Friday, February 27, 2009

Octomania: Messing With Mother Nature

The flap over the "Octomom" and her octuplets is just another ominous sign of where we have come to as a society. We Americans seem to think we have the right, morally or constitutionally to do anything we please. We will deal with the consequences later.

Nose too big, get a nose job.

Breasts too small, get implants.

Tummy sags? Get a tummy tuck.

Can't control your eating, get a stomach bypass.

Eyelids sag, get a Botox shot.

Bald? Get an implant.

Unwanted pregnancy? Get an abortion.

Can't concieve? Get an implant.

Too many wrinkles, get a face lift.
Eyes the wrong color? Get colored contacts.

Can't get it up? Viagra.

Can't get it down? Call your doctor immediately!!

Is there such a thing as a brain transplant?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Seven Samurai: A Black & White Masterpiece

I Watched Akira Kurosawa's (1954) masterpiece "Seven Samurai" recently on TCM channel. Wow, memories revisited! The black and white film takes patience to watch (200 Min.), and even had an old-fashioned "intermission" in the middle (run to the john or snack bar!). The English sub-titles can be tedious, but Kurosawa's images and brilliant actors almost tell the story without them! The characters' facial expressions, body language, and exaggerated motions remind one of the silent era films.

The tale of a village of helpless peasant farmers, in 16th century rural Japan, who hire 7 Samurai to protect them from a ruthless band of thieves who annually plunder their crops, abduct their women and murder them, is captivating. The task of hiring Samurai who view the farmers as socially inferior, is heightened by the fact they have no money to pay and can only offer room and board. "Find hungry Samurai!", the village elder instructs.

However, when the Samurai Kambei, masterfully played by Takeshi Shimura, hires on in sympathy for the plight of the farmers, he takes it upon himself to enlist the other six.

Last to join is Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, who steals the show. He is the orphaned son of a farmer, a wannabe who aspires for the respect and adultation the Samurai class will afford him. A clown, impassioned and crude, his character is tragically lovable. The dignity, humanity, courage and fears of each Samurai is powerfully conveyed.
When the Samurai arrive, the villagers, terrified of the mercenaries, rush to hide their daughters, and fail to greet their saviors, scattering like scared mice. One even shears his daughter's hair, and dresses her like a man to "protect" her from the Samurai!

In the months before the harvest, the Samurai transform a rag-tag band of farmers into defenders of their village and families. Kambei, is the military tactician. After studying the geography surrounding the village, he predicts the routes of attack and plans a defensive strategy, but warns "We cannot win by defense alone."

Kurosawa skillfully weaves sub-plots into his tale; most interesting is a love affair between one farmer's daughter and the "Kid", the youngest of the Samurai, that climaxes in a forbidden sexual encounter, disgracing her before the entire village. The night before the long-awaited battle, Kikuchiyo jokingly advises: "Men, love your wives well tonight!". When one of the Samurai finishes sewing a battle flag, he points out to Kicuchiyo, "Each circle on the banner represents one Samurai." "But there are only six circles", Kicuchiyo complains. "See here, the triangle? That is you!" Tragi-comedy abounds in the film.

Best, are the battle sequences as the relentless thieves mercilessly attack the villagers on horses, many with muskets. But the villagers are armed with bamboo spears, bows and arrows, barricades and bravado rallied by the Samurai. Because of the barracades,the thieves have been limited to only one entrance to the village. The villagers allow one or two horsemen in at a time, quickly closing ranks, while the others, including women, finish off each thieve. The action shots are superb and rank with any contemporary film. The final battle is fought in the rain. The streets are thick with mud. The viewer is dazzled by incredible camera work and editing which Kurosawa does himself.

During the battle which lasts several days, many villagers including four Samurai lose their lives, but the thieves are decimated. As the farmers return to their fields to plant rice, in the closing scene, Kambei, "The Kid", and another Samurai pay their respects to their fallen comrades before a makeshift cemetary on the outskirts of the village, Kambei turns to look at the farmers in the nearby fields: "The victory is theirs, not ours", he says sullenly.
Sorry, I gave away the ending! Yes, I know a Hollywood version "The Magnificent Seven" was released in 1960 starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach and Steve McQueen, roughly (very roughly) based on Kurosawa's story; now it is poor Mexcian villagers who hire seven Gringo gunslingers to defend them from thieves, but believe me, it doesn't hold a candle to the original Japanese version!

Monday, February 23, 2009

I Love You: Love X 6

We have all heard the old sayings: "It's a small world" "What goes around, comes around." A few nights ago I watched a PBS documentary on the Degree of Six. I had heard of it before, but the show floored me.

It turns out that science has proven these addages to be true, that if you select any six people at random, and tell them to select another six, and those six, six more ad infinitum, the number of people contacted will quickly circle the world and come right back to someone who knows you!
Scientists are amazed at how quickly this happens. Most interesting is how these finding are being applied to many disciplines, especially the field of medicine, to explain how viruses are spread.
To test the concept, I am telling each reader of this post: "I LOVE YOU". Now, I want you to E-Mail SIX more people, telling each one "I LOVE YOU", and instructing them to send the message to SIX more etc. etc. etc. Meanwhile, I am cracking me a Bud and waiting to see how long the message will take to come back to me. Today is 2/23/2009 A.D.
I bought a 12-pak today, just in case it takes a little longer than I think. Please don't take too long, because I don't know how much longer the Bud will be on sale! (Note that a 12-pak is 2x6, a 24-pak 4x6, and a case 6x6) Isn't that just remarkable?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Give 'Em An Inch And They'll Take a Mile: The Browning of America

For years we have heard that Mexicans and Latin Americans make poor candidates to become American citizens. They don't assimilate well. They stick to their own kind, insist on speaking Spanish, and watch only Spanish language TV.
But in truth we don't have to worry whether Mexicans become good Americans, but will Americans make good Mexicans! I am referring to the Browning of America. There will be no revolution, no taking back our own country by force, or any of that stuff. It will be silent, swift and final. There is no escape. Hasta La Vista, dude.

I mean look around you. When was the last time you heard someone say: "Hasta la vista, baby", "Ain't givin' you nada, zip!" "Better get going buster, and I mean pronto!" "You gone loco or what?" How about "Viva Viagra!" (Yeah!) One Texas Tornado song says: "Hey Baby que paso? I thought I was your only Vato?" How about a little Tex-Mex music? Little Joe Y La Familia croons: "I'm just a good ol' Redneck Mexican Boy!"

It's sneaking into your food too. Carne asada? Chile Verde, Chile Colorado, Taquitos? Guacamole? Tostadas? Quesadillas? Chipotle Hamburgers? Jalapenos on your Pizza? Give me a break.

We all know that Hispanics make up nearly 50% of the U.S. population, and more in some parts of the country (and those numbers are based on those who actually open the door when the Census workers knock!). "Mama, there is a Gringo knocking on the door! Don't open it Mijo, it might be an immigration officer or a tax man!" Soon they will be a majority.
Voice messages instruct you: "For English, press 1, for Spanish press 2." Soon it will be: "For English, please stay on the line and your call will be taken in the order it was received." In some states, voters pamphlets and ballots are translated in Spanish to the ire of many. We don't even read them in English!
They fill kitchens at the best hotels, Home Town Buffet, Pollo Loco, and El Torito. They change the linens of your beds at motels, pick your crops, roof your houses and grease your cars.
Infiltration is evident in our schools; Hispanics now teach U.S. History, Spanish, and even English courses! As a college English teacher I used to joke with my students: "Things are so bad, that now Mexicans have to teach you guys how to speak English, your own language!" I had Asian immigrants that spoke and wrote better English than my native speakers. Imagine that.
I remember when Gringo teachers taught Mexicans to speak Spanish in High School and the students got an "F" in it! How messed up is that. The time has come to take your own medicine. Cinco de Mayo, Day of The Dead, Ballet Folkloricos, Mariachis, are part of the curriculum. Are you ready for English as a second language for Native English speakers? Whoa.
Hey, how about a cerveza, a Corona, Tecate, or let's have a shot of Tequila or two while we wait? If we drink too much we'll just order up a bowl of Menudo.
Taco trucks have replaced hot dog stands. White dudes in ties line up for a super burrito at lunch.
Go back where you came from? Hardly, that'll have to be Europe, my friend. How can we fight it? We can't. Just kick back and take a little siesta and it will soon be over. After all, there are worse things. We could be taken over by Martians. The whole thing is really no problema.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Apolonio Is 96! Todavia Sopla!!

On Sunday, our friend Olga (pictured above) invited us to a 96th birthday party for her dad, Apolonio. He doesn't talk much anymore, but his eyes are bright and his mind alert. He sat on his favorite rocker staring straight ahead, in some world of his own making, seemingly unaware of his family, friends and grandkids that filled the house. He doesn't hear well, so you have to speak loudly and directly to address him. From time to time, he would break out into some song of yesteryear, and though off-key, and without a recognizable melody, he knew all the words to it. We all listened and clapped for him when he ended each song. There was a look of sheer contentment on his face. He knew we were all there for him.

The family had a huge strawberry and banana cake for him and the customary candles, a "9" and a "6", and he was able to blow them out after a couple of failed attempts: "Todavia Soplas! (You can still blow!), somebody chanted and we sang the traditional Mexican birthday song for him: "Las Mananitas" followed the English "Happy Birthday". There was ham, ribs, salad and yams. Afterwards, we began to sing old Mexican songs, with some of the old-timers in the room. One had a rich, powerful voice but insisted on singing the songs in his own private key. I kept herding him towards a key on my guitar that I felt best suited his voice, but it was a struggle. Others insisted on singing off key no matter what I did! Regardless, there were a few songs, which most of the people knew, which we actually sang on key and made it through the entire song. He must have loved it; it was written on his face.
When I was a kid, we were drilled on respecting your elders and I guess I have never lost that. This family is blessed to have their Dad still around and relatively healthy at 96. I myself am pushing 70, and many of my dearest friends and family are gone, especially some of my guitar playing and singing (and beer drinking!) buddies and I miss them. Perhaps that is what makes these old timers, "viejitos" so special to me. Would that we all loved and cherished our old ones so.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ahi Viene La Migra!! Life FromThe Top Of A Ladder

One of my first jobs was to work in the fields during summer vacations from Junior and Senior High School. I went along with my best friend Robert and his dad, "Louie", our local "contratista" (contractor). Louie was a short, dark man with an Asian face, potmarked with scars, probably from childhood bouts with chicken pox. He would drive us to and from the fields in his 3/4 ton truck with a canvas tarp stretched over the back, and act as our supervisor during the day.
Once loaded, I would take a seat on a wooden bench in the back, alongside the other workers. We picked apricots, grapes and peaches throughout the valley. The work was hard and lazy as I was, I could still make enough money to buy nice school clothes in the fall.

I hated getting up at 5 AM. It was pitch dark outside and my mom would fix breakfast and pack me a lunch, usually some bean burritos with "papas" (potatoes), or scrambled eggs. It was still dark and cold when we arrived in the fields, but we knew we had to start picking early because it could reach 95 or 100 degrees by 1:00. The ladders, 12 feet long, were heavy and clumsy to handle for a skinny 95 pound kid. You had to find the balancing point, tuck your shoulder into the space between the rungs, lift and head out for your first "set" of trees without stumbling.
A set was a grouping of four trees and you hoped they were good ones because we were usually paid by-the-box, 25, 50 or 75 cents, so if they were sparse with fruit, you couldn't make much money. At dawn, we could barely see the fruit on the branches, and the leaves were still wet from the previous night's dew, but we needed a head start on the summer sun. Sunrises were glorious in the orchards and I would take a moment on the top rung of the ladder to soak it all in.

Full buckets or sacks of fruit were dumped into boxes, then stacked one on top one another, 5 or 6 high, and a number given each worker was visibly scribbled in chalk on the sides of each box. During the first pickings we had to pick only ripe fruit and any green ones were tossed from your boxes by the contractor or the ranchers. Sometimes we were give a plastic ring and if the fruit fell though, it was unacceptable in size. "I picked 100 boxes today; how many did you pick?" I would hear other workers boast with satisfaction. I was ashamed to say how many I had picked. The older workers who picked two boxes for every one I picked taunted: "Andale, Guerito, andale picale, picale!" (Come on Whitey, let's go, come on pick it up, pick it up!)

Many of the workers were illegal aliens ("Mojados") or "Braceros" ("Helping Hands", legally contracted to the U.S. during and after World War II). Desperate to send money to families in Mexico who depended on it, they picked as fast as they could, running from set to set with ladders in tow, stripping branches with deft efficiency and speed. As they finished up the last tree of their set, they would, not so conspicously, meander to the next corresponding set of trees up ahead. If it was sparse with fruit, they would return to their set, dilly dally around and let unsuspecting souls like me take it, then they would rush to to take the next one whose trees were hanging with fruit!

I had heard of immigration raids in the orchards and one day it happpened: "Ahi viene La Migra! Ahi viene La Migra! Ahi viene La Migra!!" The cry was passed from ladder to ladder and the illegals scattered like cucarachas (cockroaches) when a light is suddenly turned on in the kitchen, across fields, over fences, even jumping into canals. Then there were the stories of men who had drowned in rivers and canals, trying to escape these raids. The lucky ones were rounded up, and deported to Mexico, only to return a couple of weeks later to pick again.

I was filled with pity for these men, some not much older than I. They seemed more mature and wiser than me and I loved hearing their stories and about life in Mexico. Unlike these men who worked out of neccesity, I worked so I could look cool in the hallways of school in a Pendelton, khakis and a cashmere sweater, and my mother let me keep my entire check. For some of my buddies, their entire paychecks went to the help support the family.

Picking fruit was not just about muscle and manual labor; it required technique, a skill. The point was to not waste time moving the ladder when you didn't have to. You had to place it in a strategic part of a tree, one that allowed you to pick the most fruit, from the each side and the top of the ladder. It was not smart to pick as you ascended because the sack, made of canvas, and swung over your shoulder by a strap, was extremely heavy when full; it held a complete box of fruit! Tin buckets had a hook attached to the handle which could be fixed to a branch or to the sides of the ladder as it was filled with fruit. Smartest, was to climb to the top rung with an empty sack and fill it as you decended. You could top it off by walking around the tree picking fruit you could reach standing up.

The swinging leg was pushed forward until it safely supported the ladder; if it was positioned a little too far to the left or right of center, the ladder could topple. En La Madre! If the leg was positioned too far forward or not far enough, the ladder could collapse. Sometimes, when there was no entry place to the tree, we would totally collapse the leg and lean the ladder on a branch for support, but this was also dangerous since the branch could break or move with the weight of the person, and send you plunging through branches to the ground, with a full bucket or sack of fruit on your head! Many times my ladder collapsed, toppled, or slid out from under me, leaving me dangling from a branch!

Sometimes, nests of spiders, or wasps were hidden in the branches. My shins were scraped and bruised from slipping, falling or sliding down the rungs in a dash to save my life . The weight of the sacks filled of fruit wore a groove in my shoulder and it would be sore for days.
Picking in the morning hours was for me almost idyllic, and I would daydream at mid-ladder, or pause to enjoy the view from the top rung: the orchards, the valleys, and the Coast Range. I could hear my neighbors singing or gossiping loudly in Spanish on ladders next to mine. Other times, I would dally at the top rung and take in the warm morning sun, sucking on a choice peach or apricot. We took short water breaks and I would try to extend these as long as I could.

The highlight of the day for me was lunch. Often, Louie would start a fire in an open space in the orchard. When "Vamos a comer! Vamos a comer!" was called, the men would find a soft spot on the ground, around the pit, open their lunch boxes or paper sacks, fasten their burritos on branches to warm them over the fire. One rancher would bring us a gallon of wine for lunch and we would wipe the mouth of the jug on a dirty sleeve, sling it over your shoulder, take a swig, and pass it on to the next man. It didn't take more than a couple of swigs in those day to give me a buzz! I loved the feeling but it made me hate even more going back to work. Conversation was as warm as the fire, joking and ribbing one another helped pass the time. A short 15 minute snooze under a tree followed lunchtime, when Louies words "Vamonos a trabajar!" "Let's go back to work!" pierced our reveries.

After lunch, the work seemed grueling. By now it was so hot it hurt and your body began to complain after the first 6 hours of abuse. I dragged myself up the ladder. Sweat and dirt was pasted on my face and neck, and I tried to imagine the cold shower awaiting me when I returned home. We usually knocked off by 2:00 when it was too hot for any living thing. Picking peaches was the worst because the fuzz burned on your eyes and face, especially your neck. When we boarded the truck there were tired bodies and the smell or armpits and sweat. There wasn't much talk on the way home.
Back home, the washed off dirt turned the water brown as it swirled down the drain, but the cold shower revived me. A 2-hour snooze into deep space, was followed by dinner of frijoles, papas and my mom's flour tortillas. I understood then why people said: "Mijo, get an education so you can work in an air-conditioned office when you grow up and not have to work in the fields like us burros." But secretly it felt good to work hard like this. I felt worthy of things, like a man should.
When I got my teaching job years later, and I sat in my air conditioned office correcting papers, I would pause, from time to time, and remember those still working in the fields.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

College Is Not For Mexicans

The first time I actually held my mother's hand was at a hospital bed where she lay dying of cancer at age 85. Why we never held hands before, I really don't know except that she was a typical Mexican mother of her time, strict, hardworking, and relatively non affectionate, no kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy stuff between her and her siblings. Yet, we knew she loved us, she didn't have to say it.
She always demanded that we be honest, forthright sons but she never particularly encouraged education. To her, "educacion" meant you respected your elders, sat up straight in a chair, had good manners, especially at the table, and "success" was to not wind up in jail or as an alchoholic, get a job, get married, buy a house and have kids. Despite all this I loved school, and I loved books. She never read bedtime stories to me or any of that stuff, but she did tell me stories of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the saints, and of La Llorona (see entry "Faith of A Mother" in my Blog for more on this), and other Mexican folk tales.
Under her bed, she kept a cardboard box full of books which my oldest brother, John, had found at the city dump, and among them were a couple of my favorites, a dictionary and an encylopedia filled with color plates of insects, plants, flowers, animals and birds which I loved sketching and drawing from. I was a top student in my classes and loved to read. Thus, much of my time was spent at the McHenry Library downtown, reading and checking out books.
I particulary like pirate stories and early American classics on the Old West, like Davy Crockett. I didn't find out until later that he really didn't like Mexicans! Imagine that. Later, In high school, I would discover books on artists like Ben Shahn, David Stone Martin and my greatest find, books on Mexian Art and the murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. I even wrote my first term paper on these Mexican Muralists, got an "A" on it (to my absolute amazement), and me English teacher read it in front of class: "Class, now this is an example of what a term paper should be." I turned bright red in the back row. Until, this I didn't know I could write.
However, I soon began to slide downhill in Junior High, and especially during the first couple of years of High School, running around with fools and acting like them. At the lowest point of this downward spiral, some of my buddies and I were caught ditching school and shoplifting some stuff from a pawnshop in downtown Modesto. A patrol car actually escorted us back to school with the officer warning: "You guys are lucky I don't haul your asses to jail." My mom would have been devastated.

After a proper scolding from the Dean, I began to settle down, but certainly there was no thought or suggestion from any counselor that I should go to college. In those days, Chicanos were herded into sports and/or the auto body shops and Chicanas (girls) into Home Economics. You can imagine the shock I felt when my Art teachers began to encourage me to consider going to art school after high school. They would help me secure scholarhips, contacts, a place to live and someone to help find me a job. Me? College? It had never even entered my mind!
When I hurried home to tell my mother she was stern and hardly enthusiastic: "How are you going to pay for college? How will you pay rent? Who will wash your "calsones" (underwear) and cook for you? Don't believe what those teachers are telling you. It's all just a big lie. College is not for Mexicans. The Americanos run this country and Mexicans are always at the bottom. Take it from me, I know." That pretty much ended the conversation but thank God I never listened to her, and hard-headed as I was, I became determined to prove her wrong, and I went off to college against her wishes. Perhaps some of this had to do with the fact that I was her "baby", the last of her brood, and she just wanted to shield me from disappointment and failure. And I was the last to leave home. She would be alone now.
As I loaded the final stuff in my '48 Plymouth, we avoided each others eyes and the awkward silence was broken by her words: "Never forget you are a Mexican." It was 1957. When I graduated from college with my Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art, I had been Student Body President that year, and was chosen to give the student address during the ceremony. My mom came with one of my brothers (she had never attended a single school function that I recall), and I knew she was proud of her Prodigal Son that day. Maybe college was for Mexicans after all? Two Master's Degrees later I would certainly prove her wrong.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Shining Example Of An "A" Paper

     I know that many of you have struggled with English, grammar and the writing of essays for your English classes in High School or college.  And although the debate rages on over what exactly constitutes "good writing", for me it has never been a mystery.  Following is a perfect example of an "A" paper written by one of my students many years back in one of my Beginning English classes:

     Mr. Rick Rivers is my English teacher.  He teaches at San Joaquin Delta College and he knows English, French (This stuff about French was fabricated by the student but he got some "points" for it anyway!), and Spanish. He speaks and reads these languages well.
     He is not a young man, but he is not old.  He is a good looking man, tall, but not too tall, handsome with dark-brown hair just beginning to gray.  He is always well dressed but quietly, in good taste.  He usually wears suits of dark-brown, dark-blue, or dark-gray.
     He speaks quietly and pleasantly, but there is strength under his quietness and every student in class knows this.  He is quiet and pleasant because he is strong and as the poem says "Strength is generally quiet; weakness is not."
     He reads a great many books and corrects all his students homework.   He works very late, sometimes till two in the morning, but generally he goes to bed about twelve o'clock (This was a lie too, but it sure sounded good).  He is a very good teacher at San Joaquin Delta College.
Sengthay Thao

Friday, February 6, 2009

Rhine Wine on The Rhine: A Soldier's Story

I joined the U.S. Army in 1962, against the advice of friends and family, some who called my decision stupid. Having recently graduated with a Master's Degree in Art, I wanted to put my military obligation behind me (we had to register for the draft in those days and some close friends had actually been drafted into military service after some international skirmish, and the only way to get out of it was to have some kind of job critical to the security of the U.S., have a rich daddy who could keep you in college, or be married and have kids - no thanks). Plus, the Army promised to send me to Europe, if I enlisted for three years: "What the hell is three years, anyway?" I thought. America had just ended the Berlin crisis and was "in-between" wars. My decision proved to be a good one as it would allow me to travel Europe, and get an honorable discharge, just months before the Viet Nam firestorm erupted in 1965.

I was stationed in a tiny village in the heart of the Rhine Valley, Wackernheim (it wasn't even of the map!), about 3o miles north of beautiful Mainz, Germany, surrounded by farms and fields, about 3 miles from the Rhine River. On days off, I would walk to the river through humble villages with cobblestoned streets, and along the way buy a bottle of Rhine wine, some salami, cheese, a loaf of French style bread, and sit on the river bank, eat, sip and watch the traffic of boats chugging along that magnificent waterway, one hell of a step up from the muddy Tuoulumne River in Modesto!

Unforgetable were the river cruises, north on the river, sitting on the decks of river boats, with a full bar, a band playing, and sipping on excellent German beer or white wine, cradled by steep mountains on each side, ribbed with vineyards and skeletons of ancient castles. This was a Cinderella voyage for a po' Mexican boy from the central valley of California. More importantly, the two-plus years I spent there made the location a perfect jumping off point for trips to Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands to see incredible cathedrals, museums (The Rijks, The Prado, The Louvre, The Vatican) and the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Goya, El Greco, Michaelangelo, and Rubens), things I had only known from books and slides in my art history courses! The military gave ample 3-day passes, and 30 days a year leave. You could go to France in one day and train travel was cheap and exciting! To save money I would buy the cheapest ticket, and sometimes wind up sleeping in the aisles, using a backpack for a pillow. This was part of the Bohemian adventure. It had to be this way to be true.

The Germans themselves were generally hospitable to us American G.I.'s, though a few were openly hostile. They loved to party, and joining in on the arm-in-arm singing, swaying back and forth to the "UM-PA-PA" bands, and getting pasted with them in bars was an absolute joy for me. Beat the hell out of drinking with some of the horny jerks on the base, and listening to "Duke of Earl" repeated 25 times over on the juke box. The barmaids, 4 full mugs of beer on each hand, and a platter with a few more on their forearm, were not just an image on some postcard. It was not uncommon to have complete strangers kind of "adopt you" and buy drinks for you all afternoon! Great for cheapskates like me.
Especially memorable was Fasching, a German style Mardi Gras celebrated from Jan 31 - to February 5 each year. Wow, what a bash, a genuine "beer bust!" Snow and ice was still on the ground during Fasching, and I remember groups of revelers busting out of one bar, running down the icy streets to the next one, arm-in-arm, turning a corner only to have the stragglers on the end of the chain, pushed by the cetrifugal force, slide down the streets on their backsides. Many of the local villages, would each have their annual "wein fest", showcasing the new wine. One village on the Mosel River, a small tributary that branches off from the Rhine and heads into France, actually had a fountain squirting wine, rigged in the main square, and you could fill and refill you glass from spouts! In places, the banks of the Mosel are so steep, the people have to tie themselves to ropes from the tops of the hills to harvest the vineyards.

Germans are unique. In a half-empty theater, if you sat in the middle of a relatively empty row of seats, it was not uncommon for someone to enter, and sit in the seat right next to yours! Americans would never do this. In a restaurant, when I was alone, I was regularly invited to sit with a couple or a family to dine with them. One on such occasion, I was invited to sit with a mom, dad and a couple of their kids. No one spoke English; I knew only how to ask for "ein bier", "ein wein" or "Wo isst di toiletten?" Each child was served his own glass of wine, can you imagine that? Never happen in the U.S. After several moments of awkward silence, gestures and sign language I bumbled: "Ich bin ein "Mexican". The husband's face lit up: "Entonces hablas Espanol?" "Si!" Tu Tambien?" "Si!" The rest of the conversation proceeded in Spanish and he would then translate it into German for his family! Turns out the guy had worked in Spain for a number of years.
One of the most interesting persons I met was man who turned out to be a teacher at a local high school. He spoke flawless English and we got together a few times. Once, he invited me as a guest speaker to one of his classes. His students were intrigued to meet and speak to a real American. I told them all about San Franciso and the Golden Gate Bridge. I was sure they wouldn't be interested in hearing about Modesto or the 9th St. Bridge.
On one of our meetings, he told me a chilling story me I have never forgotten. During World War II, he had been a soldier in a German artillery unit, stationed in North Africa. They had dug themselves in, in the middle of the desert where they could see to the horizon in every direction. Having heard of the Americans, they had never actually engaged them. One day, they saw a large cloud of dust forming on the horizon. After some time, they realized some military unit was heading straight towards them. As they watched in astonishment, it slowly dawned on them that these were Americans, totally ignorant of the fact that directly in front of them lay their enemy in wait. Training their guns on the unsuspecting Americans, they waited until they got into range, fired, wiping out the entire American unit. As his comrades rummaged through the bodies, he reached into the pocket of one dead American soldier, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and smoked one. Ironically, it was a Lucky Strike.

In all, joing the U.S. Army had been a lucky strike for me too.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mexican Dichos: Pearls of Wisdom

My mother, depite a 4th grade education, was literally a fountain of wisdom and it showed best in her vast store and use of proverbs. Not only were the proverbs often true, but humorous too. Timing, to me, was the fine art of "dichos". Each had to be applied at a precise moment before, during and immediately after a life experience. The poignancy of the moment was sometimes an ephiphany for the recipient. The poetry and play of words is part of their enduring beauty. Many years ago in my Chicano Literature class in college, I assigned my students to gather dichos from their own families, and some of the following were the result. Others, I recall from my mother. I will be posting additions to this entry as I go, so if you enjoy it, tune in on a regular basis to keep up with new ones:
When a young person is amazed that an elder was absolutely correct in predicting a result:
"El diablo no es diablo por diablo si no por viejo." (The devil is not smart because he is the devil but because his is old).
When you spoke evil or spread gossip of others: "El que escupe pa' arriba, en la cara le cae" (When you spit into the air, spit will fall in your face).
When you fell in love with someone you couldn't have or who didn't love you back: "Amor de lejos; amor de pendejos!" (Love from afar is the love of a fools).
When you made fun of, ridiculed or mocked an old person: "Como me te veo me vi; como me vez, te veras!" (The way I see you, I once was; the way you see me, you shall one day be!)
When you begin to make excuses for failing to live up to or do what you bragged you would do: "El que es gallo en cualquier gallinera canta" (He who is true rooster can crow in any hen house)
When you messed with somone or something which should have been left alone: "Agua que no has de beber, dejala correr" (Water that you are not going to drink, let it run)
When you spoke out of turn, were caught in a lie, said things you shouldn't have: "En boca cerrada, no entran moscas" (When your mouth is closed, flies to not come in)
When someone did you a favor and you expected more or were ungrateful: "De favor te abazan, y quieres que te aprieten!" (Your'e lucky someone hugged you, and yet you want them to squeeze you)
When you exaggerate or misinterpret someone's affections or intentions: "Nada mas te dicen 'mi amor' y ya quieres tu casa aparte" (No sooner does someone call you "my love", than you already want your own private apartment)
When you expect that today things will be different than yesterday: "Como se acuesta, se levanta" (The way you go to bed is the way you wake up the next day - actually an Aztec proverb)
When you argue that others are more to blame for something gone wrong than you are: "Tanto peca el que mata la vaca, como el que detiene la pata" (He who just holds the leg, is equally as guilty as he who kills it)
When you are impatient and expect quick results: "No cuando sale el sol calienta, si no cuando va subiendo" (The sun does not heat at sunrise, but later as it rises)
When you try to defend the dubious friends you are running around with: "Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres" (Tell me who you run with and I will tell you who you are)
When someone succeeds in taking more than his share: "El que tiene mas saliva, come mas pinole" (He who has the most saliva will eat the most pinole - a sweet powdery stuff that when eaten, saps every ounce of saliva in your mouth!)
When someone hoards or is stingy or never shares with others: "Ni traga, ni deja tragar!" (Neither does he eat, or let others eat)
When a person does all for others, but never anything for his home and family: "Candil de la calle; obscuridad de su casa" (He is a lampost in the street, but there is darkness in his own house)
When someone believes that to lie will get him/her out of trouble: "Cae mas pronto un hablador que un cojo" (A liar falls long before a lame person)
When a son or daughter turns out just like mom or dad: "De tal palo, tal astilla" (From the same branch, somes the same sliver)
When someone is cruel or heartless: "Ojos que no ven; corazon que no siente" (Eyes that do not see equals a heart which has no feelings)
One of my absolute favorites is for the person who keep insisting he "does not recall" having said or done something dreadful: "No hay borracho que como lumbre!" (Not even a drunk will eat fire - he's not that stupid or "forgetful" We seem to have a lot of politicians victims to this phenomena!)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rite of Passage: A Childhood Story

When I was a kid, we pretty much made our own toys, bows and arrows, wooden pistols and rifles, stilts, go-carts and one of our favorites, sling-shots. We had discovered that not all rubber was the same. At the back of a tire shop on 9th St., old, worn rubber tubes were disgarded, and we rifled through the piles to find the red ones. Red rubber was prized, because it was extemely strong and elastic and on a sling-shot could fling an almond-sized stone an amazing distance, powerfully and with great accuracy.
Step one was to find the perfect "Y" shaped branch on a tree and cut it. With a knife, we then peeled off the bark and cut two notches at the tops of each of the arms protruding from the stem. The rubber was cut into two strips, about half-inch wide, and some 15 inches long. One end of of the strip was stretched over each tip of the arms and tied with a rubber band, making sure it fit snuggly into the notches so it wouldn't slip or come unfastened when you pulled on it. Last we had to find a pair of old, leather shoes, cut off the tongue, trimming it into a 4-inch long oval shape, the cradle which would eventually hold the stone. A small hole was cut into each end of the leather cradle, and the other end of the rubber strips was threaded through the holes, pulled for about two inches, and fastened with more rubber bands. Now we were ready to shoot holes in windows, break old wine and beer bottles, shoot at the cardboard shacks of winos and hobos on the river, shatter lightbulbs on peoples porches, or shoot at cats, stray dogs and birds.
Living near two sets of railroad lines, there was plenty of ammunition (stones) available to us. We scoured the tracks for rounded stones about the size of almonds, and filled our pockets until our pants nearly fell down. In front on my mom's house was an fruit orchard where we played war, cowboys and indians (nobody wanted to be indians because they always got killed in the movies) and hunted. We were the consumate hunters and woe to anything that moved. Birds (apologies to bird lovers and environmentalists out there) were favorite targets, and I was a dead-eye with a slingshot.
One day, as we stalked our favorite prey under a large fig tree, I shot and killed a sparrow. It fell lifelessly from branch to branch, finally tumbling to where we stood. I was often the instigator in our small clan and Robert, Charlie and his brother Raul and Tony usually followed my lead: "OK you guys. We are going to cook and eat this bird and everyone has to take a bite", I decreed. They looked at me in disbelief, but followed my command. We gathered branches, built a small fire in an irrigation ditch nearby, and slipping the dead bird on a long branch, roasted it over the fire, feathers and all, until it was done. When the moment came, we plucked the burnt feathers, and driven by some primevil urge, a collective unconscious spirit binding us, like men, like our hunter brothers of old, partook of the tiny bird in a rite of solidarity and brotherhood. The bird was so tiny there was hardly any meat on the bones to eat and it tasted horrible, but men do what men must do. The act was mostly symbolic, but after all, David slew a giant, with a sling-shot, right?

Monday, February 2, 2009

El Musico Ciego: The Blind Accordion Player

I have always fancied myself a photographer, and after a thousand tries I do have a few shots I am proud of. Many were taken over years of traveling in Mexico. Some of my best were slides of people. However, there is a time when the camera is intrusive, invasive, even disrespectful. I was scolded once by an indian woman for taking her photo in a Oaxacan market place. "You Americanos think you can do what you please" she said defiantly. I was embarrassed, shamed by her public outburst and deserving. After all, what was my fascination with photographing poor indians, vendors and peddlers? Poverty is not artistic or poetic, is it?
I have read about cameras with false lenses which appear to aim one way, but shoot another. I learned to take a shot of people by pretending to aim at several possible locations, one of them being my true subject, and then after I had focused and cropped the image in the viewfinder, quickly pressed the shutter. The result was sometimes a shot capturing an unrehearsed moment in time, an shameless expression, unposed.
It is said that indians feared the camera, because they believed a photograph stole their soul. I have envelopes stuffed with the usual snapshots of kids, parties, camping trips, friends, family, pets but most are just that, snapshots. This for me, is one of the few that stands out. I was torn whether to take it or not, and I waited until the entire street was clear of people. There was something powerfully beautiful, tragic yet uplifting about a blind beggar playing accordion on a cobblestone street in Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Forgive me.