Saturday, December 31, 2011

my best

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

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

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

May we choose wisely.

Friday, December 30, 2011

rim shots in the swamp

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

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

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

Such was today’s lunch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

living in tilted windmills

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

Last night was one of the smaller delights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

checking it twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

my traveling rhythm method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

freedom crashes

Email is a thing of joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia for its own sake is just that.  Foolish.

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Darrel, for the reminder.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

all-weather friends

This morning the weather shifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the symbols speak for themselves. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

less than 60 minutes

I feel like Andy Rooney this morning.

Not dead.  Just a bit cranky.

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

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

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

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

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

Let me give you a taste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rant done.  And I feel a lot better.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

the gritty life

Travel has its own tales.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that later.