Sunday, November 30, 2014

practicing my salsa steps

We are sleeping into our best weather here on Mexico's Happy Coast.

I always think the weather is going to change in imperceptible steps.  Gradually.

But just like aging, it happens in sudden drops or spikes.  The drops this time are in temperature and humidity.  It almost feels as if Barra de Navidad turned into San Diego overnight.  Our nights are cool enough that I have turned off my ceiling fan.

Even though it was nearly a perfect day, I stayed home yesterday.  Both the pool guy (Lupe) and the woman who helps clean my house (Dora) have requested to be paid once a month.  And yesterday was the day. 

I could have stuck cash into an envelope and left it in a conspicuous place, but I enjoy talking to both of them.  Neither of them speak English.  As a result, I have forced myself to learn more Spanish.  I always learn a lot about the neighborhood.  Well, "a bit."  My Spanish is still stuck at minimum.

What is not stuck at minimum is my cooking.

On the last few trips home from Oregon, I have brought along a couple of jars of Newman's Own black bean and corn salsa.  I know.  I know.  Salsa to Mexico.  Coals to Newscastle.  But I really like the stuff.

When I was in Bend last month, Darrel and I found a recipe that purported to duplicate the great taste of Newman's Own.  And, now that I am the proud owner of a food processor, salsas were waiting to be made.  All I needed was a pile of fresh ingredients and a couple of hours of time to invest.

That is how I spent my afternoon.  Roasting peppers and garlic.  Cooking up some black beans.  Chopping tomatoes, garlic, onion, and jalapeños.

Whenever I make salsas, I usually face two problems.  The first is that I make far too much for one guy to eat -- even a guy with a high capacity for eating anything spicy.  The second is that I almost always put in far too many hot peppers.

I didn't remedy the first problem.  I have enough salsa to keep me happy for a couple of weeks.

But I overshot my capsaicin limitation.  At best, the heat is medium.  I would have preferred a slight burn -- just enough to peel off one layer of skin on the roof of my mouth.  I have a couple extra jalapeños that I may add to zest it up.

This is another of those times I wish Darrel had been here.  He loves his salsa hot.  He would never have let me stop with the number of peppers I originally added.

Some people asked me when I bought the house whether I would be happy trading off my frequent travels for a more sedentary life.  I know it has only been just over a month, but I am enjoying my house hobbies as much as hob-knobbing with those European elitists.

I am feeling a little lilt in my step these days.  Salsa-two-three-four.  Pause.  Pause.  Salsa-two-three-four.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

strike up the bazoukis

Let me introduce you to Tom Flint.

That is not him.  But it is a part of him.  It is his handiwork.  And it was why I was sitting at La Casa de Mi Abuela last Sunday afternoon chatting with him.

For the past few years, I have heard about the breads of wonder Tom bakes.  Never a discouraging word from his customers.  When I recently mentioned that I would have enjoyed a loaf of crusty bread with one of my meals, my email inbox lit up (because even Mexptriate is not so old-fashioned as to rely on a switchboard) with rave notices for Tom's breads.

So, I decided it was time for me to meet him.  And, now that I have, as I said in the first line, let me introduce him to you.

Almost everyone who lives in Mexico has an interesting back story.  Like most people, I was curious if Tom had a professional background in baking.  Surprisingly, the answer is yes and no.

We all know that fellow blogger Don Cuevas of My Mexican Kitchen was a professional baker.  Not so, Tom.

He earned his living in the financial industry doing, as Tom puts it, "I guess you could call it computer programming."  I suspect the term understates his work.  That is not the only time he bunted when a lot of guys would have swung for the fence.  But humility appears to be one of his virtues.

His was the type of work that took him around the world with frequent commutes between New York City and London.  And as fascinating as the job was, he decided in 1990 that he had had enough.

At some point, he hit upon the idea of baking.  But he was not interested in merely dabbling.  He wanted to learn as much about baking breads as he could -- and baking them well.  He attended courses at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and took three levels of courses (if I remember correctly) in Mexico.

I have always been a bit skeptical of almost any activity when "artisan" is slapped on the front of some every-day noun.  And Tom is not one of those people who affects a plummy tone of rounded vowels when he starts talking about his work.

If anything, he makes his bread-making sound downright practical.

I called him on that one.  Mexico does not have a good reputation for its baked goods.  I asked Tom why everyone thinks his bread is so much better than the local loaves.  Special equipment?  Special ingredients?  Secret techniques?

His answer was as straight-forward as his product.  He does use some flour that he favors, but he also takes his time, is careful with his yeast, and uses far less sugar than other bread-sellers.

I am always intrigued with how people ended up in this little community.  (My answer is simply: "It was an accident.")  For Tom, the route was a bit byzantine. 

His wife, Martin, was introduced to Barra de Navidad by her first husband.  She fell in love with the place.  When they divorced and she married Tom, she convinced him to come on down.  The next thing he knew, he had decided to buy property, build a house, and move here.

And that is why we have the privilege of sharing our town was a baker extraordinaire.

You will notice, that my knowledge about Tom's wares has been academic up to this point.  Each week, he sends out an email of the week's offering.  This was the schedule for this week:

     Multi-Grain - 600 grams - 40 pesos - ready at 5:00

     Greek Olive and Sweet Red Bell Pepper Bread - 450 grams 55 pesos - ready at 11:00
     French Sourdough  - 1000 grams - 50 pesos - ready at noon    
     Focaccia with Rosemary / Sea Salt / Olive Oil - 9 inch diameter - 40 pesos - ready at 5:00PM
      English Muffins - 8 pesos each - ready at noon.
      Bagels - 10 pesos each (poppy, sesame, salt, or nothing)

I knew Friday was going to be my day to hop aboard the Tom train.  I also knew what I was going to build around that Greek olive and sweet red bell pepper bread.  Home-made tzatziki and my rightly-famous Greek salad.

There was only one problem.  I did not have a food processor in the new house. 

A quick trip to my favorite plastic store in Melaque (Gladys) remedied that problem.  I now have a Hamilton Beach food processor and a Black and Decker hand mixer for good measure.  And because I was such a good customer today, the owner threw in two plastic food keepers.  I love shopping locally.

As I draft this, I am eating the salad and dipping Tom's bread into the tzatziki.  It was supposed to be my big meal at 2 yesterday afternoon.  And it would have been a good fit on the upper terrace amongst the abstract paintings.  But, there should be some salad left for Saturday.

Stop by and try some.  But, I suspect I will be breadless by then.

Thanks, Tom.  It is good getting to know you -- and your very practical bread.

Friday, November 28, 2014

thanks and giving

Talk about synchronicity.

For the past two weeks our Bible study at church has centered around re-thinking our place in our community.  Specifically, we have been discussing whether our charitable activities match up with the needs of our neighbors.

Earlier in the year, some of us read When Helping Hurts: Alleviating the Poverty Without Hurting The Poor ... And Yourself  by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors, who have worked in Christian charitable organizations, point out that the church has an obligation to help the poor -- no matter where they are located.

But they also discuss how a large portion of charity not only fails to help the poor.  In some instances, it leaves the poor in a worse position.  Rather than have churches abandon a core part of its mission, the authors provide
strategies that have succeeded in different parts of the world -- strategies the church can use to assist the poor in empowering themselves.

OK.  I know that sounds like something out of a United Nations brochure.  That is because I am trying to reduce some very complex ideas to a few sentences.  I have really been impressed with how our study group has taken the strategies to heart.

But I am not surprised.  Like most people involved in charity, their hearts are almost always in the right place -- wanting to share God's love with others.  But, we are not quite certain what our role should be.

What we do know is that relationships are far more important than handing out material goods.  And that is what we are going to be discussing in the next two weeks.

I thought about relationships in the community as I left the church yesterday evening.  As you know, I was scheduled to have dinner in a local restaurant -- Rooster's.  That turns out not to be exactly true. 

The owners of Rooster's -- Gary and Joyce Pittman -- took an incredibly brave step.  They opened a new place on the beach (just yards from their current place that will keep its current format).  And they opened it on Thanksgiving evening.

They gambled wisely.  Even though some of the details of the opening came together only on late Wednesday night, they have a hit.

The tables were sold out.  The turkey dinner was as good as any turkey dinner can be.  (Please remember I am not a turkey fan.  Lamb and prime rib are my preferred Thanksgiving meals.)

The new place is Papa Gallo's.  The idea was to have a menu a bit different than Rooster's tried and true menu.  The idea intrigues me.  I am always up for new concepts in food and dining.

One of the best aspects of the arrival of the northern tourists is a proliferation of new restaurants.  Places that are closed in the summer months start opening in transitional steps.  By December, almost everything is in full swing.

For their small size, Melaque and Barra de Navidad (as well as La Manzanilla) offer up an amazing variety of cuisine.  And Papa Gallo's, with its French chef, will undoubtedly offer up some great treats.

I told you yesterday that I am not big on making lists of thanks.  But this was certainly a day where I felt thankful.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

snacking on thanks

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.

It is a time to get together with family without any of the artificiality of mandatory gift-giving fouling the day.  Just family.  Food.  Witty conversation.  And the occasional post-feast game of Balderdash.

What I will be missing this year is the family portion of that equation.  And the Balderdash.  While I celebrate here in Mexico, my family be keeping the tradition alive in Oregon.

But I have managed to pull together an appetizer of what could have been.  My lunch will be three-year extra sharp white Cheddar cheese.  From Tillamook.  With a dab of Beaver sweet hot mustard (also from Oregon).  And a rationed pile of Boar's Head pepperoni (purchased during my last trip in Bend).

These paeans to Thanksgiving usually contain a list of what the author is thankful for.  Here is my take on that.  If you are not aware of the things that cause me to give thanks, either you have not been reading my essays closely -- or I am simply not a good writer.

But I will not be limiting myself to a few cheese and cracker snacks for my Thanksgiving dinner.  At 7, I am heading over to Rooster's, where I will share a meal with a restaurant full of people -- most of whom I know.  It may not be as good as sharing the day with my family, but it will suffice.

And I guess that, in itself, is plenty enough for giving thanks.

I hope your day is every bit as pleasant. 

policing ourselves

There's a new sheriff in town.

Well, not actually a sheriff, but a new police chief for our "county."  And yesterday he came to Rotary to let us know he has the backs of the expatriate community.

Alejandro Bravo Roldan arrived in town five months ago from the Guadalajara area, and he has already left his mark on the local police.  When a large group of the current officers could not pass a psychological test on honesty, they were fired.  He has brought in some of his own people.

Our little beach community has had its shares of thefts, assaults, burglaries, and robberies.  Including two murders last year.  That, of course, is the expatriate and tourist community -- the thrust of the police chief's talk.

He assured us that he knows the needs of foreigners, and his job was to meet those needs, having served as police chief in a community near
Ajijic.  He has worked with foreigners and developed several programs that he will implement here.

The list is impressive -- and sounds like something out of Modern Policing 101.

  • One of the Rotary members has been working with the local dispatchers to teach them basic English for emergency calls from tourists.
  • By 30 January, 30 new police officers will be on the streets in Melaque and Barra de Navidad.  A new office has been opened in Melaque already.  A similar office will soon open in Barra de Navidad.
  • He will re-introduce the tourist police program much favored by the foreign community. 
  • The police have installed 6 outdoor security cameras that they monitor from their offices.  The system can monitor 80 cameras.  The police chief has requested anyone who has a security camera to attach it to the police system for free monitoring.
  • He believes in integrated police services.  He has a social services officer who provides psychological support to the officers and can direct offenders with addictions to the appropriate agencies.
His interpreter pointed out that at an earlier meeting with tourists, the police chief said: "You pay my salary; ask questions.  You pay for my telephone; call me."

Then came the sales pitch.  He had told us what he was doing for us.  Now, he had a request. 

Because his officers are not well-paid, their families often do not have much of a Christmas.  He would like to build up the morale of the force by providing a Christmas party for the children of his officers.

He has no government money for that party.  But, in the highlands, tourists have donated money to put on a party with food, entertainment, and at least one toy as a present for each child.

What he needs is money and volunteers.  Money to pay for the entire party.  And volunteers to help run it.

In turn, each volunteer will receive a free t-shirt identifying them as "staff."  He said it was an opportunity for the community to come together to support the police force.  I really liked the sound of "community."  Or, so I thought.

He then slipped in a very odd comment.  And here I am paraphrasing: "Some people may think this is all about buying police favors.  But I am certain no one in this room thinks that."

Well, it had only vaguely entered my mind.  Until he made the comment.  But, I reminded myself, he did say this was about bringing the community and the police together.  Not just the tourists and the police.

I talked with him after the meeting to clarify that my Mexican neighbors would also be approached for donations and to be volunteers at the party.  He told me I had misunderstood him if I thought that.  This is a party only for the tourists and the police force.

The relationship between people in Mexico and the police has long been problematic.  Yesterday we talked about corruption.  Well, the police are one of the most open examples of how authority can go bad.

You know the routine.  The stop based on pretense.  The threat of arrest.  The hand held out waiting for the little bribe.  It is almost a cliché.  No.  It is a cliché.  And too often a common experience.

If the Christmas party is about building better relationships between the police and the entire community, why are our Mexican neighbors not given the opportunity to be part of it?

If it is not to create a "special relationship" with the tourists and police, then, it does not make sense.  There are children in our communities who have far greater needs than the children of police officers with jobs.

But I am going to do my part.  After all, life is not always logical.  It can be rather messy at times.

And there is no doubt that the children will appreciate the attention.  Helping them does not mean that we cannot help the even needier children in the community.  Charity is not a zero sum game.

Who knows?  In the long run, maybe police services will improve.  And maybe Mexico will develop a court system that honors due process and justice.  And maybe a penal system will be developed to reflect the interests of the people.

But this is not that day.  This is merely a day for some people to start feeling secure.  I guess that is not a bad goal in itself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

corrupts absolutely

The story could have come out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Putin's Russia.  An act so terrible that facts cannot contain the boundaries of the myth.

No one knows for certain what the facts are.  That tends to be the way of these things.  What we do know is horrible.

Iguala, Guerrero is a sleepy city with a chip in the game of history.  It is where Agustín de Iturbide, leader of the Spanish forces, and Vicente Guerrero, leader of what remained of the independence forces, signed an agreement that would end Mexico's war of independence.  It now has quite a different chip in that same game.

Exactly two months ago, 43 male students from a teacher college came to town to protest some mild reforms promoted by the Mexican central government.  Either the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, or his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, ordered the police to arrest the students -- believing that they were there to disrupt a speech by the mayor's wife.  They probably were.  Student-teacher groups from teacher schools have a history of hijacking buses and trucks as part of their protests.

The police then turned the students over to a local drug cartel with close connections to the mayor, his wife, and the police.  According to a report issued by the Attorney General's office, the cartel murdered the students, burned their bodies, and dumped the remains in a river.

The mayor and his wife fled, and were arrested in Mexico City.  The governor of Guerrero resigned.  Over 70 suspects were arrested.  While searching for the missing 43, other mass graves were discovered. 

Instead of protests in Iguala over an education reform, there were protests and riots in various parts of the country.  The massive doors of the National Palace were set afire.

As horrible as the incident is, it has torn the mask off of one of the problems that has long hobbled Mexican society and government.

Every president since the end of the Revolution has pledged to fix the endemic corruption that permeates Mexico.  And nothing really gets done.

The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, proposed a modest reform bill to deal with one of the country's most corrupt institutions -- education.    Mexico's schools have been hobbled by a sinecure system brought to Mexico by the Spanish.

The reforms were designed to make public education more effective by focusing on the needs of students, rather than the jobs of teachers.  Higher standards and higher achievement were expected in the classroom.  And a competitive  process for the hiring, promotion, and tenure of teachers and administrators was to be instituted.  All three major parties supported it.

Students and teachers didn't.  Several areas of the country have been paralyzed by protesters who have blockaded streets with hijacked vehicles.

It was a small start for the president.  But reform of corruption has to start somewhere.

Mexico has struggled with becoming a liberal democracy.  The reaction of the students is a perfect example of how a truly democratic system should not operate. 

Protest, certainly.  Campaign for candidates, certainly.  Repeatedly disrupt the lives of your neighbors, who you are attempting to persuade?  It not only sounds counter-productive, it is simply a juvenile tantrum.

But you do not arrest, shoot, and burn anyone for protests.

How did Mexico get to this point?  Let's go back to 1968.  If you recall, several months ago, I told you the story of the student massacre in Mexico City during the Olympics (promises kept -- part i).  In reaction to a perceived revolutionary threat from students, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, set in motion plans that would end in the deaths of many young people at the hands of the police and military.

That event has so traumatized subsequent administrations that student protests are given a free hand.  No matter how disruptive.  That is until someone -- like the mayor of Iguala, overreacts.  No, "overreacts" is far too mild.  Acts murderously.

But that is the fruit of corruption.  When power can be exercised without a proper system of checks and balances, Lord Acton's dictum rules.

And where was the reforming president
Peña Nieto during all this?  He may as well have been playing golf on vacation.  Because he was nowhere to be seen.

When he could have been the conscience of the nation, he was a no show.  Of course, it would have been rather hypocritical for him to ride the moral high horse of good government.  During the crisis, another news story broke.  This one, about the president's own household.  Or, rather, house.
Peña Nieto lives in a house reportedly worth $7 million.  The story is that his wife, a star of Mexican soap operas, was buying the house from the owner of a Mexican construction company.

It just so happened that the construction company was part of a consortium, along with Chinese partners, that the Mexican government awarded a no-bid contract to build a
$3.75 billion high-speed rail link in central Mexico.  The contract was cancelled as soon as the presidential house question was disclosed.

You must be asking yourself: Certainly there must be an opposition ready to step in and take the high ground?  But this episode shows just how deep the cancer goes.

The obvious moral champions could have been the
leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  It has campaigned in the past against human rights violations.

There is a major problem, though.  The mayor, his wife, and the governor of Guerrero were (and are) members of PRD.

But what about the self-appointed leader of the left? 
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Harold Stassen of Mexico.  Lopez Obrador's new party, Morena, also has close ties with the mayor.

I had high hopes for this president.  He came to office promising voters a set of reforms that would create a New Mexico.  The citizens who voted for him believed him when he said his party, PRI, had a new vision.  An honest vision.

Leaders often find their greatness in times of crisis.  This is
Peña Nieto's moment.  He can admit that he was wrong.  He must do that.  And then take the initiative to make substantive changes in the central government to root up the true sources of corruption.

Not just structural changes.  The very heart of the system needs to change.  And it needs to start with a brave man who is willing to lead his nation out of hundreds of years of twilight.

There is no better time.  Mexico has a brief window to move forward in becoming a liberal democracy. 

If it doesn't, there are plenty of demagogues waiting to carve up the turkey carcass.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

backing into eternity

Yesterday was supposed to be a day of jazz for me.  The second day of the Barra de Navidad Jazz and Blues Festival.  With two separate venues.

Unfortunately, my body decided it did not want to play any more.  More specifically, my back made the decision.

On Sunday, my friends Ed and Roxanne came over to complete installing fifteen of his paintings around my house.  He had the same first impression of the house that I did.  It would make a great gallery space for contemporary art.  Especially, the upper terrace.

When I lived on the beach, my lower terrace was plagued with barn swallows building nests.  The nests would not have been so bad if it had not been for the guano confettied across the patio.

I noticed a similar problem upstairs in the new house.  Swallows had been investigating my sconces for condominium space.  As a result, the walls were beginning to take on the look of a park statue.

So, I grabbed a pail filled with soapy water and trudged up the stairs with my brush and ladder.  I was about three-quarters of the way through my job, when I heard Ed and Roxanne pull up.  I bent over to pick up the pail -- and it happened.  A muscle in my lower left back decided I was done for the day.

At first, I could not bend forward or stand up.  I was stuck as if I had just asked the senior fraternity guys: "One more, please, sir."  And when I pulled myself together to get to the door, I looked like a Victor Hugo character on his way to rescue Esmeralda.

I will tell you about the art later, but I was feeling a bit recovered when I went to bed.  Whatever was cramped was still painful in the morning.  All I can say is that I thank the good folks at Bayer for Aleve. 

But I still was not feeling well enough to go jazzing.  Instead, I snagged a box of high quality Basamati rice and whipped up my famous chicken hoisin.  In exchange for jazz rifs, I sat down with the latest editions of The Economist, National Review, and the second season of Modern Family.  Who says Mexpatriate is not eclectic?
This is not the first time I have noticed new pains in aging body parts.  And that is what is.  There is no sense in trying to fool myself.  The chassis is beginning to show its wear and tear.

There is that numb spot under my right rib cage that has lingered for decades and now feels as if it much larger.  One of those signs I should mention to my doctor, but always forget when I am there.

Or my right ankle that just doesn't work the same way it did before my zipline accident four years ago.

Or my inability to remember the names of friends even though I used the name a few minutes before.

It isn't as if I can hear the reaper's whetstone on his scythe.  There are plenty of things that need a little Cotton touch in life.  But it is evident that the warranty on this vehicle has long ago expired.

That is why each jazz concert or religious procession or charity drive or dinner with friends is so special.  Or even a quiet dinner at home alone.  At some point, I will have experienced the last of each.

Maybe that is what makes each of these days so special.

Monday, November 24, 2014

kafka comes to barra

I had a Gregor Sampsa moment yesterday morning.  I awoke to discover that I was in San Miguel de Allende.

At least, that is what my social calendar reflected.  Sunday: Church.  Blog interview.  Install art.  Religious procession.  Jazz concert.  Final ceremony and more music for the Filipino expedition fiesta.

But, I was still in Barra de Navidad.  The cultural events, with the whiff of highlands culture, had come to me.

Let's start with that religious procession.  Usually, these church parades are nothing special.  Certain saints get their special day each year with a very predictable procession -- and sky rockets.

But this truly was a unique (in the real meaning of that word) event.  And I would have expected that.  After all, it is not every day you get to celebrate the 450th anniversary of -- well, anything.

Yesterday, it was the celebration of a homecoming.  A cross.  But not just any cross.  Here is the myth that accompanies this particular piece of wood.

The Spanish built a small chapel at the ship yard that launched vessels to carry a crown's fortune.  A cross blessed that chapel.

That cross was to have more misadventures than a Victorian school boy, including a couple of fires that cut it down to size.  Somehow, it ended up in a church in Autlan -- in the Jalisco mountains on the highway to Guadalajara.  On the same road that Chinese goods once made their way from Barra de Navidad to Vera Cruz.

But yesterday it came home to Barra de Navidad -- at least, for a short visit.  Any like any local chip that made it as a big block in the city, it was honored by a procession that only my new countrymen can provide.

Altar boys and incense led its passage.

The guest of honor was erected by the loving hands of priests in its procession home -- a cardboard boat pulled by a Massey-Ferguson.  And the cross's honor guard?  Pirates.  Monks.  Peons.  We do know our theatrics.

And what religious procession would be complete without a prepubescent Jesus on his way to be crucified, along with enough Josephs, Marys, angels, wise men, and assorted other characters to warm the hearts of grandmothers everywhere.

But there was more.  There always is.  Such as, the groups of mock Indian dancers, who would feel at home in a New Orleans krewe.

And they were followed by what seemed to be the remainder of the faithful of Barra who had not donned a distinctive costume.  Well, other than the costume of a faithful Mexican Catholic.

While the cross and its attendants headed to a climactic mass, I peeled off to attend the opening night of Barra de Navidad's Jazz and Blues Festival.

I have heard enough of our local Mexican and expatriate musicians to know there are a few truly outstanding performers.  So, why not jazz -- one of my favorite forms of music?

If last night was any indication of what the next four days will bring, we will have a hit on our hands.  The guest performer was Randy Singer, a jazz harmonicist, who had barely stepped off the airplane from Miami before he played for us.

It was an amazing show.  A very small venue -- just enough for a dozen tables.  And a crowd of people who knew and appreciated jazz.  Throw in the ocean view, and it was jazz with a tropical flair. 

My only complaint was including the overworked "Guantanamera" and "Girl from Ipanema."  The musicians were talented enough, though, to turn those two saws into something new.

Unfortunately, my social calendar is so San Miguel full this week, I may miss far too many of the jazz performances.

With an embarrassment of cultural references like this, we don't need no stinkin' highlands badges.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

soothing the savage breast

I came to Mexico to experience the rush of getting up each morning with very little idea how I was going to get through the day. 

Mexico has kept its side of that bargain.  But, in providing adventure, Mexico has also served up some stunning moments of beauty and comfort.

This is day two of our Barra-Filipino fiesta.  For me, it started early in the evening. 

I met my former landlady, Christine, at a restaurant that has recently re-opened under new ownership.  She told me that the food was very good.  The selling point was her announcement that they serve home-made tortillas.

I abandoned ordering beef dishes in Mexican restaurants about five years ago.  Even though pork and chicken here are far superior to their counterparts north of the Rio Bravo, beef in Mexico simply does not make the cut.

Because it is incredibly lean, it lacks flavor and is almost never tender.  There is an old cooking joke that even an old shoe would taste good if cooked piccata style.  Even the best piccata could not save most Mexican beef.

But the Hacienda Agave advertises itself as a steak house.  So, steak it was.  A rib eye.  Complete with a baked potato and grilled onions.  (Lest I forget, the starter was an incredibly delicate, yet robust, bean soup with a good selection of spicy salsas.)

Everything about the meal was great.  The beef was tender and tasty.  The baked potato looked like a variety of Yukon Gold.  And the onions complemented everything on the plate.

As good (and surprising) as the meal was, it paled in comparison to the ongoing fiesta.

The same orchestra that played last night was playing at the south end of the malecon.  I didn't mention the setting in yesterday's essay.

The laguna, on whose shores the Spanish built their ships that re-made the commercial world, is separated from the ocean by a narrow sand bar.  (The "barra" in Barra de Navidad's name.)

As I sat listening to the orchestra play its synchopated Mexican favorites, I could look across the laguna to the Grand Isla Navidad Resort looking as if Samuel Coleridge's words had materialized: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree."

Rather than sit and listen, I decided to stroll.  Where else could I listen to orchestra music blending with the beat of the ocean waves and let my eyes wander across the marvels of dark and light on the laguna -- all while greeting and chatting with neighbors and friends?

Mexico is currently undergoing an existential crisis -- one that has arrived just as the country is celebrating its revolutionary past.  But there is far more than that to this place.

Walking home through the dark, I started counting the ways in this single day that I have been blessed to be able to live long enough and to earn enough wherewithal to enjoy these very special moments.

It is great to be alive in a word where God's daily blessings surround us.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

big shots on the beach

Mexico is a land that loves its history.

Thursday, it was the Revolution.  But the Revolution could be a current event compared to the historical event Barra de Navidad is celebrating this weekend.

Our tale starts in 1493 -- soon after Columbus returned to Europe.  At the time, Portugal was the major maritime power in Europe.  Through its explorations, it had mapped out a route around Africa to establish trading posts in India -- establishing colonies along the way.

You may recall from grade school that Columbus was seeking an alternate route to the East Indies when he ran into the West Indies.  He died believing he had found that route.  But he was wrong.  No one knew it, though.

Without really knowing the extent of the line they were arguing over, Pope Alexander VI assisted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain to negotiate a treaty that awarded the New World to Spain (with the exception of Brazil) and Africa and India to Portugal.  The people in none of those lands were afforded a say.

Spain still lusted for a trade route of its own to Asia.  It had no desire to allow its commercial life to be controlled by Portugal.

Fast forward to 1564.  After Magellan's crew circumnavigated the globe, the Spanish had a good idea what crossing the Pacific would entail.  It could be done.

Mexico (a Spanish colony) faced the Philippine Islands, that had been claimed for Spain by Magellan.  And the Philippines were a perfect trading post for setting up shop with Chinese merchants.

The problem was finding a route there -- and back.  The only known trade winds blew to the east.  No one knew of any that blew west.  In the age of sail that was a rather important point.

So, the Viceroy of Mexico commissioned a financial bureaucrat, Miguel López de Legazpi, to lead an expedition to the Philippines to establish a trade route from the east to Mexico and on to Spain.  Lagazpi had two galleons and two tenders built in the harbor of what is now Barra de Navidad.  He then pressed Indians from the mountains of Jalisco into the expedition as sailors.  They sailed on 21 November 1564.

As unlikely as it seems, the expedition was successful.  But then came the hard part.  Getting back to Mexico.  That task fell to a friar, Andrés de Urdaneta, who was known as an expert navigator and who had accompanied Lagazpi on the voyage west.

Urdaneta had a hunch.  If the southern hemisphere had a circular current blowing east, there must be a similar current in the northern hemisphere blowing west.

With only that hunch to guide him (and a lot of Catholic faith), he headed northwest (almost to the 45th parallel north) and discovered what we now call the Japanese current.  But the voyage took him longer than he had anticipated.

130 days.  12,000 miles.  Fourteen of the crew dead.  Only Urdaneta and another crew member had enough strength to drop anchor in Acapulco on 8 October 1565.

When that anchor dropped, the world was forever changed.  Spain set up an annual trading regime with China -- the Manila Galleon.  In exchange for Mexican and Peruvian silver, China sold Spain silk, ceramics, and other luxury goods that were shipped to Spain through Mexico. 

Columbus's dream was realized.  Spain had its trade route to the east by going west. 

And thus was born one of the greatest eras of globalization.  That is, until Spain debased its currency with a glut of silver and nearly bankrupted itself in all sorts of pointless national endeavors.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of England.  Mexican independence was the death knell for the Madrid Galleon and its attendant mercantilism.

That is why yesterday was a big day in these parts.  We had local and state politicians whose heads were filled with more history than most of us could consume.

And, to our surprise, the ambassador to Mexico from the Philippine Republic was our guest.  It was pleasurable to witness these two Spanish colonies sharing such a strong special relationship.  It is strong enough that non-interventionist Mexico modified its foreign policy to go to the aid of the Philippines when Japan invaded in the Second World War.  The good will remains.

Of course, there were laying of wreaths.  Singing of anthems.  Awarding of blankets to the ambassador (with none of the tainted history that accompanied such gifts in the past).

There were soldiers.  Indians on stilts.  Beautiful women.  Dancing troupes masquerading as Indians.  Pageants.  Pirates (just like the ones who chased away the Manila Galleon from Barra de Navidad to Acapulco in 1587, and saved our little village from becoming just another spot to watch cliff divers).  Monks.  Beggars.  And an orchestra from Chapala that entertained us all with the equivalent of a Mexican Pops Concert.

In short, a great time.

Almost everyone in town must have had a part to play in this re-enactment of our friendship with the Philippines.  And everyone gave due respect to Urdaneta for making it all possible.

I grew up in a small town where the citizens would have done exactly what my neighbors did.  Barra de Navidad had one big splash in the history books.  450 years ago.  And we are not going to let anyone forget it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

suppose they gave a war --

Jack Brock is correct.

In a comment to yesterday's essay, he warned me: " It is time you removed your rose colored glasses regarding the serious crime problem in Mexico. This morning I saw a large band of bandits marching down the middle of the street in your town of Barra de Navidad."

He was correct.  Yesterday afternoon, I saw a similar gang in Melaque.  Not your usual bandits, though.

Yesterday was Mexico's Day of the Revolution.  A chance to celebrate one of the bloodiest chapters in Mexican history where Mexicans killed Mexicans in exchange for an authoritarian one-party state.  A legacy that still haunts Mexico's return to democracy in the late 1990s.

But yesterday was all about fun and make-believe mayhem.  The type of celebrations that is a perfect match for the basic natures of little boys.  And they did not disappoint.

I am an amateur Mexican history buff.  When I started writing this essay, I wondered why 20 November was chosen as the day to celebrate the revolution. 

Historical dates often get a bit scrambled.  Even though Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous el grito exhortation on 16 September 1810, Mexico now celebrates the el grito on 15 September -- the birthday of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the man who was toppled in the revolution.  (Mexicans have a great sense of historical irony.) 

But it is not ony Mexico that manipulates dates.  Congress declared American independence on 2 July -- not 4 July -- 1776.  But that does not stop Americans from celebrating the 4th.

It turns out that 20 November shares similar flaws.

You all know how the Mexican revolution came about.  The darling of the Mexican liberals, Porfirio Diaz, became President in 1877 (and with the exception of four years) served as president until 1911.  He promised not to run for re-election in 1910.  Francisco Madero took him at his word and started campaigning on the not-so-snappy slogan: "Effective Suffrage - No Re-election!"

Diaz changed his mind and "won" the election through effective ballot-stuffing -- believing that it was good to be president.  For good measure, he arrested Madero during the campaign and sent him to prison in San Luis Potosi -- along with thousands of supporters.

Mexico being the land were influence trumps persuasion, Madero's father posted a bond to allow his son the freedom to ride within the town during the day -- after all, that is what is expected of a man of his class.  And, like a man of his class, he skedaddled out of town at the first opportunity.

He headed north to San Antonio, Texas and issued his Plan of San Luis Potosi, written when he was incarcerated.  The plan was very simple.  He proclaimed the presidential election null and void and called for "violent direct action" by the people of Mexico.  The start date?  20 November 1910.

Madero showed up at the Mexican border on the 20th fully expecting he would be met by an enraged and emboldened populace.  What he encountered was the sound of crickets.  Or the revolutionary equivalent.  His uncle was supposed to show up with 400 men.  He brought ten.  That was not enough men to have a good fight at a wedding.

So, Madero did what many other Mexican exiles before him had done.  He headed to New Orleans to re-think his plans -- or Plan.

Eventually, the war began, and Madero became the thirty-third president of Mexico in November 1911.  And he then became a corpse on 22 February 1913 when one of his generals grabbed power through a coup.

The Revolution (now a petty civil war that centered on no greater question than which general would be president) would run its destructive course through the country for another seven years, and then break out in a series of secular-clerical battles that would not end until 1929.

Historians try to avoid "what if" games.  After all, what did not happen simply did not happen.  But it is interesting to ponder what would have happened if Madero had succumbed to the wiles of the Crescent City and never returned to Mexico? 

On 20 November 1910, we actually had a momentary answer to the question of "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?"  Nothing, as it turns out.  Until everybody (or a lot of Mexicans) did come.  And then there was a terrible war -- a war that still affects the national psyche.  One million dead Mexicans is a wrong no one wants to suffer again.

But yesterday was not a day of not showing up.  Mexicans did show up to celebrate a very sanitized version of the revolution. 

But, isn't that what national myth-making is all about?

These three boys are representing men who would be dead before the revolution ran its bloody course.  Emiliano Zapata, President Venustiano Carranza, and President Francisco Madero.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

i am mexico

One of the funniest songs in the musical The Book of Mormon is a tribute to how native the missionary boys have gone when they sing "I am Africa."
I am Africa...
I am Africa.
With the strength of the cheetah,
My native voice will ring...

We are Africa!
We are the heartbeat of Africa!
I thought of that song the other day while reading an article in The Economist about the sudden death of tourism in east Africa.  The article did not need to tell me the reason.  Tourists are abandoning their safari trips to shoot elephants -- with either a camera or a rifle.  Because of Ebola. 

Or, as the author put it: "Now many safari lodges are closer to extinction than the animals that surround them.  Redundant workers might eventually turn to poaching."

The article was accompanied by the map at the top of this essay.  It shows the distances between the east Africa tourist centers and the three countries on the far west coast of the continent where Ebola is having its way with the local population and with the minds of the highly excitable and neurotic throughout the world.

That "highly excitable and neurotic" may apply to me.  While standing in the immigration line at Heathrow in August (a line that could easily have been used as a stand-in for Ellis Island), I started looking around at my fellow arrivals.  And, because I am who I am, I started wondering just how many of these souls had recently waded through the river Styx in LIberia.  Or Sierra Leone.  Or Guinea.

I felt moderately less paranoid when I talked to a several people on my cruise.  They all had the same thoughts.  But we still traveled.

And that is why The Economist included this article in its most recent edition.  The east Africa tourist areas are as far or further away from the Ebola breakout than European capitals.

Of course, that analysis comes from the meticulously-trained and passion-neutral minds of economists.  I suspect that an Italian or German who worries about Ebola popping up in Rome or Berlin is not going to be comforted by the thought that a vacation in Nairobi has a certain spatial advantage over his own capital.

As I read the article, I wondered why the press has not been publishing similar maps of Mexico to show how limited the areas of violence are.  (To be fair, The Economist has handled that issue quite rationally.  Unlike most other news sources.) 

But, as I have learned to my cost, trying to convince people that visiting and living in Mexico is no more dangerous than living in my old neighborhood in Salem, is a fool's mission.  There are other issues that need to be addressed here in my newly-adopted country, and I will write about them soon.  However, violence for tourists and expatriates is not one of them.  Otherwise, I would not have decided to become a landowner.

Maybe because, just like the Mormon missionaries in the musical (and the rebozo-beclad gringas of San Miguel de Allende), I believe I have become one with this land.

To only slightly paraphrase the lyrics:

Mexicans are Mexicans --
But, I am Mexico*

* -- I rather sadly add this note.  But past experience has taught me that I need to add some voice interpretations in some of my essays.  Those last two paragraphs need to be read as if they came from deep in the kingdom of Sardonia.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

luz lights up my life

I have lived a cosseted life in Mexico.

When I moved down here, I wanted to learn the daily routines of living in my little village as soon as I could.  During my first eight months, I sat a house on the beach.  But I was responsible for paying rent, the telephone bill, the electric bill, and the propane bill. 

There is a Western Union office in town that accepts payments for Telmex (telephone) and CFE (electric) bills.  So, I learned the process of standing in line with lots of my neighbors.  And that I could add additional advance payments on my Telmex bill, but not my CFE bill.  (A trip to the "county" seat was necessary to make advance electric payments.)

Some of the rules made no sense to me, but I learned them.

For the next almost five years, I lived in another rental.  But everything except the telephone bill was included in my rent.  I had to learn very little about daily finances.  In fact, I forgot a lot of the lessons I learned in the first eight months.

It is time for me to re-learn them.  I have now been in my new house for a month.  And the bills have started arriving.  At least, the electric bill has.

Or, I should say, the electric bills.  My house has two meters to split out the various uses.

Unlike The States, my electric bill does not arrive as an email or in an envelope at my postal box.  It is unceremoniously pushed under my garage door.  A CFE worker (fully geared-out in vest and hard hats) brings a vast stack of bills door-to-door through the neighborhood.

(My telephone bill has still not arrived, but threatening recorded calls to terminate my service have.  The Telmex bills should be delivered to my house by the postman.  He has not yet brought it.  So, I made an advance payment yesterday afternoon.  Otherwise, Mexpatriate would have been dead in the water.)

The CFE bill arrives six times a year.  Two months in each billing.

Because I had only been here for one month, I suspected the bills would be rather low.  You can see how wrong I was.

The smaller bill is for $778 (Mx); the larger for $2,294 (Mx).  That is about $227 (US).

One of the first lessons I learned down here is that electricity is expensive.  I came from an area of The States where the taxpayers of the East Coast subsidized my electricity through the Bonneville Power Administration.  So, I am easily shocked by power bills.

But the bills were far more than I had anticipated.

I already told you the bills are for a two month period.  63 days for these bills.  My assumption is that the bills include costs incurred during the month I did not own the house.

That assumption is not reassuring.  It means that the cost for electricity to run an uoccupied house for one month and a house occupied by one person for the second month (plus a week of two visitors) is quite a bit higher than I suspected it would be.

The big cost, of course, is the pool pump.  It runs a couple of hours each day to keep the pool from re-celebrating Saint Patrick's Day.  Otherwise, there is the use of an occasional fan, a microwave, limited lighting, and the pump that brings water from the well.

The average monthly electricity bill in The States in 2012 (the latest information) was $108.  That puts my bill in some perspective.  But not a very meaningful one.

Of course, the bills are the best argument for not making a leap into the world of air conditioning.  I had already concluded that before the bills arrived.  The combination of the ceililng fans and the pool has been more than enough to make portions of October and November quite pleasant.

When Darrel and I were young, we were not very good at turning off lights.  My mother says Dad and she would often return home at night to find every light in every room of the house ablaze.  His response?  "Children light up a home."

I come by it naturally. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

back to the showers

That feeling of déjà vu?  It's real.  You really have read a similar essay by me. 

Almost a year ago.  In come take a shower with me.

Even the time span is not coincidental.  Because it is meteor shower time.  And their appearance is as predictable as a presidential speech.

Each year about this time, the earth's orbit takes it through the dense stream of debris left behind by the orbit of a comet named Tempel-Tuttle -- a name that sounds far more appropriate for a British earl.  Probably the guy who invented Marmite.

The result is at least two nights of astronomical fireworks.  A case where littering does serve some social good.  If only to serve the ethereal ways of entertainment.

My roof terrace proved to be an excellent viewing platform.  I could easily see the eastern horizon -- the direction you should be looking if you are curious enough.  Better yet, there was only the faintest moon to dim the show.

The downside is last night's performance was rather mediocre.  As far as Leonid meteor showers go.  In some years, there are thousands of meteors per hour.

Not last night.  There were a few just before dawn.  Certainly far more than on a regular clear night here in Mexico.  But hardly overwhelming.

Tonight will be the high point.  But, don't get over-inflate your hopes.  There will simply be more than last night.  Mainly around dawn.  The comet debris trail we entered this year is rather sparse.  All of the Big Mac wrappers are congregated elsewhere.

My eight-grade teacher repeatedly complained I was a day-dreamer in her class.  Well, there is no Mrs. Meyers to keep you from staring off into space to witness the great creation that surrounds us.

Do it alone.  Or take along a loved one.  There is no such thing as a bad shower.

Monday, November 17, 2014

existentialism comes to barra

Several months ago, my friend Nancy Miller forwarded a link to me.  It was a blog post written by an American living in Paris: "Loneliness or Freedom: The Existential Conflict of the Modern Expatriate."

The title (as any good title should) captures the dichotomy of the essay's theme.  The writer (Cody Delistaty -- I did not make that up) believes most expatriates are torn between the Scylla of freedom and the Charybdis of loneliness.

For the expatriate, life can get quite lonely. The expatriate desires camaraderie, time with people who are like her, but at the same time this is exactly what she’s running away from.
And, thus, the dilemma.
It’s a particularly odd situation because the expatriate wants both loneliness and friendship. It’s nearly impossible to separate the feeling of isolation from the feeling of total freedom, of having escaped a set of circumstances that you were born into, and, without meditated action, would never have left.
I have touched on this topic in Mexpatriate in the past.  It is also a running subtext whenever expatriates meet.  At least, in these parts.

Yesterday I was talking with my neighbor Mary.  She lives in Michigan half of the year and then spends the rest of the year in her Barra de Navidad house -- something she has been doing for years.  As a result she is a fixture in this very Mexican neighborhood.

We were discussing how "odd" our fellow expatriates must seem to our friends and neighbors up north -- and we put our names at the top of the "odd" list.  "Odd" seems to be the word whenever expatriates discuss one another.

Moving here should seem odd.  Most of us have given up seemingly-comfortable lives to live a life in Mexico that is a bit more adventurous, less tidy, and certainly not predictable.

If I wanted to be smug (and I am wont to do that now and then), I could point out that I would not be drafting this essay from the edge -- the wet side of that edge -- of my swimming pool if I had stayed in Salem.  And, though that sentence may seem to undercut my primary argument for moving here (to avoid the comfortable life; to wake up every morning in Mexico and not know how I was going to get through the day), seeking adventure often comes with its own benefits.

Of course, expatriates are going to be a bit odd.  Your typical Babbitt is not going to pull up stakes and move away from hearth and home to start a new life.  (Even though that is exactly what my people have been doing for at least the last 500 years.)

So, we expatriates just leave.  The list of reasons is diverse; there is probably an individual reason for each expatriate.

You only need to read the blogs written by my fellow expatriates to see that.  Some came seeking a low-cost life, and found love, instead.  Some came seeking love, and discovered that being single has a lot of blessings.  Some went into political exile, and developed an aesthetic sense that altered their new lives.

And that is the flaw in
Delistaty's article.  Not all expatriates left their homelands seeking freedom.  That is, unless you want to suck all of the meaning out of that venerable word.

It is simply not true.  The supposed tension between seeking freedom and then giving it up in the need for the companionship of other expatriates is a false construct. 

It is doubly false because not all expatriates seek out others of their ilk.  Many are lone wolves.  After living in this area for six years, I am surprised to discover new groups of expatriates who have lived here well before 2009.  Mary is an example.  Some of us are happy to be semi-recluses.

I had hoped that Delistaty would offer a synthesis to his Hegelian thesis of loneliness and his antithesis of freedom.  But I was sorely disappointed, instead, that he fired off this wet squib of Whitmanesque Romanticism:

It is here, where loneliness gives way to freedom, where your imagination of the life you always desired coincides with reality, that the expatriate finds that while loneliness is ever present, while freedom is ghost-like, and while it may be impossible to run away from yourself, your worries, and your insecurities, you can, in fact, run away.
 So, I guess that is what all of this philosophical hand-wringing and navel-gazing comes down to.  A solution that every four-year-old knows.  If life gets too confusing, you can just run away.

That is why it verges on the edge of terminal irony, that after all of these words griping about the article, Delistay's self-absorbed sentence rather accurately sums up my move to Mexico.

A place where I have freedom -- and where I am never -- ever -- the least bit lonely.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

cutting in lime

I have been in the house for a month now.

A small lime tree, hacked off at the trunk, has lain prostrate in the street the full time I have been here.  From the looks of it, for far longer.

The remnant of its trunk is still growing in the sidewalk at the corner of my neighbor's bungalows.  I suspect she thought the garbage men would haul it off.  They haven't.

And I understand why.  I had just tidied up the landscaping in front of the house when I decided to take matters into my own hands.  After all, I had my clippers.  Why not cut up the tree and bag it?

I had forgotten how thorny lime trees are.  It took me the better part of two hours to clear it away.  Just as I was finishing, I could hear a familiar tune and lyrics wafting my way from the sports field about a block from the house.

Mexicans, at the cry of war,
make ready the steel and the bridle,
and may the Earth tremble at its centers

at the resounding roar of the cannon.

and may the Earth tremble at its centers

at the resounding roar of the cannon!
Martial music.  Martial words. 

I was not surprised.  As I told you yesterday, Revolution Day is this weekend -- when Mexico will celebrate one of its bloodiest decades trying to figure out which general was going to rule the country.

I thought that was what it had to be.  There was the tell-tale sound of a bugle and marching corps.  Singing.  And an announcement in English about an internet company.  (I still have no idea what that was about.)

Festivities were occurring, and I was not there.  I grabbed my electronics-laden backpack and trekked over to the sports arena.

But there were no revolutionary revelations.  Only a soccer field filled with teams of various ages, all standing in the sun while the usual hierarchy of speakers droned on.  In this case, about the patriotic lessons learned on the soccer field.  And there were trophies to be awarded.

In Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, Jorge Castañeda writes about the social contradictions that define Mexico.  I witnessed one of them on that soccer field.  The ceremony may have begun with a trembling Earth and the roar of the cannon, but there was no martial mayhem here.

Sadly, the only people dying these days in Mexico as the result of the state's attempt to monopolize violence are Mexican citizens.  At some point next week, I will deal with the issue of the slaughtered (there is no other word) 43 students in

On that soccer field yesterday, there was pride that athletes can learn life lessons from one another -- no matter their age.

I am certain I will have plenty of opportunities in the next few days to report on youngsters dressed in their finest revolutionary getup, who are ready to answer "the cry of war" making ready their steel and bridle.  If only pretending.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

the prodigal neighbor

I just finished reading Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God -- a recommendation from Alexis over at A Mama's Logbook.

You might already guess from the title that Keller builds the book around one of Jesus' most familiar parables -- the prodigal son.  But, unlike most treatments that center on the relationship of the younger (prodigal) son and his father, Keller builds his lesson around the relationship between the elder brother and the father.

We all know the story.  A young man decides he no longer wishes to live in his father's household, and demands (and receives) his share of inheritance while his father still lives.  The younger son spends his money on a lavish lifestyle and ends up in dire poverty.

Because he no longer has a right to live in his father's household, he returns and asks his father to let him live as a servant on the estate.  The father will have none of that.  Rejoicing in his son's return, he dresses his younger son in his own robes and throws an extravagant welcome home party.

The elder brother is miffed.  He refuses to enter the feast with these simpering words: "Look," the son answered, "I have worked for you all these years, and I have never disobeyed your orders. But you have never even given me a young goat, so that I could celebrate with my friends."

Keller teases out the meaning of the parable -- emphasizing a point I had not really considered when reading it in the past.  The younger brother may have squandered his father's wealth, but the elder brother was just as guilty of debasing his father's love.

"I have never disobeyed your orders."  I am righteous.  I am the good son.

But it is apparent from the text that the elder son did not obey his father out of love.  He obeyed in the hopes that he could earn something.  Maybe a fatted calf.  Or a young goat.  He boasts of his obedience while standing in defiance of his father's request to come celebrate.

I thought of Keller's words today.  I bought some new electronic equipment while I was in Puerto Vallarta.  Of course, none of the boxes contained the necessary connecting cables.  And I was not quite certain how I was going to set up the components simultaneously in series and parallel.  To carry out some tests, I needed an additional HDMI cable.

Because this weekend is the equivalent of Black Friday in Mexico, and it is a three-day holiday honoring Mexico's long and bloody revolution, I wanted to avoid a trip to Manzanillo -- if I could.  So, I did what a lot of us do, I posted a request for information on our local message board.  And I received a very helpful response from a fellow local blogger.

But I received something else.  In my private message box.  A fellow I have met twice wrote he had an extra HDMI cable and I was welcome to it.

Yesterday morning, I drove over to his house.  He greeted me at the gate with cable in hand.

He then said that I might not remember, but I had muled down a pump part for him when I moved to Villa Obregon in 2009.  I had refused payment from him. 

I responded that I did remember.  And I had done it out of friendship -- even though he was otherwise a stranger to me.  And he now replied he was doing the same thing.  The cable was mine with his gratitude.

I grew up in churches where Sunday magazines were filled with stories where a grumpy next door neighbor's heart was melted by a simple act of kindness.  I have always disliked these stories.  I now know why.  They are thick with the attitude of the elder brother.  Doing something nice in hopes of receiving something nicer in return.

That is not how life works.  And it is morally false to assume that all kindnesses pay out with better odds than a Las Vegas slot machine.

My experience is that most kindnesses are paid back with selfishness and self-centered greed.  But that does not change the fact that they are kindnesses -- offered without expectation of any gain other than sharing God's love with others.

And that is why I wanted to pass along the tale of the HDMI cable to you.  It is good that we are prodigal with our love. 

As an end in itself.

Friday, November 14, 2014

the towering infernal

"It is your lion, isn't it?  It seems to have arrived with you.  ... What do you feed it?"

"How do you know it eats?"

The letter writer's face flushed.  He looked as if he had been struck.  "I'm so sorry," he said.  "I beg your pardon."

In a flash Joachim-Boaz understood it was as if one duke who owned a rare and expensive motorcar had been rude to another duke who happened not to own such a car.
It is one of my favorite exchanges in literature -- from The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, an English novel I left behind in the Great Salem Clearance.  I read it over forty years ago, but that passage is still fresh in my mind.

I might try a similar line myself.  One of these days.

Some of you have asked me if I miss the laguna wildlife at Casa Nanaimo?  The question is valid.  I do not need to recite the list of critters I adored; you have been reading about my Marlin Perkins adventures for the past five years.

But I need not fret.  Because I have something that very few others have in their back yard.  My own rare and expensive motorcar.  Metaphorically speaking.

I call it my personal Eiffel Tower.  I know it only transfers telephone signals, but, to me, it is topped by a revolving restaurant with the best of Paris at its feet.

Well, that was my imagination.  Until I realized there is a type of restaurant up there.

The other day I was sitting at the edge of the pool catching up on the latest goings-on in my former country through the graces of my electronic version of The Economist, when I noticed several large objects on the tower.  And they seemed to be moving.  Not just moving: flying.

My Eiffel Tower is a roosting place for about 20 or so buzzards.  Before all of you birders start peppering me with buckshot email, I know they are not buzzards.  But that is what we called them in Powers.

They are vultures.  I could not make out the color of their heads because my binoculars took French leave with my stolen backpack.  Turkey vultures have red heads.  Black vultures have -- well, black heads.

One finally flew right over the courtyard.  A bright red, bald head.  Turkey vultures they are.  Zopilote cabercirrojo, according to Lupe, the very efficient pool guy.

There has been some loose talk here about christening The House with a far more-meaningful name.  I am happy to leave it in peace.

But I am happy to re-name the Eiffel Tower in my backyard to la torre de los zopilotes.  And there may be some ideas for my own place embedded in there.  The House on Buzzard Hill.  Buzzard Gulch.  Casa de Zopilotes.  You get the drift.

In truth, they are fascinating to watch.  Especially when all of them launch and soar over the house for several minutes looking for those opportune updrafts.

They are not crocodiles.  But they will do.