Sunday, November 30, 2008

a night at the home movies

Even though I had reading to do and lessons to prepare, I took an evening off over the Thanksgiving holiday for a movie night.

I popped up some popcorn in my favorite kettle and broke out the 2 litre bottle of Diet Coke. This was going to be a siege of movies, and I needed adequate provisions.

I started with Ben-Hur. How on earth did this movie get stuck in my memory as a good time at the cinema? I remember seeing it as a boy -- and I was enthralled. So enthralled that I talked my parents, who owned a motorcycle shop at the time, to build a county fair parade entrant around the concept of a chariot race. Our neighbor helped build a chariot pulled by a motorcycle. Another group of us pushed a litter containing a motorcycle behind diaphanous curtains. The most difficult part was getting the neighborhood boys to dress in tunics. But they did. I can tell you that memory has worn the corrosive effects of time far better than has the movie. (Yes, Wayne. I have photographs. No, I am not going to post them. The speedo photograph was enough past revelation for now.)

Having survived the hours of Roman chicanery, I decided to watch The Manchurian Candidate -- the good one with Frank Sinatra. Angela Lansbury really should have played more villain roles. But even this film does not bear up well over time. David Amram's score is very good, but it anachronistically sticks the film in the early 60s. And listening to John Frankenheimer talk about how brave he was to make an anti-McCarthy film during the Kennedy Administration is simply amusing. But it was good to watch Angela chew the scenery and everyone around her.

Once you start a habit, it is tough to break. So, out came one of my favorites: Silence of the Lambs. I readily admit that I am no John Hinckley, Jr. However, I have long appreciated Jodie Foster's acting. What I truly enjoy about her acting in this film is that she did not pick another female Johnny Depp role. You can imagine her Clarice Starling living in reality as a tough, but vulnerable, professional taking on a very scary world. And, of course, we get Dr. Hannibal Lecter as pure evil, before Thomas Harris turned him into merely another bag of jingle bell neuroses -- just like the rest of us.

Looking over my evening's entertainment, I suspect I was simply lucky to get the great rest I had that night. I witnessed more mayhem than a Kennedy St. Patrick's party.

Perhaps old Fred Nietzsche had it half right -- That which does not kill us makes us sleep a lot better.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

walking on the wild side

Earlier this year, my mother visited Mazatlán. She telephoned to tell me that she was enjoying the visit, but she had witnessed several tourists taking nasty spills on the sidewalk. She had even taken a tumble herself.

That is not an original complaint -- at least, from Canadians and Americans. (I suspect less so from European visitors.) We are accustomed to walking along even-planed concrete sidewalks -- with a few well-meaning cuts for the disabled. Our sidewalks are public rights-of-way, and we expect them to be as easy to traverse as a freeway in Manitoba.

With my mother's experience in mind, I took several photographs of "sidewalks" in Melaque this past July.

I did not see any tourists take tumbles in Melaque. That may be because there are not a lot of Canadian and American tourists there. It is a resort town -- but a resort for Mexicans. They tend to be far more vigilant about hazards.

The other reason may be that the Melaque hazards are so obvious.

But why do the hazards exist?

My friend Juan Alvarez tells me that I am starting from a false premise. The concrete in front of most businesses and homes are not a public right-of-way. In colonial towns, most homes are built right up to the street; the front door opens onto what would have been the thoroughfare. Most towns have developed off-sets, but the property still belongs to the owner.

In effect, the "sidewalk" is the equivalent of a patio or a front porch. It is not unusual for the whole family to be sitting out on the sidewalk with a full array of living room furniture. (I did not take a photograph to illustrate that point. I would have felt like an intruder in a home.)

Another factor cannot go unmentioned: the blessed rarity of liability suits. Trial lawyers in Mexico are as mercifully rare as an original thought in Congress.

The best advice I can give to visitor and resident alike is exactly what our mothers told us when we were children: Watch where you're walking.

Friday, November 28, 2008

good times for mexico cooks!

And here is something else we can add to our list of things to be thankful for at this time of year: famous bloggers.

Cristina Potters is well-known to all of us. She is the creator of
Mexico Cooks! Based in Morelia, she writes about her travels in Mexico and accompanies her commentaries with well-executed photographs. Her posts are informative and cheeky. Don't miss her photograph of the Frida Kahlo - Diego Rivera carved bench in her current post.

Cristina gave me her permission to post her photograph. It illustrates the point much better than I could.

But her blog is much more -- as the title would imply. It is about food. And not just recipes. Cristinia writes about the vegetables and fruits of Mexico wherever she travels. She treats them as cultural building blocks -- not merely as ingredients for a tasty dinner.

We have all known this for some time. Just check on how often
Mexico Cooks! appears in blog rolls.

But others have now joined us in our appreciation. In his Thursday food column, Simon Majumdar of the London Times Online (please forgive my provincial use of the adjective) named
Mexico Cooks! as one of his "Top 10 food blogs from around the world."

Here is what he has to say about our Cristina:

Cristina Potter’s knowledge of Mexican food is matched only by her passion for her adopted home. The best starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about the varied cuisine of this extraordinary country.

Congratulations, Cristina! Mexico does cook!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

giving thanks by the forkful

Yesterday Billie posted her 1986 Thanksgiving menu. As I read through it, I realized I have no idea where each of the elements of my current holiday dinner originated. But I know the source of the food philosophy that launched the menu.

When I moved to my house in Salem, it offered an alternative site for family holiday dinners. My brother lived in Bend; my mother in Gladstone. We were all within a three hour drive of one another, giving us three possible site for holiday dinners.

Somehow, I fell under the spell of postmodern cuisine. The symptoms are readily apparent. If it is traditional, it is forbidden at the table.

I was exposed to the primitive roots of the philosophy through my mother. When it comes to holidays, she is an original iconoclast. Rabbit for Easter and venison for Christmas were not only original culinary choices; they were political comments on non-religious symbols.

The first item to be exiled from my holiday table was the turkey. I consider other birds, but pheasant was too effete and chicken too pedestrian. Thus arose the two giants of the Cotton table: prime rib roast and leg of lamb.

Appetizers were banned. Not because I do not like them. They simply get in the way of Serious Eating.

I am going to have dinner at my aunt's house this Thanksgiving. But, if I were to cook at home, this would be the menu.

Prime rib roast with cabernet au jus
Roasted new potatoes with stone ground mustard and horseradish
Broccolini/sweet pepper/ginger stir fry
Creamed onions
Peas with mint
Spring greens with balsamic

We would then sit down with a cheese, fruit, and pepperoni board to play a few rounds of Balderdash.

Nothing exotic. Just family enjoying good food and creating new memories.

I hope you all have a nice Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

kingdom of numb skulls

It seems that one bad decision leads to another. For some unfathomable reason I decided to head over to Costco yesterday.

Run that one through your Spaceship Enterprise data analyzer. Costco. Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I may as well have been shopping at an O'Hare gift shop.

So, what was so important to brave the reenactment of the Norman Invasion? I need a new lap top computer for my move to Mexico -- and I thought Costco would be the place to start. The selection is small. The products are out of date. The price is slightly discounted. Why not fight a mob for all of those advantages?

Not unsurprisingly, I found nothing -- in less than five minutes. But this is Costco. There had to be something to buy. I wandered up and down each row -- finding nothing. I almost picked up three biographies (Andrew Jackson, Sam Adams, and FDR), but I put them back. I need to study Spanish, not American politicians.

No hunter returns home without bounty -- especially from Costco. I grabbed a copy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- and proved my theory: one bad decision leads to another. It is dreadful. Though, I must admit, Cate Blanchett's sword-wielding Russian parapsychologist is something to behold.

Fortunately, the day was not a complete loss. I also bagged a copy of the eleventh season of The Simpsons. I may not have television, but I now have all of the advantages of reruns.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

king of all sala-ma-sond

If we bloggers do one thing, it is share good sites.

Some time back, I ran across Gary Denness's blog,
The Mexile. He is a young Englishman, newly married, who has a passion for photography, biking, teaching, -- and turtles.

I think it was the last category that caught my attention. One of my more memorable pets, when I was young, was Yertle the Turtle, a red-eared slider -- probably just like the turtle almost every child of the 60s owned. Yertle's existence always seemed a bit sad to me. As if a human had washed up on an old Busby Berkeley set -- long abandoned.

Friends tell me that it is a sign of poor breeding to laugh at one's jokes. I have found that rule to be at best a tope on the social highway. I usually am the one laughing loudest at my jokes.

Along the same lines, I should not indulge in the following exercise of hubris. Gary was so kind as to name "same life -- new location" as one of his top 10 blogs. If you look at his list, it is heady company.

I thank Gary for the compliment. But I thank him far more for sharing his life and experiences in Mexico with us. His discussion of joy, loss, sickness, and death -- all presented within a broader tapestry of what life means -- is a gift to us all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

could you help me place this call?

Connections. Some of my friends love to play the Kevin Bacon game. Not me. I just tend to live it.

Michael Dickson tells us that he is reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a classic anti-war novel about the horrors of World War One and the ensuing disintegration of German civilian life.

Ironically, I have been reading a novel about World War One, as well. But it could hardly be described as a classic. It is not even literature.

American Front is the first novel in Harry Turtledove's trilogy of the First World War. But it is an alternate history. He starts with the presumption that the Confederates won the Civil War. As a result, when World War One begins, the United States is allied with Germany and Austria; The Confederates are allied with the Mexican Empire, Canada, Britain, and France. You can see that odd configuration in the map at the top of this post.

I just finished the book. And I have ordered the other two books in the trilogy. However, I would not recommend them to others -- for several reasons. The first -- and most important -- is that they are not very good.

The writing suffers the same problem as the John Jakes historical novels, the Left Behind series, or anything written by Tom Clancy. The characters are merely tools to keep the story going. Whether the author kills them off or lets them live simply does not matter. There is no more emotional attachment to them than there would be to random cock roaches.

I will admit the story is well-developed. And the pages keep turning. Turtledove has an interesting unstated philosophy that even if circumstances change, history pretty much takes the course that is familiar to us.

So, how did I end up with this book on my reading table? Here are the connections.

Cruise ships have started visiting the port of Guaymas.
Brenda and Roy have been keeping us posted on the new visitors. In my never-ending desire to stock up on more Trivial Pursuits ammunition, I researched points of interest for Guaymas. And I ran across this doozy: "In the alternate history novel How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove, the Confederate States of America acquire Guaymas together with the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, from an impoverished Mexican Empire. This is a causus belli that sparks the Second Mexican War between the United States and the CSA."

Whether or not I could win a trivia game with the answer, I knew I needed to read the book -- the very idea of the Mexican Empire surviving the first Maximilian fascinated me. My used book store did not have a copy of How Few Remain, but I found the first novel in the subsequent series, left $4 and a bit of my literary dignity behind, and became the proud owner of American Front.

Why do I relay all that -- if I have no intention of recommending the book? Easy. This post is not about the book. It is about the effect we have on one another -- especially through our blogs.

If I had not read Brenda and Roy's interesting post, I would not have read American Front, and I would not have started my hot tub discussion with Michael Dickson.

You know, I think this is just about the way World War One began.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

and here it begins

American Mommy wanted to know, now that I have shown you what inspired me to look in the Costa Alegre area for my Mexico move, what did I finally settle on?

I believe I have posted some similar photographs in preparation for and following my July visit to Melaque. But it is time to take another look -- for no other reason than I have entered into an agreement to stay in the house from at least May through October.

For about the past five years, I have considered buying a home on the Oregon coast. I grew up within 50 miles of the ocean, and I have always enjoyed the beach.

But every time I came close to buying, I reconsidered. After all, I could be at the beach in an hour -- and the home prices were incredibly high, at least, by Oregon standards.

It was a natural progression to start looking at homes on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Yesterday's post gives the back story on how I ended up looking in the Barra de Navidad-Melaque area.

And then I stumbled across the possibility of living in the house pictured at the top of this post. I test drove the place in July. It is everything I will need to begin this adventure.

This is a view of the back yard from the second story balcony. It has all of the scenery of Oregon with the addition of much warmer temperatures.

If that was not enough -- this is the view that greeted me every morning when I woke up. I took the photograph while lying in bed.

And, at the end of a day, this is the sight that will often greet me -- as seen from the roof patio.

You can see why I am looking forward to starting this adventure in May. The days are ticking quickly away.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"and this is icing!" exclaimed gretel

Like moths, we all have our personal flames. The flame that drew my interest to La Manzanilla is pictured above.

Almost two years ago, I was bouncing along the internet highway when something unusual caught my eye. For a moment, I thought it was a Grimm fairy tale house come to life. But that certainly was not the Black Forest surrounding it.

A few more clicks, and I discovered what I was looking at: it was a compound of houses on the beach at La Manzanilla -- a beach destination where Doing Nothing is an art form.

And it was for sale. Could life get any better?

Please note the date -- two years ago. Back then, I had not yet realized that people who described Mexican beach property as inexpensive were people who grew up in Malibu. To an Oregonian, inexpensive housing is anything less than $100,000.

The compound did not fall into that category. It was selling for -- and still is -- $1.9 million (US).

Because that was a bit out of my price range, I started looking at other property in La Manzanilla. A purchase trip last year resulted in no purchase -- for a number of reasons.

But that house steered me to the Costa Alegre -- soon to start my adventure in Melaque.

I hope the house finds a good home.

Friday, November 21, 2008

-- and mary ann

Yesterday I posted a photograph that included a woman trying to get a fresh water hose away from the chomping jaws of a crocodile in La Manzanilla. The hose was her fresh water supply.

This is where the hose leads: to her home by the sea.

I must admit when I saw the place, I half expected to see the wreckage of The Minnow. That is what television from the 60s will do to your mind. And I could tell at a glance that the woman was neither Ginger nor Mary Ann.

What you cannot see in this photograph is that the same crocodile has beached itself right next to the woman's beachside cafe.

But that rather puts a different spin on this bucolic interlude.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

pond revolution

I was going to post a piece on the Mexican Revolution. But I was simply not up to talking politics today.

I enjoyed yesterday's nature discussion so much, I decided to share another La Manzanilla photograph from last December.

Yesterday, I mentioned that Jiggs was going to have to learn to be wary of some Mexican wildlife. Some animals will not climb trees to avoid contact with him.

Let me offer Exhibit A -- the photograph that leads this little tale. The crocodile in the photograph is easily big enough to eat a large dog. What he is eating in the photograph is a filleted bill fish. It took him very few gulps to finish off the carcass.

The photograph is interesting enough because of the feeding frenzy. What I find even more interesting is: 1) the nonchalance of the Canadian fisherman, and 2) the Mexican woman's concern over the hose that provides her fresh water -- with little regard for the other danger at hand.

I suspect I may have just written my synopsis of the current state of the Mexican Revolution.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

and here is jim wrestling the anaconda

Jiggs and I went on a country hills adventure last night. The only thing missing was the country -- and the hills. But we made due with what we had.

Around 9, we took off for our evening walk. I tossed my jacket back in the house because it was at least 50 degrees outside. A perfect night walk.

We were only a block from the house when we had our first run in with nature. Fortunately, I saw it before Jiggs did. A young raccoon was foraging through the leaves -- most likely for tasty bugs and worms. He did not look old enough to know how to capture a squirrel dinner. And he knew little of raccoon tactics. All he saw was a human and a giant dog barreling down on him.

He chose wisely by climbing the nearest tree. But he seemed to be torn between flight and attack.

Jiggs never saw him. But he caught the scent of coon in the air. He bit the air in short little bites. If I had not restrained him, I am certain he would have started to run circles to see where the raccoon had gone.

Jiggs's adrenalin was running high enough that he literally pranced through the park. And, as luck would have it, we encountered first an opossum and then a nutria. (I ask you, when did you last have an evening that sounded like a cross between a "went-into-a-bar" joke and a Mexican fable?)

As far as Jiggs was concerned, it was a night of heavenly game. He did not get to pursue any of them (he hardly could with him gamy legs), but he felt as if he had.

Mexico may offer him just as many opportunities for an adventure-filled dog life. He is asleep now, dreaming of a night only Marlin Perkins could have enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

democracy is not a spanish word

I have started acting like a press secretary for a news-challenged candidate.

Ever since I decided to move to Mexico, I read every news story with a jaundiced, but interested, eye. I am usually paid back with tales of drugs, kidnappings, beheadings, and corruption. It is almost like hearing women discuss their first husbands.

But I know there is always one source that will provide an objective view of Mexico with all of its glory and warts -- The Economist.

I opened the current edition to find a story about democracy in Latin America, with several accompanying polls. The polls were designed to determine how the public in each of 18 Latin American countries view democracy within their borders.

The result for Mexico is a mixed bag.

First, the bad news. The pollsters asked: "How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country?" The further the balls are to the left, the more pessimistic the responders.

If the poll is to believed, only people in Paraguay and Peru are less optimistic about the way democracy works in their country than are Mexicans. And, taking into account that democracy is as new to Paraguay as brevity is to Joe Biden, the result is hardly something to cheer about. (I had a friend from Arkansas who, when seeing his state listed in similar ratings would say: "Thank heavens for Mississippi.")

Why such pessimism about the way democracy works in Mexico? When you are a recovering one-party autocracy, it takes time to build confidence. And the afore-mentioned tales of drugs, kidnappings, beheadings, and corruption? They, of course, are real. Hardly the stuff that makes you to write home about how well the city council is doing.

The next two questions were designed to elicit the respondents' belief that democracy or authoritarianism are preferable types of government.

This one surprised me. Only 43% of Mexicans polled believed that democracy was a preferable form of government. Only the people of Guatemala had a lower opinion of democracy. And when you consider Guatemala's recent political history, that is hardly a compliment.

At least, only 15% of Mexicans were willing to fall back on authoritarianism as an alternative to democracy. Latin American countries with recent military dictatorships had far higher percentages in this category.

So, what do the numbers mean? Mexicans believe that democracy is not working well for them, that they are not very optimistic that it will work for them, but that the alternative of a man on a white horse is not their cup of hot chocolate. Until recently, they were satisfied with whatever pleasant technocrat their single party would give them.

Taking into account Mexico's recent history that resulted in the Revolution (an event being celebrated this week), the poll results are predictable.

There is an old Mel Brooks' song: "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." The more I learn about Mexico, that could easily become a daily tune.

Monday, November 17, 2008

name the mystery tree

OK. OK. I know this is not a blog about plants-that-do-not-necessarily-grow-in-Mexico. But the photograph I posted yesterday has raised some questions about what type of tree I have managed to discover. And everyone likes a good mystery.

As I mentioned, it blooms in three stages. The first stage is in the late Spring or early Summer. The flowers are white and very aromatic -- they almost smell like gardenias. Here is a photograph of the first stage.

The white flowers then fall off, and these pods -- looking almost like Chinese lanterns, form.

And during the late Fall, the lanterns open to display what appear to be star-shaped flowers, with a fruit in the center. In this photograph, the lantern is just opening up. The berry will true from green to a bluer shade.

Do any of you have any idea what this tree -- actually, it is more like a gangly shrub -- might be?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

my so-called saturday

This tree fascinates me. It has long white flowers in the Spring, a purple pod in the Summer, and these stars in the Fall. I have no idea what it is called.

Yesterday was supposed to be a very productive Saturday. I was going to get up early, finish up clearing the rock wall, plant new bedding plants, and catch up on my professional reading.

If I had entered the Olympics, I would score straight zeros in the compulsory round.

I slept in well past 9. And Jiggs let me get away with it.

I awoke to one of the most pleasant mid-November days I have ever seen. If you have ever lived in British Columbia, Ireland, or England in November, you would know exactly what to expect in Oregon: gray skies, constant drizzle, and a temperature that hovers in the 40s.

Not today. Clear. Sunny. 37. A perfect day for gardening.

So, I cooked up some left overs, retired to the hot tub, and read an alternative history novel about the post-Civil War years. I enjoyed every minute, but I was certainly not getting my chores accomplished.

Jiggs pestered me enough to take him for a long walk. He did great -- on the walk. Now, he is stumbling around on three legs.

Around 2, I headed off to visit the nurseries for bedding plants. Apparently, they understand the seasons better than I do -- they were closed until February. I could have bought a few scraggly plants at Home Depot. Instead, the rock wall gets moved to February.

That was the day. I did nothing I had planned. And that is fine with me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

strawberries, no whipped cream

On Thursday, I announced in there's no business like -- that I was considering either not retiring, or retiring and taking part of my job with me to Mexico.

I realize now that was a rather manipulative way of describing what I may be able to do.

If I were to say, what would you do if you could use your love for writing part-time and get paid a very nice amount of money? How many of you would be interested in a gig like that?

If it meant getting paid for writing our blogs, I suspect there would be more hands in the air than at a French battle. (By the way, that is meant to be a Mexican patriotic statement, not a slur on my good friends in France. -- That Secretary of State job may still be open.)

The possibility is not that good -- but nearly. My company has scheduled a rewrite of a -- well, let's just say: a very big book. If I stayed, the project would have been partially mine.

If I can take it with me, I will retire. But I can work on the project when my time allows -- as long as I meet certain deadlines.

So, I am really not waffling. I am retiring. Doing something I will love doing -- writing. And I still get to live in Mexico.

Will it be as fun as writing a novel? Nope. But I was not going to do that in any event.

And, who knows, maybe the plan will not be approved. I will be as happy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

michael kabob

I truly enjoy reading Michael Dickson's work. However, he has outdone himself with Toro! Toro! Toro! -- his delightful recounting of his visit to a Mexico City bull fight.

Read it!

Enjoy it!

I will be back later to talk about my writing plans in Mexico. But, I must now head off to a play.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

there's no business like --

If I had been in charge of World War Two, the Allies would still be waiting to invade Normandy.

I mentioned in
when is a sunset a sunrise?, at the end of October, that I was considering changing a small part of my moving to Mexico plan.

You all know the basics. I am planning on retiring around the end of March and heading to Melaque to take up residence in late April or early May.

The outline is the same, but I am thinking of altering a very important detail. I may not retire. Or, more accurately, I may retire, but take part of my job with me.

If I were to forgo retirement, I would be working on one large project during 2009. The project still needs to be done, and most of it could be completed through telecommuting (a really ugly word).

I have not presented my full plan to my boss -- yet. And the details may not work out. But I thought it would be an interesting transition from working full-time to working part-time while living in Mexico.

Of course, by next month, I will have modified my plan -- again. At this rate, we should be in Normandy somewhere around the summer of 2022.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

between a rock wall and a hard place

This weekend I mentioned in
mistemper'd weapons that I have been spending far too much time dressing up a rock garden that I will never see mature. I managed to let cotoneaster run amok and shade out most of my rock garden plants.

Looking at my alternatives, I took the William Tecumseh Sherman approach, and marched through the full wall with a scorched earth policy. The cotoneaster had risen in rebellion; it fell in ignominy.

The top photograph shows the rebellion in full force. I rather liked its "natural" garden look -- until I saw its effect.

The photograph below shows today's battlefield. Please note that even the sun shines on my work.

I need to add some compost to what remains of the soil. Then I will plant some new bedding plants that will do well in the wall. My goal is to pick a limited number of colors that will bloom from late winter to late fall.

I am not certain why I have decided to play farmer in the dell. Maybe I have spent enough time on Jonna's web site listening to her plant choices that I just needed to get back in the game.

On Saturday I will take a trip to the nursery to see if I can find just the right mixture of tender plants to survive the winter. And then the garden will be on its own -- to be raised by wolves.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

driving my lincoln

I saw it on the book table at Costco -- and nearly walked on by. Another Lincoln book? What more is there to say about the man?

But James McPherson hooked me and reeled me in with his claim that his was an entirely original approach: to view Lincoln's presidency solely through the prism of his role as commander-in-chief during the Civil War.

It sounded novel. Thus I bought and read Tried by War over this last weekend.

If I had given this impulse buy some serious thought, I would have realized that almost every biography of Lincoln deals with Lincoln as the commander of generals. The trick would have been if McPherson, a noted Lincoln scholar, had produced some original approach to understanding Lincoln. You will find none of that in this very small book. Every tale, every point appears in other Lincoln biographies.

Lincoln came to the White House with the reputation of a peacenik -- one of history's great ironies. Even though he had spent a few months as a soldier in the Black Hawk War in 1832, he was best known as an opponent of the war with Mexico when he was in Congress. When the Civil War began, he crammed to learn military policy, strategy, and tactics, and learned along with his generals.

In doing so, he invented the notion of an activist (some would say imperial) presidency where the executive branch became supreme over the other branches in the prosecution of the civil war and its termination of civil liberties -- for the betterment of other liberties.

This is where McPherson disappointed me. He is a very good writer, and he tells this tale well. But, the book is not so much a critique of Lincoln as commander-in-chief as it is a hagiography of America's greatest commander. Sadly, McPherson simply wants us to believe, and that leaves Lincoln sounding less like a mortal learning his lessons well, and more like a flawed demigod exiled from Olympus.

I give McPherson credit for not indulging in the anachronistic practice of continually trying to drag contemporary affairs into the context of 19th century history. And McPherson does a good job of acting as a professional historian almost all the way through the book.

Here is an example that would have caused most writers to slip into hackery.

In his role as commander of the Department of Ohio, General Burnside issued an order, based on a Lincoln executive order, that anyone who committed express or implied treason would be arrested and tried by a military tribunal.

Clement Vallandingham, an anti-war Democrat running for the Ohio governorship, put the order to the test challenging the constitutionality of the war, emancipation, the draft, suspension of habeas corpus, and Lincoln's tyranny. Burside arrested him, and a military court convicted him, and sentenced him to prison for the remainder of the war.

McPherson dispassionately described how Democrat leaders in Ohio and New York characterized Burnside's -- and Lincoln's actions:

Such action was "a palpable violation of the Constitution," which "abrogates the right of the people to assemble and discuss the affairs of government, the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury and the privilege of habeas corpus . . . aimed at the rights of every citizen of the North."

A hack, of course, would have turned the traitorous Vallandingham into a noble civil libertarian campaigning against foreign invasions -- merely to score points with a modern reader.

But, having dodged that bullet, McPherson tacks on an entirely unnecessary epilogue with starts very professionally:

Whether these violations of civil liberties constitute a negative legacy that offsets the positive legacy of the Union and emancipation is a question everyone must decide for himself or herself.

And then trails off into anachronistic irrelevance:

The crisis of the 1860s represented a far greater threat to the survival of the United States than did World War I, World War II, Communism in the 1950s, or terrorism today. Yet compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.

So much for professional detachment.

If you love Lincoln without blemishes, are willing to read anything published about the Civil War, or simply do not know anything about Lincoln as commander-in-chief, buy the book.

However, if you have something better to do with your life, don't bother.

I am happy to have read it, but it now goes into my pile of books that will find a new life at the used book store.

Monday, November 10, 2008

col. cotton's lonely parody band

The house is aswing with music tonight. Not the type of music you would expect for a late middle-aged guy. No smoke-infused tones of Miles Davis or Stan Getz.

Billy Joel sings of his Uptown Girl -- you know, the one who did not last for The Longest Time. Anne Murray glides through Snow Bird. John Travolta misses Sandy.

What human purpose -- other than some madly-secret cult -- could bring together that lot?

Well, Steve is on another song parody kick. It happens every time he sees the Capitol Steps.

But this time I am actually working on a commission -- of sorts. Our Attorney General is retiring. I worked with him for years on his ethics committee. This year, some of us committee alumni are going to roast him. Thus, the 60s Beatles picture -- and the reason why "When I'm Sixty-Four" is blazing through my speakers.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know I told you all that I had hung up my parody hat. But I lied. I would share the lyrics with you, but they suffer from being both hackneyed and half-baked.

Besides, like most roastings, they really do not make much sense unless you know the roastee.

So, Mr. AG. Be patient while I attempt to light this match under your goose.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

a tear for fall

I was flipping through my photographs taken during my dog walks this weekend. I particularly liked this one.

One of the last leaves on my Boston ivy during a brief bit of sunlight. Nice textures and color. And a bit of wistfulness.

dogging my steps

I received a few email recently asking how Professor Jiggs is doing. This picture should answer that question. I took it yesterday on our walk between Oregon autumn downpours. He is begging me to allow him to cross the street to extend our walk.

September and October were not very good months for him. He would have good days, and then the next he would spend almost a minute trying to struggle to his feet. I was almost convinced that the time had come to consider putting him down.

But he had no trouble eating. He was alert and with no obvious signs of pain. My one concern was that he showed little interest in going for his morning and evening walks.

He recovered from his lethargia after his steroid injections. This month, he is once again his old -- but aging -- self.

I have given up planning on whether he will be able to accompany me to Mexico. For the moment, I will simply enjoy the pleasure of his company.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

mistemper'd weapons

Now and then I hear a story about someone who, when told he has six months to live, goes out and does something prosaic -- like roofing his house.

I have less than six months to live -- in my house in Salem. But you would think I was siege-proofing the place.

I have never been much of a gardener. When I took possession of the property, it had a well-planned rock garden that would start blooming in January and end in November with waves of color.

It took very little maintenance. And that was convenient because I had little interest in investing my time in flowers -- especially when everything seemed to be taking care of itself.

Well, this is life. Nothing takes care of itself. Nature has its eventual way. I first noticed that the California poppies had disappeared. Then whole areas stopped blooming. If I had paid attention, I would have noticed that the cotoneaster had spread from a small ground cover to a tangled thicket. As a result, most of the smaller plants had died from lack of sunlight.

Now that I have decided to put my house in the hands of a sitter, I could simply ignore the jungle on E Street. That is not going to happen. Seeing a challenge, I need to intervene with my surge forces.

I have managed to clear out most of the ground portion of the cotoneaster. I am now ready to go in search of bedding plants.

As I was finishing up my trimming, a friend showed up. We started chatting. First, he laughed that this was the first time he had seen me working in the rock garden. He then asked what I felt about the election. He was elated. A life-long Democrat, he had been a big supporter of Gore and Kerry. But, like so many, his support for Obama was ecstatic.

He then surprised me when he said he was a little disgusted with his fellow Democrats for their continued attacks on "Sarah." I wasn't sure who he meant, and then I realized he was defending Governor Palin. He said he had just heard Barney Frank say that she was more tolerant of him than he is of her.

As he talked, I realized he was making the same argument that Peggy Noonan made before the election and has made after the election. We need to start treating one another civilly. As a nation, we voted for a candidate who offered hope and change. We now need to start behaving toward one another in that same fashion.

I have every hope that we can. If we can get the thickets of cotoneaster out of the way, we can get to work on the bedding plants.

Will we have common goals? Certainly. Will we disagree on how to get there? You betcha. But we can do it all realizing that we are one nation. And with God's forbearance, we may even do it as if we were cousins -- instead of the Montagues and Capulets.

Friday, November 07, 2008

the windmills I don't mind

One big step toward retirement today. I transferred one of my major speaking projects to colleagues.

Every quarter, we present a summary of the administrative and appellate cases to our company's adjusters. It is one of my favorite parts of my job. It lets me write and perform -- in addition to passing along information to my fellow workers.

We present four sessions -- two on Thursday, two on Friday. We just finished up the last presentation. That means I will never be doing that function again -- ever.

I thought I would feel a bit melancholy about giving up something I liked so much. But I don't -- I don't even feel sentimental. Maybe a little. Somewhere between the neighbor's goldfish dieing and forgetting Kim Jong-il's birthday.

But I did get something valuable out of the transfer. My colleagues brought in two pies -- apple and pumpkin -- to celebrate this small part of my retirement. The gesture was extremely thoughtful; and the pie was tasty.

Who could ask for anything more than that?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

one step backward

While the rest of us were a bit self-absorbed by the American elections, Mexico suffered a major tragedy.

Juan Camilo Mouriño, the Interior Secretary, and José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a former deputy attorney general and key adviser to President Calderón on the drug war, were on board a small jet that crashed in the very posh area of Polanco in Mexico City. There were also numerous deaths on the ground because the plane crashed amongst rush hour traffic.

Of course, the rumors began immediately -- the most obvious that the drug cartels had taken revenge on leaders in the war on drugs. Other speculation is even more alarming in its possibilities.

Early reports, though, indicate that the crash was an accident -- even though all possibilities will be left open for investigation.

No one can really count on the full truth being discovered -- or, of it is, that it will ever be publicly disclosed.

But there can be no doubt that the Calderón administration will be severely damaged by the loss of these two men. Secretary Mouriño had been touted as President Calderón's successor.

If this was the work of the cartels, Mexico is running the risk of slipping closer to becoming the next Colombia. We can hope that is not the case.

My prayers are with the Mexican people. Americans are celebrating the possibility of hope. I hope our Mexican neighbors will not have it ripped out of their hands.

Gary Dennes of
Mexile and Jennifer Rose of Staring at Strangers have added their voices to this discussion.

Note: It appears that the jet crashed in Lomas de Chapultepec, rather than Polanco.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

victory lap for the winner

Beth and I had a great time at the Capitol Steps last night. Two years ago, on election night, the same crowd was surly and just a bit mean-spirited, even though their candidates were sweeping into power in Congress.

Last night was a different world. I would estimate that 90% of the audience were of a like political mind. But they laughed at all of the jokes -- even those at their own expense. (If there were any John Edwards supporters in the audience, they may not have been laughing very hard.)

And I hope I know why. Last month, in
feasting without grace, I noted that, over ten years ago, Peggy Noonan wrote in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness:
Young black men will save our country. I'm not sure completely what I mean by this but--they're tough and smart and know how to survive...

I received several email after I posted the comment noting it was, at best, offensive; at worst, racist. In support, each email listed the number of African-American politicians who have been utter failures.

Those readers missed the point, I think. Most politicians, who fail, fail because they act like politicians, rather than leaders. Race has nothing to do with that type of moral failure. Politicians tend to be equal opportunity thieves.

As of last night, Peggy Noonan's prediction may come true. At least, there will be a chance for it to come true.

I wish President-elect Obama the best of luck. He is going to have the benefit of high hopes and the drag of high expectations. That is best symbolized by the fact that a candidate who ran as a post-racial nominee is being acclaimed for the one aspect of his personality that he claimed was the least important: his race.

Last night he talked about the fact that American was strong because governmental power is limited. If he can govern with that same sense of humility, I may finally understand Peggy Noonan's point. For the sake of us all, I hope it will be true.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

laughing my way through the ballot

Since 1992, America has been involved in a permanent state of presidential campaigning. Today, will end another round, but not the obsessive campaigning.

There was a time when I would be drafting plans to get to at least five parties to watch election returns tonight. This year will be different.

Elections have become such parodies, I decided to simply surrender any pretense that this election will matter by attending a comedy performance.

OK. A political comedy performance: the Capitol Steps.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of watching or listening to the Capitol Steps, I suggest that you take a look at (and listen to) their routines on their
web site.

Beth (of
Minto Dog) and I watched the Capitol Steps in Portland on election night 2006. We each come from different political backgrounds, but we both agreed that Portland Republicans (a species currently listed as endangered) like jokes about Democrats and Republicans. Portland Democrats like jokes about Republicans -- and get a little confused when the show folk say less than congratulatory things about Democrats. After all, the Capitol Steps appear on public radio.

We will give it another shot tonight in Portland -- and see if people can loosen up a bit. My bet is that Sarah Palin's comment to Dick Cheney "I am you -- with lipstick" will get a bigger laugh than "Obama's got no résumé." But we will shall see.

As for me, I intend to laugh my donkey off.

Monday, November 03, 2008

always a band

If I had to pick one literary work to represent what I think best represents American culture, "The Music Man" would rate in the top five.

Meredith Willson presented America, in all of its early twentieth century naiveté, confronting the classic con man. And, being conned, teaches the con man that he really believes in his own dream; that the con is not a con.

Perhaps, one of the most memorable lines in Broadway history is Professor Hill's reassurance to Winthrop: "I always believe there's a band, kid."

Well, I guess I always believe there's a band, as well. Last August, I noted in
can't stop the music that I had lost a good deal of interest in music. I had no idea why.

I can now say that music and I have had a reconciliation.

I noticed it in church on Sunday morning.

Those of you who read my blog now and then will know that I attend the Salvation Army church. We have something most churches do not have: a brass band. On Sunday the and played "Amazing Grace" for the offertory.

If there is an unofficial American hymn, it is "Amazing Grace. (And, yes, I know John Newton was English.)

To say that I am not partial to classic hymns is an understatement, but something about the band's arrangement intrigued me.

That afternoon I attended a concert by the Salem Concert Band. Like many small American towns, mine has maintained the tradition of a volunteer concert band that performs in a restored theater.

They usually perform a series of easy-listening band pieces topped off by a more challenging piece for both the audience and the performers. (There is an older fellow who sits behind me who mutters during every performance. "Why don't they play something I know.")

Today's theme was Celtic music. As I sat there listening to the band and the announcements of Irish dance lessons at the VFW hall, I was once again reminded that Salem is not Portland or Seattle or San Francisco, where our celebration of the simple and the familiar would probably be seen as a bit naive.

But I put that thought aside when the Oregon Defence Forces bagpipe band joined the concert band for the concert finale. The second to last selection was "Amazing Grace" -- twice in one day. I got the message someone was telling me something.

I pride myself on being a somewhat sophisticated fellow. I can be a bit sarcastic about simple and familiar things (as if I were one of my cool London friends). But I found myself tearing up while listening to the bagpipes play that familiar tune backed by the full chords of the concert band.

But why? Maybe for the same reason that Anne Lamott noted in her essay "Knocking at Heaven's Gate:

I can't imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it's because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn't get any other way.

Maybe. All I know is that whatever happened today, I can say that I always believe there's a band.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

what cannot be changed must be endured

For almost a year I have been trying to attach some interesting commentary to this photograph.

If I had the writing skill of
Michael Dickson, I would conjure up a tale of bats, corn bread, and the soothing nature of pumpkin-colored paint.

If I had the wit of
Richard Lander, I would create a new SMA gang based on the secret signals of star-crossed lovers.

If I had the charm of
Babs, I would tell you that the experience of colors should be enjoyed for their own sake.

If I had the photographer eye of Billie, I could tell you how I carefully framed what would be an otherwise incomprehensible jumble of shapes.

If I had the exotic taste and intelligence of
Jennifer Rose, I would work in an Chilean dwarf and several political quips.

But I am just simple me -- and nothing like that would come to mind.

For some reason, I kept hearing the nursery rhyme: "And the dish ran away with the spoon." The best I could do was create a short story about Señor broom with his snappy crew cut seeing Señorita mop at the local dance, only to be rebuffed when he asks her to dance.

There is far too much tragedy in that tale. It is just a photograph of a door, a mop, and a broom. And that is good enough for me today.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

another season gone

Yesterday morning I woke up to the distinctive sound of tires on wet pavement. During the night, our wondrously dry October had morphed into an Oregon fall.

October was a welcome respite from the usual Oregon jump from late summer directly to rainy season. I spent long walks with the dog. Cleared out the accumulated jumble in the rock wall. Chatted with neighbors. As well as enjoying the opportunity to photographs subjects that only a dry October will provide.

Today I start dealing with the more prosaic aspects of home ownership: fixing leaky faucets, replacing worn light switches, upgrading toilet floats. I saved these indoor chores for gray days like today where I will have enough light to see once I cut the electrical power, but where I will not be tempted to go outside and do battle with the ever-victorious English ivy. (As an aside, the picture at the top is of the Boston ivy that decorates my chimney. It is an ally of the season.)

But now, I must head to Home Depot to start my day.