Friday, January 17, 2020

singing the cultural blues

Yesterday afternoon was the kick-off of the church's cultural awareness program in Melaque.

The series was initiated several years ago to introduce foreigners to the cultural differences between their native cultural and that of Mexico.The topic yesterday was the distinction between hot climate cultures and cold climate cultures -- Mexico and the southern United States being the former, and Canada and the northern United States being the latter.

I have long been agnostic about the procrustean amputations necessary to stuff complex cultures into those two tidy boxes. It reminds me of that old joke. There are two types of people -- people who divide everything into two categories, and those who don't.

With all of its intellectual shortcomings, it gave the presenter a framework to talk about the deconstruction of Mexican names, Mexican extended family relations, and why some Mexicans consider some of our actions reflecting our culture as baffling, humorous, or offensive.

Even though I have had to personally contend with it up close and personal recently, I particularly enjoyed the refresher course on the importance of the roles and relationships of padrino and madrina -- what northerners would call godparents, even though the duties are far different. (My particular brand of Christianity knew no such thing. The only godfather I knew growing up was Marlon Brando.)

In Mexico, a girl can have baptism padrinos, first communion padrinos, and a multitude of quinceañera and wedding padrinos (often a different one for each aspect of the party).

That list of potential padrinos for one little girl raised a question with a member of the audience. This was the essence of his question: "Because Mexican families have so many children, is it possible for a person to be a padrino for more than one child?" The answer was yes.

But the presenter failed to comment that the question proceeded from a false assumption. Mexican families do not have a large number of children.

Had the question been asked in the 1960s, the assumption would have been true. Sixty years ago, the fertility rate for Mexico was between six and seven. That meant that, on average, a Mexican woman would give birth to six or seven children.

That has drastically changed. As Mexico's economy improved (Mexico now has the 15th largest economy in the world) and more Mexicans moved into the middle class, family size diminished. The fertility rate is now 2.1. On average, a Mexican woman now will give birth to two children during her lifetime.

The 2.1 figure is important. That is the level at which a society will maintain its current population. If Mexico's fertility rate falls below that level (and it will undoubtedly do that in the near future), it will join Canada and The States with fertility levels that result in a decreasing native-born population. Canada's rate is 1.8. The States' is 1.9. As a result, all three countries face the reality of fewer young people working and paying taxes into a system that will contain a much larger contingent of old people.

In the near future, the questioner may need to re-phrase his question. "With fewer children being born, will adults ever get the chance to be a padrino?"

Not to worry. There will always be an opening for a wedding padrino de los botanas.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

señor postman send me a dream

When I was in Oregon, my sister-in-law and I had a conversation about dreams and nightmares.

She said she frequently had nightmares. I thought that a bit odd since I had not had a nightmare since I was a child.

What I found even odder is that when she talked about what turned a dream into a nightmare (being chased, falling though the air) for her were exactly the events that I found exhilarating in my dreams. That is, when I am in my dreams. Usually, I am the director or writer. Just as in life, I like to watch.

I thought of that yesterday when I was at the post office finalizing the payment of my rent for my box.

Now, I know I told you I had paid the fee last Thursday (leviathan says you do not need that money). That was a lie. But, in my defense, I had started the process.

In fact, I had started the process the day before -- on Thursday. I stopped at the post office with my 300 pesos in hand to pay my rental fee. I should have known better that it would not be that simple.

During the past two years there have been big changes at our post office. A new postmaster. Audits. Termination of old programs (accepting delivery from DHL and UPS). More formality in transactions. Closure of the Barra de Navidad post office.

There are lots of rumors swirling around town why all these changes happened. But I do not know if any of them have any validity. I am certainly not going to add any credibility by repeating them.

Because of the changes, though, I should not have been surprised when the postmaster requested a copy of my electric bill to renew my box. Almost every financial transaction in Mexico requires the customer to whip out his current electric bill to verify his address. The name on the bill does not even have to match the customer's. It is just a requirement.

A quick memory check would have reminded me I had to do something similar last year. But then I had to provide a copy of my electric bill and the photo page of my passport. I suspect that was a result of the audit.

I did not have my electric bill with me. I am not as smart as my friend Joyce who always carries her in her purse. So, I had to return the next day.

What came next felt almost as if I had slipped into one of those dreams that seem real, but I know it cannot be.

When I showed up on Friday with the bill, the postmaster said he needed a copy of it (I had failed to anticipate that). Had I remembered the copy, I could not have completed the transaction because he had not yet drafted up my agreement. Come back next week.

So, I did. Yesterday. With a copy of my bill and my 300 pesos.

The postmaster had completed part of the paperwork, but he required me to fill out a new application form -- even though I was renting the same box I have been renting for a decade. The same information he had included on the rental agreement.

That was fine. It just seemed to be a bit of overkill since no information on the form had changed since last January.

Having completed my application and signed two copies of the formal agreement, I was ready to pay my money. And I did. 300 pesos.

The postmaster looked at the bills and smiled. For a moment I thought the rental fee had increased -- even though the agreement clearly showed the cost was 300 pesos.
"Necesitas diez pesos más." "You need ten more pesos."

I will admit that that the automatic gringo fallback of "What are you trying to pull?" flashed through my mind. Instead, I asked him why.

"For the copy."

Now, I was confused. The only copy involved in the transaction was my electric bill and I had made that copy. Before I sank into cross-examination mode, it occurred to me that there was another copy. My copy of the rental agreement that also acted as my receipt.

I chalked it up to just another attempt to bring the post office into the corral of financial discipline.

A number of merchants in out area (including Oxxo) have incentives for customers to bring their own bags while shopping. Oxxo will still provide a plastic bag, but the customer has to buy it. I have noticed a number of neighbors who simply gather up their purchases in their arms rather than pay for something that was once free.

That is not a good option at the post office. One of the consequences of the postmaster shift a couple years ago was an effort to collect on delinquent payments for box rentals. Receipts were not always issued under the old regime. As a result, some renters paid twice that year.

A Mexican friend taught me that lesson when I first moved to Mexico. Keep your receipts for everything.

So, I paid my ten pesos for proof that I had actually paid my 300 pesos. Oddly, I did not receive a receipt for the 10 pesos. That would been bureaucratic overkill.

But, my dream was not yet over. Joyce had told me that there was a letter (probably a greeting card by its shape) for me at the post office. She knew that because the postmaster had given it to her earlier in the week. Her box is just below mine.

Somehow, in the passage of one day, the letter had disappeared. I told the postmasrer Joyce's story, but he remembered nothing like that.

Of course, maybe the whole thing was a dream. But certainly not a nightmare.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

learning spanish with dingo-lingo

Today is my birthday.

On days like this, it is customary to write one of those Kantian essays on moral imperatives that describe how the birthday boy can now see the far shore through a glass darkly. And that is exactly what I started to do when confronted with the keyboard this morning.

Then, I came to my senses. I am no more interested in writing about that aspect of my life than you are in hearing it. So, off with the maudlin and back to a far more interesting topic.

I have been using Duolingo, a Spanish app on my telephone, for almost a decade. It is part of my morning routine in my quest to learn the language of my neighbors. I have learned far more Spanish from Omar than I have from Duolingo, but I still press on.

Some of the sentences on the app can be a bit odd. "The cats ate dinner with the bears." The purpose of those nonsense sentences are apparent. They emphasize grammar and vocabulary through absurd content.

One of my favorite tools in Duolingo is the comment section under each sentence. The comments were designed to help reduce confusion by allowing users to ask other community members for assistance. But, like all comment sections on the internet, it houses more trolls than the bridges of Madison County.

There are always a lot of I-don't-get-it literalists. "Cats do not eat with bears. That is not correct." "Where am I supposed to use that sentence?" "This is a lie."

But even straight-forward sentences generate heat. Today Duolingo offered up two rather uninteresting examples: "Cows are not dangerous" and "Basketball is not a dangerous sport." It was a good exercise in using the adjective with and without a supporting noun.

At least, I thought the sentences were uninteresting. The comments section under both sentences included running battles about just how dangerous cows can be and drawing eye-rolling distinctions between "dangerous" meaning "life-threatening" or merely "injury-inducing."

My problem is that I find the comments so entertaining that I forget to complete my lesson in the time I have allotted.

The comments did get me thinking about comedy, though. A recent poll showed that 43% of Americans between 18 and 30 received most of their political news from late night comedy shows. That is an increase from 21% in 2004.

My skeptical nature doubted the first survey when it was reported in the news sixteen years ago -- prominently on the comedy shows, of course. I have now changed my mind.

Last year, I was having dinner with American friends. For some reason, the conversation turned to Sarah Palin. The husband, who is well over 30, said: "Can you believe how dumb she is, she actually said she could see Russia from her front porch." He believed that was true.

I pulled out my smartphone and played a Tina Fey Youtube video where she described how people think Palin actually said those words. She didn't. Tina Fey did. In an SNL skit. Even after watching the video, he still said he believed Palin had said it.

This week I was talking with an acquaintance who said she had decided to vote for Hillary Clinton because Donald Trump had jumped up behind her and yelled "Boo" in the third presidential debate. That, of course, was actually Alec Baldwin startling Kate McKinnon on another SNL skit.

What made both of those skits funny, of course, is that they were based on similar events. Sarah Palin did say that she had international experience because Russia was so close to Alaska it was possible to see one from the other. And the third presidential debate did have a very creepy feel about it with the "debaters" wandering the stage as if they were auditioning for Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

And what do we conclude from all that? Not much. Remember, I told you I was not going to wax prosaically about my life journey.

What I will say is that I am enthralled with comedy. It is an art form where facts are not necessary to speak truth. It is a world where cats eat with bears, Sarah Palin speaks in the charming voice of Tina Fey, and basketball-playing cows are not dangerous unless they twist an ankle on a lay-up.

It is a world where I intend to have a happy birthday -- at least, for the day. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

aging in mexico

This is why I pay 300 pesos a year to the Mexican post office.

While I was at the post office in San Patricio yesterday paying my rental fee, my favorite postal clerk handed me the current contents of my box:

  • A birthday card (for an event that is less than a week away) from my long-time friend Colette Duncan
  • A Christmas card from my niece, Terrie Holt
  • A Christmas card from my San Miguel de Allende chums, Al and Stew
  • The October 2019 Oregon State Bar Bulletin

It was an interesting mix. Lots of sentiment without the sentimentality. Well, the cards were. The Bulletin? No sentiment there.

I have retained my membership in the Oregon State Bar as an inactive member. The reason for the membership was a bit unclear to me. Maybe I thought I would one day yoke myself to the harsh mistress of Justice. Or, worse, I had become accustomed to the title that came with continued membership.

Whatever the real reason was, it has become a stranger to my current life. And the Bar's use of my dues money for its narrow political agenda is annoying. One of my Oregon attorney friends jokingly refers to the Oregon State Bar as a communist front for the National Lawyer Guild.

But the greeting cards are in an entirely different category. Colette grew up with me in our neighborhood. We have been friends since grade school, and she has been an anchor for me several times in my life.

Terrie is the daughter of my father's daughter. She has recently passed along stories about how my library gave her a strong foundation as she was growing up. We now track one another's lives on Facebook.

I met Al before I met Stew. Al is a blogger in San Miguel de Allende. His newspaper background shows in his excellently-crafted essays about their life on a ranch outside San Miguel. As much as I enjoy my almost-annual trips to San Miguel for the chamber music festival, the highlight is our free-ranging conversations over lunch or dinner -- a monument to how people can disagree and still be good friends.

During the past two months I have become introspective on the topic of aging. Death has fascinated me since I was four years old. The first two stories I wrote at that age centered around death. Full disclosure would have used the phrase "rather violent death."

But I have not thought much about aging -- a completely different process, and just as inevitable. Probably because it was not until the past year that I have experienced the classic signs of aging. A little less balance. Legs that subtly rebel when asked to climb stairs. Nouns that take a vacation somewhere in the southern hemisphere where there are no telephones. I now run the risk of using that vexatious cliché from the 70s: "I can relate."

That may be one reason I have watched Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady twice this month. I disliked the movie when I first saw it years ago. It did not seem to capture the essence of one of Great Britain's strongest prime ministers.

That is not how I see the movie now. I am just completing the third (and last) volume of Charles Moore's biography of Lady Thatcher. The most poignant chapters are the ones following her political fall.

Her former political secretary, 
Mark Worthington, summed up her life after Downing Street as: "The Almighty had shaped her to be prime minister, but not to do anything else. She was made to sit there and take decisions. If there were no decisions to take, she did not know what to do."
And though she continued to make speeches, wrote her memoirs, and toured the world as a symbol of Britain, she was no longer the decider. With less opportunity to use her skills, her mind started to fade, and she walked that path that Ronald Reagan described of his own life: "
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

I suspect that is why I now find cards and letters from friends so comforting. They are physical symbols that someone cared enough to invest their time in selecting something to send to me -- and then actually sent it. I would be stealing that time if I did anything other than to honor those friendships.* 

One day, when I am sitting in some warehouse-for-the-elderly, I will pull out these three cards (along with the others I have been saving) vainly trying to remember just who these people are who I once cherished. Even without names, though, I will know that they cared enough to cherish me.

And I guess that is quite worth the 300 pesos to rent a Mexican postal box.    

* - I also noted that two of the cards featured golden retrievers. That may be a sign that it is time to buy one.

Friday, January 10, 2020

leviathan says you do not need that money

This is the week in Mexico when I feel as if I am a part of my community.

It is the week when I pay my taxes and fees to The Powers That Be, in high hopes the money will  be put to good purpose. And it is the week when I indulge in a toxic mixture of hubris with a dash of schadenfreude.

Let's get to my misplaced chutzpah first.

In January, I have four bills to pay for the full year. Property taxes. Water, sewer, and garbage. Car registration. Postal box rental.

And here is what I paid -- with its US dollar equivalent.
  • Property taxes on a 4000 square foot house: $2,280 (Mx); $121 (USD). Let me remind you that is for a full year.
  • Water, sewer, and garbage: $1825 (Mx); $97 (USD)
  • Car registration: $637 (Mx); $34 (USD)
  • Post office box: $300 (Mx); $16 (USD) 
I had read a rumor that property taxes had doubled this year. They may have for some homeowners. Mine increased by only $321.24 (Mx) -- about $17 (USD). A 16% increase.

As a benchmark, the car registration increased 9%; my water, sewer, and garbage fee increased by 6%. All three* well above Mexico's inflation rate of 4.9%. But that is just another good example of why "inflation" and "cost-of-living" are not the same thing (lunch up north).

Mexico is quickly changing its procedures for paying these annual levies. But I prefer the old ways. I pay two of the bills in our county seat (Cihuatlán), one in Barra de Navidad, and the last in San Patricio.

Driving and standing in line takes at least a half day. But "the standing in line" is worth it. It gives me an opportunity to polish some of the jagged edges off of my Spanish -- and I always gain a lot of local lore simply by eavesdropping.

It reminds me of the voting lines in the Old Country -- up until Oregon switched over to the impersonal voting-by-mail, where a civic ritual was reduced to an exercise in dropping an envelope into a postal box. Standing in line with my neighbors has to suffice as a substitute for the lost days of American civic ritual.**

I now sit at my desk a bit enriched having done my duty -- and just a bit too smug about the fact that if I had just paid similar bills up north, I would be sitting on a far skinnier wallet. 

* - The postal box rental has not changed for the ten years I have had the box.

** - If I follow through on my plan to attain Mexican citizenship, I will once again be able to stand in line to vote.

Friday, January 03, 2020

in training

Last January we chatted about a chili-eating contest that had just been held in Barra de Navidad (into life a little spice must fall).

The contest was based on Mexican dishes that included three of the world's spiciest-known chili peppers. The chilies were not your quotidian jalapeños, serranos, or habaneros. They were the super-stars of the chili universe:

  • Bhut Joiokia (ghost pepper)
  • Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
  • Carolina Reaper (the spiciest pepper in the world -- with a Scoville rating of 1.5 million; a jalapeño is rated at a mere 8500)   
I had intended to participate in the contest -- on one condition. That the peppers used would actually complement the dish and not be merely a misguided attempt at earning new notches on the macho meter. Chilies are to enhance dishes; not to numb the sences.

It was a great plan, but, for some reason, I did not attend. Instead, I walked over to Bare Essentials, which had provided the chilies for the contest, and bought several jars of Giovanni's salsa made from each of the three super chilies.

When I headed north, I was under the impression that a second chili-eating contest was scheduled later in the month, when I was scheduled to return. More I know not.

On the outside chance that I may participate this year, I was a bit concerned that I have slipped out of chili-training while I am up north. In Barra, I use chilies in almost every meal -- including breakfast. By comparison, northern food is almost devoid of the blessings of chilies. I needed something to whet my edge.

My salvation came with a trip to the Meat Market in Bend earlier this week. Darrel and I buy our jerky there -- almost exclusively. I struck the mother lode. Habanero jerky and Carolina Reaper Styx. I particularly liked the Greek mythology pun of "Styx."

The half pound of Habanero jerky and the six Carolina Reaper Styx are now history. And my taste buds are up to the challenge of tasting high-quality Mexican dishes enhanced with the spice of the underworld.

Now, I just need to know when my digestive system will have its date with destiny.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

stag party

There is an old Kyrgyz legend that if you see a stag on the first day of the new year, the year will smile on you.

Well, I saw a stag yesterday morning, and that is close enough for me. I am going to claim the prize -- leaving out the inconvenient truth that I do not have a drop of Kyrgyz blood in me. But it is a cultural appropriation world in which we live.

No one can know the future, but I do know that last year was about as good as a year could be. If you had told me fifteen years ago I would be living in Mexico and thoroughly enjoying life, I would have laughed.

Well, not about the "enjoying life" part. I have always done that. But back then, I would have imagined retirement life in London or Paris. I made a far wiser choice.

And I have my health. That is not something to sniff at now that I have entered my eighth decade. For that, I can thank genes far more than my lifestyle choices. At almost 92, my mother is still a force of nature and living on her own.

In looking at the world around me, there are a lot of things I wish were different. But even those concerns have seeds of hope. There is too much material poverty in the world. Since 1990 the worldwide extreme poverty rate of 36% has been reduced to 10% and is within reach of being eliminated. Unfortunately, Mexico's extreme poverty rate (along with the rate in other Latin American countries) has increased over the past decade.

As individuals, there is a limited amount that we can do to change macroeconomics. But, as moral agents, we make choices daily that affect the people around us.

When confronted with some human activity that may annoy us, we can either be kind and act as a social balm or we can allow our baser natures to enflame the situation. Too often, I choose the latter course. If I would like this year to be as good as the last, I can work on that.

I hate new year's resolutions. By labeling what we should be doing in our lives as "resolutions," we are admitting that eventually we will just keep acting as we have in the past.

So, let me simply wish all of you a blessed 2020. We can work on it together.

And may that stag next December have another point on his rack.