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Friday, February 17, 2017

A story about a Texas tragedy and Texas-size heroic responses

In my Mass Communication classes this week we studied the evolution of visual art and the role of editing in film. We studied the introduction of parallel editing in films with the first film to introduce cutting from one location and time to another place and time with editing, "The Great Train Robbery" made in 1904.

My hope was to introduce the idea to students that what we see today in 2017 will be as radically different one hundred or so years from now as our comparison of today's films to those made in the early years of cinema. My goal is to spark the idea that any one of us can be the next Gutenberg or the next Tarantino. 

With this mindset of evolution of images and how they are portrayed, I sat down last night to watch The Tower. I confess I was skeptical of how an animation approach to the telling of this tragic story would work. I was surprised at how well the story told with interviews, found footage, images, news film and audio, including music and how all the elements were improved by the animation that dominated the documentary.

Animation used in this manner is an important step for  both visual evolution and in the long trajectory of storytelling among us humans.

As for the impact of the documentary on me, it is hard to convey how deeply I was moved by the heroism shown by numerous men and women who acted with courage to help victims of the shooter, specifically to run towards the danger instead of running from it as most people, including, I am sure myself.

Documentaries like The Tower can serve to remind us less of the tragic madness of a shooter and what they did, but more about the response shown by regular folks: The bravery and heroism shown by an employee of the Co-op and numerous Austin police officers, especially Rudy Martinez, an off duty officer responsible for stopping the shooter who was the first Chicano to become a Texas Ranger. There were also college students like Rita Starpattern, who comforted and helped the victims while risking their own lives and Neal Spelce, a TV news reporter who kept the community and nation informed.

Documentaries can also break the silence held about a tragedy such as this by allowing victims of the shootings and witnesses to finally, after 50 years, be able speak about their roles and memories. In this way, they  help the rest of us face not only the awful unspeakable horrors of the day 16 people died and 36 were shot, but also be reminded of the response from those of us blessed with bravery that is as mysterious as genius. 

Still, I wonder about the  strength of the silence that I encountered at KTBC TV, with my brief connection with the event. 

Just eleven years after the tragic day in August, 1966 in Austin, I worked as a videographer for the same TV newsroom that Neal Spelce, anchor and reporter supervised during the attack. I met Mr. Spelce numerous times yet only knew of his work as an advertising executive in Austin. No one in the newsroom during those two years that I worked there ever spoke about the Tower or the role of Spelce in broadcasting to the world from the shadow of the building. 

I appreciate the role of media to make possible a greater understanding of our shared humanity and courage. It helps in dealing with the darkness that the shooter represents. The documentary and the story it tells helps me work my way through the questions events like this prompt in us. Is there a more important role possible for media to perform?


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Of dinosaurs and donkeys

A two-hour hike from here, Cabo Espichel is the site where centuries ago, Portuguese fishermen discovered the footprints of a strange beast spanning 20 feet of calcified mud. Having not yet heard of dinosaurs, they saw them as evidence of the miracle of Mary, our Lady of the Sea, emerging  from the ocean with the baby Jesus in her arms, riding--what else, but a donkey.

Never mind the difference in size of hooves, or, take your pick of any number of valid questions. That's the story that took hold, and it has prevailed for nearly a thousand years on this craggy cliff overlooking the churning Atlantic.

After our nearly four mile hike to Cabo Espichel from our cottage at Slow Living Glamping, we ate a most rewarding lunch of clams in butter and garlic with hearty bread and scallops Viera au gratin prepared in tomato, whisky and cream.

After lunch we passed the church's now empty dormitories, built in phases between 1715-1910, for the religious pilgrims who used to journey to the site.  In 1366 a hermitage was built next to the church. It is still standing.

We rested inside the cool, medium sized church built on the promontory overlooking the spot where the Virgin was said to have arrived. The church was built in 1710 with an altar covered in gold leaf with a wooden statue of Mary carrying Jesus. The faces are porcelain and the sculptor created her long skirt with waves of flowing movement. The ceiling frescoes show people in everyday work scenes.

Long before the more famous miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes, believers in Portugal came here, prayed and lit candles for loved ones. As I write this a mass is being said in the active parish that still exists there.

What does a set of dinosaur footprints conjure in our 21st century minds? What images from scientific books or TV and movies inform our present day ideas about these tracks?  What will remain 1,000 years from now of what we think? Probably nothing, but the fossil tracks in the mud at the foot of a Portuguese promontory are a good reminder of the power of story. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Identity Anti-Crisis


Photos show the me this year and many years ago. I still love cats and remain the same spirit I remember being when I held my first tom, Kitty, for this snapshot.


Something tells me 62 is gonna be a good year.

As the birthday week approached I became more introspective than usual. Fortunately, I found that I encountered people, posts, blogs and other messages that helped to shape the questions forming in my soon-to-be-62-year-old self.  

The year behind me had been a big one. With health issues for myself and for my brother, I've had more than my share of reason to think BIG idea thoughts such as:

"What is life about?" 

"What have I done to contribute to a better world?" and, more importantly:

"What changes can I make to make my time ahead, whatever the length, purposeful?"

You Can't Kill Me. I'm an idea. 

While traveling this summer in Portugal with so many cultures and eras of history at hand, then later encountering the same in New Mexico, I kept studying the question, "What is identity?" Is identity formed and dominated by one factor, such as gender, ethnicity and culture, orientation, political leanings, musical tastes?

It was enough just to ask the question, because several events in this summer's violence unraveled enough information for me to consider.

The attack on the Orlando nightclub caused one of my close pals to write saying he had decided to arm himself from now on, since he had once been physically threatened leaving a gay nightclub in New Orleans, and the tragedy of Orlando caused him to once again feel threatened.

I thought about his decision and considered the choice right for him. He is a long-time hunter with years of experience handling guns and rifles. Should I try to follow suit, or do I need another approach? 

Soon after the Orlando attack, NPR interviewed a man who had been at the gay nightclub on the long night of terror, but who had left the club only a few minutes before the attack.

His interview concluded with a solution to another question roiling in my mind, "How does this attack on my identity and sexual orientation affect me?"

SHAPIRO: See you lost maybe five friends that night.
MELTZER: Five and one acquaintance that was injured. I just got word that he's doing really well in the hospital after surgery, so that's happy news.
SHAPIRO: The first time you see him, what are you going to say?
MELTZER: I'll ask him, when are we going out again? That's what I'll say.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter).
MELTZER: That's what I'll say. I'll say, when are we going to go have martinis again?
SHAPIRO: There are going to be people listening somewhere in America who will hear that and say, what are you, crazy?
MELTZER: No, I'm not crazy. I'm just not going to subscribe to fear. We're a strong community. You know, we're gay men....we live in a world where we get a lot of hate. We take a lot of hate. And we know how the world feels about us. And we're strong people because we live in a world that wasn't made for us. And if tomorrow somebody took over this country and said, we're going to kill all the gays, I will be the first one in that square saying, shoot me with my big flag all over the place because I would rather die for what I stand for. You can't kill me. I'm an idea, I'm timeless.

The entire interview is here:

"Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?"

The sniper's killing of police in Dallas followed the Orlando and Istanbul airport attacks and more U.S. police killings of African Americans detained for routine reasons. This after numerous deaths of Blacks at the hands of law officers this past year. The news of police abuse of African Americans filled the airwaves and set off protests around the country. I watched anxiously as grand juries returned many officers to work without punishment. 

Social media reflected the rage over race in ways that reminded me of the riots in the 1960's.  It seemed that we had gone even farther back in time to the Civil War when the Mason Dixon Line divided our country. This time the line was drawn between those Americans who were "either or" with no shades in between: Either pro-Police or pro-Black Lives Matter. 

Our divisions only underscored our inability to communicate. When I thought back as to why the rift seemed insurmountable, I remembered a documentary interview I had with a professor from University of Texas at San Antonio in the 1990's on code-switching and other phenomena connected with speaking two languages. He explained the paradox of being bilingual or monolingual is that we are basically unknowable to each other.  A bilingual person himself, he explained his studies had taught him it was nearly impossible for a monolingual person to understand what being bilingual is.  Conversely, it's just as hard for a bilingual person to understand what it is to be monolingual.  It's not out of purposefully being contrary or ignorant, but the results are similar. 

Over the years I've felt the same rift between bi-culturals and monoculturals. Or, between those who like country music versus those who follow electronic.

Thankfully where some only see lines of division, others see opportunity to ask fresh questions. I was blown away by this 2015 video that recently appeared on my Facebook feed that asked "Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?"

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete."

The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, who spoke in a 2009 TED Talk described her frustration with the "single story" she was met with and the stereotypes it produced when she came the United States to study as a young woman. She said, "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." The solution she proposed is to have a "balance" of stories, numerous stories that create a better representation.

The more I thought about identity, the thornier the problem appeared to me. Was I first an American and then a female? Was I first a woman, then a person with a sexual orientation? First a Chicana, followed by nationality?

The (wo)man in the mirror.

I carried these questions all summer and felt relief when I realized my separations had been false all along. I only had to look in the mirror to see why Was I a brain first, followed by a heart or liver? Of course not. Wouldn't my brain bake dry without my heart or lungs or kidneys? 

Any human is a balance of identities, just as they are a balance of biology.  The little girl that became the woman in her sixties is not one story, and neither is anyone else. 

I don't need to rush to judgement and grab at the first story when I encounter someone different than me. I can give us both the time necessary to see beyond the headlines, the click-bait and resist the impulse to move on to the next thing.  

In fact, slowing down and listening may be the best way to keep from seeing them as a single story-- and it may also be the best way to ensure that when they meet me, they also see more than one story  



Thursday, June 2, 2016

A hotdog with a history

Our young Spanish hostess at the cottage where we are staying, Marta, said her reaction was the same as mine when she first tasted Alheira, the Portuguese sausage I didn't know I was waiting for all my life.

Two weeks earlier, tired after walking uphill for six hours, our small group of travelers was thirsty and hungry, too. We stopped in the only open cafe, Pappas Zaide, in the village of Provesende, high in the Douro wine valley. The owner and her helper took one look at us and asked, since it was late in the day and the kitchen was closing, if a few tapas and wine would be alright. We were relieved to not be turned away. In about 20 minutes they set out cold drinks, wines, cold meats, cheeses and bread, olives and a platter of crisp, fried slices of sausage. We consumed the tapas like plague locusts, stopping only long enough to ask them to prepare us two more servings of the sausage, which we all liked but could not remember ever having tasted before.

That's how love is, immediate and bewitching: The cooks among us started deconstructing the internal workings of the sausage as though we had unearthed an ancient timepiece.  "It has pork!" "No, it's got chicken!" "Wait, is this bread?" 

It turns out our family and friends tour of Portugal has been marked by discoveries of fabulously warm people, natural beauty, history, art, fine port, muscatel, red and white wine, music and singing, but the heart loves what it loves. For me, the magic began with the sausage named Alheira.

The restaurant owner at Pappas Zaide, Grazza, patiently explained how she prepares Alheira, starting with cooking poultry, beef and pork together with onion and spices, adding bread to the blended meats, then smoking the sausage for two days. At Pappas Zaide, they fry the sausage and slice it, but in our next encounter with Alheira, we had it sautéed and the meat was chopped more finely. We approved. Our third time to have Alheira was at the outdoor restaurant at the Fado museum in Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood. The casing was removed and the sausage was then deep fried and served as a curled link surrounding a fried egg in a copper bowl straight from the grill. We approved some more.

At each place we had Alheira, the recipe was altered. But it would be days before I learned of Alheira's important origins.

Serving us a plate of Alheira taken from the wood-fired grill just after arriving here at the cottage, David, our host, explained that Alheira was a life-saving invention for Portuguese Jews. During the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews left Spain for Portugal.  Over time, the persecution spread to the cities, so many Jews fled to the countryside. The military would travel into villages to search for Jewish families, which they could identify as suspicious and different from Catholic homes, because there were no hanging sausages in the doorways of Jewish homes. In an effort to fool the military patrols, Jewish cooks created the first porkless sausage, Alheira, containing beef, poultry and bread substituting for pork. They hung links of Alheira outside their doorways, making their homes appear the same as any other. Not every food can claim a creation story of such importance.

Nature talks to us through our senses

The light. On this still day the light is like a canopy of Mother Cabrini church blue. A sparrow flits from the roof to the garden. Planes pass overhead landing and leaving Lisbon making sharp contrails that linger into soft reminders. The ocean is azure blue with flecks of topaz and diamonds.

The audio soundtrack.  I perceive in stereo chittering birds calling to each other from one end of the grove of pines to the other. There's a triller. Now one that whistles. This morning we heard the grouse but could never spy them. The calls are varied. I can patch together a pattern, but it vanishes as soon as it appears. Chittering, trilling and loudest of all, insistent high-pitched scrapings from babies in their nests calling for their lunch.

Aromas. Our host gallops across the yard from the garden with a large red onion and a beet he presents for a future salad. Fresh from the earth's embrace they carry aromas born in the marriage of the garden to the sun and rain.  On our walk we passed the heated pine and inhaled the musky perfume. We retraced our steps to pause under the shade to drink in the perfume again, but it had flown away. Wild Spanish lavender, thyme, honeysuckle, other herbs unknown call out their aromas as we brush past them with our shoes, our socks and pants legs. From the stove herbs mingle with our rotisserie chicken leftovers from lunch to make new aromas predicting soups to come.

Touch. The sharp, impenetrable gorse that clumps like boulders along our path keeps all but the lizards from entering. The rocks are rough, save for the ones we saw far below us,  big as watermelons, tumbling to smoothness in the ocean's tango dance with the shore, flirting in her dress of scalloped hem.  Silty sand along the paths of our walk from our cottage to the cliffs above the ocean, sand that wizards I've never thanked in person not long ago transformed into the face of this device of ones and zeroes with which I write, my finger tip firm as it taps making corrections five times every three words  drunk as I am with pleasure.

Taste. Dark and potent coffee, water, clear and cool, fresh sheep's cheese on village made bread that your teeth have to tug at to convince admittance. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Tale of Two IPads

At 1:30 in the morning the younger brother makes a phone call to a friend who may know where two American women might be staying in the Alfama neighborhood where his store is located in Lisbon.  He apologizes for waking him and explains he is trying to contact the two American women who stopped by his family's neighborhood store for a carton of milk about ten that night and accidentally left behind an IPad.

By the time we discover the iPad is missing, it's almost nine in the morning and the younger brother is still trying to locate us. Inside the cover of the IPad he as found a handwritten note with a telephone number. He phoned the number in Porto where we stayed earlier in the week at an AirBnb. While I walked the three blocks to see if the IPad was at his store, our host in Porto texted Susie to tell her the IPad had been found. I left my phone behind in the apartment, so I didn't know the IPad was located.

I show him my IPad as I walk in from the narrow, busy street. He smiles and says he has the missing one, but to please wait five minutes for his brother. He says his brother will need to talk with me to be sure the iPad belongs to me. 

A street repairman buys a carton of orange juice and a bottle of wine. Two Spanish tourists need supplies for breakfast. An American doesn't have enough money for both toothpaste and a toothbrush, and the younger brother behind the cash register says "It's OK." The American promises to return. 

Then the older brother walks up the street carrying apricots and tomatoes to place by the doorway. I had bought a half dozen apricots from him on our way home two nights ago. 

After a few more customers are helped, the brothers turn to me and In their limited English and my equally poor Portuguese we start chatting. I show them my IPad again. The older one says they had tried reaching us. I thank him. I ask if he'll accept some Euros in thanks. He shakes his head and asks,"You have two IPads?"  "We do," I answer. "We were very worried. Thank you for keeping it." 

He hands me the missing IPad and I press the money into his hand and hug his shoulders gently. He smiles briefly and says, "We are Muslim. We are not thieves." 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Lunch of a lifetime

Our Tuk Tuk Fun Tours driver Joaquim, a world traveler, like his Portuguese ancestors, took us to his favorite restaurant Adega das Merces, to eat lunch today after our first day touring the neighborhoods and 2300 years of Lisboa: 

Served family style with ample wines:

Bread with butter and sardine pate and tuna pate

Two mixed salads with marinated onions and grilled peppers

Salad with peppers and onions

Fried, flattened and marinated then breaded sardines
The size of a small saucer

Rice with fish and shrimp, tomato and cilantro

Bacalao cod fritters with green rice with greens in strips and onions

Pork like carnitas in clam broth with Manila clams, topped with crisp French fries

Chicken cooked in its blood, in rice

Fresh cod stew with potatoes