Saturday, December 31, 2011

my best

I have no particular plans for this evening.  Such are the vagaries of aging. 

So, I will pass along my wishes to all of you for a nice new year.

Even though we live in a world where each of us live within our own envelope of conditioning and we are each affected by different circumstances, we are moral agents who have the ability to choose our own path.

May we choose wisely.

Friday, December 30, 2011

rim shots in the swamp

G.K. Chesterton tells us "the past is not what it was."

And he may have something there.  Our ability to recall the past sometimes bears only a slight resemblance to what happened years ago.

But not always.  Sometimes we are lucky enough to have witnesses to our best stories.

Such was today’s lunch.

Jordan and I met up with two of my friends from law school (Ken and Patti), their daughter (Kimberly), and her boyfriend (Conan).  We tried our hand at American consumerism at Clackamas Town Center until we lost interest.  And our thoughts turned to the greater joy of food.

I always enjoy eating with old friends. There is something about slicing chicken with people who know not only your background, but who share a part of your soul.

Today we started to share stories.  I have known both Ken and Patti since 1976.  During the 1980s and 1990s, I stayed with them when I performed reserve duty in Washington. 

I effectively turned into a brother to both of them.  At least that is my perception.  We went to plays and movies, looked for used cars, frequented fundraisers, attended baseball games, walked through open houses, and, of course, dined out -- a lot.  Doing our best Niles and Fraser routines around western Washington

Because Kimberly, Conan, and Jordan were a fresh audience, all three of us took our turn on stage to tell tales of some of our more humorous adventures.  Ken was the easy winner -- with what has to be one of his best lines.

In 1982 the three of us and another friend (Susan, who I was dating at the time) went to see Victor Victoria, one of Blake Edwards’s better films.  One of the biggest surprises was Lesley Ann Warren.  She almost stole the show.

So, the next year, when Night in Heaven was released starring her, the three of us trundled off to the theater to see it.  Somehow we missed that her co-star was Christopher Atkins.  The Justin Bieber of the 1980s.  We should have known better.

We settled into a theater that was sparsely populated with teenage girls.  The opening scene should have given us plenty of warning.  The movie opened on a wide shot of a space shuttle on its launch gantry. 

Taking into account the intelligence of the focus audience, a caption appeared informing us we were at Cape Canaveral -- Florida.  Apparently, for those of us who thought we were looking at the Washington Monument in Montana.

We should have left because the movie went into a death spiral from there.

Here is the plot.  Lesley Ann Warren is a community college instructor.  Christopher Atkins is one of her students.  A rather unintelligent student.  Because she is having trouble with her marriage, some friends take her to a male strip club where the headliner is -- wait for it -- Christopher Atkins.  Dropping his trousers to cover his tuition.

Because things happen that way in this type of movie, the two of them have a torrid love affair.  Husband finds out, and kidnaps kid at gunpoint and takes him deep into a swamp in a fishing boat with a small boat in tow.

Husband stops the boat, tells kid he is aware of what has been going on, and orders him to strip and climb into the smaller boat where the kid cowers waiting for the inevitable blow.

As husband raises the gun, Ken exclaims in something more than a stage whisper: “He’s going to shoot him in the dinghy.”

Patti and I nearly slipped out of our chairs laughing.  And Ken got the the fisheye from the teenage girls in front of us for demeaning their bit of teen meat.

It is one of those stories that just gets better with the telling.

If G.K. Chesterton sounds too much like Yogi Berra for you, Sondheim’s bit of lyrical fluff may capture the joy of old friends better.

Hey, old friend
Are you okay, old friend?
What do you say, old friend
Are we or are we unique?
Time goes by, everything else keeps changing
You and I we get continued next week.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

living in tilted windmills

Life is filled with surprises.  Some large.  Some small.

Last night was one of the smaller delights.

My friend Jordan suggested that we watch a movie.  The Next Three Days.  A 2010 release. 

It was new to me.  But that is not surprising.  I do not get to see many trailers in Mexico where I have no television and where I get to the cinema about twice a year.

The description sounded as if it could be an interesting diversion for the evening.  “With no legal means left to him, a community college instructor devises a daring plan to rescue his imprisoned wife from jail.”

I thought it was going to be another jail break film opening with the break and the subsequent car chases and fist fights that make up most films of the genre.  But I was really wrong.

It is a film about character development.  In this case, how a husband (Russell Crowe), who believes so strongly in the innocence of his wife that he will not allow a rational legal system that results in lies to destroy his (or her) life.

If you notice a whiff of Miguel Cervantes in the air, you know exactly what this script is about.  Dulcinea is in distress.  And the screenwrights tip their hand early on when the husband decides to take action.

In a lecture to his class on Don Quixote, he tells us not only what Don Quixote means, but what this film is all about:

The Life and Times of Don Quixote.  What is it about?

Could it be about how rational thought destroys your soul?  Could it be about the triumph of irrationality, and the power that's in it?

You know, we spend a lot of time trying to organize the world.  We build clocks and calendars.  And we try to predict the weather.  What part of our life is truly under our control?

What if we choose to exist in a reality of our own making?  Does that render us insane?  If it does, isn't that better than a life of despair?

Anyone who has lived in Mexico (or southern Europe) knows why Don Quixote is the quintessential Spanish novel and why the English love the rationality of Milton and Locke.  (I have no idea where Barbara Cartland falls in that mix.)

For three years I have been trying to find some documentary proof of a connection between the name of our central village (San Patricio) and veterans of the San Patricio Battalion of the Mexican-American war.  I find all kinds of people who believe there is a connection, but they have no evidence.  Whenever I ask why they believe it, the most common answer is: “Because I want to believe it is so.”

Whether the strain comes from the Spanish or the various Indian cultures, Mexico comfortably “exists in a reality of its own making.”  Comfortable with the delight of living in Don Quixote’s rusty armor -- and ignoring the “realism” of the Knight of the Mirrors.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

checking it twice

I had a number of items on my checklist to accomplish on this trip north. 

One is in a hold pattern -- and likely not to develop as I had hoped.  But I have successfully accomplished two of them.  And a third will soon be done.

My visa for the trip to Red China arrived just before Christmas.  Resplendent with its red star of approval.  I have stared at it to remove all thoughts of political prisoners from my not-too-translucent political meter.  There is no need for me to play Winston Smith at this stage of my life.

I also received two books a doctor friend in Mexico requested me to buy.  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving.  He found it difficult to find both books in Mexico.  Now, I just need to find a good way to get them to his office in Leon.  Maybe a road trip when I return to Mexico.

The third task is dependent on my brother’s return from Virginia the first week in January.  We have been talking about a new laptop for my trip to China.  I have eliminated the possibility of a tablet.  It simply will not work as a blog tool -- for me.  But a Z series Sony Vaio (yes, the same model that died an untimely death in 2009 when I lived on the beach) may be practically perfect in every way.

And with that purchase, I should be ready to head down to Mexico for my trip to Copper Canyon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

my traveling rhythm method

“Everything is ruined by repetition -- even Paris.”

That line from one of my favorite movies drifted through my mind this afternoon as I slipped into the hot tub in the back yard of my Salem house.  With my Kindle, of course.

I have spent the full month of December acting the part of the prodigal son, neighbor, and friend.  Dinners.  Lunches.  Movies.  Parties.  Christmas celebrations.  All of them as a visitor to Oregon.

During the last three years, I have noticed that each place I have lived or visited requires some time to catch the rhythm of that place.  Almost like catching a wave while surfing.  And until you fit into that circle of life, you are merely passing through.  Just an observer.

When I headed to Mexico in 2009, it took me several months to feel comfortable in Melaque.  Of course, I was decompressing from five decades of work.  Getting up each morning to a schedule that was my own, rather than my clients’, was a novelty.  And one I quickly learned to appreciate.

When I returned to work for six months, it took almost as long to see the world as my former colleagues did.  Issues that seemed profound to them struck me as being, at best, trivial.  What I had developed was a jeweler's eye for cant.  An eye that is not highly valued in the professional world.

Getting back into the Melaque cycle took me about a month when I returned to Mexico.  My visit to San Miguel de Allende took about three weeks.  Pátzcuaro a week.

So, I should not be too surprised that I found myself this afternoon feeling as if I had reinserted myself into my former life in Salem.  Well, that is, a retired life in Salem.  Slipping into the hot tub not only felt natural, it felt as if that swirl of hot water was where I was supposed to be.

When I lived in Greece and England in the early 1970s, I never quite fell into the local rhythms.  Probably because my focus was on my eventual return to law school in The States.

I have said several times on these pages that I am not a person of place.  I think that is still accurate.  But I have now learned the joy of simply enjoying where I am and treating it as a temporary home before I wander off to my next rendezvous in this circle of life we inhabit.

And some repetitions -- even Paris -- are worth enduring.  And savoring.

Monday, December 26, 2011

freedom crashes

Email is a thing of joy.

This morning my sainted brother forwarded an article to me.  From a fellow named Mark Bonokoski.

I don’t know him.  Not surprisingly -- because he writes for a Canadian newspaper.  But he appears to be a soul mate on at least one issue.  The neoteny of North Americans.

Well, not neoteny in its classic Betty Boop form.  But in the all-too-familiar guise of the nanny state.

What set him off was Nova Scotia’s decision to mandate helmets for skiers and snowboarders.  Even though, the number of injuries has been almost statistically insignificant.

He then recounts how it must be a miracle he ever made it to his current age.  Lead paint on his crib.  Bicycling sans helmet. No seat belts in cars.  Riding in the back of pickups.  Unsupervised swimming in a quarry.  Starting work at 12 on a dangerous tractor.  At 16 in construction with no safety boots.

That list is extremely familiar because I was just recounting a similar version with a good friend.  By attempting to reduce life’s risks to zero, the best parts of childhood are being sacrificed.

Almost all of the wonders of my childhood would make regulators quail.  Walking the railroad trestle in hope that a train would not show up before the other side did.  Swimming the Willamette River to our own pirate island to spend the afternoon.  Or pellet gun wars in the woods.

Those, of course, were the adventures kept secret from parents (as if they didn’t really know what was going on). 

But parents could be accomplices in fun.  My mother accompanied my brother and me in walking around our neighborhood at the height of Oregon's largest wind storm.  You gain a lot more respect for a parent who will walk with you while trees and power lines are falling around you in an Irwin Allen-ish adventure.

Or the time she joined us on our bicycles to deliver newspaper during a silver thaw.  All three of us would crash in a tangled mess at the bottom of hills.  Helmets would have been as incongruous as a tap dancer in Swan Lake.

One of my favorite scripture verses is Ecclesiastes 7:10.  “Don't ask why the old days were better than now, because that is a foolish question.”

Nostalgia for its own sake is just that.  Foolish.

What is important is to realize why we think so fondly of those activities.  Because they were days where freedom was valued.  Before we decided to sell our birthright for the pot of porridge that is safety and security.  A pot that is merely a mirage.

Bonokoski sums it up well: “The motorcycle I rode as a teenager could also be ridden without a helmet, and no freedom exists today can match that feeling of wind blowing through your hair at 100 miles per hour, not kilometres, as you put the throttle to a 650 Triumph Bonneville on an open stretch of highway.”

Insert Norton Commando, and Bonokoski and I could be experiential twins.

I thoroughly enjoy the age in which I live.  Especially the technology.  But it could do with a bigger dose of freedom.  Before we forget what we can accomplish as a free people, rather than as a secure blob.

Thanks, Darrel, for the reminder.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

all-weather friends

This morning the weather shifted.

That sentence sounds as if it came out of one of those screenwriter worshops. 

You know the type.  Where the celebrated writer with one credit to his name doles out helpful advice like Geoffrey Rush on valium.

Choose a block of the human condition.  Stuff it into a metaphor vehicle.  Reduce everything to a recognizable cliché.  And sprinkle with symbols.

Because we all know when a writer talks about weather shifting, there is a subtext just rollin’ along like Ol’ Man River.

But let’s pretend that subtext is for The New Yorker and I am simply talking about the weather.  Because the weather has shifted.

During the past two weeks I have been in Oregon, the weather has been extremely pleasant.  Blue skies.  And temperatures brisk and crisp – right on the cusp of needing a coat and gloves.

The type of weather that could seduce the naïve argonaut into believing that this is what late fall in Oregon is all about.  It isn’t.  This is October Portland weather.  Mid-December is short days filled with drizzle, gray skies, and 50 degree temperatures.  Some of my favorite days.

And that is what this morning brought.  A bit of rain.  A lot of gray.  And the feeling Christmas is on its way.

Those nice days have made me feel a bit like an alien.  I guess I am.  I have thoroughly enjoyed living in Mexico.

During the past two weeks, I have dined with family, a friend from my old work, two former prosecutors, an ex-girlfriend and current good friend, my local Salvation Army board, and a close friend and his extended family.  Each get-together has reminded me how much I enjoy this network that has taken six decades to weave.  And just how much the people around me mean to my life.

But that is where the climax of this little screenplay arises.  Would these visits be so special if I was surrounded by them every day?  If every moment was of moment, would I ever know I had one?  Or are they special because I am take them in annual doses?

I don’t know.  And I don’t care.  I am simply going to enjoy my time here as long as it lasts.  Living each moment as it arises.

Let the symbols speak for themselves. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

less than 60 minutes

I feel like Andy Rooney this morning.

Not dead.  Just a bit cranky.

One of the sybaritic joys of visiting Oregon is to sit in the hot tub during frosty mornings reading The Sunday Oregonian on my Kindle while eating leftover Chinese.  At my age, my pleasures are simple.

But newspapers have their own special way of flying joys right into the ground.  And it happened this morning.

The headline was simple enough.  “Spare the scribbles and leave those pages pristine.”  The topic was books.  Writing in books.

We have heard that drill before.  No dog ears.  No notes on pages.  No highlighting.  Anyone who has ever bought a used textbook knows the danger of annotations.  The prior owner always seems to be aiming high for a C.  All the wrong sentences tend to be highlighted.

But the Christmas advice we get from Douglas Yocom is a bit more prissy.  He is not writing about mutilating books.  Instead, he warns us against those little gift greetings written on a book’s endpaper.

Let me give you a taste.

”Unless you authored the books, don't ruin them by writing pithy little messages such as ‘To my lovely grandson, with all my ....’

“Chances are, the books will pass through the grandson's hands. The next owner -- if anyone else will accept the book -- won't want the personal message.

“Give a volume to friends on their wedding, anniversary or birthday. Fine. But write any inscription on an accompanying card, not on an endpaper or on the half-title page.”

There it is.  Writing in a book that it is passed along to someone with love, ruins the entire book.

Well, Mr. Yocom, I happen to believe that relationships and the joy of books is more important than the future value of a book.  And I have a bit of experience that tells me he is simply wrong.

One of my favorite books is Amigo: Circus Horse.  “The adventures of a circus boy and his horse.”  OK.  It is a piece of fluff.  But for a 6-year old boy, it was a fascinating tale about circuses.  And a boy-horse friendship.  I even learned an appropriate ceremony for burying a dead parakeet.

But the story is not why I keep this book on my shelf 56 years after I received it.  It was a Christmas gift in 1955.

I know that only by the inscription on the endpaper.  “Christmas 1955.  To Stevie.  With love.  From Karen.”

Karen was my half-sister who died in childbirth in 1972.  The book is my only physical contact with her.  She knew how much I loved books.  Nothing could have shown her love better than that book -- or its inscription.

If Karen had followed Mr. Yocom’s advice about a note card, I would long ago have lost it.  And probably have forgotten how the book happened to be resting on my shelf.

Now and then I buy a used book that has similar gift inscriptions written on the endpaper.  They always make me wonder who the people are behind the names -- and if they had a similar relationship like Karen’s and mine.

To be fair to Mr. Yokom, he is a seller of antiquarian books.  The buyers of his wares may have little concern about who owned a book before it came to them.  And that is a bit sad.  Believing that a stack of bound paper has more value than the people associated with it.

Well, Mr. Yokom, I think you are dead wrong.  I encourage people to buy books as gifts to be fully inscribed with sentiments as rank as can be.  Because that is the spirit of Christmas.  Our expressed love for one another.

Rant done.  And I feel a lot better.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

the gritty life

Travel has its own tales.

My absence from these pages would indicate the contrary.  But I have had an interesting week away from Mexico.

The trip north was the usual morphing from Mexico to The States.  Los Angeles International Airport is a fine point to step from one world into another.  LAX is usually a well-run place.  Right down to the liberty-eroding performance art that passes for security.

But this trip I discovered LAX’s efficiency is as shallow as Tinseltown itself.  By now, you have already read about the winds that stripped areas of southern California of their civilization-blood: electricity.

I had just sat down to dinner with two acquaintances from Melaque when the power went out.  Fortunately, the waiter had already served us.  But the restaurant had no idea how to accommodate its darkened customers. 

And the airport itself was no better.  I had no idea what had happened until I read the newspaper the next morning.

When I finally arrived in Oregon, the weathermen predicted sunny skies at the Oregon coast for the weekend.  So, off we went to stay at the same boutique hotel I stayed in during my last visit.  For the daily equivalent of my monthly rent in Mexico.  Worth every penny.

The room was nice.  But the real show was outside.  The weather was so nice it disinterred long-buried plans about retiring on the Oregon coast.

Of course, everything over the weekend was an exception.  Gray is the Oregon coast’s natural color.  Along with a constant drizzle.  But the exceptions are always attractive.  As were the three days in the sand.

On Wednesday I will mail my application for my Red China visa.  If all goes well, I will have it back in hand in about two weeks or so.

But the visa was only one reason for coming north.  I have spent the past week reveling in old friendships.  And shuffling through several ideas of what I want to do with my life.

More on that later. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

living my life

Socrates may have believed that the unexamined life is not worth living.

But what about the unlived life?  Is it worth examining?

Such parallel cul-de-sacs are inevitable these days.  I spent the day sitting on a broad beige beach on Banderas Bay.  It is a long way from perfect, but it is exactly the mixture that initially drew me to Mexico.

A mock paradise for people from around the world to set aside their busy lives and come to the beach to depressurize by doing nothing.

When I decided to retire in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is what I had in mind.  It was the place that banked my best vacation memories.

But that was a mistake.  I was retiring in Mexico, not moving there as a tourist.  I figured that out early in my planning -- and Puerto Vallarta slipped from my list.

As a tourist, I valued that odd mix of sitting in the sand with no plans – interrupted only by manic bouts of ziplining, parasailing, waverunner racing, and dancing.

As a retiree, I needed to find a place to live a daily life.  And, for now, I have found it in Melaque.

And that is where the unlived life comes in.

This visit from my German pal Hollito came at just the right time.  I had fallen into the philosophical trap of believing that doing stuff gives meaning to life.  I know better than that.  Worth is not derived from great projects.

In fact, it is often the smallest things in life that give us purpose.

Last night and today, I sat with Hollito, his Mexican-born wife, her mother and step-father, her sister and the sister’s two children, and her friend from Argentina and the friend’s son.  People I have never met before.

And everything worked fine.  While driving north, I had visions of re-living a Lucy episode -- where everything would flow from Spanish to German to English and back again. 

It did not turn out that way.  English was the general choice of communication.  And talk we did.  I felt as if I was part of one of those Mexican family groups I see so often gathered at the beach.

Politics.  Crime.  Economics.  Globalization.  Relatives.  Taxation.  The philosophy of death (there were two physicians amongst us, and it is by far one of my favorite topics).  Customs officials.  Souvenirs.

One of the most humorous conversations were when Hollito and his wife described how his Mexican wife has become more German than he is, and how he has become more Mexican.

I am glad I had the opportunity to simply sit and talk with a new group of interesting people.  That was certainly worth the four-hour drive north.  I have Hollito and his friends to thank for that.

I know it is not an entirely new lesson.  But unless I am willing to get out there and live my life through something other than mere activity, there will not be much to examine.

And now -- on to Oregon.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

breaching the bore-dam

The next time I complain about being bored, I will bookmark this post.

I keep thinking I have written about my plans for the next two or so months.  But several people have told me I am wrong.

So here goes.

Today I am driving up to Nuevo Vallarta to meet one of my readers from Germany -- and his Mexican wife.  Some of you know him as Hollito.  He started commenting on my blog before I moved to Mexico.

We had planned to meet two winters ago.  But those plans fell through when I flew to Oregon for a Cotton Thanksgiving-Christmas-birthdays all-in-one inclusive holiday celebration.

I will spend a few days with Hollito and his wife on the beach -- and I hope at a nice eatery.  We have been talking about a German restaurant a bit further north.

On Tuesday I will drive back to Melaque to board a flight to Oregon on Wednesday.

The trip north is to take care of some additional travel business.  I am heading off to Red China in February  But that visit will not take place until I get a visa for my passport.

While I am waiting for the courier service and the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to returned my engrossed passport, I will spend a week or two with family and friends.  And I hope to slip some good food into the agenda.  You may notice a certain culinary itch that has gone unscratched in Melaque.

Sometime before Christmas, I will fly back to Melaque.  With a trip to Copper Canyon in January.

And I will then be off to Red China to inquire about political prisoners.  Just kidding.  About the political prisoners, that is.  I do not need to play a character role in the next Tom Clancy novel.

So, there you have it.  I am heading out on the road again.  Which means my report will be sporadic for a bit.

At least, I am not going to be bored. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

“I like to be in america”

So, there I was.  Sitting in a Melaque café explaining to one of my readers why I use the term”Indian” by relating the Billie story to her.

No teller of tales, no parlayer of parables could have been more in the zone.  I was in the sweet spot of stories.

And just as I thought I had Babe Ruthed one out of the park with “What should I be called?  I am happy with American.  Oregonian.  Indian ---,” she interrupted with: “Well, there’s the problem, isn’t it?  He’s not an American.  He’s a citizen of the United States of America -- or however they say it in Spanish.”

What flashed through my mind will not appear on these pages.  I suspect I looked as if someone had just ballpeened me in the back of the head.

For some reason, “American” has reduced a number of tourists and expatriates in Mexico to the level of English professors bemoaning the demise of the subjunctive.  But, like most discussions of this nature, this one has a long history.

First, let me confess I value accuracy in word choice.  The distinction between “oral” and “verbal” matters.  They mean two distinct things.  Or they once did.

”America” presents the reverse difficulty.  A word that means several different things depending on its context.  Such ambiguities are the bane of people who like clear cut rules.

But English defeats the urge to build such castles in the clouds.  Any language where a homophone (raise/raze) can be its own antonym is not easily reduced to legalism.

”America” is not a word crafted in the New World.  It is an Old World import.

By the time the Europeans figured out they were utterly lost and that South America, at least, was a continent separate from Asia, a German cartographer labeled the continent “America” in honor of the Latin form of Amerigo Vespucci.  The Florentine explorer credited with starting to realize the land mass was a tope on the road to China.

The term stuck.  Miffing the Spanish who wanted a Columbine name for the New World.  In fact, they were so angry that Spain refused to use the term for two centuries.  The name was not off to a good start -- even though the English loved it.  Partly because it irritated the Spanish.

For most Europeans, the term started as The Americas.  A reference to the new continent.

Ironically, the term took on national tones when Mexico and the other Spanish colonies in America started their wars of independence.  The Spanish born in the New World called themselves “Americans” to distinguish themselves from the hated, privileged elite born in Spain.

By the end of those wars, most of he Spanish-born heads were either missing or shipped back to Spain, and each of the newly independent countries went on to referring to themselves by their new names.  Mexican.  Chilean.  Argentine.

But nothing can be that easy.  A group of liberty-loving colonists rose up against the British lion in 1776, and in 1777 decided to christen their nation “The United States of America.”  All of a sudden the name “America” referred to a specific country and “American” to a specific group of citizens.  And, generally, the world started using the terms that way.

We now have terms with national and continental implications.  But any ambiguities are easily resolved by context.  Sometimes America still means the full continent.  Such as, corn, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes were developed in America.  That obviously means on the continent -- and not in Detroit.

On the other hand, references to American foreign policy can only mean the policy of The United States.  There is no other political entity with that name.

And that is why I usually refer to myself as an American.  There is no reasonable alternative.  The tongue-twisting estadounidense is understood.  But, around here, so is americano.   

Norteamericano is what my Mexican neighbors call me.  Well, they usually make the mistake of first calling me Canadian.  That is the default in these here parts for elderly white folks.

I might even change what I call myself.  As soon as I hear people stop saying “you Americans” and start saying “we Americans.”  Then I will start practicing my tongue twisters.

And if someone born in Mexico City wants to call herself an American, I will say: "You certainly are."

In the end, of course, all of this is rather silly.  Jonna hit the nail on the head in yesterday’s comments:  “As to the British distinction between Indians.  I have 2 friends who are a couple, one is an American Indian (how's that for non PC? but it is what he calls himself) and the other is a Hindu.  They refer to themselves as the 'dot and feather' couple.”

Billie, my American Indian co-worker, would have chuckled and approved.  As he got into his Honda with the “Buy American” placard in the back window.

Friday, November 25, 2011

the name game

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Sometimes Shakespeare can be dead wrong.  Well, at least, when it comes to political labels in the 21st century.

This past month I hit two of those speed bumps.  With the use of “Indian” and “American.”

We all know that the people Columbus encountered in the New World were not inhabitants of the East Indies -- as he thought.  And, despite popular myth, Columbus’s use of the word “Indian” had nothing to do with the subcontinent of India.

Columbus was simply lost.  And like a lot of men, he was not going to let a little lack of knowledge get in the way of his conclusions.  To him, the residents lived on the islands of the East Indies and were thus Indians.  And China was just around the corner.

The term survived for many reasons.  The primary reason is that the “Indians” had no word for the people who then populated North and South America -- as they would come to be called. 

They were Inca, Maya, Sioux, Olmec, Crow, and numerous other groupings.  The concept that they were part of some collective was as foreign to them as the term "European" would have been to the Spanish.

”Indian” was nothing more than a short-hand term for all of the tribes who had preceded the wave of invading European tribes.

I stumbled into this naming game with my reference to the work I do with the school for the children of migrant workers (party on).  I wrote: “The party was to celebrate the opening of the Indian school where I donate a bit of my time.”

A couple of readers asked (politely) if I was being insensitive using the word “Indian.”  Not really, I replied.  I was using a term that most of my readers would recognize.  We call it communication.

I must confess that I have seriously flirted with using some of the alternative politically correct phrases.  After all, none of us want to purposely give offense.  But none of the alternatives are an improvement.  At least, for a writer.

”Native American” sounded like a possibility.  Until, I realized it was even more nonsensical than "Indian.”  Anyone born in either North or South America is a native American.  And that could not possibly be what people wanted the term to mean.

”Indigenous peoples” is another popular candidate.  Probably because it sounds so Latin.  But it is as flawed as “Native American.”   

“Indigenous” means “produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment.”  No one is indigenous to the Americas.  Every person came from somewhere else.  And, even as anthropologists cannot answer the question of which tribes replaced other tribes, no one has any idea who arrived first.

The Canadians have an option that is very seductive and clever.  “First Nations.”  It recognizes primacy and diversity while building a progressive historical bridge.  And I was almost convinced to use it.  Until I tried to apply it.

The term works well as an abstraction.  But try using it as a personal label.  What do you call a person from one of the First Nations?  A First National.  All of a sudden we sound as if we are talking about banks.

And what about the fact that many of the “First Nations” were not first at all.  They conquered other tribes.  Would they then be “Not-Quite-First Nations?”  Or simply "The Nations That Got Here Before You Did?"

The problem is all of these terms are merely Euro-centric concoctions that carry their own political baggage. 

Most Indians I have encountered seem to prefer being recognized by their tribal names.  But that can be problematic, as well.

The Indians at the migrant worker school are primarily Mixtec.  And they like that name.  But there are also Purépecha at the school.  And neither tribe wants to be labeled as the other.

I suppose I could refer to the school as "The Mixtec and Some Purépecha School."  But most of my readers are not familiar with those terms.  "Indian" they know.

Between my first and second years of law school, I worked in a lumber mill.  The guy who worked beside me, Billie, was one of our labor negotiators.  He was also an Indian.

One day he told me a story that happened during the last contract negotiations.  He needed to establish a power position.  So, he used liberal guilt as his ally. 

He told the lawyers who were representing the employer that he was tired of them referring to him as an Indian.  During his lecture, he repeatedly referred to Russel Means and AIM.

I started laughing along with him because the Ivy League-educated lawyers were so intimidated by an enraged minority that they completely missed his joke.  AIM, of course, stands for American INDIAN Movement.

When he stopped laughing, he said: "Look.  I'm  a Cherokee from Oklahoma.  My ancestors probably cut trees in Georgia.  Before then, who knows where they came from?  I now work with timber in Oregon.  What should I be called?  I am happy with American.  Oregonian.  Indian.  Because we all know what those words mean.  Simple."

I thought of Billie when my readers asked about my sensitivity.

Until someone comes up with a term that makes more sense, I am satisfied to use the simple term my readers will most likely recognize.

Tomorrow.  Who is an American?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

little pleasures

A fairy visited me this morning.

I had wended my way through the leading stories in The Oregonian (another blessing from my Kindle).  The usual lamentations about political missteps.  Trouble in the Middle East.  Economic expectations dashed. 

The fare that has enlivened newspaper stories for the past century -- and before.

Earl Warren once said that he turned to the sports pages to see human accomplishments before he read of human failings on the front page.  But even the sports pages these days read more like rap sheets than the carols of angels.

I was in a funk.  For the past week I have been mumbling under my breath how I am bored.  The symptoms were all there.  Staying up until 5 AM only to sleep in until 11.  And then hanging around the house all day reading a bit.  Watching a film now and then.

It may be the natural result of several action-packed months.  Trips to the highlands.  A hurricane.  A new church building.

Maybe I was simply befuddled by the lack of activity.  A void of projects.

But before I could venture down self-pity lane, I was distracted by my visitor.  A dragonfly.  Which type, I am not certain.  I once knew quite a bit about insects, but that arcana took leave, along with the names of the 1959 Dodgers starting lineup, several years ago.

A dragonfly it was, though.  Enjoying the shade from its high speed dog fights with mosquitoes.  Perhaps, a lunch break.

It could not possibly know the risk of landing there on that shrubbery.  Lacking speed to kill mosquitoes, I rely upon the Ypres solution -- gas warfare.  My little patio is regularly saturated with bursts of Raid.  It works.  But there are always collateral victims.

Whether it intuited the danger or not, it waited patiently on the perimeter of danger.

What was odd is that it was there.  The laguna is no stranger to dragonflies.  Because it is the breeding ground for mosquitoes.  And the dragonflies regularly zoom through my garden, where the mosquito population is only marginally less than the crocodile haven.

But I have never seen one rest as long as this one did.  Probably no more than a minute.  Not disturbed in the least when I slipped inside to retrieve my camera.

Brief though the encounter was, I realized it had taken my mind off of my self-imposed boredom.  The very sight of it was enough to remind me that life truly is made of moments.

And if we live within the moment we have, it is excitement enough to shoo off those little negative tendrils that slip into our lives.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

strangers in the garden

This is a view I see almost every day.  It is my garden as seen from the andador.

But today I saw it a bit differently.  I have just finished reading Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  His 1491 dealt with the culture of the Americas before Columbus arrived. 

details what has come to be known as the Columbian Exchange -- how American products (such as, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn) spread throughout the world and how Old World products ended up in the New.

Mann is one of those journalists who is easily beguiled by eccentric scholarly theories.  The kind of guy who has never met an iconoclast he does not like.  But he presents a good argument why the term “indigenous” is an almost meaningless term.  All people (and lots of plants) came to the Americas from somewhere else.  And we now live in a world that has been somewhat homogenized over the past 500 years.

My garden is a perfect example.  Almost nothing in the photograph at the top of this post is native to Mexico.  Coconut palms?  From The Philippines.  The Flamboyant tree?  Madagascar.  The banana?  South Asia.  Limes?  Persia.  Tamarind?  Sudan.  Even most of the grasses are from other continents.

Just as all the people in Mexico came from somewhere else, my garden is populated with trees and plants that were not to be found in the Americas in 1492.  Globalization is nothing new.

And I am happy with that end result.  After all, even though I am a native American, I too am an import.  Enjoying my retirement in a garden filled with other sojourners.

Monday, November 21, 2011

more than palms

This weekend falls into one of those “Mission Accomplished” categories.  Well, without the political baggage of that phrase.

Ever since our church palapa burned last spring, the church members have been planning for this weekend.  Between board meetings, building plans, and the usual list of construction woes, the community has watched our little building grow from a pile of construction materials to an eye-pleasing worship hut -- as Kim so wittily put it.

On Saturday, the transition began.  Over the summer we met in the space where the restaurant Maya serves up some of the best food in Melaque.  But we needed to move our few belongings from the restaurant to the new property now that the northern tourist season has begun.

Several church members showed up with vehicles and aging backs.  In went our chairs and other worship accessories, and off we went to the new site.

Like all dreams, plenty of sweat went into its realization.  My friend, Lou, who is co-chair of the church board, took on the burden of acting as the brain and hands of the project.  He planned.  Coordinated.  Built.

In every organization there is a person of action.  For us, it is Lou -- the guy in the yellow shirt and farmer hat.

After we stored the items we moved, several of the men stayed behind to assist Lou in leveling and tamping the dirt that forms the base of our new floor.

And here is the result.  Our first Sunday morning service in our new building.

It is larger than our old worship space.  During the height of the tourist season, we had to hold two services to accommodate Sunday worshipers.

No more.  The new space should give us plenty of space to hold a single service.

This week, a brick floor will be installed, and we will all soon participate in creating a garden around the edges of the palapa.

But that is just the building.  Ron, our pastor, reiterated that point on Sunday.  As nice as the building is, it is just a building.  The church is the people.  And it is their hands outreached to the community that will show whether it is a house of love.

Friday, November 18, 2011

open the door and see all the people

I grew up in a couple of church buildings that were financed on the “build as we get it” plan. 

That may be why I have always been attracted to the unadorned walls of Quaker meeting houses.  I wonder if a resident of Reims in the thirteenth century would have felt the same?

Well, I am back to my roots.  As you know, our church palapa burned down last year.  We have been meeting in a closed-for-the-summer restaurant.  But it is no longer summer and the restaurant needs to deal with meals for the stomach.  As a result, our soul meals on wheels needs to trundle off to a new location.

And a new location we have.  Over the past few months, our new location has been transformed from a weedy lot to a bare lot to a construction site to an almost completed palapa.

By this Sunday, it will be complete enough for the congregation to move in.  Not completed.  A work in progress. 

But what better symbol for the Christian experience?  Because none of us are complete.  As for me, I fit in the half-baked category.

On Saturday, we will meet as a work party to move chairs, books, and other service paraphernalia to the new site.

As you can see, the floor will be a bit primitive.  But not quite the circus tent primitive in the photographs.  A soil compacter is on its way to form a nice bed for an icing layer of gravel.  And soon, we will have a beautiful brick floor to complement our thatched roof.

So, if you would like to join us on Sunday at 10:30 AM, stop on by.  You will be welcome.

And, as far as I am concerned worshiping here will be every bit as real as worshiping inside the stone edifice of Reims.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

one glorious life

“My mother was a fairy princess.”

So said Winston Churchill of his American-born mother.

This afternoon I was relying on Netflix to bring a bit of popular culture into my life.  The venue -- Avery Fisher Hall.  The event -- a concert to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday.

Audra McDonald was singing “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music.  A daughter’s bittersweet anthem comparing her actreess mother to “ordinary mothers.” 

Her execution was perfect.  Somewhere in the middle of the song, I felt an odd emotional connection with the lyrics.

Which ordinary mothers can't do
Being ordinary mothers all day
Mine’s away in a play
And she’s realer than they

Then it hit me.

The song is a salute to my mother.

I need to explain.  Unlike Desiree Armfeldt, my mother is not an actress.  But she could have been.  I have little doubt she could have been whatever she wanted to be.

Her career is varied.  Model instructor.  Small business owner.  Realtor.  Counselor to politicians.  Woman of faith.  Hers is a glamorous life.

I have heard her say wistfully that she was a “stay at home” mom.  Something she desired above everything else.  But that is not entirely true.

It is true that being a mother was her prime role in this play we call life.  She was always there whever my brother or I needed her. 

But she was no helicopter mom.  We were raised to be independent and self-reliant.  Knowing full well that Mom (and Dad) would be there in the background if we needed them.  Like the Flying Wallendas.

Had she put her mind to it, she could easily have been one of those Manhattan socialites who float from party to fuindraiser to the theater.

Instead, she was one of the women who blazed the path of balancing family and career.  And who could teach, by example, what it was to be virtuous, filled with grace, and practical -- while being glamorous.

I have probably heard the song at least a dozen times   But it really hit a chord today.

And isn’t that just like life?  We often take for granted what most matters in our lives -- until we receive these little pricks of the heart.

So, Mom, thank you for who you are and for what you have helped me be.

This song’s for you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

sailing off into the sunset

Every time I think that my next stage of adventure may be elsewhere, something like this happens.

There is a sunset every night.  But I have not managed to walk the four blocks to the beach to see one since I returned from the highlands.  There is no good reason.  I just didn’t do it.

Last night that changed.  Just as I had no good reason to go before that night, I had no good reason that night, either.  Well, other than the outcome.

I think the old girl still has a lot of sex appeal in her.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
the dome of the sky speaks the work of his hands.
Every day it utters speech,
every night it reveals knowledge.

Psalm 19

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

swinging death

I barely knew it.  This new hammock.

Or, at least, new to me. 

When my last hammock died, my landlady graciously donated this one from a house she had just purchased.

We never quite bonded.  The hammock and me, that is.  It was smaller than the previous hammock and the mosquitoes kept driving me away from its more sybaritic pleasures.

It is now no more.  One morning I discovered that six of its ropes had snapped.  Theories abound.  At least my corpulence was not the major contributing cause.

The hammock is easily replaceable.  Vendors ply the playa as thick as fallen women in The Bowery.  And I will buy another.

Its unraveling death is just another symbol of how life changes.  When I moved to Melaque, I spent a good portion of my life in a hammock.  Watching the ocean.  Reading.  Sleeping.  Even learning the skills of dining while swinging.

When the new hammock arrives, I will most likely not use it very much.  I suspect my retirement has marched on past the hammock stage.

Before I get bored with life, I need to seek out something new.  I am on the prowl for a new hammock, but for something far less sedentary, as well.

Monday, November 14, 2011

seine memories

I love food.  Good food.

That is one reason living in Melaque is a bit frustrating.  Most food here falls into two categories. 

Category #1: Boring.  Even the best of Mexican foods is handicapped by a reliance on three basic ingredients.  And you can only recombine them in so many ways.

Category #2: Bad.  I have had more mediocre meals in the Melaque area than anywhere else I have lived.  And that includes eating in Air Force mess halls -- the unusual happenstance of a bureaucracy using a meaningful term.

About two weeks ago, I overheard a fellow diner talking about a new restaurant in town.  Chez Cedric.

The name sent me spiraling into gastronomic fantasies.  Pig foot with a pomegranate reduction.  Veal topped with a mango-pablano-onion salsa.  Lamb wrapped in sage and apricots.

How could be bad?  It is Gallic.

But my fantasies were Pearl Harbored back to reality when I heard the place had one specialty: pizza.

I love pizza.  I could live most of my life on pizza.  But it easily falls into both the bad and boring categories here.

There are plenty of pizza joints.  But they are all summed up in an expatriate’s misplaced comment: “It is almost as good as Domino’s.”  And the quality descends from there.

With that in mind I headed over to Chez Cedric.  And I was pleasantly surprised by the décor.  I have come to expect pizza parlors north of the border to look either like bordellos or western trading posts.

Not Chez Cedric.  It is spacious.  Covered by an elegant palapa.  And the linen-bedecked tables are spaced sufficient for the most discreet of conversations.  Manned by liveried waiters clothed distinctly from the uniformed kitchen staff.

And get this.  Customers are welcomed by the appropriately-attired chef-owner at the door.  Charlie Trotter could not have played the role better.

The old adage that no one leaves a Broadway show humming the scenery applies just as well to restaurant ambiance.  I may have chewed the scenery a bit in my life, but I was at Chez Cedric to see if his pizza could survive the Melaque curse.

The menu courses fall into three areas.  Salads.  Crêpes.  Pizzas.

But not just any pizza.  Wood-fired oven pizza.  And that was what I had.

Pepperoni pizza.  With a bit of a test.  I have found that most pizza restaurants here are a bit distrustful when a customer asks for an additional item.  Onions were mine.  My waiter simply responded “certainly.”  An attentiveness that would continue throughout the rental of my table.

The crust was perfect -- avoiding the usual Hobson’s choice of cardboard or congealed library paste.  It was light and just crisp enough to complement an amazingly tasty and peppery pepperoni.  It was not Boar’s Head.  But it is the best pepperoni I have tasted in town.

And the tomato sauce was superb. As if it had been freshly made from sautéed tomatoes.

But the selling point was the cheese.  Creamy without being greasy.  And it had none of that chemical after-taste that haunts other pizzas.

The pizza was neither boring nor bad.  Making Chez Cedric part of a short list.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

party on

Mexico knows how to celebrate.  How to party.  How to indulge the senses.

After three years, I tend to not notice the parties that make the neighborhood throb each weekend.

But this Friday was a little different.  My doctor invited me to attend a party.  My first reaction was to accept the invitation, and then use the Mexican option of simply not showing up.

The party was to celebrate the opening of the Indian school where I donate a bit of my time.  Because it is a cause that matters to me, I decided to attend.

Let me refresh your memory.  The school is in the agricultural village of Pinal Villa.  Just a bit inland from Melaque.

And “school” is a rather inexact term.  There are three classrooms.  But the small complex is a support system for some of the migrant workers (most of them Mixtec Indians from Guerrero and Oaxaca) who come north to plant and harvest.

Following Spain’s conquest of Mexico, the crown outlawed Indian slavery.  In its place, the encomienda was established.  A feudal transplant from the Iberian peninsula, where the king granted large tracts of land to an “owner,” who could demand a specific period of work from the Indians he also “owned.”  It was merely slavery in white face.

In theory, that system died with Mexico’s independence from Spain.  But it still echoes in Mexico”s fields (as well as the fields of other nations).

The Mixtec leave their ancestral lands to come north with their entire families to do work that the locals will not do.  I complain about the heat here.  But I do not have to spend my day planting bananas or weeding watermelon or harvesting mangoes. 

The Mixtec do.  Single men.  Fathers.  Mothers.  And children.  Lots of children.

It was for the children that the school was started.  To give them an opportunity to break out of the cycle.  To give them enough literacy and mathematic skills that they (and their children) can join Mexico’s growing middle class.  Instead of being stuck in the poverty that characterizes 40% of Mexican families.

Having returned home at the start of summer, the Mixtec are returning.  That means it is time for the school to reopen.  To learn.  To get well-balanced meals.  And for 16 families, to have a comfortable place to live.

Friday was a welcome back party.  Filled with the type of events one would expect.

These are the teachers.  I apologize for the blurriness.  But I wanted you to see how young they are.  What I cannot show you is their dedication and their energy.


And there were awards for the outstanding students.  All of them extremely shy.  They have not learned the bright student syndrome that exists above the border -- to be the center of everyone's attention.  But they are the core that we hope will reach escape velocity.

At all of these events, there is a skit that melts hearts.  This was an homage to the vowels.  As for the dog, he insisted on being part of everything.

And no decent Mexican party can exist without music.  This singing group of students is from another school.  And they have learned the rule of getting attention.  Lots of music.  And I mean lots.

The school had invited a group of Americans and Canadians who have volunteered their time to work with the school.  But they were merely guests.  The fiesta was for people like this little guy who spent the entire evening batting a balloon.  This was the only photograph I managed to get that was not a complete blur.

These migrant workers lead a very rough life.  But the dedication of the children is what amazes me.  After a full day in the fields, they attend classes in the evening.

To me, that is the message of hope.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I admit it.  I am fascinated by that set of numbers.

Not in the crystal-minded numerologist sense.  After all, today's date is merely derived from a starting date for the western calendar based on a wild (and incorrect) guess.

We all know the tale how the cease-fire for the First World War went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  Or so goes the myth.  And Armistice Day was born.

Because the United States managed to get involved in a series of wars that were more efficient in killing young men, the day morphed into Veterans Day.  A day that seems to have attracted a bit more notice this year because of that additional "11" -- our binary salute to the men and women who served in the cause of liberty.

The United States is one of the few countries not built on a national identity.  To be American is to be in favor of an idea -- liberty.  The ability to be as good as you choose and to learn lesson s from both failures and successes. 
That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.  That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I watched Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will this week.  Leni's 1934 valentine to Adolf Hitler, fresh from his bloody extermination of the SA leadership.

Of course, watching the film now, my analysis suffers from presentism.  But I found myself wondering how could Germans voluntarily trade their social, personal, and religious freedoms to a totalitarian state?  Can any pot of porridge be worth that sacrifice?

Since I have started writing this blog, two of my uncles have died.  Both of them heroes of the Second World War that ushered Hitler into Hell's ante room.  But it is a generation that will soon be gone.  Just are the veterans who gave us Armistice Day.

But there are young veterans today returning from wars to a military that will inevitably be down-sized.  Just as my uncles deserved a salute, so do these young men and women.

More than that, they deserve jobs in a resurgent economy in the nation for which they staked their lives.

That would be the best Veterans Day appreciation of all.

To those of you who served in the cause of liberty, I salute you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

users may experience --

I was turning into one of those side effect warnings you hear at the end of drug commercials.

You know the ones I mean.  Always delivered in a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song tempo.

Headache.  Nausea.  Fatigue.  Drowsiness.  Swollen feet.

Just before I moved to Mexico, my health had taken a severe downturn.  My blood pressure was high.  I had put on an incredible amount of weight.  And I had just been diagnosed as diabetic (even though I was in the category formerly known as “pre-diabetic”).

Three months in Mexico with a new diet (or rather the inaccessibility of not-so-healthy foods) and lots of walking had an amazing effect.  I lost 30 pounds.  My blood sugar levels were the envy of a 22 year-old.  And my blood pressure was well within normal limits -- normal enough that my doctor reduced my medication dosage.

That was 2009.  While I was in the highlands this summer, I ran out of my usual medication.  I stopped to see a doctor, who prescribed something different.  I researched it on the internet -- and it was in the same category as my old medication.

When I returned to Melaque in September, the heat seemed to be harder to bear than when I left.  I attributed it to a lack of acclimation.  But things did not get better over the next two months.  I started getting severe headaches.  And I slept.  Often 12 hours a night.  But I was still exhausted during the day.

My doctor also  works with the Indian school -- a project I support.  I needed to talk with her yesterday about some donations.  While I was there, I told her I was not feeling as well as I usually do.

Her first instinct was to check my blood pressure.  But I wanted her to check my blood sugar.  I had convinced myself that the diabetes had returned.

Out came the needle and the little testing machine.  It was fine.

I wish I could have said the same for the blood pressure test result.  I am a mediocre bowler.  But I would have been happy with both readings if they were projected above a lane.  But they were a bit distressing as blood pressure results.

That was easily resolved.  She put me back on my old medication -- with the proviso that I buy it that afternoon.

Oh, and there was one additional complaint.  In July, I awoke with fresh blood in my left ear.  Even though it felt as if there might be an infection in the ear canal, I ignored it.  (I must confess, though, I imagined the leaf cutter ants seeking revenge by setting up a nest in my ear.)  I also ignored another smaller discharge about three weeks later.

OK.  I am not a very good patient.

It turns out there is still an infection in the ear canal -- that could have contributed to the headaches.  Another pill and some ear drops are destined to clear it up.

The result?  Oddly, I could not sleep last night.  I fell asleep for about an hour and stayed up reading until about 7 AM -- and then slept until 10.

But I feel great.  And my feet slip easily into my sandals.

I had hoped to get off of all medications while living here in Mexico.  Even though the doctor fees are quite reasonable (less than $15 USD), my prescriptions cost more here than they do in The States.  (That is not always the case.  Most prescription drugs cost less here than they do above the Rio Bravo.)

The hope of going drug-free is probably not to be.

I am just glad that I had other business with my doctor.  She has made me a new man.

It is still hot here.  But I no longer feel like I am a walking side effect warning. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

the croc is back

With all of my aquatic landscaping, some benefits arise.  The small croc has returned to his (or her) sunning perch.

Some tasks are worth the effort.