Saturday, September 22, 2018

ransom iii

My trip to Manzanillo yesterday was a double clip job.

The one I told you about yesterday -- getting a spiffy Daniel Craig haircut at the Man Harbor (don't tell my mom) -- and a far more expensive (and less fulfilling) one at the Ford dealership.

I am not enamored with any dealership garage. As Felipe said yesterday: "They are more interested in replacing than in repairing." And that is true. Whether here or in The States. It just goes with the business.

Most expatriates in Mexico find a local mechanic to meet their car repair needs. After ten years, you would think I would have my own. Fortunately, other than repeated flat tires, I have not needed much mechanical help.

That is, until I hit the rock that fell off the top of a dump truck's load (moving to Mexico -- driving the demons). That was only a year and a half ago. What appeared, at the time, to be nothing more than a peeled-back wheel and shredded tire eventually turned into a series of suspension problems.

And it gave me a great opportunity to delve into the expatriates-supporting-one-another grab bag. I told acquaintances what had happened, and asked if they knew a reliable mechanic who could help. If there was more than one person making the suggestion, the other would immediately chime in about how the suggested mechanic was a robber and apparently had some parentage issues.

I tried one mechanic. That did not go well. The second mechanic re-did everything, and decided the best way to modify my front end wheel issue would be the liberal use of a hacksaw.

By the time both of them were finished customizing my SUV, I took it to the dealership. That was this last winter. My Escape slipped into the bowels of the Ford dealership, and I was not to see it again until I paid a Getty-sized ransom two weeks later.

But it ran fine. It almost felt like a new vehicle.

I fear my driving style in San Miguel de Allende last month may have caused it to have a relapse. The steering system made a terrible noise and was not very responsive.

Because of my last experience in Manzanillo,  I was reluctant to take it to the dealer. But steering is nothing to ignore. I can minimize a lot of things in my life. Automobile steering is not one.

I have yet to leave the Escape at the dealer without accepting the fact that it will be there until the garage doors are being locked in the evening. So, I spent the day walking around Manzanillo.

When I returned about 5, I was informed my car was fixed, but it just needed to be washed. 10 more minutes. After an hour, it was still not on the ready line.

Even after it showed up, the usual delay ballet began. All I wanted to do was to pay and leave. But that is not an option.

The Ford service department is worse than restaurants here who seem to be shocked when customers ask for the bill. The cashier then takes almost as long as the full meal to figure out the cost of the items consumed. As if we lived in that socialist paradise Venezuela where prices change every minute.

The customer representative wandered back and forth from the copier to her computer to the parts desk to the cashier. Finally, I had a bill to pay. And did. But it seemed rather low for all of the service I requested.

And I was about to find out why.

When I went to the waiting room to retrieve my fob, the same customer representative handed me another stack of papers. I could see by the descriptions in Spanish they all related to my steering problem. I asked her why I needed all of these replacement parts. She responded by reading the name of the parts.

I told her I knew what the parts were, but why did I need replacement parts? Glancing at the total, the same amount of money would buy me a first class airline ticket from Mexico City to London. Well, I might only be able to fly over the Azores before being ejected. But it was a fair amount of cash.

The woman and I had had a similar conversation on my last visit. I really do not blame her. She is not a mechanic. Her expertise is making customers wait when they should be on the road. And she does a darn good job.

Last time, she called in a salesman who could speak rather good English. He simply translated the names of the parts into English. I told him I knew what the parts were, but why did I need replacements? He said he was a salesman, not a mechanic.

So, I walked back into the shop with the list and found the mechanic. In Spanish and excellent English, he went over each part and told me why it needed to be replaced. I left satisfied.

This time, she called in a young woman to perform almost an exact reprise. The mechanic had already quit for the day.

I fumed in a pool of ignorance for about five minutes getting no answers to my questions. Then, I did exactly what she hoped I would do. I just gave up, pulled out my credit card, and signed over hours of my earned income to a business who has no idea how to lure customers back to buy another Ford.

The parts are supposed to arrive in Manzanillo in two or three days. I am not holding my breath -- as if I could for even that optimistic prediction. I will then drive once again to Manzanillo to get a repair I do not fully understand, and leave as an irritated customer. Or former customer.

Even though Hondas lack sex appeal, I may start plowing that field. In the very near future.  

Friday, September 21, 2018

don't tell my mom

It could not be that long.

Since I had my last haircut.

I remember having thought about getting one before I went to Disneyland for a friend's wedding. And when I flew north for my aunt's  memorial service. And when I went to appearance-obsessed San Miguel de Allende for the chamber music festival.

But that would have been March, May, and August. How would that be possible?

A swift look at Quicken told me the news. It really had been six months since my last haircut. 17 March -- to be exact.

I knew my hair had grown out of control when my neighbors and the San Patricio postmaster told me I looked like Donald Trump.That, at least was an  improvement over what my law school classmates called me when my hair grew unruly. They said I was a doppelganger for Charles Laughton.

I must have looked surprised each time the Trump comparison was made because, without missing a beat, my Mexican neighbors would add a defensive coda: "But, I like Trump." With an additional caveat:"He is a strong leader. Just like AMLO."

Now, I do not know if that was the Mexican avoidance of confrontation boiling to a masked surface. But, even though I was more surprised than offended, I do not want to look like The Donald. How about Brad Pitt? Or, with my recent weight loss, I would settle for David Niven. But, it was obvious the time had come to seek out a Delila.

While I was in San Miguel de Allende last month, the hills and cobblestones there managed to shake loose every bolt in my SUV. An oil tanker would have had more responsive steering than my Escape when I returned to Barra de Navidad.

So, off to the Ford dealer I took it this morning. That shop has one of the least efficient front desks I have ever encountered. And I have been in a lot of repair shops over the past five decades.

Once my car enters the garage portal, I will not see it until the end of the day. Or, as once happened, for two weeks. So, I knew I had plenty of time to walk the streets of Manzanillo on my 15-mile daily quest. And to get a haircut.

Manzanillo's upscale shopping mall (Punto Bahia) has a barber shop. And, as you would expect in an upscale center, the barber shop has an upscale name. Man Harbor.

I kid you not. A barber shop that sounds like a San Francisco bathhouse. With a name like that, you know your hair will not be cut by some guy named Red or Butch.

And I was correct. It was Dante (you know, like the Italian poet) who was to tame my mane.

The shop looked as if it could be an annex of Brook's. I almost expected one of the cutters to ask if I would like a gin and tonic while I read The Telegraph.

But, like most snarky first impressions, mine was wrong. The place proved to be just as down home as Bob's Barber Shop in Oak Grove.

Even though Dante was born and grew up in Manzanillo, he had just returned from living the past couple of years in Chile. We swapped South America tales -- especially about food. He did not like Chile's. We both liked Peru's.

The young receptionist joined in when she found out I had not been to a barber for six months. I do not need to get a lecture from my mother because the receptionist has already ticked that box. In full chide mode.

My conversation with her (and with Dante) was entirely in Spanish. And, no, I did not understand every word, But I understood every thought. And that felt good.

What felt even better is that I translated for another customer sitting in the barber chair next to mine -- a young sailor from India whose curly locks were baffling the other cutter. I almost felt as if I was starting to belong in Mexico.

Other people have said it better (and certainly more often) -- that it is impossible to fully enjoy Mexico without a smattering of Spanish. The more the better. Not learning Spanish is like eating the peel of an apple, throwing the rest away, and then claiming to know all about apples.

Translating may have made me feel even better, but what made me feel best was a compliment from the receptionist who shifted from style critic to sycophant without breaking a sweat. When Dante had completed his scissor cut, she smiled at me and told me I looked far better. "Just like James Bond."

That caught me off guard. She thinks I look like Sean Connery? That would be a first.

Then, I took the generation gap into account. I asked if she meant Daniel Craig. She responded: "That's him. Yes." She, of course, was certifiably mad with that comment. But, take that, Donald Trump.

And all of this entertainment cost me a mere $150 (Mx) -- or about $8 (US). A stylish cut and witty banter. The amount was about three times higher than what I pay in San Patricio. But both the trim and the conversation were a cut above.

The next time I need to have my hair cut, the Man Harbor will be high on my list. And it will not take another six months.

Who knows? By then, I might look like Donald Sutherland.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

exercising my demons

Like Willie Nelson, I am on the road again.

Several of you picked up on a clue I embedded in thread three of stirring the pot. In July, my doctor diagnosed one of those medical conditions that can be serious if not taken seriously. And when taken seriously, it is just plain annoying.

I say "annoying," because the cure is something we know we should all be doing. All of the time. Eating healthy and getting out of the house to exercise (or, often in my case, going upstairs).

Everyone loves taking pot shots at the American diet. It is easy to see why. As a people, we make fat targets.

You may think the OECD is just a nosy parker when it comes to education (taking AMLO to school). But the group is watching you in ways you never imagined. The 36 member richer-country organization keeps track of our cumulative weight. Its 2017 "Obesity Update" is larded with interesting morsels.

The United States easily tips the scales as the fatty rich nation. But it is closely followed by Mexico, New Zealand, Hungary, Australia the United Kingdom, and Canada. It almost makes you wonder if speaking English may have something to do with causing the scale numbers to spin like a slot machine.

But, the United States better not rest on its couch. Mexico is right on its slow-moving heels, and its rate of increasing girth is faster than that north of the border.

If you put the OECD list of obesity next to a list of diabetes prevalence, an interesting correlation appears.

That sentence is what a professor of rhetoric would call a distortion of numbers. The top 23 countries on the diabetes prevalence list are not OECD members, but they do have eye-watering rates of diabetes. It is not until we get to number 24 that the first OECD country appears.

And that country is Mexico -- with the United States in 43rd place.

No one should be surprised. The connection between obesity, diabetes, and the ingestion of a diet grouped around carbohydrates and other sugars has long been known -- for Mexico, think tortillas, for the United States think dinner rolls.

As long as I can remember, my doctors have told me to cut back on carbohydrates to improve my health. Of course, I chose not to listen. The pretzels and bizarrely-flavored potato chips were far too tempting.

Even though I knew intellectually that eating those carbohydrates would come to no good, the pleasure outweighed some future bad consequence. Yeah. I know. That is exactly what an alcoholic or methamphetamine addict would say. I heard that justification a lot in professional and personal conversations. But I never applied that common sense to my own life.

Several years ago, I was sitting on a couch with my mother at my brother's ranch watching a movie. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her glance at me and then look back at the screen. The next time she looked over, I asked: "What?"

In an eerily unmodulated voice, she recited in iambic pentameter like one of Macbeth's witches: "If you do not lose sixty pounds soon, you will die a terrible death."

I was somewhat taken aback as she swiveled her head back to the movie. "Oh, gypsy woman," said I, "Do you see anything else in your crystal ball?"

I tell that story not because my mother was correct (she was), but to illustrate a point about me. There is something in me that relates to the monarch in House of Cards: "I do not react well to bullying."

The most obvious example was the nurse Ratched in a Bend emergency room several years ago. I had gone to the hospital for unusually high blood pressure.

For eight hours, I was hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment while the medical staff pretended to be doing something. Occasionally, someone would show up to drain more fluids for additional tests. (It turned out that I had taken the wrong medication. But none of the highly-trained professionals caught it, even when they looked at my medication.)

Nurse Ratched would return repeatedly to give me a lecture about how I was undoubtedly diabetic and I needed to come to the altar of good health for salvation. When my brother asked her for the test results showing I was diabetic, she responded: "I don't need test results. I know what they will be. I can see he is diabetic." And here I was thinking I was jolly.

After about the seventh lecture, I told her: "My greatest fear in life is being seated next to someone like you at a dinner party who thinks that life can be reduced to a series of numbers." She left in a moral huff.

As we were leaving the hospital, my brother asked the nurse for the results of my blood test. She said, "Oh. They show no diabetes now. But I know you have it." Her approach was not persuasive.

Even though I know some people are extremely free with their advice (and some of it is good), I hear nothing if a sentence starts with "You need to --." My reaction is usually, "I need to live my own life and you need to mind your own business."

Of course, I do not say that out loud. I still have enough Canadian DNA in me that I sometimes opt for being nice over being frank. But, I suspect the expression on my face conveys the thought because there are usually no follow-on suggestions.

I am also never persuaded by political arguments when it comes to health -- even though they may be positions I hold myself. Politics simply is not a guiding passion for me.

Tirades against "big government," "secret cabals," "the medical-industrial complex," "monopolistic food practises," "brainwashing by big business," "evil pharma" may be true in some form or other, but none of that is going to persuade me to eat more healthily. That rhetoric may motivate some people. I am not one of them.

My friend Leo was the first person who discussed health with me who understood what motivated me. He had reduced his weight to his high school level by changing his daily diet and walking four miles each morning.

I ate the wrong foods because they gave me pleasure. I had so bought the "live in the moment" philosophy touted as Mexico's gift to humanity that I started living that meme cliché that frequently litters my Facebook account: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up,totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: 'WOW! What a ride.'”

Leo was wise enough to point out that revising my daily diet and regular exercise would be fun. Healthy food can be good food. He remembered I was a good cook. I could find lots of ways to be creative with healthy ingredients that would keep me interested in sticking to a new way of eating.

As for the exercise, he started me out on his daily walks. He knew me in college, and knew that I enjoyed solitary exercise. Back then, it was running.

He was correct. Walking is fun. Even though I may get a bit obsessive with it.

So, I am now eating better. I am regularly exercising. During the past four months, I have lost in excess of thirty pounds (well below the demands of the Gypsy Woman, mind you), my blood pressure is that of a fit twenty-year old, and my blood sugar is normal. At the suggestion of Nancy over at Countdown to Mexico, I am experimenting with intermittent fasting (a 16-hour program) to break through the weight loss plateau I have been on for the past month.

As we were warned in the original Star Wars, "The Jundland Wastes are not to be traveled lightly."

If I ever become one of those zealot converts who constantly pushes their new lifestyle into other people's faces, please call me on it. Or just put me out of my mercy.

This is my second attempt at altering my diet (the most important part of enjoying my new life). And it is sticking. Probably because I have a good incentive now to make it work.

If you see a grizzled guy with a white beard singing on our local walk paths, that is not me. He is Willie Nelson.  I will be the guy walking along at 4 MPH enjoying life in Mexico.

A lot more. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

welcome to kanagawa

You might think I have transported you to TitiPoo.

And those sandals belong to three little maids from school.

If that is what you are thinking, you must think I live my life in a Gilbert and Sullivan bubble.

The sandals are mine. Earlier in the week, they were three sets of sandals on their way to the garbage. That is until Joyce (of Rooster's fame) told me there was a man in San Patricio who was a magician at breathing life into dead soles.

I particularly like this brand of sandals, but they are not available in any of our local stores. The problem is the thong. It must not have been designed with puddle-ridden streets in mind. I should have realized that when all of the advertisements show the sandals being worn by men wearing ecru linen pants.

Repeated dousing tends to weaken the leather. And the thong breaks. Usually on one of my walks when I am two or three miles from the house, and I have to trudge home like one of Napoleon's privates retreating from Moscow.

That is what happened with two of the three pairs. The sole on one sandal of the third pair separated during a walk. I sounded like a semi driving down the freeway about to throw a recap.

For some reason, it is always the right sandal that dies. That took away the option of salvaging one unmatched pair. Instead, I left all six sandals with Our Man of Sandal Sorcery.

Three days later, I had three pairs of rejuvenated sandals. Glued, sewn, and patched into a semblance of utility.

I say "semblance" because what I had been a comfortable leather thong was now a piece of canvas that has the gentle caress of hopsack. As prone as I am to blisters, I suspect those sandals will not get much use. The re-soled pair appear to be fine.

I forgot one thing when I dropped off the sandals. I should have remembered to tell him "No paint." I still have not adjusted to the fact that footwear left for repair will almost always be returned looking like a freshly-painted barn. In a shade that is slightly reminiscent of the color of the sandal when I last saw them.

The problem is fine leather and paint are a terrible combination. The paint sucks the moisture out of the leather leaving it looking like a wealthy Arizona widow who spends too much time golfing.

I told my tale of woe to a Canadian friend who insisted I look at the bright side: "They did not cost much to repair." And she was correct. The repair bill for all three was $320 (Mx) -- about $17 (US). The price of a lunch. And about 10% of the cost of buying a new pair.

But, as I told her, since I cannot wear them, it is like that old Woody Allen joke: "Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know; and such small portions.'"

Maybe I need to invest in a stack of linen pants. That way I can wear the repaired sandals on the patio and never leave the house. 

And that would save me a lot more money.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

steve's clip joint

The weather is often like your favorite basketball team. Slow to start the season.

Our rains would easily qualify as the Portland Trailblazers. Our summer storms usually start around mid-June. This year, they have been slow in coming. But they are here now.

We have had a series of glorious thunderstorms in the night that have delivered humidity-relieving rain. The respite has been complete enough that I have turned off the air conditioner in my bedroom. In September. The hottest of our months.

If you have landscaping in the tropics (which I do), the combination of the rain and heat will stimulate the survival instinct in plants into it's now-or-never-to-grow (which it has). Apical meristems shift into high gear.

You already know the setup of my patio. Pool in the center. House built around the patio. Four planters with trellises to offer privacy for each of the four bedrooms. And in each of those planters are vines -- called by some "cup of gold" (though that name seems to be applied to about 5000 other plants in Mexico; popular names are -- well, popular).

When the architect chose the vines for the planters, she made a good choice. They grow quickly and they provide thorough privacy. But, as we all know from life, strengths harbor weaknesses.

The fast growth makes the vines unwieldy -- without a bit of gardener persuasion. Like kudzu in Alabama, they will eventually slip the surly bonds of their trellis and take over the rails on the upper terrace. Rudyard Kipling could have learned a few imperial lessons from this lot.

Taming the landscape is my job. Every two weeks I have to pull out the stepladder and hedge clippers to fight back nature's urges. Off go most of my clothes before I head off to two to three hours of battle with the vines -- whose sole defense is a latex that soon stains my hands and body until I look like a Comanche warrior.

I have tried hiring young men to help me trim the vines. It never works out.

The conversation always starts with why I have the vines in the first place. They do not provide fruit. Why waste space and time? "Because I like them and they provide privacy" is never a sufficient answer.

Once we move past the raison d'être of this odd northern passion for plants that have no purpose other than eating up leisure time, there is the problem of explaining the job.

Apparently, I am terrible at assigning tasks. Or, at least, that would be my conclusion from the results of the two times I hired help. 

I left the first guy on his own after I told him I just needed the tops of the vines trimmed back. That was a mistake. Leaving him on his own. When I returned, he had cut the vine down almost to the ground.

Learning from that lesson, the next time I hired help, I demonstrated what I needed. This time, I worked on another vine, while he worked on his.

There is an art to cutting vines. Because the tendrils will join together from different directions, it is important to not leave cut orphaned vines on the trellis. Otherwise, you have a trellis filled with dead strings that will drop dried leaves into the pool. Of course, it is far easier to simply cut and leave the dying vine in place.

The second cutter did not share my concern for what the plant would look like in the future. Within a week, it dropped more leaves in the pool than the British dropped propaganda leaflets on Nazi Germany.

As a result, I am now a solo vine harvester. And yesterday was a perfect day to tackle the task. Sunny days are great if you are sitting by the pool writing essays. They are not the best choice for gardening.

The sun was obscured by clouds, and there was a soft mist in the air -- something more akin to Oxford than to summer rains in Barra de Navidad. I had trimmed the vines when I returned from San Miguel de Allende late last month. But the rains had provided me with guaranteed employment.

I usually do not climb the ladder unless someone else is in the house -- preferably in the patio. I have lost a couple of friends to ladder falls. My regular schedule is to cut when Dora is here on Wednesday and Saturday. But the day was too perfect to let safety get in the way. Fortunately, Omar did not work yesterday morning.

While I am trimming, I often wonder if it is worth the effort. I suspect that is just another part of our basic human nature to avoid the Oughts in favor of the Wants. At those times, I wonder if the guys I hired in the past may have had it right. Maybe we northerners are nuts to populate our property with tasks that have so little apparent value.

I wonder that until I am done. When I climb down from the ladder, the combination of the black latex and the green leaves haphazardly stuck to my nearly-naked body make me look as if I am auditing for the role of Puck in a college production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But the newly-tamed vines actually look tidy. And worth a couple of hours sweating in the tropical heat.

Even if I could find someone to cut the vines in an approved manner, I would want to keep the job for myself. There is something fulfilling about maintaining one's own home. Doing man's work -- if we are still allowed to say that, and I would anyway, whether or not it is allowed. because it is simply true.

I always have a slight concern in the back of my mind that I will become incapable of carrying out my life (like the Afrikaners under apartheid) if I stop doing what I can do for myself. That, of course, does not include doing windows.

Now, that the vines are trimmed, I need to do the same for my hair. It has not been trimmed for -- well, it is more than two weeks.

But that will be a tale for later.

Monday, September 17, 2018

taking AMLO to school

Let's talk about education.

Last month, while opening a discussion about the recent appearance of American gas stations in Mexico (going mobil), I mentioned Mexico's president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has made the elimination of government corruption the keystone of his agenda. There are two areas, said I, where he could start -- PEMEX (the state-owned oil monopoly) and public education.

Several of you commented that you understood the problems with PEMEX, but you were surprised I would equate public education with the oil poster boy of dirty hands.

Mexico is filled with horror stories of the state of public education. I have discussed several in the past. Teacher union officials siphoning funds. Teachers holding several positions and not showing up to do any of them. Student teachers more interested in political agendas than in improving teaching methods. Graduates from rural high schools heading off to  university completely unprepared for college-level courses.

Rather than thrash through that trash again, let me share some startling numbers. After all, what we usually end up discussing is anecdotes -- when the facts are even more startling.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a club of mainly-rich nations. 36 nations to be exact. Mexico is one of them.

Periodically, the OECD conducts an international test of students in reading, mathematics, and science. The test is known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).

The last one was conducted in 2015. To be generous, Mexico's students performed abysmally. In science, the OECD average was 493; Mexico's was 416. In mathematics, the averages were OECD 490, Mexico 408. In reading, 493 and 423. That puts Mexico well in the bottom percentile in each category.

My first thought was that the use of averages must mask the fact that Mexico has an elite group of students who score well while leaving their peers behind. But the numbers say otherwise. Mexico has one of the lowest differences in the OECD between the top 10% scores and the low 10% scores.

It appears Mexican students have discovered egalitarian mediocrity. That is apparent in the reading scores. In most OECD countries, girls far outscore boys in reading. The difference is not as great in Mexico. It s not quite what people have in mind when they talk about closing the gender gap.

In Mañana Forever?, Jorge Castañeda noted that Mexicans are strong individuals, but they are not good team players. Anyone watching Mexico's football team in this year's World Cup
 understands exactly what he meant.

The PISA picks up on that theme. In collaborative problem-solving, Mexican boys rank 42nd out of 50. Girls 44th.

But, Mexico excels in one area. The students were asked if they felt confident to accurately complete tasks in science. These are the same students who were ranked 63rd out of 69 countries. They were so confident of their ability, their self-belief ranked 10th out of 69 countries.

For me, the answer to that question is what gives me hope for Mexico's system. Most of the students I know think they are excellent. And they very well may be. It is the education system that is failing them.

There are plenty of models for Mexico to follow. The 1 September 2018 edition of The Economist included an article on the education system that consistently ranks first in the PISA -- Singapore. Mexico (and other countries) would do well to use Singapore as a benchmark. Or Finland. There are plenty of systems to be copied.

I wish AMLO well on this one because it will be the true test of his desire to root out corruption in Mexican government. Until it is fixed, Mexico is handicapping its future.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

got independence?

The flags are unfurled. Uniformed boys are inartfully blaring trumpets. School children are toting machetes and muskets.

Either Mexico is preparing to take back the orphaned southwest from the Americans (the profaning "foreign enemy" of Mexico's national anthem) or Independence Day is upon us.

I know it is the latter because I attended the kick off last night in San Patricio -- el grito. The Shout. All over Mexico, citizens gathered in town squares to listen to their political leaders repeat the words that may or may not have been spoken 208 years ago.

It all began with a criollo catholic priest, Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor. Or Miguel Hidalgo, as we know him. Even though a priest, he had an eye for women, shady business dealings, and gambling.

The church did not take kindly to his lifestyle. In 1803, those transgressions (plus his heretical beliefs on matters theological and political) got him exiled to the small parish church of Dolores.

It was a bad move for the church. Hidalgo met other criollos (people born in Mexico of Spanish parents) who were dissatisfied with Spain's rule and the social restrictions placed on anyone not born in Spain. They had a better idea. If the United States could free itself from Britain, and France could cut off its king's head, why should Mexico not be free of the Spanish king?

This was not the stuff of 3 AM dormitory chats. The conspirators started preparing an armed insurrection. But, like most secrets held by more than one person, this one leaked. The Spanish authorities mounted up and were on their way to arrest the conspirators.

Even though the conspirators were not fully prepared, legend tell us that the womanizing priest transformed himself into a national hero by rushing to his church on the morning of 16 September 1810 to gather the people for mass. There, he rallied his parishioners to the cause of Mexican independence with what has come to be known as el grito de Delores -- The Shout of Dolores.

No one knows for certain what he said. There are about as many versions as there are people who tell the tale. But, they all end with the same phrase -- "Death to the Spanish!" Modern politicians drop that line. After all, Spain is now a friend of Mexico.

But, in 1810, that is exactly what happened. Once the floodgates of revenge were opened, the massacres were appalling. The Army officers who had joined the rebellion were scandalized. The most horrific was the slaughter of 500 Spanish men, women, and children who had taken refuge in the granary building in Guanajuato.

Things did not go well for the rebels from that point on. El grito may have transformed the priest into a Mexican national hero, but, ten months later, the church and the Spanish authorities transformed him into a corpse. His head, along with those of three other rebel leaders, hung on the four corners of the Guanajuato granary for ten years as a warning to any other restless colonials.

The war would not end until a Mexican-born general of the Spanish army, Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu, decided to switch sides. When he entered Mexico City on 27 September 1821, the war was over. He would have himself crowned emperor of Mexico eight months later. And, less than a year later, he was deposed. Eventually, dying in front of a Mexican firing squad.

For years, there was a debate whether independence day should be celebrated on 16 September (honoring the work of Hidalgo) or 27 September (giving a nod to Iturbide). Depending on whether the liberals or conservatives were in power, each day has had its advocates (1810 or 1821?). Sometimes, both days were celebrated in the same year.

You may have noticed something odd when I was discussing el grito. Hidalgo did not deliver his address to the people until the morning of 16 September -- at mass. Then, why do all of those smug politicians deliver it at midnight on 15 September? Because of the smuggest of Mexican politicians.

José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori was president of Mexico from 1876-1880, 1884-1911. No one will be offended if we call him what he was. A dictator. And, like most dictators, he had a very high regard for himself.

15 September was his birthday. What would be so wrong, if the clock was moved back a few hours to let the dictator share in the glory of national goodwill?

Hidalgo was happy transforming himself into a national hero. Porfirio Diaz was satisfied with nothing less being transformed into Mexico itself.

I cannot think of Porfirio Diaz without thinking of this film clip from one of my favorite movies (Moon Over Parador -- with Sonia Braga; I was once married to her, you know: steve spills a secret).

Well, this is not an essay about Porfirio Diaz. It is my homage to Mexican independence. Whether you prefer 16 or 27 September, the "death to Spanish" exhortation eventually worked.*

Happy independence day, neighbors.

* -- If that "death to the Spanish" bothers you, a lot of nationalities get their turn in the barrel. The French on cinco de mayo. The British and Canadians on Revolution Day. And, of course, as I already mentioned, the Americans when the Mexican national anthem is sung. Poor Mexico has had a long list of abusive lovers.