Tuesday, September 30, 2008

danos hoy nuestro pan cotidiano

On Sunday, Mexico Bob was waxing eloquent over the varying and sometimes indifferent quality of mole sauces in Mexico. It was almost as shocking as hearing that the quality of American home cooking has declined. Hmm. No sense in finishing that paragraph.

I have never been a fan of mole sauces. And I think I know why. I have only had the type of sauces that Bob pans. But his blog included a picture of chicken with mole poblano, rice, and refried beans. Even though I could not whip up a good mole sauce for dinner, I could put together something with the contents of my refrigerator.

The results? I made refried beans with jalapeño peppers and extra sharp cheddar; Bhutanese red rice with sultanas, cinnamon, and nutmeg; and a stir fry of onion, garlic, jalapeño peppers, sweet peppers, ginger, corn, black beans, beef, and chicken.

It sounds like one of those dishes that simply has two many tastes. But it worked.

Unfortunately, I have enough to feed 10 or 12 people. If you stop by tomorrow, I promise a filling dinner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

another red-blue-yellow electoral map -- without the yellow

"same life-- new location" has a general policy about politics: take it outside.

Let me do a little self-disclosure here. I love politics. Or, at least, I once loved politics. I began when I was 3 by taking presidential brochures to our neighbors. That was 1952. I have been involved in almost every election since then -- including running for the state legislature (and losing) and serving as a member of the electoral college in the 1980s.

So, what happened to all of this talk last week about "writing my blog for me" and "letting my blog reflect who I am"? If I really believe that, why is politics a forbidden topic?

Because we are in another one of those national election cycles where we all take our politics far too seriously. (The election of 1800 managed to set the low tone for these cycles.) Every witty remark turns into a blood bath. Let me give you an example. I was at dinner the other night with a group of mutual friends.

Liberal Friend says: "Did you see that San Francisco is going to honor President Bush by naming a public project after him?"
Conservative Friend: "San Francisco? What project?"
Liberal Friend: "A sewage treatment plant." [Laughs]
Conservative Friend: "It figures. Conservatives always have to clean up liberal messes." [Snorts]

If this had been a drawing room exchange in Victorian England between Oscar Wilde and James Whistler, the witty repartee would have continued. At this Portland dinner party, the next few exchanges involved words that began with A and F (not the clothing catalog), and variations on the theme of parentage. The dinner ended with most everyone leaving in high dudgeon.

And that was a group of friends. I can hardly see any profit in sucking my new blog acquaintances into that political morass. There are several friends who I cannot dine with until after the election.

Having said that, my wonk side cannot avoid the temptation to post this election's version of What-Can-Go-Wrong. Forget about dead voters in Chicago and dodgy ballots in Florida. This year, it is very possible that the Electoral College could end in a dead-even tie.

During the past two elections, everyone knew the electoral college vote would be very close. But there was very little possibility of a tie because of the individual state votes. This year is different. The polls have been up and down. But if each candidate carried the state in which he is currently leading, the vote would be 269 votes each. (See the map at the top of this post.) And then the vote would go to the House of Representatives where each state is allowed one vote. Currently, neither party has a majority of the states.

Will it happen? I doubt it. The variables are large enough that one candidate will most likely cobble together a majority. But it will be fun to watch.

I did my best to come up with a witty comment. And then I recalled the dinner. I suspect another day with the steak will make the black eye better. No more witty comments from me.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

better than another red-blue-yellow electoral map

OK, fellow bloggers. The results are in, and the 28 of us who voted (Yup! Me too.) have proved exactly what your comments said: we are a diverse group.

The question was simple: "When do you write your quality posts?" Apparently, our gang social schedules keep us occupied in the evenings. We don't need no stinkin' evening-writing.

We have one afternoon writer, and then an almost-even split between morning, late night, whenever, and the alumni of the I-cannot-avoid-the sarcastic-answer school (my people).

So, what do we learn from all this? I suspect, nothing.

What I did learn is that I love the fun of polls. But, more importantly, I generated another reason for a post. It would be a blogger trifecta if I could just think of a third reason. But, I will leave that for the literature writers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

morelia "bombing" developments

Finding news about the investigation into the Morelia bombing has been difficult. But there are new developments.

Three members of Los Zetas, the enforcement unit of the Gulf cartel, have confessed to being responsible for the bombing.

You can read the details on
The News.

Maybe this front has been closed before it can expand. We can only hope.

[Note: As this story develops, watch just as closely for what is not said as what is said.]

is this a blogger which I see before me?

Nine months ago, Andee Carlsson talked me into starting this blog. She was interested in how I would decide where to live in Mexico.

I started with an audience of one. Because my friends and relatives kept asking me what I was up to, I gave them the blog address thinking it was a solution to the problem of repeating myself in email after email.

Well, that approach simply did not work. The people who I once wrote to regularly were not the least bit interested in reading a blog. They wanted personal attention. (I solved that problem by merely copying the text from the blog and then emailing it to them. Shhh. It's our little secret. After all, they won't be reading this.)

On the other hand, I have met a group of new friends from around the world who share a common interest in Mexico. It takes me time to make new friends. But in less than a year, I have made friends with several fellow bloggers -- and some of those relationships are closer than some of my friends who live in town.

And then there is the reunion crowd -- and I mean that literally and figuratively. I missed my 40th high school reunion last year. But our class has been getting together regularly for lunches and dinners. Through this blog, I have been able to keep in contact with several classmates I had lost contact with years ago.

The figurative reunion has occurred with people I knew in grade school, college, law school, the Air Force, and my various political activities. People from my past show up as often as Banquo's ghost -- but with less ominous portent.

I am curious whether other bloggers have had the same experience. Did you start writing for one audience, and now find an entirely different audience has discovered your blog?

And, before someone else says it: the best blogs have only one audience -- the blogger.

But, for you readers, what is it that brings you to these pages? This would be a great opportunity for those of you who have not yet written a comment, to step up to the bar.

Lay on, MacDuff.

Friday, September 26, 2008

spanish lessons

This week Bliss of 1st Mate introduced us to two very funny videos. They are doubly funny for those of us who are struggling with Spanish and who have watched those over-the-top Latin American music videos to expand our vocabularies -- and to improve our pickup lines.

I realize the irony of juxtaposing these videos with yesterday's Chavela Vargas post. Truly trekking from the sublime to the ridiculous. But give a quick look at both of these.

Apparently these videos have been huge hits on YouTube. And that means that in the age of talent democracy, every teenager with a video cam is convinced he embodies the production skills of Kevin Spacey and the musical talent of Billy Joel -- well, they may believe that they are more talented than that.

I picked out only one example of adolescent hubris. Now, it is possible that these budding Justin Timberlakes intended to produce an ironic comment on postmodern deconstructionism. But I doubt it. They just are not very good. But we will discuss it after the performance.

OK. This is the point where I was going to do an analysis of what made the first two videos funny and why the third failed to hit the same mark. But I could hear Babs chiding me for analyzing rather than enjoying. And Beth criticizing me for being -- critical.

Several years ago, I was at a libertarian function. A long-time friend of mine, who ran for vice-president in the 70s, asked me: "Steve, do you know how many libertarians it takes to change a light bulb?" Responded, I: "How many?" "None. The market will take care of it." I politely chuckled. She then launched into a 5-minute explanation, beginning with: "You see, Steve, the joke includes the basic market principle that ... ."

I relate that tale because it popped to mind just as I started to write several paragraphs about how humor works. And then I recalled the first rule of humor: A joke explained is a joke strangled.

So, I thank Bliss for sharing the first two videos. And, as for the third, those two guys have more nerve than I.

With apologies to Oscar Wilde for mangling his aphorism, I will simply remind myself: A critic is a person who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


I believe it was Kim of Boston who introduced me to Chavela Vargas -- no more than a month ago. In that time, she has become a fixture on my computer at work. When the vagaries of life impinge, I turn up the volume and suffer through the unfairness of life -- but with élan.

I had never heard of her before Kim's introduction. And I know why. She is one of those iconic singers who embody a national spirit. Think of Maria Severa Onofriana of Fado fame. "World famous" in their art in their home land. But, outside of their country, as unknown as grace at a miser's convocation.

Of course, some national icons make the cross-over leap: Édith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald -- Noel Coward (just kidding). But not yet Chavela -- at least, not to that extent.

After all, Kim is an aficionado -- a true advocate for Chavela. And she deserves the advocacy. Even at 89, with the voice reduced to a croak, there is force and charisma. Far more than merely the remnants of a pretty voice. Chavela still sings with the embodiment of sorrow and strength.

I began with her 2003 concert at Carnegie Hall. (You might enjoy reading a review of that performance.) If you want to hear some samples of that recording, you can do so
here. For those of you who have not yet been introduced to the music of Chavela, you have a treat in store. Without knowing Spanish (and I sit in the front row of that class), a lot of the story disappears in the magic of her telling.

When my linguistic skills improve, I look forward to visiting in depth with Chavela. Until then, she helps to fill my days with the mystery of Mexico.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

last thing at night or first thing in the morning?

I came home from work the other day and decided to sit down and write a blog post. In mid-stroke, it occurred to me how odd the timing was. I almost never write in daylight. I am a night writer. Most often -- a late night writer.

That got me to thinking about my fellow bloggers. When do they do their best work?

And what a great time for a poll -- especially for those of you who would rather have your fingers cut off rather than read another commentary about the presidential election. It is to your right -- at the top of the column.

I will leave the poll up until Saturday at noon (Pacific daylight time).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

in hawk to horus

I was in a rush to get back to the house after church on Sunday. I was not feeling well. The dog was not feeling well. I just wanted to be in bed.

As I walked around the corner in our alley, I stopped dead still. Perched on the edge of my neighbor's garage was one of my dream birds: an American kestrel. Still. Small. Shimmering. Almost within my reach -- if I had dared to reach out and touch the face of Horus.

I have long been obsessed with falcons. When I was in the seventh grade, I read a tale about a boy who had captured a falcon by tying a sky-blue piece of wood smeared with glue to a leather thong attached to a pigeon. When the pigeon was released, a falcon attacked it, became entrapped in the sticky wood, and plummeted to earth. The crafty boy then captured and trained the falcon to hunt.

It was a boy's tale. Probably full of far more bluff than fact. But I was willing to try it. A friend raised pigeons. I bought one -- and that is as far as the story went. I never did get around to setting my trap. I was a dreamer, not an engineer.

The bird on the garage could have been a descendant of the falcon I never caught. I watched him. He merely looked at me with exasperation. He had a job to do. Squirrels needed catching. And I was crimping his style.

He soon tired of my idle worship and slowly lifted himself on falcon's wings -- to glide effortlessly to a Scotch pine, where he resumed his watch for an unwary squirrel, mouse, or vole.

I left reluctantly. He revived a dream. Or the memory of a dream. And, in this case, the ending in the real world was far happier.

Monday, September 22, 2008

confessions of a wine snob

On Sunday night, I was listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table on national public radio. (All right. That one sentence is freighted with enough clues that I could stop right here.)

Let me give a little background. Hello. My name is Steve Cotton and I am a recovering wine snob. Not just any wine snob. I am an instant wine snob.

I was raised in a household where alcohol was forbidden for religious reasons. I never even tasted alcohol until I was 24 -- and that was just a sip of banana liqueur in Greece. The experience almost made me a lifelong teetotaler.

But along came the 1980s, and I ran with the worst peer pressure group to appear on the face of the planet: yuppies. Gourmet clubs were all the rage to show that we were better than our franks and beans upbringings. And good food needed good wine.

We all knew that none of us knew anything about wine. But I was a pioneer in instant knowledge. Somehow, I learned about the Penthouse of wine: The Wine Spectator. There were fancy vintage charts that could be sequestered in wallets. A confusing new vocabulary describing tastes of tobacco, tar, and smoke. (I would occasionally check to see if I had accidentally picked up a cigar magazine by mistake.)

But, best of all, the complexity of wine was quantified. Every review, with its baffling vocabulary, would be reduced to a number. We yuppies understood that. We all got As in school; we would buy a wine that was just as clever as we imagined ourselves. We didn't know what it meant; but if it was expensive and had a high rating, it had to be good -- even if it did taste like tar.

Reading Richard Lander's
Gangs of San Miguel de Allende makes me realize that I was simply a member of a subset of the Getting Fully Arted - Watching Art gang. (I know it is not really a gang, but my group certainly was.) We all lived in fear some new member would ask a question like "But why do you like it?," and we would all be forced to look off into the middle distance hoping that someone else would ask a simpler question.

But I finally feel that I have my revenge. It turns out that The Wine Spectator is every bit as shallow as the use I found for it.

On Sunday, Lynne Rossetto Kasper let everyone in on a little secret circulating in the wine world about Robin Goldstein, the author of The Wine Trials. Mr. Goldstein created a restaurant out of whole cloth: a name, Osteria l’Intrepido (Italian is always good for a toff spoof); a menu; a web site; and a wine list. He purposely made the dishes on the menu a bit dodgy. But the wine list was his masterpiece. He included only wines that The Wine Spectator had panned.

For those of you who do not know, The Wine Spectator publishes a list of restaurants every year that deserve its "Award of Excellence." It turns out that all you need to get the award is the $250 application fee and a nice serving of chutzpah.

Mr. Goldstein submitted the application, the fee, and his terrible menu and wine list for an imaginary restaurant. In turn, he was awarded his "Award of Excellence."

Schadenfreude is a dish best served as left overs. In this case, because the mentor was caught, and the pupil was not.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

no news is not good news

The information spin is under full swing in Mexico this week. On Monday, terrorists threw fragmentation grenades into a group of Mexican citizens gathered in Morelia to celebrate Independence Day.

No one (other than the terrorists themselves and their masters) knows for certain who committed the act. But the rumors have begun:

  • the Michoacán Family -- the local drug cartel
  • Zetas acting on behalf of the Gulf cartel
  • Zetas acting on their own behalf
  • some unnamed right wing paramilitary group seeking to place blame on the drug cartels
  • or simply add in your own conspiracy theory

What we do know is that the three suspects who were arrested late last week have now been released. The only other public development has been the appearance of at least seven banners in Morelia blaming the attacks on the Gulf Cartels and Zetas, purportedly signed by the Michoacán Family.

I have been properly advised that Article 33 restricts certain political activities. As a future resident, I do not want to overstep any lines by offering my own opinions on this terrible event.

Instead, let me direct you to this news story for a more complete description of what is known at this point from The News.

Like the rest of you, I wait for a final answer. Patience may be the key. I suspect the answer is in plain sight.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

el perro viejo; las artimañas viejas

memories of ducks?

The seasons are in that awkward stage: too cool to be summer; too warm to be fall. And the sun playing tag with the clouds makes the day almost menopausal.

This was the Saturday I was going to take Jiggs to the beach -- his favorite place in Oregon. A little back story is in order.

This past week was really rough for The Professor. In the course of two days, he had lost almost all the strength in his back legs. He would struggle to his feet only after minutes of trying. But, proud dog that he is, if I would try to help him, he would throw himself on the lawn and not try again until I went away. Even his eyes were losing their love of life.

I decided to take him to the vet on Wednesday and to ask the vet for his advice on whether it was time to put Jiggs down or whether the hospice effects of another steroid shot would be effective. I appreciate his opinion because his dog is going through the exact issues. He suggested trying out another steroid shot, because Jiggs is exhibiting no pain symptoms; his legs simply are not working very well.

I am glad I did. By Friday, Jiggs was back to his usual pattern of wanting to go for walks -- and he is getting up with only a little problem.

But not well enough to traverse the beach. I remember our last walk. Even then, he was having trouble walking through the sand. I decided if I took him to the beach, he would simply be frustrated that he could not spend time in the surf.

So, we have stayed here to enjoy a walk in Jiggs's park on this cusp of summer-fall.

I was thinking yesterday about the lasts that I am experiencing -- My last public speech. My last Fourth of July. My last house payment. -- before I move to Mexico. I then realized that Jiggs is going through the same thing. He just does not realize it. Because he knows how to live in Mexico time -- enjoying the now.

We can learn from our pets on this path.

Friday, September 19, 2008

the old ball game

I had several topics I wanted to discuss in this post, but I have allowed time to get away from me. I need to leave early from the house to drive up to Portland for a law seminar on ethics.

I am a presenter. My topic: sex, lies, and no video.

The rip-off riff of the Soderbergh film title is obvious. But I think we may have some fun and substance with the reasons Oregon attorneys have been disciplined over the past eight months.

In any event, this will be my public training swan song -- my last appearance on stage outside the walls of my employment. Another mile stone passed.

Because I need to put the final touches on my presentation, I will not have enough time to write about other issues.

Perhaps this weekend.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

legalize now

The terrorist attack in Morelia on Monday night has caused a lot of reactions in the blogosphere. But one of the most common is the suggestion that the United States simply legalize drugs and stop the collateral damage in other countries -- especially, Mexico.

Three months ago I wrote a series of posts on the problems of drug trafficking -- starting with
my brother's keeper. Rather than republish what everyone can read simply by starting with that link, those posts still reflect my personal opinion.

As long as Americans (and, to a lesser degree, Canadians) continue to smoke, inject, and snort drugs that travel through Mexico, Mexican drug lords are going to punish innocent civilians whenever anyone gets in their way.

I would like to see at least one of the American presidential candidates have the nerve to offer real change by announcing that it is immoral for Mexican children to die as victims of America's drug habit.

Like most entries, this blog is for me. Tomorrow I will do just that -- send a letter to both campaigns.

It can't hurt. It might help. After all, that is what American liberal democracy is all about.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

our grito

I do not like writing about other people's tragedies. I do not even like being around grief.

And I think I know why. I was raised in a religious tradition where comfort to the grieving and service to the needy was an act of showing God's love. But, just as often, I was a witness to what I have dubbed "grief vampires." They are the people who show up at every funeral or hospital bed seeming almost to live off of the grief of others. There is no comfort. No solace. Merely feeding on the black bread of the morose.

That is why I am reluctant to write on the terrorist tragedy that happened on Monday night in Morelia. A day of national celebration shrouded by the terror that has become so familiar during the last 50 years. Belfast. Beirut. Baghdad. And now -- Morelia.

I do not live in Mexico, but I will. And once I finish my trial run in Melaque, I intend to head to the hills around Morelia. So, in a way, I could feel the joy stripped away when I read
Jennifer Rose's commentary on this inexcusable act of terror.

I felt sad. I felt stunned. I felt angry.

But, more than anything else, I realized that Mexico is truly at a tipping point in its attempt to bring the drug lords under control. One side is going to prevail. A long term solution is for the United States to legalize drugs and stop this incidental violence in neighboring countries. But that is the long term.

In the short term, this Mexican government must do what its many predecessors failed to do: take back the country from the drug lords and their corrupt local allies. And that will not happen as long as both groups are protected by their neighbors. And this act of stupidity and inhumanity on the part of the narcos may show how the drug lords have no regard for the common people of Mexico. They are no better than any of the other elites who have oppressed the poor.

As I watched the emergency teams tend to the wounded and recover the dead, I was reminded of another speech given under similar circumstances:

Terror is not a legitimate system of persuasion. And to those who commit the
atrocities I say, we will no longer tolerate, we will no longer negotiate, and
we will no longer be afraid.

It's your turn to be afraid.

Jennifer is on the front lines of this battle. She has been brave enough to stand up, as a Mexican citizen, to say enough is enough. I hope to be able to do the same when I head south. This incident is not scaring me off. It is driving me to Mexico.

It's their turn to be afraid.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

kiss of the woman spider

Black widow. Brown recluse. I am willing to bet those four words cause a number of you to cringe. (For some people in my family, the word "spider" alone would do it.)

But hobo? Who would be frightened by the word hobo? It conjures up cheerful meals of canned beans and a chicken on a coat hanger all warmed by a camp fire next to the railroad track where a free man can catch the next freight to the end of the rainbow. Thus is the American romantic tale associated with hobo.

How did it happen to be the name of the star of my latest little venture into Mother Nature's teeming maw?

So, here I am trying to get the house cleaned up to get it on the market. Due to a couple years of neglect, my roses have been surrounded by ferns. Nothing to do, but trim them down and dig them up. As weeds go, ferns are some of the worst.

And what do I wear on my feet for this digging task? Sandals. Hacking away, doing my best impression of Henry Morton Stanley, I brace my feet deep in the fern to get some leverage. All goes well until I feel some tickling between the toes on my foot -- not the burning athlete's foot tickling, but the warning signs of some sentient being desperately trying to escape. The feeling that is usually followed either by the expressions: uh-oh or ouch. Words with an overuse of vowels usually denote some danger is afoot.

And it was afoot. Or on my foot. My left foot -- to be precise. I looked down and immediately recognized what I had managed to trap: a hobo spider.

Before I could get my sandal off and free the spider, I felt a bit of a bite, and she was off on her way to freedom.

Now, I have experienced hobo bites in the past. Fortunately, this time, I got away with what appears to be a warning bite. There is only a little swelling, and no indication yet of any necrosis. The hobo, like all venomous creatures, does not release venom unless it must. As is the story of my life, she did not see me as a significant threat.

And, no, this is not an excuse to avoid additional work on the house. Unless someone is handing out dispensations today.

Monday, September 15, 2008

¿con magna o premio?

How is this for a fusion dish?

Stir fry the following:

onion, chopped
sweet peppers, chopped

jalapeño peppers, chopped
garlic, chopped
ginger, chopped
shredded pork roast
mango salsa

When warmed through, sprinkle with a large dash of
oregano, and stir. Place freshly-fried tortilla chips in a bowl, add a layer of refritos and a large scoop of stir fry, and top with a premium extra sharp cheddar.

Eat immediately.

I got tired of the drudgery of cleaning up the house this weekend. Instead, I decided to add some verve to my step. Instead, I just wanted to sleep. It must be this delightful hot weather.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

being a good sport

If I had been impregnated on the day I started this blog, I would probably be feeling labors pains right about now.

Here it is almost nine months, and I have read almost every imaginable topic on Mexican blogs -- with an obvious exception: sports.

There have been a few references. John of
Viva Veracruz will make a passing comment about an NFL game or the Olympics. Paul and Nancy of Countdown to Mexico mentioned one reason for moving to Mazatlán was to enjoy the local baseball team. And I have seen scattered references to local football games and bullfights.

What has been missing is a full-throated discussion of Mexico's passion: football. That silence was broken the other day by Gary of The Mexile when he posted a nice farewell to Cuauhtemoc Blanco. And that post got me to thinking. I know next to nothing about the Mexican football league structure, playoff mechanism, or even the nearest professional team to Melaque. So I put it to the only person who I knew who had an interest in football -- Gary.

Here is what he had to say:
A good place to keep up with the details is terra.com.mx which is in Spanish, but you can always use Google to translate. Mexican football is a very different set up to back in England. For a start, they have two seasons in a year, Apertura and Clausura, instead of one. They play each team once per team instead of twice, and at the end of the league, the top 8 teams go into La Liguilla. That's a play off competition similar to what happen in American Football. The winner of that tournament are the champs.

Thing is, the 8 top teams are not necessarily the ones that finished in the top 8 places. The teams are all split into three groups which are never mentioned through the season, until the end. The top two teams of each group qualify for the play offs, and then there are extra play offs to determine the final two to make the proper play offs. So it's possible to finish third in the league table but, if the two teams above are in your group, not make the play offs! Ridiculous if you ask me!

I imagine Guadalajara will host the teams nearest you. The city has two, but Chivas are the famous ones. They've won more championships than any other team, are famous for playing only Mexican players. They are the most supported team in the country. Even here in Mexico City Chivas fans are the most numerous I think.

Pretty thorough advice if you ask me. Of course, if you ask me, I will simply parrot what Gary said.

Now, I have something more to research before I head south. Hmmm. Maybe this one will keep until I get across the border. Goalies wait longer than impaitient contractors.

Paul and Nancy -- How are the hometown Mudvilleans doing?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

september song mexicano

I had an interesting conversation this morning with my friend Juan Alvarez -- about the achievements and disappointments of the War of Independence against Spain, and the promises put on hold until the Revolution. But both of us started to get a little morose thinking about what could have been.

Instead of serving up a cold dish of dashed hopes, let me wish an early (by three days) happy Independence Day to all of you. May your personal
Grito de Delores be answered with liberty and peace.

I would wait until Tuesday, but I am actually getting things cleared out of the house. If I keep up this pace I may be MIA from the computer for a bit.

Friday, September 12, 2008

all the newts that's fit to print

For those of you who think they have mistakenly tuned in to Wild Kingdom -- well, you may not be completely wrong.

Two days ago: stinging caterpillars. And now the belly of some disgusting amphibian. Actually, the belly of another childhood memory.

In the little stream next to my boyhood home -- and in the Coquille River that it fed -- resided a creature that fascinates me to this day. Let me introduce you to Mr. rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa), also known as the Oregon Newt. And, in this case, that would be Ms. rough-skinned newt.

My brother and I would join the neighbor kids and collect these newts -- some for populating tanks in our houses -- others to simply release. At one stage in their lives, they return to the water to breed. That was prime snatchin' time. The back washes of the river were newt-deep. We also learned some very early lessons of how DNA is shared.

A few years ago, I recall that a visitor from Colorado swallowed one of these delectable-looking amphibians. Apparently, he had been drinking heavily (my bet is: not a vintage pinot noir) and took up a dare to devour a newt -- oysters Rockefeller style, without the Rockefeller.

Let me quote a source for what happened next. "Within 10 minutes, he complained of tingling in the lips. During the next two hours he complained of numbness and weakness and then experienced cardiopulmonary arrest. He died later during the day (despite hospital treatment)."

I thought that was an urban legend, until I learned that the little newt that fascinated me in my youth is the most toxic newt in the entire world. We are not talking Costa Rica or Guinea here. It was small town southern Oregon. But they have been known to kill belted kingfishers, great blue herons, bullfrogs, and fish. Only one variety of garter snake has developed an immunity to the toxin.

Some Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest used these newts to poison their enemies. Perhaps, ground in some form of salmon with dill sauce.

These newts were our playthings as children.

The moral from this little traipse through my benighted youth. Why ask me? I was the kid stupid enough to handle these ET toxic dumps.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

echar aguas

Now and then, I run across a blog that combines familiar topics with original presentation. Mexico Bob is one of those blogs.

I first met Bob as a commenter on my blog, and as part of a conversation on
Zocalo de Mexican Folk Art concerning the impact Jim Metcalf and Ana Pellicer’s work in Santa Clara del Cobre. If you have not read that discussion, I suggest that you do. Anyone who believes that the historical currents that have created Mexico have stopped moving needs to read about the complex interests in play in Santa Clara del Cobre.

After reading his insightful comments, I took a look at his blog. He takes two common elements (travels in Mexico, and learning Spanish), and combines them into an interesting blend of fun and information. His series about going to the gas station and the supermarket should teach everyone some new terms.

The blog is one of those serendipitous places where more than one blogger gets the same idea for a post. I was in the process of putting this post together, and Billie of
Billieblog beat me to the streets with her review of Bob's site.

I will second her recommendation. And I guarantee you will learn something new there. If you do not know what the title of this post means, you will when you visit Bob's site.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

float like a butterfly, sting like a caterpillar

Mexico appears to be one continual spinning metaphor.

When I was 4 or so, we lived in southern Oregon. Every day was Columbus Day -- with new worlds to be discovered, explored, and exploited. Our house bordered open tracts of land ruled by wild horses. And steps away from my bedroom -- a stream filled with squirming and fascinating creatures. It was a great time and place to be a boy.

Of course, there were wooly bear caterpillars. In the fall, I would track them down near the stream and collect them. They were "my friends," I would pathetically tell my mother as she scooped them out of my pockets.

I learned that no matter how threatening nature appeared, it was a place of harmony -- a veritable Rousseauean Eden. A half century later, I still harbor that dream -- even though I have had enough adult experiences to realize that nature can be a bit more prickly than that 4-year old believed.

Last night a fellow blogger, who lives in Mexico, told me she had been gardening and had suffered a sting resulting in the worst pain she had experienced in her life. Reading the description of what she went through made me almost queasy. Her analysis: "Is this what being bit by a cobra feels like?"

The culprit? One of these beauties. Both perps were arrested at the scene.

The first suspect is the caterpillar of the Io moth. To my wooly bear-educated eye, this caterpillar looks no more dangerous than any other undulating work of nature. But those pretty spikes contain a very nasty venom.

I suspect some people would never intentionally touch an Io moth caterpillar because the spines look dangerous.

But take a look at suspect #2. Its nickname is the puss caterpillar because it looks slightly like a Persian kitten. (So say the books. To me, it looks like something a kitten hacked up.)

Some people are compelled to reach out and stroke this furry little critter -- to their cost. There be barbs in that coat: "known to produce hemorrhagic lesions with significant swelling, swollen lymph nodes, and shock with low blood pressure." Another nickname: stinging asp.

The moral? My correspondent reminded me that I have often stated a naive distrust of walls. Boundaries exist in cultures for reasons.

Another moral. Not every caterpillar should be left in your pocket to be discovered by your mother.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

entropy reigns

A mixed day on the move to Mexico front.

My realtor called today to let me know that she has arranged for two of the three window contractors to stop by the house for estimates -- one this Wednesday and one next Monday. I should at least be able to get an idea how much that project will cost.

And that is the good news. The bad news is that I did not get anything accomplished other than my usual weekday activities. I was late getting home from work. After fixing dinner, walking the dog, and skimming through a week-old Economist, it is almost 11 and I need to get to bed.

The disturbing realization is that I am simply going to have to stop doing other things (books, magazines, the computer are obvious targets) to allow me the time to start dumping things into the recycling bin. Even if I follow Babs's advice by tossing rather than shredding, I will need to make time.

Tomorrow, I am starting with a stack of play programs from the past 30 years and mementos from my nine years of cruising. They will be easy -- as will the stack of baseball statistics and recipes that make one corner of my kitchen look as if I should be harboring 60 or 70 cats.

See? There is hope.

Monday, September 08, 2008

sunday in the park with farragut

This Sunday was a watershed in my move to Mexico. I did the usual Sunday activities. Taught Sunday school. Attended church. Ate. Took a nap.

And then I finished up the Parkes history on Mexico. I could have abandoned it half-read. But I wanted to get some more information in my head on my new homeland.

Then I started (or restarted) my sorting tasks. Nancy was a big believer in lists when Paul and she started their move south. She is an expert at managing projects and uses lists to ensure no step is forgotten. Wayne suggested the same thing -- for a different reason: to have some tangible proof of progress.

I did a quick look around the property and started a To Do list for each area. Most of them are the type of things I should have repaired long ago -- broken fence slat, leaky faucet, loose electrical connection.

I filled my yard cutting bin on Saturday. That took care of getting anything else cut down outside on Sunday. Inside, one of the most daunting tasks will be getting rid of paper I had intended to scan, but did not. And now, mirabile dictu, I no longer have a need for them. But I will need a paper shredder to clean that Augean stable.

Fortunately, the Salvation Army is having a major rummage sale in October. That should make the decision easier on what should go out. I have some relatively valuable glass pieces (from South Africa, Venice, England) that will not travel well. A rummage sale will find them appreciative new homes. I could give them away as gifts. But I hate placing that type of obligation on friends and family. Sentimentality is a burden not easily passed.

With lists in hand, I have a place to start.

Pardon me. I need to don my Commander-in-Trash cap. Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

fairy tales in the garden

Now and then, we all revert to characters we knew when we were children.

I am not certain who originally offered that little piece of advice. Jung. Mahler. Michael Jackson?

Whoever it was, the point is well taken. This last week, I started feeling like the Little Engine Who Could -- use Therapy. I knew I needed to be on track with getting the house on the market, but I had done nothing.

My realtor came to the rescue today. She volunteered to help round up contractors for the major repair work. That will be a great help to me. I was beginning to think I would need to retire just to have enough time to get the house ready for market.

Because it was a fantastic summer day, I started working on the yard. I have a nice rock garden that has fallen into some disrepair. Actually, that is a very nice description of what has happened. The rock wall originally had a few sprigs of cotoneaster -- an aggressive ground cover. Over the past few years, it has taken over the rocks and climbed the fence with all of the subtlety of a kudzu invasion.

I decided to cut it back to expose the rocks. Remember Peter O'Toole at the end of the revenge killing of the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia? Well, that is the same look I had in my eyes. I had managed to cleanse a good portion of the wall of the invader. Now, the garden has all the aesthetic appeal of the Kalahari -- without any of the charm.

But I am working my way through my torpor. And if I just follow the very good example that Nancy and Paul set when they started working on their adventure, I will be just fine.

For now, the little engine needs to keep a full head of steam. I will let you know when I start reenacting the three little pigs.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

a rocker who is still rolling

I had dinner last night with a friend who retired from our company earlier this year. It was encouraging to hear how well his retirement has gone.

The question that came up first was: What have you been doing? That, of course, is nothing more than a riff on the question everyone who moves to Mexico hears: What are you going to do? Several blogger have already answered that question: your day is filled with all the same activities you do now , with the added spice of dealing with the challenges of living in Mexico.

After listening to him, I feel a lot better about the steps I am taking to get ready for my move.

And I have taken two additional steps to make the move a reality. The first was to let my boss know that I actually will retire next year. I have been a bit coy about when I was going to retire. I told him on Thursday that even though I do not have a date set in concrete, it will be in the early part of 2009.

Now, any of you who have been following this blog know that I am not going to go anywhere until I resolve the issue of my house in Salem. I cannot sell it until I get it on the market, and I cannot get it on the market until I get some repairs done. Two weeks after my realtor gave me a list of contractors to help with each of my projects, I have done nothing. She is intervening this afternoon. Kathy is not just a realtor. She is also a landlord, who buys and fixes up homes for rent. Having her expertise handy will do two things: 1) Keep this project moving, and 2) give me access to local talent.

But I now need to get moving. I have to help lead Men's Fellowship this morning. Even though I told our leadership group on Tuesday that I would be transitioning out of my positions at the church, duties seem to keep rolling in.

My friend informed me that the moment he made his decision to retire, time flew by at work. I can already see the wisdom of his advice.

I will keep you posted on the projects.

Friday, September 05, 2008

book 'em, danno

The only argument I can raise in my defense is: at least I am not a crack addict.

You know my familiar lament. I have all kinds of things to do to get ready for my move to Mexico now that I have a tentative date. (More on that soon.) The top two being fix the house and learn Spanish.

And I have been promising to get right on that --just as soon as I finish reading one more book: The History of Mexico. As we all know, I am up to Porfirio Diaz. The book was published in 1938. So, I just need to exile Diaz, read about the revolution, and get Cardenas on his way to nationalizing anything that moves -- and I will be done.

Or so I thought. On one of my late night book-buying binges, I ordered a stack of books that showed up in the hands of the ever-responsive USPS. Jennifer Rose occasionally publishes books that arrive at her home. Here are mine:

  • Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish -- Joseph J. Keenen

  • Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World -- Thomas Cahill

  • What the Gospels Meant -- Garry Wills

  • Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith -- Anne Lamott

  • Western Mexico: A traveller's Treasury -- Tony Burton

I once propounded a theory that I could delineate the details of a person's personality simply by looking at the person's reading list. If that theory was correct, you might surmise that I am a liberal Catholic Democrat (perhaps, a crypto-Unitarian) who enjoys traveling, and is desperate to learn a new language. To paraphrase Meatloaf: 2 out of 6 ain't bad.

With the exception of the Spanish book, the rest should go on my reading table. I may not be able to read them until I get to Melaque. Kim of Boston recommended the Keenen book as a good learning tool. I have read the first chapter, and that appears to be a good assessment. Lots of language tips.

At least that book fits into one of my major tasks. Now, if I could just read about fixing up houses, rather than paying to have it done in the real world, my little cloud cuckoo land would be practically perfect in every way.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

diaz of guns and roses

Avoidance. If it were a college course, I would get an A+.

I have only two immediate tasks: (1) get the house ready to put on the market, and (2) take some serious steps to work on my Spanish. I have been doing neither.

What I have been doing is studying Henry Bamford Parkes's History of Mexico. The book is a good read. Parkes writes well and manages to turn one of the world's most complex political systems into an easy-to-understand tale.

My friend, Juan Alvarez, makes fun of historians like Parkes. He claims that the classic description of Mexican regimes that switch from liberal to conservative to liberal simply misses the poignancy of Mexican government. He says: "There is no historical cycle. It is a carousel of tragedy."

But that is not the point that caught my eye tonight. Parkes expends appropriate page space in describing the presidency of Porfirio Diaz in great detail. (That is the presidente pictured above -- looking like the grill of a Mercedes-Benz touring car.)

There is no doubt that Diaz is one of the most tragic figures of Mexican history -- a leader who pulled Mexico into the modern age while creating a budget surplus and creating ever-poorer peons. By the time he fled office, a small percentage of Mexicans were extremely rich, and the overwhelming majority was poorer than when he stepped in to save the economy.

During the Diaz presidency, foreign investors were encouraged to invest their money in Mexico. As a result, most of the industry was owned by foreigners, along with large tracts of real estate.

In that context, Parkes notes:

The foreign colonies lived in isolation, reserving all the more responsible and highly paid positions in their industries for men of their own race, accumulating wealth which they proposed one day to take home, and openly voicing their contempt for the nation which they were exploiting.

Is it any wonder that Mexicans look at Americans and Canadians locked in their gringo ghettos with contempt?

Now that I have inadvertently offended someone, I will return to my task of avoiding doing what needs to be done.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

el caballo en el trapeador

One reason I desperately need to learn Spanish is to revel in the word play of Mexicans. My Mexican friends at church constantly try Spanish puns on me. And they go right over my head. I feel like the Margaret Dumond of Jalisco.

Fortunately, they are bilingual -- and are just as anxious to share their unique humor in English. It must be a joy to feel free to play with words in two languages.

Add in the fact that Mexicans do enjoy a good joke. On my last visit, I saw several manifestations. The first was the picture above. As I walked by, I immediately saw the joke at a glance, but the more I looked, it started to fade away -- like a mirage.

It is obvious someone allowed the mop head to flop over, and then created the appearance of an eye, along with a very functional bridle.

I smile every time I see it.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

a good firecracker in the morning

I have been reading Henry Bamford Parkes's A History of Mexico, along with other history books recommended by a school friend who is now a political science professor.

I am enjoying the book, though, it is a bit dated -- the first edition was published in 1938. Parkes's historiography is too Marxist for my taste. But it may simply be that he talks about class so much; and to talk of Mexican history is to talk of class.

In every chapter I have come to understand why some things in Mexico happen as they do. Why bureaucrats love stamps, seals, and signatures. Why laws seem to have very little practical impact on daily life. Why smiles often conceal bitter resentment.

Tonight I ran across a passage about an incident that every visitor and resident experiences. When the hapless Hapsburg prince and his beautiful Belgian wife entered Mexico City at the bequest of Mexican conservatives, but, more importantly, with the backing of French bayonets, they dreamed of creating a liberal Mexican society. They claimed to be disappointed in nothing -- other than the deplorable state of the roads.

Parkes relates the following anecdote:
When, at four in the morning, the Indians of Tacubaya celebrated with loud firecrackers a fiesta of the virgin, Maximilian and Carlotta awoke at Chapultepec in the belief that the Juarists were cannonading the castle.

After a while, they just got used to the loud noises. Well, he did.

Monday, September 01, 2008

undone in church

Last week in give us this day, I commented about what appeared to be the very odd architecture of the church on the Melaque square: Parroquia de San Patricio. And I was not alone. I met a young American couple, who live in the village. They described it as "the unfinished church."

As I stated in my last post, it is finished. What appears to be unfinished are the large barrel arches that form the roof of the church. Each vault is open to the outside. That feature turns the entire structure into a natural air conditioner.

After I wrote the last post, I found this photograph in my collection:

If you look carefully, you can see the openings in each vault. The "unfinished" look is echoed in the clock tower's open structure. No colonial town, with its tarted-up Baroque facades, can boast of this type of simple beauty.

Of course, this is the type of beauty that is usually translated in polite society as: "She has a lovely personality."