Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thanks for a Finely-Crafted Play

The stage is dominated by a big white bed and by a huge, selection of bright-colored clothing hanging high up all the way along the back of the stage. Those clothes and a long shelf of books fairly loom above you, at least from the fifth row, suggesting not only their owner's glamour and wealth but also her ability (need!) to shift rapidly among roles and moods. The big bed – just a white sheet on it, no blankets, ready for action – also tells you a little about its owner.

Sixty years ago, that paragraph might already be making you think of Marilyn Monroe, the subject of Mark Medoff's excellent Marilee and Baby Lamb. The well-conceived and well-crafted set might also suggest (accurately) you were in store for an absorbing play. If you missed its recent five-day run at the Rio Grande Theater in Las Cruces, I'm sorry.

I should also stress, as Mark has consistently done in his facebook posts and conversation, that this was a collaboration. With a fine cast, partly local but featuring two leading ladies who came to Las Cruces to do this play. With an extensive design and production staff. With producer Dennis D'Amica. But above all with Lena Pepitone, whom Mark never met.

D'Amica, a former student of Mark's at NMSU, met Ms. Pepitone seven years ago. Ms. Pepitone had worked extensively with Ms. Monroe during the last several years of Monroe's life. She was Monroe's intimate confidante, and they were friends. She observed a lot, and D'Amica interviewed her on video over the course of the next three years. Much of the play's material comes from those interviews. Sadly, Pepitone died in 2011. She can neither elaborate on her story nor enjoy the fruits of her conversations with D'Amica.

Both two leads (and five local actors) give excellent performances in what doesn't seem the easiest play to act in. Two men play multiple roles, which adds to the difficulty – and perhaps unconsciously supports the suggestion that here men are secondary. The two women are the story.

Some of that story you may know: that Monroe was a lot smarter than she let on, but playing the “dumb blonde” – a role the world forced on her – was convenient and profitable; that she was both magnetic and insecure; and that her involvement with politicians and at least one mafioso were dangerous to her health. The play shows us the Marilyn-Lena love story convincingly and keeps us highly interested; and without necessarily sharing Pepitone's certainty (which the interview tapes themselves might lead us to do), we certainly accept the possibility/probability that Monroe was murdered.

Years ago it seemed to me that Mark's strongest work was his collaboration with Phyllis Frelich to portray the angst and frustration of a deaf person in Children of a Lesser God. Mark's skills, wit, and humor stirred her unique and sometimes painful experiences into an excellent theatrical cocktail.  Frelich had something that desperately needed saying, and Mark had the ability to tell it with just the right touches of drama and humor. 
Now we are older. Mellower, maybe. Mark has thought (and been taught, by his wife and three daughters, among others) a lot about feminism and about being a woman in this particular world. In Marilee and Little Lamb, he expresses movingly what he's learned, along with what Lena Pepitone had to teach us about some of our misperceptions, stereotypes, and perhaps prejudices. 
I'm guessing the play will get a much longer theatrical run in a much bigger city soon. Certainly it should.
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 25 October in the Las Cruces Sun-News, and will appear later in the day on KRWG-TV's website.]
[Thinking further about this, ten days after we saw the play, I think the column doesn't stress sufficiently how Mark Medoff seems to me to have grown as a playwright.  This play is marvelously written; but Mark could always do that; and it's well-directed -- which it would have been decades ago, although I'm sure he's deepened his command of that craft over the years.  What I appreciate also is the entire complex task of staging the play.  It's not merely the clever words or the actors' delivery of dialogue and their nonverbal contributions.  The set.  The lighting.  The different ways we're taken quickly from one scene or issue to a very different one, from Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller to Lena with her husband, Joe.  The use of space.  The interesting decision to use the same actor to play Miller and DiMaggio and a gangster, while Algernon D'Ammassa plays both Kennedy brothers and Frank Sinatra.  (I don't know why Mark did that; but it seems to work.  It doesn't detract; and I see a benefit in it, as noted in the column, although I don't know that that's one of the benefits Mark saw in it.)  What I think I'm struggling to express is that plays are staged now in new ways, and Medoff has broadened and deepened his sense of what's possible and what works.]

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Notes on City Election Candidates

Making Las Cruces “business friendly” and eliminating “red-tape” are catchy slogans, but could mean things most voters wouldn't agree with.

If business-friendly means encouraging businesses, particularly small and local ones, that's great; but if it means surrendering decision-making to business or eliminating health and safety requirements, it'd be unwise.

Both mayoral candidate Gina Montoya Ortega and Council candidate Eli Guzman (District 1) have complained about their experiences with building permits – although others say the City is very cooperative.

Guzman was altering a building to house a dojo, without a permit. A codes officer spotted work and required a permit. Guzman reportedly wasn't happy. A City source says officials tried to work with him, but found him uncooperative.

Guzman says City officials were “unfriendly,” but denies the incident is why he's running. He also says his strong anti-abortion views have nothing to do with his candidacy, although someone made a video available in which he talks about that. He says that as a native he knows Las Cruces well and cares deeply about it. 

If Guzman really didn't know he needed a permit, he may not be too savvy about municipal affairs; but if he knew and ignored the requirement, that's not a good sign either. Electrical mistakes can cause fires – and a balcony with too low a railing could cause injury.

Republican Steve Caldarazzo entered this race because he didn't realize business was supporting Guzman. I asked him whether the 2010 tax lien against him and his 2012 bankruptcy indicated he'd manage our money well.

To his credit, Calderazzo was frank. He says he's worked diligently to improve, regrets his mistakes, and has learned from them in ways that would make him a better councilor. However, he's tried to withdraw.

I like both Ken Miyagashima and Miguel Silva personally. Both initially opposed the minimum-wage hike. Miyagashima's study led him to change his mind. Silva stuck to the Chamber of Commerce line. 

The city charter mandates that a petition-driven ordinance must either be passed as it is or put to a citizen vote. Silva voted to pass the ordinance while intending to violate the charter by weakening the ordinance very substantially.

The third mayoral candidate, Montoya Ortega, criticized both. She disagreed with Miyagashima on the raise; but she says that unlike Silva, she would have voted for a city-wide vote on the issue. Let the people decide, “because ultimately they'd pay for it.” 

She said in a video interview that we should invest in the city's children. She knows there are programs, but thinks there should be more. She apparently doesn't share the view that all government is bad and said that on this issue she didn't join in criticism that the City spent too much money.
She reportedly called the paperwork to enter the race “nerve-wracking.” Being a councilor and balancing competing opinions on sometimes complex issues ain't no picnic. 

Richard Hall (District 4) presents himself as the typical far-right conservative. Just before filing, he posted: “All I want is: Obama, gone; borders, closed; language, English; . . .” He also advocates mandatory welfare-screening. When Florida tried that, a lot of money was wasted on testing but very few welfare recipients tested positive. The public paid to hassle poor people pointlessly. 

Hall also criticized the council because Picacho is dead. Interstate 10 killed Picacho. Before I-10, West to East travelers had to use Picacho and Valley. It's nothing this council did!

If there's more to Hall, he's keeping it secret. He ducked the Sun-News Editorial Board (as did Guzman) and the candidate forum at City Hall, and hasn't yet returned my phone calls.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 18 October.]

Space precluded saying more about any one of the points raised in the column.  Meanwhile, this week folks in District 1 started receiving circulars paid for by a Steve-Pearce-related Super PAC of which his brother Philip G. Pearce is Treasurer.  In line with the "pro-business candidates are Republican fronts" theme, GOAL West PAC circulated pro-Guzman fliers opposing Kassandra Gandara.  A friend emailed me:
I just received a campaign circular opposing Las Cruces District #1 candidate Cassandra Gandara.  It comes from outside funding: GOAL West Pac, P.O. Box 2694, Hobbs, NM 88241.  We now have outside money meddling in district-level elections.
A vote against Guzman is a vote against Pearce's PAC.

The candidates for Mayor of Las Cruces are incumbent Ken Miyagashima and challengers Miguel Silva and Gena Montoya Ortega.  I understand Montoya Ortega hasn't voted in Las Cruces city election since 2007.  If true, that speaks to a lack of genuine interest prior to her decision to be a candidate. If I lived within city limits I'd cast my vote for Ken.
In District 1 (now represented by Miguel Silva, who's running for Mayor instead), Kassandra Gandara looks best to me -- by far.  She'd be my choice if I lived in District 1.   Guzman is superficially appealing -- a native Las Crucen teaching martial arts --- but worries me for the reasons discussed in the column.   Calderazzo was refreshingly candid when we spoke, but aside from differences of political opinion I'd want him to put some years of solid accomplishment between his 2010-2012 financial problems and a run for the council.  Bankruptcies are perfectly legal and can result from bad luck; but they do hurt someone, particularly where, as here, the amount available to pay creditors is $0.00.
In District 2, incumbent Councilor Greg Smith faces a challenge from burglar-alarm salesman Philip Van Veen. Smith is an experienced Councilor who's done some positive things.
In District 4, Jack Eackman, Gilbert Vasquez, and Richard A. Hall are all candidates.  I'd likely vote for Eackman if I lived in District 4.  He's an independent thinker and has a wealth of useful experience.    However, I know little about Vasquez.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Will the Real Las Cruces Please Stand Up?

In November's municipal election, voters will choose between two views of Las Cruces: a place we invest in, to improve quality-of-life for all, and the “shrink government, cut taxes to an absolute minimum” litany of the Tea Party and the local Chamber of Commerce.

At the recent Domenici Conference, named for our long-time Republican U.S. Senator, the experts were unanimous: you want to grow your economy? You gotta invest, particularly in infrastructure and education. 

Former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt stressed investing in a “more technologically-invested future” and strengthening public education. He added that for decades his state suspended a food exemption of the three-cent sales tax. It wasn't popular, but the programs it funded were. He recommended we consider raising taxes.

The good-government ideas articulated by Hunt (no wild-eyed progressive) sound similar to what our City Council has been trying to do. 

It's pretty much what they've been getting reamed out for doing, by the Tea Party (government must shrink until you need a microscope to find non-military functions) and the Chamber (local government must not raise taxes or regulate, and the local Board of Education should shut up and do what Hanna Skandera tells 'em to do). 

I play pickleball in Meerscheidt Rec Center weekdays – as I played noon-time basketball four decades ago. The place has grown. On Saturdays, uncountable kids play sports nearby, while their families laugh and cheer. Across across from the soccer fields is the Aquatic Center. Some people live for their daily swim. Meerscheidt is also central to the lives of disabled folks who gather there for part of the day, of middle-aged and older folks playing pickleball and volleyball, and of younger folks playing basketball. Munson Center is enriches the lives of seniors in numerous ways. 

If it costs a few extra pennies a day to have a city that cares about such things, I'll pay it. If I ran a business and were thinking of locating here, that sort of thing would matter a lot to me, because it would matter to my employees, and I'd want to attract and retain the best people I could. 

But certain business interests have made clear that they wanted to “take back Las Cruces.” 

Business used to own the City Council, which largely did the bidding of developers until the Philippou fiasco finally soured most citizens on that way of doing business. The current council cares deeply about doing the right thing: safety, services to city residents, a healthy environment, and the like. That involves building codes, environmental concerns, and rational zoning decisions. 

The first step in “taking back Las Cruces” was the vicious and dishonest effort to recall three city commissioners. When constituents who'd been tricked into signing asked to remove their names, the recall group sued, and made the City waste a bunch of lawyer time. The City won. 

The second step is trying to elect city councilors who will do the bidding of business. Part of the strategy seems to be finding malleable Democrats, because this isn't a Republican city. The strategy fooled a pro-business Republican: seeing no Republican running in his district, he signed up to run – then discovered “I'd unintentionally set up some conflict in my own party.” He withdrew his name, apparently to avoid battling against the Chamber.

Next week's column will discuss specific candidates.

Make no mistake: the Chamber of Commerce wants to “take back” the City from the rest of us – and will try to take back the County next. What kind of Las Cruces do you want?
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 11 October, and will appear later today on the KRWG-TV website.]

[As soon as I sent this off I wished I'd included a clarification of how business and the city should interact.  Businesses, collectively, are an important aspect of any community and, obviously, of any local economy.  I am not "anti-business" and do not believe a municipal government should be anti-business.  That would be absurd.
Business is an important interest group and the local economy iss an important consideration in local government.  But not the only one.  Not a dominant one.  Cities should try to avoid unnecessary red-tape and fees and bureaucracy.  City personnel should be courteous and cooperative with all.  That's  a pretty basic propositions.  But local governments should not be controlled by business.  That leads to corruption, to giving too little weight to safety and health concerns, and often to a short-term profit outlook that not only short-changes other values but frequently minimizes longer-term profits.  As I suggest in the column, reasonable efforts to improve the quality-of-life and environment of a city or state can also pay off economically.  
That is to say: I disagree with having the Chamber of Commerce run things but also disagree with the Chamber of Commerce having no voice at all.  Business interests should be listened to, but their view is self-interested and can sometimes be short-sighted as well.  The current Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce 's views unfortunately seem dominated more by small-government ideology than by the rational interests of its members.]  
[A further complicating factor here is drought and an uncertain water supply, even if one doesn't accept the science related to climate-change.   We live in a goddamned desert.  I love it, but it wasn't designed for a huge human population.  It will not, in the long term, support a huge human population, as well as agriculture and a significant bovine population.   We need to revisit the common assumptions that growth is good and that maximizing growth is a civic ideal.  Building houses is a noble and useful trade; but adding further strain to our water supply just as the supply itself seems likely to diminish is not a negligible factor.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Suggestion on Improving the Jail

A Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) could help improve the Doña Ana County Detention Center.

This proposal is independent of any criticisms I may have of the jail administration. It's based on successful models as diverse as Canada and New Mexico's own San Miguel County.

The Canadian CAC system, initiated in 1965, began to function as a national organization after the 1977 MacGuigan Report, which was sparked by several serious prison disturbances. The Canadian Government believed that the disturbances showed the need for community representatives who could monitor and evaluate correctional policies and procedures. As the Report noted, “correctional agencies traditionally operated in isolation” and “the public had never been well informed about corrections or the criminal justice system.” Both observations accurately describe our jail.

The Canadians saw that properly structured CAC's could both inform the public about prison realities and advise the Canadian Correctional Service (CSC) of its own shortcomings. For nearly forty years the CSC and the CAC's have been refining their relationship.

In the successful Canadian program, CAC's have three main roles: as advisors, impartial observers, and liasons.

As advisors they provide impartial advice from a cross-section of community members concerning operations. Their suggestions are based on regular meetings with offenders, local union representatives, and local detention center management. 

They observe during both day-to-day operations and institutional crises, so as to assist detention center officials in evaluating and monitoring how well the detention center fulfills its missions in accordance with laws and policies. They also help demonstrate – to the public, to employees, and to incarcerated persons – the detention center's commitment to openness, integrity, and accountability. 

As liaisons, they provide management a community perspective, help tell the jail's story to the public, and encourage additional public understanding of and participation in the correctional process.

In Las Vegas the CAC has some definite accomplishments to report. Construction on a “re-integration center” right near the jail is nearly complete. Maybe we couldn't replicate that here; but I lunched Tuesday with a fellow whose felony conviction as a teenager has made it difficult for decades to get back into the work force.

Warden Patrick Snedeker, who went to NMSU back around when I did, speaks highly of the CAC for just the reasons the Canadians do. (Caveat: Las Vegas is a much smaller town with a smaller jail at 50% capacity, and is (enviably) focused on rehabilitation.) 

“We've been very successful with the CAC,” Snedeker told me recently. “The CAC can help with things as diverse as legislative funding, getting information to decision-makers such as the County Commission, and identifying resources within the community. It also helps the community understand our purpose and our plans.”

“We absolutely try to focus on rehabilitation, whether through grant funding or partnerships with other entities.”

“Our three major concerns are violence, substance abuse, and recidivism.”

The need for an independent CAC is more urgent here than in Las Vegas. We have a much bigger jail, setting a much harder set of tasks for our jailers, including Mr. Barela. 

At least here, things happen that either don't reach Mr. Barela or reach him but not the public or the County Commission. The name Slevin should ring some bells; and I'm aware of a few more recent situations that could lead to huge verdicts if prisoners sued. And I don't even spend much time at the jail. Most of the problems are avoidable.

Again, Mr. Barela has a huge, difficult task. Even without the current investigation, he – or anyone in his position – could use the help of a CAC. Let's get one going.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 4 October 2015For further information on Canadian CAC's, click here.]  The site also has links to recent annual reports by the national CAC.]

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jim and Jill visit New Mexico!

Jim and Jill at White Sands National Monument
This post is for Jimmy and Jill, who visited recently, all too briefly.  Aside from just talking and laughing a lot, we showed them a little of our surroundings here in Doña Ana County --
where they'd last visited me in the early 1970's!   First day we took 'em out to White Sands. 
"Look, a hill in the sand!"

"It'd be fun to run to it and take a leap!"


"Oops, I kinda thought it would be a lot softer than this!"

"And that maybe at least I'd slide further down the hill."

"Where's the damned tour director?  I want a refund."

Jim's a professional photographer, . . .

. . . so he started shooting, even though there was nothing there.

Nothing at all.  Nada.  Just sand

so Jim and Jill were reduced to photographing each other

and the movie star who wandered through

and the ominous skies.

Next stop, Mesilla, on the way to Chope's!

Our little band braves the shades of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

But watch out for this brand-new horseless carriage!

Our hosts -- at least the folks whose home became the restaurant, and the folks who brought into the world kids and grandkids to run the place.   Thanks!.
The view from the back of the pickup truck.
An earlier post describes our drive down to Chope's. The next morning (before what had been fraudulently billed as a game between the Pittsbugh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers) we figured that as long as our visitors had been reading this "Views from Soledad Canyon" blog, they ought to hike a little in Soledad Canyon this trip.

Soledad Canyon

Right up among the clouds

Not at all daunting to our intrepid band.

Visiting with an alien.

A painting of the aliens.

"No, I'm not hiking up there tomorrow!"