by Coleen Grissom on
Feb 14, 2018 (12:47 pm)
Margaret Atwood is coming to town! My first reaction right after one of elation and anticipation of the joy she will bring to so many of her readers, as well as to those who’ve never picked up an Atwood work, is that it must be winter in Toronto. I know we think we’ve had a hard winter here—even I have a few photos of quickly melting flakes in my yard—but I think winter there may be a bit different.
Atwood has been to San Antonio and to Trinity University several times. Apparently, she likes the city, Trinity, and the literary arts organization Gemini Ink. Once upon a time she even spent most of a semester here while she was editing the Best American Short Stories of 1989. My clearest memories of that visit are her delivering a lecture in the long gone “science lecture hall” and being a good sport about attending a Texas barbecue someone hosted for her.
As happens all too often on university campuses, there was not an overflow crowd for her lecture, but there were enough bright, curious students to engage her. I recall her recommendation that we return to the days when teachers required some memorization. She talked about World War I prisoners who survived in solitary confinement partly because they had memorized long poems in school and reciting them kept their sanity.
On a dark day for San Antonio enlightenment, in 2006 the superintendent of Judson High School banned Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which had been part of the Advanced Placement English curriculum for a decade. Students worked with their parents and some faculty to convince the school board that the book should be read, and the board overruled the superintendent.
I especially admired the reaction of a Judson senior who said: “If we ban The Handmaid’s Tale for sexual content, why not ban Huckleberry Finn for racism? Why not ban The Crucible for witchcraft? Why not ban The Things They Carried for violence, and why not ban the Bible and argue separation of church and state?”
When Atwood learned of the students’ successful campaign, she returned to San Antonio to offer a series of programs for Gemini Ink and to personally thank the high schoolers who had defended her work. Mind you, this was back in the day when many readers thought the book was a bit blasphemous and even ludicrous, since its events could never occur except in the mind of some weird Canadian. Why do I find myself wishing these folks had been right instead of Atwood’s being merely prescient?
I think it was during this visit that I introduced the great Canadian to chicken fried steak. She was unimpressed, preferring fresh vegetables and fruits. Since I am from East Texas, I found this downright bizarre, but I persevered and brought her to my home to show her the gorgeous Hill Country. Again, she was a good sport, even getting down on her hands and knees to call “kitty, kitty” to an unresponsive Princess Prunella, who had no interest in meeting the woman who had created her perfect name.
Gracious, as is her way, Atwood sent a note thanking me for introducing her to such delights, but she did not select a Canadian version of a Hallmark card. Calling upon her talents as a caricaturist, she drew a card featuring me pursuing ill-behaved poodles. The bubble above my head reads, “The hills are alive with the sound of poodles.” Atwood has many admirable qualities, but when it comes to yapping dogs, subtlety isn’t one of them.
“What’s she like?” people ask when they learn that we’ve kept in touch over the years. Well, she’s patient and semi-gracious when I inform her I’ve named yet another animal companion after her creations—Wilderness Tips became Tippy, and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut became Nellie.
She’s remarkably witty, even sardonic at times—no surprise there—but I’ve never known her to be cruel. She’s so well read that even though I am an active professor and frenetic reader, I feel like a slug in her presence. (Maybe someday I’ll ask her if she’s ever gotten hooked on Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds, but I shudder to imagine what she will think when she hears that I own a couple of televisions and more than occasionally sit in front of them without a book anywhere nearby.)
Atwood’s list of awards and honors is too long for anyone’s blog, but just know that, in addition to receiving the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, she was invited to contribute the first book to the Future Library project. Her manuscript for Scribbler Moon will be read in a hundred years, if the human race survives.
Her interests and commitments beyond her writing are wide and deep. She operates her office on green policies, and she is an environmental activist and an urgent voice in the climate change debate, as well as the inventor of the “long pen,” the builder of a bird sanctuary on Pelee Island, and a committed supporter of many organizations working to save the planet.
I have so many anecdotes about this generous, brilliant, fascinating person, as well as about her literary gifts—poetry, essays, literary criticism, short stories, novels, graphic novels—but this captures it best: In Rosanna Greenstreet’s 2011 interview with the author in the Guardian, Atwood made a statement that crystallizes why I so admire and adore her.
“How would you like to be remembered?” Greenstreet asked.
“By members of a human race who have managed to avoid annihilating their entire species and can thus still do some reading, and remembering,” Atwood said.
What an honor to be able to welcome her once again to San Antonio.
Coleen Grissom has taught English courses at Trinity University for five decades. She will be onstage in conversation with Margaret Atwood on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Trinity University in San Antonio. This event is sponsored by Gemini Ink in partnership with Trinity University Press. More information here.The event is free but ticketed, and tickets will be available to the public on February 15 starting at 9 a.m.
by Char Miller on
Dec 11, 2017 (7:30 am)
La Tuna Canyon. Anaheim Hills. Thomas. Creek. Rye. Skirball. Each of these evocatively named fires has ripped across portions of Southern California since August, consuming tens of thousands of acres and forcing the evacuations of hundreds of thousands of residents. This crazed choreography of flame and people appears mono-directional: as each of these conflagrations—and countless others before them—scream over ridgelines or roar up canyons, panicked homeowners bolt. Flames get us moving.
It is also true, however, that human beings have made these fires in the most fundamental sense: we bear torches. The most obvious of these torchbearers are the arsonists who take advantage of the region’s desiccated and fire-prone landscapes and the intense, wind-driven events known locally as the Santa Anas. Under these conditions—all of which fueled the firestorms of 2017—it does not take much to spark up an inferno.
Once lit, whether by means intentional or accidental, these fires gain their people-scattering force as a direct consequence of human geography, of how and where we live across the Southland. For more than a century, Los Angeles has pressed out from its central core. Late 19th Century streetcars and then automobiles facilitated this oft-white flight, a dispersal that accelerated after the 1920s, and then took off in the postwar era. Sprawl and the City of Angels became synonymous.
Less well understood, but just as synonymous, is the close relationship between fire and sprawl. Between the 1950s and 1970s, new wealthy subdivisions in the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, and Bel Air experienced devastating fires. Subsequent waves of exurban migration into such valleys as the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona, Simi and Santa Clarita, have flowed along the ever-expanding grid of freeways and their interlocking subdivisions (with the requisite billboard exhortation at each exit: “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now!”), and produced the same smoke-filled results.
The pattern has continued apace, even as the region has become increasingly dense. LA is now the second densest city in the United States, a crowding that has led those seeking affordable housing to move out to an ever-expanding periphery. Some of these peripheral developments, which city halls, planning boards, and zoning commissions have dutifully sanctioned, were among those recently engulfed in flames.
In early September, the La Tuna Canyon fire burned more than 7000 acres in the Verdugo Mountains in northeastern Los Angeles, after jumping the 210 freeway and consuming a number of cul-de-sac neighborhoods. A month later, the Anaheim Hills blaze scorched 8000 acres in Orange County, including dozens of homes that crowded up into this high ground. In early December, four fires erupted under extreme Santa Ana conditions. The Thomas (230,500 acres and counting); Creek (15,000+); Rye (7,000); and the smaller Skirball (475 acres) may vary widely in terms of size, but thy are similar in this respect: they propelled massive evacuations, burned countless homes and other structures, and their toxic fumes smeared the sky.
Their physical siting is as revelatory. Each burned in and around vital highways, disrupting daily life. The Skirball hugged the 405, arguably the nation’s busiest freeway. The Creek was framed to its south by the 210 (and also hopped it at one point). The Rye flowed along the Interstate 5 and Highway 126 corridor, while the runaway Thomas fire not only swerved close to the 126 it also torched both sides of the 33 and the 101. Every highway we grade. Every yard of concrete we pour. Every construction permit we pull. Every house we build. Every mile we drive—each act, individually and collectively, helps set the stage for Los Angeles’ most-fiery dramas.
Yet the season for this show used to be a lot shorter, concentrated in the late summer and fall. Now fires can (and do) explode in any month, thanks to another anthropogenic driver: Climate Change. It is responsible in good measure for the bone-dry conditions accompanying seven years of drought, a process that is powering fires in Southern California from January to December. This 12-month cycle will hold true across the rest of the 21st Century, too, with temperatures rising and precipitation decreasing. When these climatic conditions collide with the built landscape, as they did this month, the consequences will be every bit as unsettling and disastrous.
Photo by Erin Donalson: Thomas Fire Burns Mountains in Ventura County via istock.
Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, has written extensively about wildfire in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016) and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013), both from Trinity University Press. His most recent op-ed on the subject, “What the Trump administration doesn’t understand about wildfires,” appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October.
by Burgin Streetman on
Oct 5, 2017 (9:06 am)
San Antonio is a city of stories, but unlike its contemporaries—Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, and New York—its stories are largely unknown.
TPR producer Paul Flahive is working to help change that with Worth Repeating, which Texas Public Radio launched two years ago to find and share the city’s stories.
Once a month, seven storytellers have seven minutes to tell a true story from their life around a common theme. Think This American Life or the Moth, sourced from your friends and neighbors.
Flahive and the Worth Repeating Story Board recognize how important personal histories and anecdotes are—even if they don’t read like movie scripts.
“I wanted to start Worth Repeating because I think it creates community,” Flahive said. “I’ve moved around a lot, and when I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, I really didn’t feel like a part of that city until I got involved with a similar show there.”
As a recent addition to the Story Board, I can vouch for the fact that you never know what you might hear. A local artist describes the night he was the unsuspecting victim in a gang initiation. The Pearl’s CMO reveals a hilarious elementary school cheat involving mice and the Transcendental Meditation movement. A beloved political consultant rethinks his allegiances, and a Trinity professor explores the unsolved mystery of her mother’s murder. I tell my own story of the time my mother took me deep in the woods in search of a man buried alive.
To submit your story (or to rat out a friend you think would be great), send me an email.
The next Worth Repeating show, Because How I Am: Stories of Where We Came From, Identity, and More, takes place this Tuesday, October 10, at the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of its Latino List exhibit. Tickets are almost gone, so get yours now. You’ll learn something about your city and your neighbors, and maybe you’ll be inspired to add your own voice to the mix.
Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours?
by Margy Avery on
Sep 26, 2017 (11:08 am)
This month San Antonio hosted its second annual World Heritage Festival, a six-day bonanza of cultural, historic, and informative activities celebrating the San Antonio missions.
Perhaps you didn’t know that the city’s five missions are the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of only ten cultural World Heritage Sites in the country. (The United States has twenty-three sites in all—ten cultural, twelve natural, and one mixed. You can see a list of them here and order a cool map of the 1,000-plus sites around the globe for $3 here.)
The city’s World Heritage Festival, which was all about celebrating the missions, included excellent events like a twenty-two-mile trip via bike, walk, or run from mission to mission and Restored by Light, in which colorful hues were projected onto the walls of Mission Concepción to emulate the frescoes that once cloaked the structure.
Being there was like speaking to a neighbor you’ve seen for years but never talked to beyond exchanging pleasantries. The missions have so much more to offer us, if only we’d ask.
How do communities like San Antonio balance a rich, deep heritage with the everyday bustle of modern life and a robust tourist industry to boot? This was one of the questions an international group of scholars, city planners, architects, conservationists, and urban planners considered at the Living Heritage Symposium, a two-day meeting that overlapped with the festival.
Speakers and participants from around the country, and from places as far reaching as Hong Kong and Turkey, shared widely differing experiences. Discussion provided ample opportunity to share experiences, compare challenges, and strategize.
Speakers from San Francisco, for example, discussed their efforts to establish cultural districts, designed to preserve a community’s culture (as opposed to a historic district, which is defined by specific buildings in a clearly demarcated space). By decoupling heritage from culture, a cultural district might manifest more as a network of specific nodes rather than a defined space. In other words, preservation doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to a place in a designated district. An example in our own backyard is the King William Cultural Arts District.
Trinity University Press was proud to help sponsor the symposium alongside the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Cultural Sustainability, the City of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, and PlaceEconomics.
While the press’s numerous books on the city’s historic places are proof positive of our dedication to historic preservation, the dynamic nature of cultural districts is a topic we’re hot to pursue.
by Char Miller on
Jun 19, 2017 (9:27 am)
Xavier Becerra, California’s combative attorney general, has become the Golden State’s face of resistance to the Trump administration’s domestic initiatives, the blunt voice rejecting the president’s attempts to roll back the progressive immigration and environmental policies so central to California’s sense of itself.
At a June 16 press conference, for example, Becerra pushed back against stricter immigration enforcement, saying his office would review conditions at immigrant detention facilities in conjunction with a legislative measure that prohibits local governments from renting out jail beds to U.S. Immigration and Customs. One week earlier, Becerra sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a withering, 11-page letter that flat-out rejected the president’s executive order aimed at delisting or shrinking national monuments his predecessors had established in California.
Yet as eloquent and forceful as the attorney general may be in his defiance, there are limits to the state’s protective stance. Becerra is mounting what amounts to a rearguard action because he has little choice in this age of Trump the Tumultuous.
Viewed from my perspective as an environmental historian, this defensive rhetoric runs counter to the no-holds-barred approach that defined California’s post-World War II drive for economic growth and social justice.
It is as if, for the time being, the California Dream so critical to Becerra’s personal success – and many others’ – has been put on hold.
The hardworking son of immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, Becerra finished law school in 1984, was elected to the state assembly, and then served in the state’s Department of Justice before winning an impressive 12 terms to the U.S. House of Representatives.
At each stop along the way, he has been a staunch advocate for the poor and marginalized, those who need a hand up and out. In January 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown (who is playing a similar role as Becerra on an international stage) tapped the politically savvy Becerra to replace newly elected Senator Kamala Harris as AG to become the first Latino to hold this high office in California.
Becerra’s tough-minded approach to his latest job has made him ubiquitous this commencement season. Between May 15 and 23 alone, he addressed the political science graduates at the University of California, Berkeley, those receiving their law degrees at USC and the University of San Francisco, and bachelor’s-earning undergrads at Occidental College.
(California’s first Latino attorney general, Xavier Becerra has taken a defiant – and, by necessity, a defensive – tone vis a vis Washington. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Even as he cheered these graduates’ academic successes, he reminded them of the rough-and-tumble political environment they were entering. Becerra spoke of how he and other state AGs were challenging the legality of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He affirmed his deeply felt support for the undocumented and asserted that cities could proclaim themselves sanctuaries, free from executive branch interference.
In resisting the Trump administration’s review of national monuments, Becerra wrote what amounts to a legal brief that cited judicial rulings and legislative records and made a strong case for a kind of states-rights environmentalism. Arguing separately against a plan to open up offshore drilling, he said: “Instead of taking us backwards, the federal government should work with us to advance the clean energy economy that’s creating jobs, providing energy and preserving California’s natural beauty.”
California’s cultural clout
The late, great Kevin Starr argued in his magisterial, multi-volume study of California that the state’s particular genius is in offering “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It proved time and again to be “the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.”
Fueled by a generous stream of tax dollars, the state’s educational systems, from K-12 through college and university, were the envy of the world. So, too, were its high-speed highways and highly engineered water systems, as well as its agricultural productivity, artistic energy and technological creativity. California was a state on the move.
(The Sequoia National Monument is one of the national monuments the Trump administration has put under review, which the state is fighting. David Prasad/flickr, CC BY-SA)
Its benefits were also broadly accessible: Beaches were public, parks and open spaces plentiful, higher education was cheap. Here, democracy flourished, or at least it could do so. Where it did not, people battled to ensure that it would.
Those toiling in the fields of the Central and Imperial valleys, for example, endured oppressive conditions, but gained an important measure of control over their lives and livelihoods through the formation of the United Farm Workers of America. The struggles that African-Americans and Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT activists have waged for increased rights, solidarity and opportunities did not always originate in California, but they gained political visibility and cultural clout when manifest on the coast. If you wanted to remake yourself, go West.
Setting pace on public health
But all that prosperity took its toll. Clearing the air of the state’s legendary pollution – “don’t breathe too deeply when you arrive in California” used to be the warning – has taken decades. Grassroots activists, dedicated educators and scientists, and some principled public officials fought against entrenched opposition in Sacramento, Detroit and Washington, D.C. to secure what now are the nation’s toughest environmental controls. More needs to be done, but these regulations have had a profound impact.
It is not by happenstance that the EPA owes its existence to a Californian (President Richard Nixon signed it into law December 1970). Or that the Clean Air Acts grant the state the right to institute stricter measures than the federal government (which is why the current administration tried to deny California’s right to set higher standards).
The ground-level consequences of such innovations as catalytic converters is evident in enhanced public health. When I was a student at Pitzer College in Claremont in the 1970s, I almost never glimpsed the smog-enshrouded Mt. Baldy (elevation 10,050 feet), a few miles away. Today, its towering presence is visible 24/7.
There was no way to predict this remarkable turnaround when my classmates and I gathered outdoors for our graduation in 1975. And no way would bluer skies have become commonplace had the state heeded the advice our commencement speaker imparted to those entering a depressed job market in a society constrained by the budget-busting Vietnam War and post-Watergate cynicism. Hunker down, he said, hunker down.
That 1975 recommendation from a California assemblyman to retreat from the world was as wrong then as it is now in our similarly fraught environment. Rather than simply throw up a wall to fend off the barbarians at the gates, however understandable, California needs to reassert the bold, expansive, and democratic vision that has made it California. A prospect that requires a shared and tenacious commitment to the commonweal.
And a sense of agency. “You don’t have to do it by yourself,” Xavier Becerra told Berkeley seniors. “You don’t have to have done it before. But when you get out there with the guts and the grit and the ganas [desire], you can make a difference.”
That’s how dreams become real.
(Originally posted on 6/17/17 at The Conversation.)