Minneapolis to George Floyd – Minnesota Not Nice

Dark dark days for my city.

Minneapolis was a nice city, so everybody said. Lakes and parks. Food. Music. Architecture. Museums. Jobs. Schools. Art. Liberal populace. Enlightened government. Common prosperity. Vintage housing. Diverse cultures in a fluent community. Nice people. An ideal place to live most of the year, winter temperatures the most boasted drawback.

One nice evening in late May, little more than a week ago, Memorial Day in the USA, a national holiday commemorating soldiers, sailors and airmen who died defending the Constitution, a man entered a small supermarket in the central neighborhood of the city’s south side to buy a pack of smokes. He paid with a twenty.

After the man left the store with his smokes the cashier at the store tested the $20 bill and found it fake. The cashier called the cops to report a counterfeit $20 bill. A car with two cops answered the complaint within minutes, parking their squad car across the avenue from the grocery store. The grocery store employee identified the passer of the bad twenty as the man sitting in the driver seat of a car parked on the avenue. The two police offers approached the man in the car with one cop drawing his gun. There were two people in the back seat. When the man in the driver seat put both hands on the steering wheel the one cop holstered his gun and both cops ordered the man out of the car. When the man moved too slowly the cops reached in and pulled the man out of the car and handcuffed him, arresting him for forgery.

As I said, it was a nice evening. Rained earlier in the day. It’s the eve of meteorological summer, the lilac and apple blossom time when all those dormant woods of bland gray branches bust loose with lush green leaves. The air smells fresh and new. After 70-something days of covid-19 stay-at-home lockdown, the state governor announced a phase one of opening up of some of the restrictions of commerce and social gathering, and already people were sparked to get outside and walk around, even if wearing masks. A small crowd formed at the intersection next to the grocery store to watch the commotion.

A second MPD squad car arrived and parked near the store. The first two cops seemed unsuccessful persuading their prisoner to sit in the back seat of their squad car. The man under arrest complained he wasn’t resisting arrest, he just felt claustrophobic just thinking about sitting in that back seat. Nobody says whether they discussed sending for a roomier paddy wagon. The two newly arrived policemen are veteran officers and assume seniority of the situation from the arresting cops, who are rookies.

The man under arrest gets jostled back and forth on the sidewalk outside the cop car. He is a large man, difficult to move back and forth, possibly bigger than the biggest officer. It’s an awkward dance they do on the sidewalk as the officers in blue jostle the big man in handcuffs towards the cop car.

If there was any dramatic dialogue between the cops and their prisoner as they waltzed around the sidewalk, perhaps it was recorded on police bodycams.

It’s a busy intersection, E 38th St and Chicago Ave. 38th cuts east-west across the south side from Uptown’s edge to the Mississippi River, and Chicago Ave runs from downtown through the city’s midtown medical zone south to the suburbs. The corner where this took place is a middle-middle neighborhood, a mix of emerging underclass and established working class, blended ethnicities, un-rat race professionals, discreet gentry and a hearty populace of social service advocates. It’s a neighborhood like and not far from my own. It’s near Powderhorn Park, one of the signature central parks of our notable park system. It has historically or traditionally been a black neighborhood forming the crux of a swath about three miles long and about three blocks either side of Chicago Ave and a lot of black families still reside thereabouts.

The big man in police custody that evening was black. He was not out of place at 38th & Chicago, even during a pandemic. The police were not considered out of place either. This is at the western edge of the 3rd precinct which policed all the way east to the Mississippi and kept law and order at half the south side, including Buffalo Acres, where I live, about five blocks from the 3rd precinct police station where the four cops in this story report. Two of the cops were white, one of mixed African-American and one of Asian descent. The two white ones were of indeterminate heritage of whiteness, but they were white.

The big black man the four cops in blue uniforms subdued and placed under arrest was named George Floyd. He was taken to the ground on the sidewalk at the curb beside a squad car and one officer, the senior officer who took charge of physically handling the prisoner, subdued Mr Floyd by pinning him to the pavement on his stomach with a knee to his neck. The two first responding cops held his torso and legs. The senior cop’s partner stood by with his hands in his pockets and watched.

For eight minutes and 46 seconds the senior cop kept his left knee on George Floyd’s neck. How do I know? I was not there. Aha, but as I said this is a neighborhood corner. A crowd gathered. People with smart phones made video. Unedited video shows the alpha cop digging his left knee into George Floyd’s neck. In the course of almost nine minutes the alpha police officer dug his knee across George Floyd’s throat. George Floyd is heard to say in the audio, “I can’t breathe.”

Watching him struggle to breathe, not to escape custody or fight off the cops, you can hear people in the crowd begin to join George Floyd begging for his life. Even one of the original two cops is heard musing whether they might roll him on his side. Twice in the eight plus minutes. The alpha cop relentlessly digs his knee into George Floyd’s neck. As George Floyd suffers the cop seems to gouge his knee subtly deeper into his throat. He is being tortured to death. He calls out for his mama. What are the cops waiting for? The other rookie cop who first arrived at the scene said he could find no pulse. The alpha cop did not relent or relax. An ambulance was on the scene but the police didn’t allow the medics to approach George Floyd until after he expired.

They say they worked for an hour to resuscitate him but he was as much dead on arrival.

The civilian video went viral. All four cops were summarily fired.

And as you know, that’s not the end but the beginning.

Overnight Minneapolis was famous as the city where a veteran white police officer took a knee on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed black man lying prone on his stomach on the pavement for almost nine minutes and murdered him while the sun went down. Where three cops held a man down on the ground while one of them kneed the man to death while a fourth cop stood by and watched with his hands in his pockets while the man suffered to breathe and called out for his mama.

His name was George Floyd and he was kneed to death by Minneapolis police over $20 and a pack of smokes.

The next day all four officers were sacked by the mayor and the police chief before most people of the general public learned of the killing. A ten minute Facebook posting of the whole ordeal introduced it on social media and it was getting morning news coverage at home and on the networks. Already pundits speculated whether the cops would be charged with a crime. The Minneapolis police officer’s union issued a bland neutral statement asking the public not to rush to judgment. The political organizers who advocate abolishing the police department expressed their outrage. Black Lives Matter expressed outrage. All the hard core leaders and organizations dedicated to social change to eradicate poverty and ignorance, to end racism and stop police brutality expressed outrage. The NAACP, local chapter. Local church leaders. It got around to street level pretty fast. The Nextdoor network. Text messages. You didn’t have to be a community organizer to know the pain of George Floyd and how wrong it was.

A rally was scheduled for late afternoon at 38th and Chicago, the scene of the crime, which was already flourishing as a drop site for bouquets, teddy bears and love notes. The rally would commemorate George Floyd and march east by northeast about a mile and a half to the 3rd precinct police station.. There they would cry out their cause They would denounce racism and police brutality. They would pledge their hearts to eradicating inequities in the name of George Floyd.

Roxanne and I are all-in on that. For us it’s nothing new or shockingly hip but an ongoing thing worth working for most of our lives. We are after all baby boomers who lived through Civil Rights, Equal Rights, Human Rights and careful re-reading of the Bill of Rights, and it would be wrong to call us white liberal spectators. We knew what we were doing, living in the city. We always held up our end of the social contract. It would have been natural for us to join up with our neighbors and hike down to the police station on Lake St in solidarity with each other for justice. But being (better-than OK) boomers in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic we are statistically vulnerable to the contagion of the disease and so we stay at home and more or less phone it in.

To me it’s like church for shut-ins when I was a kid. If someone was sick or infirm they could watch mass on TV on Sundays and get credit for attending mass, whereas if you were not sick and were physically able you had to attend mass in person. But if you did both you could get extra credit, an indulgence, or so said the nuns at St Simon of Cyrene when I was a kid. Roxanne and I were shut-ins to the rally. Our spirits were willing. Our hearts were on fire.

At dinner we observed rally attendees returning from the direction of the police station. Our dining room windows offer a view. It wasn’t yet sundown, which at this latitude is after 8:30 this time of year, and we were having a late dinner because it’s just us and we’ve got nothing but time. We remark how young they are. Kids, we say — a micro-aggression maybe but no offense meant, a kid being just about anybody under 30. Ish. Mostly female. Mostly white. Mostly wearing masks, at least around their chins. I got caught up in a sidebar about other demonstrators around the world who wore masks to conceal their identities from the secret police, and face coverings for women were prohibited in France. The crowds in small groups from two to maybe six, semi-spaced at arms length or so, casually talked as they walked, waves of them, hundreds, reminding me of students on their way to classes. Some of course supported backpacks. A gentle rain began to fall as their ranks thinned with the sunlight.

Then a new phenomenon. As the pedestrians walked westward towards Powderhorn Park and the origin of the rally, cars of young people about the same ages as the pedestrians came jockeying for the open parking spaces. That too reminded me of students who jockey for parking spaces around our house when South High is in session, a block away — only it hasn’t been like this with parking since the coronavirus canceled classes. Anyway, this wave of young people — kids — in Toyotas and Hondas parked their cars and went walking north towards Lake St or eastward towards the police station.

Is it me, I asked, or do more of these kids seem to have tattoos?

More guys, Roxanne observed.

Fewer percentage of masks. More baseball caps. Back packs and water bottles. More goths? Who are goths these days? In some ways all the guys resembled Michael Moore. Or Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World. I didn’t want to make anything of it, but there was a different sense of purpose in the air. Maybe there was some comfort these people trusted our neighborhood to park their cars rather than the Target parking lot so much closer to the action. These kids were looking for action.

An unnerving presence of overhead heckacopters resonated with foreboding. After a while I determined there were perhaps as many as four different copters up there by the sounds of their motors. They would come from the east, over St Paul, make a loop around my back yard and go east again, and the next one would loop through and so on, one at a time. News media or law enforcement surveillance, I asked myself. Deep down I hoped that if there were miscreants the authorities would protect the innocent like the knights of St Michel.

From my window upstairs in the loft where I write I could hear what sounded like ballistics. Maybe I heard fire works or fire arms. Single shot repeats. Nothing that sounded like machine gunfire. Pops. Like handguns. Or Black Cats. Bigger pops — M80s or rubber bullet rifles. Some of the commotion in the distance involved firecrackers and fireworks pyrotechnics brought by the usual yahoos who cross state lines to stock up on firepower illegal in Minnesota and then entertain the neighbors and get all the hounds to bark anticipating the 4th of July. I could recognize a Silver Salute or at least hope it wasn’t a grenade. Rockets announced themselves by the fump and whoosh of the launch and the subsequent crackle after the explosion. Thus I rationalized what I was hearing was a mock battle of sub-Francis Scott Key quality between fireworks yahoos in town raising hell and a mortified police precinct keeping a semblance of order on home turf.

The police could only maintain a perimeter around its station barely wide enough to rescue vehicles with weapons in them from the cop shop parking compound. The crowds of protesters who hung around or arrived after the initial rally pushed up against the ramparts of the building and yielded little when the cops in riot gear pressed back with rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. The crowd would not disperse. Just across Minnehaha Avenue from the precinct station the rear guard of the protesters in full sight of the cops busted the glass out of the storefront of the Minnehaha liquor store and began to cart away cases of beer, wine and spirits, then help themselves to single bottles and sixpacks. This could have proven to become a tactical diversion from the goal of seizing the 3rd precinct, distracted by free alcohol. The precinct held that first night as the crowd pulled back and dispersed.

The fireworks died out gradually past midnight. The heckacopters flew fewer loops. Voices in the night suggested people straggling back for their cars coming home from a party and I prayed they didn’t fight. Estimates later counted thousands overall demonstrated and at dawn there were still people there, taunting the cops with epithets and obscene gestures. I thought about the reports and how the gathering had gone from being described as a rally to being a protest with real protesters. That night I slept with one eye ready, first my right eye, then left, hour by hour, and when dawn arrived and I got up to the morning paper and automatic coffee, only a whiff of gunpowder and a trace of trash on the boulevard were left of all the cars no longer parked on the street. No graffiti. No evidence of anybody puking on the lawn. The copters were gone. Day one had passed. According to the news no one else died.

This next day, Wednesday, it dawned on me this would knock the covid-19 pandemic off the front page.

It’s not unusual for my old friend Jim from Door County, Wisconsin to offer perspective on world affairs, but his email that day, what he wanted to know was what the hell got into my city’s police department.

A more portent omen came in my email from my young friend Ariel in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero Mexico, who wrote:

“Que fue eso! Amigo
Por qué esa injusticia asia ese pobre señor! No entiendo porque esa toma de medidas, eso es algo demasiado fuerte para gente y porque hacer ese tipo de cosas!
El pobre señor aguantó 8 minutos con la rodilla de ese policía en su cuello!”

Which translates roughly:

What was that! Friend
Why this injustice to that poor sir! I don’t understand why that action is too strong for people and why do that kind of thing!
The poor man endured 8 minutes with that policeman’s knee on his neck!

I was up here worrying about Ariel and his family under covid-19 lockdown in Mexico with their tourist season gone bust, and there he was worrying about the implications of a policeman’s knee on George Floyd’s neck in my city. It made me think of what he wrote me, in English, two weeks before that, describing covid-19 lockdown conditions in Zihuatanejo: “Too much government (Soldiers and Mexican security) in the friendly center.”

The heckacopters restarted their annoying orbits around the neighborhood about mid-afternoon. All forms of media hyped a massive peaceful protest rally at the 3rd precinct that evening and again the parking spots along the curbs in the neighborhood filled with young strangers in face masks hiking towards Lake St resembling the ones from the night before. Live TV feeds from one or more of the heckacopters showed the streets and parking lots around the 3rd precinct crowded with similar people milling around loosely, many masked, barely keeping at arms length — clear violations of the covid-19 restrictions and an epidemiologist’s nightmare — holding signs and listening to speakers shouting and extolling and demanding justice.

On TV the crowd looked larger because everybody seemed to be trying to keep social distancing, so they occupied more space, spread out among blocks. Still, there were hundreds with more on the way.

After eight o’clock, when the rally was scheduled to wind down, the exodus people returned to claim their cars. As the long rays of the setting sun cast steep shadows and reddening light between the trees, Roxanne and I observed the transition. Simultaneous to the exodus came more cars jockeying for next available parking. Much as the night before the newer arrivals were mostly male, favored black clothing and ball caps and racially white.

What’s this, the night shift, I remarked.

Is that guy carrying a milk jug? Rox observed.

Things did not seem to be on the up and up. It was a feeling. No proof. The later arrivals expressed themselves no more vociferously than the earlier crowd. Something just seemed fishy. Roxanne cringed as a gray Ford pickup truck ran the stop sign on 31st. That pickup hasn’t got any license plates, she said. What do you suppose that means?

We’re see, I replied. I’m not reliant on omens, but as an old timey literature student I look for foreshadowing in every story. I may have even said that out loud.

Upstairs in my loft, my ivy tower, I wrote email responses to my friends Ariel and Jim. To Ariel I assured him the murderers would be arrested, tried and assuredly convicted, sentenced and imprisoned. Jim in more detail I deconstructed the crime and as a manner of metaphorical analogy predicted the killers would suffer an ancient Minnesota punishment, to be skinned alive and dashed with pine tar and set on fire on posts at Minnehaha Falls.

The while I listened from my window to the sirens, the heckacopters and the rips, pops and pows of the pyrotechnics somewhere out there in the dark. TV news depicted a facedown standoff between taunting protesters and lines of cops in riot gear assembled around the police station denying the crowd access to the building. The crowd pressed the cops but did not breach the front door.

Across Minnehaha Ave a mob tore the plywood panels off the broken windows and doors of what remained of the Minnehaha liquor store. The intersection of Lake St and Minnehaha Ave was closed for the rally and now sprawled with hostile mobs controlling both streets in both directions with the police station at siege in the crux. In the dark and due to the perceived danger the TV stations watched from afar and from overhead as the rally that became a protest turned into a riot.

Somebody in a black ninja outfit with a black face mask carrying an umbrella and an ordinary hammer smashed every glass window of the Auto Zone auto parts store across Lake St from the liquor store, caught on camera phone. Without hesitation someone lit the place on fire. Empty of loot, the liquor store was expendable, and every other store front adjacent and around the block across the street from the police station went trashed and burned. Next the Wendy’s hamburger the back side of the auto parts store, up in flames. I always understood that Wendy’s was franchised to a black family. The Aldi’s grocery store near the Wendy’s got sacked next. Everything else the whole rest of the night seemed to happen simultaneously.

The Target store that anchored the block across Lake St from the 3rd precinct took on looters who busted through all its doors any by two or three in the morning every nook in the store was cleaned out, all the backroom stock, even fixtures. Legend says one doorbuster drove a car into the store, loaded up and drove out. The Cub Foods supermarket that anchored the other half of the parking lot on the next block took a sacking. The Dollar Store sacked and burned. An alternative high school located in the strip mall. A nail salon.

On the block with Wendy’s and the auto parts store there was a six story, 189 unit apartment building under construction. They were as far as the roof over the top floor. Somebody set the site on fire. It was projected to open for move-ins in the fall of this year. They called it workforce housing. A portion of the units were designated affordable housing. 189 units. The fire lit the sky beyond the midtown light rail station like a bonfire in the deep woods. From my porch we could smell fire somewhere and assumed the worst because we couldn’t see anything and did not dare venture far from home. The sirens ceased. The pyrotechnics throbbed. We waited for signs we should evacuate. From our front porch it sounded relatively calm. The heckacopters up above staggered their orbits and stayed east over the precinct.

The Nextdoor network buzzed with rumors, some true. My favorite post said she had her go bag ready and was buggin’ out.

Even so I did not fear imminent danger to our homestead which I affectionately call Buffalo Acres. Don’t know why I wasn’t afraid. In no way was I indifferent to whether I wished this place be spared the torches, I cared a lot, but the same instinct that bespoke something fishy about the night shift protesters bespoke an aura of sanctuary in the neighborhood, a feeling that ran counter to every omen — why I don’t cotton to omens.

I slept like a sentry. I heard some of the night shift protesters staggering and shuffling back to their cars. They seemed to be tiptoeing on the sidewalks, muffling their bravado the closer they came to single family dwellings, already reliving the fun I guess, incoherent to me. When I went outside shortly after dawn to look for the morning paper the horizon due north of our house was black with smoke. I ventured up the block enough to see the YWCA on Lake St was intact, but it didn’t look good for the shopping mall on the other side of the street.

Wasn’t wearing a mask, or shoes, so I went back indoors after giving the exterior of the house a once-over. No graffiti. Garage intact. All the neighbor houses. Garages on the alley. The air smelled smoky with a hint of gunpowder. There was ash on the lawn. Clumps of ash. Nothing on the roofs. Also no newspaper. In the house there was no brewed coffee. There was no electrical service.

That meant no iMac. No charging station for each of our iPhones, neither plugged in over night and neither charged above 79%. No TV. No lights or microwave oven. No stereo. No refrigerator or freezer, meaning to keep the doors shut unless absolutely necessary. The power company on the phone acknowledged my power outage report and even knew I was calling from a different phone number from my landline phone number of record on my account. My iPhone afforded wi fi so the power company emailed me they estimated our electric power to return by 6:00 pm. It had gone out at about 3:00 am. Our electronic clocks were blank. Our analog clocks and any time pieces on batteries ticked away the morning. I caught up on the news via wi fi on the smart phone like I was in Mexico.

The London Economist, a newspaper, was covering the story of George Floyd, the cops and the riots. Our city’s dysfunction was now an international story.

More friends from far and wide like David O’Leary sent emails and texted to see if we were all right like they checked in with us when the Interstate Hwy 35W bridge over the Mississippi collapsed into the river at rush hour in 2007, and likewise we and our kin were safe.

The police apparently held the line at the 3rd precinct and the police station was spared at least one more night.

Reports of looting, arson and devastation along the Lake St commercial corridor inspired gasps of horror across the Nextdoor network. The violence spread into the other twin city, St Paul, with devastation along University Avenue, a similar commercial artery that leads to the state capitol. Governor Balz-to-the Walz, a heroic civic leader and public servant during the pandemic, said he’d seen enough, he was calling out the National Guard. It was clear the cities’ police and fire departments were overwhelmed. This was a state emergency like the pandemic. He directed the state highway patrol and even personnel from the department of corrections and the local and regional county sherrif departments to deploy to the Twin Cities to assist law enforcement to protect the public by stopping crime and escorting firefighters and keeping the peace while guaranteeing the public’s constitutional rights to assemble and conduct free speech.

That’s a tough one, isn’t it. Law and order and free speech. Property laws and popular rage. Protection and oppression. Obvious conflict and confrontation. More conflagration, conflation and escalation in store. Roxanne and I weighed all this back and forth like the scales of justice only the blindfold off, or around our noses and jaws as it were, going about our daily putzing and ruminations, weeding the gardens. Roxanne raised seedlings in paper cups and they were ready to transplant, and so we did. Zinneas, sunflowers and cosmos. Dirt on our hands. American dirt.

My mom said her mother told her every person in their lifetime eats a pound of dirt. I guess some people eat it little by little and others eat it all at once.

Michel our daughter offered us to stay at their house, which was still in the city but further from the heat zones. This was a big deal because Michel is a nurse by trade and philosophically strict about observance of pandemic protocols such as the social distancing — we haven’t been inside her house in months. We decided we would stay home.

We rationed our iPhones so we would conserve power until the electricity returned. Another rich world problem, we were unable to do our laundry with our automatic appliances — as if we were about to run out of clean clothes, linens and towels. Or make toast with the toaster. Or operate the vacuum cleaner. Even our land line was out of commission, a cordless array dependent on an electric powered console. And yet the iPhones kept us aware. Kept us woken. By the time power returned to the neighborhood, I was down to 27% on my iPhone and Roxanne 16%.

Electricity returned in plenty of time for the evening news. Minnehaha liquors was a goner. The apartment construction site was a one story concrete ruin, Wendy’s and the Auto Zone in ashes. Target gutted. The grocery stores stripped. The Hi Lake shopping center up the street from us was smoldering rubble — good bye favorite local family taco shop; good bye locally owned Subway sandwich shop. Another Aldi grocery store at the corner anchored a five story apartment and condo residence above, and the residents and nearby neighbors tried to chase off the arsonists who accompanied the looters who broke in below, evacuating the building to the old pioneer cemetary across the street while a bucket brigade saved the building before city firefighters could arrive. Otherwise there were (only) three recorded fatalities to the riots, none at the hands (or knees) of the police. Two would be looters were shot by shopkeepers, and one shopkeeper shot by a looter. There were countless reports of injuries including other shootings and incidents of mayhem, pepper spray and tear gas and bricks and bottles and batons, but overall few casualties. Just a lot of commercial real estate destroyed.

The governor also suspended all mass transit throughout the metro. No buses. No light rail. Taxis?

The unsaid thing about the governor calling out the national guard is that these citizen soldiers don’t just all duck into their closets like Clark Kent and emerge dressed and ready for deployment and they don’t just check their smart phones and go, aha, I’m due to muster with my unit at Lake and Minnehaha in an hour — click, I’ll be there captain. Saying the national guard is coming serves verbal notice that violent horseplay would be met with force if necessary to maintain order and decorum. The tactical issue is for the leaders to devise a deployment plan with objective orders as to who is stationed where, who deploys where and under what circumstances under whose direct command and why. Troops cannot be dumped scattershot across the city. Somebody has to formulate a coherent plan, drawn up on a napkin or taken from a file of prepared contingencies — a plan. Strategy is not a plan. Mayor Frey of Minneapolis was supposed to formally request the governor send him the Guard — same with Mayor Carter of St Paul — and provide specifics of its mission. Hindsight and history will tell about the apparent miscommunication between Mayor Frey and the governor as to who defined the Guard’s mission in Minneapolis, as even Mayor Carter seemed to assume the governor was in charge.

Governor Balz himself served 25-some years in the Minnesota National Guard, retiring in 2005 as a Command Sergeant Major. At the the mayors’ eventual behest and behoovement the governor took charge and assumed full responsibility for the Guard’s activities and went to work planning deployment with the Guard’s top commander, who commenced mustering troops to their armories.

Meanwhile the clock ticked away at the Minneapolis 3rd precinct. Like clockwork the protesters marched again to the blocks of Lake St and Hiawatha and Lake and Minnehaha to protest police brutality and demand the arrest of the four ex-cops for the murder of George Floyd. Again the heckacopters buzzed over the neighborhood. Again the visitors parked their cars in the neighborhood and walked north and east. The traffic swelled looking for places to park, which meant they succeeded further away and trekked by on foot, pilgrims the last quarter mile to the precinct building where the killers used to work.

We have two new tourist attractions in our very own neighborhood, 38th & Chicago and Lake & Minnehaha. Is it too soon to consider the future market of an Aibnb, I asked Roxanne. Way too soon, she said.

Roxanne kept up with Facebook, to which I am not a member. She weeded through news feeds suggesting the looters and arsonists were from out of state. Even the Nextdoor network buzzed with rumors that the burnings and lootings were orchestrated by hate groups not originating from Minneapolis. Mayor Frey and Governor Balz both seemed to foster the idea that Minnesotans were too nice to deliberately wound our social fabric, though Mayor Carter, a black man himself and son of a policeman, kept a healthy skepticism that the violence might not be organic to the Twin Cities. Mayor Frey and Governor Balz, both white and very much Democrats, expected nice Minnesotans to police themselves and each other to keep order in the coming hours and days, at least until the national guard could muster, organize its mission and deploy to the streets. This turned out a little bit like expecting the three other cops to force the alpha cop to take his knee off George Floyd’s neck.

We congregated with our neighbors, ten feet apart at least. Little David, neighbor on our opposite corner on 32nd warned we should wet our roofs with our garden hoses. He said he was at the precinct riot the night before. All he was doing was being peaceful and protesting. He said he saw the mysterious guy with the umbrella and the hammer smash the Auto Zone windows — Little David said the guy wore a police style uniform and did not describe him as a ninja. He confirmed he was hearing on the street that outside agitators from the antifa and ultra-right organizations were rushing to town to coordinate trouble to force a political showdown in the culture wars — Little David used that description — to instigate a race war of the Charles Manson Helter Skelter variety. Oboy. He said he heard guys talking about stealing trucks and cars off the used car lots on Lake St and using them to stay mobile and not get caught. They say they’re leaving stashes of accelerants and explosives in back alleys, sending a couple of neighbors scurrying to check the alleys hereabouts. He showed us a bruise on his calf from a rubber bullet. It was Little David who educated us that milk in the face takes the sting out of tear gas and pepper spray.

Around here the sun sets a few minutes later every evening until solstice around 22 June. The night of Thursday 28 May sunlight faded after 8 pm and again traffic picked up as protesters picked up their cars and headed home and the night shifters took their places. Twilight lingered in the northwest sky until half past nine. I don’t use the word ubiquitous, don’t really like the word, it sounds stuffy and indeterminate, but by now the heckacopters blended into the background and the sky like black crows into the tall trees over a dead squirrel in the street. There was still silver blue twilight towards the west when the firecrackers and fireworks started up like your favorite yahoo uncles who can’t wait for it to get dark to get started with Black Cats and bottle rockets in the 4th of July. I know my favorite baseball bat from the 1980s when the kids and I played ball was upright at the base of the basement stairs behind the furnace. Don’t make me go down there.

After dinner we got a call on our restored-to-service land line from an old friend from our rock and roll clubbing days, hippie days, when we were in our 20s, before we had kids, and to me a friend beyond that, whom I met freshman year at St Bernard’s Academy because the random luck of the alphabet meant he sat next to me in the next row in home room, English and biology, Dennis Durer, also known as Skinny Dennis. After Rox talked with him half an hour I got on the line and we tried to catch up about twenty years with quips meant to zing over everybody else’s head except each other, like old times only worse — with Dennis you’d expect a reference to Mr Jimmy and the drugstore in downtown Excelsior and a simply sung phrase, You can’t always get what you want — indeed we were old. Er. He called to say he wasn’t dead. Not even almost. I confirmed the same. He asked how the Acres were doing — he was hanging around when we bought the place in 1981, house, detached garage, yard, trees, jungle garden. Good, I said, nice of him to ask. I said we were safe. We agreed after the pandemic restrictions ease up he should come over for some coffee and conversation.

Back on my nightwatch I paced upstairs to my desk by the north loft window. Then down to the swing on the porch. The audio was vaguely the same, the visual totally different but uneventful. News came the police surrendered and abandoned the 3rd precinct and the vandals had broken inside the front door.

On my nightwatch Roxanne asked if I was worried about more fires and I said, what’s left to burn? Tactically the rioters used the advantage of having nothing left in the vicinity to loot and burn to distract the growing mob from crushing the police line by forcing a head on collision with the cops that the cops could only win by brute force. The mob leaders probably calculated it was now or never, they could crush the cops by sheer numbers before the citizen soldiers of the national guard could possibly arrive, even if they provoked gross casualties the mob leaders must have calculated they would sway open the doors of the cop shop and invade the place at last.

Rather than endure inevitable personal injury due to outright combat between protesters and police, Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the police to abandon the 3rd precinct. Somehow all the cops disappeared and the rioters invaded and occupied the building. A crew from the back of the mob across the avenue tore the plywood panels remaining across the gaps in the walls of the Minnehaha liquor store ruins and carried the plywood to the entrance to the police station, where a bonfire began amid fireworks exploding in colorful arcs illuminating the crowd cheering the ones lugging the firewood to the scene. Mayor Frey explained that it was better to sacrifice a building than risk lives with a confrontation the cops would likely lose. Unspoken was if the cops would win the brutality and loss of life it would have cost to do so would have forever cost this city any moral karma.

Live and learn. The city cannot fully police itself. Given the lag of the MPD standing down and retreating to other precincts and the muster of the national guard the vacuum sucked in more rioters and looters who spanned both twin cities smashing, grabbing and torching a path ten miles straddling the Mississippi. The heckacopters hovered over the stoking of the plywood kindling that inflamed the 3rd precinct, recording the event live in real time as the ten o’clock news went late after midnight. Scores more fires. Looting. Where were the red lights and sirens? Where were the red and blue lights? Not confined to the midtown neighborhood of the 3rd precinct, fires were breaking out in webs and branches all over the city and all over St Paul.

Offices. Retail shops. Boutiques. Jewelry. Gas stations. Delicatessens. Bank branches. Salons. Pharmacies. Post offices. An Indian restaurant I loved called Ghandi Mahal.

Still, no intentional residential damages. Some underlooked apartments with retail on the main floor. A six story unoccupied 189 unit building uncompleted is all, like counting an abortion as a non-birth. How easy it seemed to be able to extend the rage of the crowd to the petit bourgeoisie. Instead we serve as free parking for whoever these guys were cattin’ around at all hours. It occurred to me they walked back to their cars on sidewalks with the thickest boulevard trees, dodging lines of sight from the copters above. I wondered if any of them noticed me on the porch in the dark, preferring not to light a porch lamp and draw unwanted attention to our front door. Were they aware I was there on the porch swing silently having a smoke, observing the night? How judgmental did I look by corner streetlight? Tiptoe anarchists. Nobody puking on the lawn. My nightwatch.

Friday dawned with fresh smoke smoldering in the air and offering a red sky at dawn. It was getting scary to already be used to nights of riots and days of protests. Ubiquitous heckacopters. Obsequious TV reporting and media. The conversation about racism structurally embedded in modern culture was underway. World wide.

Derek Chauvin of Oakdale, Minnesota, the senior ex-policeman who held his knee to George Floyd’s neck was arrested and charged with murder in the third degree and manslaughter in the second degree. His bail was set at a million bucks. He was jailed at Ramsey County, the county of St Paul rather than at Hennepin County, the county of Minneapolis, for Chauvin’s own safety.

Critics of course asked when the other three ex-cops would be charged and jailed. The county attorney, who a day or so before asked the public for patience and time to conduct an investigation, and like the police union begged not to rush to judgment, pointed out in reply to critics that this was the fastest arrest and charge of a police officer causing death in state history. Okay, said critics, but what about the other three guys?

This was obviously a much quicker arrest than in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at Brunswick, Georgia, but this is Minnesota and there should be no bullshitting around.

Then President Trump started sniping at the weak leftist mayor of Minneapolis for losing the police station. The president said he expected a tough response to looters and how he was sad to see such a great American city as Minneapolis in such distress. It wasn’t too long ago he called Minneapolis a shithole city of immigrant ghetto crime, a sanctuary city. On this Friday he issued his rootin’ tootin’ remark about lootin’ and shootin’.

Ignoring the feckless president Governor Balz-to-the Walz instituted a curfew from 8 pm until 6 am. Peaceful protesting would be allowed until 8 but then everyone was expected to go home, stay indoors. Again he was counting on the good will of nice Minnesotans. Again directing attention to troublemakers from elsewhere the governor said that by obeying the curfew the peaceful protesters would expose the bad guys who would otherwise use the peaceful ones as shields and cover to destroy property and create havoc. Anyone out on the street, walking or driving past curfew without a good reason was subject to arrest.

The governor also expressed a public apology to CNN for the state patrol arresting a reporter while on the air telling the story the night before. Reporters were saying when they held up their press credentials the response from law enforcement was We Don’t Care. The governor personally guaranteed full transparency to the press of what was happening.

At midday Roxanne and I put on our masks and walked the two blocks up 22nd Ave to scout what happened to Lake St. Hi Lake shopping center was in ruins. Years ago it had a Red Owl grocery store, a JC Penney, SS Kresge and Tru Value Hardware. The JC Penney became the Teppanyaki Grill and Supreme Buffet, a good use of the space. The Red Owl evolved into the Savers thrift store. The liquor store moved to where the Pizza Hut used to be, and Wells Fargo occupied the space of the old liquor store. There was a laundromat, an urban clothing shop, a Family Dollar, Subway and the Pineda taco shop. Snuffed.

National Guard troops in full gear formed an unflinching line across Lake St under the Hiawatha Ave and Blue Line light rail bridges, cutting access to Lake St at the Target parking lot and anywhere near the ruins of the police precinct. A few blue uniformed city police stood by. Citizens like us milled around speechless at the destruction. An agitated black man ranted at the national guard troops about his constitutional rights, his voice echoing and reverberating with distortion to the acoustics under the bridge and he drew applause, though I couldn’t clearly hear him. All around there was spray painted the inscription Fuck 12. Everywhere Fuck 12. We asked four people what it meant.

The first one was a Minneapolis officer in blue. He was embarrassed and offered that is came from slang referring to the ancient TV series Adam 12. The 12 referred to police. The second one I asked was a hipster photographer with a matching leather girlfriend, and he blew me off as if I didn’t know what it meant I didn’t deserve to know. The third and fourth people both confirmed it meant Fuck the Police.

Adam 12? Doesn’t anybody say Five Oh anymore?

Good news the YWCA was unscathed, though a maintenance crew was outfitting the vulnerable exterior glass for plywood covers. As we walked by the crew an elder teenage black girl in our vicinity remarked to her companion, another black young woman her age, “They’re boarding up the windows so the niggers can’t get in.”

That’s not fair, said Roxanne, and the young woman sneered and said right back, “You don’t know.”

Roxanne was ready to talk it out right there but the moment passed and everybody moved on. We moseyed home the back way behind the YWCA and the field house by the South High football field where Vice President Joe Biden stopped by to attend football practice and throw some Go Deep.

What floored us the most were all the people on the streets and in the parking lot with brooms, dust pans and dust bins on wheels, cleaning up the mess. Dozens and dozens of cleaners. Who supplied all the brooms? Who organized all the sweepers? Like the bucket brigades who saved apartment buildings from fires started at street level retail below, and like the rake, pitchfork and garden hose watchouters, the cleaners and sweepers emerged out of the blue like angels predestined to spruce up after Armageddon and tidy up the Elysian Fields for Paradise Regained. Our better angels, as that Lincoln fella might say.

About four in the afternoon we watched a a convoy from our dining room window going west on 32nd St. Beige Guard army Humvees interspersed with a couple cop cars, a couple fire engines and an ambulance. A show of presence. A parade.

Reassuring? Not really. If the National Guard knew 32nd St past our house as a direct bypass to cross the city with Lake St blocked off, then all kinds of miscreant transients might know the same thing. In common Minnesota northland parlance, we weren’t out of the woods yet.

It appeared however that with every commercial building in the vicinity wiped out along with the 3rd precinct, we could very well ask less than cynically what was left to bother with. This night’s rally focused on George Floyd’s final whereabouts, 38th and Chicago, which kept growing as a shrine. It appeared that Minneapolis now had its John Lennon Wall like in Prague.

The rally intended to march west to the 5th precinct station, where much of the 3rd precinct regrouped. Word was starting to get around that the 3rd precinct was a kind of playground of renegade cops — all hearsay, of course. 3rd or no 3rd precinct building, people talked nothing if not accountability from the police. They gathered outside the 5th precinct just about how they surrounded the 3rd. The issue was insidious institutional racism and brutality built into police culture. Law enforcement should never be above the law. And it needs to be said at every opportunity, Black Lives Matter.

There used to be a black guy who wrote opinion pieces in the StarTribune name of Syl Jones who didn’t especially find Minnesotans especially receptive to black people. He called it being Minnesotan Ice.

Time ran out on the curfew. Police asked the crowd to disperse, it was eight o’clock. Anybody found on the street after curfew was subject to arrest. The copters with cameras had moved on from here to cover the area around the 5th. Some of the crowd looked a little bewildered, not sure what to do, just hanging around. Others took the request to disperse seriously and thinned out. A significant contingent engaged and harassed the cops at the precinct perimeter. What the copter cameras caught in the background begged alarm. Fires started at several buildings in the vicinity. The local post office. A bank building known among us insiders at Norwest Bank as Thirty Thirty Nicollet. A hibachi grill. The very last profitable K Mart store — the one built about fifty years ago crosswise blocking Nicollet Ave which became known as our own mini-apolis southside Berlin Wall. Where the hell was that National Guard?

Aha, here they come. Columns advancing on Lake St, mobile and marching on foot. Here come the bigass Humvees. Local news reporters embed with the troops. Fire responders arrive under escort and go to work pumping water but they still don’t know where to begin and it’s too little too late. The Guard columns scare the innocent stragglers into getting seriously off the streets and tease the provocateurs who remained.

The stories of the rest of the night in both twin cities are tales of cat and mouse chases through the streets with authorities following after reported criminal instigators lighting up small businesses and vanishing in the grids of alleys and avenues. Arrest records show a measure of success in catching criminals but do not support the theory the destruction and terrorism was overwhelmingly perpetrated by outsiders. 80% of bookings that week were identified as Minnesotans.

One humorous story has a posse of American Indian Movement security protectors who caught some teenagers looting a liquor store in the neighborhood and held them until their parents came to pick them up, from way across the border at Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

My theory is that the most skilled and proficient provocateurs, whether local or from Indiana, or Russia, are most skilled and proficient at getting away. There was too much destruction to be random. Somebody targeted just about every bombed out building. Not all orchestrated and choreographed by one mastermind, and some of the plots contradict and cross each other in a helter skelter way, but I’m trying to see and to sort out the schemes of who would be exploiting the death of George Floyd to burn down the world’s supply chains of goods and services, the pipelines of goodwill.

Next I extrapolated whether the plot could extend to those working from home, which could involve sacking and burning likely residences. There is always a risk with home invasion, however, in America there’s a chance the home owner packs heat. I found myself trying to extricate myself from a confluence of rabbit holes and going directly through the lens of the broken looking glass.

It comes around to serenity. It could involve talking around and past each other for the sake of keeping the potato hot and unresolved so we would never have to make peace. Like Roxanne that Friday afternoon on Lake St where they were precautionary boarding up the plate glass fronting the YWCA, I feel ready to have the discussion about race any time any where with any body. I’m ready to be teached. Schooled. Everything I know about it might as well be a pack of lies.

I’m ready to start all over from the beginning if I have to. It’s all worth it to me to give everything undefensively to get it right. The things I can change, the things I cannot, the wisdom to know the difference.

It comes down to the man in the mirror. The looking glass.

Emerging from my rabbit hole I’m seeing an awakening to human rights across America and the world inspired by, if not incited by the death of George Floyd. Masked protesters arose in Washington, DC and converged in the park around the White House, prompting the president and first lady to hunker a while in the White House bunker while the Secret Service and Homeland Security reinforced the walls, fences and barriers protecting the White House from the park.

On Saturday the president traveled to Florida to laud the SpaceX manned rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, the first NASA space launch in about nine years. In Trump’s speech after the spectacularly successful launch he went off script and began to ramble about what a good man George Floyd was and how he had spoken with Floyd’s family and extended condolences. Mrs Trump did not accompany the president to Florida but presumably stayed behind in the White House bunker. Back home in DC Trump warned protesters they would face vicious dogs if they breached onto White House grounds. He blasted looters and rioters for dragging the economy further down than the coronavirus pandemic, which he keeps blaming on the Chinese as if they unleashed it on purpose.

In volleys of Tweets the fuhrer urged mayors and governors to get tough on protesters. Aside from his off script non-sequitur remarks at Cape Canaveral Trump barely acknowledged George Floyd. He never addressed any of the fundamental issues laid bare wide open in the streets by Floyd’s death. Never addressed systemic racism. Never acknowledged the original sin of our nation, slavery, and the legacy that never goes away. Never denounced white supremacy. Never acknowledged the constitutional right to peacefully protest things that are wrong.

The same president who weeks earlier got out in front of sentiments to lift the covid-19 lockdowns and open the economy by encouraging protests via Twitter to Liberate Minnesota. Protests in front of the governor’s residence were okay then, and there wasn’t a big fence around the governor’s yard. Now this president tweets that the mayors and governors need to dominate the crowds. If they don’t call out their own national guards he threatened to do it for them. He threatened to mobilize the United States armed forces under the Insurrection Act of 1807.

He got upset with Twitter, his favorite social medium, for putting fact check labels on his Tweets and has threatened to shut them down for violating his first amendment freedom of speech. I figure if cable TV networks can put viewer advisories on the content of their programs to satisfy censors at the FCC, Twitter can post advisories on the content found on their chain network. His rootin’ tootin’ lootin’ shootin’ tweet glorified violence, repeating a trope originated in 1967 by the Miami police chief who installed a get tough policy for policing black neighborhoods, “when the looting starts the shooting starts.”

This is why I occasionally refer to him as the fuhrer.

Later Trump denied he ever heard of this Miami police chief, as if he made the line up himself. It was more plausible deniability. No Russian collusion. Never met this guy or that guy. Didn’t know the guy. Never knew the guy but I heard he was doing a terrible job. I keep waiting for Rudy Giuliani to reassert himself in New York City, maybe wash up on the banks of the Hudson River.

Every time I hear Trump call somebody who disagrees with him and opposes him “human scum” I recall the trial in Nazi Germany during World War II of the conspirators caught, tried and convicted and later hanged for attempting to assassinate Hitler, where the judge at the trial pronounced sentence and called them “human scum.” Trump gets his material from somewhere, he doesn’t make it up in a vacuum. These things aren’t entirely coincidental.

He lied about mail-in voter fraud. He lied about Morning Joe Scarborough. Twitter should put fact check warnings on his tweets. Just like it put a glorification-of-violence sticker on his rootin’ tootin’ lootin’ and shootin’ tweet. You can still read them. They weren’t censored or taken down. Somebody out there is compiling a running montage of all his lies, and historians will publish them for the world to recall that he lied about his lies.

And of all his rants about antifa and far left agents being the roots of the riot destruction from the current protests, he never ever addresses the underlying conditions.

What happens when protesters in Hong Kong march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the memory of George Floyd?

It’s the Summer of George Floyd.

In Minneapolis the copter cameras watched on Sunday afternoon as thousands held a rally downtown that marched to Interstate 35W and occupied the bridge over the Mississippi that replaced the one that collapsed in 2007. The highway department had closed off the freeway miles away in both directions to stop all traffic for the protest. The rally swarmed over the bridge in all the lanes.

And suddenly — no other adverb will do — suddenly in the northbound lane a big gasoline tanker truck appeared on screen barreling towards the bridge at freeway speed and I said O God! — actually said the word God. Like the parting of the Red Sea in miraculous technicolor the crowd swarmed left and right of the truck’s red cab and silver tank. A female on a bicycle fell down in its path. The truck screeched to a stop just a few feet from her. No one was hit. The tide of people swarmed the cab of the truck and pulled the driver out. “Reginald Denny,” we both said at the TV.

Cops relieved the crowd of the driver and arrested him. He suffered some bumps and scrapes but nothing bad except somebody picked his pocket and got his wallet. None of the news reporters could explain why he drove the truck towards the crowd or how he evaded the barricades the highway crews swore were in place. The news stations replayed the truck barreling through the crowd over and over, the bicycle girl falling down right in line with the right front wheel. Showing the replays the live action coverage went away while the truck was removed from the bridge and probably searched for detonators. Just thinking of what could have happened between the truck and that crowd almost blew my mind. A sensational tragedy in the making averted miraculously before our eyes.

Right away people speculated about the truck driver’s back story. Did he have mean intent and then soften his heart? Michel thought it was an accident, the dude was driving his route unawares, found himself in a protest march and practically pooped his pants. Others wondered if he was, you know, Iranian or some kind of Islamic guy. Ding! Ethnic racism! It turned out the guy’s name is Bogdan Vechirko, a guy in his mid-30s of Russian descent and he was released from jail pending further investigation into criminal intent. Subsequent checks on the guy bear Michel’s theory, an innocent guy who fluked onto the scene and freaked out. Since no detonators were found on the truck I am also inclined to believe Vechirko was just a working man caught up in a situation unaware, and not an agent of the Kremlin under orders to act under cover of being naive and stupid to cause an event of mass casualties to further polarize Americans and disrupt the world’s democracies, who had a change of heart and for the sake of humanity and George Floyd aborted his mission.

Others, I’m still skeptical. There’s a dude arrested and charged for the breaking and entering of the 3rd precinct who showed pictures of himself on social media with loot from the police station before it burned down including a bulletproof vest which he emblazoned with his own name on the back. Who’s going to bail that guy out of jail?

That Sunday afternoon and evening the demonstrations peacefully consumed the crossroads of Interstate freeways, calling for racial justice in the name of George Floyd. If you can call blocking major Interstate freeways peaceful in that it disrupts the norm — I call it peaceful because nobody got violent and hurt people or property (including Vechirko the trucker). Maybe nobody did or didn’t pull a permit to assemble a crowd — a parade — on two Interstate freeways in the heart of the Twin Cities but it was the right thing to do to show solidarity with the soul of George Floyd.

Later when the curfew went into effect authorities began to detain and arrest protesters who did not disperse. It was an act of civil disobedience, and as the arrested explained to reporters who interviewed them in line to be transported by bus to the jail, they were disobeying the law and were willing to comply with arrest to draw attention to real life racism underpinning social injustice.

Monday morning, one week after the murder, the city awoke to relative calm. No fresh smoke in the air. The news still buzzed about the gasoline tanker truck and the crowd on the I35W bridge. Worldwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality emulated Minneapolis. In the shame I felt for my city as the place it all began this time, where four cops ganged up and tortured George Floyd to death on a public sidewalk, I felt perverse pride. If the events of this week went down as a transformational event for social justice then my city would atone for its sins and lead a new reconciliation.

Three things stand out to me from the events of the past two weeks, besides the overwhelming multiracial and multicultural support for social justice in the name of George Floyd.

One thing I already mentioned, the broom and dustbin volunteers who swept the streets and sidewalks clean every day after nights of mayhem, trash and ash.

The second thing is the rapid response to the food desert created by the damning of the neighborhood grocery stores. Volunteers created curbside food banks, drop off centers and organized pickup places to distribute groceries to neighbors in need. If people were stranded or quarantined and unable to come to the food, somebody arranged to bring boxes of staples to their homes.

And the third thing was the block clubs, neighborhood watch and ad hoc platoons of pitchfork, rakes and garden hose guardians who looked out for each other and kept in touch throughout the uncertain nights.

Our Balzy governor impressed me with his get-right-to the heart of the matter leadership — again. His leadership through the coronavirus has been stable and convincing. He used to be a high school history teacher and a football coach, you know.

The leadership from the twin mayors of each city remains to be evaluated. Mayor Carter of St Paul always showed up prepared for business and appeared astute if skeptical. Mayor Frey of Minneapolis wrung his hands and projected agony in the garden.

Missing from any known forum relating to us constituents in the city of Minneapolis, 5th congressional district representative Ilhan Omar and 9th ward city council member Alondra Cano. Other than closed door statements calling to abolish the police department, neither elected leader has appeared in public to give courage or comfort to their people. True, there’s the potential for too many cooks, but that didn’t stop leaders from dozens of other non government agencies from stepping up to accompany the governor’s approach. They could say they were choosing not to politicize the situation, a humanitarian calamity, but that never seemed to stop either of them from politicizing their campaigns in the past. It almost seemed they hunkered in their bunkers, either inadvertently or purposely inaccessible.

My playlist of white man blues for George Floyd might begin or end with “One” by U2. “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen. “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen. “Octavo Dia”, a song in Spanish about God’s reservations about creation on the eighth day by Shakira. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter Paul & Mary. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. “American Tune” by Paul Simon. “In the Heat of the Night” by Bryan Adams — “In the heat of the night they’ll be coming around, They’ll be looking for answers, Chasing you down. In the heat of the night. Where you gonna hide when it all goes down? Don’t look back, Don’t ever turn around.” If that seems too harsh or too scary to conclude the set, let’s put in “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.

It amazed me after all the craziness of the week that the total death toll from rioting equated to a tiny tiny fraction of the daily toll from covid-19, nearly nil.

Just as I was thinking ahead towards a New Reconstruction, news broke about President Trump. I thought the breaking news would be he finally gave himself a stroke. No, he was still standing upright though it was just as questionable whether he was thinking clearly.

He delivered a speech in the Rose Garden blaming the civil unrest on professional anarchists and declared himself the law and order protector of the nation. He said he would call out the armed forces to restore order and dominate the streets.

During this Rose Garden spiel, off camera, the DC Secret Service and Department of Justice in full riot gear pressed against protesters gathered in the park adjacent to the White House lawn and cleared them out of a grassy swath using tear gas, flash bang grenades and truncheons. Military helicopters swooped low. The attorney general and head of the DOJ William Barr later said the protesters were acting out of control, provoking the police. Most sources say the protest was peaceful and civil when the authorities suddenly acted up. After the grassy swath through the park was cleared of protesters the helicopters lingered close to the grass to fan away all the traces of tear gas.

Then the fuhrer left the Rose Garden with his entourage and walked through the swath now cleared across the park to the boarded facade of St John’s Episcopal Church, where he paused for a photo op of himself holding a black bible.

(Reverend Al Sharpton later remarked he never saw anyone hold a bible that way.)

Then the fuhrer and his entourage sashayed back to the White House.

Back in Minnesota Governor Balz asked Attorney General Keith Ellison to lead the prosecution of the murder of George Floyd. Ellison used to be our 5th district congressman, and before that a member of our state legislature. Before that he practiced civil rights law. Reports said George Floyd’s family asked the governor to appoint Ellison to the case. With the county attorney’s assent, Ellison accepted the job and promised a vigorous and fair prosecution. Two days later he announced an additional second-degree murder charge against the ex-officer who kneed George Floyd to death and charged the other three officers with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

The next day a private memorial service was held with the Floyd family and invited guests at a small bible college on the east side of downtown Minneapolis. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy which climaxed with a call for white America to get its knee off black peoples’ necks.

Norah O’Donnell broadcast her CBS Evening News from 38th and Chicago, the extravagant four corner shrine to George Floyd. CBS interviewed people from all over the US, Europe, South Africa and Australia who came to the site to grieve and express solidarity. Everyone said from now on everything forever changed. There was no turning back. This moment was the breakthrough. Now or never. This was our last chance. If we don’t get it right this time we never will.

Few events in my somewhat more than half century lifetime have galvanized such a vast array of people around such a united theme. The old Peace movement comes to mind. Anti war. See how that endures. Another was 9/11 and that speaks to my first example, Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS. The space voyage landing on the moon in 1969 was kind of encouraging. For a while. So was Woodstock. I have to ask myself what is more worth memorializing and galvanizing in this country than the Civil Rights Era. And yet that hardly comes up as a defining and enduring era because nobody really celebrates the legacy of something that was given and granted to people that should have been assured to them all along. The Voting Rights Act. Emancipation. Jackie Robinson. Does anybody else alive today remember how very very hard it was back then to get any white people to care a flying farina about black people?

George Floyd first of all symbolizes a black man under a white man’s knee. Coerced obedience by race. Not a good symbol for the future of the planet. To eradicate this is to eradicate white supremacy.

Next he is a victim of police brutality, when law enforcement goes lawless because it is unchecked by lawful enforcement.

This goes along with another lesson from George Floyd being the power of the state to act or to restrain itself against its own citizens to enforce order.

And last the constitutional rule of law itself comes exposed with freedoms to meet and assemble and speak out against the government itself.

The lasting issue we want to see reconciled by these events is race. Skin. Dermis. Epidermis. Face it, white world, it’s a multiracial planet. And in America, it’s high time to live up to the sacred ideals of democracy and liberty we keep raving about to all the world. It’s time to live the life. Not just talk the talk. No more procrastination. No more jive. Time for enduring reconciliation. Time to live the life.

The Civil War is over. The Confederacy ain’t coming back. It’s time for true Reconstruction. Reconciliation. Restorative justice.

That other thing, the police, that will become the most political fraught issue over the next few years. The four ex-cops will go to trial if they plead innocent or not guilty, and they will be tried separately for the murder. There would be a lot of evidence and testimony. There will be a blue wall of silence and maybe a whistleblower. If the city gets through a spike in covid-19 it could catch a bad case of blue flu.

The latest talk in city government currently is a resolution to abolish the police department supported by nine of the 13 members of the Minneapolis city council. Mayor Jacob Frey went on record at a rally and got booed off the stage for saying he did not support the resolution. Everybody including the chief supports police reform. Attorney General Ellison and state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington wrapped up a report to stop deadly police encounters just when the covid-19 pandemic hit and both of those public servants wanted to keep working for reform. The governor supports reform. Citizens support police reform — everybody resents seeing cop cars running stops signs where nobody else can.

Everybody wants police reform except the hard guys at the police union led by a lieutenant named Bob Kroll. Kroll symbolizes warrior mentality policing. The citizens are the enemy. Politicians are the enemy. He believes he and his comrades in arms are the last bulwark against wild lawlessness in the streets. His bully tactics make arrests of nuisances to keep the jail turnstiles turning to let the lowlifes know they’re being watched, being policed. He’s the kind of cop known to break a window to arrest somebody for the broken windows theory. Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Minneapolis last October and Kroll and his good old boys were invited to appear onstage with Trump and Pence wearing their police uniforms, but the mayor and the chief said no way. Mayor Frey was already in a tussle with the president and the RNC over extra security expenses for the visit. Trump and Kroll both made noises on social media that Frey was no friend of law enforcement. Instead of wearing uniforms the cops who appeared with Trump on stage wore red T-shirts supporting Trump’s support of police.

As vain villains these two are, they each command formidable followings among scary thugs and deplorable bullies who have the capabilities to scare otherwise normal people with prophesies of armageddon. Small a. To most people life without a police department is unthinkable even if most people don’t really meet up with the police that often and the least they are seen the more people feel secure because they are not reminded as often that police exist. Then there are criminals who never want to see the police but see them too much, all the time. Most people imagine a city without a police department as a city in free fall where outlaws with guns rule the streets. Gotham City with no Batman. A free market for private security. Citizens unprotected from danger. Sort of what we felt like the whole of the last week of May, more or less on our own with our neighbors.

Nine of 13 city councilors in Minneapolis voted to resolve to abolish the police department. The mayor and four other councilors abstained or voted no. None of them seems to have a plan for future law enforcement without the police. They are all wide open for ridicule. There’s talk of unarmed mental health professionals instead of armed cops to deal with mentally ill people disturbing the peace. This is going to end up one of those snowflake issues. Until a deluded or depressed person with a weapon kills a mental health professional who is making no progress getting him in touch with his feelings.

Someone could point out to these nine Democrats they look like they’re repealing Obamacare instead of replacing it.

Who will solve crimes and make arrests? Who will chase and apprehend thieves? Who will track down rapists, batterers and murderers? Who will bust forgers and frauds? The past week of looting and arson showed how good we all are at policing our own behavior. I’m all-in for a more perfect union and all that but I know and you know this ain’t Utopia.

This is a good time for criminal justice reform as well as law enforcement reform too. The city’s wisest minds should commission some kind of Itasca think tank to design its optimum dream law enforcement team for the city. The city should draw up the policies and rules of conduct and chain of command and put it to all the cops, sign up according to these principles or go away. The city would lose some bodies for the short term but it could maintain a strong and healthy team over the long haul through recruitment to this new kind of civic law enforcement organization. It’s time to show Bob Kroll the door. He and his kind will not help design the future of policing.

To set the scene, the white population of Minneapolis is about 61% but the police are about 80%. The population is about 18% black (up from 1% in 1967, the last time the city had race riots) with 9% of the cops. Hispanics are now about 10% of the population with 4% of the cops. Asians make up another 6% of the population and 4% of the police force. Native Americans make up 2% of the population of the city (1% of the state) but I cannot find any statistics of Native Americans on the police force.

Still troubling the politicization of the military by the fuhrer to execute crowd control by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to place troops in the streets. The guy who got out of the Vietnam war draft with phony bone spurs now likes to play Commando in Chief with his mix and match generals and acting defense secretaries who don’t know how to act. His bungling of the pandemic both in America and in global relations exposed his feckless leadership in one big candid expose, and now he’s trying to make up for lost popularity by using the George Floyd reactions as cover to seize power trying to distract from the basic right of people to assemble and scream and yell about perceived wrongs. In that he mimics the anarchists and looters who use peaceful protesters for cover to destroy and steal.

On the day of George Floyd’s first memorial service at the bible college in Minneapolis, Trump issued a statement calling it a good day for George Floyd. A good day. Like how? The man is dead. What good of it came out of things today? Did Trump sign legislation barring choke holds? What. Did he call out for a national — international — dialogue on systemic racism and human rights? Forgive me for being silly.

Critic after critic has over and again cited Trump for committing the Last Straw. And Trump continually like a bad movie serial keeps coming up with one more. And one more. Just give him enough rope, they said, and he’s woven enough rope to form safety nets all around his cargo.

It was too much trouble to convict his impeachment. It would have been nice, just think of the head start we could have had with the pandemic if someone else had been in charge — maybe. In this upcoming election it seems only fair to acknowledge he’s got a running start. And it is important to beat him fair and square, popular vote and electoral college, cleanly and convincingly. It’s important for the sake of liberal democracy to un-elect him publicly and transparently. Anything he can do to un-elect himself in terms of rope and a Last Straw will be welcome for further entertainment purposes so long as it doesn’t screw up the country. It’s apparent to anybody who’s counting that Trump has no positive effect on the national economy.

He has no persuasive power any more. No credibility. Nobody looks to him for answers or inspiration. He’s actually a has-been. Unless he says something really really stupid nobody quotes him any more or gives a crap about his opinion. Except among his dire supporters, and they’re all daring the devil and dangling over the edges of the pier in the path of a tsunami, soon to be lost in the Flood.

Not like being lost in the Floyd.

George Floyd was laid to rest in his beloved Houston, Texas, next to his mama. Nonstop for several hours an array of eloquent black people gave white America hell, and I watched on TV from my home and didn’t take an iota of offense. What they all said was true and I felt grateful for instruction and the expressions of mercy.

Al Sharpton reminds us to save the date, 28 August, 2020. Big rally in Washington, DC. Everyone’s invited. It doesn’t seem conducive to pandemic distancing, does it. Being of a vulnerable age group I expect to be staying home. A shut-in. Watching on TV.

BK

7 Dolores – Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Revisited

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When we came home we faced almost a 100F degree temperature differential.  It was near 90F when we left Ixtapa.  Five hours later it was -4F in our back yard.

It was about the same differential going down there.  In between we escaped five weeks of our nominally coldest chunk of winter.  There’s a lot to do in the Twin Cities all year but from around New Year to around April Fools Day most leisure time is spent indoors.  Somewhere not cold.  Somewhere out of the piercing windchill.  Someplace where one false step on icy pavement and maybe you get your hip replaced anyway when it was just perfectly fine before you slipped and fell.  To escape the cold we surrender to a place warm all the time, where the ocean crashes the sandy beach about once every twelve seconds, palm trees sway — salsa sway — in the fresh sea breezes, and the sunshine pours down upon people going in and out of the shade.  In and around the sea.  Subtropical Mexico.

We take up residency at the Krystal hotel.  We get a room for five weeks or so, and with it comes access to the hotel facilities, swimming pool, towels, shows on the stage in the big back yard, all the bars, food stands and restaurants within the hotel campus and all amenities available to guests of the hotel, such as daily room cleaning.  Our loyalty to the Krystal goes both ways, as the hotel team has as long as we remember welcomes us with the most gracious hospitality we have experienced anywhere.  It’s not that we think we’re special, they just treat us special in a way that projects how they treat all their guests.  The service standards are very high at the Krystal.  We do not take an all-inclusive package, even if we partake of one meal a day at one of the hotel cafes.  We pay as we go and don’t feel compelled to overeat or drink to get our moneysworth.  The food is good, the buffet sometimes very good, but all over Ixtapa and Zihua there are as many good places to eat as you care to frequent your whole stay, a pair of cities in a region with apparently a lot of quality kitchens.

The Krystal is directly on the beach and situated in the middle of the middle of Playa Palmar, a three mile scoop of sand on the bay of Ixtapa between rocky coasts along the blue Pacific where the hotels and condos align the continuous beach from end to end and people are out playing in the surf.  Walk from the Krystal left or right, either way it’s a mile and a half to the end where the sand stops at a wall of jagged volcanic rock smoothed by the sea and you can walk no further without climbing gear.  So you kick the wall and walk back.

Along the tide line the sand of the beach borders squishy and compact.  The ocean can get you by the ankles coming and going and you can play a fancy game.  On this beach the tide never stands still, it rolls in and out from steady pulsing surf.  Most days the warning flags are red.  Sometimes black.  Never green.  Some days are good for boogie boarding.  Every day is good for watching the breakers.

West from the hotel set back from the widest stretch of beach are the massage huts.  There are seven huts, each staffed by seven masajistas and configured to hold seven massage tables.  The huts are a cross between a FEMA trailer and a pre-fabricated one car garage, built of sturdy lumber on solid pilings with airy windows and corrugated tile roofs.

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You enter up some stairs after the masajista washes your feet at the bottom stair.  Shoes are left outside in the shade.  The foot ablusions take on a holy ritual character though it’s done to keep sand out of the hut.  The masajista scoops water from a five gallon bucket with a bowl like a doggie dish and pours the water over your feet.  And again.  She motions up the steps and inside.  She indicates which massage table and gestures you to take your place.  You remove your hat, shirt, glasses and put them in a Rubbermaid dish bucket, which gets placed on a shelf under your table.  You lie face down with your face in a triangle padded by cloths.  Arms at your sides.  She props your ankles with a cushion.  She might towel you off to get started, to remove sand and sweat.  Then she’ll probe certain places on your back.  Your neck.  You hear the application of lotion to a pair of hands and then it begins.  Sheer ecstasy.  Bliss.

This is the part why some Googlers search my blog looking for sexual prostitution, and I’ll tell you again there’s none to be had from the massage huts on Playa Palmar.  They got some guys with muscle keeping an eye on the premises and carrying water in five gallon buckets from the sea to wet a cool path in the sand up to the massage hut doors or to use for washing feet.  And spending eight to ten hours massaging bodies all day, six days a week, the masajistas themselves are in physical shape to defend themselves against anybody who might get out of line, much less team up to stop somebody from getting aggressive.  It’s not a totally private place, there could be six other masajes going on around you and the reason it seems private is half the time everybody’s face down on the tables and when on your back they cover your eyes.

You get a massage.  Almost all over.  For an hour — a full hour.  Methodically.  Professionally.  That’s all the happy ending you get — perhaps a sad ending really, you’re disappointed when it’s over.  The whole time you can meditate and listen to the sea.  There is a code of silence in the hut.  Sometimes masajistas might whisper a few words among themselves, in Spanish of course.  Sometimes a client might ask a question, or cough.  Mostly it’s the ocean and whatever sounds your mind makes while your back and limbs get sculpted by hands who sincerely care.  That’s all.

They charge $300 Mx pesos an hour.  That comes out about $17.15 USD.  Tipping as always is optional but I recommend extravagant generosity.  Nowhere more than the massage casitas at Playa Palmar does the faraway stranger engage the graces of the host culture.  Man or woman, nowhere else do you surrender yourself and entrust your well being blindly to the hands of gracious hospitality in a land of serving tourists.  Las masajistas possess skills of public health, and when tourists partake of their services they engage local talent in a straightforward trusting way extending more intimate than the waiters and cooks who serve the food and the attendants and camaristas who service the rooms at any hotel lodging along the sea at this particular place in Mexico.

We rent a room for about a month to go somewhere predictably sunny and very warm and escape extreme cold and icy slippery conditions for a slippery wet swimming pool deck.  No kidding.  Noplace is perfectly without risk.

We literally live the life of beach bums residing under a thatched palm palapa in the sand near the sea wall of the hotel.  We live a decadent lifestyle of reclining and reading books and walking the beach, swimming in the ocean, dipping in the pool, and staring at the surf.  People watching.  Day after day.  This differs radically from what I would be doing at home except for the reading and reclining.  After sundown we go somewhere for dinner.

Simple.  Sunrise, madrugada, comes about 7.  Sunset when we first arrive is about 6:20 and it’s a quarter to seven by the time we come back, leaving us at home with not only a temperature deficit but a daylight setback as well.  The comparisons between home and Mexico are so stark it’s fair to ask why we don’t stay much longer.  I suppose we could afford it, financially, after all we have to live somewhere and they don’t put trailer hitches on hearses, as our friend Bob would say.  No, we feel compelled to put up with a measurable share of the winter calendar in situ in Minneapolis as if to earn residency and bragging rights.  We have family where we live.  Grandchildren.  We wish they might join us down in Ixtapa, at least for a week, but our kids have other tastes to spend a week’s vacation, and the elder grandkids have school, competitive gymnastics and whatever commitments youngsters shouldn’t break to cavort with grandparents in the tropics.  Maybe I should be thankful to not bear responsibility for well being beyond Roxanne and me.

Our daughter Michel ultimately won’t allow her daughters to travel with us to Mexico for concern of human trafficking.  Our son Vincent’s daughter is still virtually a baby, but there’s no chance he would seek such a hot place, he’s not comfortable in the tropics and thus the very reason Roxanne and I choose to be loyal to Ixtapa would be lost on him.

It’s about twenty years we’ve been coming to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

What began as a getaway to de-stress from our jobs and get a break from the cold weather is now an annual pilgrimage, almost an entitlement.  We have no job stress to recover from.  Ours is a charmed life.  We’ve got no one of friend and family breaking our hearts (at the moment or for the foreseeable) or any worries, dangerous looming decisions or nightmares to overcome.  We go to the beach at Ixtapa from mid-January to mid-February to escape a coldness that clinches the muscles and seizes the bones and numbs the brain.  We supplant the mummy cold with tropical heat.  Someday it might be proven that eliminating that one month of zombie coldness from our lives each year enabled us to live longer, healthier lives.  As they say, not all the data is in.

Twenty years of observation doesn’t qualify me to make solemn judgments about Mexican culture or the tourist vacation economy, much less to profess relationships to migration and society.  I qualify as an observer.  I have seen change.

If insanity is manifest by doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, than maybe a sign of sanity is doing the same thing expecting the same result.  Every year we expect hot days and sunny skies.  In twenty years it has rained three times.  Two were washout, all day rains.  Once, just this year, it rained in the evening and was gone by morning.  If anything else this year it seemed hotter.  I think the humidity was higher.  We got used to it.

The changes are gradual, some profound.  High rise condos, eleven or twelve stories tall, stake out the western stretch of Ixtapa’s beach skyline where used to be scrublands and coconut palms beyond the sand.  It’s neatly manicured landscape now.  The whole Playa Palmar is public beach, so there are public access points alongside some of the condo properties, which are new and solid with balconies facing the sea in the most urban of architecture.  The other two thirds of the beachfront consists of the last remaining scrub land and open access next to the massage huts, next to a bar and cantina named Charlie’s that used to be a Carlos and Charlie’s night club, which is next to another bar and cantina called Tanta Vida that fronts the Dolfinium where you can swim with dolphins and watch them do tricks.  Next are hotels, the Park Royal (formerly a Radisson) another ten story high rise, then the Tesoro, a low rise hotel next door to the Krystal, which is eleven stories.  There are two more condos and five more medium to high rise hotels the remainder of the beach until you reach scrubland at a stretch of public access bordering a mangrove jungle swamp alongside a golf course where there is a causeway for public access, and then beachside development culminates at a sprawling hillside resort known as Pacifica.

One thing that has barely changed in twenty years is the aggressive street marketing campaign the Pacifica puts on to attract loyal guests.  Everywhere in town you meet neatly dressed guys with ring binders who will pick you up at your hotel for a free breakfast and a spiel and tour of the resort.  The charms of Pacifica are hard to resist.  The condos are terraced little haciendas on the cliffs facing westward to the sea.  The amenities are sumptuous and shady.  It boasts a little cable car from the main facilities up over the alligator creek to the condos.  The beach is at a quiet corner of the bay where the surf rolls in most gently.  Roxanne and I walk down there to swim in the sea when it’s too rough at the Krystal.  Maybe Roxanne and I are known for twenty years of saying no gracias to the guys with the ring binders, with all gracious due respect.  For all intents and purposes it’s a time share thing a few notches above our budget.

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We could spend even more for accommodations if we chose to rent condos near the marina at the other end of the bay, at the near empty beach beyond the massage huts.  Closer within the mix, among the hotels between the Pacifica and the Krystal is the finest piece of architecture in the region, a wedding cake of arches, curves and iron, the high rise condos of the Bay View Grande.  We would love to stay at Bay View Grande if we won the lottery or maybe our whole extended family chipped in.  Even the condominiums called Amara next door to the Krystal are luxuriously priced, for good reason.

We stay at the Krystal for several reasons, location, hospitality and affordability chief among them.  They seem to recognize our loyalty and we appreciate their recognition.  We could live cheaper at accommodations in Zihuatanejo proper, or off the beach in Ixtapa, or up the coast at towns like Troncones, but residency at the Krystal sets a balance of simplicity, luxury, security, efficiency and proximity serving as home away from home.

It would be nice to have a kitchen but the abundance of delicious affordable restaurant food more than makes up for the extra effort and gets us out of the house.  In truth we don’t spend much time in our room beyond sleeping.  Morning coffee on our balcony, reading the news from home on our tablets.  The sun rises over the hills and the hotels like a stage curtain.  On the beach below the runners and the walkers weave rhythm along the waves.  The restaurants are busy serving breakfast though the recorded music at the pool does not begin until nine.  The sunbathers around the pool stake out their recliners, as we do first thing every day before madrugada to reserve our palapa.

We usually eat breakfast or lunch at one of the two restaurants at the hotel, the Aquamarina which is attached to the hotel lobby and faces the pool, and the Velas which is across the pool deck under a separate roof and facing the ocean.  Sometimes we go for the buffet and sometimes the menu.  The quality of the food is the same either place, and same with the service at table.  More than their uniform etiquette of high standard hospitality, they befriend us, and through the years we know a core group who have worked on staff about as long as we have been guests, and several who have been on the team at least five years.  The Krystal employs 152 people at peak season.  Most of the ones we know work in visible service positions.  Customer servants.  Some work behind the scenes, managers, kitchen people, laundry and housekeeping.  Ones we get to know best are usually food and beverage servers.

We know they have lives and families beyond the hotel campus where they work.  We respect them as being private people.  Without prying we have grown to be privy to their details.  Over time we have established relationships.  We are friends and I find that now I go down specifically to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo to visit them as much as to escape winter.

If we stopped going down there I would miss them.  Jesus, Anabel, Juan Toro, Jose, Gloria, Adelina, Josefina, Toribio, Maria De La Luz, Martin, Jaime, Rafael, Lorenzo.  These are only the food and drink servers at the hotel.  Plus the dozens of servants who serve us at the restaurants where we eat in both towns.  Add in all the vendors who sell stuff on the beach.  Taxi drivers.  Keepers of the shops.  Souvenir kiosk proprietors.  Musicians.  We cross paths in their community.  We are small parts of the social economy.  They are a main part of my sentimental ecology.  At this point of my life it hardly matters that I while away my winters doing missionary volunteer work or practicing decadent leisure on a Pacific beach, there’s no excuse anymore spending weeks immersed in a foreign culture year after year and act as if it doesn’t count as real life because it happens on vacation.

This particular year revealed realities challenging my serenity.  I perceived changes I did not choose.  The whole aura refocused the dimensions of choices of what to do and made me wonder what we were doing.  Wherever we went, on foot or by taxi or bus, familiarity didn’t get in the way of perception and it seemed at times surreal and unromantic to be living there an entire five weeks for no good reason other than pure leisure.  If I contradict myself, I’m sorry.  I go there to spend days and nights worry free and then find my mind looking for signs of deeper meaning.  It isn’t sufficient to blow it off on vacation.  Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is not some guilty pleasure, nor is it a mission.  It exists without me, I have no say in its history or destiny.  It exists within me because somehow I made it part of my history and I want it to be significant.  I don’t want to believe I’ve been wasting my time and money.  I don’t want to admit I’ve wasted my poetics.  I don’t want to think I’m wasting my love for this queer obscure little society on the sea of southern Mexico.

The first change that caught my attention was the recorded music playing in the lobby of the Krystal.  Old time blues.  Not contemporary renditions of bluesy classics.  Not Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Amy Winehouse, Lamont Cranston or John Mayall.  These recordings echoed true vintage like 78 RPM wax, polished and brushed clean yet so antique you could imagine the needle etching the grooves, like the soundtrack of a 1930s movie, vocals unmistakably black whose names and whose songs so obscure to me — was that Big Mama Thornton singing Hound Dog really?  Could this one be Billie Holiday?  Who were these raspy old guys wanging these acoustic guitars?  Would I know Blind Lemon Jefferson or the real Muddy Waters if I heard them?  No.  Whose idea was this to program authentic black blues into the lobby of a Mexican hotel where people arrive and check in and out, sit on couches, waiting for taxis and for elevators — or is it me, evidence of embedded gringo racism that I would notice and think it odd — who would question if it were songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Doris Day?  I asked Alberto, a chief steward, who chose the lobby music and he said it was the choice of the new manager.

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Another change to the lobby, the murals above the front desk, over the elevators and above the walkway to the pool deck, were modernized.  Still expressing the airy bliss of the beach, and as family friendly as a Kodak moment the new images were more literal, photorealistic than the images they replaced.  The old murals didn’t seem so old — not ten years — more dreamy and painterly.  Oh well, I thought, nothing wrong with what’s new.  Not that the older murals were sacred.  The walls used to be blank.

It seemed to me the philodendrons that cascaded down the corner flower box planters in the triangular atrium going up all dozen floors to the skylight had been recently trimmed, didn’t cascade one floor to the next so much this year.

The first few days at least seemed hotter than normal but we told ourselves we would get used to it.  It was the differential from coming from bone chilling cold.  It was global warming.  It was a side-effect of growing older.  Housekeeping provided two bottles of water a day.  Keeping wet was never an issue.  The room was kept air conditioned during the day but we would shut it off at night and open the balcony to the night air and to listen to the surf.  Most nights were clear but some cloudy and the nights cooled off less than usual for perfect sleeping.  It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity.  Like summer heat in Minnesota, which I tell myself I revel in.  I read a couple of English spy novels about the Cold War and some nonfiction from a thinker named Harare and the London Economist, a newspaper.  I read a detective novel by the daughter of Tony Hillerman, a legacy story of the Navajo tribal police.  I thought about a guide we encountered on the beach a few years ago named Luis, who scolded us for sitting on our asses drinking beer all day.  We actually wanted to sign up for one of his natural habitat tours but he hasn’t come around since.  I am hoping he has not become a guerrilla of the hills plotting to overthrow lazy ass yanquis.

When we first came down we used to go to the farmacia to buy a prepaid phone card sponsored by Ladatel or Telmex and go to public phones on the boulevard, plug the chip side of the card in and dial home to talk to our son Vincent, then college age and minding the house when it was a not so empty nest.  A few years later there were internet cafes in Ixtapa and for a couple of pesos we could email our kids to check in.  They encouraged us to stay in touch, especially as our stays away lengthened from ten days to two or three weeks.  Then the Krystal installed its own internet work stations in the lobby under the atrium.  By the time that became too popular the hotel installed wi-fi in the lobby and Roxanne had an iPad.  For a few years wi-fi was iffy in the hotel rooms but when it was good we could not just email our kids but Skype them.  Now the wi-fi in the rooms is five star and everybody has iPhones so we text, send pictures, talk to the new baby…  Never mind those years when Michel lived in Switzerland and it didn’t matter to them we weren’t in Minneapolis.

The public phones still exist on the main routes of Ixtapa.  I never see them in use.  The prepaid cards used to feature a picture of a futbol star or Our Lady of Guadeloupe.  The former internet cafes have changed hands and become cantinas, restaurants, even farmacias.  For a while one was a Zumba studio.  In the lobby of the Krystal people peruse their smart phones.  Old time blues plays from the ceiling.  I would like to meet this new manager.

We mosey the public plazas of Ixtapa our first nights looking for dinner.  In five weeks we will dine at several places more than once and try new places at least once.  Word got around fast among the annual anglos on the beach that El Camaron Azul, the Blue Shrimp, had changed ownership and the food and the service wasn’t as good anymore.  Sad to see empty tables.  Word spread fast.

Toscano’s, across the courtyard in the same plaza, still draws a full patio; whether old man Toscano is really Florentine his cuisine boasts lasagna the envy of all the Italian cosinas on the coast, and they bake their own bread.  Ruben’s on an extension of the same plaza boasts top grade hamburgers and New Zealand cheese in a malt shop setting.  There are souvenir kiosks outlayed for browsing amid the dry monumental fountains in the plaza.  A mall of taco shops, a farmacia and pop up cantinas fronts a bare vacant lot almost one block big.  It’s a blight, fenced in, weedy with rubble and trash and inexplicably undeveloped as it stands virtually at what could be the commercial heart of Ixtapa.  It’s been a wasteland like this for twenty years, and like some things one might question, nobody seems to know why.  It’s kept fenced, and its perimeter is surrounded by variously going concerns and some not going, like the former internet cafe now formerly a Zumba studio.

Further at the fringe of the wasted block near a small mall anchored by a Spanish bank is a sports bar and restaurant known as The General’s.  Hosted by Genaro Salinas, local guy who would easily win the Nobel Prize for Nicest Guy, it’s the most popular establishment in town.  More than a dozen TV screens of various sizes show contests in real time brought in by satellite.  The decor between TV screens on the walls and the ceiling of the main building is all posters, pennants, jerseys, sweaters and paraphernalia of sports teams, professional and amateur, mostly from North America and mostly football and hockey.  It hosts the biggest NFL Super Bowl fiesta.  Weekday nights always hockey.  The Canadians rally to The General’s.  It serves poutine.  Outside the main roof they fill tables as far out into the plaza they can legally go, sometimes using a corner of the vacant lot next door, but the most comfortable chairs are at the tables inside.

Behind The General’s the plaza continues with shops and more places to eat out of doors under awnings and umbrellas.  Lalo the renown chef operated a place along this corridor before he passed away year before last.  Now the space features barbecue ribs and pulled pork six nights a week.  Another new enterprise calls itself Shorty’s, headed by some ex kitchen henchmen of the General, competing with similar food without any sports TV.  Next door some remodelers are painting and installing fixtures for what will be a sports bar called the Little General’s, which will concentrate on serving beer and spirits to draw the drinkers so the main General’s can fix more on food and dining to keep ahead of upstart cantinas like Shorty’s and the pork place.

I have said before: there’s an abundance of good food at Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.  Keep moseying to the main plaza where a big elaborate bandstand like a grand gazebo centers the plaza like a courthouse or city hall.  Sometimes singers, musicians and dancers in old time Mexican traditional clothes perform a show.  Around the bandstand the vendors display their kiosks.  I have purchased mobiles, small bowls, a ceramic skull, wall plaques and other bright colored trinkets from these vendors, plainly family ventures, mom and pop, kids, sometimes grandparents, their stalls neatly arranged under the bright plaza lights.  More shops and restaurants encircle the open plaza.  Cafe New Zealand in neon dresses as an innocent ice cream parlor featuring burgers and fries.  Another upstart, Sabrina’s, in its second year, is located in the back of the plaza, still trying to organize itself and establish an identity behind its owner and namesake.  It offers Italian cuisine and for some reason seems to attract sophisticated French Canadiens.  The night we were there they ran out of lasagna.

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The outer edge of the plaza leads to passageways between shops and more places to eat.  We find Danny Boy’s located in what used to be Mama Norma’s.  Danny Boy and his father Daniel used to work for the Blue Shrimp.  This is their first year.  At the Blue Shrimp they knew Lalo when he was a chef there, where he first invented his three cheese shrimp and mushroom flambee now known as Lalo’s Shrimp on Danny Boy’s menu.  Danny does it justice.

A pet favorite of ours is a sidewalk cafe behind the plaza called Los Bigotes de Zapata — Zapata’s Moustache — also called Martin’s.  While many restaurants in Ixtapa promote themselves extra for their fine kitchen skills and dining atmosphere — why there are so many Italian restaurants on the Guerrero coast I’ll never know but collectively there is no better bolognese sauce found on the planet — Martin’s menu sticks to Mexican recipes.  You can find fajitas anywhere.  It’s gringo food.  Martin’s serves an outstanding mole sauce on their chicken enchiladas on a platter with rice and black beans.  I could lick the plate.

Further down the alleyway of shops called La Patio there’s Frank’s, seemingly at the depth of a dark mysterious corridor there’s an oversized hut selling beer and wood oven pizza.  As you emerge to open public lighting there’s another patio cantina before you get to the end called Tequila y Salsa which serves exquisite barbecue ribs.  On the way back to the hotel along the main boulevard there’s a grocery store and both an ice cream shop and a gelato stand almost side by side.

Another good restaurant called Deborah’s faces the main boulevard.  The place used to be called the Hacienda, all archways and high ceilings and wrought iron.  The service was slow, dinners so so but we would go for a cheap breakfast.  An older fat lady was always there behind the bar handling the cash.  There was a vivid portrait of her almost painted on velvet in her younger days when she was boss and still beautiful.  Always at a table near the bar sat an old skinny French guy with a dog at his feet.  He and the woman would exchange words or he would read a newspaper.  Roxanne and I would sit at a table as far from the kitchen as we could near the open air but I recall the unshaven white haired guy spoke French when he spoke to the lady.

Years and years later the building came to open under the name of Deborah’s.  Deborah is the General of genteel dining in Ixtapa.  There are no TV monitors.  All the dishes on her menu are scratch made.  There’s nothing crazy exotic and esoteric on the menu but a selection of standards prepared and served to please so you might say, that’s the best mahi mahi, the best alfredo, the best fajitas, the best flambee shrimp — the best chocolate cake — you ever had.  Deborah likes to hear how good she is.  She cruises from table to table to greet guests and patrol the dinner shift.  There is something more than vanity to her.  There is something definitive about Deborah’s presence in the hospitality trade and thus the chamber of commerce in Ixtapa.  She’s been around probably more than half her life — her age isn’t as obvious as her wisdom or experience on her face.  She came down from British Columbia from high school.  Learned her trade from Ixtapa restaurant dama named Mama Norma.  Worked as Mama Norma’s apprentice.  Learned to chef.  Learned to bake.  Learned to run a restaurant.  When Mama Norma passed away, Deborah carried on at the location that is now Danny Boy’s, calling it, per the lease, Mama Norma and Deborah’s.  (Danny Boy’s lease today might say it’s Mama Norma’s in fine print and Danny Boy’s.)  There is another small cantina on the boulevard called Chilibean’s, where Gernaro the General was once a manager, where they say was Deborah’s affiliate, as was reputedly the Blue Shrimp until the past summer when it got itself divested.  Deborah will not confirm or deny her connections to other restaurants except to say she doesn’t have anything to do with Danny Boy’s.  Rumors link her and the late chef Lalo romantically as well as in business way back to his days at the Blue Shrimp, before I actually became aware of either of them or their roles in the hospitality culture of Ixtapa.

Lalo passed away from diabetes, alcoholism, kidney disease and heartache.  It was too bad.  He was a nice guy.  A little shy for someone fronting a major show.  Now just about every restaurant in town except the Italian ones offer some variation of Lalo’s flambee shrimp, and the only credit Lalo gets is from Danny Boy, who probably learned it from Lalo when he was 13.

Deborah employs two specialists every night to cook Lalo’s shrimp flambee at the dinnertable.  One is a foxy young woman named Zuri.  Out of respect for her skills I pay attention to the process and the ingredients, try not to stare.  The finished sauce tastes like I recall it should.  I ask for extra rice.  Roxanne and I share Deborah’s award winning chocolate cake and coffee for dessert.  It’s a restaurant comfortable to linger at when the dinner rush is peaked.

There are but two of what anglos would recognize as chain restaurants in either town, both in Ixtapa:  Domino’s pizza upstairs at the plaza facing the boulevard in the mall above the wine store, and they deliver; and a Subway sandwich shop off the entrance of the Hotel Fontan.  There used to be a KFC.  No one misses it.  There’s a sushi place there now.  All the rest of the food places from the shaved beef taco stands to the fine sit down places and all the watering holes and patio cantinas in between, all personally branded, independent kitchens.  Both towns thrive on hospitality, food and drink.  It all comes at you that they are integral organic members of the socioeconomic community, a homestake in local outcomes.  This is not what anyone would call a corporate town, even if the big hotels, major employers, are corporately owned from afar and staffed by locals.  The restaurants, whoever actually owns them, seem to belong to local proprietors and entrepreneurs in residence.  For the long haul.  Thus it’s all comfort food to me.  I’m comforted to support the local economy.  The Krystal has opened a Starbucks in the lobby, but it is not covered in the all-inclusive and cannot be billed to your room, cash only.

Dinner for two in Ixtapa averages the US dollar equivalent of $30 in Ixtapa including drinks and tips, and slightly less in Zihuatanejo but you need to factor the cost of taxis.

Roxanne and I are inseparable.  Through the years we have met up with other winter vacationers of our age group who show up every year in January and February.  We meet up on the beach or at the pool and talk about their lives, kids, grandkids, jobs, and any news and gossip going around.  Everyone loves Roxanne.  This is true everywhere we go.  People love to talk with her.  She listens and asks questions.  She has a sunny laugh.  I’m no antisocial loner but I tend shy and mind my own business usually when left to myself, but with Roxanne I gain privy to people’s inner lives by association on the beach.  People accept me and talk freely around me because I’m Roxanne’s husband, and everyone loves Roxanne.  Sometimes we meet up in large groups with reservations for dinner.  Roxanne has her birthday every year in Mexico and it generates a banquet.  This year we celebrated at Bandidos in Zihuatanejo, about fifteen of us.  The chicken molcajetes are the rage, a local stew served in a carved volcanic urn, available also in shrimp and meatless, it’s too much for one person.

This year we arrived a week ahead of any of our gringo cronies.  It gave us more time to get together with our Mexican friends, who also love Roxanne.  She is uncomfortable with the Mexicans only because she feels lost in Spanish and insecure in conversations, though it doesn’t seem to stifle our Mexican friends and they talk to her anyway.  Roxanne admits that somehow she thinks she understands what she’s hearing and she is understood.  I am no Miguel de Cervantes but I don’t shirk from trying my best espanol because my friends will correct me and guide me to what I want to say, and half the time they just want to practice ingleis.

We learned our first day Adelina, cashier and hostess at the hotel’s Aquamarine restaurant, died in December of a brain aneurysm.  Adelina esta muerte.  Three children under 12.  Age 33.  Always looked good in her uniform, hair in a bun.  Ten, fifteen years ago I asked her how to say high heels en espanol.  “Zapatillas,” she obliged.  Only this year we learned she was married to Martin (another Martin) one of the lead waiters.  We also learned that Letty, a friend of ours through Anabel who works in the laundry, has breast cancer.

From the outset our visit is shadowed by sorrows, much as last year when we arrived to learn Fernando the philosopher guide and the boat captain Antonio of Big Ben’s Fishing, Benny’s stepson, both passed away the previous summer from cancer.  Lalo the chef only died the previous winter.  It didn’t seem like justice for this kind and gracious society to suffer sorrows of this succession, yet what patron saint keeps them safe and exempt?  I would call her Santa Nadie.  Saint Nobody.  I am sheepish to acknowledge sorrow at the scene of recreation and ask myself why it beguiles me so much to believe Ixtapa is supposed to be a paradise I vouch for, someplace transcendental where there are only good UV rays, everybody eats, the beach is an eternal stage play of innocent fun and life is all unicorns and butterflies (unicornios y mariposas) and tropical escape to imaginary anonymous adventure where nobody gets hurt — nobody hurts.

This is where I’m burying the lede.

We were three weeks deep into our stay, a few days past Roxanne’s birthday and our friend Bob learned Toscano’s, the Italian restaurant on the two fountain plaza opposite the Blue Shrimp and the souvenir kiosks next to Ruben’s hamburgers, was hosting a mariachi band during the dinner hour that Thursday and seating would be by reservation only.  Bob talked to the old Dom Toscano himself and got a reservation for eleven seats at the very last table they were allowed to put out on the plaza.  We arrived that night anticipating dinner and a floor show.

Every table at Toscano’s was sold out and the servers kept hopping to fulfill the food orders while a ten piece band in full dress regalia like old Mexican tuxedos gathered around the nearby non-functioning fountain in the plaza and played their hearts out.  The crowd was not limited to the patrons of Toscano’s but included pedestrian passersby, browsers at the souvenir kiosks, and anyone within earshot of the music dining at Blue Shrimp or Ruben’s or on up and down the plaza, but the band faced towards and played towards Toscano’s where the sound was most fresh and clear to the audience.  They played the classics.  Toscano’s crowd was mostly gringos like us who could barely recite the ay-ay-ay-ay part of Cielito Lindo but couldn’t name That Tune.  Violins, trumpets, bass, guitars, the mariachi guys completed their set and took a bow to big applause.  Standing ovation.  They passed around a sombrero and its crown filled with dollars and peso notes.

Then our friend Bob asked one of the trumpet players if they knew “Tijuana Taxi”.  Without a moment of hesitation the band assumed formation around the dry fountain and went straight through the Herb Alpert pop classic.  When they were done Bob gave the guy a big tip.  The whole rest of vacation Bob laughed to himself saying of all the mariachi bands he ever asked, these guys were the first to know Tijuana Taxi.

I admit I was surprised.  I guess its not traditional.  Clearly these were practiced musicians.  The food was excellent everybody agreed.  I went for the lasagna and it did not disappoint.  It didn’t bother me we were among the last to be served because they kept the wine and fresh baked bread coming during the music.  We were in no big rush.  Table conversation more or less softly probed where each of us regarded Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg and that Pete Guy.  Iowa Caucus.  New Hampshire.  Super Tuesday.  Buzz words.  Doggie whistles.  American politics has never been discussed in such roundabout condescension.

One of the itinerant busker musicians came along and set up his kit alongside the fountain.  He was the guitarist who played Andean pan flute.  This plaza between Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp was open mic territory for the itinerant acts who trek from plaza to plaza and sing and play a couple numbers to the diners at the restaurants and cantinas and then pass their hats for pesos.  Some are outright invasive.  Comes to mind a mom, pop and child act where dad plays an obnoxious drum while mom dances with hoops and torches of fire and the little girl does gymnastics.  Most offensive is the kerosene for the fires.  Others like the classical guitarist and the guitar girl with the weak voice who wants to be Joni Mitchell are innocuous, like the pan flute guy with guitar, who always opens with El Condor Pasa.  He was fluting the chorus of Sweet Caroline when the plaza went boom-boom-boom.

I looked up towards the souvenir kiosks and saw a young man in a red jersey and a beige baseball cap start running with a gun in his hand.  He fired once more toward the kiosks and once in the air.  You could see fire from the barrel.  I stood up and watched him run down the plaza into the crowd past Ruben’s, where he took a hard left and ran behind Ruben’s towards the parking lot beyond.

A Mexican man lay splayed like a rag doll on his back on the pavement between the other fountain and a row of souvenir kiosks on the plaza, motionless and bloody to the chest and the head.  Beside him a woman wept with her face in her hands, also bloody.  I walked to the scene and stopped when I could see enough and stay out of the way.  Men from Blue Shrimp brought a table cloth to shroud the man from the knees up.  He wore khaki shorts and his legs were turning purple.  The woman, on her knees at the kiosk, wept inconsolably attended by another lady and a young man.  A few husky guys in blue t-shirts on cell phones seemed to take informal charge of the scene, and I figured they were plainclothes cops.  An ambulance silently parked lights flashing along the street outside the plaza and EMTs rushed a gurney to the aid of the sobbing woman.  Troops arrived shortly, or maybe they were federal police, armed with machine rifles and wearing camouflage battle gear.  I spoke to one who appeared in charge and told him a description of the act, the gunman and his escape.

Our dinner party settled our checks with the waiter, who was shaking.  Most of the restaurant patrons and the plaza crowd went away.  The pan flute guy with guitar packed his gear and slipped away.  The classical guitarist, an anglo Aussie with a shaggy beard and hair shaved off one side, on deck to play next passed by me and said, “He ran right by me,” and kept going the opposite direction of the shooter.  The EMTs calmed the woman, put her on oxygen and took her away on the gurney to the ambulance.  She had been shot in the face.  After they took the woman the crowd wisped away, including ourselves and the plainclothes cops with cell phones, leaving the scene to the troops, yellow tape, the restaurant people, people from the other souvenir kiosks and passersby who didn’t yet know what happened, and to the murdered man lonely on the pavement under a tablecloth with his purple legs sticking out, his sandals different ways akimbo.

We more or less walked each other home to the hotel and to the Bay View.  The next day it was the talk of all the anglo tourists, sure it was the dirty work of the cartels.  At first they said both victims died, but it turned out the woman survived.  They were a married couple operating a trinket stand.  They have three children, 8, 6 and 4.  Somebody came to them demanding to be paid $400 MX pesos a week — tribute, protection, a licensing fee — about $20 USD.  They said no.  Maybe they said fuck you.  Maybe they said go to hell.  Maybe they said politely, we’re sorry, senor, that’s too much money.  They said no.  So that somebody shot them point blank in a crowded plaza just after nine o’clock on a Thursday night and ran away.

Far as I know nobody set up a Go Fund Me page for the widow and kids.  Nobody seemed to know who they are.

To get through the gossip clutter our friend Bob turned to his smart phone at the beach and consulted a blog by ZihuaRob, an American expat with a withering eye on Zihuatanejo society, who confirmed the murder and assault but identified nobody.  A train of commentary at the blog chased back and forth down intersecting rabbit holes connecting American foreign policy and weapons trafficking south to the cartels while Mexican border forces are deployed along Guatemala to keep out migrants trying to get to the USA, who are trying to escape with their lives against gangs and cartels making a lot of money sending drugs north.  These gangs and cartels exert power with weapons that outgun local police who depend on the federal police to keep actual order in Mexico, which is overrun with fundamental corruption and relies on its good citizens to uphold the rules of law and civility.  Nobody offered anything beyond condolences to the family of the victims.

For me that gunman put five bullet holes in my faith in Mexico leaving the Third World behind or leading it into the new world of the 21st Century, however such things continue to be measured country by country from now on.  My faith is not dead either.  It’s wounded enough to let go of the romance version of Mexican innocence.  Los Bigotes de Zapata is not a cute cartoon amigo but a symbol of revolution and self determination.  To embrace Mexico is to recognize it’s a new race invented after the 15th Century and may still be rapidly evolving along with its ancient and modern history as a post modern pueblo culture.  There is a certain native talent to Mexicans that eludes stereotyping but proceeds to do the best it can.  Poder mejor.  A vigorous sense of responsibility and pride.  To be nice.  Simpatico.  This is where my faith projects Mexico.

Even so, seeing a killing jolts me into real world worry about safety and security.  The morning after the shooting at Toscano’s (local coverage and social media described it as happening near Ruben’s) I read the morning paper from my hometown on a tablet through hotel wi-fi and read that the night before in Minneapolis somebody shot two people on a bus downtown and one of them died at the scene.  The shooter was arrested four blocks away within an hour.  I wondered if any of the cops in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo put out any effective dragnet last night.  Is it all sort of random, you never know when your number’s up, or is it karma, what goes around comes around — fools names and fools faces…

Also that morning after the murder I read the obituary of a Chinese doctor who died from a virus that got him in trouble with the Communist Party.  Dr Li Wenliang in December noticed a pattern occurrence of a rather lethal new virus in his home town of Wuhan.  When he wrote colleagues in the medical community about local outbreaks of this new virus he was hushed by the Party for inciting panic and disorder and hustled off to detention.  Word got out anyway about covid-19 the novel coronavirus, Dr Li was put back into social circulation serving the medical community, where he caught covid-19 infection and died.

By this time world journalism was covering the pandemic though only a few cases were confirmed in America, nobody known dead.  Epidemiologists predicted a spread across the planet.  The president canceled foreigners traveling from China.  China went into a lockdown of social quarantine.  They erected massive field hospitals in record time.  From trying to keep a lid on it, the Chinese were now informing the world of its research and real time coping strategies for this highly contagious disease.  Nobody is immune to it.  Pessimists said it would eventually infect 80% of the world population.

Donald Trump, the American president, tells everybody in America it’s totally under control, it’s only one person from China.  In his opinion the warmer weather of April would make the virus miraculously go away.  The World Health Organization in Geneva declared an international emergency.  Within days Singapore acknowledged it had cases.  It was heading to America.  Anybody with half a nickel of sense could see that if Trump formed an opinion contrary to science the nation faced doom.

From Mexico I’m pondering murder and the coronavirus, and news from Kenya that locusts are descending in storms and ravaging the vegetation of eastern Africa.  Firestorms leveled Australia.  Volcanoes and earthquakes rumble from underground.  Nations constantly rise against nations.  Here comes the plague.  Cue famine.  Dissolve to close up of the face of Anti Christ.  At least before the End Days I get a few more massages from Isabel at casa numero dos down the beach from our palapa.

I live in America where people shoot each other all the time.  For the damndest of reasons.  Usually in the service of some vendetta or the pursuit of ill-gotten gains.  There were more than 15,000 murders in the USA in 2019.  48 in my home town compared with 510 in Chicago.

Mexico recorded over 35,000 murders last year.

Thirty five thousand.

All this while I’ve been minimizing the danger and satirizing the Trump administration’s migration policy and conflating it with Trump’s grudges against Mexican trade and his state department’s travel warnings against travel to Mexico.  People might think I’m brainwashed (does anybody remember a republican named George Romney, Mitt’s father, who once ran for president and doomed his campaign by publicly admitting he was brainwashed about Vietnam?) or at best naively ignorant of the violence you can encounter in cute little Mexico.  I am neither.  I am aware.  I’m not suddenly woke to the poverty of the Mexican lower class, the institutional sexism, the might of the cartels, the corruption of the oligarchy and the acceptance of violent means to get people to do what they want.  I may be a bumpkin from the heartland of North America but I see and recognize life as it is.  I’ve been in a state of serenity to accept things I cannot change and easy to take courage to accept things I can, but with this I don’t know if I know the difference.  There is a butterfly effect.  How Roxanne and I conduct ourselves as guests of Mexicans reflects upon America and Americans and how we would treat them if they were guests in our town.  Given the official talk of our president they aren’t supposed to feel welcome in American territory, and yet we anticipate being welcomed to Mexico without so much as a pet the dog.  It’s been our specialty, as it is with all our international travel, to avoid political unrest if possible.  It’s not our mission to infiltrate any grass roots efforts worldwide to modernize humanity, that’s just how it goes when you make friends with people who live in foreign countries.  In Mexico we trust Isabel, Anabel and Jesus and so on, that they would never lead us into danger.  Yet there we were, finishing dinner, all of our own accord, the pan flute guy was fluting Sweet Caroline and all the anglos knew the next line went whoa whoa whoa…  boom boom boom.  Boom.  Boom.

That’s something I cannot change I challenge whether to accept because I couldn’t tell the difference between serenity and courage.  Very nearsighted, I was not wearing glasses at dinner that night; though I saw what I saw the crisp sharp details evade me and it’s like an Impressionist scene, no good as an eyewitness in case they ever assembled a lineup, a defense attorney would tear me to shreds if I ever testified, and I didn’t.  What tested my serenity about this event begged my courage.  I learned that I felt no fear.  I was angry.  A man was murdered on my vacation, a woman wounded and widowed.  People working in the vacation business selling Mexi knickknacks.  My presence at the plaza and all the others did not change the outcome.  Over $20 USD, mas o menos.  There was no herd immunity for the dead man.  Sad fact remains if it could happen there at the plaza in Ixtapa it could happen anywhere, any time.

Roxanne and I made a pact not to tell our kids.  They would never allow us to come back.

We always acted as if the violence was concentrated in certain geographic areas and among Mexicans most of the time.  Mexican towns along the northern border such as Tijuana, Reynosa Nuevo Laredo and Juarez were famous hot spots.  The killings were between gangs, between cartels.  Nobody bothered tourists.  The Mexican state of Guerrero which includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo also includes a megacity Acapulco, which has a high murder rate, as does the state of Quintana Roo because of Cancun.  As with any city for tourists, Paris or Dublin, be aware of the surroundings.  Don’t go shady places after dark and especially at two in the morning.  Don’t engage vice — if you think vice equates to fun then watch out for thrills un-bargained for.  The tourist coda has been to believe the killings were always between Mexicans except for gringo yahoos looking for trouble.

It was nothing for tourists to worry about.  Tourists were safe.  Gringo kidnappings were an urban legend.  The alcoholic drink poisonings in the Cancun region were overblown.  An average tourist at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo has a greater chance of drowning in the bay of Playa Palmar, a greater chance of being grabbed by a shark or being struck by lightning than being shot to death in Ixtapa, the taxi drivers will say.

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Americans from the United States make up fewer and fewer of the guests at the Krystal and the other hotels on the beach in the winter.  It’s a fact.  Americans are afraid to vacation in Mexico.  This moment, they are afraid to vacation anywhere, but the past five or ten years the numbers of vacationers to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo from America has steadily declined to fifteen percent of what it was at the turn of this century.  What used to be a competitive airline market non-stop from Minneapolis has defaulted to one carrier twice a week and ticket prices are no longer a bargain.  It’s as if the American vacation industry wrote off Ixtapa.  Granted, Ixtapa appealed to the Boomer generation, which is gradually letting go of its haunts, but they failed to pass Ixtapa Zihuatanejo as a legacy destination for the generations of their/our offspring.  It isn’t cool.  It’s not Spring Breaky enough.  That’s part of the appeal to me, its modest sanity.  Mexico’s reputation for violence amplified by the State Department in its travel cautions will keep suppressing demand from the US, and Americans will seek safer beaches and deserts to winter.

Canadians apparently didn’t get the memo.  While the presence of American visitors keeps diminishing the proportion of Canadian anglos keeps increasing.  Instead of meeting new people from Michigan, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon or Illinois we’re meeting many more folks from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.  More and more French speakers are overheard in the crowds and it’s unlikely Ixtapa has attracted coteries of tourists from France.  Among English speakers the Canadians distinguish themselves by pronouncing their soft A sounds as ah, like Europeans, Brits and Latins do, not like ayh the way Americans do.  (Colorahdo/Colorayhdo.)  At the sports bars they love hockey, though they boast the defending NBA champion Raptors.  NFL football is big through playoffs and Super Bowl but weeknights and after football season there can be three or four hockey games going on at the same time on different screens at the General’s with maybe an NBA or college basketball game or two here and there, and once in a blue moon professional soccer.  If there are no matches or games the sports bars rock with pop country videos that appeal to Molson drinkers and American cowboys/cowgirls alike.  Maple leaf flags adorn poolside umbrellas.  At the variety shows at night at the hotel the stage emcee calls out to the crowd to applaud where they are from and when he says Canada there is a loud chorus of whoops but when he says United States there is a murmur.  Same with games and activities around the pool if an anglo competes they’re usually from Calgary, Winnipeg or Saskatoon.  Gringos from Estados Unidos keep low profiles and mix in.

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Making up for the rest of the decline of American tourists are Mexicans themselves.  When the emcees shout out to the crowds to cheer the places they are from, they don’t just say Mexico, they call out to individual states — Jalisco yaaaay!  Puebla yaaaaay!  Not many years ago the percentage of guests who were Mexican was maybe five percent, and when we first started coming there were times when there may have been no Mexicans at all staying at the Krystal.  You would see a few shy families, multigenerational, and young couples.  Middle aged couples.  Young couples with babies and toddlers.  Young professionals.  Crossover SUVs made by Chevy, VW and Totota parked shiny in the cul de sac where the old tennis courts used to be before the Amara condos were built, with license plates from Jalisco, Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Durango, Michoacan (which is not same as Michigan) and Mexico City.

Rapidly as I noticed the disappearance of the gringos, the preponderance of Canadians, I saw the appearance of the Mexican middle class.  At first it was just a surge around the first Monday of February, Dia de la Constitucion, celebrating long weekends over a national holiday.  Families, couples, urban hipsters, people with means and style, working class persons like ourselves checked in at the Krystal brought there in bus coaches or driving down from Guadalajara, as I noticed the hotel marketing success drawing the leisure seekers from its own cities of the region without surf and beaches.  From the emergent Mexican middle class come the young families at the kiddie pools and at the beach.  The multigenerational families with grade school kids and teenagers.  The young couples, some discreetly LGBTQX.  Families with cousins, aunts and old people who hire the trios who walk the beach in cowboy boots to play guitar, drum and accordion and sing the old time Mexican songs at the palapas.  To me this was all evidence of success in Mexico.  I cheered.  This revealed to me true signs that Mexico was improving.  I observe this from an American continuity, of course, comparing our own exceptional point of view of course, seeing a graduation of society towards prosperity as I have experienced it at home and in other western lands.

I used to read a newspaper in English called The News which was peddled by a guy named Victor on the beach every day but Sunday, a paper published in Mexico City that covered the whole country, which cost $15 MX pesos a day — 75 cents USD.  I read it for signs of progress.  Too often it told stories like the 43 students from a teachers college who went missing in Iguala, a town in the hills of northern Guerrero, in September 2014 and never turned up.  Follow up stories in The News never solved the crime by the time the newspaper ceased publication a couple of years ago leaving Victor selling soccer t-shirts.  Victor says it’s the internet did in the paper.  That itself should have been another sign of progress, universal technology.  I preferred newsprint partly because of all the trouble it takes to put a newspaper together every day and ship it a few hundred miles for somebody to read on a beach instead of thumbing up down and sideways with a smartphone like all the Mexicans now do.

All you need is a place to charge it.

Meantime I noticed the recorded music in the Krystal lobby had changed back to the Muzak melodies of old movie themes like Gone With the Wind.  When I noticed it I wondered if I just noticed it or if it had always been this way, and I started to gaslight myself.  Every time I went through the lobby I listened.  The theme from Romeo and Juliet.  Baby Elephant Walk.  Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago.  The Three Penny Opera.  Maybe the old manager was back.

Every day our housekeeping maid Neli left us bath towel origami sculptures with flower petal features.  We are a tidy couple but it was luxury to have the floor swept, the bathroom cleansed and the towels and bed linen changed every day.  They do not use fitted sheets either.  The amount of sand we tracked indoors every day might fill a bucket by the time we went home.  Neli got a tip every day.

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One evening after the beach we were up in our room getting ready to meet friends for dinner, Roxanne in the bathroom after her shower and using the hair dryer, keeping the door closed for my sake because she knows I don’t like noise from hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, jet engines and power tools.  I was getting dressed and reading.  Roxanne called out from the bathroom.  I went to the door.  She asked me to open the door, she couldn’t open the door from the inside.  I tried but the knob turned but there was no retracting the tongue bolt by the mechanism of the knob.  I called the desk.  The lady said someone from maintenance would be there in five minutes.  Roxanne lamely kept engaging the knob as if it would change its mind.  She said she was okay.  She was wearing a bath towel.

Within five minutes or so the maintenance guy knocked at the door with his tool cart parked in the hall.  He was a short young guy in overalls with black hair that spiked naturally without balm, and deep black eyes.  He spoke no useful English but understood me well enough to figure out the problem, got some screwdrivers out of his cart and began trying to leverage the knob and the plate without damaging the door frame.  I tried not to crowd him watching him work and his attempts did nothing to open the door.  He used a walkie talkie to consult somebody in Spanish.  He tried the ring around the knob and the plate from another angle.  No good.  He talked on the walkie talkie.  In a moment the senior maintenance guy showed up, an older drawn faced guy with forehead wrinkles dressed in khaki shirt and pants.  He and the younger guy consulted.  With now three of us hovered at the bathroom door there was less room for me to see over the senior guy’s shoulder what he did, but he sprung the latch and got it open without damaging anything.  He took off the knob and said he would return to replace it in one hour.  We thanked him and the younger guy, finished dressing and met up with our dinner companions not late.

We figured the maintenance guy would use a master key to let himself in the room and fix the doorknob while we were gone.

Turned out he didn’t show up with a new doorknob until the next morning while we were reading the news, just before Neli came to clean the room and we were ready to go down for breakfast.

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On a very windy day I approached Rafael and his crew to take a parasailing parachute ride.  Rafael bossed the concession of two rotating chutes on the beach between the Krystal and the Tesoro.  He also rented boogie boards and beach umbrellas by the hour. Rafael knows me from years at the Krystal.  I’ve ridden the parachute almost every year since maybe my third year  down to Ixtapa.  I’ve rented boogie boards and belly surfed many times more.  I signed the waiver on the clipboard while his guys, Donnie and a new guy Pablo buckled me into the life vest and then harnessed me into the parachute.  Donnie went over the routine with me.  When Rafael blows the whistle and waves the red flag, grab the strap with the red ribbons with

both hands and pull it all the way to my heart.  When I hear the whistle again and Rafael drops the flag, let go.  The chute billows behind be as they buckle my harness to a thick rope.  The rope goes taut and Rafael says, okay start walking.  I take one step the direction of the rope and a speedboat taking off beyond the breakers into the bay and I am lifted off the sand into the sky.

When I came to Rafael to ask for a ride he said, good choice like a waiter when you order the chef’s special because he knew I relished a strong wind to take me as high as I could go.  What’s more the wind was blowing in from the northwest for a change, which meant the speedboat would carry me westward over the bay towards the marina and over the massage huts instead of towards the Pacifica resort, the same old route.  Any route would allow a view towards the mountains beyond the valley of Ixtapa town, over the rooftops of the condos and hotels.  The view from this direction offered yachts in the harbor and a longing glimpse of the terraced private haciendas along the rocky coast west of the beach.

If you ever take such a ride, my first advice is don’t look down.  Not because it’s scary but because looking down is a waste of the view, it’s just water down there and being tethered by a rope to a speedboat.  The true thrill is flying high above it all.

Relax in the harness.  There’s no way to slip out.  Let the tension relax.  Look beyond the jungle and the valley to the khaki mountains climbing to the horizon.  See the tile roofs of the residential neighborhood in the valley beyond the commercial town and the plazas.  Always wished to mosey back there to see who lives in that neighborhood, what the houses are like.  I’ve seen it from afar, from the airplane going home.  Seems like a simpatico neighborhood I’d like to see up close in the daytime, but we are always too busy at the beach in the daytime when it is always too hot to mosey much inland.  Sailing high from the parachute I could picture a walking route from a forked curve in the main boulevard away from the highway out of town towards

Playa Linda.  Beyond the OXXO gas station store behind Ruben’s, past the movie theater and the high school where the kids wear blue and dark blue.  Past the pink and purple buildings back beyond the dark cantinas at night where nobody we know goes and we wouldn’t think to go, none of our business day or night.  From the sky the business district of malls and overlapping plazas of commercial Ixtapa doesn’t seem so almighty big.  There are no stop lights on the boulevard or anywhere in all of Ixtapa, where there are over a dozen stop light intersections in Zihuatanejo.  There are no high rises in Zihuatanejo either, and from the sky I can see palm trees and swimming pools between them along the beach.  There’s the pink and blue delfinium where you can swim with the dolphins.  The triangular skylight of the atrium roof of the Krystal.  All the walkers and splashers and sun bathers on the sand.  The sea curling white down below, silent.  Barely any noise.  Sorry, no whales.

Takeoff is voluntary.  Descent is mandatory.  Pay no attention to the speedboat.  Watch the beach, look at the tiny masajistas waving at clients walking the sand.  You want to wave at somebody but can’t tell who’s looking up.  You look for Rafael and his red flag.  The murmur of the motorboat drops and you hear a whistle, and there’s Rafael in his t-shirt and hat and big black shades frantically waving red, so I reach up to my left with both hands and grab the strap under the flying red ribbons and pull the strap to my heart.  Just as I stop still high in space no longer moving vertically I look down at everybody else looking up but there’s no time to wave.  I am floating still for a second stuck thirteen stories in the air.  Then Rafael blows the whistle and drops the flag to the sand and I leg go with my hands and begin to coast downward, straight down into Donnie and Pedro’s arms and barefoot I land and feel the ropes and the chute fall down behind me and they keep me standing up.

They unhook the harness and strip off the harness and the life vest and hook the rope to the next one, a lady in her thirties or forties, probably from Canada.  Rafael says, good job.

A few days before we came home Roxanne and I were on our beach walk to the Pacifica and back when we observed a scene involving a separate parachute and boat crew from Rafael’s.  In the entire bay there might be three speedboats servicing maybe as many as four parachute concessions as well as a couple of places renting rides on inflated hot dogs and rocket sleds they tow back and forth.  This parachute set up was out front of the Hotel Fontan.  The speedboat was bringing a rider back from a round trip and the flag and whistle boss of the crew started jumping up and down, whistling and waving, the crew waving their arms and shouting at the parachute rider who did nothing, didn’t pull the strap, just hung in the air drifting fast back towards the sea.  The speedboat took off, the rope tightened and the parachute went back up and around for another pass.  At the next approach the boss with the whistle blew frantically and waved the flag like a torch while the ground crew screamed at the rider who again did nothing and began to drift and fall.  So the speedboat took off again and pulled the parachute out to sea.  We resumed our walk back towards the Krystal.  The speedboat pulled the chute to the landing spot again and slowed and again the rider ignored the signals from the ground that he was supposed to pull the strap with the ribbon, and again the speedboat revved up and pulled him out to sea before he crashed in the surf.

A Mexican guy about my own age holding a clipboard approached me talking Spanish too fast for me to understand and wanted me to read what was on the clipboard.  It was the waiver contract signed by parachute riders like the one I signed when I rode Rafael’s.  The man pointed to a clause that said in English and Spanish that if a rider fails to follow instructions to land and ends up going around again they owe a full fee for each ride around.  The man held up four fingers and pointed at the still looming chute.  This time short of the breakers the boat pulled

up and stopped.  The man with the clipboard and half the beach ran to watch where the parachute hung in space in open water beyond the breakers and slowly descended.  The flag and whistle boss of the ground crew and a lifeguard commandeered a jet ski from the rental guy.  The parachute rider plunked down in the water behind the boat and the chute draped around him while the boat guys yelled at him and made sure he was all right while the guys on the jet ski went out to get him back to land.  Roxanne and I resumed our walk speculating whether the parachute vendor was going to demand the extra $1500 MX pesos in cash, or would they send somebody to collect from him at his hotel — filling out the waiver they asked you to disclose your hotel.

Besides Rafael, and Victor selling newspapers, we’ve supported the roaming beach vendors throughout the years.  Hector makes table sized statues out of ironwood, which he polishes with brown Kiwi shoe polish.  Eagles, dolphins, bears, marlins, turtles, they are detailed and dispassionately realistic.  I bought a buffalo maybe fifteen years ago, and since then also a coconut palm tree which I really like despite it is very menial to keep dusted due to its detail, or maybe because of that, I have to handle it more and it reminds me of Hector and Playa Palmar.  He’s husky but like many Mexicans has lean and sturdy legs, in his case from schlepping up and down the coast every day with his big backpack of statuettes slumping his shoulders, at least two samples in his hands on display.  His face is stern as he treads between palapas but he smiles wide at you if you make eye contact behind his aviator mirror shades and greet him but he doesn’t stop unless asked, he doesn’t have to, he walks slowly enough to get attention and allow you to see what he’s offering.  His eagle is impressive but almost too scary.  His animals have faces of indifference, even my buffalo.

He’s aging, like all of us.  Seems he’s always been around from when he was barely a kid.  Has a studio where he lives west of town.  I think his father started it, and he may have a brother in the trade.  It took a couple of conversations for me to believe he really carved them himself or hawking trinkets he picked up wholesale because he doesn’t stop to make conversation unless you show a spark of interest in what he’s holding, like my buffalo and the coconut palm, but he walks by slowly enough he’s like a cloud casting a brief shadow across the direct sun and he talks as he shuffles by in the sand, muy bien, it’s hot today, with a broad smile he turns on and off.  You never hear him coming.  He never hawks out loud.  You never hear him raise his voice or holler Small Statues For Sale, not even a whisper.

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Not like Victor with his baritone.  “Revistas!  English newspapers!”  Time to dig out my pesos in advance.  Put down my book.  Now it’s “Soccer T-shirts!”  Sock-air.  He used to carry a bundle of papers at least a foot thick on his head with one hand and do business on the fly with the other.  His legs are sturdy like a horse, and so is his chest and he carries himself a tummy so that his nickname among the Krystal staff is Panza.  I seem to buy soccer shirts from him every year since the paper went dry.  First from Mexico City, mostly red with some white with dark blue sleeves sponsored in the front by BIMBO in big letters, a snack doughnut cupcake brand all over Mexico and some urban centers in North America.  It’s logo is a cuddly little white bear who could be the Snuggle fabric softener bear double dipping endorsements — the bear is not featured on my soccer t-shirt, just the name BIMBO.  I have also a Mexican national World Cup style white jersey with the green and maroon stripes and the team seal.  I got a green Mexican national jersey for Clara and a red Barcelo for Tess.  Victor now treads the sand with a racksworth of shirts hooded over his head and thick neck, plus a backpack the size of a duffel bag full of inventory calling out he’s coming:  Sock-air tee shirts!  First day he sees me he shows off his rack.  I like the royal blue and gold stripes of the Monterrey Tigres.  I asked if he had any child sizes, for Anabel’s six year old grandson Yorvy whose favorite team is the Chivas from Guadalajara.  He checked the backpack.  A few kid sizes but no Chivas.  He said maybe he could find one by next week.  I bought the Monterrey Tigres.

Besides Hector and Victor I haven’t learned the names of the countless vendors who trek the beach sands selling stuff every day.  Some call out to announce their presence or what they got, like the young women who weave braids and beads in your hair who say, “Hey ladies!  Braids!” and “Tatuajes!  Henna tattoos!”  And the sunglass lady singing “Lentes!”  The guys in linen pants and fancy shirts carrying black valises that open up like laptops to display rings and necklaces who expose their wares with furtive gestures to the women, almost whispering, “Platas, senoritas.”  Oh yes, Roxanne and some of my sisters have browsed those valises and I’ve had to run up to the room safe for some peso notes to make a buy of something silver with elegant onyx or turquoise, a really good deal, and the deliberately come back to Roxanne year after year.  Another favorite is the one I call Senora De La Ropa, a middle aged lady who hauls dozens of beach wraps and dresses on her head and her back.  With that pile she looks about six feet tall but she’s barely four foot eight.  She lays down the pile and selects certain ones to hold up and to lay spread on the sand.  She encourages you to try something on.  She makes a sale at almost every stop along the way.  Roxanne knows you might find the same thing at a kiosk or a shop in town for a few pesos less but La Senora is so friendly and works so hard and brings it right to you at the palapa.

At the beach they come by selling cigars, carved onyx figurines and chess pieces, skin lotions, local made frozen fruitsicles, Zihuatanejo Ixtapa t-shirts and baseball caps, more beach wraps only maybe not as many as the Senora.  We’ve bought mobiles of brilliantly painted wooden fish.  Ceramic votive candle holders.  The Tamale Lady comes by at about 3-3:15 with her Coleman cooler.  You either got to be hungry or not because there’s no fridge or microwave oven up in the room.  $2.50 USD gets two corn tamales, or $50 MX pesos.  I think her name is Margarita but I’m not sure.  She marches right past us because she’s right, we never buy.  The default answer for the most is no.  Except for the proud Tamale Lady at 3:15 the vendors don’t act insulted to hear no thanks, no gracias, and let it go at that, move on.  They never hassle.  They sometimes plead with their eyes.  The Tamale Lady lets me know I’m missing out on a luscious taste but we’re not supposed to eat meals on the beach.  Vendors never interrupt conversations or deliberately get in your face.  They accept being ignored.  Some actually act bored and ignore you.  If you want to haggle with them, that’s your business.  The jewelry guys and the beachwear sellers seem amenable to negotiate for multiple items.

Two types of vendors are mainly popular among Mexicans.  One is the young guys carrying machetes and nets of fresh green coconuts, calling “Cocos, cocos!”  The guys hack open the fruits and hand you a straw to drink the juice and chop it in pieces to share the meat.  The other is the roving musicians, usually trios, guitars, accordions, bass, sometimes a snare and a little cymbal, always dressed in uniform as cowboys with wide Stetson hats, rugged shirts, jeans and elaborate leather boots.  Families employ them to serenade their parents and grandparents with old favorites.  Roxanne says she thinks Mexican music sounds like Czech polka.

Victor the former newspaper guy now selling soccer t-shirts has a brother named Javier who used to sell a stack of Spanish language magazines like People and Us and other celebrity glossies on his head.  “Revistas!”  His was almost a basso profundo to Victor’s baritone.  They looked very much alike except the brother had a bigger tummy.  Victor says Javier had to retire, developed a back condition and a bad heart.  Now that I think about it, Javier is the one the hotel staff used to call Panza.

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Every day we either get a visit from or encounter on a mosey walk a gentleman named Benny Guzman.  Benny is the premier vendor on the beach.  A big, sturdy guy like Victor, with a tummy of his own, Benny wears a faded Tommy Bahama shirt and khaki cargo shorts, a baseball cap that says something fishy like Cabela’s, wraparound shades and sandals.  Like all the local residents he’s got a deep tan.  Benny is the premier vendor on Playa Palmar not because he’s big, or flashy or loud or controls various concessions.  He’s actually soft spoken if ubiquitous, and even though he’s a fixer who can provide guides and tours his main profession is taking people fishing.  He owns three boats, a big one and two pongas.  I have never gone out on one of his excursions when he himself was the captain, though our friends Bob and Rose have gone, but I have gone out on his pongas at dawn with his sub captains and enjoyed mornings trolling along the jungle desert coast and reeling in tuna.  Benny will have you picked up at the hotel, driven to the embarcadero, a morning fishing and a shore lunch at Isla Las Gatas plus a taxi ride back from the pier.  He likes to be paid in USD.  Benny is the premier vendor on Playa Palmar because he’s honest and true.  He will never guarantee you’ll catch a sailfish, or even a mahi-mahi, but he’ll make good every opportunity and honor every appointment and offer every amenity as agreed.  He can’t promise you’ll see a whale or a dolphin but his captains will take you out for a nice boat ride down the sandy coast, maybe see some turtles.  His guides will show you Petatlan or Troncones with grace and charm.  He’ll always see you get back to the hotel happy.

He speaks of his hundred days, between December and April when he does most of his business.  This year he says he’s doing well, three fishing bookings a day all week.  He says it’s different now, 90% of his clients used to be Americans, 10% Canadians, now it’s the other way round.  Has to charge more in Canadian money because of the exchange rate.  Mexicans don’t book fishing excursions.  Never treats us grudgingly that we haven’t gone fishing in three or four years, he’s always asking if we might like a whale watch, a trip up to Troncones.  He says the one thing he won’t get for people is drugs.  A few years ago he used to muse about running for mayor, El Presidente de Zihuatanejo.  In his way I could tell he was serious, truth in jest.  He could be a civic leader who would organize for the good, a true public servant.  Realistically he could get elected.  Just as realistically he could get killed.  If Benny serves as a civic leader in his community today it is because he leads by example, a family man, honest businessman and friend.  See him walking the beach, talking on his cell phone.  He is not the only fishing excursion promoter on the beach, and he may not even be the cheapest but he’s the most reliable.

“You get one customer complains of a bad time and that spreads to ten.  Ten spreads to a hundred,” he says, “and soon you’re out of business.  It’s all on the internet these days.”

He was born and grew up in Zihuatanejo.  Says the smartest thing he did when he was young was learn English.  Learned early the ones who made money knew English.  Calls himself Big Ben these days.  Gives me his card.  Says I should write about him in TripAdvisor.  I observed he looks like he’s lost weight.  Says he’s trying to eat right.  When he says business is good this year he’s got no reason to shade me.  I like seeing people like him, Genaro, Deborah, Martin and so on succeed.  Live long and prosper.  It’s a lot like the American Dream only it’s not on American soil.  I see it wherever I travel beyond the borders of the USA, people living their Dream.  For a while I am living in exile in their Dream.  Benny is currently counting up the Canadians booking fishing excursions and I am left feeling less guilty for the Americans declining, a known fact that Canadians love to go fish, it’s part of the Canadian Dream.  Benny for his part is an ambassador, diplomat and secret agent.

There was a certain tension on the beach at the palapas in February as more white anglos from Quebec and the western provinces showed up and found themselves mixed with tanned Americanos still rehashing the impeachment and speculating about the New Hampshire primary.  Canadians revel in scolding Americans about their politics and this wave of visitors happened to bond over loathing of liberals like Trudeau and cheers to the policies of Donald Trump in the faces of a bunch of us bumpkin Democrats unfit to live in the free world.  A weird alliance conflated with some Quebecois couples and some couples from Alberta lauding the rollback of federal regulations restricting oil, gas and coal.  They opposed everything federal.  They favored what Trump was doing, dismantling the deep state.  When they overheard some of us Americans talking about Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the mood of mocking arrogance gave way to shuns.  It was like that part in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant when he describes how the other criminals reacted to him at the draft board, they all seemed to move away from us on the Group W bench.

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Where the Canadians retreated the Mexicans gladly filled in around us at the palapas.  The Mexicans didn’t seem to mind if we gringos talked politics.  Some of us had been down there since before the State of the Union address.  The president ran a re-election ad during the Super Bowl that raised a standing ovation at the party at the General’s, which only proves the influence of western Canadians.  So glib about what American policies should be to make it easier on their self-interests when they can dodge the blame when the consequences of reckless American leadership pile up on the border like car crashes on an icy highway.  The Mexicans made welcome neighbors.  They played dance music and tender ballads on their Bluetooth JBL speakers.  Their little kids dug holes in the sand.  They hired the cowboy trovadores to sing to their mothers.  They bought cocos, drank the juice with straws, chewed the meat.  They read novels with Spanish titles, ran off across the sand and played in the sea.

Roxanne learned on the internet that an average of eleven people a year drown in the surf off Ixtapa Bay every year.  We have watched search and hope activities from afar before but never a rescue.  They say the bodies wash up towards Playa Linda, the other direction from Zihuatanejo.

Researching the TripAdvisor forum Roxanne found an inquiry from somebody who wanted to know if there were any hotels in Ixtapa that didn’t rent rooms to Mexicans.  The writer found Mexicans rude and arrogant, wasteful, sloppy and disrespectful.  Whoa.

I resist impulses to write social media commentary except here or in private letters, but this thing Roxanne raised almost got me to act instead of letting someone else answer, the way I usually do.  I would first of all remind everyone there’s a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.  It’s their country.  Anybody who disliked or in any way disdained Mexicans shouldn’t go to Mexico, even if to take advantage of the weather, the geography and inevitable hospitality of — if no one else — the servants.  If you don’t like French people, don’t go to Paris, and if you don’t like Parisians don’t go to the Grande Jatte on a Sunday.

Secondly it would be illegal under some kind of civil rights law even in Mexico for a hotel to discriminate against Mexicans — or at least I would hope.  There are economic bars to entry, surely, that might keep people from staying at hotels of a certain price range I cannot afford either, but that’s not the same as barring the door based on ethnicity alone.

As Mexico prospers as a society more and more of its people will populate its middle class and afford to enjoy leisure at the beaches just like the gringos have been doing for decades.  All beaches, by the way, are public, and public access points along Playa Palmar allow the locals freedom to stake a place on the open sand near the shore right along with the hotel guests and condo patrons.  After school a bunch of teenage boys practice surf boarding down on the end by the mouth to the marina.  Every day might be someone’s day off and they might spend it at the beach with family.  Or novios.

One hotel in fact stands out for looking like they only rent rooms to Mexicans is the Fontan.  Decked in turquoise and white like a 1980s Holiday Inn its patio is always busy and the pool is full and the beach out front overflowing, the busiest place on the Bay every day, and all the guests are Mexicans.  Not half.  Not eighty percent.  All.

I can see the trend for the Krystal to market itself to the modern Mexican middle class.  It’s a smart business model, especially anticipating the demise of the anglos from the US.  What almost surprises me the past few years is the tolerance of the Mexicans for American gringos in the face of official American policy towards Mexico and Mexicans.  When Donald Trump got a standing ovation at the General’s sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday what did the working Mexicans think, did they realize the cheers were coming from right wing Canadians?  I have been more self conscious about the image of the Ugly American the past four years than I have been self conscious of being an American at any other time of my life, including during Vietnam and the Bush years invading Iraq.  It is more difficult than at home to act as though the yammerings of a president don’t really reflect the opinion my country expresses towards the people of your country.  This Wall thing, it’s nothing really, nobody really believes in it.  Drugs?  Not your fault, it’s the American appetite.  Killings?  Assure me it’s always Mex on Mex.  The president of my country talks trash about your country and I try to convey I don’t share his opinion, so don’t you really care either way?

Jose was a very popular waiter at the Krystal.  Handsome and lovable he made some rookie mistakes when he started out but he was young and humble if maybe not too bright.  He stayed popular year after year developing hospitality skills to woo the clientele in English and Spanish.  This year he was missing.  Word said he and his eighteen year old son got work permits to work construction near Miami, Florida.  His wife and daughter and other son couldn’t come with him and are still in Zihua.  He had a lot of fans at the Krystal who miss him.  Some claimed to be friends of his on Facebook.  They say Jose got fed up with his life and trying to keep his sons away from the gangs.

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In private conversations with Jesus, the primo waiter at the Krystal currently accepting a quasi demotion from the new manager to work the bar and grill alongside the pool as well as hustle drinks at the palapas on the beach instead of breakfast and lunch at either of the restaurants, all related to a personal beef with Martin, Adelina’s widower, over seniority and who was captain and why a certain other server should lose hours because she was Martin’s sister’s ex sister in law, only Jesus only pretended it was a demotion when in fact he enjoyed hustling outdoors more, more time to spend with people and the tips were higher.  Jesus heard me tell of witnessing the murder at the plaza and counseled that it might not be the act of a cartel but a pretender, an independent wannabe, a lone wolf punk trying to establish his own territory.  He then told me and Roxanne a story of something that happened to him last year.

Jesus, it is known, owns a ranch of several acres in the hills north of town where he raises horses and cows.  A true vaquero, he spends his days off riding and grazing.  One day riding his range he was abducted at gunpoint by guys in a truck and driven several miles to a hut deeper into the mountains where he sat at a table where a man with a gun demanded he sign papers transferring ownership of his ranch.

“I tell him the numbers on the papers are wrong, it is not my property,” Jesus furtively explained.  “I say I cannot sign.  He is wrong.  He says if I am wrong he will shoot me dead, and if he is wrong I can shoot him.  I have no gun.  I won’t give up my land.  We go outside and he shoots some birds and says he’ll shoot me.  I say I cannot sign.  After one more night they let me go.  Put me out on the road.  I walk home,” he says enacting sneaky measures to avoid being seen.  “The cartel is everywhere.”

Don’t like to bother him too much while he’s working but the rest of the day I asked about details of his ordeal without making myself a pest or stirring a bad memory.  It’s not that I doubt him.  He’s worked at the Krystal thirty years and carries himself as a paragon of integrity.  If there are holes in his story it’s due to his concise brevity in light of telling it in English.  What he wanted me to understand was that the underhand of organized crime has a powerful grip.  “If they want something they will take it.”

I asked what can be done.  He didn’t know.  Even though his own resistance proved the answer in his case he stifled advocacy of action and counted his luck.  “I don’t own a gun.”  There’s a fatalistic attitude in Mexico, when your number’s up, it’s up.

If it’s not murder it’s drowning, or cancer, a car crash or aneurysm.  Ariel, son of Anabel, lost a close friend from a motorcycle accident just last December and I feel compelled to express hope that his grief finds a way to enliven his own life in ways to honor his friend and to live up to ideas they shared as friends.  Ariel is visibly sad.  He is about 22 years old.  He is handsome and sad.  He works in the kitchen at the Krystal.  He is literate and hip.  He lives with his mother and family, which includes Yorvy, his six year old nephew and fan of the Chivas.  I am way unqualified to offer life coaching to a young Mexican male in his situation but I’d advise him to go get an education, a PhD in psychology or literature, if I were to counsel him paternalistically, so all I can do is listen and reinforce his vague desires to get better.

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All the time we’ve been visiting this place a generation has come of age here.  There is no reason to discount their attitudes towards the tourists whose commerce fed and clothed their families and kept them in touch with a wider world.  How much they respect us and what kind of examples we’ve set so far speaks well by the way we are treated by them and their elders, but I keep wondering deep down how much more petty abuse they’ll endure from the American government that they’ll reject our phony ideals about justice and human rights, stop protecting us and treat us as no longer welcome.  Expendable.

I can’t tell if there’s revolution or insurrection just underneath the surface of society in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, or if democracy and liberal commerce along with universal education and public health have raised the region’s standard of living and raises the bar of personal expectations.  Zihua Rob sees American firearms interests exploiting holes in the border, American government bullying Mexican law enforcement troops to vacate Mexico’s northern border states to instead mass in the south and creating a vacuum of law enforcement almost everywhere else in the country and allowing outlaw cartels to impose their own rules of order.  I have read stories of little towns and villages up in the hills less than half a day’s drive from Ixtapa and still in the same state of Guerrero where young boys age 11 or 12 train with rifles in the local militia to guard against cartel gangsters who live in the nearby mountains.

The 43 missing student teachers from a college in Ayotzinapa disappeared in northern Guerrero while taking a bus ride up to Mexico City, the nation’s capital, to participate in demonstrations, rallies and teach-ins commemorating the Tiateloco massacre of 1968, a kind of Kent State Tiananmen Square moment in Mexican history.  The student teachers were met at a police checkpoint outside the town of Iguala, where they were shot at and taken into custody.  The police militia then handed the students over to a local drug cartel who trucked them to a dump site outside the town of Cocula where those still alive were executed and all the bodies burned in a pit with wood, gasoline, tires, diesel and plastic more than fifteen hours and the ash scattered in the local San Juan river.  The search for the 43 has unearthed other mass graves.  A federal investigation has found collusion between the mayor of Iguala, dozens of police officers and a handful of named cartel goons but no accounting of the truth of what happened the night of September 26, 2014.  Nobody mentions what ever happened to the school buses.

The War on Drugs is the crux.  Well meaning people on both sides of the border would like to solve the traffic of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, opiods and good old hashish and marijuana exported north to a craven market.  Access to the simple pleasures of illicit highs has compounded a billion dollar narco trade into a billion dollar armament enterprise as interwoven as concertina barbed wire within the fabric of society, government, law enforcement, the military, local commerce and public health.  Legalizing the whole kit is anathema to both sides.  As Jesse Jackson once put it, it would take the distribution of poison out of the hands of the hoods on the streets and give it to the hands of the hoods in big corporations.  Amnesty for cartel kings would be more impossible to negotiate than for FARC guerrillas in Colombia.  Political and territorial feuds would settle on prosecutions and persecutions over assets and revenues.  Those who favor allout crackdowns and assaults on the culprits would send in the helicopters to get the body counts overwith.

The status quo favors the spread of gangs in the underworld of all western countries, a truce of attrition in places like the United States and a maturing force within Central America where the USA deports most of its immigrant criminals.  Look back a few years ago to that caravan of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua trekking through Mexico seeking asylum from gangster and cartel oppression along with the rest of the hemisphere’s refugees from oppression who think America really is safer and offers liberty, justice and freedom from that sort of harm.

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Down at the beach it’s almost eleven, we’ve enjoyed another fine breakfast desayuno and it’s our day for masajes.  From our palapa it’s a ten minute barefoot walk in the tides up the beach to the little casas.  The greeters wave and entice us and we say we tenemos las citas a casa numero dos hoy, we have appointments at house number two now, and they relent as we walk up the watered path where our masajistas wave and greet us.

For three years in a row I have been a proprietary client of Isabel.  My history as a massage client on the beach at Playa Palmar, along with Roxanne’s goes back to when the tents first appeared at this location maybe the second or third year we came to Ixtapa, when we were first hooked and the price was $200 MX pesos an hour — ten bucks.  The little houses replaced the tents.  The price remained the same.  The uncanny quality of the massages remained sublime.

And again I remit that this is not a place to seek sex, this is not prostitution.

Over the years through repetition both Roxanne and I have adopted and been adopted by gifted masajistas.  These three years I have been graced to fall into the hands of Isabel, tall, athletic, olive eyes and curly vanilla brown hair, about thirty years old.  Two daughters and a son, all under 12.  Speaks a little English.  Pretty smile, fresh and alive.  We see her sometimes a little after five with her backpack running along the shore after work.  I call her Doctor because she has therapeutic skills.

She begins at my back.  Shoulders.  Ribs.  Spine.  Whatever it is back behind the pelvis, at the tailbone.  Neck.  Left arm, shoulder to fingers.  Back.  She pauses and I hear the click clacks, she is retrieving hot stones from the tray in the sun.  She rubs the stones onto my back muscles and leaves two of them on my flesh and presses two others into each of my palms to hold in my hands.  Right arm, shoulder to fingers, when she removes the stones.  Hips.  Buns.  Thighs.  Calves.  Ankles.  Feet.  Heels.  Soles.  Toes.

These are all flirty activities, I am well aware.  I wouldn’t be mindful of anything if I didn’t appreciate being massaged by an attractive young senorita.  My eyes closed, the ocean beats, faint Spanish voices talk, the breeze ventilates through the windows and serenity surrenders my body to pampered bliss in the hands of Isabel.

In such comfort my mind unlocks from the scaffold that supports the paranoid fears I suppress always acting so cool.  I accept that I am alive and healthy by some miracle and blessed with a charmed life.  This is my golden age and I am lucky to have saved money and taken deferred compensation to be able to virtually drop out of the rat race and go underground like a rich man and blow off winter without having to go back to a daily job that no longer interests me.  All my time is free time, and I am free to pay attention to fundamental questions of existence while I am still conscious enough to notice.

At the halfway mark Isabel says over and I roll over on my back.  She begins with a facial mask and puts a tissue over my eyes.  She massages my forehead, ears and scalp.  One arm at a time.  Each leg.  There’s no place like home, Toto.  There’s no way of telling if these massage casas are owned by a cartel.  Somebody out of the picture bankrolls the operation.  I wish the masajistas could say together they owned their own shops but I’ve heard them make references to having bosses who set prices, and I have never had the nerve to try to ask questions about who the bosses are.  I don’t know enough Spanish to ask these questions or interpret the answers.  It’s like the difficulty divining the details of Jesus’s kidnapping.  Or finding out who sponsors the little kids who sell tiny toys from table to table at the restaurants, who used to sell Chiclets gum.  My curiosity pushes against my concession to what is really none of my business.  Here is where I can accept I cannot change what is and what will be in the dynamics of Mexican political socioeconomics.  And if I can change it, what would I change it to be?  Ethics tell me not to interfere in the affairs of not my country.  Recall something like a Prime Directive to observe but not interfere.  Then what of the Butterfly Effect and the Observer Effect and other cosmic concepts that link us all, are we all in this together?  It’s a cop out to surrender any responsibility for change and yet the Canadians don’t seem to hesitate giving advice to Americans.  I ponder what I can do to help.  If I were an anonymous donor, what could my left hand give that my right hand doesn’t know?

If I were rich I could offer to finance Anabels’s family a new home, a restaurant of her own.  Pay for Ariel to attend university.  Offer to send Isabel to medical school.

Isabel wipes away my facial mask.  She gives my scalp, neck and ears a last time around.  The end is near.  The session concludes with aromatherapy.  Isabel spritzes the air above me and waves it over my face with her palms like wings.  Finis, she whispers and it’s time to open my eyes and sit up.  Usually I say something like, “Soy un hombre nuevo.”

The aromatherapy Isabel used had an unique attractive scent.  I asked about it and she showed me a purple pump-mist bottle called Somni.  Mandarin and lavender.  Roxanne and I searched for it at all the farmacias.  Isabel noticed how much I liked it and included an extra spritz or two during the session.  It made me smile.

Almost every other day we visited the masajistas at eleven in the morning.  Roxanne faithfully went to Kathy and I lay down for Isabel, and there I would surrender to my senses, especially my sense of touch, and there I would let myself be disassembled and rebuilt and come away feeling new.

This it turns out to be my default theme for why I come to the Krystal Ixtapa every year, my rites of renewal.  It’s always in January after the old year has been done away with and analyzed.  Roxanne has her birthday, a celebration of cumpleanos, the cycle of completing and beginning.  We escape the frozen deadness of home to smell flowers on the outdoor breezes.  Flowers bloom and trees are green in affirmation of life to look forward to when spring reaches across the tropical sky to grace Minnesota and life anew will sprout and all that jazz.  I am not a make new year resolutions guy, just like I don’t give stuff up for Lent.  I do rejoice in the return of daylight hours to the Northern Hemisphere.  The sunsets from the beach at Ixtapa can be stunning night after night and each sunset a moment later and a few degrees north on the horizon than the last.  Okay, sometimes there are clouds, which turns the twilight Mexican pink.  On days when the big orange ball descends intact all the way into the sea you can see the green flash.

Those who have never seen the green flash may say there is no such thing, but those who have seen it will testify that it’s quick, it’s not called a beacon it’s a flash.  I have seen it more than many times and attest it is real.  Roxanne too.  Mostly here in Ixtapa but once at Key West.  The first time might have been San Diego.

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As the day to go home gets closer I’m not so new.  Ten, fifteen years ago I used to come to this place to rest and recover from my job, where I worked faithfully to save some money so I could live like this and I didn’t need to rest and recover any more.  I reached my goal.  I have nothing to go home to except home.  The stress of being home.  My own bed and kitchen.  My desk.  My stereo.  My yard, my city besieged by snow and frostbite conditions.  Lucky us, Roxanne scored a Black Friday special last Thanksgiving snacking up a super-cheap round trip flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, Florida the first weekend of March so we had future plans to stretch another week off winter visiting my brother Sean in Melbourne, which is east of Orlando near the Space Coast and Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic, something to look forward to after Mexico before spring eventually grudgingly comes to our home town.

Even if I’m not all that especially fond of Florida.  Or fond of the month of March.

I am siding with Emilio Zapata and his mustache and voting with my heart this Valentine’s Day to savor these days and nights in Mexico as if these are our glory days.  Carly Simon — these are the good old days.  If all things must pass then this too.  A new man, or the same man renewed, rebooted, reset for another cycle back home, what does it take, I ask myself, to look ahead to being home when immersed in the moments of being home away from home.

A fellow guest at the Krystal, who happens to be American from Colorado, has his own boogie board and he offered to let me take it for a ride.  I fix the velcro strap to the tether on my wrist and wade into the tides.  The goal is to wade beyond the breakers to get in position to ride the curl.  The waves are three or four feet high this day, not bad but not easy.  I take it lazy and let the waves break and then catch safe rides to the sand.  About seven years ago I rented a board from Rafael, took it out beyond the breakers for a few good rides and then pounced on a nice tight curl at its peak, thinking, whoa what a ride this could be.  I leaned forward a little too soon, too eager, and the cusp of the wave drove my face down straight to the sand at the floor of the ocean and the onrushing thrust tossed me and the board over end like wet dominoes off a Mexican train.  Kablooey.  In knee high water I summersaulted to my knees facing the beach.  The boogie board tugged at the tether on my wrist towards the sands.  My head felt like a bell tower and the light of day sounded like a gong in my eyes.  Roxanne ran to the water’s edge as I stood up.  Rafael was there too and some more bathers.  Yes, I’m okay I said standing up and dragging the board to dry land.  I didn’t give Rafael the board back right away, my hour wasn’t up and after a rest under the palapa and assuring myself and Roxanne I had no apparent brain damage I took it back out for one more ride just to show the ocean there were no hard feelings.  When I returned to work a few days later I still had black eyes and got to tell a story.

A palapa, as I may have said, is an umbrella of thatched palm leaves suspended by a wooden frame attached to a wooden post anchored in the sand.  We like to hang our beach wraps and t-shirts and suspend our beach bag with a bungie from the supporting frame, the palapa’s rafters.  One afternoon tussling to get my notebook out of the beach bag the supporting strut came loose, a narrow log about thirty inches long and two inches thick, hanging by a nail to the post.  As I sort of wedgied it back into place with my hands a neighbor at the next palapa, one of the French Canadians who play beach volleyball every afternoon, said in English, “I am a carpenter.  Get me a hammer and I will fix it.  For forty eight dollars an hour.”  He and his friends laughed.

Jesus happened to be standing by taking an order for Pink Eyes, a special strawberry margarita, and he observed, “Our maintenance guy doesn’t make that much a week.”

In all fairness, a Canadian dollar is only worth 70 cents USD.

The structural integrity of the palapa was in no way compromised.  There were seven other struts nailed securely.  It wasn’t like I was going to do chinups.

The sun inches higher overhead every day and it’s hot, in the 90s.  It seems more bearable than the first week, but there was one rainy night, and the humidity seems to have gone down.  Maybe it’s us getting used to it, adapting to global warming.  When we walk down the beach towards the Pacifica resort in the afternoon there’s an absence of brown pelicans from the sea beyond the breakers where they used to flock and dive for fish in years past.  They used to hover, five or eight at a time and suddenly plummet straight down into the sea.  They would disappear and then emerge sitting on the surface just beyond the breakers, in a row, then fly up to cruise the surf, hover and dive again.  I’m concerned for the gone pelicans.  It’s not a good sign.  It means there’s no fish.

Or just too much human activity for the pelicans to put up with at Playa Palmar.  We have seen whales from the shore, distant at the wide mouth of the bay.  Ones.  Twos.  They breach and submerge.  Do they know humans are watching?  Dolphins sometimes cruise across the bay.  Never very close, they are all probably swayed away by jet skis and speedboats.

Roxanne and I like to swim in the ocean down by the Pacifica, as I have said, where the breakers are always the most calm to get in and out of the sea.  Some years ago on the way out we were blindsided by a breaker unusually large and sudden for that day and we were knocked down, my hat came off and I lost my prescription sunglasses.  Frantic, I stormed around in the tides searching but after a while Roxanne talked me into giving it up.  A man in a straw hat named Vicente who worked for Pacifica selling time shares saw us from the resort and asked what we lost.  I told him.  Described the frames.  He offered for me to write our room number at the Krystal hotel if they ever washed up.  Ever since I take precautions to pocket and not wear my sunglasses when swimming in the ocean.

I bought a deep dark pair of wraparounds at a farmacia in town that were big enough to wear my regular prescription glasses underneath if I cared about seeing that much detail.  I was losing interest in detailed visual acuity anyway.  With the extra dark shades I could just about look straight at an eclipse of the sun and see the corona.  When we walked down the beach past the Pacifica sometimes we would meet Vicente, and once he took out a pouch from his satchel to show me some sunglasses the lifeguard had fetched from the sea, but they were not mine.

One afternoon we returned to our room and there was a message at the desk.  Vicente had come by and left a note to come down to the Pacifica, he might have something.  It was too late that day to catch him, though we walked down there at twilight.  Next day we went down about eleven and there he was pacing the beach.  Salvavida, the skinny lifeguard in red trunks with the red swimming bouy was on hand as Vicente took out his pouch and unwrapped from folds of toilet paper my prescription sunglasses.  Salvavida had found them while snorkeling among the rocks offshore where the jungle creek empties into the ocean.  They had been in the sea ten days and were just fine.  I came prepared with $20 apiece USD.

One time we returned to our palapa after moseying down the beach to find my sandals and our beach bag were gone (but not my t-shirt or Roxanne’s wrap from the struts in the palapa rafters).  We reported the missing items to security and it was revealed that the new guy, Juan, had seen the items unattended at our palapa and had taken them to a staff room behind the kitchen for safekeeping.  We all learned a lesson on trust that day.  Faith, hope and trust.

Juan is now called Juan Toro and he is considered a senior waiter.  We seek his tables for lunch, or breakfast on Anabel’s day off, Thursdays.  How time has passed.  This is his career.  One day he will be like Jesus with thirty years on the team.  My time will have passed and a next generation of Krystal guests will probably not include my kids.  My legacy in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo will be based on my table manners and my influence upon the servants.  That and being known as Roxanne’s husband.

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One afternoon on our afternoon mosey I found a ring in the sand.  It wasn’t in the territory of any particular hotel but between the Krystal and the Amara next door.  The ring fit on my left ring finger but a little tight on my right.  I looked around and there was nobody nearby.  The beachcomber from Saskatchewan with the metal detector hadn’t found it yet.  I showed Roxanne, who thought I’d picked up a pretty shell.  I confided I was unsure whom I would entrust to turn the ring over to, who would find the true owner, and she said I may as well keep it.  Until I find the true owner, I said.  If you read this and you lost a ring on the sand at Playa Palmar, Ixtapa, contact me and give me a complete description and date of loss and I will return it to you.  It is not a plain band of yellow gold, as I heard Yessica the emcee of the Kamp Krystal kids activities lost her wedding ring on the beach so I asked her what it looked like and she said it was a simple gold band, not what I found.

A game Roxanne and I play in Mexico is Slug Bug.  It comes from a kid game from the 1960s, when you saw a VW Beetle you punched your friend in the shoulder and said Slug Bug.  Modern Beetle sedans don’t count, so you don’t hear the game played much back home.  But Mexico is home to scads of 60s and 70s Volkswagens still boogying along.  So Roxanne and I play Slug Bug without the punch but add in the color of the Beetle en espanol.  So you hear, slugbug azul, slugbug blanco.

Riding with two friends in a taxi into Zihua to dine at Daniel’s on the beach Roxanne and I start playing on the main boulevard.  Roxanne calls the slubug but hesitates with the color maroon and settles for rojo.  Rojo oscuro, I say.  “Beano,” says the taxi driver, who gets what we’re playing.  “El color es beano,” he repeats.  He points to a maroon Chevy Blazer in traffic.  Beano, I say and we’ve learned a new color.  Our friend riding in the back seat with Roxanne says, “Sounds like that pill you take for gas.”

It was when our whole dinner party was seated at Daniel’s on the beach under the string of bare bulbs that it came to me.  The name of the color is vino, as in wine, vino tinto.  The taxi driver was saying vino and like a rube bumpkin I wasn’t listening to the way he pronounced the sound of V like B, using my anglo ear.  Beano is vino.  Couldn’t wait to tell Roxanne after dinner, in the taxi on the way home.

Usually a taxi ride is an opportunity to sit up front and engage in Spanish with the driver, sometimes in English if the driver prefers to practice his skills.  I learn about his family, his upbringing, how his day or night is going so far, and seek to read his attitude, whether he sees times as good or expresses fatigue or anxiety.  This night I was moody and tired and uninterested in conversation, and the young driver seemed preoccupied with traffic.  The route out of Zihuatanejo, Downtown Mexico, always seemed more complicated than the way in, as if the driver had to loop halfway to Playa Ropa to connect to a backstreet that joined the main boulevard.  It’s a quick tour of the city, the backyard of schools and shops with their garage doors pulled down for the night.  It reminded me of backstreet Chicago after the Shakira concert, deserted but alive and looking like somebody could pop out from anywhere and there they are.

Our group in separate taxis met at Daniel’s for dinner that night to celebrate the entertainer Jimmmy Mamou’s 80th birthday.  Again our friend Bob made reservations.  From our long table on the beach we could see the stage deck across the front of the dining area of the restaurant proper.  Jimmy wore a sharkskin suit, charcoal gray snap brim hat, lavender shirt and plum tie, shoes shined like a limousine.  The place was packed, of course, Jimmy being an icon in these parts among the anglo baby boomers since moving from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  His voice was like Fats Domino and Ray Charles, two of my boyhood idols, and with his drum machine and keyboard he liked to play that bompa bompa rock and roll.  He opened with Hello Josephine How Do You Do by the Fat Man and segued smoothly into Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire.  His wife was there, a Latina of maybe fifty five, all dolled up.  Ladies left their dinner tables to get up and dance.  The man who sang happy birthday to all kinds of people played backup while the crowd sang happy birthday to Jimmy, and he joined us in the third person.

The garlic grilled red snapper was especially delicious.  From my seat at the table I faced towards town and the main city plaza.  It was the usual pandemonium.  People everywhere, busier than the beach out front of the hotel Fontan and dressed in street clothes.  Vendors selling bracelets and crafted picture frames.  Taquito stands.  A bandstand with no show that night but everybody milling around the famous outdoor basketball court, a game in progress.  Past that the lights of the promenade to the pier past more shops and restaurants, and beyond that the neon lights of the carnival midway, the ferris wheel arching above the ebarcadero.  Next to that the deep space of the harbor boats moored and beached for the night.

The serious young taxi driver dropped us at the Bay View Grande where we left off our friends and walked the rest of the way to the Krystal to save the extra charge the taxi would have cost for two destinations.  This is fake Mexico, I said.  Like Cancun.  Ixtapa is fake for tourists Mexico.  And Roxanne replied, this is Mexico the way they want us to see it.  Zihuatanejo is real Mexico, I said.  Yes, she replied, Mexican Mexico.  Maybe Ixtapa is the way it wants to be, not just be seen.

On the boulevard a carriage approaches.  It looks like a lit up float in a Disney night parade and it is pulled by a four wheel ATV lit up likewise.  It pulses with Latino dance pop.  The inhabitants of the float could be couples, could be a sisters night out or could be an extended family cruising up and down the boulevard.  Not many years ago that ATV was a horse.  It was a sad looking, drab, baggy skin horse pulling the carriage cruise of Ixtapa Boulevard.  We never took the ride.  Then one year the ATV replaced the horse pulling the float, though the horse used to stand in an open area at a corner of the local jungle, tied to a post.  Then one year there was no more horse and the open area was a parking area for cars.  I saw the guy driving the ATV dressed as Spiderman parked by the parking area and asked him, where’s your horse?

He’s sleeping, the guy replied.

On our walk from the Bay View I remembered to tell Roxanne about beano and vino.  What made you think of it, she asked.  When Bob ordered cabernet at Daniel’s.

Bob and his wife Rose have been our pals and confidantes since about our first year, when Roxanne and Rose bonded at the waiting line that used to form in the afternoon to reserve palapas for the next morning.  They come from St Cloud, Minnesota, a city almost a hundred miles northwest of where we live.  He heads a second generation family business, electrical contracting, and she was an HR supervisor for Wal Mart, now retired.  Bob is not retired and sometimes works from the beach, though less every year.  He says he likes it.  Rose doesn’t miss work at all.  They have four grown kids, all daughters, and a bunch of grandchildren older than ours.  They are lovably generous and kind.  Rose always brings something, this year little precious necklaces from JC Penney she found on sale for all seven of the masajistas at the casa she and Bob go to on the beach.  They are contagiously social and often organize big group dinners, birthdays, the times we fished on Benny’s boats, the mariachi concert at Toscano’s the night of the murder, and excursions to Isla de Las Gatas.

It was Bob’s idea, instead of spending a morning on a boat reeling in tuna why not skip the fishing and go straight to the shore lunch.  A core group of us, Bob, Rose, Roxy, maybe somebody we met that year and I would ride the bus into Zihuatanejo about nine in the morning, get off in the middle of el centro and walk a couple blocks to the main market, el mercado, to buy fresh shrimp, mahi mahi and huachinango, better known as red snapper.  A lady named Rosa peels and veins big shrimp while we visit a couple of other fish stalls facing each other in the market where we choose a couple more kilos of pescado that they filet before our eyes.  Everything gets bagged and iced.  We settle up with cash pesos and Bob records the tab on his cell phone.  Out the back way through the stalls of slick chickens we hail a couple of taxis and ride about ten blocks to embarcadero, where we buy round trip tickets to Las Gatas and board a fiberglass ponga vessel downs some stairs at the crowded lagoon marina because the main pier was under complete reconstruction.  The ponga takes us across Zihuatanejo Bay in a straight line to Las Gatas, which is really not an island but the cape at the end of of a wild jungle peninsula at the edge of the bay.

Per a reservation phoned in by Bob we would hike from the boat landing around the tip of the cape to a long beach lined with cantinas, side by side, to Chez Arnoldo, where we would be greeted by Chez himslef, or so Bob thinks his name is, and he would take possession of our seafood and bring it back to his chef to prepare a lunch platter.  We would be received at a table under an awning long enough to seat all our expected persons, plus a couple beach chaises in the sun.  Not long and the others in our party arrive.  We drink margaritas and buckets of Corona, move our plastic chairs to sit under the sun in the calm waters until lunch.

Lunch is a feast.  Mahi mahi tacos.  Butterfly shrimp.  Mahi mahi filets.  Red snapper filets.  Coconut shrimp.  Vera cruz sauce.  Guacamole.  Rice.  Beans.  Red sauce.  Green sauce.

We linger a few more hours drinking beer and margaritas, Bob a glass of cabernet ambiente.  We can walk the coral strewn beach, join the dense parade of visitors ambling the shore all the way to the point of the cape past at least a dozen cantinas offering shade, food and drink.  We can swim in the shallow sandy water.  Vendors trek the shore just like Playa Palmar and the jewelry guys go straight to the ladies.  Somewhere there’s always music.  Las Gatas has its own roving cowboy buskers.  I like to people watch, especially the Mexicans and seeing their ways of leisure are no different from ours.

The last boat out leaves at 5, which seems a little early in the day.  We’ve never stayed that late so I cannot say how strict they are or if they leave on time, but I can’t imagine being stranded overnight.  We settle la cuenta between Bob and his buddy Chez, say thanks all around, pack up our belongings and head back to the landing to catch a water taxi back to Zihua, everybody making sure to have their correct color round trip tickets — there are blue taxis and yellow taxis.  We go with the blue because they have more pongas and thus more frequent trips.  We also make sure we have coins to tip the boys who hang around the landings helping us seniors up and down, in and out of the boats.

The ride back across the bay gives Bob a chance to talk to strangers.  He’s the most gregarious of us and we ride with baby boomers our age who prefer to winter in Zihuatanejo rather than Ixtapa for the older residence hotels along Playa Madeira and Playa Ropa.  Or they are younger middle aged and live in bigger cities of Mexico and like to come home to visit their families.  If Bob doesn’t get people to open up, then maybe Roxanne will.

Gazing across the busy bay at the terraced town as the water taxi captain makes a beeline through the moored vessels and yachts just heading out to sea, all the homes and hotels in the hills that face the water look like haciendas, villas and Greek temples from a distance, nothing like the pyramid of dwellings where the poorer people live on the sides of the hills that faces the highway, away from the sea.  Far beyond the city in the khaki mountains that hedge the coast I can see a black dot emanating a funnel of dark smoke high up into the sky.  Bob noticed it too.  Garbage fire, he says.  Burning garbage.  I nod and say nothing, and wonder if somebody out there is burning bodies.

A sinister foreboding kept me on guard the remainder of our stay.  It was a little like defying terrorism.  Behaving calm and cool and a shade naive it felt like I was ever on the lookout for something else to happen out of nowhere, dreading to witness a second murder and treating it like a lightning strike, once in a million.  We watch our backs when touring Europe, observe our surroundings and so forth, as is advised everywhere you go where you are a stranger, even around home, it’s a normal way of mitigating danger in the modern world.  In Ixtapa Zihuatanejo as in Florence or Paris there’s no guarantee lightning won’t strike twice.  And everywhere we went we found ourselves welcomed and graced lavishly with hospitality.

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Every night out at a restaurant we would eventually be approached at our table by the man in the white suit carrying bouquets of red, pink and yellow roses banded in threes with plastic wrapped stems.  He will place one such trio on the table in front of me and I’ll look up at Pablo, who gives me a Groucho Marx look with his eyebrows.  I’ll buy two reds and a pink, or two pinks and a red the first night I see him and remind him they are still fresh every next night for at least five nights before asking for three more.  $50 MX pesos.  Always pink and red, I have no use for white or yellow for some reason, we prune them a little with our nail cutter and put them in water in a bar glass in our room.  When they fade, red before pink at least a day before, Neli the housekeeper uses the petals to put features on her bath towel origami sculpture.

It’s nice having flowers in our room.  Anabel, Jose and her kids gave Roxanne an exotic tropical bouquet for her birthday when we celebrated lunch with them at a rather remote beachside cantina down by the airport called the King Fish at sandy Playa Larga.  It was also Yorvy’s sixth birthday but we hadn’t found him his present yet, the Chivas jersey.  Roxanne played with him in the King Fish swimming pool on the patio.  I walked out to the shore to watch the crushing waves.  The surf at Playa Larga is considered too dangerous to surf or swim, the breakers come in multiples and the rip tide will suck you to oblivion.  We talk and drink Victoria, una cerveca mejor que Corona we agree and decide next year we’ll picnic further down the coast at someplace called Parra de Porto Si where they say there is a peaceful beach lagoon where we can drink cerveza by the cubetazo.

Technically we don’t need more flowers because of Anabel’s exotic bouquet but we refresh our roses from Cecilio, Pablo’s brother who services the restaurants of Zihuatanejo when we ate dinner at Casa Elvira.  They look and dress enough alike to be twins, and for a while I thought they actually were the same guy.  The next night at Martin’s Pablo is visibly bummed to learn I bought roses from his brother.

Victor sneaked up on me at the palapa one of our last days.  No baritone.  All of a sudden I looked up into a shadow and he’s there putting his wardrobe and his backpack down.  From is backpack he pulls out not one but two Chivas jerseys in child sizes.  He’s smiling like a chile.  One is an 8 year old, the other a six.  We choose the 8, it doesn’t look all that big and we’d hate for him to outgrow it in just one year.  A hundred fifty, says Victor.  No, I say, I’ll pay two hundred.  I’d been carrying it around with me all week.

We gave the shirt to Anabel at breakfast the next day, when they so happened to be serving real chorizos at the buffet.  Later in the afternoon Jesus brought us three Ojos Rosas strawberry daquiris for the price of two, compliments of Lorenzo the bartender who accidentally made an overly big batch.

Anabel says Yorvy se gusta la playera de Chivas, la camisita de futbol.  The kid likes the shirt.

If we go home to the Krystal at night after dinner early enough, from our balcony we can watch the stage shows on Friday and Saturday nights.  Friday there’s a Mexican buffet cena before the show, Saturday just drinks and a show.  Recorded music on a stage at the big garden back yard in front of dozens of temporary tables, where young performers dance to songs as diverse as traditional Mexican in full costume to contemporary hip hop or middle range YMCA.  A diva in waiting performs a dramatic rendering of lip synch pantomime of Whitney Houston singing Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.  Muchos aplausos.  Otherwise there might be karaoke down at the pool cafe, where some of the sweetest voices come out of nowhere.  And once a week there’s a duo lady and a guy on keyboard with drum machine singing ballads and dance songs down at that same pool cafe.  We don’t chase the night life.  There are extra hours bars and dance clubs all over, but we haven’t indulged in late night after parties in a long long time.  We sometimes read ourselves to sleep, don’t even bother with the TV.

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In the morning we awake before dawn and take our towels down to the palapas and pick one that isn’t already taken, lay our artifacts on the chaises, perhaps a paperback book not worth stealing, and go back up to our room and back to bed.  For a little while.  I get up at dawn.  Madrugada.  Make coffee.  Log in to wi fi on our iPad.  Read the world’s daily news.

There’s a novel — new — coronavirus — not a norovirus — inflicting sickness and death across China, emanating from a breakout in the southwestern city of Wuhan.  The World Health Organization in Geneva has declared a health emergency and warned of a world pandemic.  At first China tried too hide the outbreak and keep it contained to Wuhan, but as sickness raged through the province, Hubei, and spread across the country the news was impossible to suppress, even for the Chinese Communist Party.  In Wuhan the authorities quickly built field hospitals to care for the increased sick and dying.  The Chinese then alerted the WHO and offered alarming infection and mortality figures.  The WHO alerted the world to prepare for its spread.

President Trump ordered air travel from China to the USA to stop.  He said publicly he had no worries there would be an eventual outbreak in America.  He characterized the virus as a flu that would pass with the winter season.  He said he and his administration had it all under control, there might be fifteen cases and then it will all be gone.  Miraculously.

He says now he was only trying to be cheerful and steer America away from panic, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on me.  The public was being taught not to take it seriously and asked to trust its national leader that he had it all figured out — “up here” — how to manage a national response to the potential public health crisis.  For some reason I had a feeling Trump didn’t know what he was talking about and he was hiding it like the Chinese tried to hide it too, and whatever Trump was saying was itself fake and propaganda meant to obscure the facts that something ugly was about to happen that would steal attention from his agenda to re-elect himself.  He gave me the creepy feeling some bad shit was coming down the walls of Trump Tower.

Trump held massive campaign rallies where he defined the attention to the new coronavirus as a fake news media hoax fostered by the Democratic party out to get him.

Though the American Center for Disease Control tepidly urged preparedness for what might ensue if certain predictive models held true, health scientists and epidemiologists working from those forecast models were saying that it was not a matter of if this virus would sweep across America but when.  No one is immune.  And there is no cure.

I didn’t hear any conversation about the new virus among other hotel guests.  I remember the year of the H1N1 flu when guests complained that the hotel took away the public ice chests from the areas around the elevators and made you go down to the kitchen with your ice bucket.  I overheard one anglo lady in a butchy haircut at the pool bar complain to another woman that she might not come back next year, the place was too full of kids.  She favored the old over-55 atmosphere like the gated community where she lived back home.  Since all the kids then playing and splashing and eating at the time were brown kids, I wondered if she wouldn’t mind so much, or even notice, if the kids were white.  Another time I heard the same lady whine that the pool stereo played too much of that Latin music.  What I heard her say was that she wasn’t coming back.

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To think of it, I know a lot of people who would not like it here.  It’s too hot, about 90F every day and the UV level of the sun is ultra high.  It’s boring, there’s nothing to do.  (Except beach volleyball at 11 and 4, salsa dance lessons at 10:30, pool aerobics at noon, pool volleyball at one, bingo at 2, and Kamp Krystal for the kids all day.)  It’s dangerous, you can get kidnapped and murdered.  Some people don’t like fishing, and nobody goes every day.  Spanish is a hard language.  The town is old, run down and dumpy.  (If swept and hosed squeaky clean.)  There’s no archaeological or historical significance to any sites.  (Nahuatl spokespersons will disagree, if they appear at all, and tourists are not encouraged to go into the Guerrero hills and mountains to invade Nahuatl privacy.)  The art galleries don’t offer pieces to top what they show in Venice (Italy or California).  There’s no water park (although the Krystal alberca has a water slide) but there is supposedly a zipline excursion into the foothills, but it is said it’s a rugged hike and the heat and humidity in the arid jungle away from the sea breezes not worth a few seconds whizzing downhill.  There’s golf if only at 6 am.  The staged song and dance shows can be kind of lame.  And some people don’t read at the beach.

The Spanish, when they owned it didn’t value it enough to invest in much architecture.  There was a port but not much of a market.  Some woods produced timber, and ships were built to sail the Pacific.  Playa Ropa got its name in the 1600s, a trading galleon coming from Asia got wrecked in a storm trying to find Zihuatanejo Bay and its cargo washed ashore on the beach including bales of fine clothes, silk dresses, garments meant for a fancy Spanish market.  The locals found the clothes and thenceforth called it the beach of clothes, La Playa de la Ropa.  Well into the early 1700s the people of Zihuatanejo were known as the fashion dressers of Mesoamerica.  Zihuatanejo means town of women in Nahuatl, and there are bronze statues of symbolic nonspecific women in places like the main plaza and the pedestrian walk dedicated to the regional women of the state of Guerrero.  A museum, cultural center and library are in the waterfront’s only last building left from the Spanish days, about all the Spanish left behind, almost as if they were glad to get chased out.  The museum about says as much.  The history since the Spanish ditched out in the 1800s is obscure too.  There is no memorial monument on the beach to commemorate Shawshank Andy Dufresne’s boat like Forrest Gump’s bus stop bench in Savannah, Georgia.

At a luxurious hotel on the hill above Playa Ropa was filmed a Hollywood movie starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan from a story by Al Franken based on his wife’s alcoholic behavior and rehab, not a very funny happy sexy movie.

One day the last weekend before our last day I noticed the lobby music at the Krystal changed back to vintage black blues recordings again.  Mantovani and Kostelanetz were gone.  Wooden guitars and tinkly pianos were back.  Who is this new manager?

On the beach at a card table under an umbrella the painter Jorge Perez works at miniature seascapes with his fingertips and one hair sable brush.  He likes to locate at a quiet transition point between the Bay View and the strip of public beach next to the Pacifica.  His works usually measure about 2 1/2 x 4 inches and although he faces the sea his pictures aren’t realistic views.  He paints a vivid but lonely seashore of his memory and imagination.  He usually hangs out from 11 to 2, but this day it’s after 3:30 and he’s still around.  Some days he doesn’t show up at all.  Lately he’s accepted commissions for 4 x 6s but says he won’t go any bigger.  We say hello and he doesn’t seem to mind being watched.  Says he’s been setting up at the other end, the far end of the beach towards the marina, but it’s too lonesome.  For those towering condos there doesn’t seem to be much people.  Whether he remembers us or not, he treats us as if he does.  We bought three of his seascapes after one year he gave us a free sketchscape of flowers, grass and sea, sky with bird and clouds.  Just his fingertips.  Could have been pencils.  We hung the three as a vertical triptych in our bathroom at home.  The sketch is here on my desk.

And as if a final reckoning, I stopped to converse at the back of the patio at the hotel pool with the guy who rents boogie boards and snorkel gear, arranges excursions to Playa Linda, Las Gatas and so forth.  He’s an ageless dark curly haired beach boy with thick framed glasses in a pink Polo shirt who holds court with his gear in his booth alongside the jewelry table next to the garden bar outside the lobby entrance to the restaurant.  In our early years he arranged an excursion to Ixtapa Island, much like Las Gatas with livelier coral and prettier fish to see snorkeling.  We’ve rented snorkel gear and boogie boards from him for our independent excursions.  He refused to rent me a boogie board for our first visit down the coast to Playa Larga because he said the surfing down there was unsafe and he couldn’t let me do it.  He was telling me this year that he needed hip replacement surgery this summer, the offseason.  I noticed he was walking a little wobbly but didn’t want to pry.  He’s been a recreational concierge all the twenty years we’ve been to the Krystal, and all these years I’ve called him Oscar.  His name is Jorge.

Roxanne thinks she has spied the new manager.  It’s at breakfast and she’s at a table towards the pool with a man who could be a husband, or could be another boss.  She looks like she’s talking business.  Gives me the once.  She’s a sober serious lady with upright posture in a patterned but undertoned dress, not of the uniform variety.  She’s a tanned, dark haired senora who didn’t smile, and this worries me.  Nobody of the staff except her server goes near her.  Look around, the occupancy looks close to a hundred percent, the guests are having a blast, the staffing is seamless, what could be wrong?  The other managers didn’t get all chummy but they used to say hello, how’s it going.  And smiled.  A little.  Maybe if I asked her about the vintage blues music in the lobby she would take it as criticism.  I decided if we would ever meet it would be by chance.

Maybe next year, if she was still La Jefa.

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At our final massage appointment I am mindful this sort of treatment won’t be happening again until I come back in 48 weeks.  Of course professional spa services are available all over the place in my home town, many with far more posh facilities and massagists skilled and trained at the best massage academies and all which cost at least five times an hour more than casa numero dos on Ixtapa beach.  It isn’t the price, it’s the tender care.  In Isabel’s hands I am consoled and comforted.  I am flexed and conditioned.  I learn things my hands and fingers can do for places on Roxanne’s back.  I know how to give good foot rubs to my grandkids.  Isabel may not make me a new man but teaches me to think the most of the man I already am.

By the time the aromatherapy comes around and Isabel whispers finis I’ve been tortured enough with kindness and I’m ready to get up and walk free in the wind and the sand and the sea and savor this day as the apex of my existence.  We pay up and tip with an extravagant bonus for the final session.  In parting Kathy and Isabel present us with regalos, little gifts, colorful refrigerator magnets of Ixtapa and each of us our own pump spritz bottles of Somni, Plantas en Armonia, the aromatherapy fragrance I like so much.  Outside the casa Isabel’s two daughters waited so Isabel could present them.  El gusto es mio.  We took photos.  Nobody cried.  Veramos ustedes proximo ano.  Buen viaje.  Gracias.

All that physical therapy too soon undone by a five hour plane flight to a subfreezing terrain.

Meanwhile the ritual of checking out is like a two day Irish good bye.  It hardly seems polite to just one day disappear without a word, though that’s how it goes most of the time.  Jesus as always deserves tribute.  Anabel.  Juan Toro.  Toribio, the server who resembles Benito Juarez to the teeth on the $20 MX peso note.  Neli the camarista if we catch her on the fly.  Jorge whom I always called Oscar.  Andre the security guard always spying around the pool keeping everyone safe.  Lorenzo the front bartender.  Not so much the lifeguard, who isn’t muy social.  The bellmen say good bye when they assist us and our suitcases into the taxi to the airport.

We sit on our balcony at night listening to the music and looking off into the vast darkness of the sea and say to each other how worth it it is to do this but it’s time to go home.  Grandma misses her grandkids, especially the little one.  iPhone is an amazing means to keep in touch, but it isn’t touch.  We sit on our balcony in the morning drinking coffee and Bailey’s reading the news and overlook the same sea so black the night before, now so defined by the sky and rock, and we concede it’s hard to relinquish this lifestyle, not that we act much differently at home though we cook and make out own bed.  We don’t dream of moving down there permanently, if anyone asks.  Four or five weeks is about all we can spare — okay, we could probably stretch it to six — away from home at a time.  That’s as long as we’ve ever been to Europe, although that always entailed mobility.  In Ixtapa we have a continuing identity.  In a sense we know too much… Spanish.  It’s not a double life and we are not double agents though we are ambassadors between worlds within the world so familiar and comfortable as our own and so foreign and almost dangerous.  As our own.

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Is it a Prime Directive not to interfere or more a matter of applying the Hippocratic Oath, to say, First, do no harm.  Every year on a Saturday in mid February a charity in Zihuatanejo sponsors Sail Fest.  A couple of dozen various sailing vessels and yachts file in line from Zihuatanejo harbor and sail west into Ixtapa Bay in a sailboat parade.  The boats circle a second pass across the bay and then go back to Zihuatanejo, out of sight.  People can buy tickets to ride in the parade and the money goes to the charity.  They say the charity benefits the poor people of the district.  Sail Fest is a multi day affair in Zihuatanejo and includes a bouncy house on the basketball plaza.  As fundraisers go, I cannot attest to the veracity of the Sail Fest charity, but the event generates widespread participation among winter expatriates who prefer Zihuatanejo to Ixtapa.  I fear I may fall for the hypocritical oath and overstate how much I care about the indigenous people of Zihuatanejo in proportion to what I do to help them out.

And hope I win the Powerball jackpot.

To the lady in the butchy haircut at the pool who objects to too much Latin music on the stereo, if I heard Hotel California again by the Eagles I thought, we’ll get through this, this too shall pass.  Same with the Rock Around The Clock playlist around 3:30 or 4.  Not my circus, not my monkey, as my sister Heather would say.  Overall I rate the music programming at the Krystal pool as pretty good.  Over the years I’ve found some good songs in Spanish I’d’ve never heard if not for the deejay at the Krystal pool, going back to “Amado Adios” by Inspector years ago, not to mention Shakira.  With the increase of Mexican guests there’s a higher proportion of Latin music and salsa.  The big song this year is called “Nunca Es Suficiente” recorded by Natalia Lafourcade con Los Angeles Azules.  It’s a rousing anthem.  The song turned up in one of the stage shows at night.  The lady singer at the night time pool cafe included it in her set of songs.  And it came out one night from what sounded like two senoritas at karaoke — not too bad.

Another cool song that found me this year is “Lamento Boliviano” by Ana Victoria.

Our ultima cena, last dinner, just the two of us, we chose to go to Martin’s for the enchiladas, I for the mole sauce.  We met Martin’s wife, who happened to be visiting with him at a table in the corner of the awning area, a formidable and friendly lady, not shy.  Since it was our last night he bought us a round of margaritas, which no surprise skimped on the tequila.  Cecelia served us graciously as always.  A group of couples a little younger than our age but still boomers came along to read the public menu.  They looked around and at that moment we were the only occupied table besides a young Mexican couple off to the side.  It was the group’s first night in town.  They were from Edmonton.  They seemed to entice an endorsement and we recommended the Mexican menu, I especially the mole sauce.  They meandered away down the plaza.  But another couple heard our conversation and took a table.  From behind us around the contour of the plaza struck up the bold sound of a mariachi band.  Cecilia lit up and excused herself to leave the patio to peek out towards the open plaza and shake her shoulders.  We did not get up to look because we thought it was the same band as two weeks before and we could hear just fine.  Cecelia came back swaying with a smile like cha-cha to served our food.  The band did three numbers and applause you could hear from cantinas in the corridors.  Then the band strolled through in their mariachi suits with their instruments and they were all women, not the same band at all, marching off to the setting of their next busking performance towards Deborah’s, and I folded a $20 MX peso note with Benito Juarez’s picture into the sombrero as the trumpeter passed by.  When the mariachis were gone the group from Edmonton returned and took a table for six.

Along walks a tiny, frail young woman with a baby wrapped in her shawl.  She carries a basket of cute little toys and is accompanied by a toddler with a toy in each hand she presents to Roxanne and me.  We’ve bought enough toys and things in life we we don’t need and none of the ones they present interest me except the resemblance of the little girl to the young woman, and the familiarity of the young woman’s face.  We’ve seen this young woman grow up.  I remember you when you were about her age, I say in English, though I knew she didn’t understand, and I didn’t try Spanish because she probably spoke mostly Nahuatl.  I handed her a fifty and said, No toys.  There was something almost ghostly about the tiny woman, who could have been sixteen or twenty but almost looked forty five.  She understood the word no, as in no thanks, no gracias, and kept moving to the next tables, the next cantina.

In the midst of our awkward good byes with Cecilia and Martin and Martin’s wife along came a tall young man in a white linen suit, rather handsome with combed black hair and suave eyebrows with an armful of roses.  He lay a trio of white and yellow in my open palm and said, if this is your last night won’t you give something for me.  I am Antonio, Pablo’s son.  Cecilio’s nephew?  Yes, me gusto, I see the resemblance.  So where is he?  Bad back, said the young man, who himself looked too tall to stoop over table after table, taller than his father and his uncle.  I pulled out a fifty and gave the white and yellow bouquet to Cecilia.

We took one last mosey around the inner plaza.  Not like the persons at the Krystal we don’t make the rounds of the restaurants and haunts saying farewell.  We just happened to have dinner at Martin’s, and it was awkward because there isn’t much else to say except thank you, have a good year.  We wouldn’t approach Deborah like that because she probably doesn’t care.  Old Man Dom Toscano doesn’t know us from Adam.  Sabrina, Danny Boy, Shorty, it would seem ridiculous to bother them on a work night just to share the bad news we’re going home.  An exception is when we moseyed past the General’s we happened to catch Genaro and his wife Estrella at the fringe of the patio, he’s like an old friend we’d like to sit down and converse with at a moment when he isn’t bossing the restaurant or making the rounds jiving with his customers and she isn’t directing the cash.  We get sincere abrazos, hugs.  They say life is good.  Kids are good.  Maybe next year we can have dinner and a long talk.

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We mosey through the souvenir kiosks and stalls where the murder took place.  There’s another kiosk in place of the one of the victims, and theirs is off in the back row against the hurricane fence of the perennial vacant lot wrapped in black garbage bag plastic and rope.  We are browsing for something unusual.  I go by looking for a flag of Mexico.  Just a desktop size flag on a stick.  Or a fridge magnet.  We have flags from all kinds of countries we visited, Switzerland, Greece, provinces like Brittany and Catalonia, and cites like Venice and Siena, but not Mexico.  Why, I cannot say.  Tricolor, green, white and red it’s like Italy only Mexico has a circular seal in the center featuring an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake.  None to be found.  The proprietors aren’t especially extroverted this evening and I stroll around wishing for something to say, nothing to buy.  It’s almost like a staring match and I keep blinking.

I have no trouble falling asleep our last night but before I do I listen to the surf breakers with the balcony door slid open a little to let the night air in with the AC off.  There is no more entertainment this night.  We are mostly packed.  Organized.  I think about whether I’ve learned any lessons.  No need to be harsh lessons, they can be easy ones, just am I learning any…  anything to carry forward into the new year…  any insight to bring back home to inform my 2020 Vision…

Our flight wasn’t scheduled until 2:30 in the afternoon, and we didn’t get up to reserve a palapa, so we could sleep in until sunrise and while away the morning without stress.  Still news of the coronavirus outbreak in China, where more believable data predicted dire contagion if it were to spread abroad.  Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong reported outbreaks.  There were pictures of Asians in surgical masks.  It reminded me of SARS several years ago, and that never made it to America.  Ebola never quite caught on in America.  We’re the land of the sanitary, the home of germ free.  We licked polio.  And with every poo-poo of pandemic warnings by President Trump I kept reading the hubris between the lines and looking for signs it already leaped the Pacific Ocean.  On our last walk of the beach and swim in the sea, on our way back passing the Bay View beach we crossed paths with two Asian race women and neither wore a mask, which I took to be a good sign.  One day at a time.

We knew full well what lie ahead of us upon touchdown back in Minnesota, not the pre-spring thaw we always hope for but certain subzero cold minus wind chill.  It’s like trying to time the stock market.  After five weeks in tropical paradise nobody back home will feel all that sorry for us in our accidental suntans.  Lucky for us we’ve got cheap seats to Florida in just over a week, so we can go on playing the icebox escape.  Until eventually it’s time to stay home.  Even so, we were looking forward to a family vacation of all nine of us at a cabin in the Rocky Mountains in late June.  Roxanne had just booked the cabin through HomeAway on the web after getting confirmation of the dates from both our son and daughter via phone text.  And I was thinking about visiting Portugal in September, maybe a little northwestern Spain, some Brittany.

Bob and Rose flew back on our same flight.  All the rest of our anglo cohorts and accomplices at the beach had gone home by the weekend before and except under the palapas we didn’t see much of Bob and Rose the last few days.  Rose knitting, tatting, embroidering and chatting the neighbors.  Bob reading his iPad.  Rose gives her knitting and needlework away.  Her Spanish is lousy — she pronounces Las Gatas as Las Gallas — yet she gets a rapport going with the Mexican mamas under the palapas and gives their kids red licorice and mixed nuts.  Bob won a prestigious national electrical contractors award and will be in effect inducted into their hall of fame this summer at a convention in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Sometimes we get together in the summer at their lake home on Mille Lacs.  Or a dinner at a nice supper club halfway between St Cloud and Minneapolis.  They’re good talkers and we’re good listeners.  It’s gotten so Bob doesn’t realize he’s told me the same stories year after year, and I don’t care as long as he mixes in some new ones.  What’s interesting, his stories stick to the same facts and he never changes his style.  He gets along well with Canadians and Mexicans.  I heard him telling how the other night they were having dinner at Toscano’s when an all woman mariachi band showed up at the plaza between the two fountains and played.

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Did you ask them to play Tijuana Taxi, I asked and he said, Oh yeah, but they didn’t know it.  Every mariachi band I ever see I ask if they know Tijuana Taxi, he said, and the very first one who knew, who played it was that one that last week.  But not this all woman band.  But they were very good.

Actually almost two weeks ago.  Since the first few days afterwards we haven’t talked much about the murder, at least not in public.  Rose is usually a source of good information, or at least a good lead, and she hadn’t heard anything reliable about the condition of the woman or her kids.  Rose said she looked through the kiosks at that market, looking for some picture frames specifically for a friend at Mille Lacs, and she too saw the kiosk shunted to the back row wrapped in black.  The days after the shooting Rose and Bob answered the rumors and the gossip to the satisfaction of all the curious people who came around who heard they were witnesses.  Bob and Rose didn’t like to brag, but they like to talk.  They keep the gossip honest.  They’re good friends with Benny.  After a few days talk died down and people stopped saying, hey did you hear there was a shooting the other night over by Ruben’s?

“Hey Kelly,” one of the regulars at the deep end of the pool, a lady from Michigan who keeps up with Roxanne, “Where you going for dinner tonight?”  I don’t know yet, why, I answer.  “Because wherever you’re going, we’re not going.”  Ah, ha, ha.

Even so, among ourselves we stopped talking about it by our second excursion to Las Gatas, mainly because there was no new news.  The sensational nature of the experience wore off overnight, and the existential significance can only be measured over time, and short of any follow up story we could only make of it a tragedy you might hear about or read about that actually happened in your face and there’s nothing you can do.

Bystanders.  EspectadoresTestigos.  Witnesses.  Sometimes all you can do is stay out of the way and pay attention.  Grieve.  Feel sorrow.  Don’t try to translate everything.

Although Bob and Rose checked out ahead of us at the Krystal we figured we’d say adios at the airport.  I hung out at our room until at least I was sure that the flight coming down to get us from MSP was in the air, checking the web.  Made sure Keli the camarista got her bonus tip for the room, along with our leftover rose petals.  K is not a common letter in Spanish.

Drag our bags to the elevator.  They run three elevator cars and there’s a light rush from the checkouts, but we’re patient, a car with room eventually comes down to our floor, number seven.  Not the same luck for a little family on floor five, they’re have to wait.  We’ve been known to walk down the stairs sometimes just because we can — just follow the gravity — but not with our suitcases.  At floor PB, planta baja, main floor the vintage black blues is still the music of the lobby while we wait to check out at the desk.  It sounds like the soundtrack to a Little Rascals movie.

The last goodbye is for Tocayo, the bellman with the same name as me (his has only one F) — that’s what tocayo means, namesake, name the same as yours.  He’s a big guy with a face like Jay Leno who usually works the day shift at the front entrance, so I don’t run into him often when I’m mostly at the beach.  Every time I see him though, he says Tocayo and I say Tocayo back and we nod or shake hands, pump fists.  This day he guides our bags away from Roxanne and secures a taxi for us while I conclude the ritual of checkout.  When I’m done and go to him to say goodbye and slip him a fifty, Tocayo asks for a favor.  Some Canadian guy that morning tipped him four quarters, so could I make it into a twenty of Mexican money?  No problem, I say.  Take care.  See you nex’ year, proximo ano.

I got in the taxi in the back with Roxanne and looked at the coins.  One of the four had Queen Elizabeth on the face and two ruby red dots on the flip side, twenty five Canadian cents.

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It’s a beautiful, sunny hot day and the driver wants me to keep the window closed for the air conditioning.  The ride from the hotel boulevard lifts onto a freeway around the coastal mountain overlooking the rooftops of residential Ixtapa in the valley, a glimpse of what could almost be east El Cajon, California or suburban Albuquerque.  Palm trees.  Greenery.  The interior mountains rise in bare khaki layers to the clear blue horizon, sky the color celeste.  I look but see nothing burning on the foothills.  The freeway clears the coastal mountain and settles into the valley of the older city and the busy boulevard through town.  We play Slug Bug.  Verde.  Marron.  No vino.  Roxanne gets way ahead and I’m distracted at every stoplight how utterly shabby this town is.  Rusted.  Cracked.  Faded.  Crumbled.  Raggedy.  Rebar sticking up — which at least shows intention to improve, to put up another story on the flat.  Someday.  It’s beyond humble.  If this is authentic then I say it’s organically sad.  Nothing on this route ever seems to get better, even if there’s no evidence of getting worse.  All the Podemos billboards twenty years later and the place looks like a sacked 1949 except for new cars.  Hardware, tires, house paint, furniture, groceries, appliances, building materials, all the goods and services and comforts and conveniences you could ask for in any town, some apparently thriving and some getting by, all shabby and looking like one day closer to closing down forever.  And yet swept clean.  Shabby as this city could seem, there was no trash in the streets or the plazas.  What would gentrification do to Zihuatanejo, I asked myself, envisioning the answer.  I’m seeing with American eyes.  It seems to be saving itself through an identity of shabby chic.  Maybe it’s anticipating another boatload of accidental treasure.  Maybe it dresses down to avoid unwanted attention.

Nothing glamorous about it.  Just a nowhere place to pretend to drop out of the world but not really.  Nunca es suficiente.  We expect to come back next year.  True, we could try Belize or Costa Rica.  Nothing says we can’t.  Ixtapa is a good deal for us.  Nothing we looked at in Florida comes close.  Hawaii is way out of the question.  California isn’t south enough.  I’m skeptical about the Caribbean.  We need Ixtapa for our place to escape.  It would be too bad if some force majeure stood in the way of our choice to sweat out January and February on the Mexican Pacific coast.

One thing else can be said, the streets, boulevards and freeway roads in this part of Mexico are excellent.  I would almost drive there.  Not sure I would drive a car from Minneapolis to Zihuatanejo next year if that be the only way we could get there to rent a room for a few weeks overlooking the sea.  I just know it can be done.  It could be an adventure.  Let’s just say I’ve got more in common with John Hassler than Hunter S Thompson.  And Michel would never allow us.

One night a couple years ago after a big group dinner at Bandidos in Zihua, instead of catching a taxi back to the Krystal right away, Roxanne and I skipped down the promenade to a place called La Sirena Gorda — yes, it means what you think and there are about a dozen paintings of mermaids adorning the place, most of them unashamedly fat — for a dish of their home made coconut ice cream, mine with Kahlua.  Then we took a taxi to the Krystal.  When we arrived, Rose was waiting in the lobby, worried and aggrieved.  When we didn’t show up within a few minutes of her and Bob’s taxi she feared something bad happened to us.  I said, I’m sorry mom, does this mean we’re grounded?

ZIH, the international airport, is small and efficient, about the size of a suburban strip mall.  We ran across Bob and Rose at the food court eating BLTs.  There’s one concourse and three gates.  You board by walking a specific path between the lines across the tarmac and ascending stairs into the plane.  Nobody at the airport, no passengers, porters or airline staff wore a mask.  It seemed reassuring.  No one seemed to be concerned that a virus half the world away had leaped across the Pacific to this nowhere vacation town.   There was a flight boarding to Mexico City — no masks.

Mixing microbes in the concourse, browsing the duty free stuff, using the rest room, it all seemed so usual.  Bob and I stood around talking about getting cash back rewards for using credit cards while waiting for them to call our flight.  Roxanne and Rose talked grandma stuff, I guess.  We did not sit near each other on the plane.  We took off on time.

From the window seat I keep track of our ascent from the runway to the palm glades and over the ocean where the breakers stretch like white ribbons over a glossy blue sea.  We loop back across Ixtapa Bay and over the residential valley, getting tiny as a map.  Then over the tops of the Sierra Madres.  The whole rest of the terrain below is rough.  The mountains overlap with deep crevices and ravines, each peak and ridge fuzzy with khaki jungle.  The elevations are spread widely and undulating so the depths and heights are hard to perceive.  Here or there a line runs across a ridge or through a valley, a lonely road leading to a cul de sac of a village.  Wider lines denote riverbeds not reflecting a lot of water this day.  We fly over a lot of unpopulated ground but there are towns, though not large and not very many.  There’s a big lake out there that looks like a nice place to live, roads and streets that go there.  Most of what you see of Mexico from the air on this route looks serenely remote, plain and jungly.  No crops.  If clouds don’t eventually distract, there is eventually a border down there you won’t distinguish one side from the other somewhere over Texas, and otherwise the sun goes down on the other side of the plane, and between my journal and my iPod and Skull Candy earbuds, somehow Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa get past me.

Cruising lower I can see we’re hopelessly almost home, the landscape shiny white and silvery gray.  I put on socks from my carry bag and put my arms in the sleeves of my jacket.  Put my tray in locked position.  Seat upright.  Suburban street lights and parking lots glow in chilly lavender and ghoulish gold.  Scarf.  Beret.  Gloves.  Touchdown seemed jagged and brittle on this runway compared to the tropics.  Or is it just me…

It doesn’t take long to feel a world removed.  Reading accounts of the first outbreaks of the pandemic has since echoed back again and again like deja vu every day in real time and space, not some faraway place where it’s happening but in my home town and everywhere.  I’m reading about an event occurring simultaneously around the world.  An event that should reveal a cause to unify under the human condition.  People keep saying, We’re all in this together.  I really hope so.

This recitation about this year’s Mexican vacation started out a contrast of comparisons and a contemplation of compromises and devolved into a saga of sorrows.  Home almost ninety days now and the weather has almost turned predictably pleasant, they say the last frost warnings of the season have passed and usually about now we’ve finally rid ourselves of beach sand and stopped missing the sea, we forget about the tropics and ease back into the seasonal blessings of the temperate zone.  Nice try.

Having witnessed violence in Mexico the question put to me is do I still recommend Ixtapa as a winter destination despite the perceived danger and the travel warnings issued by the US State Department.  Yes I do because I love the place and for all the reasons I describe.  I warn you, though, don’t look for trouble.  If you’re afraid to go there, don’t.  I cannot guarantee your safety but I know if you are aware of your surroundings and take normal precautions you will be safe.  Hotel security and general commerce tends to keep an eye on the tourists to protect us from trouble without being obvious.  We trust the people of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo to allow us to winter vacation unmolested.  When we left we had decided we would return next year, hence the long good bye.

We’re not so sure now.  That’s eight months away.  Usually we book a flight in July at a good price and then e-mail our reservation to the Krystal and practically forget about it until it starts getting cold in October.  Usually we make plans.  Now nobody makes plans.  Roxanne canceled the cabin reservations for the Colorado Rockies in June.  There will be no trip to Lisbon in September.  There’s nowhere to go.  We are stranded at home.  There are no tickets to Zihua.  The Krystal is closed.

We are lucky, Roxanne and I, to be locked down together in our American home.  Our situation is exceptional.  Although we are considered to be in a vulnerable age group, we’re able, in decent health and reasonably sane.  We have resources to survive the pandemic by shelter in place.  Our community is alive with helpers.  Good grocery stores.  Lifelines of family.  Nice neighborhood.  Whatever it takes to outlast covid-19 we have advantages.

Covid-19 coupons.

From what I can tell, Zihuatanejo reports only ten cases, 582 in the whole state of Guerrero which includes big city Acapulco, with 71 deaths in the state.  In Minnesota to date there are 13,435 confirmed cases and 672 attributed deaths.  This could be comparing manzanas a naranjas.  Months ago we too had 580 cases.  We adopted a stay at home mentality to flatten the curve of infections to buy time for a lagging health care system to ramp up to meet a significant amount of cases at once.  People continue to get sick.  Eventually everyone is supposed to get sick, just not all at once.  Our social distancing measures were never meant to cure or eradicate the virus.  I hope Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa keep healthy through their lockdown emergency.  I can’t imagine what it’s like with their airport closed, hotels shut down, the whole hospitality economy crashed.  My young friend Ariel wrote in English “Too much government (Soldiers and Mexican security) in the friendly center” whatever that means.  Time will tell if the virus multiplies throughout Mexico like it has clotted throughout the United States.

It’s too soon to say whether the Krystal will be open for business next January, or Sun Country or Delta will fly there.  The way things are going between our two countries I wouldn’t be surprised if we will have to have sponsors to enter Mexico.  (That could change in November.)  It’s self-centered I know to yearn for an exotic winter vacation at a time when whole nations could be on the brink of collapse, cultures on the edge of famine and whole bunches of people face the greatest social disruption in recorded history.  If history is any guide things will inevitably work out, a vaccine, cocktail drug remedies, and the world will open up again.  When that happens there’s no guarantee Ixtapa will still be accessible or affordable.

I will keep in touch with my friend Ariel to try to get him to explain what’s going on down there.  I worry about them.

I would like to hear the authorities arrested and charged the guy who murdered the souvenir vendor.

At home all I can do about it is wash my hands, wear my mask and stay out of the way.

May Day has come and gone.  Cinco de Mayo too.  And Mother’s Day.  Apple blossom time.  Lilacs not far behind.  Tulips.  Foliage again decks the scrawny trees.  Roxanne mows the grass.  Robins and cardinals fledge offspring.  New life dazzles this once forlorn landscape and there may be no better place on earth to be quarantined right now.  Spring and summer here in the temperate zone of North America can be profoundly superior to anywhere else on the planet, sometimes one forgets it takes a January journey to the tropics to appreciate it so much.  Now more than ever.  Thank you to Baidu to enable readers in China to find this blog.  Usually I’ll be looking ahead to Le Tour de France while watching the Minnesota Twins defend the American League Central.  A slew of concerts and shows and public events have been canceled or postponed so there’s nothing on the calendar except recycling days, the dentist checkups and choir concerts exxed off.  The May photo on the 2020 Sierra Club calendar is of Navajo Arch, Arches National Park, Utah by Tom Till — you should see it, reminds me of oval grottos on the coast of the Isle of Capri.  Roxanne is sprouting annuals indoors on our window seat, cosmos, zinneas and sunflowers.  I force myself to work on my memoirs, the sequel to my first novel, or at least police up my work area.  Don’t listen to the entire Shakira collection the first month but space it out for June and July.  Daughter Michel is a nurse and especially conscientious to social distancing, so with the weather so pleasant we converge as a family in our camp chairs and their adirondack chairs and the patio chairs at least six feet apart in the yard and try hard to ignore the adorable child among us trying to play ball with the dog, and that’s just since yesterday.  Our state governor Tim Balz-to-the Walz has executed emergency powers since March to deal with what the covid-19 SARS-Cov 2 coronavirus has done to our society, our government, our economy, our public health system, and has attempted to marshall the good will of our culture to shelter in place to sustain ourselves past a breaking point so we can heal in greater numbers than we die.

It’s sad to say things will feel like this for quite some time, however we all peek out of our masks and try to carry on.  I have a front porch with a swing as my neighborhood watchpost.  I have a lot of places I cannot go to think about.  If I greet a passerby who makes eye contact from the sidewalk I may say hola, or aloha, or gruetzi, depending who you look like you might be.  I’m not just another passive aggressive man in Minnesota giving you the hairy eyeball.

To remind me of Ixtapa there’s the 120 ml pump spritz bottle of SOMNI that Isabel gave me at mi masaje final.  The label says Plantas en ArmoniaLocion Spray CorporalCon aceites esenciales de Melisa, Lavanda, Mandarina y Pasiflora.  There’s a leafy green picture on the label captioned Melissa officinalis.

I spray it over my head into the air and let the droplets descend across my face.  The scent of niceness makes me smile.

 

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The Virus King, or Love in the Time of Corona

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I was actually working on a thing about our Mexican vacation when it seemed like a distant memory.  Current reality seems like an hallucination.  A bad cough fever dream.

In Mexico when I first read about the novel coronavirus they named Covid-19, the Chinese Communist Party was trying to cover it up, which only made the stories coming out of Wuhan the more salacious compared with Uigar concentration camps.  You could tell it was going to be a big deal if the CCP feared what would happen if word got around.

This while Roxanne and I lived the Life of Riley on the beach along the Pacific in tropical Mexico, far away from our home in the frozen desolation of Minnesota winter.  We couldn’t have been more decadent bourgeois in our own way, epicurian, leisure seekers disposing of our disposable income for a respite escape from crippling cold.  It’s been a venal entitlement of ours for about twenty years.  Or just a guilty pleasure.  We justify it to ourselves as the result of hard work at our professional careers and saving money for our Golden Years, providing we would have some.  Funds to enable us to travel in our retirement as long as we stayed healthy enough to go places.

We’re home now with noplace to go.  We are lucky.  Some of that Charmed Life I’ve been telling about.  We have a good home to default to.  It’s paid for, as they say.  We’ve kept up the property.  Thus you might say proves wise planning and virtuous habits, and I’d thank you for thinking that, but only we know from experience together forty seven years how fortunate we are that most choices and decisions we made were good enough to keep us and our family on the up and up most of the time.  It looks romantic in hindsight, and that’s fine.  Roxanne and I find ourselves in the curious place where you say this is what it was ultimately about from the beginning when your hearts raced and you could see something in their eyes that said, trust me, we can grow old together.  So here we are.  Not a bad place we’ve got here.  That’s what I say, we are lucky.

Instead of a balcony facing the Pacific surf I have a wooden porch overlooking a city avenue.  At the hour of madrugada, the dawn, I sat in the chair on the seventh floor balcony facing the sea and nearby hillsides, reading about a Chinese region cracking down on its population to mobilize its public health care to contain an epidemic of a virus no one is immune to.  No one.  Inevitably every human on the planet can catch it.  It’s a matter of time.  Satellite photos showed Chinese work crews in Hubei province constructing hospitals.  This wasn’t the usual Belt and Road.  The World Health Organization was in on this.  The undertones of the news prepared the world to brace, brace, brace.  Already Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan got hip to the trend.  In Mexico nobody went around wearing surgical masks, people still hugged hola and adios.  Abrazos.  We spent Valentine’s Day in Ixtapa.  It could have been Utopia.  We dined al fresco at Shorty’s where the host gave out red roses and the assistant maitre d sang in a trio who serenaded half the plaza beneath lines and lines strung of colored paper cutout doilies, los adornos.

I drank a few margaritas last winter down in Mexico.  Especially Dia de San Valentin.  Shorty’s mixed ’em good.  The plaza was jumping.  Festive.  A lot of Canadians from Alberta and Saskatchewan, a few from Quebec.  And Mexicans.  Mexicans on dates.  This is after all a Mexican riviera.  Romantic couples from Jalisco, Guadalajara and Mexico City.  Not so many Americans beyond present company, not unusual considering the Trump administration’s attitude towards tourism to Mexico, and towards Mexico in general.  We take on a kind of ex-pat role and blend into the funny international scene.  I can cherish the memory since I wasn’t too drunk to savor the walk back to our hotel and take in the palm trees under the moonlight.

When we flew home several days later, nobody on our flight wore a mask.  Nobody greeted us at US Customs wearing masks.  Or rubber gloves.  It was no secret by then there was a coronavirus out there headed our way.  It seemed like we were protected by the Pacific Ocean.

Around the first of March we visited my brother Sean and his family in Florida, flying in and out via Orlando and driving a Mustang convertible up and down the coastal highways between Cocoa Beach and Melbourne over a long weekend, which we had booked back in December.  It was a cheap flight, leaving late and arriving later at night — if not a red eye then the pink eye.  Somewhat because of the late hour the Orlando airport was quiet but there was also a wary stillness among the people in the terminal.  This was Orlando, a great crossroads of the world because of Walt Disney, where thousands of children mingled their indiscriminate Mickey microbes every hour.  With my brother we visited the beaches.  The pier at Cocoa.  If a viral plague was coming, this was where it was going to come.

Our pink eye flight home was not full, perhaps the first flight with empty seats I’ve been on since just after 9/11.  No one on board wore a face mask.  I’d picked up a cough in Melbourne, just another cold and a sniffle, which I tried to keep to myself, feeling suspect to my fellow passengers but confident I did them no harm.  Today I’d probably be tossed off the plane as an abundance of caution.

Probably the last airplane ride for a while.  Our summer plans included a family rendezvous for a week at a VRBO rental cabin in the Colorado Rockies near the Rocky Mountain National Park around Estes Park in June.  We canceled our reservation the other day.  Hadn’t booked flights in and out of Denver yet.  I was looking forward to comparing 12,000 foot peaks in the Rockies with the ones in the Swiss Alps.

Home now about a month, half of which has been under a shelter in place order from our state governor, I’m reminded of all the places I cannot go.  Places I just went, like Mexico and Greece, and places I haven’t been, like Portugal.  No sense visiting Washington DC if the National Gallery and all the Mall monument museums are closed.  Grand Canyon is closed.  The Minneapolis Institute of Art is closed.

It’s supposed to be temporary but the scary part is the sense that it really isn’t temporary at all but permanent.  It’s a free country and we can think whatever we want, and yet I feel guilty and cynical for observing trends in the shadows that portend changes that aren’t necessarily going to go away.

Things are going away that won’t come back.

It’s the Christian season of Lent, six weeks of penance and sacrifice.  Passover comes in a few days.  Ramadan occurs later this month.  These are three faiths I know about whose liturgies coincide with this pandemic.  Soothsayers in New Orleans fault Mardi Gras for the severe outbreak in Louisiana.  Donald Trump, the American president, predicted the pandemic would all blow over by Easter Sunday, a miracle, and the world would all go back to automatic hum.

Penance aside, the sacrifice is most evident.  Everybody pays dues.  The ones who get sick and the ones who die.  The loved ones left behind in the wrecked economy.  The traumatized first responders and front line health care givers.  Workers not working.  Society not socializing.  It’s hard not to imagine even the rich taking a haircut.

Once slickly produced late night topical talk and variety shows have all regressed to the standard of Wayne’s World.  Without Garth.

Covid-19 rules.

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If I didn’t see it coming when I read reports about Wuhan when we were in Mexico, when we came home from Florida and found St Paul, the proto-Irishest city west of Chicago, canceled the St Patrick’s Day parade.  What has happened the past four weeks has fallen into place so chronologically and statistically it’s a cultural and historical perfect storm when the eventual meets the inevitable.

In this world we all mingle our microbes within our shared biosphere all the time.  Modern science has tamed some of the most vicious infections and aided the human race in surviving newer and creepier diseases, as research goes on right now to find a cure and vaccine to prevent the novel coronavirus now creeping across the planet.  Even in America, perhaps once the most sanitary nation on earth, germs find their way among its cleanest citizens.  Franklin D Roosevelt caught polio.

Donald Trump, the American president, initially blew off the novel coronavirus as just another flu bug that would blow over in the fresh air of spring.  Now he says he was just trying to be optimistic and to not incite panic.  Initially he characterized serious questions about the pandemic sweeping the United States as a media hoax to benefit the Democrats, the opposition party who were at the time enjoying a long campaign of about a dozen candidates to run against him this November.  The president said he wasn’t worried as he hosted visiting heads of state like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil — Trump always likes to rag about his political opposition while hosting foreign dignitaries — and he told the press pool around the helicopter pad he had everything under control.  He said if the doctors were in charge they would shut down the whole world.  Even as he blathered through the scripted statistics and beautiful people who he wanted to thank from papers he seemed to be proofreading for the first time — emphasizing certain sentences with repetition as if to say, good to know — it was clear from his tone and demeanor he didn’t have a clue what was going on.  He resisted closing down.  He didn’t believe the numbers.  The science didn’t make sense to him.  If it was all just a flu bug then it should pass through the population, take its toll and fade away.  In his mind there were already a lot of people dying every day, from cancer and diabetes and old age and car crashes, pneumonia and the flu, so what’s a few more just to get through the crisis and move on?

It got his attention when the stock market crashed, though he couldn’t believe it was happening.  Not on his watch.  Governors and mayors were taking charge of states and cities to issue policy directives of behavior.  Minnesota’s governor Tim Walz assembled his team of commissioners and mobilized the state to prioritize health concerns first to identify the afflicted, treat the sick and prevent the transmission of the infection.  Advisories went from don’t go to work sick to don’t go to work at all in a whir of mere days.  The Mall of America closed until further notice.  Governor Walz suspended school.  The universities and colleges went online only.  Then the governor himself found out he was exposed to the virus and went into quarantine, so he’s governing by video from home — governing by Wayne’s World.

Bars.  Restaurants.  Clubs.  Concerts.  Sports.  Casinos.  Movie theaters.  Plays.  Museums.  Malls.  Gyms.  Closed.  These all around me, aspects of my own community.  This isn’t just Disneyland and the Eiffel Tower.  This isn’t giving up the Rocky Mountains for Lent.

Feckless Trump didn’t want to shut anything down.  He said America wasn’t built to be shut down.  See his point.  He’s in the hotel and resort business.  He’s going to see a hit this tourist season.  Remember he said amid the ramp up to save New York he wanted to see everything reopened on Easter Sunday, which will be 12 April.  His advisors have since convinced him that even with all the measures being taken a couple hundred thousand Americans might die, but because of the measures being taken to flatten out the spike of the statistical curve the peak of the national infection might not be reached until 4 July.

Just this week he’s admitted it’s going to be bad.  Very bad.  He still can’t honestly answer direct questions about the federal government’s role in the public health emergency.  Congress has appropriated trillions of dollars to finance the effort to mitigate the spread of the disease and treat the economic trauma.  It’s possibly the most socialistic legislation since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Trump signed it, passed as it was by lawmakers from his own party.  He has been granted emergency powers he wields arbitrarily, capriciously or not at all.  He postures as if bullying General Motors, Medtronic and 3M to produce medical supplies under the Defense Production Act will discipline corporations to do things they are already doing, responding to demand and ramping up production, so he can take credit.  Yet he will not endorse a national distancing policy.  38 states, comprising 92% of the national population, have issued stay at home orders.  The outlying states, sparsely populated, fail to concede a need to impose stringent confinement to their citizens.  Trump concedes that his public health advisors urge a national standard of social distancing including stay-at-home confinement, but he chooses to defer to the governors of each state to decide how to respond.  He doesn’t want to be seen as committing government overreach as he reverses government regulations of automobile emissions to benefit the fossil fuel industries at the cost of greater air pollution this same week.  He doesn’t want to be accused of interfering with liberty and freedom of choice.  His public health advisors asked him to advocate people wear face masks in public, so he half heartedly passed along the advice at a daily briefing and added he won’t be wearing one.

Trump is still playing to the doubters and deniers, offering pouty dog whistle body language to pander to his audience tuned in to see him rant defiance against the oppressive liberal state and its godless science.  I’m surprise somebody hasn’t invoked the Supreme Court to sue against unconstitutional deprivation of the First Amendment guaranty of the right to peaceably assemble (in keeping with the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms).  What next, suspension of habeas corpus?

For pure visuals Trump has cast a stage presence of advisors to stand with him.  You may observe they’re standing closer together than recommended space taped off on the floors of supermarkets, but think again, these are the president’s chosen chief pandemic advisors within the White House so these people have been sharing microbes the whole time and it’s way too late to fend off community spread among this cohort.  If these people end up sheltering in place that place of residence will be the White House.  If the contaminants are numerous enough they might have to put affected people up at the Trump Hotel, at the old post office a block away.  It would be a blast to see such people quarantined like twelve angry jurors under more or less one roof for at least 14 days, only you know it won’t happen because they are all invulnerable, especially Mike Pence, vice president and head of the anti panic pandemic task force, whose job it is to always take one for the team.

Two outstanding personalities who have come forth on stage with the president are of course Dr Anthony Fauci the top infectious disease expert and Dr Deborah Birx, US ambassador at large to global health diplomacy.  They reinforce each others credibility in interpreting the science of their extrapolations in language meant to be honest about what the virus will do if left to spread from person to person in everyday life.  They don’t seem to mind contradicting the president’s laissez faire regard for the disease projections.  They’re earned popular credence.  They are proven public servants who are public leaders.  Their guidance of the president has at least thus far persuaded him not to act hastily to obstruct social justice with fancy shortcuts back to fine times and prosperity even at the grave risk of inflicting infection upon the poor and imminent death to people seventy or eighty years old and anybody else who is already more or less sick.

Dr Fauci says we don’t pick the time line.  The virus picks the time line.  “If it looks like you’re overreacting,” he said, “you’re probably doing the right thing.”

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If it seems like Malthus might get a fresh chance to prove his point.  At least twenty percent of the American workforce has been furloughed.  Food shelf charities are seeing soaring demand.  Farmers are looking at their land and estimating how much help they will need to plant and grow and bring in the crops, how much credit they can handle.  Migration restrictions are keeping migrant workers away.  This might be one of those events that eventually trims the population within its range of being able to feed itself. Thus far the grocery chain of supply assures us food will not be scarce.

Roxanne and I went outside the other day and took a walk along the Mississippi River.  Our governor’s stay at home guidelines allow for essential trips and going outside to get exercise is considered essential as long as safe distancing is practiced in public places such as parks.  Minneapolis has a lot of public parks.  A lot of people were out that day enjoying the parks on both banks of the river, and it was not overcrowded, just strange and awkward with everybody avoiding each other by ten or more feet.

We crossed the river via the Stone Arch Bridge, a sturdy old stony span created in the 19th Century to convey the Great Northern Railroad trains of James J Hill.  Today it’s no longer in service to the railroad but serves as a scenic trail connecting parks on both sides of the river.  Upriver you can see St Anthony Falls.  On the banks below the falls and on the other side of the bridge stand rows of sturdy buildings that were the flour mills that fed the world a hundred years ago.  Pillsbury.  Gold Medal.  The Washburn A Mill actually exploded from flour dust in 1878 and the ruins from that disaster still lay open to show the mill as it was after they cleaned up the scene, they never rebuilt, it’s a museum now.  Other mills have become repurposed as lofts, condos and apartments.  The falls is gushing this day, April Fools Day, the roaring churning surf at the base of the falls rocking big waves under the bridge and on down the chaotic current looking for St Paul.  These fierce currents powered those flour mills that fed the world.  Today there are sluices and spillways apart from the falls which turn turbines that generate electricity.  It is beside these falls they say this city was founded.

In Madrid Roxanne and I visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum a few years ago and came upon a gallery of American landscapes by the likes of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, where we found a painting of St Anthony Falls by Henry Lewis.  It was a romantic panoramic view of an unspoiled Mississippi complete with an indigenous people on the bluff above the bank looking upstream, a few settlers in the background, no sign of downtown to come.  No bridges.  No mills.  It was a kick to see a painting of my home town in the mid-19th Century hanging in the permanent collection of a museum in Spain.

That was the year Prince died and everybody we ran into in Barcelona wanted to know why.  Walking the stone arch bridge with Roxanne on a sunny spring day is our stay-at-home version of moseying La Rambla, complete with our own Old Town at hand, without the crowds and without the awesome exotica of being a pedestrian in Barcelona.  Our mill city once fed the world.  Who would know?

Prince sang sometimes it snows in April.  It did again the day before yesterday, but not so much as needed a shovel, at least not here in my city.  This is the time of year you begin to see neighbors you may not have seen since Halloween.  This spring it seems triple with everybody seizing any opportunity to venture outdoors, putz in the garden, ride a bike, walk the dog or push the baby around the block in a stroller.  We nod and some wave, say hello, how’s it going.  All from a distance.  There is a condition referred to as Minnesota Nice, a half passive aggressive politeness mixed with a suspicious but genuine concern for the feelings of others.  Social distancing against Covid-19 allows us a buffer to guard our personal intimacy knowing we can reach out only so far in our friendliness and be assured no one will overreach back and invade your privacy.

We’re all in this together is the current mantra.  However belated, it’s a welcome thought to ponder seriously.  Not a saying to be made trite.  Not a phrase to be turned into cant.  It might seem self-evident, but it bears repeating now and then when we ponder the ramifications and our own personal responsibility.  We are all in this together.  Surely there are those of us who consider their own fate singular, whether by existential loneliness or determination to be exceptional to the common fate of the community.  It’s not so much they don’t care what happens to other people it’s more they don’t see what other people have to do with it if everybody has an equal chance of not catching the disease.

There is a dystopian satire movie by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam called Brazil which casts Robert De Niro in a bit part as a wanted terrorist named Harry Tuttle who is a building engineer guerilla outlaw who fixes people’s plumbing and HVAC in high density apartments in defiance of authoritarian urban repair regulations.  His motto:  We’re all in this together.  In our current Covid-19 scenario, Harry Tuttle in his hoodie coveralls would be a guy surreptitiously customizing ventilators.

Here in Minnesota our governor has spoken plainly and articulately about the Covid-19 pandemic since his very first press conference.  He doesn’t use weasel words.  He has an ace public health commissioner named Malcolm who has been on the ball the whole while it was coming, and she’s been marshaling medical resources trying to keep ahead of the curve of afflicted patients despite being behind virus testing due to the national shortage of test kits.  The governor says he’s relying on the latest computer models predicting the infection rates.  He is relying on sage advice from scientific experts and sound advice from economists and sociologists.  Educators.  He speaks daily, at least for several minutes.  When he speaks he crams a lot of detail into his spiel but he makes it clearly understood.  He reluctantly closed schools yet ordered all teachers to formulate online lesson plans to teach all the kids at home.  He provided that kids on the school meals programs would still somehow get their meals.  He reluctantly sent most of the state’s workforce home to either work from home via wi-fi or be laid off from work in non-essential endeavors.  Hospitality workers were laid off en masse.  The governor issued what he calls peacetime emergency proclamations.  At least through future dates in April everybody in Minnesota is supposed to stay home, with certain exceptions.

I have mentioned getting fresh air and exercise and grocery shopping.  This allows for a small measure of crowding tolerated with masks, hand sanitizer and looking the other way when you breathe.  Other exceptions of course include health care personnel, especially in infectious diseases, and grocery store workers.  Pharmacies.  Target.  Ace Hardware.  Liquor and tobacco.  Takeaway food but no on site dining.  No bars, pubs or clubs.  No hair salons.  Yes to the post office and the banks.  No to showrooms.  No jury trials for the time being; arraignments and bail hearings done by video.  No movies, concerts and trade fairs.  No meetings or rallies.  Yes to child care centers.  Yes to carpenters, electricians, plumbers and building engineers like Harry Tuttle.

And to the immense credit to the spirit of the community I am proud to belong, everybody it seems is falling all over each other to engender benefits for known people who for sure would lose livelihood in the economic shakeaway.  Restaurant workers are seeing a lot of donations coming out of the woodwork — probably not nearly enough to compensate for the loss of work shifts and tips but it’s nice to feel valued.  The musician community has arisen and awoke itself to sustain its creativity and people’s desire to hear music.  And amid the fresh wounds of coronavirus are the scorched and scarred who were already down and out, living hand to mouth, always at wits end, homeless, maybe addicted, who haven’t gone away suddenly.  Just as there are still cancer patients, and heart patients, diabetes, kidney failures and victims of bacterial infections, accident trauma, pneumonia and other viruses besides Covid-19 who require care.  Charities are going overdrive — turbo overdrive — to compensate for scarcer survival resources at the micro level.

At the macro level you hear about endowments funded by rich people like Bill and Melinda Gates and Jeff Bezos and Mike Bloomberg, entertainers like P!nk and Lady Gaga to advance humanitarian efforts.  You never hear Donald Trump donating to charity.  And it’s not because he’s modest and gives in secret — his left hand knows exactly what his right hand is doing.  When his tax returns are revealed you will see no philanthropy.  Supposedly a few years ago he claimed to run a charity that endowed the Wounded Warrior foundation but that was revealed to be a hoax.

Like his bogus for profit school he invented to teach the Art of the Deal.

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Trump’s laissez faire corruption of leadership through this world pandemic exposes the very American polarization that being all in it together is supposed to fix.  He’s not really buying the Birx and Fauci program and you can see he’s just holding out for that miracle cure that will vindicate him and prove all the smart people wrong.  He would really like to embarrass Nancy Pelosi, John Kelly, CNN, Fauci, Birx and all the governors like Minnesota’s Tim Walz for attempting to sabotage his administration by wrecking the world economy with panic over a stupid microbe — an overrated germ.

This is the stuff of Third World countries, after all.  It must vex and baffle this president that thus far all of the commotion and the infection of this disease worldwide has been spread among the rich world.  Plagues like these in his mind are supposed to be borne by the poor and fester in the shit hole countries, not sweep through sophisticated, glamorous civilizations.  It can be shown that Covid-19 is initially a very middle class disease.  It originated in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei province, an industrial working class city of around 11 million.  It can be argued that Covid-19 is a jet set disease, spread by the traveling public of various elite personas — sales reps, diplomats, scholars, executives, entertainers, tourists, politicians, financiers to name a few — with the means and good reasons to fly (and sail) all over the place on this planet.  This admits China as a member if the rich world, by the way, and how its social system recoils now to maintain order and treat its share of the disease puts pressure on liberal democracies to control the infection without allowing it to spread via civil liberties, including riots.  It’s become legend how China uses the power of party surveillance to ensure social control — talk about a deep state — and its strict restrictions of the population enhanced by digital appliances and monitoring the media through smart phones in real time.  This is not Third World, and this is not Chairman Mao’s China — or maybe it is, it’s just not 1949 anymore.  It’s no wonder Covid-19 got from Hubei to Minnesota, and no wonder, if it’s as infectious as the doctors say, it skipped across Europe like those Australian wildfires — Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Belgium, France and now England, which isn’t even part of Europe anymore — the prime minister, whom I call Boris the Spider after a children’s song by the Who, is now in hospital from Covid-19, intensive care.  This is a pandemic introduced straightaway into the modern global world by its own means, a virus transmitted by the sharing of air among people innocently going about their usual interactions and presto, Bob’s your uncle, it’s practically illegal to get too friendly, humans are being done in by human nature to be social.

As the rich world acts to contain and treat its populations and share mitigation of its economic risks, the poorer world waits in suspense whether or if Covid-19 will affect its people in the percentages that burns through richer nations.  Even within societies where the virus has been introduced through the middle class, it remains to be seen how the germs spread laterally, up or down.  It would be sad if the poor suffered a greater proportion of infection and death due to rich malfeasance.  Sadder still would be the stories from emerging nations like India, Brazil and those of sub-Saharan Africa if this coronavirus, not so novel anymore, wipes through dense slums and villages.  And then refugee camps.

I worry about our friends in Mexico, which thus far appear on the Covid-19 maps to be feeling little incidence.  There is a theory that this virus might be like influenza and not spread as infectiously in hotter climates.  It’s mostly feared it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches the disease.  It’s already a world altering event.  When we first heard of the novel coronavirus we were on vacation in a place far away removed from the apparent panic in Wuhan, China.  Today we can’t book a flight from here to Zihuatanejo even if we can get hotel reservations.

Roxanne and I muse whether we’ll be allowed to go to Mexico next winter even if the infection curve flattens and there is no surge in cases there.  We are over sixty years old, categorized in a vulnerable bracket, and may remain restricted for our own good long after much of the population has recovered and gone back to its usual ways.  We may not see the light of day (figuratively) until the vaccine comes out.  That could be years.  Or until after we eventually contract the virus and survive hopefully immune.  That too could be years.

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What we miss most already is our family.  The families of our daughter and son both live in Minneapolis, nearby, but that does little good when we can’t visit indoors or hug our granddaughters.  Vincent and Amelie’s 18 month old Neko is the baby, and it’s unnatural to not be able to snuggle the baby, only mug for the camera for Zoom and Facetime and watch her on the screen for any changes, signs of growth, new mannerisms, more hair, a fresh word.  It’s like getting paid back for abandoning her to run off to Mexico for five weeks and expecting to get by with Facetime — grandparents playing Wayne’s World.

Four to eight years ago this is how we kept up with Michel and Sid and Clara and Tess while they lived in Switzerland, Sunday noon Central time here, seven in the evening Swiss time, using Skype when we weren’t actually going over there to visit them and to mosey around Europe.  They only came home at Christmas.  Between visits were lonesome gaps Skype could barely fill.  When they all came home again and repatriated to a few neighborhoods away my heart soared like an eagle.  To be close to my daughter and her daughters seems to me to be what Bruce Springsteen is singing about in Beautiful Reward.

To revert again to phone calls, texts and screen time among my loved ones and favorite people who are only a few miles of street blocks away only underscores how lonely it would be if these technologies did not exist.  Would we send cards and drawings through the mail?  We still can, I suppose.  As it is, Clara and Tess, 15 and 12, each have smart phones and can speak up for themselves.  To me they are the spokespersons of their generation.  I miss having dinner with them at least once a week and driving them to gymnastics practice sometimes twice a week.  They seem to be adapting well to wi-fi home school and being home bound together, the latter a product of sharing a room when they lived in Switzerland.  The last time we had dinner at their house, before the rumors of school closings came true, Tess the sixth grader confided that kids were referring to Covid-19 as the Boomer Killer.  (Sorry, Grampa, no offense.)  Now when we visit Michel and Sid’s house we keep at least ten feet apart from them on lawn chairs.  Michel is super diligent about observing social distance and hygiene.  She is a nurse at an occupational medicine clinic, keeps up with the latest of what’s known about the virus and worries about her mother and me getting sick, us being of the vulnerable category as Tess pointed out.  When they visit our house they congregate on our front steps like Christmas carolers and we talk across the porch from the front door.  Michel is more concerned they could infect Roxanne and me than of us infecting them.  She makes no exceptions, especially with Baby Neko whom she ruefully insisted we stop babysitting her as long as she still attended day care — it makes full sense the kid may pick up any kind of germs in the toddler room and thus reset our quarantine back to day zero every time we cared for her.  It’s too bad we practically have to relate to each other like holograms from now on.

The distancing especially frustrates Roxanne, the best grandma ever.  Everyone wishes Roxanne was their grandma.

This era will generate a golden age of home entertainment.  The home entertainment industry can’t help but flourish.  And along for the ride will be online education, virtual school, and from here on learning will never be the same.  The worldwide web was seemingly created for a time like this, enabling people far and wide to participate in a webwide world far and wide, to be all in this together, safe at home.

So lucky to be confined with Roxanne my mate beyond compare.  Being stuck with each other’s company is an intended consequence of a flawed human romantic design conceived decades ago when we were young and in love.  The flaws aren’t worth mentioning here except that they were minor enough to increase the odds of our success in making our love grow and last through time as if we were always meant to be.  She’s still the best kisser I’ve ever known.  Two admonitions generally attributed to Chinese proverbs suggest themselves these days.  One usually taken as a backstroke curse goes, May you live in interesting times.  I’d say our lifetime qualifies.  The other says, Be careful what you wish for.  Yes, be careful because it might come true.  If our wish, simply put, was to stick together, be each other’s friend for life and enjoy each other’s company into our advanced age, then the algorithm is solved.

Two pools of microbes have become one.

She and I have practiced our intimacy and cared for, looked after one another as if some day it could come to this, stranded together on a desert island disc.  Even before our love nest was completely empty the two of us took vacations without the kids.  I’ve never been to Europe without Roxanne.  Of all the places we’ve been together, staying home offers a concise context for the world we have seen and which we now observe tantalizing us with memories.  We can reminisce about our travelogues without the real pressure of catching trains and planes.  We may remember different details but share the panoramic view.  The wide angle scream.  Lemons bigger than NFL footballs at the market at the train station at Pompeii, the lemonade stand.  The glockenspiel on the rooftop balcony of town hall above the Marienplatz in Munich.  Gaudi’s Parc Guell atop the hills over Barcelona.  Omaha Beach, Normandy.  Monet’s house and garden at Giverny.  Bernini’s marble and bronze statuary of the Ecstasy of St Teresa in a dinky little neighborhood church in Rome not far from the bus and train Termini.  And any one of about eight visits to the Catedral de Notre Dame de Paris, the churchiest church ever, inside and out, stained glass and flying buttresses, arches and gargoyles — all before the heartbreaking fire — we can always say straight faced it’s lucky we got to go in there so many times we could almost consecrate the impressions.  It could be our wedding church, or at least our marriage church.

Lucky we are to be together where life’s road has brought us to be.  Roxanne likes to use the term mosey.  Some amble, others stroll, more others ramble or wander, but Rox and I mosey.  It’s said the term descends from Spanish, vamos, we go, through its anglo pronunciation vamoose, and the expression vamanos, commonly translated as let’s went.  Life’s trail has brought us to where we went.

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At home sheltering in place we cook and eat, do laundry and clean house.  We read, watch TV, nap, listen to music, text, talk and mosey.  All the basics.  The writer writes.  Roxanne has taken up sewing home made face masks from a pattern she found on the internet that’s accompanied by a You Tube video.  She made one for me and I will wear it when we go to the store just to show solidarity as somebody who doesn’t know if I’m carrying Covid-19 but just in case I am, I’m acting as if containing my microbes from the public.  And it’s a catchy mask.  We have drawn up our will and medical directives, and power of attorney — not suddenly, mind you, but have had this all in place for several years just in case

Another two things:  no more ship cruises, and no way we’re ever moving into a senior care assisted living facility.

What I despise about this pandemic is its reliance on metrics in body counts.  As of yesterday there are 1.4 million confirmed cases worldwide and 70,000 deaths.  I concede there is no other way to quantify the impact of the disease without such numbers.  Maybe its the fatalism these numbers represent, the surging inescapable infliction I resent and the challenge they pose to my last vestige of denial.  It’s hard to maintain serenity and accept for the most part that the existence and spread of Covid-19 is something I cannot change, it is what it is.  I can recognize my small individual part — wash hands, maintain social distance, stay home — and think of it like the flight attendant says in that safety procedure spiel about the unlikely loss of cabin pressure when the air masks drop down from the ceiling of the plane, be sure to secure your own mask before trying to help others.  Pondering what it all means presents existential intellectual dilemmas.  The virus is a parasite needing a host to survive and procreate, it cannot live long and survive on its own.  Like every living being, you wonder if it’s using every trick at its disposal to pass on its genes.  It may not be intelligent, but intelligence isn’t necessary to exploit instinct.  Or even political gain.  Ideological control.  The numbers are wrong, not inflated for shock value but sadly under reported.  For one thing, without mass testing the true number of cases cannot be verified.  Only when this thing is over will we get a comprehensive study of what’s happening now.  The stats are bad enough as it is.  Rumors persist (without expelled American journalists to verify) that China is suppressing its Covid-19 numbers to keep off a reputation to the world it is the sick man of Asia.  The repressive regime of Iran cannot be trusted for accuracy.  India may not have the means to tabulate, much less mitigate and treat its infected.  Fragile governments of countries not considered open societies may try to hide the numbers from the world and its own citizens the way Stalin tried to conceal famine deaths in the old Soviet Union.  Even in America Donald Trump refused to repatriate the sick from aboard a cruise liner docked in Washington state because he didn’t want them included in his numbers.

One suspects the efficacy of prevention measures in already supposedly locked down places such as prisons and refugee camps.

From my relatively cushy perspective there’s a longing to be in this together and infatuation with the isolation this affords.  There’s a song by Mariachi El Bronx called Poverty’s King that goes:  “Everyone wants to be alone, until they are alone.”

Then there’s Jesus Jones:  “Right here right now, there’s no other place I want to be.  Right here right now, watching the world wake up from history.”

Both.  And.

These are interesting times and we hope we get what we wish for.

Shakira sings from La Tortura:  “No pido que todos dias seran de sol, no pido que todos los viernes seran de fiesta.”  I don’t ask that every day will be sunny.  I don’t ask that every Friday will be a party.

As to Paul Simon: Julio, stay away from Rosie down by the school yard, she’s the Queen of Corona.

Rust never sleeps.

Good bye John Prine from the jungles of East St Paul.  Saddle in the Rain.

Roxanne returned from a walk around the neighborhood saying today she couldn’t help but observe shabby looking houses.  I asked if maybe its a reflection of a gloomy, cloudy day, early spring when there are no tree leaves and only a few sprouts amid the mulchy, muddy hedges and gardens.  No, these were shabby houses, she said.

What are we going to do about it, I’m thinking.  It’s one more thing to ponder from my Ivy Tower.  Leonard Cohen once wrote, “They locked up a man who wanted to rule the world.  The fools.  They locked up the wrong man.”  It’s come to this.  Virtually sidelined from participating in a worldwide emergency because I’m a man of a certain age, there’s nothing left to do except indulge myself listening to bird calls out my window while pontificating from my castle.  It seems a good time to volunteer my senior expertise, like the Small Business Administration used to employ volunteers to its Service Corps of Retired Executives, SCORE to mentor startup businesspersons, except that I would probably be unqualified to mentor or coach anybody right now and uncertified to engage as a consultant to any institutional entity working as I am from home, retired.

Like my friend Jim wrote me, I’ve got nothing to do today and I’m not leaving till I get it all done.

All my life I’ve trusted myself with spare time.

It’s Wednesday.  Roxanne was reading a Jack Reacher novel on the couch and it’s around 2 pm, time for the governor’s update.  He’s emerged from quarantine healthy, no longer broadcasting from his basement.  The statewide stay at home order is extended to 4 May.  The statistical models are showing that the social distancing works, the rate of the spread of the virus is slowing down but would spike up again if mitigations loosened.  It’s too bad but this is what will be.  Five more Minnesotans died today, bringing the total to 39.  Nobody on the governor’s task force is gloating because the state has a very low Covid-19 infection rate per capita compared to sites elsewhere.  They’re busy procuring ventilators, respirators, PPEs and hospital beds, maintaining a corps of responders and care professionals and searching for more tests and data as to who is sick and who is well.  The official count is 1154 cases.  The U of M and Mayo Clinic are working on tests, treatments, cures and vaccines.  No one accepts congratulation until the the pandemic is put down.  It behooves us — yes, the governor used the word behooves — to ready ourselves for the next wave, maybe as soon as October.  Thus updated, Roxanne returned to Jack Reacher and I go on to ponder another school day without South High around the block not letting out classes at 3:15.  Did I ever tell you about the time Vice President Joe Biden redirected his motorcade to South High to hang out at football practice and throw some Go Deep to the receivers…

Governor Walz, a plainspoken fast talker who packs information into what he says, named Tim, uses the word unprecedented to describe the emergency events and actions taken.

It could be an unintended pun, only to change the word to un-presidented.

My simple unsolicited advice to the world:

Wash your hands.

Keep a safe distance.

Stay home.

And never again elect Donald J Trump to public office.

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BK

 

Wausau Christmas 1969 – Yule See

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There was no moon that night but for some reason our eyes adapted to the dark enough to pick out not only one perfect Christmas tree but two.

My friend Jim phoned me a little after dinnertime.  I was playing a Johnny Rivers album of Jim Webb songs on my old Phonola and reading Playboy, nobody home.  He said Sister Fernanda called him and wanted to know if he could hustle up a crew like me and Homer to take the convent car out to Mosinee to pick up a Christmas tree.  Jim didn’t have a drivers license, so I’d have to drive, at least until we picked up Homer.  Would I meet him at the convent in half an hour?

I was having a strange week.  I was living with my dad and he had just lost his job as general manager of the local Chevy dealership, accused of embezzlement.  He revealed to me and my sister Bernadette that his latest girlfriend, at least ten years his junior, was six months pregnant, and they had decided to pack up and move to San Diego, California before the end of the year.  And I turned eighteen that week too.  My car, a 1962 Chevy Bel Air, was repossessed from the school parking lot by a tow truck from the dealership during school the day my dad got fired — apparently it wasn’t paid for yet — and the finance company came to the house to repo our couch, kitchen table and chairs, some end tables and a coffee table and our TV my dad bought on credit from Prange’s, word spreading fast that his credit was no good.

And about a foot of snow fell that week.  It glistened under the streetlamps and squeaked under my boots as I walked in the plowed street with the ridges piled to the curbs like miniature sierra cordilleras.

I lived two blocks from the convent, which was next door to Newman, the Catholic high school, which amazed anybody who knew where I lived because I was notoriously tardy for the first bell — there were kids who came all the way from Antigo who made it on time, and yet yours truly couldn’t make it two blocks.

Jim, whose full name was Getchmis James Olsen, lived maybe six blocks from school, but he notoriously walked everywhere, never tardy.  He was the smartest boy in our senior class by GPA and had a perfect attendance record.  His dad served on the Newman school board and his mom taught fourth grade at St Matthew’s.  The nuns trusted Jim and trusted me because Jim vouched for me.  Everybody called him Jim except the nuns, who were obliged to call us students by our real names, not nicknames.  I arrived at the convent’s front door a few minutes after Jim.

Sister Fernanda taught maths at Newman and served as the convent treasurer.  Jim did all the communicating except where she gave me the car keys and made me promise to be careful.  (“Yes, Sister.”)  She gave Jim custody of a hefty bow saw with an orange elbow-frame handle and sharp teeth.  Their blue late model Oldsmobile station wagon was parked on the driveway.  She said we wouldn’t need gas money because the tank was full.

It wasn’t the first time for me behind this wheel, the nuns had supplied it for our transportation the prior spring when Jim herded up the school speech forensics team to compete in Madison at the state tournament and Jim’s small one act play he wrote under the pseudonym Yndian Sommers competed at State.  Jim admired Samuel Becket.  I had a part as a sulking skulking jeremiad.  We took third, though one judge said later she would have given us a higher score had she known it was an original production.

Not halfway backed out on 28th Avenue Jim was playing with the radio trying to tune KAAY Little Rock, though it was too early to get Bleeker Street.  Instead he found WLS Chicago.  Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Goodbye.

Homer Joe O’Leary lived outside the Wausau city limits on a steep hill in a woods down a long gravel driveway off the main road.  His dad was a dentist and Homer was the fourth of nine kids, the elder three more or less grown — a sister married and out of college, another sister currently at UW LaCrosse, and a brother — the younger ones mostly brothers and a baby sister about ten.  Doc Leary — most people who spoke of the family in the third person dropped the O — bought the house about five years back, a big Victorian style structure that stood near the old Wausau railroad station that used to be the logo of an internationally known insurance firm but lately fell idle and discarded in a part of town abandoned to decline at the foot of East Hill.  Legends said the old house was once a convent, or it was a bordello, perhaps both.  Doc Leary bought it for its bones and arranged to have the structure uprooted and hauled up Bridge Street all the way up the hill to his new property, where he tore it apart and rebuilt it to suit his big family, an undertaking still unfinished with electrical switchplates missing and some rough patches in the sheetrock and a little incomplete molding, but by and large a completed project bearing no resemblance to an antique Victorian mansion whatsoever but rather a spacious modern and efficient home designed in situ for his family.

Jim and Homer Joe were lifelong friends from the old neighborhood on the east side of town not far from the train station.  They played together as kids.  About the same time as the O’Learys, Jim’s family also left the old neighborhood and moved to the thriving new west side just beyond the city limits, albeit Jim’s family lived in a regular neighborhood on grid streets whereas Homer’s family situated a little more on the fringe of land still considered country.

The driveway stretched through what could have been pasture and came to a loop where the house nested amid a grove of mature oaks, maples and tamaracks.  We parked at the door to the three car garage and hiked up the stairs to the wide deck overlooking an undeveloped forest downhill.  The deck framed the main entrance to the house through a sturdy sliding glass doorway into an entryway towards the family dining area, between the kitchen and the living room.  The ceilings were high and the passages between rooms open and airy, and there was a skylight in the spacious living room, where I noticed a long black leather couch.  It was Homer’s night to do the dinner dishes so we hung out at the dining room table until he got done, talking small talk with his prim mom and one of his younger brothers and his little sister, whose name happened to be Kelly, like my surname.  We engaged in a ritual Jim called Say Hello and Pet the Dog.  The O’Learys actually had a dog to pet, a burly woolly bear of a beast named Schlotsky.

Doc Leary had a voice like a trombone.  He was in his easy chair in a discreet corner of the living room reading the Daily Record Herald or the Milwaukee Journal, and he called out to me from where I didn’t see him.  “Mr Buffalo Kelly, c’mere a minute.  Present yourself.”  At that same time Homer’s little brother said their dad wanted to see me.  My boots were already off by the door and I unhesitantly excused myself from Jim, explaining our mission from the convent to Homer’s mom, and stepped up into the carpeted living room, which was more like a loft.  Doc rose from his chair to shake my hand.  He had a precise grip and farsighted brown eyes that expressed graciousness, sincerity and mirth.  He tipped his reading glasses atop his gray crewcut flattop he still wore since his days as a Navy pilot during World War II, and I may have been taller than he was but he stood solid and yet not rigid, not like the usual military man, impressive but not imposing.  Not like I expected of a dentist, either, but an informal politeness more like an educated teamster.  He wore a cardigan sweater with a hole in one elbow.

He said, “I hear your dad is undergoing some troubles of his own and plans to relocate to California.”

“Yes, he’s got friends out there in the car business.  He’ll make out okay.”

“So what about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“How do you feel about giving it up and not finishing your senior year at Newman?  Are you excited about following after your dad?”

That was an odd way of putting it.  “Not really,” I honestly replied.

“Then I wonder if you might consider living here through graduation.  I talked with Grace and we talked with the kids and we’ve got room, you can bunk with Homer and Mickey.  You wouldn’t be the first orphan kid we’ve adopted.  You’d help out around the house, of course.  Think about it.  Have your dad give me a call.  We’ll work it out.  You can finish your senior year here and then figure out what you’re going to do.  Seems your dad has enough on his plate.  And personally, I wish him luck where he’s going — if Florida is the armpit of this country, California is the crotch.  Think about it.”

It didn’t surprise me that Jim had been scheming with Homer to figure a way I could stay in Wausau.  Jim had even gone to the Newman vice principal, Father Kulovits, and sketched a plan by which I might occupy a small apartment on the top floor in the wing near the band room in an empty office next to the guidance counselor, with full access to lockers and showers, and the kitchen, be Newman’s hunchback phantom, but Father Kulovits wisely cited insurance and liability issues and ducked the true issue of literally turning over the keys of the school to me, a notoriously suspect personality.

My friends earnestly assumed I would rather stay with them through the bitter end of high school in Wausau, Wisconsin than take off into the great unknown of Southern California with my fuckup father and his pregnant girlfriend.  They didn’t realize how tempting it was to start over, kiss this dead end fartsniffing dumbshit town goodbye and go off to the forevereverland of grass and ass.  I had a fresh opportunity to go to a public school.  What no one else took into account, my third available choice (which Doc Leary didn’t know about at the time) which was to return to my dysfunctional, anarchic and semi-barbaric mother’s household in the Twin Cities, which seemed to me a worst-case outcome, worse than remaining in Wausau, although it still meant I could attend a public school.  Now my friends, behind my back, had engineered for me a safe and above board means for me to keep going to Newman, and I was touched to realize I had such friends who needed me and believed I needed them to get through the next six months together.  We had unfinished business.  My friends persuaded me to stay.  Those bastards.

We took the freeway — funway, as Jim and Homer called it — the US 51 bypass as it was known — which ran along the east side of the Wisconsin River along the foothills of Rib Mountain in a beeline more or less between West Wausau and the paper mill towns just south of the city.  Most nights to get to the same destination we would likely cruise through town on Grand Avenue, Business 51, look around at what’s happening (nothing) and who else might be cruising (usually nobody) but this night we had a mission, plus we were uncertain whether it was cool to be seen cruising in an Oldsmobile station wagon.  Our destination was a tree farm somewhere in Mosinee township off an ABC county road off Hwy 29 and 51.  The farm was owned by a Catholic family with a freshman and a junior at Newman, and they sold pre-cut Christmas trees or you could go wander the rows of stands and cut your own.  The place was easy to find from signs with arrows at every intersection from the main highway.  Bare-bulbs lighting decked the pre-cut lot and spotlights lit the barnyard and the surrounding forest of pines and firs.  The place was busy.  Lots of families shopping for Christmas trees.

We rolled through the lane cautiously avoiding customers on foot and found a place to park near someone with authority, a guy in a snowmobile suit and duck boots.  Jim explained who we were.  The guy pointed to another guy who stood in the doorway to the pole barn, who turned out to be the patriarch of the farm.  Jim talked to the patriarch.  He pointed off yonder down the lane towards a deep corner of the property and told us we could cut anything we liked way back there.  We got back in the car and rolled down the plowed lane to the corner where the boss indicated.  The way was lit by a string of white bulbs.  At the end of the property we halted, put it in park and got out to survey the available trees.  The convent’s central living room had a high ceiling, so Sister Fernanda said not to get stingy with height, we could go twenty feet.  The trees before us were easily that tall.  Height would be no problem.

“You gotta be shittin’ me,” said Homer, the first to speak.  Jim shook his head and lit his briar pipe.  I lit up a Camel and Homer gestured for a hit.  We agreed these were the ugliest Christmas trees in life.  Asymmetrical and flagged, crooked, partially limbless and ratty with bare branches and patchy needles, there was not one tree from all of this pre-selection we could in good conscience bring home to the nuns.  To select any one of them we agreed would disrespect the sisters.  We said a few words about the integrity of the donor patriarch to pawn off such crappy Christmas trees on our nuns and finished our smokes, got back in the car.  “We can do better,” summed Homer and we agreed.

We drove off the property the back way without checking out, and without any distinct plan I took country roads toward Rib Mountain.  The great landmark, lit with ski slopes like an ice cream sundae, its cherry transmitter tower up top, rose apart from the valley in the night like an electrified Mt Fuji.  Being I just turned eighteen it would have been customary to go with my buddies to a beer bar and treat them to a couple 15 cent Pabsts on tap.  There were several such beer bars in the valley along the river, including one on Lake Wausau, formerly known as Johnny’s, purchased that fall by the ex service manager of the dealership where my dad used to work.  My dad told me this ex service manager was the real embezzler, somehow simultaneously charging shop customers and General Motors for work done under warranty and pocketing the cash.  Somehow he framed my dad, though it was a thin case the Chevy dealer’s owner declined to prosecute, happy enough to ruin my dad’s name.  I believed my dad.  He wore nice suits, drank a lot socially and rarely ate at home, but I never saw signs of the kind of money alleged embezzled, enough maybe to buy a going beer bar and quit a day job.  I wasn’t inclined to bring my friends to this beer bar, though I recognized the road along the lake.  Besides, Jim and Homer weren’t eighteen yet, which seemed ironic to me because the whole year or so before this while I lived in Wisconsin I regularly hung out at the beer bars with my eighteen year old and older friends without ever being asked for my ID.

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I just seemed we should be going someplace to hold a sit down meeting.  It turned out the meeting occurred in the car as we cruised the county trunk roads around the base of the mountain, listening to the Big 89 on the radio and musing about our alternatives to bring the nuns a Christmas tree.  Snubbing the donor family tree farm put us in a peculiar situation to make good on our resolution to do better.  Jim actually had a part time job and a checkbook but it seemed outlandish to pay money to a Christmas tree lot in town just to prove a principle, even if the lot were operated by the Y, Scouts, or of all things the Knights of Columbus.  No.  Not when the whole river valley at the floor of the mountain was forested and woodsy.  This was the town of timber and lumber and pulp built by guys named Rothchild and DC Everest.  We would find the nuns a tree.  Somewhere.

We brought up a debate about longhair trees vs shorthairs.  We agreed on behalf of the nuns we preferred shorthairs.  What was wrong with the family donor’s trees from the get-go was they were all longhair pines to begin with and after that were so scraggly and mis-shapen they looked more like saguaro cactuses than white or red pines..  Homer said he saw some rows of nice shorthair spruces and firs back at the donor farm and found it hard to get past the concept that the patriarch was too cheap to offer “One freakin spruce.  Just one freakin fir.”

LS came in clearer the deeper we got into the country.  They played a hit from the past summer by Three Dog Night, “Easy to be Hard” from the hot new play called Hair.  It was kind of a sad song that questioned evil and social injustice.  Jim and I were still kicking ourselves for not hitting the road to Woodstock that past August.

The valley was a wallow in trees, all right, but every prospective grove seemed to have houses nearby, too close to risk a heist.  Further off on the backroads — arbitrarily Homer said turn right at a crossroads, so I did — the houses became more sparse, but so did the trees.  The only vehicle on the road, we cruised between plains of pasture land, or maybe crop land, it was all fenced and white in the dark.  There seemed to be more deciduous woods now, bare trees with no leaves sticking up like spears and ptchforks.  At another crossroads Jim suggested we go left, back towards the Little Rib River.  There were crossroads about every mile.  Off across an open plain you couldn’t make out the backside profile of the mountain but you could see the red cherry transmitter.  It never occurred to us we could be lost.  For us there was no lost.

Off to the right a bare field crossed over to a plantation of Christmas trees.  Acres as far as we could see across the night, at least a mile along the road, rows and rows of pines and firs.  Nearer the road the trees looked too small for our desires but deeper away from the road looked promising.  We drove until we finally found a small house set off the road a hundred yards into the trees with a yard light, a big shed, a car and a truck, colored Christmas lights on the porch and smoke from the chimney.  We u-turned around down the road at the next crossroads, cruised by the driveway to the house again and observed no change and kept going until we were confident that the car motor was well out of earshot of the house.

There was no fence to keep us away, and no signs warning against trespass.  That meant they couldn’t shoot us, legally.  I parked the wagon as tight to the plowed shoulder as I could and still be on a steady road surface to make a clean getaway.  Homer collapsed the back seat to expand the station wagon’s carrying capacity and Jim carried the bow saw.  For a moment we paused in the road to savor the succulent silence.

We crossed over the plowed cordillera and descended into a ditch, then rose into the tree plantation and entered three abreast into the grid of trees.  The virgin snow was knee deep with evidence of wild grasses under our boot soles.  There was no moon — the very moon we had visited by proxy with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that past summer was nowhere to light our way.  Instead the stars of the Milky Way dazzled overhead.  The pristine snow looked gray in the perpetual shadow, yet seemed somehow to generate enough ambience for us to see.  We were among the shorthairs — who could tell if they were fir or spruce? — and now it was a matter of which one.  They seemed tall enough.  Jim split from the group and trudged a figure eight around a pair of likely specimens.  Homer followed him around one of them and patted the boughs.  “Okay?” Jim whispered, the first word said since we parked the car.  “Bonum,” Homer replied, and I assented with a sense of relief we were half done with our caper.

Jim got down on his knees and pressed the saw teeth to the trunk.  “No looking back,” he said and began to cut the bark.  Homer for a moment wandered away amid the trees and when he returned he said in a normal voice, “No worries.  You can’t hear nothin’ beyond the next two trees.”  After about fifty saw strokes I took over for Jim.  It took about a hundred and sixty strokes — I subconsciously counted them off by tens.  Homer held it steady through the final stroke and let it fall gently to the snow.  We stood still and listened.  No sound anywhere except our own breathing, steaming in the night.

Jim and I grabbed the base branches, Homer took the top end and we half carried and half dragged our loot back through the grid following our trudge marks in the snow.  There was no way to cover our tracks.  Once more we paused before emerging from the tree farm and we listened to the quiet.  We looked around.  No one behind us.  Nobody waiting for us at the car.  (It was an unspoken great relief to find the car still there.)  We dropped the tailgate and loaded it into the station wagon butt first and it was so tall we had to roll down the rear window for the tip top to stick out.  There was no time to admire the tree in the dome light but at a glance we shared a sense we had outdone ourselves.  With the tree occupying the whole back we had to all three sit in the front, but it was a wide car with a bench seat.  I pulled away cautiously, turned on the headlights and we drove back towards the faint silvery light pollution of the city.

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On the way we chatted nervously, rolled down the windows as long as the rear window was open, and smoked.  The car smelled like coniferus sap and aromatic tobacco.  For the first time we seemed to notice how cold were our fingers and feet and we cranked up the heater.  The Big 89, WLS still played clear.  It was Yvonne Daniels, the first female deejay we ever heard, and she touted the new number one song, “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter Paul and Mary.  It bugged us that none of us could name who wrote the song.  We agreed it wasn’t Bob Dylan — he already did “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, and this song wasn’t cryptic enough or sardonic.  Homer questioned if it might be Gordon Lightfoot but Jim and I thought it wasn’t Lightfoot’s attitude, not pitiable enough, and he’s already covered the topic with “Early Morning Rain”.  We knew Paul Simon would never give away such a song.  Jim knew it wasn’t Phil Ochs, not cynical enough.  Same with Randy Newman.  Not Jimmy Webb — not nearly operatic enough.  It wasn’t Leonard Cohen — too sentimental and not wry enough.  Homer said for sure it wasn’t Muddy Waters.  We had just seen Peter Paul and Mary in concert and at an antiwar rally in Madison just six weeks ago and just somehow we knew it wasn’t written by Peter, Paul, or Mary.  Jim figured we could ask John McCutcheon, our classmate who was a folk singer, or if nothing else he could call the public library reference desk, or he might walk uptown to Bob’s Musical Isle and read the name off the record label, all tomorrow.

This was fifty years ago.  1969.  Today one of us would have pulled out a smartphone and googled the answer before you could say John Denver.

Today a laser security surveillance system would have detected us in the trees, snapped a picture of us from a satellite, relayed an alert to law enforcement and we would be nabbed within a mile.

I remember vividly the starry sky, the endless trudge with the arbor corpus back to the car in the knee deep snow, and most of all the exhilaration — almost ecstasy — of pulling the car around the corner on Bridge Street where the convent put up a life size nativity scene and easing the Olds into the nun’s driveway without being pursued by a police car.  All the way home I feared an Alice’s Restaurant ending.

We presented the tree horizontally at the front door.  Sister Fernanda led us to their main living room where the other nuns were decorating and unpacking lights and ornaments.  I have never seen nuns acting so spontaneously ecstatic and utterly enraptured.  The moment we hauled in the tree all the sisters raved and sighed.  Even Sister Sardinia, the crusty old nun who taught chemistry and still wore the old style habit, practically giddy, cracked such a big smile I didn’t recognize her face.  Sister Fernanda was delirious with joy.  Sister Mark the literary nun sat amused on the sofa in a corner nursing a smoke and a beer and gave us the high sign while we propped the tree into the tree stand waiting in the middle of the room.  Besides the nuns who taught at Newman, the convent housed nuns who taught grade school at nearby St Ann’s and St Matthew’s, so this convent had a couple dozen nuns, most of whom I’d never met.  They called us heroes.  They plied us with Irish hot cocoa and thanked us profusely.  They called it the most beautiful Christmas tree they’d ever seen.  Sister Fernanda proposed a toast and called us her boys.  They couldn’t wait to decorate it.

Then in the midst of the fun — this convent of light and modern ceilings was far different from the severe dark and gothic sobriety of the convent of the Academy of the Guardian Angels in the parish where I grew up, especially this night — Sister Fernanda took us aside and asked if we would mind going back out to get a tree for the high school, the official Christmas tree for the Newman rotunda.

Sure, said Jim as nonchalant as a moviehouse usher, and before either Homer or I could come up with a rationale not to do it we were back on the road heading somewhere vaguely west of town in the nuns’ Oldsmobile wagon.

This time Jim dialed up KAAY Little Rock, a 50,000 watt clear channel station, meaning no other radio station in America could broadcast on the same channel.  It was time for its Bleeker Street show, when this rock station featured music considered avant garde or underground.  The first song we heard was “Eli’s Coming” by Three Dog Night.  Jim suggested it was some kind of sign that it was the second song by Three Dog Night we heard on the radio that night.  Homer said it might be a sign it was going to get colder.  I suggested its meaning might be related to the songwriter, Laura Nyro, who had an album coming out called Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat — just showing Jim wasn’t the only one who hung out at the record shop reading album covers, and I read Billboard magazine.  I was trying to sound scriptural and prophetic.  Though we all knew who Laura Nyro was, none of us had ever heard her sing.  We thought she might be a girl Leonard Cohen, and for all we knew she wrote “Leaving On A Jet Plane”.

Then there was this song called “Venus” by some new group called Shocking Blue.  I’m your Venus, I’m your fire, What’s your desire.  Hard chords.  Singer with an attitude.  Jim called it banal.

What we avoided for a few miles was talking about what kind of karma we were courting to pull off our first heist and now going back a second time.  If we pulled it off, the original tree farm donor family was going to get a lot of credit — which could cast suspicion on us if they ever found out that’s not where we got the trees.  Homer assured us it would never get that far.  He was certain the original donor would gobble the credit and his kids would feel good, and our unsuspecting true benefactor would earn all the cosmic grace.  We agreed no matter what, if we got away with the second tree there was no way we would go back for a third.  It was almost a pact presented to God on God’s terms.

It was easier than I anticipated to find our way back.  Our collective memory and sense of direction led us back to the exact location.  We cruised past the farm house and everything was as it had been before.  We parked at the same location, more or less.  We found the same route into the tree farm grid.  We followed our path to our stump, chose a tree nearby and set about sawing it down.  There was no sense of adventure this time, no savoring the moment, but rather an anxious desire to get it overwith.  On the way out of the grid we stopped more to audit the atmosphere, hypersensitive to the sounds of our own breaths and footfalls.

We loaded the tree, slightly larger than the first one, and shut the tailgate as firmly and quietly as possible and collectively exhaled and looked up at the starry sky, thankful no one was around, no one followed us, no one saw us and no one else was driving along this road.

Suddenly the sky rippled with ribbons of magenta and green shimmers coming from the northern horizon.  Like electrified cirrus clouds blown by a gale force wind these reams of ribbons crossed halfway across the sky and then retreated away into the darkness like an ocean wave leaving the stars to fend for themselves like beach sand.

All three of us said something of a variation of Holy Jesus, Holy God and Holy Sheist.

Aurora Borealis.  The northern lights.  We stood in the road staring, waiting for it to come back.  After about a minute when it didn’t I said I didn’t want to be a downer but we gotta go.

We were so blown away we had nothing to say as we headed towards the red transmitter of Rib Mountain.  When we did resume conversation it centered on reflection on luckiness and living a charmed life.  In truth I was having a life changing feeling.  I paid attention to the side mirrors and watching our speed but I began thinking this night, if it ends well, could mark another start of a whole new life.  What Doc Leary said to me about giving up made me reconsider giving my senior year a serious reevaluation.  This night could be a symbol of the possibilities — not of criminal behavior but adventurous living.  I didn’t need to be a middleman and a buffer between my dad and his pregnant girlfriend while they found their Route 66 to California — man, I had my own problems.  I was between girlfriends and drowning in a sea of celibacy, but that too should pass.  Bleeker Street played a new song by a new band called Led Zeppelin.  It ripped with stuttered, raunchy guitar and drums and the singer was a screamer.  Whole Lotta Love.  Could be.

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Then talk between Jim and Homer took a conspiratorial tone so I turned down the radio and asked what’s up.  “You don’t want to know,” they both said.  I pried.

“You probably didn’t notice when we drove by,” Jim began, “but somebody took the Baby Jesus from the manger at the Newman creche scene.”

“Somebody?” I pressed.  They knew more than they were willing to confide, this I could plainly tell.

“You’re better off not knowing,” said Homer.  “Trust us.”

“They’re keeping it hush hush for now while they conduct an investigation,” Jim explained, he privy to deliberations of the school board.  “Forget what we’re telling you.  They’ve got a few suspects, and let’s just say you might get called in for questioning.  The less you know the better.”

“What?  Who?  When?”

“That’s right,” said Homer, “act just as shocked as you are right now.”

“And appalled,” said Jim.  “They’re going to offer amnesty and mercy if the perpetrator just turns over the little Bethlehem Bambino, like leaves Him on the doorstep of the rectory at St Matt’s.  Personally I think the Kid’ll turn up reunited with Mary and Joe.”

“Christ,” added Homer, “He’s not even due to be born for two weeks.”

“When you look at it,” Jim continued, “Advent just started.  Suspense should be building.  It’s not kosher to put Him out there prematurely.  He’ll show up on time.”

“Thank you Isaiah,” I conceded, “but when it all comes to pass I want to hear the true story.”  I actually never did.

Homer asked if he could be let off at the end of his driveway and he would walk in to House of O’Leary rather than trek all the way back uphill from the convent.  He said he’d had enough hero stuff for one night anyway and we should wish the nuns Merry Christmas on his behalf.  He reminded me to have my dad call his dad.  We dropped him off and left him gazing at the sky watching for the northern lights to return.

Down at the convent the nuns were virtually giddy drinking cocoa and cider and beer and decking out the tree with lights, the gradeschool nuns on ladders, Frank Sinatra singing his Christmas album on the record player, certain nuns singing along in harmony.  A little exhausted from the caper and a little wet and chilled from snow on our jeans, Jim and I were somewhat freaked out and humbled by our fortunate karma and a glimpse of the northern lights.  We agreed to Say Hi and Pet the Dog and get out of there (even though the nuns didn’t have a dog) and not stick around to Play the Role.  When the nuns raved about the new tree, even insofar as kidding about swapping their own for this one, we modestly credited Homer Joe for its selection, turned over the car keys, handed back their bow saw and chugged down our hot cider.  We asked where we might stash the new tree for the night and Sister Fernanda said to just leave it on the porch, no one would steal it, Mr Wilson the custodian would arrange to take it to the school in the morning.  Heralded by joyous thanks we exited as discreetly and unceremoniously as we could.

Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!

As vividly as I remember that night, like a lot of my memoir essays I am not comfortable telling this tale to my grand daughters, at least until they themselves turn eighteen.  I never even told this story to my kids, and they’re both around forty.

Jim walked me about halfway home and then split off to get to his house.  In our conversation he used the word catharsis.  It gave me something to ponder after we split up.  In Jim and Homer’s mind my residence at House O’Leary was foregone.  My mind wasn’t so made up.  Somewhere in the back of my mind the Animals were singing We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.  Coming to live with my dad in Wausau was supposed to be my fresh start, and it was, but the way things went just proved you can start out fresh anytime but it doesn’t mean the outcome won’t go stale, sour or downright rotten.

Dad sincerely tried to make a home for me and my sister Bernadette, who both needed to get away from our mother.  He even married his then girlfriend to give us stable guidance of a stepmom, a brutal mistake — she turned out a severely mean drunk whose evenings spent stewing prone to midnight tirades meant to drive us away so she could have Dad to herself again.  Violent outbursts when she threw things.  Not at all funny it was unbearably sad.  One night I found she put broken glass in my bed.  It didn’t last past Christmas but set the tone for my junior year, my first year at Newman.  I don’t know how Bernadette got such good grades — she went to the public school junior high — but I could barely keep up.  At a time most critical for me to reform my study habits, after just about flunking out of St Bernard’s Academy sophomore year, an academic fresh start at Newman junior year (how hard can it be?) was supposed to stabilize my life and help me fit in.  Instead I could barely think.  There was no place at home stable and quiet enough to study.  I studied on the fly.  Jim and I bonded hanging out nights at the public library.  I read and wrote theme papers at coffee shops.  It helped a little but I was easily distracted in public places.  It was hard to concentrate.

Fresh Start take two after the eviction of Dad’s eventual next ex-wife provided a serenity I didn’t quite know what to do with because with it came the catharsis of freedom.  I substituted my study time with a flourishing social life, especially among the senior class, and with graduates I would meet who were members of the senior classes before that.  I sneaked into the beer bars like Johnny’s and the Shindig and hung out like I always belonged.  I met up with guys for coffee at the Ponderosa on the Avenue.  From the new kid in town in the fall, and a fair target for bullies (I got lucky there, made pals with the alpha boys and the lesser guys fell in line) by springtime I was a popular guy.  With the sway of a charismatic classmate named Kenny who volunteered to be my campaign manager, the smiles of the girls I flirted with, and a lucky glib speech I gave to the student body at an assembly, I was elected to be Student Council President the following, my senior year.  Immediately when I learned I won I regretted it.  All that summer vacation I mentally reconciled my guilt for my ego trip with accepting the responsibility to be an appropriate elected leader of a high school.  All my graduated friends told me to just be myself.  Stay real.  Somehow I knew that was going to be my undoing.

Was I a students’ rights activist?  A radical?  An agitator?  From the outset of the short one week campaign I was warned that the school administration was none too pleased to see my name on the ballot.  My backers hoped I would shake things up, whatever that was supposed to mean — maybe to challenge authority by agitating for meaningful participation of the students in their school government, or just for the sake of stirring up trouble to wig out the establishment.  It was such a simpleton environment, what issues could there be?  I was a known opponent to the Vietnam War, and it was fair to suspect I could potentially infuse the student body of this closely held traditional Catholic high school with inconvenient real world politics.  Given the times, it was inevitable, and I could not help that without denying what precious little I actually believed in, and maybe I was naive and not cautious enough about wearing my beliefs and my disbeliefs on my sleeves.

At home alone again the night of the Christmas tree heists — Bernadette called to say she was staying overnight at her friend Kimberly’s and would go straight to school from there in the morning, and I already knew my dad would be staying at his girlfriend’s — I pondered these things in terms of Fresh Start number what — eighteen?  I was expected to stop by and register with the Selective Service very soon.  The Draft.  At Newman I’d have an automatic high school deferment.  I was considering not registering, of course, and risking prison — it seemed an unnecessary risk.  I was seriously contemplating filing as a conscientious objector, and if that didn’t work there was always asylum in Canada — those things could wait until summer.  The immediate existential plan seemed to call for me to attract as little attention to myself as possible if I were to survive another six months in Wausau.  I could see in retrospect the irony of getting busted for stealing those trees and getting one of those classic sentences for things as petty as throwing a snowball, jail time or join the army.

The school principal never called me into his office to interrogate me about the missing Baby Jesus, but I recalled the last time he did call me into his office to give me a lecture.  It was just after I’d won the election and he wanted to remind me of the responsibilities of the high office and its obligations to right leadership.  His name was Father Francis and my friends and I referred to him as Frankie Lee, after the Bob Dylan song The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.  I can’t say enough about how much he detested me and made me wonder why, from my first interview in his office, he ever allowed me to go to his high school.  He made a point of my transcripts from St Bernard’s showing unfulfilled potential and slack self-discipline.  In his office again eight months later after winning the election he reminded me of the primacy of the Newman Family and made it clear he would not tolerate acts that caused disruption to the Newman House — practically his exact words.  He had a scary look in his eye as he asked if he made himself clear.

The last time I went voluntarily to Frankie Lee’s office was in May my junior year, after the election but just before summer break.  I was asking him to sign off on my application to take an English class at the local UW extension (The Stench) that summer.  Since I was still in high school I needed my principal’s recommendation to take a college course.  Father Francis wouldn’t sign.  He said I wasn’t academically ready to take a college course, pointing out my junior year grades had barely improved over my sophomore transcripts from St Bernard’s.  The bad part about it was I went away agreeing with him, I doubted I was ready to take a college English class.

For about twenty four hours.  But instead of standing up for myself and fighting to prove him wrong and assert my right to get educated, I just let it slide.

And here I was, on the verge of putting Frankie Lee and the whole Newman experience behind me to go off to the promised land of southern California for a fresh Fresh Start, probably even go to public school, maybe learn some conversational Spanish and get to go to the beach in January.

Dad meant well when he sent me to Newman.  He thought I would fit in with the Newman curriculum (from what he heard) since I had already been schooled in private Catholic education and was accustomed to it.  I figured at least Newman was a co-ed school, a step in the right direction — St Bernard’s was an all-male school.

I could say adios to Frankie Lee and consider a Christmas tree his going away present.  Get in the car with Dad and his girlfriend — she had a name, Joyce, which Dad would sometimes pronounce Jerce when he was imitating a Las Vegas mobster from New Jersey — ride cross country in Joyce’s Impala pulling a U-Haul trailer setting off into the sunset with my sister into a complete unknown, it was my choice.

It came back to what Doc Leary said about not finishing.  Fresh Start for Fresh Start, there had to be a clean finish before starting again.  I even thought I owed it to my dad to stay behind, to give him some privacy, some room to get his own life together without worrying about me.  It might do me some good to live in a regular household with a normal family, doing chores, peeling potatoes and eating home cooking.  I was touched that my friends cared about me.  I felt I owed them loyalty.  They needed me, more than my dad or Joyce or my sister, though I could not figure out why.

Eventually we would go our separate ways when high school was over.

Now we shared a bond compacted by the nuns’ Christmas trees, a good deed done committing a bad deed, something we could never brag about, something that canceled itself out like both sides of one of Sister Fernanda’s math equations.

If I stayed to finish the school year I could still plan to go out to California after graduation, after the new baby was born and Dad and Joyce and Bernadette got settled.

I could get revenge on Frankie Lee, kill him with kindness, be a respectable representative of the student body, prove him wrong about me and straighten out my transcripts, my permanent record.  Community college was free in California.

As I mused to sleep that night I drifted into mental Christmas songs.  Not so much the ones the nuns played by Frank Sinatra on their stereo, but sung by a full-lunged choir.  I liked Silent Night, Holy Night except the line that goes Holy Infant so tender and mild — it sounded like a line from a cigarette commercial, or worse, suggested that the baby would taste good to cannibals.

So I turned to that song about comfort and joy.  Comfort and joy!  Comfort and joy!  Tidings of comfort and joy.

Just before I fell asleep, though, my mind lapsed into Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Good Bye.

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BK

Trump’s Devils Advocate

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We love President Donald J Trump.

It’s okay that he lies.  Lies strengthen our national security.  Lies boost the economy.  Every lie he tells is really a parable for all the myths everyday people believe to get through the day.  He lies to cover up the corruption required to sustain the lavish lifestyles envied by all of us who want to be like him.  He lies like everybody wants him to lie so everybody can lie and get away with it.  If real events can be fake news then lies can be true.  Every great leader lies in his own time for the sake of posterity.

We approve his collusion with Russia.  America has been a needless adversary far too long.  Both countries share white cultures and an abundance of gas and oil.  If our armies merged we would be a force to reckon with.  Russians have rich traditions Americans should respect.  There is nothing wrong with oligarchy if it uplifts society.  Authoritarianism keeps order in an undisciplined world.  Meddling in our elections?  America’s been messing with Russian politics for decades with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe stirring dissent.  Russians have explained there is no such thing as democracy.  Freedom of speech under the First Amendment applies.

He did nothing wrong with Ukraine.  Crimea and Ukraine are breakaway provinces of natural Russia.  The core hoax here is the Deep State Trump is disassembling is propping up the wrong side, and this is how he will remake the State in his image when he righteously ends funding for the corrupt Ukraine regime against reformist Russia.  As President of the United States, Trump is empowered by the Constitution to set foreign policy.  He can’t be impeached for doing his job.

Climate change and global warming are all part of God’s Plan, and politicians and government bureaucrats got no business trying to interfere.  America is blessed with natural resources that should be utilized for man’s pursuit of happiness, as our national creed so says.  Carbon keeps the lights on.  Trump understands the modern industrial age and refuses to sacrifice our exceptional standard of living to keep coal in the ground or regulating natural spillways.

We admire his aggression with the opposite sex.  We want a man in charge who isn’t shy about ripping a bodice to take what he wants.

We love the First Lady.  She is the sluttiest girl in the White House since Marilyn Monroe.  Son Barron isn’t in the public eye because he isn’t really Trump’s kid.  He’ll soon disappear, adopted by his real (Russian) father as soon as the public forgets he exists.

Trade wars are vital to balancing the power of global commerce.  Inflicting economic pain on competitors is what trade is all about.  In America it will accrue efficiencies in production and delivery in cutthroat global trade as American firms gear up.  First, Americans have to believe they will not pay tariffs on imported goods, and then when the tariffs show up on the price tag they will have to demand non-tariff goods produced in America, and that’s where more American workers get jobs.  More jobless will have no choice but get jobs or get cut off welfare.  Small inefficient farms will have to consolidate, band into corporations or cease operation as the agricultural subsidies go away and agribusinesses adjust to the new world markets.  Inefficient farmers should find other professions.  Unemployment is the lowest in fifty years.  President Trump makes sure the working class knows its place and he’ll keep them in their place as long as he’s in charge.

The border wall is a wonderful idea.  Migrants illegally trespass on our sovereign soil.  They are squatters on our sacred land.  They steal our jobs and commit crimes, spread drugs, taint our census, corrupt our culture and fraudulently vote in our elections.  Their claims of asylum are bogus ploys to grab our purses and take liberties they did not earn and don’t deserve.  Just like prisons should be hellholes nobody should want to end up, our illegal immigrant detention centers should be designed to make offenders wish they never left home.  Trump’s wall tells intruders to stop right there and turn back.  It keeps out the riffraff.  They affect our gene pool and Trump recognizes the need to rebalance our population with citizens compatible with American born values.  We shall not be replaced.

The Republican Party needs him because without him they have nothing credible to offer as the alternative to permissive liberal philosophy.  Without Donald Trump they’re sissies, they have no courage.  They cannot articulate coherent arguments to debate liberals on the merits of public policy.  Without Donald Trump they don’t know what they’re doing.

Donald Trump is the most savvy man on the planet, the most suitable leader of the century.  He has vision and he sees himself as the avatar of his vision.  He envisions America the champion of the world in all things mighty and righteous.  He sets the example of the strong man who takes charge.  He inspires men to be like him and admires men like himself who also recognize the need to assert leadership over nations in chaos, or would be in chaos if not for strong authority.  He is a gifted orator.  His financial acumen makes him a business genius.  He knows how to apply tax laws and leverage assets, and how to use bankruptcy as a means to make more money, and thus entitles him to negotiate against the world for trade in commodities, equities, technology, agricultural products, cosmetics and fashion, gas and petroleum, mining and chemistry, aviation, steel and real estate.  He knows how to move money where it counts.  In the world of diplomacy he has made allies of former enemies.  He has embraced the Arab Muslim world with the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt.  He talks turkey with Turkey.  (The Kurds are in the way.)  He got serious with Syria.  He promises to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute with a real estate development plan.  He taught the dictator of North Korea civil manners.  He has earned greater respect from China.  He has made the Ayatollah of Iran know there’s no room for doubt.  And Trump has at long last reached across the Bering Strait and over the squabbles of Europe to make peace with an ex enemy we coexist with like long lost brothers, whose future partnership should guide future history of the human race, our new friend with whom we have more in common than most people think, Russia.  Donald Trump knows.

Christian evangelical voters most of all should recognize Donald Trump as an enabler to the work of the Hand of God.  It’s only a matter of time when he can pack the Supreme Court with justices who will put the Ten Commandments and other historical monuments back on the courthouse lawns and allow states rights again to legislate reproduction and God’s Word.  If it’s God’s Will that America prospers at the behest of its abundant natural resources then there’s no one more in favor to go at it than President Donald J Trump.  If climate change and global warming are part of God’s Plan, then mankind is not meant to interfere.  If natural disasters occur more frequently and more severely, causing famines, floods and wildfires, there’s nothing science can do to change it.  If small local wars and feuds, along with natural disasters, disrupt populations and strand migrants, you can look it up in Scripture, the poor will always be with us.  Add this up with the intense frequency of social unrest all around the world, and look at volcanoes erupting, and earthquakes burying towns, viral plagues, starvations, drug addictions and overdoses, all the air strikes, missile launches, terrorist bombs, the brink of nuclear war, when you add it up we could be looking at the End Times.

Either way, you only get one life so you might as well get all you can out of it while you can, and that’s Donald Trump’s philosophy for America.  He’s done nothing wrong.  He knows how to evade the law.  He expects the same for every man.  He justifiably superseded military command as commander in chief to pardon unjust military convictions to tell the rank and file troops he will support them if they must break ranks to support him in the event of insurrection.  He will not be convicted of Impeachment because America needs him to run for re-election.  If you look forward to the End Times, when the planet virtually implodes and Judgement Day comes and the woes of this world cease, and mankind emerges in eternal resurrection, then Donald J Trump is your elected Antichrist.

 

 

 

BK

Life on Erf

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Sometimes I lose sight there’s around eight billion people in this world.  Only about five and a half million reside within my geographic region, somewhere in the central northern midsection of North America, a small and obscure territory equally colonized by eastern assets and west coast mass media.  The city where I live, which has a 19th Century made-up name, has barely a population of half a million, but the metropolitan area all around makes up about three and a half million residents.  I have to stop and think, that’s peanuts compared to Mexico City.

There’s estimated to be 258 million people classified as migrants on the planet right now, people not living in the country where they were born, about 3.2 percent of the world’s population.  That’s about 29 Mexico Citys.  Or 28 Tokyos.  30 New York Citys.  516 times the size of my home town.

We talk about a small world.  That’s a lot of people, and if they ever got together in one territory they would make up a formidable force.  Like a big fierce mondo mega Israel.

From my perspective, an American baby boomer from the virtual boomdocks, there”s always an elegant solution to things hiding in plain sight.  Common sense is supposed to dictate a reasonable outcome.  Where I come from we try to learn from mistakes, and we learn to try not to make mistakes.  Maybe we are less risky, or just less frisky.

The culture where I live has learned from historical mistakes such as slavery and aboriginal genocide and come out a 21st Century hybrid of restorative backlash and no true forgiveness, but it can be a start towards healing and creating a just tomorrow.

In some ways, my culture employs doubletalk to avoid confrontation and at the same time uses it to make a point passive aggressively.  This is how we get along around here where I live.

The world all around generates frightful news.  Does this mean information is now being known and communicated around the planet more comprehensively than at any other time in human history, allowing that upheavals, mayhem and catastrophe, evil and injustice occurred all the time, all along, as they say largely unreported?  Underreported.  Global media truly democratizes information even as it spreads misinformation and disinformation at the same time, it offers equal opportunity storytelling and factual assertions into the atmosphere of knowledge.  Facts can be verified.

News of the battles of the Greco-Persian War probably never crossed the minds of citizens within the Wall of China or living under the Gupta Empire of India.  It took almost two millennia to uncover forgotten Pompeii.  It used to take years and years of anthropology and archaeology to uncover and piece together the past history of humans on this planet in the context of the planet’s own age, when nobody we know was around to witness dynamic cataclysms forming the earth before people had language to describe its beauty and its terrors.

Now practically every soul on earth can know about an earthquake in Japan, or even near Tehran.  The wildfires of Australia and California.  The flood of Venice.  Hurricanes.  Where disaster strikes somebody records and reports it.  It gets repeated and everybody knows.  If they want.  Some Chinese couldn’t still care less about the Greco-Persian War, but they might be interested in contemporary events occurring in that region of the world.  It’s amazing how much access people have to information in real time.  It’s hard to believe today that Hitler’s Nazi regime was able to keep the Holocaust hush hush only eighty years ago.  A hundred years and on, Armenians grieve genocide at the hands of the Ottomans.  Rohingya perish in Burma.

Today everyone’s smart phone records and transmits dispatches sent from around the world.  We’re seeing riots in Hong Kong, Baghdad and La Paz over unfulfilled political expectations.  It’s as though people have more democracy than they know what to do with, like guns in America, more freedom than they can handle.  I’m being facetious.  Watching countries fall, collapsing from within from civil discord over fundamental rights and basic needs, is a sad sight.  It was horrifying to be able to witness ISIS atrocities proudly touted on social media, or the massacre at the mosque at a place named, of all things, Christchurch.  Ironies abound.

Mass communication exposes secret detention/reeducation campuses for Uigars in western China.  Contradictions between authoritarians and libertarians govern traffic on the information super highway.  What a Middle American pedestrian observer might interpret as the End Times, Antichrists abundant.  Except that’s been said before.

What you can say and get away with in this world relies on who isn’t listening.  Audience prevention poses a significant challenge.  It’s hard enough to come up with something interesting to read much less squeeze between censors and curators, moderators, compliance auditors, trolls and squealers, between the lines.  This comes from an American blogger who writes from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  It ain’t easy being free or brave.  Our Constitution guarantees our right to remain silent or anything we say may be used against us in a court of law.  That seems fair.  I enjoy this space on the internet by the grace of the worldwide web and don’t take for granted this risk.

There’s this local woman who runs a shelter and soup kitchen called Sharing and Caring Hands.  Her name is Mary Jo Copeland and she finances the place without any government assistance.  This time of year they run their fundraising spiel on TV and radio with her narration, and she says, “To the world you might be only one person.  But to that person you might be the world.”

That makes no sense.  And yes it does.

It amazes me whenever this website gets hits from outside North America.  I think of my work as colloquial.  Neoprovincial.  Quasi-primitive.  Its quality hardly qualifies for national attention, although 77% of my readers are in the United States.  Beyond the borders, Canada and Mexico account for around 6% each, not surprising, being neighbors, as I’ve written specifically about Mexico’s hospitality and Canadians who winter down there.  What shocks me is that almost 2% of my readers are in China.  It isn’t so much my doubt that Chinese readers might care about the musings of a proletarian shlub seven thousand miles away, it’s more a wonder that my content gets past their censors, given at any time in any essay I might sympathize with citizens of Hong Kong, criticize President Xi or Chairman Mao, or grieve for Tiananmen Square, or as I mentioned earlier the roundup and detention of Uighurs.  2% of all readers to me is much more than a few assigned moderators just checking me out on behalf of the Central Committee.  This leaves me both amazed to get through the Chinese Firewall and to have actually interested a bunch of Chinese readers.

More readers than in the UK, which surprises me because I have higher readership expectations, or wishes, from the land of my language than a meager 1.4%, even when you throw in a handful of hits from Ireland.  Not that I’ve ever written more than a few lines about John Lennon, or argued against Brexit, marveled at Stonehenge, praised the National Gallery or testified to kicking the wall at Galway Bay.

Astonishing to me are the numbers from Brazil and India, which rank sixth and seventh in readers.  One is the biggest single entity of South America and the other the most populous democracy in the world, both nearly inscrutable to my neocolonial education, and both critical crucibles of social, political, economic and environmental conditions in the 21st Century.  What am I saying that would possibly interest them?

More than France and Spain, which round off the top 9 at nine.  France I get because they are French and not beholding to anyone, and guys who think they love Paris are a europenny a dozen.  Lately they’ve been reading the essays about Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, so maybe they’ll turn up in Mexico this winter with the Quebecois — who needs another rhapsody in English about how cool is the Musee D’Orsay?  As for Spain, anyplace in the world with Madrid and Barcelona both in the same country though miles and miles apart can be excused for ignoring the naive gibberish of an American tourist facing Guernica, Las Meninas, and Sagrada Familia for the first time, but there are readers of mine by the dozens.

The top ten is closed by Indonesia, almost half of one percent of the total, just less than Spain.  This really intrigues me.  Why Indonesia?  What appeal does a confessional white American urban senior citizen ranting about newspaper delivery have for somebody living in the South Seas 9,000 miles away?

The analytics provided by my platform host tell me what country my readers come from but can’t tell me exactly where or who they are.  Some search criteria used to find me is available but sometimes not.  I see what gets read — or at least viewed.  I know nothing about the visitors except if they comment or make contact.  To date I have been read in 50 countries.

Several of those countries are onesies and twosies.  There are curious smatterings from places like Israel, Pakistan, Germany, Sweden, South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy, Uganda, Russia, South Korea and Singapore.  Among the one-timers are Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and Poland — what attracted them in the first place and why they haven’t returned I don’t know.

With 195 countries in this world, my blog has made an impression in at least a quarter of them.  Not bad for a nobody from nowhere.  (With nothing to say, you might add.)  By the numbers most are from the rich world, but there is no way to know if they are in fact rich, and of the economically marginal countries whether the readers are, but I hope you all enjoy rich imaginations.

Most of the countries you can think of where no one has read this blog are places preoccupied with other issues such as daily survival, even among the country’s elite.  This man’s message resonates not at all to a citizen of Congo, I imagine.  Then again, I’m amazed somebody in Tajikistan found me.  Somebody from Bangladesh.  Azerbaijan.  There are issues with access to the worldwide web in places my blog has never been — either sparse networks, little mass technology (if you can imagine) and prioritized usage — or else content is regulated and blocked.  It’s no surprise to see no readers from Syria or Iran.  Burma or North Korea.  It hurts my feelings there’s never been a reader from Switzerland; the country is a cute little benevolent police state, but I don’t think I’m being blocked, just ignored.  There’s never been a reader from Latvia either and I don’t take it personally.  Same with Norway, a place where a significant number of migrants who settled my region came from.  I’ve never had a reader in Somalia even though the largest Somali refugee migrant population in the United States is literally in my neighborhood, so it’s possible a Somali might be a reader here in my home town, where a Somali refugee immigrant naturalized citizen represents us in the US House of Representatives.

Small world.

In the time it took Philippides, the messenger who ran the 26.2 miles to Athens to deliver the news the Persians lost the battle at Marathon and the Greeks won, about 24 billion messages course the worldwide web.  In the time it took Roland to carry the good news from Ghent to Aix, all the cable networks and news apps, blogs and even some print media will have reported the news, discussed it, analyzed it, investigated it and several You Tube and podcast productions will ensue.  And in the time it took Sheridan’s ride to Cedar Creek, by the time Sheridan was twenty miles away a joint air strike and infantry counterattack inspired by satellite and drone imagery, delivered with surgical precision, would have rendered the rebels toast, and by Sheridan’s arrival he would be briefed about the battle’s aftermath and mop up operations.  Paul Revere’s Ride?  They’re coming.  Click.

We live in interesting times.  Interesting long as I can remember.  Those who decried, history is finished — what a terrible conceit.  We live on the cuttingest edge of history.  The blade is a sharp laser and we seem to wield it like a guillotine.  Like a stone axe.

Every epic Greek play, all the dramas of Shakespeare, the plots of great literature and themes of classic cinema are taking place every day in real life on this planet.  All the world’s classical expressions of cultural foment and honor are simultaneously occurring in the societies of humans abundant in this world.  Even the origin stories play themselves over and over.

For all we know, and all we don’t know, for all the knowledge collected over millennia and by the minute, humanity has no excuse for its behavior towards itself in the furtherance of life on this planet.  In this age of interesting times we should all know better than to corrupt our survival with mutually destructive acts of war, inhumanity and flagrant demolition of the environment, engaging in practices sure to kill us all.

Maybe all at once, but most likely we’ll snuff out slowly over agonized generations unless the consensus of power that determines the socioeconomic systems employed by human institutions pays attention to the trends it is creating now for its future generations.  It could begin with consideration of the 250 or so million migrants, the ones in camps and the diasporas on the fringes of the rich world, and those millions of lives disrupted by violence, terror, war, persecution and the threat of death, who chose escape instead.  They live among us in the shadows, the ones who get prayed for on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays.  Our criminally homeless.  Our refugees.  If these people are created out of the conditions manufactured by our power structure, then the power structure owes itself accountable to address the causes as well as humanely remedy the effects of migration.  The young adults and the kids, what is to become of their lives if they ever get out?  With their homelands destroyed there may be no reason to go back.  Will they find homes and community, jobs and trades or remain outcasts and shadows in our slums?  A generation of insurgents or new leaders towards better society?

When one addresses these, the least of the well off of the human race, one sees straight into these interesting times.  The wars in the Middle East, western Asia and all over Africa push migrants towards Europe.  Why not dream big?  Central Americans chased from their homelands by gangster cartels as ruthless as ISIS or persecuted by a government as repressive as Assad like to come to the USA for the same reason.  These refugees are poor but they’re not dumb.  They see Hollywood.  Bollywood.  Disney World Orlando.  Disney Paris.  Most refugees end up encamped in nearby countries as poor as their own or face segregation from any mainstream societies in compounds away from the capitals of the EU, but they have found a form of safety and now depend on hope that this camp might be one step into a good life and not the end of the line permanently.

It isn’t always war and political persecution.  Sometimes it’s natural disaster and famine.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, monsoons, floods and wildfires drive migration, and for the most part there’s little human societies can do but have contingency plans.  Bad governments can make matters worse, both with indifferent response and malfeasant resource management.

Whatever the reason, these castaways of civilization personify the disparity of living conditions on this planet.  It’s not helpful when societies block their own gateways into the good life, one of the lessons learned by now.

Thus poverty is perpetuated through stigma.  Revolt under such circumstances is inevitable.  And violent resistance is futile.  Eventually the conflicts prove fatal.  Time and again young students take up the voices of the stigmatized and are shut down by the power of the state.  There’s no sign yet that the autocrats, oligarchs and plutocrats are thinking through their approach to governing masses of people and designing democratic institutions and rules of law to be justly applied to everyone so the institutions live on to serve and protect future generations.  No sign of dictators stepping aside anytime soon.  Signs of more Tiananmen  Squares appear more likely.

This observation comes from an American participant in the era of social unrest known as the Sixties, the mommy of all modern social disruption and the template for every contemporary mass movement worldwide that involves public demonstrations and civil disobedience.  Sometimes I think the rest of the world is having its Sixties.  In America we had race riots burning whole sections of cities, and antiwar protests that got out of hand and ended up not so peaceful.  Historians attribute the source of the protest attitude of the Sixties to French radicals at universities in Paris, but the American black civil rights marches actually set the protocol for every mass demonstration in this world ever since.  That there’s ample evidence the civil rights rallies and peace marches actually worked, or at least had an effect on the outcomes desired, can only offer hope to citizens everywhere who want to made themselves seen and heard taking a stand for democracy, human rights and justice.  From an insider’s view, however, after half a century pondering results measured by social change, mass outpourings of mobs in the streets, day after day, will eventually push any regime past its tipping point and it will do whatever is necessary to restore order and enforce its will.  Since the 1960s in America more profound means of communication have been devised to demonstrate outrage and influence public opinion.

Yes, it’s a beautiful thing when millions of people assemble in peace at places like the Mall in Washington DC on a special day to praise virtues, extol liberty and justice and brag about the exceptional qualities of democratic ideals.  Then everybody has to back to work, back to school, back to friends and families, back into the day to day stuff of their communities and practice what it is they hold so dear they spent a day at a public square celebrating with a bunch of like minded people.

Angry mobs don’t bode well for anybody within miles of the epicenter of the anger.  Mobs who create riots and wreck property and bait the police have no business asserting political demands in the name of others who may even express similar opinions.  What is it this fascination with setting tires on fire?  Inciting riots isn’t leadership.  It surrenders all negotiating collateral.  It breaches terrorism.

Of course you have to have at least a semblance of civil society to experience civil protests and demonstrations.  There are outlying regions of the world where a band of rogues with guns determines who says what and how much.  There isn’t much internet there, and whoever might have it probably are the ones with the guns.  In denser outlying societies where you don’t see mass demonstrations it’s because there is no coherent government to protest against.  In many places the territory is contested between this or that militia, or this or that cartel.  You protest these dudes you disappear.  It’s when thugs like these take over mobs in the cities who are parts of organized protests against government policies and turn the public campaign into armed insurrection with car bombs and suicide vests that all hell breaks loose.  There are a lot of civil wars going on in this world right now.

Small world indeed.

The contagion of armed conflict contradicts assertions attributed to the Better Angels of human nature that global violence is declining.  (Steven Pinker.)  Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate with an elitist pose to pessimize.   With the speed of light on the wordwide web incitement to commit mass homicide spreads faster than can be rationally contained.  The means of mass destruction are within the grasp of bathtub chemists.  There may not be enough good will in this world to deter a podge of zealots from sacrificing lives like yours and mine to project their domination.  Where’s the democracy in that?

Gradually undermining even the most elected regimes and furtively sabotaging the most fiendish authoritarian is the human impact on the planet’s ecology and effects on climate change.  Notable for its deplorable exceptionalism, the government of the United States backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 which commits nations to reduce the atmospheric release of carbon emissions to forestall global warming.  America in effect is saying to the rest of the world’s 194 countries who signed the agreement, nope, it can’t be done, don’t bother to try.  America, who used to pride itself leader of the free world, now admits to leading the way for perfectly unrestrained carbon waste, as if pledging to do the exact opposite of the Paris goals.  The president calls climate change due to global warming a hoax perpetrated by the fake news media who are the enemies of the people, and people believe him.  It seems so Soviet.  None of his followers seems to care about the consequences of ignoring the scientific data and instead of continuing to regulate and restrict emissions go ahead and loosen existing limits as if to double down on the right to pollute.  If America doesn’t care, why should India, or Ghana?

Official policy favors the coal, oil and gas — fossil resource — industries, as well as heavy metal extraction.  From petroleum we get plastics, and from plastics the oceans are forming small continents of accumulated waste.  The results of anybody who guiltlessly tossed a Bic lighter overboard thinking, oh well, it’s just one.  We who heat our homes with natural gas really have little choice in the market for fuel except perhaps electricity often generated with the assistance of fossil fuel.  For the sake of the planet would you believe it if the coal, oil and gas industries divested in extraction to invest in futuristic energy technology and gradually put itself out of business?  Proven fossil fuel reserves prove irresistible to dig, tap and pump.  Whole corrupt oligarchies control the supplies, and you and I are the demand.

In Minnesota, the state where I live, a couple of international mining conglomerates want to operate copper and nickel mines.  This region is famous for iron ore mining that made steel mills rich the past century, and today there are immense proven seams of copper and nickel under the dense woods.  The problem is, the mining of copper and nickel pollutes the soil all around the mines and will poison the surrounding lakes and rivers of a pristine wilderness watershed along the border with Canada and other waterways leading to Lake Superior.  Besides the mining companies who want the copper and nickel and other associated rare metals, there are towns in the vicinity of a few thousand residents each who want mining jobs at all cost.  Opponents of the mines favor the environmental impact.  The federal deregulators are pushing mining.  The state is delaying the permits pending further impact studies.  Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, and thanks to urbanization and agriculture there are several bodies of water less than pure, shall we say.  Exceptions of purity are found in the far northern reaches like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which will be ruined by mining.  The trickle down effect will flow through the whole St Lawrence Seaway eventually.  This may not matter at all to residents of Cleveland or Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie, but Superior is still the cleanest of the North American Great Lakes, and that matters to Canada and should matter to everybody.

When my wife and I travel we get asked where we’re from, and when we tell them, hardly anybody who isn’t American (or Canadian) seems to be able to visualize where it is on a map.  Is it near Orlando, Florida?  I place us in the middle of the US, up north near the border with Canada.  The source of the Mississippi River, if that helps.  The western shore of Lake Superior, if anybody knows the Great Lakes.

From this vantage I worry about the fate of the world.  The future relies on courageous leaders who can articulate the sense of doing the right thing and persuade people to support actions to make the right things prevail.  Ideas need to keep flowing freely so the good ones catch on.  Ideologies need to be questioned, merged and transcended for the greater good.  Laws must be just and justly applied.  Democracy must be the lifeblood of human rights.  War and crime must be abolished.  Global trade should be free.  Public health is a human right, along with public education.  Shelter — gimme shelter.  And every means necessary should be directed towards mitigating global warming, climate change and the adverse impact human civilizations have on the ecosphere.  It’s complicated.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said the other day he expects deforestation of the Amazon rain forest to continue.  “Deforestation and fires will never end,” he said.  “It’s cultural.”

O que?  What?  Whose culture is it promotes the destruction of its own habitat?  And if there is something cultural about Amazon deforestation, it’s the duty of the cultural leaders to change that aspect of the culture.  No, more than likely Senhor Bolsonaro sides with interests who don’t give a shit about the Amazon forest except to generate fast cash in the here and now, and there’s a culture for that too.

Sorrier yet, if Bolsonaro is right then it’s almost genetic proof that humanity is ultimately self-destructive.  If enough people accept that then it’s really all a countdown to catastrophe.  If all we can expect of our political leaders is crashes and clashes it’s a hopeless loop to a death spiral.  Even a president who believes climate change from global warming is bullshit ought to at least wink the other way and go along with the Paris Accords just to play along just in case it works.

In reality, as the warming of the globe continues and the weather and effects of natural elements get nastier, the poor will suffer first and suffer the worst.  They already live in some of the world’s crappiest neighborhoods, they’ll be the first swallowed when the tides rise, burned when the fires ignite and buried in the landslides.  The poor already live near garbage piles and rivers of open sewage, they will be the first to be sickened by toxins awash in floods.  When the land cracks from drought they will be the first to starve from the famines.  They’ll be the most killed when the factions take up arms to grab the nice real estate and seize resources.  Eventually the poor who want to migrate will have nowhere to go, stranded.

And believe it or not, even the not-poor will be inconvenienced.

Eight billion of us.  On Planet Earth.  Spread around the globe.  Densely populated in places, and some places sparse.  195 nations.  Over six thousand spoken languages.  Eight billion individuals.  Members of families.  Neighborhoods.  Towns.  Cities.  Everybody part of a region.  Eight billion human beings, all as conscious as you and me.  People.

Somehow in the six to twelve thousand years of evolving consciousness, the human race has developed the will to employ communications skills to establish social treaties to bond populations who hardly know each other with philosophies instead of coercion.  Never before have the world’s people been linked intellectually.  This is why I say we know better than to behave otherwise.  As we say in America, ignorance of the law is no excuse.  Everybody in this world can know everything there is to know.  Can know.  The encyclopedia of the universe is everywhere.  Yes, there are several reaches of the planet without broadband but these places are identifiable and will infill its technology sooner than later and even today can access satellites.  2.45 billion people — roughly 30% of the world’s people — use Facebook.  Alibaba has 617 million customers, Amazon 310 million.  Google gets 5.6 billion searches per day.  This day and age is a knowledge junkie’s dream.  Interesting times?  And yes, my vantage is from an obscure and prosperous ivy tower sheltered in the rich world of freedom and democracy, whereas there are places where the internet and its content is restricted, denied, blocked and shut down, not exactly the worldwide web.  This is an era of murdered journalists, arrests of publishers and shutdowns of newsrooms among mainstream information carriers to control information, and even in my USA the mass media gets called the enemies of the people and their reporting called fake by the nation’s president.  Meanwhile the permissible open channels of internet communication are manipulated to offer misinformation.  Yet, as the X Files used to say, the truth is out there.

Way back in the Sixties, people of my generation took on the establishment to end war, hunger, racism, sexism and pollution of the natural environment, and to promote peace, justice and democracy in the world.  And legalize marijuana.  It feels wrong to admit we lost.  After all, if it’s not a zero sum game the game isn’t over.  OK Boomer, you might say.  Hope you mean it because it’s hard not to feel bad that my generation didn’t all by itself accomplish every single solution it set out for, making a world worth bringing new generations of people.  It isn’t fair to pass this world to a new generation without some preparatory guidance, like passing the queen of spades without at least one other spade.  It is fair to accept and take seriously young emerging leaders.  Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, is around the same age as two of my granddaughters, to whom I have to answer for their cultural inheritance.  I’d like them to see I agreed with Greta Thunberg long before she was even born and this awareness of environmental concern is not sudden and new, not granpa being hip and fitting in.  Stylin’.

Wherever, whenever in this world they have a Sixties I hope it goes well.  So many times, like with the Arab Spring and Tiananmen, things turn out the opposite.  It helps when demonstrators demonstrate the responsibility to govern themselves with civil behavior, even in the face of taunts and especially under pressure from radical tempers.  Don’t fall for the old We Want The World And We Want It Now, especially if it’s in ALL CAPS.  It shows commitment to want something bad enough to want it right away, and changes and trends can happen in a minute, yet democracy and liberty are a long outlook.  Short and finite outcomes of behavior lead into threads and networks involving long lasting outcomes, affecting social change organically and not by rule of gun or guillotine.  Anarchy is like a vacuum in physics, and nature abhors a vacuum.

For my part I am sorry my generation didn’t solve all the world’s problems so the next generations couldn’t inherit the Earth on cruise control, all wrapped in a blanket and a bow, nothing to do but enjoy this beautiful planet, eat apples and pray thanks.  We tried.  We gave you MTV and the Eagles.  Sorry.  Bush and Cheney instead of Al Gore.  Alas but don’t tell me you resent handheld computers.

More than half the world’s people have access to a mobile device, pad or smartphone.  That includes children.  66%.  In theory that’s a lot of democracy.  A lot of informed citizens.  Social literacy.  This is what will drive future human interaction to get along for the sake of the planet, the greater good.

What has always bothered me about the Star Wars movies is the wars never end, the evil empire always seems to dominate the universe and the good guys and the jedi forever fight for survival.  It was long long ago and far far away, and here we are on Earth still blowing each other up.

Widespread personal communication made possible by the worldwide web is the next way towards international understanding, the spreading of the stories of the human condition.  Some of the stories are going to be lies.  Self-serving lies.  The answers back will bespeak truth.  Sometimes the lies awaken awareness of the liars.  Nobody knows if there’s enough intellectual savvy among users of social media to tell real hoaxes from fake ones.  There’s a learning curve in all this, but it seems that a lot of good can come from watching You Tube to learn how to repair your own wash machine.  Freedom of access both ways on the worldwide web in theory should never be denied on the grounds of the same as the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, freedom of speech.  In practice there is a slippery slope of exceptions which only specially interested fringe groups support but most of society don’t mind seeing banned, like child pornography, human trafficking, terrorism and hate crime.  The censorship and banning of ideas is wrong.  The trafficking of humans via the internet is wrong but discussing the ideas of human trafficking on the internet might be right but isn’t wrong.

Governing regimes who block internet access have something to hide.  In Iran I can’t believe it’s only about gasoline subsidies that citizens have taken to the streets for.  My mind says there’s something more on their minds, but the internet has been shut down, no word out or in about their civil condition.

There are some longtime international and internecine feuds that someday will have to be set aside for the greater good of the world order.  The place to argue, accuse and reconcile is on the internet.

The species has a great chance right now to own up to its obligation to steward the planet, as it claims, and to gin up enthusiasm among its people to take measures to stabilize the temperature from warming due to human carbon pollution, just for starters.

The meeting place of the minds is the internet.  One of the characteristics of intelligence in our species is that we don’t just have brains, we have minds.  If allowed to think our way through these interesting times we could confront the eternal demons which torment the human race and examine the mysteries of our hearts searching for something we already belong to bigger than ourselves, a world we can barely pronounce.

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BK

 

Trump Tower Looks Like Shit on TV

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A few years ago — it seems longer — before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, I happened to visit Trump Tower.  My great nephew Hogan’s high school choir toured New York City and sang at various public venues, including the vast pink marble atrium at Trump Tower Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.  Hogan’s mother, a couple of my sisters, Roxanne and I all went to New York to hang out and to catch the choir at some of their gigs.

If not for Hogan’s choir I would have never thought to set foot in Trump’s Tower.  Years before he was president he accrued a reputation as a sheister, cheater, deadbeat con man, and this 58 story monument to the guy’s overpimped ego seemed like a waste of valuable Manhattan time.  There’s so much else to dig about New York City, why not walk the Brooklyn Bridge, visit the Metropolitan Museum or ramble through Central Park instead.  The idea of paying any tribute to a man I knew to be a moral dirtball by gracing his headquarters seemed like endorsing a temple to the devil.

I was especially peeved with the place from one of the legends of how it got built on the site of an old-timey family owned department store, Bonwit Teller, which had to be torn down.  Trump had originally agreed to remove and preserve architectural artwork from the old building, giving it over to the Metropolitan Museum for preservation, but he reneged in the end.  To cut construction costs he had the demolition crew lose or destroy the artwork, saying he got a lowball appraisal for their value and made the decision they weren’t worth preserving.  Without anything in writing having anything to do with the Metropolitan, the artworks disappeared.  Not saying the quality was on par with the Elgin Marbles, but the loss to New York seemed cruel at the time and I carried that grudge among many against Donald Trump.  I always wondered who eventually took possession of the Bonwit Teller artwork, or if like some nazi fuhrer and final arbiter of taste he really did have them destroyed.

So when we learned Hogan would be singing at Trump Tower, the power of family trumped any trepidation I or the others had about the guy or his place of headquarters, we had a legitimate reason to be there.  We arrived way early to scope the place out and get good seats.  We came in at street level Fifth Avenue — you know, that avenue Trump said he could shoot somebody and get away with it — and I have to say the first impression of the lobby inside the door truly blew me away.  The height and grandeur of gold and glass and sleek pink marble immediately resolutes the sublime.  The towering walls of the sunken and rising eight story atrium resound in rosy pink marble with white veins, the stonework like a luxury fortress of sweet candy pinkness, a little waterfall at one wall.  We found the Trump Bar not crowded and got seats on a balcony overlooking the floor of the atrium where the kids would assemble.  To our utter shock the drink prices were reasonable and we ordered some cabernets and sodas.  Parents and friends of the kids in the choir who were also following them around showed up at the bar and we watched as the kids showed up in their tidy uniforms, set themselves up on the risers and arranged their little orchestra while the adults in their troop coordinated their whereabouts while we sipped our wines and cokes and looked on from above in our celestial pink opera boxes.

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The choir sang like angels.  Enhanced by the acoustics of the pink marble their voices literally shone like gold.  Passersby stopped to watch and listen.  The friends and family with the bar’s eye view were enthralled and proud of their kids stopping foot traffic in New York.  We were proud of our Hogan.

I came away from that experience rather amazed at the effect Trump Tower had on me.  The ethereal feeling those rosy pink atrium walls had on me had me spooked with a kind of voodoo rush of pleasure and polysymmetry I could not forget.

Years later the Trump organization held a news conference on TV from the Trump Tower atrium.  TV cameras don’t see light the same as the human eye.  We see light and color and reconcile it in our brains as to how it should appear, all in real time so to speak.  TV sees light and color calibrated to the light source — sunlight, tungsten, florescent, LED, halogen for example.  Colors are calibrated for TV to coordinate primarily to normalize skin tone.  Where that affects a punkin-faced subject continues to challenge production engineers to this day.

What I saw at the press conference were the walls in the background.  What I remembered as vibrantly joyful pink walls looked instead like shit.  The marbled pattern on TV looked like the walls were smeared with feces.  The color of brown poop.  The rich textural pattern of the marble looked caked with crap.  Excrement.  Smeared with it.  Dripping with diarrhea.

I’m sure this evident perception is not lost on Donald Trump, who is so savvy about television.  It’s ironic that his iconic tower so cleverly designed to look so cool in real life looks like a shit hole on TV.  His organization doesn’t do news conferences from the Trump Tower atrium anymore because the walls look like doodoo on TV, and they know it.

Technically the color could be corrected but the resulting skin tones would really freak you out.

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BK

 

 

 

 

 

Staring at the Truth

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My worst trait, biggest fault, most flawed characteristic, is that I stare.

It makes people uncomfortable.  I get it.  I understand.  It’s rude.  I apologize.  I’m sorry.

It’s like I got x-ray vision.  I get fascinated by what I look at and I obsessively observe what I see.  This is harmless and blameless when it comes to landscapes like Grand Canyon and Devil’s Tower, or monuments like Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame de Paris, or paintings like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, unless I linger too long at a prime vantage where someone else would like to view and I inadvertently inconvenience a fellow gazer.  The beauty of nature compels me to contemplate what it is that makes a view a vision, just as art inspires visual fixation for the sake of beauty.  It’s when real people come into my fascinated line of sight my habit can be considered intimidating and even provocative.  Offensive, especially to women.

I objectify what I see, you might say.  I used to justify my staring as subjectifying, as if the semantics legitimized my defense.  I acted defensive when I was younger, as if the Right to Look were written into the Constitution.  Now I accept criticism as advice and concede an observer of me could feel watched and not like it.  This does not usually stop me from looking, I just adopt a more furtive technique.  Unless, of course, I want to get caught.

I have always looked people in the eye.  This is because I not only stare at people to study their physical attributes and features but also to examine their character, and no other feature projects character than eyes.  If you and I were face to face sharing a conversation right now I would be studying you, your face, your eyes as much or more than listening to your voice.  So you would feel at ease I might glance away at the room furnishings, another person in the room, a video screen on the wall.  I might look at your hands, your coat or your ear, but unless I’ve seen enough of you I will return to you and resume my study, eye to eye.  I blink, of course.

My eyes are penetrating blue.  Like beacons.  To help conceal my conspicuous stare I like to wear sunglasses.  As the song says, future’s so bright…  I’m very nearsighted, so I wear prescription shades.  I like to think of myself as that emoji of the smiley face in shades.  Nonthreatening and kind.  Maybe it makes me all the more sinister.  Without corrective lenses what I see is very much like Impressionist paintings, and for the most I like that, the details only matter when I’m driving, my mind can assemble a coherent vision of what I see.  Not wearing glasses may cut down on instances of blatant staring because I have become more self-conscious — self aware — at my advanced age of the effect my naked eyes can have on another self-consciously aware subject who feels treated as an object.  That and without glasses I can’t see far enough to distinguish individual faces, though that does not stop me from looking.

Up close my vision is very good, which means I prefer no lenses at all when reading, especially fine print, or when I’m studying pictures, like Impressionist paintings.

In intimacy especially.

Anyway, I cannot trace back to the origin of my staring.  I cannot help what my eyes are, I was born this way.  Somehow, however, I learned to use these eyes to maximize my visual gratification.  Early on I was drilled to pay attention, so maybe I grew driven to keep observing to keep from being punished for failing to see and to figure things out.  My parents and teachers expected a lot from me so I felt compelled to stay alert for their expectations.  I say to them now, in severe retrospect, be careful what you wish for, it isn’t all innocent fun to produce a precocious kid.  The American culture of the 1950s provided primal earth to grow and nurture a visual attraction for beauty, and girls and women were powerfully beautiful.

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In 1951, the year I was born, an American photographer named Ruth Orkin framed her camera and made a picture called American Girl in Italy, 1951, a candid shot of one Ninalee Craig, age 23, dressed in a modest calf length dress, sandals, clutching a shawl over one shoulder and a sac purse in her other hand, walking to the corner curb of a street in Florence at the foot of a formidable classical building where the sidewalk for half a block is populated by fifteen men, all but one (and he’s obscure) looking her direction.  One old guy in the foreground is absolutely transfixed.  The guys down the block in the background (except the one tall swarthy guy in the middle of the shadow arch of the first doorway) gaze after her from behind, still parted on both sides of the sidewalk from where she came, savoring her fleeting presence.  She is beautiful and this is after all Florence.  Nearer to Ninalee Craig in the center of the picture approaching the curb, the guys are identifiable and leering.  Young, about Ninalee’s age or so, they are dressed for business, nobody looking like thugs or degenerates.  This is Italy, after all, the birthplace of sharp clothes on average men.  Check out the shoes.  One guy straddling a motor scooter leers after her with hideous lust, and another juxtaposed by her and the corner of the building at the edge of a sidewalk cafe in a suit and tie grabs at his crotch and you can practically read his lips saying whatever it was in Italian for I’ll give you some a this.  Ninalee walks by with her head up, keeps her eyes to herself, takes a full stride, confident, modest, absolutely aware of her surroundings.

I bring Ninalee Craig and Ruth Orkin into this because it was photographed the year I was born, which is as good as any turning point in history, and as good a reference point as any to benchmark the tide of women.  There are no other women in the picture, just Ninalee, and no other woman’s presence on the street scene but Ruth, behind the camera.  Critics who suggest it was staged fail to deconstruct it enough to realize the variables of the fifteen other personalities in the frame are way too random to stage, even if Ruth knew the territory enough to virtually predict what would happen.  Ninalee for her part must have known what she was in for and she keeps her expression sincere and serene.  The result is a classic photograph of black and white elegance and a prophecy of the century to come.

Testimony to centuries and millennia gone by.

I only rather lately came across this photo and it’s now one of my favorite images of all time.  I am there.  I want to look her in the eye to acknowledge the power of her beauty.  It’s as if she’s been coming towards me my whole life.

It’s the essence of “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison — not at all the stupid movie, but the song.  The man sings his heart out in admiration of the beauty of a woman he sees walking down the street, someone he would like to meet.  A man with bad eyesight, prescription lenses and shades.  He sings, I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth, no one could look as good as you.  Mercy.

That’s right.  Mercy.

I’m a cisgender hetero male guy from the middle of America in the middle of the 20th Century, a man by admission and by definition.  At some young age I found an attraction to girls — women, ladies, female people.  Perhaps it was early exposure to Wonder Woman comics.  My mother was a beauty and worked as a local fashion model.  My mom had younger sisters, my aunties who babysat me, who had girl friends.  Ultimately my mom blessed me with seven younger sisters.  Maybe you would think all that would have numbed me or inured me to the feminine side of life but I guess it actually unwittingly may have sparked my lifelong fascination.  My younger brothers were seven and fifteen years behind me.  I hung with guys, knew crotch grabbers and motorbike sex hecklers among decent dudes trying to find our way in a world of Doublemint gum and Juicy Fruit.  I watched American Bandstand after school live from Philadelphia.  Girls dancing in their swirling skirts and tight sweaters.  As a little kid I wanted to grow up and be a teenager.  I imagined having a girlfriend like Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s secret identity.  I noticed breasts, nose cone, pointed bra breasts — the likes of what Madonna caricaturized thirty years later were high style when I was a kid, I know because my mom modeled them and wore them.  At a young age I was familiar with the vocabulary of lingerie, and for a while as a grown-up I subscribed to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.  As a boy I liked to look at cleavage whenever we went downtown or to church, wherever ladies dressed up.

I knew guys who knew guys who sold second and third hand Playboy magazines, sometimes over a year old.  It didn’t matter as long as the pictures were intact, the centerfold unadulterated.  In my life there was nothing more beautiful in this world than the naked female human body, photographed, or drawn by that Vargas guy, and I would have collected at least the pictures if I would have had any privacy to hide them long term.  Alas, at least until high school age.

Yes, surely the easy access to pornography incepted the allure to my passion for naked women.  This was before the internet, and so I can only imagine the scores of naked babes out there on line I can gawk at if that’s how I want to spend my cookies and attract spam and phishies, and I’d rather not.  Truly, there’s enough true beauty in everyday life to look at even if it isn’t always the naked truth.

Even so, Playboy and other photo magazines served as gateways to other prurient interests.  Culturally it was a time of shedding inhibitions that kept people uptight.  It seemed to be in my interest to side against shame of the human body when it meant more nudity for me.  More exacerbation.  I graduated to harder stuff:  Fine Arts.

Art history classes gave me permission to formally study pictures of naked women.  Art enabled me to stare without guilt and admire without shame.  The education of history gave context to the genre.  Education raised more and more curiosities and questions about the very structure of reality and the mediating roles of symbolism.  It was an exciting time to get educated.  I never knew how much I didn’t know.  Art enabled me to see what I was seeing.

Slides, color plates in books and in films acquainted me with the classics.  My home town museums and galleries offered good examples of marble sculpted breasts and hips, paintings of elegant poses, Egyptian glyphs of stony tits, and bronzes of goddesses from the Renaissance in the local collections, if not any big name nudes like Renoir.  I wrote a paper on an oval 1799 French oil on canvas at the Institute of Art by a guy named Anne-Louis Girodet called Portrait of Mlle Lange as Danae which inasmuch accused the artist of sexual blackmail, revenge porn for rejecting his advances, characterizing a popular entertainer, Anne Francioise Elisabeth Lange, as a slut for gold, while all in all painting her as an immortally gorgeous nude.  I got a job at the Institute giving me unfettered access to view not only its art collection but also its libraries, including its immense and comprehensive slide library of 35mm slide photos of works of art in other museums all over the world.

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This before the internet, with help of a Kodak projector and a crisp screen I could stare and study paintings and sculpture housed in collections thousands of miles away, where I could just dream of ever going to look at in person.  Botticelli.  Bernini.  Ingres.  Rembrandt.  Velazquez.  Titian.  Goya.  Manet.  Picasso.

I learned a new word, odalisque.  A French word, of course, it derives from a Turkish term for a harem sex slave or concubine.  French painter Henri Matisse called the Turkish meaning obsolete and redefined it to mean any full portrait of a reclining nude woman, after La Grande Odalisque, an 1814 painting by a guy named Dominique Ingres.  Odalisque paintings would include Venus of Urbino, 1538 by Titian, Olympia, 1863 by Edouard Manet, Naked Maja, 1797 by Francisco Goya and the Toilet of Venus, 1647 by Diego Velazquez, just to name drop a few of the most famous enduring images of the form according to Matisse’s definition.  Girodet’s Mademoiselle Lange would qualify, along with another French painting at the MIA called Nude on a Couch, ca 1880 by Gustave Caillebotte, although the couch all but dominates the picture.

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I married an odalisque, Roxanne, my wife, beautiful reclining nude, together 46 years.

She’s no concubine.  And if you wonder how she’s coped with my propensity to stare at people in public, she’s endured a life guiding my light away from boundaries of impropriety and inappropriate acts, insinuations and embarrassments.  She keeps me under-the-top.  She knows I like to people watch but she’s wary when I give the hairy eyeball and she’ll catch me before she thinks somebody sees me giving the stink eye.  She knows me.  She knows I’m not a stalker.

I’m not sexist, I used to say, I’m a sensualist.  I’m not judging a woman against her intellect or professional integrity, I would say.  I don’t discount women as inferior people or deny their human rights.  I support feminist principles and stand up with respect for equality.  Some of my best friends are women.  I belong to the YWCA.  Nine out of the top ten students — let’s just say the top nine — in my high school graduation class of 1970 were girls.  Since then I have had countless women bosses.  I am not prejudiced against women, I would insist, and vigorously defend myself against sexism citing all kinds of lame proof just to insinuate myself on the right side of history and the bend of justice.

In my persistent defense I would confess instead to being a sensualist, like pleading guilty to a lesser charge.  I freely admit I take sensual pleasure from admiring female form, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.  It’s not all I look at and it’s not all I see.  It’s not all I am.  And I would deny my staring studies treated women as objects.  To me they were subjects.  All with personalities, back stories, histories, responsibilities, real lives beyond a fleeting vision.  And here I would add that not only did I not view women as sex objects but as sensual subjects, it was not true I undressed them with my eyes.  I see women as they are and neither strip them down nor dress them up in my imagination.  At least not always.

Go ahead several decades and I’ve given up arguing defensive excuses, but I seem to keep mansplaining why.  I haven’t been to a strip joint in a long long time.  I used to find them very very sad, like casinos.  I’ve never engaged sex through prostitution but I used to think it was a victimless crime of lonely people until backstories came out about the sex slave trafficking of the women.  The biographies of most strip club dancers aren’t probably any more romantic.  These odalisques of underground sensualism.  What remains of first amendment right to vice.

There was a song on the radio in the 1980s with a catchy chorus of Na-na na-na-na-na na na na na-na-na-na-na by J Geils Band that outs a home town girl named Angel as a Playboy centerfold.  I could once appreciate the young woman’s utter self-confidence and lack of shame in her body to offer herself nude to a Playboy camera.  It’s a shame J Geils calls her out like the guy on the scooter to Ninalee Craig, not like a gentleman such as Roy Orbison would sing.

It makes me think of the models who posed for Titian, Velazquez, Goya, Manet.  Picasso.  I thought of them on Mediterranean beaches where some women bathe bare breasted as naturally proud as the Birth of Venus.  The past fifteen years, mostly the past ten, Roxanne and I have gone to Europe several times.  All those slide pictures and color plates from art history books?  I’ve said before, when I go places I like to go to art museums to see what the community holds dear.  I hold myself to this and have spent ages wandering and meandering through the most fabulous art collections in the western world, seeing in person and up close where I can take off my glasses and look at the strokes on the surface of the canvasses, the paintings I’ve adored from afar.

I’ve come across some truly awesome obscure treasures I didn’t expect to see or wasn’t looking for.  At the fine art museum in Dijon, France in the old Duke of Burgundy’s palace, the collection is rather bland and predictably French neoclassical until you round a corner of the chateau and gaze down the corridor to a wall at the end where there’s a startling large nude painting by James Tissot called La Japonaise au Bain, an 1864 canvas almost seven feet high and four feet wide, of a naked lady of vague oriental face with a classical Tissot expression of dubious bemusement, wearing red flowers in her lavish hair and a gregariously oversized lavish embroidered floral bath gown, open up and down the front.  Totally floored and unprepared for this, I felt so self-conscious whenever somebody else came into this gallery I walked all the way around the floor several times to break up my viewings so nobody would accuse me of fixated perversion.

I still feel shy at Musee d’Orsay in Paris standing in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, the origin of the world, which is a glorious study in gynecology.

In the European painting tradition, nudity was taboo except for depicting classical myth figures or religious themes, presuming I guess, in heaven nobody needs clothing and the divine are perpetually shameless.  Call a nude female subject Aphrodite or Venus and an artist could produce a figure erotic and prurient and get away with defiance of moral codes of chastity and modesty promoted and enforced by popes and kings.  Paintings illustrating the Old Testament treated naked views of figures such as Judith, Salome, Ruth, and of course, Eve.  Hence the Vatican instituted the fig leaf to cover the taboo body parts of secular figures after the Renaissance to try to cover up a rampant popularity of nakedness seen as a revival of amoral paganism.

Michelangelo in his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not only portrayed mortals nude but God too.  God of course is male.  Michelangelo’s female nudes are remarkable for their stockiness, seriousness or sadness and not at all for profound erotic emotiveness.  His genius for constructing human anatomy in his art is unsurpassed in its audacious frankness.  Nothing in his canon can be called cute, except perhaps God’s Heinie in the Sistine ceiling.

Michelangelo supported the Church, its core teachings and philosophies regardless of avante garde revolutionary trends stirring in his Renaissance times, so he can be named among the hard core male establishment.  A full wall giant fresco mural in the Vatican painted by Raphael (another ninja turtle namesake) portrays a vast vaulted room of twenty one individuals considered a pantheon of great minds of the day, 1511.  All men.  Raphael, a mere painter, adored Michelangelo, architect, sculptor and painter, and there in the School of Athens, front and just enough off center to create a pathway to the guys in the middle is Raphael’s hero, reclining on a step at some random platform, drawing on a sketch pad, unconcerned with the activities of the other twenty guys in the vast room, creatively painted on a real Vatican wall looking like an extension of the real room, a scene that centers on a walk-in chat between Plato and Aristotle — Plato painted as the visage of another of Raphael’s heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci — and Michelangelo, crayon in hand, jots away in his own mind, is the only one in the picture wearing boots, everyone else wears sandals.

Michelangelo in his day was considered a man among men.  A pillar of Rome, he designed the very pillars supporting St Peter’s cathedral.  Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo in 1508 to decorate the ceiling of this vast seemingly-windowless inner private papal chapel, and much as he preferred sculptural work to mere painting, he took on this commission with intense professionalism and dedicated four years of intense perfectionism to paint this monumental fresco illuminating a pageant of Genesis, creation through the near destruction of creation through the flood survived by a drunken Noah.  Michelangelo filled the ceiling, every vault and arch, with bible visions as he saw them.  Mostly the visions conformed to scripture, and where Michelangelo’s interpretation orbited towards fantasy it was tolerated for aesthetic purposes or because Michelangelo insisted it be so.  In the ceiling panel illustrating the creation of the sun and the moon, God is pictured twice, coming and going, on the right of a great orange ball of sun advancing into the blue sky, and on the left flying away in retreat, the robes of clothes parting from the back to the thigh plainly exposing God’s Hinder.  Michelangelo’s symbol of the moon.

Legend says one of the pope’s Cardinal henchmen objected to God’s exposed butt as sacrilege and asked Pope Julius to order Michelangelo to cover it up.  Michelangelo refused to do so saying the bible says man was created in God’s own image and likeness.

About twenty five years later Pope Clement VII enticed Michelangelo to come back to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgement mural fresco on the front altar wall.  The vast mural shows a tableau of all kinds of anguish and turmoil among throngs and throngs of nudes, many of which were fig-leafed years after.  It’s a grand finale to the previous ceiling, the wall completed when Michelangelo was my age.

We call Michelangelo a Renaissance Man.  As was Leonardo Da Vinci.  It is interesting to observe Leonardo devoted copious calculations, sketches and drawings to the study of human anatomy, and yet he produced no nude paintings.  As much if not more than his contemporaries and succeeding artists who study the human form to record how fabric drapes and falls along with poses of the body, Leonardo painted some of the most compelling fully clothed portraits of women ever seen, including Mona Lisa Joconde, and the lady with the ermine, Milanese entertainer Cecilia Gallerani.

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Note neither Mona Lisa nor the Ermine Lady are purported to be Venus or any biblical character, both private commissions though Mona Lisa never left Leonardo’s possession in his lifetime.  Mona Lisa is enshrined in the Louvre in Paris while the Ermine Lady resides as a national treasure in Krakow, Poland.  They are both anonymous beauties recorded for beauty’s sake and not for selling a message.  Leonardo’s innocence sets him apart from artists sublimating grand scale with morality pageants featuring Venus or the cult of the Virgin Mary.

On a walk with my grand daughter Clara through the Impressionist gallery at the MIA she looked at the Caillebotte nude on the couch and said, “Grandpa, why are there so many pictures of women naked by men artists?  Why are all these artists men?”  She was about ten years old, about five years ago.

I explained then that throughout most of history art was controlled by men, just like every other thing in human activity.  That seemed wrong to her, and I totally agreed.  It wasn’t her first awareness of girl power overdue or my first endorsement of her inquiry into gender justice.  The part that confuses her the most is that all her short life she’s been convinced by examples of successful women and girls and the positive attitudes of her supporting culture that girls and women have it equal to boys and men, and it is a paradigm shift of a major mind comprehension for her to think there was a time until recently when women and girls were not certain of equality and were oppressed beneath men.  Her limited concept of history acknowledges endless, continuous, nameless wars, a holocaust, a time before inventions such as the iPhone and television, an era when African Americans were slaves and Native Americans were chased off their land, but it’s hard for her to accept there was a time just a few generations ago when women could not vote or run for President of the United States.

It’s unthinkable to her that men controlled civilization for so long, but she’s slowly learning.  How she processes and what she’ll do with this knowledge as she matures will somewhat rely on me and the example I set as my generation sunsets the planet.  For the day Clara laments to me the overwhelming list of famous artists who are men, I am compiling a list of known women artists and thus far I have 79 names.  They range from sculptors to architects to photographers but most are painters.  I have found them in museums and galleries in America and Europe.  Some like Frida Kahlo are famous and popular.  Most of them are obscure.  The vast numbers are modern, reflecting the boldness and transformation of this age since about 1901, but I found at least two who overlapped the turn of the 1600s, Sofonisba Anguissola of the late Renaissance, and Artemisia Gentileschi of the Baroque, both exceptionally gifted at rendering human figures.  And even if Clara doesn’t need my list to help her feel confident that women and girls are not fairly counted in world history but from now on they matter very much, I keep the list to remind myself to keep growing the list.

I am grandfather of three girls, two teen and tween age, the third an infant.  I have a daughter, a wife, seven sisters, at least fifteen nieces, far flung cousins and so on, and friends, and in-laws, and co-workers, and I used to have aunts and grandmas and a mom, lots of women whom I owe respect and support.  My daughter Michel grew up doing whatever she wanted in the world and I never said she couldn’t.  The teen and tween grandchild sisters suffer me as an overachiever granpa who dotes and indulges in delusions of exceptionalism.  And the poor baby, she’ll grow up alongside this weird doddering old fanboy who remembers nothing if not her birthday.

My legacy to them, to all women in my world but especially to Michel, Clara, Tess and Neko, seeks a reverent balance and serenity in a world of perpetual tension and strife.  This knowing I’ll never solve all the world issues for them to inherit sublime bliss, much as I wish I had that kind of power.  I owe them to stay out of their way and not embarrass them for posterity and not leave them with messes I am empowered to prevent, so they can all progress in this life and not have to turn around to solve something my fault.

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While they are left to make up their own minds about shame, modesty, excess and appropriate regard for the human figure, I have my own issues to reconcile with the truth — the naked truth — about beauty.

Faced with a lifetime of hindsight I’m seeing an opportunity to get pious about my false humility.  For me the past is not past.  In my mind’s eye I can see me peeking down the blouses and between the buttons of the uniforms of my favorite girl schoolmates at St Simon of Cyrene.  In eighth grade there was a nun who taught music and math who had oversized breasts such that they pressed the bib of her nun’s habit up like a convex dome her heavy crucifix could not weigh down.  I never reported any of this within the confessional — I didn’t trust the priests, and even then I had a cynical view of common sin.  Thinking impure thoughts?  Not really, not really thinking at all, mostly looking.

If it’s a sin to look then why did God create sight?  It’s a lot more than just sensing and sorting light.

Some cultures deal with the matter of men ogling women by disappearing women.  Women in public wear shrouded gowns to cover their skin and to obliterate their shape and figure and cover their hair with veils and sometimes their entire faces, and thus deprive men from looking at them to stimulate their sinful male lust.  That’s one way to deal with it, surprisingly effective.  Women in a paternally protected society may enjoy certain benefits a more liberal minded society might not see, but most modern societies rely on freedoms and rights most women prefer not to surrender or trade off for phony protection.

If they weren’t so good looking I wouldn’t look.  My crude philosophy all these years is if a woman is beautiful in any way she will be seen no matter what she wears.  I feel sad for women uncomfortable with their beauty and sympathize with their attempts to hide or deflect attention, even as I find them.  A beautiful woman in public always knows she is watched, has learned to sense it all her life, and comes to any scene prepared to be noticed.  It’s not my fault they’re beautiful.  It’s not my inclination to look away.  There they are.  I prefer they act like they are unaware I know they are in the room, at the plaza, school, church, wherever, and another moment passes, a vision of beauty seen, no kismet, no destiny, simply au revoir, adios, have a nice life.  Nice seeing you.  If our eyes meet we’ll look away, both aware more or less of what I’m up to, and maybe there will be a teaching moment for at least one of us, but as events go, once again an encounter like this goes by, maybe repeats itself a little, and passes into that subether of nice memories that keeps a serious mind amused amid the chaos of everyday reality.  My friends used to tease me about staring at waitresses, and they were right, I would follow them with my eyes as they worked the room.    I like to observe women as they work.  I found Roxanne working at a Target store, the prettiest girl I ever saw.

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Venus was born from the misty foam of the sea.  It’s an origin metaphor as dreamy and vague as the male libido.  Venus was the original cover story for nude women in art.  Men sublimated their adoration of the female body by creating images of veneration of their favorite anonymous females under the classical alias of immortal moral exemption.  Venus got a free pass in the Christian era because she was a virtual brand name of a fantasy figure from antiquity who pre-dated baptism and chaste behavior, tolerated in some circles as an example of what to ignore.

As art became more secular, and away from censorship by the churches, and then less under the sway of royal patronage, more democratic, pretense of tried and true pagan mythology gave way to contemporaneous views of undisguised mortals such as Olympia and the odalisques.  French painter Edouard Manet in 1863 gets credit for exposing the hypocrisy of sexism in nude painting with Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Luncheon on the Grass, a big almost 7 by 9 foot oil on canvas painting of two nicely dressed, fully dressed guys in coats and ties, of a mature age by their manicured beards, engaged in a serious manly discussion at barely arms length over a picnic in the shade of a forest glen near a pond, in the company of two women, one wading and dipping her hand in the pond wearing a greco-roman tunic like a nightgown, the other woman, in close company of the men, is all naked.  The naked woman, calm as can be, sits full profile, legs reclined, upright with her elbow resting against her knee and her chin resting against her fingers, she looks this way and she alone meets the eye of the viewer.

The picnic basket is spilled of croissants, plums and red grapes.  A glass decanter is empty.  A rumpled blue dress lies under the basket on the grass, with a blue sash and a woman’s straw hat and blue bow alongside on the ground.  The naked woman sits on a rumpled blue cloth, her dress or the picnic cloth maybe, alongside one man and facing the other, looking at neither, looking at the viewer.  Her mouth looks a little bemused.  Her face and hair resembles Ninalee Craig in Italy, 1951.

Manet’s painting, so large on the wall in person in Paris, stuns the eye for its forceful photorealistic precision conveying a scene so frankly inexcusably erotic as if it were another day at the academy.

It is so much more in person than what it looks like from a slide or a color plate in a book.

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They say it caused a sensation when he exhibited.  Art historians tell us this work marks a turning point in modern art because after this no artist could argue seriously that pictures of naked women were inspired by anything more symbolic of a higher meaning than any excuse to put a naked woman in a picture.

Art for art’s sake.  I come along about a hundred years later but never too late.  Privy to thousands of years of scholarship and preservation, with an educated eye and a privileged view, Supreme Court decisions upholding my right to look at about anything I would want to see — drawing a line at child pornography, but I’m not that interested in cherub art — it’s been a golden age of opportunity to study nude women.  Studies usually lead to conclusions, but I still don’t think I’ve seen enough to conclude.

My self-conscious observations lead me to be aware of being on the periphery of popular taste in my personal verve for nudes of women.  Grace has come to feminism in my lifetime and with it illumination of real no-kidding-around-it sexism everywhere you look.  There’s a palpable transformation going on in describing what is sexist and what is sexy, or sensual as I used to say, and styles reflect trends of modesty of the body.  Cleavage covered or slightly accidental.  It’s no longer shocking to show full frontal nudity but sometimes very mundane, too common.  Literally vulgar.  Those who preach against naked pictures have a point when it’s said they are used to exploit and oppress women.  Nudie pictures aren’t politically correct.

It takes away some of the joy when there’s no one around to share the verve.

In truth the production of quality nude images of any originality has declined since its exposure to mass audiences the past 150 years.  An abstract colorist painter I admired from the pop op 1960s named Hollis MacDonald never painted a human figure I ever saw.  In a 1965 interview he was asked about nudes in art.  “They’re over worked,” he said.  “Everybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”

Another sign of the demise of the genre could have been foreseen in the career of Jerry Ott, a photorealist painter who, like MacDonald, happens to be from Minnesota, where I come from.  Jerry Ott painted two of the most gorgeous nudes I ever saw.  Both are huge canvasses boldly holding presence like murals.  One is owned by the MIA as part of its contemporary collection.  The other is owned by the Walker Art Center, the other big time art museum hereabouts.

The one the MIA acquired in the 1970s at the height of Jerry Ott’s fame.  The Institute, known for its great collection of all past eras, acquired the Jerry Ott to herald its vision of contemporary in the future continuum.  Airbrushed acrylic on canvas, it’s called (Untitled) Blood on my Hands and it shows a beautiful, graciously endowed woman, fully nude, in a studio setting against a wall of sheer plastic where a poster sized sheet of coarse paper is held in place by one of the woman’s hands, and on this paper is a reddish handprint matching the size of the woman’s hand.

In the lower right quadrant of the scene is a poster sized self-portrait of Jerry Ott, shirtless and holding a camera like he’s looking above a mirror.

My favorite Jerry Ott nude is the other one, owned by the Walker, Carol and the Paradise Wall, also acrylic on canvas, of a reclining odalisque across a richly upholstered brocaded chair horizontal against a photographer’s studio background of woods and trees.  I think I like it better than the one at the Institute because it’s a more dynamic composition with straightforward impact whereas Blood on My Hands loses its visual narrative with ambiguous testimonial symbols until the viewer rests upon the naked woman and gives up on guessing what the title means.

Today neither museum exhibits either painting.

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The Byzantine ways these institutions keep their secrets, it’s hard to know if it’s due to an undergroundswell of public protest against conspicuous displays of gratuitous nudes in contemporary art, or a curatorial decision to protect the public from being offended at a time when even university students get easily upset by perceived microaggressions.  Minneapolis may be a city mobilized to proactively defend itself from snowflakes of all weather.  In any case this disappearances of the Jerry Ott nudes coincides with the decline of the utility of the nude in art.  Ten years prior to Ott’s Paradise Wall and Hands, the abstractionist and fellow Minnesotan Hollis MacDonald had said all that could be said with a nude has been said, so Hollis was a bit wrong by at least ten years.  Jerry Ott seemed to himself sense what Hollis had meant.  Ott continued to paint large airbrushed photorealistic canvasses, exploring vivid tints but no more nudes.

I recall seeing an Ott painted later than the two 1970s nudes, of goldfish in tied-up little plastic bags for sale and shipment on a countertop, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, it’s come to this, to survive Jerry Ott has given up tits to paint goldfish.  To his credit he never gave up visual art.

The desensualization of the nude in graphic art, as I said, came of age in the 20th Century along with all the great decadent practices brought about through technological transmission and reproduction.  Pablo Picasso broke the picture plane with cubist boobs and vaginas that didn’t look realistic enough to embrace and call honey.  Picasso denuded everybody enough to say this is how we clothe ourselves with canvas.

Picasso cracked the visual plane.  Guys like Matisse turned skin wild and blue and red and yellow.  Guys like Salvadore Dali melted her.  Guys like Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Charles Biederman, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Hollis MacDonald, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and Marsden Hartley skipped past altogether.

The nude medium was shattered beyond reassembly when Nude Descending a Staircase 2 by Marcel Duchamp came out at the Armory show in New York in 1913.  As unsexual as a crash test dummy it is viscerally sensual in its technological grace, dependent fully on the hard-wired human response to the retina and the optic nerve.  It’s a sucker punch to the gut and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  Like Manet’s picnic picture it was heralded as prophetic, which means at the time of its first exhibition it was reviled.  Now it’s the Eiffel Tower of nudes.

Of the privacy of others there is a censorship we all practice to keep ourselves from seeing more than what we deserve to know if we can help it.  It’s hard to accept that Ingres’ The Source inspired the rape and murder of a lonely French girl, but if it had would we be surprised to learn that the painting had a bad effect on a bad man’s tormented mind, and is that the tolerance a free society has and the risks we accept to guaranty free rights?

Perhaps an algorithm calculated by Millennial generation actuaries will predict future liabilities caused by what people see.  This could determine future limits of exposure to proven prurients, governed by insurance not by government.

Before that time comes I mean to keep looking.  It serves no point to renounce or regret what I’ve looked at or seen.  Somehow I think it’s all added up to a montage of experiences comprising a charmed life.  In the autumn Roxanne and I plan to return to the Old Country — to us the whole continent of Europe is the Old Country — where we’ll cruise the Aegean and Adriatic seas on a large tour.  It will be interesting to have my first look at the greco-ancient world in this context.  I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but it makes sense to me that if I have spent so much energy and time in my life to looking I must be looking for something.  I must not have found it or I would not continue to look.  If I find it I would know it, and then I hope I would go on to look for something more else undefined.

Like finding Roxanne.

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BK

also see buffalokelly.com/2016/11/23/hollis-macdonald-missing-from-the-mia/

Zihuatanejo Ixtapa Continued

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A lot of you have been drawn to my story (Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico, 4/25/18) about this place on the Pacific coast of Mexico, so it seems right to offer an update.

Americans are scared to vacation here.  The Trump administration’s state department stigma of Mexico as dangerous as Syria, along with Trump’s own vicious characterization of Mexicans, have alienated all but the most ardent Mexiphiles and turned the rest into Mexiphobes.

Not Roxanne and me.  We’ve been coming here almost twenty years with no fear.  We stay at the Krystal Hotel, where the hospitality is as gracious as the sky is blue.  We use public transportation, bus or taxi.  We walk the public streets and trails.  We hang out at the beaches.  We’re careful but not too self-conscious.  It’s one thing to be aware of your surroundings but there’s no sense getting over-paranoid, there’s no reason to expect sinister encounters.

No one, of course, can guarantee your safety.  The Krystal provides security that is comprehensive but not creepy.  As much can be said about the other resorts and the atmosphere of the coastal community in general.  Hospitality is so vital to the livelihood of the people here, they protect you, look out for you, and show you a good time.  All in good faith.  It would do them great dishonor for word to go around that harm came to innocent tourists in their midst.

No one pretends Mexico is innocent of criminal behavior and violence.  Drug cartels finance an underworld of exploitation and corruption that reveals itself with gang murders.  Political murders.  Murders of vice.  A visible police presence, discreet and chivalrous, patrols the public thoroughfares.  There is a navy base at Zihuatanejo Bay.  If you travel out of town you might encounter federal police checkpoints on the highways.  On la playa you might see three guys in shades wearing beige cargo shorts, wide brimmed hats and white polo shirts that say TURISTA POLICIA on their backs, wearing sidearms, walking the beach.  None of this should worry vacationers who don’t traffic with the underworld.  Dangerous events hardly ever involve tourists except when the tourist is engaged in shady activity, and even so, reported incidents are quite rare.

Tourists are in greater danger of being swallowed by the surf at Playa Palmar than being roughed up on the streets of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  There are several drownings per year involving tourists carelessly defying riptide warnings, getting knocked silly by the surf and getting sucked out of their depth into the sea.  The hotel and beach lifeguards — the Salvavidas — rescue scores more.  It’s part of the drama of la playa at the theater of the beach.  Sometimes it’s not safe to swim in the ocean.  Or boogie board surf.

But people do it anyway.

There’s pleasure in swimming in the sea.

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As I’ve said, we go there every year from around mid-January to mid-February to escape winter in Minnesota.  The weather in Ixtapa is always consistently predictable: sunny and hot.  We more or less establish residence at the Krystal in an upper floor room facing the ocean towards the southeast, overlooking the pool, the garden and the restaurant they call Las Velas, which has a palm thatch roof.  There are palm trees everywhere on the hotel grounds and beyond.  Every room has a balcony with a view.  (There is also a nice view to the Amara condo high rise next door too if you want to look.)  From our balcony we can watch the evening shows and fiestas put on stage in the hotel garden at night, or listen to karaoke down by the pool bar on Tuesdays.  It’s a modest room with a table, chairs, dresser and king size bed, desk, night tables, TV and good lighting.  The bathroom is up to date and the water pressure very good, hot water almost always available on demand.  Adequate closet with a safe.  There’s an iron and a hair dryer.  And coffee pot.  It’s all we need, a nice place to retreat.

Most of our time is spent out and about.  We get a palm thatched palapa and a couple of chaises on the beach below the hotel and read.  We swim in the pool.  We walk the beach.  Talk with friends we’ve known for years, mutual tourists, local vendors, new people we meet.  Dip in the ocean where the surf isn’t so rough.  Get a massage from one of the beach salons.  Recline and repeat.

An all-inclusive itinerary is offered at the Krystal but we choose to lodge, eat and drink a la cart.  Both restaurants at the hotel are very good and we breakfast and lunch there frequently.  The service is exquisite.  Good food is just about everywhere, so we dine off-campus a lot, frequently in company with friends.  For a nominal fare a taxi to Zihuatanejo can get you to any of an array of welcoming places with great food, some elegant like Il Mare high on the hill overlooking the bay and Coconuts in the middle of el centro, some casual like Lety’s place near the embarcadero and Sirena Gorda and Casa Elvira on the boardwalk, and others a combination of both like La Perla and Daniel’s on the beach, or Bandidos near the old Spanish church.

Within walking distance from the Krystal are at least two dozen good dining options in Ixtapa, again ranging from fine dining at the yacht marina, Mediterranean cuisine with a French singer at Soleiado on the boulevard, or the trappings of Morocco at Bogart’s next door to the Krystal.  Casual places include Ruben’s specializing in hamburgers with New Zealand cheese, the seafood platter at Calabozo, Italian at Toscano’s, enchiladas at Martin’s and ribs at Tequila y Sal.  Most places blend the fine with the casual.  El Tiburen at the Palace Hotel serves huachinango — red snapper — with Vera Cruz sauce.  The General’s sports bar serves everything from steak to fajitas.  El Cameron Azul — the Blue Shrimp — offers a shrimp flambe created by renown chef Lalo, who passed away last year.  Deborah’s place also offers a version of Lalo’s Shrimp expertly prepared at your table by souchef Ayani, though Deborah also offers an Alfredo sauce so rich and delicious you will crave it when you get home.

Roxanne asked Deborah for the Alfredo recipe.  She demurred politely, saying, “I cook it to order.”  A ginger haired Canadian expat who resembles the singer-songwriter Neko Case, she is likely the canniest restaurateur in town.  As a very young woman she apprenticed for Ixtapa’s legendary chef Mama Norma and kept the doors open after the iconic Mama passed away.  The young souchef Ayani could have a bright future in the culinary business if she were to follow such a mentor.  Deborah is exacting with her staff, most comfortable in her kitchen and can sometimes seem brusque in public with her guests, though she’s never without charm.  As if to soften her decline to give Roxanne the sauce recipe she added, “I think about food the way men think about sex.”

Ixtapa’s most popular host is Genaro Salinas, known as the General.  Not a chef but an entertainer, he’s a logistics maestro, an orchestrator, an impresario of hospitality as pageantry and hustle.  His staff are the most enthusiastic and energetic and among the most polite and punctual servers in the trade.  The General paid his dues and knows how to run an operation so busy at times the activity all around looks and feels like chaos — it’s not a place for a quiet cozy meal — when in fact it’s all a mix of quick service, abundant clientele of the lively persuasion, a quality kitchen and bar, and a festive atmosphere boosted by about a dozen video screens all over the interior building, where every inch of ceiling and pillar and wall is bedecked with sports teams logos, pennants, sweaters, posters, pictures and paraphernalia from the NHL, NFL, NBA, FIFA, CFL, the Big Ten and other American college conferences, and even a couple of high school hockey teams from British Columbia.  Every night is hockey night so any and all NHL televised games are featured on most if not all the TV screens, with a few devoted to college or NBA hoops, or soccer, and the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.  Super Bowl is a big deal, when they sell reserved seats, put extra tables as far into the plaza as they can, offer bar food specials, put up extra big screens and sell commemorative t-shirts.

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The General is a local guy who worked across the US in his youth, where he developed a fondness for cheddar cheese and the Green Bay Packers.  Back home he settled down with wife and kids and dove into the hospitality trade as a guide and restaurant manager in Zihuatanejo and eventually Ixtapa, where he earned his moniker.  He saved his dinero, envisioned his plan, found a couple of Canadian partners and opened his namesake bar and restaurant in the vacated site of a failed tiki bar.  It was a smash success from the get go.  People come just to watch Genaro boss the place and take a moment to greet his guests.  He’s fun and funny.  Likes to pepper slow nights like the NHL all star break with music videos, karaoke or setting up a dance floor on the patio next door to stage local acts like one-man band Jimi Mamou playing old time rock and roll.

One morning we ran into Genaro picking produce at the Bodega market and we asked him about some of the new cafes we’ve seen setting up around the Ixtapa plaza which have abundant empty tables.  “Yeah, a lot of these new guys,” he said, “think they can put up a kitchen and set up some tables and the tourists are just going to fly in, but they have a hard time serving just one customer the right way and they won’t come back.”

So true.  Roxanne and I can think of a few places we would avoid if they were still in business.  Yet we like to be on the lookout for places to try.  Recommendations from fellow travelers help.  That’s how we found Bandidos.  I avoided the place because the name of the place sounded cheezy and expected as much, but our frequent accomplice and friend Bob insisted it was a classy place.  We discovered their signature dish known on the menu as Molcajete, a kind of gumbo stew named for the vessel in which it’s prepared and served, a heavy mortar pot carved of lava rock, served right there at your table.  Their seafood is excellent as well.  And they feature a splendid lounge singer named Michele who knows all the standards and solicits requests.  She likes to be asked obscure songs she knows.

Itinerant singers and musicians play in the plazas, malls and streets for hat money.  At a semi-derelict fountain plaza between Ruben’s, Toscano’s and the Blue Shrimp they take turns playing sets of three or four songs and then go around the outdoor tables of all three restaurants collecting pesos, or preferably dollar bills.  Nobody is obliged to kick in.  Most restaurants have open air seating and there’s unspoken permission for song buskers (and little kids selling toys) to approach their diners as long as they are polite and respect when people say no.

Several cafes and restaurants employ their own in-house musicians like Bandidos with Michele.  There seems to be no end to the talent among the locals.

Like there’s no end to the quality of the seafood.  Fresh mahi mahi tops the menu everywhere.  At the Blue Shrimp — El Camaron Azul — the huachinango a ajo, whole red snapper grilled with garlic, simple and elegante, is to fish what is a butter knife steak at Murray’s in Minneapolis.  They will serve it fileted if you ask, but I recommend the whole fish, the flavor is richer and it’s a useful skill to know how to comb a fish skeleton.

Shrimp is fresh and plentiful, served every which way.  Coconut shrimp is more than a fad.  And the size of the shrimp are not shrimpy.  What inland menus where I live call scampi are the normal size of shrimp at Ixtapa, and what we call jumbo shrimp at home they just call shrimps.  On at least ten percent of all the menus of the cantinas and cafes and restaurants in the region, a district named for Jose Azueta that includes Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, like a county, all along the Pacific coast between Acapulco and Manzanillo, you will find the English translations on the menus will feature shrimps, plural.  It would seem that a culture which uses a singular word for clothes — ropa — would grasp that plural for shrimp is shrimp, and by and large they do.

One place that gets it is the Blue Shrimp at the north back end of the plaza — Camaron Azul.  In a region where seafood reigns — rains — their kitchen features the widest varieties of crustacean recipes, including lobster.  This is the patio where young Lalo invented his three cheese shrimp flambe, made of worcestershire sauce (which Mexicans call english sauce) and soy sauce, white wine, onion, mushrooms, brandy, garlic and shrimp, known on the menu as Lalo’s Shrimp, or Camarones de Lalo (yes, shrimp in Spanish is a plural noun, camarones, with an s.)  It was like watching a magic act when Lalo wokked and flamed it up before you at your table.  Lalo passed away last year from kidney failure complicated by diabetes.  They say Lalo was a chef genius, and at the Blue Shrimp they keep his memory alive with his namesake shrimp flambe.  Over rice it is so rich and delicious you will order bread to sop up the gravy.  Then you’ll kick back in your chair and go wow.

You’ll walk back to your hotel or take a taxi to your abode thinking nobody treats you nicer or feeds you better than the people of Zihuatanejo Ixtapa.

This brings me back to the politics behind the US state department travel advisory scaring Americans away from vacationing in Mexico.  President Donald Trump, you may have observed, likes to taunt and scorn Mexico and Mexicans.  The origin of his grudge, I do not know.  It must be deep seated.  Deeply rooted.  An unforgiven trauma.  Maybe a Mexican nanny slapped him as a child.  Maybe he’s sore about protectionist Mexican real estate laws keeping him out of the Mexican resort and condo business.  Cemex, the Mexican concrete cement company, among the world’s premier building supplies companies, might have slighted him somewhere along the way, refused him sweetheart deals, maybe even sued him for nonpayment.  Whatever the core source of Trump’s pathological antipathy to all things Mexican, whether ego driven, economical or schizosociopolitical, he has directed a proportion of his power to undermine, embarrass, criminalize, dehumanize, demonize, destabilize and demoralize a whole people with a big say in the future of the western hemisphere and the planet.

When I say power, I don’t just mean his governmental position, which he exercises like a fuhrer.  I mean his commanding media presence, his near godlike ever-presence, his obsessive projection into mass media and the undeniable appetite of the public for his quips, taunts, proclamations and shenanigans, like a fuhrer.

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He says he has the power to shut down the border of Mexico, and Canada too if he feels like it.  He says he’s got the power to stop all traffic and all trade between the US and Mexico just to stifle migration into the United States.  He says he has the power to create tariffs on Mexican goods as punishment for allowing migrants to try to enter the US via Mexico.  He says he has the power to declare national emergencies to fund the building of a wall along the entire border with Mexico to keep migrants from entering the US.  He has all that power, but no power to allocate funds for soap and toothbrushes for little kids in the concentration camps where they are being processed after being caught migrating into the US.  He acknowledges a humanitarian crisis at the border, and it is, a crisis of his own making.  Instead of responding with humanitarian compassion he treats them worse than the conditions they endured and escaped, by which he plans to deter future migrants, the message being don’t come to the United States, they will cage you, take away your kids and let you rot and stink with the lights on all night long.

This is a classic term paper example of the theme they used to call when I was in high school Man’s Inhumanity to Man.

But if we don’t stop them from coming here they’ll just keep coming!

In the face of diaspora the reaction is to create lawbreakers by criminalizing residency.

The fuhrer says he has the power to order rounding up and deporting illegal aliens — his term, not mine.  And he will do that unless the US Congress legislates new immigration laws he will sign, and that won’t happen.  His goal is to eradicate immigration and kick out immigrants.  This will be a campaign focus of his for his reelection.

Among the lives at stake are the ones they call the Dreamers, the DACA migrants, people brought into the US illegally as children who have nonetheless grown up in American society and know no other country, who are now grown up taxpaying adults with degrees, careers, lives and families and now face mass deportation, mostly to Mexico, because they were brought to the US when they were little kids.  I can see them being bused in orange school buses to border crossings like Matamoros, Juarez, Las Cruces and Tiajuana, the Mexican authorities checking out the paperwork and looking over all the deportees one by one and saying to ICE, Lo siento, these people all appear to be yours.  We’re not taking them back.

Okay, break out the cages again.

Actually, Mexico would likely love to have them back, especially if they speak Spanish.  The resentment such reverse diaspora would create would result in terrible damage to the osmotic alliance that exists in reality between Mexico and the US, and that seems to be the fuhrer’s design.

I take it personally because it’s like he’s deliberately trying to ruin my winter vacation.

Last year it was the tale of the caravan of invaders of not so nice people (he didn’t even equivocate there were decent people on both sides in the caravan) coming directly towards the heartland of the United States to harm us.  He characterized these migrants as killers.  Invaders.  Marching through Mexico from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  Mean dudes.  Predators.  Trump wanted them met at the border with his Wall.  His Wall was supposed to be a big U-turn for migrants — don’t even dream.  That’s when he came up with the idea he could create emergencies so he can invoke the Emergency Powers Act to reappropriate money to build a Wall but not of course to humanely shelter migrants who somehow got through the existing dragnet at the border and surrendered or got caught seeking asylum in US territory.

Because the land route of migration from Central America goes through Mexico, Trump ordered tariffs and threatened an entire border shutdown to castigate Mexico for not doing enough to prevent migrants from invading the US.  Instead of a blue ribbon commission to look at the conditions causing people to uproot their lives and travel thousands of miles to the Land of Milk and Honey, the Pastures of Plenty, Trump proclaims he will withhold foreign aid from Central America unless they stop their own emigration.  That’s just what these communities need right now, captive repression.

Mexico and Mexicans for their part have been tolerant and easy going in response to the provocations.  Trump tried to badger their last President Nieto into agreeing to pay for the Wall and Nieto would have none of it.  Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, a white haired genial guy around my age who seems to think things through rather than react fast, a methodical but not radical reformer and anti-corruption populist, has parlayed civil restraint and modest self-confidence thus far to absorb the hyperbolic insults and negotiate for the future, the long haul.  AMLO was born in the Mexican state of Tobasco, home of the spicy sauce, but unlike the fiery salsa he keeps a cool tongue and does not let relations with the US distract him from governance at home.

Venezuela and Cuba can rant about their miseries caused by America, but Mexico has good cause to speak kindly about our relationships and deserves far better than the low and vile reputation characterized by President Trump.  For this I wonder at the grace and hospitality we receive from the Mexicans.  If the president called my home town the equivalent of a shithole, I would certainly resent it and anyone who shared his opinions — oh that’s right, he already did, citing the large Somali migrant population as well as my city’s status as a sanctuary city.  The Mexicans for the most part express no recrimination or resentment to us for the seeming official designation of their country and citizens as Bad News.

They are aware and don’t need to be reminded of the reputations of drug lords and the legacies of official corruption — perceptions they would prefer to live down and amend through continuous social and political progress.  It does them no good to be known as a crime infested, radically violent zone of terror.  This place is not lawless.  In fact Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is sometimes described as too boring and tame for tourists who seek thrills and decadent party life because the tourists by and large behave themselves and don’t dwell on seeking vice or raising hell.

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Because Zihuatanejo Ixtapa lacks a Spring Break intensity we rather like the nuanced atmosphere of being pleasantly Under the Top.  It’s like the predictability of the weather January through March, the chance you will have an unspoiled vacation is almost certain if you care enough to go there.  My feelings are mixed about the decline of fellow travelers from the US.  There’s a more for me delight about it.  Fewer gringos from the States reduces the incidents of Ugly Americanos acting rudely, sometimes out of ignorance but sometimes out of cold malice, casting aspersions on us all in fresh, scathing ways Donald Trump only seems far away and abstract.  The decline in numbers of Americanos has not really depreciated the total occupancy rate of tourists.  Mainly the drop in tourists from the US is largely being made up by Mexicans.  The emerging, rising Mexican middle class likes to vacation and they come from cities like Guadalajara, Zamora and Mexico City with their kids and sometimes their parents for a week at the beach, or sometimes a long weekend.  It’s like people where I live go up north to the lake.  More Mexicans on vacation means more Latino music and less redundant classic rock or pop country, though some of the decline of American gringo tourists is also made up for by more and more gringo Canadians, which accounts for a mishmash of tastes and the popularity of ice hockey on the video screens in this tropical paradise.  Compounding the exotic atmosphere, not only are Canadians replacing Americans among the guest population, more and more of them hail from Quebec Province, where they mostly speak French.

So this makes for a quaintly thriving international village in its peak time, the dead of North American winter.  Three winters ago we rode with a tour guide to the town of Petatlan, not far from Zihua, and I noticed he carried with him a French language textbook.  He explained to me he was meeting more French speakers and wanted to keep up.  It appears he saw a trend.  I did not foresee that my college French classes would count at the beach in Ixtapa.

As long as we are welcomed we will abide at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo at least a month of our homeland’s harsh winter.  It is a place where we trust to good fortune.  Farm to table cuisine — ocean to table.  Relaxation on the beach.  Latin music.  A place to recharge and reenergize body and soul at the beginning of each new year.  To commune with the soul of the ocean.  A place where we can be sincere, be ourselves away from home and feel so much at home and not at all alien.  Where I can observe the Southern Cross constellation, never visible at my home latitude.  Someplace rather obscure and unglamorous in a shabby chic romantic sort of way.  Not a Potemkin village but a real and vital community.  It’s nice to be their guests and to be confided the freedom to hang out unmolested in an exotic land.

Oscar Romero is the GM of the Krystal Hotel.  About 260 people work there, with 255 rooms.  His goal is to raise it to a 5 star hotel, which should make me worry he will price me out of the market except I know what he really means.  His business model is based on exemplary service.

When asked about public safety he refers to the American city Chicago as far more dangerous than Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, and yet people go there for edification and avoid trouble.  Senor Romero is an educated and worldly man aware that his hotel brand is on the line every single day and he likes to entertain long time guests at a cocktail party just past sunset to introduce his management team and solicit feedback from the guests.  Since I rather love the place I give praise where praise is due, which I hope balances off the whiners and complainers who like to confront managers and get beefs off their chests.  Bless their hearts.

Speaking of hearts, I heard word somebody staying at the Bayview Grand condo died of a heart attack on the beach the other day, and I asked Senor Romero if the Krystal had a portable AED defibrillator on its premises.  Yes, he told me, saying the Krystal was a primary hot spot for emergency response within a consortium of safety efforts among the four adjoining condos and hotels, the whole beach if needed, a network linked by radio.  The Krystal had its own AED ready to share if called upon, he said, and introduced me to Maricio of the night watch of bellman security, one of the trained AED operators always on duty.

Oscar Romero knows the proportion of hospitality that goes on behind the scenes.  I am always amazed at having my bed remade every day and they don’t even use fitted sheets.  Even more, the housekeepers — camaristas — invariably female — frequently leave behind an origami figure of a bird, puppy, cat or a monkey fashioned like sculpture out of a bath towel detailed with flower petals.  This year her name was Vianay.  For these things and sweeping up the beach sand, of course we tip them.

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Their livelihood relies on serving guests, and when the service is gracious we tip generously.  We are aware of the daily wage of these servants and it’s appallingly low by our American standards.  Even when we might factor the difference in the national economies and relative costs of living, we come out looking like wealthy aristocrats — and there are others much richer than we are, witness the yachts and luxury condos.  At home in Minneapolis we are a modest middle class couple of empty nest grandparents, retired from our middle-level careers and getting along on Social Security and what we saved in our working years to be able to live comfortably enough to travel and go on winter vacation as long as we are physically and mentally able.  In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa we might as well be zillionaires.

The contrast — disparity — stuns us sometimes.  We realize, of course, we have nothing to feel ashamed of or to feel guilty about because we are American middle class — what the French called the bourgeoisie — a rather enviable status on this planet based on merit and luck but rarely predestined the way it is with the filthy rich.  We see ourselves less as entitled, privileged and exceptional as we see us as competent, moral, paranoid and educated enough to get by.  We see ourselves invisible, anonymous and relatively autonomous, and at our stage of life rather lucky things seem to have turned out fortunate so far, a charmed life compared to any metric.  We have a lot going for us, but we don’t have any money — or at least we don’t think we do.

Until we live in Mexico for a month or so and take a moment to observe what we’re doing here.  It’s been about twenty years, and in that time we have formed recurring relationships with the servants.  Maybe we have crossed a taboo line somewhere by getting to know them, learn their histories, meet their families, visit their homes, take them out for dinner — cena — at a restaurant on their nights off.  If we crossed a line we never really saw the boundaries of the frontiers when we crossed over.  It was somewhere in the midst of being nice, and sincere.  Both ways.  And now we really can’t cross back.  Once we have left the friendly confines of the Hotel Zone you end up returning to the hotel and the beach with a deeper connection with the larger community.  You realize the people at the hotel serving us actually live here all year long.  They grew up here.  Their kids grow up here.  This is their home town.  This is not their hobby.  These are not summer camp jobs and then they go back to school to get their doctorates.  This is everyday life, and over time if we have been granted privy to see what it’s like the the experience should mean something, and we should treasure that meaning, the understanding, and feel charmed for knowing.

There is no way we can go home without knowing our material luxury seems obscene compared to the simple domestic lives of the families who live on the eastern side of the mountain above Zihuatanejo.  These people are poor, decked and zig-zagged on top of one another, humble cement and cinderblock plots stacked up the hillside just one earthquake, mudslide or hurricane away from disaster, a neighborhood clinging to a cliff over the commercial boulevard of the city, a hive of adobe homesteaders all wired into the electric power grid strung like chicken wire through the scrub trees, mesquite and occasional banana trees on this side of the mountain that does not face the ocean.  Here our friends cook us fresh huachinango a ajo on the wood fire at their dirt floor patio and serve us first because we are guests.

None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco…”

I have white hair, what hair I have.  Mexicans seem to revere white haired elders, although they don’t know what to make of baldness.  I am a white caucasian gringo.  There is a mystical legend of a White Buffalo, known as Bufalo Blanco, and somewhat because of my name, in jest, and they don’t call me Senor Kelly, somebody nicknamed me Bufalo Blanco, or just Blanco.

None of our Mexican friends has ever said to me, “Blanco, if I show up in Minneapolis next month can you help me get a job and a place to crash?”

El General did a stint working in the USA, and whether he was legal or not I really don’t care.  A massage giver — masajista — named Anna who Roxanne likes tells us she used to live in San Diego until she got caught in a roundup eight or so years ago.  She wouldn’t mind going back if she could.  She has a tween-age daughter with her who was born there and is a US citizen.  A young guy named Marco who serves breakfasts at Deborah’s was born in Arizona but came back to Zihuatanejo with his mother when she got caught and sent back.  They are all very content not living in the USA.

While we were down there last winter we looked around for any sign of that Caravan surging north, supposedly closing in on Mexico City around that time.  Granted, Ixtapa is a ways off the beeline from Nicaragua to Mexico City, but the route supposedly passed through the state of Guerrero, and that’s the state Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are in.  We saw no signs of migrants, though I had read some of them had dropped off the march in Mexico and found work along the way, already knowing Spanish.

The effect of the American reaction to Central American migration on Mexico does concern me.  How much of the diaspora they can absorb before their infrastructure buckles, compassion and hospitality wear thin and society questions how come the United States isn’t paying its fair share, all puts a heavy burden on Mexicans to hold the political middle of Central and South America.  They have taken on brave roles for keeping peace at both their southern and northern borders, the beginning and endpoint of migrant journeys.  Seekers of asylum — the biggest reason to have when crashing the door to the USA — asylum — seeking basic elementary safety from specific harm — are not allowed to apply from within the US border and cannot wait within the US border and walk around free waiting for a hearing of the asylum petition.

People who enter the US first and then turn themselves in or get caught are held in detention camps for lawbreaking, which doesn’t look favorable for an asylum seeker not looking forward to being sent back.  The detention camp brutality is a calculated policy by the Trump administration to make the word go out far and wide down the spine of the Sierra Madre to the Isthmus and Caribbean and down the Andes and throughout the Amazon, don’t come here and wade across the Rio Grande and don’t come here to sneak into the US because, asylum phylum, they will put you in an overcrowded pen like in a turkey barn, disappear your kids, scare your ass off like you might die then and there, keep you in caged concrete cells in the hottest region of the United States during the hottest season, feed you crappy food if feed you at all, deny you showers, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, encourage you to drink toilet water, let you sleep under a shiny foil blanket with the lights on all night, won’t help you get legal representation and may leave you there to rot until you agree to deportation.

Or you can stay in Mexico pending a hearing with an American official to plead the asylum claim calmly in front of an immigration judge — maybe within maybe three to five years.  That’s a lot of people from Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua hanging out in Mexico three to five years.  Meanwhile there are Mexicans who would like to migrate in and out of the United States.  Mexicans thus far have shown valor and distinguished compassion for their absorption of this humanitarian crisis and continually seeing what they can do and working things out for the greater good and not making excuses.

There is much cause for resentment of Americans and America but Mexicans would rather so far take an attitude above the fray.  Our conversations skirt the most obvious political memes.  Being a tourist is designed to transcend ideology.  It’s amnesty, asylum and armistice.  Tourists live under truce.  Immunity.  For this we agree not to get too snooty and invoke our superiority of culture, and our hosts agree not to shame us with our own hypocrisy.

Only sincerity survives when you go outside the hotel zone.  There are many nice fakes on both sides but only the sincere enjoy the most benefits of the freedom to wander the localities.  The Bay of Zihuatanejo alone is a hike through time and culture.  The walk begins at the pier in the middle of the marina, the embarcadero, the place where the boats dock.  The walk technically should begin at a couple of haciendas on the cliffs at the edge of the bay, but people aren’t allowed to hike on the property, it’s under guard.  Also in that corner of the harbor the Mexican navy has a base.  So the long day’s trek all the way around Zihuatanejo Bay can begin at the pier.  From the Embarcadero you can follow the waterfront on a promenade for blocks and blocks of shops and places to eat.  Every block connects to a street deeper into town which leads to more shops layered parallel to the water.  Offshore in the bay’s calm water are moored the sailboats and the rowboats.  The promenade leads you to temporarily end the shops and restaurants at an open plaza with a pavilion and a central basketball court where somebody’s always playing.  Along this stretch of promenade from the embarcadero to the basketball court you can find your meal.  A hand made rug.  Vanilla.  It’s the gateway to the commercial city inside the harbor town, the residences, the food market, surprising galleries and joyerias (crafted jewelry stores) and other shops, cafes and restaurants with interesting proprietors.

Continuing along the bay from the plaza the promenade encounters the first public beach, Playa Principal.  From there the restaurants get a little more fancy, they’ll serve tables on the sand, and still the prices are under Ixtapa prices which are always a good deal, so it’s often worth the cab fare to the plaza, tips included.

After Playa Principal the hike along the waterfront leaves the edges of downtown Zihua for a series of beaches and stretches of rugged shoreline linked by a public walkway including some steps to navigate small stretches of rocky coastline between these beaches and the aging hotels from the 20th Century Fox back lots.  Check out the Hotel Irma sometime for its mosaic inlays.  The beaches are calmer than Ixtapa because the bay is more sheltered, so it has always been ideal for waders and swimmers.  Playa Madeira is famous as a Spanish launch point for shipping timber harvested from the hills.  Playa Ropa is the most famous for being the site of a cargo of fine clothes from the Far East washed ashore from a storm that wrecked a ship, making the people of Zihuatanejo — a Nahuatl word meaning the Place of Women — the best dressed people in the western hemisphere in the 16th Century.

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Once you have reached Playa Ropa straight along the sea from the embarcadero, you may consider heading back and calling it a day.  You would doubtless be hiking by day and the day’s heat would beckon you to siesta, and even at night in the romantic moonlight it would serve no point to go further than Playa Ropa on foot.  You can get a taxi from any of the venerable hotels — you might consider staying at one in the future, for the charm — to return to Ixtapa.  Beyond Playa Ropa the coastline along the bay borders on jungle, much as it does the five miles of ocean between Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, only here the rugged coastline exists within the bay and very visible to the rest of the city.  Mansions carved out of rock and luxury hotels ascend into the cactus, palms and mesquite, their sailboats moored in calm waters.

This next stretch of hike if pursued to the very end of the bay would involve rugged terrain on the fringe of private property, and more jungle, but there is a legend of a foot path.  The most arduous jungle trek, when viewed from a boat, through the space least inhabited which is really a peninsula where there is no road for vehicles to get there, no matter how rich.  When you arrive at the very end of the peninsula which is the door to closing the bay, you arrive at a place they call an island because there is no road by land, the foot path is treacherous, and everybody comes and goes there by boat, primarily the water taxis from the embarcadero pier, where the day hike began.

This end point is called Isla Las Gatas, or Las Gatas Island.  It’s a strand of beach curved back to a distant view of the city, and all the boats in between, where the sandy beach is a promenade of open air cantinas, places to take a table beneath an awning, get a beach chair and sit in the shallow, calm water of the bay, get lunch and watch the sea crash upon the lava rock breakwaters.  It’s like going to an extra resort, a day trip away from your resort, where the cantina’s groceries for the kitchen and the bar arrive by motorboat an hour after you do and since you arrived early you can stake out a keen vantage for people-watching on the beach promenade.

Las Gatas not only translates as The Cats, Isla Las Gatas literally translates as Island of Female Cats, or literally Pussycat Island.  This is consistent with the town being named Place of Women before the Spanish arrived.  Whether by power of suggestion or matter of fact, there is a strong feminist presence in the Mexican demographics.  Women in the workplace.  Shopkeepers.  Proprietors.  Among the Mexican tourists.  It would not be surprising to find statistics showing Mexico leading at a world level in women regularly participating in the decisions and the professions.  Except taxi drivers — still an all male job.

Genaro El General Salinas was one of the first restaurateurs I noticed hiring women waiters.  Twenty years ago being a restaurant waiter was only a job for men.  The Krystal hotel hired a few women.  It didn’t seem to wreck the esteem of any male breadwinners.  Genaro himself has two daughters who will be adults not long from now and who are born of a generation like my own grandchildren who have enough to think about in this life without second-guessing the rights of women.

There’s still a lot of machismo in Mexican men, they just learn to adjust and express manliness in more enlightened ways.  Witness singers like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce.

At the Krystal main restaurant called the Aquamarine we opt for the breakfast buffet.  I enlisted our waiter Jose to give a deciding opinion whether another waiter on the staff, Toribio, resembled as a dead-ringer the portrait of Benito Juarez on the twenty MX peso bill, the first Mexican born president elected to the republic.  I meant no disrespect, so that’s why I asked Jose, and Jose agreed, Toribio looked exactly like Benito Juarez, his face, his eyes, his hair, and he consulted Martin, who concurred.  I was given the okay to break the news to Toribio.  Come to think of it, Martin bore a striking resemblance to Jose Maria Morelos, the face of the 50 peso bill, an independence fighter.  Pretty soon we’re all looking around for faces in the crowd like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  Then Jose subtly pointed out a guest at breakfast with his family he said could be past Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and since he wasn’t on the face of any currency I dropped out of the game.  It was getting over my head.

It doesn’t seem long ago when Jose was the new guy, a cute young punk shlepping the sand hustling drinks to the beach palapas.  Now he’s a senior servant like his mentors, Raphael, Toribio, Gloria, Anabel and the maestro himself, Jesus.  Jose has children and they will grow to maturity, like Anabel’s kids, and El General’s, within the reality of their parents’ existential choices and their own perceptions of their own opportunities originating in their home town.  They are the future of Mexico.  All the years we relied on Zihuatanejo Ixtapa to serve us, feed us, comfort us and allow us to freely pursue our leisure escape from treacherous winter, year by year we notice the kids.  Not just the little semi-beggars selling miniature toys from table to table during the dining hours but the school kids during weekdays.  Kids of the guests at the hotels and on the beach, invariably Mexican families.  Kids like the daughter of Roxanne’s favorite masajista Anna, who comes to work with her mom on days she doesn’t have school and likes to practice English with the massage customers from the US while we wait for our appointments.  Kids like the teenage boys I call mozos who practice surfing after school on the waves at the more isolated edge of Playa Palmar.  Kids starting out in the workforce serving burgers and malteds at Ruben’s.  Kids hanging out with smart phones at the plaza.  Kids doing dishes at the hotel.  Kids performing at the nightly stage shows put on at the hotel garden.

By kids I mean young people, everybody at least two generations younger than me.  The fresh talent.  The ones who will take charge of the future of the Earth when the generation of me and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador passes on.

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I wonder about these kids and what they make of this world.  Technologically worldly,  Mexico sports a very high literacy rate, so one can extrapolate probability that people have a lot of opportunity to be aware of what’s going on.  Its government and sociopolitical economic system functions as a liberal democracy — if it has flaws, aches and pains, it too struggles in its way to be a more perfect union — it is far from a failed state.  I look around to the young Mexicans and wonder what they think.

What is it like to grow up born in the Third World and raised in the age of Google, I wonder.  Ponder.  I have a young pen pal named Ariel who is nineteen.  He recommends books by Chinua Achebe and John Katzenbach.  He has a younger brother Uriel, seventeen, who is a dancer, a member of a traditional Mexican dancing troupe that has won competitions at festivals.  They are sons of Anabel, who works at the hotel, whom we’ve come to know from our years at the Krystal.  Ariel now works the night shift in the kitchen.  Uriel is in high school.  The primary question in my mind right now is how much do I want to know, to get inside their heads and souls and hearts, how much do I get involved, how much responsibility do I take on for the outcomes of their lives by befriending them?

It’s not possible to un-befriend them now, not without creating hurt feelings and confirming perhaps the worst ugly-Americanisms.  I wish I could scholarship the whole bunch and dream dreams of winning the Powerball lottery and getting with our estate lawyers Steve and Jodie and researching the most efficient and totally legal way to give money to our friends in Mexico.  As it is, as wealthy as we are compared to Anabel’s family, back home in our real life in America we’re just getting by.  Part of that annual budget includes a month of winter in Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, tipping generously.  Even so, back home we are just getting by — comfortably.  In Mexico we are rich.

How Mexicans eye the disparity might be the key to future attitudes toward the United States.  This is no time for gringos to get stingy with trade dollars when Mexico can look elsewhere in the world to export its agricultural products, chemical, mechanical and industrial technologies if the US cuts off the border for trade.  The US has been Mexico’s Genie Friend for at least fifty years and should act with pride to sponsor its mature status among western nations and not patronize them as if they were children of a different species raised by foster parents.

In Zihuatanejo Ixtapa the influence of the American middle class gringo is fading slowly along generational lines.  We are aging out of the demographics with less and less younger replacements — baby boomer American vacationers are frankly dying off, getting hips replaced and entering memory care while fewer of their children and grandchildren care to risk a sunny beachy vacation way down south in the middle of wild west Mexico.  Jipes!

Gradually the Americans are being replaced by more and more Canadians, who suffer winters so ungodly severe it’s almost a law that their worker pensions guaranty a one week vacation a year in the tropics as compensation for being located along the Arctic Circle.  (In Minnesota it’s not almost a law but some people treat winter vacations as like a 401.K or an IRA, independent retirement account.)  The Canadians are unafraid of the latino armageddon warned by the American state department.  Though not worth as much as the US dollar, Canadian money exchanges favorably to the Mexican peso so they can enjoy luxury at bargain prices compared to Florida, Hawaii or some of the southern United States.  They have discovered a winter resting place and laid claim with their red maple leaf beach towels.

Among the Canadians the Mexicans make up for the diminishing Americans.  They come by tour bus on the weekends.  They come in their SUV and crossover cars from Jalisco and Mexico City.  The fly in and out on Interjet.  Mexicans taking advantage of their own Mexico, days and weeks at the seashore.  Families.  Couples.  Multigenerations.  The hospitality marketing to the upwardly mobile Mexican middle class has struck lightning in a bottle appealing to the home market for leisure time at the beach.  In the enthusiasm of Mexicans to embrace Zihuatanejo Ixtapa as a vacation destination what I see is no fear.  This assures me.  It’s one thing to understand Canadians are naive and think only Americans should worry about their safety because they stick out by the way they pronounce their A’s, and still another thing to trust the Mexican fellow travelers for their calm understanding of themselves to expect no harm.

It’s what I said before as a sense the Mexicans are looking out for us, like guardian angels.  Sometimes, but rarely, we’ve encountered hard stares right through us by Mexican fellow guests who don’t seem to want anything to do with us.  This reminds me of the zombie stares I felt in public in Grenada, Mississippi from people who see you hanging with black people.  It seems most Mexicans like Americans and treat us nicely, but some probably don’t like us and don’t express it, while some others express their resentment with cold indifference.  These are not in the hospitality trade, but they are not people who would like to kill you.  They just wish you weren’t there taking up Mexican vacation space.  They know you aren’t Canadian.

How the Canadians are flying down there I’d like to know.  The Mexicans I understand, they live in the region and drive a few hours by car or fly Mexican airlines.  Some Canadians, I am told, drive their cars to Zihuatanejo from places like Calgary and Saskatoon, not only down through the whole body of the USA but all the way down about as far through the heart of Mexico.  But most of them fly in and out of Zihuatanejo International, ZIH.  I don’t know about their airports, but the past few years it’s been getting harder and harder to find nonstop flights to ZIH from MSP.

Minneapolis-St Paul used to feature routinely competitive nonstop service to Zihuatanejo several times a week.  No more.  Northwest Orient Airlines, based at MSP, then our home town airlines, owned a travel service named MLT which touted Worry Free Vacations offering air and lodging packages in an out of ZIH two or three times a week via Northwest.  Charter fliers like Ryan Air and bargain airlines like Sun Country competed for passengers between MSP and ZIH offering direct non-stop service almost any day of the week from January through April, often on sale.

Roxanne and I first came to the Krystal Ixtapa on Worry Free MLT auspices, the best deal at the time.  We’ve since learned to book our own.  We’ve seen a vast drop in direct flights offered by air carriers serving MSP to ZIH with limited availability, strict choices and a leap in price.  Delta Airlines acquired Northwest and in the merger divested its Northwest hub headquarters at Eagan, Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis-St Paul, in favor of Delta’s existing world headquarters at Atlanta, Georgia and its hub at the busiest airport in the world.  To be sure, Delta still flies a lot of planes in and out of MSP, nonstops between a lot of world destinations through its affiliations with KLM and Air France.  Delta competes with United and Spirit and Aer Lingus and Alaska and Frontier and other airline carriers for the domestic and international traveler via the Twin Cities airport.  Delta still flies to Zihuatanejo.  Round trip direct nonstop from MSP from a Saturday to a Saturday could cost a couple thousand dollars USD.  No flexibility for a ten day trip.  Otherwise Delta from MSP connects to Zihuatanejo through Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles or Mexico City, and still not much cheaper.

Sun Country, now the Twin Cities only home town airline, still provides twice-weekly direct nonstop service from MSP to Zihuatanejo, but don’t wait for a fire sale.  The fare you see today is going up a few bucks tomorrow.

With fewer flights and higher fares that means even fewer connecting flights demanding routes through MSP to ZIH.  With Delta making the trip an expensive all day hassle and Sun Country jacking the price and squeezing availability, it feels a lot like the airlines themselves are discouraging travelers against Mexico.

From Minneapolis it’s less than five hours away.

The mid-January outdoor temperature differential can be more than 80F degrees.

I don’t know of any conspiracy to wreck my winter vacation but the situation tests my patience.  I figure if in the future we are forced to fly through Mexico City, then que sera, time to visit the Zocalo and Teotihuacan if we need to go the extra mile.  If American politics harden the border for us to transcend the Wall, we’ll keep going unless it becomes impossible.

What would stop us would have to be traumatic, shocking and sad.  We would have to be told we are no longer welcome guests of Mexico.

The General would never turn us away.

This past year a visitor from Iowa, a place called Okoboji, offered to paint a mural on a blank wall facing into the General’s flank from a little mini-mall around the back of the plaza.  The Okoboji artist insisted, offered to paint it for free, showed sketches, demonstrated he had skills.  Another wall next to this one already had a mural of sorts, promoting the General’s sports bar as a Husband Day Care Center.  The Okoboji guy proposed a political cartoon of a wall across the desert with cacti and sand and the White House on the far side.  On the near side are some Mexican guys looking past the wall.  The wall is all cinderblocks and barbed wire and it loops back all along the horizon and behind the White House.  In the foreground another Mexican (you can tell they’re Mexicans because they wear sombreros and moustaches and pancho vests) is either digging a hole or patching a hole at the base of the wall.  (Could it be a shithole?  Hmm.)  And standing with his back to the wall across the hole from the guy with the shovel is the smiling figure of Speedy Gonzales the cartoon mouse — full copyright infringement no doubt, but defensible as satire — standing guard over the hole in the near foreground, drawn to scale against the cinder bricks to be about three feet tall, dressed in classic sombrero and his shirt adorned with promotion of The General’s Sports Bar.

By the time Roxanne and I saw it the mural was all the gringo gossip up and down the playa.  It’s very unusual for someone to express a public stance on a political subject, much less express it in such a permanent fashion.  Wherever the Okoboji guy is now, Geraro Salinas is on the hook for the mural and whatever it means.  Obviously the subject is the Wall juxtaposed to the White House.  The White House is isolated in the desert beyond an everlasting wall.  Beyond that the whole scene is surreal.  All the cactus are saguaro with their arms in the air.  The sand is yellow.  The figures are so stereotypical one questions if the imagery is racist, symbolic, parabolic, or gibberish.

It’s satire, I assured the General.  Speedy Gonzales says it’s meant to be funny.  I think.

Yeah, said the General, but I told the guy, if my next application for a guest visa gets turned down I’m holding him responsible.

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BK

Temperate Zone

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Life’s good here.  Maybe some people don’t realize it.  Others might say, too good, undeserved, and conspire to take it away.

Commies.  Commies would admit, though, life’s good here for commies.  Long as they don’t break the law, even commies can rag and nag and denounce and protest their living hearts out.  I use commies here as a metaphorical example, you may insert any radical antiestablishment group you want.  Take your pick among the unenfranchised and the disenchanted, or start your own.

Say something nasty and clever and get your Andy Warhol’s worth before they shut you down.  Who they?  They who?  You know.

It’s considered illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but only if there’s no fire.  It’s a ruling under the so-called Espionage Act, I think.  Even so, in America we never experienced a social order where typewriters and Xerox copy machines could be evidence of transmission of unauthorized information dangerous to the state.  Samizdat?  Say what?  Out front of any crowded theater on Hennepin Avenue any given night somebody might be preaching about the End of the World, some way or other, and that’s free speech.  Until or unless it incites a stampede among ticketholders inside the theater, hard to do without hardwiring the preacher outside to the crowd inside, a very deliberate event to which the preacher would be held culpable.  Neat trick but not likely to happen, even in Minneapolis.

When I say life is good, I speak to a greater good.  There’s no denial bad exists.  Bad people.  Bad trips.  Bad omens.  Bad luck.  Bad relationships.  Bad outcomes.  There’s bad stuff all around us.  Bad deeds are done.  Bad stuff happens.  And there is evil.  Everywhere.

When I look for the good I don’t ignore, trivialize or overlook the bad stuff.  Sometimes that’s all I can think about.  Perhaps it’s an ancient obsession illustrated by the Greek playwrights and Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare and Stephen King — evil is much more interesting than good.  I am so blessed by such a charmed life I feel compelled to brood over all the disparities and inequities between my life and the less fortunate.  I get depressed contemplating injustice, inhumanity and misfortune.  I seek serenity sorting the things I can change from the things I cannot.  I seek ways I can change things I’d like to change, if I can, how I can, if I care so much.  It’s hard to accept things cannot be changed.  Sometimes it’s hard to accept serenity.

What helps is the five minute rule, which I learned from my daughter Michel.  It’s okay to dwell and ruminate over something that really bothers you, but if it’s not resolved in five minutes it’s time to move on and think about other things.  Important things always come back anyway, but it’s no good to obsess.  You may even find caution thinking about happiness too much.  Living existentially is a fluid soundtrack, voicetrack, movie within a movie.  That it’s Real Life, as my granddaughter Tess calls it, then all the more lucid these experiences go mixed in the milieu of life, and the more serious.  The more sincere.

An advantage is my age, an accumulation of trips around the sun and an awareness of awareness of trying not to be caught unawares.  As I keep saying, mine is the perspective of a charmed life.  Born privileged in the heart of the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, I got nothing to cry about from lack of opportunity at any level in my lifetime.  Not born rich per se, but middle class bourgeousie, availed to all the niceties of life in modern America at a time when our culture prized itself as highly civilized.  Such an upbringing leads, as you have seen, to a sense of exceptionalism, in a way not undeserved if not entitled.  (See Untitled essay, 29 May, 2017.)  I do blame my parents for several events in my life that changed trajectories of my history which I could not control, but not for the outcomes.  For good or not I inherited their genes, but not their destinies.  My life is a product of mostly unrestricted choices of my own in a universe of exponential possibilities.  I made my own mistakes.  I accept responsibility.  If I enjoy no serenity it’s my own fault.

Arlo Guthrie had a talking blues about the Last Guy.  It was a parable about the hierarchy.  At the top he might group the ones we call the One Percent.  Down under are various levels of the rest of us.  And there we look down and down, those who don’t have it as good as we do.  But don’t worry, even they can look down at somebody who’s got it worse.  And they can look down at somebody even worse off than they.  Then Arlo stops playing guitar and asks, but what about the Last Guy?

What if the last guy was a woman?  Probably.  Or a child.

Look at world migration this way and you see people trying to catch on to the bottom rung.  They risk all kinds of unknown doom to escape a sucking abyss of torment for the slimmest, tiniest chance at a sliver, a grain, a crumb of a life I and my peers are born into.  Everybody above them, ahead of them are the same way, looking up.  Looking to better their place, their situation.  Sometimes we fall.  Sometimes we get back up.  Some keep falling and falling, right off the earth.

Where I live, in the middle of the northern hemisphere and the western hemisphere, where life is good, there is no shortage of sad stories of stuff gone wrong.  There’s no shortage of humanity, so there’s daily evidence of best laid plans and worst laid plans going awry.  Insurance actuaries make a living calculating these things.  The costs get built into the prices.  The price of a good life is subsidizing the ones who have a bad life.  Prisons, for example.  The chronically sick.  The homeless.

And on up the ladder we subsidize each other, the charities and foundations, entry level employment, the service industries, the manufacturing jobs, the professions and the trades, traders, the entrepreneurs, capitalists, entertainers and artists, scientists, farmers and tycoons.  This constant flow of subsidies is the basic economic climate of a free society.  When somebody perceives the subsidies are getting out of hand, the flow changes.  When somebody sabotages the flow, the disruptions are challenged.  A greater good is achieved.

It’s no good to enact policies to knock the bottom rung off the ladder.

It’s fashionable among some people to hail America First.  They know the good life when they see it and want to preserve its history and carry it forward to the next generation.  They express resentment to immigrants as intruders, invaders.  Some resent legal immigration as much as illegal.  I can see descendant Native Americans rolling their eyes.  Imagine seeing all these waves of white people, some with black slaves, all claiming land, just six, seven generations ago.  See how far we have all come.  To build a wall around that, arm the moat, crank up the drawbridge and not let anybody else in is like a religion saying there is no more room in heaven, that’s all the souls we can take, no more baptisms.  It’s more than knocking off the bottom rung of the social ladder, it’s pulling the ladder out of reach.  It’s saying, sorry, no more Promised Land.

You could argue, who promised what?  The facts exist that the American Dream all came true here despite the dodgy white man’s ways.  Somehow the Twin Cities on the upper Mississippi River evolved from scratch into prototypical urban modern metropolis amid vast grids of quasi-non urban populations.  The tribes of European immigrants who settled in Minnesota the past two centuries all seemed to learn how to make nice among one another here in the New Country.  As much so that people of color got a hind start in the social ladder, a factor today in the disparities calculation and worth mentioning in today’s comparisons about the good life.

It could be trendy to be color blind but to miss the subtle shades of individual features is to miss the beauty of each individual face.

Pity to people who hide their faces.

Who avert their eyes.

Assimilation works both ways.  What worries the worriers is that we might feel compelled to be more like them.  It begins with their food, when it enters the mainstream.  Long ago it was Chinese.  Pizza and spaghetti.  Goulash.  Enchiladas, tacos and fajitas.  Indian curry.  Not to forget ribs, fried chicken and mac and cheese.  What could be next?  Intermarriage.  Interracial children.

We forget we are the first ever multiracial democracy on the planet, however it came to be so.  We proudly called ourselves a melting pot, a mosaic.  For all our stupid and tragic mistakes there are episodes of brilliance where America, as they call us around the world, showed how to become a more perfect union of We the People, and not just by its government but in the daily dumbass everyday relationships and interactions of everyday life.

Today America is looked upon as a crucible of incivility.  A forge of dissolution.  With or without Russian assistance, the squabbling memes and tropes are shattering the mosaic society into venal and selfish conflicts of identity.  Identities.  Less perfect union.  Segregated outlooks.  Jealousy of those perceived to be getting better attention.  Outrage at feeling left out.  Outbursts of We Will Not Be Replaced, whatever that really means.  A president who pits the screwed against the shafted.  Everybody’s got their own class action suit.  Blame globalism.  GMOs.  Blame The Man.  Whitey.  Blame affirmative action.  Robotics.  Welfare fraud.  Immigration.  Blame somebody else for not living right.  Feel righteously deprived and forgotten, no matter who you are.  Disenfranchised.  Disrespected.  Disgruntled.  Displaced.  Deplored.

Cultural Road Rage.

We’re setting a bad example for the rest of the world.  We’re misusing our superpowers.  We’re disproving democracy.

If we don’t sort things out among ourselves, somebody will step in and sort it out for us.  Censorship of the internet already is invoked to keep the peace.  The worldwide web is policed.  There’s a dragnet of metadata and cyber digitalysis every minute.  We leave indelible prints in the Cloud every day.  Privacy is surrendered at the door.  Hate may be expressed in private, one supposes, but when expressed publicly there is the responsibility of attribution.  Is it free speech to simulcast a massacre?  To show videos of beheadings?  These kinds of suicide missions on the web beg for attribution, there’s nothing stopping the Christchurch and ISIS types except where they might reveal themselves, expose themselves on line.  What then of the dispensers of just plain old lies?  What authority says what is true and what is fake?  Are true examples of hate the sum of something truly fake about the motives of haters?

President Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the clash riot in Charlottesville, equivocating the nastiness of the White Nationalists and Antifa belligerents at the core of the violence.  He said he supported the peaceful demonstrators who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, top general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War.  He expressed admiration for Robert E Lee, which is odd for him, because Lee was a loser, and Trump disrespects losers.  Lee commanded the army of rebellion defending the Lost Cause, slavery.  Trump expresses a lot of attitudes sympathetic to the old Confederacy.  Sometime you’d think he’d like to start the Civil War back up again, just to mess with history and make guys like Lee winners.

Where are our leaders guiding us?  Are they goading us?  What is the endgame of getting everybody pissed off at one another?  Everybody shaming the next one?  Where does the endurance of criticism endanger free speech?

This trend of cleaning up the worldwide web from the troll vigilantes who exploit the chaos of ideas with scurrilous and violent propaganda exposes a need to mind both intent and content of all the spectral messages we all send and receive every day because in cyberspace it never goes away, we are all publishing our histories.  We all have forums to persuade others, which are linked to other forums.  We can grouse our hearts out and be shared around the planet, maybe not everywhere but enough uncensored places to find company for our miseries.

Don’t think this isn’t overlooked by brain trusts who would exploit our naivete of opinion.  Somewhere in Russia a guy named Edward Snowden might shed some light on just how sensitively and granular the powers that be pay attention to what people think and can be persuaded to think.  It might be guessed that as much effort is being made to confuse and distract you and me as is made to conceal and reveal pertinent facts of life.

If the melting pot is boiling over and the mosaic is shedding stones it’s time to stir the pot, reduce the heat and restore the masonry.

There should be a cultural baseline by which we can measure a consensus of progression or regression of what constitutes the good life.  Set the baseline whenever, wherever — 1865, 1965, 2015 — USA, Europe, Ukraine — and measure the qualities from before and after, and see what net values pertain to you, your family, community, region, state and so on.  Is it really all that bad?

All the attempts of humankind to perfect itself and universalize the good life have not been in vain.  It’s in the eyes of the Syrian families begging for alms and mercy on the street corners of Paris or the Bangladeshi street vendors hawking selfie-sticks around the train station at Milan.  It’s why weary Hondurans and Salvadorans trudge through Mexico to get caught crossing into the United States for a chance to become the next Last Guy in America.  Why migrants risk death and great unknowns to live in poverty and squalor at the very bottom of the rich world rather than endure one more day in the home town of their homeland.

Migration, of course, is nothing new, not to nature and not to the human race.  The notion that people vote with their feet is just a modern meme to put a democratic spin on migration as a historic pattern of humanity.  It could be inevitable, a part of human nature in keeping with its species evolution.  It’s almost absurdly late to become so self-aware of this characteristic just now.

The latest humanitarian pattern clashes with the American government policy to restrict all entry into the country in order to restrict employment and economic benefits to citizens and authorized foreigners.  It also is supposed to vet foreigners for threats to national security.  Mostly the policy is meant to reserve menial jobs for unemployed citizens still not working in this current economy featuring very low unemployment, both of the skilled and unskilled variety.  The argument that immigrants take away jobs from born citizens is almost like saying slaves took away jobs from free people back in the day.  The entry-level labor force of people just starting out at the bottom is not all teenagers working at the Dairy Queen.  The pressure in the labor market falls backwards into unfilled jobs at the lower rungs, and policy drives the unemployed and under-employed to take jobs formerly held by immigrants, this to satisfy a political base to placate Americans First.  Tariffs and the trade war are meant to ramp up American mining and manufacturing, all to net jobs for all the forgotten and aggrieved bluecollar rednecks howling out there for Trump to give them back a slice of the pie.  Will they accept this?  More to my point, how forlorn and aggrieved were these people to begin with?  Was it really so bad?

Compared to the next guy.  All the way up and down.  Perhaps the thinking is, stop coddling refugees and they’ll go away.  In that case we should stop advertising the good life, it only teases the underclasses and promotes jealousy and despair.  As long as hope exists, however, people tend to learn a way to rise.  There’s no reason the human survival instinct is any less acute than a common fish or bird or reptile or mammal.  Somebody will always seek and find ways to get better than their baseline.

This is a real world example of that abstract thing called freedom, one of the components of how life is good.  Like democracy and justice.  Happiness.  “Freedom”, as sung by Janis Joplin, Roger Miller, according to Kris Kristofferson, “is just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even a white bum can choose the hobo life even as migrants seek destitution as a means to plant roots in new lands.  Rather than die out, the migrants go somewhere they hope to be free to live a life without constant threat of death.  Sleeping under a railroad bridge in Minneapolis is considered a better life than hiding from gangs in San Salvador.

To characterize the migrants as invaders invites adversarial pejoratives dehumanizing the outsiders, memes and tropes to make your head spin.  The president warns us of some pretty mean dudes in the caravans from Central America.  Over in Europe Viktor Orban of Hungary is accused of harboring migrant Syrians in cages to encourage them to go home.  The attitude persuades that migrants from foreign subcultures — in America the people of the tropics, and in Europe coming from the middle east or Africa — pose a threat to cultural sovereignty.  This smacks of the old Nazi Master Race ethnic purity philosophy.  At best it’s a white Christian nationalism.  In the middle it questions whether migrants corrupt or contaminate an established culture and leans to a fear that the immigrants might someday dominate.  Fear of reverse assimilation.  Fear of conquest.

The current xenophobia in America has such narrow vision it might suffer from its own success.  The trickle-down theory of deprivation could squeeze immigrants out of the labor market enough to raise wages at enough low paying jobs to scare up prices and require higher tariffs to keep foreign products from costing less.  Agricultural workers, hotel housekeeping and sanitation jobs could be the earliest vacancies unfilled, and it could work its way up.  The servants will disappear.  People would cry, it’s so hard to find good help these days.

The straits need not get dire.  If people are seriously looking at their cultural legacy they need a positive vision that accounts for the inevitable tides of the humanitarian condition.  These refugees cannot remain stranded.  Just as good people who foresee the steps leading to global warming and act to prevent the steps, good just people who recognize the human migration patterns and make ready to accept the future shifts of population should step up to persuade policies to accommodate these inevitable strangers and put them to work.  Give them a chance.  Opportunity.

These people today and their children are the future of the human race and cannot be denied a share of the planet’s bounty.  America talks big about universal rights, equal opportunity, freedom and innovation, things that drove the motives to found a political, social and economic system for a greater good.  A virtuous system like ours should not be hoarded, as if liberal democracy is only peculiar to America and can’t possibly happen anywhere else and cannot be understood by any other people.  Treating people as ineligibles, excluding them into incarceration, walling them off from hope betrays the moral high ground and leaves our principles in a ditch, digs our society a mass grave.

The late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Just because our union is imperfect we should not flinch from trying to perfect it.  The right way.  Stop the persecution of refugees and recognize international rights to asylum.  Recognize the origination of migration and keep working toward the alleviation of misery.  Liberate the refugee camps and enable migrants to join communities in societies.  Stop wars and terrorism.  Repatriate the displaced.  Respect the dignity of these asylum seekers because these are the ones who come in peace and stand between the rule of law and the rule of terror.  Mistreatment of migrants creates enduring resentments.  Excluding migrants altogether creates an adversarial order.  Migrants will either find their way in or be aggressively kept out.  An open free society cannot sustain mass forced deportation of its population.  Putting them in detention centers makes it worse.

Humane treatment of migrants is future terrorist prevention.  Look at Gaza.

Where they will come from and where they will go, the next generation of people who vote with their feet, no predictions are overheard about the next diaspora.  If indeed first humans walked out of Africa all the way to the Bering Strait and crossed to inhabit the land masses of the Western Hemisphere, the trend since reaching Patagonia has been a U turn back across the Isthmus of Panama to walk back north to settle in a geographic zone above the Texas border.

In Minnesota, where I live, the Land of Sky Blue Waters, somewhere in the middle of North America, all the recorded human history is a story of migrations.  The known people of the Ojibwe and Dakota meandered back and forth between the plains and the forests amid the lakes and rivers.  It’s a toss between Norse and French explorers who first tramped through the region from across the Atlantic.  French names prevail.  The next cycle of migrants from the American east brought pioneers and soldiers to stake out the northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.  As the indigenous people were chased out or sequestered, immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, undeterred by the cold winters, homesteaded and farmed the open acres.  Then from Germany.  Ireland.  They founded towns and swelled the new cities.  Migrants from the Balkans came to work the iron mines.  Czechs worked the brickyards.  In one hundred years Minneapolis went from a scenic waterfall in the wilderness to a fancy sophisticated little model of Europe transposed via the American east coast.

Europeans, and other old world cultures, and Canada, make fun of America because it has such little history.  It’s true, we’ve only been on the map a few hundred years.  In that short time we’ve created quite an impact, yet micro places like Minnesota reveal what impact the rest of the world has made on America.

In less than two hundred years Minneapolis has gone from that scenic pristine waterfall on the Mississippi River to a cosmopolitan haven of international tastes and world markets.  It’s jumped from pioneers in sod houses to smart houses almost overnight.  The French can laugh at us because our grandest cathedrals are barely a hundred years old and are renderings of copies of original old world monuments.  It’s okay.  For some of us bumpkins it’s as close as they’ll get to baroque architecture.

This is not to justify the invasion of this land in the first place, but what’s done is done.  We are eight generations deep.  I cannot idealize the process either.  Successive generations of migrants have faced conflicts of acceptance by settlers born here — the arrival of white people must have been the Native American’s worst nightmare come true.  Like the African American migrations up here from the Deep South after emancipation, Jim Crow, after the two world wars and again in the 1960s, the black migrants worried the established descendants of migrant Europeans, who fretted time and again, there goes the neighborhood.

Minnesota is residence to waves of migrants for as long as recorded history and well into modern times.  Both world wars brought displaced persons and refugees — my daughter’s father in law was a child born in a Nazi work camp of Polish parents, who as a family survived the war and came to the United States rather than go back to Poland, but had to wait a dozen years in Morocco first.  The Korean War brought war orphans adopted en masse, some of the first Asian looking kids my generation grew up with.  Romanian orphans became popular when the Iron Curtain collapsed.  The Vietnam War brought a wave of refugee families seeking asylum from the North Vietnamese takeover. The same conflict in Laos brought Hmong refugees from camps in Thailand.  Cambodians.  Then Karen from Myanmar and Tibetans from Tibet.  Liberians in exile from a nasty civil war.  Same with East Africans, refugees from civil war.  Ethiopes.  Adoption of Central American guerrilla war orphans got popular in the Reagan era.  Then Somalia failed as a state and its civil war drove some two million people from their homes, and tens of thousands ended up here in Minnesota.  And all the while the Latino presence kept swelling in the community like panaderia dough.

Meantime the Ojibwe and the Dakota keep crisscrossing the landscape like shadows.

Suffice to say the puny history of my home state is writ large of human migration and integration of ethnic — shall we say — diversity.  Along with the more high profile waves and tides mentioned above are many more examples of visitors and scholars and exiles and romantics and the lost and found from somewhere else found their way into the roots of this place — for example, I have not mentioned the Italians because everybody knows that like the Irish if there’s a town anywhere with any taste at all there are always Italians — frequently Greeks but always Italians, it’s a given.  My home town is graced by all the diasporas of the globe.

And every winter I ask why anybody in this world would choose to live here if he or she were not born here.  There must be something that fends off extremes.  That something-something that makes things flow.  Perhaps, as I suggested, it starts with the food.  Soul food.  Delicatessen.  Chow mein.  Pizza.  Shepherds pie.  Gyro.  Subway foot long sub.  Tacos.

So many choices.  So many grocery stores.  These are the meeting halls of humanity, the aisles of democracy, the chambers of the good life.  The place where all the ingredients of the good life are available.  The chapel where an EBT card can get a bite to eat — spend it well, like a votive prayer.  The shelves are like stained glass windows of logos and brand names.  Bins of fresh produce are like choirs.  This is exactly what Woody Guthrie meant by Pastures of Plenty.  At every Aldi and Cub there is shared space of security and well being.  A grocery store is the ultimate town hall of peace, freedom and prosperity.  Even in the moments preceding an April blizzard there is no panic.  There is a general sense there is enough for everybody.

There’s no reason to hoard opportunities for the good life, no justification to restrict access to mobility, and no excuse for making life worse for the refugees than if they stayed home.  Migration is a fact.  To lock people out is to lock people in.  Consideration of greater good should prevail against criminalization of seekers of asylum.  Such claims take time to evaluate but the answer can’t always be no.

Laws that can be respected are legislated by elected bodies who represent the temperate volition of citizens who agree to abide by rule of law.  This is the continuing effort to build a more perfect union so said in the US Constitution.  America has to codify its tolerance for the reality of global migration in light of its own success in promoting itself as a beacon of liberty.

Where I live there is a preponderance of evidence of good things contributed to the community by migrant cultures, including the original indigenous ones.  If the human footprint has sometimes trod upon itself and tripped in its own tracks, the pathways to resolution and even redemption have been found and trails to more prosperous progeny tend to prevail.  Here a girl from Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya grew up to get elected to the US House of Representatives from a neighborhood district once settled by Finnish homesteaders.  Prince grew up in a neighborhood used to be Jewish.  Bob Dylan is Jewish.  Hubert Humphrey came here from South Dakota.  A lot of respected leaders come from Minnesota, which borders Canada.

Minnesota is a nice place.  Life is good.  Summer is taking hold and the trees are green again.  Maybe too much mud for the farmers right now, but maybe the rain will hold off.  A lot of sky blue water this spring.

Common cause is as common as common sense these days as we fend through daily bombardments of hype and breaking news.  We rely on each other to remain grounded against brainwashing and gaslighting.  It’s a conceit to the belief we can make consensus beyond identity politics to make a coherent case for liberal democracy.

That’s what it takes, though.  Against demonizing propaganda a clear persuasive argument for the greater good is what it will take to un-inaugurate the current president, who will not go quietly unless he gives himself a stroke.

It’s one thing to hue and cry about the plight of the poor refugee (or just the plight of the poor) and blame reactionary rhetoric and nationalistic ult-right policies for inhumane treatment, and yet another thing to get lawmakers to write comprehensive legislation to establish a fresh immigration code and to elect an executive branch more interested in mitigating the causes of diaspora than punishing migrants.  It’s a bleeding heart cause but the eventual will meet the inevitable and America faces vast incarceration and/or deportation of a significant percentage of its population, many of them born here, and almost all persons of color.

Not just in Washington, DC but at the United Nations, America could lead in promoting fair passage of refugee populations and in participating in stabilizing factors to prevent or repatriate diaspora, if there were an administration interested at all in guiding the future of the world, engaged in real world issues.  Instead the president dismisses these distressed places as shitholes.  He won’t even rebuild Puerto Rico since the hurricanes.  He thinks he’s cute.

Until Donald Trump is repudiated at the box office — unelected at the polls — and uninaugurated, the United States Congress does not need him to craft legislation to govern America.  If out of spite he vetoes sensible bills passed behind his back, he risks further exposing himself as a fraud more dedicated to his own glory than to Old Glory.

Whatever happens next, don’t be confused that life is good because Trump is in the White House.  His administration is an extreme stress test of the resilience of American character.  He has no character.  No ethos.  Those who put him in power and support his regime have nefarious motives.  They are like him, dishonest, devious, deceptive and willing to go to extremes to advance their agendas and impose their will.  It’s not an economic profit motive so much as a political monopoly campaign to wear out our minds and brainwash us (like George Romney) to hassle among ourselves with unresolved identity issues and contradictory beliefs, giving them the high ground of relentless moral certainty.  Don’t be fooled.  It’s iron pyrite.

The greater good will come from examples set by people who can envision a world beyond this century and keep sight of existential resolutions in the present tense.  Who keep hope alive instead of pandering despair.  Who can take criticism and turn it into advice.  Who take integrity seriously and ask only honest effort from their fellow human beings.  Who reject hate and hatred and persevere with love.  Who keep paying attention and don’t get bored.

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2019

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The sun is coming back!

Minneapolis, at roughly the 45th parallel, north, has gained eight minutes of daylight since solstice.  Almost every day this time of year where I live I find myself in the place of a primeval person watching the daily sky and the declining arc of the sun and worrying if the radiant ball of life would this time descend below the horizon and not come back, just keep going wherever it goes.  We’ll be stuck with artificial lights forever.

And yet still, people emerged in ancient times who went to great extents to build apparatus to prove on a specific day the sun will peep trough a specific hole on earth, proving hope.  Hope for us humans that the universe might be a predictable system of questions and answers.  George Harrison gets credit for summing it up in the modern era, “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and it’s all right.”

Last year was a weird year.  You literally couldn’t swing a dead cat without scratching somebodies eyes out.  Meaning, the level of outrageous and offensive rhetoric, bad humor, bad english, insensitive metaphors and fandangling with truth kept rising with the public’s irresistible urges to watch ever so closely to shocking, ugly things.  You don’t want your eyes scratched, wear safety goggles, or don’t look at the dead cat.  And don’t question whoever’s swinging it.

The most audacious thing in the world that happened last year was the killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  It stands out from all the detentions and assassinations of journalists last year because it was clearly a state sponsored execution committed within diplomatically recognized sovereign territory inside another sovereign country and executed as if the world would never know, and yet the state security apparatus of the Saudi state failed to anticipate or secure its consulate facility against comprehensive surveillance by the host state of Turkey.  Maybe more audacious about it is Turkey publicly acknowledging its spywork.  Turkey is not known as a nation friendly to journalists.  Saudi Arabia meanwhile can’t believe Turkey would rat them out.  The Saudi monarchy seethes with insecurity.  Did they drop the ball in surveillance protection at Istanbul because it was merely a consulate, not an embassy?  Heads will surely roll.  That’s how it’s done there.  Nobody has come forth yet with writings or tapes or such from Khashoggi himself which would illuminate what he knew about the regime of the Crown Prince that Khashoggi might have exposed which might predict the collapse of the royal kingdom, just as the Prince is trying to cash out, making Khashoggi literally an enemy of the state, eligible for beheading under Saudi law, such as there is law in Saudi Arabian jurisdiction.  Instead of asserting its sovereign rights under its sovereign laws, what one would expect from a monarchy of the status of Soviet Union or Red China, the Arabian Crown regime has to find a Plan B — nobody apparently anticipated, in this modern age of digitalysis, there would be true documented proof of Khashoggi’s murder, except the Turks.  So the Saudi rulers have to try to weasel out of this one by any means necessary, which means Khashoggi must have been very important.  Important enough to enlist the influence of the President of the United States to equivocate its case to trivialize the incident in the eyes of the world.

This concept of a free press the United States is so famous for in its Bill of Rights of the foundation of its government has been a key attraction to subsequent democracies since the 18th Century and the very age of the written word and the printing press.  Authoritarian and Totalitarian states have striven to control the spread of information to control power.  In our age it’s to control the information itself.  It’s dismal to read that the USA ranks around 35th in the world in freedom of the press when you might think it could be the leader, or at least in the top ten.  But it is encouraging that there are countries with even freer press than ours in a world where most countries have it worse.

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In America the free press includes newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, TV, radio, social media and websites such as this one and many others more popular and less obscure.  President Donald J Trump routinely attacks the press — forgive me for using the old fashioned term for the press to mean all mass media — for publishing and posting fake news, and for this he calls the press the enemy of the people.  Neither he nor any of his spokespersons nor his corps of supporters have articulated what he means by fake news or offered examples, implying all news is fake unless he himself validates it as real news.  The lies he has told and endorsed are public records.  He communicates to the world via the most free network of vulgar democratic press the world has ever seen.  No one can stop him from his freedom of speech.  And no one should, as agonizingly pathetic and hair on your neck dangerous as they tend to get.  Free country.  You don’t see him giving Mark Zuckerberg a hard time about farming out Facebook data to make mercenary hits on user data, more digitalysis, not how Congress is investigating how to regulate and maybe even tax the internet to somehow keep it free and simultaneously safe from corrupt abuse.

A little over two years ago an enterprise directed by the Kremlin used digitalysis techniques to infiltrate American internet media to campaign on behalf of Donald J Trump for President, and Trump won.  He keeps repeating his mantra, no collusion, though throughout his campaign he tantalized his skeptics by asking the Russians to keep hacking his opponents to look for dirt.  More secret dirt.  The Russians plausibly deny all charges the Justice Department has made and the State Department has substantiated against them for acting to destabilize the American presidential election of 2016 to help elect Trump.  Except to know specifics of the federal statute it’s hard to reconcile freedom of speech with prosecuting anybody including a foreign state for expressing favor for a political point of view and influencing an election.  After all, the US Supreme Court has ruled corporations are entities entitled to free speech rights, why not foreigners?  What hurts about Russian influence in that election is the realization that the Russians apparently speak english better than we do.

The Russian government believes there is no such thing as democracy.  It’s a myth.  And no such thing as truth.  Thus they lie and expect nobody will do anything about it, and they expect nobody to believe them.  And nobody does, not even their own citizens.  The American government has imposed sanctions against Russian oligarchs and institutions for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea and various other international infractions, but it appears for now to be no big deal.  The world seems to accept that the Russian political system condones jailing and killing journalists and political opponents (troublemakers) and has thousands of ways to ruin somebody’s life.

No collusion, he says, and yet Donald J Trump has always expressed an enamoration for the Russian country and especially its leader Vladimir Putin.  Nobody except maybe Trump himself knows why.  Maybe it’s because Russia is a vast country with untapped riches.  He might admire its rich history and culture, although that’s not likely because he doesn’t follow history and prefers cultural ignorance as his baseline.  More likely it has to do with real estate and fossil fuel.  His fanboy crush on Vladimir Putin is much easier to understand in terms of how Trump sees himself as a player in an international league of strong man boss daddies, and Putin is a proven authoritarian over a world power.  Trump admires how Putin runs Russia and keeps order in its part of the world and he probably envisions a more stable world if the United States and Russia were allies (forget those punk states of Europe) and he and Putin could be friends, deals could be made, and some kind of new world order could emerge where all the true strongmen of the world would get together — maybe at Mar-a-Lago, we don’t know — to divide up the planet, secure peace and harmony, eradicate terrorism, solve famine, end gang wars and drug cartels, repatriate refugees and resettle asylum seekers…  Always assume positive intent.

If Trump ever spoke the truth it might sound something like, yes I think being allies with Russia in the 21st Century is a good idea, we have much in common and could learn a lot from them about keeping social order in this crazy world.  We’ve collaborated nearly a century now in space exploration and it’s time we stopped facing off each other over Europe and get together on this Earth and combine our great countries’ fortunes and intellects and band together to reshape the political and social destiny of this planet.  Yes, so what I used Russians to help my campaign but who cares, there’s nothing wrong with getting help where you can get it to advance a great and beautiful cause, which is the Trump presidency.

He really believes he is God’s gift.  He should say so more often.

Instead he hides the truth, and hides from the truth, and the real news is not news at all, just a long well known fact, Donald J Trump is fake.  And everyone who believes in him is as low, corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unfaithful, disloyal, conniving, untrustworthy and soulless as he is because deep down they all want to be like him, they are all frauds at heart.  He seeks approval from deplorable people who espouse Nazi and Confederacy dogma.  He exploits plain people with human grievances to pit the shafted against the jacked.

He says he promised to build a Wall, and if he doesn’t get money for his Wall he will look foolish to those who expect him to fulfill that promise.  After all the lies he has told you might think he has some way he could weasel his way around the Wall and blame it on somebody else, or even say, hey, I’m the leader here, and I rethought the Wall, I don’t like the idea any more and I’m taking it off the table to negotiate a fix to the immigration system.  No, instead he’ll proudly wear the mantel of the one who shut down the government instead of funding it without money for his Wall.

He promised he would Drain the Swamp too, and now that they have stopped picking up trash and emptying porta-potties at the national parks it appears he has broken that promise by filling the swamp back up again.

Not to mention the people he has retained to work on his staff and in his cabinet.

It’s a shame the Republican party sold its soul to get him elected but they will reap what they sown.  Confused between conservative governing principles and right wing dictatorial powers they risked common sense democracy to allow radicals to give cover to right wing causes, and lost causes.  A mid-term election puts a Democratic party majority in the House of Representatives, and they will use their clout to investigate every shady inch of the president’s tailored suit.  It’s a shame the outgoing House traded its majority in a squandered deal to shield this president to advance conservative goals.  The Senate will have to reconcile sound legislation with the president they have cut way too much slack.

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Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail the past year was as pathetic as a lounge act on its last leg.  He conjured up visions of the caravan of asylum seekers, the migrants from Central America making their way towards the southern US border, as a force of invaders — bad dudes.  He conjured fearsome hordes.  He conjured an assault.  He called up troops.  He ordered more concertina barbwire.  He made a point of saying publicly that the border troops were authorized to shoot back if attacked.

Used to be the United States billed itself as the most humanitarian country on the planet.  We had the Peace Corps, an invention of that liberal president Kennedy’s administration.  And we used to put a lot of money into the United Nations — which the US founded in San Francisco.  There was the Marshall Plan.  All over the world wherever you saw the American flag there was a source of charity emanating underneath.  Think of all the well-intentioned missionaries of all kinds of faiths the American churches spun out into the Third World back when there was a Third World.  If there was a national disaster the Americans were there to help.  As recently as the Obama administration, Americans helped draft the Paris climate accords.

Now we are the xenophobic people who need border walls and tariffs to protect our bitcoin, who live in constant fear of shooting each other with guns over opioids.  Who are too snobby to overtip NATO for good service and too cheap to toss a coin to UNESCO.

Here in Minneapolis there is a charity shelter called Sharing and Caring Hands, whose founder Mary Jo Copeland says in her solicitation for funds around Christmastime, “To the world you might be one person, but to that one person you might be the world.”  And I’d go, what?  I mean, I get what she means but literally it doesn’t make sense.

Still, in the most liberal sense, it applies to Donald J Trump and America.  He represents us Americans to the world.  He shoves the president of Montenegro out of the way to get position in a group photo of world leaders.  He insults leaders of allied democracies and cozies up to autocrats and dictators.  He shows no kindness towards victims of affliction.  He shares no sincere empathy for the aggrieved.  He’s indifferent to the plight of diaspora and the inhumane causes of refugee migration.  He bullies the weak.  He lies egregiously about what he’s up to.  He caves to the most special of Special Interests rolling back environmental protection regulations and the oversight of public lands.  Now his administration wants to roll back civil rights protections.  His government shutdown effectively locks out hundreds of thousands of government workers off their jobs and forces about as many to work without pay, as if to say, “Tough Titty.”  Worldwide he’s making us look really bad.

America First is his slogan.  Used to be that meant when a challenge was offered somewhere in the world America was a first responder to try to do the right thing.  Granted, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a gley, it’s been said (in reference to Donald J Trump’s Scot heritage) but there are worst laid plans in this world too, and they too can go awry.  (Brexit.)  Nationalist isolationizing incurs local tribal quarrels for fake unity in the face of Them.  Them is us.  It’s been incumbent of Americans to go for first in leading the world in more than gymnastics.  The American cultural treasury has led the world in accomplishments in medicine, industrial technology, agricultural yields, textiles, intellectual productivity and fathoms more, and thus the world itself has generated accomplishments all over the planet aided by American influence, if not inspiration.  It is a global world.

The Chinese are the first to set up a base on the dark side of the moon.  How did they learn how to do something like that?

Back on earth NASA is shut down over funding for the Wall to wall off a piece of earth as seen from outer space as a slice of North American desert and mountains.  How much federal bridge and highway maintenance can you get for $5 billion if you want to pour concrete and erect steel that will actually do something, go somewhere?

Wall Street doesn’t like this Wall stuff either.  It’s starting to affect Walgreens and Wal Mart.  And Walla Walla.  Even Wall Drug.  Walnuts.  Wally the Beer Man.  WALL-E.  It affects us all.  What would the Waltons do?

Yes, last year was a weird year.  Wildfires in California and Greece took tolls of paradise and burned it to hell.  Hurricanes and tsunamis wiped out towns, earthquakes toppled dwellings and liquified people like swallowing them in jelly.  Volcanoes burned molten paths to the sea.  June was the deadliest month of all 323 mass shootings in the United States, though the deadliest single incident occurred in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.  The US and its allies launched an air attack against Syrian chemical weapons sites for using gas bombs against its own civilians, again.  Donald J Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore.  He met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.  He fired his Secretary of State, Attorney General, dismissed another Chief of Staff, took the resignation of his Secretary of Defense and got a sketchy Supreme Court nomination past the Senate.  All while two of his former henchmen pleaded guilty or were convicted of federal felonies.  Trump also signed legislation reducing sentencing terms for non-violent crimes, including white collar crimes.

The special investigation of illegal tampering with the 2016 presidential election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is under no pressure from a timetable to come to conclusions, as long as it takes to find the truth.  Trump’s lawyer, former mayor of New York and former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani went right to the top of the pops declaring in a live TV interview about the Mueller investigation, “Truth isn’t truth.”

And emoluments are just skin softening creams in hand lotions.

What will be revealed by the Mueller investigation and anything committees of the House of Representatives make public may not rise to treason or high crimes and misdemeanors, but it should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a shrewd sleazy shady dealer is Donald J Trump.  Maybe there’s enough proof to indict him on something when he leaves office, put him under arrest as his successor is sworn in, but it’s all two bit swindling and pulling legal strings and tax dodges, third mortgages and dubious cross transfers of assets.  How many more minions and stooges might face jail time on his behalf, depending how shallow his organization really is, is less likely to matter as much as what havoc those same minions and stooges might wreck in carrying out whatever insidious mission they think they are on to Make America Great Again.

The president has had a bunch of chances and keeps dropping the ball.  Instead of coming out the better man he comes away as the bigger dick.  I did not endorse him or vote for him, and campaigned against him.  He’s been in office two years, so nobody can say I didn’t give him a chance.  Someday he will be out of office and nobody can say he didn’t have a chance.  Any time and place Trump could have asserted the power of his presidency to put the nation’s best angels ahead of his blatant ego, but time after time he surrenders to the urges of his snake brain and he makes a statement, decision or proclamation sabotaging the sacred ideals that made this country admired, even loved.  When he said he would make America great again he didn’t say he was going to make it Not Great first.  You talk about a president taking the country the wrong direction.

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The way Trump blew off the Khashoggi murder was the last Camel.

He is privy to all the evidence and the secret intelligence of the Deep State and instead of outrage that the monarch state of Saudi Arabia executed a journalist he passively deferred blame and recused himself from moral contemplation.  After all there’s $110 billion in arms sales at stake where the Chinese and the Russians would love to jump right in.  Right.  The Saudis are going to recalibrate all their defense technology going forward on the fly and welcome Kremlin agents and very friendly comrades of Xi Jinping, all with deep states of their own — not so fast, nobody wants to be a Saudi monkey boy except Donald J Trump and it may seem the Russians and Chinese can afford to bide their time milking the Arabs building a new Silk Road, perhaps through New Kurdistan, fostering Syria to keep a Mediterranean port, and Persia facing the gulf at Hormuz, while Americans try to reconfigure its own borders to regulate its 2020 census, the rest of the world can go take a hike.

Like the mantra on the backside of Melania Trump’s stylish coat: I DON’T CARE DO U.

My mom used to refer to a condition called Inverted Eyeballs.

For all the fun of demonstrations, rallies, caucuses, media coverage and hilarity it would provide, impeachment isn’t going to happen.  It would take two years anyway, and by then he can be simply unelected.  Impeachment would incite some of the most deplorable people to deplorable acts to save their fuhrer, and it would not be a cleansing bloodshed.  We can learn our lesson the long way.  There is much to come out about the shenanigans of Donald J Trump when his tax returns are made public and everybody learns how leveraged he is and how he effectively launders his money, and maybe his entanglements with the Kremlin may prove more sinister and embarrassing than imagined, but by the time any impeachment charges brought to the Senate would be moot, his presidency will be done, not worth the trouble to kick him out even a month early.

This same Senate, a 52 – 48 Republican majority, is the next bastion of restraint of Trump’s executive overreach.  His imperial impulses.  His autocratic urges.  His crybaby presidency.  The Senate has actual power to override vetoes of sensible legislation.  This is a great opportunity for the Republican party to move towards un-nominating him from the head of their ticket in two years.  If all he has going for him is his troop of core believers, Trump hasn’t got enough to win re-election.  Senators who buck that trend do so at their own peril.

Even so, he will not go quietly (unless he gives himself a stroke) and the tomfoolery and flimflammery will go on.  My hope for the coming year (or two) is that if Donald J Trump remains in office he is virtually neutered, all checked and balanced so he can cause no more harm to the United States or to the world.  The lamest of ducks.  His justification for what he does is, “I’m president and you’re not.”  Sad.  But true.

Sad that Trump has even corrupted the word sad.

Sad for me to think Donald J Trump beggars so much of my reflective time.  That his presence in the world matters so much and seems to permeate the soul of every human relationship, transactional and personal.

Two years ago in Mexico I got to know a local guide and philosopher named Fernando who said Trump was a good thing and who wanted to bet me a hundred dollars USD that in a year I would be better off than I was that day shortly after Trump’s inauguration.  I didn’t take that bet because I didn’t want to take his money, but it turned out I would have owed him, I was better off a year ago.  Last year in Mexico I asked after him, intending to pay up, but I learned the previous summer he died of pancreatic cancer.  This year though I’m not so well off, though I’m better off than Fernando.  I think somehow I owe his family.  That’s 2000 pesos.  I’d like to know what he thinks of Trump now.  And who is this AMLO guy?  Are there any Honduran or Salvadoran caravan refugees working in Zihuatanejo?

Last year in my city, Minneapolis, city of lakes, city of Prince, city of plenty, a homeless community settled into a tent encampment on state highway land adjacent to a main transportation artery, a freeway.  On a strip of grassy green space abutted by a tall concrete wall sound barrier and a bike and walking path along a busy six lane highway a campground settlement grew throughout the summer to around 300 tents and a lot of people extending a few blocks from a main underpass business district to a public park and soccer field along the big sound wall separating the highway noise from the residences on the other side.

The encampment seemed to emerge overnight and didn’t go away.  It achieved instant urban notoriety.  Not the first homeless encampment in an American city, nobody seemed to see this one coming.  Now there it was.  Out there on highway 55 near the Franklin Ave rail station, just off I94 and I35W, near the Cedar exit going south, hundreds of camping tents pitched on the grass between the freeway and the wall and people with backpacks roaming in between them.  All in full view of commuters and tourists and truckers and strangers passing by.  There were cooking fires at night.

Significant about this phenomenon is what did not happen.  Nobody panicked and drove the squatters off the highway land with pickets.  The cops did not swoop in with SWAT teams and paddywagons.  The National Guard did not deploy.  No tear gas.  No bull horns.  No marchers.  No rousts.  No threats.  And no political grandstanding.

The encampment was allowed by all authorities to remain in place until some form of true housing could be found for every person camping there.  This meant intense collaboration between the city, the county, the state (highway land) and a whole coalition of social service agencies and nonprofits, volunteers and faith based organizations to succeed in relocating everyone justly and peaceably.

A large proportion of the campers were Native American Indians, drawn to the site by its proximity to the Phillips neighborhood, home to the largest urban Indian population in America on the other side of the freeway wall.  Some dubbed the site the Wall of the Forgotten, a direct reference to the displacement and oppression of Indians over the centuries.  Right away Indians asserted leadership in keeping order within the encampment and bringing help to the campers.  Indian social service groups based in the nearby neighborhood reached into the encampment to offer housing and health service mediation and intervention.  The site attracted volunteers from medical services and every kind of expertise available.  Donations of food, clothing, blankets and tents came.  The police visited frequently to hang around and get to know the crowds, and no incidents of arrests or confrontations were reported or cases of larceny or assault.  Teepees were erected as meeting centers.

Journalists visited the encampment.  They interviewed the campers and posted stories of hard lives.  Destitution all so familiar and still hard to fathom.  The site seemed to come together from people camping under bridges and here and there in the shadowy hiding places of the Twin Cites, Minneapolis and St Paul, the fringes of parks and old railroad yards, dead end alleys, abandoned garages and what’s left of slums, attracted to the safety of a community of numbers like themselves, totally homeless but maybe not so hopeless.  A lot of single women with kids — these were the early success stories of the social service activists and urban missionaries helping to triage the individual circumstances to place them in true housing.  Bringing so many homeless together in one place and drawing them from their hiding places here and yon not only drew public attention to the homeless population in our midst as a kind of refugee migration of our own underclass, it provided them with security and secured their freedoms without locking them up.

Naloxone became a familiar word associated with the encampment when stories of drug overdoses made the news.  Four fatal overdoses occurred over the existence of the encampment.  Conflict emerged between users and those who wanted to stay clean and scuffles broke out evicting dealers.

Through the summer and into autumn the best minds and hearts of the arts of social science met to make plans and policies to not only move the people out of the encampment by this winter but also develop an ongoing network of methods to effectively keep up with homelessness before it happens.  While elected officials and neighborhood organizers kibbutzed among nonprofit coordinators, churches, educators, clinicians, physicians, politicians, soup kitchens, electricians and musicians, what to do to move three hundred-some people and their tents off Highway 55 before it gets really cold.  Alternative sites were proposed and discussed when it became clear that an already heavily burdened social welfare system couldn’t possibly work that fast to get that many people with problematic residential histories placed in structured housing facilities.  It looked like somewhere in the city would exist a few blocks of FEMA-style temporary trailers, if only suitable ground could be found.  Nobody could estimate how many people the site would have to accommodate who wouldn’t by then be diverted into true housing, the population at the encampment kept growing even as the social service groups almost magically kept placing people who fell through the cracks.  There was worry about people refusing to leave the encampment, talk about taking a stand for that track of land, and others worried about being driven into an asphalt concentration camp.  This was a very delicate humanitarian situation.  Nobody gave up.

Highway 55 through Minneapolis is locally called Hiawatha Avenue.  That part of the city grew with a peculiar affection for a particular popular author and poet, a Bob Dylan of his era, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Avenues all over that part of town, two lakes, a famous creek and falls are named for his characters, more than a few of them Native American Indians like Hiawatha and his sweetheart Minnehaha, both of them busy avenues that run parallel to each other two blocks apart.  Hiawatha is a busy state highway that runs diagonal through the city grid that tries to mimic north, south, east, west and creates a transportation wedgie into the city following a bee-line straight from Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers over land to downtown Minneapolis and the site of the most powerful flour mills of its age, St Anthony Falls.  That beeline exist today as the direct route between downtown and the airport and includes the light rail line.  It’s what’s left of an unaltered trade route between an army outpost and bread.

So the Hiawatha Encampment it was called, or the highway 55 encampment to be more politically correct.  The Wall of the Forgotten was more or less forgotten, or at least forgiven in the sight of its fame.  The actual wall of concrete is at least thirty feet high and runs several blocks along residential Phillips neighborhood bordering a town home development called Little Earth, where a lot of Indians live.  The architecture of the wall is molded in decorations of Native American designs and features a soft blue accent, a pleasant look actually for a highway barrier.  It made a cozy backdrop to the array of tents and the teepees.

The Red Lake Nation, home of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, a reservation located in northern Minnesota, recently bought a chunk of property across Hiawatha Ave from the Little Earth housing which was the site of an old kaput manufacturing plant.  The long range plan of the Band was to develop units of affordable apartments, being near the rail station and the Franklin Avenue corridor.  Red Lake Nation stepped up to offer the site as a place for temporary relocation of the Hiawatha encampment providing a way the site could be demolished and cleared suitably to house people.  The city, county, private donors and who knows who moved heaven and earth to level the site, but it still took time.

Winter approached.  A cold November.  A goal to have the encampment vacated by December first looked unattainable.  The highway department put up a fence between the freeway and the encampment to keep the snowplows from spraying snow at the tents.  It became a gated community.  Fires broke out in tents where makeshift camp stoves were tried as heaters.  Medical emergencies increased with cold weather.  Any time you drove past there was a fire truck standing by with an ambulance.  Anyone illusioned with romance for this hobo jungle adventure need not apply.

Eventually the Red Lake property was rendered habitable.  It consisted of four large fabric tents like big quonset huts.  Three tents would be used for domeciles and sleeping, screens available for privacy, the fourth ten a community center, dining, health and sanitary and showering facilities.  They called it a Navigation Center, a temporary place to get help to find true housing and to find resources available to mitigate whatever problems cause the homelessness.  Administration of the Navigation Center was assured by a coalition of social service organizations.  People started moving around Christmas.  Between finding true housing for some and the promise of help through the Navigation Center, the encampment dwindled and disappeared.  After the last ones left, free rides provided by the highway patrol, the gates through the snow fence were padlocked with no trespassing signs posted.  The grounds were groomed and rendered trash free.  Recent snow glossed over the scars on the erstwhile lawn, and with its fence it looks along the wall like a cemetery without headstone markers.

The deal with Red Lake is to keep finding alternate space for those who seek shelter there.  Substance use within the Navigation grounds is prohibited although intoxicated users will be admitted, and treated.  The land is still intended to be developed into apartment housing soon, so even this temporary shelter will be temporary.  The missionary work continues.

What draws me to dwell on this little saga is its comparison and contrast to my obsession with the malfeasance and maladaptation of the Trump administration.  Here in my home town a humanitarian crisis emerged, and over time, a relatively short time, the powers that be and powers that aren’t usually to be worked out navigation policies and procedures to solve the crisis, if not once and for all at least towards that goal in an ongoing way.  In a year of weirdness all over the world, in my home town a community set sights on a project with dozens of cultural ramifications and made it happen, somehow, some way.  My city came to the rescue — not just city hall, but the city of fellow citizens — to do something moral and upright about a phenomenon nobody really wants to look at, think about and talk about because this is America, because this is America.

This gives me hope for the new year.  Here in a flawed place and time I see hope and hope for more hope for the human race.  By this I mean hope for the planet because humanity is not about to relinquish or abdicate its assertion of dominion but can only concede to nature as if practicing the Serenity prayer — owning up to responsibility for altering the biosphere and conceding that nature is beyond control.  Accepting humanity’s responsibilities and coordinating efforts to improve life is more than theoretical sociology, it can be practiced in everyday expressions not necessarily political of intent but sincere.  And this comforts me about my community.

What I will remember most about last year and what gives me more hope is the birth of Vincent and Amalie’s baby they named Neko Roxanne.  My son and his wife had been arduously trying to have a baby for several years.  Neko is the third grandchild for Roxanne and me and Roxanne’s first namesake.  Vincent and Amalie’s first child.  It’s been a long time since we’ve taken care of a baby.  The elder two grandkids are grown up enough for Book Club and here we go again with basic la la la.  And so it begins all over again like with Clara almost fourteen years ago, and the Tess almost three years later, Granpa Kelly comprises his personal guidance of a new human being.  Roxanne as ever is such a world class grandma everybody who knows her wishes she were their grandma.  With the benefit of experience and innovation along the way I hope to impress her precious mind with all the wonders of the world available to a grandpa, which usually comes back many fold to me in nice little life lessons of existential meaning.  A new hand to hold.

So happy new year to all with hope for all for civic virtue and personal relationships creating loving bonds and tides of joy.

Thank you all for reading and following this chronicle of passion.

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BK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man Up 2: I Also

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not Nefertiti

Sex again.  Subject never goes away.  Birds and the bees.  Rape culture.

Victims.  Accusers.  Deniers.  Survivors.  True confessions.

In Americana the legacy of Hugh Hefner collides again with real politics.  The year of Pulling a Kavanaugh.  A lodestar of memes.  The only way to illuminate the encryption that blocks  atonement for the age old subjugation of women is for men to man up and mansplain our own sexism.

Jill was my first fingerfuck.  Her wet, silky rough inner flesh swaddled my finger all the way up to the knuckle.  Jill was my girlfriend and we agreed to rendezvous on a summer afternoon to make out in the woods.

We knew each other at St Simon of Cyrene, both in the same grade but not the same class.  She and her girlfriends came to our football games.  She hung out with a bunch of east side girls who hung out with a bunch of us west side guys, meeting up at the record shop at a central shopping center called the Hub.  We had cokes and fries at the Pixie Diner, met up at the movies, hung out at kids’ houses and roamed Southdale.

Jill reminded me of an image I once saw of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen.  She had an exotic face, though not especially ethnic, it was mostly her way with black eye-liner and smoky eye shadow.  Her eyes were vivid hazel.  She had thick, straight black hair, always cut in a bob.  Mad eyebrows.  Her face was white like ice cream with tiny freckles like vanilla beans across her nose.  She did not suntan.

She was not especially a leader among her girlfriends.  Mostly she blended in with their plaid St Simon uniforms, red sweaters and fluffed up bobbed hair.  They wore bows.  They all slung big purses like duffel bags.  An aloof sarcasm set her apart.  Not outspoken, not especially shy, she spoke in undertones if at all, not even asides.  She had a low voice, but not raspy.

She knew me when my name was Sturgis, before my parents divorced and my mom changed our names to Kelly.

I liked Jill.  This is the generational origin, by the way, of the social network Like.  Back then you liked somebody, and maybe somebody liked you, and maybe you might date for a while.  Jill liked the Beatles, though she said she wasn’t a huge fan.  Her favorite was George Harrison.  She went to A Hard Day’s Night, though not with me.  She also went to their concert at Met Stadium, though again not with me.  I asked if she screamed, and she said with her usual sardonic undertone, “Are you kidding?”

I don’t recall what her grades were like except she passed.  I don’t know what her parents did and never met her family.  We talked on the phone at night.  She didn’t have a lot to say but she was a good listener.  She didn’t gossip but she knew what everybody else was doing.  I don’t remember if she had any ambitions.

I thought she was pretty and she seemed to get prettier as she got older.

She was a great kisser.  The afternoon we agreed to meet and go to the woods was a lovely day.  We met at the Snyder Drug soda fountain — probably had cherry cokes.  We held hands walking to the woods.  It was the same woods where my guys and I used to play toy guns when we were little kids.  Jill and I had a smoke out of sight of civilization.  She smoked Marlboros and I liked Winstons.  I knew a nice cozy niche in deep vegetation off a remote path.  I shared some Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers.  And so began the kissing.

Petting.  Heavy petting.  All me.  Her butt under her panties was so round and smooth.  Her fuzz was scintillating.  Her lips so puffy.  Her clitoris like a grape.  She just kept kissing me.  When her eyes were open they were amber in the shady sunlight.  Rapt around my finger, I thought.  Gone as far as I could go with one hand, I withdrew to unhook her bra and lift her cups to let her breasts fall free beneath her blouse.  I recall vividly thinking these were full womanly breasts with smooth, budding nipples.  I confess to this day I regret I never saw them with my eyes.

All too soon she said she had to go.  The kissing stopped.  We smoked again as she straightened her culottes and fastened her bra.  I hoped she would stick around and walk with me on my paper route, but she said she had to go home.  I walked her to her bus stop, waited until the bus came.  Call me, she said.  In those days boys called girls but not the other way around.

If not true love at least I found a mate.  If not a soul mate I believed I found a companion, a girlfriend, somebody to like who liked me.  I probably celebrated with a cup of coffee and a doughnut at Krispy Kreme, sniffing my finger in ecstasy.  When I look back at that day as fondly as I can, it occurs to me I never offered or exposed my penis.  What’s more, I wonder, where were her hands — not fondling me, yet not sweeping my hands away.  Had she so much as touched my groin I would have gone off like an underground nuclear test.

I called Jill that night and she told me we were breaking up.  What?

“I only let you do what you did to give me a reason to break up with you.  I can’t trust you,” she said.  “We’re breaking up.”

And so we never dated again.  We kept running into each other at school and around the record shop, soda fountains and Southdale but we never got close again.  There was no sense of shame between us so much as Jill’s vibe that we weren’t meant to be.  If I felt a little paranoid and somewhat shunned by her girlfriends it was temporary.  Soon my family’s scandalous discombobulations altered my social life and I didn’t see her after we graduated St Simon of Cyrene.  I called her once in a while in high school to confide my angst and loneliness and ask her out, and finally she said I should stop calling her when I was horny and depressed.  That was about as close to talking about our afternoon in the woods as we ever got.

I never apologized and never felt sorry.  Far from consenting adults at the time, we were well beyond the age of reason.  It was wrong for a lot of reasons in the way that the songs say makes it feel so right.  It’s the essence of that song by Neko Case about “That Teenage Feeling”.  My lust for Jill remains justified somewhere deep in my soul’s memory that’s almost too genetically territorial to surrender.  An instinct of sovereign exception.  There was no drug administered or shared except nicotine and Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers.  Hormones.  Pheromones.  To me it was Adam and Eve in the woods.  I am sorry now because #MeToo and #balancetonporc call me forth to account for my examination of conscience.

From this pubescent romantic interlude flowed a template for future adolescent seductions leading to seeking Peacock rubbers from a sympathetic pharmacist and learning the benefits of K-Y Jelly versus Vaseline, all based on kissing it might seem.  I truly hope the incident didn’t cause Jill harm or trauma and I would offer her just reparations if she wouldn’t cynically question my intentions.

Whatever she may say about me, this is the first time I have ever told about our encounter.  No, I never bragged about it to the guys.  Never told my best buds around the campfire.  Never confided to another girl, or to my wife.  Never confessed to a priest.  To me sexual intimacy is the only sacred kind of shared secret worth keeping.

Sure as I would like to cast my lesson from Jill as a saintly Pre-Raphaelite painting, if this whole polemic is going to get real I’m obliged to confess to the devil’s truth.  I was a boy in a locker room.  I shared Playboy magazines like book club.  Anybody remember a Terry Southern novel called Candy?

My best friend at St Simon of Cyrene was Micmac Murphy.  Murph.  He had a voice like a foghorn, even when he whispered.  He was a natural comedian whose quips in class got him the most face slaps and trips to the principal of any kid in the history of St Simon’s.  Class clown, school wiseguy, always in trouble with the nuns and suspected of being up to no good, he nonetheless got A’s and give all the right answers when called upon and never got expelled or suspended.  He was also known for great kindness and stood up against bullies.  Played football.  And was the most obsessed guy with sex I knew besides myself.

Especially after he transferred to the public junior high after sixth grade at St Simon’s.  He said he’d finally had it with parochial school, always getting blamed for making people laugh, sick of getting ragged on by nuns, tired of getting treated like a moron when he was smarter than half the other kids, and wary of getting queered by a priest who liked to hug altar boys.  Murph said the last straw was when in sixth grade the school instituted uniforms for boys.  In the whole history of St Simon of Cyrene since 1948 only the girls were required to wear uniforms.  The rationale was to cut clothing costs and equalize fashion.  Who knew in the 1960s boys would dress like mavens?  The school introduced standard light blue short sleeve shirts with flyaway collars for boys and blue and white flecked Tweedaroy pants.  Red cardigan sweaters.  Murph hated the Tweedaroys the most, the flyaway collar shirts next.  He couldn’t wait to get out of St Simon’s jail and wear sporty Levi’s and shirts with button-down collars to school.  He said he heard that next year we would all have to wear saddle shoes.  Since he wasn’t going to go to St Bernard’s, Cretin or De La Salle for high school, why not make the break to public school with junior high.

We kept in touch until high school because he lived in the neighborhood and was still eligible to play on the St Simon football team through eighth grade.  Murph extolled public school.  What he seemed to like best were the girls.  They dressed foxy in tight v-neck sweaters and short skirts and flirted all day long.  He said they padded their bras, used the word fuck, wore heavy make up, dared you to look down their v-necks and some didn’t even wear panties.  Some kids even made out in the hallways.  Public school was to him like moving into the Playboy mansion.  He said public school girls were practically asking for it.  I knew better than to believe too much of what Murph told me, though I had to think public school more libertine than parochial school and looked forward to serving my sentence at St Simon’s and going to public high school too.

One of Murph’s fascinations with the hijinks of public school was a practice called Bagging.  You staked out a vulnerable, voluptuous girl and, seeing the right moment, under cover of a crowd and distraction, give one or both of her breasts a squeeze and run away.  Like the pantomime of Al Franken pictured in the USO airplane reaching over the sleeping Leeann Tweeden.  A sort of game of Ring and Run played with boobs.  Murph swore he hadn’t done it himself but said he knew some guys who had and he was always on the lookout for an opportunity.  He named some girls he would like to stalk, whose names meant nothing to me but he assured me were true babes, one of them he speculated had tits so big she might not even feel it.

This kind of conduct to me crossed the line beyond the Irish pale.  This was something nobody should ever do to the most disrespectable girl ever, much less nice girls like Jill and her friends.  Thinking guys behaved like this with impunity made me reconsider public high school.  I didn’t want to spend four years with any preponderance of these kind of clods, and gradually I lost touch with Micmac Murphy.  I heard he became a lawyer.

One night at the end of a movie — Khartoum with Charlton Heston, I think — I was exiting the theater during the credits when I abandoned impulse control.  The girl was among the crowd waiting for the theater to clear for the next performance, behind the velvet rope.  Public school.  She had short blond hair and oval glasses.  She wore a red and white horizontal striped jersey.  Her breasts jumped out at me across the rope.  In one sweeping motion to run to the exit I honked her right breast.  Before I could take my first step in flight she shouted, “Hey you fucker,” and punched me with her fist with her left hand and slammed the side of my head so hard my legs and feet could barely keep up as I reeled out the exit and down onto the asphalt of the parking lot like a drunken bum, where nobody asked me if I was okay or offered to help me up.

That summer my clique of neighborhood pals talked furtively about a new pastime at the municipal swimming pool they called Getting Some Tit.  Essentially it was a variation of Bagging conducted under water.  They would survey the females in the moderate and deep end of the pool.  When a guy saw someone vulnerable, and the coast was clear (as they put it) he would swim as deep as possible below the subject, give her a gentle fondle, and keep swimming like Aquaman along the bottom into the crowd as far as he could hold his breath.

There were five or so in this club, three active submariners and two or so voyeurs who talked big but didn’t really have the nerve to try.  A hot, crowded day was optimum and would bring out the best array of babes.  They had wish lists of known mature girls by name they hoped to target and made up nicknames for girls they didn’t know, not from our school, like Plaid One and Budgie.  Jill may have been mentioned on somebody’s wish list but I didn’t warn her.  She didn’t sunbathe much but some of her friends did, who were definitely on the lists.

I didn’t do this.  Like my opinion of Bagging before and after I learned my lesson I considered Getting Some Tit at the swimming pool a cowardly, lowlife act and totally disrespectful to the girls.  What’s more, with lifeguards on deck patrol and sitting in highchairs above the water it seemed too easy to get caught.  Far as I know none of them got caught and by the end of summer abandoned the practice and lost interest in hanging out at the pool.  I did nothing to stop them.  All I did was not join.

Now that I have confessed to at least three felonies — the last one a plausible charge of conspiracy to commit Getting Some Tit, along with two counts of actual sexual assault — what do I expect to get?  Amnesty?  Immunity?  Time off for good behavior?

This goes back more than fifty years, so the prosecutability of these crimes is moot and the statutes of limitations only provide guidance in framing an academic discussion of what if any penance is due.  Obviously I welcome arguments or I wouldn’t write and publish this.  Risking recriminations and unanticipated dangers is explicit with free speech.  Confession might make my soul feel good, more good than somebody might think I have a right to feel.  Had I and my cohorts been found accountable back then we would have been disciplined at home and shamed at school, possibly expelled, forced to apologize and been placed on probation for the foreseeable horizon.  Some may have been severely beaten.  There may have been increments of restorative justice involved but more emphasis would have been placed on keeping us and our victims apart.  Apologies would have been mandatory but not necessarily forgiveness.  Eventually we would all have been allowed to outgrow our bad experiences, learn and get along.

Today we would be facing trials as adults with possible jail time, perpetual registration as a sex offender.  Ankle bracelets.  Community service.  We would be called terrorists like the wilding young men at the Christmas market at Cologne.  Since we know today what the consequences are, a guy would have to be pathological to indulge in sexually harassing behavior, or very stupid.  Fifty years ago formal sexual education, secular or faith based, emphasized biology and the hollow ethics of abstinence for the sake of staying out of trouble.  At St Simon of Cyrene if you wanted to go deep with St Paul, or St Augustine, or St Teresa of Avila, there really wasn’t anybody capable of guiding and explaining chastity as a philosophical moral imperative.  It was just no.  Just so.  I can imagine now that it wasn’t just us Catholics, but the Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, obviously Moslems, all had their own sex rules against sex — they said the Baptists were the strictest Christians.  Besides church, we had vague civic reminders of the boundaries of sex.  There was this crime some of our friends called Statuary Rape, sometimes mentioned in the bull sessions of the swimming pool offenders — bagging Venus De Milo.  It was also against the law to peep in windows.  We were over the age of reason.  We sensed if we were doing something this secret it might be something wrong.

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Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

And yet our informal sex education teased us to immerse ourselves in the inevitable essence of the subject, the sex.  The biological reason we are all here.  The reproductive imperative.  The complex moral and emotional ways we attract and repel attraction.  We were schooled in the street.  All that rock and roll radio going on about holding somebody tight.  All that flirting and courting on TV.  Movies and movie stars.  Fan magazines.  Sexy novels.  Playboy.  Masters and Johnson.  Secrets of sensual pleasure were being revealed, and yet it seemed if something used to be kept so secret it still might be something wrong.

Like I say sometimes, in the wrong hands Jesus is the devil.

What do I expect to gain from this confession of pubescent pornography?  You could say it’s all better left unsaid.  What’s to gain — another cautionary memoir where the confesser gets off scott free and the confessor, or confessee gets to bear graphic scars.

Or better yet, a retrospective homage to a more innocent time, the era of Free Love.

Needless to say, I won’t be running for public office soon.  Or seeking a high ranking job.  Or coaching any more girls basketball teams.  It could be my eulogy at my funeral I went down as a known lecher.  Maybe this essay will fall to the very bottom of the Google search engine, however the algorithm sorts these things, and I won’t get so much hate mail, and maybe I’ll remain undiscovered.  They say what you say into cyberspace remains out there forever, although I suppose infinity still allows room for errata.

On the album Rubber Soul the voice of John Lennon sings, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man…  Run for your life if you can, little girl…”  When he recorded that song he was confident everybody knew what he meant, literally.  Love in song can be torturous that way.  John Lennon’s dead but were he alive he would very likely repudiate the song as misogynistic.  Still, so far nobody has risen to have “Run For Your Life” deleted from future releases of Rubber Soul.

President Donald Trump says it’s a very scary time for men in America.  Man, I hope so.  Women in America have had a scary time this whole while.  This whole American Experiment.  Trump speaks for American men and their dedicated ladies.  The old pussy grabber knows what to be scared of.  He’s 72 years old, old enough to know.  He aspires to be an icon to admire.  He has a lot of followers — obviously, he’s President of the United States.  He’s scared his followers will find out he is a fraud, learn he has been scamming them, his whole life is a hoax, and they will turn on him.  He is scared of truth.

What scares me is that Trump indeed speaks for a lot of Americans who are like him, corrupt and sleazy and proud, who will never let truth get in the way of power, privilege and a social order of an elected authoritarian oligarchy.  If this is what passes for moral leadership in the 21st century then there’s little hope truth will be enough to educate his base to reject him.  Woebetide us if his base of followers expands due to desperate men with something to hide.  Sad.

The Hope found last in Pandora’s Box is Pandora herself willing to bear responsibility to account for all those things set free.  One hopes she did not close the lid and lock it before letting Hope fly out to compete and contend with all the other vices and virtues set free in this world.

The prevailing attitude we were taught at St Simon of Cyrene was sex was ultimately a matter of self control.  Boys were predictably more aggressive and more prone to strong urges.  If ever the phrase boys will be boys rang true it was like a known fact boys were genetically hardwired — naturally prone — to sexual desire, more so than girls.  About this fact the experts stumbled into getting right.  What the authorities tried to do about it was vaguely chickeny.  Girls were appointed guardians of boy virtue.  Boys were taught to respect girls, and girls were obliged to act respectable.  To dress modestly.  To resist and say no at all times to sexual advances.  Boys were taught to use self control to resist asking.  Boys were obliged to take no for an answer, but the onus was on the girl to say no.

Other than this they tried to keep us as separated as possible during adolescence.

The fundamental theological premise of sex being sin is based on the Roman Catholic number six of the Ten Commandments:  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  The other nine were pretty straightforward and simple to impart to elementary school minds — thou shalt not have strange gods, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not kill, not steal, even thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife was comprehensible in a family context — but what the hell was adultery?

Turns out there were several amorous stories of the Old Testament we skipped for our own good at St Simon’s.  They tried to portray celibacy as the ultimate choice virtue of Jesus God Himself, they being the priests and nuns, symbols on earth of Christ and Virgin Mary.  Adultery, they vaguely implied, was for us kids a matter of semantics, engaging in sinful behavior reserved for adults, acting as an adult in such a way as to have knowledge of such adult behavior as unchastity and therefore committing the sin, adultery.  Some kids inferred it as a sin to contaminate or corrupt something or somebody — to adulterate.  Otherwise we would have to grow up and become adults to learn more about the Sixth Commandment at St Simon of Cyrene.

Out here in the secular world so many decades later it’s women who set and enforce the standards of sex.  Better than Women’s Lib, this latest wave of female empowerment promises to tip the male monolith.  Two Nobel Peace Prizes in five years.  Michelle Obama’s Global Girls Alliance.  The lasting impact of the testimony of citizen Christine Blasey Ford will inform cultural history beyond the token flimsy tenure of the accused judge.  (Judge not lest ye be judged, my hyperbolic, hypocritical mom used to say, usually when she had something to hide — she would have loved President Donald Trump.)  The open season the president and his sleazy minions fear is that what goes around comes around moment when they get what they deserve, what they’re asking for, all in enduring good time.  For women there is no walking it back, no backing down, no retreat, no surrender.

If Lysistrata really happened, the women would win.  Ultimately most powerful of the species, women will determine the survivability of the planet.  Men who contribute to survival of the species and civilization as we know it could be, already recognize women’s just and inevitable participation in the events that shape the world.  Men who man up and stop sexist preoccupation with themselves as a divinely dominant gender will survive where bully guys will not.  Natural selection.  Humanity will benefit like workers covered under a bargaining agreement who don’t belong to the union.  Observe the next span of time, so many news cycles, TV seasons, Oscar years, time it takes for daughters and granddaughters to go through high school, see where the drama of gender and sex boundaries of behavior will go.  How it will affect fashion and justice, politics and economics.  How it affects love and romance.

It’s been many months since I’ve seen a commercial for Viagra or Cialis on TV.  It’s highly possible our post-modern society has lost interest in sex.  Who would know?  Playboy magazine is long defunct.  Even Spike Lee doesn’t make movies sporting breasts like Rosie Perez anymore.  What titillates the libido today is up for grabs, eludes description.  Leonard Cohen passed away.  They say there’s all the porn you want on the internet if that’s where you want to plant your computer cookies.  Aside from justified rage against human trafficking and exploitation of children, the righteous moral guardians who used to rave about the evils of our permissive society seem satisfied with the current level of exposure to sexiness.  Maybe it’s gone underground, like reruns of Two And A Half Men and Two Broke(n) Girls on cable.  Showtime network ceased its late night explicitly raunchy movies.  The sinister agenda of homosexual promiscuity the Tea Party people warned us about didn’t actually happen.  I’m lucky I have a loving committed relationship to keep me aroused.  I can only imagine what motivates other consenting adults to find others to consent with or how they rendezvous.  It’s gone from lowdown to the down low.  It’s not sex in your face 24/7 anymore.  Has it gone out of style?

Thank god, you might say, for dating websites, social media.  Maybe my perspective is just jaded, being older and so experienced — which is a way of saying having gotten away with a lot of things leading up to where I am today in life.  Jaded and almost willfully unhip, looking through the telescope with a blind eye, there’s a chance I’m not seeing something hidden in plain sight because it’s none of my affair to look, none of my business to see.  For me it’s a delight to see female undergarment shops as prominent legitimate businesses at the fashion mall, free to ogle, stare and admire lace on mannequins.  Lingerie.  I’m not really the target market for who’s buying and wearing this apparel, but somebody is and does.  Once upon a time I was a member of a modern generation.  It was the hippest generation ever lived.  That was then.

It’s my impulse to cry out to the generation after the next one after the next one, risk spoiling all their fun.  I feel impelled to chaperone from the grave, as it were, a version of JD Salinger’s catcher in the rye where he imagines a kind of guardian angel protecting kids from falling off a cliff (a problematic metaphor considering Salinger’s relationship to a young Joyce Maynard, which I suppose ironically illustrates the futility to project innocence upon a future generation).  Some writers write about yesterday for yesterday, for today about today and tomorrow, about yesterday, today and tomorrow for today and tomorrow.  Usually it all ends up yesterday.

In high school my daughter Michel absolutely forbade me from volunteering to chaperone any high school social events like hayrides and dances.  She clearly told me she didn’t want me hanging out where I could spy on her.  So I never did.  Never dared to question if she was hiding some kind of behavior, I believed Michel simply didn’t want me inhibiting her social life, not her anticipating my acting out a helicopter dad.  Not that she was ashamed.  It was enough I coached her basketball team three years in middle school.  I respected her demand to allow her privacy at the sacrifice of my never getting the experience of observing my daughter partying with her peers in high school.  I had to get to know her as an adolescent in other ways.  I am not disappointed in the adult woman she became.

My son Vincent may have had an even more obscure, enigmatic adolescence and he turned out good too.

Congratulations, you say.  Thanks.  I am proud of them both.  Their mother seems to have had an extraordinarily magical influence on their character.  My influence, however well-intentioned, cannot be retrofit into my own past.  Their dad’s dinner table opinions came from a man otherwise renown as an expert in pictures of naked women.  Pictures.  Sometimes I look at my grown kids and appreciate what they put up with me as a father, and what I really wonder is how I get treated so respectfully as an older old man.  This calls forth testimony.  I know stories I am reluctant to tell my granddaughters which for now I prefer they simply do not read — until they are older.  Adults.  My son and daughter may prefer I bury my stories for keeps but they can’t help me.  Can’t keep me from singing.  Coming clean.

Will sex ever be clean again, well yes of course.  We used to talk about rebelling against Victorian mores and now there’s a popular historical drama series on TV portraying what a pair of rompers were Victoria and Albert behind closed doors.  Perhaps from a discreet parallel baseline a civil dialog of sex will arise beyond the recriminations, criminal convictions and revelations of debaucheries yet to come, after guilt is adjudicated and innocence restored.  A normal bandwidth of appropriate interlocution will need to volunteer itself or sex will only belong to the clinical and the depraved.

The arts will be expected to express the vocabulary of the future of Eros, but everyday workaday life gets to be where practical Eros is acted out and explained.  For example, normal people will listen to Top 40 radio and buy the songs.  Listen up, watch and see these young crooners all falling down all over themselves mansplaining their feelings of deep respect for Aphrodite.  We’ll see who’s sincere and who’s zooming whom as time goes by, as this is the nature of mating in the real world.

 

Buffalo M Kelly

 

 

Thankful, Shakira

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Shakira came into my life in Cancun, Mexico in the mid-90s, though I did not know Shakira was Shakira then.  What anglo would?

First trip to Mexico, the whole family, Roxanne and the kids, a midwinter break in the balmy Caribbean.  We stayed at the DoubleTree — ocean view.  It was the time I insisted we take a taxi into the old town, to see how the real Mexicans lived.  After a while of meandering a few shabby blocks near an old bull ring rodeo stadium and some shops of meager everyday merchandise and not finding a cantina where we all might take lunch, daughter Michel implored we get out of there and go back to the hotel zone.

“We don’t belong here,” she whispered.  “We’re invading their privacy.  Dad, we get it, let’s go.”

My intent was to share experience of a foreign culture with my kids, expose them to life beyond the resorts and the mall.  That was the time we also took a bus trip tour to the temples of Chichen Itza, and a ferry boat tour to Cozumel Island.  It was touristy but we rode a bus deep into the Yucatan and visited towns of adobe and Spanish stone and learned about the Maya at the places they actually live.  We climbed up and down the great pyramid and saw from above the altar of Chac Mool.  At Cozumel we snorkeled amid neon fish and vibrant coral and took a tour after lunch at a little family factory that made coral jewelry, where a lady gave me a little sample twig of black coral.  Except for our venture into old town Cancun our contact with Mexican Mexico we kept within a comfort zone.  At old town Cancun — nobody I asked could recall what the little town was called before the 1970s when FONATUR established what is now the famed and iconic Riviera Maya — the four of us stood out like neon fish out of water.  No one approached us and asked us what we wanted, everybody just eyeballed us and seemed to stay out of our way.  Some smiled, and that’s about all.

“I’m with Michel,” confided Vincent, putting a hand on my back.  “We should go.  These people don’t want us to see them this way.”

From nowhere a taxi came round a corner and Roxanne hailed it.  I felt bad.  Once again Dad risked everybody’s lives pursuing some kind of social adventure.  They persuaded me their discomfort and paranoia was really about us encroaching on people’s space and crossing boundaries unwelcome, and I felt bad about that too — impressed with the wisdoms of two young teenagers, and their mom of course.

We probably ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, where Michael Bolton and Kenny G were the gold record icons.  We sunbathed at the beach at the Hotel Presidente because the beach along the DoubleTree had been consumed the previous season by a hurricane named Roxanne.  The beach will come back, a concierge told us.  “The sea always gives back it’s dead.”

I have never met Shakira, and this story will not end that way.  However, the first time I heard a Shakira song was in Cancun.  Down below and next door to the DoubleTree was a big tent like a quonset hut where a night club pounded dance music from a live band.  With the hotel balcony glass door slid open to feel the night air off the sea the music put everybody else to sleep, but the pulsating Latin beats and rhythms rocked me more awake.  With Roxanne’s permission I got up, put my clothes on and left my wife and kids to go down to check out the club.

“Don’t make me worry,” she said.  “Don’t stay out too long.”

There was no cover charge but the guy at the door said there was a two drink minimum.  I lucked into a seat at a table at the front by the dance floor.  The waiter seized on me as if to chase me away and I ordered a pair of rum and cokes.  The band ended its second to last number and went into its finale.  They were tight, featured horns and a wicked drummer.  I was sorry I hadn’t arrived sooner to see more songs.  When the band quit and started to pack up, the sound system played recorded music that sounded to me like Latin disco.  Even if some of the crowd thinned out at the tables after the band stopped, more people came to the tables to dance and filled the dance floor.  In my early 40s, I was maybe the oldest man in the room.  I may also have been the only anglo man.  The sound system was state of the art, and the music coming out of it impeccably produced — the hi fi delivered these sensational dance songs in Spanish with a hyper Latin beat, the likes I never heard before and I loved it.  The songs got faster, more people got up and danced, and a song came on everybody recognized and everybody got up to dance, so I got up and danced too.

It was a woman singer with a voice of authority and conviction, and the chorus went Estoy aqui!  It’s imprinted in my memory because so many of the clubbers sang along as if it were their anthem, and I knew enough high school Spanish to know what it meant, I am here!  And it seemed so appropriate to me a rum and coke and a half into dancing alone with a club full of young Latinx closing down the club.  The song ripped into its final verse then chorus and confetti and balloons dropped from the ceiling.  Dancers raised their arms to catch the confetti and stomped the balloons as they danced and chanted.  To me the words of this song sounded like she was singing, Estoy aqui en creme brulee, which is not right but that’s how I tried to remember it.  I had never seen one song incite and impassion a whole room of people that way before.  When it ended most people picked up their jackets, purses and belongings and meandered out.  The sound system played a slow dance and a few couples lingered, collapsed together on the dance floor.  I knocked down my remaining rum and coke.  Tried to get another but the guy — same guy as the guy at the door — said I missed last call.  The end of this slow dance was the last dance.  Time to go.  I came away thankful I somehow found an authentic Mexican experience.

Back at the DoubleTree I whispered to Roxanne, “Estoy aqui.  Daddy’s home.”

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About ten years later I was browsing the CD racks at Target at a place called Eden Prairie.  Roxanne went all the way to Eden Prairie to get her hair cut and styled by our niece Kelly Kelly.  To both me and Roxanne the Eden Prairie mall by freeway from Minneapolis is located in the Bermuda Triangle of suburban mapping.  We travel together to help each other navigate, and it seems we never seem to find the mall the same route twice in a row, much less the way out to drive home on the first try.  But Roxanne likes to support family, and niece Kelly Kelly has a flair for comb and scissors, so every month or so Roxanne made the effort to get her hair cut at Eden Prairie, and I would browse the mall.  One day at Target, waiting for Roxanne, I felt inclined to find some music.

Specifically some Latin rock.  This was maybe a dozen or so years ago, back when CDs were still mass merchandised, and at the time Target stocked a Latin section, even such an anglo market as Eden Prairie.  I just didn’t know what to buy.  After Cancun and then Punta Cana and a bunch of stays at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo I developed almost a craving for Latin music and was trying to find artists beyond Gloria Estefan and Juan Secada.  I bought a couple of hits anthologies, and they were interesting, some catchy, but not as good.  I lucked into Duo Guardabarranco and a kickass Mexican R&B band called Inspector, but mostly things I picked left me discouraged, as if my benchmark expectations might be too extravagant.  Ricky Martin seemed inauthentic.  Marc Anthony failed to inspire.  I tried the original Selena (not Gomez) but couldn’t fathom why she was supposedly so popular.

At Target that day, not just in the Latin section but across the whole pop CD section they were promoting a two-CD package deal from a singer named Shakira for only $12.99, Fijacion Oral vol 1 and Oral Fixation vol 2, with a DVD video included.  It was packaged like a boxed set.  One side, vol 1, against a vermilion background a radiant blond woman with luminescent skin in a white lace wedding dress holds a baby pulling at her necklace.  On the other side, vol 2, a tanned muscular naked woman with her private parts obscured by a tree and a vine holds an apple in her hand in an athletic stance rather like Michelangelo’s David, and looking down from the boughs of the tree is not a serpent but another little baby — maybe the same baby as the cover of vol 1, maybe not, even the two Shakiras don’t quite resemble the same woman, which made me briefly consider Shakira might not be the name of a person but a band or orchestra.  I had never heard of this Shakira.

At $12.99 it seemed a clearance price, which made me the more suspicious, but I bought the package anyway.  Almost reluctantly I played it a few days later, alone in my loft on the big stereo, time I reserved to catch up on my correspondence.  Vol 1, from the top, volume lower than average in case what I heard sounded sour.

Stop!  What is this?  Turn it up and start over.  The song starts as if in mid conversation, like a high school girls choir singing in French.  Acoustic guitar strings guide a narrative, now Spanish, in a voice vaguely familiar and infinitely unique.  The song progresses as this beautiful voice torches the heart and falls back knowingly wistful, and it doesn’t matter I don’t understand most of the lyrics, something beguiled me to trust her voice, the most beautiful voice on the planet.

Gradually I upped the volume on the old Utah speakers.  Her voice song to song carried each progressive melody, she the lead instrument within a band impeccably arranged and exquisitely produced.  The album was a wonder to listen to.  The third song had me in tears.  A duet with some guy named Alejandro Sanz, call and response, imploring and rebuke, it was the best Latin rock and roll song I ever heard.  And I couldn’t understand the words.  It was all music, the voices, instruments in the band.  What a frikken band, I thought.  And wept.  I played track 3 again just to be sure I wasn’t halucinating.

She sang, “Ay amor…”

It was the most beautiful album I ever heard in ages.  Executive produced by Rick Rubin, who I later learned was a recording maestro at Columbia records.  Better than Moondance.  Better than Silk Degrees or Songs of Love and Hate or Layla and Other Love Songs, Tea For the Tillerman or Court and Spark.  It approached A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul.  An exquisite recording.

The first three songs celebrated new love, lamented lost love, and said good bye to love unreliable and unfulfilled.  One called “Dia Especial” was guitar band like the early Beatles, I could imagine Shakira with an electric guitar and singing into the mic wearing wraparound shades, both Lennon and McCartney.  The song “No” — about halfway through the CD — she escorts you to the seams of depression, an aria so full of pity Gene Pitney would have cried.  Then next she’s smirking and teasing with another rocked-up disco dance piece about las mujeres son las de la intuicion.  Next thing it’s the voice of innocence and barefoot naivete.  She rips into the blues on a song she calls “Lo Imprescindible” which I think of as Bleibe, Baby Bleibe, Baby, so eurotech and nasty, so persuasive and commandeering.  Then the disc ends with a reprise of the second song, titled “La Pared Acoustica”, a version accompanied only by her pianist, and in Spanish the torch of her voice could be a cello, a string quartet of instruments.  I was beginning to believe Shakira could sing more than one note at the same time.  The album closed with a different version of my favorite, track 3, “La Tortura” (the torture), remixed without the duet with the Alejandro guy and stripped of the band, instead set to the beat of a techno military march.

Oral Fixation vol 2 was in English and I compared the contents to see if maybe it might be a straight translation of vol 1, but it was not.  Actually “Dia Especial” turns up as “The Day and the Time”, and the enticing, enchanting opening track of vol 1, “En Tus Pupilas” which opens so abruptly like you’ve happened into a conversation among a high school girls choir, finally shows up as the 11th track of 12, called “Something”.  And a reprise of “La Turtura” with an English dub of a few lines is the bonus track.  All these match the Spanish ones on vol 1 note for note.

The rest of vol 2 is fresh and includes the one hit single by which she is mostly known, “Hips Don’t Lie”.  In English her lyrics challenged the sanctity of her own voice.  There was no excuse to pay no attention to the story, and if the story didn’t add up there were no Spanish poetics to bail her out.  “Illegal” yearns for romantic truth and justice — “It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart” — guided by aching guitar interludes by Carlos Santana.  “Don’t Bother” is as American hard rock as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Songs mock show business, reminisce old times (when she was, what, 20?) and call out God.  The album ends, not counting the bonus track, with a rousing dance beat anthem accompanied by a children’s choir about political attitudes and references to the 2004 tsunami that hit East Timor — “What about the people who don’t matter anymore…”

Who is this Shakira?  How did anybody this good get past me?

I asked around.  People laughed.  Seriously?  Either people knew nothing or said she was a jailbait tart singer like a latter day Andrea True, like she’d be a Stormy Daniels with a record contract in her day.  My son Vincent didn’t respect her because she was a product of the starmaker machine.  Daughter Michel cringed to think “Underneath Your Clothes” might get introduced to her baby girl Clara on grandpa’s stereo — I didn’t even know what that song was until I researched Shakira’s backlist.

I’ve had crushes on female singers since I was 13 with Dionne Warwick and Mary Travers.  There’s been Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Dido, Carole King, Dusty Springfield, the Heart sisters, Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Delores O’Riordan, Stevie Nicks, Kim Carnes, Sarah McLachlan, Gloria Estefan, Om Kolthoum, Jennifer Warnes, Enya and Roberta Flack, and over time each more or less broke my heart and moved on, all except maybe Bonnie Raitt.  After Shakira came Neko Case, Adele and Lady Gaga.  Be it said Buffalo Kelly crushes deep with female vocals, and it was hard for me to accept Shakira existed without my knowing, even conceding I hadn’t listened to Top 40 radio since about 1987.

It was a meager trail.  At Target in the S section of pop/rock CDs I found Laundry Service, her first album sung in English, released 2001.  I was looking for Pies Descalzos, 1995, and Donde Estan los Ladrones? from 1998, Shakira’s earliest available work, and I found them along with Grandes Exitos (greatest hits) in a Latin CD and video shop on E Lake St.  I now had enough Shakira going back enough time to convince me if she’s for real.  Or not.  Her body of work was already a dozen years old, she had a greatest hits anthology already and I just learned she existed.  “Hips Don’t Lie” was already an oldie.  As they say in Spanish, Ya!

First of all I learned she is not Mexican.  She’s from Colombia.  I saw pictures of her as a young teenager, hair all teased and frizzed with lopsided ponies, black lace scrunchies and wristies like Madonna’s “Borderline” and “Lucky Star”.  The cover of her first album, Pies Descalzos (bare feet), is simple and austere.  Sepia tone photos suggest a long haired hippie girl in bell bottoms and peasant blouse, barefoot with acoustic guitar.  Her expression is moody, petulant perhaps.  She was 18.

This is the album of “Estoy Aqui”, the anthem of the dance club at Cancun, and listening to it again was a solemn formality to confirm what I thought I remembered.  Still, I listened through the whole album and decided she wanted to debut a folk singer.  I promised to revisit.

The second album, called Donde Estan los Ladrones? (where are the thieves?) presented a problematic album cover of Shakira in tight long sleeve leotard with her face very angry while her eyes spark, her dark hair in dreadlocks and her hands filthy with dark tarry oil.  Now she’s 21.  Her band sounds fantastic.  Like Descalzos, Ladrones is all Spanish, so again her voice is the band’s lead instrument, no lyrics to distract.  Measured to Fijacion Oral it was delight to listen to Ladrones end to end.  It was a Blood on the TracksDeja Vu (CSNY).  From the first track, “Ciega, Sordomuda” (blind, deafmute), a mariachi vaquera caballera anthem, through “Ojos Asi” (eyes like yours), a Latin Arabian rocker with power chords so sharp they slice your ears, the album astonishes.

A power ballad called “Tu” breaks your heart with a melody so familiar it’s like you heard it Americanized on a country western jukebox but you just can’t place how.

Reading up on Shakira there’s a story about her instruments and notebooks getting stolen from the Bogota airport ahead of recording this album, setting her back to start over from memory with the songs.  I guess this might be why she looks so depressed on the back cover.

One song on this album convinced me beyond any doubt Shakira was for real.  “Sombra de Ti” (shadow of you).  It’s a tender torch song rendered as if backed by a trio on a sultry corner stage in a steamy cellar club of lovelorn expats.  The song, buried deep as an afterthought, second to last track, a simple moody testament in whispers and full throat anguish, spare accompaniment, proved to me she was a genuine authentic singer songwriter.  No starmaker machine could ever manufacture such a voice.

I realized I was late by ten years.  Four albums — five if you count Fijacion Oral/Oral Fixation vol 1 and 2 separately — six if you count her Grandes Exitos.  In her early 20s she already had a greatest hits anthology which predated the releases of Fijacion Oral (which included “Sombra de Ti”, so somebody noticed) and “Tu”, and I learned later, she won some Grammy awards.  Not so odd, even the Rolling Stones had a greatest hits anthology (High Tide and Green Grass) a mere three years into their career.  Matter of fact, at the time I found Shakira music I really didn’t have any fresh hobbies, so I devoted some spare time looking her up as I kept replaying her songs.  I came to Laundry Service deliberately in chronological order.

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It came out in November 2001, about three years after Ladrones and six since Pies DescazosLaundry Service was designed as a glam album.  On the cover cute face close up Shakira is blond and curly with a tattoo on her naked shoulder that reads the title of the album.  The music inside verges on classic rock.  This album, like Ladrones, was produced by Emilio Estefan, the Miami Sound Machine.  It was Shakira’s first releases in English.

Still, some of the best work on the album is in Spanish, and that I guess will ever be so.  Even songs she sings in both languages seem to sound a little better en espanol, maybe because they sound exotic to my anglo ears and I wonder if there are clues to hidden meanings within idioms I need to listen to over and over to understand.  Her band picks up right off Ladrones in its exploration of Latin rock and roll.  “Objection Tango” (or “Te Aviso, Te Anuncio” the Spanish version) rips into the traditional Latin dance vocabulary, rocked up fast like a wedding reception band with Shakira nonstop pleading and scolding breathlessly.  “Whenever, Wherever” (called “Suerte”, lucky in the Spanish version) is a word for word translation, I have found, and in the right markets could have been a big radio hit.  It goes, “Whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together, I’ll be here and you’ll be near, and that’s the deal, my dear.”  And then she sings, in both versions, “Le lo la le lo le,” whatever that means — it just sounds so cool, folk rock with an Andean flute, super cute.  Among the Spanish songs not redone in translation is a kickass rocker called “Te Dejo Madrid” that captures the band’s incorruptibility.  Indeed, like “Tu” from the album before, a ballad called “Underneath Your Clothes” clearly crosses over into country pop radio as she sings of possessive entitlement to her lover’s body.

There’s a lot of sensuality to the album, but it could be expected.  It was the new millennium and she was a pretty girl of 24.  I looked for evidence of integrity.  I wanted to know if the star machine corrupted Shakira.

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alternate album cover

Who is she?

Born 2 February, 1977 in Barranquilla, Colombia, Shakira Mebarak.  Shakira means thankful in Arabic.  Her father was of Lebanese descent, which may explain why her name is spelled with a K instead of Shaquira.  The family seems to have been fairly well off.  They moved to Bogota, the capital city, when she was a child.  Her father was a jeweler.  A story tells that when Shakira was a little girl her father brought her to a place in el centro, downtown Bogota, to show her crowds of beggars, homeless people and barefoot children, and he told her to look at all their faces and always remember she had the grace of privilege and to be ever mindful of these who were not so gifted and be grateful for what she had.  From the success of her first album and the single “Estoy Aqui” she established Fundacion Pies Descalzos, Barefoot Foundation, an NGO charity devoted to building schools and providing nutrition for children of poverty in Colombia.  She was named a United Nations goodwill ambassador to UNICEF to promote political initiatives to end no access to education.  US President Barack Obama named her to an advisory commission on educational excellence.

For a little while late at night on weekends on TV when the ad rates were low the local stations would run a black and white PSA (public service announcement) of Shakira in jeans and a chambray shirt representing a charity soliciting funds for an international effort to feed children so they would be nutritionally fit to learn in school.

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Unicef

There used to be a Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Minneapolis (it’s now at Mall of America) and one time my employer held a quarterly rally there, and I was disappointed (but not surprised) there was no Shakira memorabilia displayed.  (The collection understandably was heavy with stuff from Prince.  There was, however, a garter belt from Madonna.)  I was surprised when I inquired, however, to be led to the gift shop by one of the servers where there were t-shirts for sale designed by rockers like Bono with proceeds going to UNICEF.  There was a black shirt designed by Shakira with a pink guitar with white angel wings.  The inventory tag called it number 23.  I bought the smallest one they had and gave it to my three year old grandchild Clara.  It was big as a dress.  Today she’s 13 and has passed it on to her sister Tess, who is 10.

I am disappointed Shakira was skipped off U2’s concert tour montage of women they call Herstory.

Autumn 2001 was not a good time to release a glam rock album unless it was a remastered remix of Sophie Tucker — Kate Smith, I mean, just kidding — belting out “God Bless America”.  9-11 jinxed all civilized psyches.  It rendered all social contracts absurd.  Everybody revealed the plain truth about ourselves, none of us are to be trusted in this world.

Even so, a pretty blond of 23 with an Arabic name had one of the top ten most popular songs in America going towards Christmas that year nobody likes to remember.  “Whenever, Wherever” got as high as number 6.  It’s possible Shakira sang at that year’s local KDWB Clear Channel Radio Jingle Ball, I wouldn’t have known or cared about American Top 40 radio at that time.  These were serious times.

A war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, possibly Iran and more than likely against Saddam Hussein seemed as likely as any pathway to the end of the world.  I was 50 years old that year.  Not a Top 40 demographic.  Almost too cynical to hear Springsteen’s call, “Come on up for The Risin’…”  Deaf to Shakira singing, “I’m ready for the good times…”

My bad.  When I finally heard Laundry Service it was about six years late.  Some of the songs seemed quaint and canned like Pepsi.  Even the best songs hark back to pre-Fijacion production values like vintage retro records.  Laundry like Ladrones was produced by Emilio Estefan.  Track 11 (of 13) is in fact “Ojos Asi” note for note from the Ladrones album except sung in English as “Eyes Like Yours”, including the cryptic electric violin and Egyptian surfer guitar power chords so sharp they slice your ears.

“Ojos Asi/Eyes Like Yours” turned out to be Shakira’s very first bellydance song.  I learned this about ten years ago when I special ordered a video DVD at my favorite music store the Electric Fetus, “Shakira MTV Unplugged”.  It’s a quality video stage studio performance of essentially the album Donde Estan los Ladrones with some “Estoy Aqui” thrown in.  She wears jeans and a jersey like her cover for Ladrones but her hair is loose, brown, no longer in dreads.  Hardly any make up.  She plays a blue acoustic guitar sitting in with the guys on “Antologia”.  For the grand finale she belts up a chain of bangles and jangles around her hips and the band goes into the Arabian intro and surfer guitars and Shakira bellydances into “Ojos Asi” power chords and electric violin and all, bangles jangling around the hips of her jeans.  When it was done the studio audience applauded and cheered and Shakira stood there looking around the set with the look of somebody who realizes a dream.  It is not a smug look.  It’s a naive look of wonder at being a place you always wanted to be.

Philadelphia music writer Tom Moon included Donde Estan los Ladrones in his book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (2008) and in correspondence with him about Shakira’s legitimacy as a rock artist, we differed on the merits of the Oral Fixation albums for consideration among 1,000.  He thought it was overproduced, too souped-up.  I thought she was using all available engineering tools.  He also thought “Toxic” by Britney Spears was the greatest song ever recorded, whereas I stand by “La Tortura”.  Maybe he had a thing against Rick Rubin.  Tom Moon did acknowledge as if it was a warning, Shakira is swimming in deep water.

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The Oral Fixation albums engendered a world tour, and a concert video recorded in Miami came out in 2007, which means I first saw it in maybe early 2009 — catching up to real time.  It seemed a great leap from MTV unplugged to an American arena concert.  Again the production values don’t disappoint.  The band fills the room.  The voice of Shakira resonates and reverberates every note and phrase.  It’s obvious she never lip-syncs or employs autotune.  The cameras bring the visual dimension from an excellent audio performance anthology recording.  You can see her face grimace and smile.  Her eyes dash.  She dances around the stage with the microphone like she’s compelled to be multiple places at once, but the thing is she doesn’t have to, she can stand still five seconds and still make everybody watch every move, to read her lips, see her eyes look at the audience, pump her fist to the bass and the drums.

The audience knows the words and they sing to her phrases like le lo le le lo le.  There are thousands at this Miami arena.  Mostly women, mostly young, mostly Latina.  The video’s so good I wish I was there.  She does a lot of her early stuff in Spanish and the crowd roars its recognition.  Usually I take a pass at most live recordings because they usually don’t match the studio musicianship, it’s not a worthy example of the artist in person, doesn’t offer a prize outtake or rare performance, or only serve as vanity plaques with lengthy applauses.  There are exceptions, of course, from the Allman Brothers to the Little River Band, and Shakira’s live recordings are exceptional, even when the crowd intervenes.

I remember Jon Landau’s famous words, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”  I want to trust Shakira with the future of rock and roll.  In the words of her song “Dia Especial”, “Quiero creer” — I want to believe.

It’s the video that woke me up realizing rock and roll ain’t all audio anymore.  Hearing is what I’m seeing.  Shakira is a strikingly beautiful young woman putting herself out there deliberately, sensually, sexually.

Before the #MeToo movement and the Man Up doctrine came along the sensual dichotomy was hard enough to navigate but it’s no easier.  Shakira may draw from Arabian culture or even genetics but she appears to be no Muslim.  She likes to show her tummy.  Bare arms and legs, oh yes.  Hair.  A free woman of the 21st Century, these are her prerogatives.  I look at her early images, album covers, the MTV Unplugged video, modest and naive, and then the glam blows up, there’s pyrotechnics in the arena and the lady offers herself all of a sudden as a sexy babe of desire and passion and a reasonable man has to stop and ask who is getting played here, me or she?

I’m having Camille Paglia momentos overthinking the sensuality and sexuality of art, worrying about object vis a vis subject and who may be victimized, who’s zooming who.  Catching up with Shakira’s videos after Laundry Service did not make me worry she was being exploited by a cartel of ruthless pornographers.  She looked like she was having too much fun.  She looked like she was boss.  I think I read about Donna Summer, that she was somewhat held hostage part of her career, forced to sing bad girl naughty songs to make money in the disco days.  I looked and above all listened for any hint Shakira might be acting out with a gun to her head, but there was no other force to blame than a young woman proudly flaunting her sexy.

As I recall there was once a photo book of Madonna hitch-hiking along a New York throughway wearing no pants.  At all.

Shakira’s questionably inappropriate behavior is almost quaint by comparison, piquant.  Never nude, always implying nakedness.  Bawdy dancing.  Lewd and lascivious gyrations.  Bobbing her tiny pechas.  Flirting piteously.  All the while singing.  All the while possessed of grace.  She loves to slow down a concert to sing “Underneath Your Clothes”.  It’s a ballad about possession of a lover’s body, in her words, “all the things I deserve for being such a good girl…”

I could see my daughter Michel’s uneasiness with my exposing Shakira videos to Clara and Tess.  Some scenes are not appropriate for children, boys or girls.  I respect Michel’s wishes not to grow her children up too fast or too soon.  I let Michel grow up at her own speed.  I was not strict and I also never made her wear a hijab.

I was introduced to belly dances and the voice of Om Kolthoum in the 1970s by a friend of my family, Azzam Sabri, an  entrepreneur of Palestinian descent who established a middle eastern restaurant in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, where the Oblivion record shop used to be, next door to Theater in the Round.  He featured live belly dancing three nights a week.  Cannot remember the restaurant’s name, but it burned down in the late 80s.  He never reopened.  Too bad, the food was delicious.

Shakira’s Oral Fixation video offers not one but two bellydance songs, both “Ojos Asi”, the concert closer, and “Hips Don’t Lie”, the encore and grand finale.  She is dressed in arabesque silks, full regalia, like one of Azzam’s dancers.  In some ways she has come a long way from MTV Unplugged, and some ways not really, there is something very essential, fluid and organic about her moves, a confidence that only comes from enduring devotion to something.  I’ve read she took up the bellydance as a young child, about the age my grandkids took up gymnastics.  On the video Shakira entrances the screen in the interlude of electric violin, breaking the trance for the final chorus and electric guitars.  The encore reintroduces Shakira in her skimpy silks — Shakira, Shakira — with trumpets and tributes by special guest Wyclef Jean, who banters lyrics with her about the CIA and how refugees — Fugees — run the seas because they own their own boats.  The show and the song ends with “No fighting, no fighting.”

I really truly wished I was there.

I wrote fan letters.  I asked questions like what inspired the lyrics “le lo lo le lo le” and how she might describe her process of creative flow, her ten thousand hours of practice.  To me she was a genius like Springsteen or Prince.  She was the most beautiful voice on the planet, and I told her so.  I said she didn’t have to prove she was sexy.  I said I was worried she might end up a Las Vegas porno cliche.  I caught myself on the verge of almost committing stalking, the guy in the Smithereens song “Wall of Sleep” rationalizing his obsession with the woman in the band who played bass like Bill Wyman only he’s not like them, all the other fans.  I wanted to protect Shakira, be her grandfather.

Was she influenced by Pablo Neruda, Federico Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Carver, Leonard Cohen?  Isabel Allende?  Let it be said, the subject did not make herself available for an interview for this essay.  I thanked her for the joy her music gave me, and for the Spanish lessons.  She never answered, not with letters.  I would mail them to her talent agency.  I tried to be transparent and sincere, disclosed I was an awkward older married man, grandfather of girls, not trying to hit on her at all, just a fan profoundly affected by her work, that’s all.  Some letters I wrote longhand.  I kept asking her to play a concert in Minneapolis-St Paul.  She never replied.  That’s okay.  I understand.  Textbook case is what happened to a crush on Jodie Foster.  With me and Shakira it’s like if Larry David had a crush on my daughter.  Who do I think I am, Arthur Miller?  Henry Miller?

Call me Abuelo Don Miguel de Cuchichear.

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One summer I came home after a gorgeous time at a cabin way up north at the boundary waters wilderness to learn while I was gone Shakira played a private show in Minneapolis for an audience of certain selected employees of Target Corporation, whose world headquarters are located here.  Not only first I was bummed I wasn’t around and knew in advance so I could find someone I knew who worked for Target who could get me into that show — the boundary waters are always there for me but seeing Shakira sing live was like a comet, at least the aurora borealis — and then I realized I really didn’t know anybody who knew anybody who worked for Target — then stories about the show came out in the media describing some reactions from the audience to Shakira’s lewd and lascivious dancing.  And it was not the bellydances.

Shakira’s label Epic records released the album She Wolf.  Target offered a deluxe edition CD featuring six bonus tracks and a yellow album cover, not green and just four bonus tracks you get at other stores.  Word went around Shakira squirmed on the floor like a slut dancing to the title song at the Target show, according to attendees who said they were offended by the show and Shakira’s writhing She Wolf dance.  Disgusting.  Voices suggested Target sever its ties to this product.  The video for the song didn’t help, reviews hyping the pink vaginality of the imagery of Shakira getting all slinky to the new song.  Critics got after her for pushing the limits of free speech, drawing undue attention to the boundaries of censorship, now several years past Janet Jackson’s wardrobe.  Free speech won in the end along with the invisible hand of the marketplace because She Wolf was a music epiphany.

On the album her big band downsized morphed into a small island synth acoustic jam.  Her lyrics chased after images of corridors and windows, sabotage and wishes of revenge.  A suicide waiting, then gibberish.  Lycanthropy and lunar cycles.  “Mirala, caminar, caminar.”  It’s a sober and stripped down album, almost unfinished.  The cover shows Shakira in a hands on hips stance, hair all tangled, her face all mad.  Like angry mad.  Like crazy mad.  Like maybe what she later called “Rabiosa”.  She’s wearing a sleeveless snake print dress and her eyes say she’s the boss.  La Jefe.

The graphics of the back cover suggest blunt force trauma.  The music barely exceeds the fundamentals.  Fade out endings give songs inconclusion.  Bonus tracks amount to live alternate versions or Spanish versions.  Again Shakira’s voice proves sometimes the Spanish versions are the best because the words don’t intervene.  On this album she again duets with Wyclef Jean and also collaborates with Kid Cudi.  Then Lil Wayne crashes the scene and does Shakira no favors with his creepy rap.  Oh well.

Still no concert in Minneapolis or St Paul.  Saw her on SNL hosted by Ricky Gervais.  Wore black long leotards and her hair tight in a pony.  She did three songs, including “She Wolf”.  Didn’t seem that lewd to me.  Did the very song Lil Wayne wrecked only without Lil Wayne.  Saw her on David Letterman backed by Paul Shaffer, a simple drum and bass dance to “Why Wait?”, in Spanish sung as “Anos Luz” (light years).  No Shakira on my local radio though.  I did hear “She Wolf” one time on the streaming soundtrack at a local Walgreens.  The CDs seemed to be selling down when I checked at Target.  $9.99!

For Barack Obama’s first inauguration Shakira performed at the Lincoln Memorial.  Wanda Sykes saw her and commented to Jay Leno, “Shakira sings.  Who knew?”

Browsing at Best Buy when Best Buy stocked rows and rows of CDs I found a Shakira live album from just after the Laundry Service era called Live And Off The Record recorded at a concert at Rotterdam, Netherlands.  Included for $5.99 was a DVD of the show, subtitled Cobra and Mongoose.  Again the audio is exceptional and brings out just what an exquisite band backs up her gorgeous voice.  What makes this performance oddly remarkable for the Shakira canon is the exact repertoire.  Like Miami it’s an arena concert, albeit in Europe.  Recorded before the Fixation era, there’s no Tortura and no Hips.  It’s all material from the first three albums.  She opens with the Arabian “Ojos Asi” and that’s it for the bellydance.  She closes with “Objection Tango” and encores with a grand finale of “Whenever, Wherever” — le lo lo le lo le.  Two songs elevate this show beyond excellent documentary.  One is from the Ladrones album, called “Octavo Dia”, here rendered not unplugged but plugged in.  In Spanish it’s about what God did the eighth day, the day after the seventh day of Genesis.

The other song from this concert is a significant recording from Shakira’s career for several reasons establishing her bona fide standing for the rock and roll hall of fame.  It’s a song with searing critical lyrics from the Laundry album I passed off as the band sounding canned and the words just snide and clever.  It’s called “Poem To A Horse” and it makes no allowance for a horse’s literary comprehension.  First of all, on this concert album the band courses into the intro hard and heavy from a surprise buildup and goes almost heavy metal.  Her voice is calm and fluffy, then wicked and accusatory.  She calls out her boyfriend for having an empty brain on hydroponic pot.

“So what’s the point of wasting all my words,” she sings, “it’s just the same or even worse than reading poems to a horse.”  Her attitude gets more and more nasty.  “I hope you find someone like you, there’s a foot for every shoe,” and as she sings the word shoe she makes her voice like she’s kicking someone’s tailbone, “I wish you luck but I’ve got other things to do.”  And at her bluesiest grittiest, a preview of bleibe, baby bleibe, baby, she belts out her chorus, “I’ll leave again ’cause I’ve been waiting in vain, but you’re so in love with yourself.  If I say my heart is sore it’s just a cheap metaphor, so I won’t repeat it no more,” bad grammar and all.

And then she screams the most wailingest rock and roll scream in the universe.  Her scream by itself could qualify for the hall of fame.  But the third thing besides the lyrics and the scream that sets this song off from anything else Shakira and this band have done is the guitar solo that ensues from Timothy Mitchell, a torturous, arduous treacherous hard rock stanza shredding the air.  And if you are listening to all this on speakers or headphones you might think this is glory, but if you’re watching the video you see Shakira dancing to the guitar solo, writhing on the stage, squirming in her lacy leather chaps and halter top, the fourth reason this concert recording is important, she’s inventing the She Wolf dance.

When she started out she wanted to be a folk singer like maybe Om Kolthoum, the Egyptian superstar.  Soon she wanted to be a dancer like Isadora Duncan or Josephine Baker.  All I asked was someday Shakira might play Minneapolis-St Paul.  In 2010 she released a single called “Waka Waka”, the theme song of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa that year, but it got no airplay in the Twin Cities.  We weren’t that kind of football town I guess.

Then when I wasn’t looking she released an album called Sale el Sol.  “Cuando menos piensas, sale el sol.”  When least you think, out comes the sun.  Mostly Spanish, the album was a delight.  Strong songs.  Tough songs.  Songs tender as butterflies.  Dance songs.  Escape songs.  Rock songs.  Songs sexy and pink.  The band is back!  Every track could be a hit single.  But not in my home town — no airplay.  I found the CD by surprise on an endcap at Target — $9.99!  It featured collaborations and duets with Latin hip-hoppers and the future Pitbull.  We almost could have seen her in Dublin when we were there September 2010 — she sang there December 16, near my birthday.  Roxanne and I considered getting tickets and flying down to see her world tour concert in Costa Rica, but that spring Roxanne needed surgery for an ovarian cyst.  It was benign.  It paused our travel plans and rebooted our world.

It’s not that I forgot about Shakira after that because I couldn’t.  Life had given me too many mementos.  All those CDs, DVDs and MP3 recordings.  Lyrics and translations.  Sparkles and Kitty, my singing grandkids knew her songs by heart.  In Mexico they play her songs on the radio, at bodegas, tiendas and cantinas, in taxis and at the hotel swimming pool.  In Europe, not surprising after seeing her audience reception in Rotterdam, we occasionally heard Shakira songs on the radio, streaming at cafes and train stations, airports, even overflowing from iPod earbuds, when Roxanne and I went over there to visit the kids living in Switzerland.  Once in a while she might make a guest shot on TV — sing “Gypsy” with Rascal Flatts, make a cameo on Disney or “Ugly Betty”, or shiver through an awkward, demeaning “Santa Baby” on new year’s eve from Times Square.  Along with a boodle of other artists she contributed to the Haiti benefit telethon in response to the devastating earthquake with a song of steadfast loyalty backed by the Roots, an anthem respectfully parodized to this day in a Flo advert for Progressive Insurance.

Shakira popped up in Paris on kiosks on Rue St Michel showing her happy tummy promoting yogurt.  In the Sunday supplement her smile promoted tooth whitening products.  She made the cover of Cosmo —  white lace, this time Stella McCartney.  Her stint as a coach on The Voice on NBC didn’t add to her credibility despite host Ryan Seacrest’s assurance her IQ was above 140.  This was not the Shakira who verbally sparred with Dave Letterman.  It was hard to watch.  She was an awkward coach.  Her protege who made it to the semifinals determined herself to go down paying respect to Aretha Franklin.  Tepid, rote homage to the Queen of Soul in critical competition might have satisfied her family but showed off no originality.  I wished Shakira would have made her sing Bleibe Baby Bleibe Baby, full tilt boogie with the NBC orchestra, “Lo Imprescindible”, in Spanish (and German, the one word bleibe, stay) full throated, and let her still wear her chosen gown, not that Shakira’s kid had a chance in the blond-blue-eyed country-centric milieu anyway, but at least the kid would have gone down singing something unique even if ultimately in flames.  It was embarrassing to watch Shakira demoted from coach to cheerleader for the finals.

Again browsing CDs at Target I found without advance notice the CD/DVD Shakira made of the tour for Sale el Sol.  Titled En Vivo Desde Paris it’s recorded live at Le Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in mid June 2011.  Still in stunning voice she brings forward her old stuff (but not “Estoy Aqui”) woven among the She Wolf era and dyed or bleached within songs from El Sol.  It’s a milestone for Shakira because she’s 33 years old and as she proclaims in the intro to the song “Loca” it’s Dance or Die.  The band never better, they give the heavy metal approach to “Why Wait” (Anos Luz) and the hard rock treatment to disco “Las De La Intuicion”.  She holds the classic long note of “Inevitable”.  She gets two bellydances with “Ojos Asi” and “Hips”, delivers a slinky writhing “She Wolf” dance, and dances rapido through “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Gordita”, sitting or standing relatively still torching her ballads, “Underneath Your Clothes” and “Antes De La Seis”, she knows when to move and when to rest.  She gets the Parisians to sing along.  Out of nowhere she covers Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and the audience all knows the words, and the she’s off dancing again, Flamenco this time, making it a medley with her moaning “Despedida” (from the soundtrack of the movie of Love in the Time of Cholera, it means farewell).  Later she gets them going in French with a cover of frenchman Francis Cabrel’s “Je L’Aime A Mourir” (I love her to death).  She closes with Hips.  “Waka Waka” is the grand finale encore.

Her birthday is the 2nd of February.  I remember that because it’s alongside Roxanne’s birthday and we are always in Mexico.  Shakira is a year older than our daughter Michel.  They do not celebrate Shakira’s birthday in Mexico but they celebrate Roxanne’s.  Shakira shares her birthday with Groundhog’s Day, the North America six week mark towards the end of winter, or if you are Bill Murray a day of deja vu all over again.  I’ll usually drink a Modelo oscura under the palapa and toast the weird chick from Barranquilla on the far side of the Panama Canal who was exiled by the nuns from her grade school choir for singing too loud.  Kids made fun of her voice, said she sang like a goat.

Thankful for all the songs and all the video history, it would seem this wise old grandfather might mosey along and let the girl be.  She made it clear early on she was ready for the good times.  She wasn’t passing up the good stuff.  She knew what she’s gotten into.  Way back with “Estoy Aqui” she sings about the photos, notebooks and memories.  She is la jefe, la loba.  It’s not for me to worry about her legacy.  Cyndi Lauper got it right, girls just want to have fun.

Coming from a macho culture, striving in a male dominated business, outside her songs you never heard Shakira complain or dodge responsibility.  One of the best songs on the She Wolf album is called “Lo Hecho Esta Hecho” (it is what I made) or sung in English “Did It Again” that speaks to patterns of mistakes.  On the same album on “Men In This Town” she wails, where are all the men in the LA skybars who are not hustling projects?  “It’s a suicide waiting, yo no se.”  On the Laundry Service album she sang about seeing nine-legged cats.  On Oral Fixation vol 2 it was “Animal City”.  Even before the hindsight of the #MeToo and the Man Up, I watched after Shakira’s career, worried if she got harassed or victimized because she asked for it.  Swimming in deep water.

I admire her so much I am hypersensitive to any scent of scandal.  And it’s weird to see yourself awestruck by a person you will never really know, who will never know you, and even so share tangible, fungible insights and experiences.

Shakira has influenced a generation of female singers like Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Rachel Platten, Adele, Meghan Trainor, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, and nobody gives Shakira any credit.  No acknowlegement.  See Reese Witherspoon on the cover of Elle magazine, February 2012, she’s the She Wolf album cover only nice faced, deja vu all over again, unattributed.  Even contemporary Jennifer Lopez owes thanks for creating for her a template to find relevancy on the Top 40 and TV at such and such an age.

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I think the more I liked Shakira the less I wanted to know about her, like she’d given so much to me the best I could return (besides the $9.99s) was her own privacy.  I’ve never joined her fan club or registered at her website.  Maybe I’m being agoraphobic.  I’m not a joiner usually.  Thus like an accidental tourist I catch news about her in random bits and pieces like a fleeting horoscope or a burst of I Ching.  After the Sale El Sol tour I heard she mused about having children.  I thought, oh great, she’ll retire and take care of her kids and never go on tour again, never come to Minneapolis-St Paul.  And why bother?  Shakira was modern day grown up Infanta Margarita of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” just the way Picasso saw she would be.  It turned out she had boys, two of them in  a succession of years, with her man Gerard Pique, a futbol star of Europe who plays center-back for Barcelona’s professional team and also played for Spain’s national World Cup teams.  The ultimate soccer wife and mom.  Her sons are named Milan and Sasha.

A little while after she left the Voice show she released an album named after herself.  Shakira.  She got a new talent agency, Roc Nation, and a new record label.  She went from Epic records, label of Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, the Hollies, the Yardbirds, Dave Clark Five, to the label of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Hall and Oates, RCA Victor.  What it really means has to be totally symbolic because she’s still distributed by Sony.  This all means Shakira doesn’t politically correctly qualify in the music world as “indie”, or independent.  She’s all establishment now.  It’s the music business.  She’s part of the starmaker machine.

So in the market where I live she gets no airplay on the hot hits radio because she has no name recognition, no fan base.  There are a lot of Latin people in the market but no Latin radio.  The hipster radio stations don’t consider Shakira serious music but rather like a novelty act, Latin Ke$ha.  Indie rock stations, classic rock, alternative folk rock and current rock stations don’t consider Shakira’s body of work suitable for their audiences.  She’s not country.  Not Americana.  Not hip hop.  Not public radio.  No Twin Cities radio format plays Shakira.  She’s a radio orphan.

And that’s why she never plays Minneapolis-St Paul.

The day her self-titled RCA Shakira album came out I went to my neighborhood Target.  There I met a very tall skinny blond woman in her young early 30s named Shelly who also came there at the same time to get the new Shakira CD, when we both arrived at the endcap where it was displayed in bulk.  Shelly was excited to meet another person on this earth who loved Shakira so much as to come to get the album the first day.  She hugged me when we exchanged names.  She was so skinny but put so much into her hug I thought she might snap.  So friendly.  Took a selfie of us together in front of the cardboard cutout of Shakira at the endcap display.  She tried a selfie of herself alone and didn’t like it, so I offered and took pictures of her and the full endcap.  She said she’d heard some of the songs and they were good.  She showed me where on You Tube I could download a live version of “Hips Don’t Lie” in Spanish, “Que Sera”.

At home I didn’t play it very loud, at least not all of it the first play.  I wouldn’t so much call it canned as maybe a little overwrought, overproduced, an attempt to be too perfect in the way She Wolf took itself too lightly.  There’s a recording style I call Dreamtime, named for a 1986 single by Daryl Hall, a recording so buttressed with overproduction it sounds so too loud at soft volume and seems to be blaring from the walls, like music in ALL CAPS.  People talk about Phil Spector being some genius with his wall of sound, but I never liked the wall thing, I thought it was too one dimensional.  I liked hearing instruments spatially apart horizontally and vertically, soundless places between them, not a solid wall.  “Dreamtime” by Daryl Hall to me was the epitome of the 1980s wall of sound.  And it seems every trend in music builds upon itself and gets more and more loud, fancy and full of itself until it hits Dreamtime.  Shakira’s Shakira album was living in Dreamtime.

Not a bad album, what I’m saying.  Daryl Hall’s “Dreamtime” was a good song, it was just so dramatically hyped like an epic Hall and Oates aria made up like a Pink Floyd anthem, it was literally incredible, lost its credibility.  Shakira thrusts songs into overdrive and where you’re in for a penny she’ll give you a pounding.  It’s not as simple as the band crashing heavy metal with synth power chords.  The song “Empire” is a classic example of what happens when a goddess sucks up so much power.  Leadoff single “Can’t Remember To Forget You” is a way way better song than the clever title might make you think, and the collaboration with Rhianna produces some sisterly giggles from two — wink — girls gone bad.  The Spanish version is more authentic, less pressure packed, “Nunca Me Acuerdo De Olvidarte”, a classic polysyllabic Spanish rock aria, buried deep in the back of the album, not a language overdub at all but a fresh take.  “La La La”, or “Dare” as it’s titled for English dancers, could have been a worthy submission for the soundtrack of the Lego Movie.  Most of the songs could be post cards from maternity leave saying save her a place at the table, she’s working from home.

I wouldn’t call my love for Shakira platonic, though it isn’t erotic.  It’s not agape.  It’s somewhat familial in its unconditional loyalty.  I would be astonished and horrified if she were to shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York, contrary to some people’s blind affection for a blond public figure perfectly inclined to do such a thing, and I’m not talking about Lil Wayne.  My love is not like the opposite of a grudge, unyielding and unforgiving, but a positive force entwined within my soul’s modus operandi.

“Waka Waka” has turned up at least three times at gradeschool choir concerts I have attended since Clara and Tess repatriated from Switzerland (with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” a close second).  It’s a soccer anthem that says when you get knocked down you get back up, go for your goals, persist with life.  “Waka Waka” is supposed to mean “go and do things”, or “walk while you work” in some unspecific African tongue.  The chorus goes “Zaminamina Zangalewa” (wherever you’re from).  One critic called it the stupidest pep song he ever heard.  I figure if third graders like to sing it, fifth graders and seventh graders, Shakira must have succeeded.  The only complaints I have heard are from parents who are growing waka waka weary, not that it’s a Shakira song per se.  Nobody accuses anyone of forcing Shakira music on a new generation, though I fervently support influencing the kids as long as it is age appropriate.

Everybody loved her in the movie Zootopia playing the rockstar Gazelle at the end.  That same movie opens with the song “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift.

When Shakira turned 40 I knew I was really aging because it meant my daughter would turn 40 the year after.  Inevitable, as the song goes.

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The album El Dorado came out last fall without any advance hype or anticipation that I could tell, but who am I, not the hippest guy in the Twin Cities.  No reviews or mentions in the mainstream media.  No news, fake or otherwise.  Just a release date notice with a bunch others in the StarTribune.  I found the CD at Target on a shelf of a new release endcap as if it had been there all year, somewhat rifled through, in disarray, so I shuffled the jewel boxes back in order before I left with mine.  I looked around for a minute in case that skinny Shelly lady might show up, but then what were the chances.  I noticed El Dorado dominated the Latin bin.  $9.99.  The store selection of CDs consisted of a meager aisle.  I browsed the $4.99 bin for some backlist I might not have yet — Journey’s Greatest Hits was in there, but I have it already.

El Dorado is an exquisite album.  It does not care if it is reviewed or prized.  You get 13 tracks, no bonus and none bogus.  Mostly Spanish, not enough English, if that’s a dealbreaker you won’t be happy.  She is in gracious voice.  The band is simple.  You wouldn’t call it rock so much as Latin skiffle.  Understated.  There’s a beat underneath every song, every ballad, but the pulse never pushes blood pressure into dreamtime, the production is just so.

When I was young there was a radio format called Easy Listening.  As different from Rock and Roll.  Contemporary Pop.  Jazz.  Country Western.  News and Information.  Classical.  MOR — middle of the road.  Top 40.  I used to think of Easy Listening as the Old People’s Radio Network.  One thing that could be said about the Easy Listening station, it was on FM and it was stereophonically perfect.  Mantovani.  El Dorado is today’s FM stereo Easy Listening station.  Shakra has her own Deep House going.  This is an album of the future.  An album to grow old together.  Gracefully.

Princess Margarita all grown up for Picasso sin meninas.

El Dorado will be one of those albums to revisit in ten more years.  The time will pass too quickly.

No sooner I learned Shakira scheduled a world tour for El Dorado I learned it was postponed.  Rehearsing for the tour she blew out a vocal chord.  A  hemorrhage.  Oh God.

She needed treatment.  She needed to heal.

I could only imagine how difficult it was for Shakira to not sing, not use her voice.  Be quiet.

She rescheduled her tour.  Instead of opening in Cologne, Germany in November she would begin there in June.  A bunch of dates across Europe into July and then North America in August.  The Chicago concert scheduled 23 January was rescheduled for 3 August.  No, there was no Minneapolis-St Paul.  It was the night before the night before the night before Christmas.  The website said all tickets to the 23 January show would be honored 3 August.  I found two seats at an angle on the second deck at a price I knew I wouldn’t get yelled at.

“Bebe,” I called out to Roxanne coming down the stairs from the loft to the room where she was reading and watching TV.  “You want to go to Chicago August third and see Shakira at the United Center?”

“Sure,” she said.  “I always wanted to see Chicago.”

There’s a refrain in a song on El Dorado that goes, “Personne ne t’aimera comme moi.”  It’s a song in French sung by a guy with break-up verses by Shakira in English.  The French phrase above means “Nobody will love you like me.”  However, there is an all-English version of the song and in place of the telling French line above it goes, “And this is what we’re stuck with now.”  One has to beware of songs Shakira offers in different languages.  It may be the same music but it doesn’t always mean the words identically translate.

This what I always liked about Shakira’s love songs, things could always go either way but they always work out for Shakira.  I now held two tickets to Shakira the 23rd of January 2018, good for Friday, August 3rd.  Good thing, too, because the 23rd of January we were booked at the Krystal hotel on Playa Palmar in Ixtapa, Mexico.  It would be like almost seeing her in Dublin and missing her in Mexico City too.  Looking at her original tour schedule, we would have been in Mexico most of her time in all of North America except Mexico City.  Only because she got injured could we see the Chicago show.  Only if she healed would we ever see her at all.

Classic Roxanne booked our hotel and air just as smooth as if we were going to Paris.  I anticipated it like a trip to Paris.  It was nine months from getting tickets to the day of the show.  I remembered Adele needed vocal chord repair about the time her 21 album took off and she went overnight from clubs like First Avenue to civic center arenas, and she healed.  If Shakira could not heal then where was hope, justice and charity?  Karma?  Modern medicine would guide her.  It must have been very difficult for her to be quiet, but she would have discipline for the greater good.  I kept checking the website every month or so, and the tour was still rescheduled to begin in June.

Heal, Shakira, my winter mantra.

I suppose I could have followed her progress through her social network.  I never joined.  Seriously.  I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter, which means I have no friends or followers.  Y’all probably think, what a lonely, backwards, pathetic guy.  You might say, hey, that’s why he writes like he does, to alienate as many people as he can.  In my experience most people who read stuff like this are trolls.  You’re welcome.  My expressionism, my graphomania is best channeled here where no one is obliged to care.

You don’t get paid for clicking me and no expectation you will forward or retransmit any of this.  Your only reward is my thanks you are reading this.

I on the other hand, despite my compulsion to write, am not a lonely guy, someone who people who mix up archaic and arcane would use one of those words to describe me, not at all.  I have ten siblings, I being eldest.  Connecting outward to a social world has never been a deprivation issue in my life, I have been blessed with connections to keep me informed of what’s going on, enough to get along.  I have a land line.  Roxanne has a cell phone.  I get postal mail.  Subscribe to newspapers.  Got cable.  A library card.  DVD player (not Blue Ray, not yet — the regular one still works).  I play CDs, and iPod too.  Computer literate, both office and home.  Screen, pad and app savvy enough to correspond and find answers on the fly.  I’m not a hermit.  In fact I rely on people like my kids and Roxanne to inform me of stuff they learn from social media, so in a way I cheat, I eschew — literally a word I eschew but it really literally fits here — as much social media as I can get away with as a challenge to keep finding things out some other way.  In this way I find my life greatly enriched and have to admit I benefit from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter vicariously.  And where without the search engines like Google would I be?  In my work career I got addicted to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Email (not so much Bluetooth) so I’m no Luddite (just an eschewer) keeping a low profile on the worldwide web.  Eschew and swallow.

Month to month I checked to make sure our Shakira tickets were still good.  We Googled points of interest in Chicago.  I mapped routes from MDW airport to the hotel, and the hotel to United Center.  Millennium Park.  Grant Park.  The Art Institute of Chicago.  Concert on a Friday.

People asked, are you taking any trips this summer?  We would talk about our planned family road trip to Wisconsin Dells after the 4th of July.  And we’d say we planned to go to Chicago in August.

Chicago?  Not Paris or Amsterdam?  You going to see Hamilton?

Roxanne said she always wanted to see Chicago.  All these years just driving through on the Eisenhower and the Dan Ryan on route somewhere else east.  I’d say I wanted to see the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Roxanne would say, and Buffalo got tickets to Shakira — it’s on his bucket list.

Really?  I’d say, “Really.  Lo que mas.”  And as long as that person asked, I’d go as far as I could to explicate in elevator format the lyrical and musical charm of Shakira’s body of work until the enquirer said sure and changed the subject.  Sometimes they would suggest we visit the old Sears tower, or Hancock tower, and the Magnificent Mile, and be sure to go to Navy Pier.  Or they asked to hear more about what we planned to do with all the kids at Wisconsin Dells.  I always got the impression my fascination with Shakira’s music evoked to most listeners a core skepticism like I was trying to say I really did read Playboy magazine for the reviews, the essays and the fiction.  I actually read Billboard magazine every week when I was in high school.  I remember reading in Springsteen’s autobiography he said his daughter was a fan of Shakira, and Springsteen’s daughter is an equestrian.  She could speak to reading a poem to a horse.

My son Vincent’s mother in law gave us a tip to take an excursion boat tour up the Chicago river to get an appreciation of the architecture.

Along with fun at the Dells, this July had Le Tour de France, the FIFA World Cup, the litte kids had no school, Vincent’s wife Amalie was eight months pregnant, The Minnesota Twins sucked but the weather was gorgeous, the Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks over the Mississippi river astounded even inveterate viewers and Boz Scaggs played the State theater.  Another great summer in paradise.

Starting with the June debut, in Hamburg now ahead of Cologne, I followed the setlists of Shakira’s tour and noted from sources like Billboard the tour was going well.  Saw she added a gig in Turkey and wondered  how that would go.  Took a hiatus after the show in Barcelona, where she is said to reside with Pique and her boys, her own sagrada familia.  Chicago would be her opening night in North America.

It would be a hot summer weekend in the Second City, Carl Sandburg’s city of broad shoulders.  Like Roxanne I had very little experience with Chicago, so this was an equal adventure.  We took the L from Midway to the loop and rode the underground to about Michigan and Superior.  We could have guessed better which direction to go at first but corrected ourselves fast — we’ve made wrong way guesses in Munich, Paris and Vienna before and figured it out — found our hotel and checked in.  Nice place.  The Cambria.  (Not pre-Cambrian but the Cambria.)  First rate service.  Accessible to everywhere we wanted to be.  We walked to the lakefront.  Browsed Navy Pier.  Ate hearty.  Wildberry for breakfast, Cafecito for lunch.  Bandera dinner (upstairs).  We tried two different pizzas and Roxanne learned for us that Chicago style deep dish pizza is a myth created for tourists and Chicagoans themselves who love pizza love extra thin crust, God’s truth.

With thanks to Amalie’s mother Yvonne we took the excursion boat tour up the Chicago river and got a fantastic guided view of profound skyscraper history.  The Art Institute of Chicago blew me away a little but I should have known the moneyed collectors of this American city would have been competitive with the Met, MOMA, the National galleries in both London and DC, and what became the Uffizi, the Orsay and the Vatican museum.  In Millennium Park there is a super-reflective monumental sculpture of stainless steel mirror shaped like a kidney bean — selfie nirvana.  Nearby is an open air amphitheater called Pritzker designed by Frank Gehry, renegade architect who designed the Weisman in Minneapolis.

Grant Park was closed off, so we could not go to Buckingham fountain, which is supposed to be Chicago’s Trevi fountain, because the Lalapalooza music festival was going on just south of Millennium Park.  Bruno Mars, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys.  Lots going on in Chicago.  Lots of young people, and that refers to people in their twenties, thirties, early forties, hanging out in public.  Navy Pier the night before the festival started was jamming with the blues and the giant ferris wheel.  We walked the grid between lakefront and the hotel checking out the skyscrapers from street level.  The Water Tower.  We rode the bus.  Saw a little of the campus of Northwestern University med school.  A lot of the tall buildings in the Loop are residential, which means of course the locals have means.  There is evidence of homeless people as in great cities everywhere — if you are homeless you might look for someplace to live in a great city more than some little town.  And everywhere sophistication of the air of epic self appreciation among everybody self conscious about being in Chicago, living there or visiting, with all the cool savvy of hipsters who know where to go and where they’re going.

Roxanne and I settled on a building we wanted to buy, a skyscraper with a Swiss clock tower style roof.  We tracked it down on foot by gawking on our way to lunch Friday.  There was upscale retail and eating on the main floor, occupying a block, all local brands, no chains.  A uniformed guy at a desk near the elevators didn’t know jack about the history and wasn’t there to dish with walk-ins, and he directed us to the brass plaque on the marble wall by the elevator, that the building was called the American Furniture Market once upon a time.

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The hotel called us a taxi to the concert at the United arena.  We arrived early.  Showtime was 7:30 and I wasn’t going to risk missing a minute.  Arrived at the arena before they shut down the street.  There was noplace to hang out outside the arena, but that was okay, once inside there was food and drink and spacious lobbies.  We found our seats so early the usher checked our tickets twice to make sure we belonged, even if it was up some stairs on the second deck.  Neither of us were very hungry from lunch but we shared a beer and checked out the scene.

The arena is home of hockey nemesis the Blackhawks and NBA rival the Bulls, and there hung across the ceiling the banners of championships.  Down below there was a stage with a long runway up the middle of the main floor leading to a round stage.  Behind was a blank wall with two big round video screens showing animation of a rotation of credit to Rakuten, solicitation to Viber, identification of the El Dorado tour, and a cartoon face of Shakira giving the crowd the wink.

We arrived way ahead of the crowd, and that itself put us at ease knowing that if all else we made it to our destination without a hassle.  Gave me time and space to reflect a moment how important this event was to me while the stage roadies got the place ready.  In August 1965 I saw the Beatles play at our old Met stadium.  The show could be criticized from a number of viewpoints but it was in truth a significant event — I could feel it was a big deal and took it all in as much as I could, strained to hear the guitars and the words, looking at those guys down there on a stage at second base actually playing “I Saw Her Standing There” while girls screamed, just like on Ed Sullivan, just like A Hard Days Night, screamed their lights out and everybody was standing up to see because everybody in front all the way down was standing up, almost dancing, and it was real, the Beatles were playing live and you could hear, if you listened, they were a great band and would have sounded incredible if they had the sound equipment available to Shakira in the rock and roll future.

C’est la vie.

Waiting for Shakira the last hour, hour and a half, was a cheap metaphor for waiting my whole life for this show, never sure until that moment, waiting, that the tickets might be bogus or something could go wrong to stop the show.  I do not believe in jinx but we were in Chicago, home of Mother Murphy’s Law, so named after the lady who owned the cow that kicked over the lantern that started the Chicago fire.  No, Mr Kelly, the name was O’Leary, and there’s no absolute proof it was her cow, though there was a hell of a fire.

After eternity even the roadies run out of things to putz with and the recorded pop music plays on, some Coldplay.  Hardly anybody is in their seats and if I hadn’t seen the video marquees outside the arena with Shakira’s face I might have wondered if I got it all wrong.  Then a deejay takes the stage, all busy with his hands on his console, mentions Shakira’s name, the audience such as it is cheers, and he proceeds to play a long series of long dance cuts.  It’s really good at first but it gets old fast and still nobody’s in their seats but me and Roxanne, although the people coming in from the lobbies hung out on the walkways, took selfies and danced a little before they went to their seats and kept dancing.  Why should I act so impatient, wishing my precious life away?  I am here, I thought, estoy aqui.  Sit back, enjoy that beer, check out the people watch.

Seventy percent, maybe eighty percent of the attendees were female.  A high percentage were Latina.  Most of the men were Latinos escorting a date.  Ages ranged from a few teenagers with their moms to somebody Roxanne spotted who she estimated to maybe be 80.  The anglo women — anglas — and the African Americans were all ages too, but usually young.  Everybody was dressed up.  Hair done.  There was glamour and beauty in the audience.  Handsome men.  Roxanne wore a nice dress, looked fabulous, to all appearances she was the fan and I was the boyfriend.  I wore my best cargo shorts and my finest silk floral shirt of blue to accent my eyes.

Finally the deejay gave up the ghost.  The air went back to vague murmurs of pop music and the lights roadies played around with the lights, strobing people, and the video screens went back to Rakuten and Viber.  Go on Viber and win seat upgrades and prizes.  Cartoon Shakira winks.  The seats fill like a sink with low water pressure.  Some of the crowd gets restless.  They applaud and cheer at every shadow on stage.  Then the chanting begins, and ends.  Then out comes the Wave.

Really?  I suppose.  This is Chicago, where they invented the na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey-hey good bye.

We learned on the boat excursion architectural tour that the term Windy City was given to Chicago not because of any propensity for the lake wind to chill the city but in reference to its loquacious politicians.

A block of seats across the arena that looked like it would never fill up finally took their occupants and the place went dark.  The crowd roared.  Video pictures of young Shakira played on the screens and a montage played on the wall behind the stage like a public service announcement while Shakira’s voice and a guy sang a duet in French, prerecorded.  An unfamiliar song.  About the time the arena barely fell silent wondering what was going on, there she was.

She opened with “Estoy Aqui” and the place lit up.

“Estoy aqui, queriendote…”  I am here, loving you.  The audience sang.  Shakira aimed the mic to the crowd and we always obliged, those who knew the words — especially her Spanish songs.  She danced side to side, up and down the runway, up the rampart stairs both sides of the stage.  When she stayed in one place she kept moving, kept pace, and the video cameras tracked her every move, every nuanced expression while she sang with all her heart, every note, pacing the band, and the sound was perfect.

Shakira can sing.  Everybody knows.

And after the songs ended and the applause roared, the crowd went quiet.  Before song two she expressed her thanks to Chicago for hosting her and for all the people who hung with her through good times and hard times.  Looking back I now find this funny: there was no Doctor Woo in the house.  Every other concert there’s always a guy who fills the silences between the crowd and the performer who, uncomfortable with silence or what, yells a cup handed Woo! into the peace.  Second place is Freebird and a shrill whistle.  Not with Shakira.  Not even on the video live albums, though they are edited.  Not in Chicago.  Nobody gets rude a a Shakira show.  People sing and dance — from the opening beats nobody in the house sat down more than a minute.  They talk and shout applause and jump up and down.  They clap and raise their hands and move their hips and laugh out loud, but at the Shakira show everybody listens when she speaks and when she sings and watches her every move.  There is no more fascinating entertainer.  She did everything but gymnastics.  No lip sync.  All real.

Song two came out of the dark and she gave permission to howl.  Instead of Dr Woo we now had an arena full of wolves, and so commenced the She Wolf song.  Owooo!  Lycanthropy Warren Zevon would admire.  She danced through it but no writhing, no slithering, no bellying across the floor.  In the hands of a basic four piece band with some strings and another singer the usual synth robotics of the music sounded like the solid rock band missing from the studio original.  Crowd pleasing three minute single.

Next they rip through “Si Te Vas” from the Ladrones album, and that reveals more of the long-timers in the crowd, people longer fans than me.  It’s another three or so minute allout rocker, maybe upped to four with a dexy guitar solo and a smash smash smash ending.

The crowd’s blown up ready for more but Shakira slows it down with a couple of new ones from El Dorado the new easy listening album.  Far from being still with slow dance poses, she and the band play plugged-in unplugged and get a fair hearing from a crowd raptly swaying to the sorrow of “Nada” as it builds to its crescendos.  I sense Roxanne’s reactions and she’s obviously taken.  She’s surfed along with my addiction to music nearly half a century but for her part admits general ambivalence to most songs and musicians.  She likes Chris Isaak, Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen from seeing them live.  It’s hard to get her to dance, even tipsy at weddings.  She’s uncomfortable with loud rock bands.  Here Shakira made it easy for her, no earplugs necessary.  “You can hear her so well I wish I could understand what she’s singing,” she said sotto voce in my ear, bopping to the beat.  I think you basically get it, I answered.

Song five, as long as Shakira has our attention in Spanish, is the best song on the album, “Perro Fiel” — faithful dog.

And then she slows it down for real to render her country girl serenade for her man, the “Underneath Your Clothes” ballad.  The video cameras magnify her drama.  Then she returns to Spanish with cut one from Dorado, called “Me Enamore”, or simply, fall in love with me.

Then it’s back to the Ladrones days with her classic ballad “Inevitable” where she met the moment of truth, the point in the song where she holds the high note.  Yes!  Shakira is healed.

Next song “Chantaje” is a collaboration with a phantom named Maluma.  It means blackmail.  It was a single a couple of years ago I first overheard it playing in a cantina in Mexico and it stopped me in my tracks because to me it was new and unknown and I recognized Shakira.  In Chicago Shakira turned it into a call and response game with the audience with lyrics on the screen behind the stage.  By and large the stage was bare except for Shakira and her band and the twin video screens.  Now the back wall came more and more into the show as a screen of backup graphics.

An interlude illustrated an origin legend of the Andes in animation on the screen to the haunting song “Despedida” (farewell) pre-recorded.  And then came “Whenever, Wherever” and she was off dancing everywhere again.

Then another interlude, this time a movie of Shakira in a flesh bodysuit dress swimming in creamy murky water like lemonade set to a recording of another song from Dorado called “Trap”.

“What does she mean?” Roxanne murmured in my ear.

“She swims in deep water,” I guessed.

Then, still Spanish and playing to her lifelong fans she belted out her song of loss, “Tu”.

Then one from the newest album called “Amarillo”, a rousing color song for the kids, playing acoustic rhythm guitar with a picture of spouse and kids taped to the face of the guitar.

Next the song I came to see and hear, “La Tortura”.

“No pido que todos los dias sean de sol, No pido que todas las viernes sean de fiesta..”

Yes, we sang — way loud — at least the first verse through.  It means I don’t wish every day will be sunny, I don’t wish every Friday was a party.  It’s the scoldingest where-the-hell have you been song I ever heard since “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles.  It includes the lines, “No solo de pan vive el hombre, y no de excusas vivo yo.”  (Man does not live by bread alone, and I don’t live on excuses.)  And “Mejor te guardas todo eso, a otra perra con ese hueso, y nos decimos adios.”  (Better save that for yourself, take that bone to another dog and let’s say goodbye.)  “Ay amor, me duele tanto…”

Next she reached back to another sing-along ballad unplugged at the stage at the end of the runway with “Antologia” to close her faraway past.  Then she rocked up again with a perfectly scaled “Can’t Remember To Forget You” which included a pre-recorded piece by Rhianna.  The background graphics got exciting, computer images of a screenful of dancers modeled in real time effigy after Shakira, with a medley of “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Rabiosa”, both from Sale el Sol.  The rest of the way it was nonstop Dance or Die with another medley of “La La La” or “Dare” (the Lego song) and then the closer, “Waka Waka”.

We wait in the stage darkness, our unending ovation weakening from near exhaustion.  “Imagine how she feels,” Roxanne says.  “She’s all over the place.  What I don’t get though is how… naughty…”

“Lewd, lascivious,” I volunteer, flicking my Bic lighter a few times just for old times sake.  “Shall we say inappropriate?”

“Yes, that’s one way to put it.  Some of her dance gestures are…”

“Racy?  Obscene?”

“No, not obscene.  We’re all adults here.  I don’t know.  They cross over the edge of innocence.”

“It’s not a gymnastics floor routine.”

“No.  But Clara and Tess are definitely too young for some of this.”

“Are you and I too old?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  She’s really amazing actually.”

“Awesome.”

The screen played a little movie about little kids encountering obstacles to going to school and overcoming.

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Just as the clapping ebbed Shakira appeared on a tiny round stage in the back of the main floor near the sound and light tables, where she sang the quietest song of the night, “Toneladas” (tons).  Accompanied by longtime favorite pianist Albert Menendez she hushes the crowd spotlit in a long gown.  It is the song which concludes the Dorado album, almost a lullabye.  Whatever it’s about will have to wait until I go home.  It’s in Spanish.  From the small island stage she steps down as the crowd cheers and she wades her way across the swelling sea of people who want to be close to her, and even with bodyguards guiding her there are people’s hands all over her.

Back on the end of the runway stage she sheds the gown and reveals the night’s bellydace outfit, a crazy pyramid shaped skirt just as triangular as the dress worn by Princess Margarita Teresa in the Diego Velasquez painting Las Meninas, so envied and studied by Picasso.  The big bustle skirt amplified all Shakira’s butt moves.  She showed her tummy a couple more times and sang “Hips Don’t Lie” along with the prerecorded banter of Wyclef Jean along with Menendez filling in with male vocals.  “No fighting, no fighting.”

Finally she closed with “La Bicicleta” with a dubbed Carlos Vives, another radio hit in Mexico I first heard in Zihuatanejo.  A smooth landing.  After Shakira said goodnight Chicago and thank you so much, she exited the stage but the band played on and finished the song.  Last to wave goodbye were the guitarist and the drummer, Tim Mitchell and Brendan Buckley, giving the crowd one last satisfied look, sort of how Shakira looked at the end of her Unplugged show.  The arena lights went up.

There was a kind of aura of shock it was over.  Closure, catharsis and a sense of unfinished business.  I asked Roxanne if we could just pause at our seats a while before leaving, to watch the crowd slowly drain out of the auditorium, looking at the blank, empty stage.  She said she’s in no hurry.  “Was it all you hoped and more?” she asked.

“Lo que mas,” I said.  “Best ever.”

We melted among the crowd lingering in the lobbies and flowing down to the main level concourse.  The lines at the merchandise stand was not a line or a series of lines but a crushing crowd, if an orderly crush, and I stood back not to block the next person and eyed the swag.  Roxanne assured me I could get anything I wanted, and I was tempted to spend the extra half hour or so to get to the front.  But I decided I didn’t want anything.  The t-shirts so elegant were way too elegant for me — I really don’t wear branded logos much anymore, however subtle, but this was a full frontal across the whole shirt portrait of Shakira in her El Dorado golden gold — I said to Rox when she said, “You can you know,” I know, but I would never wear it, and I would have to frame it.

I’m too old and used to rejection to try to get backstage to get it autographed.

On the way out I paused at the video billboard against the outer wall and looked at her picture one more time, and Roxanne took a photo.  She asked a security lady where we could hail a taxi.

Out in the muggy night the street immediately outdoors was still closed to traffic, the cops were directing cars and waving pedestrians across.  A surface parking lot on the adjacent block leaked cars.  We crossed with the crowd looking for taxis.  Our driver who brought us there implied the curbs would be lined all over with taxis.

Honestly I was in a mood to walk home.  To walk all the way to our hotel.  I knew I could find it by reckoning, especially once we reached the river.  I wanted to walk with Roxanne and talk along the way, like we did in Paris and Rome, and so many places together.  Like Ixtapa.  I wanted to talk about the concert.  I knew it would take an hour at least, it would be a couple miles, but it was a beautiful summer night in Chicago and we’d just seen the concert of a lifetime.

Instead we learned from taxi drivers we tried to hail a couple streets from the arena we would have to phone a request to get a ride because the taxis in the area were already booked to pick somebody up.  So on Roxanne’s iPhone we called a number in area code 312 from the side of a registered taxi company and within minutes got picked up in front of an apartment house address I read to a dispatcher.

The driver told us the traffic was a little crazier than usual because Lalapalooza was letting out by the lake.  He got us back to the hotel near the Magnificent Mile in time to get a thin crust pizza on E Superior St before closing time and a Goose Island before bed and a nice talk about the show, about Shakira.  I never mentioned walking home.  I wanted to be sure Roxanne had a good time.  She can be so critical of concerts.  I could tell she was impressed, not just shining me on.

I think she liked the Art Institute too.  She liked Chicago.  We say we’d go back.

I’d like to go again to Shakira.  Whenever, wherever.

Before I conclude I must say something about a song Shakira did not sing in Chicago, track #11 on El Dorado, the prettiest song on the album, “Deja Vu”.  It’s a duet with a guy named Prince Royce and it is the quintessential Latin/Latina song.  It’s magical.  You have to watch Shakira albums for what she buries at track 11, you’ll discover songs like “Deja Vu” — trust me, I’ve heard her sing in person.  I am eternally thankful for that.

Still trying to decode “Toneladas”, song 13 of El Dorado, she and her pianist, something critical she sang in Chicago to a hushed house, wearing that bustle under that long gown, body armor, I think of Shakira singing “Pienso en Ti” on her first album, her folk album when she was barely eighteen.  The ten thousand hours that got her that far fascinates me to ponder as much as the subsequent twenty three years of choreographing such spontaneity.  At 41 Shakira is young.  Vital.  There’s a lot more to come.  She averages an album every three years but she records when she recoreds.  She tours when she tours.  She doesn’t have to compete on the charts with either the young divas or the Eagles, los hecha estan hecha, she does what she does.  It fascinates me to know her back story and I would love to interview her collaborators she has worked with through the years, people I would expect to bear expert witness upon Shakira as a friend.  Wyclef Jean.  Santana.  Beyonce and Rhianna.  Carlos Vives and Alejandro Sanz.  Rick Rubin.  Kid Cudi, El Cata and Pitbull, Dizzee Rascal, Residente Calleiz, Maluma, Nicky Jam, Black M and this Magic! guy.  I want to talk to Tim Mitchell, Brendan Buckley and Albert Menendez, and the whole Estefan family.  Not just the array of cosingers and longtime band members but the dozens of people she acknowledges in her liner notes.  Her parents she credits for sculpting her character.  And the guy I would most like to talk to is named Luis F Ochoa, her earliest song collaborator on record.

I would love of course to meet Shakira herself and ask her about stuff.  I suppose if I met Gerard Pique we could talk sports.  It’s a little like that song on the album Pure Heroine by that young singer who calls herself Lorde, “Royals”, it’s never going to happen in this world no matter how many times I listen to “Give It Up To Me” on the She Wolf CD (bonus track).  I’m thankful for all the CDs, MP3s and DVDs and all the memories.  I’m thankful for all the associations Shakira brings to mind.

I am thankful for rock and roll.

I am thankful for love songs.

I am thankful for Roxanne.

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BK

 

 

StarTribune — Poor Circulation

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I wonder if somebody at the StarTribune newspaper has a grudge against me.  For the umptienth time since last fall the daily carrier skipped my delivery.

I phone it in.  I know the number by heart, it’s been the same since I was a paperboy.  Mostly I connect to the VRU — voice response unit, the automated system — but sometimes it forwards me to a live customer service rep.  The VRU accepts verbal responses to given questions, including phone number and house number.  I don’t trust the voice word recognition system.  It seemed prone to loops of misinterpretation, and don’t dare cough — I’m sorry, would you repeat that?  I prefer to key my information from the keypad — numbers pertaining to explicit answers like 1 – delivery problem, 2 – no paper.  1 – yes I would like them to send a paper.

When the VRU forwards me to a live customer service rep I wonder if the computer has flagged me as a frequent caller or if the VRU itself is just overloaded just then.  The lady whose voice transacts the VRU business sounds a bit disingenuous, and I might say a little poochy and a mote insincere, and after numerous calls and careful study a bit untrustworthy and unempathetic, so it’s okay with me to get forwarded to a real person to whom I verbalize the story.

The person always apologizes as he or she verifies my name and address.  You might think this is a perfect opportunity to rant and rave.  Maybe so.  I’ve been at the receiving end, I used to work at the circulation department of that very same newspaper and heard out the most vociferous complaints you could imagine and entertained the most uncivil language ever spoken.  I listened without interrupting, at least until they repeated themselves twice and it was time to recap the call and bring it to conclusion — redelivery or credit and a note to the DM (district manager) — and a thank you for their business if they didn’t hang up on me first.  Yes, in my time I was a customer care legend and when supervisors were busy, and sometimes when they weren’t, they would transfer hot calls to me and I would endure the customer rage and seek service satisfaction, acknowledge mistakes and propose improvement.  They called me HotKall Kelly.

When I call in these days and get referred to a real person it’s about six after six in the morning in my time zone, usually a Monday, and my mind needs a jump start, no newspaper and who knows where this person on the other end of the phone exists — used to be downtown Minneapolis, could be Iowa or South Dakota, I never ask — whose duty it is to report no paper at my address and to initiate a special delivery, maybe jot a note to the carrier with a cc to the DM and ask if there is anything else he or she could do.

When this issue of missed deliveries first emerged as a pattern last fall and I spoke to a live rep I asked if she noticed anything on the record about disruption on the route.  Was it an open route — no permanent carrier — a sub — substitute carrier — or a down route — something fishy going on like the carrier didn’t show up.  A guy who said he was the DM brought a replacement paper one day when I happened to be on the porch and he apologized for the bad service — I was getting missed days in a row at that time, and when it did come it was tossed casually on the lawn, not placed on the porch — and he explained it was an open route, looking for a regular carrier, and soon everything would be regular again.  That didn’t happen and I kept calling it in.  A special driver would bring a paper to my porch, usually by nine or nine thirty — thump.  And sometimes I would get a callback from someone at the paper asking if the special delivery arrived, and I could say yes, thank you — please fix my route.

When I call in and get routed to a live rep it’s always interesting to get somebody fresh working the phones.  They um a lot and stall while they type their keyboards, and when they get me and see on their screens the delivery history and its commentary I can almost see them look pleadingly at their monitoring supervisors and cringe, getting ready for the barrage of articulated recriminations to come.  And then I ask if it’s still an open route, and the person says no there’s a regular carrier.  I ask if my delivery code on my subscription is still Front Porch (code 9 I think) and the person confirms.  I ask they please remind the carrier to deliver here every day, on the porch, please cc the DM, send me a paper by special driver and thank you very much.  I’m thinking the stats speak for themselves.

Lately when the VRU kicks me to a live rep I don’t even bother feigning a mood of interest in the carrier’s well being.  By now I sense animosity and am willing to accept bygones if only I could count on delivery in some form, but nothing but the plain facts gets discussed with the phone rep.  It’s not his or her fault, it’s the carrier.  I laugh when I remember the olden days when we used to offer the carrier’s phone number so you could call the carrier directly and say, hey, where’s my paper?  Today it’s best to limit the service discussion to business professional terms and not even joke about any incendiary thoughts about the carrier’s motives.  Today revenge is not funny.

If there is comedy in any of this it is in the pattern of defiance and my reaction.  The daily carrier — Monday-Friday — the past eight months, despite my constant reports, keeps skipping my house two or three times a month, usually Mondays.  And when the paper does get delivered it can be found in the front yard or on the sidewalk, never ever on the front porch per the placement code on the customer profile which prints on the route list.

The weekend carrier, by contrast, Saturday and Sunday always puts the paper on the porch at the front door, and has been doing this for several years.  His name is Gonzalez I believe, from writing him tip checks in response to his Christmas fliers, and he drives an old Chevy Blazer with a bad muffler.  He used to have an assistant, a teenage girl, who used to zip out of the car and up the sidewalk to the porch and back like a cat.  He’s been working alone a few years now but every weekend he faithfully stops his Blazer, gets out and treads up steps to my sidewalk and wings the paper onto the porch.  He’s an older guy, maybe older than me.  When I’m up — the weekend delivery deadline is seven — I go out and meet him, say good morning, take the paper in the baggie from his hand, say thank you.

The daily carrier, M-F, barely seems to get out of the car and for all that has a rag arm, can’t seem to get the paper even close to the house.  Every day both carries enfold the paper within a promotional plastic bag, which keeps the paper dry against rain and snow.  Unless it lands in a puddle with the bag wide open in a rainstorm.  (The bags can be recycled at Cub Foods or used to pick up poop if you have a dog.)  I don’t know when the daily carrier swings by but it’s either way early or not at all.  Always too stealthy to wake me up.  I think maybe if I see this person in person I can get inside their head and figure out why they have so little regard for me receiving the paper.

I used to deliver the Minneapolis Star after school when I went to St Simon of Cyrene, sixth, seventh and eighth grade.  Picked my papers up at the shack at 64th and Lyndale.  My big tire bicycle had saddle baskets.  Big thick Wednesdays I might pull a wagon.  Or a sled.  Sometimes I just trudged with sling strap sacks crossed over my shoulders like bandoliers on a pack mule.  Every day.  The evening Star carriers had the extra privilege of delivering the Sunday Tribune.  The daily Tribune was a morning paper, Monday through Saturday delivery — the Tribune carriers got Sundays off.  Most Sundays my dad drove me on the route — neither one of us glad to be up at five a.m.

Rain, snow, thirty below zero Fahrenheit or a hundred degrees above and 80% relative humidity, I delivered the Star door to door nine blocks a day.  About 72 dailies and 80 Sundays.  I’m no martyr either.  I was making good moolah, enough to finance a cool wardrobe and a collection of 60’s rock records.  I read the product every day, free.  The tips were generous, at Christmas phenomenal.  All I had to do was pick up my papers at the shack and deliver them door to door nine blocks on a residential route two blocks from the shack.  Every day.  No matter what.

If I screwed up I could count on getting reamed by my DM, Mr Layton, who cruised his district in a green Ford LTD.  He dressed like Sid Hartman in a suit and tie and a beige trenchcoat.  He had white hair cut in a flatop and wore a gray green fedora so you usually could just see his shaved temples.  You saw him coming and you better be busy, not flirting with the girls who lived along the route.  I liked to be one of his choir boys or stay under his radar, so I did my route right and paid my bill on time every two weeks.

The DM who delivered my paper last November wore a North Face vest, jeans, flannel and a wool hat.  Haven’t seen or heard from him since.  Can’t describe his car.  Mine might be a highly unprofitable route, and I might be the only daily customer (left) on the block (the weekend route has a few subscribers among my neighbors, I can tell by the sounds of Mr Gonzalez’s Blazer.)  It would seem my M-F subscription is a write-off.

Lately when I call in about a missed paper, no matter what assurance I’m given the paper will be redelivered it does not come.  When I worked in circulation we would dispatch redeliveries to people we called Special Drivers who worked territories in their own cars who were equipped with radios to call in and get addresses for missed papers.  Today one would expect the Special Drivers would get their redelivery lists via smart phone.  Lately I’ve been encouraged by the paper to contact it on line at their dot com, so I have learned how to access my account to register my missed paper and request redelivery.  I do it on line more as a redundancy to the phone, and at first superstitiously because the first time I went online to report a missed paper and request redelivery the paper arrived within the hour, wow this must be the way to go — the redelivery is pledged by 11:30 a.m., same day.  Beyond that you can only get credit.  Sure.  So lately I’ve been logging in again later in the day to get the credit.  Tom Petty might say the Special Driver don’t come around here no more.

There’s a local monthly ragsheet comes out every month called Southside Pride.  Put out by a guy named Ed Felien, a lifelong Minneapolis southsider, one time alderman, who refers to himself as an unapologetic Maoist, the paper prints local ads, covers neighborhood events and runs stories critical of government, private business, law enforcement, education and all facets of the establishment, all presented in civil prose and an almost naive format.  Faithfully and without fail the carrier for Southside Pride puts the paper in front of my door on my front porch.  No wasteful plastic bag, just rolled up and bound by a (reusable) rubber band to keep it from blowing away, placed safely under the shelter of my porch against rain and snow.  Faithfully and without fail.

Monday – Friday with the StarTribune it’s always iffy when I get up around six and unlock the front door.  Most days it’s a relief to see an orange or yellow or green baggie out there somewhere.  When there isn’t I am now conditioned not to expect one at all that day.  Lately Mondays.  Someone could argue there’s rarely news on Monday mornings, no business news, usually just fluff from the weekend or things you already know, but I still would rather not miss a day — you never know.  Sometimes a decent essay shows up on the opinion page when least expected.  Or letter from a reader.  Monday is the day LK Hanson’s cartoons lampoon goons and buffoons.

Is this any way to treat a loyal reader?  I keep musing about writing directly to the publisher, Glen Taylor.  It’s an LOL moment too because it reflects the inaccessibility of the StarTribune’s circulation and distribution system by the subscriber.  On its webpage where it says Contact Us leads you to a street address you can mail them a letter and both a local and a long-distance toll free phone number — but no email.  No comments box.  No digital way to write a delivery complaint in your own words.  The home page may offer options to make editorial comments and newsroom feedback but for delivery issues everything is fundamentally obscure to access, and once clicked it defaults to Damaged Paper as the first option, as if offering the carrier an alibi will encourage the customer to think twice before calling the carrier a deadbeat.

When I used to collect from customers face to face and door to door every two weeks it cost $2.40 for seven day delivery for two weeks.  Today two weeks costs $17.62.  And now it’s prepaid, in 13 week increments.  We used to collect for delivery in arrears.  Prepaids were rare luxuries, though prepaids didn’t tip.

Everybody knows there are cheaper and more immediate and often customized sources to get news, and if the StarTribune collects news at all it is self-aware.  With a measure of conceit and a concession to old fashioned readers like me they put out an e-edition that mimics the hard copy I get at home, page for page.  Recent subscription policy says when we put the delivery on hold when we are away — a vacation stop — charges to the account continue, and in lieu of the paper paper they allow a daily and weekend view of the e-edition we can log into on wi-fi.  Otherwise a subscription to the e-edition alone is same as the print edition.  I pony up because the StarTribune’s version of the news is worthy.

My son on the other hand generally disagrees.  He says the StarTribune publishes dogwhistle stories, which means to him they deliberately hook a slant into their reporting which is meant to stir controversy from either side and bait debate.  So, I say, so what?  And nonetheless he keeps reading it in digital format, making him I guess an informed expert in what he’s saying.

I respect the reporters and writers and the integrity of the editorial staff.  I appreciate the content of stories appropriated from big sources such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Economist.  They have not one but two high-end music critics, one for older fans and one for younger.  They got a smart sports department.  The arts and letters coverage aims at insight.  I think they check the facts, not check the facts at the door.

The word Star means point of light or top performer.  The word Tribune comes from a concept of being a representative of the populace, an advocate for the people.  Aptly named, the StarTribune excels (shines) at standing up for its community.  Some call it a liberal newspaper.  My son says it promotes dogwhistle content.  The way I see it, any newspaper reporting facts that authorities try to hide is a liberal press, and I agree with HL Mencken journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  When everyone approves of every story then it’s a sign it isn’t being honest.

The owner and publisher, Glen Taylor, a long established local tycoon in the printing business and latter day owner of the NBA Timberwolves and defending WNBA champion Lynx, is said to be a Republican, but there is no discernible political party bias in the paper’s news, features or editorials, just an overt reaction to liberal bias by conservative compensation where due, a pledge to keep the debate fair.  And civil.  To think Taylor isn’t looking head-on down the road of print journalism and seeing the niche limitations fading away like AM radio sells his business acumen short.  The StarTribune newspaper of ink and paper will likely evolve itself out of existence, starting apparently with a service shortage on the east side of south Minneapolis.

The paper gave up its downtown real estate and storied presence in the physical corpus of the city and became another virtual concept with a logo and brand recognition renting office space in a skyscraper.  The times they are a changing, I get that, especially here in the old home town.  Since the Cowles family heirs cashed out their shares in Cowles Media there have been a bunch of guardian publishers like McClatchy who took the rap when the StarTribune kept downsizing to keep up with increasing costs and decreasing revenues in the newspaper business, stripping itself down, turning itself into the Strib.  Alas somebody had to take the fall of unpopularity without fouling against union contracts in place and stiffing readers and writers.  The ethical survival of the paper into the 21st century must have taken a strong measure of dedication to preserve its relevance in the age of video.  Enter now the digital age of devices, whereas yours truly prefers information on printed pages of paper I recycle.  Somebody still goes to the computerized trouble to budget and format over half a million daily copies.  One anticipates the Star Tribune isn’t going to fold any time soon.

I would prefer not to be driven away from subscribing.  I get up before dawn, even in June, the longest days, and I look forward to jump starting my mind reading the morning paper.  I worked my whole adult life after 26 to become a morning person just to retire and find myself slept enough at the first glimmer of civil twilight, the first birdsongs, to want to get up, brew coffee (if the auto timer hasn’t activated yet) and go to the front door, open it to the porch and look for the paper, read what’s going on.

It makes me sad after all the trouble the production staff went to produce and distribute a first rate, sophisticated daily metropolitan newspaper, my copy gets missed and nobody cares, nobody’s looking out for me, it’s just too bad.  They’re sorry.  They can credit me a little over a dollar per missed daily, extending the prepaid subscription another daily.  My ultimate recourse, of course, is to quit the paper.  Obviously nobody’s bonus is tied to keeping my subscription.

I might write a letter to Glen Taylor though.  It’s an old tactic I’ve seen before, hot calls demanding to speak to the publisher when it used to be Roger Parkinson.  Saw the same tactic when I worked for a bank and the outraged customers demanded to talk to the president, Jim Campbell.  Or if they merely wrote a letter to said big boss, it would get handed off to a vice president who might hand it off to me to solve and present to another vice president to manage and send the matter back to somebody to compose a letter under the boss’s name addressed to the complainant, which might be as much as would happen over the telephone except any real involvement with the big boss — unless the complainant used threats of bodily harm, and then it was time to invoke security procedures.  Today even the tiniest innuendo could evoke a visit from the FBI.

Instead I’ll just post this essay and hope no one retaliates by cutting off my circulation.

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BK

 

 

X Marks the Spot

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We live in a sketchy neighborhood.  Growing up, our daughter Michel used to call it the ghetto, but it isn’t, she was just being teenage urban dramatic.  Ghetto in America is synonymous with slums, and this is not a slum.  I have since learned that in Rome, the Ghetto, with a capital G, is one of the classiest old neighborhoods of the city along its bank of the Tiber.  In Prague, on the other hand, the ghetto not so classy an image, or in Warsaw.

What Michel meant was she was self-consciously aware of growing up in the inner city.  Though she literally accused me of risking her and our family’s lives by taking up residence here, our lives didn’t turn out too bad at all.  She and her brother Vincent both graduated South High, just a couple blocks from here.  I suppose for them it was one thing to attend one of the most prestigious urban public high schools but another thing to actually live in the hood where it’s located.  Our town was labeled Murderapolis then for its gangster homicides and it tainted us all.  A police officer was assassinated at a pizza shack not half a mile up Lake St.  I could not help but have serious misgivings about my surroundings in three decades and more at this homestead, and still Roxanne and I abide.

Ever on the cusp of gentrification, our neighborhood gets skipped by in the urban landscape for the more chic and toni parts of town, so old houses with solid bones like ours remain affordable on the local real estate market mixed with lower rents in line with a muti-housing market accustomed to being a low rent district on the Monopoly board.

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Corcoran Neighborhood, thank you Google

It’s not a high crime area.  It’s not immune to crime.  Statistics show public safety around here is pretty high.  We are not specimens, however much we are an organic community of leftovers, homebodies, meanderers and nobodies sharing space on a trapezoidal map called Corcoran.  Nobody moves here to be hip or find redemption, and certainly not to speculate in real estate.  There’s an invisibleness, anonymity to this location.  A comfort zone of neutrality.

When we meet people when we travel and they ask us where we live we say Minneapolis, and they then ask which suburb.  Roxanne and I seem to strike some people as suburban, and some of them guess, Plymouth, Richfield, Coon Rapids.  Some people can hardly believe people like us live within the inner city.  I’m not sure what that means or how it reflects on us or them.

Our house was built in 1913.  The deed says the lot is located in Griswold’s second addition to the city of Minneapolis.  Nobody seems to recall who Griswold was, no statue of Old Griz resembling Chevy Chase in the park, not a Holiday Road within the city limits.  Corcoran as a neighborhood unto itself was created in the 1970s around an elementary school that no longer exists that was named after an early immigrant settler to the territory who taught school and posted the mail in the 1850s.  There are about 87 neighborhoods with names and boundaries all over the city, all distinctly formed around local neighborhood organizations responsible for nongovernmental administration of resources to their community, like grants, referrals and other informational networks of do-gooders who put to use things like federal and state aid to cities.  There have been neighborhood organizations and councils and committees and block clubs in this city (like any city) since the first meetings along the falls of St Anthony, and I’m sure some neighborhoods pulled a lot of clout by the representation of their residents in city and county government.  Corcoran territory was once part of a greater neighborhood called Powderhorn, so named for the biggest inner city central park in east Minneapolis, itself named for the shape of its valley and its lake.  To the east further Corcoran borders Longfellow.  In the Great Society that existed in the 1970s it was considered crucial not to allow inner cities to decay, and so a neighborhood awareness was fostered at the city level to create formal organizations and territories of virtually the same size to try to stir some identity among the residents, a Model City approach to urban survival.  It was a very liberal approach to fending social problems, one of many that still works.  A result was the creation of Corcoran neighborhood out of twelve or so blocks of fringe Powderhorn, a portion of city Powderhorn doesn’t miss at all, the part that abuts East Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue.

An esteemed elder visitor from Wausau, Wisconsin said our house is a Sears house.  He recognized its floor plan and the style of its kit assembly.  By Sears house I think he meant Craftsman, sold and shipped by catalogue, assembled on site, but I have no proof of authenticity.  It’s probably a cheap knockoff of a Sears house — cheap as in inexpensive, done by budget, efficiently constructed — and don’t expect any claim from me to historical designation.  Originally the house was constructed for gas lighting — whoever designed and built the house in 1913 completely missed electricity.  Gas lamps and fixtures had to be retrofitted to knob and tube wiring almost right away.  No architect configured the kitchen to include an electric refrigerator.  We have rewired and redesigned the kitchen twice more.  That’s why I’m skeptical it was a real Craftsman house.  I think it was a bootleg job of obsolete outdated plans, executed quite well, that got this solid dwelling constructed on this corner lot in Griswold’s second addition.

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Roxanne and I acquired it in 1981 from the estate of the dad who passed away and left it to his only son, now orphaned, who grew up there.  His name was Ramon Muxter.  He was a fairly known photographer gone off to New York.  Credited as the inventor of the selfie, see his self portraits with Mae West and William Burroughs at the MIA, taken at arm’s length with his Leica.  I had no idea who the seller was until the night of the final walk through before closing, when we met Ramon, and I recognized him as the guy who did album covers for Dave Ray and Tony Glover and had things like the Mae West and William Burroughs selfies in the MIA collection.  Of course he joked he would have jacked the price even higher had he known he was selling to a fan.  He was cashing out to go back to New York and buy a loft.  The joke was on all of us in 1981 trying to do a house deal.  Roxanne and I wanted the place to establish our family.  At the time Michel was three and Vincent was on the way.  Ramon Muxter wanted quick cash.  The house didn’t qualify for a conventional thirty year mortgage.  Interest was about twenty percent anyway.  The real estate agent found an investor partnership to cash out Ramon and give us the house on a five year contract for deed at a mere 12%.

I remember when we first moved in, the two old guys who used to walk around the blocks together, Tony and Stanley, the Polish guy and the Russian, they thought we paid too much for the house.  They owned houses one street over from us and they were sure nobody would buy the Muxter house, it was way overpriced.

Tony and Stanley lived most of their adult lives in the neighborhood.  World War II refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, they worked their careers as machinists at the White truck plant or at the Minneapolis Moline factory, which were then located across the railroad yard bordering E Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue, both shut down since the early 1970s.  These two chums, they prided themselves in being old, long time retired pensioners.  They used to walk to work carrying lunch buckets.  Raised their families hereabouts.  They remembered the neighborhood before the new South High was built and when the block that is now the park was the site of Corcoran Elementary.

When we bought the house Roxanne and I were not new to the neighborhood.  We had lived in a fourplex apartment on Longfellow Ave near Cedar and Lake since before Michel was born, so we knew the neighborhood for what it was, working stiff families like Tony and Stanley.  We used to take 32nd St as a shortcut to or through Hiawatha Ave and go past this house, at a corner at a stop sign, and we used to admire it from the street.  A modest two story with an extruding set of bay windows facing south.  Open front porch.  Stucco siding.  A stained glass window set high on an extrusion similar to the bay windows.  Green yard.  Flowers and shrubs.  You could guess an older couple lived there — maybe we saw them, the Muxters putzing in the yard.  The house was set back from the street allowing a wide yard, and on the border of the yard and the sidewalk along the street stood four tall mature maple trees creating a shady arbor over the property, which in the fall lit up in gold.  I do not recall saying to myself or to Roxanne or even little Michel, wow, it would be worth raking every last leaf to live in that house with the beautiful maples.

I was turning 30.  Roxanne and I were together almost ten years.  We had a daughter age three.  Expected a second child in the spring — back then it was common not to know the gender.  Roxanne’s career as a research scientist took off.  I was a store manager for the Krayon Film Shops chain.  It seemed like we were making decent money, saving up for a down payment on a house.  With interest rates so high we knew we shouldn’t expect much house for our money.  We didn’t want to move to the suburbs, either.  Our apartment on Longfellow would not suffice for two kids, so we knew we would have to move either way, rent or buy.  At that stopsign on 32nd St we noticed a realtor’s for sale sign in the Muxters’ yard.

We called the realtor expecting nothing to come of it.  We expected the price too high, we would not qualify for a mortgage, somebody else already bought it.  The realtor arranged a walk through.  The interior woodwork charmed us.  It was cozy and homey.  It had a clawfoot bathtub.  Very reliable and fairly new gas boiler furnace — radiator heat.  Serviceable kitchen, especially since it was designed and built before the advent of refrigerators.  The plumbing would require upgrading to copper horizontal pipes.  The electrical wiring would have to be redone to meet current code.  And the entire upstairs — that second story as seen from the street — was entirely unfinished, just an open attic, an illusion — Ramon used to use it as a photo studio (a darkroom in the basement had been converted for the showing into a tool closet).  The realtor said she represented a motivated seller who needed to cash out his inheritance to get on with his life in New York.  She pitched us what seemed like a reasonable price, said she could get us financing through a contract for deed with some private investors, and offered to hook us up with the plumber and electrician to bring the dwelling up to code.

After walking around and getting the feel of the place Roxanne and I confided in whispers.  We loved the place.  We bought it.  Thirty six years later we’re still here.

We’ve put two roofs on it.  Painted, painted and repainted the trim.  Painted the stucco exterior.  Twice remodeled the kitchen.  Finished the upstairs into an open loft bedroom, studio, library, lounge and office.  Upgraded the bathroom.  Except paint, the fixes, upgrades and remodels were not done by us but by hired people with skills.  We like to think we’ve kept up the property, done diligent maintenance.  We have been careful not to do it harm.  Thus Roxanne and I plighted our troth to this house on a corner lot in Corcoran somewhere in Griswold’s second addition to Minneapolis and committed our lives to an urban dream to not allow cities to decay and rot.

It seemed reasonable to believe the neighborhoods relied on residents of civil citizens to sustain.  It made us sad when the younger families around the block put their houses up for sale in the 1980s when mortgage rates came back down, left the city, worried that the public schools weren’t good enough for their kids.  With no more Corcoran school, the kids in our neighborhood were offered choices to attend three or four elementary schools, none within remote walking distance, all in other neighborhoods.  The favorite one, Seward, had a waiting list to get in.  The others had reputations for overcrowding, rundown buildings, lazy teachers, low test score rankings, bad learning, crappy food and disruptive students.  One named Wilder, for Laura Ingalls, was nicknamed Wilder and Wilder Yet.  We tried to be nonjudgmental — Michel was accepted into Seward.  The bigger picture we were looking at was a trend in pessimism among the neighbors that the future of our city did not look bright, but more like blight.

The same young urbanists who welcomed us to the community when we first moved to the block gradually moved away.  This depleted our kids’ playmates, but at school the kids made new friends beyond the neighborhood.  Beyond their opinions of the city schools the neighbors who left cited reasons of safety.  They pointed to creeping blight in the residences and businesses in the blocks along Lake St.  The rental properties degenerated and with it their perceptions of the tenants.  They said they were tired of seeing the drug dealing and prostitution on their sidewalks.  Hearing loud arguments coming from the walkup apartments.  Gunfire.  They expressed no faith in city government, the county, the Met Council, the school board, the state or the feds to solve the problems, so they sold out as the real estate market rose and went to live in places where urban problems did not exist, at least in their minds.

And they were right, I guess — who am I to denounce somebody’s basic right to pursue happiness?  Their points were well taken.  We chose to stay behind because we were already happy.  What worried us most was the trend of moving out of the city looked like white flight, a very illiberal reaction to living among an increasing presence of minorities of color.  It’s been hard enough to deal with my own racism and white privilege my whole life but it was sadder to read into my ex-neighbors’ motives a tacit rejection of what decades later became commonly called diversity, and I sensed panic which I did not share.

Today we by no means are the only white people on the block but that’s not really the story of how diverse the neighborhood remains, it’s mostly about me not selling our place and moving to the country twenty years ago.  I am stubborn and barely flexible in my naive belief in humanity being able to get along.  We have a sweet place to live after all.  Nothing bad has befallen us here in this place I think of as the Buffalo House on Buffalo Acres.  Charmed life.  I report this as a testimonial.  I love this city.

Our house is located where we can access everywhere.  Backstreet direct routes to the St Paul campus for Roxanne’s commute to work, including bridges.  Parkway and lakes accessible in two directions.  The river road not far.  Freeway access nearby via Hiawatha Ave to get to the suburbs or get out of town.  I used to work downtown, twelve minutes away.  The biggest Sears store in America used to be located about fifteen blocks away on Lake St.  When I worked in St Paul I took the freeway or rode the Selby-Lake bus.  The international airport is about eight miles away down Hiawatha Avenue, aka state highway 55.  Only less than fifteen years ago a light rail train line was established between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, through the airport.  They put a station called the Midtown station two blocks from here at an overpass above Lake St and I used to commute to work downtown on the light rail.  Before that I rode the Cedar Ave bus.  There is nowhere you can’t go from our house.  You can get to Europe on the light rail to the airport, where you would have to take a plane.

When we first moved to the neighborhood we found we really didn’t have to commute very far, we were already at least halfway there.

As I mentioned, the largest Sears store in America was just down the street, where we bought house paint, shopped for a color TV and got a scoop of Swedish Fish from the candy counter lady in the linen uniform.  Two blocks away from our house, across Lake St and technically not in Corcoran but in adjoining Phillips — named for a whiskey distiller — is the strip mall called Hi Lake, named for the intersection of Hiawatha Ave and E Lake St.  When we first moved to the area before Michel was born there was an SS Kresge at the Hi Lake — a dime store, as the older folks used to say.  There was also a JCPenney.  A Snyder’s Drug, then a local chain competitor to Walgreen’s.  The anchor tenant was a Red Owl grocery store.  Kresge’s vacated to a True Value Hardware store and the Red Owl called itself the Country Store.  The savings and loan where Roxanne and I banked and had our 30 year mortgage with a lucky sweet adjustable rate we got to pay off the balloon due on our contract for deed opened an office at Hi Lake next to the hardware store.  There was a hair salon, insurance office, liquor store and an ice cream shop called Winky’s.  And a stand alone Pizza Hut towards the center of the parking lot.  On the far corner a Burger King.  Across from Burger King on the Corcoran side of Lake St was a former drive-in from the 1950s called Porky’s, subsequently converted to a sit-down restaurant of comfort food called Aunt Nora’s.  Kittycorner from Burger King was the site of the old Furniture Barn, an old late night and matinee movie sponsor selling beds and sofas pitched by a guy named Mel Jass, and even before the Furniture Barn the building was the original factory making Burma Shave.  Down the block from Nora’s was a shady restaurant called the Mad Mexican — Michel bused tables there in junior high.  I learned years later that Ramon Muxter’s dad was a retired teamster and made extra cash washing dishes at Nora’s.  Back next to Hi Lake was a dangerous looking wedge of land sticking out along Hiawatha Avenue where there was an M & H gas station facing the liquor store — the gas pump island was so precarious it felt like you could get picked of by passing traffic while gassing your car.  Across Lake St at the Hiawatha intersection was a five story no-frills office building running a trade school for electronics, radio and TV called Brown Institute, which graduated half the AM radio deejays of my generation before it folded.

JCPenney was probably the first to pull out of Hi Lake.  The Country Store followed.  Snyder’s too.  The liquor store stayed vital, Winky’s ice cream shop not so much.  An auto parts store moved in.  True Value Hardware stayed.  The savings and loan got acquired by a bank and closed the Hi Lake office.  Pizza Hut closed.  A loan shark rental center came and went.  It wasn’t just Hi Lake, there were ghost town gaps in strip malls everywhere in the 1980s recession and its aftermath.  Even so, across Hiawatha Ave, outside of Corcoran again but alongside the border with Longfellow, at the former sites of Minneapolis Moline and some other long closed factories, Target built a store alongside a slim strip mall intending to be chic with a Radio Shack, a Sepia Photo shop, Hallmark Cards and a SuperValu grocery.  Later Cub built its own stand alone grocery store further off the parking lot towards old railroad land, and the SuperValu went away.  People scoffed and laughed at Target opening a store in the inner city, but it turned out to be the highest grossing store.  To some people Target proved the middle class was viable in the inner city.  Then Sears closed its one time largest store on Lake St.  It confirmed Lake St was dying, maybe dead already.  Yet a Rainbow grocery store opened a block from Cub.

Meanwhile the busy intersection of Lake and Hiawatha congested with traffic which we continued to avoid by taking backstreets.  Eventually a bunch of federal money came through to enable the state to finish a project started in the 1950s and abandoned in the 1960s after housing and land acquisition, to upgrade Hiawatha Ave, aka Hwy 55, to almost-freeway, boulevard status between the airport and downtown Minneapolis along the east border of Corcoran.  Hiawatha Ave runs a direct beeline trail between the original Fort Snelling, the territorial federal outpost, and the mill at St Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, the trail linking the army with flour in the early 19th Century.  The beeline cuts diagonally across the grid pattern of the streets and avenues created later as the city hilariously named Minneapolis (Water City) expanded south of St Anthony to Griswold’s second addition and beyond, taking in stride the slicing Hiawatha and also its parallel companion avenue named of course Minnehaha.

Somehow in the negotiations of what amenities to the upgrade of the Hiawatha corridor might provide in additional benefits to community well being, along with the light rail line to run along Hiawatha most of the way to the airport previously appropriated, it was approved to build a bridge over Lake St at Hiawatha to eliminate most of the intersecting traffic.  This bridge, along with the elevated transit station adjacent, formed a concrete boundary to the neighborhood as formidable and intimidating as a psychological Berlin Wall.  To this day its unintended consequence puts pedestrians under bridges of desolation in a no man’s land like walking across a giant empty swimming pool of cars, trucks and buses.

Aunt Nora’s closed somewhere along the way, although she had a second location on Calhoun Boulevard whenever we craved roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a popover.  The Burger King mysteriously burned down.  The florist shop on Cedar and Lake closed.  So too the TV and appliance shop on the opposite corner, where Roxanne and I bought a Sanyo, our first color TV.  Along Lake St, across the Phillips border from Corcoran in the three blocks from the burned out Burger King and the boarded up Nora’s, the old Pioneer’s Cemetery and its lush green lawn in the summer, its gnarly oak trees in all seasons, evenly snowed in winter, smooth except the raised tombstones, the old graveyard looked more cheerful than the creepy storefronts.  Lake St looked grave.

Stanley our retiree neighbor got mugged one day walking to the hardware store.  Jumped by a couple of young punks who hit him in the head, knocked him down and took his wallet.  The aftermath of the 1980s recession left some communities slower to recover and so it seemed crime was the theme of economics.  Gang violence scared everybody.  A crack cocaine epidemic steeped the war on drugs.  The name Murderapolis fell upon the city.  Though much of the violent crime occurred on the north side, known as the black part of town, no part of the city was unaffected.  The gangster assassination of a street cop took place on the south side, near us.  Rumors and innuendoes insinuated gang takeovers of the inner city neighborhoods as residents fled violent neighborhoods for safer ones and somehow brought with them the conditions they sought to flee.  More blame was heaved on the public schools.  More outcry of inequity voiced the minorities for the unfairness of racial profiling.  Incarceration rates of young males kept increasing, blacks owning more equity there.  Wild youth menaced the streets.  Whites left the city for the suburbs with fear in their eyes the minorities would follow with their crack and criminal behaviors, loud music and slovenly ways, and so forth.  Seems all my life the world’s been on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket, the whole kit and kaboodle.  And yet somehow things tend to sort themselves out.  Stanley wore a bandage on his forehead for a few days while he walked the block.  Nobody ever caught the punks who rolled him, at least not for this particular crime.

The two most violent events on my block that I know of were murders.  One happened before our time, when an elder couple living in the house five doors down were killed in a burglary.  Turned out the renters in the house next door, six doors down, got caught with the victims’ TV set.  The other occurred in the street in front of a rundown duplex four doors down from us one summer night about three a.m. when a young woman deliberately ran her cheating boyfriend down with her car in front of his other girlfriend, and backed up and ran him over again.  Four doors down is far enough away for me to sleep through such commotion, even with the windows open for fresh air.  I learned about both reading the paper.  The neighbors filled in the details.

Time and again I suppose we had opportunities to bail.  Roxanne and I made good money, she as a research scientist at the U, I at whichever of the four or five different jobs I’ve held since we moved to Buffalo Acres, always employed, always dependable, good credit.  We could have sold and taken the equity to Greater Heights, so to speak.  After all, this place was supposed to be a starter house, just to get our foot in the real estate game.  We were expected to build a little equity, appreciation, sell it and move up in the world, every five years or so — another mortgage, more debt.  Instead we stayed, put money into maintenance and some renovation, kept up the payments and paid off the mortgage a little early.  We could sell today but where else would we go?

I think of that David Crosby song, Almost Cut My Hair, that goes, I feel like I owe it to someone.  Or like I owe someone an explanation.  It might seem to make more sense if I still had long hair, but I’ve been bald and rather corporate looking for a long time.  I’d like to say I had foresight, though I did see signs of hope in the Target store, the Hiawatha overpass at Lake St and the light rail station.  The old Brown Institute building became a charter school for Native American kids sponsored by the Anishinabi.  A second hand thrift store called Savers moved into the old Snyder’s space at Hi Lake.  Behind Hi Lake where there used to be a block of shabby housing called Happy Hollow where the Pioneer Cemetery bordered the ex-dump near Hiawatha Ave, somebody invested in building a kind of incubator center for start-up firms specializing in green technologies — the anchor tenant of this facility was a ReUse Center which was a warehouse showroom of old doors, cabinets and fixtures from old houses, and the rooftop had the first solar panel garden I ever saw in the city.  Yes, and further behind the ReUse Center and the former dump they converted an unused railroad corridor into a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting to all the lakes and scenic parkways and featuring a bold suspension bridge across busy Hiawatha Ave named for Martin Sabo, a liberal congressman who garnered a lot of federal money for programs and transportation projects in our district.  There were signs all along that the inner city was not abandoned and forgotten, it was all a matter of how much fate would determine the outcomes and how much the wills of persons staked to gain something from raising the standard of living, raising consciousness, raising safety.

I remember when Tea Party people used to deride Barack Obama for being a community organizer and I think about all the community organizers I’ve met in the inner city and I can see why people like Michele Bachmann are afraid of them.  They usually have agendas to undermine racism, oppression and injustices taken for granted as rights and entitlements by so-called libertarians who prefer to control social engineering by persecution of poor people, much of whom nonwhite minorities.  These community organizers can be vociferous and devious in their methods and still ethically build bonds in their neighborhoods to keep basic communications going and to advocate for people who get screwed by The Man and don’t know what to do next.  Some organizers get into elected politics.  Others work out of nonprofits.  Volunteers.  They make good networkers.  They keep society honest when they bring light to dark elements and engage smart dialog among persons both affected and caused.

That there are people among us who practice public service, either professionally or as avocation, and that the good ones aren’t even preachy about it, always tells me somebody’s watching what’s going on, somebody will notice what is going right and what is going wrong, and like the arc of history ultimately bends towards justice, somebody plus somebody can make things happen, can lay groundwork for things to happen to not only stop society from going to rot but actually stimulate authentic and sustainable prosperity.  To the unsung civic leaders and concerned citizens, block clubbers and liaisons with planners and developers, much thanks for paying attention to the habitat of the city.

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The YWCA partnered with the school district, which already controlled or had first dibs on the former Brown Institute building at Lake and Hiawatha, to build a state of the art health club facility and gigantic fieldhouse for club use as well as physical education and sports for South High.  It meant razing a block of blighted housing and some iffy storefront businesses on Lake St, including the Mad Mexican and the vacant Aunt Nora’s.  The complex would take up the entire block from Lake St to South High and face the high school’s track and football field.

Across Lake St the burned down Burger King was replaced on the corner by a five story apartment/condo building above an Aldi’s grocery store.  The Hi Lake strip mall underwent a facelift.  The old stand alone Pizza Hut building was reconfigured for a new location for the liquor store, a taco and burrito shop and a Subway sandwich franchise.  The old JCPenney opened as a buffet restaurant, the Tippanyaki, serving consistently tasty varieties of dishes at a good price.  Then for some reason, under protest, the hardware store lost its lease and moved out — that didn’t look good.  Then the bank that succeeded the one that bought the savings and loan where we got our mortgage — who I went to work for eventually around the end of the last century — moved into the space that used to be the liquor store.  Little Caesar’s pizza moved in where Winky’s ice cream shop used to be.

A Bubbles Laundromat, a hip hop clothing store and a cellular phone shop have since moved into the space where the hardware store used to be, which so long ago was a Kresge’s.  In my mind I would prefer the shopping center would have transformed into a kind of European-style plaza like an all-seasons Christmas market, but realistically this is America, not Zurich, not the Zocalo of Mexico City.  This is Hi Lake and snobby taste for shops like Patina, Swarovski and Zara are inappropriate delusions here, available elsewhere, and respectable tenants like the current cast don’t make me nostalgic to bring back Kresge’s.  (Dime stores are now dollar stores, and there’s one of those at the other mall near Target.)  Commerce rebounded.

In a way I grew up around Lake St because my dad was a car salesman and in my childhood the car business in Minneapolis was located all up and down Lake St from East Lake St at the Marshall bridge to St Paul at the Mississippi all the way across town about eight miles to the end of West Lake, hardly a block without a dealership it seemed, lots of shiny cars parked in lots with signs and banners.  Dad worked at various dealers over the years and sometimes he took me to work on his days off so he could meet customers and close deals, and sometimes I would look around the office and the shop, but sometimes I liked to go outdoors through the car lot to the sidewalk and look around the busy street.  Seems like a lot going on.  In high school I took city buses linked to Lake St routes to get to St Bernard’s Academy, and I would transfer at Lake and Nicollet (that’s pronounced Nik-lit around here) where there was a fantastic record store where I’d fan through album covers between buses, but never bought anything because their prices were a dollar more than I could get records elsewhere.  Even after the car business moved to the suburbs there remained a lot going on, maybe some things shady, maybe not, but Lake St never scared me off, never bullied me off the sidewalk.

Lake St was my gateway to other races than the white whites I lived among growing up suburban.  Lake St was my crossroads mark, how I learned to navigate the city.  The Sears building twenty stories high was the most prominent high rise on the south side horizon outside of downtown, a skyline to itself, with a big green neon SEARS facing all four directions off its stone roof.  I could always tell where I was by proximity to the Sears.  Built in 1928, art deco, at one time it employed 2000 people, not just the department store on the lower levels but a vast catalog fulfillment center.  When the store closed in 1994 the building had floors and floors of wasted space, and not just the high tower with the neon sign.  The sign went dark for twelve years.

It lit up again as MIDTOWN, in red neon now, sign of the Midtown Global Market, an international bazaar of foods and merchandise in the place of the old department store.  A vortex of hospitals and several health clinics converged next door, a hotel chain took over and built up the upper floors to repurpose the place, and you wouldn’t know it was once a Sears if it weren’t cut in stone into the storefront over the old street level entrance.

More evidence of civic partnerships are these transformations.  The Midtown Global Market and the rising of the Midtown YWCA alongside the Midtown station of the light rail grouped these landmarks linked by Lake St and branded the area the Midtown Corridor.  Not necessarily hip and trendy it has a certain bluecollar bite to it.  Sounds inclusive, attractive to any and all of the types and kinds of various people coming to live in midtown neighborhoods.  The offspring of Model Cities and Great Society.

Some of the genius of the Global Market is the allure of collaboration and coexistence of many various cultures currently living in Minneapolis who have migrated here from other lands.  Lake St remains a crossroads gateway.  Minneapolis attracts migrants.  (And St Paul.)  Count the students from all over the world who attend our universities, who work in the tech sector, medicine or agriculture, there are those who choose to remain when they fulfill their degrees to work and have families and weave themselves into the community at large.  Then add the migrant laborers who pick crops and roof houses seasonally who stick around.  And then add the refugees, the ones who either come here or end up here escaping some form of death sentence in countries where they are persecuted and unprotected.  This is some of the makeup of the residential population, my once and future neighbors.

Vietnamese, Cambodian, Liberian, Hmong, Salvadorean, Ethiopian, Somali — these are some of the nationalities and ethnic peoples who have migrated into whole communities in Minneapolis and the surrounding metro the past two generations.  All here legally.  Refugee asylum seekers settling down and making a home, working, shopping and raising kids in a new place.  We encourage them to assimilate, and at the same time we respect their native cultures and even try to assimilate some of theirs into the mainstream, appropriation if you like, for the sake of overall diversity — music, literature, art, food.  They come to America to be free, and we take them in because America is the light of the world, a free country and good example on the planet of how to humanely treat persons displaced by political atrocity or natural disaster — that at least used to be the coda.

Before the Vietnamese in my lifetime it was Koreans.  Korean orphans.  Before that the World War II Europeans like Stanley and Tony.  People all escaping war to come to my town for a better life — a life.  The overall community welcomes them — pities them — makes room for them, lends them resources to integrate and networks them into the basic economy.  In my neighborhood the Brown Institute building on Lake St is now a public adult education school for learners of English as a non-primary language.  (In my retirement I am encouraged to volunteer there as a conversationalist but I don’t want to let anybody down.)  From my front porch I see the students park their cars and walk to class with briefcases and backpacks, like the South High kids only older and walking the other direction, inevitably a person of color, nonwhite.  The muslim women in their scarves and long skirts sometimes travel in pairs like the nuns when I was a kid, nuns who used to teach us about showing kindness to refugee victims of communism and famine.  Here, I thought, they can learn to be like us, victims of democracy and plenty.

There are five apartment buildings on our block, counting both sides of the street.  They are called two-and-a-half story walkups — two floors up and one floor down from street level, no elevator — and each building houses about six apartments (or as they say in the UK, flats) and each usually rents to a family with a mom and a kid or kids, some with husbands.  These apartments are located mainly the other half of the block and on the same side of the avenue, so from my own front porch at the corner I cannot observe what goes on except one colonial style walkup mid-block on the other side of the avenue.  And we’ve witnessed some loud and threatening behavior, domestic violence where we’ve called 9-1-1 to that building, but overall in all our years we haven’t witnessed an abundance of bad actions.  (Remember, I slept through the girlfriend boyfriend murder by car.)  Though three more walkups take up our side of the avenue, there are ten dwellings which are homeowner residences, one of which rents out as a triplex, and two others that are single family homes rented out and not owner occupied.  There are at least eight homeowner occupied houses across from us with two walkups on that side and a four-plex on our opposite corner.  In a culture that prizes home ownership the number of homeowners on our block would please an optimistic demographer looking for proof of life of a middle class after the last recession.

It’s the renter class who live in those walkups whose fate is uncertain under the current recovery.  When we first moved in, the walkups seemed more or less to have working class tenants.  One building had retirees.  Some polite Asians, possibly Hmong or Vietnamese.  People shopped at Red Owl, Snyder’s and JCPenney.  The end of the Kresge’s era.  As the 1980s recession lingered into the ’90s the tenants at the walkups turned over frequently, or maybe there were a lot more strange visitors coming around.  Nobody was shoveling the sidewalks in the winter.  In the summer the grass around the buildings died.  Burger King wrappers in the chain link fence and the ever present plastic bags that blew in like tumbleweeds from Utah.  Tenants punched out the screen windows, or maybe they just fell apart, useless to keep out flies, mosquitoes, bats.  Without screens or curtains, drapes or blinds the apartments revealed a thrust stage on the frail balconies portraying the naked drama of urban life being poor.  Their privacy concealed nothing.

On my block.  Where I looked the other way most of the time because my view faced a different direction, but I kept track.  When the retiree pensioners moved out of the walkup because it wasn’t nice anymore and the landlord was starting to rent to shady characters.  A trend of African American single mothers.  Some with boyfriends.  Tenants who didn’t get along with each other generated police calls.  There was an arson, a cocktail through the window into a basement apartment to supposedly shut somebody up.  Homeowners up the block and across the avenue pressed the city to get after the landlord to screen tenants, and while at it pressed city inspectors to check out the buildings.  To no one’s surprise the walkups started flunking code inspections.  The city threatened the landlord with prosecution of crimes committed by tenants on the premises such as crack cocaine transactions, which may or may not be constitutional, it wasn’t tested, but it got the landlord — one guy owned all five buildings — to pay attention enough to rental applications to screen for known badasses.  Or recent arrivals from Chicago with dubious credentials.  And agreed to do some cosmetic fixups and replace a stove or two.  For that he raised the rent a little, but not much, just enough to show how cheap rents were expected to be in this market and illustrate there was no real way to keep out the riff-raff.

How I idealized the flow of society I envisioned ways for poor people to make their way up so they could become not as poor, and then not poor at all.  What is it in scripture Jesus said, the poor are always with us, but cry and cry alone — no, that’s cynical.  This supposes an endless source of the poor, unless it’s the same poor all the time, and it doesn’t take any research genius to find sources of poor, if not in the USA then somewhere on the planet.  In my ideal they begin at the entry level of the economic scale and then rise as their skills and experience raise them up to where they emerge into the next economic level to replace those moving up into the next level of prosperity, and everybody has opportunity to keep learning and keep going to the next, and the next, as long as they have time.  I knew there were those who were born on third base and pretended to have hit a triple, but I saw through them and presumed others did too.  I knew there were others wrongly called losers whose faults were merely cosmetic.  If it were a perfect world Karl Marx could have been free to be a novelist.

Or a comedian.

So much for the path to the American dream running through my back yard.  It seemed sometimes I was a squatter on land undeserved, Griswold’s second addition — or edition — notwithstanding.  Our presence on this corner I’ve always thought of as caretakers of a small piece of civilization.  It passed to us from Raymond and Hazel Muxter through their son Ramon, and we will someday pass it on as well.  It’s only real estate, I tell myself.  And still I wonder if I deserve to live so well on the same block as poverty.  We are not rich, not even upper middle class in the big picture of home economics.  Yet, compared to our neighbors living in the two-and-a-half story walkups, we might be millionaires.  To someone living on this planet in a country where from our refugee neighbors fled we might be zillionaires.  The longest lasting sustaining effect we might have on the world we live is to show good example of what we mean.  If people like us, white, educated, modern, liberal baby boomers abandoned the city, why would succeeding generations choose to take our place?  If white society, as if banded together formally, abandoned the city there would be no white voices to answer, no white ears to listen, no white skin to feel the nerves of color enamorating our urban culture.  The city needs white skin in the game.

Not white supremacy, to be clear.

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I simply feel the need to justify my existence in the inner city, for anyone living who might suggest I don’t belong.  I stopped being hip and cool about 1978 when I became father to a daughter, and no matter how many tries at MTV and the worldwide web I never got it back.  I can’t feed off the legacy of Prince — who by the way established his headquarters in the suburbs.  Many of my contemporaries are outdoorsy types living Up North or down on the farm.  I’m not gay, though I am a happy guy.  Everybody has to live somewhere.  The Buffalo House is my townhome, my condo, only I am the homeowner association who provides the maintenance and nobody can tell me I can’t paint my garage orange.  The mortgage is paid off and in theory I’ll always have a place to live as long as I keep up the insurance, taxes and utilities.

The YWCA is two blocks away.  True to promise it’s a world class health club and sport center.  We became members as soon as they opened the doors.  Roxanne uses their fitness machines and takes cardio exercise classes.  Our membership is now covered by our Medicare part B — they call it Silver Sneakers, but I don’t like the idea of being sneaky.  There’s a big indoor oval track that rings the second level of the field house where I go to walk and trot laps in winter when long walks outdoors on the best groomed sidewalks can be treacherous from snow and ice and the air itself is brutally cold.  Walking in the field house I can listen to my iPod on my Skull Candy earbuds, something I would not usually do on the street just walking around the city, and look out the windows.

One side of the track looks at South High, the athletic field and bleacher grandstand.  There used to be boarding houses, a few half-blocks of them, off a half-street bordering the athletic field, and it was rumored these boarding houses were true bordellos.  At the commercial edge of these houses stood the old Furniture Barn, for a while an officina for a Hispanic insurance business, and across Lake St you could see the pikes and stone fence of the Pioneer’s Cemetery and the new Aldi’s with the apartment building over it where the Burger King burned down.

Most recently the half blocks of boarding houses along with Lake St commercial properties like the old Furniture Barn were razed and cleared.  The view from the field house track witnessed the demolition, done in mere days.  The sudden vacancy was stunning, like looking at a rival farm compared to the groomed grass on the other side of the South High fence.  A guy from the neighborhood tried to organize a movement to stop the demolition of the Furniture Barn building on historical grounds because it was the original Burma Shave factory, and he sat at the stoplight on the corner by the Y at a card table with posters and handing out fliers until the very last day.  The city will put up a historical plaque on the corner when reconstruction is done.

The school district acquired the land between Lake St and South High to build an adult continuing education center affiliated to the high school.  It will replace the facility being used at the old Brown Institute building on the other side of the Y.  From the windows on that side of the field house I watched the demolition and excavation of vacant pavement all around the Brown Institute, breaking ground to build a county service center across the street from the Y and next to the Midtown rail station, with apartments adjacent to the service center filling in the rest of the block towards my house.  The county service center and a small parking ramp off Lake St at virtually the corner of Lake and Hiawatha is phase one of the project.  It required an immense excavation and the driving of the pylons for the foundation clonked the neighborhood half the summer.  It has risen as a rather attractive building of a modern proto-european style.  It complements a so-called senior living apartment building erected the year before on the opposite side of Lake St on the triangle where the M & H gas station used to be, adjacent to the Hi Lake strip mall and against the Midtown station.  A lot of new multifamily housing going up in the city these days are designed in this style, which appears austere but elegant and can wear well over time.  The second phase will enclose the block around the service center with multifamily apartments.

The third phase will move the public adult education facilities out of the Brown Institute and into the new buildings on the old Furniture Barn blocks, the other side of the Y, upon completion later this year.  Then the Brown Institute will be torn down like a disassembled erector set, leaving a green gap between the county service center, the new apartments and the Midtown rail station.

Walking laps around the field house to the random shuffle of songs on the iPod and looking out the windows at bulldozers, cranes, lots of hard hats and green-glow yellow vests putting down concrete and putting up walls, then windows, then doorways, facades, life takes on the vista of time-lapse movies.  A song from Madonna, Like a Prayer comes on the iPod, not the original but the one recorded as performed in the Hope for Haiti Now TV benefit right after its last big earthquake in 2010.  In the song she misses a line, as if she’s all caught up amazed by the gospel chorus in the final buildup to the crescendo, a little mesmerized by her own song, she omits life is a mystery, goes straight to everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name and it feels like home.  Why does this all seem so dissonant, I wonder as I round the bend of the track between windows, filling in the life is a mystery part in my mind, asking myself if I really like the changes happening to this part of the neighborhood or am I simply content that things are changing and so far nothing’s going wrong.

My favorite thing at the Y is the pool.  I love to swim, just cruise in the water, tread water, crawl, backstroke, float.  Slow lazy laps back and forth from the shallow to the deep end.  Taking in the echoes of the ambience of such a big room, watching the roof beams go by floating and cruising on my back.  This aquatic center has an olympic pool with lanes, a smaller recreational pool with fountains for kids, and a water slide which I usually partake when it is scheduled.  Roxanne and I bring our grandkids on our guest passes.  My favorite other thing about the pool at the Y is the greatest hot tub on the planet with the best jets ever.  Healing bubbling waters for the aches and pains the toil on this mortal coil inflicts day to day.  Yes.  Alleluia.

The two block walk from my house to the Y and back goes past the row of two story walkups.  Then and when I used to commute downtown to work from the Midtown station I would pass them every day, walking by.  I never thought of it as a gauntlet as much as a reality check.  The coexistence of low rent dwellers on the same block as median homeowners keep me aware of my own privileges and responsibilities to the civic social contract.  I don’t feel guilty for these disparities so much because I did not cause them — no action or decision of mine set in motion the lives of these people that they ended up living in two-and-a-half story walkups on my block — and my concern is what I might do about them now and in the future to alleviate these disparities, looking for that wisdom to know the difference.  I’m not a missionary kind, so I don’t knock on doors, say, how’s it going brother, no I tend to mind my own business.  Respect privacies.  I do look people in the eye.  I make eye contact in the street, on the sidewalk passing by.  In the summer people at the walkups tend to hang out in the front yard and open up their windows.  Not once have I ever been harassed or detained.  Sometimes lately they set up little yard sale flea markets on the grass in front of the apartments, but usually I don’t need the baby clothes, a wooden chair or mariachi CDs and cassettes.  Of anything I worry they might think I do not respect them or think I’m condescending when I say hola to the Hispanic ones.

Lately those buildings, the tenants and the landlords have been in the news from being in district court.  The tenants sued their landlord about eight years ago for unanswered complaints about mould, cockroaches, faulty plumbing, broken heating systems and just about anything you can imagine could go wrong in a low rent housing flat.  The same guy owned the five walkups on our block along with about fifteen other buildings on the east side of south Minneapolis, and he was just coming off litigation from not screening bad actors from being tenants.  He claimed he was doing the best he could to maintain all his buildings and it wasn’t fair that he who cared enough about his poor tenants to give them shelter at such little cost was singled out for just a couple of apartments just to make him look bad.  He counterpunched the tenants, saying some bad apples attracted cockroaches, they abused the plumbing, disrespected the property.  The city inspectors investigated the properties.  It dragged out in court but the landlord lost his rental license and had to sell the properties to somebody who would maintain them to code.

The new owner spruced up the curb appeal, put up new signs and made better arrangements for prompt snow shoveling and keeping the grass groomed and picking up litter.  Things inside the apartments kept breaking down, stoves and ovens, heaters, windows (in the back, away from the avenue, facing the alley) and nothing got fixed.  Water leaks.  Mould.  Fed up, the tenants took up legal action against the new landlord, this time with a bigtime downtown law firm working pro bono.  In discovery it was found the landlord defrauded the court with false documentation, and it was learned the new landlord didn’t even own the apartments anyway, legally, but the old landlord actually still held the deeds.  The court ordered a trustee to manage the buildings and collect the rents (so that rents may not illegally be withheld) while new ownership is sought for the buildings.  The second landlord, asserting on appeal he rightfully owns the buildings not the first landlord, claims to have sold them to a third party, but the city does not recognize the third landlord as having legally purchased the buildings.  None of them have rental licenses.  So far the tenants still occupy their flats, paying rent to the management trustee.  Thus far the city brokers the status quo.  The repairs are being made, I hear.

The future happiness of the tenants remains to be seen.  The management trustee is learning the actual costs of maintaining each building after finding out terms of the contract binding the buildings to the first landlord, the second landlord was given an operating budget which included capital maintenance, and any money the second landlord didn’t spend he was allowed to keep.  What everyone is learning is the real cost, the real price of affordable housing.

The landlords all say, if they upgraded all the cheezy housing to minimum standards they would have to charge market rate prices for rents, and that would price the poor out of the rental market.  If some developer came in, bought the five walkups on our block and gentrified them, the poor tenants would disappear, be gone.  But that’s not going to happen, says the city, which pledges to foster the creation of more affordable housing, not less, and also according to the developer of the senior apartments on the old triangle next to Hi Lake, same developer of Rail Line Flats along Hiawatha which were just built in the in-fill property the highway, the railway and the bikeway didn’t take, also the same developer of the soon-to-be apartments that will fill in the rest of the block facing the Y after phase three.  I met this developer at a cordial community meeting to present the grand reveal of the land-use plan for the long-lost asphalt corner of East Lake St and Hiawatha Ave surrounding the old Brown Institute, next to the Midtown station.  He told me his studies showed there was no hope for market rate housing — market rate anything — in this neighborhood, it was all affordable or nothing.  I am reconciled to know they won’t be building any luxury hotels on any land nearby, even if there might be a ready workforce of the servant class in the neighborhood.  To this I asked the developer whether this designation of affordable could be a way to brand the neighborhood’s destiny, and he got a little defensive and insisted nobody looking at all the demographics would see it otherwise.

So, amigos of the walkups, take heart, nobody wants to evict you.  Nobody’s going to swoop in and convert the properties into luxury condos and put you on the street, we’ve all been advised by an expert, the neighborhood isn’t all that cool.  This isn’t Uptown, or Linden Hills, not Lake of the Isles, not even Powderhorn, or Brackett, or even Seward.  This is not Loring Park, or Whittier.  You all can stay.

Perhaps after getting one’s legs steady at residence in one of those apartments one can afford to go deeper into the neighborhood and rent a house.  Or a duplex.  The city is trying to make fourplexes popular by rezoning almost all residential lots to allow fourplexes.  Whereas people might trend to seek detached single family houses to rent or to buy, the urban planners and developers promote higher density.  Okay then, one gets the sense the plan to increase the population habitat and wonders if it is in anticipation of a growing population to come or whether it’s to manufacture demand for high density housing to lure a bigger population to fill some kind of city need.  I am an urban person by persuasion but I am wary of high density living.  It will be a center of the American experiment, so to speak, to invite hundreds more people to live on the next block the next couple years.

Already I’m seeing some of the so-called seniors from the so-called senior apartments down at Hi Lake taking jaunts and hikes past our house and into the neighborhood.  Our sidewalks are inviting, aren’t they?  There is green space landscaping planned at the new apartments but the tenants might still care to walk just four blocks to Corcoran park.  Our lawns and trees make a pleasant landscape for strolling.  I have seen people with badges on lanyards around their necks out strolling the neighborhood during lunch hours, employees at the new county service center.  It pleases me to provide a welcoming environment for visitors and new residents.

It remains to be seen whether all the new construction projects will transform the neighborhood or belie its flaws.  I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the county service center a couple of years ago.  Chairs were arranged around a speaker’s podium on the asphalt of the vast parking lot on the corner of the Brown Institute where local leaders spoke of revival and synergy.  Neighbors, onlookers and members of the media watched and mingled over coffee and cookies.  Authorities, dignitaries, the developer and folks affiliated behind the scenes of the project took turns putting on hard hats and yellow-green safety vests to pick up ceremonial golden shovels and get photographed shoveling spades of ceremonial sand.  Posing for these pictures they reminded me of those face cut-outs at tourist attractions.  A journalist struck up a conversation, asked who I was and where I lived and what I thought of the project.  I said it was a dynamic jump-start to a stagnant corner long starved for attention and life and it should add to the diversity of the neighborhood.  I could tell he was piqued at my insertion of the word diversity.  I sensed right away it was a mistake to invoke that buzzword, and the reporter may have sensed unintended sarcasm.  What do you mean by that? he asked.

I reflected a moment and said that the corner where we stood and the intersections around it were an ongoing scene of migration and transmigration and adding more people into the mix could vitalize the place.  I added I was not in favor of greater population density but recognized the realities of proportionate land use.  I found myself getting more vague as I chose my words so as not to trigger inference of race.  I wanted to express my wonder of what might be the result of the treatment these acres were undergoing.  I hesitated to predict a golden renaissance.  I did not address any fear that crosscurrents of cultural or ethnic friction could compress and become volatile where the population squeezed most dense.  I avoided sounding like a stereotypical white homeowner pondering the arrival of hundreds of renters of affordable housing presumed to be people of various, diverse shades of color.  I avoided sounding like an unstereotypical white homey pandering to my soon-to-be new brothers and sisters in the hood.  The journalist tired of my jive and moved on to interview the county commissioner.  My remarks did not merit mention in the next day’s paper.

The one important unifying element of the neighborhood I have not mentioned yet is the Midtown Farmer’s Market.  Every Saturday from May to November the asphalt corner at the foot of the Brown Institute turned into a village of canopies and tents, stalls and trailers, bushels and pecks, quarts and gallons, bins and sacks of fresh vegetables and fruits in season.  Corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, carrots all grown within a hundred miles.  Locally raised meats.  Honey.  Bakery goods.  Vendors selling jewelry and lotions.  Shirts and dresses.  Flower bouquets.  Food trucks making tacos, kabobs and omelets.  A music stage.  The farmers market packed the usually dead asphalt with humanity like having a global market one day a week.  After several years they expanded the days to Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the summer.  Rain or shine we could get fresh groceries but on a nice day it was a nice place to hang out, see if we knew anybody.

The new county service center would displace the farmers market.  During construction on the corner across from the YWCA, the market was allotted a temporary piece of the parking lot used by the adult education program stashed behind the old Brown Institute and next to the rail station.  During the planning phases of the development neither the county, the school district nor the housing developer would make any promises on the fate of the farmers market, successful now in its 15th year.  They would say, when this farmers market got started you all knew all along the use of the empty asphalt across from the Y was temporary, and we can’t guaranty any space for it in the final project.  Somebody persisted — probably an Obama era community organizer — and all the parties gave an inch and designed permanent space for the farmers market.  The market could operate in the adult school’s parking lot during construction.  When the new adult education facility opened on Lake St, the other side of the Y, and after the old Brown Institute was torn down, the farmers market could occupy the green space left in the open footprint of the Brown Institute, at the center of the block between the county service center and the new apartments.  Fair enough.  This continuity is vital to the neighborhood’s identity.

The other day the city’s new mayor spoke at a rally-style news conference on the rooftop of the adjacent 135 unit apartment complex just built last year along Hiawatha Ave called the Rail Line Flats.  They call them workforce apartments.  It’s a nice building along the style I liken to modern multifamily housing I’ve seen in European cities with vertical linear frame patterns, horizontal rectangles arranged vertically, and earth tone multi-tone facades.  In the year it’s been occupied there’s been no noticeable changes in neighborhood activity, particularly in traffic patterns, which was surprising to me given the ingress and egress proximity to Hiawatha Ave.  The mayor, Jacob Frey, newly elected, young and energetic, handsome and genial, pitched his goal to spend $50 million toward affordable housing.  In addition to building more units on vacant lots and lending down payment assistance for home buyers his vision includes protection for renters, diligent building inspection and renters rights.  It’s a tight market, he says — vacancy rates are about 2%, where 5% is considered competitive, and home prices are up, demand high, inventory low.  The population of the city is rising for the first time since I was a baby.  As an elected leader the guy realizes the overall issue is urban livability for all.

I’m on board.  Minneapolis is a rich city.  Affordability got us this house in the first place when we were young, and if not poor, economically challenged.  We qualified for a grant to replace our roof the first year.  We didn’t always make such good money.  Looking back we bought this place on the cheap but it didn’t seem so cheap at the time, just way cheaper than a house on Lake Harriet, or Seward East.  It still is, according to Zillow.  If the mayor wants to use this neighborhood as an illustration of his goals, I welcome him.

A few years ago when he was vice president, Joe Biden came to Minneapolis to speak at a luncheon downtown.  On his way back to the airport on Hiawatha Ave he ordered his motorcade to take a turn into the neighborhood because he said he heard a lot of good things about South High and he wanted to see the place for himself.  The motorcade pulled up between the school and the athletic field where the football team was holding practice.  Joe Biden got out of his limo and approached the team, took off his jacket and tossed a round of Go Deep with the receivers.  I am told by somebody who knew somebody that on the way in and out of the neighborhood the motorcade passed by our corner and on the way back to Hiawatha Ave, as they paused at the stop sign the vice president gestured a thumbs up and said, “Nice house.”

It’s a nice neighborhood.  I cannot take all the credit.  It might be my fault if it falls apart, and I’ll take the blame.  Seriously, I’m happy we stayed.  We proved to ourselves we were right, there is no inherent evil living in the heart of the city.

Maybe the most pervasive influence in our part of town since we’ve moved here is Latino.  Why so many people from places so much closer to the equator would choose to migrate here, Terra Frio, the land of brutally cold winters, I don’t know.  A horrible cynic would cry out they must be illegal aliens all hiding out where nobody either expects to find them or nobody else would take them — sanctuary city and so forth — but there must be a deeper reason to settle in the Twin Cities.  I trust they’re legal, street legal at least, and when you look around you see they really aren’t aliens, they are quite at home.

A lot of Mexican heritage and also Ecuadorian, Columbian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Salvadorean, Lake St the past generation has evolved into a corridor brightened by the colors of Latin America.  Panaderias.  Mercados.  Supermercados.  Tiendas.  Not just restaurants and taquerias but offices and trades took up business in the blight the car business left behind and lifted a depressed and down and out stretch of a gritty street and over time gave it new vitality, new reputation and new history.

Not only Latinos but more enterprising immigrant minorities are locating firms in the city, most noticeably east Africans these days.  In the 1970s it was Vietnamese, in the ’80s Hmong, through the years of migration the migrant tribes establish signature businesses and build identity around town.  Turning the old Sears into a global market serves the market and the marketeers as a prime venue for prosperity like the farmers market serves the growers and the eaters for good nutrition.  It’s a good idea to open avenues of prosperity and nutrition to all seekers of the American dream and to keep the doors open.

That last recession of 2008 proved a tipping point on our block.  That was about the time the tenants at the walkup apartments first stood up to their landlord about their living conditions.  A duplex went abandoned, condemned.  Across the street the lady got foreclosed and before she could be evicted she died from the illness that kept her from keeping up the mortgage.  Anybody who bought a house or recently remodeled with a second mortgage was under water, owed more than the house’s value.  Foreclosures and short sales became common.  Anybody who wanted to sell and move couldn’t get a good price or find qualified buyers.  It reminded me of when Roxanne and I first moved in.

Here we were just paying off our mortgage and sitting relatively sweet, fully employed at the peaks of our careers, empty nesters, grandparents, free to travel and take a winter vacation and lo and behold the rest of the economy caved in.  We didn’t get pay raises for a while, though we were already making good money.  We were in a position to help others, increased charity, but that’s not something to boast but a left hand not knowing what the right hand does kind of thing, if you know scripture.  Here we elected our first African American president, the master community organizer himself, a gentleman and a scholar, and what happens is the whole phony premise of economic valuation started to crash like the unseen hand of a Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme.  What a coincidence!

The following ten years proved the ultimate resilience of the neighborhood.  After a couple of winters of bleak stagnancy a young couple from Kansas City with little twin boys moved in across the street.  He is a techie working for a Fortune 500 firm.  Privately I refer to her as the Jamaican Lady for some reason because she could be Malcolm Gladwell’s sister.  Nice family.  Boys, Avery and Ivory, are getting lanky.  They just added a baby girl last year.

Next to their house on the far side, next to the colonial brick walkup is a curious narrow stucco house covered in ivy vines.  It was built identical to the place directly across the street, probably about 1910, both houses by members of the same family.  The one next door to the Jamaican Lady was kept in the family about a hundred years until the last one to inherit it decided to sell it and move away, only she waited until after the recent real estate bubble burst, had to put some money into a furnace and amenities to make it attractive to sell.  The buyer was a couple of teachers, a lesbian couple both named Sarah, who snapped it up because it was affordable and they liked the neighborhood, good location, and by the way they too had a baby girl born last year.

The other twin home across the street had been out of the family at least one generation, had been subdivided into an up-down duplex which fell into shabby disrepair and eventually became condemned.  By then it barely bore resemblance to the Sarahs’ twin across the street except for their identical stained glass windows.  At the point it got condemned it had been the object of two different guys who acquired it and tried to rehab it and left it abandoned.  Four years ago it was acquired before demolition by a local non-profit land trust who completely gutted it to the bones and reassembled it again as a single family dwelling with a fresh stucco exterior painted Bungle House Blue, then sold it to a young hipster couple, the Edens, Adam and Evelyn, he a county attorney and she a teacher of adult education, English as a non-primary language (at a different school district for now) and they too had a child last year, a boy.

The same land trust also bought the house across the street from us where that poor lady went bust and died.  They gutted it and reassembled it with a fresh exterior and sold it to the Kanes, Rob and Judy, both blind.  The Edens say they were interested in this house first before theirs but got aced out by the Kanes.  The Kanes had a baby boy almost two years ago.

The nicest house, the jewel of the block, is a three story Victorian mansion two doors down from us we still call the Washburn house, not for the current owner, or for the owner when we first moved here, or for the original builder, but for the ones who completely restored it fifteen years ago.  The previous owner for more than a generation was Betty Rodriguez, who raised eleven kids there.  Betty had a famous restaurant on the north side, Mexican of course.  She was from around the Rio Grande.  A tragic accident while in the hospital paralyzed her from the waist down and she ended up living in a wheel chair out of a makeshift porch off the dining room where she had access to the living room and kitchen.  Betty taught Roxanne how to make enchiladas.  She always had one of her kids’ families living with her in the upper two floors, sometimes more, all taking care of her.  Roxanne and I used to sort of be on call to help her if she slipped too low in her chair if Betty was home alone.  We were friends with a couple of Betty’s daughters and their kids played with ours.  The famous boxer Raphael Rodriguez was Betty’s son.

When Betty passed away the house was acquired by Jeff and Sarah Washburn, in their thirty-somethings with a son in elementary school.  Sarah was a teacher.  Jeff was the CEO of a housing trust that reconditioned rundown housing and helped finance buyers, albeit not the same housing trust that later benefited the Edens and the Kanes.  In their own time Jeff and Sarah renovated the Rodriguez house, made it gorgeous from the roof to the basement.  They said they were good at working together since they met in the Peace Corps in Honduras.  They fenced in the back yard, put in a porch, patio, hot tub.  Inside they put in a new kitchen, replaced broken woodwork, restored the porch and living area after Betty.  At possibly the penultimate peak of the housing bubble, the Washburns sold the place to another lesbian couple, Jennifer and Sarah, who were childless.  The Washburns moved across town where they found another old Victorian home to restore.

Shortly after the new owners put a new metal roof like the ones in Paris on the Washburn house the housing bubble burst and the new owners were under water from the getgo.  They struggled for a few more years and finally took a short sale to a hetro couple in their very late twenties, both family psychologists, she with a broader practice and he more focused on juvenile and adolescent.  Such a big lovely house, they started out renting to roomers; it must have been like living in an Airbnb.  Very recently they had their first baby, a girl.

Just adding these new neighbors among the old reliable ones already here reinforces my hopes and dreams of a respectable neighborhood, and now that they are having children invigorates me even more to believe we have a joint faith in the future.  We all know we’re living in a sketchy place and time.  My time will come to pass too soon.  I would like to leave this place in willing hands to nurture positive outcomes.

The journalist I talked with at the county groundbreaking ceremony asked me if I would recommend this neighborhood to my kids, and I said, of course but I don’t need to, they have their own minds.

Old neighbor Stanley the retired factory machinist ex-Russian eventually passed away but not from his wounds when he got mugged.  He died of natural causes, as did the Polish guy, his walking companion, Tony, who as they say preceded him in death.  After Tony passed, Stanley kept walking, alone is when he was vulnerable to his muggers but he kept on, accompanied more and more by his wife.  After Stanley passed she walked by herself until you come to think of it she was suddenly seen no more.  Somebody sold their houses.  Somebody moved in.

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Spring arrived late this year.  Our horrid winter lingered like pneumonia.  We got a blizzard of two and a half feet of snow the Ides of April.  The neighbors mobilized double time to help dig each other out.  Ice did not leave the local lakes until just May 5.  Now it’s all melted and gone out of mind.  The sun is high and daylight begins before six and lasts past eight.  Trees have green budleafs.  The apple trees are in bloom in pink and burgundy.  We dug the sludge out of the flower beds we left from procrastination in the fall, raking the maple leaves into the gardens for mulch to comfort the hibernating perenniels, now we take out the muck to expose the soil and the emerging crocuses.  Some of the tulips left from the Muxter years don’t bloom any more, just scraggly leaves, the bulbs too old, need replacement this fall for next spring.  The daffodils stand sentry for a few days while the peonies get ready, the phlox, and so on.  The lawn feels barefoot lush.  Lilacs are on the way.  Tomorrow mow the grass for the first time.

Contacted a local tree service and asked for an arborist to come over to give us advice and a bid on trimming our four tall maples.  He emailed me back with a quote to remove all four and pull and grind all the stumps.  I wrote back he misunderstood me, I wanted just to trim the dead branches and advice how to keep them healthy.  He called me on the phone and told me, they’re dying.

All those dead branches up near the top and the hollow boughs with bark falling off are signs that the trees are reaching the end of their life cycle.  The roots were dying and the trunks having trouble moving nutrients into the limbs and branches.  They are dying from within, he told me.  He said he could trim off the deadwood this year but next year we would look up and see more deadwood, and we would never keep up, eventually each tree would lose more and more life, and limbs, even hunks of trunk could fall.  He came to the house and met with Roxanne and me and had us look up into the trees from all angles.  They were mature all right, about five stories tall.  The arborist guessed forty to fifty years old.  By the looks of some of those upper branches and the condition of some patches of bark it is plain the four shady maples are doomed.

Roxanne and I haven’t decided whether to take out all four at the same time or the worst two now and keep the other two another couple years.  We arranged to wait to have the work done until January so we could enjoy the summer shade, the arbors of green and the eventual fall colors one last time.  One last raking.  It’s heartbreaking for us to imagine this homestead without those maples and their protective spans filtering the sun, green on blue like part of the sky itself.  I keep thinking I will miss the oxygen.

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BK

Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico

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Have you heard?  The US State Department has issued a travel advisory against Mexico at the highest level of alert, on the same level as Syria and Somalia.  Places where you can get barrel bombed with gas chemicals by the government or face a suicide bomber at the hotel.  Mexico.  Que?

Roxanne and I go to Ixtapa every winter.  Eighteen years.  We started taking winter breaks when our kids were young, Hawaii, Cancun.  Once we tried South Padre Island.  Punta Cana.  When in my thirties I ran a little photo store for Krayon Film Shops in a shabby little shopping center in St Anthony Village which was owned by a guy named Juan Fulgencia Batista, former dictator of Cuba.  One customer was a professor at the U named Dr Mirocha, and one day he showed me his vacation pictures of a place on the ocean with a palm tree beach he called Ixtapa and said it was one of the three places in Mexico where the government designated certain tourist development zones, the other two being Cancun and Cabo.  Cancun was already highly developed, as I learned later first hand in the 1990s.  Connections to Cabo were iffy from Minneapolis then.  Hawaii was prohibitively expensive except when my brother Sean was stationed at Hickam, and it took forever to get there (this before we ever flew to Europe) so about twenty years after hearing Dr Mirocha at my film shop say to visit Ixtapa, Roxanne found a deal with MLT Vacations for a week, nonstop air and hotel.

Liked it so much we did it again the next year.  And the next.  At some point one week was not enough, nor ten days.  For a professional couple in our early 50s, almost empty-nesters, it was some kind of Springsteen’s Beautiful Reward to get away for two weeks every last week of January.  An entitlement we awarded ourselves each year for our hard work and dedication, and for enduring Minnesota winter.  It’s no exaggeration how wretchedly severe winter days can be on end in Minneapolis.  Our careers peaked, and with seniority came more PTO, and soon it required three weeks at the beach to work out all the stress of working the other 49 weeks of the year.  We’re retired now.  This year we were in Mexico a month.  What’s the allure?

The weather is predictably consistent.  Usually about 90 degrees F.  Sunny, partly sunny or partly cloudy.  Rarely overcast.  It has rained twice — a novelty.  Predictably good weather became a prime criterion for choosing our place to escape.  Weather, after all, is the reason we take a midwinter vacation.  Where we live, the cold is so harsh it sucks the life out of your bones.  We would rather not risk a precious week or two away from inebriating cold weather in favor of a warm beach to chance encounter rain storms and chilly seas.  Ixtapa in January, February always gives its weeks’ worth of paradise weather every year.

Located deep down Mexico’s Pacific coast, a thousand miles due south of Texas and about seven hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, maybe three hundred miles south of Mexico City, Ixtapa is actually a few degrees south of Cancun in latitude, on the opposite coast.  It’s almost as far south as coastal Mexico gets before it touches Guatemala and curves north to Yucatan and the Caribbean.  Ixtapa practically faces south southwest to the Pacific, about a thousand miles free of the Baja California peninsula.  Better known resort destinations such as Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo are hundreds of miles west and north up the coast, and the major city Acapulco about two hundred miles east and south.  Much of Mexico’s west coast is rugged and rocky with a narrow stripe of seaside towns along the marinas and beaches bordering the Sierra Madre mountain range that forms the western spine of the country.  Ixtapa was created out of a coconut plantation and a mangrove estuary deliberately to lure and habitate tourists in the virtual middle of nowhere.

Nearby, about three miles around a couple of small mountains along the sea is the longtime old town of Zihuatanejo.  Famous as the eventual destination of Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the place functions as the municipal and commercial base of the region, which extends up and down the coast and into the foothills of the Sierra Madre.  I like to call it Downtown Mexico.  It is not a pretty town, but neither is it fake.  This is where most of the hospitality workers of Ixtapa live.  It is also a resort town unto itself with accommodations ranging from urban three story hotels above the tiendas and cantinas to traditional Spanish style hotels and condos on the cliffs above the lovely beaches on Zihuatanejo Bay.

I remember my first impressions of Zihuatanejo.  The highway to Ixtapa from the airport passes through Zihuatanejo on a main boulevard before it becomes a short superhighway through some canyons before becoming a boulevard again at the hotel zone that is Ixtapa.  We were on a tourist bus provided by MLT Vacations to take us from the airport to our hotels.  I had a window seat and a cerveza.  I was not surprised to see poverty, though I had witnessed worse in the Dominican Republic.  Zihuatanejo was definitely a working class city.  No evidence of glamor, not even an automobile showroom.  What impressed me the most was the rebar sticking up from the corners of the roofs of the concrete homes.  It told me the residents had hope and optimism, signifying that one day they planned to expand to a second story.

At the time of our first visit it was not long after we stopped referring to developing natures and cultures as Third World.  When you come at later adulthood from a white narcissistic point of view it taints you for life no matter how inclusively educated you think you are trying to be, so you try a little harder and behold you see basic fundamental things around you that translate without verbal words.  From the outset the people in the hospitality industry of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo have treated Roxanne and me as guests most welcome and sincere.  It helps to have good manners and to respect our hosts.  We took community education Spanish classes back home just so we could get along better on vacation if we made an effort to know how to pronounce verbs and order off a menu en espanol.  Now, instead of through an agency like MLT, we book our reservations directly and take a taxi from the airport to the hotel instead of the bus coach, but it’s the same boulevard through Downtown Mexico.  The good thing all these years later is the place has not caved or rotted from within.  They paint their concrete buildings bright colors.  The sidewalks are not trashy.  There’s a car showroom now.  It’s still not all that pretty but it’s still authentic.  And there’s still rebar sticking up.

It’s still both penance and purgatory to ride through Zihuatanejo on route to Ixtapa.  Ixtapa is the modern place in the rich world.  Ixtapa is the destination at the end of the superhighway around the mountains.  It’s where the high rise hotels and condos face the beach.  Where the low rise shops and restaurants sprawl the blocks and plazas aloof across the main boulevard of the hotel zone.  Where the golf course, nature estuary and eventually the yacht marina abide.  In the mix is a community of vacationers and hospitality workers in a homeobiotically entwined tango of leisure and service among strangers who may never see each other again and persons who may never travel far from their neighbors and families.  The inhabitants of the hotel rooms and condos along and near the beach are temporary citizens of a place where we live at best less than ten percent of the year and many will visit but once, and any attachment to the place is fleeting and narrow, lives focused on leisure by the sea with no visible means of support.  The permanent residents of Ixtapa — there is a residential district in a valley beyond the commercial plazas and cocinas and older back street hotels — and of greater Zihuatanejo, which includes little towns like Troncones and Playa Linda to the west and Playa Larga and Petatlan to the east and who knows what into the mountains to the north, number more than 150,000 now, all stuck here in the middle of nowhere along the beautiful blue Pacific, all working in some capacity and woven by some thread to the tourists.

We repeat customers make up a nice slice of the pastel.  Establishments respect this and thus a rather refined culture of service prevails everywhere in the region.  It’s not just the people at the Krystal hotel who get to know you after so many years, or maybe a restaurant proprietor who’s seen you before, but it seems every place you go the people behind the counter, the drivers, the servants all greet you with respect and friendly intent.  It’s a far far cry from the service indifference of Las Vegas.  At Ixtapa Zihuatanejo there is a sincere, authentic culture of gracious hospitality (even when service is slow) that seems to spring indigenously among everyone engaging the public in a way that can be refined through good hotel and restaurant training programs but otherwise cannot be taught to a degree this heartfelt.  Surely they’re doing it for the money but there’s more motivation and deeper meaning than tips, at least you hope so when you look into their eyes and see they care about what they do to make you feel welcome.

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And so Roxanne and I have made ourselves at home at this Krystal hotel all these years.  The room rates are affordable.  The accommodations are comfortable and secure.  Clean?  At home I don’t scrub the bathroom and change the bed linen every day.  As I said, we first came to the Krystal via MLT Vacations but after a while booked our own flights and directly reserved rooms with the hotel.  Our loyalty derives from the way they have always treated us, with nothing less than gracious hospitality.  It’s not just us.  Everybody gets it.  If anyone can get credit for setting the dorado standard for service in greater Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, the people of the Krystal hotel deserve appreciation.  When you check in and they say, “Bienvenidas, welcome home,” they really mean it.

And it helps the location is in the middle of the middle of Ixtapa.  On the boulevard it’s directly across from the gateway to the main plaza and the grid maze of commercial enterprises at a kind of crossroads towards the quieter part of town, the nature preserves, bike and pedestrian trails, stand alone convenience stores and restaurants, hotels off the beach and eventually the marina and its mall of sophistication.  The boulevard has no stoplights, and is busy, but lined on each side with lush pedestrian walkways with speed bumps and crosswalks along the hotel zone from the marina all the way to the mountain boundary where the boulevard rises into temporary superhighway to Zihuatanejo.  A walking trail along the mountain continues all the way into Downtown Mexico if you care to walk the four or five miles more.  Ixtapa on the boulevard is about four miles long.  The Krystal is almost exactly halfway.

On the middle of the beach.  The coastline of Mexico is made of soft sandy beaches enclosed by rugged cliffs and rocky shores.  Ixtapa faces the Pacific on a three mile crescent shaped strip of sand called Playa Palmar.  The sea rolls in from the wide bay, horizon barely obstructed by a few rocky islands, water blue as heaven, the surf rough and white, then playful and foamy.  And there on Playa Palmar the essence of the existence of Ixtapa plays itself as the theater of the playa.

At dawn the walkers and runners emerge.  Then surf bathers.  Soccer.  Frisbee.  Sand castles.  Little kids.  Boogie boarders.  The Girl From Ipanema.  Again.  Volleyball.  All day the beach is alive with people trekking back and forth along the shore, some stopping to play along the edge, others chasing the tide, others chased by the waves.  If you take the walk from the Krystal in either direction along Playa Palmar you will encounter humanity more or less stripped to the skin, all engaged in freedom and pursuit of happiness at a place where the sun touches the land along the sea.  What can be more human than leisure at the beach?  Nowhere else can one witness the comedy and drama of the human condition, the mundane turned square, the romance and fury of young couples and elders like us keeping up, the savvy and the confused, the brave and the reckless, the modest and the profane, the foreigners and the locals, all ages and the ageless, the funny looking and the pretty, everybody making tracks in the sand up and down the beach.  Then the sun goes down and everybody gradually leaves the sand and dresses for dinner.

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Roxanne and I like to occupy a palapa on the beach below our hotel.  A palapa is a thatched roof structure like a permanent palm leaf umbrella embedded on a pole like a tree trunk in the ground.  There are dozens of them in two rows along the sea wall at the Krystal on the beach.  Under a palapa we enjoy the view of the bay and the surf and the theater of the beach.  The palapas include a couple of lounge chairs like they have up on the capacious pool deck, and it’s a great place to read in the shade.  Many hotel guests contend for the poolside lounge chairs under umbrellas, especially ones facing the beach, but we prefer the sand of actually being on the beach along with the relative privacy of the palapa.  We camp at our palapa all day, trust our belongings per se to the tree branches and leave our towels and books on the lounge chairs when we go for walks, dips in the sea or swims in the pool, or lunch.  The palapa is home base.  For dibs on a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar four weeks of the year during the cruelest time of a Minnesota winter, we have plighted our troth the rest of our days on this earth.

For this we are informed by the US State Department we are risking our lives beyond the pale.  (Or should it be Beyond the Pale.)  To go to Zihuatanejo is to go over the Wall.  We take our lives in our own hands.  Our government dissumes liability.  We have been warned.

Perhaps somebody forgot to tell the Mexicans.

I’m kidding, of course.  Mexicans are well aware of the official American opinion of their society and culture, and it’s a high testament to their inherent graciousness and kindness that expressions of resentment usually go unseen.  Given the insults and provocations hurled and steeped at Mexicans by the president of the United States it’s a blessing to not be judged as a generalized example of that kind of American attitude.  Then again, why would someone with a hostile attitude about Mexico venture deep into the state of Guerrero anyway.  On the other hand, if we act as well mannered ambassadors with any kind of influence we might serve to show we know better about our cross border relations than our nominal leader and get benefit of the doubt and be treated as individuals rather than Americans.

In classic fuhrer fashion he campaigned, ranting, “They send us their …”  Plug in a favorite deplorable.  One has to ask, who is doing this sending?  Does he mean there is a bureau somewhere in the official government of Mexico that selects unsavory characters to be shipped to the United States?  What does he mean, “They send us …”?

Are these deplorables picked like fruits and vegetables and shipped here in crates?

In Mexico, on the other side of the Wall, it’s hard to perceive the impact felt by Mexicans when the subject of politics does not come up in conversation.  At least between the Mexicans and the anglos.  Between anglo tourists there has always been an undercurrent of regionalisms and party affiliations and so forth you will always find among white people on vacation.  We have been coming to Ixtapa since before 9/11, and since then have traced the nuances of liberal and conservative conversations overheard among the English speaking guests over the years, Bush years looking back on Clinton years, then Obama years, now the Trump years, always something in the wind.  Iraq.  Arab Spring.  Obamacare.  Terrorism.  Immigration.  You really rarely hear a conversation between an American and a Mexican about American foreign policy towards Latin America, though you might hear an earful from Canadians more and more who boldly assert they are more astute and better educated than Americans and can cut better trade deals with Mexico — even then you don’t hear a Mexican side of the equations.

I also don’t speak — or hear — Spanish that well.  If aware of Mexican subcurrents of political resentment I have to look deeper into the eyes of each person I encounter, and that’s a lot of eye contact, even among the anglos.  If the Mexicans are plotting against us behind our backs they hide it well.  After all, in their mercantile economy the North American cash buys a lot of good will.  Only the most cynical of forces would want to upend the cash flow of this community.

Not that it’s totally dependent on the tourists from the USA.  Far from it.  Canadians make up more and more of the visitors from the north and Americans fewer and fewer.  The biggest gain in the vacation market at the Krystal hotel the past ten years is in the number of Mexicans from the greater urban interior of the country.  Even so, Ixtapa Zihuatanejo likes North Americans and would do anything including suppressing information to express security to tourists from the north who come down there to spend money and have a good time.

We ask Alonso, a guy who works at the hotel we’ve come to know, is it safe down here?

He says if it were not inherently safe he would not live here.  He echoes the mantra of being aware of your surroundings, the heart of said discussions with concierges in Florence, London, Amsterdam, Prague.  Don’t go anyplace shady, he advised, or get involved with shady behavior.  Trust us.  We look out for you.  We would warn you.  This is as safe as your own home town.  He tells us the in-joke around town is to refer to their city as Syriajuatenajo.

Yes, he’s telling us what we want to hear.  We aren’t stupid — paletos maybe — and we know there are certain dangers associated with Mexico.  Primarily what comes to mind is the country’s reputation for violence created by the drug trade.  Gangs organize cartels which compete for market share, glory and political power.  Murder is the ultimate tactic.  They practice armed warfare and the police challenge them, and they fight back.  Law enforcement has a legacy of corruption.  The drug trade probably passes through Zihuatanejo by land and by sea, the highways linking the little ordinary towns together along the coast and into the hills and beyond to other states like Jalisco and Mexico City, and each little port of call on the Pacific from Acapulco to Ensenada.  Rumors say the state of Guerrero is a nexus on the trade route, and that would seem logistically logical, given its natural location on the map, the topography, the access to the sea.  As it is believable that trucks of oranges and avocados pass through Zihuatanejo, so do shipments of controlled substances.  No, I do not have first hand knowledge of such goings on, I am supposing and applying hypotheticals because after all I am a stranger in a strange land and my government has expressed a warning to be careful and I must weigh the risks.  I have no first hand experience with the drug trade of Mexico and for that I worry little about feeling its effect.  I have no interest in acquiring or selling product of that kind and thus do not anticipate crossing paths with cartel gangsters or police for that matter.

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Of deeper concern to me are political matters and socioeconomic dynamics in the community and region.  A few years ago a busload of student teachers from a college in the northern mountains of Guerrero disappeared on their way to Mexico City to attend a political rally.  The 43 student teachers are still missing, believed cremated at a mountain landfill.  Mass graves were uncovered, more bodies than just 43.  A gang cartel and leadership from the mayor of the town and his wife in collusion with at least 22 local police officers stand accused of participation in the mass murders.  The student teachers were interdicted from their trek to their political rally because they stirred up trouble for mobilizing demonstrations for radical causes challenging both the authority of the mayor and the power of the cartel.  I have no doubt nobody will get away with this, though the judiciary may move slowly in Mexico.  (Face it, certain civil rights murders in the American south have taken fifty years to come to justice.)  This case has pushed Mexico’s self awareness into inevitable confrontation with its vices and it’s gone too far to look away.  What I observe as a wave towards scrupulous rule of law may be nearsighted and obscured by what I don’t see.

I used to buy a daily newspaper from a guy named Victor who sold them up and down the beach.  He has a rich baritone voice — “English newspapers!”  You could hear him coming a dozen palapas away.  The paper was something like Mexico News, published in English Monday through Saturday from Mexico City.  Cost me 150 pesos a day — about 75 cents USD.  Rounded up a seemingly fair sample of stories from around the country.  Water and sanitation projects.  Education reform.  Business reports.  Government reform.  Anti corruption.  Appropriations for housing the poor.  Features about artists and music festivals.  Representation of women in government and the workforce.  Editorials demanding accountability and justice, transparency and lucidity.  I do a lot of reading on the beach at Playa Palmar, and it seemed right that I edify myself in what a Mexican daily said about itself, even if not in Spanish.  It was a clue to the clueless.  Of course it was of interest to read stories involving the United States, the Bush and Obama years, observing a neutral, objective tone of criticism and faint admiration of its neighbor and ally, and it was interesting reading coverage of world events from the Mexico City perspective, but I sought the domestic news pages to see how the country saw itself.  Its coverage of the 43 kidnapped student teachers, how they wouldn’t let it go, highlighted what I saw as an essentially moral culture coming of age at a typical crossroads of modern civilization, just like the rest of us.

Last year Victor stopped selling the paper.  Instead of hearing his rich voice hawking “English newspapers,” he was selling “Soccer t-shirts!”

So what happened to el diario? I asked.  “Periodicos don’t sell,” he said, subtly correcting me.  “It’s the internet.  Cell phones.”

There is noplace in Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo I would point to as a newstand.  Nothing like you might find at a transit kiosk in Rome, or a section at Walgreens, or a book shop on the concourse of an average airport.  The literacy rate for Mexico is over 94%, so something tells me such a shop exists somewhere, just out of sight or in plain sight — where else would all those people get all those revistas you see the Mexicans reading at the swimming pool deck.  I’m sure if I search enough or ask the right person I could find a daily paper in Spanish, so much for my laziness.  Instead I fall back on the E-edition of my hometown paper via the pitiful hotel wi-fi on Roxanne’s iPad.  In my way I fulfill Victor’s diagnosis.  Throw in the cable TV and there’s Fox and CNN International amid the sports, soaps, kid shows and movies en espanol, commercials in Spanish, but nothing readily available as local news.  Perhaps there is nothing new to know.  Maybe it’s none of my business what might grace the local police blotter or who this candidate might be you see up on the billboard over the boulevard.  I am, after all, a tourist, not expected to be concerned about the trivia of the day to day innings of the hundred thousand or so people who live there all year.  I am expected to keep my nose out of the details, just kick back and enjoy the sun and the sea, the food and drink, the hospitality and comfort — just pay the bill.  Pay la cuenta, por favor.

So long as I am safe to enjoy my leisure and freedom, what cause do I have to ponder the travails of the indigenese?  For one thing, were the social structure of my paradise to fall apart my favorite midwinter vacation would be ruined.  I suppose I could turn away and wave it off, go back to searching for somewhere else, Belize, Costa Rica, or just go back to hopping around looking for one-off deals.  But eighteen-odd years at Ixtapa has bonded me to the place like a townie.  It would not seem fair to extract such pleasure and good will without paying attention to the details of what accounts for the source of what satisfies our vacation.  For me, I seek a serenity and balance of harmonies under a palapa at the beach on Playa Palmar in front of the Krystal, a headquarters of the head.  Witness to the theater of la playa.  Watching the waves roll in endlessly and continual.  As reclusive as the long view of my endeavor, as private and shy my reflection, introspection and voyeuristic perspective, none of this would be satisfied if I did not look for a relationship with me and the inclusive world at large.  It’s in my utmost interest to feel safe here.