Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February 28, 2007--Eclipse

My horoscope in todays Majorca Daily Bulletin says, “Don’t’ worry if you feel vaguely out of sorts today. This is the full moon buildup and it takes place in an obscure part of your chart.”

The Bulletin’s weather forecast predicts rain for today, but it’s now nearly 6:00 p.m. here and it’s been glorious. Maybe this is also attributable to the full moon buildup.

And, the paper reports, there will be a total eclipse of that full moon this Saturday.

Anyone willing to place bets?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Febryary 27, 2007--Everything Old Is New Again

For decades we have believed that solutions to daunting political and social problems require unique and innovative thinking. I used to work for the Ford Foundation, which is devoted to supporting programs that attempt to deal with injustice, inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, among other global problems. Like so many organizations, the FF wanted to have a tag line, which in just a few words would signal its values and purposes. After months of discussion, we came up with—The Ford Foundation is a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide.

This seemed appropriate and benign enough, but I soon began to struggle with the value placed on innovation. Thinking, shouldn’t the FF and other philanthropic organizations provide resources to effective, rather than creative practitioners? If we were wanting to help alleviate poverty and protect women’s rights, might our focus on innovation lead us astray, drawing us toward glitzy new things that showed promise that they might work, but in fact might not?

If instead we were to turn our attention and direct our resources (money) to things that had a proven record of helping people emerge from poverty or increasing literacy among girls, in other words effective approaches, wouldn’t that make us as funders more effective in contributing to the solution to some of the world’s more frustrating challengers?

There are large-scale and more modest examples of what I am suggesting. Here’s a large-scale example of something that started quite small: if making micro-loans to impoverished women so they can start small businesses via the Grameen Bank in South Asia works to accomplish that, support the growth of that effective approach. Happily, the FF and others did just that.

And a small-scale example: just today, in the International Herald Tribune, there is a story about the Foundling Wheel. During the Middle Ages it provided an anonymous and effective way for women who had unwanted infants to place them in the care of a convent or other safe place. They did this by placing the baby in a simple basket that was attached to a wheel, kind of a revolving door, which could then be turned to deliver the child to the care of others.

The IHT reports that contemporary versions of this Foundling Wheel have been placed in operation at various sites in poor neighborhoods in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere. (Linked below.) Today’s Wheel allows a mother, as in the Middle Ages without revealing herself, to put the infant in a heated cradle and revolve it to the emergency room of a hospital which stands ready to take good care of it and presumably help find it a new home.

Sometimes all one has to do is look around to find ways to make the world a better place.

Monday, February 26, 2007

February 26, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: In Search of the Wild Asparagus

To tell you the truth, I always thought Ewell Gibbons was a pain. I grew up watching him on the Merv Griffen Show promoting his books, chief among them, as I recall, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

I hated the idea that to be healthy and to assure a long life you needed to search for and eat things such as Wild This and Wild That. What’s so wrong with the asparagus in the market? Don’t they too have a diuretic effect (assuming that’s a good thing) and protect the liver the way old Ewell claimed the wild kind did?

So, ashamed as I am to admit this, I was sort of happy when he died prematurely. It gave the lie to the claim that eating nuts and berries and wild things guaranteed anything except that you’d always feel hungry.

His early death took the pressure off me. I no longer felt I had to do everything responsibly and perfectly.

That is, until last Friday when Rona and I found ourselves on that same cami I wrote about last week searching for, yes, wild asparagus.

The origins of this quest actually started a couple of years ago while on a drive back to our town from Valldemossa via a torturous road through the mountains when along the margin of that twisting road, just as we approached Andratx, we spotted an ancient woman, bent and hobbling, who was clutching to her a straw basket of what looked like string beans or leeks.

Later, over coffee, a Mallorquin friend told us that it was likely wild asparagus that she was carrying so protectively. That they grow along stone-bordered roads and paths at this time of year, mid-February, and that the old folks had their favorite spots where to look for and gather them.

The following year at about the same time I read a piece in the local paper by Peter Kerr who moved to a rural finca from Scotland to live on and work the land and write about the complicated experience of trying to eek out a simple life among people who were not always welcoming. In his article he wrote about coming upon some field workers who, during their midday break, had gathered wild asparagus and over an open fire in a wooded glade were sautéing them, using local olive oil and then ate them sprinkled with sea salt that they had also harvested. When I mentioned this to the same Mallorquin friend he told me that to do this was a special treat, something men who worked the woods and fields looked forward to each February.

Then just this past week, suspecting we might find some wild asparagus for sale in the Wednesday market in Andratx, we got up early so as to try to get there before the local señoras arrived to buy up the very few that were likely to be available. And we did find some. Securing a handful we also bought some still warm-from-the-farm eggs and raced home to try to replicate what we now knew the workers in the woods would be doing later the same day.

Using Balearic olive oil, some locally churned butter, and of course sea salt from Mallorca (some salt connoisseurs—and there are some—feel the salt gathered here is the world’s finest) I whipped up a homemade batch of revueltos espárragos. And it was, ask Rona, incandescent.

So as of last Wednesday, we’re as obsessed with wild asparagus as was Ewell.

Since then we have been wandering the sun-drenched pathways and camis stalking them. Admittedly feeling a little guilty that we might be intruding on the favorite spots of those bent women. But an obsession is an obsession. So señoras, stand aside!

The only problem—we hadn’t been able to find any in spite of hours of aimless wandering.

We of course knew what the asparagus itself looked like but not the plants from which they were the stalky flowers. Scholar that I am, I suggested that we go to bookstore, get a Mallorca flora and fauna guide, and look up asparagus officinalis. Then we would know exactly the kinds of places to haunt—in locations that get the morning sun, among rock outcroppings sheltered from the wind, in the shade of larger bushes: the very sorts of thing one would likely find in Gibbons’ Stalking.

The more intuitive and romantic Rona disparaged that idea and said let’s just walk about and see what we discover. And so we did. Up and down familiar and new camis, along the paths through almond fields, across a few sheep folds; but search as we did, there were none to be found. Though the nut trees were in full blossom, the air was thus scented, and we did make friends with a magnificent sheep, we came away inspired by the hundreds of natural flowers that spring up in profusion and thereby declare full spring and the exertion did instill quite an appetite and thirst which we quickly satisfied at a café by the sea where the sardinas were fresh and sweet and the vino de la casa ripe and cheap. And of course an afternoon nap. But still no wild asparagus. Then there would always be tomorrow.

Tomorrow again dawned beautifully, rosy licks of sky above the mountains ranging right outside our bedroom door, and so we hustled off for a quick cortado before returning to our search. This time we tried a different tack—Rona is a knowledgeable gardener and though she was not ready for the flora and fauna book she said that overnight she realized we should be looking for plants that looked like asparagus fern. Not that these wispy plants with their tender, feathery mini-fronds were the source of edible asparagus, why would they be called, in their common name, asparagus ferns if they didn’t resemble actual asparagus plants? So, she said, as we work the camis we should be looking for plants that look similar to these decorative ferns. I felt for sure that if this didn’t work, by the next day, Rona would come around to my way of thing and would be running to the bookstore. Since by then she, in truth, was as obsessed as I.

We did find in the fields we traversed that day many plants that had these fern-like characteristics but none showed evidence that asparagus were any time soon about to shoot out from their core. On our hands and knees, trying to avoid the droppings of our sheep friend—we that day actually got to know a few more and a pair of goats—we probed those plants that looked in any way similar to the asparagus ferns that tantalizingly line the stairs down to our flat, and thought we saw in most of them that something had been cut from the center where the furry faux-fronds emerged.

Aha, we said, these plants in fact must be what we are seeking—it is just that we arrived too late. Those señoras we beat out in the market the other day got up earlier than we today and got to all of the ripe asparagus while we were still dawdling over our coffee. There is always tomorrow and . . .

So another magnificent morning arrived, and we were so certain that it was all about timing that we skipped breakfast, feeling our coffee would be all the better with a handful of wild asparagus in our basket.

Back to the fields we went; and while walking there I said to Rona, “Look, I’m not proud of what I’m about to say, but what do you think about this—rather than spending another morning crawling around in sheep poop, why don’t we just pretend we’re out for a stroll and when we spot one of the women with an asparagus basket we sort of hang back and watch where she goes? Then we’ll know where to look.” Rona was glaring at me by then, but nonetheless I pressed on, “I know what you’re thinking,” she nodded, “but all we really want is about six spears, just enough for my egg dish. Then we’ll be going home to New York in a few days and they’ll have them all to themselves again.”

I knew I was getting nowhere. Actually I was getting myself into serious trouble when I spotted Rona on her knees, crouching at the base of the stone wall that lined the cami on which we had been walking.

“Look,” Rona said excitedly, pointing to the intersection of the wall and the cami, “here they are! Wild asparagus!”

I raced over to join her and squatted beside her in the sunlight. And yes there they were—actually two side-by-side plants covered with asparagus shoots. Some tiny, immature, still in formation, no more than half an inch long; others fully developed and ready to be plucked off and tossed into my incandescent revueltos.

Side-by-side, as if worshiping in the Church of Nature, silently we peered together at this wonder. For how many centuries had men and women here been gathering these magnificent treasures? And for how long would this continue in the face of climactic change and the quickening pace of life that drove even Mallorquins into supermarkets and fast-food restaurants?

Rona caught me in the midst of these ruminations to point out something else that was remarkable—the cami-road had been recently repaved and the asparagus that we were so worshipfully contemplating, and I extracting meaning from, had pushed their way literally right through two inches of asphalt to reveal themselves.

To me that felt optimistic and it put a stop to my pretentious speculations. It also sent us on our way.

No, we did not gather the asparagus but rather left them there for the señoras.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

February 24, 2007--Saturday Story: Found On Staten Island--Part Two

In Part One, Lloyd Zazlo finds his way to Staten Island by a circuitous route. In desperate need of a job, any job, he contemplates becoming a advertising copy writer and even comes up with a few sample jingles of his own; but, fortunately, before he is embarrassed by any of them seeing the light of day, he learns about a “radical” educator, William Birenberg, president of Staten Island Community College, through a book of his that makes a powerful case that universities need to be of the city and serve social purposes. After writing what can only be described as an obsequious fan letter to Birenberg, he is invited to meet him. Zazlo, though, as he approaches SICC notices that the college is situated not in the city but just down the road from the stone mansion where The Godfather was filmed and thus, in Part Two, begins to wonder . . .

It took some time to find a place to park but I finally did in a spot marked Presidential Visitors Only. And from there I was directed up the steps to Birenberg’s office on the second and top floor of the proletarian-named A Building. That felt more like what I had been expecting from the college of a socially-conscious author and CEO—no Hamilton Halls here. Though the walls of the corridors even outside the presidential suite were of high-gloss painted cinderblocks, another sign that I had entered a people’s college, once in Birenberg’s outer office these plebian walls were replaced by wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany panels and all the furniture was of carved wood and sumptuous leather.

One of his assistants told me to sit, that Dr. B would be with me in a minute—he was on the phone with the editor of the Staten Island Advance, the local paper, and she said, with a conspiratorial wink, that Dr. B was trying to “get him off his back.” They were editorializing about the College’s upcoming Italian Culture Festival, claiming that Birenberg, through it, was attempting to patronize the Italian-American community by pretending it was to show his respect for them though he had been overheard on numerous occasions referring to Staten Islanders as “Yahoos.”

Needless to say, this information, much more than I would have expected to receive considering the purpose of my visit, did not help me to relax. What after all was I getting into here? Hadn’t I just been invited to see Dr. B so we could talk about his book?

While pondering all that I had seen in the neighborhood surrounding the college, the fenced-in college itself, and now this about his apparent struggles with the local community, while wondering if I might simply slip away, his assistant returned and told me he was ready to see me and would I take this with me into his office. The “this” was a tall cut crystal tumbler filled with ice cubes.

On automatic pilot, with the glass in my left hand I was ushered through the door into his immense office. From twenty feet away, Birenberg sprang from his desk chair and seemed for a moment to disappear behind it. As he came around I realized that this was because he was, how to put this, so short—perhaps no more than five-four—and was, while standing, dwarfed by the huge desk and chair.

As he approached me, wearing unpresidential well-worn jeans, a black tee shirt that revealed he was in excellent shape, and Franciscan-style sandals, I reached out to take his offered hand but he ignored it, reaching instead to pull the tumbler from my other, trembling hand.

I stammered, “Sorry, I didn’t know. I thought that . . . “

Dismissively waiving off my attempted apology, he said curtly, “It’s not important what you thought.” And with that, leaving me standing there with my hand still extended, he turned his back to me and retreated behind his desk where he hopped up onto his chair which, because it was cranked up to its highest position, and I suspected included a pillow or booster on the seat, allowed him to appear to be a tiny giant, if that is oxymoronically possible.

He bounced in his seat once or twice to balance himself on his perch and, by grasping hold of the edge of the desktop, pulled his chair and himself forward . And from amidst the clutter of his desk top which included stacks of unread newspapers, a typewriter, books, and inexplicably what looked like a length of rusted chain, he retrieved a bottle of Cutty Sark, which he uncorked, and from it filled the glass I had been instructed to bring to him entirely with Scotch.

“I know, Lloyd, what happened to you at Queens College and I understand why you did not write about that in your letter to me. But though I understand why you were pretending to still be employed at that awful place it is still disappointing to me that you did not have the self-confidence to mention that and reflect on the meaning of the experience, no matter how difficult and painful. While writing about the book of course. You could have made all of that coherent if you had been honest and clever.” He took a long drink, watching for my reaction over the top of the glass. I think I managed not to reveal my unease. He therefore continued in the same vane, seemingly eager to provoke me, “This does make me wonder about your delivery capacity.” To this I must have shown a look of confusion and so he added, “Delivery capacity is what this work is all about. I didn’t come to this absurd place just to play games with Yahoos.” So, I thought, the editor was right. “I came here to transform lives and institutions.” He gestured to take in his plush surroundings, perhaps to indicate this was one of the institutions he was engaged in transforming or perhaps to indicate that he was planning to redecorate. “And so when I want you to work with me, you note I did not say ‘for me,’ I will expect you to deliver.”

From that I did in fact react, “Did I hear that you are offering me a job? I must admit, to try to be honest here, that I’m a little nervous and maybe I misheard what . . . “

He cut me off again with another wave of his hand. The same one that was holding the Scotch, which caused some of it to splash out onto his desk. “To be my Director of Community Education. Actually I think I’ll make you an assistant dean. That will impress them. ‘Dean Zimmerman’—how does that sound to you Lloyd?”

In spite of my leaping excitement, I tried to pretend to be calm. I smiled back at him, and wanted to seem casual when I said, “It would actually sound better if it were ‘Dean Zazlo,’ since that’s my name.”

“‘Zimmerman,’ ‘Zazlo,’ what’s the difference? You’ll still be a dean and I assume that’s what you really care about. You’re here for a job, correct? The book aside.” But before I could get myself mobilized to even begin to appear to contradict him, though I was thrilled by his offer, or thank him, though I couldn’t begin to imagine what the job would actually involve, he said, “Of course you will not have an office. I have already spoken with my dean of administration about that. Nor will you have an assigned parking space on campus.” He noticed my puzzled look, “That’s because I want you out in the community, not wasting your time here with the other deans, a sad lot they are. It’s all about delivery capacity, and in your case that will be among the people of this miserable island. I cannot, as I should, yet tear down this place, and I mean that literally, and rebuild it as a true college in and of the community,” that was a phrase now quite familiar to me.

Again he swept the room with a grand gesture which this time came to rest behind him on an architectural model that covered the entire surface of his massive conference table. “That was designed by Paul Rudolph, a friend,” he said, not facing me, “who as you know is the dean at Yale, and eventually that will be the new college here. It is a brilliant conception and will prove to be the template for other socially-engaged colleges in America and worldwide. In fact, to signal that, since it will take some years to convince the Neanderthals here to let me build this—notice how the buildings are set in grids, just like the city into which they will effortlessly blend.” At that I did wonder how that would work on gridless Staten Island which near his campus was more rural than urban, but I did not interject.

By flailing his arms and gyrating his body he twisted himself back from the cardboard model to face me. By this I was reminded that he was too short to turn his chair in the conventional way with his feet. But with no self-consciousness about that or anything he picked up where he had left off, “Yes, I wanted to create a title for you that would express my global aspirations for a new kind of responsive institution. You were to be Le Directeur Pour L’Éducation Permanent. There is such a position at the Sorbonne. Isn’t that an extraordinary concept, those French, to think of education as lifelong, as permanent. That’s what the title translates to mean. But you knew that.” For the first time he smiled and I for the first time felt the beginnings of colleagueship, though I was happy not to have to have that title. Not there on Staten island. Or, for that matter, anywhere in the U.S. “And wouldn’t it have been something,” he added, “to have that magnificent title on your business card.” Actually that’s precisely what I was happy not to have to deal with.

”Those gavones who live up on that hill,” he pressed on and, though Todt Hill was visible through the expansive window behind him, President Birenberg resisted making another grand gesture, “They didn’t want a college here in the first place. Any kind of college. They want to keep control of their children, especially their daughters, to see them married and having babies. They feel threatened by any form of education, particularly a liberal education. That it will infect the minds of their sons and daughters who might come home asking questions about complicated and embarrassing subjects. Their world would be threatened.” He paused and then laughed, “And of course they are right.

“And you can only imagine what they think about me—a big-eared Jewboy from Omaha.” He saw the look on my face, misinterpreting its meaning, though he did have protruding wrestler’s ears, which may have explained his blocky body, “Yes they do have people of our faith in Nebraska. But not that many here on Staten Island, much less running this college which is right in their backyard. I will tell you, as I am about to launch you into their midst, that they will not like who you are either, in spite of your American title. They came here in the first place to get away from people like us.”

His tone had changed; it had softened, coming from deeper within him, “And from Black folks as well. They welcomed them as slaves but when that was ‘unfortunately’ ended,” he made quotation marks in the air with his fingers, “they wanted to send them back from where they came. Staten Island, some evidence shows, wished to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Did you know that? So we are still living with that today.”

He paused again to take another long swallow and noticing that the glass was now nearly empty, bellowed, “Patty! Ice. More ice!” In a second the door to his office popped open and I assumed it was Patty who appeared with an identical glass filled to the top with ice cubes. Dr. B poured himself another drink, emptying the bottle of Cutty. Patty by then had found another full bottle in his lateral file cabinet and placed it on his desk. He stared at it for a moment as if to think what to do with it. He then opened the horizontal desk drawer where one usually kept pens and scissors and slid the empty bottle, on its side, into it. I could hear it rolling back and forth as he slid the drawer closed. The three of us, as if transfixed, silently listened to that hollow rattling sound.

When the bottle finally came to rest Patty slipped out and Birenberg picked up where he had left off. “We live today with that history of racism. And we, by that I mean you and I, we are going to be dealing with that. We will be confronting it directly.” He glared at me, adding with considerable emphasis, “I mean all day every day.” He paused to allow that imperative to sink in, to have its effect on me. I understood from that why I would have neither an office nor a parking space. I would be out in the community on the front lines with him. Though I also knew that he did have both an office and a parking space reserved for him right by the entrance to the A Building. But I did need a job and he certainly was fascinating, not in any way the usual university administrator, and I had learned to deal with issues of race at Queens. I thus felt ready and qualified to take on his challenge to help build his university in the city. I even managed to chuckle to myself—I sure have the scars to prove it.

“So here’s the deal,” he said, snapping me out of my reflections, “You start on Monday and will have that dean title. I know your last Queens College salary and I’ll double that. I assume you will not be unhappy about that. But for it I expect you to work days and nights because much of what you will be having to do will occur after normal college hours. Are you all right with this so far?” I had barely heard anything after the doubling-of-the-salary part, and he took my stunned silence as evidence of agreement. “You will be my agent, in and of the community. Also, my eyes and ears. I know those Mafioso up in those hills hate me as do many of their working-class ilk. Bigots that they are. But they are nonetheless our community and you have to win them over to our agenda. An agenda they will not like because I plan to integrate this place. The face of this campus is going to change. It already has in the first eighteen months of my presidency. Walk around. Talk to people. You’ll see many black faces. But that’s just a beginning. Before I’m done with this place the fences will have been taken down and the windows broken to allow fresh ideas to blow through. (I’m of course speaking metaphorically.) And you will be in the vanguard. Are you understanding me?” He peered at me with his black eyes with such penetrating intensity that I felt he could see and feel my flaming soul. In spite of all the contradictions and inconsistencies that were only too evident at the college and in the community, he had gotten to me. It had become more than about a job or the doubled salary. I couldn’t wait to get stated. Monday, just four days away, felt like an eternity. Perhaps the Revolution might still be possible. And here of all the unlikely places!

“I do not want to see you here. As I said, you will work exclusively in the field. We will meet monthly at the bar of the Staten Island Rathskeller. A terrible place but they serve honest drinks. At those time you will report to me about what you have learned and accomplished. What you have delivered.” He smiled broadly at that. “Do we have a deal?”

But again, before I could respond that I did have the delivery capacity he was seeking and that we did indeed have a deal, he again slid off his chair. With his hips he shoved the chair back and it rolled off the plastic carpet shield, crashing into the conference table and jarring the flimsy architectural model. He reached forward, brushing aside the newspapers and books, some fell to the floor, and grabbed hold of the old chain. Holding it gingerly as if it were fragile, he carried it, more he cradled it, and brought it around to the front of the desk where I was seated and stood with it, now extending it toward me like an offering, and asked, “Do you know what this is?” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t think so. These are leg irons. This one was actually worn by a slave. On the passge from Africa. A man who was brought here as chattel, in chains. I brought it back with me from Senegal, from Goré Island just off shore from Dakar. Do you know about Goré?” I didn’t move. “From the 15th to the 19th centuries, it is the point from which perhaps 20 million African slaves were shipped to the Americas. Twenty million. Do you understand the meaning of that number?” Still I did not move. I just stared back at him with unwavering eyes. “Helene and I, my wife, went out to that island and we walked among the ruins. But one building is still preserved. It was the place where the men and women were kept before being loaded, in chains like these, onto the boats. And when that time came they were hauled through a doorway that forever thereafter was known as The Door of No Return because after passing through it there would be no turning back. It is said that not one of those millions even looked back as they were marched to the dock.”

I thought I saw tears forming in his eyes, but he shook his head to clear them and continued, “And of those that survived, and millions didn’t, some, a few came here. Right to here. To this island. To work the fields. There were French Hugonauts and Dutch settlers here and they were known to be very cruel. If anyone, any slave escaped and swan across the Kill Van Kull to what is now New Jersey, they would track them down, every one of them, and force them to return. Punishing them so severely that many of the runaway slaves died from the lashings.”

He moved closer to me and raised the leg irons so that they were in our mutual line of sight. I looked at them and tried to imagine what it had been like to be shackled in them. “And now,” Birenberg continued, “some of those slaves who survived have great-grandchildren living here. Many on Jersey Street, as you will come to know. But before I send you on your way I want you to do one thing.”

“Anything,” I replied. He owned me now in more than a few ways.

“Put these on.” He pressed the leg irons into my hands.

“What?” I cried and jumped back away from him as if seared.

“You need to know what they experienced before you go to work among them.”

“But you said,” I stammered, “that I would be working with their descendents. I’m not sure I want to do this.” Saying this to him felt like a big risk. Would he be so angry with me that he would take back his offer?

“So you are not ready for this. I understand. I really do,” he withdrew the leg irons, “You have much to achieve. Much more to become. I knew that when I read your letter. And yet I invited you here to see me. I can be patient. But not very. There is work to be done and you need to get to it.”

And with that he trotted over to the sofa behind his conference table, threw himself onto it, and, I could not believe my eyes, clamped the leg irons around his own ankles.

Thus shackled, he struggled to pull himself up from the deep cushions. With considerable effort he managed to, and began to shuffle back toward where I remained seated. Because he had such short legs one might have imagined he would have been able to make good progress, but he was clearly having difficulty propelling himself forward. The chain rattled dully with each stumbling step. I wondered that maybe all the Scotch was also having an effect on his balance. But hobbling he finally he reached me and, with his hands on his hips and out of breath he said, grinning, “You see it is possible. Perhaps for you, next time?”

I said to him, “Perhaps,” and to myself, I hope this works.

“First thing,” he said, back to business, “is that fucking Italian Festival. Those illiterates at the Staten Island Advance are calling it the Backlash Festival, claiming I’m organizing it to only to patronize the Italian community—you know, we’ll sell zeppolis and meatballs on campus and that will make up for bringing in the ‘Niggers and the Spics.’” Even though Birenberg again formed quotation marks in the air, I thought this was beginning to sound entirely too much like Joe Murphy, my ex-policeman boss at Queens College. I was having second thoughts about my decision, such as it was.

“Well let them wait to see what we do here. In fact, what you do here because I’m putting you in charge of it. The festival.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I managed to say, “I’ve never done anything like that before. I mean run a festival.”

“You’ll be fine. Everything is planned. Yes, we will have sausages to make them happy, but we’re also borrowing from Bloomingdales examples of the latest Milanese furniture designs and my wife, who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has arranged for them to loan us a dozen Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings.” I was stunned by this and he said that there would be no Titians, of course, just works of lesser figures. “We have to insure them and have 24-hour security, but to the people from this island they’ll all look like real masterpieces. They’ll talk about it for years.”

“So what is there for me to do?”

“Hand holding.”


“The Italian Club . . .”

“The what?”

“. . . of Staten Island. They’ve been around forever and incredibly wield a lot of power here. The president is Al Maniscalco, former borough president. I’ve arranged for the college to have an ex officio seat on the Club’s board and I am assigning you to it.”

“Really? After what you just said about them not liking our kind shouldn’t you name an Italian?” I made my own version of quotation marks with my hands. “There must be some on your faculty.”

“No. I mean there are. Of course. This is Staten Island after all. But I don’t trust them. That’s why you will do it. You will gain their confidence and represent to them the real interests of the college. Diplomatically of course. And you tell me everything you learn about them and what they are up to. At our lunches.”

“Well . . . “

“Remember—it’s all about delivery capacity.” He was grinning.

And I thought, At least I have a job.

To be continued . . .

Friday, February 23, 2007

February 23, 2007--Fanaticism LXXVI--Donor Number 150

In the ongoing battle about whether Nature (inheritance) or Nurture (upbringing, education, culture, etc.) contributes more to individuals’ height, physiognomies, intelligence, character, well-being, and ultimate destiny in life, the argument has been conclusively resolved in the world of sperm.

Competition is booming among sperm donors where women, seeking artificial insemination, are demanding versions of perfection among the men who are doing the donating. In place of Mr. Right, they are looking for Mr. Right’s sperm.

They not only want to know how tall the sperm supplier is but also the color of his eyes, if he is interested in music or literature, and his SAT scores. According to a recent article in the NY Times, they also are insisting on seeing childhood pictures of the men as well as those of him as an adolescent. The latter is of course the ultimate test for after all who among us looked good as a pimply prepubescent. Not me, that’s for sure. (Linked below.)

In many ways, things at the sperm bank work pretty much the way they do at a dating service where both looks and personality characteristics are listed for potential mothers to choose among. At the Fairfax Cryobank the most popular donor, Number 1913, is of Colombian-Italian and Spanish ancestry, is deemed by the staff there (whose opinions are a part of the selection files) as “very attractive, with hazel eyes, and dark hair.” It doesn’t hurt that he is also “pursuing” a Ph.D. (who isn’t?) They staff report also gushes that he has a “modelesque jaw line and sparkling eyes.” He also has “a shy, boyish charm.”

And as a way to get insight into his personality he was asked what was the funniest thing that ever happened to him. In response, he told about having his girlfriend’s mother stand on his stomach to demonstrate the strength of his abdominal muscles and, wouldn’t you know it, that when she did he “passed gas.”

That would do it for me. And I’m also interested in meeting the mother. She also sounds like quite a card.

But as in the dating world, looks can also be deceiving. Donor Number 150 at the Cryobank in California for quite some time was in hot demand. He was 6-feet tall, had blue eyes, and was interested in philosophy, music, and drama. Sounds perfect, right? Well it turns out that he and his 6-feet were found to be living in an RV near Los Angeles, and he was just managing to get by doing odd jobs and taking care of dogs.

I sort of like the caring-for-dog part, but I do understand why he has fallen out of favor—you can never be really sure about guys who are interested in philosophy.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

February 22, 2007--The Coalition of the Dwindling

Tony Blair announced yesterday that the British would withdraw 1,600 of its 7,100 troops from Iraq. At the same time, the Danes said they would pull out all of their 460 soldiers; and the Lithuanians, not to be outdone, indicated they are thinking about taking out its force of 53 soldiers. (See NY Times article linked below.)

By my count this pretty much leaves us holding the bag. Sorry, I forgot about the 1,000 Australians troops who will remain well behind the lines of combat, in spite of Prime Minister John Howard's recent boasting about staying the course.

Asked what they thought about the British decision to begin to end their commitment, Secretary of State Rice said that what the Brits are doing is “really the plan for the country as a whole—which is to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqis.” And Vice President Cheney and President Bush, responding from the same talking points, said that this withdrawal is not evidence that the plan is not working but rather the opposite—why would our closest ally be leaving if they and we hadn’t decided that they are no longer needed since things are going so well.

On the other hand, no one in the administration indicated how all of these withdrawals square with the need to add 21,000 more U.S troops. I suppose talking point about how to answer that embarrassing question are not as yet available.

At the same time that Blair is beginning to phase out British involvement, third-in-line to the English throne, Prince Harry is asking to be sent to Iraq. He was quoted as saying, “After graduating from Sandhurst [England’s West Point], I don’t feel good about being in England while our guys are having their asses shot off over there.” This is pretty much a direct quote. And, I feel, pretty impressive.

This caused me to have a wicked idea—since Prince Harry is also considered to be one of the world’s “most eligible bachelors” and will soon be in Iraq, maybe the Bush twins, who appear to be having some difficulty calming down, might think about enlisting in the army. By doing so they could expiate their father’s lack of Vietnam service, take some personal responsibility for their father’s war, and maybe one of them might get lucky with the prince.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

February 21, 2007--Green With Envy

For me, one of the attractions of plopping down on this small island literally in the middle of the Mediterranean is the fact that it is six time zones away from New York. Which means that certain kinds of aggravation and anxiety are that far away, and the news of the world also lags behind the 24-7 curve.

But we do get the International Herald Tribune most days, a mini- English-language version of the excellent El Pais, and the ever-gossipy Majorca Daily Bulletin (the spelling of “Majorca” with a J indicates it’s pitched to the large expat British community here who steadfastly refuse to spell “Mallorca” the way Mallorquins spell it or, for that matter, even deign to learn a few words of restaurant Spanish).

So from the IHT, El Pais, and the Bulletin the news does manage to leak through to us even though we try to hide from it. And at times the version of the news we get from these three papers provides a fresh perspective on happenings, or lack thereof, in America. Today is a case in point.

The lead story in the Tribune (linked below) is about how the EU countries yesterday voted to cut their greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2020, if, as a challenge to the U.S. and other heavy polluters, we and they do the same. Dream on.

The IHT’s lead story in the business section is about how Australia just decided to move entirely away from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent bulbs by 2010 and thereby reduce energy use significantly.

Then the tabloid Majorca Daily Bulletin, which devotes almost all of its 32 pages to local gossip (what the Brits here are up to—most of it excruciatingly boring) and sports, today carried fully five stories about projects on Mallorca designed to reduce pollution and global warming. The first is about a water conference underway in the island’s capital, Palma that will focus on ways to treat sewage and desalinate seawater. The second reports about progress in the construction of a new light-rail Metro system for Palma. Next is a story about the proud announcement that all new Palma street cleaning vehicles will run on biofuel. Then, the small city of Manacor, tennis superstar Raffa Nadal’s hometown, is implementing a new wood products recycling program. And Inca, the leather-manufacturing city in the center of the island, is doubling the amount of the subsidies it will pay those who install of solar panels.

Meanwhile, back in the U. S. of A., what are we hearing? Mainly about what we’re not doing and how maybe Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth might win an Academy Award for best documentary.

I can just see him, can we talk, being interviewed on the red carpet by Joan Rivers. In her usually probing way, she’ll ask, “And who dressed you tonight, Mr. Former-Vice-President? Armani?”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 20, 2007--Slippers

I’ve been wearing slippers my entire life and until today never realized they had an inventor. I assumed they had been around forever. Well, at least since Ancient Egypt—I’ve seen hieroglyphics which seem to depict humans with heads like crows’ walking around in what look to me like slippers. Or at the least, I always thought, slippers existed since the time when Marco Polo brought them back with him to Italy, along with spaghetti, from China.

But then there was this NY Times headline, “Florence Z. Melton, 95, Creator of Slippers, Dies,” and I became terribly confused. It appears that they were invented in just 1948 in Columbus, Ohio of all places. (See full obituary linked below.) And what a story it is.

At then end of World War II women continued to dress in a civilian version of military style. You know the look from old Joan Crawford movies—double-breasted suits with padded shoulders. But there was a problem with the padding: when cleaning the suit jacket the pads had to be removed and then sown back in. Lots of work for busy women. Mrs. Melton had a better idea—cotton pads, separate from the jackets, that could be attached to brassiere straps. She patented these and sold quite a few. But these too became a problem as washing machines began to proliferate—they were not machine washable.

From an article in Popular Mechanics (my favorite boyhood magazine), she read about the invention, during the war, of foam rubber and how it had been used in helmets. She wondered, could we make our shoulder pads out of foam rubber? It would undoubtedly be more comfortable than cotton and could likely be washed in machines. She made a deal with Firestone and, since she was right on both counts, business boomed.

Not one to become complacent, even in the face of success, on a drive back to Columbus from Firestone’s headquarters in Akron, Mrs. Melton said to her husband, “Aaron, you know what we ought to do with foam rubber? We ought to walk on it.” And from that insight, the slipper was born.

I should now reveal that her version of the slipper is the kind that perhaps you’ve seen your mother or grandmother wear. Not the type worn in Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Rome, or by me as I padded about our apartment in Brooklyn. Her slippers, Dearfoams, are the ones made out of fuzzy terrycloth, come in a wide variety of colors, have slightly raised heels, of course have foam rubber soles. And, yes, they are machine washable.

If you’re wondering—Dearfoams have sold more than 3 billion pairs worldwide. That’s a lot of grandmothers.

Monday, February 19, 2007

February 19, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: The Llaut and the Sunset

In this sleepy place it takes a lot to get anyone excited. The island is about tranquio, not excitement. OK, maybe if the Mallorca soccer team manages to win a game the guys will go to La Palmeras to down a few extra shots of Hierbas, the local intoxicant; or if the Guardia Civil writes someone a parking ticket it will be argued about for a week or two.

But to see twenty or more people huddled together at the edge of the waterfront all of whom appear to be pointing at the water and talking animatedly to each other; or, even more remarkable, to see at least that many moving quickly down the harbor to get an unencumbered view of the horizon, to find so many of these usually unflappable people actually running along beside the Sea, to come upon all of this activity in one afternoon is unheard of.

But both occurred within minutes of each other late last week.

We were driving back into town after wandering around in the foothills of the Tramuntana Mountains, back among the old pathways called camis, between the newly blossoming almond trees where the only sounds are from the dependable Llevant wind that arrives from the south each afternoon and the clank of sheep bells. Returning to our version of civilization after just an hour of this kind aimless wandering enveloped by such eternal earth-borne sensations is not the best preparation for so much commotion.

There was so much agitation and excitement among the first group that the cars which generally negotiate with ease the sharp right turn that loops them into town, such as it is, was backed up in a way that reminded us more of New York traffic than anything we are used to encountering in Puerto Andratx. That is unless someone stops in the middle of the road at La Consigna, the café and bakery, to talk for five minutes with a friend who is seated at an outdoor table sipping on a cortado. For this, when all cars need to halt—no problemo.

But this was different. Something very out of the ordinary was happening and we were in truth happy to be caught in the snarl so that we too could get a glimpse of what was going on, knowing that whatever it was it would likely be the talk of the town for months. Talk in which we would very much want to be participating.

It turned out that what was happening down there in the water, below the wooden bridge that spans the small canal that was cut into the adjoining meadow, who knows how long ago, at the deepest end of the harbor as a place, perhaps, to shelter small llauts from storms that swirl in unexpectedly this time of year, right down there, as the result of just such a storm the previous night, one of these boats that had been moored at the mouth of the canal had capsized.

As we inched closer, we could see its swollen hull bobbing in the still turbulent water just above its whipped surface. And down there in a wet suit was someone from the Mallorcan Coast Guard attempting to slip broad rubber straps under the llaut’s submerged deck presumably to then attach them to the lifting hook of the crane that sat on a small barge which was anchored just beyond the bridge. It was well designed for just this purpose. Clearly, to these men this was not as unusual an occurrence as it would appear from all the chatter and simultaneous advice being offered by the onlookers—“Put the sling over there, at the stern end”; “No, not there, better it should be placed in the middle, right in front of where the cabin is”; “Don’t listen to him, he knows nothing about boats. You need to move it toward the bow because that’s where they placed the strap the last time this happened. I think it was in 1999.”

For these seaside superintendents, this was as exciting an event as a Real Mallorca football victory; and we assumed, after the boat was righted as it certainly would be, it would be celebrated in a very similar matter. The Hierbas would be flowing, just as it undoubtedly had in 1999.

Then as we finally negotiated that turn into the center of the Puerto we became witness to even more turbulence—this time what appeared to be a full-fledged panic. At that time of day there are typically not many people in town—it is too early for most to be seeking a pre-dinner drink and certainly, at 6:00, much too early for anyone to be thinking about eating. But nonetheless, everyone who was in the port and not at the canal appeared to be racing to get away from something—perhaps, we thought, a gas leak or some other kind of dangerous condition where the road that circles the harbor turns south.

Again the traffic slowed to a crawl. Downshifting, in first gear we thumped past the fishing fleet which had recently returned from a choppy day at sea. The gathering crowd raced along in our direction, faster than we could move, passing us as if we were stalled.

We finally reached La Consigna where all the tables had been abandoned; its few customers, it appeared, had joined the surging throng and had been absorbed in it. At the taxi stand, though there were the usual three in the queue, none of the drivers, however, were to be seen. Had they too left their cars to race toward the horizon because it was clear that was where everyone was headed?

Seeing a rare parking spot along the seawall, Rona gestured to me to pull into it and was half out of the car before I could set the brake. She raced ahead and I feared I would not be able to keep up with her or find her in the swarming crowd once we all came to a halt on the long pier that cuts halfway out into the open harbor. But breathless I did locate her where she stood, facing the southern sky, illuminated by it, now surrounded by townspeople and the occasional tourist.

It was 6:15 and the sun in its mid-February transit was knifing toward the horizon that stretches fully across the open end of our almost circular port. Someone said this is the first day that it will touch and then cut into the water in the middle of that open gap in the harbor’s mouth.

It was evident that this was true; but what had drawn these hundred people, including now Rona and me, was not that yearly celestial phenomenon but the play of the sun’s dying light on the mountains, water, and especially the sky. The lurid pinks and reds and golds.

From this display, it would not be hard to imagine the ancients’ understanding of the world as made up of just four elements—earth, wind, water, and fire. And, from this, it would not be difficult to imagine why the first Paleolithic inhabitants of this island would wonder about the meaning of the daily event of the setting sun and fear each night that the light might not return.

We of course know better about all of these things—the elements; the movement of the earth, not certainly the sun; the refraction of light; and of course the certainty of mañana.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

February 17, 2007--Saturday Story: Found On Staten Island--Part One

In “What Does Happiness Have to Do With Anything?”, Lloyd took us back in time to help us understand why it had been so difficult for him to find happiness. Actually, as he reminded us, to pursue it. He recalled for us about how each side of his family brought with them from the Old Country a gloomy sense of pessimism that they perhaps genetically, or more likely via example, passed along to their children—especially to Lloyd himself, his father’s Number-One Son. As “Happiness?” ends, Lloyd broadly hints that the remainder of what he will be recounting will be about his efforts to overcome both what nature and nurture instilled in him while pursuing at least a modicum of, yes, happiness.

So in Found On Staten Island, Lloyd tells us that . . .

After having been sent packing as the result of the coup at Queens College, I surprisingly found myself--rather, now in the active voice—I found another assignment almost immediately. Via and unorthodoxy and indirect route, I was hired to serve as the Assistant Dean of Community and Continuing Education at a community college on Staten Island. Though it might appear that the dean’s title was evidence of professional progress, becoming an assistant dean at a junior college was in the world of the university could understandable be seen as a step backwards.

There were, however, some compensations—importantly, I had a job and a salary. And, I was pleased to discover that two-year colleges of this kind were mostly populated by young people and adults from working-class families, which would allow me to apply my administrative skills, as I had so abortedly attempted to do in the Collegiate Opportunity Program, to a student population also seeking cultural and social mobility. So there was ample opportunity on Staten Island, as there had been in Queens, to contribute to social change. The Larger Revolution was for me, though, put on indefinite hold. Rather, in the active voice again—I placed that Revolution on the back burner and embraced the revisionist idea that individual change needs to precede social change. For the students this certainly had to be true, I rationalized; and, who knew, maybe it would be for me as well.

I heard about Staten Island Community College, SICC (smart-ass students pronounced this acronym SICK), from a Queens College colleague—Harvey Weiner, a sociologist from the “regular” faculty who had supported the COP Program sit-in and all of the non-negotiable demands, including the one that would have required the student cafeteria to serve Soul Food. Actually, from Harvey I learned about SICC’s president, William Birenberg who had written a book he recommended, The University In the City. As a self-described radical sociologist, Weiner studied the “political economy” of education—the relationship between who, via taxes, paid for public education and who benefited. Through his research he claimed that he found that public schooling did not live up to its egalitarian rhetoric. When he looked at the data to see how well schools functioned in fostering meritocracy, he discovered, and proclaimed to those who would listen, that the opportunities schools provided benefited primarily those from privileged backgrounds. In a word, public schools were not the engines of democracy many claimed them to be, but rather they helped reproduce the advantages of affluence and the disadvantages of poverty and race. Lower-income people in the aggregate, Weiner argued, paid a disproportionately higher percentage of taxes which were then used to provide more years of higher quality education to the children of the “rich.” Since Harvey saw COP to be a radical alternative to this “rigged system,” his phrase, he befriended the program and me.

Thus, he passed along Birenberg’s book, which he urged me to read while I was adrift and looking for employment, feeling that it, in spite of my disappointment and sense of having been treated unfairly, would help keep me focused on “the on-going struggle.” In addition, Harvey wished me well, though he was not reluctant to add, looking me square in he eye, that he “fully supported” my firing, seeing my summary dismissal as just another example of “collateral damage,” again his phrase, which was one of the inevitable consequences to be expected on the long march toward revolutionary change. Which for him, unlike me, was decidedly not on hold. He had both the data and bumper stickers to prove it.

In fact, the book was just what I needed to inspire and distract me. I was so taken by Birenberg’s central thesis that when I finished it I shot off to him a gushing letter in which I said things such as: “Your powerful and, may I say, energetically written case in support of the idea that the university must be more than in the city but of the city and that it has social responsibilities, especially to the poor and disenfranchised, is brilliant and spoke directly to me in my role as an administrator of a special program at Queens College that is doing this very thing. [I did not see it to be necessary to refer to myself as an unemployed former administrator—I was so enthusiastic about his ideas that I felt the need to write to him as a version of a colleague.] . . . Though up to this point I have not thought as I much as I should have about how the setting and physical arrangement of the typical university communicates and encourages exclusivity, and that to become socially engaged with the community it needs to be radically redesigned, Queens College high up on its isolated hill is certainly such an example. The again brilliance of your critique is more than just spot on; your book, unlike others of a revisionist kind, also charts a path forward for those of us involved in leadership positions in higher education. You provide the inspiration as well as the agenda for engagement as we struggle to reform the university and thereby transform it into the kind of responsive institution requires.”

My letter ran on in this vane until I had typed four single-spaced pages on Queens College stationary; and even though it was 2:00 a.m., I was so excited by Birenberg’s book and my letter, that I pulled a pair of pants on over my pajamas and raced out to mail it. I was that enthusiastic. I also hoped that he would like what I wrote about the book and him and thus might be willing to help me find a job somewhere. Anywhere.

But I heard nothing back; and thoughts about SICC, The University in the City, and any remaining enthusiasm for social engagement generated from the book and my time at Queens College rapidly receded. I was beginning to feel desperate about my own much more personal lack of engagement. To the point that, in addition to sending résumés to colleges and universities in an ever-widening geographic circle, including one all the way out to Ohio State University, and hearing nothing back except, “We will keep your vitae in our files in case an appropriate position becomes available. But in the meantime, please do not call us because we receive literally hundreds of applications of this kind each month,” out of frustration, desperation, and self-doubt, I began to think about what other careers I might pursue. Equally important, as I saw the balance in my checking account shrinking, I considered other ways to make a living. Perhaps, I thought, with a publisher or at an advertising agency—I had after all been an English major and though I had not been able to publish very much of my own work I still thought of myself as well-read and at least a decent writer. That should qualify me.

Who knew, maybe I might have the ability to write advertising copy. What, in truth, was so difficult about coming up with slogans as for Coca Cola—It’s the Real Thing, or Quality is Job One for the Ford Motor Company, whatever that means. Really. I could do that. It certainly paid a lot better than university teaching or administration. To test myself I even tried to come up with some tag lines of my own. But, thankfully, before I got too far into that, and in truth because it turned out not to be as easy as it seemed (my best line was for St. Pauli’s Girl—The Queen Of Beers, so you can see what I mean), I got a call from Birenberg’s assistant who told me that he liked my letter and would I be available to meet with him later in the week so we could talk about it. I wasn’t sure if it meant the book or my letter, much less if I might be able to talk honestly with him about my own circumstances; but to be able to talk with anyone, much less a president, much less the author of that book, on an actual university campus nearer to New York than Columbus, Ohio, and not to be needing to buy a new wardrobe for Madison Avenue, though I pretended to Birenberg’s assistant that I was “all tied up” through Thursday and though she said he was available on just Wednesday, I said “no problem, just tell me when to be there.” She said come at 3:00 and I again said “no problem.”

In my best corduroys and my old English Department tweed jacket with the leather patches on the sleeves, at noon on Wednesday I made my way across the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island. I wasn’t comfortable with the directions—I had only been on Staten Island when driving across it as quickly as possible on the way to South Jersey or Philadelphia—and so I wanted to give myself enough time to find my way to his office. But I also wanted to take in and understand how Birenberg’s college related, including physically, to its community since he had written so extensively about that and had included many pages of glossy illustrations to make his point. I was thus eager to become familiar with his campus and its surroundings so that I would be able to talk knowingly with him about this essential aspect of his thinking.

But as I found my way there, it was immediately evident that Birenberg’s college appeared to be the very kind of place he most criticized in his book. It was even more set apart from its community, in spite of being a community college, than Queens College.

SICC sat isolated in a wooded valley between two soaring hills, Todt and Grimes, which were sites for the island’s most exclusive and valuable real estate. In fact, most of New York’s leading Mafia families had their faux-Tudor and Mansard-roofed mansions perched in enclaves on those hills, reputed to be the highest right along the east coast south of Maine. Indeed, I later learned that the wedding scene in The Godfather had been shot in one of those mansions not more than a quarter of a mile up the road from Birenberg’s campus—they had even used classrooms at the college to dress and make up the actors.

And when I drove through the security gate, where I was required to show my drivers license before I was allowed to enter, I found the campus to be more a series of nondescript buildings surrounded entirely by parking lots than anything illustrated in The Univeristy In the City. It was hard to imagine anything about Todt Hill resembling Birenberg’s city. It was even more difficult to think about what I saw through the hurricane fencing that completely encircled the campus as of the community much less in it. Queens College, by comparison, felt like the Sorbonne.

From this I knew the conversation that awaited me was going to be more complicated than I had been imagining. But I needed a job—anyone, anywhere—and whatever Birenberg might say or offer to do was going to be fine with me.

To be continued . . .

Friday, February 16, 2007

February 16, 2007--Fanaticism LXXV--Jill Camel

I’m not sure my father would like this news—R.J Reynolds is coming out with a version of Camel cigarettes pitched to women. Called Camel No. 9, it will be sold in a hot-pink pack. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Wondering about the No. 9? Love Potion No. 9; Chanel No. 19—get it? Very girly.

My dad was a macho man and smoked Camels right down to the end of each butt. If necessary, I’m sure he would have been willing to walk a mile to get a pack. Or send me for one.

When they came out with a filter-tip version and replaced the soft pack with the flip-top box, these two things alone motivated him to give up smoking. I can’t begin to imagine what he would think, if the smoking didn’t kill him, if he knew that you can get mentholated Camels and now this new feminized version with its “Light and Luscious” slogan.

At a time when much of the western world is making efforts to limit smoking, even banning it in most European Union restaurants and bars to curtail the health-related risks, at a time when women now constitute nearly half of all smokers and of course as a result heart disease has become the foremost cause of death among women, R.J. Reynolds and their ilk can’t contain their marketing impulses and greed.

Looking across at Marlboro, their chief rival among the intrepid set who want to smoke a real cigarette, Camel is concerned that only 30 percent of its smokers are female whereas Marlboro Women make up 40 percent of their customers. So they see opportunity here and thus they prepared and ran ads for Camel No. 9 that had the florid packs surrounded by flowers. Just in time for Valentines Day.

To quote the Camel marketing folks who tried to make light of all the fuss about the ethics of attempting to draw more women to cigarettes even though more now are dying of lung than breast cancer—the introduction of Camel No. 9 is simply part of a strategy to “focus on products that are ‘wow,’ that add fun and excitement to smoking.”

I guess we haven’t come such a long way baby.

Move over Joe here comes Jill Camel.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15, 2007--Gone Fishin

I know it may be cold and nasty where you are and I'm sorry about that. Here it's just too beautiful to be sitting inside typing away. So, I'll see you tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

February 14, 2007--Libya, North Korea, and ____ ?

We appear to have made a deal with North Korea.

In effect, they will verifiably give up their nuclear weapons program and we will supply them with various forms of aid, including for their energy and food needs. And we are even dangling before them the possibility of moving toward “normalizing” relations. (See NY Times article linked below.)

I suspect this is a good deal and one that has a good chance of working for at least six reasons—

First, one of the signatories to the agreement is China and there is no way that North Korea either politically or culturally can go back on a deal struck with the Chinese.

Then, it’s a good deal for North Korea. What, after all, at the end of the day are they going to do with a few nukes that were in truth versions of duds and a bunch of rusty missiles that they couldn’t even shoot straight?

Third, for giving up in truth very little strategically the North Koreans will be getting a lot, a lot of cash and energy and food aid from the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan. Not to speak of what the South Koreans are for certain going to provide. I can already see the business elites in Seoul celebrating all the looming investment possibilities.

Fourth, the North Koreans can feel that they made the Evil Empire (us) blink. This allows them to save face when in fact they are giving up the weapon systems that are the very things that earned them a place on the world map—without nukes they’re just another backward place where half the population is starving to death.

Fifth, related to this, the way the deal is structured allows the North Koreans to feel they are a part of the world community, no longer pariahs. In the spirit that a picture is worth a thousand words, the front page photos of the very public handshakes between all six parties to the agreement is something Kim Song-Il is for certain going to disseminate widely.

And finally, it must be a good deal because former UN ambassador John Bolton and his fellow neo-cons are already leading a rising chorus of criticism Even before the ink is dry they’re screaming that the U.S. will be overcompensating the North Koreans, offering much too much in aid and other concessions as our quid to their quo. Won’t this, to quote them, show other evil-doers that “bad behavior will be rewarded”?

To this latter point I say, I hope so. There is a lot of bad behavior on display around the world, some of it quite dangerous. No need to make a list. Don’t we need to figure out how to deal with this? One way is to go to war; the other is to try to come to some sort of deal. To say you have to behave well before we’ll talk with you is at best just plain naïve.

What the agreement with North Korea suggests is that even when dealing with a hermetically sealed nation ruled but an indisputable tyrant, there is always the possibility of coming to some sort of deal that more or less works for both sides. Isn’t that they way things work in the real world?

So in fairly short order we’ve seen the “evil” Muammar Qaddafi agree to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and now there is North Korea. You may not be the biggest fan of the Bush administration but their agreeing to act, forgive me, “generously” in both situations is the way victorious or hegemonic powers have always behaved in order to bring about peace and reconciliation.

Which leads one to wonder--what next. I say, keep your eyes on Tehran.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February 13, 2007--A Modest Suggestion

The Israelis say they want some sort of peace with the Palestinians, but they sure have a strange way of showing it.

The latest incident to set emotions boiling is the repair work the Israelis have been carrying out on a 150-foot walkway adjacent to the Western or Wailing Wall. The problem of course is that the Wall and thus the walkway are right next to the mount on which sits the Al Aksa Mosque, the third holiest site to Muslims who believe that Mohammed rose to heaven from that very spot. But then Jews believe that the Mosque sits on top of the remains of their ancient Temple.

Thus anything that Jews or the Palestinians do in the area is as complicated as anything ever has been in human history. Ariel Sharon, for example, set foot on top of the Mount back in 2000 and that alone was enough to set off the Second Intifada. There is thus concern that the walkway repairs may set off another one. In fact, over the weekend there was bloodshed when Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police. But the work continues. (NY Times article linked below.)

The Israelis have the upper hand in the situation because they captured the West Bank and all of Jerusalem some years ago. They can therefore do anything they please in any of this territory—it is a classic case of might making a version of right. In this context it is important to point out that the walkway is to provide access to the Mosque area for Israeli tourists—so they can have a clear view of all the sights.

A couple of questions—how essential in the first instance is it for Israeli tourists to be able to tour an area so sacred to Muslims? Then, when the situation was reversed, before Israel captured this territory, how did Jews feel about Palestinians controlling access to their Wailing Wall? Not too good as I recall.

So, here’s my suggestion: why not carry out whatever has to be done to excavate, repair, or whatever in that contested holy area as a joint venture? What would it cost the Israelis if they were to invite the Palestinians into the process—work out plans together, carry out the work side-by-side, maybe build a little trust?

If there is any interest at all in figuring out how to live together isn’t it incumbent on the more powerful Israelis to act magnanimously? Hasn’t that always been the way to make a successful peace after an endless war?

Monday, February 12, 2007

February 12, 2007--Monday on Mallorca: The Unofficial Price

When buying a flat or house on Mallorca, there are at least three ways to do so—the “official” way, the “unofficial, or a combination of both. The official way is a version of what we in America would call on-the-books; the unofficial, off-the-books; and the third, most common way, is a mix of a little of this and a little of that. These methods were created so that Mallorquins, and those with whom they do business, would have various ways to deal with cash and how, as much as possible, to avoid taxation—at the time of purchase, when selling, and of course after death.

These are among the Mallorquins very favorite subjects—dinero, impuestos (taxes), and muerte.

At the risk of who knows what, I will confess, and of course deny, that when we purchased our flat six years ago, for pesetas—before the Euro had been introduced—we opted for the latter. Not because we understood any of the implications but rather because we did whatever Carlos, our real estate agent told us to do.

With an ironic smile that he hoped might blunt our reactions, as true-blue Americans, to his fellow Mallorquins "quaint" customs, he said, deposit millions and millions of pesetas in a Spanish bank account (millions not just because it was a nice apartment and was a splurge but mainly because of the peseta-to-dollar exchange rate) and then on the day of the closing meet him at the bank and he would tell us what to do.

On the appointed day we met at the bank’s branch office in the small town of Peguera and he sat us down at a small table in the middle of a very open small office where we were shortly joined by the bank manager who was carrying a very large battered suitcase. After introducing himself, Senior S____ plopped the case onto the table, popped the latch, and jumped back as the lid exploded open as the mounds of pesetas stuffed in it, now freed, poured out onto the table and floor.

Other customers drifted in and out not even glancing in our direction though we were in very plain view surrounded by mountains of cash. We were told to begin counting and to make 50,000 peseta bundles, securing each with a rubber band. With the help of Senior S____ and Carlos it took us more than half an hour to get the job done.

At that point we were directed to stuff the now neat stacks of cash into an attaché case and two plastic shopping bags from a local market that Carlos provided. And then with him driving nervously we went to meet the sellers at the Notaria’s office.

Again we made introductions and were soon escorted into a wood-paneled, book-lined office where, enthroned at the head of a huge conference table, sat the regal Notaria, who did not feel the need to introduce himself.

He read the contract in both Spanish and English. Our Spanish was such and his English was such that we had no idea whatsoever what it said or required. But when it came time to pay for the flat and the assorted fees, the Notaria was careful to make sure that all his instructions were perfectly clear and easy to follow—

First, he told us, take three of the bundles of cash and place them on the table toward where he had established himself--he did this by nodding and pointing so as to insulate himself from this, to him, the most essential part of the process; then he said take two other bundles and slide them over to where the real estate agent was seated--Carlos was not reluctant to quickly put them into his now empty atache case; and next, we were told, make a stack of all that remained and hand it to the sellers, who were from Düsseldorf; and finally, at least in regards to the “unofficial” part of the process, everyone was instructed to again count all the pesetas. Since so many people were involved in the counting, this time it took only 15 minutes.

The Notaria’s three bundles, however, remained where they were, untouched, uncounted.

Then we proceeded to the “official” part of the transaction—from his inner jacket pocket Carlos withdrew a bulging envelope and from it extracted a number of bank checks, which we were directed to sign. This took but a minute—there were only nine of them. These Carlos walked over to the head of the table and actually handed them to the Notaria. Unlike the bundled cash still sitting on the table in his proximity, he took the checks in hand and distributed them to the various parties, the last of whom was himself.

With that we were done; and after affixing his embossed seal to numerous papers, with a waive of his hand, the Notaria dismissed us and we were the proud owners of a flat on Mallorca.

Back in the outer office, the couple from Düsseldorf handed their two stuffed shopping bags to a man who we hadn’t noticed before who, with the bags clutched to his chest, raced from the office, jumped into a waiting Mercedes, and sped off with a squeal of burning tires.

We later learned that two of the nine checks were made out to the municipal authorities and were for the transfer tax on the “official” price. We also learned that the reason the Notaria was so handsomely rewarded with both cash and a check was that he and he alone had the responsibility and power to establish the official price and thus what would be owed by us in taxes.

We also learned that the man with the Mercedes was someone who would convert the pesetas into Deutschmarks, that this was an essential kind of service in much of the world where many people did not trust institutions such as governments and banks and thus needed to find ways to live with hoards of cash.

We also learned later what was in the contract—including that Rona and I were 50-50 partners in the flat and that among the papers we signed were Spanish wills which authorized the transfer of each of our shares when and if one of us died. And that when the inevitable happened, the survivor, Rona to be sure, would have to pay capital gains taxes, if there were any, on the appreciated value of my half of just the “official” price. That is, unless Rona chose not to tell the authorities about my passing for three years, seven weeks, and five days; at which time she would not have to pay any taxes at all. It wasn't clear, however, if I would have to be kept on Mallorca, on ice, for all that time. But if so, if that were necessary to avoid capital gains taxes, no problemo.

We also learned, just this week, that the mayor of our town and his henchmen have all been tossed in jail, without bail, because of various forms of hanky-panky in transactions of this very kind.

So who knows where I will be reporting from next week.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

February 10, 2007--Saturday Story: "What Does Happiness Have to Do With Anything?"--Part One

I inherited a happiness problem. Thankfully, it wasn’t generic.

True, one side of my family, my mother’s, lived perpetually under an Eastern European cloud of pessimism which they brought along with them on the boat from Poland and neglected to jettison on Ellis Island, the way they had their Munya name. Though they set foot on the soil of the new world with a new name, Malone, they nonetheless schlepped along with them the fear that everything, even in this Land of Opportunity, no matter how promising things might look at any moment, would soon turn to catastrophe—good health would turn to terminal illness; good fortune to bankruptcy and ruin; and, metaphysically, good would be overtaken by evil. Of course, events in the larger world would prove them right

And when you compound this dark and brooding view of the universe, which I inhaled, with the fact that I spent most spring, summer, and fall Sundays in Mt. Lebanon cemetery, on my hands and knees in the Munya-Malone family plot, tending to the grass, bushes, and weeds surrounding the graves of my grandparents and a few uncles who had died before I was born, it is difficult to parse whether it was nature or nurture that sent me forth into the world initially expecting less than nothing.

One would have hoped that the fact that my father was from born-in-America stock, his people had emigrated here during the middle of the 19th Century and had not had either to forego their family name or alter their aquiline good looks, and, equally significant for me, had Perpetual Care for their plot in Mt. Hebron Cemetery, all of this should have conspired to make him a classic American optimist who believed that if you worked hard and more-or-less played by the rules (or had the right connections) there was no limit to what might be possible. Didn’t Abraham Lincoln, Honest Abe, grow up in a log cabin? What therefore was so different about my father’s first son, Lloyd Zazlo, growing up in a second-floor apartment in East Flatbush? Not that he saw me in the White House, at least I don’t think so, but at the minimum what was so unrealistic or wrong with medical school?

So the nature versus nurture debate was not going to be easily resolved in our living room. Let me, though, for a moment, take you back in time to that very living room, and give you an example:

When I finally found the courage to tell my father that I wanted to study literature rather than go to medical school, he surprised me by calmly asking, “Why?”

His calm was unexpected because I was by his proclamation his Number-One Son, and I had the grades to get into a decent medical school and the hands, he reminded me frequently, to make a fine surgeon.

So, encouraged and further emboldened by his lack of a violent reaction, I told him why—“I want to be happy, and being a doctor will not make me happy.”

Rising to this, less calm, he peered at me as if at a certifiably crazy-person and boomed, “What does happiness have to do with anything?"

I hesitated, thinking, Here we go. Do I really want to fight with him on about this? Maybe I should let some time pass, slink back up to my dorm room at Columbia, hide out there, and maybe I could try to talk with him about what I was feeling after my mother had had a chance to work on him—to remind him, even if I didn’t become a doctor, that I was still Number One.

But it had taken so much emotional effort for me to get to the point where I could blurt out just these few words about my plans that I thought that maybe I shouldn’t wait and get it all over with—like not delaying to get a throbbing tooth pulled. Time was unlikely to make it better. And neither would my mother. Not about something this cosmic.

So to his question about what could happiness ever have anything to do with anything, I said, so softly that I hoped that maybe he wouldn’t hear me and I could slip away feeling good about the fact that I had at least spoken the word—I answered, “Everything.”

But though he was quite hard of hearing, he nonetheless heard me well enough and bellowed so loudly that the neighbors shouted and pounded on the wall common to both living rooms, “Will you shut up in there. We’re trying to watch television.” But even this had no effect on him, though the public humiliation from the Gottliebs next door drove my mother to seek shelter in their bedroom.

“So you want to be happy or just pursue it?” This took me aback, even though he pronounced “pursue” in a way that suggested he was mocking me. But since he, not I, initiated this distinction between being and pursuing, I rose to explain myself in his, not my terms, hoping that might help him understand if not to be happy with my decision.

“Yes, when we studied the Enlightenment in Humanities,” one of Columbia’s required courses for sophomores, “the pursuit of happiness, which you know got written into the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right is not the happiness of drinking beer and watching TV,” I gestured toward the Gottliebs with what I hoped would be conspiratorial contempt. But since my father continued to look at me as he had initially or at the minimum skeptically, I raced to complete my pedantic point, “So to our Founders, and to me, it’s about pursuing well-being, which was their notion of what happiness was.”

At that my father pulled himself up out of his arm chair, straightening to his full six-feet, and snorted, “I told your mother you should have gone to Brooklyn College. I knew Columbia would fill your head with fancy ideas.” And with that he turned to join my mother, presumably to let her know how right he had been.

Left alone, I gathered the laundry my mother had washed and headed for the uptown subway. So he went one way and I another.

I have paused here to take you back, via this example, to an earlier time in order to speak explicitly about happiness,or, as you now know I prefer, well-being, because that has been what all of this has been about—its pursuit.

To be continued . . .

Friday, February 09, 2007

February 9, 2007--Fanaticism LXXIV--Humanized Products

I swore that I wouldn’t write another blog about pets, I mean pet owners; but then there was this article recently in the NY Times (linked) and again I can’t control myself.

I live in a “pet-friendly” coop in Manhattan where at our annual shareholders meetings more time and emotion is spent on discussions, actually raging battles, about the “rights” of pet-owners versus those of residents who do not have pets. We argue about issues such as—Must dogs and cats be required to ride in the very nice freight elevator, since some of us have allergies to fur and dander, or should they, in spite of this be allowed in the passenger elevators (needless to say that even though it is against the house rules for pets to be in passenger elevators they almost always are and those of us humans with allergies ride with the recycling newspapers). Should dogs be allowed to pee on the trees right outside the building entrance (again, this is against the house rules but how are they to be enforced when the president of the coop board’s dog does so). And so on.

So it is not surprising to see reported that the business of pet cemeteries is booming. And here we are not talking about just final resting places for Sandy and Kitty, we are seeing significant growth in what David Lummis, a leading “pet marketing analyst” calls very high-priced “humanized products.” These are in hot demand, he says, because they “sanction treating pets like family.”

I know that there is evidence that people live longer if they have pets and that they can be a great comfort to the lonely and bereaved, and mind you I love many dogs and cats and have owned a few (if “owned” is the right word to apply to a family member), but I draw the line on fancy burials and cemetery plots. One such burial place, actually those in the business call it a “committal” place, is a full replica in a pet cemetery of the rest of the family’s granite mausoleum that reportedly cost tens of thousand to construct.

Committal services too are soaring out of control. At one place in Tucson, although human pallbearers carry the coffin to the gravesite, the cemetery also provides a live miniature horse, the well-named Shadow, to attend the service as an honorary “paw bearer.”

And then, if this isn’t enough, and if you can’t live with the idea of being separated from Rex for eternity, not to worry as there are an increasing number of pet cemeteries that are people-friendly—they will arrange for you to be buried side-by-side with all the four-legged members of your family who predeceased you.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

February 8, 2007--Goodbye Deutschland, Hello Poland

Up to this point most of the talk in Europe has been about the Turkish Problem and the Polish Plumber.

Since Poland joined the European Union Poles have had carte blanche to travel to and relocate in the countries of any other EU members. If you travel to London, for example, you are immediately struck by how many Polish waitresses you encounter; and if you need your plumbing fixed, more often than not the person who shows up to fix your leaky tap is from Krakow.

And then, of course, if you live in France or Spain or Germany, your dirty restaurant dishes are more than likely going to be washed by someone who came initially as a Guest Worker from Turkey or Morocco but remained, overstaying his welcome. The next thing you knew these workers applied for and gained citizenship, even though it may be felt that they are making no effort to blend in, learn the language, or send their daughters to school without head scarves.

All of this is very disruptive and not easy to deal with. Every western European country is tied up in knots about these issues, wanting to retain their commitment to liberal democracy and their post-war tradition of offering social services at little or no cost to all who require them, insisting on assimilation while historically, and even to this day, they send out ambiguous messages about how welcoming to “the “other” they in fact are.

So what is one to make of another, quite different, trend in border crossing? In this case German nationals leaving German to seek opportunity in places as disparate as Canada, England, the U.S. (in spite of anti-American feelings), Austria, and even Poland.

The NY Times reports that the net flow out of well-educated professionals and middle-level corporate types is now exceeding the in-migration of German citizens who left some years ago seeking other kinds of opportunities. This is troubling to a country with a negative-birth rate among native Germans and has huge implications for the demographic shift that will require more young workers to support the social benefits of a rapidly-aging population. Turkish workers are not going to get that job done—many still work off the books and do not earn enough to pay the taxes required to fund early-retirement pension entitlements much less pay for the swelling health services needs of the post-war generation. (Article linked below.)

This brain drain is in large part the result of bloated German bureaucracies that impede entrepreneurship, inflexible labor laws and contracts that make it very difficult to control the size and quality of the workforce in many industries, and clotted ways of doing business in hospitals and universities where there are rigid hierarchies based solely on seniority. All of this thwarts opportunities for talented and ambitious young people and leads them to think about emigrating.

So the English may be seeing more Polish Plumbers, but they are also likely going to see more German Gynecologists.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

February 7, 2007-- Fashionistas

Meanwhile, back in New York, it’s Fashion Week! What the historians, economists, and cultural theorists will make of this one is anyone’s guess. But the NY Times and especially the International Herald Tribune, as ever, are doing their best to figure things out and spot the trends. (Sample article linked below.)

As we struggle here on Mallorca with the strong-Euro/weak-dollar (our morning cortados once a bargain at the equivalent of about 80 cents a cup now costs nearly $2.00) think about Gucci, Bulgari, and Louis Vuitton. They manufacture their stuff mainly in Europe and have to pay for things in Euros; but then they have to sell most of their bags and shoes and rings in weak currency markets such as the U.S. and Japan where the yen and dollar at hovering near all-time lows. Forget cortados—what’s gonna happen to poor Miutcia Prada when she finds her lower Broadway store in Soho still full of $1,000 belts at the end of the season?

Then there is the even bigger worry about New York City itself. Is it still the capital of, well, everything? Particularly does it still have the intercultural synergy that is required for creativity and entrepreneurship in, well, everything. To wonder with Pulitzer-Prize-winning Mike Wallace (no, not that Mike Wallace) how will New York retain its “edgy pre-eminence as global crucible, the place par excellence where the world’s peoples come to clash and fuse and create the future”?

Maybe we in New York do have a problem. Kim Hastreiter, editor of the ultra-hip magazine Paper, says, “New York feels like a stagnant city that doesn’t have artists anymore, because the artists have to have trust funds to live here.”

But this week we’re talking about fashion, and so is Kim right, is that action moving elsewhere? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough clashing and fusing for a while, but I guess if we’re talking pocketbooks, I can still live with it.

So let’s check out the scene and then of course the fashion itself.

The scene part of Fashion Week is to some even more important than the dresses, and thus there is always the need to come up with new places to party. Where razor-thin socialites (more about that in a second) can bang up against fashionistas and actors such as Adrien Brody. Opened a couple of weeks ago, just in time, is The Box, brainchild of the ubiquitous downtown fixture Serge Becker and Simon Hammerstein, grandson of Oscar Hammerstein II, yes of Oh, What A Beautiful Morning fame, where EVERYONE was to be found.

Another Box partner, Richard Kimmel (I assume of the trust-fund-Kimmels), cried, “Where is our Stork Club,” referring to the classier-than-classy supper club of the 40s and 50s which was Walter Winchell’s haunt. So he and Serge and Simon gave us our Stork Club. Located in a former sign factory, it features what the IHT calls “low-life archeological” style, which in The Box’s case means booths with overlapping bordello-type wallpaper and glass showcases filled with encrusted old bottles. I hope it will still be open when we get back from Spain in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, back on the runway the lead story is all about “size-zero” models. Too-thin girls were banned recently in Milan and London so what was New York to do? As the home to numerous great universities, the Big Apple kicked off the week, not unexpectedly, with a conference that featured medical and health experts who went on and on about how the fashion industry can educate the public about the early signs of eating disorders and how they might demand that backstage be a smoke- and alcohol-free free environment where only healthy foods are available. That should get the job done.

But then, most important, how did the designers themselves, in the clothes they showed, respond to this anorexic challenge?

To quote Suzy Menkes, the IHT’s fashion doyenne for at least a hundred years, here’s what Diane Von Furstenberg came up with [I will interject snide comments]:

She introduced a new ease and took a step away from her [body-revealing] iconic wrap dress. Instead, working on a Spanish theme, inspired by her student days in Madrid [where Diane studied . . . ?] and the recent Pedro Almodóvar movie “Volver” [not nominated for an Academy Award], the collection was a vision of a strong, independent woman [and starred the very-curvy Penelope Cruz].

What did she wear
[that independent woman]? Think of a smock top or buxom blouse [that should cover a multitude of not eating], teamed with a full skirt [ditto] that might have a strong graphic print reflecting the artistic work of Joan Miró [no comment]. As in Spanish paintings, black was used as a color [think Goya], with the light reflecting on taffeta or lace to create its own patterns [think the Mediterranean].

I, on the other hand, am thinking cortado.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

February 6, 2007--"Nuke Us, Please."

Despair is such among so many Iraqi citizens that, after the weekend bombing of the Sadriya Market in Baghdad where 130 were killed and another 225 grievously wounded, one resident who witnessed the dismemberment of dozens of children, said—

I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil—which is the core of the problem—can come and get it. We cannot live this way anymore; we are dying slowly every day.

And others are so suffused with anger that vengence is all they think about. As one Shia said after Sunnis killed his brother and nephew and confiscated his farm—

The word “Sunni”’ it hurts me. All that I have lost came from that word. A volcano of revenge has built up inside me. I want to rip them up with my teeth.

So reported the NY Times in the article linked below.

Monday, February 05, 2007

February 5, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: The Swordfish and the Internet

It felt as if it took forever to get here.

The “normal” eleven-hour journey stretched out to nearly fourteen. We were too conservative in booking the connecting flight from Madrid to Palma, Mallorca, pessimistically assuming that in spite of the fact that there has been so little snow in the Northeast this year, winter would extract its revenge on the day of our departure from New York and we would thus be delayed in getting to Madrid. So we booked a later than usual Air Europa flight from Madrid to Palma.

But since there was still no snow and the flight over from New York was so ahead of schedule that, jet-lagged as we were, we needed to camp out in Baraja Aeropuerto for nearly four hours to wait for the 50-minute Air Europa flight.

So when we finally arrived at our flat on Mallorca, where we come to seek peace and tranquility, we were so upset and cranky from the trip that we were predisposed to disappointment and unhappiness.

These expectations were immediately realized.

We found yet another house under noisy construction just down our calle; a neighboring flat in the early stages of an equally noisy gut-renovation; and most disturbing of all—we discovered our phone to be dead, which meant no Internet connection and thus no ability to telecommute and carry on this infernal blog!

How could we possibly find peace and tranquility if we couldn’t work?

Remembering that it took a full two years on this Mañana Island to get a phone line installed in the first place, rather than endure yet more frustration with Telefonica and the pounding of jack hammers gouging foundations for three-million euro villas out of the bed rock, we decided to call Continental to change our flight home so we could leave immediately, being sure to allow just the merest amount of time needed to contact a real estate agent to begin the process of putting our flat on the market—enough island serenity for us!

If we need an island, what’s so wrong with Manhattan?

But here it is, almost a week after our arrival, and though we were able to switch to an earlier flight, we cancelled that one too and are already beginning to wonder why we can’t stay here forever.

What happened in just those few hours to turn us around again?

The call to Continental on our one working phone, our Spanish cell phone was at 3:00 a.m. and was placed after hours of fretting and anxiousizing and thrashing about—Were we being impulsive? After all, hadn’t we spent many dreamy days here during the past seven years? Hadn’t there always been things to upset our desire for tranquilo? Floods? Infestations? Mechanical malfunctions? Struggles with the language? Isolation? Loneliness?

Maybe, we concluded, it was simply time to move on, that we had extracted all the goodness that was available to us here and we needed to seek more elsewhere. So we phoned the airline, sad, in a form of mourning, but also feeling we had been “emotionally honest,” had not spatted unduly, blaming each other about why-we-came-here-in-the-first-place. We were making not only the right decision but also a mature one.

After changing our return flight in the middle of the Mallorcan night, we did manage to get some rest; and when we awoke, we dragged ourselves down to the port, wondering if we should go for coffee to our usual café—wouldn’t it be too heart-wrenchingly difficult to be there knowing it was to be our last morning ever at a place that in the past had given us so much comfort and such a strong sense of community among the “regulars,” even though we could barely speak their language?

Rona, always the realist, said that no matter what we did after the decisions of the night before it would be sad and difficult, and since at La Consigna they make the best cortados in town, why deprive ourselves.

So, with heads down to protect us from witnessing yet another glorious sunrise over the mountains and the sea, thus evoking too much painful nostalgia, we found our way there and were as pleased as we were capable of being to see that “our” table was unoccupied, the one against the back wall, near the heat lamp, with the best view of the port and fishing fleet.

And we were even more reluctantly pleased to find that, in spite of having not been there for nearly seven months, Juan, the morning waiter, was not only there but literally embraced us as if we were long-lost members of his family. “Bon dia, bon dia,” he said in Mallorquin no less; and without asking for our order, scampered inside and in a moment returned with a cortado for me, a café au lait for Rona, my usual zumo de naranja, our aqua sin gas, Rona’s dos croissants pequeño, and my baguette tostada con mantequilla.

And after a first sip of the cortado, I was already beginning to think—Who needs the Internet, forget this blog, and do we have the telephone number for Continental with us?

I stole a glance at Rona, imagining what she might be thinking. I was afraid to ask after all we had been through the night before but, I wondered, did I see tears forming in her eyes? Or was it just her morning allergies?

Then appeared Karen and Werner Thomas, friends from Mallorca who we hadn’t seen in almost a year. From excitement, Karen, who even at 60 retained the youthful exuberance of the Swissair stewardess she had been, literally leaped off her feet as she danced through the café tables to embrace us; and the more restrained Werner was not far behind. He threw his heavy arms around me and pulled me into an embrace.

A moment later there was Jennie Summerfield, an English expat who manages flats for absentee owners—ours included. With her was her two-year-old buster of a son, Lucas, squirming in the seat belt that confined him in his carriage seat. He was clearly hungry and wanted out and away from us and all the tumult of our reunion that was delaying his breakfast. But then when Jennie needed to bolt away for a moment to talk with another client just inside the door, he reached up to me and, when I bent to lift him, he at first cried, missing mum, and then clung to me, nuzzling his tow-head against my chest, gurgling in a contented porridge of English and Spanish.

I didn’t even need my usual second cortado.

Back at the flat we found two men who were unfamiliar impatiently pacing our terrace. In a mix of Spanish and halting English they told us they were there to see if they could fix our telephone. They had installed a new air conditioner the week before and thought that perhaps they had in the process accidentally severed the line. Would it be all right, they asked, for them to take a look?

And without waiting for permission, which we were in the process of gladly offering, one hopped up on a stool, snapped open the door of the junction box through which various wires and tubes passed from the compressor outside the apartment to the diffuser inside. With a quick snip here and a probe there he found both ends of the cut telephone wire and with a new piece bridged the two ends, pushed everything back into the wall, reaffixed the plastic door of the box, and from a tube of Spackle-like material resealed everything so carefully that it was impossible to tell they had ever been digging in the wall.

All in ten minutes on this Mañana Island!

After they scampered up the 76 steps up the face of the cliff to the street, we noticed that the jack-hammering had subsided and there were no sounds emanating from the renovation next door—perhaps both the result of the mayor of Andratx and his henchmen having just been tossed in jail for accepting too much in bribes, rather than the appropriate amount, so that building construction could proceed unregulated. Who knows? Who cares?

Once inside the flat, Rona and I took out our phone book and opened it to the C page where we had the international number for Continental Airlines. Though the phone was working, we resisted using it, wanting to be sure we were still being rational and mature.

At 8:00 that evening, after in effect an all-day siesta, now adjusted to the new time, realizing we had skipped lunch, we drove into town for a simple dinner at La Gallega, a fish joint on a back street patronized mainly by Mallorquins who care more about the seafood than a view of the harbor.

Again we were greeted warmly by the staff as if we had returned from a long journey; and before we knew it a jug of local vino had arrived and a bowl of olives from a grove on the slopes of the nearby mountains. And quickly after that a dish of pimentos padron, young green peppers lightly fried in olive oil covered generously with Balearic sea salt. Then a platter of mixed bone and shell fish hot from la planchamerluzo, dorade, cigalles, lubina, with grilled tomatoes on the side, all covered with a scattering of sweet cibollas frito. Perfecto!

A third carafe of vino followed the second and then the postre, a succulent almond torta Santiago with a scoop of vainilla helado, both homemade.

Just as Rona was about to say, “How can we never come back here,” shortly before 9:30, the time the fishermen traditionally arrive all the way from Galicia with boxes of their day's catch, a signal to the Mallorquins that it is time to arrive for dinner so that they can have first choice of what is freshest, this evening, rather than boxes of coquilles and such, we saw two men, each with a huge gaffing hook, out on the street, dodging between the cars, carrying an enormous fish—it looked to be at least six-feet long.

One behind the other, in step, they marched through the door, as proud as if on dress parade; strode into the restaurant; threaded their way among the table so everyone could have a close look; and then after we all did, they looped around the refrigerator case in which La Gallega displays its fish, and plopped their behemoth onto the wooden counter where the chef immediately began to slice it, a swordfish we were informed, into thick steaks.

Of course we ordered one a la plancha and, of course again, required a fourth carafe of the young vino bianco.

Much later, much, we drove home, very carefully, very, up the twisting, rutted road to the top of La Mola, The Rock, where we live.

And before we went to sleep, which was deeper than the sea thrashing just outside our bedroom door, we moved the telephone book right next to the now working phone which we planned to use, first thing in the morning, to call Continental—

We will be home, I mean to our New York home, March 2nd.

Maybe . . .