Tuesday, October 06, 2015

killing me softly

Last week I succumbed to the travel bug.

Unlike many retirees, I never saw myself as a traveler when I retired.  Mind you, I traveled often with my Air Force duties.  And I loved it.  But that was for business.  Just traveling aimlessly did not register on my retire-o-meter.

However, travel has been a central theme of my retirement as most of you know reading these pages.  That is, until last May.  When I returned to Barra de Navidad following my China trip, I decamped to my bedroom where I have generally spent each night -- with the exception of those six hospital nights last month.

Last Wednesday I decided a trip to Costco was in order.  I needed a few things for the house.  Nothing that even approached a necessity.  What I really needed was to get away from my usual surroundings for a couple of days.

I am not very fond of Puerto Vallarta.  It was once my preferred tourist stop in Mexico.  When I looked at retiring there, though, I quickly learned it offered me very little of what I was seeking in Mexico.

What it does have is tourist hotels.  To rest my leg, I decided to avoid a rushed trip.  Instead, I would stay for two days at an all-inclusive hotel on the beach.  Something I have never done.

It turned out to be a good choice.  But not for the mediocre food and indifferent service.  Living in an air-conditioned suite for two days on the ninth floor of a beachfront hotel was almost as recuperative as a week in Madrid -- without the culture, of course.  I could feel the patina layers of "stay-at-home flu" sloughing off.

When I returned to the house, I felt as if I had been away for at least seven days.  I have learned a lesson.  Mini-vacations in Mexico may replace my longer stays overseas.

But I already know that about short get-aways.  I was reminded of that when I opened my most recent shipment from Amazon -- the complete works of Gilbert and Sullivan on CD.

I came to Gilbert and Sullivan at a late age.  Most people were exposed to the operetta magicians in high school.  I was in my early 20s when I first met up with the pair.

It was the winter of 1974.  I was studying for a joint university master's degree in International Relations at Oxford.  An Air Force friend told me the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was in town to present its repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  My college adviser insisted I attend.  After all, the
D'Oyly Carte company was the original production company of the pieces.

I still remember the eerie echo of strings and woodwinds in the opening bars of the overture.  The piece was Iolanthe.  Somewhere between the overture and the opening number, I was won over as an aficionado of the company.  I attended each of their performances.

And through the company, I met one of the dancers, who I dated briefly.  I have not talked with her in years, but I can still close my eyes and imagine her gracefulness.  I continue to look for that same love of dance in women I date.  That may be why I have long been infatuated with Karen Ziemba.

All of those memories came tumbling back through my nostalgia hall as I listened to the Iolanthe CD.  With those same few notes from the overture, I was back in the Oxford Playhouse.  With its plush velvet seats.  The guardsman lamenting the inanity of British politics.  Julia's graceful fairy pirouettes.  And especially Gilbert's witty lyrics that still make me chuckle a century after they were conceived.

Music has the power to magically do that.  To transport us back to where we have been -- or to places we have yet to see.  Making our lives a bit richer.  Renewing our souls.  Plucking the harp strings of relationship.

At 66 I am re-learning lessons I have long ago been taught.  Enjoy the moment.  Look for small pleasures that happen every day.  And travel the world step by step with music as your traveling partner.

It was worth succumbing to that travel bug to be reminded that life truly is a joyous trek.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

following the rebel

"Jesus did not come to start a religion."

For the past eight weeks, our church has been discussing that idea.  Or, more accurately, we have been discussing how to incorporate Jesus's teachings into our daily lives.

The words are Mike Slaughter's.  From his book Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus.  And it is edgy enough to get us to start thinking about our role as followers of Christ within our little community in Mexico.

Here is the rest of that quotation: "Instead, the rebel Jesus came with a renegade gospel to start a revolution that would be propelled by a countercultural community of people on Planet Earth.  And you and I are invited to be a part."

Taking that path is not easy.  After all, it was Jesus who instructed us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to make the alien a guest, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, and to visit the prisoners.  "Whenever you did these things for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did them for me!"

As a church group, we have discussed the complexity of helping neighbors in need.  The concern about causing damage while trying to help.  Or trying to discern whose needs are genuine.  Or simply trying to create some form of priority criteria in showing Christian charity.

But, as Ronald Reagan once famously said: "
They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right."

Whenever we discuss those side issues, we cannot ignore Jesus's clear directive: we are to help those in need -- out of our love for them, and out of our love for God.  Or as the Reverend James Forbes wittily put it: "Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor."

I have taken on a personal project.  Not to get a letter of reference.  But to share some of the grace that God has shown to my life.

Two years ago, I met Ozzie while he was working as a waiter.  We went from waiter-customer to acquaintances to friends. 

Even though he was born in Mexico, he spent most of his life in The States -- until he was deported five years ago.

He left behind an American wife and two small children.  A daughter and a son.  Other than a brief visit with his family in northern Mexico a year ago, he has been separated from them.  He could not go north, and his wife had concerns about moving to Mexico.

But I have never heard two young people more in love than these two were.  Shakespeare could have written them into a new play.

Through a series of events that appeared centrifugal at the time, circumstances changed.  His wife decided she would sacrifice her concerns in favor of moving the family to Mexico.

For anyone who has pulled up stakes to move with two small children, you know the impact the move can have when financial resources are scarce.

This is where I came in.  I was impressed enough with this love story to offer some of my resources to rebuild a family that was torn apart by tragedy.

Trying to re-build a family here in Melaque is going to be difficult enough without worrying about the financial impact it will have on their combined resources.  I cannot relieve daily life stresses, but I can take that card off of the table.

And because no one is perfect, there are individual problems that they will each need to deal with. 

Some of my friends have raised some very practical concerns.  For my financial and personal well-being.  All of them mean well.  And their analysis may turn out to be wiser than my own.  After all, it was Jesus who also said: "
[B]e as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."
But I tend to agree with what Anne Lamott wrote in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace:  "[Jesus] made a point of befriending the worst and the most hated, because His message was that no one was beyond the reach of divine love, despite society's way of stating the opposite."

My friends have raised fair questions about whether my help for this young family is really going to help them.  That I am just exacerbating some of the issues they face in their lives.

Maybe they are right.  Maybe there are neither easy answers nor simple answers in life. 

But my heart tells me I have made a correct moral choice.  That love offered never returns empty.

After all, Jesus did not come to form a religion, but to start a revolution.  And I am happy to grab a musket in that cause.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

the end is nigh

If you have hung out on this dangerous corner of the internet for any period of time, you know I try to take note of astronomical phenomenon.

Well, I almost let one get by unnoticed.  And it is a big one.

This evening, in just a few hours, those of us in the northern hemisphere are going to be treated to a double feature.  Remember those Saturday afternoon movies at the neighborhood theater (the Victor in my case) where you would get a feature film and a B grade movie?

Well, the double billing is back.

Tonight we are going to have a super moon.  I have written about them before.  The last time was during a visit to Bend when my mother was assaulted while we waited to watch the moon rose (COPS comes to bend).

In my opinion (and it is not very humble), super moons are just another of those semi-interesting phenomena that are heliumed by the popular press.  At best, the moon will be 14 percent brighter than a normal full moon -- due to the proximity of its orbit to Earth.

What is a big deal is a full lunar eclipse.  Tied together with a super moon, it will be as if God has pumped up the entertainment lighting for the evening, and then cut it back with Earth's shadow on the face of the moon -- leaving what will look like a rather tasty caramel effect.  (Others call it bloody.  I will stick with my dessert metaphor.)

For those of us in the central time zone in Mexico (and that is most), the eclipse will start at 8:00 PM and run through 11:30.  The full eclipse should appear (or disappear) around 9:32 PM.

Swollen foot or not (and it managed to plump up like a Ball Park Frank on he grill yesterday), I will be out there to watch the show.

Whenever I publish one of these astronomy essays, someone (or two or three) will ask where in the sky to look to see the show.  I think this one will be quite apparent.  Even during the total eclipse.

Here's looking with you, kid!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

thinking of patti

One of the first people I met when we moved to the Risley house in Milwaukie, Oregon was my neighbor, Stephanie.

Her family lived across the street from us.  Even though she was a year younger and one grade behind in school, we became fast friends.  No one can ever describe why these relationships begin.  They just do -- their growth dependent upon proper cultivation.

We turned into fellow confidants.  She advised me on girls; I returned the favor on boys.  Really only one boy.  My friend Jim who lived a block from us.  He was the sole love of her life.  A love that blossomed into a long-standing marriage.

Jim and Steph have continued to be two of my closest friends.  They certainly top the list of "old friends."

And that is why I was not surprised when I found a get well card from Steph this week in my postal box.  She mailed it from Portland on 2 September -- in the hopes that my optimistic view of the Mexican postal service was more accurate than the pessimists who write about late Christmas cards. 

It turns out her optimism was well-spent.  The card arrived here on 23 September.  Three weeks.  Just about standard.

No matter how long it took, its sentiments (and the personal effort invested) were appreciated on this end.  That is what friendship is about.

I am in a reflective mood this morning.  In four hours, the memorial service for my friend Patti will begin in Washington.

I should be there.  Just like Jim and Steph, Patti has long been one of my closest confidants.  To not be able to reminisce about the importance to my life in the company of people she knew is going to be tough.

But my doctor felt it was not wise to subject my left leg to the stress of being bent for a full-day car and airplane trip north.  Ken (Patti's husband) reminded me that Patti would have told me to stay in bed and rest my leg.  He, of course, is correct.

Instead of flying, then, I am going to spend the day resting.  But not peacefully.  I am going to reflect on Patti's life, and what she has added to my own.

There are many ways in which we receive wishes to get well.  Thanks to people like Steph and Patti.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

love for sale

I love the digital world.

The electronic toys.  The immediacy of the internet with its bar-bet bank of information.  Even the constant promise of artificial intelligence -- which I long thought was an attribute of those who read The New York Review of Books, but none of the books reviewed in it.

What I have yet to develop, though, are the social tools that allow me to navigate in this brave new electronic world.  Let me give you an example.

If I go to my mother's house, I know her questions will be rife with sub-text, but she will have no long term agenda -- having abandoned her quixotic quest for grandchildren from this branch of the Cotton tree.  When I walk through her door, I know exactly which social tools I will need to make the conversation a pleasant experience.  And, of course, they always are.

When I walk into a singles bar, I need an entirely different set of tools.  Unlike the questions my mother asks, the questions I receive from the woman sitting beside me are going to be the type of vapid exchanges strangers use to probe new territory.  No subtext.  But the smell of agenda will be thick in the cigarette-clotted air.

Decades of practice have honed those tools.  But nothing has prepared me for the odd world of messenger on Facebook.

My "friends" on Facebook are an interesting mix.  Some are true friends.  People I have known for decades, who I would call "friend" in the sense we once used the term.  There are even people I have met recently who make that cut.

But most of the people on my list are merely acquaintances.  Some are absolute strangers.

And it is that last group that has piqued my interest today.  Messenger on Facebook is like a large movie set where my mother's sitting room shares space with a political rally, an artvgallery complete with critics, a singles bar, and numerous other venues.  It is almost like one of those dreams where you constantly ask yourself: "How did I end up here?"

I have a number of beautiful young Mexican women who have shown up on my "friends" list.  I am not certain how they got there.  Beautiful.  Young.  Mexican.  I guess I know the answer to my question.

Now and then, one of them will start a conversation with me on Messenger.  Usually something quite harmless in a far-too-familiar way -- like "Hello, Steve.  How are you tonight?"

And there's the rub.  I have no idea if the conversation is in my mother's kitchen or on a dark street corner in Shanghai.  Being who I am, I usually treat the salutation as the latter, and move on with my life ignoring the solicitation.

If you think the reaction is harsh, I will share a recent exchange.  The young lady lives in Manzanillo, and has been a "friend" for less than a year.

Her:  Hello Steve, how are you?

Him:  Fine.  Are you still working?
Her:  No.  I am doing volunteer work. [Very sexy photographs attached]

Him:  That must be tough supporting yourself.  Are you looking for work?
Her:  Yes.  But I cannot find anything.  I have two children to support.  [Photograph of cute kids attached]
Him:  Ouch!    I often wonder why young people stay in this area.  There seem to be few jobs -- especially this time of year.  Cute kids.
Her:  Thanks.  Yes.  Turned down for two jobs.  I need money for them.

It was at this point, I realized I was not sitting on a church pew next to my mother.  The collection plate had morphed into a tray of cocktail wieners.

Him: Maybe you should try Guadalajara.

Her:  I would need money for the bus.  You know there was one time I thought to start having sex for money.  That was my situation.

Okay.  I admit I felt some mixed emotions at this point.  My heart went out to her (after all, we are all thirsty in our search in life), and my head told me to get myself out of there -- now.

Him:  I hope you were wise enough to reject the idea.
Her:  Oh, yes.  Yes.  I would never do anything like that.

I was ready to pull the plug when she realized I was not nibbling on the hook.

Her:  Well, I have things to do tonight.  Bye.

I really should have seen the solicitation coming.  After all, she is not the first netizen who has trolled me for paid sex.  It happens at least two or three times a month.  I suspect my Facebook profile may have something to do with it.  And it was why I have ignored her previous greetings.

Even so, it is a bit sad that a sizable number of young people in my local area have chosen the easy and dangerous option of selling their youth -- even if it is to feed their children.  I guess I could say the same thing about selling drugs.

The good thing is that I am finally developing some electronic street sense.  Even though my mother is not going to get her coveted grandchild.  From me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

there's an app for that

Travel has long been a linch-pin of my life.

I suspect that is why I joined the Air Force after I left college.  The Navy sold itself as an institution to join and see the world.  I opted for a more aerial option.

And a good choice it was.  Both on active duty and as a reservist, I ended up seeing far more of the world than an average son of southern Oregon would.  Mainly Europe -- with a few more exotic excursions tossed in for spice.

At one point, I had an almost-classroom-quality world map that was populated by brightly-colored pins -- each color designating the type of trip that took me to Berlin or Saigon or Rio de Janiero.  I say "type of trip" because once the Air Force had infected me with the travel bug, I tried to get as many countries as I could on my own.

It is hard to break some travel habits, though.  I first visited Florence in 1974 -- and it became my favorite world city.  I am not certain how many times I have visited, but my wall map soon looked as if the natural migration pattern of colored pins was to Europe.  And that was before there was a civil war in Syria.

When I moved to Mexico, I threw away almost all of my maps -- including the wall map.  I have long been looking for an alternative.

And I found it.  If I had given much thought to it (or if I had been a better child of the digital age), I would have had my answer long ago.  It was right there on my HTC smartphone.  A telephone that is far smarter than its owner.

The application bears the rather mundane moniker "Countries Been."  But I guess that is the post-postmodern way.  Things bear utilitarian names.

It gives three alternatives: "been" -- for countries visited; "lived" -- for countries where roots have been established for some other than a visit; and "want" -- well, you know.  Once chosen, a world map is created with color codes to reflect what pins once did.  In my case, the mix of countries looks like a rather odd trade union organization.

Because I have had a tendency to visit countries with large land masses, I appear to be far more traveled than I am.  But details matter.  The map on my telephone chides me, even though I have visited or lived in 64 countries, the number constitutes only 26% of the possible places to visit on the application's list.

My instinct is to pull out the valises and to add more green territory to the map.  That is, as soon as my foot gets back to a normal size.

Or I could simply sit on my laurels -- that is what I have taken to calling it these days -- for awhile.

Of course, if I print out the map and start poking pins in it, you will know I have truly reverted to old school days.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

accommodations, wheelchairs, food, and pesos

My six-day stay in a Manzanillo hospital now seems like ancient history.  And, for a blog essay, it is.

But I wanted to share some of my observations with my second major contact with the Mexican medical system.  The first, of course, was in 2009 when I broke my right ankle while ziplining outside of Puerto Vallarta -- where I learned that Mexican medical care is first rate and inexpensive (the price is perfecto).

Rather than keep you in suspense, I will tell you I have re-learned the same lesson on this hospital stay.  But, this time, with my left leg.

You may recall I was not inclined to head off to a hospital for my swollen left foot.  It took a few well-intentioned readers to convince me I needed to drive to Manzanillo, get off of my feet, and allow medical experts to do for my foot what needed doing.

My choice of hospital was not universally acclaimed.  Several readers gave me rave reviews for the place.  Two others were far less than praiseworthy in their assessment.

Overall, I give the place high marks.  I had a private room with all of the electronic conveniences (most of them provided by me) I would ever need.  It turned out I took far too many diversions with me.  By the second day, I was so bored I found reading to be a chore.

But what would a hospital stay be without a wheelchair tale?  I have two.

When I checked in, I was first taken to an examination room where I exchanged my Steve Irwin-wear for the standard bare-butt hospital gown.  I retained my boxers out of a sense of propriety.

I was then enthroned in a wheelchair with my clothes in my lap, an overnight bag on top of them, and topped off with my electronic gear backpack.  I could barely see over the traveling arrangement.

My impression was we were headed to my room.  I was wrong.  We had one important stop -- at the admissions desk.

I was handed a stack of forms to fill out.  But with no clipboard.  Of course, the pencil kept poking through the paper when I tried answering the questions.  I felt like one of the applicants in MIB

But that was not the worst of it.  Most of the required information was in my wallet at the bottom of the pile stacked on my lap.

My brother's voice kept repeating in the background -- "everything has a sequence."  And the admissions process simply did not.  With the passing of ten thousand pesos, as a deposit, I was on my way to my room.

That is wheelchair story number one.  Here is the second.

It only took two days for me to go stir crazy in my room.  My doctor asked if I would like the nurse to take me for a "stroll" in a wheelchair.  Sure, I said.  I had visions of being pushed along the Champs-Élysées.

Instead, she pushed me out into the waiting room -- perhaps the most tense room in the entire hospital.  Where she abandoned me for an hour.  At least, in my room I had air conditioning and the semblance of services being provided.

I pointedly avoided wheelchairs for the remainder of my stay.

The first question most hospital residents are asked is: "How was the food?"  I have never understood why people ask the question.  I know of no one who enters a hospital for the food.

But, here is my answer.  It was fine.  Plain.  But, well-balanced.  It was always filling, and I actually lost weight while confined to my bed.

And the second most popular question is: "What did it cost?"  Before I answer that, I need to let you know all of the services I received were top drawer.  

With one caveat.  The hospital has its own pharmacy attached.  I suspect several of the drugs I was prescribed were more expensive than other alternatives.  But each of them seemed to do their assigned duties.  As did the doctors and nurses.

For six days in the hospital -- and an incredible number of drugs that were pumped into me -- I left behind about $2,800 (US).  That included the medical fees, as well.

I would have preferred not seeing a doctor or being in a hospital.  But my foot refused to give me that option.

And I have no regrets in choosing the hospital I did.  For me, the price was affordable, and I appear to be far better off for taking the plunge.