Category Archives: Culture

Javier Valdez – A Month Ago

The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.

After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.

The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.

Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.

Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.

All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.

Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.

He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.

I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.

The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.

In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.

But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.

There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.

As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.

Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.

Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.

#ourvoiceisourstrength #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, Mexico, Uncategorized

Happiness & Heroin

One important thing my mother told me when I was growing up was that first I should find the work I loved to do in life. That if I did, or didn’t, it would affect all the other aspects of life: sleep, romance, family.

I’m lucky. I love what I do. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and when I’m on my deathbed I’m quite sure I’ll be making deals with God, saying, I’m happy to go but just let finish this one story first. Nothing I’ve done in the last 30 years has been drudgery, tedium. It has been exciting, mentally stimulating — and it paid the bills.

That didn’t happen by chance. I worked at it very hard for many years. I was helped by several great editors who pushed me to learn the craft and forge a writing style – sometimes not so politely.

I was helped above all by my parents who did not give us what we wanted growing up. They gave us what we needed. They gave us education and experience, above all. They gave us far less stuff than other friends I grew up with were getting from their parents. Later in life, I was very happy that was true.

I bring this up because I believe it is relevant to the opiate-addiction epidemic we face as a nation and a culture.

Recovery from addiction, I believe, means finding fulfillment in some project, endeavor or work. Finding something you love to do, something that means more than dope, that stimulates your mind more.

One way we, as a culture, have failed our kids is that too often we believe the stuff they get (and have demanded) without working for it, and that we give them, is somehow going to help them be happy. We as a culture have avoided pain, run from it. And we want our kids to be spared any pain at all – even hard work. But no one find’s his calling in life without hard work, sometimes demeaning work.

I hated all the years I spent washing dishes in cafeterias and restaurants while I was in high school, but I’m plenty happy I did it for it taught me to do things I didn’t want to do, taught me how important education is, and that fulfillment comes from finding the work you love and spending your life trying to get good at it.

So many kids I see have been given far too much without working for it. Too many haven’t learned that through hard work, pushing yourself to seek that calling, you actually learn and achieve and feel good about what you’ve done.

On the other hand, heroin, seems to me, is simply the final “stuff” for a culture that believes that more stuff leads to happiness. (Writing about heroin these days is really another way of writing about America, who we are and what we’ve become, I’ve grown to believe.)

My mom was right. It’s through hard work in something you love that you achieve fulfillment.

I began to think about all this again when I read snippets from the philosopher John Dewey about how we find happiness.

Here are a couple:

“To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness. Nothing is more tragic than failure to discover one’s true business in life, or to find that one has drifted or been forced by circumstance into an uncongenial calling.”

And …

“The opposite of a career is neither leisure nor culture, but aimlessness, capriciousness, the absence of cumulative achievement in experience, on the personal side, and idle display, parasitic dependence upon the others, on the social side.”

Interesting stuff, and relevant more than ever to today’s America.

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Grunge, Heroin & Conformity

The passing of grunge rocker Chris Cornell this week means that of the five major bands to emerge from the early 1990s’ grunge scene, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana all have lost lead singers to early deaths.

Only Pearl Jam has not. 

Mostly, these were singers whose lives were mangled by heroin/opiates, whether they died from it or not.

As I read the news, it occurred to me how deeply the grunge scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s swallowed the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.

The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.

Heroin should have been forgotten not long after it was invented for it has few medicinal benefits that other opiates don’t provide with far less addictive risk. It survived because it was a great drug for traffickers. It was easy to conceal, easy to cut, and it created customers that had to buy the product several times a day. A businessman’s dream.

The drug got its underground cachet beginning with Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist in the 1940s, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, having wasted much of his prodigious creativity in the pursuit of smack, while bringing an entire generation of younger musicians to dope. (Trumpeter Clifford Brown was staking out another path for jazz musicians – one of great devotion to art and improvisation combined with a sober lifestyle – when he was killed in a car accident at age 25.)

Beat writer William Burroughs helped solidify the drug’s reputation as an outsider’s substance.

Heroin got a bigger cultural boost from the Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967 and Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” followed as the years passed by notably addicted rockers like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and, of course, Keith Richards. So that by the late 1980s, heroin was fully established as the go-to drug for anyone – often a pasty-faced white kid with a rocknroll heart — wanting a personal image as a non-conformist.

To the extent of few others before it, the grunge scene bought this fiction with gusto. Heroin, moreover, seemed the perfect drug for grunge’s nihilistic, dirge-like sound. So an entire scene was created that seemed to emerge from the swamp of the Velvet Underground’s first album. Many others died from it. Grunge did, too.

My music was punk rock and the grunge thing happened later. My focus in life was by then on writing and storytelling and not so much on the latest wrinkle in rocknroll. Grunge was too slow, too hopeless and depressing. Also, I lived in Seattle during this time, and didn’t like the city and left as soon as I could and moved to Mexico. So all in all, grunge didn’t do much for me. (Stone Temple Pilots were a bit different, and appealed to me more, in that the music was less grungy and they weren’t from Seattle, though their singer’s story is the same.)

There was, nevertheless, a do-it-yourself ethos to the scene that I found attractive. Bands were especially afraid of “selling out,” thus many of them first signed with the local Sub Pop label.

It’s a sad epitaph to the scene that the folks who created it fought mightily to avoid the taint of commercialism in their music and conformity in the way they lived — and ran, as they did, to the embrace of a drug that embodied everything they were fleeing.

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

The proper use of `awesome’

    Lately I’ve been looking for some inspiration that only human achievement can provide, given the news of the last few days.
     So I was thrilled when my old friend from Claremont High School, Scott Edwards, sent me youtube clips of his son, Andrew, playing piano.

    The problem with the way we use the word “awesome” is that when you use it to describe the color of your new car or a new iPhone it doesn’t leave you with much to describe something that is truly awe inspiring. Such as when you see your old high school friend’s son playing piano like this.
    I first met Andrew Edwards when he was an infant. Now look at him. He’s entering college at USC next fall Scott tells me. (Bears mentioning that Andrew’s mother, Alison Edwards, is a piano professor and concert pianist of astounding talent.)
    So many kids seem to expect something for nothing, or can’t see the deep benefit that comes with prolonged pursuit of talent or knowledge.
    In our culture, we spend so much time thinking about how to be “happy.” We’re bombarded with easy paths to what marketers want to tell us is “happiness” – which is usually something more akin to amusement or distraction or titillation.
    Seems to me that the kind of dedication displayed in these youtube clips brings a fulfillment and satisfaction that is real happiness. Amazing to see what kind of achievement true hard work, focus, and devotion brings….

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House Republicans & Heroin

Governing is the opposite of dope.

It’s real world. It’s working the program. Accepting blame and accountability, breaking with fantasy. It’s hanging out with people who don’t think like you. It’s reminding yourself that life is full of constraints and you can’t just do whatever occurs to you. It’s realizing that you are not perfect and there are others whose opinions matter in this world.

That said, the recent health-care fiasco displayed House Republicans behaving like heroin addicts.

It’s easy to go on Fox News for years, blame someone else for everything when you don’t have to be accountable for finding solutions. It’s easy to rant about the endless failures of those people who do. Ranting is a narcotic; so is outrage; so is complaining and destroying. It gives us a big blast of dopamine to the brain. As does spending a lot of time insisting on all the nifty ways you’d do things better when you are king of the world. Feels so luxurious. Feels a lot like heroin, I suspect.

Being an opposition party means never having to put an idea to a constituent smell test. You get used to it – your tolerance for fantasy rises like an addict’s tolerance for a narcotic. Like addicts, you hang out with folks who think like you, talk like you, and never force you to face anything resembling reality, or the necessity of compromise.

Living without compromise is a nice idea in theory, but it’s possible only when you’re high on, and surrounded by, ideology — or dope.

A heroin addict brooks no compromise. He wants a world his way only. No messy complications, no one telling him no. Ask any parent of an addict.

What I think we saw was people addicted to a warm, euphoric ideological fantasy world in which they’ve lived for the last several years. Addicted to the idea that they could do it alone, didn’t need anybody, didn’t need to compromise. This Freedom Caucus seemed dead-set on depriving anyone but the wealthiest of what most would deem civilized health care: maternity care, ER visits, not to mention addiction-treatment coverage.

It was bizarre to watch them line up to take away benefits needed by so many who had just elected them and their president, and give them to our aristocracy.

Harold Pollack noted in this article in Politico that Democrats working to forge Obamacare held hearings over months and accepted more than 150 Republican amendments to the bill they passed. House Republicans this time took 18 days and “the payout to the top 400 families [in America] alone was estimated to exceed total ACA subsidies in 20 states and the District of Columbia.”

How do you come to the conclusion that thinking like the upper classes of pre-revolution France is okay?

Well, perhaps because House Republicans lived in a bubble for seven years, voting to repeatedly repeal Obamacare knowing it would be vetoed. Then the fantasy ended and they finally had the power to do it. They had nothing to replace it with. (John Boehner is, I’m sure, happy to be away from all that.) What they came up with would have savaged the very people who put them in office.

The word `compromise’ gets a bad rap these days, but it’s actually another way of saying something else. It’s saying, we’re behaving like adults. We’re not going to act like petulant children who want a world run according to their whims alone, which is, in turn, another way of describing how a heroin addict thinks.

Something like this, I suspect, is what Ryan was referring to when he spoke of House Republican “growing pains.” Getting off the dope of viewing compromise as a dirty word.

A big part of addiction recovery is relating to others again, accepting that your views are not the only ones that matter, that you have to modify your behavior, answer to others who may not think like you.

It’s like governing.

It’s messy and ragged; it’s hard and far from perfect. It’s adult, in other words, and it’s the opposite of dope.

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The Last Velvet Painter in Tijuana

For many years, Alfredo Rodriguez Ortiz – Argo – was among the throngs of velvet painters making a living in Tijuana painting Elvis, Marilyn, John Lennon and John Wayne.

Those were velvet’s glory days of the 1970s. Now interest in the art has fallen off considerably. He keeps at it. Painting Bob Marley and Tupak more than any others.

He’s now among the last velvet painters, and the only one, from what I can determine, who still knows how to paint Elvis Presley on velvet.

I hope you like the video.

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January 14, 2017 · 3:34 pm

The Tuba God

Not long ago, I was driving through Tennessee and happened upon a town called Cookeville, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. I had been advised that TTU, an engineering school out in the middle of nowhere, is also one of the world’s great centers for tuba playing.

This is largely due to the presence, since 1967, of Winston Morris, whom my source referred to as The TubaIMG_1277 God.

As a reporter, I pride myself on braking for anyone I hear who is colloquially known as the “God” of something, or the “King” of something else.

I have done stories on The Cambodian Donut King and The Tomato King and a Chinese-Mexican beauty Queen selected because she accumulated the largest number of Pepsi bottle caps (true story – Hell, they’re all true stories.)

Among the cool things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to barge into the lives of some of the most creative people in America. So that’s what I did.

I called Morris and he kindly allowed me to stop by on my way from Nashville to Knoxville. We talked a lot about tubas, the most relegated of instruments, and how it has emerged from the shadows where other instruments – mostly trumpets – had placed it. A civil rights movement for tubas, where the instrument was now breaking with all limitations, and playing any piece on the instrument was now possible.

Many years ago, Morris started the school’s Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble. He said he did this to attract attention to his program and to begin writing repertoire for the instrument, which had precious little. He envisioned the ensemble as tuba version of the string quartet or brass quintet. The Ensemble is now four decades old and has recorded pieces by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Gunther Schuller, Michael Jackson, and a bunch more.

He had more to say about tuba playing, about living in the Jim Crow South as a boy, about caring for his wife for 16 years after her massive stroke. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Cookeville.

Morris, btw, also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of tuba-related figurines – more than 2200. Rabbits playing the tuba, bears playing the tuba, Santa Clauses playing the tuba, soldiers playing the tuba, monkeys and elephants and cats playing the tuba. He’s donating it all to the school, which will set up an exhibit of tuba-related art.

Just another reason to stop while driving east from middle Tennessee.

 

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What the Orlando Killer Was Thinking

Among the healthiest things you learn as a journalist is that the world is a hazy, cloudy place, rarely clear, not often black and white, where two opposites may be true at the same time, and that as things change all the time you need to move with them as they roil.

In my experience, these mass shootings teach us this over and over.

The latest wrinkle in the nauseating Orlando massacre, reported in the LA Times, is that the killer spent the previous year drinking at the gay bar he shot up, so much so that he was recognized by people he was shooting at that night. He also spent time on a gay chat app.

All this adds more nuance – predictable in all these cases as they unfold and more is known.Mateen 1

I think the idea that this guy may have been a closeted gay man seems to make sense; that he hated that he was gay, was violent because he hated that he was; that the shooting was in anger for what he was, venting on the people who provoked his attraction.

After all, what truly straight man goes regularly to drink alone at a gay bar? He’d been doing it for more than a year. What straight man also spends time on a gay chat app?

In that light, this Islamic thing may be as much of a cloak as anything else, a way of finding some kind of larger romantic rationale for what he was in the process of doing.

Mateen 2

Unclear to me that he was much of a clear thinker, but that’s self-evident.

(Note: Several days after I posted this, information surfaced that Mateen may have had as many as two gay affairs and that one with a Puerto Rican man may have resulted in him being HIV+.)

I mention all this because it falls in line with other cases I’ve covered as a reporter.

I’m very happy to ascribe fanatical religious/political/terrorist motives. But as a reporter, I’ve also covered seven mass murders (Stockton, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown among them) and in each case I was one of the journalists assigned to find out as much as possible about the suspect.

In each case, I came to have a very nuanced, though at the same time quite cloudy, view of the way the person thought or appears to have thought before he died. Because in the end, that’s the truth of the matter. It lies usually quite a way from how things appeared on first blush.

In Stockton (1989, the first of these mass shootings), we thought the shooter must have harbored great hatred for Asians, as the elementary school he fired on was largely SE Asian. In time, I grew to believe that he may have had some cloudy hateful ideas about Asians, but that was the most you could probably say. In fact, he was probably incapable of holding a clear thought of any kind – this from all I learned about his life up to then, and then his motel room where he spent his last night (with little green plastic soldiers deployed all over the room and a shirt on which he had written, “Death to the Great Satin” Mateen 3sic).

If anyone can tell me the clear thoughts that the shooters in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown had, I’d be very interested to hear. To me, they were all lost boys, murky in thinking, crazy, festering and unbalanced. Hence, finding a political meaning behind their actions was very difficult. We at first thought the Tucson shooter was a Tea Party member because he shot a Democratic congresswoman. Now, I can say with conviction that he was another boy out of his mind, lost, unfriended, scary to many, apolitical, and left by his parent to dangle on his own in the nether-reaches of virtual games.

This Orlando killer may have had some vague ideas of doing something for Allah and the Islamic state or (I now hear maybe) Hezbollah – I’m very willing to buy that. That’s who fanaticism wraps in its warm cloak – the lost, the embittered, the unbalanced. But the first information you get in these cases needs always to be balanced and blended with info, usually clearer, that comes later. So the stuff about his hanging out in Pulse for a year offers insight that we ought not ignore.Mateen 4

I can say that he does not seem like the Boston bombers, or the San Bernardino couple – all of whom were very focused, confirmed and dedicated Islamic terrorists, though perhaps technically solitary actors.

Those folks had a lot in common with Stavrogin, of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Omar Mateen did not – at least that’s how it seems to me at this point.

Seems to me that his call to the cops about ISIS as he was shooting up the club was a way of very loudly saying, “…and just so’s you know, I’m NOT gay!”

What better way to say that than to invoke the world’s most notorious homophobes?

Then again, I’m always ready to let new facts change my mind.

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In Nashville searching for a pedal steel

Now that they’re dead, George Jones and Johnny Cash have been allowed back into Nashville.

Each man now has a museum in his honor, I discovered as I walked up and down Music Row in MusicIMG_4008 City.

I’m in Nashville at the invitation of Prof. Ted Fischer and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American Studies to give some talks about heroin and pills.

Nashville’s a great town. First time I visited, in 2001, also at the invitation of CLAS, I spent time at a West Nashville apartment complex watching Sudanese Lost Boys and Bosnian immigrants play soccer. The town has the largest Kurdish population in America, and had 80,000 Mexicans as well. That night, I went to a Mexican circus – Los Hermanos Vasquez.

And it’s got country music.

I’ve been a country fan since I was about 16 and my guitar teacher started playing me some Merle Haggard and Emmylou.

Johnny Cash and George Jones have been my favorites for so many years. These two guys had voices like oak trees. They shared a lot in common, I thought, with jazzman Sonny Rollins, whose saxophone had the same kind of sound. But neither Cash nor Jones was much appreciated by Nashville’s new pop-rock country, big-hat-boys sound toward of his life. Cash didn’t even have a record deal. Sorry state of affairs for two of the greatest singers we Americans ever produced.IMG_4012

Problem is, from the radio, I gather that there isn’t much about current Nashville country music that would have room for either man if he were starting out today.

In fact, as I walked up and down Music Row in Nashville, I searched in vain for what I consider to be the soul of country music: a pedal steel guitar.

Pedal steel is what makes country music sound so sweet; the instrument sounds a lot like the voice of Emmylou Harris. I’m told that Ms. Harris, my personal country music goddess, doesn’t listen to new country music any more. Maybe it’s because they’ve done away with the pedal steel guitar, I thought as I walked down Music Row. Pedal steel also makes country music sound raw sometimes, too, and I like that.

Walking down the Row, there was a lot of what I took to be rocknroll. I heard some Michael Jackson. I heard some Eagles and was going to call the Chamber of Commerce to complain. I had dinner in George Jones’ Museum and Restaurant and ate three scallops that cost me $11 per scallop, but I didn’t find any pedal steel guitars in there.

I peered inside Margaritaville, but all they had was a rock band. Same with the place next door. No pedal steels.

I did happen in to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store, where I found CDs for $2.99 each in the bargain “tubb.” I bought five, including a compilation of truck driving songs, with some frantic pedal steel picking, called Lay Me Down a Truck Driving Man. Jewel of the CD was Mac Wiseman’s song, “Eighteen Wheels Humming Home Sweet Home.”

Raindrops on the windshield

Teardrops on my steering wheel

This old truck’s the only thing I own.

My old heart is pining

While her old engine’s whining

And eighteen wheels humming Home Sweet Home

From poetry like that you can see why I thought the CD would be the night’s highlight.IMG_4014

Then I stumbled into the Full Moon Saloon. On the stage was a bar band and in the band was Mike Bourque. He was sitting with a Telecaster in his lap and a pedal steel before him, burning holes through songs with both instruments. So there I stayed until they stopped playing. Don’t know who Mike Bourque is, but he sure can play.

I guess this is where the real heart of Nashville music resides, not so much on those radio stations.

So I’ll leave you with Mike Bourque, on Telecaster and (briefly here) pedal steel blazing through the last three minutes of Merle Haggard’s “Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man.”

 

 

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Kaleidoscope, Death, and Claremont’s music scene back when

My hometown of Claremont, California’s own Kaleidoscope was one of the great bands of the late 1960s.

David Lindley and Chris Darrow were two of its mainstays.

My dad bought Side Trips at a street fair at Pitzer College where the band performed, brought it home and we played the hell out of this album for the next five years, until it basically could not be triaged.

Kaleidoscope, like many musicians in town back then, melded folk, bluegrass, psychedelia, Middle Eastern music, R&B, and about two dozen instruments between them.imgres

Makes you realize how rich in musicians, guitar players mostly, was Claremont in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s – due largely to the Folk Music Center and the five colleges, which, apart from CMC, had a pretty rich hippie scene. I remember because I accompanied my dad to a few anti-Vietnam marches when I was like 8 or so. Got a shirt stencil-painted with a clenched fist. Those were the days.

We were from the Claremont that’s south of Foothill, which only people from the town then will understand.

There’s great original music all the way through this record. But the dirge “Oh Death” seems fitting to the season.

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Heroin and the Sugar Added

We have spent too long demanding that doctors fix our pain.

As Americans, too often we’re angered when they don’t – or, more likely, can’t – as if we’re entitled to solutions.

That wouldn’t be so disturbing were it not that at the same time it seems a national malaise that we don’t feel much accountability for our own wellness.

This combination has given rise to the overuse and overprescribing of pain pills. They are the solutions that doctors have for a country that doesn’t (won’t) address its pain in a more holistic way.

But those pills are also the reason why across America we have so much addiction to opiates and to heroin.

I’m a layman, but it’s my understanding that a lot of the pill prescribing is for pain problems that could be better addressed or reduced by better wellness: more exercise, healthier diets, less sitting, more walking, etc.

In that regard, a new National Institute of Health study in the journal Obesity suggests that consuming fewer sugar-added foods and drinks results in very quick changes to a kid’s health. Researchers studied 43 obese children and found that when they replaced foods that had sugar added (sweet teas, pastries, even – who knew? – chicken teriyaki, which is apparently very sugary) with foods with no sugar added, while keeping the calorie consumption the same, the kids’ problems with hypertension, blood sugar, cholesterol improved within 10 days.

The research suggests that calories that come from sugar added to foods are harmful.

All the more reason to cut down substantially on (very unhealthy) sodas, sugary drinks and foods where sugar is added.

Of course, that does not include food in which sugar comes naturally – primarily fruit.

Now we also all need to get up and walk a mile. I’ll go first.

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Ariel Camacho, narcocorrido/Movimiento Alterado singer, dies

News out of Mexico is that another narcocorrido singer has died.

Ariel Camacho, lead singer of Los Plebes del Rancho, was killed Wednesday in a car accident in Sinaloa. He was 22.

Camacho was part of the Movimiento Alterado, which first grew out of Burbank, of all places, and drafted young singers, doing gigs at wedding parties and quinceneras in L.A. backyards, and transformed them into menacing narcosingers. d30d6e43f0b0850dc39097f43547e72b

The movement has now spread to Mexico and to other record labels. Camacho’s label was DEL Records.

The Altered Movement is known for especially graphic lyrics depicting drug violence, and for the praising the powerful, particularly well-known Sinaloa Cartel figures, in very noncorrido form. The corrido has typically exalted the lone, heroic figure – a man going up against power and probably doomed, but worthy of a song nevertheless.

MA, however, has made a fetish of praising powerful cartel leaders, among them Manuel Torres Felix, El Ondeado (the Unhinged), the late head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel.

All in all, narcocorrido singer has to be one of the region’s most dangerous profession. Beginning with Chalino Sanchez, whose life I wrote about in my first book and who was murdered in Sinaloa in 1992, numerous singers who followed in his footsteps have been killed. Sanchez’s son, Adan, also died in a car crash.

Saul Viera, El Gavilancillo, was shot to death outside a Denny’s in Bellflower in 1998. Among others to die are Valentin Elizalde, shot to death in Reynosa in 2006, and El Halcon de la Sierra, Fabian Ortega, in 2010.

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Kevin Costner Cutting Cabbage

It’s been a long time since Kevin Costner showed up in a worthwhile movie. Not nearly as long, though, as it’s been since a real Central Valley farming town appeared in one.

They both star in a movie that I saw recently at Walt Disney Studios called McFarland USA, which portrays a kind of unvarnished rural America that amounts to risk-taking I don’t associate with either Costner or Disney.McFARLAND

McFarland USA (in theaters later this month) is based on the true story of Jim White, a football coach who moves to the tiny Central Valley farming town in the 1980s and, instead, creates the McFarland High School cross country team with kids who work the field before coming to school, the children of longtime farmworkers.

The team becomes state champions – a feat the school has achieved nine times. McFarland USA is great tear-jerking sports filmmaking.

For Costner, this comes after a series of movies that seemed to me (though I’m no Hollywood insider) the last gasp of a major career (Draft Day), and may help resuscitate it.

He’s played this part many times. This time, though, he allows himself to be here in all his wrinkles, befuddled a good part of the movie in this foreign land with a U.S. zip code; he’s no longer quite the stud in control that he was during his heyday that began in rural America with Bull Durham in 1988.

Costner deals in fantasy, like every movie star. His has always been a certain kind of American (usually male) fantasy, and often about the nobility of white rural and/or small town America, in particular. Bull Durham, which launched him, had it in spades.

Problem is that part of America has been taking a pounding since at least Bull Durham (farm crisis, depopulation, Walmart). (The latest scourge, about which I’ve been writing, is a locust cloud of prescription pills and heroin.)

It’s the unblinking (within the genre’s limits) look at this rural America into which Costner is thrown that makes this flick worth the time. One place is a cabbage field, in which Costner stoops under the brutal Central Valley sun along with Mexican farmworkers. This is an unfamiliar country for the guy whose last appearance in modern rural America was in the far less complicated Field of Dreams Iowa in 1989.

The movie’s backdrop is its richest attribute: the orchards and streets of the Central Valley, home to some of our poorest towns – McFarland among them. “Are we in Mexico?” his daughter asks as the White family first drives through town.

Embracing this milieu allows the movie, and the star, a few other surreal scenes.

There’s Costner as a proud but stumbling father giving his daughter an impromptu quinceanera, a word he cannot pronounce. Another shows the kids training by running around the local prison – doesn’t every Valley town have one?

McFarland USA is Disney through and through. You’ll whiff Stand and Deliver, as well as Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s still effective filmmaking – I counted five tearing-ups – with a poor, stunningly photogenic, Central Valley town at its center.

We learn that all White’s runners go on to better lives, many, it seems, working for one level of government or another.

That’s not surprising any more.

The Central Valley has inspired thunderous works of art and activism on the plight of the oppressed – Grapes of Wrath, of course, the main example. But none ever stuck with the story long enough, I always thought. For, by and large, people don’t take it lying down for long. They struggle. They move on, they move up; in time, they’re allowed the luxury of forgetting where they came from.

Had Steinbeck followed the Joads, he’d have watched their kids become the next generation of cops and city councilmen along the 99 – and forget their manners when it came to the Mexican-Americans who moved up the highway to take their places in the fields.

I lived in Stockton from 1989 to 1992 – about the time McFarland USA is set. By then, the kids of those Mexican-Americans that Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s had become cops, restaurant owners, and farmers themselves – and didn’t seem to care too much for the illegal northern Mexicans who worked the fields.

Those northern Mexicans who came to pick in the 1970s and 1980s were amnestied into America. Their kids are today the labor contractors and farmers (and cops). They’re trying to figure out the newest pickers – Mixtec and Triqui Indians from southern Mexico – who seem as foreign to them as his students seemed to Jim White when he showed up in McFarland fresh from a failed Idaho coaching job.

But all that is backstory to a movie that combines some classic sports melodrama with a look at a rural, small-town USA, and, with it, an icon of square white American manhood cutting cabbage in the sun.

Photo: McFarland USA

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Todo Se Olvida – Everything Gets Forgotten

Riverside Casa Blanca 4Out in Riverside the other day, I took a trip with police through Casa Blanca, just off the 91 Freeway.

Casa Blanca is one of the classic Mexican-American barrios of Southern California, named for a large white mansion on a hill a half-mile east of it and a brand of oranges. The area is still bordered by some orange groves.

It has fascinated me for many years, ever since the great Calvin Trillin wrote a masterful piece about it for the New Yorker, which he later included in his book, Killings. This is probably the best volume of crime reporting in American journalism. I’ve read Killings four times, I think.

Anyway, “Todo Se Paga” – Everything Gets Paid – told the story of the feud between the Ahumada and Lozano families in the insulated barrio that was itself like a small town, quite apart from the rest of Riverside. Police, in particular, were unwelcome. Only a few years ago, officers who went there still risked being hit with rocks, and neighbors would at times start bonfires in the middle of the streets.

Madison Street is the barrio’s dividing line – east of that was the Lozano family and west of that lived the Ahumadas.

Casa Blanca’s story was very un-Southern Californian – a rooted place, where houses were not only inherited but lived in by generations. Unlike most of the region, history mattered and people remembered and things lingered.

In 1992, after a police officer killed a notorious member of the Ahumadas – Georgie – the police chief of Riverside told the LA Times that the department had no vendetta against any of the families out in Casa Blanca.

“We’re not killing them–they’re killing each other,” he said. “If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they’ll eventually kill each other.”

Over the years, it all got very complicated, with people intermarrying but at the same time feuding, and having to choose sides. Eventually it devolved into two gangs – Fern Street (Ahumada) and Evans Street (Lozano) gangs. For years the gangs that grew from this feud were known for their violence.Riverside Casa blanca 6

Then about three years ago, it all stopped. Graffiti, feuding just ended. There hasn’t been a major crime incident in Casa Blanca for a while now, I’m told.

One cop I toured with said he thought it had to do with an order from drug-trafficking groups that the violence was attracting police attention and getting in the way of business.

That seems a likely possibility, something that’s happened elsewhere in Southern California as well.

But it also seems to me that the world finally came to Casa Blanca, too. A lot of the old families have died, or moved away, or are doing time. Many new residents are from other countries, including Mexico and Central America, and aren’t invested in, or care about, the barrio history.

I went by Ahumada’s Market. An Indian man has owned it for 10 years. There’s a Korean church on Madison, along with a library branch. A Korean man owns a market nearby as well.

Maybe in the rapid-fire change of economics, real estate and culture in Southern California, in contrast to other other parts of the world I could name, it’s more accurate to say that “Todo Se Olvida” – Everything Gets Forgotten.

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Classical music in Tijuana’s slums

Yesterday, I toured the Centro de Artes Musicales in Tijuana, a nonprofit that has set up youth orchestras in several of the worst slum neighborhoods of this sprawling town.

The CAM formed four years ago and is modeled on El Sistema, Venezuela’s youth orchestra network, which produced LA Phil director Gustavo Dudamel.

IMG_1705Kids whose parents are swap meet shoe vendors and security guards are playing in these orchestras in shantytown neighborhoods, including some of Tijuana’s worst. Caminos Verdes, which has a string section, spawned Teodoro Garcia Simental, aka El Teo, one of the city’s most insane narcos, which is saying a lot. There’s a choir in the north-end neighborhood where most of the kids are children of prostitutes in the Calle Coahuilas redlight district.

This is the next step in the evolution of classical music in Tijuana.

The story of how classical music came to Tijuana, a town that mostly used music as the soundtrack to a striptease, is fascinating.

I wrote about this in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

In 1991, an astronomer and classical music fan had recently moved from Mexico City to Tijuana, where he found no classical music of any kind. But he had a Mexican friend in studying conducting in Moscow.

Together, they arranged to import an entire Russian chamber orchestra – 25 highly trained classical musicians, who left Moscow in the dead of January and arrived in sunsplashed TJ. They stayed, taught music and formed the Orquesta de Baja California and a music conservatory.IMG_1710

Like everything in Tijuana, classical music came from elsewhere. The musicians’ main support came from Tijuana’s middle classes, which are relatively large for Mexico.

From there ushered an entire movement in classical music and opera, which to me felt very underground, very punk rock – as these folks operated with an entirely DIY ethos, bracing themselves against the headwinds of the city’s dominant musical forces: the chintzy disco, techno and heavy metal that boomed from Tijuana’s many bars.

Now the CAM, 20 years later, is taking classical music to the rough neighborhoods that began as squatter settlements in so many parts of Tijuana, and some of which only recently got paved streets.

The connection to Eastern Europe, meanwhile, didn’t stop with those Russians.

Musicians from the region have continued to flow across the globe to Tijuana. Of seven female musicians in the orchestra, two are from the Ukraine, one from Armenia, and one is from Cuba, too.

Just love these stories!

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