Sunday, May 31, 2020

ants in my pants

Let me introduce you to señora Pseudomyrmex gracilis -- more commonly known as the elongated twig ant.

I see them quite often around the pool and the planters. Relatively large for an ant. Dark color. Always solitary. Hunting for prey. And very fast. Until today, I have never been able to photograph one.

This afternoon, I was sprawled on my bed reading The Economist. One of the virtues of self-isolation is that declaring a no-pants zone is less likely than normal to be a clause substantiating a restraining order.

Because this is Sunday, I had driven the car to church. I left it out thinking I might drive over to San Patricio to buy some sushi,

I never got around to it. It was now late enough in the day that I was unlikely to drive anywhere -- so, I decided to garage the car.

I grabbed my shorts off of the day bed, slipped them on, and went out to the car. I was pulling the car into position when I felt the first sting. On the back of my right thigh. My first instinct was that a scorpion had slipped into my shorts.

My first urge was to jump out of the car and get my shorts off as quickly as possible. But that was not going to happen. The neighbor's three small children were in the street. And we have already had enough talk of restraining orders in this essay.

Thinking that if I pressed down on whatever had stung me, I would reduce its ability to sting. I was wrong. The second sting hurt just as bad as the first. This time on my upper inner thigh. (Yeah. You are not going to get any more details on that one.)

I pulled the car in, hit the garage door closer, and jumped out of the car. My shorts were on the ground before my left foot hit the floor. I expected to see my predator on the ground. Nothing. I checked my shorts. Nothing.

When I looked on the floorboard in the car, there it was. I was wrong about it being a scorpion. It was an elongated twig ant. To get a photograph for you, I had to audobon it. But there it is.

I was not far wrong in thinking I had been stung by a scorpion. All wasps and ants evolved from a common ancestor. Not surprisingly, some ants have retained a stinger -- just like wasps. This ant is one of them.

Science provides us with some odd factoids. One of them is that the sting of this ant is almost as intense as a scorpion sting -- bad enough that people who are allergic to bee stings are advised to immediately seek medical help. I am not. And I have not.

But I still wonder how scientists gather their sting strength data. I imagine a line of undergraduates sticking bare arms into cages filled with All Things Stinging. The Torquemada Memorial Laboratory.

This Wild Kingdom episode taught me three things:

  1. Shake your pants before putting them on. (Of course, I have been taught that lesson several times the hard way, and I still do not shake.)

  2. I now know the name of those fascinating ants in my patio. I also now know that they are not content to roam outside. Two lessons in one.

  3. I have found a new use for Andantol -- the ointment that soothes my mosquitoes bites. After a brief icing, the Andantol helped to reduce the pain of both stings.
 Now, that is not a bad set of lessons for a Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

on the beach

I am not a beach person.

Well, I am -- and I am not.

I get no pleasure walking on the sand or stretching out on a towel in the sun or venturing forth into the surf. I think the last time my foot touched sand was on a walk with Barco Rubio -- and he died three years ago.

If those were the sole criteria for being a beach person, I would be just as happy living in Morelia. But I enjoy living here by the Pacific.

Like so many other activities in my life, I am a watcher. Books. Plays. Art galleries. Films. Surveying the lines of the house with no name. They all have one thing in common: watching. And analyzing.

And that is the type of beach person I am. I find contentment sitting in the shade next to the beach while watching familes indulge in pleasures that escape me.

For that reason, I have not been bothered by the beach closure order that went into effect just before the Semana Santa crowds could arrive. We have been in shutdown mode ever since.

When the beaches closed, so did the beach restaurants. Or, at least, most of them did. There were rogue operators here and there. But, for the main part, my usual eating spots were not in the business of serving up what I like most -- the view from their decks.

Last week, a few of the shoreline restaurants opened under restricted conditions. It was a good excuse for getting out of my kitchen. I like my cooking, but it has been too much of a good thing. With the exception of a fine serving of chicken tikka masala dropped off by a friend, I have been religiously following my no-dish-that-I-have-eaten-before regime.

My first foray was to El Manglito for camerones de Steve -- breaded shrimp with salsa diabla on the side.* I wanted to get in a few extra steps before I sat down to eat, so I decided to walk to the end of the malecon.

But that was not going to happen.

It was closed with a row of garbage cans. Not very efficient, but certainly clear. If there was any doubt as to the status of the malecon, a bilingual sign removed them.

Even though I am not a beach walker, I am a malecon walker. All of a sudden, the beach closure went from being business to being personal -- to use Mafia jargon.

I suppose it made sense. There is a greater possibility that groups will crowd together on the malecon (for photographs with Barra's tacky town sign and to watch the sun set) than they would on the beach.

My walks on the malecon are just the opposite. I try to avoid crowds impeding my progress.

There are rumors circulating that the beaches will be opened in early June -- possibly as early as Monday -- with a "no tourist buses" provision. If that idea is more than a rumor, it lacks as much reason as it does authenticity.

There was a period when these little villages were the haunts of bus-borne Mexican tourists. And the buses are still an important component in the tourist trade.

But times have changed. About five years ago, I noticed a marked increase in middle-class Mexican tourism. Late-model SUVs would arrive in town and disgorge parents with their 2.1 children -- all dressed in designer-label clothes, just like middle-class families throughout the world.

If the beach closure order is lifted, those families are going to be tempted to get out of their houses and come to the beach just as any other sane person would. And there will now be hotels and restaurants open to cater to their needs.

As for me, I will just be happy to have the malecon open. It adds almost 800 steps to my walk -- and it lets me pretend that I am walking on the beach.

Just like a beach person.

* -- The day before yesterday, I ate wiener schnitzel at Simona's on the laguna in Barra de Navidad. Real veal. It made me miss a good plate of veal piccata that much more. How can restaurants who claim to be Italian not serve a staple like veal piccata? 


Thursday, May 28, 2020

stormy weather

This is the time of year that people who live here start searching the skies (or the internet) in the hopes that we can trade our brown hills for a tropical storm -- or, at least, a substantial summer shower.

Each year I have lived here, the late April weather has been a topic of dinner conversation. Well, not this year. The conversation was on the internet, instead of at the dinner table in this year 1 ANV (a
nno nostri virus). Late April usually brings us a respite in the relentless increase in temperature and humidity that usually climaxes in September. Mother Nature teases us into believing that our summer nights will be in the mid-60s with moderate humidity. And then, just like that, those cozy nights will be replaced -- as if that fat guy, who never complies with the towel policy, dumped another coffee can of water on the sauna rocks. But, this year has been different. We are now flirting with the start of June, and our evenings are still in the 60s. But, not for long. The weather seers offer up two pieces of evidence. The first is the short-range weather prediction. Starting tomorrow night, the lows will be in the 70s -- and climbing. There is a second sign, though, that summer weather is coming. In late May, I start my day by looking at NOAA's National Hurricane Center map. The map acts as something of a sonogram for the birthing of hurricanes -- and their less-dramatic cousins: tropical storms and depressions. Two days ago, a yellow "X" showed up in the Pacific far off of the coast of Panama. There was a 20% chance of cyclonic formation. This morning the "x" was orange. 40% chance of cyclonic formation in 48 hours. Most of these formations do not turn into much. They will wander around like a disorganized political science professor for a bit -- and then settle into the background. But not always. Some will turn into depressions and move north up the coast of the Americas. Others make it to tropical storms. A few will become hurricanes. In the 12 years I have lived here, I have ridden out two hurricanes (Jova and Patricia), and a handful of tropical storms. If they hit our coast, there is always significant damage to agriculture and infrastructure. The area always recovers quickly. I have no idea if that orange "x" will get promoted to a red "x" in the next day or two, but it does have the potential for setting off our rainy season. I cannot remember the last time it rained here. (That is why I write these esaays; so I do not need to remember.) Even if "Disturbance 1" (as NOAA has so poetically named it) turns into a storm and heads north to Baja without touching us (which is a normal storm pattern here), less-dramatic clouds will bring us rain. And I hope it is soon. It is a bit ironic that our area may be opening up gradually from our informal stay-home virus order just in time for the rain to strafe our beaches. But, that may not matter. Mexican tourists are resilient. If they come to the beach, a little rain is not going to stop them from enjoying their day.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

deadly comparisons

Every parent has faced the problem.

Your daughter comes home sobbing about how she is a failure because her friend Lizzy is an expert fencer. Or your son wanders in the dark regions because all of his friends are better cooks than he is.

Parents, wise with experience, then counsel their children with well-exercised bromides:

  • "You know, honey, your friend is not as perfect as you may think. I hear she has a drinking problem." What I call the schadenfreude defense.
  • "Don't let that stand in your way. Use it to build an alliance with her. Better an ally than a rival." The desperate act of a contestant on "The Survivor."
  • Or my absolute favorite for a child looking intoi the dark abyss, usually voiced by a Dad: "Life isn't fair."

We all have probably been on one side of similar exchanges -- or both. Including me.

A couple months ago I was bemoaning the lack of good pizza in our area with a Canadian friend who lives in Barra de Navidad.

He smiled in that fatherly life-isn't-fair manner and offered this sage advice. "Your problem is that you are making a false comparison. You think that 'pizza' is something you eat at a pizza restaurant in Salem. It isn't. It is simply a dish that is cooked different ways in different places."

I could almost hear "We are the World" playing softly in the background.

There is wisdom in his advice. Too often we compare foods with what we have known elsewhere without finding the virtues of what is in front of us. The fact that a steak is not a Calgary steak does not mean that the Sonora steak you are eating has no appeal of its own.

I thought about that late last week when I purchased a bag of cherries at Hawaii -- for the sole reason that I like cherries.

As you can see, they were a bit on the small side and did not have much of a sugar content. I suspect they were part of the cull pick in California to let the other fruit on the tree grow. Fruit that we will probably not see here.

I could have sat there muttering that they were nothing like the five-pounds of cherries that I bought in Hood River in 1973 and then ate while driving my top-down convertible across Mt. Hood. But, I didn't. Because that was not what I was experiencing when I ate my cherries from Hawaii.

Instead, I enjoyed them for what they were -- pellets of intense cherry flavor. And that was good enough for me.

After my talk with my advice-dispensing friend about pizza, I stopped at a new Italian place near my house. Instead of expecting a Salem pizza, I decided I would deconstruct the ingredients and treat it as if it were some exotic offering I had never tasted. That was a mistake.

The crust was hard and tasteless. The cheese had that chemically-processed taste of some Mexican cheeses. The tomato sauce was almost missing. The pepperoni tasted like hot dogs -- though it was obviously trying to be pepperoni.

Taken as a whole, it was no worse than any other pizza-like dish I have tasted in Mexico, and it was no better. At least, I avoided comparing it with anything outside of Mexico.

So, sometimes the advice against comparison works. Other times, it doesn't.

What we do know, though, is that comparisons limp as much as analogies do -- which, of course, are just another type of conparisons.

And that is the reason why apples and oranges never end up in a wedding chapel together.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

stop the presses

Last night, the world stopped.

Or it seemed that way.

I have become so reliant upon the internet as part of the warp and woof of my life, that its absence makes me feel as if I had been abandoned to a deserted island with my man Friday. When the internet is gone, it seems as if the entire world outside the walls of my hopuse disappears like Brigadoon.

When I was working on my Master's Degree in England, I wrote a side paper about the possibility of a coup d'état in the United Kingdom. The idea seems fanciful now, but, it was the 1970s and there were individuals who believed it was the sole method to save the country from the government's economic and social policies.

I built my research around the process described in Edward Luttwak's  Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook -- a book I had packed around with me for years. Luttwak contends that one of the first steps any successful coup leader must do is to seize the centers of communication -- and shut them down.

Around 8 or so last night, my Netflix connection started acting up. Then it just stopped. I tried switching from my Telmex modem to my Telcel modem. Nothing. Even the data connection on my Telcel telephone was not working. For any data connection. No internet. No social media. No streaming. It was all gone.

Because I could not watch a movie, I decided to work on my Spanish. I couldn't. What I wanted to do required a connection. Facebook? Nope. Draft an essay on my blog? Not without a way to sign into Google. Catch up on reading The Economist? Same problem.

Luckily, I had just downloaded the latest edition of National Review on my Kindle. Had it not been available, there were plenty of books in the library -- or I could have watched a DVD.

Even with those options, I did feel deprived of information while the internet was down. Some people may criticize that reaction as some form of electronic dependency. I do not see it that way.

The internet has opened a brand new world of information to us. Much of it is nonsense, of course. But that is true of life in general. All we need to do is use our critical judgment and Sturgeon's Law* to ferret through it all.

Had I been living in one of several other Latin American countries and the internet went down (even for two hours), I would have anticipated reading newspaper headlines the next morning like this: "General Sandoval Introduces New President to Public."

Alas, it appears no one was reading Luttwak last night. The shut-down was far more prosaic -- system maintenance, according to Telcel.

But isn't that just the excuse that Luttwak recommends coup leaders to use when communications are shut down?

Maybe I should check the newspaper again. Or refer to Sturgeon.

* -- Sturgeon's Law, of course is: 90% of everything is crap.

Friday, May 22, 2020

the virus has struck

That is not just click-bait.

The virus has hit the house with no name. But I am not the target -- and it is not the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, we discussed the colonies of mealybugs that had attacked the vine in front of Darrel and Christy's bedroom (something is bugging me). I duly followed several of your mutual suggestions. Alcohol did not work. Soapy water has, and it has had the added benefit of killing a new aphid invasion, as well.

But that planter, with its attraction of Exodus-sized plagues, seems to have turned into pharaoh's palace. First the mealybugs. Then the aphids. And now a virus. Can locusts be far behind?

Or, at least, I think it is a virus. The heliconia in that planter have struggled since I moved in six years ago. They will thrive and flower for a month or two. Then they start dying off.

This year, one stalk after another has just given up. Then, a new problem started this week. The leaves are browning. You can see the pattern in the photograph.

Aesthetically, whatever it is, it is creating very interesting patterns in the leaves. But, for all of its artistic appeal, it has the certain scent of death about it.

Certainly, everything dies. Eventually. That is the philosophical conundrum of death-before-its-time that has such a strong hold on our amygdalas.

The immediate impulse is to try to stop the process. There must be something that will keep the plants from dying.

But why? Any "solution" would be temporary. Like all living things, the heliconia have a limited life cycle. The fading of new growth and flowers has been a sign that the plant does not have much life left in it. The rhizomes are slowly giving up the ghost.

There is an odd equilibrium in nature. Almost any plant will grow here in tropical Mexico -- often at alarming speeds in the rainy season. And because there are a lot of tender stalks agrowing, there are plenty of enemies afoot.

Putting aside our nutrient-poor sandy soil and the brine that settles on the soil each day, there are plenty of insects, reptiles, and viruses that are more than happy to bring a swift end to every plant. Woody Allen had it right: "Nature's like an enormous restaurant."

I was going to ask you for your assistance in a cure for the heliconia, but I have come to the conclusion that the only solution is a shovel. The heliconia must go, and, because it would be best to remove all the dirt from the planter, the insect-prone vine will join the heleconia on the ash heap of history.*

The next step will be the replacement plants. (Yes, Felipe, I know your vote is simply to slam up a wall. But I need to hear what Darrel and Christy have to say. It is their screen.)

The plant possibilities are legion. I just need to remember that if it grows, it also dies, and will suffer the vagaries of life in between the bookends of its birth and death.

Come to think of it, there may be a lesson there when we think about other viruses, as well.

* -- I always have the feeling when I write sentiments like that, when the planet is invaded by superior beings with a plant-based nature that I will be tried as war criminal against plantdom -- along with all the vegans.     

Thursday, May 21, 2020

bilbo goes to sweden

The world appears to be returning to normal.

At least, it is true for me. According to some comments left here on on the Facebook edition of Mexpatriate, not everyone feels comfortable with life shifting back into a more familiar pattern.

"Returning to normal" will be read differently according to the regimen you have adopted for survival during these viral times.

I have a friend in Morelia who has essentially gone to ground. To her, isolation means isolation. She told her staff to stay home, and she is now having what she needs to survive delivered to her front door. Let's call that the Hobbit method.

I have taken a different path. My front door is like The Time Tunnel where James Darren was transported each week to some new adventure -- except there is no time travel through my door. Walking through it is like entering a different social world.

When other people started sealing off their front doors, I knew it would be futile for me to take the same path. Plenty of people travel between the two worlds that border on my front door: Dora, the woman who helps me clean my house; Antonio, the pool guy; Omar and Yoana (my son and his girlfriend); and an assorted cast of Mexican acquaintances.

I could have stopped the flow (with the exception of Omar who is a working man), but I did not see the need. After the beaches were closed and no coronavirus cases were reported here, it seemed a bit like overkill to me.

For the past few weeks, I have practiced a form of social distancing. I primarily stay home, but I escape about once a day either for exercise, to drop off or pick up laundry, and to buy groceries. Because my coping system has adopted most of the attributes from the Swedish model of dealing with the virus, let's call it the ABBA method.

Based on some very mixed guidance from the local, state, and federal authorities, a number of hotels and restaurants have opened at 50% capacity this week. While I have been out, it seems more people are in the streets since those announcements.

The villages have an aura of turning the page to return to something approximating daily routine. I do know some of the Hobbits think everything is moving too fast. And a lot of the ABBAites do not see much change because they had already started transitioning out of self-imposed social exile.

Nothing could have been better evidence that the psychological restraints are being removed than the opening of restaurants that have been closed for two months. I had dinner last night at El Manglito in Barra de Navidad. It is one of my favorite places to eat. It has a great view with good food -- and often lots of loud Mexican tunes.

Not many people were there, but there were enough to make the place lively -- including a small birthday party. The absence of masks on customers made sense. Eating dinner while wearing one would be a bit counterproductive.

Simona's, the restaurant next door, had people at each of the outside tables. Because I knew several of the people there, I walked over to say hello. There were hugs and handshakes all around -- even from me, a guy who will studiously avoid shaking hands.

The sense of relief was palpable. I was concerned when we emerged from solitary confinement that we would be wary of one another. There was none of that. People were glad to be sharing food, music, and the view (the very core ingredients of living in Mexico) with one another.

And the beach vendors were back flogging their wares, almost giddy at the prospect of the beaches opening on 1 June. No one seemed to be interested in their trinkets, but I watched a Mexican man slip a note into the hand of a vendor and do the same thing when another arrived.

It was a perfect synthesis of celebrating life and showing compassion. Jesus's punchline in the parable of the Good Samaritan ("You go and do as he did") seemed apt.

Just as there was no one right answer in how to personally deal with the threat of the coronavirus, there will be no one right answer in learning to live with its potential presence. People will make their own choices.

But, I do know one thing. Just like everything in life, this will end well.   

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

hope springs eternal

This morning a reader posted a question on Facebook.

She was curious if the coronavirus had made her too sensitive because she was getting irritated at bird chirp rings on telephones.

In the afternoon, a friend in Canada messaged me that he had just failed Husband Diplomacy 101. His wife had asked him if he thought the coronavirus had made her judgmental. He responded: "What does the virus have to do with it?"

When Omar came home from his construction job for lunch today, I made him a corned beef sandwich. While I was slathering mustard on the bread, he kept staring at my lip. Finally, he asked what had happened. My lip was red.

And it was. In my youth, I would have attributed it to what we euphemistically called a "love bite" (or more vulgarly, a "hicky"), but I do not recall ever sporting one on my lip.

Now, I had been with me all day, and I did not recall any amorous interlude. But I do not want to so blithely dismiss what would have once been considered a trophy -- and an absurd eccentricity at my age.

After all, there is always the outside possibility I have have been living a version of the old joke of the Scotsman's kilt. Or, at least, the punchline: "Ay lad, I don't know where you been, but I see you won first prize."*

I doubt I figure anywhere in that story. I suspect the genesis of my mark of pain is far more prosaic. I do have a theory, though.

For about the past three years, I have periodically developed small purple blotches on my hands and arms. They are not bruises. Or, rather, they are not exactly bruises. It takes merely a small brush against something for one to develop.

They are purpura. The primary cause is sun damage that has thinned the skin on the arms and hands. Another of those conditions suffered by the elderly.

It is not serious. The blemishes always fade quickly. I developed one on my right middle finger on Sunday. It is barely visible today.

The blotches look exactly like my new-found lip accent. The only difference is that this one has a bit of pain associated with it. Its onset could have been as simple as drying my mouth with a towel after my shower. Not quite as exotic as the tsarevich's disease, but hardly as debilitating, either.

So, to my friends who think their judgment may be negatively affected by the virus, I offer this reassurance.

At least, you do not need to try to explain to your son how you got what is obviously a hicky when it is nothing more than another of the travails of old age.

* -- I first heard that line as a joke told by a fellow squadron member (Skip Cox) in England. It turns out to actually be a folk (or, more accurately, drinking) tune. "The Drunken Scotsman."

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

one step back, two steps forward

The liberated jardin
 It is not every day that you see a political parable enacted in front of you.

But, before the parable, we need a little background.

The coronavirus has given all of us an opportunity to learn a lot about Mexico's federal system. On Friday, the president of Mexico announced his desire to reopen Mexico's economy immediately. He was reluctant earlier in the year to suggest business closures because he knew, as did every world leader, the effect it would have on people's daily lives.

But his announcement was merely precatory. As president, he can control federal employees and agencies, but in matters relating to health security, the power (if not the money) is primarily vested in each of Mexico's 32 states. A model most (but not all) Americans understand.

Following the president's speech, the governor of Jalisco (the state where I live) announced that the state would start lifting its restrictions on mingling in phases -- leaving the impression that stage 1 would have started yesterday. He did a few quick political hokey pokey steps and backtracked the next day saying that the next two weeks were phase zero, and the program would start on 1 June.

Then the president of our county chimed in that starting this week, hotels and restaurants would open at 50% capacity, but the beach would remain closed.

The fact that most non-essential businesses have kept operating here and people have long been on the streets living their lives may explain why the mixed messages did not lift many eyebrows. But it did lift one thing. 

Since the "stay home" request was made, the perimeter of the jardin in San Patricio has been wrapped with yellow police tape, making it look like the final reunion site for unfortunate Agatha Christie characters. The idea was to restrict people from using it as a traditional social mingling spot. It was the equivalent of closing down the Cheers bar.

When I drove to the market on Sunday, I noticed the tape was gone. Not just torn down, but wadded up and tucked away. I suspected the citizens were reclaiming their territory.

Because I had failed to shoot the liberated plaza on Sunday, I drove over on Monday to get some photographs for you. The liberation looked total. The lunch counter in the center of the plaza was open for business. Two masked and gloved women were ready to fulfill customers' orders. None had yet arrived.

But I was wrong about the plaza's liberation. Three masked (and somewhat surly) policemen were stringing more police tape -- red this time. I guess we had had our yellow warning.

I talked with one of the women at the lunch counter. "How was she going to serve food if the plaza was taped off?" She had the answer. The police were only going to tape off the north and south quadrants of the plaza.

And she was correct. When they were done, all of the benches were still off limits, but people could walk through a strip of liberated land to purchase food -- and then eat it elsewhere, I guess. But certainly not on the park benches.

And that was the political parable. Mixed closure messages tied with the desire to start earning a living. I talked to a local businessman who was watching the ebb and flow of government restriction. He shook his head and said: "They are all clowns."

I did not ask him who the "all" were in his sentence. I suspect it would have included most of the federal system pyramid.

Personally, I would hate to be one of the leaders faced with transitioning society back to a version of normal. Everything they do will be criticized because there is no one right answer. 

Too many people treat this issue as if it were a matter of religion -- if others do not agree with them they should be burned at the stake or, at least, denied medical care for their impertinence. Facebook is filled with the "my way or the highway" approach to discussion.

Me? I am doing what my neighbors are doing, It seems every nation has its own method of dealing with this virus. The New Zealand method. The South Korea method. The Sweden method. The China method (where they can simply make up statistics in their artless totalitarian way).

And then there is the Mexico method that seems to be a hybrid of several national methods -- along with a heavy sprinkling of Sweden and ad lib. It will be years before we know the actual health and economic effects of the virus. And, even if there is any possibility of agreeing on the numbers, people will still be debating what they mean for long after I have closed up my keyboard for good.

The opening of the lunch counter was one small step for the lunch crowd, but it may be a giant leap toward freedom.

Main street in San Patricio looking quite normal

Sunday, May 17, 2020

slytherin patio

When I was in grade school, I had two passions -- snakes and circuses.

The snake fascination had a long pedigree. My mother tells me that I used to smuggle snakes into the house inside my cowboy boots -- a transportation method not suited to provide comfort to either party, I would think. Especially, for the snakes.

The circus was a new attraction. The year was 1959 or so. Barnum & Bailey was still a going concern. My grandfather and mother took Darrel, a couple of neighbors, and me to a three-ring extravaganza in the Portland Memorial Coliseum.

It was the epitome of entertainment. Lights. Smells. Music. Animals. Acrobats. Clowns. Magicians. Everything to distract a young lad -- so much so, I decided then and there that I would one day own a circus.

When we got home, I enlisted a number of neighbors to put on our own circus -- complete with a parade. When we moved to the Portland area, I brought a magic book I had purchased at Gamwell's Variety in Powers. So, my choice of circus act was natural. I would be the magician.

Every magician can make his audience believe that objects can disappear. My book had a fool-proof process -- with animate objects. But I had seen the circus magician makes doves and rabbits come and go. For my circus act, I decided to make a garter snake disappear.

It did. But not from magic. It slithered out of my sleeve and disappeared into the grass. That is when I discovered that laughs bring more applause than being serious. And my life course was set. Nothing ever again would be serious.

Those two passions of my youth came for a visit on Friday afternoon. I was walking across the patio when something moved.  Very fast. It was a coachwhip snake.

They are easy to identify by their shape because they look like their namesake. Long and thin. And very fast.

I was searching in my pocket for my telephone while trying to keep up with the snake. We had made a half-circuit around the pool when the snake came to a bend in front of my bedroom. Coachwhips have an odd behavioral habit of raising their heads in curiosity -- even when they are in full flight.

As the snake went from light into the shadow cast by the planter in front of my bedroom, it just disappeared into thin air. Well, it seemed to disappear. Far better than my failed circus act.

Of course, snakes do not just disappear. But once it hit the shadow, it was gone.

There was a large plastic  bag filled with vine clippings outside of my bedroom door. I have tracked plenty of snakes, and I thought I knew I thought I knew exactly where it was. Hiding under the bag. It wasn't. When I klifted the bag, it was not there. It was just gone.

Because of its speed, I did not get a photograph. I didn't even have time to get my telephone out of my pocket. So, I surrendered to the task I had been on when I saw the snake.

I have learned how important it is to hang onto pieces of paper here in Mexico. For example, the immigration web site informed me that I would need the receipt for my original permanent resident card to obtain a replacement -- part of Operation Recovery caused by my lost and unrecovered wallet.

My problem is that I keep my receipts, but I am way behind in my filing. I have a large stack of loose papers waiting to be filed sitting on top of the file box in my bedroom.

With no snake to stalk, I decided to devote an hour or so to sorting and filing my papers. I picked up the file box and discovered how the snake had disappeared. It was coiled up behind the box. In my bedroom.

The moment I lifted the box, the coachwhip was on its speedy way out of the open door. Somehow, while in full flight, the snake had darted under the space at the bottom of the door into my bedroom. I suspect it was waiting for all the activity to die down so it could it slip away quietly when I went to bed.

It was the first snake I have found inside the house in my six years of living here. If I could, I would pull one out of my sleeve -- or my cowboy boot.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

masking up for the future

The governor of Jalisco issued a "stay at home order" several weeks ago.

I would like to be more precise on the time, but the restriction has caused its own temporal warp. With one day merging into the other in beige uniformity, it is difficult to tell the difference between a day and a month. Probably because a day can feel like a month -- but never the other way round.

When Mexico issued its stage three alert, it told all old people (people 60 and older) to stay in their houses and not to leave except for essential business. I was a little confused about the age-specific reference because everybody was to stay at home except for essential business.

Apparently, Walmart in Manzanillo was not confused. It refused entry to at least one couple I know because, even though they were masked, the appeared to be older than 60. They were -- and are.

And, no matter whether old or young, those venturing outside their front door were to be masked with little concern about the type of mask used -- anything from Dr. Kildare to a member of the James gang. Zorro and the Lone Ranger would not meet the low hurdle. Wrong mask.

But, then, most of the people on the streets of these little villages are non-compliant. And have been since the order was issued. Masks are mainly absent.

Or that was true until recently.

There is almost always a small crowd milling around in front of the Oxxo near my house. When I wandered by yesterday afternoon, I noticed something odd. Every person in the knot of socializers was wearing a mask. Most of them medical-quality masks. And everyone going in and coming out of the store was masked.

The store door has had several notices taped on it since the coronavirus started working its way through Mexico. The first was a helpful guide on hand-washing, face-touching avoidance, and social distancing. A couple of weeks later, it was joined by a sign that only 5 customers at a time would be admitted.

I do not know how effective the first sign was, but the second was uniformly ignored.

Yesterday there were three new signs -- all announcing a new regimen. No one would be admitted to the store without a mask. I assume the clerks must have been enforcing the rule because there was not a bare face in the house.

It seemed a bit odd that the mask rule was being touted just as the federal, state, and local governments are talking about easing back on the social shut-down orders. If all goes as planned, the local authorities will modify beach access today, the state government will ease the "stay home" order on 18 May, and the federal government may announce on 1 June that Mexico needs to get back to work.

All of that is inevitable. No people can thrive in a world where their livelihoods are taken from them. The world will be facing a recession that may rival the Great Depression. Letting people get back to work will help in the long process of re-building a stalled economy.

The trick, as everyone knows, is how to do that without encouraging another coronavirus outbreak -- or exacerbating one that it is still in bulldozer-blade down mode, as it is in Mexico's large cities.

Maybe that is the reason for Oxxo getting the new religion. If more people are going to be out and about while the virus walks amongst us, social distancing will be one of the best tools to attempt overwhelming hospital beds with patients.

There are those who claim wearing a mask is a futile gesture. I am not part of that group. But, even if that is true, masks are good reminders to take the simple measures we all learned when the virus was but a dim globe on the horizon. I will confess that my hand-washing routine has almost returned to what I did in The Before Times.

For what it is worth, this Oxxo store is the only business I have encountered that is enforcing the mask rule -- with the exception of Intercam in San Patricio. None of the other Barra stores where I shop have taken that step.

When I saw the sign yesterday, I did not have a mask with me. In truth, I usually do not. I carry a bandana in one of my reusable Hawaii shopping bags, but it was not the bag I had with me. Instead of putting the clerk in an awkward position, I walked home to retrieve my bank robber kit.

I know the sign works because it forced me to start thinking about wearing my bandana more often. If the country starts on the trek to normal in the next month, we will all be well-advised to play the health game.

Like the poor, we will always have the virus with us. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

you're in the army now

Well, not really. But I was in the Air Force.

Earlier in the week I made a passing reference to my Air Force flight training in Laredo. A couple of readers were surprised I was in the military. At least two others were more surprised that I would have eaten Air Force chow.

But, it is true. I served with the American Air Force a total of twenty-eight years: from 1971 to 1999. Five years on active duty, and twenty-three years as a reserve judge advocate.

In the five years I was on active duty, I was stationed at seven different bases:
  • Medina AFB, Texas 
  • Laredo AFB, Texas
  • Lowry AFB, Colorado
  • Castle AFB, California
  • Nellis AFB, Nevada
  • HAF Araxos, Greece
  • RAF Upper Heyford, United Kingdom
Both of the photographs in this piece were shot at RAF Upper Heyford, a three-squadron F-111 base. There was a bit of Patton in me those days. I loved getting costumed up in combinations of my own making. 

My 240Z is in the background

That is my right-hand man, SMS Davis, patiently standing beside me. We look as if we had just left a squadron staff meeting.

I have no idea who took the photograph, but I do recognize the two mugging airmen behind us. They were part of the maintenance crew.

Those photographs are the only two I have with me in Mexico. Four or five albums with photographs of those years are in my mother's garage. 

I would have brought them with me on my last trip, but they were too heavy and I was concerned that our humidity would have its way with them.

Maybe I will share more with you when I bring them back on my next trips north. Whenever that will be.

But, the answer to the question is: Yes. I was in the military. And, one day, I will share some tales.  

Thursday, May 14, 2020

rambo frog

My friend Elke has recently been writing on Facebook that she is serenaded each night by peepers near her house in Melaque.

Even though there is a frog called the Spring Peeper, we do not have them here. But there are other chorus frogs here who fill in that gap with their evening concerts.

There is little standing water near my house, so, I am deprived of the peeper chorus. We do get the occasional odd chicken-cluck of cane toads. But they are more amusing than soothing.

That is not to say that the house with no name is frogless. While trimming the vines in the patio, I will regularly run across a frog camouflaged in the leaves. And in the night, the frog will happily share the warm water of my swimming pool with me.

I have always been fond of frogs. When I was in grade school, there was a green pond frog that lived in our damp basement. I would often find it on the steps when I went down to the freezer.

I invented a game where we would hop down each step together. For me, it was fun. For the frog, I am certain it was nothing other than his natural escape sense.

One evening we were hopping along step-by-step when tragedy struck. The frog jumped out of sequence as I was hopping and he landed under my foot just as it hit the ground. I was devastated.

I thought of that juvenile trauma when I crossed the patio to the kitchen last night. Something moved at the edge of the screen door. I thought it was a young cane toad. We get one or two each season in the house.

But, it wasn't. It was the frog from the vines out for an evening stroll. I suspect he was hunting for dinner or taking a swim. For all I know, he may have gone a-courtin'.

Because of my unfortunate history of anuracide, I was careful where I stepped when I left the kitchen. But the frog was gone -- I assumed on whatever he was doing before I interrupted his outing.

This morning I discovered why I had not seen him. He had slipped intio the kitchen and had not been able to escape when I closed the screen door. So, I grabbed him and put him in one of the vine planters. An hour later, he is gone. I assume he has climbed back up to his hiding place.

This is the first time I have taken a close look at him. From his markings, I thought he might be a leopard frog, But I was wrong. He is a Common Mexican Tree Frog. That makes sense with his Rambo-style camouflage wear.

According to my field guide, during mating season, the call of this species "consists of a series of short, explosive 'wonk-wonk-wonk' notes." I don't think I have ever heard it. But it certainly does not sound like the calming chirps of Elke's peepers.

Of course, I have the advantage of sharing the pool with my otherwise-silent swimming partner.   

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

the omega hours

The year was 1971. The place -- flight school at Laredo Air Force Base.

One of my evening pleasures was to walk over to the base theater dodging rattlesnakes, tortoises, and cockroaches on the way. That night's fare was The Omega Man -- one of those movies where some disaster has turned everyone on earth into a zombie except for one man. In this case, that one man was Charlton Heston.

For some reason, I can remember only a couple of scenes in the entire movie. But the one I remember best involves Heston holed up in his fortress penthouse exchanging indifferent verbal abuse with the zombies trying to storm his refuge. Out of the blue, he says: "What day is it, anyway? Monday? Huh? . . . It's Sunday. Sunday I always dress for dinner."

And he does. Even though he is the omega man, he stops thinking about his immediate peril and relies on tradition and routine to get through his day. Discipline has practical virtues.

I thought of the gussied-up Heston this afternoon because it appears I have gone in the opposite during these viral days. My schedule has shifted on its axis.

In The Before Times, I would try to be in bed at midnight, up at 6, breakfast at 8, dinner at 2, and supper at 6 or 7. For some reason that has now shifted to bed at 4, up at 9, breakfast at 11, dinner at 4, and supper at 10 or 11.

Well, not "for some reason." The reason is obvious. Without any external demands on my time, I am shifting back to my natural circadian rhythm. Though I do not hang out with bats or wolves, I am a child of the night. Everything I do, I do better after the clock shifts past midnight.

Yesterday, I mentioned a salad I had made atop pita bread (are you going to eat that?). Today I decided to put the pita to work in its natural job -- as the wrapping for a gyros. I had all of the ingredients but one. The lamb. Which, of course, is exactly the same thing as saying I am going to write a symphony, but I have no musical talent.

Fortunately, Mexico is the land of substitutions, and I was able to mock up some meat with my food processor that almost convinced me I could hear the faint echos of baaaaahhhs. (Lambs are not silent in this house.) It was good enough that, for a moment, I thought I was back in Patras tasting my first gyros.

The question now is, when the gun goes off letting people out of their houses here (18 May still looks like a possible date for our county), will I revert to my old hours? I seldom share meals with others, with the exception of supper. And summer is always an easy time to avoid a lot of social contact. So, I doubt change is in the air.

At the end of the movie, Heston dies for the sins of mankind complete with a military crown of thorns. I suspect the end of my isolation will be far more Elliot -- with a whimper and not a bang.

But even that comparison is comforting.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

are you going to eat that?

I suppose every message board has one -- or two -- or a hundred.

You know the type I mean. The guy (or gal) who has personal peeves that must be shared with others. And even when the observation is correct (which is often), the tone of the comment is not designed to elicit conversation so much as to score a point.

Our local Facebook page is honored to have its own gaggle of the species -- and I fear I may be counted amongst their number now and then.

For some reason, food photographs seem to a catalyst of critique for a number of people. To a degree I understand the basis for the comments. Photographing food is really tricky. Especially if a sauce is present or if the food has been run through a processor.

A perfect example is my photograph of the bowl deviled pork in the beauty of mistakes. It looks as if I had just plopped it out of an Alpo can. That is the hazard of shooting pâté. It never quite looks appetizing for any creature without four legs.

The criticism is well-taken. Attempting to capture the pleasure of a dish with a photograph is almost always a fool's mission. It is why a restaurant like Noma does not have photographs on its menu, but Denny's does. Denny's photographs are not enticing, but, then, neither is its food.

So, what is it about social media food photographs that lack enticement? I know of only one poster whose food photographs make me want to taste what she has prepared. And that is Jennifer Rose, my attorney friend in Morelia.

After comparing my shots with hers, I see my primary problem. Photography is based on light. What I see in my viewfinder is merely light being reflected from what I am shooting. If the light is not correct, the shot will be inadequate.

I knew that already. Every food shot I have posted has required a good deal of light modification. If the light is correct in the initial shot, I would not need to touch it up.

Today's experiment is at the top of this essay. Instead of photographing it on the preparation table in the kitchen where the light is dim (because I seldom turn on the overhead lights), I took it outside to the counter by the swimming pool. For lighting, it was a good choice.

But what is it? It looks like some sort of boutique pizza, but it isn't.

On Sunday, I found a bag of pita bread at Hawaii. Since I had just made a perfect bowl of spreadable tzatziki, I momentarily dreamed of tracking down some lamb to make a version of gyros. Mary may have had a little lamb, but my buthcher didn't.

However, I did have that bowl of deviled pork. I slathered a layer on the pita, covered it with tzatziki, and topped that with the traditional leaf lettuce, onion, and tomato mix. Now that I look at it, I have no idea why I did not add capers and kalamatas.

Why is it cut in half? Solely for the shot. Had I folded it up, there would be nothing but a drab pita to show you.

And there are two more photography lessons. First, the color of the vegetables. Second, the texture of the vegetables. That is why a photograph of a salad is far more alluring than that of a hamburer ior a steak. (At times, I believe cameras are in league with the health nannies.)

Complaining about someone else's photographs is not my style. Living in a glass house -- and all that. Ironically, all of the lessons I "learned" in this exercise were principles I learned in grade school with my first camera. (There may be an essay aborning in that sentence.) I just had to remember them to apply them.

As for all of us who post photographs of our creations, I say keep on doing it. After all, it will provide fodder for people who want to say something about something.

Better yet, enjoy those meals. Because that is the real purpose of food. To provide ourselves with another pleasure of life.

Monday, May 11, 2020

more small pleasures

Simple things improve a day.

This morning I was sitting on the patio catching up on matters viral in The Economist when I noticed movement out of the corner of my left eye. A dragonfly had alit on the chair next to me -- maintaining an appropriate social distancing.

I put down my telephone and watched it watching me. Or whatever it is that dragonflies do when they are not scooping up water on my pool's surface like a miniature Douglas DC-7.

What struck me most was his coloring. Most of the dragonflies around here are of the blue and green variety. This guy was bright red with streaks of black. As if he was a ninja warrior on his time off. Maybe a sidekick in one of those dreadful Liam Neeson action movies.

The company was a nice break -- though he was not much of a conversationalist. What he was good at was sitting as still as a jeweled brooch on a dowager's lapel. Not a twitch.

My camera was sitting on the table, but I was convinced that the slightest movement on my part would send the dragonfly off on whatever his mission for the day might be. So, I edged my hand over to the camera and snapped a couple of shots. He was the perfect model. My movement did not bother him in the least.

But the light was all wrong. With the light behind him, his colors merely blended into the shadows. There were no reds, just blacks.

I stood up to move to the other side of the chair. The dragonfly did nothing.

And then I made a mistake that every photographer dreads. Instead of taking the shot, I decided to set up the flash.

For whatever reason, in that fraction of a second, the dragonfly was gone. As was the shot.

I guess is the lesson. These little grace notes of creation are to be enjoyed for their transient beauty. And enjoy it I did.

I may not have an adequate photograph to share with you, but I do have the moment, the experience, and the tale.

For a Monday morning that may be just good enough. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

celebrating life

This is one of those holidays where we squeeze our sentiments into the confine of 24 hours -- and feel just a bit smug about ourselves that we have met our social duties.

Do not get me wrong. Mother's Day is one of the few holidays that I truly enjoy. But, I often wonder why we cannot stretch out those Hallmark and rose-studded feelings throughout the year. I suspect every Mom has asked that question. I know mine has.

The photograph at the top of this essay is a good example. When I realized it was Mother's Day, I started digging through some of the photographs I had brought south from Oregon last December. The photographs are a good sampling of the detritus of our lives -- taken by a number of shooters.

I like this photograph. I am too young to remember the event, but it was a family trip to the beach (I suspect, it was Bandon). That is my Mom holding her two squirmy boys who are not the least bit happy to have their photograph taken. My Dad shot it.

The fact that the new pickup plays a prominent role is no accident. We were the quintessential American family of the early 1950s. Vehicle lives mattered. And they were always Fords -- with the occasional Mercury tossed in for variety.

 My Mom has had several careers. And she has excelled at each. If I asked her which job she most enjoyed, I know what her answer would be because I have heard her say it multiple times -- being a Mom. My brother and I would both give her high marks.

Let me get back to the point I was making at the top of this piece. I have yet to meet anyone who did not admire their mother's efforts in maintaining family life. That is why Mother's Day is a great idea. And I know mothers appreciate what we do for them on this day.

I have one suggestion, though. If we were to keep the spirit of this day in mind and share the same feelings with our mothers throughout the year, it would be just a fraction of what they did for us. And maybe I could spend a bit more time appreciating those memories tucked into the photographs in my library rather than using them solely as writing props.

So, Mom, here's to you on this Mother's Day where all of us are sequestered in our homes in three separate cities. We may be isolated physically by the virus, but you, Darrel, and I are united by the work you have done and the sacrifices you have made in your best job -- as a mother.

Happy Mother's Day.


Saturday, May 09, 2020

the beauty of mistakes

Two-thirds of a good dinner
Joanne Audette, a reader of the Facebook edition of Mexpatriate, issued me a challenge about a month ago.

She found my cooking posts to be interesting, but she wanted to hear about my disasters in the kitchen.

We all have them. And I know I have had my portion of spending three or four hours in the kitchen only to share dishes gone bad with the neighborhood dogs. When the dogs refuse to eat offered food, and it does happen, that is a certain sign that something went Really Wrong.

I do not mind mistakes. It is from failures that we learn. Even though I firmly believe that, when I sat down to relate some of those lessons learned, I could not recall a single one.

That is not entirely true. I did remember one. About two years ago, I foolishly combined basil and mint in a salad dressing because I had never before tasted the combination. It made my entire salad taste as if I had emptied the clippings from the lawnmower in my bowl. I will never try that combination again.

However, that was it. I know there have been others. I suspect I had done what most of us do in life. I had completely forgotten what was a bad experience. If bad things have happened to me, I have no memory of them.

But do not despair Joanne. The roadshow that is my life saved this story arc.

My blogger pal Jennifer Rose cooked a beef roast in her Instant Pot the other day and enticed me into trying my hand at something similar. I had every intention of buying a beef roast, but the butcher had a cut of pork leg that held far more promise. Michelangelo
 saw living forms trapped in blocks of marble. I see memorable meals trapped in pork legs.

Because I have not used my Instant Pot lately, I called it into service to prepare my version of pork saag -- one of my favorite Indian dishes. Actually, it would not really be a saag because I had decided not to add arugula or spinach. But you get the idea.

I marinated and spiced the pork as I would have if I had cooked it in a pan. I then made a culinary blunder. As it turned out, a big one. And it was not the lack of greens.

I still have not developed any subtle skills when using a pressure cooker. One of the consistent warnings I have read is to never cook without adequate liquid added to the cooker -- or too much. In this case, I had marinated the pork in half-and-half. There seemed to be adequate liquid, But I followed the advice of Urvashi Pitre, my Instant Pot guru. She suggested adding three-quarters of a cup of water to the mixture. I reduced it to one-third.

Even that was too much. A good pork saag should have a rich fatty taste with subtle layers of spices. Our housekeeper, Zella Kuzba, used to put the same tea bag to service for a full week. That is what this saag tasted like -- like Zella's tea bag on the seventh day. It had the mere echo of some long-forgotten flavor.

It was not terrible. It was simply not good. For dinner, I combined it with gnocchi in a garlic-parmesan-gorgonzola sauce, and blistered soy asparagus. Both of those dishes were fine. I ate a couple pieces of the saag and scraped the rest into the large bowl of leftovers.

I was prepared to find a dog who appeared to be less-picky than I am until Omar said he liked the saag. I just needed to find a way to resurrect it.

My father loved ground beef sandwiches. I am not talking about hamburger here. I mean ground beef. Every Sunday he would cook a roast. If some of the beef was left over, he would run it through a meat mill along with chopped onion and spices. It was one of the best sandwich spreads I have ever tasted. Simple and flavor-filled.

If it was good enough for my father, it should be good enough for me. Over the years, I have developed several pâté techniques. Earlier in the week I had put together a Portuguese sardine 
pâté. I decided to try a similar technique to turn the saag into something edible.

So, I tossed some butter, onion, garlic, pickled jalapeños, sweet relish, tomato sauce, mustard, capers, and the saag into my food processor. The result was not quite what I wanted. The watery taste was gone, but something was missing.

What it needed was a strong herb. Oregano, thyme, and marjoram struck me as being too pedestrian. Then I saw it, a jar of French tarragon. I added a healthy dose to the meat mixture, pulsed, and the result was exactly what I was after.

Yes. Yes. I know. Pâtés never photograph well. 
It certainly was not the dish I originally set out to make. But, as you have said, Joanne, our lives are improved by the mistakes we have made.

I now have a deviled pork saag ready for sandwiches -- or, as I did last night while watching Bridge of Spies, spread on crackers.

The neighborhood dogs are just going to have to wait for another experiment gone bad.