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Friday, June 30, 2017

Rock Art Rancher

If the study of people is the definition of anthropology,  Brantley Baird, without the benefit of academic degree, is a top- notch anthropologist.

The weathered, careful speaking and listening lanky octogenarian with a gentle demeanor is a born and bred Arizona cowboy. When he married 60 years ago he began his work on the ranch belonging to his wife's family now known as the Rock Art Ranch.

In the vastness of the Arizona desert and canyons, his study of people began with reminders that the family ranch had been home to other families, perhaps hundreds of them, both in both recent history, and, as he would come to learn, from more than 9000 years ago. 

Brantley's study of people began with finding shards pots bowls cups and other hunting tools. As Brantley went about hunting and tending to livestock, he came across areas on the ranch where evidence of homes from the past emerged after gullies were washed in flash floods. It was Brantley's careful observation that two sites were uncovered on the ranch where Navajo, Hopi and Anastazi had cooked, reared families, hunted, traded and used weapons,  playing their corresponding roles in defending or expanding their tribe's territories.

Over the years, Brantley spotted on the ranch many museum quality examples of native American family life and it's remainders. The bowls, cups, utensils, and tools tell a story of people who raise children worked hard for their living using your resources and held religious ceremonies. 

Canyon walls along a creek on the ranch preserve hundreds of petroglyphs of people, animals and inscrutable symbols showing us humans' first written communication.

Brantley's learned from contemporary Navajos who have helped him restore two hogans or Navajo houses on the ranch, one for men and another for women. He showed us the door which always faced the sunrise to direct prevailing eastern winds through the roof opening and remove cooking fire smoke. But there was another purpose for the hogan's roof opening. He pointed to the square of sunlight on the pounded dirt floor of the hogan and told us we are watching the world's oldest clock and calendar. The sun's path across the sky told people the time of day and when during the seasons to plant and harvest crops.

Brantley has also learned from scientists at museums and universities who visit and conduct digs on the ranch's two principal sites, one residential and the other a kiva used for ceremonial worship and prayer. 

What fuels this 80 year old cowboy's lifelong interest in the preservation of native culture?  One clue is family. His grandmother was Native American and he and his wife fostered a Navajo girl. 

No one knows if Brantley's legacy with will be continued with his kids and grandchildren, but at 80 years, he is going strong as a one man Guide and museum curator of artifacts that he literally stumbled into through marriage and by working cattle on his family's ranch.

Brantley inherited this ranch in the Arizona desert, but has paid back his good fortune with hard work and, one shard and pot at a time, retrieving from the desert and the sands of centuries, pieces of history to preserve and to share with others.

Sent from my iPad

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mesa meanderings

A mesa is a table and it is also an elevated landform standing above the floor of the desert. For the Acoma it is also a home.

Yesterday at the Acoma village atop a mesa in western New Mexico, our guide explained his tribe's history to us tourists. We had driven off I 40 about 20 miles then boarded a small bus to climb to the top of the mesa. 

As he led us past 900 year old homes where 35 families live here year-round. No electricity, no running water. Today there are soar powered communal showers and restrooms installed at the edges of the mesa. He told us of the move the Acoma made centuries before from a mesa nearby. A storm destroyed the steep stairs to the top of the mesa and the tribe sent out scouts in four directions to find their new home, where we now stood. 

Children sped past us running to greet our guide with leaps and hugs. He greeted them warmly and led us through the village telling us about Acoma history and the contact with the Spanish military and religious. He spoke of the cruelty of the slavery the Europeans had imposed to build the Catholic Church here, but he included the education and care received by the Acoma people from the Franciscans in particular. 

The mesa, like an island in an ocean of sky and endless desert, gives its people protection and a place to call their own. The survival of its residents through centuries of storms and invasion from foreign forces were reminders of the timeless qualities that drive our existence, such as faith and perseverance. 

As we ended our tour, residents set up tables outside their homes to sell us samples of their beautiful pottery and jewelry. I had decided to leave my money in the car 350 feet below, so instead of shopping I scanned the horizon for the last time this visit before hopping back on the bus.

I was lost in the stillness and beauty of the moment when I was abruptly returned to the 21st century. A movement over my head caught my eye and I turned to see an Acoma man stretching his arm up, holding a smartphone and waving it in the air to catch a signal for the credit card purchase he was processing. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Mayor Mitch Landrieu "Makes Straight a Wrong Turn"

Thank you from a Borderlander in South Texas to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for his efforts to "make straight a wrong turn" by removing four Confederate Era monuments from his city.

Mayor Landrieu's speech, I pray lives in our hearts, minds and most importantly, the textbooks of our nation's  school children for generations to come. 

"A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them" stated former U.S. president George W. Bush at the opening of the African American museum in Washington D.C. less than a year ago. 

Facing the legacy of a difficult war like the Civil War, its foundations and its aftermath from all perspectives is hard work.  Landrieu's speech was surgically precise in exposing the cancer of slavery in the Confederacy. He is correct. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

Thank you from a former school child in South Texas who I once was. I sang the national anthem, while wondering how "Jose" climbed up on the flagpole to see "by the star's early light." Even in my comical confusion, I felt the swell of connection and pride in being American.  My second grader's imagination heard in the patriotic songs a rooting for her to learn her numbers and spelling because the future had a place just for her in this nation on whose soil she stood.

The sense of knowing my country accepted and took me into account was underscored by President Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." 

The roles of family, church and school are important in a child's development. My cultural inheritance was rich living on the U.S. border. It was informed by what I learned at the knee of my mother, who was reared in Mexico, the media I watched and listened to, and what I learned from books and in school. In my case, tamales and mariachis marched beside Benjamin Franklin, Paul Bunyan, Tom Sawyer and Brenda Starr, the newspaper comic strip woman-reporter in whom I saw my own star's guidance to a career in journalism. My parade of pioneers were inventors, makers and people who ask why.

I admired our founding fathers in the Northeast U.S. and also the settlers of the Americas and Southwest U.S. who came from EspaƱa, leaving the old world for a chance to farm and prosper. If my ancestors could cross the ocean for a better life, could grow crops and raise cattle with the scant benefit of 17 inches of annual rainfall in the hardscrabble Chihuahuan desert, then I would proudly carry forward in whatever way I could contribute. 

Would I become a nun like my teachers? Would I become a public servant in government like JFK? Would I write the great Mexican American novel? Whatever I decided, I knew from living on the border with Mexico that I had a strong advantage in being a U.S. citizen. With so much effort and belief behind me, I felt encouraged to use my education to explore the opportunities it offered.

I had a wealth of resources in my education and the cultural treasures of my family's Mexican and American cultures, but there was also another force powering my progress which I had not understood until watching Landrieu's speech. 

My identity itself of being an American was the fourth leg to complete my table of family, faith and education. I now understand my 'luck of the draw' in being born a U.S. citizen, whose founders saw a place for me in the peace and prosperity of this country and its future. I finally see the role played by America's education systems, colleges and universities, health protections, environmental safeguards,  banking regulations, anti-monopoly laws and policies that protect and serve all Americans, including "hyphenated" ones like me. 

This inheritance was an invisible hand that rested on my shoulder, pushing and sustaining me to completion of high school and college, successful careers, and engagement in society. 

Landau's speech reminds me that the narrative that I believed, that I was being lifted and carried by a movement in humanity's timeline much stronger than race, culture, history or personal wealth, truly fueled my life's journey through difficult times. Here is the evidence: My father's work union protected our family of five when he was killed in a smelter accident. Social Security provided for our family until we five siblings entered college or the military.  There were grants, loans and scholarships that paid the way for multiple academic degrees for my family including a nursing degree, two doctorates, one brother's excelling in real estate and another becoming the state's second Texas Ranger of Mexican American descent.  

What would it feel like not have that gentle push on your shoulder, not having a sense of the backing of your country and its founders? What would it matter if the lift and support I felt ever present in my personal story had never been there? 

Living on the border, I knew a little of what that might feel like from first-hand knowledge. The elite and racist old-Europe strain had taken hold in colonial Mexico and lived on along the border where I lived.  I saw it in my own family, which favored light skin and male privilege. I saw it in school where children from the orphanage were treated differently than the daughters of lawyers and doctors. I saw it in corrupt local police, judges, media and politics. 

Later I experienced the different "Texas" strain of racism first hand in East Texas visiting family, and in Austin where I studied. But as an antidote, I also benefited from Great Society initiatives like my mother's evening Adult Education classes, my low interest college loans and grants and FCC employment rules that for a brief time opened doors for women and minorities in radio and television stations. 

Landrieu's speech prompts me to ask what national narrative would I have had I had been born African-American? True, my family, faith and education might provide the backing for my journey as a young person, but I would most likely lack my fourth leg of support, my sense of being accepted and taken into account as an American. 

The removal of monuments of the Confederate era in New Orleans may or may not prove pivotal in rectifying errors in our nation's history. It's only one step in a long journey, after all. The only way to know for certain is to wait and to see how the next generation of Americans hailing from diverse backgrounds perceives their country as either supporting their humanity and progress, or being on the wrong side of humanity by
celebrating their enslavement.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Today I'll trust the Earth

Today I'll trust the Earth to bear my weight,  to carry me.

The habit of years reappears.

Distrust is contagious. Watch Fox News: the business model guarantees the disease.

My steps withheld,  weight tenderly delivered, energy spent containing within an imaginary armload.

My steps on the planet are mine alone or are they part of a composition?

The ego answers from behind the curtain "Oh, it is I who manages all, your DNA, the era that you were you were born in, the wealth of your country's treasury, the policies in place, all mine."

How did the mind and the ego decide I couldn't trust the earth to carry me?  

That my tightened gut and jaw, my clenched fist, would guarantee the trick of walking without falling or being swallowed by the earth?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Today's Drama and Conflict 24/7 News Cycle

The television news business delivers not the news but drama and conflict. Its name will never change from "the news" to "today's drama and conflict", but if it did, maybe we could correct the imbalanced view we receive of the days' events.

For short, let's refer to today's drama and conflict as TDC, and hope that with the new name comes a clearer understanding of the role money plays behind the set of the who what where when why of the news business and the impact on its viewers.

Watching TDC 24/7 has an unintended but nevertheless very rea
l impact on people's optimism and their sense of agency. Understanding the news on cable and commercial TV requires remembering the out-sized role of ratings in the entertainment program that otherwise looks like a public service.

Since TV news is a business before it is a public service, the public isn't allowed to see that  even though the menu for each day
changes, the ingredients on TV news are always the same: TDC.

When tragedy or disaster strike, the public-service function of field reporting on TV about events such as weather disasters or outbreaks of disease revives the promise of television news. Thankfully, most days are without such large scale tragedy.

TV news of the TDC variety does not rest on peaceful days and feature two-hour long programs of dog show competitions, (though even reruns of last year's dog show would be better than television talking heads stating, restating and triple stating what we have already heard and understood 15 minutes ago).

We see the parade of TDC when the anchors strain to create fear with statements like, "It could have been much worse" or "No one knows the full extent of the problem." TV ratings would suffer without the constant stream of adrenaline inducing fear mongering.

The upshot is that viewers receive a diet of high anxiety, stress and worry that we believe reflects our world, when in fact it is primarily a reflection of the business model of the electronic screen that we have voluntarily invited into our homes. It's important to understand that our perceptions are traded for the ad dollars our attention commands.

The worst aspect of this dangerous diet of TDC is that it weakens our optimism about what we believe we can do.
Crossed wires tell us that by watching something on TV we are doing something. That is a function of our imagination but not of reality.

Perhaps no one intends to dissuade us from taking an active role in community politics or to paralyze us with fear by the parade TDC 24-7 in service of ratings instead of the public good. But, intentional or accidental, passivity is a natural byproduct of the TV news business.

The writer, Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark hints at who we might be without that constant parade of TDC:

"The sleeping giant is one name for the public; when he wakes up, when we wake up, we are no longer the public: we are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes, for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes or armies. We write history with our feet and with our present and our collective voice and vision and yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggest that popular resistance is ridiculous pointless or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago or ideally both. These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep.

Together we are very powerful and we have a seldom told, seldom remembered history of victories and transformations that give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before."

The TDC news cycle overlooks our quiet victories in classrooms, families and workaday lives: good news doesn't sell fear or worry and won't build ratings points, but aren't our lives meant for more than helping a business turn a profit?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Four days and four hours

What activity that you currently enjoy --no love very much-- would you willingly give up for 100 hours in order to experience living without its influence? Just for the sake of curiosity or if not that for rediscovering something you lost. Not sleeping or eating? How about talking or walking? 

How about temporarily  stopping something that borders on the addictive, such as using electronic media? 

This semester I revived an extra points opportunity for students in my face to face classes to try living in the natural world without the influences of media for 100 hours.

Addiction to media's dopamine-delivering-drip of texting and tweets is a commercially encouraged and legal addiction.  Socially acceptable as it may be, I see our dependence on media as handicapping to both myself and to my students. To pull back the veil of media's intrusion of our natural senses, I asked my students to earn extra points by voluntarily refraining from all electronic media use, except for academic or employment purposes, for 100 hours, or the equivalent but less scary sounding four days and four hours. 

Here are the reflections of one of my students this semester who agreed to let me share her AdobeSpark video about her experiences.    

Some history. Ten years ago I regularly assigned this project to hundreds of my students as a requirement of the course I teach, Introduction to Mass Communications. The results were revealing. Most were unable to complete their project without falling back, usually without thinking, on phone or Internet use. Television watching was easy to give up, they said, and the hardest was listening to music. 

Mistakes were allowed. "Get back on the horse," and continue, I told students when they discovered they had slipped. I understood how hard it was to do. I did the project along with the students and found myself numerous times, many minutes into cheating without noticing, using the phone or listening to the news on the radio during the commute home.

Even with stumbles, many students reported deep insights about their relationship to siblings and parents and romantic partners after completing their abstinence from media. They said they came to understand that media use had made them blind to the people around them and their need to communicate. 

I remember the student who was roommates with his brother and his brother's wife. He found out that his brother missed his friendship with him even though they lived under the same roof. I remember the student whose grandfather couldn't reach her on the phone and rushed to her apartment to see what was wrong because she didn't answer her phone like she usually did. He sat down, talked to her about his past and revealed that he was an orphan when he was a child and had been adopted. "Why hadn't you ever told me this?" the granddaughter asked. "It's that you are always so busy using the phone, I never wanted to bother you," he told her. The student was unaware she was sending that signal by always clutching her phone. There was the student who reported losing the buzzing in his ear when he stopped using media, and the one who discovered during a walk in her neighborhood a little girl her daughter's age who she had never seen living a few doors down from her home and now the kids are playmates. 

After a few semesters I noticed the push back from students was getting harder. Their use of media was increasing during this time if they were similar to all Americans ages 8-18. In 2014, screen time accounted for more than 10 hours a day. 

Realizing I was working against a Goliath, I cut back the time off from media requirement to 48 hours to make it easier for the students to complete the project and get most of the benefits. I don't know whether I should make it a required assignment again. There are loads of reasons to do so and loads against it. I do know such an experience has great value to many, including myself. 

Here is an entry from the journal submitted by the student who completed the assignment and the reflections in the Adobe Spark linked above. "My opinion on this challenge was that everyone should try it at least once, and even longer. It's nice to just disconnect from the digital world that we've created especially with how much negativity it can sometimes bring. We have the real world for a reason, so why waste our moments (not being) in reality that we could enjoy?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ear I am!

In the grocery store I pushed my cart through the spring garden plant section, gazing at geraniums and shiny plastic hoses as drugged looking as other shoppers nearby, lost in another world, one where the air is full of the possibilities and promises for gardeners that come with the arrival of each spring.

"Talk to me!"  I heard a man in his forties, an employee, playfully demanding me out of   the near coma I had fallen in as I wandered the aisles.  I glanced up to his sparkling eyes and noticed his strong shoulders and slender physique. "Stop!" I said, fumbling for my phone. "Have you ever heard of Sunny and the Sunliners?" I asked, spinning through Spotify pages to locate the song, "Talk to Me," one of the few songs from a South Texas band during the sixties that made the Top 40. In between leafy displays of plants we both listened with all our attention to Sunny Osuna's  corduroy textured voice sing a love song meant for close dancing. Within the first few seconds I was transported to the smooth floors and low lights of the Civic Center ballroom in Laredo, where thousands, not hundreds, of teens went to see Sunny and the Sunliners perform. I felt the thrill of being a part of an enormous wave of the human raza, pretty dancing couples spinning around the ballroom in a slow motion pattern.  When the song on my phone ended I almost thanked the smiling clerk beside me for the dance. 

The second time this week that my sense of hearing surprised me was in a terrible way. I had stepped from my parked car at the college's west parking lot and started down the sidewalk to the walkway at the pedestrian crossing. I suddenly heard the heavy thud-da-thud-thud sound of a human body bouncing on a car hood after being struck. In my mind's eye I imagined a person acrobatically flying across the front of a car from countless stunt man scenes from movies. I ran back to the parking lot and saw a young college student, a girl, getting up from the pavement beside a stopped sedan. The driver got out of the car as I reached them and I noticed he wore nurse's scrubs. The girl was wobbly, gathered her hair and she was in tears but she dusted the dirt from her clothes and said to us she was not hurt. She said she had been hit by the front of the car and was thrown across the left fender landing beside the driver's door. We phoned campus police and EMS came to check her out. She told me that she thought the driver had seen her step onto the pedestrian crossing. 

The third time this week that my ears were there before my other senses was while listening to a sound that shook the earth. I was taking apples to a neighbor's horse about a half mile away. Every few months I buy a giant bag of carrots and share them with Star. He also likes apples and when I have extras or overripe ones, I share them too. I had some apples that had gotten a little old so I decided to walk down to pay Star a visit just before sunset when the March wind kicked up.  Sometimes he hears me from his stable about fifty yards from the gate as I walk down the hill to him and he neighs for me to hurry with his carrots. When I got to his gate I hollered for him. He was no where in sight and because the last time I saw him he looked too thin, I wondered if Star was no longer with us. Still, I called his name once or twice more but the only response was frightened barking from a dog who lives with Star coming from the far south end of the ten acre property. The wind blew harder and the sun was almost down, so I considered leaving the apples inside the gate to return home. I called out his name another two times but the sound didn't carry because of the wind. I waited a few more seconds then heard a faint rumble, like distant thunder and looked hard among the trees to see if I could spot his yellow coat approaching. There between the cedars was a glimpse of his legs and hooves in a full gallop and soon I saw him as he came to the clearing near the gate. He ducked quickly into the stable.  As I continued to call for him he peered out with equal parts fear and curiosity. I waved the apples at him and he trotted toward me. Star was entering springtime well fed with a healthy cover over his ribs.  We shared a few noisy moments of crunching trust.  Star risked closeness to a semi-stranger who shows up sporadically with treats, and me, with my hand carefully extended, with fingers safely out of reach from his vigorous big-as-thread-spool-size teeth, while Star chomped down in strong bite after bite four large apples.