Monday, July 24, 2017

hilary blows


Some stories come my way gift-wrapped.

That National Hurricane Center map is a perfect example. Take a look at the hurricane symbol off the west coast of Mexico.

Yup there is a hurricane named Hilary. OK. It is spelled with the usual spelling of one "l." But the story possibilities are legion.

And an acquaintance of mine in Barra de Navidad is already running with a list of them amongst her friends. My favorite was referring to her as the Tanya Harding of politics. Left Democrats have as little use for the defeated candidate as did -- well, a minority of voters.

But I am not going to join the cheap shot express. I was one of those voters who found nothing redeeming in the two major party candidates. And I have better things to do than rehash the past.

I can don my coat of noble rhetoric for one simple reason: Hilary is a non-story. In this case, I mean the hurricane. Even though she appears to be right in our neighborhood, Hilary, like most hurricanes in the eastern Pacific, is heading off toward Hawaii.

So, I will let her go in peace. As I will the Hillary with two "l"s.

Tomorrow I should have a health update on my leg.


Friday, July 21, 2017

my tool is spanish



If you miss the fights on Gillette's Cavalcade of Sports, don't fret. Just tune into our local message board -- Tom Zap. There is always a fight brewin'.

A week ago, an acquaintance led off a new thread with "English spoken and understood, that's the key to success for any young Mexican ... if there were ever 2 life skills courses to be taken in school in Mexico, grade 1 and up, the mandatory courses should include both English and economics/money management."

Now, I don't think he meant to start a fight. He was just expressing an opinion that English opens additional job opportunities for young Mexicans. And a number of message board posters agreed.

That is, until one poster picked up what he thought was a gauntlet. "Let me say it once again. Those of you who live here, and don't speak Spanish, are absolutely clueless about the Mexican culture. The culture is, in fact, what Mexicans think! If you can't talk to them, how can you possibly know what they think? ... This is a culture that is so polite, so kind, so creative -- but you'll never know this, because you don't live here. You live in a tropical suburb of Montreal or Vancouver."

The tone went down hill from there. Who says that Americans are the only people who have trouble talking to one another civilly?

I do agree with part of what the second poster had to say. It is important to speak Spanish in Mexico. Otherwise, you miss a lot of what is happening around you.

But the underlying assertion that language is culture is simply not true. Language is a tool of any nation's culture. But it is the means to communicate. Learning Spanish may be a step toward learning how our Mexican neighbors think.  But it will be just a step. The fact that I own a hammer does not make me a carpenter.

I thought of that exchange this week while wrestling with my bed rest. Searching through Youtube (what else is a young man going to do lying flat on his back?) for something to distract me, I ran across a little gem I had been searching for during the past twenty years -- the opening score to Clear and Present Danger. And there it was in all of its Hornerish glory.

Film scores have long been one of my favorite types of music. I started collecting movie albums in the 1960s. When I gave away my collection to Goodwill, I had over 1000 scores.

And, like everyone else with a taste for music, my preferences would change. Alex North. Elmer Bernstein. Jerry Goldsmith. John Williams.

But I finally landed on James Horner as my favorite. Starting with his quirky score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, it was his work in Glory that sealed my respect for him.

In the middle of the film, there is a musical montage that honors the glory of the black soldiers marching off to the Civil War that fades into the muggy heat of the South where most of them would meet their fate. The score captures the counterpoint perfectly.

Looking through my DVD collection, I decide to sponsor my own James Horner film festival. I have only a small part of his work, but I decided I would watch each of the eleven movies I own -- listening particularly to how the score helps create the mood the director wanted to convey.


  • Star Trek II  The Wrath of Khan -- the best of the Star Trek movies. Horner's score is a masterwork of war scenes and melancholy.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock -- nothing could save this dog's dinner of a movie. Horner's music is, at best, sentimental.
  • The Name of the Rose -- each piece of the score helps to underline the ongoing murder mystery in a medieval Italian monastery.
  • Glory -- one of my favorite Horner scores, relying heavily upon black choral pieces.
  • Patriot Games -- Horner extensively incorporated Celtic instruments and chords to propel this tale of IRA terrorism.
  • Clear and Present Danger -- a rather silly movie that turns Iran-Contra into a comic book villain piece, but Horner's score pulls the pieces together with an interesting mix of traditional Colombian instruments, and the movie eventually passes for a political moral tragedy. Tom Clancy hated the final print.
  • Braveheart -- more traditional instruments. This time Scottish. Brave. And with Heart.
  • Titanic -- yes, I forced myself to watch it again. Maybe because the score is far better than the story itself. More ethnic sounds. Celtic.
  • The Perfect Storm -- not a perfect movie. A good score.
  • Avatar -- all of the Marxist nonsense Cameron could not fit into Titanic, he stuffed into this green fantasy piece that is visually interesting. And Horner makes it a pleasure for the ears. It is almost as if he had become a part of Pandora. 

Horner's scores helped me through this movie marathon. And it was interesting to analyze how his style changed over the years, how he used his early work as motifs for later scores, and how he used the works of other composers to enrich his own distinctive style. It is almost impossible to listen to eight bars of a Horner score and not know the composer.

But there will  be no more. He died two years ago in California when he augured the airplane he was piloting into the ground.

While watching Clear and Present Danger, I realized the logical flaw in the argument that to know a language is to know a culture. An individual could have learned the intricacies of English, but that would still not help to understand the cultural layers of American politics in the Iran-Contra affair. Or to understand the racial tensions in Glory. Or to even begin to unpick Cameron's social Marxism in Titanic and how the British and Americans simply see the world differently.

That is not to say I do not believe that those of us who live or spend a good portion of our year in Mexico should not learn Spanish. We should.

I can testify from my own experience that even the most halting grasp of the language has introduced me to the first layer of my neighbors' world. And I am content with that. I suspect the subtext will always be a mystery to me.

But that is one reason I live here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

on the mexican road


"They say -- I read this in this fantastically depressing book -- that when you jump from a building it's rarely the impact that actually kills you. 

"There's a photograph 
in the book called The Leaper. It's old, but it's beautiful. 
"From above the corpse of a woman 
who'd just leapt to her death. There's blood around her head, like a halo ... and her leg's buckled underneath, her arm's snapped like a twig ... but her face is so serene ... so at peace.

And I think it's because when she died ... she could feel the wind against her face."

When you're stuck in bed, there are a lot of things you cannot do. Jumping off of buildings is one.

But there are things you can do. Like watching movies.

And that is what I did yesterday. I put my Netflix subscription to use.

Now, there are a lot of movies on Netflix. Some are bad. Some are terrible. Some are so dreadful I am ashamed to admit I even bothered to read the synopsis. Well, as H.L. Menken did not say: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."  Of course, he never saw "My Mother the Car."

After sifting through a ton of Cracker Jack, I actually found a couple of diamond rings. Or maybe they were zircon. But worth watching.

One was Stranger Than Fiction -- a quirky comedy about an author known for killing off the main characters in her novels. But, in the novel she is currently writing, her main character can hear her narration as she types. The quotation at the top of this essay is her musing about various methods of snuffing her boy.

"She could feel the wind against her face." The line is supposed to make us feel a bit uneasy about the author (marvelously played by one of my favorite actresses: Emma Thompson). But it had the opposite effect on me. I knew exactly what she meant.

When Beth and I would skydive the most memorable part of the experience was the rush of air past my face as I plummeted toward the earth. There is nothing like the high probability of death to make life that much more enjoyable.

I talked my mother into joining us by telling her that the feel was like riding a motorcycle. Cranked up by a couple thousand degrees.

And just what does all of this have to do with that photograph?

My friend Julio has a new motorcycle. That is not it. But he often waxes eloquent about the freedom of feeling the wind in his face.

Forty years ago, I was a rider myself. Roaring along on the highway on a motorcycle was even more American than driving a hot rod. I often credit that motorcycle for making me a libertarian.

That bicycle parked in front of Papa Gallo's last night made me smile. This guy probably could not afford a motorcycle. He could not even afford one of those kits to turn a bicycle into an engine-powered hybrid.

So, he did the next best thing. He bought some attachments that made it look as if his bicycle was tricked out with the latest in small engines -- with chrome exhausts and a sporty gas tank. For style, it is a winner.

Much of life is imagination. We are surrounded by mirages. I suspect the rider daily feels the same wind speed I felt in free fall. At least, in his mind.

"And we must remember that all these things...
... the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties...
... which we assume only accessorize our days...
... are, in fact, here for a much larger and nobler cause:
They are here to save our lives.
I know the idea seems strange.
But I also know that it just so happens to be true."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

comfort in bed


I used to dream about spending the day in bed.

And not sleeping. Just spending the day reading, watching movies, reading a good book or two, writing. That sort of thing. Maybe dozing off now and then.

And, of course, eating.

But, like most things we claim to want, there is little joy in the getting.

To fight back this recent cellulitis invasion, my doctor has imposed a Maginot line of mandatory bed rest -- with the accompanying threat that if I do not acquiesce, he will plop me in a Manzanillo hospital. (He won't. He would lose the steady stream of my pesos when he could no longer sell me drugs from his pharmacy.)

So, here (and I do mean "here" because I have set up my Mexpatriate communication center on my bed) I am. Laid out on sheets like Imhotep awaiting wrapping and entombment. And I have been rather good at staying put. With the exception of my frequent bathroom trips, courtesy of the often-disturbing medication side effects inserted in the pill carton, and forays to the kitchen to keep myself from starving.

I am not starving, And that is a problem.

When I started my walking regimen, I also cut out some foods and reduced the portions of others. Snack foods were out. Carbohydrates were controlled. I even experimented with salads. Whenever I got hungry, I would go for a walk.

But the bed-ridden cannot rely on exercise to defeat food urges. So, I have been surrendering to my greatest vice. Enjoying food.

There is a relatively new bakery/delicatessen about three blocks from my house. La Tanda by name. Run by an affable Canadian couple -- Chris and Irwin.  They sell what one would expect -- banana bred, rye loaves, white dinner rolls, pretzels, muffins, sour dough bread, cinnamon rolls. Five days a week (they are closed on Tuesday and Wednesday), I receive an email in the morning telling me what will be available that day.

They also serve breakfast and lunch. I particularly like their roast beef sandwiches. But I may have a new favorite.

On Sunday, Irwin wrote he would be making shepherd's pie the next day, and anyone interested could place an order by noon. Now, you need to know that shepherd's pie is one of my favorite comfort foods. I still remember the pub just outside of Oxford where I had my first bite. I never knew meat, potatoes, and vegetables could taste like that.

Now, whenever given the opportunity, I order it. Thanks to the guidance of Hillary, my erstwhile tutor of things English, I also know that there is a big difference between shepherd's pie and cottage pie. Shepherd's pie is made with lamb; cottage pie is made with beef. And I like both varieties.

On my drive to the doctor on Monday morning, I picked up my order. When I returned home, I dug in.

Usually, shepherd's pie is best accompanied by another quintessential British treat -- HP sauce. There is really nothing like it in the United States. The closest I can come is to compare it to a slightly sweeter and tarter version of A1 sauce. The British I know put it on almost everything. But my larder was devoid of HP.

It is just as well. Irwin's was one of the best shepherd's pie (actually cottage; it was made with beef) I have ever eaten. Every element had retained its own particular flavor and texture (mashed potatoes; ground beef; carrots, peas, and corn), but also blended perfectly. I almost felt as if I were back at Hopcroft Holt.

And, yes. I know if I keep eating like this, my last two years of walking and cutting back on what I eat will have been for naught. But, a healing man needs to send love to his injured parts.

Shepherd's pie may or may not do that. But it is certainly good in bed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

iguana go home


Some plot lines simply will not go away.

If Mexpatriate is a mini-series (more soap opera than situation comedy), there is a recurring dramatic device that pops up its head occasionally in our little program.  You know the type of thing I mean. Who will it be charged with murder this season -- the saintly Anna or the aloof Bates?

Mexpatriate's recurring plot line may not be filled with that measure of "human emotion and probability" (as Sullivan required of Gilbert in Topsy Turvy), but it is a fact of life in my little home town.

And my "story of more woe?" Iguanas, of course. And the running debate whether black iguanas are actually iguanas. Or if the term applies only to the green iguana.

Less than a month ago, I told you I had changed my position 
(dining out on false news). A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who told me only the green iguana was an iguana. The black iguana was a completely different genus. And I found articles supporting that position.

When I decided to share that article with you, I could no longer find it. So, I took John Maynard Keynes's apocryphal advice: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" I switched back to my former position. Both are iguanas.

A week after I wrote the essay, I brought the topic up with a Mexican to whom I had just been introduced. His academic specialty is crocodiles, but he is well-versed in lizard lore. I asked him whether the black iguana is an iguana.

His immediate answer warmed my lawyerly heart. "It depends what you mean by iguana."

He explained that for scientific classification the
black iguana is Ctenosaura similis; the green iguana is Iguana iguana. Both are in the subfamily Iguania. But so are chameleons and anoles (what we thought were chameleons when we were kids -- the lizards you could buy at the county fair and pin to shirt with a thread leash).

So, I switched sides again. The black iguana is not an iguana. Scientifically.

I didn't bother writing about my new-found knowledge to avoid sounding too much like a mugwump politician. Until yesterday.

Even though I am supposed to be on constant bed rest, I wandered over to the kitchen to get a glass of water. When I walked by the overflow for my swimming pool, I saw a flash of green dart from one side to the other. At first, I thought it was one of those just-mentioned anoles.

It wasn't. It was a very young "iguana" -- probably out of the egg no more than a few days. I had found a reptile shell in the patio a couple of days earlier.

But it was trapped. The water return is no more than knee-deep. To me. For the lizard, it was as impregnable as that border wall The Donald imagines in his dreams.

I had to try three different options to rescue the little bugger. It, of course, thought I was about to eat it. Once lifted, it was out of the dustpan and into the drive. I haven't seen it since.

While acting as a fireman, I had an opportunity to get a rather detailed look at what it was. I jumped to what I thought was an obvious conclusion. It was a baby green iguana. After all it was green. 

It turns out I was wrong again. A little research let me know I had been confused by color prejudice. The young of both the green and black iguanas are green. The black iguanas turn black and gray as they age.

The easiest distinction is the markings on the tail. The fact that I have only found adult black iguanas in the courtyard should have been another clue.


So, there you have it. My fact-based conversion to a new position.

But you did get a cute photograph out of it. 


Sunday, July 16, 2017

san miguel de allende -- not getting the best


Someone should take away my computer when I am sent to bed for convalescence. I tend to get very cranky between the sheets.

Anyone who has skulked about these parts for very long knows one of my pet peeves is the popular culture obsession with creating a list of the best of everything. And there really is a list for everything. Or it seems that way.

Best motion picture. Best restaurants in states that begin and end with vowels. Best fascist dictator. If there is a category, the glitterati has a best award in the wings. The next more insipid than the last.

It may be a personal failing, but I am irrationally drawn to articles announcing the next best thing -- as obsessively as a dog is drawn to a fresh pile of horse manure.

So, you can imagine my joy when I opened my email today to discover that Travel and Leisure magazine has announced this year's best city in the world. And the winner is --  wait for it -- San Miguel de Allende.

For those of you who just checked today's date to be certain it is neither Day of the Innocents or 1 April, I am not making this up. Nor is Travel and Leisure. They are being serious. Or as serious as a magazine can be that has two nouns in its title that are the antithesis of being serious.

Yup. That colonial burg tucked in the Mexican highlands eight hours from my house has beat out Florence, Rome, and Barcelona for being just the darn best city that anyone has ever imagined.

Paris, Berlin, and London were nowhere to be seen. The title is awarded based on surveys of the magazine's readership. But, after reading the article, I am not certain the author has ever been anywhere near the place.

In its announcement of the award ("San Miguel is the Best City in the world -- Here's Proof"), we learn some fascinating facts that I bet would even shock San Miguel's full time residents.

  • San Miguel is known for its "creative South American food." I am certain there are South American restaurants in San Miguel, but I do not recall any. But, by "South American food," the editors mean "mole, gorditas, tacos, and tequila." Please recall this is a magazine that exists because of geography. Mexico is not in South America. Its membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement might be a hint as to which continent it is part of.
  • "San Miguel is one of the most authentic, creative, and cost effective destinations we've visited." Creative? I will grant that. But "authentic?" Perhaps in the same way that Blackpool is authentically English or Williamsburg is authentically American. And "cost effective?" Maybe if you are accustomed to living in Manhattan or Tokyo. OK. That is an exaggeration. How about Oslo?
  • The author also seems to think "El Jardin" is some sort of quaint nickname for the Central Plaza -- when, of course, that is simply the Spanish term for "garden," and that is what Mexicans call their squares in most towns I have visited.
  • "San Miguel de Allende is known for its brightly-colored architecture." Maybe "brightly colored" if we are comparing it to Edmonton or Calgary. But most visitors to the rest of Mexico know San Miguel is relatively subdued in its color scheme -- and that it is enforced by code in the central area. Which some people confusingly call "El Centro."
  • The Church of the Immaculate Conception is Catholic.
  • My favorite, though, is the bold assertion that General Ignacio Maria Allende Unzaga was "a hero of the Mexican Revolution." That is like calling George Washington a noted Civil War general. Allende, as you all know, was the military leader of Mexico's War of Independence.
About that point, I had nothing in my spleen to vent. The rest of the article is just as vacuous.

Based on all that, being called the best city by Travel and Leisure is the equivalent of being told by your idiot cousin Harold that you are the smartest person he has ever met.

I am happy for San Miguel de Allende. I like the place. I like the people I know there. It is my cultural oasis.

But it deserves better than this slapdash award.

All things considered, I would prefer receiving its "Best Fascist Dictator" award. It couldn't screw that up any more than it did this piece.


On the other hand, just writing this has made my leg feel better.


Friday, July 14, 2017

popping pills

Yesterday, I drafted a list of stories I want to share with you about some of the pleasures and problems of living in Mexico.

But that list did not survive its first contact with time.

Last night, at dinner, my left foot swelled to the point I could have made a creditable audition as the eponymous character in The Elephant Man. That is usually the first sign my dreaded cellulitis is in the wings ready to take a bow.

And, I was correct. In the middle of the night, the too-familiar symptoms took turns making jmy night far from restful. Chills. Sweats. Deliriums. Joint aches. Headache. Cough. Fever. High blood pressure. And a very red and swollen leg.

This will be attack number five. The first was the worst when I had to be hospitalized. I managed to get ahead of the ensuing outbreaks. Just barely.

Having learned my lesson, I went to the doctor this morning and returned with five boxes of medication. Mostly antibiotics.

And, unlike my other forays into cellulitisland, I am going to stay in bed through the weekend. On Monday I will talk with the doctor in person.

Until then, I am drinking water, popping pills, and resting in bed with my crimson leg elevated.

Sometime next week, I will be back with you.