Saturday, April 04, 2020

don't count me in

I do not trust my time memory.

At least, not recently. I start to describe an event thinking it happened a month ago, and then realize it was just three days ago. Changes in our routines do that.

Time is always a bit elusive here. Because I am not a joiner, my weekly calendar is as devoid of engagements as a Celebrity cruise ship. If I did not have church on Sunday morning, days would slip into days. Unnoticed. Unacknowledged. Perhaps, a bit unlived.

For the past month (and you can weigh that time period against my caveat), the Mexican decennial census has been underway here. Teams of safari vest-clad young people have been navigating the streets looking like the Face of the Federal Government for whom they are undertaking the onerous task of interviewing every person in Mexico.

Mexico conducts its census for the same reason every other nation does: to know how many people are under its sovereignty, who is eligible for taxation, and how to allot Federal funds. For that reason, the states have a vested interest in ensuring all of their people are counted.

And, just as it has in other countries, the nature of the census has changed. Most people are still asked the traditional questions: number of people in the household and their name, race, age, religion, sex, marital status, education level, and place of birth. But some respondents will be asked more-prying questions. Number of rooms in the dwelling. Whether the dwelling has electricity and indoor bathrooms, and if the household owns a radio, a microwave, a refrigerator, or television.

Now, all of this is second hand information because no one has yet stopped at the House with No Name to add my name and Omar's to this ten-year count. This appears to be the second census where my presence in Mexico will not be noted.

The census tabulators have been in the neighborhood. Last week as I left for a short shopping trip, the young woman across the street was being interviewed. When I returned, the official had moved on.

The census was to start on 2 March and conclude on 27 March -- Friday a week ago. I do not know if the count will be extended because of the coronavirus. But it appears I may have missed my opportunity to talk about my microwave.

That may be just as well. I was cutting my teeth on libertarianism when William Rickenbacker, son of Eddie, objected to providing anything in the 1960 census other than his basic personal information. He had received what was referred to the "long census form" that asked some of the same questions the Mexican census now does. He was particularly incensed about the "number of bathrooms" question on the basis that the government had no business even asking the question in a census.

The United States federal government took him to court and Rickenbacker was sentenced to 60 days in prison (suspended), fined $100, and placed on probation for one day. The punishment was symbolic, but Rickenbacker was thereafter labeled as a criminal.

The second circuit federal court affirmed the conviction in United States v. Rickenbacker, 309 F2d 462 (1963). The Supreme Court refused certiorari.

I mention the case only because it has forever changed how I look at the census. For me, it is not a beneficent tool.

It seems, though, that I may not have to worry about having my political scruples sullied. The tide has moved on, and I am that pitiful piece of kelp that has been left behind.     

Friday, April 03, 2020

go home, tapatios

I have used the Jaws analogy so often, I feel like I am beating a dead fish.

But here I go again.

In Peter Benchley's mind, Amity Island was one of those places that existed solely because tourists were willing to shovel money out of their pockets in exchange for a good time. When the tourists came, the good people of Amity Island survived. When they didn't, they didn't.

In Benchley's Manichean
 world, the universe of Amity Island was populated by two groups of people. The people who earned a living off of the tourists and the couple of people whose job it was to secure the peace. The appearance of a shark set them head-to-head in a zero-sum confrontation.

The little villages where I play and live have a lot in common with Amity Island. Though, the local livelihoods here are not one-trick economic ponies, Mexican and, to a lesser extent, northern tourism plays a major part in the daily struggle for people who live here.

That is why I was a little surprised to see a series of videos and photographs posted on our local Facebook groups. Some of my Mexican neighbors (many of them dependent on tourist pesos) took to the streets with signs warning people to stay in their houses. They were stationed at the entrance of Barra de Navidad and at the traffic circle near the bus station. High-Attention locations for tourists.

Even though the reminder could equally apply to residents of Barra, the signs were there to discourage Semana Santa revelers from decamping to the beach as if the coronavirus was still only hanging out in south China.

I had to make a supplies trip to San Patricio yesterday. The sign-holders were gone, but the sign was still there -- chiding those who were so bold to violate the health of the community.

Something similar happened in Oregon during Spring break this year. Oregon coastal towns are similar to Amity Island. They need tourists. But not now.

The residents of several small towns harassed the tourists until they left. For some reason, I have visions of pitchforks and torches, but that would simply be how I would film it.

In both cases, people with economic motives to act differently were willing to look beyond the immediate to a pending disease, and will end up paying for it with reduced incomes.

I am tempted to call it heroic. But it is not. It is simply how we humans act at our best.

Because this is Mexico, none of the demonstrators had that hectoring high-moral-dudgeon that some northerners have been demonstrating. There was no finger-wagging. No insulting. No questionable reductionism.

Yesterday I had an exchange with a reader who loves Mexico, but who flew north to be in his country during this episode. I told him that people here are generally complying with the stay-home order, but, when I went to Melaque yesterday, I was surprised at the number of people on the streets and in the shops.

His response shocked me. "You can't fix stupid."

I knew only a few people out and about yesterday, but every person I talked with had a reason to be there. One was picking up her final paycheck. Another was headed to the hardware store to fix the water connection to his house. Several had run out of food and were in town quickly to replenish the larder. "Stupid" would not be an adjective I would have chosen for any of them.

And that gets me back to Benchley's Manichean screenplay with his world of The Good and The Evil. That division is far too common in our discussions about daily life -- part of the sewage I suspect that slops over from national and international politics. And I am just as suspectible to it.

I have discovered I cannot escape that intellectual cul-de-sac unless I indulge in a very simple exercise. Every time I see someone doing something that my judgmental-self starts to rail about, I try to see life through their eyes.

Maybe the rudeness I perceived was simply a father's concern for his daughter who has gone missing. Maybe the 12-year old on the moto is not being reckless with his health; he is on his way to the pharmacy to buy medicine for his grandmother.

The best thing about the exercise is that I get to take myself out of my anger and prejudice, and to once again learn that I do not control the world. I am simply a passenger with the rest of you, and we are all going to get through it together.


Wednesday, April 01, 2020

mexico to close beaches and cart off the sand

1 April 2020 -- Mexico City, Mexico

Today the governors of the 17 Mexican states with ocean beaches met to initiate a plan to comply with the order of Dr. Hugo Lopez-Gatell Rameriz that the beaches should immediately be closed. The governors agreed that the only way to keep people off of the beaches was to remove the tempation of Semana Santa revelers disobeying the order.

To avoid that possibility, all of Mexico's ocean beaches will be removed until Dr. Lopez-Gatell gives the "all clear" order.

Spokesman for the governors, Sonia Mentirosa Cuentacuentos, told a press conference this morning, "Sure. The governors and the federal government could have called out the military, the National Guard, and the police to spend the next two weeks trying to monitor people stepping on the beach. We decided there was a much simpler solution.

"For two days, we will have all of those same people join the road, public works, and brothers-in-laws of governors and mayors associations to scoop up all of the beach sand. The sand will then be deposited in a secure place until health matters return to normal."

When asked the cost of the operation, Ms. Mentirosa responded: "This is no time to speak of money when people's jobs are at stake."

If all goes well, the beaches will be carted off in full no later than close of business on Thursday.

One reporter talked to Ms. Mentirosa off the record, and asked her whose idea this was.

"I don't know. It sounds like an April Fool's joke to me." 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

move on

It has been said that during the Black Death whenever there was a large gap between letters of frequent correspondents, the worst was assumed.

Should any of you have been so bold as to assume last Friday's essay was the last of Mexpatriate, fret (or hope) no more. I have not yet been demoted to the ranks of Dead-White-Male.

My absence from the keyboard did involve my health, but not what you are thinking -- or what I briefly thought myself. According to my doctor, it was a bout of "food poisoning" -- meaning that I had picked up a virus, bacteria, or parasite that had taken up residence in something I ate.

But almost everything is back in working order now. And I am glad for it. Yesterday the Mexican federal government performed one of those policy u-turns that strain necks more than credulity. Everyone has been asked to home-shelter for the next 30 days.

Because my stomach affliction kept me in bed over the weekend, I felt as if I had been in rehearsal for what I will continue doing -- staying mostly at home.

That means I am now back to finding something worthwhile to do. My new-found addiction to watching SNL "Weekend Update" re-runs on YouTube does not come close to meeting the "worthwhile" criterion.

My former work colleague Carl Wilson posted a list of "Five movies I never tire of (at least the five I have likely watched most often)." He then invited the rest of us to post ours.

I did not submit one for the same reason that I do not find the on-line tests to pick a presidential candidate very satisfying. By the time, I am half-way through the process, I start changing my mind about my earlier answers.

I suppose that is nothing more than a variant that all taste is subjective -- except that argument disintegrates with only a few questions, as Roger Scruton has proven. Instead, I tend to find what is beatutiful in each movie I watch.

That is all prelude to my next Project of Distraction. I plan on watching each of the movies in my collection that was awarded an Oscar for Best Picture. There are 29 of them -- from 1938 to 2019. That should keep me away from the Devil's Playground for the next 30 days.

1938 -- Gone With the Wind
1942 -- Casablanca
1950 -- All About Eve
1959 -- Ben-Hur
1961 -- West Side Story
1962 -- Lawrence of Arabia
1964 -- My Fair Lady
1965 -- The Sound of Music
1966 -- A Man for All Seasons
1970 -- Patton
1972 -- The Godfather
1974 -- The Godfather II
1976 -- Annie Hall
1982 -- Gandhi
1984 -- Amadeus
1987 -- The Last Emperor
1991 -- The Silence of the Lambs
1993 -- Schindler's List
1994 -- Forrest Gump
1995 -- Braveheart
1997 -- Titanic
1998 -- Shakespeare in Love
2002 -- Chicago
2003 -- Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2004 -- Gladiator
2010 -- The King's Speech
2011 -- The Artist
2014 -- Birdman
2019 -- Parasite

In truth, I have already begun the Festival of So-called Best Pictures. Before I fell to my intestinal infection, I watched Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. I have never been a fan of the Margaret Mitchell work. It is simply filled with enough cringe moments that I doubt I will watch it again. Casablanca has aged far better.   

There are some movies on the list that I would rank among my top 100. There are others that I do my best to find some redeeming social value. Interestingly, the movies I most enjoy are not on that list -- with the possible exceptions of All About Eve and Shakespeare in Love.

If nothing else, I will re-acquaint myself with some artists who are master craftsmen.

And I can think of nothing simpler to keep the correspondence flowing during this "plague."

Note: No discussion of Casablanca would be complete without a clip of my favorite scene.

Friday, March 27, 2020

loaves and fishes

It has been only a week or so since northern tourists decamped to their homes above the Rio Bravo -- leaving a growing economic stoppage in its wake.

In a normal spring, the weeks between the Feast of San Patricio and Semana Santa (Holy Week) represent half of the year's tourist bonanza here.

Some tourists always leave early, but a hearty handful hang on and keep feeding pesos to landlords, tour guides, waiters, pool and cleaning staff, and street vendors. And then comes Semana Santa, the week before Easter. Mexican Families from the highlands jump on buses and into SUVs and migrate en masse to the beach for a full week.

Think of those two events as being our local Black Friday. During those weeks, the workers hope to earn enough money until the bounty of the 6-weeks of summer school vacation, and then for another dry spell between late August and the arrival of the first northern tourists in October.

But that is not happening now. Because of the coronavirus, tourist-oriented businesses are in real trouble. Most of the restaurants in Barra de Navidad have closed. Some are offering take-out. A sizeable number of roasted chicken, taco, and tamale stands are still offering street food. Without customers, those businesses have a short-term dark economic future.

That is why one of our local Facebook pages is putting together a list of take-away eateries -- with all the information a customer might need. (I shamelessly stole the photograph here from that effort. Absolution is pending. After all Holy Week is almost upon us.)

If you are going to be using these services (or similar services where you live in Mexico), let me pass along a suggestion I heard.

Work has already disappeared for a lot of people. My neighbor is a fisherman and provides boat rides to tourists. His is the only income for his extended family. Every day he walks to the malecon and tries to convince people to go for a ride. But there is almost no one there.

I have two young friends who were hired as construction workers. They were proud of their income. Until Saturday when they were laid off without pay because the owner was not certain if he would continue building.

The needy list is already long. Single parents who have lost their income -- a few who once worked cleaning houses for northerners.

I have heard of a resident here who buys two or three extra dinners when he buys take-away. He then delivers the extra two meals to families he knows are facing financial difficulty.

That act of kindness will not reverse the long-range economic tsunami that is facing Mexico. But it will be a grace note in healing some rifts that have opened over the past two weeks.

One of those rifts comes from misunderstanding. People here regularly post that Mexicans have no regard for self-imposed isolation. But they are looking at the dilemma from their perspective and not from the perspective of the person who is desperately looking for some food to feed his family. We could help reduce that exposure (at least by one) if we used our resources to alleviate the worry that is setting in here.

There are probably a lot of other points of light that could be lit here. If so, please share them. Just as you share your food.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

waiter, there's a coin in my soup

There is nothing like an impending crisis to trigger ingenuity.

We start doing things that we would never have dreamed of doing under other circumstances. Some of them quite creative. Others are just a bit creepy.

No one knows if the coronavirus has made its way to the little villages by the sea where I live. If it did not travel here with our recent Feast of San Patricio crowds, I would be surprised. The local officials' approach to the coronavirus seems to share my idea of medical care: if you do not go to the doctor, you will always be in perfect health.

That does not keep us from adopting the same attitude as Russian peasants waiting for the inevitable invasion of Batu Khan at the head of his Mongol army. Because we do not know what may or may not work, we try a bit of everything.

Every graybeard (as Solzhenitsyn would put it) knows that currency is the preferred public bus service of pathogens. The internet is filled with urban lore that the microbes dancing on top of a 10-peso coin are more numerous than a French kiss from a TB patient.

In this case, the urban lore has the advantage of actually being true. We did not need the coronavirus to tell us that.

So, what to do with those coins in our pocket? We never give them a second thought that we might catch the flu, a cold, or a rather nasty case of explosive diarrhea from them. But the coronavirus has centered our attention on any chink in the cordon sanitaire we have tried to build around our lives.

Facebook is filled with posts of people who have implemented a rather simple method to feel better about their cocoon. If coins come into the clean room that is now your house, just dump them in a bowl of heavily-bleached water, and let them soak.

I tried it last night. I had about twenty coins in my pocket. That was unusual because I do not care for coins. They wear holes in my pockets in about the same way dogs seek freedom by digging holes under fences. If offered coins at a store, I almost always leave them behind.

But I did have some coins in an intact pocket. I chose a small bowl, filled it half-way with water, added a bit of Clorox, and dumped the coins in the solution for their private spa treatment while I watched The Darkest Hour. By the time Churchill had successfully manipulated his way through the pessimistic wiles of his colleagues, I took a look at what I had wrought in my bleach bowl.

The coins looked as if they had just rolled out of the mint. When I looked at the liquid in the bowl, I saw why.

That is a photograph of the bowl at the top of this essay. On first sight, it looks like a bowl of indifferent miso soup.

Soup it is. But that is not miso. It is the non-paying passengers on the coins I was carrying around in my pocket.

None of this should surprise me. In my youth, I was a coin collector. One of the first thing a collector does when digging through piles of coins for a potential prey is to clean them. I am accustomed to the detritus of daily living that attaches itself to coins. But the broth in last night's bowl was a perfect reminder of just how much gunk can attach itself to the daily items in our lives.

Coin-soaking is never going to be the nuclear weapon of the coronavirus age. But it is one of those distractions that makes us feel as if we are doing something for The Effort -- like Victory Gardens and scrap drives during the Second World War.

Of course, once this wave passes, all of this coin lore will be as interesting as last week's miso.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

not quite staying at home

Last week the governor of Jalisco ordered a 5-day voluntary "stay-at-home" request.

I will admit that I was skeptical of how effective it would be. Mexico had not yet been hit hard by the coronavirus and the potential effects on both health and the economy had not been a regular point of discussion with my Mexican acquaintances -- especially, the younger ones.

I should have known better. When the Calderon administration shut down public gatherings in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic, people complied. The announcement scared people into the reality that avoiding otherse was the best way to stay not-dead.

The governor's current order has had something of the same effect. Certainly, not immediately. On the weekend, the shopping street in my neighborhood was filled with people going about their daily duties.

Cars, trucks, and motorcycles were playing a deadly game of tag. Streets were being swept. Hands shaken. Cheeks kissed. In the evening, the street restaurants were a little less busy, but they were open and no one was even thinking about social distancing.

My skeptisim seemed to be well-based. But I was wrong.

Last night I decided to walk to the malecon to watch the sunset and to see if the activity level had diminished from my visit on Thursday (making steve a dull boy). It had.

This is what the area designated to tourist indulgence looked like.

I have a confession to make. I had to wait for a car to pull out of the shot before I took it, but it sums up the future of tourism in our little town.

It took this area of Mexico almost 6 years to recover from the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. No one knows just how long this event will tamp down tourism. But a study issued today estimated that 18 million jobs will be lost in the early stages of a Mexican recession.

The malecon was not devoid of people last night. But it would be an exaggeration to call the people who were there a "crowd." There may have been 50 people. Mostly Mexican tourists enjoying Barra's charm. Some northern tourists who kept darting away if anyone approached them.

At this time of year, Barra's tourist trade is still active. A large portion of northerners do not flee north until around Easter. And there are lots of Mexican-American families who have come south to spend Spring break with their extended families. When I flew down from Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, not a seat was available on the airplane. The majority appeared to be northern families heading to the Old Country.

Almost all of the restaurants on the malecon and in centro were closed last evening. A few family-run operations were open, but they had only a smattering of customers. All of the tourist souvenir shops were closed. There were simply no customers. Just a few strollers.

I stopped at the Kiosko to buy a bottle of water and ran into the largest gathering of people I had encountered on my trip. There must have been 15 people in the store. But Kiosko is always busy.

Three young women were sitting at the table in the store -- drinking their Perrier water. Out of curiosity, I stopped and asked them, in Spanish, where they were from and how they were enjoying Barra.

They just stared at me and then started giggling amongst themselves. I took it for the usual social awkwardness when any old man starts a conversation with young women.

But I pressed on and asked them what they enjoyed most about Barra.

One girl shyly asked: "Do you speak English? We don't know Spanish."

It turned out that they were all cousins. Third-generation Americans, who lived in southern California. Like the people on my flight, they were here to visit family.

All three agreed on one thing. They were happy that their great-grandparents moved from this area. They enjoyed visiting their relatives, but they found Barra to be boring, and they could not understand a lot of things about their cousins who live here.

Even with schools closed up north and many jobs being placed on hold, the Mexican-American families will soon be returning home. With the other northern tourists now long gone, there is only one regular revenue source for Barra's tourism industry. Week-end tourists from the highlands -- and, of course, the Semana Santa crowd.

This weekend will be the first test following the expiration of the 5-day order to see if the tourists show up. That may be the best barometer whether anyone will appear for Semana Santa.

If I were a betting man, all of my chips would go on black. By Easter (or before), Mexico should be in the height of its portion of the pandemic. If 2009 is a good guide, Mexicans will stay home rather than trek to the beach.

A fitting ending to the day -- in front of my least-favorite sign.