Saturday, June 20, 2015

Botero in Tuscany

Although Italy surely lies somewhere in Fernando Botero’s family background, I was quite surprised to find out that the famous Colombian artist has established a foothold in the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta.  In an interview given to Marlborough Galleries, Botero reveals that he was first attracted to the area by its world-class foundries but later came to appreciate the people and their lifestyle   This summer the work of the late Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, held pride of place in the piazza centrale.  However, the south gateway to the village, shown above, and two Botero frescos are permanently on view at the church of Sant’ Antonio e San Biagio.

The frescos employ Botero’s emblematic, pudgier-than-life figures to present visions of Hades and Paradise.  In the Hades panel, the round shape of Lucifer and his imps sap some of the hellish imagery created by flames, serpents, and pitchforks.  In a bow to the traditions of Latin American muralists and engravers, Botero includes a pair of Calaveras, each accessorized with the trifles of wealth.  And as a final touch, Adolph Hitler raises his head from a sarcophagus, as he makes his final descent into the lower regions.

In Paradise, Botero brightens his palate—blue sky, green fruit trees—and paints a crowned Virgin with babe in arms as its central motif.  To heighten the celestial effect, Mother Teresa stands prayerfully, canvas left.  Botero includes a self portrait, adorning himself in the garb of conquistador, sword poised to decapitate a serpent that slithers under the Virgin’s slippers.  At the bottom of the panel, beside fruit fallen from the trees, sits a guitar player, wearing a red dress and a pair of wings.  

Who is that?

The Rains Came

And the Rains Came

For five years now most of Texas has struggled with drought.  Rice crops on the Colorado River, reservoirs of drinking water and lawns of thirsty grass have shriveled to dust.  In response, Texas municipalities prohibited outdoor watering and car washing and encouraged restaurants to serve water only by request.  The state also weighed in when Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation calling for three days of prayer for rain in the state of Texas.  Nothing worked, until now.

On May eighth, my wife and I flew to Little Rock, with a plane change in Dallas Fort Worth International, to attend a wedding.    Two days later, with the newly weds happily launched, we drove to the Little Rock airport in a light drizzle, turned in the rental car and rolled our bags to check in.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, we were early; something about cutting it close lies deep in her genome.  But this time punctuality paid. Approaching the counter we sensed some high-voltage tension.  The lines were very long, and American Airlines had put all hands, including a man dressed as a baggage handler, out front.  Seems that the night before, heavy weather and a power failure had closed DFW and snarled air traffic for the entire region.  Since our flight had already been cancelled, we relaxed and did some participant observation.

The long lines mashed together people with destinations all across the west.  Like the characters in Julio Cortazar’s novella Todos los fuegos el fuego we soon began to reach out, sharing experiences, passing along bits of information gleaned from airline websites, calculating time and distance.  Our neighbor-in-line, also in Little Rock for a wedding, seemed desperate to get to his job in Denver.  As we guarded his luggage, he scurried off to other airline counters looking for alternate routing.  United offered passage on flights that would get him to Denver by midnight through Los Angeles and Seattle.  He took it and waved goodbye.

As soon as we got in line, I dialed the American Airlines customer service number and took the automated option for a call back.  Ironically, the call came almost simultaneously with our turn at the ticket counter.  “Austin,” the agent moaned.  “I just did that routing for another customer, and the best I can offer is Tuesday morning” (two days later). The agent on the phone offered a different reservation, but similar delays.  After some hemming and hawing, my wife and I decided that we had already done Little Rock and another day or two there was not an attractive proposition.   “Let’s rent a car and drive”, someone said, “Goggle Maps shows it’s five hundred seventeen miles to Austin.” So off we went.

IH 30 to Dallas; IH 35 to Austin; we wouldn’t get lost, anyway.  I drove the first shift, south by southwest on the compass.  We stopped in Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s birthplace, for gas and a shift change.  The rain now fell steadily but not torrentially.  As we passed Nashville (the one in Arkansas), our cell phones and the radio began to squawk in distressed tones.  “Tornado warning, take cover,” flashed across the screens.  OK, but where?  Later we learned that a twister touched down in the area; luckily we had dodged it.  The closer we got to Dallas, the heavier the rain fell.  Lightening occasionally illuminated the landscape with intensity far superior to our headlights.  During the flashes we could see that we were not the only ones driving and forged ahead even though the warning squawks continued unabated.

That night tornadoes struck Van and Corsicana, Texas, both frighteningly close to our route.  We pulled into our driveway ten hours from Little Rock, home but not out of the rain.

May precipitation in Austin has set meteorological records.  The good news is that the major reservoirs quenching our thirsts and washing our dishes are now 60% filled.  The bad news is that the ground is so saturated that any rainfall flows immediately down the watershed.  On Monday night two inches of rain triggered damaging floods in Austin and tragedy in some surrounding areas.

Governor Perry, your prayers have been answered.  Twenty-five more days and Noah’s record is ours.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Adios, Mom

Joanna B. Block (11/13/1920-7/8/2014)

Joanna B. Block died July 8, 2014, with the same grace that she lived her ninety-three years. 

Joanna was born in Herrin, Illinois, the youngest daughter of Dr. John Curtis Black and Maude Oliver Black of Corning, Arkansas. Her father practiced medicine in hospitals operated by the United Mine Workers in southern Illinois until declining health forced him to retire with his family to Bradenton, Florida.

Joanna graduated from Bradenton High School in 1938, and, after a year at Shorter College, entered the University of Arkansas.  Here she excelled in her studies, joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority, and met a charming young man from Wynne, Arkansas, who would become her husband in 1944. As the wife of a Navy officer, Joanna moved first to Greenwich, Rhode Island, and then to San Francisco and San Diego.  Then with World War II won and her husband mustered out of the service, Joanna and David Block Jr. along with their six-week-old son, returned to Wynne.

Here the Blocks added to their family with the birth of Ann Oliver in 1948 and Paula Mary four years later.  Joanna and David raised their children and lived their lives in an arrangement typical of the times; husband as breadwinner, wife as everything else. Joanna thrived as mother, homemaker, volunteer par excellence, and part of a circle of friends that partied, traveled, and enjoyed life together.

With her husband's death in 1993, Joanna bravely left behind the comfortable routines of half a century.  She moved, first to Denver, Colorado, and then to Los Angeles where, with the loving care of her Angelina daughters, she lived the last eleven years of her life.

Joanna Block made good use of her time on earth.  She was firm in her beliefs, true to her friends, and generous with her resources. As long as we live, she will live.

The Earth Quakes

Ecuador sits uneasily on a tectonic fault line.  A catastrophic quake leveled the provincial city of Ambato in 1949.  But the temblors of August 13th and 14th in the Quito suburbs are rare occurrences.  The last instrumentally-recorded event there was in 1990, and to go beyond that one would have to consult documents from the 19th century.  With so little experience to rely on, Quiteños were at a loss to explain  these seismic events.

I went directly to an unimpeachable source, cab drivers.  Riding to dinner on the 13th, I learned that quakes are correlated with the weather.  “It’s the humidity,” one driver assured me.  The next day more sinister attributions came my way.  “In your country they predict earthquakes, don’t they?”  My negative response produced only disbelief and suspicion.  In an attempt to disengage, I thought of other topics, like the Ebola outbreak.  “You know how to predict that, too, don’t you?” I asked the driver to drop me at the next corner.  Walking half a mile to my destination seemed a small price to pay.

Newspaper accounts on the morning of the 14th pictured enormous dust clouds, the most prominent feature visible from the city center.  From closer up came accounts of landslides, highway closures and the tragic death of a six-year-old, crushed by a fifty kilogram sack of rice that fell from a shelf in the family bodega.  That afternoon the government dialed up a fierce charm offensive.  President Correa and several functionaries made television appearances to laud disaster response and to point out how their preparedness had saved lives.  They made no mention of the six-year-old.

Then on the 14th at 11PM another quake-- or perhaps an aftershock, accounts varied-- shook the city.  I was fast asleep but awoke long enough to look for my shoes in case the hotel ordered an evacuation.  Two consecutive days of temblors clearly worried people.  “I’m not afraid” one bystander confided, ”but I’m wondering.”

I have lived and traveled in the Andes continuously since 1968, and this was my first experience with a seismic event.  Quake and temblor, the expressions most often used to describe the phenomenon, now seem to me misapplied. Rather than trembling or quaking, the buildings I was in gently swayed, back and forth.  Nothing fell from the shelves, no one ran into the streets, no sirens wailed.  But movement was palpable, 5.1 on the Richter scale.

On the 15th terra firma returned.  I left town that night with a group of tourists fresh from the Galapagos Islands.  They hadn’t heard a thing.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

At the Fair

In May of 2014, Bogotá held its 27th International Book Fair.  Unlike the grand  emporiums of Frankfurt and Madrid, where selling rights is more important than selling books, filbo is all about the merchandise.

In the early 1960s forward-looking government officials acquired a large piece of real estate south west of what was then the heart of the capital.  This property, recognized by its iconic metal arch and built to host commercial expositions of all sizes, became corferias Bogotá, a public/private partnership that has endured for half a century.  The book fair, filbo, has grown steadily over its quarter century and now fills all six of corferias’ pavilions, providing over 1,600 separate venues for publishers and book sellers to show their wares.  While Colombian editorial houses predominate the event, publishers from other Latin American countries send representatives as well. 

Each year the fair bestows the title of guest of honor to a country in the Luso-Hispanic world.  In 2014 Peru received the designation and gave a very good account of itself.  The Peruvian pavilion featured a display of photographic images taken by a well-known anthropologist, a carefully-chosen display of ceramic and textile handicrafts, and an inner room of books produced by a variety of scholarly and popular publishers.   How the books were chosen was something of a mystery—visitors received no explanation—but they seemed to sell briskly.

For the past five years corferias has provided subventions to professions that offset their airfare to visit Bogota during filbo.  Librarians from most major Latin American Collections in the United States, South America and Mexico have received these grants, some as recidivists.  This year corferias also sponsored a breakfast that mixed publishers and librarians over coffee and eggs as a way of kicking things off.

The local press often laments that despite having produced a number of distinguished writers, Colombia is not a nation of readers.  I wonder, given the global onslaught of digital media, if Colombian journalists doth protest too much, or if not too much, too soon.  Librarians, booksellers and authors across the planet fret that reading has become a diversion exclusive to the senior set.

A week before the fair opened, Colombia’s most famous writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, died in Mexico City.  The sure-footed organizers reacted quickly and filled the venue with tributes to “Gabo,” including a monumental screen print of the novelist fronted by a bouquet of yellow roses.  Several books, including a recent translation of Gerald Martin’s biography, were on display.  I suspect that many others will appear before the year is out, chronicles of a death foretold.

Peru’s Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa came to the fair as part of the Peruvian delegation.  He and Garcia Marquez famously have not spoken for years.  So it is an irony worthy of a novel that the two would share center state in Bogota.  Vargas Llosa presented the keynote address, and tickets were as scarce as hen’s teeth. I did not get one, and I have not seen the speech in print.   But I cannot help wondering how Gabo fared.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

On the Border

Sometimes it is a muddy stream running between two identical shores.  At others it resembles a prison, with a thirty-foot high razor wired fence patrolled by armed guards.  I’m talking about the four hundred miles of border between Mexico and the United States from El Paso to the Big Bend.  It’s a dry, brown, thinly populated land, no country for old men. And the current political climate has turned it into a battle zone that pits illegal immigrants against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.  On a recent trip to the border we found ourselves near combatants from both sides, some more visible than others.

El Paso, once a thriving trans-national city, looks dystopian, its downtown filled with abandoned buildings and feral cats.  Motor traffic, mostly sixteen-wheeled trucks, backs up for miles on the U.S. side of the international bridge.  Pedestrians crossing into Mexico have dwindled to a trickle, deterred by the high level of violence now endemic in Juarez and the requirement that U.S. citizens present a valid passport to reenter their country. Diminution of the counter flow has withered El Paso’s historic business district.

In March, before the annual rains, the Rio Grande ceases to exist in El Paso.  The border there becomes the midpoint of a concrete channel running northwest to southeast.  East of the border lie the four lanes of Highway 85, the rails of Union Pacific, a patrol road and the wire fence.  Even if an intrepid visitor were to cross the highway, the tracks and the patrol road, uniformed agents would turn them back before they reached the fence.  Photographs are also discouraged.

South of El Paso the fence ends and, fed by the Rio San Carlos and the Rio Conchos, the river resumes.  From a high vantage near the highway we saw canoers and kayakers launching from the United States and paddling downstream with varying success.  We also encountered a scientist involved in a geological survey who explained that despite popular opinion, the Rio Grande, while polluted, is far from dead.  In fact several species of fish and their food sources ply the river year around.

The Customs and Border Protection agency keeps a pretty high profile in the area.  Their vehicles, at least the new ones, are adorned with a green stripe on their white body paint.  I needed some help in appreciating the “border” symbolism of the color combination.  Driving through the region, we encountered rolling road blocks where agents looked into our vehicle and asked “U.S. citizens?”  Our looks and our accents got us through without incident. Not everyone is so entitled.

The Big Bend refers to the curve that the Rio Grande makes, diverting its bed northward, before resuming its predominantly south eastern flow.  The National Park preserves some spectacular country, filled with wildlife and remarkably empty of people.  My wife and I traveled with friends who are keen birders, people who sometimes talk of “life birds” and the neck feathers of ladder- backed woodpeckers.  Even though March is early for the prime migration season, the park lies at the northern edge of many birds’ natural range which makes it a birding paradise.  Our friends’ enthusiasm was infectious, by the way, and even though we remained satisfied with our rudimentary skills, we’ve come to appreciate the value of a spotting scope and dropped some pretty serious change on binoculars.

After a week in Big Bend we returned to El Paso and our flights home.  We all hoped that the border would return to a more tranquil state of affairs, but we’re probably too old to see that day.

Monday, September 23, 2013


 In most of Latin America mapping is directly linked to national security. While cartography itself has come a long way from two dimensional representations of boundaries, land forms and transportation infrastructure essential to defense, its production and distribution remain firmly in the grasp of the military and its civilian attendants. Those seeking geographical information must thread the needle between the charybdis of military secrecy and the scylla of bureaucratic red tape. Consider the following account, with identities scrubbed for obvious reasons.

 8:00 Early on a Friday morning I left my hotel in a taxi that dropped me at a military security checkpoint.  Here a noncom packing a pistol and an attitude exchanged my passport for a visitor's badge and offered directions by pointing his nose to my right. Further up the road lay a sea green, three story building that houses my destination, the Instituto Geografico Militar.

Inside, a series of glassed-in cubicles and a long table fill the only space open to the public.  The table holds a series of publications: price lists of available products, samples of maps in various scales and formats and a guide to the recently-published national map, at 1:50,000 scale. This is what I had come for. The entire set consists of more than five hundred sheets, divided into quadrants set to satellite images.  I had brought along a wad of dollars and a duffle bag large enough to haul the maps away. The noncom had allowed me to take the duffle past the checkpoint; he did not look in my pocket.

 8:30 An attendant emerged from one of the cubicles to show me the ropes.  "Use this form to list the name and number of each of the sheets you want to purchase," he said, handing me a lined sheet of paper with the Institute's letterhead.  I set pencil to paper, filled the sheet and returned to the attendant for another.  He frowned. "The information must be written in ink, blue ink," he explained, supplying a pen and two additional forms. An hour later, I was back, completed forms in hand. Apparently I telegraphed my next words since before I could pronounce them, my attendant/antagonist interrupted, "no more than fifty requests per day."  That ended my vision of walking out of the building with everything rolled up into a big tube, but not my encounter with regulations.

 9:30 Now another man, an auditor perhaps, emerged from his office to review my work. With his pen, red ink, he marked each of my selections, "yes" or "no" as he mumbled a running commentary, "mining area," "out of print," "restricted" to justify his rejections.  The auditor whittled my request from fifty to thirty-eight sheets; still worth the trouble, I thought. 

My next stop was with a secretary who typed, at ten words a minute, the name and number of the thirty-eight available maps on official looking stationery and calculated the cost, $170.  She also had me declare why I wanted the maps and then pointed me in the direction of a cashier who took a copy of the typed form and the three bills that I offered in payment.  Without uttering a word, he swiveled his chair and pointed  to a sign on the wall that read "NO CURRENCY LARGER THAN $20 ACCEPTED."

 11:00 The office would close at noon for the weekend, and there was no way for me to get seven twenty dollar bills in an hour.  The cashier listened to my explanation of how far I had come and how valuable the maps would be to researchers.  He responded with a single word, "NEXT." My only route lay in going above his head.  Searching the room for a higher authority, I spied a likely suspect, a man dressed in a suit reading a newspaper. I explained my predicament, waiving my order and my money.  He listened sympathetically, smiled and took the documentation and the bills through a door marked "Employees Only." For a moment it seemed that I would leave with neither maps nor money. But no, back he came following an elegantly-dressed woman, his boss.

After introducing herself, she listened as I recounted my situation.  She asked to see the bills and pulled a jeweler's loupe out of a drawer. Now that's interesting, I thought.  Do you suppose a loupe is standard office equipment, like scissors or a stapler?  "We have to be very careful with large bills," she explained, "foreign counterfeiters are active in my country." After inspecting the engraving through the loupe and swabbing the ink with alcohol, she declared the bills genuine and instructed the man in the suit to accompany me to the cashier who grudgingly accepted my money and stamped the receipts as paid.

Turning around I noticed the secretary hailing me with a paper in her hand.  "Since you are not a citizen, you must complete this form to petition the commanding general to release the maps; come back in two weeks."  This was the time to offer a bribe, but I'm not very good at that, and since I was the last customer in the office, all eyes seemed fixed on us.  So rather than money, I offered a last-ditch suggestion. "What if I ask a citizen to pick up the maps?"  "Well, sure, you could do that," she said, and we all went to lunch.