September 18, 2016

‘Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots’

For any number of reasons, I’ve always liked Garth Brooks’ song, “Friends in Low Places,” written by Earl Bud Lee and his songwriting partner, Dewayne Blackwell. One of the reasons is how they say the idea for the song came about in a restaurant when they found they had no money to pay the bill. I always remember a line from the old Saul Bass documentary, Why Man Creates: “From looking at one thing and seeing another.” 
      But that’s another story.
      It’s the wearing of boots in the song that I’m thinking about now. Growing up watching cowboy movies and reading western novels by Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Zane Grey, Luke Short and a host of other writers of that genre, I had wanted a pair of cowboy boots and a horse from the time I can remember.
      I got a pair of old boots from one of my father’s truck drivers when I was 9 or 10. They were size eight, and I squeezed my feet into them until I needed another size larger. Never did get the horse.
      My 75-year-old grandfather once rode a nice paint gelding 10 miles to give to me, saddle and all, at the time I got the boots. But my loving yet overprotective mother refused to let me keep the horse and insisted that my grandfather ride the horse the 10 miles back. My father wasn’t home, and later said he’d have let me keep him. Cell phone technology would have changed my whole world back then.
      The boots stayed with me, though. Throughout life, I’ve always had a pair or two and have worn them everywhere—I don’t think I’ve ever “showed up in boots and ruined (anyone’s) black-tie affair.” Not that anyone ever said, anyway.
      Oh, there have been many hoots and hollers, mostly in good spirits, about the fact that I wore cowboy boots or that I didn’t talk or sound the same way other teachers did.
      When I was teaching in the Chicago suburbs, I’d clomp down the halls during my free periods and the classroom doors would be open, and one of my English teaching colleagues would hear me coming, and holler out, “Hey, hillbilly, come in here and let these students see your boots and hear you talk!”
      “Now, Nancy,” I’d say to one of the main perpetrators who, herself, had a distinct South Side accent, “these here boots are quite comfortable an’ go better with these here Levis than anythin’ I could wear, an’ I just cain’t stand to wear them there Dockers an’ loafers an’ look like no city slicker.” 
      The kids would laugh and ask where I came from to sound like that.
      “Well, I’m from Southern Illinoise,” I’d say with an exaggerated Southern twang. “My accent is an Upper Midland dialect, nothing like this old South Side Chicago accent you’ns have where you ask, ‘You wanna go with?’ and never finish the sentence with whom or where to let me know with whom I’m agoin’ with or where we’re agoin’.”
      Another time, I arrived early to meet some friends in a New York City restaurant and was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and minding my own business, but got into a casual conversation with some other people.
      Finally, one of the women who’d been openly staring at my boots, Levis and the leather jacket I was wearing asked with a rather coy smirk, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
      “No, ma’am, I ain’t,” I said. “I hail from back yonder in Illinoise an’ just come out here to the big city for a couple o’ days to see how the rest of you’ns live.”
      Everybody laughed.
      So I’ve always had a good time wearing boots and talking as I do. Never bothered me none, nor kept me from finding a job that I ever knew about.
      Then a few years ago, I took over a teaching job in the middle of the school year from a beautiful and popular woman of color and taught an African-American literature class among the assigned classes she’d been teaching, hoping to get hired on full time. The room full of minority students initially met me with hostile stares.
      I’d replaced their favorite teacher—and I talked different and wore cowboy boots. It wasn’t long before we got on quite well, though, and the class became one of my favorite all-time classroom teaching experiences.
      Despite that, I didn’t get the permanent position, and moved on.
      Years later, I talked to one of the teachers who said he had lobbied for me to be hired and said the principal had agreed with him that I’d done an excellent job.
      “You know why you didn’t get the job?” he asked.
      Of course, I didn’t.
      “The principal hesitated for a minute,” the teacher said, “looked away, then said, ‘He wears cowboy boots.’”

September 9, 2016

‘Disturbing the Peace’ a documentary of monumental significance in search of peace

Throughout the 18 years of the Roger Ebert Film Festival, Roger and his staff have brought a number of important and significant movies and documentaries to the restored Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Ill., with themes exploring love, terminal illness, aging, organ donation, war and any number of other subjects of consequence.
       But in this year’s festival, a documentary of crucial importance to finding a peaceful solution to war and conflict was introduced to festival goers just a month after Chaz Ebert saw the film at a special screening in New York, as reported in the local News-Gazette by Melissa Merli, who has long been the newspaper’s eyes and ears at Ebertfest.
       The film, Disturbing the Peace, had what was called a “special premiere” and was given the first Ebert Humanitarian Award for a film shown at the festival.
       In the documentary, producer and co-director Stephen Apkon and cinematographer and co-director Andrew Young go to the troubled Middle East where Palestinians and Israelis have fought and died for territorial rights for decades. Former soldiers, fighters and activists from both sides who have lost family members have come together to form a group they call Combatants for Peace and are now ostracized and considered outcasts by many still fighting.
       Writing about the documentary in the festival program, reviewer Ben Cheever outlined the roles played by each side for years. “This fresh and intimate documentary by a first-time director and his veteran partner has changed the world I know,” he wrote. “Some stories we inherit. Some stories we invent ourselves. We live these stories. Change the stories and we change the world.”
       Two of the co-founders of Combatants for Peace, former Israeli soldier and former prisoner Chen Alon and Palestinian activist and former prisoner Sulaiman Khatib (who was sentenced to 15 years when he was 14) were in Champaign for only a few hours during the festival to talk about the film and the movement. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the stage as part of the panel after the film and told their story.
       Khatib served 10 and one-half years of his sentence and spent the time reading and learning about other world conflicts and the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, participating in hunger strikes and developing his commitment to nonviolent resistance.
As a reserve major in the Israeli army, Alon also co-founded Courage to Refuse, “a movement of officers and combatant soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories,” and was sentenced to prison.
       While the hostilities still rage between Palestinian and Israeli freedom fighters and soldiers, the existence of the group and the marches for peace is a far cry from the carnage that continues in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and much of the rest of the Middle East with ISIS, the Taliban and other factions that have continued fighting for hundreds of years with no sign of it coming to an end.
And the way Khatib and Alon served their prison sentences and came out to work together for peace is a long way from how the prisoners of Guantanamo, Abu Graib and other prisons and detention centers throughout the world have reportedly served time and functioned after release back into society.
       It’s also a far cry from the way the controversial Steven Salaita, whose offensive and vulgar-laced rants against Israel cost him a teaching position at the University of Illinois before he ever taught the first day and cost the cash-strapped university a boatload of money, responded to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
       If the stories for the Palestinians and Israelis can change and have the potential to change life in that area of the world, it seems that a similar approach can offer hope for the rest of the world.
It may not be as simple as John Lennon wrote in his song: “Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace. …” but you can imagine people on opposite sides of the conflicts, political parties, religions and other contentious situations or groups coming together in the interest of peace and civility.
       One would like to think that government leaders could be at least as forward thinking as the former combatants and activists in Palestine and Israel. Or is that asking too much? There are many places that could follow their example.
       A good place to start changing the stories is in our own communities, in the state government in Springfield, and in the federal government in Washington.