Sense of Risk: A Trampoline in Mexico



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.

New Animated Video Highlights Ways Courts Can be More Sensitive to Diverse Populations

I helped write, direct and produce this animated video that encourages courts to become more user friendly for diverse populations. Although it might seem simple and straight forward, a lot of discussion and planning went into every aspect, from the script to the animation to the music.


Post-Election Post-Its for Post-Traumatic Stress


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.

Paul Zeigler’s Piano Concerto No. 2


Music is a mystery to me. How a composer composes. How a musician plays. How an orchestra collaborates.

I was reminded of the mystery today when my husband and I attended the premiere of our friend Paul Zeigler‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey. The piece was amazing: vibrant, exciting, imaginative. It made me marvel at how Paul was able to compose something so complex–keeping all the melodies and instruments in his head as he invented the piece at this piano.

I wonder if it isn’t that different from writing a novel. Sometimes I have trouble keeping track of the characters and the plot lines, especially as a story grows long and intricate. But then maybe characters are like the instruments of an orchestra, each with his or her own voice, attitude and role. I’ve used various stratagems to keep track of the plot–an outline that I keep updating and periodic surveys of the entire manuscript. But it ain’t easy!

It’s Finally Time

Here are a few photos from this historic moment, including a fortuitously named subway station in Brooklyn that proved prescient in 1992 and hopefully will prove just as prescient today. I also saw the longest line I’ve ever seen in nearly 30 years of voting at our local elementary school, a surprise considering the outcome in New York is a foregone conclusion. But then we New Yorkers have strong opinions about our native son and daughter, hating one and being more favorably disposed (peoples’ feelings range from true adoration to lesser-of-two-evils) toward the other.

The line to vote at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 8 outside our local elementary school on the Upper West Side. I came back later to vote but I heard that the line moved quickly.
The line to vote at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 8 outside our local elementary school on the Upper West Side. I came back later to vote but I heard that the line moved quickly.


I didn’t realize that some subway stops have their own Wikipedia entries.
The Public Theater has been doing its part to encourage civic participation.

Not too Noisy in Boise

I spent a few days in Boise, Idaho, this week working on a video about the Ada County Domestic Violence Court.

The downtown was old-style and human-scale. The domed capitol building, surrounded by a lovely park, conveyed the sense that democracy was within reach of the people. And I found something comforting in the presence of coin operated newspaper dispensers, which I haven’t seen (or at least noticed) in ages in New York.

I’d expected to see Trump signs everywhere but I didn’t see any. Nor did I see any for Hillary. Perhaps it’s because there’s no question that Idaho is a red state so people don’t feel it’s necessary to promote their candidate; or maybe people don’t want to antagonize their neighbors. Then again, I only saw a small sliver of the community, mostly the downtown area, and I suppose people tend to muzzle partisanship in commercial districts so as not to offend customers.

There are diverse opinions everywhere, a fact I was reminded of when an attorney told me she was a fourth generation Idaho Democrat. Idaho Chief Justice Jim Jones also offered encouraging words in a short speech about the social and legal progress that’s been made regarding domestic violence. He noted that when he was a child, people never talked about violence that occurred within families, partly because it was thought to be shameful and partly because some still held notions that a father/husband could treat his wife and children like property. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case and society and the legal system are better prepared to offer help and support to victims while holding batterers accountable. One line from the speech that surprised me, and has therefore stuck in my memory, is that people also now realize “that they can’t beat the gay out of their kids,” he said. Amen to that.