On Democracy, Art, and the Herding of Cats

Better than a thousand hollow words is one that brings peace. – Buddha, 4th-5th century BC from somewhere in eastern India, probably. (Insightful)

Brevity is the soul of wit. – William Shakespeare, late 16th century(ish) from London, maybe. (Instructive)

Hey!!!! – Keith Woodall, 28 January, 2017, yelled at the top of his lungs from the middle of a large crowd in the Museum District, Madrid, Spain.  (Not really appreciated much by dozens of startled people)

The plan, the one that worked so well until it didn’t, was that our guide, Professor María Natividad Simal Ávila, (Nati, thankfully), would lead everyone through the busy streets of the nation’s capital. Hannah Grace would float around in the middle, and I would bring up the rear keeping everyone together and moving.  On cattle drives they call this “riding-” or “pulling drag” and it’s the job they always give to the new guy. Behind any herd of cattle there is always a lot of dust and, you know, aroma.  Besides, it’s always more fun being up front.  This plan took us past monuments and palaces, intersections and roundabouts, one protest demonstration, one awesome string quintet, and a thousand interesting shops and delicacies.  It came up short toward the end of our day when we left the museum and headed for our reservation at a restaurant about half a mile away.

So anyways, everybody…, well almost, …were all seated and impatiently waiting to be served while Nati and I went back to the Gran Vía, really cool boulevard, with Maggie and her cell-phone link to our two strays (more trail drive lingo, I have a theme).  One person had stopped to buy some art from a street artist (this is the critical moment I missed) and another …, well, I don’t know why she stopped, but anyways, here is where the great plan began to unravel.  Apparently, the artist, wanting to give those who appreciate his art more value for their euro, insisted on personalizing said art for the client, thus throwing off the quite logical “great plan” of the client to keep the group in sight during what surely wouldn’t take that long. Except that it did.  Okay, fast-forwarding to the point where we had figured out how to untangle this thing, it got more complicated because Maggie and the person on the other end of the cell connection were convinced that the problem was resolved (it wasn’t) because they could both see the “water” and we must be near linking up.  THIS IS A REALLY LONG AVENUE WITH ONE OR TWO HISTORIC AND BREATHTAKING FOUNTAINS AT EVERY INTERSECTION!  Fill in the gaps in my story with whichever cartoon of Road Runner / Wile Coyote or Three Stooges episode you liked best.  It all worked out fine in the end and everybody kept their sense of humor.  Well not the ones already seated at tables wanting to eat, but, as they say in the third grade, “Too bad, so sad!”.  Oh and there were a few grumpy types who apparently take offense at some guy yelling “hey” and jumping up and down waving a black spiral notebook in the air.  Go figure.

Cherita King, back at Global Opportunities at Ohio University, had forwarded me information the night before about a protest march that was scheduled to occur at about the halfway point of our planned route.  Some people had recently been given prison sentences for their role in a protest three years ago where some were injured. There are many who believe their sentences unjust.  Nati and I worked out an alternate route for us that would take us away from the march given that the US embassy was advising all Americans to avoid the area (this is routine for any protest).  If this sounds scary just think about what takes place in Washington, D.C. on any given day.  That’s all it was, a healthy democracy going about the work of respecting the right of freedom of expression.  The march got started late apparently and we wound up skirting the tail end of it.  Nati took our group in another direction while I “supervised” the journalists in our group who managed to slow their pace enough to get a few pictures.  It was all very orderly, both the march and our group, and our new path steered us right to an ice cream parlor where we wore out the wrist on the scooping hand of the poor lady who doesn’t usually have 31 people show up at the same time (not a pun, there really were 31 of us and this was not some lame attempt on my part to evoke 31 flavors)!  The biggest problem I had from the protest detour was getting the students to quit asking for the free samples of all the exotic flavors.  Places to be, things to do!

Okay, that’s the “herd of cats” thing and the “democracy” thing.  Needing to wrap this up I’ll just say this about the Prado: Wow!  What can one say about a beautiful palace the length of a city block and two stories high, filled with some of the most powerful, beautiful, inspirational, stirring, impassioned, soul-wrenching and soul-enriching works ever created by human hands?  Wow! Actually, I don’t really like that word in this context, it sounds coarse and inadequate, but, for the life of me, I can’t think of one that expresses what I feel.  I’m going back to spend more time before I leave and I heard others in the group say the same.

The picture above doesn’t really need any explanation except to mention that I have a picture of me sitting in the exact same place in 1995.  In that older version I am alone and smiling, very content with myself and the moment. It was my first trip to Europe.  For me, this new version will be about my “return to the scene of the crime” only this time with a tired and merry band of travelers.  Way cool!

If you look closely at their hands you can see that we had just passed a Starbucks.  You can take them off the farm but…

P.S.  Look at their hands again.  Which one is holding anything that might be “art”?  I’m not naming names!  You know what they say, “What happens in Madrid…”.

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