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A Vision of the Future in 2 Headlines

It’s bad enough to read a headline like this one tonight in The New York Times: Trump’s Budget Has Sharp Cuts for E.P.A. and State Dept. The story previews Trump’s “budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year,” which would “slash the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent … in a brash upending of the government’s priorities.”

But when the same front page has this headline as well–Large Sections of Australia’s Great Reef Are Now Dead, Scientists Say–it’s hard not to despair. The second story explains that “huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, were recently found to be dead, killed last year by overheated seawater.” If the words “overheated seawater” don’t make the underlying cause of the calamity clear, the article illuminates: “The state of coral reefs is a telling sign of the health of the seas. Their distress and death are yet another marker of the ravages of global climate change.”

So while the world suffers (and the Great Barrier Reef is just one of seemingly endless examples of the environmental disaster unfolding around us), our new president wants to cut funding to the lone agency responsible for monitoring and regulating greenhouse gases in the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Surprisingly (given the rush to censor damning data), the EPA still has information about greenhouses gases on its website, including this chart. Perhaps because it indicts China as the world’s largest polluter it’s considered non-fake news, but if the EPA’s budget is slashed, it will only make it easier for the U.S. to catch up fast.

Moonlight Memories

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I was lucky enough to attend the opening of Moonlight last October at the New York Film Festival. I remember reading the description of the film and thinking, “A movie about being black and gay? Sounds interesting.” And of course I was happy we bought the tickets because it turned out to be amazing.

I never posted the photos because I took them with my phone, which does a lousy job in low light. But in honor of Moonlight’s Oscar win, I thought I would celebrate by sharing them.

Congrats Barry Jenkins, Mahershala Ali, and the rest of the creators, cast and crew!

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All the News — Including Protests — that’s Fit to Print

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In the desire to protect American values — and rights — that are under direct fire (this week the vulnerable value is a free press — see this, this and this) a demonstration today started at The New York Times building and wended its way uptown to the studios of Fox News.

Protest signs might be the new street art, but my favorite signs at this gathering weren’t signs at all but the tape some people put over their mouths (although I also liked the “unpaid protester” sign, visible just above the hat of the woman with blue tape, below.)

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Protest is the new normal

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Jan 29 2017 Rally

It’s not surprising that “the most unpopular new president in modern times” is generating daily protests, including a vow to ensure rallies follow him wherever he goes. The remarkable thing is how many people show up at these rallies–three times as many showed in Washington for the Women’s March as attended his inauguration (and 2.5 million joined them around the world). Of course, numbers can always be questioned but with the president making such a big issue out of them, people seem to be more meticulous in their counting.

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These photos are from a protest and march on Jan 29, 2017 against Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-dominant countries. The march went from Battery Park to Foley Square. Media reported that about 10,000 attended but, as Trump would say, it looked like more than that to me.

The Plaza of Three Cultures (and Three Tragedies) in Mexico City

The Plaza of Three Cultures / Plaza de Tres Culturas is remarkable not only for the collision of past and present but the numerous tragedies that have occurred there, starting with Cortes’ massacre of the Aztecs followed hundreds of years later by the Army’s murder of hundreds of student protesters in 1968 and finally the 1985 earthquake.

We visited on Jan 5, a bright quiet day. There were only a few other tourists but the place was crowded with lessons and, no doubt, ghosts. An engraved sign commemorating Cuauhtemoc’s defense of Tlatelolco against Cortes takes a neutral position on the outcome: “Neither triumph nor defeat, it was the painful birth of the Mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.”

Sense of Risk: A Trampoline in Mexico

 

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When I was a little kid in Illinois, I remember some neighbors had toy trampolines in their backyards. But by the time I was eight or 10, they had all disappeared, and I remember my mother telling me they’d been banned as toys because too many people were getting injured.

Although I can’t find any record via Google that a ban actually occurred in the 1970s, there’s plenty of information today regarding the risks of casual trampolining and the precautions people should take. That’s why it was both alarming and refreshing when I saw these folks setting up a big trampoline for kids to play on in Parque de España in Mexico City.

Of course, safety is crucial. Playgrounds should be safe spaces. And I’m not saying that trampolines without safety belts and mats are safe toys. But I sometimes get the feeling that the average American playground is too safe.

Does every swing and jungle gym need a mat under it? Isn’t it sometimes OK if a kid, while playing, gets a scrape or a bruise now and then?

Exvotos: Mexican Folk Art

I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.
I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.

I’ve always loved Mexican exvotos (or ex-votos) ever since I bought one in a little shop in Merida in 2006. At the time I didn’t know they were a form of folk art with a long tradition. I was simply struck by the painting’s emotion. Traditionally, exvotos are left in churches to express gratitude to God, a saint or some intercessor for a miracle. The one I bought depicted 9-11 and flames pouring out of the Twin Towers. On the bottom, it expressed thanks that the author’s cousin survived the attack.

The simplicity of the medium–paint on tin–and the earnestness of the message moved me. But I was also intrigued by the contemporary setting and my connection to it. Of course, the whole world is connected to 9-11 thanks to its ongoing impact on international affairs. But I was also living just a few miles from the World Trade Center and remember the day vividly. The weather was confusingly beautiful, sunny and warm, even as we wondered what the hell was going and worried if anyone we knew had died or was trapped in the rubble. I remember playing in the park with my son, a toddler, who remained unaware despite the fact that fighter jets were racing back and forth and thousands of people were streaming on foot through the streets, wending their way home after the shut-down of public transportation. The exvoto reminded me that I, or New Yorkers, or even Americans, weren’t the only ones worrying. The person who wrote the note about her cousin had also been worrying. Who knows how long she had to wait before news of her cousin’s survival reached her.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if the story about the cousin was real–if someone had been expressing her specific thanks for the survival of a specific person through the creation of this particular exvoto. At the time, I imagined that a woman had written her thanks in a note and left it on an altar and a folk artist had picked it up and painted the scene. But now I know, thanks to Google, that exvotos are a votive offering that frequently combine text and imagery. (The National Library of Medicine had an exhibit on “Medical Imagery in Ex-Votos” in 2008-2009.)

I’m pretty sure that if my exvoto had been connected to a real person, it would have been in a church, not for sale in a shop in Merida. (Then again maybe the church where it had been brought as an offering had been overflowing with exvotos and had sold some off). In the end, I don’t care too much about my exvoto’s provenance. I still find it moving, expressing something true even if the “cousin” is fiction.

This brings me to the exvoto I bought today. Perhaps it isn’t really an exvoto because it doesn’t express thanks. It simply tells a story. “Calixto Verrera and Carmen saw in the sky a flying saucer that followed them to the Zumpango Lagoon.–Zumpango, April 1940.” I asked the artist, Rafael Cardenas, where he found the story. He pointed to his head and fluttered his fingers, indicating he’d made it up. But the date–where did that come from? I asked. Again, he fluttered his fingers around his head and smiled. I asked (not sure why I bothered) about the levitating Lucha Libre fighter, which has nothing to do with the text, and he just laughed.

I found an article about an exhibit, Favores insólitos (Unusual favors), at the National Museum of Popular Cultures in Coyoacán, Mexico City, in 2012 that featured a new brand of exvotos. Contreras’ work was among those featured in the exhibit. According to the curator, Raúl Cano Monroy, classic exvotos became far less common in the 1980s when the painted plates were replaced by “copias fotostáticas, fotografías y recetas médicas, objetos varios, como trofeos, muletas y prótesis” (photostatic copies, photographs and medical prescriptions, various objects such as trophies, crutches and prostheses.)

But the exvoto lives on, as demonstrated in the museum’s exhibit. As Monroy explained in the article: “No obstante, el exvoto tomó un nuevo camino, en el cual hay dos vertientes: la primera es imitar milagros ya existentes en los exvotos tradicionales, cambiando nombres, escenarios, milagreros, ciudades y hasta santos intercesores, con la única característica de que se trata de milagros ficticios. La segunda se deriva de mostrar temáticas desde inusuales hasta transgresoras, que van en contra de la religiosidad y la doctrina católica.”

(However, the exvoto took a new path, in which there are two approaches: the first is to imitate miracles already existing in the traditional exvotos, changing names, scenarios, miracles, cities and even intercessor saints, with the only characteristic that is Of fictitious miracles. The second is derived from showing themes from unusual to transgressive, which go against religious and Catholic doctrine.)

I suppose the exvoto I bought in 2006 fits the first category as it may be fictional in regards to the person named but not fictional in spirit. And the second may be transgressive for not only depicting a UFO as a reality but for not offering thanks to a saint or spiritual intercessor for saving Calixto Verrera and Carmen from being captured and experimented on or perhaps being whisked away to a distant star.

Post-Election Post-Its for Post-Traumatic Stress

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The Union Square subway station is full of emotional Post-its mourning the outcome of the election. What’s remarkable isn’t the sheer quantity. What’s remarkable is that three weeks after the election no one has torn them down. I would have thought a Trump supporter would have tried; or someone tasked with cleaning the subway would have done it. At the very least, I’d expect a homeless person to hear a voice telling him to do so.

Maybe people are taking them down and other people are adding new ones every day. In any event, it’s a remarkable record of the shock, grief and fear generated by Trump’s victory.

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Combating Human Trafficking in Houston

One of the best parts of my day job is that I get to meet and talk to people who are trying to make the world a better place. Ann Johnson, an assistant district attorney and the human trafficking section chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Texas, is one of those people. Her office is making a concerted effort to stop human trafficking.

A key step in their efforts is to recognize that people arrested for prostitution are victims rather than criminals. Instead of charging these victims with a crime (as many prosecutors around the country still do) Ann’s team either dismisses the cases outright or at least offers a way to avoid prosecution.

One of the office’s diversion programs, SAFE Court, gives those aged 17 to 25 who are charged with prostitution the opportunity to clear the charge from their criminal records by completing a year-long program of monitoring and social services.

You can listen to my interview with Ann here or on iTunes.