Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I do two or three jigsaw puzzles a year: one in January when we go to the coast for a weekend with my parents and my brother and his family, and another one (maybe two) over winter break or during the summer. This break, I've been putting together a 1000-piece puzzle of the Mona Lisa.   

I don't usually buy "great art" puzzles--I tend more toward landscapes or, honoring my children's interests, marine life--but my husband bought several at a bookstore liquidation last summer, and my son lured me in with the siren song of parent-child collaboration. Of course, my collaborator is long gone, and the card table has been commandeered for an epic game of Talisman, so my puzzle--on its floppily recycled corrugated board--has been relegated to the family room floor, where I hunker over it obsessively, inviting paralysis, or at least a bad back. 
I enjoy the momentary triumphs (ha! the hairline is complete!), the undisciplined  hum of just-one-more-piece-and-then-I'll-quit, the time to muse. 

Spread across five or six small pieces, the famous smile is indeed enigmatic. It took a while even to identify the partial, blurry curves as lips. The puzzle also has a higher than average incidence of false positives--those pieces that definitely fit, until you realize they don't. Pieces that seem to fit for a long time, throwing the rest of the project off.

It's completely cheesy to commune with great art through a cardboard puzzle mass produced in China, sold for cheap by a failing bookstore, stored on a shelf cluttered with board games and kids' books and weird crafts sets no one will admit to having purchased or requested. But I do find myself thinking about that smile, and the blend of colors, and the expression in her eyes. And the aged, cracked paint, reproduced here as a network of tiny amber lines or smears that interweave and distort and return. Brand new and glossy in all its antique fragility--memory and stories and play-time, oh my!

What would Leonardo think? What would any of them think, the composers whose most famous concertos litter the universe of ringtones and commercial jingles, the painters sold and resold on umbrellas and coffee mugs? I imagine a dialogue or perhaps a debate (like the dreadful film we watched in AP history, with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton reanimated off marble slabs to declaim the Federalist Papers) between two much-marketed artists on the merits of this particular flavor of immortality. Is it always better to be remembered? Sitting in a café in Mendoza in November, the kids and I had worked out half a story along those lines, the composer back to life and hearing his music in the oddest places, distorted, digitized but, hey, still audible.

When I was in Rosario, one of my treats was the Sunday free showing at Cine el Cairo, a public theater that offered Argentine films to an enthusiastic, all ages crowd on Sunday afternoons. I wasn't able to go that often--weekend trips began to intervene--but one of the films I saw was Rompecabezas, a film about a woman who discovers she has a gift for jigsaw puzzles. It's what's often called a "quiet" film; I found it absorbing. None of my local acquaintances had heard of it, so I also had the pleasure of seeming to be in the know as I described it to them. The protagonist's choice at the end wasn't entirely clear, but I've kept thinking about her, and the way the patient organization of fragmented images--the puzzle-building process--was reflected in the structure of the film. 

The movements of her hands, the way she surveyed the jumble of pieces as she began a puzzle and then arranged and understood them, also seems an apt representation of the way one might organize a story. In particular, I like the tactile sense of those pieces--weighed, removed, shifted, stacked. The way a story might be built, as if with lumber or stone. Or bits of cardboard.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Solstice Moon

I got up at 6:15 this morning, a dark Northwest winter morning heading for the solstice, and the moonlight across the back deck was so bright, I thought the neighbors' porch light was on. I opened the door to look, I called my daughter so she could look, too. It was read-by moonlight, and if it hadn't been so cold, I might have taken the paper outside.

The last bright, bright patch of moonlight I enjoyed was late at night, camped in a high desert oasis last summer, light so bright that, yes, we woke the children, scampered around the sagebrush, watched, awed, as the moon rose above the cliffs that defined our narrow canyon. 

No, that wasn't it--we kept our son up later than he wanted, because we were watching the moon rise, and rise; finally the poor kid surrendered and just went to bed.

This morning it's cold, below freezing (and it doesn't freeze that often here) but entirely dark except for the moonlight, which makes it feel late, not early. Time to go back to bed, not brew a cup of tea. Time for the year to flip and the days to start getting longer again. 

Until the middle of last week, I was enjoying sunshine, warm breezes; some days, I was whining about the heat and humidity. It was getting dark around eight o'clock--dark quickly, no long twilight. We watched the sun rise over the Atlantic at 5:30 or so.

We're home now, straight into a cold snap. All week, even as the jet lag has faded, I 've had the feeling of "late" in the evening. It's four or five o'clock and I'll be feeling like the day must be pretty well over, whatever I'm likely to accomplish has been completed and isn't it time for bed? Even the days I wasn't asleep on my feet well before bedtime, it still felt late.

And this morning, it doesn't quite feel early, even though the first pre-sunrise glow is visible opposite the moon. The stars are still out. It's too cold to stand barefoot on the deck very long (which is why I run inside to write) but it feels like a kind of bounty, so much illumination at once: fresh, reflected, returning, unexpected.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bridges real, imagined, or ruined.

Parque Provincial Aconcagua

Plaza España, Mendoza

We rode the overnight bus back to Rosario from Mendoza last night, luxuriating in coche came comfort--except that my legs are a little short to take full advantage of the footrest. Dozing off, I composed a brilliant blog post in my head. What follows may or may not resemble that ur-post, that gem of observation and clever phrasing, that witty repast for the hungry soul (dinner on the bus was especially bad, and the more disappointing because Thursday night's bus dinner was quite tasty). 

Open-air lending library in the Plaza España
Mendoza's streets are wide, the sidewalks are wide, the trees are abundant. The sycamore bark seems to dapple its own shade into sunlight, or else the other way around. In any event, the effect is restful and we drank it up, along with a bit of the local wine. Not too much, though. Our first wine tasting attempt involved bright orange rental bikes and a couple of kids anxious to take to the road after weeks of city living. Mine are not city kids. So we sacrificed winery tours for the open road (more sycamores, poplars, bougainvillea blooming over doorways, the requisite acres of vines and olive groves) finally ending up at a kind of beer garden. It took some getting to (always, if the signs and friendly locals could be believed, just 300 meters further on), bumping down an unlikely gravel drive to reach a blond-log compound equipped with mismatched chairs and tables, friendly staff, decent craft beer--no wine in sight--and a loose alterna-vibe. 

Surviving chapel, ruined hotel
On Sunday, we went into the mountains. I'm used to the Andes further north, but these slopes were steeper, less green, more variegated in their reds and yellows and browns. We had some snow, just enough to make us shiver and stomp, and the clouds blocked the views of Aconcagua we'd been hoping to admire. But it was worth the trip. I've avoided organized tours, yet I enjoyed the lines of white mini-buses (small, medium, large) carting all of us around, and the sellers of crafts and snake-oil and healing rocks, and the chance to see the jumping off point for a climb my father made almost fifty years ago. He urged us, via email, to enjoy the hot baths and afternoon tea at the hotel at Puente del Inca, but the hotel is no more, lost to a slide only a year or so after Dad was there. The hot springs are now off limits, too, so as to preserve tourists from mishap and protect the natural bridge, adorned as it is (still naturally) in its orange and green mineral wash, drip by dribble by year. 

Puente Picheuta (late c. XVIII)
Andean quartz, so that health
will not be lacking in your home
 It was all natural and unnatural at once. Centuries of ruins beside the road--Inca tambos, colonial-era stone shelters, disused railroad tracks with cracking avalanche sheds falling down around them, beautifully preserved bridges from the late 1700s and from 1905. A routine itinerary with stops for photo-ops and hot chocolate, vulnerable all the same to weather and rerouting. Or revision. I don't know if any of this is what I meant to write. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In search of lost pictures

A mysterious tech glitch having eaten a quantity of pictures off my memory card, I have tried to reconstruct what it was I saw, what I thought I wanted to remember. Snapping quick photos as a memory aid, it's easy not to look carefully enough; many of the plants are lost to me now, vague sketches of color that I recall wanting to be able to look at again. (Wasn't that Plato's warning about writing--it would make the mind lazy?) But I've salvaged a few frames:

A bright yellow orchid growing on a tree in a dusty paddock, admired just after we'd been horseback riding; we were waiting for our guide to unsaddle the horses. Bright, bright, unvariegated yellow, the flowers shaped like fans, the scalloped curve hanging downward, maybe dots of red at the base of the fan, and the flowers (they're not petals, are they?) jumbled and overlapping. The guide said it grew only on that particular tree, and that people stole chunks of it from time to time. 

In the same paddock, an old red and white Chevrolet tailgate lying in the dust, faded toward pink, placed as a shallow water trough for the horses to drink from. The white quartz gravel of the road and the golden six o'clock light on the hills behind us.

Neat vacation homes on narrow lots flush against garbage heaps (residue of the last strike) and piles of brick- in-progress. Libros Moby Dick, a bookstore in Capilla del Monte; vultures and the more attractive Caranchos with their black caps or crests gathered around a dead cow.

My mother and my two kids high up on a granite boulder in another canyon, one that used to be called El cajón and is now called Paraíso, the river dammed above to make a reservoir initially intended for recreation purposes but now, after a three-year drought, providing crucial water to the area. Box canyon becomes Eden, with a water release at the base of the dam, a metal wheel like a ship's wheel and tall water sprays arcing off like spokes at intervals. Round boulders against sharper edges, common green parrots flying over the trees, a small rodent like a guinea pig across the stream from me, and water plants, deep green and red-veined, just under the surface in a cove of the creek.

But then, too, there are the pictures I never tried to take, because the car was moving fast: kilometer after kilometer of old stone walls crisscrossing the hillsides in the Sierra de Córdoba, supplemented now by barbed wire along the highway, but still standing, keeping cattle in or out of pastures. Up close, those pastures looked to hold enough rocks to rebuild all the walls twice over with material to spare. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Borders, Boundaries, Aerial Photographs

Not having taken any such, I wrote a poem once called "Aerial Photograph." Years ago, but I still like the poem. Here it is, with several aerial photographs of a quite different landscape: the Andes at the border between Argentina and Chile, taken on a flight from Buenos Aires to Guayaquil. I was irritated when the pilot came over the loudspeaker to announce the border, waking me up (I had been up all night).  And then I was fascinated by the dry, wrinkled, not-quite-snow-covered mountains, the suggestion of roads, the possibility of habitation, but maybe not. What do the poem and the photos have to do with each other? Not much, maybe, beyond a preoccupation with landscape, and how it belongs to us, or doesn't. Or a fascination with naming, with the ways we try to fit words to the world around us, adjusting pronunciation, spelling, understanding, until we achieve some kind of congruence.

Aerial Photograph

Skin scratched red by thistles
the old orchard brush now
interpolated from an aerial map:  trees spaced so
must have been set on purpose.
The way a home site is suddenly
four survey markers and a view,
these trees bear no more fruit than elderberries
road-dusted and dripping off the stems
impossible to harvest. Ranks of purple cones
spread half a mile beyond the feeder,
that seed hung out for finches
and the orchard sinking further
into the hillside.  

Trailers and small sheds
are easily distinguished, even in the grain
of prints distilled for public use.
It's easy to count incursions, stumps
that shouldn't have been cut.
Ella's place, Bauker Hill--
old boundary names that took,
the lilac hedge patched Forest,
a flowering almond in the old front yard
really one blossomed twig against the pale shrub.

Here lives the uncle from Stober,
my grandmother says,
syntax so openly transposed
I want not to notice, or want to boast 
the proof my high school German offers--
this is where her accent lies,
not in the vowels but in the prepositions.

Or the fences. Dark indentations 
where water gathers, wire 
crossing otherwise unbroken woods--one side
is ours, and on hands and knees we grope
under rain and through a mesh
we didn't think to find. The posts
are far too new, fast question
following immediate suspicion,                                         
furtive occupation, a sliding of green
weather-treated steel a few feet south.

Like the map of certain states
shaped like limbs or articles of clothing
you can't see this place but from the air
or from a tree. Not the slow 
hazelnuts, long past production,
but from a taller fir, or the oak 
below the fence line. Like a branch 
grafted to an older trunk
this place is only what we call it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Today's word harvest: three new trees

Sapo game

Today we crossed the Rosario-Victoria bridge (long bridge over the Paraná river, longer causeway across the wetlands) to Estancia "El Cerrito" for asado (barbeque), a folklore show (with audience participation dancing at the end), some fierce games of sapo (coin toss with a bronze toad's gaping maw as target) and lots of lazing around in the sun or shade, depending on preference.

And I learned three new trees today: Ceibo, Ombú, and Paraíso (Paradise). Trees I'd read about--the first two, anyway--but hadn't seen or identified. Our friendly hostess shared a number of other plant names with me, but I can evidently retain only a few at a time. I learned the Palo Borracho's name the other day, though I'd been taking pictures of it for a while. The trunk looks swollen (source of borracho--drunk?), with thick spines, then nips in almost as if collared before the branches spread, but the fiber inside the seedpods is incredibly fine and silky.

Ceibo-- Argentina's national flower

Paraíso. Kids call the seeds--loose skins, hard pits--
"venenitos" (that is, poison). They're popular,
and painful, additions to Carnival water balloons.

Palo borracho

Palo borracho seed pod

I also saw tantalizingly varied birds out the bus window: Lots of herons, but also one that looked like a long-beaked storks. Huge, fat raptors of some kind, eagle-sized, some flying, some perched, some waddling. With a kind of crest on the head, I think. But, of course, traveling too fast to be sure. Will have to try to get closer another time. Unidentified birds, plenty of cattle, lots of sunshine. My eyes are still prickling a little from the glare.

Trust me. Birds abound.

As do cattle.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Juxtaposition (compare and contrast)

When the program excursion to Buenos Aires (several weeks ago now) visited the Recoleta Cemetery, I was struck by the "Make a Wish" billboard framed at the end of one of the narrow paths--streets, in a sense--that crisscross the cemetery. Well off hallowed ground, but present in its visibility, a foil to the wishes expressed in the elaborate tombs: wishes for status, for immortality, for some tangible way to communicate to the dead how intensely they were missed, and loved. And life goes on, visible in cobwebs and bromeliads and the crowds of tourists with cameras.
I've been thinking about juxtapositions, including those visual juxtapositions, reflections. Thinking them in Spanish and in English. Maybe because reflejo (in a mirror) and reflexión (thoughts, considerations) are two I still have to think about too often, afraid I'll mark my thoughtful interventions as mere wavery mirror preening. Also because yuxtaposición is fun to say in Spanish, the x a little softer, the y a somehow more welcoming glide into the word. But more because being here, out of my usual context, invites reflection, comparison, the hey, what's that? reflex of the photographer. And I've been enjoying reflections in café windows and mirrored office blocks while feeling stymied by the reflections in ferry windows that prevented my recording the not-too-interesting view of acres of brown river water with no shore in sight. No great loss, right? But when you can't get the shot you want, you're sure you're missing something. 

Yuxtaposición/Juxtaposition: a winner for Scrabble in either language, but hard to pull off, being so long. Maybe I'm really thinking about repetition, the repetition intrinsic to memory and to theater, the same only different, again and again and again. 

Teatro Solís
A highlight of my trip to Montevideo was Oyster, a performance by the Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollack Dance Company (Israel). [Watch a tantalizing little clip here.] Why juxtaposition? Because of the unexpected combinations of music and movement, the odd wigs, the humor, the extraordinary postures, the color. Because of the new of their performance (with all its nods toward older performance traditions) against the grand old Teatro Solís, all gold paint and red velvet. Because it was just so wonderful, I want to tell everyone.

A few more I've collected recently:

Ramblas, Montevideo, Sunday morning
City beach, dune (re)generation

There's a parrot in this shrub, if you can find it.

So as not to have to read the same things twice--
Not sure I get the logic here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Birdwatching for Translators

I was asked recently when on this trip I had particularly felt I was somewhere else. Well, running, last Friday.

It was a gray, cold, drizzly morning with a strong wind, easily run-in-a-fleece weather; a day worthy of Michigan at the end of March (remember, we just celebrated the first day of spring). The wind was stronger by the river, and stronger yet as I turned back and realized I had had it behind me; the rain stung my face and my ears. The river looked brown, as usual, but high and choppy.

Then I saw a tero. Two, actually. I recognized them by appearance, not by name (those who know me can testify I'm no ornithologist), and I recognized their appearance because I'd been looking at photographs.

When I first read the sentence in the book I'm translating --he looked like a tero-- I had no idea. It could have been anything: a kind of rodent, a local bogeyman, an aristocratic dandy. It took some dictionary rummaging, a trail from a more local name to a more general name to a comparison of photographs to settle on the English. Tero to Teruteru to Southern Lapwing.

It was bumpy ground, rough grass and not-quite-park just where the construction site started. The two men I usually see practicing Tai Chi (always on the danger side of the keep-back sign meant to protect the unwary from the eroding bluffs) were posed in the distance. I was pulling my cold hands further into my sleeves when the dark, trailing crest at the back of a bird's head caught my eye. And I thought, I really am somewhere else now. 

[photo via Wikipedia]
Does it help the translation? Change it?  

It did push me toward using the local name, not the English name of the bird. Wikipedia will tell you about the Tero in Spanish or the Southern Lapwing in English. Lapwing now seems too domesticating (and, perhaps contradictorily, needlessly distancing; the reader who doesn't know her birds won't know a southern lapwing from a cedar waxwing). Also, to me, lapwing sounds somehow more fluid in its movements, not poking and jumping on the ground like the birds I saw, longish-legged and knobby-kneed, like miniature heron relations. But will the reader know a tero is a bird if I don't add other pointers?

It's still a work-in-progress. For now, I've got both names in the draft.

Monday, September 19, 2011

First Day of Spring

Podrán cortar todas las flores pero no acabarán con la primavera
--they can cut all the flowers but they won't do away with spring--

Lapachos in bloom
I wonder how long I'd have to live in the southern hemisphere for September to mean springtime to me. I do associate September with beginnings-- new school year, time for plans, goals, agendas, new projects. But there's also a sense of the year winding down, the days getting shorter, rain on the horizon and then in your shoes.

But here in Rosario, people are gearing up for spring. The last of the winter merchandise is heavily marked down. Changes in the bus schedule are announced. It seems the first day of spring is also a day off of school-- and, according to this morning's paper, the September 21 date is also a mistake, an inexact transfer by immigrants from the northern hemisphere, so that the spring equinox they were accustomed to (March 21) was transposed to September. What went wrong? The equinox is actually on the 22nd or 23rd in this hemisphere, varying slightly year to year.   

Seasons don't arrive on schedule anyway, whatever the calendar says, or ought to say. The weather has been cooperatively variable (read spring-like, in my seasonal experience): sunny but not too hot; then a full day of warmish, muggy rain; then cold, dusty wind under a gray sky, days I've worn sunglasses as safety goggles to protect against dust instead of glare. The grass in the parks looks worn, almost threadbare, reflecting a lack of rain. There are birds' eggs broken all over the sidewalks, and doves are trying to nest on my air-conditioner, or under it. And though I don't know if palm trees change at all from spring to fall--they always look the same to me--the lapachos are blooming. 

Lapachos apparently come in several colors, but so far I've only seen pink. The trees bloom before they leaf out, big, bundled, trumpety blossoms. They're here and there throughout the city, they line a couple of the downtown streets, preside over the park next to the maternity hospital a few blocks away. Sharing a cab with several new friends the other day, I asked the name of the pink flowering trees we passed, and the other women all agreed: seeing the lapachos in bloom was how they knew it was really spring.

View from Davis Silos (MACRO contemporary art museum)

The trees are beautiful. The sunshine today was delicious. Still, in my gut, it feels like fall. Something about taking the girl out of the season but not getting the season out of the girl. Maybe if I were here for a full round of seasons, it would feel different.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Running on Sunday

I set out to run on Sunday, either over toward the Paraná River and along the bluffs on the shore for a bit, as I've done before, or maybe taking Blvd. Oroño in the other direction, toward Parque de la Independencia [map]. But I found that the boulevard is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays from 8:00-1:00, so I stayed right there and ran in a loop. No, I didn't run in crazy circles (though I did recall an old friend's reference to Quito's Avda. Amazonas as the tontódromo; think hippodrome, then insert "idiot" in place of horse), but it did make me happy.
Blvd. Oroño; no cars, plenty of people

There were still a few pauses at intersections. On corners with traffic signals, most of the assembled strolling/running/biking/ambling/skating/stroller-pushing crowd dutifully waited for the light to change; other intersections had police directing traffic, so cars wouldn't gush right into the non-motorized stream. 

Change the air! Recreational street.
The air seemed cleaner than when I've run on weekdays, though that may have been an illusion. The sun was out. One of the first things I did on arrival was to buy a pair of black sweatpants to run in, so I blended right in with all the other women of a certain age (i.e., mine ± 25 years). A girl on a little pink bike with training wheels pedaled madly after a teenier dog leashed to her handlebars. The occasional driver wondered how to get his car out of a corner gas station. Unlike some pools where the swimmers can be quite fierce about sharing lanes for lap-swimming, there was no particular directional regime; folks went up and down both traffic lanes and the sidewalk median. 

I went back later with my camera. I liked the green and white signs the city put out. I wanted to capture the flow of people. But I never feel comfortable sticking my camera right in someone's face--aside from family, I take a lot more pictures of flowers and buildings.

You go ahead; not your car.

And it wasn't that crowded. It was open. People had hours to take advantage of the car-free zone, and did. I don't know how long the initiative has been in place or how long it might last. Maybe there was controversy, maybe it's someone's crazy plan, maybe it's a tradition of long standing. I'll have to ask someone. I've met a couple of women who love to tell stories, so with any luck, I'll get an earful.