Saturday, December 14, 2019

the sun almost sets

This was not last night's sunset.

I shot it on Tuesday. And it is not even a sunset.

I was having dinner with friends at a restaurant in San Patricio a block off of the ocean. When I arrived, I could see enough of the sky to know that the evening was about to offer up one of better-than-average winter sunsets.

Winter is not sunset season in these parts. To have a good sunset, you need clouds near the horizon. Winter clouds are rare compared to our summer skies when storms roll through. And, if the clouds are scattered and layered, some spectacular sunsets are on offer.

It was the odd cloud structure that caught my eye on Tuesday. So, I trundled over to a sister restaurant on the beach to get a better view. You can see the result. This one is going into my file as Possible Best Pre-Sunset of 2019.

I had every intention of returning once the sun slipped a little further behind the hills. But you know what T.S. Eliot said about good intentions. Though I am not certain he got it entirely right.

Because I am who I am, I became so engrossed in our conversation about some topic or other that I completely forgot about the show that was happening outside. When I looked out, there was a tinge of rose and purple in the clouds. The parade had passed me by.

But I can share this shot with you. For all I know, it might be just as impressive as the show I did not see -- just like the proverbial falling tree in the forest.

Friday, December 13, 2019

i see you in the night

Mexico holds a lot of records for things natural. And I just discovered a new one. At least, new for me.

Mexico has either the largest (or second largest) number of tarantula species. That seems a bit odd to me because I had never seen a tarantula in the wild during my years of visiting or living here.

That is, until today. And I guess that is appropriate for Friday the thirteenth. Tarantulas tend to get lumped in with days like this. Black cats seem to be hooked at the hip with tarantulas. 

I found our nature guest in the patio this afternoon. Even though he is small, his basic identity is obvious. Tarantulas have a very pronounced prosoma (head and chest), impressive opisthosoma (abdomen), and "hairy" legs.

Assuming he did not arrive here in a shipping container, I will assume he is a Mexican native. And because I am not even an amateur naturalist when it comes to tarantulas (Mexican or otherwise), I will not attempt to slap one of the 66 potential specie names on him.

What am I saying? Of course, I will. My choice is Mexican black velvet tarantula because it is so obvious. He looks velvety to me. And he certainly is black. If I am wrong, someone will certainly feel free to tell me. And they should.

The biggest problem is that he is a juvenile. At least, his size leads me to that conclusion. Young spiders often do not change their look as they age. So, I have no idea if this guy will look like this all of his life.

Actually, I do know that is how he will look all of his life -- because his life is over. When I found him on the patio, he was as dead as Jeremy Corbyn's future. Maybe he did not welcome our cool nights as much as I have.

That makes me wonder just how common tarantulas are in this area. With the large number of species in Mexico, certainly there must be more just lurking under our pillows.

And that is your cue, loyal readers. Have you had any bump-in-the-night visits from these extraordinarily beautiful creatures?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

plumbing without chuck colson

Trouble comes in threes.

So say the superstitious. But even the superstitious get it right now and then. Yesterday was one of those "thens."

The three-troubles that rolled my way yesterday involved plumbing. The house's plumbing. Not mine. I just want to make that clear or you might be disappointed at the fork in the road we are about to take.

I knew about one of the troubles. A faucet on the upper terrace has been leaking for some time. Because it was easy enough to slip a pail under its infrequent drips, I have simply put off dealing with what I thought was a simple gasket replacement.

The other two problems were unexpected, far more serious, and showed up together on Sunday.

When I moved a five-gallon jug of water under the kitchen sink, I found a small pool of water. The jugs here often crack, so, I inspected it for the offending fissure, thinking that was the source of the pool. I was wrong.

The water was coming from the sink's plumbing. The cap on the trap was cracked 
(if I may steal a Seussian internal rhyme). A quick trip to the hardware store put a new cap on the system. But it did not fix the leak.

Then Omar told me that his bathroom sink was not draining. The sink has (or had) one of those jack-in-the-box stoppers. Push it to close. Push it again and it pops right up. Or, it should. But no manner of tapping would induce it to pop up again.

All three of these problems were well within my expertise to repair. And, had it just been one, I would have done it myself.

I long ago learned that Mexico is a labor treasure trove. Repairmen are willing to trade their expertise for a reasonable number of pesos -- and that money is far less valuable to me than my time of tackling the tasks alone. (Never mind that, even though I am paying, I still spend my time watching the work. Witnessing experts at work is one of my favorite pastimes.)

I do not have a regular plumber. But I knew my neighbor's handyman (and skilled musician) Donny would know one. He did.

That afternoon, Hector and his freshly-minted first-day-on-the-job assistant Carlos showed up to rescue me from what seemed like the foreplay to Noah's flood.

Omar watching Carlos on his first day on the job. Hector is under the counter.
Three and a half hours and two trips to the hardware store later, I had a new faucet upstairs, some new plastic pipes under the kitchen sink, and a completely new closure system in Omar's bathroom. All of that set me back $600 (Mx) in labor and $167 (Mx) in parts. I rounded off my payment to $800 (Mx). About $41 (US).

In these parts, it is not unusual that if a restaurant runs out of a food item on the menu to substitute something else without asking the customer. It happened to me last week. I ordered a hamburger with French fries. The hamburger arrived, but with potato chips. When I asked, I was told there were no French fries. There are a lot of theories why the customer is seldom asked about the substitution.

Apparently, the switch is not just for restaurants any more. Plumbers do it, as well.

When Hector had finished his last project (Omar's sink), he showed me what he described as a "practical Mexican solution." He could not find a pop-up stopper similar to the one that failed. At least, not locally. His solution was to plumb the sink with an open drain. As a stopper, he had purchased an old-fashion rubber plug. Just like my grandmother's tub.

Had he offered me that solution before he finished, I probably would have said "no." My goal was to restore the sink to its original lines. But, after the deed had been done, I agreed it was a practical solution.

Omar was not as sanguine. But he is a modern aesthete. If I find an appropriate stopper in Manzanillo, I may switch it out myself.

All in all, it was an afternoon well-spent. I learned some new plumbing techniques and I now have the telephone number of a plumber. Best of all, the water now flows where it should.

And that strikes me as a good day. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

all the world's a stage

Nature has staged a Christmas pantomime in my patio that is right out of the headlines.

Or so some say.

At least once a month, the newspaper contains a report of another study predicting the extinction of this or that group of animals.

If there is any truth in the model, I know some creatures that are destined for evolutionary success. Cockroaches are a given. But I will nominate another. The Eurasian collared dove.

I have several bird field guides. Some center on birds in The States. Others on Mexico. The Eurasian collared dove is a stranger to their pages.

My 1977 The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds and my 1990 Peterson Western Birds make a fleeting reference to a similarly-named escapee-bird restricted to the Los Angeles area. And my 1973 Peterson Mexican Birds and my 1998 The Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas do not mention the Eurasian collared dove at all.

That seems odd when looking at the current distribution of the bird. Its native home is Asia and northern Africa -- the green portion of the map. The red portion shows its current distribution by introduction.

And therein lies an ecological tale.

There is a good reason for the field guides missing a bird that is disbursed that widely. Until 1974, the only North American representatives of these doves lived behind bars in zoos. That changed when fewer than 50 of them escaped from captivity in the Bahamas -- that former British colony where the abdicated Edward VIII once reigned in ignominy.

Rather than dying out as strangers in a strange land, they replicated like Australian rabbits. That helps to explain why their conservation status is listed as "least concern."

These doves are survivors. They are not as bold as other birds, but compared to doves, they are Aztecs. Their instinctive aggressiveness drives out other birds.

This summer a mourning dove couple nested in one of my Queen Anne palms. I have known mourning doves since my boyhood in Oregon. They are the epitome of the shy dove. The couple would fly to the edge of my pool to drink, but the slightest movement -- even the wind -- would send them into a flurried panic back to the safety of the upper terrace. Being a vegetarian at the bottom of a carnivorous food chain tends to engender timidity.

Not so, my new doves. The collared doves will drink even if I am in the pool.

Late last week, I first saw the new neighbors. A pair of collared doves were inspecting the old mourning dove nest. They must have found it wanting because they methodically tore it apart -- bit by bit. And then constructed their own nursery.

I suspect that is one method the Eurasian collared dove has used to drive native doves out of their area. The mourning doves that were here last summer were the last I have seen here. But breeding collared dove pairs are everywhere.

Something tells me that these birds are going to be survivors -- no matter what the headlines say. 

Monday, December 09, 2019

how saving mr. banks has helped saved mr. cotton

Writing, like most everything in life, can be double-edged.

It can be edifying. Amusing. Hopeful. And, far too often, hurtful.

I ran across two examples of the latter this week. One was meant to be intentionally biting. The other, I truly believe was meant to be inspiring, but its result has been just as hurtful to some people as the former.

Several unrelated conversations over the last three days of the past week have disclosed that an old hurt in the community has been re-opened. Several Mexican friends and acquaintances have mentioned the incident with a certain sense of humiliation.

Appellate courts often avoid discussing the facts of a decision with the brush-off phrases like "a recitation of the facts would not be helpful to either the parties or the bar." I will take the same tack. What was written is not important. Though I doubt if I would have written that sentence on Saturday night.

A couple of my friends were hurt enough that they wanted me to contact the person who wrote the piece -- to convey their concern.

I was prepared to do just that until I ran the scenario through my head. No matter how I worded the concerns (some of which were now my own), I could not see anything but a perpetuation of the hurt cycle.*

Whenever the wife of a friend asks him if they need to talk out their disputes, he inevitably says: "No." Her response goes something like this: "So you are just going to let it fester in silence?" Him: "That sounds fine to me."

That is the road I was going to take -- until I just happened to run across a movie on Netflix I had seen once before: Saving Mr. Banks. It is a movie about Walt Disney's 20-year quest to acquire the rights to make Mary Poppins, and the baring of the underlying shared psyches of Disney and the author of the book, P.L. Travers.

The first time I saw the movie, I generally liked it until it drew near its climax. What had been a charming Winston Churchill-Lady Astor affair turned into another Disney exercise in cloying, sentimental manipulation.

On a second viewing, all of that was still there. But one line went right from Tom Hanks's mouth into my brain. Maybe even into my heart.

In trying to convince Mrs. Travers to release her story to him, the Disney-Hanks said:

George Banks [Mrs. Travers's father] will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.
I do not agree that all storytelling has the goal of restoring hope, though I suspect that is the objective of most Disney productions. And it is an admirable virtue to preserve.

But I have no objection to the notion that good storytellers restore order with imagination. The chaos of life, when filtered through the mind of an imaginative author, can restore a sense of order -- even if that sense is merely imagined.

At the start of the film, Mrs. Travers's father tells her younger self:

We share a Celtic soul, you and I.This world is just an illusion, Ginty old girl. As long as we hold that thought dear, they can’t break us. Money, money, money. Don’t you buy into it Ginty! All an illusion.
I rather like that notion. It may be my own Celtic genes or my Christian mysticism -- or I may have simply been seduced into the Disneyfication of the American mind. But I do believe both the illusion of reality and its cousin imagination can help us find our way through a world populated with both hope and despair.

That is why, rather than perpetuating what has turned into a bad situation, I am going to spend my time trying to comfort my offended friends and acquaintances.

Perhaps we should spend more of our time relaxing around the fire as a group telling tales of dead kings, rather than nurturing our hurts.

At least, that is what I intend -- and hope -- to do.

* -- And, yes, I am fully aware of the irony of writing about something I ha ve decided not to talk about. But, there you are.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

buttermilk evenings

People are a nostalgic lot.

Even those of us who hold to the English virtue of "sentiment without sentimentality" often steer our ships onto the rocks answering its siren call.

The good folks at Facebook are fully aware of our vulnerability. That is one reason they create granfalloons celebrating some wholely-manufactured anniversary. "Two years friends with someone you really do not know."

Sometimes Facebook hits a home-run with its pandering. Yesterday this photograph popped up on my home page as "Most Popular Photograph of 2009."

In fact, it is one of my favorite photographs of any year. Certainly my favorite sunset photograph. It was once my computer splash screen.

I remember the day I shot it. I was living on the beach in Villa Obregon at the time and had been out for a walk. What caught my attention was what my friend Ruette Parks calls "buttermilk skies." Those clouds that look like curds afloat in curdled milk.

As the sun started to set, the clouds moved into position as if they were replicating the rays of the setting sun. With most sunsets, photographers never quite know when the colors and display will be at their best. Smart photographers will shoot a series and choose the best.

With this one, there was no doubt. I instinctively knew when it was just right. And I took the shot. Just one.

I am glad Facebook reminded me of the photograph. I have an archive of all of my digital photographs -- with a backup. But, somehow, the original of this particular sunset disappeared years ago.

Maybe that is just as well. Sunsets, like all of our life experiences, reside in our memories. That is why I could recognize the photograph as being mine.

And it is those memories that make us who we are. Even when they do skirt close to the border of nostalgia.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

another christmas story

Last night the local committee in charge of things holiday, lit up the Christmas tree on Barra de Navidad's malecon -- what passes for a public square in this little village.

I did not attend. For a lot of reasons that may or may not be relevant to today's essay. But we do not need to delve into them just yet.

What I did instead was to attend a birthday party for my neighbor's nephew. I was not initially invited. When my neighbor saw me heading toward the malecon, she called me over to have something to eat. Chicken, beef, and tostadas were in the process of being grilled.

It was obviously a child's birthday party. There must have been two dozen children present -- and only three adults, who were busy preparing the evening's repast.

I went back to the house to get a birthday card and slipped in a peso note. When I returned, my plate was ready.

I know two of my neighbor's children. They brought me a hand of bananas when they moved in. I reciprocated with a packet of cookies. We talked about their school and their dog, Max. And, with that, I had pretty much exhausted my closet of small-talk-with-kids.

So, I turned my attention to the adults. My neighbor and her mother had to break off frequently to initiate new games for the juvenile set. It was fun watching them, but my interest waned after about two hours when the music was turned up to full distortion volume. Conversation was impossible.

I handed the card to the birthday boy as I was leaving and wished him a happy birthday with that brush hand-knuckle punch beloved of kewl boys. His aunt told him to give me a hug -- which I accepted rather stiffly.

This morning my neighbor came over with the peso note I had put in the envelope. She said she was sorry, but she had to return it. When the other boys saw it, they wanted to know why they did not get money for their birthdays. She said she tried to explain. But the boys calmed down only after she took the money from her nephew. It was the story of Ivan's cow brought to life.

I am surprised I fell into that trap. I know from experience how easy it is to trip resentment with random gifts. It seems to be a universal human response -- and I know better. My do-good impulses almost always have unintended consequences.

What I did was to forget a lesson I had learned earlier in the day. I live next door to an apartment building that offers rudimentary shelter. But the residents take pride in their accommodations.

While walking back from the tienda de abarrotes yesterday afternoon, I noticed a new Christmas decoration. I had seen the husband of the couple who lives there drilling holes in the wall beside his entry door. The project is now complete. That is it at the top of this essay.

It was the perfect embodiment of Christmas. No gaudy giant Christmas tree adorned with lights. Just a simple abstract representation of some Christmas symbols.

I am certain there will be some who raise theological qualms about the choice of symbols (even though all have their genesis in Christian belief -- well, maybe not the reindeer). The Christmas tree with its representation of the trinity and the Messiah's resurrection. Santa Claus as the essence of selflessness and charity.

The wife noticed me standing there appreciating the piece and its message. We talked about it briefly. When I left, she took my left hand in hers and wished me Feliz Navidad. I doubt that a blessing from Mother Teresa would have lightened my step more.

For me the lesson of the day could not be clearer. I need to pull myself out of the role of being the controlling benefactor. In the end, how we deal with one another personally is far more important than a peso note slipped into a card.

My wish today is that you will have a similar Christmas -- letting your daily relationships reflect the peace and joy we celebrate. 

Friday, December 06, 2019

cool art

On a trip to Washington, DC in the 1990s, Susan and I spent an afternoon in the National Gallery of Art.

The collection is not the world's best, and it contains very few "star" pieces. But it is broad and well-curated.

We had been there for about two hours when we decided to rest on a bench in front of two Monets -- one of his studies of shifting light on the façade of the cathedral at Rouen, and his Houses of Parliament, Sunset. It gave us a good opportunity of how 19th century scientific theories of light directly influenced the impressionists. Monet's Rouen studies are one of the best examples of art and science coalescing.

While we were talking, a young woman and her mother, from Queens I would have guessed by their accents, stopped in front of the Rouen. At a glance, the mother 
declared: "Oh. I don't like this. It's all washed out."

They quickly moved on to the Parliament. "Now, this I like. It would go well with my couch."

Yesterday I attended my friend Ed Gilliam's art show. Mexico has always influenced his work, but I can now say he is a Mexican artist after earning his Mexican voter ID card and passport.

The house with no name is filled with Ed's works (the good life). When I moved into the house five years ago, the builder-architect, who had lived here, had left a few pieces of furniture -- nothing I wanted to use in the long-term.

Rather than running out to buy furniture and then accessorizing it with Mexican-themed wall hangings, I decided to buy art that would be the center of each room. The furniture would complement the art, rather than the other way around.

So far, I have plenty of good art from the hands of Ed, but I still have not bought new furniture. Not even a couch.

I thought of that yesterday when I was at Ed's show. Almost all of the pieces I have acquired from Ed are abstract expressionism. It has long been one of my favorite periods of American art. Ed is an expert at capturing the period's core nonrepresenational form.

During the last two years, especially since he and Roxane returned from Italy, his emphasis has turned to faces. He does not care for the baggage that comes with the label "portrait." That is fair.

His faces are far more than mere portraits. Even though they are representational on their face, the paintings are fundamentally abstract forms combined in a deceptively organized format.

I arrived late in the show. Had it been a musical, one of the characters would have been in the midst of the 11 o'clock number. Ed was good enough to sit with me for a quick chat. We briefly handled some social business by setting a dinner date, and then moved on to art. 

We shared dueling art quotation quips (When a critic asked the dadaist painter René Magritte what was behind his paintings, he responded: "The wall.") and moved on to Italian Futurism with its emphasis on modernity and technology -- and its association with Mussolini.

A lot of recent arrivals from the north have been complaining about our weather. To a degree, they have a point. The days have been unseasonably warm. But, they are certainly far more pleasant than our summers.

Even though the days have been warm, our afternoons and evenings have been quite pleasant. I have not used the air conditioning in my bedroom since I returned from Oregon last Saturday.

Both Ed and I commented on how refreshing it was to sit in his garden beside the fountain. A soft breeze made me feel as if there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be at that moment. 

Even though I am not extremely fond of representational art, one of Ed's recent paintings caught my attention. That is it at the top of this essay. When I told Ed, he confessed he agreed; he found her quite "direct."

Me: "That is a good word. There is a lot of Mary Crawley in her. But that is not what I like about her."

Ed: "What do you like?"

Me: "She would look good over my couch."

Ed simply gave me a characteristic sidelong glance -- and smirked.  


Tuesday, December 03, 2019

you don't need an off ramp if you never get on the highway

The year was 1991.

I had decided to take my then-girlfriend Susan on a two-week trip to Italy. So, I did what every middle-class middle-aged American did back then. I walked to a travel agency, picked up a glossy, color catalog outlining the allures of Italy, and booked an appointment with an agent to purchase, as the brochure would have it, my "one in a life time trip." The  brochure was oblivious to the fact that I had been to Italy several times.

When my appointment rolled around in two days, I sat down with my assigned agent, who asked me more questions than a policemen at a sobriety roadblock. She then threaded together reservations for airline flights, train rides, and hotel stays that would allow Susan and me to spend time in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan. The whole process made me feel like a spectator.

The year is the most important part of that tale. 1991.

That was before Al Gore had invented the internet in his mother's garage. My reliance on the internet did not begin until a couple years later when I signed up with AOL. (I still remember my first message -- to my friend Bob in England asking how his day had been. Not much has changed in messaging since then.)

By contrast, this morning, I booked a round-trip flight to Oregon for Christmas along with over-night hotel stays in Portland and Los Angeles. On my smartphone. While sitting in my patio in Barra de Navidad. And I had to answer no questions. At least, out loud.

Most of us never think about how technology has altered our lives. Well, that is not exactly true. When we do talk about it, it is usually with a miasma of grumpiness when we mutter about smartphones ruining an entire generation of young people in one fell swoop -- as if the Black Death had returned in the guise of iPhones.

I tend to live in another camp. I have always been an early adopter of technological changes. The attorneys at my last office rebelled at being "turned into secretaries" when we were required to draft our documents on the newly-arrived desktop computers. I was happy that I could immediately produce a product the way I wanted it instead of subjecting my secretary to my indecipherable foolscap scrawls.

But I was reminded once again this morning that not everyone is speeding along the digital toll-road. Before I made my reservations, I called my Air Force friend Robin Olson. He told me in August he might be visiting the house with no name in December. It turns out that he will be entertaining guests of his own in Nevada, instead.

The fact that I was able to contact him was almost a miracle. I have three friends, including Robin, who do not use computers. They have no email addresses. They do not text on their telephones. Two do not have cellulars. Robin has a cellular, but it has no text capability. They are all men of another era.

When Robin needs to book a flight, he will go to his travel agent in Huron, South Dakota. (She must be the equivalent of the last Blockbuster store in Bend.) It works for him.

I am far too optimistic to indulge in the Irwin Allen-style of disaster hypotheticals of the popular media. So, it is hard for me to even conceptualize "What would the world be like if the internet disappeared?"

But I do know the answer. I would once again be sitting next to a travel agent asking me if I knew the weight of an unladen sparrow.

And I would have a Gloria Gaynor moment -- knowing I would survive.

Monday, December 02, 2019

an aguinaldo in a pear tree

It is that time of year again.

We may not live in Downton Abbey. But most of we northerners who live in Mexico have our own Carsons, Annas, and Thomases.

But, in our case, it is the Doras, Antonios, and Omars who tend our gardens, drive our cars, cook our meals, and clean our homes. Now that the calendar rolled over to December. it is time to meet our legal obligations by paying the people who work for us their annual aguinaldo -- an amount that must be paid no later than 20 December.

There are several myths surrounding these payments. And I know, no matter what I say, people who believe something else will go on thinking what they want to think. There is, of course, a very high probability that I am perpetuating a whole set of other myths myself.
Even though I am a lawyer, I am not a labor lawyer, and I know nothing about Mexican law other than what I have researched, heard, and experienced.

So, this is my lay take on the minefield of aguinaldos.  Do not rely on it as legal advice. Mexican attorneys and accountants exist for that purpose.  Consider this as a bit of entertainment from a fellow expatriate.

Let's get the big myth out of the way first. The 
aguinaldo is not a Christmas bonus.

I see that term used repeatedly by northerners. I suppose because it is intellectually more accessible than its real name --
aguinaldo. "Bonus" implies that the payment is a voluntary gift within the purview of the giver.

It is not. 
The aguinaldo is a required payment under Mexican law -- a law that is very pro-worker and will rightfully be construed in favor of the worker. The law clearly states the formula for calculating the required payment. It is not optional.

Second, the payment must be made in cash. Your home-made fudge and that cashmere sweater you bought on your last trip to Nordstrom will undoubtedly be received with great gratitude. But those are gifts. And they do not count toward your legal obligation. Give the gifts out of love. Just be aware they have nothing to do with the required cash payment.

Third, just because something is a legal obligation does not mean it cannot be given in a spirit of joy. It should be. Because it certainly will be received in that spirit.

Mexican workers know what they should be receiving. Failure to pay the appropriate amount can lead to some rather nasty legal wrangling. With the usual mix of recrimination, lawyers, and the exchange of larger sums of money that accompany most labor disputes.

So, what is your legal obligation?

The quick answer is that the aguinaldo is the cash equivalent of 15 days of the worker's daily pay. The formula is simple algebra (you may have been wrong in high school; there is some use in daily life for mathematics).

Multiply the number of days the worker worked per week by the number of weeks worked times the worker's daily pay times 15 days and divide all of that by 365 days. The product is the amount you pay as an aguinaldo to meet your legal obligation.
The formula will look something like this.  [days worked] ÷ 365 X 15 X [daily salary]. It is simple to apply.

Every December, a quite uncivil war breaks out amongst expatriates who advocate just paying two weeks of wages and being done with it. Their opposite numbers, who demand strict compliance with the formula, call that cheating. But, like most expatriate blood battles, it is distinction without a practical difference. Unless you are paying a huge sum of money, the difference between the two methods is minuscule.

I avoid the fight by using the two-week rule and then rounding up the amount. In other words, I top off the aguinaldo with a little Christmas cash gift. I know that offends some people. But that is what I do. For both Dora, the woman who helps me clean my house, and Antonio, the pool guy.
That is your legal 
obligation. But, as I have said above, meeting your legal obligation does not preclude you from showing your seasonal appreciation to the people who make our lives easier. Give that banana bread or book or bracelet. And keep in mind that extra cash is appropriate and greatly appreciated.

Here ends the lesson.

Well, not really. I want to wish all of you a very Happy Christmas. May you find contentment in your lives.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

a puzzling holiday

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

We are in the process of cooking the center-piece of this favorite of holidays. Today's dinner will be slow-roasted prime rib with cabernet au jus, citrus balsamic Brussels sprouts, minted peas and onions, and mashed potatoes -- all topped off by apple pie.

Our family gathering has been reduced to four as a result of our untimely winter storm. My niece Kaitlyn and her boyfriend Moon are stuck in Seattle. That leaves my mother, brother, sister-in-law and me to enjoy our time together.

Even though dinner is the main event to share our day together, there have been plenty of other diversions. All of them that tend to the traditional. An NBA game (last night). Documentaries on television (the Paradise forest fire; the rivalry between Ferrari and Ford). And competitive jigsaw puzzles. The last is something we have done for holiday gatherings since I was in grade school -- where my brother and I early learned to hide one piece to have the honor of finishing the picture.

We have also talked about why we are gathering today. What we are thankful for this year.

Mind you, we have not been indulging in those cliché-driven exercises that tend to hollow out the very essence of thankfulness. Our process is far more subtle.

We discuss topics of interest to each of us and share what we have learned over the past year. Even though our family thrives on politics, it simply was not a matter of discussion.

As I pointed out earlier, we are thankful for the good and the bad that has come to us over the past year, because each of those events has given us an opportunity to grow. Or, at least, to better understand why we are taking this fascinating journey through life.

For some reason, I woke up at 3:30 this morning. I suspect I was excited about the presents under the Thanksgiving tree that Tom Turkey left for me.

Because I could not sleep, I turned on my telephone. The first posting I saw on Facebook was from Debrorah Cook. She lives in San Miguel de Allende and is an occasional commenter here.

She raised an interesting question about Thanksgiving. It is almost impossible to talk about thankfulness without touching on people who are less fortunate and how we try to assist them as best we can. She noted: "We all kinda look for redemption with ourselves ... maybe with others, no?"

It is a fair question. Charity can be a good in itself. Certainly to the recipient. But it is fair to ask what motivates us. Deborah's comment comes close to one interpretation of Paul's admonition to "work out your salvation." Or "redemption" as Deborah writes.

When charity is discussed, I always like to ask another question. Is my charity hurting or is it helping? That is an essay in itself. But, I pass it along on this holiday of thankfulness.

So, I have no photographs of a dinner not-yet-cooked. What I will share with you is a photograph Christy took. That is Darrel, Mom, and me. Putting together a new jigsaw puzzle.

Please note, no one has palmed a puzzle piece.

And, for that, I am thankful. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

meeting of the tribes

A common complaint of book critics is that writers lard their works with too many unrealistic coincidences.

Readers Are smarter than that. They long ago learned that some critics seem to be devoid of life experiences. We have all experienced moments in life that seem almost impossibly coincidental -- but they happened.

Darrel and I had one yesterday. We stopped in Costco while we were in Bend buying supplies for Thanksgiving before the predicted winter storm blows through central Oregon this afternoon. We had just checked out and Darrel was pushing the cart toward the exit when I heard a familiar voice from the past.

It was Kirsten Raftshol (now Groener). Kirsten, Darrel and I had attended high school together in the Willamette Valley during the 1960s. She and her husband now live in Bend.

We spent a little time reminiscing in that holiday aura that makes every nostalgic conversation a little special. She very kindly said that she reads each of my essays. That was a very nice compliment. Considering the number of proofreading errors that show up in my published works, I am not certain I read all of my essays.

I have very fond memories of Kirsten and her family. I remember her as not only being a Christian, but as a person whose actions would cause others to note her virtues of kindness and her unconditional love of God and her neighbors.

As we were driving away, Darrel and I remarked on the coincidence of running into her. It was not the first time. We have seen Kirsten and her husband at Costco a few times since I moved to Mexico. But, even with that apparent frequency, the odds must be incredibly high. After all, I live in Mexico and am not a frequent customer of the Bend Costco.

I thought of Kirsten during another incident yesterday. We had stopped at Fred Meyer as part of our shopping errands for the day. As we were carrying our paper grocery bags across the parking lot, I noticed an SUV with a gaggle of stickers. That is the photograph at the top of this essay.

Stickers and signs are not unusual here. Bend is one of those towns where people proudly display their social and political beliefs and prejudices.

During the 41 years Darrel has lived in the Bend area, I have watched the politics of its residents change -- if bumper stickers are any barometer. It has gone from being a reliable Republican stronghold in the 1980s to a swing region. A lot of that is due to new residents migrating from California or the Willamette Valley.

The sticker that caught my attention was the one with the international "no" symbol imposed on a cross with the caption "bad religion." It is one of those stickers designed to be provocative -- like "Nuke the gay baby whales" or "Have you slugged your kid today?"

As we passed the SUV, I saw a rather prim older (you know, my age) woman sticking a post-it on the SUV's side window. Because we all deal in stereotypes, I had her pegged as a DAR-Women's Republican Club-church lady. Even I, who decry tribalism, fall into that prejudice.

When she pulled away, I noticed she had an aluminum fish and cross on the rear of her car. Those symbols convinced me post-it note she had left behind would be at best a reference to John 3:16, at worst a subtly vulgar attack concerning the anti-Christian bumper sticker.

It was nothing of the kind. This is what it said.

Indeed, the tire was low. Very low.

I had conjured up a political confrontation between two armed camps. Instead, it was simply a neighborly gesture from someone who was living her faith.

Just coincidentally, it reminded me of something Kirsten would do.


Monday, November 25, 2019

weathering the journey

Yesterday was a perfect morning.

48 degrees. Overcast. With a very soft drizzle. The kind of morning that tells me to get on with my journey.

I had spent the night at an airport hotel in Portland on Saturday. That was a bit unusual for my trips north. Usually, I can catch a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle to hop on a commuter to Redmond, Oregon, and be done with flying in one day.

But this is a holiday week. The commuter from Seattle was full. So, I decided to overnight in Portland.

It turned out to be a good choice. The airport hotels in Seattle are isolated. Portland has made an effort to develop the area around its airport hotels to offer a bit of diversion for over-nighting passengers.

My usual hotel fronts onto a large shopping mall that is perfectly-designed for my morning walks. I was able to complete my steps just in time to catch the shuttle to the Portland airport for the last leg of my flight.

This week is one of the busiest periods of travel in The States, and the airport bore witness to what would otherwise be a bit of trivia. There were enough children crowding the corridors to populate ten road companies of Annie and The Sound of Music. All of them filled with sugar and joy. And, fortunately, almost none of my flight.

I have always had an irrational affection for prop planes. That may be because the first aircraft I flew during Air Force flight training was a Cessna 150. Whatever the reason, I always look forward to the half-hour flight from Portland to Redmond on one of Horizon's Bombadier Q400 fleet.

It is like riding in a sports car, a rather large sports car, where passengers can feel every bump in the sky. We are one with our environment.

The lady sitting next to me was not quite as enthusiastic. With every air pocket drop, she would cross herself. I don't think she once looked out the window to see Oregon transition from Willamette Valley green to central Oregon stark.

I am now ensconced in my brother's house on one of the gravel shelves above Prineville -- enjoying the cocoon effect of their new house. Its succor was well-appreciated when I looked out this window this morning. It was not 48 degrees. It was not drizzling. But we did have an overcast sky.

This is what greeted me.

The day I left Mexico, a Canadian acquaintance told me an Arctic front was headed to Oregon. He was correct. Even though this morning hardly had a dusting a snow, there is a winter storm watch for the next three days I am here.

I did not move to Mexico because of the weather, and I did not come north because of the weather. I came to spend time with my family.

The snow is not going to change that.      

Saturday, November 23, 2019

turkey in the straw; never on the plate

It is time for Mexpatriate to pull up stakes and move to a new location -- temporarily.

In about four hours, I will board an Alaska flight that will eventually deposit me in the cosmopolitan country of Redmond, Oregon. I am heading north to spend the one holiday my family truly enjoys -- Thanksgiving.

We are not much for traditions.  We will nod at the list of Hallmark holidays as they parade by, but we never confuse the ripple with the sea.

But Thanksgiving is different, It is an opportunity for our family to get together and enjoy each other's company without the petty annoyances of the impractical gifts and tangential theology of Christmas.

Thanksgiving dinner is our sole holiday tradition. The meal itself has to be something new and umami-great. Never turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes. We have been discussing some options. Whatever we choose, it will be memorable.

Even the food, though, will not get in the way of the purpose for the whole affair -- being grateful for the good and the bad we have experienced this year.

I do not know if I will go essay-free on the trip north. We shall see. I do know I will be back at one of my favorite tables in Barra de Navidad or San Patricio late next week -- picking up where I am going to leave off.

Right NOW!.

Friday, November 22, 2019

since we're neighbors --

You may or not remember that lead-in to one of Safeway's most successful advertising slogans in the 1970s. "Since we're neighbors, let's be friends."

It was a brilliant slogan. Rather than seeing Safeway as a corporation from the big cities, customers starting noticing all of the people who worked in the store were their neighbors. The stock boy was your son's best friend. The produce guy was your second cousin. The cashier was your first wife. It was not a foreign entity; it was family.

I have not thought about that slogan for decades. But I am now wondering if our new Bodgea Aurrerá in town (soon to open) should think about stealing it.

Just after I moved to Villa Obregón, a sports park was opened on the other side of Highway 200. The park includes several facilities. A jogging track. A multi-purpose court where young Mexicans play tennis and basketball in the evening, and older Canadians play pickleball in the morning.

But the star facility is the indoor soccer field. That is it at the top of this essay. (Yes. It is outside. But the "indoor" refers to the size of the field, not where it is located.)

I have no statistics, but I am willing to bet that the soccer field is the most-used facility in the park. And it looks it.

Rooster's and Papa Gallo's each have teams that compete in a local tournament on that field. My son plays for one of the teams.

I enjoy soccer. It was one of my favorite sports in high school. Watching Omar play brings back memories of attending my nephew Ryan's games.

That Parenthood Thing may be one reason I was very concerned about Omar playing on that particular field. A decade of hard play has left the artificial turf full of holes and pulled-up seams. It looks like the carpet in a Cat Lady's trailer house.

All of that is about to change. Thanks to the good graces of our new neighbor, Bodega Aurrerá, the field is going to be repaired. Starting next week, the artificial turf will be pulled up and replaced with a new surface. The process is scheduled to be completed in two weeks.

I know some people here are unhappy with the arrival of Bodgea Aurrerá in our community. Other people are looking forward to the doors opening.

I am agnostic on the topic. When I first moved to this area, I would drive the 15 minutes to 
Bodgea Aurrerá in Cihuatlán once or twice a month. But, with each visit, the number of items in my cart decreased -- until I arrived at the point of leaving with no purchases. I have not been to the Cihuatlán store for almost two years.

But I know a neighborly gesture when I see one. And, for that, I say good on you, 
Bodgea Aurrerá.

I can now spend less time calculating how much it will cost to repair torn ligaments in Omar's ankle.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

not easy being green

Being an insect is tough.

That is not a testimonial, just a fact. A fact that was rather tragic for the bug starring in today's essay.

Like every boy who ever lived, insects fascinated me with their wide-range of shape, color, and locomotion. I upped my bug game during my sophomore year in high school when Mr. Kilmer required each of us to create an insect collection.

What had been a juvenile diversion now had a rigorous analytical framework. Insects were once a random mixture of bugs. Now, they were magically turned into categories of beetles, flies, moths, and grasshoppers -- not to mention their just-as-fascinating young grubs, maggots, and caterpillars.

There are some insects that live amongst us that are not great neighbors. When I saw this guy in my bedroom, I thought he was one of them.

At first glance, it looked like an assassin bug -- the carrier of chagas, a debilitating tropical disease. The disease is not as common as dengue here. But cases are periodically reported.

It is not a disease you would like to put on your infection résumé. Immediate symptoms of fatigue, fever, and muscles aches that can lead to a life-time disability where the disease slowly attacks the heart and the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract.  

The disease is transmitted by the assassin bug biting a sleeping human around the mouth or the eyes. That is not the method of transmission, though.

When the bug feeds, it defecates. Because the bite itches, the person will rub their lip or eye while simultaneously wiping the feces into the bite, mouth, or eyes. The virus lurks in the feces. And the disease begins.

For good reason, assassin bugs are not welcome in my bedroom.

This little parable is about fear. Without looking further, I labeled the assassin bug as something to fear, and did what the powerful do to the weak. I crushed it in my hand. It accepted its fate without any struggle -- as is often the fate of the weak.

Only after I had assassinated what I thought was an assassin bug did I start researching what I had done. I made a grave error. Or, at least, it was grave for the insect.

It turns out that it was not an assassin bug. It was not even a bug. All of you have probably already identified it as a beetle. And you are correct. It is a beetle that takes its name from its over-sized antennae. Longhorn beetle.

I had killed without cause. Or, at least, the reason I killed it was based on a false assumption. But I was not wrong in killing it.

I know a bit about this family of beetles. I had several in my high school insect collection. As adults they are amusing to watch with those more-hat-than-cattle antennae.

They problem is with its young. As larvae, longhorn beetles are very destructive. They are borers. Not bores -- the type of people who unanimously parrot back what they heard from some television news commentator, as Joel Stein put it: "I have never been part of of a more heated conversation in which everyone agrees." 

Borers. Wood borers, to be precise. The young of the longhorn beetle love wood. Living trees. Untreated wood. They are a pest wherever they breed.

My house has very little wood in it. But there is some. Doors. Bed headboards. Desks. And, most precious of all, books. 

So, what sense of guilt momentarily existed after the coup de grâce quickly dissipated as soon as I discovered that comical beetle could have been up to no good.

My mother's side of the family lived in Canada long enough that I can claim some loyalty to steal just one line from its anthem.

When it comes to insects: "I stand on guard for thee." 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

a lost light from the revolution

First things first.

Happy Revolution Day.

109 years ago today, a war started in Mexico that would alter its very character. We are celebrating it today.

I had hoped to write a couple of essays about some of the causes of the war earlier this week, but time got away from me. So, I will tell you only one tale.

I just returned from two short parades -- one in Barra de Navidad, the other in San Patricio. The usual suspects were there. Elementary school students in drill order.

Prepa students performing acrobatics. Ten-year olds dressed up as the historical figures who led a revolution and ended up killing one another (the leaders; not the kids).

And, of course, my favorites -- horses.

One dress-up figure that has been missing from every Revolution Day parade I have ever attended is José Guadalupe Posada. You might recall that we all met him during our conversation about Day of the Dead (
hello, dollies).

Posada was one of Mexico's best political cartoonists -- with a pen far sharper and wittier than Herblock. Think Jules Feiffer with a Latin flair. Or Jeff MacNelly.

He did his best work during the late 1800s, skewering the powerful, sometimes finding himself banned from publishing. And, even though we may not now immediately recall his name, everyone knows one of his favorite satirical inventions.

The late 1800s in Mexico were contradictory. Dickens could have been describing Mexico, as much as 1789 Paris, when he wrote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Since it attained its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico had suffered a series of wars that had left it struggling socially and economically. All of that changed during the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. During his presidency, Mexico entered the industrial revolution and started accumulating wealth unlike any time in its past. And Mexico was at peace.

But Mexico was paying a big price for peace and prosperity. Peace came at the cost of political repression (including Posada's cartoons). And even though Mexico for the first time in its modern history was able to pay off its massive foreign debts, that prosperity meant that the foreign investment that drove the growth resulted in vast British-owned agricultural holdings; Canadian mines; American railroads.

Even though all Mexicans shared in a country whose wealth was growing, it was the elite around President Porfirio Diaz who pulled in most of the wealth. Mexico's elite has often looked to Europe to be its social and fashion guide. Initially, it was Spain. During Porfirio Diaz's reign, it was France and England.

Mexico's cities are filled with French Empire buildings from this era. That is ironic because Porfirio Diaz made his name in the army by fighting the French invasion at mid-century.

One of Mexico's architectural oddities comes from this period. Porfirio Diaz built metal-framed gazebos in almost every town square in Mexico. They were so French, it is easy to imagine they were built by Eiffel. Some were. But almost every gazebo has faux-gargoyles -- Welsh dragon heads. Their foreigness is jarring.

Posada found the perfect satirical target in the elite's European infatuation. What could better describe corruption at the top than native Mexican women dressing up as if they were having dinner at Maxim's while the rest of Mexico remained poor?

And he then took it once step further. To emphasize the absurdity of such pretense, he stripped the women of their flesh. They became walking skeletons dressed in Paris finery.

And thus was born
La Calavera Catrina, a symbol of revolutionary resistance against European intrusion, rather than a caricature for Day of the Dead. It is as if Thomas Nast's Democrat donkey and Republican elephant morphed into the symbols for Valentine's Day.

The rest of Posada's story is a bit tragic. Even though his Catrina helped to inspire bourgeois revolutionary fervor against the elite, his career faded to the point that when he died during the height of the revolution in 1913, he was almost unknown. Legend has it that of the three neighbors who certified his death, only one knew his full name.

One of these days, it would be nice to see both José Guadalupe Posada and his Catrina restored to their rightful place in the revolutionary pantheon -- or just on a parade float.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

stealing it softly

Last year, I visited a local doctor about a pain in my left heel. She said it would most likely go away on its own. She prescribed no treatment and no medication.

We then talked a bit about some of her community projects. When our conversation got to that natural ending point, as all conversations do, I asked her how much I owed her for the consultation. She told me, and I paid.

As I was leaving, she took on a very serious face and told me that recently she has experienced something new. Northerners, who have arrived recently, will come into her office to discuss their current health. They inevitably bring a long list of prescriptions. She will often spend a half hour or 45 minutes with them. And then they leave without offering any payment.

That was the first time I had heard of that type of behavior. I told her that people in Canada and the United States may have become so accustomed to someone paying for their health care that they do not think about how medical care works in other countries.

Being gracious, she smiled, and said I might be correct. But it did feel a little bit insulting.

I thought of her last week. I visited my favorite telephone-computer guru here in town. I had experienced trouble resetting my password on one of my multiple Telcel accounts.

When I arrived there was another northerner talking with him about the various ways to buy telephone time in Mexico. The conversation then switched to a series of problems the northerner was having with his telephone. My guru walked him through each of them. The northerner missed a lot of the information because he was intent on arguing that the Mexican telephone system was all wrong.

I do not know how long the full exchange took place, but I waited for twenty minutes. When it was over, the northerner said "thanks," and simply walked off. My guru just stared as he left. Having received what he wanted, the northerner simply walked away without paying -- the technological equivalent of a dine and dash. According to my guru, it happens to him more often these days. Always with northerners.

Because I am a generous sort, I do not ascribe bad intentions. In both cases (the doctor and the telephone guru), I suspect that it never enters some minds that the consultations were exchanges of expertise. That expertise is a commodity that has value.

The same people would never think of picking up a diamond watch in a jewelry store and walking out the door without paying for it. But that is exactly what happens when we seek expert opinion and that opinion is given.

Let me offer a gentle reminder. If you seek out advice from a professional, the coda of your conversation should be: "How much do I owe you?"I can almost guarantee that you will be pleased with how low the price will be.

It is just another blessing of Mexico.    

Monday, November 18, 2019

having betty and phil over for dinner

I have a confession to make.

I love telenovelas.

At least, I think I do. I have never watched a single episode of Mexico's serial television episodes of lust, passion, lust, relationships, lust, class distinctions, and well -- lust. But saying I love telenovelas sounds a little bit classier (and more Mexican) than confessing to having been duped into watching soap opera after soap opera.

What other explanation is there for my choices of RomaLa Casa de Papel, and Downton Abbey? There was nothing in any of those story arcs to keep my attention. It was all about relationships. Only about relationships -- and the worst aspects of celebrity infatuation.

So, I did not surprise myself last night when I sat down to watch the first episode of the third season of The Crown. For those of you who may have escaped its Jupiter-gravity pull, The Crown is a ten-year Netflix project to capture the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Queen Elizabeth I to the Scots amongst us) in the amber of television digits.

The first two seasons have been filmed and aired. The third season premiered yesterday.

The series is the most expensive television production in history. And the lavish sets and costumes leave no doubt the money has been well-spent (other than the occasional obvious clunker where the American White House looks as if it was filmed using Tara as a stand-in).*

But the story is pure soap opera. Lust. Passion. Lust. Relationships. Lust. Class distinctions. Lust. I suspect we viewers think because the characters are not stuck with Mr. and Mrs. in front of their names, but instead are HRM, HRH, and his grace, that we will not notice that the dialog is little more than tittle-tattle lifted from the headlines of The Sun and The Mail. Still, we watch. I watch.

I told you I was going to view only the first episode of the third season. I did. But not "only." I ended up watching seven of the ten episodes. There is something about telenovelas that is binge-worthy.

And that is not the only thing I binged on.  A night at the movies deserves a good dinner.

By coincidence, I had discovered that my favorite grocer, Alex at Super Hawaii in San Patricio, had stocked some new Italian products. Alex is a smart guy. When the United States started tacking random tariffs on goods, he decided to cover his marketing bets by looking for other sources of goods for his customers. Britain and Germany were his initial sources.

His Italian shelf on Sunday included various sizes of well-crafted pasta. I bought several varieties.

I then saw something I have not seen in years. Jars of  datterino giallo and pomodorino giallo -- the yellow plum and cherry tomatoes that give several Italian dishes their distinctive taste. Mexico may have first cultivated tomatoes and introduced them to the rest of the world, but Italians turned the fruit into a culinary marvel.

The sight of the jars triggered one of those memories that lie dormant in my mental food closet tucked under two unused winter coats. On 10 August 1973, I left Athens to drive to my new assignment at RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. I remember the day because the president had resigned the day before.

I took the ferry from Patras across the Ionian Sea to Brindisi and then spent about a week exploring Italy. Just north of Rome, I stopped in Fiano Romano for lunch. I do not recall the name of the restaurant. It was not
hing fancy. And it certainly was not a tourist attraction.

What I do recall is my first taste of spaghetti all'ama amatriciana. It was a simple dish. Yellow tomatoes. Bacon. Pickled pepper. A small sprinkle of grated pecorino romano. Simple, but memorably delicious.

I have attempted to replicate the experience, like some opium addict forever chasing The Dragon. I have never been able to re-live that same experience -- because it is an impossible quest. The memory is in my closet, and it does not want company.

But, I have learned from those experiments. If you have a high-quality pasta, the sauce is simply an adjunct that will bring out the flavors of the pasta. It should be simple, and it can be made of any ingredients that will suit your palate.

Last night, the foundation was an easy choice. I used the jugged Italian tomatoes I had just purchased at Hawaii along with some fresh cherry tomatoes to freshen up the taste. Shallots. Onion, Garlic. Ginger. A serrano. Kalamata olives. Italian green olives. Bacon. And some feta. All of that seasoned with basil, oregano, and thyme -- with a dash of balsamic to finish it off. I then folded the sauce into some fettuccine.

It worked.

I almost added lemon zest. I am glad I did not. It would have taken the taste in an entirely different direction. But, if I try something similar in the future, I will probably add a bit of fish sauce to the balsamic. Without it, the balsamic was just a bit too sweet; it probably augmented the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and onion.

Lord Mountbatten once described the food served at Buckingham palace as having "less flavor than nursery food." I hope that Betty and Phil were not offended with my choice of dinner.

* -- The White House substitute is actually an English manor house in Essex -- Hylands Park -- that makes the White House look like the provincial lodgings of a renegade nation. But the series seems to bear a 250-year grudge about American independence -- including two episodes designed to knock down Jack Kennedy's legacy a dozen pegs or so.