Friday, July 31, 2015

our scarlet letter


Last winter, I was enjoying coffee with my friend Lee, from Whidbey Island, at La Taza Negra.

Well, he was having coffee.  I was most likely drinking tea.  That "c" food thing again.

He asked me if I had ever seen a poinciana tree in the local area.  He had first seen one when he was in the military on Bermuda.

Do you ever hear words that you know you have stored in your head, but you just cannot access them?  That is what happened to me when Lee mentioned "poinciana."

My file search system went into overdrive.  Up came "poinsettia" and "needlepoint."  Neither was helpful.  But I knew there was some memory connection between "poinsettia" and "poinciana."

Applying my best trial technique, I stalled.  "I know the name.  What does it look like?"  (Almost every sentence with that construction contains a lie.  Politicians are masters of the form.)

Lee's answer provided a memory jackpot.  "It has beautiful red flowers."

I immediately knew the tree.  In fact, I had written previous essays about the tree (better than a box of keeblers -- where I compared the tree to Tolkien's Lothlórien -- and a tree as lovely as a poem -- which features a photograph of the tree Lee was searching for, a tree that stood at the gate of the place he rents).

The tree, as many of you already know, is popularly called a Flamboyant tree (or Flamboyan in Spanish).  Its fancier name is Royal Poinciana.*  That is why the name sounded familiar to me.

It is one of my favorite trees in Mexico.  I knew about it before I headed south because former blogger Isla Gringo often wrote about the tree, its exquisite flowers, and the sabre-like seed pods that are a favorite of hungry squirrels.

In this part of Mexico, they put on quite a show in the late spring and early summer.  We have plenty of local trees that produce tropical-colored flowers.  The bright yellow canopy of the primavera is probably the most obvious.

But there are not many trees that have the distinctive red of the Flamboyant.  In May, you can drive from Barra de Navidad to Manzanillo and repeatedly see slashes of scarlet in the jungle canopy.

Those wild trees are the exception.  Usually, the Flamboyant appears in gardens and yards because it is a non-native specimen tree.  And by "non-native," I mean it is not even from another area in the Americas.

Its home is Madagascar.  Ironically, even though the tree is grown throughout the tropical world, it is quite rare in the wilds of its native island.

Lee is usually here for the winter months -- when the Flamboyants are not flamboyant.  The only way to definitively identify them during the winter is by those seed pods.

Or, Lee can always ask a friend to track down the elusive prey.  And I did.


* -- For you classically trained scholars, the tree's scientific name is Delonix regia.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

palming the photos



While digging through my July photographs, I ran across this beauty.

I had planned to use it in one of my yard cleanup posts, but the prose never seemed to match the photograph.  So, it has languished unpublished.

Until now.

There is something about the shapes and colors that fascinates me.  Consider it my gift to you.

A lot more interesting than another essay about politics.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

float like a butterfly, sting like a caterpillar


When bloggers have little to say, they often troop out inside procedural statistics that are meaningful only to those of us who have the write-and-post obsession.

Today, I do have something to say.  But I am still going to trot a few numbers by you.

The year was 2008.  The month was September.  It would be another seven months before my sainted brother; the decrepit, but loyal, Professor Jiggs, and I would board the Escape for our trip to Mexico.

A fellow blogger, who resides in Morelia, had just sent me an email recounting an encounter with a stinging caterpillar in her garden.  As a fan of National Geographic, I, of course, knew that many insects have self-defense mechanisms that rival those of an infantry brigade.  But I never thought of them living in my new home.

Thus was born a little essay (sting like a butterfly, float like a caterpillar) that has continually topped the most-accessed list on my blog .  The title has always been a bit misleading.  After all, it was the caterpillar that did the stinging.  Seven years later, I may have set the title straight.  (And I will still get Google hits with my side car attached to Muhammed Ali's famous phrase.)

But why am I disinterring a tale of a caterpillar who long ago pupated?  Because I found this in my garden as I was cleaning up the debris from our recent wind storm.



I have no idea what this guy's destiny is.  I tried researching on my favorite butterfly and moth identification site, but I could not find anything similar.

What I do know is that I had no desire to touch him.  Considering my 8-year old love of things crawly, I am surprised I didn't pick him up and put him in a jar.

Instead, I let him make his way up the planter into the greenery.  And, yes, I know, he is now going to lunch on the leaves of my vine.  At least, that is a good possibility.  But there are plenty of leaves.  In the process, I may get a butterfly.

Or I may get stung.  I regularly dig through the vine to gather dead leaves before they fall to the courtyard floor.  Without gloves.

One of these days, I will undoubtedly fail to recognize his artful camouflage.  And, just like the stinging ants that surprised my fingers in the same planter, I will wonder why I did not take matters in hand when I had an opportunity.

I know why.  There is a bit of Harold Hill in me.  I always have hope there is a butterfly.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

drilling for political oil


The presidential election season is in full swing up north.

Well, almost full swing.  There will undoubtedly be a few more candidates who will modestly put themselves forward as being more beneficial than packaged salad mix.  But the tone is pretty much set.

Every four years, some political scientist, with a knack for writing college examination questions, puts together a series of questions to assist those of us, who believe we are rational, in choosing a candidate to support.  The results are mixed. 

During the last election, the test revealed I should support a candidate who held federal activist views I found less than desirable.  The second choice was far more to my liberty taste.

Well, my friend Ron sent the current version of the test to me the other day.  The test always takes me far more time than I think it will.  For good reason.  It is quite detailed.  And, for that reason, is should be a good decision-making tool.

This year's version is broken into eight issues sections: social, environmental, economic, domestic policy, health care, education, foreign policy, and immigration.  There are several questions under each heading -- with additional questions to refine choices.

The aspect I like best about this test is its ability to add weight to the questions in their importance to the test taker.  Not everything is equal in Steve's world.  And I suspect the same is true for you.

The complexity of the questions may lead to more accurate predictions, but they present a problem for me -- and that may be why it takes me so long to take the test.  On any given day (or hour), my opinions (and especially how I would weight the importance of that opinion) varies.  That may be why I ended up being tagged as a supporter of the 2012 candidate who I would not (and did not) support in the primaries.

I suspect the real reason I like these tests is that it is the only say I will have in the selection of presidential candidates -- during the primaries.  Nevada, my state of residence, does not have a primary.  The parties there pick their preferred candidates through a caucus system -- and I am not flying north to spend an evening huddled in a school cafeteria with fellow supporters of my candidate.

So, I took the test. 

As I knew it would, it took me over a half hour to thoughtfully answer the questions.  And, when I was done, what was the result?

This year, two candidates came up with a score of 96% each.  The choices seemed odd when paired together.  I would be surprised if the two of them would say they agree with one another 96% of the time.

The good news is that I would be happy to see either of them in the White House.  Of course, as an American, I will be just as happy to give the winner a few months to settle in, and I will then grumble about everything the new president is doing.

It is one of the joys of being an American.


Note:  If you missed the link, here it is again.  http://www.isidewith.com/political-quiz

 

Monday, July 27, 2015

shipshape in manzanillo


Do you recall the scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence makes his way back to Cairo across the Sinai and encounters the Suez Canal?  We cannot see the canal -- only a ship sailing past as if plowing through the sand.

That is how I felt yesterday.  I drove down to Manzanillo for a new experience.  Manzanillo is primarily known as Mexico's busiest port.  That fact is hard to ignore while driving through town.  Its facilities have recently been upgraded and expanded.

But I never go to Manzanillo for its port experience.  Even though I did drive to the port area for five years in a row to renew my visa at the immigration office.  The permanent resident card in my wallet makes that a thing of the past.  That is, until the law changes again.

Most of my trips are for shopping -- and that leaves me in the suburbs.  The big box stores are in an area called Salahua or Salagua ("salt water").  I usually hit the big three when I am in town -- Comercial Mexicana, Walmart, and Soriana.

But not yesterday.  Manzanillo has long been known as a tourist destination.  For northerners, thoughts of Bo Derek running along the beach are forever linked with the place.  I was there to enjoy the beach scene.

And there are plenty of beaches to visit.  The six-week school summer vacation is in full swing, and families are there on vacation -- especially on weekends.  If there is sand, you will find a crowd of tourists at tables under umbrellas enjoying the heat and humidity of a beach visit.

I headed toward a pocket beach in the Las Brisas neighborhood -- a peninsula between the port and one of Manzanillo's stunning bays.  Not surprisingly, when I arrived, I was not alone.



That ship doing its Peter O'Toole impression is not something I would see in Melaque.  And, apparently, it was a new sight for a lot of my fellow beach broilers.  A majority of us started snapping away at the optical illusion.

Our weather here can be quite erratic.  Especially in the summer.  Yesterday was no exception.

Walking back to the car, I could see storm clouds moving in from the north.  And not mere rain clouds.  The front was accompanied by the mobile artillery of lightning and thunder.



Half way back to Barra de Navidad, I encountered one of those storms that seem to occur only in the tropics.  At least, regularly in the tropics.

The rain started with a few drops.  Then with more intensity.  Within a mile, I nearly pulled to the side of the road -- as wiser drivers had done.  Instead, I followed a van with its flashers aflash.  Of course, for all I could tell, he was driving me off into the ocean.

And, just as all tropical storms, in a matter of minutes, it was over.  The highway was filled with water, but visibility was restored.

When I returned home, my neighbors told me we had had very little rain in Barra de Navidad.  That was evident from the streets.  But we had apparently been visited by winds.

When I opened the garage door, it looked as if all the leaves and flowers I had been picking up for the past ten months had been unceremoniously dumped in the pool and scattered through the courtyard.  For some reason, I thought of the ant and the grasshopper.  Maybe the moral to that tale should be: "Planning gets you nowhere."

And now, after a great dinner of curried kumquat cabbage stir fry over Jasmine rice, I am ready for bed.  The nice thing about these intense rain storms is that we get at least one night of incredibly good sleep.

I am going to take advantage of it.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

does february really have 45 days?

Remember those story problems we had in fourth grade arithmetic?  Well, I have one for you.

Joyce wanted to take advantage of the high interest rates available for time deposit savings account at one of Mexico's bank.  Azteca to be exact. 

The terms were clear.  The money could be withdraw only on the anniversary of opening the account.  A withdrawal on any other day would forfeit all of the interest earned.

The date of deposit was 24 July 2013.

Joyce did not withdraw the money in 2014.  Instead, she wanted to withdraw the money on the second anniversary of opening the account.

When should Joyce have returned to Azteca to withdraw the principal and interest?
A. 24 July 2015 -- the anniversary date of the account
B. 23 July 2015 -- the date a full two years following the opening of the account


C. 8 July 2015

If you chose A or B, Azteca would deny you the payment of any interest on the account.  And that is exactly what happened to Joyce.

As you may have guessed, unlike most story problems ("If a train leaves New York City at 1:00 AM ..."), this one is factual.  Even though it sounds as if it could be the storyline for an André Breton novel.

When she attempted to withdraw her money, the young woman at the cashier window told her she had missed the authorized date.  I was prepared to hear that the withdrawal window was open only on the last day of the anniversary year. 

After all, that would be a full year.  I have encountered similar calculations before here in Mexico.  Such as, "two weeks" translating into 15 days.  Or "noon" being 2 PM.

But the story was better than that.  The anniversary date for a 24 July opening was 8 July.  The reason?  Some months have more days in them than others.  And sometimes February has 28 days, even though it usually has 29.

I would have concluded that Joyce misunderstood what she had been told in Spanish.  But she took one of her business managers with her.  He speaks perfect Spanish.  After all, he is Mexican.

He repeated the story exactly as she did.  He added the fact that three clerks were required to convey the information as they gazed intently at the computer screen that should have easily shown the deposit date.  Once again repeating the mysterious truth of February's missing day during a leap year.

Of course, there was no leap year in 2013, 2014, or 2015 -- as any schoolboy can recite.  The last one was 2012; the next one is 2016.  And all three of the banking geniuses could not come to the logical conclusion that 64 years would have had to pass to shave off the 16 day difference between 8 and 24 July.

And you know the result.  Joyce left without her money.  There was nothing more to be done.  Azteca had taken refuge across the border in Surrealandia.  No matter of blustering would change the fact that the computer had the final say.

I played with the idea that Joyce had deposited in a 360 day account.  But that would still leave 6 days unaccounted for.  Well, except for February's regular 29 days.  I am surprised Joyce's eyes did not roll back so far on that factual monstrosity that she was mistaken for Little Orphan Annie.

This reminder of customer service comes at the same time I am considering shifting from my current banking arrangement to a Mexican bank.

Azteca is certainly off of the list.  But I should think about that.  Maybe I could be credited additional interest for those chimeric extra days each February.

My Dad had a little poem for circumstances like this:

Thirty days has September
All the rest I can't remember

But if you must know them all,
There's a  calendar on the wall.
As good-natured as he was, he would most likely have joined Joyce in walking away from the bank shaking his head, talking about the possibility that the next anniversary date will inevitably move to a mysterious day in mid-May.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

you can bank on it

ATMs are the financial lifeblood of tourists and expatriates.

The cash-dispensing machines are often the sole means people have to put folding money into their wallets -- whether they are visiting for a short stay or living here permanently.  And often the source of those funds is in a bank far to the north.  If something goes wrong, getting money is -- well -- as close to impossible as I like to get.

For that reason, ATMs are our friends, just as television is to Homer Simpson.  That is why, when I hear news in the vein of today's topic, my stomach tends to twist.

When I walk into my local bank, I see two ATMs -- one is pictured.  There is nothing unusual in their appearance.  We have all slipped our cards into similar readers around the world in the hope that the machine will fork over money from our distant accounts.

But, if you had recently used a specific ATM in Puerto Vallarta, there would have been a lot more going on.  I suspect, though, you probably would not have noticed anything unusual.  Here it is.



I doubt you can see it, but someone has installed a camera just above the keypad to record PIN numbers as they are entered.  The covering is camouflaged as well as any iguana in the jungle.  I had to look very closely before I could see the small gap between the ATM and its unauthorized accessory.

Here is the camera after it had been removed.



Of course, PIN numbers were not the only information being captured.  An additional card reader was installed in front of the ATM's reader.  Every time a customer would swipe the card through the reader, the ATM would capture the information -- but so would the other reader.

The result is that anyone who used the machine ran the risk of the handing over the information on his card.  The scheme is covered well in a post entitled "Spike in ATM Skimming in Mexico?"  What that question mark is doing there, I don't know.

We all realize that most credit card companies will not assess fraudulent charges against a cardholder unless the cardholder is a party to the fraud.  But that piece of information is not at all consoling when the credit card company takes the inevitable next step -- cancelling the card.

If you live in Mexico and have a bank up north, the chances are very good that after your bank cancels the card, it will not mail the replacement card to you in Mexico.  It has to go to an address up north.  The trick is how to then get the card to Mexico.

Well, that is one trick.  The other trick is how to survive when money no longer flows from the ATM like water from the rocks at Kadesh.  I have been stuck in that situation twice.  If it were not for the kindness of friends, I would have been begging for coins in front of the bank.

That is why these ATM stories matter.  Having a card skimmed can easily result in being turned into an extra in Oliver Twist.

Whoever has been attaching the skimming devices (and it does not take a genius to figure it out), they are quite good at their work.  Even though this particular installation resulted in an arrest.  I doubt I would have ever recognized the ATM had been modified.

So, what to do?

The first is the most obvious.  Use your free hand to cover the keypad while entering your PIN.  I have been doing that for years.  The ATMs in San Patricio have a privacy shield over the keys.  I suspect those particular machines are well-protected from PIN theft.

The second is to take a good look at the ATM to see if anything looks out of place.  If it does, use another machine.  Our options here are rather limited.  But, if there is a problem, our sole bank (Banamex) is right there.

I have seriously considered completely abandoning my banks up north and using nothing but financial institutions in Mexico.  (For several reasons, Banamex is not a contender.)

This story may be the impetus I need to cut my ties with northern banks -- and Banamex.


Friday, July 24, 2015

where life meets the road


The glimpses of joy leaven our days.

I thought about that this morning as I pulled the Escape out of its cramped garage.  As I was backing out, I glanced up to see this view of my courtyard.

There was no real focus point.  What struck me was the beauty the architect-contractor built into what is now my home. 

The lines.  The colors.  It may be post-modern architecture, but its composition is as pleasing as a Le Corbusier.

Intellectually, I know the mathematical formulas that create the illusion of proportion.  But, even if I didn't, the place would simply look "just right."

For that, I thank the architect.  What I do not thank her for is her failure to settle up with IMSS (Mexican social security) for payments related to the worker's wages.  The workers who created this spot of beauty.  She has simply disappeared.

(I am one step away from talking with an attorney.  For those of you who know the Mexican legal system, you can stop rolling on the ground in laughter.)

The contrast between the inside and outside of my house is startling -- as is true with many Mexican homes.  Inside, I could be living in Bel Air.  Outside, I am likely to run into bucolic scenes like this.



Goats.  Herds of goats.  They often come wandering through my neighborhood -- prodded along by a rather indifferent goatherdess.

But they are a reminder I chose to forgo the luxury of retirement in Scottsdale for the far more tranquil days of retirement in Barra de Navidad.

No doubt about it: I chose wisely.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

confessions of an 8-year old


Yesterday Felipe commented that I have a rather odd fascination with wildlife.

I confess I do.  My attitude toward things that move is that of an 8-year old.  The type of kid who, in the summer, would jump on his bike and go exploring with his best friend.  To the woods.  To the river.  To the old log pond.

And always there were slithery and jumping things that would catch our attention.  Frogs.  Snails.  Water dogs.  All needing to be picked up and thoroughly examined.  And often tossed into an old Miracle Whip jar.

Some of the trips were not merely adventurous; they were entrepreneurial.  Our neighbor, the high school biology teacher, would pay us a bounty for all of the frogs, tadpoles, and eggs we could scoop up.  I suspect most of them ended up on the wrong end of a pithing -- giving up their lives for the furtherance of science and high school squeamishness.

When I took biology in the high-falutin' city, the frogs came from a local science supply business.  Looking at the about-to-be perforated green frog, I wondered how much my teacher, Mr. Kilmer, would have paid me for it.

But my discovery yesterday was not a frog.  Or a snail.  Or a water dog.  It was a slug -- which, I guess, is just a homeless snail.

When I moved the car out of the garage, there was the slug.  Calling it a slug is a bit of a compliment.  The slugs down here are weedy, anemic things.

We have real slugs in the Pacific Northwest.  Often, longer than your hand.  Capable of turning a dahlia bush or a head of lettuce into a stalk overnight.  They are the leaf cutter ants of Oregon.

This was the second slug I encountered in the area.  The first was in my garden in Villa 
Obregón.  Both were dry compared to their rather slimy northern cousins.  Almost leathery -- with a bit of moisture on its foot to lubricate its glide across the garage floor.

The slug almost fell victim to the roving tiny ants, who were willing to add their spin on the Monty Python "bring out your dead" skit.  The ants eventually stopped tormenting the poor slug.  Maybe they realized the cost of bringing him down would outweigh the benefit.  Ants are quite the economists.

So, yes, Felipe, I admit I have a certain obsession with things that go bump in the night.  After almost 60 years of being an 8-year old, I doubt I am going to kick the habit before the ants and slugs are dining out on me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

cleanup on aisle 2


You all know the fable of the ant and the grasshopper.  It is one of the most popular of Aesop's fables.

While the grasshopper sings away the summer, the ant works diligently to store up for the winter.  When winter hits, the grasshopper begs the ant for sustenance, arguing that he provided his songs in the summer.  The ant, in rebuke, suggests the grasshopper should try dancing through the winter.

Well, we do not have winter in Melaque.  Sure, the months we know as winter in the northern hemisphere show up on our calendars.  But nothing even resembling cold weather accompanies them.  Any local version of the grasshopper and the ant would severely suffer in the snow scene.

What we do have is a regular die-off of creatures throughout the year.  Especially, when the rain starts.  I suspect the rain drops batter the insects to death.

After each rain, my courtyard is strewn with the corpses of crickets, beetles, flies, wasps, dragonflies, and the like.  I wondered where all of those tiny corpses ended up.

Now I know.  The moment the rain stops, the cleanup crews arrive.  Tiny ants the size of pepper grains.  Once they find a tasty morsel, they hustle it back to their nest.

And I do not mean they dismember it and take it back to the nest.  The behavior I see in northern ants.

Maybe the heat would ruin their dinner if they butchered it on the spot.  Instead, the ants form a mob, pick up the behemoth meal, and cart it home.  I am certain the weight equivalent would be the same as asking a group of fraternity brothers to pick up a semi and move it twenty miles.

I have watched the ants at their work.  Moving along flat ground is interesting enough.  But when they encounter a wall or a step, they merely hoist the corpse over the obstacle.

On Sunday, I watched the ants cart the remains of a cricket up the side of a planter.  (It may have been a symbolic reference to the ultimate end of the fabled grasshopper.)

Yesterday, I watched the pictured ants move what appeared to be the tail of a gecko up over my door stoop and down the other side.  I would have pointed out to them that going around the stoop would be easier, but they would not have listened.  I suspect ants are the most conservative of insects.  And, perhaps, the most productive.

There are a ream of morals drawn from this particular tale.  But none are quite as interesting as the Fractured Fairy Tale version where the ant sings all summer while the ant toils.  When winter arrives, the grasshopper jumps in his convertible with a curvaceous blond and heads off to Florida -- leaving the ant to survive the winter.

I rather like that one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

i hate insurance


That may sound odd coming from a guy who spent the last 19 years of his working life in the legal division of a workers' compensation insurer.  Of course, that may be the reason why I do not advocate purchasing insurance.

Having said that, I am a limited insurance consumer in Mexico.  I have policies for the house and for the Escape.  The house insurance is primarily for the potential of earthquake damage.  I could probably do just as well by putting the premium in a savings account -- and I would still be pesos ahead if the Big One hit.

Car insurance is another question.  I have had it since I moved to Mexico.  First, through my agent in Oregon, who insures a lot of Mexican families who move between the two countries.  That insurance was great for tourists, but not quite what I needed for Mexico.

That relationship changed a couple of years ago when I bought my Mexican Escape.  I decided to buy my insurance through a local businesswoman, Tracye.  The agent was in Guadalajara.

There are plenty of horror stories about northerners who have automobile accidents, and do not have insurance.  Or have insurance that is inadequate.  In both cases, automobiles and drivers are often impounded until an agent can arrive to settle the damages.  And some insurers have the reputation of being very slow in getting an agent to the accident.

For that reason alone, having the telephone number of a reliable agent is the most valuable asset when buying a policy.

About a month ago, a conversation broke out on our local message board concerning the best agent for insurance.  My answer was Tracye.  I quickly learned that she was getting out of the pass-through insurance business.  She has been sending a letter to customers when their policies are up for renewal explaining the situation.

And pointing out that the agent, Jesús Tejeda Mejorada, who has issued all of the policies through her office is willing to renew policies directly.  The insurance company remains the same.  The agent remains the same.  His ability to speak perfect English remains the same. 

If an insured suffered an accident during the current insurance policy, he would use the same procedures in the future by buying a policy directly from Chuy.

For some reason, a number of the people who insured through Tracye are looking for an agent in the Manzanillo area.  Perhaps, on the theory that local is better. 

As for me, Chuy has been been issuing my automobile policies for two years and my new home policy since October.  I am sticking with him.  After all, I have felt confident that, if I needed someone to come to the scene of an accident, he would respond.

It may be inertia on my part.  But, to quote Martin Luther: Here I stand; I can do no other.

For those of you who may still be looking for insurance, here is his information:


Jesús Tejeda Mejorada
Insurance Broker
01 33 35631300
Jtejeda23@yahoo.com.mx

Monday, July 20, 2015

finding my faith


Does prayer work?

Three events have occurred recently that have caused me to look at prayer afresh.

The first is a discussion we have been having as a small congregation, at the church I attend in Villa Obregon, this summer on some of the nagging questions that surround our prayers.  As a jumping off point, we have been using Philip Yancey's book on Prayer.

The second was an essay (How I lost my faith in prayer) posted by my pal Al Lanier almost a month ago.  He is active in his church in San Miguel de Allende.  But he has recently undergone a crisis of faith in his prayer life.  He prays about friends in need, but he does not see the answers he expects.

The third involves another blogger in San Miguel de Allende: Shannon Casey of Rat Race Refugee.  I knew Shannon and her husband Todd before I moved to Mexico. 

Todd wrote an informative blog about his life in a housing development just outside of Pátzcuaro.  I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the development because I was seriously considering buying a house there.  I finally met them in person just as they were planning to move away from

Pátzcuaro.

And move they did -- to San Miguel de Allende, where they are now living.  I try to see them on each visit I make to the highlands.

Last May, in a multi-installment post (Well That Was An Eye Opener!), Shannon told us of a recent diagnosis of cancer -- and her surprise at the cost of getting treatment.  Mexico is well-known for its affordable health care.  But "affordable" is often the most relative of terms.

Shannon has an incredibly open and honest way of writing.  And that is how she approached the financial question involved in her cancer treatment.  She told us the two of them were most likely going to experience financial problems.  The only question was when.  The answer came quickly -- "now."

Todd sent me a message Sunday morning that the time has come to rely upon the kindness of strangers -- and friends and family.  To defray her chemotherapy expenses, Todd has set up an online donation site.

That brings me back to Al's post on prayer.  He had been praying specific content prayers for people with terrible diseases.  And he could not see answers.  At least, the answers he was expecting.  Instead, his friends were dying --  as we all must.

Al's answer was simple:

Stew and I developed our own response, a very undramatic routine of regularly checking on the grieving relatives; maybe offering to bring them a bucket of take-out food (from the one awful Chinese restaurant in town); inviting them to go out to some restaurant or event, and other modest efforts to try and break through the fog of grief that choked our friends' lives at the time.

We didn't effect any miracles. Our friends died. The survivors cried, and we hugged them. We attended memorials. Life moved on. That's all we could do.
Of course, Al had not lost his faith in prayer.  Instead, he put his hands to work building God's kingdom on earth.  And I know of no greater faith than that.

It is time for me to do likewise.  Shannon, of course, has been in my prayers since she told us about the cancer.  But my prayers require action.

And I am now asking you to join me in giving a hand to both Shannon and Todd.  They have set a goal of $6,500.  Within 23 hours of the posting, generous folk had donated $930 -- 14% of the total.  I am certain that figure is larger this morning.

We can do better than that.  And, as soon as I finish this draft, I will do my part.

If you did not see the link earlier, here it is:
https://life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/1358319/x/11517312.

A bit of sacrifice will go a long way.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

your ways are numbered

I am a sucker for lists and surveys.

Fortunately, my magazines and newspapers feed my numbers jonesing.  Every time I open any of them, I am confronted with some sort of list.

Ten best places for retirement.  Cities with the highest number of smokers.  Nations with the highest happiness quotient.

That last one is representative of what I call the soft sciences.  The person who drew up the we-are-happy list appears to have chosen the type of society in which he would like to live, and then created a list of criteria based on those desires.  (Much in the same way the Supreme Court makes its own decisions.)

Let's say the person compiling the survey believes that people living in social democratic states should be the happiness people on earth.  The test criteria then gives high points for universal health care, generous welfare payments, and lots and lots of public transportation.  And, mirabile dictu, Denmark turns out to be the cat's pajamas for the happiness seekers.

I ran across a similar survey the other day from Portland Communications, a London-based consultancy.  The company recently released a report gauging the impact of soft power for 30 nations.*

"Soft power" is not a new term -- nor is the concept.  The term has been floating around social science circles since the 1980s.  But the concept was discussed as early as the 1960s in my undergraduate political science courses and in the 1970s in my international relations graduate courses.

All nations attempt to use their power to influence the behavior of others.  The goal?  To attain outcomes the nation desires.  That is pure Hans Morgenthau.

The most obvious use of power is what social scientists call "hard power" -- using threats and military resources to coerce others, or using monetary resources to induce behavioral changes.  Russia's actions in Ukraine are an example of coercion.  China's use of investment resources in Latin America and Africa is an example of monetary inducement.

"Soft power" is different.  Nations who use it attempt to use what is attractive about the nation to seduce other nations to act in accordance with the first nation's desires.  The mantra is to co-opt rather than to coerce.

By its very nature, "soft power" is a soft concept -- subject to many permutations.  That has not stopped Portland Communications from assembling a study to rank thirty nations in their use of soft power.  The survey was based on six categories -- digital power, culture, enterprise, engagement, education, and government.  Each country was given a ranking in each area, and an aggregate score was then calculated.

I am not certain whether or not I was surprised at the outcome.  After all, because of its amorphous boundaries, "soft power" is probably not the source of many opinionated bar fights.

Based on the survey, these are the top five nations with the greatest "soft power:"  Great Britain, Germany, United States, France, and Canada.  In truth, I suspect Great Britain gets a boost because a British firm compiled the list.  But none of the five nations listed gives me any concern.

But Mexpatriate is not about my British experiences.  It is about my Mexican experiences.

Where does Portland Communications rank Mexico in the list of 30 nations?  At a rather disappointing 29.  Just below Turkey, and just above China -- the winner of the deep basement award.

Anyone who has read newspaper accounts about Mexico would probably not be surprised that Mexico does not have much potential for "soft power."  Historically, it has not attempted to use its power to influence forces external to itself.  There are plenty of historical reasons for that.

The survey cites the ongoing drug war as the primary weakness in Mexico's ability to influence other nations.  That is probably fair.

What is even more fair is the low rating for government -- a rating garnered by both internal and external opinion of the corrosive effect of corruption on governmental operation in Mexico.  The Spanish tradition of sinecure has done a job on Mexico.  And not a good job.

Having said that, Mexico has two major positives in the survey.  Depending on which criteria are used, Mexico currently has the 12th or 14th largest economy in the world.  The survey estimates Mexico will move into 8th place by 2050.  But, unless it gets corruption under control, that high rating will be for naught.

Mexico also receives high ratings in the cultural category -- even though the study focuses primarily on the cultural effect Mexico has on Mexican-Americans and illegal immigrants.  Mexico's cultural effects are far broader.  As the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Mexico provides most of the books, television programs, and movies for the rest of Latin America. 

I suspect the survey short-changed Mexico in that category.  Even though it is one of Mexico's highest-ranked categories.

Frankly, this is one area where I am not particularly interested in seeing my adoptive country improve.  Mexico has made a name for itself with its non-interventionist policy in the internal affairs of other countries.  So, it will probably never be a candidate for a "soft power" award any time soon.

Having said that, it will remain a bridge between the other North American countries and the rest of Lain America.  And that is not a bad place for Mexico to find itself.



* -- If you are interested in how the counries fared, here is the list.

1. Great Britain

2. Germany
3. United States
4. France
5. Canada
6. Australia
7. Switzerland
8. Japan
9. Sweden
10. Netherlands
11. Denmark
12. Italy
13. Austria
14. Spain
15. Finland
16. New Zealand
17. Belgium
18. Norway
19. Iceland
20. South Korea
21. Singapore
22. Portugal
23. Brazil
24. Poland
25. Greece
26. Israel
27. Czech Republic
28. Turkey
29. Mexico
30. China

Saturday, July 18, 2015

spiffing up the premises


Every house has its routine.  My people call them "chores."

I am fortunate enough to have two incredibly efficient people who make my housework a bit lighter.  Dora, the woman who helps keep my house clean -- "helps," as in "does most everything."  And Lupe, who keeps my well-designed swimming pool humming.  Without them, this house would be a bit too much for me to handle.

But there are things that fall exclusively on the Steve to-do list.  Taking out the garbage.  Doing the dishes.  Cooking.  Tidying up major messes.

My major daily chore, however, is picking up the leaves and flowers from the landscaping, that provides a privacy screen in front of each of the four bedrooms.  The architect, who designed the place as her dream house, wisely chose vegetation that would provide both shade and a sense of isolation for each bedroom.  Cup of gold vines.  Small palms.  Heliconia.

The screens work perfectly.  But, because they are living plants, they do as all plants do -- they shed worse than my golden retriever.  Both leaves and flowers.  And, now that we are entering the rainy season, the sluffing has increased.

Even though I pick up leaves and flowers all through the day, this is what I see each morning.  And, if there has been a wind during the night (which is unfortunately rare: our nights are far too humid and still), the fallen fruit is heavier.

And why do I do this little chore several times each day?  I have learned to my cost that the flowers and leaves, when mixed with water, form an almost impermeable bond with the concrete -- especially, the flowers. 

Before I bought the house, the former housekeeper was not very conscientious about cleaning up the plants.  As a result, there are still the remnants of some flowers plastered to the concrete.

So, mine is not the behavior of some obsessive compulsive personality.  Well, not entirely.  It is simply tidiness.

The nice thing about cleanup chores is I get to learn the cycle of the seasons.  When I moved in last October, it took about  five minutes to clear the detritus.  It now takes just over a half hour.

And I get to find little surprises amongst the plants.  Two weeks ago, I managed to disturb the nest of stinging ants under a pile of dead leaves.  The fact I know they were stinging ants tells the rest of the story.

But yesterday morning, I ran across a far more pleasant discovery.  I was wondering where one of my regular visitors had gone.  A little frog.

He first came to my attention when I opened the concrete lid to the swimming pool recycling tank.  He was sitting there, and jumped out -- happy to be free of the dank hole.  At least, he seemed happy.  For all I know, he preferred the hole.

I see him now and then at night when I use the swimming pool.  Once sitting on the legs of the patio grill.  Several times resting on the pool ledge.  And twice in the pool itself.  I guess he likes short dips before retiring as well as I do.

On Friday morning, though, I learned where he hangs out during the day.  I was picking leaves and flowers out of the vine when I saw what looked like a thick leaf.



It was my frog pal.  Perfectly camouflaged.  Napping as if he did not have a care in the world.

I do not know if he goes courting under the gate at night.  There are plenty of frog voices calling out for mates.  Or maybe he has adopted a celibate life amongst the vines.  A monkish amphibian.

At least, he did not end up as dinner for the cane toad who cruised through here the other evening.  I would have missed finding the little frog in new hiding places.

After all, it is a frog-eat-frog world.


Friday, July 17, 2015

only my daily bread

"All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others."

Bishop Milton Wright made that axiom a cornerstone in the education of his two eldest sons -- Wilbur and Orville.  And, even though it is obviously built on the universalism of Christian humility, it has a rather quaint ring to it in today's world.

I thought of Bishop Wright's advice the other day while having breakfast with a group of expatriate men who make their permanent homes in Mexico.  They are the type of guys who, when asked the question: "Where are your from?," respond with: "Barra" or "Melaque" rather than "Canada" or "America."

The area has suffered several burglaries lately.  Some during the day.  Some at night while the house is occupied -- a prospect I find rather creepy.

As we chatted along, I realized we talk about thefts almost as often as we speak about our medical issues.  What is it that makes us so obsessed about losing our stuff?

Obviously, personal security is one concern.  No one really feels safe in a home where a stranger has entered without permission and has left with personal property.

But it all seems to come back to the loss of stuff.  Anyone who has lived here very long learns that anything portable left in an unsecured area will not be there when you return.  My Mexican neighbors are quite conscientious in locking up the things they prize.  Because walk they will.

I have experienced only one burglary.  When I lived in Villa Obregon.  Someone cut through the bars on my windows and took most of my electronic equipment and related accessories.  I was not home at the time.  So, I do have some skin in this discussion.

In stuff is just stuff, I rehearsed some of the arguments that went through my head at my breakfast with the guys.  Anyone who knows me will recognize that I am not an anti-materialist -- not in the philosophical sense of that term, but in the sense my hippie friends misused it in the last century.

I enjoy accumulating nice things and then enjoying their use.  But I hope I also have the sense to realize my stuff is not who I am.  Each object may represent the hard hours of work it took to buy it, but they are all separate from who I am as a person.

"All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others" is about as American as any axiom can be.  At least, the America where I grew up.  Where the object in life was to find work that you enjoyed and that could support your family.  It was a far healthier attitude than merely attempting to see who could accumulate the largest pile of stuff.

Maybe that is one reason I moved to Mexico.  In my conversations with my Mexican neighbors, almost all of them wished they could earn enough money to have a few more things.  That appears to be a universal desire.  But none of them indicated they wanted to have the wealth of Bill Gates -- or their fellow countryman Carlos Slim.

Embedded in that conversation is the wisdom of Proverbs 30:8-9: "Provide just the food I need today; for if I have too much, I might deny you and say, "Who is ADONAI?" And if I am poor, I might steal and thus profane the name of my God."


I suspect Bishop Wright would have appreciated that verse.  More likely, it is the source of his good advice.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

mr. toad's wild ride


Tuesday night was an Edgar Allen Poe evening. 

Rain.  Thunder.  Lightning.  The very type of night Poe could immortalize -- and Edward Bulwer-Lytton could suck the life out of.

I was lying in bed reading David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman.  (Let me parenthetically add -- just in case you missed the punctuation -- it is a superb read.  And, at over 1000 pages, I will be reading superb prose for some time into the future.)

Young Harry Truman was just losing his shirt in a zinc mine as the First World War revved up.  McCullough had my full attention.  Until I heard a very distinct
gentle rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

I thought it odd.  After all, I live alone.  But the persistence was something more than the wind.  In fact, the wind had moved on hours before.  The courtyard was still.

My general life philosophy is that things unexplained should go ignored -- until they make their presence known once more.  And that is exactly what happened.

Seconds later came the same tapping.  The only thing separating my bedroom from the great outdoors is a screen.  When I looked up, nothing was there.  Except for the tapping.

I don't know what possessed me to grab the flashlight that stands guard each night on the stand next to my bed.  But I did.  Shining the light at the bottom of the screen door.

What I saw was intriguing.  A pair of beady eyes and what looked like a rodent nose.  (It is at this point that I will remind you I am devoid of visual depth perception.)  Whatever it was, it wanted in my bedroom. 

Curiosity about wildlife is one of my passions.  It almost always cancels out other concerns -- oh, like safety.  What struck me about the eyes is they did not scamper off (along with the creature's body) when I approached the screen door.  Maybe whatever it was had been blinded by my personality -- or the flashlight, which was far more likely.

The motion of opening the door swept the creature off the ledge.  Once I discovered where it had been deposited, I was surprised to find what I believed to be a cane toad.  That is him at the top of this essay.

He had no fear.  And it was a well-founded confidence.  If he was a cane toad, he had a great defense right on his skin.  A toxin known as bufotoxin.  The appearance of the word "toxin" twice in that sentence was exactly why I did not touch my Mr. Toad.

When threatened, the cane toad exudes additional bufotoxin in the form of a milky fluid.  Many a dog has ended up dead as the result of an encounter with one of these toads.

And some people, who unwittingly enter the Darwin Awards competition, will lick cane toads for the high caused by the toxin.  Those people are often referred to as corpses.

So, I let the toad go his own way.  Just as I once gave the crocodiles in my back yard space for their lives.

It just reminds me how kind Mexico is.  I don't need to go find wildlife; it comes knocking at my door.
 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

cutting the malarkey

Pirates are back in the news -- and not the cartoonish Jack Sparrow type.

These are real "seize-the-ship-and steal-the-booty" pirates.  This time, not in Somalia, but in the Straits of Malacca -- that narrow strip of water that separates Indonesia from Malaysia and Singapore.

The Economist (Malacca bucaneers) reports the international force that tamped down the Somali pirates may need to be relocated in the Straits of Malacca.  The Malacca pirates are not interested in kidnapping crews and ships; they merely want the cargo.  But the frequency of boardings has increased along with heightened violence.

The story caught my eye not only because I am always attracted to tales of pirates, but because of the location.  I had recently heard an interesting theory that the neighboring village of Melaque was named after the Malaysian port of Malacca.

But this part of Mexico is filled with all sorts of naming myths.

I have written before about my quest to determine how the village of San Patricio came to be named after the patron saint of Ireland (wearin' of the orange).  During the Mexican-American War, a group of mainly Irish immigrants, who had volunteered to fight for the American Army, deserted and joined the Mexican side. 

Most of them deserted for idealistic reasons.  But the Mexicans also offered enticements -- officer commissions and land.

There has long been a local myth that the area around San Patricio was settled by survivors of the battalion.  I have repeatedly been told that a deed exists granting a hacienda to the deserters.

If you have followed my research on this question, you already know I have been unable to discover any documentation supporting that creation myth.  It seems far more likely that San Patricio got its name because Saint Patrick is a Catholic saint, just like other Mexican towns named for European and Asia Minor Christians, rather than anything connected with the Mexican-American war.

The Irish theory has several laughable spinoffs.  There are three villages that make up what is commonly called Melaque.  Melaque on the west end of the beach, San Patricio in the middle, and Villa
Obregón on the east end.

Some proponents of the Irish connection have argued that
Obregón and Melaque are bastardizations of Irish words -- O'Brien and malarkey.  The problem with that type of ad hoc reasoning is that Villa Obregón is named in honor of Álvaro Obregón, a post-Revolution president, and the malarkey explanation is just that on its face -- malarkey.

Having drilled nothing but dry wells on the "San Patricio" question, my interest was piqued when I heard a local physician and aspiring politician claim he knew the derivation of the term "Melaque."  I missed his full presentation.  All I heard was his topical sentence: the name is derived from the same Malaysian port whose pirates now run rampant -- Malacca.

I saw him last week at a Rotary meeting.  Even though he was there on another subject, he brought one of his handouts on the topic.

Here is his argument. 

"I have found a map dated 1650 created by the Dutch West Indian Company.  It is one of many found in their 'Great Atlas' which was used by the Dutch mercantile and military trabsort.  It clearly shows 'Puerto de la Navidad' [what we know as Barra de Navidad] and 'Melacca.'"

The good doctor then goes on to explain the importance of the port of Malacca in the period Spain began settling Mexico.  I will give the doctor his own voice.

"I believe there is a strong possibility that it [Melaque's name] originated from Melaka, Malacca in Malaysia and used by the Portuguese when they travelled here.  They had a strong competition with the Spaniards for discovering places."

And that is about it.  An old Dutch atlas and a dash of possibilities.  At least, it is more than the Irish connection advocates have.  But it is rather weak reed on which to lean.

When I moved down here, I thought my historical research tools would help me resolve these nomenclature conundrums.  They haven't.  Often, the best I can verify is that most theories are based on a mystical brew of speculation and romanticism.

But I have not ended up empty-handed.  In researching these questions, I have met interesting people who are the archivists of fascinating, and contradictory, oral histories.

And that is not a bad place to be at the end of an essay.

   

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

a gap in the circle


Death has claimed another member of my inner circle.

Last week, my friend John Hofer informed me that Jana, his wife, had suffered a massive stroke.  The prognosis was not good.  She was admitted to hospice.

Yesterday morning, John wrote me with the news I had been dreading.  Jana died on Sunday night.

A stroke!  The word just did not match up with the Jana I knew.  She was an active hiker.  She monitored the type of food she ate.

I met Jana through John.  John and I worked in the legal division of a workers' compensation insurer in Salem, Oregon.  Our friendship grew out of a common interest in philosophy.

I wish I could say when I first met Jana.  But I am not certain of the date.  It was most likely at dinner in the early 90s.  Food is the communion of friends.
She was never a shrinking violet.  And she had that quality I most admire in my closest associates -- she was bluntly honest.

John and I have a tendency to enjoy playing with words and ideas.  Whenever we would launch into one of our esoteric festivals of wit, she would roll her eyes and go do something practical.  Because she was a practical woman.

And professionally accomplished.  Before she retired, she worked in managerial positions with the State of Oregon.  I loved hearing her work tales.  None of it was gossip or vitriol.  She simply relied on her Aristotelian reasoning in a bureaucratic world that verged on the Kafkaesque.

Even though we had our differences politically, we could both discuss world affairs civilly.  In today's society, that is perhaps the rarest virtue of all.  And the reason was simple: she respected those around her.  She was not merely a humanist in name; she put her beliefs into action.

She doted on her son, Jordan, and her granddaughter, Anna.  Both of them offered a center to her life.

That photograph of Jana (in the plaid shirt) says a lot about her.  She was not always comfortable with groups of people.  But she would shine amongst the people admitted to her inner circle.

That is how I will remember her.  Surrounded by friends.  Chatting civilly about things that matter.  Sharing her honesty and her strength.

When I asked John if there was anything I could do right now, he responded: "Right now, Jordan, Anna, and I are moving through the day as normal as possible, living life as we have always lived it as a family."

Living life as we have always lived it as a family.  That phrase is perhaps Jana's greatest legacy.  Hers was the strength to carry on.


Even so, Jana, you will leave a gap in the circle.
   

Monday, July 13, 2015

weather or not


Weather must be on a short news cycle.

Three days ago in raindrops keep falling on my -- well, you know, I remarked on the unusual weather cycle we have been having.  Three named storms went tearing through the eastern Pacific -- one after the other -- in June.  Then nothing.

Carlos rushed past us out at sea, and gave us a nice bit of rain in mid-June.  But that has been it.  Other than a few sprinkles to tease us into remembering what we are not getting.  Interestingly, a few nights ago, we had a sprinkles here, but a reader in Manzanillo and some friends who live at the base of the local mountains, reported a downpour.

Maybe there is truth in being careful about our wishes.  When I published my "where are the storms" piece last Thursday, a storm was starting to take shape off of the west coast of Guatemala.  It is now on the move in its new guise as Tropical Storm Dolores, with 45 mph winds.

Those horned red circles that show up on the National Hurricane Center's map have a way of catching my attention.  That is, until I dig further to see the predicted cone for the storm.



Just like the vast majority of storms that form off of Mexico's Pacific coast, this one appears to be headed on a course that will not give much alarm to landlubbers of the non-hysterical variety.  But I would not want to be in a boat at sea when it passes by.

If you look closely, the hurricane center has hedged its bets by issuing a tropical storm warning for the coast both north and south of us.  But those warnings are almost the equivalent of the American State Department's travel advisories for Mexico.  Much wailing and wearing of sack cloth, with very little practical advice -- other than "be afraid."

Looking at the map, I just realized if I had not wandered over to that page, I would have no idea there was an active tropical storm warning.  We have surf danger flags here, but no weather warning flags -- as far as I know. 

And even though a very expensive tsunami waning system was installed in Jalisco six years ago, I do not know if was ever intended for other broader warnings.  In fact, I am not certain if it is even still in operation.

If we are fortunate, we will get some rain.  If not, we will simply have to wait for another storm of some sort to blow through and dampen down our humidity.


-----------------------------------------

I finished this piece around 6 in the afternoon yesterday.  To prove just how fickle the weather can be, after this definitive work on the weather, one of our regular summer storms rolled in.

Not really "regular" because the best it could do is offer a cloudburst of a few minutes.  But that would good enough to cause the people at the taco stand tables in the street to abandon their territory for higher territory inside.

The water in the street was high enough that I had trouble finding a safe path back home.  I ran into the house and grabbed my camera to capture how deep the water was.

In the five minutes I was gone, the water had headed toward the lagoon.  I caugt the tail end of it, turning topes into weirs.


May we have more like it. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

here's looking at you, kid


Fellow blogger, Nancy, over at Countdown to Mexico, shared the recipe for her personal magic tonic (My Health Promoting Turmeric Tonic).  All she needed was an old-fashioned medicine wagon to complete the word picture.  Healthy it sounds.

As luck would have it, I was drafting an essay  on my latest elixir of happiness.  It certainly is not as healthy as Nancy's tonic, but it has become my favorite summer drink in Mexico.

Before we get to my personal concoction, let me tell you where this all started.  Back in the 1970s, I ran across a canned drink called Snap-E-Tom in the Air Force commissary.  Probably in Denver.

It was touted as a tomato chili cocktail -- with the emphasis on "chili."  And that is why I liked it.  It made tomato juice taste interesting.  As well, as clearing my sinuses.  I bought it by the case.

Somewhere, I lost track of the product.  Why, I am not certain.  Tastes change, I guess.

But I ran across a can while I was in Salem earlier this year.  Rather than build some faux suspense, I will simply tell you the experience was disappointing.  The contents tasted liked watered-down tomato juice.  The urge for a spicy tomato juice lingered on.

Until I found what may be an even better substitute -- everything available in most Mexican grocery stores.  At least, around here.

JC, the manager at Papa Gallo's, asked me if I wanted to try a Caesar -- a tomato-based mixed drink from Calgary.  When he told me what was in it, I demurred at the mention of vodka.  He told me he would make a virgin version for me.

I was hooked.  I understand the Papa Gallo's version is not the same as the original.  The ingredients here are: clamato juice, fresh lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, Magi, Tabasco sauce, and rock salt (both in the drink and on the rim).  There were echoes of Snap-E-Tom in my mouth.

After watching JC put my drink together, I decided to try my own version.  I have dropped the Magi and the salt and have added a good measure of puréed jalapeño. 

It is even better than Snap-E-Tom.  I call it Snappy Steve.  It is so good I have been using the full nearly-2 litre bottle of clamato to make an hour's worth of liquid for my reading enjoyment in the pool.

I may have lost an old companion, but, just as Rick would say in Casablanca, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Saturday, July 11, 2015

testing the limits


My most cherished culinary treasure has been put to good use.

Last month, I told you I brought back from Bend a bottle of ghost pepper chili powder (ghost of a chance) -- ground from the world's fifth hottest pepper.  During the past month, I have experimented with it in my world-famous bean soup, a batch of spaghetti sauce, and a couple of egg dishes.

It turns out that the pepper is quite versatile.  Its primary purpose is to add heat to any dish.  And it must be used judiciously.  I didn't even bother with measuring spoons.  Fork tines are sufficient.

Each time I used it, I would add a fork tine of powder, and then taste the result -- usually adding three or four measures until I had the spiciness at the correct level.

The best thing about the pepper is its layers of flavor.  In addition to its heat, it adds sweetness and a bit of smokiness to the dish.  As good as it was in the bean soup and the spaghetti sauce, I preferred it with my egg dishes.

Because culinary treats are not to be hoarded, last week I took the jar to Magnolia's in La Manzanilla to share some of the contents with Alexa Mayberry, the cook and co-owner.  When I drove over for dinner this Tuesday, she surprised me with a salsa she had made with the chili powder.  A simple tomato-based sauce -- with quite a zing to it.

I tried it on her chicken and spinach tamale pie.  It was a perfect match.  She gave me a small jar of her salsa to take home.  I tried it on eggs mixed with garlic, onion, and garlic.  Another match made for the palate.  Later today, I will try it on my version of tortilla de España.

For those of you who doubted my sanity of using such a spicy chili powder, come on over.  The proof is in the pudding. 

Hmm.  Maybe a chocolate-chili powder pudding?


Friday, July 10, 2015

a bit too sweet for my taste


My friend Chad has been teaching an ethics class in the evenings for a couple of decades at the junior college in his hometown.

When we last met for lunch, the topic of mores came up.  I was chiding myself for falling into the "things-are-getting-worse" school when Chad told me: "Don't be too rough on yourself; ethical matters may be getting worse.  At least, they are changing."

He then told me he has been starting his first class each year with a question for his students: "If an unattractive, old man with plenty of wealth offered you money to have sex, would you do it?"  The question was loaded to get an expected response: not a hand moved.  That was in the beginning.

Then, about ten years ago, the hands started moving -- but always with the same question: "How much money?"  Chad said the response, at least, led to some interesting discussions on the role of money in making ethical choices.

He told me he has decided to abandon the question.  A majority of his students now raise their hands that they would accept the offer, and the ensuing "discussion" usually gets no further than a conclusory "Why not?" 

(He is also abandoning the question because some students have complained to the administration that he is creating an "insecure" environment on the campus.  But that is the topic for another essay.)

I thought of Chad the other day while electronically leafing through The Economist.  I ran across an article (A Teaspoon of Sugar) on the rising debt load being shouldered (or sometimes shirked) by graduates from American colleges.  And just like the students in Chad's classroom, some of them have come up with a creative solution -- selling sex and companionship to wealthy older men to pay for their education.

Now, I am not so naive as to believe that solution for earning money is particularly new.  Prostitution earned its appellation of "the world's oldest profession" for good reason.

What struck me, though, were the numbers reported in the article.

First, was the usual monthly pay for, to not put too fine of a point on it, "putting out."  $3,000.  The article points out that some "sugar daddies" pay their "sugar babies" much more than that.  If you can read that sentence without cringing, you did better than I.

But that was chump change in the ethics market.  Apparently, there is a site on the internet that facilitates "sugar babies" and "sugar daddies" hooking up.  Of course, there would be.  There is a web site and app for everything these days.  And this one is designed exclusively for students trying to avoid school debts.

While scanning through the article, I suspected the site would probably have no more than 9,000 students.  After all, the number of young students is limited.  My research indicates there are 21 million students enrolled in American colleges; 13 million full-time.

That is why I was shocked to read, on just one web site, there are over 900,000 "sugar babies" looking for their benevolent benefactor.  The number has more than doubled in the last two years.

And the draw?  According to the web site, two-thirds of the participants graduate with no student debt.  Maybe the rest have moved on to the Madame de Pompadour employment agency.

I am not quite certain what to think about this whole scheme.  As a former criminal defense attorney, the arrangement would easily escape prosecution for prostitution.  Attempts by some states to outlaw it have run into practical problems -- how to outlaw the activity without affecting the legality of marriage.

As a libertarian, I would be very reluctant to interfere in what appears to be a free market solution to the government-created student debt crisis.  There is a certain elegance in the solution.  Let the market clean up the government's mess.

But I do have moral and ethical concerns.  I come from an era that cherished the exclusivity of sex within the confines of marriage (even though the ideal was often honored only in the lurch).  And I still do. 

I am no longer the ethical norm.  Nor is The Economist.  It would be hard to imagine the article being published within its economic liberal pages even a decade ago.

Earlier in the week I was in Manzanillo at the Burger King -- a treat for me.  The place is usually filled with the children of middle class Mexicans, dropping their kids off for lunch and play.  I have yet to see another northern face in the place.

I sat down with my tray and nodded to a young man sitting at the next table.  He got up and asked if he could join me.  His eyes were noticeably red.

Let me confess.  I was not initially very hospitable.  Burger King seems to attract some interesting people.  On one occasion I was offered a packet of cocaine.  On another, to buy a California-licensed vehicle because the purported owner was having trouble getting papers for it.  The vehicle salesman really needed to work on his sales routine.

It turned out this young man was offering neither drugs nor dodgy pickups.  What surprised me was his English.  It was almost unaccented. 

He was born in Guanajuato, but he grew up in a rather hard-scrabble life in Colorado, where his mother raised him and his two brothers on her own, doing whatever was necessary to put food on the table.  And he was quite explicit in what she thought was necessary to protect her children.

At 21, he returned to the Manzanillo area five years ago, and found life just as rough.  He put together some manual labor and waiting jobs.  All of that changed last year when he met an older Canadian, and moved in with him.

The money has been great, but the young man's girlfriend (for good reason) is jealous.  That is why he was talking to me.


I had no idea where the conversation was going.  Had I been Chad, I would have been drawing an ethical flow chart in my head.  Not me.  I sat there dumbly not knowing what was coming next.

He asked me: "Have you ever broken a relationship?"  I chuckled and told him if there is anything at which I am an expert, it is ending relationships.

Then, came the question.  "How do I break up with my girlfriend?  This gig is too good to give up."  Hardly the question I was expecting.

I loved his use of "gig."  His lack of accent and use of slang were not the only aspects that belied his American acculturation.  He would have fit right in with the students in Chad's most recent classes and the young people who sign up as "sugar babies."  For all I know, there is a great overlap between those two groups.

What he finally decided, I have no idea.  Well, I do.  Or I wouldn't have included his story in this piece.

The question posed by Chad to his students has an international taste to him.  I should invite him down here to do some research -- if the school ungags him.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

raindrops keep falling on my -- well, you know

The great rain debate is on.

Each summer I have spent here, a major point of contention, in any expatriate watering hole, is the rain.  Weather, of course, is the grease that keeps the small chat machine running -- to keep us from venturing into politics, and killing one another.

But our weather talk tends to get narrowed down this year to two parties: The Rain Is Late This Summer party, and It Never Starts This Early party.  Both groups are at each other's throats like Shias and Sunnis at a Ramadan midnight buffet.

Here we are in the second week of July, and, other than the inches we received from the hurricane Carlos spinoff, our spring and early summer have been almost bone dry.  We have had a couple of nearly dry thunderstorms with a few teasing drops.  But that has been it.

The hurricane season here started with three major Pacific storms right out of the chute.  Since then, the National Hurricane Center has been displaying the image you see at the top of this essay.  And that is fine with me.

But I am a big summer rain fan.  When I first came to Melaque, we could expect a nice rain storm every three or four days.  And they made us happy.  The rain would drive down both the temperature and the humidity -- for a bit.  I would join my neighbors in the street as we let the cooling rain shower over us.

I tend to be a member of the rain-should-have-started party.  My memory is that we would start getting rains in June.  But my memory has been challenged (and supported) more than once amongst my fellow expatriates.

Maybe it is the heat.  Maybe it is the bad social lessons we have learned recently from political discourse.  But what should be a good-natured exchange of ideas almost instantly turns into a series of ad hominem jumping jacks.

The worst is when someone tosses out "global warning" as the only cause for the odd weather -- if it is odd.  If the other person ripostes with the observation that scientists are unable to attribute global warning to any particular weather event, the inevitable response will be: "You are a denier."

How did that happen?  Weather has now joined the list of discussions that can be terminated with a single magic word -- such as the conversation suicide bomber appellations "racist" and "fascist."  Once either of them (or both) are in play, the conversation is over.

Well, our great rain debate may now be moot -- or, at least, we can wander off into new fields to fight our duels.  Yesterday afternoon, we got some rain.  And I mean just "some."  I doubt most of the local rain gauges will report more than an inch.  But it is rain.



The highlands of Mexico (especially Guadalajara, just four hours away) has been getting what we coasters would call "the benefit of rain" -- maybe even our rain.  Though, I doubt the Tapatios, like Charles, would agree.  Their streets have occasionally been flooded.

Having a small rain has been beneficial, though.  It gave me an opportunity to diagnosis two almost-clogged drains.  A quick clean out and we are ready to take on the worst that nature can give us.

Maybe we can now start arguing about whether the waves are louder this month than last month.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

I promised no more Amazon essays.  So, I will do a postscript.

My replacement book for the damaged Truman biography (another amazon trip) showed up today.  Even though I gave my post office box as the delivery address, I received a call on my mobile telephone from the courier in the late afternoon asking for my address.  I asked if he could drop it at the post office, but he said he was within three blocks "of my telephone."

I thought that was an odd response.  But I gave him the address.  One reason I have not used my address for delivery is that none of the streets in my neighborhood are signed.

He pulled up in his little delivery van a few minutes later, and I signed for the new book.  I never did ask him how he knew I lived in the neighborhood -- if he didn't have my address.  But I think I know how.

My GPS function is activated on my telephone.  I know that Facebook friends can see the location of the writer or poster.  I suppose the courier has a similar application on his telephone.

I also re-learned an old lesson.  Even though all of the circumstances in one event seem almost identical to another, do not necessarily expect the same result in Mexico. 

I still do not know why the package did not get delivered to my post office box.  But it got to me.  And that is what matters.  We will see what happens to my next order -- that just left The States yesterday afternoon on its way to Guadalajara.