Saturday, May 19, 2018

does that translate to hugs and kisses?

You all know the question. We have all asked it.

You see some new construction in your neighborhood. The first thing you want to know is: "What is it going to be?"

About a month ago, a construction crew started clearing off a block-long lot on the main street through our part of town. Just two blocks from my house.

Within days, trenches for the foundation were dug and dump trucks had delivered large rocks to fill the trenches. The footprint looked far to big to be a residence, and most of the other buildings that face the street in the area are commercial. So, I assumed it was going to be a series of shops.

When I asked who I assumed was the foreman, he confirmed my guess. But, he very firmly added it was just one shop.

That struck me as odd. In the other blocks, there is room for five or six shops. But I did not think about it anymore.

What I did do was watch how quickly the floor was poured and how the basic walls went up just as quickly. The crew obviously knew what they were doing.

Then, I saw it. A new sign has been posted on the wall of the construction site -- offering good wages and benefits for the employees of the new store. An Oxxo. A convenience store.

I assume that Oxxo (and its local rival Kiosko) must do some sort of market studies before they build new stores. When I moved to this area, there was just one. At a gas station on the road to Guadalajara. Melaque now hosts several. Even little Barra de Navidad has two Oxxos and a Kisoko. Now, we will have a third Oxxo.

Like all change, this store will have its opponents. The front line fighters will be northerners. Most of them moved away from their home countries in search of less modernity (even though they are prone to get rather cranky about local customs like loud music and fireworks).

But, there will be some neighborhood opposition, as well. Mainly from the owners of the line of abarrotes (small grocery stores) that line our main street. There are at least six, but I may have forgotten one or two. (I should point out that every Mexican neighbor I talked with gave the new store a thumbs up.)

Oxxo and Kiosko are not exactly competitors with the abarrotes. The abarrotes sell a far wider range of products. Where they do compete is for beverages and snacks -- the life blood of convenience stores.

There is an Oxxo and and a Kiosko within walking distance of my house. The only thing I regularly buy at the Kiosko is my brand of bottled water. Santorini. It is not delivered to my neighborhood, and none of the abarrotes carry that brand.

I do not patronize the Oxxo at the entrance of Barra de Navidad because the staff there are concurrently indifferent and a bit arrogant. The staff at the Kiosko know me by name, know the products I prefer, and always pretend they are happy to see me.

That makes a world of difference. Relationships often trump price in Mexico. That is one reason the abarrotes are vulnerable to convenience stores. They do not compete in price. All of them sell the same product at the same price, and, if that product is offered at a convenience store, it will always be more expensive at the abarrotes.

Difference in attitudes toward customers is true for some abarrotes. Some are run by owners who seem to personally care about their customers. Some seem to see customers as an interruption in their day.

The abarrote nearest to my house is convenient. But that is not why I shop there. The owner always keeps me informed when she will be getting fresh shipments. And she actually laughs at my lame jokes. At my age, these things matter.

So, I will welcome the Oxxo to the neighborhood. It will be more convenient for lugging Santorini water bottles home. And I will now be able to pay my electric, internet, and cellular telephone bills by just walking down the block. Of course, if the staff proves to be as surly as the other Oxxo, my bill-paying and water purchases will remain at Kiosko.

And I will continue doing most of my local grocery shopping at my favorite little store, where I am known by my greeting -- "practiamente perfecto."

Thursday, May 17, 2018

the galloping gourmet saunters

It has gone everywhere in the world where I have lived.

Oregon. Texas. Colorado. California. Greece. Great Britain. Nevada. And, now, in its last burst of glory. Mexico.

It, of course, is The Graham Kerr Cookbook. And, as the cover would have it, "by The Galloping Gourmet." Not The Galloping Gourmet Cookbook by Graham Kerr. That is not how celebrities think of themselves. And it is how we think of them.

There was no other word than "celebrity" to apply to the Graham Kerr I first met back in the late 1960s. His shtick defined what we now know as celebrity chefs. Before there was Rachel Ray, or Iron Chef, or the fascist tantrums of Gordon Ramsey, there was Graham Kerr, the galloping gourmet. Or, as it later turned out, the gulping gourmet, who was always seen on camera with a goblet of wine.

Of course, there were the stars of the era. Charles Beard. Julia Child. Chefs of great renown whose wit was as dry as the tarragon sprinkled in their filets de sole sylvestre.

There was nothing dry about Graham Kerr. His goal was not to teach methods of cooking in the traditional sense. He found traditions to be stifling. What he wanted was cooking techniques that were practical -- and that were subject to constant revision. That paragon of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham would have found a soul mate in Graham Kerr.

But Kerr was, most of all, a showman. His trademark leap onto the stage set the pace for the rest of the show. Along with some groaning jokes that would have not passed muster at the Brighton pier. But we loved him. He had enough energy to be the Jerry Springer of sauté.

The Galloping Gourmet was first televised in 1969. It is hard to believe that it was only on the air for three seasons. Three seasons of hyperactivity that almost ruined the marriage between Kerr and his producer wife.

Then, disaster struck. An automobile accident that almost killed both of them, and left them badly injured.

Since then, his life has taken several different paths, including a deep commitment to Christianity. But, the food path has now come full circle.

In his introduction to the original cookbook, he candidly noted: "I am equally certain that, in the years to come, our advances in food technology and kitchen appliances will require revisions being made [to this cookbook]." And so they have.

At least, food methods have changed. Kerr's reliance on clarified butter (I heard the term first from his lips) and butter seem to be from a different era. An ea when we loved the food we ate, instead of thinking of it solely as another form of gasoline.

Kerr has now published a new cookbook. But a cookbook that defines his more conservative self. It is a re-issue of the old cookbook -- with annotations in his neat, rounded script.

I gave away most of my cookbook collection when I moved to Mexico. I long ago discovered Kerr's basic philosophy was true for me -- cooking traditions are boring; i constantly need to have my food preparation techniques challenged and renewed.

Most cookbooks do not do that. But the internet does. I am not certain Kerr was correct when he predicted changed in appliances and food technology would be the force to revise his research. But the internet is.

A quick search through food sites will usually give me the impetus to try not only new food combinations,but new methods of preparation. Living in Mexico has also given me a new food palette to work with. I am constantly running across vegetables or fruits that I do not recognize -- or cuts of meats I would not have imagined.

Having said that, I may buy a copy of Kerr's revised cookbook. Mine is getting a bit tattered. The pages that open to peas 
à l’étouffée and chicory meunière are smeared with the residue of more butter than went into either dish. And that is a lot.
There is something nice about physical cookbooks. It is not just the tactile sensation of holding a book in my hand, even though there is that. In the case of the cookbooks I have kept, they are all friends. Some I bought. Some were gifts. I treasure one from a woman I should have married.

And, even though some of the cookbooks were quite revolutionary when they were published, they now represent the cooking establishment. But all revolutions build off of the establishment. So, I keep them to act as prods to creativity. Each recipe whispers to me: "You can do better than this." And I often do.

Kerr's life moves now at a saunter, not a gallop. He recently told a group of students who were visiting him in his Seattle home that celebrity is a hollow goal. "If each of us thought we are not likely to get a major TV show, but we are likely to have neighbors -- and if you could contribute to neighbors, like growing a garden or sharing produce -- there's nothing like it."

That is reason enough for me to buy the book. As a witness to the man who grew from the center of the limelight to being a man with peace at the center who finds contentment in reaching his hand out to others. And, as Voltaire would have it, making his garden grow.

There is a lesson in that for all of us.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

dirgeless in the garden

I am flying north again this week.

Last month, it was for a wedding.

This month, it is for a memorial service. For my aunt who died early in April (goodnight, gracie). My cousin, her son, has asked me to speak, and I have been working on some words that will be entirely inadequate to sum up her life. At best, I can hope for a vignette.

The past few months have been a time of transition for me. Several people close to me have died, and I have not mentioned them previously here. A member of our church board. A former Clackamas County District Attorney who served as a legal and political mentor since 1966. And two local notable personalities who added to both the depth and the weirdness of our small expatriate community here (if "community" is really the word).

I started listing them today and realized how much I miss seeing each of them. They all had become almost scenery in my life. And then they were gone.

There is a moment in all of these reveries where nostalgia can easily slip into the land of the black dog. The black dog that would love nothing more than to sever nostalgia's aorta.

I was saved from that episode by a bird. A small bird. One of God's clowns in nature. A hummingbird.

I like to think it is just one bird. My bird. That comes only to my patio to slake its nectar thirst.

As far as I know, there is more than one on this particular circuit. I have not even been able to accurately identify its species. It flits by too fast.

Whether it is one or more, I had not seen a hummingbird for months in my patio. In an attempt to tame my yellow-flowering vines that provide shade and privacy to each of the house's bedrooms, I cut them back almost to the ground this fall.

No vine. No yellow flowers. No hummingbird.

I did wonder where it went to supplement its diet. Of course, there are plenty of other gardens in our tropical village. And, for all I know, while the vines were down, it might have been vacationing in Arizona.

But, it is now back. I had just finished cataloging the deaths of my friends when she appeared (her lack of color has tipped me off enough to genderize her) out of the corner of my eye.

There is something about the antics of hummingbirds that fascinates everyone I know. If one appears in a garden, everyone pauses to watch. The hovering. The darting. The blurred images of a purposeful life.

And, just like that, as if she were Wonder Woman, she was gone. She had briefly shared a bit of magic, and now she had other souls slipping into the morass that she needed to save.

The hummingbird brought another gift. She provided me with the hook I needed to sum up my aunt's life.

And that is a lot for a little bird to give in one day.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

cue the scorpion

Screenwriters of horror films have a little trick.

Whenever they encounter lulls in their story arcs, the easiest way to pick up the pace is to stick in a scene where scorpions menace the leading lady. And, even though it is the rankest of cinematic clichés, it almost always works. Even when we all know how the tension is resolved.

There is something visceral about scorpions. My theory is that they are like sharks -- perfect killing machines. Claws to grasp. Armor to protect. A lethal sting to dispatch its prey. I am surprised an arms merchant has not devised something similar.

We tend to shy away from anything that looks that terrifying.

I have had to resort to misinformation to lure some of my friends down here. Scorpions often top their list of reasons not to cross the border. I tell them the chance they would ever see a scorpion was almost zero. (And that is true. As far as it goes. Scorpions do their hunting in the dark.)

I am glad none of those guests were in the house today. Saturday is cleaning and landscaping day. While Dora was busy tidying up the bedrooms, her son, Lupe, and I were trimming my vines and sweeping out the garage.

I saw the first one. One of the largest beige scorpions I have seen since I moved here. A bit of Raid took care of it.

Then Lupe saw the second. A tiny one. Just a baby. But it too had a Raid date.

Dora came out to see what we were doing -- and found the third. Raid. Done.

Three scorpions. All within a five foot radius of each other. That is the highest number I have killed in one day. If this was a Disney production, they would be a cute animated couple with their young son.

The disconcerting fact is that I walked through the same area last night in my bare feet when I got out of the swimming pool. Reminder to self: sandals exist for a good reason.

Now, before anyone says they are not coming to Mexico because of scorpions, let me ask you how you would react if someone said, "I am not going to visit Oregon. They have yellow jackets."

I have been stung by a whole series of insects over the years. I have also been stung by a scorpion. To me, there was no difference. They all hurt, but I survived them.

There are, of course, exceptions. People who are allergic to bee stings are usually also allergic to scorpion stings. My brother is one of those. When he is here, we regularly sweep the area for bees and wasps. And we are careful of scorpions.

So, come on down. This is not a mummy horror set. And the chances are that you will never see a scorpion. But, if you do, pay attention to them. They are as fascinating as tarantulas and rattlesnakes.

But that is an entirely different story.

Friday, May 11, 2018

it does not compute

Someone needs to drive a truck to my house, load up all of my electronic gear, and take it to a safe place.

And not because of my well-documented abuse of my expensive goods. Even though, it is true, if my electronics were children, I would be spending the rest of my life stamping out license plates with vaguely crude letter combinations.

No. My most recent malady has nothing to do with leaving my computer out in the rain or my binoculars on a harbor cruise in Sydney.

My brother is a computer consultant. He is larded with tales of customers who are convinced they have a major virus in their server, only to find out they have simply forgotten their password.

Well, I am about to become the star of one of those tales featuring benighted digital souls.

I bought a printer about a year ago in Manzanillo. It lacked most of the features I liked in my printer that died. (The fact that it was dead was a feature I did not like.) But the new printer and I have managed to build what passes for a nodding acquaintance.

In the beginning, I would ask it to print something, and it would. Then, the relationship frayed a bit. I would ask it to print something. It might. And it might not. I simply took that for moodiness.

While my brother was here, the printer decided it no longer wanted to be moody. It moved on to recalcitrance. I would request it to print something. It wouldn't. We might as well have been married.

I have been around the computer business for long enough to know I had a driver issue on my hands. So, I downloaded new drivers. And it worked for one print job.

I downloaded the drivers again. One print job.

Eventually, whatever was hanging up the process went away with the third download.

Until today. I had to download the drivers again. And it worked. Once.

On the second download, my computer gave me a new warning. The printer was "in error status." Of course, I already knew that. It was not printing.

Being the trouble shooter I am, I unplugged the printer and waited for the cache to clear. Nothing.

I closed up all the trays and took it outside to see if the inks were stuck. Nope.

Was there a paper jam? Nope.

Had a rat built a nest in the back of the printer? Nope.

So, I put it back on the desk, plugged it in, pushed the power switch, opened the feed-through tray, and flipped up the paper holder.

And I saw the problem. So simple that I am almost embarrassed to tell you. 
Especially after wasting a half hour out of my day. (But I would have told the story if it had happened to someone else. That is what we writers are like. Everyone around us is merely story fodder.)

It was right there in front of me. There was no paper in the tray.

My old printer had a readout that told me the paper was empty. But it was built for northern sensibilities -- where we need to be walked through each step as if we are half-witted children.

This printer was built for Mexicans -- people who have enough common sense to know that if a printer is not working, the usual culprit is one of two conditions: the power is turned off or there is no paper in the tray.

Unfortunately, the experience reminded me I am not really Mexican. I have been steeped in northern cosseting for far too long.

And next time? You can bet I will check the paper tray.

Of course, then, the tray will be full, and I will spend another half hour only to discover the printer has been unplugged.

Excuse me, I think I hear the truck at the front door.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

blossoming motherhood

Our village has become one large florist shop.

Barra de Navidad no longer has a formal florist shop. The last one closed years ago. What flowers are sold are usually offered by street vendors.

All of that changed earlier this week. Flowers started popping up in the most unlikely of places. The paper shop. The department store. Every other street corner. It was spring on steroids.

For a moment, I thought the town was preparing for the Hawaii-induced giant tsunami that the look-for-the-international-banker-hiding-under-your-bed brigade has been touting through their Russian troll channels.

But I was wrong. I had forgotten that one of the most important days on the Mexican calendar was almost upon us. And it now is. Today.

This is the day Mexico honors one of its most sacred institutions. Mothers. Dia de la madre.

It does not take anyone living here long to calculate the glue of social life in our villages.

For a lot of reasons (many of them quite understandable), most Mexicans are very skeptical of the motives of government, business, neighbors. They rely almost exclusively on their families as a place of security. And there is always a matriarch who holds it all together. 

It is no accident that the patron saint of Mexico is a woman. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the very model of Mexican womanhood. Or, at least, the aspirational model.

Because the position of mother is so highly-honored, it gets a specific day on the calendar. Its own number. 10 May.

Unlike The States, where the date wanders around the calendar in search of the second Sunday in May (that is a hint for those of you up north who have not yet caught on that The Day is almost here), 10 May is always the day here.

I rather like that. When The States moved almost all federal holidays to the nearest Monday, Independence Day remained sacrosanct. The Fourth of July is 4 July. Celebrating any other day would feel silly.

And so it is with 10 May. My neighbors will be showering their mothers with chocolate, flowers, fancy dinners out. All in the hope of letting them know that without them, there would be no Mexico.

One day is not sufficient to thank them for all they do. But one day is certainly better than none. And Mexico will do itself proud in thanking the women that keep their families standing as a bulwark against the calamities of life.

Feliz día de la madre.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

the class photo

You know the guy. There was one in every class.

The guy who  made goofy faces in all of the class photographs. And each year the other mothers would tut that "someone always has to ruin it for everyone else." Until we realized the guy actually did look goofy. All of the time.

My car is currently auditioning for that role.

The Escape has all sorts of electronic wizardry. One of the most helpful is the warning light when any of the four tires are low on air pressure.

I have had to rely on the warning's good offices a lot in these parts. Our streets seem to be strewn with all sorts of tire hazards. Broken glass. Glass bottles waiting to be broken. Nails. Rock shards. And, once, a foot-long bolt that I believe was used to anchor cat eyes.

All have found a home in one tire or another. Fortunately, I usually have enough warning to get the Escape to my favorite tire doctor. He is becoming quite fond of my tires. And my wallet. (On that last point, he has never charged me more than 50 pesos to fix a tire -- about $2.55 (US) -- no matter how much time it takes.)

About two weeks ago, I was at dinner with my friends Ed and Roxane in La Manzanilla when the warning light came on. The front right tire seemed to be a little low, but not bad. When I filled it in Melaque, it seemed fine.

Then, this morning, the light came on again. This time it was noticeably low. One of those slow leaks that are more irritating than distressing. So, I drove the Escape to the tire shop.

The last time I had trouble with that tire, the mechanic had to replace the stem, which led to a long and sad tale about replacing the air pressure sensor. Just another of my many Ford service horror tales.

When he put the tire into the bath, I hoped he would find a large nail. But there was no leak from the tread.

I steeled myself when he tested the stem. Nothing.

He then let some soapy water trickle down the bead where the outer tire meets the wheel. Nothing.

He was perplexed, but he tried the inside of the wheel. And there it was. A microscopic crack in the wheel was compromising the bead. Probably caused by not slowing sufficiently for one of our many topes.

I asked for my options. He asked me if I wanted the Canadian or the Mexican answer. (In this area, the assumption is that northerners are far northerners, not near northerners.) I asked for both.

He told me the best (and the most expensive) solution was to buy a new wheel. Once the bead is compromised, it will not retain air pressure.

And the Mexican solution? He could put a silicon sealer on the tire. It would be temporary until I could buy a new wheel. When I asked how long temporary would be, he just smiled and said: "How many times do you want to add another silicon layer?"

So I have my new silicon implant, and my Escape no longer has its gap-tooth grin. Tomorrow, I have to drive to Manzanillo to pick up my dry cleaning and do a bit of big city shopping. I can hear Walm
art calling my name. I will probably stop at Auto Zone and check on the price of a new wheel.

I need to get a permanent fix. After all, who wants to be the parent of That Kid? My parents suffered enough. I don't need to.