Monday, December 22, 2014

no chestnuts, but plenty of bells

Yesterday evening kicked off the Christmas season here in Barra de Navidad.

That is a bit of a lie.  Like everywhere else in Christendom, where the birth of Jesus is being celebrated, the glitter that obfuscates that purpose started long ago.  Even here on the beach.

Things changed yesterday.  You know Mexicans are treating an event seriously when a parade or procession snakes its way through town -- with people attired in costumes that would get them banned from an international air flight.

That is what happened here.  We held our Christmas parade -- starting from my house and ending up in the town square.

I knew Christmas was approaching when our sole street decoration was suspended across the main road in my part of town.  You heard me correct.  Just one.  In places like San Miguel de Allende, the streets are festooned with similar decorations.  We tend to be a bit more subdued.

I suspect a Christian, popping in for a visit from Kyrgyzstan or some such place, would immediately recognize the symbolism.  Bells.  Ribbons.  Red and green.

There is nothing particularly Christian about any of those alone.  But, together, they spell a message that transcends cultures.

I will tell you more about the parade.  Probably tomorrow.  But it is well past midnight -- and my bed calls.

I doubt these bells will wake me in the morning.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

adding intelligence to the tax net

My pal Al French sent me tantalizing news late last week.

When I was a criminal defense attorney in Gladstone and Oregon City, Al was a prosecutor with the Clackamas County District Attorney's office.  We crossed swords on several occasions in the courtroom.

In our private lives, we became friends -- sharing roots in coastal southern Oregon and finding common political ground.  Al was the guy who introduced me to The American Spectator.

But his news was not from crew at The American Spectator.  This time it was The Wall Street Journal.  "U.S. Expats Find hope in Senate Finance Tax-Reform Proposal."

Any headline that contains the words "Expats" and "tax reform" is bound to get my attention.  Especially after this very odd year of collapsing personal financial links with my Mexican bank accounts (warning -- rant ahead).

It turns out the stir has been caused by a report from the Republican staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.  As long as the Republicans were a minority in the Senate, no one much cared what showed up in their committee reports.  Come January, all of that changes.  And what were once merely wisps in the wind are starting to be taken a bit more seriously.

This is the source for all of the ripples in the water of the expatriate communities around the world.

The first factual statement is just that.  A fact.  But it is at the crux of not only this summer's collapse of electronic fund transfers from The States to Mexico, but also for a number of other issues brewing in the future.  As Elijah discovered, a cloud the size of a man's fist on the horizon can soon turn into a cyclone.

The fact?  It is right there on page 282 of the report: "The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that imposes citizenship-based taxation.  In other words, the United States taxes its citizens on their worldwide income even if the citizen resides outside the United States and has no connection to the United States other than citizenship."

That oddity in the American taxation system -- an oddity that has long been decried by many economists and tax reformers -- leads to all sorts of mischief.  Such as, the American belief that it can bludgeon foreign banks into disclosing otherwise private information in compliance with this bit of arcane policy.

The report goes on to support a test "to determine at what point a U.S. citizen is considered a nonresident of the United States and then at what point the U.S. citizen is considered to be a resident again."

Worrying about that test seems to be the type of thing lawyers fixate on.  There is a much broader question.  Why should any nation seek to tax revenue generated outside of its borders?

Let's take a simple example.  If I were to turn my house into a bed and breakfast, there are several things I must do.  The first thing would be to have my head examined.

But let's skip past my mental hygiene for a moment.  As a permanent resident of Mexico, I am authorized to earn income here.  But I must also comply with Mexican law.

That means getting all of the necessary business licenses and assorted paraphernalia of running a business -- like setting up an electronic account with the tax authorities to report my income and expenses.  During the past year, Mexico has established a rather sophisticated system that requires reports from Mexican businesses frequently enough that revenue streams will be simple to track.

When I pay all of my Mexican taxes, why should I also be required to report my income and pay taxes on the same income up north?  It is true that tax credits are allowed for foreign taxes paid.  But why should Uncle Sam bother his graying old head over what I do in Mexico?

There is one inconvenient truth here.  Quite a few expatriates and tourists in Mexico make income "under the table."  That is what we call it when our friends are involved.  If it is a millionaire, we somehow turn the same action into "tax fraud."

Whatever we call it, income earned in Mexico should be taxed here.  The Mexican authorities certainly believe that -- and have started enforcement programs.  Income earned in The States should be taxed there.

As pleased as I was to hear the news, I had to tell Al I did not have a rooster in that fight.  I am not going to indulge in any activity that will produce income outside of the American borders.  Quite the reverse.  As a homeowner, I now hemorrhage revenue.

The rest of my income is generated through retirement accounts that are taxed at the source back in the land of lessened opportunity.  The government gets its cut before I see a penny of my own money.

Even though the reform will not directly affect me, it sounds like a great idea to me -- along with a slough of other reforms -- such as abolishing most (if not all) deductions and flattening out the tax rates.

And, if by some miracle, this small reform of taxing only revenue generated within the border of The States should pass, Congress could then repeal the foreign bank reporting requirements that have killed the ability of American expatriates to transfer funds electronically between their bank accounts.

Mind you, I am not holding my breath.  But It would be nice to stop living and ding by the ATM debit card.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

our seasoned days

I am in a seasonal cycle.

I have mentioned before that our weather is so constant here on the Pacific coast of Mexico, it sometimes feels as if we have no seasons.  Christmas is less than a week away, and we are basking in 80 degree temperatures.

The only thing that changes about the weather is that the summer is wetter, hotter, and more humid (see adjective number one) than the rest of the year.  If the winter is hot, the summer is hellishly hot. 

But that is not how we measure seasons here.  Our local villages get their biggest chunk of income from the surrounding farms.  We are an agriculture community.  I discover that daily as I battle the layers of dust that cover my life here.

That is not to say that tourism is not important.  My neighbors rely on it.  First from Mexicans and secondly from foreign visitors.

Our year is broken up into several tourist seasons.  During the summer, Mexican families descend on us.  In years past, they came almost exclusively by bus from the mountains.  During the last two years, a large portion show up in SUVs filled with beach toys and their designer-dressed children.

But that is not the only Mexican tourist season.  Throw in weekends, two weeks around Easter, two weeks around Christmas, and it is easy to see why the local businesses rely heavily on their fellow countrymen for the core of their tourist-based revenue.

The northern tourist trade is a bit more discrete.  Their season begins in November, increases in December, and then comes into full swing in January and February.  By Easter, most of the northerners have headed home.

During those months, the tenor of our little towns takes on a new tone.  Some of the better restaurants extend their serving schedules.  Special tours are offered.  And what passes for our social season begins.

There are no Hampton lawn parties or evenings at the opera with the remnant of Mrs. Vanderbilt's social list.  But we northerners do have our own way of celebrating each others' company. 

Yesterday in moving to mexico -- doing good, I told you about part of our social season this week.  The Rotary dinner dance.  A fundraiser for animal rescue.  A meeting of grumpy, old white guys lending a helping hand.  A nostalgic Christmas sing-along at the church.

Today topped off the week with an art walk.  Well, not so much a walk as an art sale.  Two of my former neighbors opened their houses to the public.  Jeanne is a photographer.  Ed, as you know, is a painter.  Each year they put on a show with some of their artistic friends in their respective gardens.

For most of us, it is an opportunity to take a good look at the creative efforts of our local artists.  And the artists have a self-selected audience to whom they can hawk their wares.

I spent most of my afternoon with Ed and Roxane.  Over the years, I have watched them upgrade their home in Villa Obregon.  It started as a basic little house.  With a bit of love and a lot of creativity, they have turned the place into an oasis for art.

After buying fifteen paintings this month, you would think that my appetite would be sated for a bit.  But I have three bedrooms that need at least one painting each.

I picked out some candidates which may or may not be included in this post.  But, as I have said several times, I am going to take my time in putting together the final touches on the house.

Whether I buy any more, spending the afternoon in the Gilliam garden was pleasure enough for me.  It was a bit like relaxing beside Monet's water lily pond -- while Monet was in attendance.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

moving to mexico -- doing good

"What do you do in Mexico?"

I have been asked that question by a bewildering variety of people.  The second "do" is always blurted out as if it were accompanied by a battalion of exclamation points.  Imagine Tallulah Bankhead delivering it.

It is one of those questions fueled by its subtext.  Usually, with the assumption that there could not possibly be anything of interest in Mexico once you have spent a week at the beach eating Mexican food.

My usual answer is far more sardonic than accurate.  "What you would do in your hometown -- only with a lot more freedom."

I should give more thought to answering the question seriously.  After all, if this week is any indication, what a person can do in Mexico is "good."  As in, doing good.

On Wednesday evening, the local Rotary held its Christmas dinner-dance on the tennis court of a fancy hotel.  I suspect the irony of that French Revolution echo was not foremost in anyone's mind.  Nor should it have been.

In addition to offering an opportunity for the Mexican and northern middle classes to mix for an evening of dining and dancing, the annual event is one of the primary fund-raisers for the local Rotarians.

Even though I am no longer a Rotarian (and have never been one here), I have monitored several of their projects.  The club has wisely focused its attempts at development in a single area -- education.  Classrooms and facilities have been built in areas with limited financial resources.

But the desire to do good is not limited to children.  When I first visited Mexico, I was shocked at the number of starving and injured dogs.  They seemed to be everywhere.  That was in the 1970s. 

Melaque was no exception when I arrived here in 2007.  Seven years later, stray and injured dogs are an oddity.  And a lot of that improvement goes to two organizations that have sponsored recurring neuter and spay clinics.

Yesterday one of those groups, ProAnimal Melaque, held a fundraiser complete with bingo, raffles, and a silent auction.  I suspect some people were there to get a good deal on a prize.

But most were supporters and volunteers in making this area a more pleasant place for both animals and people.  After all, it is a bit jarring to encounter suffering animals while trying to enjoy a lovely sunset.

After the animal fundraiser, I was invited to meet with a group of expatriates and tourists who get together regularly to give a hand up to Mexicans who are suffering setbacks.  There are many groups similar to this.  Individuals who combine resources to do what an individual could not do alone.

Wrapping up Thursday afternoon was another do good moment.  Our church sponsors a Christmas sing-along each year.  The idea is for our neighbors to come together to sing Christmas songs -- as if we were gathered around a spinet in grandmother's parlor.  Complete with Christmas cookies.

There is a line in Robert Altman's Nashville that has stuck with me over the past 40 years.  "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?"  Like Howard K. Smith in the film, my answer is: "As a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me."  At least, metaphorically.

Oranges evoke the type of nostalgia that can transport us to a different place and time.  A time when we were young and the world offered nothing but limitless possibilities.  When we were surrounded by our families -- secure in their love in our grandmother's living room.

Music has that same power.  At least, it did for the people gathered under the church palapa yesterday afternoon.  We came as the faithful.  Laughed at a snowman in a top hat and roasting chestnuts.  Chortled at the thought of letting it snow in the heat of Melaque.

As I sat amongst these neighbors, most whom I have never met, I felt as if I were sitting with my cousins in a brightly-lit room that we knew as a second home.  And it made me happy -- realizing it was plenty good for me to rest in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


I have a special relationship with Cuba.

If you have been reading these essays for very long, you will know I seriously considered retiring to Cuba to work with the Salvation Army (lawyer, doctor, indian chief).  Once in Mexico, I periodically considered making mission trips to the island (a cuba sugar).  All of that was initiated by a 2001 trip to Havana with my law school alumni association (spies in the cupboard).

There are plenty of reasons I should have some reaction to President Obama's announcement of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.  I suppose my reaction is similar to Clarice Starling's in Silence of the Lambs when her boss tells her that a man who had just assaulted her has been murdered.

Clarice:  I'm here, sir.  I just -- I don't know how to feel about it.

Crawford:  You don't have to feel any way about it.  Lecter did it to amuse himself.
I have strong feelings about the Castro boys.  They run a brutal fascist police state sadly disguised as a worker's communist paradise.  The Cubans themselves deserve far better than what has been their lot since The Bearded One took power from a kindred tin-pot dictator.

When I went to Cuba in 2001, I was agnostic about the American sanctions that had been imposed on the island for 40 years.  After talking with several dissidents that were working for a democratic Cuba, I signed back on to the attempts to squeeze the Castros out.

Somewhere along the line, I changed my mind.  The sanctions against Cuba were no more effective than the war on drugs.  A prime conservative principle (one that I have retained as a libertarian) is that if a governmental program is not meeting its stated goals, it should be jettisoned.

I long ago announced my opposition to the war on drugs from a purely utilitarian position.  My position on Cuban sanctions was a bit more closeted.

Unfortunately, President Obama's announcement does not end the sanctions against Cuba.  The sanctions are established by statute, and the president wisely chose not to pretend that he had the power to change them through an executive order.

But he could do what the Constitution allows him to do -- to act as the representative of The States in dealing with foreign nations.  Establishing diplomatic relations falls within his delegated powers.

My only question is why did he act this week?  The Cuban government has been acting very badly recently with the arrest and mis-treatment of internal dissidents.  This action will not make life easier for them.

Of course, the timing has nothing to do with concerns over human rights -- at least, in the sort term.  The ability to obtain the release of an American official held in Cuba for the past five years was obviously a catalyst.  And another unnamed "intelligence agent."

The White House is undoubtedly hoping that it does not have another

Bowe Bergdahl incident brewing.  I suspect the chances of a reprise are small.

But the timing was all about politics.  This president (and his party) are free from punishment by voters for two long years.  An announcement before last month's elections would undoubtedly have cost the Democrats a greater drubbing.

And acting in the waning days of the Democrat-led Senate gives the President a bit of cover before power shifts next month.

The President's speech was filled with optimism about the future for America and Cuba.  "
Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world."

That, of course, is political eye wash.  The rest of the world has had full relations with Cuba during the American sanction regime.  And Cuba remained a fascist totalitarian state with its people under the full control of its government.

Even though I know Cuba is going to continue sputtering along until the Castros release their death grip on its throat, I am still interested in heading there.  I have little interest in politics.  But I would like to work with the Salvation Army in doing its part to make a small difference on that sad island.

That day may be arriving sooner than I thought.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

road to manzanillo

If you drive in Mexico the same way you drive in Salem, you are going to turn into a statistic.

On most days here, I do not bother looking at my calendar.  The days tend to blend into one another.  And that is fine with me.  After all, I did not retire to merely replace one busy calendar with another.

I woke up earlier than usual on Tuesday morning.  When that happens, my normal course is to roll over and try to get the cast in my dream to start that scene from Act II from the beginning.

Instead, for some odd reason, I looked at the calendar on my telephone.  The only entry I expected to see was Lupe taking caring of the pool.  But I was wrong.  Painfully wrong.

First thing in the morning, I was scheduled to be strapped into an interrogation chair with sharp objects jammed into my gums.  That is my version of what you would call "teeth cleaning."

The problem was that I could just make it to Manzanillo on time if I left at that minute.  Obviously, my morning ablutions would have to wait for another day.

I love driving in Mexico.  It appeals to my adrenalin rush style of driving.  Fighter pilots might call it a "target rich environment."

My favorite venue for letting my Stirling Moss run free is the Mexican toll way system.  For a fistful of pesos, I get to drive on a well-maintained road managed by the Red Chinese.  As bizarre as the combination sounds, those roads are some of the best I have encountered in the world.  And, when I am on the toll roads, I am usually passed by everyone.

Not so on our local highways.  When I was growing up in Oregon in the 1950s, we called two-lane roads "super highways."  I can still remember those pre-freeway days where we would drive from Powers to Portland on what seemed to be rather sophisticated roads.  Compared to our southern coastal roads, they were.

There are quite a few things that remind me of Oregon fifty years ago.  Highways being one.

The major highway that runs from Barra de Navidad to Manzanillo (part of Mexico 200) is a relatively new highway.  Portions of it were not built until the 1970s.  It is the sole highway for traffic along the Pacific coast of Mexico.  That is why its two-lane construction often presents problems.

Most of the surrounding area between Barra de Navidad and Manzanillo is rural.  Burro rural.  That means there are two types of traffic on the highway -- people in a hurry and people who are not (either because that is their choice or it is the result of an inherently slow or overloaded vehicle).

I am almost always in a sub-category of the first group.  In my case, I just like to drive fast.  But, on Tuesday morning, I was also in a hurry.

That, of course, is when all of the people in the second category decide it would be a great idea to go for a slow drive on the highway in the combine or field truck -- or some other lumbering equipment.  It appeared there must have been a slow driver convention on Tuesday because I encountered tortoise after sloth on the way to Manzanillo.

One of Mexico's greatest personal achievements is learning how to deal with limitations through creativity.  Take two-lane roads.  Wherever a two-lane road has adequate shoulders, the highway will morph into a three-and-a-half lane road.  Motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles, and assorted farm animals will often use the shoulders as transit routes.

But, if the shoulders are open, good Mexican drivers will note a vehicle approaching from the rear and move to the shoulder to allow the category one drivers to roll on down the road.  I suspect that is a custom, rather than the law. 

There are oblivious drivers here just as there are in all countries.  That is when the graceful art of passing comes into play.

On my trip yesterday, I came upon two separate vehicles with plates from northern provinces.  Coming from a land where people are cautious, both drivers were maintaining speeds 10 kilometers below the limit.

But they chose not to pull to the shoulder to allow faster vehicles to pass.  I asked a northern friend once why he refused to pull over for faster traffic.  "Because it is not a safe driving practice, and I am going to teach the Mexican drivers how to drive properly."  Ouch!

One sign that northern tourists have arrived is the number of near-collisions at the few stop signs scattered through our villages.  Local drivers treat the signs as yield signs.  They watch to see that the intersection is clear, and then drive right on through.

Not so recently-arrived northern drivers.  They toss out their anchors at each stop sign. 

As I started my drive this morning, I watched as an Alberta-plated pickup drove up to one of those stop signs.  He put on his brakes.  The local driver behind him was watching for traffic on the highway.  There was none.  When he looked forward, there was a pickup stopped in front of him.  Fortunately, he veered.

One of the first rules my father taught me is to avoid being a defensive driver.  People who think they are driving defensively are often the cause of accidents.  His advice is certainly true around here.

So, I made it to Manzanillo with plenty of time to spare for my appointment.  Here in Mexico, that means the dentist opened her door to call me in just as I stepped into her office.

And because I had no reason to rush on the way home, I drove back to Barra de Navidad at speeds under the limit.  Being a category two driver has its place.  I even followed local custom and allowed the speed maniacs to pass me by pulling to the shoulder.

Given the choice, I far prefer driving here to Oregon.  Even when I allow an endocrine sabbatical.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

your days are numbered

My mind is frequently like a well-picked-over fabric store.

Occasionally, I dig through the remnants of odd lots and discontinued threads to find one of those memories that is concurrently musty and fresh.

That was true last Friday.  In o brave new world, that has such people in't, I shared one of those little gems.  I suspect it was the summer of 1966.  In fact, I am certain of the date.  We owned a motorcycle shop on the hill in Oregon City.

During my summer vacation from high school, I often hung out at the Clackamas County Court House watching how the local attorneys plied their craft.  In the process, a couple of the judges befriended this budding Atticus Finch.  That was what one of my favorite judges called me.

That particular day, I was lunching at the diner across from our shop.  A chili burger.  A cherry ice cream soda.  And a piece of lemon meringue pie.  My usual fare there.

I had just started reading Ayn Rand's door-stop of a novel -- Atlas Shrugged -- because that is what teenage boys do.  As I told you on Friday, I can still remember reading a passage on the second page of the novel (with only 1,186 pages more to read).

Eddie Willers looks up to see a calendar erected on the top of a building at the behest of the Mayor of New York City.

Eddie Willers looked away.  He had never liked the sight of that calendar.  It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain nor define.  The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.

He thought suddenly there was some phrase, a kind of quotation, that expressed what the calendar seemed to suggest.  But he could not recall it.  He walked, groping for that sentence that hung in his mind as an empty shape.  He could neither fill it nor dismiss it.  He glanced back.  The white rectangle stood above roofs, saying in immovable finality: September 2.
I felt one of those moments that were to litter the rest of my life.  The warm moisture of smugness snuffing out another ray of light in my soul. 

What Eddie Willers did not know, seventeen-year-old Steve Cotton did.  The quotation, for which he groped, was as clear to me as if it had been printed in the Reader's Digest "Humor in Clichés" at the bottom of the serialization of Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

It was, of course: "Your days are numbered."

Life's circles often draw tighter.  I had no more written about that shard of memory when it came roaring back onto center stage.

Earlier this year, I bought a transparent traveling pouch for the few liquids I take on board airplanes these days.  The dangerous items that TSA worries about -- perhaps, I will get angry and give the flight attendant a good shampooing.  Or, if I am really out of control, a fine reconditioning.

Included in the kit were ten little containers.  I assume they were to be used as pill containers.  At least, that is the utilitarian task I have assigned them.

When I am not traveling, they sit like red-headed Supreme Court justices in a very orderly line.  Each day I empty one -- and move it to the right.  The result is a continuing collage of my life.

In this particular case, a very graphic reminder that each empty vial is a day that I will never experience again.  The events of that day may now be part of who I am.  But they are over.  Never --ever -- to be re-enacted exactly as they occurred on that now-dead day.

I stood there looking at the shelf the other night.  We all know how many days we have killed in our lives.  For me, it is far more than I have left.  But, unlike the drug vials I have not yet emptied, we have no idea how many days we have remaining.

And that is probably good.  Too much knowledge is often a bad thing -- despite what the positivists that litter society say.  Science does not answer all of our questions.  In fact, it often raises far more questions than can ever be answered.

The best we can do is to live each of those days as if it could very well be our last.  To enjoy what circumstances bring our way.  And leave the worrying about tomorrow to those folks who really do not have many answers to any questions.

Each night when I empty another vial, I have taken to asking myself how well I did.  Did I enjoy the moment?  Or did I let another opportunity slip past me?  And did I put a bushel over that soul-sucking smugness that dims my light?

There are always days for us to improve.

That is, of course, until there is not.