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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. 

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.