Monday, July 29, 2019

just what the doctor ordered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is good to be alive.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

i've got a secret

The NSA has nothing on me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are the sunsets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

dial 10 for murmur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that deserves three olés for innovation.

Friday, July 26, 2019

like i'm losing my mind

I may be one chili away from dementia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just hope I do not forget why.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

switching parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2019

folding food fights

I am not a taco fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folding foods await.

Friday, July 19, 2019

barra in the news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

when helping hurts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

pennies from heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 15, 2019

i do requests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here they are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 12, 2019

love is in the air

And in the pool. And on my computer table. And on me.

We still have not had a turn-our-streets-into-Venice rain this year. I thought that had changed Wednesday night when I heard the distinctive flamenco-tapping of raindrops on the plastic cover over my shower chimney. For some reason, the sound always reminds me of overnight Boy Scout outings at Camp Meriwether.

I had hoped it was going to be The Big One -- our first major rain of the year that turns our streets into sewage-enhanced canals. But I was wrong. It was just an appetizer.

But it was sufficient for another purpose. Each year, when three factors come together (heat, humidity, and rain), the love flight of the ants begins. Queens and drones emerge from their nests and fill the air with more pheromones than a college dance on Saturday night.

The heat provides ideal flight conditions. And the rain softens the ground for burrowing once the mating rites are complete.

I am typing on the patio this morning. From my writer's chair, I can see what must be hundreds of ants in flight over the pool doing their best to make the right connection. A lot of them are not so lucky.

You know I am reading Benjamin Dreyer's Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. You know that because I told you in the body electric.

Dreyer's entry on "irony" -- a word often used inappropriately --is perfect.

Funniness is not irony. Coincidence is not irony. Weirdness is not irony. Rain on your wedding day is not irony. Irony is irony. 
I once copyedited a work in which the author, if he used the phrase "deliciously ironic" once, used it a dozen times. The problem was, nothing he ever said was either delicious or ironic. Which, as a colleague pointed out, was deliciously ironic.
 A leaf-cutter ant queen, out on her flight to reproduce her kind, being hunted down, subdued, and eaten by another species of ant may not be ironic, but it is certainly weird. Anyone who has ever sat on the board of any organization -- especially a political one -- will immediately recognize the scenario.

But she is not alone in her fate. The pool has taken its share of victims. Its surface looks like the set of Sunset Boulevard if Norma Desmond has been a serial (rather than jealous) murderer. The swallows are also collecting their share to regurgitate for their young perched on top of my Moravian star light fixtures.

The cycle of life spins around. Life and death. Joy and disaster. Success and failure.

Tomorrow the remains of the Faerie queen will not even be a memory. But some of her protein may nurture a larvae who will one day be the queen of her own nest.

And that will not be irony, either. It is just the way things are.   

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

buying patience at oxxo

I have been thinking about perspective lately. A lot.

Several of my recent essays sound as if I have written them while lying face-up on a therapist's couch. The kicker happened last night when I took the few medications I take each night to keep my narrative from coming to an abrupt end.

The pills are in containers labeled with the days of the week -- just like the underwear some young ladies once wore.

Each of those compartments represent a day I have lived and will never see again. And the full containers represent, I suppose, some sort of hope that I will live long enough to down their contents.

And Just like Eddie Willers, on the second page of Ayn Rand's doorstop-heavy Atlas Shrugged, the process reminded me of something. Eddie Willers looked up to see a calendar erected on the top of a building at the behest of the Mayor of New York City. 

Eddie Willers looked away.  He had never liked the sight of that calendar.  It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain nor define.  The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.
He thought suddenly there was some phrase, a kind of quotation, that expressed what the calendar seemed to suggest.  But he could not recall it.  He walked, groping for that sentence that hung in his mind as an empty shape.  He could neither fill it nor dismiss it.  He glanced back.  The white rectangle stood above roofs, saying in immovable finality: September 2.
The cliché Eddie Willers was looking for was: "Your days are numbered."

And though it is a cliché, it has the virtue of being true. In a very real sense, even fairy tales end with "The end." The question then is how we live a life of good with the days we are allotted.

When Cailin, mother of the husband of my ur-putative daughter, visited in May, she brought a fresh sense of Mexico with her. Because everything was new to her, she saw it through the enthusiastic prism of a child. Over the past eleven years, I had lost most of that wonder. To me, each sight was simply part of where I now live.

I thought of her when I stopped by my local OXXO this morning to buy some milk and to catch up on the neighborhood gossip with the clerk.

Some people call OXXOs convenience stores. And I suppose they are. They offer a lot of conveniences that are otherwise not available to my neighbors. Their computer system afford them the ability to act almost as a bank.

I was in no hurry. I learned long ago that stopping at an OXXO can easily eat up an unusual amount of time. Sometimes, I can be in and out in seconds. Other times, my stop is not that brief.

When I headed to the counter with my quart of milk, I thought it was going to be a quick day. Then three people got in line in front of me. A young Mexican and his son, and a northerner who lives here most of the year, but who I tend to avoid because even though he has long been a grouch, politics has turned him into a certifiable crazy person.

Because the man and his son went directly to the cashier when they came through the front door, I knew their transaction would take some time. I assumed they were buying telephone time. I was correct.

The man recited his telephone number and told the clerk how much money he wanted to deposit. The clerk is good, She had everything entered in seconds.

But the man was not done. He pulled out a list of telephone numbers. To avoid all of his family members having to traipse over to OXXO, he had volunteered to buy time for their telephones. (This is not uncommon. And it is a nice practice. I have friends who live in a small village the hills outside of town. One person goes to all of the people in the neighborhood when the electric bills are issued, collects payment, and then takes the pile to pay everyone's bill.)

At one point, the appearance of the telephone list would have stirred up my bile. But those days are long gone. But not for everyone.

When the clerk started on the third telephone number, the northerner suffered what can only be described as a juvenile temper tantrum. He threw his bag of Cheetos on the floor and let loose a list of expletives I could only assume was a recitation of his résumé.

The little boy stared at him -- and then burst out laughing. It was the perfect response. The northerner stomped out the door, and the rest of us returned to getting on with our day.

So, what are we to make of this little morality play?

The first is obvious. If getting in and out of a place is your priority in life, you may not want to choose an OXXO or a Kiosko or a 7-11. The breadth of their services will almost always put you behind someone who has a bank-length transaction.  Go to you local mom-and-pop.

But the bigger issue is one of patience and old-fashioned civility. Mexico is a land where patience and politeness abounds.

And I have to thank Cailin for helping me slip back into seeing Mexico with new eyes -- patient eyes.    

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

be a flip flop nomad

If you pay attention to any of the information on the sidebar to the right, you will have already have noticed there is a new addition under "great resources."

My buddy Dan Patman and his sister Charlie have opened a new business in San Patricio -- Flip Flop Tours. I will not spoil your fun by exploring what their group will be offering in the way of traveling diversions, but I am certain you will find something of interest to enjoy on your next trip south.

I have known Dan for almost as long as I have lived here. And, as most of you who have read these pages know, I have been on several trips with him over the years. I have not had a single complaint about any of his tours. And, when I have had suggestions, he has seriously considered them.

I am personally looking forward to sampling the tour services of Dan and Charlie this coming season. I hope you will, as well.

Monday, July 08, 2019

trolling for polls

I have become a hermit. At least, I am in danger of becoming one.

Not the religious type who isolates himself from society to improve his inner life. Though, there may be an element of that.

I am talking about the J.D. Salinger-type who reduces contact with the outside world to live a life in seclusion. The kind of life you associate with curmudgeons.

Since I returned from my trip to Australia, I have been spending almost all of my days inside the walls of my house -- usually in the courtyard. Part of that was due to two bouts of illness that required me either to be in bed or within dash distance of a toilet.

As a result, my usual routine has been shredded. I have continued to read and practice my Spanish. But my writing has become sporadic -- and my walk regimen no longer exists.

The other day I had a long conversation with Jennifer Rose (red shoes are better than bacon). She noticed that my mood was a bit different ever since my Panama cruise in December.

Our conversation naturally turned to travel. She enjoys the thrill of jetting off to foreign lands as much as I do. But she had a suggestion for me. She noted that I have had a tendency recently to talk about visiting only places I have never seen before. "Why not go back to places you have been, but you really enjoy? That is what I plan to do on my next trip."

Even though that makes sense to me (because there are a lot of cities I thoroughly enjoy visiting -- Paris, London, New York), there are still a lot of new places that fascinate me.

I am telling you this because I once again have a travel urge, and I am not quite certain which option I should take. I have narrowed it down to three.

The first is to travel to the Caucasus region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). There is a bit of trouble brewing there -- not to mention its wealth of history. It is one of those places I could dine out on for months. There is an added bonus: there is lots of walking. It is the red circle on the left of my travel map. Those green spots are places I have already been. Turkey. UAE. China. Russia.

The second is a bit of nostalgia. When my nephew Ryan graduated from high school, I gave him the choice of accompanying me on a two-week trip to England or a three-week trip to 
Kyrgyzstan. I was positive he would choose pistols, ponies, and bandits over the allure of London. He didn't.

If I go to 
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, it would fill that hole I have long wanted to fill. When I lived at Oxford in the 1970s, I saw a brochure advertising a trip along the Silk Road to Tashkent and Samarkand. My occupation, at the time, kept me from going. As of last year, I am now free to go. And, yes, there will be lots of walking. It is the red circle on the right of the map.

The third option would be visiting ground I have already trod. Opera and the Louvre in Paris. Plays and the Tate in London. The Guggenheim and Broadway in New York City.

If I go to the Stans or to the Caucasus this year, the trip can be no later than September. A trip to Paris, London, and New York City will have to wait until the social season begins. Either way, it means skipping the chamber music festival in San Miguel de Allende this year.

I now welcome you to play agony aunt and give me your opinion by comment. I tried to add a poll for your convenience, but it appears that my platform no longer supports such devices.

So, opine away. If you suspect from my text that I have a front-runner in mind, you would not be entirely wrong.   

Saturday, July 06, 2019

digging through your wallet

I have long had a theory that, given five minutes with anyone's wallet, I will know as much about that person as if I had known them for years.

The same applies to personal libraries. What we put on our bookshelves and in our billfolds is far more accurate about who we are than any Rorschach test.

My most recent DVD acquisition is the Criterion Collection's release of the gargantuan Russian War and Peace filmed in the 1960s. It is actually four separate films in one package.

I was in college when they were shown at the Music Box theater in Portland, attending each of the four installments with acquaintances from the university's film studies section.

After each movie, we would retreat to one of our local hangouts and discuss what we had just watched. Because they aspired to be film-makers, my colleagues were fixated on the technical aspects of the films -- most of which they found hopelessly out-dated.

The only film student who defended the techniques was Mark, who loved anything Soviet. We re-christened him "Marx" because of his political obsession. (He now works for the libertarian Cato Institute.)

Despite his ideological blinders, he had a far better argument than his "modernist" colleagues. He was correct that the film faithfully incorporated a lot of Sergei Eisenstein's technique. And, in the context of Tolstoy's novel, the choice was effective.

I was not so much interested in the filming technique as I was in the script. After all, mine was a writer's heart. And there are few writers better than Tolstoy to describe the human condition -- even when he describes it in the context of a social order that is completely foreign to American psyches.

This version, like the one I saw in the late 1960s, retains the original languages -- French during aristocratic salons, Russian for the remainder. The Russian is translated into English subtitles. The French is not -- I suppose on the assumption that a person educated enough to appreciate Tolstoy will also speak French.

The effect of that choice retains the sound of Russian society in the early 1800s. Reading subtitles helps to capture what otherwise might be missed in a dubbed version.

I spent just over eight hours watching what I had seen over fifty years ago. Not surprisingly, even though I know the novel and have seen Woody Allen's spoof Love and Death many times, I had forgotten most of the film.

But, not all. There are several scenes that are seared in my memory. Our introduction to Natasha running around the room at a family gathering. Prince Andrei and Count Pierre walking down a wooded lane (a scene that, for me, encompasses true friendship) discussing the meaning of life. Alexander I's entrance at Natasha's first ball. A mounted Napoleon staring down at the corpse of Prince Andre at Austerlitz.

It occurred to me that if wallets and libraries are windows into people's souls, certainly their movie collections must tell us something about who they are.

You know nothing of my wallet and only a bit about the books I own. But, you are about to get a sampling of my film library. You may do with it as you will.

Listing all 300 (plus change) of my films would be tedious. At least, for me. Instead, I will randomly pick a number (say, every 20th entry), and that will do as my time on the couch. And I promise, no matter how embarrassing the title may be, you are going to see it.

So, here goes. As Auntie Mame would say, let's open a new window:
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Back to the Future
  • Braveheart
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • A Little Night Music
  • Memento
  • Nixon
  • Quantum of Solace
  • The Simpsons (seasons 1-17, 20)
  • Star Trek VIII: First Contact
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Young Frankenstein
There it is. Like all surveys, especially, of the political variety (just ask Joe Biden how mercurial that process is), this one has its faults. The most obvious being the lack of any of the scores of Woody Allen titles that populate my shelf.

But, I picked a number and I stuck with it. The result is rather representative of the films in my library, and they do reflect a bit of my personality. After all, I liked the titles enough to buy them -- and keep them. (I have given away almost the same number of DVDs as I now currently own. Tastes, including my own, change.)

And the point of this whole exercise? It is for those of you who thumb through personal libraries and then surreptitiously check out what is in the medicine cabinet while using the host's bathroom. (Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me.) Feel free to let your personal voyeur roam.

What does all of this have to do with Mexico? A bit. To assist with my ongoing goal of improving my Spanish, I will often listen to the movies dubbed in Spanish. DVDs offer some great features.

 The hardest part of any language is learning to listen in that tongue. Listening to familiar movies with a new language overlay has helped me pick up sentence structures, grammar, and, of course, a lot of new words.

The real reason I keep them, though, is that like those scenes in War and Peace that are etched in my mind, each of the movies holds some special connection with my life
 (say, Sandahl Bergman's star turn in All That Jazz). And, like those post-movie discussions at The Cheerful Tortoise fifty-odd years ago, they raise questions about the lives we live -- and how we should live those lives.

Where else, but in War and Peace, could you encounter this Tolstoy nugget. “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”

You talk amongst yourself. I have to put another DVD into the machine.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

room with a view

My brother and I do not always see eye-to-eye.

That, of course, is true of all great thinkers, who tend to see the world from different perspectives. Great thinkers. But also my brother and me.

Darrel has long advocated building a staircase with access to the roof of the pavilions on my upper terrace. His idea has been to construct a palapa atop one of the pavilions to take advantage of the view.

I have opposed the idea for two reasons. The first is aesthetic. A stairway and a palapa would ruin the lines of my Barragán-inspired house. The men who installed the solar panels on my roof did a marvelous job of retaining the planar surfaces of the house. I do not want to ruin the lines with more construction.

Come to think of it, the second reason is also aesthetic. There is really no view from the top of the pavilion. Even though I am just blocks from the ocean and our alluvial plain is surrounded by hills, there is not much to see from the roof.

There is the Great Antenna of Barra, the OXXO sign, and lots of trees. But that is about it. Naming the palapa Buenavista would be an exercise in sardonic sarcasm.

Omar reminded me yesterday that it was once again time to clean the solar panels that reside where Darrel envisioned his palapa. So, at o-dark-thirty, I met my son on the top of the pavilion with hose, rag, and squeegee to remove the layers of dust and bird excrement that have accumulated on the panels since their last cleaning.

Even though the view from up there is nothing to write home about (even though I am writing your home about it), I always pause my chores to take a look at what is happening around the neighborhood. From up there, I can see behind most of my neighbors' walls. At sunrise, there is very little going on.

Having had my perspective fix for the morning, I finished up my Dora day chores. Gathering up the garbage bags from each of the bathrooms and the kitchen. Trimming the vines that I left uncut last Saturday. Sweeping out the garage. What Dora and I mockingly refer to as "Steve's Man Duties."

Because it is Wednesday, I threw the dirty laundry into the car and drove over to San Patricio to drop it off with the laundress. On the way home, I had another of those experiences that reminds me why I have chosen to live in Mexico.

Highway 200 is the road that unites our middle-of-nowhere villages with the edge-of-somewhere. If you want to transport a load of mangoes, a bus filled with passengers, or a tourist family along the Mexico Pacific coast, you will need to drive on Highway 200. It is our link with modernity.

Apparently, a herd of cows did not get that message. Right in the middle of town on highway 200, a herd of cows -- fifteen to twenty -- had decided to take their morning saunter. They looked like extras from Blazing Saddles. If a person was herding them, he was not in sight.

The head cow was staring at the rather sheepish and befuddled bull. Had my Star Trek universal translator been working, I am certain I would have heard her saying: "I told you to stop for directions. But, no. You could not do that because you are too bull-headed. Now, look where we are."

Because they were in a no hurry to get to wherever they forgot they were going, they had several cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses backed up -- all patiently waiting for the cows to decide what they were going to do. There was no horn honking. No yelling. In fact, to a person, all of the drivers looked as if the situation was no more remarkable than finding a tope in the road.

Life really is about perspective. Too often we are looking for that perfect view that will enhance our outlooks in the same way that we search out circumstances that we just know will fix everything in our ill-fated lives. Even though we know it is never going to happen.

Maybe it takes waiting for the cows in our paths to move on. That it is not finding circumstances to improve our lives, but learning how to find the joy in each circumstance we encounter.

That would be a view worth adopting. It might even deserve its own palapa.