Monday, October 22, 2018

reading out the storm

Willa is coming for a visit.

And I do not mean the mother of the little red-headed girl that was my neighbor and stole my nine-year-old heart.

This Willa is a modern Guabancex. For the past week, a storm system has been evolving off the coast of southern Mexico -- going through the usual metamorphosis of depression to tropical storm to hurricane.

We have not had many hurricanes this year on the Pacific coast. But Willa may make up for our slow weather season.

It is now a category 4 hurricane -- and at the upper range of a 4. 155 mile per hour winds.

Several friends have sent me email and messages asking if there is any danger of Willa making a visit here.

With hurricanes, there is never any certainty. But Willa appears to be making her plodding 7 mile per hour journey north at a healthy distance away from us.

That healthy distance will not exist for others in Mexico, though. Tomorrow afternoon, she is predicted to take a gradual right turn and crash into the Mexican mainland coast somewhere above Puerto Vallarta. If that category 4 status holds (or increases), Willa's encounter with civilization will not be beneficial.

What we are getting here is rain. Lots of rain. But that has been true for the past week. October is turning out to be our local storm month.

A testament of how infrastructure has improved in the short time I lived here is the fact that after hours of rain, we still have electricity. The first year I was here, power would often fail at the first sprinkle.

But this is no time to be sanguine. Another storm -- Vicente -- is on the way. I had not paid much attention to Willa because its storm cone had never put our coast at risk.

Vicente is a healthy tropical storm puttering around in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Unlike Willa, its storm cone is heading right toward us. Probably arriving here early Wednesday morning.

Currently, its winds are 45 miles per hour. But there is a lot of warm water for it to cross before it gets here, and that could feed its fury.

All of that is speculation, though. The National Hurricane Service has issued no warnings. Like many of its predecessors, Vicente could run out of steam before it arrives.

So, I will sit inside and read. Trying to get my exercise walking in the street right now would be like jogging in Venice. I could walk on the upstairs terrace, but, in the rain, it may as well be an ice pond.

And I can dream of that little red-headed girl.

What was her name?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

bienvenidos, benito -- y adios

When Italy's 1999 transition date from the lira to the Euro grew near, Italian housewives marched in the streets banging pots.

They were not celebrating the impending arrival of a Brave New World of Currency. They feared that their household budgets would be eviscerated in the change over. That switching from a multi-digit lira to a fewer-digit Euro would somehow affect the amount of food they could buy each day.

It turns out they were correct -- for a lot of very complex fiscal reasons. As a result the Italian electorate is agnostic about the Euro and the European Community.

Something similar may be afoot here in Mexico.

It has been less than two months since the Bank of Mexico issued its new 500-peso note featuring the face of President Benito Juarez in a pleasant blue shade (money makes the words go round). It has been something of a scavenger hunt finding them here after an initial onslaught.

When the new note was issued, the Bank stated new notes (50, 100, 200, and 1000) would be issued during the next five years and the current notes would be taken out of circulation. At least around here, the old 500-peso notes are not disappearing. I see more of Diego Rivera's ugly mug than Benito Juarez's stare.

Looking at that list of denominations for the new notes, you may notice something is missing. There is no mention of the 20-peso note (the doppelganger of the new 500). And there is a good reason for the omission.

A friend contacted me yesterday to ask how long the 20-peso notes would be legal tender -- or was it just a rumor they were being phased out?

I responded I had not heard that news. And, then I remembered the Bank's announcement about the new notes. The 20-peso note was missing.

A quick bit of research refreshed my memory. There is no secret.

The Bank openly announced it will be phasing out the 20-peso note in favor of the 20-peso coin. Most of us have seen one or two of those coins over the years. But they are rare. According to the Bank, they will be far more common.

Today, I talked with a couple of merchants who are hoarding every 20-peso note they receive in payment. And the reason is simple. Here, the 20-peso note is the change draft horse of small shops. Waiters rely on them for tips. Street vendors for payment. It is the Valentina sauce of currency.

I have already heard murmurings that the Bank is up to no good. Whenever currency changes, Mexicans get nervous. Neither the government nor the Bank has built a reputation of trust when it comes to fooling around with banknotes.

The Bank included one other tidbit in its late August announcement. It will be printing a new note -- a 2000-peso note -- if “such a bill is required to satisfy user’s needs.”

When I mentioned that to the merchants, they looked worried. They could not explain why, but their gut instincts may have been similar to what Mexican economists have been discussing for the last two months.

The 2000-peso may be bad news for two reasons.

The first is not surprising. Most nations have been considering phasing out their highest denomination notes in an attempt to stymie illegal activity. The goal is to transition to a cashless society.

By considering a 2000-peso note, Mexico is effectively saying it does not want to use its monetary system to handicap illegal cash transactions.

But, the possibility of a new note -- with a face value twice the amount of the current largest bill -- is also an admission that Mexico is suffering from years of monetary inflation. Larger bills simply recognize the reality that in the ten years since the notes were last revised, Mexico has suffered a 51% accumulated inflation rate, with a commensurate 34% reduction in purchasing power. During the same period, average wages barely changed.

The publication of a 2000-peso note will simply be a public acknowledgement that household budgets are not keeping pace with the cost of basic needs. And like those Italian housewives, Mexico may doubt the value of its own currency. 41% of Mexicans currently do not earn  a daily wage adequate to not buy a daily food basket. And, without an offsetting increase in productivity, raising wages will only decrease the purchasing power of the peso.

The combination of inflation and the preference to pay cash will almost certainly lead the Bank to determine there is a "need" for a 2000-peso note. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts.

Housewives bang pots for good reasons.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

a goodson-todman morning

I can tell you a lot about yourself if I know your theory of design.

There are two schools: people who believe form follows function, and those who believe function follows form.

Then there is the Mexican school where form and function seem to have, at best, a nodding acquaintance.

Before you get your knickers in a knot, yes, I am fully aware that all absolute statements incubate their own seeds of controversion (just like that sentence). Evidence of one contrary example makes the assertion logically false; though it still may be true.

But let's skip the theoretical stuff. Obviously, some event has tumbled into my day to start this design rambling.

When the Mexican-French Canadian architect designed her dream house (the house I now own), she included a number of details that were modern, but accessorized with an eye to Mexico's history. In that, she was a true disciple of Luis Barragán.

The most obvious examples are the Mexican hanging star light fixtures made of punched tin or copper. There are 13 in my house. Small.  Medium. Large. Just like McDonald's.

Here is a quick historical aside. I have always associated the hanging stars as being one of those quintessential Mexican designs. It turns out, like a large amount of designs here, the stars were an acquired heritage. (Just as the tiles and ceramic designs of Puebla were "borrowed" from China and Moorish Spain. We will talk about that one day.)

The stars are a German or a Czech or an Austro-Hungarian creation. Depending on where you want to stick Moravia at any period of history. Today it is part of the Czech Republic. In the early 1800s, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And that is when the stars were created as part of a geometry lesson in a Moravian church school. The design spread through Europe and was eventually associated with the celebration of Christmas. (I know. It sounds a bit apocryphal to me, as well. But we will run with it.)

Mexico adopted the design. The concept can be seen here at Christmas in gold-foil-adorned papier-mâché stars hung outside homes. The multiple points give them away.

But, the hanging star light fixtures are far truer to the original concept. And still very Mexican. Craftsman here added a new twist by making the stars out of metal rather than glass, and then punching holes to render a rather gauzy light punctuated with bright stars. They add a certain sense of mystery to my home at night.

The stars were one of the features that attracted me to the house design when I first saw it. But a scorpion hides in every blossom.

Each fixture has a light bulb. And, as is true for everything in life, they die. And I have to replace them. It is one of the few house chores I dread. I would rather wash windows.

Do you remember "Beat the Clock?" It was one of those Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production game shows that populated nighttime television starting in the 1950s.

The concept was simple -- and devilish. Contestants were required to perform seemingly-difficult tasks within 60 seconds. I always thought the writers must have been graduate students at the De Sade Institute of Applied Psychology.

That is exactly how I feel about changing the star light bulbs. I grab a new bulb, stick it in my pocket, and wrestle the ladder into position.

The first time I was faced with this chore. I was baffled. I could not figure out how to get to the light bulb. I thought there must be a release of some sort.

I was wrong. The entry is a brilliant solution. One point of the star lifts up. I thought the process would then be easy.

I was wrong again. One of the oddities of electrical wiring in Mexico is what I call the "dangling receptacle" -- a light socket that hangs loose. You see it everywhere.

That was what I discovered when I opened the star. Up north, the socket would have been secured with screws at the top of the fixture. But not here. The socket hung in suspension.

The opening allows the entry of only two fingers. When I tried to unscrew the dead bulb, the whole socket just twisted around and around. I discovered if I pressed the socket to the side of the fixture with one finger on my left hand, I could use a finger on my right hand to try to unscrew the bulb.

Getting the bulb out is the easy part. Putting the new one back in is the problem. Trying to screw the bulb into the socket only pushes the socket around. It is like trying to feed a reluctant baby smashed squash.

All of this, of course, would leave me a loser on "To Beat the Clock." 60 seconds usually morphs into 60 minutes -- or more.

It took me two years to figure out an answer. Not that it is The answer.

Because the stars hang, there is a length of electrical wiring between the ceiling and the top of the fixture. Lifting up the fixture drops the socket. If I can feed enough wire, I can move both the socket and the light bulb out of the hinged door and replace the bulb. When I am done, I just reverse the process.

That still takes about a half-hour for each bulb. But it is better than the full hour required in the past.

Unfortunately, that option does not always work. The stars are not uniform. Several of the fixtures have an angle that prevents the socket with a bulb to either come out or go back in. For those, I use the old two-finger I-have-nothing-better-to-do method.

The function follows form school would have stopped me long ago by pointing out the whole conundrum could be resolved by modifying the sockets to be stationary inside the fixture.

But what would be the fun in that? I could not write about it, and you would not have the opportunity to stick your own fingers in the comment socket.

The next time a bulb dies, I should invite you over to be part of the Beat the Clock crew.

Until then, like Bud Collyer, I am "hoping that next time may be your time to beat the clock!"

Friday, October 19, 2018

whipping up dreams

"My favorite Mexican food is fajitas."

That apercu was from my friend Doug. We were discussing the local restaurants when the conversation took one of those cul-de-sac turns.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with fajitas. I think I dug into my first fajita in Olympia in the 1980s. Dos Hermanos, if I remember correctly. I fell in love with the blend of grilled beef and vegetables in their secret sauce -- all wrapped in a tortilla.

And then I got sick. Every subsequent time I ate fajitas, I got sick. And I have no idea of the root cause for the bizarre reaction. Because I enjoy good food, I was willing to put up with the occasional bout of St. Helens nausea.

But that was not what caught my attention with Doug's romantic infatuation with fajitas. It was his reference to "Mexican food."

One of the joys of the internet is having the equivalent of the Library of Congress at our fingertips. Gary, my American-Canadian restaurateur friend, and I often have our personal mini-pub quiz about the origin of things considered quintessentially Mexican.

We all know that tomatoes, corn, and chili peppers were originally from Mexico and were spread around the world by the Spanish and Portuguese. But, what about the coconut? Asia. Mangoes? India. Those fantastic flamboyan trees? Madagascar. Limes? Maybe Indonesia. Possibly, southeast Asia.

But there are also plenty of foods that were considered to be Mexican where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Most of my friends still believe that the chili con carne is as Mexican as Salma Hayek. Of course, it isn't. I suspect it is that Spanish-sounding name that does it. Chili con carne, that is. Not Hayek. That is a German name.

That is why I was a bit surprised to discover that fajitas are no more Mexican than was Lyndon Johnson. Well, maybe a bit.

The flaw in food history is that most dishes were not created one afternoon in a specific restaurant. We know peaches Melba was created by Auguste Escoffier at the London Savoy Hotel to honor soprano Nellie Melba. Or that Caesar salad was cobbled together by Caesar Cardini in either San Diego or Tijuana (giving some credence to the claim the anchovy-flavored dish is actually Mexican). Or that the recently-stirred-up Caesar cocktail was given to us by a restaurateur in that culinary capital Calgary to celebrate the opening of an Italian eatery.

But, they are the exceptions. Most foods have their roots in some provincial kitchen, and the most arduous Holmesian endeavors will never disclose them.

The history of fajitas is not that obscure. The earliest mention of the name is in the ranch land of southern Texas in the tough times of the 1930s. Texas ranchers would give their vaqueros (Mexican cowboys who helped create the myth of the American cowboy) the portion of slaughtered cattle that could not be marketed. That included the hide, the entrails, the horns, and trimmings from the skirt steak -- giving them the ingredients for head barbecue and tripe stew.

The vaqueros would grilled the otherwise tough skirt steak trimmings into something that was not quite as reminiscent of shoe leather. "Fajita" was the name of the grilled strips of skirt steak.

In 1969, an Austin meat merchant, sold the first fajita (similar to the dish we know) at a fast-food fair booth. T
hat same year, restaurants in Texas had fajitas on the menu. It took some time for the dish to become popular. But, it spread through Texas, on to Arizona, through The States, and other countries.

So, Doug was not entirely wrong. The vaqueros were simply cooking beef strips as Mexicans had in the northern Mexican states for years. But what the vaqueros ate bears as much resemblance to contemporary fajitas as a grilled peach resembles peaches Melba.

I am not certain I had ever made fajitas at home. And that surprised me. It is a rather simple dish to prepare -- most of the time being spent in slicing and mincing. And, because there is no such thing as an "authentic" fajita, I could indulge my culinary creativity.

So, off to Hawaii, my favorite grocery, I went. The first thing in my basket was a packet of oyster mushrooms. They would add body to the dish. A couple of habaneros. Four serrano peppers. Red and yellow bell peppers. Garlic. Red onion. Tomatoes. And some whole-wheat tortillas. (If I am going to eat carbohydrates, I want my digestive system to fight for them.)

I considered using firm tofu as my protein, but decided against it. I am not extremely fond of its texture. (They have that same feel in the mouth as avocado and papaya. I would prefer to pass on the experience.) Instead, I stopped at the butcher and bought two chicken breasts.

Sauces are the canvas where cooks develop their art. I wanted mine to be simple. Fresh lime juice. Cumin. Coriander. Hot smoky paprika. And a healthy dash of ghost pepper chili powder.

But something was missing. I inventoried the ingredients on the preparation table. What was it? There was something that would add umami to the meal. And it was not there.

It finally hit me. One of my favorite tastes with fajitas is sour cream. And I felt the frustration I often feel when I want an ingredient for a dish, but it is just not available.

When I moved here a decade ago, I discovered sour cream was unknown. There was crema fresca, a thinner and less-cultured version of sour cream. But it did not have the robust flavor of sour cream that fajitas require. (There is a Mexican product, crema agria, that is almost indistinguishable from sour cream. I bought some in San Miguel de Allende. I have never seen it here.)

I wish I could remember who taught me this trick (I suspect it was that doyen of cooking Leslie Harris de Limón)
, but it is possible to create sour cream from crema fresa with two simple ingredients. Lemon juice and a dash of salt.

The devil lies in that innocuous "simple." For years, finding a lemon in my part of Mexico was like finding privacy on the internet in Red China. (I know. I have tried.) Now and then, it might happen. But it was rare.

There was a reason for that. Mexico has long been one of the world's largest producers of limes. But, it was also once a major source of lemons -- for export to The States. Lemons, unlike limes, were not part of Mexican cuisine.

And then the market collapsed. More accurately, the trees collapsed. In the 1930s a plague killed most of the lemon trees in the United States and Mexico.

The trees in the United States were re-planted. And, as is the case with protectionist administrations, FDR put a staggering tariff on lemons from Mexico in the false hope of protecting American farmers at the expense of American consumers.

Because Mexico did not need lemons for its internal consumption, the lemon trees were not re-planted here. Some economists credit the lemon tariff as one of the justifications for Mexico nationalizing American, Canadian, and Anglo-Dutch oil companies. Mind you, a very small part. But, it did leave a sour taste.

It is now simple to buy lemons where I live. Alex, at Hawai, is one of the best Mexican businessmen I have encountered in our area. He knows his customer base (northerners in the winter and Mexican middle-class shoppers in the summer), and he caters to them. He is a man with a business plan.

And lemons are one of the items that now appear regularly at Hawaii. In a large box next to the cash register. They are not cheap, but they certainly add new possibilities to cooking. That always justifies the expense.

Hey, Steve. Weren't you telling us about a sour cream recipe?

Yup. Let's get back to it.

I bought a carton of crema fresca (450 ml) and a lemon. The crema fresca went into a mixing bowl, I squeezed in the juice from the lemon, and whisked for about three minutes. Almost immediately, the curdling effect of the lemon juice caused the crema to stiffen.

When I was done whisking, the result was not quite as thick as standard sour cream, but it was thicker than the crema in its natural state. I added a dash of salt and put the concoction in the refrigerator to cool.

When I tasted the scoop on top of my amazingly-layered fajita, I knew my mission was accomplished. It was not exactly like northern sour cream. But that was not my goal. I wanted a taste similar to sour cream to give me more flexibility in cooking. And I found it.

Having whipped up one of the best fajita dishes I have ever tasted, I can now move on to other projects. There is no sense in ruining the memory by trying to replicate it.

Doug, fajitas are not my favorite food. But, thanks for giving me the idea on this dish. We need to talk more.   

Thursday, October 18, 2018

i'm ready for my close-up, señor algodon

Woody Allen is a genius at character development.

The plots of his films are most often gossamer. But his portrayal of the human condition is always witty -- and bittersweet. Tales of who we think we are. And how the rest of the world sees us.

Jasmine Francis, the eponymous main character in Blue Jasmine, is a perfect example. We meet her on an airplane flying to San Francisco. She is sitting next to an older woman she does not know.

Her opening lines are like any normal small talk on airplanes. "
There was no one like Hal. He met me at a party and swept me off my feet. 'Blue Moon' was playing. You know 'Blue Moon?'"

But her chat quickly morphs into a rambling lost-soul monologue that continues as Jasmine follows the woman to the luggage carousel, and ends only when the woman walks away with her family.

When her son asks her who Jasmine was, she answers: "
I was sitting next to her on the plane. She was talking to herself. I thought she said something to me. I said, 'What?' But she couldn't stop babbling about her life."

Anyone who has spent much time on airplanes could tell tales of their own travails trapped in a tube with the corresponding secretary of the Logorrhea Society.

I thought of Jasmine this week while reading The Oregonian.

I almost never read personal advice columns.

For a lot of reasons -- primarily, the questions that are asked often have the distinct odor of being composed by a group of office pranksters in the office cafeteria. Or they sound like something you might overhear standing in line at a 7-11. Seldom edifying. Almost always prurient.

Now and then, though, a headline grabs me by my forelock. This one did. "Brother's girl a 'boredom missionary.'"  "Boredom missionary" is a bon mot I have occasionally used myself. So, I had to read the question.

There is no way I can paraphrase the question. The voice is far too personal. Here it is in its full glibness.

My brother wants to know what I think of his girlfriend. I don't like her. It isn't actionable dislike -- she isn't controlling, criminal, or abusive -- but I find her boring and worse, a boredom missionary. No hobbies, doesn't watch any TV shows, thinks fandom for anything is stupid, and doesn't have a team (in any sport) that she supports.
Our plans to do a panic room, see a dumb movie or eat at the weird new fusion place are all "a bit silly." Instead she just wants to do dinner at some place deemed nice and an indie movie about sad people being sad -- fine if that's her thing, but she never seems to enjoy it, or anything. She doesn't even like animals!
I have dodged my brother's question, but he is pushing. The best I can think to say is that she is unobjectionable and has lovely hair (tried to ask about that -- she just washes it, "that is a bit of a silly question"). I can do the old "she makes you happy" dodge, but pretty sure my brother will see through that. Plus, do I owe it to him to point out that she obviously loves him but doesn't share an interest in anything he enjoys and probably won't want to do any of the big-adventure-stuff holidays he has always planned? Or even get the Great Dane he has wanted since our childhood dog died?
On the other hand, he has picked her, maybe a life of gentle boredom is what adult bro is all about? I just don't know. I think if she didn't do this passive roadblock of disapproval about things she considers silly -- like,  all fun stuff -- I could appreciate her other qualities more. As it is, she just exists as this big buzzkill in my head.
-- A Bit Silly 
It really does not matter what the advice columnist had to say. Though, it was nearly as vapid as the question. But it does raise some interesting perspectives on how people deal with the world.

As much as I like Anne Lamott's writing, we do not share the same temperament. Her 
idea of everything running smoothly on an airplane is that: "A) I not die in a slow motion fiery crash, or get stabbed to death by terrorists, and that B) none of the other passengers try to talk to me."

That is not me. I am one of those people who loves meeting strangers on airplanes. But I am not a Jasmine Francis. When people begin fading, I quickly retreat to The Economist on my telephone.

Both Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" are representatives of a class of people we all encounter. On the surface, they appear to be almost narcissistic -- the rest of the world revolves around their experiences. And that impression is magnified when, like Jasmine's, the conversation has been slicked down with alcohol.

That last element is a common detriment to conversation here on the Mexican Pacific coast. Alcohol flows faster than opinions about cheap tacos.

But, something these days is getting in the way of enjoying rational conversations. And I am not talking solely about politics -- though it is usually the most glaring furnace-feeder. Conversations about restaurants or airlines or even the weather can reduce people to Serbians and Bosnians. If the topic has an element of opinion, the tone soon escalates to ethnic cleansing levels. Whether on message boards or in person.

I suspect narcissism and alcohol are not the causes, though, they are certainly contributing factors.

The problem Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" have is that they are far more interesting in making their point than in listening. And I mean really listening to what the other person said.

I taught a rhetoric class when I lived in Salem in the 1990s. On the first day, I would introduce the concept of persuasion with: "You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view."

As an exercise, I would ask people to raise their hands which side of difficult issues they supported. Abortion was usually my first choice. Sometimes, capital punishment.

I then picked a person from each side to sit in front of the class. If a person was pro-life, I asked her to state why she believed in the pro-life position. The listener was then required to state what the first person had said.

No one could do it on the first try in the years I taught the course. No one. Inevitably, the re-statement would be what the listener wished the other person had said. It was inevitably some straw man argument.

When I asked them to try again, occasionally it improved. But, in about 40% of the experiments, the other person could not respect the other person enough to actually simply re-state what the other person said.

I run into that experiment writ large every day here in Mexico. But only with people who are expatriates or tourists. The reason I do not hear it from my Mexican friends is complicated -- and I am not the best person to write about it. Though, that is not enough to stop me from taking a stab at it in the future.

Mexico has been my sole home for ten years now. At least, I am in the tenth year of living here.

Because tourists and expatriates are people, there has always been tension on the message boards and at social events. People have opinions. And they state them. And, sometimes, people get upset that other people actually have differing opinions. I will not bother trotting out that famous Bill Buckley quotation.

Some people believe matters have deteriorated recently. Even though there were Obama-haters during my first eight years here, people think the Trump-hate is of a different degree.

I am not certain. All I know is that it is very difficult to have rational discussions these days about almost any topic. In fact, tables overturned in the temple are not an unusual occurrence.

It does not have to be that way. Here are a few modest proposals. Do with them as you wish. You have nothing to lose but your rage.

1. If we are discussing a serious topic (immigration, religion, whether ground beef can ever be properly folded into a taco) and you want to persuade me with your argument, put down the bottle. Alcohol is great at lowering IQs, but terrible at enhancing logic.

There is a reason participants in presidential debates are provided with water rather than tequila. Though, I must confess the debates over the past twenty years might have improved with a pitcher of margaritas on the podium.

2. Please listen to what the person who is talking with you is actually saying. It is a difficult exercise. While listening, just keep repeating in your head what is being said, rather than trying to come up with a political-commentator-inspired snappy retort.

3. And that is another thing. Use your own logic. And your own words. We have been bombarded with the reductionist ravings of the Rush Limbaughs and Rachel Maddows for so long that we think that is what social intercourse is all about.

I have had several discussions recently where the person I was talking to could only repeat the party line without any personal filtering. In his case, it was the MSNBC propaganda machine. But I have heard the same lack of individual thinking from people who watch Fox.

That is the classic appeal to authority fallacy of rhetoric. If I do not accept the authority of the person you are citing, you are simply treading water. Your personal logic is a far better tool to persuade than relying on academic hacks like Robert Reich and Larry Kurdlow. Accepting the king's coin comes at a price.

4. If you want to talk politics, talk politics. Most political discussions quickly devolve into personality rantings. If the person you are talking with says he agrees with your assessment on a politician's personality, move on. There is nothing to be gained by repeatedly atempting to capture ground you already occupy.

5. Maybe it is just as well to avoid personalities altogether. Politicians have positions on issues. That is what is important. But that often requires facts that are not immediately available. Isn't that why we have conversations? To learn new information. If you want to waste time on whether a politician has a big butt, I suggest spending your energy on the Kim Kardashian site.

6. Take responsibility. Facebook has become the beacon of unthinking posts. Someone sees something a friend has posted, and, without any analysis of what the piece says, will re-post it under their own name. (That behavior is not new. Just think of the number of emails forwarded to you that fall into the "Jehovah's Witnesses will be frightened away from your house if you spray Windex on the front door.")

If someone responds to one of those posts with: "Did you just call me a communist/fascist?," the defensive response is: "Well, I only published it because I thought it was funny. I didn't mean anything by it."

I have a rather tough skin when it comes to politics, but if someone calls my mother a "racist, women-hating bigot," I am going to call them out.

The best answer is to stop publishing all of the hate-filled screeds. They are not just offensive; they have no persuasive power. Most of us learned in kindergarten that tantrums do not get us what we want. Apparently, a lot of people never learned.

If you want to sound like screaming monkeys dipped in turpentine, be my guest. Just don't be offended when exposed.

So, there are six simple suggestions. I have to confess I am chuckling as I write this. I know it will do no good. My advice about listening (
"You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view.") sounds almost naive. Like Canute willing the tide to obey him.

Maybe no one wants to persuade anyone of anything. If that is true, it is not just sad, it is dangerous.

Earlier this year, our local message board started a thread about the animosity Canadians felt toward Americans because of some of President Trump's comments -- and a subsequent loathing of Canadians by Americans. I asked a Mexican friend who is a waiter what he thought of the controversy.

He smiled and said: "Look. We don't care what you think of each other. You are all the same to us. Walking piggy banks."

He probably has summed up the whole thing better than my long rambling. Honesty usually does that.

In the end, it really may not matter at all. We northerners are a small minority here. And our internal bickering is of no consequence to the Mexicans.

As my friend said: "Knock yourselves out. Just leave your wallets." 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

reading between the bars

"Miss Dix taught me a love for poetry in the sixth grade. I have stayed in touch with her ever since. She is now 102 years old."

I often hear or read a variation on that theme. A mentor who turned someone's life around and has been a boon buddy for life.

The latest was in this week's edition of The Economist. Melvyn Bragg is the host of a weekly conversation program ("In Our Time") on BBC Radio 4. The show's format is rigid. Interviews with three academics.

But the topics are eclectic. High culture. Science. Mathematics. It is an interesting program that strives to find cultural unity in what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and known in the world."

Reading that sentence, you have probably concluded Bragg is the product of some manor house. He isn't. He is a working class boy who made good.

He believes he made good because of education. The reason he went on to university is because his history teacher convinced his parents that he should stay in school rather than leave to get get a job.

Then, the inevitable sentence appeared. He "keeps a house in the town where he grew up, where he regularly sees his old history teacher, now 97."

With the exception that I am not British and I do not have a long-running radio program, that could be my story. I had several teachers who inspired me over the years and gave me confidence that were my dreams were not a bunch of rubbish.

Mrs. Metz, my high school English teacher. Miss Riddle, speech. Mr. Adamson, band. Mr. Jackson, social studies. Mr. Herauf, creative writing.

But, once I left their tutorial clutches, I did not keep in touch. I guess you might call them temporal mentors.

Last week, I was talking with an artist acquaintance about our respective tastes in art. Even though I have long collected paintings and sculpture, I told her I did not agree with Winston Churchill's assessment that "painting is the highest form of art." For my taste, it is music.

She had read my essays on the San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival and commented that I seemed to have been excited about discovering videos on Youtube that not only showcased highly-talented chamber music performers, but also displayed the scores (turning up the thermostat).

She was correct. When I found the videos, I felt as if a portion of my music-listening ability had been restored. As if my listening myopia had been corrected -- to completely mangle sensory metaphors.

She grimaced. "I hate to admit this, but I have no idea how to read a score."

That surprised me coming from someone who has spent her life refining her production of visual arts. For me, reading scores helps me to hear the subtle variations the composer intended. Not only do I hear when Beethoven begins in the tonic and moves down a third; I see it.

She just shook her head. "No one ever taught me how to read music."

Last month, we talked about the importance of reading and how that skill is not readily apparent in our villages by the sea (taking AMLO to school). I have always considered reading music to be part of the reading process.

But my acquaintance had a point. If you have never been taught to read music, it can be as foreign as looking at a Maya hieroglyphic.

And this is where we get back to mentors.

I was surrounded by music growing up. My grandmother was the church pianist. My mother played the accordion. We sang at family gatherings from carol sheets complete with sheet music. We sang from hymnals in church with the four-part harmony staring us in the face.

I cannot say when those notes started making sense to me. I may have learned to read music before I started violin lessons in the fourth grade. But I do know that was the first time I produced music from an instrument while looking at those scriggles on the parallel staffs.

But that was one-on-one. The next year all of my classmates were required to buy tonettes. A plastic instrument vaguely resembling a recorder.

The tonette was our student introduction to reading music and making sounds with them that had a passing resemblance to melody and harmony.

The next year, the same music teacher introduced us to more complex concepts. He passed out copies of the score to Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, and then asked us to follow along while a scratchy vinyl performance played on the music room's record player. The second time through, he asked us to set aside the scores and write an essay about the music.

When I related that story to my artist acquaintance, she was amazed that a public school would have such an intensive music program. To me, it was just part of my education.

She is about my same age, so I assumed we would have similar elementary education backgrounds. But she was schooled in Canada. She had not heard of tonettes or reading music in any elementary school near her.

That is too bad. I feel the same way about reading music as I do about reading biographies. It opens an entirely new world to me.

You may notice that I have not referred to the name of the man who completely changed the way I listen to and analyze music. There is a good reason. I cannot remember it.

I remember the name of my saxophone teacher., That is because he was also my seventh-grade teacher. Mr. Vaught. But the name of the man who started it all, is a mystery to me.

You will not be surprised to hear that I do not visit him in his home or send him hand-written notes.

But I do not feel that bad about this particular lapse of my memory. I may not recall his name, but I know what he did to give more depth to my life.

Each time I read a musical score, he is right there with me.

And that is sufficient for me, as Matthew Arnold puts it, to live in an "atmosphere of sweetness and light."

Note -- Such a mentor cannot go unnamed. A school friend filled in the gap in my memory. It was Mr. Knauss who initiated me into the mysteries of music.

Monday, October 15, 2018

rainy day in barra town

Every screenwriter knows the trick.

If you want to change the mood on screen, change the setting. Especially, the weather.

And that is one reason writers simultaneously mock and admire Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night." Sure. It is purple prose. But it effectively sets the mood. Readers pick up on the cue.

Usually, the mood cue in Barra de Navidad is languid sybaritism. Sunny. Blue skies. Warm.

Luxurious? Certainly. But a bit tedious for moods.

That changed yesterday afternoon. Clouds moved in with a slight drizzle. The type of rain I knew in the Pacific Northwest. Not bad enough to prevent my walking exercise. But sufficient to create a beatnik bongoing on the plastic lounger.

It persisted through the night. Without a need for a fan or air-conditioning, I could hear its soft report on the skylight at the top of the shower's heat chimney.

And it lingers through the morning. Constant and soft.

That is remarkable only because we live in the tropics. When it rains here, the force seems strong enough to pummel motorcyclists from their mounts. The streets fill with the immediacy of a Jonestown flood.

Our rain is a gift from tropical storm Tara that is making its slow slog northwest a safe distance away over the Pacific. But it is close enough for us to have our own reduced Bulwer-Lytton moment. It is a bright and drizzly morning.

While the Atlantic has churned out killer hurricanes this summer, the Pacific has only given us here in Barra de Navidad a few glancing tropical storms or weepy depressions. For that we can be thankful. There are some dramatic mood changes we do not need.

But today is not a tropical deluge day. It is easy to imagine living in Oxford again. That may explain why one of the first things I did this morning was to brew a pot of rose green tea.

I now sit under my red-faded-to-pink umbrella watching the rain play on the surface of the swimming pool while listening to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15. I thought it would strike just the right mood for the day.

Monet may have had his lily pond. I have a pool with ever-changing rings that emulate eternal lily pads.

And, on this day, that is sufficient for me.