Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers and Stanford head football coach. (Robert Durell / LAT/; Dec. 22, 2006.)

Bill Walsh, deceased yesterday after a long siege of leukemia, might seem an improbable figure for a leftist San Franciscan to admire. After all, like most white men in athletics, especially authority figures, we can probably assume that his political leanings were Republican. Nonetheless, Walsh, and the 49er teams he coached, were vital to many here in making the Reagan decade somewhat bearable. We might be losing out to empire, AIDS, and union busting, but our football heroes were kicking butt.

Some of the hallmarks of Walsh's teams are attributes that progressive activists could adopt to our benefit.
  • Preparation: Walsh didn't beat his athletes to death in practice. Instead, he drilled them exhaustively on how to take advantage of all possible contingencies. All that study wasn't necessarily what some of those beefy guys thrived on, but to be 49ers, they had to apply themselves to it. How often have activists held a demonstration or even created a press event and not thought through, and practiced, all the possible ways to take advantage of it?
  • Imagination: At the same time that Walsh teams were so thoroughly drilled, his schemes were inventive, not rule bound. He created opportunities for brilliant athletes to use their fullest capacities, once they mastered the game. Think Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, greatest of the greats. When progressives do plan fully and strategically, do we then unleash our creativity and talents in our actions? What enables us to find the right mix between preparation, planning and brilliant improvisation?
  • Will to win: Walsh teams played to win. Sometimes that made him look like an ogre, especially when he let aging athletes go (even Montana) when they had only barely passed their peak. He chose greater loyalty to the team's potential victories than to individuals. Progressives can't be throwing away our more developed leaders. But our leaders need to cultivate a sense of responsibility to living communities and find paths on which to step aside before their individual needs become obstacles to the continued life of the group. Walsh did this, quitting after three Super Bowls, but leaving a legacy of talent that won two more.

    "What really made Bill special is that he understood that the game was bigger than him. His genius was not centered around Xs and O's; it was centered around his ability to create a platform that made the game inclusive to others.

    Ronnie Lott,
    Hall of Fame defensive back,
    LA Times

    R.I.P., Bill Walsh.

Back in town...

After a few mountains...

... and a few lakes.

Some critters ...

and one dramatic misstep -- not mine, and, we hope, not long-lasting. But painful. The medical clinic in Yosemite Valley sets broken bones kindly and quickly.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I need hills...

For the next several days, I really will be offline, in the high Sierras. I need some hills to restore my soul, before once again contemplating the collapse of decency and democracy at the center of our polity.

These pictures are from two years ago. I doubt if there is any snow in these places now -- it has been a dry year.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More religious images from Mexico

These are from the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.

When you walk in from the Zocalo, the great plaza, this figure of the crucified Christ is just about the first thing you see.

The altar adjacent is architecturally grand, ornate, and completely covered in gold. I found the display of wealth slightly disconcerting.

Our guide reported a legend told to explain why this Jesus has black skin: a long time ago, there was a bishop. This bishop was very devout, and every day he began the morning by kissing the feet of an image of the crucified Christ. The bishop had an enemy who wanted to kill him and who knew of this devotional habit, so the enemy put poison on the feet of the statue. But the bishop remained unharmed. The Cristo Negro absorbed the poison and its skin turned black. Or so it is said...

In an obscure side chapel, the same guide pointed us to a gory figure of a seated, tired, and bleeding -- but presumably resurrected -- Jesus. The skin color, hair, and facial features appear European. But according to the guide, this is one of the oldest images in the Cathedral, a statue formed out of a maize paste by Indian artisans at the very beginning of the colonial occupation.

All I can say about any of this is that the interplay of racial ideas, privilege, ethnicities, and cultures in Mexico presents complexities beyond the understanding of a tourist on a quick visit. But despite knowing I cannot be certain that I can meaningfully interpret what I was seeing, it was a gift to have a chance to see it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Yesterday we rode the moving walkway below the famous relic of the Virgin of Guadalupe at her basilica in Mexico City and looked up at it from this angle. I was almost afraid to go -- would this shrine to the mother of Jesus (and of Mexico), a mother who revealed herself to a poor indigenous peasant, be exploitative or simply tacky? At least on this day, we were thrilled to find it neither, but rather very moving indeed.

"Am I not here with you, your mother?" The new basilica where "her shawl" resides is grand in the way of modern Roman Catholic architecture, for me reminiscent of the 70s vintage cathedral in San Francisco.

The old basilica sits next door, leaning badly after surviving a few too many earthquakes. Inside, it is under repair, full of scaffolding.

Up a short steep hill there is another chapel and the sites where the Virgin is reported to have appeared to Juan Diego.

There is also yet another small church, an architectural gem, dating from the 18th century, the "Templo del Pocito" (the small well). It's details are worth looking at more closely:

Were the Spanish builders of that era perhaps influenced by Moorish designs?

When we entered the basilica, mass had just begun. The hall was full of pilgrims, many families with babies, and some Mexican tourists. It was certainly not packed.

Judging by his miter (pointy hat) and staff, it was clear the celebrant was a bishop.

When the bishop rose to preach, we were astonished by his homily. Our friends in Mexico didn't accompany us on this visit to the basilica; they are among the millions of progressives here who have given up on the church as a guardian of property and unjust privilege. The Vatican has done a good job in Mexico of killing off any whiff of Liberation Theology, the radical Roman Catholic "preferential option for poor" outlined by some Latin American bishops. Yet what follows is a pretty accurate paraphrase of this bishop's preaching:

In Jesus, God lived lives among us, among you, alongside us. Jesus came to save us from our sins -- but sin is not just things individuals do wrong. Sin is also social. The system that creates poverty and violence is sin.

Our people suffer many kinds of sin, many kinds of violence. Narco-trafficking is a sinful violence. Violence in the home against women and children is also a sin.

There's not only violence between the people, but also violence done by state authorities to the people -- detentions, torture, and militarization. The army has been used against the people. The conditions that caused the violence in Oaxaca last year still exist; nothing has changed. [This was said as news of riots in Oaxaca last week and fears of more protests to come were the content of the front pages of newspapers.]

There is still no justice for the families of the 65 miners buried alive in the collapse of an unsafe mine in February. [The families are campaigning for prosecution of the mine owner -- they stand in the Zocalo in Mexico City with their banners.]

It is a wrong that there is no work for our people, so they have to travel to the north to work. There should be a just immigration law in the United States that protects those who go to work. As well, Mexico should understand the people displaced by the forces of global business who come north to Mexico! Mexico also should have fair and honest laws respecting immigrants from Central America.

When we told our friends about the content of the sermon, they were amazed. It seems we had stumbled into a service presided over by Mexico's sole "red bishop" -- Raul Vera Lopez from the backwater rural state of Coahuila.

Vera is quite a guy. He was made a bishop and sent to Chiapas with the expectation that he'd be a conservative successor to Mexico's last "red bishop" -- Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Crisobal. Instead, he too came to believe that his role was to defend his flock, the poor and marginalized, so he was shunted to the hinterland. There, he continues to outrage conservative Mexicans and the Vatican. He has spoken up for women raped by soldiers and for legalization of same sex couples. It certainly was a great privilege to hear this courageous priest preach.

The war is lost. Get used to it.

Juan Cole provides a roundup of what Democratic candidates said about Iraq in yesterday's debate. What jumped out at me was how much most are still attached to the illusion that the U.S. controls its own fate in the Iraq devastation we have made. They don't get it or they refuse to level with us: when you lose a war -- and the U.S. has lost a war -- you lose control.
  • BIDEN: you cannot pull out of Iraq without the follow-on that's been projected here, unless you have a political solution. ...
  • CLINTON: the best estimate is that we can probably move a brigade a month, if we really accelerate it, maybe a brigade and a half or two a month. That is a lot of months. My point is: They're not even planning for that in the Pentagon.
  • OBAMA: We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses. They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region. . .
  • RICHARDSON: The diplomatic work cannot begin to heal Iraq, to protect our interests, without troops out.
Only Richardson seems honestly to be thinking in terms of how to restore lost U.S. influence. All of them simply assume that U.S. power is fundamentally undiminished by our crime in Iraq. This is not true. The U.S. is still the world's superpower, but this little adventure by our petroleum barons and Likudniks has genuinely diminished U.S. power. The world is not automatically better off for U.S. weakness, but that weakness has been shown.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Off the everyday tourist track

When you have good friends who live in a foreign place, you get to see a little more than you might if you only had a guidebook. Of course that doesn't mean you understand what you see. Some parts of Mexico City's Mercado Sonora I'd never have seen without friends. Make of them what you can.

There's nothing strange about folks using traditional herbal remedies. I'm glad I can visit an accomplished Chinese acupuncturist at home for my medicines. Check these prescriptions available at the market.

Down the aisle, these hanging diablos began to take us a bit further out of everyday consciousness.

Devils and skeletons are common in Mexican folklore, but we're getting a little macabre here.

Now we're getting to the deeper stuff: "Santa Muerte's [Lady Death's] magic spells and amulets, both black and white magic, prepared here for your home or business." Looks like she is doing okay.

Under her skirt, she appears to be well fed.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Emigration: some Mexican views

I write a lot about immigration into the United States on this blog. I am very aware of and sympathetic toward the millions of people who are driven by economic desperation to cross the border from Mexico into the United States to find work. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has decimated traditional Mexican agriculture, flooding the country with U.S. crops; big corporations' search for ever cheaper labor has sent factory jobs to China and Central America. So hungry men leave in search of work to feed the women and children left behind.

In Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Antropologia, a large area is devoted to showing how various subgroups of the Mexican population have preserved their customs and way of life. The focus is on those of predominantly indigenous descent.

Many of these displays end with a note about the effects of ongoing, increasing, out-migration. Here's most of one:

The [Purepecha] Family
The family is the basic unit for the organization of the social relationships in each domestic group, extended family, district, town, region, and even among those who have emigrated.

... Purepecha is reproduced and renewed when the family builds a house, works the land, manufactures goods, prepares traditional food, educates small children, marries, worships the dead, holds religious positions, and in general, keeps alive "the custom" and "the belief" that rule the thought and behavior of the Purepecha people.

It is the responsibility of the organized groups of families to keep traditions alive. The principles underlying their organization can [must] overcome such trials as the separation of the family due to the absence of some of its members or the lack of interest of many young people in participating in the system of the positions. [The Museum's English with my interpolation and emphasis.]

And here is yet another such anthropological description of social havoc.

The Family in the Pueblos
The nuclear family or domestic group is the center of social organization in the pueblos, traditional communities. Its unity and cohesion are essential to survival and cooperation in the community. ...

Generally, the family is the unit of production and consumption. Within the group, each member has a particular standing and job in accordance with age and sex. ...

Traditional rituals reinforce the links between families when needed to meet the many challenges to the life of the community as well as proscribing roles in various civic and religious duties.

These arrangements have been strained by constant emigration and abandonment of the community by some men and even complete nuclear families. [My very free translation and my emphasis.]

What looks to some in the United States like an invasion looks to many in Mexico like the death of ancient ways of life.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A no-bullshit story of human evolution

We spent today visiting Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Antropologia, one of the world's great museums. Most of its vast space is devoted to displays of the artifacts of the ancient peoples and civilizations that occupied the territory of modern Mexico before the European conquest. The collection is astonishing, educational, and wondrous. See it if you can.

But what I enjoyed most was the no-bullshit presentation of human evolution. Mexican anthropologists don't seem to have to bother with fighting off creationists -- and they aren't about to let their young people get any less than scientific ideas about humans. From the text setting the scene in the introductory gallery:

Our planet is approximately 4,500 million years old. Life in its oceans began about 3,500 million years ago.... In order to survive, living beings have undergone evolutionary changes that involve anatomical, reproductive and behavioral modifications. All these changes have led to variations within one single species, the occupation of new spaces [niches], the emergence of new species, and also, extinction.

Against this background, the order Primates, to which human beings belong, has a history of more than 50 million years in a wide variety of environments. ... [A]nthropology, through the study of fossil remains and modern primates, can trace the evolutionary relationships, presenting a mirror that reminds us that we are part of the history of the world and of the animal kingdom, and not as we had believed, that we were created to have nature at our service. [The museum's English with my interpolations.]

The museum makes no bones about showing hominids of the era of "Lucy" -- the ancient skeleton found at Olduvai Gorge in the Rift Valley in Tanzania -- living alongside, and looking much like, great apes.

And the museum does not limit its portrayal of evolution to physical features. Evolution has created new relationships, a new shape to the world ecosystem.

The domestication of plants and animals did not mean, as we used to think, the domination of humans over nature. On the contrary, what happened was the symbiotic development of relationships between people, animals, and plants that enabled all to survive. In this relationship, plants and animals acquired characteristics that humans found advantageous and over time underwent physical and behavioral changes that increased those benefits.

The result was that humans, together with those plants and animals, extended their species over the whole planet. [My translation.]

This lovely figure is supposed to represent another of those early hominids.

I can't imagine that a U.S. museum would so matter-of-factly include a human birth among its vignettes of our ancestors.

The room devoted to setting the evolutionary context of human pre-history concludes with a wonderful electronic display in which a whole wall is covered with pictures of skulls that morph into human faces of both sexes and every racial group. The visitor is pointed on toward the artifact displays with these words:

...the human beings who crossed into the Americas continued to evolve (biologically and socially) simultaneously yet independently of those who remained in the Old World. Separation from their groups of origin and their internal recombination [interbreeding] slowly gave them their own characteristics, both biological and cultural; their new habitat became the melting pot that gave rise to a whole range of societies, in response to the needs for survival in different environments, climates, and geographical regions, as well as the need for their own internal cultural development. [The museum's English with my interpolation.]

I wish very much that more people in the U.S. could be exposed to such an uncompromising understanding that, whatever we humans may be and aspire to be spiritually, our species is the marvelous product of the interactions of our material, social and physical history and circumstances. We are not diminished by seeing the truth of our evolutionary history.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Veracruz: El Danzon

A summer night in the Mexican port city of Veracruz is steamy, intensely humid despite ocean breezes. To step outside is to walk into a wall of damp heat.

But several evenings a week, chairs are set up in the plaza in the shadow of the cathedral and dancers perform el danzon. This is a dance of tightly choreographed, subtle moves, that rewards long practice with a well-known partner. That is -- the best dancers are not the showy young, but the old and comfortable, who dance for the joy of movement.

The spectators, as many apparently local as from out of town, are fascinated.

These two were obviously accomplished dancers, but were perhaps a little too theatrical for this occasion. A friend wondered, "Did they just come back from Argentina?"

This couple better personified the spirit of el danzon. He was as good a dancer as any on the plaza; she had perhaps lost a step, but they danced tune after tune with quiet delight.

This child wanted to know why we were speaking English and did we like el danzon. After we gave satisfactory answers, she agreed to have her picture taken. Maybe someday she'll be out there on the floor.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Flying: Los voladores

Yesterday we visited the archeological site at Cempoala, just north of Veracruz. This is not one of Mexico's grand archeological remnants -- though I'm not knocking the labor that went into moving all these stones. It dates from not long prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, the folks who built these ceremonial grounds allied with Hernan Cortez against theie neighboring enemies, the Mexicas. Not that this won them anything; within a few years most of the indigenous inhabitants had succumbed to small pox or been enslaved by the white guys with the high tech armaments.

The highlight of this visit was getting to see the flight of los voladores. Okay -- this show is a little hokey -- an adaptation of what must certainly have been quite a solemn, religious ceremony now serving to extract the tourist dollar. But what a show!

Four men in pseudo-Aztec costume climb a 35-meter high pole.

They wind the ropes they are tied to around the central column by rotating the platform.

When fully wound, the ropes form a tight knot around the top of the pole.

A leader-musician climbs up to join them ...

...and honors the four directions with pipe and drum while standing on top of the column.

Meanwhile their similarly costumed assistant solicits $2 each from the crowd of spectators.

Finally los voladores launch themselves into whirling flight...

...while the piper continues to play.

The four swing round and round...

...in what appears to be a trance, a meditative state.

All good things must end.

I wonder what it is like to pull oneself out of that silent trance and re-enter gravity? That must be a moment of danger.
Back in the tourist shops, the piper appears as a calaca.