Six Feet of Summer Socializing

Three arms’ length, two and a half baseball bats, two golf clubs, two shopping carts, two end-to-end Doberman Pinschers, the width of a Honda Accord, or half a parking space. That’s six feet, give or take a few inches. And that’s the current standard of social distancing, which still means something even if businesses have started to open again and protestors march in the streets.

It’s the 2020 version of the gym teacher, armed with a ruler, separating couples who were dancing too close at the junior high school dance. What we called cooties back in the fifties are back today as COVID-19.

Ball games, barbecues, picnics, outdoor concerts under the stars, libations around the fire pit. Those were yester summer’s fun, but COVID-19 changed the rhythm, setting, and style of socializing, creating New Rules, new normal, and new ways of entertaining ourselves in the company of others.

And now that the Boston Marathon, postponed to September 14, has been cancelled, what are you going to do? We all know how hard you had been training for that while you sheltered in place.

You can play board games and Animal Crossing: New Horizons only so long. You’ve become sick and tired of decorating focaccia and making sourdough. Even fermenting vegetables has become old. How can you get out of the house, socialize with other sentient beings, and remain in an acceptable risk zone? Surely, there has to be some way to have fun, socialize, and still maintain acceptable social distance. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, in “From Camping To Dining Out: Here’s How Experts Rate The Risks Of 14 Summer Activities” gives some useful guidance. You can still have fun while maintaining that safe, healthy, and social distance.

Manhattan Beach, California, lawyer Brian H. Cole, whose beach forbids setting up chairs, limiting activity only to “active” pursuits like swimming, surfing, and walking, has been having “driveway dinners,” both at home and at friends’ homes. Two or three couples gather, sitting at appropriate distances apart, and enjoy take-out from a nearby restaurant. Even friends with health challenges have been willing to engage in these driveway dinners, since everyone gathers in fresh air without getting too close.

A Seattle lawyer participates in Zoom cocktail parties with other lawyers, Zoom wine tastings, and even split a bottle of wine with a long-time, trusted friend, physically separated by at least eight feet on the deck of his house, overlooking a lake. For a real change of scenery, he ventures forth to his office, distancing himself from the sole other occupant, his secretary. And then there’s always Costco.

Practicing out of a high-rise condo in the Philadelphia city center for a dozen years, Miriam Jacobson’s not socializing in person at all, having no plans to do so for a long time, but that doesn’t mean she’s living the life of a hermit. The plays, movies, restaurants, and meetings which were part of her pre-COVID-19 life are no longer on her agenda, nor are the doctors’ appointments which had been part of her social life.  But she’s neither idle nor lonely, using Zoom as her lifeline, participating in tai chi, yoga, pranayama, and Qi Gong breath classes, attending bar association meetings in different locations in her living room and dining area, participating in a group that is trying to bridge the cultural difference between Jewish and Muslim women, and enjoying dinner with friends. She says her list of Netflix and Hulu offerings is probably longer than her life expectancy. Hot weather, crowds of unmasked people on narrow sidewalks, and protests have kept her from taking outdoor walks for now.

Jacobson senses that in some of the Zoom meetings, people are more willing to share intimately, adding that some the discussions have taken on more open and authentic dimensions, perhaps because the focus is upon the participant’s faces instead of the backs of their heads that we would see at in-person classroom settings.

So, what has this writer been doing? Life is not terribly dissimilar from pre-COVID-19 days, because there’s plenty around the house and yard to keep me occupied and entertained. I participate in competitive cooking with friends in North and South America, I garden and read, and I snidely complain to others about the indecency of the unmasked masses. I venture out to Costco, the beauty shop, and to my favorite steakhouse, which I’ll keep on doing.

This is the age of consent and establishing boundaries. Close friends have always had social codes of conduct. Some are just common sense, like not wearing white shoes after Labor Day or serving shrimp cocktails with salad forks at a Passover seder. Whether it’s a hike with friends, a dinner party, or coffee and dessert, establish ground rules for all participants. Just as there once were tacit agreements about smoking, over-drinking, using recreational drugs, and discussing taboo topics, the New Rules require an understanding of everyone’s tolerance level of masking, washing, disinfecting, sharing, and sane distancing. And those agreements can easily extend to a ban on bringing uninvited guests. What might’ve passed for faux pas or just bad manners last year are matters of life and death for many today.

Relax, and remain flexible. You may have set out enough supplies of hand sanitizer, tissues, disposable facemasks, spray cleaners, disinfectants, and trash receptacles to outfit a MASH unit, but no matter how careful everyone tries to be, sooner or later someone’s going to break the New Rules. Consider it today’s equivalent of spilled wine or a broken glass, break out the Clorox wipes, and move on. A breached bacterial barrier isn’t worth stressing over. Your hospitality zone would never be mistaken for an operating theater anyway.

Everyone’s risk aversion level is different. Try to understand their needs and concerns, accommodating them without compromising your own health standards. If someone insists upon wearing nitrile gloves and a plastic face shield, topped off with a foam pool noodle, at an in-person dinner party, don’t comment. After all, it’s not as if they were wearing black socks with sandals or eating with the wrong fork. If others require you to wear a full-on plastic face shield, play along in good faith. It’s only for an hour or so, and it can’t look any sillier than you were at that Halloween party back in 1999.

And if you can’t commune with other humans, you can still get close to nature. Go out for a hike, plant a garden, landscape the yard. Breathe in some fresh air, and let the sun restore that Vitamin D. Walk your dog, go horseback riding, maybe even take in a botanical garden or zoo.

Ten years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) were all the rage, fell into disuse, but COVID-19 has put Coursera, Udacity, and edX back in style again. Take a course with a few friends, just to make it a meaningful and safe social activity. The Johns Hopkins’ course, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing,” offered through Coursera might not lead to new career opportunities, but it will make you conversant about a new topic.

Sheltering in place, self-isolation, and quarantining don’t have to mean social exile. Keep in touch with friends – and even strangers – by phone, on social media, by e-mail, and even by old-fashioned snail mail. Staying socially connected is essential to remaining sane in interesting times.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division

 

 

Covid Tales

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This morning at Banorte’s bank of ATMs, a tidy, well-dressed, bald, bare-faced customer works the machine, methodically wiping it down with a white disinfecting wipe, as if preparing it for surgery, inserting his card and extracting his money, and then wiping his fingers and the machine down afterward. There is another machine available, but I decide the one the bald man has wiped down is clean enough for me to use second-hand.

Paying attention to which digits I put into use, I note that only the tip of my left index finger touches the machine and its keypad, the same index finger and its adjoining thumb only put into use to pluck the card from my purse’s outer pocket, sliding it in and pulling it out, along with the cash. Perhaps as much as an eighth of a centimeter of my skin touched where others had gone before.

Stuffing my money and debit card back into my purse, I douse my hands with gel, making sure that I smear it all over the bottle for good measure as I walk back to my car. Maybe I was thinking that those viruses and spirochetes were in a mad race to my elbows.

But the story starts in my vestidor, before I took off for the bank, as I make up my face, opting for the good eye shadow, the good eyeliner, telling myself that it’s more necessary now than ever, that I don’t need to be stingy with makeup, because I can buy more when this is all over. Even if my face will be mostly covered and my eyes shaded by dark glasses, it’s important that I know what’s underneath. I draw the parallels with wearing the good underwear and slathering on the good body cream on an ordinary day. No one but me knows it’s there, and maybe that’s what makes it all the more important.

*****

Will we all become super-aware of germs when this is over? The polio years left its mark on many of us. When I was 15, a girl who would go on to become a homecoming queen picked up my drink, supposedly by mistake, and I could not touch it after she had. God only knows what had been in her mouth the weekend before, and I wasn’t taking any chances. She and her pack of wannabees made fun of my germaphobia, and I lost rank that day.

In time, we would get over the ickiness of germs as we passed around joints, took hits from the same bong, and swilled from the same Almaden bottle being passed around. And if a McDonald’s coffee stirrer wasn’t available, a rolled-up Ben Franklin touched more than a few nostrils.

Will the next generation do that?

*****

Masks do more than create a germ barrier, shutting out bad breath as well as emotions.  You can’t see another’s smile, their teeth, whether they’re baring their teeth, grimacing, or sticking their tongue out at you. What will happen to lipstick? And what about white teeth? Will masks be the death knell for porcelain veneers? Will orthodontists be put out of business? Will women stop bleaching their mustaches and plucking those pesky chin hairs? Will people stop trimming those nose hairs?

Earrings and masks don’t often work well together. And those nose rings and studs? Wasted efforts.

Will we start looking into others’ eyes more carefully for signs of life?

And when The Late Unpleasantness abates, will those of us who’ve come to resemble Botero people be back in style?

Or is it all a plot to get everyone into nijabs and burkas?

*****

Back to the bald man with the disinfecting wipes. Assuming, he wasn’t wiping the ATM down with coronavirus, he was showing concern for the next user. Maybe it was just a public version of wiping off stray sprinkles on a toilet seat or putting it down after using it, but it was a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed. And that took me back to thinking about how the masks aren’t about protecting the wearer, but showing respect for others.  And that’s what I tell myself when I put on my eye makeup.

 

 

 

Gleaming Forever

Xmas ornament

Over on the Highway to Heaven, which just sounds better than Avenida Juan Pablo II, across from the Universidad Vasco de Quiroga, just on this side of the Gordon Bodenwein Benedictine Monasterio, which is a story for another day, stood a solid red Christmas tree just outside of a large assortment of trees imported from Canada, never mind that there’s a thriving Christmas tree industry right here in Mexico. Six days later, the glimpse still in my mind, I had to return to check out that tree. Never mind that I never bought a Christmas tree in my life. Or that I’d sprung just the day before for nine of the most beautiful fuschia nochebuenas over at the state forestry department Christmas bazaar.

And that solid red Christmas tree was even more beautiful than the first time I’d seen it. In close second place was an all-black frosted tree. I could be happy with either, but they just couldn’t compete with what I already have.

My Christmas tree came in a box, an original silver Evergleam, grown in the forests of the Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the second term of the Eisenhower Administration and the first and only term of the López Mateos, a golden and growing era for both countries. It’s so beautiful that we leave it up all year round, topped off with a Doberman angel, handcrafted by nimble Orvis elves. Hand-blown glass ornaments came from Tlalpujahua, some filled with filament, others with feathers. The only thing missing is that revolving color wheel light, which was more exciting to watch than any ordinary Christmas lights and no doubt set the stage for those hours we’d spend a decade later gazing at posters under a black light.

The Evergleam is an heirloom one, purchased by my grandmother during the one year she didn’t have the florist make up a Christmas tree in something like all-turquoise flocked pine with matching ornaments, which would all be hauled away after New Year’s to prevent her descendants from inheriting Christmas ornaments. My grandparents were always the first in town to have whatever was the newest and latest, so they used that tree once and hid it in a storage closet until more than two decades would elapse. By then, I’d opened my law office, and she suggested it might look good in the waiting room, instructing me that it should be decorated in ornaments of a single color, preferably blue, since that was her color. So, the tree got put up a time or two in the office, and then it found itself shipped to Mexico to my mother, who was living here at the time, who declared it too ugly for words, shoving it back into the bodega, where it would remain for another decade or so. In due time, I would move to Mexico, and in the years following, I would take it lovingly from the original box, carefully releasing the branches from the original paper sleeves, and erect it with red and pink ornaments. Friends who drop by are rendered speechless by the sight of this tree, but I know that deep down, they’re just envious. This tree has seen more holidays than my grandmother ever intended, but I think it’s beautiful in that 1959 pink Cadillac with fins kind of way.

This year, the Evergleam aluminum tree will be 60 years old. And it’s still emblematic of an era when the world was bright, filled with energy, when people of all stripes and faiths could cheerfully wish one another “Merry Christmas” and mean it. And that was the year when Santa Claus brought me double holster cap guns which I proudly wore over a red smocked dress with a red net petticoat underneath.

Melania may have had those stunning red Christmas trees last year, but what she’s missing is an Evergleam.

The Call of Colombia

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Let’s get this out of the way: there is no U in Colombia.

“Colombia? That’s the last place in this hemisphere I’d want to go to for vacation,” warns Gabriel, my dentist of 35 years, a well-traveled, sophisticated kind of guy who thrives on adventure and whose very own father came from Ecuador. “You couldn’t make me go there.” Never mind that we live in one of those places that’s on the U.S. State Department’s no-go list. You would’ve thought I’d suggested a winter holiday in Detroit. But then his reaction mirrored most of my friends’.

When I pitched this piece to the Voice of Experience editorial board, you could practically hear the eyes rolling. You’d think I was urging travel to Venezuela or Somalia. Let’s just say the board’s enthusiasm about Colombia piece was less than audible. Colombia has long been the poster child of the unruly society that many associate with Latin America.

“But you’ve already been there,” other friends tell me, issuing the same refrain I’d hear forty years ago when I kept returning to Mexico. Never mind that these are the same people who return to France and to Italy and even to Disney World year after year.
Upper-middle class bachelor parties in Mexico have started opting for a long weekend jaunt to Colombia instead of old-time standbys of Cancun, Cuba, or Las Vegas. It’s been making the New York Times lists of up-and-coming places to visit, and it’s got Lonely Planet’s endorsement.

“The only risk is wanting to stay!” A little over a decade ago, the Colombian export commission and tourism ministry launched an advertising campaign explicitly intended to ameliorate the country’s “most dangerous” reputation in South America. But the odd logic practiced by the U.S. State Department would continue to play Chicken Little, issuing a Level 2 Exercise Caution advisory for Colombia with a Level 3 Reconsider Travel advisory for some regions. Forget what you saw on Narcos, Romancing the Stone, and Scarface, will you? Like the readers of VOE, I’m not traipsing off into FARC territory or trying to score illicit sex and drugs. There’s no question that Colombia is security-conscious, but frankly, I’ve felt more danger lurking right in front of Neiman Marcus on N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago on some random Tuesday afternoon.

Twice the size of Texas and France, four times bigger than Italy, this country packs in loads of landscapes—two coastlines, the Andes, Amazon rainforest, deserts, big cities, middling villages, rivers, lakes, jungles, valleys, and savannahs—and the second-highest biodiversity in the world. It consistently rates as one of the happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. Its position near the equator means that there’s very little variation in temperatures throughout the year, although the higher elevations are cooler than the lowlands. In Bogota, it’s possible to experience all four seasons in the span of an afternoon. This is a place where the sun rises early and sets early with very little change throughout the year.

Colombia’s first allure to me was its ease of access: a 4-hour affordable flight from Mexico City. Even from the U.S., flights to Colombia are relatively inexpensive. High quality and good value would come later as selling points.

My favorite venue, and consequently the site of most of my travel in Colombia, has been in the Andean Region. Bogota, Medellin, coffee and quaint towns, all at an altitude, are my idea of a great holiday.

Retail Therapy

So many visitors to Latin America are enchanted by traditional markets, dancing natives, folk art, nature hikes, and visits to coffee plantations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed that stuff, too. But nothing fascinates me more than a visit to the mall, and Latin America has some of the best ones in the New World. Arlene Dávila’s El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America explains how and why Latin American malls are light years from Mall of the Americas. They’re for more than just shopping because malls create and host a Main Street, a cultural space, restaurant venues, events, and plenty of opportunities to just people-watch. Whether it’s Bogota’s Centro Mayor (the largest in South America) or Centro Andino or Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, I just can’t get my fill, easily spending the better part of a day easily entertained at any one of them.
And then there are the treks to antique stores, flea markets, hippie markets, pop-up stores, and even grocery stores, all sources of never-ending exploration.

Getting Cultured

Just as Buenos Aires calls itself the Paris of South America, Bogota is tabbed the Athens of South America, and for good reason. Bogota boasts over fifty museums, all at prices ranging from free to only a few dollars. This is culture at a price I can afford. In Bogota, the Museo del Oro, the Museo Botero, and the Museo Nacional are right up there with the best anywhere. Medellin has the Museo de Antioquia, with its world-class Botero collection, the Botero sculptures scattered throughout the city, El Castillo Museo y Jardines, the Museo del Agua, and the Museo Casa de la Memoria. But what is really memorable is simply stumbling across some museum housing something that you’ve never really thought much about and then visiting it just for a clean bathroom, some shade, or to bide time, only to be pleasantly surprised. I still chuckle at how I came across and actually enjoyed museums dedicated to philately and numismatics, subjects I’d never really considered interesting.

It doesn’t take a lot to entertain me in Colombia. Just wandering around can be entertaining enough, but coming upon an unexpected event, like the Bogota International Book Fair, a bazaar for new designs, a clown workshop, a dog adoption fair, or an exposition of women-owned small businesses, is always a highlight. Planning a trip around some event means higher prices and higher expectations, but just picking up the local newspaper to see what’s going on doesn’t.

Victuals

Because I’m usually travelling alone, I never plan meals at some destination restaurant or even one well-ranked in Trip Advisor. I just stop at whatever looks good when I’m hungry and in the mood. Some of the most memorable meals have been at restaurants I couldn’t even identify again by name, simply because they were situated within a museum or recommended by the owner of some ratty antique shop as a good place for lunch. The $2.50 chicken fried steak and a $.65 cup of coffee (freshly baked cookie included), both consumed in Envigado, a suburb south of Medellin, stand out in my memory as much as the $20 steak I enjoyed later in the day in El Poblado.

Colombia isn’t the place to go looking for fine wines. Carulla’s liquor department had a lonely bottle of Colombian wine. But it is the place for artisanal beer, coffee, fruit of every hue, bread, and, of course, arepas. There are the fancy restaurants, the world-famous Andres, Harry Sasson and Leo, and just about every ethnic cuisine under the sun. Traditional Colombian cuisine comes across first as bland and well-fried, but upon reflection, it eventually all comes together as simple, honest, and straightforward fare, devoid of pretense and harboring no mystery ingredients. It’s just home-cooking: Ajiaco, a chicken, corn, and potato stew, and Bandeja Paisa, a platter filled with pork-flavored beans, rice, ground meat, chicharron, plantain, chorizo, hogao sauce, avocado, and lemon. Even the traditional breakfast dish, Recalentado, made up of last night’s meat, reheated with some rice and beans, is surprisingly satisfying, reminiscent of the Spanish rice many of us remember from our childhoods. If you like beer, cheese, and charcuterie, Colombia’s the place for you. Liking none of that, I spend my time looking forward to fruits not easily accessible elsewhere, like lulo and mangosteen, and the coffee.

Getting around

Bogota and Medellin both have excellent public transportation systems and traffic that would make Mexico City’s traffic problems look Lilliputian. But taxis are plentiful, safe, and cheap. Uber and its kin are just as available.

Domestic airfare is a real bargain once you learn to book on the airline’s site as if you were in Colombia, paying in Colombian pesos. Doing that will deliver an airfare that can be more than 50% cheaper than booking on the U.S. site in U.S. dollars. And you can still use English on the website. You may need to notify your credit card issuer that you’re virtually in Colombia ahead of time when you’re buying plane tickets that way.

Money

The rate of exchange for the Colombian pesos to the U.S. dollar is 3,284 to 1.

Foreigners visiting Colombia as a tourist are exempt from paying the 19% hotel tax. This doesn’t apply to tours and some package plans.

Foreigners also are eligible to receive a refund of the V.A.T. for certain purchases.
A 10% tip is automatically added to all charges for food and beverage, even at Starbucks, but it is optional, as is explained on the additional 8” of every receipt that accompanies a purchase.

For convenience and to avoid ATM fees, many of us are accustomed to withdrawing the maximum possible from each visit to an ATM. Colombian ATMs routinely limit the transaction to the equivalent of $125 USD. Only Colpatria and Citibank have more generous limits: $265 and $375. Use your credit card whenever possible to cut down on the need for frequent trips to the ATM.

You are going to love the place. It is as if the Germans were running South America. And I mean that in a good way, too. Think about tranquility, well-mannered tidiness, red bricks, and even fried food. Just don’t talk about Pablo Escobar.

Intentional Tacos

 

Growing up, Saturday lunch was usually tacos, which my mother insisted were chalupas, since that’s what she’d eaten when she went to college in Texas, some time before Pearl Harbor. We didn’t know any better, never mind that we were only about 20 miles from Tijuana. We ate what we thought were tacos on Saturdays, because they were something the Indian (Native Americans weren’t around back then) maid, who shared a surname with the Mexican president known more for the eponymous laws that set off the Cristero Rebellion than any of his good deeds, could quickly make before leaving for the weekend. Fried corn tortillas, canned refried beans, hamburger cooked with chile powder, lettuce, onion, and tomato. My job was to slice the scallions. At least the tortillas weren’t those pre-fried taco shells.

Today I’ve become one of those people who treks all over town in search of the esoteric, organic, and delicious, hitting La Ruta Natural one Saturday, and 8 days (which for you Estadounidenses, is a week) later, the organic market at Paseo Altozano, occasionally faced with a double-header if the first-Saturday-of-the-Month Mercato DaVinci beckons. And then there’s the every-Wednesday-while-school-is-in-session Mercadito CEM, which now conflicts with my passion for ordering up groceries from El Arbol over on Av. Cuautla, now that I’ve learned the secret handshake.

And then all of this hunting and gathering leads me to Sundays playing cook in my kitchen, getting out my toys for a purpose other than making MorgenFood in the Instant Pot and agua de pepino with the mandolin, coming to the realization that a food stylist on staff could be useful and that I ought not give up my day job, as if I had one. I’ll get into one kind of food, and then I’ll run it into the ground. Verdolagas were last year’s cheap thrill. At the moment I’m into tacos. Not the kind we grew up with, of course, but the kind that would photograph well, since the only purpose in creating something attractive on your plate is to upload it to Facebook, right?

So now I present you with the tacos du jour: Instant Pot pulled pork, Las Tias mango habanero chutney, Thai basil, and tomatoes, all wrapped up in tortillas de flor de jamaica, courtesy of Roberto Gomez, purveyor of all things jamaica. Everything that went into this plate came from Michoacán. Lamentably, germinado jamaica (hibiscus sprout) wasn’t available, and that would’ve been so essential. Maybe by summer’s end I’ll get this designer taco thing perfected.

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A rabbit from last Sunday’s Feria Alternativa de Urandén reposes in the freezer. Butter rabbit (murgh makhana) on blue corn tortillas, anyone?

Michael Warshauer, Q.E.P.D.

One of Patzcuaro’s icons had a major change of address two days ago.

Michael Warshauer, born in the sunset year of the Silent Generation in Brooklyn, died in Patzcuaro at the age of 76 years. He would call a lot of venues home – New Jersey; Montreal; some place in Ohio which might’ve actually been some place in Pennsylvania or maybe both; St. Louis; Columbia, Missouri; Overland Park; Mountain View and Little Rock, Arkansas – before settling in along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro in the fall of 2005.

An English major at Mizzou, he’d sell his textbooks to pay for caving, along the way meeting Susie, who’d picked up the spelunking habit in Wales and whom he’d go on to wed. And spend even more time exploring subterranean paradises. And sometime amid all of this, he found time to serve in the Army National Guard, keeping Missouri safe from the North Vietnamese.

Susie and baking came first in his life, followed in short order by the holy trinity of Apple, Costco, and Amazon.

Michael was panos@aristotle.net when we first met around 1997.  I thought I’d met him on Usenet, but he insisted it was on Mexconnect. Ni modo. He would go on to be known as Anonimo and Don Cuevas.

He could hold forth about what went into good cooking, the science and art of it all, and he could also acknowledge that sometimes things just went south, despite the best of efforts. He could analyze ingredients, and he could go into great detail about all kinds and grinds of flour, rising times, shapes of bread, oven heat, and baking times.

He would publish blogs at Surviving La Vida Buena and My Mexican Kitchen.

Pecan cinnamon rolls. Stracotto. Gingersnaps. Almond Danish. Gingerbread. Knishes. Health salad. Plum sauce. Kimchi. Brisket. Latkes. Dim sum. Chinese dumplings. Char Siu. Scallion cakes. Biscuits. Bear claws. Rugelach. Dressing. Fried chicken tenders. Stuff wrapped in hoja santa. Challah. Rye bread. Ginger beer. Pho. Vietnamese beef jerky. Gravlax. You name it, and he’d make it. Well, he did draw the line at hamantaschen, just because he claimed not to like them. Did I mention gingersnaps?

A gracious host, Michael could tell everyone to get the hell out of his kitchen when he needed to concentrate. And we gladly complied. And unlike so many foodies and cooks, he was a gracious guest, cheerfully downing whatever you offered in your home without suggesting how you could’ve avoided one of your usual culinary disasters. He knew when to politely keep his mouth shut, a talent rarely practiced by much of today’s society.

He had this native ability to ferret out treasures in the places you’d least suspect, and anything close to food became his mission. Only a year and a half or so ago, he raced ahead of us to Mercado Medellin in CDMX, wending and maneuvering his way through the aisles with the fine-tuned agility of a cutting horse.

In all the years that I knew Michael, I don’t think I ever saw him behind the wheel of any motor vehicle. I knew he knew how to drive, because, well, he did have a driver’s license. But always sitting shotgun as copiloto, he tabbed Susie as his chauffeur,

There wasn’t a food website he didn’t visit, and he loved to forward links to “Can you imagine how bad this must be?” items as well as stuff that actually did sound good. And the restaurants. Ten lifetimes wouldn’t be enough for Michael to visit all the restaurants he would’ve liked to. You might idly let it drop that you’d been to a good enough Chinese restaurant in Bogota, and he’d quickly let you know that it was only ranked 168 among 857 restaurants in the entire capital of Colombia. One of my last emails from him, not even a month ago, mentioned his desire to visit La Conspiracion de 1809 in Morelia, adding that they could go there by taxi. But by then, you just sort of know that he’d never make it there.

And then there were the puns. He could pop off puns at popcorn speed. Some were great, and some were real groaners, but that didn’t stop him. If Michael wasn’t making a pun about something, you just knew something had to be wrong.

And as he slowed down on his usual blogging activity, he became a YouTube enthusiast and a devotee of Mark Weins and Trevor James. And just when you’d had enough of some foodie praising the food of Pakistan, Michael would redeem himself by sending a 29-minute video of some guy cooking a steak, just because he knew that would captivate whomever was on the receiving end.

Michael Warshauer, you had style and class, and without question, you were extraordinary. You made all of our lives richer through your friendship, and you will be missed. Good night, Panos.

AMLO Cardenas

July 1, 2018

Today was the biggest election in Mexican history.

My thumb is inked, which means that I’ve cast my vote. So, I’m standing in line at the casilla at the public school three blocks from my house this morning, even before my morning coffee, thinking I’d walk over to OXXO and get a free cup for showing my thumb, joined by the rest of the neighborhood dressed in their Sunday best — Skechers and sweats– when an ignorant middle-class woman ahead of me in line asks if I’m Mexican. “Do you think I’d be standing waiting around here if I weren’t?” She chimes in with that usual “You don’t look Mexican,” never mind I look like half the people waiting in the schoolyard. I am so tempted to tell her “You don’t look like you can read,” but I don’t.

She leaves a few minutes later to go to the Sunday tianguis.

My line isn’t moving, even though the schoolroom is staffed with the election personnel. The vigilantes de los partidos – observers from each of the political parties – haven’t shown up yet, and the party can’t proceed until they’re all there. That always seems to happen in the P through Z line.

There are 25 people ahead of me in line, the head of which is marked by a woman in an orange headscarf and another with platinum-streaked hair. A couple one person ahead of me are passing the time playing pat-a-cake pat-a-cake baker’s man; the man directly ahead of me, dressed in black and white from his ball cap all the way to his Skechers, black Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt under a black vest, checks his iPhone, clad in a black leather case; the girl behind me with neatly applied lipstick and good eye makeup is getting one call after another on her smartphone; and the reigning doyenne of the organic market is four people behind her, stylish in khaki slacks and a white blouse, which I’d say came from Palacio de Hierro. I have on purple Skechers (2017), black Adidas pants from Nordstrom Rack in Honolulu in 2006, a grey t-shirt from Nordstrom’s in San Mateo (2014), and a purple appliqued hoodie. And freshly dyed hair.

Finally, an elderly nun, her thick white hair neatly coiffed, a giant cross hanging from her neck, emerges, raising her inked thumb in victory, proclaiming “I was the first!” as she practically dances across the pavement. She was one of the happiest nuns I’ve seen in ages.

And before long, my turn at the polls arrives. I hand over my INE card, the election worker reads out my name but not before asking “What is your last name?” My surname appears in the same spot on the card that everyone else’s does, but it’s confusing, since my last name is all too often confused with the first. Still, since the card only reveals two names—a first and a last—you’d think he’d figure that much out. He reads off my name, five workers checking their rosters to mark my appearance, and one poll worker after another rips a ballot from their book. I enter the booth with a handful of ballots – one for each of the five races.

There may be tacos (multiple ballots folded together), but there will be no hanging chads. All of the voting is done with paper ballots, voters using the same ballot from Tijuana to Cancun.

And after marking each with an X in the same spot to cast my free and secret vote, I exit the voting area, folding my ballot to deposit in the box marked in a different color for each office. I go on to pick up my INE card, getting my right thumb indelibly inked. Just so I won’t vote twice.

And I stride, victoriously, from the school yard. It’s no secret that each of my votes went for the PRI candidates. That’s just how I’m wired.

August 5, 2018.

My candidate for president came in the third. It wasn’t all that surprising, even though I still maintain that he was the best-qualified for the job. During his concession appearance the evening of the election, he almost seemed relieved. His wife unquestionably had to have been relieved. And both will surely lead much saner, less complicated lives during the coming six years than the man who won.

It seemed a given, no matter whom you might’ve asked, that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO, would win. What rankled me more than anything were the attitudes of many voters, smugly declaring that it was time for revolution, that they were somehow the anointed ones for supporting him, and how much so many of them bore that same scent of those who had supported Hillary Clinton.

AMLO shouldered the victory with just as much class and style as José Antonio Meade Kuribreña handled defeat. At least publicly, hands reached across party lines for a show of unity and moving on.

There were no public meltdowns, no ninny snowflakes crying in their Kool-Aid, and life went on just as always. No one donned silly pink knitted hats. The peso became stronger. The sky didn’t fall.

Sure, there were burned ballots, and little frauds committed here and there, just as there is in every democracy, everywhere. But none of it was sufficient to change the final result.

Estadounidenses could take a few lessons from Mexicans about how a mature nation operates. A year and a half have now passed since Donald Trump was inaugurated, and Estadounidenses still can’t get their acts sufficiently together to realize that it’s about respecting the office as much as the one who occupies it. It’s dangerous to admit to Estadounidenses that you voted for Trump. Five years from now, AMLO’s visage may be on the Judases that we all blow up just before Easter and exposes will be published, but for now, he’s being treated as the second coming of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (Mexico’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and that’s just fine. (I’d rather have seen the second coming of Adolfo López Mateos, but there’s always next time.)

May AMLO turn out to be a great president. He’s already exceeding my expectations.

The Once and Always King

 

I loved the guy. And so did all of America, until something went terribly wrong with that country, leaving only the French to adore him. I still worship the fellow.

For a decade or so, I’d stay up through the night and through the morning, the television tuned on to the Labor Day weekend telethon, not because I particularly cared about muscular dystrophy, but because I found Jerry Lewis so enthralling.

More than just the most creative comedian of his times, redefining funny, Lewis was a mensch. A stand-up man. A class act. And even though his political beliefs matched mine, he never, ever, let politics get in the way of culture. The world has lost a hero.

Rest well, Jerry Lewis. If there is a heaven, it will be filled with laughter.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 4)

Hardly anyone we asked knew of Ocampo. Our requests were often met with blank stares. Some pretended, telling me that he surely was a famous Patzcuarense artist. No, not even, I explained, telling them he was born in Celaya, now lives  in Tepoztlán, and is famous. Well, at least Ocampo’s famous among those who know his work.

An art dealer in his sixties dismisses our query with the excuse that “there are so many up and coming young artists that I just can’t keep track of them all.” We tell him that Octavio Ocampo was born in 1944.

“Oh, you mean Melchor Ocampo?”  Nope. Not hardly.

No, no, no, not Octavio Ocampo Córdova, the alcalde of Tuzantla.

Finally, I came upon F., who is clearly the most educated Patzcuarense we know when it comes to art. Yes, he remembered when the Ocampos and Boteros were sold on every street corner. But no one’s interested in them these days. He explains that Ocampo and Botero bought created giant paintings, which weren’t easily reproduced in easily portable and affordable sizes. And maybe the company that was cranking out those copies is no longer in business. I wasn’t ready to buy all of his explanation, but it came closer than any I’d heard all day.

At Starbucks, a man identifying himself as an artist whips out his iPhone to show us photos of his paintings, going on about how a woman in Los Angeles bought all of his paintings so that she could have a gallery of his work right in her house. I ask him about Octavio Ocampo. The name doesn’t register, and the iPhone-bearing artist says “Oh, I’ve spent most of my life in Mexico City, so I wouldn’t know some painter from Michoacán.” I tell him that Ocampo is important, prolific, and how he even painted a retrato of Jimmy Carter for then-President Lopez Portillo’s state gift to the then-President Carter. Another blank stare. We recite, once again, the salient details of Ocampo’s Wikipedia entry, explaining he’s no doubt well-acquainted with CDMX, and even though he’s surely visited Morelia and Patzcuaro, just like every Mexican citizen has, he’s no homeboy from Michoacán.

In Queretaro, we run into a man we’ll just call Emilio, an entrepreneur close to politicians and otherwise a fine, gregarious fellow, and we ask him about Ocampo. “Oh yeah, he’s a very good friend of mine” he tells us, reminiscing about how, back in his days as a television producer, he handled everything for Ocampo’s exhibition in France. Thrilled that we finally have caught up with someone who knows who we’re looking for, we chat about his work, Emilio telling us how he’s got a copy of the Mona Lisa in his house. But when we ask if he could contact Ocampo for us, or at least provide his contact information, suddenly his status as a very good friend shrivels to “Well, it’s been years since I’ve been in touch with him. Maybe even two decades.”

 

Showing anyone who’ll look photos of his work on my iPad isn’t yielding any results. I began to wonder whether a campaign to put his visage on milk cartons might work.

 

Who’s Minding the Store?

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon occasionally engages in productive activity, and we’re proud to share with you our latest achievement.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to love Effectively Staffing Your Law Firm, 2nd Edition.

Let’s look at the details:

Good law office staff is harder to find (and keep) than clients (and sometimes spouses). Not a mere receptionist, typist, and filing clerk, good support staff can be the lawyer’s alter ego, right arm, custodian, den mother, rabbi, and guardian angel. Could you manage if your staff didn’t show up tomorrow morning?

The average solo or small firm lawyer may spend more waking hours each day with staff than with a spouse or significant other. And in some cases, even years longer. They will devote all kinds of time and money searching for that significant other, courting the person, learning how to live with that person, being trained by that person—but when it comes to staff, an “Oh, that one will do” more frequently than not seems to be the way it is all approached.

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 3)

We Mexicans don’t often agree on a lot of things. We’re like Jews that way. Put six Mexicans or six Jews together, and you’ll have eleven opinions. Nothing — tacos, nopal, the tri-color of PRI, not even the eagle and the serpent — will put all Mexicans on the same page. But there is one dame whom every Mexican venerates, right down to the atheists and the evangelicals and the Mormons and even the testigos de Jehová, and she’s the Virgen of Guadalupe. No one brings us all together like she does.

The holiest day of the year, bigger than Christmas and Easter, is Dia de Guadalupe, the 12th of December.

You’re heard the saying that only 82% of all Mexicans are Catholic, but 120% of us are Guadalupanos. Being Mexican (or even living in Mexico) and not appreciating the Virgen would be sort of like being Episcopalian and eating shrimp cocktail with the salad fork. It’s one of those things that’s just not done. The Virgen’s not just a saint – she’s the mother of our country, the icon of Mexicanidad, and she knows no borders. There is no woman in all of the Americas more powerful and more venerated than she.

So, if you’re going to be a real Mexican, her visage will adorn more than few rooms in your abode. I’ve got her image on a shopping bag, and an enameled version of her accompanies my car keys at all times. Several more Virgens show up here and there, done up in glitter and ribbon, most likely purchased during Mes Patria. It was only natural that I’d pick up a giclee on canvas reproduction of Octavio Ocampo’s Virgen de Guadalupe about a decade ago.

And then we just couldn’t take our eyes off of Ocampo’s Virgen. There was a magic in this one, new details revealing themselves each time I looked at it: faces inside of roses, campesinos on her eyelids, angels on her robe, a man caressing her left cheek, the new Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the old one on the left, a red brick gothic church that looked like it would be right at home in Germany on the right. And wait, it’s not just a painting, but a metapainting on a canvas being held up by an almond-eyed Juan Diego.

Image by Deb Winarski

 

Our research about the background of this work went off and on, since we’ll never be confused with serious researchers, much less art historians. Ocampo created this work, measuring some 1.70 meters in height, on commission in 2000 for St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Evanston for $60,000 USD. And it wasn’t just happenstance that brought Ocampo’s work to this church. The Saint Nicholas Parish had been a polyglot church longer than it hadn’t, its parishioners going from mostly speaking German to speaking mostly English to speaking enough Spanish that its website is now bilingual. Its Mexican parishioners were mostly drawn from Celaya and Salvatierra in the state of Guanajuato, Ocampo was born in Celaya, and everyone from the Bajio has a cousin in Chicago.

 

Images by Dale R. Granchalek

 

 

Dr. Fernando Vizcaíno Guerra of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México political science faculty does much better job of explaining the Ocampo Virgen and how it made its way from Celaya to Evanston in his article La Virgen de Guadalupe y la Identidad en una Parroquia en el Area de Chicago, which appears in La Frontera de las Identidades.

But we still couldn’t envision how this painting looked in living color, so we searched the church’s website until we came upon Dale R. Granchalek, who graciously went out of his way to provide the photos shown in this blog post, recruiting his colleague, Deb Winarski, to photograph the single image of the painting.

My little 12 x 18” pirated version of Ocampo’s Virgen seems paltry in comparison to the real thing, but it led me to the real thing and the story behind it, so that makes it important and valuable to me.

Meanwhile, my small, cheap reproduction now resides in a country house on the road to Guanajuato, Grace Slick having begged me to loan it to her, since her house lacked a proper rendition of the Virgen. So, I extracted a blood oath from her, a covenant to protect the Virgen, returning her unharmed to my house after she performs the necessary and appropriate miracles in her new location.

 

 

 

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 2)

Giclee on canvas reproductions of Ocampo’s work, which we refer to simply as “Ocampos,” just as we’d call anything by Picasso “Picassos,” began to show up at the carnivals that accompanied the fiestas patronales honoring the patron saint of practically every typical Mexican burg. On the 15th day of August the La fiesta de la Asunción, Assumption Day for the rest of you, rolls around in my neighborhood, which means that the plaza and surrounding streets are filled with carnival rides that have been declared unsafe in places like Oklahoma, carnival games of chance promising valuable prizes, corn dogs, pink party cake, and a mole fest.

But if all that’s not enough to separate fiesta-goers from their money, there’s plenty of stuff to buy: pirated DVDs, bras, houseplants, and hand-made appliqued frilly toilet lid covers. And art. The giclee-on-canvas Ocampos may have been around for ages for all I know, but I didn’t first really pay much attention to them until 2004, when a long-term houseguest we’ll just call Kato bought a couple or three of them to decorate the casita, promising he’d leave them behind. He would leave, taking those Ocampos with him, and they now reside in Santa Fe.

Ocampos were suddenly all over the place: in front of the Basilica in Patzcuaro, on the side streets leading to the Basilica, and at the muelle. His work had to be the most-pirated work around, showing up in greater numbers than the Boteros of a few years earlier.

We’re sure that we read in some interview with the artist somewhere, sometime, where he was asked how he felt about seeing all of those unauthorized reproductions of his work where common folk could easily purchase them. His response seemed to be, if we remember correctly, was something about the futility of copyright, his compensation for the originals, and accessibility of his work to the kind of people who buy their art at carnivals. And so, we would go on to relate to others what we thought we’d read, only to hear those others remark about what a swell, practical kind of guy he must be. But then this may be myth for all we know, or maybe it was something we just dreamed up because it sounded good.

Ocampo may be Mexico’s most prolific artist you’ve never heard of. He’s one of those artists whose works everyone recognizes, but whom no one can connect a name.

Edgar Hoill, writing for Lowrider Arte Magazine, sat down with Ocampo, and he shares their exchange in “Octavio Ocampo – The Art of Metamorphosis.”

And we’ll share more of our search for Ocampo in coming installments.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 1)

We don’t know how this story is going to end, but it begins during the middle of the sexenio of Carlos Salinas de Gortari at Morelia’s Fiesta Camelinas, a shopping center at the corner of Camelinas and Venture Puente. An art supply and frame store had a few pictures displayed at its entrance, and one caught my eye. Well, truth be told, it caught my mother’s eye more than mine, and even though she had impeccable taste, she did tend toward artwork that coordinated with the furniture. She thought the piece would work well with the claret leather sofa in the gray-walled living room. I would return to the art supply and frame store later that day and buy the print. After all, it was already framed and matted, and you can’t go wrong with that.

 

And to this day it hangs in the living room, now painted dark green, sometimes switching places with a Jesus Escalera piece and my mother’s glamour portrait for display in the dining room, now covered with pale salmon walls, bookcases and a map of the world. Sometimes I hang it alongside the dour portraits of my great-grandparents, the only images of any relatives I’ve got anywhere in my house except for the few photos I drag out for the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda.

 

Ernesto Zedillo would occupy Los Pinos, and my mother’s passports would join my grandparents’ documents on the ofrenda. I would make Mexico my permanent home.

 

Not until the early years of Vicente Fox’s administration would I pay much attention to what was penciled in: 6/500 on the lower left-hand side and in the usual right-hand place the artist’s signature, O Ocampo. There wasn’t a lot about him on the web back then, his first Wikipedia entry in Spanish as well as English not showing up until Felipe Calderón’s presidency was well underway in 2007. All I really knew for sure was that there were 499 other prints just like mine circulating around the planet.

 

And then I began to wonder if everyone else already knew about Octavio Ocampo. Was his name a household word that somehow I’d missed along the way? Who is this guy?

 

Stayed tuned as some of the story unfolds, even if we don’t know how it’ll end. Or even when it’ll end.

All I Want is My Plastic Jesus

There’s still nothing quite like AutoZone, unless, of course, it’s Galerias el Triunfo to get in touch with your inner redneck. Red Shoes just loves it when urbane and sophisticated kinds get their redneck on at AutoZone, just like Don Cuevas at My Mexican Kitchen did.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

So, I’m at AutoZone the other day, one of Morelia’s three branches, an entirely new experience for me, and I’m enthralled by the choices: strobe and neon lights for under the dash and around the license plates, sparkling lights for the hubcaps, vinyl flames, and a vast array of amazing decals. But it was just too difficult choosing between the weeping Jesus and the Virgen de Guadalupe. And, since they were plumb out of locking gas caps, I left empty-handed. But when the new car smell fades, I may be back there in search of a Virgen of Guadalupe rose-scented air freshener to hang from the rear-view mirror. Sure, it’s naco, but those things are just hard to resist.

Oh, sure, we can dress ourselves up like we’re straight out of Las Niñas Bien orCompro, Luego Existo and make ourselves appear as if we stepped straight from Guadalupe…

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David Lida, One Life

Andrew Paxman

Esperanza Morales is a Tess of the d’Urbervilles for our times. Like Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine, she is a good and beautiful woman, constrained by humble origins, preyed upon by men, and – so it appears – driven by desperation to murder. As the story of this undocumented immigrant opens, she faces the death penalty in unforgiving Louisiana for killing her baby. In Esperanza’s life, to recall the lot of another Hardy heroine, happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

For all this, One Life is not a depressing novel but a strangely uplifting one. It’s largely told from the viewpoint of a droll mitigation specialist, an expatriate loner called Richard, who guides us through the miseries of Mexican poverty and the injustices of the U.S. legal system with fascinating insight and through the disappointments of his own life with self-deprecating humour. It’s a story…

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San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Chiles en nogada and tacos, that’s the difference between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro as expat venues. Both have their strong points, and both have their shortcomings. Neither is Nirvana, although those who live there might claim otherwise.

San Miguel de Allende offers up more expat amenities like mail forwarding services, English-speaking Mexicans, gourmet stores with everything from Hamburger Helper to white balsamic vinegar on the shelves, AA in more flavors that you could ever begin to count, classes and support groups, charities and opportunities to perform good deeds, an Anglican church, Kabbalah study groups, rival animal rescue efforts, art walks, opportunities for the fey and chichi, a zillion good restaurants and a few bad ones, serious crime and scandal among the expats, the American consular agency, English-language libraries and bookstores, the Rosewood, Café Rama, the Longhorn Smokehouse, Via Organica, poseurs and pukka, organized tours and events, Zimbabwean drum…

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Rest Well, Virginia Rose

And today marks the vigintennial of your demise, Dear Mother.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Scan0073

17 years ago today, you left this plane, and 16 years ago on this date, your ashes found a final resting place at Lago de Zirahuén. Well, half of them did.

Remember that silver cigarette box you’d swiped from me the fall before you died? We filled it with your ashes, and what that wouldn’t hold went into a satin pouch. I took the cigarette box down to the lake. As I was negotiating the price of a launch, I broke down in tears, two bystanders immediately caught on to my plans, intervened with the boatman, and they ended up joining me as we headed toward Agua Verde. Damned if we couldn’t open up that box, which the heat of your ashes and scotch tape had hermetically sealed, and even though the thought did enter my mind to toss the entire box into the lake, I just couldn’t do that…

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Kissing Baby Jesus

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

I will never be cool. I’ve never kissed a woman, other than in the most forced greeting, and even then I make great efforts to avoid doing so. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it’s just not my style. But an effort to be polite, I bowed and kissed Baby Jesus. It was agonizing.

Not all Christmases are festive and joyous or even as picturesque as something Noman Rockwell could’ve dreamed up. Some are spent in lonely bars. Some are spent with odd lots of relatives and a police presence. Others are spent looking for Chinese restaurants. And some are simply awful.

There was Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s. The bar exam review course would start the next day, and for the next ten days I would be the sole occupant of the FIJI house with Mother Guy’s blessing. For at least a…

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The Gift

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

IMG_0330

My grandmother had the worst taste in the world, which meant that she was always fun and easy to shop for. Consequently, she always got the lion’s share of my gift-giving budget. She was the kind, in a certain age, who would’ve fit very well in Miami. She always decked herself out with too much makeup and jewelry, bright and gaudy colors, favoring the brightest blue eye shadow, so much that my mother would tell her that she looked like a streetwalker. She wore the loudest clothing she could get her hands on, and if it was lamé, all the better. Her over-the-top purses, always big enough to carry an entire carton of cigarettes, would be considered tacky in some circles, but that didn’t stop me from coveting one which bore multi-colored dead, stuffed birds nestled under clear plastic. I was thrilled when she gave that to me.

I thought she…

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Bad Santas

In the spirit of Bad Santa, we’re going to add a few more unwanted gifts:

Vocational merchandise. The recipient’s admission to practice in the highest court of some land doesn’t mean that gifts of scales of justice, gavels, bobble-headed lawyer dolls, or a commemorative DVD of Amazing Supreme Court Oral Arguments are welcome or even desired. And the same goes for medicine-related gifts to physicians, educational gifts for teachers, and well, you get the drift.

Self-help books.

Religious items. God’s Not Dead 2, whether in Blu-ray, DVD or digital, isn’t any more welcome this year than that DVD of God’s Not Dead you sent in 2014. I don’t think Jesus Christ himself would’ve approved of using Christmas as an evangelical opportunity any more than he would’ve served ham sandwiches and shrimp toast at a seder.

 

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Bad Santas seldom start off with evil intentions. At least, that’s how I’d like to think. But there are times when you really wonder whether the givers’ brains were on hiatus. Why not just settle for giving your loved ones a stick or a lump of coal and get it all over with? Or just nothing? It would have to be cheaper and kinder in the long run.

It’s so easy to fall into that trap of giving someone what we would want to receive. Or what would make the recipient what we’d like them to become.

Maybe I’m being too kind. We can write off gifting fails as acts of the clueless and the cheap bastards, and then there’s unadulterated malice.

There are funny gifts. There are gifts that can be genuinely appreciated only by the recipients. And then there are gifts that are just plain cruel.

The initiation…

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Dreaming of Sugar Plum Fairies from Spain

Grocery store shelves harbor even fewer candies from Spain, edged out by German and Polish imports. I ask a small group of Mexicans comparable to my station why there is so little turron. One says “It’s the economy,” to which his wife remarked “But people buy German chocolates, and they’re even more expensive.” The rest said “It’s because no one likes turron anymore.”

Moving on to bacalao, I recalled how huge tables of sides of bacalao announced that the Buen Fin-Reyes marathon was underway. It always smelled like someone died. Then there were no more tables of those giant sides of bacalao, just a couple to decorate the few boxes of bacalao, neatly filleted. What’s with that? One man says “It’s the economy,” to which his wife replies “Bacalao is too much trouble to prepare.” And the rest chime in “It’s because no one likes bacalao anymore.”

What’s this world coming to?

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

1880-Turron-Alicante-300-gr (2)

The Guadalupe Reyes Marathon is just not the same without an abundant assortment of turrón imported from Spain.  Let me ‘splain. The Christmas season in Mexico officially begins with  Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the 12th of December, and finishes with Día de los Reyes Magos on January 6. Nothing will get accomplished during this time frame. Actually, the holiday starts even earlier, Costco revealing its Christmas treasures in August, followed by El Buen Fin, which is Mexico’s version of Black Friday and CyberMonday, preceding the country’s non-celebration of Estadounidense Thanksgiving. [Note to self: install a footnote plug-in.]

There are fewer fresh Christmas trees in Morelia this year than in years past. Costco only had a few, and Superama a grand total of five.  Walmart at Altozano was live tree-free. My Christmas tree comes in a box, an original silver Evergleam, grown in the forests of Manitowoc…

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The Villa Montaña and Salad Dressing

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

All over the world, foodies are wringing their hands over the demise of Gourmetmagazine. They apparently forgot the day when Connoisseur folded itself into Gourmet, more than a decade and a half or ago. Some probably don’t even remember Laurie Colwin’s column in Gourmet.

Frankly, I’m tired of food magazines. In the bodega are several boxes filled with old Gourmet magazines, and they read not much differently than last month’s. I’m tired of hearing people wax on about slow food, eating locally, politically correct food, and molecular gastronomy. Just don’t get me started on the vegans, or I may write something I’ll regret later. I’d much rather read food literature, about culinary disasters, and food science and throw a piece of meat on the fire.

And then I finally came across a recipe that I’d been searching for, well, for a long time. I knew that it had…

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Troubled Mission

Plenty of lawyers say they want to get out of the practice of law, but few act upon those desires. And even fewer go on to actually do something to get themselves out of the quiet desperation of their lawyer lives and then return to practice. After a decade in private practice, Sacramento lawyer John Wagner wanted something more out of life, so he packed it in, and became a Catholic missioner, learned Spanish, and went off to Peru, where he would find himself doing battle with The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Nothing that happened along the way was what he may have expected, but then again, nothing that happened along the way went the way he didn’t expect. And three decades later, having gone back to Sacramento and the practice of law, he retired and wrote about his experiences in Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.

TM cover ebookRather than bringing you yet another book review, we decided to ask Wagner some probing questions.

1. It would be too easy to reflect on how law school prepared you to do human rights work as a missioner. How did practicing law prepare you for this experience?

You’re right—law practice, as opposed to law school, was what really prepared me for human rights work. But the answer goes back to law school. At first, I had no desire to be a practicing lawyer. Before law school, I’d been a social worker and mental health administrator and saw myself getting a law degree and then going to a policy role in either a state government or the federal government, such as a Department of Mental Health. But when I took Evidence in law school, our excellent professor really made everything come alive. He kept saying: “You’re the lawyer. How are you going to make your case?” The more he focused on the practicalities of being an advocate, the more I began thinking, Hey, I really like this stuff. I want to be a trial lawyer.

Then, when I actually was a lawyer, I was always struggling with that same question—how am I going to prove up my case? I learned to focus on the building blocks of case preparation and the many traps for the unwary. It so happened I had some early controversial cases. One was pro bono for a whistleblower who was fired by a city government after challenging the unfair way a city was running its parole and probation programs. I could see very quickly the case wouldn’t be won on “legal” reasons—I had to make the commissioners mad about what the administrator had done to my client after the extraordinary things she had done for the city. Later, I heard an experienced litigator say it more precisely: “You have to build up enough facts to piss off a judge!” All of that led to my focus on developing a case based on real-life outrage (or at least real life understanding) but, of course, with solid legal theory behind it.

In the big case in my book, against Victor, our agency’s Peruvian attorney, I couldn’t be an attorney for Victor as I wasn’t licensed to practice law in Peru. But that didn’t bother me because I knew we had to build a public relations case that would put pressure on the local and national prosecutors who were going after Victor. I focused on working with human rights organizations around the world, explaining why the case was an effort to stop legitimate human rights legal advocacy and asking the organizations to pressure the Peruvian government to drop its case. At the same time, I had to be careful not to have the organizations go too far. The Peruvian president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, basically had declared himself dictator and had rammed through his hand-picked Congress a wildly overbroad “assisting and abetting terrorism” law. The law was blatantly unconstitutional in the opinion of all the Peruvian lawyers I knew who’d studied it. Yet I knew that if the human rights agencies argued that point, it would just make the prosecutors defensive and might make them feel they had to go forward to show they weren’t anti-Fujimori. So I asked them to focus on the specific facts in the case that made the prosecution improper and not on the numerous defects of the new anti-terrorism law.

2. You went back to practicing law, first with legal aid, and then back to BigLaw, representing hospitals and health care providers, pursuing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement appeals, performing internal fraud and abuse investigations, and representing professionals whose licenses were at risk. What did your sojourn in human rights bring to what some might call going over to the Dark Side?

Let me tell you a little about my background. I was never a careerist determined to work at a big law firm, say like the take-no-prisoners firms shown in the movies The Verdict and A Civil Action. There really are litigators who just want to strap on the jackboots and fight it out, regardless of the issues, but that’s not me. I just happened to stumble into a niche in which I could represent clients—in this case hospitals and health care professionals—against the overwhelming might of the federal and state governments. And I found I could be successful. In my case that went to the US Supreme Court, there were two of us attorneys for the hospital against more than twenty different attorneys for the US government! My dad always told me—“You always root for the underdog,” not as a compliment, and it’s true. I always wanted to fight against injustice and that has been the defining characteristic of my career.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, I actually would have liked to be a trial attorney for the Justice Department as long as I wouldn’t have to work on politically objectionable (to me) cases and if I could’ve made enough money to pay off my student debts. But you don’t get to choose your cases and I couldn’t have afforded it unless I lived somewhere with several roommates, which by then I was too old for. I wanted to develop solid legal skills and I went with the firm that offered the best training program. Yes, it was a big-name firm but here were all these newly minted attorneys coming in buying their new BMWs and renting fancy apartments while I was driving a ten-year-old VW beetle and renting a modest apartment. I paid my debts and saved for a down payment for a house, which took many years. But I was proud that I never sold out. I never represented employers against employees (or anybody against “the little guy”), I never represented the tobacco companies (and my firm had numerous opportunities for advancement if you did that) and I never represented causes I didn’t believe in. If I thought a case was morally wrong, I either bowed out or, later when I was a partner, actually told the client why I couldn’t do what they wanted, losing an important client along the way. I was lucky in that no one ever pressured me to work for a client or cause I objected to.

After my human rights work in Peru, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my former specialization—because I had no “book of business” to deliver to a firm—and I did work for legal aid, which I generally enjoyed. But there were lots of internal politics and bureaucratic hassles. It just so happened that a former client tracked me down and asked me to represent his hospital system in disputes with the government. That brought me back into private practice (a mid-size firm, not really BigLaw) but not at all to the Dark Side. I’m not a right-winger but I do have strong feelings about the government abusing its authority. I even had to explain to a bureaucrat once why he couldn’t just do anything he wanted and why de had to follow “due process of law.” I had to explain that was an important part of our Constitution. His bosses had never explained that!

As you’ll see in my book, I couldn’t really get that many human rights cases in Peru because the agency administrator never really wanted me to come to her agency, even though our Peruvian attorney really supported me. That never was an issue in private practice. The big issue in private practice is, how much money did you bring in the door, not even, how good a lawyer are you. I don’t defend that at all. I think the private practice of law has lost its moorings and it really isn’t a profession (or, as they said in the old days, a “learned profession”) any more. But going back into private practice was so freeing, so exhilarating after all the internal problems at my human rights agency and then at legal aid. I could just concentrate on my cases and clients and I loved doing that, although I quickly reverted back to my workaholic ways.

3. You battled The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Let’s not talk about how all of these experiences made you a better person. What did these experiences do to make you a better and more effective lawyer?

In Peru, I used my legal skills in non-courtroom settings, which forced me to combine legal skills with human relations skills. Before going to Peru, for numerous years I was immersed in the world of law, as a law student, as a clerk for a judge, and as a practicing lawyer. I tried to keep myself grounded by doing pro bono work, by getting involved in politics, and by still being a Grateful Dead fan. But little by little you become immersed in the world of law and most of your friends are in that world also. When I joined a mission program to do human rights work, I learned by accident that people who didn’t even know me were threatened by me because I was “a lawyer”—spoken like it was a dirty word. What? Threatened by little ol’ me? That had never occurred to me.

I’ve always had sort of an inferiority complex. As a lawyer I can be tough and aggressive. But when it’s “just me,” I tend to be shy and retiring. When I saw there was this reaction against me, this unknown person, I became even more shy and retiring, just to make sure that no one was threatened by me. In hindsight this may have been ineffective by keeping people from getting to know me, the real me. So after all these battles you mention, when I came back I tried to make a point of not being threatening to people but at the same time of trying to reveal myself more. I also tried to engage more with my law firm, joining committees, that type of thing. Marketing is a big thing with private firms and I think my focus on being more engaging may have helped me be more effective in marketing.

Strictly in terms of legal cases, I have to say my Peru experience didn’t help that much as I wasn’t “practicing law” there. But I knew that going in, so it didn’t come as a surprise. The big thing I noticed back in practice was that opposing attorneys seemed so personally hostile, as opposed to the professionalism I’d usually encountered before. Maybe that hostility was there before and I just never noticed it, as fish don’t notice the water. Or maybe it was a sign of changing times. But after a while it became so annoying, dealing with rudeness, sarcasm, especially, but not always, among younger lawyers. What was really frustrating was seeing attorneys lie and cheat, which I hadn’t seen before. Not saying it never happened but I just had never seen it. I tend to attribute this to the increasing focus by firms solely on “billable hours” as opposed to professional skills, leading to a lack of standards, a lack of ethics, and a “get away with whatever you can” mentality.

4. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who has hit the 10-year mark who hasn’t wanted to get out, if only for a respite. Those I’ve known who’ve gone off to do volunteer work seem to drop off the face of the earth. What advice do you have for those contemplating following in your footsteps?

That’s a big one. There are so many different angles. First, there are lots of practical considerations, especially money. You’ll have to build up a nest egg to cover your US expenses that don’t stop when you go overseas. (If you own a house, for example, as I did). And then you’ll need money for your re-entry time—which might be long—between when you come back and when you get a job. As well as extra expenses that your small personal allowance from your volunteer organization probably won’t cover. For example, I wanted to send out a newsletter and had to dig into my savings for the related expenses. (Actually, now in internet days, that would be a lot easier.)

Examine your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed motives—I think we all do—but it’s important to be aware of them. Do you really need to live overseas or can you find other things to do living in the US, where you know the situation and the language? There are so many little things that may become big things because we just don’t understand the culture.

Specifically for lawyers, we know what “due diligence” means—checking things out in detail. Inquire, in detail, about everything. The training program. What happens if you’re assigned somewhere you don’t want to go, or that doesn’t want you. Even in nonprofit and religious organizations, there can be many turf battles and you may unexpectedly be put right in the middle of someone’s turf.

Again for lawyers, question people in the organization very specifically on whether the organization has had lawyers before, how many, what did they do, and, as discussed above, whether people might be threatened just by someone being a lawyer. And, of course, not stop there. Try to contact former volunteers, especially lawyers and see if they’ll talk candidly about their experiences.

For non-lawyers, I have the same advice except, of course, not focusing on lawyers who have been volunteers. In an ideal world, I’d encourage asking for a specific written description of what the organization envisions as your job duties and negotiating that description to be as specific as possible. Realistically, however, most human rights or other organizations that use volunteers will be reluctant to give such a description. Most of the time, they just don’t know. So, the bottom line is what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” Do your due diligence as well as you can, knowing that what happens later may turn out to be a crapshoot. That, after all, is the way of all life.

Finally, be open to the unexpected. Maybe you’ll decide to live there permanently. Unexpected opportunities may arise. Or maybe you’ll decide this just isn’t for you. Who knows? Again, isn’t that the way of all life.

5. You’ve obviously transitioned from human rights back to life as a practicing, now retired, lawyer in Sacramento. What stumbling blocks did you encounter upon your return? What would you have done differently?

Re-entry is a major problem. First, you have reverse culture shock. This can be far more severe than you might think it will because you don’t realize how your attitudes and thinking have been affected until you actually get back. In my case, I had to get some medical problems cleared up so that actually ended up being a good thing because it gave me the time and space to re-acculturate. Also, I used the time to send out lots of resumes.

I knew it would be hard to find a job on my return and it was. Private firms wouldn’t have been interested because I didn’t have a book of business to deliver. I wanted to work for a human rights agency but those jobs are extremely scarce and everything seems to depend on having connections, which I didn’t have. The Peruvian attorney I’d worked with wrote a glowing letter of reference but he didn’t have any US connections. And the higher ups in my religious organization didn’t have any human rights connections and also many of the leaders had changed and many didn’t even know the work I did. When I was a humble human rights worker, I wasn’t shouting, “look at this, look at that,” regarding my accomplishments and it didn’t dawn on me until too late that when I got back to the States, it would’ve greatly helped to have a person in the program with some human rights connections who could act as an advocate for me. In hindsight, I could have tried to establish a re-entry plan early on and to push the organization for some early guarantees that they would help me when it came time to leave. But, again, probably most organizations won’t be willing to make commitments like that.

I had several months of unemployment, sending my resume to legal aid clinics all over the US. I was just about ready to give up and consider going back to school in social work to update my credentials but, even then, with all the changes I’d made, I feared no social work agency might want me. Luckily, I just happened to get a job offer with legal aid in Sacramento of all places.

I’m not sure what I’d have done differently—maybe if I knew how hard it would be to come back, I never would have left—but my advice to others (lawyers or nonlawyers) is to realize this will be a serious problem and to explore future job possibilities as an ongoing activity rather than wait until you come back.

6. You lived at the poverty level while in Bolivia and Peru. Would your lot have been more bearable, would you have been more effective, if you’d raised your standard of living to, say, middle class.

Definitely not! First, it was important to me for the spirituality changes I was trying to make. I write in the book of what the director of our language school called the “stripping effect” of a new language, a new culture, and a new, much lower, standard of living. I experienced that stripping effect in many ways and I think it really helped me grow as a person. Also, if I would have done this, it would have marginalized me from the rest of the volunteers in my religious community. They already saw me as “different” because I was a lawyer and if I’d lived a more middle class lifestyle (from my own money), they would just have seen that as putting on airs. Nor would it have made me more effective in my work.

I could have used some help in finding a place to live, but I was able to afford a decent place, nothing fancy. I really had no need of a car as buses and vans were convenient.

I did think of buying a laptop, they were just coming out then, but I decided to buy a portable manual typewriter—almost the exact same kind as I’d used in college over 30 years earlier! —precisely for the purpose of staying within a poverty lifestyle. In hindsight, a laptop would have made many reports and newsletters much easier and that is one thing I’d do differently. But otherwise, I found living poorly to free me in many ways.

7. It was really about the women, wasn’t it? In your book, there emerge two strong and very different women who drew you in, guiding your experience—Stephanie and Bella. Stephanie pushed you into volunteering, and Bella got you through the experience. Would you have survived long enough to write this book and be where you are today were it not for Stephanie and Bella?

Very perceptive! Yes, Stephanie and Bella are wonderful women. Alas, as you know from the book, Stephanie died even before I went to Peru. It wasn’t that she pushed me into volunteering, it was that her example made me want to volunteer. I just can’t say enough about her. And, spoiler alert, Bella became the great love of my life. She is so wonderful and it’s such fun to see her now as a grandmother! I was also profoundly influenced by María Elena Moyano, who I write about in the book. She was a strong leader in Peru who was horrifically assassinated for defying the Shining Path and organizing women. (Alas, there’s also a strong nun in the book who, let’s say, is about the exact opposite of Stephanie.)

There are also some men in the book who really influenced me: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton (as heroic, mythical figures I’d read about) and Larry Castagnola, an activist priest in Sacramento who became a good friend and—another spoiler alert—later married Bella and me!

No, I don’t think I would have volunteered without the example of Stephanie and yes, Bella definitely got me through the many turbulent episodes in the book. We had some dramatic ups and downs but it all ended wonderfully.

One thing I write about in the book are the many class and hierarchical issues in the religious world between priests (all male, of course) and women (both nuns and lays). Even putting aside the issue of women priests (when will the Church wake up?), women are always assigned subordinate roles to priests, even when women are really developing and implementing important projects. Unfortunately, this leads to separateness and hostility. The nuns live in their own world and have little interaction with priests or male lays. The women lays are more integrated with the male lays but many of them have become quite hostile, and who can blame them. This was probably the biggest surprise to me—the serious tensions between men and women in my very own religious organization.

8. Who should read your book?

I wrote Troubled Mission for any readers who’ve ever thought of changing their lives, of throwing everything overboard and starting over. I wanted to put the reader in my shoes: what made me even think about such an idea and then, step by step, inexorably, what happened. I tried to show the reality of being a lay volunteer in a religious organization, the good and the bad, including my many imperfections, my “dark nights of the soul,” and the many strange situations I got myself into.

Readers interested in living in a country besieged by terrorism will, I think, be absorbed by what happened in Peru, the horrific violence as well as a democracy that turned into a dictatorship before my very eyes. And readers who wonder how people can survive the worst conditions of barbarity and totalitarianism will see and feel the real issues that bring out character, or not.

Readers who savor words and enjoy complications should read this book, as opposed to readers who want to rush to find out “who done it” and nothing more. Above all, readers seeking to appreciate the human spirit should read this book.

Giving Gracias

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

For my Estadounidense friends who’re kindly sending their Thanksgiving wishes, asking how we celebrate the holiday in Mexico, let me fill you in. We don’t. I’ll do the same thing on this Thanksgiving Day that I did the day before, and the year before that: nothing remarkable.

It’s just another Thursday in late November around these parts, the midpoint between Dia de la Revolucion on November 20 and Dia de  Guadalupe on December 12. The newer an expat’s residency in this country, the more likely he or she is to celebrate. Gain distance from the Old Country and some tenure here, and it’s not a big deal. Sure, off in expat havens like Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende, the restaurants get into a large Thanksgiving Day dinner scene, but not where I live.

I didn’t come from a background of Thanksgiving tradition. My mother refused to do anything…

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Viva Mexico

Six years later, and the thoughts are still the same.
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

There’s no holiday season anywhere quite like Mes de la Patria. On September 16, we celebrate the Mexican Day of Independence. Cinco de Mayo isn’t our independence day. We are celebrating our independence from Spain on that day—not our independence from the United States. Please, dear gringo friends, learn this much. Don’t make me explain it to you over and over again.

It’s really more than just a celebration of independence. Think instead of the Estadounidense 4th of July, Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one.

Even though Costco’s Christmas merchandise has been out on its shelves since the first week of August, the red, white and green decorations you see everywhere are not in celebration of Christmas. Those happen to be the national colors of Mexico, and bunting festoons practically every street and store.

While chiles en nogada is the dish most associated with…

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