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Al autobús [Nov. 24., 2015|04:52 pm]
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I don't read books in foreign languages to show off. I read books in foreign languages because I think this is preferable to reading them in English. Still, when I am reading a book in something other than English in public, there's a small part of me hoping someone will notice--despite the fact that this is something which almost never ever happens.

So I was caught quite off guard today when the man sitting next to me on the shuttle glanced over and blurted out "You speak Spanish!" We've ridden next to each other probably a half dozen times or more. If I'm ambitious enough to catch the early run, I almost end up next to him because, like me, he prefers the seat which is close to the door and has slightly more leg room than the others. He's a bit of a lavaballer, so the first time I ended up thighwrestling with him and even passive-aggressively offered to exchange seats and give him the aisle if he needed to "spread out a bit". He demurred; until today, those were the only words we'd exchanged.

In his opinion, Manuel Puig "isn't easy for learners", which is ironic given that relative ease was a major factor in why I chose him. I told him I found him easier going than Bolaño or García Márquez and he couldn't really argue with that. I tried expressing this in Spanish, but mangled it so bad at first that he thought I was asking where he was from. Naturally I was curious about that, too.

"You know where is Valencia? On the east coast? I'm from a town north of there. It's called Castellón."

"Castelló de la Plana? So, parles català?" Not wanting to offend, I amended, "O valencià?"

"Sí, parlo català."

"Llegeixo català també!" I told him--chuffed that I'd managed to get the first word out in recognisable form. This was just as the shuttle reached my stop, however, so we brought the convo to quick conclusion by introducing ourselves. (Naturally, I forgot how to say "Molt de gust!" but, having tried to remember that, didn't dare change gears and say, "¡Mucho gusto!" for fear of bolloxing it. Codeswitching is still not something I can pull off.)

So now, depending on how well I'm braining early in the morning, I either have an incentive to catch the early shuttle again and pick up where we left off or purposely sleep in and not have my terrible conversational skills put to the test.
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Homebound [Nov. 23., 2015|03:32 pm]
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Another slug weekend. Really wasn't my intention but something I ate on Friday didn't agree with me and suddenly the prospect of taking the el an hour each way for a concert lost a great deal of its appeal. Of course I hemmed and hawed up until the last minute because I really didn't like the idea of sending monshu off into the cold alone, but the idea of travelling all that way with him only to turn right back around if dinner didn't sit well was too much.

As I feared, it was a less-than-enjoyable outing for him. He ended up on the holiday train, so the trip to the Loop took about 50% longer than it would have otherwise. Then he couldn't find the restaurant we'd planned to go to. He did run into Diego at the concert, which was a mercy, but the start time was delayed nearly half an hour (whether due to poor organisation or poor attendance) and your man had to leave at intermission. It was nearly 11 before the Old Man made it back.

At least I got the laundry done. Plus I watched an awful NetFlic (Vulgar) and started a new novel (El beso de la mujer araña). To compensate, I did absolutely nothing of value on Sunday. I meant to do some shopping in Andersonville, maybe meet a pal for lunch, but it was cold and I wasn't motivated. I at least could've done some of the clothes sorting I've been putting off for way too long, but I didn't manage that either.

We've had our first snow of the season. It was coming down wet and heavy Friday evening. I set out midmorning on Saturday to run an errand in hopes of enjoying it, but at that point it had changed to rain (although not out in the burbs, where they got up to a foot or more). By afternoon, it was back to snow again, so poor monshu had to navigate a morass of ice on top of everything else. Sunday he discovered that we'd run out of salt and made a salt run to the hardware store.

He has another one planned for tonight or tomorrow, but that's strictly prophylactic since everything's turning to slush and it's predicted to be positively balmy on Thanksgiving, if still quite damp. We're doing Thanksgiving at a friend's, so naturally the GWO is planning a Second Thanksgiving for Saturday. We used to joke about him being an ogre, but on balance I think I've married a hobbit.
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The bore of Cabora [Nov. 22., 2015|08:03 pm]

Late in the summer, when I was still reading The Maias and took it to the beach one afternoon to read, I saw someone sprawled out with his own book and asked him about it. It happened to be a book of short stories by Luis Alberto Urrea. I have a novel by Urrea, which I'd bought about a year earlier and set aside to read later, so I asked him what he thought of the author's style. He praised it and I made a mental note. Visiting Pilsen for Día de Muertos naturally stirred my interest in things Mexican again and, as a result of that encountre, it was the first title that came to mind.

Sad to say, it was only a somewhat satisfying read. From a slow start I ended up engrossed and moved at times. Urrea has some moments of inspiration but also stretches where my suspension of disbelief began to falter. Historical fiction is hard. You don't want the idiom to be too stilted, but make it too contemporary and it comes off as anachronistic. It's especially difficult, I think, to avoid putting in metaphors which--realistically speaking--would be outside the characters' frame of reference. (This is even more of a problem with fantasy.) One chunk in particular struck me as a clichéd revealing-late-night-conversation-in-the-kitchen scene only slightly modified for late-19th century circumstances, though it ultimately succeeded due to the gentle humour and warm rapport between the two protagonists.

Blurbs for the book really pointed up to me the incompetence of most reviewers. At least three made comparisons to One hundred years of solitude. There's no reason to, and not just because Urrea is no Gabo. Just because a Latin American is writing about fantastic events, that doesn't make the result magical realism. The defining feature of this as a genre is not the supernatural character of the events but the prosaic response of the characters to them. My favourite example is that scene in García Márquez' classic where, after many years of being shut up in her bedroom, Remedios the Beauty ascends bodily into the heavens amid a cloud of bedsheets. Members of the household chase after her begging her to cast these valuable linens back to earth so they can reuse them.

Compare this to a central scene in The hummingbird's daughter where young "Saint" Teresa of Cabora comes back to life after lying in state for three days. The women keeping vigil run screaming out of the house, eventually causing such an uproar that one of the ranch hands rushes in pistol drawn and nearly shoots the girl. Afterwards her father, an outspoken freethinker, is depicted as searching for some sort of rational explanation for the experience. Can you think of one García Márquez character who has ever done that?

The one parallel I do see is that this is more fuel to my complaint that all Latin American writers need to do is put their crazy family stories to paper to be hailed as original and imaginative: Teresa of Cabora is a cousin of Urrea's and her life a family legend (to the extent that he was shocked to discover that she was actually a real person). He also managed to include a lot of interesting detail on indigenous medical practices gleaned from various curanderos and brujas. But everyone comes through such an Americanising filter (whenever he attempts to put Teresa's life into some sort of historical context, his touchstones are always USAmerican) that much of the mystery is lost.

Last night, waiting for the Old Man to get back from something of a fool's errand, I began El beso de la mujer araña. The movie was a big deal when I was in high school, but I'd never really considered reading the novel until a friend of a friend gave it a rave review several years ago. Let's hope this one lives up a bit more to its reputation.
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At the opera [Nov. 20., 2015|12:39 pm]
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I feel remiss for not writing full reviews for the couple of recent opera performances I saw. I was under the weather both times, but I wish I could've been sicker for The merry widow than for Wozzeck rather than the other way around, since obviously a serious drama about the exploitation of the proletariat requires just a bit more concentration than a romcom.

First the Lehár. I'm amazed I didn't fall asleep during the first half. Not because it was exceptionally boring but because I almost always do during the first act of a romantic opera. In fact it was only moderately boring. Fleming still has a good voice, if nothing as enchanting as it was during her peak, but I don't recall her being so wooden as an actress. There seemed to be no modulation in her speaking voice at all. You'd think it would sound totally changed after that moment in Act 2 where she realises Danilo loves her after all but you would be wrong.

Fortunately Hampson takes up all that slack and then some. He's a bit long in the tooth, too, but that works rather well given how the plot is all about second chances. Frankly, any non-musical scene without either him or local talent Jeff Dumas--who absolutely kills as Njegus, the comic relief--is a waste of time. I ranted to Nuphy about how pedestrian the direction was, reminiscent of a high-school production. The scene where Fleming sings "Vilja", for instance, is completely static. Sure, the focus should be on the singer, but you've got the entire chorus on stage. You can't think of any stage business to give them that would reflect or comment on the action in some way? Get back to theatre school. Or, you know, stop cutting corners, Lyric, and hire a director and a choreographer instead of making the latter do both jobs.

Susan Stroman has a background in Broadway musicals and it really pays off during the big numbers. The opening scene at Maxim's, for instance, is a show-stopper, and not just on account of the grisettes. The set change is simultaneous with the dancing, so while the ladies are pirouetting walls are swooping in and out and decoration is dropping from the ceiling. And such decoration! Maxim's was gorgeous, and the other sets were much enhanced by detailed lighted cityscapes of Paris in the background.

Speaking of Paris, our performance took place the day after the assault, so we were all asked to stand for a performance of the "Marseillaise". I reacted about how you'd expect I'd react if asked to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" the day after the Boston Massacre, which is to say with resignation and discomfort. It just reinforced for me how thoroughly and successfully the situation is being exploited by rightist elements but at home and abroad.

One more reason why it would've been infinitely preferable to have had Wozzeck then rather than a week earlier. It's possible you could miss the anti-military and anti-nationalist message of Berg's masterpiece, but you'd have to be pretty thick indeed. Unfortunately its impact was blunted someone by Davis' rushed conducting, which flattened the high points of the score. Tomasz Konieczny is perfectly cast as the title character and, as good as he and Denoke were, they would've been even more shattering with better musical direction.

I didn't see where Nuphy was coming from with his criticisms that the sets weren't realistic enough. Yes, there's some stylisation (notably in the square which marks the centre of the settlement), but there are also ingeniously detailed contraptions in most every scene reinforcing the theme of mechanicisation of society and stark lighting emphasising the bleakness of existence for those bearing all the burden of industrialisation while accruing few of the benefits.

I thought it was particularly good how the handled the many scene changes--fourteen of them in the space of 90 minutes! Instead of scrims, they used low rods hung with heavy curtains which could nonetheless be pulled back with alacrity by invisible runners. I found it added to the edginess inherent in the music and plot; Nuphy just found it annoying.
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Leaf report [Nov. 19., 2015|09:50 am]

So the weather has finally turned. Yesterday, the high was 16°C. Today it's projected to be half that and tomorrow it should drop below freezing for the first time since March. Having seen the forecast, the Old Man took down our hanging baskets and dug out the geraniums. Some time after I got home, I put the big ones in the planters flanking the entrance into pots and sank the fading chrysanthemums into the garden. All that's left is to repot some rosemary and store the dahlia properly for the winter.

Although many trees are bare, the colours are as good as they've been all season. Dark red maples and Bradford pears are overrepresented among the remaining foliage, which has a dramatic effect, especially when accented with firebushes and the like. Early fall was dry, but it's wet now which makes a difference. I've been getting some help with the leaves this year, but even so I had more than I knew what to do with even after raking scads of them into the street to be taken away by streetsweepers. So I literally dug a hole in the ground and buried them.
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Le naturel [Nov. 16., 2015|04:32 pm]
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My emotional reactions to the attacks in Paris and everything they've stirred up are complex and messy and probably not something I should be trying to sort through in public. But, fuck it, this is LiveJournal, so who's reading this anyway? Somehow I managed not to hear about what happened until I was seated at the dinner table. I hadn't checked social media before leaving work and had to deal with condo nonsense the moment I arrived home, so it was only once that had settled down and I was sipping soup with the Old Man that he brought the conversation around to the events of the day.

My first reaction was to grab my iPhone and scan the news reports. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. It was a stronger sensation than reading the news from Beirut a day earlier. Then my heart sank as I thought, "This is not what they need." Beirut for me is like an elegant and accomplished person who suffered a terrible tragedy years ago and has been struggling ever since to get back on their feet again. Paris, on the other hand, is someone so powerful and celebrated that they should be well insulated from those problems.

But why should they get off easier than Madrid or New York City? No real reason at all. And it's not like the city is any stranger to political massacres either. The last one of this magnitude wasn't carried out by non-state actors but by the French state. None of this was in the forefront of my mind as the attacks were still in progress; they came bubbling up the next day as I began to sift through the news updates and the shitpile of responses and responses to responses.

Far from consoling me, the "flood of solidarity" only depressed me further. I don't know if I'd noticed before just how problematic expressions of support can be. Their value consists of their authenticity, but the mediation of a prefab platform very easily gives them the appearance of something else. I felt less like I was witnessing an outpouring of genuine emotion and more just the workings of habitus. Explanations of why a particular person felt strongly connected to Paris or the French in general read like a form of social positioning (since naturally these connexions are far more characteristic of some socioeconomic tiers and segments of society than others).

It got worse when Facebook released an app similar to the one propagated around the time of the same-sex marriage decision which allowed one to overlay profile pics with the Tricolore. With a "gesture of support" only two clicks away, my Wall began to fill up with doctored selfies. Could you find a better metaphor for making a distant tragedy all about yourself? A couple days later and I still see a trickle of Friends playing catchup. Which makes me wonder: How will they know when it's time to stop draping themselves in the flag? Which cool kids do they look to for their cue on that?

Naturally it took very little time before people began pointing out the disparity in reactions between Paris and Beirut, or Ankara a month earlier, or any other place east of Alsace that had been bombed or shot-up. This quickly became it's own kind of tedious posturing and attention-policing, whatever valid observations lay behind it. The covertly-politicised calls not to politicise the tragedy blended in with the overt politicisations and I just had to get away from it all.

What is the "proper" response in this situation? I don't know. I don't know that there is one, to be honest. People respond how they're going to respond, in a way you can largely predict based on their class background and their ideological poles. Is that a surprise? Is that cause for handwringing and headshaking? Isn't that just as determined a response as any other?
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Sick of sickness [Nov. 10., 2015|10:35 am]

I can't remember the last time I had a cold this bad. Not last winter, even with all the stress and exhaustion of those goings on. The worst part is the false hope I had. Thursday evening I finally felt I was getting better and, since it was the last really mild day of our recent spell, I went out for a stroll and that ended up being a piece longer than I'd planned. Nevertheless, I felt good enough Friday that I even went out to JB's for dinner and boardgames. That also went longer than planned, but I wasn't worried because I had all day Saturday to rest up before the evening's opera.

And I needed it, because I woke up feeling almost as sick as I did the first day. Sheer determination carried me through Wozzeck, which was naturally the performance I'd be most looking forward to out of our entire subscription. I staggered through Sunday, leaving the house only to buy some Mucinex, and called in yesterday. I thought sleeping in the morning would make it hard for me to drop off in the evening, but it didn't, demonstrating that this wasn't malingering. I really am still that sick.

But I've got training this week I really don't want to miss, so here I am again staring glassily at my coworkers as I struggle to understand their requests and hoping I don't infect them. It's cooler outside, but still beautifully autumnal and I can barely gather the enthusiasm to go out and enjoy it. Needless to say, that last bits of gardening--raking leaves into a compost pile, bringing in the geraniums, etc.--are not getting done. And I've got another opera coming up this weekend, as well as the game on Sunday.
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Grub grub grubbing [Nov. 4., 2015|06:38 am]
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We're smack in the middle of an All Saints summer here and I never want it to end. But given that it's already past the date of the average first snow in Chicago, I'm just trying to enjoy it for the miracle it is. Just today monshu brought in the azaleas from outside. They've been sporadically trying to bloom over the last couple months. Maybe the warmth of indoors will convince them to give it another go.

Meanwhile, I'm still struggling to get everything in the ground soon enough for them to get established before the ground freezes. I made another big push on Sunday but still have a spiderwort, a fern, and a trip of flowers whose names I forget from Fig to plant. At least all the Rudbeckia, Echinacea, and Aquilegia is taken care of. Well, except for the seeds I new to strew.

That was the weekend's major project: digging up the parkway corner one last time and prepping it for spring. The guy at the hardware store made me a deal on tube sand because none of the tubes were intact, so if I wasn't willing to take them, they'd just "go to waste". And it was a good thing, too: one tube's worth would not have sufficed. Still, it makes a world of difference. It was so much easier scooping everything up again to work in more sand than it was digging it all out the first time.

After everythings in the ground, the last order of business will be ordering tree seedlings for spring now that I know how the process works. I still plan to get dogwoods and witch hazel, but I wonder if I shouldn't review the list one last time to see if there's anything else that would improve the understory. Meanwhile, the Old Man has found a shrub he likes in a neighbour's yard, but we haven't managed to ID it yet.
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Día de ahorro [Nov. 2., 2015|12:06 pm]
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The only real failure of this year's Pilsen trip was tamales. Specifically that we didn't come back with any. I'd mooted the idea of stopping in at Día de los Tamales on 18th, but that was more of a hike than the Old Man was up to. We thought we might find a good postprandial pick-me-up at Café Monsiváis, but it was all savouries so we abandoned it for Panaderia Nuevo León across the street.

It was worth it for the experience alone. The woman behind the counter was a stitch. As we waited in line, she said something in Spanish about how much she loved Sundays because "everyone comes to visit me". We were behind an adolescent with a huge tray of assorted pastries. After he'd paid up, he had his head turned talking to a girl and your woman had to say, "Baby you chane!" three times to get his attention again.

I was worried about having no pan de muertos, so we made a run to Bombón first thing. It was a one-man show and the poor guy seemed flustered to have anyone else in the bakery with him. Eventually he brought out two medium panes and we bought them both. Thanks to monshu's terrible influence, this also probably marks the first time I've left Bombón without a pastel tres leches.

Going to and from the store brought us past Bistro 18, in the old Mundial space. Here was where we'd planned to eat lunch and I was more worried about a crowd there than at the museum, so even though it wasn't yet noon we grabbed a table at the window. Sunlight was streaming in and I was almost steaming before even ordering a cafe con leché. Since it was still early, I decided to go for coconut french toast even though the grilled fish was what really appealed, but monshu got the combo. It took only a couple of bites of this to convince me I needed to order a fish taco of my own, which was generous enough to constitute two at basically anywhere else I've eaten.

Service was slow for no apparent reason, however, so it was almost one by the time we made it to the museum. Still not as crowded as I feared. As usual, there was quite a range of ofrendas, starting with a three-tiered construction from Huaquechula in Puebla which is easily the most elabourate I've ever seen. Only a short wall separated it from a nearly postmodern altar to masked wrestler El Santo, who died in 1984. For some reason, there was a plethora of throwbacks this year, including Selena and Anthony Quinn. For the student-teachers slain in the massacre at Iguala, the excuse can be made that at this time last year, there was still hope of finding them alive. The memorial to them was so powerful it had me choking back tears.
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Housecat [Okt. 31., 2015|10:43 pm]
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This was a pretty successful Halloween at home. I did some things I don't always get around to these days, like watch a scary movie (28 Days Later) and carve a pumpkin. You can see my efforts above. I bought a larger-than-usual gourd this year 'cause they were cheap and then was stumped what to do with the canvas. monshu shot down the idea of a cyclops so I was like, "How about a cat?" It doesn't show up well on the image, but I had the idea of sticking glass pebbles in the eyes for pupils. Next time I should see if I can get real catseyes.

The most noteworthy feature of the evening was a trick-or-treater--our first (and, so far, only) in seven years here. Despite the novelty of this, the possibility had occurred to me while carving. Since his weight loss became a concern, the Old Man has developed the habit of keeping a stash of cheap chocolate at the ready. I glanced in the bag and noted some "fun size" Milky Ways and peppermint patties. So when the doorbell rang, I had the presence of mind to grab the first of these and offer a couple to the tiny princess in our foyer. Embarrassingly she tripped and fell on the way out. (The timer for the light needs to be manually reset and apparently only Scooter knows how to do it.) But her mother didn't seem too concerned and child shook it off.

We were going to hit Pilsen today, but meteorology predicted rain and cool temperatures and, contrary to our hopes, held to that, so we postponed for tomorrow. As a result, I didn't feel the need to rush home from Cap'n Spiff's Halloween party. His musical taste if quite close to mine--for Heaven's sake, he played not only "Rock Me Amadeus" (the original German version) and "You Spin Me Round" but Coulton's "Re: Your Brains". I keep announcing I was going to leave the dance floor and then returning a moment later to dance to one more song. I'm kind of amazed I can still stand today.
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