New and Old Takes on Education

Also posted on my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com.

I happened upon a couple of readings this weekend that I found worthy of consideration.

The first (2011) is from the NY Times, “Online Learning, Personalized” that profiles the YouTube teaching sensation, Salman Khan.

The second (1957) is from a book I just finished for a critical discourse Meetup group here in Santa Fe, The Shape of Content, by the artist Ben Shahn. In his last chapter, “The Education of an Artist,” he offers the following “capsule recommendation for a course of education.” Even though he’s writing specifically about artists, I think, attitudinally, his suggestions are generalizable to a broader population.

Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university, work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle—yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to an art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular—mathematics and physics and economics, logic, and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn sign-boards or furniture drawings or this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafes, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silkscreen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art or life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.

 

Rolling Stones of Broken Beliefs

(Posted to my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com, November 21, 2011)

Stones in and out of cement

I live within walking distance of DeVargas Center on the north side of town. Two or three times a week I’ll walk by the mall, or to the mall, depending on my needs or curiosities.

Yesterday my curiosities led me to notice the rocked slopes that separate the high ground of the Wells Fargo Bank at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Guadalupe, from the lower parking lot in front of Sunflower Farmers Market and Mattress Firm.

I’ve often walked down the stones on the slope as a shortcut from Paseo de Peralta to the mall. The stones are set in a base of cement, presumably to hold the stones in place as well as to prevent erosion of the soil on the slope. (Although I’m not sure that suffocating the soil with cement was done for the benefit of the underlying soil as much as to keep it out of the asphalt parking lot below.)

In a couple of places, enough stones are missing that it’s easier to walk up and down the embankment. I was walking down one of these “paths” yesterday when I was struck with the realization that these missing stones mean something. At least, they meant something to me.

The layer of cement serves as a foundation for the stones. The foundation was intended to hold the stones in place while providing a decorative and functional “natural-looking” covering for the slope. But over time, some of the stones had broken free of the foundation and rolled away, or were carried away. The foundation remains, but some of the stones that were set into the foundation are no more.

What kind of homily would you take from this? What lessons, associations, or metaphors could be drawn from this picture of stones broken free from their foundation?

What I drew from it, even as I was blithely stepping where the stones had been, was that this was about the failure of the foundation. The cement foundation was supposed to hold the stones in place. Some of the stones were gone, so the foundation failed its purpose, even though the foundation itself was still intact. And while it still covered the terrain, it didn’t hold the stones that were set into it.

I think that’s a good metaphor for what we humans have learned to do with all manner of beliefs.

Like the cement foundation on the slope, we lay down a certain set of fixed beliefs about how things should be. We have religious beliefs, of course, but also political, cultural, romantic, artistic, academic … in virtually every domain of experience, we maintain a foundation of beliefs about the way things are, and the way things ought to be.

As we go through our lives, we accumulate experiences that we set into our base of beliefs, like the stones set into the cement. Our beliefs bind our actions and life experiences into a rock-solid understanding of what our life events mean. Our beliefs hold our doubts and insecurities and uncertainties in check; they prevent our “soul erosion,” just as the cement on the slope prevents soil erosion.

But the problem is, sometimes we have life experiences that become unbound from our belief systems. We have a Penn State child rape scandal. We have police pepper-spraying college students on campus. In the midst of economic crisis, we have unapologetic politicians bound to ideology more than attacking the crisis. We have some who value corporate interests over human interests, for whom “excess” represents a strategic objective rather than a constraint.

These are just a few of many distressing real-world examples in which our institutional beliefs ought to be shattered. Time after time, misplaced faith in someone or some institution results in tragedy, or scandal, or misfortune.

And yet, like the cement on the slope at the DeVargas Center, our beliefs remain intact, undeterred by any awareness that they have failed us.

We accommodate the unbounded experience as an outlier, an exception. We rest comfortable with the lazy rationalization that, while our beliefs didn’t bind this particular tragedy or mishap, look at all the other stones on the slope that are still fixed firmly in the foundation!

The important thing is the constancy of our beliefs. The important thing is the uncritical and undoubtable loyalty to the Party, the University, the Authority, the Status Quo, the Tradition.

It’s all about the cement and the stones that stay in place. It’s not about the stones for which the foundation fails, that unbind and roll away.

Until, that is, the next time our blind obedience to a broken belief yields the inevitable next manifestation of “the unthinkable.” Then it will be about those other stones.

Until the next news cycle. But it will never be about the failure of the foundation and broken beliefs.

Learning is for Noobs

(Posted to my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com, September 12, 2011)

I first heard the term “Internet” at a Halloween party in 1993. An attractive friend of a co-worker, cutely disguised as the Cat in the Hat, mentioned that she was writing her Masters thesis in Computer Science about “how to access the Internet.”

I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. But in 1994 I signed up for this cool service called America Online that I could dialup on my 2400 baud modem for electronic mail, bulletin boards, and listservs. I wasn’t “on the Internet” (so far as I knew then) but I was on America Online with my monochrome green-on-black monitor. Sometimes I got e-mail from friends who were also on the America Online, CompuServe, or Prodigy services.

The next year I had my “ah-hah!” moment about the Internet. Some friends and I were brainstorming about ideas for our 1995 Halloween party. Somebody suggested a Charlie’s Angels theme.

Note: For historical clarification, this refers to that ‘70s TV series that originally featured Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jacqueline Smith as the “angels.”

Somebody asked how many different actresses played “angels” during the course of the series. Curious, I logged onto my IBM-compatible computer, opened my Netscape Navigator web browser, and went to the Yahoo! search site to see if I could find out something about “charlie’s angels.”

I was, frankly, amazed. Not only did I quickly find a list of all the actresses and their character names, but full bios — not of the actresses, but of their characters. And synopses of every episodes of a TV series that had been off the air for 14 years. And at least 50 links to sites that were all focused on one topic — Charlie’s Angels.

That’s when I figured this Internet thing wasn’t just another CB-radioish fad.

All that is just a preface to establish my cred as an Internet “early adopter.” Because the real purpose of this post is to confess that I’ve crossed whatever threshold separates “early adopter” from “old fart.”

I know I’m on the sunset side of that divide because of my “Summer of WordPress 2011” experiences.

I started a WordPress blog two years ago, initially to document what I could about the one and only local hospital and its relationship to and with CHRISTUS Health. Then I got interested in tracking and the curious and electrically-sensitive trail of a Santa Fe resident who filed a lawsuit against a neighbor for using her iPhone.

Last January I began a novel about Annie, a fictional character who came of age during the Manhattan Project in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. As a story-telling conceit, the narrator recounts her memoirs in the form of an actual WordPress blog.

Since I was spending so much time with WordPress, I wondered what else I might be able to do with it.

So this past June I impulse-purchased a “Premium Theme” that promised me the capability to easily create my own themes with “drag & drop” functionality. Only after I purchased the theme, installed it, and tried to do something with it did I realize I had purchased a software package that had no documentation.

Now, the sellers of the software would deny that accusation. In their defense, they would point to the “Documentation” section of their website, a dozen or so video “tutorials,” and their online Forum for Q&A’s with “pros” to answer any specific questions we noobs might have.

“Of course we’ve got documentation!”

My cross-examination of that defense would then go like this: Documentation for users is not a description of features found in a marketing brochure. A tutorial is a set of instructions for “how to,” not a demonstration of capabilities. It’s hard to formulate a specific answerable question when your foremost concern hinges on “where do I even start?”

It was during this give-and-take, back-and-forth, wailing-and-gnashing that I realized I had crossed the unseen and unexpected divide into old fartdom.

My crossing was manifest by my quaint, retro, old-school expectation (desire?) to learn what I was supposed to do before I tried to do it. How positively Commodore 64-ish is that? LOL.

In the age of iOS, Android, SMS, and Twitter, the operative technological premise, to paraphrase the pre-cyber Yoda, “Learn not. Use! Or use not. There is no learn.”

Translation: With today’s technology, you don’t learn how to use it … you just use it. Learning requires instructions and directions and practice. Using requires eyes and fingers and intuitive doing. Learning seeks to avoid mistakes. Using requires mistakes, but then that’s what Undo is for.

I should’ve seen this coming if I had been paying attention to the IBM and Apple commercials back in the ‘80s. This IBM PC commercial clearly reveals the old-fartish mindset about documentation, which the up-and-coming Apple Macintosh ad then pokes fun at.

Back in the ‘60s, the generational dividing line was targeted at a specific age: “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”

Now it’s not related to age as much as attitude: “Don’t trust anybody who asks for instructions.”

As Yoda counseled, we have to “unlearn what we have learned.” And in the end, that’s probably a good thing. Just do, but don’t tell anybody you’re learning by doing.

Adherence to Appearance

(Posted to my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com, September 12, 2011)

Tagging

Two decades ago, I took a “self-improvement” seminar in Dallas. The seminar leader, an out-of-towner, commented in the beginning that, “I’ve heard Dallas is all about looking good.”

I recalled that observation last week while I was reading about the year-long drought in central Texas. A New York Times article by Manny Fernandez chronicled the dire situation in Llano, Texas, ninety miles northwest of Austin.

An aspect of the water shortage that Fernandez focused on was its effect on lawns and landscaping. The city council enacted restrictions that prohibit watering lawns except for one day a week. As a result, most lawns are distressed, at best, and many have withered away to weeds.

Those homeowners fortunate enough to have private water wells are not subject to the restrictions. In order to preempt the ire of neighbors, those well-watered green lawn owners have been compelled to post signs in their yard indicating WELL WATER was used.

The State Farm Insurance agent in Llano didn’t have a well to water his business landscape, but it was green anyway. How? The article explained that the insurance agent asked his landscaper to apply a green dye to his parched yellow lawn. At least it looked like green grass.

One of the things I appreciate most about Santa Fe and northern New Mexico is that the people who have settled here throughout history have adapted to its geography and climate. For the most part, they haven’t attempted to create an artificial environment (like some cities in Arizona I could mention).

To a Santa Fean, the thought of painting a lawn makes about as much sense as painting dirt. Which, of course, is the primary palette of most landscapes here. Nothing about northern New Mexico is amenable to lawn grass, so most people have yielded to practicality and turned to more native landscaping solutions. Or none at all — nature au naturel, so to speak.

However, Santa Fe does have something of an obsession about the appearance of things built on the landscape.

On the same day I read about drought in Llano, Texas, I read that vandals tagged the backside of the Garfield Building at the corner of Sandoval and Garfield. The owner of the building told the Santa Fe New Mexican that dealing with spray paint on this building was difficult.

He explained: “The stucco is not like the stucco sprayed on many fake adobe buildings, because it includes straw to mimic traditional plasters used for centuries on Santa Fe houses.”

The implication in the owner’s explanation is that when it comes to falsifying architectural appearances in Santa Fe, there’s a hierarchy.

On the low end, there’s “stucco sprayed on fake adobe buildings.” Moving on up the ladder of presumed acceptability is the addition of “straw to mimic traditional plasters.”

Both processes mean to achieve the same end of providing an artificial façade to give the appearance of authenticity.

That’s Santa Fe’s architectural Achilles heel — an obsessive adherence to historical appearances that are long past practicality.

Having called Santa Fe home for 32 months now, I realize this topic is touchy, or even untouchable, for most. So I’ll criticize another city to illustrate my objection to this type of aesthetically-stunted mindset.

Last fall I spent a weekend in Alexandria, Virginia. Strolling along the streets of Old Town on the west bank of the Potomac River, I gazed in appreciation at the 18th-century houses and buildings. I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like here during the Revolutionary period, the Civil War, the early 20th century.

At one point I walked past a block-long building of apartments and found myself confused. Was this an original period building, or was it new? A realtor’s sign at the corner answered my question. It was a new building of condominiums, still offering attractive financing, according to the sign.

I felt put out. My appreciation of the authentic buildings was challenged because of all the visual noise created by the artificial “made-to-look-like” new buildings. The new look-like designs didn’t pay homage to the originals. No, they attempted to expropriate the authenticity of the originals to give their knock-off façades some street-view historical credibility.

Doesn’t our 54-year old Santa Fe Historical Zoning Ordinance promote this same mandate to “honor” the past by visually obscuring it with look-like architectural fakery and mimicry?

If someone sells a watch or a handbag on Canal Street in lower Manhattan that artificially appears to be authentic, he’s illegally selling knockoff merchandise.

If someone designs a building in Santa Fe that artificially appears to be authentic, he’s legally complying with a city ordinance.

Painting grass to look green. Adding straw to stucco to “mimic traditional plaster.”

The “City Different?”

Not when it comes to an adherence to appearance.

 

What a Marriage a Difference Makes

(Posted to my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com, September 1, 2011)

Marisa and Aaron's wedding

I met Marisa when she enrolled in my general semantics class at TCU (Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX) in January 2007. After she graduated that spring, she worked for me at a nonprofit organization I managed. She became friends with my daughter Stacy when they traveled to New York City later that year to represent the organization at a convention.

Marisa moved back to her native Albuquerque in 2008. I moved to Santa Fe in 2009.

My daughter has visited me six times in my two years here, and three of those times we’ve gotten together with Marisa and Aaron, her boyfriend. The reason for Stacy’s most recent visit in mid-August was to attend Marisa’s and Aaron’s wedding.

I know Marisa better than I know Aaron, so my comments here apply more to her. But I believe I can generalize about “them” without too badly mischaracterizing Aaron.

Marisa and Aaron are different. What I mean by that is that they are each very much their own individual selves. More than almost anyone I’ve ever known, Marisa and Aaron are different from anybody else. In other words, there’s no one person in my 57 years of experience that I could say Marisa is “like” or comparable to. Marisa is like Marisa, nobody else. (Notwithstanding her celebrity-lookalike resemblance to Katie Holmes.) And the same with Aaron. (Without the notwithstanding qualifier.)

To my mind, they exemplify Emerson’s notion of individualism as expressed in “Self-Reliance”:

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

Thus it was no surprise to Stacy or me that — from their wedding announcement to the invitations to the ceremony to the reception to the honeymoon — Marisa and Aaron rightly pursued their own constitutions. It was as though their wedding planning premise was, “Bridal magazines? We don’t need no stinkin’ bridal magazines!”

Nor did they need any of the traditional matrimonial staples that have become de rigueur to the point of cliché. Solemnity was given the day off, which was just as well since they had an outdoor ceremony at a vineyard north of Albuquerque. First wedding I’ve been to with a wine bar available on your way in.

Cute kid ring bearers? Nope, but their two dogs were front and center. Formal wear? No coats, a few ties, a vest to distinguish the groom. Father of the bride “giving away” his daughter? No, he was seated with the rest of the family. Center aisle processional? The bride and groom strolled around the grounds visiting family and friends. With the clouds gathering ominously and thunder in the distance, the groom casually announced, “Hey, I think we’re ready to start.”

Aaron’s sister Katy officiated. The welcome, readings, and vows resulted from collaboration among the three of them. Knowing that Marisa is keenly aware of the significance of language because of her past work in general semantics and her current work with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, I expected the ceremony to be different in a meaningful way.

I was not disappointed.

Katy’s welcome established that this day was not a grandiose beginning fraught with before-and-after significance, but simply a public acknowledgment of a “bond that already existed.” She talked metaphorically about their relationship as though it were a sustainable farm, with references to sowing, reaping, yields, harvests, depletion, and nourishment.

In particular I was struck by a line in their vows in which they each committed to take care of themselves (diet, health, etc.) in order to contribute to a longer relationship with each other.

I liked that, especially in its contrast to the traditional line about “in sickness and in health.” To me, that standard line passively submits to an inevitability over which individuals have no control. As if fate, or chance, or luck, or fortune determines whether or not “Health Happens.”

Instead, Marisa and Aaron operationalized their commitment to each other by, in effect, declaring that they were going to take care of themselves for themselves, for each other, and for the longest possible sustainment of their relationship.

I’m happy for Marisa and Aaron. I’m not frivolously optimistic about the future, but it’s reassuring to see a young couple so courageously stick it to tradition. I don’t mean just during their wedding, but in their overall attitudes about living in a world that is so caught up in societal should’s.

I recall the sentiment attributed to Einstein:

It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.

So, warm acclaims all around for Marisa, Aaron, and the marriage their differences will make.

 

Indian Market: Why this and not that?

From my “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com (8.22.11)

—————————————

Indian Market 2010Yesterday I sauntered down to town to stroll through my third Indian Market. I’m a looker, not a buyer or collector, so my eye is less critical and less easily captured. If pressed to honesty, I’d have to admit I’m there for the gestalt of the experience, which includes a lot of crowd wondering — why are they looking at that, where will they put it, what does the rest of their house look like if that’s going to fit in?

While playing my little gestalt game yesterday, I had an insight about beauty. Actually, it wasn’t an insight as much as it was a recall of an aphorism I learned as a child. From an ash tray.

When I was in grade school, we lived in Pampa, Texas. Even though neither of my parents smoked, we had ash trays scattered around the living room. Probably as much for decoration as functionality.

One of these was a white, oversized, hard-glazed ceramic thing in an irregular shape. Inside was a cartoonish painting of a Cruella-Deville-ish looking lady with a big cigarette holder sticking out of (or into?) her mouth. A painted caption beside the lady read, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

That oft-repeated cliché has stuck with me as an adult. Not because I’ve heard it repeated so often, but because of its simple obviousness and unintended (I’m sure) neurologically-accurate statement of a biological fact.

Every one of us sees with a different pair (if we’re lucky) of eyes, and what we see is processed by a brain (if we’re lucky) that’s different from anyone else’s. Therefore, neurologically-speaking, no one of us sees exactly what someone else sees.

During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci spoke of this individual uniqueness in his observation that “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

Jeff Hawkins, author of On Intelligence, explained these perceptions in terms of pattern-matching in his 2009 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture: “your perception of the world is … really a fabrication of your model of the world. You don’t really see light or sound. You perceive it because your model says this is how the world is, and those patterns invoke the model.”

If you want to get technical about it, beauty isn’t therefore “in the eye” as much as it’s “constructed by the brain” that’s connected to the eye. And according to Hawkins, and other neurologically-informed researchers, what we call beauty is culturally-dependent based on what patterns we’ve learned to match and label as beauty.

This seems to make a persuasive case against any notion of “objective” or “inherent” beauty.

I thought about this yesterday while I was walking from booth to booth at the market. The crowd was dispersed. Some booths had no customers at the time I walked by, while others held the attention of an interested couple or several individuals.

But no booth was overly crowded. No booth contained such beauty that it was disproportionately visited. That must mean, to my mind, that different people have different tastes about what pleases their own individually-learned aesthetic sensibility.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” holds up well to this type of anecdotal observation.

I had another thought as I navigated my way through the Indian Market crowds yesterday. That ash tray I mentioned had a functional, as well as a decorative (taste aside) purpose. Most of the objects for sale by the Indian artisans were, at least at one time, inspired by a need for function rather than decoration.

Pottery is probably the most obvious example, but with adequate historical perspective one can make the case that jewelry, clothing, leather works, wood carving, and even painting all had roots in cultural necessity, rather than nicety.

This is especially true in the case of the native pueblo peoples in Northern New Mexico. In the fine KNME-produced documentary “Painting Taos,” Taos pueblo descendant Paula Rivera notes that:

The word ‘art’ is not in our native vocabulary. We don’t have a word for that because everything that we do is a part of that thought. It’s in our daily life, everything that we do, it’s an art form. The pottery that we make, the drums we make, the hides we tan, the horses we take care of, the fields we water, I mean, everything, that’s an art form.

I don’t want to make a judgment, other than to highlight the difference that Ms. Rivera is articulating. Inevitably, there must be implications when the motivation to produce “functional art” evolves from cultural necessity to economic necessity.

I think those differences and implications are worth pondering, by both the creators and the beholders of the beauty on display during Indian Market.

From Here to Discernity

The Cross that Came Before

This was posted on my  “From Here to Discernity” blog at SantaFe.com (submitted July 23, 2011).

I’m not proud to admit that I live on the computer. Every day, I create, modify, copy, move, and otherwise manipulate dozens, if not hundreds, of many different types of computer files.

It’s a storage, backup, and configuration management nightmare, given that my modest little network consists of 4 computers (3 PCs, 1 Mac), 5 external hard drives, and almost 7 TB (that’s terabytes) of storage. With just a few exceptions, I do my best to keep only the most recent version of any given file.

So I’ll typically “write over” an older version of a file with whatever the newest version is. I figure I don’t need to keep up with the progression of changes throughout a file’s history. I’m just interested in whatever the most current version is. This attitude works, from my point of view, when it comes to managing my own personal electronic files.

That attitude, however, doesn’t work in the real world of societies and cultures and histories. There’s a difference between abstract data files and the concrete real world. You can’t just “write over” the past with whatever the current condition, circumstance, or reality is.

Well, that’s not exactly right – we “write over” buildings and landscapes all the time. This notion has been integral to Santa Fe throughout its historical development, from the uncovering of ancient settlements deep below downtown to the erection, then demolition, of the Paolo Soleri amphitheater.

But somewhere, somehow, someone needs to document through words, images, and sounds what has come before now. We need to capture, retrieve, and remember the historical progression of different “versions” of buildings, events, scandals, celebrations, and people that have contributed to now.

Otherwise, we’ll inevitably develop a mistaken mindset that the way things are now is the way things have always been. Which must mean that’s the way things are supposed to be, which in turn must mean that this is the way things should be in the future.

One visible example of what I fear may be an in-progress historical “writing over” is the Cross of the Martyrs. Not the one you’re probably thinking of at the top of Hillside Park near the old Fort Marcy ruins. I’m talking about the original, 1920 version made of concrete, not steel.

In my short time in Santa Fe, I’ve been amazed at how few local residents know about the original Cross of the Martyrs situated just north of town, west of the Old Taos Highway off of Paseo de la Cuma.

two crosses of the martyrs

The concrete cross was dedicated in September 1920 during Fiesta. The original plaque is inscribed:

ERECTED BY MEMBERS OF
THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS AND
THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF NEW MEXICO
IN MEMORY OF THE FRANCISCAN FRIARS
WHO WERE KILLED BY THE PUEBLO INDIANS
IN THE REVOLUTION IN THE
PROVINCE OF NEW MEXICO
AUGUST 9TH AND 10TH A.D. 1680

cross of the martyrs plaqueA free-standing plaque beside the cross explains that “The Historic Santa Fe Foundation Finds This Site Worthy of Preservation 1994.”

As if it takes a proclamation from a historical foundation to determine that a 74-year old, 25-foot tall concrete cross that’s 8 feet deep and weighs 76 tons, that watched prominently over Santa Fe from a perch that was then visible from anywhere in town, was “worthy of preservation.” Duh.

But “worthy of preservation” doesn’t mean “will be preserved.” In addition to being written over in memory, the original Cross of the Martyrs has almost been written over by development. The cross is accessible only from a winding dirt street by a narrow set of steps secured by railroad ties. Houses, driveways, privacy fences, and the dirt street encircle it. A visitor can only imagine what the view once was, thanks to a photo on the plaque.

I suspect it’s only a matter of time before one of the nearby property owners tires of having the deteriorating behemoth spoil what little view remains. A well-connected friend, a change to a preservation code, a donation for this or that … I can foresee any number of tactics that in a few years will probably render this 91-year old monument as “written off.” Literally.

Not that I’m all that sentimental about memorializing martyrs. I’m well aware of how controversial the history of this area is regarding the Spanish conquest and the Pueblo Revolt. Or I should say, I’m aware that the commemoration of those historical events remains controversial, as evidenced by the vandalism of the 1977 version of the Cross of the Martyrs prior to the opening of the 2010 Indian Market.

But that’s for a different post. I just wanted to write down a few thoughts about something before it’s written off. And carted away, for the sake of a better view.

(Supremely) Bad words

November 10, 2008
Special to the Star-Telegram

This is like one of those cartoon caption contests.

You know, like there’s this completely frazzled fish lying on a psychiatrist’s couch, distraught eyes fixed to the ceiling. And the super-serious but disinterested shrink sits across the room, pretending to listen . . . as he reads Field and Stream.

Or picture this: a super-serious attorney passionately pleads his case before nine ceremonially clad justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the feeble old judges peers down over his bifocals to the attorney and asks, “But what if the indecent remark was really hilarious, very, very funny?”

One of those scenarios actually played out in real life last week. Can you guess which one?

As my late, late-night hero Johnny Carson used to say, “I kid you not.” Or as my current late-night hero Jon Stewart would say, “Are you [EXPLETIVE DELETED] kidding me?”

Go back to last year for a minute. The Supreme Court heard a case in which it was asked to interpret what the Second Amendment to the Constitution really means.

Apparently, after almost 220 years, somebody actually read the thing: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Does the right to keep and bear arms apply to well-regulated militias, or to the people?

Duh! By a resounding 5-4 majority, the Supremes interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that the people have the right to keep and bear arms. The reference to “well-regulated militia” was, basically, a red herring since everybody knows that all the militias were de-regulated years ago. (I think it was after the airlines, probably before the telephone companies.)

So this year along comes the Federal Communications Commission to appear before the Supreme Court to argue about “patently offensive” material and the First Amendment.

Apparently, every 30 years the FCC has to make a federal case out of bad words. In 1978, it trucked up to the Supreme Court to hammer a radio station that played George Carlin’s classic audio lecture on “filthy words.”

Come on, people! How many times do these constitutional amendments have to be “interpreted”? The Constitution says what it says, it means what it means and that’s that.

Deal with it!

But anyway, last week’s trip to see the Supremes was necessary because the FCC had previously lost its case in the lower level federal appeals court.

What was at stake was the FCC’s authority to levy multimillion-dollar fines against broadcasters for allowing even “fleeting expletives” to be broadcast over the public airwaves.

Over the past few years, the FCC has flip-flopped all over itself in its punitive decisions.

In January 2003, during a live televised broadcast, U2’s Bono accepted a Golden Globe award by saying, “This is really, really f—ing brilliant.”

In response to formal complaints, the FCC ruled “no harm, no foul” on this fleeting use of the word as an adjective.

But a year later, Janet Jackson exposed her, you know, during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show.

A shocked — shocked! — nation demanded that this outrageous 1.5 seconds of filth be condemned and punished.

That little piece of anatomy was a game-changer for the politically responsive FCC.

Bono’s no-no was back in play.

All words-denoted-by-their-first-letters became fair game for FCC fines, regardless of tense, form or usage; gerunds were just as guilty as nouns.

But then just 10 months after Janet Jackson’s 1.5 seconds of fame, the FCC took no action against ABC Television after it broadcast, unedited, Steven Spielberg’s epic Saving Private Ryan. Even though, I’m told, that film unapologetically, and apparently ungratuitously, uses the f-bomb 21 times.

Can you or can’t you? Is it or isn’t it?

So on the same day that 120 million Americans found something better to do with their time, the highest court in the land talked about dirty words using pre-pubescent euphemisms and words-denoted-by-their-first-letters.

They couldn’t even bring themselves to say the words that were actually in contention.

And you can’t read them or hear them in any “respectable” media outlet.

I think that’s “really hilarious, very, very funny.” In fact, I’d even say it’s “really, really [EXPLETIVE DELETED] brilliant.”

I kid you not.

Steve Stockdale of Fort Worth is a member of the Star-Telegram community columnist panel.

© 2008 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.star-telegram.com

Semantic pollution fouling the airwaves

August 9, 2008
Special to the Star-Telegram

One of the overlooked and under-reported aspects related to drilling in the Barnett Shale is the negative impact to our local linguistic environment.

We’re not talking particulate matter here. This is the worrisome increase in measurable propagandulate in the lower levels of what is technically referred to as the “purchased mediasphere.”

This semantic pollution poses immediate and long-term threats to the sustainability of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.”

I’m talking about Chesapeake Energy’s full-frontal, body-slamming, leg-whipping, arm-twisting, head-butting propaganda blitz on behalf of the Barnett Shale.

As a 54-year-old part-time adjunct who doesn’t have anything better to do than think about these things, I’m not sure I will survive the “Summer of the Shale Sale.”

Click for Full SizeI noticed the first mildly annoying effects in the dying days of spring.

“Let’s get behind the Barnett,” intoned the serious and weathered countenance of Tommy Lee Jones. What do you mean, get “behind” the Barnett?

Then there was the release of “Citizens of the Shale,” a 30-minute “investigative news report” paid for by – Chesapeake Energy. What? An “investigative news report” paid for by a principal of the “investigation”?

In the introduction, Chesapeake CEO and Chairman Aubrey McClendon said it included “all perspectives … accurate information and fair, fact-based journalism … facts in an in-depthh format … honest and balanced picture.”

I trotted out my semantic analyzing kit and measured dangerously low levels of overall truthfulness based on three samples:

  • The genial “reporter” in the piece, Ginny Simone, isn’t a reporter in the journalistic sense. She’s employed by the Mercury Group, “proven practitioners of persuasive arts and science that achieve measurable results.” (www.mercgroup.com)
  • My personal scientific analysis (I timed and counted) yielded startling results. In the 28-and-a-half-minute broadcast, someone is speaking for 26 minutes. Of 37 identified speakers, 33 speak favorably, two express specific concerns about urban drilling, two are opposed. The 33 proponents get 25 minutes, the other four get the other 60 seconds.
  • There appears a calculated effort to say, either directly or through surrogates, that natural gas is clean and doesn’t pollute, and that developing these reserves is a patriotic duty that will “make us less dependent on foreign gas.” According to the emissions tables at www.naturalgas.org and www.cleanskies.org, natural gas emits 71 percent as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as oil and 56 percent as much as coal. It actually emits 21 percent more carbon monoxide (CO) than oil, but only about one-fifth as much as coal.

So you can truthfully say natural gas is “cleaner” and “less polluting,” but you can’t honestly say that it’s “clean” and doesn’t pollute.

The U.S. certainly relies on imported oil, but we both import and export natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. One type of energy commodity shouldn’t be confused with another. But there’s more:

On Aug. 1, KXAS-TV aired the hourlong production, Unconventional: The Story of the Barnett Shale, in prime time, a special program “presented in partnership with Trinity Films brought to you commercial-free by Chesapeake Energy.”

A few weeks ago, Chesapeake hired Tracy Rowlett, a former TV journalist, and a slew of other former news producers and reporters.

There’s an upcoming 16-page children’s coloring/activity book featuring “Chesapeake Charlie – a friendly beagle who knows a lot about natural gas production and its many benefits.”

There are similar, some even larger, U.S. shale deposits elsewhere, which led me to Washington, D.C., home to the American Clean Skies Foundation, a nonprofit organization that hosts www.cleanskies.org, as well as an Internet broadcasting channel, www.cleanskies.tv.

This venture was announced as a “multi-million dollar media advocacy campaign to promote cleaner energy sources that includes a website, a national magazine, and a major print and television ad campaign.” The founder and funder? Aubrey McClendon.

I have no financial interest in the Barnett Shale although last December, in my previous job as executive director for a nonprofit organization, I signed a lease with Fort Worth Energy for a property owned by the organization.

I am not opposed to urban drilling. It only makes sense to exploit the natural resources we have. But it only makes sense conditionally, with proper planning, oversight and transparency throughout the entire process involving citizens, elected officials and industry.

I can understand Chesapeake wanting to get ahead of the public relations curve but this slick and ceaseless machine is over the top. And with all this Chesa-speak, why are its “competitors” – XTO, Devon, etc. – so silent?

Those are questions I can’t answer. You may have questions you can’t answer either.

Let’s ask Rowlett, the name we can trust. He starts his new gig for Chesapeake next month on www.shale.tv. He and his team of former journalists are probably going to be looking for story leads, so why don’t we send him our questions?

E-mail your questions to: AskTracy2Ask@gmail.com. I’ll make sure they get sent to him and follow up with his responses.

Steve Stockdale of Fort Worth is a member of the Star-Telegram community columnist panel.
© 2008 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.star-telegram.com

But what if …?

May 10, 2008
Special to the Star-Telegram

Today is graduation day at Texas Christian University. I teach a class in general semantics there, and seven of my 46 students will walk across the stage. Congratulations to them!

Their last semester in college provided a variety of learning opportunities — and one notable missed opportunity — particularly during the fortnight in which winter turned to spring.

Those two weeks began with a discussion about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy and Sen. Barack Obama’s speech on race in America. Then we talked about the decision of TCU and Brite Divinity School to move the March 29 portion of the Fourth Annual State of the Black Church Summit off campus. (Brite is on the TCU campus but is an independent institution.) For a year, Brite had planned the summit for the last weekend in March and had a long-standing invitation to Wright to attend and receive an award recognizing his 40 years of service to his church and ministry.

But the executive committee of TCU’s board of trustees asked Brite to move the awards dinner off campus — which it did. My class was about evenly divided as to whether moving the event was the right thing to do in light of the purported concerns about “safety and security.”

We learned something about the history of racism in America by viewing clips from Todd Larkins’ documentary The N Word: Divided We Stand and segments from the PBS series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize.

We studied the distinction between the words people use and their behavior. Is it more appropriate to examine a person’s behavior within a specific context or environment rather than focus on whether this word or that word is used? Do actions speak louder than words? What if the action is nothing but words?

In The N Word, rapper Chuck D recognizes this distinction between word and behavior: “Words are words, but what comes right after the word is the activity. And the activity of being treated like a nigger is always in the air.”

We listened to the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical South Pacific. We heard that children must be taught to be afraid “of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade …. to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

To conclude our discussion on the controversy surrounding this event, I invited Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders and University Christian Church’s senior minister Tim Carson, one of Brite’s trustees, to talk with the class. On April 3, we were fortunate to hear their unique “insider” perspectives.

We heard them express skepticism that “safety and security” concerns were the primary considerations that motivated the institution to move the event. We heard that the summit’s organizers were turned away by 28 Fort Worth venues before they turned east to Dallas. We heard these two men express their own versions of the oft-heard statement that “this country needs to talk about race.”

The next day marked the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

With Wright’s explosive emergence on the national airwaves, it would be understandable for Fort Worth and TCU to embrace in a collective, self-congratulatory sigh of relief for not letting that circus come to this town! It was a good call — prudent if not profound.

But what if …? What if the original plans for March 29 had been kept? What might these students have learned if the TCU trustees’ executive committee had heeded those oft-stated calls for a national conversation about race? What if that conversation had actually begun here, in Fort Worth, on March 29?

What if Wright had been given a receptive, respectful venue at which he could respond to the public condemnations hurled at him? What might he have said then, rather than what he has pronounced after stewing in his self-imposed silence for another month?

This community had an opportunity to go beyond talking about talking about race. We could have started the conversation. Instead, we passed to avoid the front page, content to be merely a footnote.

Those who write history will determine whether this fortnight was just another two weeks in just another year, or whether it helped usher in a new season in the great American experiment of self-governance.

Or maybe this fortnight was just another two weeks of a 400-year winter that might never graduate to spring.

Steve Stockdale of Fort Worth is a member of the Star-Telegram community columnist panel.
© 2008 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.star-telegram.com