Thursday, September 29, 2016

the road taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
It is undoubtedly Robert Frost's most famous poem -- musings about life's choices and then indulging in a bit of narcissistic self-satisfaction at his own wisdom. To use a word despised by most artists, it is "accessible." We like it because we can see our own smug smirks in its conclusion: "And that has made all the difference."

Maybe. But for most of us, life is not that Manichean -- or to chuck the theological for the contemporary -- not that digital. Our choices are seldom lined up like 1s and 0s just waiting for us to turn the switches on or off.

Take this morning. Barco and I were off on our usual walk where I do my best to keep him from stopping to smell every rose of urine.  Today, he was actually moving along with me at a nice clip.

On our regular route, we ran into a neighbor -- the mother of my real estate agent, who was walking her pug. She asked me if I had taken Barco out on the sand point at the end of the street.

I had. Once before when he was a puppy. But I had not been out there since. And I have no idea why. It is the perfect place to walk a dog.

The neighborhood where I usually walk Barco is a refuge for the middle class -- northerners and Mexicans. It was not always so. The land was developed by a very powerful Mexican family. Powerful enough that the original Mexican residents were moved north (some say involuntarily) -- outside of the development into the neighborhood where I live.

But the family's power is best evidenced by another building. The luxury hotel they built on the other side of the laguna from Barra de Navidad. Having encountered some building difficulties, the family had enough clout to have the state border altered. One day the hotel was in Jalisco. The next day it was in Colima. Now, that is clout.

The road we took this morning is built atop a spit of sand that provides footings for the poles that provide electricity to the former slice of Jalisco. Its utilitarian purpose belies what it offers those who brave its path.

With the laguna on both sides of the spit, the views are incredible. The laguna. The local hills. The mountains in the distance. The ocean. The boats. The birds. They are all there.

Even Barco was impressed. Usually, when I let him off his leash, he runs like a lion in pursuit of a gazelle. But not this time. He stayed close -- exploring only infrequently. It may have been the new environment.

Until we encountered other dogs. Then, he shifted into play mode.

By the time we got home, I had added just over three miles on my step counter and on Barco's paws. For once, when we arrived at the front door, he did not pull away to run off. He was happy to see his water dish -- and then the swimming pool.

There are not very many places where a rambunctious dog can be off leash around here. Especially one who has shown an inordinate passion in hunting chickens.

There is the sports park near my house. The sand spit at the end of the street. And a couple of beaches, if I want to drive for about a half hour. Otherwise, Barco lives on a leash.

Will having the spit as an option "make all the difference" in my life?

Hardly. But it is nice to have it. And, in this life, "nice" is often good enough for me.

Monday, September 26, 2016

unleash the flying monkeys

I am not going to watch the presidential "debates" tonight.

I have better things to do with my time -- like savoring a supper of beef wellington with friends at Magnolia's.

My boycott is not new. I suspect the last presidential debate I watched in full was in 1992 when the country watched Michael Dukakis melt into lawyerly irrelevance when asked the question: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

It was that moment that I realized the presidential debates were not debates, at all. They were sadistic job interviews interlaced with entertainment moments of "gotcha."

The holy grail of debates, of course, is the first one -- the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Even it, though, was not a debate. It was a very structured joint news conference.

A true debate, at least in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, would be shorn of its moderator and interview panel, and the two participants would have time to develop their points and pointedly interrogate each other.

And no television station would touch it with a 10-foot pole. Because it would be all about logical, serious policy. What entertainment would there be in that?

In theory, if the debates were a basketball game, a 3-pointer would go something like this: "Mr. Trump, I am glad you asked me that question. Yes, I do have a plan for putting America back to work. No plan will work unless it is politically possible and offers our citizens the opportunity for a better tomorrow. Let me explain. My plan has 27 political objectives and 32 economic goals."

But, that is not how you score points in presidential debates. Not only would the potential voters have stopped listening with the appearance of two digit numbers, it is not what they want from their candidates.

What they want is the equivalent of an elbow to the ribs or a stiletto across the carotid. Something like this:

"Mr. Trump, if America is no longer working, it is because of old, white men like you who have robbed the rest of us of our wages, our time, our hearts, and our future. I know what it is to be dirt poor.
As God is my witness, as God is my witness you're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."

I would now like to confess that is an unfair caricature. But, it isn't. Just think for a moment about presidential debates in the past. What is it that we remember? What is it that had us talking the next day when we discussed the debates -- in that glorious day when friends could actually talk about politics without the risk of permanently rupturing relationships?

Here are just a few oldies, but goldies:

  • In 1976, President Ford declared the captive nations of eastern Europe to be free of Soviet domination -- even when the moderator gave him the opportunity to clarify his answer. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."
  • In 1980, Governor Reagan's easy going manner unnerved President Carter with his "There you go, again" leaving Carter looking like an old-fashioned fibber.
  • Of course, that was just after President Carter left everyone wondering if he had spent too much time alone in the White House when he told us about discussing nuclear policy with his young daughter -- while geese flew over the White House.
  • Walter Mondale deserves a place on the list for his response to Gary Hart, then known as the innovative new kid on the block, in the 1984 Democrat debates: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'" Well, he was from Minnesota.
  • Mondale ended up on the receiving end of another memorable quip in 1984. To disarm the age issue that was begin to pester him, President Reagan, with that Irish twinkle in his eye that always telegraphed a zinger was on the way, looked straight into the television camera, and said: "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale, to his great credit, enjoyed the joke as much as anyone in the audience.
  • In the 1988 vice-presidential debates, Dan Quayle defended his perceived callowness: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." A much older Lloyd Bentsen responded with the only memorable line from that debate: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
They are classics all. And I suspect those scenes are the reason presidential debates continue. After all, without reaching for your smartphone, what was the first question asked of Vice-President Bush after Dukakis's crash and burn? Who really cares? It was nowhere near as entertaining. We remember the fun stuff.

And that brings us to what these debates are all about. If the polls are anywhere near accurate (and I have my doubts that they are -- based on the experience with several pollsters during the primaries), 95 to 98% of potential voters have already made up their minds on which of the two most unpopular and distrusted candidates in this nation's history they are going to support.

Some of those voters are soft. It may be fair to say most of them are not voting for a candidate, they are voting against the other guy (or gal). So, there are only a few potential votes to move there.

But think about that. After all of the campaigning that has gone on. After all of the attack ads. After all of the diatribes. After all of the concerns about the age and health of both candidates. How can anyone still be undecided? Well, I guess those with weak stomachs. (I, for instance, decided two weeks ago. But, my vote is going to be my own dirty little secret.)

The reality, though, is even more mundane. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump will be trying to persuade a handful of voters. And not even the 2 to 5% of undecided voters nationally. If you are an undecided voter in Texas or New York, the presidential results in your state have effectively been cast.

Instead, it will be a much smaller group at stake in the ten states where the results are too close to call (and most of those states are leaning strongly to one candidate or the other): Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. One of the major survey compilers (the one usually relied upon by the left) this morning had the electoral college count so close that if New Hampshire's 4 votes slipped from the Clinton to the Trump column, Donald Trump would be president.

So, all of us will be forced to listen to the drone of hours of meaningless rhetoric -- all in the service of trying to convince Bob and Mary Yankee, who live in a subdivision outside Concord, but who have never heard of Hillary or Donald, that they need to put down their latest edition of The American Rifleman and stop watching Madam Secretary long enough to pick out the sole quip from the debates that will determine who will be the next president of these United States.

I just said "all of us will be forced." Of course, not Mexpatriate. I have a plate of beef wellington waiting for me in La Manzanilla. And I will be the better for it.

Of course, if Mrs. Clinton actually does forget herself and yells "unleash the flying monkeys," I will have missed another defining moment of the making of the president 2016.

Teddy White must be weeping somewhere.

Friday, September 23, 2016

losing the michelins

In case you were wondering, the results of yesterday's pondering (a lot of bologna) turned out to be delicious.

What you may not know is that there was a back story to the piece -- a back story that simply did not fit into yesterday's essay.

My Mexican friend Julio has been putting on a lot of weight recently. Far too much for his frame and age (early 20s). And he finally decided to do something about it.

After consulting a nutritionist, he restricted his diet and returned to the gymnasium. Combined with a regimen of walking, he has lost an amazing amount of weight. He looks and feels far healthier.

When I was a member of the Air Force Reserve, I constantly struggled with my weight. All of the military services have maximum weight standards. The last few years I was associated with the Air Force, I constantly pushed the lard ceiling.

I tried a number of fad diets. Slim Fast. Weight Watchers. The cabbage soup diet. The orange-banana-beef diet. They all worked for a bit. But it always came back to exercise and food restrictions. I had to burn the calories I was eating if I wanted to fit into the equivalent of a bus driver's uniform.

Julio has now switched to a targeted ketogenic diet. It is one of those current fads that uses scientific terms and some accepted metabolic theories that promises great results. The diet equivalent of Scientology. But it appears to be helping Julio keep on track.

I told him that every fad diet I have tried has ended in tears. I passed out on a toilet at our business headquarters while I was on the Slim Fast diet. Like some horse junkie.

On Weight Watchers, I consistently lost weight. But I left the program during Thanksgiving when the woman directing the program suggested that those of us who were on the program should use tinned no-fat gravy on our turkey.  It was her reasoning that broke my will. She chirped: "You will not be able to tell the difference from real gravy."

Julio spouted a similar line he had learned from one of the ketogenic missionaries: "The only reason to eat food is to fuel our bodies. It has no other purpose." The fat-free gravy babe and the Pope would feel right at home with that logic. It is the logical equivalent of "the only reason for sex is to produce babies."

Well, that is not my philosophy of life. Of course, my philosophy has left me looking far more like Bibendum than Brad Pitt.

I have decided to take action. Barco is helping me with the exercise part of the equation -- to a degree. I walk him four times a day. Most of the walks are at a rather slow pace because he likes to indulge the bloodhound genes in his ancestry. He can savor the smallest smell in the verge longer than an

A couple of weeks ago I discovered a step counter application on my telephone. I now know how many steps I take daily, how far I walk, and how many calories I burn. When Barco is in traveling mood, the counter brings good news.

But, if I am going to get serious about losing weight, I need to get back to my morning 4-mile walks. That will be beyond Barco's patience level. At least, for now.

Then, there is the intake side of the equation. One of the best diets I tried in the early 1980s was the rotation diet. Instead of merely restricting calories, it alters the amount up and down to avoid the body's ability to re-set its metabolism to make up for lower calories.

The diet offers a three-week set of menus with foods from most of the food groups -- but in small portions. The variety appealed to me. It is not one of the "no" diets -- no carbohydrates or no fats or no foods that begin with the letter "c." I found it easy to comply with the menus even when I was on the road prosecuting ne'er-do-wells.

The diet is the source of one of my favorite lemon chicken recipes. There is even a spaghetti sauce recipe -- with ingredients similar to my own. What is different, of course, is the serving size. The diet restricts the spaghetti to one cup. I suspect I eat that much spaghetti testing it while it cooks.

Losing weight is not a big deal. Keeping it off is.

The rotation diet attempts to teach the eater that it is possible to eat a variety of foods if portions are controlled. What threw me off was its its maintenance stage that prohibited some of my favorite foods -- olives, pickles, pickled ginger, pepperoni, cheese. That was my lunch plate today.

But, if I am serious about taking off weight, I will need to cut down on a lot of things. I suspect pickled foods are going to stay on my diet. But in limited quantities.

For now, I am clearing my shelves of food I will not touch during the diet. I know me. If they are there, I will cheat. If I have to buy them, I will at least have to exercise my moral agency.

Barco, of course, thinks I have come unhinged. Food is what makes life worth living. I agree.

But I will be enjoying it without Michelin being written across my belly.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

a lot of bologna

It is Italian night at the house with no name.

Well, what passes for Italian in my cultural milieu.

When I was a mere bambino, I believe my first exposure to spaghetti was out of a Franco-American can. It never occurred to me then that a brand name extolling its roots in Joan of Arcville was a misappellation. But, when you are eating mushy pasta from a can, its provenance seldom pops to mind.

At some point, my mother began whipping up her version of spaghetti with meat sauce. It was a staple in our house -- especially when my father would rev it up with jalapeño peppers and Bandon extra sharp cheese.

There is a classification of food that is eccentric to all of us -- potato salad, chili, spaghetti, pizza, tacos. If we grew up on it, we think that is how each dish should taste. No matter how dreadful it is.

For years, if I requested spaghetti, I meant spaghetti with meat sauce. The version I developed personally carried no other descriptor than "spaghetti." Just "spaghetti."

I suspect it was in England that I first encountered the name "spaghetti bolognese." It was essentially the same spaghetti with meat sauce I ate as a child. In fact, that is what my English friend, Dr. Robert Wells, called it -- children's spaghetti.

When I returned to The States, I noticed the "bolognese" adjective on a number of menus in spendier Italian restaurants. There is nothing like a little foreign language to pad prices. By the time I moved to Mexico, even Denny's was using the term.

And it appears here in Mexico, as well -- on the tourist menus. There is a heavy Canadian influence in this town. "Bolognese" most likely jumped the Atlantic from England, and then made its way south in the palates of temporary and permanent immigrants.

That is what I am cooking up. Spaghetti in red meat sauce. But it is not "bolognese." Let me come back to that in a minute.

My blogger pal Felipe commented the other day on the peso exchange rate for US dollars. It is true if you are buying pesos here with Benjamins, you are getting a good deal.

However, I told Felipe that exports from The States continue to be a financial wash. I still pay the dollar equivalent for American imports. He responded: "So you’re right where you’ve long been, especially food-wise, which is the majority of imported goods for you, I’m thinking."

On that point, he is not absolutely correct. I suspect I buy more imported food items than most people in my neighborhood. But, not very much from The States.

Look at the photograph at the top of this essay. All of the vegetables, the chopped meat (not to be called hamburger -- a perfect topic for a future essay), and most of the herbs, spices, and salsas are Mexican products. The spaghetti and the pepper are from Italy. The olive oil is from Spain. The wine (the base of my spaghetti sauce) is usually from Chile -- this time it is from California. The remainder of the herbs, and the tomato paste are from The States.

Overall, it is quite an international affair. One of the wonders of trade globalization.

But what it is not is "bolognese" -- in the style of Bologna. All of those tomatoes and the olive oil unmasks the fraud.

Classical Italian cuisine has a great divide. The north relies on butter and cream for its dishes. The south is the land of olive oil and tomatoes. I am certain you will not be surprised if I tell you Bologna is in northern Italy.

If you order spaghetti bolognese in Bologna, do not expect anything that resembles what came out of those Franco-American cans. In fact, you will get nothing -- unless you are in a tourist restaurant.

However, it is possible that a plate of spaghetti with veal and a bechamel sauce will arrive, instead. If it does, dig in. You will find it far superior to any red meat sauce you have had on spaghetti -- unless you are still hooked on your mother's.

As for me and my house, we are having the red meat sauce I have developed over the past fifty years. And I intend to enjoy every last drop.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

at home with barco

East coast Americans of a certain class adopted the Victorian custom of "at home" days -- when well-bred ladies could call on other well-bred ladies.

I have never been a well-bred East coast American lady (though the current political milieu gives me license to claim I am anything that pops into my pretty little head). But, I know all about such social arcana from my early introduction to Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

My copy was used -- from the musty little book store shoehorned between my parents' motorcycle shop and our insurance agent. I suspect I bought it for the "in politics" part of the title. But it did arm me with enough information to discuss the proper placement of fish forks at formal supper parties.

But fish forks are not at issue today. Being "at home" is.

I decided to stay home to monitor Barco's recovery. I needn't have bothered. Late last night, he was back to his "open the bedroom door: I want out -- now, open it again: I want in" routine.

Today, he is working on his proof that Plato had objective reality backwards. Barco is convinced that the shadows of butterflies, dragonflies, and hummingbirds flying across our courtyard are real; he has no interest in the living things that cast them. He has spent most of the morning running full tilt in search of his personal Dulcinea.

My sole job is keeping him out of the pool. For that, I should be fired. My success rate is lower than Obama and Bush's middle east policies. He manages to slip into the pool almost every time I turn my back. To just sit and contemplate whether Wittgenstein may be more plausible than Plato.

I am so seldom at the house during daylight hours, I miss the regular callers who prowl the neighborhood. This morning, it was the young ladies from the health department who search through the open spaces of houses to ferret out breeding pools for mosquitoes -- especially, the dreaded and far-too-common
aedes aegypti.

They were here today on an important mission. To me, they were the next victims of my faltering Spanish. I do not get to talk with people very often. So, when I have visitors, I pepper them with all sorts of questions in hopes of starting a conversation.

The three young women reacted as if I were one of those pathetic northerners who attempt to pick up local young women. They were polite and professional. But they hastened their retreat to the street. In my defense, Barco was even more insistent in getting them to pay attention to him.

So, it appears The Dog is returning to normalcy -- as Warren Harding would have it. He is still walking a bit funny. As a result, I have truncated our four daily walks.

Even so, it is good to have an "at home" day. If I am lucky, maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses will show up for an extended theological discussion.

Monday, September 19, 2016

the unkindest cut of all

I am not the best person to invite to a birthday party.

My greatest failing as a birthday guest is that I seldom bring a gift. And I am not certain which is worse -- failing to bring a gift or to bring a gift as bad as Maleficent's.

Barco celebrated his first birthday last week (he is an adult -- not). And, in true Steve Cotton style, I brought nothing to the party. Well, I brought the cake, the candle, and the party hats. But no gift.

I made up for it today. In the spirit of the classic Gary Larson cartoon, I took Barco to the veterinarian this morning to get tutored. Let's call it the gift that keeps on giving.

There is a very good argument that I should have had him neutered months ago. I just did not get around to it.

For that, I have paid a price. During the past couple of weeks, he has discovered girls. All of his female dog friends (perras, in Spanish) now need to be extremely cautious. He has gone from play-fighting to slipping in that special wrestling hold reserved for fathering puppies.

The testosterone has also poisoned that part of his brain that once let him distinguish which dogs could turn him into chopped meat. A month ago, every dog was his friend. Recently, every male dog is a potential enemy who needs a good talking-to along with a doggy thrashing.

Of course, I could have avoided all of that had I had him "fixed" months ago -- before the testosterone reservoir burst through its weir. The reason I didn't is easy to understand -- I was simply being sentimental. I can hardly write the word castration without feeling a bit queasy.

My Mexican neighbors and friends have been unanimous in their disbelief that I would do such a thing to my dog. Most of them understand spaying. But castration? Not on my watch.

I dropped him off this morning with Dr. Andres. This afternoon, I returned to pick up a very groggy dog, who could have given a drunken sailor a stagger for his money.

For the first time in nine months, he tried to climb into the car on his own. He was determined to get away from the vet's office as quickly as he could.

When we got back into the house, he looked at me as if to say: "Whatever it was I did, I am really, really sorry." But that remorse lasted about one second. He headed straight to the pool, and was in it before I could fish him out. He is not supposed to get his stitches wet for a week.

So, here we are. I am at the computer. He is asleep at my feet (something he never does). And what was once a very arrogant dog is now doing his best impression of a post-surgery patient.

In a week, I should have an idea if the red tide of testosterone has been brought under control.

By the way, if you invite me to your birthday party, I promise to bring an equally appropriate gift.

Friday, September 16, 2016

marching to the beat of independence

The people are marching in the streets.

Fortunately, it is not those annoying teachers, again. It is as if La Marseilles had come to life with its call to marchons, marchons! and let impure blood soak the fields.

Today is Mexican Independence Day* -- the day, in 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo (that is an impersonator of him up there -- the boy wearing the Yoda head gear) called his fellow conspirators together to throw off the oppressive yoke of Spanish colonialism and to whip up a batch of carne molida espa
ñola.** (There is a tendency to slip into Marxist palaver when describing these events.)

And when Hidalgo exhorted his followers to "Kill the Spaniards!", they took him at his word. The rebels met their first real resistance at Guanajuato, where the Spanish had barricaded themselves in a public granary. To no avail. When the rebels took the granary, they slaughtered over 500 Spaniards. Men, women, and children. The Spanish, of course, responded in kind.

The war puttered along indecisively for eleven years, and ended only when a creole general,
Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu, fighting for the Spanish crossed over to the independence side. For his efforts, his reward was to become the first post-Cortés emperor of Mexico -- as Agustín I. As so often happens in Mexico, he eventually ended up in front of a firing squad.

That is what we are celebrating today in my little village. When I took Barco out for his morning walk, I could hear the blare of badly-tuned bugles. That could mean just one thing -- the school kids were parading through town.

Usually, Barco has no interest in hurrying up to see something I want to see. But there were kids involved, and he is a sucker for the attention of children.

There they were. All lined up to celebrate not being a colony of Spain.

I met a Mexican teacher in San Miguel de Allende a few years ago at another Independence Day parade -- far more fancier than our local fare. I commented on how well the students marched. He responded: "Yes, they march very well. But ask them to read or to add." He sounded a bit frustrated.

But march they do. And they play music. No school would be worth its name name without a drum and bugle corps.

Those of you with a sharp eye will note a distinct division of labor. Girls play drums. Boys play bugles,

The girl in front at your right is my neighbor. I asked her if girls ever play bugles in the band. She looked at me oddly, and said: "No. Girls play drums." Glass ceilings were not on her mind.

The streets were not crowded with spectators. Most appeared to be family members shooting away with their camera phones.

And why not? This is the type of event small communities do well. I had trouble getting to the front of the parade because I stopped to talk with people I knew. That is exactly what these events are about.

They are not about piles of dead Spaniards or a patriotic priest with a hairdo as remarkable as Donald Trump's or
fireworks in the evening. They are about creating relationships.

Well, for some people, the event may be about piles of dead Spaniards. During a pause half way through the parade, one of the girls impersonating a symbolic historical figure decided it was time to hack up the girl pretending to be a Spanish lady.

Who says these students don't know their history?

* -- Despite what northerners think, Cinco de Mayo is not the Mexican Fourth of July; that honor belongs to 16 September. See cinco de mayo is not spanish for beer.

** -- Spanish chopped meat.