Saturday, July 30, 2011

running out the clock

Today was my last full day in the Mexican Magic Kingdom -- as some are wont to say about San Miguel.

With nothing planned, I simply enjoyed wandering.  But I did have one task.  To pick up my dress shoes at the cobbler.  New heels.  New soles.  Both the sad victims of San Miguel’s magic cobblestones.

While I was in town, I decided to reprise my stops at several of the churches I had seen earlier.  All of them are filled with more stuff than a good grandmother’s closet.  There is always some detail that will send me into reverie.

But it was Saturday -- a day for weddings and first communions.  If you were not wearing a white dress, there was no chance of entering.  In fact, most of the church doors were not even open.

So, I did what any Cotton would do.  I ate.  I headed off to the restaurant that started my stage in San Miguel -- La Grotta.  You might remember it from a day of refreshment

I read The Oregonian on my Kindle while eating my pepperoni and onion pizza over the next two hours.  I love lunches in Mexico.  No one is in a rush.

Then I hiked back up Stairmaster hill and did a costume change.  After all, it was another night of chamber music.  Out came my Bob Fosse blacks.

The Parker Quartet was back on stage tonight.  And this program was every bit as good as last night’s.

They started with Haydn’s Quartet No. 5 in F Minor.  Unlike last night’s Haydn, the quartet played it as the Classical Period piece it is.  Playing it straight made the Handel musical references that much more whimsical.

The audience’s favorite, though, was the middle piece -- György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses Nocturnes.  Similar to last night’s performance of the Kurtág piece, Ligeti’s quartet demands great skill and stamina of the performers.  But it demands as much of the audience.

This is the piece for which the Parker Quartet earned their Grammy.  And it is easy to see why.  They bring an appropriate voice to the piece.  Ironically, though, I would not be interested in it as a recording.  It needs eyes on the performers to get the full impact of their kinetic energy.  I tried closing my eyes as if I was listening to a recording, and I had to open them to get the full impact of the piece.

The audience was on its feet as the bows arced into the air.

After that, the last piece (Brahms’s String Quartet No.2 in A Minor) seemed a tad tame.  But the performers did a marvelous job of invoking the Romantic period.  And especially Brahms’s love affair with the gypsy violin.

It was a nice way to round off my stay in San Miguel.

But as all things must, this visit is at an end.  I am almost packed (with the obvious exception of my computer).  I will head to church in the morning, and I will then be off to spend August in Pátzcuaro.

My missives may not be as frequent while I am there.  I will be broadcasting from an internet café.  But this page will not go black.

At least, not yet. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

a musical feast

“Two princes.  Each more handsome than the other.”

So said the baker’s wife in Into the Woods when she encountered the arrival of royalty in her common place world.

That is about how I feel about these last few days in San Miguel.  If yesterday was hiking in Arizona, today was unadulterated Cole Porter.

As I draft this in my notebook, I am sitting in the restaurant of Hacienda de Guadalupe.  Dining on venison while listening to a jazzy arrangement of “But Not For Me.”  I am definitely not in Melaque any more.

But that is just the coda for an amazing evening.

Tonight was the opening night of San Miguel’s thirty-third Festival of Chamber Music.  And it was quite an opening night.

Entertainment awards (standing alone) do not impress me.  After all, even Jane Fonda won two Oscars.  But a Grammy won in the chamber music category is, at least, an indication that the quartet does not earn most of its income selling shoes.

The Parker Quartet is a young group.  I have a corn older than the oldest member of the group.  And they put their youthful energy to good use tonight by pumping their personalities into their performance.

I know some people would prefer a return to the days when musicians were merely conduits of a composer’s voice -- and not such an obvious presence on stage.  If there ever was such a day.

But that stage coach left town long ago.  Performers now perform knowing that they are performing.  It is a postmodern world.

Of course, sophisticated audiences know the performers know they are performing.  I suspect that makes the whole thing post-postmodern.

That post-postmodern mode has seriously injured Hollywood.  It is hard to escape sarcastic cynicism.  The only thing that saves music is its unique character.

Music is concurrently abstract and concrete.  And finds its reflection in souls where mind and passion are united.

I am a big fan of live music.  Especially unamplified music -- like tonight’s performance.

Live music has the raw sound of reality -- flowing directly from the strings to the ear.  With all of the music’s beauty and flaws.

And, of course, seeing the musicians playing in person is exactly the difference between an in-person conversation and a telephone call.  At least half of understanding music is watching the performer create it.

The Parker Quartet excelled in every way tonight.

Their first piece was Haydn’s Quartet No. 57 in C Minor.   The piece is usually performed in a very cerebral manner with Haydn’s unique sense of humor subtly slipped in.

The quartet took a different tack.  They played this Classical Period standard as if they were channeling Schubert.  Lots of arched backs, flying bows, and knowing glances.  Haydn's jests were a bit more vaudeville than Dorothy Parker.  But it all pulled together in one of the finest performances I have seen of this piece.

They then showed their versatility with Dvořák’s Cypresses -- settling into a stately, but passionate, period-perfect performance.

That was the light stuff.  After the intermission, they got down to two meaty serious music pieces.

I had not heard György Kurtág’s 12 Microludes performed live.  The second violin put us on notice that the twelve movements were each based on a note of the chromatic scale.

It was a well-played ploy.  The piece is quite demanding for the performers and the audience.  The movements are atonal and brief.  What some of my fellow concert goers in Salem would have called “noise.”

The San Miguel audience loved it.  And well they should.  It was a good example of contemporary music at its best.

And that brought the quartet to its final piece.  Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major.

The first violin eased us into Schumann’s world.  An emotionally troubled composer with innovative and creative musical ideas.  The quartet delivered just that.  In the Romantic Period style the music dictates.

It has been quite a night.  I feel as if I have had the music equivalent of five Thanksgiving dinners.

And there is more tomorrow.  If I start showing symptoms of Stendhal Syndrome, you will know why.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

going wild in san miguel

I took a look back at my San Miguel posts for this past month.  They sound as if I have been vacationing in Manhattan.

A wide choice of cuisine.  Beautiful buildings.  A cornucopia of night-on-the town entertainment.  The only thing missing is the mobile cocktail party.  And I am certain it is out there somewhere.

But San Miguel is not merely Tamara and Tadeusz reinventing Paris in the Mexican highlands.  For all of its sophistication, San Miguel is just a small town in the desert.  And it is the desert that gives it much of its charm.

I saw that side of San Miguel today.  On the first day I arrived, Babs informed me that the spectacular ravine behind her house is part of a nature reserve.  A desert botanical garden.  You may recall her post about the fire that burned a good portion of that reserve.

I knew there was a guided tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but I managed to miss each of them.  Until today.

El Charco del Ingenio Jardin botánico -- to use its full name -- is a short drive from the house.  The reserve is basically a watershed protection area.  Most of the fresh surface water that flows through San Miguel passes through the canyon that makes up the heart of the reserve.

But, as the name implies, the reserve is designed to protect plants.  Not only native to the ravine, but from other areas of Mexico.

The garden is not run by the government.  In the 1990s a group of private citizens saw the importance of the area.  Unless the land was preserved, it would be developed.  Endangering the watershed -- and the wildlife that depended on it.

The private organization that took title to 67 hectares of the land was not merely a preservation group.  The land had been overgrazed by cattle and used as an informal garbage dump.  With a good deal of work, the area was returned to a relatively wild state.  Native species recovered and the number of bird species attracted to the area increased.

The reserve centers around two reservoirs originally constructed to develop local manufacturing.  But there are also the remains of an earlier water wheel from the 1500s.  Perhaps the first Spanish water wheel in North America.

The reserve was never designed to be wilderness.  For a fee, visitors can spend as much time as they like walking the trails that crisscross the reserve.

I am not much of a plant person -- other than recognizing the value of natural plants in any ecosystem.  Not surprisingly, most of the plants in the reserve are cacti.  Some native.  Some rescued from other areas of Mexico.

When I was there, most of the cacti were past their bloom period.  But there was plenty of fruit setting on most of them.  My guide invited me to taste a couple.  There is no better way to appreciate plants than to recognize their importance to my mouth.

But the stunning portion of the reserve is the ravine that runs through one end of the reserve.  Over the years, the stream has dramatically cut through two different strata of volcanic rock. 

My guide offered me the opportunity to climb down a metal ladder to the floor of the ravine.  I was game, but my right ankle was not.  Perhaps that joint was telling me it was time to act my age.

The reserve has also reserved the relationship between the land and the local indigenous people.  Not surprisingly, the natural springs in the ravine were regarded as holy places.  To honor that heritage, the reserve has incorporated several pre-Columbian icons as part of the reserve’s presentation.

The two and a half hours I spent on the tour was well worth the admission price of 80 pesos.  The time slipped by far too fast.  Because there is just too much to see in one visit.

One thing I did not have an opportunity to do was to sit and watch the birds,  The variety I saw on our walk was amazing.  Especially for a desert.

I will not get back to the reserve before I leave.  But when I return to San Miguel, it will be top on my list to simply spend a day enjoying the type of day that requires no opera glasses or forks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

faith, friends, fiesta

Some days have a great feel to them -- like a well-written play with a credible third act.

This was one of those days.

A thunder, lightening, and rain storm on Tuesday night must have cleared heaven’s sewers because this morning opened with a cobalt sky as a backdrop, and a very aggressive wren sounded a war call against all rivals. 

It could have been the opening of a Tarentino film.  Can beauty truly be beautiful unless it is played through a lens of danger?

I tramped down the hill to meet Billie and Ned for lunch.  I was a bit early, so I ducked into Santa Ana -- one of those churches that could easily be mistaken for a warehouse by its blank exterior.

Like any establishment that welcomes all comers (or so I am told), Santa Ana has its own host and hostess.  That is them at the top of this post.

I suspect I will never grow accustomed to these holy mannequins -- complete with clothes and wigs.  Every time I see them, my startle reflex kicks in.  Maybe that is the church’s point.

But the moment I entered the church, I noticed something unique.  There was music.  A guitar.  And two voices singing a contemporary Christian chorus.

They were standing facing the altar.  Singing the passion of their hearts.  A song of praise for their God.

I sat down and quietly joined them in English.  When they finished their praise, they began praying.  Aloud.  But softly.  They had obviously come with a request.  For a dying relative.  For the birth of children.  For peace throughout Mexico.

There was no way for me to know.  Nor should I.  They were not praying to entertain me.  But I joined them in their prayer.

Buildings do not matter.  Hearts in praise and prayer are what make faith a reality.

When I followed them out of the church, I felt refreshed.  I met up with Billie and Ned and we walked over to one of their favorite restaurants – Café de la Parroquia.  It is one of their date restaurants.

Many of you know Billie from her blog -- billieblog.  I started reading it long before I moved to Mexico.  As a result of one post, we started emailing one another occasionally.

Since moving down here, I have met several bloggers.  With only one or two exceptions, they were exactly as I thought they would be.  When you run people’s lives through your brain, you start to know who they are.

Billie was no exception.  Talented writer.  Photographer.  Cook.  But those are roles.  She is kind.  Gentle.  Loving.

Watching her with Ned is to see true love in action.  The type of love the young couple in church were expressing to God.  Billie and Ned perfectly portray the bittersweet experience life can be.

I was sorry to say good-bye to the two of them.

The evening then topped off the day.  I had purchased tickets to see Luis Gasca and his Cuban orchestra.  I thought I was going to get an evening of Cuban music.  I got far more.

The stage turned out to be a lazy susan of musicians.  Instead of starting with Cuban music, Luis Gasca (a trumpeter), his saxophonist friend Richie Cole, a drummer, a bass player, and a pianist got the evening rolling with several jazz pieces.  And great jazz it was.  San Francisco could not have offered up better competition.

One of the highlights was Richie’s jazz interpretation of “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Poignant enough to live up to its title.  And his rendition of Venus was -- well, hopping.

The band was joined by a Mexican singer with a great voice -- turning “What Now My Love?” from a syrupy ballad into a sardonic tale of doomed romance.  He could have been his own concert.

Just as the concert seemed to be wrapping up, a singer-guitarist, Rosa Guadalupe, moved the audience to another music world.  Of strings and soaring ballad runs.  The woman sitting next to me was in tears.

But it was then time for the Cubans -- nine musicians.  To my great disappointment, they chose to start their program with the ultimate Cuban cliché – “Guantanamera.”   I was ready to leave. 


But I am glad I didn’t.  For another hour, we were treated to some great Latin music.  The big number was “I’m So Hard” with both a Cuban and jazz treatment.  Good stuff.

When they played their encore, I felt as if I had just spent a day at a music festival –- with the variety of offerings.  And, amazingly each part came together as a great evening of music.  From “Pure Imagination” to “I’m So Hard” is a wide musical reach.

On my way back up the hill. I realized the concert was a metaphor for my day.  A little faith.  A lot of friendship.  With a background of challenging music.

And this is where I should stop in relating my day.  But, if I did, I would give up an opportunity of hearing from the I-Told-You-So crowd.

I spent a couple of hours today getting a new battery for my truck.  The one I bought six months ago turned up missing.  And, yes, my truck was still parked on the street.  Oh, and I should add, my antenna was also removed.  The Welfare Escape just keeps on giving.

But trying to find a battery in as place I did not know was an adventurous interlude in my day.  And it all turned out fine.  I have my new battery -- costing about 50% more than it did in Melaque.  But no antenna.  And I have no need for one.

Another lesson for the day.  What I can do without, I will do without.

”If there's anything you need let us know and we will teach you how to live without it."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

begging off

This afternoon I was on my way to have lunch with Todd of life in el corazon when I turned a corner and saw an amazing sight.

A statute.  Of Christopher Columbus.  In a public place.

Well, partly public.  He is stuck far enough back in the bushes that he looks as if he has just emerged from an al fresco bathroom break.

Two things struck me as odd about the statue.  Well, actually three.

The first is that it was there at all.  I was under the impression the thought police had done their best to sully the good in Old Chris’s life.  Even one of my friends, who is usually a scoffer at the PC crowd, considers Columbus to be one of the world’s worst politicians.  But sometimes we honor men for their sense of adventure (and no one can gainsay Columbus that virtue) while keeping their failings in the balance.

The second and third are alike.  What is it with the young visage?  Columbus was 41 when he set sail.  The face on the statute looks as if a blade has never touched it. 

And that hand.  At first I thought I was receiving the Roman salute the Nazis nabbed out of history.  But then I noticed Columbus’s hand is turned up.

Perhaps it is Romeo requesting spare change for his unexpected trip to Mantua.

That sent me down one of my little thought rambles.

One aspect of Mexican life has presented me with a conundrum I have not yet successfully resolved for myself.  Begging.

I discussed it in the beggar woman.  Melaque has it share of beggars.  Four or five who hang out in the usual spots where people have change.  The bank.  The grocery store.

They are always well-dressed.  Reflecting their belief that begging is an honored pursuit.  Most are elderly.  The younger ones usually suffer some obvious (and often terrible) physical affliction.  But they are universally polite and appreciative.

When I first moved to Mexico, I would usually avert my eyes as I walked by.  And I knew why.  My Christian principles instruct me to soften my heart and give to the needy.  But then comes the embarrassing concerns about how much.

While Islagringo and I were on our trip through Yucatan, we sat down in the central park in Valladolid.  A crippled man was operating a hand-cranked wheel chair going from group to group asking for alms.  Every group of Mexicans he approached gave him something.

Islagringo told me one of his Mexican friends reaches into his pocket and gives the first coin he touches when beggars ask him for money.  It is an ingenious method.  No worry about what is enough.  An almost unconsciousness gesture of selflessness.

I thought of Islagringo’s advice two separate times today.  San Miguel has more beggars on its streets than does Melaque.  Mainly older Indian women.

On my way back to the house from lunch, I saw a woman sitting outside Harry’s Bar.  Old.  Obviously in deep poverty.  With hands that were almost unrecognizable from the ravages of rheumatism.

I started to reach for my pocket and realized I had managed to encumber myself.  I had my backpack in one hand, and my camera and a bag filled with my leftover enchiladas in the other hand.  I had to set everything down simply to find a coin. 

It then took me a good minute to pick up everything and get it back in order.  I started muttering to myself that I should have left my meal behind.  It was just more weight for climbing the hill to the casita.


Two blocks on I almost ran into an elderly woman dressed in common street clothes as she came out of a shop.  I apologized.  She let me pass.

When I turned to thank her, she asked: “Food?”  (The following was in Spanish.  But I will spare all of us and translate.)

I responded: “Yes.  My breakfast.”

She responded: “For me?”

I just smiled and started walking on.  Then it hit me.  She was hungry.  And there I was walking off with a bag of food I was ready to discard earlier.

I stopped and asked her if she liked enchiladas.  In response, I got a smile.  And, as I passed the bag along to her, a blessing.

I still struggle with this issue.  And I am not certain I have a good answer.

But I know what I did today was the right thing.

Nothing could have been a better example of American excess being put to an appropriate use. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

san miguel stew

On Sunday, Babs outed me in her blog.

She disclosed that, in this computer age, I still draft my posts (including this one) in longhand.  It is not rumor; it is true.

But it is all part of a system.  I carry a reporter’s note pad -- along with my camera -- wherever I go.  To capture thoughts or impressions while they are fresh.

When I am ready to write my post,  I just pull all of those threads into an essay framework, and my post is well on its way to completion.

Too often, though, I end up with odds and ends that simply do not fit into an essay.  But they are too good to simply flush.  Or, at least, I think so.

So let me take you on a journey into my writer’s closet.  I will supply a fixin’ or two for this stew.  But you are going to have to find your own ending.

heroes aghast

San Miguel de Allende is a town filled with heroes.  Chief among them. of course, is the “Allende” in the town’s name.  Ignacio Allende, to be exact.  One of the heroes of Mexican Independence. 

An creole officer in the Spanish Army in Mexico, he joined a conspiracy to declare independence from Spain.  He never saw the independence.  Early in the war, his head, along with three other rebel heads, ended up decorating the corners of a building in Guanajuato.  But you know all that from putting it together.

I have never quite understood why people honor their heroes with outdoor statues.  No matter how glorious a statue looks in the studio, once it has been on display for any amount of time, the pigeon guano tends to turn the glory meter down a peg or two.

But there is almost always an amusing photograph to be had whenever overblown glory meets the mundane life of pigeons.  I managed to catch a male pigeon about to swoop down and Pearl Harbor an unsuspecting female.  To the disgust of Allende and to the fright of his horse.

a hill too far

I have taken photograph after photograph of the hill that I descend to get into town -- and must then climb on my return trip.  It is quite a climb -- even if my weight and San Miguel’s altitude are taken out of the equation. 

I suspect it is easily worth 15 minutes on a Stairmaster.  If I lived on the hill much longer, I would be in marvelous shape.

But the photograph does not even begin to convey the hill’s grade.  Every time I look at it, I think I must be imagining those walks up – because the photograph looks more like a street scene in Omaha, instead of a cousin to San Francisco.

In this tale, it is the camera that is making stuff up.

no sale at any price

I think I have seen a similar photograph on someone else’s blog.  But it truly is an oddity in San Miguel.  The town had one of the hottest real estate markets in Mexico five or so years ago.  Now, like many parts of the world, real estate is moving slower than politicians trying to cut spending.

There are “for sale” and “for rent” signs all over the town.  There was a time strangers would knock on residents’ doors to ask if they were willing to sell their house.

That must have happened once too often for the local priest in charge of San Miguel's landmark church -- La Parroguia.  There is a small house on the street beside the church -- just around the corner from the main town square.  What a realtor would call “prime location.”

Apparently there have been enough requests about the house, it now bears a painted notice on its side -- in huge block letters -- that the property is not for sale.

This is the front of the house.  To a realtor, it has “potential.”  To the church, it is theirs.  Or, more likely, it belongs to the federal government.  After all, there was that unpleasantness almost a hundred years ago where the church property ceased to belong to the church.

Maybe a real estate agent should approach President Calderon.  I suspect everything has its price.

buy a piece of noah’s ark

I was walking home from the town square the other night.  While walking past a building a block from the main town square, I glanced up and saw a Star of David.  Then another.  And another.  Six of them in succession under six second story balconies.

I have seen similar symbols used elsewhere in Mexico, not as the Star of David.  But this was the real deal.  When I returned in the light, I noticed that animal heads were used as substitute gargoyles under the balconies.  (I placed one in yesterday’s post.)  And then I saw the name of the building.  Noah’s Ark.

You may remember Stu and Al from my welcoming dinner at the beginning of the month.  Al writes a blog (rancho santa clara) you can find in my blog roll.

I had lunch with them today.  They told me that the Cohens own the building, and it is quite a property.  It goes deep into the block and is three stories high.  Considering its location, it must be worth a good deal of money -- if a willing buyer comes along.

But unlike the church property, this building is for sale.  I doubt, even if I had the money, I would be interested in the place. 

San Miguel is a place where huge homes once reigned.  Allende’s house and the far more magnificent house of his uncle still stand on the main square.  But one is a museum.  The other is a bank.  If I owned the bank, I might be able to afford to run Noah’s Ark.

Hmmm.  Maybe a bed and breakfast for ultra-pampered pets.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

driving without mirrors

I almost felt as if I had stepped into a Robert Altman film today.  There were a lot of separate story lines going on -- and they may or may not connect.  I’m not certain I am near the title roll yet.

It is Sunday.  That means church.  Laurie of honduras gumbo asked last week about personal church attendance.  I suppose I attend for two reasons.  One, I like worshipping with other people.  Two, I like meeting new acquaintances and talking with those I already know.

But something odd happened in the community prayer.  I believe we should pray for big things.  An end to war, poverty, and social injustice.  And then go out and do something about.  Making that kingdom on earth, as we so often pray, a reality.

My friend Ron was leading the prayer and mentioned something about bombings and killings in Oslo.  I had no idea what we were praying about.  A week ago I cancelled the newspaper subscription on my Kindle because I didn’t have time to read it. 

But it occurred to me during the prayer.  How could I pray for that kingdom if I had no idea what was going on in the world?  So, back on my Kindle it went.

After a nice lunch at the casita, I headed down the hill (I still need to show that hill to you) to listen to Paul Schrader’s master class.

I really had no idea what to expect.  But the little live theater was filled -- mainly with young Mexicans wearing headsets to hear the lecture translated into Spanish.  We looked like extras in a Star Trek trial scene.

Schrader talked for a half hour about his background, his work, how he writes scripts, and the drastic changes he sees in the future of the entertainment industry.  He then answered questions for over an hour  -- elaborating on his points in some detail.

This post is far too short to adequately summarize his points in any detail.  But let me give you the flavor with a few quick bullet points.

Schrader believes film schools are good for two things.  First, separating students (or their parents) from large amounts of money.  Second, setting up networks – that are an invaluable tool.  The unfortunate thing is that students are being churned out where no demand exists.  And those who do get jobs will learn their real skills on the job, not in school.  (A point that applies to more than the film industry.)

Good writing is based on finding a personal problem, turning it into a metaphor, and then working it through oral recitation until the tale is ready to be written.  And then it needs to written, rewritten, and revised until it is tight enough to be a script -- always with an eye to where a well-written scene should fall within the overall story.

Almost every writer has trouble with one part of the story -- the ending.  Schrader had few suggestions on this point.  And that surprised me.  He started writing as a form of self-therapy.  Most writers do that.  We write about our experiences because it is what we know.  What has happened to us.  What we have not experienced is our own ending.  I suppose that is what makes Mishima such a powerful film.  He wrote his own ending.

He spent most of his time on the current crisis facing the entertainment industry.  When he started writing in the 60s, the film industry was going through a crisis of form.  New ways were being found to write and film tales about anti-heroes.

He sees a far greater crisis facing today’s industry -- a crisis of delivery.  The studios are pinched for revenue and are producing little more than films aimed at children or teenagers.  The independent film makers have fallen off by 80% in the last five years.  The only good writing that is currently taking place is for episodic long-form television -- such as, The Sopranos.  The one-eyed witch is having her revenge on the cinema.

That leaves the current generation of film makers to figure out how to deliver their films to the public.  The music industry model of selling digitally may work.  As a result of digital sales, 60% of the money that once went to the music industry, stays in consumer pockets.  But no one has yet figured out a good model for films.  Partly because the cost of making films is far higher than making music.

That is one issue the festival is addressing with its participants.  Mexico has a large problem because the cinemas almost exclusively run Hollywood films.  But Netflix (which I understand will be available in Mexico this year) may step up to fill the void.

And how does that all tie in with my day?

I like to think that I live in the moment.  But too often, like most people, I find that I try to drive while looking in my rear view mirror.

Like the film industry, I may not exactly know where this new century will take me.  But, at least, I will try to keep myself informed -- and in touch with a cultural life that has reinvigorated me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

writing through the day

Pop the corn.  Pour the soda.  And buy those raisenettes and jujubes.

It is movie night.  Or more accurately, movie day.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  My stop at the Guanajuato International Film Festival did not start until the afternoon.  And my day of activities was well under way by then.

I have been very fortunate to meet a number of fellow bloggers during my stay in San Miguel de Allende  I expected to meet most of them.  But we had a surprise visitor this morning.

Marc Olson of an alaskan in yucatán stopped by for a quick visit.  Babs and I picked him up at the bus station and drove him up to her house -- where we had a pleasant conversation on what he is doing in this part of the world.

For several years he has been spending part of his summers in a puebla outside of Querétaro.  It is something like summer camp with a purpose.  He teaches ways for the children to help their village become more sustainable.  By planting trees.  Taking care of litter.  Learning how to be a friendlier presence on this planet.  I am hoping he will tell us a bit more on his blog.

We then adjourned to lunch.  Because what would a blogger meet be without food?  We decided on Italian, and Babs directed us to a little restaurant I have walked past several times – El Vivlio.  I am not going to walk by again without stopping to eat.

The food was far better than anything in Melaque.  In fact, it was better than most of the restaurants in Salem.

But, as good as the food was, the conversation was better.  We talked about what seems to work on each of our blogs.  And what we have learned from fellow bloggers.  Plus our usual critique of the blogs we like -- and why -- and those that don’t seem to work for us as well as others.  Of course, we lamented the passing of Felipe’s blog.

Far too soon our afternoon was over and Marc rushed to catch a cab in a downpour.  Babs decided to catch a cab back up the hill.  And I elected to wander over to the film festival.

Someone has done a great job of turning an unused cinema into a great venue for the festival.  Everything (including what I assume are temporary seat cushions) had a spiffy look.

When I arrived, they were showing a series of shorter films.  I did not catch the title of the first film.  But it was a clever montage of group photographs of people who represent power in the world culture -- all scanned left to right and increasing in speed to represent that power is power. 

Even though I am not quite certain what Queen Elizabeth and the Chippendale dancers have in common.  What the power photographs did have in common is that everyone was in stiff poses.

The parade of bourgeois rectitude was replaced with heroic photographs of young people throwing Molotov cocktails and challenging The Man.  As revolutionary propaganda it was visually interesting.  But the title I missed could easily have been “Clichés of Youth.”

And speaking of youth, the next two films were about boys on wheels.  Skateboard wheels to be exact.

The first was a documentary entitled Skateistan -- eponymously titled for a program in Afghanistan to teach Afghan boys and girls to skateboard.  A place to break down sexual and class barriers while giving the children hope.  One of the male skaters lamented the fact that the Taliban had brought peace, now there was war, and that Afghanistan needs a leader who can bring peace.  The End.  I guess that was the hopeful note.

The other skater film was Dragonslayer -- an American film (partly filmed in Oregon) about a young man who has nothing in life except skating.  It was dreadfully boring.  And I suspect the director wanted it that way.  For us to share in this kid’s almost existential Charybdis.  My suggestion would be to get his butt to Afghanistan at Skateistan.

But I cannot skip over my favorite Mexican short.  For me, it was the highlight of the afternoon.  Tomatl is a witty revenge film.  In some incredibly clever stop-action photography, the film traces the spread of the tomato throughout the world as an Aztec plot.  When the Aztec calendar ends next year, a secret poison in the tomato will annihilate the world in revenge for what the Spanish did to the Aztecs.  If you note a tongue buried deep in a certain Mayan myth, you will appreciate what the film offers.

But the big piece was in the evening.  Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Before the film began, Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the film, told us a bit about the background of the film and how it related to some of his other works – including Taxi Driver and its theme of ritual suicide. 

The film is a stylized biography of Yukio Mishami’s life using three of his novels as devices to move Mishami’s life along.  For artistic authenticity, the dialog is in Japanese.  And where there are usually English subtitles, Spanish subtitles appeared.  As a result, a lot of the expatriate audience cleared out in the first 15 minutes.  But, to be fair, quite a few Mexican nationals left early as well.

It is too bad.  They missed a stunningly beautiful film -- very Japanese in its visual effects.  And some marvelous acting.  Not to mention an outstanding soundtrack by Philip Glass.

For me, it topped off a great day of talking about writing and seeing the results of some very good writing on the screen.

I was about to add one rant.  But I will save that for another day.  This day was too good to ruin it with my own irritations with some audience members.

Friday, July 22, 2011

renting my culture

My trip to San Miguel de Allende has turned out to be far more enlightening than I thought it would be.

I knew the place was a nest of artists.  But I was pleasantly surprised that it was not one of those navel-gazing art communities that excludes outsiders.  Amish in better designed clothes.

Instead, San Miguel invites people to participate in its artiness.  There are galleries ready to trade the magic of Mexico on canvas or tin or fabric for a wad of peso notes.

But there are also the festivals.  Jazz.  Chamber music.  Film.  All in progress on this stay.

The place is looking alluring enough that I decided to take a look at what is available for rent.  Just in case I want to spend some more time away from the beach now and then.

A friend suggested what I have heard from several other sources -- just start walking and looking for rental signs.  They are all over the place.

For instance, the house pictured at the top of this post is located up the hill from Babs’s place.  It probably is not what I am interested in.  It is too far from town for a reasonable walk -- and the view does not appear to balance out that disadvantage.  But I might take a look.  Just out of curiosity.

After my brief rental scout trip, Babs and I headed to dinner with a group of San Miguel residents at El Buen.  Friday night is comfort food night.  Fried chicken.  Fried catfish.  Meatloaf.  Macaroni and cheese.  Mashed potatoes.  Corn bread.  I almost felt as if we had strayed into Atlanta.

The conversation was as varied as the guests.  Who is required to pay capital gains on real estate transactions?  What does the immigration office here require for FM3 renewals?  Who has seen the worst dust storm?  What new restaurants have good food?

There were eight of us.  All Americans.  All, but one, expatriates.  And none of us knew every other person at the table.  But the conversation was lively and entertaining.  You won’t find that with every group of strangers.

After dinner, Ron and Fred (from church) asked me if I wanted to join them to watch a film being shown in the jardin as part of the Guanajuato International Film Festival.  This year, the festival is honoring South Korean films.  But tonight's open-air presentation was a short about a Mexican director.

Unfortunately, where we were standing, the soundtrack was hard to hear.  Especially since a mariachi band was doing its best to drown out the sound and make a few pesos of their own.

We then walked by a theater that has been disused for several years.  It has been refurbished and is now the prime venue for the films.  From the exterior, you could tell this was A Place For Film Folks.  Backless couches grouped for conversations that no one was having because their obviously expensive telephones were stuck to their ears.  Too busy to chat.

Tomorrow Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters will be on screen.  And Schrader will receive an award for his writing and directing.  If I can, I would like to get tickets.  If I do, I might get some interesting photographs.

With events like this in town, you can see why I might be interested in picking up a house to rent for regular visits.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

doing good -- doing better

The San Miguel education of Steve Cotton continues.

Today was Do Gooder day.

Now, I know a lot of you think of “Do Gooder” as a pejorative.  If you do, you are most likely confusing it with its genetic mutants: “Officious Meddler” and “Make Me Feel Better About Myselfer.”

Babs and I spent part of our afternoon at the real McCoy.  A fundraiser for Mujeres en Cambio de San Miguel de Allende.  The group was formed to provide middle school, high school, and university scholarships to Mexican girls in rural communities. 

Those of you who have read the blogs of parents with children in Mexican schools know of the additional expenses every family faces in keeping children in school.  For rural families, the expense is often prohibitive.  And girls are the first to lose out.

The function was held at Patsy’s Place.  A lovely rancho on the road to Dolores Hidalgo.

This was not going to be a soup kitchen affair.  The tables were well-appointed and the women were dressed as if attending any fundraiser in Marin County.  It was a place To Be Seen.

The meal was delicious.  And the pitch was well-delivered when everyone had finished eating.  But, as I watched the hat being passed for donations, the take certainly did not seem to match the outfits in the room.

And this lunch gave me an opportunity to see the side of the San Miguel that made me reluctant to visit in the first place.  I would estimate that 90% of the people in the room were salt of the earth people.

But it only takes one or two to create a negative impression.  The type of people who get their ideas straight for their own publications and can only speak in sound bites.  The repeated use of the phrase “I hate” is usually a dead giveaway that you are about to hear something that is concurrently conclusory and vacuous.

But It was a good cause.  And I enjoyed most of the company. 

On the way back to San Miguel, we stopped at the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.  It is another of those 17th century churches associated with a vision.  In this one, Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns and carrying a cross, appeared to Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaroion, and requested a church to be built in the desert scrub bush.

And there it still stands.  A new UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sanctuary is interesting historically and architecturally.  The history is fleeting.  But it was from this church that the warrior-priest grabbed the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe to begin his journey in 1810 to Dolores Hidalgo to declare independence -- and then on to Guanajuato to massacre a bunch of Spanish families.

The architectural interest is the interior of the church.  It is covered with paintings on the walls and the ceiling -- to the point it is often called the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”


The comparison is apt in the scope of the project, but not its artistic quality.  Much of the painting has recently been restored.  The church is built over an old spring where the Indians would bathe nude.  The humidity has caused a good deal of damage to the walls and the paintings.

What has been restored reflects the plain style of Flemish painters – the inspiration for the series of scenes from the life of Jesus.

As we sat and looked at the opulence of this little chapel, we talked about the many Indian lives that were lost in the conquest, and in the mining of the silver and gold that made these churches possible.  But, even knowing that history, busloads of their descendants pour in to this church to worship.

And that made me remember that hat being passed around earlier in the afternoon.  The peso notes would not have paid for anything in the church.  Maybe that is a parable that when we choose to do good, sometimes we need to do better.

”For where your wealth is, there your heart will be also.” 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

in the garden of babs

It is a pleasantly hot day in San Miguel.

Well, “pleasant” and “hot” for me.  It is 75 degrees with 38% humidity -- a really nice day in my book.   

Right now in Melaque, it is 90 degrees and 66% humidity.  I think I chose a good time to escape to the mountains.

Something is afoot in the town this afternoon.  There has been the usual volley of rockets.  Now the church bells are apeal.  And I am not certain what is up because I have snuggled myself into this pleasant house for the full day.

For those of you who have wondered if my failure to post over the last 36 hours might have something to do with my scorpion sting -- it didn’t.  I was simply out enjoying myself.  And enjoying myself in.

Yesterday I joined a few other residents of San Miguel at the last episode of the Harry Potter film series.  In a modern, tidy cineplex at the shopping center I mentioned the other day.  And I saw it for 46 peso -- about $3.92 (US).

The Harry Potter books and films are obviously addressed to pre-teens and young teens  But the story is as old as all quest literature.  Odysseus would have fully understood what he had to do if he had been wizardly spelled into Harry Potter’s loafers.

I also bought a new book for my Kindle based on some dinner conversation at Billie’s welcoming party.  I have enjoyed the two books I have read by Erik Larson:
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America; and Thunderstruck.

I knew he had just published a new book, but I had not paid much attention to it.  The advice of my dinner mates and my experience with the two earlier books tipped me over the edge.  While I was waiting for the movie to start, I simply ordered up the book on my Kindle.  In a cinema theater.  In Mexico.  Great world, isn’t it?

The book is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.  Larson tells the story of the early, vulnerable years of Hitler’s rule when nations (often for understandable reasons) took no action to hem in Nazi power.  Rather than mere history narrative, he tells the tale through the eyes of the newly-appointed American ambassador to Germany and his family.

According to my Kindle, I am 60% of the way through the book.  I should finish it tonight.

It does not matter that the reader will know what happens to some of the major characters.  Larson has the pen of a novelist -- a novelist who can conjure up believable dialog that cannot possibly be historical, but has the feel of authenticity.

Will Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo, survive his political games?  Will Ernst Röhm seize control of the German Army?  Will President Paul von Hindenburg (a blimp of a man) dismiss Hitler at the request of the army?  Will the ambassador's daughter betray the United States to the Soviet Union?

I suspect most of you know the answers to those questions.  They are all part of our past -- part of who we are.

But it doesn't matter that we know the fate of each of the characters.  The book is a good read.  Larson is capable of pulling us out of our anachronistic view of history and putting us in the position of the people who had to live their lives in that milieu.

Speaking of milieu, the photographs that grace this post are of Babs’s lovely casita.  It bears her decorative touch in each room.  A decorative touch that makes me feel as if I know San Miguel without setting foot outside the door.

But I will tomorrow  Set foot outside the door, that is.

Babs has a treat for me – and I intend to share.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

float like a butterfly, sting like a scorpion

I have finally been inducted into the Order of the Scorpion-stung.

But I doubt I will get any oak leaf clusters.

Monday evening, as I was preparing for bed, I gargled, brushed my teeth, and reached for the bottle containing my blood pressure pills.  As I picked it up, I felt a small scratch.  At first I thought I had been scraped by one of those plastic labels pharmacists up north insist on putting on pill bottles these days.

But then I felt movement.  Before I could fully register this little pas de deux, I saw a brown object pirouetting toward the toilet -- probably knowing that was going to be its next home in any event.  Only when it performed a perfect splash landing did I see what it was.

Of course, you know what it was -- because I already told you.  A small brown scorpion.  That is it at the top of this post -- doing its Michael Phelps impression in the bowl.

From everything I have heard, I am one lucky dude.  I must have had my finger in just the right position to not take a full frontal hit.  But it did break the flesh.  And it does sting.

Did I immediately go to the internet and refresh myself on the immediate steps to take after being stung by a scorpion?  Of course, not.  I had to figure out how to take a macro photograph for all of you.

Even now, rather then keep my cold compress on my finger, I am typing.

I could argue that shows my dedication to you.  Of course, what it proves is that my sting is not really a big deal. 

And I am likely to get kicked out of my newly-admitted society.

Monday, July 18, 2011

getting real with mexico

You are looking at a piece of history.

An old piece of history.  The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.  The silver route. 

The road the Spanish used to transport silver from Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi to Mexico City and to ship mercury from Europe north to extract that silver.  The road from Spanish national rags to riches to rags.

The stones that are there now are not the same as were there in the 1600s.  Even though it feels that way when you are driving over them.

The stretch of the royal highway pictured above is in San Miguel.  Between Babs’s house and the place I decided for today’s Mexico adventure.

Rather than visit the market stalls to buy two weeks of groceries, I decided to slowly drive the king’s highway to a shopping center on the outskirts of San Miguel.  For me, it is a bit exotic.  We simply do not have things like this in Melaque.

For me, it is a tourist destination.  For the Mexican families I encountered, it is simply a convenience in their lives.

It looks like almost any shopping center you would find in a small California town.  A big box department store (Liverpool).  Banks.  Coffee shops.  McDonald’s.  Optician.  Multi-plex theater.  Video arcade.  Large grocery store (Soriana).  Office Depot.

Before I visited San Miguel, several people told me I should skip the place.  It is nothing more than Gringolandia.  All you hear is English.  It is not authentically Mexican.

It was the last point that got me thinking as I looked around in the shopping center this afternoon.  I didn’t see any burros.  Or sombreros.  Or happy peasants beating the stuffing out of a piñata.

What I did see were parents having lunch with their families at McDonald’s.  Shopping for corn flakes at Soriana.  Buying computers at Office Depot.  Trying on clothes at Liverpool.

In short, middle class people acting just as they would in Fresno, Oxford, or Madrid.

Not too long ago on one of my Mexico message boards, a young Mexican in Mexico City took we expatriates to task for trying to freeze Mexico in amber.  The land of siestas, burros, and sombreros.  To her, that is not Mexico.  Mexico is young families doing their best to improve their lots in some of the world’s most  exciting cities.  To her, that is the authentic Mexico.

I suspect she is both wrong and right -- as are the amber-fixated expatriates.

There are a lot of Mexicos.  But all of them are changing to one extent or other.  And each of them is authentically Mexican.  Because they exist in Mexico.

The trick is finding the Mexico that meets your passions -- and then change right along with it.

And my passion?  Today I found part of it.  And I am enjoying its contribution as I write.

Can Mexico get any more authentic than this?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

blogging off

I apologize for slacking off these past two days.  But I decided it was much better to live friendships than to write about them.

Radical idea, eh?

This past week reminded me that the value of friendship is in the doing. 

If you asked me what the three of us discussed during our trips this past week, I could give you a vague idea of the topics.  But if you were not there as a participant, knowing the topics would do you little good.

I fully anticipated good conversation with Brian.  He is a minister.  A teacher.  A scholar.  And he has lived in several countries around the world.  He is one of those people who remind you with his talent just how the art of conversation has slipped away in general society.

But his son, Holden, turned out to be a great joy.  I was a bit intimidated about what I would do to occupy the interests of a 16-year old boy.  I have always known he was very intelligent.  But 16 is a challenging age.

It turned out not to be a problem.  His conversation topics and his ability to argue (in the rhetorical sense of that word) bore the DNA of the idealistic dreams of any teenage boy.  But he is also very logical and can hold his own in any discussion.

I should not have been surprised.  After all, he has almost completed all of his requirements to obtain his civilian flight license.

But he is still a teenager.  And discussions only go so far.

He told me before he arrived that he would be interested in riding a jet ski.  I knew I had seen them on the west end of the beach earlier in the year.  But each time we were on that side of the beach, nada.

On Saturday, we decided to have one last lunch on the beach before I drove them to the airport for their afternoon flight.  Just as we sat down, we all saw it.  One jet ski in the water.  Just waiting to be ridden.

Holden did a quick calculation of time, and decided if we were economical with our lunch time, he could get in a full half hour of jet ski before we had to leave.

So, we did.  And he had a great time.  That is him out there almost as the only vessel on Navidad Bay.  Whipping back and forth.  Writing his initials in the Pacific.

My only regret is that there was not another one available.  It would have been fun to race him -- reliving some of those old motorcycle days.  When rules were just a fading ember in the back of the mind.

But, it eventually ended.  As did their week in Melaque.

I dropped them off at the airport, and took delivery of my GPS mount and power adapter – brought from Seattle by the very capable hands of my friend, Anne.

The mount is now installed on the windshield of the Welfare Escape, and the GPS is pointed toward San Miguel for my return drive to the highlands.  That is what I will be doing all day on Sunday.