Monday, December 30, 2019

lunch up north

Darrel and I took Mom to lunch at Jake's a couple of days ago.

She loves the place. I suppose because it has a lot of good memories for her.

When Mom, Dad, and Darrel were in the trucking business, they spent a good deal of time at Jake's. Back then, the restaurant was part of a large truck stop complex of the same name. It was a place to fill the diesel tanks while the drivers filled their own tanks.

The truck stop is long gone. The restaurant is now miles away in Bend tucked behind a car dealership. The trucks are gone, but the menu still features the type of meals that the Knights of the American Road needed to truck on down the highway.

Mom had a large egg-meat-vegetable breakfast combination. Darrel had an interesting black and blue eggs benedict. I had a chili burger with potato tots. All of the meals were large enough to constitute a full meal at Jake's and another full meal at home as take away.

What interested me was the bill. I have often remarked at how inexpensive restaurants are in Mexico. Whenever I come north, one of the first things I do is compare the meal with what it would cost in pesos. I do the opposite at home in Mexico.

Here is the comparison:
Mom's bunkhouse $13.15 ($250 Mx)

Darrel's egg benedict: $14.15 ($268 Mx)
My chili burger: $12.75 ($242 Mx)

If you live in Mexico, with the exception of large cities and resorts, I doubt you have ever paid 250 pesos for breakfast. Where I live, you can buy a full steak dinner for that.

But I have just done something that annoys a lot of us who live in Mexico. Currency conversions are actually false comparisons. All it does is compare how many dollars one needs to spend to buy something in Mexico. But that is not a true comparison -- it actually overstates the value of goods in Mexico.

Here is an example of what happens in Mexico. Let's take a 10-peso taco on the streets of Barra de Navidad. Most of us are content to merely translate that to US dollars ($.53), and will then add an editorial comment like "just try to buy a taco at Taco Bell for 53 cents."

But it is a false comparison. The true test is what that 10 pesos would buy elsewhere in the Mexican economy.

The Economist
 has long run a price comparative index based on the cost of a Big Mac -- fondly referred to as the Big Mac index. Every six months the editors survey each nation that has a McDonald's to determine the average cost of a Big Mac in that country, and then converts the amount to US dollars.

The Big Mac, as a top-selling McDonald’s burger, is used for comparison because it is available in almost every country and manufactured in a standardized size, composition, and quality. The result is a standarized method to illustrate the difference in national "individual purchasing power."

Based on the 2019 index in equivalent US dollars, a Big Mac would cost $5.74 in the United States and $5.16 in Canada. In Mexico, it would cost $2.65. Based on that index, Mexico's "individual purchasing power" is over 2.16 greater than the United States.

That is one reason, wages seem to be so low in Mexico. Actually, they do not seem to be low. They are low in absolute terms. When compared to northern wages they seem to be a pittance. A weekly wage of 1500 pesos (about $80 US) for a service industry worker is not unusual in the area where I live. Construction workers earn about the same.

Because the base wage is so low, a lot of northerners (including me) pay more than the market-oriented wage. And I will probably keep doing that.

But there is a cost for that sense of charity. As any economist could tell us, increasing wages without increasing productivity will result in an increase in the cost of living.

During the past two years, I have talked with several six-month tourists who are appalled at how costs have increased in our community. Several have decided to stop coming to the area because they can no longer afford it.

They are the canaries in the coal mine. If their budgets cannot meet the local increased costs, it is easy to imagine how this cost shift has affected my Mexican neighbors (especially those who have experienced only cost increases and not the benefit of northern largess).

But there is an even starker illustration of the difference of individual purchasing power in Mexico. I suspect most northerners who come to our area are middle class.

According to the OECD, to be considered middle class, an American family would need to earn $40,425 to $120,672 annually. For Canadians, it is $29,432 to $78,485 (in US dollars).  For Mexicans, it is $15,000 to $45,000 (in US dollars). It is easy to see how price increases can push Mexicans, who have fought their way into the middle class, to once again be dumped into a low-income status.

So, what can those of us who want to be responsible members of the Mexican community in which we live do?

The first is obvious. When we agree to pay a wage for a job, pay it immediately under the terms of the agreement. The Old and New Testament rank failure to pay a worker's daily wage as a sin because it is socially unjust.

Second, be wise in setting wages. If you need a worker to speak English, the wage will be (and should be) higher because you are paying for a skill in addition to the basic job.

Third, in setting wages be aware that paying amounts higher than the standard local wage can have an adverse affect on local costs. Your charity can actually harm people you have never met.

I doubt my little lecture will affect my own behavior. If you were charitable up north, you will be here, as well. And that is a good test to apply here.

As Sean Connery would say: "Here endeth the lesson."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

the missionary

Welcome to the food section of Mexpatriate.

It certainly seems that way. I have included food in almost every essay this past week.

Part of that is understandable. Good meals are a uniting force for our family. The family that dines together whines together.

A fellow blogger and I were talking about how our comments sections have changed since we started linking our posts on Facebook. Almost all of the action now takes place over there.

I mentioned yesterday on Facebook that our Christmas was a veritable Mary Poppins day -- practically perfect in every way. With one exception. Mom, Darrel, and Christie decided to violate our long-standing no-gift rule. That left me playing catch-up. Partly.

Christy told me on my last visit that her slow cooker seemed to have decided on its own to become a very slow cooker. She suspected it had met its service date.

Any of you who have read any of my cooking essays know that I am a recent convert to the Instant Pot cult. Sister Jennifer Rose brought me to the altar over a year ago. Like any recent convert, I am a zealot in sharing the good news of the multi-purpose Instant Pot.

Darrel mentioned that they would probably need an 8-quart pot rather than my 6-quart. And that was all I needed to hear.

On Christmas afternoon, I placed an order for an 8-quart Instant Pot. Through the good services of the United States Postal Service, it arrived at the house today.

Well, we actually had to go to the post office because the package was too large to leave in the mail box. I am glad that we had to make the trip. There was a short line of two people ahead of us when we arrived. One of the two clerks helped the first woman. We were then treated to one of those scenes that can only happen in a small town.

The clerk asked the customer if she had seen the movie she was going to see. She responded that she hadn't; the theater was packed on the day after Christmas. Because we had just seen the new Star Wars movie, I asked which movie it was. Ford vs. Ferrari.

My brother then joined in with the other clerk describing the film. The woman in front of us said she knew about the film and that her sister had owned a Shelbey cobra -- which she had wrecked. We were like a Sunday morning discussion program.

What was so small town about the exchange was that everyone felt free to share their experience politely and openly -- without fearing the conversation would devolve into rancor. I have never seen anything similar in a large city.

We grabbed our prize from the Post Office, brought it back to the house, and put it to immediate use. Christy had started a corned beef in the slow cooker. Instead, we transferred it to the Instant Pot. Christy is just now finishing up the cabbage, carrots, shallots, and potatoes.

And I am the only person who can claim to have abided by our no-gifts at Christmas rule. I am a firm believer in gifts. But I give them when I see something that someone might need or like. Waiting until Christmas just seems inefficient.

With that bit of smugness, I am sitting down to eat a plate of corned beef with cabbage prepared by the latest converts to the Instant Pot family. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

and to all a good night

The cranberry sauce is on its way to the refrigerator with the rest of the left-overs. Salad. Ham. Turkey. Baby asparagus. Hasselback potatoes.

And all four of us have finished off our pumpkin pie or home-made lime sherbet with snickerdoodle and ginger cookies. The carols have been sung and the forbidden gifts have been opened.

Our Christmas was a good one for two reasons.

First, we have spent two full days together enjoying jigsaw puzzles and conversation about things we remember that never happened.

Second, all of that is a reminder to us of the purpose of the day -- to celebrate the Messiah's birth and God's plan to reconcile the world to him.

With all of that in mind, let me wish all of you the happiest of Christmases.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

being kind -- when nice will not suffice

You know Joan Shinnick. Or you should.

I have written about my friendship with her at least three times (the monkey on my back; putting my best foot forward; bang the drum slowly). She was my writing mentor. Without her, Mexpatriate never would have come into existence. So, you now know where to place the blame.

I met her when I was stationed at Castle Air force Base. She was the wife of my first commander, and we struck up a friendship that survived more than forty years of correspondence.

Joan was one of those personalities that come into our lives and forever change how we look at the world.  She was an incredible writer.  Witty.  Precise.  With a jeweler's eye for cant.  I think I once called her a cross between Mame Dennis and Erma Bombeck. And it was true.

I heard her voice this morning as I was thumbing through the morning newspaper, and read this headline. "Will cultivating kindness make us all healthier?" It was the sub-title that would have piqued Joan's interest -- or irritation. "Study: UCLA Institute will explore how and why being nice to others lowers our risk of depression and disease."

Putting aside whether an attribute such as kindness is an apt subject for scientific study, it was the two different words used by the headline writer that would have annoyed Joan. She would have said something like: "'Kindness' and 'nice' are not synonyms for one another. They are two completely different traits. It is like substituting olive oil for ghee." (She was also a very good cook.)

She would have been correct. We are sometimes a bit sloppy with our use of words in common parlance. The subtle distinctions between smell, odor, aroma, and fragrance have nearly disappeared.

But there are major differences between "kind" and "nice." "Kind" is always a virtue: "having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature." "Nice," on the other hand, is to be "polite, pleasing, agreeable."

For nice people, keeping the peace is the most important aspect of social intercourse. The UCLA study notes the difference between "nice" and "kind," and its focus is on kindness.

"Researchers agreed on an academic definition for kindness: an act that enhances the welfare of others as an end in itself. When it comes to kindness, the intention, rather than the outcome, is key. In other words, it’s the thought that counts, as the adage goes."

The examples used in the definition draw a line between what it means to be "kind" and "nice."

"Kindness is complimenting someone to make them feel good, not to get what you want. It’s sending a donation to a charity even if the check gets lost in the mail. It’s contemplating a legitimate reason why a driver who cuts you off might be in a hurry."

If all of that sounds familiar it should. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus this time of year. But it was the adult Jesus who taught the very lessons that the UCLA study is examining. The researchers would be well to start with Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 25 34-40 to understand the core teaching of kindness.

The UCLA study has already determined that acts of kindness can alter the behavior of genes to decrease inflammation in the body, reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, as well as depression.

But we did not need a study to tell us that. The common thread of all European totalitarian governments (Nazi, Fascist, Communist) during the 20th was anti-antisemitism. While most people in those societies allowed antisemitism to thrive (either out of their own hatred or fear), some kind Gentile souls put their beliefs to action by trying to save Jews from the terror of the Holocaust and Gulag. They are known as the "righteous Gentiles" by Israel for their kindness in the face of horror.

When we have a choice between calling someone "nice" or "kind," we should remember them. If someone is merely nice, that word will suffice. But, we should honor the "kind" with the word they deserve.

Maybe we can then follow Jesus's admonition: "You go and do as he did."

What could be a better gift to one another on this Christmas Eve than that?

Monday, December 23, 2019

what are you reading?

Since I asked the question, I will go first.

Last July, I told you about the seventeen books that were resting on my reading table (i do requests). Since then, I have managed to knock off only four of them. And several others have joined the pile.

I usually read books in the order I received them, but I allowed one to jump the queue. It is the book I am now reading -- the third installment of Charles Moore;s authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher. Herself Alone. This volume covers the period from her landslide election in 1987 through her political decline, resignation, and her final years as a private citizen.

I have always been fond of Mrs. Thatcher. Part of that admiration comes from how the women on my campaign staff adored her. For them, she was part of a triumvirate that included Elizabeth Dole and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Seven years ago, I watched The Iron Lady -- a biography film starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. I shared my thoughts on the film with you (the tin lady). Because it was offered on Netflix last night, I watched it again.

What I wrote seven years ago seems to still be accurate. Mrs. Thatcher's personality and policies were far too complex to be captured in a single film. That is why Moore's work now exceeds 3000 pages.

But I watched the film within a different context last night.

It starts and ends with the former prime minister as an old woman dealing with the ravages of aging. I can appreciate that because I am going through some of that myself. But my mother, who is twenty-one years older than I am, is further down that road.

When the film begins, Mrs, Thatcher is living alone. Her husband, Denis, has died years before, but she clings to his memory -- literally. That is symbolized by the fact that she has not been able to clear his clothes out of the house. She still sees and talks with him as the other half of a very affecting love match.

When her daughter tries to motivate her to get on with the clothes,  Mrs. Thatcher snaps: "I haven't sorted those."

I have lived that scene. My brother and I have been urging Mom to sort through some of the boxes of items she has accumulated over the years -- such as, her real estate files. Her house is not cluttered. But it could do with a bit of vetting.

She has been reluctant to take on the task. If I had given the matter any thought, I would have realized why. Even though moving several times in the past decade has caused me to divest myself of a lot of the detritus of my earlier life, I always manage to hold on to some of the oddest items.

What is true for me was true for the film version of Mrs. Thatcher -- and is certainly true of Mom.

What an outsider would see as a just a pile of old real estate documents, my mother sees as a tangible memorial to the decades she devoted to her profession trying to match clients with houses they could turn into homes at prices they could afford. She was the realtor who would spend hours with low-income families while some of her colleagues served only the well-to-do.

One of my most-prized books is Thomas L. Shaffer's On Being a Christian and a Lawyer. My mother lived out Shaffer's arguments. She put her Christian principles first in her profession.

The people she helped are a memorial to her life. The documents she now treasures are a mere reflection through a mirror darkly.

At the climax of the film, Mrs. Thatcher gives away all of Denis's clothes -- with the exception of enough clothes for a business trip. She packs them in a suitcase and dresses Denis as if he were simply going away for a weekend.

As he walks away, she cries out to him to stay -- that she does not want to be alone. He responds: "You're going to be fine on your own, love. You always have been."

The truth embedded in those two sentences sums up how I look at my mother's project sorting through her life. She was never prime minister (though she would have been a good one), but she was a successful businesswoman who managed to juggle her profession while maintaining a home and raising a family.

If a few scraps of paper help her to hang on to all of that, who am I to begrudge her? After all, I suspect whoever will be tasked to go through my possessions after I die will undoubtedly be perplexed why anyone would hang on to a political brochure from 1988.

No one will write a three-volume biography of any of us. But that is fine. We write our own biographies every day. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

life targets

For the first time in my life, I have treated a head cold seriously.

My normal routine is to ignore the fact that my head feels as if it going to explode while I wander around in public spreading my germs. I call it Christmas giving.

But not with this cold. I have donned my pajamas, downed my medication, and slipped under a Chinese red comforter in my sister-in-law's guest room to let nature do its best in fighting off the virus. And it has worked. After two days of rest cure, I was well enough to explore the exotic wilds of Prineville.

Darrel and I stopped at Bi-Mart for a couple of items. A young boy (I would estimate to be 10) was standing in line in front of us. He could have been Ron Howard's understudy on The Andy Griffith Show. Red hair. Optimistic smile. The kind of kid who would not only help you across the street, but would accompany you home and help to place your groceries in the pantry.

Filling his hands were two large boxes of high-caliber ammunition. Standing behind him was his dad, packing a carton of targets. The boy was beaming. And it was easy to see why. He was going to spend some time with his dad plunking at those targets. When he had developed an eye, he would then go hunting with his dad.

When the boy reached the check-out clerk, he unwillingly handed them over to her to be scanned. The moment she was done, he grabbed the boxes. The clerk then scanned the targets and the dad paid.

As they started walking away from the check-out counter, the clerk, in a tone between resigned and desultory, told the dad he would have to carry the ammo boxes because the boy was not 21.

For a brief moment, I saw a thought pass over the dad's face, and just as quickly saw that look we all get now and then when we realize it is better to say nothing. And that is what he did.

But the moment the two of them walked through the exit sliding door, the dad passed the ammo boxes to his son. The boy's face took on that look of joy that only comes with those dad-son memories that enliven our later days.

And it was a gift for me, as well. It was another reminder that our lives are not only controlled by distant governments. Our lives are lived out through strong families and local networks that teach us the lessons of being productive members of our communities.

Of course, I would not need to tell that boy any of this. He was living it. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

what did you say?

My mother is a curious woman -- in almost every sense of that word.

As a young girl growing up in Powers, she lived next door to an elderly woman (Mrs. Stallard) who was losing both her sight and her hearing. That dual loss fascinated Mom. She asked Mrs. Stallard which was worse -- being blind or being deaf?

Now that she is also facing age-related loss of sight and hearing, Mom's re-telling of that tale has taken on a patina of poignancy. Frequently, the Tale of Mrs. Stallard is followed by The Moral Lesson of the Superiority of Front-loading Washing Machines and Why Top-loading Machines Should be Relegated to the Closest Land-fill. Did I mention "curious?"

I thought of Mrs. Stallard yesterday as I flew north from Manzanillo. My sight is fine. Sure, I started using readers to decode the ingredients on food containers. Otherwise, my eyes are fine.

And, as a rule, so is my hearing. Except on yesterday's flight.

Four days ago, I woke up with a dry throat. Putting on my white coat, Dr. Cotton concluded I had been sleeping with my mouth open under my ceiling fan because the throat problem went away as soon as I was up and puttering around the patio.

It then recurred the next two mornings. Yesterday my fan-throat turned into a head cold. That was not good news. One of the first lessons we learned in flight school was to never fly with any respiratory problem. Pressure changes are not kind to mucous.

I should have heeded my flight lore. When we started our descent into Los Angeles, the pilot announced something. I only knew it was something because it sounded as if the airplane speakers were muffled. Then I noticed that all of the conversations around me were muffled. And my ears started to hurt in that same way that causes babies on planes to wail.

I knew what it was. The change in pressure had forced mucous into my eustachian tubes -- and all of my val salva attempts simply made matters worse.

The biggest challenge was getting past the U.S. immigration desk without misunderstanding a question and spending the rest of my evening learning the exotic ways of latex. I did not need to worry. The immigration officer had seen it all before.

By the time I boarded my flight to Portland, my ears had cleared through the good graces of gravity. But the moment we started climbing, my canals filled again with the equivalent of super glue. And it has not yet cleared this morning as I wait for my flight to Redmond.

Even science has not come to my aid. I thought a little antihistamine (in the form of two Nyquil tablets) might dry up my membranes. It is working on my nose -- but not my ears. On the other hand, I think I could sleep for a week.

So, I will brave the 30-some minutes on the flight to Redmond and hope that my ear canals drain before Christmas. Otherwise, my mother and I can play the role of Princess Alice in The Crown by responding "what?" to every inquiry.

I do not remember if Mrs Stallard thought the loss of hearing or sight was the greatest loss. I am certain, though, that Mom will tell me.

My testimony is that losing hearing is the pits. There are a lot of seemingly-interesting conversations taking place around me that I should be reporting to you.

You will just have to be happy with recycled family anecdotes. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

they're baaack --

And I am out of here.

There is no causal relationship between those two sentences. Just chronological proximity.

I was chatting with an acquaintance two days ago about my tarantula post (i see you in the night). As often happens here when the topic of creatures is in play, we started straying off into horror tales.

He told me about the scorpion he stepped on with bare feet. I told him about the scorpion I unwittingly carried around in my right shoe for hours (laughing on the wild side).

I am not certain why I did it (I certainly know better), but in a fit of hubris, I announced: "At least, I have not seen any scorpions around the house for months."  I may as well have called Scorpions R Us and ordered a supply.

I have been stung by scorpions only twice. Once in San Miguel de Allende when I picked up a medication bottle with a scorpion resting on the side out of view. And once at my house in Barra de Navidad when I stupidly picked one off of the wall with my bare hand.

I like to think I learned something from both stings. I guess I haven't.

Two days ago, I left my recycle bag of bottles in the patio as a reminder to take them to the collection center. Yesterday I grabbed the bag by the top and the bottom. My hand on the bottom felt something that c
ould easily have been one of the dried leaves from the vines. Without looking, I flicked it off.

It was not a leaf. As you have already guessed, it was a scorpion.

Even after being propelled a good distance, it did not move. For a moment, I thought I was lucky to have encountered a dead scorpion. But, a little prodding had it running for safety in that stretched-out mode that reminds me scorpions are efficient dealers of death.

Even then, he was a bit sluggish. Our nights have been cold enough that the scorpion had tre
ated the recycle bag as a down comforter.

The research material tells me that scorpions love hunting, killing, and eating cockroaches. I have seen that only once when I found a scorpion feasting on a cockroach in the corner of my bedroom. Because they are nocturnal hunters, I miss out on most of the Wild Kingdom moments in my house.

Everywhere I have lived, there have been creatures who can add a bit of discomfort to life. Yellow jackets in the Pacific Northwest are a good example. Black widows in California. A variety of poisonous snakes in Greece.

The trick is to live wisely. I am not certain what that says about me since I have had moments with black widows, yellow jackets, and scorpions.

Today I am taking my what-will-sting-Steve-today show on the road. For a number of reasons, Mom, Darrel, and Christie will not be coming to Mexico this season. So, I am going there.

Christmas is not a very important day on the calendar for us. It was when Darrel and I were kids, but not now. We usually turn it into a second Thanksgiving. No gifts. But great food shared with one another.

This last year a large number of acquaintances died. When we attend memorial services, we always say that it is important to live every day to its fullest. Then, we don't.

To fight that inertia, I am flying north for a few weeks to spend time with the people who know me best. And to fill each day with life.

Undoubtedly, my posting rate will slow down. But there will still be some stories to tell.

I will see you then.   

Monday, December 16, 2019

i love a parade

And that is good -- because Mexico is a champion at putting them on.

People with purpose walking through our streets is quite common. The most notable, of course, are the religious processions celebrating the feast days of a long line of saints. We just finished celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- the patron saint of Mexico.

But we also have plenty of secular celebrations. The parades celebrating Independence Day and Revolution Day include school kids dressed as Pancho Villa, Miguel Hidalgo, and Venustiano Carranza -- sometimes bleeding over into each other's day.

If measured by participation as marchers and spectators, the Independence and Revolution parades are the star attractions of our little community. Yesterday, the town put on a much smaller parade for Christmas. But, like all small town productions the world over, it had its own quirky feel of fun.

No one has been able to tell me the genesis of this parade. Who started it and why. Christmas parades are simply not traditional in Mexico. There are plenty of Mexican traditions surrounding Christmas. Parades are not one of them. Of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe was also an import.

The reason I love parades is that it is a target-rich environment for photographers. There is always a vibrancy at the staging area when the marchers are burning adrenaline faster than my brother can eat pie.

The problem is catching people unaware. Most of these marchers are veterans, and they love the camera. Candid shots are next to impossible.

I really do not recall how large the parade was in previous years. But this year's event had just a handful of entrants.

What parade would be complete without women on bikes leading it?

Or an automated Santa float complete with sleigh and reindeer? Followed by a mob of his rambunctious elves.

Those elves have been the center piece of each Christmas parade I have watched. Dancing. Smiling. Showing off. They provided about 90% of the energy of the whole parade.

But they were not alone. What Mexican parade would be complete without a group that looked as if it was consciously trolling for one of those cease and desist letters from Disney? The group was fun. And that says a lot about Disney's legal department.

And there were northerners. Because the vast majority of northern tourists, expatriates, and immigrants here are Canadian, this portion of the parade had a distinctive maple leaf feel to it.

Starting with the Barrachas y Barrachos -- a group that raises money each year for a number of causes. And, yes, that is really their name.

Followed by my acquaintances Larry and Carri in their jeep.

This candy distribute was a perfect example of the parade's spirit.

And what parade would be complete without commercial entrants? Such as, Cruz, where I take my oft-dented Escape for repair.

Someone is going to accuse me of staging this photograph. I wish I had thought of it as I was shooting. But, I didn't. The float is from Primera Plus/Coordinados -- a long-distance bus company. Shot right in front of their premises.

I heard someone disparagingly refer to Barra de Navidad the other day as a one-horse town. Well, the parade was a one-horse parade. Bikes and horses.

And who came to see this home-town production? The mix was about 50-50 Mexican and northerners. My church-buddies Dennis and Darlene were representative of the people who watched the fun roll by.

I was talking with a northern tourist just before the parade. I apologized for cutting our conversation short, telling her I needed to go get some shots. She started a lecture about northerners ruining Mexican traditions. I know that drill, and I am a bit sympathetic to the argument.

But Mexico's culture is like every culture the world over. People pick up things they like from, other cultures and make it their own. Americans adopted Christmas trees and trick-or-treating from other cultures. Mexico has done the same thing with other things. Cultures are sponges.

What I do know is that Mexicans enjoy the fun that comes with life. And that is the lesson we can all take away from yesterday's parade. We can be curmudgeons and Scrooge our fellow men -- or we can enjoy the moments as they come.

I am with the elves. As they marched off into the dark last night, I thanked them for sharing their spirit with me. Especially, knowing they will be back next year.

Feliz Navidad.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

the sun almost sets

This was not last night's sunset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2019

i see you in the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2019

plumbing without chuck colson

Trouble comes in threes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that strikes me as a good day. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

all the world's a stage

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

Or so some say.

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

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

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

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

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

And therein lies an ecological tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 09, 2019

how saving mr. banks has helped saved mr. cotton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 08, 2019

buttermilk evenings

People are a nostalgic lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 07, 2019

another christmas story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 06, 2019

cool art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed: "What do you like?"

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

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


Tuesday, December 03, 2019

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

The year was 1991.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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