28 July, 2010


I have what I consider to be two favorite books of all the books I've ever read and presumably, all the books I will ever read. Which isn't to say that I don't expect to fall in love with other books; on the contrary, I both hope and expect I will at least a hundred more times. But there are two books that are automatically on the desert island list and will remain on that list as long as the minute possibility of me landing of that desert island (apparently with enough foresight to bring a couple favorite books, a couple favorite CDs & a couple favorite movies) exists.

One of them is, of course, Stephen King's It. I spent an entire semester in high school hiding that book (unsuccessfully, it's a behemoth) in various textbooks. I don't remember much about that semester - I didn't get too much sleep. That was, at that point in my life, the longest book I'd ever read and the first time I had ever immersed myself so completely in a fictional world. My dreams of being a writer and creating fictional worlds that readers could so easily immerse themselves in began that semester. When asked the question about my favorite author, invariably, and due in great part to this book, I will point to Stephen King as the one.

I encountered my second favorite book after college, one bored Saturday when I lived with my mom in San Francisco. My mom is an obsessive reader. Her favorites range from SciFi-Fantasy to Biographies to Mystery to Philosophy to Nancy Drews. She will read just about anything. Her favorite author, though, is James Michener. I can recall her curled up in her orange chair, set on a forest green carpet and backed by forest green velvet drapes reading thick black-covered books with the names of states like Hawaii, Alaska and Texas and other regions like Caribbean, Chesapeake and Space. She devoured those books, one right after the other. And after each one, she would hold it out to me and ask me if I wanted to read it. I declined every time. Despite my burgeoning love for epic fiction, I was never enthralled with the concept of the historical fiction that he was known for.

But one bored Saturday, after having read through the majority of Mom's SciFi and Fantasy books, I pulled out James Michener's The Drifters. It lay at the end of her line of Micheners, the dust cover torn and frayed and the only one with a non-location title. In fact, the character-centric title is what stopped my finger on its spine and made me pull it out for a second look. And the description on the inside flap, about six young people traveling the world in the Sixties is what made me carry it across the room to Mom's orange chair and curl up with it, a curtain-less picture window with a view of the Inner Sunset behind me.

The plot is as simple as it reads on the inside flap of the dust jacket: six young men and women (three of each) who randomly meet in the resort town of Torremolinos, Spain and together, embark upon a journey across Europe and northern Africa as they discover each other and themselves. I could totally write book jacket synopses! In fact, that may be exactly what the jacket said. The instigating character in the story (the unmoved mover, if you will) is an older gentleman, an investment analyst whose job entails traveling across the world to meet with the clients of Switzerland's World Mutual Bank, a job I very much wanted to pursue after reading this book while on the bus and streetcar commuting to my vapid position as a glorified receptionist at an ad agency. George Fairbanks coincidentally knows four of the six young people through dealings with their parents and grandparents and therefore is welcome ingratiating himself in their lives and journeys.

It is those journeys that captured my then-young and restive imagination. At that point, I had never left the continental United States with the exception of an afternoon in La Playa de Rosarita on the Baja peninsula. I had long dreamed of backpacking across Europe, just me and my thoughts, but that was a dream that was not to come true for me. I was destined for college and the working world, how droll. I am still trying to escape those shackles.

One of the places the drifters visit is Pamplona, Spain. There, they meet up with Mr. Fairbanks and his friend Harvey Holt who is a technical representative on radars in remote locations, a job I decided was better suited to me than investment banking and still full of travel and intrigue. Harvey is a man's man - he works hard and then he plays hard. Every year, he travels to Pamplona, Spain for the Running of the Bulls and Mr. Fairbanks talks the young people into meeting him and Holt there for one of these visits.

Up till reading this portion of the book, I had never given much thought to bulls, running or in the ring. I'd seen pictures of matadors in their fancy outfits and red capes, in impossible positions as a large bull bears down on them and the crowd cheers but that had been the extent of my exposure to the tradition. But Michener, the man who builds an island up from the first amoeba to a multi-generational modern family, was not going to give the subject a light treatment. From the moment the six drifters meet up with Harvey and Mr. Fairbanks in the fictional Bar Vasca and are treated to Bull Ball Stew, not the technical name but the general idea, the tradition is thoroughly explored in the Pamplona chapters. Things I learned from Michener:

*The Running of the Bulls is actually a multi-day event with runs happening each morning and the fights each afternoon.
*There is a hospital at the bottom of the hill that excels in goring wounds, as one might expect
*The danger in the Run is in the stray bull who doesn't keep up with the pack and arrives late on the scene, frenzied and therefore much more dangerous
*Another danger in the Run is inexperienced runners who think they are man enough until the moment they see the bulls and then create a danger for themselves and those around them, sometimes pulling a more experienced runner in between them and the charging bull, putting him in much greater danger
*The most dangerous of the bulls are drugged and heavy weights are dropped on their kidneys so that they are weakened and less of a danger to the runners and the matador

While I enjoy the Pamplona chapters - there is so much more going on during those chapters than merely the Running and the Fights - they have certainly had a hand in bringing out my inner indignation at the treatment of the bulls. So much so that when I hear of the Running coming around again, I always, always shake my head and say aloud to no one in particular: I hope they gore the whole lot of 'em. There was a story earlier this year of a matador, Julio Aparicio, being gored in the throat and though the pictures were far more gruesome than I prefer to see, I felt only justification at his injury - he didn't die. I know, it's not nice. I shouldn't wish for harm to come to other humans but I am so disgusted by the tradition and the fact that they cheat in order to make sure the humans win that I want, for once, the humans to not win. I want the bull to win. In our recent history, we have done such a great job of recognizing our many and varied inhumanities and learning and progressing out of them - abolishing slavery, giving equality to all citizens (western world) - we have a great deal to be proud of in our growth as a species but we still have that nasty little habit of dominating the other species, as if it stems from a bible of some sort. We are still working on the full equality of all humans so maybe I'm jumping the gun in hoping we can start having a little respect for all Life, but can we start that soon please? I know I eat meat and I know I have some leather in a closet and I don't have a non-hypocritical way of explaining that other than the Food Chain so we'll not address my hypocrisy just yet. Suffice it to say, I am learning to enjoy more and more vegetarian meals and maybe one day will be able to eliminate an animal or two from my diet. And I really don't mind faux leather so long as it holds up like the real thing. But anyway ...

CNN has a story this morning that gives me hope for the respecting all Life dream which is where this whole rambling blog post comes from. It seems that despite the deep tradition of bullfighting in Spain, the Catalonia Parliament voted 68 to 55 to ban it. This landmark decision won't apply to all of Spain, only to the Catalonia region which encompasses the western portion of the Spanish mainland, including Barcelona. It is nonetheless, a huge blow to the "sport" and one that I hope is only the beginning. In the article, a young Catalonian bullfighter laments the possibility of the end of the career he has just begun but you know what, he can go back to school for something less ... cruel and ... inhumane. Become a software engineer, you don't need to drug or dominate anyone in the IT industry and you can make a lot of money. Sure, there will be less girls flocking around you but the upside is you won't have to wear such flamboyant and sequin-infested outfits and that can only be a good thing, right?

I doubt that I will see an end to red-belted men in white shirts and pants feeling as though they have something to prove every July in Pamplona in my lifetime and that bullfighting will continue to flourish and excite in Spain and Mexico but all great progresses in human history have begun with a single step and I am so happy to see Catalonia take this step.

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