Friday, November 30, 2018

are you waterloo or peterloo?

The question would probably make more sense to a Brit -- since that was the target of Bagehot's column in The Economist two weeks ago.

The current Brexit debate has opened a gap in British society based on the perception of the country's history. The Economist has been one of the leaders in claiming the old left-right divide is starting to make little sense. The new paradigm of "inward-looking" and "outward looking" is in vogue. Or, as some would have it: "somewheres" and "anywheres."

Some see Waterloo as the height of British glory. Britain fighting off European tyranny almost single-handedly to bring a century of peace to the continent. Everyone pulling together for the greater honor of the nation.

The Peterloo Massacre happened just a few years after Waterloo in Manchester when a cavalry charge killed 15 people during a demonstration in favor of parliamentary reform.

The right wing in Britain idolizes the Big Nation notion of Waterloo. The left wing has idealized the "class struggle" that changed British history. And how they each see history affects their view of Britain today.

I thought of that article on my walk along Fort Lauderdale's beaches. Fort Lauderdale is a monument to good-time vacuity. Sun. Sand. Sea. Sybaritic pleasure.

Positioned right next to a giant snowman sculpture enjoying a day in the sun is the sign pictured above. The contrast is jarring.

Florida is a southern state. And it carries the moral burden of not only being a slave-holding state, but an active participant in the Jim Crow laws that scarred post-Civil War American history.

Like most public facilities, Florida's beaches were segregated. And, just like education, the separation did not result in equal opportunities. The "colored beaches" (as they were known in law) were difficult to access and lacked anything that would make them attractive for recreation.

A woman in Fort Lauderdale took it upon herself to do something. Eula Johnson, a businesswoman and president of the local NAACP chapter, was tired of waiting for the federal government to put an end to segregation.

On a busy national holiday (the Fourth of July in 1961), she led a small contingent of black beachgoers to one of Fort Lauderdale's white-only beaches and conducted what is now known as a "wade-in."

Turmoil followed. The city was shamed, and tried to entice the black waders away by improving the segregated beach. White citizens sued Ms. Johnson; she won. And, eventually, without any of the horrors of Selma, the beaches were desegreated.

I had not heard of this interesting tale of local honor. It immediately reminded me of the Waterloo analogy. A proud moment in American history of dignity conquering oppression.

And the moment I thought that, I knew if I wrote about this topic, some readers would immediately retort that the wade-ins were fine, but they did not ultimately change the struggle that the country faces with race.

The Waterloo-Peterloo distinction is a false one historically. Britain did not act alone in defeating Napoleon. Without the help of the Prussians, Waterloo station could be a train stop in Paris instead of London.

And the class struggle at Peterloo was not the sole cause for social change in 19th century Britain, despite what Jeremy Corbyn claims . The repeal of the Corn Laws did far more to improve the lives of the British working man.

The same is true with the attempts to finish the work Lincoln began with the reforms that rose out of the Civil War. Just as his work was incomplete, so is the work that ended the Jim Crow laws.

But that does not mean we should not celebrate the victories that were won by brave individuals like Eula Johnson and her waders. It truly was a Waterloo moment. And I was extremely happy to discover the sign.

For those who say her work made no difference, let me relate this tale. As I was reading the sign, a middle-aged woman and man and their son passed by me after spending an afternoon on the beach. The same beach that was once posted "whites only." They were African-American.

We have made great strides in pulling down the formal laws that offended the very essence of the Declaration of Independence. And I suspect, if we could just turn loose of certain political positions on both the left and right, we could do a lot better at living together as individuals.

At least, we should all be able to celebrate the steps our fellow citizens have taken to help Dr. King's dream become a reality.

"When we allow freedom to ring -- when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join 
hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last.'"

To which I can only add -- amen.   

Thursday, November 29, 2018

on the road with andy rooney

Do you ever wonder if the people who design hotel rooms ever talk with one another?

I suspect they don't. At least, my stay at the Marriott in Fort Lauderdale would suggest they don't.

The hotel itself is pleasant enough. Spacious suites complete with kitchens. They are designed for short-term visits, but the general appointments are better than a lot of apartments I have lived in.

For some reason, I was booked into a suite retrofitted for a handicapped occupant. I didn't request it, but my birth date and gender may have triggered an algorithm. I may have crossed over to a new cultural stereotype.

The only real evidence that it is a handicapped room is the shower. If my entrepreneurial spirit would get up from the couch, I could wash mini-vans in it.

Since I don't have a mini-van, I used it only to wash myself. And that is when I discovered one of the frustrating engineering problems that often pop up in hotel showers.

The hotel provided a small bottle of soap and a textured bar of soap. Both were easy to use. The top of the shampoo bottle came off easily -- even with soapy fingers. Then the problem arose -- where can I put the shampoo bottle and the soap while I finish my ablutions?

Someone had thought of that, as well. The hotel had installed a nifty triangular holder made of metal. So, in went the soap and the shampoo bottle. And just as quickly, they were bouncing off of my feet.

I picked them up and tried to put them in the holder again. Same result.

The problem was obvious, the gap in the front of the holder is just large enough to let anything smaller than a handgun to fall right through. And because it is installed on a slight grade, the soap and shampoo were wooed away by the siren call of gravity.

But the solution was at hand. Or afoot.

It is a shower for the handicapped. So, it comes outfitted with a bench. For my four days here, I repurposed the bench as a toiletry holder.

Maybe the answer to my question is that the people who design hotel rooms do talk to one another. And their answer for the useless toiletry holder was to make the bench so obvious that even a writer could figure it out.

And who says traveling is not broadening?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

don cuevas is dead

People stroll into our lives by many paths.

And the blogging path has provided me with a community of new acquaintances.

My discovery of blogs coincided with my decision to move to Mexico. After I consumed all of the books I could find about retiring in Mexico, I turned to the internet.

In the mid-2000s, there were not a lot of writers who were willing to publish their life experiences of living in Mexico. There were fewer still who wrote about topics helpful to my quest.

A lot of those bloggers are no longer writing. I met a few of them, but the rest have slipped off into the ether.

Then there were the writers who provided me with exactly the information I needed. I have met almost all of them during my residency in Mexico.

One of them was Michael Warshauer. Of course, I did not know him by that name at the start. He went by the anonym "Don Cuevas."

Our connection was food. Even before I moved to Mexico, I knew I had to meet him.

He was a great help in my transition moving across the border. He had suggestions for getting here and then settling in.

On my occasional trips to Pátzcuaro, we tried to see one another -- and were often successful. Because we both loved good food, our get-togethers were either at his home for an always-outstanding dinner or at one of the local restaurants he would praise in his blogs.

When I noticed that he had not posted any new blog tales for several months, I wrote to him. Several times he had admonished me for writing about my health. He said it was one topic he purposely avoided.

He then told me why his lack of writing and his health had collided with only one outcome possible. And that is what happened.

When my blogger friend Jennifer Rose informed me the Don had died, I had the odd feeling that a part of me had ceased to exist. The two of us were not close friends. But we had created a true bond over our discussions of what was important in life. And certainly life was far too short to waste it on mediocre -- or worse -- food.

Jennifer has written the definitive story of Michael's life (Michael Warshauer, Q.E.P.D.). She was a close friend of Michael and his wife, Susie, and has said all that should be said.

I can only add that I will miss Don Cuevas. Our community is poorer for this loss. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

every time we say goodbye

Mexico is my home.

That truth becomes clear whenever I travel away from the patch of land in Barra de Navidad that hubris deludes me into believing I own.

When I lived in Oregon, I would feel a soupçon of what passes for emotion with me when I would fly over Portland. “I’m home.”

No more. I flew from Redmond to Portland in the wee hours this morning. On our approach to PDX, I felt nothing -- other than the need to rush to catch a connecting flight and be out of Portland as quickly as I could.

Sure, I have friends in the area. Some of my most long-standing friendships from grade school. And my nephew and his family live there. But, to me, the city may as well be the setting for a political dystopia. (Of course, that is nothing more than a Twainian redundancy.)

Mexico may be home, but I still enjoy visiting family. I knew this was going to be an odd Thanksgiving when I tacked it on as an extra leg between Mexico and Fort Lauderdale.

My initial plan was to fly to the Reno house and vote in early November. My DHL ballot box ploy obviated that stop (voting late, but often). Instead, I decided to make the trip to Bend to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

My prediction that it would be an odd Thanksgiving proved to be accurate. Foods better known in Britain, Mexico, somewhere in an imaginary section of China where food is drenched in sugar, and Thailand were hardly traditional fare. But I was not in Bend for the food. I was there to see my family.

Because my brother and his wife are in the process of building a house in Prineville, I could not stay with them, as I usually do. Instead, I stayed the week with my Mom in a house that is twice-removed from the house where I grew up.

It was a pleasant time. I cannot remember when Mom and I spent that much time together -- with just the two of us. Maybe never.

She is at that stage of life where conversations on any topic eventually turn into a recounting of tales from her youth in Powers. But that is fine. I have heard most of the stories before. Somehow, their retelling is burnished with a new patina.

When I am not quoting Stephen Sondheim lyrics, I often fall back on something by Cole Porter. (Not surprisingly, Porter is one of Sondheim’s song-writing models.)

While walking around Mom’s neighborhood yesterday afternoon, segments of a song kept running through my memory bank. Just segments. If I had been a contestant on Name That Tune, I would have been standing with my hand over the buzzer like a dementia patient.

And then I made the connection. Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”

The reason that particular song was banging around in my head was obvious. I was about to do just that.

It was an appropriate soundtrack. Setting aside Porter’s dodgy theology, the song is memorable because of its musical simplicity and restrained pathos. “Every time we say goodbye/ I die a little.”

And, Mom, Darrel, and Christy, that is true. We can only honestly claim that we “die a little” if we have lost a portion of what we adore. I will miss sharing time with all of you-- even when three of our four restaurant outings for Thanksgiving will get dumped in the “never again” basket.

In consolation, I offer the gift of a tune that cannot be valued. Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of what was running through my head.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

a good walk postponed

I knew it was coming.

For the past two days in Bend, we have had intermittent rain. The type of rain that acts as a shield for weather less pleasant. Solid bits were hidden amongst the drops -- like infiltrating terrorists.

Yesterday, when I made my first sharp left turn on my morning walk, I was nearly toppled. The sidewalk in front of Mom's house had iced over. I was tempted to forego the walk. Instead, I proceeded with caution. Fifteen miles at a much-reduced pace.

I remember when I was in grade school. Some innate instinct would make me pull up the shade when I got out of bed. And there it would be -- a pass to a no-school day.

I had that same feeling in bed this morning. And I was right.

There is nowhere in the world, with the exception of such places as Barra de Navidad, where a dusting of snow like we have in Bend this morning would be remarkable. I can already hear the rolling of eyes from my Canadian acquaintances who do not consider anything to be snow until you can no longer sees the antlers on the local moose.

Even I have trouble labeling what is outside this morning as "snow." It looks more like something you would find on a cheap mass-market doughnut.

But it is slick enough that it has moved my morning walking session to later in the day. That is, if it melts off. Too often, the light stuff is just the overture to a three-act opera of sturm und drang. Wagner meets the Winter Queen.

When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Dix, used a poem as a disciplinary tool. Offending students were required to memorize a stanza of her favorite poem (John Greenleaf Whittier's "Snow-Bound: A winter Idyl") and then recite it to the class. It was a terrible teaching tool. Most of my class-mates soon equated poetry with punishment.

I went in the opposite direction. You will undoubtedly be shocked (in the same sense as Captain Renault) when I tell you I was something of a ham in the sixth grade. (Of course, my haminess preceded the sixth grade and remains unabated.)

To bend authority to my own ends, I would intentionally break some classroom rule to have the opportunity to perform for my classmates. I do not recall if I broke a series of rule or if I volunteered to recite most of the poem, but the result was the same. I soon became the spokesman for Whittier's vision of nostalgic sentimentality.

Because I was going nowhere on foot this morning, I sat down and re-read the poem. I suspect the last time I did that was in 1960 when Kennedy and Nixon were jousting for the presidency.

Time has not been kind to Whittier schmaltzy romanticism. But it is still a good read. And even though our snow hardly meets Whittier's description ("And, when the second morning shone,/ We looked upon a world unknown,/ On nothing we could call our own."), there is something alluring about actually experiencing what a poet is describing. Sorta.

This morning, I will catch up on the latest edition of The Economist while drinking two or three pots of buttermint tea as I wait for the sun to open a walking path.

It is a good day to enjoy the time God has given us. 

The traveller owns the grateful sense Of sweetness near, he knows not whence, And, pausing, takes with forehead bare The benediction of the air.

Friday, November 23, 2018

why my mother will never move to Mexico

I have heard a lot of excuses why people do not want to move permanently to Mexico.

"Being near the grandchildren" seems to top the list. And the same people who say that are often the same ones who bemoan "our grandchildren are so busy, we hardly ever get to see them." Putting Emerson's "foolish consistency" adage to the test.

Health. Heat. Violence. Divided spousal loyalties. They all play a part for part-timers to disclaim the possibility of permanently living in Mexico.

But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy mover is unhappy in his own way. It is impossible to accurately stereotype why some people do not permanently move to Mexico.

I know why my mother never will -- even though she enjoys coming to Mexico for short bursts of a month or two. But not any more.

Look no further than the pituitary cases, dressed in black and white, who try to stuff a ball through a hoop. The Portland Tralblazers.

I like basketball. Our law firm bought season tickets for the Blazers in the 1980s when the team did its best to keep alive the fan-team love-hate relationship of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On too many nights, they were "dose bums."

My mother is not fanatic in her support for the Blazers. But she is a fan.

When she lived in Portland, she too had a share in season tickets. And she attended home games as religiously as a nun at prayers or a revival of The Sound of Music.

My mother could easily be a disciple of former Chief Justice (and living person) Earl Warren -- at least, when it comes to the sporting life. "I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures."

Now that she lives in Bend, her link to the Blazers is cable television. Because my brother is building a house about an hour from Bend, I have been staying with Mom. And this week was a road trip week for the Blazers. So, it was Blazers every night. To the delight of their 90-year old fan.

We watched the Blazers fall to the Lakers and the Bucks, and humiliate the Wizards. Well, it was the Warriors who humiliated the Blazers tonight. But there is nothing to be gained by letting facts get in the way of the truth.

I would be little more than churlish if I complained about spending this sporting time with Mom. We have had our own running color commentary through the game. Just like real fans.

There is no television in my Barra de Navidad house. So, there is no cable. And, thus, there are no Blazers. (Frankly, I do not even know if it is possible to watch Blazer games in our little corner of Mexico.)

But, as long as she can watch them at home and not at my house, I know where she will be each winter.

And this is a good time to bring you up to date on some of the problems I discussed earlier in the week. It is a mixed bag.

1. My two-telephone solution appears to be working well. I have taken both telephones on my walks around this well-designed walking neighborhood.

2. I walked over to the Game and Wildlife office to follow-up on the injured fawn. I do not know what I was thinking. It is the day after Thanksgiving and the wildlife folk are unionized. The fawn's agony would simply need to wait on the vagaries of collective bargaining.

And I do not know where the fawn is waiting. The doe and both fawns were missing from their usual sanctuary this morning and afternoon. Perhaps the circle of life has moved on.

3. And now for the big one. I was almost positive my passport application would get snagged in Texas. It didn't.

I received an email this evening that my passport has been approved and it is being shipped by FedEx to the hotel in Fort Lauderdale where I will be staying -- Monday through Friday.

Earlier this week, no one at the hotel could tell me anything about the procedure to receive courier packages for guests. In contrast, the young woman I talked with this evening knew I was on my way Monday and that the package would be waiting for me.

I feel almost cosseted.

My mother may not escape the gravitational pull of the Tralblazers, but it appears I will be sailing away on Friday to Colombia and then to points west and north.

But, first, there will  be tales of Florida. And I hope none of them involve politics.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

hidden beauty

Nature is filled with surprises.

Like this skipper who thought it had found sanctuary from predators under a heliconia leaf. I would have completely missed it if I had not been trimming the vines in that planter. If we do not look closely, we often miss the little grace notes of beauty that shuttle through our lives.

I thought of that skipper last night while I was on my walk here in Bend. My mother's house is in a development with a street plan designed for walking. Walking the perimeter loop and crossing over on each street garners me about four miles of my daily fifteen-mile goal.

There are no street lights in the development. This is Bend where people try to avoid light pollution that obscures the night sky -- one of central Oregon's tourist attractions.

As I rounded the loop, I saw a large dark object on the sidewalk. It was far too large to be a dog, and the wrong shape to be a cougar -- even though both were possibilities in this part of Oregon. As I walked closer, the shape did not move. But I could then see two smaller black forms.

I was probably twenty feet away when I stopped. It was a doe mule deer and her two fawns. And they showed no inclination to move from the path. Th
at seemed odd to me. Mule deer are not as skittish as our Mexican deer, but these were almost like lawn ornaments.

Because the doe was with her fawns, I thought she was using the old bottom-of-the-food-chain ploy. If I do not move, you will not see me and kill me. Or maybe they had found friendly sanctuary in the neighborhood and the people here had essentially Disneyfied them.

So, I walked into the street and gave them full quarter. When I looped around a second time, they had bedded down in a front lawn.

I had not thought of one possibility for their odd behavior. But that option made itself clear during my afternoon walk today. They were still there. No more than two lots away from where I had first encountered them.

In the daylight, I could see that one fawn was clearly smaller than the other. A larger percentage of twin fawns become an only child when winter sets in. And it was quite clear which of the two would not win the survival lottery.

While I was shooting them, the smaller fawn tried to move a couple of steps. Not out of fear, it was just moving toward a snack of Mountain Ash berries. But it was limping badly. And I quickly diagnosed the ailment. Its left front leg is broken.

When I returned to the house, I called the Game and Wildlife office. They will undoubtedly dispatch an officer to, as the language of modern sterility goes, "harvest" the fawn. That may sound cruel, but a lingering death from starvation would be far crueler.

There is always the possibility that local coyotes could quickly put the fawn out of its misery. One way or other, it will not suffer long.

I have no idea if there are any agencies that nurse fawns to health to give them an opportunity to grow up to be a hunter's trophy to help feed his own family through the winter.

I have always found mule deer to be magnificent creatures in the wild. It is one reason I have never been an enthusiastic hunter. But these three would have looked far more awe-inspiring in some other setting. In a housing development, they look as out of place as tourists from Des Moines in Kabul.

After all, nature may hide some of its beauty from us. But every life is a cycle that comes to the same conclusion. Death.

And that is a promise nature will keep. Ready or not. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

phones, ships, and passports

Most people are great at churning out advice. Fewer are quite as good at following it.

As much as I like traveling, it does have its frustrations. And, as fate would have it, most of my frustrations are caused by me not following my own advice.

Let's start with telephones. I no longer have the need for a cellular contract in The States. But I do travel north enough that I need access to an easy way to switch from Mexican service to American service.

And I thought I had found that "easy way" several years ago. I use Telcel services in Mexico. When I fly north, I buy a month's worth of data service online. When my flight lands in Los Angeles, I switch out my Telcel SIM chip for a T-Mobile chip. And I am ready to go for the month.

That plan works if my smartphone has been unlocked.

For some reason, on this trip, I could not re-new my monthly service with T-Mobile online. So, I needed to wait until Sunday morning to talk to a sales representative in person. When I did, I ran into my first problem. The monthly plan I had been using no longer exists. That happens in the cellular world.

So, Daniel offered me another option. Of course, a bit more expensive. Then, problem two crashed on my head.

When asked, I tell people who travel to buy an international cell phone that has been unlocked. The telephone will accept almost every chip around the world -- with the exception of some in southeast Asia.

Well, I did not follow my advice. When I bought my current Samsung Galaxy 9 Plus, I forgot to ask the clerk if it had been unlocked. It hadn't.

There are ways to unlock locked telephones. But Telcel has quite effectively hidden the key hole on mine.

Rather than wait any longer, I bought an entry-level cell phone and a monthly plan that would cover me for data for the month month I am away from Mexico. That is why I need a telephone up here -- as a mobile computer. I make and receive perhaps seven calls a month.

Now, I need to walk around with two cell phones in my pants -- looking vaguely like a Melaque drug dealer.

That was the easy problem. When I returned to the house, I looked at a letter that had been forwarded from my house in Reno. For a moment, I felt sick.

Most cruise lines will not allow passengers to board if there are not 6 valid months remaining on the passenger's passport. Mine expires in early February.

And I knew both of those facts. Worse, I have lectured people who head off to cruises with inadequate time on their passports.

I had even started the renewal process last August. In my head. While I was in San Miguel de Allende, I had planned on submitting my passport to the satellite consulate office there. For some reason, I didn't.

When I returned to Barra de Navidad, I intended to drive to the consulate in Guadalajara while I was in the big city looking for furniture. That didn't happen, either.

I thought about the renewal a couple of times and then dismissed my concern because I had plenty of time to renew my passport after it expired in February and before I left for Australia in March. Apparently, I had just blown off my own 6-month advice.

All day Monday, I was on the telephone with a passport expediting service, and filling out several forms. For reasons that are not important, this passport would be treated as a lost passport. That meant more forms and more money.

After visiting the Deschutes County Clerk to place my documents in a government-approved sealed envelope (as if I were some sort of provisional voter), I shipped the whole pile off to Texas through the good graces of FedEx. It arrived in Houston this morning. I am almost $1,000 (US) lighter in my checking account.

Now, I wait. I fly to Miami on Monday morning and will be in a hotel until the cruise on Friday morning. Thanksgiving will kill one --if not two -- business days in the renewal process. If the passport does not arrive at the hotel by Thursday evening, I will need to make some non-cruise plans.

Usually, I am a very optimistic person. But there is something about this process that unnerves me. As far as the State Department is concerned, I currently have no passport. Returning to Mexico will not be possible until the US Government sends me something.

Here is a piece of advice. Always listen to your own good advice.

And here is another good piece of advice -- or, at least, a sincere wish.

May you all have a Happy Thanksgiving.


Monday, November 19, 2018

traveling like a wallenda

What is the sense of having a pile of books to read (steve's list of best sellers), if I am not reading them?

This is the type of conversation I have with myself while I am getting ready for a trip. And, occasionally, they are fruitful. At least, that question was.

One of the joys of flying is having plenty of time to read -- usually. Long flights. Connecting time in airports. Waiting for ground transportation. They are all fertile ground for cultivating time to read.

That "usually" may give you a hint that this trip was not one of those occasions.

On this trip, I decided not to rely solely on my Kindle for reading. After all, I had started reading three of the hard copy books in my pile. So, I decided to take Jan Swafford's Language of the Spirit with me.

It was an odd choice. I told you yesterday, I have been playing the compositions he mentions in each musical period. But, I could always go back and read them when I was on the ground.

I was actually looking forward to reading a real book in public. After all, I have read multiple books on airplanes, trains, and, buses over the past seven decades. It would be like old times. Apparently I forgot there were lots of reasons why I enjoy reading on my Kindle.

I encountered my first problem with space. My Kindle slipped easily into my full back pack. The Swafford would not. So, I tried carrying it ("juggling" would be a better verb) while pulling two suitcases.

Because I needed to catch up on some contacts while I was at the airport, I was on my telephone the entire time. The book went untouched.

When I settled into my seat on the airplane, I knew that reading was out of the question. I encountered one of the hazards of flying. The woman seated next to me started talking and did not quit until we landed. I need to confess that I am more often the offender than the offended.

Usually, I have a two-hour layover in Los Angeles between flights. Not this trip. Both Immigration and Customs were backed up. I made it to my gate just as the door was closing. The book went untouched.

The flight to Seattle offered me my first opportunity to sit back and read. I opened my book, turned on the overhead light, and realized the light is perfect as a night light, but useless as a reading light. Even with my new glasses, I could not see well enough to read.

My Kindle, of course, being side-lit, requires no external light. And, if my eyes are tired, as they were, I can increase the size of the font.

My book was touched, but went unread.

The experiment was a disaster. Well, not really. We learn lessons in life through our failings.

What I learned is that a print copy is more of a hindrance than a joy. Just hauling it around was an annoyance.

Once I finish reading The Economist on my smartphone and National Review on my Kindle, I will tackle Swafford. Or maybe not.

My task list keeps growing here. The latest is an attempt to remedy a passport error before the end of next week.

The book may wait until I am on the ship heading south to transit the Panama Canal. There will be plenty of sea days to read, and, through the wonders of technology, I will be able to listen to the pieces Swafford references.

What could be better than that?  

Sunday, November 18, 2018

steve's list of best sellers

Disrupting routines always turns up something interesting.

I am a big advocate of Kindles. When I moved to Mexico, I knew the thing I would miss most were bookstores. They just did not exist in the little villages I call home. Even if there was a bookstore, its offerings, would be in Spanish.

In 2009, I was consuming two books a week. The supply I brought south quickly dwindled.

Then, an electronic miracle happened. Amazon reduced the price of its Kindle reader to the point where it would not matter if the tropical salt air ate it, and simultaneously, Amazon started offering books for sale outside of the American borders. I could now get almost any book I wanted anywhere in the world.

Even more than availability, I fell in love with its compact size. Each of my readers has decreased in size and weight. My Oasis is almost a wisp in my fingers.

As much as I love my Kindle, I never fully lost my love for printed books. A couple of years ago, I brought down the few volumes I saved from the massacre of my Salem book collection. They now reside happily in my Mexican home's library.

But they are lonely. I have less than 200 volumes. And I would like more.

Over the past year, when I see a new release that interests me, I will order a printed copy from Amazon -- and, occasionally, an electronic copy for my Kindle. Slowly, my library is growing again.

I discovered just how much it has grown when I straightened up my bedroom while packing for my Oregon Thanksgiving-Panama Canal trip. My reading table has accreted layers of unread books.

Eleven to be exact. If I have read a printed book, I will place it on the shelf in the library. If I want to read it before I display it, I place it next to my bed for later reading.

Here is what is pending in my future. I have heard you can learn a lot about someone merely by what they read. I am not certain what this eclectic mix tells you about me.

Stephen Sondheim, Look, I Made a Hat and Finishing the Hat

These two volumes are a collection of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. Sondheim is a poet at heart, and his lyrics describe the human condition with skill equal to a Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin. They stand apart from their music as stand-alone art. That cannot be said of many lyrists.

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace

Yancey is one of my favorite Christian authors. He is an apologist for the faith without getting trapped into being a defender of organized Christianity. For years, he has spread the word about the core truth of the gospel, and has been just as blunt how Christians have run roughshod over the core teachings of Jesus.

Grace is a favorite topic. This recent book asks the question why it appears Christian grace is diminishing. I intend to use it as the core for my next Bible study.

Jay Cost, The Price of Greatness 

One of my undergraduate degrees is in history -- specifically, the early years of the American republic. So, I pick up almost every book I see that attempts to discuss the divisions in politics that arose in the first years under the Constitution.

The usual conceit is to compare Thomas Jefferson with Alexander Hamilton. The weakness in that approach is that Jefferson's sphinx-like persona hid a lot of his motivation. Cost gets around that by channeling Jeffersonian thought through Jefferson's Charles Colson, James Madison. Some of the same divisions we see in today's politics are quite visible in the Republican-Federalist rift.

Ted Kooser, Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems
I came to Kooser late in life. This year, in fact. Until I purchased this book based on a critique in National Review, I am not certain I had heard of him. I certainly had not read much of his work.

The purchase of Kindest Regards has turned out to be an unmixed blessing. Kooser's poems are based on a very simple notion -- that stories of ordinary people told simply are the most effective way to understand ourselves better. When I finish reading one of his poems, I feel as if I know who he has described -- and a bit about myself.

Poems are best read sparingly. At least, for me they are. This is the book I pick up when I want to spend a few minutes by the pool with a pot of green tea. W
here I can read a poem. Watch the dragonflies or the hummingbirds. And enjoy the moment of simply being alive in a world that can still be described in carefully chosen words.

Jan Swafford, Language of the Spirit
This is another book I am taking my time reading. Swafford has compiled a short survey of serious music. He is a missionary who wants others to enjoy music in the sense he does.

His construct is to describe each of the musical periods through a brief introduction on musical theory and then through short biographies of the leading composers in each era. I was a bit skeptical of his approach.

Music theory taught through biography is usually little more than pop psychology. Swafford avoids that trap by approaching each biographical sketch as a way to describe the development of music as opposed to a simple and wrong way to describe music through what composers thought of their mothers.

The reason I am taking my time with this volume is that I am listening or re-listening to each work described. It has been a fascinating journey. I am in the middle of Beethoven's fifth symphony right now.

Edward Dusinberre, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets
This August at the San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival, I acquired a new fascination with Beethoven's late string quartets. The performers at the festival played most of them. They took on a new sound to me. And I was intrigued at how the deaf Beethoven could have written music that was obviously far ahead of its time. And music that was hauntingly moving.

Dusinberre is an expert on the quartets. As the first violinist of the Takács Quartet, he has an interesting perspective not only on the quartets as music, but also how they can be presented to a modern audience without losing any of their significance.

Matthew Guerrieri, The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and Human Imagination

I cannot remember who gave me this book. I think it was my friend John Hofer. Or I may have bought it. It has been with me for years, but I have never read it -- until I read the first chapter last week.

Everyone's favorite sweetheart Marion the Librarian includes an interesting plea for the man she would love in her torchy Being in Love. "
And if occasionally he'd ponder/ 
What makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great./ Him I could love 'til I die./ 
Him I could love 'til I die!"

What is it that makes Beethoven great? I have often wondered that. (Hint. Hint, Marion.) Two years ago, I tried to organize a salon at my house to discuss that question -- and others. But I found little interest in our community.

Maybe this book will help fill that gap. For me.

Anne LaMotte, Bird by Bird
You already know I admire Anne LaMotte's writing. She pops up now and then on these pages.

Her politics are far to the left of mine. But her commitment to her faith is always a model to me, even when she becomes a bit annoyingly neurotic. But that gives her faith authenticity.

Bird by Bird is not really a Christian devotional, even though her stories always have a core of Christian moral agency. The book is designed as a guide on learning how to be a more effective writer.

I have read it before. I will read it again. Because all of us writers can stand a bit of improvement. We owe that to you, dear readers.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Each nation has a novel that is considered to be the novel that represents the best writing of the nation. The Great American Novel is purportedly Moby Dick. For Spain, it is Don Quixote.

They are the type of book that is known by all and read by few.

My Mexican intellectual friends claim Pedro Páramo is the Great Mexican Novel. And they will unanimously admit they know it, but have not read it.

That is too bad. I read it in college upon the recommendation of a geology professor who also acted as a recruiter for an intelligence agency. It was the best piece of advice he gave me.

I recently bought a copy, and have been reading and re-reading the first two chapters for months. It is a small book. There is no good reason I have not yet finished it. But Rulfo's surrealistic style is so beguiling, I find myself getting caught in the same loops of logical irrationalism that the narrator faces.

If you have not read it, I strongly recommend it. Maybe I will finish it by the time you do.

Jorge Castañeda, Mañana o Pasado 

This is the Spanish edition of Castañeda's 
Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans that shows up frequently in Mexpatriate. For me, it was a very thought-provoking book.

I bought the Spanish edition, not because I thought I could understand it as well as I did the English edition. I bought it for Omar.

I am a bit concerned about the lack of critical thinking taught in his high school -- and the lack of any type of serious reading in classes that are the equivalent of being a junior.

When I told him I would like to buy the book for him to read and we could then discuss it, he jumped at the opportunity. I am hoping he will find the experience interesting enough to become a reader.

That means I will not be reading this book. But I will have to read the English edition if we are going to have a thorough conversation. It will also give me an opportunity to improve my Spanish by comparing the texts.

There is another essay embedded in there. But it will be for another day.

So, there you have it. I have bared a bit of my soul. Do with it as you will.

But I am also interested in the list of books sleeping on your reading table. Maybe we could meet for mineral water one day to talk about them.

Reading without sharing often feels like not reading, at all.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

not his first rodeo, but maybe his last

The lot in front of my house is a perpetual stage of rural passion plays.

Adam and Noah encountered fewer animals than I have. Or so it seems.

Horses. Mules. Cattle. Chickens. If Old McDonald had one, so have my neighbors.

Oh, and course, there have been goats. Goats have starred in several of my essays over the past four years. Christy became so attached to a couple of them, she named them.

There have been a series of goats across the street. For a short period they act as four-legged gardeners and keep the tropical weeds under control. And then they all succumb to the same fate. The birria pot.

The latest goat is young, healthy, and quite feisty. But today's story does not start there.

My neighbor, César, had a customer who could not pay him in cash, so he gave him an old ram.

I am sorry I did not get a photograph of that old goat. He was the epitome of every negative stereotype we have ever heard about goats. Old. Smelly. And so cantankerous that he attacked every moving thing on the street.

Several times, he repeatedly butted my Escape. When he was young, he may have been able to play the role of one of the Three Billy Goats Gruff crossing the bridge. These days, he would be cast as the troll underneath. With his knotted, shaggy coat he could have just as easily played Gus the Theater Cat in Cats.

César is a wily young man. Even though the old ram was quite an efficient mower, his future prospects as the main course at a fiesta were quite limited. If you have eaten birria cooked with ancient goat, you will know what I mean.

And this may be an appropriate juncture in our narrative to take a break. I am writing as if you know what birria is. And I should not do that. I did not know what it was before I moved to this part of Mexico.

My home state of Jalisco claims birria as its own -- even though it is prepared elsewhere in Mexico with some additional states claiming it is part of their local birthright. It is the type of argument that got Jacob and Esau wrapped around a pot of lentils.

Birria is a stew. A spicy stew usually starring goat as the guest of honor. Some cooks use beef. Others chicken or mutton. But it is the spices that pull it together. Oregano. Garlic. Onion. Paprika. Cumin. Thyme. And plenty of chiles.

Each cook has her special twist on the dish. After all, it is a stew. And the outcome can vary as much as any pot of bouillabaisse in Provençal kitchens.

I have tasted some terrible versions. But I have had far more sublime bowls of Jalisco ambrosia.

And that brings us back to the young goat, who is about to make its appearance.

Seeing no prospects in the old ram, César used his innate trading skills and dumped the ram in favor of a much tastier-looking youngster. And that is the goat that currently graces the lot across the street.

It has been there for about a month. Last week, César and his nephew were re-staking the goat. Because there was a lot of tugging and pulling going on (goats are no better on a leash than some dogs), I asked César if it was time to exchange this goat for a pot of birria.

He laughed, and said yes. But the goat was there the next morning. And the next. And the next. I assumed "yes" did not mean "ahora" (now).

This morning, it appears "ahora" has arrived. The goat-mown lot is there -- as it is every morning. But there is no goat bleating. Well, there is no goat, at all. And I suspect I know exactly where it is gone.

If any of you indulge in a bowl of one of Jalisco's best culinary offerings in the next few days, you may have an opportunity to meet the tender, young goat who once graced my days.

In fact, it may just become a part of you.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

all of life's a circle

Whoever invented the traffic circle (or any of its many aliases) should have been placed on the Queen's New Year's Honors List.

They are a brilliant method of moving traffic through intersections. Even though they fell out of favor in The States for almost a century.

Bend, Oregon was one of the American cities that pioneered the roundabout renaissance, It now has 32. With a piece of sculpture in the center of each.

On my past visits, I have told myself that I am going to search out and shoot each one. I haven't. But I may do it this month. I fly north on Saturday for Thanksgiving in Oregon.

But, if I was only interested in seeing art in the middle of a traffic circle, I could have saved myself a trip to Oregon. Barra de Navidad is right up there with the rest of haute culture.

Upon entering Barra de Navidad, there is a mini-traffic circle with a giant sculpture of two bill fish doing something like the macarena in the center of the street. It meets the first criterion of public art by tying into a local culture. In this case, fishing.

The second is no longer there. The traffic circle is. But the art is gone.

Calling it a "traffic circle" is a  a bit of a reach. It is actually just an island in the middle of a cul-de-sac. But, for a few hours one afternoon last week, it was home to a bit of street theater that would have done a Soho performance artist proud.

I was out on my afternoon walk when I just happened upon it. An homage to another bit of local culture. Equestrianism.

A colt was resting as if posing for posterity on the edge of the island. And it was not the least bit bothered by my circling and shooting. Its mother was staked out in an adjacent empty lot. But the colt was on its own.

The shape of its mulish nose made me wonder if the mare had been wandering on her own, as well.

Some of you will remember the scene in The Life of Brian where Brian's mother tells him why his nose was different from other Jewish boys. Because his father was a Roman. That made me wonder if the mare had had a similar chat with her offspring.

As nice as Bend's art-encrusted traffic circles may be, I will put up our Mexican entrant from Barra as being far more interesting.

And, if the Queen has not yet given away that honor for traffic circles, I have a colt to nominate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

hawking the hawker

One of the most therapeutic aspects of writing is sharing tales where I do not come out well in the end.

We all cultivate a public personality in the hopes that people will believe the best we see in ourselves. And then reality barges his way onto the stage.

Late last week, I was walking past the new Kiosko next to the bus station in San Patricio. There is a bench out front where people can rest in the shade of a mahogany tree.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary -- except for one thing. A tall northern man was bent forward pulling things out of his pockets and holding them in the face of someone on the bench.

In a few steps I knew exactly what was happening. The person on the bench was one of the local Indian women who make a living on the beach. She had her lunch laid out beside her along with a soda she probably purchased in the convenience store with some of the money she had earned that day selling trinkets on the beach.

I could now hear the man. "Would you like to buy this? -- No? Then how about this? -- Don't eat! I am selling you something."

The young woman looked terrified, and glanced up at me. It was the young mother of the family who once lived next door to me.

I have always laughed at the cliché: "I saw red." What on earth does that mean?

But, I literally saw red. It was as if a scarlet curtain had been drawn across my vision.

This guy had obviously taken umbrage at the vendors who go from table to table at restaurants trying to make a living. It irritates some people. This guy was taking his irritation out in a parody of Aespoic proportions.

I was seconds away from cold-cocking the pest when I heard Valeria's voice from Conan the Barbarian: "Do you want to live forever?"

My cinema-besotted mind often conjures up exactly the wrong quotation for what I am doing. This one caused me to laugh and my sane self returned to Earth. Laughter works miracles that way.

Rather than deck the guy, I politely asked: "Sir, what are you doing?" (I seem to fall into the fake formal address used by police officers without a sense of humor in circumstances like this.)

I was not surprised at his response. "It's none of your business."

I corrected him. "It is my business. This young woman, her husband, and her two boys were my neighbors. They are now my friends. Has she done something that requires you to humiliate her in public?"

By this time, she had gathered her lunch and had crept away.

"I have been here for three days. At every meal, these people [Ah. There it was. The infamous "these people."] interrupt me and try to sell me things I would never buy. I wanted to let her know what it feels like."

I could tell that even when he said it out loud, he did not realize how foolish his little melodrama was. So, I tried a different tack.

"It bothered me, too, when I first moved here. But, have you noticed how the Mexicans handle vendors? They will look at the merchandise. Finger it. Praise it. Ask what it is made of. And then thank the vendor for stopping by. Nothing is purchased. But both walk away smiling."

"Well, that is not how we do it in [what I presume was his home country]. The owners would not let them in."

"But, that is the point, isn't it? You are not in [home country]. You are in Mexico, and this is how things are done here. In the process, we are offered the opportunity to learn a bit of patience."

My words of wisdom were not adopted. Well, not if I properly understood what he said, which was something I believe to be not only anatomically impossible, but sounds entirely uninviting.

I did not bother adding that if he was going to buy something to not spend a lot of time trying to barter for 5 pesos and then feel as if he had won the lottery when the vendor essentially gives him part of her sales for the day.

At least, I did not hit him. Nor did I tell him to go back to [home country]. I certainly felt like it. But I hoped he would see how he was cheating himself out of a pleasant visit to Mexico.

That evening, I had dinner at Papa Gallo's. As I was walking past the Kiosko benches, I heard a slurred voice call my name. It was the husband of the vendor who had been assaulted. With beery breath he hugged me and thanked me for what I had done for his wife. And then started one of those rambling conversations that drinkers seem to love.

I eventually pulled away from his verbal clutches. I only took one step before he asked me for 100 pesos. He had drunk up his earnings for the day and wanted to take at least 100 pesos home with him.

I smiled. Walked about 5 paces and instinctively side-stepped as a half-filled beer can whizzed by my head.

A couple years ago, I shared a quotation with you from one of Walter Kirn's books. It sums up  my feelings about how writers treat the people we get to know.

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser.  A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.
In this case, I am glad I do not have to hide the bad behavior I almost acted out. It was bad enough that I let my rage get that much out of control.

But, it is equally true that not every tale has a happy ending. Life is not that neatly tied up in bows. Maybe because in life, for each of us, there is only one ending. Everything else is merely transitional moments.

And that is fine with me. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

no plumber required for these leaks

If you live in the Atacama Desert, this story is not for you.

But the rest of the world has felt my pain -- with roof leaks.

I moved into the Barra house in October 2014. Within a month, the rains came. And with them, leaks in the kitchen and the library. Even though the rooms are on opposite sides of the house, they are exactly the same shape. And the leaks were in the same place in both. Right in the center of the room.

I called the former owner to ask if she could recommend a local contractor. She did me one better and told me she knew of the leaks and had already arranged for the original contractor to fix the leaks. At no expense to me.

Free always sounds like a good deal to me. By January the job was done (i got rhythm). But there was something about the surliness of the workers that made me feel a bit uneasy about the work.

When the next rains arrived, new leaks traveled right along with them. So, I had a contractor friend, Tracey Ross, look at the previous work. Because water tends to find access where two different surfaces join, she thought the water may be seeping in at the base of two pillars. So, she modified them. And the leaks stopped.

They stopped, that is, until last year when the leaks in the kitchen and library returned -- with the additional problem of a leak in Omar's bedroom. I needed a better solution (beauty and the breach).

Tracey read read that essay -- about the two contractors who failed to show up after I accepted their bids. Last week she stopped by to offer some suggestions. She was the person who had originally proposed re-designing the terrace drainage system. My concern with that approach is that it would restrict the use of the terrace as a living and exercise space.

She suggested a different course. It was obvious where most of the water was leaking through the roof. The mortar that the surly workers used for the 2015 had dried out and was breaking away -- on both sides of the terrace. As a result, at least two tiles were loose.

Early yesterday morning, a full crew showed up to begin work. They deftly removed the loose floor tiles and a line of mopboard tile pieces without breaking them. They then re-sealed the cement underneath, cleaned the tiles, and reinstalled them.

By the close of the day, everything was in place. With the exception of the new mortar.

After letting the roof cure overnight, Pancho, the foreman, returned on his own this morning to install a high-quality mortar. He is dong that as I chat with you.

Will the fix work? I don't know. But it does rhyme with my prior roof problems. When my roof in Salem leaked, I did not need to replace the whole roof. The roofer looked for the place the water was gaining access and patched the problem.

That is what is happening here. And I have a lot of confidence in Tracey and her crews from past experience.

If it leaks again, we will try something different.

Or I will move to the Atacama Desert.

Monday, November 12, 2018

changing ways

When I walk the three miles to church each Sunday morning, I stop at a little grocery to buy a bottle of mineral water.

Yesterday morning, I grabbed my water and took it to the checkout counter. A northern woman was already there, engaged in a very one-sided conversation.

She was also buying a bottle of water, which she held in one hand. In the other was a 500-peso note that she was fanning in frustration. I had seen this skit before. She was buying an 9-peso bottle of water (about $.45 (US)) and trying to pay for it with a note worth about $25 (US). That may work at a 7-11 in Ontario. Here, it is more than problematic.

I have known the clerk and her family for several years. Her boyfriend was a waiter at Papa Gallo's, and she would often accompany him along with her two children to restaurant events. We talk every Sunday morning at the store.

She was patiently telling the customer: "No tengo cambio." "I don't have change."

I have written about our odd currency issues before (hoping for change) -- an issue that seems to be universal in Mexico. ATMs issue 500-peso notes, but there are very few merchants who have sufficient change when customers present those notes in payment.

With a couple of exceptions. There is always PEMEX. Filling my gas tank costs almost 1,000 pesos. My bill at my favorite small grocery usually runs between 500 and 1500 pesos, depending on how many imported luxuries have caught my eye.

Other than that, the potential spots to drop a 500 are limited. Even most restaurants struggle with them.

When I explained this to the woman yesterday, she noticeably relaxed and thanked me because she was afraid the bill was being refused as counterfeit. She had just arrived from Ontario on a Saturday afternoon flight and was staying with friends for two weeks. This was her first outing on her own.

And then she asked the question we have all asked: "If the ATM gives 500-peso notes and no one can take them, what good are they?"

She summed up exactly what I have thought of the 500 notes in our little villages. They are not so much currency as they are scrip. A portrait of Jefferson Davis on the font would be apt.

But, I shared my solution with her. As soon as I get a handful of 500s, I march into the bank, take a number, and trade my script for 50s, 100s, and 200s. I am then ready to sally forth and overheat the local economy.

I told her I had just given her a perfect lawyerly answer. it was 100% factually accurate -- and useless. The ATM coughed up her money on Saturday. The bank was not open. This was Sunday.

One of my favorite ethics texts from law school was (and still is) Thomas L. Shaffer's On Being a Christian and a Lawyer. Shaffer's thesis is that lawyers will always be misled into inappropriate behavior if they simply try to comply with the Code of Professional Responsibility. Instead, lawyers must be counselors of truth. To be guided by morality rather than hollow professionalism.

Having dispensed his factual take on the 500-peso situation, a lawyer guided solely by the code would turn and walk away. A lawyer interested in true counseling would do more.

So, I pulled out my wallet, asked the woman for her 500-peso note, and gave her two 50s, two 100s, and a 200, and asked her if she needed any more 500s changed. She thought she could now manage until Monday when she would go to the bank.

It was too bad her hosts had not told her about the money situation here. But, those of us who live or repeatedly spend long visits here often forget. Change is just one of those background issues. But it was a reminder to me to ask my guests if they need change after visiting an ATM.

Now, I have no idea if that little exchange was what Shaffer had in mind. It certainly was not one of those tortuous moral issues that lawyers face daily. But it was good enough for me on that fine morning.

The tourist from Ontario had her water, some spending money, and a bit of advice she may or not use. My pal the clerk was thankful that a moment of non-communication ended well for all. And I walked across the street for a church service that dealt with the need for Christians to live out the ideals Jesus taught -- and, once again, realized how short I fall.

But, for the three of us, it was a moment of change.   

Sunday, November 11, 2018

a flower and an apology

I may owe some of you an apology.

My essay yesterday (and some of the comments here and on Facebook) may have given the impression that I believe holding Remembrance Day services in countries other than Canada or the United States is somehow inappropriate (an affair to remember). I do not.

I practiced law in a community where a large portion of the residents were of Mexican descent. Our Salvation Army statistics pegged the number between 19 and 22% when other Latinos were sorted out. So, I am accustomed to people from other countries celebrating their national days in other countries. And I usually participate myself.

There is no doubt that celebrations like Remembrance Day and Veterans' Day carry political baggage -- especially celebrated in a country like Mexico which has been the target of economic and military adventurism by the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and a bevy of European countries.

That is why I always feel a little uncomfortable about public displays of foreign patriotism in Mexico. And it is not only because the singing of foreign national anthems and displaying foreign flags in Mexico is forbidden in most circumstances.

Last year I asked a young Mexican lawyer to assist me in researching the law on foreign anthems and flags. He wasn't even aware such a thing existed.

We quickly found out there are more laws and regulations concerning them than we could imagine. Just as an aside, we also discovered that almost every Mexican flag in town does not comply with the law.

I am particularly sensitive to flags and anthems. When I was very young, flags fascinated me. About the sixth grade, anthems were added to the list.

In the early 1970s, I was stationed on a Greek Air Force base. The American contingent was small. The flagpoles in front of our little headquarters building was directly outside the window of my bachelor officers quarters. Each night I watched the American security police lower first the Greek flag and then the American flag.

In full honors. With one exception. It could have been a scene from a silent movie. In The States, retreat is always accompanied by the national anthem.

Without asking anyone, one evening, I put a record of national anthems on my turntable and waited for the honor guard to start lowering the Greek flag. When they did, I cued up the Greek national anthem.

That startled the young flag team. But they recovered. I then played The Star-Spangled Banner as the American flag was lowered. The head of the team turned, smiled, and saluted me at my window.

What I did not know is that I had just caused an international diplomatic brouhaha. The detachment commander had me in his office within the hour.

Greece had just gone through another coup attempt months before. This time, officers sympathetic to the deposed Greek king had attempted to topple the Army junta then in control of the government. The Greek Air Force had chosen unwisely by siding with the king. I had watched both the Greek commander and deputy commander of the Greek Air Base being taken away by the Army -- and they were never seen again.

Because the United States had remained neutral in the coup, the Greek Army was very suspicious of our presence.

All relations between the United States and countries where its military forces are stationed are governed through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA). You may recall it was the inability to arrive at an agreeable SOFA with Iraq during the Obama administration that led to the precipitous withdrawal of American troops.

The SOFA with Greece did not cover the playing of national anthems. And with the Greek Air Force in the doghouse with the Army, neither Greek nor American commanders would take the risk of approving something as sensitive as national anthems.

But the new Greek commander was a brave soul. He requested permission from the Army, and it was granted. I returned to my duties as an anthem disc jockey.

That is a primary reason I am sensitive to how our Mexican hosts may react to playing music that bears multiple meanings. Last year, I watched a Mexican couple at Rooster's look as if they were physically in pain while the rest of us sang our respective anthems.

They could have been offended by the thought we were celebrating military adventures that had caused Mexico to suffer. Or maybe they were annoyed at having their peaceful breakfast disturbed by our rowdy lot. I do not eliminate the possibility that they were music lovers whose ears were being challenged.

I don;t know what was in their mind, but their faces have haunted me for a year. After the conversations we shared yesterday, I stopped short when I entered the restaurant this morning. The place was packed with Canadians and Americans. But right up front were two Mexican families eating breakfast, with a third in the back. I was positive I was going to re-live last year.

I was wrong. And a lot of that credit goes to Gary, the owner of Rooster'
s, who emceed the service. Last night, the two of us discussed some of the issues raised by the anthems. But, rather than eliminate them, he had a plan.

He told everyone what the order of service would be. A moment of silence. My reading of "In Flanders Fields." And then the singing of the national anthems of Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

In the past, the Mexican anthem was last. That struck Gary as wrong. If was to be sung, it should be first because we are in Mexico. I was not certain that alone would do the trick.

But Gary had more in mind. He explained what was being honored that day. Not military adventurism, but the individual citizens who had fought and died for their countries. He did a marvelous job of creating a common field of interest amongst the three nationalities represented.

The Mexican families sang their anthem with gusto, and stood in respect while Americans and Canadians did what we always do with our anthems -- sing sincerely with a bit of minor keys where major are called for.

After the service, two of the Mexican families had a long conversation with Gary and his wife, Joyce. And the inevitable seal of approval was stamped with a series of selfies.

The only thing I would have added to Gary's introduction (and, in fairness to him, I thought of it only after we were doing our post mortem) would have been references to Mexico's days of honor..

Even though Mexico does not have an equivalent of Remembrance Day, it celebrates several days honoring those who have fallen on behalf of Mexico. Mexican Army Day. Independence Day. Revolution Day. Heroic Defense of Veracruz Day. Cinco de Mayo. National Maritime Day. Boy Heroes Day. Mexican Navy Day.

The Mexican families present at today's service understood what we were celebrating. The same concepts they celebrate in honoring their dead. Whether in pride or in mourning, every nation can appreciate the honor.

But what is it that causes some of us to be so uneasy about national anthems performed within the borders of another country. I felt that same way at a Democrats Abroad Fourth of July party in San Miguel de Allende.

And then it occurred to me. Some moments are perfectly encapsulated in film. In Casablanca, in their desire to extend German authority to Morocco during World War Two, a group of German officers sing Horst Wessel at Rick's Club. On nominally-Free French soil. The mainly French audience sits quietly seething in rage.

That is what I envision the critics of national anthems sung on foreign soil are thinking. The worst possible version of nationalism.

But Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch had the answer. Rather than let the French sit silently in despair, Victor Laszlo leads them in a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise. It is a great moment in cinema.

That is the way I like to remember this day. With people of three nations sharing a common, almost-Roman concept of self-sacrifice. For one moment, no one was talking about which nation is greater -- or even if any of them are. We shared the virtue of honor and the pain of loss.

Do I still have qualms about singing my national anthem in Mexico? Sure, I do. I cannot erase my own experiences. It will always make me uncomfortable.

What I do know is that today was one of the more gratifying days of my life.

And, if I have offended any of you in those beliefs, I do apologize.

You can pray for me.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

an affair to remember

Tomorrow is Veterans' Day (née Armistice Day, but renamed to honor all American veterans, and to wash Woodrow Wilson's fingerprints off of the War to End All Wars).

For Canadians, it is Remembrance Day -- a day for the Commonwealth to honor those who died in the First World War and wars thereafter.

Melaque has a winter population of expatriates and visitors sizable enough to honor days that have no significance in Mexico. Remembrance Day. Canada Day. Fourth of July. Two Thanksgiving Days.

So, some of us will meet, as we always do, on 11 November at 11 AM to honor the dead and Those Who Served. A tontine without subscriptions.

The program is always the same. Gary, restaurateur extraordinaire of Rooster's, will  make a few opening remarks on why we are there. I will, as I have done for the past several years, read John McCrae's sentimental "In Flanders Fields" with its thrown torches held high.

We all will then sing (or try to sing) the Canadian, American, and Mexican national anthems. I always chuckle during the last one when I hear northerners sing about foreigners' soles profaning Mexican soil.

I wish we would not sing the anthems. It is a violation of Mexican law to sing another nation's anthem in Mexico without governmental permission. And the inclusion of the Mexican national anthem is anachronistic because Mexico was not a belligerent in the First World War.

That is not to say that Mexico did not play a part in that war. Without a German diplomatic faux pas involving Mexico, The States may never have joined in what was going on over there.

While the European empires were drenching fields with the blood of their young men, America stood studiously neutral following George Washington's advice to avoid foreign entanglements. There were lots of reasons for that stance.

The American Navy refused to send any of its fleet to the Pacific in 1914 for fear the British would invade through Canada -- a fear that survived until the start of the Second World War.

Most Americans had escaped Europe and saw no reason to involve themselves in a war in which they could see no discernible national interest.

Americans of German ancestry were he largest of the European groups, with the Irish following quickly behind. Many of them had no interest in fighting against people who shared their blood.

Even the sinking of the Lusitania and the increased submarine attacks on American shipping were not enough alone to convert the American nation into a war machine.

 Mexico was involved with its own problems when Europe went to war in 1914. It had its own war boiling. The Revolution started in 1910. By the time an unknown Serbian killed the man who could one day have been emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leaders of the Mexican Revolution had moved on from killing oligarchs to assassinating one another.

The Germans suspected it was just a matter of time before President Wilson maneuvered a reluctant American public into joining the war as an ally of Britain. There were German military advisers in Mexico during the Revolution. But that was not good enough.

Mexico remained completely neutral during World War One -- continuing to allow German companies to operate in the country even after many British, American, and Canadian businesses had been expelled. As a result, Mexico City became a headquarter for German saboteurs bent on mayhem in The States.

President Carranza, who had rejected American military assistance during the Revolution and was offended by the American invasion of Mexico in search of Pancho Villa and the American occupation of Veracruz, began leaning toward the Germans. And the Germans saw the time had come for an offer.

The German government sent a telegram, authored by a German foreign officer, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German Ambassador in Mexico City authorizing the ambassador to offer a military alliance to Mexico. If Mexico would declare war on the United States, Germany would provide financial support and would make peace with the United States only with the cession of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico -- part of the territory Mexico had lost in the Mexican-American War.

As bad luck would have it (for the Germans), British intelligence intercepted the encoded message. It was passed on to the Americans who made it public in March 1917.

At first, there was some skepticism about the authenticity of the telegram. British intelligence had already produced a stream of lies to induce American involvement in the war. Then the German Foreign Office, out of some Prussian sense of honor, admitted it was genuine.

The American public was outraged at German perfidy. (Much in the same way they reacted to the XYZ Affair when the French attempted to bribe American peace-makers.)

Within a month, the United States was at war with Germany.

We will never know if the Zimmerman Telegram would have been enough to take America to war. After its announcement, Germany authorized unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping heading to Europe to support the allies.

America has long been ambivalent about the First World War. Even after the Zimmerman Affair, 50 congressmen voted against going to war.

When the war was over, Americans did what they could to forget the horrors they experienced in Europe. Wilson's idealism and rosy promises turned out to be dross. The First World War is the only major war for which there is no memorial on the Washington mall.

My grandfather fought in that war. Growing up, we had great admiration for those who had fought and died. But Wilson did not share that honor.

It is no surprise that Americans have done their best to switch over to honoring all veterans in general on 11 November.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I first encountered Wilfred Owens's "Dulce et Decorum Est." It had such a powerful; effect on me that I sat down and wrote a poem about the Vietnam War to rebut Owns's thesis. (Of course, my poem ironically proved his point.)

In today's world, "Dulce et Decorum Est" is far more apt than "In Flanders Field."

       Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Of course, I will not read the Owen piece; I will read "In Flanders Fields."

And we will all honor the citizens who defended our countries and our ideals -- even though the policies for which they died may have been terribly wrong-headed.

To all of you veterans out there: thank you for putting others before yourselves. Your service is appreciated.