Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

More Movies

On the flight home from Puerto Rico the other day I took in The Martian.  Of course the tiny screen did not do the film visual justice but it was immensely enjoyable nonetheless. The film was Hollywood at its best: big, beautiful, predictable and comfortable. It never fooled me about its impending happy end. What I liked best, though, is that it was a movie about grit and problem-solving. This is yet another wonderful movie with a message about how to live well on Earth. The key ingredients are science, love and faith.

There is practically no romance in this film beyond a few nods that do not distract us from the object at hand: the mission to Mars, how it goes awry, and efforts to rescue Mark Watney, efforts that do not go smoothly. It provides insight to risk management and the viewer is keenly aware that more often than not the players take excessive risks. They do so with their eyes open because for these choices it was better to die failing than not to have tried at all. Notice that big decisions are never taken lightly and come only after careful and rigorous analysis.  No one is winging it. Everyone does the math, even if it is back-of-the-envelope.

Just because there is no romance does not mean that the movie is devoid of love. It is full of it, particularly among associates who work together on a mission for a common and noble goal to save a comrade who was inadvertently left behind. They are cheered on by the world and those of us in the theater.

The film ends in a classroom, with Mark Watney delivering a sermon:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”  

2016 Odds and Ends

I have been away from this blog for more than a year. Frankly, I miss putting pen to paper in this format.

This Christmas season was good for the movies. I got to see Branagh’s Winter’s Tale, Tarantino’s Hateful 8, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The last I saw twice, including one outing with my adorable niece, Sarah. I rode in a car with her driving for the very first time. This was hard because when I see her I still see a two year old who loved her doting tio.

I saw Tarantino’s flick with Dolores, which was followed by a lovely Indian meal. I took a crew of nephews, my younger sisters, and my mom to see Branagh’s production, which aired live around the world from London.

I do not regret any of these choices for all were excellent, each special in its own way. Tarantino captures America’s polarized dysfunction in his effort and Star Wars its best hope. These two balance each other quite nicely.

This year, prompted by good friends on Facebook who suggested that it is the Bard’s best play. So in 2015 I wrestled with Winter’s Tale on Audio (Arkangel production) as well as the text. It is a fine hard-hitting comedy that barely qualifies as such — tragicomedy is more appropriate. I genuinely loved it but cannot agree with my friends that it is his best play. (Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear are indubitably better). But it is in my personal pantheon of best plays (also add the Henriad).

From among the three movies I saw, The Force Awakens was the most evocative and poignant. Both times I saw it my eyes grew mistier throughout and a lump grew in my throat. I saw the original Star Wars when I was 10, more or less.

The Force Awakens took me back to a time when I was a big dreamer albeit still an innocent one. It took me back to the lofty ambitions that were slowly coming to the surface and would burst forth during my hard and messy early adolescence. It breathed life to youthful memories and passions that do not easily stir.

Then and Now: The Pull of Immigration

Circa 1976-77, my parents bought their old beater home in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. It had 3.5 bedrooms, garage and large back yard overlooking the 10 Freeway near the corner of Marengo and Evergreen streets. They paid $50,000 and could afford the mortgage on a combined income of approximately $375 per week. They had six children. Basic health care at the local clinic was available and we had General Hospital for minor emergencies that my parents could afford to pay. Elementary schools were good in those days too. We had enough to eat. It was a modest way of life but we had a chance to chase the American Dream. Thanks to affordable higher education at local city colleges and the California State University system, we caught it.

It is tricky to get purchasing power parity PPP comparisons of income then and now because of the big shifts in relative prices. In today’s dollars estimates of my parents’ weekly $375 in 1977 range from $1140 to as much as $3,010. Compare this to bare subsistence living in Mexico’s countryside as that country marched towards its economic catastrophe of the 1980s. Prior to the 1990s the borders were loosely monitored. During the 60s and 70s my dad crossed back and forth many times, and was chased out of the US seven times.

The pull factors from differences in relative wages were massive in the late 1970s, taking into account the relative ease of crossing the border. Today the pull factors are not as strong because, according to economists, technology and, to a lesser extent, globalization. In other words, the working classes today are in PPP terms significantly worse off.

The American dream is dying.

The Secret Auden

This is a must read essay.

“On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

Low Clouds

This year I’m especially grateful for discovering the beauty of low hanging clouds beneath baby blue skies. They have the sensational effect of seeming to bring the heavens closer to us. This is worth remembering on Christmas Day. 2014-12-12 21.18.30



On the so-called “wisdom” of the American people

I do not want to hear again the cliche about the “wisdom of the American people,” which on many big important matters is utterly ignorant, shortsighted, and stupid. These days our collective wisdom seems too OK with torture and has a view on the economy and the environment that has been in my judgment utterly destructive.

Holding two contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive notions in our heads is a shortcoming that we Americans must endure and resist. It’s sad that we must boil things down to black and white, with us or against us, or red and blue.



In Defense of the Welfare State

Tony Judt pens an excellent defense of the welfare state here. This passionate and measured essay is itself an education and well worth reading with some care. It will be deeply disturbing to those whose perspective of states and markets is shallow and dogmatic. What I found most fascinating — something we rarely debate — is the discussion of the scope of public goods and their value. I share Judt’s perspective and have had a lot of fun debating this point of view with my colonels. The reason is that they get intuitively the notion that the end of public investment in war is not market efficiency but victory. I push them to think about the goals of investments in other public goods. I ask them: what is victory in education, prisons, or public health? Then the conversation gets really interesting and productive.

September 11, 2014

The last decade was bookended by a terrorist strike on the homeland and a financial crisis that spawned a great recession. In between, the politicians thoroughly bungled one war, erroneously waged another, and came dangerously close to massively expanding the one we had bungled in the first place. (Hillary Rodham Clinton, btw, was on the side of massive expansion of said war). In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 we made many dreadful economic and strategic mistakes. Only by keeping these in mind can we sensibly grieve for losses and sacrifices of those who died that day and all who have sacrificed since as a consequence of the global war on terror.

My Favorite Books and Why

Below are my favorite 10 books of all time, chosen on three criteria: gravitas, fun, and poetry. I first list them according to category and assign points for placement. Next I do a tally and list according to points earned in each (un-weighted) category.

Finally, I list my favorites in order. Interestingly, only Melville does not crack the top five on any of the lists. Perhaps I should only have a top nine? Only Shakespeare and Homer make the top five on every single category. Proust takes a big climb on subjective criteria. I have read the first volume recently and look forward to the rest. Dante takes a dive only because it’s not one I have studied with vigor.

All in all, these books are wondrous. They are to me indispensable and, in a few cases (The Bible, Shakespeare, and Cervantes) proved thoroughly life-altering. But I love them all, more than I am capable expressing in words {see my terrible poem below as proof of this}. Here is a random bullet on each that jumps in mind:

  • Hamlet tells Horatio that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow
  • Jesus chases the tax collectors from the temple…and a herd of swine into the sea.
  • Don Quixote in love.
  • Proust explains why he loves Bergotte.
  • Achilles comforts Priam.
  • Foote peerlessly portrays Lincoln’s kindliness — and his Machiavellian vigor.
  • Machiavelli instructs us to seek wisdom in literature, biography if one is an aspiring prince.
  • Virgil chides Dante for being slothy and prods him along with the memory of Beatriz.
  • Whitman reminds us that the powerful play goes on.
  • Ishmael realizes that he’d rather be in bed with sober pagan than a drunk Christian.


The Lists:

Gravitas: Moral instruction and philosophical insight

  1. The Bible (10)
  2. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (9)
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote (8)
  4. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (7)
  5. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (6)
  6. Dante, the Divine Comedy (5)
  7. Foote, The Civil War (4)
  8. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (3)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (2)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (1)

Fun: The most joyous to read

  1. Cervantes, Don Quixote (10)
  2. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (9)
  3. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (8)
  4. Foote, The Civil War (7)
  5. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (6)
  6. The Bible (5)
  7. Dante, the Divine Comedy (4)
  8. Melville, Moby Dick (3)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (2)
  10. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1)

Poetry: Because in fifty years I think I would love to be able to recite it all by heart

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (10)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (9)
  3. Dante, the Divine Comedy (8)
  4. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (7)
  5. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (6)
  6. The Bible (5)
  7. Melville, Moby Dick (4)
  8. Foote, The Civil War (3)
  9. Cervantes, Don Quixote (2)
  10. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (1)


Overall according to the point system:

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (28 points)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (24)
  3. The Bible (20)
  4. Cervantes, Don Quixote (20)
  5. Dante, the Divine Comedy (17)
  6. Foote, The Civil War (14)
  7. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (13)
  8. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (11)
  9. Proust, Remembrances of Things Past (10)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (8)


Subjective: In order, what I today would pick to have with me in the dungeon

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (27 points)
  2. The Bible (20)
  3. Proust, Remembrances of Things Past (10)
  4. Cervantes, Don Quixote (20)
  5. Foote, The Civil War (14)
  6. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (25)
  7. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (13)
  8. Dante, the Divine Comedy (17)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (11)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (8)


An awful poem from the heart:

Abandoned down below for fifty years alone,

From these forced I to choose just one

I’d pick for gravitas, for rhyme, for fun.

The last shall not be under sold, by me or time;

For this explains why Russians fail to shine,

Why Proust and Foote and Melville are sublime.

For fifty years alone all huddled in my cell,

For each itself there is no deeper well.

The Real and Lasting Importance of Robin Williams

They say that over a lifetime only a short list of books give us anything of real and lasting importance. One might say the same thing about films. Dead Poet’s Society mattered a lot to me when I was a young man, a senior in college to be exact, and probably something to do with why I became a teacher. I was at the time suffering from some real bad depression that runs in my family. The movie cheered me up and I was not the same person after seeing it because it distilled down into a pretty tale the importance of the literature and poetry that was keeping me sane. Thanks big guy for your excellent performance in that film. RIP.


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