Saturday, November 28, 2020

heading home to mexico

It is almost like getting stuck in one of the original Grimm Brothers' fairy tales.

Well, maybe the bowdlerized American versions where things turn out well in the end. But you are still stuck.

I am in  the Los Angeles airport once again. It has long been one of my favorite stops because it means that I will be home in Mexico in about three hours. But the airport itself has its own charms. Bustling. Crowded. Efficient. Creative. All of the virtues I enjoy in traveling.

If you have been tracking my five trips north to Oregon since August, you already know that the Los Angeles airport has not been "bustling" and "crowded" on any of my trips. I expected they would be back in force n this Sunday after Thanksgiving -- traditionally, one of the busiest flying days of the year.

I was wrong. There are a few more passengers in the terminal, but check-in took only five minutes and getting through security even less. I was once again the only person in the security area -- at 8:30 a.m. on what should have been near-record numbers of passengers. The waiting areas at the gates have a few more people than usual. But "crowded" it is not.

That is why I was surprised to see the Alaska Board Room was about at half-capacity. That is a mob compared to my past flights when the place was nearly empty. The gangs of children were a perfect harbinger that Thanksgiving had just passed.

California is in the midst of a resurgence of the virus. A big resurgence. To de-plane at the airport, I had to complete an on-line form acknowledging that I understood the state's restrictions (none of us had any idea what they were) and verify that I would at least give a passing thought to quarantining for 14-days.

All of us in my area of the airplane had a good laugh because we were all spending just one night at an airport hotel and then flying off to our various destinations -- most to Mexico. Good theater is based on the premise of shared good intentions coming into contact with The Absurd.

Some travelers showed their own disdain for the governor-imposed restrictions. There is an area in the terminal that combines a Wolfgang Puck cafeteria, a bar, and a pizza joint. The common tables and chairs have been taped off with "closed" signs on the tables on my previous trips.

The bar patrons had grabbed their drinks and deemed that it was not appropriate to stand while drinking. So they broke through the tape, tore the signs off of the tables, and unstacked the chairs to create their own sitting area. Maybe they were conducting their own scientific study to determine if drunks cannot catch the virus. The action was less pitchfork-and-torches, than it was merely juvenile. 

Apparently, no one enforces the restriction because wave after wave of alcohol-wielding passengers took up the place of the study members who moved on. And here there is a lesson. Unless government is willing to enforce restrictions on personal liberty with authoritarian efficiency, there is little sense in imposing the restriction. And that, of course, creates its own problems.

I am a bit disappointed that people do not show a bit more responsibility for their own health. Lacking that concern, it is philosophically impossible to care about the health of others.

But, before I start a debate that I have no intention of being part of, I will close. 

In about an hour I will board my flight home. And I will say good-bye to the vagaries of this airport until late December.

The story never ends. At least, not with a Disney tag-line.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

on my brother's couch

I do not know when it first began.

But my brother's couch has long been a comfort place for me. Decades ago when I would tire during a heat-infused Central Oregon summer day, that couch was my invitation to spend an hour or so wandering the fringes of Morpheus's realm. These days, it serves as a secondary place for me to alight while wandering around my brother's house when I am unable to sleep.

I suspect it is more than that. There is usually a sad tale to tell when someone says: "I am sleeping on my brother's couch these days." And it is usually not a tale devoid of woe. Think of Niles being relegated to Frasier's couch.

For some reason, I have considered "On My Brother's Couch" to be a great title for a short story. And I may actually write it one day.

Today was Thanksgiving in the Cotton household. Even though Thanksgiving was not the primary reason for me to be in Oregon this week, it has turned out to be a pleasant confluence.

Being who we are, our family chose to celebrate Thanksgiving today -- one day early. We brought Mom over to Prineville from her apartment in Bend, combining three households for our celebration. That sounds far more grandiose than it is in reality. Those three households end up totaling only four people. Mom, Darrel, Christy, and me. Time and space has whittled our clan.

But it does not take a lot of people to a pleasant Thanksgiving make. And this was a good one.

We have a long tradition of trying new concepts for our holiday meals. Today was no exception. Instead, of popping a turkey into the oven with little ceremony, Darrel and Christy decided to spatchcock the bird, soak it overnight in a citrus and apple cider brine, and then slip butter and orange slices under the skin. Only then was it ready for its oven experience.

The bird was accompanied by ham, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, broccoli, and a turkey gravy that I improvised this afternoon. Plus a heaping bushel of things for which we are thankful during this past year. The fact that the four of us were here to celebrate with one another was our primary prayer of thanks.

While Darrel, Christy, and I were preparing the meal, Mom rested on the couch reading a book. She was bundled up to ward off the day's chill. Watching her, I thought back about 35 years ago to a Thanksgiving dinner at my Aunt Naomi's house.

In those days, our dinners were truly a gathering of the clan. There must have been almost 25 people there that Thursday afternoon -- almost everyone with an assigned task. My maternal grandmother had recently moved from Powers to the Portland area. She would have been 84 years old at the time.

She sat on the couch near the kitchen, warmed by an afghan, and watching the dinner take shape. At one point, she had been in command of the family meals. She was now an honored guest. To her, it must have seemed that her functional place in the family had been usurped.

When I looked over at Mom today, I realized that must be exactly what she feels. For Darrel, Christy, and me, it was our way to return the favor of all the meals she has cooked for us -- and for which we are thankful.

But, to her, it must feel strange to be sitting in the same position her mother sat 35 years ago.

We are not the first generation of this family to go through these Thanksgiving family cycles. In Mom's case, they stretch back to her Mayflower ancestors. One generation after another giving thanks for the blessings they had received in the previous years.

And those cycles will continue for future generations of our family. And we can be thankful for that, as well.

For me, I am thankful for my brother's couch and its part in stitching together my own memories.

For those of you of a more traditional American bent, I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

seat hog heaven

We all have encountered them.

The people at the airport who look as if they are impersonating refugees fleeing war by interpreting the internal cabin rule of "one carry-on bag and a personal item" to mean four shopping bags, a satchel, a large suitcase, and a purse that could include a sizeable portion of Imelda Marcos's shoe collection.

How they cope with the limited space on board, I have no idea. And it is not today's topic.

I am far more interested in what happens after they get through security and before they board. All of that baggage needs to go somewhere. And where it goes in waiting rooms is on the seats surrounding them. Sometimes on the seats facing them. They are what we generously call seat hogs.

Under normal circumstances, their imperialism takes away seats for four or five other people. About a year ago, I posted a photograph in the Manzanillo airport waiting room. A northern couple had seized four seats with their luggage, forcing a young Mexican family to huddle together in the remaining two open seats. Most of the comments were (not to put too fine of a point on it) emotional. I finally deleted the post when at least a quarter of the comments blamed the Mexican couple rather than the arrogant tourists. 

I am currently in the Los Angeles airport on my way further north. It appears that one of the beneficiaries of the social distancing rules are seat hogs. This is the Sunday before Thanksgiving -- usually one of the busiest flying days of the year in The States.

Based on my last four trips north since July, there are more people in the airport than on those trips, but not by much. The place still looks as if it is underserved  by at least 60%.

I bought lunch at one of my favorite eateries in Terminal 6. Everything is essentially take-out because all of the tables and chairs at the restaurants have been roped off. Instead, passengers who buy food wander about 100 feet to the nearest waiting area to chow down.

I would call that counter-productive, but the chairs in the waiting area have been labelled with stickers that look like parking violations. Sitting cheek to jowl is not a possibility for people who are inclined to not be compliant.

You can see the result. If a seat hog wandered in with his carry-on collection, he would have more than enough space to rest his stuff before doing battle with the gate clerk while trying to board.

I should have turned the camera around to shoot my position. I had occupied the chair on my left for my spaghetti and meatball tray, and the seat on my right for my backpack. I looked like the poster boy for You-Too-Can-Look-Like-A-Stymate-While-You-Travel. And I had the virus to thank for my entry into a club that has raised my hackles in the past -- if hogs have hackles, which I doubt they do.

In about a half hour, I will return to my role as The Compliant Traveler. For just one magical moment, though, it was nice to feel that frisson of being someone else.



Saturday, November 21, 2020

on the road again

You would think that I would be happy to settle down at home for at least one week. After all, I just returned from an interesting (but short) trip to Ciudad Guzmán.

But I am heading north this afternoon -- for just a week. When I left Oregon last month, there were several tasks that I still needed to accomplish with my mother. And because they are time-sensitive and I have to be present as we work through them, I need to climb aboard this afternoon's Alaska flight to Los Angeles. On Sunday morning, I will fly directly to Redmond for a six-day stay. And everything will then switch into reverse on Friday.

And, yes, I am fully aware that this is not an opportune time to be traveling. I will be flying from a virus hot spot (Mexico) into two other hot spots (California and Oregon). My only consolation is that I have canceled all of my near-term trips to Europe where matters are currently even worse.

This will either be trip number four or five to Oregon since the Manzanillo airport re-opened in July. I can do nothing about the existence of the virus, but I do my best to minimize exposure . As I have written on earlier trips, Alaska Airlines has instituted some impressive measures to protect the health of passengers -- and to put butts in seats. Only half of the first class seats are sold, and the middle seats in coach are kept open.

The fact that this is Thanksgiving week is an unexpected bonus. I doubt I would have flown north solely to gather with my family. But I may have.

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. Unlike some families that celebrate Thanksgiving as a gathering of the clan, there will only be four of us. I would be happy if we simply made hamburgers for dinner. The importance of the day is being together, not what we eat. (I will probably be excommunicated from the Epicurean Church for such heresy.)

I need to be at the airport in three hours. So, I will sign off and start packing.

If I go silent for a week, you will know where I am -- and what I am doing on the latest episode on Steve's antique road show. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

on the road to ciudad guzmán

Yesterday was a big day for my son. He took his university admission examination.

Because the examination was held at the University of Guadalajara in Ciudad Guzmán, it also would give me an opportunity to explore a city I had seen only once (and that was briefly) last October (back to school). So, on Wednesday morning, Omar, Yoana, and I loaded up the car to head for Ciudad Guzmán.

I had looked for online hotel reservations the week before, but the only available rooms I could find were in a hotel that did not receive very good ratings. Its advantage was that it was located only a ten-minute walk from the university where the examination would be conducted. Omar said we could wait until we arrived.

As luck would have it, we ended up at the hotel I had found on-line. From the exterior, it looked fine.

But here is road trip tip number one. If you know the town where you will be staying, book on-line instead of at the desk. In this case, the same rooms had a tariff of 1000 pesos (Just under 50 US dollars) each. The on-line price was 382 pesos. 

And I quickly discovered why the reviews were mixed. Everything in Omar and Yoana's room worked perfectly. My room had no toilet paper, the overhead fan was broken, and one of the twin beds had only been partially made. For all of that, the hotel had a quaint charm. Outside it looked like one of those retro Los Angeles motels -- or something in north Miami.

Besides,  I was in town to see sights, not to live in my hotel room.

I did just that yesterday morning while Omar was in his examination. I doubt Ciudad Guzmán will ever be listed as one of Mexico's top five cities. The area we stayed is rather new and is filled with convenience stores, supermarkets, and used car dealers. It reminded me of Ankara -- as do a lot of Mexican cities of thos vintage. Functional, but not without a dash of charm. Street scenes like this are common.

I was looking for something a bit less contemporary.

I knew that prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the valley in which Ciudad Guzmán nestles was part of the Kingdom of Zapotlán -- one of the tribal kingdoms that would shift between the Kingdom of Colima and the much larger Purépecha Empire. That all came to an end when the Spanish forces of Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, one of the cruelest of the conquistadors, conquered the area in 1526. With that conquest, Zapotlán el Grande, as it was still known, took on a new history.

The city did not receive its current name until the Spanish had been evicted in the War of Independence and after the area became part of the battleground during the War of Reforms in the 1850s when the Conservatives and the Liberals (or federalists) took up arms to settle political questions.

One of the war's early victims was retired General Gordiano de Guzmán. A local boy who was a hero of the War of Independence and the American-Mexican War, his federalist views disturbed one of Mexico's historical scoundrels, President Antonio López de Santa Anna, of Alamo fame. President Santa Anna ordered his henchmen to assassinate General Guzmán. Which they did. Most likely, to the annoyance of Santa Anna, the citizens of Zapotlán el Grande renamed the city Ciudad Guzmán.

With all of that history, I knew there had to be a colonial town square that would be worth visiting. Somewhere between the hotel and the square, I could tell I had entered a different planning zone. My canary in the mine for those changes are Oxxo stores. In most neighborhoods they sport their circus red and yellow colors. In "preservation" areas, the colors are subdued.

And I was correct. About three blocks later, the rather claustrophobic street opened onto a classic colonial Spanish square with the joined powers of the state and the church standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter -- along with the usual commercial ventures.

Usually, the star architectural of colonial-era squares are the churches -- or, cathedrals, if the city is also fortunate enough to be the local see. And Ciudad Guzmán is.

Unfortunately, la Catedral de San José is not star material. Built between 1866 and 1900, it was once far more magnificent, with towering bell towers, than its present version. The culprit is earthquakes. There is a volcano that sits just outside of the city -- one of the same volcanoes that impress tourists driving along the tollway from Colima to Guadalajara. And earthquakes mean geological faults that, in turn, mean earthquakes.

Even though the cathedral is relatively young, its bell towers have Humpty-dumptied several times, killing people in the process and giving rise to the local myth that the cathedral is haunted. No mere hunchback for them.

The last toppling was the result of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. The authorities decided enough people had died in town from falling cathedral masonry. Instead, the church has only stubs where tall towers once grew. It gives the cathedral the look of a run-down villa in Tuscany.

The cathedral's interior is well-suited for its purposes, and a bit gaudy to my Quakerish eyes. The church was being used for its intended purpose while I was there, so I did not get to explore the nooks and crannies that make most cathedrals worth spending time.

Instead, I went outside to look at the square. The most impressive feature is the Porfiriato gazebo. In most Mexicans cities, they are cast iron art nouvea constructions. This one is of monumental concrete in the neoclassical style.

Visitors who climb the stairs into the gazebo will be surprised by a mural on its dome that is rather jarring considering its classical surroundings. I could not find anything to confirm my immediate (and un-researched) conclusion that the mural was painted by another famous local boy, José Clemente Orozco. But, it certainly is in his style.

The choice of classical architecture for the gazebo may not have been the aberration it appears to be. A lot of institutions and cities have nicknames (such as, Emory University's claim to be the "Harvard of the South" or Merida's to be the "Paris of the West"). I have often suspected that some local wag made the suggestion knowing that everyone but the people in the city or institution would see that it was self-deprecatory.

Ciudad Guzmán is the self-proclaimed "Athens of Jalisco." And, even though some of you will be tempted to ask if that is the same thing as the old Mel Brooks joke about being "world-famous in Poland). this nickname happens to be apt.

The city has produced more than its fair share of composers, artists, writers, and intellectuals. This is just a sampling:
  • Priest-natural scientist-archaeologist, José María Arreola
  • Composer, concert pianist, and recording artist Consuelo Velázquez Torres 
  • One of the first short story writers to abandon realism, Juan José Arreola Zúñiga 
  • Classical violinist, composer, and populizer of mariachi music, Rubén Fuentes 
  • Novelist Guadalupe "Lupe" Marín
  • Actress Esmeralda Pimentel 
  • And the most famous of favorite sons José Clemente Orozco, who was one of the big-name artists who initiated the Mexican Mural Renaissance with his complex portrayals of symbolic and real machines that led to human suffering

The city has honored them all (and others) in its square.

With symbolic sculptures. For artists

For writers

For musicians

And with plaques. You can see one in situ in the photograph above.

It says something about a city that it is willing to honor its intellectuals with public displays of honor and affection.

I was just getting into the rhythms of the city when Omar called and informed me he had finished his examination. So, the three of us checked out of the hotel, and made a speedy two and a half-hour trip back to Barra de Navidad.

For a dozen years "Ciudad Guzmán" was only a name on a road sign as I sped past on my way to or from Guadalajara. I now have a reason to return.

To complete my unfinished journey through another piece of Mexican history.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

death by tortilla

Last week, I had run out of some sort of food item.

I don't remember exactly what it was. Italian pasta. Pickled ginger. Kalamata olives. American butter. I only remember that it was something imported.

When I need imported food, I have one reliable source: Hawaii. If it is in town, it will be there. But, whatever it was was not on the shelf.

I asked Alex, the owner, if it had been discontinued. It turns out his source was Costco, and Costco had not stocked the item for months because it was caught in a constipated supply chain. And that constriction was due primarily to a new Mexican government regulation.

If you purchase food in Mexico you have probably already noticed a large label that announces its theoretical healthfulness. Three categories are graded: calories, saturated fat, and sodium. If any of those categories exceed the limit set by the Secretary of Health, that category turns a deadly black.

All of this probably sounds vaguely familiar to you. It is the same philosophy that drove governments to put all sorts of warnings on cigarette packages about the risk to health (including the ultimate risk: death) could arise from smoking cigarettes. It was a strange combination of enlightenment marketing combined with the same threats of the local Mafia enforcer. "You gotta a nice store here. Pity if it should burn down."

It is a bit odd to see Mexico taking this route. Recent studies have shown that the cigarette warnings were not very effective. After awhile, photographs of tumorous lungs become part of the marketing background.

The most effective anti-smoking measures have turned out to be the same two things that drive most social behavior. The second most effective method for reducing the rate of smoking was economic. By adding taxes onto each pack of smokes until they were affordable only by the elite who had decided to quit the habit, smokers were left with the choice of giving up the habit or buying their cigarettes from their local drug dealer.

And why had the elite abandoned smoking? Through social pressure, the method that had the most effect.

Governments banned smoking in public areas. Then the public took over. When Bette Davis lit a cigarette in All About Eve, it was a symbol of power-driven sexuality. Now, television includes warnings about sex, violence, and smoking -- as if they are all in the same category. And they are -- according to the public. Smokers are now a social pariah. If a character in a movie smokes, you just know she is the villain.

All of that makes me wonder how successful this new labeling program will be to convince Mexicans to eat a healthier diet. The program is not limited to labels, though. The government imposed a tax on sugary drinks and foods. A small one. I suspect it is just a start. But I doubt social opprobrium on food will ever be as effective as it was on smoking. Who knows?

After all, it took a long time for the anti-smoking campaign to be successful. The Surgeon-General's warning about smoking was issued in 1964. A lot of smoke has gone over the lungs since then.

Some nutritionists have long argued that the basic Mexican diet is not healthy. Restaurant Mexican food has long been a target of the calorie-saturated fat-sodium brigade. And it looks as if the Mexican government has been persuaded by that particular denomination of the nutrition religion.

If our experience with the anti-smoking brigade is any indication that success comes only when the public joins the bandwagon, I am not certain that attacks on tortillas are going to be a rallying cry for the peasant pitchfork and torch rising.

I am not a fan of tortillas. But my son Omar is. And I suspect if asked, he would probably respond: I'll give you my tortilla when you pry it from my cold, dead hands."

For me, this is a great opportunity for a bit of virtue signalling. When asked if I want a tortilla. I can now respond that I would prefer something healthy.

Like a cinnamon roll.      

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

dog days of winter

"Can I bring my dog on the bus?"

It is one of the most common questions I am asked by northern visitors. And my usual response is to fall back on parsing the question.

"It depends on the type of the bus, where you are coming from, and where you are going." We lawyers are prone to taking a hypothetical cottage and turning it into a palatial maze. That is, when we are not turning them into castles in the sky.

And the entire cross-examination is unnecessary for one simple reason. I have ridden only one bus since I have lived in Mexico -- and my dog was not accompanying me. But I now know there is an easy answer to the question.

This morning, while walking past the bus station in San Patricio Melaque, I discovered Primera Plus (one of Mexico's premier passenger bus lines) has come to the aid of their passengers. That large banner is a typically-thorough Mexican response to the bus-riding dog question.

And if the banner is not sufficient, Primer Plus has provided a customer service dog to fill in any details lost between the warp and the woof. She told me that she also acts as the bus equivalent of Shimbleshanks the Railroad Cat, welcoming vagabond dogs on their arrival.

I still do not know the answer to the question, but I know where I can now refer questioners. 

Because they are barking up the wrong tree with me on this one.