Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Category Archives: Journal

Go See Arrival (A Short Review)


For a professional review, check out Dargis in the New York Times. I agree with almost all of it and want to add my two cents because this is a film I wish to remember. (Denis Villeneuve, by the way, also directed Sicario, which is entertaining but fails badly). Arrival is ambitious and profound and comes close to synthesizing a litany of complex elements into a full story. It is immensely enjoyable.

For me the film has rough loose ends with respect to character development, philosophy, science fiction (i.e. alien life and technology) and much else. It is, however, well crafted and devilishly provocative. In the end, though, the filmmakers very nearly drown all of this with a maudlin leitmotif of a mother-daughter relationship. Visually, its use of metaphor and symbols is dazzling. I will never forget aliens instantaneously communicating complex screeds with inky secretions of circular symbols. This rivals the stuff in Star Trek’s The Next Generation’s Darmok. (See also this take on that wonderful episode).

My favorite thing about the film is its reflection on time, linguistics, and memory. There is a thesis here on how these neither operate discretely nor linearly, that we have power individually and collectively to shape multiple existences, histories, realities, and even universes. The stuff on memory was Proustian, particularly the lush sequences of Louise at  home with her child that seemed to diminish time and space, flitting backward and forward sometimes, and dangling at others. We live, according to the story, in the past, present, and future all at once and we communicate not only with ourselves and others now, but also across time, space, and existences utilizing our minds, our voices, our pens, and our sentiment.

The aliens, named Abbot and Costello by the scientist and linguist, encourage us to remember forward and backward, to live all at once rather than discretely. They teach this Quixotic lesson and its implications to Louise. I wonder, though, if the film succeeds in getting this across to the masses?


The Best Education

Though a young woman now, I still see an adorable two-year old Alina chasing after her twenty-something uncle with his full set of hair, regaling him with Knock-Knock jokes. Time, like life, passes but it only leaves us if we let it, if we fail to grasp what’s important and cling to that which is not.

“You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of…home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us…” -Alyosha, The Speech by the Stone (The Brothers Karamazov)


They Heard it from a Brother in Arms: More Trump Learning Moments

The other day I sat down with four colonels for a post work whiskey. There were five of us, one African-American and three conservative White-Americans, and we kicked around politics. I should report that it is not at all clear what the political preferences were of the latter three during the presidential campaign. Politics is not polite discussion with a military officer unless you know your interlocutor well.

During discussion I made the same points with them about “safe spaces” noted in my last post, and added to them the anecdote of my Latino friend’s son in Los Angeles who got bullied by a Trumpista child at school as well as that of my cousin, who recently got jumped by racists in Los Angeles last week. I also stressed that even before Mr. Trump was selected president that as Americans we are dealing with an extraordinary deportation crisis that gets too little attention. There is, according to US Embassy estimates, now nearly 500,000 US children in Mexican schools as a consequence of deportations, which have risen under President Obama. My point to them was that the issues of deportation and building walls has been very personal to me and Mexican-Americans before Mr. Trump astonishing political triumphs.

Two things stood out during this group gab. The first was the honesty and patience with which conservative colonels listened and attempted to understand the perspectives of two people whose world views they did not share, indeed could not share, so as to gain greater knowledge and awareness. This I thought extremely important for obvious reasons.

The second was the eloquence of the African-American colonel. He spoke plainly and with pathos of his and his family’s plight, of the very real concerns and fears that African-American families live with every day in a way that only they do. The conservative colonels heard this from a brother in arms. They all got it and at least for the moment I think that they realized that there is more to liberal whining, that there is something to BlackLivesMatter that is important even for them to grasp.

These particular men of war are all outstanding professionals that I deeply respect and admire. This discussion brought home an important lesson for me; namely, that all of us need to continue to talk with and listen to those reasonable openminded souls in our orbit.

Post Trump Teaching Moment at Work

So, my class the other day started to whinge about safe-spaces, political correctness, etc. on college campuses today. I got noticeably angry and asked them to remember what college was like in the late 1980s and early 90s, when they and I were there.  They said, “It was great! So much better, rawer, tougher etc.”

So I asked, ok, let’s hear from the minorities and women in the room. (There are none). As gently and firmly as I could, I reminded them of the nastiness, meanness, sexism, racism, homophobia that was pretty widespread then and how hard this was on individuals at the time. “It might have been all those wonderful things for you,” I preached, but not everyone agrees with you because not everyone is like you (i.e. privileged [male,White, and well-off]).

I could tell that they remained skeptical, but I think they got the message. Without denying some of the fun and advantages of the old days, there is no going back to safe spaces for racism, misogyny, homophobia and all that, at least there isn’t for decent people. And I am happy to report that the bulk of my students are really good dudes and outstanding professionals.

Stay With Us, Mr. President

President Barack Obama is not likely to sit idly by if President Donald Trump attempts to fulfill the more notorious and nefarious promises made during his campaign. Obama devoted his presidency to improving policies, domestic and international, social, economic, and environmental. He has admitted to his administration’s weaknesses in marketing its achievements, but is rightly proud of his stewardship, particularly with respect to the economy. The public seems to agree, for it is sending Obama off to retirement with high approval ratings. But we can bet that he will not go quietly into the night, as is the tradition of retired American presidents, because the country is in political crisis every bit as dangerous as the economic one he inherited. Obama knows this; he understands the “fierce urgency of now.”  We can bet that he will eventually break with tradition to continue to serve his country, to defend his most important policies, and to deter the worst excesses of Trump.

Some in the GOP believe that Obama will serve as something of a punching bag for Trump going forward that will enable his policies. This is GOP hubris and Trump, with better instincts, seems to be having none of this. His first meeting with President Obama clearly cowed him into an unctuous diplomatic graciousness. There is peace, for now, between these two men as Trump goes about the business of assembling his cabinet. Obama is helping Trump to get a feel for the scope and scale of the job he won. We can all wonder what shots Obama has fired across the president elect’s bow.

But there will be bad blood, eventually, once Trump and the GOP Congress start to craft dangerous policies that threaten to harm America and its most vulnerable minorities. Trump is already beating the deportation drum. Sanders, Warren, Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Biden as fighting generals, will be a formidable cadre, speaking and organizing the opposition into civil disobedience, marches, and, eventually, the ballot box.

Obama will be the linchpin of this fight. This is dangerous for Trump because no Democrat can approach his eloquence and fire when unshackled from high office. If you doubt this, review his 2008 campaign speeches. No other Democrat has his pen or sober reasoning. If you doubt this, re-read his Nobel speech, his Dreams from My Father, or check out any of the long interviews he has recently given on television or in print. He can, if necessary, command the media, Trump-like, if you will.

His retreat from politics is probably on hold now. We can expect Obama to be patient, strategic, as is his way. Others will lead charges into the canons. But make no mistake, as he likes to say, he himself will be the hardest hitting cavalry general. Stay with us, Mr. President, stay with us.




Lincoln’s Heir

The great man did not blink at the necessary blood, death, and devastation needed to defeat the Union’s slaveholding foes. The bloodletting worsened with Grant as General in Chief and this deepened the furrows on his saddened face during all his final weeks and days. Lincoln meditated on Macbeth, “Duncan lies in his grave…” and yet he eagerly approved of General Sherman’s scorched earth march through Dixie, to the sea. Among his companions he veered back and forth from melancholy reverie to mirth. Whenever not aloof he railed them with jokes and funny stories.

Today resembles not those days except perhaps by way of crude analogy. Then, Walt Whitman sang of an America encompassing myriad nations — “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” But then only two de facto coalesced for war whose outcome bound them into union, leaving a bitter vengeful south, obdurate and wicked. We remain today two nations still in union thanks to Lincoln, evenly divided, even as the north spills south southwest, the south west and north midwest, led by a Black statesman.

Someone smartly called Barack Obama “Jefferson’s heir,” an introverted cosmopolitan who lives by mastering the written word. This is incorrect for our president is Lincoln’s heir and no one else’s. Unlike laconic Jefferson, Lincoln was a wordsmith and an orator too who sometimes made great songs even of state papers. Obama is among the most consequential English speaking orators since the end of World War II. Kennedy, Reagan, and even Thatcher — fine politicians all — do not come close to matching his fierce intellect, never mind the poetry of his own pen.

TV Watching in the Wake of a Hard Day

Sicario wasn’t a very good movie at all but did hit the spot at the end of a long yesterday. It delivered a couple of mesmerizing action scenes, some excellent aerial shots of Southwest Texas, a scrap or two of inspired acting here and there, and good-looking Emily Blunt throughout.

That film helped my wind down. In late afternoon I taught a long faculty workshop so I was tired mentally, which is common. I shared a whiskey with my colleagues before heading home. One of the things that I’ve discovered about myself in recent years is that I am an introvert. Long exposure to groups of people, be this in seminar, lecture, parties, etc. drains me of lifeblood. Often I cannot even get into the frame of mind to work out, sleep, or do anything productive. I prefer any of these but I think I discovered yesterday that entertaining film or TV, ideally something that is not too profound or taxing, helps me to unwind. I got a good a good night sleep last night, too.

The other thing that I watched before nodding off was original Star Trek. I caught the “Balance of Terror,” (digitally remastered) and it was really cool and visually stunning. I had not taken in an old Star Trek in many years and I was delighted in particular with the writing. It’s going to be fun watching these, all dolled up now, from the beginning.


A Friend Asks a Question

Are your inquiries more external? (A) X is happening, how do I feel about that?

(B) Or internal, like why do I do Y?


I had never asked myself this question. My instant reaction was that I am a (B) sort. After a few minutes I thought, no, I think I am an (A) guy.

Now I’m not so sure. We all lean one way or another I suppose, but I think that (B) matters a lot more to me. I do dwell a great deal on the why I do what I do quite a lot. I sincerely hope that I am no Hamlet.

In conversation, I noted too how sitting down with my pen and paper journal helps me to work through things that get deeply under my skin, stuff that can plague one over time. This discovery is relatively recent. Working the thing out in ink, the underlying “why” I’m upset, is good therapy. This process then let’s me put the episode into the basement.

Nobel Prize for Dylan

Here is a 1964 essay worth checking out.

This leaped out and struck me:

“A wanderer, Dylan is often on the road in search of more experience. “You can find out a lot about a small town by hanging around its poolroom,” he says. Like Miss Baez, he prefers to keep most of his time for himself. He works only occasionally, and during the rest of the year he travels or briefly stays in a house owned by his manager, Albert Grossman, in Bearsville, New York—a small town adjacent to Woodstock and about a hundred miles north of New York City. There Dylan writes songs, works on poetry, plays, and novels, rides his motorcycle, and talks with his friends. From time to time, he comes to New York to record for Columbia Records.”

Also, this:

“[W]ords made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence…. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines… happened, were said, or even imagined…. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.” -Bob Dylan on Robert Johnson.

We Need “General Sherman’s Memorial Highway”

I think we need to extend I-85 westward. It now runs from Montgomery, Alabama to Atlanta and points beyond. It should start in Jackson, Mississippi and run through Selma too. We should call it “General Sherman’s Memorial Highway.” This would counter nicely the giant Confederate flag that those assholes insist on flying right next to I-65, just north of Montgomery on the way to Birmingham

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