Monday, April 16, 2018

the tax man always rings twice


I am a procrastinator.

Not, on most things in life. I at least have a vague idea of what I want to do and when I should do it with almost everything in life. Except for taxes.

And there is no reason. After I sold my house and consolidated my investments, my annual income taxes should be as easy to calculate as the post card Jack Kemp used to taut.

I received four pieces of paper this year describing the extent of my income and the amount of money that had been withheld for taxes. That should have been as easy as adding the four figures, calculating the marginal rate, taking my personal exemption, and asking Uncle Sam to send back some of my money.

But, it was that last step that kept me from filing earlier. A quick calculation in January revealed that I owe more to the American government than it has already lifted from my money. Not only do I not get some of my own money back, the Treasury Department informs me it wants more.

I should not have been surprised. Ever since I retired to Mexico, I have had to pay additional taxes on my income beyond the withholding amount. (This year enough to buy a new car. An economy car. But, mind you, a new one.)

I have tinkered with the withholding amounts. But, having separate sources of income always creates problems because of the progressive (a misuse of that word, if there ever was one) nature of the American income tax system.

But there is little penalty for us procrastinators in the depths of darkest Mexico -- thanks to the marvel of electronic filing.

I used Turbo Tax in January to calculate what I would owe this year. When I opened it up, it was still waiting patiently for me to tell the internet how I wanted to pay my pound of flesh (with my air mile credit card, of course). Having settled up financially, I pressed one button, and my return was filed.

Somewhere in the next few months, a mid-level federal bureaucrat is going to climb into a newly-purchased economy car to drive from Nashville to Dayton. And I am betting pesos to tortillas I will not receive a thank you note.

Maybe I just need to learn to be patient. But that is where we all came in. Isn't it?

Happy payment day.
   

Sunday, April 15, 2018

and omar makes two -- at nineteen


Yesterday was fiesta time.

Omar's nineteenth birthday, to be exact.

Throwing a party is a far different pursuit than attending a party. That axiom is universal. Whether you live in Lima or London.

I have been playing the role of party attender for decades. All you need are a couple of semi-exotic tales, a bagful of bon mots, and a few deep breaths to remember that even though your are sociable, but not social, you will get through the event without having a heart attack. Because, as Hemingway would say: "a true man would never have a heart attack in the presence of women."

But, throwing a party. That is a coronary of a different color. Putting together a birthday party is like producing a play. You need a stage. You need actors. You need props.

And then add in the slight complication that the birthday party is based in a different culture than your own. It has all the possibilities of being so bad that it might be a triumph.




I asked Omar if he would like me to rent one of the party halls, complete with a very loud band. The type of place that is frequented by 15 year old girls dressed up to look as if the Delta Queen might any day dock in town. He said, no. He wanted something more private. Just his family.

What I had not told him was that if I hired out the party, it would be far easier for me. But, he is a private guy. And the event would be just for his immediate family.




Now, if I were to use the term "immediate family" up north, I would be talking about my mom, my brother, and my sister-in-law.

Not so, in Mexico. Especially, for large families.

I had already sponsored a party at my house for Omar's family -- the week after he settled into to his room. Then, I thought we would be having a welcoming dinner for his mother and little sister.

But, I was wrong. In the end, about 17 people showed up. His mom, three sisters, and a band of nieces and nephews ranging from 3 to 12. The rib eye steaks I had purchased would not stretch to everyone, so Omar's sister, Alejandra, stepped in to cook up a large skillet of chicken a la diabla for the kids. I always stand amazed at how resourceful the Mexicans I know are.




This time, we planned better. The menu would be chicken cordon bleu and shrimp fettuccine. I received the shopping list the day before the party. And everything was ready when Alejandra volunteered to cook.

My house was not built with children in mind. I discovered that when Barco was a puppy. There are a cornucopia of fragile items to be pushed, held, and dropped. The reverse side of my paintings seemed to be beyond the temptation resistance level for most of the children.

And this is the first time my pool has been used with such gusto. A dozen children can add as much joy to a pool to be the equivalent to the amount of water they splash out of it.




If it sounds as if I was tense, I was. Until I remembered this house was built to be lived in. I tend to treat its Baraganesque lines as a museum piece.

So, I took those three deep breaths that I use for attending parties and got into the rhythm of life in the house.

The dinner portion of the party started around 7 and ended just after 10. Some of the adults then moved the birthday celebration to a night club in San Patricio. I made it back to my bed at 5 AM.




So, why was I helping Omar Ulises Castillo Macias celebrate his nineteenth birthday at my house?

The answer is easy. He is my son. We have tried different terms. My favorite was "ward" until I realized it carried a lot of Batman-Robin connotations. It also suffered from a fact problem. No court order is involved.

We have thus settled on "son." Because it is has the advantage of being true.

Not in the natural sense. He carries none of my DNA. And not in the adoptive sense -- yet.

I have known Omar for just over three years. Even though he could not speak much English, my friends, the Pittmans, hired him as a waiter in their restaurant, Rooster's. I would see him on my regular visits, and would be impressed by his energy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail. He seemed to be very ambitious.

This summer, when I returned from my Oregon trip, I received a message from Omar asking if I could do him a favor. He wanted to buy a motorcycle, but he had saved only part of the money. He told me he could repay me in December.

I asked a mutual friend who is fluent in both English and Spanish to meet with Omar and me -- where I told Omar I never loan money; it leads to bad relations. But, I have been known to donate money to good causes.

One of those causes is investing in people who have potential. Three of his bosses had talked with me and told me they thought he was a guy with a great future. Competitive. Intelligent. Ambitious.

So, I told him I would give him the money if he promised to continue doing well in school. I also committed to paying for his school needs through his three years of prepa (high school) and for his university education.

At one point, he told me he wished that he had a dad who was like me. I didn't think much about that.

But, I did on my Denmark trip. On the cruise back, I had a lot of time to consider weighty issues. One of them was the fact that I always wanted to have a son. The problem is that I lack any sense of commitment to acquire one through the natural process of marriage.




Omar sent me daily messages about work and school -- the type of communication a son has with a dad. And then it hit me. I had a ready-made son in Omar.

We talked about when I got back to Mexico. And, with a couple of false starts, Omar decided he wanted to move into the house in December. He has been here since.

It took no time for him to slip right into the role of being an upper middle class Mexican teenager. When I first met him, I knew that he wanted a future that did not involve spending the rest of his life in the small coastal towns where we live.

So, that is how Mexpatriate got a new cast member and how we are looking at spinoffs, like "Father Knows Barely Enough to Get By" and "My One Son."

It should be a good season. It certainly was a good party. 


Saturday, April 14, 2018

late to bed, early to die? night owls may die sooner

It is not one of those headlines that we bleary-eyed owls do not like to see first thing in the morning.

But there it was. On the front page of the newspaper's science section. If you are a night owl, you are speeding up your death.

The news is not new. After all, it was almost 400 years ago that Ben Franklin advised us that getting to bed early would give us life's trifecta: health, wealth, and wisdom. Not a bad bargain for wasting a third of your life in bed.

Oops! I think I may have given away my prejudice in this little debate.

The reason for the headline is a new scientific study. This one from the United Kingdom -- where health care is coming unraveled about as quickly as the "united" in the country's moniker.

The study brings bad news for night owls -- people who stay up late and do not get out of bed until well past sunrise. Prior studies showed a potential correlation between that behavior and a list of wealthy maladies: diabetes, obesity, psychological disorders, and a smattering of other problems most people would like to avoid.

What most of us would like to avoid (and none will) is death. And the current study takes care of that. Night owls may as well wear a shroud when they go out on the town. According to the study, in a given 6.5 year span, night owls were 10% more likely to die than their bed-ridden brethren.

For those of you who are shampooing with kerosene and are about to stand next to a bunson burner, calm down. The authors of the study have no idea what may be causing the increased death risk.

Of course, that does not keep reporters from filling their stories with assertions of causation (often confusing temporal proximity with actual causation) and editors from brewing up headlines that are designed to sell newspapers rather than to inform the public.

I started to write that I take these studies seriously because I have a dog in the fight. But, I do not take them seriously for the reason stated in the study: there may be no causative factor related to staying up late and having an increased chance of death.

 It would also be easier to take the study seriously if the authors had given a bit more adult thought to naming their study groups. "Night owls" has a long and glorious heritage. Everyone knows what you mean when you say it.

But, "morning larks?" It sounds like 
a group name for pre-schoolers whose first names begin with F to L. (At my grade school, the buses were named Mickey, Donald, and Pluto. I suspect that was before the Disney empire became a thugocracy.)
The dog I have in the fight is me. I have long been a night owl. According to my mother, it began when I was in grade school. Instead of going to sleep, I would read a book with a flashlight under my covers. I soon discovered hiding under the covers was nonsense. But I did work my way through a yard of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books.

As long as I can remember, I have stayed up until about 2 in the morning and then got up at 6 to go to school, work, church, or some other activity where I imagined myself to be at least a relevant participant.

Now and then, I even have trouble falling asleep at 2. But the practice has served me well for at least 50 years.

So, I thought I was free from the curse of the night owl. Apparently not, the study says those of us who burn our strudel at both ends are playing Mueller Roulette. Death lurks just as readily when night owls try to fool mother nature.

Now, what am I going to do about it? Let's see. Rule number 1 in life is that everybody dies. Rule number 2 is all the studies in the world cannot change rule number 1.

But, the newspaper article does accentuate a larger issue. I know numerous people who live their lives by these scare headlines. Even after the studies that were once touted have been toppled, people feel free to keep bad advice alive. All salt is bad for you. One bite of egg yolk will stop your heart. Drinking Diet Coke will cause you to vote for Trump.

Anyone who has spent an afternoon in an emergency room with a veteran of the Nurse Ratched corps will immediately understand the syndrome. And some researchers still wonder why the American public is skeptical of medical opinion.

As for me, I am sponsoring a Mexican party at my house as I write this. I suspect I will end up consuming a lot of things that some study somewhere has determined will kill me.


But I am going to try everything.

Maybe you can read about it in my obituary at 2 in the morning.    


Friday, April 13, 2018

the times they are a changin'


It is Bob Dylan time in our little corner of Mexico. Winter is over.

The Mexican tourists have retreated to their highland redoubts following their sybaritic semana santa stay with us. Most of the northern tourists have been skeining north in their distinctive V forms. And, for a few weeks, as always, our temperatures will drop to blissful levels for a couple of weeks while women diners at beach restaurants bedeck themselves in tablecloths to fight back the deleterious effects of 79 degree temperatures.

But the most obvious sign that things have changed is the cast turnover in Mexpatriate.

For the past two years, the house with no name has hosted more friends and family than have visited me in the previous eight years. (I was beginning to wonder if my political exile also included shunning.)

This year, it was my Air Force friend Robin Olson, my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece. And, of course, it was also the season my son took up residence.

On Wednesday, Darrel and Christy boarded an Alaska flight for their long flight ordeal to return to their other house in Bend. They are now there.

I was at dinner last night at Papa Gallo's and I started thinking about my life here in Mexico. When I moved here, I was not certain where I would permanently settle. But I knew I would be calling Mexico home. Probably for the rest of my life. After all, it had beat out London, Paris, and Pacific City as retirement spots.

It did not take me long to start using that word for Mexico -- home. Probably, after a year or so. That is why I am always a bit startled when I hear long-term visitors say they are returning home after their extended stays.

And, for them, I suppose that is true. Most of their families and friends are still in Topeka, Saskatoon, or Saint-Tite. They own homes there. Their banks are there. North is their wife. Mexico is merely their mistress.

I still have some northern ties. But the house with no name has my full fidelity. It is my home. Or, as much home as I allow myself to have. The concept of home has always been a bit elusive to me. For my entire life.

Because my non-Mexican family and friends visit me here, or I travel with them in other parts of the world, I do not have the same ties some people have to places other than where I live. And, after almost a decade of living here, I have finally started breaking through some of the mask that my Mexican neighbors wear out of a sense of self-preservation.

It has taken me that long to understand that Octavio Paz was correct when he said most Mexicans, let alone foreigners, have difficulty in truly knowing their neighbors.


So, thanks to all of you who visited me, who helped make my life a richer tapestry, and thanks to you dear readers who make this little writing project of mine worth doing.

Personally, I think that Bob Dylan had it wrong. The times may be changing, but, here in Mexico, it will just cycle around into another circle. And, even with a changing cast, life will be as pleasant as it was the day before. 

Maybe just a little bit more.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

goodnight, gracie


The news was inevitable. But it was no less shocking because of that.

My mother sent an email last night that her eldest sister, Naomi, my last-surviving aunt, died yesterday. The news was inevitable because her granddaughter had contacted me last week to inform me that Aunt Naomi was receiving hospice care.

As it is so often, the news was hopefully ambiguous. Tired from tests. Simply needs rest. We will spend time with her while we can. And, as is so often the case, the latter message bore the weight of reality.

Trying to sum up a life in a few brief words is always a fool's mission. But, Naomi's life cannot pass without comment.

The statisticians would reduce all of our lives to a string of numbers. Born Naomi Ruth (after the two main characters in the Book of Ruth) Munro, the oldest daughter of three children, in 1924 in Hallock, Minnesota. In the fold where Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba blend into featureless horizons.

She was the heir to wandering immigrant genes. From a Minnesota-born father whose heritage was Prince Edward Island and Scotland, and a Minnesota-born mother whose family had meandered through Quebec, and Vermont after arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But the wandering did not stop there. In the 1920s, her parents packed up their goods, along with her and her brother Wayne, to move to the more-promising delights of Powers, Oregon.

Being an intelligent young woman, upon graduating from high school, Naomi saw an opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of Powers that had little to offer the talented. What promise Powers held for her parents, it held none for her. So, she was off to nursing school. And never turned back.

She married Frank Roth (the last soldier) and raised her two sons (Dennis and Gary) during his military career while simultaneously working as a registered nurse. They lived in Long Beach and Seattle (where we visited them) and in Honolulu (where we did not).

When Frank retired, the Roths decided to settle one final time; they moved to the Portland area. My family had moved there from Powers in the late 1950s. Eventually, Berneice (their other sister), my grandmother, and Uncle Wayne moved there, as well, from southern Oregon, a region whose job opportunities were quickly eroding.

For one brief shining moment, our not-very-extended family lived within dining moments of one another. The most important event, of course, was Thanksgiving -- with all of the benefits of Christmas and none of its consumer mania.

It was a forum where Naomi shone. She was the perfect hostess. Solicitous. Generous with a meal. Charming.

Writing that made me ask just how often I truly thanked her for having us for dinner. Without doubt, I thanked her in that perfunctory way we all do when someone has just removed a bit of fluff from our dinner jackets.

If I had given her heart-felt thanks, I know what she would have said. "What is there to thank me for? You are family."

In an email exchange last night with her son Dennis, he said: "Mom was a very considerate, loving, and compassionate mother."

That insight has the additional advantage of being absolutely true.
 She was all that and more.

My cousin Dan and I always took great amusement in pulling Aunt Naomi into some of our droll banter. She would inevitably mistake the bit of humor we were congratulating ourselves on exhuming. And inevitably her response would be inadvertently hilarious.

Dan called her our own Gracie Allen. And she was. She proved it by good-naturedly bearing the label.

Not every individual can be an Auntie Mame -- the star who beams her light on you letting you share a moment of glory as if only you and she exist, and then leaves you in the Arctic when her glance turns elsewhere. Those are the relatives we tend to extol above others.

But they are not the people who keep the world running. Who empty bed pans to dress her children for school. Who open their homes as a place to live to nieces they barely know. Who sacrifice their time and love to create holiday meals that their families will cherish for their entire lives.

They are the mothers. The nurturers. And, yes, Dennis, the compassionate.

I looked through my photographs to see if I could find a photograph of Naomi in her natural element -- directing the production of Thanksgiving dinner. But I could only find a family photograph in my grandmother's sitting room from a Christmas in what I suppose to be the mid-1950s.

The Roths must have been changing assignments. At least, they are all there. Naomi. Frank. Dennis. Gary. That is Naomi on the right side of the couch. Sitting between her parents, my grandmother and grandfather. (My aunt Berneice must be the shutterbug.)

But the photograph perfectly sums up her life. The people in that room were the people she loved. Her family. Her relatives. The people for whom she sacrificed to see that their lives were just a little bit better.

And that is why I say, a bittersweet farewell: "Goodnight, Gracie."
 

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

walking rodeo drive


The Cottons enjoy a good rodeo.

After all, Darrel and I spent our summers in anticipation of the rodeos at the Coos and Clackamas County rodeos -- with the attendant horse, bull, and calf events. Rodeos are part of our nurture, if not nature.

Last year, Darrel, Christy, and I attended the annual San Patricio rodeo (my hat is in the ring). It had all of the elements of a Mexican rodeo.

Lots of loud music. Pretty girls on magnificent horses. More loud music. A wandering bull. More loud music. Another bull. Even more loud music. And a bit of music comedy. Followed by lots more loud music.



Christy saw a poster yesterday announcing a rodeo in Jaluco, a neighboring community, scheduled at 6 PM. Around 5, she asked if I would like to join her and Darrel at the bull ring. I did.

As we were gathering up our go-to-rodeo gear, Omar intervened in our Gringo ways. Even though the poster announced a start time of 6, he told us absolutely nothing would happen until at least 8:30 -- or later.

But, Christy and Darrel were ready to roll. So, we headed to Jaluco for dinner at one of our favorite eating spots. Chicken mole and huevos rancheros. If you are curious.

We thought we had killed enough time, and 
entered the bull ring at 7, a full hour after the announced start time. This is what we saw.


Nothing. The crew had only begun setting up for the evening. It reminded me of the time I was invited to an 8 PM dinner party in Mexico City. When I arrived at the appointed time, the hostess answered the door in her dressing gown and curlers. She told me to come back "on time" in an hour or two.

Don't get me wrong. It is not that nothing was happening. About 8, we were treated to tsunamis of recorded music -- all at a level that was two steps past distortion.

By 9, the bull ring was about 15% full. At 9:20, the music switched from recorded to live -- with a bass line so strong it could have been used as reverse CPR.



At 10:10, the first bull was released. With exactly three bucks, it froze in place. Leaving the rider, who was, prior to this ride, in first place, looking as if he was posing for a Reform War statue.



The music continued. The clock kept ticking. At 11, there was no sign of the next bull rider. We decided it was time to head home.

But we were the sole holders of that opinion. We had trouble getting out of the bull ring because there was a line, stretching around the block, trying to get in. Moms. Dads. Children. All set on having a good time. And they probably did.



As did we. It would be easy to say the rodeo was not what we expected. After all, I told you at the start "the Cottons enjoy a good rodeo." We already knew that the rodeos of our childhood were not what we were going to see last night.

Mexico was one of the places where rodeo began. After all, Mexico formed the basis of the cowboy culture. (That is John Wayne growling in the background. But it is true.) Whether Mexican rodeos are more authentic than others, I will leave it to experts to fight out.

But to call what we experienced "not a rodeo," would be a category mistake. It is just a different type of rodeo. And we will undoubtedly attend another when my family arrives for their next stay.

After all, how often do we get an opportunity to see art interpreted in a new way?


Monday, April 02, 2018

the wells fargo wagon is a-comin' down the street


The choice should not have been difficult.

Neither should have the choice offered in the 2016 American presidential election. But, it was.

Six weeks ago, as I was preparing to head south to Guatemala, my Sony NEX6 camera decided to die (shot down). Well, not the entire camera. Just my workhorse 16-50 mm lens.

I tried all of the tricks listed on the internet, but it was as dead as a Kathy Griffin routine.

Being a firm believer that all change is good, I immediately began planning on a replacement camera. The only problem was choosing amongst them.


1. Sony a9


I have long been a hobbyist photographer. It started when I was seven or so. My parents let me use their large Kodak camera in an era when the whole world was in black and white.

I shot pets. My family. The rugged beauty of Powers.

That early experience has stuck with me for over sixty years. I love finding and framing the perfect shot. And I have done so with a lot of cameras. From Instamatics to my beloved Canon F-1 SLR.

If I really wanted to step up my game, I could buy the Sony a9 and join the crowd of professional photographers who sing the virtues of this relatively new camera with almost unlimited potential.

Of course, I would also have to part with $4,500 (US) before I bought any lenses for it. But it would be the nicest camera I have ever owned.

2. Sony a7iii


Or for about $2,000 (US), I could buy my old camera's newer brother. A practical SLR with good ratings. And all of the positives and negatives of an SLR. Great depth. But also a lot of weight to carry around on my travels. I also need to remember, I am very rough on cameras.


3. Sony RX10 IV


That is why I seriously considering going back to a bridge camera. Some of the quality of an SLR, but with a fixed lens.

It would not give me the flexibility of being able to swap out lenses, but it would mean not having the extra weight of lenses when I trek through the wilds of highland Mexico -- or other destinations equally exotic.

And I could buy one for about $1,500 (US).


4. Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus


I briefly toyed with the idea of joining the Millennials by carrying nothing but a telephone camera with which I could indulge in the narcissistic exercise of photographing my beguiling image blocking out any famous site in the world.

And why not? In mid-March, I bought the perfect telephone for the crypto-photographer in us all -- a Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus (i am a camera).

For the past two weeks, I have been shooting away with it. Almost all of the photographs that have appeared in Mexpatriate during that time are from my telephone.  Including the one at the top of this essay.

Who would think that a telephone would produce better photographs than my first Kodak? As Dr. Nick would say: "What a country!"

But the reviews were correct. As good as the camera is (and it catches far more depth than most telephone cameras), its daytime shots are a bit flat. The night shots are outstanding.

So, the telephone held the inside post for two weeks in this run for the poses.


5. New 16-50 mm lens


When my lens died, I looked into the possibility of replacing it. My research convinced me that even though I could have it delivered quickly from Amazon, the import duties, taxes, and shipping made it less than a practical solution.

That -- and the fact that this will be my third 16-50 mm lens for this camera. The other two died differing, but just as terminal, deaths.

So, there were the choices. It was now time to make a decision.

I should add that two readers in Melaque provided me with write-in candidates of their own. Each had a new camera she was willing to sell. One, a full SLR. The other a point and shoot.

The winner was delivered to me today from Amazon by our local DHL franchisee. In the end, it was an easy decision.

I really like my Sony NEX6. For the past 5 years, I have been shooting with one. (I have owned two. One was stolen in Manzanillo about three years ago.) It is easy to use. The lenses switch out quickly. And the quality of the photographs are superb.

If I had bought any of the other cameras, I would have needed new accessories and the usual doodads that accompany the photography habit. You know. The kits you buy to sit unused in the bottom of your camera bag.

By simply buying a new lens, I can avoid all of that consumer hassle. And not use the accessories I have not used for the past few years.

So, that is what I did. I now have a new lens snapped on to my camera body, and I am ready to head out to capture the last vestiges of the Easter holiday.

Now, I just need to track down some words.