Category Archives: La Casa Rojas – On-line Magazine

Pasión u Obsesión, esa es la pregunta – Passion or Obsession; That is the Question

…the question put to Luis and I by a new friend and fellow Spanish language enthusiast.  Well, the complete question went something like, “What is the difference between having passion for something and being obsessed by something?” 

It was a question posed innocently enough, over dinner, the four of us present;  she, her husband, Luis and me.  But appearances are sometimes crafted to camoflage  intentions and my amygdala went on full alert as I got a whiff of our 5th diner – danger.  Something about this question seemed loaded and the dynamics between her and her husband upon it’s uttering let me know that I was right.  Subtle dynamics to be sure, subtle in a taut kind of way that betrayed the self talk just below the surface;  “Keep the emotion out of your voice.  Appear ‘devil may care’.  Stay cool – we don’t know these people very well.” 

Well, I was hooked immediately.  Was it the dynamic across the table from me?  Or was it the question itself?  I knew the inquiry had to do with her interest in learning all things related to the Spanish language and the cultures within which it lives, but knowing this had more to do with ‘Spanish’ being the reason we had met for the first time only 2 hours before and were now having dinner together, not because the word “Spanish” had actually had been articulated.  It was one of those questions understood for the context.

While my amygdala was doing a scan of the area, I ventured cautiously;  “Good question, hmmm, I don’t really know.”  Yes, it was a cagey and clever response.  So complete in it’s simplicity that upon additional hemming and hawing, I came up with nothing more eloquent.

A couple of days have passed since the initial posing and I’ve used the question as a litmus test for a variety of situations just to get a full 360 view.  While arranging the same 3 flowers in a vase for the 8th time, I asked myself, am I passionate about how flora evokes mood or am I obsessed with spacial relationships.  While trying to decide when I should knock off work for the day, is the fact that I have to even entertain this question an indication of my passion and love for what I do, or is it my obsession to demolish my competition. 

And after some intense reflection, enhanced with the tiniest spot of Limoncello, I think I’ve come up with something. 

I think maybe “passion” is the internal experience ‘one’ has when they feel strongly for something.  This strong feeling could be manifest in behavior or not – that part doesn’t matter.  The strength of the feeling and how it probably lights up the pleasure centers of the brain when one thinks about it, is more the key here. 

“Obsession” on the other hand is merely the same thing identified from the opposite perspective.  That is, from the outside.  If I observed your “passion”, I would probably call it “obsession”. 

The difference between the two can be distilled down to a love of something being experienced from the inside, verses being observed from the outside.  The notion that there is a dichotomy inherent; a good vs. bad, a health vs. pathology is more misnomer.  Remember folks, the “map is not the territory”, its simply an instrument employed to make sense of something far greater than ourselves.

What moves us and why is one of life’s mysteries.  And though I am probably more apt to gravitate toward people who share my passions, I find people passionate about just about anything, captivating.  They epitomize vitality and fertility and promise and possibility, they have things to do, people to meet, places to go, more to experience, goals to accomplish.  Passion has it’s musk to be sure.  I would way rather be around someone who was ignited and on fire and heading in unexpected directions, than someone who still tells the same joke 15 years on.  Just kill me now if you know that we’ll be still talking in 50.

Yah, give me dynamics any day of the week.  I want the thrill of the chase, the romance of the unexpected turns, the mystery that keeps me seeking and at every satiating summit I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I staved off putrification and defeated death (of some kind) to get here.  

Maybe my trying to perfect a foreign language is your flying a 757.  It takes audacity to believe it can be done, courage to take it on and constant work to be sure that you are ready for whatever might come at you.  Even more, maybe my speaking Spanish and you flying a 757 means we couldn’t be more perfectly matched given our nature to take on any challenge and stick to it regardless of the odds we play and the fate we tempt.  Success is defined by challenge.   And if you are reading this Blog – at least one of your 757’s is Spanish or is it the other way around.  ¡Qué será!  Pasión es buena, ¿No?  Aliméntala –       Joan

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¡Vayase! – Get Outta here! parte II

43 days later –  Buenos Aires –  departamento que da a la calle, el 3 piso, con balcón (mi eleccion de modo que fue posible ver todo el mundo desde mi dormitorio)

Luis is already in the throws of “fining tune”, (that´s “fine tuning” en inglés) MY well thought out choices for my VERY OWN SOLO experience here in Buenos Aires.  “Honey, are you sure you want to be so close to that busy street… you will never sleep at night.”


Luis:  “What time are you meeting this guy you will do that work with?”


Luis:  “Maybe I’ll go to the bookstore where you’re meeting him too, because I have a couple of books I want to buy for my classes. ”


1 hour later – Bookstore Coffee Shop – Joan and Dr. Cabeza sipping espressos y platicando  (going well)

Luis:  “Hola, mi nombre es Luis, soy esposo de Joan.  Mucho gusto.  Yo estaba buscando libros para mi trabajo, soy profesor de español en el estado de Minnesota, cerca de Canadá.”


Luis:  “Honey, sorry to interrupt,  I just wanted to ask you if you want me to look for a good cookbook for us to take home with us.”

Dr. Cabeza:  “Mucho gusto Luis.  Por favor toma un asiento.  ¿Quieres un cafecito?”


Following day – address in hand – making a dry run on the Subte toward place of  ‘pacentia’

Luis:  “Okay, what you want to do is get here early, cause you can see that it’s total chaos at this time in the morning.  Now, you don’t have your purse do you?  Remember how I told you to keep all your stuff in your front pocket and be alert to the people on your sides and behind you?” 


Next day – first day of pacentia – Joan heads out alone – but this, only after very long discussion the night before about how Joan has already lived 50 years very successfully on this earth, at times even averting danger due to her measured caution, agility and general lack of stupidity.  The deal was sealed however only after an agreement to carry mace concealed in closed fist and to check in by cell every two hours. 

Joan has effortlessly negotiated 3 subway lines and 8 blocks on foot,  is almost at the clinic door where she will begin her first day of work.  An experience, born of an idea, that she took from it’s vaporous inception all the way through to it’s no ‘detail left unplanned for’, reality.  (well, except for the buying of the plane ticket)  She will be working with a well known and respected Psychologist, Director of a Clinic for chronic drug and alcohol dependents, the same man who was appointed to this position by the Argentinean Undersecretary of Mental and Chemical Health who in turn reports directly to President Kirchner.  She will be meeting with this Undersecretary later in her pacentia and could even score an introduction to the Prez himself.

Just a few steps more and Joan will be ringing the bell of the Clinic’s unassuming and secured front door.  Suddenly, out of no where she feels the presence of someone walking up way too fast behind her.  It feels as though this person does not intend to pass on either the left or the right, but is heading for a direct hit to her back side.  Joan thinks quickly and remembering that one of our best allies is the element of surprise,  she decides to interrupt the forward momentum of this person but stopping abruptly and whirling around to face them.  To add more confusion and by so doing maximize her advantage as well hedge her bets by alerting those people on the other side of the street that there is something happening on this side, she decides to yell, “¡Vayase!”  simultaneously.

1.5 seconds later, plan in place – Joan executes it

Joan:   Stops, whirls, yells – “¡VAYASE!”

Person:  Unintelligible scream, then;  “Honey, ¿Qué haces?   ¡Me matas de susto!”


Luis:  “I just wanted to make sure you got there safely.”

The people across the street stopped for a moment, looked our way, said something to one another shaking their heads as they spoke, then continued on.  It was pretty clear Luis and I knew one another – I suppose we looked like just another couple that could use the help of a counselor.         Stay safe and keep the love alive!   Joan

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¡Vayase! – Get outta here!

So we are in Buenos Aires about 2 years ago, Luis and I.  Reluctantly I brought him along on a trip that I arrange to get CEU hours for the renewal of my Psychology license.  He wasn´t invited initially mind you.  I wanted to do this on my own. 

The idea was to improve the Spanish I used at work.  I was already good at chatting it up casually with a native Spanish speaker, I could talk about the day´s news or what I thought would or could happen if something else occurred…I could even expound upon what the future held should you decide to embrace it.  Subjunctiveville.  I owned the town. 

But I was still missing two things critical to my practicing psychology effectively with the Spanish speaker.  The more obvious of these was  was vocabulary.  You know, how do I say …  Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Features of Anxiety and Depression, Differential Diagnosis of  Trichotillomania, Rule Out Borderline Personality, though this seemed quite straightforward and easy enough to pick up.  The less obvious but more critical thing I was lacking had to do with ‘world view’.   I didn´t quite get what was perceived as a problem and what wasn´t.  What the beliefs were surrounding why particular types of problems occur and what must be done to eradicate them, if it is even seen possible.  Fascinating stuff, but for other entries.  In this one I am wanting to talk about my marriage.

I´m fairly industrious and since all great feats start with nothing more than an idea and I was teeming with those … I figured I was off to a good start.  Idea;  study in Buenos Aires.  The obvious first step was to see if there were any conferences being offered during the time I wanted to go.  This investigation turned up a big fat ‘nada’, but not to go down with at least the appearance of a fight, I called Luis´ brother Dany, who lives in Buenos Aires and asked him who he knew, just to keep the momentum going.  Dany´s a heart doctor and not a head doctor, but I figured he probably has access to all the varieties through a hospital wide staff meeting or something, whatever, he´s sweet and I knew he´d come up with someone.  And he did.  Turns out it was not someone from the hosptial at all, but someone that happened to attend the same church he did.  Good enough.

Yippee, idea is turning into something that promises substance…. this is good.  Next – write letter to ‘head doctor’, (Dany didn’t know his specialty exactly, just knew he dealt with ‘los problemas de la cabeza’), tell him that I got his name from the guy with 4 girls that sits behind him and across the aisle at the 8 30 service at el Iglacia de San Ignacio, check.  Tell him that I want to do a ‘pacentia’ under him, offer some money for his trouble, sit back and wait.  Check, check, check.  Long story short, it’s a Bingo.  Time to buy the plane tickets.

After a long day at work, I come home to Luis jumping up and down.  “¡Habemos tickets!”   Luis, Southern Baptist, knows nothing of the Catholic tradition and found it fascinating when the new Pope was introduced to the world first with a ribbon of smoke from a chimney followed by the proclamation, “HABEMUS PAPA”.  So when ever something is really exciting to him, he takes liberties with the expression.  In this case “¡Habemos tickets!”   Brings to mind potatoes and chili peppers for me but anyway… when I heard him say “Habemos”, I heard the “…mos” part more than the “Habe…” part and knew I was in for the other shoe.  “Honey, I decided I am going too!”  What!?  What happened to all the “…you need to get out there and use the language, you need to take chances, you need to push yourself to the limit ….”?

…….to be continued…….             Joan

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Y entonces él empezó a llorar – And Then He Began to Cry

My comment was innocent enough, meant really just to break the tension; “No has tenido mucha suerte con las mujeres, ¿Eh?”  “You haven’t had much luck with the ladies?” 

He looked away from me then, his eyes searching something invisible to me in his perifery.  An ironic chuckle escaped which betrayed just enough emotion to cause a breach in his battle weary armor.  The tears burst through.  He was more surprised than I at how he crumbled … even though tears were not what I was going for specifically.  “La quiero, mucho.”  “I love her, alot.”  “Yo quiero que tengamos una vida feliz juntos.”  “I want us to have a happy life together.”

“¿Ella sabe que quieres esto?  ¿Ella quiere lo mismo?” “Does she know this is what you want?  Does she want that too?”

“No sé.”  “I don´t know.” 

“¿Con quien hablas acerca de las cosas personales?”  “Who do you talk to about your personal issues?” 

“Nadie.”  “No one.”  The tears continued.  He stopped searching his perifery then, found my eyes instead and smiled ever so slightly.

The human condition.  It takes surprisingly little to get beyond the veneer – if we cared to – if we needed to.  I know your ‘stuff’ cause it´s the same as mine.  The reverse goes without saying.  Remember “LIFE Magazine”?  It was famous for it’s photos not it’s words.  Why?  Because photos shoot beneath the veneer and beyond language.  Suddenly we are with the subject in their fear,  their lonliness, confusion, illness, hunger, mourning, celebration, relief, determination, victory. 

He has a life full of native Spanish speakers.  I am not one of those.  I am new to his language and yet with a bridge constructed of a few words familiar to him, I was was able to traverse the space between us to get  just close enough to let him know that I understood his human condition.  For the space of a few tears and a smile, he wasn´t all alone. 

Why learn another language? 

Well, could get you a new job, could get you your coffee the way you ordered it, could get you the best room in the hotel … or it could give you just one precious opportunity to ease the burden of another if only for a second.   There was more than one time that my life changed forever in that single second someone communicated to me that they understood me, that they were with me.  A picture may be worth a thousand words but one word can save a life.     ¡Salud!    Joan  –   Licensed Psychologist and Editor in Chief of  La Casa Rojas

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Cuando los ánimos se intensifiquen – When Emotions Become Intense

Remember the 50’s show “I Love Lucy”?  Remember how Ricky, from Cuba, would begin to rapid fire Spanish every time he got a little hot under the collar?  Of course the joke was that his Latin blood had predisposed him to go from 0 to 100 in a micro-second but old stereotypes and Lucy´s extraordinary perturbations aside, the aspect of this that fascinates me is that when he was feeling strongly, he automatically switched from his second language, English, to his first, Spanish.

Luis has had students that are ER Nurses, Paramedics, Fire Fighters, Doctors and Police officers, what we refer to as those first responders.  And each of them share like stories about being called upon to respond to a crisis that involves a native speaker of a language other than English.  They explain that  under the pressure of  terror or grief or pain or excitement or relief, their patients reverted to their native language.  They may have known English, but suddenly could not speak it nor understand it.

In fact I had this very experience with Luis.  He’d been here with me in the US, only 3 months when he had a medical emergency.  He had begun to feel pain in his side earlier in the day that only increased in intensity into the evening.  After much resistance from him through out this episode, at midnight and in response to his writhing and speaking only Spanish (I knew very little Spanish at this time), I insisted in taking him to the ER.  Long story short; his appendix burst.  Point of story; he did not speak a word of English from the moment the pain became difficult to bear until he was home 3 days later and resting more or less comfortably after his surgery.  NOT A WORD OF ENGLISH.

Pressure of any kind can trigger a default response and send us reeling back to what was programmed first.  Luis and I live a life that is very busy with multiple simultaneous deadlines and priorities.  Most of the time we are able to coordinate a very complex dance together successfully.  Now and then, we collide.  During these collisions, if they were listening, (oh, man, I hope not!) our neighbors would hear a mix of Spanish and English….Luis in Spanish and me in English.  The discussion would be animated and fluent, but fluent between two languages. 

Once we had a guy in our house putting in ceramic tile when one of these events between Luis and I occurred.  Once we had resolved the issue, I went to get a cup of coffee near where the tile guy was working and he looked at me with this expression of utter amazement and said;  “That was one of the most interesting things I have ever heard.  I totally understood what you were saying and not at all, what Luis was saying but clearly you guys got it all.  Man, that was weird.”

Of course we are all familiar with the phenomenon where we are new in the language and find ourselves in a situation where we need to or want to use it.  Our nerves get the best of us and the only words we can retrieve are taken from our native dictionary. 

Okay, so heightened emotions of any kind bring us back to our roots.  But how are ‘roots’ defined exactly.  Consider this poignant story.  Luis as a child became friends with the daughter of missionaries who had come to his church in Peru.  He was about 7 or 8 years old, so was she.  She only knew English when she moved to Peru but learned Spanish quickly and spoke mostly Spanish until she left Peru for the States at about age 11 or 12.  She did not return to Peru again and used her Spanish only occasionally in her life in Portland OR.  Now fast forward 30 years.  THIRTY YEARS.  She was diagnosed with brain cancer and spent just a few short months more on this earth. 

Luis called her 3 weeks or so before she died.  They hadn’t talked with one another for 30 years and yet each had made an impact on the other such that this contact so many years later brought them rushing back in time.  It was as though they’d never been apart.  Luis started out in English, she in Spanish.  He switched to Spanish and they talked for more than an hour.  At the end of the conversation she thanked him.  Told him that speaking in Spanish had satiated her, brought her a sensation of being ‘home’ again, provided a sense of wholeness and relief.  He told me that her Spanish was impeccable, complete with the accent and cadence of the region in which she had lived in Peru.

Can we call up an emotion and with it the language in which we experienced it?  In this case perhaps Luis’ friend was surrendering to those happy moments in her childhood when she and he had played together.  Her life was lived in Spanish then.  Yes, her first language was English and she only spent 4 years living in Spanish after which the next 30 years were lived again in English.  Yet, when she was confronted with an emotion filled memory of those years in Spanish, only Spanish would due, washing over her with peace.  And her Spanish was perfect, “Como una limeña.”

Emotional context has power.  It´s real and raw and has deep and mysterious roots.  Luis and I talk about context a lot when speaking about what brings a language to life and helps one internalize it as their own.  It´s a risky business to be sure, whether you expose yourself to a real person speaking about real things from their heart in their native tongue, or whether you challenge yourself to experiences in your new language, the emotional component on each side yields power like no text book ever will.  Expose yourself to real people, talking about real things.  Challenge yourself to real experiences.  You do these two things and you´ll weaken your excuse that you can´t learn because you have a lousy memory!    Sigamos adelante,  Joan    La Casa Rojas – the magazine


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“Sólo nos queda pedirles que oren por nostros” – “I Only Ask that You All Pray for Us”

This is the way Álvaro, our author from Honduras, signed off on his note to me this morning.  I had been watching the news yesterday and saw how violent things continued in that country due to the recent “golpe de estado” that had occurred the week before, and wrote him a quick note indicating that he and his family and his country were in Luis´ and my the thoughts and prayers – adding the mother’s reflex, (begging the obvious that goes out to all regardless of their relation to us)….”Cuidense mucho”.

He described briefly the up to the moment having to do mostly with looking for the ‘good’ in the ‘bad’ and his ‘resigned reflections’ on human nature;  “There is more concern and worry with each day that passes , but no deaths yet.”  “Seven million people have been impacted by the spoiled childish political ambitions of one.”  “So many people both inside and outside the country have fallen victim to propaganda and believe that the ‘victemizer’ is actually the ‘victem’.

Now read this however you wish…the truth is, I do not know the political leanings of Álavaro…he writes for La Casa Rojas about how he experiences his life in his country, and one´s experience of one´s life is personal and universal simultaneously.

And it is this last point that I find fascinating …. our experiences are at once personal and universal.  I will be putting up Álvaro´s third installment of  “Domingo negro en Honduras, Historia de una crisis”later today.  With one final note of disclaimer I sign off for now…..La Casa Rojas is about giving outsiders an insiders point of view … we are not promoting the politics of any particular group … and our personal points of view are not necessarily reflected in the articles we publish.   Paz,  Joan  Editor in Chief, La Casa Rojas – the magazine

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Aprender español es como enamorarse – Learning Spanish is Like Falling In Love

It hits us without warning and really quite out of the blue… our heart races at the thought of it, our pupils dilate, our thoughts obsess with desire.  We imagine whole worlds opening up before us, yielding access to exotic people and adventure. 

We attend our first date, I mean class, and we are not disappointed; rather hopeful, excited even as we picture ourselves tucked away at some great café in a little seaside pueblo, eating ethnic delicacies while discussing art and philosophy with really interesting people.  Our fantasy continues for about 6 or 8 more classes but then our romantic illusions begin to be fade … the reality of the long hard road we must take to reach that pueblo and café and new found friends tempts us to believe we´ve fallen victim to silly romantic folly and nothing more.  That there is just no way before middle age or retirement or before we die, we´re going to be able to gain the skills necessary to comfortably and independently make our way in this new language. 

BUT  –  just like we have to care for and nuture our relationship with our new love if we want it to go anywhere, we must care for and nurture our dream to speak another language if we really want to make a life with it.  All work and no play – not fun, nor productive. Textbooks have their place, and so does bringing home the bacon, but textbooks and bacon alone do not garantee a happy-ever-after ending.  We need to find ways to feed that original passion to keep it alive if we are to live our adventure to it’s fullest potential.

For me this meant searching the Internet for stuff to read that interested me. Armed with my dictionary, it would take me literally hours to get through an article.  But I stuck with it cause I wanted the information.  In order to understand the information, I had to be able to understand what I was reading …. so the carrot to learn? …. interesting information.  

So do what it takes….travel, read, listen to music, but keep that dream alive.  What is it they say?  ‘No one looked back on their life and wish they had worked more!’   If we only worked as hard on keeping the romance alive as we did on our verb tenses.      Joan, Editor in Chief, La Casa Rojas

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