Sunday, March 31, 2019

a brisbane too far

When I was nine years old, we moved to the Portland area.

A girl, Karen Van Hoy, lived across the street from our rental. She must have been eight.

We went to high school together. The next time I ran into her, she was a fellow lawyer in Oregon City -- and she had morphed into Karen Brisbin. We both practiced a bit of criminal defense law.

You now know as much about Karen Brisbin as I do about Brisbane, Australia after spending a part of a day there -- our first stop on this cruise.

There are the usual facts, of course. It is the capital of Queensland, the state that makes up Australia's northeast quadrant. With a population of about 2 and a half million. Australia's third most-populated city.

That statistic is worth noting, though. Australia is physically a big country. Sixth largest in the world.

But, its population is only 25 million.  53rd largest in the world. Tucked between North Korea and Ivory Coast. A population just larger than Mexico City.

Most Australians live on the coastal rim of the country -- primarily in the southeast. Brisbane is part of that population corridor.

Today we stopped by for a short visit. The weather was perfect -- especially after a stormy day at sea where a microburst of wind tipped our ship far enough to baptize two decks of portholes.

We were in the midst of the first round of progressive trivia. A perfect question would have been: "How did The Poseidon Adventure end?"

It is not fair to judge a city with such a short visit. But, both the city and the visit were pleasant enough.

Brisbane is built around the Brisbane river. It provides a great vista to see the city with its high-end houses, which were probably considered to be country homes at one point.

And its high rises with enough contemporary flair to remind visitors that Australia is a vibrant and growing country.

As well as its trendy bourgeois weekend markets filled with the type of trinkets that retired grandmothers and aging hippies love to buy and sell.

It even has an artificial beach built against the backdrop of a very real river.

When I started thinking about places where I could retire, Australia was one of the countries on my first final list -- along with New Zealand, England, Scotland, and France. Most of those countries quickly dropped off of the ilst because they were not interested in attracting aging retired people who could be a drain on their economies.

Especially, Australia and New Zealand who are active competitors in attracting highly-educated, young people to their shores. Something Canada does, and The States should consider doing.

Instead, I ended up in Mexico. And I have no regrets about that choice. The comforts of Australia would not really fit into to my choice to find a place that would offer me daily challenges.

But, I may have sold Australia short. Even though it is bad form to carry uncapped cameras into the mens toilet, if I were bound by such social constraints, I could not bring home treasures like this for you.

Next stop: the Great Barrier Reef.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

the land of tomorrow

I am having a Billy Pilgrim moment.

You know the type. They are summed up in the opening line of Slaughterhouse Five when Billy Pilgrim (Kurt Vonnegut's take on John Bunyan's most-famous creation) tells us: "I have come unstuck in time."

I have been in Australia (Sydney to be exact) for the past three days with my cruise pals Sophie and the Millers (Nancy and Roy). Time has been a constant in our conversations. Calculating the difference in hours between here and wherever. The coda is always -- "yesterday." Because of that fascinating temporal devise: the international dateline.

But Australia has a feel of being a place separate from time. Starting with its animals. The place is filled with a menagerie of evolutionary cul-de-sacs that thrived when the Australian continent separated from Asia.

Kangaroos. Wombats. Koalas. Platypuses.

This was Sophie's first trip to Down Under, so we wandered over to Sydney Wildlife to gape at some of Australia's stranger (and tastier) animals. One of my favorites is the inland taipan -- the world's most-venomous snake -- and one of Australia's prettiest.

Distance also gives Australia the feel of being in its own orbit. But not so much any more. Air travel has bridged the gap that distance once gave to the country.

We had lunch with Sophie's cousin, Emma, who had emigrated here decades ago from Britain -- about the same time Sophie's family made the same exit in a westerly direction to Canada.

Our conversation with her evoked the same sense of adventure that was once stored in wagon trains that trundled across the American west a century and a half ago. Admittedly, Emma's experience was far more sophisticated than that.

That "wagon train" reference was intentional. On each of my visits to Australia, I have been struck with the decency and virtues of the people I have encountered. There is a certain sense of "midwestern values" that the nostalgia set adores.

And rightfully so. Because that nostalgia complimenrts the moral values that tend to get lost in many of our daily lives.

The national television news here is thoroughly parochial. And it gives me a warm feeling. Walter Cronkite with a Kookaburra accent.

But Sydney is not a Meredith Willson sound stage. It is a modern city of 5 million people that offers almost anything a visitor might want. Fashion. Electronics. Beaches.

And then there is the cultural crown jewel of the country -- the Sydney Opera House. No tourist can avoid its siren call. My camera's storage card is larded with shots of it.

I have often wondered why the building can change colors from bright white to a warm amber. I knew the intensity of the sun played a part, as well as the curves of the styled-sails that make up the three structures.

If you look up close at the tiles covering the surface, they give up the secret of the ever-morphing colors. The tiles themselves do not have a uniform color. Similar to Seurat's paintings, Our eyes combine the differing colors to create new hues throughout the day.

But, the opera house is not merely to be viewed from the outside. I like to attend at least one performance inside the building. And those performances can include recitals, concerts, or plays.

And, of course, opera. This year, the four of us attended a pleasant production of Puccini's "Turandot."

Time has not been kind to the opera. Man-woman relationships filtered through the eyes of a 1920s Italian composer have not well-weathered our current tumultuous sexual relationships.

But it is an opera. And complex story lines merely get in the way of diva-nation. 

It is now Friday morning (tomorrow to you). We will be boarding our ship in about seven hours.

I do not think I have told you about this cruise. We will be sailing around the northern coast of Australia stopping in Brisbane, Airlie Beach (for the Great Barrier Reef), Cairns, and Darwin ending up in Singapore. A number of sea days are peppered in between.

It should be a great cruise. Especially with Sophie (who I am always pleased to see) and the Millers.

So, let me return to tomorrow and start my day.  

Monday, March 25, 2019

it matters how you get there

My first full day out of Mexico and I am spending the day in Hong Kong.

Now, that sounds a bit exotic. That is, until I add one word. I am spending the full day at the Hong Kong airport. My flight arrived at 7 this morning. I do not leave for Australia until 9 this evening.

So, what does a rather obsessive traveler do for fourteen hours in an airport?

Originally, I had thought of slipping across the border into the Communist-controlled portion of the country. After all, there is a high speed train that would take me there. And I did remember to bring my visa that still has six years of its ten-year life remaining.

For some reason, I went against my usual adventurous nature. Pushing the time envelope to do something new perfectly matches my personality. For some reason, I strangled the idea in its gestation.

Maybe because I am a bit tired. My flight from Los Angeles left just after midnight on Sunday morning. And I did not get much rest before the flight or on the flight itself. I will get back to that.

First, let's talk about that photograph at the top of the essay. The advertisement's tag line sums up my trip across the Pacific. The sign is on the side of a shopping center in Culver City. The Best Buy, where I was going to buy a new computer, is inside. I didn't buy the computer.

The billboard advertises the services of Lyft, a ride-sharing program similar to Uber's. "It matters how you get there." It does.

Even when speaking truth, though, California frequently adds just the correct layer of irony to pique my humor.

Look at the sandwich board at the lower left. The side of the building extols the virtues of ride-sharing. The sign then screams at drivers: "Don't stop here!!!!"

On the walk back to the hotel, I passed this almost-natural landscaping. It had just rained in southern California, shifting the wild flowers into full bloom. This is for people who claim there is no beauty in Los Angeles.

The poppies reminded me of the wide array of their cousins in my rock wall at the Salem house. They should be blooming now, as well.

When I am not laughing at signs, I occasionally run across real treats. Here is one. From my hotel room.

A real easy chair. With a hassock. Lit by a reading lamp. All I was missing was a book.

I faked it. I used my Kindle and reveled in the pleasure.

But, we were talking about the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I started to write that airplane flights are something to be endured, not enjoyed. But I really do not believe that. The trip itself is part of the experience of traveling.

When I fly internationally, I treat myself. I do not sleep well when sitting up. No, that is not accurate. I do not sleep at all when sitting up. And on 14-hour flights that is a bit brutal.

I manage to pump up the experience by combining my air mile bonuses and my miles earned from my credit card to fly first class. If I didn't, I could not afford the luxury.

But luxury it is.

Here is my seat. On my flight there were only 6 first class seats in an area that would accommodate maybe 20 coach seats -- or more.

The best thing about the pod is that the seat not only adjusts to make it more comfortable, it also folds flat into a bed complete with sheets and comforter. I slipped into a pair of incredibly comfortable pajamas.

Because we boarded the flight just before midnight, I turned down what appeared to be a first-rate dinner. But I did not decline the airline's signature caviar, blinis, chopped eggs, and chive-infused sour cream. It is always good.

It should have been a nice snack to send me off to a good night's sleep. I did sleep a bit, but I was awake at what would have been 6 in the morning in Mexico.

So, I watched a movie. One of this year's list of mediocre Oscar-nominated best pictures that I had been interested in seeing. The Favourite. Purportedly the story about the friendship of Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill (didn't we already see that on Masterpiece Theater?) and a court interloper. It was far less a tale of the last of the Stuart monarchs than a re-make of All About Eve -- without the charm.

But if I wanted charm, there was breakfast to be had. I learned long ago when flying Chinese airlines never to order the western breakfast when a Chinese breakfast is on offer.

In this case a full assortment of dim sum. One of the best breakfasts I have had in a long time. With plenty of Chinese chili sauce.

So, when we arrived, I was still a bit tired. This is where another benefit of flying first class comes into play. Asian airline first class lounges are like visiting a snazzy boutique hotel.

A dining room with full meals for breakfast, dinner, and supper. Showers. Soaking tubs. Snacks and beverages. Power outlets to feed the maws of our electronic traveling companions.

And, best of all, a day suite where a travel can take a much-needed nap.

As luck would have it, I snagged a day suite complete with a college-dorm day bed. Then I could could not even drift off for a moment of rest.

And that is why I am now writing to you in the business center. If my computer dies while I am here, I can use one of the units offered in the eight separate carrels. Oh, yes, with a pot of jasmine silver needle tea keeping me company.

I think I paid something like $100 (US) total for this round-trip experience. Had I bought it retail, it would have set me back just over $16,000 (US).

It is good to have a frequent flyer account.

This evening, I hope to be climbing on board my flight to Sydney around 9 PM. Business class. For some reason, there is mo first class on this segment.

And tomorrow, the fun of Australia will begin. If I do not sleep through the entire day.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

a study in black and white

By nature (and practice), I am not a handyman.

Most men learned the details of electrical wiring and replacing broken windows from their fathers. That was not my Dad's forte.

He knew everything about the trucking business, but he definitely was not the guy who would help you install a ceiling fan. That was my Uncle Frank (i never sang for my father).

I have learned to do a number of repairs relying only on my own skills. But if it is much more than changing a water filter or replacing light bulbs, I call in the experts.

And I did just that with our latest two household malfunctions.

Both of the refrigerators in the kitchen recently decided to emit banshee noises -- mainly in the night. At first, I thought the compressors were dying. But I know that sound from years of killing refrigerators by keeping my northern houses too cold.

This was a completely different sound -- a sound I had heard before. And I thought I had diagnosed the problem. A fan was freezing up. And sure enough, that was it.

The father of Omar's girlfriend came over, pulled out the fans, and installed new ones. I think I could now replicate his work. Before he came, I had no idea where the fan was located. The only question now is where I could buy the parts. But that would just be a matter of asking neighbors.

Replacing my toilet seat should have been an easy task. I had replaced a couple in Salem. And, over the past few years, I have had to replace all six of the toilet seats in the house.

I had no desire to repeat the process. It is a real pain. Literally. And I do not mean that as Joe Biden uses the word.

The Chinese-designed toilets installed in the house are almost sculptural. And they function perfectly doing what toilets should do.

The problem is getting at the bolts that hold the toilet in place and the securing the seat. They are hidden in a recess behind the toilet that requires a deeper reach and more agile fingers than I now possess.

My neighbor Mary uses a handyman called Donny.  He did such a good job of cleaning my sidewalk, I hired him to fix my toilet seat. It took him almost a half hour.

Even if I had known how to do both tasks, I would probably have hired someone to do them. It is good to live easily and to share the money I have earned.

It was also easy on the wallet. The labor for the refrigerator repair for two consecutive days cost me about the equivalent of $60 (US). Donny originally charged me only $2.50 (US) for installing the toilet seat. I gave him the equivalent of $10 (US).

And, best of all, I now know handy skills that I can pass on to my own son. His position is that it is better to hire other people to do those tasks.

Smart kid.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

the venerable bede stores here

This is a gift for my pal Sherry Hall.

It will probably give her a heart attack.

For any of that to make any sense, you need to know her job. She is the Clackamas County clerk. My old home county when I first started practicing law. She is in charge of maintaining the county's records.

I did not shoot this photograph at the Clackamas County courthouse. I had driven a Mexican friend to Cihuatlán, our county seat, so he could apply to get his bail money from an old charge refunded. I thought it would take 30 minutes. It took all afternoon.

Instead of kicking my heels, I started nosing around the little courthouse on the second floor of what my friend elegantly (and inaccurately) calls the Palace of Justice. Just around the corner from the court clerk's office is a glass-fronted storage room for the court's records.

Sheaves of paper bound in baling twine. Stacked in no appreciable order.

At first glance, I thought some of the files might date back to Spain's colonial rule of Mexico. Not even close. Even though the papers appear ancient, the oldest date I could see was 2009. Our tropical humidity and temperature are not kind to even the most important documents.

And, like court documents the world over, once their immediate utility is over, they will never again be touched. Time will have its way with them.

I guess, as it will with all of us.

I am now in Los Angeles. It is early Saturday morning. Around 10 PM I will shuttle over to the airport for my flight to Hong Kong that leaves just after midnight.

As soon as I hit the publish key, I am walking to a Best Buy to find a replacement for my cracked-screen Surface.

After all, I do not want to lose contact just because of a technical difficulty.

Friday, March 22, 2019

bugging between the lines

While I wait for the grocery store to open to stock me with my traditional lunch items for the flight north, I dug through the pile of potential topics for this morning's essay.

Mexico is a writer's treasure trove. And I do not always get around to writing about some events on the day they occur. That is fine because a lot of them are timeless.

Cooking pasta, for example. In the last few years, we pasta lovers have been offered some interesting choices of top-quality pasta here in Mexico. Most of it imported from Italy.

Twice now, I have poured the contents of the pasta packet into a pot of boiling water only to discover that durum wheat was not the only inhabitant of my kitchen jacuzzi. Little black specks were floating on top of the water. Lots of them.

I am not an insect virgin. Even in Oregon, flour goods attracted weevils or other beetles that reveled in the carbohydrate grist.

The first time it happened here, I tried to carefully fish out the floaters with minimal effect. But, beetle bodies do the same as the human variety. Some float. Some sink. It was the sinkers that undid me.

I had hoped when I drained the water from the pasta in a colander that the bodies would wash away. No such luck. Their peppery corpses stuck to the pasta. It is no accident that "pasta" and "paste" share he same root.

So, into the trash went the lot. I was cooking for my family and I thought better of serving them up pasta con burro with assorted insects. Even though the pasta cost almost $5 (US), it was not going to pass the family test.

I have had beetle infestations in my dry goods before. As a prophylactic (taking advice from fellow bloggers), I put all flour-based product in the freezer for two days to kill any eggs. I then store it in the refrigerator until I am ready to use it.

Somewhere between the Italian packing house and the shelves of La Comer, beetles hatched inside the package I bought. I do check for bodies when I buy pasta -- and beans. Beans often have the worst infestations. But, somehow, the beasties were in my soup.

I know several cooks for Mexican restaurants in this area. I asked two of them how they avoid the beetle problem. They looked at me as if I was a bit obsessive -- which I am.

Both gave me the same answer. Yes, they do get beetles in their flour and pasta. But it is too expensive to throw it out. So, the invaders get cooked into whatever is being prepared. One told me he just adds additional ground pepper to his pasta if he cannot get the bodies removed.

So, when I had my second out-with-the-bodies experience, I dredged what I could and just forged forward. I added a lot of black mustard seed to my sauce that day, and I never noticed the difference. After all, one source of protein is as good as another. Well, with the exception of tofu.

I will leave you with that thought as I head off to Los Angeles this afternoon, and to Hong Kong and Saturday very early Sunday morning.

If my computer with the broken screen holds up, we will be in touch.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

more signs of the times

We are no Indonesia, but our area of Mexico is subject to both earthquakes and the occasional light tsunami.

Like every earthquake zone, people here are prone to slipping into smug pronouncements about the inevitably of The Big One. I usually use that term for my inevitable stroke. But I think they mean the legendary earthquake that the myth-makers claim will turn Vancouver and points south into the new Atlantis.

And we are ready for it -- and its offspring The Big Tide.

Well, we are ready in a very Mexican kind of way. Someone somewhere devised a master plan to warn of tsunamis heading our way. There are solar-powered towers throughout the coastal towns of Jalisco designed to send out the alarm the tides they are a changin'.

We even have signs telling us where to evacuate.

The warning system was installed about ten years ago -- just about the time I arrived. Back then, there were frequent tests. The first test spooked a group of tourists who started piling their belongings into their cars.

The tests have become less frequent. A Mexican friend told me he heard the towers no longer worked. A couple of months ago, it turned out that was not true -- or else someone fixed them, because we were feted to another test. This time far too muted to have done anyone any good.

I would like to say the photograph at the top of this essay was shot while people, misinterpreting the test, were fleeing to higher ground. It isn't. The group is actually following the graven image of San Felipe de Jesús on his annual outing through the barrio.

Speaking of signs. I think you all know I like collecting humorous signs. Now that the world has fallen prey to internationalism, the treasure trove of clever words are disappearing. But international symbols can be humorous in their own way.

This sign was posted in both the men's and the women's restroom (though I suspect the symbol on the left was designed to be gender-specific).

That was funny enough. But I am even more fascinated in why I am not supposed to through a barn swallow into the toilet. Because it will simply fly out? Or is it supposed to be a Klingon Bird of Prey?

I experienced a similar moment of identity crisis when we stopped at Tlaquepaque.  I turned around and was startled to see the most recent international road company of Les Miserables bearing down on me.

Of course, it was only Miguel Hidalgo and his Independence-roused rabble hunting for any stray Spaniards that might require a bit of ethnic hacking.

The problem with the photograph is that it simply amplifies the fact that the figures are bronzed in place -- despite what my sometimes-too-active imagination thought.

But this photograph came out just as I thought it would.

Zamora is one of those cities that was wealthy during the late 1890s and received the beneficence of the Porfirio Diaz regime in the form of cast iron. A gazebo that could have graced any Paris park -- and lots of benches.

The city has enough of them to populate a moderate-sized auditorium. And, for some reason, the towns powers have decided the benches should be painted a shade of red that is usually encountered only by English gentlemen who visit certain Parisian houses.

The benches look like a rank of British Grenadiers lined up for inspection.

But, I better stop here. I fly off to Australia tomorrow. I need to get over to the laundry so I can think about what I need to pack. And I have to run down the gas truck that did not show up yesterday to fill my propane tank, as well as watching for the DHL delivery van that is bringing a part to finish off my not-yet-completed solar system.

I hope to be back with you briefly in the morning tomorrow before I fly.  If not, I will catch up with you somewhere in North America. Or Asia. Or Australia.   

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

hints from heloise's godson

That shot looks like another of my name-the-subject photographs. It wasn't meant to be.

Our water in these parts is hard. And not just a little hard. The water in my swimming pool has so much iron in it that it constantly points to magnetic north.

I have just learned to deal with it. But one aspect does not happen often enough for me to immediately recall the solution.

Let me explain. There are a few sinks in the house I do not use very often. The sink in the laundry room and the sink at the pool are two examples.

Last week, I tried both faucets -- and the flow of water was about what Gasim had in his canteen trekking across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Because of the calcification in my well water, the filters in the faucet often clog up.

When my friend Robin was here last year, we took out all of the filters and did -- something. My friend Gary told me to just throw them away and to buy new ones. They are inexpensive.

But I have become Mexican enough that I will now try to repair what can be repaired. If I could only remember how.

I took the filters into the kitchen while I prepared a salad. Most of my handyman skills have been learned by doing them. I am a kinetic learner.

All it took was picking up a bottle of vinegar for the salad dressing to jar my memory. White vinegar. I am supposed to put the filters in a bath of white vinegar to dissolve the calcification. Mnemonics do work.

And so I did. It took less than an hour to restore the water flow in each sink.

I should have remembered that. We buy white vinegar by the gallons around here -- primarily for cleaning the glass doors that pass for walls opening onto the patio.

When I was growing up, there was a household hints column in The Oregonian entitled "Hints from Heloise," filled with all kinds of wisdom about creative use of toothpaste or baking powder. I suspect white vinegar baths for blocked filters would be a perfect fit for one of her columns.

But, I guess I just played that role, didn't I?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

a tip and a test

This is a John Calypso essay.

My late blogger pal had a distinct writing style. He would take two seemingly unrelated topics and attempt to combine them into a single tapestry. He usually succeeded. Just like that James Burke chap.

So here they are. Two topics seeking a theme.

This is topic one.

Whenever you go to a target-rich environment (oh, let's say a beach-side restaurant), take along your good camera. If you don't, this will inevitably happen.

The south west end of our bay is defined by a series of rocks that terminate in what some think is a rhinoceros (they drink deeply at the Dali well) and others see it as a somewhat-tumescent sleeping giant (they tend to be treated by strict Freudians). The rocks are spaced just so that passing ships play an ongoing game of peekaboo with us landlubbers.

Throw in one of those violet-hemorrhaging sunsets, and you have a perfect shot for any photographer worth his salt. That is, of course, if he has remembered to bring his Sony NEX-6 DSLR to dinner rather than his telephone camera.

As you may imagine, it did happen. And the shot on my Samsung is pathetic enough to remind me that I will publicly embarrass myself again if I do not staple my DSLR to my left hand.

So, that is my tip for the day. Never leave your good camera behind. If you are out of bed, it should be within an easy grab.

That is the tip. Now for the test.

This is topic two.

Our little village of Barra de Navidad has very few traditions. Almost everyone living here is from somewhere else. What traditions exist are often a bit on the young side.

But I have noticed that Christmas takes a while to die out. Here we are in March and the nativity background on the jardin stage is still running strong.

I walked by the other day and something struck me as odd. Something was missing. Something very important.

So, here is your test. Take a good look at the nativity scene, and tell us what you think is missing.

There will be no clues. Other than this. If one object had been painted by a Pentecostal, nothing would be missing.

Let the comments begin.

And, the unifying theme?

That was Calypso's shtick, not mine. To me, this is just a tip and a test stuck together because neither one was long enough for a full essay.

And that is good enough for me today. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

building walls that bind

I am often surprised how long it takes to build large churches -- even in our own time.

I shouldn't be. We are surrounded by the evidence that magnificent buildings are not punched out like quarter-pounders.

We talked about one the other day (amo a zamora). The cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of the Cristero war) in Zamora, Michoacán. It is as new as a 2019 Bentley Mulsanne. You inhale the new cathedral scent as you walk down the aisle. You find yourself looking for the theological tachometer.

The foundation stone was laid in 1898. And the finishing touches are still being added. Who knows how long it would have taken but for the socially-disruptive effects of the Revolution?

But that is far from the record time to build a big church. St. Peter's basilica took longer. Just barely. 144 years -- with Rex Harrison muttering in the background at its slow pace.

The longest? 252 years for York Minster cathedral. Its hulking presence in northern England echos its extended construction.

We do not have a cathedral in my barrio. For one good reason. A bishop's see is not here. That honors goes to Guadalajara.

But, we do have a parish church. A parroquia, as Spanish-speakers would have it. San Miguel de Allende does not have a trademark registration on the appellation.

Its name? San Felipe de Jesús. A local boy. At least, "local" in the sense that he was born in Mexico City in 1572. He is the barrio's patron saint. We share his patronage with Mexico City. We are generous like that.

The local church will never see the adjective "magnificent" in front of its name, other than by locals who will describe it in the same terms they use for their magically-talented grandchildren.

It currently has a not-quite-done look. Because it is not. That is it at the top of this essay. Money to build the church comes from the parishoners. So, it is built the same way a lot of my neighbors build their homes. When a few pesos are saved up, concrete will be purchased. A few bricks will be laid.

We photographers like wandering through construction sites -- even construction sites that are sanctified. I suspect that makes them even more interesting. After all, I doubt you would find boxes containing stations of the cross shoved up against the wall of a bungalo site as if they were nothing more than a basket of guanábanas.

I simply like the various textures of the shot.

The place does not seem the least bit strange to me. I grew up in money-strapped churches that were always under construction. I just thought that was the Pentecostal way.

The feast day of 
San Felipe de Jesús is 5 February. And because he is our patron saint, daily processions pass a block from my house for several days before (feting a local boy). Complete with his graven image and lots of joy-inducing cohetes. A religious procession without cohetes would be like a plate of poutine without cheese curds and brown gravy.
It also gives me an opportunity to visit the church. I shoot the procession at least two or three evenings each year. And we eventually end up at the church where I wander through to see if anything new is on offer.

On one future visit (should I live so long; Julius II didn't), the church will be finished, and the bell will not have to hang from a hole in the wall looking like a fast-food symbol. Parishioners will be called to mass from its new home in a bell tower -- or something a bit more dignified.

But, for now, it is perfectly Mexican. Utilitarian -- fit for the purpose people gather here. To worship their God and to ask for his beneficence in a world that direly needs it.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

tag,you're it

San Miguel de Allende has nothing on Barra de Navidad when it comes to scribbling on concrete.

Well, that is not entirely true. San Miguel has turned garden variety graffiti into consumer-accessible art (don't call it graffiti). Barra is stuck in an almost paleolithic tagging period.

The sidewalk in front of my house has long been a magnet for young men from the apartment building next door to numb the daily monotony of their lives with a Mary Jane date. You know. Acapulco gold. Pot. Weed. Grass. In the darkness of the night, my house smells like the club room at the Manhattan Progressive Caucus.

I have tried several approaches to dissuade the congregation of the brain-besotted. To no avail.

My best Chief Wiggum impression telling them to move on was greeted with an impressive John Locke-inspired defense that they had a legal right to sit on the sidewalk. They were correct.

A reference to the police was met with Little Orphan Annie eyes. They knew very well that the writ of the police does not run here. That authority lies elsewhere.

Resorting to "The Overture of 1812" and arias from Turandot had no effect. After all, to my uninvited guests, it was just another layer of welcome noise.

Even my "Ward Cleaver talks to Wally" failed. I thought if I nonchalantly wandered out there and sat down with them, my presence and conversation would induce the type of discomfort felt by every young man in the presence of old men. It didn't work. After a brief greeting, they sat there with glazed eyes. I am not certain they even remembered I was there.

So, I gave up trying the herd them away. That is, until that interesting signature at the top showed up. I have done enough criminal defense work to recognize its significance. It is the equivalent of urinating on a fire hydrant. My land had been claimed by others.

Living in Salem taught me one thing about tagging. Unless it is removed immediately, it will attract rival or allied tags. As certainly as kimchi will attract flies.

Even with loads of bleach and scrubbing, the permanent marker would not relent. And within a week, there were eight more tags in marker, ink, and chalk. All declaring the power of some group or other. The corner of my sidewalk had more claimants than a bunch of rocks in the South China Sea.

I asked a Mexican friend if he would find a way to erase the not-so-artful work. He kept putting it off. But, one night, he did confront the head writer making subtle threats that he spoke on behalf of the enforcers of civil authority.

That was the last night I saw any of them sitting there. When I now see them in front of the apartment building, they eye me warily.

Of course, as so often happens in these stories, the job I hired my friend to do never did get done by him. Instead I hired Donny, my neighbor Mary's handymen, who cleaned up the walk in a couple hours.

And that is where things stand now.

It would be tempting to say it has a happy ending. But this is a Mexican story, not an American one. Such matters often simmer unresolved.

As my uncle in Haifa says: "Hope for the best; expect the worst."

For the moment, I will enjoy the fresh air at the front of my house. It may not be the best, but it is better.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

posting omar's life

One of the joys of having a teenage son is to enjoy open discussions.

You know the kind. The type that Robert Young would have with Bud. Where the son tells you his deepest desires and you share your dad-acquired life tips that will help him avoid the mistakes you made in your youth.

I suppose on some ideal planet in the Triangulum galaxy that may be true. But, here on the planet Earth, teenage sons are as guarded with their inner thoughts as -- well, just as I was when I was a teenager. If you ask my mother, she will say the same about me now. The only reason she reads my blog is to discover what I do not tell her.

When I wrote last year that I had acquired a son, a reader left a comment that she was looking forward to hearing stories of how an aging American expatriate with limited Spanish faces the challenges of raising a Mexican teenage son who can speak a bit of waiter English. I suspected the task was doomed for the very reason we just discussed.

And then a miracle occurred. Maybe not exactly a miracle. But I felt a thrill akin to Michel Ange Lancret when he realized the Rosetta stone just might be something important.

I woke up one morning two weeks ago to find a large poster in the kitchen. Omar had stayed up most of the night with his girlfriend creating it as an assigned project for one of his high school classes.

Glancing over it, I almost felt as if I had discovered his unlocked diary. It was a list of things he wanted to do with his life. Some I knew. Some I had guessed at. Others were surprising.

"I'm going to be a dentist" was what started our dad-son saga. The people he worked with had marked him out as someone who was going to be successful in life. All he needed was the coin to put in the opportunity slot. That is where I came in.

I thought he had strayed from that goal last year, but there it was in black and white. One more year of high school and he will be on his way.

I considered "I won't have a problem at work" to be aspirational; after all, we all hope that, don't we? And that "I am not going to be a shipwrecked" as simply a response to the instruction sheet that created the borders of the project.

Omar has hinted that he would like to join me on one of my journeys. And now I know where. "I will go to Paris" (great choice); "I'm going to travel to Cancun" (northerners who sneer at the Malaga of Mexico take note); and "I'm going to study in Puerto Vallarta" (I thought the dental school was in Guadalajara). The list may be why he thinks he will not end up shipwrrecked.

He is an acquisitive soul. I already knew that. He wears designer clothes and keeps his motorcycle looking as if it were new.

So, none of these surprised me. "I won't have a small house" (though he thinks mine is too large); "I will have a dog" (something he has wanted since the first day he moved in): "I'm going to have motorcycle 250" (attainable); I will have a RZR" (with five words, he quickly won his uncle Darrel's favor); "I'm going to have a car" (a lobbying effort that started last April for his 19th birthday); "I won't have an old car" (entiendo); and the reassuring "I'm not going to be in prison" (that cuts off several ways of getting the booty listed).

Before I knew him well, I knew he was a gym rat. He had the over-pumped look of a collegiate wrestler. But his changing focus in life has interfered with his gym days. "I won't be a body builder." That may be one reason he is confident in claiming "I'm not going to die young."  Several of my young Mexican friends are convinced they will be dead before they get old. They mean 30.

None of that is very personal. But the poster had its head-snapping personal revelations. First, let me put this in context. Omar has a very steady girlfriend. Over the past year, they have spent more time together than some couples who have been married ten years. I keep expecting him to tell me they are getting married -- other than the fact that marriage seems to be something of an unneeded burden in these parts.

But not for Omar. "I'm not going to get married before I'm 35 years old." The sentence struck me as a bit odd voiced in the negative. That is quickly followed by "I will have two wives." Sequentially? Concurrently? The ambiguity dangles like an orphaned participle.

From those two wives will come progeny. Omar has six siblings. But he is not interested in continuing that tradition. "I'm not going to have many children." Instead, he opts for the New Mexican Norm. "I will have two boys."

As I read through the poster, the lawyer-who-never-dies, who lives in the basement of my brain, shifted into cross-examination mode. Even though I would like to know the answers to the questions raised by the poster, I told my old self to shut up.

I now have an opening for future discussions with my teenage son (who will be leaving that adjective behind in less than a month). There is no reason to scare him off the discussion by being too northern.

Whoever it was who requested a Bringing Up Omar story. Here it is.

Who knows, this may have all the makings of a Netflix miniseries. It couldn't be worse than "Chasing Cameron."

Friday, March 15, 2019

abigail van buren does not work here

I am pulling a modified Dear Abby.

Now and then the current-holder of the Abigail Van Buren nom de plume ("Dear Abby") flits off somewhere and leaves a note that announces: "Abby is away doing something far more important than playing misery aunt to your Enquirer-inspired letters designed to challenge her sagacity" or something like that. Readers are then treated to re-runs that are no more interesting on second reading than when they were first published.

I am in a similar situation. Even though I am still in Barra de Navidad, I have been in bed since I returned to Zamora fighting a head cold I contracted while confined in our tour bus. (And, yes, Jennifer, you are correct; that is one good reason to avoid group tours.)

But I am not going to inflict old essays on you. I have been looking through photographs and checking my long list of essays-I-should-write. Just like the case of the unrequited pince-nez, time has conspired to resuscitate a passé topic -- my last birthday.

For some reason, I never managed to get around to mentioning how pleasant my Big Birthday was -- and all thanks to people I know.

My biggest surprise came from Omar, my Mexican son. And because our dad-son relationship is new, we have no memories bittersweet with time, as the Alan and Marilyn Bergman would have it. So, I really do not expect my milestones to be acknowledged with much more than a nod and a grunt.

Teenagers do not tend to be sentimental. To me, that is a virtue.

Well, I was wrong. He bought me a birthday cake (not one of those soggy Mexican cakes I find treacly inedible; he does know me that much) complete with a candle. I almost expected the candle to be one of those trick wicks that causes the person blowing it out to smile indulgently while seething brighter than the eternal flame in front of him. Remember. I said he knows me. He played it straight.

Along with the cake came a blue shirt that I could have chosen for myself. And that is a true skill.

That night I went to dinner at my favorite seafood restaurant to celebrate with my Barra friends, Lou and Wynn Moody for a practically perfect dinner. Wynn and I like to pretend we are brother and sister, though she finds my humor an acquired taste that she has not.

The party was just the right size. I find dinner with more than four people to be a waste of time. At least more tedious than any fun generated.

So, why am I writing about a birthday that slipped away two months ago? Well, two events have made it timely once again.

The first is that Lou and Wynn, following the advice of James: "Show me this faith of yours without the actions, and I will show you my faith by my actions!", spontaneously volunteere
d to take me to the Manzanillo airport next week for the first leg of my flight to Australia. That would have been good enough to revive my birthday joy.

But there was a second. My old friend Leo Bauman (you met him in leo ascendant) sent me one of those guy to guy birthday cards that are witty enough to share with one another, but would be highly inappropriate to post on the Mexpatriate Family Network. It arrived on 4 March while I was wending my way through the Mexican highlands. I picked it up on Wednesday when I momentarily got out of bed to take my soiled clothes to the laundress.

Cards will remain one of those forms of communication that can never be replaced with digitized greetings. When I am moldering in the rest home with The Final Head Cold, these cards will be a reminder of a life well led with friends.

And that is why this coot with the death rattle of a cough is telling you a tale of a birthday that happened months ago as if it had happened yesterday. We old people do that.

So, I will get back under the covers, drink another pot of ginger-lemon tea, and try to recall what else I have neglected to tell you over the past two months. There were eighteen tales on my list. We have only covered two.

The only thing that will save you now is if I really do take a Dear Abby sabbatical. Don't count on it.   

Thursday, March 14, 2019

the case of the unrequited pince-nez

This is what happens when I sit on a story too long.

What was once timely and pithy becomes dated and jejune. But circumstances have conspired to breath relevancy into it.

Last summer I lost my glasses.

How or where, I do not know. One moment they were perched in what would be called my bodice if my name were Stephanie, the next they had taken French leave. I could not find them in any of the familiar places.

There was nothing left but to order another pair. I had updated my prescription while I was in Oregon, and even though the optician showed some reluctance to use it for a re-order, my formerly-boyish charm persuaded her. A week later she called to inform me my glasses had arrived from Mexico City.

Because I no longer make regular trips to Manzanillo (in fact, I avoid driving there as much as I can), it was a week later before I popped into the La Comer mall to pick up my glasses.

My Spanish is at a point where I try to think through what might happen in any given contact with the outside world. Sometimes phrases taught in language classes are just not very helpful in some (or any) situations.

You know the phrases. What time will the train arrive in Barcelona? Did you deposit a million pesos in the bank? The blue fountain pen is stuck in the baked chicken. (I think I stole the last one from Shelley Berman, but he died two years ago. So, I am not worried about being outed as an unreconstructed plagiarist. Of course, I just did.)

I actually translate lines and try to memorize them. Steve's handy lines for A Visit to the Optician include: "
¿Podrías ajustar mis lentas? Se están deslizando por mi nariz." Could you adjust my glasses? They are slipping down my nose.

It may not be a great translation, but it does cover all of the elements I wanted to communicate. Adjust glasses. Slipping. Nose. It is a big improvement over what would have come out of my mouth without some rehearsal. Something like: Me glasses. Nose. Not here.

David Sedaris may think his "Me talk pretty one day" in French marked him as a linguistic tyro. When it comes to eviscerating Spanish grammar, I am a professional.

Armed with my possible lines, I confidently walked into the shop. The optician was not there, but her let-me-show-you-some-frames-that-will-make-you-look-beyond-guapo assistant was.

That did not faze me. I was armed with my on-the-apron soliloquy.

I tried on the glasses. Sure enough, they slipped down my nose. She did not seem to notice even though she was watching my glasses.

So, out came my canned phrase. As far as I could tell, I pronounced everything correctly and slowly. She simply stared.

Most of us would resort to mime at that point. I did. Partially. I repeated the line while moving the glasses up and down my nose.

At least, it amused her. She giggled. But she did nothing.

Then one of those oh-I-get-it looks flashed across her face. She took my glasses, opened a drawer, and took out some cleaner and a cloth. After cleaning my glasses, she gave me a "mission accomplished" smile. Along with my glasses.

I went home.

About a month later, after not wearing my glasses because of the slippage, I stopped by the shop during another Manzanillo trip. (I was probably picking up dry cleaning.)

Once again, the optician was not there. This time there were two clerks in the shop -- a young man and a new young woman.

I tried my line. The young woman perplexed looked at the man. He said something very rapidly. She smiled.

And, sure enough, the young woman 
took my glasses, opened a drawer, and took out some cleaner and a cloth. After cleaning my glasses, she gave me a "mission accomplished" smile. Along with my glasses.

Same line. Same result.

I went home.

I now have another opportunity to put that show on the road again. Somewhere around Zamora, I lost my glasses. I cannot tell you how, but I suspect while pulling my camera on and off my neck, I inadvertently flipped my glasses into the grass of a park.

On Monday I ordered another pair. There is a very good chance that they will not arrive before I leave for Australia next week.

But, if they do, I may just skip my desire to treat this as a fitting at my tailor. For some reason, adjusting the glasses does not seem to be part of the new glasses process.

Maybe that is a job the clerks leave to the optician. Or maybe it is my Spanish that falls into blue-fountain-pen-in-the-baked chicken mode. Or it simply could be something as simple as Mexicans taking responsibility for adjusting their own glasses.

Whatever it is, Act Three will be opening at an eyeglass store near me -- either next week or in another month.

Mexico is delivering on my decision to move here. I wanted to get out of the stultifying comfort zone of Salem. And, like both clerks, I now have a "mission accomplished" smile.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

amo a zamora

Tour books tend to jump right over Zamora.

My favorite, Eyewitness Travel Mexico, omits any mention of the place -- or its surroundings.

But if you want to make an agriculture business deal, Zamora is your town. There is no mistaking it for one of those places where people want to stop all change. They may be conservative to keep the pace of change deliberative; but change it will.

Even though it is an old Spanish colonial village (founded in 1574), Zamora is distinctly a modern city supporting both industry and the vast agricultural holdings that surround the place.

We often forget that the Spanish did not come to Mexico solely for gold and souls. They also came for land and the prestige that comes with owning it. And they found it in this corner of Michoacán -- in the Tziróndaro Valley.

The city prospered, adding industry to its portfolio during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, who is fondly remembered by some here.

And in that there is a tale -- a tale of two cathedrals.

No city should have two cathedrals. A church can only be called a cathedral if it is the see of a bishop. If no bishop sits there, it is just a church.

Zamora was not awarded its first bishop until 1862. The little neo-Classical parochial church on the city square was magically transformed into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Built in the 1830s, it was not even a colonial era church, though its construction is pleasant enough.

But it was not sufficient for the ever-increasing bourgeoisie of Zamora. They wanted a cathedral worthy of the city's glory.

In 1898, the cornerstone of a stunning new cathedral was laid. Designed in the neo-Gothic style, it was to be huge. But the church that was to be, wasn't.

In 1910 the Mexican Revolution slowed the construction until it ground to a full stop in 1914. During the following years, it sat unfinished and encountered several ignominies.

One of the interior walls (near the altar) was used to execute Catholics during the Cristero war. The bullet holes are still there to mark what can happen when toleration for other beliefs dissipates.

President Plutarco Elías Calles believed he could wrest Catholicism from the minds of the people if he destroyed the church hierarchy by deporting foreign priests and forbidding the clergy from wearing clerical robes outside of the sanctuary.

What he got was another civil war, instead. The Cristero war of the late 1920s. The last battles of the Mexican Revolution. Two private American organizations provided funds in the war. The Ku Klux Klan supported President Calles's anti-Catholic crusade; the Knights of Columbus supported the cristeros.

The number of casualties range from 100,000 to 250,000 Mexican soldiers, insurgents, and civilians dead with another 250,000 fleeing to the United States. After one million Mexicans died in the revolution, numbers started being meaningless.

The United States and the Vatican negotiated a settlement with President Calles -- even though the killing persisted for over a decade. After all that, 83% of Mexicans still identify themselves as Catholic.

The cathedral now has a chapel dedicated to the martyrs of that war. A majority of the Mexicans who have been declared saints were priests executed by the government during the Cristero war.

In the years following both wars, the cathedral's stones were stolen for other purposes, and the unfinished cathedral became in turn a horse stable, an army barracks, a corral for livestock, and a warehouse for garbage trucks.

In 1988 the families of Zamora decided to finish the work. The original blueprints had been burned by the Revolution (maintaining an ancient tradition of conquerors). So, the planners decided to generally copy the facade of the cathedral at Milan.

This is the result.

In my opinion, it was worth the stop in Zamora and the nice walk to get there from our hotel.

We were fortunate enough to see a rather opulent wedding just beginning as we arrived. With those designer gowns, they could have been posing for one of Velázquez's court paintings.

Velázquez would have been just as pleased to paint this pair of flower girls. Probably working them into "Las Meninas."

Both cathedrals tell the tale of this city that is rich in its lands. The only portion of the tale I cannot tell you is what happened to that land following the revolution. And I am sorry I do not know because it has a bearing on the land use dispute between the farmers and tata José, and may have been a factor in the shooting of the two young Purépecha men.

José is concerned that the traditional crops and rotation system of the Purépecha is being squeezed out by the monoculture of berry cultivation and its microclimate-changing plastic greenhouses, even though berries have long been the major cash crop of the Tziróndaro Valley.

The missing piece here is what happened to the land after the revolution. In some areas of Mexico, large landholdings were broken up in favor of creating communal ejidos as part of the land reform system. But not all large landholdings were broken up. Some were simply taken by revolution leaders. Others were left untouched.

In the current dispute, I have no idea who the farmers are who are filling the valley with the plastic-covered fields. Nor do I know who owns the land (other than what applies to every inch of land -- by the Constitution of 1917, it, in theory, belongs to the state).

It is very possible that we were witnesses to another chapter of Mexico's ongoing dispute over who is a Mexican and to whom does any given piece of land belong.

This is a country whose history lies heavily upon its daily existence.

And not everyone can say they have shared a bit of that historical experience -- with all of its glory and warts.