Wednesday, March 30, 2016

where is judas when we need him?

"This doesn't look like Mexico."

Nearly every one of my house guests for the past eight years has declared something similar after taking a first look at my little village. And, in a certain way (and not an Obi-Wan Kanobi way), it is true.

The area bears no resemblance to Cancún or Cabo San Luas. Well, other than the obvious fact we also have an ocean here -- and an embarrassment of sand.

Those who know Mexico outside of the sheltered resorts are noticeably disappointed to not see a parade of mariachis or an isolated Maya temple here and there.  We have none of that.

Even though the great
Cortés made it over to the Pacific coast within years of his conquest of the Mexican highlands, the Spanish showed a quickly-passing interest in our area of the coast. After building a few ships here, they showed the same wisdom of most of the local Indians who left the summer heat and diseases to the mosquitoes.

So, we have no great churches to awe tourist photographers or tombs of Aztec emperors or gargantuan murals painted by even more giant Mexican artists.  Nor do we have what many highland Mexicans consider time-honored traditions. Such as "the Judas burning" (la quema de Judas) on Holy Saturday.

Burning, exploding, or flogging an effigy of Judas, the disciple who betrayed the messiah, has long been a tradition in the Christian church. My first exposure to the ritual was in Greece.

Like almost everything related to the Christian tradition, the Spanish brought it to Mexico in their leaky galleons. This particular activity has been carried out for almost five centuries now.

Over time, the cast of giant (some over 15 feet tall) effigies has grown. There is Judas, of course. But now various demons and devils are styled out of
papier-mâché -- along with corrupt or unpopular politicians.

Mexicans love explosions on these occasions. The various figures are stuffed with fireworks, and are then lit of in sequence. The theory is the figure is not only being punished, but the evil they represent is somehow being exorcised from society.

My utilitarian side says it does not work. Otherwise, why the need for an annual exorcism? Poor President Peña Nieto has been blown and torched since his inauguration. And he is still in office.

To no one's surprise, Donald Trump joined the list of firework displays this year. I say "to no one's surprise" because he did not endear himself to Mexicans with his boneheaded comment "the Mexican government is sending rapists, drug dealers, and criminals across the border.” If you make a comment like that about your neighbors, you should expect a whiff of gunpowder now and then.

Leonardo Linares, the artist who designed one of the Trump effigies, put it succinctly: "For Latinos here and in the U.S., he's a danger, a real threat. He's a good man to burn as Judas."

I shrugged when I read that. I will bet dollars to tortillas I can peg Linares somewhere over on what Margaret Thatcher called "the loony Left." Not that you need to reside in those nether regions to have similar feelings about The Donald. He has taken his lumps from Mexpatriate.

Of course, for every statement like that made by Linares and for each effigy blasted into oblivion, Trump gains a few thousand more American votes. It is the perversity of negative politics.

The newspaper article that brought me this tale had an almost sulpheric taste in lambasting Trump. The journalist then went on to fill out his story by listing the other effigies: "diminutive devils and wee minions and moving to the big dogs: President Barack Obama with a cigar in his mouth and a Cuban flag, a black-clad ISIS fighter with a Kalashnikov, and the great Trump finale."

Hold on one minute. "
President Barack Obama with a cigar in his mouth and a Cuban flag?" Hasn't Linares heard that Occupy Democrat has been lobbying for the death penalty (for treason) for anyone who criticizes the president -- as if the United States had been transferred into a cross between Thailand and Iran? And what is the story for blowing up Obama along with Cuban paraphernalia?

Now that would have been an interesting news story. All of this Trumpery is getting a bit boring. But neighbors who dislike Obama? There is a hook. Unfortunately, the journalist who wrote the piece just let it slide.

Maybe Linares shares the same politics as a Mexican friend of mine here in Melaque. A local disco has installed one of those search lights that once graced the Lincoln dealership in Gladstone on the first night of the new year's models.

I was wondering why the light was there. My friend suggested it was to thwart "the terrorist Obama just in case he sent a predator drone to Melaque."

Maybe that is why Obama was in the Madame Tussaud fireworks display. I don't know. But it is a theory.

I think it was Garry Wills who suggested that the first person the resurrected Jesus (the Jesus of redemption and grace) looked for was Judas -- in the hope that Judas had sought forgiveness as the other disciples had. But he wasn't there. He had already taken the self-help option of suicide.

And that is what is so odd about the burning Judas tradition. There is no one to flog or to burn or to blow to smithereens. He already took matters into his wn hands; he is gone.

That is, unless we are
punishing the Judas who lives in our own souls. That part of our personalty that is always willing -- almost yearning -- to deny the core values of our own being.

That is why it is so easy to blow up Judas or Trump or Obama. Too often we see evil as external to ourselves when our greatest failings are our own.

If you come to Melaque, there will be no effigies to blow up. But we can offer you the beach and the ocean and, of course, the heat and the mosquitoes that kept the Spanish from building one of their quaint colonial towns here on the Pacific.

It is certainly not a paradise, but it is close enough for me.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

daring to lose fear

This is an odd Easter weekend -- bracketed by terrorist attacks in Europe and juvenile name-calling in the American presidential race.

While reading articles about the bombings in Brussels, the déjà vu klaxon went off in my head. Skulking operatives blowing up their enemies. Safe houses. A sense of urgency. All in the name of God.

This week, it was IS. But in the 1990s, it was the Tribulation Saints of the Left Behind series -- people, left behind on Earth following the rapture, doing God's work by blowing to smithereens the evil forces of the Anti-Christ.

I read the series because most of the people in my church were reading it, and I wanted to be able to discuss it with them. The theology and the tone of the books horrified me.

What horrified me more was that a large number of my fellow congregants passionately followed the antics of holy terrorist "Buck" Williams, who in each novel would suffer some sort of head injury on about the same page in each book of this terribly-formulaic exercise in hack writing.

The novels purport to be Christian. They aren't -- an argument Ross Douthat methodically destroyed in Bad Religion: How we became a Nation of Heretics. Somehow Jesus seemed to elide over holy terrorism in his Sermon on the Mount.

During the South Carolina primary, a pastor of a large church stated he was supporting Donald Trump because Trump was the only candidate standing up for Christian principles, like opposition to immigration.

Now, you can say a lot about immigration. And people have. But claiming opposition to immigration is a Christian principle falls dead center into Anne Lamott's bon mot: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

That pastor must have skipped over the ten verses in the Bible that abjure us to show kindness and justice to widows, orphans, and aliens (Deut. 10:18; 14:29; 24:17, 19, 20, 21; 26:13; 27:19; Jer. 7:6; Mal. 3:5). Christianity is a faith that empowers the powerless and teaches the powerful, as the prophet Micah put it, "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

The Tribulation Saints must have missed Sunday school for those lessons. But they certainly were kindred spirits to the safe house loonies of IS, who will go on creating widows and orphans while they abuse the lives of aliens.

My theology takes Jesus' words seriously that we are to build God's Kingdom in our lives every day. That is what Easter is about. Hope. Resurrection. The fact that our lives can be set right with God and that we can do his will right here and now by turning the Beatitudes* into a reality for ourselves and our neighbors.

And that may be the best way for us to fight the evil that stalks this world -- and our hearts. Laurie, over at A Gumbo Pot, challenged us all last April with Who Would Dare to Love Isis?

She was certainly far closer to evoking the spirit of Easter than the Left Behind books. Maybe we should stop worrying about being left behind, and start moving forward in the spirit of the resurrected Messiah.

I wish you all a blessed Easter.

* -- 5 Matthew

3 "How blessed are the poor in spirit! for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 4 "How blessed are those who mourn! for they will be comforted. 5 "How blessed are the meek! for they will inherit the Land! 6 "How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness! for they will be filled. 7 "How blessed are those who show mercy! for they will be shown mercy. 8 "How blessed are the pure in heart! for they will see God. 9 "How blessed are those who make peace! for they will be called sons of God. 10 "How blessed are those who are persecuted because they pursue righteousness! for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 11 "How blessed you are when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of vicious lies about you because you follow me!" 

Friday, March 25, 2016

jack is dead

Last night my friend Anne sent me a note telling me my pal (and frequent commenter here) Jack Brock had been killed in an accident. He was riding his iconic bicycle on the main highway through this area and was struck by a car.

That is all I know about the accident. But the important part of that tale is that Jack is dead.

Every town has a Jack Brock. That is, every town with a soul. He is the type of guy who is just a bit eccentric, but almost always brings a smile to your face just by seeing him no matter your current circumstances.

In Jack's case, it was that darn bicycle. I guess it was not so much the bicycle as how Jack had it tricked out -- with the cliché Mexican flag (flapping away with no discernible irony) and his omnipresent stereo system blaring out traditional Mexican tunes. Everything about his rig was just plain fun.

Our local message board is replete with paeans to Jack's smile, his personality, his love of life. All of that is true.

But too often in death we strip away the more complex layers of the deceased's personality. Falling back on de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and reducing the corpse to a real nice guy.

Jack was nice. But he was far more than that. He was honest. And that honesty often manifested itself in his role as provocateur and curmudgeon.

He knew how to live life. When it came to food or music or dancing, he was not a spectator; he was one of life's participants.

Jack would talk about any topic with a reckless disregard for political correctness. He would lob some of the most outrageous comments into conversations with people who took themselves far too seriously. And when The Serious People reacted in moral outrage, Jack would always offer an apology that was far more sardonic than sincere.

Actually, there were two topics he would not discuss with most people -- religion and politics -- because his views were -- well, let's just say they were not orthodox. Because those topics are the lifeblood of most of my conversations, I was able to coax Jack into discussing them.

His reluctance was pragmatic. He had never met a person who could convince him to change his mind on politics or religion -- nor had he ever changed another person's position. "So, what was the point?", he would ask.

It turned out that our views on religion were universes apart. But he was very articulate in what he believed, and we both respected each other enough to have interesting talks without allowing emotions to overrule our beliefs. Jack had a rare gift.

On politics, we agreed on almost everything. At times, we would try to outmaneuver the other in who could take the most outlandish ground. He usually won.

But, because we agreed, we did not have many conversations about politics. What is more boring than talking with someone who shares your opinions? Where is the tension? The ability to learn? The ability to strike for the jugular?

I had always assumed that Jack was an American. That is why he always confused me when he would talk about returning to Canada. But he was just a legal resident there. The Canadian personality never found a home in his being. He was thoroughly American despite the fact of living in Canada since the 1980s. Thus his tendency to reject political correctness.

And he was an artist. Most of us here in Melaque knew him for his photography. He sold his work at the local art shows and was always a strong supporter of other artists in the community.

That may be because he was also an exquisite wood sculptor. If it were not one of those art world snarky criticisms, I would say he had a sculptor's eye for his photographs. That is one at the top of this essay.

But there will be no more bike rides. No evenings listening to Gilbert and Sullivan. No more photographs. No more smiles. And no more comments that would make the smug clasp their pearls.

Jack, a lot of people are going to miss you. But, more importantly, life here is going to miss you.

I hope you are absolutely wrong about an afterlife. I have no idea what it may be. But, having enhanced this one, you will undoubtedly enhance it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

see is for caballos

I live in the country.

Certainly, this is a little town. But it is a country town. Just as much as any English village.

Chickens. Peacocks. Goats staked in front of my house. Herds of goats wandering the streets on their way to the next vacant lot or birria pot. And horses.

There are a number of horses around town who are regularly staked out on an overgrown plot to daydream of genes that once lived in ancestors ridden by conquerors. They are the equivalent of roof dogs.

My neighborhood is no exception. My neighbors are an entrepreneurial lot owning several businesses. Restaurant. Child care center. Water bottle vendor. Plastic recycling. And recently, owner of a slightly decrepit palomino.

When I first saw the horse, I was not surprised. It could have been a good business deal.

But I suspect it appealed to their humanitarian instincts. They own several dogs who they have nursed back from the shores of the Styx. The most recent was a mother dog who had fallen into our inoperative sewer system and injured her leg.

About 4:30 this morning I took Barco out to the lot across the street to let him relieve the pressure in his bladder. At my age, I can easily empathize with the discomfort.

Even though we do this every morning, he woke me up a bit early. When I opened the front door, I saw why. Looming in the dawn were two very large and dark horses. It is no wonder that the Indians were impressed by the conquistadors' mounts. They were the very embodiment of power.

At first, I thought they were staked. They weren't. They had either jumped a fence or broken their leads. Either way, there they were. Beautiful beasts.

Barco is in awe of horses. Well, to be truthful, he is in awe of cows and opossums, as well. But horses really catch his attention.  He sat for a few minutes watching them, and eventually took care of business.

The horses were gone when Barco, La Güera, and I struck out for our morning constitutional in the sports park. When we returned, the horses were back. Even more awe-inspiring in the light of day.

Last August, when I went into semi-retirement from life, I stopped carrying my camera with me on my daily outings. But this morning I had a plan. I would put Barco away and get my camera from the bedroom. After all, the horses did not appear to be in a hurry to get to a battle.

La Güera had different ideas. The horses looked as if they might be a threat to Barco, and she is very diligent in carrying out her nanny duties. So, she chased them off in a flurry of racing hooves and dust.

Dogs are not very fond of change -- especially if it involves introducing strangers into the social mix. If they could vote, they would always choose the "secure the border" candidate. Barco, on the other hand, would invite everyone in. I suspect when his testicles finally drop (and the process has started), his viewpoint will change.

Instead of a photograph of horses, you get another shot of the house with no name nestled under my Mexican Eiffel Tower on a fine crisp morning here at the Pacific coast.

Choosing to live in Mexico has to be the best choice I have made in my life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

down and out in garbageville

This is a photograph of my garbage can.

Well, it is a photograph of the place my garbage can was supposed to be the other morning. It wasn't.

Last June I discussed the garbage situation in my neighborhood (taking out the trash). All of my neighbors dump their garbage into small plastic store bags and then drop them in vegetable crates or empty paint buckets on the street corner.

"All," that is, except me. When I moved into the house in September 2014, I purchased a heavy garbage can. I would put it out the evening of the days Dora comes to clean the house. Those are our personal garbage day. The can is usually emptied by the time Barco and I get up the next morning.

Not any more. Barco has one duty -- to inform anyone passing by that a ferocious dog is on patrol. (Never mind that his bark sounds as if a ferocious rabbit lives behind my wooden portals.)

A couple nights ago, Barco was doing his duty. But it was a constant bark that I ignored out of annoyance. I should have listened. Someone stole my very heavy garbage can filled with garbage. (At least, they did not dump the garbage -- that is the usual modus videndi.)

I have now joined my neighbors in dumping my trash on the street corner -- where it will be strewn around the streets during the night by the neighborhood dogs. Barco would join them if I would only let him out on his own.

Last night I had dinner with a friend from Seattle. She and I tried to work out why such inconsequential items are stolen with such regularity. She calls it "pilfering" -- probably a euphemism for a rather ugly moral failing. I tended toward "looting," but that sounds far too much like the widows in Zorba the Greek. And "pillaging" drew a completely different word picture.

This type of thing happens all over the world, including bizarre Salem and even weirder Portland. Theft seems to be an inherent and universal human failing.

But it is pervasive here. I have Mexican friends who regularly talk about their friends stealing items (usually small things) from their houses. It may be why Mexicans are reluctant to invite guests into their homes. And I know almost no expatriate who has not been on the short end of a ten-finger discount encounter.

I really have no answer for it -- other than to be a bit more wise about what I leave around. I made the mistake of leaving my Garmin GPS in my Escape when I took it into the Ford dealer. It disappeared while there.

As for the garbage situation, nothing has improved. Now, I am part of the problem.

Someone suggested in a comment last June that I should try to convince my neighbors to install garbage baskets above the reach of the neighborhood dogs. I may just have one installed to see if I can interest anyone else.

It will be a start. And it will be rather difficult for it to disappear in the dead of the night. Whether Barco is doing his duty or not.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

monty hall goes to washington

In terms of almost anything, there always has to be tug and pull and deal. You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation.

Donald Trump, 4 March 2016

Dateline 20 February 2017

President Donald Trump announced today that he has personally resolved a series of domestic and international issues in what the White House has labeled as a "brilliant holistic solution that has evaded all of the president's predecessors."

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp will be rebranded as the Trump Tower Casino at Castroville. A 5000 room casino hotel will be constructed on the site in the next few months. In return for an ownership of 50% of the revenue stream (after deduction for capitalization), President Raul Castro decreed that Cuba would recognize a perpetual lease of the land occupied by the current Guantanamo Naval Base. The Cuban portion of the revenue will be paid directly to the Castro family.

President Trump announced that the prisoners currently held in the detention facility will be released on the condition that they accept employment as security personnel for the hotel. "Hey, these guys know how to use weapons. We need to use their transferable skills in a way that will maximize profits instead of wasting their time sitting around."

"If any of the prisoners decline our generous benefit package, we are in negotiations with North Korea right now to exchange them for something North Korea makes. I have no idea what that might be. Maybe a nice supply of kimchi. I hear they have some sort of interest in Bibles. Maybe that could be an angle."

The casino and hotel staff will be drawn solely from the children of illegal aliens in the United States who were brought to the country as minor children. "President Obama called these kids 'dreamers.' I never liked that. Dreamers aren't doers. These kids are doers. Trump doers."

"We're going to give each of them a good job and housing. They can live right there in Cuba Think about that. A tropical paradise. That's a lot better than living in Omaha and flipping burgers at a non-Trump business. It's a brilliant solution."

"And after 10 or 15 years working in Cuba, we will consider the best ones for American citizenship. Incentives. That's what we are talking about. When they come back to America, we might even put together a Trump Youth Corps -- or something like that. Dream corps, maybe. No, I don't like that word. Better as Trump Youth Corps. There might be a television show in there somewhere."

The White House announced that it is also negotiating with China to bring back jobs to America. The president has proposed sending illegal aliens to China to work in several recently-established Trump-branded enterprises. Most of the jobs appear to be related solely to assembling plastic jewelry to be sold on the Trump Value Channel (formerly known as PBS).

When asked how sending people to China brings jobs to America, the president responded: "That is the type of small thinking that makes you a reporter with bad penmanship and me a billionaire with stunning hair. The point is that an American company will now be making the profit rather than a Chinese company."

When asked whether he would disclose the tax records of the companies to prove whether they were paying American corporate taxes, the president answered: "This really is a lovely room, isn't it? Not as classy as Trump Towers. But it is nice."

Last week, President Trump resolved the political stalemate in the Senate over the vacancy on the Supreme Court by convincing the remaining eight justices to resign with golden parachutes of $10 million each in Trump China Enterprises stock with an option to star in a still-in-development mini-series on TBS (Trump Broadcasting System, formerly Turner Broadcasting System).

"I have no intention of filling those nine vacancies. The political fight would waste precious negotiating time. Besides, I can read as well as anyone. I will decide what I can do. There is legal precedent, you know."

The State Department has refused to verify whether there is a Middle East peace contract just waiting to be signed that will unite the area into a single Trump franchise with national subsidiaries. An anonymous source in the White House referred to the deal as: "You know, like the European Union -- but with valuable merchandise and real money."

The past month has seen a flurry of activity following the unprecedented election where Donald Trump and Secretary Clinton tied in the electoral college. When, the House of Representatives could not break the tie after 39 votes, Mr. Trump suggested a coin toss -- the loser to be named vice president. After the coin toss, Mrs. Clinton was heard to mutter: "I knew I shouldn't have let him supply the coin."

Vice-president Clinton has kept a low profile since then. She calls it "working behind the scenes."

When asked if she supports the President's recent contracts, she responded: "He certainly has done a few things I care about deeply. The two of us share a common personality trait. We are willing to negotiate anything."

To prove her loyalty to the Trump administration, she has offered to pay for the services of the world's best French chef to run the White House kitchen. "It is my gift to the president. This afternoon Bill is picking her up at the airport. I understand her specialty is Italian renaissance dishes -- most of them popular on the Borgia table."

With a sly smile, she added: "Eventually, everything works out."

Friday, March 11, 2016

eating through the cash

Expatriates are dependent upon financial forces far beyond our control.

Those of us who migrated south from The States usually rely upon revenue streams denoted in US dollars. Social Security. Pensions. Investments in American brokerage firms.

But we buy things in Mexico with pesos. Because that is what our neighbors accept as currency. (We will ignore the uber-tourist haunts of Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Baja California where dollars are shoveled into pockets at an alarming rate.)

My financial exchanges mainly take place at the ATM. Most of my money is still deposited in an American bank -- in dollars. The ATM will spit out bills in pesos at the current exchange rate -- less the taxes and fees that the ATM retains for its provided convenience.

My daily withdrawal limit is $500 (US) when I use my northern bank debit card at an ATM. In the seven years I have lived here, the number of pesos that are disgorged from the maw of the ATM seems to be almost capricious. From a low of 11 pesos for each dollar to a high (this past month) or almost 20 pesos for each dollar.

Two weeks ago, I could withdraw about $9200 (Mx). My withdrawal today enriched me by $8800 (Mx).

I have been accumulating pesos to deposit in my peso account at the local bank -- something I had intended to do later today. And I most likely still will.

But fate has intervened. No, not just fate -- fate in a fur coat.

You have already been regaled with tales of how Barco deals with boredom (spanish tales). Plants, screens, and furniture can always be remodeled when the devil finds work for idle mouths.

For the past two nights, I have had only a few hours of sleep. Two nights ago, the temperature dropped into the mid-50s (it was beautiful). Because there was no need for it, I turned off the fan.

Without the fan running, Barco could hear every dog in Barra de Navidad barking. And, having just attained his big boy voice, he had to announce to the world that he had territory under his protection. That went on all night. I spent most of what should have been my sleep time retrieving him into the bedroom.

Last night, he spent the night vomiting in short little bursts. That meant taking him into the courtyard and then cleaning up after him. Once again, giving up my sleep time.

So, I was a bit tired this afternoon. I decided to take a siesta before I took my pesos to the bank.

While I slept, the pesos were in my wallet in the back pocket of my pants that were hanging on a door. Or, so I thought. Somehow, Barco was able to pull the pants down, find my wallet, and take out the wad of bills.

Something caused me to wake up. I could hear him playing in the courtyard. By the sounds of his movements, I thought he had caught another unfortunate lizard and was tossing it in the air.

When I went outside, I discovered no lizard.  He was doing his best Scrooge McDuck impression: tossing peso bills in the air while he shredded others.

Fortunately, he had only brought mayhem upon four bills -- a five hundred and three two hundreds.

When I head over to the bank, and I am on my way right now, I will learn how damaged a Mexican bill can be before the bank will accept it.  I know the rule in The States. If a least fifty percent of the bill is intact, the bank will exchange it.

But this is not The States. And there is a long political history dealing with damaged bank notes.

I may have a bit of information I can share with you. At least, I will know what the bank in Melaque will do. Today. With these bills.

Monday, March 07, 2016

spanish tales

My friends Ed and Roxane claim that learning Spanish is fun.

It may be for them; they speak it quite well and are now mining some of its glittery subtleties. For me, it is just hard work. But I knew that before I started down the road to better Spanish.

If you have hung around this rather dodgy neighborhood for very long, you know how my language journey has gone.

I tried a couple of computer language programs before I headed to Mexico permanently in April 2009. Not much of it stuck.

That summer I took Spanish lessons from a local bar owner. I picked up a few phrases, but Spanish remained a foreign language -- in every sense of that adjective.

For seven years, I did not do much more. What Spanish I learned I picked up from menus or from waiters who wanted to make certain I understood the seamier side of living in Melaque. Fortunately, I forgot most of the slang terms.

Late last year, I decided to get serious about studying Spanish. I had not developed a burning urge to discuss Sartre with my Mexican neighbors. What changed was my decision to become a Mexican citizen.

Even though my age will waive the requirement to take the Mexican history test (and that is too bad because I know I could ace it -- even with its ideological biases), I still will be required to take a Spanish fluency test. And I knew, with my current language skills, not only could I not pass the test, I would probably be deported for cultural effrontery.

In mid-October, I pulled out all of my Spanish learning tools (moving to mexico -- learning the language) and drafted a plan to get serious about learning Spanish. Much to my surprise, I stuck with it. Well, I stuck with trying to learn Spanish. The plan crumbled with its first contact with reality.

I daily worked my way through a Pimsleur-based course from The Learnables, learning additional vocabulary while I developed my ear to listen to Spanish speakers.
(¿sprechen sie español?) For some reason, that is no longer in my memory (simiar to the dsappearance of the verb "to reach"), I followed the advice of a reader and switched over to the smartphone-based application Duolingo.

I suspect I switched in November when Darrel and I drove north to Oregon. Having the program on my telephone made it very accessible on the trip.

This was not my first exposure to Duolingo. I tried it a couple of years ago. And it seemed like a great tool. I was getting 100% correct answers during each session -- but I was retaining nothing. Or so I thought.

On the trips up and back, I used Duolingo about an hour a day. When I returned to Barra de Navidad in December, I kept up my studies. Once again, I was knocking the tests out of the park, but I did not seem to recall anything.

I knew I was not learning what I should when I advanced to the units dealing with the preterite and past verb tenses. I was guessing correctly, but I did not understand the grammar rules.

That, to me, is the weakness of Duolingo, grammar rules are left to inductive reasoning. That is problematic for we deductivists.

That was the point I knew I could not learn Spanish on my own. So, off I went for a disastrous first day at a local language school. Because I do not come out well in the end of the story, I will not bore you with my adventure of trying to learn Spanish with three children in my class
(back to school).

All turned out well, though. The school was starting an adults only class for advanced beginners. Amy, the instructor, suggested I might prefer it. I have.

The class meets four times a week, and we are welcome to come to as many, or as few, classes as we choose. I had intended to plunge right in with the full four classes. That was before a stomach disturbance kept me in bed one week and a trip to the cardiologist kept me away a second week.

Most of my fellow students are interested in learning conversational Spanish. My goal is a bit different. I want to pass the citizenship language requirement.

I am not a chatter. I do not spend much time indulging in small talk with English speakers; I cannot Imagine that my personality will change because I can speak a bit of Spanish.

Am I having fun? Nope. But I am working hard at trying to figure out the complexities of this Latin-based language whose vocabulary shares quite a few words -- those that the Normans brought to England in 1066.

And it must be working. Last Thursday I was sitting in a local restaurant talking with two of the business's managers when my telephone rang.  It was Jose -- Barco's food dealer from Guadalajara (moving to mexico -- buying stuff).

Because I was too uncertain of my Spanish to call Jose two weeks prior, I had asked one of the managers (Julio) to call Jose on my behalf. He did because he knew my language handicap.

When I answered my telephone o
n Thursday, I launched into a conversation with Jose where we established what I needed, where we should meet, and how long it would take the two of us to get there. Basic stuff. But I did it in Spanish.

While I was talking, I noticed the two managers looking surprised at one another. When I finished my call, they both complimented me and said they were going to have to be careful what they said around me.

I was pleased with the compliment. But their concern was misplaced. My Spanish is certainly not developed enough to eavesdrop. At least, not yet.

So, today, I will be back on a regular four day a week schedule. I still spend an hour on Duolingo each morning while I walk Barco. And I do my conjugation drills.

You may be curious about the photograph at the top of this essay. It really has nothing to do with learning Spanish -- other than the fact that I am now disciplining Barco in a version of Spanish.

He has ruined most of my screen doors now that he has figured out how to pull the screen material out of the frame. In the land of mosquitoes and flying midges, it is not a canine skill that warms my heart.

And if you are curious why I am not buying new furniture for at least a year, take a look at the chair and sofa that once had cloth backings.

I think there is a Spanish phrase.  Oh, right. Perro malo.

Friday, March 04, 2016

three funerals -- and a birthday

February has shuffled off the stage -- and so have three writers that have influenced my life. You will undoubtedly have heard of the first two. And you have certainly heard of the birthday girl.

Harper Lee was one of those one-shot wonders. Her To Kill a Mockingbird became what the clichéists would call a great American classic.

It was that. But it was far more. It was one of those moral primers that taught us the staying-power of objective truth in a society that was quickly being seduced by the easy-out of moral relativism.

Ostensibly, it is the tale of a black man charged with raping a white woman in depression-era Alabama, and how a white country lawyer, Atticus Finch, deals with his defense in a social system that was race-obsessed. All told from the perspective of Atticus's young daughter.

Harper Lee denied that the tale was autobiographical. But the parallels between her life and that of Scout Finch were too hard for most people to resist.

Fame did not rest easily on Harper Lee. She never became a recluse. But she prized her privacy in her rural Alabama home. She even ignored the vile rumors that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, had secretly written the novel for her -- rumors that were almost always traced back to Capote himself, who had relied upon Harper Lee for researching In Cold Blood, and then failed to credit her with even that.

But To Kill a Mockingbird stood on its own. The book is not great literature. It is merely a tale well told.

Some critics, including legal scholars, have attacked Atticus Finch's moral character: for not being a civil rights activist, for living quietly in a racist society, and, most damning of all, for making the rape victim a victim the second time by concocting a story not supported by any evidence in the trial. Some claim he violated a series of legal ethics requirements, and should have been disbarred.

Setting aside the anachronistic tone of moral superiority that infects many critics of anyone from the past, the novel's true value lies in its underlying code. This is not a treatise about legal ethics; it is a story about moral truth. And those are two completely different things.

Thomas Shaffer, amongst other law professors, assigns the book to his ethic students. He makes the reason clear in "The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch:"

Robert Ewell, the father of the "rape" victim in the Robinson case, was humiliated and saw his daughter humiliated by Atticus in the trial. The community which knew the truth but could not tell the truth, knew that Mayella was not raped, it knew but could not say that she attempted to seduce a black man and then lied about it, that her father lied, too, and that her father was willing to see Tom Robinson die to protect him and his daughter from a public certification of the truth. The community knew all of this in a way that it would not know if Atticus had not proclaimed the truth in the trial.
Atticus spoke truth to his community, family, and neighbors; and he expressed the virtue of courage. I fully accept Shaffer's theory. It is one reason, upon reading the novel in the early 1960s, I decided to become an attorney. It also helped pull me back from the precipice of Objectivism.

Five days after Harper Lee died in Alabama, Umberto Eco died in Italy.

Eco was one of those men who deserve the title renaissance man. Writing novels was not his profession; it was a method to pass on his Brobdingnagian knowledge base of symbolism and semiotics to the rest of the world.

His most popular novel (The Name of the Rose) was a murder mystery -- on its face -- set in a northern Italy monastery during the 14the century. The reader is introduced to social and theological disputes, and the struggle between logic and received wisdom. It is Sherlock Holmes in a cassock.

He followed it up with the conspiratorial Foucalt's Pendulum that makes the Knights Templar tales seem like child's play (and makes Dan Brown look like what he is -- a hack). Then came the psychological The Island of the Day Before that explores the mind of a 17th century noble adventurer; the scholasticist Baudolino that relies on the conceit of the Kingdom of Prester John to explore the 12th century European mind; The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana that poses the question that if we must reconstruct our memory from external sources, will the resultant memories restore who we once were?; The Prague Cemetery that tackles one of Europe's great sicknesses -- anti-antisemitism; and his satire of the tabloid press, Numero Zero, published last year.

Reading Eco is a challenge. But it is always worth the effort. When you put down any of his novels, you will be a changed person. And that is why we read, isn't it?

Unfortunately there will be no more novels from his hand -- unless some lost manuscript is found. And that may be the book's topic. He was like that.

The third death actually came in January, but I received the news in February.

Florence King will never be in the same celebrity category as Umberto Eco or even Harper Lee. But her writing was every bit as good as theirs. Anyone who has ever read Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady will know she was one of the best writers of the twentieth century.

I was introduced to her in her role as the star of the back page of National Review: "The Misanthrope's Corner." And misanthrope she was. World-class curmudgeon was another label that was often slapped on her.

Her commentaries on life were always original, and inevitable. Two virtues of the great writer. Especially her book reviews.

I could always count of the quality of her taste if she recommended a book. But her reviews were almost always better than the works she reviewed. Word is that she would spend hours perfecting a 1000 word essay, and would then conduct bone-jarring battle if an editor wanted to move a comma.

Several years ago, I stole one of her lines. When invited to attend events she had little interest in attending, she would respond (often hand-written on the bottom of the invitation): "I would love to attend. I just don't want to."

I just may have that carved on my gravestone.

The birthday was a February birthday. At the end of the month, my mother turned 88. So, I called her.

The years are catching up with her a bit, but she was getting ready for a trip to head off to a Republican conference on the Oregon coast. And she was upset. At Donald Trump.

Well, that is not quite accurate. She was upset at voters for voting for Donald Trump. My mother has always been a stickler for logic. Candidates should stand for something, and they should be able to defend their positions.

"He doesn't stand for anything. And he has no positions. It is just entertainment. How can people be fooled like that?"

And then the bombshell: "And he is so common."

Well, that is one thing that no one will accuse my mother of being. In her 88 years, she has created an aura of style that is all her own. And Donald Trump need not apply for any of it.

Happy birthday, mom.

And, Harper, Florence, and Umberto, we will miss your writing. But thank you for leaving behind what you did.