Friday, November 23, 2007


I always take a nature walk on Thanksgiving morning. Don't get me wrong. I put no stock in the holiday. I am always thankful for this life. I don't need no special day to remind me of it. The only thing I'm extra thankful for is that I don't have to go to the job, but Martin Luther King Day functions just as well for that. I do, however, enjoy the meal.

The day, for me at least, has become the gateway to winter. That was an unequivocally good thing back in Arizona. Here in the east, not so much. Of course I'm happy that the insufferable heat and humidity have come to an end, but there's also a grim realization that there will be long cold grey stretches when I will find myself under-dressed for the weather and a long way from warmth.

Yesterday, unfortunately, was warm, at least in the morning when I took my walk. The fall foliage was just on the backside of its full glory, so I snapped a few pictures with the toy camera. At this point I usually point out that I am not a nature photographer and that I don't really consider nature photography much of an art, but I've put so much thought and effort into nature photography over the past few years that I might as well admit to what I am. It's not all of me, but it is a part.

The typical, ultra-beautiful nature photography you normally see is very expensive to produce. It requires professional cameras and lenses and a lot of patience. In addition, it often requires the expense of going to some incredibly beautiful place. If you really want a fantastic nature shot, it's so much easier to go to Iceland and rent a helicopter. That's what the pros do.

But you and I reader, we are out there with toy cameras. We can all look at nature and see great beauty, but photographing it is not as easy as seeing it. Think of all the boring photos of hills and trees you have seen, and probably taken. The scene was beautiful. The resulting photograph, not. The problem goes beyond our lack of expensive equipment, though expensive equipment definitely helps. To get a nice photo in an everyday location with a toy camera requires a different way of communicating the visual aspects of nature. Toy cameras cannot capture reality in all its resolution, but when understood, they can communicate an impressionistic representation of reality. The picture above, for example, works for me in that respect. It was taken with a toy camera and it accurately communicates a large part of what I saw on my traditional Thanksgiving morning walk. With extended scrutiny, I believe, you can discern many different ways of looking at it. Of course the critic inside says that one way of looking at it is that it sucks because the tree splits the picture more or less down the middle. Yes and I could crop it to fit the classical guidelines of effective composition, but in this case I found I preferred the results of the broken rule. It's more challenging to appreciate, but more rewarding as well.

Ah, but photographs be damned. I'm not working on Thanksgiving. I'm walking, resting, contemplating the coming winter. I wish it were cold, gray, drizzling, with perhaps a few snow flurries. That would be my kind of Thanksgiving.

Here is another photo from yesterday that takes advantage of the inherent limitations of the toy camera. Some days I guess I just like busy, poorly composed photographs. Weatherwise though, it's a much better harbinger of what's to come.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chuck and me

As I’ve said on several occasions, I think Charles Bowden is one of the best writers working today. I don’t know you, reader, so am curious to know if you have ever heard of him? I would guess not. Bowden is all over the place and so are his books. Most are found in either the environmental section of the book store, or in crime. I don’t know about you, reader, but those are not aisles I usually frequent.

Most likely. I only know about Bowden because I lived in Tucson where he is a well-known local writer. But it’s remotely possible I would have noticed him anyway. He’s a regular contributor to Harper’s Magazine, which I read cover-to-cover each month so I would have read him there. Would that have led me to go out and buy his books? Probably not.

I first came across his work when I was writing about water issues in the southwest. Bowden had written book called Killing the Hidden Waters which, although slim, is a definitive work on the subject.

Later, I worked at the same newspaper where he had been a reporter. By that time I had read Blue Desert and Desierto, both of which contain a lot of great writing, so I was interested in the work he had done at the paper. Nothing in those books prepared me for what I was to find when I read his clip file. Sitting in that library, reading those words, was a harrowing literary experience similar to getting punched in the stomach repeatedly only much more unpleasant. If you’ve ever wondered what woul happen if you put one of the world’s greatest word smiths on the sex crime beat, I can tell you from experience that you probably don’t want to know. There are a lot of soul sickening facts in them there clips.

Bowden writes about those days in Blues for Cannibals. Even at that great distance, it’s still one of the most powerful stories I have ever come across and I think it’s obligatory reading if you want to understand where Bowden got his depth. Hell, it should be obligatory reading for any number of reasons. And it’s also interesting that it was during this time that Bowden went on long desert walks and wrote the essays that would end up in Blue Desert and other early works.

I had plenty of opportunities to meet Chuck, but never did. When I lived in Tucson we had mutual friends at the newspaper and mutual interests about the desert and border. I was writing about those things and Bowden is God on the subject. People often encouraged me to call him up and ask about various issues, but I never did. I would have liked to have got to know him personally, but asking him to tell me about NAFTA would have just been a pretext to meet a famous person and I am not the fan-boy type.

But that combination of local hero, near colleague and personal connection, however slight, does make me question my objectivity when it come to commenting on the quality of his writing. We often fail to see the flaws in those we feel close to, including distant celebrities. Or we exaggerate their good qualities.

Although Bowden’s writing abilities are not exactly trumpeted far and wide, he is well-respected by those who read him. William Langewiesche, writing in the New York Times Book Review, does a good job of explaining his appeal:

Is ''Down by the River'' an exposé, a history, a biography, a memoir, an adventure story, a philosophical musing? It is all of those things, reportage on the highest level, and it moves between the categories without hesitation or apology. It is a sort of poetry, too. When Bowden lets loose, he writes as if in a fever...

The result is certainly much more than a crime story: it is a mature, deeply felt exploration of the hidden connections binding two very different parts of North America, as well as of the ties that bind a family. The narrative is masterly...

Who else writes like that? Is the process instinctive or calculated? Whatever his method, the images and rhythms are beautifully chosen. Indeed, how better could anyone convey the textures of the shadow world? Bowden calls himself a reporter, and in a pure sense of the word he really is one. He is also an authentic talent. Even at his most stylistically extreme, he does not seem strained or self-indulgent...

Yes. Highest level reporting. Moves between categories. Poetry. Fever. Hidden Connections. Masterly. Stylistically extreme. Those are apt descriptions of Bowden's work.

But you, reader, may feel differently? It’s not uncommon to find that Bowden’s books hang together by the slimmest of narrative threads. Most of them are collections of essays, many written on assignment, that have some level, often difficult to discern, of thematic consistency. Blood Orchid is a very good example of how Bowden may impose a unifying theme long after the individual parts have been written. Nevertheless, for that kind of thing to work, there must be an underlying thematic constancy. That underlying constancy, and its nature, is what elevates Bowden as a whole so far above the parts. That, and the incredible writing talent he displays at the sentence and paragraph levels.

And beyond writing ability, you have to give him credit as a reporter for going far, far deeper into the Mexican drug trade and living to write so well about it. Down by the River is one of the scariest books you could ever read.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Down by the border

If you came here hoping to read a long article about illegal immigration, I've got just the thing. Me? I tend to read the writer rather than the topic. Normally, I would rather poke additional holes in my head than read a 10 click piece about the Mexican exodus, but Charles Bowden is to my taste the best non-fiction writer working today and this article he wrote for Mother Jones is an excellent piece of journalism.

It is a somewhat uncommon piece of work for Bowden because it is more or less straight journalism. Unlike so much of his work, there is nothing wild or exhilarating in the prose, narrative or story. It is journalism, plain and simple. Well, plain perhaps, okay relatively plain, plain for Charles Bowden, but not so simple. In addition to his great skill as a writer, Bowden is one of those rare individuals who clearly sees the future. He sees it in much greater detail than other seers. He's been seeing it for years.

Nearly 15 percent of the Mexican workforce now resides in the United States. When the dust settles, this exodus will influence us more than the Iraq war. The war is who we are; the migrants are who we will be.

Bowden, like all good journalists, puts a human face onthe grand, impersonal forces of history:
A pair of Border Patrol trucks sit empty, the agents off on ATVs hunting Mexicans. Two kids sit nearby. The girl is 22; her brother, 16. They've been trying to flag down Border Patrol units that roar by, but no one will stop. They came up from Oaxaca City. They're Zapotec Indians, but because they haven't been raised in an Indian pueblo, they see themselves as city kids, as Mexicans. For 16 days, they've been on the road.

First they took the bus up to the border. Then they paid a coyote $800 to guide them across. The first time, they got caught and deported. This time, they got separated from their group and they say they have now wandered the desert for four days. I don't believe them about the four days––they look too clean––but clearly they are broken in spirit...

He weighs maybe 110 pounds, and she not more than 85. They are small–boned and their skin is dark and shines with life. Both move with the light tread of cats. An hour ago, I found a shawl out in the desert of a pattern and style made only in Yucatán. Everyone is moving.

I give the girl $40 and tell her to hide the money because Sásabe is not an easy place. They climb in and I take them to the border crossing and wish them good luck. The agents manning the U.S. station watch them climb out and walk into Mexico.

They ask me if the pair worked for me, and I say no, that they are two kids from Oaxaca sneaking into the United States, that they said they'd wandered in the desert for four days and were very thirsty and hungry.

They tell me what I have just done is illegal and could cost me a lot of money and put me in jail.

I say I know that fact.

They look at me with sad eyes and wave me on.

It's not easy for anyone in the future.

One of Bowden's strength's is his ability to gain the trust of so many different types of people on both sides of the border. Like Hunter S. Thompson, he is able to "wallow with the eagles and soar with the pigs." Not that all of the criminals in Bowden's stories are eagles. Many of them are pigs. Pigs, to you and me at least. Bowden tends to see them a bit more sympathetically. I'm sure that has something to do with why they talk with him.
We talk for hours. He laughs easily, but not for a single second does he ever express sympathy for the pollos. After they get off that bus and start north into the United States, they fall between two worlds, and people such as him wait in this space.

He is not a bad man. The Border Patrol agents are not bad people. The Minutemen, the polleros, the human rights folks putting water bottles out in the desert, well, I've met them all and they are not bad people.

As for you and me, the jury is still out.

I don't think Bowden really believes that the jury is still out. No, the verdict is in and we were found guilty and sentenced to the future. Can anything be done to stop the wave? Bowden discusses the possibilities throughout the article, but this little quote sums it up:
A few days earlier, I was staying at a ranch an hour south of Austin. A local white guy came out to spray the buildings for termites. He'd spent his life in nearby Gonzales, a town of 7,000 where the Texas revolt from Mexico began. He asked me what I was doing there.

I said, "I'm a friend of the owners. I'm down here writing about migrants."

He looked puzzled for a moment and then asked, "When you say migrants, do you mean wetbacks?"


"Well, what do you think we should do?"

"You might as well ask me what I think we should do about hurricanes."

And that future? Couldn't be more obvious:
We want an answer, a solution. But there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. At the moment, we insist on the wrong answer to the wrong question. And so, the Border Patrol will grow.There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Jesus camp

Kinda putting an unintentional coda to the recent articles that touch on evolution, I watched Jesus Camp last night. Jesus Camp is about how elements of the Christian right go about indoctrinating children to be warriors for “Christ.” I put Christ in quotes because nothing they say has anything to do with the common conception of Christ. It’s uncomfortably funny how they make up everything as they go along. The construction “Jesus told me to” is so common you stop hearing it after awhile, which is unfortunate because the things “Jesus” tells them to do are often downright wacky and include taking over the military and the government so they can punish sinners such as ourselves. I wasn’t looking for the movie, it’s not like I want to think about these dangerous shits, I just came across it at the library and chose not to resist.

Of course it’s always been convenient for people on the make to imagine Jesus telling them to do whatever it is they want to do whether it’s killing people, taking their money or just taking out the trash, but it’s a little more enlightening to see that insane nonsense come out of the mouths of brainwashed children. You think with all you know about right wing religious kooks you’re prepared for it, but odds are good it’s worse than you think.

I don’t use the term “brainwashed” lightly. The methods these Christian nuts use are identical to those described by William Sargent in the classic Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing. In short, Sargent details how new beliefs can be instilled in the mammalian brain when it buckles under extreme duress. He leans on Pavlov’s dogs and the wave of religions conversions instigated by the 18th century fire and brimstone preacher John Wesley to explain how people’s deepest beliefs can be changed in an instant and stay changed for the rest of their lives. Wesley used tales of eternal damnation to excite people to the point of collapse, at which point he would give them new things to believe in. You see the exact same thing happening in the movie. The children are scared with theatrical talk of the devil and a world gone terribly wrong. They start shaking, mumbling and rolling their eyes. They collapse on the floor. Then they’re told what they have to believe, what they have to do to be saved. It is genuinely sickening. If you ever see Becky Fischer talking to your kids, get them away from her as fast as you can. She is one truly dangerous individual. What she does to children is a horrible form of child abuse.

Beyond the enlightening content of the movie, I have a few qualms about the way it is presented. The filmmakers do an excellent job of giving the nuts all the rope they need to hang themselves and the nuts happily oblige. But not content to let their words and actions speak for themselves, they bring in an anti-right -wing-Christian-nuts radio host to lecture us about how bad the right wing Christian nuts are. Someone with no grasp of the facts could think he was no better than the brainwashers. His methods aren’t really that different.

That, and they use the audio and video to influence the audience perception of the Christians. Disturbing music often plays low in the background while the Christians are talking. Strange video sequences heighten the sense of dread beyond what the people are actually saying, which is bad enough. The content of this film is disturbing enough on its own. The cheap tricks took my mind off the content and undercut the message. On the positive side, I was very impressed with the cinematography. The camera people took a lot of chances and got some great images.

The Christians in the movie don’t spend a lot of time talking about evolution, but when they do you see how disgusted they are with the fact that we humans and apes are closely related. That’s what it really comes down to when all the other lame rationalizations are brushed aside. They just can’t bear to think of themselves as monkeys. As noted below, they were created in the image of God, they think, and it hurts them to accept that God looks more like King Kong than Charlton Heston. But that’s the logic, isn’t it? If their religion is true and evolution is true, then God is monkey.

Makes no difference to me either way. God or not, I realized I was just a monkey man a long time ago. And I trust you are a monkey, too.