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Never Too Late? Estudiando Español en Mexico!

Lago de Cuitzeo on the road near Morelos, during the bus ride from Mexico City to Guadalajara.

Lago de Cuitzeo on the road near Morelos, during the bus ride from Mexico City to Guadalajara.

I’m in Mexico City. I arrived a couple of weeks ago and will be here until mid-August. I’m enrolled in a Spanish class at the UNAM, Mexico City’s enormous free public university, and I’m staying in a very gentrified neighborhood called La Condesa, in an apartment that is a bit of a dump, but it’s working out ok.

Learning Spanish has been a goal that I’ve intermittently felt committed to since 1979. As it happens, I’ve had many experiences in Spanish-speaking countries, and living in the Mission with a Mexican wife gives me lots of regular opportunities to be in Spanish speaking situations. Still, in spite of all that, I have always had a lot of trouble speaking, and my comprehension is very unreliable, going from 25% to close to 80% at times. After my visit to Chile in March/April of this year, I finally broke through a persistent ceiling and found my tongue. It doesn’t mean I don’t speak very garbled Spanish, but at least I can generally make myself understood and I can usually understand what people are asking of me. Now I’m in a Basic 4 level class, and once again am face to face with the task of memorizing long lists of verbs and conjugations, something I started to do 36 years ago when I was in a Spanish program at SF State, but haven’t really tried to do since then.

So far, after two weeks with four to go, I’m feeling happy about my progress. I still can’t come up with the correct verb forms most of the time, but I do feel more in the moment and capable of interacting with people as needed. I also have to face the fact that I’m actually not that extroverted when it comes to just walking up to total strangers and talking to them.

The ongoing nationwide protests by teachers against the neoliberal reform program installed by the Federal government has brought thousands of teachers from near and far to a huge camp-out near the Ministry of Education.

The ongoing nationwide protests by teachers against the neoliberal reform program installed by the Federal government has brought thousands of teachers from near and far to a huge camp-out near the Ministry of Education.

We took a walk to the center of town a couple of days ago and accidentally found ourselves passing through riot cops and giant metal barricades. After we emerged from that (they were all lounging around and nothing was “happening” at the time) we found ourselves a couple of blocks later in the midst of a sprawling tent city of striking teachers from all over Mexico that have gathered in the area to pressure the Ministry of Education and to demand that the neoliberal program of education reform be rescinded. It was interesting, though I didn’t get into any conversations as we wandered around amidst the many tents and small tiendas.

Countless tents and banners proclaiming the goals clog several square blocks in the heart of Mexico City.

Countless tents and banners proclaiming the goals clog several square blocks in the heart of Mexico City.

The demands are everywhere... release the teachers jailed during protests, halt the reforms, etc.

The demands are everywhere… release the teachers jailed during protests, halt the reforms, etc.

Since arriving I’ve been following the movement of teachers in the excellent local newspaper La Jornada. There have been daily blockades in many Mexican states, from Oaxaca and Chiapas to Nuevo León and Michoacán. In Oaxaca there was another massacre in a town called Nochixtlán where a half dozen teachers were gunned down, apparently by goons employed by the former governor of the state. The teachers movement is complicated by the fact that there are two unions claiming to represent them, the state-run, top-down SNTE, and the independent union that most of the active teachers are affiliated with, the CNTE. It is the latter that is camped out in Mexico City over several square blocks.

I am far from expert about the struggle underway, but clearly the teachers are demanding the rollback of the neoliberal reforms that have been established by federal law. The reforms subject teachers to testing and suspend their labor rights under previously established labor law, typical of neoliberal, market-inspired reforms. The CNTE doesn’t recognize the negotiations that are underway between the Ministry of Education and the SNTE, and are involved in their own three-part negotiations with subordinates of the Education Minister. The blockades have stopped major highways in many parts of the country, and clearly the government is backtracking and trying to find a way to wait the movement out, or to offer minor concessions that don’t affect the deeper attack on teachers, but the teachers are so well organized and so well informed, it seems unlikely that the Mexican government will be able to avoid re-doing the entire package of educational reform. For now, it’s a high tension game of negotiations and direct action, fascinating to see.

The teacher fighting is also teaching.

The teacher fighting is also teaching.

I saw in the paper a few days ago there was going to be a book launch for a new book called “Mexico Armed,” by Laura Castellanos. I went to the event at the publisher’s offices at the edge of Colonia Roma, where two rooms were jam-packed with over 100 attendees. It was extremely interesting for me, and happily, I felt I could understand nearly everything, even the jokes! So a real sense of progress. The discussion by the four different speakers, including the author, emphasized that the sclerotic Mexican political system had again and again met civic protest with violence and that it was state violence that preceded the emergence of armed struggle groups in Mexico in every instance covered in the book, over 30 different examples between 1943-1981.

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Remaking Baylands While Preparing for Sea-level Rise

Dredgefest” appeared out of the blue in an email a couple of months ago, a title I couldn’t resist. I taught a class at the SF Art Institute a couple of years ago called “Dredge” so I didn’t think twice before signing up for their Saturday June 18 bus tour of bay shoreline sites. I was not disappointed! The tour visited three locations, Hamilton Field in Marin County, Sears Point National Wildlife Refuge on the northern shore of San Pablo Bay due south of the intersection of Highway 37 and the Lakeville Highway, and finally the Cullinan Ranch restoration project just west of Mare Island near Vallejo. Each site is former military and agricultural land being returned to marshland, with differing levels of deliberate design and engineering interventions.

A full bus load of mud lovers, bird watchers, landscape engineers, hydrologists, citizen scientists, and radical librarians climbing a low ridge above Hamilton Field, once an airforce base with below sea level runways, now a showcase restoration project on the Marin County bay shore.

A full bus load of mud lovers, bird watchers, landscape engineers, hydrologists, citizen scientists, and radical librarians climbing a low ridge above Hamilton Field, once an airforce base with below sea level runways, now a showcase restoration project on the Marin County bay shore.

In the native plant nursery at Hamilton Field some helpful maps helped situate us.

In the native plant nursery at Hamilton Field some helpful maps helped situate us. HWRP is the Hamilton Field Wetlands Restoration Project.

This is the closely designed plan for the former air base. For two years, 24/7, dredge materials from excavation at the Port of Oakland was pumped into the site to help contour the lands to become tidal marshes as soon as possible after the 2014 dike breach. Apparently things are going very well.

This is the closely designed plan for the former air base. For two years, 24/7, dredge materials from excavation at the Port of Oakland was pumped through an “Aquatic Transfer Device” specifically designed for this project (with a dedicated substation to provide enough power to run two 700 horsepower pumps fulltime) into the site to help contour the lands to become tidal marshes as soon as possible after the 2014 dike breach. Not only did the project carry out the dike breach on schedule in 2014 but apparently natural processes are in fact developing largely as planned. Against all odds, things are going very well!

A variety of berms and data gathering stations help marshland dynamics re-emerge while providing the measurements to help the biologists and hydrologists figure out what went right and what didn't.

A variety of berms and data gathering stations help marshland dynamics re-emerge while providing the measurements to help the biologists and hydrologists figure out what went right and what didn’t.

As you can see in the previous photo, the Hamilton Field restoration also includes parcels dedicated to suburban housing development. We were treated to detailed explanations of the ten-year multi-agency effort to raise the underlying lands enough to allow for successions of plant and animal life to flourish in the new/old wetlands. But the technical discussions of landscape design didn’t impress me as much as the remarkable story of bureaucratic cooperation and adaptation to overcome an endless series of budgetary, jurisdictional, political, and conceptual disputes. Unlikely coordination was achieved between the Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of Oakland, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the California Coastal Conservancy, the California State Water Board, the California State Lands Commission, California Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more that I can’t remember.

The key to the Hamilton Field project was getting the dredge materials from the Port of Oakland, where the Army Corps is responsible for maintaining channel depths, and since it was decided to lower the channel depths from 42′ to 50′ to accommodate the new massive container ships, the Port and the Corps had a huge disposal problem. The Hamilton Field restoration project is one of the first to successfully use millions of cubic yards of bay dredge material to implement plans to remake historic marshlands. Until a decade ago, many environmental groups were opposed to the concept, assuming that it was a ruse to allow industry to dump toxic dredge with a “greenwashing” cover story. But according to the participant-experts who explained the project to us, the successful remaking of flourishing habitat for endangered species has won over most if not all of the critics and muted opposition to expanded efforts on other bayshore sites.

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I’m in a Hurry . . . to Slow Down!

My poor cluttered office!

My poor cluttered office!

I spend most of my time here these days, sitting amidst piles of books and papers, never with less than three or four projects underway simultaneously.

And this is just part of this wall, with the opposite wall also full of books, and several 6' shelves outside in the hall... yes I have too many books!

And this is just part of this wall, with the opposite wall also full of books, and several 6′ shelves outside in the hall… yes I have too many books!

I’ve begun a research push for a new book I’m working on. More to come on that when it starts to feel real. If things go well, I’ll have a draft by early next year. Meanwhile, I’m still writing a lot of essays for various others, either on local history, or in this case, for a small bicycling magazine in Santiago, Chile called Revista Pedalea. Regrettably, their website seems to have a virus and I can’t access it at the moment, but hopefully the Spanish version of this short piece will be back up soon.

I’m in a Hurry . . . to Slow Down!

As an urban cyclist for the past 40 years, I have seen the world around me change considerably. My initial impetus for choosing to cycle instead of using cars or public transit was my frustration with traffic congestion, underfunded and inadequate buses and trains, and a general impatience. I hate to wait! On my bicycle I could arrive at my destination in less time than going by car or bus, and I had none of the agony of searching for parking that my friends suffered through. As a young man, I would speed through city streets, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic with a sense of invulnerability, and by good fortune, I never suffered any serious collisions in all these years.

In the late 1970s mobile phones were only a science fiction fantasy. The internet had not yet emerged as a common space of communication (even if it was taking shape behind the scenes), and for many people it was still a point of new convenience to have an answering machine attached to their home phone. To visit friends it was common to go across the neighborhood to knock on their door to see if they were home, without knowing if they would be. In 2016, we hardly have time to see our friends. If we want to meet up it takes several emails and phone calls, and a dozen text messages, and finally we agree that our schedules will allow us to meet in three weeks for 20 minutes to share a quick coffee! What happened?

In the 1970s, the world economy was still largely nation-based with most of the goods for daily life produced within the boundaries of our own countries. In the last decades of the 20th century and first part of the 21st century, the world market completely altered our lives. Now, most of the goods we consume are produced in far-away factories across the ocean. Money is speeding around the planet 24 hours a day at light-speed, seeking the most profitable opportunities in every obscure nook and cranny. More people have been uprooted from their traditional homes than at any previous time in world history. The iron dictatorship of money pushes them to seek better economic opportunities within countries and across national frontiers (legally or not). Our own lives have been reshaped by these dynamics. Whether we relocated or stayed put, we too have endured an enormous “speed-up” of daily life. Especially in the past 20 years, our lives have accelerated in ways no one could have anticipated.

Where I live in San Francisco at the epicenter of the much-heralded “tech boom,” everyone is so busy all the time that friendships are fraying and many don’t have time for a “real relationship.” The speed-up we are living through is treated as somehow inevitable, like the weather, and in any case, our adaptation to it is necessary if we want to be employed and have “a future!” People rush from work to eat to sleep and have little time for anything else. The eight-hour day that our ancestors fought such bitter battles to establish is a forgotten relic of the industrial era. Nowadays it is common to work 12-14 hours a day, including the time commuting on wi-fi equipped buses and trains.

The bicycle has become a sanctuary from this madness. On my bicycle I am not plugged in. I am in my head, I control how fast I move through the city, and I can take any opportunity along my route to stop and talk with friends or passersby who I happen to encounter. While it is still true that I can cross the city faster on a bicycle than many can by car or bus, the bicycle has come to represent a different pace of life, a slower form of movement. In this case, ‘slow’ refers less to velocity than to a philosophy of life. In a world that pushes us incessantly to work longer, more intense hours, to spend more and more time dedicated to expanding our skills and making ourselves ever more employable, the bicycle provides a rare opportunity to “check out” of this rat-wheel and reconnect to our own thoughts. Moreover it allows us to fully experience the air, the rain, the sounds, and the smells of the City that we miss when locked in the glass-and-metal boxes that clog the streets while dirtying our air and water.

When bicycling we experience life directly, without the mediation of corporate or government propaganda on the radio that dominate the driving experience. We can talk to people we meet, find out what’s going on at a demonstration, a collision, a scene of police or political action, without having it framed and explained by editors working for the owners of society. Bicycling through urban environments challenges our intellectual capacities to interpret reality directly, to arrive at understandings and explanations based on our own ideas and immediate knowledge rather than relying on the hysterical and distorted reporting that passes as “news” in most of the “free world.”

Time slows down when you are lost in your thoughts. Bicycling is one of the activities that cost us practically nothing and yet gives us so much. We can step off the speeding treadmill of daily life for a precious half hour or more to taste the city’s forgotten flavors, to think our own thoughts, and to determine our own pace.

We living in a globe-spanning culture that wants to reduce everything to the degrading slogan Time is Money! Well, time has run out on that absurdity. Bicycling has helped us regain our independence. Let’s hurry towards a world where we can slow down and smell the flowers, have time to share a conversation with a good friend, and to fully enjoy life. For Full Enjoyment, Not Full Employment!

 

On a March ride with my pal Dave Snyder, we wandered under the freeway ramps near the Bay Bridge and in West Oakland. Weirdly beautiful!

On a March ride with my pal Dave Snyder, we wandered under the freeway ramps near the Bay Bridge and in West Oakland. Weirdly beautiful! Especially because of the old railroad trestle running under it all…

 

Happy geometries!

Happy geometries!

 

There was even an almost bike path under it all...

There was even an almost bike path under it all…

 

We had a great sunset on Leap Day, Feb. 29, 2016.

We had a great sunset on Leap Day, Feb. 29, 2016.

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