My first Passover Seder

Coming from fairly isolated early 70s Spain I was never exposed to Jewish culture until we moved to NY in the late 70s. I was fascinated, and have been since. Although many times there has been talk of me going to a Passover Seder it ended up never materializing. It finally happened when the Rabbi who teaches at my school hosted a Passover Seder.

If you think about it, Abraham is credited with spousing a monotheistic religion, making Judaism the root, the origins of Western culture (Abraham is in fact, key in all three modern monotheistic religions (Abramahic religions) as Islam recognizes him as the prophet Ibrahim). Judaism threads a rich tapestry in Western thought and civilization, it deserves our attention, appreciation, and in my case last Thursday, enjoyment!

Rabi Laurence Kotok is a bit of a rock star of rabis: Rabi of a temple for years, scholar, Air Force Chaplain, author, and professor, and his Spanish is quite good! He guided us through the Seder, explaining every step, singing The Ballad of the Four Sons and Chad Gadya, everything. It does take a while before you eat, but it is worth it, it is a very enriching experience which references the history of the Jews.

I can’t wait for my next Passover Seder!

A return to academia, the Carolina Conference on Romance Studies, returning to UNC.

Although I consider myself more of a teacher than a scholar, I do enjoy research and writing. Also, I get to do my research at my pace and not at the breakneck pace demanded by the research universities.

If you are an old timer of this blog, you know that my PhD dissertation was on the early works of 18th C. Francisco de Isla, before he wrote his best-selling Fray Gerundio. This time I focused on Isla´s first writings after the Gerundio, still up to his old crafty rhetorical tricks and double plays. Right after selling out the first edition of the Gerundio overnight, the head of the Carmelites denounced the book to the Inquisition, Isla´s defense of his novel is the Apologia por la Historia de Fray Gerundio, and that is what my paper is on.

And it was accepted at the Carolina Conference on Romance Studies. So, with the generous support of my school, off I went to present my research at my alma mater.

Chapel Hill will always have a special place in my heart. The four years that I lived there studying for my PhD were very enriching, even though I was teaching and getting my doctorate at the same time. I loved the University, my classses, the town, the community, my colleagues and professors, my volunteering, the lot.

So without the Covid restrictions of last October’s lightning visit (read about that here) I was able to see old colleagues and classmates, to spend time with Irene, my dissertation director, to have a long conversation with my old spiritual director Fr. Bill, to have a great catch up with my favorite librarian, Teresa, to revisit the Ackland museum, to go to mass, to have a meal at Imbibe and a drink at Zog’s with Mandey the owner, to enjoy a cigar with my brilliant friend Jedd, to buy too much UNC gear, to walk around campus, to enjoy a YOPO frozen yogurt, and basically to walk and soak it all in. It was so comforting, it felt like coming home.

A much-needed return to music, and on the importance of mentoring

As I have mentioned ad nauseam, I learned how to be a mentor to old students from my professor Aaron Nurick, who has been keeping an eye on me for over thirty years, which at this point makes him more of a friend than a mentor.

Bill is one of my old students who invited me to Film Club (you can read about that here), and who as an accomplished violist, invited me to his recent concert in Miami. I would like to think that I am a bit of a mentor to him.

The Sphinx Virtuosi is an orchestra formed by minority Black and Latino musicians. Their concert equally featuring Black and Latino composers was glorious. Granted, I had not been to a live concert since before Covid, over two years ago, but it was still divine.

Driving to Miami is an odious experience, there is always traffic no matter what time you go. And if there is no traffic, there is construction, which inevitably leads to traffic, so there is no avoiding the frustration of sitting in a car at standstill.

But once I parked and I was walking around, all my tension washed away. The concert was at the Frank Gehry designed New World Center in Miami Beach, which, while not as whimsical as say, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, it is still very cool and has a breathtaking rooftop garden.

The concert itself was a refreshing mix of melodic Latin tunes like Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings and the haunting Andrea Casarrubios’ SEVEN in honor of the fallen first responders during the first Covid outbreak in New York City (SEVEN references the time folks would clap from their windows to celebrate the first responders). This was a mournful concerto for solo cello played beautifully by Tommy Mesa -another old student at Walnut Hill! (See clip below).

After the concert we walked to a great Peruvian restaurant where we had a long chat over excellent food and beers. I cannot wait for my next concert, nor to see more of my old students!

On developing your own sartorial style – secrets will be revealed!

If you know me personally in any professional capacity you know I normally wear suits and more often than not, bow ties. This is the story of my sartorial journey. Warning, secrets will be revealed:

My dad was a banking executive, which meant that he always wore a suit. My uncle was a tailor, but not a regular tailor… he was the tailor for the king of Spain (king Juan Carlos), other celebrities, American businessmen, etc. I remember as a child my uncle coming home to measure my dad and to go over cloth samples with him. Fast forward a few years when we lived in London in the 80s, where my dad discovered the most beautiful English shirts from Jermyn St., eventually I would get those shirts handed down, they would be a little worn, but what did I care? I was in university.

The first piece I got from my uncle, López Herbón was right after college, when I “inherited” one of my dad’s tweed jackets, I still have it and I still wear it, although I had to put elbow patches on it. After that there was a slow, steady drip of hand me downs and other presents. My first full present from my uncle was a tuxedo, something a customer had left in the shop after trading it in. Unfortunately, that tuxedo was stolen from my Boston apartment while I was on a fishing trip with my friend Matthew (but that is a different story). My uncle promptly got me another tux! This one in a rich dark blue which I still wear!

When my uncle died a few years ago, he bequeathed me a bunch of his suits. A few years later my dad also passed leaving behind many, many suits. I am slowly getting them all fitted.

Around the time I was graduating from university I dated a girl who was going to a nearby university (Tufts, I met her during a Spring Break trip to St, Kitts with the aforementioned Matthew, but that is also another story). she gave me a bow tie from Barneys New York (when Barney’s was on 17th St.). I struggled to learn how to tie them but eventually I got into it (you can read about that here).

The English shirts eventually and sadly passed away, nowadays most are made in China but sold at Jermyn St. prices. Nowadays I have developed a falcon’s eye at thrift shops to find quality shirts at academia salary friendly prices, the trick is to be patient and not to settle, you can find Brooks Brothers and other fine brands in your exact size for a few bucks!

That is the foundation of my professional look. As an entrepreneur in Madrid, where bow ties are rare, I stuck out like a sore thumb – a good thing, if you want to promote your brand! Now in academia I fit the stereotype of a professor, either way, it is my look, and I like it!

Happy birthday Film Club!

The (mostly) honorable members of Film Club

Time flies when you are having fun! Our first year of Film Club has indeed flown by.

I have mentioned Film Club before (here), and it obviously merits a birthday post.

The club was started by one of my old students who then recruited three other guys: a genius film savant in Australia, another old student and exquisitely insightful film critic, and myself. The main component I bring to the table is my old age, which brings a lot of these films to life for these guys. Keep in mind that this is a totally amateur club, so while the guys are brilliant, none of us has formal training other than maybe a college course in film. So our approach is fairly naïf, even when we might do some homework researching the films we have seen.

The mechanics of the Club are fairly straightforward: we decide on a theme or genre for the month, the films are uploaded to our Discord platform and then we have an Internet meeting and talk about the films.

We have watched a total of forty-eight films, some have blown my mind like The Proposition and La Grande Bellezza which both merited their own blog posts. Many I have already seen, but I do not mind re-visiting. Some have been hilarious like The Castle, and some I frankly did not care for like Mr. Nobody, or Upstream Color, and that is ok, there is something wrong if you like every film you watch.

Here is the list. What do you think of these films? What themes of genres do you recommend we watch? Let me know your thoughts below!

Non-Linear Narratives

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. Annie Hall (1977)
  3. Mr. Nobody (2009)
  4. Biutiful (2010)
  5. Enemy (2013)

Light & Color

  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
  • Volver (2006)
  • Midsommar (2019)

Film Noir

  1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  2. Chinatown (1974)
  3. LA Confidential (1997)
  4. Nightcrawler (2014)

Western

  1. Fort Apache (1948)
  2. The Wild Bunch (1969)
  3. The Proposition (2005)
  4. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The city as protagonist

  1. Wings of Desire (1987)
  2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
  3. City of God (2002)
  4. La Grande Bellezza (2013)

Scandinavian +

  • Tangerines (2013)
  • The Square (2017)
  • Another Round (2020)

Family

  • Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Belle Époque (1992)
  • The Squid and the Whale (2005)
  • Farewell Amor (2020)

Horror

  • The Birds (1963)
  • The Witch (2015)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Get Out (2017)

Light-Hearted

  • Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
  • Cinema Paradiso (1988)
  • The Castle (1997)
  • The Dinner Game (1998)

Christmas Time

  • Day of the Beast (1995)
  • Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
  • In Bruges (2008)
  • Carol (2015)

Sound Design

  • Eraserhead (1977)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)
  • Upstream Color (2013)
  • Sound of Metal (2021)

Is there a film canon?

  • Duck Soup (1933)
  • Casablanca (1942)
  • 8 1/2 (1963)
  • Taxi Driver (1976)

À propos, next month we are going to explore war in film…

Mardi Gras, Lent, and Turning to the Mystics

Lent is the perfect time to fine tune your spirituality, it is a great nudge to get us to do something, even if you do not have a great spiritual conviction and you just do something out of peer pressure, “everybody is doing something”. Maybe you operate backwards: do something now and your heart will react after the fact, whatever it takes, Lent is a good time to go beyond Instagram and Tik Tok and to explore your standing in the world, beyond your physical presence.

Most of the message and importance of Lent is lost on just giving up chocolate or alcohol or swearing. While this might be good and you might lose a pound or two, it is not the reason why we fast or stop swearing. The idea is to get closer to God which really means getting closer to each other. Who knows, push a little bit beyond your comfort zone, you might even develop new habits!

This year for Lent I am writing a letter to someone every day. Friends, family, even people that I might not have been in touch with for a while. They might not be deep, meaningful letters, but just a note to say “hello” and update folks. I am also giving up Instagram, to regain the half an hour (ok forty five minutes) of seeing people do stuff that does not enrich me one bit. Whatever you do, good luck!

Of course, the great kickoff party for Lent is Mardi Gras -in New Orleans, but Carnival in Brazil and in other Latin and European countries. This of course is a vestige of the Roman Bacchanalia and Carnivals. We had a great Mardi Gras dinner at school, prepared by Chef Philippe, our great chef, and his team!

The school band played some Mardi Gras classics, with a special collaboration by the Bayou Boys! It was a great evening.

If like me, you are in constant pursuit for atonement and you are still hungry for more enlightenment. I have discovered a great podcast, now that podcasts are so hip, on the Mystics and their thinking, their world: Turning to the Mystics is done by the CAC, Center for Action and Contemplation and introduces the listeners to different mystics and their philosophies. I am hooked and highly recommend it!

The best gym in the world?

While I have been to many gyms, I am not, in any way, a gym explorer, a gym connoisseur. In the fifteen years I have been going to gyms I might have gone to about a dozen or so gyms, not counting hotel gyms, since they are all mostly horrible –with a few exceptions like the Steigenberger Golf & Spa Resort Camp de Mar.

At any rate, the other day I drove over to Naples to celebrate my old student’s Lukas, birthday, and he treated me to workout at the gym where he works a couple of nights a week: Fountain X.

This might be the best gym in the world, what an experience. It has all top-of-the-line equipment, every person gets a power lifting rack, the whole floor is rubberized, many of the weight machines work with compressed air which hits your muscles different and avoids the metallic clanking you hear in gyms, it just feels amazing!

When you finish your workout there is a fridge with cool, peppermint infused towels to refresh yourself with, they were so invigorating and soothing at the same time. There is also a water and fizzy water fountain. Then there are individual infra-red saunas! There are post workout compression recovery “boots”, there is a body composition scanner, in short, all the bells and whistles.

I loved the workout, the “Zen” feeling, the peppermint infused towels, the personal sauna, but I think my favorite was the Molton Brown soap in the shower and body cream after the workout, yes, I am an old man, and the post workout is just as important as the workout itself. The haters will say that I have gone soft, that a smelly, moldy gym with rusty weights and posters of my cousin Arnold is more motivational, whatever, haters gonna hate.

A (brief) return to coaching

St. Vincent de Paul is a graduate School with only 120 odd resident students, so we do not have a formal athletic program. The guys do sports, but on their own. Except for a once a semester soccer game against the St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.

Last year, due to Covid we did not play. This year seeing a need, I volunteered to coach the SVdP Shepherds.

I have been coaching (on and off) for 17 years. At this point what I enjoy the most about coaching is building the team, working first on communication and trust, then on skills, technique, and strategies and all the other bits necessary to succeed as a team.

What a pleasure to return to the field, to work with the guys at skills that we do not teach in the classroom.

Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of time to practice, but we did the best we could.

We lost the game 3 – 4, but I am really proud of the men, we played a far superior game, we played as a team! But halfway through the first half while we were winning 2 – 0, we lost steam, we lost our shape, and the Miami guys took advantage of that. In the second half we came back and scored the third goal, but it was too late.

I was blessed to have a student volunteer as an assistant coach! Misho led the warmups, worked with our goalie, and helped to organize practices, helped me with strategy on game day, what a blessing!

All in all, it was a great experience, and I can’t wait to start preparing next year’s game!!

PS: The initiated will notice our colors are red and white stripes. This is our traditional kit, and in NO WAY my decision. I would have been fine just wearing plain all white 😉

Photo Creds: Carmela Grande, Chris Holsom.

You should be practicing yoga, an update

In the Western world we think of yoga as a bunch of exercises to improve your fitness and flexibility. That is only true in a very small part. The truth is that Yoga means yoke or union and it is the uniting of body, mind, and spirit.

So, what was my surprise when a teacher basically berated a student at the studio I used to go to (I will not name them, but you can read about it here). Being a teacher myself I immediately told the management and asked for the cancellation of my subscription and for the return of my money.

Some fresh research led me to Casa Manabliss, also down the road from me in Delray Beach. I signed up for Yin Yoga on Sunday evening. Yin Yoga is a slower paced practice, with asanas held over a longer period of time, which allows the tissues to “heal” better. Sure it can be a bit uncomfortable, but isn´t that the key to life?

What a refreshing surprise, it turns out I have been doing yoga wrong for over seven years. Yoga is not a workout; it is not a physical endeavor. In the West, we have twisted yoga to make it a physical, body only exercise. Go to the studio or gym, get a good workout, sweat, and hit the shower.

Yoga is a way of life, a philosophy. I am blessed to have found my teacher Paritosh, who was trained in the ashrams of India. His lessons center on the breath to focus mind, body, and spirit. He is gentle, caring, and hilarious, if you enjoy corny jokes, like (to a student showing off her fancy new mat):

Yoga teaches you to have attachment to your mat.

Paritosh

Bottom line, this is what yoga should be like: a meditative practice that clears the mind while healing the body.

I am thrilled to have found Paritosh at Casa Manabliss and I could not recommend them more!