far too much writing, far too many photos

[continued from previous post.]

The morning after Christmas, I found an email from my niece letting me know my brother had a stroke on Christmas day — a jaw-dropping development. Granted, the guy is substantially older than me, but he’s not an old man, not by any stretch. (Though maybe he thought like one, saw himself as one, for what that’s worth. An example of the differences between us that may have led him to drift away.)

We exchanged emails, she gave me the number of the phone in bro’s hospital room, I called. If the voice that answered hadn’t had the familiar depth of bro’s, it would have been a dead ringer for the way my mother sounded post-stroke, not long before she caught her final taxi. Bro seemed understandably tired, the conversation did not flow easily, moving in awkward fits and starts. I finally asked – kindly – if I should leave him in peace, he mumbled something, I heard fumbling, the connection ended without warning. An answer to my question, I guess.

The awkwardness maybe had to do in part with his lack of physical control, difficulty in talking, maybe with holding the phone. Could be he didn’t want to be heard in that kind of limited state, something I would sure as hell understand. And I’ve wondered how much it had to do with his lack of contact, of ignoring my Christmas ecard. Don’t know, and don’t know that it matters.

My niece and I swapped one or two more emails, I’ve spoken with my brother’s nurses. He’s going through tests, will be transferred to a longer-term rehab facility at some point. And that’s all I know for now. Will try speaking with him directly again sometime soon and see how that goes.

It’s all had me thinking, as it should. About how transitory this life is, for example — how we’re all just passing through, despite the illusions of permanence we do our damndest to erect and hold in place. About the people who truly matter to me — I don’t have a huge number of loved ones, and those there are, are scattered all over the global map. They matter to me though, and I let them know it.

We’re a strange bunch, we humans. We elevate so much trivial shit to levels of importance it just doesn’t deserve. We forget that we’re all in this together, that kindness is worth far more than big shows of self-righteous whatever, far more than the constant displays of gossip and nasty behavior that seem to saturate so much of the media. We blather so much about things that don’t deserve all the time and hot gas, and we lose track of the importance of treating each other well.

And, meanwhile, life goes on, as it always does. Images of major snowfall in the northeast U.S. made news reports and newspapers here. Madrid is cold and snowless, but the hours of daylight have slowly begun growing longer. The nights remain, for now, sweetly illuminated by Christmas lights hung around the city center.

And soon it will be 2011, me still not understanding how 2010 came and went as diabolically rapidly as it did.

España, te amo

It could be I need to stop reading Zippy the Pinhead’s daily comic as often as I do. A friend posted this photo on her facebook page with the caption ‘the pulsing stellar nurseries of Orion’s Great Nebula’ – I could barely restrain myself from leaving the following comment under her post:

pulsing stellar nurseries!
pulsing stellar nurseries!
pulsing stellar nurseries!

I should probably be worried. But there are more pressing sources of angst to focus my attention on.

To wit: Another Christmas come and gone. For that matter, another year come and gone, or just about. Sincerely, I have no idea where in hell the days disappeared to this last year. It all whipped by at such ungodly speed that I find myself doing the existential equivalent of staring around, confused and disoriented.

But more than that, something I mostly don’t think about (‘cause there’s not a whole lot I can do about it): the progressively nonexistent state of my family of birth.

Brief recap: the only remaining member of f.o.b. is a brother, substantially older than me. Someone I was tight with for many years. After the ‘rents checked out several years back, bro began getting distant. My imagination, I thought at first, or an understandable result of several intense years of family drama during the ‘rents’ long fadeout. But the distancing continued, became alarming, and when I tried to talk with him about it, he resisted getting into it, continued putting ever-increasing distance between us.

Four years ago, me back in Vermont getting the house ready to sell. I made four attempts at contact with bro during that December — two phone calls, an email, a Christmas card. (In the run-up to a previous Christmas, he told me he didn’t want to exchange gifts any more — contacts like this were the options that remained for me.) No response — he never answered any of those attempts. I took that as a clear confirmation of the state of things and moved on.

When I was back in Vermont this last May, we had some brief contact, he seemed conciliatory, with a softer ‘tude toward me. Two to three weeks ago, I put together a nice e-Christmas card (featuring this photo:)….

….and sent it to both bro and sister-in-law.

No response from either of them. Just silence.

This is really not much fun.

[Continued in following entry.]

España, te amo

Something to counterbalance the last two entries re: life in the Metro.

Three or four mornings ago, me standing on a platform in the Metro, waiting on a train. Not far away, a group of what looked like South American males stood around talking and laughing, one of them cleaning an alto saxophone. Another male joined them, pulling a boombox/amplifier on wheels set-up, and I realized I’d happened across a bunch of Metro musicians getting ready to start their workday.

A train pulled in, I stepped in the doors at one end of a wagon. The musician with the boombox/amp waved a see ya to his compatriots and entered the wagon through the center doors. The train got moving, the musician — neatly dressed, looking around 30, long shiny black hair pulled back in a ponytail — pulled out a pan flute, cranked his boombox. A spare, restrained version of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ driffted through the car. The musician lifted the flute to his lips, began playing along, and it immediately became obvious that this was someone who knew what he was doing, knew how to coax exceptionally appealing music from his instrument. And I found myself listening to what was easily the most accomplished bit of panflute tuneage that I’ve ever heard below ground. Beautiful, and nicely understated (understatement not always the default mode for Metro musicians). Good enough that my hand groped around in my pocket for change without me having to think about it, dropping a euro’s worth into the musician’s drawstring bag when he passed through the wagon after playing.

It was a pleasure is what I’m trying to say, making up for some seriously abusive performances that I’ve seen inflicted on Metro travelers during recent weeks. I hope the guy made a pile of cash working that train.

And one last sighting: at a station in the city center, two people entered the train together, each equipped with a kitten. The teeny cats were carried inside jackets, heads poking out from a partially-open zippers. Cradled with one hand, stroked soothingly with another, kitten heads swiveling as they stared around at everything. Eyes wide open, appearing fascinated, unafraid, goofily absorbed in checking out the surroundings. Provoking smiles from surrounding passengers, including me.

I could feel the smile on my face when I stepped out at the next station.

España, te amo

Saturday morning, coming back from a shlep into the city center, getting in and out before the daily Christmas season onslaught of crowds.

Found my way down into the Metro, waited for train. One arrived, doors opened, I joined bunches of people stepping inside, found a spot against a door, pulled out a book. And immediately became aware I’d entered a car in which a tall headcase was loudly acting out, spewing high-speed verbiage that sounded like a description of being hit in the head with an iron bar by persons unknown the night before, as he heaved himself up and down the crowded aisle, everyone around doing their best to stay out of the way.

Normally with a sitch like this, I might have ducked out and slipped into another wagon before the doors closed. For reasons I can’t explain, I had the clear feeling I didn’t need to, and focused back on my book. A few seconds later, the individual in question ran by me, out the doors and into the neighboring coach. Heads all around me swivelled, everyone tracking his movements, necks craning to get a glimpse of the scene in the next car, where the guy continued putting on a big show. The train took off. Passengers disappeared and appeared at the next station. Heads still watched the show apparently happening along the train — who knew exactly where now. At the next station, the doors remained open for a while. A 50ish gent stepped into our wagon, took up a position by the door, stood with one foot out staring down the platform. A station worker appeared, holding a walkie-talkie, looking off in the same direction as 50ish gent. They exchanged a few words, Mr. 50ish said, “Sí, un demente!” The train finally closed, the train pulled out. At the next station the doors jerked open, it became clear that something definitive was happening at the other end of the train. The gent across from me leaned out the doorway, observing. After an extended period, doors closed — the troubled individual causing the ruckus must have been… removed. Mr. 50ish’s expression had cleared in a way that suggested a matter resolved. And off we went, order restored. I can only hope some inner peace is in the cards for the person who blew through the collective experience of the assembled travelers that morning.

And for some reason, during recent Metro rides I’ve found myself positioned exactly where musicians jump into the train at station stops — specifically, accordionists. Equipped with small stereo systems on wheels that provide muzaky music-plus-one accompaniment for hackneyed tunes squeezed out of old, beaten-up accordions. The most recent squeezebox dude coaxed music out an especially ancient, tired instrument, an accordion held together with liberal amounts of packing tape neatly applied on the bare material of its vanes (the soft covering material long worn away). The musician — wiry, determined — launched into one of the ditties I have most come to loathe from the street musicians’ repertoire, ‘My Way,’ causing me to hunch up my shoulders and sink as deeply into my book as I could manage, doing my best to ignore the individual who stood scant inches from me pumping out trite tuneage. He segued from that into what sounded like an up-tempo variation of the ‘Volga Boatman,’ and I noticed he was doing his utmost to sell the music, body twisting and extending in an everyman-accordionist’s version of rock-star moves. For which I had to give the guy points for sheer ballsiness. But the music was still driving me nuts, and when the doors opened at the next station I was out and putting distance between me and that train at high velocity.

Up on the next level, crowds of rush-hour travelers criss-crossed in all directions. In the middle of it two accordionists played together, pumping out something spirited, I didn’t hang around to find out what.

At street level, cold air brought a bit of bracing relief. Christmas lights hung over crowded pedestrian avenues. Urban life went on, temporarily free of satanic accordion players.


Esto Es “Arte” — Madrid:

España, te amo

Riding a crowded bus during a recent morning rush-hour. At a stop not far from the end of the line, most passengers pushed out the rear door and disappeared out into cold morning air, leaving me and a handful of other peepz in the suddenly spacious vehicle. The doors closed, the bus started moving, I settled back into scanning the back page of that morning’s El País.

A moment later, something — I wasn’t sure what — made me glance up. Looking around, I saw nothing amiss, wondered what had caught my attention. (Wondered a bit blearily, pre-morning caffeine.) Then I heard it: a loud squeaking sound. The another. The kind of happy squeaking made by a rubber ducky or one of its squeezable compatriots. A fast look around revealed no source of the squeaking among the passengers. Which left only the driver, hidden away in his cubicular hidey-hole up front. Subsequent happy squeaks confirmed that they came from there, I looked around, saw my fellow-passengers staring in that direction, expressions showing confusion, befuddlement, amusement.

A minute later, I was out the door in cold morning air, heading into the Metro. Where I witnessed no further cases of occupational therapy.

A rubber ducky. (Or one of its cousins.) On the bus. Just thinking about it makes me smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

By the way, a reminder (not that you asked): this journal’s photo-a-day page can be found here.


Faded grandeur — Madrid:

España, te amo

Monday morning, December 6. Midway through a five-day holiday weekend, the longest one of the year for Spain. Today is el Día de la Constitución, Wednesday is el Día de la Concepción Inmaculada, creating a fine reason for many people to completely ignore Tuesday’s workday, resulting in a mass exodus for a long, long weekend. A mass exodus that almost immediately went off the tracks for many travelers late Friday afternoon when Spain’s extremely well-paid air traffic controllers decided to stage an unannounced walkout. The outcome: chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people stranded in airports around the country as air travel literally collapsed.

Some background: Spain’s air traffic controllers, due to the ability to work essentially unlimited overtime, made stupendously big money — in the neighborhood, according to government sources, of €375,000 (roughly $500,000). I say ‘according to government sources’ because air traffic controllers and their representatives are, in general, being real damn careful not to say how much they earn. Or so it appears. The truth is, to say that the picture of the situation varies depending on who’s doing the talking hardly covers the reality of the disparate perspectives in this case. Which makes it hard to know, once you’ve investigated beyond the mainstream media and the squawkings of government folk, what in hell to make of it all.

Spain, as you may know, has been going through a tough economic time — a difficult period simply called ‘la crisis’ here. Not as tough a time as what Greece, Ireland and Portugal have been wading through, but tough enough. Close to 20% unemployment, all that. The Socialist government has been forced to make some difficult choices in their response to the ongoing difficulties, choices that displeased many. One of those choices has been the intention of privatizing airports. And that single topic turns out to be a rat’s nest of ugliness — the root, according to sources in the controllers’ camp, of all the troubles.

Whatever the truth of the situation’s details, the upshot was two major turns of event that took place on Friday:

(1) Air traffic controllers took it upon themselves to conduct an unofficial strike, calling in sick and hiding out in a hotel near Barajas Airport in Madrid.
(2) The government — Socialists, those who in the normal universe would be the allies of the workers — brought in the military to take control of air traffic control.

Some sources say the wildcat strike happened first, that the government responded with the State of Alarm and the military takeover. Others claim the government decree happened first and the walkout was the response of workers who felt all other options had been stripped away. It seems impossible at this point to cut through all the verbiage and piece together the day’s happenings as they actually fell together. Or fell apart.

One thing is certain: chaos ruled on Friday and Saturday for those trying to travel by air, and it created a hurricane of anger and hate toward the controllers. This morning’s news reports say that order and tranquility have been restored. And that may be true for travelers. For controllers, whose lot has changed severely, it is apparently not.

Meanwhile, life in this barrio is way more tranquil than on a normal Monday — light traffic, clouds and rain coming and going. Streets and sidewalks slick with moisture, speckled with fallen leaves. Most shops and businesses closed, at least around here. The city is probably abuzz shoppers and open stores. The annual Christmas fair in la Plaza Mayor is probably heaving with people and money changing hands. Which may or may not provide a good excuse to head out later and see how it all looks, get an eyeful of Christmas lights.

We’ll see.


Holiday weekend — shops closed, no pedestrians about:

España, te amo

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