Posts Tagged ‘University of Chicago’

Peripecias: On unforeseen ups and downs ( Notes on Chicago, Latin America, snowstorms, border closings, aflatoxins, cars accidents, and AT&T)

January 30, 2012

Well, I did want to post more about Chicago, about the two-faced stop signs that had me totally confused. (Glad I wasn’t driving. Thank you again, Stephanie Friedman.)

About the pleasure of being in buildings that unlike my apartment are heated! Walking around naked in the hotel room, feeling the warm air–ah!–on my skin. About Hector Aristizábal’s performance of Nightwind. The grad student at the University of Chicago — I wish I knew her name — who talked about her work in Chile on theatre in Chile under Pinochet. We met at the brown bag lunch at the Center for Latin American Studies. One point she made struck me: she said during the repression, political statements were often made in theatre through very abstract devices and I wondered if that sort of experimental abstraction has carried over into the post-Pinochet era. Specifically, I’m thinking about Andrea Lagos and her solo show Un beso es un beso es un beso which I saw her perform at International Theatre Festival for Peace in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Her performance was strange, startling and powerful, but I really didn’t understand what she meant in her commentary about it being a reflection of the continuing impact of the era of repression on her generation. Certainly, language in the piece is broken, partial, silenced. And her physicality at times grotesquely controlled. But maybe the abstract aspect is immediately understood as a political comment by people in Chile.

I want to write about the Friday snowstorm that made roads impassable so that I couldn’t make it to Or Chadash for my presentation there, and that left us all worried about whether Hector would get to O’Hare in time after his Awakening the Imagination for Social Justice workshop and whether his flight would get him to LAX for his connection for Guatemala. (I haven’t heard from him so I’m assuming he arrived OK. I think someone would have heard from him if he got stuck.) (And I guess snow disruptions in Chicago are not exactly unforeseen.)

I wanted to post about the writing for social justice workshop at the Graham School–such enthusiastic and willing participants (including Stephanie Friedman and Naty Vesga)


and the trip up to Barrington to work with the Barrington Writers Workshop thanks to Tamara Tabel whose work I was so happy to read and my friend, Natalie Pepa who recommended me. Someone take note and publish Natalie’s tango memoir! and her funny, sad, evocative short pieces about Buenos Aires.

Natalie’s pareja (we agreed English lacks a good word for in a couple regardless of marital status) is Dennis, a scientist who works with, among other things, toxin-binding clays that protect livestock from aflatoxins, fungal infections that grow on grains, especially corn. In the fields, the aflatoxins protect the plant from being eaten, but after harvest, especially if the corn is stored in a warm and humid area, the stuff grows and spreads and can make livestock sick. For animal feed, you add specific clay to the feed. It coats the toxins so the bad stuff passes right through the animal’s body and causes no harm. There are many kinds of toxins and a different kind of clay is best suited to deal with each. Even under a microscope, all clay crystals look alike, so you need more elaborate instrumentation to identify what you’ve got.

But right now, I’m not sure when any of this will be posted. It’s been crazy here. First, a minor car accident on Wednesday en route to Moorpark, dealing with insurance, etc.

Today, Saturday, turns out the border between Argentina and Bolivia is closed due to some controversy over the gas fields, so mi compa Silvana Gariboldi, with whom I was going to collaborate in Bolivia, can’t get there. Edson Quezada, of Educar es fiesta, the organization we–or now I–will work with warns me that as I’m arriving in Bolivia on Sunday, the buses may not keep to their schedule–which may affect my 8 or so hour ride from La Paz to Cochabamba. Arriving in Cochabamba, I’m to phone him. Apparently not a good safe idea to get into a taxi alone. And I’m bringing a sleeping bag and will sleep on the floor of the office. But maybe that will mean internet access which is more than what I’ve got now.

Phone line dead. Internet dead. Without phone or internet, I couldn’t call for service, but I saw the AT&T van in the street and spoke to the repairman. He was working in a neighbor’s apartment and agreed to see what my problem was when he finished with her. I kept going out to see how he was doing, and all of a sudden his ladder was gone and so was his van. Used neighbor Claudia’s cell phone to call AT&T and went through one of their ridiculous phone trees which required me to specify either landline or internet. Of course I’ve lost both. But I chose landline as the internet is accessed via the landline. But the phone tree switched me over to internet as a choice. Whatever. I had to leave Claudia’s as a contact # and the recorded message said a repair person would come by 6:00 on Monday.

What joy. The other party to the car accident thought I was lying about my phone number when she tried to call it and it didn’t ring in my pocketbook or car.  It’s ringing at home, I said. She wanted the number for my cell phone and didn’t want to believe I don’t have one. Well, if she tries to call my phone now, she’s not going to get through. I didn’t plan it this way!!!! (The people at Safeco, my insurance company, have been calm, friendly, reassuring, and very nice.)

And I commented on our “peripecias”* in an email to Bolivia and Argentina–the unforeseen sudden accidents or complications to our plans — but now it seems that’s a Mexican word and I’m not sure I was understood. Ah, one more unforeseen complication.

PS My cat, being female, I refer to her as “gata” but Natalie Pepa told me in some countries–and I can’t remember which–the word means “prostitute.” To avoid any misunderstanding and potential peripecias, I will transgender my Desi–mi gato–while traveling.

* Peripecias – it sounded familiar. It’s not in my standard Spanish dictionary, only in the Mexican dictionary. Then I realized, I know it from Oedipus. peripeteia — Greek word — reversal of fortune. Though I understand that today in Greek it means adventure. Appropriate?

Beneath the Blindfold

January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 18

Protesting at the gates of Ft Benning in Georgia, November 2006, I met Kathy Berger and Ines Sommer, Chicago filmmakers, who were dedicating years of their lives to making a documentary about torture survivors. Instead on focusing on the horrific acts, on the scandals, the exposés, they wanted to show the aftermath in the lives of human beings. Hector was one of the survivors whose lives they planned to film.


We’ve stayed in touch but Jan 18 was my first chance to see the finished product, Beneath the Blindfold, at a screening at International House, University of Chicago, organized to coincide with the events planned for Hector and me. It was extra exciting because the documentary had just had a sold-out screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which meant an extra show was quickly scheduled. And we were thrilled to see the work get attention from The Atlantic, even before its real release.

Besides Hector, they profile Matilde de la Sierra, a physician from Guatemala who made the mistake of trying to provide medical care to the indigenous; Blama Massaquoi, of Liberia, forced into service as a child soldier and then forced to drink a caustic substance that destroyed his esophagus; Mario Venegas of Chile; Donald Vance, the former Navy man who was detained and tortured by US forces at Camp Cropper (same facility that held Saddam Hussein) after he became a private contractor and blew the whistle on his employer selling US arms to insurgents.

We had dinner with Sarah Moberg of the University’s Human Rights Program who helped make the screening possible. Thank you, Sarah!

It was gratifying to see the audience response to these very human stories. And I very much enjoyed seeing Hector’s kids, Gabo and Camilla as they looked years ago. (They’re all grown up now and very sophisticated teens.) And his mother, who is usually so quiet being outspoken enough to loudly argue that Hector’s performances prove his masochism. Less pleasing, the footage of me — at Ft. Benning and at the Healing Club event at the Program for Torture Victims as we celebrated the grant of asylum to Meluleki, survivor from Zimbabwe.

I hope this film gets seen!

Hello, Chicago! (and Stephanie Friedman, Carol Anshaw, Natalie Vesga)

January 23, 2012

So one of the joys of getting to Chicago was being reconnected with two friends, Carol Anshaw (author and painter) and Natalie Vesga (my roommate from my first trip to Colombia).

Met Carol for lunch and heard her good news, all the exciting pre-pub buzz for her new novel, Carry the One.  I mean, Carol’s earlier novels, three of them, got great reviews and enthusiastic readers, but without drawing real attention to her work or, how shall I say?, lifting her. This time around, her publisher has her traveling the country before the book comes out. Her book is the Indie Next List #1 pick for March, but this time around Simon & Schuster isn’t relying on bookstores alone. The publishing business model keeps changing. So besides the before-the-fact tour, they sent out hundreds of copies to bloggers and to people who post frequently on Goodreads and seem to have the right sensibility. It seems to be working and I am so happy for Carol!

(Carol, however, was somewhat disapproving of the fact I’d been invited to speak at Or Chadash, the LGBT synagogue. “Why did they invite a straight woman to speak? Couldn’t they find a lesbian?”  I was supposed to be there to read the section of The Blessing Next to the Wound about Hector Aristizábal’s youngest brother, who was gay, and to give an update on the status of gay rights in Latin America. But Carol had her way: the Friday snowstorm blocked the route and I never made it to the shul!)

Back to Stephanie Friedman’s office at the University of Chicago where I stashed my luggage and made a general nuisance of myself. Check out Steph’s blog, The Winding Stitch.  Writer, poet, teacher, wife, mother, associate director of the writers studio and summer session in continuing ed. She bakes pies and keeps kosher — the woman has enough to do without organizing several days’ worth of events for me and Hector , getting almost a dozen different organizations on the campus to cooperate when I suspect they usually don’t even recognize each other’s existence.

Naty Vesga in Bogota, Colombia

Naty and I finally reached each other by phone and she came to the office to pick me up and we were squealing in the street with excitement like the kind of teenage girl I never was.  We went back to her place where we talked nonstop for hours and I got to meet the “babies” – the dogs that figured in her Lariam-induced delirium in Bogotá when she awoke in terror (and woke me in a rage) believing we were on a bus being attacked by paramilitaries and, as if that weren’t bad enough, that I had called her dogs “hillbillies.” She gradually calmed down that night when I assured her that I knew her dogs were wonderful. I also got to meet her husband, Giano Cromley, who gave up a career in politics to do something honorable and meaningful. He got his MFA and writes fiction (Check out a sample story on-line here and teaches at King-Kennedy alongside poet Martha Vertreace— small world — who I know from Vermont College.

Naty is getting her Masters in Social Work and she told me about the project she’s getting off the ground. I will share it because if you like it and steal it and implement it elsewhere, she’ll be thrilled. So much the better! Programs already exist where troubled youth work with animals to learn responsibility and caring for others. She wants to connect at-risk and gang-involved youth with organizations that do pit bull rehabilitation. She thinks the dogs and young people have a lot in common, both groups have been stigmatized as dangerous and face banning, lock-up, extermination; they’ve been molded to be aggressive and violent (whether by humans or by their environment). The youth already know pit bulls and know them as marvelously dangerous. They can identify with them, and as they work to socialize them and teach them gentleness, Naty believes dogs will transform youth at the same time that youth transform dogs. More effectively than when kids who’ve been traumatized by violence work with, say, golden retrievers, or other dogs who are mellow to begin with. Great idea, no? I love it. I want to connect her to Micaela Myers at Stubby Dog  which works to improve the reputation and lives of pit bulls. Naty wants to meet Cesar Millan!