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Monday, November 16, 2015

Laredo native directs "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl"

In movies, one of the first and most memorable women to die on film is Camille, a victim of tuberculosis. The movie is made more memorable by Greta Garbo's stunning luminance. 

Dying girls have been in stories since the time of gods and goddesses in Greece and long before. It's the definition of tragedy that someone has to die, and how much sadder and more tragic can it get than to have a beautiful girl die.

In the 1970's Ali McGraw played an iconic figure of a dying college girl in "Love Story," who left only a slightly less tragic grief-stricken boyfriend.

In 2015, the genre evolves with some welcome leavening and imagination in the new award winning film directed by borderlands native Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl," is a film about high school seniors who step with equal parts reluctance and courage from the high diving board of senior year into the mysterious pool of adulthood

The story is about Greg, a senior who has perfected the art of flying under the radar through his years in high school, avoiding becoming a member of any of the cliques that populate his school.  Greg's mission is to continue being invisible through his last semester of high school. Instead of looking forward to college, he's  nearly paralyzed about the new people and experiences that await. 

He has one friend, Earl, with whom he has made dozens of film parodies. His other friend, a girl, was recently forced on him by his persistent if not down right nagging mother.  She is a childhood friend who's been struck with leukemia and who he is forced to visit. Their awkwardness and friendship is as funny as it is poignant.

There is no love angle in this teen movie. However, to accompany Greg as he steps cautiously forward with the help of his two friends is a rare and unexpected pleasurable journey. 

"Me, Earl and the Dying Girl" shows what it means to fly out from under the radar with the help of your friends and embrace your own brand of awkward That's as succinct a recipe for growing up as I've ever seen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Voice of Guy v. Voice of God

Photo of Ira Glass, host of national radio series, "This American Life"

People of a certain age will easily remember the Voice of God. He was the assuring narrator of history and science films shown in schools in the 1950's into the seventies. 

Those deep pipes and stentorian tones were so calming, authoritative and necessary in the era of the Cold War when people took nuclear war threats so seriously that many families built backyard bomb shelters. 

At our Catholic grade school we prayed to defeat the evil Communists and learned how to drop-roll-and cover beneath our grade school desks. The Voice of God that narrated our weekly films said, "Whatever I say is true, and my serious, sober manner says, 'Trust me, I know'."

The story of how the melodious pipes of maturity left us for the media narrators we have today is one that's fun to explore. The reasons why the Voice of God morphed in the past 40 years from authority and confidence into relaxed, cool and collected Voice of Guy may be due to the arrival of inexpensive video tape cameras and recorders. Maybe it was the birth of the Internet era, where everyone is a broadcaster. It is part of the story of supply and demand for programs that flipped from scarce to limitless with the arrival of digital technology.

Voice-over narrations in podcasts today usually reflect a much more common man, though still male of gender and pale of complexion with few exceptions like James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman.

Another change is that today's media announcers usually represent a younger demographic. The Voice of Guy is more casual and youthful, reflecting the culture's young consumer orientation. Inflection in a sentence is rare. What is up with that? Are they expensive, or what?  Advertisers seeking sales and producers seeking ratings all gravitate toward "them that buys" or young people, for the sake of making money.

No doubt yet another style of speaking will become de moda in the future. Will it be an even younger version of the current hipster a la "This American Life"?

Or will history's twists and turns and world economy ups and downs require the return of the reassuring tone of a mature adult to comfort us again?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Hopes for Moving Forward From Ferguson

Television tells stories with pictures first and words second. In a world of disruptions, mortgage crisis, short-sells, derivatives and off-shore tax havens that are populated by ghostly characters who are hard to visualize, name or identify, Ferguson’s story is clear as black and white. It is easier to understand than climate change or the falling Euro.

We Americans have a history that is courageous, daring in human history and it is also complex. We financed our battles to end the rule of England with tobacco. We used slavery to grow our country and we fought the Civil War over slavery and whether to keep or end it. We cannot change the complicated past.

We cannot all even agree to what the past was yesterday, much less 150 years ago.

My modest proposal is that we move forward from Ferguson to a new future by taking time each year to focus on the past. I propose we create in our communities an annual day of grieving for racial injustices in our country’s history.

Whether the annual day of grieving is set up by religious groups or by civic or sports groups, what matters is that there be a space and time to mourn our losses under slavery and segregation. These are a part of our history and until we face them to mourn our collective losses, we will be bound to our history rather than to our futures.

Grieving about death, loss and hurts is a step toward healing. Being together to do so would offer us a time and place to pause, to lay our hearts down and give voice to the fear and grief that many of us have had to bear in silence for so long. When that day and night of grief is ended a new day will dawn. The grieving won't be ended but we might be transformed. 

Next year we can return to continue grieving for a day and then begin again.

In the Catholic traditions of Mexico, a death of a family member is followed by nine days of praying the rosary. The space and time are important for the departed soul as for those who are left to grieve.

Grief may be the doorway to a new way of defining ourselves with hope and connection, even if it means starting with tears and sorrow. Tears of sadness are expressions of our humanity that exceed the capacity of words.

For many Americans, moving forward from the scars of the Civil War and the eras of racism that mark our histories in the United States may only be possible by expressing our grief.

Will the day afterward allow us to move forward and leave the past behind? Will our grief relieve our hurt?

It’s not something we can know until we do it, but I believe it is worth trying. We’ve tried not doing anything for 150 years. We do know those results.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Writing Songs...Questions From 50 Years Ago Finally Answered!

I wonder if John Lennon and Paul McCartney ever considered higher education, and if they had, what their majors would have been? 

I'm betting they would have skipped Organic Chemistry and opted for Humanities.  I do know is the world is a better place because of their love of music, and also of words to accompany their compositions. 

Steven Turner's 2009 book, The Beatles A Hard Day's Write is a great surprise and source of delight for a light summer read. 

It's helping me to understand some of my favorite Beatles songs and how they were written, if not in musical terms, but in the context of their experiences as creative artists. When they were influenced to write in the style of Bob Dylan or the Beach Boys, for example. One of my favorite songs from the 60's is "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, a poem of music and words that introduced me to a depth in expression I had never experienced. I had also read earlier of the Beach Boys' efforts to write music such as in their phenomenal album, Pet Sounds to meet the challenge of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album.

This led me to wonder how artists create, sometimes in response to each others' work. Does the artistry of one artist challenge or diminish the spark in another artist? What are some ways to face another person's critical success? The answers to these questions are complex, to be sure.  In this book I learned that the Beatles, like the Beach Boys, also created in part in response to not only what they experienced, but what other bands were producing. The Beach Boys might have been happy to learn that songs from Pet Sounds, in turn, inspired the Beatles to write "Across the Universe", a beguiling song that has even more meaning to me now that I know a bit of its creation story. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sea Mas Discreta, Señora

National Public Radio recently ran a story by Carrie Kahn, a journalist who covers Mexico news. She worked at the PBS station in San Diego when I had the pleasure of meeting her about 20 years ago while working for a PBS documentary series. The radio report is about Mexican cops, corruption and the use of cameras on officers to help put a stop to bribes from both police and citizens who initiate bribes. 

Corruption is a hot topic, and as Carrie Kahn's story details, the videos produced by the cameras promise to be interesting. 

There are two kinds of sin, venial and mortal. So too with corruption, there are two kinds. The goldfish kind and the shark kind. One you could swallow, the other could swallow you.

My experience with Mexican cops and corruption has been favorable, fortunately. I was once stopped by a traffic cop in a small Mexican town en route to Zacatecas and was given a police escort to the highway. That's how lost we were, or how quickly they wanted us off their streets.  Another time I was stopped for speeding when I was sure I was not driving over the speed limit and felt that I was targeted for being American. I thought I'd try to avoid the ticket and hassle by appealing to the cop's sense of guilt. I said, "So you see an American license plate and think this is easy money. Let me stop them." It worked, and he let me go on my way. I really believe I was channeling my Mom, who could argue her way out of a ticket with the ease of a seasoned actor. She once was pulled over for speeding and told the officer, "Look, son, I've got no time for this, I'm in a hurry, can't you see?" We have the traffic cop angel working overtime in my family. 

On our way to Cuatro Cienegas, ten years ago, just west of Eagle Pass we were at the border to get our car permit when someone in our group didn't have a car title, which was required. Getting a copy faxed from San Antonio was our only option to calling off the whole trip. The fax was delayed in coming and the delay went on for about two hours before one of us had the brainy idea it was never going to come unless we helped it with some extra cash. I was elected to attempt the transaction, but I shouldn't have accepted the job. I was already put out from the too-long wait and my usual affable nature was reduced to something less than. But as the only native Spanish speaker in the group, I seemed the logical choice. I stood before the customs agent and asked if our fax had arrived and he said it had not. I pulled the $20 bill my friend had handed me from my wallet and placed it on the counter. He bolted forward and said "!Señora, sea mas discreta!" urgently requesting that I be more discrete with my display of cash. He took the bill, despite my lack of discretion. The required fax magically arrived and our journey into Mexico proceeded with no further delays or need for discretion of any kind.

Friday, February 13, 2015

David Carr Will Be Missed as a Media and Culture Commentator

I will bet there are few historical documentaries as interesting and accurate as Participant Media's, Page One: Inside the New York Times, which chronicles the changes to the industry brought by the Internet. 

The other reason for loving this documentary is getting to know David Carr, the Time's reporter whose beat was the media. His story is amazing in its own right.

David Carr passed away yesterday, in the newsroom where he spent most of his career. I call that dying "with your boots on," which is the way I would hope to pass from this world onto the "next edition."  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

High standard to live up to, but that’s how good it was at this home.

Diana Canavati Jacaman
Nov. 19, 1935 - Dec. 19, 2014
(November 19, 1935 - December 19, 2014)
Diana “Senior” and I are a story in and of itself, but that is secondary to the story of Diana and the world. The family she and her husband, Curly brought to the world, and those like me who were welcomed to sit like family at the table of their home: sons and daughters in law, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and friends of friends, all made to feel welcome at the Jacaman home. 

It didn't matter whoever you were, whoever your parents were, or wherever you came from. Do you want a cup of coffee? Are you hungry? Did you hear this joke that I’m going to tell you. Wait, sit down. How do you like your coffee? How are things going, what’s new?

At my house the sound level was low. There was the sound of some TV, pots and pans, the occasional “ven a comer, ya esta lista la cena!” The phone rang once or twice a day, the door bell rang two or three times a week.

At the Jacaman’s this was multiplied by at least ten and the volume was double the decibel, and this was day after day.

The sounds of cooking, music, phone ringing, joke telling, laughing and teasing was amplified at Diana Senior's home, such that life was amplified, love was amplified. If you were looking for a friend, you found that, and more. You found a cup of coffee and a cigarette. You would crack up over a joke that you would repeat to everyone for the next three days. When you finally left Diana and Curly's, you would take with you a delicious embrace of friendship and acceptance that would be carried and remembered for three decades and another, and if my experience is any measure, for a lifetime. It’s what you carried into new relationships as a measure of what is good and possible. Sure it's a high standard to live up to, but that’s how good it was. 

Diana Senior, I remember your bowling championships, your piano lessons from the (we thought ancient then) mother and daughter teachers who were so scarred by their history in Eastern Europe that they hid bread rolls from your table in their coats. I remember your choir classes at the college, and all the charities you gave money to, including my own graduate studies. I watched in admiration as you took up oil painting and creative and beautiful collage. You shared with me your love of music, introducing me to Anna Moffo's arias, which are probably the most played on my ITunes playlist to this very day.  

I sat at your table and enjoyed the best dishes from your native Palestine. Your daughters friends and you sat and talked, trying to make sense of this world in countless conversations. Sometimes we just laughed, and sometimes we just gave up and sighed in frustration over some topic that stumped us. The world outside your doors might have been filled with the 1960's and 70's news of wars and corrupt politicians, but inside there was the security of your graciousness, generosity and a cheerful dose of "let's not take anything too seriously" philosophy.  I'll never forget how you stood by your kitchen counter and, invoking your inner Shirley Bassey, you sang at the top of your lungs"This is my house and I don't give a damn!" But, of course, you did give a damn. About the important things: Thank you for the laughter and joy that was your religion as much as your Catholocism. Thank you for translating Christ's love into your daily interactions, for modeling what it is to be a woman, and for accepting and “getting us” Diana Senior, all of the friends of your children that came over to your house. Thank you, and of course, for 'getting me'. For this I’ll be forever grateful. 

I will also always attempt to carry with me that high standard of love and generosity I encountered always at your home, and hopefully reaching it in my own home when I offer the cup of coffee and welcome to a stranger in the same way that you generously offered these to me.