Monday, June 30, 2008

no hay remedio, señora

On Sunday evening I met one of this blog's regular commenters: Alee'. She is a friend of my neighbor, Bill. The occasion was his birthday party. And I almost felt as if we were sitting in the Algonquin discussing the latest galleys of The New Yorker.

Alee' has lived in Mexico and Chile, and currently is a court interpreter in Spanish. She also trains court-certified interpreters.

I wish I knew more Spanish. We had a great conversation about some of the intricacies of the language. Once again, she underlined a point that is the most difficult for me to learn: to speak Spanish, you must think in Spanish.

It was a good opportunity to talk with a regular reader and get her take on the blog -- and on other bloggers. She will be a great source to discuss my progress with Spanish -- as soon as I buckle down and get some studying into my schedule. If I have learned anything from bloggers who have made the move south, the quality of living in Mexico is directly proportionate to the ability to understand and speak Spanish.

By the way, Bill: Happy Birthday!

grace notes

I just wanted to stick in a reminder that some of the best information (and writing) on this blog can be found in the "Comments" section. Readers have a tendency to riff off of a point and to create an entirely new harmony. If you have not yet joined in on any of those jam sessions, please do. We all like hearing new (and old) voices.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

a handful of hope

During my youth I would stay occasionally with my grandmother in rural southern Oregon. There were many things to amuse a young boy. Chicks warming in a hatchery. A tool shed filled with ancient lawn mowers and a coffee can filled with assorted bullets. Rows of berries of every imaginable variety.

But what amazed me most about my grandmother was her ability to cook. She seemed to merely gather her ingredients and then add them together without any measuring tools, other than her hands, to create the most amazing meals -- more Jackson Pollock; less Charles Babbage. When I asked her how much of each ingredient was needed, she always responded: "Just enough. Nothing more."

Michael Warshauer (of Surviving La Vida Buena and My Mexican Kitchen) and I were discussing how a basic cucumber salad recipe can take multiple directions merely by adding various ingredients. That is why cooking reminds me of another of my favorite pastimes: jazz. Pick a theme and riff off of it.

I believe it was Nika Hazelton who described cookbooks as Stalinist literature. She considered most cooks, who could not cook without a recipe, as suffering the same handicap as Soviet functionaries who could not make decisions without a five-year plan. I see the evidence of her jibe every day. Customers rushing around grocery stores with exotic jarred treasures asking bewildered grocery clerks: "Where I could I find your rose-infused tofu butter? I cannot cook this great recipe from Bon Appetit without it. By the way. What is it?"

Nika's suggestion was to go to the market and discover what was fresh and in season, and build a meal around those ingredients. She believed that you learned the basics first. Then you could cook anything. Without that knowledge, most cooks may as well try to read Sanskrit as read a recipe.

Nika was the very embodiment of a free market cook. I think of her often when I rush up and down the market aisles, copy of recipe in hand, trying to stuff last season's foods into this week's dinner. Of course, I can hear Jennifer Rose of
Staring at Strangers pulling out the pomposity meter with her honest opinion that: "[My culinary talent] extends to yearning for the latest kitchen appliance, acquiring it, reading a cookbook for the plot, and making reservations."

When Nika died in 1992, her good friend Priscilla Buckley wrote:

The bad times were upon her. She had suffered from crippling arthritis for years, and had undergone numbers of operations. Now the pain settled in, imprisoning her in her apartment. But such were her mental resources and her strength that she continued her monthly column; barred from the forays she had made to gather material, she substituted voracious reading, phone calls to her many contacts, memories of wonders past. Her shoulders had become immobile, so she set up a portable electric Smith-Corona on a high table at nearly shoulder level and tapped out, letter by painful letter, the columns that so rejoiced her readers.

I thought of Nika kindly today as I walked Professor Jiggs through the park. Even in our current heat wave, he wanted to make his appearance like some aging Duke who cannot depart the public stage. But his arthritis was as evident today as I have ever seen it. His gait looked just like Nika's typing -- one painful push at a time. Out of sympathy and the misguided delusion that it would be therapeutic, I let him get into the stream that almost drowned him in March.

Deb Hall of
Zocalo de Mexican Folk Art included Professor Jiggs's photograph in her blog dogs post on Saturday. It reminded me how much I would like Jiggs to make the trip south. I guess there is nothing equivalent to a cook book to answer that question.

Nika would say: "Just take the ingredients you are given." And my grandmother would add: "Just enough. Nothing more."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

for whom the bell buzzes

I should not have answered the door. I was trying to finish my last point for my Sunday school lesson when I heard a truncated buzz from my sometimes-functioning door bell.

Usually I would have ignored an unannounced guest at the door. Instead I answered the call of the buzzer.

My first reaction was: Mormon missionary. Young. Male. Preternaturally earnest.

But something was not quite right. He was alone. Dressed in khaki shorts. Wearing an identification card.

When Jiggs the aged golden retriever stuck his head around the door, all was revealed. "Whoaaa. Big dog. Don't let him hurt me." All said with the bon homie of a door-to door salesman.

Burglar alarms. It wasn't quite boys' bands that he was selling, but he was a veritable son of Professor Harold Hill. He quickly began spinning a great tale about his product. Being a clever attorney, I thought I could easily take on this kid in a verbal joust. So, I cut short the dance with my bottom line.

Hubris could have been my middle name. I was smug. Real smug. Then the kid shifted to merely chatting. And we talked for about 10 minutes about our professions, rude people, society in general. He must have mentioned "rich people" seven times -- referring to my neighbors. He then asked if I would fill his water bottle. I gladly did that.

As I closed the door, I realized what he had just done. He managed to find out a full list of information that would have been invaluable to a residential burglar, including: -- [You don't think I am going to be so stupid as to make the mistake twice, do you?]

When I was a criminal defense attorney, most of my clients were young men between 18 and 30. And quite a few of them were some of the most clever and talented people I have met in my life. It was almost as if crime was a game to them. And it was all about the game.

I hear many tales about the amount of theft in Mexico. The barred windows, locked doors, and broken bottle walls probably say far more than any statistics. But I suspect that most of the thieves are just like the young men I once represented: guys seeking thrills first, and money second. And we will have them with us always -- and everywhere.

Friday, June 27, 2008

o brother, where art thou?

This photograph sits on my piano -- next to our father's ashes. "Ours" because the photograph captures my brother and me at 2 and 4, or 3 and 5. (It doesn't really matter, but if you call my mother she can tell you -- right after you hear about the rubber boots, toy wagon, and serial chicken pox tales that every parent seems to use as sign posts of memory.)

I post the picture because it tells a little too much about me and it has a Mexico moral.

When most people see the photograph, they react as everyone does with childhood mementos. "Oh, how cute," they say. "The two of you must be very close." "Look how you are holding his hand."

We are close. But you cannot see it in this photograph. It has all the potential of a remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There stands my dear innocent brother -- all blue-eyed and country naiveté.

And who stands next to him? If you look at those blank dark eyes, my guess would be the finalist to play Damien in The Omen. I hope my dad is watching these two boys. The one on the right worries me.

That was then. Now, my brother is one of my best friends. When I originally floated the idea of moving to Mexico, the move included my brother, his wife, their daughter, my mother, and me. Everybody else has dropped out. I am still going.

Personally, I think my brother and and I need an updated version of this photograph -- on the beaches of Melaque, the future home of our entire family.

And the Baby Jane eyes, we will simply leave in Oregon.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

happy contrails to you

Oregon winters may be dark and drizzly, but our summers are near picture perfect. Especially, the length of the days. At 9:30 I am sitting in the hot tub enjoying the sounds of the evening. And it is still light enough for me to read the high jinx of our national politicians.

Of course, there is plenty of light for me to see the series of jets heading south. I see evidence of three. They are gone, but they have left behind cirrus aviaticus -- contrails, as we land-bound folk say.

There is probably a lesson to be learned here. When first formed contrails are as narrow and uptight as the passengers on the flying penitentiaries -- where penance is not cheaply purchased -- that form them. But nature will have its way. In seconds the jet stream starts widening and softening the edges -- until they are less Mondrian and more Turner, especially when they shift into rose as part of the sunset.

And what does all that have to do with Mexico?

This week I have been allowing myself to start over-thinking two issues involved with my move: car insurance and banking.

John of
Viva Veracruz is currently in the States trying to renew the Colorado registration on his vehicle. He has hit on the same problem that Bliss of 1st Mate discussed earlier this month. If you take a car, properly licensed in one of the States, south of the border, we all know that you need to buy Mexican insurance. That's the law. However, some bloggers are discovering to their literal cost that if you do not keep your insurance in place, your registration can be voided in some states. Of course, the insurance is of no value as long as the car is in Mexico.

One option is to merely decide not to return the car to the States. For years, foreigners have been driving cars in Mexico with expired American registrations. Now and then, in some areas of Mexico, people are stopped.

Some expatriates have started wondering whether those days may be over, as well. With the growing move to deny capital gains exclusions to foreigners, it is certainly not out of the realm of imagination that the Mexican authorities will expect vehicles to either have a valid registration in the country of origin -- or in Mexico. Scofflaw gringos will be a misty memory.

Most of us could accept this if there was some way for Canada, the States, and Mexico to have a reciprocal agreement on registrations and insurance. It would be a great NAFTA clause. Of course, in the current political environment, there will be no further liberalization of travel between the three countries.

As for my banking concerns, I keep forgetting that the ur-blogger, Michael Dickson, has given all of us great advice in that area. I just need to remember that I do not need to reinvent the wheel. And there is another great advantage of reading blogs.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

pick of the litter

I was 6 or 7. I cannot remember which. But I remember the event as if it were yesterday -- meeting my first prospector.

Not a fancy 21st century mining engineer. No sirree-bob. He was a genuine slice of the Old West with an old felt hat, a pick-axe , and a burro.

Well, not really a burro. Actually it was a Chihuahua that he toted around stuffed in his ragged ruck sack -- like some retro Paris Hilton.

Today we would probably call him homeless and try to stick him in a shelter so we could make him more like us. But on that day, he was in our house for dinner because my Dad was just that kind of guy -- ever-generous with my Mother's cooking.

But, for my brother and me, the Prospector and His Dog were as real as any boy's adventure could be. I am certain he told us tales. But, looking back, they must have been as tall as Paul Bunyan. The hills of Powers were alive with timber, not gold. My Uncle Wayne probably had more gold in his mouth.

On Tuesday I was serving (rather, I was waiting to serve) on jury duty. The man sitting across from me was reading a gold prospector magazine. I had not thought of prospectors for well over 50 years. I laid down a nostalgic riff for him. When I finished, he had an odd twinkle in his eye, and said: "You're kidding. That was my Dad."

Well, if it had been a more interesting encounter, that is what he would have said. Instead, he smiled indulgently and went back to reading his magazine.

Somewhere, deep in my my stored goods, there is a chunk of rock -- brown on the surface cracked open to show a beautiful quartz interior. If you look closely, you will see sparkling yellow specks. It was a gift from the Prospector, who told me it was gold.

It was a lie. But for one brief magic moment, I shared his belief that there was not only gold in them thar hills; I could actually hold it in my hands.

Perhaps that is why I keep the rock. I still share the fantasy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

guns and texas roses

To say that the United States and Mexico have had a rocky history is to say that George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" had a competitive marriage.

When it was part of the Spanish Empire, Mexican interests ran up against British colonial interests. As new nations, the expansion of Mexico and the United States was bound to cause problems. And it did. A series of border skirmishes and full-blown invasions left a trail of hurt feelings and pummeled national pride on both sides of the border. Especially, since the American side of the border went much further south.

And the hurt is aggravated now and then. A perfect example is the nearly hysterical (and I mean that in its mental hygiene sense, not as an adjective alternative to humorous) reaction to the recent Absolut advertisement in Mexican publications. Absolut is famous for running ads that are simultaneously arty and ironically humorous.

In this particular advertisement, Absolut redrew the boundaries between the United States and Mexico to reflect what Mexico would look like if it still had the boundaries it claimed in 1846.

North of the border, lots of people literally went nuts. Somehow the map became an affront to American patriotism. Some people treated it as if Absolut had printed a map of Europe in red with a huge swastika emblazoned.

Anyone looking at the map can see it is an historical fantasy. Without victory over Mexico in the 1840s, the Pacific Northwest would most likely have remained a British province, and there would probably have been a border along the Mason-Dixon line between the rump United States and the disintegrating Confederate States.

I find it even more bizarre that Venezuelans were not upset at having their country used as a vodka coaster. I guess ironic humor can only stir up a limited number of moral indignations.

But I just read a piece in the current issue of The Economist that may heal one of those wounds -- especially between border Texans and Mexicans.

I have discussed some options of how to resolve the problems of illegal drugs -- especially the portion that has led to the shooting War on Drugs south of the border. Congress has stirred up some Mexican hurt feelings and national pride by proposing limitations on hardware and training to prosecute its war against the drug cartels. The restrictions seemed minimal, but the message was clear: Congress did not trust the Mexican government to use the money without abusing human rights. After both sides climbed down from their moral horses, they were able to agree to an acceptable compromise.

But Mexico has another proposal. It is very concerned that guns sold in Texas are seeping across the border to arm the drug lords. And Mexico wants Washington to do something about it.

I have often wondered what type of issue could convince conservative Texans that legalization of drugs may be one way to resolve a portion of the war on drugs. Even though they have a certain western libertarian streak, most Texans are not natural candidates for supporting drug legalization.

However, if the choice is between restricted Second Amendment rights and legalized drugs, I am willing to put some money on how that wager may come out.

And that may be change that we can all believe in.

Monday, June 23, 2008

crouching skeeter, hidden dragon

Mosquitoes. They are already being pesky this summer.

I like to read in the back yard in the evening. Apparently, while I am busy digesting the news, mosquitoes have been digesting my blood. The proof? Itchy welts on my ankles. Plus I have caught one or two and reduced them to a smudgy spot -- injectus interruptus, as it were.

A couple years ago I noticed that whenever I am in the hot tub, a column of mosquitoes undulates over the tub. I have always imagined that these were the good-for-nothing-but-mating males back from a day of nectar-swilling awaiting the homeward return of their hemoglobin-besotted spouses.

One evening this week, while sitting in the back yard, I looked up, and there was the cloud. No hot tub. I guess my heat was enough to set off their odd aerial dance.

And then it swooped. I had no idea what. But something came around the left side of my head and one of the mosquitoes was gone. I first thought it was a hummingbird. Then it struck again and again. Each time swooping in from below -- almost like a Great White -- pausing in mid-air while it grabbed its next victim, and off it flew. Over a five minute period, it picked off the entire column.

A dragonfly. I have seen them around streams. But I have never seen them that close playing their helpful predator role.

And even though this one was close enough for me to grab, its speed and the reduced light kept me from to identifying it. You could put five different dragonflies in a lineup, and I would have no idea if it looked like the dragonfly in the picture. But I like to think it looked every bit that glorious.

I also learned a new lesson. During the less than five minutes the dragonfly took to eliminate the mosquitoes, I managed to set aside my copy of The Economist long enough to enjoy the full show.

It makes me wonder what else I have missed in the magic kingdom of my back yard simply by not paying attention.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

celibate or celebratory?

I am writing this blog on Saturday -- and the ironies of the evening are almost overwhelming.

I am supposed to be on my way to Portland to help celebrate the birthday of a college friend -- it is her 60th. The "supposed to" should be clue enough that I am where the party is not. Friends I have not seen in decades are going to be there -- while I am going to be here.

Once again I have boxed myself into an absolute conflict between what I have committed myself to do -- and what I would really like to do.

And this is where the irony comes in. I cannot take the time to go celebrate in Portland because I volunteered to give a sermon on Sunday about -- celebration, and what gets in our way of truly enjoying life.

Celebration is something that we neglect far too often in our lives. In fact, we allow our circumstances to end up running us.

I am going to suggest to my fellow congregants that we can show our love for one another by celebrating art, celebrating music, and celebrating our faith with one another. We can also open our homes and apartments to neighbors more often -- simple things like sharing cookies on the front lawn. Or breaking traditions by stop buying expensive gifts for occasions like birthdays. Instead, everyone should bring a favorite story and share it with the guest of honor. We need to stop saving up those stories until the person dies. We need to let each know how much they are appreciated right now.

Of course, I should simply sew a giant "H" on my shirt for hypocrite. Because I am doing exactly what I will be urging people not to do. Allowing busy-ness to get in the way of celebrating life.

I asked a Mexican friend this afternoon what he would do. His answer was simple. Stop worrying. Go to the party. Enjoy. Tomorrow will take care of itself. It seems I remember a wise Jewish rabbi who advised the very same thing 2000 years ago.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

the pain in (new) spain

If you have not yet read Jonna's story about her trip to the dentist for dental implants -- do. It is one of the most graphic tales of dental techniques since Lawrence Olivier suggested clove oil to Dustin Hoffman. If you do not have visions of storm troopers dancing in your head by the time you have finished reading the post, you may have what it takes to be a dental professional.

Her story hit a nerve amongst her readers -- resulting in 16 comments as of this morning. The comments are all empathetic, but my good friend Nancy of Countdown to Mexico added some very practical advice. If you have read Nancy's blog you know that she is a very organized woman. Her blog is the epitome of how to get your life together to move on to a new adventure.

Her advice to all of us was: "I had one implant and I know I would need a serious reason and plenty of drugs before I would consider ever getting another. I know my failed root canals were from grinding my teeth. So, anyone reading this who grinds, go get a night guard, pronto!"

She may as well have been standing next to me. I am a grinder. I did not believe it until I ended up with two recent root canals, and you all know the financial woes tied to that story. I bought a mouth guard and wore it for over a month. But I stopped wearing it because every time I put it in, it caused me to gag.

Well, that was only part of the reason I stopped wearing it. I was positive that I was grinding my teeth because of some temporary stress at work. When I thought that situation resolved, I concluded that the grinding would stop.

Following nurse Nancy's advice, I wore the guard last night. My mind kicked in during the middle of the night -- it was trying to analyze why the pretzels I was eating were so stale, as stale as rubber. Of course, I was doing my best to masticate the guard. I guess the stress is not over.

My point? Nancy is correct. Even if you do not know yourself well enough to know that you are a grinder, ask your dentist about it. Frankly, I could put up with lots of nights of imaginary stale pretzels if it will prevent another financial drain in the dentist's chair -- or worse: a reprise of Jonna's brush with The Marathon Man.

And the job stress? That is going to find its own remedy when I trade it for different stresses south of the border. Olé.

Friday, June 20, 2008

cirque back yard

May I introduce the stars of my back yard circus? This scrub jay and squirrel have been entertaining me for the past month with their aerial antics.

Apparently, my boxwood hedge must be the equivalent of an avian buffet. The scrub jay shows up every day to find whatever may have hatched and matured. I suspect most often, he is after spiders.

I wish I could catch his technique on camera. He darts up at that hedge in a short burst and swoops immediately to the ground to pick up any morsels he did not pick off in flight.

But even the jay looks like an amateur acrobat when compared with my new-found squirrel friend. When the camellias start blooming, squirrels the block over show up to eat the buds. The outer limbs of camellias are far to fragile to support a squirrel. But gravity is no bar to squirrels finding food.

This particular squirrel has discovered that he can reach the outer buds by hanging from my telephone line with his back feet. I caught him one day hanging by only one foot. Of course, when the camera came out, he started acting as if an OSHA inspector was prowling nearby.

Back in March, in a comment to one of my posts, I confessed one of my childhood secrets to Babs: When I was in the 7th grade, I wanted to become a veterinarian so I could save up enough money to buy a circus.

For childhood secrets, it does not rank up there with being a junior arsonist or a violin virtuoso. But it has the simple virtue of being true.

My love for animals came at a young age. My brother and I had almost every imaginable creature as pets -- some several times over.

Plus I had curiosity. And this is the darker secret. I toted home several road kill animals and performed autopsies on them in our garage. I think I always imagined myself as the Jonas Salk of quadrupeds.

I never did become a veterinarian -- and my only circus is the one in my back yard. But that is circus enough for me in this moment.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

smug as a bug in a tub

There may be a good reason why politicians are not quick to admit fault. Probably the same reason behind Calvin Coolidge's counsel of patience: "Never go out to meet trouble. If you will just sit still, nine cases out of ten someone will intercept it before it reaches you."

If I had simply been a bit more tolerant of my lack of handyman talents, I could have portrayed myself as a veritable Tom Poston.

Wednesday morning as I was leaving for work, I thought I would test the hot tub waters just to see how much residual heat survived the last two cool nights. It was almost like water into wine time -- or cold water into hot water time. And that was miracle enough for me.

The water was warm. By the time I got home, the hot was back in hot tub. But, how did it happen?

I considered one possibility from yesterday's post: "Believing that an inanimate object has somehow developed a free will, you decide to wait for it to decide to work." I have not completely rejected that option -- though it does sound a bit too much like Disney anthropomorphism run amok.

But the only other option is just too incredible to believe: I actually fixed something electrical.

I would invite each of you to drop off your electrical appliances that need fixing, but I think I will get started on that pesky perpetual motion machine that needs my attention. After I get back from the hot tub.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

tinkering with tomorrow

OK, class. Everyone quiet down. Our lesson today is: There are two types of people. People who God put here to do some things, and other people He put here to do other things. Life is all about figuring out which group you are in.

For example you may not be an expert in repairing hot tubs when:

  • You diagnose the problem as a faulty heating element -- without doing any diagnostics.

  • You go to the hot tub dealer and ask for a heating element, and you are not really certain whether your hot tub electrical power is 110 or 220.

  • While at the dealer, the manager asks: "Are you certain it's the heating element?", and you reply: "It couldn't be anything else." (This falls into the subcategory of not asking for directions.)

  • You open the access door on the hot tub, and you may as well be looking at the hyperdrive for the Millennial Falcon.

  • You start unscrewing parts with no regard for what they hold together.

  • As you remove the first screw holding the element inside the water heater, water starts gushing out -- all over the electrical equipment.

  • You finally get everything screwed back together, and have two pesky copper wires that look as if they may be grounding wires, but you are not really certain what they ground -- or where.

  • You start replacing the water that escaped through the heater, and, while on the telephone, allow the tub to overflow -- filling the equipment compartment with water.

  • A little mop up, and you are ready for the moment of truth. You plug in the hot tub, and everything appears to be working perfectly.

  • With one small exception: no hot water is going into the hot tub -- or anywhere else for that matter.

  • Believing that an inanimate object has somehow developed a free will, you decide to wait for it to decide to work.

  • Three hours later, iceberg warnings are still being posted in the hot tub.

So, what we do we learn from this lesson?

God gave some people jobs where they can earn money to hire very gifted people to come fix things. I am a member of the first group, and when I try to be a member of the second group, I always get to pay people in the second group twice as much money to fix my mistakes.

What is the connection with Mexico? I have been really impressed with the skills that a lot of my fellow bloggers in Mexico possess. They all seem to be very handy at fixing things. Maybe I need to move next door to one of them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

hum along with us

I have mentioned my friend and neighbor, Bill, before. In a situation comedy, he would be the kindly neighbor who shows up to relieve the tension and dispense wisdom. Think Harry Morgan as Pete in December Bride.

He passed along the picture at the top of this post with a comment: "Here's another sign that summer is upon us." And he is correct.

Even though our mornings have been delightfully cool (in the 40s), each morning has been free of clouds and fog. The temperature then rises slowly to something in the near-perfect low 70s.

While eating lunch at work today, I saw a slight movement in the ornamental plum tree that stands just outside the lunch room windows. The tree must not be entirely ornamental because the squirrels go through all forms of contortions to eat some treat from limbs almost as flexible as the squirrels.

But today's dining guest was not a squirrel. It was a hummingbird. And I recalled seeing hummingbirds visit the tree in the past. Their presence at that tree still baffles me.

Perhaps it is the same hummingbird in Bill's picture. Having found very little nectar at work, it flew home and found sugar aplenty. There may be a lesson there for a certain attorney who is looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places.

[I am unable to identify the object of this Erte-like shot. Can anyone help? I wonder if Todd of Life in El Corazon has any ideas? He has had several close encounters.]

Monday, June 16, 2008

and the winner is --

Well, it was a close-run thing (as the Duke of Wellington is alleged to have said -- of course, what can you say about a man who is now best-known for rubber boots). The poll is now closed, and a winner has been declared.

First, the disclaimer. This election had all of the safeguards of a ballot in Zimbabwe. And, just like Robert Mugabe, I can declare victory because I like the result. Of course, I am certain there is some doubt about the result due to the delay in announcing the results. I assure you that all of my in-house advisers concur that the process was transparent and accountable.

You sages of the blog (or 36% of you who voted) suggested that I do what I am most likely going to do: rent house #6 for a period until I determine whether or not the Melaque-Barra de Navida area is the place I want to live. If it is, I can then buy a place.

The total votes were: #1 -- 6; #2 -- 2; #3 -- 1; #4 -- 6; #5 -- 6; #6 -- 12.

More than participating in a poll, each of you who left comments has provided me with a gold mine of good information. I will definitely want to talk with each of you in the near future to tease out some of those ideas.

I liked the poll idea. It was another fun way to interact with each of you. Perhaps we can try another one in the near future.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

band of fathers

Judy Collins and Billy Collins are competing for my attention -- like two siblings trying to impress an indifferent father. Judy, in her familiar vibrato, wants me to remember that her father always promised her they would live in France -- as if I could do anything about it.

Billy takes a more subtle approach by dragging his mother into the picture to calm his slightly disapproving father.

They both have tales to tell of their fathers.

But they are artists. Certainly their fathers were somehow different than our own. Composers. Poets. Those do not sound like the DNA credentials of our family reunions.

But we listen. Because Judy Collins is describing the same golden memories we like to remember on days like this. And on other days through the year when we realize that we are who we are -- our moral strengths and weaknesses, our view of the world, our very bodies -- because of our fathers.

And Billy Collins captures those grace notes that cause us to smile -- the slight upturn smile we use when we hear a clever bon mot that bares some absurdity or other.

For Judy it was the realization that her father would never take her to Paris, but she would take her children there -- and tell them the tales of their grandfather.

For Billy, it is recalling his deceased parents, and --

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

But I am not a Collins; I am a Cotton. So, I recall my father: Bob. How he taught me that I should do nothing unless I wanted to do it -- but I should not want to do anything other than what is moral, kind, and just.

His remains are entombed on the top of my piano. Early tomorrow morning, I will put a Father's Day tie around the simple cardboard box, and he will accompany me to Sunday school and church.

Of course, the box matters far less than the moral, kind, and just soul that will be with me through the day.

[Judy Collins sings of her father in My Father. Billie Collins writes of his father in No Time.]

Saturday, June 14, 2008

tub with a view

Summer may have finally come to Oregon. One robin a spring may not make, but half a week of sun is a Pacific northwest season.

I trundled out to the hot tub with a bottle of water, mango ice cream, and The Economist. It is hardly a hedonist kit for a high time, but it is my idea of a relaxing evening.

Tonight I tried something different: I did not turn on the jets. I decided that I would do what every creative writer teacher tells freshmen at the first lecture: before you can write, you must learn to observe.

So I leaned back and listened to my little urban garden.

Amazingly, there was very little traffic noise. There was the hum of a few small cars, and the inevitable macho orgasmic THUMP THUMP THUMP of some twentysomething advertising his Freudian shortcomings.

The other sounds were far more subtle.

Three crows carrying on their witty exchanges at full volume, sounding like drunk dons at a faculty party.

Two scrub jays engaged in what may have been a domestic dispute, only to be drowned out by the trills of a sparrow, willing to hold his territory against the arguing George and Martha in search of their own Edward Albee.

The swifts merely twittered and soared waiting for dusk to generate the krill of the air.

And one robin made a darting cameo appearance sounding a warning call -- either too late for the early worm or too concerned to wait around for the sharp-shinned hawk to return.

I would expect the bird songs and calls to mix. In an Aristotelian world, all will blend with their nature. But even the hum and THUMP of the cars seemed to join in this sonata.

While listening to those sounds, I failed to notice that a breeze was creeping in. It may be the first time I really noticed the difference in sounds created by each tree.

The cottonwood almost a block away produced a full-throated rustle -- as if yards of crepe were given free rein.

The ornamental plum produced a flapping noise, and my giant spruce -- the back bone of my garden -- provided brush strokes.

Subtle and repetitive, but with their own melody. Almost as if Philip Glass had forsworn orchestras for oak and wisteria.

To listen is to write.

[Sad note from the author: This may be the last posting from the hot tub. It appears that the heater has given up -- quit with no notice. We will need much more summer before a cold tub is an adequate substitute for a dead hot tub.]

Friday, June 13, 2008

the liberator, the fortress, and the wardrobe

The sound was unmistakable. Four powerful engines staining against gravity. I ran out the door just in time to see the belly of a B-17 -- right over my back yard. About 10 minutes later, I heard a different sound, but just as loud. This time it was a B-24. The Wings of Freedom tour was in town.

I have often wondered what it must have been like living in World War II America. Much of what we take for granted simply had not yet been invented.

But one invention was beginning to come into its own: the aircraft. Commercial aircraft were still a novelty. But most people had never seen a big airplane.

That all changed with Pearl Harbor. America was in the war. And America knew how to do one thing extremely well: build things. Some of the most amazing products of the 1940s were the series of bombers that were literally stamped out -- in the thousands -- to defend this country's freedom.

What I experienced in my back yard was repeated across the country. People stood in awe as flights of aircraft were delivered from production to staging grounds.

My first experience with a B-17 was in 1958 when I was nine. A local entrepreneurial hero,
Art Lacy, had the brilliant idea of mounting a full-sized, four-engined airplane on top of his small Texaco gas station. For my brother and me, climbing into that B-17 was almost like slipping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

The B-17 is still there, but only memories live there: access was blocked off years ago. In fact, the gas station portion of Art's empire is also gone.

But those memories came alive again as the shadow of the B-17 briefly passed over me. Fifty years later and I still stand in awe.

[If we ask real nice, Beth of Minto Dog may tell us some tales of her flight in a B-17 this week.]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

naughty or nice

OK. The poll has been fun. And the comments have been entertaining. For those who would like to vote (and have not done so -- this is not Chicago: once will do), I will not take the poll down until Friday midnight.

Because that test worked rather well, I am experimenting with a new blog page element. Rather than merely listing the blogs I read, the list will rearrange itself when new material is posted on each of my favorite blogs.

I have had it running since Tuesday. The upside is that I know if there is a new posting. It acts almost like a news feed. And I can then prioritize my reading. (You can see how it works by scrolling to the bottom of the right-hand column; it is unimaginatively titled "Test Area.")

The downside is that I might miss new comments on an old post. I am an avid reader of comments. Some of the best information, at least on my blog, can be found in the comments.

I should also mention that it does not work with all web sites. For instance,
SolMate Santiago will not properly connect.

I am considering switching over from my current blogroll to the more interactive version. But I would hate to lose the
SolMate Santiago connection -- and I will need to be more careful about checking comments.

Anybody have a preference?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

a pot on every chicken

Birds do it. Bees do it. At least, they appear to do it -- vote, that is. Everybody seems to be in the process recently of casting ballots over one thing or another.

Why not we citizens of blogland? (Please note the edgy post-modern refusal to capitalize proper nouns.)

And I have a topic that it is every bit as trivial as any Gallup Poll (hardly a post-modern organization).

I love Pacific Mexican architecture. And there is a young architect whose work I have come to appreciate: Alejandro Lazareno. I have seen several of his houses in Barra de Navidad, Melaque, and La Manzanilla. If I buy a house in the Barra de Navidad area, I hope it will be one of his designs.

So, here is the question: Of the following six houses, which one would you recommend for me? (Like most polls, you will not have adequate information to answer the question. But voting is its own reward. Choose a house from this post and then vote over in the right column. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.)

Candidate number 1:

This is the house I wanted to look at when I went to Barra de Navidad in December, but a sale was pending at the time. It is an Alejandro design with plenty of color.

Candidate number 2:

This is another Alejandro design. The most fascinating feature is the master bedroom suite. It is separated from the main portion of the house by a court yard.

Candidate number 3:

I have not seen this house, but it is another Alejandro design. You can see his style in this house. Plenty of flowing curves and bold colors.

Candidate number 4:

This is the newest Alejandro house in the group. Easily identified by the fluid swoops and primary colors. Houses 1 through 4 are in Barra de Navidad.

Candidate number 5:

This is the house I went to see in La Manzanilla in November. It is small, but large enough for me. The view is potentially great, but a house may be built that will block the view. I still dream about this house.

Candidate number 6:

I have added this house as my reality check. Dreaming of buying is all very well and good. But this lovely house in Melaque will be available as a rental. I am flying down in July to determine if this is the way to start my adventure in Mexico.

The polls are open until midnight (Pacific time) on Friday. My fate is in your hands. Be gentle. Be kind.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

performing services -- together

We bloggers often speak of ourselves as a "community" -- a word that is used more often for its fuzzy emotional appeal, rather than its relational solidity.

I have now been blogging for less than six months. In that time I have experienced several truly memorable community moments. (I also have encountered several individual mentors along the way. But that is a topic for a future blog.)

  • I first posted on 19 December 2007. Without the assistance and encouragement of Andee of My Life in Chacala, I would never undertaken the task. She then did something that we ignore far too often: she introduced me to her readers by asking them to read my blog. Most of us are good about adding interesting blogs on our sites, but we seldom introduce new members around "The Clubhouse." Andee was my Virgil in a fascinating world.

  • Wayne of Isla Mujeres: Gringo in Paradise put together a blogger gathering -- based on the brilliant idea that a group of people who blogged in Mexico would also know how to learn and party with each other. He was correct.

  • Billie of Billieblog included a link and a very nice review of my three-part series on the drug war in Mexico. As a result, the readership jumped perceptibly over the past few days.

  • And this last one truly warns my heart. Cynthia and Mike of Cintia y Miguel sold everything in Washington to move to Mexico for an adventure. They planned on teaching english -- starting in Mexico City. When they arrived, circumstances were not what they expected. Rather than simply give up and return to Washington, they turned to their colleagues on the board. And the board came through. Bliss of 1st Mate, Nancy of Countdown to Mexico, Teresa (of Washington state, who has a heart of gold, but no blog, and was willing to add comments on other blogs), Theresa of ¿What Do I Do All Day? (who has a blog -- and cooking skills), and others sent out the word. Brenda of Brenda and Roy Going to Mexico found a teaching school and an apartment in Guaymas for them. You really need to read the tale of this adventure on Cintia y Miguel's blog. They asked for adventure. They got it.

Why am I posting these stories when I know there are at least a dozen more that have directly affected me? Because it is always good to celebrate a true community. Each example involves someone setting aside their own selfish desires to help others -- another member of the community. Could anything be a better example of loving one's neighbor?

I salute each of you. I am happy to be able to call you colleagues.

Monday, June 09, 2008

caw-ky crows

Crows acting up, by Greg7

Crows. Smart as whips. Loud as a water vendor. And when they congregate, they get no smarter. Just louder. Rather like a political rally. But more intelligent.

The crows have put themselves in my cross hairs for one simple reason: at 5:30 on the past three mornings, they have decided to hold congressional hearings in the trees next to my house.

And I am not talking about mere cawing. I am talking trumpets announcing the Apocalypse.

I was positive they had a hawk cornered. Have you ever seen crows gang up on raptors? My first experience was in the woods of our home in southern Oregon. I must have been around 6 or so. I was walking through the woods and heard a crow cawing. Then another. Then another. In seconds crows were flying from every direction. I have no idea how many there were. I was 6. It was a bigger number than I knew.

The reason for all the commotion? A spotted owl. A bird smaller than the crows. But it was a relative of raptors that would eat the crows' food -- and the crows' young.

The owl would sit quietly as the crows cawed and moved in closer. Until the owl decided to fly. It was then mobbed by the crows. I will skip the ending. As you can imagine, the story is not a happy one for the owl.

The only other time I heard that same volume was two years ago when a flock of crows invaded a starling nesting area in the neighbor's trees. The crows scooped all of the young starlings out of their nests and speared them on the ground. I suspect it was another territory issue.

Even though I checked, I have no idea what was causing all the disturbance during the last three mornings.

But it may be related to an incident on Sunday afternoon. I took the dog for a walk. As we walked under the trees where the starlings once nested, two crows in the trees started cawing in distress. I thought it was a bit odd. The dog then started sniffing around one of the rhododendron bushes. Then I saw it: a juvenile crow hiding behind the bush.

The parents started a routine I had never witnessed in crows. Besides cawing, they both pooped on the dog and me, and then started breaking off twigs and dropping them on us. I suppose that was designed to take our attention away from the young one.

As I said. Smart as whips. But loud. Real loud.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

drugs -- the summary

"[H]e is much more skilled at analyzing the big trends of the past than he is with detailing workable policies for the present. * * * It's quite another [thing] to deal with the concrete complexities of the real, here-and-now world."

When I read those two sentences in a book review over the weekend, I realized the reviewer could just have easily been discussing my three-part post on the Mexico drug wars. I spent all my time on analysis and copped out on any concrete policy recommendation.

And I know why. The drug issue is almost as intractable as Palestinian statehood or resolving the impending Medicare collapse. But, as my good friend "Juan Calypso" pointed out, who would have ever believed that the Northern Ireland dispute would be resolved? The United States and Mexico should be able to start resolving this drug issue.

Based on several comments readers left during the past week, the first step seems to be obvious: the United States (and you can add Canada and Europe to the list) should stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations concerning drugs. Some Americans are creating the demand for illegal drugs. The drug cartels in foreign countries are simply providing a manufacturing and transportation network to meet that demand.

Over ten years ago, the Cato Institute offered a plan to the 105th Congress to intelligently begin changing our policy toward illegal drugs.

You remember those years. A new group of politicians took control of Congress and new ideas were going to transform government. Well, it did not happen -- and they were booted out in favor of the crowd they replaced.

The Cato Institute's
plan was simple:

Congress should:

  • repeal the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and all legislation requiring the United States to certify drug-source countries' cooperation in counternarcotics efforts

  • declare an end to the international war on drugs

  • remove U.S. trade barriers to the products of developing countries

It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a good start. Our interference in other countries internal affairs on this issue has created numerous social problems for those countries.

Mexico is a perfect example. Even though there are only a few areas in the country intensely affected by the crackdown on drug trafficers, the whole population is affected to some degree -- whether by the ever-growing number of military check points on highways or the growing desire by some to create a police state. The
Mexican government is beginning to react negatively to the conditions that Congress has placed on this year's aid package to Mexico.

America should be a good example, not a bully. Mexico, as a mature democracy, will take the steps that it needs to take to control corruption and drug cartels. If there is no demand in America, the free market will quickly dry up the need for the cartels. After all, isn't that what everyone keeps saying we should do about OPEC?

I do need to make one comment here. On a message board, I recently saw several posts that argue that the United States should stop trying to convince Latin American countries that liberal democracy would improve their political and economic systems. The code word, of course, is that America should stop trying to "impose capitalism." Implicit with that argument is the belief that liberal democracy is nothing more than a desire for acquisition of material goods.

No one would deny that there are down sides to liberal democracy -- including the fact that people often use freedom in a manner that annoys other people. But the key characteristic of liberal democracy is not merely the desire to acquire; liberal democracy fulfills the strong desire in human nature to change, to create, to improve, to build.

If the United States decided to stop interfering in Mexico's internal affairs on the drug issue, what would happen? Unless the United States did something to solve its demand issue, Mexico would have to decide how to deal with the drug lords.

In 2006 Mexico considered an alternative course. The Mexican Congress, at the request of President Fox, passed
legislation decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs -- including cocaine and heroin -- for personal use. President Fox was prepared to sign the bill -- until a furor erupted in the United States. Congressmen, the White House, the press -- all jumped on their high moral horses and predicted the advent of a drug bacchanalia in Mexico.

My favorite was the horrifying possibility that recreational drugs would be available to American college students on spring break in Cancun and other resort areas. It is moments like this when you wonder if journalists and politicians are steeped in irony -- or if they are simply too afraid to speak the truth.

Of course, President Fox did not sign the bill -- and the drug wars drag on.

Here is my bottom line on this topic -- and I will not speak of it again.

The American public should let its leaders know that we have a lot more moral strength than they think we have. We are ready to treat drugs as adults. Stop interfering in other nations' affairs. Stop promoting an international drug war. Let each country take its free market approach to the issue. And we should do the same.

Drug lords will have control over us only as long as certain drugs are illegal. My suggestion is that we go cold turkey -- and that we then start treating people with addictions like any other citizen who makes bad choices.

Any other choice will prolong the struggle.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

roses and camas

Today is flower day.

I know some of you read
Trauma the Drama -- a blog written by a sometime Cancun expatriate, who currently lives in Oregon. She has been posting some comments about Portland's premier event: the Rose Festival.

At least, it was the premier event when I was growing up. Parades. Floats. Marching bands. Waving princesses. The closest thing a republic has to monarchical pomp and circumstance.

When I was 10, I was in awe. Like most everyone else in this postmodern world, I now see it as an ironic parody of itself.

But it does honor one of my favorite flowers: the rose. Even though our weather is still a bit cool and damp, I noticed on my morning walk with the dog that the roses are out in force.

That caused me to start wondering. I know that I have seen posts on roses in the northern desert and in the central highlands pf Mexico, but I have never heard anyone comment about roses on the Pacific coast around Barra de Navidad. Do any of you know? Will they grow? Do they thrive?

I am almost positive that I will not find these beauties in Mexico. It is a camas.

When the white settlers came to the Pacific northwest, they would often encounter open meadows with what appeared to be beautiful blue lakes. Those "lakes" were camas in bloom. I have seen the display only a few times. Stunning.

And the flower is symbolic of the relationship between the white settlers and the local Indians. For the Indians, the camas was a great source of nutrition. The bulb can be eaten similar to a sweet potato or ground into flour. The Indians would often burn areas of the forest to create meadows to grow camas, to allow blackberries and huckleberries to sprout, and to provide grazing (and great hunting spots) for deer and elk.

When the white settlers arrived, they attempted to stop the fires to protect their settlements. They also allowed pigs to run free. Pigs, being -- pigs, rooted up the camas meadows. The Indians fought back in the early 1850s. They lost, and ended up undergoing several sad treks to primitive reservations. One tribe has had its revenge by setting up a casino that is now Oregon's number one tourist attraction. The descendants of those white settlers now trek to the casino to lose what was taken 150 years ago.

Babs has been publishing similar commentary on her visit to Chiapas.

Our history does not live far from from us.

Friday, June 06, 2008

hard to swallow

Between this week's posts and the last four days at work, I am exhausted. I started to sit down and write Friday's post, but my mind went on its own way ricocheting from Brazil to Oliver Cromwell. My only choice was to take it -- and the dog -- for a walk.

June. The start of summer. Roses in bloom. Dusk bringing relief from searing heat. Not here. This is Oregon.

Well, there are roses. Lots of roses. But you will find more heat in an Alan Greenspan speech than in our June evenings this year.

55. Not the speed limit. That was the temperature as we took our usual spin around the archives park.

But the park was beautiful. Swathes of green lawn. Freshly-trimmed paths. Streams of fresh bark dust. It was almost like getting lost in a Tarkay landscape.

Then I heard it. Chit chit. There is no other call like it. The violet-green swallows were back from their winter vacation in Mexico.

I often wonder if they entertain retired school teachers from Michigan while the rest of us are ripping open Christmas presents. But they certainly entertained Jiggs and me. Well, me. Jiggs thought we were wasting sniffing time.

I enjoy the swifts who take up residence in my chimney every year. But they are high-fliers. The swallows are exhibitionists. They skim the surface of the creek at breakneck speeds. They twist. They turn. As if they enjoy having an appreciative audience.

Of course, they are simply eating dinner. Sweeping those gnats and mosquitoes out of the air as easily as a humpback harvests krill. And each sweep is one less skeeter to annoy our hot summer nights -- if they ever get here.

As I watched one swallow spiral up into a stall and hurtle toward the earth, I glimpsed a contrail catching the last rays of Thursday. And at the head was an airplane. Heading south -- perhaps where the swallows lived these last few months.

And I recalled a summer day -- maybe 40 years -- in our back yard, looking up at another contrail and thinking I would some day be on that plane heading to Mexico.

And I will.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

mexican rx -- III

The model most discussed on the internet to resolve the drug problem is the legalization of drugs. (There may be some connection, but that is a topic for another day.)

This is the point where someone trots out on stage the hoary example of prohibition. The act is usually introduced as: “The Lessons We Learned from Prohibition.” Apparently, Prohibition is a one-act pony because the lesson we learned is -– don’t. The Lessons of Prohibition seem to be first cousin to What We Learned in Vietnam and What I Learned from Elizabeth Taylor about Marriage.

What we have learned from Prohibition is far more complex than “Just Say No.” Recent studies have shown that there were positive benefits derived from Prohibition. The most obvious is the United States went from a cheap booze country, where a large portion of the population spent a good portion of the day falling-down drunk only to sober up enough to get falling-down drunk at night, to a country that has one of the lowest alcohol consumption rates in the western world.

But there was a cost. And it was a cost that Americans no longer wanted to endure. At first, they did not want to endure the problems caused by alcohol. Then they did not want to endure the burgeoning police state required to enforce Prohibition. Even worse, the reform-minded busy bodies learned a lesson: it is feels good to have the power of government to regulate personal choices –- as long as you get to choose what is being regulated. (We will come back to the "r" word.)

As far as I know, no one has seriously talked about legalizing the sale of all drugs to all comers. And we all know that any good proposal can quickly turn into a lions meet hyenas confrontation once details come into play. For now, we will keep this on a theoretical plane and talk about legalization as a concept.

Would there be benefits? Of course, there would. If drugs were legal, there would be no economic need for cartels or drug enforcement officials or any of the restricted freedoms related to drug enforcement. People could choose to be as good as they want to be.

Of course, it is not all wine and roses. There are some costs. And some high ones. In my work as a criminal defense attorney and as a volunteer with the Salvation Army, I have seen – and still see –- what drugs do to lives.

The physical costs are the most obvious. I have seen young men and women in their 20s who looked as if they were in their 50s or 60s. But the social costs are high, as well. Every addict is a lost life –- lost to themselves, to their families, to their communities.

No one knows whether drug usage would increase with legalization. The experience of The Netherlands is that it will.

We libertarians (and our utilitarianist allies) need to be willing to pay the social costs that will accompany legalization. (At this point, I will confess that I do not believe that any real form of legalization will occur in the United States. Even if such a proposal could be entertained in this populist era, it would founder on the reef of details. But it is fun to pretend we are all back in college sitting in the dorm hallway at 2 in the morning discussing Big Ideas and fixing the mess created by the older generation. I guess that would now be: us.)

Here are some obvious social costs –- besides the danger of increased drug usage. Someone needs to pick up the bill for drug treatment programs. There are three obvious sources. First, private health insurance. Not every drug addict is homeless and jobless. If there are additional demands for drug treatment programs, private health insurance premiums will increase. Second, public health costs will increase. Third, those of us involved with private charities (such as, the Salvation Army) had better get ready for additional fund raising duties.

This is the point where someone will point out, I support legalization, but only if it is regulated and taxed by government. To that I respond, why would anyone want to give the Mafia’s power to government? If government regulates drugs, there will still be a market for organized drug cartels –- unless governments are going to sell illegal drugs at less-than-cost prices. That prospect is more than disturbing.

I am not an advocate of governmental power –- especially when it comes to economic or social engineering. As a rule, government makes every situation worse through the rule of unintended consequences.

The monopolistic power of government should be used cautiously, but it has legitimate uses. The trick is knowing the difference.
  • Governments often pass “good” laws that most citizens choose to ignore – like speed laws.
  • When racial discrimination became a moral embarrassment, Congress passed comprehensive laws against it. Discrimination did not disappear, but it receded.
  • Slavery was such a moral cancer that the only option was for one part of the nation to rise up against the other to outlaw slavery and to preserve the Union.

I doubt that the drug issue falls precisely into any of the three examples listed above. But I am certain that no matter how much we hate the results of drug abuse, a law is not going to correct the situation.

If we maintain the war mentality, the issue will not be resolved – and much bad can (and will) come of it. That leaves legalization as the best option and with some of the worst possible results.

Here is the dilemma for Mexico. America needs to make up its collective mind about how it wants to treat drugs. Until Americans are willing to make the hard decisions, Mexicans cannot make sound policy decisions.

Our decisions are tearing apart a country that does not need any excuse for more violence. It simply is not fair to my new neighbors.