Saturday, July 31, 2010

a fair evening

Surprise!  I'm back.

The person most surprised is me.  I was resigned to spending this trip to southern Oregon sans computer.

But my brilliant brother saved the day.  By uninstalling some drivers, I fooled my computer into finding my wireless card.  At least, until the next Windows update.

I drove to southern Oregon with my mother on Saturday afternoon.  Earlier in the week, I tried to make reservations in Myrtle Point -- the nearest town to Powers with a motel.  Like Joseph and Mary, we found there was no room at the inn.  Or anywhere else in town.  It was fair weekend.

That was mixed news.  It meant we would need to find a room about a half hour away in Coos Bay, but I would be able to relive one of The Annual Social Events of my youth -- the Coos County Fair.

The lady at the motel offered to put us on a wait list, but offered little hope.  On the drive down, I called, and she was so impressed with my patience, she gave us a room that had been set aside.

So, we had a room.  Mere blocks from the fairgrounds.

One of the advantages of traveling with your mother (well, at least, my mother) is you get a guided tour of your life -- free of charge.  The fields where I wandered off as a two-year old, and the highway I walked down the middle of.  The restaurant where my aunt worked -- and is now a laundromat.  The site of our arsonist-targeted tire shop.

But that was the past.  We had a live bit of history to attend.  My mother and I are rodeo fans.  And the Coos County Fair has long had one of the state's best rodeos.

When we arrived, we could hear the crowd roaring.  But we also heard loud engines.

It turns out the rodeo was only on one  night -- Friday night.  Tonight was tractor pull night.  Not really our cup of entertainment tea.

So, we wandered the fairway.  Watched the kids on the rides.  Smiled at the teenagers trying to be adults.  Toured the art and photography exhibit.

It was OK.  But, like everything, it never quite lives up to our memories.

What we both noticed, though, was the absence of parental-hovering over children.  These kids -- of all ages -- were on their own.  All having a good time.  Not living in fear of some ill-defined threat to their existence.

It is the same attitude I see amongst Mexican children.  They look out for one another -- with little fear of life.

And both groups are creating some nice memories of their own Social Events of the year.

Tomorrow -- my reunion adventures in Powers.

Friday, July 30, 2010

offline for a few days

Computer problems.


My network connections have collapsed.  Literally.  All of my network drivers decided to go on strike at the same time.

But my sainted brother is doing what he can to get me back on line.

This weekend I am heading to southern Oregon -- to the fabled Powers.  They have an annual town reunion that I have never attended.  My mother has.  And she has talked me into making the trip south with her.

I had intended to take my lap top and report from the festivities.  But that is not to be.

I will be back on Monday.  With photographs.  I hope.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

looking through la ventana

"For now, I will continue to write as an outsider."

That line is from yesterday's blog. 
Brenda correctly pointed out that the sentence is replete with meaning.  All we expatriates write as outsiders.  Eternal observers.

At lunch earlier this week, we played a little game.  Which character in a book, film, or play do you most identify with?  Not, who do you want to be.  Who do you identify with.

For me, it was easy.  Since 1970, I have identified with Bobby from Company.  One of Stephen Sondheim's better productions.

The conceit is simple.  Bobby is a single guy unable to commit to any relationships -- except for his deep friendship with his married friends.  Five married couples with unique backgrounds.  The wives want to find him a woman.  The men want to hear about his girlfriends.

Of course, the subtext is layers deep.  On the surface, the plot revolves around the intricacies of marriage.  But it is a masterpiece about the complexity of relationships.  Where we find our worth.

Marry me a little,
Love me just enough.
Cry, but not too often,
Play, but not too rough.
Keep a tender distance
so we'll both be free.
That's the way it ought to be.
I'm ready!

The thing I missed most during the last year in Mexico was the network of friends I have developed over the years.  Ironically, I discovered I had started the foundation of a new network in Melaque when I broke my ankle.  Just as I was leaving for six months.

But the network up here is different.  Probably, because of it vintage.  Some of my friendships go back to grade school.

And most are couples.  But the type of couples you can be away from for a long time, but pick up a conversation as if you had seen them the day before.

They are always there for me.  Whenever I need them. For dinner.  For plays.  For sporting events.

And always concerned that I am somehow handicapped without a wife in my life.  At least, that is what my women friends believe.  The men seem to believe that Sondheim had it correct in answering the question: Are you happy being married?

You're always sorry
You're always grateful
You're always wondering what might have been
Then she walks in

But this is my favorite couplet from the same song:

You always are
What you always were
Which has nothing to do with
All to do with her

So, what does all this have to do with writing as an outsider? 

Relationships fascinate me.  But, just as I am an expatriate observer in Mexico, I am every bit an observer of married life.

And I am starting to wonder if both are immutable categories.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

blogging in place

We bloggers appear to be in a navel-gazing mood these days.

Or, perhaps, we are simply being analytically introspective.

Billie and Theresa have recently discussed changes in their blogs and talked about why we blog in the first place.

Felipe has blogged about a comment he received chiding him for the use of the term "yummie."  And it appears to be a topic of great interest.   As I write, there are 26 comments.  26!  Chatting about "yummie."

I started reading Mexico blogs about four years ago.  Back then, I was convinced that I was going to go native and live in a small fishing village on the Pacific, eating fish that I caught that morning.  Chacala would be my new home.

I do not recall how I picked Chacala.  I must have read about it in a tourist book.  Or maybe one of those airline travel magazines where someone has partially (and incorrectly) completed the crossword puzzle.

That is how I met Andee.  She had moved to Chacala in the same way that nuns enter convents -- renouncing the world to seek a simpler life.  (The change was not that drastic, as we were to discover.  Her life had long been based on the essentials.)

She blogged almost daily on My Life in Chacala.  It was the only blog I read, and each entry helped open my eyes to the reality of living in such a small place. 

There was joy.  She loved the village -- but she loved her Mexican neighbors even more.

But it was not paradise.  It was simply life -- in a new location.

I anticipated each of her posts.  Commented on them.  Emailed her.

At some point, perhaps on my trip to La Manzanilla, I realized I was not suited for Gilligan's Island.  After all, I don't even like fish.  So, I started looking at larger towns further south on the coast.

That is when I branched out to reading other blogs about Mexico.  I was surprised at the number -- and the wealth of information available from other expatriates' experiences.

I now read as many Mexico blogs as I can.  Over the years, I have added additional blogs to my daily fare.  The result is apparent from my blog roll in the right column.

This trip north has given me an opportunity to think about this blog.  I finally got around to a new design.  But the title remains unchanged -- for now.

Being separated from daily experiences in Mexico reminds me how much I am dependent on that type of immediacy for blog material.  At the moment, I feel like an outsider looking at my former home town. 

I have context to comment, but it is always based on memories.  Not new experiences.

For now, I will continue to write as an outsider.  Knowing that I will be returning to my home in just a few months.  Three, to be exact.

Until then, I need to find something as interesting as "yummie" to write about.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

monkey business

I mentioned the other day that I subscribe to Google Alerts for articles on Mexico.

Strewn amongst the minor earthquake reports and the hysteria reports of drug terror, I occasionally find an amusing tale.

I knew I had a winner with the opening phrase: "A man with a mysterious bulge under his T-shirt ... ."

Here it is.  Apparently, a 38-year old man boarded an international flight from Lima to Mexico City.  When he arrived, someone noticed the "mysterious bulge," and searched him.

And I thought I knew what it was.  Peru.  Bulge.  It had to be a cocaine smuggling operation.

Smuggling it was.  But not nose candy. 

When the security forces searched the man, they found 18 tiny (6 inch) titi monkeys attached to a girdle.

He told authorities he initially carried the monkeys in a suitcase.  But he decided to put them in his girdle "so the X-rays wouldn't hurt them."

For some reason, I found the juxtaposition of "monkeys" and "girdle" to be hilarious.  Monty Python at its height could not have written -- and performed -- a more existential script.

Of course, the story is not humorous.  The monkeys are endangered and two died.

What gives me pause is how anyone gets on an international flight begirdled with monkeys.

The answer is simple.  Airport security is more theater art than it is an effective tool against terror.  It creates jobs. 

And that is about it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

hot dogging memories

My trip to the zoo did not turn out as well as I had hoped.

But I know how to save any failing social event: comfort food.

Everyone has a favorite food place.  In my case, it is a drive-in: Lew's Dari-Freeze.  (OK.  I would prefer La Tante Claire in London.  But we are living in this world right now, Steve.)

I have been eating at Lew's for over fifty years.  The specialty: foot long Coney Island dogs.

That was not my specialty, though.  Mine was the chip steak sandwich (topped with sweet onions and a sauce of unknown, but magical, provenance) and a cherry ice cream soda.  I doubt anyone had even heard the word cholesterol -- let alone, triglycerides.

It was the perfect choice after any event -- at any time of the day. Collecting for my newspaper route.  Following a high school football game.  On my way home from a late evening college course.  No matter the circumstances, the first bite would set the world right.

Of course, it was not simply the food that made Lew's special.  Drive-ins are about relationships.  There was Lew (of course) and Evie and Dean.  Each one always knowing exactly what I would order.

When I returned to Oregon from my stint with the Air Force, the place was not the same.  Lew sold the place.  Evie retired.  Dean went elsewhere.

And my chip steak sandwich and ice cream soda disappeared from the menu.  Joining Jimmie Hoffa and Amelia Earhart in the list of missings.

But the classic remained: the long Coney Islands.  So, I switched.

As we were leaving the zoo, my friend Andy asked where I would like to eat.  Lew's would mean driving all the way across town, but he was a former aficionado of the hot dog.  So, off went.

You probably know where this is going because this will be my third post in a row about memories.  Once again, reality could not measure up to my memories of Lew's.

Even though candidate Obama discovered and praised Lew's during the 2008 campaign, my hot dog was not very good.

Perhaps, my body was telling me the inches I have acquired through lack of walking would not be helped by a wiener swimming in chile sauce.

But that was not the true nostalgia jolt.  I found myself missing Lew's laugh, Evie's advice, and Dean's dreams. 

And realized each of them is a part of who I was and am.

Even without a chip steak sandwich.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

zoo daze

"All the animals in the zoo/

Are jumping up and down for you."

Lame lyrics.  But they are a vivid part of my heritage.  Designed to compel children to hector their parents for a trip to the zoo.

It certainly worked in our household.

When I was growing up, the Portland Zoo was a big deal.  We moved to the Portland suburbs just as I was entering the fourth grade.  An age when a boy finds wonder in everything.

And the zoo was the biggest wonder of all.  To be mere feet away from animals that could crush or chew me provided a better adrenalin high than all the Twinkies I could eat.

The zoo of my early youth was one of those Victorian throwbacks where animals were confined in the equivalent of jail cells.

The star was Rosy, an Asian elephant.  She always seemed to be resigned to her life as an object of adoration and city pride.

In 1959, the zoo moved to modern quarters -- at the time, a world-class facility.  And with an additional set of new stars: penguins.  People flocked to see penguins at play and the result of the zoo's successful elephant breeding program.  Baby elephants were soon popping out one after the other.

The new zoo followed the modern standard of trying to creating more natural surroundings.  And more space -- for both the resident animals and the human visitors.

I cannot remember the last time I visited the zoo.  Probably in the early 1970s.

So, I jumped (or in my case, limped) at an invitation to visit the zoo last Sunday.  (Two earlier dates had fallen through.)

I would like to say it was a perfect trip.  It wasn't.  The weather was nice.  And the company was personable.  But not even Joe Biden could spin the zoo part of the trip into a good memory.

The zoo had a few new and interesting exhibits.  A bat house -- you can never go wrong with lots of bats.  A crocodile house.  A Pacific Northwest exhibition with eagles, bears, and mountain goats.

But almost all of the enclosures had a shop-worn look.  As if the zoo decided to reflect the state of the American economy in weeds and chipped paint.

That may be why the giraffe and hippopotamus had the thousand-yard stare of workers awaiting their redundancy notices.

Even the elephants and penguins appeared to have fallen on Norma Desmond times.  Big stars fallen.  The penguins appeared to be serving hard time.

Maybe I expected too much of the visit.  Or worse, maybe I counted on reality to live up to my memories.  A certain formula for failure.  My feelings toward animals is certainly different now than it was three decades ago.

But the visit was not a waste.  My ankle got a good workout.  And I had a good time with an old friend.

And maybe -- just maybe -- I will visit the zoo again.

In another 30 years.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

out of my dreams

Reviews are bipolar.

When written well, they are essay gems.  Their value: intrinsic.

But, when the bell is not rung, they are no better than the drunk's opinion at the far end of your neighborhood bar.

For the past four months, I have been a regular patron of one of those new "watch and eat" cinemas.  The type of theater where you can eat expensive, mediocre food while watching expensive, first-run films of varying quality.

The last month or so, I have seen trailers for Inception.  From the previews, it looked like another simple-minded vehicle to show off computer-generated special effects.  You know: another Matrix 2 and 3.  And I had little desire to see it.

On Sunday, I read a review of the film in The Economist that changed my mind.  The reviewer concluded that even though the special effects are stunning, the script is even better.

So, off I went on Thursday night to eat my sloppy Lawrence of Arabia sandwich and watch Inception.  The meal was not memorable; the film is.

If exposition in films makes you antsy, this is not the film for you.  The story is based around Christopher Nolan's infatuation with the humand mind -- especially, its memory function.  His Memento is a classic of the genre.  And without a good deal of actor talk-talk-talk, there would be no story to tell.

Nolan has crafted a story that keeps the viewer's senses honed.  Clues are everywhere.  But attention must be paid.


The tale is heroic and classic.  Odysseus simply wanting to go home, but faced, instead, with the challenges of his life.  Now, transport the quest from the Aegean to the human mind.

Our hero, Dom Cobb, is a master of extraction.  He can enter another person's mind and steal secrets.  But, he takes on an even more difficult task, to plant an idea in another person's head and have the person believe it is their own idea.  If he succeeds, he will be able to return home.

The script plays off of recent research about the mind -- and how little we know about it.  Too often, film makers create a world with apparent rules and then violate those rules with abandon if they need to take a short cut.

Not Nolan.  He respects his audience enough that if a rule is stated, he will obey its consequences, even if it complicates the story.  Just like life.

Nolan combines his clever writing with stunning visuals.  Each layer of the target's mind is represented by different locations.  And they all appear familiar -- because they reconstruct the manner in which we dream.

Because a lot of the scenes are in a dream world, they need to be created with computer graphics.  However, one major scene is a throw back to Fred Astaire's famous dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding

Using a gimbal-based set and wires, the actors appear to be fighting and surviving in a world where the laws of gravity have been amended.  In my opinion, that old visual trick is more effective than the computer-generated images.

The cast is perfect for this film.  Leonardo DiCaprio has always been a cerebral actor.  Far better suited to roles like this than his teen-throb attempts.

Nolan even plays on memory with his casting.  Everyone immediately recognizes Michael Caine.  But you can almost hear the audience digging through their memory trunks trying to recall where they have seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom, Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, and Ellen Page.  With great performances by each.

This is the type of film Matrix (and its progeny) could have been if the writers had realized at the start that the very concept of their film would negate its story. 

Inception is one of those films people will be buzzing over for some time. 

I am glad I listened to the reviewer.

Friday, July 23, 2010

through a lens darkly

She was from Canada.

A photographer on her first trip to Mexico.

I met her on the flight to Melaque.  We chatted.  Or she did.  I listened.

She was looking for The Shot that would sum up Mexico.  In truth, what she was looking for was A New Life.

Recently divorced, she was taking her first tentative steps in a new world.  Starting with Mexico.  A week of freedom. She was giddy with the prospect of seeing the Magic of Mexico. You could almost hear italics and the extraneous capitalization of nouns.

I saw her several times in the village -- usually from a distance -- stalking her prey in her own private Serengeti.

When we talked, she seemed to be trying too hard to have a good time. Everything was Perfect. The People were the Friendliest she had ever met. Mexico had touched The Center of Her Soul.

The last time I saw her was on a street corner where Villa Obregon fades into Melaque. She looked tired. As if she had spent the full week pulling on the green chain.

And she looked disappointed. She was about to return to British Columbia without her defining Mexican Moment.

The conversation settled into the general hum of small talk -- until she froze staring into the middle distance over my right shoulder. Jungle cats have that stare. Something was moving her way.

I glanced over my shoulder to see one of the local grandmothers decked out in widow black carrying a plastic bag brimming with vegetables. Topped off by an umbrella for shade.

I have seen hunters suffer from buck fever. Trembling. Grabbing at equipment. But the photographer topped them all.

"Where IS it? Where IS it?" She muttered as she searched through her beach bag.

She found her camera and raised it to her face just as the grandmother was about to walk past us.

But that did not deter her.

In plummy English, she asked: "Excuse me. Could you go back and walk toward us? I would like a Photograph." The last word had the same intonation a priest would have in saying: "Shroud of Turin."

The Woman With The Umbrella (as the photograph would have been known) would never enter the world of art. The grandmother looked bewildered, and continued on her way.

The photographer looked at me in exasperation: "These people are so friendly, but frustrating." 

I am not certain a few words of Spanish would have salvaged this vignette of cultural clash. But they would not have hurt.

Learning Spanish is essential for enjoying life in Mexico. Language is not merely a way to communicate. It is the foundation of culture. How people perceive life.

We all know people who claim to do just fine in Mexico without speaking Spanish. They often live in English-speaking enclaves and deal with English-speaking Mexicans. They may as well live in Scottsdale. Living in Mexico in spite of its culture, not for it.

Of course, the advocates of Spanish can overreach, as well. I heard a teacher extol the virtues of Spanish by arguing that learning the language would let you speak with over 450 million people. 

Well, not exactly. 450 million people may speak "Spanish," but they do not all speak the same language. Put residents of Mexico City, Madrid, and Buenos Aires in the same room, and just wait for the anecdotes -- while they wait for the translator.

But that is not the type of Spanish you need in Mexico. The best place to learn is from your neighbors. After all, those are the people with whom you want to converse.

Before I moved south, I studied several Spanish courses on my computer. They helped me get started. But I soon realized the people in my village do not speak classroom Spanish -- any more than my neighbors in Salem speak classroom English.

Unlike my experience in Greece, I discovered most of my Mexican neighbors, with a couple of rare exceptions, were willing to teach me -- if I would just make the effort. They were pleased to see I wanted to talk with them. 

I learned more Spanish from my first maid than I ever learned from a DVD. I also took a brief Spanish class in Villa Obregon to fill out my vocabulary.
The last four months in Salem have been deadly for my Spanish. Several words a day drop out of the memory bank. My Spanish has atrophied almost as much as my right thigh.

If I had it to do over, before I moved south, I would have spent more time on sentence structure and vocabulary -- and ignored some of the grammar. And, once I arrived in Mexico, I would have daily pushed beyond my comfort zone -- talking with as many people as I could.

Most adults have a fear of looking foolish. Language mistakes are near the top of the list for painting on our clown faces. 

I long ago stopped taking myself seriously. I make enough mistakes in English to stop worrying about making them in Spanish. The great thing about making mistakes in Spanish is that I get to have a good laugh with my neighbors -- at my own expense. But I learn more about me while I am learning about Mexico.

In three more months, I will be heading south. I hope I have retained enough Spanish to act as a translator for the next photographer who needs to give modeling direction to our local cast of charming extras. 

Or not --

Thursday, July 22, 2010

squirrely memories

I am in some sort of squirrel cycle.

I started to draft a tale about the squirrels in my backyard, and something in the back of my mind came to life.

That is not an inviting event. Eons of evolution have served me well. Some thoughts are best buried in the closet behind my medulla.

But this was a helpful memory. I thought I had written about squirrels recently. And, I had. Two years ago in
cirque back yard.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with squirrels. We all love them for their playful curiosity. Almost as if the paintings of those doe-eyed children in your grandmother's dining room have been reincarnated.

That's the love part. The hate part exposes the worst side of my personality. Where territoriality meets obsession.

Once upon a time I owned a red BMW convertible. A 325i -- to be more precise.

I have never been a car enthusiast. Driving from place to place requires only a utilitarian conveyance. But that car bent my own rule.

I liked driving it. I liked sitting in it. I liked almost everything about it other than the consistent wail of BMW owners -- service costs. Whenever I left the car at the dealer for the most minor of checks, I could count on a bill starting at $400.

Oops! There is a lie three paragraphs above. I did not "own" the car. I leased it. Because I had put far too many miles on it under the lease, I decided to start walking to work -- leaving my red beauty in my detached garage.

During one of my visits to the wallet-draining BMW service center, the mechanic called me back to the bay where my car sat with its hood propped open in true tectonic efficiency.

He wanted me to see what was missing from my engine. Every bit of rubber. Every bit of insulation on the wiring. Gone.

The gnaw marks left little doubt what the culprits were. Squirrels. Decorating their nests with Bavarian paraphernalia.

The repair bill was about $1500 or so. The exact amount escapes me.

What does not escape me is the fact that Jiggs and I went to war with the squirrels. Jiggs never liked them. To him, they were as bad as cats or rats. Not fit for his back yard. But he sensed a new day had dawned. Squirrels were fair game.

Like most vendettas, this one ran its course. The squirrels started reclaiming parts of the backyard. And I was once again amused by their antics.

I thought of the squirrel wars this week. With Jiggs gone, the squirrels are bold enough to play on top of the hot tub. Or gambol about in the yard while I am in the hot tub reading.

They do not even seem to be the same breed as the squirrels in Melaque. I have at least one squirrel that lives in the canopy in my back yard in Mexico. He is noisy. But shy.

I have tried to take several photographs of him on his unusual forays to the ground to gnaw on mangoes. If he spots any movement, he zips up the tree to the safety of his canopy. An instinct born of raptors, cats, and crocodiles, I suspect.

He is longer and darker than the squirrels in Oregon. Well-suited for his tropical life in the trees. If I have identified him correctly, he is a Colima Tree Squirrel.

When I return, I will see if I can take a good photograph.

Of course, while I have been up north, he has probably been stripping the insulation off of my Escape's wiring.  Squirrel justice, I suspect.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

one hand at a time

Felipe Zapata is a hard-nosed realist.

Even new readers of
The Zapata Tales quickly come to that conclusion.  He is the guy you go to if you want your answers straight up -- and accurate.

Like all labels, though, that one does not begin to describe the complexity of the Sage of Pátzcuaro.  Some may see him as a mixture of Andrew Jackson and Andy Rooney.  But there is a bit of Mother Theresa thrown in for leavening.

If you scroll down the right-hand column of his blog, you will run into information about Kiva -- an organization that makes micro loans to entrepreneurs throughout the world.

The process is very personal.  The borrower makes a pitch, and the donor chooses who gets the loan.  When the borrower repays the loan, it can be used for another loan -- or the lender can re-pocket it.

Felipe does far more than promote this worthy cause.  He has formed a
donor team to honor his son who died in infancy.  A very moving gesture to honor his son -- and to offer a hand to people who need just a little help.

His gesture touched me enough that I signed up almost a year and a half ago.  Since then, I have made 31 loans to small entrepreneurs in 17 countries on 5 continents.  All attempting to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Micro loans are turning out to be an incredibly effective phenomenon -- especially in underdeveloped economies.  They are a method to evade the restrictions of government-controlled economies -- the type of countries where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund end up helping only the ruling elite.

And the micro loans work.  Small businesses grow.  Families see their stake in life improve.  Of the 31 loans I have made, none have resulted in default, and 13 have been paid in full.  In a world of restricted credit, those results are amazing -- and heartening.

So, here is the pitch.  Kiva is a great organization.  If you want to have a part in making a small piece of the world a better place for some people to live, join up.

And if you want to join Felipe's team, I am certain he would welcome you on board.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

marie greive

Bad news is never welcome.  But it arrives, welcome or not.

On Monday I received an email from my pastor in Melaque that one of my expatriate friends had died.

Marie Greive was one of the first people I met when I started attending church at San Patricio by the Sea (photograph above).  Her husband, Cor, served on the church board and was responsible for arranging Sunday services when our pastor was away for the summer season.

Well, not just the pastor -- most of the congregants.  During the summer months our congregation would drop from about 140 to as few as 6. 

But Cor and Marie were there every Sunday. 

I would often see the two of them out for an evening stroll.  They would always stop to chat.  Marie would never fail to ask about Jiggs, and would then make suggestions on how I could make his life easier.  I didn't see it at the time, but her ministry was to me.  Trying to put my mind at ease for his inevitable death.

Marie was one of those women who forms the backbone of any organization.  Quiet, almost shy, in conversation.  But always very thoughtful and practical whenever she spoke.  In that sense, her Dutch heritage was evident.

She may have been thrifty with words, but she lived her faith.  When people needed assistance she was there.  But she was always conscientious to act within the cultural context of Melaque -- where she and Cor chose to live.

I am going to miss talking with her every Sunday morning about my posts for the week.  She was a faithful reader, always ready with praise -- and willing to correct me when I made a factual error.

But, more than that, I will miss her lessons on what it means to be a person of faith, living the gospels humbly and with open hand, minds, and heart.

We will miss you, Marie.

Monday, July 19, 2010

choice choices

I love book reviews.

Not in the same sense some readers of The New York Times Review of Books like reviews -- as fodder for faculty party banter.  But as a source of information.

Reviews should not be an end in themselves.  With the possible exception of Florence King's reviews that almost always excel the books she reviews.

A good review should be the equivalent of a suggestion from a friend.  Someone you know and trust, who can give you compelling reasons why you should trade hours of your life to read the recommended tome.

Of course, there is often a gem buried here and there in book reviews.  I ran into one Sunday night while reading The Economist's review of Renata Saleci's book: Choice.

The subject of the book is obvious -- choice in modern life and how they enrich and bedevil us.  The reviewer shared one of those common sense ideas -- an idea we ll know, but often respond with  knowing nods when we hear it: "She shows that in large chunks of life, the simplistic search for the perfect choice is not only impractical, but leads to misery."

That was merely the introduction to this little gem.  Just a diamond chip, but worth noting.
Marriage is one example  The search for the perfect partner is likely to leave you lonely in old age: violence and resilience are better bases for a happy companionship than trying to maximize your utility..

I will save all of you my parade of disappointment that stretches to the horizon by not comparing the observation to my benighted love life.  But the reviewer's point is certainly good advice for anyone considering a move to Mexico.

I receive several email each week asking me how to choose the perfect spot in Mexico for the writer.  Usually, topped off with a request to find paradise in retirement.

My answer is the same.  There is no perfect place in Mexico -- to retire or to do anything else.  Just as there is no perfect place in Oregon, Alberta, or Sussex.

But there are numerous places that are good enough.  As long as you are willing to exercise large measures of tolerance and resilience.  If patience is not buried in those attributes, I would add it to the list.

And I am about to use those traits in resolving an issue that has long plagued me in Mexico.

My part of Mexico is not well-known for its interest in books.  I have found that a bit frustrating because I love books.  During the past year, I have flown to and from The States about five times.  On each trip, I load up on books to take south.

But technology may have come to the rescue.  Several bloggers have been singing the praises of their Kindles.  Not Barbie's boy friend, but a small computer that downloads books and magazines, to be read on a paper book size screen.  No more book importing.  No more book toting.  No more missing magazines.

I should say I have been looking at a Kindle -- and its competitors.

As a service to other book-starved expiates, I am going to start looking  at each electronic reader in the hopes of, at least, giving you my review of each..

Because this is a matter of preference, I am certain the posts will engender some comments.  At least, I hope so.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

oil's well that ends well

I recently received an email from a friend who lives part of the year in Mexico.  She was very upset at the destruction that followed Alex as it blew through Monterrey and across the Rio Bravo.

Her suggestion for relief?  "Let Mexico pay for it out of its vast oil riches."

I run into this misconception quite often.  If Mexico has oil, it must be as rich as Saudi Arabia.

It is true that Mexico stumbled onto oil riches in 1976 when oil revenues started flowing in from the wells in the Gulf of Mexico.  What had once been a struggling economy had an opportunity to become a middle income country.

But those days may be drawing to a close -- soon.  Because the oil is running out.  And not the way the Macondo oil is running out. 

Running out as in tank empty.  Pull over to the shoulder.  You are not going any further.

And Mexico is in danger of seeing the tank start dropping to empty -- as soon as two years from now.  If not sooner.

Analysts have known for some time that Mexico’s biggest oil field, the Cantarell field, is in terminal decline.  As the supply declines, Mexico may not produce enough petroleum for internal consumption.  Within a year or two, Mexico may turn into a net importer of oil.  Almost as if Italy needed to import Spanish olive oil to meet its culinary needs.
The analogy is not that uneven.  Mexico relies on petroleum for its business structure -- and for social stability.

Mexico's electricity is fossil fuel dependent.  Almost 90%.  Even though the country has grand plans to reduce that amount by 25% with renewable energy sources, that day is far in the future.  After the wells run dry.  It is difficult to develop a middle-income economy without a power source.

More frightening -- Mexico's budget is oil thirsty.  40% of the country's revenues are provided by Pemex, the national (and nationalized) oil company.

President Calderón attempted several reforms to revitalize the oil industry.

Mexico has never had adequate refineries for the petroleum it produces.  As a result, most of the oil is refined in Texas and returned to Mexico.  The refinery in Mexico is almost a caricature of unions gone bad.  The rate of output is far below that of the Texas refineries.  As a result, the end cost is much higher than it needs to be.

When President Calderón attempted to reform the operation of the refinery and to allow foreign companies to assist Pemex in searching for deep water sites, the conservative forces in the House of Deputies bottled up the bill.

As a result, the oil runs dry, the refinery soon will stop refining, and Mexico will face a drastic budget crisis.

Even with the BP spill, Mexico is interested in developing the oil fields in deep water.  But it will need foreign assistance to explore.

Mexico celebrates the centennial of its revolution this year.  A revolution that resulted in a one-party state and the nationalization of its natural resources.

One party rule came to an end with the Fox presidency in 2000.

Maybe 2010 will see another step in that revolution as Mexico frees its economy to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Necessity may be the mother of invention -- even when ideology is involved.

Friday, July 16, 2010

stars over mexico

For the last three years, I have been a regular reader of Countdown to Mexico.

Paul and Nancy moved from Washington to Mazatlán with their dogs.  They were on their way south when I started planning my own retirement in Mexico.  But Nancy's posts on how she had planned their move were invaluable to me.  It was encouraging to know someone else had gone through a lot of the same issues I was facing -- including whether or not to include the dog.

I will never be as organized as Nancy.  But I did learn it was possible to survive the move -- and to thrive.

From time to time, Nancy publishes lists of new Mexico blogs she has run across.  Several of them have been true gems -- and are ensconced in the "Blogs I Read Regularly" column to the right.

When I asked Nancy how she discovered most of the sites, she directed me to a great tool in Google.  By entering a word or two, Google will daily search for blog entries that include the key word. 

By entering "Mexico" I regularly receives "Google Alerts" on topics ranging from earthquakes to football.

In the years I have subscribed to the service, I have not received a Google Alert for any of the blogs I read regularly.  That is until yesterday.

If my memory is not failing me completely, Nancy first introduced me to Garry Denness's Mexile.

Gary teaches English in Mexico City.  We have shared his adventures with turtles, photography, bicycling, getting married, and being an all-around good citizen of Britain living in Mexico.  His posts are always filled with new information and enough opinion to make you agree or disagree -- and feel the exhilaration that only comes with serious analysis.

Yesterday, he joined the star list.  Google Alert informed me he had posted on "Scientology in Mexico."  That was not news to me.  I read the article the day it was posted.

But there he was.  Prominently displayed in a Google Alert.  Between a post on the gulf oil spill and an analysis of Pablo Barerra's possible move to an English team.

The thrill was seeing one of our own with his name above the title -- as they say on Broadway.

Gary will soon return to England.  Or so he tells us.  Before he does, hop on over and take a look at his blog. 

And leave a comment.  Despite being English, he enjoys a nice intellectual tug and pull now and then.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

is a car a hat?

Yesterday, a reader sent me a link: "Is a blogger a journalist?"

It is an interesting question.  With practical impacts.

The traditional media began to implode years ago.  News channels have shifted more than the Mississippi delta.

The first big change was television news.  For decades, the anchors on the three broadcast channels ruled the news roost.  They determined content, tone, and perception.  If Walter Cronkite said it, that was what families discussed at the dinner table.

Cable television changed the news scene.  News now came from a variety u of sources.  Some with widely-varying views.

A similar change occurred with newspapers.  The internet offers a cornucopia of sources.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some unspeakably insipid.  As a result of all these news sources, the statistics on print newspaper readers have hemorrhaged -- even on the newspaper internet sites.

And may I mention the impact some blog reporters had on the 2008 elections?  I suspect former Senator Allen wishes voters had never heard of YouTube.

One source for new news is -- right here.  Blogs and bloggers.  What the communication professionals are now calling "community journalism." 

In some cases, bloggers join together as sources for a larger entity.  For example, amongst our Mexico bloggers, posts authored by John Calypso and Felipe Zapata appear on GlobalPost.

The author of the essay answers his question -- whether bloggers are journalists -- "[s]ome are, some never will be and an increasing number are reaching a point of convergence."

I like that phrase.  Point of convergence.  I thinks it means some of us in the blogosphere write what might be considered journalism lite.

Most of us are not journalists --in the newspaper sense.  We write about what we see -- filtered though our perceptions and interests.  At times, our only prime audience is us. 

If my blog was part of a newspaper, where would it be located?  Certainly not the news, sports, or the entertainment sections.  Maybe the editorial page -- sometimes.  More likely --part of a Sunday supplement.

Journalist?  Probably not -- for me.

Just put me down as a converger tapping out essays -- and marking time to get back to Mexico.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the big sunset

When I was in private practice, I had several clients who lived in rest homes.

Many of them had lived in large houses.  But the inevitable erosion of age had scraped away their personal possessions they once thought defined them.  Until they were often left only with a shoe box filled with greeting cards, letters, and photographs. 

The silt beds of what had once been a shining city on the hill.  Soon -- no city, no hill.

No matter what career heights they had scaled, each was reduced to that little shoe box.  Merely waiting for the day, they would have their final possession laid away in another box.

Mrs. Strang had been a neighbor while I was growing up.  A feisty Scot, she had an incredible mind for figures.  Not surprisingly, she had been an accountant.  I was in grade school when she and her husband moved to the house behind us.  Displacing the girl with red hair who had stoked my young fantasies.

The Strangs were retired.  Even then, they seemed old to me.  But incredibly active.  They always had time for a young guy who liked hearing tales of Scotland.

After he died, her arthritis became so disabling, she moved to a rest home.  I would see her as often as I could.  As her attorney.  But, more importantly, as her friend.

At some point during each visit, she would pull out a tattered memory and share its private meaning with me. I came to consider those moments my personal sacraments.  Sharing another person's life at its essential level.

She suffered a series of strokes that left her mind sharp but her mouth almost paralyzed.  I knew her time was drawing to an end, when she started pressing her mementos into my hand at the end of our conversations.

I thought about her last night -- as I was looking through some photographs from last July.  And indulged in that bitter almond taste of nostalgia.  What was going on.  How I felt.  Who I met.  Who I liked.

It made me feel a bit like Mrs. Strang.  Even though I am not in a rest home, my memories are starting to become more precious to me. 

Certainly I have lived more years than I have years in my future.  Unless federal medical care is going to keep me pumping along until I am 125.  And that is a prospect too grotesque to contemplate.

I have historically been a ruthless trasher.  If I have not looked at or used something in the past year, out it goes.  As I start sorting through some of my possessions in hopes of putting my house on the market, I find myself a bit reluctant to throw out everything.

Instead, I have started putting aside some greeting cards, letters, and photographs. 

All I need now is a shoe box.

Monday, July 12, 2010

no euros in bogotá

My friend Ricky is off to Colombia.

That is him at the top of this post.  On the left.  Ricky Campbell.  Acting in his role as impresario and
maître d’hôtel of the eponymous Ricky's.

A little context may help.  When I moved to Mexico last year, I read on the local message board that one of the hot night spots in Melaque was Ricky's -- a restaurant-bar well-known for his live entertainment.  Including songs by the owner.

But the place was closed for the summer when I arrived.  As dark as a theater during a stage hand strike.

I was walking by one day and saw a fellow toting some art pieces into the restaurant.  Because I am who I am, I stopped to talk and to give him a hand.  It turned out to be Ricky himself.

We talked a little about the area.  He then told me he would be starting Spanish lessons in a couple of weeks.  And that is how he became my Spanish teacher.

Now, you may be asking yourself how a fellow with a tartan-emblazoned name like Campbell could possibly be teaching Spanish.  That one is easy.  His name is Ricardo Campbell.  A native of Costa Rica.

Before I met him, he had been a life-long entertainer, survivor and hero in an airplane crash, and consul general of Costa Rica in western Canada.

He came to Mexico for a change of pace and opened Ricky's -- the kind of place where everyone knew your name.  Many of the friendships I have made in Melaque have been spawned at one of Ricky's tables.

Ricky's is no more.  He decided to close the place earlier in the year.

But Ricky's dancing feet cannot be stilled.  Costa Rica asked him to participate in a trade conference starting in Bogotá today.

The host organization is Mercusor (Mercado Común del Sur -- Southern Common Market).  A regional trade agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.  Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members.

Like its European counterpart, the organization began as an attempt to stop regional wars by improving trade within the South American market. 

In addition to the free transit of goods between the member states, the agreement envisions a common trade policy with nonmembers, coordination of macroeconomic issues affecting trade, and a commitment to enact national laws to effect the purpose of the agreement.  Like the Euro-dreamers, some South Americans envision Mercusor turning into a Latin Union.

And that is one of the reasons Costa Rica, through Ricky, is in Colombia.  Costa Rica would like to be a member of Mercusor.

Regional trade agreements, like NAFTA and Mercusor, can improve the economies of member states.  As long as the European bug does not bite too deeply.

But rather than dwell on what can go wrong.  We can wish Ricky well.

And perhaps NAFTA could start thinking about including the nations of Central America in its trade arrangements.  Growing economies is perhaps the only way to slow the pace of illegal immigration.

It's worth a shot.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

the other other lady

Music has odd effects on us.

For Anne Lamott, "music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath."

About two years ago, Babs told a story of losing her CDs.  Eventually, the discussion turned to music and sound quality: digital versus analog, CDs versus MP3.  Babs pulled us back to reality by pointing out that music was something to enjoy -- not to analyze and debate.

I could hear her voice today as I listened to Bernadette Peters sing Other Lady.  I ran across it by accident.  The last time I heard it was over twenty years ago.  And that is a tale in itself.

I was dating a woman at the time who was active in the theater.  We attended first night opening parties at least twice a month during the Portland season.

Like most local theater scenes, the parties were made up of almost the same group of people who seemed to move en masse from party to party.  What Stephen Sondheim calls "the blob."

We became friends with an actress and her boyfriend -- close enough that when they announced they were getting married, they invited us to attend.

Most weddings are staged events where people worry about things not going right.  The horror stories haunt brides.  As a result, most weddings are bled dry of any unexpected spontaneous occurrence -- and are about as interesting as watching paint dry.

I was hoping that a wedding of performers might be -- well, entertaining.  It wasn't.  There was the same predictable music announcing a pedestrian processional followed by the drabbest of Presbyterian vows.

But there were no errors.  No bits of excitement.

Until the reception, that is.

During the wedding, I noticed a woman sitting near the back of the church -- dressed in the brightest red dress I have ever seen.  When she was seated, a large portion of the congregation -- mainly the women -- turned and started whispering behind raised programs.  Looking like a group of southern belles sharing gossip with geishas.

I knew who she was, and I was surprised she was there.  Even though the groom and bride had been "cohabiting" -- the softer version of "shacked up" -- for almost two years, he had been seeing the lady in red on the side.

That was why we were all at a wedding.  He received an ultimatum from the bride.  We get married or I am out of here.  He chose the wedding.

So, there we were at the reception.  The band struck up a waltz.  The bride and groom danced -- beautifully.  After all, they were performers.  The various family members got in on the act.  Another tradition checked off the list.

Then the bride took the microphone -- announcing she had a special number.  No one was surprised, she had quite the pipes.  And certainly this was going to be a love commitment to her now-tagged buck.

But it wasn't.  I heard the opening riff and thought I knew the song.  Certainly not Other Lady.  A torch song about a wife wondering about the relationship between her husband and the other lady -- as if sung to her.

But that is exactly what she sang:

Do you ever, other lady,
As you're walking through your day
Think about the man we're sharing
Think: Which one of us is play?

You could have heard a pin drop.  Because the bride was looking directly at the lady in red.  Who shifted uncomfortably.  But occasionally looked the bride directly in the eye.

Do you see me in his eyes?
Do you feel me coming through?
Does he bring his scent in with him?
Does he have my funny smile?
The tension was thick enough to be a humid night in Acapulco.

Then, in a step only an actress could take, while singing, she stepped off the stage and started walking toward The Woman, as she had become in everyone's mind.

Let's be friends
There is nothing left to be
I have always known he loves you
You know he depends on me.

She then hugged her.

It was a show folk moment.  But it was pure grace in action.

It makes me wonder if Diana Spencer could have shown the same compassion toward Camilla Parker if the wives of Windsor might have been more merry.

Every fairy tale has an ending.  But this one is not so happy.  The women did not become friends -- even though they remained acquaintances.

And the marriage lasted only about six months.  At least, the woman in red was not the cause of the dissolution.

All of this made me think about Felipe's post last week about his family: No Brady Bunch.  He said his family was not a situation comedy "perfect" family.

I wrote him to let him know I was in the process of drafting a post about my family -- who had visited late last week.  A post that will wait until later in the week.

But my little reverie reminded me that life is often a lot more complex than mere entertainment would lead us to believe.  And it is that complexity that teaches us the better lessons of life.

For that, we should thank Lesley Gore for writing such an interesting song.

Friday, July 09, 2010

dew point perfect

Summer showed up in Oregon on its first date and proposed marriage.

No flowers.  No candy.  Just a demand to get hitched -- right now.

Nothing subtle here.

We usually have an easy transition in our weather during June.  The rains of May stop, the overcast starts clearing, and the temperature slowly increases.  By the second week in June, we start feeling as if we have survived another rainy season.

Not so, this year.  June was cloudy.  Sporadically wet.  Disappointing.

Whoever was dozing at the weather gauge must have been jabbed in the ribs earlier this week.  Because the dial jumped from Dreary Spring to Hades Light over night.

The state of my birth is not a stranger to heat.  But this past week has been a jolt.

We have had several days now with temperatures in the 90s.  You can see today's forecast at the top of this post.  We have benefited from the same heat wave that has engulfed the United States in its warm embrace.  Mother Nature's love can sometimes be smothering.

A couple days this week, we had higher temperatures than Melaque.  But I was far more comfortable here.  Our humidity was running about 18% while Melaque's was 75%.  And our nights have been picture perfect -- in the 50s and 60s.  My neighbors in Melaque do not get that sort of relief.

For me, this week has been almost perfect weather.

I just wish I could enjoy it.  Unfortunately, I have been experiencing this great summer in a hermetically-sealed office building with air conditioning.

But the weekend is here.  And it is time for me to get out there and enjoy what I like best about Oregon.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

living on pesos

I am not an expert on anything in Mexico.

At best, I have a few Cartesian experiences.  The type of life events that make me start wondering if I live in the same Mexico described by my fellow expatriates.

Let's talk money.

The first question my friends asked me about living south of the border is: How much does it cost to live in Mexico?  The question is a cue for me to channel my fifth-grade teacher.  "What does it cost to live in your home town?"

Of course, the response is disingenuous.  I know what they want to know.  Whether they can save money living in Mexico.

And that is easy to answer.

If you want to live with the same conveniences you have in your American suburban house, you might be able to save some money in Mexico.  But not much.

On the other hand, if you are willing to live as your Mexican neighbors do, you can cut your expenses -- a lot.

Comfort costs.  More comfort, more cost.  Fewer comforts, fewer costs.  As the scale slides up, the pesos start migrating out of the pocketbook.

I thought of that scale while reading another survey from the International Community Foundation: U.S. Retired Trends in Mexico Coastal Communities: Lifestyle Priorities and Demographics.  Hardly a title to keep you awake on a late Wednesday night.  But it makes some interesting assertions.

According to the survey, "44% of Americans residing in Mexican coastal communities were able to live comfortably on less than $1000 a month for household expenses."

I found both numbers astounding.  We are talking about coastal community costs here.  With over half of the respondents living in Baja -- not well-known for its low costs.

My experience tells me something is wrong with the figures.  Starting with rent.  Mine is $800 -- four blocks from the beach.  Telephone/internet is $32.  About the same amount for the maid.  Groceries run about $200.  Automobile expenses run about $300 a month.

And that does not include eating out, travels, and other related expenses like entertainment.  Obviously, I am not in the 44%  Not even close.

And I am not certain how many people really are in that category.  People have a tendency to underestimate costs when they try to calculate without bills in front of them.  And those who own their own homes do not have to worry about my largest expense: rent.

But there is another factor.  Expatriates love to one-up each other on how little they pay for anything.  No big ones that got away.  Not here.

It often reminds me of the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen routine:

Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.

You know the type.  Has lived in Mexico for 35 years on an FMT.  Has never paid more than 5 pesos for a meal.  Knows every village chief of police for kilometers around.  And was personal friends with Matisse while curating a Santa Fe museum.

But maybe that is just my experience.

Not everyone who claims to live on a small amount of money in Mexico is spinning a tale.  I know several people who survive solely on their social security benefits.  But they also live Spartan lives.  And they are constantly in danger of being ineligible for an FM3 visa.

I tend to fall in the middle of the comfort scale.  Being almost Aristotelian in my moderation.  So, I spend more than $1000 a month on household expenses.  But not a lot more.

When I return in November, I am going to keep a better eye on my expenses.  If for no other reason than being helpful in answering people who want to know how much it costs to live in a small Mexican fishing village by the sea.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

ballots without bullets

A robin may not a spring make.

But three consecutive blogs about Britain make me wonder where Mexico went.  According to the news, it is right where I left it.

On Sunday, Mexico went to the polls, for local elections, and sent a mixed message to its political leaders. 

Last summer the voters gave a vote of confidence to the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), at the expense of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), by almost doubling PRI's membership in the Chamber of Deputies.

This year the voters were not as generous to PRI in local elections, but the party of the voters' grandfathers -- the only party that mattered for more than 70 years -- held its own.

The only disturbing factor was the high number of political assassinations -- nearly 50. 

Mexico is not a stranger to political violence.  From its independence in 1810 through its 1910 revolution (and related subsequent violence), armed factions have settled scores without regard to ballot results.  Years of disorder that robbed Mexico of its economic powerhouse status.

That tradition was too evident in this year's elections.  A former presidential candidate was kidnapped and is still missing.  The leading gubernatorial candidature in Tamaulipas was assassinated.

Almost all of the violence has tracked back to drug lords in Mexico bent on punishing anyone not willing to protect their interests.  They will not accept the bravery of some politicians to challenge their operations -- or for those who double-cross them.

Despite the violence, Mexican voters turned up, chose between candidates of competing ideologies, and then accepted the results as being legitimate.

Mexico has a double centennial this year: for its independence and its revolution.  History has not been kind to Mexico.  But the country may have finally arrived by trading its violent political past for one-party authoritarianism, and then trading up to function as a liberal democracy.

Having said that, the drug violence will remain a challenge to the system until some brave leader steps up to stop the madness through legalization.

But that is a topic for another day.

For now, we can join Mexico in waving its flag in celebration of its working republic.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

tudor convertible

The weekend was special.

Sure, it was the Fourth of July.  Fireworks.  Picnics.  Sunburn.

But it was more than that.  For me, it was one of the first opportunities I have had, since I returned to Oregon, to sit and read.

One of the things I miss living in Mexico is the ability to walk into a book store and thumb through the new offerings.  I often end up buying books I would not otherwise read.

That was certainly true of the book I read this weekend.  The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notiorious Dynasty.  A Costco purchase.

I have a degree in history (with an emphasis on the Tudor-Stuart period).  Picking up the book was almost as preordained as if Jiggs ran across a tasty morsel in the park.

I almost put it back after a cursory peek.  The author is a generalist.  No academic background.  Not a biographer.  I have too often been disappointed with books like this.

But I bought it.  After all, David McCullough is a great biographer.  And he is no academic.

I should have listened to my first impression.  G.J. Meyer (the author of The Tudors) is no David McCullough.

The style is breezy enough.  I plowed through the 576 pages in less time than it takes to read the Sunday newspaper.  But Meyer's voice is everywhere in his narrative.  That would not too bad if he did not have such an anachronistic voice.

Of course, that is a danger in all popular biographies.  The tendency to write at a People level. 

But we read about historic figures to learn more about the human condition in its own context.  It is a little jarring to read about people who died 500 years ago and have the author judge them with contemporary economic, political, and social standards.

Of the five Tudor monarchs, Meyer devotes most space to only two: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.  The two English monarchs Americans can most readily identify.

He portrays one as a monster.  The other as an over-rated neurotic actress taking too many curtain calls.  Norma Desmond in a lace collar.  History as soap opera.

That is a bit unfair.  Meyer attempts to offer a few interesting insights into the Tudor age.  His best effort is the event most people associate with Henry VIII -- the creation of the Church of England with the king as its head.

As a protestant, I was taught Henry's action was the start of religious freedom in England.  It was not. 

Prior to Henry's reformation, the church was the only institutional not under the control of the state.  By dumping the pope, Henry made himself the sole arbiter of all power in his kingdom.  The prototype of every tin-horn Castro, Saddam, or Hitler who is too scared to allow any competing social institution to exist.

When I finish a biography, I ask one question of it.  What do I now know about the human condition that I did not know when I picked up the book?

In the case of The Tudors, the answer is -- not much.

But it would make a good first draft script for a Mexican telenovela.

Monday, July 05, 2010


Gary Denness, of The Mexile, caught me trying to slip an anachronism past you in yesterday's post.

I told you I put the British flag out on Independence Day.  I realize it sounds a bit contrarian.  And, of course, it is.  Especially, considering my general dislike of symbols.

But I have always had a certain fondness for flags.  That may say more about my attention span than I care to admit.  But anything flapping in the breeze will cause me to sop conversation in mid-sentence.

Over the years, I have collected quite a few flags.  When I am in the mood, I will pick a favorite and post the colors outside my house.  They tend to be great conversation starters with my neighbors.  Several years ago, I got into a long discussion about the proper pronunciation of Liechtenstein.

But, I digress.  That little alpine principality is not the topic of this post.  The British Jack is.

My flag is the modern emblem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  It is the flag you would see if the British prime minister came to your house for dinner.  Or not.  The British are not as banner-oriented a we Americans.

But it is not the flag that flew over the colonies prior to July 1776.

The flag in 1776, looked like the flag at the top of this post.  If you take a close look at it, it looks very familiar.  But something seems to be missing.  As if Bruce Willis had failed to wear his toupee.

And there is something missing.  Because that flag is the flag of Great Britain -- representing the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

It really is a lot like arithmetic.  So, let's set up the problem.  If you want to end up with Great Britain, you take the cross of St. George -- the symbol of the Kingdom of England:

And add it to the cross of St. Andrew -- the symbol of the Kingdom of Scotland.

What you end up with is the flag at the top of the post.  The flag Lord Cornwallis and the Howe brothers fought under in their attempt to keep tea as the American breakfast beverage.

All of that was to change in a few years.  The flag, that is, not the tea. 

In 1801, Parliament added another cross to the flag.  This time the cross of St. Patrick -- to symbolize the Kingdom of Ireland.  Of course, the "kingdom" has now been truncated to Northern Ireland.  But the cross remains ensconced on the current flag.

In our little addition example, if you add the three crosses together, you get the current British flag.  The one I flew yesterday.  The one with a cross too many.

Now, I knew all of this before I posted the photograph yesterday.  And, in the back of my mind, I knew someone (most likely Gary, if not Kim) was going to catch it.

Even so, it gave me an opportuinity for another post.  And that is never a bad result.

The Mexican connection?  Well, there is one.  Gary caught me.  He lives in Mexico.

Now, I need to get my Mexican flag out.  It has its own tale.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

prodigal patriots

Like a bad gossip, history is very good at telling us what happened.  Never very good at telling us why.

We know that Moses Rolfe moved his large family from Massachusetts to Vermont -- and then on to Canada.  To the recently-incorporated former French colony of Quebec.  The year is less clear.  But both moves followed the American War of Independence.

It is easy to forget that not all American colonists were avid supporters of the American Revolution.  And we really do not know exactly where the Rolfe clan came down on the issue.

They were part of the original group of settlers that came to Newbury colony in 1634.  Like their cousin countrymen at Plymouth, they came to America to escape religious persecution in England, and to worship as their consciences saw fit.  For almost 150 years, they settled and farmed in the northeastern corner of what would eventually become Massachusetts.

For whatever reason, they packed up their DNA and headed to Vermont -- and on to Canada.  Slipping back into the United States (through Minnesota) in the 1880s.

I have no idea what type of governmental documents they had for both international moves.  I suspect none.  That may be one reason I am not a big defend-the-borders advocate.  If they had been faced with contemporary bureaucracy, I suspect I would have been celebrating Canada Day last week rather than Independence Day today.

And that is why I am teling this tale of  Moses Rolfe.  He was, as the genealogists love to say, my fourth great grandfather on my mother's side.    As it turns out, my father's genes were floating around in the same Newbury pool.  Mixing with my mother's.  Like some Ozark gentry, I am my own cousin.

But this is not a tale about me.  It is about the men who fought in the American War of Independence.  I am glad the forces of independence won.  This experiment that is America would never have occurred if the Tories (a derisive term I picked up in my youth -- probably from watching Swamp Fox) had won.

If the Rolfes left because America no longer held the same promise for them as their ancestors who arrived in the early 1600s, we do know that one branch decided to return.  What lured them across the border into Minnesota, we will never know.  Maybe it was the balmy climate.

The point is, they returned.  Perhaps like the prodigal son -- seeking the ideals they originally sought in the 1600s.

What we do know is each subsequent generation produced men and women who were willing to defend those principles that drove them across the Atlantic in tiny ships.  Principles that would be articulated 150 years later: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Each Inependence Day, I put out the Union Jack in remembrance of my familiy members who may have retained an llegiance to the British crown.  For a while.

And then became American patriots to the core.

To them, and to you, I wish a very happy Fourth of July.  Where freedom rings.