A night at the theatre

One of the advantages of spending time in a city is being able to take public transport -or even walking- to a theatre.

Although I am a big fan of musical theatre, I’m sad to say that my last post about musicals was 11 years ago! In fact, it was my twelfth post in this blog, when I was invited to see Spiderman on Broadway. Fortunately, it was not my last show, but the last one I wrote about. So it is about time.

My Christmas gift this year was tickets to The Lion King. Celia and I walked down Madrid’s Gran Via, our Broadway, to the iconic Lope de Vega theatre. It was packed, and has been for years, not an available seat in the house.

The show was appropriately spectacular, with an amazing cast and orchestra. We enjoyed every number!

After the show we enjoyed a lovely cocktail at my favorite bar: Del Diego.

On the importance of family

Antonio Balson x 2

There is an old African proverb that says,

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb –

It is only within the last few years that I have arrived at that same conclusion myself.

This realization came from seeing my parents and aunts and uncles getting older, and dying. So, I started calling cousins and aunts and uncles regularly to say “Hi”. Whenever possible, meeting them for a coffee or a meal.

Maybe part of what triggered my reaching out is the fact that I live thousands of miles away from Spain, making my desire to be close to my family even greater.

What difference does this make? You might ask. Well, for me, besides feeling closer to the people I grew up with, I feel richer, much richer; my heart feels fuller, I am happier knowing that I spent quality time with people I love and that I know love me.

Of course I am not talking about immediate family, my sisters, in laws, nieces and nephews, that is sort of a given, but one must make every effort to make sure one stays close to their loved ones, who have known you the longest, even if you did not necessarily hang out with them regularly when you were children.

This is the lesson for this week: pick up that phone and if you have the luxury of still having them, call a grandparent, or call a cousin, an uncle, an aunt you have not spoken to for a while. Guaranteed it will put a smile on your face.

Mi 92 year old uncle, Luis

On Bullfighting

Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Yes, I love the bullfight. Why? Because it boils down the most basic human emotions. Here is someone (the bullfighter) willing to dance with death with a 700 lbs. (at least) beautiful, noble animal. Although the bullfighter has the edge, he must use all his skill, and valor in a highly choreographed ritual to vanquish the bull. The bullfighter does not always win, and therein lies the excitement. There is a primary, primal relationship between life and death, between the fighter and the bull, between man and animal. And only a profound understanding of that relationship, of that beauty will lead you to understand why a man will stand in front of death, and dance with it.

Of course, bullfighting dates back to the Roman circus, and even before that, to the Greek and Cretan games. This is the very stuff Greek mythology is based on (partly). Humans fighting it out with amazing animals. In a hyper material world, we think we can live forever, bullfighting reminds you of your own mortality, you understand that death is part of life and that if you get to die with dignity and grace, all the better.

If you have not been to a bullfight -and had it explained to you- I am afraid you cannot opine. The centuries of tradition, the intricate ceremony involved, the part each person plays in and out of the ring. The whole thing is nothing less than amazing.

My dad was a big aficionado and he passed on his passion to me. I remember the first time he took me to the bullring; he would not let me go without socks, even when it was all the rage in the early eighties!! Although I have been to Las Ventas bullring many, many times (for bullfights and concerts: Sting, Prince, etc.) I had never actually visited the ring, nor had I visited the museum. A couple from Belgium recently booked me for a tour of Madrid and asked me to see Las Ventas. So, the day before I went to the bullring to do my homework with my niece, it was impressive! We walked around the ring checking out the bulls’ stables, the chapel, the stands, the museum, the obligatory gift shop, we even had a chance to try our hand at virtual reality bullfighting!! It was great fun!!

If you want to learn more I highly recommend Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway loved the bullfight and followed them for a full Summer, getting to befriend and hang out with great fighters like Manolete.

The bullfight is a Spanish institution; it has not existed because of the foreigners and tourists, but always in spite of them and any step to modify it to secure their approval, which it will never have, is a step towards its complete suppression.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Happy New Year!! A New Year’s Eve tradition

San Silvestre collage

This was my fifth San Silvestre Vallecana 10k (sorry I could not find a photo with the lime green shirt), and it was the most fun.

With no Covid restrictions, 40.000 runners and thousands of spectators participated in this year’s race, making it the most fun to run in. My phone timer says I did it in 1.01 but I am hoping the official time was under an hour so I can leave in a more competitive box next year -cross your fingers!

I am not going to write about the San Silvestre, I already did that here and here. But I am going to encourage you to make fitness one of your New Year’s resolutions. It does not have to be much, but set some objectives: walking a bit more, maybe running a 5k or a 10k like the San Silvestre, maybe hitting the gym, riding a bicycle, whatever. If you lack motivation or are out of shape, take it slow so you do not quit by February. First day just put on your running shoes, or drive to the gym -you don’t have to go in! But the next day go in and hang out for a while, and so on, and so on, so that before you know it, you are feeling better, and sleeping better, maybe losing some weight, maybe making new friends, whatever, the secret is in starting.

So, having said that: Happy New Year and if you run the San Silvestre next year, let me know and we can run together!

On Photography

With your hand on your heart, tell me you have never been moved by a photograph. Such is the power of photography. I am ashamed to say that despite spending over twelve years in the world of photography professionally (and many more as an amateur) I have never written about this art which means so much for me.

I took my Kodak Disk camera on a high school trip to the Soviet Union in 1983 (yes, I am old). The camera was not particularly good with its tiny negatives and tiny lens, but it exposed me (haha) to the magic of capturing powerful images. A couple of years later, I borrowed my sister’s Canon AE1 Program for a holiday in Greece and my passion for photography started in earnest. Back home, I permanently appropriated my dad’s Pentax ME Super (he never used it) and, as they say, the rest is history.

In 1991, I made my hobby into my job, when I got the opportunity to work as a sales manager for an English photo distributor in Spain. From there I entered the photo lab supply business and eventually started my own company supplying photo labs all over Spain. It was genuine fun until 2004 when everybody got a digital camera for Christmas and traditional photography as we knew it ended, overnight.

Needless to say, photography has remained my passion, although I gave all my equipment away to one of my students who was studying photography (3 different Pentax bodies, a bunch of lenses, and accessories – but I kept my Billingham bag!)

The other day I went to a History of Photography exhibit at the Fundación Juan March, and I was deeply moved by images I knew by heart: Man Ray, Mapplethorpe, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Ansell Adams, Capa, and on and on. It was very emotional.

If you are in Madrid head over this exhibit, you are welcome.

The photo exhibit at the March

Finding a jewel, Awareness by Anthony de Mello S.J.

Few things are as rewarding as finding an unexpected jewel. It might be a film, some material thing -including a jewel- but in my case it was a book.

Anthony de Mello’s The Prayer of the Frog has been on my to read list for years, but it is a long list so I don’t really worry too much about it. A few months ago, I found another book by Anthony de Mello on the Free Bookshelf at my school: Awareness.

Well, I finally picked it up and it gave me a big slap on the face! What an awakening!

The book (published posthumously; de Mello died in ’87 the book was published in ‘90) is basically a transcript of one of his conferences. He shakes you to wake up, to start really seeing, to really listen and observe, to be aware of what we do, including charity work, to not label things, including God. The book is really priceless, with quotes such as:

We see people and things not as they are, but as we are.

Anthony de Mello

De Mello urges the reader to simplify, to understand the difference between desires and preferences. He points to our understanding of the world through our conditioning. The whole book is full of wisdom and urgency. I read the almost 200 pages in a few sittings.

One never quarrels about reality; we only quarrel about opinions, about concepts, about judgements.

Anthony de Mello

Handel’s Messiah, how to start the holiday season!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Halleeeelujaaaaah!!!

You have heard this sung a thousand times, but did you know it comes from Handel’s Messiah?

Thanks to a generous donor, I managed to get a ticket to see and hear the Palm Beach Symphony perform Handel’s Messiah, together with a group of students from my school.

Although this was a smaller production than the North Carolina Symphony, or the Naples Symphony, or others I have seen, the music is so amazing that it really does not matter so much. It is also a wonderful way to start the holiday season.

As an Enlightenment freak, I love how Handel pushes his Baroque style to the gates of the Enlightenment, of Classical music. Together with Bach (you can read my musings on him here), they make the Rococo obsolete before it is born, making it possible for Mozart, Haydn or early Beethoven to get a start on Classical music at the end of the 18th C.

In case you have not seen or heard this amazing work here is a YouTube recording. Enjoy. By the way, the Hallelujah is at 1:36…

On the importance of doing your work

The most important lessons in life you learnt as a child. One of those lessons was do your homework, do your work. There is no substitute. You might be able to get away without doing your homework once in a while. But if you want results, you have to do the work, put in the hours.

Last Spring, we lost the soccer game against our eternal foe, Miami’s St. John Vianney 3-4. This year we put in the work week after week. We practiced with dedication and enthusiasm, we even organized a scrimmage against a local team. We put in the work. The team was diligent and conscientious about practicing, not easy when you have a ridiculous grad-school workload, but they did it.

The result?

With only a few minutes to warm up and settle in after our drive to Miami (the referee, hired at the last minute had things to do, come on, this is Miami), our players -minus one of our forwards who suffered an accident travelling down (he is fine, just a sore neck)- jumped on to the turf field.

We won 0-6. Victory is sweet, revenge even better!

Congratulations to the team, Assistant Coach Josh, the faculty and staff that made the game possible, as well to our phenomenal photographer Dylan McKay!

Captain Olson. Sibling pride, my sister at Ronald McDonald House Charities Spain

Keeping families together while a child is hospitalized is an important task, and one that Ronald McDonald House Charities is dedicated to. They build houses next to children’s hospitals around the world so the family can stay -for free- as long as the child is in hospital.

My younger sister has worked at the Spanish operation for years, which led me to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill while I studied for my PhD, and at the Neonatal unit’s Ronald McDonald Family Room at the La Paz Hospital in Madrid while I lived in Spain.

McDonald’s is the key and main sponsor of the organization, but not the only one. Recently, my sister convinced McDonald’s Spain’s advertising company to lean into the cause by creating an ad for the organization. The result could not be any better. Grab a box of tissues, block the next eight minutes of your day, and enjoy, you are welcome!

Baptism by fire, my first pro tour of Miami

My first professional tour of Miami was a baptism by fire, a jump in the deep end of the pool: eight hours, on E-bikes, and in French!! Fortunately, my customers were a lovely French couple.

Tours are generally booked for 4 or 8 hours (occasionally some folks book less or more). An 8-hour tour of Miami is a lot of time, considering there really is not much of cultural, historical, artistic value concentrated in a specific area of Miami. Sure, there is Art Deco, Little Havana, Little Haiti, Wynwood, and a bit Downtown, but how long do you need to spend in Brickell? In Coconut Grove? In Coral Gables walking -or cycling around? But an 8-hour tour of Miami for an inaugural tour was a lot to prepare for, but I did prepare. Having a few years of experience as a tour guide since I set up Tonxo Tours helped to plan the tour.

The E-bike factor was fun. We rented the bikes in Haulover park, which was a bit of a schlep from my customer’s hotel in Bayshore, but it allowed us to check out Haulover pass, and to ride all the way down to South Beach!

After South Beach we crossed over to Downtown where we saw Gesù Church, the oldest church in South Florida and the remains of the Tequesta village, which is sadly now a dog park next to the Miami river.

It was then that my customer’s E-bike lost power (something about a sensor), so although I had my trusty Swiss Army knife to try to tighten some screws, it was to no avail. We decided to ride back to Haulover.

Despite the technical issues, the tour was still a success, and the customers were happy. It was a long day for me, but it was worth it. If you are in Miami on a Saturday and want an insightful, interesting, and rewarding tour (on foot or bicycle)? Contact me, we will try to make it fun!!