Step Over Rio

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“It’s not like a one time drug sale. You can sell a kid over and over.”

Sometimes the things we need to know about are things we don’t want to read about. With regard to the horror of child trafficking, Martha Everhart Braniff has written a novel, Step Over Rio, that confronts the issue boldly through sympathetic characters and a plot that advances with breathtaking speed.

The story begins with the heroic escape from Guatemala City of Alex Sifuentes, a teenage boy who would otherwise be hunted down by a death squad that has murdered his brother. He is helped in his escape by a Catholic priest who risks his life daily to protect homeless children who would otherwise be exploited in ways too horrifying to imagine. Alex believes that he will work in a cantina when he arrives in Houston, but he soon realizes that the “coyote” who transports him will turn him over to a gang that traffics drugs and prostitutes kids. A female reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a special agent for the Diplomatic Security Service are the main characters, and even as they become allies in saving Alex and capturing the gang leaders, the competitive and sexual tension between them makes the sparks fly. Read Full Post »

The Sun Thing

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“Back to the sun thing again.”

The publishing industry is in turmoil. The effort to create, adapt to, and benefit from change is feverish on every front. How will things shake out? Will Amazon rule? Will the e-book rule? Will bookstores disappear? Will writers be able to make a living from their work? Apprehension reigns in this industry, but another more general question arises: Is there any aspect of modern life that is not in turmoil?

That question sent me to the bookshelf for Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas, which was published back in 2006. As stated on the flyleaf, the purpose of the book is “to demonstrate the existence of a direct connection between planetary movements and the archetypal patterns of human experience.” Tarnas is a professor of philosophy and psychology who has always been interested in the esoteric. An earlier book, The Passion of the Western Mind, is a narrative history of western thought, a besteller, and now required reading in many universities. Read Full Post »

A Weed Speaks

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“The earth is not in trouble. We are.”

An errant plant can deliver a very powerful message. I realized this a couple of days ago as I walked the asphalt trail skirting the desert and my neighborhood. I usually go late in the day to enjoy a beautiful sunset, and I travel alertly. A beautiful white Samoyed I walked with for fourteen years taught me to pay attention, and I have discovered that nature often has an eloquent voice.

The trail is well-constructed and may have been established as long as five years ago, but I have been here only about a year. I soon realized that two different kinds of cacti have found amenable flaws in the asphalt, but something entirely new is afoot this spring. A plant with frilly leaves as gritty on their surface as a nail file has begun to erupt like a volcano under pristine surfaces. This seems to be a community effort, with eruptions in clusters.

As I kneeled to take a picture of the tough little invader, I felt a surge of respect. This is a familiar feeling in the desert simply because survival is such a challenge–or so it seems to the human observer–and things are getting a lot more so. The daily temperature has been many degrees warmer than “normal” for most of this spring. It varies by neighborhood, but the maximum amount of rainfall recorded in the area is just over one inch so far this year. I suspect that there has been less than half an inch out here.

One notices that the plant specimens vary widely annually depending on rainfall, the character of winter, and temperatures. This weed must have started from a seed beneath the asphalt, a toxic zone of impenetrable darkness. Just imagine the will and the mobilization of energy required to burst through into the sunlight. Why now? Is there something about soil temperature that has signaled opportunity? Has the deepening drought spoken to it in a special way? Has the specimen’s consciousness worked out a strategy over several years that has finally succeeded?

A friend who is a master landscape architect has written a beautiful little book called Removing My Seed Coat about the teaching for humans in the traumatic moment when the seed splits and growth begins. A question is posed: “Am I a mistake/Or a gift?” I decided that the weed was a gift. I could have pulled it up to preserve the path, but I found its presence oddly comforting.

I have just finished reading this wonderful book by environmentalist Paul Gilding called The Great Disruption. He is an Australian, and I like the blunt way he puts things, namely that the global climate crisis will bring the end to economic growth and very soon. That will be the least of our problems, however, as simple survival becomes an issue for billions dependent on inadequate food supplies. Read Full Post »

Swoon Material

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“The moment of the swoon induced by art can alter attitude forever.”

Sometimes I wonder if the two sexes really understand what attracts us in each other.  A recent foreign movie at The Screen brought that question to mind yet again.

The title is “Monsieur Lazhar,” and it is a Canadian film in French with English subtitles. The setting is a school that has been traumatized by tragedy–a beloved teacher has hanged herself in her classroom–and the main character takes over her class. He has represented to the principal that he is a teacher, but he is actually a former restaurateur who is seeking political asylum from Algeria, and he is dealing with grief from a personal tragedy of his own.

I attended the movie with two friends, and we were interested because we all were or had been teachers. The one who is currently employed in the school system was worn out and stressed by all the year-end paperwork. There were notes throughout the movie about the kind of bureaucratic interference that besets principals and teachers everywhere. At one point for example, the students, who are around age 11, inform Bachir (the first name they have affectionately decided to call Monsieur Lazhar) that there is no longer any such thing as an “adjective.” It is now called something like a “determinant possessive,” which is representative of the gobbledy-gook afoot in the educational bureaucracy.

The production seems at times more like a documentary, and there is none of the overwrought Hollywoodism that  has become the accepted standard of excellence. The female principal looks haggard at times, and an attractive teacher wears no make-up. You can hear footsteps on hardwood floors, the rattle of paper, and the sound of swallowing when Bachir takes a drink of wine in one scene. I could almost smell chalk in the classrom and the scent of young bodies that had perspired during recess.

As the year progresses at a measured pace through the seasons, it feels as though the audience is a daily companion as Bachir fumbles with curriculum, grades papers, and works with the children to encourage, reassure, and comfort them in dealing with the tragedy. As I said, he has misrepresented himself, but he is sensitive and earnest and continually tries to do the right thing in his role as teacher. Nevertheless there are moments when he seems–and I hate to say this–inadequate.

With regard to his appearance, Bachir is not especially attractive. He is dark-haired and has a goatee and a large nose. He is always well dressed in slacks, shirt, and sports coat. His physique is trim but nothing fancy. What you notice most is his vulnerability, which is both psychic and professional. Then comes this brilliant scene. Read Full Post »

The Magic of Three

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“The number three seems to convey comfort and balance to the human mind.”

The new moon will appear Saturday in Santa Fe at 1:20 a.m., and the time suggests that it will enjoy a largely private appearance. However, one can consider the significance of this phase beforehand.

Primitive man thought of three lunar days–the last day of the waning moon, the dark moon, and the new moon–as three days of darkness freighted with fear and hope. One wonders if that is the reason why the number three seems to be so important to the collective mind. It is associated with creativity in general, and the triad is very common in mysticism as well as myth, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I once heard that anyone making a speech should hold to three major points because that is about all the audience will be able to remember.

But just think how often threeness does show up. In mythology, there were the three gods that supposedly ruled the world, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto; the Three Furies; the Three Graces; and the Three Harpies. We envision a threefold world: beginning, middle, and end; body, mind, and soul; earth, sea, and air; animal, vegetable, and mineral; and the three cardinal colors of red, yellow, and blue. In Christianity, we have  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Three Wise Men; the three graces of faith hope and charity; and the world, the flesh, and the devil as the three enemies of man. Read Full Post »

Beyond Stubble

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“The reptilian brain associates the look with illness, fatigue, a hangover, depression, and the need for a bath.”

There are ways to know what’s coming down, but you have to follow the trail. I have foreseen a radical shift in the physiognomy of the male emerging in the pages of The New York Times, and I should go ahead and announce it now so that you can be prepared.

First of all I’m happy to report that there is some evidence that the popularity of stubble is on the wane. I know it’s fashionable, but I am not alone in finding it off-putting. The reptilian brain associates the look with illness, fatigue, a hangover, depression, and the need for a bath. The look may be “easy,” however, and that makes more sense than the willingness of women to totter around in these platform/stilettos that are currently fashionable.

So when stubble is over, what will replace it? Ironically, the clue came in an article targeted to women. The subject was the crash-dieting some do in order to fit into slim wedding dresses. A few doctors in the United States are beginning to offer something called the K-E diet, which has long been popular in Italy and Spain. It involves inserting a tube into the nose, down the esophagus, and into  the stomach to administer no more than 800 calories of nourishment per day for 10 days. Read Full Post »

The Potato Moment

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“What’s in your garden?”

I have been thinking a lot about potatoes lately–and gold. Interesting how subjects converge.

I just checked the price of gold, and it is about $1,660 an ounce, but it may be rising higher because the stock market is sinking. I see gold buying as an investment in the dark side, the fear that economic catastrophe is at hand. The theory is that when all currencies are worthless, gold possessed by the very few could ensure enormous advantage. However, one wonders if a starving man would take all the gold in the world for a single potato. I think of this as The Potato Moment.

The potato, in fact, stars in what may later be seen as an apocryphal story about a looming crisis in human history. I discovered this one night when I chose as bedtime reading a collection of some of the best articles that have ever appeared in National Geographic. I settled on “The Great Potato,” by Robert E. Rhoades, which was published in 1985. It is, indeed, a classic. Rhoades shared some of his research at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, which is dedicated to preserving some 13,000 different native strains of potato.

Until reading this article, I had thought that all of a handful of potato varieties I knew about had appeared everywhere simultaneously. However, I learned that the potato originated in southern Peru and northern Bolivia, where farmers still plant hundreds of varieties. It was the Spaniards, and specifically Francisco Pizarro, who caused the potato to travel all over the world. Potatoes were loaded into the hold of his ship as provisions for the homeward journey after his expedition in the 1530s failed to find the fabled gold of the Inca Atahuallpa. Soon after he returned, the humble spud was being planted virtually everywhere.  Rhoades noted the irony that in their pursuit of gold the Spaniards “were unaware of the buried treasure beneath their feet.” Read Full Post »

More on Serving Balance

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“If you’re talking to a good person, there has

to be something with which you can resonate.”

In an earlier blog (“One Feminine Principle of Leadership,” March 13, 2012), I proposed that the feminine lead in serving the value of balance. Nice idea, but how do we proceed in this polarized political environment? Within days, a book review offered inspiration.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has chosen The Righteous Mind as the title of his work about why we vote the way we do. It immediately elicits an indignant reaction: “I’m not righteous; they’re the righteous ones!” But he follows with an ingratiating subtitle: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and the mind opens. His premise is that righteousness is a shared fault and will only be overcome by listening to what the other side has to say. If you’re talking to a good person, there has to be something with which you can resonate. Accommodation will thus begin.

The review of the book by William Saletan was extraordinarily thorough, and I was immediately inspired to test the idea with regard to several issues. All quotations that follow are from the review, not the book.

Haidt begins his work by pointing out that conservatives are dedicated to protecting the social pillars sustained by tradition, and the primary pillar is the family. The intuitive response is positive. How can you be against the idea of family, in spite of the fact that so many are dysfunctional? The problem is that the nature of the family has changed radically, and many different workable combinations have evolved. Those who have the patriarchal, one-submissive-wife form in mind tend to express their preference in terms that the reviewer describes as “racist, sexist, and homophobic.” The key to alignment here is to open to creative variations on the mini-community that the ideal family is.

“Right.” One can envision the personality of liberal affirmation, arms crossed, an arrogant smile on an intelligent face. However, Haidt doesn’t stand for this imaginary moment of triumph. He describes himself as a former liberal partisan and criticizes his earlier peers as intractable because “they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.” A real zinger, and I have to admit a faint wounding.

But back to the family. Conservatives are concerned about welfare programs that have undermined it. Everyone knows that there are people who game the system, and and there is a trend toward illegitimate children among women who don’t want to lose benefits by marrying. This is a matter of concern even among liberals, and a little give and take could result in the adjustment of benefits to correct unintended consequences. The “give” might reasonably include making birth control readily available to impoverished women who would like to create fewer impoverished children. Once the connection is made, conservatives desirous of cutting back on welfare spending may become receptive to this idea.

Now to the issue of gaming the system. Haidt proposes that conservatives value order more than equality. The opposing perspective is that the degree of financial inequality is escalating at an alarming and untenable rate. Let us be frank. The wealthy, our huge corporations, and members of the medical establishment are all among the multitudes who are gaming the system, and they have more resources than the impoverished to maximize their take. If we can all agree that gaming the system is unacceptable on its face, then we can approach reform on multiple fronts that could enhance the perception of equality in this country. The effort might also forestall the brewing disorder conservatives hate, as in the “Occupy Movement.”

These are just a few examples of the ways in which the search for common ground could lead to constructive compromise, and congressional minds may be more open to this strategy than we have heretofore imagined. We are fast approaching the time when a reputation for ineffectiveness could cause many political careers to self-destruct. Jonathan Haidt’s book might enable some of the righteous–on both sides–to grow, survive, and eventually enjoy distinguished careers. Let’s hope the book becomes a bestseller. I’m certainly going to buy a copy. Read Full Post »

More on Our Luminous Mentor

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“Because it is very hard for humans to understand or contemplate the inevitability of death, the moon’s cycles have been universally comforting.”

When I stepped outside to get the paper Monday morning, I saw the last sliver of the waning moon. The dark of the moon will soon be upon us, and it’s interesting to realize what a frightening time this was–and still may be–for primitive people.

I’m back in the book, The Moon, by Jules Cashford, taking another look (See “Moon Thoughts,” March 8) at what we have learned from our “luminous mentor.” He explains that as the moon waned, the early people all over the world danced to ensure its return, believing that they shared its fate. When the bright rim of the new moon appeared, it was an occasion for joy. New moons, he writes, stand “for the beginning that always comes back and never fails, the second chance, the birth forever arising out of death.”

Due to ambient light and very busy lives, most of us don’t pay a lot of attention to the moon’s phases, but I wonder how much we take its presence for granted. I have thought about writing a story that would imagine the dramatic effect of its disappearance. (Perhaps someone has already done this.) I assume that it would not be long before the loss of its distant companionship would turn us into “lunatics.” Read Full Post »

A Manly Pie

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“I have the touch.”

Sometimes when I walk around on errands and see young adolescents in the mall or wherever, I feel a little sorry for them because they look a bit lost and bored. My impression is that they spend an awful lot of rather unfulfilling time entertaining themselves with TV, movies, video games, their cellphones and other techie toys and just wandering around the malls looking for something they know not what. I look at them and wonder, “Do you know how to do anything, to make anything?”

I mean, “Do you know how to build a fence, repair a car, sew a dress, knit a sweater, grow something to eat, create a work of art, cook something really delicious from scratch?” Anything like that can be a source of pride, and I wonder if these young people are deprived in this respect.

In a culture where it is so easy to buy everything, I still take pride in the fact that I can make about the best pie crust I’ve ever eaten anywhere. One third cup butter, one third cup of shortening, two cups of flour, one teaspoon of salt, and about five tablespoons of water, depending on the humidity. The magic is in the work with the pastry blender, the knowing how much water is just right, and the skill with which you roll the dough out so that the baked crust is flaky rather than tough. I have the touch. Read Full Post »