A Lesson in Church

I just spent the morning shoveling sand and drinking beer with my Mexican muchachos. It’s a community ritual known here as “corrado” (I think… don’t quote me) where the guys in town get together and work to pour a concrete slab. All by hand, no concrete pumper truck, just a gas powered concrete mixture and 30 beer fueled Mexicans with one likewise gringo. We did this little exercise ourselves three times for our house but it was fun to finally be a member of the crew. Of course the requisite huge “comida” feast followed where Stef and I gorged ourselves on pollo and frijoles charro. And did I mention more beer. All before 10am. On Easter. Ah, Mexico.

I realize this seems an odd choice for an activity on Easter Sunday morning. But that doesn’t appear to be the case for these fine Mexicans, who find more solid purpose in their religious imaginations with Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Easter here is very sedate festival day. Possibly a welcome relief and respite from a long week participating in the many festivities which culminates for them in the Good Friday procession.

I’ve had quite a week myself. We went to the Palm Sunday procession, then walked through the churches on Maunday Thursday with our good friend Charlotte and out-of-town guests Dot and Wes. Charlotte has become a real resource on Holy Week here in San Miguel (Semana Santa), even authoring a book on the subject. Of course she and Wes hit it off big time (he being a student as well as teacher of world religions).

I also had my wallet stolen that same night in a church courtyard. My own minor Maunday Thursday betrayal. I was foolish enough to forget all my lessons on how to take due precautions while traveling, leaving my wallet bulging provocatively from my back pocket. (“Mira chavo, el gringo esta estupido!”). The theft was executed very professionally using the old block and bump routine. And right in a church courtyard, in front of a Jesus praying in Gethsemene and a Judas hanging from a tree still holding his sack of coins. If the story of Jesus praying in Gethsemene while the disciples slept can be viewed as a story about vigilance then I was certainly the sleepy desciple. I’ll leave you to guess who played the part of Judas in my mind with his bag of coins.

Only for that moment though. The thief has my forgiveness by now and it comes to him with the hope that the $140 bought more groceries than Tequila.

One final piquaint irony. I discovered my wallet missing much later while Wes and I were walking with the group to the restaurant. We were talking about how people we both know who are physically challenged in one way or another manage daily to deal heroically with their adversity. Until that moment for me, the proposition remained strictly hypothetical.

The Paducah Forum

We are once again preparing for a trip to our home in Mexico. Our plan is to get down there twice a year if at all humanly possible. With the date fast approaching I am just now realizing that I haven’t yet posted anything about Paducah. That would put me in the position of writing a blog post from Mexico a week or so from now with never a mention that we’ve been doing in Paducah for all this time. It’s possible I could use the excuse that the life here seems less exotic, somehow less noteworthy. Or maybe the weblog has taken on a “Life in Mexico” flavor that I find hard to shake. Or it could be that I suffer from classic writer’s block. Actually all these things apply to some degree. Add in a healthy dose of being preoccupied with adjustments to home making in Paducah, taking on a full-time job, etc., and the elements for the long silence begin to add up. The truth is, I’ve started writing several times and always came up empty. The sparks never seemed to create the flame. This morning is a little chilly so I’m getting out my flint to try again.

Paducah is a wonderful place. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a town more friendly and gentle. The pace of life is a true antidote to the disease of urban frenzy and the mild weather in general is a balm. The members of the artist’s community have been all of the things we expected; stimulating, committed, fascinating and kind. We did arrive at a somewhat awkward moment here with the community undergoing some fractious upheaval. None of it is unexpected as part of the growing pains of this noble experiment as it emerges from it’s heady visionary days and aims towards solidifying and institutionalizing it’s gains. I say “noble experiment” because the concept of an artist’s relocation program contains just enough of that element of intentional community to supercharge the group dynamics. Since we are all in a sense stakeholders in this project, there is no avoiding the inevitable clash of opinion over the direction in which we move.

At this point I really hesitate to revisit the particulars of the period recently past. But I do feel the need to at least talk in general terms about some of the lessons we can draw on in retrospect. Much of the emotional hurt was unfortunate and avoidable. Some of it was inevitable since a large part of the community decided that it was necessary to create an alternative organizational structure for the artists of LowerTown. Some building blocks for that structure were inadvertently dropped on some people’s toes. The truly curious element in the whole tussle was (and is) the part that e-mail played in actually militating against communication. We have an e-mail group via Google Groups called “LowerTown Artists Forum.” It was established to provide for the dissemination and cross-fertilization of ideas. While it does serve those functions adequately as far as getting news and questions out to the group quickly, it suffers from two very significant shortcomings.

The first might be characterized as; “I didn’t know it worked like that!” This is the shock (and shockwave) that comes from realizing you’ve just sent a very personal and pointed opinion out to the entire group when you just meant to talk to one confidant. The e-mail forum concept was simply too new and unfamiliar to many and simple mistakes in addressing messages soon turned into major flaps. In an e-mail forum, the dreaded “reply” button turns into a broadcast medium, blanketing the entire forum. Private thoughts promptly become public knowledge simply because the sender neglected to check the address line carefully before sending. I want to emphasize that the mistake made here isn’t in having the sentiment. We all tend to air our most strident opinions only in safe (read: “private”) contexts. This context is crucial for us all to vet our opinions so that they may be brought to the larger stage based on feedback received in the private setting. The mistake arises only from a simple lack of knowledge about a very new media. I’m sure that in the early days of telephone usage people didn’t understand the function of a hand over the mouthpiece.

The other shortcoming of the e-mail method is the “Alternative to face time” dilemma. We use e-mail because it is convenient, free and has the nice quality of instantaneous reward. It’s truly amazing to think that we actually lived without it all these years. But a huge problem with e-mail is that we now use it as a substitute for face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction. Time and again, a contentious issue would emerge in the forum and promptly degenerate into personal attack based on a misreading of tone and nuance. We rely on a whole variety of subtle cues to communicate nuance of meaning, most of them are visual and auditory. All of this can be lost in translation between the voice in our head when we write and the voice that is heard by the recipient of our e-mail. This is especially true when motives are in question or mutual trust begins to break down. The solution to a situation like this where intentions are misread is simple but takes some courage and a bit of generosity of spirit; pick up the phone and call. Just call. Begin with something like; “I thought we should just talk to each other because the last thing I intended was a personal attack on you.” The price we pay by not talking to each other is immense.

Since I’ve now jumped up on my soapbox to provide my “how to” guide to e-mail usage let me make another suggestion. Resist the urge to present yourself as cheerily constructive and positive in the open forum while flaming the person you contend with in the private e-mail channel. Don’t do it. The validity of your opinion rest squarely on personal integrity and the respect it engenders and by doing this little “one – two” you throw away any chance of being perceived as someone who sets aside personal issues in the interest of reasoned discussion. The public forum may be fooled, especially if the victim of this maneuver is sensible enough to not expose your duplicity in the public forum. The more important focus of your effort (the person you are in discussion with) is not. In the best-case scenario you’ll get a phone call and you can both talk it all over.

I think this may be my reason for my not writing about Paducah as of yet. I had to get this out of my system before I could move on. I realize that no one is asking for my advice and I that I don’t really know all the ins and outs of this situation. These humble suggestions are only offered in the spirit of fostering community health. But please remember that I need this advice as much as anyone. If my underlying thought in this post is; “we need to stop acting petty”, that’s plainly a projection of what I need to remind myself.

The community here is maturing. We arrived late to the effort but it seems the early “settlement” days are behind us. Ahead lies the challenge of developing the vision into a day-to-day reality. We will continue to disagree because much is at stake and we each have our unique perspective. Now, more than ever, we can’t afford to let our lesser natures dominate. We are muddled people. We are also good people.

Borrowed Eyes

Stefanie models the Talavera tile kitchen

Stefanie models the Talavera tile kitchen

When will your house be done? When are you moving in? How long dear Lord, how long? When you build in Mexico you have to get ready for the hurry up and wait. No schedule is firm, no crew is consistent, every budget is filled with bubbles and shadows. But “poco a poco” the thing gets done. You watch it happen day by day and the changes are so incremental that you sometimes miss the effect. Certain features appear rather rapidly and you go “Wow, look at THAT!”; a spiral column to support the front porch roof, the shaped bricks that form the top edge of our stepped stair rail, the finial at the top of our onion-dome cupola. But the mass of changes accumulate slowly over the course of days and weeks. That and the fact that our focus is always on whatÕs still left to be done all militate against awareness that any real progress is being made.

Stefanie poses with our friend Floyd in front of our house in Mexico

Stefanie poses with our friend Floyd in front of our house in Mexico

The best way to see what has evolved is with the help of friends. It’s time like these when you just need to borrow some eyes. We invited a group of friends over a few days before leaving for Florida even though our construction site was still a mud and gravel lot, the exterior paint job half finished, the second floor is still a work in progress with tile-lights-bathroom in various states of completion. But inviting them over was the right thing to do because those borrowed eyes helped us to see what we’ve actually done. Where we see an unfinished structure set amidst a chaotic heap of construction rubble, they see a little gem of a house with no mention of those other distractions. I’m always looking at what’s left to be done instead of what’s right there before my eyes. The accumulation of details needs a fresh set of eyes to appear whole.

Hermilo does the brick rail on the staircase

Hermilo does the brick rail on the staircase

Our friends were generous with their praise for our efforts. All of them had experience with the distinctly Mexican process of home construction, to one degree or another. We had good conversations up on the roof patio, comparing notes and swapping horror stories. But I benefited most by being made to see the whole thing at once, as something to be appreciated and celebrated, instead of just a pile of unfinished details moving glacially towards completion.

The cupola. Mario said "This is art" This is right

The cupola. Mario said “This is art” This is right.

The first floor is largely done; the terracotta tile is sealed, the walls are painted. Our bed frame and headboard arrived a day before our mattress. And we had one lovely night sleeping on it before we had to leave for Florida. The refrigerator was moved in just as our cooler arrived from our rental casita. The built-in closet was installed the same day our car arrived with a pile of cloths on hangers. “Just in Time” construction. And just in time to leave for Florida and another rounds of art fairs.

Paint on walls of the dining room. Cat installed in the chair.

Paint on walls of the dining room. Cat installed in the chair.

We’ve left the house to our work crew; Mario the head maestro (“El Mejor”), Hermillo the other magnificent maestro, and Diego and Francisco our two helpers who endlessly mix cement and carry it up to the maestros. Oh, and our cat. We’ve actually built the place for her I think. Paintbrush will get to enjoy the fruits of our efforts more than we will the next two months. She’s got several prime sunny spots to lounge in and a place to look out the window there. Our previous rental casita had virtually none of those kitty amenities. And she’s got Margarina to come every day to tend to her needs.

Our full crew will be working for two more weeks while we’re gone and after that we might just have ourselves a house. We’ll return in April to touch up paint, put some plants in the ground, put our feet up. Take a look around. Start to “see” the place.

Loop de Loo!

In general, things don’t turn out the way you had planned. Have you noticed? If you can just accept that on principal life becomes one sweet kick in the pants; an adventure, instead of ruthlessly inconvenient. The problem arises from the fact that you have to make plans in the first place. We focus on our well laid plans in order to confront our fear that otherwise life will just happen to us in some random, chaotic fashion. So we diligently make plans; to change jobs, to move to a new town, to travel to foreign countries. But in the process life happens to you in some random, chaotic fashion anyway.

The trick here I guess is to make plans but also to plan to be flexible. And definitely don’t be too surprised when life forces a hard right just as you were trying to veer left.

I talk a lot with Stefanie about us being “plan junkies”. Since we’ve made the big break with our past lives to work as artists (what we called “The great leap into the unknown”) we have seemingly been in continual plan mode. And one wild plan begets another. In the context of our current lives as international gypsies our recent plan seemed perfectly reasonable; drive up from our home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to complete a small looping circuit of art fairs in south-central and midwest states of the U.S., spend a few days in between settling details on our other house being built in Paducah, Kentucky, and then head back to Mexico. All done in roughly four weeks.

Well, the drive up through Mexico went without a hitch, unlike a previous trip during which we ran into a problem with our radiator coolant pump. That required some serious Mexican mechanical improvisation to get us across the border. This time it was a smooth trip up to Shreveport for our first art fair.

That’s where things started getting squirrly. Stefanie developed an issue with her cochlear implant. With some troubleshooting we determined the problem to be with the implant itself. Not good. After the fair we drove to Dallas for a consultation with a specialist. In talking with her we realized that we would need to make a trip to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, the home of her original surgery.

We scheduled an appointment for her and mapped out a new plan. We could do one one last art fair we had scheduled for me Houston and then grab a train to Chicago. Houston didn’t have a station (because who knows why) but there was an Amtrak rail stop north of there in Longview, Texas.

After the fair we were sailing along out of Houston when we cracked a bolt on our alternator bracket and began thrilling to the sound of a loud “Schreech!!” coming from the engine during acceleration from a dead stop; the classic engine noise from loose belts. At the first repair shop we found the mechanic pointed out the problem and said the broken bolt would need to be drilled out which would cause us a delay of at least a half day.

Our train was leaving from Longview that evening around 7 pm and we still had a three hour drive ahead of us. It was around noon. After the mechanic described the problem as being caused by the broken bolt sliding out of position (it was a hinge bolt on the alternator bracket) I suggested that he just “slap some goop on the thing” to keep the bolt in place for a few hours until we could get to Longview and have it repaired properly during our week in Chicago. I was half joking in desperation but after a moment’s thought the mechanic shrugged and said, “Might work. Can’t guarantee it in writing though.” Sensible man.

I’m not sure what made me even say it other than my experience with the many ingenious rigs that our Mexican friends devise to solve problems on the fly. It actually worked like a charm and helped us get up to Longview for the train, eventually.

The rest of the drive from Houston was a wire-to-wire thrill ride because we needed to maintain an average speed of at least sixty for three hours plus. All I remember from that segment is a white-knuckle-gripping David (me) at the wheel of our heavily loaded RAV4, zipping down hills at over eighty on a rolling Texas highway, Stefanie saying “Slow down!” and me yelling “Ya gotta go eighty downhill to clear the top going at least 45!!!” or something.

Stefanie thought there was a reasonable chance that I had become a danger to her livelihood. While her priorities were on continued earthly existence, my sole purpose in life was to make it to the Toyota dealer by closing. Survival came second.

There were some further antics ahead as we approached Longview. Mileage signs toyed with our emotions by tacking on an additional 3 or 4 miles here and there. A seriously screwed-up Mapquest printout had us driving down a small weed-choked road near the edge of town as the clock ticked mercilessly down to 5 pm (their posted closing time on the web). Stefanie is trying to get me turned around and headed back towards town while I’m insisting that “Mapquest says it’s right here!!” and she’s saying, “Does it really look like a car dealer might be around HERE somewhere???”

Heading back into town we used a bit of blind guesswork to stumble on the place, pulling into the dealer’s lot just after five to read “5:30 pm” posted as the new closing time on the service department’s glass door. I strode into the office high on some naturally occurring substance in my blood, announcing “We made it!”, and blurting out “Your closing time on the web is 5!”, and “Take a look at this set of crappy directions from Mapquest!”. The kind people in the office had a somewhat different energy level. They just smiled and waited for this invading force to settle down a minute before asking, “Help you with something?”

Tuning the Immune

This pig and his friends are here for a reason

This pig and his friends are here for a reason.

Scientists have discovered that it pays to grow up in marginally unsanitary conditions in order to tune your immune system properly. Children in western countries who grow up coddled and sheltered from every pollen grain or cat hair are understandably hypersensitive to such minor irritants as adults. Somewhere in this observation about the source of our currently epidemic levels of allergic reaction is a hard fact: Those dirty little snot-nosed kids you always complained about are all healthy, happy, strapping adults now. Except, of course, for that bully in my grade school class. He’s in jail. His freedom was denied due to a minor legal quibble concerning a gang-related hit contract. Still free of allergies though no doubt.

Or, to put that life lesson in a slightly different way … as my apple pickin’ buddy out in Washington State used to say at the crack of dawn; "Time to get up and get amoungst ’em!".

It’s not just the immune system that needs to be taught how to discern minor irritants from the real deal. Getting out in that big old dirty world helps the mind differentiate whether other dangers are real or only perceived. When we prepared for our trip around the world last year some of our well meaning friends warned us about confessing our American citizenship to those we may meet. Turned out not to be a problem. We never dissembled on that fact and people always treated us with respect, like people everywhere should be treated; somewhere between friendly and indifferent. Never hostile. That’s only in the funny papers.

it's not just that they're cute

… it’s not just that they’re cute.

Now I know the statistics I read and you read in those same funny papers tell us that the general opinion of America is in the crapper. Due to many factors I suppose, one of which may be our current propensity to launch off and take care of military business wherever, whenever we so desire regardless of logic or other peoples opinions. So our American-ness may seem rude or dangerous to others due to some of these questionable decisions by our government. I just never saw that translate into personal animosity. Pity, maybe. And sometimes sympathy, like; "Yeah, I know … my President’s an idiot too…"

You see, pigs play in the mud.

You see, pigs play in the mud.

Speaking of which; rude is when a drunken guest belches in your face as he leaves the party. Dangerous is when he then demands his car keys so he can drive around the neighborhood. Right now the world sees us driving around out there with a full tank and a tall boy in the cup holder.

So perceptions of danger all relate to where we stand, and who’s looking dangerous. Many of our danger meters vibrated right off the dial a few years ago. But it’s important to re-calibrate them by testing them occasionally against the real world. Is the world a scary place? Yes, sometimes. Doesn’t mean we can’t approach it with subtlety and flexibility. Appropriate action (or reaction) depends on realigning our perception of danger to reality. Our danger meters busted years ago after the needle jammed all the way up there. Probably time to get it fixed and stop living our lives based on the same reading we get every day; "Life is Currently: EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!!!".

... and in the street...

… and in the street…

Maybe that’s one reason we did the trip around the world. Might even help explain what we’re doing down here in Mexico. Meter repair.

We face perceptions of danger every day. One of the most common for many people is their financial situation and we’re no different there. Not enough capital inflow to offset the drainage and the evaporation. A little like our reservoir out in Alcocer now that you mention it. That’s getting real low too these days. The lack of rain has caused the small lake to recede to a large puddle. But the rains will come. And we’ll keep making that art until it forms up into vast thunderheads that open up to bless the dry plains of financial desolation. It’s actually raining right now… real rain. Might be a sign but I don’t want to push it because I’ve already chased that image out and beat it with a stick. Just rain …okay?

... and their mother lets them.

… and their mother lets them.

Well then so what if we’re not yet making our fortunes with our art. We’re still far from broke. My immune system registers only a minor irritant. Nothing for my T-cells to get excited about. Good thing my mom let me play kick the can out in the alley as a kid. .

Art Fairs and Car Repairs

Sometimes the biggest obstacles are internal; as in internal combustion. Our well-traveled vehicle gave us great service and no surprises on the trip to Chicago and back over Christmas. Such is the case with aging autos that recent history provides no guarantees for future performance as our second major trip began less auspiciously. We left San Miguel for Florida in the early morning darkness and began to notice the windows fogging up, a problem that was eventually diagnosed as being related to a failing water pump. In between San Miguel de Allende and the border at McAllen, Texas we spent some quality time with two mechanicos who helped stitch the old Toyota Rav4 together with various temporary rigs (some of which may have included actual bailing wire) just to get us to Los Estados Unidos. We spent an extra night in Monterrey at a sweet little fleabag while we weighed our options after enduring a second rig job by the highway. The trick for these guys is to get you moving again as quickly as possible with the best fix they can devise, after siphoning off as many pesos as possible from their grateful unfortunates. I shouldn’t sound ungrateful since they are extremely resourceful and without them we’d probably still be broken down by some Mexican highway. By Monterrey we were zeroing in on the water pump issue after a few wrong turns down thermostat and head gasket dead end lanes. With the previous rigs in place we only had a small leak to managed by packing extra water and stopping every hour or two to cool down and refill the radiator. In that fashion we finally limped across the border into Texas. The car spent about 28 hours in the Toyota dealer’s shop in McAllen where we had them fix the water pump and change the timing belt, which was about 40,000 miles overdue for replacement.
The “Golden Crunches” along the Gulf Coast

The “Golden Crunches” along the Gulf Coast

We left McAllen, miraculously just a day behind schedule. Driving through part of Katrina country we saw plenty of twisted and broken trees, and blue tarps covering roofs still in need of repair. The commercial property came back the quickest of course but there were still many tall blown-out signs visible from the highway. Remarkably normal though, considering the magnitude of the disaster and the fact that this monster storm ripped through here just six months ago. The causeway bridge at Pensacola east bound on I-10 is in the process of being replaced and we inched along across the old, patched up structure. Our Super 8 in Baton Rouge was still pretty trashed out, not from the storm directly but instead from the refugees who crowded into these rooms and made a provisional life here for quite a while. That whole place may need a gut rehab after the punishment it took from being a full-time family housing facility for five-plus months. There were even some displaced people still living there in the process of sorting out their lives.
Stefanie’s watercolors on display at Ft. Pierce, Florida

Stefanie’s watercolors on display at Ft. Pierce, Florida

After another overnight in Tallahassee we drove down to Sarasota for the first art fair where I got to hang my batiks on our newly fashioned display panels for the first public showing. Stefanie and I began the first of many discussions we would share over the course of the next four weeks regarding the look of our display. We were very pleased with the panels themselves, crafted in Mexico as a team project between a local metal fabricator and us. We got lots of compliments from other artists who were curious to know where we got them. The other features of the overall presentation will be refined over time, adding nice name plaques, sign banners outside the tent, maybe even some accent fabric to add color and a friendly softness. All in good time of course. This trip was the great shakedown cruise though Florida, to “learn by doing,” to see what worked and what needs to be improved.
…she didn’t have to wait long for the crowd

…she didn’t have to wait long for the crowd

As for the show itself, it actually turned out well for me. We talked with many people who were fascinated with my approach to batik-making. Many of the guests who came in to chat were exceptionally knowledgeable about the batik process and art in general, really a sophisticated art fair crowd. At the very end of the show on Sunday a couple came back for a second look at my “Market Watch” batik. She wanted to know more about how to care for the piece and, since it is not framed with glass, how it would fare. I reassured her that it would not be a problem; I told her to keep it out of direct sunlight, and that it was treated with water-resistant spray so any accidental moisture would just roll off. She said she really loved it and her husband said, “Take it down!” Of course I was tickled to hear that since it amounted to my biggest single sale ever at $2,200. In the process of wrapping it up and completing the credit card transaction I asked what they did for a living and he said he was a “storm chaser’, working at construction contracting in the hurricane corridor along the Gulf coast. While we initially had concerns about the amount of discretionary funds available for art purchases due to all the hurricanes, that sort of turned it on its head. Depends on which end of the stick you sit I guess. By now “Market Watch” is probably well settled into its new Victorian home in Alabama.
A Lesser Blue Heron goes after lunch near the shore

A Lesser Blue Heron goes after lunch near the shore

That was the major highlight of my two art fairs since the second show in Tampa provided absolutely no sales. I met another painter named David in Sarasota; he also showed his work at the same Tampa art fair. He offered good counsel for me with tips on improving various aspects of my presentation. He told me that the no-sale shows (called “zeros” on the circuit) come with the territory and over time you begin to sort out the promising shows from the not so promising. The goal, of course, is to have more of the former than the latter. Ultimately, it’s all a crapshoot since it all falls to the luck of the draw and a profitable show one year can be a bust the next. A sculptor in the booth next to us in Sarasota said that after ten years doing these fairs he was still trying to figure it all out.
A White Ibis in a high perch at Ding Darling

A White Ibis in a high perch at Ding Darling

Stefanie’s shows in Marco Island, Fort Pierce and Holmes Beach garnered some sales and she sold her beautiful watercolor “La Maceta” to a lady who teaches with her sister. That piece has been a favorite of mine since she created it. I told the buyer quite sincerely that she has excellent taste because I really think it is one of Stefanie’s best pieces.
Two Great Blue Herons look to filch fish on the beach at Captiva

Two Great Blue Herons look to filch fish on the beach at Captiva

So, our first spin through the Florida art fair circuit is over. Our relatives in Ft. Myers were gracious and generous hosts for us in the days between shows. The weather was spectacular with no rain and very little wind (the bane of Florida art fairs). Our little art fair travel kit held up well and with some small repairs will be ready to go in the fall. We even got in some quality wildlife viewing time with a memorable day spent on Sanibel Island viewing various critters at the spectacular wetlands reserve called Ding Darling.

We’ve returned to our casita in San Miguel now, seeking forgiveness from our emotionally starved kitty cat, getting on with the next phase of our lives here. That will include some long hours happily creating more art, completing our small house on our land in Alcocer, and attuning our senses more acutely to this life we have in Mexico.

Revolution Day

The horses were first to water in Alcocer

The horses were first to water in Alcocer

I’m sitting in Benito Juarez Park (Parque Juarez), a place newly fashioned into a prime venue for Sunday afternoon lounging. When we first came to San Miguel this park had a ragged, abandoned look. Those features were pronounced in daylight and truly intimidating at night. Now, thanks to the determined efforts from friends of this park it has been reanimated: new paths, benches, greenery tended with care. As a result the life has returned. The young lovers cling to each other on park benches as before, but now their furtive glances are placed appropriately, towards the interest of their affections and not towards the old gloomy surroundings.

A trench comes before a wall

A trench comes before a wall

Today is Revolution Day and as a result the park is busier then normal. During the morning I watched parades of school bands, cheerleaders, small boys dressed as armed campasinos, young girls in prime early-century senorita dresses, fill the streets heading for the Jardin at town center. Now it’s afternoon, the brass has stopped blaring, the drums are silent, and the park is full of loungers like me. Groups of young people talk and laugh as they stroll. Families do what families do in parks everywhere; sit, talk, eat, play. I noticed the food kiosks were more numerous today, many providing extended food service with a hot grill on the side for making delicious-looking stuffed gorditas. It’s the middle of November, and the air is cool, but fresh, not chilly. The crisp night air this time of year is banished every day by the salubrious Mexican sun.

Stefanie sits in the courtyard in Museo Allende outside the gallery

Stefanie sits in the courtyard at Museo Allende outside the gallery

This placid setting provides a moment for me to report to you about our recent eventful weeks. We closed on our purchase of land in Alcocer about two weeks ago. That marked nearly a year since we first made the decision to build a home here. Stefanie and I are very happy with the result, about a half-acre of land by a small lake in the old rancho of Alcocer, four kilometers or so from San Miguel. It’s really an odd turn that brought us out there. Earlier prospects fell through or were non-starters. A moment came last summer when we began to re-think the whole plan. That was right after the piece of land we waited to buy for six months disappeared in a cloud of dust on the heels of some high-rolling Houston developer. We picked ourselves up though and got back on that horse. It took us to Alcocer.

The gallery door, upstairs from the courtyard

The gallery door, upstairs from the courtyard

We were really fortunate. The land we now own is much better for us. I’ve been spending a lot of time out there recently. Last week began by getting the boundary lines marked out and finished with eight hours of backhoe work, digging the trenches for the wall and holes for cistern and septic. I get to be county road crew supervisor. They work, I watch. For some reason I come home dead tired every day. Early in the morning by the lake I watch a solitary Great White Egret feed by the shore, or else track a group of cattle egrets as they swoop the lake, settle, then start again. One morning a formidable herd of cattle lowed and trooped to the lake to drink, chasing about ten horses who had had first dibs. Every day flocks of sheep and goats head through the creek valley that traces the now dry gully down from the Picacho Mountains behind Alcocer, as they make their way up the slopes to feed.

Our opening at Museo Allende

Our opening at Museo Allende

Tomorrow we start building. A crew of four will be there to begin at around 8am. The first project is to build a small shed for supply storage before they begin with the masonry on the wall and other infrastructure projects. It will be a real treat to finally see brickwork appearing, after a wait that sometimes seemed eternal.

David and Stefanie with our neighbor Barbara from Atascadero

David and Stefanie with our neighbor Barbara from Atascadero

The other main event these last weeks has been our two-person show at the gallery near town center. We opened “ìencounters/encuentros” on Friday, November 4th. We had an evening of wine and conversation, surrounded by friends enjoying the artwork we’ve created, most of it in the last year and a half. We met so many enthusiastic people that night who were generous with their support. Sales have been somewhat slow but Stefanie and I both feel this early period will be one of getting exposure and recognition and it would be a mistake to assume that massive sales will result immediately. If I’m saying the same thing two years from now I might need a reality check. Now is time for patience and more work. We take turns during the month-long run of the show, sitting in the courtyard full of bougainvillea and orange trees outside our gallery door. The gallery itself is above the old stable in the former home of Ignacio Allende. Where horses once fed we can offer to humans a treat for the eyes.

The Thing About Chicago Baseball

(On the eve of the World Series, I just had to include this letter I wrote to my dad, a life-long Cub fan, from his son the White Sox fan. I answered his e-mail which offered up some kind words of support just after the Sox won the American League Pennant.)

A very generous interpretation of events from you, my dear lifelong north-sider. I’m still not exactly sure what went wrong during the pedagogical phase, maybe nascent rebellion (at ten?), maybe it was the performance of the two teams in my formative fan year of 1964. Maybe I was just following the hype (Sox missed the pennant by one game that year, Cubs were 17 out). I do know that brother Pete went to a Sox game in ’63 or ’64, so I can remember being eager to do like my big bro’. My case was thoroughly hopeless in short order since modeling tends to fix permanently at that stage (if I got my “Child Psyche” right).

And hopeless was certainly the word for over 40 years, lost in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey (many locusts with small spoonfulls of honey in ’83, ’94 and 2000) until Sunday, October 16, 2005 rolled around. Stefanie and I were curled up down here in Mexico around the softly glowing computer screen watching the updates flash on our play-by-play scoreboard screen, all the while listening to ESPN Sox Radio chime in a half-beat later with the audio accounts (all via mlb.com). When it came down to two outs in the ninth and the scoreboard on our screen read “ball in play, out(s) recorded”, we both went over to my desktop where the audio had been cued up and cranked the volume for the words I’ve waited to hear since I was ten, “The Sox win the pennant! The Sox win the pennant!”.

Hours later after soaking my long-abused loyalties in the sweet balm of victory, I went to bed repeating those words. I tried them out again this morning and they still sound highly unusual.

It was quite a run. How can this team that was gasping for air down the stretch turn on a dime and run off twelve out of thirteen? And against the Indians, Red Sox and Angels, three of the four strongest Al contenders in September? My only regret is that we couldn’t mangle the Yankees a little bit while we were at it.

I’m glad you can enjoy, crazed Cub fan I know you to be. I know I’d be on your bandwagon if the roles were reversed. As for those Sox fans who still are inclined to freeze out Cubs fans for enjoying this, I say just let it go. At this point in time we’re supposed to be patronizing, not CRUEL! This one’s for the whole city! Getting to the World Series is a battle in the trenches. Once you win the pennant I say, pitch the big tent and invite everyone in.

I’ve been e-mailing back and forth with a pathetic (but comparatively more rewarded) Cardinals fan friend of mine. He has been warning me about the obstacles presented by Astros pitching for several weeks now. I would dearly love to see those Cards win tonight and get on a roll so we could face them in the World Series. Maybe beating them would pour us a dram of sympathy from the those supplicants to the Wrigley Shrine. Then “my enemies enemy is my friend” can be the pivot as long as Cub Fans can remember who the real pains in their keester are.

You’re right about the personalities on this team. A nice ethnic mix. No superstar hydocephalia (yet). A heavy current of ice water flowing in veins of guys that give every indication they don’t realize what the fuss is all about. And Ozzie. My favorite player in the late 60’s was Luis Aparicio. In the 90’s it was Ozzie. And now this inflection-impaired goof returns to Chicago and promptly dumps a World Series in our lap.

If I’m dreaming don’t wake me.

Dave

Will the Nerve Survive

Where do I begin with all this? Of course this Katrina situation calls for somber appraisals and a good deal of finger wagging and shaking of the head. Believe me, I’ve tried chastising but I come off as someone firing from the hypocrite. I’ve tried the philosophical route but I keep seeing old Hegel back there with a megaphone shouting, “You’re taking on water!”

Where do we start when it seems like the whole world could basically use a good spanking. Me included. I’m no big fan of corporal punishment but maybe just this once it might be justified so that we’d all WAKE THE HELL UP! I don’t think we’d suffer any lasting emotional scars.

Yes, we’ve been naughty (some of us more than others of course). Some of us have skated on our responsibilities as citizens. And sure New Orleans is a Party Town. But that doesn’t mean Katrina was some big ham-fisted house-frau bringing a willow switch down across the Big Easy’s bare bottom. I mean she struck Biloxi too! Most of those folks only head for the riverboats on the weekends.

So that’s not it. I noticed even Pat Robertson kept his mouth shut this time.

Maybe it’s a wake up call then (the people down at the desk are usually pretty darn good about doing that). That’s a much less punitive image for me than that old proverbial lightening bolt from heaven. Too incomprehensibly arbitrary. More like that friendly little phone call from the hotel’s computer where you pick it up half asleep and know you got your wake up call just about the time you realize nobody’s there.

Let’s hope we’re all in the shower by now. I could’ve used five more minutes.

I heard it was “just one of those things” and indeed it was, if by that you mean, “I have absolutely no clue”. I really wish I knew why some of “those things” happened but if I did I’d probably have a whole lot of explaining to do to some very pissed off people. I’ll understand it a lot more when I watch the Hurricane Katrina special on the Nature Channel. They can break out the old “awesome power of Mother Nature!” and “nature’s fury” to help me capture the moment.

I prefer to think of it as “One of life’s little Category 5 mysteries.”

The whole inept response by the designated governmental agencies was painful to behold. But then they were caught off guard. Maybe our expectations were too high. You know its one thing to be screwed slowly over the course of a lifetime by faceless bureaucracy. Its another when the whole thing happens on a weekend.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering. My attempts at humor here can be read strictly as survival mode after a very traumatizing experience. I’m only just now re-emerging from a dark bunker. While my eyes get adjusted to the light I’m acting kind of giddy with the thought of having survived. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you suffer (I think that’s right;). Anyway, I heard some really stupid things while I was down there. Come to think of it, there was a bit of an echo.

Rocks, Rain and the Reservoir

We were invited to a birthday party for a four year old boy, a son of some friends of our former landlords. We went along with another couple who are renting the same downstairs apartment that we lived in last fall. The boy’s extended family live in a small village about a half-hour’s drive west of San Miguel. The entire village was moved to higher ground years ago when they dammed the river to make a reservoir . As we drove out there we could tell that the recent rains had only lightly colored the hills with fresh green. What is supposed to be a drenching, daily thunderstorm this time of year has so far only materialized as infrequent showers. The reservoir is of no use to them because they don’t have the water rights and the money isn’t there to put in the pipes and pumps.

Meeting Boniface's sister and her burro

Meeting Boniface’s sister and her burro

We turned down a dirt road by the town’s shuttered clinic which is staffed only on weekends, and pulled up alongside the Aunt’s house. Boniface and her sister and brother came out to greet us, “Boni” gave us the welcome of special guests by offering her cheek for kisses. We entered the property briefly to meet their burro and some chickens ambling in a tidy little courtyard. The brother brought out a small stone sculpture of a dog he had made and gave it to our friend. It was a special order for someone back in San Miguel that she was enlisted to deliver. The hound was a sad-eyed mutt but sensitively carved and we passed it around with compliments to the artist.

Riding to the maize field

Riding to the maize field

The party took place up the road a little further at a modest house with a wonderful view towards the Presa de Allende (the reservoir) and San Miguel behind. We met the entire family of aunts, sisters and grandparents. We also met the honored guest, the serious faced little four year old who was to have his “cumpleanos” celebrated that afternoon. Tables and chairs appeared from inside and we gathered around for an early supper of tomato-y chicken soup and crisp tortillas.

The Presa with ruins of an old hacienda

The Presa with ruins of an old hacienda

The grandfather was an unending source of merriment for us as we listened to one story after another emerge from him accompanied by his smiles and laughter, all directed at us through piercing, playful eyes. Stefanie and I tried to follow the Spanish with our growing (still brutally limited) language skills. With key bits of help from our translating friends, we were able to mostly follow. And certainly the spirit of joy in the story-telling was not lost on us.

Stories and smiles from grandpa

Stories and smiles from grandpa

After “tres leches” birthday cake (a fantastically moist Mexican concoction) and “Happy Birthday to You” (in English, which really tickled our hosts), we headed out into the campo to see their bean and maize plots. Listening to our friends talk about the dry weather and seeing the obvious concern on their faces, it was apparent that the maize crop, which had been planted a second time this year, was again hanging in the balance. We headed down a dry canyon and up onto the far side where the maize plot sat, small shoots inching up tentatively from the dry, rocky earth. Spread out in front of the field was a spectacular landscape. Below us was the lake in which stood the ruins of an old hacienda’s grain storage tower. The old pueblo’s church was there too, but it held to dry land and at the water’s edge.

Dave gives the slingshot a whirl

Dave gives the slingshot a whirl

Beyond we could see San Miguel up against the side of higher mountains and all around lay the rolling desert foothills, glowing in late-afternoon sun. The grandfather, in fine mid-sixties form, entertained us by whipping rocks into the far distance with his rope-style slingshot. He talked about having rock fights in the past with others on distant ridges and about how he could rangle cattle back onto the trails with a well-aimed pellet. The guys all had to have a go at the handmade sling. I let two rocks fly and I think I felt something pop in my shoulder on the second.

Trying to "make it rain"

Trying to “make it rain”

The grandfather regained the sling and let go on one last rock, sending it high into the sky. Someone yelled “Make it rain!” and we all laughed. Returning to the village, Boniface recalled years when the dry arroyos would fill with the runoff from abundant rainfall. This year is different as they are made to sit in their new town high above the reservoir, to watch the skies and wait.