Tuesday, May 31, 2016

the camera that didn't bark

Whenever I am up north, I stop at Office Depot to pick up a packet of ball point pens I have enjoyed using since my trial attorney days.

They are nothing fancy -- Pilot. But they feel comfortable in the hand and they write smoothly. If I did not have them, life in Mexico would be every bit as pleasant. I may have the opportunity to prove that theory.

Back in December, I had about 20 of the pens on hand. I now have one. The fact that Barco came into my life in December is not an irrelevant factor.

I do not know what it is about the pens (the smell of the ink, the clicker, the sculpted plastic housing), but there is something that triggers Barco's obsessiveness when he catches sight or scent of one of the Pilots. Other pens leave him practically cold, as Cole Porter said. But he gets a kick out of Pilots.

Yesterday morning I was rushing to get to the doctor in Manzanillo so I could be back in Barra de Navidad in time for my Spanish lessons. I reached up on the shelf for one of the last two Pilots. It was gone. I knew I had put it there in the hope of getting it out of Barco's reach.

It turned out to be a vain hope. Barco was sleeping in the doorway of my bedroom -- looking as innocent as any golden retriever puppy can look. With one big exception. His right paw looked as if he had just cast his ballot for president in Kabul. It was a bright blue. The same shade as my Pilot ink.

It didn't take me long to kind the remnants of my drawn and quartered Pilot underneath the table in the courtyard -- where Barco has set up his dog den. There was nothing to be salvaged. The Pilots are beginning to live out their own Agatha Christie tale.

So, where is the photograph of Barco's paw? My Sony camera was just feet away from Barco lying in repose. But I never thought of it. I suspect that comes from truncating my essay-writing  schedule.

When I was writing daily, I was out in the community looking for both the perfect story and accompanying shot. Now that I have confined myself to the house with the dog and my Spanish lessons, I often forget I even have a camera.

Instead of shooting Barco, I cleaned him up and hopped in the car for a quick drive to the hospital.

"Hospital? Why did you go the hospital?"

I can answer that in one word. Cellulitis.

It is back. Last August I fought off a well-established infection in my left leg that necessitated a 12-day hospitalization. In December a similar infection cropped up in my right leg while I was in Washington.

On Saturday, I felt the same symptoms I had experienced twice before. Headache. Rushing heartbeat. Aching joints. Fever. Low blood pressure. I thought I knew what was coming. And, on Sunday, there it was. Swelling in my left ankle and foot with a red inflammation.

I discovered in Washington that immediate care was required. First thing Monday morning I headed off to Manzanillo for a shot (of antibiotics) in the butt and a prescription for more antibiotics. Over the next week, I will undergo a series of shots and tablets along with strict bed rest.

That explains why I became a phantom late last week and why I will undoubtedly be absent from the internet for a week or so.

Oh? That photograph at the top of the page? For the past week, my well pump has been turning off and on in short bursts. That usually means either a toilet is running or a tap is slightly open. But a thorough check of the house showed no problem.

I had a theory. Less than a year ago the arm on the float that regulates the level of my pool water had corroded and broken off. Antonio, the guy who cleans my pool, and I opened up the cover to the storage tank while e was here this afternoon, and there it was. The same problem.

The pool chemicals and the minerals in my well water were strong enough to eat through a metal rod. Leaving the float simply -- floating.

And that is the reason for the photograph. The rod is in far worse shape than my leg.

By the time my infection is gone, the tank will be repaired -- and I might actually find some interesting photographs for you.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

moving to mexico -- cost of living

Yesterday in "i just adore the colors", I mentioned that the standard expatriate answers to the question "What do you like about Mexico?" runs the gamut from "the people" to "the weather" to "the food." None of those things drew me here.

Now, I do like the Mexican people -- about in the same proportion I like any particular group of people. And, for me, the weather is a bit too warm and the food is -- well, not to put a fine point on it -- boring.

They are not the reasons I moved here. But I did move here for one reason that is discussed tangentially by expatriates -- as if the subject were somehow just a bit tawdry. It is less expensive to live here than it would be to live in Salem.

Let me give you an example. My friends the Millers spent a week with me last month. I love having visitors. Not only do I get to spend time with people I really enjoy, I get to show off the area to them. Not to mention (though, I guess I am about to), I get to share my very beautiful house with them.

Somewhere along the line in my long life, I picked up a habit. It sounds like one of those habits passed on by mothers, but I am not certain about that. When guests arrive, the house should be filled with flowers -- especially in their bedroom.

Living in Mexico makes that a snap. Not only are almost every type of bloom available in our local shops, it does not require taking out a signature line loan, as it is in The States, to buy floral arrangements.

I bought three for the Millers's visit. That is one of them on the courtyard table.

Having just purchased flowers for Mother's Day, I have a good idea what floral arrangements in The States cost. And it was far more up north than what I paid here.

The cost in Melaque? $450 (Mx) -- that is about $24 (US). Not for one arrangement, but for all three. I ended up paying about $8 (US) for each arrangement.

At that price I could fill the house with flowers every week for less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant.  (By the way, dining out here is also a bargain.)

Frequent readers will be reminding me that I have consistently said I moved to Mexico not to fall into a comfort zone; I wanted to live somewhere that when I woke up each morning, I would know how I was going to make it through the day.

But not knowing how I am going to make it through the day, while knowing that it is not going to cost me very much, is not a bad formula.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"i simply adore the colors here"

"Why did you choose to live in Mexico?"

It must be one of the most common questions around the local haunts frequented by foreigners. We have even played the game in my Spanish class.

There are a predictable list of answers that people who have moved here "simply adore." As vague as they are predictable.

The food. The people. The culture. The weather. And, yes, the colors.*There is no arguing with the fact that almost everything in Mexico is far more colorful than anything up north, with the possible exception of Miami. But that exception proves the rule.

Houses. Signs. Nature. All seem to have conspired to paint Mexico in shades far more brilliant than the average burgher from Belgium would appreciate.

And most of the combinations work together. Remember that color wheel in the eighth grade with its complementary shades? It seems to be second nature to Mexicans. If you see jarring color combinations here, you can almost be certain they were chosen by some northerner hoping to look "local."

But color sense is not universal here.

I have a pair of Ecco shoes. They are the third pair of the same design. So light and unobtrusive, they almost feel like dancing shoes. They are my favorites.

But even more than the fit, I liked them because of their color. It was a reddish brown -- almost a shade of mahogany. Exactly the color a shoe designer in Milan would spend months trying to get just right.

Unfortunately, the rocks in our local streets and fields combined with my old man shuffle have not been kind to the shoes. Within about a year of wear, they looked as if I had tried to polish them with a bench grinder.

Unlike some of the fancy colonial towns in the highlands, we do not have ranks of shoeshine chairs in our plazas. What we have is one guy who occasionally shows up to shine and repair shoes.

I looked for him for several weeks, but I could never find him. I assumed he closed up shop when the northern tourists returned to their summer ponds.

Yesterday, while walking through my neighborhood to Spanish classes, I saw him. He lives about two blocks away from me. I went back to the house, picked up my scuffed shoes, ad dropped them off for a good polish. His expression was rather glum as he examined the remnants of what had been a good pair of shoes. He told me they would be ready when my classes were over.

When I returned, he was just finishing up. The shoes looked a bit odd to me -- as if they had been re-colored, instead of polished. We talked a bit, and I discovered that is exactly what he had done. But he made it quite clear that they were exactly the same color as the original dye.

They weren't. What had been Italianate mahogany was now somewhere between Minnesota gumbo and the shade of brown on counterfeit designer bags.

But they looked like new shoes. New shoes from Value Village. But new. Shiny and ready for strutting my stuff in Barra de Navidad.

And that is good enough for me. No one here is the least bit concerned if my shoes are an off shade.

After all, this is the land of the bejeweled sandal. And that is just the guys.

Nancy -- hit it.

* -- I will skip over the oft-repeated patronizing canard that all Mexicans have lovely singing voices. That is an essay of its own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

five presidents down

The American presidents continue to march through my library and bedroom.

Six weeks ago, I updated you, in bumping off the presidents, on my project to read a biography of each of the American presidents before I shuffle off to The Final Campaign. At that point, I had just finished reading the biography of James Buchanan -- arguably the worst of the forty-three men who have occupied the office.

Since then, I have dropped several more presidents in the "read" file: Andrew Johnson, the man who nearly undid everything Lincoln had tried to accomplish through the Civil War; Rutherford B. Hayes, who made it to the White House with an election far more controversial than the 2000 Bush-Gore kerfuffle; Chester Arthur, who was elevated to the presidency when a disgruntled office seeker cut short President Garfield's life, and platform to bring the country back together; Grover Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in the office; and Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of a president, and the guy who gave Cleveland his unique place in history.

Finding good biographies of this line of presidents was difficult. Even though I have been very unhappy with the quality of "The American President Series" (badly edited by Arthur Schlesinger), I resorted to them for several of these presidents. There simply are not a lot of good biographies out there on late nineteenth century politicians.

There were two exceptions, both recently released. The first was The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John Pafford, a professor of history and philosophy. Dr. Pafford, as you can see by the book's title, has a certain point of view. He contends Grover Cleveland was one of the few conservative (at least, in the way we use the term currently) presidents following the Civil War.

I am always a bit leery of such arguments. They tend to reduce the subject matter to the historical heresy of presentism by clogging the prose with a series of anachronisms. For that reason, I almost did not buy the book.

I am glad I did. Dr. Pafford clearly explains the two big issues that dominated post-Civil War politics (currency and tariffs) and why both issues summed up two opposing views of what America should be. Cleveland stood with for the gold standard (which put him at odds with the populist wing of his party) and low tariffs (to protect consumers from high prices).

He may not have been the most imaginative of presidents, but he was the first to put the brakes on William Jennings Bryan. And that may be good enough.

The second biography is of a far different man. Cleveland may have been the paragon of conservatism and morality, but Chester Arthur was a man who believed that politics was the art of governing through filling pockets -- often his own -- with gold. Thomas Reeves perfectly captures the contradictions that drove the twenty-first president in Gentleman Boss.

Chester Arthur was part of the Conkling machine in New York. Before civil service reform was enacted, most government positions were divvied up under the spoils system -- pioneered by Andrew Jackson. Ability to do a job (or any expectation that the officeholder would actually perform his duties) was not a hiring consideration.

Arthur captured one of the plum jobs under the spoils system -- collector of the New York Customs House. He was well on his way to becoming wealthy from the job when his fellow Republican, President Hayes, tried unsuccessfully to remove him from the job.

To our twenty-first century way of thinking, the next step in Arthur's career is almost unimaginable. In an attempt to bind the factions of the party together, the Republican nominee for president, James Garfield, selected Arthur to be his running mate. That seems about as likely as Bill Clinton choosing Ken Starr to run with him.

Because God has a great sense of humor, Garfield was assassinated early in his term. And not just by anyone. His assassin shot Garfield out of spite for not receiving the patronage job he thought he was promised. Oh, yeah. He also shouted "Arthur will be president" while shooting Garfield.

It was not an auspicious start for the Arthur presidency. He already was known as a corrupt machine politician. Now he could add "assassin" to his résumé.

But the opponent of civil service reform turned into the advocate for the reform. Reeves does not hide the fact that Arthur's conversion may have been more out of the sense of political survival instead of a change of heart. Whatever the reason was, he helped push civil service reform on its way -- badly damaging his former machine in New York.

The price was his inability to receive the Republican nomination to serve as president in his own right. Instead, another New Yorker became president -- Grover Cleveland.

Arthur is now ranked amongst the worst of American presidents. Reeves disagrees with that assessment.

Given Arthur's political background, the traumatic and unprecedented circumstances of his elevation to the White House, his fractured party, the divided and slothful Congresses he faced, the severe restraints upon the presidency at the time, and the burden of his poor health, his record as Chief Executive is both responsible and admirable. He was a good president at a period in our history when the American people neither expected or sought great presidents.
It is an apt summary of Arthur's presidency. And there may be a lesson there. Maybe we should be satisfied with presidents who are simply good, rather than presidents who seek to be great.

Monday, May 23, 2016

flat as a pancake -- and twice as tasty

I have heard of a fellow in Australia who found a road kill cane toad flattened by several tires. He slapped a stamp on it, and mailed it to a friend.

Now, I do not know how accurate that story is. After all, people slap stamps on all types of things and mail them around the world. American GIs would mail coconuts from Hawaii that way to the folks back home.

Those of you with a scientific bent of mind already know that cane toads are quite toxic. When threatened, the cane toad exudes its poisonous defense, a bufotoxin, in the form of a milky fluid. Last summer, we discussed all of that in mr. toad's wild ride.

The writer of the Lucretia Borgia postcard undoubtedly thought dead cane toads are no more deadly than a politician trying to tell a joke. I would have thought the same, but we were both wrong. The bufotoxin glands, if hydrated, can be as deadly in death as when the toad was happily hopping through the garden. Or so said a study I read last night.

You might be curious why I am taking you on this little trip down biology lane. There is a reason. And, of course, it involves Barco.

Last night , while on one of our walks, I saw him grab something. Because it sounded like a bone he was mouthing, I did not bother wresting it out of his mouth.

And he treated it as a bone. Rather than let Güera get near him, he trotted toward the house. He just wanted inside the front door.

So, I did not bother him with his new-found treasure. About fifteen minutes later, he came into my computer room and started nudging me with his head, as if he wanted me to take his "bone" from him.

In the light, I could see it was not a bone. It looked like a fish part. He loves dead fish cured for several days on our hot streets.

When I got it out of his mouth, I could see what it was. A dead cane toad. Flat and dried, looking like an offering in a Saigon food market. But clearly a cane toad.

He did not fight me when I took it from him. I immediately went on line to discover if a dead cane toad had any danger. We all now know it can.

The next step was to take immediate measures just in case he ingested any of the toxin. A thorough washing of his mouth -- which he did not resist -- was the first step. I then monitored him to see if he showed any of the known signs of poisoning.

He didn't. He was merely a bit lethargic. But he, like Steve, gets that way late at night. I thought we were out of the woods.

We weren't. He must have ingested enough toxin (or toad body parts) to upset his digestive system. For the full day, he has had extremely watery diarrhea. Up until this evening.

His system seems to be resetting itself. If the diarrhea continues through the night, I will take him to the veterinarian tomorrow.

I suspect he will be fine. While the automatic garage installer was here this morning adjusting my garage doors (a story I have yet to tell you), Barco bolted out the door and headed straight for the garbage on the corner.

By the time I caught up with him, he had swallowed a small plastic bag filled with spicy salsa to keep the other dogs from sharing in its joys. If he can stomach both the bag and contents, I am ready to declare him a prime Darwinian survivor.

Four years ago, Gary Denness over at mexile, sent a post card of the queen to me -- partly in an experiment to see how long it would take to show up in my box. If any of you would like a cane toad post card, I could send you one.

I will even draw a caricature of the queen on it for you.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

kant stop the bribery

I love to exercise my moral dudgeon.

Here in Mexico, two topics will always get me worked up. Pirated DVDs and paying bribes to police officers.

Pirated DVDs are about as common here as they are on Manhattan street corners. The fact that people who purchase the DVDs are stealing money from the people who used their skills to create the movies is not my prime concern. It is where the revenue goes.

In New York city, it is to criminal rings. Some Mafia. Some Chinese gangs. Some drug cartels. Everyone gets a piece of the quesadilla.

I choose not to buy them for that reason. What other people do is their choice. And I can exercise my election as a moral agent almost every day of the week here in Mexico.

Not so with police bribes. In the eight years I have been here, I have never been stopped by a policeman, let alone being asked for bribe money.

Not that the police haven't tried. Several cops on foot have waved me over. I simply ignored them.

Our local message board mulls over this question regularly. If you are stopped and are asked for a bribe, should you comply or refuse? I have always taken the Kant position -- the moral imperative would prohibit me from indulging in an action that would corrupt my soul and the social order in which I live.

That is big talk from a guy who never had to take out his high morals and run them around the block. That changed today.

I was stopped by a federal policeman on my drive back from Manzanillo this afternoon. Around here, the federals have a reputation for being good cops -- riding high above the tawdry world of money passed surreptitiously as a form of legal absolution.

The cop made a fair nab. I committed the type of traffic error that is commonly practiced here, but is still simultaneously dangerous and stupid. I thought I had got away with it. But two miles further down the road, the policeman caught up with me and pulled me over.

He knew I knew what I had done. There was no sense in arguing. He then asked me for my drivers' license. I ignorantly pulled out my wallet to had the license over to him. Of course, that was simply a good way for him to see how much cash I had.

He then asked me for my registration. Stupidly, I had taken everything out of the car this morning while leaving it to be cleaned. I failed to stop at the house to put everything back in. Just as in The States, driving without a registration is an infraction.

There was no doubt I was in trouble. The Kant side of my brain said: "Accept the citations. You earned them. And move on having learned a moral lesson." Before any other voice in my head could speak up, the officer informed me he was going to write two citations -- or I could simply pay the "fine" on the spot.

I asked: "How much?"

He responded: "Six thousand pesos."

At this point, I broke into a cackle that would have made Hillary Clinton proud. Six thousand pesos is the equivalent of about $330 (US).

"-- Or you do not get your license back."

At that point, the Trump in my head slipped Kant a mickey, and suggested that we might be able to do business. After a few rug merchant exchanges, we arrived at an accommodation.

In a bit of negotiator flourish, rather than slip the pesos subtly into his hand (which I understand to be the custom here), I held them out the window about face level. He was not pleased.

So, my moral high tower turned out to be made of Jello. I could try to justify my action by pointing out that I had a carload of frozen goods that were returning to their natural state, and I did not have time to sit by the road and await my citations. After all, the whole encounter took about five minutes. Very efficient. Very corrupt.

Let me point out once again. I fully deserved the loss of that money. It would have gone to him or to some judge.

But, best of all, the entire exchange was in Spanish -- and I held my own.

Even with my moral lapse, that is success enough for me for the day.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

my dinner with -- you

Come on in and sit down. It's time for dinner.

What shall we talk about? Food is always a good starter. But then starters are food, aren't they? (Yup. It's going to be one of those dinners.)

Because our weather has crossed the boundary into hot and humid, I thought I would have something light for my mid-day meal -- "dinner" as my Minnesota grandmother would have it. I had some leftover home-made chili served over pasta waiting in the refrigerator, but it was just too heavy for the day.

Instead, I decided to do what good cooks (those who are not tied to Stalinist recipes) do, and put together a meal with whatever was fresh in today's market. Despite the heat, I found some firm, small cucumbers -- and a rather inviting jicama.

If you have not tried jicama, you should. It is a root, indigenous to Mexico,  that looks a good deal like a turnip wrapped in brown paper. The flesh is crisp with a slightly sweet taste. Some people say it reminds them of apple. To me, it tastes like -- jicama.

With the cucumbers and jicama in hand, I knew what I was going to make. Pico de gallo. Or rooster's beak.

When I moved to Mexico, I thought pico de gallo was a salsa made of onion, chilis, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice. I was disabused of that notion when I asked a local grocer if I should use jalapeño or serrano chilies in my pico de gallo. She laughed, and said neither.

Pico de gallo
is made with cucumbers, pineapple, and jicama. The tomato salsa is more properly called salsa mexicana (Mexican sauce) or salsa fresca (or fresh sauce).

Of course, I soon discovered culinary life in Mexico is not that simple. There are regions where the tomato salsa is called pico de gallo. And, because I live in a village where people have come from all over Mexico, the tomato salsa is called a lot of things by different people.

But, culinary matters, like most things, are far less complicated within the walls of the house with no name. Here, pico de gallo is made without tomatoes.

Today's version is also made without pineapple. I have been told that mango is also a good substitute. But neither were in the market today.

Watermelon was. It turns out to have been a great choice. Cubed, the watermelon, jicama, and cucumber have complementary crunches. And the lime and chili powder (lots of chili powder) make for a very refreshing dinner on this fine Mexican day. 

A simple salad. A warm afternoon. A tranquil courtyard. It may not be quite the stimulating adventure I initially sought in Mexico, but it is days like this that make me glad I crossed the border.

It was a pleasure having you stop by for dinner. Sorry I dominated the conversation. Maybe next time.


Friday, May 20, 2016

a man with too many countries

I am no Philip Nolan -- the protagonist in Edward Everett Hales's The Man Without a Country.

Hales's tale is a reminder of the consequences of hubris -- getting our just deserts from our own wishes. In Nolan's case, at his treason trial for his part in the Aaron Burr conspiracy, he announced: "I wish I may never hear of the United States again!"

The judge granted Nolan his wish -- sentencing him to spend the rest of his life in exile on board a series of American Navy ships. Love Boat meets Guant

Even if you do not know the story, you know the ending. It is, after all, an American tale.

Nolan spends 55 years in his floating exile and step by step learns that he loves his country. He may not have stepped foot on its soil in decades, but its essence is part of who he is.

Two recent posts caused this little reverie. Yesterday, I mused on my Canadian roots in steve cotton has a secret -- a deep, dark secret,and in pat -- i'd like to buy a consonant, I wrote about learning Spanish to meet my Mexican citizenship requirement.

What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? And is that different from wanting to be part of a country?

A reader had a long email conversation with me last night about my ancestry. From the names I used in my Canada essay and from the photograph of the young me with my family, he deduced that I was a Sephardic Jew of German ancestry. He conducted several name searches in Jewish data banks, and concluded his hypothesis was correct.

I would like that to be true. My family has strongly supported Israel before and after its creation.  The problem is that my cousin Dennis, who has extensively researched our family tree, has come up with no evidence to support the hypothesis.

Maybe my reader is correct. Maybe I do have the seed of Abraham in my DNA.

But that does not make me culturally or religiously Jewish. I am Christian. Not just Christianish -- as Anne Lamott likes to joke. And there is nothing culturally Jewish about my upbringing -- other than my mother's assertion that all pork products are an abomination.

I am an American. Culturally, I believe in the founding principles of the country. They inform all of my political decisions -- and many of my social choices.

So, how do I square that with my desire to be a Mexican citizen -- as well as an American citizen?

While composing this essay, I ran across a piece of music that helped put some of my thoughts in perspective. The tune is "Anthem" from a badly-constructed musical, Chess. The author of the book used the conceit of a Russian-American chess match as an allegory for the cold war.

At the end of Act One (because these moments should always leave the audience at the interval wondering what will happen next) defects. When the reporters ask him why he is leaving his country, he sings "Anthem." (Choose an HD setting if your internet connection will support it.)

The song is about what you would expect from the composers of ABBA along with the lyrics of Tim Rice. Like Oakland, there is not much there there.

That has not stopped the Chess groupies from pulling out the stops in finding the true meaning of the tune. My favorite is the post-modern claptrap that the song is a deconstructionist tribute to the negation of nationalism. I suspect that came from a high school drama coach who was desperately trying to find a good hook for this schmaltzy pastiche.

Considering the cartoon aspect of the production, there is probably no subtext to the song. It is all text on the top -- simply saying that true patriots can still love their country even if not there because "my land's only borders lie around my heart."

That is why Americans such as Morris Cohen, Alger Hiss, and Philip Agee could claim western nationality and concurrently owe their allegiance to Russia or Cuba.  It is not that they had any particular love for the Russian or Cuban people (that I know of). They were soldiers in a foreign ideology. Not to mention being as treasonous as the leaders of the Confederacy.

As simple as the song is, it may be the answer to the question why I want to be a Mexican citizen. I want to be part of the civic community in the country where I permanently reside. And, unlike Cohen, Hiss, and Agee, it is my fellow Mexicans that tie my heart to this land. There certainly is no ideology that would make being a dual citizen inconsistent with my allegiance to The States.

And, if it turns out I have Jewish roots, that will just be the icing on the cake.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

steve cotton has a secret -- a deep, dark secret

To look at that photograph, you would never think that it holds a deep dark secret.

You have probably already guessed that little fellow in the center is me. As I age, I start looking a lot more like my one year old self.

To all appearances, we look like the perfect American family. (In case any of you are wondering, this was shot before my brother joined our little brood.) We could all be sporting American flag tattoos.

For years, I have told people, I am an 11th generation American. It turns out my line is not that pure. At least, on my mother's side. I am Canadian. More than that, I am Québécois.

A bit of candor is due here. I have known about my checkered past for years. I have just kept it tucked under my hat. Or my toque, as my roots would have it, eh?

The family of my mother's mother were border crossers. Double crossers, as it turns out.

Even though one line of her family arrived on the Mayflower, after almost a century and a half (around 1790) or so, her great great great grandfather (Moses Rolfe) gathered up the chosen people in his family and wandered from the promised land of Vermont to the wilderness of Québec.

I have no idea why they went. I like to speculate they may have been on the wrong side of the unpleasantness that broke out in the 1770s. Or maybe it was Captain Renault's formula: "Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me."

And then, the family turned around and sneaked back across the border heading south. This time, ending up in Minnesota. That was three generations later. Somewhere between 1882 and 1888, it seems. And then they were off to Oregon in the 1920s.

All of that may explain my peripatetic tendencies. And my inclination to go light on illegal aliens.

So there you have it. Had my great grandfather Curtis Craig Rolfe not pulled up stakes from
Québec, I might now be a French separatist sucking up my socialized health care and shelling over half of my income to Ottawa -- from whom I would want a divorce. Life has its ups and downs.

It turns out that is only half of the story. I have a Canadian strain on my mother's father's side of the family, as well. The Munros. But that is a connection with Prince Edward Island -- a story that awaits telling at another time. Plus there is something exotic about being called
My dad, there to the right of me, is about as American as a guy can get. Mayflower ancestors. No known sneaks across the border. But there is that ancestor in Massachusetts Bay Colony who set records by being the first man to be hanged for murder. And there is some very suspicious name-changing in the 1790s that makes one wonder what was happening to the Cottons (if that is their real name) in the border regions of Virginia and North Carolina.

But I cannot reveal what I do not know. Well, I could make it up. After all, I am a writer.

Considering the number of times I have given a wink at the local Canadian population, I now hand over the full revelation for them to do as they choose.

Maybe I should join a 12-step program. "Good afternoon. My name is Steve. I am a Canadian. I'm sorry. I should say that better."

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

pat -- i'd like to buy a consonant

My trek along the road to Spanish fluency has had its share of topes.

For those of you who have not driven Mexican roads, topes are similar to speed bumps in The States. Speed bumps with attitude. At least, some are.

They can be mere bumps in the road -- or they can be bone and suspension-jarring walls that often invite the unaware to indulge in an unplanned stop at the tire, muffler, or transmission shops that cluster around the killer humps.

My classes are going well. The four days a week I attend the two to three hour sessions have greatly improved my comprehension.

I would be less than honest if I said it has all been fun. It hasn't. On a normal day, I feel as if I am undergoing root canal surgery. On bad days, I simply want to quit.

And I have. Wanted to quit, that is. I formally threatened to drop out only once. I have re-discovered just how much I hate sitting in class.

Over all, it has been worth it, though. I can now carry on rudimentary conversations. When a group of young men stopped by the house last week to see if I was interested in having a garage door installed, I was able to carry on a conversation and get answers for my concerns about the best positioning of the door and its security features. The conversation went so well that a crew is out in my garage area as I type putting together what I requested.

Even simple things have become a pleasure -- like reading street and business signs. Words on road signs, whose meaning I have merely guessed at, are now clear to me. Even though the instructions themselves are sometimes quite ambiguous.

Then, there are the fun signs. Usually, home-made hanging in front of small businesses.

Take the sign at the top of this essay. It hangs in front of an abarrotes in La Manzanilla, a little beach town northwest of Melaque.

An abarrotes is a small neighborhood grocery specializing in items the store's neighbors might need. Think "mom and pop" groceries in The States.

This particular abarrotes advertises some of its wares. What caught my eye are the misspellings. There are at least four major ones on the sign. The repeated error (using a "v" instead of a "b") is quite understandable. Even though the mistake is the opposite of what I would have expected.

In Spanish, the letter "v" is pronounced with a sound between an English "b" and "v." Because it sounds like a "v," even native Spanish speakers frequently misspell words containing either letter.

Thus, "Fabuloso" becomes "favuloso" and "
jabón" becomes "javon."

There is an additional factor. I have seen surveys concerning what nations prize in their citizens. "Education" ranks extremely high in places like China and Korea -- and not so high in Mexico.

Even though Mexico has made great strides in improving its literacy rate, there are pockets where illiteracy is painfully high. I live in one of them. I found out years ago that leaving notes in Spanish is not very helpful when the recipient has very little reading skills.

I will point out that I could also write a series of essays on the faux spellings on signs along American highways. Fruit stands are in a class of their own.

When I started my Spanish classes, the first question from the teacher was what I wanted to accomplish. My answer was very simple. I wanted to learn enough Spanish to pass my citizenship language test.

Experience has now modified that answer. Initially, I did not indulge in what I consider to be the romantic answer: to communicate with my neighbors.

I didn't because I have very little contact with anyone -- either English or Spanish-speaking -- by choice. Other than my class, I can go almost a full week with talking to only the woman who cleans my house and the guy who cleans my pool.

But the garage door installers are a good example of people unexpectedly coming into my life. Without my weeks of Spanish lessons, my contact with them would probably have been a cursory "no." Instead, I will now have an automatic garage door.

And I will fill you in on that soon.

Maybe I could put a warning sign on my garage door: "
Cuidado con Varco."

Friday, May 13, 2016

the rain is in

Lucy Van Pelt had a sign for it.

You all remember Lucy -- from Peanuts? Rather than a lemonade stand, she ran a psychiatric booth with a sign on the front declaring "The Doctor is" in or out.

Well, I am not Lucy Van Pelt -- and I certainly am not Charles Schulz. But the house with no name has an in/out sign, as well. Or something similar.

After I bought the house, I started collecting some of Edward Gilliam's abstract expressionist paintings. If you would like to see most of the collection, you can see it in the good life.

All of the paintings are sheltered -- with the exception of one. It dramatically hangs in the stairwell to the second story.

Rather, it hangs in the stairwell when the weather is dry. When it rains, the painting comes down to announce that the rain is in. I guess you could say I try to avoid the rain in abstraction expression staying mainly in the plane.

Early this morning, our weather season changed. We have had only two rain showers that I can recall since the hurricane blew through here in October. That is about normal. Winter is our dry season. And dry the place was looking.

For the past few weeks, my neighbors have been setting fire to small patches of grass, fields, and whole hillsides -- keeping alive the dubious tradition of slash and burn. That is always a good sign that people believe rain is on the way.

And rain it did this morning. Not in torrents, but it was enough that the raindrops slamming on the laminate over my shower chimney awoke me.

A small roll of thunder woke Barco up.  It was his first. He barked and then went back to sleep ignoring the remainder of a quite spectacular thunder and lightning show.

But, for now, it is over. The puddles in the courtyard and the upstairs gallery are already evaporating.

Every year when the rain starts, it amazes me how quickly the hills can go from a burned-out brown to a verdant jungle. Usually, within a week.

It did not take that long for the soccer field, where Barco romps, to green up. Barra de Navidad sponsored a regional soccer tournament a few weeks ago. The field then looked as if the teams were playing in the sands of Morocco.

This is what greeted Barco and me this morning. Within hours, the grass had started to perk up.

The arrival of the rain is always welcome here. It usually starts just as the weather shifts into its hottest and most humid months. Rainstorms, ironically, drive down both the temperature and the humidity. Temporarily.

For now, though, the painting is going back up in the stairwell. The rains will become more common, but today is a day to enjoy the sun and Edward Gilliam's work.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

-- and mary tyler moore

Remember the Dick Van Dyke Show opening credits where Dick tumbles over an ottoman while the announcer lists the cast?

"Starring Dick Van Dyke, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Larry Mathews -- and Mary Tyler Moore. My college chum Bob Wilson always got a kick out of that pause. "I wonder what Mary Tyler Moore thinks of being billed after Larry Mathews?"

That was before we knew about the vagaries of star egos -- where the final billing was often saved for a co-star. And before Tom Stoppard introduced us to this gem of a joke in Shakespeare in Love. A line that itself would ensconce the film amongst anyone's top ten.

It's true, Will -- it was a tavern brawl ... Marlowe attacked, and got his own knife in the eye. A quarrel about the bill.

The bill! Oh, vanity, vanity!

Not the billing -- the bill!
I thought of Mary Tyler Moore this week when I received my new telephone -- delivered directly from Seattle by a friend. It will be a new cast member. And following the Dick Van Dyke Show, it will temporarily be billed as "-- and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge."

Regular readers may recall that just two years ago, I bought a fancy new smartphone -- an HTC One M8, a name that evoked a pistol tucked in the belt rather than a telephone hidden in the pocket. (another one drops)

The HTC was a great telephone. It could do everything my laptop could do -- other than act as an essay-writing platform. It looked sleek. And it was cutting edge technology -- to use one of the more meaningless clichés of our era.

But all good things come to an end. The HTC had steadily been slowing down over the past few months. Applications have a tendency to do that. Pieces start interfering with one another.

Rather than face a slow death, the telephone decided to take the suicide route. Concrete and telephones are not a good mix. For the HTC, it meant a crack the full length of its screen.

I could have replaced the screen by jumping through several hoops here. And, if the telephone had not begun operating slowly, I would have considered it.

But it was a two-year old telephone, and technology had passed it by. When I bought the HTC my niece informed me it was the best available. She was correct. The reviews unanimously agreed with her.

This time I chose without her assistance. And the choice was easy. All of the reviews acclaim the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. For good reason. It looks good. And it operates with speeds that put my laptop to shame. Plus it has an amazing camera.

So, there it is, at the top of this essay. Just like Mary Tyler Moore -- waiting for its chance to have a starring role in Mexpatriate.

"Ms. Samsung, are you ready for your close-up?"

Sunday, May 08, 2016

stop kidding around

Happy Mother's Day.

That is, if you are a northern mother. Mexican mothers are celebrated on a different day -- 10 May. Mexico's culture is conservative. It likes certainty in its dates.

Well, except when it doesn't. Schools were let out here on Friday 6 May to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It appeared to be a day late. But getting Friday off was far more beneficial than the 5th. After all, in Mexico, the celebration of the first Battle of Puebla is a local affair. Not here.

I was going to try to weave an excuse out of the difference between the American and Mexican days of celebration. But it would be far too transparent. I am quite capable of forgetting "10 May" as I am of forgetting "the second Sunday in May."

And I did. Usually, I arrange for flowers to be delivered to my mother in Bend on the Saturday before Mother's Day. I simply forgot this year. For some reason, my head is still stuck in November.

And I had a great reminder yesterday that mother's day was upon us.

Once upon a time three goats lived across the street from my house. Two were shipped off to be served up in birria. The sole survivor had a special mission -- to produce more goats.

She has been noticeably pregnant for several months. When I took Barco over to the lot to do what dogs have to do, she always nuzzled up to my pocket for a dog biscuit.

Then she went missing for several days. I thought she may have been sent off to a farm. But I was wrong.

Yesterday, in the shade of the afternoon, the owner brought her out -- along with her newly-born kid. It is now four days old.

All of the neighborhood dogs were there to welcome its coming out. Given an opportunity, though, they would have reverted to their natural instincts and enjoyed goat without the bother of stewing.

So, for all of you mothers out there, Happy Mother's Day.

And for the best mother in the world, I apologize for the lack of flowers. But you know that my appreciation for you is without limits.

Did that work? I didn't think so.

Maybe I should send you something on 10 May. And I am not kidding.

Friday, May 06, 2016

tight as a tick

Around here, it is not a cliché; it's a lifestyle.

The weather at the beach has begun to warm up. That usually means we have gone from hot to hotter. But not for the past month.

Even though our days have wandered into the 80s, and even the occasional 90s, our nights have been Mary Poppinish -- practically perfect in every way. Mainly in the 60s. It is almost as good as an Oregon summer night.

But that has been changing this week. Both the temperatures and humidity have been heading toward New Orleans levels.

As a new dog owner, I have learned that more heat means more ticks. Yesterday I discovered my cute little golden retriever was surreptitiously running his own science project. Instead of an ant farm, he had opened a tick ranch.

I never had problems with ticks bothering Professor Jiggs. Probably because our area of Salem was far too urbane for hayseed ticks.

But I now live in hayseed city. Between the goat lot across the street from our house and the soccer field in the sports park, Barco lives in a target rich environment for ticks.

For the past three months, I have religiously doused Barco with Frontline -- a flea and tick chemical concoction that is touted for its great parasite defense. Well, this month, the good folks at Merial failed in their primary mission. It turns out that Frontline was the Maginot line of tick defense.

I added an additional dose today. At $370 (Mx) (about $21 (US)), it is a bargain. If it works.

I had to pick another crop of ticks out of his thick fur tonight. By tomorrow, we should start finding the carcasses of ticks that have ticked off by devouring too much poison. Or so goes the prevention spiel.

It may not be as good as the laguna's offerings of crocodiles, crabs, and coatimundis, but the new house has its own menagerie of fauna.

Frankly, I prefer the crocodiles.  

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

walking the dog

I hate routines.

I have told you that before. But it is still true. I think. Even though I seem to have fallen into a Babbitish hole of self-conformity.

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a bit bored. My usual antidote for ennui is a trip. A week in Paris sounded as if it would be perfect.

So, I sat down at my laptop and started booking flights. The Mexico City to Paris route is one of my favorites. With my flight in hand, I started looking for a room at any of my favorite hotels in the City of Lights.

Just booking the trip started to perk me up.

Then Barco walked in -- and my trip took flight without me. As long as he is in his terrible late puppy months (and he is living them in spades), I cannot leave him with anyone. Even for one night.

Since he arrived, my days have taken on a structure that I have tried to avoid since I retired.

When the sun comes up, he is up. I feed him and we are off for our morning walk -- accompanied by the ever faithful

The walk has two purposes. One -- to give Barco an opportunity to discharge his musket after eating breakfast. And two -- to give him an opportunity to burn off some puppy energy
running in the park with

Well, running and wrestling. Both dogs love to play fight. Complete with curled lips, bared teeth, and plenty of stylized snarls.

That goes on for an hour or so. While they play, I take the opportunity to run through more Duolingo units. Even though, I have completed the program, it allows me to go back to prior units to work on weak words and grammar.

When I am ready to go, the dogs never are. With Barco on his leash, we get about two paces before Barco tackles
Güera -- or she makes a preemptive strike on him. It is always a long walk home.

When I get back to the house, I prepare my breakfast and read the morning newspaper or finish up my Duolingo units -- and then study my Spanish lessons.

Whenever I find a break, I read the current editions of The Economist and National Review. Or I pull out whichever presidential biography I am currently reading. This month's subject is Chester Arthur. I may share some of the biography with you in the future.

At 11, I feed Barco his lunch and take him for another half-hour to hour walk -- just in time to get me to my noon Spanish class, where I will stay until about 3.

When I get home, I take Barco out for a brief walk, and then get back to my Spanish lessons and recreational reading.

Around 5 or 6, I feed him again, and we head out for another hour walk. This is the walk (and my later walk in the evening) where I see most of my neighbors.

Then, it is back to the house for my dinner and a bit of recreational reading before I take him out for his pre-sleep walk. As for me, I read some more and get to bed around midnight or so.

Then, it all starts again.

The dog has changed my life. There is no doubt about that. He has brought some responsibility and structure back to my life -- even though I am not certain most of it is very welcome. After all, I moved to Mexico to escape both.

But the trade-off is that I have a boon companion. It is not a perfect relationship. What relationship is?

I often tell people who say they are not happy with life that they are chasing a chimera. The best we can hope for is to be content.

And that I am.

Monday, May 02, 2016

you are 48% fluent in spanish

Or so says the wise little owl that acts as the avatar for Duolingo.

I'm not. But Duolingo is one of those smartphone "apps" designed for the children of our age who have never been told anything harsh in their lives for fear of making them feel as if their "safe space" has been fouled.

Hobbes was correct. Life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." But you are not going to hear anything like that from Duolingo. Instead, the very polite program repeatedly tells me "That is almost correct" when it should truthfully say "Not even Desi Arnaz could understand what you just said. Have you thought of trying Greek?"

Well, I have tried Greek. And Russian. And German. And Italian. And Latin. I liked them all. And I did quite well at learning them -- without the smarmy reassurance of Duolingo. My Spanish lessons are not going that well.

Last August I decided to cut back on writing my essays -- along with most of my other official charitable and social activities -- to focus on learning Spanish. Daily, starting in October, I sat down at the computer and worked my way through The Learnables program. It helped me attune my ear to listening.

In November I drove up to Oregon with my brother. Because we were on the road, I could not use my laptop efficiently. So, I signed up for Duolingo on my smartphone. Several readers had highly recommended it.

I was skeptical. I had looked at the program a couple years ago. The exercises were seductively simple. My score was perfect each day. The problem is that I could not recall a single thing I had supposedly learned. So, I set it aside.

This time, I stuck with it -- on the road north, in Bend, on the road south, and back at the house. Duolingo is based on the concept of units. Food. Animals. Plurals. Past imperfect verbs. That sort of thing. Maybe it was Duolingo that was the genesis of one of my favorite Lincoln quotations: "People who like this sort of thing are going to find it is the sort of thing they like."

The idea is to complete a unit successfully enough to be allowed to proceed to the next level. It is a little like being an initiate of the Scottish Rites Mason. (Just to reassure you Illuminati conspiracy theorists out there, I am not.)

Due to some glitch, I lost all of my progress twice and had to start over. (For the record, I actually finished the entire series last night. Thus the 48% fluency award.)

But, at some point, I needed outside classes. Duolingo is based on inductive reasoning. By completing the exercises, you are to infer the grammatical rules.

I am fine with inductive reasoning. After all, we use it every day of our lives merely to survive. But, when it comes to learning languages, I often require a bit of deduction. I want to know the rules that describe why Spanish sentences are peppered with two letter words that make no sense to my English-speaking mind with its Germanic sentence structures.

So, I started Spanish classes last January -- for one day. It was not a good start (back to school). I started again in February -- attending two one-hour classes from Monday to Thursday.

The classes were almost exactly what I needed. My primary reason for learning Spanish is to get me through the language requirement of the Mexican citizenship process. In our area, applicants are required to pass an examination that is the equivalent of a college-level Spanish course.

Most of my fellow students are not as concerned about the grammar. They are there to learn how to enjoy conversations with their Mexican neighbors.

My ideal course would be a formal instruction with a lesson plan and tests to measure my progress. But that would suit only me.

Amy, our teacher (a native Spanish speaker from southern California who now teaches high school Spanish in Maine, but is on sabbatical here until June), has a great technique of easing us into the complexities of the language. By teaching us the usual greeting phrases one would encounter on the street, we were already exposed to reflexive verbs and direct pronoun placement before we discussed them formally.

Here I am, three months into my 8-hours a week lessons, and I still feel uncertain about my progress. The subjunctive and conditional verbs still baffle me. And I often cannot find the word for "anathema" or "reprehensible."* The more likely candidates are "knife" and "left."

My concerns may be groundless. Even though I often have trouble performing in class, I received the best endorsement of my progress this week from Dora, the woman who cleans my house.

We were talking about Barco's latest destructive episodes. There I was recounting tales like Cervantes in prison using my limited language tools. The preterite. Past imperfect. Gerunds. Nouns that I did not know I even knew (probably implanted there by Duolingo and Amy while I was not looking). With Dora correcting me where necessary.

When I finished, she commended me on how well I am doing. It was high praise indeed. Even the neighbors seem to wear less baffled looks when I stop to chat with them.

I have two more years before I need to sit down and take the formal test that will help prove my assertion that I want to be a member of the country in which I now live permanently. There will be plenty of tie for me to keep slogging through the plains of Spain.

Right now, I feel as if I have been undergoing several months of root canals. I trust it will all prove to be worthwhile.

As for Duolingo, I have one word for you -- a word I learned in class:

* -- Yes. I know. They are cognates. As J. Edgar Hoover once said: "To ask the question is to answer it."

** -- I suspect you can figure that one out without any resort to a Spanish translator.