Tuesday, July 31, 2012

the ivy league

Reason 259 why I should sell my house: yard work.

I have a service that mows my lawn and does some general weeding to keep the dandelions in check.  But the rest of the gardening is left on its own.

My plan was to spend my few hours in Salem talking with friends -- sparring over philosophy or just finding out who was doing what.  And I have done a bit of that.

But I have spent almost as much time getting the yard back into shape.

As you can see in the photograph at the top of the post, that parking strip lawn does not look very healthy.  Nor should it.  The irrigation system was turned off last winter and has not been providing any water since the rains stopped.  As a result, the entire lawn is dead.  I suppose I am being green by being brown. 

My irrigation guy showed up yesterday to get the system up and running.  It appeared to be fine when he left.  And it came on at 4 this morning as scheduled -- and it was still running at 10 AM when I shut it off.  Unless I want to star in one of those articles where citizens receive $2,000,000 water bills, this will not do.

In yesterday's post, you could see how the Boston Ivy on my chimney had run wild.  I could not head to Bend tomorrow without ameliorating part of the problem.  As nice as the ivy looks, it can destroy siding, windows and roofs.  And it was attacking all three.

After spending five hours carefully stripping it off, I was able to fix most of the problem.  The pieces that are obvious outliers were out of my reach on the ladder. 

Once again, I have learned that age has played havoc with my balance.  Getting near the top of the ladder was an exhilarating experience.  But one I do not soon want to repeat.

That is how things must stay on this trip.  I did not even have an opportunity to talk with my real estate agent.  To, at least, initiate the first steps in being a former home owner in Oregon.

That will be for my next trip north.  Probably dedicated for just that purpose.

By then, I will undoubtedly have discovered reason 260 to sell my house.

Monday, July 30, 2012

on the street where i lived

Stage one of my trip north has begun.

I showed up at my Salem house just after 1 on Sunday morning.  And I immediately knew I was not in Melaque any more.

For the past week, the temperature in my Melaque bedroom hovered around 90 degrees at bedtime.  It was 60 degrees in Salem when I got to bed.  Sleeping with the windows open (under the covers) was a treat.

Even the overcast day was an interesting change.  I could actually get out and move around.

As you know, I would like to sell (or just get rid of) the Salem house.  It costs me close to $1000 a month to simply keep my name on the place. A house where I do not live -- and have no intention of returning.  There were two recent nibbles.  But nibbles do not sign trust deeds.

I did notice though that nature is doing her best to turn the house into a mere memory.  Vegetation grows fast in Mexico, but the ivy in Salem may grow just as fast.

On Sunday afternoon I attended a family (not my own) reunion picnic in one of the Willamette Valley's homages to New England villages -- Sublimity, even the name smacks of clam chowder -- and had a great steak dinner at El Gaucho in Portland that evening.

I suspect that is going to be the uniting theme of these two weeks.  Food.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

empty magazines

Life is generous.  It gives us second chances to re-live both our illusions and delusions.

One paraded in front of me yesterday afternoon at the Manzanillo Airport.

I love magazines.  When I was planning my move to Mexico several years ago, I read and listened to a lot of advice.  Some of it good.  Some of it not so good.

One of the worst pieces of advice I received was that the Mexican mail system could not be trusted.  That may have been good advice in a different century, but it certainly is not true now.

However, I listened to it.  I was convinced if I relied on the Mexican postal service, I would never again see a politician's face grinning up at me from the front cover of The Economist.

For every problem there is a solution.  Or so we childish Americans believe.  I knew where I could find magazines in Mexico.

Manzanillo International Airport is a half hour from my house.  Airports have news stands.  News stands have magazines.  The magazines may be a week out of date, but that would be better than doing without.

For various reasons, I never put my theory to the test.  Between Mailboxes, etc., the local postal service, and my Kindle, I have more reading material than I can effectively digest.

But it is just as well that I did not rely on my airport connection for magazines.  As you can see in the photograph at the top of this post, I would have had to materially modify my reading habits.  Unless I developed a completely new urge to be fully briefed on the secret lives of Mexican celebrities -- most of them soap opera queens.

And what was I doing at the airport?

I am heading north for two weeks.  The first few days I will be in Salem for some makeup birthday and retirement dinners.

Then I will bus over to Bend to visit my mother and brother.  My Mom and I will then drive to Powers (our old home town) in southern Oregon to induct her cousin into the town's hall of fame.  I am speaking.

We then turn around and drive back to Bend on Monday.  On Tuesday I fly to Reno to get a new diver's license and to register to vote.

A quick road trip to Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles will round out the agenda.  And I will be back at that magazine rack in Manzanillo on Saturday.  Only to turn around and drive up to San Miguel de Allende on Monday for two weeks.

So, even if I could have found a magazine to read at the airport, there would be little time to read it.

That schedule is almost as busy as the president's these days.  And I don't even get to raise millions of campaign dollars for all of my efforts.

On the other hand, I suspect I sleep better.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

thirst on the sands

My beach post yesterday took me back to my first year living in Melaque.

I lived exactly as I thought a retiree in Mexico should live.  Right on the beach.

Each morning I would sit on the veranda watching whatever performance the sea conjured up for me.  It seemed beautiful.

But, as there always is with beauty, there was a cost.  I lived with a constant film of brine on everything.  The floors.  The dining room table.  The bed.  Me.  It had all the aesthetic joy of living in a constant drizzle of olive  oil.

The result, as I had predicted, was quick death to my electronic equipment.  The office door was a funnel for corrosion.

But -- there was the beauty.

I walked by the house on Friday afternoon.  That is it at the top of the post.  If you look at my entries for 2009, you will see what my life looked like back then.

I looked up and down the beach at what was my cultural stage that first year.  And it struck me.  The house.  The beach.  The view.  It was a desert.  Very little could grow because of the brine.  And there was nothing but miles and miles of sand.

It reminded me of Dubai -- without any of the redeeming qualities of Freudian architecture.  When I visited Dubai in May, I was amazed to discover that the place was humid.  Running from 80% to 90% during the year.

Of course, it made sense.  It is a trade city situated on the shores of the Persian Gulf.  I never thought about deserts having high humidity.

But that is exactly what Melaque feels -- and looks -- like.  Especially during the summer when it is not raining.

For the past three years, I have traded the desert beach for what seems like a jungle.  Verdant.  Cool.  Shady.  A perfect nook for an aspiring writer.  Just four blocks from the beach.

And I still have a water view.  It may not be as noisy and unruly as the Pacific.  But it is a perfect match with my little jungle.

And with me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

walk this way

As pleasant as my garden is, life goes on outside of it.

I am reminded of that every time I poke my head out my gate.  Like some sombreroed hedgehog.

A couple of evenings ago I wandered down to the beach.  Even though I live within four blocks of the shore, I get there only every couple of months or so.

But each time I go, it is a new adventure.  Admittedly they are small "a" adventures.  But adventures, nonetheless.

The Mexican school summer holiday began a couple of weeks ago.  So, our beaches are alive.

Families with coolers.  Children in our sand-swirling, stomach-churning waves.  Young women with babies watching their young men on skim boards or playing  the "I'm-the-star-the-rest-of-you-are-crimping-my-style" version of Mexican football.

With all of that activity, I managed to catch the photograph at the top of this post.

The girl had been watching the skim boarder artfully practicing his sport.  On one trip up the beach, she ran to him with a bit of coconut husk.

My writer instincts kicked in.  Who was she?  A crush-smitten stranger?  His sister?  His daughter?

Whoever she was, and whatever narrative she was living, the emotional spark between the two of them was enough to make my evening.  With that simple glance between the two of them.

But a glance that says -- You are special.  Thank you for letting me walk your path.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

let's play post office

If learning to deal with variables keeps a person young, Mexico will make me immortal.

I moved to Mexico because I wanted to get up every morning knowing that I may not know how to get through the day.

For an adrenalin junkie, it is the perfect life.  And Mexico always manages to deliver.

The mail, for example. 

As you know, I am a big booster of  the Mexican mail system (mail lover).  I have had a mail box in San Patricio for almost two years now, and I am happier with the Mexican service than I was with Mailboxes, etc. in Manzanilo,  The Mexican system is far less expensive, and delivery time is about the same.

You may be asking why I have any mail service.  After all, almost everything that once came through the mail can be done electronically.  And that is certainly true for all of my financial matters and most of my personal correspondence.

Most of my magazines and newspapers arrive on my Kindle or on the internet.  But not all.
Two of my magazines are not available except by mail.  And I have a former client who I correspond with through letters.  The art of letter-writing is not completely lost.

I have also started sending the occasional greeting card through the mail.  Simply because it is there.

As a rule, letters going both north and south take about 10 to 14 days to be delivered.  Just like Mailboxes, etc.

But there was a huge exception in June.  I mailed a stack of letters, greeting cards, and a rental deposit for my upcoming highland sojourn in August.  Off they went on the same day.  At least, I think they did.

To my surprise, it took a full month -- or more -- for everything to be delivered.

I asked the clerk at the post office, but he had no idea what could have happened.  After all, when it leaves San Patricio, he has no control over it.
But when I stopped by in the late afternoon one day this week, I learned a little more about our local system.  Unlike the United States where mail theoretically is shipped out each day, our mail comes and goes only a couple times each week.

The delivery is on a pick up between Melaque and Guadalajara -- with stops at every burg along the way.  The mail is sealed in these large envelopes.  At least, it is delivered to the San Patricio post office that way.

I think it was the first time I saw how small the delivery van is.  We do not get much mail in Mexico.  Fortunately, my box is kept free of the usual reams of advertisements I receive in The States that go directly from the mail slot to the recycle bin.

June must have been a delivery anomaly.  This month I received a letter from Nevada in 16 days and a  magazine from Mexico City in 10 days.

I am still a mail booster.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

boys with sticks

It was merely a matter of time.  But I knew they would come.

Young men with dreams of quick money.

This morning, group after group of boys crowded around the path to the narrow bit of mud where the baby crocodiles rest.  Several of them carrying long bits of bamboo.

When I opened my gate, they scattered.  With the same look that young boys have when Dad shows up and the boys hope he won't notice the wet cat poking its head above the toilet bowl rim.

One of the older boys (and the one with the longest stick) told me baby crocodiles are on the beach.

Yes, I know.  And also a mother.

He laughed nervously and showed me how his bamboo pole had been shattered at the end. Apparently, he had already been introduced to her.

With a mixture of basic Spanish and a lot of Marcel Marceau, he told me he wanted the baby crocodile to bite the stick.  He would then haul the baby up to the walkway and sell it.

My reaction was mixed.  I was a bit put out that my little diorama was being disturbed.  Until I remembered.  The pond is not mine.  The crocodiles are not mine.  And certainly the babies are not mine.

An economist would point out that this is a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons.  That which is owned in common has only benefits and no responsibilities.  As a result, the benefits soon deplete the resource.

What the boys were doing is no different than what any extractive economy does.  The fishermen of Oregon.  The loggers of British Columbia.  The oil well drillers of Venezuela.  The coal miners of West Virginia.  They all make a living off of nature's bounty.

The tragedy of extractive economies is that when the resource is no longer available, local economies usually collapse.  There is nothing left to harvest.  And the profits have been consumed as seed corn.

My little village was originally a classic extractive economy.  It was a fishing village.  Fishing has now been replaced, in major part, with a tourist-based economy.  What is often called a service economy, but is little more than a riff on extraction.  In this case, extracting pesos out of the pockets of visitors.

I often think about the future for this little town.  Economically, it will never offer much.  There is no reason to build a manufacturing plant or other wealth-producing activity here.  There is no economic reason for it.

And maybe that is not bad.  As long as the tourists show up, Melaque will remain the sleepy little town that it is.  Most people have sufficient.  A roof over their heads.  Food for a full belly.  And an amazing number of vehicles and television dishes.

By American standards, they seem poor.  By a rational objective standard, they are happy to live with the true riches that surround them.  Including the beauty of this place.

And as long as nature keeps supplying baby crocodiles, lizards, birds, squirrels, rabbits, and bugs to sell to pet stores (or directly to tourists), they will be a happy lot.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

stuffing baskets instead of ballot boxes

Wow!  Talk about a stroll down Nostalgia Lane.

When I visited my mother in Bend in May, I noticed this photograph in a place of honor on her book case.  And treasure it she does.

I like to think it is because I am in it.  And, of course, that is true -- to a degree.  But it is also there because it includes one of her heroes -- and friends.

The year is 1988.  The scene is Milwaukie, Oregon.

I was on the campaign trail in my one and only incarnation as a candidate (if we ignore my 1984 candidacy as a presidential elector).  It was the year I killed Steven R. Cotton and invented Steve Cotton. 

You can tell by the cheesy smile, the sweater, and the omnipresent campaign button that I am either a candidate for the people -- or an alien.  Only now do I notice the possibility of being Jimmy Carter's doppelgänger.

All candidates need celebrity endorsements -- in the vain hope that some voter will be bamboozled into voting for a candidate merely because a star shows up for a publicity shot. 

I had the usual list of endorsements from community leaders and politicians.  But the photograph memorializes a meeting that was unique during the campaign.

For those of you who are not sports-minded, that is Richard Washington and his wife, Leiko.  He is one of Portland's home-grown basketball stars. 

Born in Portland.  NCAA MVP while playing center (at 6' 11" what else would he play?) for UCLA in the 1970s.  Six seasons of professional play with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Kansas City Kings.

My mother is a huge basketball fan.  During the season, the Portland Trailblazers dominate her television set.  If you want to know anything about the team, she can -- and will -- tell you. 

Mom came by her love for basketball naturally.  Her hometown, Powers (a place you will soon hear more about), was a basketball powerhouse when she was in high school.

And it was through her that I met Richard and Leiko.  She knew them both as real estate clients and as friends.  Leiko and Mom attended church together.  I am not certain when she decided Richard would be a great asset to my campaign.  But, she did.  And he was.

After Mom introduced me to them, they graciously showed me around the house.  Joking about how houses can be logistical nightmares when you are almost seven feet tall.  I have to admit, it is a bit difficult for me to empathize with the problem.

But we had a great night of swapping stories.  At the close of the evening, he happily endorsed me for my legislative run.

Not all of my campaign memories are that pleasant.  But this one is stored away with the pleasant memories of my benighted youth.

If you are wondering, I lost the election by a few votes after waiting for a week of ballot counts.  That explains why Richard has a Wikipedia entry -- the true contemporary measure of a celebrity -- and I have none.

But I thank Richard for his support -- and his friendship with my mother.  And the voters of my district for saving me from a fate worse than death.

Monday, July 23, 2012

my diane keaton

Her name was Linda.

And she was the center of my life.  For several years in the 80s.

Like most relationships.  This one started a bit lop-sided.  Rather than the hunter, I was the pursued.

And, as a change of pace, the role reversal was somewhat exhilarating.  But, as is true with most things in life, prelude can be its own omen.  That goals easily won have shallow roots.  But neither of us noticed -- or cared -- at the time.

It was love.  And love needs no reason.  In fact, it helps if reason is tucked away under the bed.

I thought of her this week while watching one of my favorite films -- Radio Days.  Woody Allen's paean to the golden days of radio. 

For 88 minutes Woody Allen does what he does best.  Serves up compelling tales of the human condition wrapped in nostalgia without resorting to bathos.

Near the end of the film, Diane Keaton makes a cameo appearance as a night club singer. 

As I watched her low key performance, I realized she reminded me of Linda.  That is a bit odd because I first saw the film with her (Linda, that is) in 1987.  And I do not remember making the connection then.

But, in my head, it was Linda up there on the screen singing -- bringing back a Niagara of memories.

Embarrassing her 12-year old daughter by spontaneously dancing at a restaurant.  Joining up in the evening to share a plate of pot stickers.  Attending opening nights in Portland along with the rest of The Blob.  Laughing hysterically in the car at malapropisms.  Acting out assigned roles when visiting with each other's friends.

It was several years of pure joy.  She quickly became one of the women I should have married.  Especially when I lost an election, turned 40, and suffered a law partner breakup -- all within three months.  She alone can take the credit for me being here tapping out this bit of my past.

At least, my perception of that past.

Because for all of the Dick Van Dyke Show scenarios, it was not a perfect relationship.  Not by far.

I was far too self-centered -- to the point where it seemed as if there was only one person in the relationship at times.  She was too combative.  And there were other issues.  Issues that could not be resolved and will not help the rhythm of this tale by discussing them in detail.

The last time I saw her was when we returned from a trip to San Francisco.  She had made the sacrifice of giving up Thanksgiving with her family to meet my English friend Bob and his girl friend.

What could have been more romantic circumstances?  And we played our roles well.  Seeming to be the happy couple.  But it was far more Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?  than High Society.  By the time we flew to Portland on Sunday, it was over.

Dead relationships are like zombies.  Even when the spark is gone, they keep stumbling along.

When I decided to bury it, I took the option that men learn in Cad 101.  I moved away.  No notice.  No discussion.  No closure -- in the contemporary jargon.

What was the point?  It was over.

About ten years later, I got together for desert in Sellwood with her two daughters.  It was an Nora Ephron moment.  Plenty of laughs.  Lots of thanks.  A tear or two.  They were very kind to me.  All things considered.  You could almost hear the wistful soundtrack.

And then came the bombshell.  They wanted to know if I would be willing to talk with their mother.  If they could convince her to meet.

I agreed.  But it never happened.  Linda was not interested.

That is probably just as well.  Old romances do not rekindle well.  Even disguised as friendship.  Not when the emotional rifts are deep.

But what I have is memories.  And, even if I have burnished them past reality, they are part of who I am.  For better or worse.

Maybe that is why the closing lines in Radio Days made me smile.  Ruefully.
I never forgot that New Year's Eve...
when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in.
And I've never forgotten any of those people...
or any of the voices we used to hear on the radio.
Although the truth is...
with the passing of each New Year's Eve...
those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.
Share a moment with me and the marvelous Diane Keaton.

Here's to Linda.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

babes afloat

I thought no creature was to be more studiously avoided than The Grandmother with a Wallet Filled with Photographs of Grandchildren.

I was wrong.

There is me.  The guy who is so enamored with the little crocodile hatchlings in his back yard that he acts as if they carry his DNA.

I trust the mood will pass -- and we can get back to talking about birds and bees and whatever else we have been talking about because I cannot get images of baby crocs out of my head.

So, just two shots.

The first one is at the top of this post.  I took it on Friday.  Of an intrepid babe who took off on his own at the far end of the pond.  As far away from his mother as he could get.  The Freudian issues run rampant.

And then there was this family shot from yesterday.

Mom is sticking around the area.  And for these two new swimmers that is fortunate.  Because she acted as a patient flotation devise for them.  One of them scrambled all over her head and nose.  And she just logged away.

I would promise that there will be no other baby crocodile photographs.  But why bother promising?

And, yes, I am stuffing my wallet full of photographs.  Just in case I run into you on my trips -- starting next Saturday.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

letting him off his leash

I have days when I feel as if I am eight-years old.  When everything astounds me.

I remember when I moved to Mexico, everywhere I looked offered something new.  Horses.  Whales.  A family of five on a motorcycle.

They were fascinating enough to end up as photographs on my blogs -- where veteran Mexico expatriates would calm me down with: "Yes.  It's a horse.  We have them here." or "Wait until you see eight on one scooter."

It always sounded like a mixture of "You're acting like a tourist" and "Act your age."  Not that there is a centavo's worth of difference between the two.

I was simply showing that I was green wood.

Well, green I still am.

This week, I was walking through the garden when I heard voices.  Not quite human.  But there was a distinct conversational rhythm.  Similar to the sounds you hear from a pocket-dialed mobile.

But it wasn't coming from below.  It was just above my head in the ficus tree.  Suspecting that if God had chosen to have a conversation with me, He would have taken a clearer tone, I took a closer look.

In a clump of leaves were a handful of bees.  Honey bee-sized, but emerald green.

A bit of research indicates they are orchid bees.  But they were definitely not after orchids on those leaves.  It appeared they were after an orgy.  Unless my lessons on the birds and bees have failed me, they appeared to be involved in a reproduction cycle.  On my ficus.

I just stood there.  Fascinated with their song.  Their fairy-light flight.  Their primitive beauty.  I could almost hear them recite:
—Look at you!
So handsome, so pleasing, my darling!
Our bed is the greenery;
cedars are the beams of our houses,
cypresses the rafters.
And, in that moment, I knew it was time for me to let that eight-year old run free.  Even if he doesn't own a camera that can take decent macro shots.

Friday, July 20, 2012

flying naked

"Airport stripper brings Portland more exposure"

It was one of those headlines designed to catch the attention of the wit-starved.  The promise of nudity tied with a rather pedestrian pun.

But I knew the facts behind the headline well before reading what The Oregonian had to report.

Three months ago a 50-year old business walked into the hearts of libertarians and other people of common sense -- in the buff.

John Brennan was at the Portland airport to catch a flight to San Jose.  He declined to step into one of the security body scanners, but he complied with TSA's request that he walk through a metal detector and submit to a pat down.  The frisk detected the presence of nitrates.

Brennan then did what a lot of us have thought of doing.  He started calmly disrobing.  Well, disrobed.  Where he stood for five minutes until the police showed up.

At the time, he said he did it for two reasons: to prove that he was not carrying a bomb and to protest the process. 

But my favorite comment was: "I also was aware of the irony of taking off my clothes to protect my privacy."  You have to admire a guy who can sum up postmodernism in a single line. 

So, why am I writing about this three months after it happened?  Simple. 

He went to trial on Wednesday.  And was acquitted.

Of course, he was.  It was Portland.  The Oregon Court of Appeals decided almost thirty years ago that nudity statutes cannot be applied against people who are protesting.

When you consider the fact that Portland sponsors the world's largest annual naked bike ride (over 10,000 riders ran the risk of seat chaffing this past June), you also have to wonder if the Multnomah County District Attorney's office is staffed by hermits residing on pillars.

In an attempt to dodge the bullet (and I suspect to create financial pressure to get a plea bargain), the prosecutor lowered the charge from a misdemeanor to a violation.  Brennan didn't bite.  Why should he?  He had already made his stand.  And he had a fig leaf -- the law.

Airport security checkpoints are mere street theater.  They are there for the sole purpose of making passengers feel secure.  In the same way that children are told daddy is home to scare away the monsters under their bed.

Intelligence operations catch terrorists.  Usually, far away from airports.  When intelligence fails, so does airport security.  And we end up with terrorists from a Jimmy Breslin novel who can't set off the bombs in their shoes or underwear.

John Brennan is my hero.  I doubt I will ever go as far as he did.  His five minutes of standing in the buff resulted in some of his fellow travelers photographing him and then posting the results on the internet.  As you can see at the top of this post.*

But, after years of getting dressed before I head to the airport, and then being forced to take off my jacket, take off my shoes, take off my belt, and dig around in my pockets for any small object that may get me kicked out of the body scanner and into the hands of a frisker ready with an intensive and thorough pat down, I have considered an alternative.

I am seriously thinking of showing up at the airport in my robe and slippers.  And then getting dressed after I successfully maneuver the shoals of security. 

It would certainly double down on whether a security guard was really interested in doing a pat down search.

John Brennan.  We lift a stout one in your honor.

* -- I was going to run a photograph of John Brennan at trial.  But that was not the site of his victory.  If he was brave enough to protest on our behalf, we should honor his true moment of triumph.  Thus, the photograph. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

crocodile update

We now know why mama crocodile was so touchy yesterday.  We also know that she really is a mama.

She has been hanging out at the bank all day.  Along with at least six little ones.  There may be more that I cannot see.

They are really cute.  Especially those eyes.

But I am staying away from her beach.  Mother bears and mother crocodiles are not to be botheed.

Knowing all that, I still have the urge to pick one up.

Don't worry.  The urge is fully suppressed.

weeding high

Like an untended garden, my inlet of the laguna is starting to suffer a weed invasion.

Late yesterday afternoon, I decided it was time to take my weeding hook from its repose on its plastic throne and put it to work.

The tool is simple.  About 50 feet of rope attached to several pieces of rebar welded int a grappling hook.  The type of manly tool you would find on a low-budget pirate ship.

The weeding technique is as simple as the tool (not to mention its user).  Water cabbage is the current problem.  When the cabbage bunches up, it forms rafts.  All I need to do is throw the hook into the middle of a large mat and reel in my catch.  It is almost as easy as tearing out carpet.

I had considered hooking right on the shoreline.  Because there is no quick retreat down there, I checked for crocodiles.  That struck me as a bit silly since I have not seen a crocodile in the pond that early in the day for a long time.

I wasn't surprised when I could not see anything in the usual locations.

But I changed my mind about schlepping down the bank when I realized I was wearing the wrong sandals.  Besides, I can get a better throwing angle when I stand on the elevated walkway.

What standing on the walkway does not do is improve my aim.  My first throw was a terrible slice.  I had plenty of distance, but I was off to the right by at least fifteen feet.  It happens.

So I started pulling the hook back in -- while it oozed through the muck on the bottom of the pond.

When I was a trial lawyer, I learned a healthy distrust of eyewitness testimony.  Our minds are marvelous machines.  But always suspect. 

We see something happen.  Our brain interprets it.  We form a memory.  The fact that the memory may bear very little relationship with the something that happened is a basic tenet of psychology. 

It is why three eyewitnesses can describe the same event in three completely different ways.

Well, you have just one eyewitness for this tale.  Me.  And this is what I recall.

The hook was almost to the shoreline when my entire operation stopped.  My first impression was that I had snagged something on the bottom.  But my mind said: "No, idiot.  You ignored that quick movement near the shore."

All I saw was a quick strike from the left.  When I saw it, I knew what it was.  I just didn't want to believe what had happened.  I suppose denial kicked in at some level.

The small crocodile who plies the waters almost nightly had snapped her jaws around my rope.  And she was not letting loose.  I thought if I tugged, she would realize she had a rope in her mouth, not a snake or some other delicacy. 

I suppose I gave her too much credit.  She was not going to turn loose.

Now, you J.M. Barrie fans are probably jumping ahead in the plot.  After all, there is a hook and a crocodile.  The only thing missing is an alarm clock.  But that is not this tale.

In my version, I waited.  And waited.  Time (with or without an alarm clock) is hard to estimate in these circumstances.  But enough was enough.

I decided to do something that could easily have have landed me on "World's Stupidest Videos."  If she would not turn loose with gentle pulls, we would see how she enjoyed a little bout of tug-of-war.

She is small.  And amazingly light.  When I started pulling, she resisted.  But I easily lifted her out of the water.

It then occurred to me.  This is the same crocodile I nearly stepped on at night when she was next to the walkway.  And the slope I was pulling her up was the same slope she had no trouble climbing on her own.

As the "you are beyond lame" warning went off in my head, the crocodile decided she had had enough of my tomfoolery.  She turned loose.  I recovered the hook, coiled the rope, and went back to get my camera.

It is too bad I did not have it with me while I was battling the beasty.  But I did get a couple of rather blurry shots of her waiting for me to get just a bit closer.

The fact that driving my car in Melaque is far more dangerous than the events of this little tale does not take away from the adrenalin high. 

But it is a good reminder that solo weeding is not without its perils.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

calling babe ruth

I am a news addict.

I start my day with breakfast (or lunch. depending when I manage to roust myself from my bed) on the patio.  Accompanied by my former hometown newspaper.

At times I feel as if I am reading about a distant planet.  The current budgetary mud wrestling is the antithesis of my edenic existence.

What amazes me is that I have heard no one in The States take a serious look at what strikes me as one of the most obvious ways to cut governmental spending.  (For the moment, let's just assume that the revenues currently available to the various levels of American government are the only funds available.)

The president elect of Mexico recently made a comment that caused me to do a little research and to pull out my calculator.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  As a criminal defense attorney, I quickly learned I was glad Oregon had prisons.  There are some rather evil characters that need to be kept away from the rest of the public.  And prisons are a good place for them.

But the majority (or thereabouts, depending on the state) of inmates are not violent offenders.  They are prisoners of war in the War on Drugs.  People who have violated one or other drug law, and are imprisoned for no other reason.

When Peña Nieto suggested it might be time to look at legalizing drugs, he was not talking merely about Mexico.  After all, Mexico has allowed possession of small amounts of all types of drugs for three years (a hole in the dike). 

But the tens of thousands of Mexicans, who have died in the Mexican drug wars, have not died because of a Mexican drug problem.  They died because of an American drug problem.  The wars are about transportation routes to The States.

If all that sounds familiar, it should.  It is exactly the same type of gang wars and government-inflicted deaths that happened in The States during Prohibition.

And that is only one of the lessons of the 1920s we have forgotten.  Almost every argument used against legalizing the sale and manufacture of alcohol is now used against the legalization of illegal drugs.

I will also concede that those of us on the legalization side must concede other points.  Legalizing alcohol did not solve America's alcohol problems.  Alcohol is still the number one drug addiction in The States.  But no one seriously talks about going back to the days of Prohibition.

We have learned our lesson.  Or so we say.  For some reason, we cannot extrapolate the lessons we learned with alcohol to illegal drugs.

I once thought that it was because the number of alcohol users made the first Prohibition politically prohibitive.  If that is the case, time may be on the side of legalization.

According to a recent study, 47% of Americans over the age of 14 have tried at least one illegal drug during their lifetime.  The largest percentage, of course, is for marijuana.  But cocaine and hallucinogens were close behind.

But most Americans seen to dabble and then move on to alcohol as their drug of choice.  The same study shows that only 8% of Americans used drugs in the previous month.  If you strip out marijuana users, the number drops to 2%.

Recent polls have shown, for the first time, a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana.  That wall has been eroding over the past decade with the approval of medical marijuana laws.  A reform that was far more political, than medical.

And that is undoubtedly where the breach will occur.

The question now is who will lead the charge?  It cannot be the Democrat Party.  The Republicans stole their law enforcement clothes back in the 1980s.  And they are now as vulnerable on crime and defense as the Republicans are on social security and medicare.

And the leadership, unfortunately, must start in Washington, DC.  When Congress nationalized the drug issue (in my opinion, without any constitutional authority), it took away the ability of the states to do what they are guaranteed under our federal system: to address local issues with creative solutions.

If drug legalization is to occur, it will never come from any politician who has admitted to using drugs in the past.  Anyone can see how that would play out politically.

It will need to come from someone who is squeaky clean on the drug issue, but who is also able to persuasively argue that any government program that is not working should be terminated.  And the War on Drugs seems to top that list.  Perhaps that is the reason a large group of libertarians and conservative Republicans have long opposed America's current drug policy.

There is tax money to be saved and political laurels to be burnished if the right leader will step up to the plate and hit a home run.

I just hope one is running for president this year.  If not, I am certain someone is warming up in the batter's box.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

basquing in tomatoes and peppers

This is not a cooking blog.  It is a blog about my life in Mexico.

But I do enjoy cooking.  Probably, because I enjoy eating good food.

Before my little intestinal disorder hit me last Saturday (and, yes, I am aware of the seeming irony of juxtaposing that phrase with the last paragraph), I created a dinner based on a recipe I received on the internet, spiced up with a bit of local Mexican creativity.  Let me share it with you.

For about five years or so, I have subscribed to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Weeknight Kitchen -- a weekly recipe to assist busy cooks with creating delicious, but simple, suppers.  Some of the recipes require ingredients that are difficult to obtain in Mexico. 

But about two weeks ago, the weekly recipe was Peppers and Tomatoes with Eggs.  That I could do.  Anything with a vegetable base is a natural for my local market.

The recipe is basically a Basque dish -- piperade -- with some modern deconstruction.  And a few Cotton flourishes.  Here is what I did.

The recipe calls for quite a few sautéed
vegetables.  I could have used the large sauté pan I lugged down from Oregon, but I chose my wok instead.

I sautéed a sliced onion in olive oil until the onions were soft.  Next came three sliced cloves of garlic and two diced jalapeño peppers stirred for about a minute. I then added four diced tomatoes.

The recipe called for peeled tomatoes.  For good reason.  The tomatoes are to be cooked down into a liquid.  But I like to retain most vegetable skins for texture.  If I were to try this recipe again, I would peel the tomatoes.

Collapsing the tomatoes took about ten minutes of cooking.

I am not very fond of green bell peppers.  The recipe listed a green bell pepper and a red bell pepper --both roasted.  I substituted a yellow pepper for the green.  And skipped the roasting.  The roasting would have added a different flavor.  I didn't.  Next time.

While the tomato-pepper mixture simmered, I fried up several strips of bacon.  My friend Roy Miller says bacon improves everything.  It certainly was true with this dish.

I added a bit of butter to the tiny amount of bacon grease (Mexican bacon is so lean it does not leave behind much grease) and scrambled four eggs, adding the torn up bacon just as the eggs were finishing up.

The topping is incredibly versatile.  It could be stuffed in a tortilla or be poured over garlic toast.

I chose the most un-Mexican option of all.  Fettucine.  And it was a perfect match.  I suspect it would have worked well with any pasta.

I ended up with about eight servings.  And a week's worth of lunches and dinners.

Monday, July 16, 2012

adjusting the pitch

I am turning into a palapa aficionado.

And you all know why.  Mexico has given me a post-graduate extension course in construction with our church's new palapa.  Most of you know the details from all aboard.

One of my readers commented that the lateral bracing appeared to be inadequate due to the wind load that would be created by the pitch of the palapa.  I am not an engineer (and I have never played one on television).  So, I cannot offer an intelligent assessment on the warning.

But I thought of his comment as I was driving back to Melaque from Puerto Vallarta.  The highway runs along the edge of the Pacific until the highway meets the mouth of the Tomatlán River.  Perched high on the cliff above the Pacific is Le Kliff -- a bar and restaurant.  (I took the photograph in just move it from the restaurant's parking lot.)

A major portion of the restaurant is a giant palapa.  Currently in the process of getting a new roof.  You can see it at the top of this post.

I do not know how long the palapa has been there.  But it has been years.

What struck me about it was the pitch of its roof.  That palapa is buffeted by far higher winds than the church's palapa in Melaque.

If the Le Kliff palapa can survive, I suspect ours will do just fine.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

if you can combine it, you can sell it

If I ever need a good chortle, I can stop by almost any store here in Mexico.

I know there must be some sort of system (just as it took me time to learn the shelving logic in The States),  but I certainly don't understand how products are combined for sale.

At my neighborhood market, the Raid is stored with dish towels.  And the picnic supplies lie in repose next to the sanitary napkins.

So, I was primed for a laugh when my Puerto Vallarta passenger told me to get ready for a sign in one of the multitude of villages named Emiliano Zapata -- one of Mexico's Revolutionary heroes, and, need I add, who was treacherously assassinated by allies.

Just as we were coming to the border of the village, the sign at the top of this post popped up.

I can only imagine what MADD would have to say about a sign that advertises a shop that specializes in drinking and driving.  Or, at least, beer and gasoline.

But that is just spitting hairs.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

not so peckish

I woke up this morning feeling a bit nauseous.

Well, "a bit" is my way of sparing you details.  Oh, and I had a case of the Big D.  I have not been both-end challenged since my intestinal bout in Mexico City (sounding the cannons).

I mentioned it to my neighbor who immediately had a diagnosis.  Bird flu.  At least it was original.

Or so I thought.  Until I read in The Oregonian this morning that the Mexican government has killed 2.5 million chickens in Jalisco as the result of an outbreak of H7N3 avian influenza.

According to the news story, the outbreak was first deteced on 20 June, and the government declared a national anumal health emergency on 2 July.  Vaccine (for the birds) was imported from Pakistan and another 80 million doses (to be put in chicken feed) is being produced locally.

The news caught my attention because I am a frequent chicken user -- both flesh and eggs.  And I come in contact with chickens almost every day -- in the street.  So, I did a bit of research.

The bottom line is that there is probably little to worry about.

The most immediate impact has been an increase in the price of eggs.  Most of the executed birds were layers.  No layers; no eggs.  Lowered supply; increased prices.  Basic economics.

Because eggs are a staple and the price spike was almost a 100% increase, Mexico lowered its restrictions on egg imports from China, Poland, Turkey, and Ukraine.  Once the supply is restored, the government has authority to fine vendors if they do not lower prices to the pre-slaughter price.

The diseased chickens were in the municipalities of Acatic and Tepatitlan -- the heart of Mexican egg country.  And far off in the highlands.  A nice piece of real estate away from Melaque

The best news is the eggs I have eaten recently should not be a problem.  Even if they came from the affected area.  The flu is not transmitted to eggs.

But I have a portion of a chicken carcass (the Mae West cut) in the freezer.  Discretion tells me to give it the Jimmy Hoffa treatment.  Besides, I am not really in the mood for eating anything solid right now.

So, here is the "probably" part.  Only rarely is this type of avian influenza transmitted from birds to humans.  It is the "rarely" that is a bit disconcerting.  There have been limited instances where poultry workers have contracted the flu and then spread it to others.

But there is no evidence that the rarity occurred in Jalisco.  Probably because the ill birds were discovered early in the epidemic and were just as quickly dispatched.

I must admit I am surprised that American newspapers did not led with this story three weeks ago.  "Bird flu kills 2 million in Mexico" would not have surprised me.  Never mind that it was 2 million chickens.

As for me, I am heading back to bed.  A nice warm cup of chicken broth would seem to be the poetic justice the day requires.

washing my hands of the whole enchilada

Mexico has a very good system of warning that topes -- speed bumps -- are in the road ahead.  The warning helps cut down on damage to mufflers and suspensions.

I need something as equally efficient to give my readers a bit of warning that a grump moment is at hand.  Well, I guess I just did.  Because there is one around the next period.

My grumping about hotel services has been rather frequent.  Complaints about high prices for not-so-speedy internet in big bucks hotels (high speed at a price).  Or shampoo bottles that are fashionable, but almost nonfunctional (did you ever wonder --).

It may be one reason I travel alone.  After all, who wants to travel with Oscar the Grouch?

During my trip to Puerto Vallarta earlier this week, I stayed at the Comfort Inn near the airport.  It was convenient for my purposes and kept me away from the tourism of Old Town.

When I got up on Wednesday for my morning ablutions, I discovered another practical joke that hotels like to pull on their customers.  The trick soap.

The trick soap comes in two varieties.  The first is in a box with flaps that do not quite close.  When you pick up the box, the soap pops out of the box and (if your unlucky) smashes into pieces on the floor or (if you are moderately fortunate) cakes in nose first picking up whatever grime is on the bathroom floor.

My soap was not boxed.  It was the second variety of trick soap.  The soap that is tightly wrapped in the same plastic paper used for Mexican currency and then hermetically sealed with a label that could be used on a space station airlock.

I wish I had a video tape of my attempts to extract the soap from its cocoon.  What is embarrassing is I can never recall how I opened the soap on my last visit. 

But this time, I used logic.  I knew all attempts at scratching at the paper would be futile.  The weak link appeared to be the paper seal.  My fingers could not find an opening.  So, I used my teeth.  After a couple of attempts, off it came  -- the label, not my teeth.  Unfortunately, only the top layer came off.  The soap was as safe as a queen bee in her hive.

It was clear a tool was required.  And if you want to open something, what do you need?  A key.  I gathered my key ring from my pants that were still wet from the previous night's rain storm, and sawed my way through the plastic.

The big question is why I bothered.  The hotel had provided me with a small bottle of shampoo with a very simple top.  I could have used the shampoo and skipped the bother with the soap.

But what good would that have done me for today's post?

And next time?  I will either start with the key -- or happily pretend that the shampoo is nothing more than some fancy label body wash.

Friday, July 13, 2012

no bowl required

No trip to Puerto Vallarta would be complete without a stop at Costco.

Costco -- the temple of excess.  I was going to add "consumption" at the end of that sentence.  But why gild the obvious?

Just walking through Costco's door transports me to a different world.  Some expatriates feel as if they are still up north when they shop at Costco.

Not me.  Just looking around at selections, labels, and prices is evidence enough that I am in Mexico.  Along with the obvious fact that my fellow shoppers are conversing in Spanish.

And I seldom bag any exotic game at Costco these days.  That was not true when I first moved down here.  Trips to Costco -- or Walmart -- would send me home with the rear of my Escape packed.

Not now, I can find almost everything I need to eat in my village.  If not, I just do without.  On most things.

But there are certain foods that always catch my attention.  About a month ago, my intelligence source in Morelia told me that I needed to get to Costco immediately.  My ambrosia had arrived from The States.

And when I slipped into Costco's refrigerated room, there they were.  Piled neatly in plastic cartons.  From Washington. 


Bings in four pound containers.  Rainiers in two pound containers.

Just as if I still lived in Salem.  Even the bilingual label seemed familiar.

You may think it odd when I tell you I grabbed two containers of each.  12 pounds of cherries.  After all, fruit does not keep forever.  On the other hand, cherries do not last long at my house, either. 

If you take a close look at the Bing container, you might notice I appear to have been shorted.  It is over half empty.

The packer is not at fault,  The highway between Puerto Vallarta and Melaque is strewn with cherry stems and pits from about two pounds of cherries.  And I will not bother justifying my littering with the overused "organic" exception.  Let's just say I may have bent my ethics, but not my morals.

I was so excited about my cherry harvest that I forgot to look for ham steaks to add to my beans this coming week.  But I think I can find them at my favorite grocery in Melaque.

Yesterday I said that impromptu trips are great for adventure.  But the adventures are always better when accompanied by pitted fruit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

just move it

There is nothing better than an impromptu trip to liven up the little gray cells.  As Hercule Poirot might say.

My experience is that the planning and anticipation of a trip is a sure fire way to suck all of the fun and spontaneity out of it.

Since my return to Melaque, I have not strayed from my garden other than for a few local trips.  Otherwise, it has been just me and my Kindle on the patio with the Duraflex fan.

One of my fellow church-goers decided I had had enough solo time.  At our post-service lunch, she asked if I could drive her to the airport.  Sure, I said.  I love taking people to the airport.

The airport in Puerto Vallarta.  I recently had told her and others in our congregation that I was tired of saying "no" to suggestions.  Certainly, said I.

Early on Tuesday morning, I headed north with her.  I am not certain when I was last in Puerto Vallarta, but I always like visiting the Big City.  Well, big to we fishing village folk.

After I dropped her off at the airport, I settled into my hotel room and contacted one of my readers.  He and his family moved to Puerto Vallarta last August.  Coincidentally, he saw on my blog I was headed to his area of the country, and he asked if I would be interested in getting together.

My original plan was to sit down and have a drink with him and then head off to a late movie.  After all, multiplex theaters are rather rare here.

So, off we went to the older section of town and the exotic luxury of an Italian restaurant. 

Our conversations started out with the joys and frustrations of living in Mexico, but then turned to the finer points of political philosophy, natural law, the weaknesses of fiat currency, and why someone with such limited talent as Brad Pitt can be a movie star.

The conversation was one of those exchanges that is worth savoring -- like a fine truffle.  Instead, we settled for Italian.

What we both thought would be a short get-together soon turned into four hours.  The weather helped conspire to keep us at our table.

I have seen plenty of tropical rain storms.  But this one went on for well over an hour before we decided to dash through it to the car.

I am accustomed to water in the streets in Melaque.  But the area around town is flat.  Old Puerto Vallarta is build on steep hills.  The cobblestone streets looked and felt like white water rivers.

When I drove out of town on Wednesday afternoon, I stopped at an overlook where the Tomatlán River empties into the Pacific.  The lingering effects of the storm were still evident. 

The photograph at the top of this post is of the silt-saturated river water mixing with the sea.  At the bottom of the photograph you can see how the silt is floating only on the surface of the ocean.  A boat's wake reveals the blue water beneath.

Other than dropping off  my passenger at the airport, nothing on this trip went as planned.  It went much better.  And, for that reason alone, it was well worth getting away from my Melaque doldrums.

One last note, the sun managed to peek through the storm clouds just as it was setting.  I have never seen the sun that orange.  And there I was without my camera.

This inadequate photograph is from the camera on my telephone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

are those chrome bumpers?

Our blog pal, John Calypso of Viva Veracruz, mused the other day about his long history with computers.  He had some interesting things to say about Chrome, Google's browser.

I am not a Chrome user, though I have a couple of acquaintances who are.  I am a Firefox guy  And have been for some time.  I abandoned Internet Explorer as my alternate browser when it refused to display my revised blog format.

Not too long ago that would have been nothing more than a solipsistic indulgence.  After all, I may write my blog for my amusement, but I put it on line for other people to see.  And a vast majority of readers within recent memory would have been using Internet Explorer.

But, as John noted, the times they are a'changin'.

When I first experienced the format glitch using Internet Explorer, I checked my user statistics to get an idea how many people were still using Internet Explorer.  If a majority were still on the Gates bandwagon, I would revise my blog banner.

The plurality of users were still using Internet Explorer.  But barely 40%.

I checked again this past week.  You can see the results at the top of this post.  The number of Internet Explorer users has dropped to barely one-third.  With Firefox and Safari quickly closing in.

Those numbers are interesting.  And a good reminder for those of us who were at one point concerned about how much internet territory the Redmond giant controlled. 

But competition matters.  Give customers a better option, and they will choose it.

Maybe I should give Chrome a test drive.  And see what mexpatriate looks like through its windscreen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

all aboard

I have mentioned before that our new church building palapa reminds me a lot of Noah's ark.

It turns out my nautical analogy may not be off by much.  But think Yankee clipper rather than an animal ferry.

During one of our recent rather minor wind storms, we discovered that the palapa roof had begun to shift.

Remember going to your grandmother's house?  She would pull out the card table and you would build a fort using the western-themed blanket filled with cowboys and Indians.  And if you were not careful, the slightest movement would pull the blanket off.

Well, that is what was happening to our palapa.  In wind storms, it acts as a great air foil.  A sail, if you will.  And the pressure differential was causing the basic structure to stress.

But Mexicans are a wily lot.  The church hired a contractor to reenforce the palapa.

You can see the first step at the top of this post.  Each of the corners of the structure were braced on the diagonal.

The contractor then connected guy wires to various points inside the structure to create a web of interconnecting lines.  In one sense, it is the opposite of the flying buttresses of European cathedrals that distribute the weight-bearing loads on the horizontal.  These wires use the basic strength of the structure to bolster the weaker points.

I did not take any engineering courses in college.  And what I know of construction techniques, I have pickeding up in my architectural readings.

But the interior has a different look now.  The lines are rather subtle -- look like the rigging of a schooner. 

And I guess that is what it is.  A schooner under full sail, but docked in our port of San Patricio.  Maybe we should change the name of the church from San Patricio by the Sea to San Patricio Ready for the High Seas.

Now, we need to come up with some ideas to put those bare lines to good use.  They seem to be calling out for banners.  Maybe a nautical signal flag or two.

Something to welcome everyone on board.

Monday, July 09, 2012

offing the raid

Mexico could have coined the phrase: necessity is the mother of invention.

And I just may have acquired a bit of that trait.  At least, inadvertently.

I was sitting on the patio the other day deeply engrossed in my Kindle.  When I noticed the mosquitoes were sucking more blood out of me than tales of the Mexican war were getting past my thick skull.

So, I did the natural thing.  I grabbed the orange can of Off.  Sprayed some on my hands.  And started rubbing it on.

I noticed the consistency was a bit odd.  Foamy.  And a bit runny.

For good reason.  I had grabbed the Raid can my mistake.  Part of my leaf-cutter ant defense kit.

In my defense, the cans are a bit similar.  Orange.  Blue.  Yellow.

Of course, the "Raid" and "Off" labels are rather prominent.  Not to mention the black cap on the Raid can.  A pretty good warning that something dangerous lies within.

I switched cans and slathered the remainder of my bare skin with Off. 

I considered washing off the Raid, and  decided: why?  In my years of spraying the poison around, I have been coated more than once with it.  Both my exterior and interior.  And maybe it would simply kill the next mosquito that dared to land on me.

There was some justice in this little accident.  I have an acquaintance in Barra who regularly coats himself with Raid instead of Off.  I guess this is what I get for making fun of him.

I would like to say I have learned my lesson.  That the Raid can has been moved to a different table.

But, as I write, it is sitting right next to the Off can.  Just waiting for another cameo appearance in some future blog.

Probably the blog where I mistake it for deodorant.  Or Listerine.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

amity, mexico

If Peter Benchley needed a model for his fictional summer colony of Amity, he could have easily used Melaque.

The difference is that Melaque is a tourist town for all seasons.  But the starting pistol was just fired for the summer season.

Most Mexican schools held their graduations this week.  That means that school is out and Mexican families are heading for the beach.

The first wave hit earlier this week.  Comfortable cars filled with solidly middle class Mexican families forgoing the pleasures of Puerto Vallarta have been showing up all week.  And the busloads of tourists from Guadalajara and Autlan will soon follow.

They will not be the masses of semana santa (Holy Week -- Easter).  But, for the next two months of summer vacation, Melaque will be selling a nice time at the beach in exchange for pockets full of pesos. 

They may not have the history of the highlands, but my Mexican neighbors are extraordinary entrepreneurs.  Anyone who can sell Chinese knockoffs as genuine Indian crafts could probably sell Manhattan back to the Dutch for a trunk full of beaded anklets.

And this looks like it will be a good year.

The tourists are creating massive traffic jams in front of the bank.  The vendors have their wares spread on the sidewalk.  The restaurants are filled with Mexican families.  And the hotel reception desks have long lines.

But you can always tell when the town is expecting a lot of tourists.  The traffic wardens show up.  Only two today.  But they were keeping traffic rolling along while watching for any good opportunity to meet a potential donor to the police retirement fund.

Last March I passed along an anecdote in breaking spring.

I was standing in the long ATM line behind a fellow who I have known for three years.  He comes south every year for about six months.

He looked at the line of aging white faces and said: “I don’t know how this place survives after all of the tourists leave in spring.”

I told him, the place survives because there are plenty of Mexican tourists who pick up part of the slack when the northern contingent leaves.

He didn't believe me.  Partly because he has never seen just how busy Melaque can be in the summer -- when the heat-phobic head north.

Well, the summer crowd is here now.  And, in many ways, the northern winter invasion pales in comparison to our summer visitors.

Now, all we need is a great white to stir up a little interest.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

a polk in the eye

I always regret finishing a book.  Especially, a biography.

It it is well-written, you feel as if you have just spent a couple of days with a very interesting person -- who you will never see again.  You know the tales of his life.  Not particularly why he lived his life, but how he lived his life.

You also know that if you run into him in the context of another work, it will not be quite the same person you just met. 

I suppose that is how life works, as well.  The person you get to know on a two-week cruise is probably not the same personality you will meet at an opening night party.

That is how I feel having just completed Robert Merry's A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.

James Polk has never been one of my favorite presidents.  I suppose part of the reason is I have long accepted the Whig-Republican take on his presidency.  That he misled the American people into a war with defenseless Mexico for the purpose of gaining new territory to protect slavery from the boundaries of the Missouri Compromise.

In my household he was almost as vile as his mentor, Andrew Jackson.

As a student of history, I knew the cartoonish caricature was not quite accurate.  Certainly, there was more to the man than that.

Now that I have finished Merry's biography, I know there is more.

Polk is one of those odd presidents.  Most people would have trouble placing him in any historical context.

Part of that is due to the fact that he was a bit eclipsed by Jackson, the man he admired more than any other.  But he brought part of it on himself.  When he ran for president in 1844, he received the Democrat nomination as a "dark horse" (in fact, the term was first used for his candidacy).  Even though he had been a governor of Tennessee and speaker of the house of representatives, he did not have the type of reputation of the giants of the era.  Clay.  Webster.  Calhoun.

He also restricted himself to one term.  But what a term it was.

He came to office with only four goals in mind:
  • Annex Texas
  • Acquire the full Oregon Territory
  • Reform tariffs
  • Establish an independent treasury free of any banks
And he accomplished all of them.  To a degree. 

He had to settle on a compromise with Britain on the boundary of the Oregon Territory.  But, when the treaty was signed, for the first time, American soil extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  And the United States was positioned to become a Pacific, as well as an Atlantic, power.

It was the first goal, though, that has sullied Polk's name.  And it is why Mexicans, who know their history, despise him.

Texas won its effective independence from Mexico as a separate republic in 1836.  Texas had sought admission to the United States as a slave state.  Polk's predecessor, Tyler, had negotiated terms of admission that Polk and Congress eventually approved.

But along with Texas came a border dispute.  Mexico had never legally recognized Texas independence.  And if it was independent, Texas's border was the Nueces River, not the Rio Bravo.

When the United States annexed Texas, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and fortified the Rio Bravo.  President Polk sent an army under Zachary Taylor (who would succeed Polk in the presidency) to defend against any Mexican incursion.

What happened next is in dispute.  But it appears that Taylor's presence in the disputed zone prompted the Mexicans to defend their pride by sending troops across the river.  Blood was spilled.  And President Polk had his war.

Did Polk want war?  Probably.  He saw it as a way to settle the Texas border.  But he also saw an opportunity to win the swath of land between Texas and the Pacific.  Giving the United States the basic contours we know today.

Did he want to extend slavery to the new territories?  The record would support a verdict that he could not see slavery having any application in the new territories.  But he also ducked the moral question when some members of Congress attempted to block slavery in any lands conquered from Mexico.

And it was a gamble -- a war that the United States could have lost easily.  In most battles the Americans were outnumbered against battle-hardened Mexican troops and officers.  After all, Mexicans had been fighting one another (including the citizens of its Texas province) for some time.

The Mexican-American War is a fascinating topic.  And it appears to be almost as controversial as it was in the 1840s.  Interestingly, when the Whigs came to power, they did nothing to reverse the gains.  Expansionism was popular.

Merry writes a good story of complex personalities. 

A president with a limited agenda and no military training who succeeded in expanding the nation by one-third.  The president's diplomat who was fired, but still negotiated a treaty ending the war.  A Mexican general and former president who euchred the American president into believing the general would bring peace to Mexico, but ended up leading the Mexican forces against the invaders.  An American secretary of state, whose presidential ambitions, nearly derailed peace with Britain and made matters worse with Mexico.

And hanging in the background, the moral blotch of slavery.  During Polk's presidency, the regional rifts became so bad that both political parties would soon fracture, one would disappear, a new one would be created, and civil war would break out.

But that path would be trod by other presidents.  Polk turned the presidency over to the "Whig general" Taylor in 1849 and went home to die three months later.

Having read this biography, I understand Polk better.  He was as flawed as any politician.  Any person, for that matter.

But Merry may have said it best in conclusion, especially for a man like Polk, who lived by Jacksonian principles: "[I]n the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency.  In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success."

Pick up a copy.  You may even like the Polk you meet.