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A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.

 

When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.

At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.

Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.

At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.

The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?

At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.

But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.

I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.

These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned  by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.

Taken from the CPJ:

Mexican journalist found dead with bullet wounds in San Luis Potosí
October 6, 2017 5:29 PM ET
Mexico City, October 6, 2017–Authorities in Mexico must undertake a swift and credible investigation into the murder of photographer Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office today told CPJ that state authorities found Esqueda Castro’s body this morning, near the airport in the city of San Luis Potosí. His body had three gunshot wounds, the office said.
The journalist’s wife, who CPJ has not named for safety reasons, told CPJ that armed men in police uniform who identified themselves as local police yesterday abducted Esqueda Castro from their home in San Luis Potosí.
She said the group of men, armed with pistols and at least one automatic rifle, broke the window of the front door of the couple’s home and stormed into the room where she and her husband were asleep. The attackers then collected the couple’s cellphones, and took Esqueda Castro away at gunpoint, Esqueda Castro’s wife said.
“Mexican authorities must swiftly investigate the abduction and murder of Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, and bring all of those responsible to justice,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s program coordinator for North America, from New York. “Criminals, sometimes connected with state actors, know that they can get away with killing journalists in Mexico because of chronic impunity for these crimes. Until that changes, the violence will continue.”
The state’s general prosecutor said yesterday in a statement made on social media that the prosecutor’s office is investigating, and denied that state police were involved in the abduction. The prosecutor also said there was no arrest warrant against Esqueda Castro.
Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, the Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression, told CPJ yesterday that his agency had opened a separate investigation.
Esqueda Castro worked as a freelance photographer for the local news websites Metropoli San Luis and Vox Populi, and edited a personal website, Infórmate San Luis. According to Esqueda Castro’s editor at Vox Populi, Gerardo Guillermo Almendariz, Esqueda mostly covered society events, but would sometimes work on crime stories.
Over the past few months, local police had threatened Esqueda Castro while he was reporting, according to both the journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz. On July 13, policemen threatened Esqueda Castro verbally, took pictures of his identification card, which included his address, and told him they were watching his home. Separately, several policemen on July 4 beat Esqueda Castro and threatened to take his camera while the journalist was photographing a shootout scene.
Esqueda Castro reported both incidents to the state authorities, and filed a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission, according to Guillermo Almendariz.
In a statement released this afternoon, the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a government body that provides protective measures to reporters under threat of violence, confirmed the threats, and stated that it had offered protective measures to Esqueda Castro. According to the protective group, Esqueda Castro refused protection, and said that he received no other threats after the two July incidents.
The journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz confirmed to CPJ on Thursday that Esqueda had not been enrolled in a protection scheme.
Mexico is one the deadliest countries in the Western hemisphere for journalists. In 2017, at least four journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work, according to CPJ research, and CPJ is investigating the circumstances of another killing. CPJ has documented the disappearances of 14 journalists in Mexico, excluding Esqueda Castro. In May, journalist Salvador Adame Pardo was abducted from his home in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct.5, 2017

George Bunyan Interviews the filmmaker Ludwig Carnival on the health of Mexican film.*

GB: From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of very good films everywhere that don’t make it to the big screen. Is there anything we citizens can do about that?

LC: Yes. Stop watching mindless television. Demand art and thoughtful content.

GB: Isn’t that the argument of the artistic elite?

LC: It certainly isn’t the argument of the commercial elite. For them money, not art, is what is important.

GB: But without money, your films won’t reach the public.

LC: It depends on what you mean by public. People huddled in the flickering, blue light of their televisions, alone, hypnotized, without any questions forming in their brains as to what things mean. It’s a kind of self-selected numbing, distraction, excitement without insight, where you don’t remember what you’ve seen.

I recently went to a small movie house in Dahlem, an area in Berlin. I wanted to see whether it was still there fifty years after I had been a student there. My wife and I were the only people sitting in the theater. The movie was about raising salmon in desert in a Middle East country. That was the gimmick. That’s why it got picked up and distributed.

The movie house had endured because a series of owners loved film. There was nothing elite about the place or its activities. The billboard indicated that thoughtful films were the large part of the offering. In particular: The Thirty-Nine Steps, directed by Hitchcock. The Grande Illusion, with Erik von Stroheim. The Bicycle Thief. And the Mexican film Heli, by Amat Escalante. Criticized in some places for its violence.

GB: Violence sells, so does sex, so does white.

LC: That’s the sad part. The whiteness. So many films without cultural diversity, but revealing the racial assumptions that give cohesion to the dominant ethnicity. That is what characterizes blockbusters. Violence as the manifestation of strength and, usually, of male dominance, as in constant war and sex, as in the enticing postures of women that show thighs and breast, as if that were mainly what they are about.

I grew up in a whiteness, just south of Boston. My adolescent friends and I heard about the film Bitter Rice being played in a nearby seaport. We didn’t tell our parents what we were about to do, the three of us stealing away like plotting murderers , and hitchhiked to the town, praying the ticket booth would let us in, although we were years under-age. The crime we got to commit? We got to see nineteen-year old movie actress Silvana Mangano’s thighs and breasts. And violence. I remember thinking there must be something dirty about the whole thing because it was also Italian, and Italians, I knew, ate innocent people alive in East Boston. So many prejudices already growing like permanent cultural fungus in my young soul. At least it was international. But it had made it to the big American screen because of breasts and thighs. And probably also because of its dirtiness. Some critics called it Marxist because it dealt with labor issues.

GB: What about violence in Mexican films? Take the film Heli that you mentioned.

LC: I’ve seen the film. There is violence. But it’s not gratuitous violence. It shows unspeakable cruelty and torture, but it’s there for a reason. That is what goes on in a country with a long history of the absence of the rule of law; where educational and job-training opportunities tend to be out of the range of humble people; where the elite gather wealth and power, in their own way stealing from the rest of us with their monopolies. Anyone can join the drug cartels and become the cannon fodder for the incredibly bloody wars to control shipping and markets. The violence shows the depravity of a part of a desperate society where the only protection is neighbors looking our for neighbors.  Escalante rubs your face in it. Not to titillate and entertain, but to make you incensed that the powers at the top have allowed such a society to evolve. A society that we all in some ways help perpetuate every day. And in that way it is about Everyman and Every Country.

GB: What are you working on now?

LC: I’m writing a screen play about a corrupt federal policeman in Tampico in 1938, who looks for his angry, missing son in a city wracked by petroleum workers’ strikes. Where brutal counter measures produce limbless bodies floating in the Pánuco River, chewed on by oversized crocodiles and bumped against at night by submerged German U-boats, inching upstream. Where everything points to the coming slaughters of the Second World War, some of which is already beginning in that oil port.

GB: So the same old problems continue?

LC: The same problems exist. What sells is youth, young sexuality, young thighs and breasts, bulging muscles, guns, killing bad guys, winning the usually white beauties as if they were circus prizes.

What’s missing are the small joys, the small courtesies, I want to say, sweetness that strangers share, the fragility of unusual love. What sells is war, weapons, feats of unreal courage, blowing up things, car chases, high-tech crime fighting. A hip hollowness. Heroes wrapped in invincibility. The abundance of clichés.

Heli, the film by Amat Escalante, is slow, unrelenting. At one point, if I remember correctly, an Army pickup drives right up to the door of an innocent protagonist’s modest house, with its mounted, manned, heavy machine gun pointed right at the protagonist, what seems like centimeters away. It is a scene about menace. About the power of the State to threaten or run amok with impunity. A metaphor for what good people are up against in this country of ours. It is but one of countless brilliant scenes. Escalante’s films should be supported by patrons of the arts everywhere. As should those of countless other young filmmakers in this old and noble country.

GB: Thank you for your time.

LC: You’re very welcome.

*A reminder that this was a fictitious interview.

 

 

The Orphan Line

I don’t know anything about orphan lines, except for what I can intuit. To be passed over by a friendly-looking, warm couple must be devastating. And hardening. Why wouldn’t they choose me? I am a good person. Only abandoned. Nothing more. I began using this comparison at the Writers Digest 2017 Conference in New York. For the last hour of four pitch slam sessions about 150 hopefuls poured into a large conference room where some seventy, or was it fifty? literary agents sat at little tables with their backs to the wall. The carefully announced and mapped numbers on the tables did not exist. I approached my number one choice, waited six minutes, as two other orphans talked to her in three-minute intervals, and then sat down. I gave her my spiel, carefully rewritten and rehearsed. She was uninterested. I said thank you and moved on. The next person rejected me as well. I grew more frantic. I abandoned the script. It didn’t seem to be working, aside from not really describing my novel. “Send me five pages.” Okay, that was better than nothing. I used broader, longer strokes. These were interesting times. The nationalization of Mexico oil. Eyes glaze over. But Frida did go to Tampico to welcome Trotsky and Natalia to Mexico. Eyes focus more. The Checka, or Stalinist secret police, did follow dissidents to Paris, Madrid and Mexico City to silence or punish or simply liquidate—to protect Stalin’s concept of the Soviet State as embodied by him. An example for things to come right here? I didn’t say that. “Send me a query.” “Send me ten pages.” No one adopted me, but at least they were offering to look at my teeth, see if my ears were clean, whether my feet pointed straight forward. My right veers a little off to my right. In search of rectitude, I suppose. I stand with it a little behind. The Fearful First Position? To disguise my flaws in general. Maybe you won’t notice. I certainly don’t. A little shattered, but not too much, I straighten myself for the next visit from those who may or may not choose me to be their publishing child.

 

Front (top) and Back (bottom image).

IMG_2731.jpg

The pitch I gave in New York to a group of editors and literary agents changed constantly. As they warned it might. You had 90 seconds to explain the novel and entice interest.

This was the first final version:

“On the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, the darkness of the Spanish Civil War— as in Stalin’s secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists—spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port…( space for a pause, while you try to think how it goes from here)…

…a place where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love.

Tomas slips into deeper water, when he learns that his son is living with a young refugee, that they have two little girls and that she—an anarchist and defender of petroleum workers’ rights—is the object of a suspicious search by a man who has followed her from Madrid and claims to be her father.

In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws; namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”

When that pitch didn’t seem to be working, I changed gears. I started to talk about the period, the convergence of big events, the stinking oil port teeming with agents of all sorts. Socialists, anarchists, communists that were Trotskyists or Stalinists, insurrectionists (plotting to overthrow President Lázaro Cárdenas), Mexican and German Nazis, Mexican and Spanish Falangists (the fascist party that backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War), English, Dutch and American enforcers from the multinational oil companies, red unions (socialist) and white (Stalinist and anti-union unions), and even Stalinist agents (NKVD and Checka) following some 20,000 Spanish Civil War refugees fleeing Spain, and accepted by Mexico. And in the midst of this, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, American supporters of the Fourth International, various Mexican generals, the Church, anti-Cárdenas banks and foreign (especially American) ambassadors.

For a moment, I wondered whether there was some kind of wall that agents and others couldn’t look over, or see through, into Deep Mexico, complex Mexico. When I began to talk about the historical context, I began to get results: Send me pages, send me a query. I suppose I also began to show my enthusiasm for my subject, which was hard to do with the prescribed bare bones pitch that had been advocated. Since it really wasn’t the same thing as my novel and, memorized, hard be enthusiastic about.

And so, I ended up writing the pitch I wanted to write, and the one I will use in my queries. The capital letters show italics.

THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO, historical fiction, 80,000 words.

The story of Fiona—a Spanish Civil War refugee—told in confidence, but with small inconsistencies, small problems of logic.

Told to Tomas Ortiz, a skeptic and Mexico City policeman, Special Branch, once close to President Lázaro Cárdenas but now disgraced for stealing a pair of earrings from Frida Kahlo in 1937 on the armored train that took Trotsky and his wife to the capital and asylum, but not to safety.

An oversized crocodile in the Pánuco River who defends her eggs, sees through the Fiona story and patrols the hot, stinking oil port of Tampico along with 300-pound tarpons, German submarines that never surface, and the heavy cruiser Graf Spee, which ghosts offshore in KRIEGSMARINE gray, ready to deliver the end of Tomas Ortiz’s world before he can regain his wife’s touch and find his angry, missing son.

Or stop the teller of the Fiona story, a pink-cheeked steward of Stalinist orthodoxy, from liquidating the daughter he says he has come from Madrid to save, and who, it turns out, is living with Tomas’s son—she, an anarchist, both advocates for oil workers’ rights.

A historical novel along the lines of E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME, but in the tradition of Juan Rulfo’s THE BURNING PLAIN, about deep Mexico, México profundo, a space unfamiliar to the giant to the north, also unseen by the shakers and movers to the south, the internal colonialists, who find the poor CAMPESINO picturesque but not striking socialist petroleum workers.

For the latter and their advocates, so think the overlords, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938, no killing field or ship’s hold slaughterhouse is too radical or too mechanical. No federal policeman’s investigation will be tolerated.”

My stories have appeared in:

The Albany Review, “Sleep” 1987

Third prize in the 1994 Writer’s Digest short fiction contest for “The Curve of the Earth.”

The Press Democrat, (a large regional newspaper in northern California), “An Otter for a Hat” 1997, Easter edition.

In 2011, my short story collection THE PÁTZCUARO INCISION was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.

My story “The Hair and the Heart” appeared in the Winter 2015 magazine Saddlebag Dispatches, associated with Western Writers of America.

My Novels:

PLAYING FOR PANCHO VILLA, Editorial Mazatlán, Mazatlán, Mexico, 2013. Editor: David Bodwell. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

COMANDANTE IBARRA, Montezuma Books, Mexico City, 2015. Editor: Peter Gelfan. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

Biography:

I have lived fifteen years in Guanajuato, a university town in the mountains of Central Mexico; Harvard 1960; U. of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literature, 1970; Professor of German and Global Studies at Sonoma State University in California 1967 – 1999. I also taught Latin and Homeric Greek there. Have done two full days of one-on-one guided walks over selected Spanish Civil War battle sites, as well as extensive research in modern Spanish and Mexican history. I see my writing as influenced greatly by 19th Century German short stories.

Historical Context for THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO:

In January, 1937, Frida Kahlo goes to Tampico, to welcome Leon Trotsky and his wife into Mexican asylum on behalf of President Lázaro Cárdenas.

It’s the eve of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’s March 1938 nationalization of Mexican oil.

In 1938, Hitler annexes Austria.

In the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Army, Church and the State (fascist General Franco) slowly crush Spanish democracy, sowing fields and ridges with discarded Mauser ammunition clips. Ammunition supplied by Germany and Italy for the fascists; by Mexico and the Soviet Union for democratic Republican Spain. Pitiless executions of prisoners occur on both sides, but far more on the fascist side, which then continue until 1975.

Some 20,000 Spanish Republican refugees flee to Mexico.

In 1940, a Stalinist agent, in very deep cover, infiltrates Trotsky’s inner circle in Coyoacán, Mexico City and mortally wounds him with a mountain climber’s ice ax.

In the years 1937-1938, Soviet security forces, including the NKVD, execute between 900,000 and 1,750,000 “enemies of the State,” that is, victims of Stalin’s paranoia—numbers that include assassinations outside the Soviet Union.

 

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