Friday, March 22, 2019

bugging between the lines


While I wait for the grocery store to open to stock me with my traditional lunch items for the flight north, I dug through the pile of potential topics for this morning's essay.

Mexico is a writer's treasure trove. And I do not always get around to writing about some events on the day they occur. That is fine because a lot of them are timeless.

Cooking pasta, for example. In the last few years, we pasta lovers have been offered some interesting choices of top-quality pasta here in Mexico. Most of it imported from Italy.

Twice now, I have poured the contents of the pasta packet into a pot of boiling water only to discover that durum wheat was not the only inhabitant of my kitchen jacuzzi. Little black specks were floating on top of the water. Lots of them.

I am not an insect virgin. Even in Oregon, flour goods attracted weevils or other beetles that reveled in the carbohydrate grist.

The first time it happened here, I tried to carefully fish out the floaters with minimal effect. But, beetle bodies do the same as the human variety. Some float. Some sink. It was the sinkers that undid me.

I had hoped when I drained the water from the pasta in a colander that the bodies would wash away. No such luck. Their peppery corpses stuck to the pasta. It is no accident that "pasta" and "paste" share he same root.

So, into the trash went the lot. I was cooking for my family and I thought better of serving them up pasta con burro with assorted insects. Even though the pasta cost almost $5 (US), it was not going to pass the family test.

I have had beetle infestations in my dry goods before. As a prophylactic (taking advice from fellow bloggers), I put all flour-based product in the freezer for two days to kill any eggs. I then store it in the refrigerator until I am ready to use it.

Somewhere between the Italian packing house and the shelves of La Comer, beetles hatched inside the package I bought. I do check for bodies when I buy pasta -- and beans. Beans often have the worst infestations. But, somehow, the beasties were in my soup.

I know several cooks for Mexican restaurants in this area. I asked two of them how they avoid the beetle problem. They looked at me as if I was a bit obsessive -- which I am.

Both gave me the same answer. Yes, they do get beetles in their flour and pasta. But it is too expensive to throw it out. So, the invaders get cooked into whatever is being prepared. One told me he just adds additional ground pepper to his pasta if he cannot get the bodies removed.


So, when I had my second out-with-the-bodies experience, I dredged what I could and just forged forward. I added a lot of black mustard seed to my sauce that day, and I never noticed the difference. After all, one source of protein is as good as another. Well, with the exception of tofu.

I will leave you with that thought as I head off to Los Angeles this afternoon, and to Hong Kong and Saturday very early Sunday morning.

If my computer with the broken screen holds up, we will be in touch.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

more signs of the times


We are no Indonesia, but our area of Mexico is subject to both earthquakes and the occasional light tsunami.

Like every earthquake zone, people here are prone to slipping into smug pronouncements about the inevitably of The Big One. I usually use that term for my inevitable stroke. But I think they mean the legendary earthquake that the myth-makers claim will turn Vancouver and points south into the new Atlantis.

And we are ready for it -- and its offspring The Big Tide.

Well, we are ready in a very Mexican kind of way. Someone somewhere devised a master plan to warn of tsunamis heading our way. There are solar-powered towers throughout the coastal towns of Jalisco designed to send out the alarm the tides they are a changin'.

We even have signs telling us where to evacuate.

The warning system was installed about ten years ago -- just about the time I arrived. Back then, there were frequent tests. The first test spooked a group of tourists who started piling their belongings into their cars.

The tests have become less frequent. A Mexican friend told me he heard the towers no longer worked. A couple of months ago, it turned out that was not true -- or else someone fixed them, because we were feted to another test. This time far too muted to have done anyone any good.

I would like to say the photograph at the top of this essay was shot while people, misinterpreting the test, were fleeing to higher ground. It isn't. The group is actually following the graven image of San Felipe de Jesús on his annual outing through the barrio.

Speaking of signs. I think you all know I like collecting humorous signs. Now that the world has fallen prey to internationalism, the treasure trove of clever words are disappearing. But international symbols can be humorous in their own way.

This sign was posted in both the men's and the women's restroom (though I suspect the symbol on the left was designed to be gender-specific).



That was funny enough. But I am even more fascinated in why I am not supposed to through a barn swallow into the toilet. Because it will simply fly out? Or is it supposed to be a Klingon Bird of Prey?

I experienced a similar moment of identity crisis when we stopped at Tlaquepaque.  I turned around and was startled to see the most recent international road company of Les Miserables bearing down on me.




Of course, it was only Miguel Hidalgo and his Independence-roused rabble hunting for any stray Spaniards that might require a bit of ethnic hacking.

The problem with the photograph is that it simply amplifies the fact that the figures are bronzed in place -- despite what my sometimes-too-active imagination thought.

But this photograph came out just as I thought it would.



Zamora is one of those cities that was wealthy during the late 1890s and received the beneficence of the Porfirio Diaz regime in the form of cast iron. A gazebo that could have graced any Paris park -- and lots of benches.

The city has enough of them to populate a moderate-sized auditorium. And, for some reason, the towns powers have decided the benches should be painted a shade of red that is usually encountered only by English gentlemen who visit certain Parisian houses.

The benches look like a rank of British Grenadiers lined up for inspection.

But, I better stop here. I fly off to Australia tomorrow. I need to get over to the laundry so I can think about what I need to pack. And I have to run down the gas truck that did not show up yesterday to fill my propane tank, as well as watching for the DHL delivery van that is bringing a part to finish off my not-yet-completed solar system.

I hope to be back with you briefly in the morning tomorrow before I fly.  If not, I will catch up with you somewhere in North America. Or Asia. Or Australia.   


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

hints from heloise's godson


That shot looks like another of my name-the-subject photographs. It wasn't meant to be.

Our water in these parts is hard. And not just a little hard. The water in my swimming pool has so much iron in it that it constantly points to magnetic north.

I have just learned to deal with it. But one aspect does not happen often enough for me to immediately recall the solution.

Let me explain. There are a few sinks in the house I do not use very often. The sink in the laundry room and the sink at the pool are two examples.

Last week, I tried both faucets -- and the flow of water was about what Gasim had in his canteen trekking across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Because of the calcification in my well water, the filters in the faucet often clog up.

When my friend Robin was here last year, we took out all of the filters and did -- something. My friend Gary told me to just throw them away and to buy new ones. They are inexpensive.

But I have become Mexican enough that I will now try to repair what can be repaired. If I could only remember how.

I took the filters into the kitchen while I prepared a salad. Most of my handyman skills have been learned by doing them. I am a kinetic learner.

All it took was picking up a bottle of vinegar for the salad dressing to jar my memory. White vinegar. I am supposed to put the filters in a bath of white vinegar to dissolve the calcification. Mnemonics do work.

And so I did. It took less than an hour to restore the water flow in each sink.

I should have remembered that. We buy white vinegar by the gallons around here -- primarily for cleaning the glass doors that pass for walls opening onto the patio.

When I was growing up, there was a household hints column in The Oregonian entitled "Hints from Heloise," filled with all kinds of wisdom about creative use of toothpaste or baking powder. I suspect white vinegar baths for blocked filters would be a perfect fit for one of her columns.

But, I guess I just played that role, didn't I?


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

a tip and a test


This is a John Calypso essay.

My late blogger pal had a distinct writing style. He would take two seemingly unrelated topics and attempt to combine them into a single tapestry. He usually succeeded. Just like that James Burke chap.

So here they are. Two topics seeking a theme.

This is topic one.

Whenever you go to a target-rich environment (oh, let's say a beach-side restaurant), take along your good camera. If you don't, this will inevitably happen.

The south west end of our bay is defined by a series of rocks that terminate in what some think is a rhinoceros (they drink deeply at the Dali well) and others see it as a somewhat-tumescent sleeping giant (they tend to be treated by strict Freudians). The rocks are spaced just so that passing ships play an ongoing game of peekaboo with us landlubbers.

Throw in one of those violet-hemorrhaging sunsets, and you have a perfect shot for any photographer worth his salt. That is, of course, if he has remembered to bring his Sony NEX-6 DSLR to dinner rather than his telephone camera.

As you may imagine, it did happen. And the shot on my Samsung is pathetic enough to remind me that I will publicly embarrass myself again if I do not staple my DSLR to my left hand.




So, that is my tip for the day. Never leave your good camera behind. If you are out of bed, it should be within an easy grab.

That is the tip. Now for the test.

This is topic two.

Our little village of Barra de Navidad has very few traditions. Almost everyone living here is from somewhere else. What traditions exist are often a bit on the young side.

But I have noticed that Christmas takes a while to die out. Here we are in March and the nativity background on the jardin stage is still running strong.

I walked by the other day and something struck me as odd. Something was missing. Something very important.




So, here is your test. Take a good look at the nativity scene, and tell us what you think is missing.

There will be no clues. Other than this. If one object had been painted by a Pentecostal, nothing would be missing.

Let the comments begin.

And, the unifying theme?

That was Calypso's shtick, not mine. To me, this is just a tip and a test stuck together because neither one was long enough for a full essay.

And that is good enough for me today. 


Monday, March 18, 2019

building walls that bind


I am often surprised how long it takes to build large churches -- even in our own time.

I shouldn't be. We are surrounded by the evidence that magnificent buildings are not punched out like quarter-pounders.

We talked about one the other day (amo a zamora). The cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of the Cristero war) in Zamora, Michoacán. It is as new as a 2019 Bentley Mulsanne. You inhale the new cathedral scent as you walk down the aisle. You find yourself looking for the theological tachometer.

The foundation stone was laid in 1898. And the finishing touches are still being added. Who knows how long it would have taken but for the socially-disruptive effects of the Revolution?

But that is far from the record time to build a big church. St. Peter's basilica took longer. Just barely. 144 years -- with Rex Harrison muttering in the background at its slow pace.

The longest? 252 years for York Minster cathedral. Its hulking presence in northern England echos its extended construction.

We do not have a cathedral in my barrio. For one good reason. A bishop's see is not here. That honors goes to Guadalajara.

But, we do have a parish church. A parroquia, as Spanish-speakers would have it. San Miguel de Allende does not have a trademark registration on the appellation.

Its name? San Felipe de Jesús. A local boy. At least, "local" in the sense that he was born in Mexico City in 1572. He is the barrio's patron saint. We share his patronage with Mexico City. We are generous like that.

The local church will never see the adjective "magnificent" in front of its name, other than by locals who will describe it in the same terms they use for their magically-talented grandchildren.

It currently has a not-quite-done look. Because it is not. That is it at the top of this essay. Money to build the church comes from the parishoners. So, it is built the same way a lot of my neighbors build their homes. When a few pesos are saved up, concrete will be purchased. A few bricks will be laid.



We photographers like wandering through construction sites -- even construction sites that are sanctified. I suspect that makes them even more interesting. After all, I doubt you would find boxes containing stations of the cross shoved up against the wall of a bungalo site as if they were nothing more than a basket of guanábanas.



I simply like the various textures of the shot.

The place does not seem the least bit strange to me. I grew up in money-strapped churches that were always under construction. I just thought that was the Pentecostal way.

The feast day of 
San Felipe de Jesús is 5 February. And because he is our patron saint, daily processions pass a block from my house for several days before (feting a local boy). Complete with his graven image and lots of joy-inducing cohetes. A religious procession without cohetes would be like a plate of poutine without cheese curds and brown gravy.
It also gives me an opportunity to visit the church. I shoot the procession at least two or three evenings each year. And we eventually end up at the church where I wander through to see if anything new is on offer.

On one future visit (should I live so long; Julius II didn't), the church will be finished, and the bell will not have to hang from a hole in the wall looking like a fast-food symbol. Parishioners will be called to mass from its new home in a bell tower -- or something a bit more dignified.



But, for now, it is perfectly Mexican. Utilitarian -- fit for the purpose people gather here. To worship their God and to ask for his beneficence in a world that direly needs it.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

tag,you're it


San Miguel de Allende has nothing on Barra de Navidad when it comes to scribbling on concrete.

Well, that is not entirely true. San Miguel has turned garden variety graffiti into consumer-accessible art (don't call it graffiti). Barra is stuck in an almost paleolithic tagging period.

The sidewalk in front of my house has long been a magnet for young men from the apartment building next door to numb the daily monotony of their lives with a Mary Jane date. You know. Acapulco gold. Pot. Weed. Grass. In the darkness of the night, my house smells like the club room at the Manhattan Progressive Caucus.

I have tried several approaches to dissuade the congregation of the brain-besotted. To no avail.

My best Chief Wiggum impression telling them to move on was greeted with an impressive John Locke-inspired defense that they had a legal right to sit on the sidewalk. They were correct.

A reference to the police was met with Little Orphan Annie eyes. They knew very well that the writ of the police does not run here. That authority lies elsewhere.

Resorting to "The Overture of 1812" and arias from Turandot had no effect. After all, to my uninvited guests, it was just another layer of welcome noise.

Even my "Ward Cleaver talks to Wally" failed. I thought if I nonchalantly wandered out there and sat down with them, my presence and conversation would induce the type of discomfort felt by every young man in the presence of old men. It didn't work. After a brief greeting, they sat there with glazed eyes. I am not certain they even remembered I was there.

So, I gave up trying the herd them away. That is, until that interesting signature at the top showed up. I have done enough criminal defense work to recognize its significance. It is the equivalent of urinating on a fire hydrant. My land had been claimed by others.

Living in Salem taught me one thing about tagging. Unless it is removed immediately, it will attract rival or allied tags. As certainly as kimchi will attract flies.

Even with loads of bleach and scrubbing, the permanent marker would not relent. And within a week, there were eight more tags in marker, ink, and chalk. All declaring the power of some group or other. The corner of my sidewalk had more claimants than a bunch of rocks in the South China Sea.

I asked a Mexican friend if he would find a way to erase the not-so-artful work. He kept putting it off. But, one night, he did confront the head writer making subtle threats that he spoke on behalf of the enforcers of civil authority.

That was the last night I saw any of them sitting there. When I now see them in front of the apartment building, they eye me warily.

Of course, as so often happens in these stories, the job I hired my friend to do never did get done by him. Instead I hired Donny, my neighbor Mary's handymen, who cleaned up the walk in a couple hours.

And that is where things stand now.

It would be tempting to say it has a happy ending. But this is a Mexican story, not an American one. Such matters often simmer unresolved.

As my uncle in Haifa says: "Hope for the best; expect the worst."

For the moment, I will enjoy the fresh air at the front of my house. It may not be the best, but it is better.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

posting omar's life


One of the joys of having a teenage son is to enjoy open discussions.

You know the kind. The type that Robert Young would have with Bud. Where the son tells you his deepest desires and you share your dad-acquired life tips that will help him avoid the mistakes you made in your youth.

I suppose on some ideal planet in the Triangulum galaxy that may be true. But, here on the planet Earth, teenage sons are as guarded with their inner thoughts as -- well, just as I was when I was a teenager. If you ask my mother, she will say the same about me now. The only reason she reads my blog is to discover what I do not tell her.

When I wrote last year that I had acquired a son, a reader left a comment that she was looking forward to hearing stories of how an aging American expatriate with limited Spanish faces the challenges of raising a Mexican teenage son who can speak a bit of waiter English. I suspected the task was doomed for the very reason we just discussed.

And then a miracle occurred. Maybe not exactly a miracle. But I felt a thrill akin to Michel Ange Lancret when he realized the Rosetta stone just might be something important.

I woke up one morning two weeks ago to find a large poster in the kitchen. Omar had stayed up most of the night with his girlfriend creating it as an assigned project for one of his high school classes.

Glancing over it, I almost felt as if I had discovered his unlocked diary. It was a list of things he wanted to do with his life. Some I knew. Some I had guessed at. Others were surprising.


"I'm going to be a dentist" was what started our dad-son saga. The people he worked with had marked him out as someone who was going to be successful in life. All he needed was the coin to put in the opportunity slot. That is where I came in.

I thought he had strayed from that goal last year, but there it was in black and white. One more year of high school and he will be on his way.

I considered "I won't have a problem at work" to be aspirational; after all, we all hope that, don't we? And that "I am not going to be a shipwrecked" as simply a response to the instruction sheet that created the borders of the project.

Omar has hinted that he would like to join me on one of my journeys. And now I know where. "I will go to Paris" (great choice); "I'm going to travel to Cancun" (northerners who sneer at the Malaga of Mexico take note); and "I'm going to study in Puerto Vallarta" (I thought the dental school was in Guadalajara). The list may be why he thinks he will not end up shipwrrecked.

He is an acquisitive soul. I already knew that. He wears designer clothes and keeps his motorcycle looking as if it were new.

So, none of these surprised me. "I won't have a small house" (though he thinks mine is too large); "I will have a dog" (something he has wanted since the first day he moved in): "I'm going to have motorcycle 250" (attainable); I will have a RZR" (with five words, he quickly won his uncle Darrel's favor); "I'm going to have a car" (a lobbying effort that started last April for his 19th birthday); "I won't have an old car" (entiendo); and the reassuring "I'm not going to be in prison" (that cuts off several ways of getting the booty listed).



Before I knew him well, I knew he was a gym rat. He had the over-pumped look of a collegiate wrestler. But his changing focus in life has interfered with his gym days. "I won't be a body builder." That may be one reason he is confident in claiming "I'm not going to die young."  Several of my young Mexican friends are convinced they will be dead before they get old. They mean 30.

None of that is very personal. But the poster had its head-snapping personal revelations. First, let me put this in context. Omar has a very steady girlfriend. Over the past year, they have spent more time together than some couples who have been married ten years. I keep expecting him to tell me they are getting married -- other than the fact that marriage seems to be something of an unneeded burden in these parts.

But not for Omar. "I'm not going to get married before I'm 35 years old." The sentence struck me as a bit odd voiced in the negative. That is quickly followed by "I will have two wives." Sequentially? Concurrently? The ambiguity dangles like an orphaned participle.

From those two wives will come progeny. Omar has six siblings. But he is not interested in continuing that tradition. "I'm not going to have many children." Instead, he opts for the New Mexican Norm. "I will have two boys."

As I read through the poster, the lawyer-who-never-dies, who lives in the basement of my brain, shifted into cross-examination mode. Even though I would like to know the answers to the questions raised by the poster, I told my old self to shut up.

I now have an opening for future discussions with my teenage son (who will be leaving that adjective behind in less than a month). There is no reason to scare him off the discussion by being too northern.

Whoever it was who requested a Bringing Up Omar story. Here it is.

Who knows, this may have all the makings of a Netflix miniseries. It couldn't be worse than "Chasing Cameron."