Saturday, February 28, 2015

filling the well


"Do you ever run out of ideas for your posts?"

It was Ed the Artist, whose works now make my house a home.  We were having our usual Friday morning breakfast at our secret restaurant.  I am certain, as an artist, he has had dry moments himself.

I told him: "Not really.  It seems that whenever the well runs dry, something happens to deliver a story on a silver platter to me.  Like this morning."

We call that an anecdotal transition -- because I am about to tell you about yesterday's silver platter experience.

I have told you about my series of mishaps getting in and out of my old courtyard.  My new Escape has several scars (and replaced parts to prove it).  When I started looking for a house to buy, one requirement was a wider front gate.

Well, "requirement" might be the wrong word.  The garage doors in the house I bought are considerably narrower than the house I left.  I cannot get the Escape through the gates unless I fold in my mirrors.  (They now remain permanently folded -- lest I forget.)

The narrow gate* and my lack of depth perception are not a recipe for maintaining the once-pristine appearance of my vehicle.  When Darrel was here, we devised a foolproof method to avoid mishaps.  It would have been foolproof if I had not been the fool driving on Friday morning.

I had plenty of time to get to breakfast.  Rushing was not a factor.  The trick of getting in and out of the garage is keeping the wheels straight.  Simple.

As I was backing up, I saw some movement on my left.  The wind was blowing that garage door shut.

One of the first rules my Dad taught me when I was learning to drive should have come back to me.  It did, but too late.  Whenever you turn your head, you will steer in that direction.  In reverse, of course, the rule works just as well -- but the direction is opposite.

And I proved my father to be a wise man.  The right front fender caught a 1/2 inch piece of metal on the garage door's locking mechanism.  What you see is the result.

What you don't see is the bent metal on the garage door.  I skewed it far enough that I could not lock the door when I left.  Fortunately, a big hammer and some Mexpatriate muscle fixed the door when I returned home, laughing at my folly.

The fender will require the ministrations of my ever-faithful body man -- Cruz.  He has been the cosmetic surgeon on my past failures.  He jokingly suggested I might consider buying an ATV.  As my former secretary Jamela was prone to say: Many a truth is said in jest.

But all of that will have to wait until after my week-long visit with my Air Force pal Dennis.  He arrives on Sunday to enjoy the new house.  It appears that my walled compound may turn out to be a draw for visitors.

I am certain Dennis and I will encounter sufficient adventures to keep Mexpatriate's well from running too dry during the next week.



* --
See Matthew 7:13.

Friday, February 27, 2015

the marilyn munro cotton show


She plays the role of matriarch in our family situation comedy.

But none of the television moms even come close to matching my mother's strengths.


To flesh out that claim, I started to list some of the television moms we have come to love over the decades.  It would have been like shooting metaphorical fish in a simile barrel.

The reason is easy.  They all lack the most important quality my mother possesses.  She is real; they are not.

Today is her birthday.  Number 87.  She has no trouble with me sharing that number.  Unlike some people, her cup of self-confidence overflows.  Age is something to wear with pride, not to be feared.

I have missed most of her past six birthdays because I have been in Mexico, and she has been elsewhere.

This year was different.  I took her out for a birthday dinner the night before I left.  It was a nice change of pace to be able to spend the day with her.

But, with her presence, I can be thousands of miles away and still enjoy her company.

Happy birthday, Mom.  I have enjoyed the ride with you.

 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

and they were new trousers


My friend John and I have had a long-running discussion about the nature of humor -- and the dangers of using it.

And not just the most obvious danger -- that too many people spend their days looking for new ways to be offended; inevitably finding comfort in the humid embrace of moral indignation.  The type of people who clutch their pearls in horror at the mention of “breast” -- even if it was once attached to a Rhode Island red, or who suffer fits of the vapors when confusing “racial” comments with “racist” sentiments.

No, our usual targets are the people who Just Don’t Get It.  John and I have labeled them as the Literalists -- the people who fervently believe that words can only have one meaning (the preferred meaning of the Literalists) and who distrust “funny” people who abuse words and twist them into something they just do not understand.  Their patron saint is Margaret Dumond.* 

I have run into them often.  At work.  During training sessions.  At church.  During meals.

Sometimes I think it is cultural.  Let me give an obvious example from my part of Mexico.  Americans and Canadians seem to work from completely different palettes when it comes to bringing down the house.

But nothing like the differences I have encountered with my Mexican acquaintances.  Mexicans love being funny -- especially with puns. 

My Spanish is not adequate enough to fully appreciate the word play.  But, even when the word tension is explained, I do not have enough cultural awareness to appreciate the expertise at work.

That experience helped me appreciate an experience Rob Long (an American screenwriter) had with a French acquaintance.

“You know what I love so much about the American show Friends?” a French writer once asked me,  “I love the dialogues,” he said slipping back and forth between English and French.  “Les dialogues sont  drôles! J’adore les dialogues en double sens!”  “Ah, yes,” I said.  “In English we call them double entendres.”

He looked at me funny.  “That is not English,” he said.  “That is French.”

”Yes,” I said.  “I was making a joke.  Because in English we use the French term.  And so I thought it was funny to say that a French phrase was an English phrase because … well …”

I trailed off.  He looked baffled and utterly lost.  My (admittedly weak) witticism was lost somewhere in the gray zone of French humor.  It was nether boldly scatological nor a simple play of opposites, so it as rejected by the rigid and often robotic French funny bone.
That brings me to the title of this essay.  John’s family background is Swiss German.  Based on blood, he claims to have a particular insight into national humor.

He once summed it up thus.  “My German relatives find slapstick humor hilarious.  The acme would be a well-dressed businessman slipping on a banana peel, falling down, and tearing his trousers.  A coda of ‘And they were new trousers’ would bring down the house.”  (John's theory is backed up by the
German Institute for Humour in Leipzig.  I kid you not.)

I thought of that gag on this trip.  One of my shopping stops was Costco to buy a pair of black Dockers.  I am tired of searching out the rare dry cleaners in Mexico for my wool slacks.  So, I thought, cotton would solve my dilemma.

Rather than packing my new pants, I decided to wear them on the trip back home.  Between Bend and Portland, I managed to poke a hole in the left leg (my telephone is the prime suspect).

For some reason, I failed to see the German humor in the situation.  Probably because I tend to get my yuks with droll metaphors comparing Greek philosophers with Melaque street vendors -- humor that is far more fragile than French scatology.

So, here I sit with a hole in my pants and a punchline dangling somewhere out there in the ether.

Maybe I should simply be glad to be back home.

And that is not a laughing matter.


* --
The Literalists are not to be confused with people who have the discernment to sniff out bad humor, and react accordingly.  Of course, most Literalists think they are members of that group.  They aren't.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

abducted, but not forgotten

This is the photograph that will appear on CNN when I am abducted by Islamic terrorists.

That is the test I use whenever I sit for a passport or visa photograph.  Some people (and I know a few of them) consider passport/visa photographs to be the equivalent of wedding shots.  They want to look their nicest -- no matter the purpose.

I will admit to a bit of the same vanity.  On my trips north for the two years after I moved to Mexico (and lost 30 pounds within three months), the people manning the immigration desk in Los Angeles would ask me how I had lost so much weight. 

It has been years since I heard that.  For obvious reasons.

This photograph is the one I chose for my Red China visa.  My brother and I had a hearty laugh about it.  But there is a method in my madness.

Let's assume that some organization kidnaps me in China.  When the authorities start looking for me, I do not want them toting around a suit and tie photograph.  I want the photograph to look as if I had been held in a dark basement for three months with nothing to eat but cockroaches and rats (even though that sounds more as if I had been nabbed by the Havana police).

I also have an ulterior motive.  The first thought I had when I saw the photograph was that it looked like Nick Nolte's DUII mug shot.  The authorities might not put much effort in looking for Steve Cotton.  But, for Nick Nolte -- ?

And there is one other aspect of the photograph that appeals to me.  I look vaguely like one of those Chinese government officials who has just confessed to some thought crime against the Party, and, having been rehabilitated after feeling utter shame, am about to be elevated to the upper rungs of celestial communist heaven.  Come to think of it, that may be a mixed blessing.

Whatever my reasons, I am rather fond of these not-quite-my-best photographs.  It may also explain why I do not bother with head shots of other people here at Mexpatriate.  Most people do not share my things-could-be-better school of photography.

Either way, the Red Chinese accepted my photograph along with my application.  I am now free to enter the Middle Kingdom whenever I like during the next ten years.

Ten years.  That is even a better deal than Mexico offers.

Today I am on my way back to the house with no name in Barra de Navidad -- to spend almost two months in residence before the Red Chinese and I test each others' limits.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

happy contrails to you


This trip north is almost over.  But last night will be one of those evenings I will store away in the journal that is shelved between my ears.

My mother invited me to dinner.  She lives about a mile away from my brother's house, where I have been staying.

Because I do not get much exercise on my trips north, I almost always walk over to her place.  I have mentioned before one reason I continue to write these essays is the impetus to look for The Story as it happens around me.

Last night was one of those walks.

The weather in Bend has been sunny and clear.  That makes the evenings a bit crisp.  Crisp enough for this guy that he even felt a bit cold.  That was understandable when I heard the weatherman report the low was headed toward 15.

The combination of the cool, dry air and the clear sky was a perfect background for one of my favorite sights.  Contrails.

Richard Nixon may have had a dream: "I see another child tonight.  He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of far away places where he'd like to go."  For me, it was airplanes. 

When I was a child we would drive out to the airport to watch the planes come and go.  I knew that I would one day be on one of those planes.  Going somewhere.  Anywhere.  But going.

I cannot see contrails now without thinking of the dreams of the people who were in the airplane that left that trail of water vapor in the cold evening sky.  Are they on their way to some far-away place with hemorrhaging sunsets?  Or are they ready to be back home?

Of course, asking those questions of a contrail is worse than talking to oneself.  Focusing on the contrail is like focusing on memories.  The adventure is already miles away as we stand looking at the sky.

But maybe that's the point.  By focusing on the motion of the airplane, we often ignore what we leave in our wake.  A mother standing in 1944 London looking at a V-2 contrail may have a far different take than an overly-sentimental pensioner standing in the middle of a Bend housing development trying to make some sense out of a confusing world.

The world does make sense, though.  I had a very nice dinner with my mother reminiscing over tales and discussing her intentions concerning a move to Mexico.
 
Last night, J.K. Simmons, upon winning the Oscar for best supporting actor, admonished the audience to
"call your mom.  If you're lucky enough to have parents or two alive on this planet, don't text, don't email.  Call them on the phone tell them you love them.  Talk to them for as long as they want to hear you."

It was the best advice I heard during the entire show.

He was correct.  Those of us who are still lucky enough to have a parent living need to take full advantage of each opportunity to say: "I love you."  And: "Tell me more."

I do not do it often enough.  Mom, I love you.

Without her, I would never have learned to look into the sky to watch the contrails and to dream that one day I too would be living my adventure.


Monday, February 23, 2015

a wasted night -- almost

Did you watch the Oscars presentation last night?

So did I.  If you didn't, you undoubtedly spent your time far more wisely than did I.

I was about to entertain you with an essay on my oh-so-droll observations about last night's show, but, I fear, my well ran dry. 

Just as well.  What can you say about hours of self-indulgence, self-delusion, and self-promotion?  Well, that has not already been written.

But, even with all of the wallowing and posturing, there was one moment of true glory.  Who would ever have guessed that Lady Gaga could channel Julie Andrews's performance in The Sound of Music without a hint of irony -- and then introduce Julie herself to the assembled cinema celebrities?

Sometimes, there really is a pony in that pile of manure.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

climbing the cliff


Mexico has freed me of most of my obsessions.

Please note:  I said "most."  Unfortunately, one has been exacerbated.

I have two programs that regularly provide me with information about people who peek in on Mexpatriate.  Not the type of information collected by NSA agents, who know everything about my internet wanderings.

All I know is the country of readers -- and how long they hang around this rather tame neighborhood.  It gives me some vague idea of who is out there.  What it does not tell me is how many of those readers enjoy or hate what they find.  I hope it is the first.  But I can live with the latter.

But one chart has always baffled me.  It is the raw page hits for my daily essays.  That is it at the top.  The chart purports to tell me the trend for the past five years of readership.

If Mexpatriate were a commercial venture, I would be sitting down with the board of directors to make some sense out of this odd painting of the Alps.  With soaring heights.  And plunging valleys.   

Such as, what happened in February of last year with its noticeable drop in page hits?

The good thing about not being a commercial enterprise is that such questions simply do not matter.  Nor do the answers.

I long suspected that I could artificially increase page hits with essay titles that would titillate -- take naked youth, for instance, where I raised this same question.

That was six years ago.  And I know little more about my readership than I did then.  I did learn that creating salacious titles does nothing to affect readership.  I suspect that internet cruisers have become inured to such come-ons.  (Except for the rather odd emails I received from several Middle Eastern countries.)

And, as I have learned in so many other areas of my life in Mexico, the number of hits simply does not matter.  Nor does the relative trend.

I write because it gives me an opportunity to better focus on each day.  I am constantly looking for the hook of the hour.  And to enjoy the moments as they occur.

Because I believe Marcel Duchamp was correct (
art is never finished until a viewer looks at the piece and interprets it), I share my essays with you.

Thank you for being part of that process.  No matter where you are on that chart.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

fifty shades of gray


No.  I am not sinking to the level of writing about the pedestrian novel and movie that is now turning some women in Britain into ale glass hooligans.  The whole phenomenon is little more than the Deep Throat of the 20-teens.

Nor will this essay be about Oregon's new governor with her self-description of bisexuality.  "I have a foot in both camps."  And, apparently, a third foot firmly lodged in her mouth.

Those topics are far too easy targets.  Not to mention they are tiresome.

The title stems from a far different source.  As I was driving to and from Portland yesterday morning, the weather in the northern Willamette Valley took a noticeable turn from its partly cloudiness.  A series of gray clouds crunched together like a weather traffic jam over the Cascade range.

Normally that would mean snow in the Cascades -- and my thoughts turned to getting back to Bend before I ended up snowbound on this side of the range.  (If you want to edit out the drama queen portions of that sentence, it means I might see a few flakes in the air on my drive to Bend.)

But I decided to stay in Salem to attend a movie I have wanted to see since I heard it came out.  Into the Woods.

Anyone who has visited Mexpatriate even occasionally will know that I am a big fan of Stephen Sondheim's work.  Into the Woods is not one of my favorites, but I am still fond of it.

Re-working stage plays for movies is a tricky business.  They cannot be transferred in whole because the conventions of live performances and movies are not compatible.  I give you as examples the film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A little Night Music

Both were pleasant stage plays.  They were disasters on the screen.

The big exception is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Tim Burton performed a miracle in finding the core of the play and then building Sondheim's music around it.

I am pleased to report that Into the Woods works.  The book centers on the Cinderella story, but builds on it with some familiar fairy tales (little red riding hood, Jack and the beanstalk) and an original piece that seems familiar (the baker and his wife).

Parading the Jungian archetypes against obvious sets works on stage, and the audience can indulge the conceit that what we are seeing is a psychological drama transpiring in one -- or several -- heads.  That device does not work as well on film.

Rob Marshall managed to do it, though.  The world outside the woods is filmed naturally -- making some of the singing seem a bit too precious.  But, when the characters enter the woods (of their minds), they walk through a proscenium arch that would made F.W. Murnau proud.

Because I know the score and book from the play so well, I constantly had to fight not to compare the movie with the stage play.  And I only partially succeeded.  The movie cuts several songs that did not propel the story.  Most of the decisions were wise.

But several cuts left the second half of the film bereft of its existential message.  The catharsis that the baker experiences in "No More" is central to the show's theme.  Without it, the conversation he has with Jack about punishment ("It's not that simple") seems ungrounded.  As does Little Red Riding Hood's concern that her mother and grandmother would be disappointed in her for murdering a giant ("
But a giant’s a person. Aren’t we to show forgiveness?").

The strength of fairy tales is in their morals.  And that was the greatest strength of the stage play -- even when Sondheim opened himself to charges of moral relativism with lines like: "
Witches can be right, Giants can be good./  You decide what's, right you decide what's good."  (Even though I would argue that a moral absolutist still relies on a moral agent to choose wisely.)

So, after all the academic mumbo jumbo, did I like the movie?  Yup.  And I would recommend it.

If you know the play, leave most of that knowledge at home.  If you think you would be offended that the "magic bean" theme (that tied the piece together musically) has gone missing, you should not see the movie.

Because it does have shades of gray, it is a great piece for viewers who like to take out their adult sophistication for a little exercise.  With today's lot of American films, it tends to get a little flabby.

 

Friday, February 20, 2015

once upon a time


If you sit next to me on an airplane, be prepared for a full Steve experience.  Discovering the deepest secrets of my fellow passengers is one of my hobbies.

Several years ago, I sat next to an older woman on a flight back to Manzanillo.  She had lived most of her life in the San Jose area of California, and loved to travel.  Somehow, our conversation turned to post cards.  We both detested the custom.  But she told me something that has stuck with me ever since.

Whenever she heads off on one of her world trips, she buys souvenirs for her nieces.  Not t-shirts or spoons or tea towels.  She will pick out knickknacks here and there.  A stone ring.  A feather boa.  A piece of amethyst.

When she returns to San Jose, she boxes up the pieces and mails them them to her nieces with instructions to compose a play using each of the collected pieces.  She was quite honest in assessing the project as a mixed success.  Some of the plays are rather
blasé and pedestrian.  But some are quite creative.

She reminded me of my mother and grandmother.  They started reading to me when I was very young.  As a result, I have both a love for reading -- and for writing.

That is why I am off to see my grand-nephew Colin today.  And I will not go empty-handed.  You may have already guessed that the box and contents at the top of this essay are about to become his.

Everything is from Mexico.  The wooden box.  The turkey vulture feather.  The raw topaz.  The green obsidian.  The black obsidian.  I thank my mother for the addition of the pirate swag bags.

Inside the box are instructions written on parchment.  And here it is.


As the great conqueror Hernán Cortés lay dying on his bed in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Castille, his former companion La Malincha quietly entered his room.  He had last seen her over 20 years prior.

Back then during the height of the Conquest, they were inseparable.  She was his interpreter and his advisor.  Without her. Nueva España would not be part of the Spanish Empire.

In her hands, La Malincha carried a wooden box.  Not the type of ornate boxes in which Cortés stored the deeds to his Mexican estates.  It was a plain wooden box.

She placed it next to his bed, and told Cortés: “ Ah, mi terron de azucar.  We have come to the end of our journey together.  Before you precede me on your greatest adventure, I have one last thing to share with you.

“This box is not yours.  It includes the mysteries of Mexico – secrets you were never allowed to possess in this life.  One day the box will be delivered into the hands of a young boy.  If he can, he will solve the puzzle that is my land.



“The box will leave with me, and I will never see you again.  But the mystery of Mexico will continue.”

With that, she left the room.  The box was then lost to time.

Until today.  It now comes to you.

Inside you will find five simple treasures.  Alone each means little.  Together, they tell a tale.

And it is your tale to tell.  If you choose to solve the mystery, you must first identify each individual element, and then combine them in a story, a song, a poem, or a play, that you will share with your parents.

Keep the dream alive.
No matter what he chooses to do with the box and its contents, I hope he will remember it as a gift of opportunity -- to share the joy I once had learning to be creative on the knees of my mother and grandmother.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

storm warning


I hate driving on snow and ice.

I told you that on Tuesday.  But I wanted to remind you.  After all, you are busy people.

Yesterday I set out on my drive to Salem to complete the second most important part of my visit north -- signing tax documents in my capacity as the trustee for a family trust.  I hope this is the last year I need to make the trip.  Even though I suspect next year will be a repeat of the same drill.

When I left Bend, the weather forecast was for a sunny trip across the Cascades.  Of course, forecasts in mountain ranges are notoriously wrong.  And when I saw the clouds moving in over the Three Sisters (the same clouds you are looking at), I thought I had been euchred.

I had just finished reading Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm.  Larson almost always writes accounts of disasters that make you feel you were -- and wish that you weren't.  In this case, it was a tale of how the newly-founded U.S. Weather Bureau completely missed forcasting the Galveston hurricane of 1900 -- resulting in a stunning loss of life.

But I was wrong.  Completely wrong.  The weathermen were correct.

Other than those clouds, the skies on the trip over were as blue as the skies of Seattle promised in that Bobby Sherman song.  I couldn't have asked for better weather.

This is what I saw at the 4000 foot summit near the Hoodoo ski facility.



It may as well be May in the Cascades.  Usually, there are several feet of snow piled along the highway.  The road should look like a luge run.  Instead, it feels like a Sunday drive in the country.

And that is bad.  Despite Oregon's rap for being a rainy state, it is still a Western state.  That means summer droughts.  Droughts that are usually relieved by melting snow packs. 

But, if there is no snow pack, there is nothing to melt.  It is the equivalent of a farmer eating his seed corn.  Or a soldier firing his last bullet.

At least, I did not have to contend with snow and ice.

I suspect Darrel will not be so lucky.  When I headed west, he headed east.  And the forecasts in his hand were far more unnerving than mine.  If you have been listening to the news this week, you know what he is facing once he gets to the east slope of the Rockies.

For sheer thrills, I wish I had joined him.  But I would not have been much help as a relief driver.  That ice and snow thing again.

I wish him well.  Christie and he need to move to Mexico before these winters capture us forever.



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

escape from bend


The Shiftless Escape is making a guest appearance on Mexpatriate.

When I arrived in Bend last week, my brother asked me if I was ready for another road trip.  There is only one answer to a question like that.  Yes!  Even though I had just finished one of the best road trips of my life -- with Dan and Patty.

Darrel's step-daughter lives in Virginia, where her husband is in the military.  Her car, as Darrel puts it, is on its last tire.  Coincidentally, her birthday is at the end of this month.

After Darrel put a bushel full of dollars in countering the Escape's deferred maintenance, it is running like a first-line used car.  And it will make a perfectly utilitarian birthday gift for his step-daughter.

But you have already seen the problem, haven't you?  The Escape is in Bend.  His step-daughter is in Virginia.  A lot of country separates those two points.  Almost all of the country.  (Here is a bit of trivia.  The distance between Bend and Virginia is almost exactly the distance between Melaque and Bend -- the last road trip starring the Shiftless Escape.)

Darrel had planned on making the trip starting this Thursday.  That is where I came into the picture.  If I had my Red China visa in hand and had signed the trust tax documents, I could accompany him on this race across the country -- and still be back in Barra de Navidad on 25 February as I had planned.  And it looked as if the conditions precedent were on a timely track.

Then, the weather decided to play a wild card.  If you have been watching the news, the eastern half of The States are covered with ice and snow.  And it is not getting any better.

Now, I have no concern about being in a vehicle on snow and ice -- just as long as the vehicle is being driven by a competent snow and ice driver.  That is not me.  I like my driving conditions to be spring-fresh.  So, my presence on the trip would not rise above color commentary.

Darrel is currently readjusting his plans to steer through as much favorable weather as possible.  He will be joined on the trip by one of his friends who was with us on our Baja 1000 adventure a year ago.  (sea to shining sea)

I have mixed feelings.  I will not miss the opportunity to be in a vehicle driving hours on end at 15 MPH over icy roads.  But I will miss spending time on the road with my brother.

He needs to get down Mexico way -- where driving is a sport never impeded by snow. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

bending the signs


Margaret Mead visited my college campus in the mid-1970s.  I can still see her slowly making her way across the quad looking like a Tolkien wizard.  Becaped.  Rustic walking stick.  She was everything an anthropologist -- or fiction writer -- should be.

I often feel as if I am Mead (absent the eccentric accessories) when I head out on my shooting expeditions to uncover the heart of mini-cultures through their public signs.

Take Bend.  If you think of it as one of Oregon's old cowboy towns, you would be half-right.  It is also half-yuppie.  Mainly Californian yuppie.  Giving the town a rather bipolar social and political personality.

It is the type of town where half of the population can support gassing Canadian geese that foul the footpaths, and the other half of the population will show up to have a candle vigil for "the surviving geese companions and families." 
(what's good for the goose)

That is why the sign at the top of this post is not surprising.  Oregon was a pioneer in legalizing medical marijuana.  Last November, the state joined Washington and Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana.  The county where Bend is located voted in favor of both initiatives.
 
Bend is filled with medical marijuana retail shops.  What they are waiting for is 1 July 2015 when the floodgates of legal pot open.

Make what you will of this combination.  (I love the speakeasy-esque last line.)




But Bend is not only about recreational drugs.  It is a place that loves its animals.

I initially mis-understood this sign.  The cart is sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant (in a "no parking" zone).



On first glance, I thought it was advertised containers to can cats.  Instead, it combines two Oregon -- bottle deposits and content pets.

In the restaurant, we ran into a bit of old Bend.



The slogan ("9-1-1 takes too long.  I re-load faster") was on the back of a hoodie worn by a young man.  Perhaps, in his twenties.

He was there having breakfast with his wife and their four children.  It was perhaps one of the most wholesome families I have seen in some time.  There are true advantages in the freedom of the west.

Bend is surrounded by ranch country.  When I saw this sign, I automatically thought the elementary school conducted a regular hay class, but it was cancelled.  And that someone could not spell -- or ran out of the letter "s."



Until I saw the other side of the sign.


I should have recognized it was in Spanish.  But I have been away from Mexico for too long.  Except in Taco Bell where I embarrassingly slip into Spanish with ease.

Or how about this license plate that puts the "vanity" into vanity plate?



It should be mine.

But this is undoubtedly my favorite.  It pretty much tells us which political strain predominates in Bend.  At least, amongst the elite.




I fully understand the anti-smoking crusade.  I am not a fan of having smoke blown in my face.  I will leave my libertarian comments concerning the impact of regulating the behavior of a free people for another day.

But take another look at the sign.  The last word in the blue portion.

"Campus?"  I know the word has become trendy.  Like "iconoclastic."  And both are recurringly misused.

"Campus" refers to
the grounds and buildings of a university or college.  In this case, the whole city is referred to as a campus.

And what does that make the citizens on this campus?  The students?  With the politicians and the bureaucrats playing the role of "faculty and administration?"

That is hardly a great model for a republic.  What is wrong with "Tobacco-Free City?" 

But, there I go again, decking myself out in cape and walking stick.  Margaret Mead would be shaking her maned head.

If I recall correctly, getting away from soapboxes (and the need of having them) is one reason I moved to Mexico.


Monday, February 16, 2015

auditioning for our gang


My tribe is small.

Dad was an only child.  That made his side of the family a rather short branch.  But not a barren one. 

There was a passel of great-aunts and uncles.  And a few cousins near my age.  For whatever reason, they seemed a bit distant.  At least, in consanguinity.

My mother came from a moderate-sized family.  Three older siblings -- one brother and two sisters.  The Munro kids.  (My mother's name is Marilyn.  You can do the math on that one.)

My uncle Wayne never married.  You met him in let my people know.  If you click on the link, that is him on the far right.

Over the years, you have met most of the rest of the cast.  My mother's two sisters are Naomi and Berneice. 

Naomi has two sons: Dennis (who I accompanied on our southern European cruise last May) and Gary. 

Berneice has three children: Marsha, Dan (who I joined on our trip through Mexico last month), and Robin.

That means Darrel and I have five first cousins.  If the Mexican citizenship folks discover my deficiency, I will undoubtedly be asked to leave the country.

When we lived in the mountains of southern Oregon, we saw Marsha and Dan often.  (Robin is several years younger.)  They lived in the big town of Myrtle Point -- what we called "down below."  I would say that they lived just down the "holler" from us, but we were mountain people, not hillbillies.

We did not see Dennis and Gary much back then.  They lived in exotic places like Hawaii, Long Beach, and Seattle because their father was in the Coast Guard.  When he retired, they settled in Portland.  My parents had moved to Portland a decade earlier.

For a brief period, Dan, Dennis, and I attended college together.  About a year, I think.  We then went our separate ways seeing one another only occasionally.

I am not certain when this photograph of the three of us was taken.  Or where.  Or during what.



We appear to be at a restaurant or a hotel conference room.  What is obvious is that I have slapped a supercilious smirk on my face.  Over the years, it is a simple task to identify me in photographs.

Dan brought both of these photographs along on our trip as family tribute.  I am glad that someone has kept these little gems.

Marsha was in Bend this past week.  It is the first opportunity, in a very long time, I have had to sit and reminisce with her about our several battles and far more numerous good times over our lifetime.

I suppose it is a sure sign of aging when we start looking back over our lives -- when we try to put the prospective into context with the retrospective.  Sometimes, it is hard to tell one from the other.

One theme that has come up recurringly over the past ten months of conversations with Darrel, Dennis, Dan, and Marsha is the concept of regret.  I have none.  Maybe it is why Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" has long been one of my favorites.*

Regrets are a waste of time.  The past cannot be changed.  The future cannot be predicted.  All we have is this moment.

And that is never a thing to regret.



* -- For those of you with a good memory, you may recall my rather strange memories involving Edith Piaf and my Great-aunt Bessie (my best girl).



 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

staging the day


Valentine's Day is one of those holidays that is far more hype than hip.  Almost entirely a creation of Hallmark.

That may be because I have not celebrated the day with anyone for so long I can no longer see the borders of Curmudgeonland.  But I am aware which side of the line I live on.

That is until yesterday.  I celebrated the day with my mother and brother.

We did not go out to a fancy restaurant.  Instead, we dug into plates of one of my favorite meals -- shepherd's pie.  Well, it was really cottage pie because we used beef, rather than lamb.  But this is Valentine's Day where I will even cut myself a bit of slack.  Probably, just enough to hang myself.

Because she is the grande dame of the family, Mom received a large vase filled with yellow roses.  And, yes, I know the color is supposed to be red.  But we Cottons tend to be a little perverse in beating tradition to death with a different drummer.

And the entertainment?  An evening of chamber music in Bend's restored Tower theater.

It was a rather short program -- with the contrived conceit of presenting music for lovers.  The group was the Crown City String Quartet.  A southern California quartet with roots in the Pacific Northwest.

I would hate to put together a program of chamber music designed to fill a theater with paying customers.  Especially, on a holiday based far more for its fluff rather than its substance.

The group succeeded with its limited target.  None of the pieces required much work from untutored ears.  But the pieces were good choices.  All of them readily recognizable and accessible.

During the summer of 2013, I told you in old times there are not forgotten, I had been re-considering Aaron Copland's three categories of how we listen to music:

  • the sensuous plane -- our emotional response to music where we let it wash over us (often while we are engaged in other pursuits; the way everyone experiences music at a rather basic level)
  • the expressive plane -- where we try to determine what the composer's music means
  • the sheerly musical plane -- where we listen to the music as an abstract art form; or, in Copland's words: "the notes themselves and of their manipulation"
I suspect most people who attend concerts these days fall into the first category.  And that is fine with me.  I would rather have people listening on that level than not listening at all.  Without those listeners, live music would be as dead as Moussorgsky.

Anyone who has a nodding reference with chamber music will recognize the three pieces the group performed last night.

The first was Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade.  I suppose the piece was on the program because of the adjective.  After all, if you buy into profiling, you know Italians are romantic.

It turns out Wolf added the "Italian" modifier after the work was completed.  It is about as Italian as Queen Elizabeth is English.

But it is a perfect piece for string players to show their chops.  Its lilting pace gives each performer a shot of presto-digitation and some rather snappy bowing.

The second piece is also a regular: Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C Major.  It is one of six string quartets composed in honor of Haydn.

But that is not what makes it such an interesting concert piece.  Its nickname is "Dissonance," and it is well-named.  The cello's opening C is met with a series of dissonant chords from the viola and two violins in the first 21 bars that set the theme for the rest of the work.

Some "experts" of the early 19th century were so unnerved by the dissonance that they concluded Mozart had made transcription errors.  Their solution?  Fix the errors.  These people still walk amongst us as politicians and regulators.

The group did a great job of adding new life to this warhorse.  Rather than try to move across the dissonance quickly, they reveled in it.  To ears accustomed to
Schönberg, the tonal battle seems mild.  I can only imagine how it sounded to 18th century ears.

To our ears, it was joy.

The final piece was a perfect choice for Valentine's Day.  When Alexander Borodin wrote String Quartet No.2, I am certain he had no idea he was providing raw material for 1950s Broadway.

What he did produce was a brilliant piece of lyricism and contrapuntal structure.  But, I will admit, as hard as I tried, it was next to impossible to keep the score of Kismet from intruding.  The theme lifted by Wright and Forrest as "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" underlies the Scherzo.  And the main theme from the Nocturne comes to us as "And This is My Beloved."

Neither tune, of course, has retained the magnificent variation of texture and chordal construction as the original.  And, even though hearing the show tunes felt as comfortable as slipping on a set of ragged underwear, what we heard was something far more challenging and beautiful.

Did I leave the theater feeling as if I had been pushed to learn something new about the abstract nature of music?  Probably not.  It was not a level three listening experience.

But it was a great night to celebrate Valentine's Day with my two closest relatives.  And that is good enough for me.

I hope your day was every bit as pleasant.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

going mad for prose

"Pictures of pets adorn the façades and menus of restaurants in Nam Dinh, a city in a part of northern Vietnam where cats and dogs are commonly consumed."

Now, that is a good sentence.  From this week's edition of The Economist

It catches your attention.  And, no matter how you feel about the ethics of eating cat and dog, that short sentence compels you to say: "Tell me more."

Well that is not going to happen if you pick up Oliver Pötzsch's The Ludwig Conspiracy.  One of the fun things about my Kindle is its recommendation of books I might find interesting.  The list shows up at the bottom of the home page.

After finishing off my electronic magazines earlier this week, I started looking around for something to read.  Because I have a history background, I am not usually interested in historical fiction.  There is a tendency to re-write the past through the artifice of bodice-ripping prose.  Bruce Catton meets Barbara Cartland.

But I have long been fascinated by the death of Ludwig II.  And that sentence sums up the basic problem of writing about Bavaria's Fairy Tale King. 

He is far more interesting in death than he was in life.  I will not bother telling you why, but if you have read that sentence, you essentially know the plot of this plodding piece of pedantic prose.  I have saved you a painful read.

I started to say that Pötzsch came up with an interesting idea and then lost it in execution.  There is no doubt the idea was lost in execution (and I suspect neither his editor nor his best friends told him that the book stank worse than Ludwig II's corpse.)

But even the idea is not that interesting.  We all know people who are simultaneously self-absorbed and just a bit loony.  Adding the simple fact that the subject is a monarch (Yeah, I know.  But I am leaving it alone.) does not make the person's story any more interesting.

So, let's say you are willing to forgive the author for building his story around one of the world's greatest boors.  Isn't it more important to determine if the author can pull it all off by writing an interesting page turner filled with clever prose?

Maybe.  But that is not this book.  Remember the sentence from The Economist?  The one that caught your attention?  Compare it with this phrase:

"While the sun rose in the sky, a glowing red globe to the east, ..."  Is there anything in that sentence that causes you to react any other way than to ask: "Did you type this on a computer screen, with its glowing white light melting the creativity right out of your head?"

I started to keep a list of the clichés that drain the life out of each paragraph, but I realized that would necessitate copying most of the book.  And I do have a life to lead.

Pötzsch comes from that school of historical fiction writers who conjure up a grisly murder to be solved by an amateur through a series of clues that will lead us all to discover a secret of the universe.  In other words, a Dan Brown wannabe.

And like Dan Brown, Pötzsch serves up thin gruel tarted up as a banquet, and then slips out through the kitchen just as the bill arrives at the table.  We tend to fall for it every time.

The good thing about buying one of these books is the cost.  They are the type of fare one once found on the remainder table at Crown Books.

In this case, I wasted $2.99 and about five hours of reading.  That seems a bargain.  After all, in the bargain, I uncovered lots of material for an essay. 

And that is priceless.


Friday, February 13, 2015

tea-ed off

Well, yesterday was certainly a day of mixed messages.

Remember citizen steve?  When I chirpily told you about rendering unto the Mexican Caesar and related a quaint anecdote about my dad.  "My dad once told me: 'It is an honor to pay taxes.  And, then, you need to watch those shifty politicians like a hawk to make certain they don't squander your money.'  He was a realist."

I am not certain how much I feel like a realist right now.  "Cranky" may be the word.

While my brother was out on a computer call, I sat down to complete my federal tax returns for this past year.  Filling out the forms is no longer the chore it once was -- when dads locked themselves in the den for hours. 

I have been using TurboTax for years.  Combined with my rather neurotic record-keeping in Quicken, completing the form portion of the ritual is now a lark.

Well, maybe not a lark.  But it is simple.

I was fully prepared for the rather staggering figure that popped up as the amount the treasury expects me to voluntarily pay for the surcharge of being an American citizen.  But being prepared for bad news does not sweeten the adjective.

$13,000 -- and change.  That, of course, is in addition to the much larger amount that was properly withheld during the year.  ("Withheld" is such a gentle word for what it truly represents.) 

That amount is certainly not like being told you have one month to live.  These things must be put into perspective.

I put myself in this tax pickle by cashing out a deferred income account all in one big gulp -- to assist in the purchase of the house with no name.  Here is the sad news.  I had federal tax withheld when I withdrew the amount.  But, as Harvey Fierstein said -- not enough.

And, for the honor of using my own money for my own purposes, I also owe penalties and interest -- in addition to being bumped back into the land of estimated tax payments.  I tried the "but I am only a poor pensioner trying to make his way in a confusing world."  TurboTax was not impressed.

To stop the penalty clock running, I decided to pay the full bill today.  I know.  I know.  I am losing interest on what I do not need to pay until 15 April.  My answer?  What interest? 

Here is where I differ from my father's tax philosophy.  I long ago parted with the federal government's philosophy on spending.  That probably happened somewhere in the early days of the First World War when the Wilson administration bayoneted the notion of a limited federal government in the trenches of Verdun.

I now estimate that around 90% of the federal budget is spent on things I do not believe it should.  Inadvertently, I have probably just offered additional proof of Sturgeon's Law.

At least, I am done with my federal tax dilemma this year.  My money is no longer mine -- and I will leave it to others to spin arguments for its moral application.

It is one less thing I have to accomplish on this trip north.  But several other major projects loom before I return to my courtyard in Barra de Navidad.  Where the living is easy and the taxes are easier.