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.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A Lesson in Preparation

Performing with puppeteer Adam Gertsacov in 1997

Here is one for the list of prominent lessons in acting. It was prompted by a conversation with Megan not long ago.

Twenty summers ago, I spent a few months with a circus.

It was something of a play, as well: an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest for a circus format, the third and final production of the Pan-Twilight Circus (RIP 1990-97). The ensemble consisted of a few actors; musicians from the Amoebic Ensemble, an amazing band from Providence; and circus professionals. We toured New England in a bigtop. It was a strange summer.

I remember watching the circus folk - Jens Larsen and Chelsea Bacon and others - and how they went about preparation. They practiced with such affectionate and meticulous care, checking and double-checking their costume, props, and their equipment - the rings, beams, the rigging for the Spanish web. Sheesh, I thought, these people prepare as if their lives depended on it. Oh! Yeah. 

How lazily I attended to my own rehearsals and preparation for performance. How precious I was about things that weren't important. It was a good lesson.

Monday, March 05, 2018

On being useless

In Deming, New Mexico

A brief reflection on my life in work.

With respect to the economy and current trends, I am repeatedly confronted with a feeling of obsolescence.

Part of this feeling is that I live in a peculiar generation where I have seen the technology ordinary people use on a daily basis evolve rapidly. I'm not especially old for a human being (having recently hit 47 years), but daily life now is so different from what I witnessed through my teens it is dizzying to contemplate.

Yet part of the reality is that when it comes to employing myself by some means or other, I seem drawn to activities that are considered passé, like writing letters.

When it comes to making a living, I have proven "useless" as an economic actor as well although I have been capable and successful at a range of low-level jobs. 

First I was a stage actor at a time when audiences for live theatre are diminishing. Film and television found little use for me either.

(Touring with a circus in 1997)

Then I tried being a teacher, but firmly rooted in the humanities, teaching things that public education doesn't much value anymore.

(Teaching for NMSU in 2013, I think.)

Now I am a journalist trying to write things for people who like to read, at a time when readers are diminishing and I'm being told to focus more of my time on photo galleries and videos.

(Posing with a plaque I got for one of my wordy columns in 2017.)

Even my personal theatre practice seems to be turning back toward a more primitive mode, not dependent on lights or amplified sound, just Randy and me telling stories and playing instruments for the small number of people who turn up. (We've performed for as few as a dozen, and as many as 100.)

I'm useful around the house for reaching things on high shelves and helping wash dishes, to be sure, but late-stage capitalist industries have little use for my strengths or passions.

Friday, March 02, 2018

How I accidentally stumped the City Clerk

Yesterday, I stopped by City Hall to cast my ballot early in Deming's municipal election and ask a couple of questions for a "voters' guide" story I was finishing up for the Deming Headlight.

Just the particulars: who can vote, what's on the ballot, where do they vote on Tuesday. I thought it would be quick and easy, confirming or clarifying what I gleaned from reading the election resolutions themselves.

Ah, but then I came at them with the question where you see the rug come out from someone's feet and they say, "Aaaaaaaah."

Here is what I asked: "What's the deal with nonresident municipal voters?"

The Nonresident Municipal Voter is a peculiar problem that, it turns out, isn't going to come up because no one in the world noticed it except the one nerd who actually read the election resolution.

So the ballot has exactly two questions on it: (1) who do you want to be Mayor and (2) should we borrow $3 million to help fix our horrible streets?

For the mayoral election, there is a very simple answer to who can vote: registered voters living in city limits. Done.

For the bond question, passed in a separate resolution by the City Council, the rules are different. In addition to voters within city limits, registered Luna County voters who live outside city limits but paid property tax on a property within city limits since March 6 of last year can vote on the bond question - but only on that question.

For instance, people who own a commercial building for their business in town, but live out in the county. They could actually cast a vote on the bond question.

I wondered how that worked. They can't rip the ballot in half. Presumably they also can't look over your shoulder to make sure you don't vote for the other question. So what would they do?

When I asked this question the city clerk had no idea what I was talking about and referred me to the City Administrator. While waiting for him to get back to me (and he did, by the way, in between meetings), I looked up the state statute, where I learned that in order for one of these nonresident municipal voters to cast a ballot, they would have had to file a certificate of eligibility no later than, by my count, Feb. 19.

Which, I gather from the confusion my question caused, no one had done.

So theoretically, there are people who could have voted in the bond election who perhaps did not simply because they didn't know they could.

These resolutions passed back in December. I regret I didn't notice this back then and write about it.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Five Courses, with love

From left, some guy with Megan McQueen and Brandon Brown
For the last couple of months I have been back to my home environment, rehearsing and performing a play. Aside from some Theatre Dojo appearances it had been a year since my last production.

My friend Megan and I had wanted to perform together for a long time and we thought, despite the demands of my reporting job, a three-hander with Brandon Brown, another well-known performer in Las Cruces, would be manageable.

Megan is also the sort of friend who likes to challenge herself and her peers, and so she proposed a show that is 99.9% sung, which is something I had never attempted before. So I said yes, because friendship. I figured in the company of these two it would turn out all right somehow.

The show is Five Course Love, a suite of musical vignettes by Gregg Coffin, each on the theme of love and set in a different type of restaurant: American western, Italian-American, some sort of German cafe, a Mexican cantina, and a 50s-style diner. Three actors play over a dozen characters; quick costume changes; lots of shenanigans, all while singing in different musical styles.

The show has little to say on love, eroticism, or friendship, but it delivers enjoyable music and good material for comedic actors. The three of us had distinct but overlapping strengths that worked together harmoniously - many people asked if we would please perform more shows together.

A lot of the chemistry simply has to do with enjoying each other. Brandon and Megan have been friends for quite a long time. I'm comparatively new to town, but Megan and I have grown close and the three of us fit in together nicely. They are two of the better comedic actors I have worked with on any stage, and both musicians. Brandon is a bit like Peter Sellers, going off by himself and coming back with bizarre characters that take on a life of their own; Megan and I bounced off each other. She mastered the songs quickly. I kept up.

We performed in El Paso one weekend in January, gave a show in Socorro, and then finished with a few performances at the Alma d'Arte charter high school in Las Cruces which brilliantly partnered with the school's culinary arts program to present a five-course meal, each matched with the style of a scene in the show.

We had a second cast, younger actors who served as crew and understudies, and they gave a few performances of their own - bursting outward with hilarious performances of their own. We worked with a three-piece band that nailed the music the first time they rehearsed together. We played on a set designed and built by a few additional members of Megan's theatre-family, including her husband.

Once upon a time, I worked in professional theatres with much more funding than this production had, and full-time staff, yet I don't recall many shows coming together so pleasantly and efficiently.

I also know that I haven't laughed very much in the past 10 months, apart from working with these folks. I'm not sure which I needed more: a theatre project, trying something new, or interaction with friends.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Candidates are not eager to talk to me

East of Columbus, NM. Captured on my way to a village council meeting.

My accidental job as a news reporter continues, and I have found myself quite busy trying to cover many areas of interest to Luna County readers: local government, economic development, civic life, business climate, culture and entertainment. If there's a problem and someone is trying to come up with a solution, I'm somewhere nearby trying to frame a decent photograph and find someone who will talk to me about it. If there's a problem and no solution, I'm writing about that. Oh, and public meetings, public meetings, public meetings.

With elections underway, I've also been trying to interview people who are running for things and ask them questions pertinent to Luna County's hopes and challenges. A few have done so: local mayors, three candidates for New Mexico Governor (from two parties), and candidates for other state offices.

For those currently seeking federal office, it's been tougher.

There's a Congressional race going on in our district and it's an open seat. Thus far, not a single primary candidate in either party has responded to my invitation for an interview. One of them, whose campaign flack had reached out to me, actually fled a public event after I showed up.

Recently, during a meeting with a southern New Mexico community organizer, I mentioned the fact that candidates seeking votes for Congress from local voters didn't seem keen on talking to the local press. Attempting some levity, I made a sad face and said, "I'm nice."

He shot back: "That's not what I've heard."

Intrigued, I asked what he had heard. And boy, he had me dead to rights: he said, "I've heard you ask a lot of questions."

Guilty as charged.

My questions tend to be about Luna County issues: rural development, energy, the border, unemployment, and water.

Things you might expect someone seeking to represent the region in Congress to have thoughts about.

If these people think I'm a tough interview, I wonder if they're prepared for Washington DC.