Monday, August 10, 2020

the death of a friend


News of this nature never comes at a good time.

The first message I opened this morning was from my friend, Roxane David, in Villa Obregón
. The message was brief and to the point. Her husband, Ed Gilliam, died around midnight today of a heart attack.

No life can be easily summarized in an essay. And it is even more difficult when larger-than-life personalities enter and exit our lives.

Most of us knew Ed from his art. His love was abstract expressionism, a passion he acquired while studying art at Berkeley. Art formed the core of my relationship with him. But it was not how we met.

A couple of years after I moved to Mexico, I heard about a project that caught my interest. Our area of Mexico is surrounded by farms. During the planting and harvesting seasons, migrant workers from southern Mexico come to the area with their families to work in the fields. They are primarily Mixteco.

My doctor at the time was instrumental in setting up a compound that provided housing and food for the families and schooling for the children -- schooling that would not have been available to the otherwise. I was invited to join two other men who had some responsibility for raising funds for the food. Ed was one. The other was John Alexander.

We would meet each Friday morning at Lety's, a local Mexican restaurant with the best huevos rancheros I have ever eaten, and discuss business. We also came to know each other personally. When our project was over, Ed and I continued to have breakfast each Friday morning, eventually being joined by Roxane.

The three of us added another regular date on our social calendar -- summer dinners at Magnolia's in La Manzanilla. To most people in the tourist villages where we live, simply sharing two meals a week hardly sounds like a firm friendship. But, for the three of us, it was.

Ed was a raconteur. Over breakfast and dinner he shared stories of his Navy days on an aircraft carrier, witnessing an atomic test in the south Pacific, surviving polio, witnessing the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, being an all-state hockey star in Colorado, sharing tales about his cousin Michelle Phillips and her father, and recounting his art adventures as a student in Europe. We must have talked for hours about "What is art?" and "Why is it important to the human condition?"


 
Certainly we had our differences. Politics. Religion. The ever-raging tension between Pascal and Descartes. But our shared love of art mortared over those inconsequential divergences. For one important reason. We tried to respect each other despite what would otherwise have been relational chasms.

A fellow blogger noted the other day that keeping a family heirloom is seldom important solely for its material value. Its true value is in the memories it triggers.

If that is true, and, to a degree, I think it is, I will daily be surrounded by memories of Ed. When Ed first saw my new house, he thought the upstairs terrace was perfect for a gallery. We tested that theory with some of his favorite works.

He was correct. The lines of my house were a perfect complement to his art.

The result? I purchased 15 or 17 of his paintings for the house with no name (the good life). The house looks as if it had been built for the paintings, and the paintings look as if they had been painted for the house.

As is true for everything in life, we never quite complete what we had attempted to accomplish. Ed had promised, as soon as the tide of the virus had ebbed, that he would touch up portions of my paintings where the sun had had too much of its way. That will not happen now.

But I have a far more mundane (and human) memory. Ed loved canned baked beans. Somewhere along the line down here, he decided to use plain beans and doctor them up to appear as if they were baked beans.

About two weeks ago, I was going to try my hand at some beanery doings. I had taken out my telephone to send a message asking Ed what he added. Something intervened, and I never asked the question. Now, I will never know.

The fact that I will not know what Ed added to his beans is not important. What is important is that I failed to have the opportunity to share another moment with my friend.

Instead, I will rely on the rich trove of memories I shared with Ed over the last twelve years.

We will miss you, Ed. 


Friday, August 07, 2020

a rift in the matrix



The house clearing continues.

But far slower than we had originally scheduled. It appears the listing date for the house may be a bit later than planned.

Dee commented the other day that part of the interruptions are caused by memories the three of us share. That is partly true. But neither Darrel nor I are very sentimental about our pasts.

This photograph is a perfect example of what would elicit nostalgic tales amongst some families. It is a booster sweater that was worn either by Darrel or me when we lived in Powers. We assume there was once a pair. The size gives you some idea that it was worn by a tyke.

I have heard from several readers about my age that their children have no interest in their parents' possessions. The fact that a bowl accompanied a great-great grandmother on the Oregon Trail seems to have no particular meaning to someone born in 1962.

I suspect that is partly due to our national habit of reinventing ourselves each generation. And it is why conservatism (in its European form) never took root here. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, being a new country, America did not have the historical constraints of European countries.

That may be one reason we do not keep or value things whose sole value is to be the bearer of family history. In the case of the tiny sweater, neither Darrel, Mom, nor I know for certain anything about the sweater. The fact that it has suffered the moth-led slings and arrows of outrageous fortune destines it for the trash pile.

Some wag once said there are two types of people in the world. People that categorize the world into two categories and people who don't. So, I am reluctant to toss out the possibility that there are people who place great value in family heirlooms and there are those who see them as dust collectors.

If you are in the latter category, you are welcome to join our tossing task. If you are in the former category, there are piles to be pawed.

But probably not the sweater.

  

Monday, August 03, 2020

my magic kingdom


I have sunk in a sea of nostalgia.

When I moved to Mexico in early 2009, I had not yet sold my house in Salem. I had hoped that, with time, the housing market would increase and that I would be able to recover the money I had invested in the house. Instead, it turned into a money pit where I was going further into the red at almost $2,000 per month. So, I decided to put the house on the market.

That decision was well-timed. The house sold the first day on the market. With a rapid-set closing date, I had two weeks to sift through the life accretions of 60 years. It was not a task well-suited for the sentimental. And I was fine with that. I am not a sentimental guy.

I triaged my possessions into piles. The largest was destined for the shredder or the dump. The second largest went to Goodwill. I gave my art collection to my nephew and sold my piano to my good friend Pat Murray -- for her daughter and her grandson. (You met them when they visited me in Barra de Navidad.) A few items were stored with my Mom and brother in Bend -- for transport to my new house in Mexico.

The operation was brutal and efficient. I cannot think of anything I gave away that I now regret not having in Mexico.

My brother, mother, and I are now indulged in another task. We need to get her house on the market by 15 August. That now gives us 11 days to sift through almost a century of accumulated possessions.

Darrel and I were making great headway this morning until we hit a mother lode (so to speak) of personal nostalgia. You may have already guessed what caused the sorting to stop for a moment.

In 1955 (by one version; 1956 has its advocates), Darrel, Mom, and I accompanied my Dad's cousin and her two daughters to Disneyland. If it was 1955, it would have been the year the park opened. Either way, it was certainly a different world. The price for a BIG 10 BOOK was $2.00, and included tickets graded from A to the much-lauded E.



There is even one ticket left in the packet. That probably occurred when Mom left the two of us (then aged 4 and 6) on Tom Sawyer Island on our own. We were small-town folk. And what could have been a better place to spend a large part of day than a place that celebrated the Great American Myth of Youth? Both of us remember that as the best part of our visit to Disneyland.

Here is the rub. If we keep wandering down nostalgia lane, we are going to end up in a cul-de-sac with a house going on the market littered with strata of sentimentality. And, as hard as it is, we need to steel ourselves to the task we have been assigned.

Tomorrow, with hatchets in hand, we will hew our way through as much of our history as we can. Much of it will simply have to go.  


Sunday, August 02, 2020

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose


It is Sunday morning, and I am sitting in the Board Room (Alaska Airline's lounge) in Los Angeles.

People have told me that the flying experience has drastically changed. It hasn't.

It is true that the usual crowds are gone. Understandably. That was apparent in the departure area in Manzanillo. I did not count passengers, but the airplane was less than half full.

That does concern me. Alaska cannot even break even on the Los Angeles-Manzanillo with that few passengers. If Alaska cancels the flight in the future, it will present problems for passengers flying up and down the Pacific coastline.

Other than the open seats, the flight was normal. Of course, there were a few changes. Crew and passengers were masked. The only exception was when drinks and snacks arrived. The usual hot meal has been replaced with a large basket of chip choices. (That was not a change for me. I always bring my own meal and dishes.)

For me, the only noticeable change was the absence of the in-flight magazine. Not that I am enthralled with puff pieces. You know the type. "10 Hot Night Spots in Puerto Vallarta Without Straights."

No in-flight magazine meant no crossword puzzle. The puzzles in these magazines are not very challenging. Over the years, I have set a challenge for myself. I must complete the puzzle before the airplane gets to rotate speed.

The bemasked flight attendant told me the magazines were removed in March because people touch them and return them to the seat pocket. That made sense. Until I noticed the two safety cards are still in the pockets, and we were invited to take them out and follow along with the safety briefing.

In reality, no one does. I suspect those cards have remained untouched with the exception of aviation enthusiasts who love soaking in any trivia associated with their flight.

But that was about it. Before checking in, the passengers were required to fill out a coronavirus form attesting they were healthy. To my surprise, the form was returned. Mine is now in a trash can at the Embassy Suites.

Oh, yes, our temperatures were taken by one of those thermometers that look exactly like the type of video camera your Uncle Mike owned during the 1990s. Almost everyone smiled. (And temperatures were being taken of arriving passengers before they could enter the Immigration hall.)

What was extremely different was Los Angeles International Airport. The entire flight was through Immigration before my Homeland Security meeting was completed. My luggage was waiting for me, and I was through Customs in two more minutes. It was like arriving at a regional airport in Iowa.

This morning, after checking in a bit early for my flight, I was the only person in the security line. Let that sink in. On a weekend day in the past, that line can often take up to an hour to traverse. Even though I have had dreams of short security lines, this one felt weird -- as if I were about to run into Rod Serling around the corner.

So, here I sit in the Alaska lounge as almost the only customer. That is just as well because the food on offer is restricted to items that could be purchased at any Seven-Eleven. If I get hungry, the concourse food vendors are still operating, but the food must be taken away to eat. Their seating areas are taped off. So, people get their meal and then go sit cheek by jowl in the boarding areas.

In just over an hour I will board another lightly-populated flight. This time to Redmond, Oregon where another adventure awaits me.

As for the travel changes, they are not too noticeable. But that may be because we have been living our lives as hobbits since March.

I must confess that the flight has been good for me. I almost feel like a dog that has spent far too much of his recent life on a leash. I am howling at the moon.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

where our paths cross


I am having one of those "morning afters."

Not a hangover; I do not drink alcohol. But something similar. Let's call it a Facebook hangover.

Last evening, I read a post on one of our local Facebook pages about a young man (whose name and photograph were included in the post). The woman who posted informed us he was seeking money for his hospitalized baby. She then identified him as "a thief" and "a drug addict" with the tag line "DO NOT GIVE HIM ANYTHING."

I usually do not react to posts like that. But, this time, I broke my rule because I have known the young man for years, and I have been working with him to help him deal with his particular demons.

What set me off were the terms "a thief" and "a drug addict." There is no doubt that the terms have some basis in fact. He has indulged in both activities. But they are not the sum of who he is. What he is is a person who has the same needs as the rest of us.

Now, I know those terms can be descriptive, but they are also a bit de-humanizing. Just this week another woman I know called the person who killed Marlene "an animal."

Labels like that are exactly the mindset that allows us to hate people who are not like us. They confuse the activity with who the person is, and they subsequently act as the breeding ground for animosity between races. In their extreme form, they call out, to use Whittaker Chambers's devastating phrase: "To the gas chambers, go."

That is exactly how I was feeling last night when I wrote a comment that had the veneer of reasonableness, but seethed with the emotions of resentment and judgment.

I wrote: "Even people with addictions need compassion." I then cited Jesus' description of a personality trait based on his teachings.

The whole thing set off something of a firestorm. Certainly, more than I thought it would.

Here is the rub. I do not regret my comment. I do regret that I responded to the tone of judgmentalism with an even greater measure of judgmentalism. In my case, it was pure hypocrisy.

About two months ago, ironically while we were discussing the lack of grace in the world at church, a friend commented that the same young man had come to her door with the sick baby tale. I had just been talking with the young man on the prior Friday, taking his mood on seeking treatment.

My response to her question about what she should do? "Don't give him anything. He is a drug addict who is manipulating you with his baby."

I have no doubt why I reacted the way I did yesterday on Facebook. I could hear my own voice denying grace. Peter could not have felt more ashamed when he denied the Messiah.

I learned long ago that I can easily see the failings in other people because they are my same failings. And I need to listen to that voice of grace more often.

The combination of Marlene's death and covid19 (plus an outbreak of several other activities we do not need to discuss here in detail) has cast a certain pall over the local community. That is why it is so important that we find that bit of grace -- that bit of kindness -- to share with one another.

Each of us is on a separate pilgrimage in life. But, when we come together on our paths, offering a hand of fellowship will improve the lives of both the giver and the recipient. It is something I need to work on every day. And, at which, I often fail.

Maybe I could start my new path by not posting comments on Facebook during the night.

I am off to Oregon this afternoon, but I wish you all well wherever you are. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

me and mini-me


I have a favorite drink in Mexico. The Snappy Steve.

While I was in the Air Force in the 1970s, I developed a taste for Ortega's Snap-E Tom, a highly-chilied tomato drink. It was a great way to kick start the morning.

But, like many foods of my twenties, it simply disappeared. If I remember correctly, it was bought out by Del Monte foods. A tomato drink under that name is still marketed, but it is a pale imitation of the fire-in-a-can I knew during the 1970s.

So, I have improvised. And Mexico gave me a head start. There is a drink here called a michelada, whose foundation is close to a Snap-E Tom. Clamato. Tabasco. Lime juice. Worcestershire sauce. Magi.

Unfortunately, it also contains beer. And none of that is going in my mouth.

For a couple of years I have been experimenting with variations on the drink. If I have time, I will grill serranos, tomatoes, and onions, and blend them, to spice up the Clamato. Most often, though, I simply pour a three-quarter glass of Clamato, and add the juice of five limes, twenty dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a shot of soy sauce, and twenty-five dashes of Tabasco. This is not a doing-by-halves beverage.

It is almost as good as the original. Since the good name of Snap-E Tom is tarnished, mine is Snappy Steve, as an homage to a dead treat. Three restaurants here now have it down to an art form for me.

Yesterday I had everything in the glass except the Tabasco. At about the thirteenth dash, the bottle died. The well was dry.

But, I need not worry when it comes to Tabasco. There are usually one or two backup boxes in the pantry.

When I took the new box off of the shelf, I heard a sound that no customer likes to hear. The sound of glass hitting glass. In most cases, it means the bottle in the box is broken.

Not this time. There was no liquid trickling out of the box. What did come out of the box was a 355-ml bottle of original Tabasco sauce clad in its distinctive Mexican colors (though it is manufactured in Louisiana) -- fully intact.

The "broken" glass noise was caused by the second resident of the box. A 3.7 ml of the McIlhenny Company's "newer" sauce -- green pepper. Hardly enough for a single serving.

But there was enough in the new big bottle to fill out my Snappy Steve yesterday.

Before I fly off to Los Angeles tomorrow afternoon, I may try using that little bottle as an addendum to tomorrow's Snappy Steve. After all, I need to finish off that jug of Clamato.

Because I have no idea when, or if, I will be returning to the house with no name.
    

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

me gusta mi taco


I have a food ritual when I fly north.


No matter whether I arrive in Redmond on an afternoon flight or at midnight, I ask my brother to stop at Taco Bell to buy a hard taco.

I am not particularly fond of Taco Bell's food. But nothing says American food like a hard taco.

On Saturday I will be flying north for family business. After spending a night in Los Angeles, I should be in Oregon around noon on Sunday.

But on this trip north, I may skip the Taco Bell ritual -- because I indulged in a tastier version at noon. When I was at Hawaii this week, I noticed a packet of Taco Bell taco seasoning.

Some of you will remember the taco kits we used to buy when we were kids. I think the brand was Old El Paso -- or maybe Rosarita. It is too long ago for me to be certain. The kits came with taco shells, seasoning to be added to ground beef, and a can of extremely mild "hot" sauce.

Alex at Hawaii has sold hard taco shells for years. I usually just laugh at the package. After all, sending taco ingredients to Mexico is the epitome of shipping coals to Newcastle.

But something urged me to buy the shells and taco seasoning. Maybe it was out of some urge to chase the dragon of nostalgia knowing full well that the dragon always eludes capture in the end.

I cooked up some ground beef with serrano and added the seasoning while I warmed the taco shells, and grated a measure of extra sharp Tillamook cheese and sliced some tomatoes, onion, and lettuce. As a topper, I turned crema fresca into sour cream with fresh lemon juice. Because the meat was a bit bland -- even with the seasoning packet -- I added a few twists of my own making.

You can see the result. What you cannot do is taste them. For one good reason. I wolfed down both of them.

I generally am not humble about the food I cook. And there is no reason to alter that self-assessment today. The tacos were good. Certainly better than Taco Bell's. But I will be the first to admit that standard is not very high.

Maybe I wanted the hard tacos as something of a transition back to The States. It has been four months since I have been in an airplane. That is a record for me. At least, during my dozen years of living in Mexico.

I will keep you posted on how the travel world has changed since then.

At this point, I have no idea how long I will be away from Mexico. What I do know,though, is visiting Taco Bells will remind me that I have not yet returned home.