Sunday, August 31, 2008

naked youth

Earlier this month, this blog sped past the 10,000 hits mark. At the time, several of us had an in-depth discussion about what the number meant.

Our conclusion? Not much. Someone (maybe me) tossed out the idea that any blog could engender hits with the right combination of words in titles and posts. We shall see.

Today's title is not exactly what it seems. Michael Dickson just turned 64, I am not far behind him. On Friday a friend from my Air Force days also had a birthday.

I coincidentally ran across this picture today.

The year is 1973 -- Memorial Day. I joined my friends Robin (the birthday boy), Dennis, and Diane, Dennis's wife, on a water-ski camping trip to Lake McClure in central California. I was getting ready to leave for an assignment in Greece. The year I had spent in California was to turn out to be one of my fondest memories.

But none of us knew that at the time. We were simply youn
g and having fun.

As we grow older, we tend to get very self-conscious about our appearance. I have a friend who has two rules about old swim suit pictures:

1. If found, destroy them.

2. If rule #1 is not followed, hide them in the underwear drawer. (A
very odd place, if you ask me.)

So, what do I do? I publish my self-incriminating photograph -- because it is a part of who I am -- or was.

Robin: happy birthday. Dennis, Diane: May life be very good for you. Steve: Go put on some electronic pants.

If that was not good enough for your daily laugh, try this one.
Steve Cotton in his late 20s in law school. What's with that look?

(Special thanks to Todd of Life in El Corazon for adjusting the quality. The subject, he could not help.)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

one good turner deserves another

I was quickly flipping through my photographs of my most recent trip to Melaque. And this one stopped me in mid-click. Actually, every time I browse through, it always has that effect.

There is almost something other-worldly about it. As if sunsets do not really look like this.

But they do. I was there. This is no artist's rendition.

And that last comment triggered the memory. It all came rushing back to me.

The year was 1975. I had been in England for less than two weeks, and found myself in one of the tourist temples of London: the National Gallery. In my self-assured early 20s, I had convinced myself that if I was looking at anything other than impressionism, it simply was not art.

But a master taught me I was wrong. In one room, there was painting after painting of Turners. I am certain I must have studied his work in college, but my pro-impressionist prejudice was riding high in the saddle even then.

I had never seen light displayed in such a non-realistic way -- remember this fellow is classified as a romantic. Even the impressionists did not capture light this successfully.

But a Melaque sunset does. What I saw in the sky was every bit as artistic as a Turner.

And I hope to see that canvas again soon.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

who took a left turn on the dharma wheel?

I thought we had stumbled into a convention of Prius owners. Wait a minute, this is the Oregon State Fair -- home of the corn dog, elephant ears, and deep-fried Twinkies. What is with the natural fibers, crystals, and Birkenstocks?

Then I remember. We are heading to the amphitheater to see Garrison Keillor -- the very essence of establishment liberalism with just enough midwestwen nostalgia to create the illusion of cultural worlds fused.

Tonight I am here with the parents of Beth (
Minto Dog). Her parents are two of the most faithful readers of this blog -- and they were kind enough to insist on paying my way. And I thank them thoroughly for sponsoring the grist for this day's blog bread.

Garrison is an interesting character -- a phenomenon in his own right to a certain class of Americans. His eccentricity is legend -- his red tennis shoes being but one example.

Coming on stage, he invited the audience to stand and join him in singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Now, mind you, this is Oregon. We have no professional sports teams -- with the exception of the Trailblazers. And we thrive in a postmodern world. Asking us to stand, sing, and seem patriotic all at the same time is a bit of a challenge. The nervous fumblings for long-forgotten lyrics and fear of having neighbors see this public exhibition earned all of us a barely passing grade.

And take a guess at how we unchurched Oregonians did with the gospel singalong during the intermission. The woman standing next to me joined me in getting a bit carried away -- outing our Pentecostal roots. But sing we did.

There is some magic in all live entertainment. Especially when the live entertainment is surrounded by fair life. When the sun set, the Ferris wheel and its lights looked as if Buddha's wheel was about to roll into the amphitheater.

Eyes roamed from the stage. Watching the audience. Watching the fair action. Watching the show. People catching one another's gazes. Nodding. Connecting. Swimming in the life that flowed from the stage.

The show was the catharsis. But the true enjoyment was connecting with the audience -- especially with Beth and her parents.

What could have been a night reduced to a social stereotype, turned out to be a full (and long) evening of simply being alive with strangers and neighbors.

And we cannot ask much more than that of any evening.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

burn, baby, burn

This morning, I am sending off a letter that marks a milestone in my adult life. It is the payoff check for my house mortgage. For the first time in my life, I will own my home outright.

And, yes, I know: I am about to incur debt as I fix up the house for sale. But for one brief shining moment, I will tread upon hardwood floors and manicured lawns that I am not renting from the bank. There are earls and dukes who have not felt that sense of financial freedom.

Then, if all goes well, I will be relieved of any further duties of home ownership once the house sells.

I once read that no man is free unless he can carry everything he owns on his back. I often have romantic notions that I truly believe that. I will certainly have an opportunity to put the adage to the test these next few months as I sort through all I own.

But I will not be sorting if I continue to write.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

this little piggie went to market

Several of our fellow bloggers have recently posted food prices in Mexico. I really appreciated that information because I am trying to put together a retirement budget that will not make me the poster boy for the AARP's next propaganda campaign starring senior cat food gourmets.

On the way home, I stopped by Safeway to leave behind $52.55 in exchange for the cornucopia pictured above. (I can hear the underwhelming applause already.)

What makes those Safeway trips so worthwhile, though, is when the clerk folds up the receipt (giving the impression that the three sacks, you can carry out on your own, are filled with thousands of treasures from the far corners of the world), and says with all the sincerity of a presidential candidate: "Mr. Cotton, you saved $15.71 today." As if the subtext were: "Three more visits and you will have saved enough for that villa in Tuscany."

Here is how all those savings break down:

6 bottles Diet Coke (on special): $5.67 (plus $.30 deposit -- this is the People's Republic of Oregon, after all)
Dozen corn tortillas: $1.99
Jar of jalapeño peppers: $2.29
2 pints ice cream: $7.00

Dozen eggs (free range): $4.19
Baguette: $.99
English cucumber: $.99
Sweet mini peppers: $2.99
Sweet onions ($4.99 lb.): $2.63
Organic heirloom tomatoes ($4.99 lb.): $10.93
Olives ($8.99 lb.): $4.09
Hummus: $2.50
Feta: $5.99

And this is a perfect example of why the question "How much will it cost me to live in Mexico?" is a veritable Gordian knot. How would you translate a shopping list like this to my shopping experiences in Melaque? Over half of the items would not be available. The half that is similar to products in a Mexican market simply have different costs.

I finally have based my budget on some good advice from "Mexico" Mike Nelson in Live Better South of the Border in Mexico. He suggests discounting your current grocery bill by 10% and you will be close. Based on what I have seen in Mexican markets, knowing my habits, and learning from my fellow bloggers, I think Mike is correct.

So what did I do with my purchases? A good portion (cucumber, tomatoes, onion, olives, peppers, and feta) ended up in my Never-the-Same-Spoonful-Twice Greek Salad with a fresh mint and lemon dressing.

I may not be able to create the same salad in Mexico, but it will have a close cousin with some Mexican roots. After all, its Greek parentage was long ago smothered by the raw silk pillow of nouvelle cuisine.

Monday, August 25, 2008

give us this day

While walking around Melaque during a very hot afternoon, I stopped in the local parish church (Parroquia de San Patricio). I had not yet seen it.

From the outside, it appears to be under construction. What looks unfinished is an ingenious design to circulate air.

The temperature was markedly lower inside -- almos
t as if a cooler was installed. I sat and enjoyed the refreshing air.

The interior was lightly decorated. But that was not what caught my eye. The first thing I noticed was el perro under the pew in front of me. Spread eagle on the cool marble, he appeared to be contentedly involved in the prayers that each simple dog prays. Daily bread. Forgiveness.

We can learn much from our best friends.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

can't stop the music

When did the music stop?

Babs and I had a comments discussion about a shocking change in my life. At least, she thought it was shocking. I thought it was odd.

For the past 59 years, I have lived in a world of music -- as a performer and as a listener. Church music. Orchestra music. Theater music. Mimicry music. Jazz.

I subscribe to several season tickets for music events. I go on cruises primarily to enjoy live music.

So, imagine my surprise when I realized I have stopped listening to music in my car. Ar home. At work. And I have been regularly missing concerts.

What happened?

I still don't know. I suppose I started doing other things -- like blogging, reading, sorting junk. None of those events lend themselves to listening to and analyzing music. I will always concentrate on one at the expense of the other.

I thought of this last night as I was waiting in my truck before attending a local community theater production of Guys and Dolls. I know every line. Every note. Every word. And I knew the audience crowd was prepared to give a rousing standing ovation before they had heard a single familiar note. It is a crowd that knows what it likes -- and it likes what it knows.

While sitting there, I inserted a CD of Stephen Sondheim's Passion -- the veritable antithesis of Guys and Dolls -- into my truck's CD player. The work has been called Sondheim's most personal work. It is about the varied aspects of love. It has never worked very well for me. The play is based on a second-rate Italian movie. Too melodramatic for my taste. Lines like: "I have been going through a period of great melancholy" are seldom greeted with the guffaws they deserve.

But the music is sublime. The oboe moan that underlines the silly line above saves it from being mere dross. Sondheim actually makes the book work. His music mocks sentimental love and underscores the pain and death of true love. I truly appreciate the score.

Strange enough, after listening to Sondheim's great music, listening to Frank Loesser's indifferently-performed score was actually enjoyable. I simply enjoyed it for what it was.

And I suspect that the music is back. I am listening to and deconstructing Passion as I write.

The female lead declares at one point: "I read to dream; I read to live in other people's lives."

Not me, Fosca. I read and I listen to enjoy the life I have.

the big event

This has been a big week.

The biggest event, of course, was meeting with my realtor and starting the process of getting the house in shape to maximize its sales potential.

I cannot overemphasize what a big step it was. Caesar may have crossed his Rubicon, but I did not realize the symbolism, of getting this house to the market. Parting with it is a certain sign that I am leaving. Playing Hamlet during the past six months ("to rent or not to rent") was merely an avoidance device.

I suspect that most of my friends still feel that my discussion of moving to Mexico is not going to occur. Publishing the blog convinced some. But getting the house ready for market has made believers out of others. When it sells, the Thomases shall cease doubting.

Coincidentally, another event happened this week: I received a letter informing me that I am eligible to receive my Air Force retirement pay in less than five months. I had already submitted my paper work. But the eligibility letter -- with an estimated payment amount -- made that part of my retirement a bit more tangible.

Any regrets on my part? None. At most, I am feeling excited about starting a new life.

If I am anxious about anything, it is all of the sorting I need to do before I can get on with selling the house. But my realtor is great. She will be a great asset in the next few months.

And it is now that I will rely upon my fellow bloggers and readers. Many of you have gone through this process. Your advice and support -- and especially warnings -- will be greatly appreciated.

Friday, August 22, 2008

before pinot noir

Ask any American of a certain age and class what Oregon grape is, and you will get a sneer and a curt response: "Pinot noir, what else?" And possibly, with a slight disdain: "You certainly do not mean pinot gris, do you?"

No, I don't. I don't mean either. Before Oregon joined the snooty wine and cheese set, Oregon grape was a humble shrub that looked as if it was the love child of holly and barberry. A delightful yellow flower (the state flower, by the way) in the spring results in these fascinating berry clusters (pictured above) this time of year.

I wanted to share this picture -- merely for the color and shape of the berries and foiliage. But, I just discovered something new (to me) about the "grapes."

Not surprisingly, Oregon grape grows everywhere near my home. I now discover that birds love the berries. In all of my years of birding, I have never seen a bird eat an Oregon grape. On the other hand, until I moved into my current house -- that is under siege by English ivy -- I had never seen birds eat ivy berries. But birds love them -- especially starlings, if you can call them birds.

And one more little note of interest: people eat Oregon grapes -- mainly in jams and jellies. (Perhaps Jennifer Rose could post something about stuff that Oregon people like.) Often combined with salal berries. I would be interested to hear if anyone has tried Oregon grape jam. Sounds interesting. Apparently, the local Indians tribes found both berries to be a good food source.

It may not be Mexican archaeology, but food is always a good discussion topic.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

rosy red hips

Red. As ruby red as Dorothy's slippers. And every bit as gaudy as a harlot sitting at the city gate.

Jiggs was off somewhere looking for delicaies that only geese and cats can leave behind. But the red caught my attention. Perhaps that is how John Reed went astray.

My first question was: "What are they?" Had Aristotle been with me, he would have suggested discerning their essence. That other voice would be Carl Linnaeus reminding us that Aristotle was not entirely incorrect, but the correct inquiry is determining observable characteristics.

Their conclusion? They look like radishes. They must be radishes.

Of course, they would be wrong. Because these are the fruit of the wild rose. Hips that will bear a male child -- and female, as well. The rose, like all flowers, being the proud possessor of all the parts needed to pop out the next generation.

When I walk by next summer (if I am visiting from my home in Mexico), there will be more fruit. And more roses. And more discussions between Aristotle and Linnaeus. Because the circle moves on -- and we move with it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

new lamps for old

Eighty-one years old and ready (or almost) to go on the selling block. My house, that is.

My great uncle taught me that you should never judge a horse until you have seen its rear end. (He may have been talking about politicians, but I think the comparison would be slightly modified). So, here it is from the back. My house. Or what it looked like this spring. There is much more greenery today.

I met with my realtor on Tuesday afternoon, and we had a long talk about the housing market in Oregon. She gave me an estimated listing price. I was not surprised. I have never considered my house to be an investment. And she verified that it is not.

Now, I need to take some steps to add to the house's marketability. Some cosmetic. Some expensive. But it will cost me no more than about a year's worth of house payments.

I will be talking to the same contractor who painted my kitchen, and the trim on the house 15 years ago. It will be nice to work with him again.

When he is done, the house will go on the market. And I will be one step closer to making the move south. If it sells before I leave, I will find a place to rent. If it does not sell before I leave -- Well, I will think about that possibility when it occurs.

For now, I need to keep moving room to room and start dumping out excess clothes and possessions. The Salvation Army may be able to live for a month off of my rummage donations.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

charlotte knows her abcs

I almost missed seeing her and her handiwork. The morning sun was low and bright -- and behind me. I was as unaware of her presence as any bumbling Blue Bottle.

As I passed a glint caught my eye. Thy ere she was. A common garden spider. But she had picked as her hunting territory the middle of my neighbor's front yard. What amazed was the absence of any nearby anchorage for her web. She had managed to attach her master guy wires from points on the lawn to a tree nearly ten feet away. No roustabout for Barnum could have set better lines.

Such a clever girl. I almost expected her to start weaving messages for the passing commuters. But no E.B. White spider she.

She had work to complete. The day was starting and she had not yet finished putting her last strands of death in place.

To me, on that morning with my dog, she was a better busker than any Manhattan performance artist. I would have left her a dollar, but it would have been as useless to her as her creation was calming to me. And her senses were not designed for my eccentric applause.

She was a being of purpose. And I had to pass by. To leave what was ephemeral and probably destroyed by the evening. I just hope she dined well.

Monday, August 18, 2008

won't you be my neighbor?

This photograph is my past and my future. Rather, it is the past and future of my house in Salem.

In the early 90s, I would sit in the research room of the Oregon Archives and look across the lawn to a Tudor-style house. The house set a tone for the entire neighborhood. There was something vaguely Wayne Manor and Mister Rogers about the place.

When a house came available in the neighborhood, I bought it immediately. And there I have lived for 15 years.

Late last year, the owner of the Tudor house died and the heirs put it on the market. "Market" may not be the correct word. It appears to have slipped into a financial warp. In the time it has been on the market, the asking price has been cut by 20%, and it sits unsold looking as if few buyers are interested.

Why does the fate of the house matter -- other than we all care when something like the housing market shows sign of distress? The answer is simple: if that house is having troubles in this market, so will mine.

Here is where we are on moving plans. I do not have a date certain for retirement yet. But let's use April 2009 as a target date. I have three options: 1) sell the house; 2) let it lie fallow for the first 6 months of renting in Mexico, and 3) rent it out.

If I am going to choose option 1 or 3, I have a lot to do around the house to get it into market shape. Most of those things involve the fact that I have had a large dog living in the house. A large dog that was a very destructive puppy. That also gives you a hint of how long some of these repairs have been pending. The dog is 12 and a half years old.

Items like new carpets and refinishing hardwood floors make no sense while Jiggs is still living in the house. But his new-found health may mean that I need to work around him.

Taking into account how long my neighbor's house has been on the market, I had best start talking with my realtor to see what I need to do to attract buyers. At least, I could then get a plan put together.

I know that several of you put plans together that took longer than you had originally thought.

I am not opposed to leaving the house unoccupied in my absence. And, if I cannot find a willing buyer or renter, I may need to do that (or some version).

Does anyone have a better idea? (I have already thought about just jumping in the Escape with Jiggs and leaving my keys with the realtor. Who knows? It just may come to that.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

dog heaven

No. I do not have bad news to convey. Instead, I have just a short note.

We have been having some very hot weather in Oregon the last few days. I tried to avoid using the air conditioner -- on the theory I need to tough out the weather by acclimating to the heat. I soon surrendered and turned it on -- only to have the system blow up (literally) yesterday afternoo
n at the height of the heat.

Jiggs was beginning to show som
e symptoms of heat fatigue. So, off I went to Fred Meyer to buy a fan. My experience has been that American department stores are no better at stocking merchandise in emergencies than were the Russians under the soviet system (when every day was a crisis). But there was a large selection. I grabbed one.

While talking with the sales clerk about my unit blowing up, the woman behind me said: "Good." I looked at her and she continued: "Now maybe you rich people will know what we poor people go through every day." It made me wonder if we should all start rehearsing as extras in the second act of
Les Misérables.

Because the weather had not cooled down by noon today, I took Jiggs to the creek for a quick dip. I usually do not let him in because
his coat is a silt magnet. But today he had the time of his life.

He merely lies down in the water doing his best crocodile impression. But, as you can see from the picture at the top of this post, he is a happy crocodile -- perhaps, auditioning for the role of The Joker.

And after a nice swim, everybody enjoys a nap at the beach.

going to health

"Where is medical care on your list of factors?"

During the past two weeks, I have received several comments and email from people who were convinced that I had left out the most important factor for retirement: medical services.

I did not forget it. It is simply one of those factors that does not register very high on my list of concerns. If my employer did not provide "free" health insurance, I would not buy it for myself. In the United States that would be a somewhat risky proposition -- if only because of the high cost of medical bills if I guess wrong.

There are many reasons why medical care in the United States is so expensive. And because there are so many reasons, most of the fast fixes that politicians propose will simply not work. As a result, the medical community and the public are caught in a mutual suicide pact that is simply unsustainable.

Most people who ask me about medical care in Mexico are only slightly veiling the subtext of their question. The real question is: don't you fear for your life in a Mexican hospital?

The quick answer is no -- because the question is based on a false premise. Mexico does suffer a lack of rural health care -- just like in the United States. The more remote, the less care.

But almost every population center has a core of highly-trained physicians and modern hospitals to provide excellent medical care. And that is where most Americans get worried. If the care is excellent, it must also be expensive.

That is merely the automatic reflex that health insurance companies have taught us to believe. When I grew up in rural Oregon without health insurance, affordable health care was just miles away. Not any more. The moment that the patient ceased to be the consumer, the system was doomed to end up where it now is.

Even though some Americans label Mexico as a socialist country (even I have fallen into the trap), it is far more free market-oriented than my paternalistic home state of Oregon. Health care works in Mexico because patients are customers.

If you pick up any book on Mexico, you can read about any number of foreigners who have suffered some major medical crisis with attendant hospitalization, who have paid the full bill and cash and who have spent little more than a cruise in the Caribbean. Health insurance and "single payer" governmental health schemes have not yet caused medical expenses in Mexico to sky rocket.

Mexico also has a system designed to provide basic medical care for Mexican workers:
Mexican Institute of Social Security (Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social -- or, as it is often abbreviated: IMSS). The system was not designed for foreigners, but anyone with a valid FM-3 or FM-2 visa can sign up for a very small annual premium.

The care is similar to that provided by public medicine throughout the world. The doctors often work for IMSS part-time, and part-time in their private practices. But, like every public health system, services are rationed through the age-old method of sitting and waiting. Many foreigners buy IMSS coverage as catastrophic insurance and then pay out of their pockets for day-to-day services.

That gives you an idea why medical care is not a big issue for me.

Now I need to come clean with a full disclosure. When I move to Mexico, I will not be running naked -- in an insurance sense. As a retired federal officer, I am entitled to medical insurance (TRICARE) that will reimburse me for some of my costs. And even though Medicare does not currently cover retirees in Mexico (and I will buy a large sombrero to enjoy for
la cena if Congress ever approves that drain on a hemorrhaging system), if I register for Medicare and purchase Medicare B, TRICARE for Life will continue to reimburse some of my expenses.

I have friends my age (pre-65) who have purchased health insurance in the States and in Mexico. They are healthier than I am, but they fear the unexpected. I simply do not have those fears.

And I guess that is the moral: if you feel you need to give more money to the insurance industry to buy yourself some piece of mind, Mexico is a place that gives you the freedom to do that. But it also gives you a fighting chance to be able to rely on your own resources and still meet your medical needs.

I will call to the stand, one of my blogger colleagues, Theresa of ¿What do I do all day? originally posted on Moving Kids to Mexico:

We decided to be self-insured. With the price of health care in Merida compared to California, we spend what would be our co-pays and see specialists without having to ask permission. Some of our friends have IMSS insurance, which is the national health care. It goes by age, but even the most expensive premium (for age 60 and above) is around $300 USD per year. But even without health insurance, a general practitioner costs around $150 MXP and a specialist at the state-of-the- art Star Medica costs $500 MXP. And this is not a 15-minute visit; it's as long as you need. Our neighbor was in the hospital for a week, he had emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction, he was in a private room in Clinica Merida which until Star Medica was built was the #1 hospital here. His total bill for everything was $70,000 MXP including a couple of days in ICU. The private room was $900 MXP. Really, I have known people to go into the hospital and their co-pay was more than the approximately $7,000 USD our neighbor paid, and they certainly didn't get the same level of care. If he had gone to the IMSS hospital he wouldn't have had a private room, but he would have had the same doctors and not paid a thing! Merida is where they send everyone from the peninsula and even from Belize and further south. So unless you are living in a pueblito, don't sweat the health care. It's a bargain.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

to B -- or to B minus

I gave the accountants at Price Waterhouse an extra day to tabulate the ballots on how I think Melaque stacks up against the 13 factors I set up back in December.

A few of you have hinted that the exercise was simply an attempt on my part to find several other postings before I slip back into discussing life in Oregon. And you were correct.

However, I thought it might make sense to look at why I am likely to choose the course I will for this coming year.

So, here they are with their respective grades. I added a small weighting calculation to reflect the changing priority of the factors. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow weather will be the most important factor. But not today.

I tried setting this up as a fancy HTML table, but failed. It will look sloppy, but the factor is followed by its weight and its grade.

university nearby -- 2 D-
archaeological sites within driving distance -- 3 B
central location for other archaeological sites -- 3 B
warm, sunny days; cool nights -- 1 F
new acquaintances; some with a love of food -- 3 A-
the challenge of a new language -- 3 A
time to read; time to learn; time to rest -- 3 A
daily learning to survive -- 2 B
facing mountains of difficulties -- 2 B
long walks with Professor Jiggs -- 1 A
living outside of a car -- 3 B
offering help to others graciously -- 3 A
accepting help from others -- 3 A

I should note that Melaque gets about another 10 bonus points simply because it is next to the ocean.

By my very non-academic reckoning, that gives Melaque a good solid B+.

So, what does all that mean?

Not a whole lot really. Other than what we all knew from my first impressions of Melaque.

Melaque is certainly not the perfect place for me to end up. I doubt that such a place exists. But it certainly is good enough for me to start talking about moving dates.

And that topic will develop over the next few months as I decide when to retire, when to leave for Mexico, and what to do with my house in Salem.

Friday, August 15, 2008

canine toleration

Old age means realizing you will never own all the dogs you wanted to.

Well, I am certainly learning a lot about heat and Professor Jiggs.

We are about to enter a series of days with temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s. When I got home today, the air conditioning was on, but Jiggs was upstairs where the air conditioning does not reach.

When I let him out, he stayed out for about three minutes and came back into the house. Obviously, it was just too hot.

But when I went out to sit in the shade of the back yard, he was willing to stay out -- and has been out there all evening.
I thought when I came in to work on the computer, he would follow. Instead, he has been barking at me to get back outside.

As long as I provide water for him (and he is ready to drink his fill), he is happy to be out on the lawn -- even if it is still 85 degrees.

I thought about camping out on the grass with him tonight, but the mosquitoes appear to be doing squadron maneuvers in force. I will see if I can cajole him back into the house.

If he survives until I leave, he just may be able to withstand the heat of Melaque.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

10 grand with a bullet

I thought I would take a little pause in my Melaque grading to discuss a topic that comes up now and then on almost every blog.

If you notice, just to the right of this post, I have a new (temporary) counter. I moved the icon from its cozy little home at the bottom of my lists. The other day, I noticed that I was about to have hit number 10,000 on my site since I started counting in April.

The hit that tripped the counter could not have been more emblematic of blog surfers if I had picked it myself. Someone in California googled "lanyard for my mom" and up popped my post on Billy Collins's poem "The Lanyard." Apparently, my blog did not contain what the googlenaut sought because the surface of my little pond was left unexplored.

I find that encounter interesting because this is not a poetry site, but I get a lot of visitors seeking poetry. And, like all other bloggers, I lament the fact that the visitor came, but I did not have an opportunity to share cocoa and cookies, let alone a fine meal with conversation.

My friends are a bit amused (some bemused) at my sudden fascination with blogging. I like the community. I simply like the tactile sense of writing. But most of all I like making contact with new people.

In the last two days, I have had hits from Britain, Italy, Australia, Italy, Russia, and Germany (in addition to the majority of hits from Canada, the States, and Mexico). I just wish that each visitor would leave a small note to let us know a little bit about their own stories.

In truth, though, I know that I will sit here watching the numbers turn (though I will now revert to my more subtle meter nestled like a worm in an acorn), waiting silently for messages that will not arrive. Whoever thought that I would end up as an electronic Emily Dickinson -- without the poet talent?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

new ways to dream

Factor #12 -- offering help to others graciously
Factor #13 -- accepting help from others

In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tells us that as a young man of 20, he attempted to develop a system that would improve his character. He identified 13 virtues (frugality, sincerity, justice, and the like), worked on one virtue each week, and then moved on to the next. The system was ingenious because he could complete the list in a quarter of a year; in a full year he worked on each virtue four times.

He eventually abandoned the project. One reason: he found that he was proud of his work on humility.

And that sentence encapsulates the problem of discussing today's topic. Post-modernism has warped ethical discussions. Franklin would have laughed at the oxymoronic quip; Paris Hilton would happily show her pride in her humility.

Like Franklin, I have long worked at developing my character. The issue that keeps surfacing is that almost every one of my vices centers around me -- that is, I center everything around me. To counter that, I have been working on offering help to others graciously, and accepting help from others. The question is whether living in Mexico will make the task easier or more difficult.

I am not talking about mere charity (in the demeaned contemporary use of that word). Instead, I am seeking the classic disciplines of simplicity, submission, and service. All offered with love and grace. Without the pollution of self-aggrandizement and paternalism. (Now, you see why I started with a discussion of Franklin. I am sinking in my own philosophical trap.)

The corollary of putting oneself after all others is being willing to accept help when it is offered or needed. In ten years of attending my church, I have been an active member of our prayer team. Not once have I asked for a prayer about any of my concerns or needs. That either shows an immense lack of faith or an overabundance of hubris.

Of course, there is a cost. While typing this post, I noticed that a blue, brown, and copper butterfly (a hedgerow hairstreak, I believe) managed to trap itself in the sun room where I am working. I very carefully used a glass and paper to capture it -- in the hope that I could avoid having it lose too many scales from its wings. It had no notion that I was trying to help. As far as it knew, I was going to eat it.

I walked outside with it, admiring how small, fragile, and beautiful it was. Butterflies always look like animated Fabergé eggs to me. I carefully took the paper off the glass. The butterfly sat motionless until it felt the breeze. It moved. Paused. And flew up as alive as it ever had been -- only to be grabbed by a swallow.

Is this factor still important to me?

If I had to prioritize the factors I have discussed, these two would be at the top.

Grade for Melaque:


In fact, I think I could give an A to anyplace in the world.

Many Mexicans have learned the joy of turning lose of the corrupting power of possessions. Anecdotes are legion where a guest compliments the host about some object, and ends up being the recipient of the admired object.

I am not so naive as to believe that Mexicans do not have the same material desires as other humans. Of course, they do. But it will be a good place for me to learn to give more -- and to be willing to admit that I also have needs.

Next post: the teacher grades the paper

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

magic in the making

Factor # 11 -- living outside of a car

Fifteen years ago, I bought a house in Salem within easy walking distance of my office. I sacrificed living in Portland because I could not stand the commute, and I liked the idea of living in a downtown area where I could walk to almost everything.

For three years my plan worked well. I walked to work. Saw my neighbors. Got to know a lot of the detail about my little capital city.

Then along came Jiggs. Because he was a very small puppy when I got him, I had to let him out every noon. Great. I now had an excuse to get home to have lunch and play with the dog. The problem was that I did not have enough time to walk back and forth to work.

So, I started driving my car to and from work for my lunch break. Jiggs soon developed a strong bladder and bowels, and I did not need to make the drive. But I continued to drive to work.

In 2001 I had a very bad car accident. Car totaled. I was without a car for almost a month. At one point, I decided I would not get a new car. I would walk everywhere in town and rent a car for trips.

That notion lasted a week. But it planted a seed. I now spend very little time in my truck around town. It is 7 years old and I barely have 50,000 miles on it -- mainly from trips to the coast with Jiggs. I find that I notice a lot more when I get out of the truck. I do not want to lose that in Mexico.

Is this factor still important to me?


Grade for Melaque:


Melaque is small enough that it is possible to walk everywhere. The only reason I do not rate it higher is that the markets are a bit far from the house to buy very heavy loads.

And I know the answer to that. If I buy my daily meals on my shopping trips, I should not have that much to carry. I could probably do that in the States, as well, if I did not buy a dozen 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke at one time.

Next post: offering help to others graciously -- accepting help from others

Monday, August 11, 2008

paws in the sand

Factor #10 -- long walks with Professor Jiggs before breakfast and after sunset

Any parent who has ever tried to take a photograph of an unwilling child can appreciate the result posted here. My good pal, Professor Jiggs, has never liked cameras. His portraits look as if they were made during one of those 1950s duck and cover exercises.

For 12 years, he has been a major part of my life. If you were to listen to him, I never do anything with him. But I have tried to modify my life to take him with me wherever I go. As a result, I have turned down many engagements over the years.

The beach is (or was) his favorite spot to visit. The sand. The surf. The birds. But, most of all, the smells. For several years, I would drive to the beach with him every Saturday morning and we would spend hours enjoying the simple pleasures of the ocean. I credit Jiggs with teaching me the value of simple things. Sticks. Salty breezes. A plover on her eggs.

When Paul and Nancy moved to Mazatlán with their dogs and talked about evening walks along the beach, I knew there was an additional reason to move to Mexico. Of course, the timing would need to be modified for the heat. No big deal. Jiggs and I already have a routine of taking walks early in the morning and late at night.

Then time started taking its toll on him. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that last December he suffered the start of a series of leg problems. It was bad enough in December that I thought I would have to put him down then. Trouper that he is, he has managed to work around his limited use of his back legs.

It cannot go on much longer. The cortisone shots are coming far too close together. He can climb stairs, but he cannot jump out of my truck. When I took him to the veterinarian on Friday, the doctor had to come out to the truck to conduct his examination.

One of these days I will post something on how my generation has managed to over-sentimentalize our relationships with pets. I am certainly one of the worst offenders, and I can even find the point in my life when it began.

At least twenty years ago, I read one of those human interest stories that usually populate the Living section of newspapers. I do not recall the topic of the column, but the writer made a passing reference to looking into the imploring eyes of her dog, with whom she had spent joyous stick-fetching years at the beach, and seeing that the time had come to put him down. I remember thinking: "I wish I could have a dog to experience a moment like that."

I hope I did not spend these last 12 years with Jiggs just to lead up to that one terrible moment that has yet to occur. But occur it will -- and soon. Probably, sooner than my move to Mexico.

Is this factor still important to me?

I really don't know.

Grade for Melaque:


Melaque is a great beach town for dogs. I posted pictures earlier of two Irish Setters and a German Shepherd who regularly played on the beach in front of the house where I intend to stay.

However, there are dangers for any dog in Melaque. Many of the street dogs are very territorial and will attack to show their dominance.

All of that assumes that I will have a dog with me. I doubt Professor Jiggs will make the trip -- even if he is still alive.

But I can certainly take those walks. And think of how much he would enjoy each step and smell.

And there is always the possibility of bringing another dog into my life. But it is far too early to think about that.

Right now, I need to stop typing and take my joy boy for the walks he still enjoys.

Next post:
living outside of a car

Sunday, August 10, 2008

kant see the woods

A friend sent me this video clip. It is one of the most hilarious and creative things I have seen in a long time. Who would ever think that Kant, Nietzsche, and attack political ads could be this funny.

Or maybe it is just this incredibly boring election year that makes Kant humorous.

Enjoy. (Thanks to my blogger friend, Nancy. She walked me through the process. It actually works.)

everests of opportunity

Factor # 8 -- daily learning to survive
Factor # 9 -- facing mountains of difficulties; and being repeatedly crushed

"Why Mexico? Why don't you retire in one of those nice communities in Arizona?" I have heard those exact words -- or variations -- almost every week since I decided to retire in Mexico.

The subtext, of course, goes something like this. Live somewhere safe. Somewhere comfortable. With the type of people you have known all your life.

Sounds like a cemetery to me. "There is plenty of time for comfort in the grave."

I have seen these communities. Do any of you remember the television series "The Prisoner" from the 1960s? That is exactly how I envision a safe, comfortable retirement.

Because I thought that was what retirement meant, I had almost feared the prospect of quitting my job and moving on to a different life. In my job life, each day is a struggle to survive, but I learn a lot about myself and life every time I get crushed.

The moment I decided that I wanted to move to Mexico, all of my retirement concerns disappeared. The aspects of my work life that allow me to enjoy life would certainly exist south of the border.

I want to wake up each morning not being certain that I will know how to make it through the day. I am not talking about despair. What I want are challenges. Mexico will offer that. I will need to learn how to shop, how to find new foods, what I need to do to keep the electricity running to the house.

I was prepared to go so far as to live in Chacala (enticed through Andee's blog) where there is only 4 hours of water supply available each day -- when the pumps have not been vandalized or the wiring stolen. But Andee convinced me that I need a bit more infrastructure to support my adventure.

What I do not want is a large expatriate community to completely relieve the pressure of daily living. I can easily navigate the brie and Chablis crowd, but if that is what I wanted, I could retire to Santa Fe and die the death of a thousand Dorothy Parker cuts.

Is this factor still important to me?

Yes. But it is too philosophical to quantify much more than I have.

Grade for Melaque:


Melaque offers the basic challenges I want out of my retirement. It does not get an A for the reasons I described earlier. I have already discovered several gringo acquaintances during my brief visits to the area. This is one factor that I will need to watch very carefully.

I am subject to the worship of comfort as much as anyone I know. Perhaps even more so. If I am going to make this experiment work, I need to move somewhere I can find difficulties.

Melaque will do for a start.

Next post:
long walks with Professor Jiggs before breakfast and after sunset (and it will be a difficult post)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

who will buy?

Mexico Cooks has written two posts about fresh summer vegetables purchased at Mexican street markets. Her photographs are always as good as her recipes. These are no exception.

But what struck me most is that she has included prices. And I am glad she has. I was beginning to worry that the food budget I had put together for my Mexico adventure was far too low. If I stick with fresh vegetables and fruits, I should be fine.

Her prices also reminded me how expensive our local farmers' markets are. I will start with the proposition that the fruits and vegetables I buy from our street markets have far more flavor and nutrition than most of the items I find at my local Safeway.

Years ago I stopped buying nectarines (one of my favorite fruits) at any chain grocery store. They were inevitably as hard as baseballs.
When I found some softer ones this week at Safeway, I bought them -- only to have my hopes dashed. They were soft because all of them were rotten. Lesson to remember: no more fruit from Safeway.

So off to the Saturday Market I went today. Black cherries. Yellow cherries. Golden nectarines. And in their prime. I bought five nectarines and less than a half kilo of cherries. You can see my haul at the top of this post.

Fruit, like freedom, isn't free. Nor is it inexpensive. Ten dollars! American! Admittedly, the dollar will not buy much overseas. But I really expect to get more for my money than a handful of pit fruits.

Rant done. The cherries were delicious, and the nectarines willingly gave up their -- well, nectar, I guess -- on a pristine bed of Häagen-Dazs vanilla. Hmm. I wish I had bought those fresh raspberries now.

there is a season -- קֹהֶלֶת

Factor #7 -- time to read; time to learn; time to rest

For some that will sound like the rhythm of Ecclesiastes. Those of us lost in the 70s will hear the Byrds' refrain of "Turn, Turn, Turn."

I had nothing quite so poetic in mind when I wrote down that factor. I was simply interested in some place where I could read, where I could learn, and where I could rest -- with no schedule. The time to do either of the three whenever I wanted.

When people ask me what I am going to do in Mexico (and it happened again today), I usually pull out these three practical pursuits: read, learn, rest.

One thing I thoroughly enjoy about Mexico is the lack of a frenetic pace. Now, fellow bloggers, I often hear you talk about relaxation, and the next thing I know you are posting schedules that sound very similar to mine in Salem.

I know the fill-up-the-calendar syndrome can follow us wherever we go. There will always be the business of living that often gets in the way of rest. But the balance, overall, appears to be in favor of rest.

The learning component does not have to be anything formal. I just want to keep my mind challenged by learning new things. Learning Spanish will certainly fill a large part of that need. But I want to learn even more mundane tasks -- how to wire a lamp, how to replace the trap under the sink, how to fix the hot water heater.

Reading is something of an addiction for me. Bliss of 1st Mate tried an experiment of not reading for a week. She learned a lot about herself. But she also learned the value of reading.

Is this factor still important to me?


Grade for Melaque:


My time in Melaque has convinced me that there will be time for rest and learning.

My only concern is reading. There is a book exchange in Villa Obregon. Buying books and magazines will be a challenge. However, I hope to keep up my magazine subscriptions through a mailing service, and several of you have posted internet sites for buying books. It might help to try to compile those in "comments" -- if you would be so kind.

Melaque provides nothing more than almost any place in Mexico could provide for rest, learning, and reading. But it is certainly no worse, either.

Melaque easily passes on this important factor.

Next post: daily learning to survive, and facing mountains of difficulties -- and being repeatedly crushed

Friday, August 08, 2008

a rose in spanish grammar

Factor #6 -- the challenge of a new language

This may seem like one of those factors that would apply to every area of Mexico. But, as every tourist discovers, you can easily visit Mexico without speaking a word of Spanish.

The services that count on tourist dollars hire people who can speak a number of tourist languages -- some extremely well. I remember a young waiter I met this year who spoke impeccable English. It turned out he was in Mexico only temporarily. He was raised in Fort Collins, Colorado.

There are plenty of stories like that. And people who are content with being permanent tourists in Mexico, there is no need to learn a single word of Spanish. We all know people who have been in Mexico for years who have gladly accepted that challenge.

Of course, they do not live in Mexico -- they cannot live when they cannot communicate. I always imagine that Mexico must seem to them about as incomprehensible as Gary Larson's Ginger the cartoon dog, who hears everything as: "Blah blah blah, Ginger." (Sorry for the petty larceny, Jonna.)

I know my limitations. Even though I have dabbled in a few languages over the years, I have been able to use them only after I learn the basics, put them to use on a regular basis (just like a child), and eventually learn to think in the language.

On a blog recently, someone posted a rule related to animal training -- horses, I think. It takes 30 days to teach a horse a command -- and it can be lost with one mere inconsistency. That is me. I cannot have too many English safety valves available or I will never learn Spanish.

I have picked up some great hints on how to start thinking in Spanish. The Learnables offers a good first step. I also have tools to build my vocabulary. I will try to get as much of that accomplished before I head south. But I know I will need to put what I learn in consistent use daily or it will simply slip away from me.

Is this factor still important to me?

Extremely. This is a make or break factor for me.

Grade for Melaque:


Melaque has a very small English-speaking expatriate community. And they do not huddle together as teeming masses. As far as I can tell, the English-speakers are spread throughout the town. As a Mexican tourist town, Spanish is the lingua franca. To survive, I will need to learn and to be brave enough to try out my language skills. And they will develop.

Who knows, I may be teaching that course in Western Civilization 201 at some Mexican university before I am put to my final rest. I may as well aim high.

Next post: time to read; time to learn; time to rest

Thursday, August 07, 2008

feasting and friends

Factor #5 -- new acquaintances; some with a love of food

Friends and food. Two of my favorite things.

One of our fellow bloggers recently noted that she is a fun person, but she is shy and finds it difficult to quickly make new friends. I do not have that problem. I am the annoying guy who sits next to you on the airplane who wants to be your best friend in the whole world -- even though the flight is about a half hour. Is anyone surprised that a golden retriever lives at my house?

I make new acquaintances very quickly. And a good portion of those relationships have lasted for years. I regularly email people who I met 30 years ago and have not seen since.

But I need to have a mine to dig out the ore. There are places where it is very difficult to get to know people.

And I cannot forget the second part of the factor -- love for food. I have few vices. My love for food comes close to making the list, though. And not any food. Good food. Fresh food. Food prepared by my hands or the hands of my friends.

Several years ago, I was a member of a gourmet club. (We used the adjective ironically. None of us were the type of people you would associate with elitist attitudes toward food. You know the type of Gang Member -- those who eat to impress.) Ours was a group who simply liked to try new food adventures. Doing it together was far more fun than doing it alone. The group eventually drifted apart because we all moved to different parts of the country. But I would like to try that idea again in Mexico. After all, new foods will be everywhere.

Is this factor still important to me?


Grade for Melaque:


As I have written earlier, I was amazed at how easy it was to meet new people while I was in Melaque. Some of them were low-hanging fruit: the church members, the people I met last year, the American and Canadian next-door neighbors. I never will make many connections with the tourists in town. But the resident Mexicans will be a great source for new acquaintances. When I told them where I was going to live, they immediately recognized the house and the acquaintanceship door opened wide.

If you take a look at my favorite blogs in the right-hand column, you will find several blogs dedicated to creative cooking in Mexico. They are an inspiration to me. Food is a major part of my life.

On this factor, Melaque will be a great place to start my Mexican adventure.

Next: the challenge of Spanish

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

at least it's a soggy heat

Factor #4 -- warm, sunny days; cool nights

No, it is not one of the songs from Grease; it is one of the factors that I once said would help me in picking where I want to live in Mexico.

This is the point where my legal training jumps into the middle of the path, waves its hands nervously in front of its face, and, in a quavering voice, implores: "Stop. We need to define our terms."

To calm down our Ur-Clio, let me tell you what I mean by "warm" and "cool." I have noticed that on some message boards, members will post such statements as: "I could not live in Morelia; it is way too cold" or "The heat in Veracruz is deadly."

We all have different comfort ranges when temperatures are involved. I doubt there is a household in the world where there is not an ongoing spousal battle over the thermostat.

For me, an ideal day is 55˚ with drizzle and overcast skies. But my comfort envelope goes from about 45˚ to 69˚. 65˚ to 69˚ is warm. Anything over that is hot -- and I will tolerate it. 55˚ to 45˚ is cool.

Is this factor still important to me?

Not very. I am not moving to Mexico for the weather. It is merely a consideration; certainly not a critical issue.

Grade for Melaque:


There is no spinning this factor. If what I want is warm days and cool nights, I will get neither in Melaque. (Look at the forecast for the week.)

My visits in the summer and the winter tell me that the days are hot and the nights are hot.

Even in the winter, I do not recall the temperature in my bedroom dropping below 72˚. The only relief in the winter is that the humidity drops off.

But it does not matter much. I want sunny days to give me an opportunity to get out and see Mexico. And if I want to get away from the heat and humidity, I can travel to the highlands on an archaeological trip.

In one sense, this is like getting an F in physical education.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

all things bright and shiny

Factor #2 -- archaeological sites within driving distance
Factor #3 -- central location for other archaeological sites

"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" One of the classic lines from film.

If I had played the role of Joey, my answer would have been: "You bet, Captain Oveur!"

And I always have. Costume dramas fascinated me as long ago as I can recall. Egyptian. Babylonian. Greek. Roman. It did not matter. I wanted to learn about all of them. In high school, my bedroom looked as if Julius Caesar was moving in. That may be one reason why I grabbed the offer when Uncle Sam offered to send me to Greece as a cold warrior.

I learned to love several things in Greece, but primarily archaeology. I still remember my first sightings of the Parthenon and Acrocorinth. I felt as if I had come home.

Mexico gives me an opportunity to trowel through other layers of civilization. That is why being near archaeological sites is important to me.

Is this factor still important to me?

Apparently, I was not listening to me. Yes. Very important.

Grade for Melaque:


OK. I can hear all of those atlases opening up. If you find Melaque on the west coast and compare it with the archaeological sites everyone seems to visit, you will immediately notice: they are not close to Melaque.

The pyramid of the sun is what most people think of when visiting Mexico -- or any of the other big sites in Oxaca or on the Yucatan. But those places are the Disneylands of archaeology. Big. Bombastic. Reconstructed. And as sterile as my aunt's bathroom.

Now take a look at this map.

You will find no great pyramids. But each dot represents an archaeological site of importance. Some explored. Some not. Some are petroglyphs. Some are small platforms. But they all tell interesting tales of people who lived where I want to live. I suspect I could spend years studying each of these sites.

And recall from my earlier posts. I have already met a retired archaeologist, who lives in Mealque, and who is willing to show me several of these sites.

On this point, Melaque is a winner. I would have awarded an A here, except for the fact that size sometimes matters to me. I like the big sites now and then.

Next post: "warm, sunny days; cool nights" -- I feel another marginal grade on the way.