Saturday, September 22, 2018

ransom iii

My trip to Manzanillo yesterday was a double clip job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I was about to find out why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

don't tell my mom

It could not be that long.

Since I had my last haircut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

exercising my demons

Like Willie Nelson, I am on the road again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot more. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

welcome to kanagawa

You might think I have transported you to TitiPoo.

And those sandals belong to three little maids from school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that would save me a lot more money.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

steve's clip joint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that will be a tale for later.

Monday, September 17, 2018

taking AMLO to school

Let's talk about education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

got independence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy independence day, neighbors.

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

in the still of the night

"Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill
In the chill, still, of the night."

Cole Porter had it almost right.

There is something alluring about the night. Especially, the late night.

My poetic license would undoubtedly be suspended if I were so brash to contend there is a chill in our September nights. But, there certainly has been relief.

That is certainly not the norm for September -- the month we tend not to discuss when trying to lure friends and family to the area. A couple of years ago, our September was almost vulcanized when the heat index reached 132 for three straight days. I thought the instruments at the weather station has succumbed to hyperthermia. I was ready to join them.

This September has been a bit different. We have had our hot and humid days. Those two adjectives are twined and twinned here as closely as "drunk" and "sailor."

During the summer, we pray for rain. Not because we are cash subsidy farmers, but because the rain drives down the humidity and temperature to make our nights a bit more conducive to sleeping. Of course, when the sun comes out the next morning, the heat index spikes.

Last night was one of the pleasant nights. Around 11, I was in the pool reading. The Economist, I think. I heard a faint rumble in the distance, as if a freight train was coming through town. There was only one problem with that theory. There are no railroad tracks near here.

An earthquake? Nope. It was moving too slowly. But it was certainly steadily heading toward my house.

Without a "how do you do," a torrent of water fell on me. No transition sprinkle. A full frontal aquatic assault.

I grabbed my electronic gear and dashed into the kitchen to watch the patio floor turn into a lake. And to enjoy the immediate drop in temperature.

The summer Barco lived with me, I had air conditioning installed in the bedroom. Even though he was born in Barra de Navidad, he was still a golden retriever, and found the summer months more than his thick coat could endure.

After he died, I used the air conditioning for my own pleasure. I try to not use it before mid-July. This year, it was early July. I will use it until mid-October. The only time I do not use it to help me sleep is when we have evening rains. Like last night.

When it was time to retire, I opened up the doors to my bedroom, turned my ceiling fan on low, and slipped into (or onto) bed. With the doors open and the air conditioner not running, I discovered there was a night world just outside my door that I had not experienced lately.

This is where Cole Porter had it wrong. The night is not still. It is an oratorio. Crickets. Frogs. The echo of distant jake brakes.

I am a creature of the night. If Bela Lugosi needs reviving, I am your man. Two A.M. will regularly find me prowling my bedroom.

That was true last night. Rather than waste a perfectly good night with sleep, I got out of bed and stepped outside onto the now-dry patio. Without a moon, the night was ebon. The darkness simply intensified the sounds. I could even hear the talons of the buzzards scraping against the metal of the communication tower, attempting to retain roosting purchase.

So, I sat in the dark and listened to the little night music being performed just for me. Or anyone else who would take the time to merely stop and listen. Admission was free.

These moments happen all over the world. Every day. Every hour.

Some of you know of Brother Lawrence. He was a French lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in the 1600s. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is a Christian classic. That means everyone knows the title, but few have read it. Like Don Quixote.

Brother Lawrence joined the monastery for one purpose -- a closer relationship with God. He ended up working in the kitchen, and despised the work. Then, he remembered he was at the monastery to have a closer relationship with God. If God is omnipresent, God was in that kitchen. In the garden where Lawrence strolled. In the library where Lawrence wrote.

His solution was an answer to the age-old conundrum posed by Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians  to "pray continually." Though he most likely did not invent the practice, Brother Lawrence was an advocate of "breath prayers." To be constantly aware of the countless moments of grace God brings to our lives.

The idea is to address God with the inhale -- breathing God in. The petition or praise is on the exhale. Short and sweet. Often just a statement of appreciation and contentment. Moving your focus from yourself to others -- and to God.

And that is exactly what I did last night. Thanking for the crickets. The voice of the frogs. And finding peace at the center, as my Quaker friends so eloquently put it.

As Anne Lamott would say (and did): "This is plenty of miracle for me to rest in now."

Friday, September 14, 2018

poor and content is rich, and rich enough

Anyone who has moved permanently to Mexico knows the feeling.

You are visiting the old country (as my friend Jennifer Rose puts it) when a friend or family member introduces you to a stranger. "Mary, have you met Steve Cotton? He lives in Mexico?"

Let me stop the film right here. I have been many things in my life, but I have yet to be reduced to nothing more than the place I live. As far I can recall, no one in Oregon ever introduced me by pointing out "he lives in Milwaukie."

I find it annoying. Not as if I was introduced with my political affiliation. Just a little chafed.

It is the response that astounds me. It is almost always something along these lines. "Oh, really? Albuquerque or Santa Fe? No, you look more like a Taos guy."

The first time it happened, I initially had no idea what was being discussed. My response now is rather stock. "No. Not New Mexico. I live in old Mexico. You know the country we stole the southwest from. But we did it fair and square."

Inevitably my S.I. Hayakawa is completely ignored because my new acquaintance is standing mouth agape because they have not heard anything I said past "old Mexico."

The responses are varied. But they always deal with either drugs, cartels, or violence -- or all three in a burbling trifecta that makes me wonder if they thought I said I lived in Idlib.

Well, I don't. I don't live in a third world country. I am not deprived of daily needs by cartel violence. I live quite nicely as a poor pensioner trying to make some sense of a complex world.

I usually tick off the list of statistics that Mexico is one of the world's economic powers. Member of the richer-nation OECD. 15th largest GDP in the world. 13th largest in area. 10th largest in population. A birth rate of 2.2 -- meaning the population is just sustaining itself. A strong middle class, thus the low birth rate.

None of that seems to impress most people. I am often accused of spouting "false numbers." I guess that is the second cousin of "fuzzy math" from the 2000 election. Even insults up north have been stripped of wit.

What does catch their attention is when I inform them I can order almost anything from Amazon and have it show up at my door -- delivered by a DHL man, who is now a regular visitor at my house. I suspect it is simply a lack of imagination that makes something familiar like Amazon turn the feared into something comfortable.

Amazon, of course, has long been a mainstay for me since I moved to Mexico. Originally, the good folks at Amazon would merely refresh the reading content in my Kindle for just a few dollars. That was my sole contact. There was a reason for that. I saw Amazon as a giant electronic book store.

But it has turned into far more than that, It is now the general store of a new generation. The Walmart of our internet age.

I cannot remember why I started ordering merchandise from Amazon. I probably needed something that I could not readily find in Mexico. The first couple of shipments were spotty. But once I discovered I could have DHL deliver to my post office, those wrinkles were ironed out.

Then, a couple of years ago, Amazon expanded its operations to Mexico. Delivery times were noticeably cut. And, even though my post office informed me it would now only accept deliveries sent by mail, DHL had an answer.

In the past, I would be given a window of a week or 10 days when my package would be delivered. Now, DHL sends me an email message specifying the day the van will pull up in front of my house. And since I know the deliveries come from Manzanillo, I generally know the time of day he will be there.

That system failed only once. I had volunteered to take friends to the airport (from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe) on a delivery day. Just as I was leaving, my DHL pal telephoned to tell me he was in front of the house. I told him I would be there in 20 minutes.

He had a better idea. He would leave my package at a paper store a few blocks from my house. That sounded good to me.

It turns out the store is a drop-off point for shipments and delivery, as well as a purveyor of copy paper, notebooks, and party supplies. When I came through the door, the young lady behind the counter pulled out my package and handed it to me just as I got to the counter. No signature required. Smooth.

At times I forget just how small my village is. I have mentioned before that it reminds me a lot of Powers, where I spent the first eight years of my life. The type of place where everyone knows (or knows of) everyone else -- and knows all of their business. At this point in my life, I find that to be a comfortable feeling. Even being an outsider. As I always will be. That is also a feature of small towns.

When we lived in Powers, the Sears and JC Penny catalogs were our connections with the outside world. Our bronze link to materialism. When packages arrived at the post office (because there was no home mail delivery), it was a day of excitement. Almost as fulfilling as opening the package from Kellogg's containing my magic decoder ring for only the price of 7 corn flakes coupons and a shiny dime (NO STAMPS).

Well, those days are back -- as evidenced by the photograph at the top of this essay. This week's haul was a mix.

  • Three pairs of specialized exercise socks to cut down on my propensity for blisters and black toe. They do not always work.
  • Two DVDs. The Last of Sheila -- a witty murder mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Advise and Consent -- based on Allen Drury's best novel. And, even though it is dated in its politics, its message about the duty of the Senate to properly carry out its advise and consent function as an independent body is constitutionally timeless. Where else could a bigoted southern senator still be treated with respect?
  • Two books. Scott Turow is my favorite lawyer writer (known by some of us as F. Scott Turow for his literary abilities. Others would say for his literary protrusion.) Testimony is his latest. Somehow I missed it when it was released. The other book is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She is one of my favorite Christian writers. Her neurotic relationship with Jesus makes her essays very accessible. But this book is not a devotional. It is a guide to better writing. And it is chockfull of brilliant examples of the art.

I can think of a couple of bloggers who will chide me for this list. Socks are available in Mexico. Who still uses DVDs? Books should be electronic.

All of those are good points. But they are not mine.

If I could find socks designed to restrict the development of blisters, I would buy them here. I like the picture quality of DVDs, and, yes, it is noticeably better than streaming at my house. And there are some books I want to keep in my library for myself and guests. I will not even mention the two sets of black silk pajamas that arrived yesterday. (No. I am not putting on a play extolling the Viet Cong.)

I always hear the echo of "You live in Mexico?" when I hear such questions. We each choose how we live here. And Amazon makes my pleasant life here just that much more sybaritic.

Excuse me now. I am going to sit back and read a chapter of two of Turow before I go trudging around my neighborhood. There is health to be sought.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

stirring the pot

Sometimes, life's little threads actually pull together to form a tapestry.

Other times, they just trip us up.

Today's story is a tapestry tale -- complete with Altmanesque threads.

Thread 1.

When I was a teenager, during the Punic Wars,* my neighborhood of suburban Portland was almost devoid of ethnic food. No pizza. No Italian restaurants. Not even a McDonald's. The state was so lacking in ethnic diversity that Robert Kennedy, when running for president, called Oregon "one giant suburb."

That changed when the parents of two of my classmates opened a Chinese restaurant. We thought we were so exotic when we ate there. Well, at least the rest of my family did.

I am willing to bet you recall the canned Chung King Chinese meals you could buy in a can in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe you still can. A gelatinous blob of vegetables to be warmed in a pot and then poured over crunchy chow mein noodles and topped with soy sauce from plastic packets. If you could get past the visual, the taste was even worse.

The thought of Chinese food that looked and tasted better than that was the draw for  the restaurant. But it was soon shattered with the arrival of the first plate. It looked just like the canned Chung King dinner, but tasted marginally better.

On subsequent visits, I experimented. I finally settled on my favorite combination. A bowl of abalone soup and a plate of ginger beef. There was something about the beef dish that was different. The vegetables were crisp and had individual tastes. Somehow it managed to escape the gravitational pull of the limitations of Cantonese cuisine.

My perspective on Chinese food changed when a Szechuan restaurant opened near our house in what had been a Little Black Sambo's then a Sambo's then a Denny's. My girlfriend and I ate there often principally because we were fascinated that Chinese food could be spicy and creative. Cantonese was soon off the menu.

Thread 2

After the Air Force and law school period of my life were over, I started looking around for new ways to be creative. I had always enjoyed cooking. So, I started attending various cooking classes in the Portland area.

Some were one off presentations. Others were academically serious series (Indian cooking with Virgina Plainfield). The most interesting was my encounter with Linda Chan (not her real name).

Madame Chan, as she liked to be addressed (I suspected because it vaguely sounded like the then-much-admired Madame Chiang), was a restaurateur, cook book author, and master teacher of Chinese cuisine. Had cooking shows been more common at the time, she would have been a celebrity.

I knew her through cook books and what I had read in magazines. When I heard she was going to offer her "Essentials of Stir Fry" course in Portland, I signed up.

Thirteen weeks. Three evenings a week. Three hours each evening. That was more time than I spent in my college Russian class. But I thought it would be worth it. It was. Certainly for generating stories.

The class was small. Just nine of us. Two guys. Seven women. We met in a bright chrome classroom of one of Portland's new culinary schools. Each of us stood at a curved counter behind a cutting board and a set of knives that had been artfully set out for each of us. In front of us was a long preparation table with a mirror suspended over it to allow us to watch the master work.

But there was no one else in the room. No one checked us in, but we had received instructions to be at our places 15 minutes before the class began. We were all on time. And eager.Some overly-eager.

At 7, on the dot, the mournful sound of a Guzheng and the gentle thump of a Huagu wafted over the room's sound system. Within two bars, three young Chinese women entered, each wearing a different embroidered Diyi looking as if they were auditioning for the traveling company of a Chinese opera company.

I rolled my eyes. Four of the women students started clapping. But none of the young women looked like Linda Chan. We had all seen her photograph.

We didn't need to wait long. The music stopped. And in walked the star herself. Not dressed in traditional Chinese garb, but in a Chanel little black dress with a single strand of pearls and black Italian pumps. Classy, I thought.

I will remember her first words. "If you have come to learn traditional Chinese cooking, you can leave now. Cooking is not confined by time or country. If you pay attention, you will learn the art of the wok. You will use those techniques every day. You will be a better cook."

I was impressed. "Art of the wok." That was exactly why I was there.

Having finished her opening, she shot both hands high in the air and her assistants dropped their robes revealing traditional white kitchen jackets. They started setting out produce and meat on the preparation table and brought each of us a carrot.

Like any good teacher, she asked if we had any questions. A woman standing two places from me raised her hand. "Linda. I was curious --."

I did not hear the end of her sentence. With the first word, each of the assistants froze in place looking at the floor. It was like those movies where all of the action stops except for one actor. Our teacher had been looking at the other end of the table. Her head swiveled slowly. I swear I could feel heat lasering out of her eyes. If the questioner had disintegrated into a pile of ash, I would not have been surprised.

"You will address me as 'Madame Chan.'" And then I heard the rest of the question. "And, no. We will not be making chop suey. If that is why you came, you can get out of my class right now."

The incident set a certain tone for the next thirteen weeks. But we did not have to wait long for our second lesson. Picking up her cleaver, she showed us the basic technique for slicing a carrot into uniform pieces.

"Now, you try." As we began, she walked by each of us as if she were the last Manchu empress inspecting her troops, stopping in front of the other guy in the class.

"What are you doing?" He stopped. Perplexed.

"Start again." The moment he picked up his knife, she may as well have rapped his knuckles. "No! All wrong."

"Why is your finger on top of the blade? That is wrong. It is dangerous. Do not do it." I immediately slipped my finger to the hilt of the knife.

On her way back, his finger was once again on the top of the knife. "I warned you. That is dangerous to you. It is dangerous to other people around you. You are out of my class. Go now."

Gordon Ramsay had nothing on her. From that moment, we remaining seven called her Dragon Lady. It was not a compliment. One night, some wag (who fortunately was never identified) posted a note above the door. "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

Oh, the eighth student. That was the "chop suey" lady. She committed some infraction involving a chicken. She was gone. Along with the finger guy.

We survivors learned a lot over the thirteen weeks. How to choose a wok (flat bottoms and teflon were deemed to be the work of Satan; I have both in my kitchen). How to season, clean, and store it. How to choose meats and vegetables suitable for stir fry (high quality only). How to slice each in varying styles depending on how the flavors are to play off each other. What oils to use.

She pointed out that learning how to to fry is very much like learning to become a concert pianist. All of the stir fry techniques are like learning scales and etudes. Without them, you cannot be an able artist. But it is the last step where most cooks undermine everything else -- putting everything together in the wok.

She shared my detestation of most stir fry results. I have eaten stir fry in many homes where the result is on a par with those Chung King dinners. She pointed out that the reason is simple. Most cooks have no idea how to layer tastes and recognize when vegetables and meats have been cooked to their individual perfection. Always in mere seconds, not minutes. If done correctly, each vegetable should retain its own taste. And it cannot do that if it is overcooked. It must retain its crunch.

So, we experimented. Cutting slices thicker and thinner. Switching the order in which each was separately added to the wok. And, over those thirteen weeks (and the subsequent thirty years), I am now a competent stir fry cook, who still changes the order in which garlic is added to the wok..

Thanks to the Dragon Lady.

Thread three.

A few years my college-era friend Leo visited me here in Barra de Navidad. He convinced me that it would be wise for me to pay attention to my diet and my exercise. Not for my health (which was not a primary concern for me), but because I would never be younger than I was that day.

I completely altered my diet. Snack foods were exiled from the house. I ate more vegetables and fewer simple carbohydrates. And I walked. Multiple miles every day.

The result was a steady weight loss. I felt better. I ate better. Life was good.

That lasted almost two years. It ended when my family came to stay with me, and I reverted to my old diet. The reason was simple, my family purchased food I had stopped eating. But, because my character has a certain flaw, I returned to old habits because the food was there. And then I started showing off by cooking a lot of meals I like  for my family. The food I had sopped eating.

But I retained some healthy food habits. Like stir fry. If you look at any healthy eating book, it will recommended a meal of 50% cooked or raw vegetables, 25% protein, and 25% healthy starch. That sounds exactly like basics of stir fry.

Thread four.

Sometimes, our best intentions are given a boost when crisis rolls over our mantra. That happened to me in early July.

The month of June was odd for me. For the entire month, I suffered recurring bouts of diarrhea that baffled each of the doctors I consulted. They tried various medications. Some relieved symptoms, but the bouts continued.

It turns out I would have been wiser to talk to my brother earlier. He knew exactly what was happening. I am fine now.

As part of the testing, I asked my doctor to test for certain indicators that have risen whenever I am ill. They are never related to the cause, but they are like the proverbial canary in the mind.

That is when I discovered that my DNA had caught up with me. I had been expecting the diagnosis for decades. But there it was in black and white.

Fortunately, I could deal with its consequences by simply reinstituting my Leo Plan -- more exercise, better food. And that is what I have been doing.

My daily goal is to walk 15 miles a day while fighting the tendency of my feet to blister. On that front, I am coping.

On the food front, I am thriving.  My blogger pal, Felipe wrote yesterday about the Monotony of Mexican Meals. I concur with his opinion. If I had to eat in Mexican restaurants, I would weigh much more than I do save for the fact that my boredom with the cuisine would keep me thin.

Fortunately, the skills I leaned from Linda Chan will keep me healthy while tempting my palate. Mexican food may be monotonous, but Mexican produce, chicken, and pork are all first rate. With the exception of the beef and tomatoes. Or, as Felipe puts it: "What passes for tomatoes here should be court-martialed and executed."

One of the later lessons Madame Chan taught us was that stir fry is not merely for Chinese dishes. Any type of food can be cooked in a wok. After all, it is just a cooking technique to preserve the freshness and flavor of the meal.

In her class, we cooked paella; vodka pasta chicken; pasta primavera; wilted spinach salad; pork cutlets Normandy; the classic Italian pork with basil, pine nuts, and balsamic; ratatouille pork; moussaka; Lebanese lamb; mustard cream veal; beef stroganoff;apricot turkey; chicken marsala; chicken piccata; chili with duck sausage; orange duck; chicken Morocco; and several soups.

The point is that stir fry is not just chop suey. Excuse me. It is never chop suey. (She might read this.)

It is has been a long road from that Cantonese restaurant on McLaughlin Boulevard to me standing over a wok in Barra de Navidad. But it has turned out to be a fortuitous one.

My condition will not go away. But, with the help of some techniques I learned from the Dragon Lady, I am a rather good cook.

I am going to enjoy the rest of the ride.

* -- My nod to Edward Albee, a favorite of my youth, from one of my favorite plays and movies.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

where there never was a hill

Some stories never die. But physical landmarks do.

On 1 July 2017, I reported about a construction project in between Melaque and Barra de Navidad (eating el cerrito). Or, more accurately, a deconstruction project.

When the major north-south coastal highway was built in the 1970s, the portion through our little villages encountered an obstruction. An ancient hill of rock sits on the shore of the largest body of fresh water on the west coast of Mexico. The choice was to go around the hill or through it.

Fortunately for the engineers, there was an easy solution. A portion of the hill was a small finger. It was through the finger that the engineers built. Leaving the large hill to the north and a smaller portion to the south. El cerrito.

For years el cerrito rested unmolested. A small structure (now derelict) was built on top looking a bit like those pillboxes in Hawaii designed to halt the expected Japanese invasion. In its highest glory, it was designated a tsunami evacuation point for grade schoolers.

In the ten years I have lived here, it has been placed on the market several times. And rumors spread that it was to be developed as a small, but exclusive, resort or as a view home for the usual list of celebrities.

So, when construction equipment moved onto the hill, the rumor mill shifted into full gear. And, of course, I stoked the furnace myself.

It turns out the reality was far more mundane than anything the gossips could conjure up -- as is true with life. The equipment was there to turn the hill into a flat spot beside the road. It was nothing more than a gravel pit. Or rock quarry.

For the past year, dump trucks have been carting off the hill's body parts to parts unknown. The word is that the corpse is being dumped in the Marabasco River as part of a dike project. So much for Carlos Slim or Salma Hayek moving into the neighborhood.

People who have been away from the area for the past winter will not recognize that part of the road. It has been deleted just as effectively as the dictator Stalin eliminated Nikolai Yezhov, his top cop, from photographs -- not to mention life.

Last week I had breakfast with a group of expatriates. We are all of a certain age. And that age is a number you will not find on a roulette table. 

There were seven of us older guys. The man across the table from me asked if I had heard that a Bodega Aurrerá (a medium-sized discount store owned by Walmart) was going to be built there. I chuckled and asked if he had read that on our local message board. A wag friend had started the rumor. I asked if he had heard the one I started -- that a Costco was going to be built there?

The man sitting beside me, who I thought had been listening to our exchange (at least, he had been nodding and watching us while we talked) asked: "Have you heard a Bodega Aurrerá is going in there?" I chuckled at his joke.

But, I could tell by the confused look on his face that he was serious. For whatever reason, he had completely missed the details of our conversation.

Similar let's-start-over moments happened that morning. And I have noticed how frequently large parts of conversation seem to go missing these days.

There is no doubt age plays a part. The majority of the men at that breakfast table wear hearing aids -- for good reason.

The last time I was in The States, I went to two movies. Both times I sat near older couples. The husband would recurringly ask his wife: "What did she say?" or "Isn't that the same woman that died? Why is she alive?" or "Who is that?"

And it is not simply age. I have a friend who is still in his 20s who will interrupt my stories asking about something I just told him.

"Yesterday I was at Papa Gallo's in Melaque and I saw the strangest thing on the beach."

"Where were you?"

"Papa Gallo's."

"Where is that?"


"What was on the beach."

"Never mind. I can't remember now."

There is no doubt, I may be partly to blame. I regularly dine with two different couples. Recently, I have noticed that the husbands tend to get glassy-eyed about two sentences into one of my fascinating anecdotes just seconds before their eyes start darting around like trapped animals.

Whether it is the age of my dining companions or my inherent boring nature, I do not know. But I fear my career as a raconteur may be drawing to a close.

Maybe the hill had the correct idea. After all, I have eked two full stories out of its dismemberment. Maybe I should follow its example as a body part shop.

The only problem with that career is that it would disprove my hook. Some stories actually do die.

Monday, September 10, 2018

grace notes

Life often offers us moments of joy. Free for the taking.

And if we are not humble enough to wait for them, we never know they were there.

Yesterday while I was picking up the detritus from the vines that add a bit of life to the patio, I glanced up and saw a giant swallowtail butterfly land on the screen door to my library. Butterflies are flighty creatures.

I wanted to dash into the bedroom and retrieve my good camera. But that would have meant sacrificing the moment for the possibility of photographing an empty screen door while the butterfly headed off to do a bit of pollinating.

So, I simply stood there. Admiring a rather tattered version of North America's largest butterfly. Anyone who has ever held a butterfly in his hand marvels at how fragile they are. It is no wonder part of its eponymous tail is missing. Probably munched by an over-eager gecko prowling in the night.

It was then that I noticed the painting of Professor Jiggs in the background. Jiggs was a big part of my life for 13 years. When he died during my first year in Villa Obregon, my artist friend Cor presented me with the portrait as a way to remember him.

Like everything we have experienced in life, old memories tend to get pushed to the rear of the closet. It was almost as if the butterfly had brought me a message. "Yes, I am beautiful, and thank you for noticing. But life is more than moments. It is also memories and dreams. And they all make you who you are."

Of course, the butterfly said no such thing. All of that was conjured up by the rather exotic counterpoint of my visitor and my old companion. And I was glad I looked up from my chores to enjoy the gift that nature gave me.

When Jiggs died in bed next to me, I was listening to Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Sand and Water." I didn't realize at the time how much that song has stuck with me until my encounter with the butterfly yesterday.

But it has. I cannot share any more of Jiggs's life with you. But I can share a song. And isn't that what friends are for? To sit upon the ground and tell tales of dead kings -- and to share a song.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

money makes the words go round

I was patient. But it finally happened. Last night.

When I withdrew my weekly allowance from that marvelous invention, the ATM, I received a handful of Mexico's new 500 peso notes -- almost two weeks after they were first issued. But, our village tends to be something of a backwater when it comes to trends.

Because there have been plenty of news stories about the new notes, I was not surprised at their appearance. It is now blue with a portrait of Benito Juarez (often thought of as the Lincoln of Mexico because he ended slavery and survived a civil war) on the front.

The reverse is the more interesting to me -- for two reasons. It features a gray whale. I like money that celebrates animals. And, more importantly, it is an animal solely associated with Pacific Mexico. This side of the country is not often officially celebrated.

The current 500 peso note, containing the toad-like image of Diego Rivera on the front and Frida Kahlo on the back, has been around since 2010. I will not miss it. It is brown, just like the predecessor note featuring the hero of the Battle of Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, that was first put in circulation in 1994.

You may notice something interesting about those dates. The first 500 peso note was around for 16 years. The Rivera-Kahlo note lasted only 8.

It turns out there is a reason for dumping Rivera in the dustbin of history. According to the Governor of the Bank of Mexico, there are two reasons for the change. The first surprised me. The 500 peso note is the most widely distributed of the Mexican notes. I would have thought it was the 20.

But the second reason makes more sense. It is also the most counterfeited note. That is why several new security measures have been added to the new 500s. Just looking at its face, it appears that it will be more difficult for counterfeiters. But they will find a way.

Some people have already begun kvetching about the fact that Juarez appears on both the 20 peso and 500 peso notes. The concern is not that he is hogging numismatic
 territory (after all, that German woman shows up on all British notes). Some people are worried that the blue Juarez 20 will be confused with the blue Juarez 500. The portraits are quite similar.

The Bank of Mexico points out the obvious. The two bills are different sizes. The 20 is plastic; the 500 is cotton paper. Each feels quite different.

Having said that, one reason the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was pulled from circulation was because some Americans confused it with a quarter dollar coin.

There are makeovers in the works for other notes, as well. Next year a
 new 200 peso bill will be issued. It will featuring portraits of two heroes of the War for Independence from Spain -- Miguel Costilla y Hidalgo (who graced the Bicentennial 200 peso note) and José María Morelos (who is featured on the current 50 peso note).  El Pinacate Desert Biosphere Reserve will be on the reverse.

In 2020, a new 1000 peso note will be issued. Not that it matters to our villages. 1000 pesos are as rare here as reform politicians who actually try to stamp out corruption.

But, as unlikely as it is, should you receive a genuine note, it will honor three heroes of the
 Mexican Revolution, -- Francisco I. Madero, Carmen Serdán and Hermila Galindo on one side. Campeche’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve will be on the reverse.

I come from a country where all currency is one color and the bills are the same size. It makes the wallet tidy. But I far prefer Mexico's system combining color and size to differentiate notes.

Of course, it does not matter what color and size they are, all money has a way of turning itself into goods and services.

But that is why it exists in the first place.

Those 500s were worth the wait. They are now gone.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

it's harder to get into than fort knox

That is what we would say when we were kids.

Back when Fort Knox actually contained the wherewithal of America's gold standard and it made sense that Auric Goldfinger intended to penetrate it. Now, it contains a giant stack of Red Chinese IOUs.

That bit of nostalgia was occasioned by a box of bandaids I purchased at La Comer -- a major food chain in these parts -- to deal with some blisters on my feet.

I was running a bit late this morning in getting out the door for my morning walk. While hurriedly putting on my socks, I realized I had forgotten the bandaids. So, I rushed into the bathroom, grabbed the box, and sat on my bed -- thinking I was soon to be on the road.

I had not remembered one of the little frustrations of some Mexican purchases. The box was wrapped tighter than an Egyptian mummy with fiber packing tape. And, as I do every time, I struggled with the tape trying to pull it or the cardboard box apart. To no avail. With plenty of background mutters.

Eventually, I did what I should have first done, I retrieved a knife and cut through the tape. With bandaids applied, I started walking.

This was not my first encounter with taped merchandise here. Batteries are similarly trussed. A business owner told me he tapes his merchandise to cut down on theft. That if it is not taped, customers will open the package and put the contents in their pocket.

I understand the concept, but it seems it would be easier to stuff the whole box of bandaids or the full battery packet in a pocket rather than fiddling with opening it.

But he told me there was a second reason. Customers like to open packages to look at the contents. They then put the opened package back on the shelf, and other customers will not buy it because they are concerned something may be missing.

That makes more sense to me. I have purchased a tube of Pringles that was opened and about a third of the contents were missing. On another occasion, when I returned home with a pint of ice cream, I discovered the imprint of three fingers that had scooped out a nice portion of my vanilla treat.

And I have seen this happen more than once. A young mother will open a package of cookies, give one to her child and take one for herself. Either the child or she will make a face, and the opened package goes back on the shelf.

I now double check packaging to see if the universal excuse of I-was-tasting-only-one-grape might have been previously applied to my potential purchase.

Then there is the backpack and shopping bag issue. A lot of stores have security guards who will courteously divest you of both before allowing you to enter the store. About two years ago, my friend Doug and I went to Manzanillo with Abdul, the young son of my contractor. Each of us was wearing a small backpack.

When we entered the store, the security guard said nothing to Doug or to me. But he stopped Abdul and told him to leave his backpack.

For some reason, the Atticus Finch in me came raging to the surface. In mediocre Spanish mixed with rage, I demanded to know why the two old gringos were allowed to enter with their backpacks, but the young Mexican was not. I went so far as to accuse him of having no Mexican pride.

He eventually waved all three of us through. I felt almost Canadian in my moral stab at social injustice. But just for a moment. Abdul, who can speak passable English, said: "Güey! That was cool. He isn't liking me. Two weeks in the past. He caught me stealing here."

I was restored to my curmudgeon self.

Shoplifting is a major problem here. As it is in Canada and the United States. Up north, businesses are less likely to control it upon entry. The cost of theft is inevitably borne by the customer -- even if the business has insurance. Mexico is just a bit more up front with its attempt at enforcement.

That is not to say that some northern businesses do not do what Mexico does with some of its merchandise. Anyone who has ever bought a small item (say, razor blades) at Costco knows the additional plastic packaging that comes with the purchase. All designed to cut down on theft.

And the plastic is ten times more difficult to open than the tape. I read on the internet that there are 3 million amputation of fingers each year in The States caused by sharp shards of plastic packaging. And that must be true. It is on the internet. It was right next to the story that 7 million Americans died in Mexico in 2016. Who knew?

If it comes to requiring a pair of scissor to open my bandaid box in Mexico or needing a trip to the emergency room to reattach my ring finger in America, I am going to stay right here.

And people with backpacks can pick their own battle. 

Friday, September 07, 2018

don't shoot the messenger

Mexico can be a bit peculiar about its signs.

Some expatriates and tourists love saying there are no rules in Mexico. They are wrong.

Public venues are festooned with signs. Some in almost impenetrable international symbols. But, the message is always clear -- someone in authority does not want you to do a long list of things.

Whether or not the rules are obeyed is a completely different topic. You might get a hint from one of the most frequent highway signs that exhorts drivers to "obey the signs." I imagine a car driving past one of those signs and the driver thinking: "I never thought of that. Maybe I should obey the signs. -- Naw!"

There is one sign I am seeing more frequently -- not just in Mexico, but around the world. You can see an example at the top of this essay.

That is not an iPhone. It is a kiosk setting out the rules for customers who want to use the small shopping mall in San Miguel de Allende. There are the usual warnings and prohibitions. Do not leave valuables in your car. No bicycles. No roller skates. Respect the green areas. Curb your dog.

And today's topic. No cameras. Without prior authorization.

Cameras have quickly become restricted in more public spaces. Churches. Museums. Governmental institutions.

There are good reasons for those restrictions. Some sacred (in churches). Some to avoid light damage (with flash). Some to prevent pedestrian jams in front of cultural icons (the Mona Lisa being the most obvious, but there are plenty of other examples). And sometimes the sign seems to show up in some Podunklan museum just because the curator saw a similar sign in a bigger museum.

But, a shopping center?

It would be easy to dismiss the restriction as being just another unobserved rule. However, this one is enforced. I know from experience.

Five years ago, I was standing next to the parking lot of the same shopping center shooting cloud when one of the security guards told me I could not take photographs at the shopping mall (what's with this?). Not even the sky. It was The Rule.

This year I spent hours on my daily walks at the shopping center. As a result, I got to know several of the security guards. I must have walked by the rules kiosk a hundred times in the first week I was in San Miguel de Allende.

One day, I decided to bring my camera -- to shoot the kiosk. Just as I pulled out my camera, one of the guards I knew best rushed over and told me cameras were not allowed. I pointed out that they were with permission.

He cocked his head like a spaniel and warily asked if I had permission. I smiled. "Who do I get permission from?" He had no idea.

So, I changed tack. I pulled out my telephone and focused the camera. This was his turn to smile. He nodded and walked away.

Well, it makes sense. The sign clearly indicates no cameras. It does not show a telephone. True, it says "no photographs," but what does it matter?

In the end, I had what I wanted. An illustration to accompany this essay.

But, I am curious about the "no camera" signs you have encountered. Do you have any tales? 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

turning up the thermostat

My furnace is stoked.

The one that fires my passion.

A month of being embedded in serious music in San Miguel de Allende, rather than slaking my thirst, has heightened my desire to be surrounded by it. That is rather easy to do in the house. I can summons Wagner's valkyrie from my various sound systems to do battle with the neighborhood stereos.

This morning I opened Jan Swafford's Language of the Spirit at the Beethoven chapter -- where I had left off reading it a month or so ago. "Consider Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It has long been the most famous symphony in the world, which means that it has gone beyond a cultural monument and become some kind of cultural cliché, like the Mona Lisa surrounded by an army of cell phones taking its picture.

The Fifth is the result of musical genius. But, I decided since Swafford was going to take several pages analyzing it, I should listen to it with an ear for detail.

For months, as I have extended the length of my walks, I have struggled with a solution to the inevitable boredom that sets in. So, I cranked up Bernstein's version of the Fifth on Youtube, stuck in my ear phones, and headed off on my walk.

Bernstein's conducting was impeccable. The Youtube version had great fidelity. And I was closely following the musical themes as they developed.

Then, I remembered why I have not tried earphones in the past. They appear to be a magnet for people to come up and start talking.

Because I have done my best to train out my natural rudeness, I do a perfunctory stop and walk in circles while I talk to my interlocutor. There are always information nuggets to mine.

When it was not people, it was my telephone interrupting the music with notices of the multitude of communications I receive each hour through Facebook, Messenger, Gmail, and MagicJack. It was almost like trying to write a legal brief at home while tending three pre-school children and trying to answer seven telephone lines.

Let's just say that the experiment resulted in far more frustration than musical enlightenment. While I write, Beethoven is working those three monumental notes into a musical tapestry.

And, speaking of music immersion, I just realized I never told you about the second half of the chamber music festival. The very festival that has put a burr under my second violin cushion.

I will cut to the chase (as the movie people say). The second half of the festival was as good as the first (can't stop the music). That is not surprising. Because this was the festival's 40th anniversary, the five groups invited to play were some of the best in the world.

The last two groups differed in some very fundamental ways. The most fundamental was the makeup of each group. The Horszowski Trio (as the name implies) consists of a piano, a violin, and a cello. They were new to the festival. But they were augmented by the viola of Masumi Per Rostad. He is a veteran of the festival.

During their two concerts, they performed some familiar and some challenging pieces. Challenging for both the performers and the audience.
  • Antonin Dvořák, "Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor" (1891)
  • Felix Mendelssohn, "Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor" (1845) 
  • Robert Schumann, "Piano Quartet in E-flat major" (1842)
  • Robert Schumann, "Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor" (1847)
  • Dmitri Shostakovich, "Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor" (1944)
  • Gabriel Fauré, "Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor" (1i883)   
I have long been agnostic about Shostakovich and his work under Stalin's tyranny. But, I have started to soften.

That may be due to the portrayal of musicians suffering in The Death of Stalin. (If you have not seen it, I recommend it. I will never look at Beria the same again. Wicked satire is an understatement.) I am starting to appreciate how he could retain a vestige of creativity under the world's most evil government.

The Shostakovich piano trio is a powerful piece of work. Especially, the third movement. The author of the program notes puts it this way. "Block chords in the piano, bleak and black, begin the Largo." Unfortunately, as played that night, the notes were far more mechanical than bleak.

I attributed that interpretation to the violin's introduction where he tried to subtly draw a comparison between Russia's destruction and resurrection in the Second World War to contemporary politics. I thought he was referring to Putin. The man sitting behind me thought he was referring to Trump. Either way, I thought the eccentric performance was an intended anachronism.

The Fine Arts Quartet is a well-established group. That means that they are older. Their much younger selves performed at the first chamber music festival in 1979.

Being older, they have a very staid style. They are not so much interpreters of the music as they are the voice of the composer. There are very few stage antics. At times, there is very little animation.

With one exception (you can pick it out by the name you will not recognize), they also performed a strong program. And performed it as yeomen.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 1 in F major" (1798-1800)
  • Ralph Evans, "String Quartet No. 1" (1995)
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, "String Quartet No. 1 in D major" (1871)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "String Quartet No. 19 in C major" (1785)
  • Dmitri Shostakovitch, "String Quartet No. 11 in F minor" (1966)
  • Claude Debussy, "String Quartet in G minor" (1893)

For those of you who may be interested in improving your appreciation of serious music, I discovered an interesting tool on Youtube. Someone has gone to the trouble of making videos complete with the score. You can actually see themes developing, as well as hearing them.

On the last night of the concert, a young realtor sat next to me. I suspect he was there because it was good for business. But, he was also interested in learning. Unlike most tyros, he did not pretend he knew what he did not. After the interval, he leaned over and asked me the proper way to pronounce "Debussy." I was happy to oblige.

In that spirit, I offer the Debussy piece complete with scores for those who are curious to learn. May you listen long and proper.