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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Salamanca II -- photos added

But cathedrals schmathedrals.

Salamanca also has one of the oldest universities in the world. It is the oldest Spanish University. It is a university so old, and with such a deep history that it makes Harvard look like a baby school, just getting on its feet. J.’s parents studied there. The buildings are primarily close to each other, but are casually spread over the old part of the city in a way that I’m sure makes sense to someone. We walked through on a weekday, so there were plenty of students milling about (yes, on the week before Christmas), many of them American. The upper, or university schools, and the minor, or prep schools, each have a “patio.” The minor schools’ patio leads to the upper schools’ patio (which is larger, but not nearly as pretty), facing the cathedral. There are no benches, as I expected there would be—and as there are around the minor schools’ patio—but there is a statue in the center.

It feels, oddly, more like a blank spot at the center of a great deal of busy areas than a place to gather and talk, meet to go to lunch, or study before classes. The patio for the minor schools, in contrast, feels like a cloister.

In another (but close by) area, around the side of the cathedral, is a plaza called Anaya. Plaza Anaya is bordered by several schools, including (and this is largest here) the school of letters and philology. The inner courtyard is, again, much like a cloister, but on the walls are painted names, each with a similar (though there are differences) design above it. These are the names of persons who have earned their Doctoral degrees. The doctoral, in Spain, is a rough equivalent to post-doc work in the US. There is a dissertation (called a thesis) involved, much as there is in the US, but the course of studies is a little longer and comes after certain other levels of graduate degrees. Therefore, a JD, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is not a PhD, and neither is an MD. Each of these has a PhD possible in the field, but that is designed primarily for those who wish to teach rather than those who intend to practice. So, one can earn an MD, practice for some years, but if one then wants to return to academia and teach, one must take a few more courses, and write a dissertation to earn a PhD of medicine in addition to the MD. Personally, I just like the idea that one gets to leave one’s mark—name and year under the design of one’s major—after one completes this arduous task. Maybe an idea for back home… hmmm.

Both Madrid and Salamanca have street performers. One sees them more in Madrid, but the styles are very different in Salamanca. Madrid street theatre, generally consists of human statues who stand in busy areas not moving until someone throws change in their hat. These are heavily made up to look like statues—or like characters from movies, or like kids’ toys. Very few street performers in Madrid are of the street musician style. We did have one person get on a Metro with us with a CD player attached to a speaker, and an accordion, who then proceeded to play an incredibly bad version of “Autumn Leaves” at us all, but that’s about the limit of what I saw. In Salamanca, on the other hand, I saw a man sitting on a street leading to the cathedral with a guitar in his hands, playing and singing flamenco. He was an old man with a beautifully clear voice, despite the cigarette that had clearly been sitting, lit, between his lips for decades. His beard was white except where it had been stained yellow from the tobacco.

(This is the Casa de Conchas--as you can see it is covered in shells. It is the home of the theology school. There were musicians playing all up and down this street)

On another crowded street, lined with shops that tried at once to sell to the young, hip, college students and the tourist crowd, was a man singing a Flamenco song. “Sounds extremely painful,” I said to J. He replied it’s supposed to; that Flamenco is about pain. But I had meant that he was using his vocal chords badly. Of course, what do I know? Maybe that was the point.

(My favorite sign--so well said!)

Salamanca was gorgeous. The university was wonderful. The notes from dad were great. It was a very special tour. We had spent the night, and then spent the last two hours of hour last day running like crazy to fit in two convents, one of which was home to the first African Dominican nun—she’d been a princess abducted into slavery but turned down a marriage after her freedom was bought to dedicate her life—and they’re trying to have her canonized. The other was home to some stuff I honestly don’t remember and have no photos so—because we weren’t allowed to take photos. Personally, it meant little to me. I think there was an important Virgen there, but the Virgen I liked best was at the New Cathedral; her face was the most well formed face I’ve ever seen on a saint.

Also, the buildings in Salamanca almost always have fascinating and beautiful inlaid ceilings--as is true of most of the older buildings I've seen in Spain. Here are a few from Salamanca.

***WARNING*** The next section has no photos--believe me, you wouldn't have taken any either.

At last, we made it to the bus station and this time didn’t wait for an invite to board the bus! Actually, this time the driver didn’t climb down, even, he just popped the doors for the baggage and waited for us. All seemed well. It was 6 pm and already dark out, but I had my book out because the lights were on and I knew I’d have a reading light once we got underway. As per the routine, of course, we had the front-row view. The driver didn’t turn on the reading lights when he turned off all the other lights and pulled out of Salamanca. (Oops! Forgot to mention, we started out a little late because a guy asked permission to go potty.) I was toying with the idea of asking him to turn on the lights, when Jaime, sounding alarmed, explained it was highly illegal to talk to the driver. We soon discovered why.

I have been in last-minute-face-off positions with oncoming traffic as I tried to pass on a two lane; deciding whether to hit the brakes or the gas can be thrilling. Unless one has neither at her disposal and is in a bus being driven by a maniac who has decided to pass a semi. This would have been enough to keep any girl from asking for her reading light. But no. Things got worse. The DVD start up happened three or more times; I’d remember if I had been planning on watching, but American comedies dubbed in Spanish ain’t my thing, y’all. As the driver attempted to start the DVD and steer simultaneously, J. & I held hands. I have arthritis. I have not been in this much pain, nor, I’m sure, inflicted as much in a long time, arthritis included!

And then we reached the first toll booth. All seemed well, and our driver was decelerating with traffic; until we got just under the little roof thingy they have on those things. He then hit the gas as if he were racing against the gate that was going up at moderate speed. We won. All three times. But I wasn’t happy about it. And none of this was the worst. No. That was reserved for Madrid traffic; it always is. Madrid traffic sucks under normal conditions. We were speeding off the highway—Spanish highways put ours to shame in the US (Surprise!)—when suddenly something small, red, and awfully car-like slowed down in front of us, apparently moving with the traffic in front of it. Our driver, however, did not.

I’ve been an EMT, I’ve been in the US Naval Academy (for like two seconds), and I’ve been through things like bus bombings in Israel. I’ve pissed my pants listening to Katyushas overhead in a sealed room while visiting a friend. I’m not easy to scare. But as I heard myself screaming involuntarily (as the driver finally decided to apply ALL the brake power available to him), I realized that a lap-belt was not going to do much of anything to keep me from heading head first through the front window. I was suddenly pissed at J. for getting the seat behind the driver’s Plexiglas.

But we made it back alive, I guess that’s good enough.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Salamanca I (With pics)

We took the bus to Salamanca—for a detailed description thereof, see earlier post titled “Get on the Bus!” The bus in Spain, is a far lovelier and classier affair than it is in the US. For Greyhound trips I usually prepped by not showering for three days and practicing talking to myself while rocking back and forth. Anyone will sit next to a crazy person, and some will sit next to a stinky person; but the combination is deadly.

For Spanish bus trips (and mind you, I mean intercity), you purchase a ticket which assigns you a seat. The buses are designed with one seat on one side of the isle and two on the other. The seats recline, and have trays, like plane seats; but have more room than coach, which is how I travel. As you climb on the bus, a little holder next to the driver’s seat has plastic sealed headphones, which you are free to take on the way to your seat—and you want to do that if you want to listen to music pumped into any of 8 channels, or if you want to hear the film that’s going to play at some point.

J. & I lucked out and got the front seat both going and returning. By lucked out, of course, I mean we had my luck and as the song goes, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” The windows on long haul buses go ALL the way down. Really. Just ceiling to floor. And that means the front seat view goes all the way down. And that means that like it or not, my primary view, in each direction was the driver’s skill. The first guy wasn’t too bad. I managed to read most of the way, with the help of the overhead reading light—since we were leaving at 6 am, this was something of a necessity—and I even napped some.

When we pulled into the bus station in Salamanca, I was tired and grumpy—a result of my three hours’ sleep, and the fact that we’d been on a bus for two hours. It’s odd. I fall asleep whenever in a moving vehicle (that I’m not driving—and once or twice in ones I was). I fall asleep as soon as the plane takes off. I fall asleep when the train pulls out, or by the time the bus hits the city limit. But I always wake from these naps unrested and unhappy. We checked into the “RoomMate Vega”—a lovely hotel. We went up to our lovely room and discovered the phone didn’t work. Just for kicks I tried the WiFi—same luck. But we weren’t in Salamanca to log on, we were there to tour.

Salamanca is special; J.’s parents both studied here, at the oldest Western University (Universidad Salamanca), they met and fell in love here. And J.’s mom had grown up here as well. Because of its importance to the family, J.’s dad was nice enough to send us a planned out walking tour, with information on all the points of interest he thought we should see, so in addition to the different parts of the university where they had studied, we also saw the houses where each had lived. We walked the road (Tostado, I kid you not!) that J.’s dad walked to school every day. J.’s mom was one of the first three women to earn Juris Degrees—they’re not doctorates, here (sorry, Dassi), but they are graduate degrees—in Spain.

Salamanca, even without the family connection, is special. The buildings are gorgeous! And that’s even before one goes inside them. The stone walls are engraved with many beautiful images. Where Madrid has beautiful buildings near statues and some with statues on top of them, Salamanca’s buildings are statues.

The university and “new” cathedral are in the same plaza. I say “new” because it was completed in the 19th Century. The “new” cathedral is attached to the old by a wall, so when touring one, we were able to walk into the other.

We ended up climbing the tower, an arduous task that reminded me that fat girls may show up in art, but we don’t often show up on the tops of cathedrals.

But I did. J. did it with me.

Oddly, once we were up there, the hardest part was finding the way down. Going down was tough enough (tiny spiral staircases suck!), but actually finding the exit was a challenge in and of itself. Still, it was more than worth it. The view from atop the cathedral is, as you can see, amazing. I prefer the view of the spires, up close, that I got from climbing that high. The spires are beautiful from afar, but the detailed work that goes into building such a thing and making it beautiful from afar can only be appreciated from up close. “Yay!” for whoever built that god-awful staircase.

One last thing about this cathedral (and then maybe something about cathedrals in general). This cathedral was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in Lisbon several hundred years ago. When one climbs into the rafters (part of the maze of entrances and exits connected to the tower), one more clearly sees the cracks. We’re not talking about a minor bit of squiggly line across a wall, here. In places, the rock, easily 18 inches thick or more, has been cracked clear through and one can see the sun pouring in from the other side. Parts of this cathedral is being helpd together with metal bars that keep it in place. Lisbon, by the way, is more than 200 miles away from Salamanca. The damage here is astounding. I cannot begin to imagine the damage done to the amazing work that is a cathedral—any cathedral—closer to the epicenter.

And that brings me to cathedrals in general. As is the point of cathedrals, I’m sure, I am overcome by a sense of awe whenever I walk into one of these structures, big or small, famous or not. But my sense of awe is rarely aimed where it is intended to be. I am not in wonder of G-d’s greatness (and if you know anything about Jews, you know the way I spelled the name above indicates my general belief in that concept). I am in wonder of both the beauty of which humans are capable and the hatred and pain of which they are full. So much of cathedrals comes down to the voluntary giving of lives on a massive scale as well as the immense gifts of artistic talent poured into conveying the beliefs that built the walls. I am in awe of the human drive to religion which asks so much of those who have so little—and what does it give back? I think of the poor of whatever parish I am in and the time and money they spent giving their lives meaning through the building of this monument to their beliefs and I am angered that their beliefs asked this of them—but then I’m angered at myself. What gives me the right to deny the meaning they felt they gave their lives? Who am I to say it is inappropriate to ask such sacrifice of anyone?

So I keep going to cathedrals—and synagogues and mosques—in each of the cities J. and I visit.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Get on the Bus!

Who'd have expected a Mexican standoff in Spain? Ok, so none of us were armed, I hope, but we stood in what can only be called a quasi-semi-circle, our bags in hand, staring at the bus.

The driver had opened the door, turned on the lights, opened the luggage area, and climbed down from the coach. There he stood, looking at no one and nothing in particular and sucking on the collar of his coat like a nervous five-year-old.

He looked at us. We looked at him. I turned to J. "Why are we standing? Is he going to give some sort of signal that he's ready?" J. said he assumed so. Five minutes can be a long time.

At the end of those minutes, a blond woman who'd been standing, confused alongside us, walked up to the driver and wordlessly handed him her ticket. He nodded in a practiced way and she boarded.

"What an ass wipe!" J. said.

Desde Zapateria Bush

For the non-Spanish speakers among us: "From the Bush Shoe Store"

So. What's wrong with shrugging off the size10s that flew at him and laughing at it as an "act of someone trying to get attention"?

It provides empirical evidence that Bush has learned nothing from his foray into Friedman School Shock & Awe -- and from its near abject failure (nearly everywhere it's ever been used).

What's wrong with saying one is "abandoning free market ideals to preserve the free market"?

It, too, provides proof that the model (again, Friedman School Economics Free Market and no other) is what needs fixing, not the moment. If the free market as practiced by Friedmanites worked, we wouldn't be in this hell hole. We are here because they made it look pretty on paper.

It works on paper.

Humans, however, don't.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Madrid (Cont.) Day Two

On day two we began by "sleeping in." We decided the night before not to set a clock, as our first day had been exceedingly full--to the point of falling asleep in the middle of a show we both thought was brilliant. "Sleeping in," though I had been blissfully unaware of it at the time of agreement, meant sleeping until "we" couldn't anymore. At about 8:30 am (Madrid time), J woke up. He couldn't sleep anymore. Therefore we couldn't sleep anymore. J is not a late sleeper, which sometimes worries me because I am nothing if not a late sleeper. I'm also an early sleeper. I'm a 24/7 sleeper except the world expects me to work and pay for food and such, so I wake up daily as my minor act of non-defiance.

By 9:30 we were on the hunt for El Templo De Debod.
This is an amazing piece of history in Spain--and the world if it bothered to learn it. After the Suez Canal was built, a dam had to also be built to protect certain parts of the flood plains from unseasoned flooding. Don't get me wrong, the Nile is known for flooding, you can set a watch by it--but all of a sudden, you couldn't set a watch by it because it wasn't doing it at the right time. This, for some reason upset the entire ecological balance of the area, not to mention the farmers--and I clearly don't mention them. All of which mattered not at all to the folks who had created the mess, at first, because, hey, we could get oil shipped across the world without having to travel all the way around Africa, and who can say no to that!?!

No one could. Why would they? If we had no Suez, the price of gas would be through the roof--and think of all the unemployed Somali pirates! Of course, worst of all is that we would have had to use our imaginations to come up with a more workable, less ecologically heinous solution, like, say, a pipeline through Israel? Okay, you're laughing, but wouldn't a shared economic interest in getting oil tot he world done a whole hell of a lot to getting people toward peace? Why, you ask? Because money is one of the best reasons for peace. It wasn't until the 20th century that we managed to make war a sound economic practice, and for more on that you can read Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine." Because regardless of what you think of her moral judgments, her historical ones are sound, and she backs them. But I'm WAY off topic here; we were talking about floods and rivers and dams and damns.

So the world, being both uneducated about the "realities on the ground" (Man! I love that phrase!) and not particularly concerned, though I blame that on the uneducated part, didn't do much of anything about the flooding being caused in parts of Egypt, Somalia and Nubia. Then someone noticed the flooding--and the creation of a rather permanent lake in a rather unhappy place--was damaging antiquities. We couldn't undam(n) the Nile, We couldn't untrench the Suez. What were we to do? A diplomat from UNESCO sent out the call for help. Among the countries that helped, was Spain. Yes, Spain, in the early 70s, under Franco, reached out and sent funding and manpower to help save these early signposts of our shared civilization.

In thanks, the Egyptian government sent the Temple of Debod. Actually, they sent what was left and copies of the carefully researched (in teams of anthropologists from the US, Italy, Spain and Egypt, to name just a few) records of what the temple had been like before a long span of time and then a short span of water had done its work.

All thanks to that, there is an incredible monument smack in the middle of Madrid. It's a few blocks to the left of the Palace--or something like that--but not easily reachable if you don't know where you're going, decide to hoof it the whole way and have a map that has no indication of North, though to its credit, every McDonald's in Madrid is carefully marked. Including the one at the Puerta Del Sol with a Walk-up Window (That's just what happens when you live in Madrid, but more on that later).

After about two hours of wandering down side streets, heading in the wrong direction, taking lovely photos of the Senate building (and some senators), talking to people who had no idea but gave us directions anyway, and watching a man let his dog crap on the front yard of a convent, a mere three meters front of the sign that showed a shadow of a dog pooping and a line through it, we did, finally, get directions from the guard at the senate who was suffering a massive nosebleed; and that got us as far as a lovely park from which the next bunch of directions (go that way a block & cross the street) brought us to an amazing oasis in the urban jungle (ok, so I love mixed metaphors, too).

So above are some of the photos, but there is no way to express the two or so hours we spent there except through the set of photos below. The Temple and its outlying arches are set on a reflecting pool, which was icy. Did I mention it''s COLD here?

As for the rest of the day, we napped, then wandered happily through a shopping mall close to our hotel--Malls are a rarity in Spain, and this one was a rarity in any case. The stores are unique, mostly concept based, and beautifully set among fun displays (though those may be space holders until they get more stores). We went into the coolest store EVER! A place that was something of a cross between the discovery store, a gardening store, a holistic medicines shop, book store specializing in photo books, and camping goods store. No, I'm not kidding.

But my favorite was this one display of a child's circus set from what must be the 50s--beautifully preserved, but clearly very old--which included a mannequin. And somehow, despite the obvious age of the piece, the mannequin was clearly a representation of Horatio Cane from CSI Miami--I knew there was something about that guy...

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about today, which was all Prado and still not enough, but we'll also be traveling to Salamanca, yay!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madrid, Espana--Day One (well, the morning after)

Day one, for normal humans, might have included a long nap. Being a little too aware of the dangers of Jet Lag, however, my partner and I decided to pack the day as fully as possible so we would not have time to give in to the time change--only to give in to Madrid...& there's a lot to give in to. We checked into the Hotel Gavinet (an interesting little place, but more about it later, but the first picture is of the Puerta De Toledo just down the block), then decided to take the Metro to the Opera station to see the Royal Palace (Palacio Real). I warn you, the photo ops were limited, so some of what I tell you'll have to use your healthy imaginations to conjure.

El Palacio Real sits directly across from the Opera Real. The Opera actually comes into this story a little later. But this palace is GOR-GEOUS! There is no photography allowed inside the palace. The palace is still in use for state functions, but when it is not being used for that, it's a museum of Spanish royal history, in a sense (The Royal Family lives somewhere else in Madrid--who knows). We opted not to pay the extra two Euros for the guided English tour. J speaks fluently, having grown up in Spain, and I can pick things up pretty well, but about two rooms in, we realized we had no idea what we were looking at (*HINT* Spend the extra two Euros; as you'll see it can be well worth it for entertainment alone).

As we wandered into the second room, the tour that had been coming up the stairs behind us caught up with us. We had already learned, from reading, that the walls were covered in silk. And by covered, I don't mean a tapestry here and there, I mean floor to ceiling wall-silk. Each room has a different color and design because, well, It's good tobe the king!, and when you're king, you don't have to Count De Monet.

The throne room, as we learned from the "English speaking" tour guide, had new carpets put in regularly--made by the same carpet maker who'd been making the same carpets for centuries for the palace. You've gotta wonder how old this guy is. The thrones, she explained were also replaced, in this case, every time the king was. So the chairs we were looking at had the faces of the royals currently not really in charge carved into them. "But," she said conspiratorially, "They never are sitting in them." Apparently, when state functions require the use of the king and queen, the two must stand the whole time to be bowed at in the receiving line.

The next two rooms were "sitting rooms" -- and it was explained that because state functions meant everyone had to stand around a lot, one could come into either of these rooms and sit for a bit before getting back to being royal. The second room was astoundingly opulent.

Decorated in the Rococo style, (which translates roughly to "youch! that's a bit much, don't you think?") this room had embroidered silk walls with scenes depicting, well, honestly, stuff. As the guide explained, even the silks in each room have to be regularly replaced due to wear and "you will believe me when I tell you that the replacing of these embroidings was a three-year hand job!" She sounded so proud. We ditched the tour.

Out in the courtyard we got some beautiful shots of Madrid from the outer wall.

Then we realized there was no place to sit. We stumbled our way through the Royal Pharmacy--yes, just a collection of glass and ceramic jars marked with whatever vile, stenchy, "medicine" was on offer two hundred years ago. Man I'm glad to be livin in the 21st Century, where we can kill each other civilly (the armory contained large wooden horses festooned in so much silver and with knights festooned upon them that it's a wonder anyone ever died in those wars--other than the horses), and could hop in to the local Walgreens and pick up some Vicodin. Speaking of which...

We left the Palace and went to get some coffee, which is how we learned the ATM card was not working--Now THAT was a fun afternoon of international phone calls. But it's straightened out and we won't be making beds to pay off the hotel room. (HINT: Make sure your bank does not have the country to which you are traveling blocked. Also, just as a general good idea, pre-pay on things like hotel.)

We had "lunch" -- at 6 pm! Welcome to Madrid, honey -- at Comida de San Isidro, on the Calle de Toledo, the same street as our Hotel. The food was OK, but the cost was good. If you go, I recommend the Chistoras--tiny chorizo on french fries.

Then there was the Victor Ullate Ballet, Mind you, at this point, it's 8 pm, we've been up since, well, three days ago when the trip began with a too long drive to Atlanta, and have had only airplane food and airplane sleep until moments ago when we ate chorizo & blood sausage (which tastes disturbingly like falafel and has a similar texture.)

I wish we could have stayed past the intermission. It was AMAZINGly beautiful. I cannot begin to explain the talent Ullate clearly has. Genius is an insult. You should go check out the videos available through a simple google search. Sadly, we were falling asleep in our seats. I will post more on the Opera building, etc., tomorrow. URL:

Today we go visit an Egyptian temple, given to Spain as a gift. I'm adding one more photo here for your perusal--it's the cathedral across from the Palace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

For all you readers out there...

Santa, Baby,
Leave a Kindle under the tree, for me,
Been a good reader, and so…

I probably won’t be getting a Kindle for Christmas. And I don’t just say that because I’m Jewish. I say it because the simple truth is that it’s way out of the price range of anyone I get gifts from. And, well, most people who’ve even heard of the Kindle, are early adopters, gadget heads, Oprah watchers, avid Amazon wish-list makers, writers, or insatiable readers; or some combination of all--and really, my people are all broke versions of the above description.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. The Kindle is a handheld ebook device. It is the proud production of the folks who brought us the internet book store, the small bookstore and independent bookstore marketplace, and CreateSpace, a print-on-demand client; Amazon. With Kindle, Amazon brings on what some consider the doom of the “book,” and others the liberation of the author.

Steve Windwalker is in the latter group. A self-published author, and Bestselling author in the Amazon Kindle bookstore, Windwalker has written several guides to the Kindle since its inception a year ago. He has also written Bey ond the Literary-Industrial Complex, a polemic part manifesto / part how-to guide. Windwalker contends in his book (published both electronically and traditionally through his press, the Harvard Perspectives Press) and when speaking that the Kindle is, and should be, part of an inexorable wave of change in the way books are published and sold.

In fact, Windwalker explains, the Kindle is simply the current top technology for a net-based movement that is far older. Writers have already been liberating themselves, they’re simply finding the Kindle to be the next best way of doing it.
“Amazon’s goal in creating the Kindle, wasn’t to create the best device ever; it was to create the bridge so that they would still be selling books in 2018” Windwalker said. “They’ve set the bar in terms of delivery and content. So I think when you combine that with the fact that writers are blogging and writing books online and doing all kinds of things and the whole focus of what is considered journalism has changed.”

The doomsayers, on the other hand, are bemoaning their private libraries. One anonymous poster on a writers’ listserv spoke of the Kindle as a machine that would need constant replacing and would make buying physical books obsolete, and thus create a situation in which, if one had a library at all, it was a collection of Kindles and memory cards. He then went on to describe his doomsday scene, in which the world is subjected to an electrical bomb, which would then wipe out all the Kindles, leaving all humanity without any of its published record. We would have no way to recover the glory of human publication from such a disaster as all databases would be wiped out and we will have long since thrown out our books.
The truth, always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Windwalker doesn’t represent the Kindle as the end of all books, but does see publishing in general headed in that direction. For him, all Amazon did was recognize the coming wave early enough to be the leader.
“The Kindle is not going to do this in any kind of quick time-span. But I think a lot of that kind of change never is absolute, as its heralds proclaim, but [it] is going to occur in waves.”

And perhaps the corner of possibility was turned when Oprah jumped aboard, in late October, with a show all about the device and a discount offer for her viewers. Those lucky enough to have been in the audience that day received their Kindle for free. It was under their seats. And as she breathlessly praised the device, she held it in her hands and suggested they pick it up. She explained that it naturally could store up to 200 books, had GPS and emailing as well as free blogging access, and users could even ask it questions. The entire audience was Kindled.

“And,” she mouthed with that deep excitement that has earned her a yelling satire on Saturday Night Live, “with a memory card it can even hold four th-OU-sand books. FOUR THOUSAND!”

For Windwalker, the Oprah effect is particularly fascinating.

“The interesting thing about the show was that we’ve seen for years that she can sell a $15 book, but there she was selling a $359 gadget, and by my calculations, Amazon sold about 100,000 after the show.”

Windwalker’s sales went up by about 500 percent by his own estimation before Amazon started having to backorder the device. The fascination is not just in Oprah’s ability to sell a big ticket item, it lies also in her ability to do so as the national economy tanks and many people find themselves jobless, or facing that possibility, and even those who have managed to maintain employment face grocery bills that climb on a weekly basis.

The Kindle is selling, regardless. Or, perhaps, because of. One of the arguments for the Kindle in a time of economic crisis is that Amazon’s Kindle books sell for $9.99 a piece; roughly half the price of the average book. By buying a Kindle, the argument goes, one is saving on one’s book budget.

One blogger, at, suggests this logic is false.

“Truth is, you are never going to get back that $359,” The blog explains. “All the fancy projections you are hearing about how buying x books a month will get you your $395 back in a year are nonsense.”

Why? Because book lovers buy books. And when book lovers can buy books more cheaply, have ready access to them whenever and wherever they may be, and use simple, light, handheld technology to do so, they will buy more books.

Thekindle blog rather wisely suggests that if you are looking at the Kindle as an investment in lowering your book budget, either look again, or purchase a will of steal to go with it. Instead, the author suggests, you may want to look at the Kindle as a way to “get more book bang for your buck.”

Just as buying any item on sale still requires the outlay of money, buying the Kindle allows the user to then have an ongoing book sale at his or her fingertips. In this way, we are allowed to drool over the idea of the Kindle. We are encouraged to do so. But just a little more realistically. The logic of getting one’s money back is only economically sound for an item that can earn money.

But lookee-here! The Kindle can.

For writers, Windwalker says, the Kindle, in concert with CreateSpace brings the concept of the indie market to publishing. It may even remove some of the stigma associated with the vanity press—lightheartedly lampooned in Beyond the Literary-Industrial Complex with a dialogue between writer and book in which the writer shyly says, “But I would never want it to get around that I was paying for it.”
And while Windwalker does posit that at this point in time self-publishing is simply easier for non-fiction and niche-based books because such books have a very clear audience and thus make distribution and marketing far easier for the self-publishing writer, that may not be a long-term actuality.

“It’s amazing that there’s so much openness in the world of Indie music and film to do-it-yourself models without stuff getting stigmatized as; ‘here’s a song by a guy who couldn’t find a label.’”

In fact, Indie music and film are heralded as the truer, less commercialized forms of art. Because there are no big dollars behind the artists, there is no pop-stigma. The pieces are looked at as thinking-people’s art. An entire cable channel is dedicated solely to the world of independent film, to match the Indie film festivals that are highly attended and covered, and most large communities or cities have radio stations entirely dedicated to Indie music. No one would suggest to Ani DiFranco that Righteous Babe Records is pointless because she built it herself.
Why, then, the taboo of the vanity press, and is the Kindle really the solution? Windwalker points to the writing cottage industry both in his book and in talking about the future of Indie publishing (whether it be Kindle or any other device that allows it to flourish). In particular, he blames the MFA and big publishing industries for perpetuating the taboo. Because so many writers make money from the teaching of writing and so many writers pay money to the cottage industry of learning to write, the supposed impossibility of being a real author is made overt and self-perpetuating. But he doesn’t see that lasting very long.

“I do think that 8 or 10 years out, it’s going to be a very different world, with respect to those things, and part of it is that technology allows change,” Windwalker said. The Kindle, for him has helped bring this about by bringing the cost of self-publishing to the ground. When he first began his publishing company, the cost of a small run of books was $3-5 thousand. “Now, the cost through Kindle is $0.”

In addition, he cites generational demands that will radically change the situation within the decade.

“It will be gradual. There won’t be any point where we can say ‘Ah the Kindle did that.’ It will occur in ways and there will be other forces, and it may not even be the Kindle. One of the things that Amazon has set itself up for with the Kindle, is that they will be very well positioned if the Kindle flames out and is replaced by an Apple device. Amazon only has to flip some switches so that that stuff is available on Amazon for the Apple device.”

Ultimately, though, Windwalker believes that the Kindle is merely a bridge to the next generation of reading and readers. And perhaps, if one takes Oprah’s view, it doesn’t matter what people use to read, so long as they read more. If nothing else, the Kindle seems to be proving that people do want to read more.

As for me, I will have to wait for Kindle 2.0, as Windwalker puts it, that will likely come in colors and have even neater features, before I can afford a Kindle 1.0—whose cost will go down drastically as did the iPod’s. Unless I can get ahold of Santa before Christmas.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

why I use facebook scrabble to help me grade

Wordsworth wrote (and with a name like his, how could he not?):


THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

And that was two hundred years ago.

I sit here with my facbook open, my Tweetdeck running behind the scenes, but also my TwitKit on the left-hand bar of my window, and thinking about windows. There is a jungle in my back yard. I even have Ginger plants, but I use my greenpatch to "play" with plants--possibly because I was born with two black thumbs.

Don't get me wrong; I have no need, no use, no wish to return to an "earlier" or "more innocent" time. As far as I can tell, those times had high death rates from things other than murder, war and genocide. People died of appendicitis, the flu, stomach issues, even old age (that's 40 years old). And a hot shower was not really an option at any time of day.

Worse, I would not be able to keep in touch with my friends around the world by simply sending an imaginary plant.

And yet...

And yet I look at my work and wonder if I ever stop looking at my work. If I ever stop worrying about money and possessions. If I will ever stop trying to get and do more. And I doubt I will. Even for our trip to Spain, Jaime and I have itineraries, plans, museum wishes.

So the world is too much with me late and soon. But I keep finding new ways to make it more so. And I doubt it will ever work in reverse.

I keep composing, for someday I will decompose. ;)