Friday, August 31, 2018

nice to meat you

Consider yourself lucky.

I was fully prepared to write an essay about an intellectual property controversy in Mexico. The type of essay that would have required you to don your Wittgenstein waders.

But, while walking back from breakfast with Ed and Roxane this morning, I noticed a change in the Barra de Navidad neighborhood. A new butcher shop has opened. Well, an old butcher shop has opened in a new location.

Since I moved to Mexico in 2009, I usually bought my meat needs at La Vaquita Feliz (The Happy Cow) in San Patricio. It was handy when I lived in Villa Obregón, and, probably out of inertia, I did not look for a new butcher when I moved to Barra de Navidad.

That changed with the arrival of my brother and sister-in-law. Because they do not have a car here, they explored parts of the neighborhood I had not seen. One of their discoveries was a butcher shop. El Tunco 2.

I knew the name. El Tunco 1 is in Villa Obregón. 3 is in San Patricio.

Following my family's lead, I have bought my meat at El Tunco 2 since then. The reason I did not notice the shop earlier was its location. It is in a commercial area near one of our major grocery stores. But, because I was not looking for it, I never saw it.

This past winter, construction began at a far better location. I have written about Nueva España before. It is the main street through our neighborhood. Primarily commercial. It seemed to be a good fit for improving foot traffic for the butcher. (Even though El Tunco 4 is just a couple of blocks away on Nueva España.)

The construction was steady through the year. Just before I left for San Miguel de Allende, it appeared the new opening was imminent because the meat cases were being installed. It turns out that the store opened just after I left.

So, today I stopped by the shop to buy a healthy piece of pork loin. I am going to try a bit of fusion cuisine for lunch.

Omar had cooked up a bowl of brown rice. A good portion of it is still in the refrigerator. With some ginger, eggs, fresh fish sauce, soy sauce, an habanero, several serranos, maybe some red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, celery, peas, perhaps a few local mushrooms, and an African sauce I have been experimenting with, I should be able to send Omar off to school with a full stomach.

The one thing I can count on is that the quality of the meat. Whoever supplies it to El Tunco, knows his product.

Thanks are in order to Darrel and Christy for steering me to El Tunco. And congratulations are in order to El Tunco for its new location.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

choosing my mask

Halloween arrives earlier every year.

Not the day itself. Halloween has haunted the nights of 31 October since our pagan fur-clad Celtic ancestors danced around bonfires on Samhain.

What comes earlier is the merchandising of the holiday. That is quite understandable in The States. It is the second most lucrative holiday -- Christmas, of course, being the most expensive. Last year, Americans spent the equivalent of $86.13 per person to dress up in costumes that cause apoplexy amongst the cultural police.

It makes sense for stores to cash in early on those open wallets. And they do.

Mexico is no exception. Earlier in the month, I visited the Antea shopping center in Querétaro (another reason people might like san miguel de allende). One of my stops was Liverpool. A department store I would compare to the old Macy's. Slightly upscale without being flashy. I had stopped there to shop for furniture. For the library, in particular. I found four pieces that would fit perfectly.

But I decided to look for other candidates. Thoughts of another sofa were pushed out of my head when I turned around.

I have seen Halloween displays in Mexico before. Soriana, La Comer, and Walmart in Manzanillo always have piles and racks of costumes for children.

But this was different. It was a stand-alone display heralding the arrival of Halloween. Complete with a blow-up tombstone emblazoned with "Trick or Treat." There was no attempt at an Hegelian synthesis with the Day/Night of the Dead celebration. It was unadulterated Halloween. As pure as anything you would find in Boston. Or Rapid City.

I am not one of those expatriates that goes all weak-kneed when I see another culture's tradition being absorbed into another. Probably because I grew up in the United States which is one big pottage of various parts of the world's cultures. Immigrants bring their culture with them. America absorbs it.

About a month ago, Omar's best friend, Lupe, told me he did not like "American" food. I am not certain if I had ever thought about it before, but his use of the term confused me. I asked him what he meant because I had no idea what "American" food was.

He responded: "Pizza. Fettuccine. Spaghetti."

I started laughing. "Lupe, those are Italian foods. Not American."

He then listed a number of other European or Asian foods. I gave him a similar answer.

Of course, all of the foods he mentioned have morphed in American hands. But, with the exception of hot dogs and hamburgers (and both of those are arguably European), I am not certain there is such a thing as American food. Most of it came from elsewhere.

Mexico is also a cultural sponge. People bring other traditions here, and Mexicans pick what they like and make it their own.

The appearance of Halloween items in Mexico is fraught with irony. The purists bemoan the appearance of jack-o-lanterns (just as they hated the absorption of Santa Claus and the Easter bunny), fearing that it will somehow hamper the great Indian tradition of Day/Night of the Dead.

The only problem with that position is its premise. It is true that some pre-Columbian tribes in Mexico had an annual tradition of sitting and visiting with their dead. But it was regional, not throughout all of Mesoamerica. And not all the tribes celebrated on the same day.

Then, the Spanish showed up. The priests, who were an integral component of the conquest, decided to put an end to the pagan practice -- but in a very Roman Catholic way.

The church had already winked at the resurrection of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin as Our Lady of Guadalupe, so, the solution was simple and elegant. The Purépecha around Lake Pátzcuaro were one of the tribes that regularly practiced the annual dead veneration.

Rather than attempt to outlaw the practice, the church squeezed the custom through the Catholic sausage grinder by conducting a hostile takeover requiring all the tribes to celebrate on a day of the church's choosing. The date was easy. Because the tribes were honoring the dead, the church would slip it into another day honoring the dead -- All Saints' Day.

Not being content with that bit of cultural appropriation, the church also required that all altars must contain at least one Catholic religious symbol. The rest could be made up of as many pagan pieces as the tribes cared to use. If a Purépecha warrior from 1520 were to wander into the cemetery at Tzurumutaro this year during the celebration, he would certainly recognize what was happening, even though the date and Christian iconography might confuse him.

It was not until the 1960s that the Mexican Minister of Education declared Day/Night of the Dead would be an all-Mexico tradition, and that it would be taught in the schools to perpetuate its celebration.

Like most top-down edicts in Mexico, it worked only where the tradition was celebrated. There are plenty of places in Mexico -- especially the north -- where any celebration of the day is so low key as to be almost invisible. Someone looking for a Coco experience in Monterrey would be sorely disappointed.

My advice to the people who are standing in the road of the hobgoblin of history and yelling "stop" is to step aside before you are run down. Day/Night of the Dead has survived the nips and tucks of the Roman Catholic church. I would not be surprised to see Mexico incorporate some Halloween elements in their celebration. When the school kids build their altars in the San Patricio square, they almost always manage to work in some sort of Halloween item.

And they are not wrong in doing that. Remember the pagan Celtic holiday of Samhain? For some of us, that is our ancestral heritage, and the Catholic church did to it what it did to the Day/Night of the Dead. It turned the day into All Hallow's Eve (thus, Halloween) -- or, as we know it in this context: All Saint's Eve.

And that is why Halloween and Day/Night of the Dead are celebrated at the same time of the year. The Celtic and Mexican tribes both lost their tradition to the Catholic church -- and, each in their own way, has retained it.

And if that bothers some people, we may just have to stop calling our little village San Patricio. I am certain that the missionary to the Celtics, who adopted him as their patron saint, would appreciate the irony.

Happy shopping.

Oh, just in case you are curious, my Halloween costume this year will be that of a retired Oregon attorney who writes essays and lives in Mexico permanently. I bet you will not even recognize me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

when in rome

I am a "go-to" guy on a handful of topics.

Spanish is not one of them.

If you want to know the subtleties of Spanish, go see Hank -- or Felipe -- or Kim. But I am not your guy.

That is why I was a bit confused when a manager at one of my favorite local restaurants asked me: "Why do so many Canadians [here, that means any European-looking person] respond with 'finito' when I ask them if they have finished eating? Do they think we are Italian?"

He is absolutely correct on all scores. I repeatedly hear foreigners in Mexico say "finito" when they are done with their meal. But they are using the wrong language.

"Finito" means "finished" in Italian. There is a Spanish word "finito," but it has an entirely different meaning. It means "finite" -- as in, God's Grace is infinite; my patience is finite. And that, certainly, is not what most foreigners mean when they say "finito" here.

Here is my tyro linguist hint. When you are in Venice, and you have just finished off the best cuttlefish cooked in its own ink that you have ever tasted, feel free to let loose with that "finito" you have had corked up for use somewhere other than a Spanish-speaking country.

But, if you are at Papa Gallo's in San Patricio and have just had the world's best coctel de camarones, and the waiter gives you that all-knowing lifted eyebrow, stifle the urge to practice your Italian. and respond with a hearty "terminado" (even though that sounds ominously like something out of labor law or a discredited CIA practice).

As for me, having tempted my taste buds, I am searching for a good cuttlefish recipe. The trick will be catching the cuttlefish.

If I do, I can say this essay is "finito."

Monday, August 27, 2018

indiana steve and the hidden dome

If you want to shoot architecture photographs, San Miguel is a target rich environment.

Due to its near-death experience, the city has some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in Mexico. Most of it is simple to photograph. Stand back. Frame. Focus. Shoot.

But, because the buildings were not designed with photographers in mind, some are difficult to get just right. Cramped streets. Crowds. Odd angles.

And then there is the grand prize of them all. The dome of the Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri. Built in 1712, it is one of my favorite baroque churches in town. Probably, because it retains enough simplicity without giving in to the excesses of the Churrigueresque. The scallop shell facade gives the church an almost fantastical aura.

It is not the church that is hard to photograph, though; it is its dome. If you stand in a specific spot to the right of the church, you can catch the glimpse of color between the facade and the short bell tower. But, no matter where you stand in front of the church, you cannot see the full dome.

During past visits, I have wandered all around the surrounding blocks to find a good vantage point. And I had yet to find a place where I could see the dome's artistry.

I can see the dome when I walk down the street from Barbara's casita on the hill. But it is too far away and there is too much clutter to really appreciate it.

On this visit, I walked around the streets behind the church in vain. And I even walked into private spaces (a hotel) to see if I could catch a glimpse of the dome. I couldn't. (Barbara tells me that the dome is visible from the balcony of the hotel, but I did not feel comfortable climbing around on balconies in a place where I was paying no tariff.)

I had just about given up hope. Until yesterday. For some reason, while walking beside the much larger San Francisco church, I looked up. Usually, the space is filled with tourists trying to board trams, and my attention is directed toward wending my way through the crowd.

Not yesterday. The space was free of people. When I looked up, there it was. The dome I had been searching to photograph for years. Visible from a spot on a street I have walked hundreds of times.

As you can see, it was worth the wait. The colors. The design. Something about the combination makes me want to laugh and sigh.

Why is it so hidden? I suspect it is just bad planning on building placement.

Or maybe, since the church was built to glorify God, the architect had no concern whether we saw it or not. It was built for Him.

And that truly is beyond my pay grade.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

the priest and the altar boy

That is what my wag friend calls the statue in front of San Miguel de Allende's La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church.

The statue honors San Miguel's first priest, Fray Juan de San Miguel, for his work evangelizing amongst the Otomí and Chichimeca tribes. It portrays him standing above an Indian who appears to be a supplicant with his hand raised.

Historical statues bear a heavy burden. They are created in one time to reflect a certain view of history. But, when viewed solely through anachronistic eyes of a later time, the original intent often goes missing.

Fray Juan's statue reminded me of the current dispute over a statue in San Francisco that is being removed, or, by now, may be gone. It depicts an Indian man sitting at the feet of a Catholic friar. A Spanish vacaro peers off into the distance -- as if wondering just when his turn will come to be erased from history.

Critics have labelled it with terms you would expect. Racist. Promotes genocide.  Disrespectful. Promotes human subjugation. The only slur missing is that it is a rather bad piece of art. But art criticism is not the point.

No one seems to be bothered one bit that the scene symbolically depicts not only an historical truth (that European settlers did defeat and subjugate the Indians), but an attitude that existed in the 19th century when the statue was cast.

I have always felt a bit queasy about statues depicting the tragedy of the American Indian. When I was young and we watched westerns that displayed interactions with Indians, my mother would express her indignation of how the Indians were treated.

So, I have some rather mixed feelings about the existence of the statues and their removal. The statues make me uncomfortable. But, trying to erase history bothers me just as much.

Let me be up front on the history issue. When it comes to destroying culture, we are all hypocrites -- or, at least, contradictory. That is certainly true of me.

When people raise the history defense, there are certain examples that are trotted out. Stalin airbrushing opponents out of photographs. The Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Islamic State destroying the treasures of Palmyra.

The reactions to those travesties were appropriate. Barbaric. A crime against culture. Abominable. An act of terrorism against all humanity.

But, we all seem to pick our favorite villains, whose cultural artifacts deserve no special protection. When the Soviet Union fell, and the captive nations were freed, one of the first targets were the statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Mark that stood rigidly in parks and squares. Down they came, along with their ideology, to be dumped into the dustbin of history.

I did not raise a peep. Instead, I was cheering on a people, who had lived in the darkness of tyranny and were now taking revenge on the ideology that had enslaved them in a system that was the moral equivalent of National Socialism.

At times, I wonder if we would be better off labeling statues we find offensive through post-modern eyes to promote some thought about our own feelings of otherwise objectionable art objects in public places. Of course, that takes all the adrenalin out of moral indignation.

And what about that statue of 
Fray Juan de San Miguel? Doesn't anyone object to it?
It turns out that they have. I learned on a walking tour that there was a movement to remove the statue in the 1960s -- for some of the same reasons the San Francisco statue came under attack. But, Mexico seems to have a kinder and gentler way of dealing with these issues.

Someone from the church pointed out the Indian is not in a conquered position beneath the priest. He has come as a supplicant. To be baptized by God's representative. The shell in the Fray Juan's hand is a baptism tool. The priest uses it to pour water.

With that explanation, the controversy went away. The Indian is still in an obviously inferior position. Even though it is legally a secular country, the majority of Mexicans are Catholic. And, even though the statue clearly takes the conservative side of the conservative-liberal division that has split the country since before Independence, it still stands in the square.

I am always amazed how Mexicans can spin a potential controversy into a consensus myth.

Unlike San Francisco, which will crate up its uncomfortable bit of history, Mexico lives with its own in the light of day. I suspect very few people who view the priest see any racial or religious significance in the piece. It is simply an interesting backdrop for the next selfie.

And maybe that is a healthier approach than trying to re-write history.


Friday, August 24, 2018

tending the garden

I am on a walking kick.

In an attempt to gain a modicum of control over my health, I have altered my diet. Nothing fancy.  I have simply followed the advice doctors often give patients. Your plate should be half vegetables (raw or cooked, salad), one-quarter starch, one-quarter protein (chicken, lean pork, fish).

But, for me, a change in my diet is not enough. I need exercise. And my exercise of choice is walking, as most of you already know.

I do not use my car much in San Miguel de Allende. The traffic is too horrendous. So, I get a lot of steps just touring around town on foot.

But, not enough. I supplement my tourist steps with a daily walk at San Miguel's small shopping mall. Including the perimeter of the parking lot, I walk a mile each lap.

Today, I changed my venue. Going in circles around a mall can be extremely boring. Especially, when there is a much better alternative.

And it is El Charco del Ingenio. The local botanical garden. It has miles of trails through one of the prettiest semi-arid gardens I have ever visited.

The down side of trying to get exercise in such an attractive place is fighting the temptation of stopping to enjoy everything, which would only defeat the purpose of a sustained walk.

So, I did, as I so often do in life, compromise. The first five miles, I walked as if i was meeting Harry Truman's stride. The second time around, I stopped to smell the cactus.

There are plenty of species here. Some are local. Some are rare and were rescued from their original homes.

San Miguel de Allende sits on the edge of a great desert. But it does not have a desert climate. I am visiting in its rainy season. It rains at 4 PM almost every day.

Those rains will soon cause all of the fields around here to bloom with flowers in a week or so. Mostly cosmos of various colors.

Today, the blooming flowers were just budding up for their pageant. I thought a little Georgia O'Keefe might warm up my prose

But the cactus were in their high reproductive season.
Every time I see a prickly pear in full fruit, it reminds me of Christmas. Or Mexico. Or maybe Christmas in Mexico. The fruit provide food for a wide variety of wildlife in the garden. Including ants.

The gardens stretch over a large variety of ecosystems. The main part of the garden is a plain on a mesa. But there is also a reservoir that once provided water and electricity to a fabric mill at the base of the canyon.

And then there is the canyon itself that is mainly dry at the moment. But it was roaring with overflow water earlier in the summer.

There is also a plaza that honors the traditional myths of the people who were here before Columbus showed up with his Spanish friends. This may look like a Christian cross.

 It is and it isn't. When the Indians were forced into changing religions, they managed to drag a lot of their pagan symbols into Catholic iconography. The cross and that big "X" are but two examples.

It is impossible to spend much time in a garden this large without getting a bit philosophical. There is a large section of agave in the garden -- including some that Felipe battles every year.

They come in all shapes and sizes. But almost all of them will periodically shoot up a huge chandelier of flowers . The stalk appears almost overnight and attracts birds, bees, and bats to pollinate the next generation of agave.

And, for some species, that act of reproduction will be its last contribution to its race. The plant blooms -- and dies.

I have yet to meet a gardener who does not have a realistic sense of both life and death. To have one is to do the other.

All pf my concern about my diet and my exercise was put into context this morning. It is important to live wisely. But, whether or not we eat that pizza or miss a few days of exercise, we are still going to die.

But, until that happens, there are gardens to enjoy -- as a realist. Because in every garden, there is a serpent. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

lady in red

It is not a sight you see every day in San Miguel de Allende.

And never in Melaque.

Blonde. Lithe. Tall. In a tight red shift. Pink handbag. Pink scarf.

As she walked down the hill toward me, the sun lit her as if she were on stage. And she was. The eyes of every Mexican man on the street followed her every sway.

I was so entranced, I just watched her. It was not until she had turned a corner to walk up toward the
jardin that I remembered I had two cameras with me. I spun the dials on my Sony and brought it up to shoot just as she darted into a boutique.

I am a patient hunter. I skulked in the street for 3 minutes. 5 minutes. 10.

I could see her in the shop. How many necklaces and scarves can one person possibly fondle?

While I waited, my attention was diverted by a street musician playing an accordion. Primarily French tunes. Lots of Edith Piaf.

For a moment, his music transported me to Aix-en-Provence. The year was 2011. My friends Roy and Nancy were with me on a cruise, and we had stopped in town for just one day.

While Nancy was shopping, Roy and I were left to kick our heels. To put my time to better use, I started shooting character sketches.

Then I saw what would be the quintessential French portrait -- a beautiful, young woman dressed as if she was on her way to a chic 
soirée. I tagged along behind her trying to take surreptitious shots.

She strode into a party supply shop and stopped in front of the greeting card rack. I slunk around the corner to shoot a profile. At least, I thought that was how the story was going to end. She had a different ending in mind.

As I poked my head around the corner, she ambushed me with a decent bash from her handbag. I duly retreated.

Reverie is not a hunter's ally. While musing on France, The Lady in Red sashayed across the street to a dress shop, and disappeared somewhere in its fabriced bowels.

Having failed to bag a photograph for you, I went to lunch at Nicosia -- an experience you will hear more about. Later.

Something good came of all this, though. I was spared the ignominy of being handbagged on the streets of San Miguel de Allende.

But, I did not leave empty-handed. Let me introduce you to my unindicted co-conspirator -- The Accordion Man.

And, if you are so inclined, here is Edith Piaf singing one of my favorite songs. Of course, he played it.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

when post cards ruled the earth

I admit it. I am often a conundrum.

I claim to be a modernist who favors almost all change. And then I start telling you about my love of poetry.

Poetry, of course, is not the problem. Lots of readers are fond of the art form that finds its core in condensed form.

It is the form in which I read it that outs me as a retroist -- if not an anachronism.

I like my poetry in a hard-bound book. It is not nostalgia that drives this preference. Poems simply work better on a printed page. The look of a poem is second only to the words it contains.

There is nothing new about that reality. But I thought of it afresh today while reading another section of Ted Kooser's Kindest Regards.

I turned the page to discover something I have not seen for a long time. A post card from the publisher. Asking me for my opinion on the book. The card is written in that unctuous publisher jargon that leads the reader to believe the publishing house really cares about what the reader thinks.

So, I will take out my fountain pen and write a few kind words. Even though the postage is prepaid, that will not work in Mexico. So, I will purchase a stamp and return the card to the good folks at Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington. Thea fact that the publisher is small enough to be located in a town I know is incentive enough for me to take care in how I complete the card.

And, I will. Anyone kind enough to go to the trouble of including the card in my book deserves a response.

That whole process strikes me as being from a different era. When poetry was more widely-read and discussed and publishers cared about the works they provided to their readers. I am not certain it was a slower time. But we certainly seemed to take our time doing things precisely before moving on to the next.

What surprise me about the card was that it was there. I suspect I would not have even given a second thought if a similar card had appeared in my Spanish version of Jorge Castañeda's Mañana Forever? It didn't. But Mexico still has the pace of life that the postcard in my book symbolizes.

And that is just another reason, I enjoy living here. Whether I am an anachronism or not.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

going mobil

For a moment, I thought I was in Duluth or Des Moines.

It was not the man who wears the star. But right there in the middle of San Miguel de Allende was a Mobil gas station. Sans Pegasus. But it was still a Mobil station, prepared to join the state-owned PEMEX in competition -- and, in the process, to possibly reform one of Mexico's most corrupt institutions.

I knew that NAFTA had opened the possibility of American and Canadian gas stations flogging fuel to Mexican motorists. And I had heard rumors for the past four years the Americans were on their way.

Those rumors flared when PEMEX started building new gas stations throughout the country. Some on facing street corners. Just like Starbucks.

Completely unreliable sources told me PEMEX was buying up land and building stations on what it thought would be property bought by the American competition. And it turns out those unreliable sources were more reliable than I thought.

The competition doors finally opened with President Peña Nieto's PEMEX reforms. What NAFTA had promised was one step closer to reality.

And then, what was only virtual became reality. Late last year, Mobil opened a handful of stations in Mexico's highlands. (As part of that deal, PEMEX also opened gas stations in Texas.) The Mobil station I walk past in San Miguel de Allende is part of that vanguard.

Mexican government's hope is that a bit of competition will help turn an ossified PEMEX into a modern, efficient business.

I have no idea if it will work. To placate Mexican nationalist instincts, the reform law was larded down with "special protections" (such as limits on cutting gasoline prices) that almost guarantee competition will not exist.

President-elect Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has big plans for Mexico. He believes he can pay for all his poverty programs without raising taxes; enough money is lost through corruption that his programs can be financed with those anti-corruption savings.

He is probably correct. I have seen estimates that from 20% to 40% of Mexican funds are lost to the system's endemic corruption. The trick is finding the appropriate targets for that Augean cleansing.

Two institutions immediately come to mind. And both are political sacred cows. PEMEX and public education. I wish him the best of luck if he tackles either.

And what was it like to buy gasoline at the Mobil station? I don't know. I am always on foot when I pass it.

But, in just over a week, I am heading home. I just may give PEMEX a competitive shove.

Monday, August 20, 2018

the silent kiss

It was inevitable.

It happens every time I visit San Miguel de Allende. And the fact that I have been here for three weeks without it happening was a bit -- well, unnerving.

When you travel, there are experiences you can predict with confidence. The rabbit risotto at Enoteca Pinchiorri will be superb. There will be a car waiting for me at the airport if I stay at the St. James Club. It will rain in Dublin.

I have already told you about the various attractions that draw immense crowds of tourists to San Miguel de Allende. There is something for everyone here.

I, of course, anticipate the chamber music festival, some moderately good food, and a month of relaxation.

Last night I cooked up a pork loin with snow peas, basil, serrano chiles, onion, and pine nuts with a balsamic reduction. All of this was going to be served on a bed of whole wheat spaghetti. But, in my morning haste, I had grabbed a packet of gluten-free whole grain spaghetti. Because the spaghetti was as bad as it sounds, it made a quick trip to the garbage pail.

That left quite a pile of dishes to wash. By the time I had finished, I left them in the drainer to air dry and headed off to bed.

This morning, while cooking up my oatmeal, I began the small task of emptying the drainer. I picked up one bowl -- and there it was. What I had been expecting for the past three weeks.

A scorpion. Napping on the colander. Probably, resting after a night of eating cockroaches and other delectable insects. At least, the scorpion was making better use of the colander than I did last night.

On each of my visits to San Miguel de Allende I have seen scorpions. August is in the midst of the rainy season here. That brings out insects that attract the scorpions.

On one visit, I found nine scorpions in the casita. That was the trip where I first discovered scorpions can deliver the equivalent of a wasp sting with that tail they flail about when confronted.

I admire scorpions. They are wondrously-made killing machines. Everything about them works in their favor when seeking a feast.

But, as wondrously-made as they are, I do not need them lurking about in the casita. So, back to its maker it was sent.

Having seen my first scorpion, I will now revert to my usual techniques of avoiding another sting. Double-checking my shoes. Looking under the covers and sheets before I slip into bed. Shaking my clothes to knock off any unwanted hitchhikers.

Every time I write about scorpions, some people react as if IS terrorists are hiding in my house. They are just scorpions. For some reason, people never fear living places with yellow jackets. Or hornets. Or spiders. Or maybe they do.

The delights of living in Mexico far outweigh any perceived downside from scorpions, snakes, or giant huntsman spiders. For me, they are part of the fascinating mural that is now my home.

After all, they are merely inevitable. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

in one accord

My blogger pal Al alerted me that this morning's church service would be a bit different.

He was correct.

When I come to the Mexican highlands, I attend services at The Community Church of San Miguel. The church is similar to mine in Villa Obregon (Costalegre Community Church) in that both minister to the multi-denominational protestant English-speaking population in their respective communities. The biggest difference is the church in San Miguel is far more liturgical -- representing its initial Anglican and Presbyterian roots. What I call the United Kingdom of God.

Several years ago, a portion of the group initiated a lay-led service that was less liturgical and more personal in size. I usually attend that service when I am here.

And I did so this morning.

Al had told me the service might seem a little odd. The liturgy would be based on the Taizé Community. Like most Christians, I have heard of the community, but I knew very little about it.

Al's email caused me to do a bit of research. The community believes in the ecumenical power of Christianity. The group emphasizes basic Christian virtues -- kindness, simplicity, reconciliation.

The worship service includes music from around the world -- sung as chants. Eastern Orthodox iconography is common. The music is almost always based on lines of scripture -- often from the Psalms. Having grown out of the horrors of the Second World War, the community's goal is to rely on Christian tenets to reconcile humanity with one another and with God.

I am glad Al asked me to do some research because it gave me focus for the service.

The service began with a traditional instrumental hymn. One I did not immediately recognize because the electronic keyboard arrangement sounded a bit like something you would hear at a cocktail party. Soft, jazzy. I kept wondering where the waiiter had gone.

Music has a wondrous way in altering our minds and spirits. As the pianist played, I let go of my focus on myself, and placed it on God. That was the reason we were.

The "we" was a small group. A dozen of us. And that was an auspicious number. It was as if The Twelve had gathered together in the early church.

For those of you who have pulled "New Age" out of your grab bag of labels, you would be wrong. The first word out of the reader's mouth was "Jesus." The name would repeatedly appear in the service -- a truly Christian service.

After that prayer, we sang a two-like song "Come and Fill Our Hearts." We sang it through numerous times. Each time the words seemed to hold more meaning as we chanted them.

I have attended several churches over the years where popular choruses are sung repeatedly. A somewhat-cynical music director told me he called them "7-11 songs," Eleven words sung seven times. But even those choruses can work for their own purpose.

We sang three more ("In the Lord I'll Be Ever Thankful,"  "Live in Charity," "Jesus, Remember Me"). Most from the Psalms. All of them in the same chant form.

A prayer, a responsive reading from Psalm 104, a 10 minute silent meditation, and a prayer of intercession rounded out the service. In its basic elements, it was not much different from any other church service.

With one big exception. I have always enjoyed praying with this group. The small size gives it the intimacy and honest decency of an AA meeting. One of Philip Yancey's best essays compares the bare openness of AA meetings with the spirit of the early church. It is a compelling argument. And it is that spirit that I so enjoy experiencing when I worship with this small congregation.

I would like to say that it was the Taizé liturgy that made the difference. But it wasn't. Even though it was refreshing to hear a prayer offered with a broken heart that God would give us the strength to "share your abundance with all,"  "turn us towards the tasks of restoration of pure air and soil and water," and "help us to make room for our companions on this blue ball spinning through space." After all, it was Jesus who taught us we were to have the hearts of servants.

What made the difference was this group of believers who are willing to be open and honest with one another while seeking God's help to be better Christians. Christians who are humble enough to realize they are sinners just like those to whom they bring the gospel.

The hymn that opened the service was "His Eye is on the Sparrow." It had never been one of my favorites until I heard Anne Lamott read her essay "Knocking on Heaven's Door" on This American Life.

That essay deals with the power of music to re-enforce how we live our faith. The service this morning enforced my faith life. I hope Anne's essay does the same for you.

Have a blessed Sunday.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

my secret garden

I love a quiet place where I can sit and read. Usually poetry.

Earlier this month, I told you about Juarez park here in San Miguel de Allende (tuesday in the park with steve). Even though it is surrounded by the city, the park is large enough to be a refuge from the downsides of urbania.

I told you about the park because t is public. Anyone can go there and enjoy its verdant pleasures.

But I have a refuge that is not public. And it is my favorite reading spot when I come to town.

For the past few years (I really do not know how many), I have driven up from the beach to attend San Miguel's chamber music festival in August. And I always stay in the same casita on Barbara's property.

The casita has almost become a second home for me. Almost like an old girlfriend. I know the joys and the limitations of the place.

One chef joy is the garden. It has taken Barbara years to get it into the shape it is now. There is always something blooming to attract hummingbirds and bees. Her trees offer shelter to a variety of songbirds -- and some birds who never got past the first audition.

The mornings here are almost always sunny. There is a table with three chairs in the demilitarized zone between the two houses that provides a tranquil place to begin the day. With a book and a cup of green tea.

Or, it would if I did not have so many self-declared commitments. There is my morning walk. And events at the library (that may or may not occur for number of random reasons). There are also the master classes associated with the festival.

As a result, I have sat at that table only once. And it was for just a brief moment.

That is doubly bad. First, because I need the rest and I enjoy it. Second, this is my last visit to the casita. It will not be available after I leave.

This is not original with me: in our rush to do things, we often get caught in the vortex of "busy-ness." We misconstrue activity with finding meaning in our lives. When the opposite is true. We find meaning (and coincidentally God) in those still moments of our lives when we feel comfortable just being with our own company.

In that silence we also often find how absurd life can be and how we revel in our own version. Ted Kooser, whose poetry book I am now reading captured that sense of self-deprecating humor in "Selecting a Reader:"

First, I would have her be beautiful, 
and walking carefully up on my poetry 
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon, 
her hair still damp at the neck 
from washing it. She should be wearing 
a raincoat, an old one, dirty 
from not having money enough for the cleaners. 
She will take out her glasses, and there 
in the bookstore, she will thumb 
over my poems, then put the book back 
up. on its shelf. She will say to herself, 
"For that kind of money, I can get 
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.
And I would chuckle, sip a bit of tea, and quietly move on to the Frostean "First Snow."

In a tranquil garden that will no longer be mine. It will belong to the songless birds. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

son of a preacher man

Every town needs its characters.

When we would visit Myrtle Point from Powers when I was young, I would always see a guy dressed in a red felt logging hat that had been cut into a crown -- similar to Jughead's headware. From the Archie comic strip.

He loved kids. I do not recall whether it was candy or little toys, but he always had something for us. He was such an institution that his hat is now on exhibit in the local museum.

San Miguel is not without its characters. They seem to be drawn here. Especially, to the jardin -- the town's main square where people come to be seen and to see. I am told that is where the crystal beneath the town generates its most powerful aura.

My favorite character is The Preacher. At least, that is what I call him. Clad like some latter-day prophet in clothes that are a bizarre blend giving him the air of a wizard whose day job is chopping down trees.

But it is not felling trees that is his passion. He is interested in felling sin.

I see him two or three times a week. His routine is the same. He approaches a lone soul on one of the park benches. His Bible is open as he sits very close to his quarry and starts his spiel while holding his Bible in front of the potential convert's face. They are always Mexican. And usually young.

What he is saying, I cannot tell you in detail. He preaches in Spanish. But, even if my Spanish comprehension were better, I do not hear the details because I am trying to get my morning walk accomplished.

I do hear him frequently repeat the words "verbo" and "palabra." The words mean "word." For that reason, I suspect he is preaching from John's gospel.

1En el principio ya existía el Verbo,
    y el Verbo estaba con Dios,
    y el Verbo era Dios.
2 Él estaba con Dios en el principio.
3 Por medio de él todas las cosas fueron creadas;
    sin él, nada de lo creado llegó a existir.
4 En él estaba la vida,
    y la vida era la luz de la humanidad.
5 Esta luz resplandece en las tinieblas,
    y las tinieblas no han podido extinguirla.
Mexico is filled with door-to-door missionaries (Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses). In The States, they usually are not able to get a few words of introduction out of their mouths without having the homeowner close the door on them with a brusque "not interested."

I am always amazed at how patient Mexicans are when they are approached by someone flogging their particular view of God. None of the people on the benches ever tell The Preacher Man to go away. They put on their polite mask and listen -- often with the dead fish eyes of someone who is about to slip into a coma.

Just before I shot this photograph, the young lady's eyes met mine. For a just a brief moment, a look of "Please, help me" flashed over her face. And then was gone. I didn't. She sat there for about 10 more minutes. On one of my laps, they were both gone.

For all I know, they were transfigured.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

do you rock?

"We do not have earthquakes in San Miguel de Allende."

I have heard that refrain as long as I have been coming here. But I always filed it away in the same drawer of the second greatest myth of San Miguel de Allende -- that the city is built on a giant crystal that gives the place its magical aura.

"No earthquakes" sounded far too much like Camelot --  "a law was made a distant moon ago here/ that July and August cannot be too hot." After all, Mexico City is just down the road. And it is famous for its earthquakes.

So, i was skeptical. No, that is not quite true. I just didn't believe it.

Mexico sits atop the ring of fire that arcs Up from Saith America along the Pacific coast of the Americas, across the Aleutians, and down the Pacific coast of Asia through Indonesia to New Zealand. Why should San Miguel de Allende be spared earthquakes when it sits on the ring.

The reason is that it does not sit on the ring. I should have believed the people who live here. A quick bit of research proved I was wrong. The central highlands of Mexico, at least, north of Mexico City, are almost earthquake-free. South of Mexico City, it is a Seurat-inspired canvas of earthquake dots.

It is true that Mexico is part of the notorious ring of fire that hosts earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But, it is the Pacific coast and the triangular portion of Mexico that are most at risk.

The science is simple.  Mexico sits on top of three of the Earth's largest tectonic plates. The North American. The Cocos. The Pacific. These plates are in constant motion rubbing against one another. When one gets stuck and suddenly releases itself, we feel that familiar jolt and shaking accompanied by the sound of a freight train.

San Miguel de Allende rides on top of one of the plates -- relatively far from the fault lines. On the other hand, Barra de Navidad, is located just about where the three plates meet. That explains why no one there ever says: "We do not have earthquakes in Barra de Navidad." Because we do. And all of us who live there have felt them.

The map at the top of this essay shows all of Mexico's earthquakes -- from 1990 to 2017. Only for the past 27 years. There are hundreds more.

I took a look at a chart that includes a more complete history. There are 61 recorded earthquakes over 7.0. Of those, 13 occurred within about 60 miles of my house. Only Oaxaca has more.

Do you see the red dot on the Pacific coast about a quarter of the way up on the map? That is just about where I live. All of the additional colors are tremor marks.

That may explain why rock and roll is so popular in Barra de Navidad and why the serenity of the chamber music festival is held in San Miguel de Allende.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

another reason people might like san miguel de allende

I am an expert eye-roller.

Angela Merkel is an amateur compared to me.

Let me give you an example. I am at a dinner party in our little fishing village. The woman beside me says, "What I miss most here is shopping centers. I wish there was a Bed and Bath here." My eyes rolled so far back in my head that I could have been auditioning "The sun will come out tomorrow."

It is funny how we react most to the perceived flaws in others that are exactly our own flaws. That is not original with me. But it is true.

Today was shopping mall day for me. (See! I wrote that sentence without budging my eyeballs.)

And not just any shopping wall. The granddaddy of malls in this area. Antea Lifestyle Center in Querétaro
. If that "Lifestyle" in its title sounds a bit pretentious, you may want to withhold judgment until you visit it.

My hostess, Barbara, and my Morelia fblogger pal, Jennifer Rose, insisted I would enjoy a visit to Antea. I was skeptical. After all, shopping malls are not my natural habitat -- unless they have book stores. But they were absolutely correct.

Opened in 2013, it is Mexico's largest shopping center. My initial pass through the mall,walking on each of its three levels, racked up just over 3 miles. By the afternoon, I had over 5 miles to notch on my pedometer.

The mall is anchored by two large department stores -- Liverpool (the American equivalent of what Macy's once was) and El Palacio de Hierro (think Bergdorf Goodman). In between are the usual mix of stores found in most high end shopping malls around the world. Gucci.
 Salvatore Ferragamo. Williams Sonoma. Crate and Barrel. Tommy Hilfiger.

No mall would be complete without a food mall. Antea has two. One for fast food (Burger King, Carl's Jr., China Express, Subway, an interesting salad fast food spot that I passed up, and more -- all places I was avoiding on my healthy diet quest).

On the other side of the mall, with plenty of space creating a c
ordon sanitaire, are several proper restaurants offering cuisine from France, Italy, The States, Japan, China, Mexico, and other countries one would not expect in a mall.

My choice for the day was P.F. Chang's. A bowl of brown rice topped with spicy shrimp and vegetables. It was an adequate lunch, and came close to staying within my self-imposed limits. As is true with almost all Chinese food, the portion was too large.

No modern mall worth its golden aura would be complete without a movie theater. A multiplex movie theater. Not surprisingly, Antea takes it a step further. It hosts a 
Cinépolis VIP multiplex.

I have heard great stories about these theaters. They sound similar to a concept in the Portland area -- Cinetopia. I would have liked to watch a film there, but time (and my walking) got away from me.

Jennifer told me there was also a City Market next to Antea, and I should not miss it.

I had no idea what City Market was. But, the sign gave me a clue. It is a subdivision of La Comer. Therefore, I knew I was going to see groceries.

City Market is to a grocery store what Whole Foods or Trader Joe's is to Safeway. Artfully designed to seduce shoppers into filling shopping carts with high-end Mexican and foreign foods. It is the type of grocery where you might run into an informal caucus of Democrats Abroad.

Jennifer knows me well. It looks like a great place to buy food. But, I would not drive nine hours to shop there. It is nice to know, though, some people have a stunning grocery store in their neighborhood.

Antea is about a 44 minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. On one of my non-concert days, I may return. There were a couple of items in Liverpool, Williams Sonoma, and Samsung that interested me.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes!

And then there is the prospect of a movie in that theater.

There. That's better.

Monday, August 13, 2018

throwing the first stone

Cobblestones. The bane and charm of Mexican colonial towns.

San Miguel de Allende has enough cobblestones to outfit the European 1848 revolutions. That is not surprising. Cobblestones were all the rage when the town was a major stopover for silver trains taking their booty from the mines north of here to Mexico City and then on to Spain.

This was before the age of shovel-ready asphalt projects. Stones were plentiful in Mexico. They still are. And the Spaniards were fully aware of how to build cobblestones roads. Spanish cities were filled with them.

And, like much of highland Mexico, the roads change no quicker than the religious processions. The house where I stay is just a couple of blocks away from the Old Royal Road that brought the silver trains through here.

It is incredibly rough. I do not know if it is in the same condition when the wagon trains used it, but it is a bumpy ride. I drive it daily, and I have yet to find just the right speed to avoid jostling apart my dental work.

That is why I am startled when I see footwear like this in San Miguel. And I often see even higher heels than that.

Now, I know women's shoes are not built for comfort or utility. And they are not designed for men to even begin understanding their purpose. An ex-girlfriend once told me: "I don't wear these shoes for you. I wear them for me. And to show other women that I am attractive and healthy enough to hold on to my man."

I have no idea if that is true or not. At least, she thought so. And I have no better explanation for what strikes me as potential neck-breaking activity.

What I do have an idea about is, with the possible exception of Italian women, Mexican women seem to be the champions of fashion footwear. Rivaled only by young Mexican men who seem to have a soft spot of exotic footwear.

Me? I have been wearing my special walking shoes everywhere. I doubt any blog authors have shot my shoes for a similar essay -- other than as a supplement to why American and Canadian tourists dress like poor people.

But I am not sticking my foot into that tar pit again.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

can't stop the music

Now that we have reclaimed chamber music for the people (scaling the barricades), what are we going to hear?

If you had been with me the past two weeks, you would have heard two groups each with a different style. But both are successful interpreters of their chosen selections.

Listening to chamber music is no more difficult than reading a novel. (I think the analogy is my creation. But I may have stolen it. Only the Chinese steal more intellectual property than do I.)

Most chamber pieces are divided into several movements with a unifying theme. Let's call each movement a chapter in the novel. The movement has a musical theme just like a novel's first line.

Each movement is written in sections. Think of them as paragraphs. Just as each section consists of notes and musical phrases based on the movement's theme. Just like words and sentences.

It really is that simple. We understand novels because we learned to read early in life and, through our reading, we developed a sense of what to expect from the story form -- how the narrative works.

Appreciating music or painting or poetry is as simple as enjoying a novel. We merely need to learn the form the artist has chosen to create the work.

Because they are accomplished, both the Miro Quartet and the American String Quartet let us clearly hear what the composer wanted us to experience.

The American String Quartet is a very traditional group. The name is far older, but this group of performers just celebrated their 44th year together.

By "traditional," I mean the focus of the players during performances is on one another and the music. There is little, if any, eye contact with the audience. The effect is that the voice of the composer seems unfiltered as it reaches the listener, without the performer's personality getting in the way.

Traditional does not mean a lack of versatility. Each piece the American String Quartet played was appropriate for the style in which the composer wrote.

None of the pieces were fluff. Each required the audience to be engaged. To use Copland's third plane of listening (why san miguel de allende?). Even though the pieces were complex, the listening technique I described earlier gave form and purpose to what the composer intended.

Their two programs included music from the romantic and modern periods:

  • Anton Webern, "Five Movements" (1909)
  • Johannes Brahms, "String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major" (1876)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 16 in C-sharp minor" (1826)
  • Dmitri Shostakovitch, "String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor" (1960)
  • Bela Bartok, "String Quartet No. 3" (1927)
  • Maurice Ravel, "String Quartet in F major (1902) 
For those of you who know Ravel for the highly-overrated Bolero, and wonder why he is considered such a great composer, you might want to listen to this to enjoy the extent of his genius.

The style of the Miro Quartet is is quite different. They are showmen. And I do not say that disparagingly. By nature, every performer is an actor.

But their style reflects the personalities of the players. Articulate faces. Bow flourishes. Bodies in motion.

That style can be distracting. Too much personality. Too little composer. Too much Edward VIII.

Not so with the Miro Quartet. All of their animation takes its cue from the composer. They are merely reflecting what they play. In effect, they add to the composer's voice.

They also played a program of very demanding pieces, but with the clarity of professional guides leading their audience through new and beautiful worlds from the classical, romantic, and modern periods.

  • Robert Schumann, "String Quartet No. 1 in A minor" (1842)
  • Kevin Puts, "Credo" (2007)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 16 in F major" (1826) -- Beethoven's last string quartet, which is often called his musical autobiography
  • Franz Joseph Haydn, "String Quartet in E-flat major" (1793)
  • Anton Dvorak, "Cypresses" (1887)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
Even though I knew his name and some of his other works, Kevin Puts's "Credo" was new to me. It is an optimistic and personal piece from a not-so-optimistic time. If you would like to listen to a rather short piece of modern chamber music, here it is.

I am currently sitting in a master class conducted by Amit Peled, the world-class cellist we met yesterday (scaling the barricades). He is instructing one of the 12 young cello students from yesterday's concert in cello technique. And the public has been invited to sit in.

Not only is the student learning new technique, we are learning the variety of sound an accomplished musician can elicit from an instrument -- the cello, in this case. The experience is giving me new things to listen for while enjoying this rich form of expression.

We are now half-way through the festival. For me, this is almost a practically perfect month.