far too much writing, far too many photos

Yesterday: Friday, Madrid feeling a bit loose, as if everyone were more than ready for the weekend, despite gray skies and spritzing rain. Went to Spanish class, discovered that the other two aspiring Spanish speakers had played hooky, leaving me — Mr. Boring, Mr. Consistent, Mr. Possibly-A-Bit-Too-Serious-About-The-Studying-Thing — the only student. Class becoming a 90-minute private lesson. (Woo-hoo!) After which I drifted back out into the city in post-workweek mode, streets and sidewalks crowded with people of all ages — older couples out walking, teens and 20-somethings about in chattering groups, middle-aged folk window shopping or slipping in and out of restaurants and tapas joints, often accompanied by youngsters. Lots to watch, lots to eavesdrop on.

January is a month of sales here, virtually every shop window in the city bearing loud, colorful signs (”Oferta! Oferta!”), billboards and banners also pushing the theme — a continuation of the Christmas season consumer party, with the kind of energy and atmosphere that makes it feel like a national sport. Halfway through the month, I began slowly getting into the spirit, picking up a couple of household items — necessary, practical, yet good excuses to splurge. Then two days back, during my first day of relative freedom after a nearly week-long forced march, I picked up a pair of shoes that caught my restless eye. Black leather buggers of a strangely plyometric design (”Jimmy’s down!“), promoting foot stability, yet inexplicably, intriguingly attractive. Heavy on comfort, yet just weird-looking enough to get me feeling insufferably cutting-edge.

This morning: pulled on the new footwear, headed out into the inclement weather. Errands, newspaper, a cup of espresso. A quick turn around a photography exhibit. Stopped in at a local joint for another cup of espresso — tasty enough that I wound up staying to eat. And as I’m working on the first course, the waiter stops by to drop off a plate of bread, me getting a whiff of a strange, masculine odor. Not sweat, not the reek of someone unwashed — a scent some men have that is specifically, unmistakably male. Not a smell I find particularly attractive, not a smell I would care to wake up to. But a distinctive odor that brings me back to childhood every time I experience it. A smell that reminds me of my father, provoking all the mixed emotions involved in that.

Considering how cardinal a figure he was in the family structure, I have surprisingly few memories of interactions with him. A remote, distant guy, not the happiest of men during my earliest years, though a well-developed sense of humor compensated some for that. Bright, capable, with a great laugh — probably an interesting person, but not given to expressions of affection or heart-to-heart talks. Which led me, in unconscious brilliance, to seek out the one moment in his day when I could worm my way into his company and connect before he’d pulled on the habitual armor of distance and vagueness. That meant getting up early and joining him in the bathroom as he shaved. I don’t remember deep conversations or high spirits. What I remember is a slightly more relaxed father figure, one who engaged in a bit more chat, who would, after he’d slapped on his after-shave (Mennen Skin Bracer — no aspirations to high style or sophisticated tastes in our lower middle-class household), put a bit more of it on his hands, gently slap it onto both my cheeks — his smile warmer, his pleasure in the moment more genuine, more visible than at any other time during the day. At least in relation to me.

For a few meditative moments, my body sat at a table here in Madrid in a small restaurant on la Calle de Fuencarral, shoppers streaming past the windows out in the rain-slicked street, while my thoughts drifted back in time to a place thousands of miles away. When I came to, the restaurant was filling up with people looking for food, coffee, glasses of beer. A woman stood at the one-armed bandit behind me, the machine producing sampled bits of music and assorted noises as she worked it. The earlier peace had given way to lively racket, and I began feeling the pull to get home, make some phone calls, crank up the computer and write all this down.

Lunch: my own personal wayback machine.

It’s coming up on 4 p.m. now. The streets are oddly quiet for a Saturday afternoon in this neighborhood, the normal street life muted by rain. That’ll change as the evening hours draw near.

Meanwhile, before you go you might want to check out this example of
a trend we probably shouldn’t emulate.

Later.

I spent the last five or six days going flat out. Or that, at least, is how it felt. Classes, studying, writing. Laundry, groceries, all that. All made a bit more intense by my having a disastrous evening in Spanish class Monday night, where I couldn’t seem to do the simplest thing, language-wise, without making a mess of it. I don’t like feeling incompetent, and when it happens in a obvious, embarrassing ways, I get hypermotivated to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Meaning I spent Monday night, Tuesday, Wednesday studying in concentrated fashion. Last night’s class went fine, leaving me feeling relieved and free enough to join a friend at a small, funky café afterwards, unwinding for the first time in a while. Rewarded myself today with a morning and afternoon mostly free of anything resembling work.

Indolence sometimes is its own reward.

There’s not much of any real import to pass on here apart from the living of my foolish little life. Simply being alive, the days flipping by at high velocity, sunlight and nighttime hours flickering past as if someone had been playing with a cosmic light switch.

What’s caught my eye during walks around the city recently are faces. A couple of days back, I passed a mother walking with two little girls, a small, very young one being held in motherly arms, another, maybe six or seven years old, walking beside them. The older daughter wore a winter jacket over a school uniform. Long dark hair, dark eyes, face almost free of expression, eyes watchful and serious, taking in the world. There was no way to tell what thoughts were passing through that young mind, but she appeared to be a soul in serious input mode, absorbing sound, sensation, movement. Our eyes met briefly, hers flickered immediately away as she listened to something her mother said. And then they were gone.

Yesterday, late afternoon: me walking back here, coming up the block from the plaza. Two 50-something women passed, one an exceptionally normal-looking person. Average height. Shortish, matronly blonde hair. Wearing sunglasses, matronly clothes. A person who would blend easily into a crowd, not standing out in any way except by how easily she didn’t stand out. She chewed gum, and as we approached each other, our gazes met. She held mine, expression blank, and began to blow a gum bubble. One that grew bigger and bigger, our gazes still holding as we moved by each other, until the bubble hid most of her face, her dark glasses peering steadily at me over it. So that I couldn’t help myself, an enormous smile spread across my face at the comic strangeness of the moment.

She sucked the bubble back into her mouth, she and her friend continued on, her friend saying something, the gum chewer listening intently.

Just one moment in the stream of moments that made up that day, there and gone in seconds flat.

Pretty good exhibition of bubble blowing. Hard to ignore. Which may have been the point. Kind of calls into question the first impression of extreme normalcy.

We’re an interesting bunch, we humans. You can never be completely sure what any of us will do from one moment to the next.

I dont know about you, but I like that.

Well. I don’t know about you, but it often seems to be the case for me that I wake up in the mornings with no memory at all of the previous night’s dream activity. Not the last two mornings, though.

Yesterday a.m., in particular, three dreams in a row unreeled themselves in the wee hours, one after another, the first featuring me in conversation with the 30-something daughter of an older couple I know, centered around a discussion of true love. We seemed to be coming to an understanding that promised deep, intriguing developments, but I woke up before we could wander too far down that garden path. (Grumble, grumble.) Managed to slip back into sleep, found myself in a genuinely creepy story along the lines of Signs. Woke myself up out of that one, feeling genuinely pleased to be back in my simple, austere bedroom, in my sunny writer’s garret. Gradually drifted off once more, found myself back in some weird fucking place in the middle of some weird fucking situation. Jerked myself awake, hopped right up out of bed, got the day underway. Clearly, the right thing to do.

And found myself feeling restless, with little real idea of how to occupy myself. Went out, picked up groceries. Got a cup of espresso and a croissant. Took some photos. Stopped in at a bakery, bought a tuna empanadilla. Did a load of laundry. Wrote email. Talked on the phone. Sat at the computer and played hearts.

Passed most of the day that way. Not feeling very focussed. Until later in the afternoon, when I realized it was time for Car Talk. Which immediately made me happy. Got on the ‘net, tuned it in, making me even happier.

It’s a good thing, being so easily pleased.

This morning: another strange dream, this one set somewhere in Vermont. A version of Vermont I’ve never seen before, but still Vermont. Me with a bunch of people I didn’t know. In a strange, creepy situation that made no sense. Jerked myself awake, hopped right up out of bed, went to the gym. Clearly, the right thing to do.

A lovely, cool morning. Streets quiet, little traffic about. Sunlight showing over the tops of buildings, blue sky above. Got to the gym a few minutes before the 10 a.m. opening bell, stood out in the crisp air waiting. A 30-something mother walked by with two little boys, one 7 or 8 years old, the other 4 or 5. The younger one had long, blonde hair stuffed under a baseball cap several sizes too large so that it rode down over his face, practically covering his eyes.

“Tiene pelo azul,” said the 8-year-old. (”He has blue hair.”)

“No, no,” said the younger guy happily, bouncing as he walked, little body clearly seething with joyful energy. “¡Qué tiene pelo amarillo!” (”He has yellow hair!”)

“No, pelo azul.”

“No, ¡amarillo!”

Et cetera. Their mother dragged them across the street, the discussion quickly faded with distance.

Blue hair. Yellow hair. That kept me smiling for a while.

It’s a good thing, being so easily amused.

Four or so decades back, during the years of bumbling my way through elementary school, they made us take a test of some sort that purported to measure each student’s musical I.Q. As a result of which, my parents shoved a violin into my pudgy little hands and began subjecting me to weekly lessons.

I loved music. I found myself addicted to pop radio at the age of four. My brothers played rock ‘n’ roll of all kinds on their cheesy record players (later, stereos of increasing quality) and, I think most importantly, my brother Terry, during visits back from college, used to spend evenings sitting in my bedroom doing artwork, playing Dylan albums as I closed my eyes and drifted off — that voice, those lyrics seeping into my consciousness, affecting my dreams (both sleeping and waking).

My mother played less dangerous folk artists and shmaltzy versions of Irish music on the family stereo, my father played classical music. Somewhere in there I got exposed to a fair amount of jazz — don’t ask me how that found its way into our white-bread milieu. The house, when I think back on it now, was alive with an interesting blend of sounds. All of which produced in me a near-obsessive affinity for the artform that resulted, with time, in a sprawling music collection, something that became a genuine pain in the ass to cart around whenever I changed living spaces.

Despite all that, I never wanted to play violin. It was thrust upon me, as were lessons and the various youth orchestras I found myself in. I had to be forced to do the daily practice thing, scraping away for the bare minimum period of time I could get away with — 20 to 30 minutes, never more than that. In spite of myself, I think I was not bad — in spite of my refusal to do the kind of work that would have resulted in a real violinist. I almost always wound up as the third or fourth first violin in the school orchestra, did well in the yearly state competition, always seemed to qualify as a first violin in the annual county or state orchestras. (None of which is to say I was actually any good, just that I was apparently better than many other kids who’d had violins shoved into their little hands.) But I never warmed to the instrument, never wanted to give more than the absolute minimum, always found myself focusing elsewhere during the daily half-hour of forced practice — out the window, off in my thoughts to other places, wandering around the room to whatever caught my attention to futz and kill time before resuming a fingering exercise (now there’s a pungent image) or before one of the p-units called up the stairs to tell me they wanted to hear some MUSIC.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I’ve found myself in recent days engaged in the same kind of evasion/self-distraction tactics — efficient, sophisticated maneuvers, all designed to get me doing ANYTHING other sitting my butt down in front of my laptop and writing.

It happens, it’s not a big hairy deal. If I don’t pile on the ultradisciplinary, arts-fascist you-SHOULD-be-writing self-browbeating, I’ll find my way back to it. Something will catch my interest. Even if it’s only writing about not writing.

This afternoon — not writing in la Plaza de España:


During the last several weeks, you may have received one of the emails that made the rounds alerting people to the existence of a gay marriage poll being conducted by a conservative organization who favor a constitutional amendment defining marriage as strictly a hetero thing. This simple poll has turned into yet another example of the quirky power of the internet, as the results didn’t exactly turn out as expected.

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This morning, along one of the pedestrian ways that wind through the center of Madrid:


Walking around the local streets these days, it’s easy to pick up the impression that this city is undergoing an impressively relentless wave of colds, flu, and related messy respiratory events. Sneezing, coughing, hawking/spitting, noses being blown (a strange image, that, when one pauses to think about it). It’s quite a display, and especially interesting, I think, given that the temperature here rarely falls below zero. Hardly qualifies as winter at all when compared with the more hard-core version being inflicted on the northern U.S. But as I’ve recently noted, all things are relative, so that kind of comparison doesn’t really hold water. (Another strange image.)

I go into this because during the last several days I’ve found myself among the ranks of the noise-makers. Several days that began in fairly severe manner, then morphed into a simple cold, more manageable, more pedestrian. And I’ve found myself smiling through much of it, enjoying the show going on around me in all its pomp and squalor, even with my body temperature soaring and falling unpredictably, even with my intestines too active, in too harrowing a way.

Somehow, during the last ten years or so of my existence, I have come to enjoy this life of ours to the point that it takes a lot to shake me out of what has become a stubbornly persistent state of, well, er, enjoyment. Which is not to say that my days are free of details that hold the potential to annoy or irritate — they’re not. Though these days seem far freer of that kind of hoo-ha than they used to seem. And the current me seems to be a whole lot less concerned about appearing happy or nice than previous me’s were. Combine that with a growing tendency to devote less mental time to details that annoy or irritate, the result is that the darker blips on my emotional radar screen appear and disappear more easily, are held onto and nurtured far less.

But I digress, and in possibly obnoxious fashion.

Sleep these last several calendar entries has been fitful, my energy during the daylight hours at times lower than normal. This morning, I had to drag myself out of a seductively warm bed to prepare for someone stopping by at the godawful hour of 8:30. I somehow managed a fair imitation of consciousness, produced decent enough Spanish to get myself through the interchange. After they’d gone I grabbed my gym bag, guided my half-comatose body out the door. Brisk air, morning light swelling in the eastern sky, Metro train filled with quiet people (apart from noises listed in the first paragraph above). Got to the gym, gently pushed my little bod through as much exercise as I could reasonably expect from it. Survived that, made it back outside, grabbed a newspaper, stopped in at a small nearby corner bar/coffee joint for the morning cup of espresso. A radio played in the background, a few neighborhood workers scattered around the small space drank café or coke, ate a sweet roll or some toast. I stood at the bar, leafing through the paper, sipping at a cup of strongly-flavored espresso. Finished up, thanked the barman, headed back out the door. And as I did — people walking by in different directions, sunshine growing in strength and abundance, traffic on the main drag passing in normal fashion, one local taking a Westie terrier for walkies, the little dog contentedly intent on checking out the moment-to-moment world down at sidewalk level (things to smell, things to smell, more things to smell, pause to pee, things to smell) — I experienced the click of me slipping suddenly into that wonderful, mysterious state of enjoyment.

There’s a lot happening in what many consider to be the ‘news,’ loads of political blather and activity — last night’s State of the Union speech; the Democratic dog and pony show skidding east from Iowa to New Hampshire; the campaign for the March elections lurching into motion here in Spain — all of which feels peripheral to me. The main event? This day I’m in the middle of, here in this city I love — sunlight pouring down, streets filled with activity, interesting people everywhere I look. Life going on all around.

There’s a croissant waiting to be polished off in the kitchen. There’s Spanish to be studied, books to be read, class to go to this evening. Outside, a chorus of car horns sounds up now and then, letting the neighborhood know that someone’s blocking one of the narrow streets, that a bunch of drivers aren’t happy about it. The shafts of sunlight that extend into this flat gradually change shape and angle, slipping from one window to another as the hours move by.

One more day, in all its mundane detail. Deceptively rich in every aspect.

That’s the news — my version, anyway. Probably peripheral to most who stumble across this page. And that’s okay by me.

Used to seeing fellow workers sitting at their desks for hours and hours and hours — not moving, apparently reading? Give them a gentle poke now and then. Or play the happy penis song for them and see what they do.

On impulse, I recently stopped in for the first time at the neighborhood condom shop, Señor Goma (Mr. Rubber — I am not making that up; see entry of April 15, 2003), to see what was what.

Turns out that Benetton is marketing a line of condoms here in Spain. Four different varieties of condoms, each in a different-colored box, decorated with the following classic prose:

“prêt à porter: Just as it says — ready to wear, with the most natural of feels.

“.com: Instead of ribbed, it’s dotted! For extra feel.

“colors: Coloured, and flavoured with your favorite cocktails — nonalcoholic, of course — Strawberry Margarita, Banana Daiquiri and Mojito!

“xl chocolate flavour: Succulent delight!”

Succulent delight. I can’t tell you how much entertainment I’ve gotten out of that one turn of a marketing phrase — probably far more than my fair share.

Life — busy bringing us silly fun in the most unexpected places.

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Two images of a sun-drenched, mid-January Madrid, taken this last Friday afternoon — the first along el Paseo de la Castellana (with a bit of the National Library visible on the left), the other here in the barrio:

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From a recent email sent by a friend in the San Fernando Valley, CA:

So today was very interesting. It was the retirement luncheon for W, now retired from the San Bernardino Fire Department after 35 years. This was the first formal recognition of that — a happy and emotional time. There were Fire Department people, some in uniform, and Sheriff/P.D. people. Lots of friends and relatives.

It was held in an Elks Lodge in a nice, hilly section of San Bernardino, at the foot of “The Mountain.” I saw many people I’d not seen in a long time, who had been important in one way or another in my life. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with the Big Bear Librarian, a tall, lean, red-haired, fashionable woman who collects women’s hats and puts on programs about their history, etc. She is such a warm, generous person. She told me that she is still trying to get the interior of her house finished in remodeling. As with many people, it seems to go on forever! When Big Bear had to evacuate for The Fire in October, she went to a town in the desert close by, and almost had to evacuate from there as well. That happened to several people I knew. The Fire seemed to unite those communities as nothing else has.

There were others I visited; W.A., a wood sculptor who does such beautiful work. The back wall of his house burned and the glass melted from the windows, but they didn’t lose the house. He told me that the insurance company had canceled their insurance the week before (!!!) the fire. He is getting the place rebuilt, and now erosion and mud are the problems. He’s busy building walls, channels, anything that will keep the water and mud from taking out the house. Its interesting that his was one of the houses shown on TV and the reporter kept saying it was a “goner.” W. had someone call the reporter and tell him the house made it.

Most of the pine bark beetles survived the fire, it seems.

I sat next to my ex., who was busy taking photos, and next to him was J., the woman who had the local newspaper before I worked for it. Sidebar: she and the person to whom she sold the paper got into some sort of bitter feud. J. would have nothing to do with me while I was writing for that paper; part of that was her considering me guilty by association, and I think some sort of artistic resentment. Never figured it all out, and it certainly doesn’t matter now. The second owner sold to someone else, changed the format entirely and none of us wrote for it! Anyway, J. is still a very odd bird. She would fit perfectly in a “Murder She Wrote” kind of setting. Short, very wide, and with a habit of lifting her head and squinting her eyes that makes her look like a little round animal sniffing the wind for whatever is coming. She was interested in finding out what I was up to and where I was doing same, but quickly became evasive about giving me her business card, etc. She busied on to something else and ignored my appeal. I just laughed to myself.

What I saw was that most people had a few more wrinkles or a little more grey hair, but for all the time that had past, didn’t seem to be very different from when I last saw them. Personalitywise, I mean. I wondered if they thought the same of me.

I came away with such a mixture of feelings; sad, homesick, yet so glad I’m not there any more. So many times and memories stirred up, my head felt like a shaken snowglobe.

I knew not to take anything uncomfortable as personal — that is, negative about me. I think some people get a bit testy and provocative in order to deal with sadness and deep emotion. I gave up on the project of keeping control and just let the tears leak out when so inclined, and carried on business as usual.

I was glad to be heading home after about 2-1/2 hours of this event. The brief moments I got to talk to W. at all, he said that this was a stressful day and we’d talk later. (Well, possibly in May when there are two more parties planned before he and wife Kelly move to Homer, Alaska.) I did learn that W. is a third-generation fireman, and that he didn’t want to be a fireman. His dad harangued him into it. Wayne had been an English major in college and wanted to teach English and write.

Well, thanks for this opportunity to unload. It was a good day and experience overall. My husband had to tend to business here and deeply regretted not being able to be with me. I appreciated that… his choice, and the fact he’d rather have been with me. That’s a very nice thing, you know?

Last night: started back with Spanish classes. Advanced level, taught by an instructor I had last spring. A hellaciously good teacher — smart, sophisticated. The kind that pushes and pushes. The kind of class in which I have to work and pay attention to keep up. The kind of class that reminds me I don’t actually speak advanced Castellano, but inspires the hope that I may eventually come close. A bit of a shock, all this scrambling around intellectually, after 3+ weeks away from classroom life. It’s got my teeny little brain working overtime to absorb a whole lot of stuff. (IthinkIcanIthinkIcanIthinkIcan)

So I spent today at home being a good boy: studying, writing, all that. Pretending to be Mr. Productive.

Meanwhile, outside, construction work is running rampant. The building-in-progress across the street keeps getting taller. They’ve constructed all the floors they’re allowed to, they thrown together end dormers and sections of slanted roof that will eventually get covered with semicircular tiles in the local style. Now they’re putting up a wall up around much of the roof. With every new brick, a bit of sky disappears. (Sniffle.)


Down at street level, where renovations are being done on the neighboring building, someone with too much authority handed a hammer drill to an overenthusiastic workman and the guy’s been having hyperactive fun with it ever since. Five or six hours’ worth now, serenading us with the kind of intense, sustained noise that can — even up here, a few stories away — loosen tooth fillings. Every once in a while (maybe when the guy’s lost enough feeling in his arms that he drops the tool) the racket stops, leaving a sudden eerie silence. An abrupt, disorienting lack of sound. Then I remember that that’s what life felt used to feel like — tranquil, comparatively peaceful — back before someone handed a weapon of mass destruction to an individual with far too much energy and instructed him to alter the neighborhood’s reality for a while.

It’s been a day of gray skies, wan sunshine pushing through now and then. The fifth or sixth gray day out of the last eight or nine calendar entries. Monday night I sat in a tapas restaurant with a friend for a couple of hours — Tracy, a woman from central California, having a hard time with lack of sun, lack of warm temperatures. Add to the mix the fact that daylight doesn’t really get going until after 8 a.m. at this time of year, “Makes me feel like why get up?” she said. Which got me to sit quietly for a moment, thinking, stifling my usual impulse to spout cheery, Madrid-boosting propaganda. After winter in northern Vermont — where it’s dark before 4 p.m. in deep winter, where gray skies and overabundant snow or rain are often the norm — the wintertime climate here seems soft and benign to me. Gentle, good-natured, benevolent. So that when I hear someone complain about the local weather, part of me is ready is to dismiss their comment, whatever it is. All experience is relative, though. It’s good to be reminded of that every now and then.

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A brief addendum to the last entry [Jan. 13], re: self-talkers.

The morning after posting that bit, I headed down into the Metro. A train pulled up, I stepped into a crowded car, eyeballing a bit of nearby wall space, big enough for one person. Someone else pushed into it ahead of me. I glanced around, spotted an open seat. No one seemed interested in it, I parked myself, pulled out a book. At the next stop, two-thirds of the passengers emptied out, leaving one person standing alone at the end of the car, next to where I would have been. A hulking figure, wearing glasses, thick black shoes, well-worn khaki pants, a cold weather jacket. Facing into the corner talking to himself, quietly enough to foil attempts to decipher what came out, loud enough that it was impossible to ignore. Didn’t look like a happy individual — shoulders hunched, head moving a bit as he muttered, the words coming fast, voice rising and falling. Two other people sat near me. We all listened, looking over at the guy at times, then at each other. The train gets moving, the guy shifts from the corner to stand in front of the door, talking the entire time, his reflection in the windows showing a face in shadow. Next stop, the door opens, he hops out, motors quickly away, his physical aspect suddenly changed, now looking like a happy bear trying to skip down the platform. The guy across from me smiles, looks back down at his book.

We are quite a bunch, we humans.

Something I’ve noticed here lately: an awful lot of people seem to be talking to themselves. People of all ages, the youngest spotted yesterday — a slightly chunky schoolboy, 9 or 10 years old, mumbling his way down the sidewalk. Don’t know if all this indicates something cultural (as in talking to oneself being more common, more accepted hereabouts than I’m accustomed to) or if there are simply many folks in need of help wandering about free. Or, at the very least, in need of mumbling partners.

Something else: yesterday and last Friday, I found myself passing through the neighborhood plaza around 4 p.m., the space awash with kids just out of school. Most with daypacks (half with them slung over shoulders or backs, half pulling packs on wheels), probably from the same school, as most wore elements of a uniform. A wildly international collection, looking to be from 8 to 12 years old, with features and skin colors from all over the map, so that it felt a bit strange to hear them all speaking/yelling rapid-fire Spanish. The plaza rang with the noise these kids produced as they hung about in swirling groups, a soccer ball or two being kicked around, various individuals running through it all as if propelled by sheer joyous adrenaline.

And something else I seem to have seen quite a bit recently: people dragging their dogs along, the dogs’ little legs straight and stiff in an attempt to dig their feet into the concrete and slow the dragging down. The stiff-legged thing doesn’t do much, in part because almost all the dogs are diminutive buggers, way smaller than their humans, so that even the least imposing, weediest dog-owner has no trouble pulling their little friend along behind them as if they were a furry, four-legged sack of, er, something that, er, needed to be dragged along behind. Them.

(Pause to clear throat and collect what pitiful thoughts are on hand.)

Just this morning, outside the gym — right in front of the entrance, in fact — a woman walked past, a white and brown wire-haired terrier on a leash trotting behind. The terrier stopped, adopted the universal we’re-about-to-poop position, front legs planted solidly, back legs spread apart, bum hovering over the sidewalk right in front of the entranceway. The woman continued blithely along, the terrier maintaining position in a desperate attempt to take care of the body function at hand, front legs trying ineffectually to slow its progress away from the entranceway toward the street. The woman glanced back, saw what was happening, pulled the dog along even harder until it tumbled off the curb into the street, where the woman finally stopped, the dog gathered what crumbs of dignity it had left and did what needed to be done.

I didn’t hang about to see if this woman intended to clean up after her little friend, but the incident reminded me that the city of Madrid claims it’s going to send out people with cameras to take pictures of folks who don’t clean up after their dogs. Someone in the city administration has apparently been listening to the agonized cries of pedestrians who have stepped in dog poop — there are days when walking around this neighborhood is like making one’s nervous way through a mine field, Madrid being knee deep in teeny dogs — and has come up with an interesting course of action: the old perp-photoshow ploy.

In defense of Madrid and its dog owners, I have seen numerous instances in the last couple of months of humans picking up after the canine call to nature. Each and every time, I have thanked the individual doing the good and thoughtful deed (mentally if not out loud). I hope there won’t be much need to embarrass miscreant dog owners.

I’m writing about dog poop. Probably a sign I should call it a day, don’t you think?

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For those who have never experienced the pleasure of Mimi Smartypants’ writing, I have two words: haunted vibrators.

I have been so bad these last few days. Have not wanted to write. At all. And so I haven’t. Balancing out my excessive chronicling of all the holiday hoo-ha, maybe, by doing a whole lot of very little. Which is something that happens with me: after a period of big activity, I sometimes need to balance it out with sloth, indolence, slack of the most genuine kind. Recharging my little batteries, I guess.

Got myself out for some fresh air this afternoon, headed over to the area around la Plaza de España [see entry of Jan. 2]. Sky gray; air cool, a bit misty. After lunch on a work day, so not many people hanging about. A bunch of folks looking to be from South America clustered together, talking, by one of the two big fountains that bookend the Plaza’s wide promenade.

I settle onto one of the concrete benches. Two ten-or-so-year-old boys stroll by, one sporting a full daypack, both wearing puffy, waist-length winter jackets. A couple of pigeons make the mistake of hanging about in the boys’ path, one of the little guys raises his arms, takes a run at the birds, going, “RAAAAAARRRRR!!” The two birds take off, the fatter one comes back to ground five or six feet away. Still in the boys’ path, so that fatty has to walk faster and faster and faster to stay a safe distance ahead of the boys, head bobbing at ever increasing velocity, looking a little desperate. If the poor bugger had been in a comic book, it would have had a bunch of those funny little airborne drop-shaped ink thingies all around its head that indicate distress.

The kid without the daypack starts grabbing at the back of the other kid’s jacket, daypack boy pulling away, the two of them laughing. A few more attempts, then boy #1 succeeds in sticking a Post-It note on the back of boy #2’s collar, a little square of blue paper with some words written in red ink. Maybe the local version of KICK ME, PLEASE!

Honest to god, I love people. We’re an endless source of entertainment and surprises, we humans. So much life going on inside each one of us, so many wonderfully goofy impulses.

Wish I could have gotten a good look at that little Post-It. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

Today, along Gran Vía in Madrid:

This last Wednesday morning in the barrio of Salamanca, here in Madrid:

An addendum to the last entry: when it comes to gift-giving, the day of the Three Kings apparently is the most important date in the Spanish holiday season. But it doesn’t close down the city the way Christmas does. More places remain open the night before, with more people out and about. The Metro maintains normal hours. Next morning, more places of business are open, more people about. No newspapers are published on Christmas or New Year’s Day, all news kiosks are closed. Not the case yesterday, though they closed earlier than normal.

But the gift-giving thing is a major deal. I called a Spanish friend around midday, he’d been knee-deep in the family hilarity. I could hear and feel the smile in his voice. Got me smiling myself.

Felt kind of strange to be in the middle of, essentially, round 3 of Christmas while receiving email from friends in the States and the U.K. already deep into the post-holiday-season 9 to 5 thing. As if operating in a different universe. I have to say, though, the local version of the holidays feels just fine to me. I like the way the season doesn’t get underway until a few days into December, then stretches out into the beginning of January. Two weeks of build-up, then two weeks of moving from holiday to holiday, cresting several different times. Not a bad way to spend a month.

It helps, I know, that I haven’t been plugged into the whole gotta-buy-gifts thing. I sent out ten hard-copy cards, sent out about ten more e-cards. Gave a big charity donation in the name of my brother’s family. That was about it. Relaxed. Felt just fine.

But back to the final extravaganza. Monday evening: the arrival of los Reyes Magos, a big parade. I’d arranged to meet two friends at a point along the procession route, in front of the main post office building at la Plaza de la Cibeles. A grand, sprawling, turreted edifice, planted off the southeastern corner of a heavily-traveled, grossly-oversized traffic circle (featuring a major honkin’ fountain in the middle). I make the ten minute walk from my writer’s garret to la Calle de Atocha, the street along which the Wise Dudes will progress as they make the commute from el Retiro into Sol, the heart of Madrid. The street is closed off to traffic, many, many Madrileños have gathered along the parade route, awaiting the event. The route’s single lane — delineated by two seemingly endless lines of fence-like barriers — takes up about one-third of the street, leaving the other two-thirds empty. Free of people (all of whom are clustered around the event lane), free of cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, skateboards and beasts of burden.

I find my way through the crowd down to Cibeles where I discover that there is no way to cross over. No provision has been made for people to get across the Event Lane. I’m nonplussed. I then remember the nearby Metro stop has a below-ground street-crossing option. I get plussed, run back to the station, cross over.

By the time I make it to the post office building I’m about five minutes late. A handful of souls stands in front of the building, none of them the two souls I seek. I wait, walking around in the big expanse of empty street in front of the building, casting an eye over the crowd by the parade route, thinking maybe Tracy and Teté might have wandered over there while keeping an eye out for my humble, frazzled self to show up in front of the p.o. No sign of them anywhere. I go for my cellphone, the situation’s obvious solution, discover I’d left it back home. (Pause for several moments of deeply-felt cussing in both English and Spanish.)

I knew they’d been planning to head toward the parade’s origination point — after ten or so minutes of fruitless wandering in front of the post office, I wandered slowly in that direction. No sign of them anywhere. The crowds around the parade route were growing thicker by the minute, I decided to bail on the search for T&T, found myself a parade-viewing spot on a bit of high ground around la Puerta de Alcalá, a major arch on a rise in the middle of yet another traffic circle. Other people get the same idea, I quickly find myself in a hemmed in by numerous hyperexcited families, being subjected to a great deal of pre-event yelling, pushing, etc. I bail out of that spot, find another patch of grass with a better view, fewer people. More folks eventually show up there, but sans the slightly psycho energy I experienced in the folks at my previous spot. Sedate, almost.

I’d made a choice not to bring my camera, a bad decision. The evening, bathed in the intense golden light of a long, languorous sunset, would have resulted in some great images. Poop.

The sun disappeared, the temperature dipped to less user-friendly levels. More people showed. More waiting, with two or three false starts — one, a handful of people passing by out in the parade route pulling some wonderful kites that veered back and forth above the lane, most in the forms of large eagles. A white hot air balloon had been hanging in the air above us for the sunset, a guy in vaguely Three Dudes style dress suspended beneath it. Once the sun slipped out of view, the balloon slowly descended, providing some distraction. As darkness fell, and I realized I’d been waiting in this spot for an hour, the balloon went back up — a sign, apparently that the do was about to begin.

And so it did, the crowd around me suddenly exhibiting some of that unnerving too-much-caffeine/too-many-amphetamines brand of energy I’d encountered earlier. A phalanx of police cars passed slowly by, then two or three emergency vehicles. Followed by the first float, a big truck done up in winterish, Christmassy fashion, representing the post office. Postal employees on small postal scooters weaved in and out around it, stopping now and then to toss handfuls of candy into the crowd, producing a progressively wilder response. And that set the tone for the next 45 minutes. Floats from various government organizations (Radio Nacional de España, Radio-Televisión Española, the city government, the city transport dept., etc.) or commercial outfits (i.e., McDonalds, an insurance company, and three floats for Shrek 2! not one, not two — three!!), most done up in winterish ways. With music, colored lights. People on the floats hurled candy our way, others walked alongside the vehicles doing the same, the spectator response getting ever wilder.

Finally, at the end, a flurry of vaguely Middle-Eastern/African details — a sad-looking elephant, apparently part of a circus that’s been in town during the last few weeks; three sad-looking camels, weighted down by mock crates of gifts brought by the Three Guys (doing the Santa Claus thing). And then the big final float with los Reyes Magos themselves. A final hailstorm of candy came flying into the crowd. As soon as the Three Kings went by, a final phalanx of police and emergency vehicles came into view, the crowd began immediately melting away (kids combing the ground for wrapped candies as they went), everyone heading off to other events or home for big dinners.

Once the multitude thinned out, I started back here. Glad I’d done the event so that I don’t have to do it again in a future year.

At home, Tracy calls. They were there waiting for me, who knows why we didn’t see each other. She invites me to a champagne/hot chocolate/roscón thing set for later in the evening at a friend’s place.

But that’s another entry.

Yesterday afternoon: one more in a series of beautiful holiday-season days here in Madrid, the air practically glowing with sunlight pouring down into narrow streets, plenty of people about, shopping, drifting in and out of restaurants and taverns, enjoying the day. I found myself suddenly hit with a massive bout of brain-numbing fatigue, the kind that turns thoughts into a thick stupidity soup, making the doing of just about anything an effort. The day being so prime, I refused to retreat to bed, finally herded myself outside to a movie. (A good one: Good-bye, Lenin! — a German production that took the European equivalent of the Oscar for best picture two or three weeks back.)

Got myself into bed at an excessively (for Madrid) reasonable hour, slipped happily off to sleep. Then woke up around 5 a.m. from dreams in which I spoke English, Spanish and a bogus version of French. I think my in-dream self sustained the fiction that I spewed legitimate French because the languages can appear so similar on paper. Silly, gullible me.

First instance I’m aware of where I dreamed in Spanish. (And about time.)

Somewhere out in the neighborhood, a few all-night partyers stumbled about, yelling back and forth at obnoxious volume, making sleep impossible. Turned on the light, picked up a book until they wafted off to another part of the barrio. Killed the light, returned to drifting comfortably in and out of sleep, interrupted every now and then by old Mr. Bladder, who’d mysteriously decided to shift into overproduction for a while. (Probably more info. than you’d bargained for, that. One of the hazards of stopping by this corner of the web, I’m afraid.) When 8 a.m. rolled around — the hour I’d resolved to get myself up and out to the gym — I snorted drowsily with derisive laughter at the very idea, rolled over, drifted back off to sleep.

Pulled myself out of bed around ten to find a neighborhood active with prep. for the wind-up of the local holiday season, this being the final shopping day before el Día de los Reyes Magos (the day of the Three Kings) — at least as important in these parts as Christmas Day. Today, I’m told, is actually analogous to Christmas Eve in feel and importance. Folks are out picking up last-minute gifts and provisions for the last of the season’s big dinners, including the roscón de reyes, a sizeable O-shaped sweetbread, some with a thick layer of sweet cream inside, some without, all liberally sprinkled with almonds, chunks of sugar and bits of candied fruit. Lots of people calling out “¡Felices Reyes!” to each other — “Happy Kings!”

The city is heaving with activity, between shopping, outdoor stages featuring live music, etc., everything leading up to the big parade through the city center this evening, the arrival of the Three Kings. I’ll rendezvous later on with a couple of friends for parade-watching and whatever else comes along.

In the meantime I’ll allow myself the luxury of waking slowly up, something an earlier outing for groceries/newspaper/coffee did not accomplish.

A few stalwart workers are about doing a relaxed version of the nose-to-the-grindstone thing at a couple of the many worksites around the neighborhood, notably right across the narrow street from here. Now and then I’ll hear the sound of hammering, which turned out to be the first noise that greeted me on stepping out of the building this morning. Due, in that case, to someone at a payphone down the block at the plaza, holding the receiver to an ear with one hand, pounding on the phone with the other in a vain attempt to get some coins back. The cafetería at the plaza — the closest caffeine vendor that isn’t a Europop-playing fern-bar (not that there’s anything wrong with Europop-playing fern-bars apart from inflated coffee prices) — turned out to be packed with folks tossing down cups of joe, the atmosphere practically vibrating with high-volume conversation. The last of this holiday season’s crop of like mornings. Tomorrow a.m. most places will be closed, most folks will be home.

The last such morning, New Year’s a.m., I went out on a midday caffeine hunt, winding up at a bar/café a few blocks from here — one of the few joints conducting business, not one of my normal haunts. Busy, with abundant loud conversation, nearly everyone there appearing around 60 years of age, working on cups of coffee or glasses of beer. The bartender, a tall, hefty, florid-complexioned 50-something, looked half in the bag, as if he’d gone directly to work from all-night celebrations. A dubbed version of the first Crocodile Dundee film played on the TV, most everyone stopped to watch the scene where C.D.and a friend, walking down a Manhattan backstreet, get accosted by four wildly stereotypical punks in a convertible Caddy. Two pistols appear in the hands of two of the low-lifes, money is demanded. C.D. and friend disarm them and so on, the scene producing appreciative smiles from my fellow-customers. One of them, apparently a regular, pulled on his coat, went to leave. The bartender began shouting after him in high-spirits: “Ey, ¿vas? ¿A dónde vas? ¿A dónde vas?” (”Hey, you’re going? Where are you going?”) The customer disappeared out into the midday sunlight, Crocodile Dundee continued humiliating the Caddy full of street punks, the bartender dispensed more coffee. The first day of the new year rolled on.

And here we are, four days later. In a few hours, the Three Kings will make the grand entrance, perched atop floats, moving through the crowds packing the city center. Tomorrow, most people out of town for the weekend will stream back into Madrid during the afternoon and evening hours, producing the season’s final enormous traffic jams. Then it’s back to normal existence.

On to 2004.

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