Thursday, October 31, 2013

pulling the bung on iq

"No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype."

The line, of course, is from Annie Hall, and, despite what the thought police believe, stereotypes are often true.  They help each of us get through the day.

For example.  You are at a Manhattan cocktail party talking to a twenty-something woman.  Bryn Mawr graduate.  Carefully-coiffed.  Turned out in Jason Wu's take on the little black dress.

The talk turns to recent books.  The effects of poverty, to be exact.  She appears to be well-read.  Until you notice she continually mispronounces Sendhil Mullainathan's name.  And her discussion of his main points sounds as if she had lifted from Cliffs Notes.

Even Dr. Watson could see the disconnect.  This bright young spawn of the Manhattan elite has not even touched the book.  She knows about it the same way most of the people at the party know what they claim to know.  By reading the book's review in TNYRB -- to the initiated.  Or The New York Review of Books for those of us who do not have grandfathers who dined with the Vanderbilts.

Cultural stereotype, indeed.

Having now dissed the species, let me paint myself with the same brush.  Let's talk about a book I haven't read.

Whenever I head north, I feel like a stranger in a strange land.  Everything is familiar, but there is something going on between citizens of The States that I cannot quite corner.

I now think I know what it is.  The Economist recently ran a review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.   An interesting study by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir concerning the effect that scarcity can have on individuals.

The author's have concluded that whenever people feel they lack something, their minds will actually alter.  That seems obvious.  But it is not only feeling the lack of necessities that can alter the way people think.

A "scarcity mindset"  can be caused by feeling strapped for money, friends, time or calories.  The mental result is almost indiscernible.

They argue that scarcity can have two diametrically opposed results.

The mindset concentrates the mind on pressing needs.   And it gives individuals a keener sense of the value of anything they feel is scarce.  To avoid scarcity is one of the driving forces of the Protestant Work Ethic.

But feeling the existence of scarcity can also have negative effects.  People start losing hope.  Seeing a narrow, cramp world with little future.  What should be done goes undone.

That anxiety can be measured.  And the authors have done just that.  According to their studies, the scarcity mindset can reduce a person's IQ.  The effects can then accumulate -- and more things do not get done.

We associate those spirals most often with the poor.  Especially, the desperately poor in places like Haiti or Somalia.

But the authors point out that developed countries are just as subject to the syndrome.  The most obvious one is time -- a commodity that is perceived to be in such short supply in The States that it is calculated in hen's teeth.

Here is an experiment.  The next time you are in an American airport, stand under the big screen showing all departures.  And watch the circus in front of you.  People nervously glancing up and down the board like a stoat avoiding a falcon.

They rush to the board.  Quickly scroll through it with brows furrowed.  And then rush off in another direction, probably retracing their steps along the way -- several times.  You are just as likely to see them later in the day pacing back and forth.  Like a person who is losing his mind.  And, according to the book (or book review), they are.

They are losing their sense of rationality the same way as people, stuck in a long line of cars, start honking their horns when the person holding up the line is not even aware of the line, let alone the honking.  Crazy.

I have been doing a lot of thinking this past week about American poverty programs.  The problem with American society is not a gap in wealth.  It is a lack of hope on the part of many Americans that they can escape their current conditions.  Especially, individuals who are poor.

The ironic thing is that the American welfare system has forgotten that it is designed to help people out of poverty.  Not to doom them to a Sisyphean future.

A properly designed welfare system would provide a means to avoid starvation, but the total benefits would be noticeably lower than the income from a job.  And that is not the system that exists.  In many states, the benefit package is greater than starting wages for a job.  No rational person would give up one for the other.

But no one seems to be basing policy decisions on that type of rational goal.  The food stamp fight is an example.  Republicans talk about cutting costs in the hopes of balancing the federal budget.  The Democrats accuse the Republicans of starving poor people.

Neither side is talking about what should be a common goal.  Designing a welfare system that will allow individuals to escape its gravitational pull.

What saddens me is that this one seems like such an easy target.  Democrats and Republicans put together a welfare reform system in the 1990s -- a system that worked within its limited scope.

There is no rational reason why it cannot happen again.  Well, of course, there are reasons.  But they are not very rational.  Between the White House and Congress, you can hear the scarcity of reason pulling down those IQ scores.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

the apple of my pie

I do not like sweets.

Like most of my "not likes," this one has its exceptions.  Though, they are few.  Cake, cookies, chocolate, cheese cake are generally no-gos.

The big exception is apple pie.  And, keeping true to the general rule, I do not like it sweet.  Tart apple is better for me than an apple tart.

For the past two weeks, I have had company upstairs.  Patrick and Christine are a couple from the state of Guanajuato.  I believe this is their third year here.  They have been joined by her sister and brother-in-law (Isa and Daniel).

I like having the company.  And it really helps that the four of them are boon companions.

A week ago, they invited me upstairs to join them in a home-cooked meal of pork and potatoes.  Monday night Isa knocked on my door with a piece of apple pie.  (I suspect I had shared my little vice with her.)

I ate half of it before I could put it on a plate on the counter.  About five minutes passed before I got back to the pie.

I picked it up and took a big bite.  While I was chewing, my left hand (the one holding my dessert) started tingling.  I didn't think apple pie was a major cause of heart attacks.  So, I discarded that possibility as a food heresy.

When I turned on the light, I saw immediately what had happened.

Living in the tropics has theoretically taught me to modify my northern ways.  I shake clothes and shoes for napping spiders, scorpions, and centipedes.  I look at handles before grabbing them to avoid the spines of some rather pretty caterpillars.

And I do not put food on counter.  If I prepare a meal, I immediately wipe down the counters, cutting boards, and utensils.

The reason?  Little black ants.  I swear they can sense a random drop of grease from two lots away.

That is what happened to the pie.  When I switched on the light, I could see a troop of ants skittering around on my hand looking for a safe egress.

And the pie?  It looked as if a waiter had passed by with his baseball-bat size mill and had left a generous pepper serving on the crust.  Well, on the crust.  Under the crust.  Under the pie.  In the pie.  They were everywhere. 

Including, quite a few of them, down my throat.  You do recall that last big bite I told you about.

The remainder of the pie took French leave.

When Isa returned from the beach on Tuesday evening, I told her my funny tale.  She laughed, but felt sorry that I was not able to finish my piece of pie.

So, before I could head out to dinner, she was at my front door with apple pie and ice cream.  I almost felt like celebrating George Washington's birthday -- or holding a Fourth of July party.

This time the ants didn't have a chance.  I sat down and ate my pie while I typed this note to you.

Sweets?  Don't like them.  But I am looking forward to some more apple pie for Thanksgiving in Oregon. 

Family up north?  Are you getting all this down?


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

chicago of the mountains

Yesterday, I drove to -- well, what should I call it?

The Big City is Guadalajara -- at least in this part of the world.  And The City is Manzanillo -- with no apologies to San Francisco.

But, then, what should I call Colima?  I guess there is no choice.  It will have to be The Second City.

And that is exactly where I went on Monday morning.  To see an ear, nose, and throat specialist in the hope that he could find a possible cause for the on-going infection in my jaw.

As happens so often when I need to be on my way at a given time, we had a major change of circumstances in the house.  A power outage.  And the power was out when I headed off to bed -- not certain I would get up in time to get to my appointment.  Colima is just over a two-hour drive from Melaque.

When I got up, fortunately, the power was on.  "Fortunatly," not just because it is difficult getting dressed in the dark (which it is when you are trying to find you socks and long pants), but fortunate because I needed to calla friend to coordinate airplane reservations from London to Seattle next September. 

With that accomplished, I was on the road to Colima.  As you can see by the photograph at the top, Colima is not Melaque.  You could easily believe you were in Los Angeles -- with the golden arches and membership-welcoming arms of Sam's Club.

But this was not a shopping or eating day.  My consultation with the doctor was brief.  He stuck his camera up my nose, in my ears, and down my throat.  All vividly displayed on a large flat screen.  I felt almost like Kathie Lee Gifford's colon.

The prognosis?  My dentist is doing good work.  I have a bit of tropical fungus in both ears, a slight allergy to something, and a pesky infection in my left ear that is causing pain in my jaw.

I walked out with a prescription for three drugs that cost me $1950 (Mx) -- about $151 (US).  The doctor's fee?  $500 (Mx) -- about $39 (US).  That is the most money I have spet for Mnexican medical care in one day since I broke my right ankle.  But this is The Second City.  They have a McDonald's.

Before you ask -- yes, I did press the doctor as to  the connection between the ear, my jaw, and my tooth.  The answer drifted off into Spanish that I did not fully understand.

What I did understand is that when I return to Mexico, I am to go to an an x-ray shop and get a full panorama of my face.  That will be sometime in December.

By the time you read this on Tuesday, I will be on my way to the dentist in The City to discuss some alternatives.  I suspect they will all start with: "We need to wait until December."

When I got back to Melaque from Colima, I swung by the source of our power difficulty on Sunday night.  Apparently, a driver ran his car into a power pole on a corner a few blocks away.

The impact was great enough to topple one of those concrete poles we saw in pile driving man.  But not just one.  The weight of the wires pulled down a second pole.  And then a third. 

The result?  The town went black.  And the driver sped off.

Even though the power company restored my electricity within two or three hours, the people who live on Three Poles Down block were without electricity until Monday afternoon.

I stopped by to the thank the crew that was working so hard in what was once again a scorcher of a day.  They really do good work.

And while we are talking about the return of old blog topics, it appears that normalcy is being restored to my little pond.  The water is still shallow, but a mother crocodile has returned, in the night, to the beach where the clutches of eggs hatched earlier this year.

Maybe it is time to break out the cocodrilito volunteer squad again.  But they may still be at Sam's Club.

Monday, October 28, 2013

pail by comparison

I have no bucket list.

It isn't that I am a man with no sense of curiosity or adventure --the kind of guy who doesn't care what he does before his hall pass expires.

If you have read these pages for any time at all, you know I am not a person to pull an Achilles in my tent.  I enjoy getting out in the open.  If not on the edge.

My problem with bucket lists is that I am not a very consistent list tender.

Let me give you an exapmle.  Several years ago, I decided to read a biography of each of the 43 men who have served as President of The States.

The goal made sense.  After all, the life of each president presents a little slice of American history.  And I always discover some new dispute I knew little about.  Or something I knew about, but can now examine from a different perspective. 

Think of Spielberg's treatment of the Thirteenth Amendment in Lincoln -- culled from a new biography.  Old issue.  New vantage point.

That is the beauty of biographies.  No matter how well I know the subject, there is always some new treat to be discovered.  And, in the process of learning more about the country, I learn more about myself.

I am currently reading A. Scott Berg's Wilson.  The similarities between Wilson and the current president are impossible to ignore.  If Wilson bequeathed us anything, it was a set of foreign policy principles with which we still grapple.

When I finish off Wilson, I will have read 17 of the stated goal of 43.  I suspect I may have read biographies on at least two of the presidents on the list.  But, as I told you, I am a lousy list tender.

At the rate I am going, I should be finishing up number 43 just as we have elected our 50th president.  I doubt my hall pass has that much time remaining.

Here is the list.  (I am not anal enough to include the biographer names.)

George Washington
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams

Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren

William Henry Harrison

John Tyler

James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor

Millard Fillmore

Franklin Pierce

James Buchanan

Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson

Ulysses S. Grant
Rutherford B. Hayes

James A. Garfield
Chester Arthur

Grover Cleveland

Benjamin Harrison

William McKinley

Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft

Woodrow Wilson

Warren G. Harding

Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Hoover

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S Truman

Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy

Lyndon B. Johnson

Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford

Jimmy Carter

Ronald Reagan
George Bush

Bill Clinton

George W. Bush

Barack Obama


Sunday, October 27, 2013

you can always call, dan brown

It wasn't there when he left two hours before -- for dinner.

At least, he could not remember seeing it.

But there it was.  He caught only a glimpse of it in the peripheral glow of his flashlight.

He stopped.  And centered the beam on the apparition.

There could not be a shadow of doubt.  An occult group had performed some abomination in his courtyard in front of an inverse crucifix.   

Witches?  Druids?  Satanists?  Maybe even -- Masons.

Only Professor Robert Langdon could resolve this dilemma.  [Cue eerie, cheesy horror music with plenty of broad chords on the organ.]

Or not.

Some of the debris that appears on my courtyard wall could make a nice living for a symbologist.  You know the type.  The Dan Browns of the world who make up tales to scare the bucks out of readers.

I have been watching this bit of gardening detritus for the past two days.  I have no idea how long the bougainvillea stick has been hanging from that piece of twine.  But it has offered up a cornucopia of charchters as the light changes throughout the day. 

It is not quite Monet's series of the Rouen Cathedral.  But it will do.  As an art form.

And, of course, in almost every film where the inverted cross appears, there is no black magic.  It is merely Peter's cross -- the one on which he was traditionally crucified: upside down.

It is a good reminder that what we sometimes take for heresy is actually orthodoxy in a different -- and more practical -- form.

It is Sunday.  And I am in a sermon mood.

For that, I will not need the services of Robert Langdon.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

making time

There is always at least one nudge in everyone's life.

You know him.  The guy who is always prepared to correct you that the twentieth century began on 1901, not 1900.  Or that "verbal contract"  is not necessarily the same thing as an "oral contract."  Or that it is "daylight saving time," not "daylight savings time."

You know him because he is right here talking to you.  Now and then.

I brought up daylight saving time because we are about to launch into our winter clock this weekend.  Early Sunday (27 October) morning -- 2 AM to be exact -- most of the citizens of the Republic of Mexico will move their clocks back one hour.  What was 2 AM will once again be 1 AM.

In the common parlance, we will "gain" one hour.  As if the government gods in their beneficence had conjured up extra time and deigned to award it to us.  Of course, in another six months, they will simply "tax" (or "steal," as we common folk say) it right back.

If I remember correctly, people north of the Rio Bravo will not do the time tango until the first Sunday in November. 

But this notice is not for you. It for my compatriots in Melaque and the surrounding area.  If you come to church at San Patricio by the Sea on Sunday morning using summer reckoning, just wait an hour.  The rest of us will show up.

And there will be no smug smiles of "we are more responsible with time" by anyone there.  After all,we are studying grace. 

Self-righteousness can just run its course using a different clock.

Friday, October 25, 2013

pile driving man

I am different.

At least, when it comes to driving in Mexico.

Most expatriates will tell you that driving is dangerous here.  So dangerous that they are often surprised to arrive at their destinations in one piece.

For me, driving in Mexico is the very essence of adventure.  Emily Dickinson had it all wrong.  We do not join death in his carriage.  We make him sit in the passenger seat of our car and gleefully tell him: "Just watch this."

But even I am surprised now and then at what I encounter on Mexican roads.  Take the photograph at the top of this post, for instance.

It is a truck from the national electric company heading through town with a load of new concrete poles.  The camera foreshortens the fact that the poles are positioned at an angle to make them very simple to unload.  With a quick tap on the brakes, for instance.

You can see the angle better here.

And the only thing dividing the poles on the trucks from poles as pile drivers through Steve's chest?  That thin piece of nylon rope.  Thin enough that it would not be an adequate tow line for a skier.

It turned out that one of those trucks was on its way to my neighborhood.  To replace crumbling poles and to upgrade the transmission lines.

It should have occurred to me that if men are up on poles and lines are in the street, the power in my house would be off.  It was.  No computer.  No fans.  No refrigerator.

So, out I went to watch the show.  A neighbor, who was weeding in front of her place, came over to talk with me while we marveled at how smoothly the work was going -- and how authorities up north would have a fit at the safety "violations."

As we said that, the crew was swinging a pole off of the truck.  It missed hitting us both by about a foot or so.  But it missed.  And that was good enough.

The crew worked all day.  Long enough that the contents of my refrigerator were beginning to take on room temperature.  But around 5, the job was done.  The power was back on.  And I could return to the computer while the fans blew hot, humid air on me.

Another neighbor joined me for dinner at The frog last night.  We both marveled at how orderly the new lines look.  As if they had been installed in Stockholm.  Well, maybe Stockholm of another century.

The lines are all straight and parallel,and look far more substantial.  The concrete poles appear as if they could hold up to tropical deterioration for five years or so.

The fact that we have electricity pleases me.  That the infrastructure looks nice is merely cream cheese on the sushi.

Now, if Carlos Slim would show the same concern for my internet, I would be a happy, but sweaty, camper.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

ticking me off

Well, it was either that or "tick talk."  And that seemed a bit too precious.

I had talked my friends Lou and Wynn into joining me on a trip to
Villa Purificación in the hills above our little fishing village.  My first visit was last March when my mother and brother were visiting.  (purity of sacrifice

Because that visit was so brief, I wanted to spend a little more time there.  But that was not to be.

One of the reasons I like traveling with Lou and Wynn is that both of them love traveling down roads with unknown destinations.

We did not exactly do that.  But we came close.

I had mentioned to them, that in the five years I have lived in Melaque, I have never visited the coffee plantation at Cuzalapa -- just an hour or so away by car. 

People who drink coffee have told me that the brew is delicious.  But I was far more interested in seeing how coffee grows locally.

So, off we headed in the opposite direction from
Villa Purificación.  Stopping along the way for a quick visit to the church in Cuautitlán de García Barragán.

The church is nothing special, but the area is one of the most pleasant I have visited in Mexico.  With ts high-ridged mountains and billiard-table-smooth fields, the area could convince urbanites to join a Rousseauean simplicity clan. 

The coffee plantation is not really a plantation at all.  It is actually a co-op that roasts and markets the locally-grown coffee.  On Wednesday,they were not yet ready for northern visitors.  (Even though there were parking signs in English -- giving away the little secret of who stops by these hills.)

I am not certain what I expected from the grow operation.  I knew coffee trees are rather small and need to grow in the shade of other trees.

But I was not expecting how spread out the trees are.  After all, this is a co-op where coffee trees are planted where the various owners can harvest the berries.

Right now, the flowers have faded,and the berries have started forming.  But they are a green as limes. When they turn red, they will be ready to harvest.

The three of us took a short hike amongst the trees nearest to the village.  But most of the trees (and wildlife) are on the other side of a stream that was too swollen to cross on this trip.

That means a return trip will be in order -- maybe next year -- when the berries are ready to harvest.  Or I may end up telling the coffee story during our trip through Central America.

I did have one uninvited guest on this visit.  In order to get close-up shots, I walked through some high grass.

About a week ago, I told someone I was amazed that I had not been bitten by ticks while living down here.  That changed yesterday. 

I felt a sharp sting on the front of my right shin.  It looked as if I had picked up a spider.  But when  tried to brush it off, it stayed in place.

Now, I am no stranger to ticks.  We would often bring them home after playing in the woods around Powers.  And Mom did her maternal duties by picking the ticks off of us.  The same companions often joined us on Boy Scout camping trips.

This was a big guy.  But he had obviously not been on my leg long.

Out of curiosity, I performed a due diligence on the internet.  You would think the same hysterics that write for the State Department write these tick articles.

From Wikipedia:  "
Major tick-borne diseases include Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, relapsing fever, tularemia, tick-borne meningoencephalitis, Colorado tick fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, babesiosis, and cytauxzoonosis."

And if you are curious about the symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,for instance:  "
Initial signs and symptoms of the disease include sudden onset of fever, headache,and muscle pain, followed by development of rash. The disease can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages, and without prompt and appropriate treatment it can be fatal."

Of course, that is about the same as describing cars as devices to transport humans -- often resulting in accidents that can include serious injuries that can be fatal."

So, I will do the smart thing and watch for fever, headache, and muscle pain.

But, I suspect I will be fine -- just like the thousands of people bitten every day by ticks.

I seem to be on a trend here.  De-worming earlier in the week.  And de-ticking yesterday.  At this rate,I will soon be eating my supper out of a dish marked "Fido."  And hearing whispered threats of neutering.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

on a roll

Food seems to be the topic of the week here on Mexpatriate.

I would attribute that to the fact that I have taken my periodic dose of worm medicine, and I am subsequently feeling a bit peckish these days.

OK.  That may have been a bit more than you wanted to know.  But food is on my mind.

For those of you who know me, whenever I meet with friends, I like to have a plate of something tasty in front of me.  Witty companions and good food are a hard combinatin to beat.  And it is even better if I can eat someplace where I can have the same conversations with the staff as I can have with my fellow diners.

People who sit near me in restaurants need to beware.  If they are within earshot, they could easily get sucked into the maw of a Mexpatriate conversation.

Rooster's is that type of place. 

I have had a Steve table since they opened in their current location.  And best of all, the waiters are very good at guessing what I will order each day.  Not because I eat the same dish, but because they seem to know my moods.

To add a bit of mystery to the mix, I had fun this summer making up dishes with Gary.  Gary and Joyce are Canadian.  But they are full-time expatriates in Mexico.  They are also the proprietors of Rooster's.

I am not certain how it started.  And I know Gary and I will have diametrically opposed memories.  But one day we were talking about what would be a good addition to the breakfast menu.

I am not very fond of pancakes.  But it occurred to me that the pancake itself is nothing but a binder for other ingredients.  The trick is in finding the correct ingredients.

After several false starts, I found my perfect breakfast.  Well, perfect for a week or two until I moved on to something else.

Pancake batter infused with onion, bacon, and lots of jalapeño peppers.  And, because it is breakfast, it needed a very-lightly-cooked egg on top.

Gary's version featured the same ingredients, with the addition of cheese cooked inside and sour cream on the top.  I preferred my version.  I am not a big fan of cheese cooked in food.  And the less said about sour cream and pancakes, the better.  (I am certain I will soon get a protest note from the Ukrainian delegation.)

I will save the story of the chimichanga stuffed with the chili sauce that goes on the chili cheese dog, onion, bacon, and
lots of jalapeño peppers because I think you can catch the drift of what I think needs to be on my breakfast plate.  No girly fruit and granola for me.

For reasons that are beyond my reckoning, neither the chimichanga de stiv nor the pancake de stiv managed to make the menu cut for this season.  But Gary and Joyce are not food Stalinists.  As long as my creative mind (and lust for
jalapeño peppers) is not sated, I will be spinning out creative breakfast orders.

Of course, if the restaurant world was filled with Steves there would be chaos.  But, as we know from the classic philosophical example: chaos does not ensue if everyone went to the same restaurant at the same time and ordered chicken.

Because they don't.

And just as long as no one cooks up the chicken that is destined to lay my pancake-topping very-lightly-cooked breakfast egg, I will be happy to keep playing my Alexander Fleming role at Rooster's.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

four little words

The Frog is back!

Each year I look forward to writing those words.  It is not the MI6 subtext (even though that helps). 

The real reason is that the local restaurant scene takes on a new face -- to welcome the group of tourists that give Melaque its third highest annual revenue stream.

In this case, my neighborhood restaurant (just around the corner from my front gate) is once again open seven days a week for breakfast, dinner, and supper. At least, that is the plan for now.  Schedules are always open for modification in Mexico.

Monday was opening day.  Dionicio, the proprietor, told me last week that Monday was the day.  And I almost forgot.

As I was driving back from a choppy, but pleasant, conversation about soccer at the post office, I noticed that the tables and chairs were set out as orderly as socks in Jack Lemmon's dresser. 

Crisp tablecloths.  Neat napkins.  Fresh paint.  All just waiting for some regular guests.

So, I stopped by for an early dinner and shared a few stories with Olga and Dionicio.  During the four years I have lived around the corner, the restaurant has become a second living room for me.  It is not quite Paris, but I run into a lot of people in my Latin version of café société.

But, not on Monday.  I was the sole diner.  And that was fine.  I could enjoy my quesadilla in quiet while I wrote this little note to you.

If you live here, or visit over the winter, or just come to Melaque for a short stay, stop by The Frog and share a tale.  Mexpatriate could always use some new material -- and meet some new acquaintances.

Here is the dinner menu.  I know that some of you like to peruse menus before you stop by.  (Just click on it for a larger version.)