Thursday, January 30, 2020

when mexico meets corona

This morning's coronavirus pearl-clutching story was the lock down of a Carnival cruise ship in Italy when a Chinese passenger was suspected of contracting the virus.

Even though Italy is far from China, its inclusion in the list of countries with confirmed coronavirus cases was inevitable. China. India. Philippines. Finland. United Arab Emirates. Germany. Sri Lanka. Cambodia. Canada. Malaysia. Australia. Nepal. France. Vietnam. Singapore. Hong Kong. Macau. Taiwan. The States. South Korea. Japan. Thailand. Sudan. Kenya. Ivory Coast. Ethiopia. Colombia. Indonesia.

And the list will grow because it now appears the virus (2019-nCoV) is as easily contracted as is its cousin, the common head cold. And that is one reason is has spread so quickly internationally.

Even though the virus appears to have mutated to a person-to-person virus in a market in a large central Chinese city, it has quickly jumped the quarantined city boundaries because people exposed to the virus have spread the virus in their travels. Mainly by airplane. And now by cruise ship.

I have a rather selfish motive in following these stories. I am scheduled to join a south Asia cruise in less than two months. With the exception of one country (Oman) every country we will visit has had 2019-nCoV exposure -- including Hong Kong, my favorite airport where I will spend several hours on a layover. Short of an international quarantine shutdown of all airlines, I will make the trip.

Not traveling because of a fear of 2019-nCoV would be absurdly silly -- the virus will eventually make its way to Mexico.

Last night I had dinner with David and Laura Holmquist at Lora Loka's in La Manzanilla. I met David and Laura this summer in our Bible study group. Both of them are accomplished conversationalists. It was one of those nights that slipped by in peals of chuckles.

It was not until this morning that I realized I had spent my first encounter with a Mexican epidemic at Lora Loka's. Eleven years ago.

The year was 2009. April. I had just moved to Mexico when the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) epidemic hit Mexico. It started in The States. But with the high traffic between The States and Mexico, it quickly spread south. And, eventually, to the rest of the world.

The two governments handled the situation quite differently. President Obama suggested that Americans use the same common sense they would apply to any flu (wash your hands; if you have flu symptoms, see a doctor and get rest at home). He and Vice-President Biden then went out for a public dinner of hamburgers to build public confidence.

When the death toll in Mexico (primarily in Mexico City) hit 100, the Mexican government took an opposite tack. It ordered the cancellation of all public gatherings. Restaurants. Movies. Fútbol matches. Concerts. Those white masks that make everyone look like a Japaneses bank robber showed up everywhere. It could have a scene right out of the Black Death. Mexico's tourist trade collapsed.

The health authorities later confessed that they knew they had overly-dramatized the dangers of H1N1, but they suspected that because Mexicans have a long and well-deserved distrust of anything their government says, the health authorities had to resort to those methods.

The week I arrived in Villa Obregón
, a fellow blogger (American Mommy in Mexico) informed me she and her family were visiting La Manzanilla, a beach town just north of us. She wanted to know if my brother and I would like to have dinner with her family and another blogger (Jan) and her son, Lyle.  

I always enjoy meeting the writers behind the essays we publish. I had met several other bloggers on the drive down. I said yes.

We then faced the problem that all of the restaurants in La Manzanilla were closed by the health edict. But, this is Mexico. There is always a way to do something you want to do.

I do not remember who did the persuading, but Lora agreed to moved two of her tables far out on the sand where we put together our little publication party. And Lora served us her incomparable baked enchiladas. It is a night fondly-remembered (supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

My dinner with David and Laura last night is going to be stored in that same file folder. The experience was quite different. But, if it had been the same, it would not have been special. Even the sunset was different. More Winslow Homer than J.M.W. Turner.

2019-nCoV inevitably arrives in Mexico, I wonder if we will need to rely upon the creative services of  Lora again?

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

being florence foster jenkins

Yesterday I attended the first book fair in our area.

At least, I think it was the first. Local authors were invited to speak, talk with attendees, and flog their wares.

When I initially heard the book fair was going to be conducted at the new art center in San Patricio, I had no idea how many authors resided within reading distance.

The schedule included twenty-two 15-minute time slots for authors to regale the handful of attendees with samples of their work. Health issues whittled back the list, but there were volunteers just waiting to fill the vacancies. Poets. Authors of children books. Novelists. Photographers. Memoirists.

I should not have been surprised at the large number of author-participants. Our area is filled with northerners who have turned their hands to the arts. Painters. Sculptors. Muralists. Writers. Composers. Musicians. Cooks. None of whom are Matisse or Hemingway or Mozart. Even though some of us may think we are in the privacy of our personal asylums.

What we are is passionate about our chosen arts. Whether we have taken it up as an avocation only in our retirement years or it has been our life-long vocation.

Four years ago, my friend John in Salem saw Meryl Streep's Florence Foster Jenkins -- and urged me to see it. The film is based on an eponymous New York socialite who was so passionate about music that she felt it was her life.

Her circle encompassed musical stars. Lily Pons. Arturo Toscanini. Cole Porter. She used her money to ensure music would thrive in New York City.

But that was not good enough for her. She wanted to perform. Because of nerve injury in one hand, performing as a pianist was impossible. So, she sang, being coached by one of the country's best voice teachers.

She then put that training to use in public concerts where she would appear in the most dramatic and outlandish costumes singing technically-difficult pieces. "Public" in the sense that a very close-knit group of admirers, chosen by her manager, were invited to hear her sing in small venues.

She thought her singing was quite good. It wasn't. It was tortuous. That is why her manager struggled to prevent her from being exposed to people who were not her fans. Especially, the critic for The New York Post.

Let me break character here for a moment to give you some context. We know how Madame Florence sang because she was good enough to record some of her favorite pieces. Here she is singing the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. You should probably listen to no more than a sample.

And here is the same piece sung by Diana Damrau, as Mozart intended it to be heard.


But the small venues did not satisfy her. Unbeknowst to her manager, she booked herself into Carnegie Hall. The tickets sold out almost immediately in what was to be her last performance.

The film closely follows that story arc. Madame Florence's vision of her talent remains intact until she reads a review by the music critic of The New York Post that objectively destroys her fantasy by labeling her the worst singer of all time.

Lying on her death bed, in the film, Madame Florence recites a phrase she actually wrote in a letter to a friend: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

If Madame Florence sounds familiar, she should -- because she is a restatement of another literary character who was accused of being mad as he sallied forth to right wrongs. Don Quixote.

Or, at least, the Don Quixote most Americans know from the musical Man of La Mancha without having cracked the cover of Cervantes. Cervantes did not see Don Quixote as a tragic figure. To him, Don Quixote was a figure of justified ridicule, not pity. One of the greatest works of western civilization is actually a hit piece.

The Don Quixote of Man of La Mancha is just the opposite. Audience members see him sympathetically knowing that he might be wrong-headed, but he is fighting for a better world. They see him living his life without a shred of irony.

Madame Florence is the same. She does not see that objectively she is a bad singer. Her passion for music convinces her that, as a missionary, she is spreading a clear message to the world.

And even though both Don Quixote and Madame Florence are eventually felled by the forces of objectivity, they both die believing in a world fired by their passions. And I cannot think of a better way to go.

I thought of Madame Florence yesterday as I sat listening to local authors reciting their work. There are always two attitudes one can take to these functions. You can either have delusions of adequacy that you are a critic for The New York Post as you sit and dis what is on display, or you can realize that the author-participants are not there competing with Ted Kooser and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I chose the latter. Each one of the participants stood on that stage reading works they had created in the hopes that something in what they created would for one magic moment touch another person's life in the audience -- and make a difference. And, based on what I witnessed with my fellow audience members, the passions were appreciated.

I, of course, number myself among the group -- both through my writing and my cooking. I have no pretensions about aspiring to greatness. OK. There may be a few moments. But I write simply because I like to write and read. I cook because I like to eat. And I like talking about both with you.

In that sense, we are all Florence Foster Jenkins. And that is fine with me.

On her deathbed she reminisced about her success at Carnegie Hall where, to her ear, she had a voice like an angel -- and was dressed as one.

May every artist in the world die with such memories.

Monday, January 27, 2020

international holocaust day

Arbeit macht frei.

It was one of the most ironic of signs. The commanders of Dachau and Auschwitz slapped the lie-filled slogan over the entrance to their concentration camps. Work sets you free, indeed.

For those who were forced through the gates, they would work (if they were not immediately gassed), but the only freedom over 6 million of them would ever know was the liberating power of death that would free them from one of the twentieth centuries parade of horrors.

There were other horrors, of course. Stalin's Gulag, Mao's execution squads. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge killing fields. Emperor Bokassa I's murderous insanity. They all starred in making the twentieth century one of the most dangerous 100 years for humanity.

But the German Holocaust stands alone in its single-minded process to not only hate those who the state saw as its cultural enemies, but to systematically eliminate them. And unlike the other moral catastrophes of the century, the Holocaust was not designed solely to deal with political enemies. Its murder was set in motion to eliminate people identified by race and religion as being a danger to western (in this case, as viewed by the German hierarchy) civilization.

That is why we honor today, on International Holocaust Day, those who died in the Holocaust -- primarily the almost 6 million Jews (two-thirds of  European Jews) -- and almost 11 million others. Handicapped. Russian prisoners of war. Homosexuals. Slavs (mostly, Poles). Gypsies. Christian ministers. Political dissidents. Or anyone the German government found to be inferior or bothersome.

And why do we do it? Why do we honor those who died outside the personal memory of most of us?

The question, of course, is both rhetorical -- and silly. We remember because the people who died under the totalitarian German regime were just like us. They were human beings, most of whom whose "crimes" were that they were born into a faith despised by many of their neighbors.

But we remember not only out of empathy. We remember because we cannot help ourselves shouting "never again" when we hear people deny that there was any such a thing as the Holocaust.

Of course, there are always the conspiracy-minded who deny the American moon landing, who believe Israel was responsible for blowing up the Twin Towers, who are convinced that President Obama personally flew to Texas and assassinated Justice Scalia, and who believe that their talents have been foiled by the Knights Templar who have ruined manufacturing jobs in New York City. If we do not remember history as it happened, we run the risk of turning over our past to the tin-foil hate brigade.

All of those are reasons enough. But there is a far more important reason. The hatred that inspired the Holocaust, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Pol Pot, and Che Guevara is still with us. It is a nasty little vice that seems to be inherent in human nature. Our ability to despise is one talent that does not need practice to be very effective.

Oswald Spengler was one of the brave German intellectuals who stood up against the Nazi regime. He could not imagine that any ideology would be so ignorant (his word) as to deprive a nation of some of its best minds and talents solely on the basis of some crazy notion of racial superiority.

And, yet, while he was criticizing the Nazis, he still used stereotypes of Jews that were very common amongst both leftist and conservative Europeans -- stereotypes that the Nazis skillfully used to justify their anti-Jewish laws, and eventually, their "final solution."

Maybe that is the lesson for me to take away from today's remembrance. When I see people whose actions I disagree with, I should see them as people who are as thirsty as I am in my life.

There is a scene near the end of Gandhi, where Gandhi is confronted by a mob of Hindu youth who try to keep him from meeting with Jinnah, who will eventually be the leader of a Pakistan sliced off of India.

What do you want me not to do? Not to meet with Mr. Jinnah? I am a Muslim! . . . And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew – and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout you send fear into the hearts of your brothers.
This is not the India I want. Stop it. For God's sake, stop it.
We never cease to be moral agents. When we encounter hatred, it needs to be confronted. But we do not counter hate with hate. We empathize with those who died in the Holocaust because they were human beings -- just like us. And so are the people with whom we disagree.

The next scene in Gandhi is his assassination -- where he is shot by one of the Hindu nationalists that he urged to "Stop it!" A hatred that continues to this day.

We can best memorialize those who died, not with hatred, but with kindness. Starting with our daily activities, Especially in Mexico, it is very easy to jump to judgment about actions by one another. A little bit of kindness would go a long way.

Would kindness have stopped the Holocaust? Most likely, not. But if people had spent centuries developing a sense of empathy instead of polishing their grudges, history may have taken a different turn.

We may never change the course of history, but each of us has a moral duty to at least be kind to ourselves and those we encounter.     

Thursday, January 23, 2020

going to the movies with cate

Music welcomed my emergence onto the patio this morning. It was almost as if I was being played onto an award stage.

A syncopated samba was blasting from my neighbor's house into my patio. I have mentioned before that my patio tends to act as a megaphone -- magnifying sounds from outside. It is a bit like living inside an acoustic guitar.

But this music did not need to be magnified. It was Mexi-loud at its source. I could tell because the mother of the house was yelling at the top of her voice, giving her children instructions to get ready for school.

There was a time when all of that would have sent me into Full Frontal Codger. But loud noises, loud voices, loud drilling is just part of life in my village. I can either get angry, enjoy the music, or find a diversion.

This morning I chose diversion. I pulled out my earphones and uploaded Wagner overtures on Youtube. I could still hear the neighbor's music -- for a bit. Until I concentrated on the Wagner. I am still listening as I write to you.

Self-entertainment has changed in Mexico -- even in the decade-plus I have been living here. Even though I have a CD and DVD library, I rely on streaming services to provide me with new entertainment. Youtube and Netflix are my main sources.

That brings me to today's topic. I was going to tell you about two movies I watched on Netflix this week: Marriage Story and Carol. And I will tell you about them. But what I will write today is far different than what I would have written right after seeing them.

Both are ostensibly about divorces. But that is not the tale they are telling. They are really about our relationships with one another in a world where actual connection is difficult to attain and cultivate. And harder to maintain.

I have skipped over Marriage Story as a Netflix selection since its release. However, when it received a Best Picture nomination, I put it on my watch list. I finally got around to watching it on Sunday. And I was initially impressed.

The writing (which, to me, is always the central part of any film) was witty, flowed easily from scene-to-scene, and was tightly-constructed. The opening scene is a voice-over of the couple listing what they love about each other. But the narrative is so sentimentally shallow, you know that what is being said is not true. And it isn't. The lists are part of a marriage counseling exercise.

But, here is my problem. Even though I had the impression that I really liked the movie while I was watching it, I cannot remember much about it. I had to look at a plot summary of the movie to remember what happened.

The same thing happened with Carol -- a film about a divorce in the 1950s. Cate Blanchett (one of my favorite actresses in the Actresses' Holy Trinity with Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren) plays the eponymous wife who is fighting for custody of her daughter. While the divorce is underway, she heads out on a Thelma and Louise trip with a young woman and has an affair along the way. Of course, an investigator discovers what is going on, and the tenor of the custody battle turns nasty.

I was not as impressed with what the writers did with this script. I suspect the source material is the root problem. It is based on a romance novel, and has far too many knowing glances. They would have filled a full season of Downton Abbey. Of course, as Lincoln once reportedly said: "People who like this sort of thing are going to find it is the sort of thing they like."

But the acting is superb. The writers gave Blanchett a role that was nuanced and noble. The only scene I can now recall from the film is where Carol stops a negotiation session with the lawyers because it would not be in the best interest of her daughter to continue the ugly fight. She makes the ultimate sacrifice of giving up her daughter because she realizes she has helped create the problem.

Neither film is going to be very memorable. I know that because by next year I will forget that I watched them. There will be no lines that I will quote.

And that is a pity because both films are replete with lessons about the human condition. The couple in Marriage Story were not pulled apart by the legal system. Like a lot of us, they allowed differences to turn into fissures when they had the full ability to create a strong marriage.

In reality, though, we do not. We can look back on lives that are true Greek tragedies that, with effort, could have been something else.

The strength of both films is to show us, even when we leave a wake of disaster behind us, sometimes we just need to pick up our lives and move on. In the hope that we have learned a lesson that will make us kind to others and ourselves.

That may be a better way to face life than to try drowning out the samba with Wagner. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

experimenting with my sausage

I appreciate surprises.

Especially, surprises involving food.

Earlier this week, one showed up in the deli display at Hawaii, my favorite food market in San Patricio. Most of my new discoveries are fruits or vegetables I have not tried. Something new to experiment with. But this was something from my past. Chicken sausages from Aidells.

I have always enjoyed the company's sausages. In The States, the company offers a wide range of flavors: orange coriander, poblano paprika, sun-dried tomato, habanero and green chile, pineapple and bacon, and my favorite: spicy mango with jalapeño.

What Alex offered for sale at Hawaii was one of the company's milder (and subsequently more popular) offering: chicken sausage with apple. I did not hesitate to buy it because the apple version is very versatile. I have used it in both soups and with pasta.

In the 1980s, my law partner, Ron Gray, would inevitably shoot an elk during hunting season, and then share packets of elk sausage with me. Because it was very lean, I usually used the sausage in soup.

In the mid-1970s, I ate a game sausage soup in a Paris restaurant whose name I have long forgotten. On paper, it did not seem very promising. A carrot-leek-cabbage-potato-venison sausage soup finished off with a brown roux redolent with butter and fresh marjoram. But it was one of the best culinary experiences of my life.

I tried reliving it with the sausage Ron provided. It was just another fatal attempt to chase the dragon. I eventually gave up and, instead, riffed off it with other ingredients. That is where the chicken sausage came in. I did not re-create the Paris of experience, but I captured its spirit by cooking up several soups that were superior to the original.     

And that is what I did yesterday. The cabbage and onions here are very good. As are the leeks. But my favorites are the smaller onions with their tops intact. They look like green onions on steroids, but they are far better than any scallion I have worked with. So, I bought several of them.

Because the butter, the onions, the leeks, the carrots, and the apple in the sausages would make the soup quite sweet, I needed something to balance it. The answer was easy. I added three habanero peppers. I chose a bonnet chili because its piquancy would balance the other sweet ingredients, but its fruitiness would complement the apples in the sausage.

I also added red and yellow bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes for taste, texture, and color. Then, because no game soup is complete without a thickened broth, I stirred up a roux until it browned enough to add a nutty taste, and stirred it into the soup. It was still a little too sweet. I added a bit of rice vinegar until the sweetness settled down.

The result was not Paris. And it was not the best sausage soup I have made. But it is very good.

Because I cook as if I am making dinner for a Thanksgiving crowd, Omar and I will be eating sausage soup for a couple of days.

But it is better than ham sandwiches.  

Monday, January 20, 2020

moving to mexico -- tricks of the language

Languages can be tricky.

Especially if you trying to learn a new one.

I started learning Spanish two years before I moved to Mexico. I bought several computer programs and worked through them diligently. But very little stuck because I had almost no opportunity to use what I was learning.

When I moved to Mexico, I kept plugging away on the computer, added Duolingo to the mix, and I became desperate enough to attend three in-person classes. My Spanish improved because I was actually able to exercise it each day talking with my neighbors.

But the most improvement was the direct result of adopting Omar as my son. He speaks very little English, so we talk in Spanish. I only see him for about an hour each day, but he always teaches me new terms while we talk about neighborhood doings.

I noticed that he usually did not always use the usual de nada for "you are welcome." He says, "por nada," which means the same thing. When I was in Colombia, I heard the Colombians say: "con mucho gusto" instead of "de nada." 

Because it was something different, I started using it here -- like those affected American tourists who visit England and start saying "cheers" wherever they go.

Somehow (I am going to fall back on the trope of an aging mind), I conflated my newly-learned phrases, and I ended up writing "con nada" on a Facebook comment, rather than "por nada." My friend Roxane gently corrected my error.

But that mistake reminded me of several conversations I have had with Omar about being careful learning a new language by listening to some native speakers. Everyone does not have a grasp of their own native language.

My Mexican friend Gus has spent years improving his proficiency in English. He has the advantage of having accumulated an impressive vocabulary.

We were sitting around the pool when he said something like: "Your flowers have a nice odor." There was really nothing wrong with the sentence. He had successfully conveyed his thought to me. It was just a bit awkward.

But I told him he had stumbled into one of the trickiest English cul-de-sacs. English is an incredibly rich language. Because it has drawn from a large variety of different languages for its vocabulary, words often have historical subtle differences that are often honored only in their breach.

Smell is one. The apparent synonyms include odor, fragrance, aroma, stench, bouquet, perfume, scent, stench, stink, essence, savor, and a number more are not really synonyms. They are not interchangeable. Well, they should not be.

Native English speakers quite frequently in conversation will simply pick one word as if it means the same as the next. Or ambiguously. Substituting "smells" when the speaker means "stinks" is common. But it presents problems for a student who is trying to learn English.

The best Spanish teacher I have encountered here was a young woman from Maine, Amy, who taught high-school Spanish Down East. She was here only for the summer, but I thoroughly enjoyed her classes because she enjoyed talking about the subtleties of speech.

She was teaching us comparatives. She wrote "Ella es tan vieja como yo" on the board, and asked us to translate it into English. The translation was easy for the class. "She is older than I."

She asked if anyone had any questions about the construction. No one did.

Amy then told us why she had asked. In another class the prior day, a student had challenged her that the English translation was wrong. It should be:"She is older than me"

When Amy tried to explain that the proper pronoun for comparison is the same in English as it is in Spanish (I and yo), the student slammed her book and left the classroom with "If you don't know English, you can't know Spanish," and walked out.

Of course, Amy did know English. Standard English. But the student was not entirely wrong either. 

Over the years through improper usage, "than me" has become common sub-standard usage -- heard and used daily. The test to understand the proper usage is to add the assumed "am" that would otherwise end the sentence. "She is older than I am." "She is older than me am" would not be my first choice.

And then there is "unique," probably one of the most abused adjectives in English. Most native speakers commonly use it as an adjective for "unusual." It is not.  It means: "Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else."

I have a solitaire app on my telephone that serves up some really odd advertisements. Jewish cruises in the Pacific. Gay pub crawls in Puerto Vallarta. Package tours to Banff for single mothers. They are eclectic, if nothing else.

While I was in Oregon, an advertisement from the Danbury Mint popped up. You have probably encountered the company before. Its goods usually make QVC look like Tiffany's.

What was on offer for Christmas was a gold and diamond pendant set with the birth stones of a couple with their names etched on the pendant. Forever Together. A perfect sentimental Christmas gift.

But it was not the pendant that caught my eye. It was the promise that would accompany the gift. "Give her a pendant as unique as your love!" On its face, that sounds as if it might be a proper use of the term "unique."

Until you consider thousands of the pendants will be sold. That factoid matters. The promised "unique" love seems to have a lot of possibilities. Even taking into account the variable of the birth stones, unless the names are "Baranakanipherio" and "zyxwvu," there are going to be duplicates. If the giver's love is that type of unique, a Dear Abby letter baptized in tears will be in the offing.

"Unique," like a large portion of the English vocabulary, comes to the language from Latin -- through the courtesy of the Norman invaders. Not surprisingly, there is a Spanish cognate -- único. 

According to the Royal Spanish Academy, "
único" means exactly the same thing as in standard English. "Sole, solitary, only."
But, if you use any of the online translators, you uncover the same dog's dinner that has occurred in English. It is regularly translated as "special" or "exceptional."

One of my frustrations with learning Spanish is that I want to learn the stories behind its words. The result is that I end up doing in my Spanish studies what I do with Omar and Gus when discussing English words. It reminds me of Gertrude Stein's criticism of Ezra Pound: "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not."

What I need to do is to pay more attention to what I think I have learned. My "con nada" mistake being a good example.

But, before I go, let me leave you with one more example of just how wrong my Spanish can get. This one I blame on spending far too much time with slang-besotted young Mexicans.

I was in a San Patricio restaurant two nights ago. The waiter brought me my mineral water and offered a straw (un popote in Spanish -- at least, in Mexico). In a fit of green consciousness, and without filtering my words, I declined the plastic straw with: "Gracias. No. No necesito un pito."

Because this us a family-oriented blog, I will not translate why the waiter went wide-eyed and then could not stop laughing.

Some mistakes are better than others.    

Sunday, January 19, 2020

more than zero

My brother Darrel should be a gerontologist.

When I was in Oregon earlier this month, he told me: "I don't understand why some people say they become forgetful in old age. It is just the opposite for me. I remember things that never happened." Amen to that.

I was looking forward to the arrival of my CFE (electric) bills this month because I wanted to show you what a "zero-peso" bill looked like. As you can see in the photograph, the best I can offer you are bills for 5 and 7 pesos. Hardly zero. And therein lies a tale.

When I flew north in December, I was not certain when I would return. But I knew there was a good chance that my home telephone and internet (Telmex), my cellular telephone (Telcel), and my CFE bills would come due before I returned. Rather than leave Omar without internet or electricity, I gathered up my old bills and trundled over to Banamex to make advance payments.

After I waited for the usual 45 minutes to talk with a clerk, everything zipped along. If everything was only my telephone transactions. The clerk accepted payments for about three months in advance.

I also deposited , according to my memory, a year's worth of electrical service. That is not as much as it sounds. Since I installed the solar array on my house, I pay only the CFE connection fee required of all customers. About 85 pesos every two months for my two meters.

When my CFE bills arrived yesterday, I was surprised to see any amounts (though small) were due. I thought I had paid enough for a year in advance.

I was ready to take my bank receipt to the CFE office on Monday demanding to know what had happened to my money. Fortunately, I looked at the receipt -- and it all came back.

When I tried to pay for a full year, the bank clerk told me CFE would allow the bank to receive only the equivalent of the amount on the last bill. He then asked if I wanted to pay the bank's service fee out of the payment I had handed him or to make an additional payment for the fee.

I was a bit distracted by the limited amount I could pay, and I must have mumbled something. Because I handed him no other payment, he assumed I wanted the fee to be taken out of the CFE payment I had just made. Meaning, I had handed him 12 pesos less than was necessary to close the deal.

And that is why CFE was now telling me I owed an additional 12 pesos. Because I do.

Even though the mystery has been solved, I will still drive to 
Cihuatlán tomorrow to deposit a year's worth of money in my accounts. 2020 is going to be a travel year for me, and I do not want to miss bills that may arrive in my absence.

Come March, I may be able to show you a zero-peso electric bill.

Unless I remember something else that did not happen.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

dogging it in mexico

I love dogs. I always have.

Dogs have been part of almost all of my life. My first was Uncle Jiggs. That is the two of us in the photograph. We were about the same age, and he was the boon companion of my youth.

When I moved to Mexico, my roommate was the aged and saintly Professor Jiggs -- my 13-year old golden retriever. Mexico was far too confusing and hot for him. The only thing he liked were the fireworks. Golden retrievers like anything that sounds like guns bringing down pheasants.

But, like most old men, he hated change. Even though he loved swimming in the Pacific in Oregon, he found the hot water in the bay here to be disturbing -- as if the world had somehow come unstuck.

He survived five months of living on the beach in Villa Obregón
, and was then mercifully relieved of the vexations brought on by old age (my best friend).

That was 2009. Because I enjoy traveling, I avoided even thinking about buying a dog in Mexico. I saw several golden retrievers on trips to the Mexican highlands. Every sighting was a sure sign from God that I was to move inland where I would live happily with another golden. But I ignored the hints.

I held out for six years. It was just happenstance that my friend Elke informed me a litter of nine golden retriever puppies had been born here in Barra de Navidad. Golden retrievers in Barra? That had to be some sort of sign.

Darrel and I decided to visit the house where the puppies were staying. When the door opened, it was like a scene from 101 Dalmatians. The mother and a mob of puppies came rushing out to welcome us to their house.

One guy was rather aloof and haughty. And very vocal. I immediately took a liking to him -- and home he went with me to be transformed into the unforgettable (for those of you who have been reading these essays for some time) Barco Rubio. At the time I thought the name was a clever political pun. It was not until I thought about it that I realized I had named my dog "blond boat" in Spanish.

My neighbors loved him. Most of them knew his name better than mine. They still do. He was friends with every dog. Every kid. Every adult.

All of that ended just after his first birthday. He had contracted a lung infection and then his stomach turned. Surgery turned out to be futile. I had to make the hard decision that every kind dog owner has to make at some point. At least, I was there to hold him as he died (barco's door).

I thought of Uncle Jiggs, Professor Jiggs, and Barco Rubio this morning while reading one of Ted Kooser's poems -- Painting the Barn..

The ghost of my good dog, Alice, sits at the foot of my ladder,looking up, now and then touchingthe bottom rung with her paw.Even a spirit dog can't climban extension ladder and so,with my scraper, bucket and brush,I am up here alone, hanging onwith one hand in the autumn wind,high over the earth that Aliceknew so well, every last inch,and there she sits, whimperingin just the way the chilly windwhines under the tin of the roof--sweet Alice, dear Alice, good Alice,waiting for me to come down. 
I have experienced that same sensation in the house with no name. Whether waiting at the foot of the ladder, watching for the opportunity to dash through the open door to play with his street dog chums, or jumping onto the bed to dump me on the floor, Barco's spirit permeates this house. As do those of the two Jiggs -- even though neither of them lived here.

Is this a prelude to announcing there is a new dog in my future? Maybe. But, probably not.

I still have the same travel plans. But Barco Rubio managed to put an end to them with his more interesting life. If I do, it will be another golden retriever. I know a good thing when I experience it.

I do love dogs. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

singing the cultural blues

Yesterday afternoon was the kick-off of the church's cultural awareness program in Melaque.

The series was initiated several years ago to introduce foreigners to the cultural differences between their native cultural and that of Mexico.The topic yesterday was the distinction between hot climate cultures and cold climate cultures -- Mexico and the southern United States being the former, and Canada and the northern United States being the latter.

I have long been agnostic about the procrustean amputations necessary to stuff complex cultures into those two tidy boxes. It reminds me of that old joke. There are two types of people -- people who divide everything into two categories, and those who don't.

With all of its intellectual shortcomings, it gave the presenter a framework to talk about the deconstruction of Mexican names, Mexican extended family relations, and why some Mexicans consider some of our actions reflecting our culture as baffling, humorous, or offensive.

Even though I have had to personally contend with it up close and personal recently, I particularly enjoyed the refresher course on the importance of the roles and relationships of padrino and madrina -- what northerners would call godparents, even though the duties are far different. (My particular brand of Christianity knew no such thing. The only godfather I knew growing up was Marlon Brando.)

In Mexico, a girl can have baptism padrinos, first communion padrinos, and a multitude of quinceañera and wedding padrinos (often a different one for each aspect of the party).

That list of potential padrinos for one little girl raised a question with a member of the audience. This was the essence of his question: "Because Mexican families have so many children, is it possible for a person to be a padrino for more than one child?" The answer was yes.

But the presenter failed to comment that the question proceeded from a false assumption. Mexican families do not have a large number of children.

Had the question been asked in the 1960s, the assumption would have been true. Sixty years ago, the fertility rate for Mexico was between six and seven. That meant that, on average, a Mexican woman would give birth to six or seven children.

That has drastically changed. As Mexico's economy improved (Mexico now has the 15th largest economy in the world) and more Mexicans moved into the middle class, family size diminished. The fertility rate is now 2.1. On average, a Mexican woman now will give birth to two children during her lifetime.

The 2.1 figure is important. That is the level at which a society will maintain its current population. If Mexico's fertility rate falls below that level (and it will undoubtedly do that in the near future), it will join Canada and The States with fertility levels that result in a decreasing native-born population. Canada's rate is 1.8. The States' is 1.9. As a result, all three countries face the reality of fewer young people working and paying taxes into a system that will contain a much larger contingent of old people.

In the near future, the questioner may need to re-phrase his question. "With fewer children being born, will adults ever get the chance to be a padrino?"

Not to worry. There will always be an opening for a wedding padrino de los botanas.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

señor postman send me a dream

When I was in Oregon, my sister-in-law and I had a conversation about dreams and nightmares.

She said she frequently had nightmares. I thought that a bit odd since I had not had a nightmare since I was a child.

What I found even odder is that when she talked about what turned a dream into a nightmare (being chased, falling though the air) for her were exactly the events that I found exhilarating in my dreams. That is, when I am in my dreams. Usually, I am the director or writer. Just as in life, I like to watch.

I thought of that yesterday when I was at the post office finalizing the payment of my rent for my box.

Now, I know I told you I had paid the fee last Thursday (leviathan says you do not need that money). That was a lie. But, in my defense, I had started the process.

In fact, I had started the process the day before -- on Thursday. I stopped at the post office with my 300 pesos in hand to pay my rental fee. I should have known better that it would not be that simple.

During the past two years there have been big changes at our post office. A new postmaster. Audits. Termination of old programs (accepting delivery from DHL and UPS). More formality in transactions. Closure of the Barra de Navidad post office.

There are lots of rumors swirling around town why all these changes happened. But I do not know if any of them have any validity. I am certainly not going to add any credibility by repeating them.

Because of the changes, though, I should not have been surprised when the postmaster requested a copy of my electric bill to renew my box. Almost every financial transaction in Mexico requires the customer to whip out his current electric bill to verify his address. The name on the bill does not even have to match the customer's. It is just a requirement.

A quick memory check would have reminded me I had to do something similar last year. But then I had to provide a copy of my electric bill and the photo page of my passport. I suspect that was a result of the audit.

I did not have my electric bill with me. I am not as smart as my friend Joyce who always carries her in her purse. So, I had to return the next day.

What came next felt almost as if I had slipped into one of those dreams that seem real, but I know it cannot be.

When I showed up on Friday with the bill, the postmaster said he needed a copy of it (I had failed to anticipate that). Had I remembered the copy, I could not have completed the transaction because he had not yet drafted up my agreement. Come back next week.

So, I did. Yesterday. With a copy of my bill and my 300 pesos.

The postmaster had completed part of the paperwork, but he required me to fill out a new application form -- even though I was renting the same box I have been renting for a decade. The same information he had included on the rental agreement.

That was fine. It just seemed to be a bit of overkill since no information on the form had changed since last January.

Having completed my application and signed two copies of the formal agreement, I was ready to pay my money. And I did. 300 pesos.

The postmaster looked at the bills and smiled. For a moment I thought the rental fee had increased -- even though the agreement clearly showed the cost was 300 pesos.
"Necesitas diez pesos más." "You need ten more pesos."

I will admit that that the automatic gringo fallback of "What are you trying to pull?" flashed through my mind. Instead, I asked him why.

"For the copy."

Now, I was confused. The only copy involved in the transaction was my electric bill and I had made that copy. Before I sank into cross-examination mode, it occurred to me that there was another copy. My copy of the rental agreement that also acted as my receipt.

I chalked it up to just another attempt to bring the post office into the corral of financial discipline.

A number of merchants in out area (including Oxxo) have incentives for customers to bring their own bags while shopping. Oxxo will still provide a plastic bag, but the customer has to buy it. I have noticed a number of neighbors who simply gather up their purchases in their arms rather than pay for something that was once free.

That is not a good option at the post office. One of the consequences of the postmaster shift a couple years ago was an effort to collect on delinquent payments for box rentals. Receipts were not always issued under the old regime. As a result, some renters paid twice that year.

A Mexican friend taught me that lesson when I first moved to Mexico. Keep your receipts for everything.

So, I paid my ten pesos for proof that I had actually paid my 300 pesos. Oddly, I did not receive a receipt for the 10 pesos. That would been bureaucratic overkill.

But, my dream was not yet over. Joyce had told me that there was a letter (probably a greeting card by its shape) for me at the post office. She knew that because the postmaster had given it to her earlier in the week. Her box is just below mine.

Somehow, in the passage of one day, the letter had disappeared. I told the postmasrer Joyce's story, but he remembered nothing like that.

Of course, maybe the whole thing was a dream. But certainly not a nightmare.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

learning spanish with dingo-lingo

Today is my birthday.

On days like this, it is customary to write one of those Kantian essays on moral imperatives that describe how the birthday boy can now see the far shore through a glass darkly. And that is exactly what I started to do when confronted with the keyboard this morning.

Then, I came to my senses. I am no more interested in writing about that aspect of my life than you are in hearing it. So, off with the maudlin and back to a far more interesting topic.

I have been using Duolingo, a Spanish app on my telephone, for almost a decade. It is part of my morning routine in my quest to learn the language of my neighbors. I have learned far more Spanish from Omar than I have from Duolingo, but I still press on.

Some of the sentences on the app can be a bit odd. "The cats ate dinner with the bears." The purpose of those nonsense sentences are apparent. They emphasize grammar and vocabulary through absurd content.

One of my favorite tools in Duolingo is the comment section under each sentence. The comments were designed to help reduce confusion by allowing users to ask other community members for assistance. But, like all comment sections on the internet, it houses more trolls than the bridges of Madison County.

There are always a lot of I-don't-get-it literalists. "Cats do not eat with bears. That is not correct." "Where am I supposed to use that sentence?" "This is a lie."

But even straight-forward sentences generate heat. Today Duolingo offered up two rather uninteresting examples: "Cows are not dangerous" and "Basketball is not a dangerous sport." It was a good exercise in using the adjective with and without a supporting noun.

At least, I thought the sentences were uninteresting. The comments section under both sentences included running battles about just how dangerous cows can be and drawing eye-rolling distinctions between "dangerous" meaning "life-threatening" or merely "injury-inducing."

My problem is that I find the comments so entertaining that I forget to complete my lesson in the time I have allotted.

The comments did get me thinking about comedy, though. A recent poll showed that 43% of Americans between 18 and 30 received most of their political news from late night comedy shows. That is an increase from 21% in 2004.

My skeptical nature doubted the first survey when it was reported in the news sixteen years ago -- prominently on the comedy shows, of course. I have now changed my mind.

Last year, I was having dinner with American friends. For some reason, the conversation turned to Sarah Palin. The husband, who is well over 30, said: "Can you believe how dumb she is, she actually said she could see Russia from her front porch." He believed that was true.

I pulled out my smartphone and played a Tina Fey Youtube video where she described how people think Palin actually said those words. She didn't. Tina Fey did. In an SNL skit. Even after watching the video, he still said he believed Palin had said it.

This week I was talking with an acquaintance who said she had decided to vote for Hillary Clinton because Donald Trump had jumped up behind her and yelled "Boo" in the third presidential debate. That, of course, was actually Alec Baldwin startling Kate McKinnon on another SNL skit.

What made both of those skits funny, of course, is that they were based on similar events. Sarah Palin did say that she had international experience because Russia was so close to Alaska it was possible to see one from the other. And the third presidential debate did have a very creepy feel about it with the "debaters" wandering the stage as if they were auditioning for Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

And what do we conclude from all that? Not much. Remember, I told you I was not going to wax prosaically about my life journey.

What I will say is that I am enthralled with comedy. It is an art form where facts are not necessary to speak truth. It is a world where cats eat with bears, Sarah Palin speaks in the charming voice of Tina Fey, and basketball-playing cows are not dangerous unless they twist an ankle on a lay-up.

It is a world where I intend to have a happy birthday -- at least, for the day. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

aging in mexico

This is why I pay 300 pesos a year to the Mexican post office.

While I was at the post office in San Patricio yesterday paying my rental fee, my favorite postal clerk handed me the current contents of my box:

  • A birthday card (for an event that is less than a week away) from my long-time friend Colette Duncan
  • A Christmas card from my niece, Terrie Holt
  • A Christmas card from my San Miguel de Allende chums, Al and Stew
  • The October 2019 Oregon State Bar Bulletin

It was an interesting mix. Lots of sentiment without the sentimentality. Well, the cards were. The Bulletin? No sentiment there.

I have retained my membership in the Oregon State Bar as an inactive member. The reason for the membership was a bit unclear to me. Maybe I thought I would one day yoke myself to the harsh mistress of Justice. Or, worse, I had become accustomed to the title that came with continued membership.

Whatever the real reason was, it has become a stranger to my current life. And the Bar's use of my dues money for its narrow political agenda is annoying. One of my Oregon attorney friends jokingly refers to the Oregon State Bar as a communist front for the National Lawyer Guild.

But the greeting cards are in an entirely different category. Colette grew up with me in our neighborhood. We have been friends since grade school, and she has been an anchor for me several times in my life.

Terrie is the daughter of my father's daughter. She has recently passed along stories about how my library gave her a strong foundation as she was growing up. We now track one another's lives on Facebook.

I met Al before I met Stew. Al is a blogger in San Miguel de Allende. His newspaper background shows in his excellently-crafted essays about their life on a ranch outside San Miguel. As much as I enjoy my almost-annual trips to San Miguel for the chamber music festival, the highlight is our free-ranging conversations over lunch or dinner -- a monument to how people can disagree and still be good friends.

During the past two months I have become introspective on the topic of aging. Death has fascinated me since I was four years old. The first two stories I wrote at that age centered around death. Full disclosure would have used the phrase "rather violent death."

But I have not thought much about aging -- a completely different process, and just as inevitable. Probably because it was not until the past year that I have experienced the classic signs of aging. A little less balance. Legs that subtly rebel when asked to climb stairs. Nouns that take a vacation somewhere in the southern hemisphere where there are no telephones. I now run the risk of using that vexatious cliché from the 70s: "I can relate."

That may be one reason I have watched Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady twice this month. I disliked the movie when I first saw it years ago. It did not seem to capture the essence of one of Great Britain's strongest prime ministers.

That is not how I see the movie now. I am just completing the third (and last) volume of Charles Moore's biography of Lady Thatcher. The most poignant chapters are the ones following her political fall.

Her former political secretary, 
Mark Worthington, summed up her life after Downing Street as: "The Almighty had shaped her to be prime minister, but not to do anything else. She was made to sit there and take decisions. If there were no decisions to take, she did not know what to do."
And though she continued to make speeches, wrote her memoirs, and toured the world as a symbol of Britain, she was no longer the decider. With less opportunity to use her skills, her mind started to fade, and she walked that path that Ronald Reagan described of his own life: "
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

I suspect that is why I now find cards and letters from friends so comforting. They are physical symbols that someone cared enough to invest their time in selecting something to send to me -- and then actually sent it. I would be stealing that time if I did anything other than to honor those friendships.* 

One day, when I am sitting in some warehouse-for-the-elderly, I will pull out these three cards (along with the others I have been saving) vainly trying to remember just who these people are who I once cherished. Even without names, though, I will know that they cared enough to cherish me.

And I guess that is quite worth the 300 pesos to rent a Mexican postal box.    

* - I also noted that two of the cards featured golden retrievers. That may be a sign that it is time to buy one.

Friday, January 10, 2020

leviathan says you do not need that money

This is the week in Mexico when I feel as if I am a part of my community.

It is the week when I pay my taxes and fees to The Powers That Be, in high hopes the money will  be put to good purpose. And it is the week when I indulge in a toxic mixture of hubris with a dash of schadenfreude.

Let's get to my misplaced chutzpah first.

In January, I have four bills to pay for the full year. Property taxes. Water, sewer, and garbage. Car registration. Postal box rental.

And here is what I paid -- with its US dollar equivalent.
  • Property taxes on a 4000 square foot house: $2,280 (Mx); $121 (USD). Let me remind you that is for a full year.
  • Water, sewer, and garbage: $1825 (Mx); $97 (USD)
  • Car registration: $637 (Mx); $34 (USD)
  • Post office box: $300 (Mx); $16 (USD) 
I had read a rumor that property taxes had doubled this year. They may have for some homeowners. Mine increased by only $321.24 (Mx) -- about $17 (USD). A 16% increase.

As a benchmark, the car registration increased 9%; my water, sewer, and garbage fee increased by 6%. All three* well above Mexico's inflation rate of 4.9%. But that is just another good example of why "inflation" and "cost-of-living" are not the same thing (lunch up north).

Mexico is quickly changing its procedures for paying these annual levies. But I prefer the old ways. I pay two of the bills in our county seat (Cihuatlán), one in Barra de Navidad, and the last in San Patricio.

Driving and standing in line takes at least a half day. But "the standing in line" is worth it. It gives me an opportunity to polish some of the jagged edges off of my Spanish -- and I always gain a lot of local lore simply by eavesdropping.

It reminds me of the voting lines in the Old Country -- up until Oregon switched over to the impersonal voting-by-mail, where a civic ritual was reduced to an exercise in dropping an envelope into a postal box. Standing in line with my neighbors has to suffice as a substitute for the lost days of American civic ritual.**

I now sit at my desk a bit enriched having done my duty -- and just a bit too smug about the fact that if I had just paid similar bills up north, I would be sitting on a far skinnier wallet. 

* - The postal box rental has not changed for the ten years I have had the box.

** - If I follow through on my plan to attain Mexican citizenship, I will once again be able to stand in line to vote.

Friday, January 03, 2020

in training

Last January we chatted about a chili-eating contest that had just been held in Barra de Navidad (into life a little spice must fall).

The contest was based on Mexican dishes that included three of the world's spiciest-known chili peppers. The chilies were not your quotidian jalapeños, serranos, or habaneros. They were the super-stars of the chili universe:

  • Bhut Joiokia (ghost pepper)
  • Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
  • Carolina Reaper (the spiciest pepper in the world -- with a Scoville rating of 1.5 million; a jalapeño is rated at a mere 8500)   
I had intended to participate in the contest -- on one condition. That the peppers used would actually complement the dish and not be merely a misguided attempt at earning new notches on the macho meter. Chilies are to enhance dishes; not to numb the sences.

It was a great plan, but, for some reason, I did not attend. Instead, I walked over to Bare Essentials, which had provided the chilies for the contest, and bought several jars of Giovanni's salsa made from each of the three super chilies.

When I headed north, I was under the impression that a second chili-eating contest was scheduled later in the month, when I was scheduled to return. More I know not.

On the outside chance that I may participate this year, I was a bit concerned that I have slipped out of chili-training while I am up north. In Barra, I use chilies in almost every meal -- including breakfast. By comparison, northern food is almost devoid of the blessings of chilies. I needed something to whet my edge.

My salvation came with a trip to the Meat Market in Bend earlier this week. Darrel and I buy our jerky there -- almost exclusively. I struck the mother lode. Habanero jerky and Carolina Reaper Styx. I particularly liked the Greek mythology pun of "Styx."

The half pound of Habanero jerky and the six Carolina Reaper Styx are now history. And my taste buds are up to the challenge of tasting high-quality Mexican dishes enhanced with the spice of the underworld.

Now, I just need to know when my digestive system will have its date with destiny.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

stag party

There is an old Kyrgyz legend that if you see a stag on the first day of the new year, the year will smile on you.

Well, I saw a stag yesterday morning, and that is close enough for me. I am going to claim the prize -- leaving out the inconvenient truth that I do not have a drop of Kyrgyz blood in me. But it is a cultural appropriation world in which we live.

No one can know the future, but I do know that last year was about as good as a year could be. If you had told me fifteen years ago I would be living in Mexico and thoroughly enjoying life, I would have laughed.

Well, not about the "enjoying life" part. I have always done that. But back then, I would have imagined retirement life in London or Paris. I made a far wiser choice.

And I have my health. That is not something to sniff at now that I have entered my eighth decade. For that, I can thank genes far more than my lifestyle choices. At almost 92, my mother is still a force of nature and living on her own.

In looking at the world around me, there are a lot of things I wish were different. But even those concerns have seeds of hope. There is too much material poverty in the world. Since 1990 the worldwide extreme poverty rate of 36% has been reduced to 10% and is within reach of being eliminated. Unfortunately, Mexico's extreme poverty rate (along with the rate in other Latin American countries) has increased over the past decade.

As individuals, there is a limited amount that we can do to change macroeconomics. But, as moral agents, we make choices daily that affect the people around us.

When confronted with some human activity that may annoy us, we can either be kind and act as a social balm or we can allow our baser natures to enflame the situation. Too often, I choose the latter course. If I would like this year to be as good as the last, I can work on that.

I hate new year's resolutions. By labeling what we should be doing in our lives as "resolutions," we are admitting that eventually we will just keep acting as we have in the past.

So, let me simply wish all of you a blessed 2020. We can work on it together.

And may that stag next December have another point on his rack.