Sunday, November 18, 2018

steve's list of best sellers


Disrupting routines always turns up something interesting.

I am a big advocate of Kindles. When I moved to Mexico, I knew the thing I would miss most were bookstores. They just did not exist in the little villages I call home. Even if there was a bookstore, its offerings, would be in Spanish.

In 2009, I was consuming two books a week. The supply I brought south quickly dwindled.

Then, an electronic miracle happened. Amazon reduced the price of its Kindle reader to the point where it would not matter if the tropical salt air ate it, and simultaneously, Amazon started offering books for sale outside of the American borders. I could now get almost any book I wanted anywhere in the world.

Even more than availability, I fell in love with its compact size. Each of my readers has decreased in size and weight. My Oasis is almost a wisp in my fingers.

As much as I love my Kindle, I never fully lost my love for printed books. A couple of years ago, I brought down the few volumes I saved from the massacre of my Salem book collection. They now reside happily in my Mexican home's library.

But they are lonely. I have less than 200 volumes. And I would like more.

Over the past year, when I see a new release that interests me, I will order a printed copy from Amazon -- and, occasionally, an electronic copy for my Kindle. Slowly, my library is growing again.

I discovered just how much it has grown when I straightened up my bedroom while packing for my Oregon Thanksgiving-Panama Canal trip. My reading table has accreted layers of unread books.

Eleven to be exact. If I have read a printed book, I will place it on the shelf in the library. If I want to read it before I display it, I place it next to my bed for later reading.

Here is what is pending in my future. I have heard you can learn a lot about someone merely by what they read. I am not certain what this eclectic mix tells you about me.

Stephen Sondheim, Look, I Made a Hat and Finishing the Hat

These two volumes are a collection of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. Sondheim is a poet at heart, and his lyrics describe the human condition with skill equal to a Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin. They stand apart from their music as stand-alone art. That cannot be said of many lyrists.

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace

Yancey is one of my favorite Christian authors. He is an apologist for the faith without getting trapped into being a defender of organized Christianity. For years, he has spread the word about the core truth of the gospel, and has been just as blunt how Christians have run roughshod over the core teachings of Jesus.

Grace is a favorite topic. This recent book asks the question why it appears Christian grace is diminishing. I intend to use it as the core for my next Bible study.

Jay Cost, The Price of Greatness 

One of my undergraduate degrees is in history -- specifically, the early years of the American republic. So, I pick up almost every book I see that attempts to discuss the divisions in politics that arose in the first years under the Constitution.

The usual conceit is to compare Thomas Jefferson with Alexander Hamilton. The weakness in that approach is that Jefferson's sphinx-like persona hid a lot of his motivation. Cost gets around that by channeling Jeffersonian thought through Jefferson's Charles Colson, James Madison. Some of the same divisions we see in today's politics are quite visible in the Republican-Federalist rift.

Ted Kooser, Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems
I came to Kooser late in life. This year, in fact. Until I purchased this book based on a critique in National Review, I am not certain I had heard of him. I certainly had not read much of his work.

The purchase of Kindest Regards has turned out to be an unmixed blessing. Kooser's poems are based on a very simple notion -- that stories of ordinary people told simply are the most effective way to understand ourselves better. When I finish reading one of his poems, I feel as if I know who he has described -- and a bit about myself.

Poems are best read sparingly. At least, for me they are. This is the book I pick up when I want to spend a few minutes by the pool with a pot of green tea. W
here I can read a poem. Watch the dragonflies or the hummingbirds. And enjoy the moment of simply being alive in a world that can still be described in carefully chosen words.

Jan Swafford, Language of the Spirit
This is another book I am taking my time reading. Swafford has compiled a short survey of serious music. He is a missionary who wants others to enjoy music in the sense he does.

His construct is to describe each of the musical periods through a brief introduction on musical theory and then through short biographies of the leading composers in each era. I was a bit skeptical of his approach.

Music theory taught through biography is usually little more than pop psychology. Swafford avoids that trap by approaching each biographical sketch as a way to describe the development of music as opposed to a simple and wrong way to describe music through what composers thought of their mothers.

The reason I am taking my time with this volume is that I am listening or re-listening to each work described. It has been a fascinating journey. I am in the middle of Beethoven's fifth symphony right now.

Edward Dusinberre, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets
This August at the San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival, I acquired a new fascination with Beethoven's late string quartets. The performers at the festival played most of them. They took on a new sound to me. And I was intrigued at how the deaf Beethoven could have written music that was obviously far ahead of its time. And music that was hauntingly moving.

Dusinberre is an expert on the quartets. As the first violinist of the Takács Quartet, he has an interesting perspective not only on the quartets as music, but also how they can be presented to a modern audience without losing any of their significance.

Matthew Guerrieri, The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and Human Imagination

I cannot remember who gave me this book. I think it was my friend John Hofer. Or I may have bought it. It has been with me for years, but I have never read it -- until I read the first chapter last week.

Everyone's favorite sweetheart Marion the Librarian includes an interesting plea for the man she would love in her torchy Being in Love. "
And if occasionally he'd ponder/ 
What makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great./ Him I could love 'til I die./ 
Him I could love 'til I die!"

What is it that makes Beethoven great? I have often wondered that. (Hint. Hint, Marion.) Two years ago, I tried to organize a salon at my house to discuss that question -- and others. But I found little interest in our community.

Maybe this book will help fill that gap. For me.

Anne LaMotte, Bird by Bird
You already know I admire Anne LaMotte's writing. She pops up now and then on these pages.

Her politics are far to the left of mine. But her commitment to her faith is always a model to me, even when she becomes a bit annoyingly neurotic. But that gives her faith authenticity.

Bird by Bird is not really a Christian devotional, even though her stories always have a core of Christian moral agency. The book is designed as a guide on learning how to be a more effective writer.

I have read it before. I will read it again. Because all of us writers can stand a bit of improvement. We owe that to you, dear readers.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Each nation has a novel that is considered to be the novel that represents the best writing of the nation. The Great American Novel is purportedly Moby Dick. For Spain, it is Don Quixote.

They are the type of book that is known by all and read by few.

My Mexican intellectual friends claim Pedro Páramo is the Great Mexican Novel. And they will unanimously admit they know it, but have not read it.

That is too bad. I read it in college upon the recommendation of a geology professor who also acted as a recruiter for an intelligence agency. It was the best piece of advice he gave me.

I recently bought a copy, and have been reading and re-reading the first two chapters for months. It is a small book. There is no good reason I have not yet finished it. But Rulfo's surrealistic style is so beguiling, I find myself getting caught in the same loops of logical irrationalism that the narrator faces.

If you have not read it, I strongly recommend it. Maybe I will finish it by the time you do.

Jorge Castañeda, Mañana o Pasado 

This is the Spanish edition of Castañeda's 
Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans that shows up frequently in Mexpatriate. For me, it was a very thought-provoking book.

I bought the Spanish edition, not because I thought I could understand it as well as I did the English edition. I bought it for Omar.

I am a bit concerned about the lack of critical thinking taught in his high school -- and the lack of any type of serious reading in classes that are the equivalent of being a junior.

When I told him I would like to buy the book for him to read and we could then discuss it, he jumped at the opportunity. I am hoping he will find the experience interesting enough to become a reader.

That means I will not be reading this book. But I will have to read the English edition if we are going to have a thorough conversation. It will also give me an opportunity to improve my Spanish by comparing the texts.

There is another essay embedded in there. But it will be for another day.

So, there you have it. I have bared a bit of my soul. Do with it as you will.

But I am also interested in the list of books sleeping on your reading table. Maybe we could meet for mineral water one day to talk about them.

Reading without sharing often feels like not reading, at all.
          

Saturday, November 17, 2018

not his first rodeo, but maybe his last


The lot in front of my house is a perpetual stage of rural passion plays.

Adam and Noah encountered fewer animals than I have. Or so it seems.

Horses. Mules. Cattle. Chickens. If Old McDonald had one, so have my neighbors.

Oh, and course, there have been goats. Goats have starred in several of my essays over the past four years. Christy became so attached to a couple of them, she named them.

There have been a series of goats across the street. For a short period they act as four-legged gardeners and keep the tropical weeds under control. And then they all succumb to the same fate. The birria pot.

The latest goat is young, healthy, and quite feisty. But today's story does not start there.

My neighbor, César, had a customer who could not pay him in cash, so he gave him an old ram.

I am sorry I did not get a photograph of that old goat. He was the epitome of every negative stereotype we have ever heard about goats. Old. Smelly. And so cantankerous that he attacked every moving thing on the street.

Several times, he repeatedly butted my Escape. When he was young, he may have been able to play the role of one of the Three Billy Goats Gruff crossing the bridge. These days, he would be cast as the troll underneath. With his knotted, shaggy coat he could have just as easily played Gus the Theater Cat in Cats.

César is a wily young man. Even though the old ram was quite an efficient mower, his future prospects as the main course at a fiesta were quite limited. If you have eaten birria cooked with ancient goat, you will know what I mean.

And this may be an appropriate juncture in our narrative to take a break. I am writing as if you know what birria is. And I should not do that. I did not know what it was before I moved to this part of Mexico.

My home state of Jalisco claims birria as its own -- even though it is prepared elsewhere in Mexico with some additional states claiming it is part of their local birthright. It is the type of argument that got Jacob and Esau wrapped around a pot of lentils.

Birria is a stew. A spicy stew usually starring goat as the guest of honor. Some cooks use beef. Others chicken or mutton. But it is the spices that pull it together. Oregano. Garlic. Onion. Paprika. Cumin. Thyme. And plenty of chiles.

Each cook has her special twist on the dish. After all, it is a stew. And the outcome can vary as much as any pot of bouillabaisse in Provençal kitchens.

I have tasted some terrible versions. But I have had far more sublime bowls of Jalisco ambrosia.

And that brings us back to the young goat, who is about to make its appearance.

Seeing no prospects in the old ram, César used his innate trading skills and dumped the ram in favor of a much tastier-looking youngster. And that is the goat that currently graces the lot across the street.

It has been there for about a month. Last week, César and his nephew were re-staking the goat. Because there was a lot of tugging and pulling going on (goats are no better on a leash than some dogs), I asked César if it was time to exchange this goat for a pot of birria.

He laughed, and said yes. But the goat was there the next morning. And the next. And the next. I assumed "yes" did not mean "ahora" (now).

This morning, it appears "ahora" has arrived. The goat-mown lot is there -- as it is every morning. But there is no goat bleating. Well, there is no goat, at all. And I suspect I know exactly where it is gone.


If any of you indulge in a bowl of one of Jalisco's best culinary offerings in the next few days, you may have an opportunity to meet the tender, young goat who once graced my days.

In fact, it may just become a part of you.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

all of life's a circle


Whoever invented the traffic circle (or any of its many aliases) should have been placed on the Queen's New Year's Honors List.

They are a brilliant method of moving traffic through intersections. Even though they fell out of favor in The States for almost a century.

Bend, Oregon was one of the American cities that pioneered the roundabout renaissance, It now has 32. With a piece of sculpture in the center of each.

On my past visits, I have told myself that I am going to search out and shoot each one. I haven't. But I may do it this month. I fly north on Saturday for Thanksgiving in Oregon.

But, if I was only interested in seeing art in the middle of a traffic circle, I could have saved myself a trip to Oregon. Barra de Navidad is right up there with the rest of haute culture.

Upon entering Barra de Navidad, there is a mini-traffic circle with a giant sculpture of two bill fish doing something like the macarena in the center of the street. It meets the first criterion of public art by tying into a local culture. In this case, fishing.

The second is no longer there. The traffic circle is. But the art is gone.

Calling it a "traffic circle" is a  a bit of a reach. It is actually just an island in the middle of a cul-de-sac. But, for a few hours one afternoon last week, it was home to a bit of street theater that would have done a Soho performance artist proud.

I was out on my afternoon walk when I just happened upon it. An homage to another bit of local culture. Equestrianism.




A colt was resting as if posing for posterity on the edge of the island. And it was not the least bit bothered by my circling and shooting. Its mother was staked out in an adjacent empty lot. But the colt was on its own.

The shape of its mulish nose made me wonder if the mare had been wandering on her own, as well.

Some of you will remember the scene in The Life of Brian where Brian's mother tells him why his nose was different from other Jewish boys. Because his father was a Roman. That made me wonder if the mare had had a similar chat with her offspring.

As nice as Bend's art-encrusted traffic circles may be, I will put up our Mexican entrant from Barra as being far more interesting.

And, if the Queen has not yet given away that honor for traffic circles, I have a colt to nominate.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

hawking the hawker


One of the most therapeutic aspects of writing is sharing tales where I do not come out well in the end.

We all cultivate a public personality in the hopes that people will believe the best we see in ourselves. And then reality barges his way onto the stage.

Late last week, I was walking past the new Kiosko next to the bus station in San Patricio. There is a bench out front where people can rest in the shade of a mahogany tree.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary -- except for one thing. A tall northern man was bent forward pulling things out of his pockets and holding them in the face of someone on the bench.

In a few steps I knew exactly what was happening. The person on the bench was one of the local Indian women who make a living on the beach. She had her lunch laid out beside her along with a soda she probably purchased in the convenience store with some of the money she had earned that day selling trinkets on the beach.

I could now hear the man. "Would you like to buy this? -- No? Then how about this? -- Don't eat! I am selling you something."

The young woman looked terrified, and glanced up at me. It was the young mother of the family who once lived next door to me.

I have always laughed at the cliché: "I saw red." What on earth does that mean?

But, I literally saw red. It was as if a scarlet curtain had been drawn across my vision.

This guy had obviously taken umbrage at the vendors who go from table to table at restaurants trying to make a living. It irritates some people. This guy was taking his irritation out in a parody of Aespoic proportions.

I was seconds away from cold-cocking the pest when I heard Valeria's voice from Conan the Barbarian: "Do you want to live forever?"

My cinema-besotted mind often conjures up exactly the wrong quotation for what I am doing. This one caused me to laugh and my sane self returned to Earth. Laughter works miracles that way.

Rather than deck the guy, I politely asked: "Sir, what are you doing?" (I seem to fall into the fake formal address used by police officers without a sense of humor in circumstances like this.)

I was not surprised at his response. "It's none of your business."

I corrected him. "It is my business. This young woman, her husband, and her two boys were my neighbors. They are now my friends. Has she done something that requires you to humiliate her in public?"

By this time, she had gathered her lunch and had crept away.

"I have been here for three days. At every meal, these people [Ah. There it was. The infamous "these people."] interrupt me and try to sell me things I would never buy. I wanted to let her know what it feels like."

I could tell that even when he said it out loud, he did not realize how foolish his little melodrama was. So, I tried a different tack.

"It bothered me, too, when I first moved here. But, have you noticed how the Mexicans handle vendors? They will look at the merchandise. Finger it. Praise it. Ask what it is made of. And then thank the vendor for stopping by. Nothing is purchased. But both walk away smiling."

"Well, that is not how we do it in [what I presume was his home country]. The owners would not let them in."

"But, that is the point, isn't it? You are not in [home country]. You are in Mexico, and this is how things are done here. In the process, we are offered the opportunity to learn a bit of patience."

My words of wisdom were not adopted. Well, not if I properly understood what he said, which was something I believe to be not only anatomically impossible, but sounds entirely uninviting.

I did not bother adding that if he was going to buy something to not spend a lot of time trying to barter for 5 pesos and then feel as if he had won the lottery when the vendor essentially gives him part of her sales for the day.

At least, I did not hit him. Nor did I tell him to go back to [home country]. I certainly felt like it. But I hoped he would see how he was cheating himself out of a pleasant visit to Mexico.

That evening, I had dinner at Papa Gallo's. As I was walking past the Kiosko benches, I heard a slurred voice call my name. It was the husband of the vendor who had been assaulted. With beery breath he hugged me and thanked me for what I had done for his wife. And then started one of those rambling conversations that drinkers seem to love.

I eventually pulled away from his verbal clutches. I only took one step before he asked me for 100 pesos. He had drunk up his earnings for the day and wanted to take at least 100 pesos home with him.

I smiled. Walked about 5 paces and instinctively side-stepped as a half-filled beer can whizzed by my head.

A couple years ago, I shared a quotation with you from one of Walter Kirn's books. It sums up  my feelings about how writers treat the people we get to know.

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser.  A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.
In this case, I am glad I do not have to hide the bad behavior I almost acted out. It was bad enough that I let my rage get that much out of control.

But, it is equally true that not every tale has a happy ending. Life is not that neatly tied up in bows. Maybe because in life, for each of us, there is only one ending. Everything else is merely transitional moments.

And that is fine with me. 


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

no plumber required for these leaks


If you live in the Atacama Desert, this story is not for you.

But the rest of the world has felt my pain -- with roof leaks.

I moved into the Barra house in October 2014. Within a month, the rains came. And with them, leaks in the kitchen and the library. Even though the rooms are on opposite sides of the house, they are exactly the same shape. And the leaks were in the same place in both. Right in the center of the room.

I called the former owner to ask if she could recommend a local contractor. She did me one better and told me she knew of the leaks and had already arranged for the original contractor to fix the leaks. At no expense to me.

Free always sounds like a good deal to me. By January the job was done (i got rhythm). But there was something about the surliness of the workers that made me feel a bit uneasy about the work.

When the next rains arrived, new leaks traveled right along with them. So, I had a contractor friend, Tracey Ross, look at the previous work. Because water tends to find access where two different surfaces join, she thought the water may be seeping in at the base of two pillars. So, she modified them. And the leaks stopped.

They stopped, that is, until last year when the leaks in the kitchen and library returned -- with the additional problem of a leak in Omar's bedroom. I needed a better solution (beauty and the breach).

Tracey read read that essay -- about the two contractors who failed to show up after I accepted their bids. Last week she stopped by to offer some suggestions. She was the person who had originally proposed re-designing the terrace drainage system. My concern with that approach is that it would restrict the use of the terrace as a living and exercise space.

She suggested a different course. It was obvious where most of the water was leaking through the roof. The mortar that the surly workers used for the 2015 had dried out and was breaking away -- on both sides of the terrace. As a result, at least two tiles were loose.

Early yesterday morning, a full crew showed up to begin work. They deftly removed the loose floor tiles and a line of mopboard tile pieces without breaking them. They then re-sealed the cement underneath, cleaned the tiles, and reinstalled them.


By the close of the day, everything was in place. With the exception of the new mortar.

After letting the roof cure overnight, Pancho, the foreman, returned on his own this morning to install a high-quality mortar. He is dong that as I chat with you.

Will the fix work? I don't know. But it does rhyme with my prior roof problems. When my roof in Salem leaked, I did not need to replace the whole roof. The roofer looked for the place the water was gaining access and patched the problem.

That is what is happening here. And I have a lot of confidence in Tracey and her crews from past experience.

If it leaks again, we will try something different.

Or I will move to the Atacama Desert.



Monday, November 12, 2018

changing ways


When I walk the three miles to church each Sunday morning, I stop at a little grocery to buy a bottle of mineral water.

Yesterday morning, I grabbed my water and took it to the checkout counter. A northern woman was already there, engaged in a very one-sided conversation.

She was also buying a bottle of water, which she held in one hand. In the other was a 500-peso note that she was fanning in frustration. I had seen this skit before. She was buying an 9-peso bottle of water (about $.45 (US)) and trying to pay for it with a note worth about $25 (US). That may work at a 7-11 in Ontario. Here, it is more than problematic.

I have known the clerk and her family for several years. Her boyfriend was a waiter at Papa Gallo's, and she would often accompany him along with her two children to restaurant events. We talk every Sunday morning at the store.

She was patiently telling the customer: "No tengo cambio." "I don't have change."

I have written about our odd currency issues before (hoping for change) -- an issue that seems to be universal in Mexico. ATMs issue 500-peso notes, but there are very few merchants who have sufficient change when customers present those notes in payment.

With a couple of exceptions. There is always PEMEX. Filling my gas tank costs almost 1,000 pesos. My bill at my favorite small grocery usually runs between 500 and 1500 pesos, depending on how many imported luxuries have caught my eye.

Other than that, the potential spots to drop a 500 are limited. Even most restaurants struggle with them.

When I explained this to the woman yesterday, she noticeably relaxed and thanked me because she was afraid the bill was being refused as counterfeit. She had just arrived from Ontario on a Saturday afternoon flight and was staying with friends for two weeks. This was her first outing on her own.

And then she asked the question we have all asked: "If the ATM gives 500-peso notes and no one can take them, what good are they?"

She summed up exactly what I have thought of the 500 notes in our little villages. They are not so much currency as they are scrip. A portrait of Jefferson Davis on the font would be apt.

But, I shared my solution with her. As soon as I get a handful of 500s, I march into the bank, take a number, and trade my script for 50s, 100s, and 200s. I am then ready to sally forth and overheat the local economy.

I told her I had just given her a perfect lawyerly answer. it was 100% factually accurate -- and useless. The ATM coughed up her money on Saturday. The bank was not open. This was Sunday.

One of my favorite ethics texts from law school was (and still is) Thomas L. Shaffer's On Being a Christian and a Lawyer. Shaffer's thesis is that lawyers will always be misled into inappropriate behavior if they simply try to comply with the Code of Professional Responsibility. Instead, lawyers must be counselors of truth. To be guided by morality rather than hollow professionalism.

Having dispensed his factual take on the 500-peso situation, a lawyer guided solely by the code would turn and walk away. A lawyer interested in true counseling would do more.

So, I pulled out my wallet, asked the woman for her 500-peso note, and gave her two 50s, two 100s, and a 200, and asked her if she needed any more 500s changed. She thought she could now manage until Monday when she would go to the bank.

It was too bad her hosts had not told her about the money situation here. But, those of us who live or repeatedly spend long visits here often forget. Change is just one of those background issues. But it was a reminder to me to ask my guests if they need change after visiting an ATM.

Now, I have no idea if that little exchange was what Shaffer had in mind. It certainly was not one of those tortuous moral issues that lawyers face daily. But it was good enough for me on that fine morning.

The tourist from Ontario had her water, some spending money, and a bit of advice she may or not use. My pal the clerk was thankful that a moment of non-communication ended well for all. And I walked across the street for a church service that dealt with the need for Christians to live out the ideals Jesus taught -- and, once again, realized how short I fall.

But, for the three of us, it was a moment of change.   

Sunday, November 11, 2018

a flower and an apology


I may owe some of you an apology.

My essay yesterday (and some of the comments here and on Facebook) may have given the impression that I believe holding Remembrance Day services in countries other than Canada or the United States is somehow inappropriate (an affair to remember). I do not.

I practiced law in a community where a large portion of the residents were of Mexican descent. Our Salvation Army statistics pegged the number between 19 and 22% when other Latinos were sorted out. So, I am accustomed to people from other countries celebrating their national days in other countries. And I usually participate myself.

There is no doubt that celebrations like Remembrance Day and Veterans' Day carry political baggage -- especially celebrated in a country like Mexico which has been the target of economic and military adventurism by the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and a bevy of European countries.

That is why I always feel a little uncomfortable about public displays of foreign patriotism in Mexico. And it is not only because the singing of foreign national anthems and displaying foreign flags in Mexico is forbidden in most circumstances.

Last year I asked a young Mexican lawyer to assist me in researching the law on foreign anthems and flags. He wasn't even aware such a thing existed.

We quickly found out there are more laws and regulations concerning them than we could imagine. Just as an aside, we also discovered that almost every Mexican flag in town does not comply with the law.

I am particularly sensitive to flags and anthems. When I was very young, flags fascinated me. About the sixth grade, anthems were added to the list.

In the early 1970s, I was stationed on a Greek Air Force base. The American contingent was small. The flagpoles in front of our little headquarters building was directly outside the window of my bachelor officers quarters. Each night I watched the American security police lower first the Greek flag and then the American flag.

In full honors. With one exception. It could have been a scene from a silent movie. In The States, retreat is always accompanied by the national anthem.

Without asking anyone, one evening, I put a record of national anthems on my turntable and waited for the honor guard to start lowering the Greek flag. When they did, I cued up the Greek national anthem.

That startled the young flag team. But they recovered. I then played The Star-Spangled Banner as the American flag was lowered. The head of the team turned, smiled, and saluted me at my window.

What I did not know is that I had just caused an international diplomatic brouhaha. The detachment commander had me in his office within the hour.

Greece had just gone through another coup attempt months before. This time, officers sympathetic to the deposed Greek king had attempted to topple the Army junta then in control of the government. The Greek Air Force had chosen unwisely by siding with the king. I had watched both the Greek commander and deputy commander of the Greek Air Base being taken away by the Army -- and they were never seen again.

Because the United States had remained neutral in the coup, the Greek Army was very suspicious of our presence.

All relations between the United States and countries where its military forces are stationed are governed through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA). You may recall it was the inability to arrive at an agreeable SOFA with Iraq during the Obama administration that led to the precipitous withdrawal of American troops.

The SOFA with Greece did not cover the playing of national anthems. And with the Greek Air Force in the doghouse with the Army, neither Greek nor American commanders would take the risk of approving something as sensitive as national anthems.

But the new Greek commander was a brave soul. He requested permission from the Army, and it was granted. I returned to my duties as an anthem disc jockey.

That is a primary reason I am sensitive to how our Mexican hosts may react to playing music that bears multiple meanings. Last year, I watched a Mexican couple at Rooster's look as if they were physically in pain while the rest of us sang our respective anthems.

They could have been offended by the thought we were celebrating military adventures that had caused Mexico to suffer. Or maybe they were annoyed at having their peaceful breakfast disturbed by our rowdy lot. I do not eliminate the possibility that they were music lovers whose ears were being challenged.

I don;t know what was in their mind, but their faces have haunted me for a year. After the conversations we shared yesterday, I stopped short when I entered the restaurant this morning. The place was packed with Canadians and Americans. But right up front were two Mexican families eating breakfast, with a third in the back. I was positive I was going to re-live last year.

I was wrong. And a lot of that credit goes to Gary, the owner of Rooster'
s, who emceed the service. Last night, the two of us discussed some of the issues raised by the anthems. But, rather than eliminate them, he had a plan.

He told everyone what the order of service would be. A moment of silence. My reading of "In Flanders Fields." And then the singing of the national anthems of Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

In the past, the Mexican anthem was last. That struck Gary as wrong. If was to be sung, it should be first because we are in Mexico. I was not certain that alone would do the trick.

But Gary had more in mind. He explained what was being honored that day. Not military adventurism, but the individual citizens who had fought and died for their countries. He did a marvelous job of creating a common field of interest amongst the three nationalities represented.

The Mexican families sang their anthem with gusto, and stood in respect while Americans and Canadians did what we always do with our anthems -- sing sincerely with a bit of minor keys where major are called for.

After the service, two of the Mexican families had a long conversation with Gary and his wife, Joyce. And the inevitable seal of approval was stamped with a series of selfies.

The only thing I would have added to Gary's introduction (and, in fairness to him, I thought of it only after we were doing our post mortem) would have been references to Mexico's days of honor..

Even though Mexico does not have an equivalent of Remembrance Day, it celebrates several days honoring those who have fallen on behalf of Mexico. Mexican Army Day. Independence Day. Revolution Day. Heroic Defense of Veracruz Day. Cinco de Mayo. National Maritime Day. Boy Heroes Day. Mexican Navy Day.

The Mexican families present at today's service understood what we were celebrating. The same concepts they celebrate in honoring their dead. Whether in pride or in mourning, every nation can appreciate the honor.

But what is it that causes some of us to be so uneasy about national anthems performed within the borders of another country. I felt that same way at a Democrats Abroad Fourth of July party in San Miguel de Allende.

And then it occurred to me. Some moments are perfectly encapsulated in film. In Casablanca, in their desire to extend German authority to Morocco during World War Two, a group of German officers sing Horst Wessel at Rick's Club. On nominally-Free French soil. The mainly French audience sits quietly seething in rage.

That is what I envision the critics of national anthems sung on foreign soil are thinking. The worst possible version of nationalism.

But Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch had the answer. Rather than let the French sit silently in despair, Victor Laszlo leads them in a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise. It is a great moment in cinema.



That is the way I like to remember this day. With people of three nations sharing a common, almost-Roman concept of self-sacrifice. For one moment, no one was talking about which nation is greater -- or even if any of them are. We shared the virtue of honor and the pain of loss.

Do I still have qualms about singing my national anthem in Mexico? Sure, I do. I cannot erase my own experiences. It will always make me uncomfortable.

What I do know is that today was one of the more gratifying days of my life.

And, if I have offended any of you in those beliefs, I do apologize.

You can pray for me.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

an affair to remember


Tomorrow is Veterans' Day (née Armistice Day, but renamed to honor all American veterans, and to wash Woodrow Wilson's fingerprints off of the War to End All Wars).

For Canadians, it is Remembrance Day -- a day for the Commonwealth to honor those who died in the First World War and wars thereafter.

Melaque has a winter population of expatriates and visitors sizable enough to honor days that have no significance in Mexico. Remembrance Day. Canada Day. Fourth of July. Two Thanksgiving Days.

So, some of us will meet, as we always do, on 11 November at 11 AM to honor the dead and Those Who Served. A tontine without subscriptions.

The program is always the same. Gary, restaurateur extraordinaire of Rooster's, will  make a few opening remarks on why we are there. I will, as I have done for the past several years, read John McCrae's sentimental "In Flanders Fields" with its thrown torches held high.

We all will then sing (or try to sing) the Canadian, American, and Mexican national anthems. I always chuckle during the last one when I hear northerners sing about foreigners' soles profaning Mexican soil.

I wish we would not sing the anthems. It is a violation of Mexican law to sing another nation's anthem in Mexico without governmental permission. And the inclusion of the Mexican national anthem is anachronistic because Mexico was not a belligerent in the First World War.

That is not to say that Mexico did not play a part in that war. Without a German diplomatic faux pas involving Mexico, The States may never have joined in what was going on over there.

While the European empires were drenching fields with the blood of their young men, America stood studiously neutral following George Washington's advice to avoid foreign entanglements. There were lots of reasons for that stance.

The American Navy refused to send any of its fleet to the Pacific in 1914 for fear the British would invade through Canada -- a fear that survived until the start of the Second World War.

Most Americans had escaped Europe and saw no reason to involve themselves in a war in which they could see no discernible national interest.

Americans of German ancestry were he largest of the European groups, with the Irish following quickly behind. Many of them had no interest in fighting against people who shared their blood.

Even the sinking of the Lusitania and the increased submarine attacks on American shipping were not enough alone to convert the American nation into a war machine.

 Mexico was involved with its own problems when Europe went to war in 1914. It had its own war boiling. The Revolution started in 1910. By the time an unknown Serbian killed the man who could one day have been emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leaders of the Mexican Revolution had moved on from killing oligarchs to assassinating one another.

The Germans suspected it was just a matter of time before President Wilson maneuvered a reluctant American public into joining the war as an ally of Britain. There were German military advisers in Mexico during the Revolution. But that was not good enough.

Mexico remained completely neutral during World War One -- continuing to allow German companies to operate in the country even after many British, American, and Canadian businesses had been expelled. As a result, Mexico City became a headquarter for German saboteurs bent on mayhem in The States.

President Carranza, who had rejected American military assistance during the Revolution and was offended by the American invasion of Mexico in search of Pancho Villa and the American occupation of Veracruz, began leaning toward the Germans. And the Germans saw the time had come for an offer.

The German government sent a telegram, authored by a German foreign officer, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German Ambassador in Mexico City authorizing the ambassador to offer a military alliance to Mexico. If Mexico would declare war on the United States, Germany would provide financial support and would make peace with the United States only with the cession of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico -- part of the territory Mexico had lost in the Mexican-American War.

As bad luck would have it (for the Germans), British intelligence intercepted the encoded message. It was passed on to the Americans who made it public in March 1917.

At first, there was some skepticism about the authenticity of the telegram. British intelligence had already produced a stream of lies to induce American involvement in the war. Then the German Foreign Office, out of some Prussian sense of honor, admitted it was genuine.

The American public was outraged at German perfidy. (Much in the same way they reacted to the XYZ Affair when the French attempted to bribe American peace-makers.)

Within a month, the United States was at war with Germany.

We will never know if the Zimmerman Telegram would have been enough to take America to war. After its announcement, Germany authorized unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping heading to Europe to support the allies.

America has long been ambivalent about the First World War. Even after the Zimmerman Affair, 50 congressmen voted against going to war.

When the war was over, Americans did what they could to forget the horrors they experienced in Europe. Wilson's idealism and rosy promises turned out to be dross. The First World War is the only major war for which there is no memorial on the Washington mall.

My grandfather fought in that war. Growing up, we had great admiration for those who had fought and died. But Wilson did not share that honor.

It is no surprise that Americans have done their best to switch over to honoring all veterans in general on 11 November.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I first encountered Wilfred Owens's "Dulce et Decorum Est." It had such a powerful; effect on me that I sat down and wrote a poem about the Vietnam War to rebut Owns's thesis. (Of course, my poem ironically proved his point.)

In today's world, "Dulce et Decorum Est" is far more apt than "In Flanders Field."

       Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Of course, I will not read the Owen piece; I will read "In Flanders Fields."



And we will all honor the citizens who defended our countries and our ideals -- even though the policies for which they died may have been terribly wrong-headed.

To all of you veterans out there: thank you for putting others before yourselves. Your service is appreciated.



Friday, November 09, 2018

hardware to flatware


Businesses are like weeds in these parts.

They pop up. And then they are gone.

I discovered a great luxury when I moved into my house just over four years ago. On the other side of the block was a hardware store. Small, certainly. But Sergio had most of what I needed for repairs around the house. Even better, he was open on Sundays.

A stopper in one of my kitchen sinks failed to live up to its name. The rubber portion at the bottom had suffered far too many informal disassemblies. But, that was not a big problem. Sergio could help me.

Or so I thought. When I walked around the corner, everything that looked like hardware was gone from his store. Including the counters.

Instead, a young family was moving in a food preparation table and a refrigerator. My deductive reason usually rescues me whenever that many clues are dumped on my plate. A new restaurant had arrived in the neighborhood.

I was hoping for something exotic. We have German and Italian food in town. Maybe it would be a Hungarian restaurant redolent with smoked paprika.

Nope. When I asked the young woman who was toting in fresh vegetables, she proudly declared she cooked the best tacos in town.

I was polite. But I wanted to point out the last thing our neighborhood needed was another taco stand.

From where I was standing, I could count four other Mexican cuisine restaurants within three blocks. And that does not include OXXO, which serves up something that some might call food. It reminded me of all the beach shops in San Patricio lined up one after the other that sell the same merchandise at the same price and with the same customer service.

I have a friend who decided during Holy Week he would rent out umbrellas on the beach. He was positive he was going to get rich. But he needed money to buy the umbrellas -- and some tables -- and food to serve to his renters. It sounded good.

Of course, he asked if he could borrow the capital from me. When I asked him to explain his business plan, he just stared at me. So, I approached it another way. How much did he need to charge per hour to recover his capital investment and to return a profit for himself.

No matter how we ran the numbers, I was not going to get repaid and he was not going to make a profit. And that is exactly what happened.

I thought of him as I stood there watching the hopeful young couple pull together what was going to be their dream restaurant. I knew the other nearby restaurants barely make their way on our street. And I felt a bit sorry for them.

I need not have. Their tables were full the first few nights as I strode by on my walk. And then the trade died off. Undoubtedly, leaving the new owners pondering the question every restaurateur asks: "Where did everyone go?"

Or, in the end: "Where did all our money go?"

Running a business in a tourist town is a rough way to make a living. The best I can offer is my custom.

And for a guy who is forbidden from eating tortillas, that may not be good enough before the wind blows the seeds off of this particular dandelion.


Thursday, November 08, 2018

tapping eternity


The tapping at the front door was soft but incessant.

Was it Poe's raven with nevermore promises? An early visit from the Spirit of Christmas Past stopping by to Marley up my morning? Or maybe Emily Dickinson"s coachman inquiring if I needed a lift?

I have a general rule at the house. I do not open the front door unless I am expecting someone. I tend to follow a "by appointment only" philosophy.

Whenever I violate it, I am always confronted by a stranger requesting payment for work around the house that I do not need, or by a line of mothers with babies each carrying a laminated prescription list almost a decade old, or a bevy of Jehovah's Witnesses intent on converting my obviously-languishing soul.

The wiser course is for me to ignore the knocking and lend my attention to the tasks at hand. Because, as a homeowner, there are always plenty of "tasks at hand."

I broke my rule this morning. But only because I was heading out the door on what Felipe calls my Bataan Death March. I told myself, if I purposely exited, conversation could be avoided.

When I strode out the doorway, I was a bit taken aback by four young middle class Mexicans. Probably in their 20s. Three men. One woman. Dressed in some sort of matching outfits. White polo shirts. Ocher pants. They could have been missionaries repurposed by John Waters into a 1990s version of The Book of Mormon.


The young woman commented that I must be on my way to exercise. My workout look may not be as stylish as Omar's, but it is practical. The smell of my shirt could have been a clue.

I know better than to do what I did next. I had effectively escaped their clutches, but I turned around and asked what they were doing. I may as well have asked: "May I give you a lot of money to buy whatever it is you are selling?

Each of them whipped open the booklets they were carrying. I anticipated I would be staring into the ever-engrossing pages of a Watchtower. But I was wrong.

Instead, I was gazing into a portrait of my future as worm fodder.



All sorts of goods roll past my house each day touted by some enterprising soul. Fruits. Vegetables. Cleaning products. Magic elixirs. Furniture. But, this is the first time I had encountered a coffin sales team.

My experience is that Mexicans have a far more realistic approach to death than do most northerners. Up north, death gets shunted into the dark corners of cancer wards or relegated to the conversation ghetto of barely-whispered words. I have a friend who will not allow the word to be said in his presence.

For Mexico, death is part of the circle of everyone's life. We are born. We die. It echoes through day/night of the dead and at the multiple funeral parlors here with their casket window-shopping.

So, why not sell them door-to-door?

I have two Mexican friends in their 60s who have picked out their own coffins and store them in their bedrooms. Being practical folk, they use them to store towels and linens. An un-hope chest.

The first time I saw a waiting-to-be-used casket, I was startled. Until I heard the explanation.

The practice is not restricted to Mexico. A few weeks ago, I read an article in The Economist that local officials in Chinese villages  send out thugs to remove purchased coffins from the homes of their elderly comrades. The coffins are then smashed and burned.

The purpose of this pre-grave robbery is to convince the elderly to give up the notion of being buried in the earth. The Communist Party wants them to accept the efficiency of cremation. Such are the ways of traditions in a totalitarian state.

And that is in a country where almost 50% of corpses are already cremated. I find it hard to believe that Mexico's citizens would ever countenance an increase in its relatively low rate of cremation. Especially by government diktat. Those coffins provide the best first step in Mexico's reverence of the passion of death.

You will undoubtedly be shocked that I did not buy my coffin right there on the street this morning. I do tend toward impulse purchases. And what to do with my body upon my death has been running through my thoughts this past week.

Maybe I could just be stuffed in my prospective clothes dryer and buried underneath the soon-to-be-repaired terrace floor.

Or I could just wait for Emily Dickinson's coach driver to make a home delivery.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

whrere there never was a light


In September, big news came to San Patricio.

The village is getting its first traffic signal (you light up my life). Actually, two traffic signals (imagine bumping into you here). Both on Highway 200 through town. The first at the corner with Álvaro Obregón -- less delicately called "Whorehouse Street." The second at the intersection with Lopez Mateos -- the main street into San Patricio's business district.

And the first signal is just one brick short of a wall. The poles were installed yesterday with their naggingly-commanding red-yellow-green hectoring.

But the colors are still aspirational. If I have calculated correctly, there is no electrical power, yet. When that happens, what was once a free flow of traffic will be disrupted.

Anything new always causes the usual suspects to mount their orange crates. It is just another version of the open-closed debate that internationally haunts our political lives.

The Openites love any change that rolls down the calle. You want to mix peanut butter with orange peel and habanero peppers? Good for you. Let's all do that.

The Closedians don't much cotton to anything that was not done by their great-great-great-great grandmothers. Would Moctezuma have approved of a traffic signal? I don't think so. And who is going to think about the children?

The debate really does not matter. It is simply an opportunity for the cheerleaders and grumblers to show off their chops. The signal is there. And will soon be operating. As will the second.

The more interesting question is what is going to happen when the switch is flipped. People who grew up here (and those of us who have inculcated the driving culture) are not accustomed to even looking for traffic signals in these parts. There are a few stop signs, but none are obeyed.

None, that is, except by northerners who keep an eye out for behavioral conformity. And therein lies the potential problem.

I do not know how universal the phenomenon is, but in The States studies have shown that whenever stop signs or traffic signals are installed at a formerly-uncontrolled intersections, traffic accidents increase exponentially.

The reason is simple, people assume that other drivers will see the signal and obey it. If drivers are not accustomed to the presence of a signal at the intersection, they will often not see it and accidentally bump into someone who not unreasonably thought other drivers would obey what The Authorities had decreed them to do.

Driving in Mexico is not so much a skill as it is an art form. Choreography, to be specific. I love watching anyone do something well. And Mexicans are experts at making the seemingly-unworkable work. Admittedly, it is far more Alvin Ailey than Swan Lake, but it is a wonder to behold.

The local choreography, which is almost always based on custom rather than something chimeral like objective regulations, has its own rhythm. And that beat can be thrown off whenever Mexican tourists roll in from Guadalajara or northern visitors venture forth.

To the uninitiated, the two soon-to-be-controlled intersections are chaos. I myself have commented several times I am amazed there are not more accidents.

There are accidents, but usually when someone tries to apply Tapitio
, American, or Canadian rules or customs to the dance. Usually, stopping when a cautious person would stop -- if they were not involved in a pas de deux.

The ballet will now have a director with a harsh hand. And the dancers will need to learn that free-style will not work at those two intersections.

And, for all of us, this is merely a reminder. Not everyone will see the lights as a code. And maybe not even guidelines. I will need to abandon one more strand of my libertarian love for Mexico.

Be careful out there. 



reflections through a glass darkly


I have weaned Omar from treating the balcony in my house as if it were a whorehouse set in a Fellini film.

And I have inadvertently introduced him to the world of the-lost-favorite-piece-of-clothing. When I brought the laundry home last week, he asked me if I had seen his black exercise shorts. They had gone missing.

He claimed they were in his laundry bag, but they were not returned with the bundle of fresh-smelling, folded clothes. Not only were they his favorites, they had cost about $100 (US).

I told that story to an acquaintance I met through Facebook. She has been visiting Melaque in five-month stints for the past 30-odd years, and is quite passionate in her obsession with Mexico.

When I got to the part of the story where I told Omar there were several options for lost clothes (inefficiency, inattention, or theft), she recoiled in horror and spent the next five minutes lecturing me in a monologue that would have done Harold Pinter proud.

The nub of her argument was that I must be the party at fault. Most likely, I failed to take the shorts to the laundry and I am now searching for someone to blame. In her 30-some years of coming to Mexico, she knew the people far better than I do.

In her telling, Mexicans are hard-working efficient people who are great respecters of other people's property. And, because they do not have a materialistic side, they would never consider stealing anything from anyone. She supported her hypothesis with a cascade of anecdotes.

To not put a fine point on it, she was totally miffed at me. And, of course, the discussion-stopping "racist" raised its head at least two times.

I am never quite certain how to re-enter the orbit of a conversation that has wandered so far afield of its original narrative. The most obvious was to bring up the weather or how lovely the flowers are this time of year.

It reminded me of that moment in The Crown when Jackie Kennedy met the queen for tea to apologize for some incredibly boorish behavior. Claire Foy, as Queen Elizabeth, related what she should have done.

What I should've said was that I didn't do very much in Ghana.I got on a plane and I went.And the only reason I went was because I felt utterly useless in comparison to you.And I was trying to compete.And if anything, I owe you a huge debt of gratitude.But I didn't.I just sat there. 
Because I do not have the noble instincts of a British monarch, I did neither of those things. Biding my peace may have been the greater virtue.

I do not see people as exclusively saints or sinners. In fact, I do my best to see the people I encounter as individuals -- with their own set of needs and peculiarities. The group-identity politics of the left and right is always an impediment to venture past corrosive stereotypes.

And that was the point of my Omar anecdote. I was making no generalized statement about Mexicans. I gave my laundry bags to a young woman who works at the laundry. Somehow, an item in the mix went missing before the bundle was placed in my hands.

One of the risks of using a public laundry is just that. Other people are seldom as careful with our property as we are. Economists refer to it as the Tragedy of the Commons. For me, it has been true wherever I have lived. Oregon. Texas. Colorado. California. Washington, Greece. England. And, now, Mexico.

Because I am who I am, I tend to believe there is nothing more nefarious going on other than a failure to pay attention to detail. The young women who run the machines are simultaneously tending to the needs of their two or three very young children. Unlike what Linda Lomax would tell us, attention does not always have to be paid.

My exchange with the long-term Melaque visitor brought home once again how all of us tend to not listen to what other people are actually telling us. By assuming bad motives, the words take on a bit of malignity. In this case, "racist."

I am not preaching. If I were, I would be a hypocrite because I am constantly guilty of ferreting out subtext during conversations. As a result, I often miss an interesting point or a clever turn of phrase. When that happens, I am poorer for it.

I can easily fix the wandering laundry. All I need is a stackable washer-dryer combination. (Something that will fit in the criminally-small utility space of my house. It is hard to believe that a woman designed it.)

As for listening and learning, the solution is just as simple. We are all moral agents. In every circumstance, we can choose to do the right thing or the wrong.

It is just like laundry. Getting rid of stains requires a bit of attention.

Here's wishing you a complete laundry bundle.   

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

tasking the impossible


They say it is impossible to do more than one task each day in Mexico.

But, they also say falling in love is wonderful -- and they got that wrong. It turns out they were just as incorrect about daily chores in my country.

I am getting ready for a series of trips starting the middle of this month running through April that will take me to three or four (maybe even five) continents. That means I need to tend to some recurring matters. Mainly, financial.

So, here was my plan. I needed to drive to Manzanillo for a dental appointment -- a simple cleaning. While there, I was going to pick up some groceries and household supplies, drop off my dry cleaning, deposit money in my telephone-internet and cellular telephone accounts. And then stop in Cihuatlán to deposit money on my electric account. Eight stops. Multiple tasks.

What could go wrong?

As it turns out, not really anything.


First stop. La Comer. No financial trip is complete without finances. The store has an HSBC ATM that will allow me to withdraw $500 (US) worth of pesos.
(Most ATMs have a 6,000 peso limit) Today that was about $9,900. Enough to do what I needed to do. I thought.

With cash in hand, I picked up some vegetables, spices, tea, and hummus (everything that I could buy in San Patricio, but, hey, I was already there). No problems.

Second stop. Walmart. Walmart carries a variety of cherry tomatoes I like. I would never drive to Manzanillo solely to buy them. But, I was there. A couple of cans of soup helped justify the stop.

When I first moved to Mexico, I made a weekly trip to Manzanillo to pick up my mail. When I discovered I was simply wasting money, I rented a Mexican mail box. My need for trips to Manzanillo has diminished to a couple times each year.

Except for chores like stop three. Telmex.

Telmex provides my land line (that I never use) and my internet (that I use world without end). I pay my monthly bill in person, usually, at my local Kiosko. But Kiosko will not accept advance payments and the credit union near my house that once did, no longer does.

So, I drive to Manzanillo. Usually, there is no one in line. That was not true today. But the line moved quickly, and when I walked out, my account was $3,000 (Mx) richer. That will hold me for a few months.

Fourth stop. Sam's Club. With the exception of a few exotic items (like imported cheese), almost everything at Sam's Club is available in San Patricio. The difference is size. My house is essentially a small hotel. We go through cleansers, bleach, Windex, and Pledge like a bed and breakfast -- with a much smaller revenue stream.



Fifth stop. Telcel. My cellular telephone service is one of my lifelines. With the advent of smartphones, I use my mobile connection far more often than my laptop. If I could figure out an efficient way to compose my essays on my telephone, I would drop my landline internet service.

I left $3,000 (Mx) to cover me roaming bill for the next few months.

Sixth stop. My primary reason for driving to Manzanillo -- my dentist. I have a standing appointment for cleaning every six months. This visit was fortuitous.

Earlier in the year, I had broken a tooth cap in Peru. Three dentists made temporary stopgaps. Maybe three months ago, my dentist in Manzanillo tried a more permanent solution. But it loosened.

I asked her if she could repair it. This is Mexico. Of course, she said yes, and did. She also noticed one of my teeth had been chipped. That was an easy fix.

Because Mexican health care is so reasonably-priced, you will not be surprised that the full cost for almost two hours in the chair was $2,000 (Mx) -- about $101 (US). Less money than Telcel or Telmex received.

Seventh stop. Dry cleaner. A shirt and pair of pajamas. Ready tomorrow. $145 (Mx). About $7 (US).

Mission accomplished. Seven stops in three hours.

Yes. Yes. I hear you in the back row. What about my stop in Cihuatlán to deposit funds in my electricity account?

If you have been adding up the pesos I spent, you will already know the answer. I was going to deposit $6,000 (Mx), but I no longer had that many pesos in my wallet.


Cihuatlán is close enough for me to tap an ATM tomorrow or later in the week and drive the few miles to the power office. I do not fly from Mexico for just over a week.

I am now sitting by the ocean listening to the waves and some soft jazz. And it is with a certain sense of hubris that I aver "they," once again, are wrong.

It is possible to accomplish a northern-sized to-do list in Mexico. Sometimes.

Wasn't it Prometheus who said: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad"?

I may find out. There is still one task to accomplish.

Monday, November 05, 2018

beauty and the breach


Beauty and functionality are uneasy partners.

As I discovered with my Moravian star light fixtures (you don't light up my life).

After renting in Mexico for almost six years, I decided this area of Mexico was going to be my permanent home. And, if it was to be, I needed -- a permanent home.

So, I started shopping around with only some vague notions of what I wanted in a house. I must have looked at close to 30 houses without finding anything that remotely interested me.

Well, there was the house that had first drawn me to Barra de Navidad, but it had passed from being a dream house to a bother. And there was another house I really liked, but I failed to win the bidding process.

I had almost given up looking when I spotted some photographs of an elegant-lined house I had not seen in my wanderings. I set an appointment with Ale, my realtor, and met her in an area of town I did not know existed.

The moment I walked into the courtyard, I was enthralled. The house had everything I wanted -- even though I had been uncertain what it was. Contemporary. Modern. Mexican.

I had spent 15 minutes looking through the house. When I returned to the courtyard, I glanced up and saw what it was that had attracted me to the place. Its lines. Its flat planes created a sense of order and peace. Luis Barragán would have approved.

Within weeks, the house was mine.

I do not recall when we had our first rain after I moved in. It must have been only a few days. With the rain came leaks. Two major leaks.

The former owner who was also the architect-builder of the house, told me she was aware of the leaks and had arranged for the contractor to repair them. At her expense.

The problem was easy to diagnose. Most roofs here are flat. Flat surfaces are conducive to collecting rain water. And if water collects, it will find the most convenient way to drain. That often leads to leaks inside the house.

But this was not just a roof. It was a terrace designed for living space. And it would soon become my exercise track.

The usual solutions are to increase the grade of the roof to facilitate drainage and to apply one of the globular sealers seen on most Mexican roofs. Neither would work on the terrace without reducing its appearance and purpose.

So, the contractor replaced several rows of tile in the hope of finding the weak sisters. I talked with the young man who was laying the new tiles. He did not seem to be very happy. I suspect there was a pay issue.

The fix did not work. It simply moved the leaks.

I had a second contractor try another solution. Same result. Leaks, but in a new place.

That contractor suggested a drastic revision. Pull up all the tiles, change the grade to the opposite side of the terrace, and install pipes to drain into the courtyard.

It was a non-starter as an idea. The terrace would be useless as a walking track and the Barragánesque lines that attracted me to the house would be ruined.

I have now had two additional contractors look at the terrace. I pointed out that the current leaks appear to be coming from spots where the mortar has pulled away from the tiles in the area of the original repair. The contractors agreed the mortar probably was inferior -- a parting shot of spite from the original contractor.



One of the contractors and I agreed on a proposed plan of repair. It would entail a lot of work and be expensive, but it sounded like a good solution.

And then nothing happened. I sent several email and left telephone messages. No response.

It was the same drill with the other contractor. Approved proposal. And then nothing.

Both of the contractors are Mexican, but they regularly work on building projects with northerners. If they were too busy to do the work, I would think they would simply tell me. But this may be another expectation based on faulty understanding of culture.

A friend works regularly with the second contractor. I am going to try to get the three of us together to get this project on the road -- or the roof. Each rainstorm this summer and autumn has been a reminder that Robert Frost was correct. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Or roof.

I have enlisted to be the steward of this house and its lines. Somehow, I need to find a compatible marriage between beauty and its elusive mate functionality.



Sunday, November 04, 2018

growing up frank burns


"I didn't come here to be liked."

It was pure Frank Burns on the burden of leadership.

Radar responded: "You certainly came to the right place."

That is probably my favorite MASH line -- in a rather crowded field. Like most of Larry Gelbart's writing, it perfectly skewers the human condition, and makes us laugh at our own short-comings.



I thought of that exchange at church today. We were studying Acts with its steady progression of Christianity as a faith that would spread from Jerusalem to Samaria, Judea, and the rest of the world just as Jesus had directed.

But there was a potential stumbling block in the early leadership. Peter, who had become one of the principal leaders in the Jerusalem church still saw his faith as an extension of the faith of his youth -- Judaism. To him, what he believed and preached was a Jewish sect. It was and still is. He was correct.

He also saw it as a faith that was primarily for the Jewish people, and that faith was to be exercised in the Temple in Jerusalem. That, of course, elided the core of Jesus's directive -- that The Way was for all of the world.



To get Peter on board, God sent a vision, where a sheet filled with unclean animals (according to the Levitical dietary code). The animals were offered as food to a peckish Peter. Three times he refused the food because it violated his culture and its religious rules.

God then startled Peter by declaring: "Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean." To drive the point home, Peter then is directed to meet with a Roman military officer, a gentile he would have not dealt with before his three-sheet conversation, and converts the officer and his family to the faith.

Thus, was born the evangelical push to preach Christianity amongst the gentiles.



I have always enjoyed reading about Peter. He is one of the most human and accessible people in The Bible. And, in his refusal to eat the unclean food, I fully understood the smugness he must have felt by refusing to eat, thus passing God's test. Not knowing he was flunking what God's will was.

I grew up in a faith that was larded with rules designed to prove one's sanctification. No alcohol. No tobacco. No dancing. No movies. No cards. No dice. (My grandmother removed the dice from her Monopoly game. When the grand-kids would play it, she gave them a spinner from an Uncle Wiggly game.)

The intent was to separate us from the world. A world whose evil would overwhelm us if we had too much contact with it.



It turned me into an 8-year old Frank Burns -- or even a Javert. I knew the rules and that they were good. So, when my friends acted in their own worst interests, I was there to help them find the fold. I ratted them out to the authorities.

I acted not out of a sense of grace, but in a miasma of self-righteousness. I was probably 13 when I first started asking in our lists of "don'ts" where the "dos" were. Feeding the hungry. Giving drink to the thirsty. Welcoming the stranger. Clothing the naked. Visiting the sick and the prisoners.

All of a sudden, a religion of rules morphed into a faith of hope. And today I was reminded that we need to keep our eyes open to God's world.



Oddly enough, I did that on my walk home this morning. It is three miles between my house and church. Because I am usually in Walk Mode when I make the journey, I do not notice much around me. Today I did.

When I visit the states of Guanajuato and Michoacán
 in September, my chief joy is driving around the countryside in A.E. Housman fashion. I do not find cherry blossoms. Instead, I am blessed with wide swaths of color. Primarily wild cosmos. Orange. Pink. But vivid enough to imagine I had been painted into a Pissaro.

I have always missed the lack of flower fields around here. Until my walk home.



True, we do not have the type of Brobdingnagian displays that grace the highlands. But this is the tropics. And flowers are everywhere.

Some large, but mostly tiny. What the self-righteous may call weeds. What the hopeful see as thirsty souls. And almost all of them with a brief lifespan.

I have no sheet of unclean animals to offer you, but I just may slay a bit more of the Frank Burns that haunts my soul.




Enjoy the grace notes.