Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Things I've Been Reading Lately

Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a story based on the town of Eyam, Derbyshire, that reportedly voluntarily quarantined itself from the outside world during the plague of 1666 in England. The story is told from the point of view of Anna Frith, a young peasant widow. Anna takes the reader through the journey in which everything she has known and loved and presumed would always be there is destroyed by the plague: her family, her community, her faith. The narrative is reach and detailed, evoking the life of the peasants and the local gentry; impeccably researched without being pedantic. Anna is taken under the wing of Elinor, the wife of the local minister. She learns to read, she learns herb lore and healing from the local wise woman, she considers women's role in society, she questions the dictates of the Church, and she examines the human condition. For a humble peasant, she asks some pretty big questions.

I won't give away the remarkable ending, but suffice to say that it is quite extraordinary. For all of its implausibility, every element of the resolution was carefully and deliberately foreshadowed over the course of the story, making the outrageous into something feasible. I enjoyed this book from start to finish and highly recommend it.

Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris

Strangely unconvincing, perhaps because the characters were so unsympathetic: the morphine addicted mother who is cold and distant to her children, raised to a heroic figure fighting off the angry mob of villagers, and who was secretly beautiful to the German soldier; the bland older brother and sister; the unbelievably sophisticated nine-year-old. The author tries for depth of characterization, only to wind up making the characters inconsistent and less believable, rather than more. The writing style is slightly plodding, possibly because it is narrated in the voice of an old woman who, frankly, sounds tired. Set in France during the German occupation, the book begs comparison to Suite Française. I have to say that Némirovsky's work provides more intricate characterization, with the same careful attention to detail, and the richness and wealth of her descriptions resonate much more than Harris's effort. Both authors explore the goodness and badness that is brought to the forefront during times of stress. But whereas Némirovsky uses the device of exploring how different people react, Harris concentrates on an in-depth study of one family. Too bad she couldn't make me care about them more.

The Brain That Changes Itself
by Norman Doidge
This book made me reexamine what I believed about human behavior, in particular our ability to change. The author refers to neuroscience and brain studies to argue that every time we engage in a behavior, we create or reinforce pathways in our brain. Intuitively we know that the more you practice a skill, the better you get at it. The better you get at something, the less effort it takes. Brain scans demonstrate this process. The concept is known as brain plasticity, which means the brain's ability to adapt and change.

The technical explanation for this process is summarized in Hebb's law: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." I was surprised to find that Sigmund Freud --who started out as a neurologist before getting into psychoanalysis-- had proposed something very similar. In 1888, Freud stated that when two neurons fire simultaneously, this firing facilitates their ongoing association. This was the notion behind Freud's idea of free association: the concept that seemingly random pairings of words in fact have a neurological basis.

Author Norman Doidge argues that the same process of reinforcing neuron connections that allows the brain to change, is also responsible for the creation of behavioral rigidity: The more we engage in a certain behavior, the more entrenched that behavior becomes. As such, the same process that is responsible for our ability to adapt and change can also makes us more rigid and inflexible. This challenges the notion that we are "hardwired" for certain characteristics or behaviors, and suggests that human behavior is not predestined and inevitable.

The other side of the coin would be the school of thought that favors the notion of genetic predisposition, and questions whether human nature contains innate characteristics, personal inclination or tendencies. Doidge does not address these issues.

The book does not present plasticity as a panacea, and it directly cautions against the notion of human perfectibility (perfectibilité, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), but it does offer optimism concerning the brain's ability to adapt, and it looks at how this can be put to practical use.

Uses of plasticity:
Therapy for stroke victims who were previously thought beyond help.
Retraining for balance problems.
Sight and hearing for the blind/deaf.
Therapy for people with learning disabilities.
Training the older brain to keep it in shape.

For dealing with behaviors that we want to change.
Aim of therapy when dealing with incidents from the critical period of early life is to make these explicit and retranscribe them as a conscious language-based memory.

The Challenge
The author challenges us to look at our own behavior and ask the question: "Am I doing this because it is the best thing to be doing now, or am I doing this because it is what I tend to do in this situation?"
Never again will I say: That's just the way I am, it's in my nature. Rather I now look at my behavior and say: This is what I choose to do. This is what I choose to be.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Concierto Richard Clayderman

Gracias a un concurso de RCN, gané dos entradas al concierto de Richard Clayderman, el viernes 24 de octubre a las 6:30 en el Gran Salón de Corferias. El concierto tuvo momentos de bellaza. Lástima que los momentos fueron tan poquitos y efímeros.

Acompañado por una sección de cuerdas de la Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá, Clayderman además utilizaba una pista pregrabada con percusión y otros instrumentos ocasionales. El volumen de la pista de fondo era tan alto que casi ni se escuchaban a las cuerdas. El piano de Clayderman también quedó en segundo plano, dando la impresión que ni siquiera estaba tocando. Un popurrí de temas reconocidos de la música clásica con la pista de percusión al fondo sonaba igual a "Stars-on-45".

Dos momentos hermosos del concierto fueron la pieza que tocó después del tema que fue acompañado de escenas de desierto en la gran pantalla, y su versión del tema de Harry Potter (que tocó después del tema de Titanic, que no fue gran cosa). Ambos fueron de piano y cuerdas, sin la pista pregrabada, y se destacaba su destreza musical y el gran talento de la Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá.

El resto era como estar en el consultorio de la odontóloga, escuchando Melodía Estéreo "del hermoso edificio de cristal", sentado en unas asquerosas sillas plásticas en un salón frío.

Me imagino que quienes les gusta música del estilo "easy listening" quedaron encantados. Personalmente prefiero mi listening más duro. No obstante que mis entradas fueron gratis, quisiera haber pedido la devolución de la plata.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

La Boheme, Madama Butterfly

No lees el inglés? Traduzca el blog presionando el botón a la derecha….

When I was little, my favorite stories were the ones that made me cry: The Little Fir Tree and the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Maybe I needed the cathartic release. I have never particularly been an opera fan, but this year I went to see a couple of tearjerkers: La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. As I said, opera is not my forte, but theater is, and I will discuss these productions from a theatrical point of view.

La Boheme - Teatro Bellas Artes de Cafam, 13 September

This was a lively and voluptuous production. The staging was rich and detailed, particularly in the Café Momus scene, with a full adult and children's chorus on the stage. Director Alejandro Chacón kept the staging lively, with plenty of interaction, movement and humor. The singing and acting performances were solid, with excellent timing and pace (except when the audience broke into applause after selected arias, forcing the performers to pause and throwing them off their pace) in a celebration of the life and love of young people who have no money to pay the rent.

The lead characters are supposed to be Rodolfo (Juan Carlos Valls) and Mimi (Georgia Jarman), but the exuberant Musetta (Jennifer Rivera) was the highlight of the show. Despite the tragic finale, the production managed to sustain a high level of energy right to the end, and was thoroughly enjoyable, despite Mimi's inevitable and slightly insipid demise.

Madama Butterfly - Teatro Bellas Artes de Cafam, 18 October

In contrast to the lively pace of La Boheme, a celebration of youth and love, Madama Butterfly is a much more intimate opera about a Japanese woman who marries Pinkerton, an American soldier who has no intention of taking the marriage seriously. The tone is much more sober and somber. Hiroko Morita is a superb singer and made a wonderful Butterfly.

Director Sebastiano Salvato made some bizarre choices, failing to use many of the staging elements that were available to him to their best advantage. For example, he had an adult chorus on stage for the wedding scene, but everyone was just standing around. The entire notion of family and community was lost. At other times, he apparently disregarded what was being sung: As Suzuki helps Butterfly to remove her elaborate robes, Butterfly sings about difficulties untying the knot, except that no knot is being untied. Suzuki helps Butterfly remove an endless series of over-robes, identical except for their print, which had the audience giggling at what was not supposed to be a comic moment. At another point Butterfly is talking to Suzuki about something… however Suzuki had already left the stage a while ago. The Buddhist priest, the Bonze, who is also Butterfly's uncle, is supposed to the represent traditional Japanese values of family and religion that she is renouncing in giving up her religion and marrying an American husband. He should be a dramatic and significant presence on stage, but he just looked inappropriately clownish and ineffectual in a wild wig.

The staging appeared to be a fairly simple series of sliding panels that represent the Japanese house (and the intimate interior life of Butterfly). But the design went overboard, incorporating two flying panels that drop vertically into the set (and had to be manually affixed to the floor ever time they were lowered), using these to great distraction and no great effect. The lighting contrasts lacked subtlety.

I can't say that I favor stories of pining away for unrequited love, but the singers and the orchestra were excellent.

Apparently this was my grandmother's favorite opera, and her favorite aria was "Un bel di vedremo." This is a lovely version.

Although I preferred the lament "Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Anoche asistí al lanzamiento del web verdadabierta.com, una iniciativa de la Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) ya la Revista Semana. El sitio compila información sobre la historia del paramilitarismo en Colombia, los frentes, sus líderes, sus acciones, la desmovilización y incidencias de rearme, los nexos con políticos, el proceso de la parapolítica, y los procesos de justicia y paz. Compila información de múltiples fuentes: reportajes periodísticos, estudios académicos, versiones libres, fallos judiciales, testimonias de las víctimas.

La iniciativa compila información que estaba dispersa. Precisamente lo que dificultaba un entendimiento de la situación y del impacto del paramilitarismo en Colombia era que las fuentes eran dispersas, dificultando la posibilidad formar una imagen o una idea completa del alcance de este movimiento y el impacto de sus acciones.

No solo ofrece información de diversos fuentes en un solo sitio sino, y más importante, busca hacer análisis y contextualización.

El desafío será mantener actualizada el sitio en la medida que más información va saliendo.

También, no puede evitar sentirme inquieta por la seguridad de los quienes trabajan en este proyecto. El destino de quienes cantan la verdad en Colombia no ha sido alentador. Espero llegó la hora en la cual quienes revelan la verdad pueden desempeñar su papel sin temer por sus vidas.

Se puede visitar en:


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Long Distance Parenting

The last entry reflected on the people who, for diverse reasons, are not living near their children. Not everyone is cut out to be a parent, and the decision to accept that one is not going to be part of the life of one's child is a difficult one. But what about the other side of the story? It may be hard on the adult, but it is even harder on the kids. So folks, I may understand, and even sympathize with the fact that you are an absentee parent, but that doesn't let you off the hook.

No matter how conscientious the absent parent is, no matter how diligent about the calls, visits, days/weekends out, remembering birthdays/holidays, the relationship with the child has been irrevocably changed. The child's worldview, sense of natural order, faith in the world he or she knows and loves, and the belief that mummy and daddy will always be there, have been altered. Trust has been broken. This reaction isn't about reason; it is about emotion.

My sister was 6 when our parents split up; I was 10. At first our father would call, he would take us out for the day, the weekend. The calls, the visits grew less frequent. He met a widow who had three children, and he married her. He started a new life, moved to a different municipality. His new wife was nice enough, and my sister and I got along with our stepsiblings. Eventually he moved to the other side of the country and gave up the pretext of staying in touch. The last time I saw him was in 1982. I called him while I was out west on a student exchange.

My sister never forgave our father for leaving --not so much for leaving, as for letting go. I don't think it bothered me as much. I was never particularly angry about it. It is not like he spent that much time with us even when my parents were married. I guess I always looked at the separation as an adult issue that didn't concern me which, if you think about it, is kind of bizarre in itself: how could I consider that my father's leaving didn't concern me? Let’s phrase that differently: it was not about me.

Years later, after I had my second child, I sent him a video of my kids and my life. He was away on vacation when it arrived. My stepsister acknowledged receipt. I never got any response from my father though. If I were to analyze what kind of impact growing up with an absent father had on my life, I would say that I learned emotional autonomy. I learned to not depend on anyone else for emotional support. This can be a good thing. The negative side is that I find it difficult to trust and depend on someone else. Actually, I don't have that problem with my women friends. It's just men I don't trust.

A friend of mine saw his children this week. It was been six years since his separation and although he has kept in contact, they live in different countries and visits are infrequent. His daughter is now 10 and his son is 15. He said that it was awkward seeing them, which I can appreciate. His daughter was open and willing to engage, but his son was not. Considering that a lot of parents have trouble relating to their adolescent children, I can't say that I find this surprising. On top of all the regular teenage angst, this boy is probably haboring a good amount of resentment, anger, betrayal, alienation, and lack of trust. This friend also writes a blog. I pointed out to him that over the course of the past year, he has mentioned his daughter a number of times, but he never mentions his son.

The adult bears the responsibility for upholding the relationship. It takes a lot of effort to be part of someone's life when you are not present, as anyone who has even been in a long-distance relationship knows. If a long distance relationship is hard to sustain with another adult, why would you expect that they would be easier to sustain with a child? The onus is on the parent who has left to establish and maintain contact with the child, because no matter how diligent the absent parent is about staying in touch, the child will perceive the situation as abandonment, and usually the child will blame himself, or else actively shut out the parent. Why would a child want to cultivate a relationship a parent who won't be there for him when he needs him?

I think of friends of mine who live far from their children and none of them are people I would describe as "deadbeat dads": they are conscientious, sensitive, caring people, which is why I think it is all the more important that they not lose contact with their children. But the fact of the matter is: the longer a person stays away, and the farther away they are, the less present they will be. Memory fades, feelings fade. Out of sight, out of mind.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lejos de los hijos

Un amigo mío se vio con sus hijos ayer. Viven con la mamá, fuera del país. Me puse a pensar en las personas a quienes conozco quienes viven lejos de sus hijos.

Tengo dos amigos quienes viven aquí en Colombia, mientras que sus hijos viven con las mamás en otro país. Son casos similares: ambos tienen cuarenta y pico años, se casaron, tuvieron sus hijos en el extranjero, se separaron, y se volvieron a Colombia.

Tengo una amiga quien, en la separación de su esposo, tomaron la decisión que el niño iba vivir con él aquí en Colombia. Posteriormente ella su fue de Colombia. Esta variante es mucho menos común, en el sentido que el padre se quedó con el niño, mientras que la madre se fue. En el resto, el caso es idéntico: el niño queda en el país de nacimiento, con el pariente quien es de la nacionalidad de este país. El pariente "extranjero" se devuelve para su país de origen. Será que la identidad cultural pesa más que la relación con los hijos? Vivir lejos del país de origen tiene sus vainas, pero eso es tema para otro día.

A veces la separación implica un trasteo menos radical, no a otro país, sino a otra ciudad dentro del mismo país. No se requiere visa, pero el efecto es básicamente lo mismo. Cuando conocí a mi futuro esposo (ahora ex-esposo) en Bogotá, él tenía una hija de 8 años quien vivía con la mamá en Pasto. El se veía con la hija algunas veces en el año. Era cuatro años que ya no vivía con su hija. Me acuerdo que después de las visitas y las llamadas, se deprimía, hasta lloraba.

Otro amigo, Jorge, comparta la custodia de su hija con su ex-esposa. Dice que las exigencias de tener que asumir la mitad de las responsabilidades de la vida de su hija le cambió su vida y cambió la relación con ella. Ahora dice que este desafío fue le mejor que podría haberle pasado.

Mi pregunta es: ¿Cuáles son los factores que influyen en la decisión de tener o prescindir de la custodia de los hijos? Especialmente en casos donde la separación efectivamente significa la pérdida de la relación cotidiana con los hijos.

Es un tema delicado. Influyen diversos factores: estatus legal, situación de visa, oportunidades de empleo, la relación con la pareja, la relación con los hijos, requerimientos familiares en el país de origen, etc. Pero sobre todo, creo que es una decisión de opción personal. En la vida uno desempeña muchos papeles, entre los cuales puede figurar el papel de padre/madre de familia. Entonces, qué tan definitivo es este papel en la construcción de la identidad propia? Cada persona llega a su propia respuesta, la cual es netamente personal.

Cuando me separé, hace unos 3.5 años, no había cuestión: los niños iban a vivir conmigo. El caso era muy claro: mi ex-esposo no iba encargarse de dos niños, quienes tenían 10 y 7 años en este entonces; al cambio yo, sí. Ya le venía haciendo. Hasta diría que dentro de mi matrimonio fui madre soltera. Harto? Agotador? Sí, pero por el lado positivo no tuve que entrar en ninguna pelea por la custodia.

Muchas personas me han preguntado porqué no me devolví a mi país con los niños. Aclaro: estoy acá porque escojo vivir acá. Doy constancia: nunca he alegado que estoy obligada a vivir en Colombia porque no tengo permiso para irme con los niños. No, vivo aquí porque me gusta. Además, no me parece justo quitar a los niños la oportunidad de verse con su papá, ni a él la oportunidad de verse con sus hijos. No obstante los problemas que tuvimos en el matrimonio, él tiene sus calidades y tiene mucho para enseñar y compartir con sus hijos. Por algo me casé con él! Es más, creo que se ha vuelto mejor papá desde la separación.

No estoy criticando la decisión de los quienes optan por no vivir con sus hijos. A veces yo también quisiera no tener que vivir constantemente con hijos. No es gratis que se necesitan dos para reproducir, pero francamente es lo que viene después que cuenta más. Dos adultos son un apoyo mutuo y cada uno tiene cosas para aportar a los niños.

Agradezco que tengo a mis hijos (mismo si en este momento, mientras que trato de escribir, están discutiendo porque uno lanzó un moco sobre el otro). Agradezco su alegría, su creatividad, su forma de ver un mundo en el cual casi todo es posible, todo lo que me han enseñado, las cosas que he aprendido sobre ellos y sobre mí, la paciencia que me tuvieron mientras que aprendí ser mamá. Ellos hacen parte de mi vida, y soy una persona mejor por la influencia de ellos. Me ha tocado. Y estoy consciente de todo lo que perdería si no viviera con ellos.

Pero hay veces, hay días, que quisiera escaparme y no tener que responder por nadie. A veces lamento por la persona libre e independiente que alguna vez fui. Tomar la decisión que la vida de padre de familia no es para uno y salir a buscar su propio destino, también es una decisión difícil. La decisión tiene que ver el autoimagen, el papel que uno aspira desempeñar en la vida, la forma de asumir los sueños y las responsabilidades, la confianza en sí mismo, la noción que algún día se podría mirar para atrás y decir: eso es lo que hice, son mis decisiones, es mi vida. No es sino mi vida.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No es sino mi vida, It's just my life - Blog Mission Statement

Al principio del año conocí a una persona quien tiene un blog, y al raíz de las cosas que escribe, empezamos a intercambiar muchas ideas. Descubrí que no necesito mucho empujón para sentir inspirada para escribir. A veces la mera mención de algo le pone uno a pensar. Después viene el ejercicio de consignar estos pensamientos al papel, organizarlos, y tratar de producir algo coherente.

Entusiasmada, habilite la opción de Live Blog en Facebook. No escribí nada. Bueno puso el recuento de unos días que pase en Nueva York con mis hijos, pero como blog es francamente aburridor. Era claro que necesitaba darla un giro al asunto.

Mientras tanto seguí escribiendo con este amigo. Me di cuenta que mucho de lo que escribo son reflexiones que me gustaría socializar entre mis amigos, mis conocidos y, por qué no?, hasta desconocidos, si es que les interesa.
Les advierto, este blog es altamente idiosincrásico. Refleja las cosas que hago, que observo, que pienso, de lo divino a lo mundano..... de hecho mucho más mundano. No es sino mi vida.