Monday, August 19, 2019

the full mexican


I am rather particular about my dining choices.

If I go out to dinner with someone, I am looking forward to scintillating conversation. After all, that is the reason we get together. To learn from one another. To develop personal relations.

What I do not want on those evenings is to dine somewhere featuring a band with its eccentric version of "Proud Mary" with the volume loud enough that I cannot hear any of the wisdom my dining partner is imparting. Fortunately, there are a number of local restaurants who respect their customers' desires to actually hear one another.

But there are nights when I want a Full Mexican. Good Mexican food combined with ear-splitting trumpets and singers who capture the ennui of love won and lost. When that mood hits me (and it  does, now and then), I head off to El Manglito on the lagoon in Barra de Navidad -- where you can get all of that, along with an occasional professional dance couple. I usually celebrate my birthday there.

El Manglito is one of those places that has expanded with its success. As long as I have been going there, a part of its more informal past was evidenced by the placement of its kitchen.

The seating area is on the lagoon side of the street -- with one of the best views in town. But, the small kitchen has been across the street. Its size and location slowed down the order-to-plate-on-table time.

I suspect that did not cut into the place's trade. Most people go to El Manglito for the total ambiance, not for fast food. (Impatience over waiting for food seems to be another of those cultural chasms between northerners and Mexicans.)

I found the waiters carrying hot dishes while dashing between passing cars to be a bit charming. It evoked a simpler time in Barra.

But that sight is about to end.

The owners have been re-modeling the front of the restaurant for most of the year. The bathrooms had been moved from the north side of the building to the south a couple of years ago. And a new façade was added this summer.

I now know why. That portion of the palapa is now devoted to a kitchen so modern that even Gordon Ramsey would be challenged to complain. (Of course, he would, just out of spite.) I suspect service time will be cut appreciably.


After watching the completing touches being added to the kitchen, I am not certain what I think about the new arrangement. Barra de Navidad is not Puerto Vallarta, where restaurants rely on churning customers to maximize profits. El Manglito, like most Mexican restaurants here, are happy to rent their tables as long as diners want to enjoy them. No rush. No push.

I have not been eating away from the house very much for the last year. And I have not been to El Manglito for an even longer time because my favorite waiters (Roto, German, and Christian) are no longer there.

But that sparkling stove is an enticement. Maybe I should celebrate my birthday twice this year. It is the prerogative of the aging.  


Sunday, August 18, 2019

waiter, there's a crab in my hubris


I should know better.

Actually, I do know better -- but I go ahead and do it any way.

Basking in hubris may feel good. But it always comes with a price. And, for a writer, there is no escaping the checkout counter.

Last Saturday, in crabby on the half shell, I related a tale of how certain portions of town are in the midst of crab migration season. If you live in their path, it is a bit like being a spear carrier in a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic. I think the plague of crabs was somewhere between the frogs and the flies.

Of course, while writing that essay, I could not pass up the opportunity to indulge in just a soupçon of schadenfreude. Having spent six years dealing with crabs in every corner of my house during their migration around the laguna in Villa Obregón, 
I was pleased to report I have not seen a crab in my Barra house in the five years I have lived here.

Apparently, the word went out on the Crab Nebula Network (CNN, you know) that I was missing out on one of Barra's August cultural events. I can no longer declare that the house with no name is free of crabs.

Sunday morning is a bit of a rush for me. These days I have the keys to the church gate. That means I need to be there on time. To cut short my usual morning routine, I dashed over to the kitchen to warm up some rather good black pepper beef stir fry I cooked up the other afternoon.

I noticed something odd as I reached for the slider into the kitchen. Something was hanging on the screen. I have seen that silhouette often enough that I did not hesitate in identifying my morning visitor.

Iy was a crab. One of the small migrators. But what was odd was the fact that it was inside the kitchen with both sliders shut tight.

Because I was not writing a murder mystery, I did not bother dealing with the apparent conundrum. After all, I already told you last week that these crabs manage to squeeze into the smallest of spaces.

After shooting it (just for you), I sent it scuttling across the patio. I suspect I will next see it in some unusual spot -- probably nestled between my underwear and socks.

And on a Sunday morning, what better way is there to start the day than rendering a pot of hubris into a bit of homely humility? 


Saturday, August 17, 2019

the postman honks once

The shuttered post office in Barra xe Navidad

Last week I stopped by the post office in San Patricio to pick up my mail.

There is nothing unusual about that. I check my box about once a week to see if the outside world has attempted to contact me. Sometimes, there are greeting cards. But, most often, I receive alumni contribution requests or the odd magazine.

Saul, who had been the postmaster for my first ten years here, retired recently, leaving the place in the hands of his well-trained assistant. When I stopped by last week, there was a new face behind the counter. At least, new in San Patricio. He looked vaguely familiar.

Then, I remembered who he was. The postmaster from the Barra de Navidad office. He was vaguely familiar because I have seen him in the office maybe two or three times.

But he knew me. Rather, he knew my house and address. I thought that was odd because I do not recall him delivering a single piece of mail to the house in the six years I have lived there.

I know the local postmasters have a tradition of substituting for one another for vacations. But the Barra postmaster told me that was not the case last week. He was there because the post office in Barra de Navidad is closed.

That announcement caught me off guard. I usually hear about closures like that before they occur. Granted, I do not hear much news about that post office because I seldom use it.

Thinking my weakness in Spanish verb tenses might have once again caught up with me, I walked down to our rather sorry excuse for a town square where the post office is located. Sure enough. It was shuttered tighter than a Burger King in New Delhi.

I suspect closing the office made economic sense. But I am surprised that the closure would take place under Mexico's current populist president. It is just as likely that so few people use the office that its closure has gone unnoticed.

Like any town wending its way through modernity, Barra de Navidad is changing. Lots of new residential construction -- and even a new Bodega Aurrera in Melaque. Quaintness cedes to upper social mobility. And, somehow, the death of a post office works its way into the mix.

What the consolidation will mean for Barra de Navidad's mail service, I do not know. But I guess we will all find out together. Won't we?

On my walk to the post office, I noticed several changes in town that I will share with you -- along with some old sights seen through new eyes.

Friday, August 16, 2019

better to give


Some moments are too good not to share.

And this is one I want to share with you.

It is just before midnight in Barra de Navidad. This evening had one of those odd weather combinations. Harsh thunder and lightning supported by a brief, soft rain.

The rain has stopped. When heavy rain falls, it momentarily drives down the humidity here.

But not this evening. The warm rain has already started evaporating into what was a comfortably humid day. Within the hour, it will create its own private sauna.

I have finally succumbed to the humidity-reducing virtue of air conditioning in my bedroom. As the years have gone by here, I have become a bit more accustomed to the summer heat. Admittedly the facts that I do not have an outdoor job combined with the fact that I do have a swimming pool have been major contributing factors in my newly-developed coping skills.

None of that mattered, though, as I crossed the patio this evening. The moon, the lines of the house, the various shades of light, all pulled me into a cozy mood. I stood there and appreciated every detail.

I now share it with you. May you enjoy it just as much. 


Thursday, August 15, 2019

kowtowing to the chili


"With 60% of chiles coming from China, NGO promotes domestic ones."

That startling news was the headline of a recent newspaper article passed on to me by a reader in Canada. Startling, not because of the NGO reference (the World Wildlife Fund, in this case), but because of the assertion that 60% of chilies eaten in Mexico are grown in China.

Something did not seem right about that. How is it possible that Mexico, the country that first domesticated the chili pepper and is the source of every Thai, Indian, and Nigerian pepper, is now exporting most of its chilies?

Of course, it would not be entirely inconsistent with current food trade patterns. Even though Mexico was where corn was first domesticated and developed into a food staple for the Americas, Mexico now imports a large portion of its corn from the United States as a result of the good graces of NAFTA.

But, Mexico imports corn because it does not and cannot produce sufficient supplies for its people. That is not true of chilies. Mexico is the largest exporter of chili peppers to the rest of the world. That fact does not correlate with huge imports from China.

So, off I went on some formal and anecdotal research.

It turns out that the "60% import" figure is not new. Agricultural reports and news stories have been using the same figure for well over a decade. But the reference then was to dried chilies.

As part of its export-oriented trade policy, Chinese farmers had started planting Mexican varieties of chili peppers. They would then dry and export their Chinese-grown peppers to Mexico. A decade ago, those dried peppers were undermining the price that Mexican farmers were receiving at market.

This month's headline appears to be a distorted recycling of the old reports. If you want to get the public's attention, grab some old data, modify the information to burnish your sacred cow, and emphasize that whatever is happening is China's doing. (And China is always ready to play its Blofeld role.)

That appears to be what the World Wildlife Fund 
(or the reporter assigned to the article) did. Dropping the reference to dried chilies gave the WWF the apocalyptic tone that is a siren call to the writers of headlines. The goal of the WWF was to preserve the traditional foods of Mexico -- and Chinese-grown dried chilies are not part of the mix.

The WWF does have a point. And a good one. Chilies take on the nutrients of their terroir. And that alters their flavor. Consumers need to be aware where their food comes from.

I did a quick survey of the local grocers. None of them sells fresh chilies from China. They doubt that any fresh Chinese chilies are sold in Mexico. But all of them are aware that the market is awash in Chinese-grown dried chilies.

And that is one of the great ironies of world trade. The China chili pepper headline reminded me of a fascinating story Charles Mann related in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

When Spain opened the Manila galleon route in the 1500s to facilitate Chinese-Spanish trade, goods were shipped from Manila to Acapulco and were then muled across Mexico to Veracruz and shipped to Madrid. Because the system was mercantilistic, none of the goods could be sold in Mexico without first making their way to Madrid where they would then be shipped back to Mexico.

One of the most-prized commodities were the blue and white ceramics manufactured in China. Enterprising entrepreneurs in Puebla pilfered samples of the ceramics in transit, and started copying it with Puebla's high-quality clay. Historians now believe that some of the artists in Puebla were actually Chinese. Some slaves. Some former sailors who had jumped ship, Real Chinese craftsman were creating counterfeit Chinese ceramics.

The blue and white ceramics are still the pride of Puebla. Mann visited Puebla as part of his research for his book. When he interviewed shopkeepers, they "complained the country was fighting an invasion of counterfeits from China -- a Chinese imitation of a Chinese-made Mexican imitation of a Chinese original."

Just like the chili pepper in reverse. Mesoamerican Indians, in what we now know as Mexico, domesticated the chili pepper that the Spanish took to Europe and that the Portuguese spread through Africa and Asia. The Chinese are now growing Mexican-style chilies and exporting them to Mexico.

I am as guilty as anyone for falling into the nostalgia trap. I wish some of Mexico's heirloom tomatoes were readily available at my local markets. We are stuck with the import-ready Safeway variety. On the other hand, I am not certain how I would take to the tiny, yellow tomato the Spanish introduced to Europe -- another of Mexico's domesticated foodstuffs that have spread throughout the world.

My pal Jennifer Rose recently sent me an article that India is undergoing its own back-to-basics cooling methods. The advocates are encouraging Indian cooks to abandon any foods introduced to India by Europeans. Topping the list, of course, are chilies and tomatoes. It is hard for me to imagine Indian food without either one. Oh, yes, and potatoes of all varieties. If the movement prevails, Goa cuisine is doomed.

Both the Indian purists and the World Wildlife Fund come from a different culinary outlook than my own. I am a fusionist. Give me the ingredients, and I will give you a dish. I am not a culinary nationalist. Chinese-grown chilies do not my ping my xenophobia.

Even though I know good cooks use only the best ingredients available, having learned to make great dishes with Safeway tomatoes, I now know when you have to make do, it will be good enough.

Monday, August 12, 2019

the logic of the mad


The artist is undoubtedly mad -- or, at least, mentally tormented.

His name is Jorge. Most of us know him as the disheveled young man who wanders the streets of Barra de Navidad in search of work -- machete in hand and a middle distance stare that sees what the rest of us miss. Or maybe what he sees is simply not there in our restricted frame of reference.

We compliment ourselves by labeling what we see as reality. Jorge sees something different.

He hangs out in a hammock two blocks from my house. Across the street from the Oxxo, where charitable souls buy him the occasional bottle of water. When he is not relying on the kindness of strangers, he will swing in his hammock to the beat of his favorite music played at Mexivolume. Tormented, but content.

I do not know how long his creche with an attitude has accessorized the lot next to his hammock. I probably would not have noticed it had I not stopped to take a photograph of the chair on the opposite side of the barbed wire perimeter. While framing, I saw it.


Combined with the chair, it evinces a certain dadaist air. As if the artist was inviting the observer to sit and ignore his work. Just as most people avoid looking at Jorge. I suspect out of fear that we may discover we are just as tormented.

But ignoring the work misses its power.

It riffs off of a traditional Catholic theme dear to the heart of most Mexicans -- the incarnation of Christ symbolized by plaster of Paris figurines. Or what we northerners call a nativity scene.

Our family had a nativity scene that we would drag from the basement in mid-December. Mary. Joseph. Baby Jesus. Shepherds. Three wise men. Donkey. Cow. Camel. Sheep. All huddled around a cardboard manger. Far more fantastical than scripturally factual. But designed to tell a universal truth.

The Mexican creche is a kissing cousin of its more-restrained and distant European relative. All of the usual suspects will be there. But they will often be joined by Hummel figures, toy soldiers, dogs, crocodiles, and the occasional dinosaur. After all, the idea is to convey the thought that all creation honored the birth of the Messiah whose birth was designed to reconcile a last world with God.

Jorge's version appears to be an amalgamation of the traditional and the postmodern with a bit of green politics thrown in for flavor.

His baby Jesus is not constrained by a manger. With his headband, he is Rambo come to set things right in the world. That Cinderella shoe tells us he is not going to be bound by any cisgender stereotypes. His liberation is for all.

Rambo Jesus has left his meek lambs on the other side of the rainbow bridge while he sallies forth with a far-more appropriate mascot -- a black jaguar. Evil will be put in its proper place. The virtue of recycling is celebrated by the plastic lids and bottles -- some relegated to paradise, others yet to be conquered.

It is quite a powerful work of art.

Now, is that what Jorge intended?

How do I know? How do we ascertain the intent of a tormented mind? Or is the piece designed to remind us that torment may be one of those universal human afflictions.

My interpretation above is, of course, a sardonic take on the critics Tom Wolfe skewered in The Painted Word. But there is some truth buried in that palaver.

Modernist artists may have abandoned "meaning" in their art. When the Belgian surrealist René Magritte was asked what was behind his paintings, he responded: "The wall."

But I still find Marcel Duchamp's observation to be persuasive: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."
  

Even Picasso, one of the champions of "l'art pour l'art" was sentimental enough to define the purpose of art as "washing the dust of daily life off our souls." Though, that sounds like something he would say to seduce one of his models.

I will confess that I took Jorge's invitation. I sat in the chair facing away from the postmodern creche and contemplated its elements. For one brief moment, I heard Rambo Jesus whisper in my ear: "You are being sucked into the logic of the mad."*



* -- I have been using that quotation for years -- thinking I had created it. But it is not mine. It is Robert Shaw's.

One of my favorite films is The Man in the Glass Booth. It had been years since I watched it. When I watched it again last month, there it was. Straight from Arthur Goldman's lips.

I highly recommend the film. Come to think of it, it reflects the theme of today's essay.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

sanding my consonants


We are our pasts.

At least, we live our lives as if what has shaped us continues to guide us.

In that respect, I am a classical conservative. We are born into a network of obligations (families, communities, institutions) that, in turn, provide order to our lives.

I have a friend, let's call him Josh, who had a rather troubled relationship with his father. Josh's dad was the quintessential American dad -- the guy who knew almost everything about every imaginable topic.  He knew how things operated, and, when they didn't, how to fix them.

Josh adored him. He would take every opportunity to watch his dad fix whatever needed fixing. But he always dreaded his dad would ask him to fetch something. Usually a tool. Josh usually had no idea what his dad wanted.

When asked for a 1/2" box-end wrench, Josh would likely retrieve a ball-peen hammer or a pair of pliers. Nobody had ever taught him the name for tools.

His dad would call him stupid. Eventually, he stopped watching his dad work.

I had my own Josh moment yesterday.

Dora was at the house performing her cleaning miracles. I had asked her to take a look at the cleaning supplies I had just bought at Sam's Club to see if we needed anything else for the house. We always do.

She inventoried the stash and said that we needed "liqua de agua." At least, that is what I thought she said. It could have been "lika de agua." I asked her to repeat the phrase. When I showed no recognition, she explained it was to clean the bathroom. She pointed at a bottle of toilet cleaner and recommended a specific shop in San Patricio.

So, off I went, The proprietress of the shop looked just as bewildered as I had when I told her what I wanted. She speaks Spanish and English, and we exhausted our mutual vocabularies until we decided what I needed was a bottle of Ajax cleanser.

Well, that was not what Dora needed. She went to the bodega and returned with what looked like a small piece of black construction paper.

The moment I touched it, I remembered buying some three or four years ago. It is very fine sand paper. Dora uses it to abrade the calcification that accumulates on the toilet ceramic.

What I heard as "liqua" or "lika" was actually "lija." "Lija de agua."

For most people, the toughest part of any new language is trying to figure out its spoken form. I can read most newspapers in Spanish because of my high school Latin classes. A lot of the grammar and vocabulary are similar. But, read the same article to me aloud, and I will miss a good portion of it.

I thought my greatest difficulty in speaking and listening to Spanish would be the vowels. But once I learned their sounds, they have turned out to be rather straight-forward.

It is the consonants that trip me up. Our German roots in English lead us to pronounce our consonants quite guttural. Especially, the explosive consonants that turn into mere puffs in Spanish. 

I had a perfect opportunity to clarify the word with Dora while I was standing there. But, like Josh, I scurried off hoping that somehow I would return with the correct item.

Why didn't I clarify my confusion? Probably, because I thought I had enough information to complete my mission.

But I think it was something related to my Y chromosome. It may be a cliché, but guys are adverse to asking too many questions. At least, I know I am. And that life-instilled trait comes with a cost.

In this case, the cost was small. I simply walked down the street to our local hardware store and bought five sheets of "lija de agua."

So, what do I do with this new tidbit of knowledge?

First, I should accept it for what it is. I have been indulging in a bit of hubris lately about how my Spanish skills have improved. Most of the compliments come from my Mexican friends. But, it is not absolutely true. If I can miss the subtle difference between a "k" and a "g," I still have a long way to go. (and, no, I have not dismissed the possibility that age-related hearing loss may be a contributing cause.)

The second lesson is far simpler, but probably more difficult to implement. I need to start asking people to clarify points when I am not certain what they just said. I suppose that could also apply to my conversations in English.

I may be able to learn new subjects, but I am still a product of my life.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

crabby on the half-shell


There it was again.

A subtle rhythmic tapping. As sharp as a New Hampshire winter morning.

How did T.S. Eliot put it? "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

"Scuttling." That is just the right word. The sound that aliens make in those silly UFO movies from the 1980s.

It is once again the day of the crab here. Or, I should say, night of the crab. Because that is when these terrestrial decapods go about their courting business. Crabby goes a'courting.

For the astrological-minded amongst you, that star-charting pseudoscience grasps at the factual straw that the crabs show up here just as Cancer leaves its house -- or whatever the signs do in the jargon of the necromancers.

Every year our streets are filled with the type of clacking that would have set Alfred Hitchcock's imagination fluttering. I suppose it is a combination of the weather change and the never-constant moon.

Whatever it is, platoons of crabs start their migration from their Hobbit homes to the nearest body of water to ensure that we night strollers in July and August will have an evening's entertainment.

When I lived on the laguna in Villa Obregón, I would find the smaller crabs everywhere in the house. They managed to squeeze themselves under the door. Walking around the house barefoot was a tropical occupational hazard.

The larger ones were happy to congregate on my screen door. Had Tippi Hedren lived there, she could have practiced her ice-blonde look of terror. No screaming, of course. Well-bred ladies  do not do that.

I rather like this time of year -- for a lot of reasons. But the crab parade fascinates me. It is not the size of the hordes that interest me, though it is a factor. It is the beauty of each crab.

Take a look at the fellow at the top of this essay. Shades of blues, reds, yellows. He is a veritable primary color chart.

You might notice he is also missing a claw -- and that he is as dead as the Venezuelan economy.

The nightly death toll is high. Dogs. Cars. Coatimundis. Motorcycles. Not every crab gets to raise a happy family.

And that is good. Otherwise, after about three re-generations, we would be kneed deep in August crabs. As much as I like them, even I would find that a bit creepy.

In a week or two, they will be gone. For some reason, there are always a few stragglers during the year. Probably young bachelors who ended up at the wrong party.

When the crabs ground themselves again and the scuttling ceases, it will be time to find another amusement other than crabbing in the dark.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

signing up


Once upon a time there was a hill in a Mexican village named Villa Obregón -- named in honor of a president who did not understand that seeking an additional term in post-Revolution Mexico was a quick way to get enrolled on the assassinated politician list.

But this story does not involve dead politicians. As far as I know. It is about my track record as a prognosticator.

I just finished reading Jan Swafford's Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music.  He said he is often asked what the future of serious music will be. His answer was perfect.

A recent study found that when it comes to prognostication, there's no difference between prophecies of the future and random outcomes. Whatever happens, it will not be what anyone predicted, unless by accident.
That was exactly my feeling last week while listening to the various political experts "predicting" the world's future. No one knows. Period.

But, sometimes, we do get it right. Maybe by accident, as Swafford says.

When I moved here eleven years ago, the hill that stars in the first paragraph of this essay sat between the main highway and what I am told is the largest body of fresh water on the Mexican coast.

At one point, it was part of a larger hill. But it was orphaned when the highway was built across the laguna.

The hill was devoid of improvements -- other than a small concrete structure that could have served as a World War Two gun emplacement to hold off the inevitable yanqui invasion. Recently, the grade school had chosen it as a tsunami evacuation site. The view was stunning.

About two years ago, bulldozers appeared on the crest. A Mexican friend (Luis), who is usually a good source of local information, told me the top was being leveled as a site for a home or homes.

When I wrote about that, my American friend John, who is now dead, said Luis was wrong. A rock and gravel company had bought the hill to mine its rocks. It appeared he was correct. Dump truck after dump truck took away the rock until what was once a hill was a mere stub of itself.

Now, we may know the rest of the story. I noticed this week that a sign has been posted on the site selling lots as "Las Palmas Fraccionamiento." Luis may have been correct.

Here is what I do not know. The sign indicates the development is in "San Patricio Melaque, Jalisco." But the hill is not in San Patricio. It sits on land administered by Jaluco. Some may even say it it is in Villa Obregón.

Maybe that is just a technicality. The developers may be relying on the generic use of "Melaque" to describe all of the villages along that part of the bay. Or maybe the sign is advertising a housing development elsewhere in town. If so, I do not know where it would be. I need to check my sources.

My gut tells me "Las Palmas" is where the hill once stood. If so, it is an odd place to build houses. The hill once acted as a wind break for the summer storms that frequently blow through here. I would not want to build a house there (even if it is built on rock) with the prospects of a tidal surge rolling across the laguna.


Then there is the Scylla and Charybdis feel of the place. On one side, the laguna with its mosquitoes and crocodiles. On the other, the only major north-south highway on the Mexican coast -- complete with a parade of trucks that are wont to test their jake brakes just at that point.

Perhaps I am mixing a regret cocktail of 4 parts sour grapes and 1 part nostalgia. I was quite fond of that hill. When I was in high school, I often thought of living atop a similar rocky knoll. That hill would have been perfect with its view of the bay.

But the dream is as dead as the hill. And some families in the future will share a quite different experience on the flats. With any luck, they will make happy homes.

Not every tale has a happy ending. But the former hill holds promise for someone.

And that is an ending happy enough for me today.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

come fly with me


I am back in Barra de Navidad.

In truth, I have been here since Saturday afternoon, but it has taken me some time to straighten out things at the house to give me writing time. I now have time.

How are you doing?

I have a friend who lives here in Mexico who has not been on an airplane for over a decade -- if I correctly recall his tale. Today's essay will undoubtedly elicit a comment that it will be another decade before he flies again.

It is true that airplane travel can be a bit frustrating. Its greatest advantage is getting people somewhere quickly. Airport waiting lounges may look like bus stations of yore, but taking a bus and taking a plane are two different worlds when it comes to saving time.

The biggest complaint I hear from flyers is cramped seats are and scant in-flight services. Of course, we have brought that state of affairs on ourselves by demanding low airfares. And the market has responded. American fliers are blessed with some of the lowest air fares in the world (if you ignore those governments that subsidize their favored national airlines).

But I would agree the result is rather Spartan conditions on-board. Most passengers have learned to accommodate by bringing their own food and entertainment along with them. If that is not sufficient, there are seats in the front of the aircraft that are on offer to afford a more comfortable flight. If you want that type of service for the fare you pay in economy, you must be an American voter.

What we passengers cannot buy at any price is time. And that is what happened on my trip from Redmond to Barra de Navidad this last weekend.

At one point, it was possible to get up early in the morning in Bend and be in my Barra de Navidad house that same afternoon. No longer.

Alaska Airlines cancelled that early morning flight. The drill is now to fly out of Redmond on an afternoon to Portland or Seattle and then connect with a flight to Los Angeles where I spend the night. I usually try to get in early enough to see a little of Los Angeles before going to bed and getting up refreshed the next morning around 6 to catch my flight to Mexico.

That was the plan. If you hear God laughing, you know my plan did not survive its first engagement with the enemy.

When I checked into the Redmond airport, the clerk told me my flight would be delayed about an hour. That was a problem because I only had 45-minutes to catch my connecting flight in Seattle. But there was time enough in the day to catch the next Los Angeles flight. Or so I thought.

My telephone informed me that my connecting flight in Seattle would also be delayed. No need to worry.

The Seattle airport looked as if it was a refugee hub in Istanbul. All of the chairs were filled with glum-faced flyers. Milling passengers blockaded the walkways between gates. No one looked as if this was a fun day at the state fair.


It was a fair that was the problem. Seafair, to be exact. Seattle's summer festival that clogs its streets. And that clogging meant that, for the entire day, flight crews were unable to drive to the airport on time -- just as if they were passengers.

The result was the first flight of the day was late, and it had a cascading effect. When, I arrived in Seattle, my afternoon flight had already been delayed over an hour.

Money cannot buy time. I said that earlier. And the first-class lounge proved it. The place was packed with surly folk. There are few things more dispiriting than hanging out with self-important people whose entitlements have not been satisfied. So, I left.

Mexico has taught me several techniques to deal with these rich-world frustrations. The first is patience. I had no control over the circumstances and I certainly had no lines in the scene. All I had to do was wait for my name to be called.

Because there were no seats to be had, I re-discovered the joy of walking in airports. Even with my 40-pound backpack of electronics looming over my shoulders like a Quasimodo prosthetic, I walked just under 7 miles. Even then, I still had to wait another hour for the boarding to be announced.

I bet you can already guess what happened next when we boarded. After waiting for almost another half-hour, a clerk came on board and removed a passenger who should not have been on the flight. How did he get on board in the first place?

But there was more. The baggage crew now needed to unload the just-loaded luggage to find his suitcase -- and to be certain he had not left behind his pipe bombs -- or, even worse a bottle of shampoo over 4 ounces.
,
Fortunately, I did not need to catch a connecting flight in Los Angeles. And most of the passengers sitting around me had long ago missed their flights. An Australian Air Force pilot sat next to me. He now needed to kill 20 hours at the Los Angeles airport.


This type of story always has an unexpected, but inevitable twist. While I was sitting at the Redmoind airport, I put my time to good use by booking a room at the LAX Sheraton Four Points. Or I thought I had.

When the shuttle dropped me at the hotel where I usually stay, the clerk told me I had booked myself into a similarly-named hotel four miles away. A cab (with an interesting Armenian driver) whisked me over there. At 2 AM, I slipped into bed -- just an hour earlier than the time I would have gotten out of bed in Bend on the old flight plan. If you did not hear God chuckle, I did.

In a couple of weeks, I will be heading back north for a few days. I was very smug with myself that I would avoid Seafair this time.

I was smug until I noticed I had booked a flight on Labor Day weekend. That is not going to happen.

At least, I can buy a bit of time to change that flight.  


Thursday, August 01, 2019

done and done


I came north to tick off three items on my TO DO list. They are done.

The third item was to surprise my colleague Janelle at her retirement party yesterday in Salem. And I did.

Janelle and I started working at SAIF as trial attorneys 30 years ago. I left 10 years ago. She decided to hang on until yesterday.

There are people we bond with along the journey we call life. I believe that everyone we meet affects our lives to some degree. Others change the trajectory of who we become. Janelle is one of the latter.

We worked together on the same trial team for several years. When we started there, the workload was incredible. Monthly we would receive up to 40 new cases a month.

To cope with the tension, we developed a little workplace game. At the time, Murphy Brown had just started its popular television run. The series centered around an attractive journalist (Murphy Brown) who was as hard-driving as she was ethical. I suspect the artifice began because there was never any doubt that Janelle was Murphy walking amongst us.

There were two male supporting roles: Jim, the older anchor who provided stability to the team, and Frank, the younger, highly neurotic reporter. I always wanted to be Jim. Janelle tagged me as Frank.

And that was fine with me. The level-headed Jim was how I saw myself. But Frank was Janelle's buddy. And that far better-suited the relationship I had with Janelle.

Since I retired, I have been back to the SAIF building only three times. I have never regretted retiring. But I must admit there is a little of the fire horse sent out to pasture still in my soul. Reminiscing about cases piqued my lawyerly interest yesterday.

However, I was not there as an attorney. Or even a fellow retiree.

I was there as Frank -- watching Murph take a victory lap before shutting down her computer for the last time.

For Janelle, it is time to enjoy retirement. I know she will.

 

Monday, July 29, 2019

just what the doctor ordered


I have been in a funk for the past two months.


Nothing seemed to interest me. Walking. Reading. Cooking. Meeting up with friends.

We all have those moods. But this one had been lasting far too long. And it ended today.

After getting chores done around the new house, Christie asked me if I was interested in taking a hike to Barnes Butte -- northeast of Prineville. Darrel and she had hiked there on Easter.

The trail was filled with the promise of spring. Obviously, the wild flowers and green grass would have faded with the summer heat. But she promised the type of wonders that central Oregon can provide.

I almost begged off -- until I realized that getting out in the fresh air may be exactly what I needed. And I was correct.

So, Darrel, Christy, and I tucked ourselves in their Suburau -- along with a rescue dog named George that my pistol-packing niece had left with them.

The drive to the IronHorse (that is how it is spelled) trail head must have taken no more than fifteen minutes. We dutifully read the rules and regulations, and probably violated one or two before we were steps along the way.

Prineville sits in the hollow left by an extinct volcano. Those of you who remember your geology courses would call it a caldera. So do the local folk. The remaining rim is 27 miles by 16 miles -- and covers three of Oregon's counties.

All of that volcanic activity gives the area a very distinctive look. Flat-topped ridges surround the town. (Darrel lives on one of them.) And there is exposed volcanic rock everywhere.

Barnes Butte, at 3500 feet, is a perfect example. It is primarily made of welded tuff -- a stone used extensively in older buildings around town.

If it is igneous, you are likely to find it along the trail. My favorites are the red rock formations that house a menagerie of lichens.


One of the downsides of hiking is the constant need to remain vigilant for trail hazards. That head-down mode is not conducive for sight-seeing. And there are sights aplenty to see along the trail.

Even prosaic junipers fronting summer-bleached grass fields and desert shrubs can renew the soul.



If you enlarge that photograph, you will also see one of man's wonders of the world. That white structure in the middle of the ridge is a new addition to Prineville's economy. A giant Facebook data storage center.

The place is huge. Two more buildings will soon be completed. When they are, there will be a total of 3.2 million square feet of floor space to store all of the personal data Facebook has harvested when you filled out that quiz "Is Your IQ Higher than Einstein's?" or "What Color Would You Be If You Were A Bird?" (Why is it that the web violates every rule on title capitalization?)

But we were not there to see how how Mark Zuckerberg has invested his money. We were hiking.

No good hike is worth its story unless a wrong turn is taken. We did not make it to the top of Barnes Butte, but we found a great spot to take in the surrounding farmland.



Because we had started our hike late in the day and the dog was in a bit of distress, we decided to reverse course and call it a day.

According to my step counter, we walked just under 5 miles. Whatever the distance was, it was a perfect tonic for me. And I have no idea what made it such a good day. The walk. The scenery. The clean central Oregon air. Or just spending time with my family.

When we got home, I was invigorated enough to read -- and then to sit down and joyously share my tale with you.

We are considering the possibility of taking on the butte tomorrow. Without the dog.

It really is good to be alive.



Sunday, July 28, 2019

i've got a secret


The NSA has nothing on me.

Well, it does. But that is not what I meant.

I have been playing a slight game of deception with you. Since Wednesday, Mexpatriate has been broadcasting from the bucolic wiles of Prineville.

If you just asked "Prinville?" you are not alone. My brother and sister-in-law lived in Bend, Oregon for 41 years. This last year they decided to buy a lot outside of the small town of Prineville -- about an hour's drive east from Bend.

In December, they started building their new home. That is the reason they did not spend any time in Barra de Navidad this year. They have now moved in.

I am in Oregon for three reasons. The first is I wanted to see their new home. I have been camped out here for the past four days. Primarily reading and enjoying the restful summer days.

On Friday we took a drive up the Crooked River valley to enjoy what this area of Oregon offers  -- unbelievable scenery. I grew up in an area where rivers were surrounded by Douglas fir. The juniper here are sparse. But that gives the gaper a better view of the stark beauty of the surrounding mesas. Water. Rock. Trees. It is always a winning combination that cities cannot rival.



And then there are the sunsets.

The house sits on a ridge with a view of Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters. Even though the clouds are scant this time of year, the sunsets are memorable -- partially due to forest fire haze.

One of my peculiar amusements when I travel is collecting witty signs. I have three for you today.

The first is a sign in front of my favorite (perhaps the only) tri-tip sandwich joint in Prineville -- the Dawg House. I would have included it for its eccentric use of an umlaut over that "W." But that is not why I am sharing it with you.


I am sucker for vegetarian jokes. And this one is perfect. Right down to that Rabbinical "until now."

Darrel and I stopped for lunch today at the Bend Burger Company. Neither of us had eaten there before, though we have thought often of doing it.

Darrel had a Ruben; I had a Lava Butte hamburger -- with sides of garlic fries. Both of us were pleased. Like all good burger joints, it took ten or fifteen minutes for our food to arrive. The wait was worth it. And we had been appropriately warned that quality takes time.



The third sign will please those of us with libertarian hearts who are fond of Mexico.

This sign is on the road near my brother's driveway.


I like the message. It is your choice. Obey the speed limit on this smooth road -- or be forced to slow down after the street is turned into a washboard.

I was about to ask how this concept would work in Barra de Navidad. But, as J. Edgar Hoover used to say: "To ask the question is to answer it."

You may have noticed I only mentioned one reason I am in Oregon. I was about to tell you the other two, but they are personal. And, as open as my life is, I like to retain a bit of mystery.

If all goes well, I will be back in Mexico on Saturday afternoon. Or maybe not.  


Saturday, July 27, 2019

dial 10 for murmur


The good folks at Telcel have been repeatedly reminding me that the Mexican telephone system is making a giant leap into modernity on 3 August.

The news is not new. (I suppose that makes it olds.) You read about the pending change here in in with the new, off with the old last month. But Telcel knows its customers. We need to be reminded periodically.

When I moved to Mexico eleven years ago, using the telephone almost required a secondary major in engineering. You needed to know if you were calling someone on their land line or their mobile phone. Then, you had to figure out the options if you were calling from one or the other. That would result in placing different refiexes in front of the telephone number.

It was complex enough that most of us used various cheat sheets simply to make telephone calls. But we just accepted the fact that was the way it was in Mexico.


Dialing has become simpler. But, on 3 August, all of that changes. For the better.

Mexico will be joining the same international telephone regime used by Canada and the United States. If you want to call any telephone in Mexico, you will simply dial the 10-digit telephone number.

Of course, if you are like me and use your smartphone almost solely as a pocket-size computer, the change will really not matter. I suspect I make two or three calls a year on my mobile, and I probably receive less than one a month.

But, for businesses and those individuals who survive on telephones as social media, dialing will be much simpler.

And that deserves three olés for innovation.


Friday, July 26, 2019

like i'm losing my mind


I may be one chili away from dementia.

My fellow traveler on the digital autobahn, Jennifer Rose, provides a constant stream of blog fodder. This week it is an article from Medical News Today.

I will confess that I have been a bit smug over the last few years as the studies rolled in concerning people who regularly consume food loaded down with chilies. The studies show they may have increased their chances of a healthier life. Lower mortality rate. Heightened sexuality. Lower blood pressure. Lower rates of heart disease. Easier weight control.

Medical science appeared to be crowning chilies the king of healthy living.

But, if you choose to live by medical studies, you will just as easily die by them. It turns out that all of us spicy food aficionados, who are lean and living longer, bragging about our low blood pressure and healthy hearts, and having a sex life envied by all, may eventually not be able to personally appreciate our culinary boon.

A 15-year study of 4,582 Chinese older than 55 has concluded that the daily consumption of more than 50 grams of chili, markedly increases the chance of developing dementia. The effects were markedly greater on study members who were lean. The study sounds like one of those evil genies who grant wishes with literal accuracy.

I always read these studies with a barge-load of skepticism. Most of the reported results sound as if they would be right at home amongst the banner headlines of The Enquirer -- "Elvis spotted with JFK, Alexander I, and Amelia Earhart on Onassis island." The only exception, of course, is any study that supports one of our more obvious vices.

Putting aside the skepticism, let's assume that all of the chili studies are true. I suspect most people are not going to stop eating chilies for fear of dementia. Just as chili-haters did not take up eating them solely to lower their blood pressure. I give people much more credit than being nutrition fad sheeple.

People who eat chilies eat them because they like the taste. People who don't, don't. Studies most likely will not change that.

But here is the kicker. If you have been trying to figure out just how much 50 grams of chilies are, it's a lot. I did some internet research and a bit of kitchen weighing. If my calculations are correct, to get to the 50 gram level, you would need to eat about eight serranos each day.

I eat a lot of spicy food. For Breakfast. For lunch. For dinner. Usually a mix of serranos and habaneros. But I probably eat no more than 40 grams on a spicy day. 

If I were inclined to modify my diet based on fad scientific studies, I would do nothing as a result of the Chinese study on dementia. I simply would not qualify.

But that also means I had better stop evangelizing about the holistic health benefits of the chili. I suspect any benefits are limited to the few people who eat an incredible number of peppers.

It is too bad the benefits do not accrue at a lower level of ingestion. It would give Mexico another set of bragging rights. After all, every chili pepper in the world originated in Mexico.

As for me, I am going to work on increasing my consumption of chilies. Simply because they add so much to food.

I just hope I do not forget why.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

switching parties


If a topic cannot be discussed with goodwill and humor, it will usually not show up on Mexpatriate.

That is one reason politics is not a regular discussion point on Mexpatriate. Today will be an exception. Sorta.

Winston Churchill has the reputation of being a party-switcher -- even though he only switched twice. From Conservative to Liberal back to Conservative.

I have taken the same route in my own party-switching. On the topic of iguanas.

If you are at a taco restaurant with twenty of your closets friends, I have a sure-fire dinner topic that will make you the center of attention -- at least for three seconds. Put on your academic game face and inquire in stentorian tones: "Is the black iguana an iguana?"

I can assure you that everyone will pause and look at you -- with a look of pity. If you are lucky, at least one person out of twenty will be interested in playing your game.

We have two large lizards in Mexico that look very similar to the novice eye. One is green. One is grayish black. English speakers call one a green iguana, the other a black iguana.  When I moved to Mexico, I did the same thing -- probably picking up the labels from other northerners.

At least, that is what I called them until a friend's Mexican gardener informed my friend and me that we were wrong. He claimed the black iguana is actually better-named as a black spiny-tailed lizard.

I did not know what to make of that information when I first heard it. But I did a little bit of research and discovered there are a lot of names from the lizard: black iguana, black ctenosaur (my favorite), black spiny-tailed lizard. Mexican spiny-tailed lizard, and black iguana. But all the sources agreed, the black iguana is not a true iguana. In Mexico, the only other lizard that biologically qualifies as an iguana is the green iguana.

For various reasons, two years ago, I switched my position (because I could no longer find the sources that made the distinction. Within a month, I had switched back to the there-is-no-iguana-but-the-green-iguana position (dining out on false newsiguana go home).

This week another juvenile lizard showed up in my patio. It is an odd nursery for a reptile that is a main protein source for all sorts of birds. The weaver finches and grackles are prime assassins.

But it is as curious about human activity as I have ever seen in a young animal. It will spend minutes just staring at me while I am reading. That is a bit unsettling because it is a black iguana. And they are carnivores.

I have seen him feasting on the beetles and leaf-cutter ant queens that are unfortunate enough to land in his vicinity. I often wonder if he is sizing me up for his next meal.

Even though he is green, I know he is a black iguana because he lacks the start of a throat wattle (or dewlap) and his tail has the distinct markings of his kind.  I hope he survives. It would be interesting to see him mature.


A Mexican professor, who is an expert on crocodiles, offered me advice on whether the black iguana is an iguana. Biologically, they are quite different, even though they look similar. A scientist would never classify a black iguana as an iguana.

He went on to point out something that made his advice even more compelling. He said: "What does it really matter? When people like me show up at parties and start talking about popular misconceptions, I am immediately classified as a bore."

I started chuckling because while he was talking I was working on scenarios where I could work this interesting piece of trivia into conversation. Until I realized I was setting myself up to be that crank who harps on topics that no one really cares about.

So, even though I know it is inaccurate to call him a black iguana, let me share with you the cute photographs of a baby black iguana.

I am now going to move down to the end of the table to talk with the guys who are yelling at each other that English sparrows are not sparrows; they are weaver finches. Those are my kind of guys.



Monday, July 22, 2019

folding food fights


I am not a taco fan.

Knowing that, my friends Ed and Roxane told me about their quest to better understand Mexico's quintessential fast food.

They have  been watching "Taco Chronicles" on Netflix. In its  six episodes, the series explores the history and variety of tacos. Pastor. Carnitas, Canasta. Asada. Barbacoa. Guisado.

After each episode, Ed and Roxane take their new-found knowledge and apply it at their favorite taquerias. They thought I would enjoy the analytical challenge. The gauntlet is thrown. I am going to pick it up.

The most obvious place for me to apply that knowledge is one of the favorite taco tables in my part of Barra de Navidad. For years, Ramos Taqueria has been a culinary cornerstone on the main street that runs through my neighborhood.

The Ramos family, just coincidentally, are my neighbors. They were amongst the first people I met here -- all through the good and gregarious graces of the departed Barco Rubio.

But, like much in life, timing is everything. If I walked down Nueva España this evening, I would not find the Ramos family busy at their grill. What I would find is what you see at the top of this essay. The Ramos clan has pulled up stakes.

For those of you who swear by their tacos, do not despair. There is no need to worry. They are still grilling, chopping, and folding your favorites. But they are now in San Patricio. On the same street as Taco Row, but about two blocks further east. Just across from the billiard hall and Pollo Kaliman.

Just look for the large sign and the tell-tale tables outside.


Inside, the faces will be familiar. As will the food.

Now, all I need to do is find some time to watch "Taco Chronicles," mak
e some notes, and sally forth to do conquer an underappreciated (by me) cuisine. 

Folding foods await.


Friday, July 19, 2019

barra in the news


Most of my story ideas come from my walks through my neighborhood. But some literally drop into my inbox.

Yesterday, I opened my email to find a message from my traveling-friend Roy. "I was reading this article about a fellow's travel nightmare, and he ended up in your neck of the woods.  Thought you might find it interesting."

Roy had set the hook. "Travel nightmare." "Your neck of the woods." Inquiring minds had to know.

The article did not disappoint. Sebastian Modak, a travel writer, was in Brazil with plans to fly to Argentina -- and on to the Falkland Islands. But luck was not with him.

He missed his flight and was forced to completely re-work his traveling itinerary to go north to Mexico. And here is the big surprise. Not just anywhere in Mexico. But to our very own Costalegre. With a stay in Barra de Navidad.

Like most writers of his ilk, Modak knows very little about the places he visits before he arrives and he then relies upon one or two sources (along with his limited experience) to draw some rather broad conclusions. The fact that he was somewhat surprised that Mexican families make up the bulk of the tourist trade in Barra de Navidad during the summer is but an example.

The recurring theme of his article can be summed up in one paragraph -- in his own words.

Costalegre, a trademarked portmanteau translating to “Happy Coast,” is being heralded as a new frontier for Mexico tourism now that other beach escapes like Tulum have passed the threshold between boho secret and overrun long-weekend escape. It made the 2019 list because of a new airport and new resorts that will make it easier to get to its largely unpopulated beaches.
Between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, our villages on Navidad Bay house the largest beach community. It honestly comes by its reputation of being a favorite tourist spot for many Mexican families.

Going north along the coast from here, there area a string of resorts. A lot of them are restricted to the type of people who you would never meet in a public airport.

Modak talks about the new international airport that has been under construction since I have been here and about the plans to build even more luxury resorts along the Costalegre when it finally starts funneling new tourists into the area.

For those of us who cringe at that prospect, his diagnosis is reassuring: "But if this is the next Riviera Maya, that’s still a ways away."

For me the most interesting part of the article was his impression of my home town of Barra de Navidad.


  • Sleepy settlement
  • Sits between the Pacific and a tranquil lagoon
  • Foreigner contingent dominated by Canadian and American retirees
  • Dense collection of beachside bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops
  • In midday heat, shopkeepers napped with newspapers spread over their faces
It sounds like the script for a very bad 1980s movie set in a Mexican village. As mundane as he makes it, he is not inaccurate; simply not very observant or original. But, then, all grandparents believe their grandchildren are exceptional.

It appears the only person of note he talked with here was my chum Luis Dávila (who does not appreciated that truncation of his name). Luis told him of the early Spanish history of the town and its connection with opening Transpacific trade with the Orient.

When Modak asked Luis about the rumors of massive development, I could almost hear the tone in Luis's response: “It’s like they see a gold mine, but need another gold mine to fund it,” he said. “So I’m optimistic about the future here.”

Me, too, Luis. Like you, I am optimistic.

But every time this topic comes up and I find myself being mildly opposed and supportive of it, I just chuckle. Because I am fully aware that some of my own neighbors were reluctant to see outsiders moving into their neighborhoods here.

Change will come. But until someone discovers Luis's gold mine, the Costalegre I know will most likely remain in place up top the point where my burning body is set adrift on the bay.
  

Thursday, July 18, 2019

when helping hurts


When I returned from my Australia trip, I noticed something new on the walking path that leads from Barra de Navidad to the main highway.

Three exercise stations. All designed to build upper body strength.

I have seen similar stations elsewhere. Like these, they are usually stationed on the edge of walking or jogging paths to set free the inner athlete that hides in each of us.

A young Mexican runner was looking at the stations. I asked him how long they had been there. He responded, two or three months. He was not certain.

When I asked who had installed them, he shrugged and said he did not know. Then, I noticed the Rotary gear prominently posted in front of the chairs. When I pointed it out, he shrugged and said he did not know what that was.

I was impressed with how the chairs had weathered our entropy-charged climate. They certainly had survived better than the colorful Barra de Navidad sign that had to be removed from its home above the beach because of rust and corrosion. The chairs were almost pristine. But not for long.

A few days later, while walking past the chairs, I saw three young boys who were whacking away at one of the supporting posts with sticks and tree limbs as if they had encountered a wounded iguana. Having not yet fully-learned the lesson of minding my own business, I called out "Hey!" -- as if that was going to mean anything.

The boys stopped and looked over at who I assume were their parents, sitting on a bench. When the parents did not respond, the boys continued their Spanish Inquisition of the post. Because, of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

It turns out that the exercise stations are quite durable. After all of the banging about, the only damage was a severe crease in the finial.



Rotary's kind donation reminded me that five years ago I mulled over some ideas on the process of charitable giving in our communities -- thanks and giving.

The church I attend here has a very active community service committee. The committee is also wise enough to realize that our activities may fit our own needs to give rather than the true needs of our neighbors.

As part of our review five years ago, we read When Helping Hurts: Alleviating the Poverty Without Hurting The Poor ... And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors, who have worked in Christian charitable organizations, point out that the church has an obligation to help the poor -- no matter where they are located.


But they also discuss how a large portion of charity not only fails to help the poor.  In some instances, it leaves the poor in a worse position.  Rather than have churches abandon a core part of its mission, the authors provide strategies that have succeeded in different parts of the world -- strategies the church can use to assist the poor in empowering themselves.

OK.  I know that sounds like something out of a United Nations brochure.  That is because I am trying to reduce some very complex ideas to a few sentences.  I was impressed with how the committee took the strategies to heart. At least, intellectually. In practice not much changed.

But I am not surprised.  Like most people involved in charity, their hearts are almost always in the right place -- wanting to share God's love with others.  But, we are never quite certain what our role should be.

What we do know is that relationships are far more important than handing out material goods. 

When I was board chair of the Marion-Polk County Salvation Army, we were awarded one of about a dozen Kroc centers that were created in the will of the widow of the man who created McDonald's. Joan Kroc had endowed a recreation center in San Diego to assist children of limited income to meet their dreams of being Olympic athletes -- or to be as good as they could be.

In her will, she decided to extend that largess across the country. I cannot recall the amount of money awarded to build the center. But I do recall her wisdom. The bequest was to build the facility. But she required the local community to match the grant with a capital account that would ensure the centers could actually make a go of it. It also required the local community to have some skin in the game.

I point out that experience because it seems to be a step that is missing in local charity. I do not know who paid for the colorful Barra de Navidad sign. But I do know that no one set aside any money for the inevitable associated maintenance. As a result, the sign sits in a shop waiting to be repaired -- as if it were a kidnap victim.

Because Rotary is a large organization with an extensive history in charitable giving, I would be shocked if there is not a maintenance fund set aside to repair the attempted Marie Antoinette of the finial -- and the corrosion that will soon overtake the metal.

Charity is a very complex issue -- so complex that I am almost doing a disservice to raise it in such a limited fashion. But it is also important.

Finding the right mix is one of the details where the devil sets up housekeeping.

 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

pennies from heaven


I have never been part of the "I-moved-to-Mexico-to-save-money" crowd.

And that is good. If saving money on living expenses had been my goal, my trip south would have been a gigantic failure. During the last eleven years here, I have spent about 80-90% of what I would have spent had I stayed in Salem.

Maybe that is why I can better appreciate the little economic grace notes that enter my life. One came yesterday.

Every two months, a representative from CFE (the state-owned provider of our electricity) slips my two electricity bills under my front door. For about a year, the two combined bills ran just over $5,000 (Mx). That is the monthly equivalent of $130 (US) -- and less than my monthly electricity bill in Salem when I left over a decade ago.

Yesterday my CFE bills arrived. For the second billing period, my bills were $41 (Mx) and $42 (Mx) -- the minimum amount for my connection to the electrical grid. In effect, I am now paying $2 (US) each month for electricity.

Those of you who have been following the construction on my roof this year know the reason why. It is not that Mexico has decided that electricity is a common good that does not require individual contribution. Nope. It is just the opposite. Old-fashioned personal initiative.

I had long toyed with the idea of installing solar panels at the house with no name. The proposals did not pan out economically for me. Based on my CFE bill and the cost of panels three years ago, it would have taken me over twenty years to recover my capital investment. The fact that the life of solar panels is only 18-20 years made that proposal foolish.

However, as every grade school student can tell you, if you alter the divisor or dividend in a division problem, the quotient will change. In my case, both changed. My monthly bill went way up and the cost of solar panels plummeted. I figured I could now recover my capital investment in three or four years. So, up went the panels.

I now receive CFE bills lower than the price of a good breakfast at Rooster's.

I may not have moved here to save money, but savings seem to search me out. 
  

Monday, July 15, 2019

i do requests


My essay on the contents of my film library (digging through your wallet) elicited some responses that were unexpected -- but inevitable.

Several of you were curious about the books in my library. I could scratch that curiosity itch by listing the full inventory. It is short. As long as I do not include the books in my Kindle library.

When I sold the house in Salem, I gave away a couple thousand volumes to Goodwill, keeping only a rump of primarily biographies (for my mother) and a few theological works. I justified the loss thinking I could easily find anything online that I needed in the future.

There was a practical reason for cutting down on books. For the first six years I lived here as a renter, my philosophy was that I wanted to be free to move with little notice. The goal was to own nothing that I could not pack up and put in the Shiftless Escape within one hour. My landlords were always a bit nonplussed when I confided my secret in them.

When I bought my house in Barra de Navidad, that philosophy died the death that should have been reserved for nominalism long ago. With 4000 square feet of living space, I could start building up my library of dust-gathering books. And so I have.

But, rather than trying to list the books in my library, I will try a conceit several bloggers have used over the years. When I was in the Air Force, each night I would receive a pile of folders (known colloquially as "night table reading") that would take me three to four hours each evening to digest. I have long-suspected that is where I developed my habit of not getting to sleep until after 2 AM.

Because these are participatory essays, I will answer your queries by asking you a question: What is currently on your night table? What are you reading?

I currently have sixteen volumes in a Heathrow-sized holding pattern -- one that may take me over a year to clear if the recent past is any indicator.

Here they are:

  • John Marshall: The Man who Made the Supreme Court. Richard Bookhiser. I have only a few pages left in this book that has reversed my perception of the fourth (and longest-serving) chief justice of the Supreme Court. My Jeffersonian bias has long painted Marshall as an activist caricature. Bookhiser has convinced me that his role on the court was to make it a co-equal balanced with the two other branches of the national government. We are better for it.
  • Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Benjamin Dreyer. As a writer I read for a lot of reasons. One of the most important is to improve how I write. I do not always agree with Dreyer, but his choices are always well-argued.
  • Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems. Ted Kooser. I have been reading this volume of poems since my visit to San Miguel de Alende last August. That is exactly how good poetry should be read. In digestible bites to be savored. I will most likely complete this book before the end of the month. Too much more time would simply be self-indulgent.
  • Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. Jan Swafford. Some people think that reading about music has about the same relationship that pornography has to sex. But I disagree. Serious music requires analysis. And those analytical tools start on the page and are then applied in practice. Swafford does a great job of honing those tools by walking the reader through music theory within the context of its era and with short biographies of the best composers.
  • The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination. Matthew Guerrieri. Guerrieri takes on the same task as Swafford, but he restricts his analysis to Beethoven's fifth symphony. The "human imagination" of the title is the bulk of his tale.
  • The Labyrinth of Solitude. Octavio Paz. To live in Mexico without reading Paz is to strip oneself of several layers of understanding the culture in which we choose to live. I try to read this book every four or five years. Paz is a poet, not an anthropologist. That means that he has a far better eye for the country of his birth.
  • Tata Chef y sus Nanas: Tres Miradas, Nuestras Raíces. Salvador Diaz Espinoza. Salvador (and I feel free to use his first name because I know him) was our guide when we visited the Purépecha outside of Zamora (coming of age in chilchota). It tells the story of how a group of community leaders have tried to preserve tribal traditions in an ever-modernizing world. The book includes several interesting recipes. In Spanish. For me, it is a slow read.
  • What's So Amazing About Grace. Philip Yancey. This is Yancey's best-selling classic on the topic of Christian grace and how Christians fail to live up to sharing that grace with a world in need of it. I have taught several classes from this book over the years. It is time I read it again.
  • Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? Philip Yancey. In his most recent book, Yancey returns to the topic of grace, and how the behavior of Christans often undermine the gospel they espouse. I may teach a course on this book here during the winter. That means I may need to move it up in the holding pattern.
  • Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets. Edward Dusinberre. Dusinberre brings his years of experience as a member of one of the world's best string quartets to finding new ways to interpret Beethoven for modern audiences.
  • Pedro Páramo. Juan Rulfo. I have started Rulfo's quintessential Mexican novel several times. Its surrealism demands that it be read in one sitting. That should be easy. It is only 124 pages of enchanting and disturbing images of the human condition. I need to take another run at it.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez. A lot of people think of Gabriel García Márquez as a Mexican writer. He wasn't. He was Colombian. But, he lived a large portion of his life in Mexico City. And that is where he died five years ago. One Hundred Years of Solitude was his War and Peace -- probably his best novel. I bought the novel in a bookstore in Bogotá. It is still in its shrink wrap.
  • Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. Anne Lamott. Lamott is one of my favorite writers. Her politics are light years away from mine even though we do share the first principles of Christianity. (I can hear heads exploding of the strict Aristoleans amongst you. But it is true.)

    Her writing always avoid the sentimental triteness of many Christian writers. Her struggles with faith are honestly and openly displayed for all to see. She is Peter and Thomas wrapped in one fragile human package. That is evidenced when, on book tours, she encounters Christians who have political opinions that diverge from hers. She is always shocked that they profess their love for her -- and her writing. What binds us together in hope is far stronger than the transient politics that should not divide us.
  • Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Anne Lamott. See Lamott above. And Yancey further above.
  • A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. John Rawls. I cannot remember how this volume came into my hands. I brought it south with me in April 2009. Considering its philosophical bent, I would be willing to bet it was a gift from my friend John Hofer. But I could be wrong about that. I have thumbed through it. I need to read it.
  • Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981 with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes). Stephen Sondheim. I have long been a fan of Stephen Sondheim's music. He writes in a medium -- Broadway musicals -- that is too often trite and predictable. Almost any popular tune can be completed by anyone with a modicum of music training by hearing only the first four bars. Not so Sondheim.

    But his true art can be found in his lyrics. The internal rhymes add charm (in the same way that they are distracting in prose), but they are more than that. If art is the tool we use to discover more about the mystery that is the human condition, Sondheim's lyrics are the equivalent of Dante's Virgil.
  • Look I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. Stephen Sondheim. More of the same. Just more recent.  
The pile will never go away. I buy new books from Amazon whenever I see something that interests me. Like David McCullough's Pioneers: The Heroic Stories of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West that I ordered yesterday.

And then there are my periodicals: The Oregonian, The Economist, National Review, The American Spectator, and The Oregon State Bar Bulletin -- plus my daily readings that take me through the Bible each year.

I suppose this is the point where I should say "to make a long story short --" to give you the opportunity to respond: "Too late." But I did say it.

Now it is your turn. What books are on your night table -- or in your library -- or by the pool -- or on the beach? And tell the rest of us a little bit about it. Do you like it? Would you recommend it? Why?

After all, we all need a mini-library of books stacked beside our bed to convince ourselves we can lie ourselves into immortality. Dying with a pile of unread books is simply something a gentleman could never entertain.