How to Become a Champion Among the Living

We are the champions, my friends

And we’ll keep on fighting till the end

          — Queen, News of the World

Efraim would not become an American citizen until after the birth of his second child, even though he had spent eight years of his college education between Texas and New York a decade earlier. Establishing his own business meant long hours and never enough time for a family vacation, unless a weekend in Lake Tahoe or an overnight with the Indian Guides in Mammoth counted for something.

He would return to the Old Country for a year or two after university, heading back to the United States, never to see his mother or his father again. The family had been an affluent one, but he brought nothing with him, save a Rolex he bought in Switzerland, on the way back to the New World with his American bride and her daughter. Over the years, there would be not a single token or remembrance from the relatives back in the Old Country, not even a piece of silver, an ashtray, or a photograph.

He and his children’s mother would spend years divorcing, and when he was nearly eligible for Social Security, he would find a new wife, some two decades younger than he, from the Old Country. With age, his relationship with his progeny deteriorated, marked by more than the usual dissent found in most families. Cordial yet distant was the best characterization that could be placed on the ties. His eldest’s decision to adopt and embrace a religion, consume massive quantities of pork, and declare himself a Northern European, just like the family he’d married into, broadened the chasm between a father and son who never were close. Telling his youngest that, if forced to choose, he’d pick his new spouse over her any day did little for that father-daughter bond.

Before long, Efraim was in the middle of his ninth decade, and the realization that his plans to leave everything to his child bride would mean there would be no remembrance left for his own children. Somewhere along the line, he’d bought into a doctrine that his spouse should receive his entire estate and his issue nothing.

It was time for a plan. The only way he could leave anything for his children would have to come from current income, maybe bolstered by a home equity loan. And he knew that his two children wouldn’t go along with the plan unless their half-sister, the child of Efraim’s late ex-wife was invited. After all, he had known her ever since she was less than a year old.

He would take them on a trip to Spain to explore their family roots. It didn’t matter that there were no ancestors to look up, everyone having been ejected during the Inquisition. It didn’t even matter that no one could name a single ancestor who might’ve hailed from Spain. It was just the homeland, a place where people looked more like you than not.

Bird and Lark, the natural children, were reticent. After all these years, wasn’t it sort of ridiculous to get together and pretend to be one happy family? The stepdaughter, who loved nothing more than planning trips and searching for deals, would get on a plane just about anywhere if someone gave her ticket. Efraim approached Lark first, followed by her half-sister. Having enlisted those two, his next step was to ask them if they had a problem with their somewhat estranged and recently widowed-brother, Bird, tagging along, knowing they were in no position to refuse.

The stepdaughter took on the chore of researching flights, creating itineraries, finding lodging, and making plans. Efraim wanted everything planned out, day by day, in advance, and he wanted to pay for everything in advance with a credit card. No sense in losing the opportunity to pick up some miles. Armed with the credit cards, the stepdaughter spent winter evenings searching out deals, checking out Google Earth street views, logging on to Renfe’s website at some odd hour to snag the best discount precisely 60 days prior to departure. More emails circulated among Efraim and his children during these four months of planning than ever before, and binders were filled with confirmations and directions.

Finally, the perfect Madrid apartment appeared: 4 bedrooms, 5 baths, 4,000 square feet, a doorman building, décor straight out of Four Seasons, and a balcony overlooking Paseo Castellano in El Viso, walkable to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium and El Corte Ingles.

Lodging arranged, it was time to start booking tickets for the Prado, the Palacio Real, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, the Alhambra and the Nasri Gardens, bullet trains to Sevilla, a slow train to Granada, another bullet train to Cordoba and then on to Madrid, a commuter train to Segovia, the obligatory flamenco shows, limos to and from the airport and everywhere else. Directions to Mercado de Chamartín and Carrefour were mapped out.

Nearly a month of togetherness was something this quintet had never experienced, and yet it somehow worked out. Never in their lives had that many meals been shared in succession, and there was the perpetual search for whole wheat baguettes, copious amounts of fresh fruit, and ham-free restaurants. Amazingly, the sojourn in Spain went off without any of the usual fights that accompanied prior visits, even if it did start to resemble a continuously looping My Dinner with Andre, punctuated by the only running game all five knew: canasta.

Efraim ended up spending the price of an average mid-70s Southern California tract house on the trip, but it would be money well-spent.

There’s a moral here: spend your money creating experiences and memories. All of the estate planning in the world means nothing if there are no warm and cozy memories behind it. Nothing can put the decedent into a less-than-favorable light, shattering families, than purse strings controlled from the grave. Frequently, the bequest might not be more than the price of a new car, something your heirs might’ve bought without that gift from you. Inheritances almost never solve financial problems.

The sterling that’s been stashed away in the bank safety deposit box so long that the fees exceed its value means nothing to today’s generations. If you love that precious silver and fine china so much, then get it out and use it daily. Each piece that might break is one less for the next generation to deal with. Enjoy it while you can.

Your hand-carved dining room furniture is only slightly more appealing to Gen Xers and Millennials than a Naugahyde Barcalounger, which is about as valuable to them as your grandmother’s mid-century modern television console was to you. Gen Xers and Millennials’ disdain for your crap isn’t a command for you to liquidate those prized possessions. Take pleasure in what you have, but realize that yours is likely the last generation on the planet to appreciate your worldly possessions.

Maybe travel isn’t feasible for you and your intendeds. Or it isn’t your thing. Spend the money creating new skills, memories, or even making a fantasy approach reality, both with your family and separately. A surprise and unaccompanied trip to Machu Picchu or New Zealand, serious music lessons, a harp, cooking school, or even new (and wanted) dog or horse, gifted while you’re still living, will leave your mark on the recipient longer than any bequest. And you’ll be around to share in the joy. You’ll be a hero instead of just a run-of-the-mill testator.

You might even be able to repair some the fissures that time may have inflicted upon your relationship with those loved ones. And you could become a champion in the process.

Now, let’s return to that trip to Spain just once more. You know how some moments are Kodachromed into our memory? May 13, 2012 was more than just an ordinary Sunday night. Plácido Domingo would perform during Real Madrid’s season-ending celebrations, and Efraim and his son were never happier that evening, walking on air back to their apartment, singing “We Are the Champions” in a language neither spoke. No amount of estate planning could ever conjure up that kind of bond.

Is My Stuff Worth Moving?

“Everybody’s gotta have a little place for their stuff. That’s all life is about. Trying to find a place for your stuff.” — George Carlin

You spent half your life acquiring stuff, and then once you hit that third age, egged on by the likes of organizers and ephemeral sensations like Marie Kondo, you’re supposed to get rid of your stuff. Downsizing, they call it, as if it were some kind of virtue. Or Swedish death cleaning, decluttering like there’s no tomorrow out of consideration for those left behind.

More than a few schools of thought come into play. One says to divest yourself of everything, pretending that you like minimalism and are happy, with enough possessions to furnish a modest monk’s cell. Some like to buy new, starting all over again.  Others see themselves as conservators of precious artifacts, handed down from since-forgotten ancestors. The frugal and utilitarian can’t jettison perfectly good stuff, like that never-used orange fondue pot. And then there are those who view their stuff as part of themselves, a continuing project.

Langley Wakeman Collyer saved newspapers so that his lawyer brother, Homer Lusk Collyer, who had gone blind, could catch up on the news when his sight returned. They both died, buried beneath their largesse of junk, which included some 25,000 books and fourteen pianos, in 1947. For a literary account of the Collyer brothers, see E.L. Doctorow’s novel Homer & Langley.

Will it fit wherever you’re moving?

If you’re moving from a four-bedroom three-story suburban house in the Midwest to a one-bedroom Miami apartment, you might have a hard time fitting your lifetime accumulation of stuff in. And even if there’s no shortage of space, some items might be as useful as a snowblower in the tropics.

What will it cost to move your stuff? Can you afford to move it?

Let’s answer this one with a question. Will you be moving with a rental truck, doing the driving yourself, or will you call a moving company? Will your move be local, long-distance, or international? Brace yourself for some wildly-ranging estimates.

Will you be insuring your stuff during the move? Is it even insurable?

What is the replacement cost of your stuff? If it’s irreplaceable, is it even worth replacing?

Is that stove a 1949 Chambers stove or a Viking range of just about any age? Does the replacement value exceed the cost of moving – and do you even like those stoves?

Do you like your stuff?

If you like your stuff, you can keep your stuff. Or at least, you should.

Your stuff doesn’t even have to be useful to merit retention. If three sets of sterling silver flatware mean something to you, even if you never use some of it, keep it. It doesn’t take up that much storage space. That Pony Club trophy from 1964 may hold meaning only for you, and if you like it, you should keep it.

Kayla moved across the country from 3-floor townhouse to a single-story house, only moving a few items. Handing over already-read New York Times bestsellers to friends, she doesn’t store books. Her tastefully decorated abodes are always magazine-worthy, minimalist and featuring the year’s fashionable color. Even her Le Creuset® cookware is the right shade: mist grey.

And then there’s Rima, whose collection of books and magazines are her pride and joy, lining the walls of a house that blends mid-century with shabby chic, her décor inspired by John Waters and Amy Sedaris. A life-size flamingo and a bronze chimp compete for attention with a chair covered in bottle caps.

Or are you keeping it out of a sense of obligation?  Two decades of harboring that etagere late Aunt Hattie left you is enough if you hate it. And the same goes for those awful Hummel figurines. You’ve earned a full release.

Are you holding on to stuff, because you view yourself as the custodian of family heirlooms? Let’s get real. Unless you really fancy antimacassars, even the ones crocheted, tatted, and embroidered by some long-forgotten ancestor, it may be time to pass those on to the natural objects of your bounty. And if they don’t want them, and if you don’t want them, it’s time to re-home those relics.

Sometimes heirlooms are just meant to die. My mother’s pool room harbored a non-performing, ancient Christmas cactus. While she was in Mexico and the cactus under my care, like most house plants, it up and died. Driving her back to her home in Iowa one spring, bracing for a lecture about my irresponsibility and failure to respect others’ property, the same lecture I’d heard for four decades, I waited until we were an hour or so away, driving along the two-lane blacktops of northwest Missouri, before I broke the news to her. “Thank God you killed that damn cactus,” she replied. “I hated that plant, your grandmother hated that plant, and all we ever heard was ‘don’t kill the Christmas cactus’ from your grandfather’s mother who gave it to her, like it was supposed to be some treasured heirloom.” Now I get more mileage out of having killed the Christmas cactus than if the damn thing was still alive.

Is there anyone who would actually want your stuff? 

In the February 28, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx sets forth avenues for getting rid of stuff in A Guide to Getting Rid of Almost Everything.

Seduced by Antiques Roadshow and 1stDibs, spying a 1950s lunchbox at a thrift shop that’s just like the one that held your first-grade lunch, you may think you’re sitting on a gold mine. Chances are that you’re not.

In certain markets, your stuff might be valuable, but time and place may make it practically worthless. No one seems to want pianos these days. Goodwill in San Mateo County doesn’t accept furniture as donations.  No one wanted my father’s like-new green velvet sofa or plaid wool love seats. But in my neighborhood, definitely a mixed one, socio-economically, anything left, even a broken toilet, on the sidewalk will disappear within minutes.

Ten years ago, no one wanted LP records. Now LPs and flip phones are popular again. No one wants the Waterford, Limoges porcelain, Lalique, Murano glass, linen tablecloths, or the Ranch Oak furniture your grandfather bought in the 1940s, but that could change in the next decade. Today’s trash, tomorrow’s treasures.

Twenty-five years ago, I moved from Iowa to Mexico. In the decade preceding, I would wear out a Suburban, stuffed with more loot than the Jed Clampett brought with his clan from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills, road trip after road trip, maybe four years road trips a year, shipping books by mail. The bids that moving companies gave me were shockingly ridiculous, one ignorant mover insisting that Mexican cities were accessible only by dirt road and another saying the household goods would be shipped by rail to New Orleans and then by ship to Veracruz, and then overland to Morelia, which was just plain crazy. I finally landed on a company in Laredo that would contract with Mexican movers to move my stuff across the border and another thousand miles to Morelia, but it would be up to me to get the household goods shipped to Laredo.

And so, I hired professional movers to pack my worldly belongings in the largest truck Ryder rented, a car trailer hitched to that, and embarked on the most exhausting thousand-mile drive ever, driving the largest vehicle in my life.

You already know the rest of the story. That moving van contained all my stuff that I didn’t sell or jettison: a 1959 Evergleam Christmas tree, two leather sofas, old chairs, the damn Ranch Oak furniture, a dining room table and chairs, wrought iron patio furniture, more books, enough kitchen wares to stock Williams-Sonoma, a health and beauty belt massager, copper trays and Turkish artifacts, my grandfather’s tuxedos, sewing machines, my childhood bedroom furniture, Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens, a Turkish brazier, a samovar, an antique pine primitive corner cabinet that my mother bought at a thrift store long before I was born, most of my typewriter collection, an Ironrite Model 85 mangle and a Philco TV console older than I am, computers, printers, oriental rugs, an antique garden hand plow cultivator, a 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica, the J. Peterman Company 1988: Owner’s Manual N°. 1, a 45-rpm record of Witch Doctor and assorted LPs, and clothing spanning generations. And even more stuff that I’ve since forgotten about.

I left behind paintings of ancestors I didn’t recognize and that Coke bottle filled with oil from my grandfather’s foray into the oil business back in the 1940s.

Would I do that again? Sure. Unquestionably, I am a shameless maximalist. I have no plans to change. After all, I’ve got the makings of a museum of the mundane, which will surely support me in years to come.

Salad Days

Salad gets a bad rap. At best, it’s viewed as a perfunctory and pedestrian part of the meal, highlighted only during hot weather. Or as a course for dieters and dainty appetites. Go to a restaurant and order only a salad, maybe accompanied by an appetizer, maybe not. And you’ll get that look that says “Is that all you’re having?”

When was the last time someone asked for a second helping of salad?

Lettuce, tomato, maybe a slice of avocado, a touch of grated carrot doused in some glutinous slop masquerading as French, Italian, Ranch, or Thousand Island masquerading as dressing that just tasted like food-grade Drano, that’s the kind of salad my mother made every night, always served on the same wooden salad plates or bowls. Or chopped cabbage drowning in mayonnaise.

Could there be anything worse than Waldorf, a gooey mixture of apples, celery, grapes, and walnuts, in some kind of creamy mortar? Only Caesar gets that touch of theater.

There may be only 2,493 ways to make a meat loaf, but there are a gazillion ways to make a salad, none of them evoking sour, limp greens, dripping in oil.


Restaurants that would never think of serving tainted chicken or over-the-hill fish don’t give a second thought to charging customers for wilted greens, brown at the edges, ingredients better suited for the compost pile.

My favorite go-to restaurant serves up the best beef between here and Chicago, mastering creations of potato and conjuring up fabulous desserts, but it’s still serving the same three ho-hum salads since its opening a decade ago. Most restaurants just give salads short shrift.

And that’s why I took to making salads at home, lavishing the kind of attention that some might give to beef Wellington or a chocolate cake. Before long and before I started sharing the salad of the day on Facebook, I became known as the designated salad person, the one people would ask to bring a salad to any guest-sourced food gathering. What a score! You see, before then, any self-respecting potluck host would ask me to bring something store-bought instead of anything I might’ve made myself.

Netflix-famous cooking queen Samin Nosrat tells us that it’s all Salt Fat Acid Heat, but she doesn’t always get salad. She’s compelled to add cheese to nearly everything, which just ruins it for this cheese-hater. Don’t get me wrong: I still worship her. To the Samin’s holy quartet of salt, fat, acid, and heat, I’d add sweet, crunch, and surprise.

Start your salad by settling upon the two or three ingredients that will be the base of your salad. There isn’t an item on the produce aisle of the local supermarket or greengrocer that can’t find its way into a salad. Maybe shredded beef or chicken will be the salad’s focal point. Use vegetables not usually associated with salad: zucchini, okra, grilled peppers, roasted radishes, cooked winter squash and sweet potatoes, chayote, or raw corn. Berries, cherries, mango, melon, pineapple, and jicama are all fair game.

We all love carbs, and you can’t go keto or paleo all the time. Add a spoonful of bulgur, quinoa, farro, barley, Israeli couscous, wild rice, brown rice, garbanzos, white and other beans, roasted corn for a change of texture, to sate that carb craving, and to provide an interesting contrast.

Everyone knows that the probability of a pistachio, macadamia, or cashew ending up on your fork makes each bite of salad exciting. One thing that Samin never mentions is the importance of some sweet nugget in salad: hard candy in Xmas salad, praline pecans, raisins, dried fruit, candied ginger, silver dragées. A handful of pomegranate arils. Add something interesting and unexpected to salad – nasturtium seed pods can double as capers, green or unripe coriander or cilantro seeds, bougainvillea, marigold, rose petals, squash flowers.

Zhuzh it up with horseradish leaves, radish leaves, mint, fennel fronds, nasturtium flowers, or fresh pea tendrils. A few toasted pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or sesame add excitement and crunch.

Let’s move on to the acid and fat. Be miserly with both.

Living in Dorothy Lynch country can drive a person to desperate measures, so about a half century ago, I became a fan of Girard’s Champagne Vinaigrette, thinking that it was a sign I’d arrived, given that it was just about the fanciest offered up on the shelves of Dahl’s in Des Moines. And then I realized I was paying $5 and more for canola and soy oil, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and seasoning, all of which I could conjure up easily from my own pantry.

The fat doesn’t have to be EVOO or even poured out of a bottle. Nuts, bacon, cheese, tahini, avocado, anchovies, and tuna are all sources of fat. Keep that in mind when you reach for a bottle of oil. I prefer to spray or sprinkle the oil lightly and directly on the salad.

Acid doesn’t have to be vinegar. Citrus juice is acid. A splash of wine is acid, and so is pickle juice. Tomatoes, nopal, pickled ginger, and other vegetables are acid. So are honey, pomegranate molasses, crema balsámica, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, rose water, and dairy. You get the picture. You can drop the acid, or you can microdose. The decision is yours.

A little garnish always makes a salad special, whether it’s freshly zested citrus, gomashio (a Japanese seasoning of slowly-toasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt, sending forth a buttery, oily, salty sweet flavor), toasted nori, or even the crumbles and dust from the bottom of a bag of barbecue potato chips or Fritos.

Make your salads interesting and exciting, and become the person known for your salads. Experiment with your salad. Play with your food. Get creative. Make others crave your salads. And remember that you can also order in Chinese food or Domino’s if you fail.
But since all food pieces are supposed to include a recipe, here are three, each yielding enough salad dressing for a small army:

Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette

by Victoria Challancin

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons unflavored rice vinegar
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground sumac
Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Nora Ephron’s Really Good Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons mustard, either dijon or champagne
2 tablespoons good vinegar (I really like Noble’s Tonic No. 4)
1 small shallot, minced evenly
6 tablespoons olive oil

Villa Montana Salad Dressing

1 medium onion, diced
3 medium cloves garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 tsp. pepper
3 tablespoon sugar
2 cups oil
3/4 cup apple or cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon celery, chopped

Put all ingredients in a blender and stir until well blended. Makes 1 quart.

Note: this recipe was created in the 1950s, when oil was oil, and vinegar was vinegar.
 

Same Place, Next Year

The urge to fill my passport with more stamps than the person standing in line next to me might have had at immigration is over. I’m done with seeking out new places to visit. The days of thinking others might be impressed by what’s on my passport or a recitation of the number of countries I’ve visited are long over.

While that may mean that I’ll never see Vietnam, China and New Zealand, there’s still plenty of desire and opportunity to go back to places I’ve been to before. And that’s just what I do, returning time and again to the same place.

No longer is there the need to venture to far-flung corners of the globe to buy shoes of Spanish leather and Middle Eastern cooking tools and ingredients. All of that’s readily available, even at 3 a.m., courtesy of the Internet. Even biber salçası, the Turkish red pepper paste, and Lipton Yellow Label tea are available from Mercado Libre, Mexico’s version of eBay and Amazon. The department store sells purses made in Italy, French-made bras and Czech tchotchkes. Lebanese halvah and Polish chocolates can be had at the grocery store.

It didn’t happen overnight. It might’ve started with circumscribing my travel world to places where the people looked like me. That ruled out most of Asia, most of Africa, and most of northern Europe. Then I’d narrow it down to countries where the people spoke Spanish. Or maybe it didn’t.

It might’ve happened because I like to conserve time, energy, and money, which are in increasingly short supply. It might’ve happened because the older I get, the more I like to cut to the chase.

But the real motivating factor was none of the above. I wanted to go deeper, learning more about my destinations than If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. I wanted to use what I’d learned from previous visits, avoiding vaunted attractions not worth my time, peeling back layers, and going beyond. I wanted to own that destination, if only in my own mind.

My world didn’t shrink. It just became more concentrated.

Each time you return, you’re upgraded, just like those people who keep returning to Las Vegas. The upgrade might be physical — to a suite from a standard room at a hotel or a better table than someone just walking in off the street for the first time might snag — but the upgrade can also be mental, just because you know your way around a little better the second, third or sixth time around. A few times around the block, you’re no longer at your first rodeo.

The deer in the headlights look of a tourist gives way to acting like you know where you’re going.

There is something about visiting the same museums over and over again, each time taking them in through a different lens. Of course, there are always those temporary exhibits, but it’s always refreshing to revisit what you’ve seen before in the permanent collection. Las Meninas, housed at Museo del Prado in Madrid, looks much different at the age of 60 than it did when you were in your thirties. I can’t get enough Fernando Botero, no matter where his work appears. Each time I return to gaze at a Diego Rivera mural at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, I see more and different details not evident the time before. And you never know what’s newly in stock at the museum store.  But then I’m also a huge fan of museum cafes and restaurants.

The vendors at the Sunday flea market in Usaquen, a Bogota neighborhood, recognize me. And so did hotel bell staff at Diez Hotel in Medellin. I’ve learned which vendors at La Lagunilla Sunday morning antiques market sell pukka and which sell factory-fresh family heirlooms.

Not more than an hour after settling in, I’m at a café, pretending that it’s my usual haunt. In my mind, I’m a local.

A decade or so ago, I would spend a few days in Uruguay, returning a year later. The first time left me baffled, because it wasn’t as expected, having sort of an old, forgotten feeling about it all, a general sameness, not unlike old and yellowed linen from someone’s grandmother’s closet. But all of that gnawing feeling would draw me back a year later, when I found myself enjoying it for what it wasn’t. The sepia landscape of the year before was still not the technicolor of Buenos Aires, but it was also an oasis of calm, Argentine pretense erased. This time around, it made sense.

“Why are you going to Mexico again? You’ve been there so many times before. Why not go to Hawaii or on a cruise?”

Are my odd habits really any different from those who’ll visit Disneyland or Disney World year after year or who return to that same old cabin on Golden Pond?

I bask in the familiarity of it all. And assurance that things will be the same. You return to Whole Foods and a favorite restaurant in your own town over and over again. You might go to Chicago three times a year, seeking out the same Greektown restaurant and revisiting the same steakhouse. Why, there are even people who’ve been known to watch Turandot multiple times.

Once you’ve traveled a fair amount, you realize that the world’s all the same, but different, and the oner of travel just isn’t worth it. Comfort supplants adventure.

Never having been to Hawaii, at least not until I was well-settled in Mexico, nor having been on a cruise since the time we crossed the Atlantic in search of America on MV Britannic in the 1950s, I would return to Mexico several times a year. Landing in Mexico City, staying at the Camino Real Polanco, I would have my hair done at George the Jordanian’s beauty shop like the fancy ladies. There was no need to get out a map or even ask directions to Liverpool and El Palacio de Hierro. And I already knew my way around Chapultepec Park.

An airline strike one winter sent me driving to Mexico, which then became habit, and before long, I would find myself spending ten days or so several times a year at the Hotel Villa Montaña in Morelia.

And before you knew it, one thing led to another, which made all those repeat trips to Mexico so very worth it: I get to live here.

Recovering big-time gonzo labor lawyer Jim Karger, a denizen of San Miguel de Allende for the two decades last past, sums it all up in his blog, Slouching into Oblivion:

Travel is overrated. Most people travel not to experience new places but to talk about their experiences, or what they wish their experiences had been. Travel is a status symbol like a Mercedes. No one cares what you drive and they also don’t care where you have been.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2022, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

Today is Guadalupe’s

And now begins the Guadalupe-Reyes Maraton, which I expanded a few years back to the El Buen Fin – Valentin Maraton. This post is recycled from 2017, but we need Guadalupe more than ever. Here’s to you, chica!

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.

Bad Santas

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 fee on a golf club membership. Not only do I hate golf, I couldn’t afford to pay the monthly maintenance charges and had to let the membership go. The donor may have thought the membership would put me with a more desirable class of people, but it was money wasted.

Diet aids, exercise equipment, and self-help books. “But I was only trying to help.” In my family, this comes naturally. My grandmother gave my mother a three-month membership to Vic Tanny’s, good only during the last three months of her final pregnancy. My own mother couldn’t help herself when it came to throwing in cheap exercise equipment along with excesses of stuff I really wanted.

Clothing that is obviously too small or too large for the recipient. Now, no one expects every donor to know every recipient’s size, but it’s a fair bet that those who shop Eileen Fisher seldom come in size 4. And folks with size 7 feet rarely will grow into a 9.5.

Framed photos. I already know what you and your family look like, and I don’t need to be reminded. Do you really think I’m going to prop that up on my mantle? Since you adore those images of yourself so much, how about I blow up a really bad photo of you, put it in a cheap frame, and give it to you on your next birthday?

Holiday gift baskets, loaded with cylinders of dried meat that a rat wouldn’t even touch, cheese cultured from toe jam, stale crackers, and worse. Is there anyone who really is impressed by an assortment of sample-sized nut bars and a few lousy bananas? Why not just send over a sack of dry dog food and a couple of cans of Alpo? If you really know the recipient well, you can deliver the same thrill and for a lot less money by simply wrapping up a box of Kraft non-deluxe dinner and a can of SpaghettiOs.

Tuition at a science conference and a check made out to a math tutor. That kind of gift demands reciprocity of no less than a scholarship to Betty Ford.

A donation made in my name to your favorite charity. How fucking dumb do you think I am? I know you’re taking the tax deduction.

The free travel liquor valise with pictures of liquor bottles, umbrella, and other shit you got for buying office supplies. A family member once gave that to my mother. Wisely, she handed the gift right back as a going-away present no less than 24 hours later.

A yellow lace baby doll peignoir. When was the last time you saw me wearing anything like that?

A gift certificate that would barely pay the sales tax on the cheapest item available or the tip on the cheapest item on the menu. Really, do you think that anyone could use a $5 Zabar’s certificate or a $10 gift certificate good at Canyon Ranch? The only one benefitting from this certificate is the vendor who never has to redeem it.

Books that have absolutely no useful purpose in my life – not even as donations. How about the Children’s Favorite Fables of Utah? Or a coffee table book about the most interesting gas stations in the San Fernando Valley? Surely there’s something more interesting in the remainder pile.

A jeweled dog collar, signifying a promise to buy a poodle. Really, what is a college student going to do with an unsolicited dog?

Medical devices. Oh boy, just what I always wanted! A sleep apnea pillow. A box of Depends would be easier to wrap. Why not go all out and give someone a year’s pass to the local STD clinic?

Used tacky Christmas ornaments, particularly when given on Christmas Day.

Tickets to an event which was held yesterday. Even worse would be tickets to tomorrow night’s Morelia boys’ choir concert for someone living in Uganda.

A toilet brush.

A wood flute and a concertina. Someone could’ve saved a lot of money just by buying an LP of the Lennon Sisters singing the von Trapp Family favorites.

Gifts that the donor thinks may spark some new hobby interest. Like macramé or stamp collecting. People over the age of 9 are seldom spurred on to new avocations.

A stick in your stocking. Yes, this did happen in my family. Even if he may have deserved it, and even though he received everything else he wanted, it still cast an unpleasant pall to that Christmas. No wonder he remains frozen when it comes to giving Christmas presents: expect one of those crappy gift baskets from him.

Are you tempted this year to give someone a gift certificate for paternity testing? What gifts have you received that just made your want to sit down and cry? Or plot revenge by blogging about them?

Who Doesn’t Love Dogs Playing Poker?

While waiting for a repairman to arrive, I wisely invested my time searching for monkey paintings on eBay, which then caused me to search for renditions of Botero’s La Noche on MercadoLibre, which then made me think of the Franklin Mint, which reminded me that I’d written earlier about that. So, please enjoy this blast from the past, penned during the last year of the last Republican Administration.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Some of us would be mortified if anyone found out what was on our iPods. Go ahead and admit it: if you’re reading this, you probably have some Herman’s Hermits and country western lurking on that tiny hard drive. Since I have no pride, I’ll tell you that I’ve got David Seville’s Witch Doctor on mine. (The 45 rpm record was the first one I ever bought with my own money, back in the summer of 1958.)

A generation ago, we decorated their squalid college apartments with black light posters (yes, black light poster I still possess some, stashed away in the bodega), lava lamps, and marijuana paraphernalia. A poster of Disney characters engaged in sex acts inspired me to write a law school piece about droit moral and Article 6bis of the Berne Convention, which ended up making me more money than I’d ever made in my entire life up until…

View original post 289 more words

Cheap Thrills Away From Home

Nick proudly announces that he’d never paid more than $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. Marty insists that $409 for a single ticket to a single seat for Book of Mormon was a real bargain. That was still above my comfort zone, given that amount’s darn close to a partial pair of Ferragamos. Or a week’s worth of Skechers. Or maybe a sack of items at Sephora. I’ve got my priorities, you know. Debt and the kind of culture that generates reviews in places like The New Yorker just aren’t among them.

I’m not part of the lumpen proletariat, I do have an American Express gold card, have flown first class, have bought a Gucci purse or three, have owned French and Tumi luggage, and always check my baggage, frequently more than a single piece. I’ve never stayed at a hostel or Airbnb, because that’s just too close to camping. I prefer to stay at nice hotels, and if I can’t do as well or better than what I have at home, there’s no point in leaving home.

People are always asking if I caught some high-culture event or ate at some restaurant in TripAdvisor’s top ten when I’ve left home, even those who know me well enough to know what my answer will be. Upon returning from San Miguel de Allende, about 150 miles up the road from home, friends will ask about the great restaurants I ate at, only to roll their eyes when I tell them about the take-out grilled chicken from a roadhouse or a tapas bar at a swank grocery store.

My holidays are filled with regular things, regular meals at regular places, and souvenirs are just as likely to be regular stuff. What did I bring home from my last trip to Medellin? Shelf-stable fruit purees, cotton hand towels, antibiotics, some bar soap, a book about Frida Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky, and a pair of porcelain monkeys. Plastic storage containers, odd condiments, bobèches, hot pads, wire whisks, hair brushes, eyeliner, and unique kitchen tools have found their way into my baggage on other trips, each bearing a tale guaranteed to bore any listener.

Shopping malls may be dying in the United States, but they’re thriving in Latin America and elsewhere. And they rank among my favorite destinations whenever I’m away from home. I’ll research what shopping malls to hit, because the mall is my version of high culture, a sporting event, and a self-guided tour all rolled into one. Malls are an opportunity to see ordinary people, local folks doing quotidian things, even if sometimes there might be a free concert, seldom lasting more than 20 minutes, which is long enough for musical entertainment anyway. Malls are microcosms of society, town centers, and harbor much more than mere mercantile.  Nail salons, beauty parlors, art exhibits, coffee shops, and nice restaurants beckon. At least one full day will be spent at a mall, no matter where I’m going.

Buenos Aires’ Patio Bullrich, Galerías Pacífico, Paseo Alcorta, Alto Palermo, El Solar de la Abadía. Montevideo’s Punta Carretas Shopping, Town Center in Boca Raton, Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, Queretaro’s Antea Lifestyle Center, The Galleria in Houston, Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Denver’s Cherry Creek Center, Bogota’s Centro Comercial Andino and Hacienda Santa Barbara. I’d rather spend hours at any one of them (and have) than at the Met or the Getty Center. And advance reservations, long lines and admissions never come into the picture.

Even down-market malls have a certain appeal. The Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional is in the heart of the downtown Medellin harbors an amazing collection of the tackiest merchandise you’ll ever see, but the stores aren’t the point. Because it really did start out as the national palace, you’re really there for the architecture.

Give me a day at El Corte Ingles, and I’m better entertained than I would’ve been at the Prado. Far more exciting than a museum, a wander through Harrods’ Egyptian Hall and Crystal Rooms costs nothing. The architecture of the flagship El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City is breath-taking. Even high-end drug and dime stores like Boots and Sanborns harbor treasures I know I won’t find at home.

I’m impelled to search out Chinatowns wherever I go: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Calgary, London. San Francisco and China don’t have the franchise on Chinatown.

Even grocery stores, ranging from little corner abarrotes, bodegas, kioskos, to supermarkets and all the way up to Carrefour, are mustn’t-miss cultural attractions. It’s fascinating to explore new produce items, puzzle over why the meat department is filled with tons of cured meat, chuckle over the offerings over on the gourmet aisle (Pace picante salsa and hard taco shells, anyone?), gaze upon twelve kinds of quinoa, inspect interesting crackers and cookies.  I’m still sporting shopping bags from Carulla with the same pride that attaches to those from Draeger’s Market and Trader Joe’s.

Always beckoning are antique stores and thrift shops, even more entertaining when I’m on a mission. I shop for monkeys, most often the ones impersonating humans. One friend is always on the prowl for Hawaiian shirts, another for antique brandy snifters, and yet another has yet to see a Breyer horse that she can’t pass up.

Finding yourself in an odd part of town filled with stores you never knew existed – one specializing in belts, another in dog collars, one selling zippers and only zippers, and yet another specializing in cabinet pulls with a door knob store next door—is magic. I’ve taken taxis clear across town to visit a Home Depot-esque places in foreign countries, just to see what’s selling, satisfying my curiosity about what a stove might cost, pawing through the garden department for seeds not sold where I live.

Street vendors call out to me. I rarely buy, but I always gawk. A cure-all made from live snail ooze, battery-operated electric flyswatters, lighted walking sticks, a pistol that shoots soap bubbles, cell phone time, pirated merchandise, sponge rats, fake eyelashes in fantasy colors.

The organ grinder mesmerizes me, always evoking the memory of one I saw years ago with live bear tethered to the organ.

Hippie and flea markets may be the same the world over, all surely run by some worldwide hippie market syndicate that prescribes the essentials: candles, soap, odd oils and potions, incense, chocolates, tisanes, herbal remedies, musical instruments made out of gourds by political prisoners, patchouli and El Condor Pasa wafting through the air, indigenous clothing, and some craft made from recycled materials like vinyl records or wooden lasts.

There’s a blessing somewhere for those fortunate to watch a living statue set up at the beginning of a shift and deconstructed at the end.

And then there are the hardcore markets: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques market, which means donning combat clothing, checking anything of value back at the hotel. These are living, breathing museums where all sorts of treasures are for sale.

I don’t understand why people take guided tours when striking out on your own is so much more fun. There’s no cheaper and more interesting way to see a city than by hopping on a commuter train or bus and riding to the end of the line or until boredom sets in and then dovetailing back.

Sunday tango in the streets of San Telmo, a Cuban a capella concert in Merida, a dog show in Sevilla, the juggler playing a harmonica while riding a unicycle in Amsterdam, and a bazaar of new designs and a clown workshop in Bogota all provided lasting memories without costing a dime. Even right here in my hometown of Morelia, fascinating and free entertainment abounds. Grown people, some of them even doctors and lawyers, painting designs on fabric, the stuff I’d roll my eyes at, at least until I realized the participants, chatting away, and having a great time doing what they were doing, left me happier just for watching them. Orchid shows, caporeia exhibitions, dancing horses from Apatzingan, and the Sunday art market in Parque Las Rosas, and book fairs compete for my attention.

And then there’s the matter of eating. Too many friends plan their travel by restaurants and TripAdvisor ratings, and I’ve even accompanied them on those jaunts, forced to stand in line for the opportunity to shed far more money than the dining experience warranted.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to eat, and I like to eat well. I just resist planning and spending outrageous sums of money.

Now, I’m no fan of food trucks or street food, and where I can comfortably plant my derriere is just as important as what goes down my gullet. It’s not all about the cheap; it’s more about the timing and convenience. The rest is just serendipity.

A cup of regular black coffee served in a china cup, along with a domino cookie, for less than a dollar in a sidewalk café populated mostly by city hall employees in Envigado. A Monday meatloaf special in a New Orleans diner of no memorable name. The best cochinita pibil in Merida, located just by asking two lawyers on their smoke break where they would have an ordinary lunch. Those great and incredibly inexpensive meals are still fondly remembered more than some expensive repast at a destination venue like Commander’s Palace or The Russian Tea Room (which I dearly loved for the décor).

When I’m traveling, just as at home, my main meal is midday. The menú turístico (tourist menu) has never let me down, and it’s usually an opportunity to enjoy several courses at a fixed price for far less than a la carte. Upscale grocery stores usually have a deli with an eating area, often a great opportunity to pick up something tasty for a light supper. I’ve enjoyed duck tacos, Lebanese platters, Peruvian ceviches, and pastel de choclo from grocery store takeout.

Food fairs, gatherings of regional cooks, celebrations of traditional cuisine, even charity barbecues have served up great food at affordable prices, and each of those was even better, because I’d just stumbled upon those events.

Even for those who aren’t fast food franchise fans at home, McDonald’s in Lima and Pizza Hut in Madrid command visits for intercultural exploration, fueling their passion more than Astrid y Gaston and Botín.

That Swarovski-encrusted car at Centro Comercial Andino in Bogota remains far more vivid in my mind that any Bruegel art, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Kinky Friedman more appealing than Phillip Glass. Call me easily entertained.

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

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

COvid

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

file-155

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.

file-137.jpeg

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…

View original post 95 more words

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…

View original post 412 more words

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…

View original post 1,067 more words