Those of us who live in la casa sin nombre are constantly on the alert for stinging creatures. Especially, when my brother is in residence.
He does not have a bug phobia. He is essentially fearless. Our vigilance is medically-based. He is highly allergic to almost anything that stings. Deadly allergic.
Christy, my sister-in-law, and I keep a close watch on the upper terrace. Wasps seem to find the area as amenable as retired condo-buyers from Moosejaw find the beaches of Puerto Vallarta. I knock down at least two nests each week in the breeding season.
I try to catch them in the foundation stage before the wasps spend the effort to lay their eggs. I am not anti-wasp. I just do not like them congregating where they can turn a pleasant dinner of carnitas into an emergency dash to the hospital.
That is why Christy sent me into DEFCON 1 at breakfast about four weeks ago. She looked up from the breakfast counter and saw a large black spot on one of the eaves of the pavilions on the second-floor terrace.
"How could the wasps have built a nest that big in the last hour?"
She had a good question. One that I shared.
I grabbed my de-nester stick (what the less-creative might call a long-handled squeegee) and set off to do battle before the nest got to a critical point. But it was not a wasp nest. It had nothing to do with wasps.
It was a group of honey bees.
At first, I took it for a swarm. I know the behavior because of past experience.
A queen has left a hive and has taken an entourage of workers with her. Fattened up on honey, they will alight here and there surrounding her en masse until they find a new home. Under most circumstances, they move on in a day or two.
Apparently, this lot have not read the "How to Make Swarms and Influence Your Neighbors" manual. They have now been hanging out on the same eave for almost a month. Always in the same place.
During the day, they form what is best referred to as an apian icicle. At night, they flatten out into a disc -- one bee deep. Bees come and go from the formation. But the formation, in its various forms. stays in the same place.
No new bees seem to join the first lot. And no construction is taking place. At first, I thought they might try to create a honeycomb to at least produce honey for themselves. But it is just the bees and their proverbial knees.
In one of those strange coincidences, the obituary in last week's The Economist was about Justin Schmdt, a scientist who devoted his entire career to studying the sting of insects and developing a four-point index of those stings. His title of "King of Stings" was well-deserved. (A fact I had forgotten is that only female insects sting. Make of that what you will.)
Even though he was fascinated with the different level of pain associated with stings, he discovered that there was not a direct correlation between the pain of the sting and the toxicity of the associated venom. The honey bee, for example, has one of the mildest stings, but is highly-toxic. And it is toxicity that matters most to the stingee.
I have not molested my bee colony. My brother has returned to Oregon, so the medical justification for removing it has ebbed. I am more fascinated by its behavior.
They are honey bees. I will do what I can to protect them. Unfortunately, I have heard the whirring of the vector control sprayer near the house the last two nights. So far, it has not passed by. Balancing out the danger of the ever-increasing population of the dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti, I would still opt for protecting this small hive of honey bees searching for sanctuary.
Life's lessons show up on our doorsteps at some of the most inopportune times.
Friday afternoon I was preparing for visitors when I heard a commotion in the street in front of my house. Rushing feet on gravel. Shouts of concern. A scent in the air that something was amiss.
But that was not the only scent. When I opened the front door, the street was filled with smoke so dense I could barely make out my neighbor's house across from me.
Another neighbor, who owns one of the better taco restaurants in San Patricio and who lives just a block east from me, ran by shouting for the young woman and her three children to get out of their house. I offered sanctuary in mine.
He was correct. Even though her house is concrete and brick, the smoke was quickly filling her house. The cause? The empty lots next to her place are part of an old coconut plantation. Because they are unimproved, they are the natural habitat for vegetation -- and other people's gardening debris.
That is not necessarily bad. But we are now at the end of the dry season and the grass, weeds, and trees are a shade of gray that could be best described on a paint chip card as ash tinder.
Somehow, a fire had started on one of the lots. It appears it was started by the owner of one lot who was preparing to put it on the market. However, it happened, the fire (essentially having no regard for property lines) quickly spread to the other two lots. When I stepped outside, the flames were not only lapping at the side of my neighbor's house, they had also raced through the trees, climbing high enough to damage a couple of coconut fronds.
I am accustomed to these small fires. For those of us raised in northern forests, the scent of smoke is enough to cause concern. Here, the fires usually burn out on their own without endangering anyone.
Not this time.
While the woman of the house tried to summon help, I reeled out my hose and offered up my pool as a reservoir for a bucket brigade formed by the neighbors who showed up to help. At first, it appeared we were not going to be able to contain the fire. It just kept spreading. The tide finally turned in our favor -- even though a persistent breeze threatened to breach our fire lines.
Our area recently joined the 911 system for emergency calls. While we were fighting the fire, the woman across the street tried calling 911, the bomberos (fire fighters), and the police. She could not get through to anyone. Nor did anyone other than the neighbors respond to the fire.
I make the last point because I have recently talked with some northerners who believe they were told that 911 is available to solve all of their emergencies. That may be true. But I would not count on it.
If someone has a medical emergency, relying on 911 as your sole resource is potentially obituary bait. If the emergency is bad enough, I hope people have an alternative plan to call a friend who can drive them to a hospital in Manzanillo with far more dispatch than 911 could (or will) ever respond.
Mexico, or at least this area of Mexico, reminds me a lot of the rural area where I grew up in the 1950s. And a lot of the infrastructure feels as if it is from that era. It is one chief reasons I live here.
A place where you can count on a neighbor, rather the government, when you are in need.
To raise a barn -- or to keep it from burning down.
There are certain signs that something special is happening in our little villages. Buses of tourists. Lines of SUVs at the Pemex. Full beaches. No parking.
They all usually add up to some special event in the works. And all of the elements are on the streets this weekend. But what is the event?
The Feast of San Patricio was last week. Semana Santa will not be here until next month.
Then it hit me. Today is a federal holiday -- Benito Juarez's birthday.Well, not really. He was born on 21 March. In 1806.
But, Mexico, like The States, has decided that voters like having their holidays on Mondays. All the better to lump them together with the weekend. The result, of course, is that citizens are far more interested in the time off instead of the man they are supposedly honoring. In the case of Juarez, at least, that is a pity. Far too many people mistakenly think that Juarez is the father of his country; its George Washington. He isn't. That honor probably belongs to that scalawag Agustin de Iturbide. And the less said about him in this context, the better. (Though, I do confess, I have a soft spot in my head for him.)
Juarez's name and image are ubiquitous in Mexico. On the 20-peso and 500-peso notes. Street names. Schools. Cities. Parks filled with his diminutive form.
For good reason. Even though he was not Mexico's first president, he is its most memorable from Independence up until the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Maybe that scoundrel Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, one of Juarez's many enemies, is almost as memorable. But people remember Juarez for the good he did. He helped to put Mexico on the road to its national identity. He is probably better known as the Lincoln of Mexico. Liberator of the slaves. And, in that sense, he is the father of his country. The very symbol of Mexican nationalism and the protector against foreign invaders.
He came to power during one of Mexico's interminable civil wars. This one the War of Reform, and then resisted and survived the French invasion that put the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican imperial throne.
Even though many of his reforms were revolutionary, he was not a revolutionary. He was a wily politician with Liberal (in the Mexican sense of the word) instincts.
Those instincts allowed him to strip the Catholic Church of both its revenue-producing property, as well as its churches and convents. He then used that land as a resource for Mexico's first land reform program. A program that eventually left the poor in a worse state. (But that is another story.)
He is the only full-blooded Indian (a Zapotec) who has served in the presidency. But he did not define himself by his blood.
In that sense, he was a classical liberal. He believed that if he had made his way up the slippery pole, other poor Mexicans could do that same. All they needed was a fair opportunity to advance. That was the intellectual basis of stripping the church of its financial and political power and for his land reforms.
He was also a ruthless politician. He had to be to survive in the political and social environment in which he operated. A lawyer, he played games with the Mexican Constitution. Ruling by decree for a period as an effective dictator and then running for re-election in violation of constitution term limits. Lincoln was accused of the first, as well.
He had the honor of dying in bed -- even though it was a close call. An insurgency had risen against him led by a man whose name would be as familiar in Mexican history as his own -- Porfirio Diaz.
But it is not Porfirio Diaz who we honor. It is Juarez. He is the only Mexican whose birthday is honored by a Mexican federal holiday.
Flawed? Certainly. He was a human. There is a tendency these days to push historical figures from their pedestals for holding opinions that we now find reprehensible. In the process, we make ourselves feel better with our moral dudgeon. But we also lose our sense of what it means to be human.
So, I am taking off my hat (if I ever wore one) to Benito Juarez today. It may not truly be his birthday, but it does us well to honor those who actually live their lives as we wished we lived ours.
That bittersweet experience, redolent of almonds, when finishing the final chapter of a well-written novel. Wishing that there was more, but satisfied with what was written as being inevitable -- and sufficient.
That is exactly how I felt on Friday evening. After 21 years of plating up thousands of meals and providing a space where diners from around the world could enjoy the sybaritic pleasures of friendship, Rooster's and Papa Gallo's were closing. Permanently.
It was my last supper. At least, there.
The sweet part of the evening was doing exactly what made both Rooster's and Papa Gallo's such popular restaurants. I shared the evening with a group of friends. Not only with stories of past experiences at the restaurants, though there were those. But primarily tales of the day at hand and our hopes and dreams for the future.
I suspect the bitter part might be that I would no longer have the type of experiences I had enjoyed since I moved here. At least, not at Papa Gallo's. But everything dies. And our lives move on -- until we too meet our inevitable ends. Just like the restaurants.
But, until then, there are adventures to be experienced. And there will also be some reminiscences where we nostalgically recall nights like the one pictured above.
When we will smile and tell Joyce and Gary Pittman, restaurateurs extraordinaire, thanks for the memories.
I felt like a voyeur. And if it had not been so public, I would turned away in embarrassment at such an act of wanton behavior.
But there it was. Right in front of me. Like some Victorian cad, a kiss was about to be stolen from a maiden famed for virtue -- the cad's own daughter.
It only helped a little that the two lovers were planets named after two Roman rock stars with a sketchy mythological back story -- Jupiter and Venus. Or that Venus was the fast operator of the two.
That was this last Friday. The two planets had been chasing each other across the imaginary elliptic in the night sky for the past months. Almost as if they were floats in a fantastical Mardi Gras.
But Friday was different. Because Venus has a much shorter orbit around the sun, it appeared to be running down its seemingly-slower patronym. Thus the nearly-stolen kiss. And all sorts of tawdry tabloid headlines in the making. Just imagine what the Meghan crowd could do with that.
My niece Kaitlyn had been staying at the house with her parents and me for almost two weeks. Because her flight date was drawing near, we decided to celebrate the Venus-Jupiter conjunction by watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. She had never seen it. More amazingly, my sister-in-law Christy had not either. So, into the DVD player it went. (There was something a bit ironic watching a film of Man's evolution from human form on a piece of out-moded technology.)
When, I reviewed 2001 back in 1968, it was one of my Ten Favorite Movies. Of course, at 19, the list was an exercise in The Pure Hubris. It is difficult to have sufficient perspective to develop such a list without living a bit of life.
Having added close to 60 years to my life, I would still put it on one of those silly lists. Sure, the special effects seemed dated. The acting is wooden. The dialog is almost painful. But they always were.
What holds up well is the idea behind the whole project -- Arthur C. Clarke's philosophical musings on life's two fundamental questions: Where do we come from, and where are we going? Darrel, Christy, Kaitlyn, and I had great fun kicking the two questions around.
By coincidence, I had just finished reading Dan Brown's dreadful novel Origins (though I swore never to read another one of his grating prose pieces -- and never will again). Brown's novel poses the same two questions, and conjures up answers at the opposite pole of Clarke's. Brown sees a future where humans will meld in a utopia with technology. Clarke, of course, takes the opposite tack, where humanity evolves without the interference of technology (think HAL).
It makes for good conversation fodder with the family. I almost felt as if I was squatting in the college dormitory hallway with my fellow students talking about Important Things. But with a bit more wisdom tucked under my balding pate.
Kaitlyn is now back in Austin enjoying the sybaritic pleasures of the Texas hill country. To prove that our conversation was not a one-off, she used technology to send us a photograph of how she was enjoying her return above the border -- by mugging for the camera.
If you think you have seen that photograph recently, you are undoubtedly remembering the one I published on Monday (feliz cumpleaños mamá) of me standing by the Barra Bay with Mom.
But there is a major difference. That devilish-handsome hombre on the left is not me. Though the mistake is understandable: it is my sainted brother Darrel.
And as luck would have it, he is currently visiting me at la casa sin nombre. To prove that the lily can be gilded, my sister-in-law, Christy, and my niece, Kaitlyn, are here, as well. In one big happy family trifecta.
For the past two years, that last paragraph would not have been possible. Darrel and Christy had been the primary lifelines for Mom after she left her house and moved into an independent living facility in Oregon, and then for the last few months of her life, in a memory care facility. They are now free to travel.
As will happen to all of us if we live long enough, Mom's mind started playing the type of tricks that are the price of age-related wisdom. And Darrel was there to help her.
To talk her through how to use the remote to her television. To diagnose why she could not hear the door bell (adjust the volume on her hearing aids). To straighten out her daily medications. To answer calls to help her find her telephone (when the telephone was in her hand). To help her find which channel her beloved Trailblazers were playing on.
At first, the calls came once a week. Then several times a week. Then daily. Then several times a day.
Darrel was essentially Mom's personal assistant to live out her routines that had started slipping away on vacation to a beach in Greece where there was no internet. Obviously, travel for him and Christy was out of the question.
On my monthly trips north to help him with Mom, my admiration for him increased with each visit. As did my empathy. The daily strain on him was obvious. He has always been a castle of emotional strength. But the moat was being breached. Bit by bit.
Children should share in these burdens. My distance of living in Mexico may have been a reason, but it was not an excuse. I will owe him a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life. The question is how that debt gets paid.
For now, the down payment will come by me selfishly enjoying the company of my family. And remembering the investments they made in building our memories with Mom.
I promised I would write a summary of her life, but I could never find a hook for the essay. There was also another problem. I do not like obituaries. We too often strip the deceased of their humanity in the false belief that beatification will cure our grief. I have not found that to be true. If we truly love a person, we love their warts as much as their virtues.
So, let me tell you the story of my mother's life through a simple exercise. If I had celebrated her birthday with her today, it would have centered around two things that were important to her: an appreciation of good music and a love of God.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visits with her during the last two years of her life. If I could, I would visit her in her room by walking in with a bouquet of flowers that she would inevitably declare as the loveliest she had ever seen -- even though they were no more special than the bouquet I had brought on my last visit. Mothers are like that.
Then, we would get down to serious matters. Discussing current events had long slipped down the list of her priorities, but we would take a quick side-swipe of some absurdity perpetrated by the government before getting to what mattered -- music.
Mom and I had formed a bond around music decades ago when I was taking piano lessons. She was always interested in the pieces I was working on, and often added historical tidbits of back story in the style of Leonard Bernstein -- who she thoroughly admired. But it was our talks about music theory and how music could be used properly to enrich the soul or to crudely manipulate emotions that stayed with me over the years.
I do not recall the year, but I had introduced her to one of my favorite movies -- "The Mission" -- because of its profound message of forgiveness and grace. The tale is powerful. But its message is augmented by Ennio Morricone's score that effectively complements the film's message. Especially, "Gabriel's Oboe."
Mom loved the piece. We would listen to it over the years and find new threads in it each time we discussed it. She and I finally came to the conclusion that the piece is a good representation of our need for forgiveness and God's grant of grace.
The piece starts simply with deconstructed major chords leading into the pure voice of the oboe that plays a very simple tune with few embellishments -- as if representing the beauty and simplicity of God's grace. The oboist then displays the upper limits of the instrument's range with an unwavering high note denoting that God's grace is not only simple, it is powerful.
The strings take up a far less-magnificent melody as if replicating human voices asking for forgiveness. Followed by the simplicity and magnificence of the oboe in response.
We both agreed that we wished Morricone had ended the piece eight bars earlier than he did -- on an unresolved oboe chord. It would have given the piece more intensity musically, as if grace is never ended. But this is from a movie, and Western ears like their chords resolved. Even so, we both admired the piece.
"Gabriel's Oboe" is often played at memorial services. That is appropriate with its theme of forgiveness and grace. But, too often, I hear the piece described as "sad" or "weepy." It most certainly is not. It is a tune of joy and hope. That may be why Mom and I liked listening to it so often. And analyzing it.
On her birthday, we would then turn to our shared love for God -- usually, by reading a Psalm together, and then analyzing it. Something llike Psalm 27 with its resounding promises.
Adonai is my light and salvation; whom do I need to fear? Adonai is the stronghold of my life; of whom should I be afraid?
Just one thing have I asked of Adonai; only this will I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to see the beauty of Adonai and visit in his temple.
The sad part of all this is I can never again sit down with Mom and discuss two of her passions. But I can still analyze music and practice my faith and share those passions in my life because she was a good teacher.
And, from this day forward, that is simply how life is.
But I can still wish her a happy birthday -- and celebrate it in spirt with her.