Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Sounding" Off

When I walk in the morning, I usually have my cheap little MP3 player plugged into my ears. I haven't yet figured out how to get any of my music on it (haven't really tried very hard), so I listen to National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Except for the other morning, when I was partway along my merry way and the battery gave up the ghost. Instead of returning home, I just pocketed the player and tried to concentrate on what I heard. Most of these sounds I hear despite the earphones, but there were some subtle ones that surprised me.

On this particular Saturday, emergency sirens were in full voice, over somewhere on the west side of town. I heard the deeper tones of firetrucks and the higher, more insistent wailing of police vehicles. I'm sure the people in that neighborhood appreciated the early wake up call, but I haven't yet heard what precipitated the cacophony of horns and sirens.

The emergency sirens were my aural accompaniment on the outward leg of my trip. On the way back, as I hiked along the river dike, I heard the thud-thud-thud of a helicopter coming in from the east. It was a smaller chopper, maybe a hospital craft, but I couldn't tell for sure. I've never flown in a helicopter, and the way their rotors batter the air into submission makes me wonder if I ever really want to! It just doesn't seem like a very efficient way of moving through space, though it has worked well for decades. The chopper's sound soon faded out as it moved further west, toward downtown, maybe, or the airport.

The birds are always up, greeting the sunrise with their varied songs. Cardinals' songs are among my favorite--maybe because they are one of about three birds' songs I can reliably recognize! And these treetop singers are often easy to spot, with their penchant for sitting where their distinctive wedge shape is outlined against the sky. Robins also contribute their springy trills from the ground, from trees, and from convenient fence posts. This morning, there was a pair of meadowlarks exchanging their up-and-down songs from the edge of the unharvested wheatfield down along the river. Of course, the LBJs (Little Brown Jobs, the sparrows and wrens that even experts have trouble distinguishing) are always singing, too, though they blend in so well with the trees and grass that the songs seem to be coming from small, feathered ghosts.

Since I walk where others run, sometimes I will hear the thwup-thwup of running shoes on the compacted trail surface, coming up behind me. This is usually accompanied by the huffing and puffing breath of the person wearing the shoes as he or she plods past me. Or there might be the whirr of bicycle tires, which approach much more quickly, sometimes startling me if I'm caught up in listening to the news. When I ride along the trail, I've made it a habit to call out, "Passing on your left," so as not to startle walkers. I've had dogs jump in front of my wheels because they didn't realize someone was behind them, so we might call my warning an accident avoidance tactic.

I'm not all silence and stealth personally, either. My shoes add their own rhythm to the sounds of the morning, a sort of scrunch-scrunch on the graveled portions of the trail, and that same thwup-thwup on the short concrete section, or on the sidewalks at the start of my walk. And even though I'm not running, I work at walking fast enough to get a good huffing and puffing going myself, though quieter than most runners.

The sidewalks take me past the most annoying sound--barking dogs. Oddly enough, very few of the dogs that are being walked by their owners ever bark. They look at me curiously, make sure I'm no threat, then resume whatever it is dogs do--usually sniffing for signs of other dogs, I think! But those dogs hidden behind the tall wooden fences at two houses in particular are always ready to bark out a warning that there's a stranger near. I don't care if their yapping wakes up their owners, because that's a price dog owners accept when they keep dogs in their yards. But I'm always silently apologetic to any neighbors who may also toss and turn restlessly in their last minutes of rest, cursing whoever or whatever caused those dogs to sound off yet again.

Walking along the dike, I pass under the Crawford Street bridge, which is always busy with traffic, even early on Saturday morning. The cars zip over my head with a heavy whoosh, accompanied by a little thump as they cross the expansion joints at either end of the bridge. It's a little unsettling to think of thousands of pounds of automobile zooming just 15 feet or so above me. And maybe a bit exhilirating, too, as I enjoy the fact that I have time for a walk, while the drivers up there may be headed for a hectic day of chauffering kids around, braving shopping crowds, or even Saturday work. There are definite advantages to a teacher's summer schedule!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Sin Nombre" (Without a Name)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO - JULY 1:  A man cuts a ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

OK, so if you know me very well, you're used to my habit of seeing a good, thought-provoking movie, then immediately trying to recommend it to everyone. I did it with Slumdog Millionaire, I did it with The World's Fastest Indian, and now I'm doing it with the most politically and socially relevant piece of fiction on film I've seen in ages, Sin Nombre. Yes, it's in Spanish, with English subtitles, but don't let that scare you off. This is one important and powerful movie.

Let's get the basic information out of the way first. The director is Cary Fukunaga, and the two young stars are Edgar Flores as Willy/Casper and Paulina Gaitan as Sayra. Willy is called Casper by his fellow gang members, but it's clear from the first that his heart is not with the gang, but with his hot girlfriend. When he sneaks away from an assignment to be with her, the trouble starts. She wants to know more about his gang activities, and her unexpected arrival at a meeting leads to tragedy. Willy is unable to defend her, but when he is expected to watch the gang leader rape another girl, Sayra, who is an innocent Honduran immigrant traveling with her uncle and father, Willy finds the courage to do what he couldn't do before. His precipitate action leads to the gang issuing a "green light," meaning that any gang member, anywhere, is expected to kill him.

Willy doesn't want Sayra's thanks or attention, but she insists on sticking to him, despite his warnings about his past--and his likely future--and despite her father's orders that Willy is nothing but trouble. Being a headstrong girl, Sayra unwisely deserts her father and uncle for Willy, which leads to a tragic ending on the banks of the Rio Grande, as the couple tries to cross into the United States.

So there is the brief plot summary. But there's more to this movie. Watching Sayra's family, along with hundreds of others, camp in the railyard in southern Mexico until they can hop a train rolling slowly for the promised land of America, then riding with them for two or three weeks along atop boxcars through rain, hostility, and the ever-present danger of being robbed--or worse--by a gang like Willy's made me realize that the simple wall proposed and started by the Bush administration is likely to do very little to stop illegal immigration. These people are desperate enough to leave their loved ones, risk everything they have to travel to a country where they don't even speak the native language, and persist in trying again and again. What use will a wall be? Somewhere, somehow, someone will find a way through, over or under that wall. Or the immigrants will fall prey to unscrupulous coyotes, who promise to help them cross safely, only to frequently abandon them in the deadly southwestern US deserts.

These are human beings, folks! Instead of spending untold millions of dollars trying to keep them out, why isn't our government helping their countries develop economies healthy enough to provide for their needs at home? The US sends about $3,000,000,000 to Israel each year, and what do we have to show for it? Trouble with the entire Arab world. Why don't we keep some of that money in our own backyard, helping out our nearest neighbors? I'll tell you why. It's because Spanish-speaking immigrants have nowhere near the political clout and money of those who support Israel. This is not an anti-Semitic rant, just a recognition that an incredible amount of foreign aid that might help closer to home flows across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean every year, and how are we any safer as a nation for that?

Another issue is the gangs themselves, like the one into which Willy has been beaten (13 seconds of punching and kicking by the entire gang are part of the initiation rites). Too many young people, like Willy's protege "Smiley", fall prey to these gangs because of too little guidance at home. Smiley's grandmother protests mightily against his association with Willy, but to no avail. Willy can flash money and goodies enough to dazzle young Smiley, thanks to his gang association. In one of the more chilling scenes in a movie full of them, Smiley brandishes his new pistol to even younger friends, bragging that he has enough bullets to kill every one of them.

And where do these gangs get most of their money to buy the guns with which they arm themselves? From drugs, the price for which is driven up by the self-indulgence and selfishness of US citizens who create the demand for them, and the ridiculous drug war waged by the US government, which simply drives the profits underground. Our government, in its eagerness to legislate morality as defined by certain powerful lobbies, refuses to recognize the failure of the drug war and its terrible consequences for the people of Mexico, Central and South America. So we build walls, both physical and virtual, and we try to hunker down in our homes, hoping that the violence remains south of the border. But it's too late--the violence is here. Recently, in Salina, two people were gunned down, alledgedly because one of them was planning to go to the police to report the drug dealing activities of her eventual killer.

So go see Sin Nombre in the theater, or rent it. If I could have my way, every politician at both the state and national levels would be required to see it, then talk with director Fukunaga, who spent much time riding the same trains as the immigrants, and even interviewing real gang members, so that he could present the most accurate portrayal possible through a fictional medium. Without a doubt, Sin Nombre is one of the most memorable films you'll ever experience.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Friday, June 26, 2009

Smells of the Sunrise

Let's call this a compilation from a week of 6:00 AM walks. A compilation of odors, of scents, of smells. They may not all be pleasant, but they do help you come along with me on my four-mile "power stroll" around the neighborhood, so lace up your walking shoes and come along.

First, there's the musty, old shoe smell of my stairwell when I open the door in the morning. If I leave it open at night to the rest of the townhouse, then all the cool air flows right down by the front door and I'm left hot and miserable upstairs. (Cursed physics, making hot air rise and cool air flee my second-floor home!) And since my walking shoes are sitting right there by that front door, they contribute their own staleness to the heated atmosphere that develops when the high humidity and high heat combine within a small space. I open the front door for a touch of fresher air while I sit on the bottom step and pull the shoes on.

Now we'll step outside. Most days, the lawn sprinklers have just finished their morning duties--except for Wednesday, when I got a squirt across the back which actually felt quite good! The grass smells fresh, newly-cut if it's Friday, as it was this morning. After the mustiness of the stairwell, the smells of my porch are an added inducement to move on into the day. I stride out down the driveway, into the neighborhood streets.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are trash days in the areas through which I walk. Early-bird dumpsters are already out along the curb, and some of them are rank enough to make me want to look in them to see just what kinds of trash can produce such odors. Alm

Image via WikipediaPhilippe de Champaigne (1602-1674): Still-Life...

ost enough to make me. What do these people throw away, week-dead skunks??

My walk carries me down next to the Smoky Hill, a brown, slow-flowing sludge of a river. Occasionally, the odoriferous offerings of a dead fish contribute to the morning ambiance, but I'm usually past that fairly quickly. The odor of death reminds me in part of why I walk, in order to put off my own passing by keeping myself healthy. It also spurs me to stretch out my strides so I pass that particular spot more quickly! The river has its own smell, composed of the fish, yes, but also of the water itself. It's not the refreshing smell you might think of with a river, but it's not unpleasant. Wet, damp and dank, nature's smell.

Speaking of skunks--just look back one paragraph if you've forgotten already--I've only encountered that strangely alluring sweet smell one time this week. It wasn't strong, so either the skunk was some distance away, or the dog it squirted ran home right away. In fact, the odor was just light enough to be almost pleasant. I've never minded the smell of a skunk, even when it was strong, as long as I was in a car and not bathing a pet in tomato juice! The weaker odor, I rather like for some reason which I can't quite explain, so I won't even try. . .

After I've completed about three of my four miles, my shirt is nicely soaked with sweat, and I'm starting to smell myself. It's not a pleasant smell, though this morning, it was mingled with a hint of chlorine from last evening's short swim, which made it somewhat more bearable. Of course, I don't take my daily shower until after the walk, so this natural, human scent accompanies me every day. Oh, it's not too strong--none of the dogs I've ever passed have run off howling, at least! Plus, it's a sign of exertion, of honest exercise. And if the breeze ever comes back to the state named after the People of the South Wind, that smell is wafted away quickly and pleasantly by a cooling draft of morning air.

Back at home, the stairwell is cooler now, and fresher, since I've left the upper door open while I was out, allowing the air conditioning to work its wonders. I take off my shoes and socks, pull my drenched shirt over my head, and make for the shower, where I'll enjoy the knowledge that I've walked off a few calories in the past hour.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Various Lives

Michael JacksonMichael Jackson via

I'm not rich. I'm not famous. Few people know my name, outside of family and friends. I've been on television exactly twice: once in the crowd at a Kansas State basketball game, and once as a featured teacher in Dayton, OH. But the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson today have me thinking that my life, while mundane and pedestrian compared to these two incredibly talented people, is perhaps happier than either of theirs.

Maybe a lif

Farrah Fawcett 1947-2009 RIPImage by Dallas1200am via Flickr

e in the public's eye is what they wanted. If so, then I'm probably wrong about our comparative levels of happiness. But to have my every move photographed by get-a-life paparazzi would be my last wish, so I'll sit here in my small home, listening to the stories of Farrah and Michael, and mourn their loss without envying their lives.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]