Saturday, December 31, 2016

the 365 days of christmas

Christmas is a time for eating. And, this morning, I am dining on a fine plate of crow.

One of the dangers of writing in absolute terms is that a writer's words often come back to haunt him. Take this line from Tuesday's essay (relations of sacrifice). "I wrote Stephanie to thank her for the card and told her it would serve double duty -- as my sole Christmas card and as my earliest birthday card. " 

My friend Stephanie had sent me a birthday card that had arrived a month before my birthday. The essay was extolling the virtue of discovering personal correspondence in my postal box.

I have been called to task before for such bold assertions. My friend Roxane was the first to point out that she had hand delivered a Christmas card to me at breakfast two weeks ago. And a very nice hand-painted card it was -- as you can see, right up there.

My excuse was rather lame. I told her I was writing about cards received in the mail. But I did not find it very convincing myself.

Then, yesterday, paid was put to my little charade. But, I was not chagrined.

Regular readers will recall that one of my best friends from law school, Patti, died just over a year ago (the circle tightens). She was very faithful in sending me a Christmas card each year. Often, in the form of a family portrait of her, Ken, and their daughter, Kimmy. This was the second Christmas I would not receive my usual gift.

What I did receive was my third Christmas card of the season -- from Kimmy. She is the type of thoughtful young lady who believes that traditions should always survive.

And, wonder of wonders, she mailed it from Olympia on 9 December. If you have followed the chronology of my tale, you already know it arrived here in Mexico just three weeks later. Talk about your miracle on Clemente Orozco street.

So, here I sit, digging into my second serving of crow, and being thankful that I have friends like Stephanie, Roxane, and Kimmy, who understand that the good news of Christmas is best carried out amongst those whom we encounter on this lovely highway that is life.

And, best of all, it is a spirit that knows no temporal boundaries.

Friday, December 30, 2016

mom skips the country

Wednesday afternoon Mom left on a jet plane. But unlike John Denver's lyrics, we trust she will be back again.

This is not her first visit to this area -- or to Mexico. In fact, my parents had built a love relationship with Mexico years before I first crossed the border in the early 1970s. Dad had even floated the idea of retiring in Mazatlan. I guess my brother and I are now keeping his dream alive.

Mom visited me in Melaque three years ago. The visit was brief, but it pleased me to show her around my new country. She was a hit wherever we went. Church. Rooster's. Visiting the neighbors.

This trip was no different. Well, not exactly. It was different in that the four core members of our family were actually in the same place during Christmas. That was unusual. And memorable.

Between one of the best prime rib dinners I have ever eaten, conversations about what each of has been reading, rounds of Mexican train (where she regularly creamed us), and movies (The Three Musketeers, The King's Speech, Elizabeth), we had a simple, old-fashioned Christmas unencumbered by the neuroses of gift-giving. (I say that even though I walked away with four nifty Christmas place mats that we put to good use beneath our plates of prime rib.) We were so busy we did not even get around to the traditional jigsaw puzzle.

But all good things come to an end. I suppose that is true because we need a breathing space for the next good thing to come our way.

Mom decided she wanted to fly north to the blizzards of Bend. So, I booked her on an Alaska flight on Wednesday afternoon.

Because the flight leaves so late in the day, getting to Bend on the same day is always a well-balanced act -- with plane changes in Los Angeles and Seattle. The windows are very narrow on each transfer.

We knew there could be trouble right from the start. The flight to Los Angeles is on an airplane that comes from Los Angeles and does a quick turnaround for the return flight. For the past month, it has consistently arrived late.

And that happened on Wednesday. It had not even arrived by the time it was supposed to depart. So, her flight out left almost an hour late. (Boeing is apparently still working on its version of Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine.)

The window to catch her Seattle flight was just over an hour. That meant getting her through immigration, collecting her luggage, clearing customs, and rechecking her luggage before she had to pass another bit of Homeland Security performance art, and get to her flight.

We were watching the connecting flights on our smartphones, and hoping the Seattle flight would also be delayed. But the "on time" indicator did not budge.

That is when Mom called from Los Angeles. The man who was helping her through customs could not find her luggage. Her time to be seated on the next segment was down to 20 minutes, and she was nowhere near her gate.

When she found her luggage and was passing through customs a minor miracle occurred. Her Seattle flight was suddenly delayed.

She called from the airplane. All was well. Except for the fact that her Seattle-Bend connection time was reduced to less than 20 minutes. And that flight was on time. We were positive she would need to deal with the vagaries of finding an overnight hotel room at the Seattle Airport.

Then another minor miracle occurred. Her Bend flight was delayed.

She made it to Bend almost an hour late to be picked up by a van my brother had arranged. By 3 AM yesterday, she had forded the ice and snow that had accumulated around her house in her absence, and was in her house.

For most people, let alone an 88-year old great-grandmother, the experience would have been a fount of worries. Not for our mother. She is one of the most calm people I know. She accepts what comes along in its ragged clothes for what it is. One of the first lessons I learned from her is there is no profit in worry when you cannot alter your circumstances.

She is now ensconced in her ice palace in Bend -- ready to take up with her network of church ladies, DAR attendees, and Republican women who are intent on doing whatever Republican women in Bend do.

We enjoyed having here. I told her she is welcome to come back whenever she chooses.

Maybe she will. If she does, she will ride through the storms of adversity without a hair ruffled.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

calypso is dead

Telephone calls in the middle of the night seldom bring good news.

Just before midnight last night, my telephone rang, waking me up. It was Anita Wilson. And the news was not good.

Anita is the wife of John Wilson. You probably do not know him by that name. But, if you are a reader of blogs about Mexico, you know his work. Under the pseudonym Calypso.

When I was preparing for my move to Mexico, his (Viva Veracruz) was one of the blogs I read regularly. At the time, he wrote almost exclusively about his life in Veracruz -- a state where I had seriously considered settling. Most of his reports centered around his interactions with his neighbors near their ever-growing inventory of houses.

He also moderated a forum where participants could offer their own appraisals of Veracruz, and to do what forum denizens do: natter on about one another. It was the forum where I got to know John on a personal level. Two participants had manged to get themselves into a rhetorical corner by pummeling the feelings of one another. John sought me out to "pour oil on the waters," as he put it.

From his choice of words and attitude, I knew he was a fellow believer. Our shared faith was a bond that made our friendship special -- and fertilized its growth.

Ever the real estate mogul, John purchased properties in Puerto Escondido -- becoming a bicoastal expatriate. Anita, his wife, and he would spend about equal shares of the year in Veracruz and Oaxaca.

His readers, me included, particularly enjoyed his reminiscences of his days as a producer at Columbia records. He knew his stuff. He was an incredibly knowledgeable engineer. That gave credence to his stories of the musical legends with whom he worked. He was not a name dropper; he was a life sharer.

I met John and Anita in person two years ago when I went on a road trip of southern Mexico with my cousins, Dan and Patty (coming home). One of our stops was Puerto Escondido -- and I was not going to miss the opportunity to share some time with one of the bloggers I had known for years.

The two of them were exactly as I expected. In the few hours we had together, we talked as if we were old friends. We were. This electronic community is every bit as binding as any other.

I knew something was not quite right this year. In the summer, Anita called to ask me about the medical treatment I sought when I fought my bouts of cellulitis. John had an infection in his foot, and he was curious.

What struck me a bit odd was I could hear him asking questions of her in the background. In the past, John and I had talked directly. She followed up with more calls. Same procedure.

Earlier in December, she called on John's behalf to ask about my new computer. I was glad she did because I had become a bit concerned about his infrequent blogging and some of the comments he left on my blog that seemed just a tad odd.

He finally took the telephone and told me all was not well with him physically. He had fallen and hit his head, and had not felt his usual self. That was the last time I talked with him directly.

In her call last night, Anita told me he had died of a very common respiratory condition. (She mentioned the condition, but I was still groggy, and I do not want to pass along any false information.)

It does not matter that we all know we are mortal and that death's coach always waits just around the corner. After all, life and consciousness is the only state we have experienced.

But each of my brushes with death -- especially, these last two years -- always takes my logic away. It is simply hard to wrap my knowledge of physical existence around the fact that one day a friend can be there experiencing life with me; the next moment they are gone. As if they had left the room without a word.

I am fully aware that saying I will miss John is a cliché. It is also true. He taught me a lot through his writing. It is impossible not to learn when someone shares the essence of his life with you. The fortunate thing about writing is that I can still enjoy his on the internet. Writing offers its own semblance of immortality.

But, more important, I can say the faith John and I shared has strengthened me. Before he ended our last telephone conversation, he made a point that his physical condition did not matter. He would have liked to have lived to be 100 years old. "God willing," as he put it. But he knew his faith was not dependent upon circumstances: circumstances may change, but presence makes the difference.

My prayers are with Anita. I asked her last night if there was anything I could do. She asked only for my prayers. She is working her way through the Mexican bureaucracy of death and dealing with her own grief. But, she too, is a woman of faith.

Our lives are the better for having known John. I know mine is. And that is what friendship is all about, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the tunnel to somewhere

When it comes to construction in Mexico, projects can take forever. Or they can spring up overnight.

Our lagoon in Barra de Navidad marks a state border. Barra de Navidad itself sits in Jalisco. Our only luxury hotel (the Grand Isla Navidad Resort) sits on the opposite shore in the state of Colima.

To get from Barra de Navidad to the hotel and to the seafood restaurants in the village of Colimilla, your options are limited. Hire a water taxi to traverse the lagoon -- or drive several miles around the lagoon.

It appears a new choice is soon to be available. A tunnel from Barra de Navidad to The Other Side.

When the
Leaño family built the hotel and developed the middle class neighborhood in Barra de Navidad, they left a jetty that sticks out into the lagoon half-way to the other side. It currently provides the foundation for the electrical lines between the two sides of the lagoon.

I walk down that jetty almost every day as part of my morning constitutional. Today, I walked down one of the access roads that I usually bypass. And, there it was. The first step in digging a tunnel under the lagoon to connect the Colima and Jalisco shores.

A tunnel makes sense. It avoids the problem of interfering with the masts of the wealthy's boats. And it will not be subject to the vagaries of hurricanes. Sure, the tunnel can flood. But that is why God gave us pumps.

I have had little need to visit the hotel side of the lagoon. The hotel itself offers nothing of interest to me. And the seafood restaurants in Colimilla are highly overrated.

But my guests enjoy visits there. My family breakfasted there yesterday morning enjoying a spectacular view and a mediocre buffet -- all for the bargain price of $300 (Mx) per person. About $14.45 (US).

It will now be easier to make the trip -- though, I will miss the water taxis that always offer the promise that Mr. Roarke* and Tattoo will greet me at the pier.

* -- You may not recall the actor who portrayed Mr. Roarke, Ricardo Montalban, became famous for his role as Herod the Great in Martin Scorsese's Massacre of the Innocents 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

relations of sacrifice

She was one of the first people I met when my family moved to the house on Risley in the late summer of 1959.

Stephanie Reed lived directly across the street. I cannot recall the details of our first meeting. But we soon became good friends. She was like a younger sister who helped me work through the confusing world of dating girls.

We have remained friends ever since. When I was in the Air Force, I always appreciated her news about family and friends in the world I had briefly left behind.

Communication methods have changed since those days. What you are reading is a perfect example. In the 1970s, I could not have imagined I would one day be sitting in Mexico telling the tales of my life -- as if I were sitting around a camp fire with a coterie of friends telling sad stories of the death of kings.

Blogs. Facebook. Twitter. Email. They all have had a role in eroding one of the greatest arts of relationships -- personal correspondence.

I have a handful of friends who have not joined the computer age. If I want to keep in touch with them, I have to pull out my fountain pen and a sheet of stationery, and compose what once was the sole method of keeping in touch with people we love. There is something about that process that hones prose into poetry. And, if it does not do that, it certainly improves the quality of our writing above informal chatting.

That is why I doubly appreciate people who send me letters in the mail, even though they have the option of sending out electronic blurbs. Hand-written cards and letters are simply far more personal. Tangible evidence that the sender sacrificed time in the service of a relationship.

Last year, Stephanie mailed me a birthday card that did not show up in my postal box until well after I had slipped over the line into an older age. But, that was fine. After all, the date didn't matter as much as the card did.

This year, she got the drop on Father Time. In mid-month, her birthday card was in my box wishing me a happy birthday reminding me that God has created just the one me. (Most people would release a sigh of relief at that thought.)

When I first came south to Mexico, my postal box filled up with Christmas cards. Not this year. I have not received a single one. That is fine. I sent none.

I wrote Stephanie to thank her for the card and told her it would serve double duty -- as my sole Christmas card and as my earliest birthday card. Our mail may be slow here in Mexico, but it is a reminder that speed and quality are not twins of the same nature. Often, they are strangers to one another.

Every card and letter I receive is a reinforcement to keep up the barrage of birthday and anniversary cards I send out during the year. There may be only one Stephanie, but I have a network of friends out there who are worth sacrificing a bit of my time to let them know they still serve a special role in my life.

And, who knows, I just may write about some of the private moments we have shared. After all, Walter Kirn has put all of you on notice: "A writer turns his life into material, and if you're in his life, he uses yours, too."

You are forewarned.

Monday, December 26, 2016

guilty feet have got no rhythm

"I thought of you when I read of George Michael's passing today."

Yesterday afternoon, I was playing Mexican train with my family when I received that text message from my friend , Ken Latsch. I had not yet heard the news.

The year was 1989. January, to be exact.

1988 had been a roller coaster year for me. I ran for a seat in the Oregon legislature, and lost by a handful of votes. Because I had spent most of the year running for the position, my law partnership had also broken up.

So, there I was in a new year at loose ends. That is when the call came. "How would you like to come to London for a law job?"

It was James Culbertson. I had met him and his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Janet, at Oxford in the mid-70s while I was working on my master's degree. They were undergraduates.

He had subsequently surfed the Thatcher financial recovery to success in the City. He told me they had a friend who was in the process of trying to dissolve a contract and needed some legal help. That was all I knew when I flew to London in May.

I met them in the private dining room of a Cypriot restaurant in Finchley. They told me to be certain I arrived on time because their friend would be there 15 minutes later, and we needed to be seated when he arrived. That gave us time to reminisce.

Exactly 15 minutes later, their friend arrived. It turned out to be George Michael.

I had no idea who he was. My taste in music has never run to the popular. But I was not there as a music critic. As it turned out, I was being auditioned for a role in a pending law suit.

He told me he was in the process of assembling a legal team to free him from his contract with Sony. Having wriggled out of an adhesion contract with Columbia records in his Wham! days, he was optimistic that Sony would yield, as well.

The initial plan was to file two lawsuits. One in London. One in Los Angeles. He did not need trial attorneys. That was already arranged. He needed someone to coordinate the litigation to have maximum impact on Sony. He was fully aware that Sony would not be the easy target Columbia was.

Even though he was only in his mid-20s, he impressed me with what he knew about contract law (including the obstacles such a law suit would face). He was self-assured, almost to the point of arrogant, but his rock star personality was never far from the table. He was one of those guys everyone wants to invite to a dinner party.

When he offered me the position, I said I would think about it.

The Culbertsons did their best to seduce me into accepting the job. I have always had a weak spot for the entertainment industry. They knew that from attending plays with me at Oxford.

So, they whisked me off to visit their world. That included a stop backstage at the Richard Ross show where they introduced me to Jason Donovan in the green room, and where we all made our first acquaintance with a rising young Conservative politician -- William Hague. And then we were off to a cast party in Mayfair where Janet introduced me to Alan Rickman. But you already know that story (my dinner with alan).*

It was heady stuff for a country boy from Powers, Oregon. But something about the project bothered me. In the end, I decided to accept a job with another firm, instead.

A couple of years later, when he was performing in Tacoma, the Culbertsons flew over and invited me to share front row seats with him. It was the only time I ever saw him at work in his chosen field.

He was a gifted song writer of ballads that were a bit sappy, but always had a core of reserved intellectuality. And he could deliver them with the talent of a natural star. Even though there was always something mysterious he withheld from his public. Like every good actor.

His name, for instance. Almost everyone knows his given name was not George Michael. It was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. That was too much of a mouthful for English audiences. So like all of those Lindas in Mumbai customer call centers, he anglicized it.

I never did ask him why he didn't use the direct translation of the very English-sounding George Cyril because the answer was obvious. Girls would not be attracted to a guy with no money who sounded as if he designed crickets bats.**

My English doctor friend, Robert Wells, contacted me this morning to ask if I had seen the news. We reminisced a bit about roads not taken and "what might have been."

But I have never regretted not taking the job. I knew my limitations. Our egos were equally over-inflated and could not peacefully co-exist in the same room. At some point, the adventure would have ended in different set of regrets.

Even so, I was a bit sad to hear of his death at such an early age. I suspect he still had more ballads to share with the world.

What we do have are his songs that have enriched some people's lives. And I have memories of George Michael and the Culbertsons, all who are now dead. Plus the ongoing friendships of Ken Latsch and Robert Wells, who aren't.

And that is plenty for me to be content.

* -- I am fully aware that paragraph sounds far too much like something from Quentin Crisp. When accused of being a name-dropper, he responded: "Funny. The Queen said the same thing when I was lunching with her."

** -- Yes. Yes. I know. And I knew it at the time of the interview. But there was a girl stage in his dating life.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

giving time

Christmas is a time for giving.

Last night, my neighbors shared the universal symbol of Christmas -- fire crackers throughout the not-so-silent night. The type of fire crackers that are best used to reduce pails and garbage cans to shards of plastic. The street in front of the house looked as if a local Home Shopping Channel delivery truck had crashed into the remains of Paris Hilton's reputation.

Having shared a local custom with me, I would have been remiss if I had not been big enough to share a Cotton family crack-of-dawn Christmas tradition. "The Ride of the Valkyrie" with Bayreuth fullness. Followed by one of my favorite renditions of Handel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born."

Considering the pyrotechnics during the night, "The 1812 Overture" would have been appropriate. As an accompaniment. If I could stomach that particular fluffy bit of Tchaikovsky.

The morning did set me thinking about Christmas music, though. Even though I am not fond of the Christmas holiday, the music of the season tends to be part of our DNA.

The common carols do not stir my hot chocolate. "Silent Night." "Away in a Manger." The dreadful "Little Drummer Boy" and his annoying "pa rum pum pum." They fall easily into C.S. Lewis's classification of religious music as "fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music."

Of course, there are the grand exceptions. If I were to put together a list of my favorite three Christmas music pieces (without giving the matter very much thought), I would include the following.

I have already mentioned "For Unto Us a Child a Born." It is one of those pieces that has an inspirational text combined with a complex music that challenges the mind while pleasing the ear. And there is little more that one can ask of a piece of music. Especially, one that has been adopted as a Christmas go-to piece.

As much as I like "For Unto Us a Child is Born," it evokes the magisterial image of God incarnated in human form. Fully God. Fully human. It is a good theological point. But that is only one image of Jesus.

A more introspective carol is my second choice: "O, Holy Night." And, yes, I admit that choice is on the list (in part) because of Harry Chapin's incorporation of it in one of his better narrative ballads: "Mr. Tanner" -- a bittersweet tale of reaching too high, instead of being content. And who better to sing one of Christmas's best carols than Kathleen Battle?

But even "O, Holy Night" is a bit too grand for the event Christians celebrate today. What we need is something simple as a manger, as homely as a shepherd's voice, and, most important, that imparts what the day means. How about how Mary saw the baby son she given birth to?

Graham Kendrick's "Thorns in the Straw" does just that. I first heard it about a decade ago. Since then, its simplicity has summed up for me what this day means to Christians -- when God began the reconciliation of his creation to himself.


However you choose to celebrate this day -- and even if you do not -- I wish you the peace and hope that is mine as a result of that birth two millennia ago.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

cooking the guest

The Cottons are about to sit down to Christmas dinner -- in about five hours or so.

You might think we are a bit early. For us, this is as close to the 25th that we have celebrated Christmas together in decades. When we manage to gather our dwindling herd for holidays, we often end up celebrating Christmas some time in February or so. Today, we feel anxiously punctual.

Over the past month, I have squired Mom, Darrel, and Christie to some of our more popular local Mexican and northern-style restaurants. The results have been mixed. We have not yet found a meal to please all four of us. Several times, none of us had meals we would like to repeat.

That is not entirely true. We have eaten at one spot where we have yet to be disappointed. At home. So far, every meal has been a home run.

For that reason, we decided to avoid dining out for Christmas dinner. None of us is very fond of turkey. And that is almost the exclusive offering at our local eateries.

Because The Bird will not be making an appearance on our table, we started searching for an alternative. Leg of lamb is a favorite, but we struck out searching for it. I know it is available. We just did not get an order in soon enough.

We played around with some game options. Wild boar. Pheasant. Venison. All of them good options -- and often available. With adequate notice.

What we settled on was a family favorite. Prime rib. For $2,000 (Mx), my favorite butcher was able to provide a rib roast weighing in at just under 5 kilograms. The price is a give away that the cut is choice, rather than prime. We can make up for that a bit in the cooking process.

My kitchen has an oven. But I have never used it. All of the cooking options use international symbols. I had to harken back to my London apartment to remember what each of them meant. Fortunately, we have a meat thermometer to help monitor the reliability of the digital settings.

The guest of honor has now been ceremoniously patted down with sea salt, pepper, and thyme (a Kobi beef would not receive better pampering) , and slipped into a 225 degree oven to start its slow roasting. Around 1:30, we will start preparing the sides: Cretan wedding rice, garlicky green beans with pine nuts, and a Greek salad.

And, at 3, the five of us (I invited my Mexican friend Ozzie to join us) will sit down to our Christmas dinner.

Somewhere the goose is getting fat. Somewhere someone is putting a penny in an old man's hat.

And we will be listening to a Christmas classic of our youth.

Friday, December 23, 2016

making up with amazon

Even in Mexico, news cycles can be short.

Yesterday I told you about my unexpected travails with Amazon (up the amazon without a paddle). How Amazon seemed to be restricting deliveries to my Mexican address, but I could order the same item on Amazon Mexico for a slightly higher price and a much longer delivery window.

Well, it turns out all of that was computerized hype. Well, not all of it. Just the delivery window part.

When I ordered my HDMI cable on 16 December, I was told the order would arrive in 9 days. After paying, the delivery window widened to three weeks.

As it turned out, the delivery date was not that important. The day after I placed the order, my friend Lou Moodie came to my rescue with an adapter that allowed me to turn my regular HDMI cable into a mini data port cable.

No longer needing the cable, I canceled my order. Or I thought I had. After all, Amazon sent me an email confirming the cancellation. But that email turned out to be no better than the certificates signed by the Mexican president stating that the residents of Tenacatita owned their land.

How do I know? Yesterday my shiny new cable showed up at my post office box through the courtesy of a DHL courier. Not three weeks after my order. Not even 9 days. But a mere 6 days. That is almost as fast as some of my orders in The States.

So, once again, Amazon comes through with better service than anticipated. Marketers claim a retailer can thrive if they choose one of three attributes: better quality, lower prices, or improved customer service.

Amazon, of course, excels at customer service. Just like Nordstrom.

And that has reassured me. Ordering through Amazon Mexico is going to be my go to source in the future.

As long as I can find what I need there.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

up the amazon without a paddle

Mexico today is not the Mexico many of us first encountered decades ago.

That tends to be a recurring theme of those who write about our experiences in Mexico. It certainly is true for me.

My first venture across the border was in 1971 when I was stationed at undergraduate pilot training in Laredo. My trips across the Rio Bravo to Nuevo Laredo introduced me to a world I had never come close to experiencing. Being single and in my early twenties simply magnified my new-found wonders.

When we drove south, we were obliged to take replacement car parts with us, and to be certain that we never allowed a Pemex to speed by as we slipped deeper into the bowels of what would become my adopted country four decades later.

Showing up in this area in 2007 shocked me. Almost everything I had learned about Mexico in the early 1970s had changed. Pemex stations were almost everywhere. The toll roads were as good (or better) than the autobahn. And stores were filled with produce and food items that were unimaginable to a 22-year old Steve Cotton.

Mexico had changed. It was now a middle income country with the 12th largest economy in the world.

One of the big changes has been access to electronic goods. NAFTA lowered the protectionist barriers that made purchasing almost anything electronic out of the reach of anyone but the wealthiest of Mexicans.

But not everything is readily available. Now and then, I want an item that is not on the shelves of the local stores. That is where Amazon enters the picture.

Last year, I availed myself of Amazon's services several times (the magic gift hole). The first two orders were flawless. One showed up at my post office box; the other at my house.

And then this summer, something went awry. I opened the Amazon (US) site, ordered three items, and attempted to pay. What I got was a warning my choices could not be sent to my Mexican addresses. Even though they were exactly the same type I had previously ordered.

I tried the Amazon Mexico site. The items were not available. So, I reverted to old behavior. The order went to a friend's house in Seattle. She then brought it to me. That is also why my brother muled down my new Surface Pro.

In setting up my new work station (and I will let you see it in the near future), we discovered I needed a very specific cable to hook my tablet to my monitor -- HDMI to a mini data port, if you are interested. After searching all of the likely suspect stores here and in Manzanillo, Darrel and I decided there was no option but to order one online.

I found a perfect match on Amazon (US). But, once again, I was told I could not receive it at either of my two addresses. No further explanation.

So, I looked at Amazon Mexico. Eureka. The identical cable was available -- and at almost the same price. It seemed too good to be true.

It was. When I checked out, I discovered the cable would be sent south from Amazon (US), and I would be responsible for paying an importation fee. And, even though the cable up north had a one-day delivery option, the same cable through Amazon Mexico would take 9 days. (The 9 days has now been recalculated to three weeks.)

What has happened to the Amazon (US) connection, I do not know. I would be interested in hearing from you if you have experienced the same difficulties lately.

At least, I am going to eventually receive the cable I need. Once again, I learn the lesson of Mexican patience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

book ends

My blogger pal Jennifer occasionally chides me for having gone over to the dark side of reading.

She is not referring to my book choices (though, I suspect she would not smile on some of my choices), but to my reading tool. My blessed Kindle.

Jennifer extols the look and feel of books. How they brighten a home, divulging clues of the owner's personality. How the heft of the book in a reader's hand gives weight to the author's words.

Felipe will then chime in that reading on a Kindle is the only sensible way to enjoy reading. Books are immediately available for purchase. And the Kindle is light enough that whole libraries can accompany the owner wherever she travels in the world.

As much as I enjoy the convenience of my Kindle, I have to admit Jennifer has a very valid point; I share a lot of her aesthetics. When I sold the Salem house, most of my library went in boxes that eventually ended up at Goodwill (book 'em, danno). It was a shame to break up the collection. I had been working on it for almost 50 years.

But I retained a few books. Mostly biographies, but also some of my favorite theology writings. I thought my mother would enjoy reading them. So, they found a home in her office, guest bedroom, and living room. As a renter, I thought I would no longer need a library. As a result, I read exclusively by Kindlite.

That changed two years ago when I bought my current house in Barra de Navidad. Not only was there a library, but the former owner left behind a bookcase. A small one. Sort of a starter library kit.

And that is what it looks like today. A starter kit. In December, I brought the rump of my former library to Mexico. It was like meeting up with a handful of friends who had survived a massacre.

When my family arrived at the start of this month, they came bearing gifts. Book gifts.

My brother brought me a hard cover copy of Billy Collins's latest collection of poems: The Rain in Portugal. I had already read it on my Kindle. But there is something about poetry that works far better on the printed page.

Poems are as much visual as they are aural. And Kindles, due to their limited screen size, simply do not capture what poets try to do in forming the visual presentation of their work.

It was a welcome addition to the library -- slipping in between Alexander Hamilton and Charles Colson. It almost made me wish I had kept the other Collins books I had collected.

For my birthday, my mother brought along two books. Ben Carson's A More Perfect Union and Dr. David Jeremiah's Is This the End?: Signs of God's Providence in a Disturbing New World. She gave me the Carson because she is quite fond of him as a man, his soft-spoken manner, and his politics. The Jeremiah is a theological reminder of the comfort we find in our connection with God is a world of troubles.

The Carson and Jeremiah will rest on my night reading table until I finish them. They will then join the remainder of their ilk in the burgeoning library. It will almost be like old times not forgotten.

And, yes, I know my books will age in our heat and humidity here. But, so will I.

My books will undoubtedly outlast me, however. And that is fine with me.  

Maybe that is another reason we collect them. They are another brush with immortality.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

how does your garden grow

Voltaire concludes Candide, his clever satire of avarice, with the admonition that moral men cultivate their own gardens rather than plundering the gains of their neighbors.

Two weeks ago, my Mexican neighbor took that advice to heart by scraping a patch of land in the goat lot across the street (bearding the goat). In Paul Harvey fashion, this is the rest of that story.

The land has not laid idle since then. My neighbor trucked in several loads of dirt and rock that he formed into a raised bed. The dirt looked like most of the soil around here -- barely capable of nourishing the odd weed.

But the bed, mirabile dictu, is now the home of a tiny crop of struggling plants. Rosemary. Tomatoes. And an herb I cannot identify. But I am certain one of you can. And will.

The woman who built my house told me there would be a chain link fence around the garden to protect it from the goats. Obviously, that is not the case. I suspect that somewhere in the midst of French, Spanish, and English terms, I missed the point.

But, even the chicken wire seems a bit redundant. The goats appear to have been sold into culinary slavery. Their next appearance will undoubtedly be in a birria pot somewhere.

The presence of the garden is a constant reminder that over a year ago, I brought seeds to Mexico to start my own vegetable garden -- to replace our pitiful local excuse for tomatoes with heirlooms. They sit in their packets on my day bed waiting for an opportunity to satisfy me. With their biological clocks ticking away.

Unfortunately, there is no place in the house I can take advantage of their potential joy. I had planned on putting them in large pots upstairs on the terrace -- until I was advised that any runoff would permanently stain the tile.

Maybe I should inquire into the sharecropper agreement necessary to become part of the pastoral scene across the street. After all, I am a Powers boy at heart -- with a yen for good produce.

And a Voltairean heart.

For those of you who do not know Leonard Bernstein's finale to Candide (as well as those of you who do), here is a respectable presentation summarizing Voltaire's take on our existence.

Monday, December 19, 2016

one for the books

I am not fond of cameras.

Well, that is not entirely true. Cameras are a large part of my life -- and a passion. As long as I am the shooter and not the shot.

It started young. Whenever the obligatory group photograph would roll around at the gathering of our extended clan, my 4-year old self would either make faces or simply disappear behind the big people. 

Nothing changed as I grew older. My mother has multiple photographs of empty chairs -- where I once sat while she was trying to figure out how the shutter worked on her camera.

Now, here I am at 67, and the behavior continues. During our Saturday walk, Mom wanted a photograph of the three of us together. Just Mom and her two sons -- a respectable title for our situation comedy.

I was game. After all, in my maturity. I have developed the Perfect Steve Look for photographs -- something I must have cadged from the finale of a vaudeville soft shoe act.

So, there we are. Sitting on the Barra jetty enjoying a day out -- looking like models for an AARP brochure. My shaded brother. Me doing my Al Jolson. And Mom being proud of Darrel, and put out at me for ruining yet another family photograph.

It is good to know nothing changes. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

a casualty of life

Bloggers tend to go missing.

When I was putting together plans for moving south, I regularly read several blogs. Some written by people who had lived in Mexico for years. Others written by people who had just moved or, who like me, were in the process of making the jump across the border.

Several of those writers are still churning out copy. But, a lot have closed up shop. There seems to be a natural life cycle for this odd form of journalism.

Even I, during the turbulent August of 2015, decided to pull the plug (farewell). For those of you who thought I had drunk the kool-aid once again. I haven't.

The only reason I have been AWOL since last Wednesday is simple. I have been enjoying life in Mexico with my family.

We have not been on any exciting trips. In fact, we have spent a good deal of time at the house playing Mexican train, reading, and enjoying meals that no local restaurant could possibly replicate.

But we have also been out and about town. Yesterday, we left the house early to give Dora freedom to clean.

On my own, I would have headed over to Rooster's to solve the world's problems with Gay and Joyce over a bowl of oatmeal. But Christy, who grew up in a Mexican-American neighborhood in El Monte, California, is not partial to northern food when she visits Mexico. So, off we went on a walking tour of their new home town.

Mom, at 88, enjoys walking. She is not going to be joining me on one of my 10-mile morning treks. But she is perfectly capable of strolling around Barra de Navidad.

And so we did -- taking in the fish co-op, the water taxi stand, and our newly-refurbished malecon with its monument to Barra's sole turn in the history books (the starting point of the Spanish expedition to the Philippines that opened oriental trade with Spain). We even found a little sidewalk restaurant to feed Christy's jonesing for Mexican food -- to indifferent effect.

In the afternoon, we skipped the animal rescue fundraiser I had placed on our schedule. Christy knew if she went, she would return with a basketful of puppies. And, if I learned anything from my short period with Barco, it is that my house is not a pet-friendly place.

But one event we could not miss was Ed Gilliam's art show. My house is filled with his work. Primarily abstract expressionist pieces (the good life). I was in the market for three paintings -- one for each of the guest bedrooms.

All of Ed's work is abstract. But I place it in two general categories -- representational abstract and abstract expressionism. I have both styles in the house with no name, even though I prefer his abstract expressionist paintings. These two are good examples of both types.

I really liked the painting on the left for its artistic qualities. It would also work well hanging over the bed in one of my guest rooms -- its clean lines replicating both the bed and the planes of the room. A perfect complement to Mexican modern contemporary architecture. Unfortunately, it is too large for the allotted space.

What I need to do is to pick out a half dozen or so paintings and audition them in the rooms they will eventually occupy. Once the paintings are in place, I can start getting serious about building furnishings around the art.

So, the four of us are remaining active. Just living our lives.

Several bloggers have stopped writing saying that their lives have become so routine they can no longer think of blog material.

As long as my family is here, I doubt that is going to happen. Showing them around is like seeing this area anew each day.

But, it also means I will be living life rather than writing about it.     

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

dreaming of a byte christmas

Christmas came early this year.

At least, for Julio.

For the past two years, I have been using a Samsung ultrabook as my sole computer. It was small, lightweight, and very fast. The perfect companion to keep in touch on my travels.

In late October, it died. Rather, its solid state hard drive died. I could do nothing to revive it. And, because I was headed off to the highlands on a trip, I needed a substitute to keep the essays flowing.

My shopping trip to Manzanillo turned out to be frustrating. Replacing my Samsung was not possible. My second choice, a Microsoft Surface, was even harder to find. None of the stores carried it.

So, I settled for an entry-level ultrabook made by Lenovo that had very few features I wanted. But it did get a laptop in my hands for my day of the dead adventures.

Fortune then smiled on me. My sainted brother, the very person who persuaded me that a Microsoft Surface was in my future, brought the computer on which I am now typing when he and Christy made their regular appearance on the Mexpatriate show in early December (a new mexpatriate).

That left me with an extra computer at my work station. And I knew who was going to be the recipient -- my pal Julio, the manager of Rooster's. He had recently suffered the demise of his computer, and I knew he would like the speed of the Lenovo.

So, today, Darrel and I took the computer (with its factory settings restored) to Julio. Even though he knew it was coming his way, he was pleased to open his stocking and find a Lenovo in his future.

The Paul Harvey portion of my computer story involves Darrel's attempt to restore some of the data from my defunct Samsung. We had no luck. It appears the boot sector performed a Nancy Sinatra.

But, not to worry, said I. I have a wireless backup of everything on the Samsung hard drive. If we cannot retrieve the data from the Samsung, we can restore it from the backup drive. Or so I thought.

It appears my backup has not been working properly. The only backup set is the same one we used to restore the Samsung two years ago after my other Samsung was stolen from my realtor's car on the day my house closed.

I would draw some big moral lesson here about religiously checking the status of backup drives. But I won't.

The moral lesson, if there is one, is that most of us probably do not need most of the data on our computers. I have lost all of my tax documents for the past two years. But the chances of an IRS audit are slim. And I can survive with the few things I was able top salvage from two years ago.

So. let's 
all wish Julio a happy Christmas, and tell him to stop criticizing my Spanish.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

a mist is as good as a smile

"You don't live in Mexico. You live in Disneyland. I live in the authentic Mexico."

It was my pen pal Carlotta. She was participating in one of the favorite games of expatriates: "My life in Mexico is more authentic than yours."

Usually, the game is heavily laden with sardonic irony. But some players take it very seriously. Not Carlotta. After all, she lives in Ajijic -- Scottsdale with a lake. (See what I mean?)

I thought of her today. When I bought new gray sheets for each of the guest bedrooms at Sam's Club in Manzanillo, I stripped the shelves of the entire stock in that shade. And when my family made a Sam's Club run last week, we discovered none more were to be had.

Because Wednesday is linen exchange day at the casa with no name, I had to do something. Otherwise, there would be no linen to exchange. And what better way than to drive to Costco in Guadalajara to eat up a leisurely day?

That is exactly what we did. We took the toll roads inland for a four hour drive, and then spent an hour cruising through Costco -- all four of us undertaking our own missions.

Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea. Who would think Costco in mid-day on a Tuesday would be busy. Well, it was. Looking at the carts, I suspect people were getting a jump on Christmas.

Visiting Costco is always an exercise in patience. Today was no different.

Most of the lines were about seven carts long. And everyone in line patiently waited his turn. Even when two women with their Armani boots and Louis Vuitton bags tending three over-filled carts allowed what I assumed were their boyfriends or spouses to push into the line with four equally-bulging baskets, no one even muttered.

Mexicans are one of the most patient people on earth. And I suspect, from their sense of entitlement, the line jumpers had enough social clout to stifle any complaint. After all, Mexico is a very hierarchical society masquerading in egalitarian togs. I could learn a little more patience from them.

As I shopped my way through the store, I could hear Carlotta's voice in the back of my head claiming Costco is not authentically Mexican.

I wonder what all the Mexicans shopping there (including the Rodeo Drive wannabes with their designer clothes) would say to that?

I suspect I know. Several years ago, I joined a Mexico message board where the topic of authenticity came up amongst the expatriate rabble rousers. If I remember correctly, the topic was genetically-modified food, but it quickly turned into a progress-is-destroying-Mexico tirade.

After the nattering died down, a young Mexican woman responded. And I paraphrase. "I am a little tired of hearing outsiders, who have moved to Mexico, expecting all of us Mexicans to dress in serapes, ride burros, and eat nothing but tacos. Mexico is a young, vibrant nation. Certainly, we cherish our historical heritage. But, sometimes the old must die for the young to survive. I live in a country with the 12th highest GDP. My generation wants growth, not to be mired in the mud of the past."

If I had to choose, her voice strikes me as being authentically Mexican. Certainly, there are many Mexicos. Where I live is quite different than Carlotta's Mexico and the Mexico of the young woman in Mexico City.

So, I will patiently wait in line at Costco, where I can often see Octavio Paz's Mexican masks on full display.

And I am the better for it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

lambs in distress

Those rattling chains you hear accompany the appearance of the spirit of Christmas past.

A flock of nativity characters have invaded the Melaque Plaza in the hope of kicking up the yuletide cheer. Even though you would think the tree that has been mounted on the top of the gazebo would far more fit Gandalf's noggin than be evocative of a German pagan holiday symbol.

Christmas is not my favorite holiday. I suppose it was in the top five or six when I was four. But, I now see it as a season to be endured.

Don't get me wrong. I play along with all of the celebration. I am no Grinch. And this will be the first time in I-don't-know-long that our family will be in the same place on Christmas Day.

What I do enjoy is the eclectic nature of Mexican nativity scenes. Dinosaurs are not an unusual appearance at the manager. And why not? This is the season where everyone is free to come and adore the baby Jesus. Even a tyrannosaurus rex.

I didn't see any dinosaurs in the Melaque plaza when I visited last week. Even though one or two might have been skulking about.

What was there was fun enough. And quite symbolic. I do not know who provided the theology for the creche, but its subtext is not hidden very deeply.

The religious significance of Christmas is the birth of Jesus, the pre-existing Son of God as a human. Ensconced in that doctrine of incarnation is the message of hope -- the setting right of a creation that had gone wrong.

And where there is hope, there is also evil. And that little Hegelian passion play romps through the plaza these days.

Take these demons. 

Cleverly portrayed as fallen angels, they threaten the lambs under the care of the shepherd.

Nothing subtle about the symbolism there. The shepherds, the lowest class in Judean society, came to adore the birth of Jesus. Jesus, in turn, often styled himself a shepherd to his flock. The flock. That's us.

At first, I thought this innocent maiden was ignoring the demon at her back.

Then, I realized she was looking down with sad disdain at a toking demon at her feet. Nativities can be quite topical. This one sends a timely message to locals and tourists alike.

Our lady of the furrowed brow is not the only woman represented in the plaza. There is also a shepherdess busy at her work.

Christmas is a great time to remember that women were an important part of the early church -- something the Catholic church and many evangelical denominations seem to have forgotten.

What the creators of the plaza scene did not forget, though, is a representation of the wise men. 

There are three in the plaza. That, of course, is the popular view, though we have no idea how many there were. It is a fact the Bible does not include. The number three was simply made up because that is how many gifts were brought, and who would show up at a birthday party without his own gift to offer?

The three gentile kings have much more significance in Latin culture than in Northern European Christmas lore. 6 January is the feast of Epiphany throughout Christendom. But, here in Mexico (and other Latin countries), it is also Three King's Day.

That is the day children receive their gifts -- just as Jesus received the gifts of the unnumbered and unnamed wise men. Even though I understand that many Mexican families now exchange the lion's share of their gifts on Christmas.

There is a lot of symbolism and history packed into the Melaque plaza. I took my photographs in daylight because I wanted to focus on the figures. But, at night, it is spectacularly lit.

And if any of us lambs start wandering astray, there are demons aplenty to egg us on until the shepherd brings us home.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

end of year pay

It is that time of year again.

If you are living in Mexico and hire people (the Doras, Antonios, and Lupes who tend your gardeners, drive your cars, cook your meals, and clean your homes), it is time to remember them with their annual aguinaldo and vacation pay -- amounts that must be paid no later than 20 December.

There are several myths that surround these payments. And I know, no matter what I say, people who believe something else will go on thinking what they want to think. There is, of course, a very high probability that I am perpetuating a whole set of other myths. But, let's try to clear the air of a couple of things.

First, the two payments are not gifts or Christmas bonuses. They are required payments under the law. And the formulae clearly state how to calculate the required payments. They are not optional.

Second, the two payments must be made in cash. Your home-made fudge and that cashmere sweater you bought on your last trip to Nordstrom will undoubtedly be received with great gratitude. But those are gifts. And they do not count toward your legal obligation. Give the gifts out of love. Just be aware they have nothing to do with the required cash payments.

Third, just because something is a legal obligation does not mean it cannot be given in a spirit of joy. It should be. Because it certainly will be received in that spirit. Mexican workers know what they should be receiving. Failure to pay the appropriate amount can lead to some rather nasty legal wrangling.

So, what is your legal obligation?

The quick answer is that the aguinaldo is the cash equivalent of 15 days of the worker's daily pay. The formula is simple  algebra: multiply the number of days the worker worked per week by the number of weeks worked times the worker's daily pay times 15 days and divide all of that by 365 days. The product is the amount you pay as an aguinaldo to meet your legal obligation.

Every December, a quite uncivil war breaks out amongst expatriates who advocate just paying two weeks of wages and being done with it. Their opposite numbers, who demand strict compliance with the formula, call that cheating. Unless you are paying a huge sum of money, the difference between the two methods is minuscule.

I avoid the fight by using the two week rule and then rounding up the amount. In other words, I top off the aguinaldo with a little Christmas cash gift. I know that offends some people. But that is what I do. For both the woman who helps clean my house and the pool guy.

Everybody I know seems to comply with the aguinaldo -- even though their compliance with the formula may be a bit lax. However, a lot of employers pay nothing for vacation pay. But we must.

The calculation for vacation pay is extremely simple. It is based solely on one consideration -- the length of service. Once you determine the length of service, the chart will reveal the number of days of salary you must pay. Multiply that number by the daily wage.

This is what the law requires:   

1 year -- 6 days

2 years -- 8 days
3 years -- 10 days
4 years -- 12 days
5-9 years -- 14 days
10-14 years -- 16 days
15-19 years -- 18 days
20-24 years -- 20 days
25-29 years -- 22 days
30-34 years -- 24 days
35-39 years -- 26 days

Here is an example. Dora, the woman who helps clean my house, works two days a week at a wage of $200 (Mx) each day. Using the formula, her aguinaldo will be $855 (Mx). 2x52x$200x15/365.

She has worked for me for 7 years. The formula is 14 days x $200. I am legally obligated to pay her $2,800 (Mx) for vacation pay.

For those of you who have not been paying either of these two payments or who have only been paying the 
aguinaldo, I have a suggestion. This Christmas would be a good time to set yourself right with your workers by paying them what has not been paid in the past.

I have no idea if the authorities would consider that to be full satisfaction if they became involved in a wage dispute hearing. But you would at least enter the new year with a clear conscience.

Here ends the lesson.

Well, not really. I want to wish all of you a very Happy Christmas. May you find contentment in your lives.

Friday, December 09, 2016

de-barcoing the house

It may not look much to you. To me, that shot is as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

What was destroyed has been restored. After living with screen doors Barco had punctured, these doors make me feel as if I am living in a new house.

When Barco lived here, he considered any door that prevented him from going in or out to be just another example of canine oppression and social injustice. Then, he learned he had enough doggy heft to correct that oversight on my part.

He first destroyed one screen door to my bedroom. Then four to the kitchen and four to the library. His coup de grâce was the other screen door to my bedroom. He simply ripped up the full screen.

Fixing the doors while he was still a puppy would have made Sisyphus's rock look like a well-spent afternoon. I had decided nothing in the house would be repaired until Barco made it to his second birthday.

Of course, he didn't make it there. And I dawdled around here for two months without correcting a thing -- until my brother arrived.

Since then, we have been little fix-it bees. The screen doors topped the list.

My neighbor, Mary, is in the process of building a casita on top of her house. Another neighbor, Victor, is managing the project.

He has always been a source of good advice. I asked if he knew anyone who could help me with three projects. Within two hours, two guys showed up, took my specifications, gave me an estimate, and we were on our way. In less than 48 hours everything was installed and in working order.

You have already seen the screens.

The second project was to replace the plastic laminate cover that topped the shower chimney in one of the guest bedrooms. It took French leave (as the British would -- and do -- say; considering their Brexit vote, they may want to re-think that little ethic slur) during our hurricane last year.

Obviously, I did not consider it to be a priority if I was willing to leave it open to the birds, bats, and weather for fourteen months.

The third project turned out to be far more clever than I expected. I already mentioned the chimneys in each of the showers. They are designed to lift the hot air out of the bedrooms.

When I installed the air conditioning for Barco in my bedroom, the foreman told me I would need to block off the screened hole near the top of the chimney. It made sense to me. After all, the hole was desihgned to let air escape my room. In this case, cold air.

What I imagined was a piece of clear plastic laminate that I could push into place when air conditioning season returned, and could easily removed when I no longer required the Arctic blast. Similar to something you would find in a Little Rock trailer park.

One thing I have learned about Mexicans is that when faced with an unusual problem, they will respond with a clever solution.

And so they did. They designed a cover that allows light to pass through, is easy to install, and will stay in place in the face of our weather conditions.

There you have it. A start on de-Barcoing the house.

Of course, Barco had nothing to do with the second and third projects, but this work is in honor of him -- including the woodwork he chewed and the antheria he dug up.

I am not certain why I did not start the process before this sweek. Maybe it was because I knew my brother would enjoy being part of the Restore the Homestead movement.

And so he has.  

Thursday, December 08, 2016

a big anniversary

My father had the soul of coyote.

He loved pointing out to unsuspecting listeners that my brother was born on 7 December, and my mother and he were married on 8 December. My mother, whose spirit is far less mischievous, would sigh with the patience of the beatified and say: "We were married four years before Darrel was born."

Today is the anniversary of their marriage. Their 70th. My father died in 1996 -- in the year of what would have been their golden anniversary.

I am never certain what the protocol is when half of a marriage dies. I would certainly not wish my divorced friends "a happy anniversary." That is simply to avoid dipping into the house of sorrows.

But what does one do when half of a couple dies, especially when the surviving spouse does not re-marry? Are anniversary greetings appropriate?

Emily Post does not refer such questions to me. But, (and do not gasp in surprise) I have an answer. The first anniversary after a spouse dies, I will send an anniversary card to honor the marriage of friends. Marriage is an institution that deserves to receive as much support and honor as all of us can render.

This morning, I violated that rule. For whatever reason (probably because she is here), I wished my mother a happy 70th anniversary. The fact that it was her anniversary had escaped her notice. But she was pleased I had remembered.

I know I have gone on and on about my family. But I am really enjoying their presence in my rambling house. After all, I bought it for them -- to let them have a home in Mexico.

And that makes each birthday and anniversary that much more special.