Thursday, February 21, 2019
Hi. My name is Steve. I am a recovering attorney.
Some attorneys see retirement as a transitional period. They taper off on their schedule, but show up for work every day -- until they leave feet first one afternoon.
That was not my idea of retirement. When I headed south to Mexico, I left my law career standing on Summer Street in front of my Salem house. The last I saw it, it was waving at me in my rear view mirror.
I did not quit the bar entirely. The next January I elected to move from active to inactive status. I was not quite ready to hit the "resign" button. Because you never never know, do you? I am the equivalent of an alcoholic who stills gets some pleasure out of reading single malt scotch labels.
In return for just a bit over one hundred dollars each year, the Oregon State Bar sends me hectoring emails that remind me why I am no longer an attorney. It is as if my former profession has installed the latest version of King George III.2 software. A lot of what is haywire with American society is amplified by my former colleagues -- or the colleagues that make up the bar leadership.
But, I do receive something valuable for my money. Every month, I find the bar's Bulletin in my mailbox. (Yes, it still comes in hard copy. Attorneys are not the most cutting-edge of professions.)
The magazine is stuffed with the usual self-righteous and narcissistic filler that graces every professional publication. But there is one column that has long been my favorite, and it makes the rest of the dross bearable.
Suzanne E. Rowe offers advice on how attorneys can improve their writing skills in the not-very-imaginative, but highly-practical-titled "The Legal Writer." Her columns are always filled with the type of advice that a large group of attorneys, some of the world's most dreadful writers, should take to heart.
I still read the column because I am a grammar groupie. Her columns are always pithy and witty -- just as a column about improving writing should be.
I have a second reason for reading the column. A couple of years ago, I met Salvador (or "Chava" as common usage would have it), a young Mexican with very good English skills. But he wanted to improve it. His interest is in tourism, and English is a prized asset in the field.
I do not remember why I started giving him Suzanne's column, but it was exactly what he had been looking for. She answered some of the questions that his English instructor could not. The column became the center of our weekly meetings.
The rule during our meetings is that Chava can speak only English, and I can speak only Spanish. He has the better end of the deal.
When I received Suzanne's most recent column, I knew Chava would love it. Not only was it filled with grammar tips, it was about jokes. And he loves jokes even more than I do.
There was one problem. The concept was based entirely on "a guy walks into a bar" jokes. Chava had never heard of them. Missing the setup in a joke is certain doom for the punchline. Or, as that master jokester Johnny Carson put it: "If you buy the premise, you buy the bit."
It took me only a minute or two in fractured Spanish to explain the idea of "a guy walks into a bar" jokes, and he was ready for Suzanne's rules of grammars wrapped in humor. He laughed so hard while reading the list, I was almost envious of his understanding.
Here they are:
An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.
Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a short, dark and handsome sentence fragment.
Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
From our earlier conversations, he knew most of the grammar terms. On only two of the jokes did he have questions. Where I struggled was trying to remember the Spanish words for some of the grammar terms. Fortunately, like most things grammar, Latin is our friend. Most of the terms are cognates. The trick, for me, is remembering where the accents fall. (Yes, I know. Usually te second to last syllable. But the trick is the difference between remembering and doing.)
At my last employer, I was part of a team that conducted quarterly legal training for our staff. We quickly learned that humor was our best tool. (It was also our worst potential enemy. Almost anything we laugh at these days has the potential to dynamite open a bevy of hurt lockers.)
When Chava was getting ready to leave, I asked him if he would put together a similar list of grammar jokes in Spanish. He asked for a month to do that. After all, I simply used someone else's jokes for our little exercise. That sounded fair to me.
I saw him today on my morning walk. He had shown the column to his English teacher. He beamed when he told me his teacher had understood only one of the jokes. Smug would not have described his smile.
And who says all those years of getting a law degree was wasted time?
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
I am a poseur. A sham. A fraud.
Not in everything, mind you. But I certainly am when I wear this t-shirt.
It commemorates The Bare Hot Chile Challenge 2019 in Barra de Navidad last month. There were several contestants who took on increasing degrees of the Scoville scale for the questionable title of Guy with the Steel Gut. Hot food. Hot drinks.
I was not one of the contestants. So, wearing it opens me to same moral harangues heaped on soldiers who wear medals they never earned. But, in my defense, I have been conducting my own personal challenge at the house.
Bare Essentials, the little shop down the street that specializes in, among other things, hot peppers, was the source of the challenge's chilies. I love spicy food. So, after Giovanni described the six grades of salsa he had concocted from serranos up to Carolina reapers, I bought a jar of each (going bare).
For the past three weeks, I have been experimenting with the salsas in soups and Indian, Korean, Mexican, and fusion dishes. None of the jars has yet to disappoint me.
So, when Giovanni and Maricarmen started selling souvenir t-shirts from the challenge, I bought one. And, inevitably, when I wear it, people ask me if I participated. They always seem disappointed when I say no.
I have come up with a solution. Even though truth is a constant, facts are malleable things. I now tell them: "Yes. Every day at my house." And that gets the conversation rolling.
I wear the t-shirt on my daily walks. And, even though I usually do not stop to chat when I am in exercise mode, if you want to ask about my t-shirt, I will gladly chat.
After all, I do not want to be a complete fraud.
If you wish to join me in scam city, Bare Essentials still has more of the t-shirts to outfit us band of Professor Harold Hills. And pick up a couple of jars of salsa while you are there. It will add a patina of authenticity.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Ad men hate people like me.
Madison Avenue spends billions of dollars each year to build a rapport with consumers through witty little phrases. Make us smile, and we will buy almost anything. Prostitutes and politicians are experts with that ploy.
Unfortunately for the PR types, I am one of those people who always remember the catchy phrase and then have no idea what product I am suppose to buy.. I saw a recent study in The Economist that tells me I am not at sea all alone.
I thought of one of those old advertising phrases this morning. My experience of the flocked wading birds yesterday still had me a bit excited. That is why I was really disappointed in the shots I took on my phone camera.
So, I got up early, grabbed my Sony NEX-6 (along with my telephoto lens) and sat forth to shoot myself some birds.
The first casualty of the morning was my walk. Birding and power walking are not compatible companions. Furtive movement is last thing I need when stalking birds. I would probably be cautious, as well, if I inhabited their link in the food chain.
I usually shoot from a small opening in the mangroves that surround the little patch of water where I saw the waders yesterday. I had attached my zoom lens and donned my birding binoculars in an attempt to move as little as possible once I stationed myself in my blind.
I needn't have bothered. The photograph at the top of this essay is what I saw. Where there were hundreds of birds yesterday, there were now only a few.
And that advertisement slogan that popped into my mind? "It's not nice to fool mother nature."
That was what I was doing. Because the birds were there yesterday, I thought they would be there again this morning.
Why they were not, I do not know. Maybe because the sun was not out. Maybe because today is a full moon. Maybe because it is the third Tuesday in February.
Mother nature needs no silly reasons. It just is. And we need to be realistic enough to realize nature is not our servant. Marsha Norman caught a bit of that spirit in "A Bit of Earth" from the otherwise-dreadful Secret Garden.
She'll grow to love the tender roses
Lilies fair, the iris tall
And then in fall, her bit of earth
Will freeze and kill them all
Most of the major waders were off to other hunting grounds. But not these black-necked stilts. Watching them wade through the water, I was a bit confused. Then I realized that the water is not shallow. They are stilts.
I startled this tricolored heron (once provincially known as a Louisiana heron). But I have always felt herons are far more photogenic when they roost on trees.
I finally found some of the major waders in the next pond over. These wood storks, for instance, were stirring up troubled waters -- as storks are wont to do.
Finding both varieties of great blue herons in one shot is somewhat rare. But there they were -- a great blue and its white morph.
While I was shooting, I heard the constant whistle and crackling of a great-tailed grackle, but I could not see it. Grackles fill the niche of jays and crows here. Clever. Gregarious. And with far better voices than any crow.
Had I looked straight up, I would have seen it. Or, rather, them. Three grackles sitting atop a utility pole. Each one looking as if it were posing to become a finial.
When I walked over to another pond, I saw what may be my favorite bird in these parts. A white ibis.
Two white ibises, in this case. There is something about their Durantean bills that always makes me smile.
Sort of the way you smile when you see a clown. One of the funny clowns, mind you. Not the kind that will kill a series of young men and then bury them in his basement. But, you just never know which kind you are meeting, do you?
Once I started shooting, nothing on wing was safe. Terns. Swallows. Vireos. Tits. Kingbirds. Hummingbirds. Kingfishers. Doves.
But enough is enough.
Well, there is one more. I could not let this black vulture Golgothean portrait slip by unnoticed. I will leave the caption to you.
I may not fool mother nature, but I do like messing with her mind.
Monday, February 18, 2019
I am not big on community; but I am an advocate of cultivating relationships. And that seems to make Mexico a perfect foil for my life here on the Pacific coast.
This morning I was in high-cruise mode on my morning walk. My goal was to complete at least 6 miles before the solar crew showed up at the house to install my panels.
When I am in my exercise zone, that is my sole focus. My purpose in life is to get my steps without stopping. No chatting. No gaping. Just walking at a steady 4 MPH pace.
As so often happens in life, our presence on Earth as moral agents is put to the test. I had just completed 2 miles of my walk when I saw Christine, my former landlady and current savior-of-animals, pedaling in my direction.
Fortunately, it was Christine. She is usually not very chatty. But, having known her for ten years now, our relationship is far too vital to pass by with merely a testosterone-addled grunt.
She seemed mildly excited by something. So, I stopped briefly to discover the source of her contentment.
Both of us are very fond of birds. I often have rare sightings on my walks. The same is true of her bike rides. And we like sharing our little secrets.
For the past couple of weeks, I have walked past a wetland that is in the process of turning into a summer mud flat. There is still ample water to support aquatic wildlife. I know that because flocks of great egrets and white morph great blue herons have taken up housekeeping in the pond.
There have been easily over a hundred. When startled, most of them take flight with a flurry of flapping wings and distinctive croaks that sound as if Katherine Hepburn has been turned into a toad.
But that was not Christine's news. She asked if I had seen the large number of wood storks and roseate spoonbills mixed in with the others.
I hadn't. But that was only because I had allowed my exercise regimen to blind me to another of nature's shows.
These shows are not restricted to Mexico. Mother Nature is a full-opportunity employer. But, in the winter, migrating flocks tend to congregate in our area, giving us an opportunity to see up close what might otherwise go unnoticed.
So, I put my exercise on pause and looked for an advantageous spot to slip through the mangroves to get a better view of the pond.
And there they were. Egrets, herons, spoonbills, storks, and the odd limpkin or two along the shore. It looked like a singles bar on a Friday night. Plenty to drink. A snack to be plucked from the water. And constant chatter of future nesting possibilities.
[Clicking on either photograph will give you a better view.]
If I had followed my rule, I would have not had my conversation with Christine. Instead of missing the birds, I was given a twofer. An almost magical moment with the waders -- and an opportunity to polish up a personal relationship.
Plus I actually ended up notching 10 and a half miles for the morning. I can finish the rest this evening.
I may not be a member of a community, but I do cherish my relationships.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
Big projects can open old wounds.
After signing the contract for my solar project, I needed to come up with 120,00 pesos in cash. Well, that is not entirely true. I could have paid with either a check or a credit card. But I decided to take the cash option. I may have chosen unwisely.
At one point, getting the $120,000 (Mx) would have been as simple as typing a few keystrokes on my computer and the money would magically appear within seconds in my Banamex account here in Mexico.
But that is a tale thrice told, and I do not need to go through all of the woes the Obama administration heaped on expatriates with its mis-targeted FATCA (the cash window closes). Suffice it to say, after 2014, the only lifeline I have had to obtain cash is through my northern bank debit card and any handy ATM that will deign to spit out pesos at my request.
So, I put myself back in Mrs. Utterback's second grade class and started calculating how long it would take me to gather 120,000 pesos. The Banamex ATMs will disburse no more than 6,000 pesos in each transaction.
There was nothing fuzzy about the math. As long as I spent no pesos on other frivolities (such as eating or paying the staff), I could gather the money in 20 days. I had barely enough time to do that.
Then, disaster struck. I thought I would encounter other demands for the cash while I was accumulating it. But that did not happen. I had the usual daily array of requests for money from Mexican neighbors, but I followed Nancy Reagan's advice and just said no.
The problem was with the cash machines -- or my card. Everything was going well until a couple days after I had managed to gather 70,000 pesos.
The ATM refused my transaction with a rather ominous "Authorization prohibited." The next day all was well. The day after, "prohibited" again.
I called my bank. The representative checked my account. There was no block on my card, but she noted there were also no indications the ATM had actually connected with my bank on the "prohibited" days.
She suggested the chip on my card may be damaged, and asked if I wanted her to send me a new card. The last time I did that, I was without a valid card for almost five weeks. That made survival a bit tenuous. I was ready to start working the night clubs.
Then, I remembered I had opened a secondary account with the same bank for this eventuality. I retrieved that card and tried it. It would not work, but the message was that service was not available, and I should try later.
Because all of the other people at the Banamex were obtaining money except for me, I had discarded the possibility of trying the other financial service in town -- Intercam.
One card worked in its ATM; the other didn't. I walked back to Banamex, the card that had not worked at Intercam worked at Banamex. The next day, neither card worked at either bank.
Yesterday, I drove to Manzanillo to complete some errands, and I stopped at an HSBC ATM. And, of course, both cards worked. I withdrew 10,000 pesos on each card. I now had my full amount for the solar project. But driving to Manzanillo every other day for pesos is not a rational solution to whatever is happening with the Banamex machines.
All of this got me to thinking once again about closing my American bank accounts and having all of my direct deposits go to Intercam. Before I do that, though, I need to find out if my direct deposits will work. I know the largest of my monthly checks cannot be deposited in a Mexican bank.
Then there are the questions about the direct payments for my credit cards. For reasons that are not pertinent here, I need to retain at least one of my northern credit cards -- probably both. Both of them have regular monthly payments that are linked to them.
The last time I thought of cutting these last ties with the American banking system, inertia won out. I was not certain all of the paperwork to transfer everything would be worth the benefit I would receive by having my money here.
Banamex is not a possibility. Irregular amounts of money simply disappear from my checking account there month to month with no accounting on the statement for the loss. The bank does not understand how that could possibly be happening. Either do I. But I know one resolution that will stop the hemorrhaging.
As a result of this fiscal fiasco, I am very likely to be a new Intercam customer, and my northern bank can kiss my Benjamins goodbye.
The ideal system would be if I could keep my funds in an American bank. That bank would then be partnered with a Mexican bank where my dollar accounts would allow me to transfer money into my Mexican peso account.
But that is simply saying that I wish I had my pre-2014 BanamexUSA account. All the nostalgia in the world will not resuscitate that corpse.
Felipe over at The Unseen Moon had to make the same switch in 2014. He went cold turkey and moved everything to Mexico, and has been quite pleased ever since. He has had to do some Mexican bank shopping since then, but in a macro sense, he is happy with the switch.
I may just have to join him. Playing the ATM as if it were a slot machine is not my idea of entertainment.
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Today was supposed to have been the day of The Big Announcement..
The day I signed up as a card-carrying member of the new green deal -- which, if I understand it correctly means shipping all North American cows to India in a gesture of diversification while simultaneously crippling India's emerging economy. A green twofer.
But there will be no announcement today. You probably figured that out already with my inclusion of the present perfect "supposed to have been."
I have stepped into the deep end of the solar pool. I had previously told you I was considering catching up with the millennials by converting to solar power here in the house with no name (water heater, i am getting you a baby brother).
Well, I have. Rather, I signed a contract to have a system installed.
I decided to hire Solarbay, a company out of Manzanillo, that is represented in this area by my pal; Rick Noble. After consulting with the engineer, we concluded a 14-panel system would provide sufficient power for my current peak usage. The full kit with installation is just under $120,000 (Mx) or about $6,300 (US). That includes the 16% VAT that accompanies almost all financial transactions here in Mexico.
So , on Monday, Noé and Carlos showed up with Rick and a truckload of tools and aluminum strips to start the job. They were introduced as "Noah" and "Charlie."
I have become accustomed to Mexicans using English-sounding nicknames as if they worked in a call center in Dhaka. English-speakers appear to feel more comfortable when calling people by familiar names, just as they did when England rule The Raj.
I called them Noé and Carlos.
The original completion date was scheduled for Friday. And it appeared that Noé and Carlos would easily meet the target date. They showed up around 10:30 each morning and worked until 5 in our rather-relentless tropical weather.
I fleetingly thought of writing an essay each day to keep you informed of the project's progress. But I decided "they cut aluminum strips today" and "the second frame is complete" essays would be a bit too puttery, as my friend Colette says.
On Thursday, Noé and Carlos encountered an electrical problem. They caught up to schedule on Friday only to discover the "just in time" delivery of the solar panels were not just in time. Perhaps, the supplier is practicing for a no-deal hard Brexit.
If all goes well, the panels will be installed on Monday, and my system will await the inevitable bureaucratic queuing to switch my house from a consumer of CFE (the national power company) electricity to a provider of electricity to CFE (and, through it, to my neighbors).
I knew I would eventually be a powerhouse. I just had to discover the correct amount of money to buy the title.
When the full array is up, I will let you know. I may even show you a wallet-full of baby pictures.
And I will let you know of the joys and travails of trying to slip away from the nationalized clutches of CFE. I am still a little unclear about what will be happening. We will find out together.
As for those cows headed to India, I wish them well. Had they only eaten more Tums, things might not have taken such a dark turn.
Friday, February 15, 2019
Living in Mexico, is often like living in Plato's Cave.
Plato's take on objective truth is that humans are like chained prisoners with a fire burning behind them. The only thing they experience are shadows cast by the fire. They never see the objects themselves. They then mistake the shadows as being the actual truth.
I have always wondered if the Mexican poet Octavio Paz had Plato's Cave in mind when he wrote about the masks Mexicans wear in their daily lives.
The Mexican, whether young or old, crillo or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation.Now and then, I pick up my copy of Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (a book I would highly recommend to anyone who takes living in Mexico seriously) to renew my attempts to better understand my Mexican neighbors.
I am constantly perplexed at the contradictions I see daily. Neighbors who are friendly on the surface, but who are still obviously distant -- even in personal conversations. And who chuckle at the northern notion that "neighbor" is a laudatory term.
I do not expect to ever crack the enigma. I doubt I ever could as an outsider. Certain attitudes simply become culturally hardwired for those who grow up here.
I didn't grow up here. I grew up in a little logging town in the coastal range of Oregon -- a culture that would be as easily baffling to my Mexican neighbors as theirs is to me. And I do not anticipate being able to do anything more than see Mexico through the eyes of people who see the contradictions -- even if they may not be able to fully describe them.
For me, Octavio Paz is one of those guides. Along with Jorge Castañeda. The fact that both of them were men of the left helps to explain their fondness for Hegelian contradictions. Or, at least, seeing the world through the prism of Hegelian contradictions. And I am easily seduced by the syllogism.
Most of us northerners are usually happy to settle for seeing our Mexican neighbors through eyes that are forgiving of contradiction -- and, at best, vaguely patronizing; at worst, imperialistic lite.
And, viewed only on the surface, Mexico appears to be made up of people who accept fate with a certain elan -- if not fatalism. But, by being satisfied with the surface, we miss the interesting truth under the surface.
And it is not just Mexicans who wear masks. I suspect the mask analogy is so popular here because of Paz's chapter on "Mexican Masks." Because physical masks are so prevalent here, Paz's analogy in his chapter "Mexican Masks" seems to have a dash of Platonic truth.
But we all wear masks. And for the same reason -- to protect ourselves. From one another. But also from reality.
Any party is a testing ground for masks. You can almost see the woman standing in the corner when you approach her. And there is very likelihood anyone will be able to slip past its Lone Ranger ambiguity.
During my stay in flight school in Laredo, I attended more than my share of receptions. Almost the first question asked by the wives of senior officers was: "And what does your father do for a living?"
Of course, it translated into: "Are you someone worth spending my time on -- or should I go talk to that young officer over there?" I usually made the choice easy by responding with something whimsical. "He runs guns to Bolivia" or "I never knew him. He was executed in the early 50s as a Communist spy." Either one usually sent my interlocutor scurrying away. My mask remained firmly in place.
Several of my old friends and family members have told me they read my blog for only one reason -- they want to hear what I had been doing between my 20s and 60s. Apparently, I have a reputation for not being very forthcoming with my life. At least, not until stories ferment for several decades.
Maybe that is why I am so fascinated with Paz's observations -- observations that reflect one of my favorite Cole Porter couplets: "Paree will still be laughing after ev'ry one of us disappears,/ But never once forget, her laughter is the laughter that hides the tears."
Mexicans use their face and smile to mask themselves, but so do I.
And I will put a stack of new Benito Juarez notes on the barrel head that you do, as well.