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.

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.

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.

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Deb Winarski

 

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

 

Images by Dale R. Granchalek

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Buscando Ocampo (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buscando Ocampo (Part 1)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

All I Want is My Plastic Jesus

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

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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David Lida, One Life

Andrew Paxman

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

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

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San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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Rest Well, Virginia Rose

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

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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Kissing Baby Jesus

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

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The Gift

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

IMG_0330

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

I thought she…

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Bad Santas

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

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

Self-help books.

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

 

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

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

The initiation…

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Dreaming of Sugar Plum Fairies from Spain

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

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

What’s this world coming to?

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

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The Villa Montaña and Salad Dressing

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

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Giving Gracias

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

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Viva Mexico

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

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

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

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

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

While chiles en nogada is the dish most associated with…

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Inked

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At OXXO this morning, the coffee was free. All I had to do was show my thumb. It’s not some thumbprint technology, it’s old school. After Mexican voters cast their votes, their right thumbs are indelibly inked. You have to wonder what body part they’ll ink on a voter who has no hands.

The voting process is old school, too. Dressing up a little better than usual, because you just never know whom you might run into at the polls, because this is an event that brings out everyone, well, everyone with an IFE card, I joined the line for first last names from Posada to the end of the alphabet, two ancianas passing ahead to the front of the line. I surrendered my voter ID to a poll worker, who passed it on to a man with tattooed arms, who read my name out loud. And he got it right, too. The next worker located a photo of my ID in a book containing the ID of everyone in the precinct, and a fourth separated ballots from four books: one for governor, one for presidente municipal, one for a federal diputado, and a fourth for the diputado local, each printed in distinctive colors. Entering the voting booths, curtained in plastic, I drew Xs over the names of my candidates, noting that the bravest and most independent of all was buried at the lower left hand corner, folding each ballot before exiting the booth. After depositing each ballot into its designated box, I returned to the table, retrieved my IFE card, and got inked. Voting in Mexico is a streamlined, easy process, no confusing machines to work or chads to confuse. And that’s the way voting ought to be.

On my way out, I ran into a former governor. But then former governors and retired politicians are a dime a dozen around these parts.

If you’re reading this, you’ll want to know whom I voted for. Let’s put it this way:  the party who kept sending me spam texts didn’t get my vote, and neither did the party who kept robo-calling me. I picked up a t-shirt from one of my candidates months ago. And one of my candidates never gave me anything, never contacted me, not even leaving a single piece of paper slipped under my gate. But he brought Jorge Castañeda to town support his campaign, and that was good enough for me.

I have a feeling that this election, like that last gubernatorial election, isn’t over yet.

Me and the Morning Paper

Reunited with an old friend, who shows up every morning on my doorstep, bearing tidings, good, bad and in-between, gossip, a peek into lifestyles not my own and just like mine, I feel like my life’s back on track. La Voz de Michoacán and I have had an off-and-on relationship for years, or at least since I first laid eyes on Morelia back when José López Portillo was moving out of Los Pinos.

La Voz is everything that the rest of the pack isn’t. It’s a tabloid, designed for reading on the subway, which Morelia will never have. It’s about as flashy as a pair of Flexi shoes – and just as reliable. It’s not a sexy, edgy newspaper, but it’s solid, comprehensive, and it delivers what it’s supposed to.

It’s also the only newspaper published in Michoacán which bears its price both in Mexican pesos and U.S. dollars. 10 pesos and 1 USD. You know what that means.

And it’s also the only paper around, at least that I know about, that has the P’urhépecha Jimbo—a page printed in P’urhépecha and in Spanish.

It sells out faster than its competitor at the abarrotes in my neighborhood.

The late Miguel Medina Robles was a publishing giant, and even though I only met him once, at the annual dinner over at the rectory during my colonia’s fiesta patronal, he made a lasting impression.

There is just something civilized and disciplined about print that the digital world doesn’t deliver. I’m forced to read sections that I’d ordinarily skip online. Sure, the digital version is easier, but it encourages skipping over items that I find myself poring over in print: two-page spreads about Pre-Hispanic music in Michoacán, what the recipients back in the Old Country do with remittances sent back home from migrants, the career of a caricaturist over at the Plaza de Armas. I can tear out sections to save for later, clippings to be passed on instead of forwarded.

Newspapers have been as much a part of my life as magazines. I grew up on the Los Angeles Times, followed by the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune, the St. Joseph News-Press and the St. Joseph Gazette, the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune. For twenty years, Sundays were filled with both the Omaha World-Herald and the Des Moines Register. Each foray to a new city meant having to pick up the local newspaper, even if it was just to read the obituaries of people I never knew.

But then my lifetime ambition, never fulfilled, was to be editor of Parade. A slender printed-on-newsprint accompaniment to the Sunday newspaper, it was read by more people than any other magazine.

Every newspaper demands reading in its proper order, which is probably not how the editors intended. The Sunday New York Times means grabbing the magazine.

But we’re talking about La Voz here. And this is the order in which it’s read in my house:

• Toca Mal. Everything worth knowing can be f0und in that small below-the-fold (if a tabloid had a fold) on page 2A. Toca Mal, who has gone from Francisco Lopez Guido to someone else, is the Herb Caen of Michoacán.

• Facetas. The F section, these are the social pages, where I concoct connections and stories in my own head about the lives and people who grace those pages. I get to keep up on the birthdays and saints’ days of people who’re a notch above me.

• The back page of the A section: seguridad. That’s the crime page.

• Dinero. The C section tells me how broke I am.

• The A section. That’s the main body of the newspaper, containing the far-too-lengthy-to-read editorials. And the esquelas. Those are the obituary notices placed by businesses, organizations, and important people lamenting the demise of important people. I am amazed at how quickly, sometimes only within hours of an unexpected death, these notices appear.

• The B section (pais) and the G section (regional news).

• Finally, the E section, called O. which stands for ocio (free time), containing entertainment and cultural news.

• And then I’ll do a switchback to the F section for the crossword and horoscope.

• The D section? That’s the sports section, which my employee grabs before the newspaper reaches my hands.

And what did I do this morning while reading the print version? I clicked on the web version just for the update.

The Traveling Knight and the Plastic Toilet

The traveling knight has gone on to greener pastures. When her spouse wasn’t looking, my sister shipped the knight off to a consignment store, and now he’s in the hands of some other lucky soul. I still have the plastic toilet, because I know quality and style when I see it.

 

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Now you may read on to find out what all of this has been about.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

I am an admitted re-gifter. So much known for doing so that even when I give something thoughtfully purchased and brand-new, maybe not even on sale, the recipient will declare “So, who gave you that first?” instead of some expression of gratitude.

Years ago, someone, fortunately long since forgotten, gave my grandfather a knight in shining copper-plated armor, standing about 18” tall and bearing a sword which could be used a letter-opener, something else for a roll of stamps, a drawer for paper clips, and a base which was also an AM radio. The tacky knight promptly was sent to the closet, released only once a year to be re-presented to some lucky soul on Christmas, always bearing a note card from Elvis. As in that guy from Graceland.

So, the year we decided to fully induct my brother-in-law into the family, and we gave him the gift from Elvis…

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The Gift

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

 

I thought she looked beautiful.

 

There was a time when I thought her house was exquisitely decorated, even if her idea was to buy out an entire department store window “because you get an interior decorator for free that way.” Consequently, I never had to buy furniture at any stage in my life, because there was always a progression of furnishings from the living room to the den to the rumpus room of their split-level house to the weekend house to mine. I still have never bought living room furniture that I was able to pick out for myself. It saves on hiring a decorator, you know.

 

I thought her house was beautiful.

 

When I was 8 years old, we went to Tijuana to do some shopping, probably over Thanksgiving weekend. I always knew that my November allowance would take a big hit, since December meant my grandmother’s birthday as well as Christmas. I bought her a little tray which bore a design of a bird with real feathers under glass, signed “Mexico.” At $2.50, it cost me an entire week’s allowance, but it was worth it. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I could afford, and I knew she’d love it. My mother thought it was the most hideous thing she’d ever seen, but she said “Mama Jean will love it.”

 

I knew who had the taste in the family. The next year, I would buy my grandmother $10 silver earrings, because she appreciated fine quality. Those, too, came from Tijuana.

 

As the years went on and I lost my sense of good taste, I’d snicker at the little tray, always displayed in her rumpus room, the room which bore the latest in 1960’s interior design: electric and green blue shag carpet, coffee and end tables painted green with a hint of gold, the black patent leather chair, wrought iron home bar finished in black with touches of gold, the swag lamp filled with turquoise and bright green diamonds, and a wall telephone with a cord that retracted right into the wall. The King Kamehameha wicker chair. And the zebra skin ice bucket. The little tray almost looked a little out of place amid the sophistication and glamour of the rest of that room. My grandmother didn’t put that little tray out there just for politeness’ sake; she knew fine art when she saw it.

 

My grandparents would furnish my first law office in 1977 with desks from my grandfather’s office and a reception room comprised of yet more castoffs. My mother swiped the little tray from Tijuana from her house, suggesting that it might repose on the reception room coffee table “because it’ll appeal to your migrant worker clients.” Embarrassed by the horror of it, after a while I tossed it away into a cabinet, and somehow it got moved to the next office and the next, and then somehow it ended up right here in central Mexico.

 

Anyone normal would think of the little tray from Tijuana as something that just wouldn’t die. Until only a few months ago, I hadn’t seen it for at least 30 years, and I almost broke down and cried when I discovered it. And you know something? It is beautiful, in a kitschy kind of way, and ones just like it are going for $50 on eBay right this very moment.

 

It’s not for sale.