Thursday, April 29, 2021

dancing in the beat of god's heart

Becky Olson
3 December 1952 - 24 April 2021

I first saw Becky Olson at the Dorchester Conference in Seaside, Oregon in the mid-1980s. Her husband Bill had just defeated one of the more-powerful members of the Oregon State Senate, and he was surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers.

As charismatic as he was (and still is), it was his wife that I noticed first. She was more than just a supportive wife (though she was that, as well). She had a glow and strength of her own that made her a step above just another political wife. In the next forty years I would discover just how true that first impression was.

Becky was the embodiment of hope. No matter how dire circumstances were, she firmly believed that circumstances could not erode her Christian faith -- that circumstances could never snatch her from peace at the center.

I befriended Becky and Bill in my professional capacity in 1988. She was as heroic as any biblical heroine during the process, and I learned a lot from her about facing adversity. From our first meeting, the three of us became trusting friends. I knew I could contact either of them at any time when I just needed someone to give me a little more hope in my day.

Becky was an Alaska girl -- because she was also a child of the military. She eventually landed in Seattle where she started a career in film, married and gave life to two children -- Tanya and Joshua. Her life then took a different turn. But let's hear how Becky described in her own words:

She went to college in Seattle, which is where she met her husband on a boat, as of course you do in Seattle.  Becky was technically on a date with another guy when her future husband spotted her, but that didn’t stop him from introducing himself.  They fell in love, settled outside of Portland, Oregon and raised five children.

The three additional children were from her marriage to Bill -- Elizabeth, Elijah, Micah.

She was one of those people that succeeded at everything she did. Certainly she was talented, and that always seems to be true with successful people. But, with Becky, there was something else. She faced the same problems we all do in her professions. To her, though, they were not stumbling blocks, they were opportunities to learn and to pivot.

The largest of those blocks was cancer. Breast cancer. The first diagnosis in 1996 came as a shock, but what it did not do is hinder her hope. She founded Breast Friends, a non-profit organization, to focus public attention. In 2004, when her doctor diagnosed breast cancer for the second time, she quit her job and devoted all of her time to Breast Friends.

Well, that is not quite true. She focused her professional career on Breast Friends, writing The Hat That Saved My Life and becoming a motivational speaker, podcaster, and radio show host -- and being an inspiration to thousands of people who suffered with various physical inflictions. There was still too much life to live to do only one thing.

She was always a supportive mother and wife. She ramped up her game because she was not going to push down the people that mattered most in her life simply because of her condition.

And she lived life to its fullest. She traveled to places she always wanted to visit: Spain, France, Italy, Iceland, Israel, and, of course, Greece. We both shared a love of Greece, and I re-lived many happy moments there listening to her recount her experiences. Especially about food. The mere mention of roasted lamb would send both of us into reveries.

Nothing better symbolizes her underlying hope than her dancing and singing talents. For her, life, with all of its possibilities, was a banquet.

Last night, I thought of Becky while I was humming a tune. I could not not think why I had drawn the connection until I paid attention to the lyrics. It was Graham Kendrick's "Teach Me To Dance."

Teach me to dance to the beat of your heart
Teach me to move in the power of your Spirit
Teach me to walk in the light of your presence
Teach me to dance to the beat of your heart

So, like a child in your sight
I dance to see your delight
For I was made for your pleasure
When the end came, after six diagnoses of cancer that bit by bit worked its destructive way through her body, she was still full of hope because she had spent her life moving in the power of God's spirit.

And always dancing in the beat of His heart.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

futile gesrtures

It is a big category -- the things we do in hopes that the result will not be as we know they will be.

Voting probably tops the list. Or hoping this time that your mother-in-law's peanut butter casserole has improved.

This morning I was up early to drive to Cihuatlán in what proved to be -- well, a futile gesture. It was still dark enough that I could not tell whether the sky was overcast or if the sun was close enough to rising that it had blotted out the starscape.

It turns out that it was just overcast.

That is notable because we have not had rain here since early winter. And that fact is unnotable because our winters and summers are normally bone dry. The hills here are showing the lack of water. What was jungle green in November is now Sahel brown and gray.

Our local Facebook pages were achatter last week about a weather formation that was building up off the coast of Central America. A large contingent, including me, were looking forward to the possibility of our first rain of the year.

Whenever these discussions get started there is another group that will state with almost mathematical certainty that rains here never start before 15 June. Or 20 June. Or 2 July if there has been a waxing gibbous moon two days before. The group is certain there is a specific date. They just do not agree what that date is.

As it turned out, the weather formation did not result in a storm, and what activity there was decided to go vacation in Hawaii rather than visiting locally. The clouds this morning were nothing more than a seasonal tease that rains are on the way -- some day.

And they will be. But not today. The clouds have already broken up to give us another sunny morning and afternoon. If the plants in the patio want water, Dora and I will need to bring the hose to them.

Like everything in Mexico, we will just need to be patient for the arrival of the rains. But, when they do arrive, we will undoubtedly be overly-blessed.

Until then, there will be other futile gestures in which I can indulge.  

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

it's always something

It was one of my favorite comedic catch-phrases.

When Gilda Radner would transform herself into Roseanne Roseannadanna, back in the days when Saturday Night Live was actually funny, you knew that after a list of personal woes, she would sum it up with her father's favorite adage -- "It's always something."

That could be the house with no name's motto. It seems that whenever one task is done and has not yet had time to cool to room temperature, another pops up to take its place.

Last week's task was screen doors. Today's was screen doors. I like variations on a theme.

As some of you know, my house is built around a central courtyard. All rooms lead into the patio. None lead into another. The walls facing the patio are glass. Some stationary, but most in the form of sliding glass doors. Because of our heat, the doors are permanently open. That allows the breeze to do a good job of cooling the rooms.

It all sounds very pleasant. But Barra de Navidad is the home of all sorts of insects -- including several varieties of mosquitoes. To keep my friends, family members, and myself from being involuntary donors to the mosquito blood bank, the rooms are protected with a series of sliding screen doors.

And that arrangement worked well until a certain golden retriever puppy named Barco Rubio came into my life several years ago. Screen doors were no barrier to him. He barreled right through them pulling the screen material out of the grommets. Eventually, the screens look like something on a single-wide in a Mississippi trailer park.

Upon Barco's untimely death, I had the screens repaired. I wanted to replace the screen and grommets with new material. But, most of the Mexican handymen I have hired have a very practical streak. If something can be repaired, they see no need to buy new. So, I gave into a plan that used the same materials siliconed in place.

That worked fine for five years. Until the silicone wore out. Dora cleans the screens twice a week. When she finished, all of the screens had popped free and were flapping in the breeze.

Three weeks ago, I saw Tracye Ross, a local contractor, at church. I told her my tale of screen woes, and she arranged for her aluminum guy to fit me into his schedule. In one day, he had cut new screen material for the doors and had anchored them in place with new grommets.

The house now looks as spiffy as it did seven years ago when it was new. Or, at least, I imagine it does. I wasn't here then.

I was prepared to repel the summer invasion of mosquitoes. Or, I thought I was.

When I woke up this morning, I was not alone in my bed. Several mosquitoes and assorted other flying insects were flying about in my bedroom. The culprit was my screen door. It had popped open in the night.

I tried to close it. It wouldn't.

It turns out the latch had given up the ghost of seven years of snapping open and close. The bottom had given way and gravity had its way with the spring and ball bearing that once kept my screen door closed. Reposing on the floor was not their assigned task.

A quick attempt at repairing the latch proved to be beyond my skills. I actually do most of the minor league repairs around the house. But I lacked the talent and tools for this one. So, I handed the job over to Tracye -- along with replacing a hose that provides water to my patio sink.

I long ago learned that local handymen have greater skills than do I. They are almost always available. And the price is always right.

Every homeowner knows the constant battle that time has on houses. Eventually, we lose and the house falls or is pulled down. Just like each of us. But, until then, we do what we can.

On these two new projects, the repair or replace debate will undoubtedly arise. I almost always opt for replace because it is the better investment. I have one big exception to that rule -- the toilet float arm that controls the water level in my pool. It will still be replaced every six moths because other considerations often trump efficacy.

And that just proves once again that there are no true rules in retirement.

Monday, April 26, 2021

what are you going to do when you retire?

It is sometimes difficult to keep retired life in perspective.

At least, it is for me.

Yesterday, after church, five of us wandered over to Rita's, a local restaurant, for breakfast-lunch. I had never been there, though the surroundings were familiar. It sits on the same laguna in Villa Obregón where I lived for five years. Proving once again that I am as subject to bouts of nostalgia as any doily-tatting grandmother.

At one point in our conversation, someone asked a question I often hear here: "What do you do with your days? How do you spend your time?"

We all dutifully answered the question like True Northerners by ticking off our favorite activities. Reading. Watching movies. Writing. Researching. Every answer indicating that we were doing Things With A Purpose. That we were not simply idling our time away in the sun.
I had encountered the same question, or its distant cousin, when I told friend at work fourteen years ago that I had decided to retire. Two friends, both renowned for their industry as attorneys, asked: "But what are you going to do in retirement?"

The question contained that same Calvinist seed that if I was not being productive, I was somehow letting down the effective side of society. I would simply be dead weight rather than a puller in The Great Tug of War that is life.

I told them they had the question turned around backwards. It was not what I had to do, but what I could do whenever I chose -- circumstances willing. I was done with all The Doing that drives our lives.

I wish I had remembered that yesterday because I knew the people well enough at the table that their days were not consumed with The Doing of Things.

My friends Lou and Wynn are masters of retirement. Certainly, they read and watch movies. But their life is much more. More often than not, you will find them out and about town enjoying the day -- like Saturday night's sunset. Or resting at their favorite isolated beach watching for whales this time of year. Simply relaxing in the midst of what this part of Mexico provides daily. For free. 

My friends at work would not have considered either of those activities as being worthy of their "what are you going to do" question. The subtext of the question was that unless I was going to research a cure for cancer or write the Great American Novel that I would just be wasting my time in retirement.

As I was sitting by the laguna yesterday listening to the conversation, I realized that I often get myself tied up in a routine that may be an attempt to prove that I am Doing Something. Each morning, I open Facebook to wish people a happy birthday, read the newspaper, study my Spanish, pick up the leaves and flowers that the vines slough off during the night, and then write my Mexpatriate essay.

When the tasks get overwhelming (and they do now and then), I know that I am failing in my attempt to do what I like in retirement -- because I have slipped into a Have To Get This Done mode. When that happens, one of my Mexican friends will inevitably stop by to ask me if I want to go for a walk or a ride. And the world is restored.

Billy Collins's latest book, Whale Day and Other Poems, has been sitting on my night-reading pile for a month. His introductory poem, "The Function of Poetry," sums up perfectly what my life is like when I put it in perspective. 

Let me share it with you.
I woke up early on a Tuesday,
made a pot of coffee for myself,
then drove down to the village,
stopping at the post office
then the bank where I cashed a little check
from a magazine, and when I got home
I read some of the newspaper
starting with the science section
and had another cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal.

Pretty soon, it was lunchtime.
I wasn't at all hungry
but I paused for a moment
to look out the big kitchen window,
and that's when I realized
that the function of poetry is to remind me
that there is much more to life
than what I am usually doing
when I'm not reading or writing poetry.

It is a great reminder for me that there is truly "much more to life" than The Doing.    

Saturday, April 24, 2021

school daze

Omar and Yoana are part of the Great International Education Experiment.

As a result of the virus, schools around the world have shut down. And, even though scientists had provided guidelines to re-open schools months ago, politicians, teaches unions, and some parents set aside science in favor of a certainty that never came.

One of the worst effects of the virus has been the effect that it has had on providing education to youngsters. Everywhere, children are at least one academic year behind in their learning. A large portion, having lost the skills learned before the virus, are now at least two academic years behind. In some poor countries, students, especially girls, have left school. Most of them permanently.

Mexico has been equally affected. Locally there was an attempt to teach remotely. But most of the parents I have talked with  tell me their children either have not learned much or they quickly stopped watching televised lessons and submitting their homework.

The loss is great, but not unexpected. Studies have shown, during the shutdown of schools, remote learning is  not a substitute for in-class learning, at l
east not for primary, elementary, and high school students. At the college level -- where students have more skin in the game, it is far more effective for college students. Online colleges have existed successfully for decades.

And that brings us to Omar and Yoana. Both of them have been accepted at the University of Guadalajara at Autlán. And one day, they will be spending their college months up there. But not today.

Like the rest of the education system in Mexico, in-class learning is extremely limited. Almost all classes are conducted online.

For several hours each Monday through Friday, Yoana and Omar sit in front of the computer listening to lectures and watching badly-constructed PowerPoint displays. Because she is studying to be a lawyer and he is studying to be an accountant. thet do not share classes. But it does mean they spend the full day schooling in his bedroom.

I watched a brief portion of a lecture on Marxism as part of his Economics class. The lecturer was a good teacher. She made Marxism as interesting as anyone can without once displaying her personal views. That is an art.

Omar says that not all of the teachers are that skilled. As would be expected.

His class-load consists of classes in Economics, Administration, Principles of Accounting, Mathematics, Political Concepts, History of the Twenty-First Century, and Technology. In none of those courses does he have a textbook. What he learns is what the lecturer reads. But that is not new. In highs chool he had no textbooks; only workbooks.

I was curious how homework was accomplished remotely. His homework consists of written essays, practical activities (such as, completing spreadsheets), and other exercises. He has an app on his telephone that coordinates all of this. When he completes an assignment, he scans it with his telephone and submits it to his teacher or assistant for grading. Apparently, from what I read, similar systems are used in other remote-learning countries.

The university has announced that classes will resume in-person later this summer. That means a trip will soon be in order to find living accomodations and taking care of the details every parent in the world needs to contend with when sending a child off to college.

Until then, the house with no name will continue to be an adjunct campus of the University of Guadalajara.


Friday, April 23, 2021

patience and service

Color me astounded.

I have been having a minor wrestling match with Banamex since last month. Not a full-blown lucha libre spectacle complete with identity-disguising masks. More like an arm-wrestling bout at the local botanero.

I received a letter last month informing me that because I had no activity in my checking account with Banamex for the past three years, my bank account was frozen. The announcement held out the prospect that merely withdrawing pesos or making a deposit would have a Lazarus Effect on the account (moving to mexico -- banks).

Like most easy promises, that one turned out to be not quite true. Instead, I had to talk with Sergio, the always-helpful customer representative at our local Banamex branch, who copied my bank card, immigration card, and passport, and filled out a series of documents requiring the signature of the bank manager.

I thought my account had been thawed -- if that is the opposite of a frozen bank account. But, when I returned two weeks later to deposit funds, the teller told me I needed to talk with Sergio, who dutifully went through all of the same steps one more time (moving to mexico -- banks part 2).

At the end of the process, he told me he would send the set of documents and copies to headquarters to determine if my account could be re-opened. When I asked whether the amount of money I had deposited with Banamex would still be in the account, he could not offer any reassurance.

Because I had not yet heard any word from Banamex on the account, I decided to stop at Banamex for another conversation with Sergio. Normally, going to Banamex on a Friday is the ultimate exercise in patience. But not this Friday. I was ushered to Sergio's window with no one in front of me.

I handed him my bank and immigration cards. He asked for my passport, but, of course, I had irrationally not brought it. Nothing can be done at the bank without one.

He clicked away on his computer and told me he could not tell me if my account was unfrozen because I did not have my passport, but if I went to one of the ATMs and conducted an account balance request, I might be pleased.

I did. And I was. My account is now open -- and, better yet, all of my money is there.

After reading several horror stories on Facebook about people who have encountered similar problems, I am pleasantly surprised at how quickly this little episode has come to a fairy tale ending. Or similar to a fairy tale. After all, I do not know how much "ever after" I have to live happily.

But today was certainly a good start.      

Thursday, April 22, 2021

smelling up the place

The worst effect of my bout with the virus last year was the loss of my senses of smell and taste.

All of the other symptoms (the fever, the mild cough, the severe fatigue) disappeared within two weeks. But I still could not taste or smell. Anything.

For me, that was quite a handicap. Those two senses dominate my life. Far more than any desire. Any.

That is why I was almost ecstatic when, five months later, both senses returned home like prodigal sons. One day none of my food had any more smell or taste than flour paste. The next day gastronomic fireworks were exploding in my mouth. I was content.

I was content, but I was also confused. In their absence, my ability to taste and smell had been altered. The most obvious example was cilantro. Before the virus I had traversed a journey from loathing the detergent-taste of the herb to simply being agnostic about its use.

Now, I crave it. I put it in almost everything. It came close to being added to last night's spicy corn meal porridge (comfort food as home remedy).

I have been putting off a trip to Manzanillo for over a month. I had planned on picking up my dry cleaning before Semana Santa arrived. But I kept delaying -- primarily because I do not like the drive between Barra de Navidad and Manzanillo. This morning I set aside my reservations and headed southeast to The Big City.

A trip to Manzanillo would be wasted on picking up one hanger of dry cleaning, so I stopped at my two usual shopping spots -- La Comer and Sam's Club. La Comer for ground lamb and some frozen goods. Sam's Club for the usual paper trifecta (paper towels, toilet paper, and Kleenex), along with boneless chicken thighs and some tomatoes.

I then headed home. About three blocks from Sam's Club, I stopped at a Kiosko to buy a bag of ice to slow down the decay factor of the frozen goods. When I opened the hatch lid to put the ice in a storage box, I noticed a strong scent.

I was then off to Monkey's to buy some fried chicken. Monkey's is another example of how my senses of smell and taste have changed. I have always enjoyed the chicken there, but I must have been getting bored with it (even their piquante variety) because it just did not interest me anymore.

With the return of my smell and taste, the chicken is now completely new. Either Monkey's changed its recipe (not very likely) or my taste has shifted to another level.

When I brought my to-go order (for Yoana, Omar, and me) to the car, the smell in the SUV had increased. It smelled as if someone was currently smoking in my car. Not that stale cigarette smoke that lingers for months, but that "someone-is-having-a-coffin-nail-at-the-table-next-to-me-in-a-restaurant" smell.

That was obviously not the case. Unless I had taken up smoking and had completely forgotten about it, I was not the culprit. And there was no one else in the car.

I took a deeper whiff with the hatch lid open. It was the perfume that Cottenelle adds to its "soft" toilet paper." I usually never notice the scent roll-by-roll in my bathroom. But herded together, the cumulative smell was almost overwhelming.

I am certain the good folks at Kimberly-Clark never intended their toilet paper to smell like a cheap strip club in 1970s San Francisco. Perhaps it is part of the Nostalgia Collection.

I find it a bit ironic that the lingering effect of the virus has affected the way I smell the scent in the toilet paper -- considered the rocky relationship toilet paper supply had with covid.

My altered senses have been an advantage in my quest to never prepare the same dish twice in my kitchen. Everything tastes new. And that is great.

There is only one downside. Almost everything that contains tomato now tastes extremely bitter to me. But I have discovered that combining various seeds in my tomato dishes tames the bitterness.

I just need to experiment more. And there is nothing to complain about in that.

But I may need an ash tray, instead of a wastebasket, for my toilet paper.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

comfort food as home remedy

When I was a lad, back during the Punic Wars, I would occasionally spend the night at my grandmother's house.

After an evening of some parlor game or other, she will send me off to bed. But only after preparing me a large bowl of corn meal porridge. It was undoubtedly a gesture of grandmaternal love. But I always suspected there was an ulterior motive -- to clog up my bowels to avoid nighttime bathroom trips.

Most people think of porridge as a comfort food. I think of it as a utilitarian home remedy.

Somewhere yesterday, I picked up something that has caused my digestive system to shift into overdrive. Some people would reach for Pepto-Bismol. I reach for box of Albers Corn Meal.

I grew up on the stuff. And, until tonight, I never thought of it as a foundation for creative cooking. My creativity boundaries with corn meal porridge usually stopped at whether to sweeten it with maple syrup or honey -- honey being the preferred choice, I suspect, in an attempt to re-create the taste of the other popular product of corn meal: corn bread.

Well, of course, there is another corn meal dish that almost everyone has tried. Polenta. And it can be cooked in almost every way imaginable. Mexican cooks prepare it in numerous traditional ways -- as well as some rather creative contemporary offerings.

So, why not do the same with porridge? Add a bit of tastiness to the usual bland bowl.

I did just that for dinner tonight. I still had two allspice leaves that had retained some of their freshness (the mysterious leaf) in the refrigerator. I tossed the leaves and a Mexican cinnamon stick into a pot of water and cream. When it started boiling, I added the corn meal.

My goal was to make a spicy dinner. But I also wanted to ramp up the heat of the corn meal. An obvious choice was some ghost pepper salt. When the porridge thickened, I added freshly-grated nutmeg and a bit of vanilla extract. 

To serve, I sweetened the porridge with a dash of honey and a dusting of cinnamon. The zing of the ghost pepper, the earthy aroma of the spices, and the grit of the meal combined perfectly. While I was cooking, I imagined that some of my friends probably would have substituted coconut milk for the cream. I didn't because I am not fond of the taste of coconut.

It succeeded as a meal. Now, we will see if it works as well as grandma's variety of imodium. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

traveling with cantinflas

I do not know how I ended up buying them.

Well, that is not exactly true. I know exactly how I ended up buying them. Through push technology.

Amazon is a flawed master at guessing what I might like to buy from the warehouse -- based on what I have bought from the company over the past two decades. The company certainly is not a true prophet.

The good folks in their marketing department have tried to sell me Moroccan robes, home gymnasiums, and, recently, beauty products. Things I simply would not use. (Admittedly, the beauty products were being flogged as a Mother's Day gift.)

But they hit a home run about a month ago. Amazon.Mx must have noticed that I had been buying a lot of DVDs lately. Being an American male of a certain age, an Amazon email offered three DVDs as a special: Around the World in Eighty Days, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. I hit the "Buy Now" button without hesitation.

I wish I could tell you why I bought them. My first thought was that it was a case of Old Man Terminal Nostalgia.

I can remember all of the circumstances surrounding each of the films. They help perpetuate our rather-flawed memories that life (and certainly all of us) were far more innocent back then. But I tend to be a little too sardonic to be called nostalgic.

I popped each movie into my DVD player with some anticipation of re-capturing some lost piece of my past. But nothing had been lost. I recited most of the actors' lines along with them.

The only real disappointment in the lot was Around the World in Eighty Days. It was spectacularly-filmed. And Cantiflas, the Mexican actor, was rightfully billed as the star of the movie in most countries. David Niven received top-billing in very few. 
There is no real script. 
The best that can be said for it is that what script exists is an almost-Pythonesque satire of the British Empire.

The movie looks as if Michael Todd shot scenes from around the world and then mixed in vaudeville skits featuring the comedic styling of Cantiflas. In the end, it is little more than a travelog.

And that was the key to why I bought these three movies. They are all about travel. Searching for a prize while taking a journey. The £20,000 bet by traveling around the world in eighty days. A satchel filled with $350,000 as a reward for completing a road trip in California. A prize of £10,000 for being first to fly from London to Paris.

They are symptomatic of my desire to get moving again. Not that I have ever really modified my daily behavior in Mexico or flying to and from Oregon. But the idea of finally being able to get on an airplane and fly to Madrid or Tokyo or Yerevan or Nairobi seems to be getting further away.

The newspaper informed me this morning that the US State Department has increased the number of countries on its "Do Not Travel" advisory list. Last week the list included 34 countries. As of yesterday, 130 countries were added. That is about 80% of the countries in the world. All related to the virus.

The list does not prohibit Americans from traveling to those countries, but it strongly recommends they not travel to any of the countries on the list. In practice, the additions do not mean much because most of those countries already exclude travel from The States -- and Mexico and Canada, for that matter.

Traveling in Mexico is just as problematic. Churches, museums, and theaters open and close irregularly based on whether the area where they are located is enforcing a lockdown. I receive weekly pleas from the two hotels I stay at in Mexico City to come visit. The bargains are tempting.

But I will wait a bit to get back in the saddle for most travels. Why slip into Madrid when La Prada is closed, or fly to Mexico City only to find that the Bella Artes has no productions?

I may simply be satisfied with watching Cantinflas fight bulls in Madrid. It is far better than nothing.

Monday, April 19, 2021

moving to mexico -- infrastructure

When I moved to this part of Mexico a baker's dozen years ago, I knew there would be challenges to face.

That was the primary reason I had chosen to live my retired years in Mexico. I was far too comfortable with the life I had been living in Salem.

I ended up living in Villa Obregón, primarily a residential area, for my first six years here. When I arrived, the village had only one major paved street -- Vincent Guerrero, so replete with speed bumps it was known as "tope street." All of the other streets were a combination of sand, rock, and dirt.

Over time, the streets changed. One year a new street was paved. During the next year another was. Now, most of the roads are paved with a rather-artistic mosaic of stone and concrete.

There was one big exception. The cross street that passes in front of the Costalegre Community Church, Alberto Macias, was slated for paving, but not in the foreseeable future.

All of that changed last summer when tropical storm Hernan passed us by out at sea, but sucked enough water-sodden clouds over Jalisco state that San Patricio Melaque and Villa Obregón were inundated in record-breaking levels of flood water -- and, worse, mud.

The force of the water was so bad that Alberto Macias reverted from its disguise as a rustic street, and revealed its true nature as a deep stream bed. You can see the result in the photograph at the top of this essay.

But tragedy often brings opportunity. And that is exactly what happened to Alberto Macias. Because of the flood damage, the paving of the street was moved up.

It took a couple of weeks to get enough fill back into the roadbed that the street was passable by something more complex than feet. But that was just the start. 

Since late fall, a construction crew has been leveling off the roadbed and paving it with the same rock and concrete surface of the other improved streets in Villa Obregón. Almost the full length of the street has now been paved -- though it is still blocked to vehicular traffic.

On Sunday morning, all of the street parking in front of the street was taken up by a grader and piles of fill. It was obvious that the last phase of the paving in front of the church is about to happen.

I have mentioned several times how amazed I have been at how quickly and joyously my neighbors respond to natural disasters. The response to the devastation of last summer's flood is a perfect example. In a few weeks, there will be no immediate reminders on this portion of Alberto Macias that the flooding ever occurred.

The street has now suffered major wash-out damage in two storms. The hope is that any future flood waters (and there will be some) will simply run off into the laguna and then out to sea.

The broader point, though, is how a good portion of the local infrastructure has improved since I became an immigrant to Mexico. There are plenty of projects to tackle, just as there are above the border.

But living here is getting a bit more comfortable. That may mean I need to find more challenging places to live.   

Saturday, April 17, 2021

forking over

New houses need new accessories.

When I moved into the house with no name six years ago, I had ambitious entertainment plans. With its wide patio and open upper terraces, the house begged to be filled with dinner parties.

None of that happened. But it did not keep from planning that one day it would.

I had brought only a couple of plates and place settings when I moved south. My philosophy then was that I wanted to be as mobile as possible, and "stuff" just got in the way. Owning a house broadened my acquisition horizons.

One day I was in Soriana in Manzanillo when I spotted a rather nifty caddy with colorful tableware. The set looked like something you would take on a picnic in Nebraska. But that informality was exactly what I wanted. So, I bought two sets for the house and one for Dora.

Because I am who I am, I needed a system for hanging each piece so I could tell if any went missing. (One fork did just that after I expanded the number of people in my household. It just disappeared.)

The natural order seemed to be pre-ordained. At least, as far as I was concerned. I would hang them in the same order as they should be laid out for dinner. From the left: salad fork, dinner fork, knife, spoon, and soup spoon. Everyone knows that system.

Well, if they do, it has not quite worked out as I had planned. There are now five people in the house who hang up the utensils. Even though I have described the system to everyone repeatedly, what results borders on chaos. When I return from my trips, I know I will need to re-sort the caddy contents.

The problem is cultural. Even though the order makes sense to me, I cannot remember a local restaurant I have visited locally where the eating utensils are set out on the table. They are often in the center of the table in a glass or, now in these virus-amok times, a waiter will deliver them wrapped together in a funeral shroud napkin. Omar tells me that he has never seen utensils set out a table the way I do -- not even when growing up at home.

So, I am the odd man out here. Even before I moved to Mexico, I had learned the lesson that there is little use in trying to change a cultural-based habit. I will just deal with it.

And that brings me to the real core of this essay. Yesterday I posted a photograph at the bottom of my essay showing the dinner I had prepared using the allspice leaves. Not one person mentioned the error.

You probably all see it now. The utensils are a mirror image of what they should be.

I will confess that I did it on purpose to see if anyone would call me on it. No one did. I suppose there are several reasons why all of you left it unmentioned.

The most obvious is that no one noticed because the purpose of the photograph was to call attention to the meal on the plate, not to the silverware surrounding it. Or, if they did notice, it still did not bother anyone.

Or maybe people noticed and were too polite to point out the error. Though, I suspect most people would have been tempted just a bit to let the air out of my hubris-laden prose. I can think of a few nominees.

And there is the other possibility. Readers did not see it as an error because very few of us sit down to a table where the flatware is properly arranged. 

I would easily fall into that last category. I eat almost all of my meals alone. And, as good as my cooking is, it often ends up not on good china, but in a cheap Chinese-made bowl, and is eaten with a soup spoon. As if I were an extra in a road show of Oliver! I have even rehearsed my lines. "Please, sir, I want some more."

I am now beginning to wonder if the others in my household are the innocent parties, and I am the culprit. Maybe I return the utensils to the caddy willy-nilly. And the photograph was not a test, it was simply another symptom of me coming unstuck from my organized, controlling, culture-handicapped northern life.

If so, I say "amen" to coming unstuck.

Friday, April 16, 2021

the mysterious leaf

The best discoveries in life are accidental.

At least they are for me. And it is almost always true for food.

The leaves in the photograph are a perfect example. There are several trees of this variety growing around town.

That is not surprising. Even though it is native to the Caribbean, the tree had taken root in Mexico and Central America before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

Maybe it is just age. Maybe I do not pay attention to details as well as I once did. But, on my walks, I have passed these trees without paying much attention. That changed earlier in the week when a friend put a name to them.

It is an allspice tree. Its true identity is given away by bruising the leaves. They give off that distinctive aroma of a combination of nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon that is associated with the tree's fruit. The English named the fruit "allspice" because it seemed to combine all of those spice scents in one tiny peppercorn.

Northerners and Europeans use the dried fruit of the tree primarily as a spice for desserts. But the spice is used around the world for far more than a flavor booster for pumpkin pie.

If you have eaten any Jamaican jerk dishes, you have eaten allspice. Allspice is what gives the seasoning its taste-shifting characteristics. Some foodies believe the Arawak developed the seasoning. Others attribute it to Africans who were enslaved on the island. The truth is probably a combination of those stories.

Allspice is also a major cooking component in Mexico -- especially, in Yucatan and the southern states. That may be because the spice is associated with the Maya and the fact that they took root along the Mexican Gulf coast. It shows up in fish, meat, and vegetable dishes along with moles and salsas. Allspice is a prime ingredient in adobos. Most of us have experienced its magic in traditional chiles en Nogada.

But, like most seeds that are cooked whole, allspice finds its cooking home in India. Allspice, tomatoes, and chilies are so much a part of Indian cooking that is is easy to forget that all three came from the Americas -- the last two from Mexico.

Somewhere in my research, I found a reference that allspice leaves may be substituted for bay leaves. But only fresh allspice leaves; drying the leaves destroys their aromatic character.

I wanted to use the leaves quickly because they remain fresh for only a day or two. So, I started thinking about Indian dishes that rely on bay leaves for flavor. The most obvious choice was chicken biryani with its yogurt-marinated chicken, basmati rice, and panoply of whole spices, all centered around an onion-chili mixture.

Chicken biryani is like the potato salad of India. Every region has its version and every family within the region has its own variation.

In the 1970s, I took an Indian cooking class from Virginia Plainfield in Portland. She told her students if they wanted to cook dishes that always came out consistently, they would be frustrated with Indian cooking. The dishes would always be delicious, but they would not be the same each time because of the variation in the spices.

Over the years, I have modified each chicken biryani I have prepared. The primary substitution this go would be the fresh allspice leaves. But I also left out saffron in favor of a star anise. Fortunately, Hawaii had boxes of Indian basmati rice. There is no substitute there.

When I was done, I combined the biryani with a raita I made from locally-available ingredients. Because I was too lazy to cook my own naan, I warmed up a pita as an understudy.

With all of those spices and seeds, was it possible to taste the allspice leaf? Absolutely.

When done right, Indian food is not a stew of flavors. The flavors should be layered. And they were this time. (I have failed this basic art of layering many times with Indian dishes.) The experiment worked. Omar and Ozzie both gave it a Mexican thumb-up.

While I was writing this essay, it occured to me how much the food supply system has changed in Mexico. I doubt that I could have written that sentence in 2009 when I made my final move to Mexico because back then I could not find sufficient ingredients (even with substitutions) to do justice to a chicken biryani.

We all can now. I just did.

And it all started with one leaf that I did not bother to identify on my walks.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

ballots are in the air

The Mexican political season is off and running.

On 6 June my neighbors and millions of other Mexican citizens will trudge off to their local polling stations, stand in line, show their national voter identification card, and mark their ballots for their preferred candidates.

Every 6 six years, Mexico elects a president. But that is not this election. The president is only half-way through his term. This election is for candidates for the  Mexican Congress and local government, for three-year terms.

Last night I was having dinner in Barra de Navidad when we heard a large commotion in the street. People chanting. Drums beating. Music playing. For once in my life, I knew exactly what was going on.

On my way to dinner, I had stopped to talk with a local guy ("Polo" Pelayo) who is running to become the president of the local municipality (or county). Most people know his last name. He is a scion of one of the leading families in Barra de Navidad.

One of the unusual aspects of his campaign is that he is not running as a candidate for one of the established parties. He has chosen to run as the candidate of a new party that exists only in Jalisco -- Hagamos (roughly translated as "Let's do it.").

The name echoes that of other parties in Spanish-speaking countries -- parties like Spain's Unidas Podemos ("Yes we can") that are fond of appellations in the imperative. The party is counting on the "clean broom" syndrome.

Maybe because he is local, the town is awash in lucha libre impersonators, and car windshields that sport his name.

As do the walls around town.

But Hagamos certainly is not the only political party in town.

At one time 
Partido Acción Nacional, the National Action Party (PAN) was the party of opposition. That changed in 2000 when its candidate for national president won. The party still has strength in Jalisco, but it is no longer seen as the innovator it once was.

The party that was once seen as Mexico's party of government (because for 70 years it guaranteed that it was the party of government) now looks about as shabby as the sign that hangs across the street about a block from my house -- especially after the voters trusted PRI for a comeback in the 2010s.

Mexico even has its share of left-wing nationalist parties, including Partido del Trabajo, the Labor Party (PT) with its rather startling star.*

Most of the current signs around town deal with the local offices. But not all. This sign supports a candidate for Congress.

If you notice at the bottom, he is endorsed by three of the major political parties who, at the national level, have allied themselves to reverse the majority that the party of current national president, 
Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional, The National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), has in Congress.

The local talk is that the race for the presidency of the 
Cihuatlán municipality is down to two parties -- Hagamos and the current holder of the office, Movimaiento Ciudadano, The Citizens’ Movement (MC). 

In 2015, the Citizens' Movement had brushed up its image both locally and nationally as a reform party. Partly because of that image, the candidate of the Citizens' Movement won the presidency. And he was re-elected in 2018. The party would like to retain the position -- with a new candidate.

There is a certain tribalism associated with local politics here that reminds me of political campaigns in Oregon in the 1950s -- before campaigns became slick public image campaigns.

When I ran for the Oregon legislature (well after the 1950s), some of that tribalism still prevailed. And I loved it. The type of campaign where supporters paraded in the street, and candidates met and talked with voters on their doorsteps.

Pelayo's Hagamos parade last evening was a perfect example. Show people how big your bandwagon is by bringing the troops out in the streets.

The Citizens' Movement answered that challenge this evening. Public buses and lines of cars brought Citizens' Movement supporters to my neighborhood. I would estimate the parade was three times larger than that of Hagamos. And it was much louder.

The candidate himself was there -- dashing from door to meet as many potential voters as he could.

This party knows what it is doing from a campaign perspective. The home-dweller was always asked if a sign supporting the candidacy of Jorge Salas Chavez could be placed on the house. The answer was often "yes." (I will note that on my way home, several of the signs had been removed when the parade had passed by.)

For a political junkie like me, the local political process is fascinating. But, fascinating or not, I cannot be a participant in it.

One of the reasons the Mexican Revolution was fought was because of the political influence foreigners had on the Mexican government. The most egregious may have been when foreigners conspired to have the first president post-Revolution assassinated.

When the Constitution of 1917 was written, the drafters made a point of including a clause in Article 33 that answers the question of how involved foreigners may be in Mexican politics. They can't.

"Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country." And, as I have written before, Mexico is serious about that prohibition. Violators have been summarily deported in the past. One example is a group of Americans with connections to the Costalegre in the 1990s.

From past conversations with candidates, I know they are interested in what foreigners would like to see in the communities of Cihuatlán municipality. But the Constitution makes it clear that we foreigners cannot donate money, advertise our support with signs on our cars or house (because that very notion of "support" is unlawful), or do anything to show preference for one candidate over the other.**

But there is nothing improper about taking an interest in what is happening up until 6 June -- and what will come after.

* -- Oddly, I did not see any signs supporting MORENA, the party of the incumbent national president. I suspect they will pop up later. 

** -- I may have to eat some of those words if I find out that a rumor I have heard is actually true. If it is, I will let you know. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

blowing in the wind

We are barely half-way through April and the hurricane predictions for the Pacific coast of Mexico are out.

Well, why not? Hurricane season in Mexico runs from 1 June through 30 November. At least, those are the official dates. Storms are known to not be so calendar-minded.

So, with just a month and a half before the heavy weather season begins, what are the official predictions?

The first is that 2021 is likely to be a Goldilocks season. Not too many storms. Not too few. Just normal.

In numbers, as you can see by the chart, that means 15 tropical storms, 8 "light" hurricanes either category 1 or 2, and 3 intense hurricanes in category 3 to 5. The first two categories are the norm. And we may get by with one less high category hurricane.

All of that is academically interesting. The more important question is where those storms and hurricanes are going to go. And that is a much more difficult question to answer.

Most tropical storms and hurricanes in this part of the world are birthed in the Pacific off of the coast of Central America. They then head off in a northwesterly direction. For Mexico, that is good because of the southeasterly slope of Mexico's coast, most of the storms just wander out to sea and die down without touching land. But not all.

Depending on the weather patterns in the Pacific when those disturbances head north, they can be deflected a bit to the east. Too much deflection, and the disturbances will impact people on land. That is true even if the disturbance does not touch land. Our floods last year were caused by rain that was sucked into the tropical storm that passed by offshore.

There are far too many factors to accurately predict the path of storms that are themselves merely predictions. But that does not keep the meteorologists from making general predictions of which areas of Mexico could be most affected by this year's weather. And here it is.

There is nothing surprising about the map. Oaxaca gets hit with weather that does not make the left turn out into the Pacific. Jalisco and Colima (effectively us) gets hit when weather patterns deflect disturbances toward the coast. And poor Southern Baja gets hit directly by almost every disturbance that is a near-hit for Jalisco.

I enjoy the strength, the power, and the sheer theatricality of the summer storms here on the Costalegre. I am not so enthralled by the physical damage and extremely rare loss of life that they bring to these beach towns.

But the storms have no care for what I enjoy and what does not enthrall me. They are going to generate and die without a single concern for any of us. THey are the ur-lords of existentialism.

At least, we can be prepared for their arrival. For, that they will do.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

no news is -- no news

Last February, the Jalisco Ministry of Health opened a test-run virus vaccination program in our county seat of Cihuatlán for people over 65.

Because the vaccinations were seen as an issue of public health, and not individual protection, the government made the vaccinations available to Mexican citizens, holders of permanent and temporary residential cards, and a few (but not all) people with tourist visas.

The program ran a couple of weeks until the Oxford-AstraZeneca doses allotted had been distributed. The Astra-Zeneca vaccine is a bit more efficient with a booster to induce the body to create the greatest efficacy against the virus. That meant, at some point, those of us who were vaccinated would 
optimally receive a second jab (a tale of two lines). 

The question was (and is): "when?"

Upon discharge from the clinic, each of the people who received a vaccination was provided a piece of paper showing the date and type of vaccine used for the first shot. The form also included a date that purported to be the date for the second vaccination.

The young man who discharged me told me the date was approximate and that I would be called with the date and place for my second go. He said he was quite certain the date was not going to be accurate, and he had no idea where the next clinic was be administered (taking the shot).

Either today or yesterday was the day that the second vaccinations were supposed to start. Because I was not certain, I waited until early this afternoon to drive over to the IMSS clinic in Cihuatlán. The photograph tells the entire story.

The IMSS clinic was open for its usual business of treating its policy-holders. I asked the receptionist if she had any news of the vaccination clinic. Years of experience has taught me that receptionists, secretaries, and office clerks know much more about what is happening than do their principals.

Journalists and lawyers are never happy asking one question when seven variations on the question are available. Even peppering her with the same question from different angles rendered the same result. She had no idea when the vaccination clinic would return -- or where it would be.

I suspect to escape my cross-examination, she stopped a passing doctor. His answer was the same. But he did add: "It's not our program."

So, there we have it. It appears the young man who discharged me was correct -- my second shot will not be on Thursday because Thursday was merely an approximate date.

But, we do not know that for certain, either. It is possible the vaccination clinic may spring up at the IMSS clinic -- or somewhere nearby -- tomorrow. Or on Thursday. Or next month.

The only thing I can reliably say is that the vaccination clinic was not at the IMSS clinic this afternoon -- and no one there knows when or whether it will be.

The clinic will need to return somewhere locally. Only a small portion of the over-65 population was vaccinated here in mid-February. And there have been no local subsequent opportunities. Eventually, the team will once again be here.

And I cannot be positive that the team will return for second vaccinations. Mexico ran out of AstaZeneca doses with its initial wave in February. Since then, it has been relying on other vaccines because AstraZeneca has become hostage to vaccine nationalism in India and the European Union -- the countries where it is manufactured. There are very few sources left for AstraZeneca vaccines.

According to The Economist, the Mexican federal government considered relying on studies that one dose of AstraZeneca would provide sufficient protection for herd immunity. The remaining supply could then be used to provide at least one vaccination to the unvaccinated. That would spread out the number of people with some protection. 

I have heard nothing further of that plan. Perhaps, because at the end of March, the United States loaned 2 million doses of its AstraZeneca stockpile to Mexico. (Canada was also a beneficiary of the deal.)  

Whichever way the policy-makers decide, the rest of us will just need to develop a more-Mexican sense of patience. It is a virtue that will serve all of us well.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

spicing up my life

Good morning. My name is Steve, and I am an Amazon-holic.

Like most users, I did not see it coming. But one morning I woke up in a pile of empty shipping boxes. I knew something had changed.

I have long been a fan of Amazon. When I first moved to Mexico, ordering through Amazon was a bit difficult. Packages crossing the border seemed to be problematic. Then things changed.

Just about the time I bought the house with no name in Barra de Navidad, Amazon premiered a new platform -- Amazon.Mx. I thought I might have to open a new account, but I was wrong.

My Amazon Prime account gave me access to everything on Amazon.Mx. Better yet, I could also buy almost anything in the Amazon inventory through Amazon.Mx. (For some reason, several of Amazon's subcontractors do not ship to Mexico.)

Initially, the new platform did not make a big difference in my life. I can find almost everything I need here in town. If not, Manzanillo, with its big-box stores, is less than an hour away.

Every now and then, though, I need something that Amazon can provide. That has especially been true this past year when I have tried staying close to home.

I am not certain what started my latest Amazon splurge. Maybe it was a replacement Eagle Crest duffle with a drop shoe tray. Or swabs to clean my camera's sensor. Or Billy Collins's latest collection.

Whatever it was, it started something of a shipping avalanche. A new Kindle. Lots of DVDs. A set of baker quality silicon baker mitts. Samsung earphones. A travel brush. Replacement wrist bands for my wrist step counter. Books. And several gifts.

Somewhere the list morphed from necessities to nice-to-haves. 

And there was a handy scapegoat. The virus. Being confined was driving me to the edge of casa fever. I had to have some outlet. 

At least, I was not as bad as the young woman I read about in The Oregonian who deals with the loneliness and isolation by bingeing on television. She confessed to the reporter that she runs The Crown all day -- claiming that it makes her feel as if the Windsors are the family she can no longer visit. I suspect she has now gone into mourning over the death of her cranky Uncle Phil.

I took a different neurotic path. I started buying things. When Fernando would show up in his DHL van (as he has three times this week) with his upbeat shout outside my door ("Estiv. I have something for you."), my day is brightened. Probably more by Fernando's greeting than whatever he is delivering.

I usually know when he is going to arrive. DHL has a marvelous tracking feed that updates my order on Amazon. But I did not expect his greeting on Wednesday afternoon.

When I opened the door, I had no idea what could be in the large box he handed over to me. My confusion lasted for only about one minute. I finally realized what was inside even though it arrived a week early.

About two weeks ago, I was searching through YouTube videos to learn some new cooking techniques. I cannot remember the topic of the video I was watching (probably something to do with lamb sauces), but that was not what makes the video relevant to today's tale.

The cook came to the stage where herbs had to be added to the mixture. Instead of pulling them out of a cabinet somewhere else in the kitchen, he opened a drawer under his preparation table to reveal what looked like a glimpse of heaven.

All of his herbs and spices were in round jars with the name of the contents on top. And they were in alphabetical order. Anal retentive folk all over the world gasped. At least, this one did.

I immediately switched my telephone from the YouTube app to the Amazon app. I had to have something like that. And I found just what I wanted on Amazon.Mx. Mini-Mason jars with pre-printed and customizable labels.

When I opened the big box, sure enough, there were two orders of 24 jars each. I thought 48 jars would suffice.

So, I started filling them. As I worked my way down the alphabet, it became obvious that somewhere between "thyme" and "white pepper," I was going to run out of jars. And I did. Just seven short of my target.

And you know exactly what I did next. I am predictable. Without moving from my transfer station, I opened my Amazon.Mx app and ordered 24 more jars. I can use the rest for other storage. If all goes well, Fernando will deliver my jars on 19 April. Or earlier.

I have noticed now that I have started traveling to Manzanillo that I have transitioned from bingeing on Amazon to simply being a social buyer.

Even so, it feels good to know that Amazon is always there for the things that are difficult for me to find elsewhere. And I want to be certain that Fernando has a job.