Monday, March 31, 2014

scout leaves school

A sermon without application is like a joke without a punchline.  What's the point?

Our pastor's sermon yesterday could have been a newspaper headline.  In fact, I think it was.  But let's deal with Ron's sermon first.

He based it on one of the most compelling miracles in the gospels.  From John 9.  The man born blind.

Upon meeting the man born blind, Jesus spat on the ground, made mud, and placed the mud on the blind man's eyes.  Jesus then told the man to go wash his eyes in a specific pool. 

The blind man obeyed -- and his sight was restored.  His neighbors took him to the Pharisees, who were not amazed at the healing, but were scandalized that the healing had taken place on the Sabbath.

When the blind man could not answer the questions of the Pharisees, he responded: "If this man were not from God, he couldn't do a thing!”  Enraged, the Pharisees cast him out of the Synagogue.

And Jesus' response?  When he heard that the religious establishment had rejected the blind man, Jesus went to him and ministered to him.

This has long been one of my favorite stories because it reminds us that the religious establishment does not always get things right.  Out of legalism -- out of fear -- out of utter hubris -- otherwise good and moral people can act in a way that throw people whose souls are thirsty out of their midst.

I have been there.  And I know the resentment that can quench faith -- just as certainly as rain will extinguish an unprotected taper.

I hope that does not happen to Sunnie Kahle.  You have probably read about her in the news.  The 8-year old girl who is the very essence of an American archetype -- the tomboy.  She cuts her hair short, wears boys' clothes, collects hunting knives, and loves to shoot her BB gun.  In another era, she would be Annie Oakley or Scout Finch.

In Virginia, she is anathema.  Or, at least, to the administrators of the Timberlake Christian School where young Sunnie attended classes.

The administrators were alarmed that Sunnie was not a bit more -- well, feminine.  The principal sent a letter to Sunnie's grandparents, who are raising her, that rather missed the second word in the school's name: "[W]e believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education."

Her grandparents agreed.  At least, with the last part of the sentence.  They pulled Sunnie out of the school.

Now, this is not one of the culture war battle lines that clutter the news.  Sunnie is not at all confused about who she is.  She is a girl.  She likes being a girl.  But she simply likes doing things that some people consider male.

I suspect that Sunnie will weather this little storm with no trouble.  Just as Scout would.  The quaint term "plucky" seems to be coined for her.

Sunnie's grandmother, Carroll Thomson, has it right.  What she lacks in grammar, she makes up for in insight: "I don't see nothing Christian about it."

Nor would Jesus. 

But Jesus would also remind us that we are to minister to the blind.  And, in that sense, I pray that the administrators of Timberlake Christian School -- and those who use doctrine to bind -- would experience an opening of their eyes to share the grace they have found in their faith.

And, while we are it, I could probably use a bit of mud on my eyes, as well.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

the eye of the beholder

I ran across Mahatma Gandhi's seven social sins the other day.

You undoubtedly know them as well as I do.  In this instance, though, familiarity may breed insight.

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice
 The list sounded very familiar to me when I first encountered it in the late 1960s.  The reason was obvious.  The words are essentially the teachings of Jesus as found in the gospels.That is why this story of a meeting between the Christian missionary, E. Stanley Jones, and Gandhi is so telling.

The story goes something like this.  Jones asked Gandhi: “Mr Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ.  I love Christ.  It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”  He added: “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

And that is one reason Gandhi believed that worship without sacrifice was a deadly sin.  By focusing primarily on God and forgetting the daily needs around us, we turn our worship into hypocrisy and blasphemy.

Let me introduce you to someone.  Anna Guadalupe Cisneros Martinez -- the woman on the left in the photograph.

Lupe is my neighbor; she and her family live across the street from me in Villa Obregon.  I have known her, her husband, and her son for five years.  But this is not a story about me.  It is about Lupe.

She works as a maid at at a local hotel that is frequented by Americans and Canadians in the winter.  In February, one of the residents, Marie, a member of our local congregation, noticed that Lupe had an artificial right eye.  Her brother had put out her eye when she was 4.  A toy was the culprit.

What Marie really noticed was that the eye was not fitting well.  Her first husband had an artificial eye, and she could tell that Lupe's eye was in need of replacement before the socket was permanently damaged.

Instead of simply telling Lupe that she needed to do something, a group of the hotel residents pooled their cash and started raising donations from family, friends, and other residents.  At least, 34 people -- if not more, by now -- donated. 

The cost of a new eye was well out of the financial reach of Lupe.  She is paid well by Mexican maid standards.  But "well" is a relative term
when the cost of the new eye and its fitting is $2,000.  And it needed to be done in Mexico City.  That means transportation, meals, and lodging for at least a week -- perhaps two.

But between February and last week, the group had raised enough money to schedule the appointment with the eye clinic.

You may wonder what my role is in all this?  I simply came in at the end when all of the hard work was done.  The group wanted to hand the money over to someone who could then see that it got to Lupe and the doctor.

Let me reiterate one fact.  Lupe is my neighbor.  For me to simply hand her the money and wish her buena suerte would have been a bit cold.

So, I nosed my way into the operation.  I will fly to Mexico City with Lupe and her son, Alex (you met him in moving to mexico -- a few customs), on 6 April.  Even though I am no expert when it comes to Mexico City transport, I will settle them into their hotel, and then accompany them on the Metro to the eye clinic the next day.

I am really excited for Lupe.  She has not had a new eye in 10 years, and we are all hoping that the socket is still in satisfactory shape to take on a new eye.

To Marie who saw the need, to those who joined her in that concern, and to the group who were willing to take time from their fun in Villa Obregon to help meet that need, I say thank you.

Gandhi's words echo through the deeds of these people. 
“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

I am pleased to know a group of people who worship through sacrifice.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

driving miss barra

This week I looked myself in the eye in the bathroom mirror and said: "You should either buy a Bentley Mulsanne sedan -- or a house."

I already have an Escape in the driveway.  And that is good enough for the likes of me.

So, I decided to buy a house.

The proceeds from the sale of my house in Salem last year are still sitting in an investment account just waiting to be set free to stimulate the economy.  Of Mexico, I guess.

I have toyed with purchasing a house for years now.  Last year, I got close by opening negotiations on the house that initially brought me to this area in 2007 (ms. barra-in-the-country seeks your vote).  I headed north to sell my house and to return with my brother and mother to get their approval.   As is often the case in such stories, the house sold while I was gone.

Buying went on hold -- until January when my brother told me that his wife was ready to retire now because of the bad winter Bend was experiencing.  I thought she was going to hold out for some years.

So, I started to search for houses.  And found at least one that caught my fancy.  I showed my family the photographs and they were duly impressed when I was in Oregon earlier in the month.

That is why my brother is here now.  It turns out, though, that I mistook when his wife would like to retire as opposed to when she can actually retire.  The winter was bad enough to push her over the edge this year, but she cannot do it quite yet.

My search for a compound was premature.  After she retires, they will still need to sell their property in Oregon.

Even so, I really liked the house.  I liked it enough to submit what I considered to be a serious offer.  The owner countered with a reasonable reduction in the price.  But I had no further chips to put on the table.  It was Game Over.

That is the second house that has slipped away from me.  On the other hand, I enjoy living where I do.  And there will be other houses.

Who knows I may even scrape up enough cash to re-open negotiations.

Or I just might buy that 2014 Bentley Mulsanne sedan -- and live in it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

the envelope, please

Good news on the medical front.

I already told you about my most recent health bout in no carbs -- day whatever.  Actually, it is the same health issue I brought south with me -- high triglyceride levels.  But the levels have remained persistently high during my life in Mexico.  Stratospherically high.

My doctor has been positive that each new medication would make a difference.  But my blood continued to run as thick as the oil that may one day fill the Keystone pipeline.

That worried Dra. Rosa enough that she thought one of my organs might be a problem.  First, it was the liver.  But the results showed I had the liver of a 20-year old (and I am not giving it back even if they find the body).  Second, was my thyroid.  But no Marty Feldman eyes for me.  My thyroid was firing on all 12 cylinders.

So, we were back to trying new drugs.  I stumbled across a medication in a Yucatán pharmacy just about the same time Dra. Rosa chose it to be my next test drug: Vytorin.

But this was going to be a drug and food test.  I was to eat as few carbohydrates as I could.  For me, that was similar to saying: "Stop enjoying food."

Amazingly, I not only managed to regularly take my drugs, but I almost eliminated all carbohydrates from my plate for two weeks.  It was not easy.  Having Darrel here helped.  I can lie to myself.  But my brother is his brother's keeper.

First thing yesterday I trotted on down to the laboratory for a blood draw to see if there is truly any profit in sacrifice.  Then, when we returned from a brief trip to La Manzanilla, Darrel and I stopped by the laboratory to take the tests results to my doctor.

The verdict?  In two weeks, something worked.  Either the medication or the restricted carbohydrates or both.  My triglycerides are at 157.  Perfect for these parts.

And my doctor's recommendation?  Stay off of as many carbohydrates as possible -- and keep taking the medication.

I think I can do that.  Even though I did not start my new regime with high compliance.  My celebration lunch was a very indifferent plate of spaghetti Bolognese (or what passes for Bolognese in these parts -- a chopped up hamburger patty tarted up with tomato sauce).

At least, it was not eggs.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

mary poppins looks for a nest

Darrel and I have been looking for the Practically Perfect in Every Way House to let the Family Cotton set up housekeeping in Mexico in a style that would shame Mr. Banks. 

That got me to thinking about an email discussion I had with my mother last year.  It all started with my post (false memories) about the first memory I can trust as my own.  I was five.

But there were five years of Stevie-life before that.  Because I cannot count on my memory, I opened the discussion with my mother about what went on during those years.  More particularly, where we lived.

This is what she had to say.  Well, with my inimitable spin.

I have mentioned before that I was born in 1949 in Myrtle Point, Oregon.  But we didn't live there when I first shook hands with a doctor. 

We lived twenty-some miles up the road that followed the curves of the south fork of the Coquille River as it eroded its way through the barrier of the Oregon coast range.  A kind soul would say we were mountain people.  An unkind soul would use a term not so picturesque.

And hill-billy could easily be applied to the town.  After all, the woods were filled with the descendants of Okies and Arkies who made their way west during the Depression.  But my mother's clan made their way through the more genteel streams of Minnesota-through Canada-through Vermont- through Massachusetts.  Yankees through and through.

But my papa was a travelin' man.  Or, at least, we were a traveling family.  He was an independent logger.  "Gyppo" was a label he wore proudly.  As a result, we moved a lot.  From one clear cut to the next.  We were the Joads of old growth harvesting.

So, we were off to the town of my birth in 1951 when I was two.  But you have already heard the tales of how I was a youthful run-away and how the first Jiggs probably saved my life in Myrtle Point.  (dog-gone days)

The next year we were off to the Big City -- Eugene.  I was about to write I have no independent recollection of living there.  But that is not quite true.  I remember the older neighbor boy who played basketball.  And I remember a very nice house with hardwood floors.  At least, that is what I recall.  Had we stayed there, who knows where I would have ended up politically.  Probably as an aging advocate of the SDS.

But that didn't happen.  We headed back to Myrtle Point.  My dad had decided that getting out of the timber industry was the wave of the future.  (In that, he was quite prescient, if a bit premature.)  His escape route?  He opened a tire shop.

The tire shop ended up in a pile of burned rubble after Dad would not sell it to a large oil company.  The conclusion was always left unstated.  But it would make a great script.  Hold it.  That's No Country for Old Men.

So, back to Powers we went after that boy-dream summer at Sitkum I told you about in
false memories.  Powers, where I attended the first, second, and third grades.  And made the type of friends that boys make -- spending days at the mill pond catching frogs for the high school biology teacher or scaling death-defying cliffs.  It was a boy's life.

Those adventures and relationships are some of my strongest memories.  And, even though I spent at most a total of five years in Powers, I still think of it as my home town.  Even as the memories dissolve into nostalgia.

But the Powers idyll did not continue.  In 1958, Dad had had enough of The Woods (as we so Grimm-ly called it), and we moved north to Milwaukie, Oregon.  That would be my home through the rest of grade school, high school, and college -- until I left to join the Air Force in 1971.

And now, I am looking at moving once again.  I have lived in Villa Obregon for five years now.  If the right opportunity shows up, I may once again revive the part of Tom Joad that was in my father -- and be off to where the pickin' is different, if not better.

Oh, yes, the Mary Poppins house.  I do have a conclusion for you that is currently weaving itself into a tale.  And I will share it.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

money makes the world go around --

not always.  Especially, if you can't get any.  Money, that is.

For the past two years our local message board (Tom Zap) has been awash with angst and anguish about our local ATM machines.  A bit of background might help.

Our three villages of Melaque, San Patricio, and Villa Obregon -- along with the neighboring village of Barra de Navidad --share one bank.  A Banamex.  With two very popular ATMs out front. 

"Popular," that is, if you count the number of people who visit them.  But not so popular for a large group of people who walk away with the type of look you see on people's faces following a political speech trying to reconcile additional spending with no increase in revenue.

About two years ago, the ATMs started refusing to deliver any pesos to some users.  Mainly Canadians (the lion share of our visitors) using debit cards with a security chip.

That was the working myth -- the chip was interfering.  So, some cardholders put scotch tape over the chip to confuse the ATM reader.  It worked for some; not for others.  But the myth claimed credibility on the theory that temporal proximity was the equivalent of actual causation.

This year, the ATMs were no more northern-friendly.  Lots of Canadian cards were refused.  But the American cards and Mexican cards seemed to work fine until the bank started switching out ATM machines.  Then, everyone seemed to have sporadic problems.

This weekend, the sign at the top of this post showed up on the wall next to the ATMs.  I had no trouble withdrawing money.  But I was using a Banamex debit card.  I was not amongst the USA, French, and Canadian cardholders mentioned in the sign.

And I am a bit curious why that group does not resolve their ongoing problem with these machines by doing as I have done.  Their cards work in the next big town over -- about a 20 minute drive.  But rather than waste the time and money of finding a machine to spit out cash, why not open a bank account in the country where you are living for up to six months at a time.

With my Banamex card, the machine almost always works.  And when it doesn't, I can withdraw what I need from the teller.  I am also baffled because some of the same people have permanent resident cards in Mexico -- declaring their interest in being a resident here.

This business of resident intentions is a topic for another post, but it helps bring into focus the impossibility of being a legal resident of two separate sovereignties.  And the Canadian government seems to agree.

Earlier this month, The Financial Post carried an article that the United States and Canada are now sharing border crossing information to assist the Canadian taxman in ferreting out Canadians who are using Canada's government-provided benefit programs, but who are living outside of the country's borders more than six months.  (Some provinces are a bit more generous to their national vagabonds.)

One of the reasons a lot of Canadians do not spend more time in Mexico is that their government will shut off the tap on some benefits (such as health care) if they stay away from the north too long.  The article also warned that the loss of resident status could result in the imposition of a departure tax or making Canadians subject to the income tax systems of other countries.

Maybe that is why Canadians are reluctant to set up a financial relationship here in Mexico -- even if they do spend half of their lives here.  If so, I am not certain I see the logic.

I guess I don't have to.  They can run their finances as they choose.  And they can complain that Banamex is doing little to win their customer loyalty.

Ernestine said it best: "We're the phone company.  We don't care; we don't have to."

Note -- If the title of this post has John Kander's tune and Fred Ebb's lyrics running through your head, let me give you a hand with this.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

shooting the cake

Now and then, I receive something in the mail that makes me realize how tattered the social-political fabric of The States has become.

The Henry Repeating Arms Company is a dying breed.  It is not an old company, but it is one of the few American companies that manufactures goods inside the country.  In this case, long guns.

Like most manufacturers, it seeks customers through advertising.  And because older men are a prime target, the company attempted to place a full-page advertisement for its Henry Tribute Rifles (that salute military veterans, law enforcement officers, firefighters, American farmers, and Eagle Scouts) in the AARP's magazine.  It sounds like a natural fit to me.

But not to the AARP.  AARP rejected the advertisement because it was from a firearm manufacturer -- without concern for the groups receiving tribute or where the company was located.

Now, I bet you know exactly what I am going to tell you next -- Henry Repeating Arms Company sued AARP for violating its First and Second Amendment rights.  I thought that was going to be the rest of the story in the country of Litigants Gone Wild.

Because that story sounds a lot like the wedding cake episode in Gresham, Oregon.  Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman requested Sweet Cakes by Melissa to bake a wedding cake for them.  When the owners politely declined, on the basis of their Christian beliefs, Cryer and Bowman filed a civil rights complaint.

There was the usual wailing and clenching of teeth, until the bakery was forced to close its storefront, and the state levied large fines against the owners.  What does not comply must be destroyed.

Much to my pleasant surprise, that is not the approach that Henry Repeating Arms Company took.  Instead, it ran an advertisement in the magazine of AARP's more liberty-minded rival, the Association for Mature American Citizens (AMAC).

I find the reaction to be telling.  Now, I have no axe to grind with any of the parties in this tale.  I am not a member of the NRA.  I am not a member of AMAC.  I would never be a member of AARP -- because of its long list of sins.  And I have more than serious doubts that the owners Sweet Cakes by Melissa were fully applying the doctrine of Christian grace when they refused service.

But that is where so much seems to be going wrong in American discourse.  Individuals are so concerned about nursing daily hurts that they do not see the bounty of their own lives.  And others are busy inflicting hurts (sometimes unintentionally) instead of offering the healing of living water.

For that reason, I celebrate what Henry Repeating Arms did.  It refused to wallow in self-pity and moved on.  Rather like John Wayne.

That is why we have the liberty of a free market.  If AARP refuses your advertisement, seek a friendlier forum.  If a baker will not bake you a cake, go to another baker who will.

I really do not want to live in a country where the government reduces all choice to those of The Chosen Few.

But, wait a minute.  I live in Mexico.  I guess this is really not a concern for me.  I will let the rest of you talk amongst yourselves.  You are in my prayers.


Monday, March 24, 2014

squeezing the huevos

The Cotton Boys went international last night.

We come from a family who enjoys its food.  And Darrel and I are top of that heap.

It is always a joy to spend time with him.  But, one of the best parts of his visit is sharing my kitchen.

There is no reason that I could not cook more often than I do.  Well, there is.  Two reasons.  Cooking for one is always a challenge.  And when I am done cooking, I am still by myself.  For me, eating is a time to socialize.

I have a large stack of cooking ideas that I simply have not got around to turning into steaming plates on the table.  Darrel and I have been working our way through a few of them.  With my no-carbohydrate restriction for the next week, we have had to be choosy.  But last night we found a home-run combination.

Eight months ago I started looking for arugula to make a watermelon-goat cheese salad.  My favorite grocer, Alex, came to the rescue on Sunday.  Then Darrel and I lucked out by finding an edible watermelon.  (Our first melon is now resting in the compost heap.)

It is simple and elegant.  Arugula.  Watermelon.  Feta (even though a fresh goat cheese would have added a different flavor and texture).  With a simple lemon juice-based dressing.  And topped with an Israeli spice blend that we mortared into pure bliss.

Leslie, over at La Cocina de Leslie, provided the idea for our main course.  Almost two months ago, she published her version of
Huevos Ahogados
-- eggs cooked in a tomato salsa with roasted poblano strips.

It is a rather puttery dish.  If I alone, anything that includes roasting a pepper usually goes on the "try later" pile.  This one did.  But I am glad I tried it out with Darrel.  While he roasted, I started boiling the tomatoes and preparing he onion and garlic.

Cooking it up was a hoot.  We may try it again -- along with a bit of experimentation -- like roasting the onions.

Together, they were an odd match that worked perfectly together.  The rather sophisticated arugula salad with its snooty cheese, and the down-home flavor of eggs in a tomato salsa.  Pretty to the eye.  And pleasant on the tongue.

Best of all, we kept within my restrictions.  And had a great time doing it.

Eating good food is far better than hunting for a house any day.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

monitoring my happiness

This has been an incredibly interesting week.  In addition to having Darrel here, I have had two projects come to a head that require some immediate attention.

And when the plate gets full, what do real men do?  We hunt down something electronic.

You may recall I brought a what-was-then immense computer monitor with me when I came to Mexico.  It was probably 21 or 22 inches, and met my purposes as a laptop magnifier for my fading eyes and as part of my movie machine apparatus.  DVDs and the monitor filled many a void in my early evenings.

As time went on, my newer laptops proved to be too sophisticated for the aging monitor.  And then it was gone.  In December, it walked off with a few of my other possessions that should have been thrown away long ago.

In January, I headed to Manzanillo to find a replacement (stop -- in the name of ley).  It appears that the world has passed me by.  Stand-alone monitors are becoming a thing of the past.  I could find huge television screens.  But no computer monitors.

I had pretty much abandoned the search.  That is, until Darrel arrived.  For those of you who do not know, Darrel is the kind of guy everyone wants to have as a friend.  He is an expert on computers.  And I was not going to let that expertise slip through my hands.

Instead, Darrel put his life in his hands by jumping into the Escape with me to track down a monitor.  We tried Radio Shack.  And Comercial Mexicana.  And Walmart.  And Office Max (well, it was permanently closed, but we did stop).  And Sam's Club.  And Soriana. 

With nary a monitor in sight.  Well, Radio Shack and Comercial Mexicana had monitors.  But either the resolution was too low or the screen was too large to perch atop my computer station.

I was ready to run up the white flag.  But we still had one potentially-happy hunting ground.  Office Depot -- where I was told two months ago that they no longer carried monitors.

That clerk was wrong.  There were three options on the shelf.  And I walked away with a 24" Acer monitor.  For $3,199 pesos.  Or about $241 (US).  Above the Rio Bravo, it would have cost about $170 (US).  But the Mexican price includes a 16% sales tax, and that makes it comparable with what you might buy in Huron, South Dakota.

But this purchase was not about money.  It was about restoring my ability to see what is on my laptop screen.  At least, when I am home.

After a bit of tweaking and experimenting, Darrel and I (but mostly Darrel) managed to get it working as a writing tool.  And, even better, as a Blu-ray capable movie machine.

Things do not bring us happiness.  But, for the moment, I am happy enough to have shared a hunting trip with my brother.  After all, we bagged our limit.

It was a good day.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

the laguna goes to the barber shop

"Everything has a sequence." 

So says my younger brother.  And he is correct in his north-of-the-Rio-Bravo mindset.

And so it is with the laguna cleanup project.  You may remember it.  In November 2012, I told you that a civic association (Prolatule A.C) had been formed to clean up a portion of the laguna that forms part of my back yard.

This poor body of water has suffered many indignities.  At one time, it was a mangrove lagoon.  Just like its cousins that dot Mexico Pacific coast.

A place where fresh and salt water could mix and impurities can be cleaned from inland water.  Think of it as the liver and lower intestine of the ecosystem.

At some point, most of the mangrove trees were destroyed on my side of the laguna.  The entire shore is now populated with houses.  Some of which allow sewer to flow directly into the water.

As a result of the sewage and the runoff of nitrogen from our surrounding farms, what was once a digestive system has turned into a pool of water covered with water hyacinth and water cabbage, and is surrounded by knots of tule grass.

Prolatule targeted those three plants for a radical haircut in the small arm of the laguna that ends at my current home.

The association hired at least two separate crews to cut the weeds and grasses on the bank, to dredge the water hyacinth and water cabbage from the surface, and to cut back some of the tule that was choking the flow of water in the arm.  It was an ambitious project.

But the results are now in.  And, in the aggregate, the laguna looks a lot better in our little part of the world.  The association members who made all of this come together deserve a lot of thanks for what was an incredible effort.

Several years ago, the local government built a walkway around a portion of the laguna in Villa Obregon.  It is a nice piece of architecture.  Wide.  Made of pavers.  Perfect for fat white boys to do a bit of exercising.

It now looks more like it did when it was first constructed.  With the weeds on the bank gone, it is possible to enjoy a full vista.  And with some of the tule grass gone, the water has a better chance to circulate.

This is the view of my little "pond" before the project began.

This is what it looks like now.

It is not a perfect job.  And no one said it would be.  Like most haircuts, there are a few jagged edges where clumps of debris have been left in place.  There are also large clumps of water hyacinth and water cabbage in the arm just waiting to take back their own.

Even though the end of the arm where I live looks as if it has suffered the equivalent of an old growth timber clear cut, the tule will grow back. 

And with it, the birds and iguanas who have completely disappeared from this end of the arm will return.  I hope.

My biggest concern is for the crocodiles.  Their nesting area has been stripped bare of any cover for hatchlings.  Since the work began February, I have not seen any crocodiles near the nesting beach.  But I have seen several a few hundred feet to east.

Maybe the egg-laying mothers will return later in the spring.

I hope so.  The crocodiles are what keep me here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

out the door

Once upon a time (yesterday, for those of you who insist on specificity), the Brothers Cotton rose early, not to save towered princesses or bejeweled dragons, but to find a new castle in the Magic land some call Mexico.

And, as in all tales of this type, they encountered beautiful and strange creatures on their quest. 

Starting with the enchanted Queen Allison of Primavera, who wished us godspeed as only the charismatic can -- especially when she is burdened with an escort who would rather be anywhere else than wearing a suit and sitting on the hood of a pickup in 90 degree weather.

Happy as brothers could be, they wandered away from Queen Allison's gracious presence only to be accosted by the not-so-good-but-not-quite-evil wood fairies -- Sandy and Melanie.  The twins who receive their power from an elixir provided by the Magic Hand of Endora.

Sandy decreed that The Brothers could not pass unless they could say three complete sentences that did not include a pun.  "And then what?  We'll get fairied away?," chortled the younger brother.

With a swish of her empty elixir bottle, she called forth what she thought would be her flying monkeys.  Instead, she conjured up a motley gang of pavement-bound monkeys and lions and bears -- all of them wondering just how much longer they would need to be wandering around in their silly costumes.

But our protagonists were safely on their way to search for that new castle where everyone lives happily ever after.

And they found some possibilities.  A castle in Villa Obregon owned by an enchantress of the north.  And conveniently located one home away from Ed the Artist -- whose exploits we have heard in other tales.

Another castle.  This one in Barra de Navidad.  With a magic pool in the center.

And a castle with a view on Barra de Navidad's primary canal.

Last, but not least, the castle that brought the Brothers Cotton together on this request (buying property with bob dylan).

This is the point where most good fairy tales wrap everything up in a nice little package.  But that package is going to have to wait until the Brothers Cotton convert themselves into the Family Cotton to come up with a nice ending.

But -- not today.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

no carbs -- day whatever

No one likes talking about food as much as I do.  Even when I am talking about not eating food.

You know the drill from slipping past saint pat.  Dra. Rosa put me on a new drug and asked me to cut carbohydrates out of my diet -- to the extent I could.  In two weeks, I will have another blood test.

That appointment was on Saturday.  On Sunday, two big events occurred.  I started eating without carbohydrates, and I picked up my brother at the airport.

The two events have a tangential relationship.  Both of us are carbo boys.  Neither Darrel nor I care much for bread.  But we are pasta and rice addicts.  And, even though I am not very fond of sweets, I do indulge in my share of sugar from time to time.

On Sunday night, Darrel and I went to one of my favorite taco eateries.  We both forewent the obvious temptation and had grilled chicken breast.  And I must have encountered something additional, as well, someplace during the day.

That night, I had what a well-bred person would call intestinal distress.  But I am a bit more blunt (and descriptive) person.  In my parlance, I exploded from both ends for almost 24 hours.  The type of upset where it is futile to even attempt to drink something as simple as water.

Maybe that was part of my carbohydrate cleansing.  When I started eating again, I stuck religiously to Dra. Rosa's request.  At home, I have been eating my now-famous Greek salad as well as a cabbage soup I have always liked.

In checking the list of carbohydrate foods, I was not surprised to discover that a full shelf in my pantry will go unconsumed for two weeks.  You can see them hiding in the shadows at the top of this post.  Their future in two weeks is unknown.  (Yes.  Yes.  I know.  Dumping them now in the trash would be a boon for me.)

What has been a surprise is that even though I lose the crackers for my favorite snack, I can eat the extra sharp cheddar cheese and the pepperoni that goes on top.  And bacon.  Plus I get to eat my favorite chimichanga (with chili sauce, onion, bacon, and lots of
jalapeño peppers) as long as I dump the tortilla and eat it as an omelet filling.

I do confess, though, that old food associations die hard.  While eating both the cabbage soup and the Greek salad, I missed having a hunk of crusty bread for dipping.  And a diet soda.  Instead, I substituted air and water.

All of this will end up well.  Something is keeping my triglycerides at stratospheric levels.  Between the drugs and the death of carbohydrates, we may have an answer.

Right now, though, I would be more than happy to be entirely rid of this little bout of norvirus.  If that is what it is.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

a trio of heroes

Meet Jesse and Tanner.

They look like two teenagers on spring break in Mexico. 
There is no doubt that their primary purpose for being in Mexico was to have a good time. But they are here for far more than that.

In February, a Mexpatriate reader, Jane Wallace, contacted me from her home in Williams Lake, British Columbia.  She was coming to Mexico with her son (Jesse) and his friend (Tanner).  Her interest in contacting me was the Indian School.  And she wanted to know what the boys and she could do to help.

We kicked around some ideas, and, with the help of Dra. Rosa, who provides medical care to the school, decided that buying sandals for the children would be the most practical thing to do.

Jane took the idea and ran with it.  She put together a PowerPoint presentation that the boys used at Rotary and Tanner's church to bang the drum to buy sandals.  The organization and several individuals donated over $1,100.

When they arrived, Dra. Rosa conducted a tour of the school facilities for them and gave them an opportunity to meet some of the community members.  As so often happens with specific projects, the sandal project was no longer in operation.

The money that Jane, Jesse, and Tanner raised will be put to good use.  They met with my friend, Ed the Artist, who is acting as the general manager of the school these days.  The four of them discussed some specific ideas.  And I will post on where those funds were applied.

The reason I am writing this essay is that it is a good lesson on how we can all live our lives.  Jane had read about the school, and felt the need to do something and to also provide a good project for her son and his friend.  The boys then took the initiative to go talk with strangers and friends, and to motivate them to reach out and help others.

It is far too easy in our little village to sink into an enjoyable life style -- and to then ignore our own neighbors.  Jane, Jesse, and Tanner saw a need from far away and came to assist those who have less than they do.

Some would call them awesome.  I call them heroes.

Thanks to the three of you for being what more of us should be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

how big will the costco be?

Small Mexican towns thrive on rumors the same way that cats live on snakes.

Melaque is no exception.  In the seven years I have been reading our local message board, we have had some doozies. 

A good rumor is usually based on something coming to town that everyone would like to use, but there is very little possibility of it ever occurring.  Costco coming to Melaque is a perfect example.  (costoco is coming)

The most persistent rumor has been that the immigration folks (INM) would open an office in town.  You can see the allure.  It would cut out the 1-hour trip to Manzanillo for those of us who have dealings with immigration.

Replacing lost tourist visas.  Applying for and renewing long-term visa cards.  Reporting changes of address.  All of that could be done right here in town.  Of course, the desire made little sense when weighed against the relative convenience of driving to Manzanillo.

All of that changed on 1 January.  Manzanillo is in the state of Colima.  INM decided that because we Melaque folk are residents of Jalisco, we would need to make the 4-hour drive to either Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara to worship at the altar of bureaucracy.

Apparently, that was enough for the local Mexican political figures to put some lead in their collective pencils.  And, as of yesterday, we now have an INM office in Melaque.  And not a part-time office.  It will be open Monday through Friday from 9 until 4 staffed by two young and enthusiastic clerks.

Even though yesterday was a federal holiday, the grand opening was held in the street in front of the new office in what I have come to know as the style of Mexican officialdom.  A large awning.  Folding chairs.  And a table of dignitaries (including local expatriate and Mexpatriate-reader, Murray Smith, who represented the expatriate community) from throughout Mexico -- all of whom had their say, with the obligatory shaking of hands at the head table after each speech.

But this was not only a matter of form.  As part of the ceremony, a stack of permanent resident cards were distributed to expatriates -- one of them to the owner of the house Darrel and I will be looking at later this week.

It just goes to prove that if you wait long enough changing circumstances can make the most outlandish rumor a reality.

Now, I wonder when that new Costco is going to open here in town?

Monday, March 17, 2014

blasting our way through fun

Darrel is in town. 

But, if you have been reading along, you already know that.  And he could not have arrived at a better time.  San Patricio is in full fiesta bloom.

By the time he arrived yesterday, the skim board competition was over.  That is too bad.  It is one of the more photogenic events of the season.  The best competitors from at least the west coast are in town.  Along with their retinues.

But the real event comes in the evening when the village, and its many visitors, doff their collective problems, and devote themselves to simply having a good time.  That joy comes in many packages.

Like spending the evening at the carnival.

Where you can imagine you are a pilot.

Or that the world is a cornucopia of sweets.

Except when it is filled with cut-rate hot dogs with all of the trimmings.

You can even win a packet of cookies for your girl (or yourself) by outwitting the fixed odds upon which carnies thrive.  In two nights of observing this "game," I never saw one packet of cookies walk away from those spinning disks.

But the star attraction sits in front of the church.  After all, this is a religious holiday. 

You can see it at the right.  The castillo.  A tower of tiered fireworks with spinning wheels, Roman candles, and a cartload of rockets that shoot directly into the audience.

This was Darrel's first encounter with this devilish bit of Mexican entertainment.  So, I got him a front row seat.  As a rule, that means we would be scorched by rockets. 

We weren't.  Even though several whizzed past our heads, we were left unscathed.  Almost.

This year there was a bit of improvisational theater from the audience.  Teen boys started throwing firecrackers at one another and deep into the audience on opposite sides of the castillo.

We are talking big firecrackers.  M-80s.  The type of firecracker you cannot legally possess in The States or Canada -- even though almost every neighborhood has its own contraband source.

Several northern women must have imported their notion of illegality with them.  Despite their wagging fingers in the faces of the boys tossing the firecrackers, the fire fight continued through the evening.

I had a great time.  So did Darrel.  Neither of us can hear very well right now.  Two M-80s detonated right beside us.  Lobbed, I might say, from "the other side."

It has been a great start for Darrel's visit.  I doubt we will find an evening filled with quite as much sound and light.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

slipping past saint pat

Every time I think I am getting comfortable in Mexico, something comes along to improve the situation.

As you know, I moved to Mexico to get away from the comforts of Oregon.  I wanted to live somewhere that would both challenge and surprise me.  Someplace that would yank me into appreciating what life offers.

Well, I am getting that in spades these days.  Since returning from Oregon on Wednesday, I have been running from events to meetings to parties.  If I had left for Central America today, a lot of projects would have been left hanging fire.  You will hear about some of them in the next couple weeks.

This is also my favorite time of year here in Melaque.  The patron saint of San Patricio is San Patricio -- the Irish saint we discussed last week.  Even though we are theoretically in the midst of Lent, whatever the rules of being compliant during this season must be suspended when celebrating a saint day in a manner that would put hedonism to shame.

I hate to confess that I have missed almost all of the festivities.  Other than the parade the other day and a brief walk through the carnival, I have not been staying up late for the nightly fireworks.  The castillo was all set up for the night's festivities, but I came home early to get in bed.

After all, Sunday is going to be a long day.  Up early to get to the beach for the 8 AM skim board competition.  Then to church.  Then to the airport to pick up my brother.  If I can convince him to stay up late, we will go see the fireworks together.

But there is one piece of news I have not yet told you.  I had a blood test on Friday to test how my thyroid was working.  My doctor was convinced that I suffered from hypothyroidism and that was affecting my high count of triglycerides.  My mother was in that camp, as well.

It turns out they were both wrong.  My thyroid is operating as efficiently as my liver.  My cholesterol is fine and my blood pressure passes for normal.  And after two days without medication, my triglycerides were still high, but lower than when I was taking the medication.

Here is the plan.  (Felipe will be partially pleased.)  She has placed me on a new medication (ezetimiba/simvastatina) and has pulled me off all carbohydrates for two weeks.  She approved of some mild exercise, but nothing strenuous until my blood is thinned out.

So, there you have it.  Nothing seems to be terribly wrong other than the pesky persistent triglycerides.  I suspect this is going to be a long-term tussle.  After all, I have had high triglycerides for almost 40 years now.  And no one seems to know why. 

They were high when I weighed 145 and exercised almost daily.  But that is not what I weigh now.  And my exercise program is about as successful as recent American foreign policy.

What I can do is stick to my carbohydrate restriction while Darrel is here (though that will be hard) and get on with the house hunting project.

The next few weeks should be a hoot.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

the big lie -- one million americans in mexico

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

It is a sign certain that I have come to no good end when I start quoting Goebbels for my hook. 

But there it is.  And despite the fact that it was uttered by a man whose very being embodied evil, it has all the marks of political truth.  Or, political lie in this case.

But today's moral lesson has nothing to do with Nazis or politicians.  It has to do with real estate agents.  A particular type of real estate agent.

As you know, my brother and I are about to embark on a house-hunting trip next week.  While gathering some information I ran across a relatively new real estate site* -- specializing in properties in Yucatán and Cancun.  I wandered over there because Mérida has long been on my short list of places to live in Mexico.

And there it was.  The Big Lie of Mexican Real Estate.  "Despite the exaggerated media news of drug wars and crime there [sic] more than one million Canadians and Americans living in Mexico."**  The missing verb and breathless bolding are the site's, not mine.

Don't you love that journalistic even-handedness.  Dismissing "exaggerated media news" by citing a number that is a stranger to reality.  But if you want to marvel at the subtle writing, you have to tip your toque to that little marketing twist of slipping "Canadians" into the sentence -- as if the extra layer would add a patina of credibility.

But we all know the truth.  We talked about the expatriate study conducted by the Mexican government in one million americans live in mexico.

There were only 262,672 foreigners living in Mexico on 31 October 2009.  That's the full total.  All foreigners.

Of those, 59,996 were Americans.  10,869 were Canadians.  (When I cited the Canadian statistic in January, a local Canadian said: "And I think they all live in Melaque.")

So, that is just over 70,000 Canadians and Americans.  It is hardly the one million that a certain class of real estate agents love to toss around.

But why would they assert such a transparent lie?  Because they want to put nervous northerners at ease.  If one million of My Kind are there, it must be all right.  Never mind that it is not true.

And, following the Goebbels play book, they seem to believe that if it is repeated often enough, it will have the appearance of truth.  Maybe even to the real estate agents.

It is good enough for me that you know it is not.

* -- No, I am not going to identify the site.  For the reasons I describe.  The site does not deserve any traffic from my moral high horse.  Anyone who tells whoppers like this should not be trusted with anyone's money.

** -- I was going to be satisfied with leaving a comment on the real estate blog.  But the comments section was disabled.

Friday, March 14, 2014

making (up) history

During closing arguments, the opposing attorney attempted to rehabilitate his client, who had spent most of the trial making up most of his testimony, by describing him as "a bad historian."

I responded: "Doris Kearns Goodwin* is a bad historian; Mr. Smith is a liar."

For some reason, I thought about that little anecdote yesterday afternoon while talking with my friends Ed and Roxanne.  Roxanne had asked me how my health was, and I responded with my usual line of denial  -- "just fine; and yours?"

But that was not true.  And I told her so.  In fact, I had just come from my doctor's office.  I had stopped there because I had run out of my triglyceride medication -- the medication that appeared to be doing nothing when I last saw her.

She had a new theory.  Maybe my thyroid is off. 

I started laughing.  My mother has been saying that for years (along with several other things), but my American doctors had refused to test for an imbalance because I did not meet the insurance company protocols for the test.  We don't have any of that "objective evidence medicine" nonsense down here south of the border.

So, I am scheduled to have a blood draw this morning to see what my thyroid is doing.  The laboratory has drawn so much of my blood lately, I have considered installing a tap in my elbow.

Before I left her office, I asked her to test my blood pressure.  I have been feeling a bit dizzy lately, and I wondered if the pressure was low.

It wasn't.  It was higher than usual -- and the two numbers were far too close together.  I could tell that concerned her.

But I forgot to tell her one of the most important events of this past week.  And it didn't even occur to me until I was talking with Roxanne.

On Sunday or Monday night, while I was in bed, my heart started the same type of palpitations I experienced last November.  You may recall that was when my doctor diagnosed that I had suffered a mild heart attack.

In November, the palpitations lasted about 15 minutes.  This time, they went on for two hours.  I almost asked Mom if she would drive me to the hospital.  But I didn't.  I saw no point in being an alarmist.

And they stopped before I did.  The event now seems so remote that I completely forgot to tell my doctor -- the one who is dealing with my circulatory issues.  She might have found it to be an interesting piece of evidence.

I will tell her later today when I get the lab results on my thyroid.  But it goes to prove something I learned long ago.  People are terrible eyewitnesses -- even of their own lives.

Even so, that still does not make me Doris Kearns Goodwin.

* -- The reference to Doris Kearns Goodwin is a cheap shot.  I admit it.  But, at the time of that trial, she was under fire with charges of plagiarism in two of her books.  Her subsequent books are so larded with footnotes that she deserves credit for kicking the copying habit.  Or, at least, giving the appearance of kicking the habit.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

a bit of blarney

Thanks to the good graces of Alaska Airlines, I am resting on my bed in Melaque threading together some random thoughts in hope they will hang together -- better than a cheap Walmart suit.

Speaking of Walmart, I was in the Bend store on Tuesday with my brother.  We were on some mission or other involving onions and envelopes when I was distracted by a shiny object.  A pile of shiny objects to be exact.

I picked up an over-sized tricolor top hat and tried it on.  Along with an over-sized tricolor bow tie.  It was the St. Patrick's Day display.  And I knew I just had to buy the outfit that made me look like a combination between a crazed leprechaun and an unemployed Saint Nick.

After all, San Patricio is days deep into our annual San Patricio Festival.  But I didn't buy the hat.  And I didn't buy the bow tie.  Because they seemed a bit over the top.  That is until I encountered the "Parading the Irish Saint" procession yesterday. 

One of Mexpatriate's running stories is how the patron saint of Ireland ended up being the patron saint of a little Mexican fishing village on the Pacific coast?  I am not certain why I find that so odd.  After all, there are plenty of towns named after Italian and Spanish saints.

For some reason, an Irish saint just seems different.  Almost like encountering a village in County Cork named Our Lady of Guadalupe West Muskberry.
I should have bought the costume.  It appears that I would have fit in with the wearin' of the green in town yesterday.

I often point out that our little town doesn't quite fit in the mold of the more traditional colonial Mexican cities.  And this photograph could be Exhibit A.

Maybe that is why I feel so comfortable here.  Where eccentricity as worn as comfortably as an old trench coat.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

buying property with bob dylan

Not too long ago, I promised you some big news.

When I made the promise, I was not certain what that news would be.  But here it is.  And it is not quite what I anticipated.

Yesterday, we held a family meeting.  The Cottons are headed south.  Sort of.

Seven years ago, at my sister-in-law's request, I started researching places where our family could live after retiring.  Narrowing the list to Mexico was easy.  And I eventually decided that either Pátzcuaro or Barra de Navidad would be perfect nesting grounds for the Family Cotton.

Most of you know how this story turns out.  I was the only member of our family who decided to retire.  And, due to a number of coincidences, I moved neither to Pátzcuaro nor Barra de Navidad, but to dusty little Melaque -- where I have been living on my own for five years.

It appears that may change within the next couple years.  My brother is ready to move down.  If he had his way, he would be in Mexico tomorrow.  But there are still some work projects to complete -- for him and for my sister-in-law. 

So, here is what we think is going to happen.  In about two years, the two of them will start spending time in Mexico with me -- until they can divest themselves of their property connections in Oregon.

And Mom?  She will spend time visiting, as well.

That brings us back to the question of whether or not to buy a house.  It would be nice to have our own place when they visit.  But I am no longer looking for a place exclusively for the four of us.

I have at least three places in mind to visit when I return to Melaque -- all three in Barra de Navidad.  One is pictured at the top of this post.  And it appears that the house I have loved since 2007 (ms. barra-in-the-country seeks your vote) is back on the market.

As you read this, I am on my way from the Redmond airport to the Manzanillo airport.  It may be a few days before I have any additional news to announce on this front.

But the times, they are a-changin'.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

moving to mexico? -- taming the mule

Mexico and I started our love affair in 1971.

I was a second lieutenant assigned to Laredo as a student pilot.  To me, Mexico was as alluring as the beautiful young women who hung around the Officers' Club in the hopes of becoming the wife of an Air Force pilot.
Two Texans had befriended me at the base.  Tommy Sargent, my roommate from Officer Training School, was from San Antonio.  Larry Gana, my neighbor in the BOQ, was from Houston.

They taught me the survival skills of border living.  How to eat a w
hole jalapeño without passing out.  How to determine if you are eating grilled goat or grilled dog.  And plenty of other helpful hints -- most of which have absolutely no application to my current lifestyle.

And there was the advice about what to take along on a trip to Mexico.  Cans of oil.  Oil pump.  Various car parts.  Water.  Snacks.  I suspect that the mindset had not changed one iota since Pershing's invasion.

One question I often receive from people contemplating a move south is: "What do I need to bring with me?"

I am never quite certain how to respond.  When I moved five years ago, I followed the Pershing model.  My Escape was stuffed with enough goods to set up house on some deserted island in the middle of the Pacific. 

It turned out that I needed almost none of it -- with the exception of good cookware. 
Several of the boxes have remained unopened since 2009.  The reason is simple.  Mexico offers just about anything that a middle class expatriate needs.

But that does not keep me from buying goods on my trips north to take home to Mexico.  Some of that is just habit.  And all of my purchases are admittedly eccentric.

So, what am I taking back to Mexico on Wednesday?

  • An Eagle Creek suitcase.  I needed to replace my old Eagle Creek for my cruises this summer.  I have found nothing in Mexico to match the quality.
  • Briefs and socks.  I thought I would find a larger variety up north.  But Hanes has stopped making my preferred British-style boxers.  I could have bought the boxers pictured above at Costco in Puerto Vallarta.  The same goes for the socks.
  • Jelly bellies.  I do not really need them.  But I love them.  Also available at Costco in Mexico.  This jar is almost empty.
  • Brach's spiced jelly bird eggs.  Another weakness.  And only available in The States at Easter.  I have never seen them in Mexico.
  • Ziplock freezer bags.  The regular variety are everywhere in Mexico.  But not the freezer variety.
  • DVDs.  Pirated copies, of course, are available in my local tiaguis, but I choose not to deal with the narcos.
  • Books.  A Paz paperback and a Central America tour book.  There are no bookstores anywhere near my house.
  • Listerine.  Everywhere in Mexico.  But not my preferred variety -- soft mint.
  • Crest sensitive toothpaste.  It shows up at Walmart now and then.
  • Chocolate pudding mix.  I have never seen it in a Mexican store.
  • Red curry paste.  I have never looked for it in Mexico.  This is an experiment.
Four years ago, the mix would have been quite different -- for the same reason I did not need to purchase most of these items.  Mexico offers them -- and more.

I no longer smuggle in Boar's Head pepperoni because I have found an adequate substitute.  The same goes for Carr's water crackers.

Of course, the list very well may change if I buy that house that is tempting me.  Sheets and towels will undoubtedly fill my suitcases when I become a homeowner.

Until then, I will end up carting goods through Mexican customs that I could just as easily purchase in Manzanillo or Guadalajara.

Old habits are hard to break. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

to die loved is to have lived

"No man is an island."

Or so John Donne taught us.  He was probably wrong on several levels concerning that observation -- as he was on others.

But there is little doubt that men fear becoming islands.  Unattached.  Lonely.  Insular -- to take advantage of a too-obvious Latin pun.  A fear that induces Emerson to echo in our heads that we "lead lives of quiet desperation and go the the grave with the song still in [us]."

Even those of us who enjoy being alone fear absolute isolation from all human company.  Very few of humans can thrive on the psychology of the hermit life.

Such ruminations came to mind yesterday while I watched two of the nominees for the best picture Academy award.  And both were about human isolation.

The first was 12 Years a Slave -- the winner of that coveted award.  The movie is based loosely on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a Black freeman living in New York who was lured from his middle class home to Washington, DC., where he was shanghaied into slavery in the South of the 1840s.

My first reaction was that the film was flat.  Beautifully filmed, but free of almost any emotion.

But that is the film's center.  Even though the film concerns slavery, it is actually a movie about the impact of isolation on the human soul.

Lost in slavery, with no way to escape or to contact his family, Solomon Northrup learns to survive as a slave by complying.  By becoming a good servant.  A role that repeatedly save his life.

That is exactly what slavery is.  An institution where emotion serves no purpose, and hope has no place in daily living.

Solzhenitsyn wrote that he could not understand why Russians did not resist when the KGB came to arrest them -- moral outrage required resistance.  But, when they came for him, he wrote: "I did nothing."

If the movie is relegated to its surface text, it is not very interesting.  If this is supposed to be solely an anti-slavery movie, it would fall far short of its mark.

After all, it is the tale of one middle-class American who was illegally sold into slavery.  It is not the story of the rest of slaves who were immorally held within the vice of the peculiar institution.

At the other end of the emotional scheme is American Hustle -- a clever movie about the Abscam sting operation of the 1970s.  It is all emotion.  Often played out at full volume.

The film centers on a two-bit con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and his equally conning partner and mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are forcefully recruited by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), to help DiMaso make four additional arrests.  That scheme, through a series of coincidences, ends up being the Abscam sting -- involving phony sheiks, a cast of shady politicians, and the Mafia.

Bale's character is the center of this corrupt universe.  A small-time swindler who cannot stand the prospect of losing any of the people in his life who show him the slightest bit of kindness -- his demented wife (Jennifer Lawrence), his adopted son, his mistress, and the sting's primary target, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.

It is his fear of isolation that eventually brings the movie to an extremely clever ending.  An ending of which the actors provide fair warning early in the movie.

I have seen only three of the nine movies that were nominated for the top Academy award this year.  (I saw The Wolf of Wall Street in Mexico.  don't worry -- be happy)  Of those three which was the best?

Let me answer that question with a question.  Which of your mother's dishes were best: her fried chicken, her apple pie, the bread she bought from Safeway, or the crystal bowl she inherited from her great aunt?

Such questions make no sense without a shared perspective of what we mean by "best."  What objective criteria are being applied.  And just what it means to apply them.

What I can tell you is that I enjoyed all three.  Having said that, I doubt that I would want to see any of them a second time.

But for American movies of this decade, that may be high praise, indeed.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

sartring it all out

"Why are you always looking for meaning?"

A young friend posed the question.  We had been discussing film-making, and I had been going on and on about the subtext of the plot in one of Christopher Nolan's movies.

I don't think he meant the question in the same sense that Sartre would have asked the question of Malraux. "Why don't you just enjoy the experience?  Why are you always looking for meaning?"

I thought of that exchange yesterday while reading two books that have been on my reading pile since last October.  I had almost forgotten they were lurking in my Kindle.

The first was Anne Lamott's Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair.  It is a tiny book for what seems to be an immense philosophical topic.  Especially, if it is a handbook to the meaning of life

But she is not that type of author.  Even though she is an essayist, she writes as a poet.  And because she is a poet, she tells her truths through stories.  Her experiences.  Or experiences of people she knows.

In my conversation on why I look for meaning in movies, I told my friend that I watch movies and read books to discover more about the human condition.  To see the world through other people's eyes.  And to learn more about myself and what I believe -- often finding new ideas to make my own.

Anne Lamott answered the question in a similar vein.

Augustine's insight that to search for God is to have found God is deeply profound, because the belief we hold in the existence of another world opens space within us, and around us, which creates a more radiant reality.
She uses the analogy of stitches.  The process of darning to pull life together through bad times by finding "one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch."  Sometimes, it means just being there as a truthful friend.  Or sharing the experience of friends who have survived through travail.

That is why she is a poet.  In the tradition of the bards who sat around the campfires in the germanic forests.  Speaking Truth through tales.

But she was not alone yesterday morning.  After I finished Stitches, I opened up Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems -- Billy Collins's latest publication.

Collins, of course, is a poet.  Perhaps one of the best living American poets.  Not only because his poems are good.  Very Good.  But because they are readily accessible to the lay reader.  I think of him as a contemporary Robert Frost -- with a better sense of humor.

Initially, I was a bit put off by the book.  And that was my own fault.

I know what "selected poems" means in a title.  It means that published poems have been re-cycled to garner a bit more revenue.  To fill out a tome of new poems that would not otherwise constitute a full book.

It turns out that I was too rough on myself.  Even though I had read all of the selected poems in his other books, I found myself enjoying them.

I should not be surprised.  The nature of poetry invites re-reading.  Good poets know how to conserve words -- to hide both text and sub-text amongst a few well-chosen images.

And, as I have already told you, Billy Collins is a good poet.

I also had a good lesson in accessibility as I was reading in the bathtub yesterday.  And up popped "Royal Aristocrat" that found meaning in my soul -- because it was deep calling to deep.

For the past two or three months, I have been struggling to produce essays for this blog.  I always write something.  But almost all of it is something a bit less than what I would have liked.

And I think I know why.  I may have stopped searching for meaning in my own writing.  In one small poem and in one small book, I have a better idea of where I should be headed on these pages.

I will leave you with Billy Collins.  If you would like a good chat on such small matters as the meaning of life, you might invite Anne Lamott and Billy Collins into your house for lunch or tea.  You will be better for it.  

Royal Aristocrat

My old typewriter used to make so much noise
I had to put a cushion of newspaper
beneath it late at night
so as not to wake the whole house.

Even if I closed the study door
and typed a few words at a time

the best way to work anyway

the clatter of keys was still so loud

That the grey and yellow bird
would wince in its cage.
Some nights I could even see the moon
frowning down through the winter trees.

That was twenty years ago,
yet as I write this with my soft lead pencil
I can still hear that distinctive sound
like small arms fire across a border,

one burst after another
as my wife turned in her sleep.
I was a single monkey
trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet,

often doing nothing more
than ironing pieces of paper in the platen
then wrinkling them into balls
to flick into the wicker basket.

Still, at least I was making noise,
adding to the great secretarial din,
that chorus of clacking and bells,
thousands of desks receding into the past.

And that was more than can be said
for the mute room of furniture,
the speechless salt and pepper shakers,
and the tall silent hedges surrounding the house.

Such deep silence on those nights

just the sound of my typing
and a few stars singing a song their mother

sang when they were mere babies in the sky.