Friday, March 23, 2018

A Nauseous Anniversary

What follows here are some sentences. Some will be short and uncomplicated. A few will be long, complex, and angry.

Before I vent some opprobrium, I reflect with respect on a local kid, a hometown war hero who won a gold medal with the U.S. Paralympic team at the winter games in PyeongChang, South Korea last weekend.

There is a good deal of pride in this community for a most impressive and determined man.

The call to service is unmistakable to those who feel it, and in that chapter of my life when I felt it and looked up my local Navy recruiter, what stopped me was the awful knowledge of what my country does with those who are drawn to serve. This was the era of the Panama invasion and the Persian Gulf War, when I was using my time in college to learn about the middle-east and our relationships with dictators around the world as well as monarchs in oil states.

Instead of joining the Navy, I interned at War Resisters League and got involved in political organizing. Service takes various forms.

However much I condemn the imperial violence of my country of birth, among the finest people I've met are some who signed up to serve without cynicism or guile, with a sincere belief in service.

To see the state deploy those led by such admirable notions, for base ends, roils my blood.

Like this young man in Deming who now competes with distinction in the paralympics.

Like a man I knew at Trinity Rep, a Persian Gulf War vet who uses theatre to help other combat veterans heal and thrive.

Like the man I met who survived the siege of Fallujah - the few things he was willing to describe made me terrified for what he didn't.

Like men and women I have met after performing An Iliad, who have paid me the honor of sharing some of themselves, where they had been and of their homecomings.

People who deserve their own individual sentences and much more.

George W. Bush took this local son, the one who "medalled" last weekend, a youth who had pledged his physical strength and intellectual alacrity to serve his country, and George W. Bush sent that young man to Iraq where a grenade changed his life but happily did not end it.

Yes, the Iraq War, this pox on the world, whose 15th anniversary passed this week without fanfare, a most nauseous anniversary in remembrance of a war built on lies, an illegal war of aggression supported by Democrats as well as Republicans, a "decision point" (to use a W-esque phrase) with economic, social, and ecological consequences that will touch generations yet unborn, that destabilized a region already tormented and paved a doctrine of endless war and the American executive's right to wage death as it pleases without meaningful Congressional oversight, popular support, without even taxation to pay for it (the Iraq War being funded through deficit spending), the policy we have to thank for ISIS and the legitimization of extremists who still advise presidents and give well-attended and well-compensated speeches about how to rule the world.

Yes, that was one sentence. I can only speak of this war in long sentences with clauses stacking my outrage like spent nuclear rods glowing poison.

When George W. Bush is trotted out to chat about his paintings instead of being cuffed and sent to the Hague to answer for what he has done to the planet, when Condi Rice or other figures from that administration are treated like honorable people instead of notorious war criminals and apologists for torture worthy only of public shame, when the Democrats who voted for that war and defended their votes for years are still spoken of as somehow being desirable candidates for the Presidency, I feel glowing hot bile in my throat for all the young men and women whose good faith and notions of service were put to such "use."

Yep, that was another really long sentence. If you read it out loud, spikes may shoot out of it, like a literary goathead. Such is the language I would hurl in the presence of those who pushed this policy. That's how much disdain I feel for the officials of that era. May shame leech on them and the leeches turn into hundreds of little screens playing biographical movies singing the stories of all the people who lost lives, families, communities and society, and personal opportunity for imperial aims, and all those paying the check for that policy even today. 

Damn them all. Shame them out of public service. Why do we play along with the notion that these are respectable and trustworthy statesmen and public servants?

Throw tomatoes at them. It's not like they'll lose their limbs or anything.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Protests and delinquency

There were no #Enough student walkouts in Deming on Wednesday, because the district is on spring break.

As I addressed in this week's Desert Sage column, students met with administration and have opted to write to legislators on their own and maybe stage some sort of event after break.

One member of Deming's Board of Education, Sophia Cruz, summed up her thoughts about student protests around the country by collectively describing students who participate in them as "delinquents." She did this in a public Facebook comment to the Deming Headlight's presence there:

I have not had an opportunity to ask Ms. Cruz about her views in more detail. She shared a link to a story about Aztec High School students engaging in a "non-political" alternative. In my column, again, I am suspicious of the notion of a "non-political" approach to a problem that is rooted in social disarray and injustice.

Sadly, some of the more prominent student activists from Parkland, Florida are being called worse things than "delinquents" and are actually receiving death threats. One of our country's odd contradictions is that for all our sanctimonious talk about our freedoms and how this proves we are exceptional, Americans tend to disparage acts of civil protest, villainize movements, and punish (or even assassinate) its effective leaders.

But who is "delinquent?" Is it the student who regards herself as a person worthy of consideration and entitled to some say in the conditions of her school environment, who believes she is entitled to speak to her elders about her own safety and happiness, who maybe understands that active citizenship means speaking up and standing on a humane principle?

Or could it be that society is delinquent, that its leaders have allowed it to deteriorate, to the point where teenagers are required to spend their business days in institutions where they do not feel safe from the presence of anti-personnel weapons even as they are systematically prepped to fill in bubbles on standardized tests, trained to think in multiple-choice sets rather than intellectual exploration, because all their schools see in them are tomorrow's employees, soldiers, and jurors?

Maybe they see that a few of their peers, who go to elite schools (like I did), get a more humanistic education and feel they deserve that, too.

Or, if not that, at least not to have to spend every day in grim buildings that often resemble prisons and even more closely as society discusses closed campuses, additional armed guards, law enforcement, and even armed teachers.

Maybe some view these options as building a tinderbox while allowing the underlying societal desperation to continue. We argue about guns but say nothing about economic misery, hunger, addiction, crumbling infrastructure, and human alienation from work or culture.

We address our sinking ship by pouring gasoline on the furniture.

That, to my mind, is the true delinquency. Not some students taking half an hour away from business as usual to express themselves as engaged citizens. I wonder only that their education did not manage to stomp that spirit out of them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

So help me, Monotheistic Entity

My job requires me to attend public meetings where people stand up and say things to flags.

Last night was our monthly city council meeting, where our newly re-elected Mayor took the oath of office along with two council members who were re-elected without opposition.

The oath concludes the vow with "So help me God," and thus I noted once again that our entrance fee to civic life is affirming belief in a deity.

When I recite the pledge of allegiance (which essentially began as copy for an advertising campaign) I omit the words "under God" (added during the Eisenhower Administration to distinguish us Americans from godless commies - I guess that showed them).

I do not assent that my citizenship requires taking a side on the question of whether anybody's flying spaghetti monster exists.

No one has called me on the omission, and as for the rest, I don't mind participating in a brief secular rite and paying respect to a symbol of the republic.

Yet is not a little monotheistic white lie simply the glue that holds society together? I question this, friends, though that is what we have been told.

The Supreme Court punted on this when a test case came before them, and it got kicked around in lower courts. The last ruling (in 2010) held that it doesn't establish religion to pressure people into saying they believe in an almighty God.

Well, it certainly appears to establish something.

Those of us who attempt to engage conversation about this are usually told that by talking about God, we aren't actually expressing a religious idea. We are told this is simply paying respect to tradition. The nation was founded, we are told, by people who believed in God.

(Not all of them, friend. The range of religious belief amid the revolutionary generation was diverse and complex and included non-theists. Thomas Paine may have been unusually outspoken about this for his time, but his critical views of religion were not alien to his generation.)

The little reminders of Judeo-Christian dominance that are everywhere, like "In God We Trust" being written on our coins, are actually used to argue that God doesn't really mean God, it means an idea of God, an idea that there is an authority higher than the Constitution that gives the Constitution its legitimacy. Because human legitimacy is not enough, I suppose.

None of this strikes me as persuasive. If I am in a social situation where I feel obligated to affirm the existence of a God in order to play along and behave like a citizen, then a particular religious belief is being established. It serves no practical purpose whatsoever. Let us recite secular oaths in the legislature and leave people to exercise their religious liberty on their own.

Anyway, we all got up and spoke to the American flag. We skipped the pledge to the New Mexico flag, which I rather like - a brief statement affirming friendship between united cultures. I haven't yet grasped which entities say the New Mexico pledge and when. I know they do it in school every day, in two languages. Flags get a lot of attention around here.

Anyway, the officers put their hand on a book and recited an oath that sounded secular enough - promising to uphold laws - and then the religious button at the end. I suspected the book was a Bible. I texted one of the council members and asked if that was so, and he wrote back that it was indeed, hadn't I noticed him getting burned?

I answered: "That's because God wants secular democracy."

I have heard of cases where officers requested to put their hand on a United States Constitution rather than a Bible, which seems more fitting. If, however, I am asked to consider "God" not as God but as a token of tradition that is the basis for our laws, then I affirm the following:

In the exceedingly unlikely event I am ever sworn into public office, I will insist on placing my hand not on a Bible, nor on the measly American Constitution, but on full-size stone tablets like the ones revealed to Moses.

And concluding my oath, I will turn to the assembly and recite, from Plutarch:

Let us begin with a prayer to Lord Zeus, the son of Cronus,
That he may grant these laws good fortune and acclaim.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Tale of Two Panchos

From left, Francisco Villa Campa and Rafael Celestino at Columbus Elementary School

Sometimes a great lede falls into your lap.

We do not do much breaking news reporting in Deming, but occasionally things happen.

In my first month on the job we had a pretty big freight train derailment near Lordsburg. We had a bank robbery in Deming that ended in a dramatic high-speed chase in Las Cruces. We've had some school threats, and of course we have the occasional homicide, suicide, police standoff, bad fire.

Sometimes we don't hear about things because no one calls us. We have a scanner, but we don't always have it on. When we do get a tip and I go out, there isn't a procedure for agencies to talk to press - and generally they prefer not to. The standard procedure is that I show up, officers scowl at me, I ask if anyone is authorized to speak to media, and they say, "Call the chief." Sometimes he gets back to us, occasionally not.

On Thursday, we actually got a tip that something was going on at Columbus Elementary School with multiple agencies and helicopters - including Border Patrol. Considering most of the students at Columbus are citizens living across the border in Palomas, that was intriguing.

Anyway, you gotta go. So I packed up my gear while Billy, my editor, worked the phones.

By the time I got there, the situation was over. A teacher reported hearing gunfire near the school, they went on lockdown, and the first agencies there were Border Patrol and the Luna County Sheriff's deputies. State police also responded. (Columbus has had no police force of its own for several years.)  Within an hour, the area had been swept, the school cleared, and the schedule was back to normal. There was not so much as an emergency vehicle on scene to photograph. I got interviews at the scene with the Superintendent (via mobile) and Columbus's mayor-elect, who showed up to see if he could help.

So now what? I had driven down to Columbus. And it was, coincidentally, the 102nd anniversary of the raid on Columbus led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa. We had already done stories about memorial services, fiestas, and the long horseback ride across Chihuahua, Mexico called the Cabalgata Binacional Villista. I decided to see what was up at the Chamber of Commerce, which had been busy planning these events, promoting them, and welcoming guests from two countries.

Norma Gomez, the Chamber director, was waiting for the all-clear at the school herself, because she was planning to bring two visitors to the classrooms: a Pancho Villa impersonator (Rafael Celestino from Durango) and the grandson of Pancho himself, Francisco Villa Campa.

Celestino was in full costume, complete with ammunition belt and a prop sidearm. Campa pointed to pictures on the wall and told me about them - in Spanish, which I followed as best I could. (My reading and writing are better than my auditory ability, but if the speaker goes slowly I can follow.) I took a picture of him next to a portrait of his grandmother when she was pregnant with his father.

Francisco Villa Campa, grandson of "Pancho" Villa

In our limited ability with each other's languages, we also managed to talk about cars. He drives a Jeep back home in Mexico City, and wanted to know how I liked my Renegade.

When Norma got the call from the school, we drove over with the two Panchos. Immediately on arrival, the principal asked "Pancho" to check the toy guns and bullets. The school had had an unsettling morning and, as he put it, "Everyone's a little sensitive today."

And so I watched a school principal disarm "Pancho Villa" while Villa's grandson looked on, laughing. Then the guys mingled with kids, knowing that a lot of them look up to Pancho as a hero (as opposed to the U.S. view of him as the guy who ordered a sneak attack that killed civilians), and reminded them that Pancho fought for education as a right - and that he didn't drink.

It turned into a nice story with video that got a lot of attention on March 9, also known as "Raid Day."

Friday, March 09, 2018

Just one of those days

Man, it's been one of those days. You know what I mean?

Like Wednesday. Just your run of the mill day, at first. It's time for an oil change so you bring your car in to the dealership so they can change the oil and look at a couple of other things, no big deal, just one of those days. 

So they bring the car to you after you've been making your best effort at working on your laptop with the WiFi but there's an old guy in the waiting room who likes his Fox News on really really loud, but that's how waiting rooms are, and everyone's doing their best, so you get along. Just one of those days. 

They bring you your car and you pay and after you climb in you happen to notice that the oil light is on. Well, that's odd, but you figure it might be that fancy digital system your car has, maybe it needs to reboot, so you turn off the engine thinking you'll turn it back on. But instead of starting, now your car makes a horrible squealing sound. That is also when you notice that the hood isn't locked down and you think, No. You don't suppose...? Oh HELL no. 

So you get out and lift up the hood and you find this:

Why yes they did. Well, that's a minor mistake, no big deal. It's not like they drove it without an oil filter or anything. Oh wait...

There's that. And oh look at this, where they drove your car....

Well, son of a bitch. We have now graduated to having one of those days. 

So they push your car back into the garage to see if it has been totaled. They arrange a rental car for you. You realize how rarely it is you see a man actually turn grey before your eyes, and you know he is thinking: 

Son of a bitch. I just might get fired today. It is one of those days. 

Hours later, taking time away from work yet again, after you have been working and wondering whether you are going to have to go shopping for a car all over again,you are speaking to the manager of the dealership, who said your car was right as rain! Everything is great! You are saying "of course we both understand that we don't know what's happened to my bearings and pistons, not without taking apart the goddamn engine block, but if I hear anything unusual I will bring it back" and perhaps you discuss a couple of compensatory arrangements for all this uncertainty, as you do when you are a diligent car owner who understands his engine may or may not have been permanently damaged in a moment of carelessness.

Then you get around to the small talk. Where are you from, is that name Italian, and hey what do you in Deming anyway? 

And you answer, "Oh, I'm a reporter for the local newspaper." 

And something passes across his eyes though his smile doesn't fade. Just a glint of light, a barely perceptible twitch, and you can plainly read what he is thinking just then:

Oh. It's one those days. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

My day trip to Mexico

An excellent aspect of my present job (however long it lasts) is that I might occasionally make a case for a road trip that could culminate in a story for the paper.

Footnote: When the company succeeds in killing off the actual paper and going to an internet-only "property," it will be hard to shake referring to it as the "paper." But what will we call it then?

"The site?" As in, "Have you read the morning site yet?"

Or will we refer to it as "having a look at the screens?"

For now, we still have a paper as well as a site, and my editor said I could make the trip as long as I came back with a story, photos for an online photo gallery, and video to make a 1-2 minute watchable story.

The executives have noticed that reading is on the decline and people like to watch videos, so I'm being urged on to more "visual storytelling."

Well, I embraced all of it, worked my tail off, and came up with a package I rather like: not a bad story, some good photos, and a teeny documentary with footage captured on my mobile phone.

Click here to see it!

The plan was somewhat open. Go find the horseback riders, the cabalgantes, and see what happens.

The director of the Columbus, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce drove a van with me and a 3-person film crew that happened to be in town to make a documentary about the village of Columbus. Our idea was to drive south through Chihuahua until we met up with the cabalgantes who were making their annual 14-day trek to the United States border.

6 de Enero, Chihuahua, Mexico

On the drive down, we talked about the different perceptions of Pancho Villa in Mexico and the United States.

Then we found the riders, traveling next to the federal highway between Nuevo Casas Grandes and Janos. Locals from the town of Janos north of us had set up a welcoming party with food, drink, and music.

I was struck by how much the riders desired to talk. After riding for hours at a stretch and looking out across valleys, the men would beckon us over just to talk.

Oh, and they stuffed us with food: thick, spicy beef and pasta salad. One member of the film crew was vegan and abstained - everyone worried about her. Someone handed me a beer.

In a sense, the riders were very easy to interview, language barrier aside, because they spoke in monologues. Learning that I do not speak Spanish well but can follow, they would slow down for clarity and just keep going. The ride, how many years they had done it, friends they had made, horses that had died, and - when I asked - about Villa.

I asked one man why they called themselves "villistas" and he said it represented ideas that Villa said he was fighting for - justice and equality - even though the man was complicated.

There was much I could not translate because of time and the conditions when I made my recordings.

The takeaway is, I have to find time amid everything else to become proficient in Spanish if I want to do stories like this.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

On friendship, beads, and column-writing

They are inexpensive beads: mostly glass with some corn beads, made by hand at the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina, which I purchased during the summer I worked for the Cherokee Historical Society in 2014.

Since returning from that trip, I have often worn them, usually out of view and under my shirt. The other day, as I removed them for the night, I wondered why I wear them, and the answer appeared clearly enough: friends.

Despite the present fact that I am not in touch with many of the people I worked with - one of whom was killed in a work-related accident the following summer - I often recall the fondness I felt for the actors, crew, and community members that were my co-workers and housemates that year. When I reflect on friendship, or a friend I miss, or I am embarking on a day where I could use the support of friends, I often put on these two necklaces. Until I remove my shirt, I often forget they are there.

In my Desert Sage column, I've been assembling pieces on the theme of friendship as well. In a two-parter this month, I took up the story of journalist Quinn Norton and (imperfectly, given my 600-word limit) whether our choice of friends reflects on us.

(Sidebar: Norton's response to what happened to her, and how that story has been told, is also of interest even though I am not convinced by all of it.)

Based on some reader comments (one of whom I would quote), I returned to the matter of friendship last week in a piece that was also about local elections. (Read: Friendship is a good model for healthy civic life)

If the individual columns are little 600-word beads, what will that necklace look like when it is done?

I hope to keep working on it.