Friday, December 31, 2010

something borrowed -- something new

I love change.

The fact that I have chosen the unpredictability of living in Mexico, rather than reading in my hot tub in Salem, should be proof of something.  I came here for change, and change I have found.

One thing in my life has resisted change, though.  The title of this blog.

But that is about to change, as well.  Tomorrow.

Thanks to all of you for your title suggestions (titleless in mexico).  They helped me to decide where this blog should go in the new year.

Check tomorrow -- if you choose.

Whether or not you check in tomorrow, I hope all of you have good years for the rest of your lives.

And that is something I do not want to change.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

pole sitting

Somehow, I have slipped into religious training.

Or so it seems.

I am well on my way to becoming a hermit.  Steve the Stylite.  Up on his Monty Python pole.

I didn't plan it this way. 

Anyone who knows me very well would not peg me for the reclusive type.  Social Guy would be more like it.  I love being around people.  Being in the middle of things that people like to do.

But anyone who did a rewind of this past week would see a bit of discordance between the Steve I think I am and how he has spent his time.

On at least three days this past week (not counting my flu days), I did not leave the confines of my little monastery. 

No one is in the upper level of my duplex.  So, if I do not walk out my gate, I am on my own.

It is not as if I am in solitary confinement.  In a certain sense, my little compound is the Garden of Eden -- without the temptation of forbidden fruit.  I want for nothing.

A beautiful garden where I can sit and read.  Or sit and eat.  Or sit.  Or, better yet, lie in the hammock and not even have the strain of sitting.

When I get hungry, I can whip up any type of food I like with some of my more exotic culinary purchases from this last month.  And, if I run out of anything, I do not have to step into the world.  I can have it all delivered.  Just like a baby delivered to a nunnery.  (I will confess, though.  I have not sunk to the point of not doing my own shopping.)

With my Kindle, I will never run out of books.  With the internet, I will not lose contact with the outside world -- including my morning doses of news from the slightly monotone Oregon Public Broadcasting.

But, as much as I enjoy the solitude, my hermetic days are not going to be the norm.

I too much enjoy the rhythm of my community. 

Stretching my Spanish with Ivan, the young man who delivers my water, and with Dora, the bringer of maidly things.  Learning new words from Hector, the waiter at La Rana.  Not to mention my friends and acquaintances at my church -- and with a new community project that has caught my interest.

As soon as I get situation and as soon as we can get past Christmas, I am going to head out on the road again.  This time, unfortunately, without a travel companion.  Probably up and down the Pacific coast -- and up into the highlands.

There is a legend about a hermit by the name of Alypius.  He was one of those hermits who stood on a pillar as part of his hermitage.  He stood there for 53 years.  Then his feet gave out.  Instead of descending, he stayed up another 14 years lying on his side.

I am no Alpius.  There is far too much to see in this country for me to spend time sequestered in my garden.

Even though Casa Nanaimo would make a practically perfect hermitage -- in every way.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

fiddling with the soup

Tradition is hard to break.  And Mexico is a land of traditions.

You could re-write Fiddler on the Roof into a Catholic passion play, and it would play line for line in my little village.

This week I decided to make some white chili -- with chicken,white beans, onions, oregano, cumin seeds, and loads of our local peppers.  While I was at the store, I changed my mind about the chicken.  Ham sounded better.

OK.  I know it simply sounds like spicy pork and beans.  But I wanted ham.  It was comfort food.

I should have stuck with the chicken.  Here is the problem.

I only needed enough ham to make a stock pot of chili.  The size of one of those little hams that populate Safeway meat coolers.

But there is no Safeway in Melaque.  And the only hams I have seen are the size of the Oxford dictionary -- the unabridged edition.

This is Mexico, though.  There is a solution for everything.

My local market sells sliced ham for sandwiches.  Real ham.  Most of what passes for ham sandwich meat around here had a
snood and wattle while it was alive.  Almost to a slice, it is made from turkey. 

Even though it is next to impossible to find sliced turkey for sandwiches.
  I don't even think about it any more.

The real ham slices come from a large ham displayed in the deli case.  The solution seemed too obvious.  Order a half kilogram of ham -- unsliced.

I had rehearsed my lines in Spanish with all of the assurance of being the opening act in the Cervantes Festival.

I delivered them to the clerk.  She just stared.  You could sense upside down question marks pocking the air.

I repeated my question.  Same response.

Knowing that slower and louder was the next tourist ploy, I instead decided on my best Marcel Marceau impression.  Nothing.  I then tried measuring the meat with my fingers.

That simply got a giggle.  But she was still perplexed.

And then it came to me.  This must be just like the hardware store.  Instead of telling her what I want, tell her what I want it for.  Let her be part of the solution.

I told her I wanted chunks of ham for a chili I was making.  Wrong ploy.  I am certain she envisioned me feeding ham to hungry peppers.

So, I made it easier.  I lied.  I told her I needed it for omelets.  After all, I use the same diced him when I cook eggs.

Her eyes lit up and she went to work.

While she worked on my order, I chatted with the store owner about the state of the village.  The clerk handed my my wrapped meat, and I was on my way home.

The chili was in full process when I opened the meat wrapper to discover -- sliced ham.  Just right for a sandwich.  Not so much for boiling liquid.

I started laughing.  In Mexico, almost all meat is cut very thin for quick grilling.  I forgot the same rule applies to meat in omelets.

There was no recourse but to use it .  And it tasted fine -- even though cubes would have been far better. 

But it is a good reminder that tradition will be served.

Even if it is thinly sliced.

Note: The photograph at the top of this post is not from my deli in Melaque.  It is from New York a couple of years ago.  One of the funniest marketing errors I have ever seen.


mea culpa

If you have submitted a comment to same life -- new location in the past, your email in-box may look like the ghost of comments past.

I switched over to Disqus as my comment application, at the suggestion of Gary Denness.  I liked the look of it on his site, and I have heard it is better at filtering out the ton of spam comments I have been receiving lately.  I think I now know how one of those Boston censors must have experienced.

For whatever reason, your old comments were forwarded to you.  And I do not know why.  But I apologize for sending your marvelous thoughts back to you.

Consider it an early new year's present -- to share witticisms you may have long ago forgotten about.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

days of notes

Every year,  I make one new year's resolution.

Not to make any resolutions.

The reason?  I simply recognize who I am.

Almost all resolutions fall into two categories.  The first are the hard ones.  They end up broken within days -- if not hours.

The second are the easy ones.  The things I would end up doing in the new year -- with or without a resolution.

But a new year offers a perfect forum to consider our lives, and, in particular, our relationships with our neighbors.

While getting ready for church last Sunday, I heard a story on NPR that caught my attention.  Liane Hansen interviewed a Chicago attorney, John Kralik, about his new book: 365 Thank Yous: The Year A Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.

Mr. Kralik's story began with a 2008 new year's resolution -- to be thankful for the people and good things in his life.  What I would classify as a Type One revolution.  Destined to be shelved sometime following lunch on 2 January.

But he had a plan.  Something quite practical.  He would write a thank you note each day.  And he did.

Thank you notes.  Those little cards that are the bane of brides, nephews, and grandchildren.

But his notes were personal and heartfelt.  Always focused on the other person.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Kralik's  exercise as little more than a clever premise for a book.  But I know the power of hand-written notes from personal experience.

I have mentioned my friend John before.  He is the very essence of a civil man -- an anti-Aristotelian who embodies the very essence of Aristotelian civility.  Concerned for his community.  Considerate of others.

He recently helped another friend of mine put together a method to interview businesses.  John had plenty of helpful hints.  But the one that struck me most was: be certain to send a hand-written thank you note before the end of the day.

Despite the whiff of Edwardian manners, I know how much such notes can mean.  In fact, the most recent one I received was from -- John.  In his familiar scrawl.

And because he wrote it, something of him was passed along to me.  That felt good.

John Kralik said he started his project because he heard a voice tell him: "Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want."

I would re-edit that sentence to: Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you need.  But I understand -- and second -- the premise.

Writing and mailing thank you notes each day in Mexico is probably not possible -- for a number of reasons.

But I can learn to show gratitude more often.  Especially, to simply be grateful for the good things that happen each day -- and for the people who have been put in my path.

And, when I can, I will do it with my own hand.

Note:  If you would like to read John Kralik's ten suggestions on how to write thank you notes, click your way over to NPR.

Monday, December 27, 2010

the dangerous (and paranoid) north

The hysterical nonsense that Americans and Canadians are fed about the dangers of Mexico has long been a staple of bloggers south of the border.

I have simply become accustomed to the stereotypical journalist misuse of a few facts to weave a tapestry of terror.  And it never seems to end.

But a Christmas warning from Texas got me back on my high horse.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say: Here it is.

"Mexican drug cartel-related violence continues in the northern Mexican border cities and other location, such as Monterrey and Acapulco," said Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven. C. McGraw. "Drug-related or other criminal activity has been documented in popular tourist destinations such as Cancun and Mazatlan. The safety and security of holiday travelers cannot be guaranteed if they venture into Mexico."

Is there drug gang violence in northern Mexican border cities?  Yes.

Have Monterrey, Acapulco, Cancun, and Mazatlan suffered drug-related violence?  Yes.  And so have a lot of other towns and cities, including my small fishing village by the sea.

But what about the conclusion -- the safety and security of holiday travelers cannot be guaranteed in Mexico?

Guaranteed?  What can be?

Well, Crime Dog McGraw, can you guarantee if I drive in Texas, I will be perfectly safe?  If I invest in Texas, will you guarantee that my investment will be safe and give me a good return?  Can you guarantee my safety if I travel in drug-areas of Austin?

Of course not.  Just like the FBI cannot guarantee that all terrorist plots on American targets are going to be foiled.

Plug in any large American or Canadian city in the Texas warning.  After all, every big city has its crime problems.

Then why don't we see warnings like: "The safety and security of holiday travelers cannot be guaranteed if they venture into Canada or the United States."

The reason is simple.  Because the conclusion cannot be drawn from the facts.  It is pure fear mongering.

I thought of that the other day when a friend of mine sent me a link to a piece entitled: "What to Expect From Mexico in 2011."  I fully trust Al's suggestions.  But I am a bit leery of American writers discussing Mexico's future.

I do not know the author: Victor Davis Hanson.  But, at least in this piece, he has a very level-headed view of the relationship between the United States and Mexico.  He idealizes neither Mexico nor the United States.  What he offers is a new take on how to start resolving relationships between the two countries.

I am not a closed borders fan.  For one basic reason.  Closed borders do not work.  Even the iron curtain had leaks.

But I must concede a point to Mr. Hanson.  He argues that as long as some of Mexico's hardest workers can find financial benefits by heading north illegally, Mexico has no incentive to do what it needs to do to reform its social and political structure.

"Mexico has not embraced open markets, truly consensual government, respect for private property, transparency, and an independent judiciary—in the style of the reformist agendas in Chile and Brazil—and thus cannot provide security and prosperity for its own people."

This is the discussion that should be taking place inside Mexico (perhaps, with a friendly nudge from Washington and Ottawa).  There is no reason why Mexico cannot do what Chile and Brazil have done.

The Economist published its annual Latinobarómetro poll earlier this month.  When asked "How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country?", a majority of Brazilians and Chileans said they were satisfied. 

They have seen how democracy and liberal markets can work for the benefit of their countries.

Not so, Mexicans.  Less than a quarter are satisfied with how democracy is working for them.

The good news is that, even though Mexicans are not satisfied with the way democracy is currently working for them, they are not interested in an authoritarian government.  (Ironically, the only three nations with lower pro-authoritarian sentiment, each have authoritarian governments: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.)

As for me, I am not venturing north of Nogales for Christmas.  It is just too dangerous (and cold) for me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

little miss muffett does a bit of reading

Trust your instincts.

One of the first things my father taught me.  And it is a rule that has served with well in life. 

On tests.  When ordering in a restaurant.  Everything but romance.

I should have listened a little closer to that life lesson this week.

We have been having some unseasonably cool weather here in the tropics.  The night temperatures have dropped into the lower 60s.

For those of you who are teakettle deep in snow or rain, I know that does not sound like much.  I can scent the crocodile tears from here.  (Wait.  That may be from the laguna.)

But, when you are accustomed to days where temperatures stay in the 70s all through the night, that dive means something.  During the festival events in the evening, it often looked as if the Inuit had sent a large delegation to town -- parkas and all.  Even I wore a long sleeved shirt over an undershirt.

When the sun is out, I have been taking advantage of its heat.  Most of the places where I like to read are in the shade.  But I spotted an old plastic chair in the garden that would be easy to move into the sun for a tad of reading. 

I should point out this is one of the advantages of a Kindle over an iPad.  I can actually read my Kindle in the sun.

When I started moving the chair, I noticed that grackles had been using it as a bombing target.  That was not a bother.  I have sat on worse.

But I also noticed a lot of sticky spots.  Almost like conifer sap.  I then realized it came from the mango tree.  And, even though a bit hardened by the sun, it was still too sticky to sit on.  (If you click on the photograph you can see them.  The dark spots.)

I started to get the garden hose.  But I quickly rejected the idea. 

After all, I would have to walk all the way across the garden to turn on the pump for the well water, wash down the chair, and then walk all the way back to turn off the pump.  What would I have then?  A wet chair.  Easier simply to wash my shorts -- if they got spotty.

So, I sat smugly in my laziness.  Reading about some political catastrophe or other in the news.

And then I felt it.  Movement.  On my arms.  On my legs.  My first reaction was the pesky little ants that we have everywhere here had paid an unexpected call.

But if you look at the blown-up version of the photograph, you will see another clue that I initially missed.  The underside of the chair is traversed with spider silk.

What I thought were ants turned out to be a new hatch of baby spiders.

They were all over me.  Apparently, moving the chair into the sun was their signal to start looking for a home of their own.

Here was my dilemma.  I like spiders.  They do an incredible amount of good in the garden.  Especially against my sworn enemy -- the mosquitoes.  But their very number was a bit spooky.

Getting them off of me was not going to be easy without a bit of arachnid genocide.  Waiting for them to leave was not going to work, either.  Some appeared to be happy to take up residence on me.

So, I gently blew.  Then brushed.  Shook out my shirt and shorts.  But to no avail.  I eventually retreated to the shower for a ritual baptism of the spiders.

If I had stuck with my first instinct to wash off the chair, I would have avoided this little episode. 

But I would also have missed a good story.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

visions of sugar-plums

I could not let one of my favorite Christmas decorations in Villa Obregon pass unnoticed on Christmas.  It is so -- Mexican.

It has everything.  Bells.  Lights.  Wise men.  Santa.  Reindeer.  A Christmas tree.  The pope (the dead one, not the German).  Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Well, almost everything.  It is a rather good example what can happen when we focus on the surface celebration.

I could not find the baby Jesus anywhere.  Apparently, neither could the wise men.  They appear to be helping Santa get over that balcony rail.  Chimneys being rarer than street lights in my small fishing village by the sea.

I have had the flu (or a very bad cold) for most of the past week.  And I decided three days in bed was enough.

It was Christmas Eve and my church was holding an evening service. 

I am glad I went.  Not because that is where God is.  He isn't.  Or, not just there.

But he does work through the hands of a community that appreciates the value of sharing grace.  The reason we celebrate this season is to remember that we are to love God and to share that love with one another.  Not just on Christmas, but every moment we share.  Every day.

After the service I drove home and had dinner at The Frog -- a nice bowl of sopa de tortilla.  I am now ready to climb back in bed.

Mind you.  I will not get sleep.  The firecrackers that could impersonate strip mining in West Virginia have commenced.

I trust you shall all have a Christmas of sharing grace with one another.  And that each of your days will be blessed.

¡Feliz navidad!

Friday, December 24, 2010

climbing the hills of opportunity

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may as well be the Mexican motto.  Emblazoned right beneath that rattlesnake-gnawing golden eagle on the prickly pear.

Mexico is a salvage society.  The common rap against America is that it is a throw-away society.  And, in some respects, that is true.

But there are still areas in America my grandfather would recognize.  Where appliances are kept running by cannibalizing parts from old machinery.  Where canning jars are valued for storing excess for use in lean times.  Where a dollar saved is seen as a virtue in itself.

Those parts of America have a spiritual kinship with Mexico. 

Mexico is not a land of plenty.  Historically, wealth tended to be amassed amongst an elite.  Those days are changing.  Mexico is growing a middle class.  Haltingly.  But it is growing.

But that does not change the fact that most Mexicans have had to learn to do with what was at hand.  And that is often not much.

Anyone who reads Mexican blogs regularly knows the litany.  Electrical junction boxes that look as if Rube Goldberg had been drinking.  Ladders built out of discarded wood scraps and reused nails.  Scooters made of recycled parts.

But just like on a Walla Walla farm, it always seems to work out in the end.  Maybe that is why my neighbors can be optimistic when trouble befalls them.  They will tack something together -- and it will work.

Maybe I have been learning from them, but I felt just a little more Mexican yesterday.

The ceilings in my place are about ten feet tall.  Designed to allow tropical heat to rise and then disperse through ventilation holes in the walls.

They are also quite attractive.  Until you need to reach the ceiling.

My main bathroom light fixture is on the ceiling.  As they are wont to do, the light bulb in that fixture gave up the ghost just when I needed to use the facility -- in the night.

No problem, said I.  I have dealt with similar problems in Oregon.

I looked for the step ladder.  I do not have one.

I tried a kitchen chair.  If I had the arms of Wilt Chamberlain, I might have reached the light.  But I have stubby Scottish arms more akin to those found on Tyrannosaurus rex.

I had one last hope.  One of the breakfast bar stools (pictured above; what you cannot see is the ceiling).  It was about the right height.  And it worked perfectly -- if I stretched and stood on my good left foot and used my left arm to hold my balance.

While getting off of the stool, I realized it was not the best climbing tool -- because it started to tip over.  Something about narrow wheel base (if it were a car).  But, I am becoming Mexican.  I merely leaned forward and tipped toward the shower where I could grab the tiled edge.

And all was well.  No splat on the floor.  No reinjured right ankle.  And the light worked.

It did not look elegant.  But everything turned out well in the end.

I am now ready for my next adventure.

Maybe something like this.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

screening the crowd

Some moments down here are far too Mexican to avoid comment.

Our festival last week suffered the same problem most festivals do.  Few festivals are blessed with auditorium seating.

Cow pastures.  Football fields.  Parks.  All have been put to the service of the muse Euterpe.

In Melaque, the venue of choice was our jardin.  Our town square.  Designed for worried parents sitting on benches in the evening monitoring their children swim upstream in a sea of testosterone and estrogen. 

It is perfect courting territory.  But lousy for more formal entertainment.

The organizer had the foresight to build an elevated stage.  But that worked only for about the first two rows of spectators.  Beyond that, the only entertainment the audience could see were mosquitoes drilling for new Dengue club members.

The jardin had more chairs than audience the first night.  That helped because people could peer over heads in front of them.

But someone must have decided the chairs were part of the line of sight problem.  Because the chairs began disappearing in batches each night.  By Sunday evening, all of the chairs were gone.

The organizers had a new solution, though.  Taking a lesson from the Super Bowl.  They set up a camera and projector to broadcast the events on a giant screen.  Just like being home and watching television.

If you look at the photograph at the top of this post, you can see how the solution suffered in execution.

The image on the screen was clear.  And big.

But the screen is set up below the stage line.  As soon as the crowd showed up, the only people who could see the screen were the people in the front row.  Of course, they were the same who had a perfect view of the stage.

Improvisation often works down here.  But not always.  And this was not one of those times.

But, it didn't matter.  What the audience could not see, they could hear.

And that was recipe enough for a grand festival.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

sands stand still

I am suffering from a mild case of Stendhal syndrome

The syndrome was first applied to tourists overwhelmed by the art of Florence.  Too much aesthetic stimulation in too little time.

My bout comes from our Festival del Mar.  And for the same reason.  Too much of a good thing.

At the start of the festival, I showed you a sand sculpture in its first phase.  It is now complete.  And so is the festival.

Sunday night was the grand finale.  And grand it was.

The jardin was packed, at 9 on a Sunday night, with people of all ages.  Mainly Mexicans.  But a few pasty expatriate faces floated in the crowd. 

A local band, Angel de Fuego, quickly had the place jumping and dancing.  Literally.  (And I do not mean that in a Joe Biden sense.  I mean "literally.)


The beat was so strong that people could not help themselves.  Including me.
For most of the festival I had perched myself on a raised palm planter.  It was a great angle for photographs.  Even though it was a lousy dance floor, I started dancing with two of the women I had talked with earlier in the evening.

First my feet.  Then my legs.  Then my butt.  I may as well have been dancing for tips in a bar.

But that moment summed up the week's activities.  It was just plain fun.  There were intellectual moments, but it was about the good times rolling.  The Greeks had it wrong.  Excess can be far more satisfying than moderation.

The other star vwas a young ranchera singer.  I wish I knew her name.  But I don't.

She was incredibly good.  And it was not just her technique -- which was flawless.  Even though I could not understand all of the lyrics, her singing filled my soul.  

I do not know what the planning committee set out to achieve.  So, I have no idea if they met their goals during the festival.

I do know I had a great time.  And I am looking forward to next year's version.

And here is your invitation.  Come on over. 

If you contract Stendhal syndrome, I know a nice little beach where you can recover.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

me and my moon shadow

New Agers!  Listen up!

Pull out your crystals.  Deck your halls with boughs of sage.  And don your Druid apparel.

The early morning of 21 December is your time to revel.

For the first time in 372 years, a total lunar eclipse and the winter solstice occur on the same night.  It would be a trifecta if Linda Evans and Yanni were to get married.

For the rest of us who are less crystal-oriented, it is still a big event. 

Full lunar eclipses are rare.  But one of the best treats for North Americans is that we get the full show.  Assuming weather permits.  And that is why we Mexicans (in our portion of North America) may trump some of you up north who are struggling with snow and rain.

The last time a lunar eclipse happened on the winter solstice, the puritans were kicking Anne Hutchinson out of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Charles I was heading down a road where his claim to rule by divine right was about to leave him nowhere to hang a crown, and a group of shipwrecked English sailors set up a colony in Belize -- creating a language anomaly in Central America.

Here are the details of this morning's eclipse.  (For those of you who will not read this until the show is over, I am certain television will show you something later today.)

As the earth revolves around the sun, and the moon revolves around the earth, there are times when the earth will get between the sun and the moon -- casting a shadow on the moon's surface.  In the same way hammy divas try to upstage their co-stars.

That is what will happen this morning.

Around midnight, a slight shading will occur on the moon's surface.  About 33 minutes later, the earth's shadow will start appearing from the moon's left.  And then it will be light's out around 1:41 a.m. CT.

Assuming that old tradition is not correct (you know, the one about some demon eating the moon), the shadow will start moving away within 70 minutes.

To get a clear view of this rare morning, I am going to be up on the roof of the house.

Of course, I will need to take a gallon of OFF with me to fight off the flying, biting critters.

It will be interesting to hear what each of you were able to see where you are.

Monday, December 20, 2010

time out

I ran into a Canadian couple examining the large framework (castillo) that supported the fireworks for the Guadalupe feast on Sunday evening.

They had never seen anything like it.  So, I walked them through the various layers.  And what firework surprises they could expect.

They were very uncertain of how close the crowd would stand.  And more so when I told them of the regular scorchings that occur.

The husband asked when it was going to be lit off.  I told him I had heard 9.  Or 10.  But it could be anywhere up to midnight -- depending on how long the rest of the festivities ran.

The wife looked worried.  "Midnight?  What about the children?  It's a school night. Maybe we could talk to someone in charge who has a schedule."

And there it was.  The word that forms the border between Mexico and Up There.

Schedule.  The belief that life can (and should) be lived in equal increments of time.

The talent show that evening was a perfect example how time in Mexico tends to take its own path.

On would come a young singer.  She would present us with a tune or two.  Then off she would go.  Followed with a random amount of loud recorded music. 

People milled.  People talked.  Then on came a group of dancers.  Same drill.  Off they went.  More interlude music.  More milling.

It reminded me of the local rodeos where the event took precedence over the performance.

Anyone expecting a linear progression in any of these gatherings will be frustrated.  Things will happen when they do.  It is all about enjoyment.  Not time.  And certainly not what is going to happen mañana.

I have returned to Mexico this time without a wristwatch.  Without a clock in my cell phone -- because I have no cell phone.  Without my fisherman watch that once hung from a belt loop.

For most things, I do not need to know what time it is.  I eat when I am hungry.  I read when I feel like it.  I write blog posts when the mood hits.  I take drives into the countryside on a whim (or in my Escape, if my whim is acting up).

All of this idealism will come to an end before too long.  At some point, I will purchase a mobile telephone for use in Mexico.  For medical emergencies if nothing else.  And I will once again be time-informed.

I just hope I will not care very much how I spend it.

P.J. O'Rourke once wrote: "It is better to spend money like there is no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there is no money."

That just may apply to time, as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

the smell of oranges

My fellow blogger, 1st Mate, just posted about her struggle of coming to terms with Christmas.

"Then something kicks in: a certain song (the Hallelujah Chorus works every time), a certain smell (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and clove, or else fir trees)."

For me, the smell is oranges.  But I am with her on The Hallelujah Chorus.  I can remembering hearing it on our stereo at home. 

It thrilled me -- as a fourth grader.  Even the tale we heard from our music teacher of George II's admiration for the song didn't take the shine off of it -- even in my republican eyes.

It became a staple of every Christmas.  And I have not tired of it.  Its first simple, repetitive notes stir the same sense of awe.

I thought I would pass along two bits of wonder I recently received from a friend.

The first is the chorus "sung" by silent monks.  If you do not concurrently feel joy and mirth, Christmas is definitely not your season.

For a more orthodox presentation, you might like the second -- even though the venue is a bit creative.  (I tried to fix the width issue -- to no avail.)

If I do not say it next week, I wish all of you a very orangey Merry Christmas.  May you have all of the joy in your life that this season offers.

sands of time

I owe my friend Daniel an apology.

He agreed to meet me at Disneyland when I was there last December.  I waited around at the appointed spot, but he wasn't there. 

So I called.  No worry; he was on his way.  Just got held up.

An hour later, he was still not there.  I tried another call.  He was in the park but had been detained by the Main Street Barber Shop Quartet.

Finally, three hours past our scheduled meeting time, he came glad-handing in.  No apology.  He was simply enjoying the day.

I would like to say I saw it that way.  I didn't.  Inside I was seething.  Outside I was congenial.

I thought of that incident on Wednesday of this week.

Friends called to tell me that there was a sand sculpture on the beach near their house.  They said the finals of the beach football match was also going to start soon -- with a purse of $5,000(MX) to the winners.  They wanted to know if I wanted to meet them at the sculture in about a half hour. 

It takes about that long for me to walk there.  I said -- sure.

And promptly sat down at my computer to read and respond to email.  To call my brother in Oregon.  To look at the laguna for my crocodile.  To stop at the mobile garage sale that sets up each week in town.  To take photographs of the carnival, that showed up for the Guadalupe celebration, pack up and leave town.

By the time I got to the sand sculpture, I was almost three hours late.  And my friends were nowhere to be found.

Since I was there, I took an hour or so to watch the sculptor at work.  He had constructed a wedding-tier cake of sand -- far taller than his own height.

He had then removed the top tier to begin sculpting a head with a vague Charlton Heston look to it.

When I arrived, he was spraying it down with a liquid -- to help it set and ward off the afternoon breeze.  No shifting sands on this project.

Eventually, he will open each tier and sculpt -- well, I don't know what.  But I know it will be monumental in size.  And most certainly a religious figure of some sort.  And it will be artistic enough to be tangentially related to the arts festival.  Gratuities will be accepted.

Having filled that box of my art experience, I wandered over to one of my favorite beach restaurants.  The place has changed hands three rimes since I moved here.  The view is tremendous.  The quality of the food never improves.

I wanted to watch the finals of the football tournament -- that was just getting under way.  When I walked in, there were my friends.  We greeted one another.  No questions were asked.  We simply sat and enjoyed some well-placed shots and our shared lives.

So, Daniel, I apologize for being so uptight about your tardiness.  In the end it just did not matter.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

three concerts and a funeral

Mexican life is lived on the edge.

There is always lots of it.  And none of it is subtle.  At least, not on the surface.

I was reminded of that on Friday.  Our festival of the sea continues to celebrate life.  In several different venues.  Main stage.  Beach stage.  Small tents.

I will confess.  I am impressed with the work that went into the project.  The variety of the acts alone is astounding.  The surprising aspect is the consistent high quality of the performers.  There have been clunkers, but very few.

Combining hemorrhoid cream with tea bags on the same grocery store shelf is not an unusual marketing technique in Mexico.  But successfully mixing flamenco, Polynesian dance, clowns, and classical ballet on the same stage on the same night is sheer genius.

And these are not just local acts.  The committee invited acts throughout the country.  Pacho Padillo (and his band) are from Guadalajara.  I mention them because they may have been the best act in the festival.

There were enough singers, musicians, and dancers to fill a full season of Ed Sullivan.  (If you are under 50, call your grandpa.  He will tell you all about Ed.  Maybe do a passable impersonation.)

My praise is tempered with one caveat.  If I never see another 4-year old trying a folk dance, it will be too soon.  "Cute" wears thin very quickly when you do not share DNA with the faltering youthful performer.

The festival was a great idea.  But I fear one full year of entertainment is being stuffed into five days of six hour concerts each night.  Where will all of this fun be in February when I am looking for a touch of culture?

But that is the nature of festivals.  And I wish this one well.  The plans are to make it an annual event.  Who knows?  Maybe we can rival Guanajuato (for a week).

In the midst of all this celebration of life, my maid's father died on Thursday.  The family could hear the music of the festival during the wake that evening and night.

His funeral was on Friday morning.  Grief and burials come quickly when Emily Dickinson's carriage stops for a passenger.

The mass was not unusual.  Even though it had a Mexican twist, Catholic masses tend to be universal.

What was new to me was the cemetery service.  Instead of saying the rosary before getting to the cemetery, the family and mourners met in the entryway of the cemetery -- complete with a plate of bay leaves and sliced onion under the coffin.  A symbolic way station between the world of the living and the city of the dead.

While an instrumental quartet sang and played songs of death, the coffin was opened for the family to bid farewell.  "Open" is a relative term.  When the coffin lid is opened, a plate of glass separates the corpse from the mourners.  But they can view him for the last time.

What I have left unsaid is what truly makes this a Mexican affair.  This was not a "celebration of the deceased's life."  The type of homogenized memorial service that has sucked much of the emotion out of funerals.  This was an expression of loss.  A realization that someone loved is no longer with the family.  That he is missed right now.  Today.

Men and women cried.  Relatives wailed.  One fainted.  It was true grief writ large.  No one felt any apprehension about falling on the coffin weeping.  The Mexican smile mask was lifted for an afternoon.

 The casket was then carried to a grave that had been dug over the night and in the morning.  A layer of concrete had been laid down as a base in the bottom of the grave.

The casket was lowered with ropes.  Men then built a structure of wood, a rebar frame, and concrete to entomb the casket.  Flowers were then placed on the slab.  The slab will remain uncovered until it has an opportunity to cure.  The grave will then be filled in.

My "Y" chromosome appreciated the construction.  I was glad to learn something new. 

But my heart learned much more from people who know how to let grief out.

In that sense, this week has been a type of celebrating life.  Its sheer joy in lightening our hearts through the arts.  And teaching our hearts that life also has an end.  That is one reason we enjoy the day we are given.

And we have plenty of lessons to enjoy that life each day -- if we only have eyes to see them.

Friday, December 17, 2010

making light of christmas

Christmas is not my favorite holiday.

I am not certain it ever was.  But I am certain my mother will correct me on that point if my memory has faded.

Mind you, I am not Scrooge incarnate.  The holiday has everything that would commend it to a world with troubles.  I simply cannot get get thrilled about a holiday that promises peace on earth and then leaves everyone relieved it is over.

How did I describe it in my Thanksgiving post?  "It is a value-laden holiday without the adrenalin and bile of Christmas."  That sums up my feelings quite succinctly.

One part of Christmas celebrations (in addition to the obvious incarnation) still thrills me.  I like the lights.  Yes, I know.  They are one of the most obvious holdovers from Christmas's makeover from its pagan origins.  Lights to beg the gods to give our sun back to us in the height of winter. 

But lights are also just plain fun.  And I suspect many a Roman during Saturnalia forgot all about the sun and simply enjoyed the pretty lights.

For me Christmas lights look as if Seurat had designed the night.  Dots and commas of color.

Mexico is no exception.  My neighbors love the lights of Christmas.  I live in a poor village.  You will not find McMansions decked out in whites-only lights.

But there are plenty of small family homes decorated in Christmas and Christian cheer.  Because in Mexico, it is an obvious religious event.

This year my neighbors got a good head start on the season.  Lots of homes were decorated for Revolution Day in patriotic red, green, and white. 

Add a picture of the Virgin, and you can celebrate the feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.  Add a Christmas tree, and you have decorations that work for almost two months -- or longer.  Because most of them will be up until Epiphany.  Some until Candelmas in February.

Billie over at Billieblog has been doing some clever photographic work while she is in Houston.  She has been shooting Christmas light displays in the city's neighborhoods.   And, as always, her work is filled with the very feel of Christmas.  She really is good.

Even though I do not have Billie's skills, I want to share a bit of our Christmas spirit here in Melaque.  They are not as grand as most displays in The States.  But they have the feel of sincere joy.

From now until Christmas, I will share a few with you.

If I can keep my social security hands steady enough to record the magic of the night.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

we beach people gots culture

OK.  I wanted culture.

And I am getting culture -- wave after wave.

We are in the second day of the Melaque Festival de Mar
(Festival of the Sea).  (If you are interested in the festival itself, you can take a look at their well-designed web site.)

Thursday kicked off the festival with a parade that started in Melaque went through San Patricio, on to Villa Obregon, and back to the jardin in San Patricio.  Where these guys performed.  They are a police motorcycle unit with an interesting traffic-stopping technique.

I have attended many parades -- from Macy's Thanksgiving Parade to the Rose Festival Parade.  But the small town parades are my favorites.  And this could not have been much more small town than it was.  That is what made it fun.

Right from the start with the Army color guard who took their job of showing the colors very seriously.


And then there were the usual pickups ornamented with the festival court.  That is our queen at the top of this post.

But never underestimate the theater of the absurd when it comes to local parades.  One of my favorite floats was a tractor pulling a trailer filled with ladies of a certain weight huffing and puffing on their exercise bikes as if their very exertion of calories would keep the float moving.

Not to mention the cohort of school girls earnestly marching along in uniforms that must have come from the Russ Meyer costume department.  I just did not have the heart to post a photograph.

But I could not pass this one up.  At the very end of the parade was a group of scantily-clad teens riding the beach equivalent of unfettered liberty -- the ATV.  This is not the best shot I took.  But I love the look on the face of the young woman behind the "bunny."  I could keep a week's worth of blogs going merely by asking for captions.

And I would be in real trouble if I failed to post something about this group.  I have mentioned several times that Melaque does not have a large expatriate population.  What we do have, though, is heavily weighted to Canadians.  About 80% if you can believe local folklore.  Here they are -- "eh"-ing their way along the parade route.

And, for you women, who accuse me of having a bit of a sexist streak in the photographs I choose to publish.  Here is one for you.  Advertising a local restaurant.  Though I am not certain what is being served.

But nothing in Mexico can start without an official ceremony.  And Wednesday night pulled out all of the stops (as we say in the organ business) to get the festival on a roll.

The committee constructed a huge stage in the San Patricio jardin.  With enough sound equipment to satisfy an early Eagles fan.

Like every Mexican function, there was a long Politburo-style table to be filled with the local Importants.  And dignitaries there were.  Mayors.  Festival officials.  A professor.  The festival queen.  It was a cast to warm the heart of any sit-com producer. 

Following the speeches, the dignitaries took their places in the audience on chairs designed with the international design for important butts -- white draperies with colored bows.  I could not decipher if there was any distinction between the green, red, and gold ribbons.  Perhaps, by caliber of handgun.

The speeches were designed to recognize the cosmopolitan nature of the audience and its various currencies.  A good portion of the speeches were presented first in Spanish, and then in English.  And almost all of the recorded songs before the ceremony were in English -- right out of the Boomer play book.

The rest of the week is going to be filled with a variety of cultural and sporting events. 


A literary fair and book sale.  A skim board tournament.  Singers.  Folk dancers,.  Flamenco.  Lectures.  Beach football tournament.  Beach volleyball tournament.  Art exhibitions.  A children's orchestra.  Polynesian dancers.  A swim competition.  A symphonic band.  And a grand finale -- with awards.

We received a good taste on Wednesday night.  After all of the speeches, we were entertained by the indifferent talent of a Mexican instrumental octet and a series of Mexican folk dancers performing dances from various states.

I like the photograph below.  It was unexpectedly blurred.  But it symbolizes this festival to me.  A bit unexpected.  But still recognizable as art.


It certainly will not be mistaken for the Cervantes Festival in Guanajuato.

But it needn't be.  We beach people are happy to have this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

tuning up my attitude

I am turning into a grouchy old man.

You know him.  Stands on his front lawn shaking his cane at unruly children. 

The relative who shows up at every family function constantly complaining about the president -- any president -- and how corporations are more interested in selling packaging instead of products.

Let me give you an example.

Last week I was having trouble with one of my posts.  The Mayas kept slipping from the grip of my pen.

What I needed was a change of venue.  So, I packed up my pad and pen, and headed around the corner to La Rana, one of my favorite eateries, for some peace and quiet -- and a nice serving of sopa tortilla.  A writer's dream.

The change worked.  While I was grazing on chips and pico de gallo, sentences began flowing.  Even the arrival of my soup didn't staunch the prose.  Pyramids grew.  Heads rolled.

But every tale needs conflict and a protagonist.  And I saw mine saunter into the restaurant.  Boots.  Cowboy hat.  And the dreaded guitar.

Let me pause here for a second.  I love music of almost every type.  Philip Glass is laying down a soundtrack for this post as I write.

But I long ago learned to dislike roaming troubadours in Mexico.  For good reason.  Actually, several good reasons.

One.  They push a product in my ears and ask me to pay for something I do not want.  The moral equivalent of street corner windshield cleaners.

Two.  Almost always, they are terrible singers and worse guitarists.  Faults they attempt to disguise through the fall back of the untalented throughout the world -- they sing and play as loud as they can.

Three.  They are almost never original.  They play a limited number of tunes -- usually two Mexican folk songs and a handful of American top 40 pieces.  You know them.  La cucarachaGuantanamera (not even Mexican).  La bambaCumbaya.  The type of songs your sister makes your niece sing at Christmas dinners.

You can always tell if there is a person who does not like cats in any crowd.  Just toss in a cat, and the cat will be drawn to that person like some kind of kitty lodestone.  I must have the same draw for restaurant musicians.

The moment he entered the small dining area, he made a beeline for a spot right behind my chair.  And started singing trite tunes without a bit of talent -- loudly.

No scowl tossed over my shoulder was going to shoo him from his perch.  Because the tourist crowd was eating it up with peso tips and silly photographic poses with The Local Color.  "And here I am Mary with a local musician.  Those people can all sing beautifully.  And I knew every song."

I came home that evening out of sorts.  I sought peace and quiet and got Charo in the body of a 54-year old Mexican man. 

And then I realized I was falling into the same fallacy I find humorous in Americans and Canadians who come to Mexico and try to "fix" the country.

You know them.  The people who want to stop other people from smoking in public.  Who want to reorganize grocery stores.  Who want the local traffic flow to be as logical and tidy as in Victoria. 

I realized the mistake was mine.  For thinking I could find peace and quiet in Mexico by going to a public place.  Good grief.  I can't find peace and quiet behind my garden walls.

The musician was only trying to earn a peso or two in the way he could.  And I treated him worse than a beggar.  After all, I don't glare at the elderly woman who stands with outstretched hand in front of my grocery store.

Having admonished myself, I headed back to La Rana on Saturday night.  With a plan.

I knew he took requests.  If I had trouble with his tourist-pleasing repertoire, I could ask him to play something I wanted to hear.

After he flayed Con te partirò (to the point I did not recognize it other than the syncopated beat on his guitar), I asked him if he would play a request.

"Of course, señor."

"Could you play anything you have written?"

señor.  I don't write music."

"Could you sing a Luis Miguel piece? 
México en la piel?"

"How about a Chavela song?  Luz de luna?"

"No, señor."

"La Llorona?"




"Esta bien.  You choose.  Something nice and new."

"Do you like Guantamera?"

All right.  I tried.  His singing was no better.  His guitar technique was more Ted Baxter than Ted Nugent.  But I enjoyed him.  His music.  And the evening.

Will I tense up the next time I see him enter a place I am dining?  Probably.  In the same way most of us tense up when the dentist drill begins its whine.

But I have learned to find the joy that each moment offers.

After all.  That is one reason I moved to Mexico.

Note:  The photograph above is not of the restaurant musician.  It is Vincente Fernandez.  He knows how to sing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

holy celebrities on parade

This vehicle was parked in front of the Villa Obregon church during the mass celebrating the feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.  I just assumed it was a celebrity limousine. 

Lourdes had stopped by to check out the competition.  Much as Paris Hilton would pay a visit to Scarlett Johansen on her birthday.

I thought I would see her in the wake of miraculously-healed cripples.  But nada.

Even in magical Mexico, celebrities often give us the slip.

Monday, December 13, 2010

our lady of the big bang

A woman has been keeping me up almost every night this past week.

Well, her acolytes have.

Sunday was the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe).  I have concluded Elijah must have been talking to her supporters when he suggested their god must be asleep.  Or deaf.

For the past week my slumber has been periodically -- but regularly -- shattered by sky rockets designed for one purpose.  To impersonate a mortar shell bursting in air.  No rocket's red glare here.  Just percussion grenades.

I am certain there is a purpose for this week of nocturnal banging about.   But I do not know what it is.

Nor do my neighbors.  They simply respond: "It is for Our Lady."  If that is it, I would suggest substituting roses and chocolates.  They seem to work better for me.

That lady, of course, is the patron saint of Mexico -- a Spanish import with a decidedly Mexican twist.

The original Guadalupe lady is a black Madonna who, legend has it, was instrumental in driving the Moors from the Iberian peninsula.  Mexico, not to be outdone, found its own lady in the 1530s -- less than a generation after her cousin booted the Muslims back to North Africa.

 I am certain you know the tale.  An apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian peasant (or prince, depending on which version of the myth you subscribe to) -- the now sainted Juan Diego (no relation to Zorro, as far as I can tell).

The apparition told Juan Diego to instruct the local bishop to build a chapel for the adoration of -- the apparition.  The bishop, auditioning for the role of Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, told Juan Diego to tell the apparition to perform a miracle.  The peasant-prince then returned with a cloak filled with roses -- and mirable dictu -- the image of the Virgin impregnated on his cape.

I have no desire to get sucked into the debate over the authenticity of the myth.  You can color me skeptical -- if for other reason than all of the scientific studies showing clear evidence of at least three paintings superimposed on the super cape. 

But I live in a world where everything is not subject to the scientific method.  Faith is a big part of every life.  What is clear is that my neighbors adore her.

There have been nightly processions this past week -- with dancers in native dress, bands, believers, and a singer who proved that all Mexicans are not musicians.  Not to exclude the ever-present sky rockets that punctuate every third off-tune verse.

It was the equivalent of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.  Christmas has officially arrived in Melaque.

But I left out the quintessentially Mexican element in this tale.

The place where the Virgin requested a shrine for her own adoration is coincidentally located where a temple dedicated to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin stood before the Spanish leveled it.  Even after the destruction of the temple, Christian Indians would come to the site to worship their old goddess.

We do not know a lot about Tonantzin.  Almost everyone agrees she was a prototype earth goddess -- a bringer of life.

Some interpret her role as the mother of all the Aztec gods -- and a virgin to boot.  If the Spanish friars knew that part of her mythical past, there was an obvious solution for a cultural win-win.

The Spanish had a problem.  How could they get their recent converts to stop worshiping pagan gods?

Juan Diego's tale offered it all.  Build the new chapel at the site of the old temple and substitute Mary for
Tonantzin.  And let the Indians worship.  What did it matter if they were still worshiping Tonantzin?  If it looked as if they were worshiping Mary.

It was a very Catholic solution.  The church did the same thing in Europe -- incorporating the winter and spring pagan festivals.  Giving us Christmas and Easter (not even bothering to change the pagan name of the latter).

And, in the process, Mexican culture began to grow as a combination of its Indian past and its European overlay.

Call it religious fusion, a hostile takeover, or a clever marketing scheme, the myth of Our Lady now forms the cultural cement of Mexico -- an icon even more ubiquitous than Coca-Cola.

And now that I have said nice things about her, I just hope she lets me get back to sleep.