Tag: Culture

Right, Wrong, and the Power of Influence

Sicario

Sicario

Friday night was date night for me. My wife and I did something we don’t do very often – we went out by ourselves. We decided on dinner and a movie in a city about twenty five miles away from us. Although our town has great places to eat, we only have one theater that shows two movies and neither really appealed to me. After a wonderful dinner, a large beer for me and disappointingly strong margarita for my wife, we went to a Movie Theater nearby that has eight theaters. After living here for eight years, it was our first time there. I wanted to see Sicario. If you are a fan of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, or Josh Brolin, I would highly recommend it. The story takes place in Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales, and Juarez, all cities I am very familiar with and I found myself trying to find markers I recognized. Only the aerial view of Juarez stood out to me. I found out later that the majority of the movie was shot in Albuquerque and the Juarez street scenes were actually filmed in Mexico City. You have to love Hollywood.

Despite being an action movie, Sicario dealt with a deeper issue that prompted a conversation between my wife and I on the drive home that evening. We discussed the ethical behavior and decisions of the main characters during the movie. Some of this was to keep me attentive driving country roads in the dark but most of it had to do with questions raised by the actions of those in the movie. I enjoy when something I see makes me think. Usually, I read a book and comment that it would make a great movie. This movie would make a great book.

As a writer of fiction, I can create fictitious characters, cities, or worlds. I can bend some writing rules to suit my own needs to create my own style. I can explore morality and behavior, leading the reader to consequences or non-consequences. I can write the past, present, or future with a mixture of actions or customs that are either factual or made up yet plausible. I can borrow from tried and true formulas of other writers in specific genres: good guy gets the girl, reluctant hero coming to the aid of those that ask, good triumphs over evil, the pursuit ends in capture, sleuth solves the crime, true love prevails, and so on.  Or if I was creative enough, I could devise my own formula that defies the norm yet still attracts readers. For the most part, I can do whatever I want to do… within reason. It’s fiction. What I can’t do is plagiarize. Why? Because it’s wrong. Period. That would be cheating. Yet we see and are exposed to cheating on a daily basis.

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I had a poster I special ordered once. There is a photographer who covers Le Tour de France who takes the most amazing pictures of the riders and countryside that fill this epic race. I took the poster to Michaels and had it framed in a very expensive frame with no glare glass. It hung on my wall for years and was an inspiration to me on what was possible when someone has the drive and determination to succeed. To win against the odds. And then it all came crashing down and that expensive frame sits in a closet somewhere less the poster that I ripped up and tossed in the garbage. Some might argue that his winning served a greater good, benefiting the philanthropic efforts he is a part of for cancer. I would argue that it didn’t. More cheating was exposed throughout the sport and I haven’t watched it since despite religiously tuning in each July for over fifteen years, not missing but a few stages of the race.

“We are more likely to cheat if we see others doing so. We tend to conform to accepted norms of reasonable behavior, rather than adhere to strict rules.” – Evan Davis

I get an executive briefing each day from a professional engineering society I am a member of. There a number of briefs regarding inventions, innovations, and contracts that involve major manufacturers throughout the world. Recently it contained a brief regarding a major car manufacturer that had cheated on their emission testing. This bothered me not only because it’s a company I have always respected but because it took a substantially large group of engineers and decision makers to collaborate and pull this off. I won’t speculate as to why this decision was made because I can’t fathom the thought that it was even up for decision. There are rules in place because society deems them necessary. If you’ve ever driven in or near Los Angeles, it’s easy to understand why (and I’m only picking on LA because it was the first city I visited where I noticed smog for the first time). It was an abuse of power by some, it was cheating, and it was wrong.

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A private email server being used by a government official. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you know what I am talking about and this is the moment I might upset a few of you. That’s not my intent and it’s not political. This is also the time where I probably need to make a disclaimer and state “these thoughts are my own” although I feel my thoughts are in line with the code of conduct paperwork I sign off on each year. I am not a direct government employee but work in the government division of a very large company. My division builds key equipment and components found on aircraft carriers and submarines in addition to equipment used in nuclear plants. Because of this, there are strict rules I have to abide by. There are procedural rules regarding everything involved in acceptance or non-acceptance of component parts and/or finished assemblies. There are also strict procedural rules regarding how we conduct business, both general everyday business activities and how we communicate and work electronically. Is some of it inconvenient? Yes, but what is at stake overrides any inconvenience. There are lives that depend on the following of these rules. My job also depends on my following the rules. This is black and white to me with no grey area so I don’t buy into anyone at any level not following the rules.

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So where am I going with all this? Back to writing of course. As writers, we have a lot of freedom to write about anything and everything. This can be through works of fiction or non-fiction we intend to publish or simply through a blog post. We can draw on the events of the past, the present, and of probable or not so probable events of the future to create a story or simply to talk/rant about something. Those events can be feel good events or they can be events we deem morally wrong, subjective to the individual interpretations we all derive from them. Throughout this process, we can play with our own perceived ethical or moral behavior in a manner that might or might not influence at all. The potential for influence is there though and with that comes accountability and responsibility. I’m not suggesting tossing artistic creativity by the wayside. I’m only suggesting, that much like the examples I mentioned above, or the everyday influences of leaders, athletes, teachers, coaches, parents, and newscasters to name a few, we all have the potential to influence. Don’t abuse that power.

People have a choice of what they can and can’t live with, what they see as right or wrong, or what they are just indifferent to. Is it always black and white? No, sometimes it is grey. I can live with grey occasionally when the argument for it is compelling enough.

Now to go punish my main character for bad decisions…

images found on google images and Pixabay

I’m Not Saying It Was Aliens, But…

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” – Stephen Hawking

I believe there are many influences we have at a young age, particularly some books and movies that might be too much for our young minds to comprehend much less fully rationalize yet I wouldn’t discourage the practice provided they are discussed with an adult. Through my parent eyes, I do have some exceptions to this thought process that would include certain books and movies. There is an age appropriate criteria that should be set for some content or subject matter. That’s my job as a parent.

When I was young, I read two series of books that I was probably too young to read. One was a series of books by Carlos Castaneda in which he wrote about his training in shamanism under the tutelage of a Yaqui man named Don Juan. Some of this training introduced Castaneda to the use of psychotropic plants such as mushrooms and peyote in order for Castaneda to enter a reality in which he could better understand Don Juan’s teachings. My mother had been reading these books for a college class and talked openly about the books. She was convinced that Don Juan lived somewhere along the Mexican border where we lived (the Mexican state of Sonora having many border towns adjacent to small towns in Arizona). I didn’t find out until years later that much of what Castaneda wrote was questionable and disputed in some scholarly circles but by then, I had long forgotten much of what I had read. I would like to re-read the books as an adult and see if I feel differently.

Nasca - Parrot

Nasca – Parrot

The other series of books I read were by Erick von Däniken suggesting alien influences on earlier cultures. These books fascinated me then, and admittedly fueled an interest in ancient cultures. Had it not been for these books, I might not have been introduced to some of the amazing feats of construction that are prevalent in both Central and South America. Sure, we were all taught about the Great Pyramid of Giza and other wonders in Europe and Asia in grade school but not much was taught about many of the same wonders that existed directly south of us. I was twelve years old when I read Chariots of Gods? and thirteen when I read Gods from Outer Space.  Erick von Däniken tried to connect it all in his books and for a young reader, the theory was plausible. Did I believe aliens influenced or supervised these cultures, allowing them to accomplish things that were supposedly not possible with the technology and tools of that time? Absolutely.  Do I believe this now? Read on…

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During my later teens, I camped out in the desert near my house. While on a peyote induced trip to find my spirit animal, I had the chance to seek answers to many of the questions the books I had read a few years earlier had left me with. While flying, and I’m not sure what type of bird I was, I was abducted by a passing aerial craft of some sort. To my surprise, it was manned by aliens. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to have my questions answered, I asked them if they had anything to do with all the great mysteries I had read about only a few years earlier and they said they hadn’t but did admit to crashing at Roswell. So there I had it, firsthand knowledge directly from my abductors.  Alright, before you think I’ve completely lost it, yes I am just kidding. Actually, they couldn’t understand my question because I was bird and couldn’t speak (yes, maybe I was too young to read Castaneda or von Däniken).

Enough funny business and I will get back to the question: do I believe this now? I do believe that in a universe as vast as the one we are in, or other universes that exist, both known and unknown,  we would be very vain and naive to think we are the only intelligent life form. It comes down to numbers as Hawkins suggested in the quote I shared at the beginning of this post. Having said that, do I believe aliens influenced or helped the cultures of the past. No, I don’t. Not because it isn’t possible but because there is no proof. That doesn’t diminish my fascination with the possibility that it could have happened but the technical side of me demands proof and to my knowledge, there is none. The technical side of me knows enough to understand that many of these mysteries exploited in such books or television shows are easily disputed by an understanding of math, which we now know many earlier cultures were very proficient in.  A basic understanding of geometry for example, allows the construction of very detailed and exact shapes. Take a crop circle, or some other seemingly perfect geometrical shape, that supposedly could only be done with access to an aerial view. A group of people with a few stakes, long ropes to construct lines, and an understanding of right angles and arcs, could theoretically create most any shape. This has been proven numerous times by hoaxers. Toss in an understanding of astronomy and agriculture and it should be no surprise that ancient civilizations were able to accomplish many of the engineering feats we are fascinated with today.

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What I love about books that make us question things, both fictional and non-fiction, is the fact that they should spark interest in learning more. I can honestly say I am fascinated with ancient civilizations and the engineering feats they accomplished.  I believe I can attribute that fascination to a few of the more controversial books I read as a kid along with the not so controversial follow up reading found in other more scholarly books or magazines such as National Geographic. Thankfully, my mom encouraged both.

It’s all good.

Bill

Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Google images 

That One Song

A short post for me this Memorial Day weekend.

I often mention music in my posts and writing because music is something we all relate to. Songs remind us of a time in our lives, a person, or maybe a place.  Markers engrained in our minds.

When I was young, the small town I grew up in had dances for kids all the time. The schools had dances, the Y had dances, the church had dances, and local organizations held dances. For adults, there were weddings, anniversaries, and bars.  There was a song that played at most very event I ever attended and it was somewhat unique to the culture I grew up with.

I left that town when I was sixteen and moved to the city. I returned once in the late eighties to attend my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. That song played and I danced with my grandmother. It was the  only time I had ever danced with my grandmother.  Years later, my grandfather’s brother celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in Tucson. I was married then so my wife attended with me. When that song played, I jumped up and pulled her to the dance floor. It was the first time she had ever heard it, but knew by the look in my eyes what it meant to me. It didn’t take her long to look around the club and see what it meant to all my relatives. It’s our song, part of our culture and now by being married to me, part of hers.  She loved it.

There is a famous guitar player most of you know: Carlos Santana. What most of you don’t know is he has a brother who is also a gifted musician: Jorge Santana. Jorge played in a band from California and recorded a song that probably is still being played today at dances and family gatherings across the Southwest.

How about you, what is that one song?  As for that one song that means so much to me –  I’ll share it with you.

Enjoy…

 

Stranger In A Strange Land

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As I woke up to snow this morning, our first for the year, I was reminded of where I live now and of something I never thought about while growing up: seasons. This isn’t a bad thing and although I’ve experienced a total of twelve years of my life in areas with snow, I still find myself enjoying the novelty of its beauty. There is a part of me however that finds it all surreal along with every other aspect of my day to day life. Through a few responses to recent posts of mine, I’ve stopped to think about what a vast country we live here in the United States and along with that, the cultural differences that are prevalent. It also reminded me of a time a few years back where I felt I had made a mistake in my decision to live where I live now.

Major Changes

I’ve done it twice. I grew up in the Southwest. I was born and raised in a small town along the Mexican border and moved to Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, when I was sixteen. Although many might see this as a major change, I really didn’t We had been to Tucson and Phoenix enough times as kids that the change was more about adapting to a much larger school and a never-ending supply of things to do. Arizona has both its own culture and has absorbed so much of the culture of the many transplants that call Arizona home today. It’s a growth state with many of its inhabitants bringing a little bit of their own culture with them. So you moved from Ohio to Arizona? No problem, there are Midwest style restaurants, Cleveland Browns bars, and plenty of other venues to keep you in touch with your roots. Are you from the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Texas, Mexico, Canada, China, Japan, England, India, or (insert where you call home here)? Again, no problem. Everyone brings a bit of themselves and will equally be able to find a bit of themselves in the greater Phoenix or Tucson area.

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I went the opposite route. My wife is from New York and our annual trips there were becoming increasingly expensive after we had our first child. She wanted to be closer to her family, a day’s drive, and I agreed provided it would be in an area that would offer reasonable airfare to visit my family back in Arizona. We made the decision to move and that move would be to Wisconsin. We could visit her family multiple times a year and had four nearby airports in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago that all offered reasonable flights back to Arizona.

The Green Bay Packers

Wisconsin: major culture shock to me but in a good way. We had visited there twice as a family and then I spent a few days there interviewing for jobs. During my solo trip, I stopped into a little dive restaurant to get a few tacos. The menu offerings assured me I would not have to give up Mexican Food. The owner assured me I would not have to give up my Hispanic background either. There was an entire Mexican community in this city, complete with dances, festivals, and numerous restaurants and stores. This surprised the hell out of me to be honest. I thought we had the patent on Mexican communities in the Southwest. There were also Greek, German, Irish, and Italian communities to name a few.

I could write a very long blog post about nothing but Wisconsin but I will sum it up with a number of words: the Packers, brats, cheese curds, beer, the Badgers, the Brewers, S.C. Johnson, Case tractors, Lake Michigan, the Dells, fishing, hunting, the Packers, polka, flatlanders, Happy Days, Lavern & Shirley, Summefest, snow, summer, Friday Fish Fry, cabins up North, any festival you can imagine (chocolate, Greek, Armenian, Italian, German, Irish, strawberry, every church imaginable & with beer, Mexican, Kraut, and so on), oh, and did I mention the Packers? I didn’t bring much of my culture to Wisconsin. It had so much of its own. Well, I did wear an Arizona Cardinals coat into a bar once during a Packers game and lived to tell about it.

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We lived in Wisconsin for five years. My second son was born there. It was his birth that prompted my wife and I to recognize one thing we were missing: family. My oldest at the time had just finished first grade and our youngest was just over a year old. My wife and I discussed moving again and knew there were only two choices. We would either be moving to New York or back to Arizona. I had a chance to purchase a small company in Arizona so we opted to return to my home.

My business went well, providing a nice living for us and allowed my wife to stay home with our youngest, something she had been able to do with my oldest until he was three. I was home and life was great. The greater Phoenix area had changed some over the five years we were gone, mostly growth but also in areas we hadn’t given much thought to the first time we left: crime. We lived in a very nice Tempe neighborhood that was within a few blocks of Arizona State University. Our oldest son was now playing with kids in the area but allowed only to stay on our street. There was no venturing past one of his friend’s house who only lived about ten or so houses away from us.

My wife was from a small town and I’ve already mentioned that I grew up in a small town. We both grew up being able to run around town without the worries that so many children in a large city deal with on a daily basis, yet here our now ten year old son is only allowed to play on one street. It just didn’t seem fair.

In the summer of 2007, my wife and two sons went on vacation to New York to visit her family for four weeks. Having a business, and working ungodly hours, I of course stayed home. One week into their vacation, my oldest son calls me up to tell me he wants us to move to New York. He was excited about fishing with his grandfather, hanging out at the local Little League field, and mostly about being able to just play all over the neighborhood. My wife asked if I would fly up for a few days toward the end of their vacation and then we’d all fly back home together. I agreed and when I arrived, my son and wife now pushed the idea of a move.

As a family, we went through an exercise weighing the pros and cons of living in Arizona and in New York, an exercise led by my ten year old son. New York won and within two months I had closed my company down, left a city of close to five million people to move to a small town of just over five thousand people in New York.  I was fortunate that one of the two larger companies in the area was hiring and I was able to land a great job.

Taco Bill’s

New York: once again, major culture shock to me and this time on so many levels. We moved to my wife’s hometown, a place we had been to many times before on vacation but it was different now. It was home. I settled nicely into my new job and the kids loved their new school. My wife took a job only to realize her calling was nursing so she went back to school to become a nurse. She loves it.

For me, something was missing and I got into a real funk. Depressed might be a better word. When you live in the city, you love the times when you can get away to the small towns or explore nature. We did it on a regular basis in Arizona and a few times in Wisconsin. Often one wonders what it would be like to move to an area like that. Well, we were living it. Small town, beautiful hills, river, little to no traffic, and our home was six miles out of town in an even hillier wooded area. Despite our postcard living environment, I wanted to move back to Arizona.

I thought at first that it was due to the fact that I was living in a small town and despite my growing up in a small town, I had become a city person and there was no going back. We started taking occasional weekend trips to the city and although this satisfied my yearning for the things a city has to offer, I was still depressed. I kept searching for something to make me feel more at home here and one day it hit me. I guess I didn’t see it because we had adapted so well to Wisconsin. The only thing I really had to give up in Wisconsin was the geographical features of Arizona, and of course the 330 plus days of sunshine. Wisconsin had everything else plus things I hadn’t experienced in Arizona.  The town we moved to in New York however is a predominately white town with a culture of its own and was missing something that I have had every day of my waking life: some aspect of Hispanic culture.

OK, with a name like Cunningham you are probably wondering why that is important to me. I’m predominately Hispanic and was raised in a Hispanic household and environment. I’m Irish and Basque to be exact with a little bit of Mexican in there somewhere.

One day at work, I called my wife and explained to her what I felt the problem was. She understood and what happened next was nothing short of amazing. I came home from work and while getting out of my car, I was welcomed to Mexican music escaping through the open windows. I smiled and walked up the steps opening the door to the kitchen, and was smacked in the face with what only can be described as a heavenly aroma: the smell of Mexican food. Now I know what most of you are thinking. Big deal, everyone can make Mexican food. Yeah, and so can Taco Bell. This wasn’t just any smell; it was the smell of my mother’s tacos, in my home in the woods, some 2.200 plus miles away from my mother in Arizona. No more pre-made taco shells, or store bought taco seasoning. My wife had made taco shells in a frying pan with fresh corn tortillas and had seasoned the meat just the way my mom does. After the phone call from me, my wife had called my mom, gone to the store and bought what she needed, even stopped at the liquor store for Tequila and Margarita mix, hurried home and made a meal my mother would be proud of. A meal I was proud of her for making.

My mother started sending me numerous recipes and we now make and eat all the food I ate growing up with the exception of Menudo and Tamales. Those two will come as soon as I find tripe and masa. I’ve even shared this food with friends at work, making me the local “Mexican Food” expert. I was already a novelty to most of them as they jokingly call me Paco or Mexican Bill at work. It’s in jest and I have never been offended by it. They’ve even encouraged me to open the first Mexican Food restaurant in our town and told me what I should call it: Taco Bill’s of course. I don’t see that happening but I will continue to bring in red chile con carne, green chili burritos, carne asada, barbacoa, and tacos.

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You see, what was missing is what so many people before me have done and that is brought something of themselves to where they moved. I didn’t have to do that in Wisconsin since an entire community of Mexicans from Texas moved there in the sixties many years ago I was told to work for CASE and that culture was thriving in the cheese state. But for this tiny town along the New York/PA border, I am the first (at least at work). And I’m gladly sharing.

As I write this, my wife is slow cooking chile verde venison for burritos we will eat later while we watch the Arizona Cardinals on TV. Not such a strange land anymore.

Bill

 

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