Wednesday, May 23, 2012

tercera salida / Madrid

Well, I’m in the homestretch of the trip to Madrid and I’m pretty satisfied with how everything has gone. I haven’t wasted any time and haven’t spent too much money.  I’ve gotten a lot of research done and figured out how the transportation systems work - at least in and around Madrid.  I’ve never been a big-city guy, but I like Madrid.  There’s a lot to see and do and it seems like there are little plazas with cafés around every corner.  If you get tired of walking around, just fall backwards and you’ll probably land in a chair and soon be attended by a waiter or waitress in an open-air café.  The buildings, except for the big main street “Gran Vía,” are ancient compared to what we’re used to in Texas.  Not medieval like Toledo, but still, hundreds of years old.  Once you get off the main streets where the tourists are, Madrid has a lot of character and charm and seems much more like I thought Spain would be.
One thing that’s been funny on this trip is that people here with whom I interact seem to think I’m from Spain.  I pretty much look like everybody else here (every other guy in his late 40’s, I mean), and I don’t speak anything but Spanish here.  So I’ll be talking to someone and after a little while they’ll say, “Wait, you’re not from here?”  That’s funny to me because I don’t speak Spanish anything like a Spaniard.  I’ll never say “gracias” like they do here, which comes out “grathias” in the peninsular Spanish, even if I tried.  In Latin America the word “OK” is pretty permissible, and I say it a lot when I should say “bien” or “muy bien.”  It’s even written “Hokey” if you see it in print in Latin American Spanish.  But they don’t say OK here, they say “Vale,” (pronounced like “VAH-leh”) about five times in every sentence.  There are a thousand other differences that separate Latin American Spanish from peninsular Spanish.  The Madrid accent is growing on me, though, and I think it sounds pretty slick.  Yesterday I was walking down the street and from the other side of the street I heard a guy talking and I knew immediately he was from the Caribbean: Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, probably.  The sound was just rounder.
My personal biorhythms still make it feel like it’s midnight when I wake up to start the day here, so I need a little more coffee than the average Madrileño.  My technique now is to order a café con leche and a café cortado.  I drink some of the café con leche to make room and then I dump the cortado into the space left at the top of the café con leche and drink that.  When they make the coffees and bring them out they´re like, “OK, here’s the café con leche. Now who’s the cortado for?”  I tell them they’re both for me and they look at me like I’m the biggest coffee glutton they’ve ever seen.  I’m almost tempted to give them one of those annoying “in my country . . . ” explanations. 

I managed to hit the three big museums here:  Reina Sofía, Thyssen, and El Prado.  Margaret has conditioned me to always ask for a discount if I have one coming, so I was able to get into the Thyssen for half price and the Reina Sofía for free with my university ID.  The girl at the window at the Thyssen looked at me like, “Sure, you’re a college student.”  But she gave me my discount.  I saw some great art by some of the biggest names.  Still trying to digest it all.  The biggest lesson learned from all of that was that those great painters really produced a lot.  They didn’t just crank out a couple of paintings in their spare time.  You could tell they spent pretty much all day every day painting.  For years.  So, in addition to being gifted they worked hard.  That’s how they became great. 

I’ve visited two military libraries, one university library and the Mamá Grande: La Biblioteca Nacional (the National Library).  Miguel, my classmate who lives in Madrid told me that not too long ago people went into the Biblioteca Nacional and stole a bunch of rare books and documents.  They’d go in there with dental floss and, when they weren’t being watched, use it to saw through the pages of ancient books to sell them on the black market.  It was a serious financial loss and more important, a loss of national patrimony, not to mention a black eye for the people in charge of the library.  In a country with 25% unemployment, you can bet that the people who work at the library now aren’t taking any chances.  They’re not going to risk getting fired for cutting you slack.  So, like the Registrar’s Office at Texas A&M, they operate under the assumption that you are a charlatan, a fake, a cheater and a thief.  For starters, I had to get a letter from my department at A&M stating that I was a grad student in the homestretch of my program and show proof of my permanent address to be granted the status of “Investigador.”  The whole thing is understandably extremely bureaucratic, so much so that the employees don’t even know all the procedures once you get in there.  The librarian in the Sala Cervantes will send you to an office to buy a card that allows you to make copies, but it’ll be the wrong copy office (reprografía).  The security guard at the front door will tell you that you can bring your laptop into the area where you get your permanent ID card issued, but the guard at the next checkpoint tells you that you can’t bring in your laptop until you’ve gotten your permanent ID issued.  All you can do is smile and nod your head and say thanks.  Well, you can get mad at them but it won’t help anything.  And remember, I’ve tried to operate under the patience and kindness model, which should make my sons happy since they’ve been embarrassed seeing me blow up at bureaucratic obstacles on trips   Eventually you get to see your books and materials and make your copies.  My big fear was that I’d come over here and not get access to the library or that one of these small military libraries would be closed due to budget shortfalls.  Those problems have not come to pass and I can honestly say the research has been a home run.  I’ve come across some books and images that were exactly what I needed.  And I was able to put some ideas together that will be major parts of my doctoral thesis, so the trip has been well worth it.   

Gotta come back with the fam, though.  

Oh, and the patience and kindness grade - solid A.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Segunda salida / Ciudad Real

I’ve been staying in Madrid at a small hotel near the street “Gran Via” just a few blocks from Puerta del Sol.  The room is tiny compared to most U.S. hotels, but the price was good and everything works so I’m very satisfied.  The rough equivalent of Puerta del Sol would be Times Square in New York, so, as you can imagine, it’s crowded and expensive.  There are tons of tourists here and none stand out more than the Americans.  My countrymen are easily identified because they are loud, hesitant to take the bus or subway and don’t speak any Spanish.  One morning leaving the hotel I heard a woman ask the lady at the front desk if she would call a cab for her.  Then, almost as an afterthought, she shrieked, “But is it safe?” 

That’s us.
We want to see the world - or it could be that we mostly want to be able to come home and say, "We went to 'fill-in-name-of-exotic-place-here'"), but we want it on our own conditions and according to our own convenience and we want it to be totally safe, even if it’s guaranteed by the poor desk clerk who’s been up all night.  And a lot of our fears are engendered by our own government and institutions.  When I got ready to travel I was required to fill out an online form and file it with the Study Abroad office at A&M.  The questions and information on the form made it evident that the university believes two things: 
1.  That I (not just me but all students with the temerity to leave the country) am a booger-eating moron incapable of even leaving my house, much less the country, and 
2.  That travelling anywhere outside of the U.S. is highly dangerous, even deadly.

So why are we this way?  I think it's the sense of cultural superiority that's ingrained into us as early as kindergarten, maybe earlier.  I'm not immune to it or free from it, either.  But when you're in someone else's country you have to constantly be aware of it, beat it back into its cage and suppress it.  You have to travel with a sense of humility and willingness to find out what things they do better than the way you do them.  I think you also have to ask yourself if the image they have of us is better or worse for having interacted with you.

My first 2 days of research were at the University of Castilla La Mancha at the Ciudad Real campus.  They have a section of the literature department that focuses on Quixote images - both the illustrations and engravings from the editions of the book itself and the popular and cultural iconography that followed.  I found maybe twenty-five different political cartoons of one personality or another on horseback tilting at a windmill of some sort.  The ability to do that in a cartoon testifies to the universality of Don Quixote and provides a good case study on how metaphor works, even visually.  That’s going to be a big part of my thesis, so I ain’t gonna write about it here (you’re off the hook). 

On Tuesday I took the train from Madrid to Ciudad Real and stayed in a hotel in Ciudad Real for a night.  I took the subway from my hotel down to the train station, but I had to sort out the short range train station (not the subway) from the medium-range train station.  It took a little while but I figured it out.  There’s always a sense of dislocation in an unfamiliar place and one has to feel one’s way through the procedures and systems.  I’ve been on trains and subways before, but not this train.  I had to ask someone how to get to the “Aves” (the Birds), the fast trains, instead of the local trains.  Once I got on the correct train, I didn’t realize the seats were assigned.  The boarding pass had a space on it that read “Plaza” to tell you what seat you were assigned which would have read “Asiento” anywhere else I’ve been in the Spanish-speaking world.  So I got kicked out of the seat I first sat in by the rightful ticket holder.  The one I was really assigned to was occupied by someone with a group that I didn’t feel like trying to break up.  So I wound up sitting in one of the throwup seats (backwards facing) with the sun beating down on it.  When foreigners seem clueless and make silly mistakes or seem out of place when they come to the states it’s more than just a question of language.  It’s more due to the unfamiliarity of a completely different system. 
Speaking of high-speed trains, they’re great.  I’d love it if we had high-speed trains from College Station to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.  But if you took a train to Houston, what would you do then?  Houston doesn’t have an extensive public transpo system with buses and a subway.  Texas is built for the individual driving his or her car - or pickup truck if you’re not a wuss.  You don’t take public transportation unless you’re poor and you don’t walk or ride a bike unless you’re a kid younger than sixteen.

Anyway, the folks at Ciudad Real were great to me.  The skids were greased by the relationship that my committee chair, Eduardo Urbina, has with the people there.  The main guy that took care of me, Oscar, took me with him to lunch, dinner and the coffee breaks.  Most people here don’t eat any breakfast to speak of - maybe a piece of bread with coffee.  Coffee’s where it gets a little complicated.  You need to know what you’re asking for.  You can’t just go up there and say, “café.”  Café solo is an expresso.  Café con leche is some coffee with a lot of milk.  But you have to specify if you want the milk they add to be warm or cold or a mix of both.  If you want an expresso with a little milk you order a cortado.  If you want a lot of milk with a tiny bit of coffee you order a leche manchada (literally "stained milk").  Nobody really eats breakfast more extensive than a piece of toast.  Although I don't discount the possibility of someone among the three million in Madrid whuppin up some Huevos Rancheros for breakfast here, it seems to me that IHOP or Waffle House wouldn’t make it in Spain (or Chile).  It's just not in the culture to eat a big breakfast.  You take a coffee break at about 11 in the morning or so, you eat lunch at about 2:30, and supper no earlier than 9 pm.  The supper, properly done, lasts until about 11:30 pm.  It doesn’t take that long to eat, you just take your time and talk to each other for two and a half hours, even after you’re done eating.  None of this chowing down and getting up to go watch TV.    

Yesterday I did research at a guy’s house in Toledo.  He has a private collection -really impressive- and I saw some great stuff there.  Today I did research at a military library in Toledo.  I was told that people would be slow and uncooperative here, but it hasn’t been the case so far.  Even these cats at the military library who don’t know Eduardo Urbina and don’t know me from Adam knocked themselves out to help me.  Let’s hope the hospitality holds up.
Kindness and patience grade for the last 2 days: A-

Monday, May 14, 2012

the first adventure / la primera salida

The statue of Cervantes, Don Q, and Sancho in the Plaza de España
I confess that I wasn’t thinking about Mother’s Day when I planned my trip to Spain to do research for my dissertation.  So Mother’s Day celebrating with the main moms in my life consisted of about an hour and a half celebration breakfast at home with Margaret and the boys and a call to my mom from the road.  But I get some good-guy points back because I was thinking about getting back from the trip in time for our 24th anniversary.  

I got to Houston Intercontinental Sunday morning in time to go through my usual nervous overseas flight travel routine for about an hour:  touch my passport, pull out my boarding pass, look at it.  Check the time.  Touch my passport again.  I’ve traveled to and worked in 35 countries, but overseas travel is like camping: if you haven’t done it in a while you forget little things.  My Orvis jacket has so many flippin’ pockets in it that it’s stressing me out because  I keep losing stuff in it.  Slowly, though, all my old tricks of the trade are coming back to me.  Ear plugs, antihistamine, money-to-stow and money-to-show, keeping your bag against your leg when you have to put it down so you can feel it and don’t have to see it. Don't go to the ATM by yourself at night.  Don't eat yellow snow (OK, that one's not for Spain in May).  
There’s a lot riding on this trip - all the scholarship money I was able to get together is going towards funding research of texts, documents and images at four big libraries in and around Madrid.  But I’m resolved to not stress about it; not to worry about getting robbed or losing something important, not to anguish over not finding the one magic book or image that will make my dissertation great.  My friends from Spain and that have been to Spain have told me a few things about being in Madrid:  don’t expect people to be friendly, don’t expect anybody to be in a hurry to help you out, be patient.  My ex-classmate, Miguel Zárate, who is from Madrid and now lives in Madrid, told me the words please and thank you are not spoken in Madrid (Zárate is my friend for life because when we had a class together on Medieval Spanish Literature my very first semester in the Masters program he told me I spoke Spanish “como la puta madre” which means to mean really, really well - the google translate is flat wrong - don't even look it up, this is a family friendly blog). 

I’m trying my best to use “gracias” and “por favor” as much as possible because a little bit of courtesy is just nice, you know?  In fact, I’m going to grade myself on patience and kindness every day, because sometimes I need it when I’m trying to work my way through unfamiliar systems and institutions overseas. . . . 

OK, I need more patience and kindness all the time.  

Speaking of good manners, it’s recently occurred to me to think about how we’ve come to say “thank you” in the U.S. in the last few years.   Have you noticed how inflated “thanks” has become?  The standard is now “Thank you so much.” 
                As in: “Professor, what page is the prompt for the next composition on?”

                “Page 233.”

                “Thank you so much.”  

My “thanks” just seems so inadequate and undersized.  But I’m thinking about getting with the program and unilaterally raising the bar to “Thank you ever so much” or “Bless you my brother/sister.  May your tribe increase.”

So since arriving to the Madrid airport this morning after flying all day and half the night, clearing immigration and customs, getting Euros (the money, not the people) out of an ATM machine (you don't get speedo-clad Germans out of a machine, you get them at Cancún), buying a metro pass, figuring out which metro to take to my hotel and finding my hotel,  I’ve checked in, walked around Madrid a bunch and taken a few pictures (like a numbskull I left the very specific cable that goes with my digital camera at home so pictures will have to be uploaded when I get home - the picture above I pulled off the internet - lame, I know).  My main mission today was to get oriented on where the nearest subway stations are for several lines so I can make it to the train station to go to Ciudad Real tomorrow.  My secondary mission was to stay awake so I can fall asleep tonight and get my sleep schedule on track.  

The only bummer of the whole thing so far is that I'm by myself.  It would be great to have Margaret and the boys here, but the timing and the budget wouldn't handle it.  So this will have to be a reconnaissance for a later trip for all of us.  Jackson, my 15-year old son, who is deathly, hyperventilatingly afraid of wasps and possums wants me to take him to Pamplona to run with the bulls.  So we'll need to plan that.  

And the patience and kindness grades thus far?  Strong A's.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Tragedy of "I was happy and I didn't know it"

As people are finishing up their final exams and many friends of mine are graduating or rolling on to the next phase of their careers, I’m seeing a lot of facebook posts from my fellow students that say things like, “One more final exam and it’s no more exams ever for me,” “one more week and then I move on to ___ phase of my studies where I’ll never have to do _____ again,” or “_____ days until I’m a _____.”  

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to celebrate the end of finals and to commemorate the end of an academic career.  What’s dangerous, though, is to believe that when you get through the phase you’re currently in and move on to the next thing, suddenly everything will be like riding a cotton candy bicycle while being tickled by buttercups.  Sure, you’ll be done with final exams when you move on from college, but trust me, you’ll run headlong into a dozen more things that suck even worse.  I wonder how many college students get out to their first job in the real world and ask themselves questions like, “Hey where are all the young, cool people?”,  “You mean I have to be in here at 8 a.m. every day?”  and “What do you mean I can’t wear Tempo shorts to work?” (

Jim Ganceres and I worked together in Iquitos, Perú in 1998.  We were driving around town one evening and we passed by a restaurant we hadn’t seen before called “Los Chingones.”  Well, I’m not going to get into what it means (don’t bother looking for it on Google Translate), but it’s a distinctly Mexican word and down on the Amazon River in Perú we were a long, long way from real Mexican food.  So Master Sergeant Ganceres, very proud of his Mexican heritage and a big fan of Mexican food, said, “Oh, we’re eating there tonight.”  We went into this place and it was a real hole in the wall, and a hole in the wall in the Peruvian Amazon is not the end of the world but you can see it from there.  Poorly lighted, dirty, not many people.  But it was “Los Chingones” so we had to eat there.  Well you can guess what happened.  His meal made him sick as a dog.  He was down hard with the “Amazon Weight Loss Plan” for about a week (thank God I ordered something different).   Was he tricked by his own expectations?  Even after he saw that the place was filthy and not many people where eating there?  There were hundreds of good restaurants in that town so it’s not like the decision was made in extremis.  

How many times do we let our expectations of the next-great-thing-that’s-got-to-be-better-than-this-sucky-thing cause us to make, and then stick with, a poor decision?  I hope nobody I know is walking into a bad job or place to live just because they were in a hurry to latch onto the first thing (or the best-paying thing) coming out of college.  Sometimes you do that and it can’t be helped.  But a lot of times it can be avoided if you’re careful and you manage your expectations.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a little over a year from graduating (again) and there’s just about no place on the planet earth I have written off as a possible place to look for employment as an adjunct or associate professor.  We'll entertain just about any possibility and we’ll go wherever it looks like the job, quality of life, location, etc. is favorable.  But we’re not going to move to a place and a circumstance that matches up with someone else’s expectations or answers some imaginary template. 

 I guess it was about ten years ago when I visited Paraguay.  I saw some bumper stickers down there that had the name of a former dictator and then below the name the sticker said, “Yo era feliz y no lo sabía” which means “I was happy and I didn’t know it.”  This is not a commercial for dictatorship – far from it –but to me the phrase is tragic: to look back and see that you wasted a chance to be joyful in whatever your place and circumstances were is to realize you’ve squandered happiness, maybe years of it.  I knew Marines my whole career whose two best duty stations were always the previous one and the next place they were going.  Every place except where they were: that was the place to be.  As a result they were perpetually unhappy.   

So I’ve resolved to make the place and the circumstance I’m in now the best place I’ve ever been.  I’m aware that the church where I’m currently a member may be the best church I’m ever in.  I may never have better friends than I have right now.  I may never ride bikes with a better group of people than the one I ride with now.  I may never live in as nice a house with neighbors as friendly and helpful.  My kids may never again be as close to me.  My wife and I have our health and each other and neither are guaranteed to us tomorrow.    

Don’t catch yourself wishing for the good ol’ days.  Make now the good ol’ days.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

The 2012 season. Where We Went. What We Saw

Even when I was in junior high already knew I was going to A&M.  I had a poster of Aggie bonfire on the wall in my room.  I’d put a 33 1/3 rpm record of the Aggie Band on my little record player (cassette tapes were still the stuff of science fiction) and work out with my little plastic-coated, concrete-filled weight set and dream of playing football someday for the Aggies.

Corny but true.  

But it turns out that 5-11, 205 lb. offensive linemen don’t play D1 college football, even in the early 80’s.  So to put on maroon and white gear and compete for A&M in collegiate cycling this past two years has been like God handed me a pass for one of life’s great do-overs.  I don’t even care that it’s a club sport and, instead of a stadium full of fans, we race in front of a few parents and pissed off motorists.   

I had hopes of doing real well racing in the Men’s C category this year – at least better than last year.  But statistically, it was not to be.  In four of the seven road races I finished in exactly 13th place.  The points for individual rankings in the “C” category extend down to - you guessed it - 12th place.  There were entire weekends where I travelled, raced my guts out all weekend and came home with 0 points, the exact same number as the Joes who didn’t even make the trip.   When one studies literature one learns to pay attention to numerology to extract messages and themes.  And for me, the message was, “Hey, Mark, doing collegiate cycling full-bore has been OK for you this season, but don’t kid yourself.  Don’t think there’s some great future in this for you.  You’re not 21.  You’re not a guy free from family responsibilities.  An occasional race?  Great.  But every weekend, all weekend?  Not great.  Not for you.”       
On a personal level, though, I can take solace in the fact that the C’s were a much stronger, faster group this year than last year.  And I can honestly say I got better, faster, safer and more capable on the bike this season.  I can even sprint some now, which is harder than it sounds.  To sprint you put your hands in the drops and get your butt up off the seat and try to just about twist the handlebars off.  You’re really racing with your whole body and pushing yourself as hard as you can go and this is at the end of the race when you’re totally smoked.   I also got better at getting around corners at speed, which is a critical skill for criteriums.  I never thought I’d be able to stay at the front of a criterium averaging nearly 25 mph for the whole race, but I did that this year.  Last year just the thought of racing a crit would dump a huge load of adrenaline into my bloodstream, but this year?  Time for the crit? Aight, let’s race.   

The road season took a heavy toll on all of us in many respects.  To race the season and do a couple of pre-season prep races ate up seven out of nine weekends between Feb 25th and April 22nd.    On the out-of-town weekends you leave early Friday afternoon, race twice on Saturday and once on Sunday and get home late Sunday night exhausted with a bike to clean, laundry to do, and schoolwork to be done.  The race that we hosted and I helped organize March 3rd and 4th was a huge process that I started working on about eight months before the event.  The physical toll was not light, either.  We started the team’s training for road season with a 100-mile ride on MLK Day.  We managed to have a huge wreck just outside of Lake Somerville that resulted in two broken collarbones, a facial laceration and various skinned up body parts.  During the season’s races we had mishaps that resulted in one concussion and two people skinned up from wrecking in the gravel, one dislocated collarbone and one broken scapula. 
So what did we all get out of this?  Well, we were forced to do things that made us uncomfortable for the good of the team, something I think is more and more rare.  We sometimes had to race in a way that blew ourselves up but made a faster teammate more successful.  We had to get our faces out of our smart phones and surrender our own agendas to the collective will, which is significant because college is, in essence, a selfish enterprise.  I get admitted to school, I choose my major, take my classes, make my grades, get my degree, probably meet my spouse and get my job.                              
People did things that impressed and surprised me.  A couple of guys who were in the background for most of the season rode like superheroes at the conference championships.  When Cale Maupin started to dig for the final sprint at the LSU road race I confess that I sat up and watched him instead of putting my head down and digging, too.  It was so great to see that I turned into a spectator.  We did a crit in a driving rain in Oklahoma and nobody backed down or sat in the van with their lip stuck out.  We were promised some pretty bad weather up in Wichita Falls but nobody said, “No, I’m not going, the weather’s going to be bad and I’ve seen the video of the rainy crit up there from two years ago ( ).  We woke up in Baton Rouge on the morning of the road race to a downpour of biblical proportions and everybody just got on the van and didn’t complain (actually, nobody said a word – it was quiet as church on that van). 

Equally remarkable to me is how well I was accepted and embraced by my teammates.  You know, college is a special, magical time and it isn’t made more special by having some crusty old dude hanging around who is as old as your dad.   But my teammates have become my great friends.  Proof of that good vibe is the fact that I was able to baptize several with nicknames that caught on:  “Bobby Jindal” Ehrmann, Chris “The Man with No Tan” Roscoe, Brett “Zhil-bear” Gilbert, Nicole “The Critter” Sharp, Andrew “Hannibal” Lechner (although Austin Throop also nicknamed him “Tres Leches” which is really good), “Austin Powers” Throop, “Zane Grey” Lybrand and my personal favorite: Shawn “Biggie” Small.  I even gave nicknames to people from other teams: John “The Governor” Connolly and “Famous” Amos Zimmermann from UT and “Mean Girls” (the MSU Women’s team). 

So, of course I plan to race again next year, which, unless something goes dreadfully wrong with my dissertation, will really be my last season.  I just won’t race as much.  There’s just no way.  I turn 49 this summer, which would make my racing age 50 in 2013 (your racing age is how old you are on Dec 31 of that calendar year).  That means next year I’ll be able to race collegiate and compete in the Senior Games. 

Now that’s the bomb. . . and groovy, too.