Dances With Wolves is a 1990 movie that won an academy award for “Best Picture.” It’s also the Sioux name of the movie’s main character, Lt. John Dunbar. Dunbar begins as the quintessential army lieutenant of the Civil War period, but—after being posted to a deserted South Dakota fort and coming in contact with the Lakota Sioux Indians—Dunbar is transformed by the experience. He adopts the Sioux culture, language, and a new identity as Dances With Wolves.
So, when captured and interrogated by a U.S. Army detachment, Dunbar suddenly stops speaking in English and addresses his tormentors in the Lakota language, startling and discomfiting them. In Lakota, he says, “My name is Dances with Wolves. I have nothing to say to you. You are not worth talking to.” Earlier, he mused to himself, “I had never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps because the name itself had no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.” At the end of the movie, Chief Ten Bears says to Dunbar, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances With Wolves.”
Well, I can admire Dunbar’s transformation from one identity to another. I have two identities in my psyche: one is that of a secular rationalist, the other is that of an antique Friend like Isaac Penington. While there are advantages to having two identities, the phenomenon creates an unpleasant tension and cognitive dissonance. I wish I could destroy the secular rationalist and transform completely into a 17th Century Quaker.
Of course, that’s impossible. Perhaps it’s God’s will that I “dance” between faith and reason, between certainty and doubt. Perhaps I must live with ambiguity and paradox. Or maybe I’m just not as lucky as John Dunbar.
~ Richard Russell
It certainly seems so. They greet us with wagging tails. They lick our face and hands or wherever our flesh is exposed. And unlike wolves that avert their gaze, dogs make eye contact with us. They look at us steadily, seemingly with love.
But is there scientific research proving that dogs love us? Well, if not proof, compelling evidence that this is the case? The relevant experiments subjected dogs to an fMRI, which can image the flow of blood and oxygen to active parts of the brain. Of course, the dogs had to first be trained to lie still in the MRI machine. Then, because dogs have such a remarkable sense of smell, the canines were presented with five scents: that of their owner, a stranger, a dog from the same house, an unfamiliar dog, and their own scent. The researchers were focused on fMRI images of activity in the caudate nucleus, the brain’s reward center. They expected the strongest responses to occur when the canine subject smelled the scent of other dogs. Instead, the caudate nucleus “lit up” most when the scent was that of their owner. In other words, the dogs felt the most pleasure when smelling the scent of their owner. They liked their human more than other dogs!
Of course, it’s possible that the pooches associated their owners with food and treats, which would then be the “hidden” stimulus of the caudate. To test that hypothesis, the researchers—in another experiment—sometimes offered the canines hot dogs and sometimes praised them. They then compared the activation of the caudate nucleus when these different rewards were used. The vast majority of dogs reacted equally to hot dogs and praise. In other words, human praise—and presumably, the humans themselves—were at least as attractive to dogs as food. Moreover, 20% of the dogs reacted more strongly to praise. It’s not far-fetched to conclude that dogs love us at least as much as food. (The experiments described were done by Dr. Gregory Berns and are detailed in his book, How Dogs Love Us.)
I’ll conclude with a poem from Dog Songs by Mary Oliver. Percy is, of course, her dog.
The Sweetness of Dogs
What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go
and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself
thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up into
my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.
~ Richard Russell
Unforgiven won Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards and is tied for first place on my personal list of favorite films. The movie opens with unsettling violence as a cowboy slashes a prostitute’s face with his pocketknife. In the aftermath, all the girls of the establishment pool their money to hire a gunman to kill the cowboy who has defaced their friend
When English Bob arrives with the intention of assassinating the cowboy, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett disarms Bob and—in a sickening display of sadism and violence—kicks him until he’s bloodied and senseless. Little Bill is a psychopath who hides his sadism under the cover of “law and order;” and at this point in the movie, none of the characters have presented us with a violence that can be morally justified.
Enter William Munny, “a known thief and murderer,” who has spent the last decade trying to live an honest life. His wife has died, his hog farm is failing, and Munny—out of desperation—decides to take the prostitutes’ offer. He and his partners, Ned and the Schofield Kid, ride to Big Whiskey, where Munny runs afoul of a town ordinance forbidding firearms within the city limits. Little Bill doesn’t arrest Will Munny. Instead, he beats him mercilessly, after which Will can barely crawl into the street and saddle up. In fact, for several days he hovers between life and death.
Most movie goers sympathize with Munny. Although he himself has psychopathic tendencies, Will also has flashes of guilt and compassion. He frequently says of his gunslinger past, “I ain’t like that anymore.” Nevertheless, Will Munny kills one cowboy himself and helps the Schofield Kid assassinate another as the victim sits in an outhouse. There is no way to morally justify these killings.
When Little Bill captures Ned and tortures him to death, Will decides to avenge his friend. Of course, revenge—whether for the disfigured prostitute or for Ned—can never be moral. Still, we’re rooting for Munny as he rides into town and enters the saloon outside of which Ned’s body is on display. Without warning, he kills the owner of the bar with his shotgun; but, as Will aims at Little Bill, the shotgun misfires. Now Bill and his deputies have a chance to shoot. But, with a lightning-fast draw of his six-shooter, William Munny cuts down five men, including Little Bill. A wounded Bill complains, “I don’t deserve this.” Will replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” A close-range rifle blast ends the conversation.
As I read critical reviews of Unforgiven, William Munny is frequently given the role of the hero. He’s the “good guy” in spite of being morally flawed. Well, Munny is not just morally flawed. He’s evil—as evil as Little Bill. They both have justifications for their violence, but—except in self-defense—violence is evil. To make that point, key scenes of the movie are backlit, producing a darkness in those scenes—the darkness of evil.
William Munny’s rapid-fire killing of five people reminds me of a modern AR-15’s firing capability and its use in so many mass shootings. If we in the U.S. do not ban AR-15’s and similar semi-automatic weapons, we will find ourselves among the “unforgiven.”
~ Richard Russell
Paz en el alma perdonada,
Esperanza motivando el corazón,
Gratitud profunda enseñada por hechos,
Ejemplar que duplica el divino patron.
A creative translation of the above poem may be found below. Although the initial poetic framework was done by the Bing ChatBot, Richard Russell has completely reworked the poem so that it is his.
A Social Activist
Soul peace and pardon,
Heart hope beating along,
Deep gratitude shown in deeds,
Human copy of God’s master key.
~ Richard Russell
“He said he had just awakened from a peculiar dream which had haunted him at intervals through several preceding years. He had been in a singular and indescribable vessel, but always the same, moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore. He was always silent, and no one ever spoke to him; but he was conscious of a vague and awful fate impending over him. He had this dream just before every great and important event of the war; for instance, before the firing on Sumter; the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc.”
According to Noah Brooks, a journalist and friend of Lincoln, these were the President’s words to his cabinet on April 14, 1865—the same day he was assassinated. Dreams are often symbolic, and this recurring dream of Lincoln’s is rich in symbolism. The ship must be the American Ship of State. The shore must be the destination, the goal of the United States. For Lincoln, that goal was the preservation of the Union—an objective which he wished to attain “with great rapidity.” However, as he strove for this end, “no one ever spoke to him”—a phrase which reflects the solitude of a President making the decisions that would preserve or destroy the American Union.
It occurs to me that Lincoln’s dream can be applied to the present day. In 2023 our Ship of State is headed toward an “indefinite shore”—either a renewal of our democracy or the destruction of that democracy by a right-wing, sometimes violent faction. No one can speak for those of us who embrace democracy and the principle of toleration. Of course, “In God we trust,” but we also know that “God helps those who help themselves.” Only if we struggle mightily can we tame the forces of polarization that have plunged us into a political civil war. Only if we work diligently will our nation attain to what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.”
~ Richard Russell
Grocery baggers are a common sight in many supermarkets in Mexico, especially in big cities like Mexico City. They are usually elderly people who volunteer to pack customers’ purchases in exchange for tips. For many of them, this is their only source of income and a way to stay active and social. However, the coronavirus pandemic and changing consumer habits have threatened to put an end to this decades-old practice. According to Rest of World, elderly grocery baggers in Mexico are being replaced by self-checkout and home delivery services; those who stay are making half as much money as they used to.
Self-checkout machines allow customers to scan and pay for their items without interacting with a cashier or a bagger, and the impact on the elderly baggers is significant. Volunteer packers at stores like Walmart say they’re receiving 50% fewer tips than before the pandemic. Some of them have been laid off or have quit due to the lack of customers who need bagging.
Raúl Franco Hernández, 80, has been working for six years as a volunteer grocery packer at a Walmart Express supermarket in Mexico City. Every day, over a four-hour shift, he bags groceries for tips, working alongside the cashier—usually a young clerk who scans the groceries and slides them to Raúl…to pack while the customer pays. He told Rest of World that before the pandemic, he and about 20 other packers at the store earned up to 450 Mexican pesos (about $25) a day. But when the store fully reopened in late 2021, three self-check-out…(machines)…had been installed in place of two human cashier stations. It now has only eight grocery packers, and Franco Hernández said his daily income has dropped to about 200—250 pesos (between $11 and $14).
The situation has sparked protests and petitions from the baggers and their supporters, who demand that supermarkets respect their rights and dignity. They argue that they provide a valuable service to customers and society, and that they deserve fair compensation and recognition. In some places in Mexico, teenagers are baggers, but in others the elderly were given spots under a program arranged many years ago with the government’s National Institute for the Elderly. Walmart said it had notified the Institute in December that the arrangement would not be renewed.
So, the future of grocery bagging in Mexico is uncertain, as technology and consumer preferences continue to evolve. Some supermarkets may keep the tradition alive, while others may opt for more automation and convenience. The elderly baggers may have to adapt to new realities or find alternative sources of income and socialization. Or stay at home and eat less.
~ text written by Bing ChatBot and edited by Richard Russell
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