Monday, November 11, 2019

death in the afternoon

Life is fragile.

That is a fundamental truth. We all know it. But we live as if it just is not so.

Aging is one of those topics I muse about often these days. It may be that now that I am whittling off the days of my eighth decade, each day seems to be (or should be) just a little more precious.

Yesterday at breakfast I was talking with two retired ministers (one Lutheran; the other Presbyterian) about getting older. I told them I keep my small congregation of pills in individual containers labeled with the day of the week.

Every time I pick up my daily dosage, it reminds me that my days are literally numbered. I just do not know when the day will be that I will take no more pills.

As I was driving to dinner tonight, I paused on Nueva España -- the main street in the portion of Barra I call home -- for an elderly woman to make her slow, but dignified, way to the other side of the road. As I watched her, I thought she was once just like one of the little girls playing on the sidewalk blocking her progress. Had they looked up, they could have seen what life eventually had in store for them. Of course, they would not have believed it.

To reach my dinner spot, I had to drive from the "Y" intersection where the road to Barra joins Highway 200 and cross the largest fresh-water laguna on the Pacific coast of Mexico. You can see the laguna on the satellite image. Most of the water surface is covered by aquatic plants.

I know that stretch of road well. I walk it at least once a week on my way to church Sunday mornings. Because it is a causeway, it has rather narrow shoulders. That does not keep the shoulders from being a multi-purpose bit of asphalt. Walkers. Joggers. Runners. Bicycles. Horses. Motorcycles. Parked cars. They are all there.

It is a dangerous bit of road. I have witnessed two deaths on motorcycles there. Both times, dogs ran into the road causing the motorcycle to cartwheel. The result was fatal for both the dog and the biker. Both times.

Today, I may have witnessed the aftermath of a third death. When I pulled onto the highway, I could see a long line of cars stopped in both directions with several police cars with lights flashing about half-way down the causeway. It was not a good combination.

As we creeped by at a pace to give drivers in the cars more than adequate time to gawk, I could easily see what happened. There was a crumpled piece of metal that was barely recognizable as a bicycle.

My heart sunk. The bicycle had obviously been hit at high speed by a vehicle. Everything I learned in Physics class told me it could not have been good for the bicyclist.

For a moment, I grieved at the loss of someone's life. I then started thinking about who the deceased might be. Could it be someone I had seen riding along the highway while I walked? Or someone I knew in Melaque or Barra de Navidad or Jaluco? Or could it have been a close friend? A relative?

I still do not know who it was. I am certain though I will soon find out through my network. Death is seldom anonymous here. We are a small community.

What it is for me is another not-very-subtle reminder that we can be enjoying one of the best moments of life -- only to have our existence here snuffed out. In a moment. With no warning.

This is the point where moralists and the writers of horoscopes point out we should be living our lives as if we might die any moment. And I agree with the sentiment -- as hollow as it is.

The point is, we won't. We will be as oblivious to these daily reminders of how tenuous our grasp on life is, as those young girls on the sidewalk were when the wisdom of aging passed by. Or when I pop open today's day-numbered pill container.

Life is fragile. We just do not treat it as if that were true.

Tonight, my prayers are for a grieving family. Whether or not I know them, I too grieve.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

catrina, meet marie antoinette

Yesterday we talked about the catrinas on Barra de Navidad's malecon -- and a bit of the history of why they were there (hello, dollies).

Between the time I shot them and posted, the catrinas suffered an ignominious fate.

I shot them on Tuesday. Even then, you can see that someone has had his way with this catrina. One arm was amputated and the other pulled out of joint. She looks as if she had fallen into the hands of ISIS.

Well, apparently, that analogy is not quite as offensive as it first seems. I received news yesterday after my essay was published: "Somebody went down to the Malecon yesterday and dismembered several of the Catrinas. For no reason. They cut of hands and heads and clothes. So very sad! What is wrong with the world??????"

What is wrong with the world, indeed. We could easily discuss the theological implications of that question for days. But we won't.

What I did do was listen carefully to how people here reacted when I told them what had happened to the catrinas. Almost everyone immediately jumped to the "who" question -- and several had their own theories. It was like a Rorschach test of personal prejudices.

"An angry American."

"A drunk Canadian."

"The French."

"Drug addicts."

"Teenage Mexican gangs." (I always find it funny that a bunch of old men from Ontario are not called a Canadian gang. It must not translate well.)

Of course, no one knows who did it -- except for the person who did. But we are humans and we have opinions on everything. Even things where there is not a shred of evidence to support our conclusion.

I have no theory on who vandalized the catrinas. Cutting off the leads and clothes was just a bit too creepy for me to contemplate.

These incidents always dispirit us. I feel the same way about this as I did when the Taliban blew up the Bamyan Buddhas. Or when ISIS destroyed the ruins of Palmyra. Or when I read about Christian missionaries tried to turn Hawaiians into New England township dwellers.

The best way to fight that, of course, is to get back on the horse and keep chasing the fox. There will be other fiestas to relieve our minds of the inhumanity that too often intrudes in our lives.

May the catrinas rest in peace. We have a revolution to celebrate in a week -- and I have an inkling that the catrinas may be sticking their heads back into our lives.

See you on the other side of grief.

Friday, November 08, 2019

hello, dollies

Last Saturday, I mentioned in the valley of death that I was a bit disappointed that our tourist-magnet Barra de Navidad Day of the Dead display failed to provide the promised giant skeletons. Instead, we were treated to plyboard skeleton heads advertising local businesses. 

My friend Christine Yoast sent me a helpful email the next day informing me that the skeletons had appeared on the malecon the night after I was there. And they would be there a couple more days.

She was correct. Skeletons there were. But not exactly what I had expected.

Mexico has become very creative with its skeletal presentations. In Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, giant skeletons appear to be rising from the grave through the street asphalt. Murals with amazing 3-D effects celebrate similar scenes.

Nothing of that sort was on our malecon. Instead, there was a small chorus line of tall catrinas (or las Calaveras Catrinas to give them their formal name). But nary a catrin was on display. It was ladies' night.

Years ago, Rooster's had a large catrina in front of the restaurant. An acquaintance asked me at breakfast whether I thought it was appropriate to display it other than during the Day of the Dead.

She thought the catrinas were similar to nativity scenes at Christmas. Someone had told her that the catrina pre-dated the Spanish conquest and that the tribes displayed them in cemeteries.

I suspect someone had been pulling her leg. But who knows? There are plenty of false historical anecdotes told in these parts as if they had the blessing of Clio herself.

The silly stories about the origin of gringo being the most prevalent example. Even though it is well-known that the term has been used in Spain and Portugal since the 1700s to describe a "foreigner," the tales persist that Mexican peasants, using perfect English, derided American soldiers in either the Mexican-American War or the Pershing incursion or the Veracruz invasion (you take your pick) with "green go." As internally inconsistent as the tale is, it persists.

Some of that is true with the catrinas, as well. They are not a pre-conquest Mesoamerican tradition. In fact, they are a relatively recent creation. Nor was the catrina originally created for Day of the Dead.

A catrina and that annoying English sign
José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar was one of Mexico's best satirical cartoonists. Like all political cartoonists, he had his favorite symbols. For him, it was bones and skeletons to depict social and political corruption. In the early 1910s, he took aim at the Mexican aristocracy's adoption of European fashion. What better way to satirize women who thought they were beautiful than to show them as bony specters outfitted in Paris haute couture?

The catrina became a Mexican cultural symbol when Diego Rivera made her the centerpiece of his 1947 mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda" -- Rivera's satirical anti-European work satirizing George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of  La Grande Jatte."

That is a lot of irony for one bony lady to bear. But she thrived. From the mural, she ended up as copies in art houses and tourist souvenir stands, and became the very essence of death in Mexico. The last step to being the star of Day of the Dead was simple.

So, she is a relatively new addition to the public celebration of Day of the Dead. Even though its roots are pre-Hispanic, a lot of forces have managed to modify and modernize Day of the Dead's image. First, it was the Catholic Church that unified the regional celebrations and then lightly modified them. Then the Mexican government in the 1960s decided it should not merely be a regional celebration, but a national cultural heritage. Even the Bond film Spectre inspired chamber-of-commerce types into sponsoring a Day of the Dead parade that owed far more to Rio de Janeiro than to Pátzcuaro.

That is why the asphalt-defying skeletons are so fascinating. They represent a traditional figure in a new guise. Just like the arrival of the catrina as a tradition that is no older than I am.

So, I did get to see my giant skeletons -- even though they were not what I expected to see. And they were quite amusing.

Two Catrinas and a Steve
And the moral of this essay? Check with Christine next year before going to press. In Mexico, if you wait long enough, what you expect will probably occur.

Or maybe even something better.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

i came to the garden alone

While sitting in my patio surrounded by flowers that bloom year-round, I imagined the meeting of two architects to discuss what constituted a perfect home, 
on a similar sunny day in Andalusia in 712 AD.

One was a Roman; the other a Moor. Both were conquerors and colonizers, and they did what imperialists do best -- they were do-gooders out to improve the lives of the tribes on the Iberian peninsula.

"The perfect home," said the Roman, "is the plural domūs -- a house that looks inwardly without exterior windows built around a central atrium, open to the sky for natural light, with all of the rooms leading onto the atrium. A place where the family is the center of all life."

"What you say is good," said the Moor. "A home must reflect the poetic sense of the universe. We live our lives around the edges of the central atrium. But you are too practical, Roman. You have the soul of a tradesman.

"The atrium is not an agora for the unworthy chatter of children, fishwives, and merchants. It is the very essence of paradise on earth. A garden filled with the blessings of God and the water that nourishes our very being. It is what our souls seek -- to be reunited with the presence of God in that first garden. That, Roman, is a perfect home."

"All right, then," responded the Roman, "we seem to have a plan for the perfect home. A windowless house with rooms built around a garden filled with trees and stuff and some water. How much money do you think we can make off of each unit?"

"I weep for you, Roman."

Of course, there was never any such conversation. The imperial Romans had been forcibly melded with the Visigoths before the Moors conquered what we now know as Spain in seven short years -- 711-718.

What we do know is that Roman and Moorish architecture merged into a distinctive Hispanic form that can even be seen in Mexico. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they brought their notions of what the perfect house should look like. Formidable fronts facing the street with a central patio featuring some form of water pool. Even some modest Mexican homes reflect that style.

In the twentieth century along came one of Mexico's greatest architects, Luis Barragán, with his nationalistic version of the European modernist movement led by Le Corbusier. But rather than function following form, he rejected the mechanistic attitudes of the minimalists.

His would be an architecture based on Latin passion. He revived the old elements of Roman-Moorish architecture to create inward-looking homes, usually windowless, that were centered around a garden patio (always with water). Even though not all of his rooms were atrium-centered, the atrium and its natural light was always the soul of the home. And the lines of the home would define its spatial presence.

It was those lines that resonated with me when I first saw the house with no name. It is not a Barragán-designed home. But it is a 
Barragán-ish home. In my first fifteen minutes in the house, I knew it would be mine.
And it has served me well for five years now. And just as the Moor predicted, it is in my patio sitting amongst my cup of gold vines and the heliconia that look as if they were bred for residents of 
Tralfamadore that I find what we Quakers call peace at the center.
My wish for you today is that you can say the same wherever you are.    

Monday, November 04, 2019

trimming my sails

When our local Oxxo opened up two blocks from my house last year, I wondered who the target market would be (does that translate to hugs and kisses?).

Barra de Navidad is not a big village. Three to four thousand -- depending on your source. That number, of course, is augmented throughout the year with tourists from Mexico, the other two-thirds of North America, and the odd European and South American.

But this would be the fourth convenience store in Barra. The other three (two Oxxos and a Kiosko) are in the core of the tourist haven of centro. But the latest Oxxo was well out of the amble-room of most tourists.

As it turns out, even though the new Oxxo is frequented by tourists of all variety, its bread-and-butter business is from my Mexican neighbors. They primarily use Oxxo's financial services (transferring money, paying utility bills, recharging telephones). But, they also treat it as if it were a tienda de abarrotes, buying beer, soda, snacks, toilet paper, or cleaning supplies. Or just seeking refuge from the summer heat in the air-conditioning.

I quickly discovered, though, that my analysis proceeded from a false assumption. I do not think of this part of Barra as being part of the tourist milieu. I should have known better by the number of eateries that have popped up recently within four blocks of my house. The tourist habitat is expanding.

And, as I told you last September (sleeping with heat), we are getting a hotel in the neighborhood as part of that same process. Or, at least, that is what I was told when the footings were being dug. Looking at its size, bearing the grand title "hotel" may be a bit more-sombrero-than-cabras than it can bear. Bungalow may be more accurate.

Whatever it is to be called, it is almost ready to receive guests. When construction started thirteen months ago, I thought it might be ready for the northern season last winter. It wasn't.

But it looks as if it will be ready this month. When I saw paint being slapped on its façade late last week, I suspected the Veuve Clicquot must be on ice. 

The foreman verified my suspicions -- about the readiness, not the champagne. The building should be ready before the feast of Guadalupe arrives.

An acquaintance asked me last year how I felt about all of this development in the neighborhood. I really had not thought about it. She said she would be a little upset if she had bought a house thinking it would have a certain atmosphere, and then some developer had ruined it all.

So, I gave it a little thought. I did not feel the least bit upset by the changes. And then I realized I had not bought the house with any real expectation in mind. I did not buy it as an investment. I did not buy it as a bit of unchanging paradise. I bought it because I liked its lines -- and my neighbors are Mexican. Neither of those things has changed with the arrival of a boutique hotel, family-run pozole and taco stands, and a boutique hotel.

I cannot remember who said: "The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." It sounds as if it came out of a cookie at Chang's. And it may have.

But even the most inane thought can hide a bit of wisdom. And that one does.

If a captain of a sailboat rails against the wind like some modern King Lear, his journey will be over. That is why the gentle art of tacking was developed -- to let us survive on the seas, and to learn how to deal with changed circumstances in our lives.

I moved to Mexico to experience daily challenges. So, bring them on. I am trimming my sails.     

Saturday, November 02, 2019

the valley of death

According to the Roman Rite liturgical calendar, yesterday was All Saints' Day and today is All Souls' Day.

As good Catholics, most Mexicans celebrate those days at mass. But, as good Mexicans, they also celebrate dia de los muertos. Yesterday for dead children. Today for dead adults.

Or, at least, those are the days that the church has allowed Mexicans to celebrate those days. Before the Spanish arrived, some of the Mesoamerican tribes honored their dead at various times of the year with their own idiosyncratic traditions.

When the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Catholic church considered prohibiting the rituals as pagan. Instead, the church did what it often did best when confronted with ingrained cultural practices: it simply incorporated them into the Catholic culture. That is why Christians celebrate Christmas on the day of a Roman pagan holiday and why we still use the word "Easter" (in English), the name of a pre-Christian goddess. 

The church agreed to allow the traditional rites of the to be practiced, but only under its terms. First, the tribes would need to abandon their own celebration dates in favor of the two church calendar days of 1 and 2 November.

Second, the tribes were free to place their traditional elements of wind, water, earth, and fire -- and whatever else they wanted to put on the altar. But they would be required to include at least one Catholic symbol.

Modern altars incorporate all of that history. That is why you will often see a pitcher of water, candles, paper banners, and food (especially, the deceased's favorite foods and drink) displayed -- along with photographs of the dead relative along with the ubiquitous marigold lane whose scent provides a path to the living. Or, at least, that is the myth.

For the past couple of years, families and merchants have been building altars tucked between the various businesses on the street that leads to Barra de Navidad's beach. 
And that seems appropriate. After all, the altars celebrate life, not death. In one sense, they are an affirmation in the Christian promise of resurrection. Why shouldn't Adam Smith's invisible hand be at work amongst us?

Most of the altars had family members in attendance who were happy to talk about their relative -- or friend. I have now lived here long enough that I knew a number of the people attending the altars.

But, because it was a celebration of life, the traditional mechanisms of joy were also in attendance. No Mexican party would be complete without a carnival. Including this boat pond for children, which was more an homage to Esther Williams than to The Serpentine.

Or this game of chance that attracted no one as if it were less an amusement and more a Faustian contract table.

For adults, there were the more-dubious pleasures of alcohol served at temporary bars on the malecon. The stools were eerily empty. As if it was some dadaist day-of-the-dead performance art commemorating those whisked off by the bottle.

I had heard that there would be giant skeletons displayed on our malecon. That enticed me. I had just seen some amazing sculptures in Mexico City that gave the impression giant skeletons were rising through the asphalt.

This was our local version.

Plyboard skeleton heads advertising various bars and restaurants in Barra de Navidad. 

A group of decked-out women were selling bread. One called out to me that I needed some. I responded that my stomach was far too fat. She laughed and told me I walk too much; I needed some bread.

It turns out she has regularly seen me on my exercise walks. Barra de Navidad is truly a small town -- and that is one of its charms for me.

Were the altars worth the walk? Certainly. They were something different. And I had the pleasure of just pausing and talking to people. Of course, "pausing to talk" means I stood in one place for no more than 30 seconds.

And that has to be considered a good evening spent.

I believe the altars will still be there today and this evening.

Friday, November 01, 2019

painting the dead

It is el dia de muertos in these parts. Or, in a language which I actually understand in some depth -- Day of the Dead.

Our streets are filled with mini-Catrinas and Catrins trundling off to school as links between the living and dead. Or, more likely, just because they think they look cool. And they do. About as proud as the mothers who costumed them and are now accompanying them to a day of distraction from classes.

There is also rain in the air. Last night we had a sudden down burst. This morning, it is just drizzle.

That is bad news for the kids in their costumes and for the adults who tried to get a jump on others by constructing the founding of their outdoor altars last night.

My concern with the rain is a bit more narcissistic. Since Monday of last week, the house with no name has been getting its own Catrina treatment.

The tropics have a way of reminding homeowners that everything dies. Sometimes very quickly. I have lived in the house with no name for almost exactly five years. During that time, the heat and humidity has had its way with paint and mortar -- included the dreaded and common salt-leeching in our concrete.

Several years ago, I was in Brazil with friends. A fellow Oregonian looked at some of the colonial buildings in Recife's square and asked: "Why don't these people take care of their buildings?" The answer was simple. There is only so much money to go around, and cosmetic repairs on public buildings are rather low on the list in a country where the average retirement age on a government pension is 56.

I do not have that problem. When my house starts looking ratty, I fix it. Eventually.

I contracted with my favorite lady contractor (her term) to have one of her expert teams paint my house. That was in May or so.

We have been going through a mini-building boom in Barra de Navidad. She said she could schedule me for October. And two weeks ago, George, the engineer, showed up with three painters: Martin, the maestro, and his assistants, David and Victor.

They have been working twelve-hour days (five on Saturday) to restore the patio to its original luster. The front of the house gets very little sun and will not require painting for a year or two. I will probably paint the interior rooms then.

They have been meticulous. Metal grills were sanded and primed.

All of the walls were pressure-washed.

Dead grout was disgorged and replaced.

Borders were taped off.

Cracks were sealed.

I decided to use the same color scheme as the original architect -- with some subtle tone differences. The gray-coffee-cream look has served the lines of the house well.

And it is those lines that explain the length of time involved in this project. The house is all about straight lines and acute angles. The result is that there are very few areas that are simply flat planes.

When Martin started the job, he asked about the scattered paint spots from the over spray of the communication tower next door. He wanted me to know the spots were not his. I would never have thought they were. His crew has put down enough cloth on the ground that it looks like a Christo sculpture.

The mark of a good painter is that there are no marks.

I have avoided asking Martin the question Julius II repeatedly asked Michelangelo: "When will you make an end?" Because every painter knows there is only one answer: "When I am finished."

The estimate is that the project will be done tomorrow. This morning's rain made me doubt that was possible, but the clouds are clearing and the crew is busy at work. That is good because I have a family matter that will eventually require my presence in Oregon.

But, today sounds like a good day for grilled chicken with the crew. In my almost-completed Sistine chapel.