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.

For clarification 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.