands of red, yellow, and black along its body. It is quite venomous and there are several subspecies. In Texas it is called the "Texas Coral Snake" and in Mexico it is commonly called "El Coralillo" (Kohr-ah-LEE-yoh). However, there is a non-venomous snake called the "Scarlet King Snake" in English, and "El Serpiente Escarlata Real" in Spanish, that looks something like the Coral snake but with several differences.

The Scarlet King snake rarely gets over twenty inches in length while the Coral snake can grow to thirty inches or more. The bands of color are also different. The colors alternate red, yellow, black, yellow, on the Coral Snake and on the Scarlet King snake the colors are red, black, yellow, black. When I was a Boy Scout (fifty years ago) they taught us a little rhyme to help us tell the difference. It went:

Red to yellow
Kill a fellow.
Red to black
Venom lack.

In the photos below you can see a Coral snake that was killed by a laborer near Monterrey, Mexico where I was working in 1999. Below that there is a photo of one of the Scarlet King snakes that was killed today. The Scarlet King snake is a friend of man and a very beneficial little animal. The problem is that many people fear snakes so much that they usually kill them before they try to identify them. The poor little Scarlet King looks so much like his dangerous cousin the Coral, that in order to be on the safe side he usually gets the double "whammy"...OUCH!

14 May 2011

Slipping and Sliding

The other day my wife Gina went to the supermarket and there she bumped into an old friend who was a classmate in grammar school whom she hadn't seen in many years. After squealing and hugging like women do on such occasions they settled in for a nice chat and I thank goodness that I wasn't there in person to witness it because these reunions generally take at least a half an hour during which time I usually just stand there transferring my weight from one foot to the other and back again like an old milk wagon horse. Gina told the woman that she has a grandson and asked her old friend if she had any grandchildren. The woman told her that she had no grandchildren but she had two handsome sons in their mid twenties who hadn't married yet because they were looking for just the right girl. Gina asked her what they did for a living and her friend said that they were both between jobs right now but that they were very smart and had some very good prospective work lined up.

I told Gina that it sounded to me like the woman is a "mamá cuervo" or "mother crow" meaning someone who is always exaggerating the appearance and abilities of their children despite the obvious fact that that the kids aren't very attractive or bright and not doing very well. There is a cute little story about the background for the term "mamá cuervo" that I wrote about in November of 2008 You can read by clicking on "Stories 001 - Mamá Cuervo". Unmarried guys in their twenties who are still living at home and waiting for some great prospect to come along and fall into their laps are called "Ninis" (NEE-nees) here in Mexico. The word "nini" stands for "ni trabaja, ni estudia" or in other words "neither works nor studies". I asked Gina if that was the case with this lady's sons and Gina replied:

"Mira Bob, la vida es como la casa del jabonero...el que no cae resbala".
Look Bob, life is like the house of a soapmaker...he who doesn't fall, slips.

Picture a house where they are using the kitchen to make soap all day and everything is covered with a film of soap, especially the floor. Sooner or later everyone who lives there is going to slip or fall. The phrase is fairly common and it means that you never know what is going to happen in life and that we are all susceptible to problems. Gina went on to say:

"Una persona que carece de entendimiento menosprecia a su prójimo, pero una persona prudente calla."
A person who lacks understanding scorns their neighbor, but a prudent person keeps silent.

Gina is right. As my Ma always used to say, "If you can't find anything good to say about somebody then don't say anything at all. I hope that the lady's sons find great jobs very soon and marry fantastic women...and that takes care of THAT!

22 April 2011

Blue, Blue, Blue...Where are you?

My friend Benjamín Arredondo recently wrote about "Los Colores de la Litugia" (The Colores of the Liturgy) which you can read in Spanish by clicking on this link to his web page, "El Señor del Hospital". He did a splendid job and one thing that he mentioned piqued my curiosity. It is the fact that Spain and its former colonies are the only places (with a few minor exceptions) where the Catholic Church "officially"sanctions the use of the color blue for vestments used in the mass and only then for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. I couldn't help thinking "Why only Spain and her former colonies?" and "What is so special about the color blue?" Well, I am neither a theologian nor an historian but you might be interested to hear about what I learned while digging around in the attic of history.

During the first thousand years or so there were no specific documented rules for colors of the Liturgy. It was merely a matter of local custom. It wasn't until about the year 1200 that Pope Innocent III mentioned the use of five basic colors which were, White, Red, Green,Violet, and Black and it wasn't until 1570 that Pope Pius V introduced a specific color scheme to be followed by everyone in the Church or more specifically, the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. The colors were (and still are); "albus" (white), "ruber" (red) viridis (green) "violaceus (violet) "niger" (black), "rosaceus" (rose), "argentum " (silver) and "aurum" (gold). No mention of blue. Why? Well, it seems that in the early days of the church the color blue was associated with Eve as the "woman's color" and the color red was associated with Adam (and Jesus Christ) as the "man's color". Because Eve tempted Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit some of the early church leaders felt that women were weaker intellectually and more susceptible to Satan's charms. Therefore, as a religious symbol the use if blue was avoided in certain locations such as before the altar. However, since the color blue was the color of women and Mary the Mother of Jesus is a woman, the church had to develop a limited acceptance of the color blue.

Let me pause for a moment and say something further regarding this thing about red being a man's color and blue being a woman's color. Before the turn if the twentieth century almost all baby and small children's clothing in the United States and elsewhere was white. The garments were made of cotton fibers and they were usually cleaned by boiling with lye soap. It wasn't until about World War I when the fabrics, the soaps, and color fast dyes were improved the the point where colored fabrics for children's clothes became practical. The trend toward colors was accelerated by the fact that most children's clothing was handed down from sibling to sibling but the marketing people discovered that they could double the sales of new clothing by advertising one color for boy's clothing and another color for girl's clothing...but here's the strange part. They chose pink for boys because it was a watered down version of red, the color of men. They chose light blue for girls because it was a watered down version of ultramarine blue, or the gemstone "Lapis Lazuli", the color of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By the way, the word "lapis" means stone in Latin and "lazuli" comes from the name "Lāzhward" which is the name of the place in Afghanistan where lapis lazuli is found. The Spanish word for blue, "azul" derives from "lazuli" as does the English word "azure". In the 1930's the Nazis in Germany began to require known homosexuals to wear a pink triangular identification badge and that is when some people say that pink became associated with the effeminate. I don't know if that is the real reason for the switch but by the end of World War II the colors pink and blue had done a complete flip-flop.

At a fairly early period in church history there was a question about whether or not the Blessed Virgin was conceived with the original sin of Eve because it would seen to be unsuitable for Our Lord to have been born of a woman with a sinful nature. After all, didn't the angel Gabriel say to Mary, "Hail Mary, full of grace" (Luke 1:28)? Many people believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary long before Pope Pius IX (Pius the Ninth) declared it to be church dogma in 1854. The totally sin free nature of Mary was a controversial subject over many centuries with some theologians believing that Mary was conceived without original sin and others believing that like Saint John the Baptist, she was sanctified in her mother's womb before birth as opposed to being free of original sin at the moment of conception. In any case Pius IX put it all to rest after declaring the Immaculate Conception dogma. He pretty much closed the book on that subject since his other lasting contribution was the invocation of the ecumenical council Vatican One, which promulgated the definition of Papal infallibility. The feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8th because it is exactly nine months before September 8th which is the day in which Mary's birth is celebrated. Pope Pius IX granted Spain and its former colonies the right to use blue as a liturgical color only on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception because Spain had already been doing just that under the Spanish Mozarabic Rite for at least three centuries. Supposedly Mexico also has permission to use blue on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th but I could find no specific reference for that. Besides, this is Mexico, and the people here will do what they feel is appropriate and ask forgiveness later.

It is my belief that the color of the vestments and other trivial matters are not important. These little picky rules and controversies about what is allowed and what isn't allowed are just a distraction. What matters the most, especially at this Easter Season, is the fact and the belief that:

“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Mortem tuam annuntiamus, Domine, et tuam resurrectionem confitemur, donec venias.

“LORD, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world.”


17 April 2011

Seasonal Programming Note:

The Jewish holiday of Pesach, or Passover, falls on the Hebrew calendar dates of Nissan 15-22 which this year begin on Monday April 18th on the Gregorian Calendar and coincide with the Western Christian Holy Week (Semana Santa in Mexico). It also just so happens that this year the date of Greek Orthodox Holy Week and Easter Sunday (Pascua in Mexico) are the same as the Western Church which is not always the case. It is my belief that we should pay attention to the religious observances of others and have the same respect for the beliefs of all people as we would have them respect ours. In that spirit to all my Jewish friends I say "Chag sa'may'ach". To all of my Muslim brothers and sisters for whom I have the same respect I say As-Salāmu `Alaykum (السلام عليكم). To my Hindu family I say "Namaste" and to everyone else I say, "May God be with you and may you keep peace always in your heart".

08 April 2011

David, Ann, Dick, Jane, & the Bear

When I was a little kid back in the early 1950's at Our Lady of Grace Catholic School in the Logan Square Neighborhood of Chicago, I learned to read with the aid of a little book with the pretentious name of "Here We Come, This is Our Home, Here We Are Again". It was the story of David and Ann, two lovely white Catholic children who lived with their wonderful parents named Mother and Father in a nice home in great neighborhood. In fact, Mother and Father looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver of "Leaver to Beaver" fame. As I recall, the little book started out with very simple sentences in which very short words were repeated many, many times as David and Ann were at play under the watchful eyes of Mother and Father. For example, Ann would be swinging on a swing and David would say, "Go up, Ann. Go up, up, up. Go, Ann, go". Then it would be Ann's turn to watch David roller skate and she would say, "Go David, go, go, go. Look Mother, look Father. See David. See David go." We were positively thrilled that we were learning to read and we would read the story of David and Ann to anyone who would listen. My parents had four children and we all started off with David and Ann and we used to drive my father nuts.

The beginning of the last century brought a great influx of Catholics to America. They came from countries like Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Czechoslovakia among others. The Catholic church spent the first twenty or thirty years of the Twentieth Century building a parochial school system to meet the needs of the children of the immigrants that would include Catholic doctrine in the curriculum. In the aftermath of World War One there was a general distrust of the Catholic immigrants as the American public opinion had begun to seize upon the idea that true Americanism entailed rejection of all foreign values . The Catholic Church in America found itself in a decidedly defensive position and adopted a progressive stance that defines American Catholics to this day. Out of this scenario were born David and Ann to prove that a Catholic education was right in line with American standards and values. The David and Ann series of readers was even named "The Faith and Freedom Readers" in order to tie the Catholic faith to American patriotism. In contrast, The Public School System (or "the heathen children" as we sometimes jokingly called them) had the Sally, Dick and Jane "Curriculum Foundation Series," designed primarily by Dr. William S. Gray and William H. Elson around 1930. The most famous phrase from that series was "See Spot run".

After the Mexican Revolution the Mexican Constitution was re-written in 1917 to include the provision that elementary education must be compulsory and that all education provided by the government must be free. Furthermore, the education should be designed to develop harmoniously all the faculties of the human being and should foster in each citizen a love of country and a consciousness of international solidarity, in regard to independence and justice. This was all well and good but the students were required to purchase their own books and many of these books were expensive beyond their reach and at the same time of dubious origin and quality. There were a number of important men who realized that access to good books would be a key ingredient in the education of the populace. One of these men was José Vasconcelos Calderón who was a Mexican writer, philosopher and politician. He was one of the most influential and controversial personalities in the development of modern Mexico and he was the driving force behind many efforts to make education accessible to everyone. He created the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), in 1921 and later directed the National Library of Mexico in 1940. It is ironical that he died in June of 1959, just four months after Mexican President López Mateos created the National Commission of Free Textbooks. One year later in 1960 the free textbooks began flowing to the students. The first of these textbooks were reading primers.

The name of the book was "Mi libro de Primer Año" (My Book of First Year) and it contained a total of 192 pages and was 18 centimeters by 25 by 25 centimeters in size (approx 7" x 10"). About 1,100,000 books were printed for the first edition and by the end of the first year 17,354,000 books in total had been printed and distributed including books for the second, third, and fourth grades. The front cover of "Mi libro de Primer Año" at first had pictures of national heroes but later on displayed a famous picture called "La Patria" that was painted by Jorge González Camarena. It depicts a protective mother figure, a woman with strong open arms yet at the same time she is sheltered by the wings of the Mexican Eagle. In her left hand she holds the tricolor Mexican flag and in her right hand she holds up a book that indicates her apparent wisdom (see image below).

The difference between the David and Ann, Dick and Jane books of the United States And the Mexican book was that the former focused on white, middle class, and idyllic family settings while the later focused on simple things that all children could relate to no matter what their status. If you mention the phrase "Ese oso se asea así" to just about any Mexicano or Mexicana in their 40's or 50's I am sure that you will evoke a smile. One of the first lessons goes like this:

El Oso.
The Bear

Ese oso.
That bear.

Se asea así.
He cleans himself like so.

Sí se asea.
Yes he cleans himself.

Así es su oso.
So this is your bear.

Another goes like this:

La Pelota.
The ball.

Pepe pide la pelota.
Pepe calls for the ball.

Lupe se la pasa.
Lupe passes it.

Luis pisa la pelota.
Luis kicks the ball.

La pelota salta alto.
The ball jumps high.

La pelota es de todos.
The ball belongs to everyone.

The authors use a story by way of introduction that sets the theme for the book. I thought it might be nice to include the story here here for my fellow students of Mexican Spanish.

Todos los días, al terminar las clases, los niños atravesaban la calle y se detenían frente al puesto de juguetes, que contemplaban con avidez.
Every day when classes were over the children crossed the street and stopped in front of the toy shop where they eagerly looked at the toys.

"Mira qué bonita muñeca", decía Maruca.
“Look at that beautiful doll”, Maruca was saying.

"Sí", Anita decía, "pero a mí me gusta más aquel osito".
“Yes, Anita was saying, but I like that little bear more”.

"¡Bonitos soldados! Tienen uniformes y cascos de verdad."
"Beautiful soldiers! They have real uniforms and helmets."

"Cuando yo pueda", Luis comentó una vez, "compraré aquella máquina. ¡Me gusta tanto!"
“When I am able”, Luis once said, “I will buy that steam engine. I like it a lot!

Y pasaban las semanas, y los niños seguían admirando los juguetes y repartiéndoselos con el deseo.
And the weeks were passing, and the children continued admiring the toys and sharing their desires.

Cierto día, Luis, el mayor del grupo, dijo a sus amigos:
One day, Luis, the oldest of the group, said to his friends:

"Creo que, si todos ayudamos, poco a poco podremos ser dueños de los juguetes que más nos gustan. Miren: desde este domingo ahorraremos algunos centavos de lo que nos dan para comprar dulces; los pondremos en una alcancía, y cuando se reúna la cantidad necesaria, compraremos el juguete que prefiera alguno de nosotros. Después volveremos a reunir nueva cantidad y compraremos el juguete para otro, y así hasta comprar los de todos. Yo seré el último.”
"I believe that if everyone cooperates, little by little we can be owners of the toys that we like the best. Look...beginning this Sunday we will save some of the pennies that they give us to buy candy...we can put them in a piggy bank, and when the necessary quantity is raised we will buy the toy that one of us would like. After that we will go back to collecting a new quantity and we will buy a toy for another, and so on until one for everyone is bought. I will go last."

No hubo quien no celebrase entusiasmado la idea de Luis ni quien rehusara ahorrar.
There wasn’t anyone who didn’t enthusiastically entertain the idea of Luis nor anyone who refused to save.

Se compró primero el osito para Anita, luego los soldados para Carlos, después la sala de Lola. Pero algunos niños vieron con tristeza que las semanas volvián a correr sin que ellos tuvieran sus juguetes. Luis les dijo entonces:
First a Little bear was purchased for Anita and then the soldiers for Carlos and after that the doll furniture for Lola. But some children watched the weeks go by with sadness without having received their toys. Then Luis said:

“Compraremos una pelota. De esta manera, mientras llega nuestro turno, juntos podremos jugar y divertirnos.”

"We will buy a ball. This way while we are waiting our turn we can play together and have fun”.

Así lo hicieron, y, a partir de entonces, todas las tardes jugaban un rato al salir de la escuela.
That’s what they did and from then on every afternoon they played for awhile after leaving school.

Un día, brincando tras la pelota, Juanito se cayó. Luis estuvo a punto de tropezar con él, y para no cuasarle daño lo evitó tan bruscamente que se lastimó una pierna. Sus compañeros lo alzaron casi en brazos y lo llevaron a su casa. El doctor dispuso que guardara reposo.
One day, jumping after the ball, little Johnny fell down. Luis was about to trip over him and so as not to harm him he stepped aside brusquely and hurt his leg. His friends lifted him up practically in their arms and took him home. The doctor ordered that he should rest.

Los amigos de Luis resolvieron entonces, para agradecerle lo mucho que hacía por ellos, comprarle esa semana la máquina que tanto le gustaba, y el viernes siguiente, al visitarlo, la sorpresa resultó muy agradable.
The friends of Luis then decided, in order to thank him for all he had done for them, to purchase for him this week the steam engine that he liked so much, and the next Friday upon visiting him the surprise that resulted was very pleasant.

Atentísimos estaban todos viendo correr la máquina, cuando llegó el papá de Luis que era marinero, y su esposa lo entró de la buena acción de los amiguitos y amiguitas de su hijo.
They were all very intently watching the steam engine run when Luis’s father, who was a sailor, and his wife arrived and discovered the good deed of the little boy and girl friends of Luis.

“Es necesario premiar a estos niños por su conducta”, dijo el papá, y, en efecto, así que Luis hubo sanado, los llevó al circo, donde pasaron la tarde muy felices. Además, al terminar la función, el papá se acercó con ellos al puesto de los juguetes y les compró los que más habían deseado.

“It is necessary to reward these children for their conduct", said the father, and so as soon as Luis was better he took them to the circus where the spent a very happy afternoon. Moreover, when they were done with that he gathered them together at the toy shop and he bought the toys that they most desired.

Note: It was customary (and still is) for the father (papá), or the godfather (padrino) or the grandfather (abuelo) to give the children some coins on Sunday for a teat. The children actually call this money their "domingo" (Sunday) and politely, and sometimes not so politely "Piden su domingo" or "Ask for their treat money" which the children in the USA would refer to as their "allowance".

Also, the word "máquina" or "machine" in English is short for "máquina de vapor" which means "steam engine". Likewise the word "sala" refers to "living room" but here it means a set of doll furniture.

The little stories get progressively longer and document the trip to the circus. All in all it is a charming little book and I like it very much.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.