Saturday, January 31, 2015

fragmented friday


Laurie over at a gumbo pot would regale us with her Friday Fragments during her Honduras days.

Yesterday I didn't experience Friday fragments as much as a fragmented Friday.  Let me explain.  (Yes.  I know.  It is just an expression.  You already knew I was going to explain.  Otherwise, what would be the point of the essay?)

The day ended up being something I never intended.  My sole plan for the day was to finish my research for my lecture on Thursday -- and to then pull everything into a first draft.

Research is not what it once was.  Not too many years ago, I would have opened up several books to the pages I needed, stacked all of my written notes to the side, and then set to work on my legal tablet with my fountain pen.  I still remember those days wistfully.

Instead, I grabbed my Kindle full of books, my laptop with my internet connection, and a stack of written research notes (for auld lang syne's sake), and set everything on the long table under the umbrella next to the swimming pool.

My only concern was that the construction work was still underway.  On Thursday, the shriek of the tile cutter, the sound of concrete chipping, and the boom box playing Kenny G above the cacophony would have made writing impossible.

But the tile work was done.  I was left alone with young Álvaro (the kid who cannot be more than 20, but has two children), who was finishing up the construction.  He is usually quite garrulous.  But not yesterday.  He saw me working and put in his ear buds.  I barely knew he was there.

You will not be surprised to hear that I was interrupted.  Not by the telephone.  Not by the internet.  It was voices from above.  And not the kind that tells you to strap on an explosive vest before visiting the military day care system.

When I stepped from underneath the umbrella, I could see two maintenance guys (I hope) climbing what I call the Eiffel Tower next to my house.  They were calling to Álvaro.  And I knew why. 

It is a guy thing.  Whenever you do anything that could easily result in death, you want as many witnesses as possible to see your folly.



When I pulled out my camera, they did their best Flying Wallendas wire tricks.  I was duly impressed.

But being impressed was not going to get me any closer to finishing a lecture on the mestizo myth.  So one on I surged -- until Álvaro told me he was done with his portion of the construction work.

His boss, Hugo, is supposed to stop by to ensure everything is satisfactory -- and to pick up the remaining equipment.  As well as return the key to my front door.

The work looks fine to me -- with one exception.  The drains on the terrazza are surrounded by tile.  With the exception of one, which is surrounded by grout.  I need to ask Hugo why that is.  The original drain was tiled in.


I already know the answer.  It is surrounded by grout because it is grouted in.


I will get a better look at the finished product after Dora works her wonder on the floors later today.

At least, that project will be completed for my March house guests.  And we may get a chance to see if the leaks are fixed.  Soon. 

The weatherman predicts thunderstorms for tomorrow.  Thunderstorms in January?  That is weird.

After ten hours of work today, I had completed the first draft of my lecture.  It will need a couple days of editing.  But the bones are all there -- with the exception of the funny bones.

I finished just in time to drive over to Villa Obregon for an art show in my old neighborhood.  Ed's studio was my primary stop.  But I also stopped next door to look at some photography and craft offerings.



I spent about an hour talking with Ed's daughter and looking around to see if I could find anything that would add a bit of artistic life to my three guest bedrooms. 

And then I was off to a local restaurant that will go unnamed.  The owners had invited me to test corn dogs as a potential special for Super Bowl Sunday.

Asking Mexican cooks to produce a product when they have no idea how the result should look or taste is always a crap shoot.  Given that limitation, the two corn dogs I tasted were fine.

The batter tasted great and the hot dog inside was not one of those weedy Mexican wieners of unknown provenance.  But the batter was more like tempura than a corn dog.



Unfortunately, we suffered a bit of hot dog interruptus.  The restaurant was very busy.  So, we called an end to the experiment.  The Super Bowl will have to go on without corn dogs.

In the end, the day certainly was fragmented, and full.  Almost as full as I was when I headed to bed with dreams of lectures dancing in my head.


Note - If anyone cares, this is a partial bibliography of the sources I used in preparing the first draft for next Thursday's lecture.


  • Jorge Castañeda; Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans 
  • T.R. Fehrenbach; Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico
  • S.C. Gwynne; Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
  • Richard Grabman; Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos
  • Enrique Krauze; Mexico: Biography of Power -- A History of Modern Mexico (1810-1996)
  • Charles C. Mann; 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
  • Charles C. Mann; 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Discovered
  • Robert W. Merry; A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent
  • Henry Bamford Parkes; A History of Mexico 
  • Octavio Paz; The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Other Mexico 
  • Alan Riding; Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans

Friday, January 30, 2015

cultural illusion


It looks like church.  It isn't.  Or, not exactly

For the past three* years, our church (now known as Costalegre Community Church) has sponsored a series of Cultural Awareness Classes.  The first year, we discussed Sarah A. Lanier's Foreign to Familiar: Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures

It was a great place to start for those of us who were interested in learning a bit more about the cultural divides between American-Canadian and Mexican cultures.  (Come to think of it, a course on the difference between American and Canadian cultures might be a good idea.)

The last two years, we have recruited speakers from the local communities to talk about topics of interest for the people who attend the classes.  My doctor spoke last year about her work with the Indian school. 

This year, we have had speakers on the hot-cold cultural divide, a discussion from a Spanish teacher concerning the cultural significance of certain words, and a local doctor who discussed the history of local Indian tribes.

Last night, we heard from writer Linda Bello-Ruiz (also a member of our congregation) about the very complex issue of Mexican immigration to the United States.  Linda worked as a workers compensation return-to-work consultant in California for 26 years.  Through her work, she brought a lot of expertise to the discussion.



She also has some very strong views about immigration.  As do I -- even though our views are not exactly concurrent.

But she did raise some very interesting issues.  I was a bit surprised that the discussion did not get more heated.  When Linda asked how many of the attendees were Canadian, I understood why.  Over 80% of the attendees were from a country that did not have a dog in the immigration fight.

I spent most of yesterday away from the construction noise of concrete chippers, tile cutters, and Kenny G music cranked up loud enough to be heard over the rest of the cacophony.  I have a good idea what I want to cover next week. 

Oh, that's right!  I forgot to tell you.  Next Thursday I take a turn behind the lectern.  (And there's a great essay title.  You might see it in a few days.)

Our pastor allowed each speaker to pick a topic.  Mine is: "Who is a Mexican?: The Mestizo Myth."  The title, as you might expect, is far more provocative than the derivative content.

Last year, I tried to weave the same thread trough my one-hour summation of the history of Mexico  (it's showtime, folks; cinderella is home from the ball).  This year, I am reversing the process.  The question will not be a mere thread; it will be the theme.  And the saunter through Mexico's history will be aimed at how Mexico has seen itself as a nation (not as a state) since the Revolution -- and how that definition still excludes some members of Mexican society.

That sounds a lot more controversial than it is.  But it will give me another opportunity to tart up history as an entertaining vehicle.

All I need now is some entertaining bits to liven up the rather drab soup that is now simmering on the back burner.


* -- At least, I think it is three years.  It could be four.  I tend to get some of these facts a bit muddled with my comings and goings.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

the pony needs some oats


The libertarian club (please note the lower case letters) contacted me on Monday to notify me my charter membership is in danger of being revoked.

You can guess why.  All of those nice things I said about government taxes and fees in Mexico (citizen steve), as well as glowing comments about Mexican administrative efficiency, was just too much for my more fundamentalist liberty colleagues.  Some even caught a sulfurous whiff of complaint about low taxes.  The ultimate heresy.

To regain my standing amongst the Friedmans, O'Rourkes, and Sowells, I must confess my dealings with one governmental institution has taken a bit of a hit. 

Anyone who has been hanging around these pages for very long knows I have a running love affair with the Mexican postal service.  I still do.  I would list the past essays, but they would simply cut into the flow of today's prose.

The system has amazed me.  Year after year, the mail I send to The States and the mail my friends in The States send to me usually takes about 10 to 14 days to be delivered.  Magazines take about a week.

That is, until last October.  Something odd happened.  Cards I sent north were taking six weeks to arrive.  And magazines simply stopped arriving.  When I talked with the local postmaster, he told me it was because of the Christmas rush.

I bought that explanation.  But, here we are, a full month after Christmas, and I am receiving some oddly-delayed mail.

  • In yesterday's (28 January) mail,  I received a very personal Christmas card from my mother (and a Merry Christmas to you, too, Mom) mailed on 9 December from Oregon; the December edition of my Oregon Bar Bulletin; and the 13 December edition of The Economist -- even though I have now received six subsequently-published issues.
  • On 24 January, a birthday card from a grade and high school friend in Washington (thanks, David and Pam) arrived -- mailed on 22 December.
  • On 22 January, a Christmas card arrived from Nevada -- mailed on 24 November.
  • On 20 January, a birthday card arrived from Oregon (thanks, Colette) -- mailed on 11 December.
  • On 31 December, a letter arrived from a friend in Hawaii -- mailed on 19 November.
Now, I am not bragging about the mail I receive (even though I truly relish receiving cards and letters from long-time friends).  But, the lawyer in me cannot get away from the requirement that assertions should be supported by facts.

The facts are that the local postal service has slowed down for some reason.  The good news is that the mail is making its way to me -- even though I have not received anything as oddly addressed as I did in post haste.  Each piece of my recent mail has been appropriately addressed.

So, libertarian haranguers, I am not certain this is going to keep me in good standing.  My side swipe at the Mexican postal service has actually turned into another paean of love.

Let's see.  I guess I could take another jab at the police.

But that will have to await another essay.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

closing the circle; opening another


Some essays do not have a final ending.

Take here's looking at you, kid.  You remember the tale of my neighbor Lupe.  Last April I accompanied Lupe and her son, Alex, to Mexico City to replace her artificial eye.  During the nine days we were there, we had a lot of interesting adventures.  But the primary purpose was Lupe's eye.

When we returned to Melaque, I declared "mission accomplished."  Of course, that was only the first part of the cycle.

When we last left Lupe, I told you she would need a follow-up to determine how the eye was doing in its new home.  That meant Lupe would have to make a trip back to Mexico City.  I was fully prepared to make the trip with her.  But, as you know, I have been hither and yon the past two months.

The people who raised the money asked her if she could make the trip on her own.  And she did.  The eye was working well.

Last night we celebrated Lupe.  And the people who made it all possible.

What better way to celebrate than with a good old-fashioned northern pot luck?  I almost felt as if I had taken a nostalgic turn into the church fellowship hall.  And I mean that in the most pleasant way possible.

Memories of our youth often show up at the oddest time.  Even though I was on a bungalow balcony on the Mexican Pacific coast, I felt as if I had stepped into the fellowship hall of the Powers Open Bible Church -- where everyone was either a relative or a close friend.  Not a stranger was to be found.

Of course, I had not met everyone at Lupe's celebration.  But I knew who they were.  They were the people who saw Lupe's need and generously met it.

The hostess asked Lupe how she liked our potluck dishes.  Mexicans know their courtesy -- having polished it for centuries.  But Lupe's smile was as genuine as always.  She declared it: "Very good."  And she was correct. 

Most of what I ate probably spiked my triglycerides, but I have long ago abandoned any notion of testing just how high it has gone.  Like Lupe, I declare my triglycerides: "Very good."

I should avoid the hubris of medical ignorance.  After all, my doctor was one of the guests.  The group invited her because of her work on what I call the Indian school.  They intended to donate the money to that project.

Instead, Dra. Rosa challenged the group to find a deserving family and help them in some meaningful way.  Donating money is fine.  But getting involved with a family's life is often more meaningful.




She had a family in mind.  A single dad raising three children a block from the Indian school project.

Several of the group volunteered to accompany me to Pinal Villa to look at the property.  We have had continual flooding around Pinal Villa this year -- so bad that most fields could not be cultivated this season.  The structure where the family lives sits right in the midst of that flooding.

So, as one story ends, another may be opening.

I will keep you posted on what we discover -- and what can be done.  One family at a time.



Monday, January 26, 2015

citizen steve

I may not yet be a citizen of Mexico, but I am starting to feel like one.

Yesterday was "Render unto Caesar Day."  As a property owner, I now need to slam shekels on the table -- just like the rest of my neighbors.  That is, the neighbors who do pay.  A large number do not.

My dad once told me: "It is an honor to pay taxes.  And, then, you need to watch those shifty politicians like a hawk to make certain they don't squander your money."  He was a realist.


First, let me get a libertarian burr from underneath my saddle.  Thomas Jefferson, when he was not refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants, took a more Manichean Enlightment view than did my dear old Pa: 

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
Jefferson would have pointed out that almost all services we deem as common needs could be better provided without any government intervention.

But I live In Mexico.  A land of many laws -- and scarcely any enforcement.  I suspect that is as close to a libertarian world as I am going to get.

In the meantime, I drive on streets paid for by taxes.  Water is delivered to my house by the city -- paid by taxes.  My sewage is gratefully sucked away to some unknown location, even though I can easily guess which laguna is its ultimate home -- paid by taxes.  My garbage is hauled away almost daily -- paid by taxes, and the occasional sizable tip during holidays.

And, because I want to be a good citizen (even of the permanent resident variety), yesterday was my day to contribute to the common kitty.  To pay my property taxes, my water/garbage/sewer fees, and to renew my automobile registration.

Because I do not yet have any of my paperwork from the house closing in October, I needed to stop by the realtor's office to get copies of the tax lot numbers.  No numbers.  No pay.

The receptionist, Olga, is a wonder.  Every organization has one.  The person who knows how everything operates and where everything is.  And they are usually in the lowest pay grade.

She called the tax office to determine what the bureaucrats would accept, and copied off a paper for me to present in lieu of my closing documents.  I was ready to go.  My friend Lou had just paid his taxes; I asked him to ride along as my mentor.

We pay our property taxes in Cihuatlán -- the equivalent of our county seat in this area.  But my water/garbage/sewer fee is paid right here in Barra de Navidad.

Before we drove the 10 miles east to Cihuatlán, we walked across the street from the realtor's office to our little city hall.  Because I had no prior receipt, the clerk opened a large ledger and found the entry using only the owner's first name.  One of the joys of living in a small town.

She then pulled out her manual typewriter, typed up a receipt, accepted my pesos, and I was good for the full year.  Water should flow.  Sewage should flush.  Garbage should continue to be toted off to a far better place.  All in less than 10 minutes.



One down.  Two to go.

The next stop was the equivalent of the county building in Cihuatlán.  Because there is a discount for paying property taxes during the month of January, I anticipated a large line.  That was certainly my experience in Oregon.

There were a few other property owners.  Not many.  Even though most of the payment records are recorded in large binders in the clerk's office, the full transaction took place on computer.

I provided the document Olga gave me, and was directed to stand in line to pay my fee.  When the amount was associated with my property tax number, a document was passed through a hole between the offices, and a receipt was printed out. 

Admittedly, it was a dot matrix printer.  But the system seems to be efficiently automated.

My money passed to the clerk, and I wandered out the door with my receipt.  Total time?  No more than 20 minutes.

Stop number three was not new to me.  I had renewed my automobile registration last year at an office a few blocks from the county building. 

Car registrations are a state function.  Unlike property taxes that are a county function, and water/garbage/sewer that is a city function.  (No one who lives in a federal system should not find that specialization the least bit odd.)

What threw me off last year is that the car registration office does not have a numbering system.  But there are always quite a few people waiting.  Mexicans understand personal responsibility.  They do not need to have a system telling them who is next in line.



People walk into the office, look around to see who is in front of them, then they patiently await their turn.  Neither Lou nor I have ever seen anyone jump the line.  Until today. 

A hip guy dressed like an itinerant jazz musician came in, looked around, and went directly to the window.  The Mexican man, whose turn it was, waved him off.  But the jazzy guy stood his ground ("I am returning") for the next customer -- me.

It didn't matter.  When I got to the window, I handed over last year's documentation and my registration fee for 2015.  The clerk handed back my decal and registration card.  I could not have been at the window for more than 4 minutes.

In the past, the process was not that efficient.  Payment would be made and the customer had to return to the office to pick up the decals produced in Guadalajara and shipped to the local office. 

The process could take one or two months.  Everything is now accomplished by computer right in the office.

So, how how deep a financial hole did all of those official transactions dig into my bank account?  Or, stated differently, what is my cost for being a citizen of my community?

Property taxes -- $1,811

Water/garbage/sewer -- $1,367
Automobile registration -- $445

Now, before anyone starts asking what happened to the assertion that living in Mexico is less costly than living in Oregon, I will point out that each of those costs are in Mexican pesos.  Here they are stated in approximate US dollars.

Property taxes -- $124

Water/garbage/sewer -- $94
Automobile registration -- $30

Pretty sweet.  There is, of course, a price for living in a bargain community.  Infrastructure tends to be just enough to get by.  But get by we do.  I would not trade it for the bloated inefficient tax system of The States -- not to mention Canada or the European countries.

There you have it.  My usual rule in Mexico is to limit projects to one (no more than two) a day.

But I accomplished three major projects in less time than the drive to and from
Cihuatlán, and for less than a week's worth of restaurant meals on our latest road trip.

I am now done for another year.  One of these days, I will be paying as a voter card-carrying Mexican citizen.

I hope.

 

skipping to dessert


It's raining.

That is a bit of exaggeration.  It was just a few sprinkles in the morning and throughout the day yesterday. 

But this is January.  At the Mexican beach.  Not what we expect for our tourist visitors.

Of course, we all know why it rained.  Construction is in progress on my house.  Considering the circumstances, I am surprised we were not subjected to a tropical storm.

I am getting into my Sunday rhythm.  Off I went to church to hear a well-developed sermon about Jonah and grudges from Pastor Ron; I almost expected Noah and floods.  Then a breakfast-lunch with my pals Wynn and Lou at Rooster's to catch up on the goings-on during the past month -- and to discuss what I need to get done here before I head north to get my visa for Red China.

That list includes paying my property taxes, water/sewer/garbage fees, and renewing my automobile registration.  There is nothing like paying fees to the government to make you feel part of a community.  I will tell you a little more about that process tomorrow.

I then settled down next to the pool to read Richard Brookhiser while eating a bowl of raspberries.

The Brookhiser piece could not have been more appropriate -- for its mood.

If you live in the woods for a few winters you learn how beautiful that season is.  When the trees are leafless you can appreciate their bark and their bending.  Spring, summer, and fall are fashion shows; winter is a parade of nudes.  Creatures without roots are also worth studying.  Birds sing less but they are seen more; animals leave tracks like sociologists' flow charts.
I, of course, do not live in the woods.  Nor is it winter in Barra de Navidad.  At least, not in the same sense that it is winter in upper New York state.  But the scene Brookhiser set was exactly where my soul was yesterday.

Content.  Nearly complete.

Especially, with the raspberries.  Patty bought them in Ajijic last week.  A large container in which the three of us had put a sizable dent.

They were incredibly good.  But, more importantly, they reminded me of the sweet joy of sharing time with Dan and Patty -- and the bitterness of seeing them go.  It also reminded me to thank Bonnie of Ajijic for her comments in our tour around Lake Chapala.

As I write this, I am listening to Peggy Lee sing jazz while I dine on duck while watching the lights that line our pretty little bay.

Brookhiser says it well: "Outside the stars see everything (or all that they care to see)."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

i got rhythm


After a month on the road, I had mixed feelings about returning to the house with no name.

For a month, I have awakened in a new place -- almost each morning.  And, each day, I really had no idea what I would see or where we would stop next.  It was the epitome of why I moved to Mexico.  To wake up each morning and not know how I was going to get through the day.

As I have said before: it was exhilarating.  Stephen Sondheim summed up the problem of living continually on the highs of moments.

Oh, if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments
Then you'd never know you had one.
Having lived in moments for the full trip, all three of us returned to Barra de Navidad exhausted.  I had hoped that Dan and Patty would stay a couple of days to recuperate -- and for me to enjoy their company.  But they needed to get on the road; they want to spend a few days in Mazatlán.

When we started the trip I thought I knew Dan quite well.  After all, we are cousins.  But sharing grandparents does not automatically mean that we would be compatible traveling partners. 

Dan is a year older than yours truly.  Whenever we visited his family, Dan was my hero.  He knew so much more about life than I did.  I even picked a favorite music style because my Mom told me it was Dan's favorite.  It turns out it wasn't.

We had great fun reminiscing about his chess genius friend; stopping by Portland coffee houses populated with beatniks emerging from their
chrysalides as hippies; joining him on his Oregonian route while his bag full of newspapers cut into my Bandon sunburn from our day at the beach the day before; his brief stay at our house while we cousins (including cousin Dennis) attended college together; and, of course, our respective girlfriends.

But a shared past does not guarantee a peaceful trip.  In this case, though, it did.  After all, Dan is still something of a hero to me.

It turned out all three of us had a thirst for new people and places, and learning as much as we could about what made Mexico tick.  We enjoyed the trip together so much that we are now talking about a trip to Colombia, Patty's original home country.

I would have liked to sleep in yesterday.  But that was not to be.  While I was away, the house generated its periodic chores for me.  Just as the house cleaner arrived, I headed off to the laundress to drop off two weeks worth of soiled clothes; to the post office to pick up my accumulated mail (thanks for the birthday card, Colette); to Rooster's to pick up breakfast to go; to the bank to replenish my depleted wallet; and to the gas station to fill up that pesky slow leak in the rear left tire (the tire I need to get to my favorite tire mechanic before the month is out).

When I returned to the house, Dan and Patty were ready to leave.  When I saw them off, I returned to what passes for a daily routine.  Read the newspapers and my magazines.  Picked up the detritus from the landscaping.

But yesterday included something new for me to do.  While I was away, the former owner (and architect-contractor) of the house with no name had started repairs on my upper terrace.  To fix the leaks that showed up during the rainy season.
 
 
One trench was already dug on one side of the terrace; two on the other side.  Over the leaky portions.  The tile was removed and the concrete dug out in an attempt to seal cracks that have allowed water to go where it should not.

The trenches were sealed with a compound, covered by an impermeable membrane, and a second layer of the compound was added.
 
 
That is where the project remains.  On Monday, after the compound cures, the worker will return to complete the project.  My entryway currently looks like a tile bazaar.  I look forward to the final product.

For two reasons.  The first is to put an end to the concrete dust that has worked its way into everything in the house.  You can get an idea of its thickness in this photograph.
 
 
The second reason is far more personal.  I have the curiosity of an 8-year old boy when it comes to these projects.  I need to know every detail.  And, just like an 8-year old boy, I tend to get in the way.

And I did.  Somehow, I forgot that the first layer of compound had not yet cured.  This is the result of my negligence -- plus a trail of white goo across the terrace tiles.
 
 
The worker ran over to help me clean the prints off of the tile.  I told him: it was my error; it is my work.  Now and then, my Puritan side slips out.  I find redemption and rehabilitation in work.

And for dinner?  Papa Gallo's featured veal on its menu last night.  And that is what I had.  Enjoying a huge plate of thick veal while listening to Spanish, French, and English mingle together with a just a whiff of tobacco smoke in the air, and a heavy dose of waves slapping the sand.
 
 
I have experienced several magnificent vistas this past month, but nothing really trumped last night's food or ambiance.

It is good to be home. 

For a bit.