30 December 2011

2012 "Update"

Last year at this time I decided to try a new type of New Year's resolution and allow myself to choose only one word to concentrate on in 2011. The word was "Ideate" (pronounced AHY-dee-aet) which is a verb that means "to form an idea of", "to think of", "to imagine" or "to conceive of". It is synonymous with "to dream", "to envision", "to fancy", to "fantasize", "to picture", "to visualize", "to conjure up", or "to see in your mind's eye". When used in the intransitive form (without an object) and in the imperative mood (command) it means "THINK!".

As it turned out it was a good resolution and the result is that I have "conjured up" all sorts of ideas about things that I would like to do before it's time to exit this life for the next great adventure. The word that I chose to continue this train of thought for the coming year is "Update" which is, of course, a verb that means to make something that was suitable for times gone by more suitable to the present and the future by adapting it to recent ideas. It is synonymous with "improve", "correct", "renew", "revise", "upgrade", "amend", "overhaul", "streamline", "modernize", "re-brand" and "contemporize". The first known use of the word goes back to 1941 but since it is such a forward looking word its age doesn't matter. Neither does mine. Last year I was thinking of retiring this year at sixty-four but then I checked  a number of  actuarial tables and they all seemed to agree that in the absence of divine intervention it is highly likely that I will live as long as seventy-nine years. Heck, there is still plenty of time to accomplish something positive so I think I will keep on working and not retire until I see the moving finger write upon the wall. They say that Mr.Death can walk no faster than three miles per hour. As long as you can still walk faster than that you'll be okay. Just don't look back!

The main thing that I realized this past year is that the pace of change is accelerating at such a high rate that five years from now the world as we know it will be turned upside down. With all the longing for the good old days there is no return to a way of life whose time has come and gone. I think that this fact is awfully hard for "Baby Boomers" to swallow. The more that I learn about history, the more I realize that the decline in the way of life that we were accustomed to is irreversible, especially in the short term. The past is still alive only through pretending, and I am talking about a past as recent as ten or fifteen years ago. People of the 1990's spoke a different language from a different age and we can wander through the melancholy of those ruins caught up in the longing of nostalgia, well watered by our tears, or we can get on with it. That is what my theme word "update" is all about. By the way, in Spanish the word is "actualizar".

If anyone is interested, the following is a partial list of the books that I read this past year that collectively raised my focus and my aspirations to a higher plane. I highly recommend all of them and they are all available for Amazon Kindle. I am excited about what the next few years may bring to those who prepare themselves and I invite you to join me in that regard.

by   Pamuk, Orhan  

Jerusalem: The Biography 
by  Montefiore, Simon Sebag

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable 
by  Taleb, Nassim Nicholas

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood  
by  Gleick, James

Secrets of Mental Math  
by  Shermer, Michael, and Benjamin, Arthur

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk  
by  Bernstein, Peter L.
You Are Not So Smart  
by  McRaney, David

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern  

by  Greenblatt, Stephen

On the Nature of Things  

by  Lucretius
The Calculus Direct    
by Weiss, John

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer

by Kurlansky, Mark

Salt: A World History  

by  Kurlansky, Mark

Like my dear departed mother used to say, 

"Onward ever, backward NEVER!".



28 December 2011

A Christmas Fish Story

A few days before Christmas my wife Gina and her sister Cheli (Araceli) went shopping for the ingredients to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal. They bought a smoked turkey (pavo ahumado), beef loin (lomo de res) and the ingredients for things like spaghetti with cream sauce and a dish called "romeritos" which consists of dried shrimp, sprigs of a wild plant known as "Romerito" (Seepweed in English), and potatoes all served in mole sauce. Cheli insisted that they also buy some salt codfish which they call "bacalao" because Nochebuena wouldn't be Nochebuena without bacalao.

The only problem with bacalao is that it takes a long time to prepare because you have to remove the salt that was used to preserve it. If you have ever been to a Christmas Eve supper where the guests took a bite of bacalao and then reached for something to drink you know that the bacalao was still salty. This dish goes back five hundred years or more to a time when the Basque fishermen had already discovered the cod-rich Grand Banks off of Newfoundland even before Columbus supposedly "discovered" America. Thus the dried and salted Atlantic Cod became a staple of  Portuguese and Spanish cuisine and an important trade item. The  Portuguese called the salted cod fish "bacalhau" and we know it in Mexico as "bacalao" which is also what it is called in Spain. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier "discovered" the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1534 while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient, he noted the presence of a thousand Basque boats fishing for cod. The Basques congregated at a place called Port aux Basques at the extreme southwestern tip Newfoundland. To this day both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Trans-Canada Trail have their start and end points in Port aux Basques.

As things turned out the task of removing the salt from the bacalao fell to me. To do it right you need to keep the bacalao in water in a cool place and change the water every three or four hours for a couple of days as the salt migrates to the surface. It is a bit like caring for a baby. One night I got thirsty just thinking about salt cod and I got out of bed to go to the kitchen for a drink of water. Gina woke up and asked me where I was going and I said, "I'm going to change the bacalao. I heard it crying". By the time Christmas Eve rolled around the bacalao was salt free but there was another problem. We were running out of time. Gina called Cheli and told her that if she wanted to eat bacalao she would have to cook it. Cheli was frantic because she was running out of time also but her husband Luis volunteered to cook the poor bacalao and so he sent their daughter Luis over to fetch it. All's well that ends well however, and the bacalao turned out to be delicious.

When people commented on how good the bacalao tasted both Luis and I claimed credit but Gina said "Este bacalao es como una misa de tres padres" or "This bacalao is like a mass with three priests" meaning that many people had a hand in the success of the bacalao. In the Catholic Church, especially in the old days, a solemn high mass required three priests and a bunch of altar boys and a choir and so this must have been a solemn high cod fish and THAT is my picturesque and colloquial phrase of the day.

27 December 2011

Picturesque Speech

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, the bathroom was where I learned to write because the bathroom is where my father kept his latest copy of Reader's Digest Magazine. While I was sitting there and "concentrating" I would simultaneously peruse Reader's Digest and my favorite section was called "Towards More Picturesque Speech". I just love poetic and colloquial expressions and the turn of a good phrase. I would pick out the best examples and try to emulate them in my speech and writing. No doubt as a twelve year old I sounded a bit strange saying things at the dinner table like "Hey Pops, Spring is coming around the bend like a speed skater rounding the turn on smooth ice". My father would sometime pause with fork in mid-air and glance at me quizzically as if suddenly startled. Nevertheless I never got over my fondness for words.

Now that I live in Mexico I have the double pleasure of savoring the intricacies of language in another tongue. I am never fully dressed without a pen and some three by five cards in my pocket and my ear is always cocked to hear something new. Hardly a day goes by without an interesting scribble or two. I thought I might share a recent example with my fellow students of Spanish.

My mother-in-law, Carmelita, is the Director of a state sanctioned preschool and kindergarten. Just before Christmas she was holding a "kermes" at the "kinder". For those of you that might not know, a kermes is a type of fair held by churches and schools to raise funds. The word "kermess" in English originally derived from the Middle Dutch word "kercmisse", a combination of the words "kerc" (meaning church) and "misse" (meaning mass) and the word was adopted by the English, French, and others and it denoted the mass that was celebrated annually in honor of the local patron saint. The Spanish spelling "kermes" uses only one letter "s".

While Carmelita was preparing for the kermes her good friend Angeles stopped by to give her a hand with the "tómbola". This is another interesting word. It comes from the Italian word "tombolare" meaning "to tumble". In several countries a "tombola" is a raffle where the winning ticket is chosen from a rotating drum that is "tumbled" by means of a hand crank. In Italy, the Italian version of Bingo is called "Tombola". Here in Central Mexico a "tómbola" or "tómbola de beneficiencia" is a charitable raffle in which you win a prize if the ticket you have bought is chosen and the number on it matches the number on the prize. There is generally some kind of a prize for every ticket so nobody leaves unhappy and often people swap their prizes. When the tómbola was almost ready Carmelita said to Angeles,

Estoy in punto de abrir la puerta y hacer la cruz. Elige usted el primero premio.
I am just about to open the door a make the cross. You choose the first prize.

In actuality Carmelita rewarded her friend for helping her by letting her have one of the prizes. Angeles chose a Pyrex casserole dish and was very content. The interesting phase in this instance is "hacer la cruz". If you have ever gone to the market in Mexico early in the morning and happened to be the first customer you may have noticed that when you gave the little old lady your money she kissed the crossed thumb and finger of the hand that held the money. She was thanking God for the first sale of the day. Carmelita used the phrase "hacer la cruz" in a colloquial manner to mean that she was about to sell the first ticket.

"Hacer la cruz" should not be confused with the regular words for "making the sign of the cross" which are "persignarse" and "santiguarse". "Persignarse" is to cross oneself with small crosses on the forehead, lips, and chest and "Santiguarse" is to make a full head and torso sign of the cross. Santiguarse means to bless yourself. Persignarse means to sign yourself. I go into this in detail in my blog post: Persignarse versus Santiguarse

There is another use for "hacer la cruz", by the way, that you have to watch out for. It means to cross someone off your list or to dump someone and in this case the cruz that is referred to is the "X" that you make over their name. And now here's a bonus for you if you have followed me thus far. Sometimes when people are bantering words instead of saying "igualmente" meaning "you too" or "the same to you" to be playful they will say "iguanas y ranas" or "iguanas-ranas" which means "iguanas and frogs" as a kind of play on words. Yesterday my doctor said to me "Iguanas-ranas dijo el sapo" meaning "Iguanas and frogs said the toad". Try it out. You will make someone smile.

20 December 2011

A Blue Christmas

The colors that most people readily associate with Christmas are red and green. For a certain percentage of the population these days (including yours truly) the color blue seems more appropriate as in "I'm feeling blue". I have heard it said by some that the feeling is triggered by the diminished hours of sunlight during the Winter Solstice but perhaps it also has to do with disappointment coming from the unfulfilled expectations of prior Christmases. I don't know for sure except that thanks to a new word that I learned I have a better way of expressing the feeling.

I am reading a book by a famous Turkish author named Orhan Pamuk who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. The book is called "Istanbul: Memories and the City ". The author talks about the Turkish word "hüzün" that is pronounced "hoo-JOON" with the letter "J" sounding a bit like the "su" in the word "sure". It is generally translated into English as meaning "melancholy" or "longing" or "nostalgia". The meaning of "hüzün" is related to the description of the "black bile" or "black passion" of the ancient Greeks and can be caused by any number of things.

According to Orhan Pamuk "hüzün" is a special melancholy that binds the Istanbul Turkish community together in a collective feeling of nostalgia for the glory days of the past and the anguish over the increasing decay of the present state of affairs but nevertheless with a hopeful outlook for the future. The word "hüzün" originated in Arabic as a longing for God and it denotes a spiritual loss or separation. It is not the feeling of a single individual but rather it is the common emotion of millions of individuals who are suffering the same dark mood.

I think that we may be hearing more about this word "hüzün" in the coming year as the tensions mount over the presidential elections both in the United States and in Mexico. In both countries there seems to be a growing gulf between the the people with sufficient means to live comfortably and enjoy life and those who struggle for their daily bread or as they say here "el pan de cada día". I don't know where one would draw the line between the two. I have read recently that the average family in the United States needs an income of at least seventy-five thousand dollars per year to meet the criteria of "living comfortably". In Mexico it is no doubt somewhat below that amount but not by as much as you might think. Then there are the modestly rich and I say more power to them. It is their energy, intelligence, and vision that makes a good economy possible. They are no doubt the role model that many people aspire to emulate. I have no quarrel with that. In these uncertain times I think that all three groups can share the feeling of "hüzün".

There is one more group of people who I don't believe can even understand the melancholy of the other three. The word that I choose to describe them is "hubris". This word means "extreme haughtiness, pride, or arrogance indicative of a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities and a complete lack of humility". It seems to me that when banks, corporations, and other institutions are labeled "too big to fail" they are tempting fate to the extent that their demise is inevitable and that they may have already begun their descent. Like the Titanic of one hundred years ago, all it will take is one big chunk of floating ice to bring them down. Being an optimist at heart I must have faith that they will not drag us all down with them like third class passengers in steerage. Thank God we have the Congress to save us, eh?

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.