The Catfish as Metaphor

There is a secondhand bookstore I visit on occasion. It is big and has an old times feeling to it that I find quite comforting. This bookstore is housed in an old building with different rooms you can go through to browse along the many bookshelves. One of the larger areas has a media section and in it you can find used cassette tapes, CD’s, movies, and vinyl records. The record cabinet sits in the middle, wide and somewhat intrusive. Off to one side there are a couple of chairs. I was sitting on one that was right next to a bookshelf full of reference and nature materials;  one of them caught my attention because of its catchy title.

As I looked at the book and wondered why the author had given it such a philosophical name, two young men and a girl – looking no older than early twenties – walked into the area in loud conversation followed by who was probably the mother of at least one of them. The three youngsters gravitated towards the cabinet in curious amazement, and began shuffling through the sleeping rows of plastic and soft cardboard sleeves. I had just been going through the collection myself before they arrived; although I would not call  myself a music expert in all genres, I was not at all impressed with what I had encountered and abandoned the cabinet somewhat cynically after looking through it. This was clearly not a carefully curated collection like the ones found at the vinyl shops I have seen emerging lately.

One of the young men – blond and the most outspoken of the three – was talking about how he loved vinyl and old music. He came across a Bill Cosby comedy album and pulled it out. The other two meanwhile browsed around through different sections while the older woman lurked close by with a look that reflected a combination of condescension and boredom. She seemed somewhat amused by how excited these kids were with the records, whereas to her they were probably nothing more than abandoned relics collected from some old person’s home after they had passed, discards from who-knows-where, or maybe even leftovers from an estate sale.

“This record is probably worth a lot of money now” states Blond Guy with the record still in his hands and a knowing look on his face.

“I doubt it!” replied the older woman with a smirk. “It’s actually probably worth nothing now.”

They continue looking and Blond Guy now declares that the albums should be arranged by genre instead of alphabetical order. My immediate thought is that if that were to be the case, then those genres could only consist of Classical, Polka, Neil Diamond (there were just so many of his records in there), and a fourth which could be named Miscellaneous to cover the few other records that would not fit into the aforementioned categories.
The girl says she is looking for records from the 30’s, 40’s, and 70’s. She then confesses she does not even own a record player. “Maybe someday…”.

“Wow! They have Doris Day!” exclaims Blond Guy.

“She was so bad! Like, how did she ever become famous?” retorts Older Woman, seeming to know better.

“I like her,” answers Blond Guy, embarrassed.

“Who’s ready for food?” asks the other guy, who had said nothing during this whole exchange.

And with that, the group walks out, empty handed. I sit there, looking at the now vacant room, then drift back again to my thoughts on the title The Catfish as Metaphor.


Y Sí…

El Zorro es más sabio

A. Monterroso (1921 – 2003)

Un día que el zorro estaba aburrido y hasta cierto punto melancólico y sin dinero, decidió convertirse en escritor, cosa a la cual se dedicó inmediatamente, pues odiaba ese tipo de personas que dicen voy a hacer esto y lo otro y nunca lo hacen.

Su primer libro resultó muy bueno, un éxito; todo el mundo lo aplaudió, y pronto fue traducido (a veces no muy bien) a los más diversos idiomas.

El segundo fue todavía mejor que el primero, y varios profesores norteamericanos de lo más granado del mundo académico de aquellos remotos días lo comentaron con entusiasmo y aún escribieron libros sobre los libros que hablaban de los libros del Zorro. Desde ese momento el Zorro se dio con razón por satisfecho, y pasaban los años y no publicaba otra cosa.

Pero los demás empezaron a murmurar y a repetir:

¿Qué pasa con el zorro?, y cuando lo encontraban en los cócteles puntualmente se le acercaban a decirle tiene usted que publicar más.

– Pero si ya he publicado dos libros – respondía él con cansancio.

– Y son muy buenos -le contestaban- por eso mismo tiene usted que publicar otro.

El zorro no lo decía, pero pensaba: “En realidad lo que éstos quieren es que yo publique un libro malo; pero como soy el Zorro, no lo voy a hacer”.

Y no lo hizo.

Escapismo 01

“Hace unos días me sucedió. Lo tengo tan presente como si hubiera despertado de ese sueño apenas unas horas atrás. Me encontraba acompañado de mi hermana, y éramos los dos un par de niños. Ella se veía tal como luce en las fotos familiares que veo cada vez que visito la casa en la que crecí: seria y desapegada. A distancia percibía a mi madre posada sobre sus piernas dobladas; joven, esbelta, y con el cabello negro y estilizado que tan bien la caracterizaba.

Como suele pasar en sueños, de pronto ya estábamos sentados los tres en el suelo de una amplia estancia, rodeados de varias peceras de diferentes tamaños, repletas de plantas y de peces muy pequeños y de vívidos colores, como cuentas de collares. El agua contenida era tan clara que parecía que aquellos peces flotaban en pleno aire. El piso era negro, frío, y muy brilloso, de mármol. Contrastaba con las paredes blancas y vacías de la pieza. No se veían muebles por ningún lado, y se respiraba un ambiente poco familiar, como el de una habitación en la cual nunca se había estado.

Mi madre estaba empeñada en intercambiar a los peces entre las peceras. Pensé en lo complicado que sería tal tarea. No entendía el propósito y estuve a punto de replicar, más sin embargo nos repetía que debíamos vaciar todos esos envases de vidrio y que debíamos ayudarle. Su insistencia rayaba en el hastío, como el coro de una tonada desagradable que parece no tener fin. Contradecirla sería inútil.

Súbitamente, todos aquellos tranquilos envases comenzaron a volcarse por sí solos y su contenido se esparció por todo el suelo. Pasé del estupor a la desesperación. Me levanté de un salto, y comencé a sentir el agua mojando mis pies. Ví cómo los pequeños peces temblaban inciertos en varios charcos que se empezaron a acumular a nuestro alrededor. Agobiado y con un tremendo pesar, me afanaba en salvar a esos escurridizos seres babosos y gelatinosos. Cada vez que tocaba uno, se separaba en pequeñas esferas mercuriales; al retirar mi mano volvía a su aspecto original. Intenté rescatar varios, pero todos se me escapaban igual. Era una labor futil.

En eso concluyó mi sueño; al despertar no pude evitar sentir más que alivio al darme cuenta de que es mejor aceptar que hay cosas que por más que uno intente, no tienen salvación.”

Smoking: A Look Back…

Cigarettes and I have a volatile relationship. I have gone for long periods of time, years, without even thinking about smoking, and have also had cranky days when I can’t wait to crack open a pack, pull one out, light up, and take a long, deep drag to blow all my negative thoughts away.

Smoking has been around me pretty much all my life. My father was a smoker, and so was my grandmother, with whom I spent a lot of weekends and summer vacations during my childhood; many other relatives on my father’s side smoke. On the other hand, my mother never smoked, and very few family members on her side do. Two, if memory serves me well.  The only time I ever saw a cigarette in my mom’s mouth was when my dad would ask her to light one up for him while he was watching TV and she was in the kitchen, cooking. Out of my three brothers, only one smokes, another recently quit, and the other one has never smoked in his life. I am the ambivalent smoker, so I guess that makes the odds break even in terms of the genetic susceptibility to pick up the habit.

As a child, it seemed like such a normal thing to do. The first thing my grandmother would do after waking up was sit up, turn on the lamp, and take out a Benson and smoke it in silence. I often wonder what she thought about as she sat there with me looking at her from the other side of the bed. She would buy cartons of Benson and Hedges and keep the long boxes in her refrigerator, in the bottom shelf on the door; she probably smoked close to a pack a day. She didn’t drink, had fairly healthy eating habits (especially after being diagnosed with diabetes), and walked every day around her neighborhood. But she loved to smoke. My dad smoked Raleigh’s. I would see the packs laying around the house, and would pick them up and smell them. I enjoyed that pungent, fresh smell coming out of the soft, crinkly pack.

My first direct encounter with a cigarette was not a pleasant one. My dad was standing in our dining room talking with a visitor, when a five-year-old me abruptly went up to him to hold his hand. Immediately something bit me between my ring and middle fingers. I let out a scream, pulled back my hand, and saw the falling ashes from the cigarette in my dad’s hand and stood there crying while he consoled me and told me to be careful. I was incredibly angry at the burning thing he was holding for viciously interrupting what was meant to be a loving gesture.

Years later, curiosity got the best of me and I lit one up. I didn’t know you were supposed to inhale. Lit cigarettes did not smell anything like the ones in the pack, but of course I already knew this. What a pointless thing to do.

That was the end of my investigation, and never touched one again, until a couple of years later. I was thirteen and visiting my dad’s sister who lived in Cancun. She wanted me to hang out with one of her friends’ daughter, who was sixteen and very sophisticated. People in Mexico are very laid back when it comes to smoking, much like Europeans. Back then, you could smoke pretty much anywhere. When this girl came to pick me up with a couple of friends her age, I realized I was not going to fit in if I did not act older. You could tell that after they saw me, they probably thought they were going to have to babysit me instead of have fun with me.

We arrived at a country club and went straight to the pool. We sat there talking, and one of them pulled out a pack and started offering to the rest of the group, including me. I immediately took one, and lit up. I now realize looking back what a fool I made of myself, a thirteen year old trying to get these sixteen year old girls from very wealthy families to like her, and I didn’t even know that you had to inhale the smoke. I was just sitting there, blowing out puffs all over the air in huge bunches, instead of a steady and elegant white ribbon.

I finally learned how to smoke properly when I was fifteen years old. My best friend growing up had learned with her friends from school, and her mother was a smoker, so she decided to teach me. I would have walked through fire for my friend back then, and she was a huge influence on me, so of course I jumped at the chance of learning from her.

We were standing in her kitchen with a pack of her mom’s Marlboro’s, and the first thing she told me to do was to drag, pull the smoke in all the way, and slowly let it out. Sounded easy enough, until I did just that and had the longest coughing fit of my life. I seriously thought I was never going to recover: “How can anyone ever master this? It is hard and dangerous!”. I finally pulled myself together, but felt so lightheaded and nauseous that I decided I had had enough for that day. She told me I would get the hang of it, that it was just a matter of practice.

A few days later, I was back at her house and decided to give it another go. Magically, I was able to hold the smoke in without coughing it all out. I had finally learned how to smoke. It still made me nauseous, so I never really developed a habit, which I am thankful for. During my teens, whenever I went out with others who smoked, I would buy a pack of these ridiculous cigarettes called Capri, which were designed just for women. They were very slim, and the packs where white with these little birds or flowers, I still can’t tell, on the front of them.


My male friends would make fun of me relentlessly for even bothering with these absurd cigarettes.

During my twenties, I made the discovery of my smoker life. I came across someone at a club, who was smoking these very sweet smelling cigarettes. She offered me one, and I loved it. These black sticks of deliciousness were clove cigarettes; they were hard to find, and definitely not cheap. You could only buy them across the border in El Paso at tobacco or specialty stores. Djarum Black was my favorite brand.


Whenever my boyfriend and I were in El Paso, we made sure to buy some to smoke at concerts, clubs, and parties. Needless to say, as soon as you lit up they became a magnet for other smokers, both friends and strangers, who would not hesitate to ask if they could bum one off of you.

I was only a social smoker. I never smoked out of habit. I did not feel the urge to smoke outside of the context of a bar or party, and only did it if others in my group smoked as well. As I got older and my social group changed, none of the people within my new friends even smoked. During the years I became pregnant and had my children, smoking was the last thing on my mind.

Of course, my life is completely different from what it was even four years ago. Two kids, deceased family members, a divorce, and a teaching job later, the levels of stress I endure are fairly significant. Somewhere along the way during this time, smoking became more and more familiar. At first because people around me were doing it. The next day I would find a pack of American Spirits laying around in my car, so I would light one up on my drive to and/or from work. Lately, it became lighting one while doing nothing around the house, especially on stress-filled days.

The thing is, I don’t really like to smoke. I only enjoy it when I am with others, engaged in deep conversation. Because in all honesty, I hate the smell of it, it is unhealthy, and the effects are vile. I talk to people I know who are long time smokers, and their voices now sound hoarse. They look much older than I remember them or should look compared to their age, or their skin has a grayish look to it. My uncle, an avid smoker, just died from lung cancer last week. It’s just not worth it. I was out with some acquaintances when one of them asked for a cigarette. Another person in the group pulled one out of a silver cigarette case. I remember thinking: “Now, here is someone who is truly committed. I will never buy a cigarette case.”

I went out with a friend a couple of nights ago, and I felt proud because I did not smoke one single cigarette. I haven’t smoked at all in the last few days, even though I still feel somewhat stressed. I will not say that I will never light up again, but I am definitely enjoying not thinking about or craving a smoke for the time being.




Pensando en tonos grisáceos.

Otro familiar más ha pasado a mejor vida, y no puedo evitar pensar en mi propia mortalidad. Desde niña le tengo terror a la muerte, y no de manera esencial ya que obviamente es inevitable, pero siendo una persona impaciente y que detesta las sorpresas, me mortifica de sobremanera no saber el final que me depara. No es lo mismo pensar en cosas impredecibles como “¿Haré algún día ese viaje a Japón que tanto anhelo?” o “¿Conoceré en un futuro al amor de mi vida (si es que siquiera existe)?” o “¿Pagaré caro todos los corajes que hizo mi mamá conmigo por medio de mis dos chamacos?” a clavarme en cavilaciones turbias tales como: “¿Me voy a morir sola?” o “¿Moriré lenta o violentamente?” o “¿Y si me muero y nadie se da cuenta durante días?”. Juro que cuando me afano en este tipo de pensamientos me sobreviene una ansiedad terrible y luego me doy golpes mentales por no ser una persona sensata.

Lo más triste de todo es que conforme he ido avanzando en edad y en madurez (espero), más sardónica me he convertido en cuánto a todo lo referente a religión y ‘la vida después de la vida’. Entonces me digo: “Pues estás amolada, no hay esperanza de consuelo o sosiego para tí. Y luego no has hecho nada de tu vida, así que lejos de tu progenie, de tí no quedará absolutamente nada en esta Tierra.” Por lo menos los creyentes tienen la certeza de que lo que no consigan aquí, lo lograrán por medio de la reencarnación, o que si llevan una vida ejemplar se les compensará con creces en la vida eterna o a donde sea que su religión les decrete que van a parar.

El concepto de la muerte es sumamente maleable. Tanto se puede expresar de modo violento y morboso, como también se puede poetizar y embellecer. El Séptimo Sello de Ingmar Bergman es solamente una muestra de ello.


Recuerdo un libro que leí hace tiempo, La Ladrona de Libros, en el que la Muerte es quien se encarga de narrar la historia. En un momento manifiesta su cansancio por la labor interminable que debe realizar, pero también hay un párrafo muy emotivo en el que cuando tiene que recoger a un personaje bondadoso, la Muerte expresa que, próxima a llevárselo mientras duerme, el hombre se incorpora y la enfrenta con ojos grises.

En mi experiencia personal, la muerte no es tan generosa, ni mucho menos digna, sobre todo si concluye a una terrible enfermedad. Tal vez de ahí provienen mis temores. Las personas viven o sobreviven lo mejor que pueden, y algunas terminan su recorrido de maneras espantosas. No me vendría nada mal explorar mi lado espiritual, probablemente ahí encontraré el remedio a mis dolencias existenciales…