Sunday, September 29, 2013

Seeing Home through a Visitor's Eyes

Sometimes a friend’s visit helps you see your home with fresh eyes.

Don Gagner – my friend and father-in-law – visited from Japan for a few days this week. He isn’t Japanese. He’s a New Englander who played semi-pro football, got drafted by the Yankees, and worked as a lumberjack, a high school teacher, and a coach. He’s also lived the last 18 years in Japan. The last eight years he’s been happily married to a Japanese lady named Midori.

Some of his reactions to Las Cruces were unsurprising: the sky sure is big when it ain’t blocked by a bunch of buildings with 10 or 20 or 60 stories. (He lives in Osaka, which is similar in population size to New York City.) The portions on your plate in any restaurant here are gargantuan compared to Japanese portions. (He liked the quality of the food here too.) People’s hearts are pretty big too, in terms of friendliness toward strangers.

The Organ Mountains looked almost artificial, he said: as if someone had just painted ‘em there, and not all that realistically. Which reminded me that when I first arrived in August 1969, I said they looked like out-sized cardboard backdrops left behind by some Hollywood film company shooting on location. To each of us, they just looked too danged stark and vertical to be real, until you climb up into them.

In Bar Canyon and just walking around at sunset behind our house he marveled at the odd flora and fauna you don’t find in New England or Osaka (and as I write these words he passes the door marveling at the sunset).

Visiting White Sands was fun. Near the entrance, when he marveled at the sight of some modest white dunes amongst the cactus and scrub, we marveled with him – then sort of strung him along by saying long before we really got into the dunes, “Should we turn around?” and “Yeah, probably. Or maybe go just a little further,” as if there wasn’t much more to see. This enhanced his surprise when the world turned wholly gypsum and we shed shoes and wandered off into the whiteness. (And the coolness: “It’s so cool!” he exclaimed, thinking of the hot sands of New England and Florida.)

On the other hand, the Rio Grande was even more disappointing to him than it was to me in August 1969. Back then, it wasn’t all that Grand, compared to rivers like the Hudson and a bunch of others with far more modest names, but at least it was a Rio until it shut down for the winter. I suggested he and Dael drive down to it, just so he could see the famous river up close. When we reunited, he grinned and reported – “. . . and we had a little swim in the river. Incredibly refreshing!” Then he grew serious and asked if the phantom river was a big topic of conversation and concern here.

Driving to the radio station Wednesday morning, I mentioned that same-sex marriage might come up during the second hour, when N.M. Senator Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) would call in. Don had two reactions. Personally, he figured marriage was one form of relationship between two people, and whether or not people got married, whether or not they did so in some church, and whether or not they married someone of the opposite sex were all up to the couples involved – not up to him, and not up to the State. On the other hand, he knew Japan, which is quite conservative in many areas, was unlikely to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon. He’s hardly older than I am, and we remarked on the fact that 50 years ago we wouldn’t have thought of any such thing as same-sex marriage.

At restaurants, at shops, at the Farmers’ Market, he enjoyed the openness of the people he met – as well as finding unique gifts for his wife, students, or friends, including an old license plate to hang on the fence and a “soap-saver” (made locally by for his thrifty mother-in-law..

Perhaps above all he enjoyed the ability to travel back and forth in a very short time between the natural world of beauty and solitude and the human world where nice people in pleasant restaurants serve tasty food at reasonable prices.

There are things we all enjoy about Las Cruces. Those of us who haven’t always lived here notice them consciously each time we return, then enjoy them unconsciously until someone else visits.

The dark, looming shape of the mountains after dusk, the colors in the twilight sky, the peace that helps us find sleep, after a hectic schedule of work or travel elsewhere. The interesting, often quite talented, and incredibly varied friends we get to know so much more deeply here than we’d be able to in some large city. The evening’s first star, sitting high above the mountains in that darkening sky, and then its uncountable brethren in all their splendor, undimmed by millions of streetlights, headlights, and office buildings.

I’d sound pretty sappy running on about all this each week; but elements of the magic of this place do cross my mind at odd moments. It’s refreshing to have a friend’s visit bring it all back up to consciousness.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 29 September.  It's worth noting that Don Gagner, who's since arrived safely back in Osaka, read it and remarked that our visit to Osaka last year had a similar effect on him, refreshing his appreciation of some of its wonders.]
[If you're a Las Crucen, it might also be worth noting that among the establishments to which we took Don were Milagro's (for excellent coffee and fine pastries), Spirit Winds (for a black-bean veggie-burger or a tuna sandwich), Luna Rosa (where we like the salmon salad, Don chose the pizza, and we all ate more gelato than we should have), and Habaneros (on Solano, and easily passed without noticing it, but worth a stop some time.  Don enjoyed not only the food but a thoughtful conversation with the proprietor.)  Think we also made it to Mountain View kitchen at 130 Water St.  (Tasty and healthy food.)  We often do.
Not that the foregoing exhausts our list of favorite eateries . . . ]


Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Speak Up, Las Cruces!" - What We Hope to Do

“Speak Up, Las Cruces!”

For two weeks now I’ve been saying that a lot, mostly during the hours of 8-10 a.m., Monday through Friday.

Keith Whelpley and I co-host a daily two-hour radio show called “Speak Up, Las Cruces!” on KOBE 1450. We first aired on Labor Day.

We took it on in the perhaps foolish hope that it could become a useful tool in the community’s ongoing dialogue with itself.

We discovered that we share certain assumptions: first, that we live in a community.  That community members can and will disagree, sometimes vigorously, without necessarily leaving – or tossing someone else out of – the community.  That communities, both in elections and otherwise, make decisions that affect the lives of their members; that decisions are better made when a community has the fairest, and most complete information; and that this sort of information is often best found, or developed, in frank but reasonably courteous discussion and debate.

While there will be shows in which Keith and I tallk with each other and our listeners who call in, we frequently bring in guests.  With a controversial issue like the gross receipts tax hike, the funding freeze on mental health providers, and same-sex marriage, we bring in knowledgeable people who disagree.  Aside from specific issues, we’re inviting community members we disagree with to spend time with us, if they’re willing, and let the listeners figure out what it all means, if anything.  (Among those count Neal Hooks, Tea Party representatives, and Steve Pearce.)

Wednesday we discussed same-sex marriage with: the newly famous Lynn Ellins, our County Clerk; Republican State Sen. Bill Sharer, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Ellins; Neal Hooks, a Sun-News Op-Ed Columnist who disagrees with Ellins as strongly as Sen. Sharer; and Carrie Hamblen, who’s the President of PFLAG Las Cruces and one-half of a newly-married couple.  Callers were free to question anyone, or comment.

Earlier that day, we had an hour-long, reflective conversation with the new Bishop, Oscar Cantú.  We wanted to introduce listeners to a prominent member of the community whom many, particularly non-Catholics, haven’t met.  (I’m far from being a Catholic, but thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and tend to think Bishop Cantú is a pretty good guy.)

Our vision, if I may over-dignify our hopes with that word, is that through honest and sometimes bold reportage, but with courtesy and respect toward guests, we can examine facts or situations – or bring together others who’ll do so – in a way that’s useful for all of us.

That’s a challenge.  We also want to have fun doing it and make it fun for our listeners.  We’ll do that through occasional flippancy and irreverence, a lot of goofy news items when we’re without guests, and an openness to all sorts of guests and all sorts of subjects.  We’ll have the mayor and senators on, but also a number of people who are lot less well known but just plain interesting.  The college basketball coach who went to Ireland to coach, so as to learn Irish fiddling, and ended up a writer, teaching at NMSU.  The guy who felt like making rainbows, and did, and now gets flown around to foreign countries to make rainbows.  A former Hollywood stunt man who as a youth gained a wealth of knowledge from the Mescaleros, is now developing an interesting breed of horse, and has also recently put out a book that isn’t really about any of those subjects.

Tuesday after a spirited discussion of the gross receipts tax with City Manager Robert Garza and City Councilor Miguel Silva, we talked with three members of Crossroads City Roller Derby.  Who would have supposed that a conversation about roller-blading would lead us into frank talk about how their sport had helped each of them in some profound way in their careers, including helping one of the three guests recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after eight years in the military?

If you’ve tune in, you know that our two weeks on radio have featured a comical series of mistakes (by me) and misfortunes in the technical end of what we’re doing.  Like most things, hosting a radio show takes a little more than outsiders might imagine.  The variety of things that can go wrong (including forgetting to put on headphones and then construing the silence as being off the air – or forgetting to turn off everyone’s mikes the moment a commercial starts and everyone mistakenly thinks s/he’s off-air and might say anything.)

But it’s fun.  Keith and I are both curious.  We’re also experienced reporters. Sometimes we feel like a couple of curious kids just given free reio their town and ask folks all sorts of things, serious and silly.

And there are light moments. Wednesday when I invited Keith to read the list of our sponsors, I led into it by asking him to “remind us who brings us here” – and instantly realized that when you use a phrase like that around the bishop, it’s capable of meaning someone other than your sponsors.  He’d had the same thought, and we kidded about it with the bishop.

But then, what do I know about who brought us there?

What started in hopes we could contribute to our community also turns out to be enough fun that we’ll keep letting it turn out lives upside-down for awhile, and see where it leads.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, September 15.

We really are interested in suggestions, criticisms, and what-not that could help us improve the show.  We have a Facebook page (if you're on Facebook, please search "Speak Up, Las Cruces" and "Friend" us or "like" us or post a comment) and even an email account at KOBE (send to peter and/or to keith  at

The Sun-News headlined the column "More than a Radio Show."  That bothered me, although I had to admit maybe that was what I was saying.  But I wasn't, exactly.  What I hope I said was that we hope it'll be a damn good radio show -- and, yes, more than a radio show.  A community water well where folks from all walks of life stop to drink, and gab.  A chance for each of us to connect with a whole lot of interesting folks with whom we share this valley but whom he don't know at all.  

But I'm selfish, too.  I'm curious, one of those guys who's always watching everything, overhearing everything, wondering how folks got the way they are and where they dream of going from here, and how the world looks to 'em.  I'm a curious guy, and journalism has often served as a way to satisfy curiosity without being impolite.  It gives me a socially acceptable reason to ask all sorts of folks all sorts of things.

Just walking through the market yesterday talked to half a dozen potential guests.  A fellow named Jerry whose mission is helping veterans with PTSD fit back in to our community.  An artist whose work we thoroughly enjoy, who stressed when I asked him about being on radio that God was a big part of what he does, and that if he came on the show that's something he'd be wanting to talk about -- that helping spread the Word would be why he'd come on.  I urged him to think about it, and he gently corrected me:  "I'll pray about it, he said."

I don't happen to share his religious views, or those of our delightful guest last Wednesday, Bishop Cantú; but I've noticed, in working sporadically on a documentary about folks who produce healthy food and sell it at the market here, that God is a major part of what they're doing and why they're doing it.  I find that interesting.

Rush Limbaugh (aside from wanting to promote Rush Limbaugh) has a set of positions he wants to convince you to take.
Well, I have some views too; but I also find a whole lot in the world that fills me with wonder, or sparks my curiosity, and so I want to check things out -- and, by doing so on radio, invite you to check 'em out with me, and share your thoughts by calling in.  
It's tough not to sit at home mornings with the hummingbirds and the beautiful morning light, rather than in a studio so small Lynn Ellins announced he had bigger closets; it's tough to be somewhere by 8 a.m. with some semblance of brains turned on; it's tough to crash early night after night; but the show is fun.  And I'm learning a new trade.]

Sunday, September 1, 2013

County Commission Knocks One Out of the Park

I had planned to devote this column to our new radio show (“Speak Up, Las Cruces!” weekdays from 8-10 a.m., starting tomorrow, Labor Day, on KOBE-1450) and our lunatic hope that it will improve the quality of our community’s dialogue with itself.

But Tuesday’s County Commission meeting hijacked my day, and my column.  I’ve criticized the Commissioners and likely will again, but I was glad that they chose to express their consciences in a non-binding resolution supporting Lynn Ellins’s acceptance of marriage-license applications from same-sex couples.

When I arrived at the meeting, I was startled to hear that they’d just voted 3-2 to remove the item from the day’s agenda, but would hear the public input from the overflow crowd.

There were two lines: one (in which probably half the folks were pastors) opposed the resolution; and the other (which also contained quite a few pastors) favored it.  After awhile the first line ran out of people, while the second line seemed inexhaustible.

There’s more to say about the subject than space permits, but . . .

First, Ellins – aided and abetted by a small group of advisors – did nothing more than his job.  He took an oath to uphold the Constitution.  Particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act and the NM Attorney General’s comments, it’s a reasonable interpretation of the the U.S. Constitution and/or the New Mexico Constitution that both prohibit discrimination against same-sex couples.   New Mexico law is silent on the subject. (So, by the way, was Jesus Christ, although he was frequently mentioned by opponents at the Commission meeting.)

Ellins, the two judges who’ve ordered other counties to follow suit, and the handful of other clerks doing so are all acting appropriately (as are clerks who, in the judicial and legislative silence, interpret the constitutions differently).  The appropriate way to challenge his actions would be a lawsuit, by someone with legal standing.

The Commission also acted appropriately.  It didn’t pass an ordinance.  It passed a resolution.  That’s basically an expression of opinion.  With the Legislature trying so hard not to face the question, Commissioners felt that such an expression might help.  Before making up their minds, they listened to hours of argument from citizens.

Folks on both sides spoke passionately.  I sympathize with the fear of change that ran through the comments by folks opposing the resolution.

I was a kid a long time ago.  Homosexuality wasn’t a major topic, but it was something most people disapproved of.  Same-sex marriage would have been almost as unthinkable as a black President.

So in one scale we have those fears: I won’t be able to tell my children gay love is unthinkable; I might have to see a gay couple holding hands or kissing, or have to decide whether my kid can stay overnight with a friend whose parents are same-sex.

In the other scale, we have the tremendous joy and relief of the newly-wed couples, many of whom have lived together for literally decades, loving each other and feeling their love trampled on by the law and public opinion; and the shared joy and relief of “straight” couples like Dael and me who couldn’t resist marrying but felt uneasy that not all couples could do so; and finally add the love and care I’ve seen in the eyes of gay friends with adopted children who, but for their two dads, would have grown up in an orphanage or on some Guatemalan street.

It ain’t close.

Two arguments I don’t credit are that Jesus wouldn’t approve and that marriage between same-sex couples somehow undermines the value or beauty of heterosexual marriage.

I feel that the beauty of marriage is undermined more by excluding otherwise loving and faithful couples from it because they’re same-sex.   If my marriage were so fragile that what other folks were doing in their marriages could affect it, I guess I’d be in trouble already.

And (aside from issues of separation of church and state) I can’t recall Jesus discussing the subject.  Mostly he seems to have favored including folks the surrounding society excluded, honoring the poor and the downtrodden, and offering love and gentleness in response to most kinds of provocation.  I heard one pastor Tuesday thank Ellins for allowing her to fulfill a career-long dream by marrying a same-sex couple.  Jesus as the Gospels portray him might have approved.

I do wonder what folks elsewhere think of a state that makes the national news first for a confederate flag in an Independence Day parade and then for starting to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Me, if I didn’t love the place already, that eclecticism would appeal to me – without endorsing the idea of putting up Confederate flags.

Tuesday the Commission put the resolution back on the agenda, and passed it by a 4-1 vote.  The endless chain of human stories, some told in tears, I found moving; but more moving was the realization that for once I was watching public sentiment help commissioners trying to decide what was right.

Six counties – including Santa Fe and Bernalillo, on judges’ orders – have followed our county’s lead.  Ultimately, acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable,  but Mr. Ellins may have materially altered the timing, at least in New Mexico.

Meanwhile I hope folks on both sides will express and discuss their views with us on the new radio show.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, September 1.]

I  had meant to write an extended blog post concerning the meeting, and the issue; but other commitments haven't left me the time.  I still hope to do that, because it was an important and interesting moment, whatever one's views, and also of some interest beyond the borders of Dona Ana County.
Those time constraints include starting some new legal work, putting up two photo shows, recuperating from knee-replacement surgery, and, above all, starting the new radio show.
The photo shows: "Fire and Ice", images from Iceland, opens Friday evening during the Art Ramble, September 6th, at the Big Picture on Main St.  I'll be there for the Opening; but I'm also putting up a show at Creative Harmony, a block away on Campo Street.  That one will be up fir three months and the formal "Opening" will be on the first Friday in November.  That one is from a series matching photographs with tanka poems.
The radio show:  I'll supplement this with a more detailed piece on what we hope to accomplish, but the basics are that I'll co-host "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" with Keith Whelpley on KOBE 1450 AM.  It's a news discussion show with listener call-in, but will also touch on the arts, sports, theater, gardening, the environment, interesting people we know around here, and just about everything else.  We're committed to getting diverse points of view represented on public issues, and to giving everyone a fair hearing.  We'll ask tough questions -- and encourage listeners to do the same -- but we believe that we can challenge others' ideas and political positions without rejecting those folks as people.  We're a community.  A community, like a family, ought to be able to talk frankly and hash out problems.  We hope that our radio show will contribute to our community's internal dialogue.
But it'll be a challenge!  We welcome suggestions -- for topics, for guests, for specific questions to scheduled guests, for additional features -- and invite folks to visit our Facebook page, where we'll have a schedule of upcoming topics and guests.  Go to Facebook and search Speak Up, Las Cruces if this link doesn't work:
Speak Up, Las Cruces
I'll try to post schedule here too later today.
Wish us luck!