Saturday, January 19, 2019

into life a little spice must fall

I miss having my brother Darrel here in Mexico this year.

There are a lot of reasons for that. But food tops the list.

Darrel and I love experimenting with food. If it is new, we will try it. If it is extremely spicy, we will be glad we tried it.

I sent him an email yesterday letting him know he was missing a monumental moment in Mexican culinary history at the house with no name.

Last Sunday, a local restaurant sponsored a chili-eating contest. And I do not mean the Tex-Mex concoction. This contest involved foods cooked with the spiciest chili peppers in the world.

You may not know their names, but we pepper-heads live for the opportunity to eat them. Bhut Jolokia (better known by its nickname ghost pepper; the same pepper the Indian police use to disperse rioters). The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the one-time world-wide heat champion. And my favorite, the Carolina Reaper, whose name gives ample warning of its current reign as the world's spiciest pepper with a Scoville rating of 1.5 million.

People who will not eat a jalapeño, take heed. A jalapeño is rated only at 8500 on the Scoville scale.

I had planned on attending and enjoying the contest, but other circumstances intervened. Instead, yesterday I wandered over to Bare Essentials, a charmingly-funky shop three blocks from my house, and bought a jar of Carolina Reaper from Gio Vanni. He had helped with the chili contest preparations.

He had six choices of salsas -- from a mild Serrano to the king of the volcano, Carolina Reaper. I, of course, opted for the Carolina Reaper.

The world is now filled with a wide variety of chili peppers. And regional cooking is often defined by its chilies.  It is hard to imagine Angolan or Indian or Thai food without thinking of the chilies grown in their countries.

It is easy to forget that just over 500 years ago, none of those countries had chili peppers. Every chili grown in the world came from Mexican plants. Columbus took some to Europe, where they became a rage. The Portuguese then spread them throughout the world. The rest, as they say, is dinner.

Let me add a disclaimer. When it comes to chili peppers, spice is not the sole, or even the best, criteria for cooking. Every chili has a different personality that will add umami to a meal -- if properly chosen. The Carolina Reaper is a good food choice because of its pungency and its subtle fruitiness.

Gio Vanni's salsa works because he has found that proper balance between adding spice and fruitiness. I know because I scurried home with my acquisition to put it to good use.

My first experiment was to let the salsa be the star. I fried some rice paper, added a bit of salt, and then a dab of Gio Vanni's salsa. My first response was this is a pepper to be respected.

I use a lot of ghost pepper powder in my cooking. But the Carolina Reaper is noticeably spicier. And, as advertised, fruitier. I was soon dipping out large globs.

For me, spicy is not spicy if I can still breath or see after eating the chili. This chili is spicy.

So, I decided to use the salsa in a more complex dish. I had already decided to make a tortilla Española for supper -- and the salsa sounded like a good addition.

My tortilla is a bit eccentric. It certainly is not the classic Basque dish. I fry sliced potatoes in olive oil and butter just until they are on the verge of crisping. I set them aside while I stir-fry a combination of sliced onions, garlic, red bell pepper, a couple of Serranos, and a habanero, along with sliced ham.

I then line the bottom of the frying pan with the sliced potatoes forming the equivalent of a pie crust. The ham-vegetable mixture is layered over the top of that.

Of course, there are eggs. Last night, I whisked them them together with some fresh chopped tarragon. I poured the egg mixture over the vegetables trying to keep that layer as even as possible.

The salsa would be a new addition to this ever-evolving fusion dish. I decided to put a discernible layer over the top of the vegetable mixture before I added the eggs. If I do this again, I will spread it over the potato layer. The moisture in the layer between the eggs and the vegetables diluted the salsa. I was after a layered effect. Instead, the salsa was diluted through the dish.

But it was a fantastic eating experience. Omar, who wants everything to be spicy had to concede that the Carolina Reaper is a chili to be savored, but to be given its due.

I am sorry I missed the chili-eating contest. Darrel undoubtedly would have loved it.

He certainly would have enjoyed the 
tortilla Española.
There are two pieces sitting in my refrigerator. I would offer you a sample, but I am certain they will be gone by this afternoon.


Friday, January 18, 2019

comparing roles with prince frederick

"Amazing what one is, really."

It is one of those seemingly throw away lines in The Madness of King George. A film that walks us through the universal question of "Who am I?"

Once a month a group of us "grumpy, old white guys" convene at some unlucky restaurant where we hassle the staff and ramble on about a list of topics that inevitably include medications and the cheapest way to get things done locally.

Yesterday we met at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. Because I had not yet managed to do my early morning walk, I decided to hoof the four miles to the restaurant. It is an easy amble.

Last year my friends Nancy and Roy bought me a Prince Edward Island t-shirt on their cruise to eastern Canada. It is quite spiffy -- as you can see in the mirror image.

Several people commented on the shirt on my walk. Most were compliments. But there were two questions that confounded me.

The first came from a Canadian woman with whom I am acquainted. She stopped me to chat and asked: "I thought you were American. Are you from Prince Edward Island?"

I chuckled and asked her if I had been wearing Che Guevara t-shirt if she would ask me: "How is Fidel doing?"

My analogy was too arcane.

She said she could not figure out why someone would wear a place-oriented piece of clothing without being from that place. She felt that type of clothing is designed to show pride of place.

I understood her point. But, I see national or regional emblems emblazoned in the most unlikely places, making people look like the equivalent of those "see-where-I've-been" maps on the sides of Air Streams and Winnebagos. I am guilty of that particular bit of one-upsmanship myself.

In this instance, though, I told her I have not even visited Prince Edward Island. The shirt was a beloved gift from friends.

Because I can never let one explanation stand when I can come up with five, I told tell her, in one sense, I am from Prince Edward Island. My mother's father's family lived there about a century in the 1800s; about the same time my mother's mother's family lived in Quebec. So, in a manner of speaking, I am from there. Give or take a generation or three.

So, off I went trying to make up walking time. Only to be stopped by another Canadian friend. "Hey, you can't wear that shirt. You're an American." We laughed.

Then, he got a bit more serious. "Are you trying to disguise the fact that you're American?"

I have been asked that before when people ask where I am from originally. My natural response is "Oregon." Several people have commented that that sounds as if if I am hiding my American roots. And I know exactly what they are saying.

I am not someone who has trouble confusing myself with the government in The States. And I cannot understand people who conflate their personality with their national governments. It makes no sense to me.

A reader once complained that she was getting tired of people trying to politicize everything. I agree with her. And I hope we do not waste a lot of time today fixating on politics. Because all of this is leading to a far more interesting point. At least, I find it interesting.

The breakfast conversation went along the lines I would have anticipated. Medical conditions. Brexit. The attempted coup in Gabon. Why Beethoven is considered great.

I do enjoy those joustings. But yesterday turned out to be quite different because we had a new member amongst us. John.

He had fallen into a coma for four years. When he awoke, his memory was a shambles. He could remember events in his early youth and infancy that he is not certain he could access before the coma.

He described his memory of recent years as too often containing pictures in his mind that have combined with a soundtrack from a different year. As if a mischievous film editor had been at work. Both memories are accurate, but they combine in an odd fashion.

His description started an interesting conversation. Scientists know a lot about our bodies -- and next to nothing about our minds. They do know enough, though, that the video analogy used by most people to describe their memory is not an accurate description of memories.

Memories are deconstructed in the mind and require re-assembly. As John's experience would verify. It is why we can remember a person's face, but we cannot locate their name card in our memory file. The two pieces are simply stored in different portions of our memory.

One of my favorite Umberto Eco novels is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The conceit of the story is that an antiquarian book dealer loses his large portions of his memory because of a stroke.

His personal past has been obliterated. He has no memory of his wife, his name, or even his face. But external stimulae cause him to remember historical names and dates, and substantial chunks of Dante, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot.

Then, in an attic, he discovers a treasure trove of cultural items he has collected over his life. He hopes that reviewing the items will help him recover his memory.

His project fails. He concludes all he has done is to re-discover the memory of a generation, not his personal memory. A jumble of cultural texts, high and low, simply does not add up to who we are. It is an exercise John has been going through.

That brings me back to that Prince Edward Island t-shirt. It does not reflect who I am, other than the fact that we all use clothing in our attempts to display to the world how we would like to be seen. Similar to Prince Frederick's Bishop of Osnabruck medallion, our costumes certainly do not reflect who we are.

That little t-shirt has a far more important meaning, though, than simply being a prop in The Steve Show. My friends invested a bit of their love in that purchase and then handed it along to me. And I am now the custodian of that piece of our relationship.

Prince Frederick may have been amazed at "what one is." I try to focus more on enjoying people for who they are.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

steve, get back to the center

In yesterday's essay (sticking a log in my eye), I was heading in another direction when I distracted myself with my orange crate sermon.

Every January, I gather up a fistful of pesos and sally forth to pay my dues for the privilege of being a member of the I-live-in-Mexico Club.

No matter where you primarily live, you will be required to fork over money periodically to keep the gears of society operating around you. At least that is the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and his ilk: "I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization."

Of course, Holmes lived in a far less intrusive time. Most modern taxpayers find at least a theoretical cousin in Robert Heinlein's observation that: "There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

A number of us have noted previously that structurally Mexico is about where The States or Canada were fifty or sixty years ago, leaving my small town Powers comparisons to Melaque with a sense of vague familiarity. In a macro sense, Mexico may be an economic first world country (with its membership in the OECD and the world's fourteenth largest economy), but it still has the feel of a bygone but not-forgotten past.

And that is exactly how I felt on Monday when I stopped to pay the bills that make me feel like a contributing member of my community. And, though I have written about the experience over the past few years, each time I get my receipts, I realize one of the joys of living here (low costs) that was never a draw for me to move here. And, to be truthful, still is not.

So, here are the numbers from the least expensive to the most:

The annual fee for my postal box in San Patricio is $300 (Mx) -- less than $16 (US).

My car registration for the year is $582 (Mx) -- about $30 (US).

I pay for a full year of water, sewer and, garbage at our local government office in Barra de Navidad. This year, it was $1,738 (Mx) -- $91 (US).

And the largest item on the list, the property taxes for my 4000 square foot house is the pleasingly affordable $2,171 (Mx). About $114 (US). In Salem, that would be less than a month's payment on my property taxes there.

But that is the danger of comparison. My life is far better here than it was up north. The fact that I get all of my annual services for the bargain price of less than $252 (US) is simply cream cheese in my sushi.

Now, as happens every year, I will hear from some readers that "I get what I pay for." And that has a slight echo of truth about it.

If you inclined to so comment, I will let you know my response now.

Refer back to the Heinlein quote. I am more than happy to pay this list of services because they are actually items I would go out and buy on my own without any government coercion. Well, maybe with the exception of the car registration. But, at least, that tax helps to defer some of the government's costs related to transportation.

So, I do not write today in the spirit of smugness. I am simply thankful that, like the words of my favorite Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
That is exactly how I feel on this fine morning in Mexico where I continue to find that peace at the center.

And that goes far beyond the alms and tribute I passed along to the Mexican government on Monday.

Note 1 -- I offer one caveat to my little piece of tax heaven. My property taxes are low. But I do have an additional tax, as do all of us foreigners who live in the forbidden zone. I pay a local bank tax $522 (US) each year for the privilege of pretending I have some legal right to my house.
Note 2-- One of my favorite version of "Simple Gifts" is Aaron Copland's orchestral treatment. It may not be quite Mexican -- but it is universal.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

sticking a log in my eye

"Why do you white people complain about everything?"

It was my friend Julio, who I have known for almost as long as I have lived here. Our conversations have matured to the point where we can indulge in otherwise-forbidden stereotypes, and still understand the other person's point.

"You don't like the food. Service is too slow. The music is too loud. Are you happy when you are unhappy?"

His comment was primarily directed at me. I had just told him why I was not happy with my lunch. But, he then went into a list of complaints he had heard during the past week. "Are you people never happy with anything?"

I tried to put his experience into context -- that complainers are a minority and we tend to give way too much attention to the whingers -- but I instinctively knew he was correct. If you listen to a random sampling of northern conversations in our little villages, we sound as if we were auditioning to play extras at a British weekend shooting party.

One of my favorite lines from Gosford Park is Maggie Smith's response to Kristin Scott Thomas
's greeting upon arrival at the house:

"Did you have a horrid journey?"

"Yes. Fairly horrid."

Julian Fellowes could have cribbed the lines from one of our local restaurants -- or message boards.

Yesterday was dedicated to the proposition that I could pay my annual dues for living in Mexico within the confines of the day. To avoid any unnecessary suspense, I will tell you right up front, it was a good day. Almost.

I needed to make four stops in three towns. Renewing my auto registration and paying my property taxes in the county seat. Paying for my postal box rental in San Patricio. And taking care of my combined sewer, water, and garbage in Barra de Navidad.

Three of the four were as easy as guessing what eating utensil will arrive with dessert in a Mexican restaurant. I was the only person at the post office and the Barra de Navidad local government office. And I had to stand in line for only a couple of minutes to pay my property taxes. Over the past couple years, the replacement of ledger books with computers has greatly improved the efficiency of turning my pesos into the government's.

The only mosca in the michelada was the payment of my car registration. It was my first stop.

I had read on the local Facebook page that the waiting time in the office was unusually long, so I arrived early in the morning. Not early enough.

In years past, there have been five to eight people sitting in the waiting area patiently awaiting their turn. There is no number system. Everyone pays attention to who was there before them. Just like Henslowe's recurring response in Shakespeare in Love: "Strangely enough, it all works out well. . . . I don't know. It's a mystery."

Yesterday I was not welcomed by that sight of Panglossian order. The entire room was packed with people standing up in enough regimentation that it resembled a queue. There must have been close to thirty people there.

I saw my friend Arlie. There was no missing him. He is at least half again as tall as I am.

I asked why everyone was standing. He said something about there having been a brouhaha earlier. I thought that odd. In all of my years waiting at Mexican offices, I have been amazed at how my neighbors stoically wait for their turn with no obvious irritation. Of course, Octavio Paz would have something to say about what was going on behind the mask.

Rather than wait, I decided to go pay my property taxes in the delusional belief the line would shorten as the day went on.

When I returned, there were more people in the room. So I went to the drug store and a department store to pick up some items.

When I returned, Arlie had finally made it to the cashier, but there must have been forty people in the room by that time. Arlie paid and I wished him farewell. He wished me patience.

I was not concerned. I had brought my Kindle along to catch up on the news. I knew it would be a long wait, and I have learned a modicum of patience living in Mexico.

And then it happened. It was almost as if Julio's observations had conjured up a golem.

An elderly northerner tried to open the door. By this time, the crowd made that difficult. But, as is always true in Mexico, the people near the door politely gave way to welcome another soul to share the wait.

The new arrival scowled, looked around, and, to no one in particular asked, in that irritated tone of an angry dad: "Where's the end of the **** line?" No one responded. He was speaking English, and what most of them rightfully heard was blah blah blah.

I chimed in with: "I don't know. I have been here for about ten minutes, but more people came in after me."

That seemed to make a vein over his left eye start throbbing. When he asked again where the end of the line was and received no response, he turned his volume up to 11, and launched into "****ing Mexicans. **** Mexico." And slammed the door as he left.

Now, he may have been having the worst day of his life and that small bump in the road was just too much for him to assimilate. I am not going to judge why he did what he did.

Amazingly, it did not seem to bother in the least the people waiting for their registration.

It dd bother me. As the sole northerner standing in line, I felt as if I should apologize for what just happened. But, that event was about to be exacerbated in a very personal way.

A clerk behind the cashier windows came out into the waiting room and motioned in my direction. I looked around before I realized he was motioning to me to go with him. He was pulling me out of line to process my registration.

I almost panicked after the earlier incident because I knew exactly what it looked like. I was getting preferential treatment for only one reason. And it wasn't because it was my birthday.

I looked around at my fellow line-waiters. They told me: "Go." It was not until that moment that I realized several of them spoke perfect Englsh -- making the Mad Man's performance that much more embarrassing.

I would like to tell you that I told the clerk that I would wait in line just like everyone else. That would have been exercising my moral agency. Instead, I took the preferential treatment road.

Within a minute, I had paid my money and had a new decal for my car window. But, I felt almost as if I was walking an Iroquois gauntlet when I walked through the waiting room.

I told my friend Ozzie this story last night. When I told him about the Mad Man, he said: "You act just like that. All of you do."

And I realized, in his eyes, it is true. Even though my anger is seldom that extreme, I still get irritated at circumstances over which I have no control or power. The only control is of my temper. And, apparently, I lose it far more often than I care to admit.

That was my birthday gift from both Julio and Ozzie -- to make me realize I too often point at the bad behavior of others when mine may be worse. Jesus said something about that.

We all love quoting Jesus when we feel as if someone has caught us out: "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged."  We often forget his reasoning:

For the way you judge others is how you will be judged -- the measure with which you measure out will be used to measure to you. Why do you see the splinter in your brother's eye but not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the splinter out of your eye," when you have the log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First, take the log out of your own eye; then you will see clearly, so that you can remove the splinter from your brother's eye!   
A little bit of grace will do us a lot of good. Whether we live in Timbuktu or Abbottsford or Springfield -- or even Mexico.

Monday, January 14, 2019

happy birthday to me

If I were a Hobbit, and there are those who see me as being quite Hobbitish, today would be nothing special.

Hobbits consider "rhyming birthdays" to be most important. Like Bilbo's 111th (his "eleventy first") and Frodo's 33rd (when he came of age) celebrated on the same day.

I have certain Hobbitish features, but I live in a culture where the Big Days end in "0," (with the odd "8," "1," and "5" thrown in to spice the stew's monotony).

Today I enter my eighth decade. That should be something to celebrate because it has been a fun run.

But my biggest celebration for the day will be finally getting around to paying my annual Mexican living dues -- for the privilege of living in this intoxicating beautiful land. There are fees to pay for car registration, property tax, postal box rental, and garbage, water, and sewer. None will set me back anywhere near what they would cost up north.

And I enjoy paying them. Rather, I enjoy the journey to pay them. I need to drive to Cihuatlán, our county seat, to take care of the car registration and property tax. Then to San Patricio for the postal box. The sewer, water, and garbage I can pay in one place at the local government office in Barra de Navidad.

I look forward to this each year because I get to talk with some familiar faces behind the respective desks and to meet new people waiting in line for their turns. It brings back a lot of those feelings of civic pride that accompanied voting before the days of mail-in ballots where the only relational moment is sticking a stamp on the envelope.

What could be better than my tasks to celebrate a landmark birthday?

But there is more. At the end of the day, I will walk down the street to the home of my friends Lou and Wynn. We will then take an evening stroll to one of the restaurants on Barra de Navidad's laguna.

Friends and food. A Hobbit could appreciate such an evening. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

get me to the church on time

There is something about Mexico.

I have spent the vast majority of my life surrounded by calendars, Day-Timers, and pocket assistants gently reminding me my time is not my own. Cronos was my master.

Punctuality is not a personality trait that is easily doffed. In the Old Country (as Jennifer Rose so aptly calls our abandoned lands) being tardy was the height of rudeness. Worse, it was seen as stealing the time of others. For an Air Force officer and trial attorney, it was professional suicide.

When I moved to Mexico ten years ago, I brought all of my northern ways with me. I indulged in the same mistake made by centuries of expatriates. I tried to recreate my old homeland in my new one.

I would rise at 7 in the morning to read The Oregonian while listening to the news on NPR (what a leftist friend calls Nazi Peoples' Radio). At 10 I would open a three-week old issue of The Economist (speed is not the byword of the Mexican postal service).

All of that could have occurred in Salem. And it did before I headed south. The only difference was that instead of doing all of that in my hot tub, I did it on the balcony of the beach house while watching the ebb and flow of the ocean -- always aware time was ebbing and flowing along with the tide.

Over the last ten years, I would slough off one routine or another. NPR was the first to go -- and I immediately felt the relief of being freed from the hysteria of the American news cycle.

This morning I realized I had lost another. My sense of time. I have lost track of the days of the week.

Today I slept in -- after staying up until 2:15 in the morning. When I woke up, I started reviewing my Spanish lesson and decided a pot of tea would be a perfect companion for it.

The day was speeding along, but it did not matter. It was Saturday. I have no Saturday appointments. And it was not a Dora day. The day was mine.

Somewhere between Manuel bragging about his new suit and Juanita informing everyone her new dress was pretty, but expensive, I looked at the date on my telephone.

I panicked. It was Sunday, not Saturday. I do have a commitment on each Sunday. Church. And it was beginning in 35 minutes.

I rushed to clean up, and headed off on my three-mile walk to church, arriving in the midst of the prayer of the people. I thought that apt.

Currently church is the only regular appointment on my calendar. And it is the only way I know which day of the week it is. When I attend church, I know it is the last day of the week, and the next morning will start another week. It is my chronological anchor. Without it, each day would slip by unnoticed, one fading into the similarity of the next.

Time is not as important in Mexico as it is up north. Relations trump being enslaved to a watch.

My once-obsessive mania of punctuality has slowly been eroded. If I am 15-minutes late meeting people for dinner, I apologize to the people who waited. They are usually northerners. If I am meeting Mexican friends for dinner,and I show up 15 minutes later than the appointed time, I will be the first person at the restaurant.

I actually would have made it to church today on time had not two of my neighbors stopped me to talk. I could have ignored them and headed off on my appointed rounds. But that is not how things are done in my neighborhood. Relationships trump time.

As it turned out, I learned some interesting things about our neighborhood and I still made it to church. Matters temporal and spiritual were served simultaneously.

Five years ago when we started our cultural awareness classes at the church, Tom led us through a book based on the difference between hot and cold cultures. He had been a missionary in Mexico for decades and had an instinct for teaching the subject.

He gave a great example. In a cold culture (like Oregon or British Columbia) if Steve arrived late for church, people would turn in disgust to see who was disrupting the service. In a hot culture (like Mexico), people would turn and greet the person who was just arriving. Relationships trump time. And it strikes me as being the far more Christian attitude.

I will note that when I slipped into the back of the church this morning, I was obviously entering a cold-culture institution.

It was a good reminder that we have a lot to learn from our neighbors. Instead of getting tied to our clocks, we should spend a little more time tying ourselves to one another.

Relationships trump time.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

dipping in the pool with jean-jacques

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are."

Old Jean-Jacques was on to something, but I am not certain he had the correct target.

We can all recite that Rousseauean bromide, and then we go on living it every day -- allowing circumstances to control how we react to the world around us. You know the syndrome. People who live in a everything-is-a-crisis world, controlled far more by the day's news cycle than the far more benevolent cycle of the sun and moon.

That apparatus at the top of this essay is a perfect example.

For a couple of months, my swimming pool has started looking more like than beach than a Moroccan-inspired patio accouterment. With all of the sand in the water rather than on the shore.

That was bothersome. But, it got worse. Because my well water is very hard, the sand picked up enough iron that when the sand collected on the pool's tiles, it left a tea-colored stain. My tiles were rusting.

My pool guy tried several conservative fixes. None worked.

So, while I was in the midst of preparing for my history presentation, he showed up with a crew of three to do some major re-work in the pool room that also serves as my bodega.

I would like to say the idea of receiving a free break from my work came as a relief. I did not see it that way. I reacted as if Chris Matthews had just told me that Putin had invaded another part of the world where the residents were not properly conducting Orthodox rites.

Refreshments would need to be made. I would have long conversations in Spanish about what was going to be done, why options were limited, and how my family was doing and would they be visiting this year. And, of course, there would be the innumerable trips to the local pool stores to purchase one piece of new equipment on each venture.

Attempting to do any work on my research project was going to be placed on hold for the unknown hours it would take to stick a finger in the sand dike.

The origin of the problem was the original positioning of the pool filter. The Canadian-Mexican builder placed it under the staircase leading to the upper terrace. It was beautifully tucked away from the rest of the storage room.

It looked great, but it presented a functional problem. The ceiling over the filter was too low.

The last time Lupe changed the sand, he had trouble extracting and re-installing the lateral assembly, that odd-looking piece of plastic in the photograph. In theory, the water passes through the extended arms in the filtering process. It is designed to send the water to the pool and leave the sand in the filter.

At some point, the assembly was torqued enough that spaces developed at the junction of the arms and the pipe back to the pool. Sand escaped faster than liberty-loving Venezuelans. It needed to be replaced.

And to prevent another breach of the assembly's prophylactic duties, Lupe suggested moving the filter from under the stairwell. That would mean losing more storage space, but it was truly a Hobson's choice.

After five hours of sawing, pouring, pounding, and grunting, the filter was located in a far more utilitarian location. It certainly is not a work of art like the original position. A strap and a brick hold up PVC pipes to keep them from breaking. But, at least, this version will work. I hope.

I still suffer from a northern mentality in some of my transactions -- especially financial -- here in Mexico. Five hours of labor and pool parts made my wallet start twitching.

I needn't have worried. The sand turned out to be the most expensive item at $1,250 pesos (about $65 (US)). The lateral assembly was $1,200 pesos ($63 (US)). It looks as if it would cost around $80 (US) in The States. Despite local lore, pool and car parts are not universally more expensive in Mexico.

The PVC pipe, glue, and other assorted material was $520 pesos ($27 (US)). And for five hours labor for four guys, the labor costs was $1,000 ($52 (US)). For a grand total of $3,970. My pool was up and running for the equivalent of just over $200 (US).

Knowing Lupe, I suspect he was going to give the full $1,000 in labor to his crew -- even though he did the lion's share of the work. Or maybe he knew me well enough that I would top up the wage. And I did.

When Lupe and his crew came through my gate, I had the option of seeing their arrival as an opportunity for me to learn something about my pool -- and as a gift in the form of essay material. I didn't. Even though I hid my annoyance behind the Mexican mask I have learned to develop, I went about my hosting tasks begrudgingly.

I would like to say that going through the experience, and now confessing to my failure, have guaranteed the next time I am faced with a choice as a moral agent that I will choose to take the more enlightened approach and welcome the gift the day has given.

Of course, I know myself well enough that my transmission does not shift that smoothly. I will still act as if I am one of those people who relies on cable news to tell them how to react to the world's vagaries.

But I will eventually get to where I should be. Up north, I am not certain I could say that.

So, here's to Mexico. It may not have made me a good person. But I think it is doing its best to help me let myself be a better person.

And Rousseau? He spouted a lot of nonsense -- accompanied by a few kernels of wisdom. On one thing he was spot on. We do need to take responsibility for breaking our own chains.