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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From Frenemy to Collaborator

Me as feral cat in protective gear. 

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert asserts that creativity is a spirit from another world. She says it is a spirit that seeks a relationship with creative people in order to bring life to ideas and notions. 

The idea that my brain and body would be host to another being, even in the pursuit of something hopeful and good, makes me resort to old habits of looking squinty-eyed and distrustfully at something so foreign. 

My whole life I've never studied creativity but seen it as evasive or as accidental, in the manner of a frenemy, someone you know but whom you criticize as much as you like. 
It's a perfect 50-50 split, equal parts love and doubt. You never know whether she will show up, so you stop inviting her over to the house after school to fly kites or play with the neighborhood kids. 

Where I learned to distrust creativity's on and off reliability was where I also learned to lean into fear, where safety and security scored points over trying something new, the same neighborhood where protective hiding and don't-make-waves also lived.

So, it is very interesting to dust off old patterns and take Gilbert's approach for a test drive. 

Here's how she says creativity works. She says it wants a baby momma. Creativity wants a relationship. If I'm in, then that means I make manifest in the world the stories, videos, instructional methods that creativity brings, as she is unable to give birth to this baby or any other on her own. 

Here's what it looks like. She sits beside you and tries to get your attention. Creativity is the nudge to pursue an idea with just one action today instead of ignoring it again for another four hours of brain-mushing streaming TV. It's the courage to call someone who knows someone who knows an agent for help in sharing Tina Tijerina, my young adult first novel, with an audience. It is the moxie to fill a few pages not sure where anything is going and knowing that "it's only words and words are all I have," to make use of an ancient Bee Gee's song lyric. 

Here's what creativity is not. Creativity is not perfection or mastery, says Gilbert. It is learning to get things done, 'to ship' on time and under budget, instead of stalling. 

Gilbert explains, "The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to cultivate quite the opposite: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass." 

The way I've treated creativity, I might have to start all over, as from the beginning. I haven't even shaken hands with her yet, just circled around like a feral cat. My approach has been good carpentry skills for simple, sound, serviceable English, and sometimes Spanish, to tell a tale that I chase around a room for two or three years like a detective extracting a confession.

But now that I know creativity is waiting at my door to be let in, I'm ready to admit I've been wrong, that the going has been bumpy and that I'm ready for a relationship that's more trusting. 

For all of my life there was no mental model for creativity available to me like the one Gilbert describes. Not when I started journaling and writing poetry, working as a junior high and high school reporter and editor, while working in broadcast journalism, academia, or any of the other jobs I had each requiring writing as a primary skill. 

But now I do and I look forward to a relationship with creativity that is equally satisfying to her as it is to me, host to a mysterious spirit who needs me as much as I need her. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017


This week I took a break from the normal teeth gnashing about how weird the political scene has become.  After several face to face long and animated discussions I feel we will work our way to a stronger place, and that's something to be grateful about. That's a topic I can always use a refresher course on.

I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert on You Tube videos during several rides to and from the college and was reminded about a story she recounted in her book, Big Magic about advice from Werner Hertzog to a filmmaker who wrote to him complaining about how "difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is  to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood, etc.," 

Gilbert recounts that the complaining filmmaker received a letter from Herzog saying, "Quit your complaining. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to be an artist. It's not the world's job to enjoy the films you make, and it's not the world's obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work."

Thanks, Werner. Your words are just what I needed to hear. 

Tomorrow I set out to record an interview with a dear colleague and friend. 

I'll use my Ipad (since I didn't need to steal a camera) with my trusty new Ipad holder that connects safely to my tripod. I'll use my new microphone and my 20 year old still functioning light kit

I'll be recording my friend at her home about the pivotal times in her life, the moments that mean the most in terms of wisdom and importance. I hope to upload the interview to Story Corps to have it archived in the Library of Congress and available to my friend's family for generations to come.  

I am excited and looking forward to the visit tomorrow. I'm reminded of the joys that are inherent to all making, whether it's in designing effective instruction, novel writing, shooting video or editing.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Two Windows to the Borderlands

Homesteaders is a poem by 2013 Texas Laureate Poet and longtime San Antonio treasure, Rosemary Catacalos. 

Last night I heard the poem performed in a concert with the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio in St. Mark's Church during a performance of Ballads of the Borderland by composer Ethan Wickman, another local treasure. 

They came for the water,
came to its sleeping place
here in the bed of an old sea,
the dream of the water.
They sank hand and tool into

soil where the bubble of springs
gave off hope, fresh and long,

the song of the water.
Babies and crops ripened

where they settled,
where they married their sweat

in the ancient wedding,
the blessing of the water.

They made houses of limestone
and adobe, locked together blocks

descended from shells and coral,
houses of the bones of the water,

shelter of the water.
And they swallowed the life

of the lime in the water,
sucked its mineral up

into their own bones
which grew strong as the water,

the gift of the water.
All along the counties they lay,

mouth to mouth with the water,
fattened in the smile of the water,

the light of the water,

water flushed pure through the
spine and ribs of the birth of life,

the old ocean,

the stone,
the home of the water.

Rosemary Catacalos—from Again For the First Time, 1984 and 2013, Wings Press.

After reading or hearing this poem, it may be jarring, but also interesting and possibly insightful to watch this brief video of the borderlands.

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.