Thursday, March 31, 2011

blowing a borrowed horn

When did I turn into Mr. Wilson?

All of my life I have relished the Dennis the Menace role.  Instead, I turn out to be the old guy muttering in the street about these darn kids.

Today I had a visit from Mr. Wilson.

The scene looked innocent enough.  10-year old boy on his way home from school.  But with a deadly weapon in his hand.

Not a hand gun.  Not even a sling shot.  But -- a bugle.

In itself, the bugle is a benign instrument.  Even a bit aesthetic with curves in all the right places.

But putting one in the hands of a boy is like giving money and power to politicians.  It simply will not turn out well.

I had never seen him before.  So, I indulged in the optimism of the ignorant.  Maybe he does not live near.  Ignoring the fact that there only about two blocks where he could live on our little laguna-locked peninsula.

But I did not have to wait to hear where he lived.  He was so beamingly proud of his newly-acquired instrument of mass musical destruction that he could not wait to get home to press it to his lips.

Up it went.  And the result was just as bad as you could expect from someone with little music sense, even less talent, and no time to wait for the inconvenience of scales and practice.

And I did not mind it one bit.  Other than a bit of wincing. 

I love music.  And I love people who are excited enough to attempt to make some of their own. 

I wish him well.  He may turn out to be the next boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B.

But, far more likely he will hook up with the local village band that relies solely on enthusiasm and volume for their appearances.

Even that will be fine.  After all, I moved to Mexico, not to Julliard.

And I have learned something new.  The sound of a badly-played bugle can travel a long, long way from a ten-year old's home. 

Even further than a cock's crow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

humor me on this one

One of the best lines in cinema comes from My Favorite Year.

Benjy has convinced the lovely K.C. to join him on a first date.  He is a television comedy writer.  She claims she is not funny.

He tells her what is funny ("Funny people, the Marx brothers minus zeppo... Unfunny, anyone who has ever played the accordion professionally.") and then tells her a joke -- and asks her to repeat it.

Because this is a comedy, she fails miserably.  He hands her a dollar bill.  She asks: "What is this for?"

"Accordion lessons."

Great line.  Great delivery.  Great movie.

Now and then, I get an email from someone wanting to know how to use humor in a blog.  And I am never certain how to answer the question.  Humor is a characteristic we are born with.  I am not certain it can be learned.

After all, why is Woody Allen's line ("In California, they don't throw their garbage away - they make it into TV shows.") funny?

Dan Green may have come to our rescue.  Because he knows the answer to the question.  Or, at least, an answer.

He loves to send me some of his favorite jokes.  But he knows I love word play.  So, today's offering from him was doubly nice.

It is a new word.  A word I knew, but its manufacture is recent.  It defines a phenomenon we all recognize, but we would probably not be able to define it.

The word is "paraprosdokian".  It looks Greek.  And its roots are.  But it is not a classical word.  It was made up in our day to help describe a certain type of humor.

The Greek roots mean "beyond expectation."  And that is exactly how this type of humor works. 

The first part of a sentence or paragraph leads you to believe the sentence is going somewhere, and then it veers off in another direction.  It works very well in English because of our pack rat vocabulary.  Nothing gets thrown away.  We keep accumulating words until one word can mean a lot of things.

Thus confusion.  And humor.

But my definition of the word what is wrong with trying to analyze humor.  It is the sentence that is funny.  Not the analysis.OK.  Hang on.  Because there is a good part coming.  The yuks are on the way. 

My favorite Supreme Court justice said of pornography: "I know it when I see it."  And you will immediately recognize paraprosdokian when you see it in action.

Dan's email listed over thirty.  Here are my favorites.

  • Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people.  Others have no imagination whatsoever.
  • Hospitality: making your guests feel like they're at home, even if you wish they were.
  • The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!
  • The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's on the list.

Those are pretty easy.  All you have to have is a sense for the absurd and a good grasp of how words can be manipulated.  Like the last example.  "Last thing" in English commonly means "never."  But not when we are talking about lists.

We usually call this "wit" because of the word play.  Almost all of the humor from Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, P.G. Wodehouse, or P.J. O'Rourke is in this category.

But, as far as I am concerned the master is Florence King.  If I could, I would award her a gold medal in the "paraprosdokian" competition for this gem.

When she receives invitations, she responds: "I would love to.  I just don't want to."

You can't learn that stuff.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

glean grow the mangoes

Under the spreading mango tree,

The casa hammock hangs.

I don't much like the original Longfellow version.  And I am not certain mine is an improvement.  At least, mine has the virtue of being true.

Because I do have a spreading mango tree in the garden.  A dandy specimen. 

Tall.  Wide.  Sturdy.

It forms the foot anchor for my hammock.  A tamarind playing its mirror role at the head.

For the past two months, my garden has been covered with early fruit drops -- as the tree sacrifices some of its progeny in the hopes of nurturing the better of the lot.

Ir started with little green pellets.  Followed by almond size rejects.  We are now up to fist-sized pieces.  Big enough to rouse unwary sleepers in the hammock.

But when I am allowed to rest in my swinging siesta web, I dream of ripe mangoes.  And they will soon be here.  Sweet.  Juicy.  And lots of work.

At least, mine are.  They are almost all pit.  But the persistent are rewarded with strips of pure hedonistic delight.  It will soon be time again for me to make my cold mango soup (the once and future soup)  -- one of the true joys of our hot, humid summers.

That is, I will get to enjoy the mango bounty if I can figure out the recent culprit that has been gnawing on my fruit.


This is what I am now finding among the fallen fruit.  And I think I know the culprit.

Most of the birds in my back yard are shy.  But there is a mammal that wins the reclusive award. 

And those marks are clearly made by incisors.  Not by some birdy beak.

A squirrel.  Not one of your Disneyish heart-warming curious park squirrels.  This fellow would no more beg for a handout than would my grandmother.


He is a Colima tree squirrel.  Almost coal black.  Much darker than the fellow in this stock footage.  I hear him more than I see him.

He is particularly fond of the tamarind pods.  But it is quite apparent the mangoes are now first in his stomach.

At least, I hope it is the squirrel.  I have heard there are plenty of fruit rats   in these parts -- even though I have not seen one.  And being the ratty criminal types they go by many aliases.  Citrus rat.  Roof rat.  Black rat.


Whatever name they use, here is the mug shot. 

With eyes made from the pits of some discarded fruit.  Naked little politician hands.  And a coat that would be better-suited to some old matinee idol.

But they are known for their fruit sweet tooth.  And my mangoes would be the perfect treat.

For some reason, I find it far more acceptable to be pelted by a squirrel than by a rat.  Even though I think of squirrels as nothing more than rats with bushy tails.
Among my other faults, I am a speciesist.

I will await the crop that nature deigns to give me.  I may end up being the gleaner in this particular field.

Monday, March 28, 2011

and still counting


At first, I thought my friend Billie was celebrating the year of Mexico City's re-founding.  Or the year Verrazzano failed to claim Manhattan for Francis I and raise the culinary standards of the Big Apple.

But I was wrong.

She was observing her six years of blogging with her 1524th post.  Says she: "I can't believe that I could have found 1524 things to blog about."

I have long had a soft spot in my heart for Billie.  When I took the risk of publishing a series of posts on drug policy, she included a link to my blog in one of her posts.  And my readership grew.

I knew I had been blogging for just over three years.  But I had no idea how many posts that meant.  It turns out to be 1075.

That was after I indulged in a bit of, what the government would call, "seasonal adjusting."

I looked through my post list and found several dusty drafts that never saw the light of day.  Stillborn.  And as sad as any miscarriage.

At one point they held such high hope.  The very essence of wit or clever observation.  But in gestation something went horribly wrong.

A pithy quotation from my favorite living novelist.  A tale of cultural clashes.  An ironic photograph.

Each ended up on the cutting room floor.  Or, more aptly, was assigned to the electronic equivalent of Limbo.

Here's an example.

Take a look at the photograph at the top of this post,  It appears to be pregnant with juxtapositions.

When I first saw the church apparently perched atop the Pemex station, I thought of all sorts of clever options.  What drivers really worship.  Or something about the true foundations of the Mexican church.

But neither of those quite worked.

After all, it is the Mexican state, not the Mexican church, that derives its wealth from oil.  And the pope and the Mexican state are not even allowed to stay in the same hotel, let alone the same bed.  Or, so says the 1917 constitution.

You see the problem.

So, the photograph sat in my draft box along with the Scott Turow quotation, the tourist confused about why Mexicans call cheese "queso," and several other post wannabes.

Who knows why they didn't work out?  I suspect most were doomed from conception.

But that question is no easier to answer than other mysteries of life.

Why does the smell of oranges remind us of Christmas?

Why does the laughter of women make our souls cozily warm?

Why do the French think Jerry Lewis is a comic genius?

All I know is, this blogging business is great fun.  And I am pleased to have met bloggers like Billie on this very interesting road.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

dial c for chuckles

I was well into one of my hammock dreams -- wooing some beauty with crocodile shoes -- when the telephone rang.

I almost didn't answer it -- because I knew what would happen.

I had to swing out of the hammock, run across the patio and into the house, only to experience what happens with at least 90% of my telephone calls -- silence or a quick click.

In my wilder fantasies, the prior owner of the telephone number was a Mexican superhero who was repeatedly called upon to save the Republic from the forces of corruption.  Murciélago-man.  If so, my callers are obviously disappointed in their ersatz hero with his chirpy: "Steve Cotton. Good day."

I had lunch last week with an older woman from Ontario.  Let's call her Marge -- because it is not her name.  But she will immediately recognize herself in any event.

She has been coming to Melaque for over ten years -- staying between three to six months each visit.  In that time, she has learned very little Spanish.  Her reason is the same as most self-satisfied tourists: "I can get by without it."

I laughingly told her about the ten or so quick-hangup telephone calls I receive each day.  Just as a matter of conversation.  But she took it as a complaint.

"I know what you mean.  I get them, too.  What is wrong with them?"

I was a bit confused by her response.  And offered: "Maybe they don't speak English."

Without missing a beat, she raised her voice in that I'm-British-and-I-am-morally-offended tone: "If they can't speak English, why are they calling me?"

I could hear Noel Coward giggling in the middle distance.  One of his better lines was "If I have the wrong number, why did you answer the telephone?"  A line I always imagined being delivered by Gracie Allen.

But I doubt Gracie could have delivered it with any better timing than Marge -- who was offended that I could not continue eating because I was laughing so hard.

Most of the tourists are leaving Melaque for their trek north.  And it is too bad because some of them are a wealth of material for this blog.

I wish them a happy journey.  But I want them to hurry back.  There is writing to be done.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

another shaggy dog story

"Are you sick?"

"Are you in love?"

It says a lot about humans that those two emotions can be confused so easily.

Several of you were concerned about my recent introspective posts over the past week.  Concerned enough to send me email or to call.

I am fine.

And, since this is confession time, I can tell you.  Yes.  I was a bit in love. 

With a dog.

Here she is.  Sadie is her name.

A loving dog.  Big dog. Of unknown parentage.  But golden blood obviously runs in her family tree -- just as certainly as mixed metaphors populate my posts.

I would like to say she is mine.  But she isn't.

She belongs to the people upstairs.  Canadians who have been traveling through Latin America with her for the past several months.  With a stop in Melaque for a week.

When they go out, they leave Sadie in the garden.  That means Sadie stays in the garden -- if I am out there.  But the moment I go inside, Sadie follows.  We are pals.

I must admit having her around has been very nice.  Even for the odd hour here and there.

When I first met Sadie, the first thing I noticed about her was her trim.  Her owners had given her a haircut well-suited for the tropics.

And she looked good in it.  She certainly had a better haircut than Steve Cotton.  I was starting to look as if I was auditioning for the part of Wilby Daniels in The Shaggy Dog.

So, off to the the barber I went.  Not to the fellow who gave me the unrequested Kojak cut last December.  A cut so thorough it lasted me three months.

Instead, I dropped in on the woman who has cut my hair twice before -- with rather good results.  After all, we are talking about something that does not matter much to me at all.  My hair.

When I sat down, I made it clear.  Medio.

And  medio it was.  She carefully hedged with the scissors and razors.  Cutting off just enough.

Because everything was going so well, my attention wandered to my Kindle.  I was reading about some additional horror in Japan, when I felt something I never want to feel on my head.  Warm goo.  Styling gel.

I glanced up.  She already had me looking like a well-greased axle.

There was nothing to say at that point.  But that is why I have shampoo at home.


But, until I could get there, all I needed was a pencil mustache and a cigarette holder to play either a gigolo or Xavier Cugat.

When I came through the gate, Sadie was there to greet me. 

And I swear she smirked.  I could almost hear her say: ten cents a dance?

Friday, March 25, 2011

crocs and clocks

Someone once told me -- most likely one of those English literature types -- that Robert Frost was the great rural poet.

Frost did go on and on about roads not taken, mending fallen walls, swinging birches.  You know the stuff.

I suspect we all know this bit of bucolic reverie.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Well, I live in the country.  We have horses.  But very few woods.  And certainly no frozen lake.

We do have a laguna -- that was starting to look more like a pasture than a lake until the town fathers breached the dunes and swept all of the surface-clinging vegetation out into the ocean.

I have written about our Sisyphean battle with the water hyacinth and water cabbage in flowers in the mud.  Last year, we cleared out a large portion of the inlet in front of my garden.

It looked nice.  New birds came to hunt.  Fish started showing up.  And our little crocodile, Alfonso, could get up on the bank to sun himself.

But times change.  We knew that battling the hyacinth and cabbage would be an ongoing fight -- and the fighting is in rounds.  During the winter, they both made a good comeback, as you can see.  Mainly the cabbage.

Mexico is not a place to wait for someone else to do something for you.  If it needs doing, you need to do it yourself.

On Monday, I grabbed the grappling hook we used to pull the vegetation out of the laguna last year and headed down to the shore to take on the water cabbage -- the lime green plants.

But I am not an idiot.  I know there is a crocodile in those waters.  He was not on the bank.  And I could not see his telltale snout and eyes floating like some toppled Frostian birch. 

So, I felt smug.  It is far easier to get close to the edge of the water to toss the grappling hook.  Better angle.  Better distance.

I had been dredging the living cabbage corpses on shore for about 45 minutes when disaster struck.  Nope.  I still have both of my legs and arms.  But almost as bad.

The grappling hook embedded itself in a tangle of water lilies.  I thought a couple of good tugs would free it.

They did.  But they freed the rope from the hook.  And the hook remained stuck in the laguna.

And this is where I start looking like an idiot.  I know there is a steep drop-off at the edge of the inlet.  And the floor of the laguna is Louisiana mud deep.  One step and you sink up over your knees.

But the hook was only a few feet out.  I almost went out on my own.  Fortunately, I had enough good sense remaining to call my landlady.

She stopped by and talked to our neighbor who has another grappling hook.  With less than ten throws, he had ours on shore.

But when he started throwing, I saw a familiar sight.  A pointed head attached to an armored body.  The crocodile had been in the water no more than ten feet from where I was harvesting cabbage.

Now, let's stop here for one moment.  You have heard me talk like a proud father when the topic of Alfonso comes up.  He was a small, timid crocodile.

But when I returned from Yucatan in November, he appeared to be gone.  In his place, was a much larger crocodile.  At least, seven feet -- if not more.  And with a far more aggressive nature.

There are several theories about the sudden appearance of this big boy.  The most popular is that Lumpy (the new crocodile) either killed Alfonso or scared him away.

I am the dissenter.  My guess is there is no new crocodile -- other than in a Freudian sense.  I suspect Alfonso went through puberty -- and he has now come into his own.

Either way, it was a bit unnerving to realize, my little crocodile was stalking me as a gordito gringo snack.

But I am not one to be deterred.  I drove to Manzanillo.  Bought a length of sturdy nylon rope, and returned to my task of pulling out the cabbage.
When I started, there was no crocodile to be seen.  But within three tosses, there he was.  Just past the cabbage field.

Then he swam closer and closer until he was within range of the hook. And never once did he flinch when it splashed in the water near his head.

His presence did not bother me too much.  I will confess, though, I was not at the water's edge.  I was standing on the malecon -- a good six feet above the water on a steep bank.

I did not finish my task -- and not because of the crocodile.  A much smaller foe drove me away.

I either piled the cabbage on an ant's nest or I brought an ant nest out of the water on the cabbage. 

I felt something on my legs.  It would be an exaggeration to say they were covered, but at least 40 ants were running around angrily.  And they were everywhere on the cabbage.

With only a few ant bites appended to my war record, I retreated.

But I decided that was enough rural life for the day.  Robert Frost and his little horse could stop by their frozen lake as long as they liked.  They didn't have to contend with tropical wildlife.

And tonight I will probably be dreaming that I am Captain James Hook hearing the sound of that blasted ticking crocodile.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

losing liz

Lord Byron was not speaking of Elizabeth Taylor when he wrote: "She walks in beauty like the night."

That would have been far too subtle for an actress who was literally a force of nature -- somewhere between the warmth of the sun and the destructiveness of a hurricane.  Whose face filled movie screens as fully as her bosom filled her bodice.

I had just crossed the border into teendom when I fell madly in love with her.  She represented everything I knew would get me into trouble for the rest of my life.  The woman whose beauty and presence would freeze frame any room she entered.

And then, of course, there was the obvious sexuality.  Which she wore as a tool of conquest.  For a boy raised on some very fundamentalist principles, she was the very temptress of Proverbs.

I did not know her when she was a young actress.  That would not come until the release of Cleopatra.

I have already introduced you to my rather eccentric younger self.  One Saturday afternoon, I put on my James Bond white dinner jacket and called a taxi to take me to the Paramount theater in Portland.  I was 13. 

When I got in the cab, the driver looked back at the house expecting an adult to accompany me.  To this day, I am convinced, I leaned forward and told him in a rather imperious tone: "Drive on."  Too many Leslie Howard movies, I fear.

In the movie, Cleopatra makes her first appearance when rolled out on the floor from a carpet.  Watching her transform from that rather ignominious entrance into the queen of Egypt addressing Julius Caesar was enough to set off my young testosterone.  I had bonded.

The movie is not a very good vehicle to show off acting skills.  Too many sets.  Too many costumes.  Way too much Roman Empire.

But none of that mattered.  The fact that she seemed to end up playing the same part with the same skills in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? or Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew did not register on me. 

She was Elizabeth Taylor.  The Woman.  The Earth goddess.  And no one would ever live up to her.

At some point, Hollywood started hiring actors rather than movie stars -- and she moved into that odd category of celebrity.  The world of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Paris Hilton, where talent is not important.  

Better yet, she received America's greatest accolade.  She was now known by a truncated version of her first name: Liz.  Universally.

She even took a short role acting as the wife of a United States senator from Virginia.  I can still see her at the head table of fund raisers lecturing her celebrity husband.

But supporting roles were not for her.  It was just one of her seven divorces.

I last saw her in the 1990s at a movie premiere.  She showed up in one of her trademark caftans looking like a ship under full sail.  But she still had the grace of her younger self.  Liz had arrived. 

It is far too easy to remember her in her odd stage.  As the defender and good friend of Michael Jackson.  Or acting as his date at the marriage of one-name Liza to the even-odder David Gest.  A photograph that still causes my spinal cord to suffer frost bite.

But none of those images are what I remember when I think of her.

She will always be the lonely figure at the top of a golden pyramid carried through the streets of Rome in triumphal entry.  A woman determined to take on the entire Empire to restore the power of Alexander the Great.

The perfect woman.  Strong.  Beautiful.  Independent.

And now -- gone.

Good-bye, Liz.  It was a good run.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

birding on the cheep

I returned from Oregon with three bird books and a flock of good intentions to get out in the countryside to watch my little feathered friends.

So far, I have made it to my hammock. 

But it is a start.  My garden attracts a wide variety of birds.  And it is a good place to hone my watching skills.

My skills need honing.  But, my back yard may not be the best whetstone. 

The birds in my back yard fall into two categories: birds I recognize from years of bird-watching, and birds that can hide faster than the brother-in-law who owes you a hundred pesos.

The best example of the first category is what I call the English sparrow (though it is neither English nor a sparrow) -- what more-educated people call a house sparrow.  They seem to be almost everywhere north of the equator.  For all I know, they may also eat bananas in Ecuador.

And even the birds that are new to me, like the American robin's Patty Dukeish Mexican cousin, the rufous-backed robin, are easy to identify.  For some reason, the familiar birds seem to hop around in public as if they were part of a local circus.

It is the second category that baffles me.  I get all sorts of warblers flitting through.  Along with several varieties of vireos.  Not to mebtion the Greta Garbo doves -- like the one in the photograph above.

But the moment I train my binoculars on them, they disappear.  Getting my camera close to my face is a sure sign for them to do their Amelia Earhart impressions.

I thought I was going to be clever with a little avian chumming by throwing out some stale corn flakes on the compost heap.

It worked.  I had a full cast of house sparrows and grackles.  Birds that I can see by simply looking out my window whenever the sun is up.

It was like opening a bar to attract single women.  Only to have a bunch of drunk men show up.

But it was not just house sparrows and grackles who took me up on my generous free lunch.  While on ant patrol that same night, I discovered a thick line of leaf-cutter ants transferring the cereal to their nest.  Perhaps they had run out of Rice Krispies for the queen.

There are times I can be stupidly optimistic.  My first thought was perhaps the ants would now leave my plants alone.  After all, they had an alternate food source. 

Of course, that was nothing more than recycled Chamberlain appeasement.  Feeding the Sudetenland to Hitler did not save the rest of Europe from invasion.

(I think that last paragraph may be an exception to Godwin's Rule.  But I can never tell in these name-calling days.)

I am done with chumming.  If I want to see timid birds, I will need to find a good place to sit -- and watch -- and wait.  Another opportunity to learn patience.

Or I can just be happy watching sparrows -- and the occasional dove.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

losing my cool

Spring is Mama Nature's menopause.  At least here on the Mexican beach.

Hot flashes.  Cold flashes.  Constantly changing.

And never with any warning.

This winter has been pleasantly cool.  Long pant, jacket cool.  Never lower than the 60s.  But we beach people are weather sissies -- we cannot sleep with anything separating our skin from the night's warmth.

The cool is a thing of the past -- as of this week.  I have no weather data.  But the days are warming.  And the nights are more humid.  It is fan time.

Within a month I will be longing for the cool.

But not yet.  There is still time to stretch out in the garden hammock.  To watch the birds trim the bushes of errant insects.  To indulge in my role as the lazing author.

Dorothy Collins sings in the living room -- competing with my neighbor's mariachi tape.  Dorothy is holding her own.  Even though she is telling us she is "Losing My Mind."  I feel her pain.

She sings at my request.  For some reason, I associate the song with my year in Greece.  Auditioning young women to be the next ex-Mrs. Cotton.

But that was a callow fellow I no longer know.  The guy in the hammock has enough spins on his odometer to fully appreciate that life sometimes leaves us "standing in the middle of the floor."

And, sometimes, it is A-OK to just stand there -- knowing fully well that you are not losing your mind.

Like Mother Nature, we will go hot and cold.  And life's cycle will continue to roll.

Monday, March 21, 2011

totting up the future

Adventure comes with costs.

A year ago (almost to the day), I broke my right ankle ziplining in Puerto Vallarta (one foot in the gravy).  And, even though that fracture decreased my mobility, I have been on the move ever since then.

Starting with my seven month stint in Oregon to train my successor in my old job.  Followed by the Bloggers' Conference in
Mérida and a trip through the Yucatan Peninsula with Islagringo.

When I finally got to Melaque, I ended up taking the three bus tours we have been discussing for the past two months.  To Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Morelia, Pátzcuaro, and Mexico City.

And then I was off to Oregon again for a week to settle some tax matters.

This past week is the first quiet time I have had in my apartment for almost a year.

It has given me an opportunity to think about my adventure here in Mexico.  And what I should be doing with this blog.

But all I have been doing is thinking.  As far as I know, a new press secretary is not waiting behind the current to make any news-shattering announcements.

What I do know is that I have been having great difficulty writing over the past two months.  Part of that is due to my travels.  It is hard to construct an essay that hangs together while enjoying sights in the highlands.

We will see what happens this week.  I have a long list of topics I want to write about.  All I need to do is find my wandering muse.

Because I have plenty of tales to tell.  Just as I have my own story to live.

There is a Mexican national myth that the author of the lyrics of the national anthem, Francisco González Bocanegra, was able to write the lyrics only after being locked in a bedroom by his fiancée.

I have no one to lock me in a bedroom -- for any purpose at all.  But I intend to spend this week spinning tales of the local area.

Let's see what happens.  Maybe Thalia has some surprises in store for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

the people who lunch

Elaine Stritch
was not there.

No throaty celebration of the ladies who lunch.

But we were well beyond the ladies only lunch club.

My former landlady (Karen) called to let me know one of my readers was in town and wanted to meet me.

I am certainly no J. D. Salinger (in many respects -- one of which is I am still alive).  No shrinking violet I.  In fact, I am as shameless about being the center of attention as my former state's senior senator, who is known to shove constituents out of the way to get to the nearest news camera.

Karen asked if I would be interested in a late lunch on Sunday.  Let's see?  Fans.  Food.  Of course, I would be there.

When I showed up at Tinto del Mar, I was looking for two lunching ladies at a table.  And, even though I was fashionably late, I saw only tables of large groups.

It turned out one of the large groups was Karen's.  She was there with six other people.

We could easily have been the cast for a Merchant-Ivory film.  A Canadian couple, Don and Irene, renting The Professor's house.  Myrella, my reader, from Houston.  Daniel and Fabiola, friends of Karen's from Guadalajara.  Another friend, Verona, from Seattle.

Myrella and I once had an online conversation about beach property she owns in Oregon.  But we rambled over as many topics as any good friends do when meeting.

And she was a pure joy.  Having read of my often fruitless quests to find aged parmesan cheese, she brought me a chunk.  Along with a dog book she highly recommended: The Gospel According to Sam: Animal Stories for the Soul.

I continue to be amazed (and pleased) at the kindness of people.

The choice of Tinto del Mar was a good one.  The dining room was underpopulated.  And, once the usual mariachi band stopped playing, we were able to have great conversation.

The service is always very personable -- and, quite often, personal.  Even if the food is a bit too heavy for me with its thick cheesy, fruit-infused sauces.  Not really bad.  But certainly not outstanding.

It is a testament to the place that its food does get in the way of having a good time.

I put a bit of a damper on the afternoon when the conversation turned to the drug violence in Michoacán.  I conceded that anywhere in the world where people are being shot -- especially over an ill-conceived drug policy -- is a shame.  But there is statistically a greater chance of any given person dying in a car crash than being shot by a drug gangster in Mexico.

The Mexican couple took great umbrage.  And I suspect a lot of it was my rotten Spanish getting in the way. 

But I understand their concern.  Some Mexicans are far more likely to be kidnapped and shot than is an American expatriate.  And numbers do not assuage that fear.  Fear always trumps reality.

My heart sank as I listened to them.  If this very joyful couple can descend into such dramatic fears, what does that say about the future of democratic Mexico?  Those who fear are always the first fruits of demagogues.

Mexican history provides two answers: a man on a white horse -- or another on a red burro.  And there is always someone in the wings willing to cross-dress as either Porfirio Diaz or Lázaro Cárdenas.

But that is not my fight.  And my concern quickly passed.  After all, the lunch was to celebrate life, not to sink into life-sucking politics.  And we had our share of fun and silliness.

So, thank you again, Myrella, for the cheese and the book.  I grated a portion of the cheese over some lemon soup I made last night.

And keep those comments coming.

Note -- The last photograph is not of Myrella.  That is Karen.  And there is an interesting story about that ice cube.  But that may be for another day.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

mooning on la laguna

It seemed big.

But when it comes in its full cookieish form, it always seems big.

I went out on ant patrol last night.  Before I looked up, I knew what I would see.  The light on the ground was almost as intense as my flashlight beam.

When I did glance, the moon almost startled me. 

Full, yes.  But something else.  Almost as if it wanted to draw close enough to ally its talent in my small battle against natural instincts.  Instead, helping me to find my own.

The moon is a unifier.  I knew that somewhere on a Caribbean island, someone was looking up at the same moon.  Or on a plaza in central Mexico.  Or in a hot tub in Oregon.

For a moment, we pause.  Look in awe.  And know that we are sharing a moment of wonder.  Looking at the jade rabbit.  The witch gathering sticks.  The old man with his lantern.

The size, of course, is an illusion. As artful as any David Copperfield conjury.

Last night the moon was in fact larger. Well, it was closer than usual and seemed larger.  And tonight it will be closer still.  Closer than it has been for two decades.

I could spend a lot of time talking about perigee and azimuth.  But tonight will be a night of poetry, not science. 

Go out and gaze on the face of that jolly old man.  And remember you are not alone.

Or perhaps, read a bit of Billy Collins's Moon before you go out.  Set the mood.

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

It's as full as it was

in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

And if you wanted to follow this example,

tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon. 

And if your house has no child,

you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand. 

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees

in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,

your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.


Note -- The photograph is mine.  The first time I have ever been able to catch the moon in any detail.

no caption saturday

My friend, Jean Young, who once ran a bakery here in Villa Obregon (buttery buns on the beach) and now lives in one of the metropolitan areas in the highlands, sent me this photograph earlier in the week.

I have seen it several times, and I always get a chuckle out of it.

But it amused me even more this week.  Perhaps circumstances in nature let us see more of our own nature.

After almost a year of being on the road, I think I am going to settle down for a bit in my demi-casa. 

And simply watch the birds.

Friday, March 18, 2011

sex on the floor

“Where is all the singing?  I thought people would be singing in the streets.”

He was American.  Probably from one of the upper central states – Minnesota or Wisconsin – from the almost-across-the-border sing song in his voice.  His wife simply looked tired.

”And music.  I thought there would be music.”

With that I knew he was new in town.  Because all you need is patience if you want to hear music on the streets of Melaque.  Pouring forth from a car radio or a truck loudspeaker.

But I don’t think that is what he was looking for.  He had a Hollywood-acquired notion that roving mariachi might musically mug him at every street corner.  Confusing Carmen Miranda with Dolores del Río.

Don't get me wrong.  Mexico is a very musical country.  I get to share my neighbor's taste in radio music every afternoon as she does her wash.

But there is something deeper than that in the Mexican character.

Last year I witnessed a bit of it in Manzanillo at a performance of the Orquesta Sinfónica de San Luis Potosí (
pieces of eight).  One of the most popular pieces that night was Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 2

It is played at almost every pops concert in Mexico.  Mexicans admire it so much, it is commonly known as the second national anthem.

Some of you probably know it as the stunning 
video produced by the Mexican Tourism Board.

But it is more than just a cultural icon. 
What Márquez wrote is the very essence of good sex.

And I am not merely talking about the fact that all dance music represents sex.  It is more than the old Scottish joke that Presbyterians are opposed to sex standing up because they are afraid it will lead to dancing.

The danzón is an odd dance form – at least, its paternity is.  Apparently, it derives from an earlier English dance (though I find it hard to believe considering the character of both countries).  The Cubans then modified it into a very seductive dance.  So seductive that polite society eschewed it.

Like many other things Cuban (including contemporary Cubans on rafts), the danzón made its way across the Gulf of Mexico to Veracruz – where it spread through Mexico.

There are other popular danzón pieces.  But none as popular as the piece Márquez premiered in 1994.

All music can be enjoyed abstractly.  And that is certainly possible with this piece.  Márquez follows the academic form, but he turns it into his own with a very clever interpretation.

I will not bore you with the formal music – because that is not its most interesting characteristic.

The first time I heard it performed live was in Manzanillo.  From the moment the solo clarinet started the syncopated theme, shoulders started to move in time with the music.  Then torsos, hips, and feet.  Until the audience was undulating to the music -- like some Fellini orgy scene.

If you listen to the piece (and I urge you to do so), put aside all thoughts of academic music.  If you cannot feel the hands of an expert lover as the oboe waxes and wanes, I can offer nothing more to you than my condolences.

This is the piece that Bolero dreamed of being in the movie 10

This YouTube video of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is not the best recording of the piece.  But you get the idea.  (It is best if you choose 480p.)  These performers are simply too young to capture
Márquez's mature caresses and kisses.

Listen and enjoy.  Drop those inhibitions and let your body move.

This is the sound the man from Wisconsin should have been seeking on the streets of Melaque.

But then, shouldn’t we all?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

pat in the middle

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

For those of you in Boston, Chicago, and New York, the day means parades and green beer.  And, of course, Irish jokes.

Dan Green, a loyal reader in North Carolina, sent me this joke almost a year ago.  It has been fermenting in my in-box for an occasion just like this.

Patrick walks into a bar in Dublin, orders three pints of Guinness and sits in the corner of the room, drinking a sip out of each pint in turn. When he finishes all three, he goes back to the bar and orders three more.

The barman says, "You know a pint goes flat soon after I pull it.  Your pint would taste better if you bought one at a time."

Patrick replies, "Well now, I have two brothers -- one is in America and the other in Australia and here I am in Dublin . When we all left home, we promised we'd drink this way to remember the days we all drank together."

The barman admits that this is a nice custom and says no more.

Patrick becomes a regular customer, and always drinks the same way -- ordering three pints and drinking a sip out of each in turn, until they are finished.

One day, he comes in and orders just two pints. All the other regulars in the bar notice and fall silent.

When he goes back to the bar for the second round, the barman says, "I don't want to intrude on your grief, but I wanted to offer my condolences on your great loss."

Patrick looks confused for a moment, then the penny drops and he starts to laugh.  "Oh no," he says, "Everyone is fine! It's me -- I've quit drinking!"

Here in San Patricio, we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day with fireworks and second degree burns.

It may surprise some of you that we would be going out of our day to celebrate an itinerant Anglo-Saxon priest the Irish adopted as their own.  But San Patricio has a patron saint.  And he is -- yup! -- Saint Patrick (or San Patricio, as we know him around these Latin-speaking parts).

That is him on the right.  Sitting on his carry-all for not-so-spontaneous processions around the village.

Every year the village goes all out to have a great one-week party in honor of the amateur herpetologist of the emerald isle.  Yellow and green decorations are everywhere. 


Along with carnival rides.  Food stalls.  And castillos -- those towers of fireworks designed to whirl and spin, and toss burning rockets into the crowd.

And this year had quite a few firework twists.  There was more of everything. 

Lots of mortars.  Several of those giant displays so popular at county fairs.  And lots of the little rockets that fire into the audience sending people jumping and whooping with sheer pleasure.

This year I took one right in the stomach.  I took a photograph, but it does not do the experience justice.  And it was not until I got home that I noticed the entire left inseam of my dockers is one giant black singe.
Rocket scars are worn with reverential pride around here.

Before I moved south, I read stories in several blogs describing similar fireworks-centered fiestas.  Almost every blogger would then say they had tired of attending the late-night celebrations.

I could not understand it.  I was enthralled at the sight of my first castillo.  But, after two years of fireworks for every conceivable event, I found myself thinking similar thoughts this week.  I simply had other things to do.

But the young man who delivers my bottled water invited me to attend the Wednesday night festivities with his wife and his son.  So, off to the plaza I went.

I had a great time.  The castillo did what castillos do best.  People oohed in delight at the spinning fire and shrieked in real terror when the rockets began firing at them.

But that is not what the event is all about
.  I also ran into people I had not seen for a couple of months

One of them talked me into joining her on two carnival rides.  Both were fun, but the last one was thrilling.  Better than any ride in a themed amusement park.


You can see it at the right.  It looks deceptively calm.  But when it starts, the seats turn over and over in a very irregular pattern.  You almost have the feeling that death is waiting for you on the next spin. 

It was great.

On each spin, I kept thinking: this is exactly the type of ride Islagringo would enjoy.

It was an evening of experiencing the joy of basic good times with one another -- renewing our souls in social communion.

And that was only Saint Patrick's Eve.  Tonight I will need to join the crowd again for another shot of joy.  With a final chance to see Saint Pat smile.

And, who knows?  I may even participate in the bull chase -- despite my bum ankle.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

who is my neighbor?

I have been reading Donald Miller's latest book (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life) for the last few weeks.

Rather, I have not been reading it. 

The combination of my trips around Mexico and my brief trip to Oregon have serialized the book into four or five page installments.  But I finally finished it on my return to Melaque on Saturday.

Near the end of the book, Miller writes about a bicycle tour he made across America to raise money for a charity.
When you fly across the country in an airplane the country seems vast; but it isn't vast. It's all connected by roads one can ride a bike down. If you watch the news and there's a tragedy at a house in Kansas, that guy's driveway connects with yours, and you'd be surprised by how few roads it takes to get there.  The trip taught us that we were all neighbors, that my life is connected to everybody else's.

I thought of that quotation while reading a message board posting this past week.  It was written
Justin Horner -- a graphic designer in my home town of Portland, Oregon.

Let's turn the floor over to him to tell his story.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level.  And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.


Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a hand basket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

When one of the lawyers asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded with the two great commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer, smelling the possibility of a loophole where he could minimize his love-sharing, asked: "And who is my neighbor?"  You can hear the subtext dripping from the question: "Certainly not the people I do not like."

In response Jesus told a parable that is certainly one of western civilization's top ten tales -- the parable of the good Samaritan.  A story of how people we distrust are included in that category "neighbor."

I have been reading the Old Testament lately.  The torah repeatedly warns the reader to be especially mindful of the needs of three groups of people.  Widows and orphans are on everyone's list.  But the third group might surprise some people who draw their political inspiration from The Bible.

Aliens.  Immigrants.  Strangers in the land.

I have heard several people tell of tales similar to Mr. Horner's of the kindness of Mexicans in the United States -- and in Mexico.  People with very little money who are always willing to share one commodity -- their time and hands.  The very virtues we honor as Americans.

The highway that connects Portland to that driveway in Kansas keeps right on going -- to Ciudad Juarez, Oxaca, even Melaque.

Maybe that should be part of the immigration debate.  A little consideration on whether we are measuring the correct virtues.

Just a question for thought.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ruins of the day

We do not know much about the people who built Teotihuacán.

Or why they abandoned their majestic city on the plain north of Mexico City sometime between 800 and 900 AD.

There are theories, of course.  Internal social collapse.  Invaders.  Ecological catastrophe.  Increased medical expenses.

OK.  Maybe not the last one.  But no one knows.

What we do know is that the people who built the city left.  The city was abandoned -- except for a few squatters.

When the Aztecs came wandering through on their way to founding their watery empire, they believed the place was built by gods.  And they left it alone as a sacred site -- suited only for pilgrimages.

Archaeologists took a serious interest in the place in the early 1900s.  As part of the centennial celebration of Mexico's Independence, Leopoldo Batres used dynamite in the hopes of finding layers under the pyramid of the sun.  There were none.

But he left enough damage that it is still possible to see the erosion from his blast holes.

He then reconstructed the pyramid – and did a terrible job.  Adding a terrace where one never existed.  It was as if Walt Disney and Alfred Nobel had gone into the archaeological business.

When the place was built, it was considered sacred – and continued to be sacred up until the conquest.  The people who built Teotihuacán believed the act of creation took place in the caves under the site.  And the Aztecs were shocked and awed enough to buy into the same mythology.

My earliest recollection of Mexico (probably when I was in the sixth grade) is of the pyramids (of the sun and of the moon) at Teotihuacán.  They have long been the poster children of Mexico tourism -- before the Maya became the center of archaeo-tourism.


The two pyramids can be seen for miles around the site.  Looking just as their creators wanted them to look – like the surrounding mountains.

Like every other tourist, I wanted to show my mettle by climbing both pyramids. 

Unfortunately, the day we visited was one of the worst days of my intestinal disorder.  I was far more interested in finding the nearest rest room than I was in climbing anything.  Including the face of history.

And that was too bad.  My fellow travelers told me the view from the top was amazing.  I am sorry I could not make the trek.

But I was able to see the other site that interested me.  Two days ago I told you about the reconstruction of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in the National Museum of Archaeology.  This is the real deal.


Visitors can get very close to what remains of the original.  Almost all of the paint is gone, but the mosaic representation of the rain god is still there.


But the city is far more than a sacred place.  I mentioned two days ago that at its zenith, it was one of the largest cities in the ancient world – with a population of nearly 250,000.

You can still visit the remains of their homes.  With the pottery on view in the museum on site and in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, it is possible to reconstruct what it was like to live in such a great city.

My only disappointment was my inability to fully enjoy the place.  Unlike some of the other monumental ruins I have visited, this is the only one I would like to see again.  To climb those pyramids before they are shut down.

This time, with a stomach that knows how to control itself.