Monday, March 19, 2018

to beer or not to beer

Lent is an odd season in my little corner of Mexico. We are not smack dab in the middle of it.

The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter that constitute Lent are very important to Mexican Catholics. Theologically, 

the real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
 If the goal is to wean "men from sin and selfishness," Lent in our little village has a lot of competition.

Yesterday, I stopped by our local Kiosko to pay my electricity bill ($116 (US); not bad for two months of a house filled with family wielding electronic artillery). The first thing I noticed was about twenty people standing in a loose interpretation of a queue where there are usually only one or two waiting customers.

The second thing that caught my eye were the castles of Corona stacked against each of the walls. Just Corona. But lots of it.

I thought it strange. After all, the feast of San Patricio was the previous night capping off nearly two weeks of holy debauchery. Our streets and highways were clogged with buses and cars that should have been taking people home, rather than dropping them off post-festivities. And it was a week too early for semana santa -- Easter week.

Then it hit me. Monday was going to be a federal holiday -- Benito Juarez's birthday. Tourists were stacking their time at the beach. San Patricio plus Juarez's birthday plus Easter week. It is almost as if all eight planets had aligned in their paths around the sun.

Today is not really Juarez's birthday. He was born on 21 March. In 1806. As Omar reminds me.

But, Mexico, like The States, has decided that voters like having their holidays on Mondays. All the better to lump them together with the weekend. The result, of course, is that citizens are far more interested in the time off instead of the man they are supposedly honoring.

And, in the case of Juarez, at least, that is a pity.

Far too many people mistakenly think that Juarez is the father of his country; its George Washington. He isn't.  That honor probably belongs to that scalawag Agustin de Iturbide. And the less said about him in this context, the better. (Though, I do confess, I have a soft spot in my head for him.)

Juarez's name and image are ubiquitous in Mexico. On the 20 peso note. Street names. Schools. Cities. Parks filled with his diminutive form.

And for good reason. Even though he was not Mexico's first president, he is its most memorable from Independence up until the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. OK. Maybe that scoundrel Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is almost as memorable.

But people remember Juarez for the good he did. He helped to put Mexico on a road of national identity. He is probably better known as the Lincoln of Mexico. And, in that sense, he is the father of his country. The very symbol of Mexican nationalism and the protector against foreign invaders.

He came to power during one of Mexico's interminable civil wars. This one the War of Reform, and then resisted and survived the French invasion that put the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican throne.

Even though many of his reforms were revolutionary, he was not a revolutionary. He was a wily politician with Liberal (in the Mexican sense of the word) instincts.

Those instincts allowed him to strip the Catholic Church of both its revenue-producing property, as well as its churches and convents. He then used that land as a resource for Mexico's first land reform program. A program that eventually left the poor in a worse state. (But that is another story.)

He is the only full-blooded Indian who has served in the presidency. But he did not define himself by his blood.

In that sense, he was a classical liberal. He believed that if he had made his way up the slippery pole, other poor Mexicans could do that same. All they needed was a fair opportunity to advance. That was the intellectual basis of stripping the church of its financial and political power and for his land reforms.

He was also a ruthless politician. He had to be to survive in the political and social environment in which he operated. A lawyer, he played games with the Mexican Constitution. Ruling by decree for a period as an effective dictator and then running for re-election in violation of constitution term limits. Lincoln was accused of the first, as well.

He had the honor of dying in bed -- even though it was a close call. An insurgency had risen against him led by a man whose name would be as familiar in Mexican history as his own -- Porfirio Diaz.

But it is not Porfirio Diaz who we honor. It is Juarez. He is the only Mexican whose birthday is honored by federal holiday.

Flawed? Certainly. He was a human. There is a tendency these days to push historical figures from their pedestals for holding opinions that we now find reprehensible. In the process, we make ourselves feel better with our moral masturbation. But we also lose a lot of the realization of what it is to be human.

So, I am taking off my hat to Benito Juarez today. After all, I used several of his portraits to pay for my electricity.

As for all of that beer? It is still on the wall. Others are welcome to it.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

i am a camera

I have a new camera.

Before those of you who had nominated candidates in The Great Camera Sing-off get too excited, I did not buy a Sony a9 or a Sony a7 iii (the nearest equivalent to my late lamented Sony a6) or even a Sony RX10 IV. In fact, it is not even a Sony.

The winner is a Samsung. The just released (as of yesterday) Samsung Galaxy S9+.

If you think it is just a telephone, it is not. The camera is an improvement over my Samsung Galaxy S8+ (whose screen died an untimely death in a fall from my nightstand two nights ago).

The Samsung has dual 12 MP cameras on the back and a single 8 MP camera on the front. Because I am not a selfie guy (said quickly, the reverse would be true), the front camera does not interest me. It is that dual back camera that is tempting me to rely solely on the telephone camera for shooting, and forget about a stand-alone camera.That will put an end to the lens or no lens debate.

Samsung cameras have long had a tendency to slightly wash out colors in sunlight. But that is easy to correct with the camera's settings. I like fiddling around with them because they offer a great opportunity to take control of what you shoot. (The same reason lots of computer enthusiasts prefer PCs over Apples.)

Where the camera shines is at night. It has an impressive 1.5 aperture to capture low-light subjects. Even capturing almost-true colors.

I have not yet experimented with the telephoto lens. But I will.

For the next week or so, I will use the Samsung for the photographs that accompany my essays. Then, I will decide if I need a separate camera. After all, I have a wedding in April that will require high-quality shots.

Until then, it's time to go shoot some essays. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

wednesday in the river with kaitlyn

Roll Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, and The Last Crusade into a barrel of monkeys, and you will come close to the day we spent yesterday.

It was Kaitlyn's last full day in town. So, we needed to do something special. The choice was easy.

Last year, Ray Calhoun, the owner of The Only Tours, took Darrel, Christy, and me on one of his standard tours.

"Standard" is misleading. In this case, it means one of his advertised tours. But, standard it was not (city slickers duding it up).

The vote was unanimous. We would reprise our adventure. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are motorcyclists, and were looking forward to using their skills on the ATVs.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there is plenty to see in our area. It is an agricultural society. Dirt roads run Kansas straight through fields and orchards of pineapple, papaya, bananas, coconuts, watermelon, truck crops, mangoes, and a few not-so-easily identified crops. And cattle. Plenty of cattle.

The dirt roads are great for bicycles. They are even better for ATVs.

But we did not stick to roads. The major portion of the trip is on an almost dry river bed northeast of Barra de Navidad. And it is perfect driving for ATVs. Lots of sand. Open spaces. 
And amazingly little dust to interfere with bird-sighting.

That is, if you let your attention be diverted from the adrenalin-churning ride up the river. Mine is a motorcycle family. And there are very few things in life that can toss hormones into the body furnace more effectively than a revving engine sliding through sand.

Our ultimate goal was to reach a fall line where the river squeezes into an extremely narrow channel. Narrow enough that we had to abandon the vehicles and clamor over rocks that could have fallen out of Tolkien's imagination.

And, just like Petra, as we turned a corner, the small (but spectacular) waterfall revealed itself. Along with a precariously-lodged boulder acting as a roof over the cascade to add to the Hollywood effect.

This is Christy's favorite spot. On both visits, she said she would be content to spend the rest of the day there. But that was not to be. After all, having made it to our watery Henneth Annun, we still had to return home.

Ray always puts on a good tour. But Kaitlyn and Omar added an element of youth, of style, of playfulness that we missed on our last trip. The fact that we were all drenched from the waist down was proof that we had not had a staid drive in the country.

Kaitlyn flies away today. We will miss her. But I am certain she will return for a reprise.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, we are now down to four. My advise is that no one leave the library on his own. 

Unless they are going for another ATV ride.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

eating through mexico

No visitor to our little pocket of Mexico is spared the mandatory march through the crocodile refuge in La Manzanilla.

When I lived on the laguna in Villa Obregon, leaving home was not required to snuggle up to one of life's most fascinating creations. All you needed to do was to wait until nightfall, grab a flashlight and a camera, and step out my back gate. There were usually one or two good-sized crocodiles lurking just a few feet from my back door.

No more. Now, if I want to show off a collection of American crocodiles, I need to pile visitors into my Escape for a short drive to La Manzanilla. And I do like showing them off.

The crocodiles at La Manzanilla live in a protected reserve. That was not always so. When I first moved down here, the crocodiles freely roamed the beaches and streets around their mangrove home.

But the presence of crocodiles attracted tourists. And that was a volatile mix. Several lap dogs suffered the consequences. So, the local authorities decided to round up the crocodiles, fence them in their own area, and charge an admission fee. It was a perfect mix.

Over the years, the ability to see the crocodiles and the other inhabitants of the mangrove wetland has been improved with the installation of a boardwalk, observation towers, and two suspension bridges right of The Temple of Doom. Disney could learn from this refuge about creating the thrill of true danger.

Of course, what we go to see are the crocodiles. They are not really in their natural setting. Regular feedings cause them to congregate near the chicken table.

But most people would never get to see these magnificent beasts if the refuge did not exist. Their existence was once threatened through hunting and loss of environment. Even though they are still listed as "vulnerable," they have made a steady recovery in Mexico. Mexican efforts to keep the mangrove wetlands undeveloped has been their best survival technique.

And it has provided tourists with a taste of what life is like in the mangroves.

We took our cue from the crocodiles and indulged in our own predatory behavior by driving a couple of miles furthrer north along Tenacatita Bay to one of our favorite haunts -- Chantli Mare, a boutique hotel that offers a great lunch and opportunities for walks on flat beaches.

Of course, it is also one of our favorite stops to play Mexican train -- a version of dominoes that is almost addictive. It certainly stirs up the competitive hormones in our family.

George M Cohan, the perfect showman, always played the sad scene against a happy background. We had one of those, as well, at Chantli Mare.

Most of the guests had left their tables to crowd around a lump at the tide line on the beach. It turned out to be a turtle. A badly injured turtle who looked as if her final hour was near.

She was a reminder, that in this world of joy, tragedy is always present. She probably did not know she was dying. Only that she no longer had the strength to swim in the open water. And her time, like our own, would soon be over.

Maybe that is why we flock to see the crocodiles. They carry the potential of danger. And we cling to our rickety boardwalk hoping that today is not the day we will end up as part of a crocioile's bouillabaisse.

Let me add a coda. We are in the midst of celebrating the feast day of the local patron saint -- San Patricio. That means fireworks. More particularly, the spectacle of the castillo with its spinning wheels and shooting projectiles.

Even though the best castillo will be on Saturday, we stopped by to watch the ritual of young men braving the scars of fireworks. In the video, I particularly like the father in the blue shirt teaching his son how to jump the fire.

No crocodiles are included.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

outing the family

"Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me."

And so he did. Emily had it right.

Yesterday was the day to show off Manzanillo to my niece Kaitlyn. For the past week, we have been familying around Barra de Navidad and Melaque. But Mom flew north on Sunday. So, we are now down to five members.

Our goal was the iguana sanctuary. We had all (with the exception of Omar) been there last year. The place was fascinating enough to call for an encore.

That is, if we could get there. The drive is not long, but it means driving through old town Manzanillo -- with its streets and traffic that would be right at home in a Zeffirelli recreation of medieval Padua.

We were almost there when I took a wrong turn. Not to worry, I would just loop around on a one-lane side street and get back on the main road.

But God had different plans for us. This hearse was parked in the middle of the residential street blocking any forward progress.

There was nothing to do but wait. And consider the meaningless emptiness of existence known as life. (For some reason, to me, hearses are always far more evocative of Kierkegaard than Dickinson.) After all, why was the hearse there? Where was the guest of honor? Would there be noshes at the reception following the funeral?

I only managed to get up to "worldly worry always seeks to lead a human being into the small-minded unrest of comparisons, away from the lofty calmness of simple thoughts" when the driver of the hearse appeared (sans casket or corpse) to pull forward just far enough to let us pass.

It was an auspicious overture to our day. After all, our first stop was one of those cores of human kindness. I wrote about it last year (st. francis of iguana).

Forty years ago, Ramon Medina Archundia decided to open a sanctuary for the iguana in the Manzanillo area. Iguana can live in lots of environments. But, in urban areas, they are subject to sudden death syndrome -- from cars, humans, and other animals. They often star in a rather stringy stew.

To give them a fighting chance, Ramon started taking them in as if he were the embodiment of an Emma Lazarus poem. The injured. The hunted. The healthy. All were welcome.

Four decades later, he has a sanctuary that houses up to 600 iguana. That is the number bandied about by the employees. And last year, it was quite credible.

Not so much this year. There were noticeably fewer dinosaur stand-ins this year. But those that were there were still the subject of the program's on-going educational program that the animals are worthy in their own right to be honored. Kant would approve.

The site is also home to several birds, raccoons, wild boars, and other animals. Some visitors to the sanctuary have written on social media hows the sight of the caged animals reduced them to tears -- followed by the usual "someone other than me should do something about it."

I understand the sentiment. The cages are not ideal. But most of the animals were brought there in an injured state. Several of the birds would be unable to fly if released. Like most things in life, there are hard choices that cannot be resolved by Disney reductionism.

But our day was not over. We stopped at La Marina (a department store in Manzanillo) to get some clothes for Omar. Because we thought one of our favorite eateries (Monster Burger) would not open for another two hours, we bought some game credits for Kaitlyn and Omar, and let them loose on the shopping center arcade.

Darrel, Christy, and I enjoyed the show. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are about as competitive as people can be without turning into one of those skating freaks who seem to lose all contact with reality.

I have probably said it several times now, but having my family with me in Mexico changes me -- and often for the better.

Probably not as much as death. But close. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

sentimental irony

“The tone of your writing certainly has changed since you moved down here.”

So Darrel announced on our walk to the Barra de Navidad ATM (a mission that, as it has on so many occasions, resulted in a dry hole). We had been discussing the possibility of having dinner at Lora Loka’s in La Manzanilla. He loves her baked shrimp enchiladas with salsa verde.

In anticipation, he had searched my blog for references to her restaurant and found one of my first posts after moving to Mexico. The families of two other fellow bloggers were in La Manzanilla and wanted to know if we could all get together for an informal blogger conference. I thought it was a great idea (having just had dinner with two other bloggers in Guaymas).

I suggested Lora’s because I knew her from my stay in La Manzanilla in 2007. It was all going perfectly.

Until the Mexican government declared a health crisis due to the swine flu. People were prohibited from gathering in large groups. Theaters were closed. Shopping malls were closed. And, most importantly for our group, restaurants were closed.

I had not yet been exposed to the ingenuity of Mexicans. A blogger who lived in La Manzanilla talked with Lora. The next thing I knew, we were dining as a group -- on the beach.

She had complied with the closure. We were not in the restaurant.

Darrel pointed out that the more cynical Steve of today would have led with that hook. Instead, I did not even mention it. If I recall correctly, I was still concerned Lora might get in trouble, and I did not want to be the vessel of retribution. I now know the likelihood of that happening was about as likely as Donald Trump signing a rational order on free trade.

But, he said, there was more. Back then, I wrote like a wide-eyed, slack-jawed visitor from Chippewa Falls. Everything was new. And amazing. And enthralling. I write about a place that could exist only in the mind of someone new to an area. There was a good reason for that. I was.

And now, I asked. What is my tone now?

”Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness,” he responded.

”Do you mean sophisticated and mature?”

“Nope. I already told you. Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness.”

I am content with that. Even though it does make me sound a lot like Doctor Ottensclag in Grand Hotel. It could be worse.

And I think he is only half correct. There is no doubt that I love an ironic tone. And my writing often sounds as if I am typing through long sighs.

But I still have that sense of adventure that animated my writing style nine years ago. I still wake up every morning not knowing how I am going to get through the day. And I still search for experiences in which I have never dabbled.

Today is one of those days. Mexpatriate welcomed a new cast member this morning: my niece, Kaitlyn. She will be with us for about a week. She will be a good mix to our older set.

Her arrival presented a minor problem. All of my bedrooms are full. To make room for her, I decamped to the hotel just down the street from my house for the duration. 

While I was in bed last night, I started musing about adventure. The next thing I knew, Nancy Walker was singing in my ear from Do Re Mi. One of those older musicals that had a plot, believable characters, and a heavy slathering of philosophical musing.

While I sit by the hotel pool, I will let you chuckle at a woman trying to justify her rather frustrating life with a husband who cannot find satisfaction in the moment.

I may have a love for irony, but I am also a sucker for sentiment.

Monday, March 05, 2018

the labyrith of solitude

Some things are best done alone.

Walking. Biking. Running.

There are few things worse in life than having to modify your own pace downward for the pace of others. At least, when you are exercising.

When my family was here last year (and I was in Australia), Darrel and Christy bought a pair of bicycles from two Mexican-American brothers who bring the bikes down from The States. The bikes looked good enough that I bought one, as well. And for the rest of their stay, we pedaled all over the area on social rides.

Darrel and Christy headed back to Oregon in the spring, and the bicycles went into storage. I put mine away because walking is my usual exercise regimen. My step counter is set up for a walker, not a bike rider.

That is not quite fair. My telephone automatically starts counting my steps when I start walking. It also has a cycling mode. But it does not start without me taking the telephone out of my pocket, finding the cycle mode, starting it, and stowing my telephone. Then, I need to stop it when the ride is over.

So, I satisfy my jones for numbers by relying on the walking step counter. Even if it does cheat me out of some credit.

Darrel now has all of the bicycles pumped and oiled for this riding season. I took advantage of his generosity by jumping on mine and heading out alone this past week.

From my house in Barra, the number of alternative routes is almost limitless. If I head west, I will end up in the Pacific. South, I will splash into the lagoon. But pedaling north or east takes me through shady lanes where horses, cattle, and goats share the lanes.

This is an agricultural area. Coconut. Mango. Banana. Papaya. Watermelon. Truck crops. Even while pumping my legs off, I enjoy the change of scenery. Even the packs of  dogs that chase me down the road like some threatening beasty out of Revelation.

And it is a nice change. My walking track has been fixed for three years now. The only reason I do not modify it is that I know exactly where the segment markers are and if I am maintaining my pace.

The bike is a little different. I ride until I break through the wall, and once I hit that pace, I can keep riding as long as I like through some of the most bucolic landscape imaginable.

But I need to do it alone.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

moving to mexico -- why did you move to barra de navidad?

Barra de Navidad is a homey place.

My more cynical English friends might substitute the word "ropy." And they would be partly correct.

Barra does not reflexively pop to mind when tourists describe pool-side drinks served by attractive wait staff. Not that we do not have some of that here. After all, the town lives on tourist dollars. And there were plenty of Mexican tourists in town this weekend -- rehearsing for the semana santa onslaught in four weeks.

But Barra is also a place where people live their daily lives. And in that is its charm.

Most of the people I know say they moved permanently to this area because they liked the weather. Or the food. Or the beach. Or the low cost of living. I am not one of them.

I decided to live here because I like the ambiance. The feel of the place. The manner life is lived out by rather ordinary people in a rather ordinary way.

My portion of Mexico reminds me of the little logging community where I grew up in southern Oregon. Admittedly, Barra is much larger and there is a beach. But the feel of the two places cannot be mistaken. They are as much alike as New York and Paris. But in a much nicer way.

They are small towns. Filled with small town people living out small town lives with small town values.

I know that sounds as if I am rooting for the Bernie Sanders - Rick Santorum Nostalgia Team who imagine an America of the 1950s that probably never existed.

The real version rolls along daily here. On my walk this afternoon, I encountered a boy, perhaps ten, barefoot, fishing pole over his shoulder, dog at his heel.

It was one of those Norman Rockwell moments that translates well across borders. If I had been thinking, I would have snapped it for you. But why? I already told you about it.

When I walked past my neighbor's house, their twelve-year old grandson was standing in the courtyard holding his fighting cock. Even that translated well to my youth.

I had a bantam hen named Susan as a pet. She was buried alive by our Chihuahua, Buttons. It is just as well. I doubt she could have gone many rounds with a fighting cock. 

Sometimes, small town values can be a little gritty. Or, as a Mexican friend of mine put it: "Small town heaven; small town hell." With the intimacy of knowing almost everyone comes the diminution of privacy and isolation prized by urbanites.

For me, it is a fair trade. There is something very moral centering about everyone knowing your business.

A lot of my questions in Mexico are met with the same response: "It is none of your business." In Spanish, of course.

But no one really takes it seriously. As in most small towns, everything is everyone's business. And you can find out almost anything you want to know if you know the right person.

So, there it is. Why I chose to live here in Barra de Navidad. Chickens and fishing poles.

Sometimes, life's answers are simple.

Friday, March 02, 2018

happy cows are tasty cows

"Steve, there's something wrong with my telephone. There is nothing on your blog since you wrote about my birthday."

From some mothers, the subtext would be chiding. But my Mom was merely concerned that she had missed a post.

She hadn't. I have been a bit lax in posting for the past month. Not that nothing has been happening in the lives of the Cotton clan. We have been busy on most days enjoying the sybaritic pleasures of Mexico. I just have not been writing about it.

Well, today I am.

The Cottons are beefeaters. We may as well be outfitted in red and black uniforms before being plastered on a gin bottle.

Other meats do not go untasted. But beef is our celebratory meat. We have not consumed a turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving for decades. None of us would be interested in such a boring plate.

If there is a party, it requires prime rib. With a Cabernet au jus. And a wide variety of sides. Oven-roasted potatoes with fresh grated horseradish and stone-ground mustard. Soy-garlic-blistered green beans. Apple-beet-ginger-jicama salad. Kumquat-mango sauteed chili peppers. Greek wedding rice.

The supporting cast possibilities are endless. But the star is always the prime rib. Cooked to rare perfection. Literally.

And why are we even considering the king of foods at the beginning of March?

When I told you about Mom's 90th birthday, I mentioned our big celebration was going to occur when her granddaughter (my niece) Kaitlyn arrived. Well, she will be here on 6 March. And we will then announce, in true Indy 500 style, "Gentlemen, start your ovens." Because only the gentlemen are allowed near the oven.

When we bought our prime rib a year ago for Christmas 2016, it turned out to be one of the best pieces of meat my brother and I had ever tasted -- let alone prepared. So, we returned to the source. My favorite butcher in San Patricio: La Vaquita Feliz. The Happy Cow. The name somehow always reminds me of Al Capp's shmoos.

After a bit of negotiation and clarification with the butcher, I paid a $1000 (Mx) deposit, the remainder to be paid the next day on delivery.

It arrived while Darrel and I were waiting. An 8-rib roast. Just under 10 kilos. All for $4,948 (Mx) -- about $263 (US).

We asked the butcher to cut it in half because the house oven is a bit small. Last year, the 4-rib size was just perfect.

And there it is. The danger every cook faces. Building up expectations based on past experiences.

But that is all right. If the meal is not as good as last year's, it will mean the other half of the roast will have an opportunity to excel. It is the American way.

For Mom, it will be like a Hanukkah of birthdays before she flies north later in the month.

And for all of us -- Mom, Darrel, Christy, Kaitlyn, Omar, and me -- it will be another guaranteed time enjoying one another's company over the best food in town. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

90 years of a seat at the table

It was the birth year of women. As every year is.

But 1928 had an interesting list of luminaries. Estelle Harris. Shirley Temple. Jean Kennedy Smith and her college classmate Ethel Kennedy. Maya Angelou. Queen Fabiola.

But, most importantly, on this very day 90 years ago, Marilyn Munro was born at home in Powers, Oregon.

It was a year not so different in many ways from this year. The American economy was booming. Unemployment was down. Technology was in the air. Literally. The first transatlantic television had been broadcast nineteen days earlier, and the first regularly scheduled television programming began. In New York state. Of course. Transatlantic flight was proven possible east to west.

The Munros had recently arrived from Minnesota (both sides being descended from Canadians -- Quebec by way of Vermont and Massachusetts, and Prince Edward Island by way of Scotland). She was the last born of four children in one of the few Republican families in their little logging community.

Her youth was historically eventful. The Depression, that arrived late in The West and remained an unwelcome guest until the Japanese propelled America into the Second World War. Her high school emptied of young men -- and teachers. But the war did not leave her untouched. She trained as a plane spotter.

And then it was off to college -- Southern Oregon College of Education in Ashland. Prior to graduation, she was smitten by a handsome swain, Robert Harry Cotton, a son of Oregon pioneers, and married him in 1946. Three children followed: Craig Allen (dying in the year of his birth), Steven Ray, and James Darrel.

Her family is her pride. Being a mother was her ideal. But she also wanted more. Model. Business operator. Real estate agent.

But there were more hours in the day to be filled. She was active in her church as a Sunday school teacher and Bible discussion participant.

And there was Republican politics. Campaigner. Precinct committeewoman. Women's Clubs. Confidant to candidates and elected officials.

Because of her interest in genealogy, she joined the Daughters of the American Revolution -- you know, all of those colonial ancestors in Massachusetts and Vermont (some of whom must have had sentimental attachment to The German King because they ended up in Canada).

Some people with little subtlety in their lives will look at that list (Republican, Daughters of the American Revolution), and will create a cartoon figure that is not the woman currently sitting in my patio sending email to her friends. Let me give you an example.

My father was effectively raised by his aunt Madge and uncle Noble. Noble was one of the legends in our family. One of those men who is far larger than his own biography. Democrat. Patriarch. A man of strong opinions.

When my father first took Mom home to get Noble's approval, Mom
 came face to face with a rural tradition she had never encountered. She chatted with the women in the kitchen while they cooked. When the meal was ready, the women put the bowls on the table, and retreated to the kitchen, leaving the dining table for the men.

My mother had never heard of any such thing. She was raised in a family where everyone was expected to participate in conversation. Women were part of the family. Not something to be excluded.

She had no intention of being excluded.  She grabbed a chair, dragged it into the dining room where she was met with with shocked stares from almost all of the men -- including my father. But, not Uncle Noble. He knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.

He looked up, smiled, and said: "Marilyn, you come over here and sit by me." They then launched into a spirited discussion about politics and religion -- topics on which they had little agreement. She was one of his favorites from that day on.

She has never been a person to waste her time with political activism that she saw merely as pretense. It is one reason she has been a stranger to a certain type of feminism. She is far more interested in living her principles instead of talking about them.

That is why it is nice to have her in the house to celebrate this very special birthday. We are not going to do anything spectacular today other than having lunch by the sea at Papa Gallo's while we play a couple of rounds of Mexican train. Where she will probably easily win.

A bigger celebration will be held next week when her granddaughter Kaitlyn arrives. Prime rib sounds like the perfect way to honor those 90 years. And a full week of doing just that is somehow appropriate.

So, happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for continuing to drag chairs to the table.

Friday, February 23, 2018

this is maya tale

I started my day in Tikal in a shower of irony.

As lots of water rained down on me in the stall, I chuckled. The very substance that may have been responsible for depopulating the great Maya cities was now cleansing me for my visit to one of the greatest of those cities. Tikal.

It is more than just a Stars Wars set. For centuries it was the Big Dog amongst the southern Maya city-states. Then, around 900 AD, it all came to an end. The people evacuated the city. The elite moved on. Some of the common people stayed in the area and attempted to eke out a poor living from a very unforgiving environment.

At its height, Tikal had a very sophisticated culture. Built at the junction of what anthropologists believe were major land trading routes, the city had a strict social hierarchy where people carried out their specific roles in the class into which they had been born. Authoritarian. Wealthy. Successful.

There is no sign of a huge slaughter that would be expected if the city had been overthrown in a violent invasion. There are no mass graves. No piles of human bones.

Some of Tikal's temples have signs of having been burnt. But that could have easily been a deconsecration ceremony conducted by the elite before they beat cleats.
There was plenty of warfare between the city-states. But none that resulted in the destruction of cities. Those conquests resulted in a new dynasty on the throne with life going on as it had before.

If you ask an anthropologist why the southern Mayan culture crashed into a wall, there is only one answer: no one knows for certain. But there are clues.

And those clues lead to a plethora of theories. Overpopulation. Change in trading routes. A hierarchical society that was incapable of dealing with changes. Overuse of natural resources. Drought. Alien abduction.

All are plausible -- except for the last one. The only people who credit the alien alliance tale are the same people who meet at midnight in their anti-Illuminati cells of three people -- two of which will resign next week to work on their campaign to abolish the verb "to be" as a cisgender conspiracy.

Asking the question is a bit like asking why the cold war ended -- or whatever happened to the Yankees in 1960? The factors are legion.

But before we start the autopsy, let's talk a little bit about what Tikal was. A resident of the city would have been surprised at the name we now use. Tikal was the Mayan word applied to the place when it was "discovered" by a chicle-hunter in 1848. The Maya called it Yax Mutal. But, we won't here. It would be too confusing.

People had lived in the area as early as 1000 BC with some monumental buildings (mainly temples) being built around 300 BC. But something happened in the first century AD that caused Tikal to grow. 

The most prominent theory is that as Tikal's more powerful neighbor cities declined, Tikal took advantage of its trade route position. That economic advantage was ameliorated by the establishment of a talented and long-lasting dynasty.

Tikal had a rival right from the start -- Calakmul (located in modern Mexico). For the next 800 years, they would be matched rivals for control of the southern Maya city-states. Yin and yang in an eternal struggle.

Even though Tikal was well-suited to control land trade routes and the surrounding area had rich soil, it (just like the rest of the Maya city-states) lacked a reliable source of water.

Tikal sits on the southern edge of the giant limestone plate that makes up the Yucatan peninsula. The limestone presented ready access to quarries of building stone. But it is a lousy place for storing water.

The area around Tikal gets five to six feet of rain a year. But it all percolates hundreds of feet through the limestone leaving no standing water to be used during the dry season.

The Maya solved that problem with a brilliant bit of engineering. Someone had the great idea of plastering the bottom of depressions in the jungle to create a reservoir. The Maya then used that same technique to pave the bottom of quarries to create even grander reservoirs that were incorporated as water features into the city's impressive architecture.

The whole complex was then joined together by raised causeways combining each portion of the complex together as one unit. The effect was that Tikal was a series of civilized islands in an inhospitable jungle.

Then came a day that would turn out to be one of the city's great turning points.

Tikal had been a trading partner with the great city of Teotihuacan (we know it for its magnificent -- and badly reconstructed -- Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon) since around 200 AD. On 14 January 378 a Teotihuacan army marched into Tikal. The next day, the leader of Tikal was dead and the son of the ruler of Teotihuacan sat upon his throne. Founding a new dynasty.

At least, that is what we think happened. Unlike many of their neighboring civilizations, the Maya had a very sophisticated writing system consisting of what early archaeologists thought were hieroglyphs. And the guess was close enough to be accurate.

The problem is that no one living knew the written language. It took a Russian cryptographer to decode the symbols. In the decades since then, the Maya have revealed a lot of their history.

In the early years, anthropologists treated the Maya as people of the Elysian fields. Peaceful residents of Athens. While the Aztecs played the role of bellicose Sparta.

It turns out the Maya were every bit as blood-thirsty as the Aztecs -- perhaps, a bit less so when it came to religious sacrifices. But the Maya were a warring people. Peaceful means were used to attract alliances with other city-states and to pull in smaller satellites. But warfare was a regular part of Tikal's life.

When the Teotihuacan leader assumed the throne, Tikal began gathering allies. Feeling threatened (and with a large dose of xenophobia against the foreign intruders), Calakmul went to war with Tikal in a series of battles that would last for almost 600 years.

During that period, Tikal attained its glory. That is apparent from the large complex that we see today -- and what we see is only about 15% of the urban area. But it is the ceremonial area where the elite lived and worshiped. At its height, 450,000 people may have lived in the greater Tikal area.

What we see today in the acropolis area is built on 23 different layers of construction. That is a common technique in Mesoamerica. Every 20 years, the Maya would add another temple complex to the city -- always in the same pattern. A palace to the north, a temple to the east, another palace to the south, and another temple to the west. All forming a Maya cross.

But the acropolis is what amazes most people. In the center is a large plaza with round stones where honored humans would be sacrificed to please the gods. The deceased blood and heart were then mixed with copal and burned at the top of one of the pyramid temples. (It was an honor because the Maya believed a sacrificial death would speed them on the path to reincarnation.)

The prosaically named Temple Number One is a star of the acropolis. It was completed around 750 as the burial place of one of Tikal's greatest rulers: Jasaw Chan K'awil. 

It is immense. About 154 feet high topped by what must have been a stunning roof comb.

Unlike most Maya pyramids, this one was not only a temple, it was the resting place of the leader. Several treasures were discovered, including this jade mask that has made the cover of many magazines.

Facing Temple Number One is -- wait for it -- Temple Number Two. 
Jasaw Chan K'awil built this temple around 700 to commemorate the death of his wife. No body has been found in the temple leading archaeologist to believe it was meant only as a memorial.

We climbed Temple Number Two with the help of some very modern wooden stairs. The view was worth the 100 or so steps.

The largest temple (Temple Number 4), completed around 741, is currently the largest standing temple in pre-Colombian America at 230 feet. It commemorates the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, the son of Jasaw Chan K'awil.
You might note how all of those dates are clustered together in the 700s. That is not an accident. That was when Tikal was at its height militarily and politically. During the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, Tikal had its greatest economic and military expansion.

But, all of that came at a cost. Unlike the Inca and the Aztecs, Maya society did not have standing armies. They were a Second Amendment people. When military business needed to be done, the leader would call up the militia from their regular social tasks and would then march with them to do what needed doing.

The rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began taking its toll on both city-states. The power ebbed and flowed depending on the military strength of each. But, within a century of Tikal's climb to the top, it was apparent it was all over. By 900, the great city had been abandoned to the jungle and the spider monkeys.

There are lots of theories. And most of them suffer from the anachronist heresy. Whatever is politically vogue in contemporary society tends to cloud our vision of the past.

The most prominent theory once was the weather. Between 800 and 900, the Maya world suffered a full century of drought. In an area with no standing water, that would be disastrous -- like living on the moon.

But that theory has been somewhat debunked because the city-states to the north that have even fewer water resources thrived during the same period. Some anthropologists claim that was because the social structure in the north was more egalitarian and far less hierarchical. The southern cities were truly Spartan in that respect. Authoritarian hierarchies honoring military accomplishment.

An auxiliary theory is that overpopulation caused the Maya to unwisely use their resources. Clearing more land to feed even more people changed the environment so much that the land could no longer support the population.

The problem with that theory is that it is entirely conjecture. Some try to tie the drought to the overpopulation theory, but that still does not explain why the northern cities were more successful at surviving.

There is also the possibility that the method of trade changed. The Maya eventually turned into great sailors. At least, along the Yucatan coast. Much in the same way that the railroad lessened the value of canals.

There was no longer a need for land routes. The elite packed up and moved to greener pastures.

Ironically, there are people (usually ready to make anti-NAFTA arguments) who blame the whole decline on the free market and trade that followed the Teotihuacan invasion. But that is an ideological argument not based on any data.

The chances are that all of these theories are far too simple to explain a complex result. They may all be correct, but only in part.

Remember those reservoirs the Maya developed to provide water? They were not designed for a 100 year drought. But there were 14 of them, and they would have carried the population through a long period.

The reservoirs and the canals that connected them required constant repair. But if the militia had been called up for protracted periods of war, there is no doubt the infrastructure would have suffered.

And, under the best of circumstances, Tikal might have even survived the leaky pipe syndrome. But in 800, Tikal did not have the best circumstances. It was weakened by constant warfare and then a protracted drought. If the natural resources had been overextended, that would have paid a negative part. Along with overpopulation.

Athens would have understood the lesson. As would have Sparta. War drains the very lifeblood of any society. For Tikal, it was water.

The result was that there was no sense in staying in a dying city. It was as if Scotty could not repair the life support system on the Enterprise. The only thing left to do was to leave. Having no escape pods, the Maya walked away. We just do not know where they all went.

That ironic showerthat started this piece? Thinking about Tikal, I decided it would be appropriate to memorialize them with a Navy shower.

Small measures for a great people.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

star wars with the maya

The truly literate amongst you will immediately identify that photograph.

It is the opening scene of the finale of the first Star Wars movie. The one later dubbed A New Hope.

Those temples poking out of the jungle of Yavin 4 are actually two temples we saw today in Tikal. You could almost hear John Williams blaring in the background.

This was the part of the Guatemala trip to which I had been looking forward. Tikal -- one of the greatest of the Mayan city-states.

As you may guess, I have a lot to say about the Maya as a historical people. And Tikal is a great place to talk about them.

But, it was a long day -- and the internet is very slow here and available only in the lobby of our hotel. The Jungle Lodge.

Tomorrow evening I will be in Barra de Navidad. So, Friday sounds like a good day to wrap up this trip to Guatemala.

See you then.

I just wanted you to know I have not been monkeying around.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

considering atitlan

Mexpatriate is broadcasting this morning from the shores of Lake Atitlan.

If you do not know the name, that is quite all right. Even though it is Guatemala's largest lake (and one of its primary tourist magnets), it is not as well-known as some of the world's great lakes. Titicaca. Como. Baikal.

But it is a pleasant enough place. And certainly popular with the international crowd. Backpackers and ex-hippies abound.

For the Guatemalans, it is a prime recreation area. In Mexico, Mexicans head to the beaches during Semana Santa. Guatemalans throng around the shores of Lake Atitlan.

We arrived here (in Panajachel) yesterday for a one-night stand right on the lake. But it was not a day of relaxation. We boarded a boat for a quick trip across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna for a lunch of muddy-tasting tilapia.

At least, mine was. I was the only person to have unwisely chosen to eat the fish grilled.

When we left the restaurant, I noticed this unusual site. A Jewish recreation center and meeting place -- in Guatemala. Apparently, the lake has a sizable Jewish community. Including an Orthodox community in San Juan La Laguna, where their presence is somewhat controversial.

That is where we went next. To San Juan La Laguna. In nine road racing tuk tuks.

Where we were treated to the obligatory lecture on Maya medicine -- complete with a staged herbal garden.

And then to the even more obligatory talk on the manufacture of hand-loomed cotton textiles.

Both presentations gave us the opportunity to leave more Quetzals in the local economy. I walked, instead. A lot.

I am not being churlish. I fully support anything that can transfer wealth from one person to another. It is the free market. And Guatemalans are expert at the art of convincing tourists to buy something they had no idea they so desperately needed in exchange for a wad of bills that the tourist will never miss. Adam Smith at his purist.

It truly is a movable feast of merchandise. Or a kidnapping gone bad.

The lake is surrounded by volcanoes. In fact, it is a volcano. The remnants of one, at least. The lake fills a caldera of a volcano that blew its top 84,00 years ago. Leaving a lake that is quite deep. 1120 feet.

But we have become accustomed to volcanoes on our journey through Guatemala. This volcano in Antigua greeted us each morning, from our breakfast terrace, with an eruption.

And that reminds me of food. Because I have little more to say about the lake, I want to share a few food photographs with you. And tortillas would be a great place to start.

The tortillas here are quite thick. In Mexico, we would probably call them gorditas. They are made of one of the four colored corns of Guatemala. You can see three here.

In the same market, I started negotiating for a taste of the armadillo or the caiman (just out of sight). I was going to pass on the iguana.

But the owner was interested in selling only a full armadillo or a large chuck of caiman. I have tasted both, and I was far more interested in the caiman.

Before I could indulge my itch, I was called away to join the tour group.

I am almost certain it would have tasted better than the pizza at this stand. The real thing looked even less appetizing than the photograph on the front of the booth.

Speaking of signs, let me share three with you. Guatemala is still a pre-literate society in many respects. But signs like this sell sandwiches. Even though I first thought he was eating a turtle.

And if you have too much to drink, there are signs to remind you what not to do.

But this is by far my favorite sign. I saqw it this morning a block from the lake. A perfect pun in Spanish.

I hear my group meeting in the lobby. So, I need to wrap up this episode, We are on our way to the airport in Guatemala City to fly to Tikal.

Tikal is why I came on this trip. Join me there.