The New Yorker magazine

New Yorker covers

Confession time: Many, many years ago, when Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the planet what I loved about the New Yorker was the cartoons, I paid no attention to the amazing writing.

During the 70’s I lived in NY as a preteen so that does not count. But then I moved back to NY after college in 1987 and that was my first introduction to a lot of great writing like The Village Voice, The New York Times, and The New Yorker -although at the beginning I did confuse it with New York magazine, not the same thing.

After working in Boston for a few years, I moved back to Madrid, where lo and behold, my amazing corner kiosk (read that blog here) carried the New Yorker. Eventually the price made it prohibitive to buy, but I would still buy it occasionally. Once I remember a colleague at my university in Madrid brought in a couple of issues. After waiting a few days, I asked to borrow them, what a refreshing read!

You see The New Yorker has local news of events, which means reviews of the best gigs in the world, whether they be music, theatre, ballet, exhibits, etc. as well as book, cinema, and other cultural write ups. It also has restaurant reviews which of course is limited to NYC. But the real meat are the amazing articles and profiles, deeply researched, exquisitely written, and although heavy on the social justice theme, nicely varied. Recent articles included: the situation with the Safer oil tanker in Yemen, Brené Brown, stash-house stings, Jasper Johns, the glass ceiling in chess, Master Class, and on and on. There is also a humor column called Shouts and Murmurs which is usually hilarious! And there are always a couple of brilliant poems. Add to that an always eye-catching cover and you have a treasure. Every week.

Chapel Hill had a great magazine exchange and I always found New Yorkers to cleanse my palate from all the reading I was doing for my PhD! Now in Florida, I am lucky that my next-door neighbor subscribes, and she generously gives them to me when she finishes reading them, so I am back to enjoying the best written magazine ever.

New Yorker covers

The pros and cons of multiculturalism

Moving from NYC to Boston 1988

We first moved to New York In 1977, I was 12. From there we moved to London in 1979, from there to college in Boston in 1983, and so on for back and forth between the US and Europe. As I recently wrote in my “Diversity Statement” for a job application:

I have had the privilege of growing up in multicultural and multiracial environments, cities, and schools: New York City, London, Paris, Madrid, Boston, etc., so since childhood I have been bathed in diversity: cultural, racial, religious, sexual, socioeconomic, etc. On top of that I have had the privilege of traveling widely.

So, while being multicultural is definitely an enriching experience, it does have its drawbacks: The first one is that you no longer “fit” into any particular “set” culture, you become a bit of an outsider whenever you are in an environment of population that is “born and bred” in a place.  The second and more insidious aspect is that you might no longer meet certain legal or bureaucratic requirements to say, work in a place.

This is what happened to me when I returned to Spain in 2018. My US degrees (Including a PhD) are not recognized in Spain to work as a teacher. Furthermore, to get all my paperwork approved and transferred and certified and triple stamped would have taken years. Besides the paperwork, there is a mentality issue. Teachers in Spain are generally not a respected, appreciated, and certainly not well remunerated part of the population. There are historical and social reasons for that, but I will leave them for another post.

Long story short: I have returned to work in the US as Assistant Professor of Spanish and Assistant Director of the Language Department at Saint Vincent de Paul, a major seminary in Boynton Beach Florida! This was not an easy decision, leaving everything behind for a job, but I could no longer live in a country that refused to acknowledge me professionally.

Manuel Balsón, “El Jefe” (1934 – 2015)

Many personal obituaries start by mentioning a favorite memory, or a first memory they have of the departed. This, besides being personal, offers the opportunity for a funny or intimate story or anecdote. On the other hand, professional (read press) obituaries focus on the achievements of the departed.

For my father I am throwing out both styles and let’s see what we get. Part of the reason for this is that I do not have a specific memory, or a funny memory, or a first memory. Well, I have many and not one of them particularly sticks out. Nor do I have a list of achievements for him. He did not discover penicillin, nor the theory of relativity, nor did he invent the light bulb. But from humble beginnings he worked hard to bring up a family.

The secret of his success is due to the vision of his father (my grandfather) Antonio, who sent him to the British School in Madrid, meaning that my father was a rara avis: an English speaking Spaniard in the post civil war, Franco ruled Spain of the 50s.

A couple of times I have heard the cute remark about how the important thing on gravestones is the little dash that separates the birthdate from the date of death. Duh.

Something else to keep in mind is how we label and put people in their little boxes. Yes my dad devoted most of his life to international banking, in fact he was an important cog in the Spanish international banking scene of the seventies and eighties. But that is not all of who he was. Yes was a keen motorist and loved cars and motorsports. Yes he was a keen fan of Apple computers, especially given his age. Yes he managed to track his family back to the mid eighteenth Century, but that is not who he was either. He loved jazz – although later in life he got to appreciating classical music more, so every Christmas I would record for him, originally a cassette tape and eventually CDs and finally USB sticks. He loved to read the newspaper which he did every day without fail. That is another trait I learned from him. He loved food and wine and would equally enjoy a cheese sandwich on a park bench as a Michelin starred meal.

He was a brave and decisive man who at a young age went to London to learn about foreign exchange. He lived with my mother across the street from Ashburton Grove, home of Arsenal Football club, but that did not make him an Arsenal fan, if anything he was a Real Madrid fan. After learning about foreign exchange in London, he started an upwards trajectory that would not stop until his retirement in the late 80s.

In the 70s he was offered to start the New York office of the bank. Being the elegant visionary that he was, he opened shop in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. We all packed up and left Madrid, I was twelve. It was a bit traumatic but I would eventually get the hang of moving back and forth, and it would become a way of life. After three years in New York came five in London and then back to Madrid, by then I had started my own nomadic way of life, going to college in Boston and working in France and Switzerland during the summers.

But back to Manuel. He had that kind of knack to be in the right place at the right time and looking good while doing it. Of course it did not hurt that his brother-in-law – my uncle and godfather – was a renowned tailor that made him all his suits!  BTW that is where I get my suit wearing custom, in case you were wondering. The other side of that coin was that unfortunately my dad travelled constantly, so we did miss him at home.

As a teenager up I remember blasting all around Europe in the big old Bismark at 130 miles per hour with any excuse. Eventually I would even be allowed to drive – that was fun.

My father retired in the late 80s and started all kinds of hobbies: playing with computers, taking a genealogy course to track his family tree, but most importantly spending time with friends, travelling with them and basically hanging out with all sorts of people. Manuel made friends easily, from all walks of life: artists, Bohemians, noblemen and gypsies, doormen and executives, everybody. About this time he became a part of the Boina club. The boina is the Spanish version of the French beret. This “club” basically consists of a bunch of guys meeting at a great basque restaurant for dinner and appointing 2 new members: a male and a female boinero who had to make an induction speech. This group had a fantastic network of contacts so the list of members is basically a who´s who of Madrid: writers, artists journalists, politicians, professors, you name it, of course my dad with his love of cars was the unofficial chauffeur of the group, picking up and dropping off the new members, this way he always got to hang out with them one on one!

For years every morning he would walk around the Retiro Park in Madrid, and he would often meet people there. Some of them became close friends. He walked every day until he no longer had the strength to walk out the door. The twelve years that I lived in Madrid, I always loved living overlooking the park so I had the light and could run and walk. Many weekend mornings I would bump into my dad walking and I would walk with him. Those walks were very special.

Possibly his biggest project after retirement was installing and improving the sprinkler system at the country house in La Navata. In fact, more of a hobby, it might have been his summertime obsession. I joked with him that he was like Enea Silvio Carrega, the hydraulics obsessed uncle in Italo Calvino’s story Il barone rampante. Fixing the sprinklers, changing water pumps, pumping water from one well to the other, tweaking the irrigation software. For this project he would enlist Mohammed, our local gardener to dig a ditch here, uncover a pipe here, make a hole here and so on. You would wake up on a hot summer morning and see chubby Mohammed trudging around the garden following my father who would be wearing his immaculate Panama hat overseeing the watering situation.

My father was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer in 2012. Thanks to the phenomenal staff at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and specifically to Dr. Sastre, who managed to sneak him into the last spot at a clinical trial for a new pancreatic cancer drug manufactured by Celgene. This was a massive and miraculous success that increased my father’s life from an average of 5 to 9 months to three and a half years. These have been a tough three and a half years for Manuel as he struggled with his illness. The last few days, my mom, terribly stressed from being basically the sole caregiver all this time, took advantage of the fact that I was home from North Carolina to take some days off in Mallorca with her grandchildren. So I spent my father´s last week alone with him. Despite the fact that it was a tough situation for us, we had a very nice last bonding experience. We did not talk much, as by then he was spending most of his time sleeping. I slept on a bed next to him, to help him at night.

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Manuel died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 3 on his bed, surrounded by his family, like Don Quijote or Rodrigo Manrique.