Friday, July 31, 2009


Mesmorized by the swill and swoosh
of past and present

can't detect the pattern anymore

(Is there one?)

Still waiting for an answer,
the question long forgotten.

The wind bites,
feet dig into the sand
wanting to anchor

even as the mind plots
yet another
impossible voyage
into the


-- Annie Wyndham


Photo with the permission of Tina Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Photos.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I never saw them actually worn:
hollow shells of rigid silk brocade
high-necked, with the diagonal buttons at the left shoulder
intricately printed with cranes, bamboo and old-style ideographs.

The old women wore slacks and short-sleeved blouses
occasional pantsuits, very rarely
skirts or dresses. It's less trouble, they said,
I'm too old for fancy clothes.

They passed the dresses to their daughters and granddaughters
but we could never fit our larger frames
inside these shells.

We cut them down to make vests,
repurposed the fabrics for quilts and fancy pillows.
We cut them up for scraps.
We destroyed the shapes which we could never fit

which our grandmothers discarded after
dodging bombs and crossing oceans, learning a foreign language,
giving up their children to the care of a strange land--

I inherit scraps of silk brocade
and unearned freedom.

-- Tiel Aisha Ansari


Thanks to Tiel Aisha Ansari of Portland, OR for permission to show her poem here today. You can see more of her writings on her blog, Knocking from Inside, which is also the title of her book.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Monsanto and Dow launch revolutionary new GMO product

Hey, have you heard? It's going to be possibly "the largest introduction of a corn biotech seed product in the history of agriculture."[1]

Wow. Roll out the red carpet.

While you were sleeping--not one, not two, not even three or four but EIGHT, yes I said EIGHT genetically engineered traits are all being stacked together in a new corn destined for 3 or 4 million acres of our food supply. Oh don't worry, it's been approved--well, at least each trait has been approved individually. Nobody's sure yet what's going to happen though when you clump them all together.

They kind of rushed it through--quietly, of course--and without taking into account any environmental risks, but look, it's EIGHT times more fortified. More is always better, right?

Okay, let me just run this by us again:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has quietly approved a new genetically engineered corn with eight different insect- and weed-fighting traits, but farmer and environmental groups in Canada say the approval was rushed and environmental risks ignored.

Developed through a research agreement between Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, SmartStax corn is unique in that it "stacks" eight different genetically engineered traits that will allow corn to tolerate certain weed- and insect-killing products made by the two companies.

Each of the eight traits has been individually approved by the CFIA, but opponents are concerned there might be unintended consequences when the traits are combined. [2]

Where can I find out which farmers are going to be planting this corn and to which markets they will be distributing them--so that I can avoid buying from them?

Sigh. One more concerned consumer, alarmed at the blatant fast-tracking and sheer proliferation of these genetically manipulated organisms. I wish our local grocers would start providing more organic produce or at least begin labeling which products contain GMOs.

Ho hum. The world shrugs and keeps on planting and eating GMO food. Big deal. The economy's going to hell in a handbasket and you're worried about eating GMOs.

Feel like a pebble in a sea of crushing boulders, unable to make the slightest difference whatsoever. A tiny squeak amidst the roar of corporate profit parading as "Progress." (Is it progress that farmers who for centuries have traditionally saved seeds are being pressured to buy terminator seeds (seeds that "suicide" themselves so they can't be re-used), guaranteeing repeat business for the commercial seed producers but increased expense for the farmer? Is it progress that organic farms are being contaminated by cross pollination from nearby GMO fields, for which the organic farmer can then be sued, like what happened to Percy Schmeiser in Saskatchewan?)

Okay so maybe this is just a futile little squeak, but some industry and government food inspection agency decisions need to be noted--and discussed. And our governments need to make the reports of their analyses public. This is not proprietary information and it will affect all of us. The public needs to be given ample time to make their concerns known and know that they will be listened to. Alas, most people have no clue about what they eat and the majority simply don't care. And as for legislation in these matters, government appears to listen to those who speak the loudest, are the most persistent, and/or exert the most pressure. (Monsanto's former vice president for public policy and chief lobbyist has recently been hired to advise the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on food safety. How convenient for Monsanto.) [3]

So, in case you missed seeing this in the news lately--that's EIGHT genetically engineered traits now being added together into corn and rushed through to the food supply without assessing the possible consequences to human health or the environment.

I don't know about anybody else, but I for one am not gonna touch this new corn. And if corn here is not labeled as to origin and GMO content--especially those produced as "SmartStax"--I'm not buying corn anymore. Period.

Not that that will bother Dowsanto. What's one pipsqueak consumer out of a possible kazillion.

One day we may have no choice to not eat GMOs. They will have spread EVERYWHERE and it will be out of our control. Not labeling GMO products helps further this end.

The world yawns.

Oh well.


To view the statistics on the Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States from 2000 to 2009, click here.

To see the novel foods Canada has approved from May 1994 through May 2009, click here.

"Novel Foods" are:

* Foods resulting from a process not previously used for food.
* Products that do not have a history of safe use as a food.
* Foods that have been modified by genetic manipulation or GMO foods, or biotechnology-derived foods.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Loneliness of the Very Old

Apropos my posting a while back re: my elderly neighbor and her dog, suddenly separated and each whisked off to a strange new place:
It's only been a few weeks but boredom, it seems, had set in from the very first day.
My first impression of Mado's new digs was favorable. Compared to two other 'old age homes' I had visited in the past, one in Vermont and one in North Carolina, this one was hands down, the nicest. It's clean, modern, and attractively furnished. The 26 men and women who live there are given excellent care, their privacy and wishes are respected, the food is good, and every effort is made to make them feel welcome and at home. And yet ...

They're bored.
They're lonely.
They miss their homes and their families and and their pets.

Mado frequently forgets which room she's been assigned to. They all wear a key on a colored ribbon around their necks in case they lock themselves out of their rooms by mistake. The active ones wander the halls, go up and down on the elevator, or pop into each others' rooms to chat. They shuffle down to the dining room to play cards or read a newspaper and have coffee, or just to sit at the table and wait for supper in two hours' time. They go out on the little sun porch to take the air. Their less active companions sit embedded in large comfortable chairs in front of their TV, or asleep in the lounge or parked in the hallway near the door where they can see who comes in to visit.

Who gets on and off the elevator is a matter of great curiosity. When they pass each others' door they nod and say Bonjour or "Are you coming down to supper?" or they just wave as they slide on by. Yesterday when I knocked on Mado's door, I heard animated chatter coming from inside: a good sign. It meant she had company, she was socializing a bit more. Two other female residents are there with her, one sitting on her bed, the other in her big chair. They're talking and laughing like old friends. I am invited to sit in the walker-chair with wheels, which is surprisingly versatile.

"I was born in Grand-Mere", the woman in the big chair tells me, for the fifth time in 8 minutes. "Do you know Grand-Mere? Have you ever been there?" A lively discussion then ensues in which each recounts various deaths (of their parents, of a husband, a brother, etc.), ordinarily a rather morbid subject but it's more along the lines of telling an interesting story. The Grand- Mere woman, who'd lost her first and only child during childbirth, asks me, smiling, "Would you like for me to be your mother?" Sure, I say. Why not. They all seem, in a sense, like my little mothers.

They comment on my struggling French, saying that my grammar has improved, that they completely understand me, which is ironic because when they begin all talking together very fast, I do not understand everything that they are saying. Everyone is in such a good mood, I leave with the feeling that perhaps Mado has now adjusted to her new surroundings--only to return later in the afternoon to find her alone in her chair, head in her hands, sobbing.

"How is our house?" she asks me (it's ceased being chez moi ( "my" house); now it's chez NOUS ("our" house), though I've never lived there). "How is Pom-Pom?" she inquires. "Did I get any mail? Can you check for me? Is the house okay?" And when she thinks of her little dog again, the tears begin anew. "I miss Pom-Pom!" I don't know what to say.

I assure her that the house is okay, I pass by there every day; someone has cut the grass, no one has broken in, everything is fine, don't worry. Pom-Pom is fine. He likes his new place, he's eating well, he has a big yard to run around in. She wants me to bring him to see her but of course that's not allowed, and it would only make things worse. She would hug and hold him and it would come time for him to go and he'd be wrested from her embrace and taken away and that would break both their hearts, and mine as well.

I compliment her on her nice room. It is--very nice. She has a lovely private bathroom, a large room with a brand-new single bed, bureau, TV, reclining chair, small table. Pictures of her family, of whom she says she is the last one, line the shelf. My favorite is the one of her when she was in her early twenties, she's resting her chin on her folded arms, looking into the distance, with these huge, inquisitive brown eyes. There's an impish air about her, as if a mini-rebellion is about to break forth, a sense of adventure that continues to manifest in her spirit (when you're old, they call this being "feisty"). Until two weeks ago it was still there. I see little evidence of it today. One of her legs is hideously swollen and she walks with difficulty. A resident who has been there two years already leans over and whispers to me "C'est dur ici", it is HARD here. It is boring. It is lonely.

They all wave or say hello now when I come to visit Mado. And laugh at me because I will not take the elevator down; I take the stairs instead. How silly to be afraid of a tiny little elevator that only goes up ONE floor, at the speed of a crippled turtle at that. Having gotten stuck in one three times, I've inadvertently programmed myself into avoidance mode, which is completely irrational but there it is.

Anyway, next week is Mado's birthday. She will be 85. Or is it 86? I don't remember. How big a cake would it take to feed 26 residents? She says, No, no, please, don't make a big thing of it, but when I ask if she prefers chocolate or vanilla cake, she licks her lips and grins at the mention of chocolate. So chocolate it will be. She requested that I bring a calender next time, so she can tell what day it is, and a piece of scotch tape to affix it to the wall, as they don't allow them to put nails in. "What is my room number again?"

I can't imagine having to one day relinquish my independence, to leave all my books and things and go live in a little room, to have to wear a key round my neck all the time, to have to eat supper at 4:30 in the afternoon [!], to have to have help getting dressed or to comb my hair. I'm not sure I would be bored though. I say that now. I mean, I hear 20 year olds proclaim with a loud, heavy sigh, how utterly BORED they are and I cannot understand it. I need 40 or 50 more years, at LEAST!! There is so much to still discover, and learn; to read, and hear, and see, and DO. Just when I finally get to be fluent in French, ha ha, that's when the universe will step in to announce, "Time's up, kid." But perhaps by then my mind will have gone and I won't notice. I'll be repeating, five times in the same conversation, "I was born in such and such a place. Do you know it? Have you ever visited it?" like the Grand-Mere lady.

It is so sad, and I can do nothing about Mado's boredom. A few short visits a week are not enough to dispell the gnawing loneliness. It's not fair. There are people you want to help but can't. They have illnesses for which there is no cure, troubles that you cannot wish away--and like Mado, long, sleepless nights staring into the darkness trying to remember what it was like to be young, and happy, and free. You can't give that back to them with just soothing words.

Does one ever adjust to these great upheavals where EVERYTHING changes in the bat of an eye? One day you're home, doing what you always do; the next, you're in a strange empty room, waiting to die. If only, like the keys we carry to our "things", we could unlock the storehouse of attitudes and choose one that would bring us back again, make us happy and at peace again.

If only it were that simple.


*Photo by Chalmers Butterfield. [This is not Mado. This is Every Lonely Older Person.]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nowhere to Go

Home is the place where,
when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, in "Death of a Hired Hand"

An estimated 40,000 people live on the streets, in abandoned buildings or in temporary shelters throughout Los Angeles, more than 5,000 of them in Skid Row. Another 8,000 make their home in that area's short-term residential hotels, or flop houses as they were once called. [1]


He'd figured maybe after all this time
their hearts would have mellowed.
Like water wearing down rock,
scorn might lose its sharp edge,
become indifference.
No more passing judgment;
indifference doesn't care one way or the other
so maybe there's a chance,
the tiniest chance,
they'd let him stay,
just until ...

But he's too proud to ask.

They're arresting them in the park;
it's now a crime to sleep there
where people stoop to feed the pigeons
but won't share their donut with
the hungry vagrant
on the opposite bench.

Birds don't offend or embarrass us
the way other humans do.

-- Annie Wyndham

Monday, July 20, 2009

On the walls of the cave of the mouth,
the words like horses at Lascaux.

-- Excerpt from the poem, ""Memorizing Poems" by Philip Dacey.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Inuitological musings

I have always been deeply drawn, for reasons largely unknown to me, to the Far North. I wondered what it would be like to live in Nunavik, where they speak Inuktitut.

I am fascinated by languages—how they’re constructed, how they sound, and especially, the words chosen to name or describe a thing. This site gave me the Inuit alphabet, a guide to its pronunciation, and a few phrases to get me started:





Thank you


You're welcome






How are you?


Are you well?


What is your name?


My name is...

... uvunga

Who is it?


What is it?




Come here!


I don't know


Oh well


Let's go, come along


Do you understand?


That's it, that's all




Would you like some tea?


Even in one's own culture, conversations can be sometimes surreal. I imagine two beings out walking alone one day each on opposite ends of the ice. They may or may not be Inuit but for the purposes of this exercise, let's say they speak Inuktitut. They meet in the middle of the tundra and pause a moment before passing one another. Using the guide above, I created a mini exchange whereby they attempt to communicate with one another but ultimately fail--because there is simply not enough vocabulary available here to make it even remotely interesting. Even with an arsenal of words at our disposal, this happens frequently to all of us at times and it is not the fault of language.

Let's say MAN1 is a friendly, inquisitive fellow out for his daily walk. MAN2, let's say, is pacing the tundra in search of himself; he suffers from an unspecified spiritual malaise with which he has not yet come to terms, much less is able to explain. [It is necessary to supply this mini-plot in order to make sense of the following, stilted exchange. Faced with limitation, lack of material and/or narrow parameters, one is forced to be creative!]

MAN 1: Ai.
MAN 2: Ai.
MAN 1: Qanuippit?
MAN 2: Aassuk.
MAN 1: Qanuinngilanga?
MAN 2: Qaijit, takugit.
MAN 1: Sunauna?
MAN 2: Tukisivit?
MAN 1: Auka.
MAN 2: Takugit atiilu.
MAN 2: Tukisivit?
MAN 1: Auka.
MAN 2: Ajurnamat, taima. Assunai.
MAN 1: Ai, Assunai.

M1: Hello.
M2: Hello.
M1: How are you?
M2: I don’t know.
M1: Are you well?
M2: Come here, look.
M1: What is it?
M2: Do you understand?
M1: No.
M2: Look again. Do you understand?
M1: No.
M2: Oh well, that’s it, that’s all. Goodbye.
M1: Yes, Goodbye.

I doubt that resembles anything like what a real conversation between two Inuit would sound like, ha ha. The utter inability of travel-book type phrases to get beyond mere pleasantries to the crux of the matter! The audacity to imagine all one has to do is master a few phrases to get by in a culture. My apologies to Inuits everywhere. But language is a door, and the more you know about one's language, the better equipped you are to enter into a deeper understanding of who and what a people are all about.

Quebec is home to roughly 12,000 Inuit, nearly all of whom live in Nunavik. According to the 2001 census, 90% of Quebec Inuit speak Inuktitut. [1] How has the language held up as a result of interaction with their French- and English-speaking neighbors to the south?

When Quebec linguist Louis-Jacques Dorais analysed words for imported items in Nunavik (arctic Quebec), he found that less than six per cent of the new words were borrowed from English, whereas 76 per cent were descriptive expressions (the others were modifications of traditional words). Furthermore, of the descriptive words, nearly half described the new item by its function, rather than by its appearance — a pretty sophisticated approach to word definition. For instance, the Inuktitut word for computer is qarasaujaq — "something that works like a brain" — while qulimiguulik, meaning "that which has something going through the space above itself," is Inuktitut for helicopter. [2]

Very few native children in western Nunavut speak, or even understand, their native language today. Not only does this people's language require salvaging, so, apparently does some of their land. Due to global warming, some of their villages will, in the not-too-distant-future, become completely uninhabitable. [3]

I am intrigued with their cosmology:

The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now. [4]

According to the Inuit thought, the universe is inhabited by human beings (humans, animals, vegetables), deceased’s and spirits (tuurnngait) each who live in different but inter-penetrating worlds. Every human being is provided with an anirniq “breathing, breath of life ” which, when the subject dies integrates a new animal or human body. The conception of the Inuit world represents a continuum, where every element is a part of a whole. [5]

Breath of life, prana, chi, soul, reincarnate into another being, we are all one ... how many of our various beliefs are interrelated.

I haven't looked at Inuit art in some time. Some people I know collect them: Hand-carved bears and whales and fish and caribou. The most amazing piece of Inuit creativity I ever saw was in the gift shop of a small museum house in Montreal some years ago. It was one of those items you occasionally come across that you just can't take your eyes off of, you go back to it again and again to stare at it, study it. There were far larger, much more beautifully sculpted pieces commanding, and getting, greater attention; I was instead inexplicably drawn to this tiny, crude, simple little object made from the bones of a caribou.

It was about the size of my index finger. It had a hole in the middle into which a string had been inserted attaching two second, smaller bones, so that they dangled, one on each side of the longer, vertical piece. Two miniscule holes were indented at the top, filled in with black ink. Those were its eyes. It looked like something a child might have made but in fact, it was made FOR a child. It was a primitive little doll, a child's plaything, made by a loving parent from the materials at hand using the tools of everyday life.

This little stick-thing with two dots for eyes--was a doll!! I picked it up and and turned it around, as a child might, wondering what could you DO with it? It had no hair, no mouth, no clothes, no feet. It didn't even have a real head--it was just basically two sticks joined together with a string--two animal bones waiting for an imaginary journey into the mind of an Inuit child. The simplest toys provide the impetus for the best imaginings. I've watched children have more fun playing with stones and a popsickle stick than with their battery-operated counterparts where all you do is turn on a switch and the toy performs, always in the same way. Eventually it gets boring. But with a wooden stick and a stone--why you can make them into anything you want.

At any rate, I found myself returning to this tiny bone doll again and again, as if it were the most important object in the universe. A simple trinket in a gift shop. I have never seen another like it and regret to this day not buying it.

These particular stone carvings (at the right) caught my eye today because, unlike the majority of Inuit art that I've seen, they portray a mood rather than a thing. Inuit artist Alec Lawson Tuckatuck creates sculptures that reflect "our spirits just starting to be awakened to the seriousness we are facing" vis-a-vis the urgency of climate change. This particular sculpture is called "It is Coming".
It could be the face of a modern-day native of Salluit, thinking about the gigantic mudhole his village may become, in his children's lifetime, because of global warming.

Likewise, when I look at Maudie Ohiktook's Shaman with Seal Spirit, I hear the cacophony of the times: From one corner, rage at the commercial clubbing of seals for pelts, and disgust at the idea of eating bloodied, raw seal meat, a practice the Inuits have engaged in as part of their survival; from another corner, loss of tradition, livelihood and land. [Note, the EU's ban on commercial hunting of seals exempts the Inuits, for whom seals provide an essential food source in Nunavut communities; they just can't sell the meat or products.]

What does the seal spirit think about all this? Is the expression in the eyes of Maudie Ohiktook's Inuit shaman one of surprise or anguish? I cannot tell. Perhaps it's both. Takugit! it seems to be trying to say. Look! Look!

Some other Inuktitut words, from the glossary in Interviewing Inuit Elders about Childrearing Practices, a book you can download here.

To cause disharmony.

To lose the ability to hear birds.

The toe beside the baby toe.

To display traits of a person you were named after.

Wood or stones placed at the edge of the bed to stop the bedding from moving.

Having a premonition or expectation that isn't fulfilled.

Hesitation while giving birth.

The sound that a qalupalik makes under the ice.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Six Little Quoties

The eskimos had fifty-two names for snow
because it was important to them.

There ought to be as many for love.
-- Margaret Atwood

~ ~ ~

Call it a dream. It does not change anything.
--Ludwig Wittgenstein

~ ~ ~

Nobody realizes that some people expend
tremendous energy merely to be normal.

-- Albert Camus

~ ~ ~

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.
-- Swedish proverb.

~ ~ ~

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
-- Dalai Lama

~ ~ ~

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love.
But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is
to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer.
To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer,
but suffering makes one unhappy.
Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer
or suffer from too much happiness.

-- Woody Allen


From Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Edited by Sy Safransky (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1990). These quotations originally appeared in the back pages of The Sun Magazine, in the section called "Sunbeams".

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"We Bring Fear"

When I was in college, more years ago than I care to remember, a fellow classmate took off, with his guitar one Spring break to go backpacking in Mexico. The following week when classes resumed, his seat was empty. I was told he had been murdered. I don’t remember the details—a robbery gone bad? Memory is a funny thing. You remember most vividly the thing that most stood out in your mind at the time--the initial impression—and at the time (and this remains my most vivid recollection, unerasable)--was one of fear. Fear of going to Mexico.

Many friends since have gone there and absolutely loved it. Relatives who’ve been there bring back photos of gorgeous scenery, colorful markets, pristine beaches, they come back with smiling faces, and they can’t wait to go back. I’ve read writings of ex-pats happily entrenched in their new chosen life there: “It’s warm, it’s beautiful, it’s cheap [to live there]”. Then I think of my murdered classmate. Hey, robberies happen. A few years ago I attended a goodbye/good luck celebration for a local teacher who would leave in a few days to Mozambique for 3 years to work with the poor. En route he stopped off in Johannesburg, where one evening, returning back to his hotel, he was accosted, struck down and robbed. He fell into a coma and died. A random act of violence. Should one refrain from going to Johannesburg because of that? Should I refrain from going to Mexico because a former classmate was murdered there decades ago, in a similar act of violence? That’s irrational. And yet—subconsciously, a whisper of that old fear remains. (To be truthful, today it has more to do with flying on an airplane to get there, than anything to do with the destination, Mexico or otherwise. )

And yet … how safe would it be, say if you went there, not as a tourist, but as a, say, photographer/journalist? What if you saw something … were an unintended witness to some disturbing event, and asked questions about it, or more specifically, wrote about it? Apparently, if this were the case, you had better think twice about it:

There is a man driving fast down a dirt road leading to the border… He is very frightened and his 15-year-old son sits beside him in silence … The father and son are fleeing to the United States. Back in their hometown of Ascensión, Chihuahua, men with assault rifles are searching for them. These men are soldiers in the Mexican Army and intend to kill the father, and perhaps the son, also. As the man drives toward the border crossing at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, he thinks the soldiers are ransacking his house. No one in the town will have the guts to speak up.

The man knows this absolutely. His name is Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and he is a reporter and that is why he is a dead man driving.

There are two Mexicos.

There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war on drugs, aided by the Mexican Army and the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion in aid the United States has committed to the cause. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, laws, and is seen by the United States government as a sister republic.

It does not exist.

There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share of drug profits, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed.

The reporter lives in this second Mexico.[1]

On October 27, 2006, a videojournalist for named Brad Will was filming a street barricade in Oaxaca manned by protesting teachers and members of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), when he was shot at and killed by a policeman, former paramilitary and two municipal officials. [2]

Physicians for Human Rights, a 1997 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, conducted a forensic examination and review of the ongoing investigation by Mexico's Attorney General at the request of Amnesty International and Brad Will’s family. Last spring, based on that review “and in light of allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the investigation by Oaxacan authorities,” they recommended “an exhaustive and complete federal-level inquiry into Will's death and into those of others killed and injured in political violence in Oaxaca during the past two years.” [3]

That was more than a year ago. Despite Physician for Human Right’s conclusive expert forensic findings, the Mexican Attorney General rejected those findings, seemingly preferring to stick to his own government's, which contain inconsistencies and despite PHR’s "offer to present their report to the appropriate authorities and testify in a formal, judicial setting," Mexico has never formally replied. [4] It doesn’t appear that the Mexican Attorney General is particularly interested in hearing alternate theories, however well-founded or scientifically based, to get to the truth of the matter. At least that was my opinion, as a general reader.

No question, Mexico is a dangerous place. (So’s the USA, depending on where you go and with whom you choose to hang out. So are a lot of countries.) It’s also a wonderful place. But we’re not talking about Place here. We're not even talking about people. We're talking about Fear.

I’m not normally a cusser but I curse the Fear Mongers of the world—all those who bully, intimidate, torture and terrorize their peoples, just because they can. Who stop at nothing to suppress the truth. Who manipulate and propagandize and spend enormous amounts of money to insure that only one viewpoint is allowed—theirs.

It’s like a disease, Fear. People get infected with it and it spreads. You can even inherit fear. Fear of sickness, fear of violence, fear of death. Fear of being bombed to smithereens. Fear of retaliation if you tell the truth. Fear of "Terrorists!" Fear for your sanity. Fear for your Life.

Fear of Fear.

Some have learned that it can be used to their advantage, to instill Fear. And, if you follow current events, you'll note it's everywhere nowadays. From little bullies in the kindergarten to institutional thuggery, the message is clear: Be Afraid.

Not today, thanks.

Is it safe to go to Mexico today? (Depends on where and under what circumstance.)
Should I write about what I see there? (Are you wearing a bullet-proof vest?)
Just kidding.

On second thought ... is my intimating, by citing some disturbing, but isolated instances, that one should "Travel at your own risk" in going to Mexico somehow an example of fear mongering, on a lesser scale? The US State Department issues travel warnings for certain countries described as having "long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable." Mexico is not listed as one of them.

But elsewhere they say, "Mexican and foreign bystanders have been injured or killed in violent attacks in cities across the country, demonstrating the heightened risk of violence in public places. In recent years, dozens of U.S. citizens have been kidnapped across Mexico." [5].

Wait, there's more:

Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.

Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area.

Robberies, homicides, petty thefts, and carjackings have all increased over the last year across Mexico generally.

Cities have recently experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues. More than 1,800 people have been killed in Ciudad Juarez since January 2008.

Assailants have worn full or partial police or military uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles.

[This travel alert, by the way, "expires on August 20, 2009", at which time, presumably, they will either remove or update it.]

Anyone been to the gang-infested 'territories' of LA lately? Do other countries issue travel warnings to their citizens thinking of traveling to Los Angeles, to avoid, for example, 18th Street? In Los Angeles County alone there are 75 Blood gangs; 200 Crip gangs; 500 Hispanic gangs (in East and South LA); and 20,000 members in the Asian gangs. That is only one county, in one state.

Violence is everywhere, some places just more prevalent than others. So ... if the U.S. State Department is telling is like it is, then--again, depending on where you go in Mexico--you might want to just be a little extra (what's the word?) .... AWARE.

I am reminded of two friends, in my former life. One was a woman named T., who was invited to go with a group of other women, by bus, for a day-trip to a large shopping outlet. It was free, and she was interested in visiting the store they'd be touring. But .... "It might rain." She didn't go.
The second was a man called "M., going into a war zone. "When your time's up, your time's up. Why spoil the day by worrying about it?", he said, grinning.

The people who go about and do the things they want and love to do, regardless of the nay-sayers. They assume everything's going to be all right, but are prepared if it isn't. Then there's, ha ha, the rest of us. "I'd love to go, but ....." (Worry Wart speaking). "Nonsense. Nothing's gonna happen. They lie." (Rosie Coloredglasses speaking).

Little anecdotes aside, suggesting that what it basically boils down to is Attitude, doesn't reflect the whole picture though. The truth is, murders happen in Mexico, gang murders occur frequently in LA, massacres here, genocides there, and perhaps even, in some secret, paneled boardroom or biolab, hints of the possibilities of mass annihilation. One cannot live one's life in fear.

I suppose the truth will out, one day. About everything. Meanwhile, across the street, at this very moment, on the upstairs balcony of the house on the corner, a woman is scrubbing her mailbox. I fully understand. We have some rather, shall we say unabashedly impertinent crows here that consider our mailboxes their personal dumping grounds, so to speak. They swoop by to desposit their little white droppings, Squawk, Squawk, hello, PLOP!--their favorite place, second only to the car's rear windshield. Where was I? Oh yes, washing ... you can actually be outside washing today, or hang your washing out today. After 5 plus days of rain, and more rain, of intermittent showers, sprinkles, downpours, clouds, grey sky, and threats of even MORE rain--the sun is finally out again!!

And why am I sitting here behind a computer screen, instead of being "out there"?

Enough. Word explosion again.
Over and out for today.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

At McLean

Don’t make eye contact, they said.
So when one of them passes me in the hall
I’m supposed to look away, lower my eyes,
pretend I don’t see them.

There are locks on the door of the nurse’s station.
All day long I'm locked behind a glass window,
typing, filing ... watching.
In the hallways, glaring down from wooden frames,
jarring paintings of chaotic brushstrokes
slashed across the canvas
as if zapped there by electric bolts.
It bothers them, I can tell.
Art they can’t look at, art that shrieks at them
from the walls,
messing with their minds.

They go outside for a smoke break
You’re allowed to join them.
Just don’t make eye contact.

I was never afraid working there.
Bored ... but never afraid.
A clerical temp assignment,
one month, one summer,
working in that grey building
surrounded by the severely mentally disturbed.
I loved the rolling green hills,
the graceful trees, the expansive lawn
where you could walk barefoot at lunchtime
and sink into the utter quiet,
penetrated only by the whispering wind
or gentle song of a bird.

One night one of them died.
She'd complained of not being able to breathe.
The next morning in the nursing station closet,
a paper bag containing
all her earthly possessions:
Some pink bedroom slippers,
slacks, a shirt and some underwear,
a stuffed animal,
her bathrobe.

I remembered her.
The day before, we had talked briefly as
she smoked her cigarette,
and spoke of life “outside”.
I broke the rules.
I made eye contact.
How can you sit together and talk with someone
and not
make eye contact.

I forget her name
but not her face.
I still see her face sometimes,
and that paper bag in the closet,
waiting to be
disposed of.

--Annie Wyndham


*photo by awyn

Friday, July 3, 2009

Dance with the Universe; Nix the Bully Ads

A friend sent me the link to this You-tube video and at first I thought it was, well, "cute." Some guy named Matt in a T-shirt goes on an adventure for 14 months, travels to 42 countries and gets people to dance with him. Cool. But there was something about the strong emotions it invoked while watching it. I was getting goose bumps. I felt strangely--okay, I'll say it--uplifted.

Today I was researching something on the Web and landed at some on-line discussions about synchronicity--and global consciousness--which brought me to an article by Jim Walsh, written a year ago, about this very video. "It's a concrete manifestation of the change that the world's leaders have been preaching at a time when the human race could use a little pick-me-up, a little jig in its step," he says. "This one is a high-definition television commercial for hope."

The song in the video is Rabindranath Tagore's poem "Stream of Life," adapted and sung by Palbasha Siddique, then a 17-year-old native of Bangladesh in high school in Minnesota.


The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

-- Rabindranath Tagore

It is another gloomy day: damp air, a chilly breeze, intermittent sprinkles--the FOURTH day in a row that it has rained. Looking at this dancing video--makes me happy for some strange reason.
And ... connected.

And now for that other aspect:

A "commercial for hope", Jim Walsh called it. Funded by Stride Gum, who provided Matt Harding with the funds to sponsore his journey. Nowhere in the video (except at the very end, in the credits) is there mention of Stride Gum. (Matt's not chewing gum as he's dancing, so far as I can tell, nor are the many dancers, so he probably wasn't passing out Stride Gum as part of his touring endeavor.) If it was, indeed, intended as a "commercial," it was remarkably understated and deliberately subtle. Why do you produce commercials? To get people to buy your product. I'm not a gum chewer but it did leave me with a favorable impression of the Stride Gum people and enticed me (out of curiosity) to go to their web site. So if that was their intent, they have succeeded.

Contrast that impression with the not-so-favorable one I experienced when I got there and viewed two of their recent commercials, where they have succumbed to the trend of using bullyism and intimidation to get someone to try their product. In the two of their TV commercials portrayed on their web site, the first one shows a large German-speaking brute accosting a fellow on his way out of a supermarket as he slams him against a soft drink vending machine. The message? "Spit out your Stride gum and chew another piece already--or we'll find you!" In the second one, a pedestrian talking on his cell phone gets slammed in the crotch by a charging ram, falls down on the pavement and as he's getting up, gets "rammed" again, forcing the gum out of his mouth onto the street. "Spit out your Stride gum and chew another piece already--or we'll find you!" A brown van suddenly appears with the logo "Stride" prominantly painted on its side. Two men in suits emerge, scoop up the gum wad from the road, then jump back into the van. "Leave the ram", one of them says, as they speed away. (This is supposed to be funny? Leave the ram to take the blame?) And in another one, which has made its way to You-Tube, a guy in a parking garage is suddenly surrounding by dancing Austrians [?] who suddenly begin punching and kicking him, to--you guessed it--spit out his gum. In their print ads, shown in the advertising section of their web site, Stride Gum encourages us to "spit at the CEO".

Punching, kicking, goring and spitting on people. Cool. THAT'LL show 'em we mean business, eh?. Yep. I don't know, but some people find this amusing, even hilarious. I guess it is that type of customer the ad people are looking to target. And our kids? When they see these ads, are they getting the message that it's okay to hit and spit at people, if it is meant in jest?

"Ah, lighten up!" (I will, I will. Just stop punching me.)

Seriously now, come on, guys (or gals) at Stride Gum. You can do better than that. You've got a good product. One of the reasons I don't chew gum is because it loses its flavor so fast. The other reason is, most of the gum today contains Aspertame. But if I did start again, I might buy your brand. Rethink your marketing. What the heck kind of a message are you really sending here? Video 1: A big German (why a German?) suddenly attacks someone -- because he's chewing his gum too long???!!! Its flavor is too long-lasting. Whose fault is that? You could have made it so the flavor disappears after, say, 10 chews; then he'd have to reach for another stick of Stride gum. But no, you take it out on the consumer, by punishing him for enjoying the long-lasting flavor you pride yourselves on providing. What's WRONG with this picture?!!!!

And the ram-busting commercial: more graphic violence. First your customer is bullied; now he's gored. All for simply enoying your product. This is somehow--his fault? Two men in suits, in a van, come to "rescue" (or abscond with) the wad of gum (like renditioners?), warning you, Don't let this happen again--WE WILL FIND YOU!" Hmmm. What does this remind you of? I think your ad people watch too many TV crime shows. How is this sort of behavior "entertaining"? What kind of message are you sending to children who watch this commercial? Plus you're sending conflicting messages. You're saying your product is so good, one need not continually replace it. (No planned obscellence here, that's good.) But then, oops, people might not be buying your gum often enough. Back to the drawing board. What to do. They already LIKE the gum. They're just chewing it too long. Damn. What'll we do? Hey, I know! Let's, uh, BULLY them.

There you have it, guys. In one fell swoop, I've gone from admiring the Stride Gum people, to lumping them in the yuck bin with all the other advertisers who stoop to anything, no matter how ridiculous or repulsive, to convince people to buy their products. Sorry, Stride Gum. You blew it this time (no pun intended). (No, seriously. That was accidental. )

Alas, after 3 million viewers have seen and are passing around the video of Matt Harding's happy dance, he has become enormously popular--so much so that he's quit his IT job and gone on to other pursuits--like signing on with Visa, who has decided to get in on the action, by making him--or more specifically his dance style--their new on-line ad campaign focus.

"Win attractive prizes when you convince Visa merchants to dance for you," they beckon. "Convince Visa merchants to dance for you." (Good luck with that one, ha ha.)

"Persuade them to dance like Matt or do a jig in their own style with a Visa card or next to a Visa logo." (Musn't forget the logo, folks.)

"If you're a Visa merchant, you can also join in the fun by casting your staff or even your mascot in your dance video." (My Visa merchant has a mascot?)

"The world over ... No card is more happily accepted."

The operative word here... is "happy". We are to accept credit cards--especially this one--"happily." Visa wants you to be happy. Let me think about that for a minute. A major credit card company... wants me to be happy. If I were a credit card holder (which I no longer am, thank goodness), what would really make me happy, would be to not have to pay a 25% interest rate, not be charged $30 for a payment late by a single day, not spend three years trying to pay off the balance after voluntarily cancelling my account and being informed if I ever wanted to have a credit card with them again I must reapply but acceptance is not guaranteed, only to find out when my balance is approaching zero that they've automatically given me $2,000+ more in credit, to entice me back into debt. So Visa is now using images of Matt Harding, and telling merchants to "dance" for me? This is going to put me in a happy, receptive move so they can sell me credit cards? hahahaha. WRONG.

I've responded to a few marketing surveys from time to time and am at a loss sometimes how to answer some of the ridiculous questions. Who writes these things anyway? More and more, companies want to know how you "feel" about a product, and they want you to describe it by choosing one of their pre-selected, target-the-customer adjectives. Does it make you feel "confident" (shampoo), "conservative" (beer), "adventureous" (car), "sexy" (credit card, believe it or not). There is never any option to say "None of the above". So you check off the least ridiculous one because the survey won't let you continue unless you check SOMETHING. This of course results in responses that are not entirely honest. I sometimes think that many surveys are specifically constructed to give the client (who paid for the survey) exactly what they want to hear.

How many times have you seen a cute commercial, that has you singing along, with a tune you can't get out of your head? It's catchy. It's recognizable. You like it. But do you go buy the product because of that? Or a really really well-done commercial (there are some, actually) where you're not assaulted with noise and nonsense, artistically or cinematically creative ones you actually look forward to seeing again. You like the commercial--as entertainment--but does it result in your trying the product? If that's the end goal, they've failed.

All this to say, that the original Stride Gum-sponsored video of Matt Harding doing his Happy Dance with random people all over the world--despite its subsequent knock-offs for commercialization--remains uplifting. Silly, goofy maybe (what the heck kind of a dance IS that, ha ha), but definitely uplifting. They don't look like paid performers, all those crowds of adults and kids jumping in to join him. Compare that footage to the ones in the Visa videos, with paid actors, where the implied purpose is to "have fun" but the REAL purpose is to get you to apply for or keep using your Visa credit card. World of difference.

Which brings me back to the words of Tagore. When I dance, "I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment." He has written, in words, what I "feel" when I dance. This is not something you can tap into by assigning emotional adjectives to a commercial product in the hopes it will resonate with an individual feeling, in order to get someone to buy something. (Ad people, are you listening?).

And the weird thing is, you can recognize it, this feeling, in others. It's what happens when one person starts dancing, and another joins in, and then another, and another. It's the look on their faces, the rhythm in the air. You forget where you are, sometimes even Who you are. You just dance.

And so that is why I liked this little video (of Matt Harding), and am passing it along. Maybe it'll brighten someone's day, if only in evoking a reluctant smile, or an involuntary toe tap or two. They really do seem like they are all having fun, don't they?

The sky is not happy today. This afternoon it will storm (they say).
Ah, Tagore. How can anyone think of rain when there's Tagore!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Caption This

What it's like to "lose your marbles" [1]
A sneeze gone bad
Poetic explosion
All of the above

Illustration by Rob Sheridan.