Saturday, August 19, 2017

sign of the times

This sign is not in Mexico.

You probably already guessed that. If only by the language. And it is another example of why I enjoy living here. In Mexico, that is.

The sign is posted at a rest stop on I-5 in the upper Willamette Valley -- just north of Cottage Grove. With a name like Cottage Grove, you would expect a bit of rustic, down home hospitality. But not from your host: the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Let me set the scene. This is a rest stop. A place to get a free cup of coffee from the VFW or a soft drink from a vending machine that looks as if it is caged to protect it from grizzlies. Or to simply seek relief from digestive pressures.

And, because this is Oregon, the well-maintained facilities nestle in a copse of Douglas fir. It is the type of place you might like to spend a little time just -- well, resting.

But, don't rest too long. You might be accused of loitering. And that is just not to be tolerated. Along with a brain-numbing list of other restrictions.

The sign of regulation caught my eye for two reasons. Its size (yuge, as our president would say) and its font (tiny). The font size is necessary. God was satisfied with ten commandments. The Oregon Department of Transportation needs almost two dozen. And I suspect there are probably another hundred or so littering the desk of a middle level manager -- just waiting to be displayed on a series of placards that would put the Islamic Revolutionary Guard to shame.

The dirty two dozen are gems in themselves. Running the gamut from the obvious (no setting fires or discharging firearms) to the exotic (you cannot operate "a concession selling services" -- one can only imagine) to the just plain baffling (a prohibition against "removing garbage").

And the punishment for violations of this Santa Claus length list of naughtiness? Exclusion from rest areas for one year. Talk about your Sisyphean struggle. You just try driving up and down the freeway system without toilet privileges.

I find these signs amusing -- on several levels. The first is the usual government-blindness to reality. The delusion that posting a sign will make bothersome behavior go away. The great evil of communism somehow failed to change the Russians into Soviet Man. I doubt the Oregon Department of Transportation's sign will have much effect on any miscreant prone to "using a bathroom to bathe."

The sign itself is worse than the terms and conditions we click through with every new bit of software we install on our computers. No one reads these things -- except for churlish writers who need to divine the depths of humor.

And I did get a good laugh from the sign. But it also made me sad -- because it is a perfect reflection of where American society is headed. If you think the sign is bad, you should see the regulations for Oregon's much-touted Medicaid health system. (Yes. You know the one. The system that a recent study found that people using it suffered worse outcomes than if they had had no insurance at all.)

The reason I know the sign is not in Mexico? No one here would be silly enough to post a sign people would ignore. What's the point? Or, the greater danger, giving people ideas they would never have on their own -- like removing garbage.

But that may be a good idea. Plaster the beach with "Do not remove garbage" (No retire la basura). It is a regulation whose time may have come.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

black like mine

This is a story about a man named Steve Cotton. And his shirt. His black shirt.

Steve Cotton was a man of limited colors. His sheets and towels were gray. His house was painted gray. But his clothes were black. Including his shirt.

Now and then, he would join friends on cruises. One of those cruises was in the Caribbean. He packed for the tropics. Especially, his black silk shirt for nights out.

He and his friends spent their pre-cruise Saturday evening in a Miami Beach art deco hotel. For dinner, they ate mediocre Cuban food at one of Gloria Estefan's restaurants -- proving once again that celebrities sell fame, not quality.

When everyone headed back to the hotel, Steve Cotton (and his black silk shirt with the black buttons) decided he was going to spend the evening amongst the sybaritic pleasures of Miami Beach's nightlife.

He did not remember what he had done, but he remembered he had a smacking good time. For someone who did not drink or take drugs, forgetting good times was one of his psychological flaws.

He usually counted on friends to remind him of events. But that night all of his friends had gone to bed dreaming about how good ropa vieja would taste cooked by an accomplished chef. He was on his own.

Well, that is not exactly true. He did have one friend with him. His short-sleeved black silk shirt with the black buttons.

When he woke up in his hotel room, his shirt spoke of things he did not recall. The left sleeve was almost torn off, and there was a tear that ran from almost the collar to the shirt's tail.

How it happened, he had no idea. And the shirt was not talking. But it had to be replaced.

At a port call in St. Thomas, Steve Cotton bought a new shirt. Short-sleeve. Black. Cotton. With brown buttons -- as if it had been cross-bred with a cheap rayon Hawaiian shirt.

And, so, his new black shirt joined him on trips to six continents over the next two decades. Participating in a life that Steve Cotton could barely recall.

Until one fateful day. Yesterday. When Steve Cotton picked up his post-travel laundry, he noticed something amiss in the stack of clothes. It appeared as if he had acquired something new with black fringe.

It was his black shirt. The left sleeve was frayed. And there were two large tears where the sleeve once joined the well-tailored black shirt.

Once again, Steve Cotton's shirt had an experience that was not its own. And he would never know what it was.

But not knowing everything that happens in your life is part of the condition human. In the knowledge that everything ends, we can find reassurance in cruise days spent with friends or from a familiar hand on our skin or an offer of comfort or a surprise telephone call from a family member or sharing a secret that only one of you may recall.

Even when it is just a story about a black shirt.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

I leave for two weeks, and the world changes. Or, at least, it reverts.

Over a decade ago, when I started scouting this area of Mexico as a prospective place to set down my retired roots, I received an early lesson in the lay of the land by being escorted from house to house by a very eager realtor. She introduced me to the physical layout, but it took years before I learned about the social history of Barra. A lot of that from Hank.

Several decades ago, a very powerful Mexican family (that would make the Ewings look like trailer trash if we were filming a telenovela), acquired a good portion of the fishing village that was Barra de Navidad. They had a dream of developing a middle class housing development. In the process, the Mexicans who owned the property were "re-settled" in the neighborhood where my house is located.

I only learned about some of the lurid details when I discovered there are severe sewer and water problems in the development dating back to a rather faulty agreement between the developers and the local government -- a dispute that has yet to be resolved. That is why I chose to live where I do, and not in the area where utilities are one twist away from being a major problem.

When I moved down here nine years ago, there were still some feudal vestiges. At the end of a major street, a gate barred entry to a sand spit that hosts the electrical lines to the fancy hotel on the other side of our lagoon. You may remember the spit as being the site of the apocryphal tunnel that allows traffic to pass under the lagoon (the tunnel to somewhere).

At some point within the last two years, the gate was flung open, and the community took full advantage of its open spaces. For me, it was a half-mile extension on my daily walks.

When I returned from Oregon, I made a beeline to the spit on my evening walk. I was a bit surprised that the gate that once barred entry was once again closed -- along with a sign that bluntly reminded the public we were no longer welcome on the preserve of the mighty.

I do not know why the gate has been closed. But I have some theories.

When isolated areas are open to the public in crowded villages, all types of mischief are possible. Such as the driver of the utility truck who showed up regularly with a new woman each visit. Or the teenagers who perfumed the air with the distinctive smell of marijuana and the far nastier stench of burning methamphetamine. Or it may simply have  been the people who decided the land was a great place to dispose of garbage.

Whatever the reason, the owners have exercised their right to exclude people from their property. Or they have attempted to. The fence is as porous as parts of the Rio Bravo border. It will take more than a fence and a sign to dissuade who people who are accustomed to having their way with the land.

And me? I have no desire to slip under fences merely to add a half-mile to my walk. There are other places to show my paces.

But I will miss the beauty of the spit. Who knows? The gate may just as quickly be flung open again.

After all, how are all of those cars going to get to and from the tunnel? 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

music on the dunkirk beach

Last week, I went to Dunkirk.

Not the French port. The movie.

I tend to avoid movies based on historical events. It is not that I know how the story ends, though that it is a consideration. It is because directors and screenwriters are faced with a major dilemma from the outset. Do they capture the grandeur of the big event and leave the story of the participants to fend for themselves? Or do they focus on a few individuals and run the risk of missing the big picture? And, too often, they do not choose wisely.

But Dunkirk was written and directed by one of my favorite movie creators -- Christopher Nolan. I had full faith that he could pull it off. And he did.

Dunkirk has all the elements of being a typical war movie. Outnumbered British and French troops, with the sea at their backs, surrounded by a German army closing the noose. The British and French navies did not have enough destroyers to evacuate the troops, and what they had, they were reluctant to expose to almost certain sinking by the Luftwaffe. Even though losing the troops would have meant negotiating an end to the war with Germany.

But, we all know what happened. Hitler failed to close the trap, giving the British navy time to requisition small boats to act as ferries for the troops. Many boat owners volunteered. As a result, almost 300,00 British and French troops were plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk. And Britain went on to prevail.

The story could have lauded the plucky British soldiers and public managing to pull victory from defeat. The type of mawkish sentimentality that has undermined many a war tale.

Christopher Nolan is not a hack. If he takes on a project, the last thing he will serve you is sentimentality. He has done for film what Stephen Sondheim has done for music.

To tell the tale of the Battle of Dunkirk, Nolan gives us three separate story lines from the perspective of a limited group of participants. The first is the week-long ordeal of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk. The second is a day-long tale of a father, his son, and a boat hand who volunteer to steer their small boat into the path of German fighter and bombers and oil-fed fires on the sea. The third is a one-hour story of two British Spitfire pilots who provide limited air cover to the armada.

What we get is one of the most claustrophobic and tense portrayals of forsaken gloom I have ever seen portrayed on film. Even though we know the vast majority of troops will be evacuated, we do not know if any of the characters we are following will survive. And Nolan makes us care for them as men in danger, not as some sentimental prop for political purposes.

Most of the credit goes to Nolan's choice of filming scenes. Death is a constant. And, even though most survive, others do not.

But credit for that tension also goes to the composer of the film's score -- Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is a regular choice of Nolan. And he usually commissions Zimmer to produce a specific type of music.

Rather than his schlocky Pirates of the Caribbean pieces, Zimmer usually delivers Nolan edgy scores that not only complement the feel of a scene, but often create it.

Because the film is filled with tension, Zimmer wrote a score based almost exclusively on the musical device of the Shephard scale -- an auditory illusion that gives the impression the music is a continuous ascending or descending scale in the same octave. It is similar to the optical illusion of a mobius strip.

The music is electronic and modern. But, it fits so perfectly with the images, there is no vestige of anachronism.

With one exception. Or, so I thought, when I first heard the chords of Edward Elgar's Nimrod when the naval officer in charge of the rescue first catches a slight sound and then a glimpse of the small boat fleet.

Nimrod is one of those works that shows up in British pops concerts to evoke British patriotism. It is every bit as sentimental as Elgar's other popular Victorian piece, Pomp and Circumstance, or Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia.

With those chords, my heart sank. After giving us such a sophisticated look at despair in its starkest form, would Zimmer and Nolan now betray their audience with Elgar's mawkish piece to describe the arrival of hope?

I should have known better. Even though the chords of Nimrod are immediately recognizable, Zimmer reconstructed the piece by slowing it down and playing it in a lower registry with a limited group of instruments. No soaring orchestra here.

The music underscores Nolan's line of narrative. People have put their lives on the line to help other people. Not necessarily out of patriotism, but out of concern to help others who have put themselves in danger to protect those who are now rescuing them. Greater love has no other man.

Moments like that are what make Dunkirk a movie not only worth seeing, but discussing. The human condition that Nolan describes is with us today. We can either despair, or we can act as moral agents helping those in need of rescue.

Note -- You can hear Zimmer's rendition of Nimrod at the top of this essay. For the straight version, listen below. I suspect you will appreciate Zimmer's version far more. At least, for the purpose it was composed.

Some of you may remember the original version being used in the background for the scene in Elizabeth, where the queen is deciding how to deal with her unfaithful lover, the Earl of Leicester. It was an effective use of the piece as Elgar wrote it. After all, what could be more sentimental than a veneration of Good Queen Bess?

Monday, August 14, 2017

peace be to these streets

Mr. President --

I am writing this open letter to you following the tragedy in Charlottesville on Saturday.

One of your spokesmen has announced your goal is to pull the nation together. That is what you should be doing, but you are not.

I have been thinking about how two of your predecessors, who had a good grasp on what Americans felt and knew exactly how to direct the best in them, would have acted. How would Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have tried to unite us?

First, they would not have hesitated in pointing out that the white supremacists, who came armed for trouble, and the anarchists, who were ready to sign their dance cards, are not representative of the vast majority of Americans who abhor the views espoused by the neo-Nazis, KKK, other white supremacists, and anarchists.

Both groups seem to believe they are living in Germany in the early 1930s when Nazi thugs and Communist and Socialist thugs battled in the streets of the Weimar Republic as a dress rehearsal for the Spanish civil war which was a preview of the Second World War.

Second, they would then point out that the views of the demonstrators on both sides are protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment exists to protect unpopular views -- to give a free space where we can all meet to discuss our political philosophies.

And this the tricky part. Leasers need to be very careful about saying viewpoints have no place in American society. That runs the risks of legitimizing physical attacks on the proponents of unpopular views. It is exactly the same mistake we made during World War Two with the internment of the Japanese and in World War One with the incarceration of Eugene Debs.

The First Amendment prevents us from punishing people for what they think. If we say anarchist thought has no place in the American marketplace of ideas, we run the risk of objectifying them and turning them into legitimate targets of violence.

Third, the First Amendment does not prevent us from punishing people for the crimes they commit. And that brings us to the rather silly argument about whether James Alex Fields committed an act of terror. What he did was far worse. He committed murder -- for which he should be tried and punished. Bearing the mark of Cain is far more damning than being forced to wear a political label.

Fourth, both Reagan and Clinton would then bring their audiences back to the fact that most Americans are decent people with children who feel sympathy for the family of Heather Heyer. They are not anarchists. They are not white supremacists. They live their lives as best as they can praying that America will not turn into Weimar Germany.

Mr. President, if you could for one moment think along those lines, you will know the right thing to do. You need to stand up in your official capacity and say enough is enough. If people are going to commit violence in espousing their political views, there will be a cost.

But it is far more important that you do something tangible to pull this nation together -- and there is no better moment.

I suggest a Day of Prayer. At the National Cathedral. And because we are to pray for our enemies, all political and social factions should be invited to pray and speak -- to commit themselves to a nation where there is peace in our streets. That means former presidents (all of them). Republican and Democrat leaders. And, yes, even representatives who hold unpopular beliefs but who are committed to espousing them in free debate.

I am an optimist. And one day of prayer is not going to solve the rifts that are splitting the nation at both the extremes and the center. But it may be a start.

I pray that it is.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

gone with the wind

I knew Barra de Navidad had experienced downpours a few days ago. But I did not know the storm was accompanied by high winds.

What was once a very grand umbrella in my patio delivered the news to me when I opened my front gate. Piles of dead leaves corroborated the testimony.

Earlier this week, I had been following an Atlantic storm named Franklin. It stomped over Yucatan as a tropical storm and then switched clothes to become a hurricane just before it made landfall on Mexico's east coast.

The mess in my courtyard was Franklin's gift to our area. It brought us our first good dousing this year. We needed it. We could have done without the wind.

Interestingly, Franklin was reborn briefly as a hurricane when the storm passed over the Pacific. Jova by name. It has now slumped into a tropical depression.

So, here I am -- back at Mexpatriate headquarters doing what I enjoy. Writing. Reading. Picking up leaves and doing other domestic chores.

It is time to sit back and enjoy the good life in Mexico -- until 9 September when I head back to Oregon for one week to celebrate my 50th high school reunion.

And the umbrella? I may just keep it as is. After all, I have purchased lots of art pieces with less character.

Friday, August 11, 2017

flagging hope

My brother and mother live in a Norman Rockwell neighborhood.

Neat bungalows set on tidy lawns. Modest with no pretensions. Tree-lined streets. And flags. Lots of American flags.

I walk that circuit every day. Sometimes, more than once.

Walking is a great time to think. And not always constructively.

I started thinking about the families who live behind those flag-decorated porches. Why do some fly flags while others do not.

When I was a boy in the 1950s, lots of homes flew flags. If the families could afford them. The residents of Powers did not have a lot of excess income for frivolous flag purchases.

Back then, flying a flag meant one thing -- you were an American. Some homes continued the habit they had acquired during the Second World War. No matter our differences, we were united in the aspirations of the nation.

The late 1960s changed that. The hard left decided the flag did not reflect their values. So, it became a symbol to burn, not to admire. And a rift was created through my generation of Boomers -- some retained traditional values; others railed against them. The flag was no longer a symbol of unity.

That changed on 11 September 2001. Under attack, we united. Americans openly supported their troops -- and the flag once again was a symbol of one nation.

I am not certain if that is still true. That is why I wondered about the families behind those flags in my mother's neighborhood.

Last year I had a conversation with a friend who dresses to the left with his politics. I had commented on the number of flags in his neighborhood. He responded that most of the flag displayers were probably racist -- though he did not know any of them. I was shocked because I had never equated love of country with a political ideology. Good grief, even that paragon of liberalism, Garrison Keillor, regularly lectured liberals to show their love of country by flying flags.

But I found myself doing the same thing when I assumed the flags were flown by Trump voters. They may have been. But, a quick look at the precincts results for the 2016 election does not support that theory. It doesn't discount it, either.

The precinct is split almost equally between Democrats and Republicans -- with a slight Democrat edge. This being Oregon, the non-affiliated voters are nearly as strong as each of the parties.

And the precinct's presidential vote mirrored that split. They supported Hillary by a handful votes -- and bushels of votes for other contenders. Like most of America, the voters obviously were not enthralled by either one of the major party candidates.

I may have completely missed the point of those flags. Because of my background, I pay far too much attention to politics. Most people do not. They are wise enough to know that they and their families are seldom touched by politics in their daily lives.

It was not until we left the Powers reunion picnic that I realized during the Sunday picnic and the Saturday night dinner, I did not hear one mention of Trump's name. Neither positive or negative. He was simply not  present at the festivities.

And that made me happy. Almost every social media channel is crammed with compulsive ramblings about the president. It was nice to have a three-day break from the hyperventilation. It gave me hope that the country had not obsessed itself into a Mad Hatter existence.

And those flags in the neighborhood? I suspect they are there because the owners are simply proud to be Americans. No matter who they voted for in 2016.

With that, I concur.