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

 

Yule See — Wausau Christmas 1969

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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/