Friday, July 31, 2020

me and mini-me

I have a favorite drink in Mexico. The Snappy Steve.

While I was in the Air Force in the 1970s, I developed a taste for Ortega's Snap-E Tom, a highly-chilied tomato drink. It was a great way to kick start the morning.

But, like many foods of my twenties, it simply disappeared. If I remember correctly, it was bought out by Del Monte foods. A tomato drink under that name is still marketed, but it is a pale imitation of the fire-in-a-can I knew during the 1970s.

So, I have improvised. And Mexico gave me a head start. There is a drink here called a michelada, whose foundation is close to a Snap-E Tom. Clamato. Tabasco. Lime juice. Worcestershire sauce. Magi.

Unfortunately, it also contains beer. And none of that is going in my mouth.

For a couple of years I have been experimenting with variations on the drink. If I have time, I will grill serranos, tomatoes, and onions, and blend them, to spice up the Clamato. Most often, though, I simply pour a three-quarter glass of Clamato, and add the juice of five limes, twenty dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a shot of soy sauce, and twenty-five dashes of Tabasco. This is not a doing-by-halves beverage.

It is almost as good as the original. Since the good name of Snap-E Tom is tarnished, mine is Snappy Steve, as an homage to a dead treat. Three restaurants here now have it down to an art form for me.

Yesterday I had everything in the glass except the Tabasco. At about the thirteenth dash, the bottle died. The well was dry.

But, I need not worry when it comes to Tabasco. There are usually one or two backup boxes in the pantry.

When I took the new box off of the shelf, I heard a sound that no customer likes to hear. The sound of glass hitting glass. In most cases, it means the bottle in the box is broken.

Not this time. There was no liquid trickling out of the box. What did come out of the box was a 355-ml bottle of original Tabasco sauce clad in its distinctive Mexican colors (though it is manufactured in Louisiana) -- fully intact.

The "broken" glass noise was caused by the second resident of the box. A 3.7 ml of the McIlhenny Company's "newer" sauce -- green pepper. Hardly enough for a single serving.

But there was enough in the new big bottle to fill out my Snappy Steve yesterday.

Before I fly off to Los Angeles tomorrow afternoon, I may try using that little bottle as an addendum to tomorrow's Snappy Steve. After all, I need to finish off that jug of Clamato.

Because I have no idea when, or if, I will be returning to the house with no name.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

me gusta mi taco

I have a food ritual when I fly north.

No matter whether I arrive in Redmond on an afternoon flight or at midnight, I ask my brother to stop at Taco Bell to buy a hard taco.

I am not particularly fond of Taco Bell's food. But nothing says American food like a hard taco.

On Saturday I will be flying north for family business. After spending a night in Los Angeles, I should be in Oregon around noon on Sunday.

But on this trip north, I may skip the Taco Bell ritual -- because I indulged in a tastier version at noon. When I was at Hawaii this week, I noticed a packet of Taco Bell taco seasoning.

Some of you will remember the taco kits we used to buy when we were kids. I think the brand was Old El Paso -- or maybe Rosarita. It is too long ago for me to be certain. The kits came with taco shells, seasoning to be added to ground beef, and a can of extremely mild "hot" sauce.

Alex at Hawaii has sold hard taco shells for years. I usually just laugh at the package. After all, sending taco ingredients to Mexico is the epitome of shipping coals to Newcastle.

But something urged me to buy the shells and taco seasoning. Maybe it was out of some urge to chase the dragon of nostalgia knowing full well that the dragon always eludes capture in the end.

I cooked up some ground beef with serrano and added the seasoning while I warmed the taco shells, and grated a measure of extra sharp Tillamook cheese and sliced some tomatoes, onion, and lettuce. As a topper, I turned crema fresca into sour cream with fresh lemon juice. Because the meat was a bit bland -- even with the seasoning packet -- I added a few twists of my own making.

You can see the result. What you cannot do is taste them. For one good reason. I wolfed down both of them.

I generally am not humble about the food I cook. And there is no reason to alter that self-assessment today. The tacos were good. Certainly better than Taco Bell's. But I will be the first to admit that standard is not very high.

Maybe I wanted the hard tacos as something of a transition back to The States. It has been four months since I have been in an airplane. That is a record for me. At least, during my dozen years of living in Mexico.

I will keep you posted on how the travel world has changed since then.

At this point, I have no idea how long I will be away from Mexico. What I do know,though, is visiting Taco Bells will remind me that I have not yet returned home. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

auf wiedersehen mein mitreisender

Marlene Bartz

There is never a good way to deliver this type of news because words are not adequate to describe our thoughts at moments like this.

Those of you who read the Facebook pages for Melaque and Barra de Navidad have already heard the news that Marlene Bartz, the owner of Marlena's restaurant in Barra de Navidad, has died.

It is a great loss. For numerous reasons.

I cannot claim to be a friend of Marlene's. At best, we were acquaintances, a status I have with most people I know here in Mexico.

But we were the type of acquaintances who would not merely pass on the street with a brief greeting. Whenever I would see her in town (usually while we were both exercising), we would stop and share stories of the town. Or if I met her in the grocery store (which was often), we would talk about which food looked fresh and how it could be best prepared.

Food was a major connection. She labeled her restaurant as "international cuisine -- German and Mexican." That is not a combination you see every day in these parts. But it was a popular draw for mainly the foreign community.

It was in her restaurant where we would have our most detailed discussions. I almost always dine alone, so she felt free to join me for our ongoing food discussions -- where we had more than a few polite disagreements.

I did learn early on, though, that prying too deeply on the ingredients in her recipes was verboten. There are some things that restaurateurs believe are best left in the mystery category.

And she humored me by letting me believe that my extremely-corroded German still had some conversational utility, along with blushes. Such as, my recurring confusion of using the word for pineapples when I meant bananas. She simply gave me that very Germanic smile that rests somewhere between sympathetic and disappointment.

When I heard of Marlene's death yesterday, the main theme from Ennio Morricone's The Mission kept coming to mind. I cannot tell you why. But something in the soulful oboe's opening line made me think of her. Those of you who know Marlene and who know the story about the oboe in the film will understand.

Probably for the same reason with which I started this essay -- "
words are not adequate to describe our feelings at moments like this." Music, on the other hand, can touch areas where words dare not (or cannot) trod.

So, for Marlene I dedicate this video that, for me, captures who she was -- and how I will remember her. It may not be Wagnerian, but neither was she.

Monday, July 27, 2020

kicking the can

I think it was The Accidental Tourist.

It was not one of the most important scenes in the film, but it helped to establish the character of William Hurt's family. His brother and sister are in the kitchen stocking the shelves -- alphabetically.

Obsessive-compulsive? Maybe. Eccentric? Certainly. Organized? Definitely.

I have lived that scene. Far before I saw the movie. My spice and herb jars are stored alphabetically. Always have been. Well, until Dora cleans that particular shelf.

My canned goods are not so well-organized. I do not use a lot of canned goods in my daily cooking. There is no reason for that here. Fresh vegetables and dried beans are available everywhere.

The canned goods are part tradition and part survival. My mother always kept a wide variety of canned goods in the house. It was not until I left home that I figured out why she kept about a year's worth of canned goods at the ready.

Even though I grew up in an era that people called America's Golden Years, there were always the possibility of bad times when revenue might stop following. The canned goods were insurance that the family would not go hungry. Tradition and survival. 

My pantry supplies keep that tradition alive. We live in an area that experiences earthquakes and tropical storms. It is good to have at least a modicum of food on hand should disaster strike. Chili. Beans. Tuna. Chilies. Soups. Anchovies. Sardines. That sort of thing. Along with a supply of dried beans and pasta in the refrigerator -- to dissuade the weevils and other beetles.

I seem to remember that the siblings in The Accidental Tourist were obsessed with pull dates. That is the date that is stamped on the can that is supposed to warn consumers away from eating the contents.

Some people are fundamentalists when it comes to pull dates. If they notice the declared date has passed, they will toss the can.

I am not a fundamentalist. I might be better called a pull-date pagan. If an "expired" can contains something I would like to eat, I check the cans for dents, and listen carefully when I open it. If the contents smell edible, I will eat it.

When I moved to Mexico, I brought a number of canned goods south with me from my Salem kitchen. Mainly soups. Those cans then followed me to my second rental.

One day, I looked at three cans of soup. I was not surprised that the pull date had passed at least ten years ago. But the cans looked fine -- if a bit corroded. I ate the soup and I am here to tell the tale.

I am not always that lucky. I had a six-pack of tomato paste that had been pushed to the back of the pantry. The pull date was five months prior. But the cans looked intact.

I opened the first can. The moment the can opener had cut a small slit, the paste almost exploded out of the can. The same thing happened with the second can. And the third. All six cans had gone off. And tomato products are not something to avoid the obvious signs of spoilage. botulism lives down that road.

Because my canned goods had become so jumbled, I decided to organize them into categories to make finding them a bit easier. And, if I was going to go to that much work, I grabbed a sharpie to write the expiration date on the label of each can. I hoped to avoid another tomato paste Vesuvius in my kitchen.

That is when I discovered the two cans of soup pictured at the top of this essay. You can immediately see two problems. The cans are almost three years past their pull date -- and they are both noticeably corroded. Actually, the tops were almost completely covered with rust That is not a good sign with cans.

Instead of tossing them, I opened them and smelled the contents. It smelled like a Campbell's product, but I decided to eat it despite that.

Some onion, garlic, serrano, ginger, and oregano dressed up the contents. And it was a quite refreshing dinner.

The best part is that I am still here to tell you the tale. And I did not have to come up with any euphemisms for emergency bathroom breaks. There were none.

I tossed some cans. Five cans of anchovies with oil leaks were the first to go. Anchovies are not hard to find here. And there were a couple of cans of tomatoes that had not yet expired, but the tops were bulging. A very bad sign.

The pantry is now organized and each can is sporting its use-by date. It will at least be some information to help me choose which can to use first.

So, I did not kick the can in the colloquial sense. But I may have kicked that can down the road -- like any practiced politician.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

become a key person

Class. Close your textbooks and put them under your desk. I have a quiz for you.

Yesterday, we chatted about the fact that my car fob will not open the front door to my house (open, sesame). Actually, we talked about the ravages of aging, but let's call it a door lock issue for the purpose of today's discussion.

The photograph is of my bedroom door that leads out onto the patio. It also has a lock that does not work with my car fob. I need to search in my pocket for my set of keys whenever I want to lock or unlock the door.

You can see the keys. Now, which way am I going to turn the key to open the door? Clockwise or anticlockwise?

In my brief experience of living in Mexico, either answer is certainly possible. I lived in a house for several years that had two successive gates to enter the garden. On one gate, the key needed to be twirled clockwise to open the gate. The other required an anticlockwise twist.

I finally decided the reason was simple. One gate swung to the left, one to the right. The lock mechanisms were simply installed upside down from each other. A perfect Mexican solution.

Not so, in my house. All doors swing in the same direction. But the front door has one solution; the four bedroom doors have the opposite solution.

The internet can often be our friends in such matters. At least, those in which I have had no training.

The most common answer is that there is no "correct" way for locks to be installed. Having said that, most of the sites say it is standard for doors that enter the house from the outside to lock by turning anticlockwise and unlock by turning clockwise -- unless it is a dead bolt. If it is a dead bolt, then the key almost always is twisted toward the door jamb -- mimicking the action of the bolt. Internal doors follow the deadbolt rule. Generally.

Well, my house did not quite get that memo. Or maybe it did.

As you know from various underwear-related stories on this blog, my front door latches automatically. There is no handle on the outside of the door. To lock the door, though, I treat it as if it were a deadbolt. Because it is. Lock toward the jamb. Unlock away from the jamb.

You have probably already guessed the answer to my bedroom door quiz. Even though the locks are dead bolt-based, the answer is just the opposite. To lock the door, the key turns away from the jamb (clockwise). To open -- well, you already have the drill.

I have never owned a house that had locks on internal doors. Maybe they did, but when you live alone, what's the point? I am not even certain there was a door on bathroom.

But the bedroom doors are not really interior doors. They open onto the patio. And, though I like to pretend it is the largest room in my house, it is the Grand Outdoors. Almost as natural as Yosemite. And a lot less crowded.

I had thought of having the locks on the bedroom doors replaced with locks where the keys would turn in conformance with the front door. But that struck me as being far too Swedish.

Plus there is a certain amusement quotient in watching my house guests trying to figure out the door puzzle. Some just give up and leave their rooms unlocked. Omar, for instance, neither locks his bedroom door nor double-locks the front door.

Knowing the key code is almost like belonging to some secret society. The Masons. The Illuminati. Or Sam's Club.

Let's call it The Sacred Order of Key Lore. Why not? It is my essay.

I would get you a guest pass, but you first need to know how to use a set of a keys in any Mexican house.

I wish you well.


Friday, July 24, 2020

open, sesame

My friend Ed accuses me of being coy on political positions.

My standard reply is: "I'm not going to commit myself. Someone else is going to have to sign the papers."

Well, it may be time for someone to pull out a pen.

Yesterday I headed over to San Patricio to pick up the laundry and to replenish the pantry and refrigerators with a couple of days of food. When I got back to the house, I grabbed two full shopping bags, one in each hand, and headed toward the door.

My brother has a stock phrase for moments like this: "Every process has a sequence." A stock phrase I was not heeding.

The door to my house is always locked. That is the nature of its construction. When the door closes, the latch engages. Without a key, entry is barred.

The sequence I had missed was that my door key was in my pocket and my hands were now full. So, I grabbed both bags with my right hand and started fumbling in my left pocket for something to open the door.

I thought I had it. I stood there repeatedly pushing the button, but the door would not open. (I apparently could not hear the locks on my car repeatedly trying to open behind me.)

You, of course, know immediately what happened. Something that took me far too many seconds to realize. I was trying to open my front door with the fob that controls the locks and ignition for my Escape.

I like to think that I took the fob out of my pocket because I had just used it to open and lock the car doors on my errands. But even that is simply an admission of a logical error of categories. If the fob opens doors, it should open my front door. (Politicians of all ilks fall into that one repeatedly.)

Whatever it was that led me to choose the wrong option to open my door, I am certain there will be many more in the future. It is simply another of those mile posts on our life journey reminding us that there is a cost for everything. We may have gained wisdom with our years, but the gaining of wisdom is no guarantee that it will be properly applied.

Or maybe it is not that at all. Maybe that little creative voice that seldom talks to me was trying to make a point. An electronic opener for the front door would be a cool idea. Why not? I have one for the garage door.

Those of you who so graciously pulled out your pens to sign the commitment papers should now head over to Amazon.Mx. Certainly there is something for sale there that will make me look at least a bit less silly.

Standing in front of a door pushing the buttons on a car fob is ludicrous. Standing in front of a door with an electronic door opener that really opens doors would be cool.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

naked in barra

I have become a cultural cliché.

Yesterday afternoon the DHL driver showed up at my front door with a delivery from Amazon. Without giving it a second thought, I answered the door. Nothing unusual there. But I was wearing only my underwear. In his haste to be gone, the driver nearly tossed my package to me.

What has happened to me? I was raised in a family where what we wear says a lot about who we are. My mother would never leave the house without thinking through what clothes she should be wearing.

Her father took that a step further. When he worked in the garden, he wore a fedora, a jacket, and a tie. I don't think I ever saw him in public without that sartorial trio.

And here I am in Mexico dropping all of that tradition faster than I doff my clothes.

When I took my clothes to the laundry yesterday, I was a bit surprised at how few clothing items were in the bag. But I know why. I have turned into one of those overweight northerners who lives out his day in his swim trunks.

The trunks make some sense. The arrival of the coronavirus in our municipality has once again restricted my activities. I primarily stay in the house. And because the summer is upon us, the pool is the best refuge for eating meals and reading.

Thus, the trunks. At least, I wear trunks. Enough people come and go through my front door each day that I do not want to frighten the horses in the street -- or them -- with my Winston Churchill impression. And I have not yet devolved to the stage where I wander around town in nothing but my trunks. In other words, I am not quite yet the cultural cliché I fear I am becoming.

Young people call it "just giving up." I may be on that path. But if any of you see me wandering around Barra shirtless, shoeless, and wearing nothing but my bathing trunks, just book me into a treatment center. Don't bother asking my permission.

There must be a 12-step program for the affliction. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

cleaning the house

Today is a Dora day.

Dora is the woman who helps me clean the house with no name. "Helps me clean" is one of those euphemisms that men use to inflate their role in house work.

I have a Mexican friend who claims that he always makes breakfast for his family. I mentioned that when I met his wife. She laughed, and said he had made breakfast for the family. Once. Eleven years ago.

I am a bit better than that. Dora has been cleaning my living spaces for about eleven years. When I moved into my current house, we split up the chores into two lists. What we jokingly call "man jobs" and "woman jobs."

Now and then a discussion breaks out on Facebook when someone "confesses" to cleaning up the house before the house cleaner arrives. I guess I do the same with Dora, but always in accordance with our very Adam Smith division of labor.

Dora arrives every Wednesday and Saturday between 9 and 10 in the morning. By the time she arrives, I have usually completed most of my "man jobs."
  • Strip my bed
  • Consolidate the toilet paper and contents of the waste basket in my bedroom; change liners
  • Bag and delivery laundry to the laundress
  • Set up my computer in the patio to give Dora full access to my bedroom
  • Pick up and bag leaves and flowers that have fallen onto the patio
  • Take out the kitchen garbage; change liner; wash garbage can
  • Bag up toilet paper from pool bathroom; change liner
  • Stow last night's dishes and pans from the drying rack
  • Wash out kitchen sink
  • Trim patio vines
 Miscellaneous chores make their way onto the list now and then.

But that list (as long as I have made it appear, just like my breakfast-making friend) is tiny compared with Dora's jobs. Sweeping. Mopping. And, the biggest job of all, cleaning the glass that forms the fourth wall on all of my rooms.

I started to write that I could clean the house on my own without Dora's help. And that would be true. But it would also be true that the place would not look the same without her meticulous talents. I may as well put that particular thought out of my mind.

And I can banish the thought because Dora and I will continue to complete our respective lists twice a week. The nice thing is that when I am away from the house (which I soon will be), Dora will do both of our jobs.

Thanks, Dora.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

from sea to shining sea

Last week, I made a terrible mistake, and I knew it when I made it.

Our local Facebook page on covid19 was discussing some recent restrictions that the governor of Jalisco had threatened to impose (but has not done so yet). I posted a comment that I was not surprised because of the number of confirmed cases in Jalisco. And then I stepped in it. I wrote, at the current trend, Mexico will have one of the highest infection rates in the Americas.

The response was almost immediate that I was wrong. Certainly Mexico's infection rate would never be as high as America's.

And in that little apostrophe, there is a story. Or, at least, an essay.

We once thought we knew where the word "America" came from. The accepted history is that two German cartographers (Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann -- two names that just roll off of the tongue) named the New World "America" in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, the first explorer to realize the land mass Christopher Columbus believed was the Far East was actually a new discovery. There were plenty of Indians in the New World who already knew they did not live in the East Indies.

There have been some recent suggestions from the incense and crystal crowd that the word "America" is a Mayan word meaning Land of the Wind. But, we will stick to the Waldseemüller/Ringmann story because it really does not matter to the rest of our discussion.

So, America it was. A huge continent stretching from Kaffeklubben Island in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south.*

When I was in school, I learned there were seven continents -- Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. Most of my European friends were taught there were only five continents. The difference is that the two Americas were designated America, and Europe and Asia were combined into Eurasia. (I never understood in school how the Urals created a divide between Europe and Asia as continents.)

But that is not where the problem arises in general conversation. We inhabitants of the New World are accustomed to speaking of North America (from Canada to Panama, with the Caribbean basin thrown in) as a continent, though I have encountered people who believe that North America is solely Canada and the United States of America. Everything south of Panama is South America. But, combined they are "The Americas."

The problem arises when national labels are tossed into the mix. When the Spanish colonies rebelled against the king in Madrid, many of them called themselves "Americans" to distinguish themselves from their Spanish overlords. That was true in Mexico, as well. Ignacio Allende referred to himself as "a proud American."

To our ears that sounds a bit odd. Usually when that term is used these days, it refers to the most populous country in North America -- the United States of America. Almost everyone in the world shortens the name of the country to "America" and calls the national inhabitants "Americans."

There are other conventions. The Royal Academy disdains the use of the word "americano" in Spanish, preferring the tongue-twisting "estadounidense." But almost every Mexican I know calls me an "americano." Actually, most forget where I am from and fall back on the local default of "canadiense" -- or the far less accurate "norteamericano."

But "American" is the default term used throughout the world. You can hear it shouted by communist and fascist students during protests of one kind or another. And the news media consistently refer to "America" and "Americans," and we all know exactly what is being discussed.

The confusion arises from the fact that the country's name also incorporates the name of the continent where it resides. But, the name makes sense. For some time, I used the truncated form of "The United States" when I was referring to the country.

The problem with that is that there are other federal systems whose formal name includes "United States." I live in one -- Estados Unidos Mexicanos, which can be translated to "United States of Mexico."

And "The States," which I do use now and then, sounds like the generic equivalent of chemical properties.

So, I am an American and I come from America. In truth, I usually just describe myself as an Oregonian.

America is a country (or it can be the combined continents of North and South America). The Americas refers to all the constituent nation-states in North and South America, or it could refer to the two continents. The genitive form (America's) almost always refers to something linked to the United States of America. The genitive form of the continents would be Americas'.

When the American colonists were in the process of ridding themselves of the German king in the mid-1770s, they needed a name to describe the territory of the thirteen colonies. Until then, each colony was known simply by its colonial name. Citizens would describe themselves as Massachusetts men or Virginians.

It appears, almost by accident, the term "United States of America" came into use. Perhaps mirroring "the King's colonies in America." But, on 9 September 1776, the Continental Congress (another hubristic title) officially declared the country's name to be "The United States of America," a mere year or two after the term had first been used.

And all of that now leaves us with the need to read and listen carefully. The two phrases ("America's infection rate" and "the infection rate in the Americas") mean quite different things.

As Sean Connery would (and did) say: "Here endeth the lesson."


* -- There is something missing from North America in the map at the top of this essay. A great prize awaits anyone who sees it.

Monday, July 20, 2020

houses and homes

Today was an exercise in efficiency.

I combined my morning walk with a round-about trip to the butcher while shooting snapshots of a different side of Barra de Navidad. Actually, what I shot is symbolic of one of our area's social scars.

That scar is Nueva España -- the street that divides a housing development of almost-Scandinavian order from the houses of the families who once possessed that land. The street forms an apartheid line that any Boer would recognize. But it is not a racial line. Or not entirely. It is primarily an economic line.

Several decades ago, a wealthy Mexican family proved the old adage if the law does not work for the wealthy, it can be manipulated to do so. The area south of Nueva España was once occupied by villagers who primarily made their living from fishing. It was a hard scrabble life, but they had a means to support themselves and land they could call their own.

That tranquility was disturbed when the wealthy Mexican family decided that the land on which the local fishermen lived would be a great place for their fellow wealthy friends from Guadalajara to live -- and it would be a magnet for Canadians and Americans who had equity money burning holes in their investment accounts.

The stumbling block was all those villagers, which did not turn out to be much of a stumbling block, at all. Their land was "acquired" by the wealthy Mexican family, and the villagers who once lived near the lagoon were transplanted north of Nueva España. The development was then ironically named "Pueblo Nuevo" -- in much the same way that Manahatta became New Amsterdam.

The memory of that forced migration still festers in the neighborhood north of Nueva España. But there was not much that could be done against a family that had the political power to have a portion of the state of Jalisco magically transformed into part of the state of Colima to further their development of a luxury hotel and golf course.

There is an interesting acquired stigma amongst some members of the foreign community here. When I told a Canadian acquaintance where I lived, a look of shock and horror passed across her face. "No. Not really. That is the other side of the tracks."

Yes, it is. And that is one reason I live where I do.

Well, that is more than I had intended to say this morning, and in a voice that is not always my own. What I wanted to do was to share some additional photographs with you. Instead of shooting houses here I found interesting, I used a random number generator on my telephone. I would walk that many paces, and no matter where I was, I would shoot that house.

So, here they are, the entirely random houses of Barra de Navidad.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

lines with a view

This is the view that put the house with no name in my name.

The realtor and I had been walking around the house for about five minutes when I looked up to my left and saw what you are looking at right now. I had spent a couple of years looking at houses in this area, but none of them had That Something that I was looking for.

Sure, I had several ideas in mind. I wanted a place with four bedrooms and all of the rooms on one level to accommodate my mother, my brother, and my sister-in-law on what they hoped would be frequent long-term visits. But those were the criteria one would use looking for hotel accommodations.

I was looking for a place that I could call home -- someplace that would reflect my personality. Or, better yet, put a better spin of patina on my personalty.

And there it was. The answer. While I was walking through the house, I could see its design was original. Or original in a derivative sense. But it was the Barragánesque lines that joined with the acute angles that sold the house to me.

There was something else. When I was in the sixth grade, I designed a house around a swimming pool -- with all of the rooms opening on the center patio. All I knew back then was that was how Imperial Roman houses were designed. Even my niece designed a similar house when she was about the same age. The design seemed to speak to something in the Cottons.

Today while I was reading in the pool, I glanced up at that same view. The sky was more London than Mexico. That pale gray beloved of some manor owners as a color for their sitting room. The sky was a bit pensive.

Usually, the backdrop for the house lines is a bright tropical blue. Often streaked with white clouds, but blue nonetheless. Almost something Piet Mondrian would have painted. Not so today. Everything is multiple shades of gray.

Light -- and its accompanying color palette -- are what make Mexico Mexico. Christopher Wren's St. Paul's cathedral is well-suited for gray surroundings. London wears the color well. But even the dome of the cathedral can take on an almost Florentine air when the sun is bright and the skies are clear (during the nine days of English summer).

I had one reader who despised my house. He called it "a barn" and "the pipe dream of a school boy." He was wrong about the barn. But I wear the "school boy" slight with honor. He thought it was an insult. To me, it was simply a fact.

He has now moved on. I suspect he tired of trying to recruit me into his rather odd combination of socialist blood-and-soil politics peppered with a parade of various conspiracy theories.

One of nature's best assets is that it is constantly changing. Certainly, the blocks of blue are better-suited to show off the house's lines. But, even in the gray, I can find the serenity that the architect built into this dream house of hers.

And I thank her for it.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

barra, july

Bloggers tend to cross-fertilize.

Even though that could be taken as a low-grade subtle insult, I mean it in the best way possible. We read a piece on another blog and it triggers an idea.

That is what happened when I read Gary Denness's "Bournemoth, July" on Mexile 2.0. I first met Gary on-line when he was teaching English in Mexico City. He and his wife moved back to England several years ago, but he is still posting his clever photographs.

"Bournemouth, July" consists of a series of photographs of his current home time -- along with some brief comments.

So, I thought: "Why not?" I could take a stroll around Barra de Navida and post my photographic impressions. Because I am me, I declared one rather eccentric rule. I am on a walk. The walk takes priority. I can shoot, but I cannot take time framing or cropping. The goal was a series of snapshots.

That was the plan. Because I did not fuss over my camera, some of the shots have an unexpected vibrancy that I did not initially see while shooting. Others are -- well, mundane.

So, here they are. Just as they came out of the camera -- with a bit of straightening.

They sum up several reasons why I enjoy living here. Especially in the summer.

As an addendum, someone asked the other day about the new restaurant in town. You remember it. The one with the cheerful colors.

Well, here is their menu.

Friday, July 17, 2020

an ant's perspective

A reader from San Miguel de Allende asked me about my fascination with animals earlier in the week. It is a passion she does not share.

I do not know the answer. According to my mother, I have always been fascinated with things that move. At four or five, I would check out any book from the Powers library (with Mom's help) that dealt with animals. Snakes topped the list.

It is an interesting question, though. Why does the mere appearance of a spider cause great fear in some people, but pure fascination in others?

I know the Darwinian explanation. Long ago, the fear of anything that had the potential of harm was locked into our DNA. But that does not explain why the fear factor is not part of everyone's psyches.

Maybe the Great Evolutionist withheld that particular survival technique from some of us. After all, someone has to bring the furled magazine to the errant spider, cobra, or tiger that weasels its  way into our bit of civilization.

Take this morning as an example. I was eating my breakfast on the long table in the center of my patio. A large umbrella makes it the perfect spot to enjoy our sunny days in the cocoon of its shade.

Umbrellas do not last long here. If the sun does not destroy the covering, dry rot will erode the wooden pole that holds everything upright. My current umbrella suffers from both maladies -- partially shredded in a tropical storm and atilt from a corrupted pole.

Whenever the dry rot sets in, ant colonies set up shop in the base of the umbrella. On a regular day, scouting parties of ants -- maybe five or so -- will scour the top of the table as if it were the Serengeti. Now and then, they will score a kill with a bit of food that has fallen from my plate. Otherwise, they service their colony with the various insect corpses that litter the patio.

But, some days, I like playing the role of a formicine god by providing manna from heaven. In truth, today's ant treat was nothing more than a few crumbs of Danish butter cookies.

A couple of scouts were near the hole where the umbrella passes through the table. Within seconds of sprinkling the crumbs near them, the scouts smelled the cookies and the frenzy was on. Having been alerted by the scouts, a wave of colleagues emerged from their trenches, first hauling off the small crumbs, then working as a group to move or divvy up the larger pieces.

While the main harvesting was under way, other scouts branched out searching for the possibility of additional largess. And they found it.

Even though I could not see any crumbs, the ants congregated at where I had placed my cookies on the table and where my crumb-encrusted palm had rested on the table.

I watched this little diorama of life for about a half hour when the reader's question intruded on my thoughts. Why do I find these creatures so fascinating when some people's first reaction would be to reach for a can of Raid. After all, this is where I eat some of my meals.

Maybe it is as simple as Solomon tells us in Proverbs. There is a lesson for us in the ant ballet.
Go to the ant, you lazybones!
Consider its ways, and be wise.
It has no chief, overseer or ruler;
yet it provides its food in summer
and gathers its supplies at harvest-time.

I know that is one reason that ants attract me. Not only are they built efficiently to gather food, but their somewhat-unorganized methods of bringing home the bacon are concurrently amusing and awe-inspiring.

The answer is rather lame, but I guess the reason we like most things in life often eludes a rational description. Why do I like green, but not orange? Why do I like sour cream but not cream cheese? And why do I like things that crawl in the night?

Some things in life do not come with pat answers. We just enjoy them because they are there.

Ants and all.   

Thursday, July 16, 2020

a flamboyant red state

I really do need to get out more often.

On my walk last night, in a futile quest to shoot the comet Neowise for you, I realized I had almost missed one of our best flowering periods of the year. I have always been fond of the yellow Primaveras, but my favorite flowering tree is what English-speakers call a Flamboyant -- or Royal Poinciana.

Even though they are not native to Mexico, Flamboyants can be found almost everywhere in the country. Some growing wild, but most of them are specimen trees anchoring urban landscapes. This time of year, when they are in full bloom, they show up as scarlet patches on country drives.

The Flamboyant at the top of this essay is part of a series of the trees planted in front of houses along calle Puerto de la Navidad in Barra.

I have written previous essays about the tree (better than a box of keeblers -- where I compared the tree to Tolkien's Lothlórien; and a tree as lovely as a poem). I knew about the tree before I headed south because former blogger Isla Gringo often wrote about the tree, its exquisite flowers, and the sabre-like seed pods that are a favorite of hungry squirrels.

In this part of Mexico, they put on quite a show in the late spring and early summer.  We have plenty of local trees that produce tropical-colored flowers. The orange-red blossoms of the African Tulip tree are also putting on an early summer show.

And red seems to be this season's color. The architect who built my house had a great eye for landscaping. She chose plants that would stagger their red blooms throughout the year. This month, they have decided to all put on a show at the same time.

The stars are this Lipstick plant -- backed up by the pinkish blossoms of a Crown of Thorns.

And then there are these blossoms that look similar to a lilac. So far, no one has been able to identify the name.

I am told that red is one of the most attractive colors to butterflies. I can believe that based on the number of visitors at the plants in front of my house.

While I was photographing the plants today, I realized that I spend almost no time out there enjoying the flowers or the butterflies. Maybe, when I say I am going to get out of the house more often, I could spend a bit of time enjoying the sights close to home.

Even if they are not Flamboyant. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

a comet tale

Some people are morning people. Others are night people. I am both.

Or, I once was. My usual pattern, until a couple of months ago, was to get to bed around 2 in the morning and then get up around 6. There was, Of course, a nap tucked in during the afternoon.

That pattern was set when I was in college and worked a late shift at the bank. Well, without the nap back then. Napping at twenty-something would have been sure evidence of sloth.

My recent bout of "head colds" this month and last March seem to have re-set my sleeping patterns. I still get to bed around 2, but I am now sleeping in until 9 or so.

I suppose it really does not matter. I know the reason: the colds have left me feeling more fatigued than my years would allow. Or maybe it is the combination of age and these minor bouts with viruses.
The effect is that I am now missing Mexican mornings. And I do mean "miss." I miss the birds threatening one another, the strange yellows and pinks at sunrise, and the sounds and smells of my neighbors as they begin their days and the aroma of their breakfasts fill the day. Each morning is a unique combination worth experiencing.

But what I am missing most is the opportunity to witness one of nature's most fascinating creations -- a comet. To be more precise C/2020 F3. Or its more common Matrixesque moniker -- Neowise.

Neowise shows up in our northeastern skies just before dawn. If that is too early for you night folk, it will soon be showing up in the northwestern sky just after sunset.

There is one caveat. Comets are fickle performers. A lot of us have been disappointed with the lackluster stellar performances of past comets. Yes. I am talking about you, Halley's Comet. And don't think we don't remember your world-class fizzle, Kohoutek.

Comets are fragile objects made up of rock, dust, gases, and ice. That is why they are often called "dirty snowballs." It is also why comets often just fall apart as they approach the sun. They do not do well with high temperatures.

If comets survive their encounter with the sun, they often develop a longer tail as some of the comet's material sloughs off from the heat. That is what happened to Neowise when it swung past the sun on 3 July. It now has a rather pavoine tail.

The chances are that the night people will eventually have the best view of the comet. It appears that the comet will survive its visit to our solar system. But, you need to get out there and see it soon. It will not stamp its passport for another visit for another 6800 years.

And, if you choose the evening, you will always have an opening act of some of the most colorful sunsets in the world.

Something both morning and night people can enjoy. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

mask up, ke-mo sah-bee

Zorro wore a mask to hide his identity.

The ruse let him flounce amongst his Spanish brethern while he plotted to undermine their corrupt administration of California.

The Lone Ranger wore a mask. The back story was to hide his identity while he burnished his do-gooder image. I have never found that explanation very satisfying because he usually arrived as a stranger in town with each new episode. Not every bit of fiction has to make sense.

But I am neither Zorro nor The Lone Ranger. However, I am masked. At least, when I escape the walls of the house with no name and visit populated places.

Let me confess that I am a recent convert to The Order of the Masked. For months, I have worn a bandanna over my face whenever I was in a store or where someone required me to wear it.

Last week I was talking with a Canadian friend who had admitted she did not wear a mask very often. "It is not logical. I know I should wear a mask, but every time I read one of those morally smug posts on Facebook about masks written by some mythical virologist or nurse or OSHA inspector, all I hear is my first husband's voice trying to control everything I do."

The fellow at the next table in the restaurant, chimed in: "Or my first wife."

I tend to be contrarian. It is an aspect of my personality that I deal with daily. But the first husband/wife metaphor had never occurred to me. But I know exactly what they mean. And after they mentioned it, I see it in many posts. 

A lot of what I read on Facebook these days has a certain bludgeoning bullyishness about it.  For some people, that approach is not the least bit persuasive. In fact, it often elicits the opposite reaction. Calling someone stupid is usually not the best approach to winning them over to your team.

I am not very fond of masks. They are uncomfortable. The more I sweat, the more claustrophobic I feel. But I have suffered far worse discomforts in my life (like listening to life insurance pitches) -- and I have survived.

Then there are the practical problems. I am now of a certain age that I need my glasses to read. If I am wearing a mask and put on my glasses to read labels in a font that even an 8-year old would be challenged to read, my glasses immediately fog up with the breath escaping from my mask. It s a bit like driving in a San Joaquin Valley fog.

There is also the social slight that comes from mask-wearing. I was shopping in Hawaii last week when three separate people greeted me. All three were wearing masks, and their voices were scrambled like witnesses at a Congressional hearing because of the fabric covering their mouths. I had no idea who they were. A bit of facial strip-tease solved the mystery.

I bet you think, after whinging about the small discomforts of wearing a mask, I am going to now weigh the known benefits. That would be my usual lawyerly approach. And I almost did that.

But I decided not to. For two reasons. First, you know them all. And, second, they are not the reason I am now wearing a mask.

My recent "head cold" was something of an eye-opener for me. Or, logic opener. Even while maintaining social distancing, wearing my mask in public, and staying at home for a vast majority of my day, I contracted the virus that caused whatever I had.  The SARS-COV2 virus is spread very similar to the common cold virus (another coronavirus).

Someone once said that logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. And it was not mere logic that has led me to be amongst The Mask-wearers.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to hold the door open for people, to be on time, and to make my bed when a guest in someone's home. None of those things are particularly logical. But we do them because we are polite.

Wearing a mask is like writing thank-you notes. It is the polite thing to do.

For some, masks have turned into a social symbol. I understand that. But this particular hill is probably not the one you want to choose to die on. Literally.

Best of all, it it going to please your Dad and Mom to see that you learned your manners well.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

the rest of the story

Some things in life do end up well.

On Thursday, I took you down a ranine nostalgia path in ¿como esta tu rana? -- how a frog managed to get trapped in my kitchen and its road back to health. When we left that story, the frog had recovered enough to climb out of his hospital bowl, stagger along the edge of a planter, and then -- just disappeared. Like an elephant at a David Copperfield show.

Given all the possibilities of the frog's fate, I had stopped thinking about him. Until this morning.

Today is one of Dora's cleaning days. I have several duties. Collecting the toilet paper bags. Changing out the kitchen garbage. Making my bed. Putting away the dishes in the rack. And picking up the leaves and flowers that accumulate on the patio during the night.

Two of the four planters have small palms planted at the base of the cup-of-gold vines. They are magnets for leaves and flowers, funneling them down to the palm base where they form clots of debris that make satisfactory homes for stinging ants. I try to cut the cycle while the leaves are on the fronds.

Today there was a layer of green leaves on one palm frond. I picked up most of them. But the last leaf was just a bit hefty. It was the frog.

I am not a sentimental person, but I confess that I felt a bit of pride seeing him resting there calmly waiting for a passing meal or another night-time hunting foray. When Dora arrives, I will alert her to his presence. Neither one of us needs to molest him.

Does his survival destine him for some Greater Purpose? Probably, not. He was a frog, is a frog, and will be a frog until he comes to some sort of end.

But I hope our encounter will somehow change me. After all, that is why we are on this journey, isn't it? To share the kindness and grace granted to us. And to choose life.

Friday, July 10, 2020

the anti-facebook lives on the streets of barra de navidad

About two weeks ago, I put myself on a Facebook diet.

Prior to the current virus mania, I did not read many entries in Facebook. But, when we went into a modified lockdown here (whenever that was), I spent far too much time on Facebook.

Facebook is like a multi-zoned neighborhood. There are some informational gems. But they are deeply embedded in a lot of dross. For a while, the emotion-based posts about politics and the virus were an interesting voyage into other people's lives.

It stopped being interesting when I realized the posts were actually affecting my mindset. I am, by nature, a positive person. My experience is that everything comes out well in the end.

If I were to believe Facebook, the villages on the bay were just moments away from catastrophe. The economy was in danger. The virus was about to have its way with us.

But that is not what I see when I go out on my walks.

I walked to my doctor today to inform her the medication she gave me has knocked out most of my symptoms. I still have a slight cough. Three days ago, I could not have walked across my patio let alone three miles.

What I saw on my walk was encouraging. The economy here took a hit when the government forced the beach closure. Now that almost all businesses are open, people are feeding their families, and enjoying the freedom that living outdoors here affords.

Remodeling and new construction continued during the partial lockdown. And there are still several projects under way. Like this palapa being erected on top of a home.

It makes me wonder if being on the cusp of hurricane season is the best time to build a palapa.* But, I guess it is going to have to prove its durability at one point. Why not now?

In opening up shop in early May, I praised the Mexican entrepreneurial spirit. In the midst of a government-imposed revenue strangulation for businesses, three small businesses opened up just a block from my house. And they are surviving, if not thriving.

About a month ago, another restaurant opened at the other end of Nueva España, It is a small place. But it catches my eye every time I drive by because of its clever use of color.

With the arrival of Mexican tourists, it appears to be doing a respectable business.

I know very little about the place other than it resides on Nueva España, the main commercial street in my neighborhood.
 For me, its symbolism is important. The owners were willing to risk everything with their new venture -- despite everything. It is the very antithesis of the gloom pervading Facebook. 

Now and then, I take a peek in on Facebook to see if the tone has changed. It has not.

Instead, I will rely on a more positive picture of the villages by the sea by getting out and enjoying life. My Mexican neighbors have the correct perspective on that.

* -- For those of you wondering whatever happened to tropical storm Cristina, she is heading out to sea -- offering us no new rain. But there is another disturbance off the coast of El Salvador trying to make up its mind if it wants to head from cyclonic fame. Or not.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

¿como esta tu rana?

Today was going to be a day I told you a story about my youth.

But, I am not going to do that.

I am going to tell you a story about my youth. Just not the one I had planned.

This morning, while preparing breakfast, I was carrying a dirty skillet to the sink when I saw something on the floor. At first, I thought I had tracked in a leaf. But my lack of depth perception often plays tricks in identifying objects on the floor. The last time I thought I was picking up a dried leaf, it was a very alive scorpion.

With a closer look, it definitely was not a leaf. It was a frog. A frog that appeared to be almost flattened. For a moment, I thought I was reliving one of my disquieting childhood memories.

I may have told you this before, but bear 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 more than Jack escaping the giant.

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.

About two months, I found a frog -- a different frog -- attempting to get in the kitchen. But it was foiled by the screen doors. 

There must be something in the kitchen that attracts these wily amphibians. My first guess would be food. Frogs are hunters. Cockroaches. Geckos. Ants. The place is a buffet.

Or maybe there is some sense of refuge in the kitchen from our recent increase in snakes.

Whatever attracts the frogs, here was another. I feared I had walked on him as I prepared my meal. But I don't think so. He looked flattened because he was severely dehydrated.

Because I was a child that dealt in frogslaughter, I have become one of their protectors. I grabbed a bowl and filled only the bottom with water -- just enough to immerse the frog's belly while keeping its nose above water. After all, frogs are amphibians, not fish.

He has been in his ranine spa for about two hours and seems to be stabilizing. As dehydrated as he was, I will not be surprised if he does not survive. Only time will tell. 

The bowl is resting in the shade of a vine. I am just going to let him rest and watch that his nose stays above water. 

If he revives, getting out of the bowl will be easy. He can then go a'courtin' or whatever he was doing when doom befell him.