Thursday, February 21, 2019

an attorney walks into a bar joke

Hi. My name is Steve. I am a recovering attorney.

Some attorneys see retirement as a transitional period. They taper off on their schedule, but show up for work every day -- until they leave feet first one afternoon.

That was not my idea of retirement. When I headed south to Mexico, I left my law career standing on Summer Street in front of my Salem house. The last I saw it, it was waving at me in my rear view mirror.

I did not quit the bar entirely. The next January I elected to move from active to inactive status. I was not quite ready to hit the "resign" button. Because you never never know, do you? I am the equivalent of an alcoholic who stills gets some pleasure out of reading single malt scotch labels.

In return for just a bit over one hundred dollars each year, the Oregon State Bar sends me hectoring emails that remind me why I am no longer an attorney.  It is as if my former profession has installed the latest version of King George III.2 software. A lot of what is haywire with American society is amplified by my former colleagues -- or the colleagues that make up the bar leadership.

But, I do receive something valuable for my money. Every month, I find the bar's Bulletin in my mailbox. (Yes, it still comes in hard copy. Attorneys are not the most cutting-edge of professions.)

The magazine is stuffed with the usual self-righteous and narcissistic filler that graces every professional publication. But there is one column that has long been my favorite, and it makes the rest of the dross bearable.

Suzanne E. Rowe offers advice on how attorneys can improve their writing skills in the not-very-imaginative, but highly-practical-titled "The Legal Writer." Her columns are always filled with the type of advice that a large group of attorneys, some of the world's most dreadful writers, should take to heart.

I still read the column because I am a grammar groupie. Her columns are always pithy and witty -- just as a column about improving writing should be.

I have a second reason for reading the column. A couple of years ago, I met Salvador (or "Chava" as common usage would have it), a young Mexican with very good English skills. But he wanted to improve it. His interest is in tourism, and English is a prized asset in the field.

I do not remember why I started giving him Suzanne's column, but it was exactly what he had been looking for. She answered some of the questions that his English instructor could not. The column became the center of our weekly meetings.

The rule during our meetings is that Chava can speak only English, and I can speak only Spanish. He has the better end of the deal.

When I received Suzanne's most recent column, I knew Chava would love it. Not only was it filled with grammar tips, it was about jokes. And he loves jokes even more than I do.

There was one problem. The concept was based entirely on "a guy walks into a bar" jokes. Chava had never heard of them. Missing the setup in a joke is certain doom for the punchline. Or, as that master jokester Johnny Carson put it: "If you buy the premise, you buy the bit."

It took me only a minute or two in fractured Spanish to explain the idea of "a guy walks into a bar" jokes, and he was ready for Suzanne's rules of grammars wrapped in humor. He laughed so hard while reading the list, I was almost envious of his understanding.

Here they are:

An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.

Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a short, dark and handsome sentence fragment.

Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

From our earlier conversations, he knew most of the grammar terms. On only two of the jokes did he have questions. Where I struggled was trying to remember the Spanish words for some of the grammar terms. Fortunately, like most things grammar, Latin is our friend. Most of the terms are cognates. The trick, for me, is remembering where the accents fall. (Yes, I know. Usually te second to last syllable. But the trick is the difference between remembering and doing.)

At my last employer, I was part of a team that conducted quarterly legal training for our staff. We quickly learned that humor was our best tool. (It was also our worst potential enemy. Almost anything we laugh at these days has the potential to dynamite open a bevy of hurt lockers.)

When Chava was getting ready to leave, I asked him if he would put together a similar list of grammar jokes in Spanish. He asked for a month to do that. After all, I simply used someone else's jokes for our little exercise. That sounded fair to me.

I saw him today on my morning walk. He had shown the column to his English teacher. He beamed when he told me his teacher had understood only one of the jokes. Smug would not have described his smile.

And who says all those years of getting a law degree was wasted time?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

walking on the hot side

I am a poseur. A sham. A fraud.

Not in everything, mind you. But I certainly am when I wear this t-shirt.

It commemorates The Bare Hot Chile Challenge 2019 in Barra de Navidad last month. There were several contestants who took on increasing degrees of the Scoville scale  for the questionable title of Guy with the Steel Gut.  Hot food. Hot drinks.

I was not one of the contestants. So, wearing it opens me to same moral harangues heaped on soldiers who wear medals they never earned. But, in my defense, I have been conducting my own personal challenge at the house.

Bare Essentials, the little shop down the street that specializes in, among other things, hot peppers, was the source of the challenge's chilies. I love spicy food. So, after Giovanni described the six grades of salsa he had concocted from serranos up to Carolina reapers, I bought a jar of each (going bare).

For the past three weeks, I have been experimenting with the salsas in soups and Indian, Korean, Mexican, and fusion dishes. None of the jars has yet to disappoint me.

So, when Giovanni and Maricarmen started selling souvenir t-shirts from the challenge, I bought one. And, inevitably, when I wear it, people ask me if I participated. They always seem disappointed when I say no.

I have come up with a solution. Even though truth is a constant, facts are malleable things. I now tell them: "Yes. Every day at my house." And that gets the conversation rolling.

I wear the t-shirt on my daily walks. And, even though I usually do not stop to chat when I am in exercise mode, if you want to ask about my t-shirt, I will gladly chat.

After all, I do not want to be a complete fraud.

If you wish to join me in scam city, Bare Essentials still has more of the t-shirts to outfit us band of Professor Harold Hills. And pick up a couple of jars of salsa while you are there. It will add a patina of authenticity.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

flying the coop

Ad men hate people like me.

Madison Avenue spends billions of dollars each year to build a rapport with consumers through witty little phrases. Make us smile, and we will buy almost anything. Prostitutes and politicians are experts with that ploy.

Unfortunately for the PR types, I am one of those people who always remember the catchy phrase and then have no idea what product I am suppose to buy.. I saw a recent study in The Economist that tells me I am not at sea all alone.

I thought of one of those old advertising phrases this morning. My experience of the flocked wading birds yesterday still had me a bit excited. That is why I was really disappointed in the shots I took on my phone camera.

So, I got up early, grabbed my Sony  NEX-6 (along with my telephoto lens) and sat forth to shoot myself some birds.

The first  casualty of the morning was my walk. Birding and power walking are not compatible companions. Furtive movement is last thing I need when stalking birds. I would probably be cautious, as well, if I inhabited their link in the food chain.

I usually shoot from a small opening in the mangroves that surround the little patch of water where I saw the waders yesterday. I had attached my zoom lens and donned my birding binoculars in an attempt to move as little as possible once I stationed myself in my blind.

I needn't have bothered. The photograph at the top of this essay is what I saw. Where there were hundreds of birds yesterday, there were now only a few.

And that advertisement slogan that popped into my mind? "It's not nice to fool mother nature."

That was what I was doing. Because the birds were there yesterday, I thought they would be there again this morning.

Why they were not, I do not know. Maybe because the sun was not out. Maybe because today is a full moon. Maybe because it is the third Tuesday in February.

Mother nature needs no silly reasons. It just is. And we need to be realistic enough to realize nature is not our servant. Marsha Norman caught a bit of that spirit in "A Bit of Earth" from the otherwise-dreadful Secret Garden.

She'll grow to love the tender roses
Lilies fair, the iris tall
And then in fall, her bit of earth
Will freeze and kill them all
But, before they all die, several individual performers showed up today to strut their stuff during my walk.

Most of the major waders were off to other hunting grounds. But not these black-necked stilts. Watching them wade through the water, I was a bit confused. Then I realized that the water is not shallow. They are stilts.

I startled this tricolored heron (once provincially known as a Louisiana heron). But I have always felt herons are far more photogenic when they roost on trees.

I finally found some of the major waders in the next pond over. These wood storks, for instance, were stirring up troubled waters -- as storks are wont to do.

Finding both varieties of great blue herons in one shot is somewhat rare. But there they were  -- a great blue and its white morph.

While I was shooting, I heard the constant whistle and crackling of a great-tailed grackle, but I could not see it. Grackles fill the niche of jays and crows here. Clever. Gregarious. And with far better voices than any crow.

Had I looked straight up, I would have seen it. Or, rather, them. Three grackles sitting atop a utility pole. Each one looking as if it were posing to become a finial.

When I walked over to another pond, I saw what may be my favorite bird in these parts. A white ibis.

Two white ibises, in this case. There is something about their  Durantean bills that always makes me smile.

Sort of the way you smile when you see a clown. One of the funny clowns, mind you. Not the kind that will kill a series of young men and then bury them in his basement. But, you just never know which kind you are meeting, do you?

Once I started shooting, nothing on wing was safe. Terns. Swallows. Vireos. Tits. Kingbirds. Hummingbirds. Kingfishers. Doves.

But enough is enough.

Well, there is one more. I could not let this black vulture Golgothean portrait slip by unnoticed. I will leave the caption to you.

I may not fool mother nature, but I do like messing with her mind.

Monday, February 18, 2019

birds of a feather

 I am not big on community; but I am an advocate of cultivating relationships. And that seems to make Mexico a perfect foil for my life here on the Pacific coast.

This morning I was in high-cruise mode on my morning walk. My goal was to complete at least 6 miles before the solar crew showed up at the house to install my panels.

When I am in my exercise zone, that is my sole focus. My purpose in life is to get my steps without stopping. No chatting. No gaping. Just walking at a steady 4 MPH pace.

As so often happens in life, our presence on Earth as moral agents is put to the test. I had just completed 2 miles of my walk when I saw Christine, my former landlady and current savior-of-animals, pedaling in my direction.

Fortunately, it was Christine. She is usually not very chatty. But, having known her for ten years now, our relationship is far too vital to pass by with merely a testosterone-addled grunt.

She seemed mildly excited by something. So, I stopped briefly to discover the source of her contentment.

Both of us are very fond of birds. I often have rare sightings on my walks. The same is true of her bike rides. And we like sharing our little secrets.

For the past couple of weeks, I have walked past a wetland that is in the process of turning into a summer mud flat. There is still ample water to support aquatic wildlife. I know that because flocks of great egrets and white morph great blue herons have taken up housekeeping in the pond.

There have been easily over a hundred. When startled, most of them take flight with a flurry of flapping wings and distinctive croaks that sound as if Katherine Hepburn has been turned into a toad.

But that was not Christine's news. She asked if I had seen the large number of wood storks and roseate spoonbills mixed in with the others.

I hadn't. But that was only because I had allowed my exercise regimen to blind me to another of nature's shows.

These shows are not restricted to Mexico. Mother Nature is a full-opportunity employer. But, in the winter, migrating flocks tend to congregate in our area, giving us an opportunity to see up close what might otherwise go unnoticed.

So, I put my exercise on pause and looked for an advantageous spot to slip through the mangroves to get a better view of the pond.

And there they were. Egrets, herons, spoonbills, storks, and the odd limpkin or two along the shore. It looked like a singles bar on a Friday night. Plenty to drink. A snack to be plucked from the water. And constant chatter of future nesting possibilities.

[Clicking on either photograph will give you a better view.]

If I had followed my rule, I would have not had my conversation with Christine. Instead of missing the birds, I was given a twofer. An almost magical moment with the waders -- and an opportunity to polish up a personal relationship.

Plus I actually ended up notching 10 and a half miles for the morning. I can finish the rest this evening.

I may not be a member of a community, but I do cherish my relationships. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

spinning for pesos

Big projects can open old wounds.

After signing the contract for my solar project, I needed to come up with 120,00 pesos in cash. Well, that is not entirely true. I could have paid with either a check or a credit card. But I decided to take the cash option. I may have chosen unwisely.

At one point, getting the $120,000 (Mx) would have been as simple as typing a few keystrokes on my computer and the money would magically appear within seconds in my Banamex account here in Mexico.

But that is a tale thrice told, and I do not need to go through all of the woes the Obama administration heaped on expatriates with its mis-targeted FATCA (the cash window closes). Suffice it to say, after 2014, the only lifeline I have had to obtain cash is through my northern bank debit card and any handy ATM that will deign to spit out pesos at my request.

So, I put myself back in Mrs. Utterback's second grade class and started calculating how long it would take me to gather 120,000 pesos. The Banamex ATMs will disburse no more than 6,000 pesos in each transaction.

There was nothing fuzzy about the math. As long as I spent no pesos on other frivolities (such as eating or paying the staff), I could gather the money in 20 days. I had barely enough time to do that.

Then, disaster struck. I thought I would encounter other demands for the cash while I was accumulating it. But that did not happen. I had the usual daily array of requests for money from Mexican neighbors, but I followed Nancy Reagan's advice and just said no.

The problem was with the cash machines -- or my card. Everything was going well until a couple days after I had managed to gather 70,000 pesos.

The ATM refused my transaction with a rather ominous "Authorization prohibited." The next day all was well. The day after, "prohibited" again.

I called my bank. The representative checked my account. There was no block on my card, but she noted there were also no indications the ATM had actually connected with my bank on the "prohibited" days.

She suggested the chip on my card may be damaged, and asked if I wanted her to send me a new card. The last time I did that, I was without a valid card for almost five weeks. That made survival a bit tenuous. I was ready to start working the night clubs. 

Then, I remembered I had opened a secondary account with the same bank for this eventuality. I retrieved that card and tried it. It would not work, but the message was that service was not available, and I should try later.

Because all of the other people at the Banamex were obtaining money except for me, I had discarded the possibility of trying the other financial service in town -- Intercam. 

One card worked in its ATM; the other didn't. I walked back to Banamex, the card that had not worked at Intercam worked at Banamex. The next day, neither card worked at either bank.

Yesterday, I drove to Manzanillo to complete some errands, and I stopped at an HSBC ATM. And, of course, both cards worked. I withdrew 10,000 pesos on each card. I now had my full amount for the solar project. But driving to Manzanillo every other day for pesos is not a rational solution to whatever is happening with the Banamex machines.

All of this got me to thinking once again about closing my American bank accounts and having all of my direct deposits go to Intercam. Before I do that, though, I need to find out if my direct deposits will work. I know the largest of my monthly checks cannot be deposited in a Mexican bank.

Then there are the questions about the direct payments for my credit cards. For reasons that are not pertinent here, I need to retain at least one of my northern credit cards -- probably both. Both of them have regular monthly payments that are linked to them.

The last time I thought of cutting these last ties with the American banking system, inertia won out. I was not certain all of the paperwork to transfer everything would be worth the benefit I would receive by having my money here.

Banamex is not a possibility. Irregular amounts of money simply disappear from my checking account there month to month with no accounting on the statement for the loss. The bank does not understand how that could possibly be happening. Either do I. But I know one resolution that will stop the hemorrhaging.

As a result of this fiscal fiasco, I am very likely to be a new Intercam customer, and my northern bank can kiss my Benjamins goodbye.

The ideal system would be if I could keep my funds in an American bank. That bank would then be partnered with a Mexican bank where my dollar accounts would allow me to transfer money into my Mexican peso account.

But that is simply saying that I wish I had my pre-2014 BanamexUSA account. All the nostalgia in the world will not resuscitate that corpse.

Felipe over at The Unseen Moon had to make the same switch in 2014. He went cold turkey and moved everything to Mexico, and has been quite pleased ever since. He has had to do some Mexican bank shopping since then, but in a macro sense, he is happy with the switch.

I may just have to join him. Playing the ATM as if it were a slot machine is not my idea of entertainment. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

put that cow on a boat to india

Today was supposed to have been the day of The Big Announcement..

The day I signed up as a card-carrying member of the new green deal -- which, if I understand it correctly means shipping all North American cows to India in a gesture of diversification while simultaneously crippling India's emerging economy. A green twofer.

But there will be no announcement today. You probably figured that out already with my inclusion of the  present perfect "supposed to have been."

I have stepped into the deep end of the solar pool. I had previously told you I was considering catching up with the millennials by converting to solar power here in the house with no name (water heater, i am getting you a baby brother).

Well, I have. Rather, I signed a contract to have a system installed.

I decided to hire Solarbay, a company out of Manzanillo, that is represented in this area by my pal; Rick Noble. After consulting with the engineer, we concluded a 14-panel system would provide sufficient power for my current peak usage. The full kit with installation is just under $120,000 (Mx) or about $6,300 (US). That includes the 16% VAT that accompanies almost all financial transactions here in Mexico.

So , on Monday, Noé and Carlos showed up with Rick and a truckload of tools and aluminum strips to start the job. They were introduced as "Noah" and "Charlie."

I have become accustomed to Mexicans using English-sounding nicknames as if they worked in a call center in Dhaka. English-speakers appear to feel more comfortable when calling people by familiar names, just as they did when England rule The Raj.

I called them Noé and Carlos.

The original completion date was scheduled for Friday. And it appeared that Noé and Carlos would easily meet the target date. They showed up around 10:30 each morning and worked until 5 in our rather-relentless tropical weather.

I fleetingly thought of writing an essay each day to keep you informed of the project's progress. But I decided "they cut aluminum strips today" and "the second frame is complete" essays would be a bit too puttery, as my friend Colette says.

On Thursday, Noé and Carlos encountered an electrical problem. They caught up to schedule on Friday only to discover the "just in time" delivery of the solar panels were not just in time. Perhaps, the supplier is practicing for a no-deal hard Brexit.

If all goes well, the panels will be installed on Monday, and my system will await the inevitable bureaucratic queuing to switch my house from a consumer of CFE (the national power company) electricity to a provider of electricity to CFE (and, through it, to my neighbors).

I knew I would eventually be a powerhouse. I just had to discover the correct amount of money to buy the title.

When the full array is up, I will let you know. I may even show you a wallet-full of baby pictures.

And I will let you know of the joys and travails of trying to slip away from the nationalized clutches of CFE. I am still a little unclear about what will be happening. We will find out together.

As for those cows headed to India, I wish them well. Had they only eaten more Tums, things might not have taken such a dark turn.

Friday, February 15, 2019

the shadow knows

Living in Mexico, is often like living in Plato's Cave.

Plato's take on objective truth is that humans are like chained prisoners with a fire burning behind them. The only thing they experience are shadows cast by the fire. They never see the objects themselves. They then mistake the shadows as being the actual truth.

I have always wondered if the Mexican poet Octavio Paz had Plato's Cave in mind when he wrote about the masks Mexicans wear in their daily lives. 

The Mexican, whether young or old, crillo  or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation.
Now and then, I pick up my copy of Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (a book I would highly recommend to anyone who takes living in Mexico seriously) to renew my attempts to better understand my Mexican neighbors.

I am constantly perplexed at the contradictions I see daily. Neighbors who are friendly on the surface, but who are still obviously distant -- even in personal conversations. And who chuckle at the northern notion that "neighbor" is a laudatory term.

I do not expect to ever crack the enigma. I doubt I ever could as an outsider. Certain attitudes simply become culturally hardwired for those who grow up here.

I didn't grow up here. I grew up in a little logging town in the coastal range of Oregon -- a culture that would be as easily baffling to my Mexican neighbors as theirs is to me. And I do not anticipate being able to do anything more than see Mexico through the eyes of people who see the contradictions -- even if they may not be able to fully describe them.

For me, Octavio Paz is one of those guides. Along with Jorge Castañeda. The fact that both of them were men of the left helps to explain their fondness for Hegelian contradictions. Or, at least, seeing the world through the prism of Hegelian contradictions. And I am easily seduced by the syllogism.

Most of us northerners are usually happy to settle for seeing our Mexican neighbors through eyes that are forgiving of contradiction -- and, at best, vaguely patronizing; at worst, imperialistic lite.

And, viewed only on the surface, Mexico appears to be made up of people who accept fate with a certain elan -- if not fatalism. 
But, by being satisfied with the surface, we miss the interesting truth under the surface.

And it is not just Mexicans who wear masks. I suspect the mask analogy is so popular here because of Paz's chapter on "Mexican Masks." Because physical masks are so prevalent here, Paz's analogy in his chapter "Mexican Masks" seems to have a dash of Platonic truth.

But we all wear masks. And for the same reason -- to protect ourselves. From one another. But also from reality.

Any party is a testing ground for masks. You can almost see the woman standing in the corner when you approach her. And there is very likelihood anyone will be able to slip past its Lone Ranger ambiguity.

During my stay in flight school in Laredo, I attended more than my share of receptions. Almost the first question asked by the wives of senior officers was: "And what does your father do for a living?"

Of course, it translated into: "Are you someone worth spending my time on -- or should I go talk to that young officer over there?" I usually made the choice easy by responding with something whimsical. "He runs guns to Bolivia" or "I never knew him. He was executed in the early 50s as a Communist spy." Either one usually sent my interlocutor scurrying away. My mask remained firmly in place.

Several of my old friends and family members have told me they read my blog for only one reason -- they want to hear what I had been doing between my 20s and 60s. Apparently, I have a reputation for not being very forthcoming with my life. At least, not until stories ferment for several decades.

Maybe that is why I am so fascinated with Paz's observations -- observations that reflect one of my favorite Cole Porter couplets: "Paree will still be laughing after ev'ry one of us disappears,/ But never once forget, her laughter is the laughter that hides the tears."

Mexicans use their face and smile to mask themselves, but so do I.

And I will put a stack of new Benito Juarez notes on the barrel head that you do, as well. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

what is art?

Some questions have haunted me for most of my life.

What makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great? (with apologies to Meredith Willson)

What is art?

Or, why are there only eight hot dog buns in a package when wieners come ten to the package? Maybe that accommodates the double stuffers.

Those questions popped to mind earlier this month when I attended the opening of one of our local art galleries. Well, "those questions" other than the buns and wieners controversy. It was not an Andy Warhol exhibit.

Whoever put the exhibit together tried to accommodate the wide range of tastes where art is concerned. The exhibit was restricted to paintings. From the almost-startling representational pieces (that could be second cousin to Richard Estes' Photo-Realism school) to neo-Impressionist landscapes to attempts at surrealistic design.

I attended, not as a potential buyer (my house is well-stocked with Ed Gilliam abstract expressionism), but as a culture vulture. I was there just to enjoy the art.

And I did. Marcel Duchamp, the great cubist, once said: "The spectator completes the art.  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."

If that is true (and I think it is), my visit to the gallery was a success. There were two pieces that I returned to for different reasons.

The first is at the top of this essay.

I could bore you with my analysis, but that would defeat the whole process Duchamp described, wouldn't it? You need to see it to draw your own conclusions. I will simply say I admired its craftsmanship, but the artist failed to invoke empathy in the viewer as Kahlo would have done.

On the other hand, there is nothing in surrealism art that demands empathy. Some would argue the heart of surrealism is to avoid that type of emotion. When asked about what was behind his paintings, the doyen of surrealists, René Magritte, replied: "the wall."

But, for connection, this piece was my favorite.

OK. It is cartoonish, and looks as if it could have been  scrawled on a neighbor's wall. But it worked for me because it made me laugh. Repeatedly, Out loud. To the horror of some of my fellow viewers.

Almost every tour I have taken to archaeological sites in Mexico has a self-important guide who earnestly prods his charges to see symbols that northern eyes have trouble discerning.

The face of Tlaloc is one of my favorites -- in the frieze of the Quetzalcóal temple at Teotihuacán.

You can see the family resemblance to the painting in the gallery.But that is not what makes it so amusing.

A lot of us tourists look at the depictions of the Mesoamerican gods and think they look like something from space. (And I suppose that was the original idea of the myths.) It is no wonder that a surprising number of people still believe that space aliens built the monumental architecture of the ancient world.

The painting simply plays host to that quirk in human nature. And, as a result, it connects with the viewer.

What better compliment is there to an artist than to elicit one of the better human responses -- laughter?

Of course, art is far more than that. And the respective artists must have realized that in pricing their pieces.

I could have taken the Mesoamerican alien home for $450 (US). The woman in blue and orange would have set me back $7,500 (US). (The fact that the paintings are priced in US dollars says a lot about winters in our village by the sea.)

My visit took me a little bit further down the path of what is art and what makes an artist great.

But the wieners in the buns question is going to have to wait for another day.     

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

cornelius rooster's cameo turn

Our childhood memories are littered with the detritus of Madison Avenue.

The man who wore the star. That busybody Betty Crocker. And the slightly-disturbing gangsterish Mr. Clean.

But my favorite was the rooster that graced the box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes sitting on our breakfast buffet. Cornelius Rooster. "Corny" to his fellow birds of a feather.

I thought of Cornelius this morning when I heard the latest addition to my neighbors' menagerie welcoming the sunrise. He is a fighting cock. I do not know if he has a name, but if his voice is any indication of vigor, he will be a poultry Cassius Clay.

There is a myth that roosters crow only to welcome the day. It is one of those tall tales we are told as children (such as, diamonds are merely lumps of coal subjected to publication-deadline levels of pressure) that get stuck in our mind. Even when we know they are not true.

Roosters (like all birds, and especially fighting cocks) are displaying a symptom of testosterone poisoning. They think they are protecting their territory. It is half past nine, the sun is well up, and I can hear waves of fighting cock-crowing flowing through the village. "It's mine." "You have a tiny beak." "You're another." 

The owners of the new cock are the extended family who has fed me essay fodder over the years I have lived here. Goats. Horses. Dogs. Chickens.

Chickens were not merely part of my family's breakfast regimen. They also showed up regularly on the dinner table. Lots of things may taste like chicken, but only chicken is chicken. And it is still one of my favorite meals.

My grandmother raised chickens. I can still remember her plucking and dressing out freshly-dispatched hens on her back porch, taking special care to save the not-yet-formed eggs for use in special dishes. I suspect my grandfather or my Uncle Wayne played the role of Lord High Executioner.

I even had a pet chicken at my grandmother's. A bantam hen named "Susan," whose demise could have been orchestrated by ISIS. Buttons, our chihuahua-Manchester terrier mix, buried Susan alive when I was about 6. Such incidents make us who we are.

One of the chief complaints I hear from visitors to our little neck of the ocean is noise. There is no doubt that Mexico is noisy. Trucks announcing all sorts of merchandise for sale. The whistle of the knife sharpener. Dogs with nothing better to do than bark  Fireworks. Sky rockets. Church bells. Late night fiestas.

I used to think my Mexican neighbors had simply learned to tolerate the noise -- for a number of evident historical reasons. But I now think I am wrong. Most of my Mexican neighbors appear to revel in noise.

And there is no better evidence of that than the volume at which music is played here. If a volume dial goes up to "10," my neighbors will play it at "11."

I was at a restaurant known for its soft music and ocean views a couple of months ago. The place was filled with northerners enjoying a peaceful dinner.

Then the town band moved onto the hotel patio next door and launched into an hour-long set of Mexican banda loud enough that conversation ceased out of necessity. My fellow diners glared and fumed.

Me? I found myself  agreeing with the Mexican waiters. It was cool, and we wanted the band to play longer. When the sousaphone player saw the northern scowls, he would simply play his oompahs louder.

I moved to Mexico with full knowledge that the country is not Salem, Oregon. In fact, I moved here because it is not Salem. You have heard the construction in past essays. I wanted to live in a place where, when I got up in the morning, I would not know how I was going to get through the day -- or what I would encounter.

Mexico has kept its side of the bargain. And the noise is just part of that tense tapestry.

So, I am going to stop writing for the morning -- to sit back with a cup of Japanese mint green tea to listen to the morning's symphony. Philip Glass could not write an opera to match it.

My new fighting cock friend may even feature in an aria.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

watching in mexico

Fitness is a numbers game.

It certainly is for me.

I have never been a person who likes to compete with others. (Ignore my life-long friends rolling on the floor in hysterics.) But I am competitive. With myself.

And technology has given me a lot of tools to make that competition far more interesting. Digit scales to monitor my weight. Compact cuffs to watch my blood pressure decrease. And, then, there is always the latest in exercise wrist wear.

The wrist fad started with the rather primitive Fit Bit. It was essentially an electronic odometer that would track the user's daily steps. A helpful number to know, but rather boring. After all, telephone apps will do that.

I was not even interested in putting one of those devices on my wrist until Samsung started selling them.

I tend to be brandphobic. If I find something that works, I do not care who the manufacturer is (though I do tend to avoid anything made in Communist China, if I have the choice).

Samsung is an exception. The South Korean company has become a mainstay for my electronic purchases.

Part of that is relational. The hotel where I stay in Mexico City is also where visiting Samsung executives are housed. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting every one of them in the 15th floor concierge lounge where the breakfast items are almost exclusively Asian. It is a bit like visiting Seoul.

But the big reason is reliability. I have surrounded myself with Samsung products. My computer. Big screen television (Isn't it about time we stopped using that adjective now that all televisions are big?). DVD player. Washing machine.

So, when Samsung put an exercise watch on the market, I was an early adopter. Like most Samsung products, its design could have qualified it for inclusion in one of those craft museums beloved of a certain type of person. Lincoln had them in mind when he wrote: "People who like this sort of thing are going to find it is the sort of thing they like."

But I soon discovered design can mask other flaws. After all, isn't that the whole idea behind makeup? (I redacted "women's" from that sentence because we have apparently moved past that type of ghettoized genderization. But it did not keep me from reflexively writing it.)

The watch would not count all of my steps. My left arm needed to be in motion for it to work. Pushing shopping carts or carrying items in my left hand would scramble my step count. At the end of the day my telephone might register 35,000 steps, but my watch would register only 30,000.

A step counter that cannot count is no more useful than a flashlight with no batteries. I also discovered it was not properly counting the flights of stairs I climbed.

Then, the design started to fail. On my trip to Copenhagen, the band broke. Well, it disintegrated into its component parts. I replaced it.

Then, one of the gold charging contacts on the back disappeared. Without it, the watch would no longer charge. Samsung told me it could not be repaired.

Ignoring the omens, while I was in Oregon last November, I bought 
the latest iteration of Samsung's wrist wear -- the Gear Sport. And it has been a good purchase. It keeps track of steps better, and it is waterproof. The last version would act up when it came in contact with sweat. A rather odd weakness for an exercise tool.

I have now been wearing it daily for just shy of three months. Last night disaster struck. I will call it the Copenhagen Syndrome.

There appears to be an endemic flaw in Samsung's wristbands. Most of the band is a comfortable silicone. But there is a metal clip on the end that attaches to the watch. And that is the device's Achilles' Heel. Whatever adhesive is used does not adhere. Or, does not adhere for long.

Admittedly, my tropical home is rough on almost everything. And my daily 15-mile sweatfests are not conducive to keeping anything in pristine condition. Well, other than me. But I would think a wristband for an exercise device would be designed to last longer than three months.

Saying that does not change the fact that the band is broken. So, at 3 AM, I opened the Amazon.Mx app on my telephone and ordered a replacement band. Actually, two. History says I will have another broken band in a few months. It will be here before I head off to Zacatecas later this month.

And I guess that is the moral of this little tale. We buy stuff. Stuff breaks. We buy more stuff. And, in that sense, our lives in Mexico roll on just as they would if we lived in Saskatoon, Paris, or Soweto.

Or, perhaps, as always, Stephen Sondheim has it right: 

What is the moral?/ Must be a moral./ Here is the moral, wrong or right./ Morals tomorrow!/ Comedy tonight.  

Monday, February 11, 2019

come the revolution, we will all be margaret mead

Courtesy of Linda Bello Ruiz

When I was attending law school, back in the Punic Wars (or, at least the 1970s), I encountered one of those sights that does not easily get swept into the recesses of memory.

I was walking across the quad of Willamette University on a unseasonably-sunny afternoon in March when she swept into sight. An elderly woman with the stature of a grandmother and the unforgiving mien of a tenured academic was leading a group of addled celebrity-worshiping coeds across the grass.

She could have stepped out of  a dungeons and dragons game -- clad in a massive gold cloak and carrying a walking stick that could easily be mistaken for a wizard's staff. I thought she could be Gandalf's mother.

But I would have been wrong.

It was Margaret Mead. The purveyor of teenage Samoan sexual freedom. That was before a large portion of the anthropological community turned on her and attempted to eat her in one indigestible lump.

She was a pioneer in drawing her conclusions about anthropology from field work she conducted herself -- often living amongst the people she studied.

That memory of her under full sail with the convoy of dinghies in her wake came back to me while I was signing up for my own cultural immersion sponsored by a church acquaintance, Linda Bello Ruiz.

Linda was quick to point out this is not a tour where the participants are driven from point to point to be told "look at this," only to be herded back on a bus after 15 minutes or so. Instead, she calls the trip "experiential."

In early March, a small group of us will board a bus and head off for four days of experiences in the Mexican state of Michoacán. That would usually mean Patzcuaro. But not this trip. We will penetrate Michoacán just barely past our hotel in Zamora. The bus trip will be the first day.

Days two and three we will meet at an area outside the village of Chilchota (which means "place of the chiles," and that would be enough to get me there). This will be our opportunity to learn more about the Purépecha -- the only Indian culture that had the military power to withstand the Spanish invasion.

As Linda says, it is not a tour; it is an experience. The village women will show us how to do (and expect us to participate) embroidery, pottery, natural medicine, and food preparation. (Of that list, the last one piques my interest. Others will be piqued by something else.) There is even the promise of various ceremonies -- sweat lodges, bonfire dancing, and "fire ball" games.

I am particularly interested in hearing about the most recent studies exploring the theoretical links between the Purépecha (through their language and monumental architecture) and the people who we now call the Inca.

Day four will be a shopping trip to Tlaquepaque -- which I will most likely spend walking the streets of Guadalajara -- having my own Mexican experience.

I am going on the trip because it is miles outside of my comfort level, and I need to feel uncomfortable now and then. Life in Barra de Navidad is starting to slip into the same comfort-numbing routine I wanted to avoid in Salem.

Besides, my experiential meanderings through Michoacán have the possibility of being a Carlos Fuentes moment. And that will certainly be worth an essay or two.

Linda tells me space is still available on the bus. Join us.

We can walk some new paths. And eventually we will find space to sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of dead kings.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

kissing the toad

There was a period in the early 1970s when I was momentarily seduced by popular music.

One of the LPs that frequently found a home on my JBL turntable was Stephen Scwartz's Godspell -- a re-telling of Matthew's gospel as a hippie confab. The music was not very good. Maybe "catchy" would be an appropriate description.

But there was one song ("By My Side") I always found a bit haunting. It describes that mystical longing we all experience at one time or another when, like Sartre, we ask ourselves where we are going.

And Schwartz, as he does now and then, poetically reduces that primal urge to a single couplet that is little more than a musical bridge -- and all the more profound because of it: "I'll put a pebble in my shoe/ And watch me walk."

That rather profound theological point shoved its way back into my life this morning while I was getting ready for church. I had put on all of my clothes except for my shoes. As I am wont to do on Sunday morning, the clock was beginning to win its race with my preparations.

So, in a hurry, on went my shoes. Left shoe on. Tied. Right shoe on. Wait a minute!

I know better than to slip on my shoes in the tropics without first shaking or squeezing them. I had done neither. To my cost.

Twice it has been scorpions. This time, it felt as if someone had pulled a practical joke by placing a raw egg in my shoe.

You know those scenes where Indiana Jones is trapped in a secret room of some ancient temple and the ceiling starts edging down on him? He escapes just before he is reduced to a blini.

Well, that is rather what happened to the occupant inside my shoe. Except it didn't escape; it was blinied. Or, more like, an exploded water balloon.

When I pulled my foot out and shook the shoe (a bit late for that, I might add), out fell the corpse of a baby cane toad.

Other than the fact it was a bit gross in its insides-out condition, I was not really surprised to see it. Like most places they have invaded, cane toads are almost a biblical curse here. They get into everything.

Having said that, they fascinate me. They really are survivors. And one way they survive is being toxic to other animals that see them as a tasty treat. Many a dog has died after encountering a cane toad. Their toxicity, though, does not help them much from ending up as flattened road-kill.

Knowing that, I washed off my sock and rinsed the inside of my shoe -- just in case. Even after all of that, I still made it to church on time.

I may not have put a pebble in my shoe, but I did walk.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

bikes and feet in mexico

I call them non-tariff cultural imports -- those attitudes we northerners tuck into our suitcases with our swimsuits and smoked salmon when we saunter south to Mexico.

And we all have them. Trying to trash them is a  quixotic task. Those cultural notions we have exercised for decades may not be hard-wired into our systems, but they certainly are endemic. And, even though they do amuse me with the potential of blog fodder, they too often get in our way of enjoying what Mexico has to offer.

Yesterday I was walking along our main coastal highway from Barra de Navidad to Melaque. A group of four bicyclists were rapidly coming at me.

What initially caught my attention were their costumes. They were outfitted in the type of lycra outfits that look good on people until they reach the age of 22, and, after that, the material exposes every erosion and decay of getting older. Sort of a cross between Star Trek and a high school cheer squad.

I had starting conjuring up phrases for an essay when I noticed that the lead biker, festooned in his national colors and emblems, had that look Tom Cruise gets when he is trying to act like a man with an intense mission. All stare and furrowed brow.

When he was about 20 feet away, he bellowed: "Get off the bike path."

Well, that is not exactly what he said. The words he used were not particularly nice. But, stripped of the vocabulary-handicapped vulgarities, that was his message. The other three riders dutifully glared as they whisked by on their fast and extremely expensive dandy horses.

This is not the first time I have encountered that attitude here. A couple of years ago, a concerned visitor asked me who she needed to see to enforce violations of the highway bike path rules. When I asked her what she meant, she said she was concerned that motorcycles and pedestrians were walking on the bike path making it difficult for bikers. Cars were often parked there.

I told her 
there is no bike path on the highway, the white line designates where the shoulder begins. But it is just part of the highway -- a multi-use part of the highway.

She was happy with the explanation -- and just a little bit embarrassed that she had made the mistake.

But I understood why she made it. In Vancouver, if a lane is marked beside the car travel lane, it is usually designated for the exclusive use of bikers. And, for a lot of reasons, once they have conquered that strip of territory, bicyclists will not surrender it.

Bike paths are not unknown here. We have one that runs the length of the access road into Barra de Navidad.

In fact, there are two paths -- each marked subtly for the exclusive use of either walkers or bikers. This one is marked for bikes.

This one is marked for pedestrians.

Interestingly, some visitors do not unpack their bike etiquette when they arrive in Mexico.

I regularly walk there. About 90% of the users stay in their designated lanes. Not surprisingly, the largest group of users are my Mexican neighbors. Which puts to rest the silly notion that Mexico has rules that no one follows.

Now and then, though, a small number of bikers choose to use the walking path and most will barrel right through walkers with that same Top Gun stare, rather than move to the proper path. The sad thing is that nine out of ten of the violators are northerners.

Each time I have attempted to point out the clearly-marked differences in the paths, I have been met with the same invective-punctuated screed used by the lead biker yesterday. Often with a coda shot over the shoulder: "There are no rules in Mexico."

Well, there are. And it would do all of us well to know them and apply them. Part of the problem is getting over ourselves -- and I include myself in that category.

Here is one last example. I had dinner with a woman who was visiting our area for the first time. She was one of those seasoned travelers who tries to gauge the cultural lay of the land and to then act accordingly.

But something was bothering her. "I love the bus system here. It took me just one day to figure out how it worked. My fellow passengers are friendly and always teach me a lot about Barra. But, when I get off of the bus and try to cross the highway at that crosswalk, cars don't stop. Why?"

Her use of the term "crosswalk" threw me. We don't have any designated crosswalks here. At least, none that I could remember.

When she described it, though, I knew exactly what it was. 

A tope has been constructed on the highway at the bus stop and it has been painted white and yellow to warn drivers of its presence. I suspect it is there to slow traffic for the people who get off of the bus and need to cross the hig
hway into Jaluco.

But it is not a crosswalk, and it does not carry any of the rights and obligations that one would find in a Portland crosswalk. The tope may cause drivers to slow down enough to give pedestrians an opportunity to cross, and some drivers may be courteous enough to allow that. But anyone who expects that to happen and exercises her "right of way" to cross the road may very well have the additional cultural experience of seeing how the Mexican medical system works.

I offer all of this in the spirit of advice. You are welcome to do with it as you choose. But, I am willing to bet, we can all improve our experiences in a new culture by constantly questioning our own assumptions. 

If you leave your own cultural notions in your suitcase, they will be there when you get home. 

I will now see if I can get that mote out of my own eye. 

PS -- A Facebook reader raised a good question that reminded me I had one additional point that I failed to mention. So I will now.

She related a story that she had been the object of northern scolding for riding in the wrong lane on the andador, and that the experience had destroyed her enjoyment of her otherwise-fun bike ride.

I meant to note that I am now out of the advice business. Getting angry over such things also ruins my day. I am going to start doing what my Mexican neighbors do. They seldom confront bad behavior. Instead, they store up those experiences to share in the barrio. My neighbor once pointed out: "You are really weird people." He meant me, as well. I suspect he meant me primarily.

A Mexican friend, who works as a waiter, asked me last week: "Why do you Canadians [he meant "northerners"] complain about everything?" He also included me in that category.

Both of them are correct. We complain and confront far too quickly. And we are miserable for having done it. I intend to continue collecting our aberrant behavior, but you will not see those tales here. Those are going to be adventures shared over tacos.         

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"here" of the dog that bit you

New languages are like dating.

There is the excitement of new discoveries balanced out by crashing disappointments.

I am no stranger to foreign languages. Over the years, I have sat through classes in Latin, German, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. And I was not very good at any of them. Eventually, I would start a new language in the hope that at least one other person would be less-talented than I. If not, I usually did not show up to the next class.

Language teachers have told me that people with a basic notion of logic, and especially those with a good ear for music, should do well in languages. I have both -- and I don't.

But I do have an almost-unquenchable curiosity about the structure of language that keeps my interest in learning foreign tongues alive.

My ongoing attempts to learn Spanish are a perfect example. For me, learning Spanish is not an academic exercise. I need it to communicate with most of the people I encounter daily in Mexico. What s the point of living here if you cannot participate in the culture sea surrounding us?

I have a leg up in learning Spanish. My high school Latin has been very helpful in grammar structure and vocabulary. There is the added bonus that when the Normans invaded England, they imported their rather odd version of French that became a building block in the development of the English language. Without the Normans, we would not have "accessible," " transformation," or "omelette."

Those words also exist in Spanish with almost the same spelling. That is not surprising since all three languages take the words from Latin. Grammarians call them cognates. Students call them "words I already know."

I have taken two classroom courses in Spanish since I arrived in Mexico. And my classmates and I have gone through the same seven stages of grief that students since Aristotle have experienced when trying on a new language. Death does not own a copyright on grief.

The "shock and denial" stage sets in early. Inevitably, a student will become almost indignant to discover that Spanish words can have more than one meaning. "How can 'tiempo' be both 'time' and 'weather?' That makes no sense," said a fellow student from Washington.

Well, it makes no sense in the language that is hard-wired in our heads -- for most of us,, English. My response is to pity the poor student of English who has to learn the subtle differences between "smell," "aroma," "scent," "bouquet," "perfume," "stench," and "stink." They mean quite different things -- although native English speakers often use them as if they were interchangeable.

The allure of interchangeability occurs in Spanish. "Here" is a perfect example.

Unlike "tiempo" with its two meanings, there are two Spanish words for "here." "Aquí" the word most of us associate with "here," and "acá."

The first time I encountered "acá" was in a discussion with my friend Gary. His gardener had used the word and Gary asked him to explain it. The explanation? "Aquí" is something right next to the speaker and acá" is close but further away.

I asked Omar. He relied on the same theory, but claimed reversed the distinction. For him, "acá" describes something close to the speaker.

In times like these, I reach for scripture -- my Spanish grammar books. They were unanimous. Both the gardener and Omar were wrong. The distinction between the words had nothing to do with spatial difference.

"Acá" requires a verb of motion, as in, "Come here." "Aquí" would be used for "I am here."

These are the type of distinctions that make me look around the classroom to see if at least one other person shares my look (somewhere between stunned and drowning). It is like the differences between the two "to be" verbs in Spanish, when English has only one for the same purpose. Teachers are usually wise enough to grant absolution on the rules: "You'll figure it out by listening to native speakers."

Except, you won't. Maybe if you hung out in the court of Felipe VI, you would hear grammatically-correct Spanish. But certainly not in my little village.

From what I have read the distinction between the two "here" words resides almost exclusively in grammar books. Very few speakers draw that distinction. But if you want to spend your time worrying about such matters, consider the three Spanish words for "there" that are based on an incredibly subjective distinction of distance from the speaker.

Getting too focused on grammar may not take you through the valley of death, but it will afford you a weekend visit to the vale of tears.

And it is not just Spanish that contains these linguistic landmines.

In a different Spanish class, our teacher, who had spoken Spanish from her youth and is a high school Spanish teacher, asked us to translate: "Ella es mayor que yo." She told us, this sentence was easy because we could translate it word-for-word, unlike most Spanish sentences.

One of my classmates shouted out:"She is older than I."

Before she could move on to the next sentence, a northern visitor raised her hand and said: "Excuse me, but that's not correct English."

The teacher asked her what she thought was incorrect. The student responded: "Proper English would be 'older than me.'"

Our teacher explained why "I" was required. The sentence calls for a nominative pronoun. The explanation, of course, resulted in blank stares. Most of us (who were in our 60s and 70s) had long ago forgotten about the distinction between nominative and objective pronouns.

While most of the class had blank stares, the "older than me" woman slipped into the next step of language grief -- anger. With a couple of exchanges that she had been speaking English all her life, that the teacher did not know what she was talking about, and she would not sit there and be insulted by a woman a third her age, she slammed her book on the table and made an exit that would have been the envy of Elizabeth Taylor under full sail.

I can empathize with the dearly departed. Few people graciously accept correction -- especially, when they are wrong. And English grammar is an area where we often are wrong. Consider the struggle some of us go through with "I was" or "I were" when we try to capture or avoid the subjunctive mood. Grammar can be tough.

In a way, the angry woman had a point, though she did not know it. The easy way to determine if the nominative is required of a pron
oun is to remember a little trick. In English, "She is older than I" actually leaves off a word at the end of the sentence. We are really saying: "She is older than I am."

But, because we have forgotten (or have never learned) that trick, the majority of English-speakers use the ungrammatical "than me." And that raises a question, if grammar is merely a set of rules to help us communicate subtle meanings to one another, doesn't usage matter? Especially, if the thought seems to roll smoothly.

At the start of this essay I purposely inserted the correct use of the nominative: "Eventually, I would start a new language in the hope that at least one other person would be less-talented than I." I am willing to bet, some of you tripped over that "I" as if it were a glottal stop. And I bet if I had used "me," none of you would have written a comment about my eroding grammar. (Or maybe not. These pages tend to be a target-rich environment for similar criticisms.)

Because English is my native tongue, I will probably keep applying the grammar rules I learned as a student. After all, we called it grammar school for a reason.

But my Spanish is not yet subtle enough to turn myself into Señor Gramático. I will follow the lead of my neighbors where "here" is a place with many meanings. Or one.

There are limits, though. I doubt I can bring myself to ignore the distinction between the preterit and the imperfect as a lot of my neighbors do. But that is a tale for another time.

I now need to figure out if I am aquí or allá. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

so, a portuguese, an indian, and an italian walk into a mexican kitchen

It sounds like the first line of a joke designed to set modern sensibilities on edge. But the Mexican kitchen was mine today, and my lunch theme was fusion across three continents.

Because I have reduced my daily eating hours from 2 in the afternoon to 7 in the evening, I want each of my meals to be a culinary adventure. And that has not been difficult.

I read some years back that the majority of any given American family’s meals are limited to only twelve recipes. (At least, that was more than the British average of nine.) When I read that, I thought it had to be wrong. But, after talking with friends and acquaintances, it appears to be accurate.

I need more variety than that to keep from getting bored with my food. That is probably one reason I bought an Instant pot. It was a new tool to induce me to experiment.

And that was exactly what I intended to do today for lunch.

I have seen several Instant Pot recipes for Indian pork dishes. Ground pork vindaloo is a popular choice.

Vindaloo has always intrigued me. Even though it sounds (and tastes) very Indian, it did not originate on the sub-continent. The Portuguese brought the method with them when they were the colonial masters of a good portion of India. The cuisine of the region around Goa (Portugal’s last colonial redoubt in India) still bears a notable Portuguese influence.

In the case of vindaloo, it is vinegar (an important component of Portuguese cooking) that defines the dish’s flavor layering -- and origin. But the spices are what make it Indian -- cumin, black mustard, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric, and, of course, lots of cayenne. All of that is complemented with onion, ginger, and garlic.

That was the Indian and Portuguese contribution. But mine is a Mexican kitchen. As much as I like spicing up dishes with cayenne, it does not have the same depth of flavor as serranos and habaneros. (For those of you who believe habaneros have no Mexican roots, we will have to talk.)

I looked at those ingredients assembled next to my Instant Pot. By using my wok, I could have my meal in less than 10 minutes -- and I could control the layering of the spices. The Instant Pot would reduce my ability to tinker, and would take longer.

One of the lessons I have learned with the Instant Pot is that buying a hammer does not turn everything into a nail. As wonderful as the Instant Pot is, it is not a universal cooker.

So, out came the wok. I decided to add a bit of Siam by cooking everything in sesame oil. It turned out to be a success --  something I need to remember for future pork experiments.

And the Italy part of the meal? About a week ago, I bought a package of Italian gemelli pasta (one of my favorites) that would be the perfect shape to capture the subtle layers of the vindaloo. And it did.

The only surprise was inside the package. It does not bear on this tale, but it certainly will be a good topic for a future essay. The squeamish need not inquire further.

The meal was delicious. I do not think I have had a well-engineered Indian dish that I did not like.

My blogger pal Jennifer Rose suggested that I buy Urvashi Pitre’s The Keto Instant Pot Cookbook to get some ideas for my low carbohydrate-high fat food regimen. When I looked at the reviews on Amazon, I was amazed at the number of people who complained that the food was “too foreign” or “real weird” or “my family would never eat any of this stuff.”

I suspect the naysayers (some of whom most likely fall into the 9- or 12-recipe repertoire) were reacting more to the “Korean-style Galbijjim” or “Chicken Shawarma” than to “Corned Beef and Cabbage” or “Chicken Tortilla Soup.” But maybe they had something against Irish and Mexican cuisine along with their Asia-phobia.

Pitre’s Keto cookbook, along with her Indian cookbook, has given me some new leads for my “a-new-dish-every-day” method of cooking.

And it has reminded me that good food should not only please the tongue, it should be as fun to make as it is to eat.

Tomorrow? How about something German, Italian, and Japanese?

Or maybe not. It seems like the last time those forces combined, the dishes were not quite edible.

Monday, February 04, 2019

putting the bang in constitution


It was 6 AM. The explosions did not startle me awake, even though they were close enough to nudge me out of my sleep.

For a moment, I thought I was in in Beirut in 1980. Where your first reaction is fear that you are under attack -- a fear that morphs to compassion for others when you realize the bombardment is directed three blocks away.

For the past four mornings, the cohetes of the church's religious procession in homage to San Felipe de Jesús, patron saint of the barrio, has passed by my house. The mater of the cohetes has been using the antenna next to my house as a target. As a result, the rockets burst right over my patio. And I rather like the excitement. The feast ends tomorrow.

There has been all sorts of speculation amongst the tourist community about the bomb bursts in the early morning air. My favorite came last night.

A very earnest visitor from up north told me last night that she had figured it all out. Our local ATM is empty because the town is filled with Mexican tourists enjoying a long weekend at the beach. Today is Constitution Day.

My new acquaintance told me she had seen the procession going by with the priests and the man firing off the sky rockets. She put two and two together and came up with zero.

"The church is firing off sky rockets to celebrate the constitution."

I laughed appreciatively, thinking she had constructed an incredibly good historical joke. But, she was not joking, and was a bit offended at my reaction.

It is true that today is Constitution Day or El Día de la Constitución, to give it its full linguistic due. One of Mexico's few statutory holidays (there are only eight), this is the day set aside to celebrate the enactment of the 1917 constitution. It is a big deal.
Historians are unanimous that the Mexican Revolution was the greatest historical event influencing what we know as modern Mexico. But revolutions do not create states. That task was left to a congress of various revolutionary interests to draft a constitution that would memorialize the gains of the revolution.

There were a lot of reasons the Mexicans rose in revolution. And not all of the groups were happy to work with one another. President Carranza, the leader of the army who had overthrown the reactionary Huerta regime, had very definite ideas what should and should not be part of the constitution. Land reform was way down on his list.

So, he excluded the supporters of rival groups. That included the supporters of Emilio Zapata (he of the wild-eyed stare and enviable mustache). They were primarily interested in radical land reform. (Carranza would later arrange to have Zapata assassinated.)

The followers of Pancho Villa, who also supported land reform, were also excluded -- primarily because of Carranza's fear of an alternative power base in the north. (A subsequent president, Calles, arranged Villa's death.)

Carranza, as a relative conservative from a cattle-ranching family, thought he had control of the congress that would draft the constitution. He didn't. There were forces far more radical in the congress that drafted clauses not to his liking.

The congress was not working with a blank slate. The Reform Wars in the 1850-60s had laid the foundation for a number of the revolution's goals. That included a failed land reform program and a marginally successful reduction of the Catholic church's power in Mexico.

Land reform and Catholic suppression remained a goal of the congress. But they also considered other causes of the revolution -- foreign ownership of industry and property, foreigners meddling in politics, abuse of re-election, and economic disparity.

The 1917 constitution created by the congress (and memorialized by a 100-peso note issued two years ago; President Carranza is on the right with the John Brown beard) radically altered the way Mexicans thought about governance, the Catholic church, and the activity of foreigners within its borders. Among other things, the constitution --

  • Established a system of free, mandatory, and secular education, thus restricting another traditional role performed by the Catholic church
  • Set up the foundations for land reform through the ejido system
  • Declared all mineral resources in the subsoil belonged to the state
  • Provided for liberal labor rights
  • Placed ownership of all property in the hands of the government and restricted foreign ownership of property near borders or on the coast ("Private property is a privilege created by the nation.")
  • Increased the restrictions on the Catholic church beyond those of Juarez's constitution -- including the seizure of church buildings
  • Empowered the government to expropriate property -- from the hacienda owners, and particularly property owned by foreigners
  • Prohibited the reelection of any official -- especially, the president
  • Guaranteed the right of persons to own firearms in their home

The final product was a repudiation of many of the liberal principles Benito Juarez had championed during the Reform Wars. But this was a different time.

So, you can see why I found it too be a good joke that someone would believe the Catholic church would celebrate the enactment of the 1917 constitution. One of the constitution's purposes was to strip the church of its secular authority.

A subsequent president, Plutarco Calles (the same guy who ordered Pancho Villa's assassination) would so stringently impose anti-clerical laws that some members of the church rose in a rebellion. That was known as the Cristero War -- a rebellion that had strong support in our home state of Jalisco.

The constitution enacted in 1917 is still in existence -- with a few major amendments.

So, that is why our little beach villages have been filled with tourists this weekend. Most are celebrating this major step in the development of the Mexican state just as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July or Canadians celebrate Canada Day -- by lugging the family to the beach for good food and a lot of sand.

And that does not need any Beirut-style sky rockets.