El Caganer

The Stinky Twist of a
Catalan Nativity Scene

A quirky centuries-old tradition is an integral part of every nativity scene worth its hay in parts of Spain. Somewhere behind Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus himself, there’s the none-too-holy figure of a paesano, relieving himself with not a worry in this world.
The Caganer, a bare-botton icon that originated in Catalonia, is now a familiar sight this time of the year in Portugal and Italy too. And unlike other oh so pious Christmas symbols around the world, it never ceases to draw a little smile from tourists.
It’s no wonder. Most celebrities – not just Spaniards – have their own, and love it too. President Obama has it. The Pope? Sure. Queen of England? Definitely. And, we suspect, a certain vomit-yellow haired American lout may soon be getting one too.
Artists, politicians and footballers, they all have their own little squatting clay statues, sold in souvenir shops. And those who don’t, well, they may be wondering just why not, or whether there’s something terribly wrong with their agents, right Justin?
You better believe it. Even though, the Caganer may be a tad too anarchic for the sanitized tastes of contemporary culture. The social and political subtext that the figure came to evoke may be completely lost for mainstream artists and typical crowds of our times.
The Caganer also conveys fertility and good fortune, as insurance for plentiful produce crops for those who keep one at home. That could be the context connecting such a rich, secular tradition to the Christmas lore and its rural tale of a dispossessed boy born in a manger.
Its addition to a Middle-East religious representation is also a throwback to Spain’s Muslim past, but in the form of some kind of social, almost satirical commentary. And as such, the contrast (more)
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Read Also:
* St. Nick of Time
Continue reading

The Third Rock

Why on Earth Would This
Planet Need Only One Day?

Let’s get this out of the way: I dislike Earth Day. It wasn’t always that way, but now some sort of sanctimony is definitely attached to it, and it gives me the creeps. So much so that I’m forced to write on the first-person, as if my opinion is even remotely required.
Still, I’m not knocking the merits of having a day, a focus to draw attention to what now seems more than ever a lost cause. After all, prior to its inception in 1970, the date had a noble origin, as it used to be celebrated as Arbor Day since the late 1800s.
But after 45 years, Earth Day means a lot of things that I despise about our species. And weeks before it, I always find myself wishing that the planet would react against all we’ve done to it, and get rid of us already. I’m sure it’d stand a better chance of surviving.
Not just this speeding piece of blue rock, but every other being living on it. For the more I read about depleted resources and long-term damage, regardless if by land or if by sea, the closer I get to capitulation: to hell with us and our self-appointed (and illegitimate) ownership title over Earth.
It’s your right to disagree, of course, and if the subject is threatening to overcome you with doubt and grief, feel free to join the parties set all over the world to mark the occasion. I hear that some people may even wear flowers in their hair, just like as it was back then.

WHITE LUST, BLACK MARKET
But just a shallow skimming of environmental news from the past few years (not even an eye blink if you were a planet) is enough to give me a hangover and getting me back under covers for the day. What else can I say? somehow, sometimes, I just can’t handle it.
Have you heard of the very last male Northern White Rhino, that’s been under a 24/7 watch by armed Kenyan guards? Well, just ask how much those rangers make, and you may guess how much the rhino will last. What about the current rate of 100 African elephants killed a day?
Both species are being felled by the estimated $1 billion a year ivory trade, which also victimizes other animals, and produces absolutely no essential goods whatsoever. It only feeds vanity, luxury, and the stupid myth that it boosts male sexual prowess. Dignity, where art thou?

GETTING BACK TO THE BRINK
Just on cue, Elizabeth Kolbert won this week the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction with ‘The Sixth Extinction,’ which analyses in depth the role of mankind in the elimination of the largest number of species in the planet since the Dinosaur age.
That we’re driving so many species to extinction is clear to anyone not currently sponsored by the Koch brothers. But what’s staggering about this realization is that since the previous mass die-off, 65 million years ago, one of the last species to show up is already responsible to commanding the next.
In this terrifying context, it makes absolutely no sense for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Continue reading

Village People

Three Towns: Sudden Slumber,
Aging Dreams & Cozy Oblivion

In one, people are falling asleep without warning. In another, they’ve dropped out long ago. And yet, the other shelters the mentally afflicted. There are places we move to, and places we’d rather stay clear of. And then there are the ones we visit for a life-changing experience.
This being the first day of Spring in the northeast, despite the snow forecast, discerning globetrotters would be already pressed to plan that skew, cultural-enhancing time off. Let us introduce them to three places capable of matching their inquisitive minds. Still with us?
There would be little sense in talking about the blue of the Caribbean sea, or the gusts of the Mongolian steppes. There’s even less to tell to those seeking the familiarity of pool attendants and the exotic sway of foreign shores. Let them go and pray that they keep their memories for themselves.
It’d also be unsound to send light-headed travelers to places where daily gunfire chases away beauty, and extreme poverty strips locals of dignity. Let’s let that to unsavory tourist guides, with their slick packages and greased brochures, and take a moment to mourn those stranded in bloody beaches.
Still, it’s a vast and mostly uncovered world, if one cares enough to learn while traveling, and leave a gentle impression before returning. Just like Sahara sands cross the Atlantic and fertilize the Amazon Rainforest, a journey should sow some seeds for every root uncovered.
Then again, why invoke a haboob, or a bad pun, to make a cross-pollination point? A trip is often worthier for the places it opens up within the traveler’s mind than the ones visited by the body. Thus our urge to introduce these towns, where residents may have something to uncover within you.

DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES IN KALACHI
Few outside this town of less than 700 people in Kazakhstan had heard of it before 2010. That’s when the outbreak of a still unidentified malady was first reported: people would suddenly fall asleep and remain like that for hours and even days. It continues to happen.
Five years later, and countless outbreaks since then, Continue reading

Long Live

For Elvis at 80,
Immortality Hits

Surviving is not that hard; outlasting your own life is. Elvis Aaron Presley would’ve been 80 today but everybody please calm down: we’re not about to add to the cacophony of essays and tributes that soon will surely shower the world. No one needs our spoon in this stew.
His legacy, however, is chockfull of durability and strength. After almost four decades from his Memphis death, and twice as many years since his birth in Tupelo, both in the heart of the segregated south, someone’s bound to add a spicy pinch of race to the mix of his legend.
People will certainly talk Hands Up! The Day Elvis Died by Joining the Army (Mar, 24,1958)about his lifelong habit of dying his blond locks, and how his joining the Army in 1958 all but buried the rebellious image of his most brilliant year, 1956, still one of the greatest explosions of raw talent to ever ignite American music and culture, by any standard.
They’ll compare his instinct to step up at the right crossroads of time in the country, combining his boy-next-door looks with the incendiary fuel of black music, to another master of cross references, born across the pond 68 years ago today too: David Bowie.
Gladys and Vernon, and Priscila, and Lisa Marie, may be mentioned too, possibly even Michael Jackson. The Memphis Mafia, his 1968 Comeback Special, and maybe two fine screen performances, as Pacer Burton, in Flaming Star, and Danny Fisher, in King Creole. Just please not a word about a phony colonel.
They will make valid and absurd points to be corrected by those who were there from the start, while those who came after may wonder what’s with old people and their memory manias. It won’t matter: Elvis will only be 80 today and won’t even care one way or another. But there’s still no expiration date for what he means to the world.
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Read Also:
* The Man Behind the King
* A Bow to Bowie
* January 8

Brick By Brick

The Wall Came Down 25 Years
Ago But Others Remain Defiant

It was a typical public jubilation moment: thousands of happy people, front cover news around the world, an event of political resonance (and appropriation too) and catharsis like few. It happened a generation ago: on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall finally came down.
But just as other similar, long overdue moments have been before it and since, when the symbolic end of the Cold War arrived, it was swift, pregnant with hope, and just as quickly, deeply dissatisfying. A quarter of a century later, we’re bound to question even its relevance.
It didn’t even end the détente, that unbearably nervous post-war time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that for years paralyzed the world with fear. We now can see it for what it was: just a pro-forma liberation hour, coming late to rubber-stamp its own obsolescence.
But it was a jubilation all the same. Those who endured 28 years of that cruel scar, splitting heart and country in the middle, surely deserved to celebrate it all with gusto. Before long, however, it all wound up in a museum.
Sunday will culminate a week long commemoration, and images of mostly young people climbing crumbling logs of concrete, and a few survivor old timers too, crying like happy babies, will make the headlines. Not as breaking news, though; but as a cultural landmark.
We’ll take it anyway, of course. Times have been hard on reasons to be cheerful, and saturated with the kind of heartbreak that built the wall in the first place. So, heaven forbid if we let such an occasion to be merry pass, and, by all means, let’s have a worldwide party.

KEEPING THEM PEOPLE OUTSIDE
For 20th century standards, the fall of the Berlin Wall was an unbeatable icon of optimism and hope in the future. Some would argue that bottled down anger Continue reading

The Scream Is Over

The Biggest of the Little Guys
Gets Bounced Off the World Cup

The World Cup has always been a lot of things to a lot of people. In fact, for millions of Americans, there could hardly be anything more important happening this Tuesday than the game that Team USA was playing against Belgium in the Brazilian city of Salvador.
But the cup is a brutal place for underdogs. Despite its cathartic explosion of goals, already exceeding previous editions, it also has a predatory taste for heartbreak. Thus when Lukaku scored and kicked out the U.S. from the tournament, millions of dreams were crushed.
World Cup 2014 Logo copyThe unprecedented crowds that overwhelmed bars, clubs and eateries throughout the States were absolutely sure that this was not going to be Belgium, even if it was Tuesday, and cheered and screamed and dared to imagine victory until what felt like a sucker punch in the gut.
The deafening silence that followed the referee’s final whistle would moved to tears even the hardest Neocon, or those known for despising beggars and Greenpeace activists. The 2X1 score was even more disappointing because, as it’s often the case, the U.S. was so close to tying it, so close to overwhelming it.
It wasn’t to be. Not that this is unfamiliar territory for the only major nation on the planet that calls football soccer, where the great majority still prefers to follow its insulated brand of league sports, and whose notion of a global ball competition involves exclusively its Northern neighbor.
There’s no need to act so sourly about Jürgen Klinsmann’s choices. After all, the current cycle of sunspots is also not what it’d been cracked up to be, scientists say. So if even the billions-old shiner can afford an off cycle or two, so can Clint Dempsey and his mates. And so can we all.
Which doesn’t mean that Team USA’s ride wasn’t thrilling, as it’s been for at least three consecutive World Cups, and that they haven’t given their very best, which it’s also been the case for the longest while. Then again, you can say the same about pretty much every ‘little’ team that never makes it to the final.

EVERY BIT A FLAMING TRAIL
For there hasn’t been a single case of a fragile team winning it all in this almost century old tournament, including the big guys, when they play a notch below their historical best. Continue reading

Marble & Heavenly Bodies


Michelangelo’s Grocery
List & the Finger of Galileo

What if future generations would wind up knowing famous people not for what we celebrate them for, but for something entirely unexpected? What if, in the big scheme, that’s what’s all about, or rather, how would you like to be known a century from now?
Michelangelo Buonarroti and Galileo Galilei, whose mastery of arts and sciences summarizes much of mankind’s greatness, may be safe from such a vexing fate. Nevertheless, recent news about them did make us wonder, over 400 years after their time.
When Illinois-based weapons maker ArmaLite outfit Michelangelo’s masterpiece David with an assault rifle, it committed not just an indignant act of vandalism for profit, but also insulted four centuries of enlightenment and aspirations to transcend our destructive nature.
Almost as offensive to any human who’s ever contemplate the size of the universe, let alone Galileo‘s memory, was a National Science Foundation study, that found that one in four Americans, or some 80 million of us, simply doesn’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun.

INTERTWINED LEGENDS
It’s very likely that both ArmaLite and those millions of our fellow voters remain unaware that Michelangelo died 450 years and a month ago last Tuesday, exactly three days after Galileo was born, both in the same region known today as Italy. Or even what greatness we’re talking about here.
After all, it’s really a coincidence that they were joined by such a happenstance of date and place. But it’s no casual fact that they both defined their age and set the standards to all others that followed it, in ways that still resonate with our world today.
And it’s a bit petty to castigate people for caring little whether Michelangelo’s art makes us a bit more deserving of the wonders of our own time, or that Galileo’s telescope introduced us to the stars, from which we inherited the dust that makes up our bodies.
But times, alas, are no longer open to wonders and enigmas and marvels of the physical world. While the Renaissance bred geniuses like Galileo and Michelangelo, and they, in return, doted us with their indelible foresight and imagination, we got used to ignoring every star above us, as the song goes.
We seem content to juxtapose the sublime with the abhorrent, like David with a gun, and relish on the comfort of long discredited beliefs, like placing the Earth at the center of the universe. No wonder they Continue reading