Zihuatanejo Ixtapa Continued


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

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

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

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

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

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

But people do it anyway.

There’s pleasure in swimming in the sea.


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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, break out the cages again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Minneapolis it’s less than five hours away.

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

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

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

The General would never turn us away.

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

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

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

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




Temperate Zone


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

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

Say something nasty and clever and get your Andy Warhol’s worth before they shut you down.  Who they?  They who?  You know.

It’s considered illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but only if there’s no fire.  It’s a ruling under the so-called Espionage Act, I think.  Even so, in America we never experienced a social order where typewriters and Xerox copy machines could be evidence of transmission of unauthorized information dangerous to the state.  Samizdat?  Say what?  Out front of any crowded theater on Hennepin Avenue any given night somebody might be preaching about the End of the World, some way or other, and that’s free speech.  Until or unless it incites a stampede among ticketholders inside the theater, hard to do without hardwiring the preacher outside to the crowd inside, a very deliberate event to which the preacher would be held culpable.  Neat trick but not likely to happen, even in Minneapolis.

When I say life is good, I speak to a greater good.  There’s no denial bad exists.  Bad people.  Bad trips.  Bad omens.  Bad luck.  Bad relationships.  Bad outcomes.  There’s bad stuff all around us.  Bad deeds are done.  Bad stuff happens.  And there is evil.  Everywhere.

When I look for the good I don’t ignore, trivialize or overlook the bad stuff.  Sometimes that’s all I can think about.  Perhaps it’s an ancient obsession illustrated by the Greek playwrights and Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare and Stephen King — evil is much more interesting than good.  I am so blessed by such a charmed life I feel compelled to brood over all the disparities and inequities between my life and the less fortunate.  I get depressed contemplating injustice, inhumanity and misfortune.  I seek serenity sorting the things I can change from the things I cannot.  I seek ways I can change things I’d like to change, if I can, how I can, if I care so much.  It’s hard to accept things cannot be changed.  Sometimes it’s hard to accept serenity.

What helps is the five minute rule, which I learned from my daughter Michel.  It’s okay to dwell and ruminate over something that really bothers you, but if it’s not resolved in five minutes it’s time to move on and think about other things.  Important things always come back anyway, but it’s no good to obsess.  You may even find caution thinking about happiness too much.  Living existentially is a fluid soundtrack, voicetrack, movie within a movie.  That it’s Real Life, as my granddaughter Tess calls it, then all the more lucid these experiences go mixed in the milieu of life, and the more serious.  The more sincere.

An advantage is my age, an accumulation of trips around the sun and an awareness of awareness of trying not to be caught unawares.  As I keep saying, mine is the perspective of a charmed life.  Born privileged in the heart of the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, I got nothing to cry about from lack of opportunity at any level in my lifetime.  Not born rich per se, but middle class bourgeousie, availed to all the niceties of life in modern America at a time when our culture prized itself as highly civilized.  Such an upbringing leads, as you have seen, to a sense of exceptionalism, in a way not undeserved if not entitled.  (See Untitled essay, 29 May, 2017.)  I do blame my parents for several events in my life that changed trajectories of my history which I could not control, but not for the outcomes.  For good or not I inherited their genes, but not their destinies.  My life is a product of mostly unrestricted choices of my own in a universe of exponential possibilities.  I made my own mistakes.  I accept responsibility.  If I enjoy no serenity it’s my own fault.

Arlo Guthrie had a talking blues about the Last Guy.  It was a parable about the hierarchy.  At the top he might group the ones we call the One Percent.  Down under are various levels of the rest of us.  And there we look down and down, those who don’t have it as good as we do.  But don’t worry, even they can look down at somebody who’s got it worse.  And they can look down at somebody even worse off than they.  Then Arlo stops playing guitar and asks, but what about the Last Guy?

What if the last guy was a woman?  Probably.  Or a child.

Look at world migration this way and you see people trying to catch on to the bottom rung.  They risk all kinds of unknown doom to escape a sucking abyss of torment for the slimmest, tiniest chance at a sliver, a grain, a crumb of a life I and my peers are born into.  Everybody above them, ahead of them are the same way, looking up.  Looking to better their place, their situation.  Sometimes we fall.  Sometimes we get back up.  Some keep falling and falling, right off the earth.

Where I live, in the middle of the northern hemisphere and the western hemisphere, where life is good, there is no shortage of sad stories of stuff gone wrong.  There’s no shortage of humanity, so there’s daily evidence of best laid plans and worst laid plans going awry.  Insurance actuaries make a living calculating these things.  The costs get built into the prices.  The price of a good life is subsidizing the ones who have a bad life.  Prisons, for example.  The chronically sick.  The homeless.

And on up the ladder we subsidize each other, the charities and foundations, entry level employment, the service industries, the manufacturing jobs, the professions and the trades, traders, the entrepreneurs, capitalists, entertainers and artists, scientists, farmers and tycoons.  This constant flow of subsidies is the basic economic climate of a free society.  When somebody perceives the subsidies are getting out of hand, the flow changes.  When somebody sabotages the flow, the disruptions are challenged.  A greater good is achieved.

It’s no good to enact policies to knock the bottom rung off the ladder.

It’s fashionable among some people to hail America First.  They know the good life when they see it and want to preserve its history and carry it forward to the next generation.  They express resentment to immigrants as intruders, invaders.  Some resent legal immigration as much as illegal.  I can see descendant Native Americans rolling their eyes.  Imagine seeing all these waves of white people, some with black slaves, all claiming land, just six, seven generations ago.  See how far we have all come.  To build a wall around that, arm the moat, crank up the drawbridge and not let anybody else in is like a religion saying there is no more room in heaven, that’s all the souls we can take, no more baptisms.  It’s more than knocking off the bottom rung of the social ladder, it’s pulling the ladder out of reach.  It’s saying, sorry, no more Promised Land.

You could argue, who promised what?  The facts exist that the American Dream all came true here despite the dodgy white man’s ways.  Somehow the Twin Cities on the upper Mississippi River evolved from scratch into prototypical urban modern metropolis amid vast grids of quasi-non urban populations.  The tribes of European immigrants who settled in Minnesota the past two centuries all seemed to learn how to make nice among one another here in the New Country.  As much so that people of color got a hind start in the social ladder, a factor today in the disparities calculation and worth mentioning in today’s comparisons about the good life.

It could be trendy to be color blind but to miss the subtle shades of individual features is to miss the beauty of each individual face.

Pity to people who hide their faces.

Who avert their eyes.

Assimilation works both ways.  What worries the worriers is that we might feel compelled to be more like them.  It begins with their food, when it enters the mainstream.  Long ago it was Chinese.  Pizza and spaghetti.  Goulash.  Enchiladas, tacos and fajitas.  Indian curry.  Not to forget ribs, fried chicken and mac and cheese.  What could be next?  Intermarriage.  Interracial children.

We forget we are the first ever multiracial democracy on the planet, however it came to be so.  We proudly called ourselves a melting pot, a mosaic.  For all our stupid and tragic mistakes there are episodes of brilliance where America, as they call us around the world, showed how to become a more perfect union of We the People, and not just by its government but in the daily dumbass everyday relationships and interactions of everyday life.

Today America is looked upon as a crucible of incivility.  A forge of dissolution.  With or without Russian assistance, the squabbling memes and tropes are shattering the mosaic society into venal and selfish conflicts of identity.  Identities.  Less perfect union.  Segregated outlooks.  Jealousy of those perceived to be getting better attention.  Outrage at feeling left out.  Outbursts of We Will Not Be Replaced, whatever that really means.  A president who pits the screwed against the shafted.  Everybody’s got their own class action suit.  Blame globalism.  GMOs.  Blame The Man.  Whitey.  Blame affirmative action.  Robotics.  Welfare fraud.  Immigration.  Blame somebody else for not living right.  Feel righteously deprived and forgotten, no matter who you are.  Disenfranchised.  Disrespected.  Disgruntled.  Displaced.  Deplored.

Cultural Road Rage.

We’re setting a bad example for the rest of the world.  We’re misusing our superpowers.  We’re disproving democracy.

If we don’t sort things out among ourselves, somebody will step in and sort it out for us.  Censorship of the internet already is invoked to keep the peace.  The worldwide web is policed.  There’s a dragnet of metadata and cyber digitalysis every minute.  We leave indelible prints in the Cloud every day.  Privacy is surrendered at the door.  Hate may be expressed in private, one supposes, but when expressed publicly there is the responsibility of attribution.  Is it free speech to simulcast a massacre?  To show videos of beheadings?  These kinds of suicide missions on the web beg for attribution, there’s nothing stopping the Christchurch and ISIS types except where they might reveal themselves, expose themselves on line.  What then of the dispensers of just plain old lies?  What authority says what is true and what is fake?  Are true examples of hate the sum of something truly fake about the motives of haters?

President Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the clash riot in Charlottesville, equivocating the nastiness of the White Nationalists and Antifa belligerents at the core of the violence.  He said he supported the peaceful demonstrators who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, top general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War.  He expressed admiration for Robert E Lee, which is odd for him, because Lee was a loser, and Trump disrespects losers.  Lee commanded the army of rebellion defending the Lost Cause, slavery.  Trump expresses a lot of attitudes sympathetic to the old Confederacy.  Sometime you’d think he’d like to start the Civil War back up again, just to mess with history and make guys like Lee winners.

Where are our leaders guiding us?  Are they goading us?  What is the endgame of getting everybody pissed off at one another?  Everybody shaming the next one?  Where does the endurance of criticism endanger free speech?

This trend of cleaning up the worldwide web from the troll vigilantes who exploit the chaos of ideas with scurrilous and violent propaganda exposes a need to mind both intent and content of all the spectral messages we all send and receive every day because in cyberspace it never goes away, we are all publishing our histories.  We all have forums to persuade others, which are linked to other forums.  We can grouse our hearts out and be shared around the planet, maybe not everywhere but enough uncensored places to find company for our miseries.

Don’t think this isn’t overlooked by brain trusts who would exploit our naivete of opinion.  Somewhere in Russia a guy named Edward Snowden might shed some light on just how sensitively and granular the powers that be pay attention to what people think and can be persuaded to think.  It might be guessed that as much effort is being made to confuse and distract you and me as is made to conceal and reveal pertinent facts of life.

If the melting pot is boiling over and the mosaic is shedding stones it’s time to stir the pot, reduce the heat and restore the masonry.

There should be a cultural baseline by which we can measure a consensus of progression or regression of what constitutes the good life.  Set the baseline whenever, wherever — 1865, 1965, 2015 — USA, Europe, Ukraine — and measure the qualities from before and after, and see what net values pertain to you, your family, community, region, state and so on.  Is it really all that bad?

All the attempts of humankind to perfect itself and universalize the good life have not been in vain.  It’s in the eyes of the Syrian families begging for alms and mercy on the street corners of Paris or the Bangladeshi street vendors hawking selfie-sticks around the train station at Milan.  It’s why weary Hondurans and Salvadorans trudge through Mexico to get caught crossing into the United States for a chance to become the next Last Guy in America.  Why migrants risk death and great unknowns to live in poverty and squalor at the very bottom of the rich world rather than endure one more day in the home town of their homeland.

Migration, of course, is nothing new, not to nature and not to the human race.  The notion that people vote with their feet is just a modern meme to put a democratic spin on migration as a historic pattern of humanity.  It could be inevitable, a part of human nature in keeping with its species evolution.  It’s almost absurdly late to become so self-aware of this characteristic just now.

The latest humanitarian pattern clashes with the American government policy to restrict all entry into the country in order to restrict employment and economic benefits to citizens and authorized foreigners.  It also is supposed to vet foreigners for threats to national security.  Mostly the policy is meant to reserve menial jobs for unemployed citizens still not working in this current economy featuring very low unemployment, both of the skilled and unskilled variety.  The argument that immigrants take away jobs from born citizens is almost like saying slaves took away jobs from free people back in the day.  The entry-level labor force of people just starting out at the bottom is not all teenagers working at the Dairy Queen.  The pressure in the labor market falls backwards into unfilled jobs at the lower rungs, and policy drives the unemployed and under-employed to take jobs formerly held by immigrants, this to satisfy a political base to placate Americans First.  Tariffs and the trade war are meant to ramp up American mining and manufacturing, all to net jobs for all the forgotten and aggrieved bluecollar rednecks howling out there for Trump to give them back a slice of the pie.  Will they accept this?  More to my point, how forlorn and aggrieved were these people to begin with?  Was it really so bad?

Compared to the next guy.  All the way up and down.  Perhaps the thinking is, stop coddling refugees and they’ll go away.  In that case we should stop advertising the good life, it only teases the underclasses and promotes jealousy and despair.  As long as hope exists, however, people tend to learn a way to rise.  There’s no reason the human survival instinct is any less acute than a common fish or bird or reptile or mammal.  Somebody will always seek and find ways to get better than their baseline.

This is a real world example of that abstract thing called freedom, one of the components of how life is good.  Like democracy and justice.  Happiness.  “Freedom”, as sung by Janis Joplin, Roger Miller, according to Kris Kristofferson, “is just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even a white bum can choose the hobo life even as migrants seek destitution as a means to plant roots in new lands.  Rather than die out, the migrants go somewhere they hope to be free to live a life without constant threat of death.  Sleeping under a railroad bridge in Minneapolis is considered a better life than hiding from gangs in San Salvador.

To characterize the migrants as invaders invites adversarial pejoratives dehumanizing the outsiders, memes and tropes to make your head spin.  The president warns us of some pretty mean dudes in the caravans from Central America.  Over in Europe Viktor Orban of Hungary is accused of harboring migrant Syrians in cages to encourage them to go home.  The attitude persuades that migrants from foreign subcultures — in America the people of the tropics, and in Europe coming from the middle east or Africa — pose a threat to cultural sovereignty.  This smacks of the old Nazi Master Race ethnic purity philosophy.  At best it’s a white Christian nationalism.  In the middle it questions whether migrants corrupt or contaminate an established culture and leans to a fear that the immigrants might someday dominate.  Fear of reverse assimilation.  Fear of conquest.

The current xenophobia in America has such narrow vision it might suffer from its own success.  The trickle-down theory of deprivation could squeeze immigrants out of the labor market enough to raise wages at enough low paying jobs to scare up prices and require higher tariffs to keep foreign products from costing less.  Agricultural workers, hotel housekeeping and sanitation jobs could be the earliest vacancies unfilled, and it could work its way up.  The servants will disappear.  People would cry, it’s so hard to find good help these days.

The straits need not get dire.  If people are seriously looking at their cultural legacy they need a positive vision that accounts for the inevitable tides of the humanitarian condition.  These refugees cannot remain stranded.  Just as good people who foresee the steps leading to global warming and act to prevent the steps, good just people who recognize the human migration patterns and make ready to accept the future shifts of population should step up to persuade policies to accommodate these inevitable strangers and put them to work.  Give them a chance.  Opportunity.

These people today and their children are the future of the human race and cannot be denied a share of the planet’s bounty.  America talks big about universal rights, equal opportunity, freedom and innovation, things that drove the motives to found a political, social and economic system for a greater good.  A virtuous system like ours should not be hoarded, as if liberal democracy is only peculiar to America and can’t possibly happen anywhere else and cannot be understood by any other people.  Treating people as ineligibles, excluding them into incarceration, walling them off from hope betrays the moral high ground and leaves our principles in a ditch, digs our society a mass grave.

The late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Just because our union is imperfect we should not flinch from trying to perfect it.  The right way.  Stop the persecution of refugees and recognize international rights to asylum.  Recognize the origination of migration and keep working toward the alleviation of misery.  Liberate the refugee camps and enable migrants to join communities in societies.  Stop wars and terrorism.  Repatriate the displaced.  Respect the dignity of these asylum seekers because these are the ones who come in peace and stand between the rule of law and the rule of terror.  Mistreatment of migrants creates enduring resentments.  Excluding migrants altogether creates an adversarial order.  Migrants will either find their way in or be aggressively kept out.  An open free society cannot sustain mass forced deportation of its population.  Putting them in detention centers makes it worse.

Humane treatment of migrants is future terrorist prevention.  Look at Gaza.

Where they will come from and where they will go, the next generation of people who vote with their feet, no predictions are overheard about the next diaspora.  If indeed first humans walked out of Africa all the way to the Bering Strait and crossed to inhabit the land masses of the Western Hemisphere, the trend since reaching Patagonia has been a U turn back across the Isthmus of Panama to walk back north to settle in a geographic zone above the Texas border.

In Minnesota, where I live, the Land of Sky Blue Waters, somewhere in the middle of North America, all the recorded human history is a story of migrations.  The known people of the Ojibwe and Dakota meandered back and forth between the plains and the forests amid the lakes and rivers.  It’s a toss between Norse and French explorers who first tramped through the region from across the Atlantic.  French names prevail.  The next cycle of migrants from the American east brought pioneers and soldiers to stake out the northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.  As the indigenous people were chased out or sequestered, immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, undeterred by the cold winters, homesteaded and farmed the open acres.  Then from Germany.  Ireland.  They founded towns and swelled the new cities.  Migrants from the Balkans came to work the iron mines.  Czechs worked the brickyards.  In one hundred years Minneapolis went from a scenic waterfall in the wilderness to a fancy sophisticated little model of Europe transposed via the American east coast.

Europeans, and other old world cultures, and Canada, make fun of America because it has such little history.  It’s true, we’ve only been on the map a few hundred years.  In that short time we’ve created quite an impact, yet micro places like Minnesota reveal what impact the rest of the world has made on America.

In less than two hundred years Minneapolis has gone from that scenic pristine waterfall on the Mississippi River to a cosmopolitan haven of international tastes and world markets.  It’s jumped from pioneers in sod houses to smart houses almost overnight.  The French can laugh at us because our grandest cathedrals are barely a hundred years old and are renderings of copies of original old world monuments.  It’s okay.  For some of us bumpkins it’s as close as they’ll get to baroque architecture.

This is not to justify the invasion of this land in the first place, but what’s done is done.  We are eight generations deep.  I cannot idealize the process either.  Successive generations of migrants have faced conflicts of acceptance by settlers born here — the arrival of white people must have been the Native American’s worst nightmare come true.  Like the African American migrations up here from the Deep South after emancipation, Jim Crow, after the two world wars and again in the 1960s, the black migrants worried the established descendants of migrant Europeans, who fretted time and again, there goes the neighborhood.

Minnesota is residence to waves of migrants for as long as recorded history and well into modern times.  Both world wars brought displaced persons and refugees — my daughter’s father in law was a child born in a Nazi work camp of Polish parents, who as a family survived the war and came to the United States rather than go back to Poland, but had to wait a dozen years in Morocco first.  The Korean War brought war orphans adopted en masse, some of the first Asian looking kids my generation grew up with.  Romanian orphans became popular when the Iron Curtain collapsed.  The Vietnam War brought a wave of refugee families seeking asylum from the North Vietnamese takeover. The same conflict in Laos brought Hmong refugees from camps in Thailand.  Cambodians.  Then Karen from Myanmar and Tibetans from Tibet.  Liberians in exile from a nasty civil war.  Same with East Africans, refugees from civil war.  Ethiopes.  Adoption of Central American guerrilla war orphans got popular in the Reagan era.  Then Somalia failed as a state and its civil war drove some two million people from their homes, and tens of thousands ended up here in Minnesota.  And all the while the Latino presence kept swelling in the community like panaderia dough.

Meantime the Ojibwe and the Dakota keep crisscrossing the landscape like shadows.

Suffice to say the puny history of my home state is writ large of human migration and integration of ethnic — shall we say — diversity.  Along with the more high profile waves and tides mentioned above are many more examples of visitors and scholars and exiles and romantics and the lost and found from somewhere else found their way into the roots of this place — for example, I have not mentioned the Italians because everybody knows that like the Irish if there’s a town anywhere with any taste at all there are always Italians — frequently Greeks but always Italians, it’s a given.  My home town is graced by all the diasporas of the globe.

And every winter I ask why anybody in this world would choose to live here if he or she were not born here.  There must be something that fends off extremes.  That something-something that makes things flow.  Perhaps, as I suggested, it starts with the food.  Soul food.  Delicatessen.  Chow mein.  Pizza.  Shepherds pie.  Gyro.  Subway foot long sub.  Tacos.

So many choices.  So many grocery stores.  These are the meeting halls of humanity, the aisles of democracy, the chambers of the good life.  The place where all the ingredients of the good life are available.  The chapel where an EBT card can get a bite to eat — spend it well, like a votive prayer.  The shelves are like stained glass windows of logos and brand names.  Bins of fresh produce are like choirs.  This is exactly what Woody Guthrie meant by Pastures of Plenty.  At every Aldi and Cub there is shared space of security and well being.  A grocery store is the ultimate town hall of peace, freedom and prosperity.  Even in the moments preceding an April blizzard there is no panic.  There is a general sense there is enough for everybody.

There’s no reason to hoard opportunities for the good life, no justification to restrict access to mobility, and no excuse for making life worse for the refugees than if they stayed home.  Migration is a fact.  To lock people out is to lock people in.  Consideration of greater good should prevail against criminalization of seekers of asylum.  Such claims take time to evaluate but the answer can’t always be no.

Laws that can be respected are legislated by elected bodies who represent the temperate volition of citizens who agree to abide by rule of law.  This is the continuing effort to build a more perfect union so said in the US Constitution.  America has to codify its tolerance for the reality of global migration in light of its own success in promoting itself as a beacon of liberty.

Where I live there is a preponderance of evidence of good things contributed to the community by migrant cultures, including the original indigenous ones.  If the human footprint has sometimes trod upon itself and tripped in its own tracks, the pathways to resolution and even redemption have been found and trails to more prosperous progeny tend to prevail.  Here a girl from Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya grew up to get elected to the US House of Representatives from a neighborhood district once settled by Finnish homesteaders.  Prince grew up in a neighborhood used to be Jewish.  Bob Dylan is Jewish.  Hubert Humphrey came here from South Dakota.  A lot of respected leaders come from Minnesota, which borders Canada.

Minnesota is a nice place.  Life is good.  Summer is taking hold and the trees are green again.  Maybe too much mud for the farmers right now, but maybe the rain will hold off.  A lot of sky blue water this spring.

Common cause is as common as common sense these days as we fend through daily bombardments of hype and breaking news.  We rely on each other to remain grounded against brainwashing and gaslighting.  It’s a conceit to the belief we can make consensus beyond identity politics to make a coherent case for liberal democracy.

That’s what it takes, though.  Against demonizing propaganda a clear persuasive argument for the greater good is what it will take to un-inaugurate the current president, who will not go quietly unless he gives himself a stroke.

It’s one thing to hue and cry about the plight of the poor refugee (or just the plight of the poor) and blame reactionary rhetoric and nationalistic ult-right policies for inhumane treatment, and yet another thing to get lawmakers to write comprehensive legislation to establish a fresh immigration code and to elect an executive branch more interested in mitigating the causes of diaspora than punishing migrants.  It’s a bleeding heart cause but the eventual will meet the inevitable and America faces vast incarceration and/or deportation of a significant percentage of its population, many of them born here, and almost all persons of color.

Not just in Washington, DC but at the United Nations, America could lead in promoting fair passage of refugee populations and in participating in stabilizing factors to prevent or repatriate diaspora, if there were an administration interested at all in guiding the future of the world, engaged in real world issues.  Instead the president dismisses these distressed places as shitholes.  He won’t even rebuild Puerto Rico since the hurricanes.  He thinks he’s cute.

Until Donald Trump is repudiated at the box office — unelected at the polls — and uninaugurated, the United States Congress does not need him to craft legislation to govern America.  If out of spite he vetoes sensible bills passed behind his back, he risks further exposing himself as a fraud more dedicated to his own glory than to Old Glory.

Whatever happens next, don’t be confused that life is good because Trump is in the White House.  His administration is an extreme stress test of the resilience of American character.  He has no character.  No ethos.  Those who put him in power and support his regime have nefarious motives.  They are like him, dishonest, devious, deceptive and willing to go to extremes to advance their agendas and impose their will.  It’s not an economic profit motive so much as a political monopoly campaign to wear out our minds and brainwash us (like George Romney) to hassle among ourselves with unresolved identity issues and contradictory beliefs, giving them the high ground of relentless moral certainty.  Don’t be fooled.  It’s iron pyrite.

The greater good will come from examples set by people who can envision a world beyond this century and keep sight of existential resolutions in the present tense.  Who keep hope alive instead of pandering despair.  Who can take criticism and turn it into advice.  Who take integrity seriously and ask only honest effort from their fellow human beings.  Who reject hate and hatred and persevere with love.  Who keep paying attention and don’t get bored.












The sun is coming back!

Minneapolis, at roughly the 45th parallel, north, has gained eight minutes of daylight since solstice.  Almost every day this time of year where I live I find myself in the place of a primeval person watching the daily sky and the declining arc of the sun and worrying if the radiant ball of life would this time descend below the horizon and not come back, just keep going wherever it goes.  We’ll be stuck with artificial lights forever.

And yet still, people emerged in ancient times who went to great extents to build apparatus to prove on a specific day the sun will peep trough a specific hole on earth, proving hope.  Hope for us humans that the universe might be a predictable system of questions and answers.  George Harrison gets credit for summing it up in the modern era, “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and it’s all right.”

Last year was a weird year.  You literally couldn’t swing a dead cat without scratching somebodies eyes out.  Meaning, the level of outrageous and offensive rhetoric, bad humor, bad english, insensitive metaphors and fandangling with truth kept rising with the public’s irresistible urges to watch ever so closely to shocking, ugly things.  You don’t want your eyes scratched, wear safety goggles, or don’t look at the dead cat.  And don’t question whoever’s swinging it.

The most audacious thing in the world that happened last year was the killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  It stands out from all the detentions and assassinations of journalists last year because it was clearly a state sponsored execution committed within diplomatically recognized sovereign territory inside another sovereign country and executed as if the world would never know, and yet the state security apparatus of the Saudi state failed to anticipate or secure its consulate facility against comprehensive surveillance by the host state of Turkey.  Maybe more audacious about it is Turkey publicly acknowledging its spywork.  Turkey is not known as a nation friendly to journalists.  Saudi Arabia meanwhile can’t believe Turkey would rat them out.  The Saudi monarchy seethes with insecurity.  Did they drop the ball in surveillance protection at Istanbul because it was merely a consulate, not an embassy?  Heads will surely roll.  That’s how it’s done there.  Nobody has come forth yet with writings or tapes or such from Khashoggi himself which would illuminate what he knew about the regime of the Crown Prince that Khashoggi might have exposed which might predict the collapse of the royal kingdom, just as the Prince is trying to cash out, making Khashoggi literally an enemy of the state, eligible for beheading under Saudi law, such as there is law in Saudi Arabian jurisdiction.  Instead of asserting its sovereign rights under its sovereign laws, what one would expect from a monarchy of the status of Soviet Union or Red China, the Arabian Crown regime has to find a Plan B — nobody apparently anticipated, in this modern age of digitalysis, there would be true documented proof of Khashoggi’s murder, except the Turks.  So the Saudi rulers have to try to weasel out of this one by any means necessary, which means Khashoggi must have been very important.  Important enough to enlist the influence of the President of the United States to equivocate its case to trivialize the incident in the eyes of the world.

This concept of a free press the United States is so famous for in its Bill of Rights of the foundation of its government has been a key attraction to subsequent democracies since the 18th Century and the very age of the written word and the printing press.  Authoritarian and Totalitarian states have striven to control the spread of information to control power.  In our age it’s to control the information itself.  It’s dismal to read that the USA ranks around 35th in the world in freedom of the press when you might think it could be the leader, or at least in the top ten.  But it is encouraging that there are countries with even freer press than ours in a world where most countries have it worse.


In America the free press includes newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, TV, radio, social media and websites such as this one and many others more popular and less obscure.  President Donald J Trump routinely attacks the press — forgive me for using the old fashioned term for the press to mean all mass media — for publishing and posting fake news, and for this he calls the press the enemy of the people.  Neither he nor any of his spokespersons nor his corps of supporters have articulated what he means by fake news or offered examples, implying all news is fake unless he himself validates it as real news.  The lies he has told and endorsed are public records.  He communicates to the world via the most free network of vulgar democratic press the world has ever seen.  No one can stop him from his freedom of speech.  And no one should, as agonizingly pathetic and hair on your neck dangerous as they tend to get.  Free country.  You don’t see him giving Mark Zuckerberg a hard time about farming out Facebook data to make mercenary hits on user data, more digitalysis, not how Congress is investigating how to regulate and maybe even tax the internet to somehow keep it free and simultaneously safe from corrupt abuse.

A little over two years ago an enterprise directed by the Kremlin used digitalysis techniques to infiltrate American internet media to campaign on behalf of Donald J Trump for President, and Trump won.  He keeps repeating his mantra, no collusion, though throughout his campaign he tantalized his skeptics by asking the Russians to keep hacking his opponents to look for dirt.  More secret dirt.  The Russians plausibly deny all charges the Justice Department has made and the State Department has substantiated against them for acting to destabilize the American presidential election of 2016 to help elect Trump.  Except to know specifics of the federal statute it’s hard to reconcile freedom of speech with prosecuting anybody including a foreign state for expressing favor for a political point of view and influencing an election.  After all, the US Supreme Court has ruled corporations are entities entitled to free speech rights, why not foreigners?  What hurts about Russian influence in that election is the realization that the Russians apparently speak english better than we do.

The Russian government believes there is no such thing as democracy.  It’s a myth.  And no such thing as truth.  Thus they lie and expect nobody will do anything about it, and they expect nobody to believe them.  And nobody does, not even their own citizens.  The American government has imposed sanctions against Russian oligarchs and institutions for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea and various other international infractions, but it appears for now to be no big deal.  The world seems to accept that the Russian political system condones jailing and killing journalists and political opponents (troublemakers) and has thousands of ways to ruin somebody’s life.

No collusion, he says, and yet Donald J Trump has always expressed an enamoration for the Russian country and especially its leader Vladimir Putin.  Nobody except maybe Trump himself knows why.  Maybe it’s because Russia is a vast country with untapped riches.  He might admire its rich history and culture, although that’s not likely because he doesn’t follow history and prefers cultural ignorance as his baseline.  More likely it has to do with real estate and fossil fuel.  His fanboy crush on Vladimir Putin is much easier to understand in terms of how Trump sees himself as a player in an international league of strong man boss daddies, and Putin is a proven authoritarian over a world power.  Trump admires how Putin runs Russia and keeps order in its part of the world and he probably envisions a more stable world if the United States and Russia were allies (forget those punk states of Europe) and he and Putin could be friends, deals could be made, and some kind of new world order could emerge where all the true strongmen of the world would get together — maybe at Mar-a-Lago, we don’t know — to divide up the planet, secure peace and harmony, eradicate terrorism, solve famine, end gang wars and drug cartels, repatriate refugees and resettle asylum seekers…  Always assume positive intent.

If Trump ever spoke the truth it might sound something like, yes I think being allies with Russia in the 21st Century is a good idea, we have much in common and could learn a lot from them about keeping social order in this crazy world.  We’ve collaborated nearly a century now in space exploration and it’s time we stopped facing off each other over Europe and get together on this Earth and combine our great countries’ fortunes and intellects and band together to reshape the political and social destiny of this planet.  Yes, so what I used Russians to help my campaign but who cares, there’s nothing wrong with getting help where you can get it to advance a great and beautiful cause, which is the Trump presidency.

He really believes he is God’s gift.  He should say so more often.

Instead he hides the truth, and hides from the truth, and the real news is not news at all, just a long well known fact, Donald J Trump is fake.  And everyone who believes in him is as low, corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unfaithful, disloyal, conniving, untrustworthy and soulless as he is because deep down they all want to be like him, they are all frauds at heart.  He seeks approval from deplorable people who espouse Nazi and Confederacy dogma.  He exploits plain people with human grievances to pit the shafted against the jacked.

He says he promised to build a Wall, and if he doesn’t get money for his Wall he will look foolish to those who expect him to fulfill that promise.  After all the lies he has told you might think he has some way he could weasel his way around the Wall and blame it on somebody else, or even say, hey, I’m the leader here, and I rethought the Wall, I don’t like the idea any more and I’m taking it off the table to negotiate a fix to the immigration system.  No, instead he’ll proudly wear the mantel of the one who shut down the government instead of funding it without money for his Wall.

He promised he would Drain the Swamp too, and now that they have stopped picking up trash and emptying porta-potties at the national parks it appears he has broken that promise by filling the swamp back up again.

Not to mention the people he has retained to work on his staff and in his cabinet.

It’s a shame the Republican party sold its soul to get him elected but they will reap what they sown.  Confused between conservative governing principles and right wing dictatorial powers they risked common sense democracy to allow radicals to give cover to right wing causes, and lost causes.  A mid-term election puts a Democratic party majority in the House of Representatives, and they will use their clout to investigate every shady inch of the president’s tailored suit.  It’s a shame the outgoing House traded its majority in a squandered deal to shield this president to advance conservative goals.  The Senate will have to reconcile sound legislation with the president they have cut way too much slack.


Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail the past year was as pathetic as a lounge act on its last leg.  He conjured up visions of the caravan of asylum seekers, the migrants from Central America making their way towards the southern US border, as a force of invaders — bad dudes.  He conjured fearsome hordes.  He conjured an assault.  He called up troops.  He ordered more concertina barbwire.  He made a point of saying publicly that the border troops were authorized to shoot back if attacked.

Used to be the United States billed itself as the most humanitarian country on the planet.  We had the Peace Corps, an invention of that liberal president Kennedy’s administration.  And we used to put a lot of money into the United Nations — which the US founded in San Francisco.  There was the Marshall Plan.  All over the world wherever you saw the American flag there was a source of charity emanating underneath.  Think of all the well-intentioned missionaries of all kinds of faiths the American churches spun out into the Third World back when there was a Third World.  If there was a national disaster the Americans were there to help.  As recently as the Obama administration, Americans helped draft the Paris climate accords.

Now we are the xenophobic people who need border walls and tariffs to protect our bitcoin, who live in constant fear of shooting each other with guns over opioids.  Who are too snobby to overtip NATO for good service and too cheap to toss a coin to UNESCO.

Here in Minneapolis there is a charity shelter called Sharing and Caring Hands, whose founder Mary Jo Copeland says in her solicitation for funds around Christmastime, “To the world you might be one person, but to that one person you might be the world.”  And I’d go, what?  I mean, I get what she means but literally it doesn’t make sense.

Still, in the most liberal sense, it applies to Donald J Trump and America.  He represents us Americans to the world.  He shoves the president of Montenegro out of the way to get position in a group photo of world leaders.  He insults leaders of allied democracies and cozies up to autocrats and dictators.  He shows no kindness towards victims of affliction.  He shares no sincere empathy for the aggrieved.  He’s indifferent to the plight of diaspora and the inhumane causes of refugee migration.  He bullies the weak.  He lies egregiously about what he’s up to.  He caves to the most special of Special Interests rolling back environmental protection regulations and the oversight of public lands.  Now his administration wants to roll back civil rights protections.  His government shutdown effectively locks out hundreds of thousands of government workers off their jobs and forces about as many to work without pay, as if to say, “Tough Titty.”  Worldwide he’s making us look really bad.

America First is his slogan.  Used to be that meant when a challenge was offered somewhere in the world America was a first responder to try to do the right thing.  Granted, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a gley, it’s been said (in reference to Donald J Trump’s Scot heritage) but there are worst laid plans in this world too, and they too can go awry.  (Brexit.)  Nationalist isolationizing incurs local tribal quarrels for fake unity in the face of Them.  Them is us.  It’s been incumbent of Americans to go for first in leading the world in more than gymnastics.  The American cultural treasury has led the world in accomplishments in medicine, industrial technology, agricultural yields, textiles, intellectual productivity and fathoms more, and thus the world itself has generated accomplishments all over the planet aided by American influence, if not inspiration.  It is a global world.

The Chinese are the first to set up a base on the dark side of the moon.  How did they learn how to do something like that?

Back on earth NASA is shut down over funding for the Wall to wall off a piece of earth as seen from outer space as a slice of North American desert and mountains.  How much federal bridge and highway maintenance can you get for $5 billion if you want to pour concrete and erect steel that will actually do something, go somewhere?

Wall Street doesn’t like this Wall stuff either.  It’s starting to affect Walgreens and Wal Mart.  And Walla Walla.  Even Wall Drug.  Walnuts.  Wally the Beer Man.  WALL-E.  It affects us all.  What would the Waltons do?

Yes, last year was a weird year.  Wildfires in California and Greece took tolls of paradise and burned it to hell.  Hurricanes and tsunamis wiped out towns, earthquakes toppled dwellings and liquified people like swallowing them in jelly.  Volcanoes burned molten paths to the sea.  June was the deadliest month of all 323 mass shootings in the United States, though the deadliest single incident occurred in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.  The US and its allies launched an air attack against Syrian chemical weapons sites for using gas bombs against its own civilians, again.  Donald J Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore.  He met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.  He fired his Secretary of State, Attorney General, dismissed another Chief of Staff, took the resignation of his Secretary of Defense and got a sketchy Supreme Court nomination past the Senate.  All while two of his former henchmen pleaded guilty or were convicted of federal felonies.  Trump also signed legislation reducing sentencing terms for non-violent crimes, including white collar crimes.

The special investigation of illegal tampering with the 2016 presidential election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is under no pressure from a timetable to come to conclusions, as long as it takes to find the truth.  Trump’s lawyer, former mayor of New York and former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani went right to the top of the pops declaring in a live TV interview about the Mueller investigation, “Truth isn’t truth.”

And emoluments are just skin softening creams in hand lotions.

What will be revealed by the Mueller investigation and anything committees of the House of Representatives make public may not rise to treason or high crimes and misdemeanors, but it should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a shrewd sleazy shady dealer is Donald J Trump.  Maybe there’s enough proof to indict him on something when he leaves office, put him under arrest as his successor is sworn in, but it’s all two bit swindling and pulling legal strings and tax dodges, third mortgages and dubious cross transfers of assets.  How many more minions and stooges might face jail time on his behalf, depending how shallow his organization really is, is less likely to matter as much as what havoc those same minions and stooges might wreck in carrying out whatever insidious mission they think they are on to Make America Great Again.

The president has had a bunch of chances and keeps dropping the ball.  Instead of coming out the better man he comes away as the bigger dick.  I did not endorse him or vote for him, and campaigned against him.  He’s been in office two years, so nobody can say I didn’t give him a chance.  Someday he will be out of office and nobody can say he didn’t have a chance.  Any time and place Trump could have asserted the power of his presidency to put the nation’s best angels ahead of his blatant ego, but time after time he surrenders to the urges of his snake brain and he makes a statement, decision or proclamation sabotaging the sacred ideals that made this country admired, even loved.  When he said he would make America great again he didn’t say he was going to make it Not Great first.  You talk about a president taking the country the wrong direction.


The way Trump blew off the Khashoggi murder was the last Camel.

He is privy to all the evidence and the secret intelligence of the Deep State and instead of outrage that the monarch state of Saudi Arabia executed a journalist he passively deferred blame and recused himself from moral contemplation.  After all there’s $110 billion in arms sales at stake where the Chinese and the Russians would love to jump right in.  Right.  The Saudis are going to recalibrate all their defense technology going forward on the fly and welcome Kremlin agents and very friendly comrades of Xi Jinping, all with deep states of their own — not so fast, nobody wants to be a Saudi monkey boy except Donald J Trump and it may seem the Russians and Chinese can afford to bide their time milking the Arabs building a new Silk Road, perhaps through New Kurdistan, fostering Syria to keep a Mediterranean port, and Persia facing the gulf at Hormuz, while Americans try to reconfigure its own borders to regulate its 2020 census, the rest of the world can go take a hike.

Like the mantra on the backside of Melania Trump’s stylish coat: I DON’T CARE DO U.

My mom used to refer to a condition called Inverted Eyeballs.

For all the fun of demonstrations, rallies, caucuses, media coverage and hilarity it would provide, impeachment isn’t going to happen.  It would take two years anyway, and by then he can be simply unelected.  Impeachment would incite some of the most deplorable people to deplorable acts to save their fuhrer, and it would not be a cleansing bloodshed.  We can learn our lesson the long way.  There is much to come out about the shenanigans of Donald J Trump when his tax returns are made public and everybody learns how leveraged he is and how he effectively launders his money, and maybe his entanglements with the Kremlin may prove more sinister and embarrassing than imagined, but by the time any impeachment charges brought to the Senate would be moot, his presidency will be done, not worth the trouble to kick him out even a month early.

This same Senate, a 52 – 48 Republican majority, is the next bastion of restraint of Trump’s executive overreach.  His imperial impulses.  His autocratic urges.  His crybaby presidency.  The Senate has actual power to override vetoes of sensible legislation.  This is a great opportunity for the Republican party to move towards un-nominating him from the head of their ticket in two years.  If all he has going for him is his troop of core believers, Trump hasn’t got enough to win re-election.  Senators who buck that trend do so at their own peril.

Even so, he will not go quietly (unless he gives himself a stroke) and the tomfoolery and flimflammery will go on.  My hope for the coming year (or two) is that if Donald J Trump remains in office he is virtually neutered, all checked and balanced so he can cause no more harm to the United States or to the world.  The lamest of ducks.  His justification for what he does is, “I’m president and you’re not.”  Sad.  But true.

Sad that Trump has even corrupted the word sad.

Sad for me to think Donald J Trump beggars so much of my reflective time.  That his presence in the world matters so much and seems to permeate the soul of every human relationship, transactional and personal.

Two years ago in Mexico I got to know a local guide and philosopher named Fernando who said Trump was a good thing and who wanted to bet me a hundred dollars USD that in a year I would be better off than I was that day shortly after Trump’s inauguration.  I didn’t take that bet because I didn’t want to take his money, but it turned out I would have owed him, I was better off a year ago.  Last year in Mexico I asked after him, intending to pay up, but I learned the previous summer he died of pancreatic cancer.  This year though I’m not so well off, though I’m better off than Fernando.  I think somehow I owe his family.  That’s 2000 pesos.  I’d like to know what he thinks of Trump now.  And who is this AMLO guy?  Are there any Honduran or Salvadoran caravan refugees working in Zihuatanejo?

Last year in my city, Minneapolis, city of lakes, city of Prince, city of plenty, a homeless community settled into a tent encampment on state highway land adjacent to a main transportation artery, a freeway.  On a strip of grassy green space abutted by a tall concrete wall sound barrier and a bike and walking path along a busy six lane highway a campground settlement grew throughout the summer to around 300 tents and a lot of people extending a few blocks from a main underpass business district to a public park and soccer field along the big sound wall separating the highway noise from the residences on the other side.

The encampment seemed to emerge overnight and didn’t go away.  It achieved instant urban notoriety.  Not the first homeless encampment in an American city, nobody seemed to see this one coming.  Now there it was.  Out there on highway 55 near the Franklin Ave rail station, just off I94 and I35W, near the Cedar exit going south, hundreds of camping tents pitched on the grass between the freeway and the wall and people with backpacks roaming in between them.  All in full view of commuters and tourists and truckers and strangers passing by.  There were cooking fires at night.

Significant about this phenomenon is what did not happen.  Nobody panicked and drove the squatters off the highway land with pickets.  The cops did not swoop in with SWAT teams and paddywagons.  The National Guard did not deploy.  No tear gas.  No bull horns.  No marchers.  No rousts.  No threats.  And no political grandstanding.

The encampment was allowed by all authorities to remain in place until some form of true housing could be found for every person camping there.  This meant intense collaboration between the city, the county, the state (highway land) and a whole coalition of social service agencies and nonprofits, volunteers and faith based organizations to succeed in relocating everyone justly and peaceably.

A large proportion of the campers were Native American Indians, drawn to the site by its proximity to the Phillips neighborhood, home to the largest urban Indian population in America on the other side of the freeway wall.  Some dubbed the site the Wall of the Forgotten, a direct reference to the displacement and oppression of Indians over the centuries.  Right away Indians asserted leadership in keeping order within the encampment and bringing help to the campers.  Indian social service groups based in the nearby neighborhood reached into the encampment to offer housing and health service mediation and intervention.  The site attracted volunteers from medical services and every kind of expertise available.  Donations of food, clothing, blankets and tents came.  The police visited frequently to hang around and get to know the crowds, and no incidents of arrests or confrontations were reported or cases of larceny or assault.  Teepees were erected as meeting centers.

Journalists visited the encampment.  They interviewed the campers and posted stories of hard lives.  Destitution all so familiar and still hard to fathom.  The site seemed to come together from people camping under bridges and here and there in the shadowy hiding places of the Twin Cites, Minneapolis and St Paul, the fringes of parks and old railroad yards, dead end alleys, abandoned garages and what’s left of slums, attracted to the safety of a community of numbers like themselves, totally homeless but maybe not so hopeless.  A lot of single women with kids — these were the early success stories of the social service activists and urban missionaries helping to triage the individual circumstances to place them in true housing.  Bringing so many homeless together in one place and drawing them from their hiding places here and yon not only drew public attention to the homeless population in our midst as a kind of refugee migration of our own underclass, it provided them with security and secured their freedoms without locking them up.

Naloxone became a familiar word associated with the encampment when stories of drug overdoses made the news.  Four fatal overdoses occurred over the existence of the encampment.  Conflict emerged between users and those who wanted to stay clean and scuffles broke out evicting dealers.

Through the summer and into autumn the best minds and hearts of the arts of social science met to make plans and policies to not only move the people out of the encampment by this winter but also develop an ongoing network of methods to effectively keep up with homelessness before it happens.  While elected officials and neighborhood organizers kibbutzed among nonprofit coordinators, churches, educators, clinicians, physicians, politicians, soup kitchens, electricians and musicians, what to do to move three hundred-some people and their tents off Highway 55 before it gets really cold.  Alternative sites were proposed and discussed when it became clear that an already heavily burdened social welfare system couldn’t possibly work that fast to get that many people with problematic residential histories placed in structured housing facilities.  It looked like somewhere in the city would exist a few blocks of FEMA-style temporary trailers, if only suitable ground could be found.  Nobody could estimate how many people the site would have to accommodate who wouldn’t by then be diverted into true housing, the population at the encampment kept growing even as the social service groups almost magically kept placing people who fell through the cracks.  There was worry about people refusing to leave the encampment, talk about taking a stand for that track of land, and others worried about being driven into an asphalt concentration camp.  This was a very delicate humanitarian situation.  Nobody gave up.

Highway 55 through Minneapolis is locally called Hiawatha Avenue.  That part of the city grew with a peculiar affection for a particular popular author and poet, a Bob Dylan of his era, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Avenues all over that part of town, two lakes, a famous creek and falls are named for his characters, more than a few of them Native American Indians like Hiawatha and his sweetheart Minnehaha, both of them busy avenues that run parallel to each other two blocks apart.  Hiawatha is a busy state highway that runs diagonal through the city grid that tries to mimic north, south, east, west and creates a transportation wedgie into the city following a bee-line straight from Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers over land to downtown Minneapolis and the site of the most powerful flour mills of its age, St Anthony Falls.  That beeline exist today as the direct route between downtown and the airport and includes the light rail line.  It’s what’s left of an unaltered trade route between an army outpost and bread.

So the Hiawatha Encampment it was called, or the highway 55 encampment to be more politically correct.  The Wall of the Forgotten was more or less forgotten, or at least forgiven in the sight of its fame.  The actual wall of concrete is at least thirty feet high and runs several blocks along residential Phillips neighborhood bordering a town home development called Little Earth, where a lot of Indians live.  The architecture of the wall is molded in decorations of Native American designs and features a soft blue accent, a pleasant look actually for a highway barrier.  It made a cozy backdrop to the array of tents and the teepees.

The Red Lake Nation, home of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, a reservation located in northern Minnesota, recently bought a chunk of property across Hiawatha Ave from the Little Earth housing which was the site of an old kaput manufacturing plant.  The long range plan of the Band was to develop units of affordable apartments, being near the rail station and the Franklin Avenue corridor.  Red Lake Nation stepped up to offer the site as a place for temporary relocation of the Hiawatha encampment providing a way the site could be demolished and cleared suitably to house people.  The city, county, private donors and who knows who moved heaven and earth to level the site, but it still took time.

Winter approached.  A cold November.  A goal to have the encampment vacated by December first looked unattainable.  The highway department put up a fence between the freeway and the encampment to keep the snowplows from spraying snow at the tents.  It became a gated community.  Fires broke out in tents where makeshift camp stoves were tried as heaters.  Medical emergencies increased with cold weather.  Any time you drove past there was a fire truck standing by with an ambulance.  Anyone illusioned with romance for this hobo jungle adventure need not apply.

Eventually the Red Lake property was rendered habitable.  It consisted of four large fabric tents like big quonset huts.  Three tents would be used for domeciles and sleeping, screens available for privacy, the fourth ten a community center, dining, health and sanitary and showering facilities.  They called it a Navigation Center, a temporary place to get help to find true housing and to find resources available to mitigate whatever problems cause the homelessness.  Administration of the Navigation Center was assured by a coalition of social service organizations.  People started moving around Christmas.  Between finding true housing for some and the promise of help through the Navigation Center, the encampment dwindled and disappeared.  After the last ones left, free rides provided by the highway patrol, the gates through the snow fence were padlocked with no trespassing signs posted.  The grounds were groomed and rendered trash free.  Recent snow glossed over the scars on the erstwhile lawn, and with its fence it looks along the wall like a cemetery without headstone markers.

The deal with Red Lake is to keep finding alternate space for those who seek shelter there.  Substance use within the Navigation grounds is prohibited although intoxicated users will be admitted, and treated.  The land is still intended to be developed into apartment housing soon, so even this temporary shelter will be temporary.  The missionary work continues.

What draws me to dwell on this little saga is its comparison and contrast to my obsession with the malfeasance and maladaptation of the Trump administration.  Here in my home town a humanitarian crisis emerged, and over time, a relatively short time, the powers that be and powers that aren’t usually to be worked out navigation policies and procedures to solve the crisis, if not once and for all at least towards that goal in an ongoing way.  In a year of weirdness all over the world, in my home town a community set sights on a project with dozens of cultural ramifications and made it happen, somehow, some way.  My city came to the rescue — not just city hall, but the city of fellow citizens — to do something moral and upright about a phenomenon nobody really wants to look at, think about and talk about because this is America, because this is America.

This gives me hope for the new year.  Here in a flawed place and time I see hope and hope for more hope for the human race.  By this I mean hope for the planet because humanity is not about to relinquish or abdicate its assertion of dominion but can only concede to nature as if practicing the Serenity prayer — owning up to responsibility for altering the biosphere and conceding that nature is beyond control.  Accepting humanity’s responsibilities and coordinating efforts to improve life is more than theoretical sociology, it can be practiced in everyday expressions not necessarily political of intent but sincere.  And this comforts me about my community.

What I will remember most about last year and what gives me more hope is the birth of Vincent and Amalie’s baby they named Neko Roxanne.  My son and his wife had been arduously trying to have a baby for several years.  Neko is the third grandchild for Roxanne and me and Roxanne’s first namesake.  Vincent and Amalie’s first child.  It’s been a long time since we’ve taken care of a baby.  The elder two grandkids are grown up enough for Book Club and here we go again with basic la la la.  And so it begins all over again like with Clara almost fourteen years ago, and the Tess almost three years later, Granpa Kelly comprises his personal guidance of a new human being.  Roxanne as ever is such a world class grandma everybody who knows her wishes she were their grandma.  With the benefit of experience and innovation along the way I hope to impress her precious mind with all the wonders of the world available to a grandpa, which usually comes back many fold to me in nice little life lessons of existential meaning.  A new hand to hold.

So happy new year to all with hope for all for civic virtue and personal relationships creating loving bonds and tides of joy.

Thank you all for reading and following this chronicle of passion.














Man Up 2: I Also

not Nefertiti.jpg
not Nefertiti

Sex again.  Subject never goes away.  Birds and the bees.  Rape culture.

Victims.  Accusers.  Deniers.  Survivors.  True confessions.

In Americana the legacy of Hugh Hefner collides again with real politics.  The year of Pulling a Kavanaugh.  A lodestar of memes.  The only way to illuminate the encryption that blocks  atonement for the age old subjugation of women is for men to man up and mansplain our own sexism.

Jill was my first fingerfuck.  Her wet, silky rough inner flesh swaddled my finger all the way up to the knuckle.  Jill was my girlfriend and we agreed to rendezvous on a summer afternoon to make out in the woods.

We knew each other at St Simon of Cyrene, both in the same grade but not the same class.  She and her girlfriends came to our football games.  She hung out with a bunch of east side girls who hung out with a bunch of us west side guys, meeting up at the record shop at a central shopping center called the Hub.  We had cokes and fries at the Pixie Diner, met up at the movies, hung out at kids’ houses and roamed Southdale.

Jill reminded me of an image I once saw of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen.  She had an exotic face, though not especially ethnic, it was mostly her way with black eye-liner and smoky eye shadow.  Her eyes were vivid hazel.  She had thick, straight black hair, always cut in a bob.  Mad eyebrows.  Her face was white like ice cream with tiny freckles like vanilla beans across her nose.  She did not suntan.

She was not especially a leader among her girlfriends.  Mostly she blended in with their plaid St Simon uniforms, red sweaters and fluffed up bobbed hair.  They wore bows.  They all slung big purses like duffel bags.  An aloof sarcasm set her apart.  Not outspoken, not especially shy, she spoke in undertones if at all, not even asides.  She had a low voice, but not raspy.

She knew me when my name was Sturgis, before my parents divorced and my mom changed our names to Kelly.

I liked Jill.  This is the generational origin, by the way, of the social network Like.  Back then you liked somebody, and maybe somebody liked you, and maybe you might date for a while.  Jill liked the Beatles, though she said she wasn’t a huge fan.  Her favorite was George Harrison.  She went to A Hard Day’s Night, though not with me.  She also went to their concert at Met Stadium, though again not with me.  I asked if she screamed, and she said with her usual sardonic undertone, “Are you kidding?”

I don’t recall what her grades were like except she passed.  I don’t know what her parents did and never met her family.  We talked on the phone at night.  She didn’t have a lot to say but she was a good listener.  She didn’t gossip but she knew what everybody else was doing.  I don’t remember if she had any ambitions.

I thought she was pretty and she seemed to get prettier as she got older.

She was a great kisser.  The afternoon we agreed to meet and go to the woods was a lovely day.  We met at the Snyder Drug soda fountain — probably had cherry cokes.  We held hands walking to the woods.  It was the same woods where my guys and I used to play toy guns when we were little kids.  Jill and I had a smoke out of sight of civilization.  She smoked Marlboros and I liked Winstons.  I knew a nice cozy niche in deep vegetation off a remote path.  I shared some Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers.  And so began the kissing.

Petting.  Heavy petting.  All me.  Her butt under her panties was so round and smooth.  Her fuzz was scintillating.  Her lips so puffy.  Her clitoris like a grape.  She just kept kissing me.  When her eyes were open they were amber in the shady sunlight.  Rapt around my finger, I thought.  Gone as far as I could go with one hand, I withdrew to unhook her bra and lift her cups to let her breasts fall free beneath her blouse.  I recall vividly thinking these were full womanly breasts with smooth, budding nipples.  I confess to this day I regret I never saw them with my eyes.

All too soon she said she had to go.  The kissing stopped.  We smoked again as she straightened her culottes and fastened her bra.  I hoped she would stick around and walk with me on my paper route, but she said she had to go home.  I walked her to her bus stop, waited until the bus came.  Call me, she said.  In those days boys called girls but not the other way around.

If not true love at least I found a mate.  If not a soul mate I believed I found a companion, a girlfriend, somebody to like who liked me.  I probably celebrated with a cup of coffee and a doughnut at Krispy Kreme, sniffing my finger in ecstasy.  When I look back at that day as fondly as I can, it occurs to me I never offered or exposed my penis.  What’s more, I wonder, where were her hands — not fondling me, yet not sweeping my hands away.  Had she so much as touched my groin I would have gone off like an underground nuclear test.

I called Jill that night and she told me we were breaking up.  What?

“I only let you do what you did to give me a reason to break up with you.  I can’t trust you,” she said.  “We’re breaking up.”

And so we never dated again.  We kept running into each other at school and around the record shop, soda fountains and Southdale but we never got close again.  There was no sense of shame between us so much as Jill’s vibe that we weren’t meant to be.  If I felt a little paranoid and somewhat shunned by her girlfriends it was temporary.  Soon my family’s scandalous discombobulations altered my social life and I didn’t see her after we graduated St Simon of Cyrene.  I called her once in a while in high school to confide my angst and loneliness and ask her out, and finally she said I should stop calling her when I was horny and depressed.  That was about as close to talking about our afternoon in the woods as we ever got.

I never apologized and never felt sorry.  Far from consenting adults at the time, we were well beyond the age of reason.  It was wrong for a lot of reasons in the way that the songs say makes it feel so right.  It’s the essence of that song by Neko Case about “That Teenage Feeling”.  My lust for Jill remains justified somewhere deep in my soul’s memory that’s almost too genetically territorial to surrender.  An instinct of sovereign exception.  There was no drug administered or shared except nicotine and Stik-O-Pep Lifesavers.  Hormones.  Pheromones.  To me it was Adam and Eve in the woods.  I am sorry now because #MeToo and #balancetonporc call me forth to account for my examination of conscience.

From this pubescent romantic interlude flowed a template for future adolescent seductions leading to seeking Peacock rubbers from a sympathetic pharmacist and learning the benefits of K-Y Jelly versus Vaseline, all based on kissing it might seem.  I truly hope the incident didn’t cause Jill harm or trauma and I would offer her just reparations if she wouldn’t cynically question my intentions.

Whatever she may say about me, this is the first time I have ever told about our encounter.  No, I never bragged about it to the guys.  Never told my best buds around the campfire.  Never confided to another girl, or to my wife.  Never confessed to a priest.  To me sexual intimacy is the only sacred kind of shared secret worth keeping.

Sure as I would like to cast my lesson from Jill as a saintly Pre-Raphaelite painting, if this whole polemic is going to get real I’m obliged to confess to the devil’s truth.  I was a boy in a locker room.  I shared Playboy magazines like book club.  Anybody remember a Terry Southern novel called Candy?

My best friend at St Simon of Cyrene was Micmac Murphy.  Murph.  He had a voice like a foghorn, even when he whispered.  He was a natural comedian whose quips in class got him the most face slaps and trips to the principal of any kid in the history of St Simon’s.  Class clown, school wiseguy, always in trouble with the nuns and suspected of being up to no good, he nonetheless got A’s and give all the right answers when called upon and never got expelled or suspended.  He was also known for great kindness and stood up against bullies.  Played football.  And was the most obsessed guy with sex I knew besides myself.

Especially after he transferred to the public junior high after sixth grade at St Simon’s.  He said he’d finally had it with parochial school, always getting blamed for making people laugh, sick of getting ragged on by nuns, tired of getting treated like a moron when he was smarter than half the other kids, and wary of getting queered by a priest who liked to hug altar boys.  Murph said the last straw was when in sixth grade the school instituted uniforms for boys.  In the whole history of St Simon of Cyrene since 1948 only the girls were required to wear uniforms.  The rationale was to cut clothing costs and equalize fashion.  Who knew in the 1960s boys would dress like mavens?  The school introduced standard light blue short sleeve shirts with flyaway collars for boys and blue and white flecked Tweedaroy pants.  Red cardigan sweaters.  Murph hated the Tweedaroys the most, the flyaway collar shirts next.  He couldn’t wait to get out of St Simon’s jail and wear sporty Levi’s and shirts with button-down collars to school.  He said he heard that next year we would all have to wear saddle shoes.  Since he wasn’t going to go to St Bernard’s, Cretin or De La Salle for high school, why not make the break to public school with junior high.

We kept in touch until high school because he lived in the neighborhood and was still eligible to play on the St Simon football team through eighth grade.  Murph extolled public school.  What he seemed to like best were the girls.  They dressed foxy in tight v-neck sweaters and short skirts and flirted all day long.  He said they padded their bras, used the word fuck, wore heavy make up, dared you to look down their v-necks and some didn’t even wear panties.  Some kids even made out in the hallways.  Public school was to him like moving into the Playboy mansion.  He said public school girls were practically asking for it.  I knew better than to believe too much of what Murph told me, though I had to think public school more libertine than parochial school and looked forward to serving my sentence at St Simon’s and going to public high school too.

One of Murph’s fascinations with the hijinks of public school was a practice called Bagging.  You staked out a vulnerable, voluptuous girl and, seeing the right moment, under cover of a crowd and distraction, give one or both of her breasts a squeeze and run away.  Like the pantomime of Al Franken pictured in the USO airplane reaching over the sleeping Leeann Tweeden.  A sort of game of Ring and Run played with boobs.  Murph swore he hadn’t done it himself but said he knew some guys who had and he was always on the lookout for an opportunity.  He named some girls he would like to stalk, whose names meant nothing to me but he assured me were true babes, one of them he speculated had tits so big she might not even feel it.

This kind of conduct to me crossed the line beyond the Irish pale.  This was something nobody should ever do to the most disrespectable girl ever, much less nice girls like Jill and her friends.  Thinking guys behaved like this with impunity made me reconsider public high school.  I didn’t want to spend four years with any preponderance of these kind of clods, and gradually I lost touch with Micmac Murphy.  I heard he became a lawyer.

One night at the end of a movie — Khartoum with Charlton Heston, I think — I was exiting the theater during the credits when I abandoned impulse control.  The girl was among the crowd waiting for the theater to clear for the next performance, behind the velvet rope.  Public school.  She had short blond hair and oval glasses.  She wore a red and white horizontal striped jersey.  Her breasts jumped out at me across the rope.  In one sweeping motion to run to the exit I honked her right breast.  Before I could take my first step in flight she shouted, “Hey you fucker,” and punched me with her fist with her left hand and slammed the side of my head so hard my legs and feet could barely keep up as I reeled out the exit and down onto the asphalt of the parking lot like a drunken bum, where nobody asked me if I was okay or offered to help me up.

That summer my clique of neighborhood pals talked furtively about a new pastime at the municipal swimming pool they called Getting Some Tit.  Essentially it was a variation of Bagging conducted under water.  They would survey the females in the moderate and deep end of the pool.  When a guy saw someone vulnerable, and the coast was clear (as they put it) he would swim as deep as possible below the subject, give her a gentle fondle, and keep swimming like Aquaman along the bottom into the crowd as far as he could hold his breath.

There were five or so in this club, three active submariners and two or so voyeurs who talked big but didn’t really have the nerve to try.  A hot, crowded day was optimum and would bring out the best array of babes.  They had wish lists of known mature girls by name they hoped to target and made up nicknames for girls they didn’t know, not from our school, like Plaid One and Budgie.  Jill may have been mentioned on somebody’s wish list but I didn’t warn her.  She didn’t sunbathe much but some of her friends did, who were definitely on the lists.

I didn’t do this.  Like my opinion of Bagging before and after I learned my lesson I considered Getting Some Tit at the swimming pool a cowardly, lowlife act and totally disrespectful to the girls.  What’s more, with lifeguards on deck patrol and sitting in highchairs above the water it seemed too easy to get caught.  Far as I know none of them got caught and by the end of summer abandoned the practice and lost interest in hanging out at the pool.  I did nothing to stop them.  All I did was not join.

Now that I have confessed to at least three felonies — the last one a plausible charge of conspiracy to commit Getting Some Tit, along with two counts of actual sexual assault — what do I expect to get?  Amnesty?  Immunity?  Time off for good behavior?

This goes back more than fifty years, so the prosecutability of these crimes is moot and the statutes of limitations only provide guidance in framing an academic discussion of what if any penance is due.  Obviously I welcome arguments or I wouldn’t write and publish this.  Risking recriminations and unanticipated dangers is explicit with free speech.  Confession might make my soul feel good, more good than somebody might think I have a right to feel.  Had I and my cohorts been found accountable back then we would have been disciplined at home and shamed at school, possibly expelled, forced to apologize and been placed on probation for the foreseeable horizon.  Some may have been severely beaten.  There may have been increments of restorative justice involved but more emphasis would have been placed on keeping us and our victims apart.  Apologies would have been mandatory but not necessarily forgiveness.  Eventually we would all have been allowed to outgrow our bad experiences, learn and get along.

Today we would be facing trials as adults with possible jail time, perpetual registration as a sex offender.  Ankle bracelets.  Community service.  We would be called terrorists like the wilding young men at the Christmas market at Cologne.  Since we know today what the consequences are, a guy would have to be pathological to indulge in sexually harassing behavior, or very stupid.  Fifty years ago formal sexual education, secular or faith based, emphasized biology and the hollow ethics of abstinence for the sake of staying out of trouble.  At St Simon of Cyrene if you wanted to go deep with St Paul, or St Augustine, or St Teresa of Avila, there really wasn’t anybody capable of guiding and explaining chastity as a philosophical moral imperative.  It was just no.  Just so.  I can imagine now that it wasn’t just us Catholics, but the Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, obviously Moslems, all had their own sex rules against sex — they said the Baptists were the strictest Christians.  Besides church, we had vague civic reminders of the boundaries of sex.  There was this crime some of our friends called Statuary Rape, sometimes mentioned in the bull sessions of the swimming pool offenders — bagging Venus De Milo.  It was also against the law to peep in windows.  We were over the age of reason.  We sensed if we were doing something this secret it might be something wrong.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

And yet our informal sex education teased us to immerse ourselves in the inevitable essence of the subject, the sex.  The biological reason we are all here.  The reproductive imperative.  The complex moral and emotional ways we attract and repel attraction.  We were schooled in the street.  All that rock and roll radio going on about holding somebody tight.  All that flirting and courting on TV.  Movies and movie stars.  Fan magazines.  Sexy novels.  Playboy.  Masters and Johnson.  Secrets of sensual pleasure were being revealed, and yet it seemed if something used to be kept so secret it still might be something wrong.

Like I say sometimes, in the wrong hands Jesus is the devil.

What do I expect to gain from this confession of pubescent pornography?  You could say it’s all better left unsaid.  What’s to gain — another cautionary memoir where the confesser gets off scott free and the confessor, or confessee gets to bear graphic scars.

Or better yet, a retrospective homage to a more innocent time, the era of Free Love.

Needless to say, I won’t be running for public office soon.  Or seeking a high ranking job.  Or coaching any more girls basketball teams.  It could be my eulogy at my funeral I went down as a known lecher.  Maybe this essay will fall to the very bottom of the Google search engine, however the algorithm sorts these things, and I won’t get so much hate mail, and maybe I’ll remain undiscovered.  They say what you say into cyberspace remains out there forever, although I suppose infinity still allows room for errata.

On the album Rubber Soul the voice of John Lennon sings, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man…  Run for your life if you can, little girl…”  When he recorded that song he was confident everybody knew what he meant, literally.  Love in song can be torturous that way.  John Lennon’s dead but were he alive he would very likely repudiate the song as misogynistic.  Still, so far nobody has risen to have “Run For Your Life” deleted from future releases of Rubber Soul.

President Donald Trump says it’s a very scary time for men in America.  Man, I hope so.  Women in America have had a scary time this whole while.  This whole American Experiment.  Trump speaks for American men and their dedicated ladies.  The old pussy grabber knows what to be scared of.  He’s 72 years old, old enough to know.  He aspires to be an icon to admire.  He has a lot of followers — obviously, he’s President of the United States.  He’s scared his followers will find out he is a fraud, learn he has been scamming them, his whole life is a hoax, and they will turn on him.  He is scared of truth.

What scares me is that Trump indeed speaks for a lot of Americans who are like him, corrupt and sleazy and proud, who will never let truth get in the way of power, privilege and a social order of an elected authoritarian oligarchy.  If this is what passes for moral leadership in the 21st century then there’s little hope truth will be enough to educate his base to reject him.  Woebetide us if his base of followers expands due to desperate men with something to hide.  Sad.

The Hope found last in Pandora’s Box is Pandora herself willing to bear responsibility to account for all those things set free.  One hopes she did not close the lid and lock it before letting Hope fly out to compete and contend with all the other vices and virtues set free in this world.

The prevailing attitude we were taught at St Simon of Cyrene was sex was ultimately a matter of self control.  Boys were predictably more aggressive and more prone to strong urges.  If ever the phrase boys will be boys rang true it was like a known fact boys were genetically hardwired — naturally prone — to sexual desire, more so than girls.  About this fact the experts stumbled into getting right.  What the authorities tried to do about it was vaguely chickeny.  Girls were appointed guardians of boy virtue.  Boys were taught to respect girls, and girls were obliged to act respectable.  To dress modestly.  To resist and say no at all times to sexual advances.  Boys were taught to use self control to resist asking.  Boys were obliged to take no for an answer, but the onus was on the girl to say no.

Other than this they tried to keep us as separated as possible during adolescence.

The fundamental theological premise of sex being sin is based on the Roman Catholic number six of the Ten Commandments:  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  The other nine were pretty straightforward and simple to impart to elementary school minds — thou shalt not have strange gods, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not kill, not steal, even thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife was comprehensible in a family context — but what the hell was adultery?

Turns out there were several amorous stories of the Old Testament we skipped for our own good at St Simon’s.  They tried to portray celibacy as the ultimate choice virtue of Jesus God Himself, they being the priests and nuns, symbols on earth of Christ and Virgin Mary.  Adultery, they vaguely implied, was for us kids a matter of semantics, engaging in sinful behavior reserved for adults, acting as an adult in such a way as to have knowledge of such adult behavior as unchastity and therefore committing the sin, adultery.  Some kids inferred it as a sin to contaminate or corrupt something or somebody — to adulterate.  Otherwise we would have to grow up and become adults to learn more about the Sixth Commandment at St Simon of Cyrene.

Out here in the secular world so many decades later it’s women who set and enforce the standards of sex.  Better than Women’s Lib, this latest wave of female empowerment promises to tip the male monolith.  Two Nobel Peace Prizes in five years.  Michelle Obama’s Global Girls Alliance.  The lasting impact of the testimony of citizen Christine Blasey Ford will inform cultural history beyond the token flimsy tenure of the accused judge.  (Judge not lest ye be judged, my hyperbolic, hypocritical mom used to say, usually when she had something to hide — she would have loved President Donald Trump.)  The open season the president and his sleazy minions fear is that what goes around comes around moment when they get what they deserve, what they’re asking for, all in enduring good time.  For women there is no walking it back, no backing down, no retreat, no surrender.

If Lysistrata really happened, the women would win.  Ultimately most powerful of the species, women will determine the survivability of the planet.  Men who contribute to survival of the species and civilization as we know it could be, already recognize women’s just and inevitable participation in the events that shape the world.  Men who man up and stop sexist preoccupation with themselves as a divinely dominant gender will survive where bully guys will not.  Natural selection.  Humanity will benefit like workers covered under a bargaining agreement who don’t belong to the union.  Observe the next span of time, so many news cycles, TV seasons, Oscar years, time it takes for daughters and granddaughters to go through high school, see where the drama of gender and sex boundaries of behavior will go.  How it will affect fashion and justice, politics and economics.  How it affects love and romance.

It’s been many months since I’ve seen a commercial for Viagra or Cialis on TV.  It’s highly possible our post-modern society has lost interest in sex.  Who would know?  Playboy magazine is long defunct.  Even Spike Lee doesn’t make movies sporting breasts like Rosie Perez anymore.  What titillates the libido today is up for grabs, eludes description.  Leonard Cohen passed away.  They say there’s all the porn you want on the internet if that’s where you want to plant your computer cookies.  Aside from justified rage against human trafficking and exploitation of children, the righteous moral guardians who used to rave about the evils of our permissive society seem satisfied with the current level of exposure to sexiness.  Maybe it’s gone underground, like reruns of Two And A Half Men and Two Broke(n) Girls on cable.  Showtime network ceased its late night explicitly raunchy movies.  The sinister agenda of homosexual promiscuity the Tea Party people warned us about didn’t actually happen.  I’m lucky I have a loving committed relationship to keep me aroused.  I can only imagine what motivates other consenting adults to find others to consent with or how they rendezvous.  It’s gone from lowdown to the down low.  It’s not sex in your face 24/7 anymore.  Has it gone out of style?

Thank god, you might say, for dating websites, social media.  Maybe my perspective is just jaded, being older and so experienced — which is a way of saying having gotten away with a lot of things leading up to where I am today in life.  Jaded and almost willfully unhip, looking through the telescope with a blind eye, there’s a chance I’m not seeing something hidden in plain sight because it’s none of my affair to look, none of my business to see.  For me it’s a delight to see female undergarment shops as prominent legitimate businesses at the fashion mall, free to ogle, stare and admire lace on mannequins.  Lingerie.  I’m not really the target market for who’s buying and wearing this apparel, but somebody is and does.  Once upon a time I was a member of a modern generation.  It was the hippest generation ever lived.  That was then.

It’s my impulse to cry out to the generation after the next one after the next one, risk spoiling all their fun.  I feel impelled to chaperone from the grave, as it were, a version of JD Salinger’s catcher in the rye where he imagines a kind of guardian angel protecting kids from falling off a cliff (a problematic metaphor considering Salinger’s relationship to a young Joyce Maynard, which I suppose ironically illustrates the futility to project innocence upon a future generation).  Some writers write about yesterday for yesterday, for today about today and tomorrow, about yesterday, today and tomorrow for today and tomorrow.  Usually it all ends up yesterday.

In high school my daughter Michel absolutely forbade me from volunteering to chaperone any high school social events like hayrides and dances.  She clearly told me she didn’t want me hanging out where I could spy on her.  So I never did.  Never dared to question if she was hiding some kind of behavior, I believed Michel simply didn’t want me inhibiting her social life, not her anticipating my acting out a helicopter dad.  Not that she was ashamed.  It was enough I coached her basketball team three years in middle school.  I respected her demand to allow her privacy at the sacrifice of my never getting the experience of observing my daughter partying with her peers in high school.  I had to get to know her as an adolescent in other ways.  I am not disappointed in the adult woman she became.

My son Vincent may have had an even more obscure, enigmatic adolescence and he turned out good too.

Congratulations, you say.  Thanks.  I am proud of them both.  Their mother seems to have had an extraordinarily magical influence on their character.  My influence, however well-intentioned, cannot be retrofit into my own past.  Their dad’s dinner table opinions came from a man otherwise renown as an expert in pictures of naked women.  Pictures.  Sometimes I look at my grown kids and appreciate what they put up with me as a father, and what I really wonder is how I get treated so respectfully as an older old man.  This calls forth testimony.  I know stories I am reluctant to tell my granddaughters which for now I prefer they simply do not read — until they are older.  Adults.  My son and daughter may prefer I bury my stories for keeps but they can’t help me.  Can’t keep me from singing.  Coming clean.

Will sex ever be clean again, well yes of course.  We used to talk about rebelling against Victorian mores and now there’s a popular historical drama series on TV portraying what a pair of rompers were Victoria and Albert behind closed doors.  Perhaps from a discreet parallel baseline a civil dialog of sex will arise beyond the recriminations, criminal convictions and revelations of debaucheries yet to come, after guilt is adjudicated and innocence restored.  A normal bandwidth of appropriate interlocution will need to volunteer itself or sex will only belong to the clinical and the depraved.

The arts will be expected to express the vocabulary of the future of Eros, but everyday workaday life gets to be where practical Eros is acted out and explained.  For example, normal people will listen to Top 40 radio and buy the songs.  Listen up, watch and see these young crooners all falling down all over themselves mansplaining their feelings of deep respect for Aphrodite.  We’ll see who’s sincere and who’s zooming whom as time goes by, as this is the nature of mating in the real world.


Buffalo M Kelly



Thankful, Shakira


Shakira came into my life in Cancun, Mexico in the mid-90s, though I did not know Shakira was Shakira then.  What anglo would?

First trip to Mexico, the whole family, Roxanne and the kids, a midwinter break in the balmy Caribbean.  We stayed at the DoubleTree — ocean view.  It was the time I insisted we take a taxi into the old town, to see how the real Mexicans lived.  After a while of meandering a few shabby blocks near an old bull ring rodeo stadium and some shops of meager everyday merchandise and not finding a cantina where we all might take lunch, daughter Michel implored we get out of there and go back to the hotel zone.

“We don’t belong here,” she whispered.  “We’re invading their privacy.  Dad, we get it, let’s go.”

My intent was to share experience of a foreign culture with my kids, expose them to life beyond the resorts and the mall.  That was the time we also took a bus trip tour to the temples of Chichen Itza, and a ferry boat tour to Cozumel Island.  It was touristy but we rode a bus deep into the Yucatan and visited towns of adobe and Spanish stone and learned about the Maya at the places they actually live.  We climbed up and down the great pyramid and saw from above the altar of Chac Mool.  At Cozumel we snorkeled amid neon fish and vibrant coral and took a tour after lunch at a little family factory that made coral jewelry, where a lady gave me a little sample twig of black coral.  Except for our venture into old town Cancun our contact with Mexican Mexico we kept within a comfort zone.  At old town Cancun — nobody I asked could recall what the little town was called before the 1970s when FONATUR established what is now the famed and iconic Riviera Maya — the four of us stood out like neon fish out of water.  No one approached us and asked us what we wanted, everybody just eyeballed us and seemed to stay out of our way.  Some smiled, and that’s about all.

“I’m with Michel,” confided Vincent, putting a hand on my back.  “We should go.  These people don’t want us to see them this way.”

From nowhere a taxi came round a corner and Roxanne hailed it.  I felt bad.  Once again Dad risked everybody’s lives pursuing some kind of social adventure.  They persuaded me their discomfort and paranoia was really about us encroaching on people’s space and crossing boundaries unwelcome, and I felt bad about that too — impressed with the wisdoms of two young teenagers, and their mom of course.

We probably ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, where Michael Bolton and Kenny G were the gold record icons.  We sunbathed at the beach at the Hotel Presidente because the beach along the DoubleTree had been consumed the previous season by a hurricane named Roxanne.  The beach will come back, a concierge told us.  “The sea always gives back it’s dead.”

I have never met Shakira, and this story will not end that way.  However, the first time I heard a Shakira song was in Cancun.  Down below and next door to the DoubleTree was a big tent like a quonset hut where a night club pounded dance music from a live band.  With the hotel balcony glass door slid open to feel the night air off the sea the music put everybody else to sleep, but the pulsating Latin beats and rhythms rocked me more awake.  With Roxanne’s permission I got up, put my clothes on and left my wife and kids to go down to check out the club.

“Don’t make me worry,” she said.  “Don’t stay out too long.”

There was no cover charge but the guy at the door said there was a two drink minimum.  I lucked into a seat at a table at the front by the dance floor.  The waiter seized on me as if to chase me away and I ordered a pair of rum and cokes.  The band ended its second to last number and went into its finale.  They were tight, featured horns and a wicked drummer.  I was sorry I hadn’t arrived sooner to see more songs.  When the band quit and started to pack up, the sound system played recorded music that sounded to me like Latin disco.  Even if some of the crowd thinned out at the tables after the band stopped, more people came to the tables to dance and filled the dance floor.  In my early 40s, I was maybe the oldest man in the room.  I may also have been the only anglo man.  The sound system was state of the art, and the music coming out of it impeccably produced — the hi fi delivered these sensational dance songs in Spanish with a hyper Latin beat, the likes I never heard before and I loved it.  The songs got faster, more people got up and danced, and a song came on everybody recognized and everybody got up to dance, so I got up and danced too.

It was a woman singer with a voice of authority and conviction, and the chorus went Estoy aqui!  It’s imprinted in my memory because so many of the clubbers sang along as if it were their anthem, and I knew enough high school Spanish to know what it meant, I am here!  And it seemed so appropriate to me a rum and coke and a half into dancing alone with a club full of young Latinx closing down the club.  The song ripped into its final verse then chorus and confetti and balloons dropped from the ceiling.  Dancers raised their arms to catch the confetti and stomped the balloons as they danced and chanted.  To me the words of this song sounded like she was singing, Estoy aqui en creme brulee, which is not right but that’s how I tried to remember it.  I had never seen one song incite and impassion a whole room of people that way before.  When it ended most people picked up their jackets, purses and belongings and meandered out.  The sound system played a slow dance and a few couples lingered, collapsed together on the dance floor.  I knocked down my remaining rum and coke.  Tried to get another but the guy — same guy as the guy at the door — said I missed last call.  The end of this slow dance was the last dance.  Time to go.  I came away thankful I somehow found an authentic Mexican experience.

Back at the DoubleTree I whispered to Roxanne, “Estoy aqui.  Daddy’s home.”


About ten years later I was browsing the CD racks at Target at a place called Eden Prairie.  Roxanne went all the way to Eden Prairie to get her hair cut and styled by our niece Kelly Kelly.  To both me and Roxanne the Eden Prairie mall by freeway from Minneapolis is located in the Bermuda Triangle of suburban mapping.  We travel together to help each other navigate, and it seems we never seem to find the mall the same route twice in a row, much less the way out to drive home on the first try.  But Roxanne likes to support family, and niece Kelly Kelly has a flair for comb and scissors, so every month or so Roxanne made the effort to get her hair cut at Eden Prairie, and I would browse the mall.  One day at Target, waiting for Roxanne, I felt inclined to find some music.

Specifically some Latin rock.  This was maybe a dozen or so years ago, back when CDs were still mass merchandised, and at the time Target stocked a Latin section, even such an anglo market as Eden Prairie.  I just didn’t know what to buy.  After Cancun and then Punta Cana and a bunch of stays at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo I developed almost a craving for Latin music and was trying to find artists beyond Gloria Estefan and Juan Secada.  I bought a couple of hits anthologies, and they were interesting, some catchy, but not as good.  I lucked into Duo Guardabarranco and a kickass Mexican R&B band called Inspector, but mostly things I picked left me discouraged, as if my benchmark expectations might be too extravagant.  Ricky Martin seemed inauthentic.  Marc Anthony failed to inspire.  I tried the original Selena (not Gomez) but couldn’t fathom why she was supposedly so popular.

At Target that day, not just in the Latin section but across the whole pop CD section they were promoting a two-CD package deal from a singer named Shakira for only $12.99, Fijacion Oral vol 1 and Oral Fixation vol 2, with a DVD video included.  It was packaged like a boxed set.  One side, vol 1, against a vermilion background a radiant blond woman with luminescent skin in a white lace wedding dress holds a baby pulling at her necklace.  On the other side, vol 2, a tanned muscular naked woman with her private parts obscured by a tree and a vine holds an apple in her hand in an athletic stance rather like Michelangelo’s David, and looking down from the boughs of the tree is not a serpent but another little baby — maybe the same baby as the cover of vol 1, maybe not, even the two Shakiras don’t quite resemble the same woman, which made me briefly consider Shakira might not be the name of a person but a band or orchestra.  I had never heard of this Shakira.

At $12.99 it seemed a clearance price, which made me the more suspicious, but I bought the package anyway.  Almost reluctantly I played it a few days later, alone in my loft on the big stereo, time I reserved to catch up on my correspondence.  Vol 1, from the top, volume lower than average in case what I heard sounded sour.

Stop!  What is this?  Turn it up and start over.  The song starts as if in mid conversation, like a high school girls choir singing in French.  Acoustic guitar strings guide a narrative, now Spanish, in a voice vaguely familiar and infinitely unique.  The song progresses as this beautiful voice torches the heart and falls back knowingly wistful, and it doesn’t matter I don’t understand most of the lyrics, something beguiled me to trust her voice, the most beautiful voice on the planet.

Gradually I upped the volume on the old Utah speakers.  Her voice song to song carried each progressive melody, she the lead instrument within a band impeccably arranged and exquisitely produced.  The album was a wonder to listen to.  The third song had me in tears.  A duet with some guy named Alejandro Sanz, call and response, imploring and rebuke, it was the best Latin rock and roll song I ever heard.  And I couldn’t understand the words.  It was all music, the voices, instruments in the band.  What a frikken band, I thought.  And wept.  I played track 3 again just to be sure I wasn’t halucinating.

She sang, “Ay amor…”

It was the most beautiful album I ever heard in ages.  Executive produced by Rick Rubin, who I later learned was a recording maestro at Columbia records.  Better than Moondance.  Better than Silk Degrees or Songs of Love and Hate or Layla and Other Love Songs, Tea For the Tillerman or Court and Spark.  It approached A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul.  An exquisite recording.

The first three songs celebrated new love, lamented lost love, and said good bye to love unreliable and unfulfilled.  One called “Dia Especial” was guitar band like the early Beatles, I could imagine Shakira with an electric guitar and singing into the mic wearing wraparound shades, both Lennon and McCartney.  The song “No” — about halfway through the CD — she escorts you to the seams of depression, an aria so full of pity Gene Pitney would have cried.  Then next she’s smirking and teasing with another rocked-up disco dance piece about las mujeres son las de la intuicion.  Next thing it’s the voice of innocence and barefoot naivete.  She rips into the blues on a song she calls “Lo Imprescindible” which I think of as Bleibe, Baby Bleibe, Baby, so eurotech and nasty, so persuasive and commandeering.  Then the disc ends with a reprise of the second song, titled “La Pared Acoustica”, a version accompanied only by her pianist, and in Spanish the torch of her voice could be a cello, a string quartet of instruments.  I was beginning to believe Shakira could sing more than one note at the same time.  The album closed with a different version of my favorite, track 3, “La Tortura” (the torture), remixed without the duet with the Alejandro guy and stripped of the band, instead set to the beat of a techno military march.

Oral Fixation vol 2 was in English and I compared the contents to see if maybe it might be a straight translation of vol 1, but it was not.  Actually “Dia Especial” turns up as “The Day and the Time”, and the enticing, enchanting opening track of vol 1, “En Tus Pupilas” which opens so abruptly like you’ve happened into a conversation among a high school girls choir, finally shows up as the 11th track of 12, called “Something”.  And a reprise of “La Turtura” with an English dub of a few lines is the bonus track.  All these match the Spanish ones on vol 1 note for note.

The rest of vol 2 is fresh and includes the one hit single by which she is mostly known, “Hips Don’t Lie”.  In English her lyrics challenged the sanctity of her own voice.  There was no excuse to pay no attention to the story, and if the story didn’t add up there were no Spanish poetics to bail her out.  “Illegal” yearns for romantic truth and justice — “It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart” — guided by aching guitar interludes by Carlos Santana.  “Don’t Bother” is as American hard rock as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Songs mock show business, reminisce old times (when she was, what, 20?) and call out God.  The album ends, not counting the bonus track, with a rousing dance beat anthem accompanied by a children’s choir about political attitudes and references to the 2004 tsunami that hit East Timor — “What about the people who don’t matter anymore…”

Who is this Shakira?  How did anybody this good get past me?

I asked around.  People laughed.  Seriously?  Either people knew nothing or said she was a jailbait tart singer like a latter day Andrea True, like she’d be a Stormy Daniels with a record contract in her day.  My son Vincent didn’t respect her because she was a product of the starmaker machine.  Daughter Michel cringed to think “Underneath Your Clothes” might get introduced to her baby girl Clara on grandpa’s stereo — I didn’t even know what that song was until I researched Shakira’s backlist.

I’ve had crushes on female singers since I was 13 with Dionne Warwick and Mary Travers.  There’s been Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Dido, Carole King, Dusty Springfield, the Heart sisters, Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Delores O’Riordan, Stevie Nicks, Kim Carnes, Sarah McLachlan, Gloria Estefan, Om Kolthoum, Jennifer Warnes, Enya and Roberta Flack, and over time each more or less broke my heart and moved on, all except maybe Bonnie Raitt.  After Shakira came Neko Case, Adele and Lady Gaga.  Be it said Buffalo Kelly crushes deep with female vocals, and it was hard for me to accept Shakira existed without my knowing, even conceding I hadn’t listened to Top 40 radio since about 1987.

It was a meager trail.  At Target in the S section of pop/rock CDs I found Laundry Service, her first album sung in English, released 2001.  I was looking for Pies Descalzos, 1995, and Donde Estan los Ladrones? from 1998, Shakira’s earliest available work, and I found them along with Grandes Exitos (greatest hits) in a Latin CD and video shop on E Lake St.  I now had enough Shakira going back enough time to convince me if she’s for real.  Or not.  Her body of work was already a dozen years old, she had a greatest hits anthology already and I just learned she existed.  “Hips Don’t Lie” was already an oldie.  As they say in Spanish, Ya!

First of all I learned she is not Mexican.  She’s from Colombia.  I saw pictures of her as a young teenager, hair all teased and frizzed with lopsided ponies, black lace scrunchies and wristies like Madonna’s “Borderline” and “Lucky Star”.  The cover of her first album, Pies Descalzos (bare feet), is simple and austere.  Sepia tone photos suggest a long haired hippie girl in bell bottoms and peasant blouse, barefoot with acoustic guitar.  Her expression is moody, petulant perhaps.  She was 18.

This is the album of “Estoy Aqui”, the anthem of the dance club at Cancun, and listening to it again was a solemn formality to confirm what I thought I remembered.  Still, I listened through the whole album and decided she wanted to debut a folk singer.  I promised to revisit.

The second album, called Donde Estan los Ladrones? (where are the thieves?) presented a problematic album cover of Shakira in tight long sleeve leotard with her face very angry while her eyes spark, her dark hair in dreadlocks and her hands filthy with dark tarry oil.  Now she’s 21.  Her band sounds fantastic.  Like Descalzos, Ladrones is all Spanish, so again her voice is the band’s lead instrument, no lyrics to distract.  Measured to Fijacion Oral it was delight to listen to Ladrones end to end.  It was a Blood on the TracksDeja Vu (CSNY).  From the first track, “Ciega, Sordomuda” (blind, deafmute), a mariachi vaquera caballera anthem, through “Ojos Asi” (eyes like yours), a Latin Arabian rocker with power chords so sharp they slice your ears, the album astonishes.

A power ballad called “Tu” breaks your heart with a melody so familiar it’s like you heard it Americanized on a country western jukebox but you just can’t place how.

Reading up on Shakira there’s a story about her instruments and notebooks getting stolen from the Bogota airport ahead of recording this album, setting her back to start over from memory with the songs.  I guess this might be why she looks so depressed on the back cover.

One song on this album convinced me beyond any doubt Shakira was for real.  “Sombra de Ti” (shadow of you).  It’s a tender torch song rendered as if backed by a trio on a sultry corner stage in a steamy cellar club of lovelorn expats.  The song, buried deep as an afterthought, second to last track, a simple moody testament in whispers and full throat anguish, spare accompaniment, proved to me she was a genuine authentic singer songwriter.  No starmaker machine could ever manufacture such a voice.

I realized I was late by ten years.  Four albums — five if you count Fijacion Oral/Oral Fixation vol 1 and 2 separately — six if you count her Grandes Exitos.  In her early 20s she already had a greatest hits anthology which predated the releases of Fijacion Oral (which included “Sombra de Ti”, so somebody noticed) and “Tu”, and I learned later, she won some Grammy awards.  Not so odd, even the Rolling Stones had a greatest hits anthology (High Tide and Green Grass) a mere three years into their career.  Matter of fact, at the time I found Shakira music I really didn’t have any fresh hobbies, so I devoted some spare time looking her up as I kept replaying her songs.  I came to Laundry Service deliberately in chronological order.


It came out in November 2001, about three years after Ladrones and six since Pies DescazosLaundry Service was designed as a glam album.  On the cover cute face close up Shakira is blond and curly with a tattoo on her naked shoulder that reads the title of the album.  The music inside verges on classic rock.  This album, like Ladrones, was produced by Emilio Estefan, the Miami Sound Machine.  It was Shakira’s first releases in English.

Still, some of the best work on the album is in Spanish, and that I guess will ever be so.  Even songs she sings in both languages seem to sound a little better en espanol, maybe because they sound exotic to my anglo ears and I wonder if there are clues to hidden meanings within idioms I need to listen to over and over to understand.  Her band picks up right off Ladrones in its exploration of Latin rock and roll.  “Objection Tango” (or “Te Aviso, Te Anuncio” the Spanish version) rips into the traditional Latin dance vocabulary, rocked up fast like a wedding reception band with Shakira nonstop pleading and scolding breathlessly.  “Whenever, Wherever” (called “Suerte”, lucky in the Spanish version) is a word for word translation, I have found, and in the right markets could have been a big radio hit.  It goes, “Whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together, I’ll be here and you’ll be near, and that’s the deal, my dear.”  And then she sings, in both versions, “Le lo la le lo le,” whatever that means — it just sounds so cool, folk rock with an Andean flute, super cute.  Among the Spanish songs not redone in translation is a kickass rocker called “Te Dejo Madrid” that captures the band’s incorruptibility.  Indeed, like “Tu” from the album before, a ballad called “Underneath Your Clothes” clearly crosses over into country pop radio as she sings of possessive entitlement to her lover’s body.

There’s a lot of sensuality to the album, but it could be expected.  It was the new millennium and she was a pretty girl of 24.  I looked for evidence of integrity.  I wanted to know if the star machine corrupted Shakira.

alternate album cover

Who is she?

Born 2 February, 1977 in Barranquilla, Colombia, Shakira Mebarak.  Shakira means thankful in Arabic.  Her father was of Lebanese descent, which may explain why her name is spelled with a K instead of Shaquira.  The family seems to have been fairly well off.  They moved to Bogota, the capital city, when she was a child.  Her father was a jeweler.  A story tells that when Shakira was a little girl her father brought her to a place in el centro, downtown Bogota, to show her crowds of beggars, homeless people and barefoot children, and he told her to look at all their faces and always remember she had the grace of privilege and to be ever mindful of these who were not so gifted and be grateful for what she had.  From the success of her first album and the single “Estoy Aqui” she established Fundacion Pies Descalzos, Barefoot Foundation, an NGO charity devoted to building schools and providing nutrition for children of poverty in Colombia.  She was named a United Nations goodwill ambassador to UNICEF to promote political initiatives to end no access to education.  US President Barack Obama named her to an advisory commission on educational excellence.

For a little while late at night on weekends on TV when the ad rates were low the local stations would run a black and white PSA (public service announcement) of Shakira in jeans and a chambray shirt representing a charity soliciting funds for an international effort to feed children so they would be nutritionally fit to learn in school.


There used to be a Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Minneapolis (it’s now at Mall of America) and one time my employer held a quarterly rally there, and I was disappointed (but not surprised) there was no Shakira memorabilia displayed.  (The collection understandably was heavy with stuff from Prince.  There was, however, a garter belt from Madonna.)  I was surprised when I inquired, however, to be led to the gift shop by one of the servers where there were t-shirts for sale designed by rockers like Bono with proceeds going to UNICEF.  There was a black shirt designed by Shakira with a pink guitar with white angel wings.  The inventory tag called it number 23.  I bought the smallest one they had and gave it to my three year old grandchild Clara.  It was big as a dress.  Today she’s 13 and has passed it on to her sister Tess, who is 10.

I am disappointed Shakira was skipped off U2’s concert tour montage of women they call Herstory.

Autumn 2001 was not a good time to release a glam rock album unless it was a remastered remix of Sophie Tucker — Kate Smith, I mean, just kidding — belting out “God Bless America”.  9-11 jinxed all civilized psyches.  It rendered all social contracts absurd.  Everybody revealed the plain truth about ourselves, none of us are to be trusted in this world.

Even so, a pretty blond of 23 with an Arabic name had one of the top ten most popular songs in America going towards Christmas that year nobody likes to remember.  “Whenever, Wherever” got as high as number 6.  It’s possible Shakira sang at that year’s local KDWB Clear Channel Radio Jingle Ball, I wouldn’t have known or cared about American Top 40 radio at that time.  These were serious times.

A war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, possibly Iran and more than likely against Saddam Hussein seemed as likely as any pathway to the end of the world.  I was 50 years old that year.  Not a Top 40 demographic.  Almost too cynical to hear Springsteen’s call, “Come on up for The Risin’…”  Deaf to Shakira singing, “I’m ready for the good times…”

My bad.  When I finally heard Laundry Service it was about six years late.  Some of the songs seemed quaint and canned like Pepsi.  Even the best songs hark back to pre-Fijacion production values like vintage retro records.  Laundry like Ladrones was produced by Emilio Estefan.  Track 11 (of 13) is in fact “Ojos Asi” note for note from the Ladrones album except sung in English as “Eyes Like Yours”, including the cryptic electric violin and Egyptian surfer guitar power chords so sharp they slice your ears.

“Ojos Asi/Eyes Like Yours” turned out to be Shakira’s very first bellydance song.  I learned this about ten years ago when I special ordered a video DVD at my favorite music store the Electric Fetus, “Shakira MTV Unplugged”.  It’s a quality video stage studio performance of essentially the album Donde Estan los Ladrones with some “Estoy Aqui” thrown in.  She wears jeans and a jersey like her cover for Ladrones but her hair is loose, brown, no longer in dreads.  Hardly any make up.  She plays a blue acoustic guitar sitting in with the guys on “Antologia”.  For the grand finale she belts up a chain of bangles and jangles around her hips and the band goes into the Arabian intro and surfer guitars and Shakira bellydances into “Ojos Asi” power chords and electric violin and all, bangles jangling around the hips of her jeans.  When it was done the studio audience applauded and cheered and Shakira stood there looking around the set with the look of somebody who realizes a dream.  It is not a smug look.  It’s a naive look of wonder at being a place you always wanted to be.

Philadelphia music writer Tom Moon included Donde Estan los Ladrones in his book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (2008) and in correspondence with him about Shakira’s legitimacy as a rock artist, we differed on the merits of the Oral Fixation albums for consideration among 1,000.  He thought it was overproduced, too souped-up.  I thought she was using all available engineering tools.  He also thought “Toxic” by Britney Spears was the greatest song ever recorded, whereas I stand by “La Tortura”.  Maybe he had a thing against Rick Rubin.  Tom Moon did acknowledge as if it was a warning, Shakira is swimming in deep water.


The Oral Fixation albums engendered a world tour, and a concert video recorded in Miami came out in 2007, which means I first saw it in maybe early 2009 — catching up to real time.  It seemed a great leap from MTV unplugged to an American arena concert.  Again the production values don’t disappoint.  The band fills the room.  The voice of Shakira resonates and reverberates every note and phrase.  It’s obvious she never lip-syncs or employs autotune.  The cameras bring the visual dimension from an excellent audio performance anthology recording.  You can see her face grimace and smile.  Her eyes dash.  She dances around the stage with the microphone like she’s compelled to be multiple places at once, but the thing is she doesn’t have to, she can stand still five seconds and still make everybody watch every move, to read her lips, see her eyes look at the audience, pump her fist to the bass and the drums.

The audience knows the words and they sing to her phrases like le lo le le lo le.  There are thousands at this Miami arena.  Mostly women, mostly young, mostly Latina.  The video’s so good I wish I was there.  She does a lot of her early stuff in Spanish and the crowd roars its recognition.  Usually I take a pass at most live recordings because they usually don’t match the studio musicianship, it’s not a worthy example of the artist in person, doesn’t offer a prize outtake or rare performance, or only serve as vanity plaques with lengthy applauses.  There are exceptions, of course, from the Allman Brothers to the Little River Band, and Shakira’s live recordings are exceptional, even when the crowd intervenes.

I remember Jon Landau’s famous words, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”  I want to trust Shakira with the future of rock and roll.  In the words of her song “Dia Especial”, “Quiero creer” — I want to believe.

It’s the video that woke me up realizing rock and roll ain’t all audio anymore.  Hearing is what I’m seeing.  Shakira is a strikingly beautiful young woman putting herself out there deliberately, sensually, sexually.

Before the #MeToo movement and the Man Up doctrine came along the sensual dichotomy was hard enough to navigate but it’s no easier.  Shakira may draw from Arabian culture or even genetics but she appears to be no Muslim.  She likes to show her tummy.  Bare arms and legs, oh yes.  Hair.  A free woman of the 21st Century, these are her prerogatives.  I look at her early images, album covers, the MTV Unplugged video, modest and naive, and then the glam blows up, there’s pyrotechnics in the arena and the lady offers herself all of a sudden as a sexy babe of desire and passion and a reasonable man has to stop and ask who is getting played here, me or she?

I’m having Camille Paglia momentos overthinking the sensuality and sexuality of art, worrying about object vis a vis subject and who may be victimized, who’s zooming who.  Catching up with Shakira’s videos after Laundry Service did not make me worry she was being exploited by a cartel of ruthless pornographers.  She looked like she was having too much fun.  She looked like she was boss.  I think I read about Donna Summer, that she was somewhat held hostage part of her career, forced to sing bad girl naughty songs to make money in the disco days.  I looked and above all listened for any hint Shakira might be acting out with a gun to her head, but there was no other force to blame than a young woman proudly flaunting her sexy.

As I recall there was once a photo book of Madonna hitch-hiking along a New York throughway wearing no pants.  At all.

Shakira’s questionably inappropriate behavior is almost quaint by comparison, piquant.  Never nude, always implying nakedness.  Bawdy dancing.  Lewd and lascivious gyrations.  Bobbing her tiny pechas.  Flirting piteously.  All the while singing.  All the while possessed of grace.  She loves to slow down a concert to sing “Underneath Your Clothes”.  It’s a ballad about possession of a lover’s body, in her words, “all the things I deserve for being such a good girl…”

I could see my daughter Michel’s uneasiness with my exposing Shakira videos to Clara and Tess.  Some scenes are not appropriate for children, boys or girls.  I respect Michel’s wishes not to grow her children up too fast or too soon.  I let Michel grow up at her own speed.  I was not strict and I also never made her wear a hijab.

I was introduced to belly dances and the voice of Om Kolthoum in the 1970s by a friend of my family, Azzam Sabri, an  entrepreneur of Palestinian descent who established a middle eastern restaurant in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, where the Oblivion record shop used to be, next door to Theater in the Round.  He featured live belly dancing three nights a week.  Cannot remember the restaurant’s name, but it burned down in the late 80s.  He never reopened.  Too bad, the food was delicious.

Shakira’s Oral Fixation video offers not one but two bellydance songs, both “Ojos Asi”, the concert closer, and “Hips Don’t Lie”, the encore and grand finale.  She is dressed in arabesque silks, full regalia, like one of Azzam’s dancers.  In some ways she has come a long way from MTV Unplugged, and some ways not really, there is something very essential, fluid and organic about her moves, a confidence that only comes from enduring devotion to something.  I’ve read she took up the bellydance as a young child, about the age my grandkids took up gymnastics.  On the video Shakira entrances the screen in the interlude of electric violin, breaking the trance for the final chorus and electric guitars.  The encore reintroduces Shakira in her skimpy silks — Shakira, Shakira — with trumpets and tributes by special guest Wyclef Jean, who banters lyrics with her about the CIA and how refugees — Fugees — run the seas because they own their own boats.  The show and the song ends with “No fighting, no fighting.”

I really truly wished I was there.

I wrote fan letters.  I asked questions like what inspired the lyrics “le lo lo le lo le” and how she might describe her process of creative flow, her ten thousand hours of practice.  To me she was a genius like Springsteen or Prince.  She was the most beautiful voice on the planet, and I told her so.  I said she didn’t have to prove she was sexy.  I said I was worried she might end up a Las Vegas porno cliche.  I caught myself on the verge of almost committing stalking, the guy in the Smithereens song “Wall of Sleep” rationalizing his obsession with the woman in the band who played bass like Bill Wyman only he’s not like them, all the other fans.  I wanted to protect Shakira, be her grandfather.

Was she influenced by Pablo Neruda, Federico Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Carver, Leonard Cohen?  Isabel Allende?  Let it be said, the subject did not make herself available for an interview for this essay.  I thanked her for the joy her music gave me, and for the Spanish lessons.  She never answered, not with letters.  I would mail them to her talent agency.  I tried to be transparent and sincere, disclosed I was an awkward older married man, grandfather of girls, not trying to hit on her at all, just a fan profoundly affected by her work, that’s all.  Some letters I wrote longhand.  I kept asking her to play a concert in Minneapolis-St Paul.  She never replied.  That’s okay.  I understand.  Textbook case is what happened to a crush on Jodie Foster.  With me and Shakira it’s like if Larry David had a crush on my daughter.  Who do I think I am, Arthur Miller?  Henry Miller?

Call me Abuelo Don Miguel de Cuchichear.


One summer I came home after a gorgeous time at a cabin way up north at the boundary waters wilderness to learn while I was gone Shakira played a private show in Minneapolis for an audience of certain selected employees of Target Corporation, whose world headquarters are located here.  Not only first I was bummed I wasn’t around and knew in advance so I could find someone I knew who worked for Target who could get me into that show — the boundary waters are always there for me but seeing Shakira sing live was like a comet, at least the aurora borealis — and then I realized I really didn’t know anybody who knew anybody who worked for Target — then stories about the show came out in the media describing some reactions from the audience to Shakira’s lewd and lascivious dancing.  And it was not the bellydances.

Shakira’s label Epic records released the album She Wolf.  Target offered a deluxe edition CD featuring six bonus tracks and a yellow album cover, not green and just four bonus tracks you get at other stores.  Word went around Shakira squirmed on the floor like a slut dancing to the title song at the Target show, according to attendees who said they were offended by the show and Shakira’s writhing She Wolf dance.  Disgusting.  Voices suggested Target sever its ties to this product.  The video for the song didn’t help, reviews hyping the pink vaginality of the imagery of Shakira getting all slinky to the new song.  Critics got after her for pushing the limits of free speech, drawing undue attention to the boundaries of censorship, now several years past Janet Jackson’s wardrobe.  Free speech won in the end along with the invisible hand of the marketplace because She Wolf was a music epiphany.

On the album her big band downsized morphed into a small island synth acoustic jam.  Her lyrics chased after images of corridors and windows, sabotage and wishes of revenge.  A suicide waiting, then gibberish.  Lycanthropy and lunar cycles.  “Mirala, caminar, caminar.”  It’s a sober and stripped down album, almost unfinished.  The cover shows Shakira in a hands on hips stance, hair all tangled, her face all mad.  Like angry mad.  Like crazy mad.  Like maybe what she later called “Rabiosa”.  She’s wearing a sleeveless snake print dress and her eyes say she’s the boss.  La Jefe.

The graphics of the back cover suggest blunt force trauma.  The music barely exceeds the fundamentals.  Fade out endings give songs inconclusion.  Bonus tracks amount to live alternate versions or Spanish versions.  Again Shakira’s voice proves sometimes the Spanish versions are the best because the words don’t intervene.  On this album she again duets with Wyclef Jean and also collaborates with Kid Cudi.  Then Lil Wayne crashes the scene and does Shakira no favors with his creepy rap.  Oh well.

Still no concert in Minneapolis or St Paul.  Saw her on SNL hosted by Ricky Gervais.  Wore black long leotards and her hair tight in a pony.  She did three songs, including “She Wolf”.  Didn’t seem that lewd to me.  Did the very song Lil Wayne wrecked only without Lil Wayne.  Saw her on David Letterman backed by Paul Shaffer, a simple drum and bass dance to “Why Wait?”, in Spanish sung as “Anos Luz” (light years).  No Shakira on my local radio though.  I did hear “She Wolf” one time on the streaming soundtrack at a local Walgreens.  The CDs seemed to be selling down when I checked at Target.  $9.99!

For Barack Obama’s first inauguration Shakira performed at the Lincoln Memorial.  Wanda Sykes saw her and commented to Jay Leno, “Shakira sings.  Who knew?”

Browsing at Best Buy when Best Buy stocked rows and rows of CDs I found a Shakira live album from just after the Laundry Service era called Live And Off The Record recorded at a concert at Rotterdam, Netherlands.  Included for $5.99 was a DVD of the show, subtitled Cobra and Mongoose.  Again the audio is exceptional and brings out just what an exquisite band backs up her gorgeous voice.  What makes this performance oddly remarkable for the Shakira canon is the exact repertoire.  Like Miami it’s an arena concert, albeit in Europe.  Recorded before the Fixation era, there’s no Tortura and no Hips.  It’s all material from the first three albums.  She opens with the Arabian “Ojos Asi” and that’s it for the bellydance.  She closes with “Objection Tango” and encores with a grand finale of “Whenever, Wherever” — le lo lo le lo le.  Two songs elevate this show beyond excellent documentary.  One is from the Ladrones album, called “Octavo Dia”, here rendered not unplugged but plugged in.  In Spanish it’s about what God did the eighth day, the day after the seventh day of Genesis.

The other song from this concert is a significant recording from Shakira’s career for several reasons establishing her bona fide standing for the rock and roll hall of fame.  It’s a song with searing critical lyrics from the Laundry album I passed off as the band sounding canned and the words just snide and clever.  It’s called “Poem To A Horse” and it makes no allowance for a horse’s literary comprehension.  First of all, on this concert album the band courses into the intro hard and heavy from a surprise buildup and goes almost heavy metal.  Her voice is calm and fluffy, then wicked and accusatory.  She calls out her boyfriend for having an empty brain on hydroponic pot.

“So what’s the point of wasting all my words,” she sings, “it’s just the same or even worse than reading poems to a horse.”  Her attitude gets more and more nasty.  “I hope you find someone like you, there’s a foot for every shoe,” and as she sings the word shoe she makes her voice like she’s kicking someone’s tailbone, “I wish you luck but I’ve got other things to do.”  And at her bluesiest grittiest, a preview of bleibe, baby bleibe, baby, she belts out her chorus, “I’ll leave again ’cause I’ve been waiting in vain, but you’re so in love with yourself.  If I say my heart is sore it’s just a cheap metaphor, so I won’t repeat it no more,” bad grammar and all.

And then she screams the most wailingest rock and roll scream in the universe.  Her scream by itself could qualify for the hall of fame.  But the third thing besides the lyrics and the scream that sets this song off from anything else Shakira and this band have done is the guitar solo that ensues from Timothy Mitchell, a torturous, arduous treacherous hard rock stanza shredding the air.  And if you are listening to all this on speakers or headphones you might think this is glory, but if you’re watching the video you see Shakira dancing to the guitar solo, writhing on the stage, squirming in her lacy leather chaps and halter top, the fourth reason this concert recording is important, she’s inventing the She Wolf dance.

When she started out she wanted to be a folk singer like maybe Om Kolthoum, the Egyptian superstar.  Soon she wanted to be a dancer like Isadora Duncan or Josephine Baker.  All I asked was someday Shakira might play Minneapolis-St Paul.  In 2010 she released a single called “Waka Waka”, the theme song of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa that year, but it got no airplay in the Twin Cities.  We weren’t that kind of football town I guess.

Then when I wasn’t looking she released an album called Sale el Sol.  “Cuando menos piensas, sale el sol.”  When least you think, out comes the sun.  Mostly Spanish, the album was a delight.  Strong songs.  Tough songs.  Songs tender as butterflies.  Dance songs.  Escape songs.  Rock songs.  Songs sexy and pink.  The band is back!  Every track could be a hit single.  But not in my home town — no airplay.  I found the CD by surprise on an endcap at Target — $9.99!  It featured collaborations and duets with Latin hip-hoppers and the future Pitbull.  We almost could have seen her in Dublin when we were there September 2010 — she sang there December 16, near my birthday.  Roxanne and I considered getting tickets and flying down to see her world tour concert in Costa Rica, but that spring Roxanne needed surgery for an ovarian cyst.  It was benign.  It paused our travel plans and rebooted our world.

It’s not that I forgot about Shakira after that because I couldn’t.  Life had given me too many mementos.  All those CDs, DVDs and MP3 recordings.  Lyrics and translations.  Sparkles and Kitty, my singing grandkids knew her songs by heart.  In Mexico they play her songs on the radio, at bodegas, tiendas and cantinas, in taxis and at the hotel swimming pool.  In Europe, not surprising after seeing her audience reception in Rotterdam, we occasionally heard Shakira songs on the radio, streaming at cafes and train stations, airports, even overflowing from iPod earbuds, when Roxanne and I went over there to visit the kids living in Switzerland.  Once in a while she might make a guest shot on TV — sing “Gypsy” with Rascal Flatts, make a cameo on Disney or “Ugly Betty”, or shiver through an awkward, demeaning “Santa Baby” on new year’s eve from Times Square.  Along with a boodle of other artists she contributed to the Haiti benefit telethon in response to the devastating earthquake with a song of steadfast loyalty backed by the Roots, an anthem respectfully parodized to this day in a Flo advert for Progressive Insurance.

Shakira popped up in Paris on kiosks on Rue St Michel showing her happy tummy promoting yogurt.  In the Sunday supplement her smile promoted tooth whitening products.  She made the cover of Cosmo —  white lace, this time Stella McCartney.  Her stint as a coach on The Voice on NBC didn’t add to her credibility despite host Ryan Seacrest’s assurance her IQ was above 140.  This was not the Shakira who verbally sparred with Dave Letterman.  It was hard to watch.  She was an awkward coach.  Her protege who made it to the semifinals determined herself to go down paying respect to Aretha Franklin.  Tepid, rote homage to the Queen of Soul in critical competition might have satisfied her family but showed off no originality.  I wished Shakira would have made her sing Bleibe Baby Bleibe Baby, full tilt boogie with the NBC orchestra, “Lo Imprescindible”, in Spanish (and German, the one word bleibe, stay) full throated, and let her still wear her chosen gown, not that Shakira’s kid had a chance in the blond-blue-eyed country-centric milieu anyway, but at least the kid would have gone down singing something unique even if ultimately in flames.  It was embarrassing to watch Shakira demoted from coach to cheerleader for the finals.

Again browsing CDs at Target I found without advance notice the CD/DVD Shakira made of the tour for Sale el Sol.  Titled En Vivo Desde Paris it’s recorded live at Le Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in mid June 2011.  Still in stunning voice she brings forward her old stuff (but not “Estoy Aqui”) woven among the She Wolf era and dyed or bleached within songs from El Sol.  It’s a milestone for Shakira because she’s 33 years old and as she proclaims in the intro to the song “Loca” it’s Dance or Die.  The band never better, they give the heavy metal approach to “Why Wait” (Anos Luz) and the hard rock treatment to disco “Las De La Intuicion”.  She holds the classic long note of “Inevitable”.  She gets two bellydances with “Ojos Asi” and “Hips”, delivers a slinky writhing “She Wolf” dance, and dances rapido through “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Gordita”, sitting or standing relatively still torching her ballads, “Underneath Your Clothes” and “Antes De La Seis”, she knows when to move and when to rest.  She gets the Parisians to sing along.  Out of nowhere she covers Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and the audience all knows the words, and the she’s off dancing again, Flamenco this time, making it a medley with her moaning “Despedida” (from the soundtrack of the movie of Love in the Time of Cholera, it means farewell).  Later she gets them going in French with a cover of frenchman Francis Cabrel’s “Je L’Aime A Mourir” (I love her to death).  She closes with Hips.  “Waka Waka” is the grand finale encore.

Her birthday is the 2nd of February.  I remember that because it’s alongside Roxanne’s birthday and we are always in Mexico.  Shakira is a year older than our daughter Michel.  They do not celebrate Shakira’s birthday in Mexico but they celebrate Roxanne’s.  Shakira shares her birthday with Groundhog’s Day, the North America six week mark towards the end of winter, or if you are Bill Murray a day of deja vu all over again.  I’ll usually drink a Modelo oscura under the palapa and toast the weird chick from Barranquilla on the far side of the Panama Canal who was exiled by the nuns from her grade school choir for singing too loud.  Kids made fun of her voice, said she sang like a goat.

Thankful for all the songs and all the video history, it would seem this wise old grandfather might mosey along and let the girl be.  She made it clear early on she was ready for the good times.  She wasn’t passing up the good stuff.  She knew what she’s gotten into.  Way back with “Estoy Aqui” she sings about the photos, notebooks and memories.  She is la jefe, la loba.  It’s not for me to worry about her legacy.  Cyndi Lauper got it right, girls just want to have fun.

Coming from a macho culture, striving in a male dominated business, outside her songs you never heard Shakira complain or dodge responsibility.  One of the best songs on the She Wolf album is called “Lo Hecho Esta Hecho” (it is what I made) or sung in English “Did It Again” that speaks to patterns of mistakes.  On the same album on “Men In This Town” she wails, where are all the men in the LA skybars who are not hustling projects?  “It’s a suicide waiting, yo no se.”  On the Laundry Service album she sang about seeing nine-legged cats.  On Oral Fixation vol 2 it was “Animal City”.  Even before the hindsight of the #MeToo and the Man Up, I watched after Shakira’s career, worried if she got harassed or victimized because she asked for it.  Swimming in deep water.

I admire her so much I am hypersensitive to any scent of scandal.  And it’s weird to see yourself awestruck by a person you will never really know, who will never know you, and even so share tangible, fungible insights and experiences.

Shakira has influenced a generation of female singers like Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Rachel Platten, Adele, Meghan Trainor, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, and nobody gives Shakira any credit.  No acknowlegement.  See Reese Witherspoon on the cover of Elle magazine, February 2012, she’s the She Wolf album cover only nice faced, deja vu all over again, unattributed.  Even contemporary Jennifer Lopez owes thanks for creating for her a template to find relevancy on the Top 40 and TV at such and such an age.


I think the more I liked Shakira the less I wanted to know about her, like she’d given so much to me the best I could return (besides the $9.99s) was her own privacy.  I’ve never joined her fan club or registered at her website.  Maybe I’m being agoraphobic.  I’m not a joiner usually.  Thus like an accidental tourist I catch news about her in random bits and pieces like a fleeting horoscope or a burst of I Ching.  After the Sale El Sol tour I heard she mused about having children.  I thought, oh great, she’ll retire and take care of her kids and never go on tour again, never come to Minneapolis-St Paul.  And why bother?  Shakira was modern day grown up Infanta Margarita of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” just the way Picasso saw she would be.  It turned out she had boys, two of them in  a succession of years, with her man Gerard Pique, a futbol star of Europe who plays center-back for Barcelona’s professional team and also played for Spain’s national World Cup teams.  The ultimate soccer wife and mom.  Her sons are named Milan and Sasha.

A little while after she left the Voice show she released an album named after herself.  Shakira.  She got a new talent agency, Roc Nation, and a new record label.  She went from Epic records, label of Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, the Hollies, the Yardbirds, Dave Clark Five, to the label of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Hall and Oates, RCA Victor.  What it really means has to be totally symbolic because she’s still distributed by Sony.  This all means Shakira doesn’t politically correctly qualify in the music world as “indie”, or independent.  She’s all establishment now.  It’s the music business.  She’s part of the starmaker machine.

So in the market where I live she gets no airplay on the hot hits radio because she has no name recognition, no fan base.  There are a lot of Latin people in the market but no Latin radio.  The hipster radio stations don’t consider Shakira serious music but rather like a novelty act, Latin Ke$ha.  Indie rock stations, classic rock, alternative folk rock and current rock stations don’t consider Shakira’s body of work suitable for their audiences.  She’s not country.  Not Americana.  Not hip hop.  Not public radio.  No Twin Cities radio format plays Shakira.  She’s a radio orphan.

And that’s why she never plays Minneapolis-St Paul.

The day her self-titled RCA Shakira album came out I went to my neighborhood Target.  There I met a very tall skinny blond woman in her young early 30s named Shelly who also came there at the same time to get the new Shakira CD, when we both arrived at the endcap where it was displayed in bulk.  Shelly was excited to meet another person on this earth who loved Shakira so much as to come to get the album the first day.  She hugged me when we exchanged names.  She was so skinny but put so much into her hug I thought she might snap.  So friendly.  Took a selfie of us together in front of the cardboard cutout of Shakira at the endcap display.  She tried a selfie of herself alone and didn’t like it, so I offered and took pictures of her and the full endcap.  She said she’d heard some of the songs and they were good.  She showed me where on You Tube I could download a live version of “Hips Don’t Lie” in Spanish, “Que Sera”.

At home I didn’t play it very loud, at least not all of it the first play.  I wouldn’t so much call it canned as maybe a little overwrought, overproduced, an attempt to be too perfect in the way She Wolf took itself too lightly.  There’s a recording style I call Dreamtime, named for a 1986 single by Daryl Hall, a recording so buttressed with overproduction it sounds so too loud at soft volume and seems to be blaring from the walls, like music in ALL CAPS.  People talk about Phil Spector being some genius with his wall of sound, but I never liked the wall thing, I thought it was too one dimensional.  I liked hearing instruments spatially apart horizontally and vertically, soundless places between them, not a solid wall.  “Dreamtime” by Daryl Hall to me was the epitome of the 1980s wall of sound.  And it seems every trend in music builds upon itself and gets more and more loud, fancy and full of itself until it hits Dreamtime.  Shakira’s Shakira album was living in Dreamtime.

Not a bad album, what I’m saying.  Daryl Hall’s “Dreamtime” was a good song, it was just so dramatically hyped like an epic Hall and Oates aria made up like a Pink Floyd anthem, it was literally incredible, lost its credibility.  Shakira thrusts songs into overdrive and where you’re in for a penny she’ll give you a pounding.  It’s not as simple as the band crashing heavy metal with synth power chords.  The song “Empire” is a classic example of what happens when a goddess sucks up so much power.  Leadoff single “Can’t Remember To Forget You” is a way way better song than the clever title might make you think, and the collaboration with Rhianna produces some sisterly giggles from two — wink — girls gone bad.  The Spanish version is more authentic, less pressure packed, “Nunca Me Acuerdo De Olvidarte”, a classic polysyllabic Spanish rock aria, buried deep in the back of the album, not a language overdub at all but a fresh take.  “La La La”, or “Dare” as it’s titled for English dancers, could have been a worthy submission for the soundtrack of the Lego Movie.  Most of the songs could be post cards from maternity leave saying save her a place at the table, she’s working from home.

I wouldn’t call my love for Shakira platonic, though it isn’t erotic.  It’s not agape.  It’s somewhat familial in its unconditional loyalty.  I would be astonished and horrified if she were to shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York, contrary to some people’s blind affection for a blond public figure perfectly inclined to do such a thing, and I’m not talking about Lil Wayne.  My love is not like the opposite of a grudge, unyielding and unforgiving, but a positive force entwined within my soul’s modus operandi.

“Waka Waka” has turned up at least three times at gradeschool choir concerts I have attended since Clara and Tess repatriated from Switzerland (with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” a close second).  It’s a soccer anthem that says when you get knocked down you get back up, go for your goals, persist with life.  “Waka Waka” is supposed to mean “go and do things”, or “walk while you work” in some unspecific African tongue.  The chorus goes “Zaminamina Zangalewa” (wherever you’re from).  One critic called it the stupidest pep song he ever heard.  I figure if third graders like to sing it, fifth graders and seventh graders, Shakira must have succeeded.  The only complaints I have heard are from parents who are growing waka waka weary, not that it’s a Shakira song per se.  Nobody accuses anyone of forcing Shakira music on a new generation, though I fervently support influencing the kids as long as it is age appropriate.

Everybody loved her in the movie Zootopia playing the rockstar Gazelle at the end.  That same movie opens with the song “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift.

When Shakira turned 40 I knew I was really aging because it meant my daughter would turn 40 the year after.  Inevitable, as the song goes.


The album El Dorado came out last fall without any advance hype or anticipation that I could tell, but who am I, not the hippest guy in the Twin Cities.  No reviews or mentions in the mainstream media.  No news, fake or otherwise.  Just a release date notice with a bunch others in the StarTribune.  I found the CD at Target on a shelf of a new release endcap as if it had been there all year, somewhat rifled through, in disarray, so I shuffled the jewel boxes back in order before I left with mine.  I looked around for a minute in case that skinny Shelly lady might show up, but then what were the chances.  I noticed El Dorado dominated the Latin bin.  $9.99.  The store selection of CDs consisted of a meager aisle.  I browsed the $4.99 bin for some backlist I might not have yet — Journey’s Greatest Hits was in there, but I have it already.

El Dorado is an exquisite album.  It does not care if it is reviewed or prized.  You get 13 tracks, no bonus and none bogus.  Mostly Spanish, not enough English, if that’s a dealbreaker you won’t be happy.  She is in gracious voice.  The band is simple.  You wouldn’t call it rock so much as Latin skiffle.  Understated.  There’s a beat underneath every song, every ballad, but the pulse never pushes blood pressure into dreamtime, the production is just so.

When I was young there was a radio format called Easy Listening.  As different from Rock and Roll.  Contemporary Pop.  Jazz.  Country Western.  News and Information.  Classical.  MOR — middle of the road.  Top 40.  I used to think of Easy Listening as the Old People’s Radio Network.  One thing that could be said about the Easy Listening station, it was on FM and it was stereophonically perfect.  Mantovani.  El Dorado is today’s FM stereo Easy Listening station.  Shakra has her own Deep House going.  This is an album of the future.  An album to grow old together.  Gracefully.

Princess Margarita all grown up for Picasso sin meninas.

El Dorado will be one of those albums to revisit in ten more years.  The time will pass too quickly.

No sooner I learned Shakira scheduled a world tour for El Dorado I learned it was postponed.  Rehearsing for the tour she blew out a vocal chord.  A  hemorrhage.  Oh God.

She needed treatment.  She needed to heal.

I could only imagine how difficult it was for Shakira to not sing, not use her voice.  Be quiet.

She rescheduled her tour.  Instead of opening in Cologne, Germany in November she would begin there in June.  A bunch of dates across Europe into July and then North America in August.  The Chicago concert scheduled 23 January was rescheduled for 3 August.  No, there was no Minneapolis-St Paul.  It was the night before the night before the night before Christmas.  The website said all tickets to the 23 January show would be honored 3 August.  I found two seats at an angle on the second deck at a price I knew I wouldn’t get yelled at.

“Bebe,” I called out to Roxanne coming down the stairs from the loft to the room where she was reading and watching TV.  “You want to go to Chicago August third and see Shakira at the United Center?”

“Sure,” she said.  “I always wanted to see Chicago.”

There’s a refrain in a song on El Dorado that goes, “Personne ne t’aimera comme moi.”  It’s a song in French sung by a guy with break-up verses by Shakira in English.  The French phrase above means “Nobody will love you like me.”  However, there is an all-English version of the song and in place of the telling French line above it goes, “And this is what we’re stuck with now.”  One has to beware of songs Shakira offers in different languages.  It may be the same music but it doesn’t always mean the words identically translate.

This what I always liked about Shakira’s love songs, things could always go either way but they always work out for Shakira.  I now held two tickets to Shakira the 23rd of January 2018, good for Friday, August 3rd.  Good thing, too, because the 23rd of January we were booked at the Krystal hotel on Playa Palmar in Ixtapa, Mexico.  It would be like almost seeing her in Dublin and missing her in Mexico City too.  Looking at her original tour schedule, we would have been in Mexico most of her time in all of North America except Mexico City.  Only because she got injured could we see the Chicago show.  Only if she healed would we ever see her at all.

Classic Roxanne booked our hotel and air just as smooth as if we were going to Paris.  I anticipated it like a trip to Paris.  It was nine months from getting tickets to the day of the show.  I remembered Adele needed vocal chord repair about the time her 21 album took off and she went overnight from clubs like First Avenue to civic center arenas, and she healed.  If Shakira could not heal then where was hope, justice and charity?  Karma?  Modern medicine would guide her.  It must have been very difficult for her to be quiet, but she would have discipline for the greater good.  I kept checking the website every month or so, and the tour was still rescheduled to begin in June.

Heal, Shakira, my winter mantra.

I suppose I could have followed her progress through her social network.  I never joined.  Seriously.  I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter, which means I have no friends or followers.  Y’all probably think, what a lonely, backwards, pathetic guy.  You might say, hey, that’s why he writes like he does, to alienate as many people as he can.  In my experience most people who read stuff like this are trolls.  You’re welcome.  My expressionism, my graphomania is best channeled here where no one is obliged to care.

You don’t get paid for clicking me and no expectation you will forward or retransmit any of this.  Your only reward is my thanks you are reading this.

I on the other hand, despite my compulsion to write, am not a lonely guy, someone who people who mix up archaic and arcane would use one of those words to describe me, not at all.  I have ten siblings, I being eldest.  Connecting outward to a social world has never been a deprivation issue in my life, I have been blessed with connections to keep me informed of what’s going on, enough to get along.  I have a land line.  Roxanne has a cell phone.  I get postal mail.  Subscribe to newspapers.  Got cable.  A library card.  DVD player (not Blue Ray, not yet — the regular one still works).  I play CDs, and iPod too.  Computer literate, both office and home.  Screen, pad and app savvy enough to correspond and find answers on the fly.  I’m not a hermit.  In fact I rely on people like my kids and Roxanne to inform me of stuff they learn from social media, so in a way I cheat, I eschew — literally a word I eschew but it really literally fits here — as much social media as I can get away with as a challenge to keep finding things out some other way.  In this way I find my life greatly enriched and have to admit I benefit from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter vicariously.  And where without the search engines like Google would I be?  In my work career I got addicted to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Email (not so much Bluetooth) so I’m no Luddite (just an eschewer) keeping a low profile on the worldwide web.  Eschew and swallow.

Month to month I checked to make sure our Shakira tickets were still good.  We Googled points of interest in Chicago.  I mapped routes from MDW airport to the hotel, and the hotel to United Center.  Millennium Park.  Grant Park.  The Art Institute of Chicago.  Concert on a Friday.

People asked, are you taking any trips this summer?  We would talk about our planned family road trip to Wisconsin Dells after the 4th of July.  And we’d say we planned to go to Chicago in August.

Chicago?  Not Paris or Amsterdam?  You going to see Hamilton?

Roxanne said she always wanted to see Chicago.  All these years just driving through on the Eisenhower and the Dan Ryan on route somewhere else east.  I’d say I wanted to see the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Roxanne would say, and Buffalo got tickets to Shakira — it’s on his bucket list.

Really?  I’d say, “Really.  Lo que mas.”  And as long as that person asked, I’d go as far as I could to explicate in elevator format the lyrical and musical charm of Shakira’s body of work until the enquirer said sure and changed the subject.  Sometimes they would suggest we visit the old Sears tower, or Hancock tower, and the Magnificent Mile, and be sure to go to Navy Pier.  Or they asked to hear more about what we planned to do with all the kids at Wisconsin Dells.  I always got the impression my fascination with Shakira’s music evoked to most listeners a core skepticism like I was trying to say I really did read Playboy magazine for the reviews, the essays and the fiction.  I actually read Billboard magazine every week when I was in high school.  I remember reading in Springsteen’s autobiography he said his daughter was a fan of Shakira, and Springsteen’s daughter is an equestrian.  She could speak to reading a poem to a horse.

My son Vincent’s mother in law gave us a tip to take an excursion boat tour up the Chicago river to get an appreciation of the architecture.

Along with fun at the Dells, this July had Le Tour de France, the FIFA World Cup, the litte kids had no school, Vincent’s wife Amalie was eight months pregnant, The Minnesota Twins sucked but the weather was gorgeous, the Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks over the Mississippi river astounded even inveterate viewers and Boz Scaggs played the State theater.  Another great summer in paradise.

Starting with the June debut, in Hamburg now ahead of Cologne, I followed the setlists of Shakira’s tour and noted from sources like Billboard the tour was going well.  Saw she added a gig in Turkey and wondered  how that would go.  Took a hiatus after the show in Barcelona, where she is said to reside with Pique and her boys, her own sagrada familia.  Chicago would be her opening night in North America.

It would be a hot summer weekend in the Second City, Carl Sandburg’s city of broad shoulders.  Like Roxanne I had very little experience with Chicago, so this was an equal adventure.  We took the L from Midway to the loop and rode the underground to about Michigan and Superior.  We could have guessed better which direction to go at first but corrected ourselves fast — we’ve made wrong way guesses in Munich, Paris and Vienna before and figured it out — found our hotel and checked in.  Nice place.  The Cambria.  (Not pre-Cambrian but the Cambria.)  First rate service.  Accessible to everywhere we wanted to be.  We walked to the lakefront.  Browsed Navy Pier.  Ate hearty.  Wildberry for breakfast, Cafecito for lunch.  Bandera dinner (upstairs).  We tried two different pizzas and Roxanne learned for us that Chicago style deep dish pizza is a myth created for tourists and Chicagoans themselves who love pizza love extra thin crust, God’s truth.

With thanks to Amalie’s mother Yvonne we took the excursion boat tour up the Chicago river and got a fantastic guided view of profound skyscraper history.  The Art Institute of Chicago blew me away a little but I should have known the moneyed collectors of this American city would have been competitive with the Met, MOMA, the National galleries in both London and DC, and what became the Uffizi, the Orsay and the Vatican museum.  In Millennium Park there is a super-reflective monumental sculpture of stainless steel mirror shaped like a kidney bean — selfie nirvana.  Nearby is an open air amphitheater called Pritzker designed by Frank Gehry, renegade architect who designed the Weisman in Minneapolis.

Grant Park was closed off, so we could not go to Buckingham fountain, which is supposed to be Chicago’s Trevi fountain, because the Lalapalooza music festival was going on just south of Millennium Park.  Bruno Mars, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys.  Lots going on in Chicago.  Lots of young people, and that refers to people in their twenties, thirties, early forties, hanging out in public.  Navy Pier the night before the festival started was jamming with the blues and the giant ferris wheel.  We walked the grid between lakefront and the hotel checking out the skyscrapers from street level.  The Water Tower.  We rode the bus.  Saw a little of the campus of Northwestern University med school.  A lot of the tall buildings in the Loop are residential, which means of course the locals have means.  There is evidence of homeless people as in great cities everywhere — if you are homeless you might look for someplace to live in a great city more than some little town.  And everywhere sophistication of the air of epic self appreciation among everybody self conscious about being in Chicago, living there or visiting, with all the cool savvy of hipsters who know where to go and where they’re going.

Roxanne and I settled on a building we wanted to buy, a skyscraper with a Swiss clock tower style roof.  We tracked it down on foot by gawking on our way to lunch Friday.  There was upscale retail and eating on the main floor, occupying a block, all local brands, no chains.  A uniformed guy at a desk near the elevators didn’t know jack about the history and wasn’t there to dish with walk-ins, and he directed us to the brass plaque on the marble wall by the elevator, that the building was called the American Furniture Market once upon a time.


The hotel called us a taxi to the concert at the United arena.  We arrived early.  Showtime was 7:30 and I wasn’t going to risk missing a minute.  Arrived at the arena before they shut down the street.  There was noplace to hang out outside the arena, but that was okay, once inside there was food and drink and spacious lobbies.  We found our seats so early the usher checked our tickets twice to make sure we belonged, even if it was up some stairs on the second deck.  Neither of us were very hungry from lunch but we shared a beer and checked out the scene.

The arena is home of hockey nemesis the Blackhawks and NBA rival the Bulls, and there hung across the ceiling the banners of championships.  Down below there was a stage with a long runway up the middle of the main floor leading to a round stage.  Behind was a blank wall with two big round video screens showing animation of a rotation of credit to Rakuten, solicitation to Viber, identification of the El Dorado tour, and a cartoon face of Shakira giving the crowd the wink.

We arrived way ahead of the crowd, and that itself put us at ease knowing that if all else we made it to our destination without a hassle.  Gave me time and space to reflect a moment how important this event was to me while the stage roadies got the place ready.  In August 1965 I saw the Beatles play at our old Met stadium.  The show could be criticized from a number of viewpoints but it was in truth a significant event — I could feel it was a big deal and took it all in as much as I could, strained to hear the guitars and the words, looking at those guys down there on a stage at second base actually playing “I Saw Her Standing There” while girls screamed, just like on Ed Sullivan, just like A Hard Days Night, screamed their lights out and everybody was standing up to see because everybody in front all the way down was standing up, almost dancing, and it was real, the Beatles were playing live and you could hear, if you listened, they were a great band and would have sounded incredible if they had the sound equipment available to Shakira in the rock and roll future.

C’est la vie.

Waiting for Shakira the last hour, hour and a half, was a cheap metaphor for waiting my whole life for this show, never sure until that moment, waiting, that the tickets might be bogus or something could go wrong to stop the show.  I do not believe in jinx but we were in Chicago, home of Mother Murphy’s Law, so named after the lady who owned the cow that kicked over the lantern that started the Chicago fire.  No, Mr Kelly, the name was O’Leary, and there’s no absolute proof it was her cow, though there was a hell of a fire.

After eternity even the roadies run out of things to putz with and the recorded pop music plays on, some Coldplay.  Hardly anybody is in their seats and if I hadn’t seen the video marquees outside the arena with Shakira’s face I might have wondered if I got it all wrong.  Then a deejay takes the stage, all busy with his hands on his console, mentions Shakira’s name, the audience such as it is cheers, and he proceeds to play a long series of long dance cuts.  It’s really good at first but it gets old fast and still nobody’s in their seats but me and Roxanne, although the people coming in from the lobbies hung out on the walkways, took selfies and danced a little before they went to their seats and kept dancing.  Why should I act so impatient, wishing my precious life away?  I am here, I thought, estoy aqui.  Sit back, enjoy that beer, check out the people watch.

Seventy percent, maybe eighty percent of the attendees were female.  A high percentage were Latina.  Most of the men were Latinos escorting a date.  Ages ranged from a few teenagers with their moms to somebody Roxanne spotted who she estimated to maybe be 80.  The anglo women — anglas — and the African Americans were all ages too, but usually young.  Everybody was dressed up.  Hair done.  There was glamour and beauty in the audience.  Handsome men.  Roxanne wore a nice dress, looked fabulous, to all appearances she was the fan and I was the boyfriend.  I wore my best cargo shorts and my finest silk floral shirt of blue to accent my eyes.

Finally the deejay gave up the ghost.  The air went back to vague murmurs of pop music and the lights roadies played around with the lights, strobing people, and the video screens went back to Rakuten and Viber.  Go on Viber and win seat upgrades and prizes.  Cartoon Shakira winks.  The seats fill like a sink with low water pressure.  Some of the crowd gets restless.  They applaud and cheer at every shadow on stage.  Then the chanting begins, and ends.  Then out comes the Wave.

Really?  I suppose.  This is Chicago, where they invented the na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey-hey good bye.

We learned on the boat excursion architectural tour that the term Windy City was given to Chicago not because of any propensity for the lake wind to chill the city but in reference to its loquacious politicians.

A block of seats across the arena that looked like it would never fill up finally took their occupants and the place went dark.  The crowd roared.  Video pictures of young Shakira played on the screens and a montage played on the wall behind the stage like a public service announcement while Shakira’s voice and a guy sang a duet in French, prerecorded.  An unfamiliar song.  About the time the arena barely fell silent wondering what was going on, there she was.

She opened with “Estoy Aqui” and the place lit up.

“Estoy aqui, queriendote…”  I am here, loving you.  The audience sang.  Shakira aimed the mic to the crowd and we always obliged, those who knew the words — especially her Spanish songs.  She danced side to side, up and down the runway, up the rampart stairs both sides of the stage.  When she stayed in one place she kept moving, kept pace, and the video cameras tracked her every move, every nuanced expression while she sang with all her heart, every note, pacing the band, and the sound was perfect.

Shakira can sing.  Everybody knows.

And after the songs ended and the applause roared, the crowd went quiet.  Before song two she expressed her thanks to Chicago for hosting her and for all the people who hung with her through good times and hard times.  Looking back I now find this funny: there was no Doctor Woo in the house.  Every other concert there’s always a guy who fills the silences between the crowd and the performer who, uncomfortable with silence or what, yells a cup handed Woo! into the peace.  Second place is Freebird and a shrill whistle.  Not with Shakira.  Not even on the video live albums, though they are edited.  Not in Chicago.  Nobody gets rude a a Shakira show.  People sing and dance — from the opening beats nobody in the house sat down more than a minute.  They talk and shout applause and jump up and down.  They clap and raise their hands and move their hips and laugh out loud, but at the Shakira show everybody listens when she speaks and when she sings and watches her every move.  There is no more fascinating entertainer.  She did everything but gymnastics.  No lip sync.  All real.

Song two came out of the dark and she gave permission to howl.  Instead of Dr Woo we now had an arena full of wolves, and so commenced the She Wolf song.  Owooo!  Lycanthropy Warren Zevon would admire.  She danced through it but no writhing, no slithering, no bellying across the floor.  In the hands of a basic four piece band with some strings and another singer the usual synth robotics of the music sounded like the solid rock band missing from the studio original.  Crowd pleasing three minute single.

Next they rip through “Si Te Vas” from the Ladrones album, and that reveals more of the long-timers in the crowd, people longer fans than me.  It’s another three or so minute allout rocker, maybe upped to four with a dexy guitar solo and a smash smash smash ending.

The crowd’s blown up ready for more but Shakira slows it down with a couple of new ones from El Dorado the new easy listening album.  Far from being still with slow dance poses, she and the band play plugged-in unplugged and get a fair hearing from a crowd raptly swaying to the sorrow of “Nada” as it builds to its crescendos.  I sense Roxanne’s reactions and she’s obviously taken.  She’s surfed along with my addiction to music nearly half a century but for her part admits general ambivalence to most songs and musicians.  She likes Chris Isaak, Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen from seeing them live.  It’s hard to get her to dance, even tipsy at weddings.  She’s uncomfortable with loud rock bands.  Here Shakira made it easy for her, no earplugs necessary.  “You can hear her so well I wish I could understand what she’s singing,” she said sotto voce in my ear, bopping to the beat.  I think you basically get it, I answered.

Song five, as long as Shakira has our attention in Spanish, is the best song on the album, “Perro Fiel” — faithful dog.

And then she slows it down for real to render her country girl serenade for her man, the “Underneath Your Clothes” ballad.  The video cameras magnify her drama.  Then she returns to Spanish with cut one from Dorado, called “Me Enamore”, or simply, fall in love with me.

Then it’s back to the Ladrones days with her classic ballad “Inevitable” where she met the moment of truth, the point in the song where she holds the high note.  Yes!  Shakira is healed.

Next song “Chantaje” is a collaboration with a phantom named Maluma.  It means blackmail.  It was a single a couple of years ago I first overheard it playing in a cantina in Mexico and it stopped me in my tracks because to me it was new and unknown and I recognized Shakira.  In Chicago Shakira turned it into a call and response game with the audience with lyrics on the screen behind the stage.  By and large the stage was bare except for Shakira and her band and the twin video screens.  Now the back wall came more and more into the show as a screen of backup graphics.

An interlude illustrated an origin legend of the Andes in animation on the screen to the haunting song “Despedida” (farewell) pre-recorded.  And then came “Whenever, Wherever” and she was off dancing everywhere again.

Then another interlude, this time a movie of Shakira in a flesh bodysuit dress swimming in creamy murky water like lemonade set to a recording of another song from Dorado called “Trap”.

“What does she mean?” Roxanne murmured in my ear.

“She swims in deep water,” I guessed.

Then, still Spanish and playing to her lifelong fans she belted out her song of loss, “Tu”.

Then one from the newest album called “Amarillo”, a rousing color song for the kids, playing acoustic rhythm guitar with a picture of spouse and kids taped to the face of the guitar.

Next the song I came to see and hear, “La Tortura”.

“No pido que todos los dias sean de sol, No pido que todas las viernes sean de fiesta..”

Yes, we sang — way loud — at least the first verse through.  It means I don’t wish every day will be sunny, I don’t wish every Friday was a party.  It’s the scoldingest where-the-hell have you been song I ever heard since “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles.  It includes the lines, “No solo de pan vive el hombre, y no de excusas vivo yo.”  (Man does not live by bread alone, and I don’t live on excuses.)  And “Mejor te guardas todo eso, a otra perra con ese hueso, y nos decimos adios.”  (Better save that for yourself, take that bone to another dog and let’s say goodbye.)  “Ay amor, me duele tanto…”

Next she reached back to another sing-along ballad unplugged at the stage at the end of the runway with “Antologia” to close her faraway past.  Then she rocked up again with a perfectly scaled “Can’t Remember To Forget You” which included a pre-recorded piece by Rhianna.  The background graphics got exciting, computer images of a screenful of dancers modeled in real time effigy after Shakira, with a medley of “Loca” (“I’m crazy but you like it, loca loca loca…”) and “Rabiosa”, both from Sale el Sol.  The rest of the way it was nonstop Dance or Die with another medley of “La La La” or “Dare” (the Lego song) and then the closer, “Waka Waka”.

We wait in the stage darkness, our unending ovation weakening from near exhaustion.  “Imagine how she feels,” Roxanne says.  “She’s all over the place.  What I don’t get though is how… naughty…”

“Lewd, lascivious,” I volunteer, flicking my Bic lighter a few times just for old times sake.  “Shall we say inappropriate?”

“Yes, that’s one way to put it.  Some of her dance gestures are…”

“Racy?  Obscene?”

“No, not obscene.  We’re all adults here.  I don’t know.  They cross over the edge of innocence.”

“It’s not a gymnastics floor routine.”

“No.  But Clara and Tess are definitely too young for some of this.”

“Are you and I too old?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  She’s really amazing actually.”


The screen played a little movie about little kids encountering obstacles to going to school and overcoming.


Just as the clapping ebbed Shakira appeared on a tiny round stage in the back of the main floor near the sound and light tables, where she sang the quietest song of the night, “Toneladas” (tons).  Accompanied by longtime favorite pianist Albert Menendez she hushes the crowd spotlit in a long gown.  It is the song which concludes the Dorado album, almost a lullabye.  Whatever it’s about will have to wait until I go home.  It’s in Spanish.  From the small island stage she steps down as the crowd cheers and she wades her way across the swelling sea of people who want to be close to her, and even with bodyguards guiding her there are people’s hands all over her.

Back on the end of the runway stage she sheds the gown and reveals the night’s bellydace outfit, a crazy pyramid shaped skirt just as triangular as the dress worn by Princess Margarita Teresa in the Diego Velasquez painting Las Meninas, so envied and studied by Picasso.  The big bustle skirt amplified all Shakira’s butt moves.  She showed her tummy a couple more times and sang “Hips Don’t Lie” along with the prerecorded banter of Wyclef Jean along with Menendez filling in with male vocals.  “No fighting, no fighting.”

Finally she closed with “La Bicicleta” with a dubbed Carlos Vives, another radio hit in Mexico I first heard in Zihuatanejo.  A smooth landing.  After Shakira said goodnight Chicago and thank you so much, she exited the stage but the band played on and finished the song.  Last to wave goodbye were the guitarist and the drummer, Tim Mitchell and Brendan Buckley, giving the crowd one last satisfied look, sort of how Shakira looked at the end of her Unplugged show.  The arena lights went up.

There was a kind of aura of shock it was over.  Closure, catharsis and a sense of unfinished business.  I asked Roxanne if we could just pause at our seats a while before leaving, to watch the crowd slowly drain out of the auditorium, looking at the blank, empty stage.  She said she’s in no hurry.  “Was it all you hoped and more?” she asked.

“Lo que mas,” I said.  “Best ever.”

We melted among the crowd lingering in the lobbies and flowing down to the main level concourse.  The lines at the merchandise stand was not a line or a series of lines but a crushing crowd, if an orderly crush, and I stood back not to block the next person and eyed the swag.  Roxanne assured me I could get anything I wanted, and I was tempted to spend the extra half hour or so to get to the front.  But I decided I didn’t want anything.  The t-shirts so elegant were way too elegant for me — I really don’t wear branded logos much anymore, however subtle, but this was a full frontal across the whole shirt portrait of Shakira in her El Dorado golden gold — I said to Rox when she said, “You can you know,” I know, but I would never wear it, and I would have to frame it.

I’m too old and used to rejection to try to get backstage to get it autographed.

On the way out I paused at the video billboard against the outer wall and looked at her picture one more time, and Roxanne took a photo.  She asked a security lady where we could hail a taxi.

Out in the muggy night the street immediately outdoors was still closed to traffic, the cops were directing cars and waving pedestrians across.  A surface parking lot on the adjacent block leaked cars.  We crossed with the crowd looking for taxis.  Our driver who brought us there implied the curbs would be lined all over with taxis.

Honestly I was in a mood to walk home.  To walk all the way to our hotel.  I knew I could find it by reckoning, especially once we reached the river.  I wanted to walk with Roxanne and talk along the way, like we did in Paris and Rome, and so many places together.  Like Ixtapa.  I wanted to talk about the concert.  I knew it would take an hour at least, it would be a couple miles, but it was a beautiful summer night in Chicago and we’d just seen the concert of a lifetime.

Instead we learned from taxi drivers we tried to hail a couple streets from the arena we would have to phone a request to get a ride because the taxis in the area were already booked to pick somebody up.  So on Roxanne’s iPhone we called a number in area code 312 from the side of a registered taxi company and within minutes got picked up in front of an apartment house address I read to a dispatcher.

The driver told us the traffic was a little crazier than usual because Lalapalooza was letting out by the lake.  He got us back to the hotel near the Magnificent Mile in time to get a thin crust pizza on E Superior St before closing time and a Goose Island before bed and a nice talk about the show, about Shakira.  I never mentioned walking home.  I wanted to be sure Roxanne had a good time.  She can be so critical of concerts.  I could tell she was impressed, not just shining me on.

I think she liked the Art Institute too.  She liked Chicago.  We say we’d go back.

I’d like to go again to Shakira.  Whenever, wherever.

Before I conclude I must say something about a song Shakira did not sing in Chicago, track #11 on El Dorado, the prettiest song on the album, “Deja Vu”.  It’s a duet with a guy named Prince Royce and it is the quintessential Latin/Latina song.  It’s magical.  You have to watch Shakira albums for what she buries at track 11, you’ll discover songs like “Deja Vu” — trust me, I’ve heard her sing in person.  I am eternally thankful for that.

Still trying to decode “Toneladas”, song 13 of El Dorado, she and her pianist, something critical she sang in Chicago to a hushed house, wearing that bustle under that long gown, body armor, I think of Shakira singing “Pienso en Ti” on her first album, her folk album when she was barely eighteen.  The ten thousand hours that got her that far fascinates me to ponder as much as the subsequent twenty three years of choreographing such spontaneity.  At 41 Shakira is young.  Vital.  There’s a lot more to come.  She averages an album every three years but she records when she recoreds.  She tours when she tours.  She doesn’t have to compete on the charts with either the young divas or the Eagles, los hecha estan hecha, she does what she does.  It fascinates me to know her back story and I would love to interview her collaborators she has worked with through the years, people I would expect to bear expert witness upon Shakira as a friend.  Wyclef Jean.  Santana.  Beyonce and Rhianna.  Carlos Vives and Alejandro Sanz.  Rick Rubin.  Kid Cudi, El Cata and Pitbull, Dizzee Rascal, Residente Calleiz, Maluma, Nicky Jam, Black M and this Magic! guy.  I want to talk to Tim Mitchell, Brendan Buckley and Albert Menendez, and the whole Estefan family.  Not just the array of cosingers and longtime band members but the dozens of people she acknowledges in her liner notes.  Her parents she credits for sculpting her character.  And the guy I would most like to talk to is named Luis F Ochoa, her earliest song collaborator on record.

I would love of course to meet Shakira herself and ask her about stuff.  I suppose if I met Gerard Pique we could talk sports.  It’s a little like that song on the album Pure Heroine by that young singer who calls herself Lorde, “Royals”, it’s never going to happen in this world no matter how many times I listen to “Give It Up To Me” on the She Wolf CD (bonus track).  I’m thankful for all the CDs, MP3s and DVDs and all the memories.  I’m thankful for all the associations Shakira brings to mind.

I am thankful for rock and roll.

I am thankful for love songs.

I am thankful for Roxanne.






StarTribune — Poor Circulation


I wonder if somebody at the StarTribune newspaper has a grudge against me.  For the umptienth time since last fall the daily carrier skipped my delivery.

I phone it in.  I know the number by heart, it’s been the same since I was a paperboy.  Mostly I connect to the VRU — voice response unit, the automated system — but sometimes it forwards me to a live customer service rep.  The VRU accepts verbal responses to given questions, including phone number and house number.  I don’t trust the voice word recognition system.  It seemed prone to loops of misinterpretation, and don’t dare cough — I’m sorry, would you repeat that?  I prefer to key my information from the keypad — numbers pertaining to explicit answers like 1 – delivery problem, 2 – no paper.  1 – yes I would like them to send a paper.

When the VRU forwards me to a live customer service rep I wonder if the computer has flagged me as a frequent caller or if the VRU itself is just overloaded just then.  The lady whose voice transacts the VRU business sounds a bit disingenuous, and I might say a little poochy and a mote insincere, and after numerous calls and careful study a bit untrustworthy and unempathetic, so it’s okay with me to get forwarded to a real person to whom I verbalize the story.

The person always apologizes as he or she verifies my name and address.  You might think this is a perfect opportunity to rant and rave.  Maybe so.  I’ve been at the receiving end, I used to work at the circulation department of that very same newspaper and heard out the most vociferous complaints you could imagine and entertained the most uncivil language ever spoken.  I listened without interrupting, at least until they repeated themselves twice and it was time to recap the call and bring it to conclusion — redelivery or credit and a note to the DM (district manager) — and a thank you for their business if they didn’t hang up on me first.  Yes, in my time I was a customer care legend and when supervisors were busy, and sometimes when they weren’t, they would transfer hot calls to me and I would endure the customer rage and seek service satisfaction, acknowledge mistakes and propose improvement.  They called me HotKall Kelly.

When I call in these days and get referred to a real person it’s about six after six in the morning in my time zone, usually a Monday, and my mind needs a jump start, no newspaper and who knows where this person on the other end of the phone exists — used to be downtown Minneapolis, could be Iowa or South Dakota, I never ask — whose duty it is to report no paper at my address and to initiate a special delivery, maybe jot a note to the carrier with a cc to the DM and ask if there is anything else he or she could do.

When this issue of missed deliveries first emerged as a pattern last fall and I spoke to a live rep I asked if she noticed anything on the record about disruption on the route.  Was it an open route — no permanent carrier — a sub — substitute carrier — or a down route — something fishy going on like the carrier didn’t show up.  A guy who said he was the DM brought a replacement paper one day when I happened to be on the porch and he apologized for the bad service — I was getting missed days in a row at that time, and when it did come it was tossed casually on the lawn, not placed on the porch — and he explained it was an open route, looking for a regular carrier, and soon everything would be regular again.  That didn’t happen and I kept calling it in.  A special driver would bring a paper to my porch, usually by nine or nine thirty — thump.  And sometimes I would get a callback from someone at the paper asking if the special delivery arrived, and I could say yes, thank you — please fix my route.

When I call in and get routed to a live rep it’s always interesting to get somebody fresh working the phones.  They um a lot and stall while they type their keyboards, and when they get me and see on their screens the delivery history and its commentary I can almost see them look pleadingly at their monitoring supervisors and cringe, getting ready for the barrage of articulated recriminations to come.  And then I ask if it’s still an open route, and the person says no there’s a regular carrier.  I ask if my delivery code on my subscription is still Front Porch (code 9 I think) and the person confirms.  I ask they please remind the carrier to deliver here every day, on the porch, please cc the DM, send me a paper by special driver and thank you very much.  I’m thinking the stats speak for themselves.

Lately when the VRU kicks me to a live rep I don’t even bother feigning a mood of interest in the carrier’s well being.  By now I sense animosity and am willing to accept bygones if only I could count on delivery in some form, but nothing but the plain facts gets discussed with the phone rep.  It’s not his or her fault, it’s the carrier.  I laugh when I remember the olden days when we used to offer the carrier’s phone number so you could call the carrier directly and say, hey, where’s my paper?  Today it’s best to limit the service discussion to business professional terms and not even joke about any incendiary thoughts about the carrier’s motives.  Today revenge is not funny.

If there is comedy in any of this it is in the pattern of defiance and my reaction.  The daily carrier — Monday-Friday — the past eight months, despite my constant reports, keeps skipping my house two or three times a month, usually Mondays.  And when the paper does get delivered it can be found in the front yard or on the sidewalk, never ever on the front porch per the placement code on the customer profile which prints on the route list.

The weekend carrier, by contrast, Saturday and Sunday always puts the paper on the porch at the front door, and has been doing this for several years.  His name is Gonzalez I believe, from writing him tip checks in response to his Christmas fliers, and he drives an old Chevy Blazer with a bad muffler.  He used to have an assistant, a teenage girl, who used to zip out of the car and up the sidewalk to the porch and back like a cat.  He’s been working alone a few years now but every weekend he faithfully stops his Blazer, gets out and treads up steps to my sidewalk and wings the paper onto the porch.  He’s an older guy, maybe older than me.  When I’m up — the weekend delivery deadline is seven — I go out and meet him, say good morning, take the paper in the baggie from his hand, say thank you.

The daily carrier, M-F, barely seems to get out of the car and for all that has a rag arm, can’t seem to get the paper even close to the house.  Every day both carries enfold the paper within a promotional plastic bag, which keeps the paper dry against rain and snow.  Unless it lands in a puddle with the bag wide open in a rainstorm.  (The bags can be recycled at Cub Foods or used to pick up poop if you have a dog.)  I don’t know when the daily carrier swings by but it’s either way early or not at all.  Always too stealthy to wake me up.  I think maybe if I see this person in person I can get inside their head and figure out why they have so little regard for me receiving the paper.

I used to deliver the Minneapolis Star after school when I went to St Simon of Cyrene, sixth, seventh and eighth grade.  Picked my papers up at the shack at 64th and Lyndale.  My big tire bicycle had saddle baskets.  Big thick Wednesdays I might pull a wagon.  Or a sled.  Sometimes I just trudged with sling strap sacks crossed over my shoulders like bandoliers on a pack mule.  Every day.  The evening Star carriers had the extra privilege of delivering the Sunday Tribune.  The daily Tribune was a morning paper, Monday through Saturday delivery — the Tribune carriers got Sundays off.  Most Sundays my dad drove me on the route — neither one of us glad to be up at five a.m.

Rain, snow, thirty below zero Fahrenheit or a hundred degrees above and 80% relative humidity, I delivered the Star door to door nine blocks a day.  About 72 dailies and 80 Sundays.  I’m no martyr either.  I was making good moolah, enough to finance a cool wardrobe and a collection of 60’s rock records.  I read the product every day, free.  The tips were generous, at Christmas phenomenal.  All I had to do was pick up my papers at the shack and deliver them door to door nine blocks on a residential route two blocks from the shack.  Every day.  No matter what.

If I screwed up I could count on getting reamed by my DM, Mr Layton, who cruised his district in a green Ford LTD.  He dressed like Sid Hartman in a suit and tie and a beige trenchcoat.  He had white hair cut in a flatop and wore a gray green fedora so you usually could just see his shaved temples.  You saw him coming and you better be busy, not flirting with the girls who lived along the route.  I liked to be one of his choir boys or stay under his radar, so I did my route right and paid my bill on time every two weeks.

The DM who delivered my paper last November wore a North Face vest, jeans, flannel and a wool hat.  Haven’t seen or heard from him since.  Can’t describe his car.  Mine might be a highly unprofitable route, and I might be the only daily customer (left) on the block (the weekend route has a few subscribers among my neighbors, I can tell by the sounds of Mr Gonzalez’s Blazer.)  It would seem my M-F subscription is a write-off.

Lately when I call in about a missed paper, no matter what assurance I’m given the paper will be redelivered it does not come.  When I worked in circulation we would dispatch redeliveries to people we called Special Drivers who worked territories in their own cars who were equipped with radios to call in and get addresses for missed papers.  Today one would expect the Special Drivers would get their redelivery lists via smart phone.  Lately I’ve been encouraged by the paper to contact it on line at their dot com, so I have learned how to access my account to register my missed paper and request redelivery.  I do it on line more as a redundancy to the phone, and at first superstitiously because the first time I went online to report a missed paper and request redelivery the paper arrived within the hour, wow this must be the way to go — the redelivery is pledged by 11:30 a.m., same day.  Beyond that you can only get credit.  Sure.  So lately I’ve been logging in again later in the day to get the credit.  Tom Petty might say the Special Driver don’t come around here no more.

There’s a local monthly ragsheet comes out every month called Southside Pride.  Put out by a guy named Ed Felien, a lifelong Minneapolis southsider, one time alderman, who refers to himself as an unapologetic Maoist, the paper prints local ads, covers neighborhood events and runs stories critical of government, private business, law enforcement, education and all facets of the establishment, all presented in civil prose and an almost naive format.  Faithfully and without fail the carrier for Southside Pride puts the paper in front of my door on my front porch.  No wasteful plastic bag, just rolled up and bound by a (reusable) rubber band to keep it from blowing away, placed safely under the shelter of my porch against rain and snow.  Faithfully and without fail.

Monday – Friday with the StarTribune it’s always iffy when I get up around six and unlock the front door.  Most days it’s a relief to see an orange or yellow or green baggie out there somewhere.  When there isn’t I am now conditioned not to expect one at all that day.  Lately Mondays.  Someone could argue there’s rarely news on Monday mornings, no business news, usually just fluff from the weekend or things you already know, but I still would rather not miss a day — you never know.  Sometimes a decent essay shows up on the opinion page when least expected.  Or letter from a reader.  Monday is the day LK Hanson’s cartoons lampoon goons and buffoons.

Is this any way to treat a loyal reader?  I keep musing about writing directly to the publisher, Glen Taylor.  It’s an LOL moment too because it reflects the inaccessibility of the StarTribune’s circulation and distribution system by the subscriber.  On its webpage where it says Contact Us leads you to a street address you can mail them a letter and both a local and a long-distance toll free phone number — but no email.  No comments box.  No digital way to write a delivery complaint in your own words.  The home page may offer options to make editorial comments and newsroom feedback but for delivery issues everything is fundamentally obscure to access, and once clicked it defaults to Damaged Paper as the first option, as if offering the carrier an alibi will encourage the customer to think twice before calling the carrier a deadbeat.

When I used to collect from customers face to face and door to door every two weeks it cost $2.40 for seven day delivery for two weeks.  Today two weeks costs $17.62.  And now it’s prepaid, in 13 week increments.  We used to collect for delivery in arrears.  Prepaids were rare luxuries, though prepaids didn’t tip.

Everybody knows there are cheaper and more immediate and often customized sources to get news, and if the StarTribune collects news at all it is self-aware.  With a measure of conceit and a concession to old fashioned readers like me they put out an e-edition that mimics the hard copy I get at home, page for page.  Recent subscription policy says when we put the delivery on hold when we are away — a vacation stop — charges to the account continue, and in lieu of the paper paper they allow a daily and weekend view of the e-edition we can log into on wi-fi.  Otherwise a subscription to the e-edition alone is same as the print edition.  I pony up because the StarTribune’s version of the news is worthy.

My son on the other hand generally disagrees.  He says the StarTribune publishes dogwhistle stories, which means to him they deliberately hook a slant into their reporting which is meant to stir controversy from either side and bait debate.  So, I say, so what?  And nonetheless he keeps reading it in digital format, making him I guess an informed expert in what he’s saying.

I respect the reporters and writers and the integrity of the editorial staff.  I appreciate the content of stories appropriated from big sources such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Economist.  They have not one but two high-end music critics, one for older fans and one for younger.  They got a smart sports department.  The arts and letters coverage aims at insight.  I think they check the facts, not check the facts at the door.

The word Star means point of light or top performer.  The word Tribune comes from a concept of being a representative of the populace, an advocate for the people.  Aptly named, the StarTribune excels (shines) at standing up for its community.  Some call it a liberal newspaper.  My son says it promotes dogwhistle content.  The way I see it, any newspaper reporting facts that authorities try to hide is a liberal press, and I agree with HL Mencken journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  When everyone approves of every story then it’s a sign it isn’t being honest.

The owner and publisher, Glen Taylor, a long established local tycoon in the printing business and latter day owner of the NBA Timberwolves and defending WNBA champion Lynx, is said to be a Republican, but there is no discernible political party bias in the paper’s news, features or editorials, just an overt reaction to liberal bias by conservative compensation where due, a pledge to keep the debate fair.  And civil.  To think Taylor isn’t looking head-on down the road of print journalism and seeing the niche limitations fading away like AM radio sells his business acumen short.  The StarTribune newspaper of ink and paper will likely evolve itself out of existence, starting apparently with a service shortage on the east side of south Minneapolis.

The paper gave up its downtown real estate and storied presence in the physical corpus of the city and became another virtual concept with a logo and brand recognition renting office space in a skyscraper.  The times they are a changing, I get that, especially here in the old home town.  Since the Cowles family heirs cashed out their shares in Cowles Media there have been a bunch of guardian publishers like McClatchy who took the rap when the StarTribune kept downsizing to keep up with increasing costs and decreasing revenues in the newspaper business, stripping itself down, turning itself into the Strib.  Alas somebody had to take the fall of unpopularity without fouling against union contracts in place and stiffing readers and writers.  The ethical survival of the paper into the 21st century must have taken a strong measure of dedication to preserve its relevance in the age of video.  Enter now the digital age of devices, whereas yours truly prefers information on printed pages of paper I recycle.  Somebody still goes to the computerized trouble to budget and format over half a million daily copies.  One anticipates the Star Tribune isn’t going to fold any time soon.

I would prefer not to be driven away from subscribing.  I get up before dawn, even in June, the longest days, and I look forward to jump starting my mind reading the morning paper.  I worked my whole adult life after 26 to become a morning person just to retire and find myself slept enough at the first glimmer of civil twilight, the first birdsongs, to want to get up, brew coffee (if the auto timer hasn’t activated yet) and go to the front door, open it to the porch and look for the paper, read what’s going on.

It makes me sad after all the trouble the production staff went to produce and distribute a first rate, sophisticated daily metropolitan newspaper, my copy gets missed and nobody cares, nobody’s looking out for me, it’s just too bad.  They’re sorry.  They can credit me a little over a dollar per missed daily, extending the prepaid subscription another daily.  My ultimate recourse, of course, is to quit the paper.  Obviously nobody’s bonus is tied to keeping my subscription.

I might write a letter to Glen Taylor though.  It’s an old tactic I’ve seen before, hot calls demanding to speak to the publisher when it used to be Roger Parkinson.  Saw the same tactic when I worked for a bank and the outraged customers demanded to talk to the president, Jim Campbell.  Or if they merely wrote a letter to said big boss, it would get handed off to a vice president who might hand it off to me to solve and present to another vice president to manage and send the matter back to somebody to compose a letter under the boss’s name addressed to the complainant, which might be as much as would happen over the telephone except any real involvement with the big boss — unless the complainant used threats of bodily harm, and then it was time to invoke security procedures.  Today even the tiniest innuendo could evoke a visit from the FBI.

Instead I’ll just post this essay and hope no one retaliates by cutting off my circulation.






X Marks the Spot


We live in a sketchy neighborhood.  Growing up, our daughter Michel used to call it the ghetto, but it isn’t, she was just being teenage urban dramatic.  Ghetto in America is synonymous with slums, and this is not a slum.  I have since learned that in Rome, the Ghetto, with a capital G, is one of the classiest old neighborhoods of the city along its bank of the Tiber.  In Prague, on the other hand, the ghetto not so classy an image, or in Warsaw.

What Michel meant was she was self-consciously aware of growing up in the inner city.  Though she literally accused me of risking her and our family’s lives by taking up residence here, our lives didn’t turn out too bad at all.  She and her brother Vincent both graduated South High, just a couple blocks from here.  I suppose for them it was one thing to attend one of the most prestigious urban public high schools but another thing to actually live in the hood where it’s located.  Our town was labeled Murderapolis then for its gangster homicides and it tainted us all.  A police officer was assassinated at a pizza shack not half a mile up Lake St.  I could not help but have serious misgivings about my surroundings in three decades and more at this homestead, and still Roxanne and I abide.

Ever on the cusp of gentrification, our neighborhood gets skipped by in the urban landscape for the more chic and toni parts of town, so old houses with solid bones like ours remain affordable on the local real estate market mixed with lower rents in line with a muti-housing market accustomed to being a low rent district on the Monopoly board.

Corcoran Neighborhood, thank you Google

It’s not a high crime area.  It’s not immune to crime.  Statistics show public safety around here is pretty high.  We are not specimens, however much we are an organic community of leftovers, homebodies, meanderers and nobodies sharing space on a trapezoidal map called Corcoran.  Nobody moves here to be hip or find redemption, and certainly not to speculate in real estate.  There’s an invisibleness, anonymity to this location.  A comfort zone of neutrality.

When we meet people when we travel and they ask us where we live we say Minneapolis, and they then ask which suburb.  Roxanne and I seem to strike some people as suburban, and some of them guess, Plymouth, Richfield, Coon Rapids.  Some people can hardly believe people like us live within the inner city.  I’m not sure what that means or how it reflects on us or them.

Our house was built in 1913.  The deed says the lot is located in Griswold’s second addition to the city of Minneapolis.  Nobody seems to recall who Griswold was, no statue of Old Griz resembling Chevy Chase in the park, not a Holiday Road within the city limits.  Corcoran as a neighborhood unto itself was created in the 1970s around an elementary school that no longer exists that was named after an early immigrant settler to the territory who taught school and posted the mail in the 1850s.  There are about 87 neighborhoods with names and boundaries all over the city, all distinctly formed around local neighborhood organizations responsible for nongovernmental administration of resources to their community, like grants, referrals and other informational networks of do-gooders who put to use things like federal and state aid to cities.  There have been neighborhood organizations and councils and committees and block clubs in this city (like any city) since the first meetings along the falls of St Anthony, and I’m sure some neighborhoods pulled a lot of clout by the representation of their residents in city and county government.  Corcoran territory was once part of a greater neighborhood called Powderhorn, so named for the biggest inner city central park in east Minneapolis, itself named for the shape of its valley and its lake.  To the east further Corcoran borders Longfellow.  In the Great Society that existed in the 1970s it was considered crucial not to allow inner cities to decay, and so a neighborhood awareness was fostered at the city level to create formal organizations and territories of virtually the same size to try to stir some identity among the residents, a Model City approach to urban survival.  It was a very liberal approach to fending social problems, one of many that still works.  A result was the creation of Corcoran neighborhood out of twelve or so blocks of fringe Powderhorn, a portion of city Powderhorn doesn’t miss at all, the part that abuts East Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue.

An esteemed elder visitor from Wausau, Wisconsin said our house is a Sears house.  He recognized its floor plan and the style of its kit assembly.  By Sears house I think he meant Craftsman, sold and shipped by catalogue, assembled on site, but I have no proof of authenticity.  It’s probably a cheap knockoff of a Sears house — cheap as in inexpensive, done by budget, efficiently constructed — and don’t expect any claim from me to historical designation.  Originally the house was constructed for gas lighting — whoever designed and built the house in 1913 completely missed electricity.  Gas lamps and fixtures had to be retrofitted to knob and tube wiring almost right away.  No architect configured the kitchen to include an electric refrigerator.  We have rewired and redesigned the kitchen twice more.  That’s why I’m skeptical it was a real Craftsman house.  I think it was a bootleg job of obsolete outdated plans, executed quite well, that got this solid dwelling constructed on this corner lot in Griswold’s second addition.


Roxanne and I acquired it in 1981 from the estate of the dad who passed away and left it to his only son, now orphaned, who grew up there.  His name was Ramon Muxter.  He was a fairly known photographer gone off to New York.  Credited as the inventor of the selfie, see his self portraits with Mae West and William Burroughs at the MIA, taken at arm’s length with his Leica.  I had no idea who the seller was until the night of the final walk through before closing, when we met Ramon, and I recognized him as the guy who did album covers for Dave Ray and Tony Glover and had things like the Mae West and William Burroughs selfies in the MIA collection.  Of course he joked he would have jacked the price even higher had he known he was selling to a fan.  He was cashing out to go back to New York and buy a loft.  The joke was on all of us in 1981 trying to do a house deal.  Roxanne and I wanted the place to establish our family.  At the time Michel was three and Vincent was on the way.  Ramon Muxter wanted quick cash.  The house didn’t qualify for a conventional thirty year mortgage.  Interest was about twenty percent anyway.  The real estate agent found an investor partnership to cash out Ramon and give us the house on a five year contract for deed at a mere 12%.

I remember when we first moved in, the two old guys who used to walk around the blocks together, Tony and Stanley, the Polish guy and the Russian, they thought we paid too much for the house.  They owned houses one street over from us and they were sure nobody would buy the Muxter house, it was way overpriced.

Tony and Stanley lived most of their adult lives in the neighborhood.  World War II refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, they worked their careers as machinists at the White truck plant or at the Minneapolis Moline factory, which were then located across the railroad yard bordering E Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue, both shut down since the early 1970s.  These two chums, they prided themselves in being old, long time retired pensioners.  They used to walk to work carrying lunch buckets.  Raised their families hereabouts.  They remembered the neighborhood before the new South High was built and when the block that is now the park was the site of Corcoran Elementary.

When we bought the house Roxanne and I were not new to the neighborhood.  We had lived in a fourplex apartment on Longfellow Ave near Cedar and Lake since before Michel was born, so we knew the neighborhood for what it was, working stiff families like Tony and Stanley.  We used to take 32nd St as a shortcut to or through Hiawatha Ave and go past this house, at a corner at a stop sign, and we used to admire it from the street.  A modest two story with an extruding set of bay windows facing south.  Open front porch.  Stucco siding.  A stained glass window set high on an extrusion similar to the bay windows.  Green yard.  Flowers and shrubs.  You could guess an older couple lived there — maybe we saw them, the Muxters putzing in the yard.  The house was set back from the street allowing a wide yard, and on the border of the yard and the sidewalk along the street stood four tall mature maple trees creating a shady arbor over the property, which in the fall lit up in gold.  I do not recall saying to myself or to Roxanne or even little Michel, wow, it would be worth raking every last leaf to live in that house with the beautiful maples.

I was turning 30.  Roxanne and I were together almost ten years.  We had a daughter age three.  Expected a second child in the spring — back then it was common not to know the gender.  Roxanne’s career as a research scientist took off.  I was a store manager for the Krayon Film Shops chain.  It seemed like we were making decent money, saving up for a down payment on a house.  With interest rates so high we knew we shouldn’t expect much house for our money.  We didn’t want to move to the suburbs, either.  Our apartment on Longfellow would not suffice for two kids, so we knew we would have to move either way, rent or buy.  At that stopsign on 32nd St we noticed a realtor’s for sale sign in the Muxters’ yard.

We called the realtor expecting nothing to come of it.  We expected the price too high, we would not qualify for a mortgage, somebody else already bought it.  The realtor arranged a walk through.  The interior woodwork charmed us.  It was cozy and homey.  It had a clawfoot bathtub.  Very reliable and fairly new gas boiler furnace — radiator heat.  Serviceable kitchen, especially since it was designed and built before the advent of refrigerators.  The plumbing would require upgrading to copper horizontal pipes.  The electrical wiring would have to be redone to meet current code.  And the entire upstairs — that second story as seen from the street — was entirely unfinished, just an open attic, an illusion — Ramon used to use it as a photo studio (a darkroom in the basement had been converted for the showing into a tool closet).  The realtor said she represented a motivated seller who needed to cash out his inheritance to get on with his life in New York.  She pitched us what seemed like a reasonable price, said she could get us financing through a contract for deed with some private investors, and offered to hook us up with the plumber and electrician to bring the dwelling up to code.

After walking around and getting the feel of the place Roxanne and I confided in whispers.  We loved the place.  We bought it.  Thirty six years later we’re still here.

We’ve put two roofs on it.  Painted, painted and repainted the trim.  Painted the stucco exterior.  Twice remodeled the kitchen.  Finished the upstairs into an open loft bedroom, studio, library, lounge and office.  Upgraded the bathroom.  Except paint, the fixes, upgrades and remodels were not done by us but by hired people with skills.  We like to think we’ve kept up the property, done diligent maintenance.  We have been careful not to do it harm.  Thus Roxanne and I plighted our troth to this house on a corner lot in Corcoran somewhere in Griswold’s second addition to Minneapolis and committed our lives to an urban dream to not allow cities to decay and rot.

It seemed reasonable to believe the neighborhoods relied on residents of civil citizens to sustain.  It made us sad when the younger families around the block put their houses up for sale in the 1980s when mortgage rates came back down, left the city, worried that the public schools weren’t good enough for their kids.  With no more Corcoran school, the kids in our neighborhood were offered choices to attend three or four elementary schools, none within remote walking distance, all in other neighborhoods.  The favorite one, Seward, had a waiting list to get in.  The others had reputations for overcrowding, rundown buildings, lazy teachers, low test score rankings, bad learning, crappy food and disruptive students.  One named Wilder, for Laura Ingalls, was nicknamed Wilder and Wilder Yet.  We tried to be nonjudgmental — Michel was accepted into Seward.  The bigger picture we were looking at was a trend in pessimism among the neighbors that the future of our city did not look bright, but more like blight.

The same young urbanists who welcomed us to the community when we first moved to the block gradually moved away.  This depleted our kids’ playmates, but at school the kids made new friends beyond the neighborhood.  Beyond their opinions of the city schools the neighbors who left cited reasons of safety.  They pointed to creeping blight in the residences and businesses in the blocks along Lake St.  The rental properties degenerated and with it their perceptions of the tenants.  They said they were tired of seeing the drug dealing and prostitution on their sidewalks.  Hearing loud arguments coming from the walkup apartments.  Gunfire.  They expressed no faith in city government, the county, the Met Council, the school board, the state or the feds to solve the problems, so they sold out as the real estate market rose and went to live in places where urban problems did not exist, at least in their minds.

And they were right, I guess — who am I to denounce somebody’s basic right to pursue happiness?  Their points were well taken.  We chose to stay behind because we were already happy.  What worried us most was the trend of moving out of the city looked like white flight, a very illiberal reaction to living among an increasing presence of minorities of color.  It’s been hard enough to deal with my own racism and white privilege my whole life but it was sadder to read into my ex-neighbors’ motives a tacit rejection of what decades later became commonly called diversity, and I sensed panic which I did not share.

Today we by no means are the only white people on the block but that’s not really the story of how diverse the neighborhood remains, it’s mostly about me not selling our place and moving to the country twenty years ago.  I am stubborn and barely flexible in my naive belief in humanity being able to get along.  We have a sweet place to live after all.  Nothing bad has befallen us here in this place I think of as the Buffalo House on Buffalo Acres.  Charmed life.  I report this as a testimonial.  I love this city.

Our house is located where we can access everywhere.  Backstreet direct routes to the St Paul campus for Roxanne’s commute to work, including bridges.  Parkway and lakes accessible in two directions.  The river road not far.  Freeway access nearby via Hiawatha Ave to get to the suburbs or get out of town.  I used to work downtown, twelve minutes away.  The biggest Sears store in America used to be located about fifteen blocks away on Lake St.  When I worked in St Paul I took the freeway or rode the Selby-Lake bus.  The international airport is about eight miles away down Hiawatha Avenue, aka state highway 55.  Only less than fifteen years ago a light rail train line was established between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, through the airport.  They put a station called the Midtown station two blocks from here at an overpass above Lake St and I used to commute to work downtown on the light rail.  Before that I rode the Cedar Ave bus.  There is nowhere you can’t go from our house.  You can get to Europe on the light rail to the airport, where you would have to take a plane.

When we first moved to the neighborhood we found we really didn’t have to commute very far, we were already at least halfway there.

As I mentioned, the largest Sears store in America was just down the street, where we bought house paint, shopped for a color TV and got a scoop of Swedish Fish from the candy counter lady in the linen uniform.  Two blocks away from our house, across Lake St and technically not in Corcoran but in adjoining Phillips — named for a whiskey distiller — is the strip mall called Hi Lake, named for the intersection of Hiawatha Ave and E Lake St.  When we first moved to the area before Michel was born there was an SS Kresge at the Hi Lake — a dime store, as the older folks used to say.  There was also a JCPenney.  A Snyder’s Drug, then a local chain competitor to Walgreen’s.  The anchor tenant was a Red Owl grocery store.  Kresge’s vacated to a True Value Hardware store and the Red Owl called itself the Country Store.  The savings and loan where Roxanne and I banked and had our 30 year mortgage with a lucky sweet adjustable rate we got to pay off the balloon due on our contract for deed opened an office at Hi Lake next to the hardware store.  There was a hair salon, insurance office, liquor store and an ice cream shop called Winky’s.  And a stand alone Pizza Hut towards the center of the parking lot.  On the far corner a Burger King.  Across from Burger King on the Corcoran side of Lake St was a former drive-in from the 1950s called Porky’s, subsequently converted to a sit-down restaurant of comfort food called Aunt Nora’s.  Kittycorner from Burger King was the site of the old Furniture Barn, an old late night and matinee movie sponsor selling beds and sofas pitched by a guy named Mel Jass, and even before the Furniture Barn the building was the original factory making Burma Shave.  Down the block from Nora’s was a shady restaurant called the Mad Mexican — Michel bused tables there in junior high.  I learned years later that Ramon Muxter’s dad was a retired teamster and made extra cash washing dishes at Nora’s.  Back next to Hi Lake was a dangerous looking wedge of land sticking out along Hiawatha Avenue where there was an M & H gas station facing the liquor store — the gas pump island was so precarious it felt like you could get picked of by passing traffic while gassing your car.  Across Lake St at the Hiawatha intersection was a five story no-frills office building running a trade school for electronics, radio and TV called Brown Institute, which graduated half the AM radio deejays of my generation before it folded.

JCPenney was probably the first to pull out of Hi Lake.  The Country Store followed.  Snyder’s too.  The liquor store stayed vital, Winky’s ice cream shop not so much.  An auto parts store moved in.  True Value Hardware stayed.  The savings and loan got acquired by a bank and closed the Hi Lake office.  Pizza Hut closed.  A loan shark rental center came and went.  It wasn’t just Hi Lake, there were ghost town gaps in strip malls everywhere in the 1980s recession and its aftermath.  Even so, across Hiawatha Ave, outside of Corcoran again but alongside the border with Longfellow, at the former sites of Minneapolis Moline and some other long closed factories, Target built a store alongside a slim strip mall intending to be chic with a Radio Shack, a Sepia Photo shop, Hallmark Cards and a SuperValu grocery.  Later Cub built its own stand alone grocery store further off the parking lot towards old railroad land, and the SuperValu went away.  People scoffed and laughed at Target opening a store in the inner city, but it turned out to be the highest grossing store.  To some people Target proved the middle class was viable in the inner city.  Then Sears closed its one time largest store on Lake St.  It confirmed Lake St was dying, maybe dead already.  Yet a Rainbow grocery store opened a block from Cub.

Meanwhile the busy intersection of Lake and Hiawatha congested with traffic which we continued to avoid by taking backstreets.  Eventually a bunch of federal money came through to enable the state to finish a project started in the 1950s and abandoned in the 1960s after housing and land acquisition, to upgrade Hiawatha Ave, aka Hwy 55, to almost-freeway, boulevard status between the airport and downtown Minneapolis along the east border of Corcoran.  Hiawatha Ave runs a direct beeline trail between the original Fort Snelling, the territorial federal outpost, and the mill at St Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, the trail linking the army with flour in the early 19th Century.  The beeline cuts diagonally across the grid pattern of the streets and avenues created later as the city hilariously named Minneapolis (Water City) expanded south of St Anthony to Griswold’s second addition and beyond, taking in stride the slicing Hiawatha and also its parallel companion avenue named of course Minnehaha.

Somehow in the negotiations of what amenities to the upgrade of the Hiawatha corridor might provide in additional benefits to community well being, along with the light rail line to run along Hiawatha most of the way to the airport previously appropriated, it was approved to build a bridge over Lake St at Hiawatha to eliminate most of the intersecting traffic.  This bridge, along with the elevated transit station adjacent, formed a concrete boundary to the neighborhood as formidable and intimidating as a psychological Berlin Wall.  To this day its unintended consequence puts pedestrians under bridges of desolation in a no man’s land like walking across a giant empty swimming pool of cars, trucks and buses.

Aunt Nora’s closed somewhere along the way, although she had a second location on Calhoun Boulevard whenever we craved roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a popover.  The Burger King mysteriously burned down.  The florist shop on Cedar and Lake closed.  So too the TV and appliance shop on the opposite corner, where Roxanne and I bought a Sanyo, our first color TV.  Along Lake St, across the Phillips border from Corcoran in the three blocks from the burned out Burger King and the boarded up Nora’s, the old Pioneer’s Cemetery and its lush green lawn in the summer, its gnarly oak trees in all seasons, evenly snowed in winter, smooth except the raised tombstones, the old graveyard looked more cheerful than the creepy storefronts.  Lake St looked grave.

Stanley our retiree neighbor got mugged one day walking to the hardware store.  Jumped by a couple of young punks who hit him in the head, knocked him down and took his wallet.  The aftermath of the 1980s recession left some communities slower to recover and so it seemed crime was the theme of economics.  Gang violence scared everybody.  A crack cocaine epidemic steeped the war on drugs.  The name Murderapolis fell upon the city.  Though much of the violent crime occurred on the north side, known as the black part of town, no part of the city was unaffected.  The gangster assassination of a street cop took place on the south side, near us.  Rumors and innuendoes insinuated gang takeovers of the inner city neighborhoods as residents fled violent neighborhoods for safer ones and somehow brought with them the conditions they sought to flee.  More blame was heaved on the public schools.  More outcry of inequity voiced the minorities for the unfairness of racial profiling.  Incarceration rates of young males kept increasing, blacks owning more equity there.  Wild youth menaced the streets.  Whites left the city for the suburbs with fear in their eyes the minorities would follow with their crack and criminal behaviors, loud music and slovenly ways, and so forth.  Seems all my life the world’s been on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket, the whole kit and kaboodle.  And yet somehow things tend to sort themselves out.  Stanley wore a bandage on his forehead for a few days while he walked the block.  Nobody ever caught the punks who rolled him, at least not for this particular crime.

The two most violent events on my block that I know of were murders.  One happened before our time, when an elder couple living in the house five doors down were killed in a burglary.  Turned out the renters in the house next door, six doors down, got caught with the victims’ TV set.  The other occurred in the street in front of a rundown duplex four doors down from us one summer night about three a.m. when a young woman deliberately ran her cheating boyfriend down with her car in front of his other girlfriend, and backed up and ran him over again.  Four doors down is far enough away for me to sleep through such commotion, even with the windows open for fresh air.  I learned about both reading the paper.  The neighbors filled in the details.

Time and again I suppose we had opportunities to bail.  Roxanne and I made good money, she as a research scientist at the U, I at whichever of the four or five different jobs I’ve held since we moved to Buffalo Acres, always employed, always dependable, good credit.  We could have sold and taken the equity to Greater Heights, so to speak.  After all, this place was supposed to be a starter house, just to get our foot in the real estate game.  We were expected to build a little equity, appreciation, sell it and move up in the world, every five years or so — another mortgage, more debt.  Instead we stayed, put money into maintenance and some renovation, kept up the payments and paid off the mortgage a little early.  We could sell today but where else would we go?

I think of that David Crosby song, Almost Cut My Hair, that goes, I feel like I owe it to someone.  Or like I owe someone an explanation.  It might seem to make more sense if I still had long hair, but I’ve been bald and rather corporate looking for a long time.  I’d like to say I had foresight, though I did see signs of hope in the Target store, the Hiawatha overpass at Lake St and the light rail station.  The old Brown Institute building became a charter school for Native American kids sponsored by the Anishinabi.  A second hand thrift store called Savers moved into the old Snyder’s space at Hi Lake.  Behind Hi Lake where there used to be a block of shabby housing called Happy Hollow where the Pioneer Cemetery bordered the ex-dump near Hiawatha Ave, somebody invested in building a kind of incubator center for start-up firms specializing in green technologies — the anchor tenant of this facility was a ReUse Center which was a warehouse showroom of old doors, cabinets and fixtures from old houses, and the rooftop had the first solar panel garden I ever saw in the city.  Yes, and further behind the ReUse Center and the former dump they converted an unused railroad corridor into a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting to all the lakes and scenic parkways and featuring a bold suspension bridge across busy Hiawatha Ave named for Martin Sabo, a liberal congressman who garnered a lot of federal money for programs and transportation projects in our district.  There were signs all along that the inner city was not abandoned and forgotten, it was all a matter of how much fate would determine the outcomes and how much the wills of persons staked to gain something from raising the standard of living, raising consciousness, raising safety.

I remember when Tea Party people used to deride Barack Obama for being a community organizer and I think about all the community organizers I’ve met in the inner city and I can see why people like Michele Bachmann are afraid of them.  They usually have agendas to undermine racism, oppression and injustices taken for granted as rights and entitlements by so-called libertarians who prefer to control social engineering by persecution of poor people, much of whom nonwhite minorities.  These community organizers can be vociferous and devious in their methods and still ethically build bonds in their neighborhoods to keep basic communications going and to advocate for people who get screwed by The Man and don’t know what to do next.  Some organizers get into elected politics.  Others work out of nonprofits.  Volunteers.  They make good networkers.  They keep society honest when they bring light to dark elements and engage smart dialog among persons both affected and caused.

That there are people among us who practice public service, either professionally or as avocation, and that the good ones aren’t even preachy about it, always tells me somebody’s watching what’s going on, somebody will notice what is going right and what is going wrong, and like the arc of history ultimately bends towards justice, somebody plus somebody can make things happen, can lay groundwork for things to happen to not only stop society from going to rot but actually stimulate authentic and sustainable prosperity.  To the unsung civic leaders and concerned citizens, block clubbers and liaisons with planners and developers, much thanks for paying attention to the habitat of the city.


The YWCA partnered with the school district, which already controlled or had first dibs on the former Brown Institute building at Lake and Hiawatha, to build a state of the art health club facility and gigantic fieldhouse for club use as well as physical education and sports for South High.  It meant razing a block of blighted housing and some iffy storefront businesses on Lake St, including the Mad Mexican and the vacant Aunt Nora’s.  The complex would take up the entire block from Lake St to South High and face the high school’s track and football field.

Across Lake St the burned down Burger King was replaced on the corner by a five story apartment/condo building above an Aldi’s grocery store.  The Hi Lake strip mall underwent a facelift.  The old stand alone Pizza Hut building was reconfigured for a new location for the liquor store, a taco and burrito shop and a Subway sandwich franchise.  The old JCPenney opened as a buffet restaurant, the Tippanyaki, serving consistently tasty varieties of dishes at a good price.  Then for some reason, under protest, the hardware store lost its lease and moved out — that didn’t look good.  Then the bank that succeeded the one that bought the savings and loan where we got our mortgage — who I went to work for eventually around the end of the last century — moved into the space that used to be the liquor store.  Little Caesar’s pizza moved in where Winky’s ice cream shop used to be.

A Bubbles Laundromat, a hip hop clothing store and a cellular phone shop have since moved into the space where the hardware store used to be, which so long ago was a Kresge’s.  In my mind I would prefer the shopping center would have transformed into a kind of European-style plaza like an all-seasons Christmas market, but realistically this is America, not Zurich, not the Zocalo of Mexico City.  This is Hi Lake and snobby taste for shops like Patina, Swarovski and Zara are inappropriate delusions here, available elsewhere, and respectable tenants like the current cast don’t make me nostalgic to bring back Kresge’s.  (Dime stores are now dollar stores, and there’s one of those at the other mall near Target.)  Commerce rebounded.

In a way I grew up around Lake St because my dad was a car salesman and in my childhood the car business in Minneapolis was located all up and down Lake St from East Lake St at the Marshall bridge to St Paul at the Mississippi all the way across town about eight miles to the end of West Lake, hardly a block without a dealership it seemed, lots of shiny cars parked in lots with signs and banners.  Dad worked at various dealers over the years and sometimes he took me to work on his days off so he could meet customers and close deals, and sometimes I would look around the office and the shop, but sometimes I liked to go outdoors through the car lot to the sidewalk and look around the busy street.  Seems like a lot going on.  In high school I took city buses linked to Lake St routes to get to St Bernard’s Academy, and I would transfer at Lake and Nicollet (that’s pronounced Nik-lit around here) where there was a fantastic record store where I’d fan through album covers between buses, but never bought anything because their prices were a dollar more than I could get records elsewhere.  Even after the car business moved to the suburbs there remained a lot going on, maybe some things shady, maybe not, but Lake St never scared me off, never bullied me off the sidewalk.

Lake St was my gateway to other races than the white whites I lived among growing up suburban.  Lake St was my crossroads mark, how I learned to navigate the city.  The Sears building twenty stories high was the most prominent high rise on the south side horizon outside of downtown, a skyline to itself, with a big green neon SEARS facing all four directions off its stone roof.  I could always tell where I was by proximity to the Sears.  Built in 1928, art deco, at one time it employed 2000 people, not just the department store on the lower levels but a vast catalog fulfillment center.  When the store closed in 1994 the building had floors and floors of wasted space, and not just the high tower with the neon sign.  The sign went dark for twelve years.

It lit up again as MIDTOWN, in red neon now, sign of the Midtown Global Market, an international bazaar of foods and merchandise in the place of the old department store.  A vortex of hospitals and several health clinics converged next door, a hotel chain took over and built up the upper floors to repurpose the place, and you wouldn’t know it was once a Sears if it weren’t cut in stone into the storefront over the old street level entrance.

More evidence of civic partnerships are these transformations.  The Midtown Global Market and the rising of the Midtown YWCA alongside the Midtown station of the light rail grouped these landmarks linked by Lake St and branded the area the Midtown Corridor.  Not necessarily hip and trendy it has a certain bluecollar bite to it.  Sounds inclusive, attractive to any and all of the types and kinds of various people coming to live in midtown neighborhoods.  The offspring of Model Cities and Great Society.

Some of the genius of the Global Market is the allure of collaboration and coexistence of many various cultures currently living in Minneapolis who have migrated here from other lands.  Lake St remains a crossroads gateway.  Minneapolis attracts migrants.  (And St Paul.)  Count the students from all over the world who attend our universities, who work in the tech sector, medicine or agriculture, there are those who choose to remain when they fulfill their degrees to work and have families and weave themselves into the community at large.  Then add the migrant laborers who pick crops and roof houses seasonally who stick around.  And then add the refugees, the ones who either come here or end up here escaping some form of death sentence in countries where they are persecuted and unprotected.  This is some of the makeup of the residential population, my once and future neighbors.

Vietnamese, Cambodian, Liberian, Hmong, Salvadorean, Ethiopian, Somali — these are some of the nationalities and ethnic peoples who have migrated into whole communities in Minneapolis and the surrounding metro the past two generations.  All here legally.  Refugee asylum seekers settling down and making a home, working, shopping and raising kids in a new place.  We encourage them to assimilate, and at the same time we respect their native cultures and even try to assimilate some of theirs into the mainstream, appropriation if you like, for the sake of overall diversity — music, literature, art, food.  They come to America to be free, and we take them in because America is the light of the world, a free country and good example on the planet of how to humanely treat persons displaced by political atrocity or natural disaster — that at least used to be the coda.

Before the Vietnamese in my lifetime it was Koreans.  Korean orphans.  Before that the World War II Europeans like Stanley and Tony.  People all escaping war to come to my town for a better life — a life.  The overall community welcomes them — pities them — makes room for them, lends them resources to integrate and networks them into the basic economy.  In my neighborhood the Brown Institute building on Lake St is now a public adult education school for learners of English as a non-primary language.  (In my retirement I am encouraged to volunteer there as a conversationalist but I don’t want to let anybody down.)  From my front porch I see the students park their cars and walk to class with briefcases and backpacks, like the South High kids only older and walking the other direction, inevitably a person of color, nonwhite.  The muslim women in their scarves and long skirts sometimes travel in pairs like the nuns when I was a kid, nuns who used to teach us about showing kindness to refugee victims of communism and famine.  Here, I thought, they can learn to be like us, victims of democracy and plenty.

There are five apartment buildings on our block, counting both sides of the street.  They are called two-and-a-half story walkups — two floors up and one floor down from street level, no elevator — and each building houses about six apartments (or as they say in the UK, flats) and each usually rents to a family with a mom and a kid or kids, some with husbands.  These apartments are located mainly the other half of the block and on the same side of the avenue, so from my own front porch at the corner I cannot observe what goes on except one colonial style walkup mid-block on the other side of the avenue.  And we’ve witnessed some loud and threatening behavior, domestic violence where we’ve called 9-1-1 to that building, but overall in all our years we haven’t witnessed an abundance of bad actions.  (Remember, I slept through the girlfriend boyfriend murder by car.)  Though three more walkups take up our side of the avenue, there are ten dwellings which are homeowner residences, one of which rents out as a triplex, and two others that are single family homes rented out and not owner occupied.  There are at least eight homeowner occupied houses across from us with two walkups on that side and a four-plex on our opposite corner.  In a culture that prizes home ownership the number of homeowners on our block would please an optimistic demographer looking for proof of life of a middle class after the last recession.

It’s the renter class who live in those walkups whose fate is uncertain under the current recovery.  When we first moved in, the walkups seemed more or less to have working class tenants.  One building had retirees.  Some polite Asians, possibly Hmong or Vietnamese.  People shopped at Red Owl, Snyder’s and JCPenney.  The end of the Kresge’s era.  As the 1980s recession lingered into the ’90s the tenants at the walkups turned over frequently, or maybe there were a lot more strange visitors coming around.  Nobody was shoveling the sidewalks in the winter.  In the summer the grass around the buildings died.  Burger King wrappers in the chain link fence and the ever present plastic bags that blew in like tumbleweeds from Utah.  Tenants punched out the screen windows, or maybe they just fell apart, useless to keep out flies, mosquitoes, bats.  Without screens or curtains, drapes or blinds the apartments revealed a thrust stage on the frail balconies portraying the naked drama of urban life being poor.  Their privacy concealed nothing.

On my block.  Where I looked the other way most of the time because my view faced a different direction, but I kept track.  When the retiree pensioners moved out of the walkup because it wasn’t nice anymore and the landlord was starting to rent to shady characters.  A trend of African American single mothers.  Some with boyfriends.  Tenants who didn’t get along with each other generated police calls.  There was an arson, a cocktail through the window into a basement apartment to supposedly shut somebody up.  Homeowners up the block and across the avenue pressed the city to get after the landlord to screen tenants, and while at it pressed city inspectors to check out the buildings.  To no one’s surprise the walkups started flunking code inspections.  The city threatened the landlord with prosecution of crimes committed by tenants on the premises such as crack cocaine transactions, which may or may not be constitutional, it wasn’t tested, but it got the landlord — one guy owned all five buildings — to pay attention enough to rental applications to screen for known badasses.  Or recent arrivals from Chicago with dubious credentials.  And agreed to do some cosmetic fixups and replace a stove or two.  For that he raised the rent a little, but not much, just enough to show how cheap rents were expected to be in this market and illustrate there was no real way to keep out the riff-raff.

How I idealized the flow of society I envisioned ways for poor people to make their way up so they could become not as poor, and then not poor at all.  What is it in scripture Jesus said, the poor are always with us, but cry and cry alone — no, that’s cynical.  This supposes an endless source of the poor, unless it’s the same poor all the time, and it doesn’t take any research genius to find sources of poor, if not in the USA then somewhere on the planet.  In my ideal they begin at the entry level of the economic scale and then rise as their skills and experience raise them up to where they emerge into the next economic level to replace those moving up into the next level of prosperity, and everybody has opportunity to keep learning and keep going to the next, and the next, as long as they have time.  I knew there were those who were born on third base and pretended to have hit a triple, but I saw through them and presumed others did too.  I knew there were others wrongly called losers whose faults were merely cosmetic.  If it were a perfect world Karl Marx could have been free to be a novelist.

Or a comedian.

So much for the path to the American dream running through my back yard.  It seemed sometimes I was a squatter on land undeserved, Griswold’s second addition — or edition — notwithstanding.  Our presence on this corner I’ve always thought of as caretakers of a small piece of civilization.  It passed to us from Raymond and Hazel Muxter through their son Ramon, and we will someday pass it on as well.  It’s only real estate, I tell myself.  And still I wonder if I deserve to live so well on the same block as poverty.  We are not rich, not even upper middle class in the big picture of home economics.  Yet, compared to our neighbors living in the two-and-a-half story walkups, we might be millionaires.  To someone living on this planet in a country where from our refugee neighbors fled we might be zillionaires.  The longest lasting sustaining effect we might have on the world we live is to show good example of what we mean.  If people like us, white, educated, modern, liberal baby boomers abandoned the city, why would succeeding generations choose to take our place?  If white society, as if banded together formally, abandoned the city there would be no white voices to answer, no white ears to listen, no white skin to feel the nerves of color enamorating our urban culture.  The city needs white skin in the game.

Not white supremacy, to be clear.


I simply feel the need to justify my existence in the inner city, for anyone living who might suggest I don’t belong.  I stopped being hip and cool about 1978 when I became father to a daughter, and no matter how many tries at MTV and the worldwide web I never got it back.  I can’t feed off the legacy of Prince — who by the way established his headquarters in the suburbs.  Many of my contemporaries are outdoorsy types living Up North or down on the farm.  I’m not gay, though I am a happy guy.  Everybody has to live somewhere.  The Buffalo House is my townhome, my condo, only I am the homeowner association who provides the maintenance and nobody can tell me I can’t paint my garage orange.  The mortgage is paid off and in theory I’ll always have a place to live as long as I keep up the insurance, taxes and utilities.

The YWCA is two blocks away.  True to promise it’s a world class health club and sport center.  We became members as soon as they opened the doors.  Roxanne uses their fitness machines and takes cardio exercise classes.  Our membership is now covered by our Medicare part B — they call it Silver Sneakers, but I don’t like the idea of being sneaky.  There’s a big indoor oval track that rings the second level of the field house where I go to walk and trot laps in winter when long walks outdoors on the best groomed sidewalks can be treacherous from snow and ice and the air itself is brutally cold.  Walking in the field house I can listen to my iPod on my Skull Candy earbuds, something I would not usually do on the street just walking around the city, and look out the windows.

One side of the track looks at South High, the athletic field and bleacher grandstand.  There used to be boarding houses, a few half-blocks of them, off a half-street bordering the athletic field, and it was rumored these boarding houses were true bordellos.  At the commercial edge of these houses stood the old Furniture Barn, for a while an officina for a Hispanic insurance business, and across Lake St you could see the pikes and stone fence of the Pioneer’s Cemetery and the new Aldi’s with the apartment building over it where the Burger King burned down.

Most recently the half blocks of boarding houses along with Lake St commercial properties like the old Furniture Barn were razed and cleared.  The view from the field house track witnessed the demolition, done in mere days.  The sudden vacancy was stunning, like looking at a rival farm compared to the groomed grass on the other side of the South High fence.  A guy from the neighborhood tried to organize a movement to stop the demolition of the Furniture Barn building on historical grounds because it was the original Burma Shave factory, and he sat at the stoplight on the corner by the Y at a card table with posters and handing out fliers until the very last day.  The city will put up a historical plaque on the corner when reconstruction is done.

The school district acquired the land between Lake St and South High to build an adult continuing education center affiliated to the high school.  It will replace the facility being used at the old Brown Institute building on the other side of the Y.  From the windows on that side of the field house I watched the demolition and excavation of vacant pavement all around the Brown Institute, breaking ground to build a county service center across the street from the Y and next to the Midtown rail station, with apartments adjacent to the service center filling in the rest of the block towards my house.  The county service center and a small parking ramp off Lake St at virtually the corner of Lake and Hiawatha is phase one of the project.  It required an immense excavation and the driving of the pylons for the foundation clonked the neighborhood half the summer.  It has risen as a rather attractive building of a modern proto-european style.  It complements a so-called senior living apartment building erected the year before on the opposite side of Lake St on the triangle where the M & H gas station used to be, adjacent to the Hi Lake strip mall and against the Midtown station.  A lot of new multifamily housing going up in the city these days are designed in this style, which appears austere but elegant and can wear well over time.  The second phase will enclose the block around the service center with multifamily apartments.

The third phase will move the public adult education facilities out of the Brown Institute and into the new buildings on the old Furniture Barn blocks, the other side of the Y, upon completion later this year.  Then the Brown Institute will be torn down like a disassembled erector set, leaving a green gap between the county service center, the new apartments and the Midtown rail station.

Walking laps around the field house to the random shuffle of songs on the iPod and looking out the windows at bulldozers, cranes, lots of hard hats and green-glow yellow vests putting down concrete and putting up walls, then windows, then doorways, facades, life takes on the vista of time-lapse movies.  A song from Madonna, Like a Prayer comes on the iPod, not the original but the one recorded as performed in the Hope for Haiti Now TV benefit right after its last big earthquake in 2010.  In the song she misses a line, as if she’s all caught up amazed by the gospel chorus in the final buildup to the crescendo, a little mesmerized by her own song, she omits life is a mystery, goes straight to everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name and it feels like home.  Why does this all seem so dissonant, I wonder as I round the bend of the track between windows, filling in the life is a mystery part in my mind, asking myself if I really like the changes happening to this part of the neighborhood or am I simply content that things are changing and so far nothing’s going wrong.

My favorite thing at the Y is the pool.  I love to swim, just cruise in the water, tread water, crawl, backstroke, float.  Slow lazy laps back and forth from the shallow to the deep end.  Taking in the echoes of the ambience of such a big room, watching the roof beams go by floating and cruising on my back.  This aquatic center has an olympic pool with lanes, a smaller recreational pool with fountains for kids, and a water slide which I usually partake when it is scheduled.  Roxanne and I bring our grandkids on our guest passes.  My favorite other thing about the pool at the Y is the greatest hot tub on the planet with the best jets ever.  Healing bubbling waters for the aches and pains the toil on this mortal coil inflicts day to day.  Yes.  Alleluia.

The two block walk from my house to the Y and back goes past the row of two story walkups.  Then and when I used to commute downtown to work from the Midtown station I would pass them every day, walking by.  I never thought of it as a gauntlet as much as a reality check.  The coexistence of low rent dwellers on the same block as median homeowners keep me aware of my own privileges and responsibilities to the civic social contract.  I don’t feel guilty for these disparities so much because I did not cause them — no action or decision of mine set in motion the lives of these people that they ended up living in two-and-a-half story walkups on my block — and my concern is what I might do about them now and in the future to alleviate these disparities, looking for that wisdom to know the difference.  I’m not a missionary kind, so I don’t knock on doors, say, how’s it going brother, no I tend to mind my own business.  Respect privacies.  I do look people in the eye.  I make eye contact in the street, on the sidewalk passing by.  In the summer people at the walkups tend to hang out in the front yard and open up their windows.  Not once have I ever been harassed or detained.  Sometimes lately they set up little yard sale flea markets on the grass in front of the apartments, but usually I don’t need the baby clothes, a wooden chair or mariachi CDs and cassettes.  Of anything I worry they might think I do not respect them or think I’m condescending when I say hola to the Hispanic ones.

Lately those buildings, the tenants and the landlords have been in the news from being in district court.  The tenants sued their landlord about eight years ago for unanswered complaints about mould, cockroaches, faulty plumbing, broken heating systems and just about anything you can imagine could go wrong in a low rent housing flat.  The same guy owned the five walkups on our block along with about fifteen other buildings on the east side of south Minneapolis, and he was just coming off litigation from not screening bad actors from being tenants.  He claimed he was doing the best he could to maintain all his buildings and it wasn’t fair that he who cared enough about his poor tenants to give them shelter at such little cost was singled out for just a couple of apartments just to make him look bad.  He counterpunched the tenants, saying some bad apples attracted cockroaches, they abused the plumbing, disrespected the property.  The city inspectors investigated the properties.  It dragged out in court but the landlord lost his rental license and had to sell the properties to somebody who would maintain them to code.

The new owner spruced up the curb appeal, put up new signs and made better arrangements for prompt snow shoveling and keeping the grass groomed and picking up litter.  Things inside the apartments kept breaking down, stoves and ovens, heaters, windows (in the back, away from the avenue, facing the alley) and nothing got fixed.  Water leaks.  Mould.  Fed up, the tenants took up legal action against the new landlord, this time with a bigtime downtown law firm working pro bono.  In discovery it was found the landlord defrauded the court with false documentation, and it was learned the new landlord didn’t even own the apartments anyway, legally, but the old landlord actually still held the deeds.  The court ordered a trustee to manage the buildings and collect the rents (so that rents may not illegally be withheld) while new ownership is sought for the buildings.  The second landlord, asserting on appeal he rightfully owns the buildings not the first landlord, claims to have sold them to a third party, but the city does not recognize the third landlord as having legally purchased the buildings.  None of them have rental licenses.  So far the tenants still occupy their flats, paying rent to the management trustee.  Thus far the city brokers the status quo.  The repairs are being made, I hear.

The future happiness of the tenants remains to be seen.  The management trustee is learning the actual costs of maintaining each building after finding out terms of the contract binding the buildings to the first landlord, the second landlord was given an operating budget which included capital maintenance, and any money the second landlord didn’t spend he was allowed to keep.  What everyone is learning is the real cost, the real price of affordable housing.

The landlords all say, if they upgraded all the cheezy housing to minimum standards they would have to charge market rate prices for rents, and that would price the poor out of the rental market.  If some developer came in, bought the five walkups on our block and gentrified them, the poor tenants would disappear, be gone.  But that’s not going to happen, says the city, which pledges to foster the creation of more affordable housing, not less, and also according to the developer of the senior apartments on the old triangle next to Hi Lake, same developer of Rail Line Flats along Hiawatha which were just built in the in-fill property the highway, the railway and the bikeway didn’t take, also the same developer of the soon-to-be apartments that will fill in the rest of the block facing the Y after phase three.  I met this developer at a cordial community meeting to present the grand reveal of the land-use plan for the long-lost asphalt corner of East Lake St and Hiawatha Ave surrounding the old Brown Institute, next to the Midtown station.  He told me his studies showed there was no hope for market rate housing — market rate anything — in this neighborhood, it was all affordable or nothing.  I am reconciled to know they won’t be building any luxury hotels on any land nearby, even if there might be a ready workforce of the servant class in the neighborhood.  To this I asked the developer whether this designation of affordable could be a way to brand the neighborhood’s destiny, and he got a little defensive and insisted nobody looking at all the demographics would see it otherwise.

So, amigos of the walkups, take heart, nobody wants to evict you.  Nobody’s going to swoop in and convert the properties into luxury condos and put you on the street, we’ve all been advised by an expert, the neighborhood isn’t all that cool.  This isn’t Uptown, or Linden Hills, not Lake of the Isles, not even Powderhorn, or Brackett, or even Seward.  This is not Loring Park, or Whittier.  You all can stay.

Perhaps after getting one’s legs steady at residence in one of those apartments one can afford to go deeper into the neighborhood and rent a house.  Or a duplex.  The city is trying to make fourplexes popular by rezoning almost all residential lots to allow fourplexes.  Whereas people might trend to seek detached single family houses to rent or to buy, the urban planners and developers promote higher density.  Okay then, one gets the sense the plan to increase the population habitat and wonders if it is in anticipation of a growing population to come or whether it’s to manufacture demand for high density housing to lure a bigger population to fill some kind of city need.  I am an urban person by persuasion but I am wary of high density living.  It will be a center of the American experiment, so to speak, to invite hundreds more people to live on the next block the next couple years.

Already I’m seeing some of the so-called seniors from the so-called senior apartments down at Hi Lake taking jaunts and hikes past our house and into the neighborhood.  Our sidewalks are inviting, aren’t they?  There is green space landscaping planned at the new apartments but the tenants might still care to walk just four blocks to Corcoran park.  Our lawns and trees make a pleasant landscape for strolling.  I have seen people with badges on lanyards around their necks out strolling the neighborhood during lunch hours, employees at the new county service center.  It pleases me to provide a welcoming environment for visitors and new residents.

It remains to be seen whether all the new construction projects will transform the neighborhood or belie its flaws.  I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the county service center a couple of years ago.  Chairs were arranged around a speaker’s podium on the asphalt of the vast parking lot on the corner of the Brown Institute where local leaders spoke of revival and synergy.  Neighbors, onlookers and members of the media watched and mingled over coffee and cookies.  Authorities, dignitaries, the developer and folks affiliated behind the scenes of the project took turns putting on hard hats and yellow-green safety vests to pick up ceremonial golden shovels and get photographed shoveling spades of ceremonial sand.  Posing for these pictures they reminded me of those face cut-outs at tourist attractions.  A journalist struck up a conversation, asked who I was and where I lived and what I thought of the project.  I said it was a dynamic jump-start to a stagnant corner long starved for attention and life and it should add to the diversity of the neighborhood.  I could tell he was piqued at my insertion of the word diversity.  I sensed right away it was a mistake to invoke that buzzword, and the reporter may have sensed unintended sarcasm.  What do you mean by that? he asked.

I reflected a moment and said that the corner where we stood and the intersections around it were an ongoing scene of migration and transmigration and adding more people into the mix could vitalize the place.  I added I was not in favor of greater population density but recognized the realities of proportionate land use.  I found myself getting more vague as I chose my words so as not to trigger inference of race.  I wanted to express my wonder of what might be the result of the treatment these acres were undergoing.  I hesitated to predict a golden renaissance.  I did not address any fear that crosscurrents of cultural or ethnic friction could compress and become volatile where the population squeezed most dense.  I avoided sounding like a stereotypical white homeowner pondering the arrival of hundreds of renters of affordable housing presumed to be people of various, diverse shades of color.  I avoided sounding like an unstereotypical white homey pandering to my soon-to-be new brothers and sisters in the hood.  The journalist tired of my jive and moved on to interview the county commissioner.  My remarks did not merit mention in the next day’s paper.

The one important unifying element of the neighborhood I have not mentioned yet is the Midtown Farmer’s Market.  Every Saturday from May to November the asphalt corner at the foot of the Brown Institute turned into a village of canopies and tents, stalls and trailers, bushels and pecks, quarts and gallons, bins and sacks of fresh vegetables and fruits in season.  Corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, carrots all grown within a hundred miles.  Locally raised meats.  Honey.  Bakery goods.  Vendors selling jewelry and lotions.  Shirts and dresses.  Flower bouquets.  Food trucks making tacos, kabobs and omelets.  A music stage.  The farmers market packed the usually dead asphalt with humanity like having a global market one day a week.  After several years they expanded the days to Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the summer.  Rain or shine we could get fresh groceries but on a nice day it was a nice place to hang out, see if we knew anybody.

The new county service center would displace the farmers market.  During construction on the corner across from the YWCA, the market was allotted a temporary piece of the parking lot used by the adult education program stashed behind the old Brown Institute and next to the rail station.  During the planning phases of the development neither the county, the school district nor the housing developer would make any promises on the fate of the farmers market, successful now in its 15th year.  They would say, when this farmers market got started you all knew all along the use of the empty asphalt across from the Y was temporary, and we can’t guaranty any space for it in the final project.  Somebody persisted — probably an Obama era community organizer — and all the parties gave an inch and designed permanent space for the farmers market.  The market could operate in the adult school’s parking lot during construction.  When the new adult education facility opened on Lake St, the other side of the Y, and after the old Brown Institute was torn down, the farmers market could occupy the green space left in the open footprint of the Brown Institute, at the center of the block between the county service center and the new apartments.  Fair enough.  This continuity is vital to the neighborhood’s identity.

The other day the city’s new mayor spoke at a rally-style news conference on the rooftop of the adjacent 135 unit apartment complex just built last year along Hiawatha Ave called the Rail Line Flats.  They call them workforce apartments.  It’s a nice building along the style I liken to modern multifamily housing I’ve seen in European cities with vertical linear frame patterns, horizontal rectangles arranged vertically, and earth tone multi-tone facades.  In the year it’s been occupied there’s been no noticeable changes in neighborhood activity, particularly in traffic patterns, which was surprising to me given the ingress and egress proximity to Hiawatha Ave.  The mayor, Jacob Frey, newly elected, young and energetic, handsome and genial, pitched his goal to spend $50 million toward affordable housing.  In addition to building more units on vacant lots and lending down payment assistance for home buyers his vision includes protection for renters, diligent building inspection and renters rights.  It’s a tight market, he says — vacancy rates are about 2%, where 5% is considered competitive, and home prices are up, demand high, inventory low.  The population of the city is rising for the first time since I was a baby.  As an elected leader the guy realizes the overall issue is urban livability for all.

I’m on board.  Minneapolis is a rich city.  Affordability got us this house in the first place when we were young, and if not poor, economically challenged.  We qualified for a grant to replace our roof the first year.  We didn’t always make such good money.  Looking back we bought this place on the cheap but it didn’t seem so cheap at the time, just way cheaper than a house on Lake Harriet, or Seward East.  It still is, according to Zillow.  If the mayor wants to use this neighborhood as an illustration of his goals, I welcome him.

A few years ago when he was vice president, Joe Biden came to Minneapolis to speak at a luncheon downtown.  On his way back to the airport on Hiawatha Ave he ordered his motorcade to take a turn into the neighborhood because he said he heard a lot of good things about South High and he wanted to see the place for himself.  The motorcade pulled up between the school and the athletic field where the football team was holding practice.  Joe Biden got out of his limo and approached the team, took off his jacket and tossed a round of Go Deep with the receivers.  I am told by somebody who knew somebody that on the way in and out of the neighborhood the motorcade passed by our corner and on the way back to Hiawatha Ave, as they paused at the stop sign the vice president gestured a thumbs up and said, “Nice house.”

It’s a nice neighborhood.  I cannot take all the credit.  It might be my fault if it falls apart, and I’ll take the blame.  Seriously, I’m happy we stayed.  We proved to ourselves we were right, there is no inherent evil living in the heart of the city.

Maybe the most pervasive influence in our part of town since we’ve moved here is Latino.  Why so many people from places so much closer to the equator would choose to migrate here, Terra Frio, the land of brutally cold winters, I don’t know.  A horrible cynic would cry out they must be illegal aliens all hiding out where nobody either expects to find them or nobody else would take them — sanctuary city and so forth — but there must be a deeper reason to settle in the Twin Cities.  I trust they’re legal, street legal at least, and when you look around you see they really aren’t aliens, they are quite at home.

A lot of Mexican heritage and also Ecuadorian, Columbian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Salvadorean, Lake St the past generation has evolved into a corridor brightened by the colors of Latin America.  Panaderias.  Mercados.  Supermercados.  Tiendas.  Not just restaurants and taquerias but offices and trades took up business in the blight the car business left behind and lifted a depressed and down and out stretch of a gritty street and over time gave it new vitality, new reputation and new history.

Not only Latinos but more enterprising immigrant minorities are locating firms in the city, most noticeably east Africans these days.  In the 1970s it was Vietnamese, in the ’80s Hmong, through the years of migration the migrant tribes establish signature businesses and build identity around town.  Turning the old Sears into a global market serves the market and the marketeers as a prime venue for prosperity like the farmers market serves the growers and the eaters for good nutrition.  It’s a good idea to open avenues of prosperity and nutrition to all seekers of the American dream and to keep the doors open.

That last recession of 2008 proved a tipping point on our block.  That was about the time the tenants at the walkup apartments first stood up to their landlord about their living conditions.  A duplex went abandoned, condemned.  Across the street the lady got foreclosed and before she could be evicted she died from the illness that kept her from keeping up the mortgage.  Anybody who bought a house or recently remodeled with a second mortgage was under water, owed more than the house’s value.  Foreclosures and short sales became common.  Anybody who wanted to sell and move couldn’t get a good price or find qualified buyers.  It reminded me of when Roxanne and I first moved in.

Here we were just paying off our mortgage and sitting relatively sweet, fully employed at the peaks of our careers, empty nesters, grandparents, free to travel and take a winter vacation and lo and behold the rest of the economy caved in.  We didn’t get pay raises for a while, though we were already making good money.  We were in a position to help others, increased charity, but that’s not something to boast but a left hand not knowing what the right hand does kind of thing, if you know scripture.  Here we elected our first African American president, the master community organizer himself, a gentleman and a scholar, and what happens is the whole phony premise of economic valuation started to crash like the unseen hand of a Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme.  What a coincidence!

The following ten years proved the ultimate resilience of the neighborhood.  After a couple of winters of bleak stagnancy a young couple from Kansas City with little twin boys moved in across the street.  He is a techie working for a Fortune 500 firm.  Privately I refer to her as the Jamaican Lady for some reason because she could be Malcolm Gladwell’s sister.  Nice family.  Boys, Avery and Ivory, are getting lanky.  They just added a baby girl last year.

Next to their house on the far side, next to the colonial brick walkup is a curious narrow stucco house covered in ivy vines.  It was built identical to the place directly across the street, probably about 1910, both houses by members of the same family.  The one next door to the Jamaican Lady was kept in the family about a hundred years until the last one to inherit it decided to sell it and move away, only she waited until after the recent real estate bubble burst, had to put some money into a furnace and amenities to make it attractive to sell.  The buyer was a couple of teachers, a lesbian couple both named Sarah, who snapped it up because it was affordable and they liked the neighborhood, good location, and by the way they too had a baby girl born last year.

The other twin home across the street had been out of the family at least one generation, had been subdivided into an up-down duplex which fell into shabby disrepair and eventually became condemned.  By then it barely bore resemblance to the Sarahs’ twin across the street except for their identical stained glass windows.  At the point it got condemned it had been the object of two different guys who acquired it and tried to rehab it and left it abandoned.  Four years ago it was acquired before demolition by a local non-profit land trust who completely gutted it to the bones and reassembled it again as a single family dwelling with a fresh stucco exterior painted Bungle House Blue, then sold it to a young hipster couple, the Edens, Adam and Evelyn, he a county attorney and she a teacher of adult education, English as a non-primary language (at a different school district for now) and they too had a child last year, a boy.

The same land trust also bought the house across the street from us where that poor lady went bust and died.  They gutted it and reassembled it with a fresh exterior and sold it to the Kanes, Rob and Judy, both blind.  The Edens say they were interested in this house first before theirs but got aced out by the Kanes.  The Kanes had a baby boy almost two years ago.

The nicest house, the jewel of the block, is a three story Victorian mansion two doors down from us we still call the Washburn house, not for the current owner, or for the owner when we first moved here, or for the original builder, but for the ones who completely restored it fifteen years ago.  The previous owner for more than a generation was Betty Rodriguez, who raised eleven kids there.  Betty had a famous restaurant on the north side, Mexican of course.  She was from around the Rio Grande.  A tragic accident while in the hospital paralyzed her from the waist down and she ended up living in a wheel chair out of a makeshift porch off the dining room where she had access to the living room and kitchen.  Betty taught Roxanne how to make enchiladas.  She always had one of her kids’ families living with her in the upper two floors, sometimes more, all taking care of her.  Roxanne and I used to sort of be on call to help her if she slipped too low in her chair if Betty was home alone.  We were friends with a couple of Betty’s daughters and their kids played with ours.  The famous boxer Raphael Rodriguez was Betty’s son.

When Betty passed away the house was acquired by Jeff and Sarah Washburn, in their thirty-somethings with a son in elementary school.  Sarah was a teacher.  Jeff was the CEO of a housing trust that reconditioned rundown housing and helped finance buyers, albeit not the same housing trust that later benefited the Edens and the Kanes.  In their own time Jeff and Sarah renovated the Rodriguez house, made it gorgeous from the roof to the basement.  They said they were good at working together since they met in the Peace Corps in Honduras.  They fenced in the back yard, put in a porch, patio, hot tub.  Inside they put in a new kitchen, replaced broken woodwork, restored the porch and living area after Betty.  At possibly the penultimate peak of the housing bubble, the Washburns sold the place to another lesbian couple, Jennifer and Sarah, who were childless.  The Washburns moved across town where they found another old Victorian home to restore.

Shortly after the new owners put a new metal roof like the ones in Paris on the Washburn house the housing bubble burst and the new owners were under water from the getgo.  They struggled for a few more years and finally took a short sale to a hetro couple in their very late twenties, both family psychologists, she with a broader practice and he more focused on juvenile and adolescent.  Such a big lovely house, they started out renting to roomers; it must have been like living in an Airbnb.  Very recently they had their first baby, a girl.

Just adding these new neighbors among the old reliable ones already here reinforces my hopes and dreams of a respectable neighborhood, and now that they are having children invigorates me even more to believe we have a joint faith in the future.  We all know we’re living in a sketchy place and time.  My time will come to pass too soon.  I would like to leave this place in willing hands to nurture positive outcomes.

The journalist I talked with at the county groundbreaking ceremony asked me if I would recommend this neighborhood to my kids, and I said, of course but I don’t need to, they have their own minds.

Old neighbor Stanley the retired factory machinist ex-Russian eventually passed away but not from his wounds when he got mugged.  He died of natural causes, as did the Polish guy, his walking companion, Tony, who as they say preceded him in death.  After Tony passed, Stanley kept walking, alone is when he was vulnerable to his muggers but he kept on, accompanied more and more by his wife.  After Stanley passed she walked by herself until you come to think of it she was suddenly seen no more.  Somebody sold their houses.  Somebody moved in.


Spring arrived late this year.  Our horrid winter lingered like pneumonia.  We got a blizzard of two and a half feet of snow the Ides of April.  The neighbors mobilized double time to help dig each other out.  Ice did not leave the local lakes until just May 5.  Now it’s all melted and gone out of mind.  The sun is high and daylight begins before six and lasts past eight.  Trees have green budleafs.  The apple trees are in bloom in pink and burgundy.  We dug the sludge out of the flower beds we left from procrastination in the fall, raking the maple leaves into the gardens for mulch to comfort the hibernating perenniels, now we take out the muck to expose the soil and the emerging crocuses.  Some of the tulips left from the Muxter years don’t bloom any more, just scraggly leaves, the bulbs too old, need replacement this fall for next spring.  The daffodils stand sentry for a few days while the peonies get ready, the phlox, and so on.  The lawn feels barefoot lush.  Lilacs are on the way.  Tomorrow mow the grass for the first time.

Contacted a local tree service and asked for an arborist to come over to give us advice and a bid on trimming our four tall maples.  He emailed me back with a quote to remove all four and pull and grind all the stumps.  I wrote back he misunderstood me, I wanted just to trim the dead branches and advice how to keep them healthy.  He called me on the phone and told me, they’re dying.

All those dead branches up near the top and the hollow boughs with bark falling off are signs that the trees are reaching the end of their life cycle.  The roots were dying and the trunks having trouble moving nutrients into the limbs and branches.  They are dying from within, he told me.  He said he could trim off the deadwood this year but next year we would look up and see more deadwood, and we would never keep up, eventually each tree would lose more and more life, and limbs, even hunks of trunk could fall.  He came to the house and met with Roxanne and me and had us look up into the trees from all angles.  They were mature all right, about five stories tall.  The arborist guessed forty to fifty years old.  By the looks of some of those upper branches and the condition of some patches of bark it is plain the four shady maples are doomed.

Roxanne and I haven’t decided whether to take out all four at the same time or the worst two now and keep the other two another couple years.  We arranged to wait to have the work done until January so we could enjoy the summer shade, the arbors of green and the eventual fall colors one last time.  One last raking.  It’s heartbreaking for us to imagine this homestead without those maples and their protective spans filtering the sun, green on blue like part of the sky itself.  I keep thinking I will miss the oxygen.



Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico


Have you heard?  The US State Department has issued a travel advisory against Mexico at the highest level of alert, on the same level as Syria and Somalia.  Places where you can get barrel bombed with gas chemicals by the government or face a suicide bomber at the hotel.  Mexico.  Que?

Roxanne and I go to Ixtapa every winter.  Eighteen years.  We started taking winter breaks when our kids were young, Hawaii, Cancun.  Once we tried South Padre Island.  Punta Cana.  When in my thirties I ran a little photo store for Krayon Film Shops in a shabby little shopping center in St Anthony Village which was owned by a guy named Juan Fulgencia Batista, former dictator of Cuba.  One customer was a professor at the U named Dr Mirocha, and one day he showed me his vacation pictures of a place on the ocean with a palm tree beach he called Ixtapa and said it was one of the three places in Mexico where the government designated certain tourist development zones, the other two being Cancun and Cabo.  Cancun was already highly developed, as I learned later first hand in the 1990s.  Connections to Cabo were iffy from Minneapolis then.  Hawaii was prohibitively expensive except when my brother Sean was stationed at Hickam, and it took forever to get there (this before we ever flew to Europe) so about twenty years after hearing Dr Mirocha at my film shop say to visit Ixtapa, Roxanne found a deal with MLT Vacations for a week, nonstop air and hotel.

Liked it so much we did it again the next year.  And the next.  At some point one week was not enough, nor ten days.  For a professional couple in our early 50s, almost empty-nesters, it was some kind of Springsteen’s Beautiful Reward to get away for two weeks every last week of January.  An entitlement we awarded ourselves each year for our hard work and dedication, and for enduring Minnesota winter.  It’s no exaggeration how wretchedly severe winter days can be on end in Minneapolis.  Our careers peaked, and with seniority came more PTO, and soon it required three weeks at the beach to work out all the stress of working the other 49 weeks of the year.  We’re retired now.  This year we were in Mexico a month.  What’s the allure?

The weather is predictably consistent.  Usually about 90 degrees F.  Sunny, partly sunny or partly cloudy.  Rarely overcast.  It has rained twice — a novelty.  Predictably good weather became a prime criterion for choosing our place to escape.  Weather, after all, is the reason we take a midwinter vacation.  Where we live, the cold is so harsh it sucks the life out of your bones.  We would rather not risk a precious week or two away from inebriating cold weather in favor of a warm beach to chance encounter rain storms and chilly seas.  Ixtapa in January, February always gives its weeks’ worth of paradise weather every year.

Located deep down Mexico’s Pacific coast, a thousand miles due south of Texas and about seven hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, maybe three hundred miles south of Mexico City, Ixtapa is actually a few degrees south of Cancun in latitude, on the opposite coast.  It’s almost as far south as coastal Mexico gets before it touches Guatemala and curves north to Yucatan and the Caribbean.  Ixtapa practically faces south southwest to the Pacific, about a thousand miles free of the Baja California peninsula.  Better known resort destinations such as Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo are hundreds of miles west and north up the coast, and the major city Acapulco about two hundred miles east and south.  Much of Mexico’s west coast is rugged and rocky with a narrow stripe of seaside towns along the marinas and beaches bordering the Sierra Madre mountain range that forms the western spine of the country.  Ixtapa was created out of a coconut plantation and a mangrove estuary deliberately to lure and habitate tourists in the virtual middle of nowhere.

Nearby, about three miles around a couple of small mountains along the sea is the longtime old town of Zihuatanejo.  Famous as the eventual destination of Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the place functions as the municipal and commercial base of the region, which extends up and down the coast and into the foothills of the Sierra Madre.  I like to call it Downtown Mexico.  It is not a pretty town, but neither is it fake.  This is where most of the hospitality workers of Ixtapa live.  It is also a resort town unto itself with accommodations ranging from urban three story hotels above the tiendas and cantinas to traditional Spanish style hotels and condos on the cliffs above the lovely beaches on Zihuatanejo Bay.

I remember my first impressions of Zihuatanejo.  The highway to Ixtapa from the airport passes through Zihuatanejo on a main boulevard before it becomes a short superhighway through some canyons before becoming a boulevard again at the hotel zone that is Ixtapa.  We were on a tourist bus provided by MLT Vacations to take us from the airport to our hotels.  I had a window seat and a cerveza.  I was not surprised to see poverty, though I had witnessed worse in the Dominican Republic.  Zihuatanejo was definitely a working class city.  No evidence of glamor, not even an automobile showroom.  What impressed me the most was the rebar sticking up from the corners of the roofs of the concrete homes.  It told me the residents had hope and optimism, signifying that one day they planned to expand to a second story.

At the time of our first visit it was not long after we stopped referring to developing natures and cultures as Third World.  When you come at later adulthood from a white narcissistic point of view it taints you for life no matter how inclusively educated you think you are trying to be, so you try a little harder and behold you see basic fundamental things around you that translate without verbal words.  From the outset the people in the hospitality industry of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo have treated Roxanne and me as guests most welcome and sincere.  It helps to have good manners and to respect our hosts.  We took community education Spanish classes back home just so we could get along better on vacation if we made an effort to know how to pronounce verbs and order off a menu en espanol.  Now, instead of through an agency like MLT, we book our reservations directly and take a taxi from the airport to the hotel instead of the bus coach, but it’s the same boulevard through Downtown Mexico.  The good thing all these years later is the place has not caved or rotted from within.  They paint their concrete buildings bright colors.  The sidewalks are not trashy.  There’s a car showroom now.  It’s still not all that pretty but it’s still authentic.  And there’s still rebar sticking up.

It’s still both penance and purgatory to ride through Zihuatanejo on route to Ixtapa.  Ixtapa is the modern place in the rich world.  Ixtapa is the destination at the end of the superhighway around the mountains.  It’s where the high rise hotels and condos face the beach.  Where the low rise shops and restaurants sprawl the blocks and plazas aloof across the main boulevard of the hotel zone.  Where the golf course, nature estuary and eventually the yacht marina abide.  In the mix is a community of vacationers and hospitality workers in a homeobiotically entwined tango of leisure and service among strangers who may never see each other again and persons who may never travel far from their neighbors and families.  The inhabitants of the hotel rooms and condos along and near the beach are temporary citizens of a place where we live at best less than ten percent of the year and many will visit but once, and any attachment to the place is fleeting and narrow, lives focused on leisure by the sea with no visible means of support.  The permanent residents of Ixtapa — there is a residential district in a valley beyond the commercial plazas and cocinas and older back street hotels — and of greater Zihuatanejo, which includes little towns like Troncones and Playa Linda to the west and Playa Larga and Petatlan to the east and who knows what into the mountains to the north, number more than 150,000 now, all stuck here in the middle of nowhere along the beautiful blue Pacific, all working in some capacity and woven by some thread to the tourists.

We repeat customers make up a nice slice of the pastel.  Establishments respect this and thus a rather refined culture of service prevails everywhere in the region.  It’s not just the people at the Krystal hotel who get to know you after so many years, or maybe a restaurant proprietor who’s seen you before, but it seems every place you go the people behind the counter, the drivers, the servants all greet you with respect and friendly intent.  It’s a far far cry from the service indifference of Las Vegas.  At Ixtapa Zihuatanejo there is a sincere, authentic culture of gracious hospitality (even when service is slow) that seems to spring indigenously among everyone engaging the public in a way that can be refined through good hotel and restaurant training programs but otherwise cannot be taught to a degree this heartfelt.  Surely they’re doing it for the money but there’s more motivation and deeper meaning than tips, at least you hope so when you look into their eyes and see they care about what they do to make you feel welcome.


And so Roxanne and I have made ourselves at home at this Krystal hotel all these years.  The room rates are affordable.  The accommodations are comfortable and secure.  Clean?  At home I don’t scrub the bathroom and change the bed linen every day.  As I said, we first came to the Krystal via MLT Vacations but after a while booked our own flights and directly reserved rooms with the hotel.  Our loyalty derives from the way they have always treated us, with nothing less than gracious hospitality.  It’s not just us.  Everybody gets it.  If anyone can get credit for setting the dorado standard for service in greater Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, the people of the Krystal hotel deserve appreciation.  When you check in and they say, “Bienvenidas, welcome home,” they really mean it.

And it helps the location is in the middle of the middle of Ixtapa.  On the boulevard it’s directly across from the gateway to the main plaza and the grid maze of commercial enterprises at a kind of crossroads towards the quieter part of town, the nature preserves, bike and pedestrian trails, stand alone convenience stores and restaurants, hotels off the beach and eventually the marina and its mall of sophistication.  The boulevard has no stoplights, and is busy, but lined on each side with lush pedestrian walkways with speed bumps and crosswalks along the hotel zone from the marina all the way to the mountain boundary where the boulevard rises into temporary superhighway to Zihuatanejo.  A walking trail along the mountain continues all the way into Downtown Mexico if you care to walk the four or five miles more.  Ixtapa on the boulevard is about four miles long.  The Krystal is almost exactly halfway.

On the middle of the beach.  The coastline of Mexico is made of soft sandy beaches enclosed by rugged cliffs and rocky shores.  Ixtapa faces the Pacific on a three mile crescent shaped strip of sand called Playa Palmar.  The sea rolls in from the wide bay, horizon barely obstructed by a few rocky islands, water blue as heaven, the surf rough and white, then playful and foamy.  And there on Playa Palmar the essence of the existence of Ixtapa plays itself as the theater of the playa.

At dawn the walkers and runners emerge.  Then surf bathers.  Soccer.  Frisbee.  Sand castles.  Little kids.  Boogie boarders.  The Girl From Ipanema.  Again.  Volleyball.  All day the beach is alive with people trekking back and forth along the shore, some stopping to play along the edge, others chasing the tide, others chased by the waves.  If you take the walk from the Krystal in either direction along Playa Palmar you will encounter humanity more or less stripped to the skin, all engaged in freedom and pursuit of happiness at a place where the sun touches the land along the sea.  What can be more human than leisure at the beach?  Nowhere else can one witness the comedy and drama of the human condition, the mundane turned square, the romance and fury of young couples and elders like us keeping up, the savvy and the confused, the brave and the reckless, the modest and the profane, the foreigners and the locals, all ages and the ageless, the funny looking and the pretty, everybody making tracks in the sand up and down the beach.  Then the sun goes down and everybody gradually leaves the sand and dresses for dinner.


Roxanne and I like to occupy a palapa on the beach below our hotel.  A palapa is a thatched roof structure like a permanent palm leaf umbrella embedded on a pole like a tree trunk in the ground.  There are dozens of them in two rows along the sea wall at the Krystal on the beach.  Under a palapa we enjoy the view of the bay and the surf and the theater of the beach.  The palapas include a couple of lounge chairs like they have up on the capacious pool deck, and it’s a great place to read in the shade.  Many hotel guests contend for the poolside lounge chairs under umbrellas, especially ones facing the beach, but we prefer the sand of actually being on the beach along with the relative privacy of the palapa.  We camp at our palapa all day, trust our belongings per se to the tree branches and leave our towels and books on the lounge chairs when we go for walks, dips in the sea or swims in the pool, or lunch.  The palapa is home base.  For dibs on a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar four weeks of the year during the cruelest time of a Minnesota winter, we have plighted our troth the rest of our days on this earth.

For this we are informed by the US State Department we are risking our lives beyond the pale.  (Or should it be Beyond the Pale.)  To go to Zihuatanejo is to go over the Wall.  We take our lives in our own hands.  Our government dissumes liability.  We have been warned.

Perhaps somebody forgot to tell the Mexicans.

I’m kidding, of course.  Mexicans are well aware of the official American opinion of their society and culture, and it’s a high testament to their inherent graciousness and kindness that expressions of resentment usually go unseen.  Given the insults and provocations hurled and steeped at Mexicans by the president of the United States it’s a blessing to not be judged as a generalized example of that kind of American attitude.  Then again, why would someone with a hostile attitude about Mexico venture deep into the state of Guerrero anyway.  On the other hand, if we act as well mannered ambassadors with any kind of influence we might serve to show we know better about our cross border relations than our nominal leader and get benefit of the doubt and be treated as individuals rather than Americans.

In classic fuhrer fashion he campaigned, ranting, “They send us their …”  Plug in a favorite deplorable.  One has to ask, who is doing this sending?  Does he mean there is a bureau somewhere in the official government of Mexico that selects unsavory characters to be shipped to the United States?  What does he mean, “They send us …”?

Are these deplorables picked like fruits and vegetables and shipped here in crates?

In Mexico, on the other side of the Wall, it’s hard to perceive the impact felt by Mexicans when the subject of politics does not come up in conversation.  At least between the Mexicans and the anglos.  Between anglo tourists there has always been an undercurrent of regionalisms and party affiliations and so forth you will always find among white people on vacation.  We have been coming to Ixtapa since before 9/11, and since then have traced the nuances of liberal and conservative conversations overheard among the English speaking guests over the years, Bush years looking back on Clinton years, then Obama years, now the Trump years, always something in the wind.  Iraq.  Arab Spring.  Obamacare.  Terrorism.  Immigration.  You really rarely hear a conversation between an American and a Mexican about American foreign policy towards Latin America, though you might hear an earful from Canadians more and more who boldly assert they are more astute and better educated than Americans and can cut better trade deals with Mexico — even then you don’t hear a Mexican side of the equations.

I also don’t speak — or hear — Spanish that well.  If aware of Mexican subcurrents of political resentment I have to look deeper into the eyes of each person I encounter, and that’s a lot of eye contact, even among the anglos.  If the Mexicans are plotting against us behind our backs they hide it well.  After all, in their mercantile economy the North American cash buys a lot of good will.  Only the most cynical of forces would want to upend the cash flow of this community.

Not that it’s totally dependent on the tourists from the USA.  Far from it.  Canadians make up more and more of the visitors from the north and Americans fewer and fewer.  The biggest gain in the vacation market at the Krystal hotel the past ten years is in the number of Mexicans from the greater urban interior of the country.  Even so, Ixtapa Zihuatanejo likes North Americans and would do anything including suppressing information to express security to tourists from the north who come down there to spend money and have a good time.

We ask Alonso, a guy who works at the hotel we’ve come to know, is it safe down here?

He says if it were not inherently safe he would not live here.  He echoes the mantra of being aware of your surroundings, the heart of said discussions with concierges in Florence, London, Amsterdam, Prague.  Don’t go anyplace shady, he advised, or get involved with shady behavior.  Trust us.  We look out for you.  We would warn you.  This is as safe as your own home town.  He tells us the in-joke around town is to refer to their city as Syriajuatenajo.

Yes, he’s telling us what we want to hear.  We aren’t stupid — paletos maybe — and we know there are certain dangers associated with Mexico.  Primarily what comes to mind is the country’s reputation for violence created by the drug trade.  Gangs organize cartels which compete for market share, glory and political power.  Murder is the ultimate tactic.  They practice armed warfare and the police challenge them, and they fight back.  Law enforcement has a legacy of corruption.  The drug trade probably passes through Zihuatanejo by land and by sea, the highways linking the little ordinary towns together along the coast and into the hills and beyond to other states like Jalisco and Mexico City, and each little port of call on the Pacific from Acapulco to Ensenada.  Rumors say the state of Guerrero is a nexus on the trade route, and that would seem logistically logical, given its natural location on the map, the topography, the access to the sea.  As it is believable that trucks of oranges and avocados pass through Zihuatanejo, so do shipments of controlled substances.  No, I do not have first hand knowledge of such goings on, I am supposing and applying hypotheticals because after all I am a stranger in a strange land and my government has expressed a warning to be careful and I must weigh the risks.  I have no first hand experience with the drug trade of Mexico and for that I worry little about feeling its effect.  I have no interest in acquiring or selling product of that kind and thus do not anticipate crossing paths with cartel gangsters or police for that matter.


Of deeper concern to me are political matters and socioeconomic dynamics in the community and region.  A few years ago a busload of student teachers from a college in the northern mountains of Guerrero disappeared on their way to Mexico City to attend a political rally.  The 43 student teachers are still missing, believed cremated at a mountain landfill.  Mass graves were uncovered, more bodies than just 43.  A gang cartel and leadership from the mayor of the town and his wife in collusion with at least 22 local police officers stand accused of participation in the mass murders.  The student teachers were interdicted from their trek to their political rally because they stirred up trouble for mobilizing demonstrations for radical causes challenging both the authority of the mayor and the power of the cartel.  I have no doubt nobody will get away with this, though the judiciary may move slowly in Mexico.  (Face it, certain civil rights murders in the American south have taken fifty years to come to justice.)  This case has pushed Mexico’s self awareness into inevitable confrontation with its vices and it’s gone too far to look away.  What I observe as a wave towards scrupulous rule of law may be nearsighted and obscured by what I don’t see.

I used to buy a daily newspaper from a guy named Victor who sold them up and down the beach.  He has a rich baritone voice — “English newspapers!”  You could hear him coming a dozen palapas away.  The paper was something like Mexico News, published in English Monday through Saturday from Mexico City.  Cost me 150 pesos a day — about 75 cents USD.  Rounded up a seemingly fair sample of stories from around the country.  Water and sanitation projects.  Education reform.  Business reports.  Government reform.  Anti corruption.  Appropriations for housing the poor.  Features about artists and music festivals.  Representation of women in government and the workforce.  Editorials demanding accountability and justice, transparency and lucidity.  I do a lot of reading on the beach at Playa Palmar, and it seemed right that I edify myself in what a Mexican daily said about itself, even if not in Spanish.  It was a clue to the clueless.  Of course it was of interest to read stories involving the United States, the Bush and Obama years, observing a neutral, objective tone of criticism and faint admiration of its neighbor and ally, and it was interesting reading coverage of world events from the Mexico City perspective, but I sought the domestic news pages to see how the country saw itself.  Its coverage of the 43 kidnapped student teachers, how they wouldn’t let it go, highlighted what I saw as an essentially moral culture coming of age at a typical crossroads of modern civilization, just like the rest of us.

Last year Victor stopped selling the paper.  Instead of hearing his rich voice hawking “English newspapers,” he was selling “Soccer t-shirts!”

So what happened to el diario? I asked.  “Periodicos don’t sell,” he said, subtly correcting me.  “It’s the internet.  Cell phones.”

There is noplace in Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo I would point to as a newstand.  Nothing like you might find at a transit kiosk in Rome, or a section at Walgreens, or a book shop on the concourse of an average airport.  The literacy rate for Mexico is over 94%, so something tells me such a shop exists somewhere, just out of sight or in plain sight — where else would all those people get all those revistas you see the Mexicans reading at the swimming pool deck.  I’m sure if I search enough or ask the right person I could find a daily paper in Spanish, so much for my laziness.  Instead I fall back on the E-edition of my hometown paper via the pitiful hotel wi-fi on Roxanne’s iPad.  In my way I fulfill Victor’s diagnosis.  Throw in the cable TV and there’s Fox and CNN International amid the sports, soaps, kid shows and movies en espanol, commercials in Spanish, but nothing readily available as local news.  Perhaps there is nothing new to know.  Maybe it’s none of my business what might grace the local police blotter or who this candidate might be you see up on the billboard over the boulevard.  I am, after all, a tourist, not expected to be concerned about the trivia of the day to day innings of the hundred thousand or so people who live there all year.  I am expected to keep my nose out of the details, just kick back and enjoy the sun and the sea, the food and drink, the hospitality and comfort — just pay the bill.  Pay la cuenta, por favor.

So long as I am safe to enjoy my leisure and freedom, what cause do I have to ponder the travails of the indigenese?  For one thing, were the social structure of my paradise to fall apart my favorite midwinter vacation would be ruined.  I suppose I could turn away and wave it off, go back to searching for somewhere else, Belize, Costa Rica, or just go back to hopping around looking for one-off deals.  But eighteen-odd years at Ixtapa has bonded me to the place like a townie.  It would not seem fair to extract such pleasure and good will without paying attention to the details of what accounts for the source of what satisfies our vacation.  For me, I seek a serenity and balance of harmonies under a palapa at the beach on Playa Palmar in front of the Krystal, a headquarters of the head.  Witness to the theater of la playa.  Watching the waves roll in endlessly and continual.  As reclusive as the long view of my endeavor, as private and shy my reflection, introspection and voyeuristic perspective, none of this would be satisfied if I did not look for a relationship with me and the inclusive world at large.  It’s in my utmost interest to feel safe here.


A few years ago a local guide named Luis came to our palapa, as solicitors often do on Playa Palmar, to pitch his guided tour along the southeast coast by land, along the nine mile Playa Largo to a nature preserve.  When I said we would think about it and get back to him he complained as he handed me his card about the tourists who come down there only to sit around on their butts on the beach under palapas all day drinking alcohol when they should be out experiencing the surrounding geography.  Luis hurt my feelings that day, because I agreed with what he said about sedentary complacency and implied I might be wasting time doing nothing but drinking beer down at the beach.  Luis never knew how interested we were in exploring south to the nature preserve, especially since the excursion included lunch.

In truth Roxanne and I have ventured outside the hotel zone often.  The truth is there aren’t any bold attractions, no noted museums, no pyramids or temples, and very little archaeology.  Alligators.  Pelicans.  A zipline hike.  You can tour a tile factory up in the mountains, though be warned it gets way hot up there so bring extra water.  The big excursions solicitors offer have to do with the sea — mainly fishing.  Snorkeling at Ixtapa Island.  The Booze Cruise.  No sporting events (other than town basketball at the outdoor plaza court in downtown Zihuatanejo) and no arena concerts.  No monuments of Spanish colonial history.  There are bronze statues of Mexican commemoration of milestones of its history besides the 5th of May scattered here and there in the walkways of the old city — people and events admittedly obscure to us northerners unschooled in the details, like a Mexican in Minneapolis coming across a statue of Hubert Humphrey.

As it turned out we did not sign up for Luis’s tour.  We asked around, talked to people we have come to know of the hotel staff to assure ourselves he was legitimate.  In some ways we were still indoctrinated with mistrust — the MLT Vacations coordinators used to warn us never to engage excursion guides who approach you on the beach, implying they could be frauds who take your money and never show up, which we in turn suspected of being a ploy to keep all the excursion business confined to the MLT reps.  The people at the Krystal all said Luis was a stand up guy, and Jesus Calderon, a veteran waiter at the hotel who knew Luis since he was a kid, when his parents both worked at the hotel and he practically grew up at the Krystal.  Roxanne and I eagerly looked for Luis to come back.  Most vendors almost befriend you and get back to you if they see you are the least bit interested.  Luis never showed again.  Not last year.  Not this past year.  I should ask Jesus what happened to him.

So Roxanne and I have yet to take the nature preserve tour.  Or the Xihuacan excavation site.  Or the tile factory.  Or the zipline.  We have gone fishing.  The Booze Cruise, more formally known at the catamaran sunset cruise aboard the Picante, which is the name of the vessel graphically painted on the hull in the script of the signature of Pablo Picasso.  We have gone snorkeling and spent time at Ixtapa Island and its counterpart at Zihuatanejo Bay, Isla Las Gatas, which is not an island at all but a beach on a peninsula at the junction of the bay and the open sea.  We have ventured past Zihuatanejo down to Playa Larga, over the hills to Petatlan via Coacoyul, and beyond Ixtapa and Playa Linda to Troncones, a fair slice of territory confined to a small strip of coastline as middle of nowhere as you might find on this continent.

Some call it Going Off the Reservation, a derisive enough sounding term for leaving the confines of the resort to explore the indigenous countryside — no doubt coined by an American white guy, possibly a soldier — but aptly sums the perception you sense when one ventures outside a comfort zone protecting against invidious challenges.  I first heard the term used in Punta Cana, where the contrast between the resort zones and the surrounding countryside of the real Dominican Republic is stark.  I’ve heard it since in reference to Cancun, and even the Hawaiian Islands.  It’s an offhand, shorthand term used thoughtlessly without regard to its reference to American Indian reservations, and its irony is in assuming a certain utopian fortress of security within the hotel zone not found among the inhabitants of most of the rest of the real estate of the country not devoted to vacation.


It’s ironic that people go someplace to be lazy and rich amid a populace who works so hard to keep up.  We go there to escape.  Our wicked winter drives us into exile.  We’ve picked a place along the sea where it is hot and sunny.  We used to go there to get away from work and the relentless daily pressures of the job, and now that we have achieved our senior distinction and have no professional stress we escape nothing of the usual mental and philosophical demands of life we would not face back home, except for the excruciatingly cold weather.  It’s iconic that North Americans like to escape winter.  At Ixtapa we have met people from all over the northern USA and all over Canada, everybody taking a break from the cold.  Everybody knows how to say muy frio when we describe home in January.  We must number in the thousands, descending upon the scene in waves, all these gringos coming and going, hanging out at the beach, sunning and swimming at the hotel pools, eating food, drinking, buying products and services, keeping the servants busy servicing them with hospitality day and night.  I wonder which is more mind boggling of the other, the affluence of the vacationers or the austerity of the locals.

It’s impossible to blend in and be as anonymous as we might like, even among the countless gringos on the beach.  At first it was easy to mind our own business and keep to ourselves just to enjoy privacy in exile.  I like to read on the beach.  And write.  Under the palapas of Playa Palmar I deciphered Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, John Sanford and Peter Heller for clues to the nature of good and its opposing forces.  Researched The Geography of Bliss, The Silk Roads and The Discovery of France in anticipation of European travel.  I got into essays by David Foster Wallace and Sven Birkerts.  I wrote in my journal, freeform and nasty as could be, and wrote letters to my grandkids in Switzerland.  This privacy on the beach for inner deliberation in no way clashed with the outer real world of being on a busy beach in Mexico because it all seemed to flow together like the surf, everybody else was in their own world too.

Once when I wasn’t even looking for it I had an epiphany.  While reading Changing the Subject, a book of essays by Sven Birkerts, a sort of follow up to his The Gutenberg Elegies which I read in to 1990s, both examinations of perceptions and attention in the internet age, I came upon the essay he titled “The Solieri Syndrome”, which is about envy.  He writes about his Beasley, his model figure of someone who always writes something just a little better but significantly better than you.  I realized right then my Beasley was Sven Birkerts.  When I was younger I blamed my literary obscurity on there being already a Garrison Keillor on this earth.  And a Leonard Cohen.  More recently my Beasley was David Foster Wallace.

Absorbing deep thoughts and revelations like these on the beach at Ixtapa seems as calm and reliable as the weather, and I can see why somebody like Luis might construe that all I care about is sitting — lounging, no less — inertly, sedentary on the beach all day.  They would be wrong to judge it unproductive.  Yet I do not recommend Ixtapa as a vacation destination to anybody looking for a lot of action.  They will be bored.  As I said, there are no monumental attractions.  Nothing like a Montreaux Jazz Festival.  No Spanish castles.  No Maya runestones.  No active volcanoes.  There’s a golf course around the estuary, but I hear if you golf you might want to get a tee time around sunrise or otherwise it’s going to be a sweltering round.  There is no other reason to come to Ixtapa than to relax.  There’s not much else to do.


Roxanne and I like this.  There are vacations to ascend the Eiffel Tower and ramble around Pompeii and cavalcade through the Vatican Museum.  This is a vacation designed to allow for peaceful appreciation of withdrawal from any compulsion to accomplish anything other than pleasures of rest and relaxation.

We swim in the hotel pool.  The Krystal calls its swimming pool alberca (reservoir) rather than by the common word piscina.  It’s a large pool of blue tile, curvy shaped with a tiled island towards the middle of its shallower end, which is about four feet deep.  We like to swim in the deep end, which is through a short channel under a bridge from the main shallow end.  The deep end used to feature a waterfall for kids to jump off, but it was kind of lame and a few years ago it was replaced by a water slide designed like a pirate ship with a mean looking monkey pirate with a sword on the crow’s nest, and the kids seem to like that better.  We like the deep end because we can swim back and forth, there’s a tiny current from the jets on the side and the water slide, it’s less populated than the main shallower part of the pool, and the water is noticeably cooler and more refreshing on a hot day than the more crowded main pool.  We go for a swim several times a day, especially when the sky is cloudless and the sun is muy calor and the sand is mucho caliente.  The hotel uses a non-chlorine water filtration system so there’s no chemical feel or scent to the water.  The pool deck is always packed with sunbathers on lounge chairs all around the pool and sitting along the edges and people coming and going between the hotel lobby, the restaurants and the outdoor bars, and up and down the stairs to the beach and the palapas.  There is also a kiddie pool under the shade of palm trees.  Waiters hustle drinks around the deck — they used to bring food too, but new health regulations restrict food to the restaurants and the shaded cantina along the sea wall.  There are ample umbrellas and some palm trees around the edges of the deck.  Music pulsates from Bose speakers under the palms.  Activities like water volleyball, aerobics, bingo and even salsa lessons play out.  The pool is the agora of day life at the Krystal.  A lot of people spend all day around the pool the way we spend all day at the palapa on the sand.


We walk the beach, join the theater of the playa.  Which way to go, left or right?  The Krystal is in the middle.

Playa Palmar is Ixtapa’s grand promenade.  Go left at the mark in the sand where the tide reaches nearest, where the beach is wet, and stroll into the flow of the tides of people all acting out the roles we portray.  Exposed to the world, costumed in the bare basics we all — todos — present ourselves as the projected characters of our inner hearts, translucent in the spotlight of the sun.  All at once.  The flabby and the firm, the glamorous and the ungainly, plain and the pretty, chubby and chinless, the suave and the severe, all types cross paths.  There are sun fiends with brazen skin like chocolate and fair fairies in scarves and hats like flower petals, and shades of cinnamon and caramel, and too often pink.  Wear sun screen.


Little kids chase the ebb tide and the flow tide chases them back.  Soccer matches scroll between nets; balls go loose among lanes of pedestrians.  Guys and chicks go deep tossing american footballs.  Frisbees whiz and curl as people play catch.  There’s an Aerobie — like playing catch with the rings of Saturn.  Pitching horseshoes.  Bean Bags!  Bolo.  Volleyball.  Families digging holes, burying their dads, making castles and sculptures and hearts and flowers in the sand.  Clammers dig for clams.  The word for sand is arena en espanol, so maybe the beach is less a stage than an arena of continual performances where even the ones watching from palapas and decks of the condos and hotels or on a blanket of towels on the sand or simply standing in the way there are no bystanders.  Even the watchers participate.  Runners trot through.  Fast walkers pass the dawdlers.  Selfies.  Poseurs.  Casual accidental photobombs.  (Kids, please don’t throw sand.)  Young parents show their first babies the sea.  There’s romance and passion afoot, couples of all ages playing honeymoon.  Tattoos and ample cleavage.  Sportswear with mixed logos.  Ball caps galore — but none MAGA.  The word playera means t-shirt and there are t-shirts with all kinds of print graphics but nothing profane or very edgy.  The chaos that exists on the beachfront supersedes politics, and it is the great neutral zone.  Maybe a red maple leaf here or there but otherwise not much nationalism than a tricolor Mexican flag which you would expect, this being Mexico.  This speaks well for the gringos not to take their bumper sticker snark wars on vacation so long as thousands of them mingle each day on Playa Palmar.

From the Krystal to the left it’s at least a mile and a half to the end of the beach.  The beach is a crescent of a wide mouthed bay, almost four miles corner to corner, bounded by terraces of steep volcanic cliffs that cut the beach off where the sea meets rocks.  If you walk it end to end you can kick the rocks like you can kick the wall when you walk the whole of Galway Bay.  A ritual.  At the far end of the walk to the left, at the edge of a terraced cliffside is a mangrove creek that sometimes flows into the ocean through the river estuary.  When there is rain in the Sierra Madre the creek may flow open to the sea at the rocks and it is not prudent to wade across just to ceremonially kick the wall.  Other times the creekbed from the estuary goes dry at the mouth to the ocean and the tides groom it over with sand and embeds some of the volcanic rock, all until the flow from the mountains again connects with the tides to open a channel across the end of the beach.  Usually when it’s open it’s shallow and calm enough to wade across to lay a wet footprint upon a rock.

There are four hotels and at least four condominium complexes on this half of the beach, including the Krystal.  The hotels are mostly high rise like the Krystal, which is 11 stories.  One is a mix of high rise and low rise.  The condos are high rise and low rise.  The end property is a mix, a terraced series of condos up the cliffs above the beach called Pacifica, which has its own cable car across the mangrove creek and up the gorge to reach the upmost terrace of condos from the low rise array and give their guests sandy beach access on the beach side of the creek.  Years ago there was a lot of high pressure sales to buy a time share in Pacifica — the most annoying aspect of an Ixtapa vacation, invitations to a free breakfast and a tour of Pacifica — but these days not so much, it’s either saturated — always looks high occupancy — or more exclusive who they solicit.

The hotels all offer beach access as well as swimming pool amenities similar to the Krystal, each with their own style.  We checked them all out at one time or other and found no reason to turn away from the Krystal for any better accommodation or amenities.  People gravitate to hotels for personal reasons or have no such loyalties, either way the five or six hotels on the beach at Ixtapa will give you direct experience to Playa Palmar.  They are all of rather modern design, especially in contrast to hotels on the beaches of Zihuatanejo, having been built since 1980.  Many of the hotels of late only offer rooms as all inclusive of food and drink.  The Krystal offers all inclusive as an option, and Roxanne and I decline to partake, preferring instead to drink and dine a la cart.

What we would like would be to afford to rent a condo for a month, have a living room, kitchen and laundry of our own, but we don’t by ourselves have the means.  There’s a 14 story palatial hacienda between a couple of average hotels on the beach called the Bayview where we’d like to live.  Terraced like a wedding cake of black wrought iron balconies, its elegant presence makes it the top architectural attraction of Ixtapa.


The Krystal is shaped like a wedge with its angle edge pointed due west towards the ocean.  Next door, of equal height there’s a condo high rise called the Amara.  They built it on the land of the old Krystal tennis courts and a backyard scenic overlook at the ocean where the palms parted and revealed a group of roman columns where they used to say mass and perform weddings.  The Amara was built over two years, one vertical half at a time.  We used to be able to watch the workers assemble the steel and concrete and hear the clang and clunk of construction.  Now it is a formidable, not ugly but austere white building of concrete and bluegreen glass balconies.  From our room at the Krystal the apartments at the Amara look sumptuous, maybe elegant like those at the Bayview where we have actually visited.  To the northwest from the Krystal, to the right along the beach beyond the other two hotels there are two more finished high rise condo buildings built since the Amara, within the last three years, and one currently under construction, half done.  They tend to build half the structure bottom to top and then complete the second half while the first half is occupied.  The white concrete architecture appears to grow plainer and more austere with every building, almost looking like elements from suburban office parks.  One could be a government building, no style at all.  When we walk by, going the other way from the Bayview, it’s hard to know who lives or stays at these newest places because there are rarely anyone to see on the pool deck or out front at the beach, not like the Pacifica, Bayview or Amara where there are large public crowds, palapas, sportive activities and swimmers in the surf, and in fact these new condos look rather lonely, maybe vacant or the habitats of very reclusive people.

Walk the beach to the right from the Krystal and the action on the playa resembles the rest of the shenanigans and hoopla going on from the Krystal to the Pacifica to the left and it blends with the human current, you might call it human traffic if it didn’t sound so exploitive to describe the flow of people on this three or four mile beach.  About halfway to the rocks that border the sea at the marina, almost a mile from the Krystal to the right and past the two hotels there is a stretch of beach at its widest in front of a low rise set of buildings before a stretch of desert where a fence line defines what belongs to the beach and what is otherwise barren, vacant land.  At this demarcation the flow remarkably diminishes.  This is where walkers and runners might turn around and go back to the other half of the crescent, or keep going in smaller numbers all the way to kick the rocks at the marina.

It is this barrens area where the three newest condo high rises went up.  It’s hard to not imagine what Playa Palmar might look like in fifty years, after Roxanne and I are gone, our footprints in the sand long confused and conflated and commingled with so many others and then washed away by the tides.  More high rises above the low rises maybe.  The first years we came there and walked the beach that direction we went that way because it was more secluded, less crowded, good for dawdling in the surf and contemplating the waves.  Along the desert stretch was a good vantage to scan the wide bay where there could be whales and pods of dolphins.  Of course you can see whales and dolphins from anywhere on Playa Palmar, even from a hotel pool deck.  But it’s more likely you will actually notice them along this stretch of beach, maybe the perspective of the rocky islands and the lay of the rest of the horizon, and stop to watch a while until these creatures come up for air and dance for the silly humans watching from shore.  Most of our sightings seem to occur when we are walking this stretch of beach.  The first year we came here in fact there was a steel beam skeleton frame of a would be high rise in progress which was wrapped in plastic like a transit car advertisement for the future with a big image of a blue whale on it, and years went by and the plastic began to unwrap, the weather peeled it away and the whale shredded in tatters in the wind.  Then one year they tore it down, dismantled the building.  It’s the site of the new uncompleted condo.  One hopes for success with these ventures enabling people to vacation when the beachfront of these properties look so sad and forlorn and empty.

At the far corner of the crescent bordering the marina there exists a cheery row of colorful low rise condos at the edge of the beach.  These are where we would really like to live even more than the Bayview.  Homey and hopeful they resemble townhomes more than condos, inviting and familial.  Adjacent to the marina, they are not as isolated from greater Ixtapa than appears from the beach that meets the rocks.  Another wet footprint on a rock.

The local surfers like to try their beginners luck on the waves at this lonely end of the bay.  It might be to surfing the equivalent of the bunny hill, where novices practice their stand-up techniques.  I say local because invariably these guys are young teenage mozos from around town hanging out with their surfboards after school, not tourists, not even from Mexico City.  More than the general population they ignore us, the northern tourists, and we stay out of each others way.  We do not shout or applaud their surfing moves and they don’t gawk at us for walking the beach like we’ve got nothing else to do.

The lonely stretch of beach in front of the new condos and the remaining deserted barrens makes a favorite place for kite fliers.  Adjacent to the condo property on the barrens is a causeway for public access.  The beach itself is public but the properties that border the beach block public access, so every so far, and all along the stretch of barrens between the condos and the hotels are common pathways from the boulevard to the beach, which is how the surfers, locals and other tourists staying at off-beach hotels get in.


Rounding out the middle of the beach between the two hotels adjacent to the Krystal and the condos is a row of low rise buildings spaced among the public access venues.  One is bright pink concrete block and features a round tower, and it’s called Delfiniti, home of the dolphin aquarium where you can swim with the dolphins.  Next to that is a wide ranch looking wooden hacienda with a wide porch that used to be a Carlos and Charlies, a nightclub known for dance music, balloon hats, blue mescal and jello shots — like a Senor Frog’s.  During the day they offered skydiving experiences where you would end up landing on the beach.  Maybe ten years ago it closed as Carlos and Charlies.  Some say it was a tax dispute.  They still serve beer and tacos in the day time and run a couple of stands on the side selling lunches, souvenirs and beach toys, but it’s hard to say what goes on there at night — it must not be a nuisance to the community.  Carlos and Charlies used to hire party guys to parade up and down Playa Palmar in sombreros wearing a long sash sign advertising the place by name, sponsored by Corona and Tecate, touting Carlos and Charlie with a bull horn and somebody toting a throbbing boombox, but not lately.  If there exists a rowdy nightlife and party crowd at Ixtapa it does it on the sly, not obvious.  Roxanne and I aren’t interested in staying out and partying until 3 a.m. — okay, let’s say we are interested but don’t have the energy to stay out late and party — so we’re not the target market for such folderol.  One gets the sense of taste and decorum at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, a downplay of obstreperous vice.  If one sees somebody behaving badly it’s generally just rude but not vulgar.  Maybe it’s the dominance of the elder crowd like me and Roxanne.  Maybe the young people know how to have a good time without being bad.  Maybe it’s a marketing approach to middle class families.  It just doesn’t feel like a place where all hell breaks loose at night.

Someplace it does, I’m sure.  You hang out with people who hear rumors.  It’s never clear who found the body or where exactly it was found floating in which shallow of which bay that one year, but it was not a tourist.  A few years ago somebody tossed a hand grenade into the Zihuatanejo police station.  Our friend Bob reminds us that everywhere in this world there are people up to no good in the middle of the night.  This past year there is the story of some guy getting shot to death — some say outside the new casino in Ixtapa but others say it occurred outside the strip club known as Kisses in Zihuatanejo — for complaining to a pimp about the quality of the prostitute and demanding back his money.  We have seen checkpoints set up on the highways by the federal police.  Some years ago we saw them in staggered pairs walking the beach of Playa Palmar, in uniform with body armor carrying machine guns, on patrol.  They ride on the boulevard once in a while in the backs of military grade trucks.  Sometimes they wear masks — one guesses so as not to be identified — like ski masks.  It’s unnerving to see such a military police presence.  At an off beach hotel where we sometimes go to eat there is a barracks of federal police who come to Ixtapa for training.  It’s naive of us to think there are no issues of law and order just because there is no crime news that gets into the tourist community, whether being managed that way by the hospitality industry or because it’s essentially none of our gringo business.  It would be cynical to assume crime is rampant.  You wonder whether beer delivery trucks are guarded by men toting rifles to deter theoretical beer thieves or in response to actual beer hijackings.

You hear about vacationers slipping and falling on a pool deck greased with sunscreen, and people breaking a leg or a shoulder getting tossed by the surf.  You don’t hear about tourists getting mugged.  You hear about tourists getting injured in vehicle accidents on the highway to Acapulco but you don’t hear stories about tourist victims of larceny.  True, maybe the guy who got plugged grousing about his puta was a tourist — would a local pay for sex?  Who would know?  Who wants to know?  What might scare off some tourists might attract another kind, and vice versa.

It pays to be sincere.  If you expect to fake it and never come back and never be seen again, just a one night stand taking all you can get, you will be treated just as well but they know you’re fake and won’t take you seriously, and laugh behind your back, sometimes curse.  The servants know you won’t come back.  They see a lot of strangers like you.  They treat you nicely so they don’t look bad in front of people who care.  If you keep coming back year after year you can expect to be remembered, so if you’re still faking it and aren’t feeling a cold draft of indifference you must somehow be acting sincere.

We are guests, after all.  Yes we pay, and some pay dearly for the vacations of our dreams, our escapes to warm weather and sunshine and worry free leisure.  We owe our host country respect as we consume their seemingly limitless hospitality.  We flatter ourselves silly to think we are entitled to gracious treatment because we’re tourists and they owe us a good time because without us they would descend into social chaos.  Mexicans know better.

What they truly think of us behind our backs is perpetually obscure.  The sincerity thing of course goes both ways.  Maybe since Mexicans have home turf advantage they can claim the higher road and benefit of doubt.  Some are just naturally born good smilers.

My favorite example of our interactive hospitality is the massage industry located at the fringe of the beach between the old Carlos and Charlies and the grassy barrens sequestering the high rise condos.  It started several years ago, under white tent canopies extended off Carlos and Charlies.  Always women, they wore white clinical jackets and waved at the beach walkers headed towards the marina, coming down to greet us at the water line offering a one hour massage for a hundred pesos or $10USD.  Some handed out business cards, rather elegant actually, some with names for their tents like Rosa’s.  Their english was not good but they offered full body and reflexology, guaranteed you like, one hour.  When they first came on the scene it seemed no different than any of the solicitations you get from vendors on the beach, and we took the business cards from Rosa and Sofia and #4 and looked them over, looked at their muscles and their hands and listened to their offers and looked them in their eyes and said maybe.  Tal vez.  Tal vez manana.  We kept walking and kicked the wall, watched surfers and runners go by, looked for whales in the bay and speculated when this Fonatur outfit might go back to work to finish off the steel frame of a would be high rise now wrapped in plastic with a mural of a whale on it, and why not try a massage one time before we skipped town.

It was a transformational experience.  We were hailed at the edge of the tide by a lady or two in white jackets, agreed on a price and followed them up a watered path straight to tent #2.  Young men and boys kept the sidewalk in the sand cool and moist to guarantee it was not a hot walk to the tents and to supply buckets of water to wash the feet of the customers at the door to the tent.  Inside there were about four massage tables, all laid out as sanitary as could be with clean cloths and towels.  You stashed your glasses and t-shirt and any belongings in a basket under your table.  You lay face down as instructed by mime, gesture and a few words.  There is a code of silence within the massage.  La masajista says but four things:  strong, light or medium?  Es okay?  Over.  Finis.  She might be nineteen years old, or thirty, or fifty.  The elders supervise the younger ones.  How young is young, one cannot tell and never asks.  Did they go to massage school?  It is obvious there is some kind of training academy out there, they are all uniformly precise and practice the same rituals.  Beginning with the back they work around the body, the neck, arms, legs, always back to the back.  They work their fingers into your tired and stressed out flesh and revitalize every nerve.  When they say to turn over they work all your limbs again.  You always get an honest hour.

The second year they doubled their rates and increased the tents and still hailed walkers on the beach, waving from their round picnic tables under umbrellas fronting the tents.  With a measure of guilt the scene reminded me of a scene from the movie McCabe and Mrs Miller, a wild west story where a woman establishes a brothel in a way station mining town, and a lone cowboy played by Keith Carradine rides out of the plains to the outskirts of this mountain town where a group of big white tents consisting of the brothel greets him emergent with women all waving and calling him to their spa.  My guilt is associating the “Sisters of Mercy” in the movie, if I recall the soundtrack, with the masajistas of Playa Palmar.


There is nothing sexual to be gained from these massage parlors on the beach.  The ladies who work this trade act in the most modest and innocent and appropriate manner you might conceive of.  To enforce a code of appropriate conduct towards the masajistas, the guys who tote water and keep the paths wet provide a macho security presence, though one would not want to take on a gang of defensive masajistas if one of them yelled the spanish beachside version of Hey Rube, Mayday, if some customer got out of line.  It seems naive, but I’ve never so much as heard a rumor of someone getting fresh with a massage lady.  On Playa Palmar a massage is a massage, that’s all the happy ending there is.

Which is not to say I have not had my old man crushes.  As years went by, one by one the tents were replaced with wood frame cabanas.  There are about seven of them now, each supporting eight tables.  They are usually busy but still compete on the beach to fill vacancies.  Roxanne and I get one just about every other day, they are still that affordable.  Over time we find favorites, or maybe they find us.  We tip, so that’s an incentive to cultivate our return business.  They started taking appointments, writing us in their notebooks.

My first true crush was Janeth.  She was very dark and pretty.  She was a massagist with a very acute touch.  I cannot say of all my random visits I ever had a bad massage on Playa Palmar, because even the laziest or more tedious ones were good massages, there are some kind of standards to the trade there at the beach cabanas.  Yet we have found luck in being adopted by some of the most gifted massagists in the whole world whose talents, techniques and skills exceed those at the toniest spas and elitist clinics of my home town Twin Cities, and that’s a fact.  Janeth found exact places in my muscles to refine my nerves.  When I used to work in an office I developed a place in my neck and shoulder that seemed to absorb all my stress, and she found it and worked it free.  The years after I blew a tendon in my right arm she soothed it.  I would lie there face down, my eyes closed, listening to the ocean, the beach sounds, the latin pop music drifting from old Carlos and Charlies, the voices in spanish, and Janeth would work me over, head to toe.  Lying on my back I could look at her for a while, when my eyes weren’t covered by a cloth.  She had delicate ears.  Eyes deep and dark.  Black hair worn up off her neck.  A little scar on her chin.  Didn’t smile much.  Didn’t seem to care much about learning English.  An hour on the massage table offers a fortune of meditation, reflection and consideration.  The session would end with a little aromatherapy wiggled from her fingertips and the whispered word finis, like wake up and pay.  I would try to think up a clever phrase in spanish, like Soy un hombre nuevo to get her to smile.  I would schedule my visits around her day off.  She would see us coming and walk on down the path to meet us by the sea as if to make sure none of the other ladies would take us.

Then one year she wasn’t there any more, not in #4, not in #2.  I didn’t ask after her — our relationship was never informal, and I don’t think I ever addressed her except as usted and not tu.  It seemed none of my business to get publicly inquisitive about a certain pretty masajista, even in a grandfatherly way, when after all she didn’t share much about herself in the first place or care that I was from the land of muy frio.

Roxanne meanwhile found her own swami of the massage table in a lady named Anna, while I followed taking random first availables.  Until one day on the beach we were singled out by a tall and beautiful deaf mute and her elder interpreter, who led us up to #3 and escorted us into a level of massage I can only describe as celeste.  The elder masajista took Roxanne and turned out to be the mute’s mother, who also turned out to be an Anna with the other Anna’s massage mojo.

Thus I met Zuli because that’s what her mother said her name was and I can spell it because Zuli wrote it down.  Zuli wrote things down.  And she didn’t require spanish spoken because she could not hear.  She spoke with her eyes.  She almost had Frida Kahlo eyes.  She made vocal sounds for emphasis.  She read lips.  She gestured, sometimes forcefully.  She mimed.  She knew sign, but unfortunately I do not.

So for the primary question she made a muscle and touched it with her other hand to mean fuerte, strong, and I nodded and said por favor.  Zuli took it from there.  She had a gifted touch.  She found all the places within my muscles of my body that needed attention, and she soothed me and disassembled me and put me back together.  My infatuation began at her first caress and hers has ever been the benchmark of massage for me.  She is gifted.

One sign I do know is the hand from mouth that says thank you.  I tip.  She brings out her spiral notebook to sign us up for a future appointment.  We were going every three or four days then, about three or four times per vacation.  No it’s about an every two day ritual.  Over a few years Zuli ended up teamed with the original Anna, which suited Roxanne just fine, while Anna Zuli’s mom went on to supervise another cabana, but she comes by to say hola now and then.

Zuli has a free and open smile.  She does not seem to mind that I study her when my eyes are uncovered, and I sincerely try not to stare too much.  Truly she has beauty.  I do not want to make her uncomfortable with my eyes.  Especially now, in light of the Man Up doctrine, but all along it’s been a tango with decency to enjoy being wrung up and smoothed out by a beautiful and exotic younger woman.  The professional nature of the encounter being understood above all, an hour on the massage table under the spell of Zuli, or Janeth, affords infinite meanderings of the soul, the sound of the ocean, the spanish voices, the music drifting from the big building, and the clean realization I am living a dream in the hands of a beautiful younger woman, giftedly talented at the art of massage.  One hour of celeste.

Just this past winter on our first full day we walked to the massage cabanas looking for Zuli and the Annas.  Instead we met up with original Anna and her new partner Isabel.  In spanish-english and tummy mime we learn Zuli is on maternity leave, expecting her baby any day.  Wow.  Just the year before we learned Zuli was getting married — all the ladies were excited she got engaged — so it didn’t seem strange she might be having a baby, it just inconvenienced me from my favorite masajista.  But I didn’t pout.  Turned out Isabel knows all the right moves.  Too strong perhaps.  Had to scale back to medium with Isabel.  Another star from whatever massage academy they train their talent.  Hers is cabana #4, and they keep a spiral notebook.  They keep us apprised about Zuli.  We wonder if it will be born Valentine’s day and be named Valentina.  She has a baby girl.  Isabel shows us pictures on her smart phone.  She takes pictures of us to show Zuli.  The baby is named Yareli Yamilet.  I call her Doble Ygriega but nobody really laughs at my idiom.  Isabel shows pictures of her husband a kids.  One day she showed us something she bought that day, a doggie bed for her family dog.  Somehow she and Anna learned of Roxanne’s birthday and they presented her with a tie-died beach wrap shawl.  They get a kick out of Roxanne and me being married 45 years.

By far Isabel is the chummiest of all the masajistas we’ve known, though there’s no telling how communicative we could have been with Zuli if we knew sign or I had been more fluent in spanish with Janeth or any of the others.  Isabel is outgoing, tall, slim and muscular.  One would not be surprised to see her on the basketball court at the plaza in Zihuatanejo.  She has light, caramel skin tone and she bleaches her hair blondish.  She listens to headphones while she works.  She has bright eyes and smiles readily and makes eye contact with reassuring glances, though like everyone she places a cloth over the eyes when working you on your back — better the meditative state.  Like with Janeth I like to come up with something nice to say en espanol when I thank her and pay her.  In praise of her massage skill I suggested she go to school to be a doctor.

I tell you about the massage cabanas at great risk.  It is so far an undiscovered treasure — at least underhyped — and there’s a moral obligation to include information useful to any and all tourists to Playa Palmar even if attention might lead to spoiling the market.  Yet it serves to tell a metaphor of our ties to the Mexicans whose home we inhabit one twelfth or so of a year.

After year.  No end in sight.  Hope in twenty years we can still get on and off an airliner, ride a taxi.  Meanwhile we’ve insinuated our ghosts into the seasonal fabric of the community, which gives a lot to think about in 2018 when meditating on the massage table with Isabel working that stiff calf, or walking the beach towards the Bayview, or from a chaise under the palapa.  There’s a whole world going on and it doesn’t stop for vacation.  The Mexicans don’t just pack up and go home after the northern tourists go home, this is their home, we’re the foreigners it’s not the other way around.

Still, after eighteen odd years visiting the same old place we learned our way around and got comfortable navigating the towns.  The true allure is to lounge under a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar, but it’s also fruitful to venture away from the resort territories to places and parts of town that function for the immediate community but are of generally little interest to vacationers.  We have walked the streets of Zihuatanejo, not just the bay-front promenade but the backstreets of shops and cantinas all the way to downtown where the main markets are, where the people who live there shop.  And eat.  The local mercado offers fresh food from the sea and the farms.  The main architectural feature of the downtown shops is the garage door that comes down after closing hours at night.  Otherwise when they are open the inventory explodes out the door.  There is the smell of good food.  There are cantinas on just about every other corner where you can get a good authentic hearty meal and beer, just look at all the locals who eat there.  Next to the harbor along the promenade are where the renown restaurants are, Daniel’s, Coconuts, Casa Elvira, Sirena Gorda and so on, and they all prepare and serve good comidas with gracious hospitality.

Roxanne and I have hiked into the high streets behind the beaches going beyond the plaza of the promenade, back beyond Hotel Irma and other landmarks along Playa Madera and Playa Ropa and the old glorious era before Ixtapa was invented, when Zihuatanejo was an exotic destination unto itself, a grand overview of the bay.  We have toured the old colonial headquarters that serves as a historical museum today.  We are comfortable taking the bus.  We know where the library is.  There’s a Sam’s Club, and a warehouse sized store similar to a Wal Mart called Aurerra Bodega on the edge of el centro on the boulevard to Ixtapa, a great place to shop for bakery goods.

At the furthest tip of Zihuatanejo Bay curls a peninsula they call Isla Las Gatas, island of the (female) cats.  It is not really an island but is isolated from the developed edges of the city by a rugged stretch along the southern part of the bay where there is no road and only a rocky trail it would take several hours to hike.  Everybody takes a water taxi to Las Gatas from the embarcadero at the pier where the promenade to the plaza begins.  Next to the navy base.  Be sure to bring peso coins to tip the mozos who vie to help you climb in and out of the water taxis, which are bench seat versions of the fiberglass panga boats that make up the fleet of small fishing vessels which stock the food supply or offer sport fishing excursions to us tourists.  The cruise to Las Gatas is a tranquil ride away from the action around the pier.  There are hundreds of boats in the huge bay, moored and actively navigating, sailboats to the west and south towards the hotels and old villas, new mansions.  The view of the bay on the water taxi or a fishing excursion is naturally the opposite of the view from the hills behind the hotels, restaurants and villas which look down to the sea.  From the water taxi you see the city rising into the hills crammed together at its crux like a mash of concrete and stones abiding in a craggy jungle, green almost in spite of its urban self.  The city tapers towards the beaches even as the buildings emerge more distinct, the higher rise old hotels, the villas in the emerging cliffs.  The jungle takes over gradually to the south and east bay, where most of the sailboats dwell, the rugged way to Las Gatas, and by this time the passengers are engaged exchanging origin stories and impressions.  The sea is usually calm across the bay but never flat.  The breeze feels fresh en route.


Always remember to watch your head getting in and out of a water taxi.  At Las Gatas you disembark at a gateway to a strip of beach maybe a mile long lined with cantina after cantina with open air amenities, lounge chairs and long tables for picnic seating.  They offer lunch platters of seafood and cheap drinks overlooking the coral breakwaters at the beach overlooking the city far across the bay.  They offer snorkeling, but it’s really pretty sad, the coral is dead and the fishies not so bright.  Better to just bathe in the sandy spots and feel the gentle waves in the clean sea.  Every cantina vies with the others to get you to occupy their chairs and tables at their beach, so you can expect an enthusiastic welcome.  Whichever you choose, the hospitality will follow, and the food will be exquisite.  You can feel a little detached from the mainstream here, so much sea between the beach and the city across the bay, encircled by rocky clefts and a jungle that includes the sight of saguaro cactus growing from the craggy cliffs.

A counterpart to Las Gatas the other direction on the coast is Ixtapa Island, which really is an island.  You reach there again by water taxi, this time from Playa Linda, a beach town slightly northwest of Ixtapa.  The fishies are brighter and more lively for snorkelers at Ixtapa Island, and the coral more alive though sadly on the decline.  The waves can be rougher too since this island does not have the bay or breakwaters to soften the sea like Las Gatas.  Ixtapa Island is smaller area and features fewer cantinas but the hospitality is similar.  And like Las Gatas and Playa Palmar and just about everywhere you go, expect vendors to visit your beach chair to offer you something for sale, massage too.

Ocean cruise liners used to make excursions at Zihuatanejo.  The bay is too narrow to admit a cruise ship but they used to anchor outside the bay and transport guests to the embarcadero pier.  A few years ago the Mexican port authorities launched a plan to redevelop the Zihuatanejo pier and extend it from the embarcadero across the northwestern edge of the bay to the mouth of the bay across the channel from Las Gatas to allow oceanliners to dock.  The locals debated the matter and ultimately rejected the plan.  Making Zihuatanejo a regular port of call for Pacific ocean cruises would have meant tourist traffic of untold dimensions.  The resident interests in Zihuatanejo largely foresaw more harm than good from such a massive invasion of the tourist industry and ultimately vetoed the pier project.  As a result the ocean cruise lines stopped coming to Zihuatanejo altogether, which shows in the absence of encounters with cruise guests who used to take day trips to Las Gatas to soak up the sun and tell you where they were from.  The resulting loss of business may actually enhance the experience for the rest of us by deterring overcrowding.  I give credit to the citizens for preserving an organic character to their community.  Progress and change are inevitable.

Besides our explorations of Zihuatanejo the city, Roxanne and I, of our own curiosity and wonder, shadowed Luis the young guide’s invective of getting up off one’s butt and getting out and about to experience the local geosphere.  Beyond Las Gatas and Ixtapa Island, Playa Linda, we’ve ventured up and down the coast as far as Playa Larga to the southeast and Troncones to the northwest, maybe a stretch of a hundred miles.  The highways along this stretch of coast are excellent, but we don’t drive here like we don’t drive boats, we take a bus, taxi or employ a guide with wheels, or on some cases ride in somebody’s family car.  Or all of the above.  It’s they who know the roads and the streets.  The beach communities along this route border little neighborhoods of chicken and avocado ranchers, the coconut palms and homesteads of the townies of generations of rural existence.  There are highway stands selling sea salt.  Away from the sea, amid the hills that eventually rise up into the unforgiving Sierra Madre there are big towns linked together by good roads, such as Petatlan which really is a coastal town approached from a highway through the hills and features a church on a hill above a merchandising district selling home made jewelry.  The state capital of Guerrero is a town called Chilpancingo, some two hundred miles inland straight east of Zihuatanejo, about the same distance east along the coast as the big city, Acapulco.  We have been to neither and may never go, having limits to our curiosity.

It’s considered bad manners to gawk and spy on the indigenous communities who live in the hills and mountains.  We respect that.  It’s acknowledged there is poverty and subsistence living standards in Mexico and a significant number reside among the descendants of the Olmec, Toltec and Tarascan peoples who live around Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa in the hills.  To say they are a shy people is to only begin to understand how little they are interested in socializing with the world outside their own.  Their distrust of outsiders goes back to times with Spain.  They are especially sensitive to American missionaries.  They speak Nahuatl more than espanol.  Yet many charitable North Americans have built relationships and certain bonds of trust with these indian communities to get them to accept charity, books, architectural construction, clothing.  Several of the older retiree vacationers you might meet on the beach are volunteers to Zihuatanejo charities, and they will say the indians are most against meddlers, it’s hard to get invited to help them.

I learned a few years ago, in a chance conversation at dinner with someone we met through an introduction on a walk on the beach at Playa Palmar, Professor Mirocha, my long ago customer at the film shop, kept coming down there every year and got involved in a common group who collects shoes for kids.  Other tourists you meet say they collect sweaters.  They raise cash for charities at an annual event called Sail Fest in Zihuatanejo.  You learn there is a network of anglo expatriates and snowbirds actively volunteering in community service projects, so you find proof not all gringos go down there to raise holy hell, trash the place and go home with suntans.

So no, I cannot claim to have visited primitive villages.  Yet we have tried to get to know these people who make us their guests, get some idea who they are.  Care about them.  I would calculate we have lived at the Krystal hotel over a year of our lives, averaging over three weeks a year for eighteen years.  What are we crazy?  It’s proof of what Einstein said about doing something over and over, we expect the same result.


At the palapa the theater unfolds, as if it were folded.  The vendors pass by selling whatever they sell.  Sunglasses — lentes!  Sock-air tee shirts!  Guys selling jewelry out of black valises.  Tattoos (henna).  The braid ladies.  Hector sells his wood carvings out of his big backpack with at least two things displayed in his hands; it took years of asking him questions about his methods for me to believe he rally carved them and was not just selling factory made wood carvings; we’ve bought two things, a two foot palm tree and a standing buffalo; he makes his stuff from ironwood, and they have a deep polished tone.  They shlepp back and forth, up and down the beach every day in the sand and would like nothing better than to be invited into the shade under a palapa to sell you a mobile of fishes brightly painted and made of coconut and filament and wood.  Jewelry.  The one I call La Senora del Ropa carries the inventory of an entire showroom of dresses, beach wraps and cover-ups for women, all on her back and looking like a walking garment district of a patchwork of parachutes; she’ll put the whole pile down to make a presentation, offers things to try on, spreads her dresses across the sand, picks your colors; she makes her sales, piles everything up tidy on her back once again and shlepps on down the beach.  The hat vendors — ball caps, straw sombreros, and the now ever-popular among latina women, fedora hats.  Then the guy who sells magazines — revistas! — carries them stacked on his head — the brother of Victor, who used to sell newspapers but now sells soccer t-shirts.  Guys offering fishing expeditions, excursions to Ixtapa Island — the guys the MLT Vacations concierge warned us about so they could exclusively book our charters.  Nick-nacks.  Not a lot of food — the hotels and health department might discourage it — but occasional home made juice popsicles, and the haughty Tamale Lady who carries the tamale of the day inventory in a red cooler.  Most everyone passes by twice, once coming and once going.

The guys who really look beat in the hot sun are the bands of musicians, invariably older guys dressed as cowboys in hats and boots, lugging their instruments — guitars, accordians, snare drum and cymbal, upright bass — shlepping up and down the beach looking to make some pesos catching a paid set under someone’s palapa and singing Ay yi yi yi…


The most glorious beach vendor of all, and this includes even the masajistas, is a guy named Rafael, who bosses the operation who provides parachute rides towed over the bay attached to a rope pulled by a big inboard engine speedboat.  All up and down Playa Palmar there are at least two and sometimes as many as four such parachute sites being serviced by one or two boats lying just beyond the breakers off the beach, the tow rope as taut as can be arranged between the boat and the crew on land who kite up the parachutes rather than leave them lay on the sand, to keep the lines free and to attract business.  Each parachute is an advertisement of something, Corona beer, Hollandia ice cream, Bandito’s restaurant.  I like to watch Rafael hustle the chutes, the boats, the ropes and the paperwork, all while managing his crews and looking like he loves every day.  A lot of days he wears zinc oxide on his face so he looks purple.  He wears shades with colored frames and a faded ball cap.  I take a ride from him once a year.  He rents boogie boards on the side for $5 an hour USD and I get one of those once in a while when the surf is right.

The most righteous beach vendor of all is known as Benny.  He stalks the beach all day long, back and forth, in his crushed ball cap and Hawaiian shirts, khaki short pants and sandals, usually hanging out a few yards up from the water line talking to somebody or talking on his cellphone.  He’s a big man, somewhat portly, a profile not to be ignored on the beach.  We came to know him through a couple who befriended us at the Krystal in our earliest years who stay there every year the same time we do.  This couple have been coming to Ixtapa longer than we have and came to know Benny from contracting fishing excursions with him.  When he walks along in front of the Krystal he will usually come up to the palapa to say hi.  We have gone fishing on his boats.  He has provided guides for us to visit Petatlan and Troncones.  He’s good conversation even if it’s small talk and he gives the impression he would get you anything in the world if you just ask.  And pay cash — USD preferred.

Family man, entrepreneur, in his fifties now, Benny is the quintessential citizen of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  His success in life comes from a universal quality of honest hard work.  One looks up to and admires him as a solid guy.  Someone who trades fair.

Benny measures his business cycle by the hundred days between late December and early April.  When the amigos from the north spend their vacations.  After that it’s all Mexicans and it gets quieter, Mexican tourists don’t tend to go fishing, then the summer rainy season comes.  Nothing big happens in July, August.  Some of the restaurants close for a month.  Benny maintains his boats, books anything he can catch and prepares for the next 100 day season when he makes most of his money.  He likes to get paid in cash, USD American dollars preferred, and he issues written receipts.  Nothing fishy about Benny, not even his fishing business.

This is the tide of the vacation business of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  We reside oceanside at high tide, around the middle of the hundred days.  It’s hard to imagine what the place might be like when it’s lonely, though Roxanne and I comment that we enjoy it when the hotels are lull between peak occupancies.  Not that it’s ever been crazy busy but some days are more densely intense than others at the pool and on the beach.  It’s what resort hotels do, attract customers, and it is the Krystal’s credit to fill their rooms.

After 9/11 aviation travel changed, carriers changed air routes and customers became more nervous about flying outside the USA.  There was a steady drop of American tourists year over year the decade after.  The recession years didn’t seem to help build back the American guest contingent, though more Canadians seemed to take their places.  During those years the currency exchange rate made Mexico a great bargain vacation, which it still remains.  What has changed in eighteen years isn’t as evident by fewer caucasian binge vacationers among us, fewer fellow American winter break snowbirds, fewer honeymoons and fewer romantic escapes, and fewer family retreats from places in the USA.  Whoever doesn’t go there anymore who used to go there doesn’t tell the rest of us why they would rather not come back.  Newcomers from the USA seek assurances that all this gracious charm and hospitality is for real and maybe not a smooth cover up to get your money.  The anglos are restless.  The American president insults the country of Mexico and we whities hanging out at the beach on the far side of the border wall are placed in the awkward state of almost denial as we act as if the guy doesn’t exist and what he says we can unsay by our silence.

We who talk politics among ourselves seem to be of similar philosophies or we do not broach politics at all — part of the truce of vacation nations.  This was true for us nortes during the Bush years, Obama years and more true than ever now.  Even so, one does not want to mistakenly get into an argument with a stranger over Obamacare in the Krystal alberca.  At vacation nation we set aside our differences and abide by raw naked manners and the rules of leisure however possible.  You catch snatches of private conversations you think you hear on the beach or at restaurants outdoors, in the plaza, and you wonder if those people are those people.  And if they are, what are they doing in Mexico?  They are supposed to be America First so what’s their story?

None of our business.  That’s the privacy and anonymity we bring with us to the palapa where we escape into our existential mode among thousands at the beach.  Go for a walk.  Under the afternoon sun the sand in the middle of the beach between the palapas and the water line is roasting hot and we run barefoot to the water.  We walk left, towards the Bayview and Pacifica, into the crowds.  There’s a parachute rider taking off into the sky.  More girls from Ipanema.  The sand at waters edge is spongy.  We say hi to people we’ve met.  An artist named Jorge sets up a card table under an umbrella painting miniature seascapes on 3×5 cards with his fingers.  Down by the Pacifica the stream has broken through from the estuary to the sea.  We take a dip in the gentler waves at this end of the bay.  Walking back to the Krystal past a sand soccer match, a volleyball match and the launch place of the parachute and the jet skis for rent, watching the people, the walkers and the ones taking selfies, the sunbathers and waders in the sea, it impresses me how many of us are white.

The skins of the people on the beach are invariably brown from suntan, though there’s a significant preponderance of Mexicans in the mix.  What I observe is the scores of people easy to guess as non-latinos, white Americans, Canadians or European looking visitors, and I see very few Africans — this past winter I counted them, and I saw nine black people I determined were there on vacation and not residents or workers from Ixtapa like the Tamale Lady, who might be Cuban, or Raphael with his purple face.  Seven men and two women.  I see fewer Asians, usually none.  I hesitate to say even African American or Asian Americans because this is after all an international beach, they could be Canadian or Brazilian, or from Togo for all I know.  There is an elder white gentleman we seem to see every year who looks very European who turned out to be from Argentina, and I thought I heard a couple speaking Afrikaans at the pool, and there’s a widening group of voices speaking Quebecois French, but this place doesn’t seem to be a destination for people of color except Latinos.  And gringos.  There is no discernible reason black people or asians should shun Ixtapa or feel unwelcomed.  I report this with conviction.  It just is.

My perceived decline in American vacationers is based on personal observations, no scientific demographic data or investigative pursuit.  I told you from the outset I’ve got my biases and shortcomings and can’t claim any exclusivity for the truth just because I say so, or I say I saw something.  But I trust my eyes and ears.  It’s not a drastic decline, but the share of the vacation market is not rising with Americans, not even by attrition.  Maybe it’s gotten around, Ixtapa is square — not cool, not hip — and Zihuatanejo is too old school, old fashioned.  Among old time returnees the clientele more or less dies off.  Among the steady stream of vacationers our age bracket who come to Mexico to retire in some way, after a fashion, indulging in leisure and escaping their own version of north american winter as part of the entitlement of the american dream, our bourgeois decadence and clauses in the social contracts enabling us graying gringos to temporarily relocate our lives to a hotel in paradise, some give up along the way, some move on, some bored, divorced maybe, or illness.  They just don’t show up anymore.

Those who turn up every year reaffirm each others lives better than Christmas cards.  We have been befriended and become friends with friendly people with simpatico these several years, people we’ve shared dinners and fishing excursions, field trips and countless taxi rides and become confidants whom we met at the palapas next door.  Given my tendency to gossip, these friends would rather remain anonymous to this essay.

In general we represent a civil tribe of North Americans.  Our decline in numbers is replaced by anglo Canadians, and more and more french Canadians, so the makeup of the gringo tourist market doesn’t look non-American at a glance.  No more than the rest of the western world doesn’t look American in an after sort of fashion. The cast at teatro de la playa is recast every year with fewer Americans and more Canadians, all via the international airport where we are all required to present passports to enter Mexico.  The Canadians seem to get off scott free with their political innuendos because they can have opinions about Donald Trump either way and not express the least sympathy for those irresponsible enough to let him seize power.

Call us Minnesota nice.  In the land of Vacation Nation we tolerate satire and jolly folderol, as what else could be meant behind the commentary you hear from Canadians meant to be serious political advice and counsel, they must be joking.

Apart from turning every sports bar in Ixtapa — a bar with at least one flat screen TV — into hockey night, the Canadian influence in the vacation trade the past eighteen years is eclipsed by the emergence of participation by the middle class of Mexico.

This is the biggest change I have observed in the fifty six or so weeks I have lived at the Krystal hotel over eighteen years, the evolution of the Mexican middle class.

In the earlier years it seemed quaint to see a Mexican family or two, three generations or so congregated around pool umbrellas or under palapas together, or a latino honeymoon couple, or spouses with small children.  I took it as a sign the Mexican society and economy were doing good if Mexicans could afford to take vacations at the Krystal.  This condescending view of what I observed evolved years hence as more and more occupancy at the hotel were Mexicans, especially around the Constitution Day holiday three day weekend.  Cars parked — nice cars, late models — all over the available curb space with license plates from Jalisco, Michoacan, Puebla and Mexico City.  SUVs.  Minivans.  Young families.  Young couples.  Middle aged couples.  Multi generations.  I told myself what I was seeing were indicators of prosperity, and I approved.

It’s more than quaint now.  It’s a target market at the core of the Krystal hotel and all the hotels of Ixtapa.  They offer all-inclusive vacation packages to Mexican cities within a few hours transport on the Mexican highway system.  Airlines like Interjet fly in from Mexico City.  Chartered coach buses arrive at the hotel cul de sac.  Walking around the pool after a swim last winter I took a look around and said to myself, man there’s a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.

Sometimes more than half the hotel guests are Mexican.  They come and go in waves, three day spurts, mostly weekends.  It’s not only a sign of the Mexican standard of living in general, it signifies an authentication of the Mexican vacation experience, an organic emergence of Mexican identity.  For one thing it’s improved the playlists of the music played at the swimming pool with latino songs replacing tired classic rock — perhaps much to the chagrin of western Canadians, eh, but more Shakira for me.  And if you don’t like Mexicans then what are you doing in Mexico?

On the beach the kids favor soccer balls to frisbees.  There have always been Mexicans on the beach all the time mixing with the anglo travelers.  The beach is public and the people who live here are Mexicans.  Generally Mexicans who are not vendors or hotel employees keep to the stretches of beach in front of the old Carlos and Charlies and west beyond the massage cabanas, the grassy barrens and in front of the new condos, but they disperse evenly in front of the hotels and the Bayview all the way to the Pacifica where there is more public access along the estuary.  The beach is wide except at the crescent corners, and in between can accommodate a thick crowd of citizens of Vacation Nation without collisions.  We accidentally photobomb one another and end up in the background of somebody’s selfie.  A song of Bruce Springsteen comes into my head, the girls in their summer clothes pass me by, and I’m enjoying seeing the flow of people along the ocean talking in tongues and not being able to guess from the way they are dressed which Mexicans are on their day off and live in town and which ones are guests at the hotels.

Not even by their Leonard Cohen style fedoras.

And not by cell phones.  The biggest sign of prosperity the past decade in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is the proliferation of smart phones.  The entire culture jumped past land lines and CDs to pocket computers and Facebook in one generation and in a sense caught up sociologically with the entire world.  Seems like there’s a lot of them wearing braces on their teeth.

How this bodes organically to the prosperity of Mexico matters to me because I like Mexico and want them to succeed as a people.  It bothers me that the president of my country promulgates an attitude hostile to them, and I am grateful they don’t treat us with likewise contempt.  If America is to be taken seriously in this world it is a great leap to ask the world to disregard the folly rants of cryptic memes like covfefe and to seek assurance from well meaning ambassadors like me and Roxanne.

From a Mexican perspective we might look quaint, us well-meaning Americans taking vacations and spending our decadent leisure money acting retired and relaxed along the ocean.  Piquant.  If they feel sorry for us they don’t condescend because if we are unhappy with our lives then it is a rich person’s problem disconnected to day shifts and night shifts and free time.  We are not seen or judged by what we do the other 48 or so weeks of the year (unless we brag) and they just know us by how we behave on vacation.

If the Mexican vacationers resent us gringos, and I sense some of them do, they resist acting out.  The worst effect is akin to something I experienced in Deep South Mississippi years ago, from white people who caught you associating in public with black people, a look in the eye like they’re looking right through you like you aren’t there at all.  Most Mexicans keep away from grouping among the nortes, but some like to be bold and mix right in, spread the beach towels around on the sand amid the palapas and play MP3 music as loud as can get away with — fortunate when they have taste in good songs.  When the gringos are in the minority there is no seismic shift in social dynamics and no palpable segregation.  There is room for one and all.  There is no prototypical Mexican tourist, they could be software engineers, retailers, doctors, skilled mechanics, who knows what professionals in their personal lives, just like us, only their Spanish is better and for that they have a leg up with the servants.

I have learned from people I have come to know in the hospitality profession of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo who would as much like to remain anonymous as our gringo friends, there are kinds of Mexican tourists who come from the cities and treat the local servants rudely and with disrespect.  They are what we gringos might call yahoos.  In Ixtapa Zihuatanejo and Petatlan they call them chilangos.  It’s a demonym coined in Nahuatl to refer to outsiders.  Specifically to our friends in the service industry it pertains to feeling treated like dirt by Mexican tourists from the city who act abusively superior.

I saw it once, a young woman who loudly ordered drinks at her palapa who harassed Jesus who was then a beach waiter by calling after him, “Joven, joven…”  Until Jesus quietly and patiently and deliberately addressed her to the side of her lounge chair and humbled her as privately as he could, then brought her drinks.  I later was not surprised to learn the term joven amounts to calling him “boy”.  Jesus is nobody’s boy.

They say the chilangos don’t tip.  You don’t hear the word gracias among them.  That strikes me as too bad.  If the long game marketing plan includes expanding the domestic market to replace and outlast the shrinking Americans, one hopes the locals don’t take a hit to their dignity and to their take home pay from their own people.

We have witnessed rude tourist behavior somewhere before and it is mortifying when the offending yahoo turns out to be an Ugly American.  To my mind there is no excuse for bad manners.  All I can do is set an example of civil conduct and fair trade and hope the chilango trend is a passing phase of immaturity.

I would be sad if this paradise were to somehow fall apart.  I don’t believe in jinx and think I’m not superstitious when I recall that prophecy from that Eagles song, Call someplace paradise and kiss it good bye…  but there is risk of unintended changes initiated by efforts to keep things from going wrong.  Or even from being neutral, in an after sort of fashion, being careful not to get involved in things none of our business.

We see election posters and billboards but have no idea who these people are or what political views they represent.  We have no interest in influencing the vote, we’re just glad they have a government of laws and voting democracy.

We are glad to witness progress and upward mobility.  There is visible evidence of women participating in the hospitality workplace since the turn of this century.  Along with the smart phone the emergence of female economic participation is the biggest social change I have seen in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  For a macho culture that’s a big deal.

Zihuatanejo comes from the Nahuatl word Cuitlatecapan, meaning Land of Women.  They called themselves Cuilatecs living in Cihuatlan.  If their history survives it must be carefully guarded, or deeply buried.  Maybe it was a matriarchal society.  It’s said Isla Las Gatas was named for so-called cat sharks (sharks without teeth) that supposedly swim the beach waters there, but that could be a myth, I’ve seen no such fish.  As myths go, the boulders of lava rock acting as a breakwater alongside the gray coral were supposedly lugged there by order of an ancient king who had them placed exactly there to provide beach privacy and calm waters for his wives to swim and bathe.  Could be the place was originally called Island of Pussycats.

Colonial Spain used the bay as a trade base with the Phillipines but never treasured the port as seriously strategic, abandoning it with little regret when it was time to go.  For a while there was a hardwood forest near the coast providing quality lumber for colonialist construction, and so the beach named Playa Madera means Wood Beach, where the lumber disembarked.  In a similar funny story of colonial times a shipping galleon got wrecked in foul weather on the rocks trying to get to the harbor, and its cargo of fine clothes from the orient spilled into the sea and washed ashore on the beach they call Playa Ropa, or Clothes Beach.

The resident population of Zihuatanejo city has risen from about 5,000 people in 1996 to about 70,000 today.  This is not a stagnant economy.  Kids born the first year we visited are turning eighteen.  What are they thinking?  A Zihuatan who looks at his or her life in this world must see themselves in some kind of context where the main business of the town depends on an international clientele.  Everybody near and far is touched by the hospitality trade.  The inner economy, education system, governance and social contracts obscured in plain sight of the sunglassed tourist are the shabby details of Downtown Mexico with the garage door architecture.  The hardware stores.  Furniture stores.  Elektra Appliances.  Ropa.  Zapatos.  Comidas.  Panaderias.  Bancomer.  Bus landmarks, nothing famous.  It’s a functioning city not a failed state.


Here is where I worry about the dissonant messages my country sends the people of Mexico.  Roxanne and I and friends I can vouch for go there to indulge in innocent pursuit of happiness, and we bring with us the baggage of our own standards.  We are not there to enjoy slumming in the Third World.  The rhetoric coming from Washington DC deliberately incites distrust and hostility.  Paranoia.  If we are warned that our lives are in danger it seems sensible to wonder why and how, and question whether it’s true somebody might want to do us in.  From a Mexican point of view they must see us Americanos through a lens of close-up face slaps and slurs, and you worry about a tipping point where our credibility isn’t worth the tips.  Our elected president attacks the character of Mexicans and economic well being of Mexico and threatens to corrupt our winter vacations.

One can only speculate why Donald Trump has it in for Mexico.  Maybe it’s a grudge because he can’t get any property to build on, I don’t know, but there’s something there, as he might say.

The Snake.

He not only fails to see a strategic markup of prosperity to the country on our southern border, he seems to advocate for the opposite, sabotaging Mexico only makes sense if it actually gave benefit to America first, and it does not.  A prosperous and thriving Mexico offers least incentive to sneak into the United States for wealth.  Or for any reason.  If there are no good reasons to escape Mexico there are no reasons to seek asylum in the USA, problem solved, no need to erect a wall to bar people — illicit commerce won’t stop at a wall.  A wall tells Mexicans we don’t trust them as a race of people, we don’t value their work and don’t want them coming to visit or study.  Telling Mexicans they must help pay for such a wall is to command subservience and indignity, like calling the servant boy.  The whole issue of Mexican immigration in American politics is telling Mexicans they are unimportant and inferior and the wall is their symbolic dead end to North America.  A punishment for being brown.  An encasement to keep out the riffraff.  In Donald Trump’s America we are a gated community, a fortress.  Mexicans are invaders, and that makes us invaders too.  If Mexicans are unwelcome in America then one wonders how precarious is the hospitality to Americans in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

Last year two of my sisters joined us at the Krystal for a week and through Benny on the beach we hired a guide named Fernando to drive us up the coast to Troncones where Heather could horseback ride on the beach.  Fernando proved to be an exceptional guide not only bringing us to a quiet beach cantina, arranging Heather to get a horse and us to rent boogie boards to ride the triple surf.  We had a nice lunch.  Fernando negotiated the check.  He took us on a walk down the coastline to coves of swirling tidepools in the sand, coastal inlets within inlets of volcanic rock and perfect sand, where he pictured building a house facing the sea someday.

He was a talkative guy in his forties, spoke good english, who brought a book with him for during down time, which didn’t happen much with us that day.  Among his guiding lights imparted to us that day Fernando advised us to gargalas — gargle — every day with sea salt water to build natural immunity to the throat and sinuses.

He innocently flirted with my sisters, made a joke about catch and release.  He was married and had to remember to bring home the tamales that night for his wife because his wife was in charge of the Baby Jesus Tamale Night this year, and it was tomorrow.  Every year among extended family and friends there is a celebration dinner of tamales, with cake for dessert, and in the cake is baked a little Baby Jesus figurine.  Whoever gets the Baby Jesus in their slice of cake is supposed to provide tomales for the dinner the next year.  After our day trip he was supposed to pick up the tamales, so when he might flirt a little with Meaghan or Heather they would remind him to pick up the tamales.

At the beach he handed me a smooth black rock and told me to hold it in my palm.  Then clench the rock tight.  He said whenever I felt aggravation to channel my negative energy into the rock in my fist.  Then throw the rock into the sea.  Gone will be the source of aggravation.

Later he came up with two more stones from the beach.  They were they size and smoothness of the hot rocks the masajistas apply to your back.  He placed one in each of my hand and told me when I want something, desire something more than anything, like a house on the beach or something, squeeze the two stones and think of your desire.  Then place the stones in the sun to get hot.  One day your desire will come true.

He talked about his son, a young adult who lived in Guadalajara, and said it was more healthy for a seedling to grow away from the shadow of the big tree.

He told me he thought Donald Trump would be a good thing for my country.  I asked why he thought that and he offered a bet, $100 USD that I would be better off a year from then when we talked again.  I would not shake on the bet because I refused to bet against myself, but I wanted to know why he thought Donald Trump would possibly be good.  He was vague and cryptic and kept referring to his proposed bet.

Troncones is a tiny town that extends a long way up the beach in little beach haciendas occupied by vacationers and expatriates who prefer to get away from the crowds in the towns and like a more reclusive experience.  It appeals to me and Roxanne at a certain level, like actually living in a palapa, and we are told the rent of one of these places is affordable, but it seems too remote and far off for us, so dependent on urban conveniences like a variety of restaurants.

On the highway back to Ixtapa Fernando stopped at a roadside stand and makes us buy three ten pound sacks of crystaline sea salt, which cost ten pesos each, about a buck and a half.  He reminds us to gargalar daily, and we figure it’s a small nod to the local economy.

As he drives he tells a joke.  A priest and a taxi driver are killed in a car crash and when they get to heaven the archangel sends the taxi driver directly up to hang out with God and assigns the priest to desk duty in the office.  The priest argues, I am a priest and he is a taxi driver, why aren’t I up there with God?  The angel replied, the taxi driver got more people to pray.

Fernando dropped us at the Krystal and we tipped him.  We reminded him to pick up the tamales.  As soon as he was out of earshot and sometimes to this day my sisters sing about him, there was something in the air that night, the moon was bright, Fernando…  the song by Abba.  I instead tend to think of that song by Lady Gaga that goes, don’t call my name, Fernando… either way he’ll always be remembered fondly.

Our first day at the Krystal this year on our first walk we found Benny at the beach.  He looked pretty good, maybe a little trimmer.  A little more serious.  He told us that past November his stepson and captain of his big boat passed away, Vicente.  Some kind of blocked colon.  Went to the hospital and they couldn’t save him.  Left a wife and two young kids.  He was Benny’s stepson by virtue of Benny taking Vicente in as a boy, orphaned, and raising him as his son.  He was Benny’s captain.  Telling the story evoked deep sadness.  We embraced Benny, sorry for his loss.  We barely knew Vicente, having run into him at the pier and the one time we went fishing with a group on the big boat, so we commiserated with Benny, who said now he was looking after Vicente’s widow and children.  He thanked us for our sympathy and reminded us if we wanted go fishing, or just a boat ride to look for whales and dolphins, or take another day trip to Troncones he would set it up.

Then he told us that Fernando the guide passed away in December from stomach cancer.

That news really blew us away.  One of those things where you say he looked, he seemed so healthy.  I thought about his therapy for anger, a stone’s throw into the sea.  When we took our dip in the surf we gargled, like a toast.  To Fernando.  I thought about if I had taken his bet I would have owed him $100.  USD.

I am better off now than I was a year ago, statistically speaking, by any objective measure.  And a few subjectives too.  All in spite of Donald Trump.  And the good for America Fernando insinuated, I cannot still figure out what he meant and only hope he saw something good coming through America the next few years motivated by the presence of Trump, not necessarily by Trump’s decree.  One hopes for a better world.  One wonders if Fernando was prescient enough to see progressions of democracy beyond our frustrating times, aggravation hurled into the sea.  Our deepest wishes baking in the sun.

Benny has told us he learned English when he was young because he observed that anybody who was making money knew English.  Anabel de los Santos agrees.  She is one of the savant servants at the Krystal restaurants.  Maybe fifteen years ago she broke in as one of the beach waiters who hustle back and forth serving food and drink to the palapas, the first woman stationed on the beach in what had always been a crew of all guys like Jesus.  Jesus mentored her.  It’s hard shlepping drinks in the sand all day — hard enough serving food and drink on tile and hardwood floors, it takes legs to work the beach — and the palapa people can be demanding.  With a big moon faced smile she tutored my Spanish and ran our tab up in Negra Modelos by the ice bucket cubos for years, making conversation back and forth in Spanish and English, and she has become our best confidante in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

Even so, Anabel is both our best insight into the soul of Mexico and most worthy of privacy.  We are proud that she has befriended us, and thus protective of her confidence.  Beyond the call of duty, as it were, that is beyond her role at the hotel she has extended her life to us, welcomed us to her home, dined with us in town, shown us Playa Larga, brought us to her grandson’s birthday party one night at Coacoyul and introduced us to her family and friends with gracious hospitality that transcends vacation leisure time in a foreign country and makes us feel more than honored guests but trusted kin.  What I share in this essay respects Anabel so much as to reveal as much as one can her good examples without embarrassing her to the world.

She is now a senior waiter at the hotel restaurant, 3 to 11, the dinner shift.  The food at the Krystal is very very good and features a delicious buffet along with a standard menu.  With a trend towards all-inclusive price bundling the restaurants serve a captive clientele with an accent on service at the tables, and Anabel leads her team in etiquette and efficiency.  People ask for her tables by name.  She’s a pro.  Several women now work as waiters, bussers and chefs at the hotels and restaurants these days, from the early years we would come and everywhere the waiters were men except two part-timers who worked the pool deck, Gloria and Marta, and Anabel who worked the beach, and once upon a time Anabel was new.

She knew English.  She indulged and tutored my Spanish.  We learned she was a single mom with four kids.  One kid has special needs.  She is a grandma.  She gets one day off a week.  Lately, the last few years, she has a pareja, boyfriend Jose who speaks virtually no English but helps out around the house.  Today two of her sons, Ariel and Uriel, are young adults, the former entering the post-school workforce and the younger completing high school.  They’re a generation looking for something to do.  The daughter Suke has a toddler to raise in addition to completing vocational education.  The whole family raises Jorvy (pronounced Jorby) and everyone looks after big brother Brandon, who has severe cerebral palsy.

Anabel started working at the Krystal in the traditional women’s job of housekeeping, una camarista, cleaning rooms and making beds.  The Krystal offers English classes for its employees and Anabel took the lessons with the idea of becoming a waiter and making more money.  She hopes her kids learn more English so they can too.  Every generation hopes its children do better in this world than we do, it’s universal — look at us Americans, doing so well as it is — and we all look at Jorvy’s generation emerging and wonder what his future might unfold in this town.


Ariel is a hipster skateboarder with an iPhone who likes Bob Dylan and works at the Krystal in the kitchen.  He says he wants to study mechanics and move to Jalisco, he has no interest in Mexico City.  He and I have become email pen pals and correspond a few times a year.  He and Roxanne are friends on Facebook.  He reminds me of past teenagers I have known who want to break free of their old home towns and live somewhere cooler.  Uriel is more obscure to me, the younger brother, handsome like Ariel, at school a lot, says he wants to study dance.

The daughter Suke is shy and virtually unknowable, speaks no English at all and lacks her mother’s tendency to tutor my Spanish since she has no English to fall back on to explain.  We hear she’s enrolled in a camarista academy.

At the Krystal the one called Gloria is also now a senior restaurant waiter, a counterpart to Jesus on the breakfast lunch shift — he says, Jesus and Gloria, we are the same.  The other woman who worked the pool deck, Marta, was last seen operating a kind of pop-up gift shop on the plaza near the basketball court in Zihuatanejo.

Recent years have seen a boom in young women serving as waiters and greeters at the restaurants.  Kids are coming of age and taking jobs in hospitality.  Women are concierges, managers and desk clerks, not just cleaners.  The jobs you do not see women doing are security guards and taxi drivers.  Bartenders and lifeguards.  Guides.

Jesus Calderon is the standout alpha male of the Krystal waiters.  He has been there longer than we have been coming to the Krystal.  We found his style severe and almost formal for a beach resort but he was precise and very efficient, and he too sometimes would tutor my Spanish and humor me.  He has critical eyes and projects a far awareness of space and surroundings.  We used to think he was giving us the stink eye, or at least the hairy eyeball, that he didn’t trust us for some reason, maybe even didn’t like us the first few years, he was just treating us well to be professional.  We got to know him a little when we engaged him in conversation, learned he has a little cattle ranch outside of town a few miles, eight cows, all dry for the winter, where he goes and rides his horses on his days off, a caballero, a vaquero.  At work he is a consummate professional and idealized leader.  He is the local union rep, and without prying into his personal business would guess his influence has shaped the workplace in a positive way for his coworkers and the industry as a whole.  I was out of earshot the time Jesus tactfully reprimanded the young woman who called him joven, and my Spanish is too poor to have understood his words word for word, but he must have said something elegantly persuasive, she instantly changed her manners.  He mentored Anabel.  In many ways Jesus embodies the soul of the Krystal and the hospitality of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

We keep doing the same thing over and over expecting the same result.  That’s the beauty of going there year after year, we don’t care if it gets different.  It’s like the sunset, it comes  around every day but we stick around to watch.  At its cloudless it always looks the same red ball and we still can’t look away.  When it’s cloudy it gets all pink and purple and unpredictable.  Then it gradually gets dark.


That last walk of the day to symbolically kick the wall, the last dip in the sea and a gargle for Fernando, watching Raphael’s crew pack their parachutes, the speedboat guys pull in their ropes or make one last run pulling the big wiener across the bay where at least one of the five people riding it in lifejackets deliberately falls off so they have to stop, remount and start over and everybody gets a swim.  Fishermen come out to cast their nets.  Pelicans dive for food just beyond the breakers.  Clamdiggers try their best to unearth something from the mud with their hands as the tide ebbs away.  The guys who rent the jet skis load them up on their two wheel trailers to haul them to where they lock them up for the night.  The last volleyball match of the day whistles done.  The sun not so hot, the little kids make one last run into the edges of the waves.  It’s time to dig out the dad they buried up to his chin.  The lounge chairs get stacked at the Pacifica, arrayed in neat empty rows at the Bayview, and the canvas tent palapas at the Barcelo get unstruck, and the umbrellas collapse at the Sunscape Dorado.  The stragglers straggle.

The girl from Ipanema in her summer clothes poses for a picture holding the big red sun as a beach ball in her hands.

Maybe one last beer — or a water with a lime, we don’t drink as much beer as we used to.  Maybe one more dip in the pool — it’s still at least 82 degrees out there.  The sun dips below the brim of the palm leaves of the palapa.  We are suntanned in spite of all shady precautions, the suns rays bounce up off the sand and the sea and they get us anyway.  Down the line several palapas away a Mexican family has commissioned one of the itinerant Mexican cowboy bands to stop and play a set of songs, and from a distance they sound almost like a polka band without a tuba.

We stay for the sunset.  Maybe it’s a classic, or maybe it’s a bust, either way we celebrate another beautiful day.  The booze cruise catamaran called the Picante like the signature of Picasso sails by and we wave at them but nobody ever waves back, why would they be looking at us when there’s a sunset out there?  Sail on, get out of our way from looking at the sun descend next to the rock islands off the bay, islands so blond and stoic from the distance which up close are whitewashed with bird poop, which you learn on the booze cruise.

Maybe this sunset we witness the green flash.


We pack up our towels and books and sandals and beach bag and t-shirt and hat and our litter and arrange our lounge chairs the way we found them and vacate the palapa for any twilight stragglers who come after us.  Stop at the towel bar to exchange for fresh ones for tomorrow.  Ride the elevator to our room to change clothes to go to dinner.

There are at least a dozen good restaurants or cantinas within walking distance of the Krystal in Ixtapa, maybe two dozen.  We have our favorites among the most popular and would like to try the obscure ones some time just to get out of our routine except our favorites treat us so well.  Even with the prevalence of hotels offering all-inclusive dining the competitive restaurant trade seems to be flourishing.

Sometimes we’ll go out with our palapa friends.  They like to dine in Zihuatanejo and make reservations through the concierge and we’ll take taxis to places we like in town.  At a place called Il Mare they serve Mediterranean style dinners at a tiered dining room of balconies at the top of the hill overlooking Playa Ropa, the entire city surrounding the bay lit up at night.  Our friends like to reserve a table on the beach at Daniels, right in town, for chicken or mahi mahi.  There’s a place called Coconuts where the ambience is dining in a central courtyard of a hacienda.  An out of the way place with excellent shrimp is called Letty’s, located behind the embarcadero by the fishing boat marina.  A place called Bandito’s specializes in molcojate, like a ratatouille served in an iron kettle.  And no one serves red snapper — huachinango a ajo — better than Casa Elvira.

In Ixtapa within walking distance of the Krystal and all grouped around the commercial blocks we like El Camaron Azul, the Blue Shrimp, for just about anything seafood on the menu.  Toscano’s and Emilio’s specialize in Italian food — Toscano has the best pizza and lasagna and Emilio the best ribs, a huge rack of which must be shared, and same with their salads.  Ruben’s makes malt shop hamburgers and fries and features New Zealand cheese.  The General’s is a sports bar offering fajitas, pizzas and pub fare.  A place called Deborah’s leans into perfection in every item on her menu.  For genuine Mexican dishes there are several places but Roxanne’s and my favorite is formally called Los Bigotes de Zapata, Zapata’s Mustache, but is better known as Martin’s, with mole sauce and green sauce so good on their enchiladas it’s worth getting one of each — and they serve a nice inexpensive breakfast too.  Away a little off to the side of the boulevard on the way to Playa Linda past Emilio’s is the Ixtapa Palace hotel, with its restaurant Tiburon serving red snapper in vera cruz sauce.  And the other way from the commercial district alone along the boulevard to the marina stands Soleiado, a boutique Mediterranean cuisine of wrought iron atmosphere where a French guy sings on the patio.  The marina restaurants are all right if more expensive and a little pretentious as if they conveyed a view like Il Mare from the top of Playa Ropa, though you can eyeball some high moneyed yachts.

All these places serve open air, some more sheltered than others.  Depending on tastes there are biker style bars, video bars, country and classic rock bars, all serving good pub fare.  There are places opening and closing every year Roxanne and I have not found yet, both in the commercial district of Ixtapa and in the heart of Zihuatanejo central, that are good places to eat no doubt, so we tell ourselves to keep looking for new places for dinner.

Soleiado serves the best Bolognese spaghetti sauce anywhere.  Wherever I travel if I’m uncertain what to eat off a menu where nothing seems to appeal to my appetite my default choice is spaghetti or linguini Bolognese.  I have sampled Bolognese sauce in Prague, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Interlachen, Zermatt, Venice, Madrid, Minneapolis of course and various other cities in the USA, and Ixtapa, and the Soleiado recipe is the best.  Not too bad is the sauce at Toscano, the place for pizza and lasagna.  Maybe second best I ever had was the one in Prague, or maybe I was just extraordinarily hungry.

Soleiado’s recipe was said to be the recipe of the aunt of one of the founders, Caroline.  She and her husband Francesco established the place in the late 1990s, named it after a word for sunshine.  Legend says she was a show dancer and he was a chef at Club Med up the coast a few miles towards Playa Linda.  She was from Montreal, he was from Paris.  They fell in love.  They conceived a dream, a fine dining restaurant in Ixtapa.  I also loved their pork tenderloin Nicoise.  The place was always full to capacity from six to nine.  Caroline was always there, greeting her guests at every table, never tiring to talk about their entrepreneurship, Francesco’s genius in the kitchen, their young daughter, or to listen to compliments about the food or the sunny decor.  Sometimes it seemed people vied for Caroline’s affections.  Francesco was always there too in the kitchen mainly in his white chef suit.  He was darkly handsome and wore his black hair in a long braid down his back.  He played smooth jazz on the hi-fi.

One terrible night Roxanne and I went there late after calling home to our daughter from a pay phone using a prepaid phone card, more than ten years ago.  We learned that night Michel our daughter might have ovarian cancer and we staggered to Soleiado to comfort ourselves with a nightcap of a couple of shots of Bailey’s and a slice of their famously delicious pecan pie.  Francesco saw me crying and came to our table to console me.  I was drunk and deeply sad, and I still recall how he embraced my shoulders and nearly wept himself.  I wrote him a letter to thank him for that and to tell him Michel did not have cancer after all but an operable condition from which she fully recovered.

In the years after that things changed at Soleiado.  Francesco and Caroline broke up.  First Francesco was said to have gone back to Montreal to chef at a restaurant to supplement their income due to a drop in business in Ixtapa due to the recession.  Then Caroline reported sending their teenage daughter to school in Montreal to be with relatives.  Then it was rumored Francesco took off for Paris.  Then the daughter’s health was reported to be precarious.  The next year Caroline herself had lost a lot of weight and didn’t look well.  Then she was gone.  A new guy, another Frenchman and an American henchman managed the place.  Little else changed.  The Frenchman bought the place, they say, and now he shmoozes the guests.  The cuisine remains boutique though the menu has changed somewhat.  They still make Bolognese according to Caroline’s aunt Marie, and still serve pecan pie.  They’ve brought on a singer of songs in French and installed a ten foot high Eiffel Tower that lights up with dazzle at night out front towards the boulevard.

I grieve in a way for Caroline and Francesco.  None of the old staff seems to know what happened to them.  Or they aren’t saying.  Theirs was a sunny dream realized and then it dissolved in a cloudy drizzle.  I wondered what it might have been like to be two relatively sophisticated parents of a teenage girl in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, what social dilemmas they may have faced.  How would we have raised our kids if we lived there?

We don’t know.  It’s a different paradigm from what we’re used to I’m sure.  Did the daughter have friends she was torn away from?  Have they all found happiness again?  Maybe I’ve interpreted their story wrong, put the wrong spin on it.  It’s hard to believe credible people who find romance in paradise might lose it and naive to think it might all be part of somebody’s master plan to get in and get out.

Is this Casablanca 1942 deja vu?  Hardly.  Not Bladerunner either.  We come down here for vacation not to play social worker, not to be missionaries, not to ascribe to investigative journalism, and not to spy.  Not to judge.

Anabel’s daughter got knocked up at barely fifteen.  Anabel herself has four kids and I’m not privy to the circumstances of their fatherhood.  It’s all I need to know because what I perceive askance from my American cultural lens presents me with situations I’m not supposed to fix.  Like the prayer for serenity asks to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference, serenity requires the bliss of curiosity to seek out the distinctions and divide what you find.  My upbringing says it’s some emblem of being poor Mexicans but my education tells me there’s more to the human condition than building walls will ever solve.  It may or may not be interesting to know that Anabel and all of her family and friends, Jesus or anyone like Benny or Fernando, of all the people we know down there, nobody wants to emigrate to the United States.

They don’t complain.  Yes, asides about bad tippers and chilangos, but not about life.  Deep in their dark eyes there may be signs of pain and sadness, and in the severe faces of those like Janeth the pensiveness of truth, but the people of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo don’t wear discontent on their sleeves.  They are serene.

It’s nice to go somewhere for a winter vacation where there’s no civic tension to distract from the perfect beach weather.  We don’t need the aggravation of the American state department telling the world Mexico is as dangerous as Syria.

One time on the beach a few years ago we encountered a squad of five or six soldiers in black battle dress with helmets and vests on patrol carrying machine guns.  It created a quiet stir among the palapa anglos.  It reminded Roxanne and me of routine patrols we saw on the plaza of St Michel in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and under the Eiffel Tower, a sign of the times.  More theater of the playa.

We have friends, acquaintances and family who tell us straight up they would never go to Mexico because they believe it’s way too dangerous.  They worry about our safety and tell us to check in when we get back.  They decline our invitations to join us and prefer to winter within the American borders, places like Arizona and Florida, and of course Hawaii.  Most of them just don’t want to leave America at all.  It’s cool.  America has a lot to offer Americans.  Overall the rest of the world would like to have what America offers.  They would like to have it in their own world.  And meanwhile, fewer Americans come to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo because they are chicken.

Sometimes when we are out walking the boulevard on the main of Ixtapa between the beach hotels and condos and the commercial blocks we see a military truck go by with soldiers in the back like the ones on the beach.  Some of them wear ski masks like urban guerrillas, and it makes the look like the bad guys, but we suppose they don’t want to be identified for reasons to avoid retribution.  It makes for dinner conversation among us northern tourists, whether we should worry more about our safety, there might be something going on underneath we aren’t supposed to know about.  I’ll concede the visibility of armed federal troops might be intentional, to show we are being safely guarded.  We should feel protected.  A contingent of such troops regularly bunks at one of the backstreet off-beach hotels and conducts training from there, so it seems normal to see them on patrol on the boulevard in and out of Ixtapa.  On our field trips we’ve seen them set up check points on the open highway.  There’s nothing unusual here we would not expect to see.  We remind ourselves we are in Mexico, a land famed for banditos and corruption, so to counter that kind of reputation takes a lot of charm while addressing the actual crimes.  Our palapa friends and other senior vacationers we engage say they feel generally safe, and everybody draws their limits to where they might go and where they might avoid at what time of day or night — just as people do at home.

Night life in Ixtapa escapes me and Roxanne.  We don’t hang out and party all night long, so we can’t really say where people do that.  Our evenings end usually after dinner.  We are elders now, seniors, and a long day at the beach and a delicious meal with wine, beer or margaritas makes us sleepy.

There is a disco called Christine next door to the Krystal.  We went there one time to get a feel for the night life.  The sound system is fantasic.  We were there too early, around nine or ten, and the crowd was sparse.  Tired, we left before the party really got started, around midnight.  A lot of the local young people go there after work.  There is nightlife, but we’re just too old and tired to stay up all night.


The commercial zone of Ixtapa is set up like a semi-grid of small strip mall installations around a plaza fountain which no longer runs water and a fenced off block of ruins of concrete from something nobody remembers used to be there that may have either burned down or collapsed from an earthquake but hasn’t ever been redeveloped.  Other than that block of fenced rubble the walk through the commercial district is blightless.  Not exactly a grid of streets and not a maze, the passways through this array of strip mall and plazas constitute contiguous clean well lighted places.  There are boutique shops for clothes, jewelry, shoes and ceramics.  Gelato.  Farmacias.  Grocery store almost big enough to be a supermarket.  On the far end beyond the little cantinas the flea market beckons.  Lots of good restaurants.

There were only two American restaurant chain brands operating in Ixtapa, Domino’s pizza and Subway sandwiches.  I swear there was once a KFC but nobody will back me up on that.  Now there is a new Starbuck’s at the hotel Krystal.  No Hard Rock Cafe.  No Applebee’s.

Otherwise the food trade is original and credibly local.  Toscano’s serves good Italian and is owned and run by old man Toscano who spends evenings drinking red wine at the bar and smoking cigarettes.  He has been known to get crabby with street performers who don’t ask special permission to entertain on his side of the plaza.  He is either too far in the bag by the time we arrive for dinner or just not chummy, but he’ll at least raise a glass to us if we catch his eye, and he has an eye for repeat customers.  The menu shows a drawn map of the city of Florence a few hundred years ago, still like it today.  Two years ago his son hung around the place.  A younger guy in Tommy Bahama maybe pushing fifty, he engaged us one evening to shmooze and introduce himself as the boss’s son who came up from Acapulco to help the old man and eventually take over the business.

The younger Toscano had plans.  Ixtapa had to liven up, jiven up, get a reputation as an all year spring break destination to attract the fun seeking young generation.  He said the place was too geriatric, like his dad.  He called Zihuatanejo’s rejection of the cruise liner pier the dumbest decision he ever heard.  The new casino was set to open any day, and he looked forward to it as a good sign.  The next year he was gone, sent packing back to Acapulco by his old man, who apparently didn’t like his ideas.

The casino did open, after we had gone home for the season.  Last year we walked through.  Lit up with glam LED lights and staffed by mannered models in casual tuxedos and pulsating with noises of gaming machines and dance pop, it reminded me of a tiny version of Mystic Lake back home.  Behind a glass door the blackjack tables were busiest and the only place one could smoke.  We walked through, checked it out and walked out without playing.  Purely a reconnaissance mission.  We don’t gamble — or game — and don’t get a thrill from slots.  I personally find casinos depressing places of angst and desperation, so I didn’t see anything positive coming from this new Ixtapa casino except the usual bump in local revenue and jobs.  It seemed reassuring the place wasn’t very crowded for its first full season.

This year it was closed.  More reassuring yet.  Orange fliers fastened on every door and exit — closed by order of the federal police.  Ask around and finally somebody says it’s because of too many robberies.  We walked by on our way to the hotel from dinner at the Ixtapa Palace and for some reason there were four black and white policia federale  SUVs parked empty in the casino parking lot like they were having a meeting inside.  Like there was an American doughnut shop nearby, Emilio’s bakery.  I thought about the stanzas of Townes Van Zandt, “All the federales say they could’ve had him any day, they just let him get away out of kindness I suppose.”

Though I say I’m not superstitious or believe in jinx, the casino seemed to be bad juju for Ixtapa, introduced a corrupt element to the community.  And though I say I’m liberal and tolerant of some types of sketchy behavior (like smoking) seen as harmless fun, I would rather not see gaming in Ixtapa to liven up and jiven up the atmosphere, or attract what they call in Minnesota some of that blue hair money.  (Elders don’t dye their hair silver blue anymore but the idiom lives on at Mystic Lake.)

It’s enough for us to choose a good sit down dinner.  The rival of Soleiado for elegance up the boulevard is Deborah’s, and Deborah is the successor of Caroline as the grand hostess.  Deborah exudes exactness in her entire operation.  Each dish has its own ultra quality.  Never a letdown or a mistake.  She walks among the guests asking if everything tasted all right and basks in all the compliments.  She’s been at this longer than we’ve been coming down, and now she is the premier restaurateur of Ixtapa.  We all think she’s Canadian because her menus of language are coded with the red maple leaf for English and not the stars and stripes, she looks anglo though her Spanish is clear and precise.  She has a haughty edge about her.  Suffers no fools.  Years ago seemed reluctant to shmooze as if she was too busy.  Used to have her place tucked back behind the commercial shops like Martin’s, barely a patio with an awning and a pergola.  It was called Mama Norma and Deborah’s then, after Deborah’s mentor and longtime proprietor known as Mama Norma, who schooled Deborah in her recipes.  Deborah carried on after Mama Norma passed away.  Her current iteration is the site of a place once called the Hacienda, another place that folded when the grand old lady who owned it retired, where Deborah now runs her flagship restaurant named for herself.

She is also know to own a small cantina on the boulevard strip called Chili Beans and is rumored to own a big piece of the Blue Shrimp.  And her old location has been renamed Mama Norma’s and opened under apparently new management with Italian cuisine — yes, the spaghetti Bolognese is good — and Deborah denies she owns it but there are signs she is behind the scenes, like the name Mama Norma’s.

In truth Deborah has kept up the standards of restaurant quality in Ixtapa at a good price these many years.  They say it was she who discovered the talents of a shy young chef named Lalo at the Blue Shrimp, where he composed his signature flambee shrimp, mushroom, cheese and liquor dish that originated as Lalo’s Shrimp and has since mutated everywhere in high quality knockoff form as Ixtapa Shrimp, seen prepared in flames at tables at all the fancy places.  Deborah has her own chef who specializes, a woman at that, and puts on a dramatic show while she mixes the ingredients and incites the flame.  Lalo was cute and shy, concentrated on the cooking, putting ingredients together as if he were experimenting, just now making it up, almost in awe of the flame he created.


Roxanne and I and our palapa and beach friends followed Lalo from his Blue Shrimp days and found him with his own place operating a kitchen out back in a section of an old hotel deep into the old plaza with a patio setting of a few tables under umbrellas and an awning, which he called Lalo’s House.  He kept the tables occupied for a few years and taught some younger guys how to make the shrimp mushroom gravy with the three cheeses, just the right dash of English sauce (Worcerster sauce — no Mexican I’ve met tries to say it) and white wine and brandy.  Shy and still cute, Lalo reluctantly learned to shmooze like a restaurateur rock star when his fans would get the waiters to lure him out of the sheltered workshop of his kitchen to garner applause for their meals, and sometimes we could coax him out to either prepare our shrimp or supervise a protege.

More or less across the boulevard within view of the Krystal, on the second floor of the strip of buildings above a convenience store and a farmacia, used to be a place called the Lobster House.  A grand staircase led upstairs from the sidewalk and there was always a guy out front trying to get people to go up there for lobster but nobody seemed to trust him and looking up from the street it never looked like anybody ever ate their.  Roxanne is allergic to lobster so we never went up there once.

Then one year the Lobster House was renamed the House of Lalo.  We ascended the grand staircase and were seated at a table on a balcony looking at the jungle wildlife preserve behind the boulevard looking towards the hotel, and it was a serene juxtaposition.  He had a few guests.  I looked around and the place was rather elegant with leather and carved wood.  A Spanish ceiling.  He welcomed us with awkward pride, long since being shy with those of us who followed his career and his cuisine.  It was a one year trial, he told us.  We had a great dinner.  It looked as if the House of Lalo would take off.  It got a good review in TripAdvisor.  It was only due that Lalo have his own house.

The next year, last year, he was back on the patio at the back of the plaza cooking out of the kitchen at the old hotel.  The food was good but Lalo didn’t seem with it.  Barely going through the motions of hospitality.  He seemed depressed.  His staff said the old Lobster House was too much to manage, and they had trouble getting customers to go up the stairs — no elevator.  Then we learned Lalo’s best friend had died the summer before in a car accident on the highway to Acapulco.  We of course shared our condolences and he shrugged.

This year by the time Roxanne and I showed up Lalo’s patio was out of business.  Our friends said the week before they had gone to eat there, and it was open, but Lalo was nowhere to be seen, not even in the kitchen.  They asked about him and eventually one of the waiters took our friends to a room at the old hotel where Lalo was in bed looking dire.  Said he couldn’t get out of bed.  Had a set of crutches propped against the wall.  We learned later from the grapevine Lalo had diabetes and a drinking problem.  We heard he suffered depression as a result of a car crash while he was drinking and driving that killed a passenger.  Just two days before we left for home we learned through our friends who learned it from a waiter at Chili Beans Lalo died of heart failure.  The funeral was the next day, done before any of us knew, so we did not attend.

His flambee shrimp with three cheeses, mushrooms and gravy lives on, even as a version offered at the General’s sports bar, which they call the General’s Shrimp.

The General may be the most universally beloved proprietor in all of Ixtapa.  Named Genaro, he got his nickname from Frank, the proprietor of another popular bar and restaurant where Genaro worked as chief of staff and de facto manager.  His energetic command of the service staff, the kitchen and the bar got him nicknamed the General.  His affable personality and fluent English ushered customers in and the service attitudes he instilled in the waiters kept people coming back multiple times during their vacations, so Frank’s enjoyed overflow business in that era.

We first met Genaro when he worked for Frank’s.  Roxanne’s sister and her late husband used to go to Ixtapa too and stay at a place called Las Brisas, on a beach of its own around the cliffs from Pacifica, and one year our times in Mexico overlapped.  They invited us to go with another couple they knew on a field trip up the coast to Troncones to see what it was like, guided by a guy they met at Frank’s they referred to as Gordo, whose name turned out to be Genaro.

He’s round and pudgy with a close cropped haircut, chubby cheeks and it was understandable he might answer to Gordo, but from the outset of meeting him early that morning in the parking lot near Frank’s where we climbed inside his van, there was something smartly charismatic about him that promoted him past deserving the sort of nickname bullies bestow on buffoons.  So I agreed to call him General because that is what he likes to be called.


It was our first trip to Troncones, and he showed us a great time.  Brought boogie boards for us to try the triple surf.  Made sure we had shelter and beer.  Brought us to a welcoming roadside cantina for lunch platters of seafood at a tiny nearby town.  Everywhere he entertained us he assured our trust and comfort.  I think he had a crush on Roxanne.  It was a memorable excursion because we all had fun, everything went right and we all got to see a piece of Mexico outside the resort zone.  We tipped big.

On our way back to Ixtapa we stopped at Genaro’s house in a little flat, dusty town up the road from Playa Linda, so he could shower and change clothes to go to work that night at Frank’s.  We met his young wife (don’t stare at her tits, he quipped) and two little daughters — none of whom spoke English, but it was okay.  I babbled Spanish.

On the ride back to Frank’s I rode shotgun and asked how he spoke English so well.  Cruising the narrow streets between the concrete houses like his with rebar optimistically pointed up on the roof corners and rusty corrugated steel roofs, chickens in the dusty yards, he pointed to a house behind and then to the road ahead and described how one day he kissed his mama good bye when he was a teenager and climbed aboard a truck with a bunch of other guys recruited from the area who rode all the way up to Colorado to work in a tortilla factory.  He lived five some years in the United States working in the restaurant business, eventually ending up in Wisconsin where he fell in love with the Green Bay Packers and sharp cheddar cheese.

Supposedly he was all legal, documented, but he eventually came home anyway and with some friends started up a restaurant in Zihuatanejo called Three Amigos.  It became successful but Genaro felt forced out as the fourth amigo, so he went around managing other restaurants until he got recruited by Frank to keep a tight handle on his operations while Frank experimented with running a ju jitsu dojo and a dirt bike rental and Frank’s wife opened a purse shop.  Frank basically hung out at his namesake bar to shmooze the customers while the General ran the show.

Soon after our trip to Troncones Frank and Genaro had a falling out.  Frank found out he was moonlighting as a tour guide and didn’t like Genaro making money on the side and not cutting him in on it.  Frank got a sketchy reputation in the community for rumors about stiffing his workers, gouging his patrons with an inflated exchange rate on payments in American cash, and for allegedly cheating the Sail Fest charity out of the proceeds of a benefit dance hall event held in his dojo.  The General has never contributed to these rumors and allegations.  Frank is an Italian-Canadian expatriate married to a Mexican, which is how he can own his business license, he told me — he has to put it in the name of his young son.  Hipsterly handsome with long hair worn up in a man bun long before it became a craze, he has his own following among bikers and would be renegades who are attracted to Frank’s shady reputation as a haven for wannabe misfits — that and constant two-for-one Dos Equis.  He and his lovely, vivacious wife have been seen having spats in the back room.  They are both said to have fits and tantrums at the staff in front of customers.  Yet the place has a loyal following of quasi-expatriates and ex-patriots.  Maybe it’s all talk.  And the food is not that great.  Asi asi.

Still, they fired Genaro, or maybe Genaro quit, he doesn’t say.  He turned up fronting the cantina called Chili Beans on the boulevard, where again he kept the chairs full and supervised a clean well lighted operation.

A few years of this and a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs approached him to be partners in his own bar.  They bought a failing restaurant at the edge of the plaza next to one side of the ruined square, fixed it up and renamed it The General’s.  It features sports jerseys, sweaters and posters and memorabilia from teams famous and obscure all over the ceilings and walls where there are no TV screens.  There are TV screens — gigantic, big and medium — everywhere — fed by satellite feeds from games played all over the world, but mostly North America.  Mostly the TVs show NHL hockey, almost always a Canadian team, or American college hockey.  Sometimes a college basketball game, usually the Big Ten, and occasionally the NBA, and once in a while soccer from Mexico or Europe.  On game days there is always NFL football, and sometimes the CFL.  For each NFL Super Bowl the General books reservations for a special deal on food and drinks and sells out every seat and table out onto the plaza.  On rare quiet nights when there are no games they play ESPN SportsCenter, Fox Sports and country pop music videos.

Part stand up comedian and part godfather, Genaro not only spreads personal charismatic charm to welcome his clientele he entertains them with gab and quips and outgoing acts to keep up with his guests while seriously conducting business with his staff in Spanish.  He’s on all the time, almost manic, and when I watch him I worry about his stamina, his blood pressure and his level of stress, but he always seems like he’s having fun.  I still think he has a crush on Roxanne.  His wife and kids show up sometimes, along with the grandmother who watches the kids while the mom puts in a shift minding the cash booth.  This past year she had a baby boy, their first son and Genaro fields congratulations and jokes that it won’t be long he’ll have the kid trained to sell Chiclets out front of Kisses, the strip show bar in the other town.

The General’s is always packed, though we always seem to get a table.  The food is good and they don’t pretend to be gourmet cuisine.  If not best at any given dish, their kitchen turns out good knockoffs of what is standard fare everywhere else, including spaghetti Bolognese.  The fajitas are very tasty.  The guacamole sublime.  Nachos fine.  Good pizza.  Mahi mahi can’t miss.  The taco salad is delicious but the meat is served warm.  They even serve poutines.  The food and drink is not the main attraction but it shouldn’t be underestimated.  The attraction here is all atmosphere and hospitality, a chance to root for a team (and watch TV commercials from back home) and party with vacation companions, sing along with some videos, brag a little, jest and get a selfie with the General.


There is a sign painted on the wall of the building across the walkway from his restaurant patio that advertises his place as Husband Day Care.  His Canadian partners, a couple of ruggedly handsome middle aged anglos, don’t exactly look undercover in their interactions in the operation even though they are in common with the clientele if not the all Mexican staff.  The customers adore the General and clamor for a table or a seat at the bar.  The staff respect Genaro and follow his lead.  The partners try to participate behind the scenes to keep things flowing, minding the business not inconspicuous.  There is talk of taking on the empty shell of a nearby abandoned dance club and expanding the label.  Somebody’s getting satisfaction out of this business and we hope Genaro and his family get the beautiful reward.  Even if he is a Green Bay Packer fan.

I think the place only stays open until midnight, which is late enough by my standards but doesn’t qualify the General’s as an after hours hangout, forcing revelers to either go back to their hotels or go find someplace else to party on.  After dinner Roxanne and I might stroll amid the souvenir market around the newer plaza around the bandstand and stage, where sometimes an orchestra or some bands play and singers sing and dancers perform to Mexican music, people stop and gather to watch.  The plaza attracts a mix of tourists and locals enjoying the evening after work and after dinner and the tourists and locals who are Mexicans are hard to tell apart, like on the beach.

Local entertainment sometimes comes with dinner.  Some restaurants feature a singer during dining hours, and others from 8 till 10 or 9 to midnight.  The General has employed Jimi Mamou, a one man act with a keyboard, guitar and a percussion box who does old standards from the 1950s like Fats Domino.  Jimi himself is about 82 years old, comes from New Orleans, lean and chiseled handsome a little like Chuck Berry, who dresses on stage in a sleek silver gray suit, red tie, gray stetson and shiny cordovan red shoes.  He sets up his gear in the vacant corner lot in front of the General’s, they roll open part of the fence and put up some tables and chairs around a dance floor and anglo people our advanced age come out of the woodwork to dance to Jimi once a week, or catch him when he plays in Zihuatanejo at Daniel’s.  Also in Zihuatanejo there’s usually a duo or trio playing in the courtyard at Coconuts and a lounge singer named Michele with a digitally canned instrumental section accompanying her at Bandito’s.  The talent is generally very skilled.

At places which don’t offer live music with dinner, the open air nature of dining in Ixtapa opens up opportunities for street performers to set up close enough to get attention, play a short set and pass the hat, move on to the next cluster of restaurants.  Always a guy with a guitar and a pan flute doing “El Condor Pasa”.  One year there was a mariachi band in full regalia, and they were good, but I can see why they didn’t last, those hat tips don’t go very far among ten or twelve people.  There’s the weak voiced girl with acoustic guitar singing with determination about who knows what en espanol, loss and lessons learned, angst and beauty, guilt and recrimination — amor y despedir, I can’t translate fast enough to guess the words, it’s her forlorn but not hopeless mood night after night that sells her songs — I might give her ten pesos, or a dollar.  The cowboys who shlep the beach sometimes show up, sometimes solo.  I confess, sometimes I don’t want to dine anywhere that features a show, I’d prefer to dine with undistracted conversation, and sometimes consider the street entertainers as a necessary intrusion of local talent.  Interrupts my thoughts.  The ones who I feel most sorry are the fire dancer mom, the bong playing dad and the little daughter who performs rhythmic gymnastics with hoops and streamers to the drumbeats, so impeccably choreographed and so smelly of kerosene from the torches of the mom’s fire dance, so loud and pounding with oversized drama with the drum, and I cannot wait until the brief show ends and I can think straight.  Then along comes the pan flute guy.

The cool thing about this is you can shake your head no when approached with the hat and acknowledge disinterest in the performance or disregard for the intrusion, and the performers accept what they get and move on.

The one tolerated anomaly that exists is the prowling about of nocturnal little kids selling toys.  They spring from everywhere with baskets of bright colored little toy animals.  Little kids in bright clothes and good shoes and groomed hair peddling cute toys.  Table to table offering toys from their baskets.  They understand no and move on, they don’t seem to care or take it personally.  They come back later or another patrol of kids will come by soon.  In the old days they used to sell Chicklets gum, then brilliantly switched to small toys like turtles with bobbing heads, butterflies and ladybugs.  Now they offer a whole basket of different animals, and Roxanne likes to check what’s new even though our grandkids are aging out of cute trinket toys.  And I’m done with silly memorabilia, but it’s an interesting way to pass the time waiting for dinner, checking out the inventory of a basket offered by a nine year old kid.  Usually a girl.  They know the exact prices they can charge and know how to say no when offered less.  When they offer three for a certain price that’s when to take it.  In American money each little toy sells for a couple bucks, it’s not the money.  It’s where do these kids come from and who coordinates this Chicklets enterprise.

The kids are impeccably mannered and nicely dressed.  Not too charming or friendly, they keep the contact eye contact, almost professional beyond years.  They know no English and a little Spanish.  The sad ones are the ones hardly twelve or thirteen carrying infants.  We wonder if they were once infants of some young teen mama selling Chicklets, and now they offer toys.  Roxanne and I have asked who these kids are, where they come from and who organizes their sales force, and nobody really wants to tell.  Nobody wants to say.  Nobody wants to take credit or blame.  Or explain.  It’s supposed to be obvious.  They are the children of the poor, the fatherless, the orphans and the abandoned.  Somebody looks after them, and to finance the project they groom and train the kids to go to all the accessible restaurants in both towns and sell toys to the tourists.  It shouldn’t sound so sinister.

Still we look around for signs of adult supervision and whoever might be transporting or looking after these kids are invisible.  It’s as if they are all independent contractors on their own and you know it couldn’t be true, there are adults somewhere out there behind this.  They say the kids come down from a village in the hills, so where is the bus that brings them into town — both towns, we’ve seen some of the same kids working the tables in Zihuatanejo, and I’m sure they don’t walk there, tough little punks they might be.  A church charity, or an NGO social service, or maybe a criminal exploitation enterprise, a cartel of child labor in the cheap souvenir business, it serves a moral purpose in the community.  It employs a caste of the population who otherwise would be beggars and gives them the experience of socializing and transacting business with civil expertise.  They will grow up someday knowing how to negotiate agreements.

Some advise us it is better to give them food than to give money.  We have offered nachos and pizza and french fries.  Sometimes you see nice old gringos buying them cones of gelato.  I give peso coins to the littlest ones with their mamas on the grass along the boulevard to the hotel, not buying anything, just giving.  We are so rich by comparison.


The Krystal provides nightly entertainment at the hotel.  Weekly on Fridays they hold a fiesta in the yard behind the hotel where the guest kids play soccer during the day, set out dozens of tables and arrange a buffet of Mexican foods and put on a show on a stage facing the yard.  We don’t attend the buffet every week, or every year, though it is delicious — it’s part of the all-inclusive for those guests and costs a nominal dinner price if attended a la carte.  We usually arrive back from dinner to our room in time to watch from our balcony the dance show in costumes and musical styles of several Mexican states performed to pre-recorded music.  A few nights a week they set the stage for performances of local theatricals in costume lip-synching and dancing, acting out popular songs — truly corny like high school pageants but charmingly piquant.  Mostly Spanish pop songs but one night they closed with YMCA, and the crowd on the lawn was all dancing it, and up on our balcony Roxanne were dancing it and I bumped her and knocked off her glasses, which landed six floors down on the roof of the restaurant.  The next day a guy climbed up to retrieve them for us.  And we tipped him.

And one night a week they put on karaoke in the hotel bar and that gets the Spanish language singers on stage and provokes sing-alongs when most of the audience is joining in the chorus.  One hates to gawk but some of the best night time entertainment ever has been some of the latino karaoke sessions at the Krystal.

The Krystal bar used to book a man and woman duo with guitar and keyboard with a click box percussion machine, and they sang passionate romantic duets.  Elvis songs like “Surrender” in Spanish.  This was more than fifteen years ago, but we wish they might bring them back someday, just for us.  Having Starbucks in the lobby checking wi-fi and digging the karaoke rocking from the bar, making wishes about bringing back something cool from the past, it’s night, time for bed, nothing need be done more to change the world this day, or to keep it whole.  Enjoying the mocha.

Roxanne texts the kids.  Shows me a ten second clip of Clara on the balance beam at a gym meet we missed.  Sometimes from the lobby the Krystal wi-fi is very good, but from the room it is usually very bad.  Such I’m told is a challenge of retrofitting buildings with technology.  It’s a rich world problem.  It will solve itself.  We remember we used to call home from pay phones using prepaid phone cards purchased at the farmacia.  We used internet cafes while they lasted, renting terminals by the quarter hour.  I can browse the e-edition of my local paper on an iPad while Roxanne peruses her iPhone, sipping her latte — and you your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost…”  It’s a dangling conversation all right, the borders of our lives.

We always used to wish we could fly the whole family down, Vincent and Amalie, Michel and Sid and the two sisters, Clara and Tess, but it doesn’t look likely.  Everybody seems to be pursuing careers and raising kids by school calendars, and their lives get busy at the same time Roxanne and I disappear from the earth, so to speak.  During those years Michel’s family lived in Switzerland it was absurd to think of them being able to consider flying to join us.  Truth be told Michel and Sid seem less than intrigued about visiting Ixtapa ever, even beyond the travel advisories, which they take seriously.  Our vacations don’t sound all that much fun, and I give them credit for living such stressless lives they don’t feel the need to simply surrender.  I can’t offer any of them anything more than a lazyass vacation at the beach in the tropics, and none of them wants that.  This is something special between Roxanne and me.


Todos aman Roxanne.  Everyone loves Roxanne.  She listens to everybody’s stories.  She asks questions.  She makes factual observations.  She dispenses wise advice.  I cannot exaggerate how much credibility I’ve gained in this world by simply being her husband.

In Ixtapa the Mexicans pronounce her name in different ways, there’s no defined universal equivalent in Spanish (or Nahuatl).  It’s something like Rozanne, or Rosanna, they just can’t agree on what to do with the x.  Sometimes they choke it like the French.  Sometimes they say it like the German double-S, the SS letter in their alphabet that looks like the Budweiser BRossahn, or Rossahnna.  The letter A is always pronounced a soft a like ah (Canadians do this too) and some latinos roll their R sounds more than others, so it sounds like Rrossahn, Rrozahn, or Rrosahnah.  The O is always long O.  Jesus pronounces it Rrossahnnah.  Anabel just calls her Roxx, like with dos equis.

Our gringo norte friends are the only people on this earth who get away with calling her Roxy.  How they got a pass I’ll never know.  Maybe it’s because we’re so far away from home it doesn’t matter.  Maybe in Mexico she likes to have an alias.  She’s long accepted thinking and unthinking references to the enduring song by the Police, though she didn’t like it for years and years until I finally convinced her it was a love song.  But back home she never allows anyone to address her as Roxy, not even if favorably comparing her to Brian Ferry’s band — Slave to Love comes to mind.  Not even as a joke, and people respect that.  Down in Ixtapa she’s Roxy.  Ask Roxy.  Check with Roxy.  Foxy Roxy.  Roxy Lady.  Roxy and Buffy.  I’m Roxy’s husband.

The General calls her Roxy.

On Roxy’s birthday all our palapa friends conspire and collude with the Mexicans at the hotel to serve cake and drinks at two in the afternoon.  They get Armando the hotel manager to commission a chocolate cake from his favorite pasteleria in Zihuatanejo, and everyone who knows her gathers to sing and cheer.  Jesus clangs an empty steel ice bucket with a spoon chanting felicidades!  They used to come down to the palapa for a big surprise but sanitary practices no longer allow serving cake on the beach so we have to lure Roxanne up to the restaurant, which no longer surprises her.

Roxanne used to say she liked to go to Mexico for her birthday to escape the attention.  Back home a birthday in the dead of winter gives just cause for celebration among people starved for cheer since the Christmas lights dimmed.  Roxanne’s birthday rallied her family and friends one more time to kiss off the cold drudgery, the lapsed vitamin D, SAD days without sun, and to focus all that rebellious seasonal discontent towards their love of somebody they mutually respect, who happens to have a birthday in February.  My mother sponsored some lavish gigs.  By the time we centered her birthday around our winter vacations Roxanne was old enough to know how much she was loved and appreciated.  She was willing to leave the partying behind to others to go away and be anonymous for the sake of warm weather and the sea doing nothing.

So our winter escape was Roxanne’s birthday present to herself every year, from me too.  She chose Ixtapa as much as I did, as much as Ixtapa chose us.  If beach reading Nora Roberts under a palapa with a cold Modelo Negra makes her happy in February then I’m happy too.

Thinking about Fernando, the second guide to Troncones, the guy with rock zen philosophies who passed away, I recall telling him something I learned about succeeding in life, which I heard from my sister Meaghan’s current husband: Happy wife happy life.  It came up in the context of his having to pick up the tamales for the Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, but it seemed concisely appropriate at the time.  Happy wife happy life.

It made Roxanne happy — still makes her happy — to walk up to her calves into the tide on a warm sunny day on her birthday, anonymous under the sun, alive and well.  When our Krystal companeros eventually learned her birthday — and she managed to keep it to herself several years — the event took on significance like Constitution Day, Super Bowl and Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, like old times back home.  I didn’t tell, no I tried to keep her secret like a loyal and faithful spouse, but I was glad when they found out, word got around, she got the special attention she deserves.  She graciously gets it that people care about her and they show it.  She seamlessly builds relationships out of conversations.  Maybe it’s her trusting face.  You can tell at her birthday cake party every year this is protocol for wide and deep sentiments among everyone.  She is hard pressed to see why she means that much to everyone but she understands perhaps her role in weaving these friendships together and bonding with one another over time, almost decades.  I have met a bunch of interesting people because Roxanne is outgoing.

There’s another popular song added to Roxanne’s birthday soundtrack, something about cake by the ocean, whatever that means.  We’re probably too old to comprehend the metaphor.

I used to be considered outgoing, an extrovert.  I look back and see when I could have been more shy, way less outspoken.  Less wiseass beyond my years.  Less wrong.  Being older I’m tending to watch and wait before I act or speak up, at least evaluating if my first impressions and hunches are right.  And I cross reference Roxanne.  My best friend ever.  I think I’ve given in to laziness when it comes to being outgoing when Roxanne has afforded me the fortune of abiding relationships, I don’t seem to need to seek out and befriend new people on my own anymore.  In some ways if not for Roxanne I might keep up less with my own siblings or old friends I already have.

In Ixtapa who knows if I would have ever made gringo friends without Roxanne making chums at the palapas.  I might have remained spooky and anonymous minding my own business reading crime novels and essays about essays and haunting the beach wall to wall, stalking cleavage, people watching without eye contact, a swim in the surf, diving not into but underneath the breakers, drinking cervezas de barril and writing in my journal and barely emerged into any social contact with our fellow guests, except for introductions through Roxanne.  I am grateful.  Sometimes I am too shy for my own good, reaction to being inveterate too cool for school in my younger days, not shy enough.  It could be a gift of elder age or could be a curse to examine life critically enough to see where it all may conclude when the eventual meets the inevitable and infer a good outcome.  In a Minnesota nice way, without bragging too much, I’ve led a charmed life.


One of our last days this year the wind was unusually high and I recognized my day to ride the parachute on the rope behind the speedboat.  I got a big pesos bill in my pocket and I hike up the beach to find Rafael’s squad only one hotel away.  For some weird reason they aren’t busy because we both agree in this kind of wind it’s the best day to fly.  I pay him with a peso bill with a portrait of Frida Kahlo on one face and Diego Rivera on the other, and as he gets me to step into the harness I tell him no cambio when he reaches for his wallet and he thanks me for the propina with a nod and a smile.  His crew fluffs up the multicolored chute and somebody gets the rope out of the sea, a big thick cable, and hooks it to my harness.  Rafael goes over the procedure to descent.  He waves the flag and blows the whistle I grasp the strap cable with the red ribbon and pull it to my chest, next to my heart.  He tosses the flag and blows the whistle again I let go.  The speedboat engine roars and he tells me to walk, so I walk a few steps towards the sea.

The sand goes away at the edge of the water line and I am uplifted and soaring above the sparkling blue sea.  Barefoot in the sky.  Lofted almost vertical above the speedboat, we guessed right, the best wind ever for this.  High above the rooftops of eleven story buildings I can see all the way up the Sierra Madres to the peaks, the jungles on the mountainsides, the valley of residential Ixtapa past the commercial core, the boulevard, the nature preserve, the estuary, the golf.  Below the beach seems incidental, everybody so small, the hotels and condos the same scale as from the beach except looking down instead of looking up.  I fix at the green space of the Ixtapa valley between the residential area and the foothills and think of who lives there, who will live there.  The mountains are brown but very pretty from this vantage and otherwise an unappreciated vista.  The marina’s array of yachts look surprisingly big even from the sky, surreptitious richness.  It seems I’m getting an extra long ride.  On the way back I scout for whales.  The beach is fascinating insofar as it looks from high above like it feels to be there, random patterns of people on the sand and in the waves.  To use the cliche they look like ants skips over the scale of how far it is away from the beach into the bay.  The breakers, white and curling, barely register more than a whisper of sound from such a height, moot and almost mute.  The boat engine is a low hum of reality.  The arc of the ride barely squared me with the water’s edge when Rafael waved his flag and blew his whistle.  I grabbed the cords with the red ribbon and pulled them to my heart.  Slowly I drifted to the beach and hovered.  He tossed the flag aside and blew the whistle again and I let go of the cords.  I hovered a few seconds and descended to earth and sand like an archangel to a smattering of applause.  Raphael’s crew stood by to catch me, as they always catch everybody, but they did not need to, my landing so smooth.  Thank you everybody, I said as I unharnessed.

Best ride ever.

That item checked off my checklist of impulse thrills, we indulge our homesickness and prepare to say adios.  Checkout day is near.  The plane reservation is cast in stone.  As the radio newscaster Paul Harvey might say, good day.  Our gringo friends go home eventually too.  Some of them still work and have work to do.  I prefer to look at Roxanne and me as being on perpetual vacation, it’s just whether we spend it at home.  It’s as gaudy a philosophy as the decadence of Tommy Bahama, living life as an everlasting weekend.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel so self conscious among Mexicans if I actually came to get away from aching labor and had to go home to resume the grind in a doggie-dog rat race.  No I’m just a glorified hobo mooching off entitlements and deferred gratification.  Runaway boomchild.

Time to pack up and go home to see the kids.  Real life, as Tess says.  We are too suntanned now to escape notice, even ridicule, from our friends and neighbors.  We look around our hotel room for every evidence of our stay and sort our belongings from what stays behind.  The last supper, last breakfast.  Last dip in the pool.  Last kick of the rock.  Last farewell to the sea.

All things must pass, so sang George Harrison, a Beatle who once lived in Hawaii.  One of our compadres we hang out with of the gringo persuasion says there are three elements to a vacation trip: anticipation, participation and reflection.  Over and over again Roxanne and I abandon our home — and by our state department’s account all good sense — to ease the pain of winter — and living in a biospheric environment constantly at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit is a numbing pain — to find comfort in southern Mexico.  Every year we come away with fond reflections.  We anticipate the next visit not so much to age us another year as to keep us young, or young as we can be at our advanced age.  And as long as it lasts, this recurring sojourn offers us kisses in the moonlight holding hands on the beach.  We prefer to prolong this romantic love story indefinitely.

As they say, tus labios al oido de dios.


In the taxi on the way to the airport, at a red light on the boulevard passing through Zihuatanejo there’s a billboard that says, Podemos hacer una vida mejor — we can make a better life.  All the taxis have stick shifts.  Buses too.  You don’t see stick shifts in many American cars any more.  It’s facetious to compare a better life to automatic transmissions.  It isn’t obvious what a better life means.  Back home we debate driverless cars.  Mexico has good, solid boulevards and highways.  They are home of the world’s biggest concrete cement company, CEMEX.  With some cheap trade war Chinese steel  they could build their own wall to keep us Americans out if they desired.

I remember watching the Arab Spring on CNN and Fox on the boxy old TV in our room at the Krystal and thinking then, this is the last time I fall for democratic movements that end up rioting in the streets because it reminds me of America in the 1960s.  After watching Syria, and especially Iran, seeing popular unrest against undemocratic institutions deliver crushing undemocratic regimes again and again, it’s hard to take heart that these American ideals that mix freedom with law and justice are not crazy notions only Americans understand and practice but are universal truths pursued by humanity that will ultimately guide societies around the planet.  Eight years later Egypt transitioned through a phase of the Muslim Brotherhood and back to authoritarian military rule, and Iraq and Syria degenerated in and out of ISIL.  Nothing like the outcome of the American 1960s.

A freely-elected president Donald Trump.

In Mexico nobody seems to have overtly taken the bait seriously and retaliated to the president’s direct offenses and his innuendo.  We have our passports and exit visas ready.  The taxi brings us to the airport and I tip him well, as usual.

They call me Senor Teeps.

That’s my take of Sidney Poitier’s great line in the movie In the Heat of the Night.  Nobody actually calls me Senor Tips, or El Don Propina, or any sort of title like that, I just made it up for stories back home when I get into conversations about tipping the servants.  I have discovered tipping to reward good service gets good service and compensates the workforce for their work by reinforcing the value of their hospitality.

The name and the concept came to me the first year we were in Ixtapa.  We went to the grocery store for bottled water, rum and Coke.  I paid the cashier in American money, she tested it with a pen for counterfeiture, calculated the common exchange rate and made change in pesos.  A little kid, a boy about seven bagged our bottles and handed it to me, I said gracias and we went on our way.  The kid’s voice called after me, “Senor Tips, Senor Tips — Seenyour Teeps!”  I turned around and he was following me with his hand out.  Yes, of course I had neglected to tip the kid for bagging my groceries, so I fingered him some peso coins from my cambio and said, Vas a escuela.   He ran back into the store, our business was done.

Ever since I am conscious of the value of the tip in exchange for fine service.  Especially in Mexico.  The General — who got tipped royally for guiding us to Troncones — teases me that I tip too high, a kind of truth in jest, but I kid him back saying my goal is to blow up the local economy.  Even when it says on la cuenta the tip is included in the check (la propina es incluida) I put in a little extra when the service is right.  I use cash, and in fact try to pay all expenses except the hotel in cash pesos — some restaurants don’t take credit cards, but even the ones who do appreciate avoiding the hassles of interlink fees.  Cash pesos to the masajistas, or sometimes USD.  Benny takes USD.  At the hotel we charge our meals and incidentals to our room but make a point to tip the servants in cash, frequently in US dollars, ones and fives — they don’t mind at all, but they won’t take US coins.  A $1 bill per day to the camarista who cleans our room and makes our bed, often leaving us towels of origami with flower petals — with a $5er on check-out day.  The guy who reclaimed Roxanne’s reading glasses off the roof got $5.  One time a lifeguard, salvavida at the beach at the Pacifica got an unsolicited $20 for snorkeling around and finding my prescription sunglasses a week after a wave knocked them off me unawares on an ocean dip.  Taxi drivers get 20%.   When in doubt about the math I round up at restaurants.  Loose coins go to the children who sell toys.


In truth, life for us in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is a grand bargain.  One can go a little obsessive-compulsive over the peso to dollar conversion but the prices inevitably favor what one pays at home for a shrimp dinner.  To say the least.  No sense getting cheap with the people.

They earn every peso.

It’s not fair to let the president’s demonification of Mexico escalate beyond mollification and saving faces.  I feel sorry for feeling I have to apologize.  I regret the shame of my country being laughed at and pitied.  We are so rich and so charmed and yet our leader preaches we are deficient, victimized and so screwed.  A wall of isolation blocks us from seeing beyond borders, people who are not Americans, who are also not un-Americans or anti-Americans but actually like us for who we are but don’t really care to give up what they have and migrate to the USA.  They see the Estados Unidos doesn’t want them and in a way it’s our loss, of talent and work ethic and cultural contribution, even if there’s abundantly that within America too.  These are apparently not utopian times.  To declare America First and vow to Make America Great Again tells the world to go covfefe and at the same time gives other nations permission to go about it the same way.  Antiglobal social networks serve to unlink communications to the satisfaction of oligarchs and authoritarians, nationalists and separatists alike.


The boundary line world today has no tolerance for Imagine-there’s-no-heaven dreamers who won’t recognize such implacable factors as sovereignty.  Wishing away borders won’t wash away migration across boundaries nation states compel themselves to defend against declared enemies, I get that.  Nation states tend to regulate who and what comes in or goes out of their lands.  I have sympathy for people who come to America to flee misery, as I am sad for the refugees of Europe escaping the civil wars.  I am proud of America and its goodness, its liberty and standard of living.  I can understand why somebody facing a horrible life and death would want to come here whether inflicted by war, genocide, gang violence, famine or terrorism, America offers a society where there is peace and a chance to start over with a life without fear.  Knowing what I know, if my life were screwed by the wretchedness the world can behold, I would love to come to America too.  And if that cannot happen, I would want America to come to me.  I would want my homeland to be peaceful, prosperous and free like America.

Like America is supposed to be, and it’s a country with an extensive written canon of what it says it’s supposed to be.  America was founded coincidental to a boom in printed written technology and the founders wrote down and published scads of words describing what they founded.  The first amendment to the national, federal constitution guarantees freedom to think, speak, write and publish.  We can debate for all time how and whether we have become or are becoming a more perfect union, as they predicted, or give it all up and let the future projection of our culture fall to the lowest common denominator, a denominator based on false calculation.

Countries like Mexico are poised in this world to pick up where America leaves off if we stop leading, or to keep up if we keep progressing, either way they have their own metrics and market research.  It isn’t Bumpkinland.  (No es Tierra Los Palurdos.)  They got the same software we do.

Imagine being there on the beach the day they named Playa Ropa.  Alleluia, the great storm is over.  The wind stopped howling.  The sky is clearing gray to celeste.  The sea is calmed back to normal surf.  And behold, floating gently to the beach are bales of cloth.  Untie them and find garments made of silk and linen of multiple colors, embroidered with exotic flower patterns, skirts and dresses and printed blouses.  Pantalones majestuososVestidos elegantes.  Blusas y camisas hermosas.  You and your family and friends and neighbors splay them across the beach and pick and choose favorites, and by nightfall there’s nothing left, not even a belt, like a good yard sale.  For the next generation Zihuatanejo is the fashion capital of New Spain.

A few of the last days at the palapa this year our neighbors consisted of a band of couples in their early thirties who turned out to be from Alberta.  When Victor came around with his baritone announcing Sockair T-shirts! the guys razzed him.  Got him to unstack his shirts and show them each team, all the colors, all while offering him patronizing lowball money for the shirts they might like.  Victor’s price was 200 pesos per shirt.  That’s a touch over $10 USD.  The guys offered $5 each, Canadian.  Victor didn’t want Canadian money and wouldn’t budge.  The guys sent him packing and said, don’t worry, in a day or so he’ll come down, he’ll get desperate for a sale.  The next day the same guys taunted him a little, and he paused at their palapa but didn’t bother to unstack the shirts.  They offered a hundred pesos per shirt and Victor kept walking.  Tomorrow, the guys said, he’ll come down.  They talked behind his back as if he was already beyond earshot — I could hear, and Victor was closer — or presuming he knew little English.

When Victor got to my lounge chair I asked him if he had any shirts with no advertisements for liquor or beer, preferably child sizes, for my grandkids.  A year ago I bought one for myself that said Bimbo across the chest, for a popular bakery goods company similar to what Hostess the Twinkie maker was in America — the Bimbo package logo features a cuddly teddy bear like the Snuggles bear for the American laundry softener — which I thought both cute and sinister at the time.  He dug into his backpack for child sizes and came up with a bright colored one of red and gold with a Barcelona signature and ads for a Turkish appliance company and a Japanese software firm — perfect for Tess.  For Clara we found a forest green straightforward shirt that simply said Mexico up front and Soy Mexico on the back.  400 pesos, cash, no haggling and no discount.

The next day the Canadian guys made their last day pitch to Victor, last chance, going home tomorrow, a hundred pesos a shirt.  How about three for two-fifty.  Okay, eighty a shirt.  Victor kept walking and as he shot me a glance that said gringos chilangos with his eyes I’m sure I heard his sotto voice gently say, Van a diablo.  One of the guys said, what does diablo mean?

At the ZIH airport the Mexican equivalent of the TSA agent detained me a moment in line to ask me questions about where I was going, where I had stayed in Ixtapa, the purpose of my visit to Mexico, whether I had packed my own bag or anyone else had access to it, or if I had left it alone at any time.  In perfect English.  It was the most I had ever been questioned at an airport outside Amsterdam.  Rather than consider it harassment I figured the guy had a quota of random queries as part of his job so I unhesitatingly gave him the answers, and he passed me through officiously.


So there went another defiant vacation deep beyond the far side of the wall, and nothing bad happened to us.  Now the fuhrer is incensed about intelligence reports about a caravan of gate crashers from Central America coming our way through Mexico City and he’s threatening to tear up the NAFTA treaty to punish Mexico if they don’t stop the horde, like Mexico City is some kind of Constantinople and Dallas is Rome, or maybe the other way around.  Nothing in this world will make America great (again or even asi asi) by making Mexico a demonym and sabotaging its economy.  It’s like spreading Russian propaganda to influence votes.  It’s like spinning fake news for blackmail.  It’s the nth degree of kabibble.  If the president truly wanted to hold high level talks among world leaders about the issues that trouble the planet, he would organize summits around themes like the underlying causes of current population migration and get Mexico’s take on what’s driving asylum seekers and basic economic opportunists alike to pack up worldwide and cross borders en masse.

In my city, Minneapolis, it’s home to a bunch of immigrant populations dating way back to French explorer-traders, then the European homesteaders, laborers and servants backfilled a society of migrants from eastern America, in turn kids of immigrants, and waves of refugees of every moral world crisis, slavery, communist occupation, Nazism, terrorism, civil wars, insurrection, cartel gangsters on almost every continent up to present day.  Among them are latinos, many Mexicans, and I wonder why they chose to come so far up north to leave behind their lives so much closer to the equator.  They admit it’s a sacrifice, the muy frio, but they like Minnesota when it isn’t winter and don’t justify why they’re here against there, they just are.  It’s supposed to be obvious they think they are in a better place or they would not be here.  If there is a home to go back to they would go home if they wanted to, but they stay.  Life is good here.  Might as well call them Americans.

Their children will grow up to address the results of what we’ve done to assimilate the foreigners displaced by human tragedies.  Looking at each other as competent adults it becomes us to seriously examine and address the roots of these tragedies and own and atone for them before passing the age old human torch to these kids when they grow up, assimilated or not.

A true patriot and public servant of a president would see why it’s not a wall what’s needed but Windows.  It’s inhumane to hold DACA dreamers hostage to NAFTA and the national guard but that’s the hold he’s got over his red meat base.  A public service would be to turn these DACA people around to make them weird heroes and role models for accomplishments and publicize them for perseverence, even if requiring some kind of public restitution such as public service as a path to citizenship, an earned amnesty.  For all his show business conceits, Trump misses out where he could really influence culture through reality TV via public service promoting civic virtues instead of concealing vices, making real news instead of faking history.

He is not a good servant, and he should not be tipped.

But it is not his fault Roxanne and I returned home to punishment of eight more weeks of hard winter, back to back to back blizzards and ice cold winds into mid-April.  Punishment for four weeks in Mexico.  I would like to blame bad weather on the fuhrer but it’s not scientifically possible.  Not biopolitically feasible.  No need for another stupid conspiracy theory.  If it’s karma, then so be it, worth a trade of one month pleasure for two months pain.  It was just as bad while we were gone.  We do not deserve such maltreatment from nature.  Shoveling two feet of fresh snow again last week it seemed painfully clear this year we came home from Ixtapa too soon.  Mental note for the future.

If they’ll have us back.




Man Up

Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Edouard Manet

The sex thing that’s going around right now gives me the willies.  As it should.  It’s gotten ugly and due to get uglier before someone seriously asserts sex is beautiful again.

Disclosure: you might want to hide this missive from the kids.  It might get raunchy.  I’ve written on race and firearms, and I promise to be as delicate and sensitive as can be.

Men — lots of men — famous men — powerful men — everyday men — all men are accused of sexual improprieties.  Sinister.  Egregious.  Insidious.  Preposterous.  Outrageous.  Loathsome.  Criminal.  The behavior exposed by public accusations this year defies description in a family newspaper and yet there it is, and there’s no way not to get the news down to the kids, the very girls and boys who need to learn and benefit from the adult world transformation of culture that is occurring right now.

Women are getting even.  Getting justice.

Expect male sex drive hearings in Congress.

The core pornography of our culture at last lays itself bare before the world in true modern reality show fashion.  The depraved decadence of the West on display, you might say, or perhaps the utter publicity of the whole thing exemplifies our great liberty and freedom.  Hugh Hefner is dead.  There is no one to defend the legacy of the Playboy Philosophy.

A feminist scholar named Andrea Dworkin defined western society as Rape Culture and she wasn’t wrong, as we have come to see.  Male animals pursue females.  It can get nasty.  Humans make rules — male humans — and taboos to regulate sexual behavior, and we break them.

What has come to light with accusations of media celebrities and politicians is how pathetic these guys really are.  Parading around naked.  Delusions of shared feelings.  Raging aging lust.  Photos of genitalia via cell phone.  Do these tactics of flirtation ever work?  Do these guys ever score?

Einstein’s insanity — doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result?  Or if we believe the President from his Access Hollywood tape, bold or extreme gestures really do yield sexual conquests.  This scandal literally reaches up into the crotch of the White House.

Cosby used drugs.  Weinstein glamour.  Lauer locked the door.  These, including Donald J Trump, are just four major examples of the tactics of these self-styled sly seducers.  You could almost stop there and make a profound case for revolution against sexism.  These bullies, like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, deserve no cover for their sexual extortion.  In some ways it reminds me of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church turned upside down, where the bishops are the most glaring sinners.

And sin, as it were, trickles down to the common man like voodoo economics.  Note for the record that Original Sin as committed by Adam was not a sexual act of itself but a situation of sexism when he tried to blame Eve.

The mores and folkways of suppressing women all these millennia have gamed history in favor of men.  This is about to radically change.  Mark the year 2017.

A long time coming, the exposition of male sexual predations goes through the core of politics and heart of sociology to the very soul of male sexuality.  How men essentially perceive women.

We say we love them for their minds, and we do, but from the earliest carved Venus figurines there’s a basic fixation for tits and ass.

Clara, my eldest grandchild, barely ten, on a stroll with Grampa through a museum of art, asked me why all the artists were men and so may of the subjects were women, and so many of them naked.

I did not answer I don’t know.  It’s one thing for a grandpa to pretend to know everything and another to say you don’t know something you know full well.

Art history is so dominated by men there is no greater graphic evidence of mankind’s sexist ambitions.  From the cult of the madonna to Madonna the forms and likenesses of female human beauty attract the eyes of men, stir their souls and arouse sexual impulses.

We cannot blame the models.  The artists put these images before our eyes to evoke our pleasure.  Naked women beguile men.  The bare body is a sacred icon of human civilization because of the permissive visual boundaries of art.  Call her Venus and paint or sculpt her as a beautiful naked goddess.  You don’t see naked images of Joan of Arc, but France’s beloved icon Marianne is rendered with bare breasts.  The Statue of Liberty was originally drawn with bare boobs, an open gown.

I grew up in the Playboy era.  Learned to look down blouses and look up skirts from Hugh Hefner himself.  How to unlock a bra.  Whether a pinup penned by Vargas or glossy photo centerfold, there wasn’t one image in the magazine not gorgeous.  The term at the time was suggestive, and it was, it suggested hope someday to meet someone sort of like these women to be a girlfriend.

Pornography fosters sex fantasy and arouses desires and explains a lot of motivations behind bad acts in this world.  Under the First Amendment of the US Constitution we are free to view and publish obscenely erotic material.  We can think as we like.  We like to think the human body is a beautiful wonder and we look at others and admire them and feel no shame in showing or viewing others’ beauty.  We accept cleavage in everyday life, not just the cover of Cosmo.

A telling incident occurred two years ago at the Christmas market at Cologne, Germany when dozens of women were sexually assaulted by a rampage of marauding young men described as middle eastern migrants.  This wave of mass molestation ascribed allegedly to aliens suggests something about the way our culture is perceived and interpreted by outsiders:  Earth Girls Are Easy.

Wrong.  Not true.

Correcting such assumptions by our leaders in mass media and government serves notice to male thugs of all degree and class that women won’t be bullied for sex.  Women won’t be bullied.


Revered Beatle John Lennon once quipped that women should be obscene and not heard.  Funny line.  They are heard now, and they are least obscene.  And it’s not funny.

In the state of Alabama, a place in the US famous for recalcitrant attitudes, the Republican candidate for the Senate election next week, Roy Moore, now 70, is accused of fondling teenage girls back when he was in his 30s, and one girl says she was 14 at the time.  He campaigns on, a champion against liberal values, with President Trump’s hearty endorsement.  One can almost hear Moore’s defenders say, the state of Alabama has a long, proud history of mature men hitting on teenage girls — the term Sugar Daddy originated in Alabama.

In the state of Minnesota, where I live, two male state legislators, one US Senator and a famed folksinger and storyteller have been fingered among public figures engaged in hypersexual inappropriate behavior.  The two legislators, one from each political party, resigned, each accused of pestering and propositioning female legislators, lobbyists and political staff at the capitol.

Senator Al Franken, then a comedian, stands accused of slimy lips and tongue-forcing a kiss upon his co-star when on a USO road show entertaining armed forces troops before he ran for public office, and most importantly staged a photo of himself lecherously grabbing at the same co-star’s beasts while she was sleeping.  Who took that picture anyway?  After that, Franken was accused of playing grabass at the state fair as a senator, then again back in his USO days for grabbing some tit from a soldier who, reflecting back, says she should’ve smacked him.  Then another woman accused him of trying to plant a wet smoochy on her when he was a radio personality.  He apologizes profusely.  The president denounced him.  When the White House press secretary was asked how the president could condemn Franken and endorse Moore — in light of his own behavior — Sarah Huckabee Sanders replied that the difference was Senator Franken admitted wrongdoing.  Giant of the Senate that he is, Franken will man up and resign for the good of mankind.

Clarence Thomas should resign from the US Supreme Court.

And the prairie home companion himself Garrison Keillor got canned from National Public Radio and the Washington Post for inappropriately touching a coworker backstage at the radio show.  Citing employee confidentiality, NPR hasn’t detailed the charges.  Keillor’s explanations emote a catharsis of awkward ambiguity, his specialty.  He might appreciate the irony of sleaziness showing up on my own block, minus the bonbons.

Franken, Keillor and I were raised more or less in the same community, the greater Twin Cities, and we have slightly less in common with the two randy legislators, who are younger and come from our rural outstate area.  We come from the same mores and folkways of our generation and social class and assimilated attitudes of our times and our place.  Minnesota is not immune from misogyny.  Nor is it quarantined.  It’s as good as any scene to incubate the discourse of what determines appropriate sexual behavior and the consequences of misbehavior.  In the workplace.  At the Christmas market.  In life.

Gretchen Carlson

Also from Minnesota is a woman named Gretchen Carlson, a violinist and TV journalist, 1989 Miss America, and the one who exposed the sexual harassment of Roger Ailes and eventually of Bill O’Reilly at Fox News.  It’s unclear whether Fox represents the height of moral hypocrisy or merely mirrors itself in plain sight, like a snake who always was a snake.  Gretchen Carlson is a hero.  Admire her naked defiance.  Pun intended.

Ilhan Omar


Ayana Ife

Ilhan Omar is another name who comes to mind from Minnesota.  The first Somali-American elected to a state legislature, Omar represents a district of Minneapolis, though not my own.  In her 30s, she is a fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.  Recently she made news for calling out a Washington, DC taxi driver for treating her with racist and sexist disrespect.  I do not know her personally but have seen pictures of her.  She is an attractive woman who dresses chic.  She is Muslim, wears a head scarf and favors garments styled like those created by the runner up of season 16 of Project Runway, a fashion design reality show, name of Ayana Ife, a Muslim woman from Salt Lake City, Utah who says she wants to be a “designer for the modest market.”

No mention of Muslim women leaders is complete without Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived assassination for getting a basic education.

After Gretchen Carlson I have listed three other women of note who are also fancy dressers.  All four are attractive ladies.  Three are Muslim.  Carlson wears shining blond hair styled all lovely, simple and flowing.  Miss America 1989 employed her power, used her beauty and white privilege to smash open the offices of professional sexism working from within her network.

Omar, Ife and Malala wear lovely scarves over their hair.  These three, the legislator, the fashion designer and the Nobel laureate, come to their leadership roles from backgrounds different from Carlson, different from me.  What they offer is insight into the future of feminism and femininity.

I don’t pretend to know the Quran.  I am an infidel, or more deliberately a pagan, and don’t care to quibble about religions.  My impressions of Muslim women are drawn from observation not scholarly study.  Minnesota is home to the largest east African immigrant population in the United States, refugees, and many of them live in Omar’s constituency.  Muslim women tend to dress with a profound, sometimes severe emphasis on covering a woman’s body — modesty reasons.  Some of the reason behind this is aimed at me — at all men — to obscure temptation and to not arouse our sinful desires.

Back when I was a kid at St Simon of Cyrene parochial school the women and girls were required to wear hats, scarves or veils to attend mass.  I remember the school girls in rows of pews in their uniform beanies.  Hardly anybody understood why — didn’t God already see our hair?  What about boys — we had to take our hats off.  Somebody educated me that women traditionally took great pride in their hair — like Gretchen Carlson and countless girls I grew up with — my dad called it their crowning glory — and as an act of humility, not shame, women in church were required before God and among the faithful to cover their hair.  That and to imitate the Blessed Mother, who always wore a veil, like the nuns.

Modesty.  I’m told the rules have changed, the Church no longer requires head cover for women, although the Vatican tour dress code prohibits sleeveless blouses, deep necklines and bare thighs and one can purchase shawls and scarves from the ethnic vendors on the street outside the gates.

Migrants and refugees come to the free world and who can blame them for being bewildered by the unrepressed messages from the rich world and its media.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil dispels its own myth.  We know what we know.  There is no excuse for wilding thugs grabbing cleavage on the fly at the plaza in Cologne, no way the victims were asking for it in their sexy attire.  Rape culture will fall apart as decadently as the Roman Empire.  The Third Reich.  On the streets, in the board rooms, in the home, women are taking charge and they will set the message.  They ask for equal respect.

This is happening now and it will have more far reaching effects than women driving cars in Saudi Arabia.

Lucretia, 1666, Rembrandt van Rijn

On a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art this year with both my granddaughters, Tess now 10 and Clara pushing 13, we came upon the Rembrandt.  I got excited to show them this painting because it’s a Rembrandt, and it’s the finest Rembrandt painting in North America.  Problem arose immediately and there was no looking away.

The title and subject matter is Lucretia.  It is an anguished portrait of a noblewoman in her gown simultaneously pulling the bell cord to summon her servant with one hand and with the other pulled a dagger from her bloody gut as she commits suicide from the shame of being raped.

The girls frowned and read the didactic label.

Why is she killing herself, Granpa?  And what is rape?

Oh man.  These are questions their parents should answer but they weren’t there.  Not even grandma.

So I said, she was violated so killed herself from shame.

Violated?  What do you mean violated?

I mean she was sexually abused against her will and though it wasn’t her fault in those days the women felt so guilty she killed herself.

I didn’t elaborate the way I usually do.  Troubled and dissatisfied, their innocence spooked, they took a last look and moved along with me looking for a more cheerful image like olive trees.  (Or Jesus nailed to the cross.)

Like Salinger’s catcher in the rye I could spend all day trying to catch these kids before they fall into the clutches of perdition.  This is not a world of my own making but I have responsibility to shape what it means.  I can at least act like a good role model of a good role model.  In light of the suspicions of the day I am self-conscious of being eyeballed as a creepy old man at girls soccer matches and gymnastic meets.

Still there are those guys who think they are God’s Gift to Women.  We’ll let women judge who among us who truly qualify as guys who, to paraphrase an American jewelry advert, came from Jered — that’s perhaps, like, special.  Some playboys play by some kind of sexual golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  They project what they would like done, the woman to parade naked, lie across the bed in odalisque, invite them to shower, open her bathrobe and masturbate before their eyes, grope their genitalia, etc.  Women don’t do that stuff.  Not unless contractually obligated or coerced.  And forcing a woman to witness such behavior under the auspices of flirtation does not qualify as mutual consent.

Guys, women aren’t interested in your erotic dreams about them.  If they were they’d say, have you dreamed sex dreams about me?  Only then might it be permissible to confide.  But not at work.  Or school.

No one disputes, despite a kind of test tube evolution, survival of our species depends on us continuing to mate.  We are hard wired for sex.  Controlling how and where and when we express our attractions has ironically been assumed to been fallen to men, who invented things like chivalry and preach religions of chastity, and men of government who enact laws to protect women’s rights.  Only yes means yes, otherwise it’s a no.  To get to yes one would have to ask somehow.  To ask in some kind of non-inappropriate way.  A mad crush or thinking you’re in love won’t justify bad acts.  Hearts will break.  Perhaps there’s a smart phone app, a guide to encrypting and unencrypting situational behavior.  With dedicated emojis.

Flirting and dating will go on.  And mating.  Seduction.  Romance.  Even courtship.  Things that can go wrong.  A boy gets a reputation for fast hands.  Another is a smooth operator.  Too bad we’re not all as saintly as Mike Pence.  As handsome as John Hamm.  We should all marry our heart’s desire like Johnny Cash.

Time for us to man up.  It shouldn’t be that hard.  Some of us have been practicing a while.  Support the women in your life.  Don’t condescend about it either.  Admit if you don’t like women, you are better off being honest.  It’s time to man up because women will hold us accountable, will put us to the test.  Our word is bond.  The covenant should be ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The future of what is sexy and who is sexist is being formed right now.  Boundaries are being set and eradicated at the same time.  Gender discrimination in society is virtually extinct among western civilization.  Sexual harassment is unthinkable.  The mind of the modern man has some creative catching up fast to do to keep up with the evolution of the modern woman.




Family Baggage — Saga of the Suitcase


I keep myself from meddling in my children’s lives.  They see a lot of me as it is without me exerting extra effort to influence their fates or poking my nose into their business.  This time I couldn’t refrain, although I asked permission first.

The Kysylyczyns, the family of my daughter Michel and her husband Sid with my grand daughters Clara and Tess, took advantage of a great air fare deal booked several months in advance on Icelandair to take an August vacation to Switzerland.  They lived in Swiss Canton Zug almost four years.  This was their first visit back to Switzerland since repatriating to Minneapolis two years ago.

Of course I was jealous.  I love Europe and past touring with the Kysylyczyns making family memories is among my fondest highlights of my life.  I would have been machtig cool to hike Rigi Kulm, swim at the Bade of Zugersee at Oberwil or gaze at the Matterhorn from Zermatt with the kids, but alas, it was not to be.  Primarily I was not invited, though nobody said I couldn’t go.  Rox and I essentially spent this year’s european budget remodeling our kitchen.  The Kysylyczyns had friends to see and to stay with.  Besides, we had all, just the month before, taken a brilliant family vacation to the American Southwest, so I had no reason to feel estranged.  This was not where I butted my nose.

They did invite me to drive them to and from the airport, MSP.  One the way they anticipated a good flight on Icelandair.  By all accounts they heard the airline offered splendid hospitality and a little more legroom and coach comfort as you can find on a transcontinental flight.  They would have to pay for food but that wasn’t different from Delta.  There would be a stop at Reykjavik, where they would disembark, go through Customs (get their passports stamped Iceland) and re-board to fly to Zurich, but this was as much as flying into Amsterdam, going through Customs and boarding a regional jet on to Zurich, only the stop in Iceland was like a halftime break almost midway to each destination.  For Michel, whose fear of air travel is surprisingly palpable for someone who has flown so much the airline amenities mean a lot.  There would be individual movie screens, though the selection of titles were limited.  She really liked the price, it made the whole excursion affordable, but she wouldn’t have chosen Icelandair if they didn’t have a customer friendly reputation.

Icelandair flies in and out of MSP at Terminal 2, once officially named the Humphrey terminal.  It is the smaller and most approachable of the two terminals here.  T2 — or Humphrey as some still call it — flies small airlines such as Southwest, Sun Country, Condor and Icelandair.  T1 — called Lindbergh — handles some boutique carriers but mainly big ones such as Delta, American, United and Air Canada.  Thus Terminal 1 Lindbergh is vastly busier, frequently jammed three lanes deep in cars vying to drop off and pick up, not to mention short and long term parking, and the car approach to T1 Lindbergh is all only freeway accessible.  T2 Humphrey, on the other hand, can be easily approached even at peak times by a back road between the airport and the national cemetery, and rarely are cars more than one lane deep at the drop off and pick up curb.

We dropped the Kysylyczyns and their baggage at Humphrey under the Icelandair canopy sign, all hugs and chocolate promises.  Roxanne and I nostalgically watched after them as they shouldered their carry on backpacks and everybody gripped a suitcase and glided through the automatic doors to the terminal like they were going downtown on a train.  At home Roxanne and I watched the planes in the sky from our front porch thinking, off they go.

They were gone ten days.  Facebook real-time post cards showed they were have a good time (when Michel and Sid could get wi-fi — deep in the Alps it was iffy or not worth the fee.  Everything is expensive in Switzerland, alas.)  Sentimentally I followed the weather page of the paper for conditions in Frankfurt and Geneva.

Their flight home was on time.  We estimated about a half hour to get through customs and baggage claim.  On the drive to pick them up we talked about Lindbergh and Humphrey, the terminals and their namesakes.  At the time there was a hotel construction project next to Lindbergh causing lane closures on the freeway and a severe backup of traffic into the terminal.  Glad we’re not going there, we agreed noting the smooth flow towards Humphrey.  Just for conversation we eventually mused about the dropping of the terminal names in favor of mere numbers, 1 and 2.  It was ostensibly done for the ease of strangers, of whom there must be many — 1 or 2 simpler to identify on freeway signs.  But like many things these days a political motive can be extrapolated behind the name changes:  a desire by illiberals to erase Hubert Humphrey’s name from local iconography, and a campaign to disassociate the airport from Charles Lindbergh, a vocal anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.  The nexus of these two causes resulted for the sake of simplicity in renaming the two terminals after the numbered euphemisms for urine and feces.  In that case, I offered, they numbered the terminals backward.  Lindbergh should be number 2.


Pick up traffic was heavy even for Humphrey that afternoon but we readily found an opening at the curb and waited.  Roxanne texted Michel where we were.  Michel texted they were at the baggage carousel.  Moments passed.  Other cars came, picked up their people and left.  For a few moments we were parked in.  We dreaded the security cops would come and direct us to keep moving and we would be obliged to go around the return loop and position ourselves all over again.

Then Michel texted one of their suitcases was missing.  We held our turf and waited and got lucky against airport security.  In about twenty minutes the Kysylyczyns emerged to daylight.  Kiss-kiss, abrazos and hugs.  We stowed the luggage, one suitcase short.  Sid took the wheel — it was their car, after all, a big GMC Denali, six passengers plus luggage reminiscent of the VW Tauran we used to rent when we used to tour Europe together, big family car.  After about ten hours in the sky and a frustrating hour on the ground, Sid had an edge of determination like he needed to control something, so he drove.  I rode shotgun.  They were all tired and edgy and the ride provided a perfect moment to give in to their exhaustion and gush about what a great time they had but the moment was stolen by their consternation over the missing suitcase.  A beautiful catharsis spoiled.  Try as they might to answer Roxanne’s and my questions about impressions of their trip their thoughts were tainted with the question of how their suitcase got lost.

It was not a good night to all go to supper.  The girls were cranky and jetlagged.  Sid was expected to go to work the next day.  Michel needed to place her house in order before bedtime and come to grips with a bag of her possessions somewhere Out There maybe never to be found.  Even though she didn’t have to work the next day she faced a day of making phone calls.  We went straight to their house.

The suitcase contained all their clean clothes.  Michel’s makeup, their toothbrushes, their toiletries and four pairs of her jeans.  Tess had a couple of dear stuffed animals she called lovies.  Clara had a favorite pair of shoes, some shorts and blouses.  All their souvenirs and mementos.  Yet nobody cried.  Roxanne said this was a good example why you should always pack your toothbrushes in your carry on.  Michel worried that the bag got singled out because it got tagged Heavy Bag — it weighed two pounds overweight but was allowed to travel because the other bags weighed under the limit.

Roxanne suggested some other blurry faced passenger may have taken such a big black generic anonymous bag by mistake.  This mere observation set Michel into speculative agitation thinking some stranger had possession of their belongings, the invasion of privacy and susceptibility to theft.  It soothed her to figure most strangers who would make such a mistake would quickly rectify it, bring it back to the airport and turn it in to the lost and found, not loot it and dump it in the trash.

In any case, Michel resigned the issue to something unlikely to resolve itself overnight.  It would require phone calls the next day.  Back at Humphrey they filed a report with Sun Country Airlines, who handles baggage for Icelandair at MSP, and for the moment that’s all they could do.  Nobody, least Sid or the kids, was going to let this inconvenience spoil their vacation.  Already they looked back and it all seemed funny.  When we adjourned for the night everybody hoped it would all work itself out.

The next morning Central Daylight Time an international phone number to Icelandair went unanswered.  Michel said the number would ring and ring and then hang up.  This discouraged her and Sid, who said up to this point they were rather impressed with Icelandair customer service.

On the phone to Sun Country Airlines Michel found a sympathetic customer service rep named Nick, who counseled patience.  Another Icelandair flight from Zurich arrived every day at the same late afternoon hour at Humphrey terminal.  The suitcase could be on the next flight.  It wasn’t.

Next day, same thing, no suitcase.

It was part of the fabric of conversation now.  By the way, how’s the suitcase?  Sid and Michel speculated at what could have gone wrong.  Airline travel being such a closed system they reasoned there ought to exist a tracking system by barcode or some such to account for the whereabouts of every bag.  It was difficult for them to believe and seemed unreasonable nobody could track their suitcase in three, four, five, six days and counting.

We know this is a rich world problem.  There are societies where real persons go missing and are never found.

I’m not materialistic, dad, she said.  There’s stuff I’d rather have and not lose but it’s just stuff.  What gets me is nobody knows.  Nobody owns it.

The nobodies who knew where the suitcase went included this Nick guy at Sun Country, who Michel credited with always answering his phone but didn’t know anything.  Sid got a hold of a person at IGS, the ground services provider for Icelandair at Keflavik airport at Reykjavik, Iceland, who referred him to Keflavik Lost and Found, who referred him to Icelandair.  Michel and Sid filed a formal claim of loss online and entered into email correspondence among a network of aviation affiliated entities, and they received a claim number and apologies but no word where was the suitcase.

I remembered back at St Simon of Cyrene parochial school, 5th grade, Connie Hechter went to our teacher Sister Alsace Lorraine in tears one afternoon.  Connie alleged somebody stole her fountain pen from her desk during lunch recess.  It was a special fountain pen, I heard her tell the nun, a present from her grandma.  Sister Alsace Lorraine ordered everyone in the class to close their eyes and put their heads down on their desks for five minutes.  She said she would do the same.  During that time, whoever had the fountain pen was supposed to quietly tiptoe to Sister’s desk, return the pen anonymously and tiptoe back to his or her seat.  The rest of us were encouraged to spend the five minutes in prayer saying silent Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory Bes.  An Act of Contrition if you could get through it without having to say it out loud.  In five minutes when we opened our eyes we would expect to see the fountain pen on Sister’s desk, no questions asked.

My question was whether you could trust Sister Alsace Lorraine not to peek.  I had no trouble keeping my own eyes closed, though I didn’t stifle my ears.  There were giggles and whispers and hushes and somebody stifled a weak fart sound almost too genuine to be a prank.  Sister raised her voice once to invoke quiet, remind us to pray and to give the guilty party two minute warning to repent.  She wore a Timex wristwatch so you could suppose she could check it with her head down, but some way I had the feeling she was watching us.  I tried to sense if she were circulating among us but I heard no sounds of the clack of her beads, detected no swish of the linen of her habit, so it seemed plausible she was not up and moving about hovering above us on patrol.  I thought I may have heard tiptoes, but not more than one or two, not enough to get to Sister’s desk.  A cough.  Another cough, call and response.  I think I wished I could take a nap.  The tiptoe sounds could have been faked.  The kid across the aisle from me had sniffles but I can’t think of his name.  Mike somebody…

Sister said it was Time’s Up.  Our eyes got used to the light.  Connie’s fountain pen was not on Sister’s desk.  It was not on Connie’s desk.  It was on the desk of a kid named Micmac Murphy, an obvious plot to frame him.  Sister didn’t fall for it for an instant and almost credited Murph for finding the pen as she presented it back to Connie and said, No more need be said of this, but we can be proud because we’re honest, which was a message for the rest of us who didn’t steal the pen or get into trouble on their own as much as Micmac Murphy.  We clapped applause.  Pride.

Personally I didn’t think it would work.  I hoped Connie got her pen back, out of justice, but I overestimated the thief’s willingness to take a chance to smuggle it out of the classroom.  I guess it was a nice pen.  And far as I know the amnesty deal was honored with no repercussions, and I don’t recall any rumors or people talking out of school who took Connie’s pen.  Far as I know there were no more fountain pens reported stolen in 5th grade that year.  I was glad nobody got slapped.  Seems we all went to disposable ballpoint pens by 6th grade.

I was optimistic the Kysylyczyns’ suitcase would just suddenly arrive at their front door, no explanation.  I also had a more sinister theory that the bag had been interdicted on purpose by Interpol or Homeland Security.  And not as a Heavy Bag per se.  Perhaps innocently, at first, a random baggage inspection, one in every so many many, seized and examined up close — routine, just happened to be the Kysylyczyns.  Or perhaps not so innocent, Sid and Michel were targeted for surveillance after all those years mysteriously undercover in Switzerland.  When Clara and Tess used to pretend to be Sky Kids maybe they weren’t really playing but acting out drama based on secret family baggage.  I never fully understood Sid’s job — I could see him as a secret agent.  That’s why I believed all that week the suitcase would simply arrive at their front steps.


And then there’s my memory of the Swedish Fish and the Hokusai Wave watercolor.  My favorite non-chocolate candy is Swedish Fish, a fruity jelly chewy gumdrop cast in the shape of fish, scales and all.  In America they come in bright bold red, yellow, green and orange — lingonberry, lemon, lime, orange.  I buy them by the pound and hand them out, raised my kids on them and been dishing them to Clara and Tess since either had more than three teeth.  While in Switzerland the Kysylyczyns made friends with families who were Swedes and learned Swedish Fish were a real Swedish thing.  Visiting their friends in Sweden they discovered the candy there is more citrus and tart, and the colors of the flavors more translucent and pastel — in fact they call them pastelfiskar.  The American recipe is made by Cadbury, the Swedish recipe by Malaco.  After a visit to Gothenburg a few years ago Michel mailed me a package from Zug, Switzerland containing a rolled up watercolor on paper of whitecap waves on a blue ocean with Mt Fuji in the background painted by Clara after the iconic image by Hokusai.  In that package was a presumably generous share of Malaco Swedish Swedish Fish.

It can take a while for mail to travel between Switzerland and the United States.  It was meant to be a surprise.  In due time when I didn’t email Michel I received the package after about a month, she asked me on a Skype day if I’d received it and I had not.  It was disappointing but somehow easier to accept something getting lost in the mail than something like an airline losing a suitcase.  Then about a week later I received in the mail a manila envelope with Clara’s Hokusai watercolor in it, rolled up and rubber banded, intact if a little rumpled and wrinkled, no worse for wear.  The address on the envelope had been transcribed by another hand, and inside with the watercolor was the original mailing label wrtten out by Michel along with a fragment of the original package.  There were no Swedish Fish.

I told Michel when the suitcase eventually arrives to count the Swedish Fish.

At the end of the week there was a break in the case — the missing suitcase, that is — I never got that missing batch of Swedish Fish — maybe some customs agents thought it was a semi clever way to smuggle drugs, oh what a surprise — I complained to Cy my longtime mail carrier but all he could offer were condolences and sad acknowledgement he knew of postal workers abusing the mail.

Sid made contact with somebody of the lost and found ground services company servicing Icleandair at Reykjavik who said the suitcase had been located at the airport at Warsaw, Poland.

But of course.  Everyone Sid told the news said the same thing.  Of course it went to Poland, did not the luggage tag say Kysylyczyn — where else would it go?

Michel used to say that almost every time she went through customs at Amsterdam the agents would look at her passport and tease her about her name — Kysylyczyn?  Shouldn’t you be going to Poland, ha ha…

Sid accepted a vague assurance from his source at Reykjavik the suitcase was found at the Warsaw airport terminal and would be routed to Minneapolis, but nobody knew how or when.  That might be known after the week end.  Nobody seemed to know how it got to Warsaw.  Icelandair does not fly to Warsaw.

There go Michel’s jeans, I thought.  I let go of my pet spy scenario to allow for another fluke incident, although it opened my mind to possibilities of eastern European intrigue.  Could it have been on its way to Moscow, or Istanbul?  I always felt the Kysylyczyns innocent of western counterintelligence skulduggery and shenanigans — be it, we are all ambassadors when we travel — and now I wondered what sort of international mischief may be in play to divert this one of all bags to a place backwards from its intended route to a place which used to be known as behind the Iron Curtain, where the airline which lost the bag does not fly.  I imagined a plot.  Recalling a craze not long ago in eastern Europe, a craving for all things denim, I said to Michel, forget the Swedish Fish, kiss your jeans bye-bye.

Turned out Michel packed the Swedish Fish from her Swedish Swiss friends in a different suitcase.  We savored their tart sweetness while discussing our questions and our hoped-for answers while anticipating the bag’s arrival maybe Monday.

We celebrated Michel’s birthday — 39 years on this earth.


Nothing Monday.  On Tuesday Sid contacted his source at Icelandair’s ground services provider IGS at Reykjavik and was advised to contact Icelandair directly because the bag was not in the hands of IGS and they had no more information than a notation in a computer case file that the bag had been located in Warsaw and might be forwarded to them in Reykjavik.  Or not.

Michel tried Nick at Sun Country at MSP and learned nothing.  She asked Nick to call somebody at Warsaw Chopin airport, but Nick said he had no authority to make international calls.  He advised her to file a claim with Icelandair for compensation.  It was as though he knew the suitcase was never coming back.  He advised replacing the missing items and expecting compensation.

She mentally inventoried what was in the missing bag.  Clothes.  The jeans — Michel always said she had to search hard to find jeans she fit just right, she had an eastern European figure descended from Czechs and German-Polish border people on her mother’s side — usually high-end shop jeans, more reason to expect the jeans were gone even if someday the bag turned up.  There was her make up, not that she applied much or needed to, it would still have to be replaced.  Toiletries, easy to replace at Target — they already had new toothbrushes.  The airline would settle by and by.  Tess’s stuffed animals would be mourned irreplaceable.  Sid valued his shaving kit bag, not for its contents — he was given to going bearded — but because it was a nice bag by Tumi presented to him by Delta airlines on a first class flight he took on business to Bangalore.  There were souvenirs and mementos from Switzerland, including a full tube of Thomy Mayonnaise a la Francais intended as a gift for me and Roxanne — Thomy is the eggiest most delicious mayonnaise on the planet and comes in a big tube like a family-sized toothpaste — when I learned it was among the missing I counted it gone with the jeans.

And all the Swiss chocolate.  Michel estimated enough pounds of quality chocolate bars to push the suitcase overweight enough to get tagged Heavy Bag.

No word that whole next week, no bag.  Sid and Michael fatigued at squeezing futile phone calls and emails during the business hours of their day jobs.  The girls mustered to go back to school the following week, the week before Labor Day.  Roxanne and I took an excursion to a cabin in the Boundary Waters with our son Vincent and daughter in law Amelie.  Everyone went about their normal way enjoying summer while it lasts.  The Kysyslyczyns planned to hit the State Fair.  I expected the suitcase would be resolved by the time we came home and reconnected.

If nothing else, I said on the phone to Michel before departing for the Boundary Waters where there would be no wi-fi or cell phone service, a big black Lada sedan will pull up to your house and a guy in a black suit will wheel your suitcase to your door and ring the doorbell.  I believe this belongs to you, I said in a dramatic Russian accent — Have a nice day — and with no explanation he’ll go back to the car and drive away.

Count your jeans.

Back from the glorious wilderness where you can see the Milky Way I learned the suitcase still had not arrived.  Frustrated as the week went by without word, Sid and Michel knuckled down and tried to contact anyone remotely connected with custody of the suitcase.  On a hunch inspired by IGS in Reykjavik, Sid contacted the lost and found office at Warsaw Chopin airport operated by a firm called Welcome Airport Services.  A person from the Arrival Services department told Sid the bag indeed had been in Warsaw but had been sent to MSP six days prior via Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  This person suggested the bag might still be in Toronto and to contact MSP lost and found.

The suitcase had not gone back to Icelandair at Flughafen Zurich airport the way it came but instead was put on a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw Chopin airport to Toronto Pearson International airport, where Air Canada was supposed to bring it to MSP.  Six days ago.


A consensus developed between the Kysylyczyns and their new airlines cohorts that the bag may be stranded in Toronto, but no one could give Sid or Michel a straight answer.  Michel learned that United Airlines handled baggage for Air Canada at Terminal 1 MSP so she called United on a hunch the bag might be stuck unclaimed at Lindbergh when it should go to Icelandair at Humphrey.  United declined to acknowledge either its knowledge of existence of the suitcase or any affiliation with Air Canada.  Air Canada denied possession of the bag.  Sun Country declined to offer any further assistance because more than six days had elapsed since the disappearance of the bag and all inquiries hence should be directed to the primary carrier, Icelandair — plus, this Nick guy was unempowered to call Canada.  Everything seemed fishier and fishier.  Is this how it gets when they want you to give up?

Finally a travel consultant from Icelandair contacted Sid by email and confirmed the suitcase had been indeed found in Warsaw and for a week been in process of being sent to MSP.  She suggested the bag might be stuck in customs in Toronto because of rules not permitting a US bag to be sent through Canada.  She advised Sid — if he had not already done so — to file a claim for compensation, hinting the bag may never arrive.  Not giving up hope, Sid wondered whether there might be a kind of quarantine protocol being imposed, a wait time.  The Icelandair agent wrote she did not know but would be in touch as soon as she received additional information.

After three more days of hearing absolutely nothing, I asked Sid and Michel if they would mind if I took up their cause and inquired into the case myself.  Sure, have at it, they said, knock yourself out.

With the girls back to school and no need for us grandparents to look after them while mom and dad went to work, I had a little extra time on my hands.  All along the story fascinated me.  I felt rather honored and delighted to get actively involved.  Michel forwarded me copies of emails between her and Sid and various reps of the airlines and ground services firms they had corresponded with the past two weeks.  I read them and also asked Michel and Sid about their phone conversations to get myself up to speed.

I started with Icelandair, the airline ultimately responsible.  I wrote a letter — an email in letter format — addressed to the travel consultant who last contacted Sid, four days before.  Her name was Lydia with a Reykjavik e-letterhead.  I chose to go to her first because she was last contact and her emails showed she knew the most up to date information and might confirm the history, and also because she expressed a sincere desire to make things right for the Kysylyczyns.  She seemed to authentically take the whole thing seriously.

I presented myself as a journalist writing a story about the lost suitcase.  I did not disclose that I am Michel Kyslysczyn’s dad because I did not want to demean Michel and Sid’s own dogged efforts to get the bag as if Michel’s Daddy Rides to the Rescue.  Instead I credited the Kysylyczyns for my research and asked questions about what happened and how, what would happen next, and if in fact Icelandair was actively investigating the case.

I recited what I thought I knew.  I asked whether there was a security protocol that a bag of luggage must fly on the same flight as a ticketed passenger — seemed fair from recalling experience at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and listening to the public address system paging passengers absent from their flights and warning them if they failed to show up their luggage would be removed from the plane (I did not cite my Schiphol experience in my letter, only asked the protocol question).  I essayed to be friendly and respectful and even said the purpose of my story was not to impugn the reputation of Icelandair or anyone who took part in the mistake but to find the bag and see it happily returned to the Kysylyczyns.  I signed it Sincerely and gave my phone number.

The next day I received a phone call on my home land line.  It was an overseas call with that land line clarity phone companies used to brag you can hear a pin drop.

She spoke in a continental accent, asked for me and said her name was Asta from Icelandair calling from Reykjavik and we proceeded to hold an entertaining and pleasant conversation.

Asta did not bury the lede and said straight up the suitcase was located at that very moment at Newark Liberty Airport, EWR, in New Jersey, USA.  An Icelandair handling agent at Newark was going to hand-carry the bag directly to a FedEx station at the airport where it would be shipped directly to the Kysylyczyns at their home.  She promised there would be no more flights.

Except on a FedEx plane, I laughed at her joke.  Caught awkward she said, “I hadn’t thought of that.  Iceland is such a small country I think of FedEx packages going by lorry, but I suppose you are right, one last flight on FedEx to MSP and then to the Kyslysczyns.”  She unhaltingly pronounced their name.

She had yet to reach out to them with the news.  She estimated the bag would arrive the next day and said she would forward the FedEx tracking number as soon as it was available.

We agreed two weeks was a long time to fly a lost bag from Warsaw to Minneapolis.  I asked how it got to Poland if Icelandair doesn’t fly there.

Asta explained:  Both Icelandair and another Icelandic airline called WOW Air share the same baggage baggage handlers at Zurich airport and she theorized the suitcase was mistakenly loaded on a WOW Air flight to Warsaw.  Discovered in Warsaw, the recommended remediation was to put the bag on a WOW Air plane back to Zurich to be flown on Icelandair to Keflavik airport in Iceland and then on to Minneapolis St Paul.  Matter of factly she said, “This did not happen.”

Instead somebody decided to put it on a LOT Polish Airlines plane to MSP via Toronto, Canada.  This was a problematic course since LOT Polish Airlines does not itself fly into Minneapolis St Paul.  She said she believed Air Canada was supposed to fly the bag from Toronto to MSP.  How it arrived at Newark was unknown.  LOT does fly directly from Warsaw to Newark.  Air Canada flies there nonstop from Toronto.


Asta could not account for where the suitcase languished the past ten days.  Asked more about Toronto and whether it had been hung up in Canadian customs she sounded more cautious, not sure the bag ever went to Toronto at all.  She seemed reticent to declare whether the Canadians had anything to do with it.

I didn’t press.  We shared some joy that the suitcase was virtually home.  I sincerely complemented her customer service skills and thanked her (and Lydia) for the response.  I said all I ever heard about Icelandair were good things, that my son and his wife had anice experience flying Icelandair, and apart from the suitcase Kyslysczyns reported positive things about the hospitality and comfort.  I said I and my wife hoped to fly Icelandair some day.  To visit Iceland.  I said I’ve always been fond of Iceland from a distance.

Why? she asked.

I did not name-drop my old friend Eleanor Arnason the science fiction author of Icelandic descent, or John McPhee who wrote about Iceland’s volcanoes.  I answered honestly I had the impression the people were happy and friendly and I was interested in volcanoes, hot springs, rugged scenery, the midnight sun and aurora borealis.  Yes, she said, we have all that and barely four hours of daylight in the winter.

And then I mentioned one of my great grandmothers was born in Iceland.

Yes?  When?  Where?  What was her name?

Embarrassed, I fumbled the answers and apologized for my ignorance of my own ancestry.

Asta said, Iceland is a very small country with population 350,000 people and you would be amazed how connected and historical known many Icelanders are.  She offered to look into the Iceland database for me if I would send her some clues.

She said she would call the Kyslysczyns next.  She said she would forward me the FedEx tracking number and an email recap of her research into the suitcase.  A few hours later she emailed me to say due to the lateness of the hour, almost midnight in Iceland, she would not be able to confirm the tracking number until tomorrow.  She concluded by saying all her handling agents had responded to her requests and she had reached Ms Kysylyczyn and informed her of the status of the suitcase, and reminded me to send information about my great grandmother so she could help me research my heritage.

I regret I did not disclose my family tie to Michel Kysylyczyn.  I owe Asta that courtesy.

Meantime, right after Asta’s phone call I did not call Michel right away.  Part of it was to allow Asta to break the good news.  And I hesitate to call Michel at work — she’s a clinical nurse.  But I called Roxanne, who was working that day, because I needed to tell somebody.  Roxanne then texted Michel — call dad.  When she called me she hadn’t heard yet from Asta, so I got to tell her the news.

As she later told Asta on the phone, No offense but I’ll believe it when I see it.  They had a nice laugh.

That was a Wednesday.  Thursday passed with no word, no suitcase, no guy in a black Russian sedan.  No FedEx tracking number.  No Asta, no vista.  We decided to give one more day.

Friday late morning Michel got a call from someone at Sun Country Airlines (not the Nick guy) at the Humphrey terminal who proudly announced they had found her lost luggage and would be sending it to her by FedEx that afternoon.  He confirmed her address and estimated delivery around 6:00, the dinner hour.  Michel said the guy made it sound like Sun Country wanted to get the final credit.

A little before six Michel texted Roxanne to say the suitcase arrived.  Crazy eyeball emoji.  Then a photo.  Not long later we talked on the phone.  It came in a FedEx van.  Intact.  No external scars.  No stickers, just some tags on strings.  The contents undisturbed and complete — jeans, chocolate and Thomy mayonnaise.  Stuffed lovies.  Shoes and shorts.  Swiss placemats and magnets.  Tumi shaving kit bag.  All there.  The way it was.

Only it smells like airplane, she said.  What do you mean, I asked.  Like the atmosphere inside the cabin when you first board a plane, she said — times ten.

So I composed a grateful email to Asta confirming my knowledge the Kysylyczyns received their bag.  I complimented the ultimate result and feinted a suspicion the final stage didn’t go as planned.  She replied she had her own confirmation the bag was delivered.  She offered again to help me research the origins of my great grandma and wished me a good weekend.  A short while later she followed with another email composed of copies of email exchanges and chains between herself and colleagues the past two days illustrating how things didn’t go as planned at Newark airport.

According to the emails the suitcase arrived at Newark Liberty Airport on an Air Canada flight.  Icelandair lost and found service at Newark was alerted but before anyone could intercept the bag it was handed over to Delta airlines for a quick flight directly to MSP.  Delta flies into Terminal 1 Lindbergh.  Delta needed to put it into the hands of Icelandair at Terminal 2 Humphrey.  Asta and her North American counterpart got somebody at Sun Country to mobilize somebody across the tarmacs between terminals to claim the bag from Delta.  Once secured, Sun Country put it on Fed Ex.

Not a word about Canada.  Only a reference to an Air Canada flight carrying the bag into Newark but no reference from where.  No mention of Toronto.

In Asta’s own words in one of the emails to the Baggage Coordinator at Sun Country corporate headquarters:

So this is quite a journey that the bag has been on.

If that suitcase could talk.

At Michel’s house I examined it.  I read the string tags: one from LOT Airlines with MSP as destination via Toronto, and it had inscriptions in Polish referring to Warsaw Chopin Airport; a tag from Air Canada in red saying RUSH and dated fifteen days before its eventual recovery and showing origination from Toronto Pearson International Airport with destination to Minneapolis St Paul; a tag, also red, designating the recent Delta flight from Newark to MSP; and of course the big plastic FedEx bill of transport.

Could we obtain readable fingerprints — run them through Interpol and CODIS.  Could I run the bar codes from the airline tags — maybe take them down to Cub foods and try them on the self checkout bar code reader, or at Target where they have those price check scanner guns.

My latest fantasy is the suitcase decided to take a vacation.  Maybe it met up with another suitcase and they ran off to Poland.  Maybe the suitcase (please don’t call me bag) made friends among other expat suitcases all those years in the basement storage at the apartment in Switzerland and they all held a reunion in Toronto.  Maybe the suitcase reflected upon itself, skin now rubbed and beaten shiny black and its seams shabby, the zipper teeth unsure of its gnarly smile, maybe a wheel going weak, the handle stiff and cranky, and seeing its useful life coming near its end decided to take one last fling and get lost for two weeks.  Who knows, maybe the suitcase went all kinds of places unrecorded, wasn’t stuck in Toronto at all.

If only that suitcase could talk.

The Kysylyczyns have a story to tell.  They are pleased with the outcome, needless to say.  What’s more, Michel, inspired by my correspondence with Asta, has piqued new interest in our family tree.

I am the one thinking too much about the suitcase.  Roxanne and I experienced lost luggage on one of our trips to visit the kids in Zug.  Our checked bags did not arrive with us at Flughafen Zurich.  Nobody’s did.  The luggage conveyor system at Shiphol Amsterdam where we made our connecting flight from Minneapolis broke down and the luggage was left behind in Amsterdam.  We filed a claim at the Zurich airport along with everyone else.  We gave Michel’s phone number.  Next day the bags showed up at the Kysylyczyns’ apartment via courier as promised in a phone call that day.  Zug is about thirty miles from the airport.  It was all Swiss efficient.  We never worried.  The lesson we learned was to bring toothbrushes and so forth in your carry on bags just in case.

The suitcase led me to learn some things about the aviation industry, such as the IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes which identify all airports in the world by three letters.  MSP is Minneapolis St Paul.  WAW is Warsaw Chopin.  YYZ is Toronto Pearson.  Keflavik in Iceland is KEF.  Amsterdam Shiphol is AMS, Zurich ZRH.  Newark Liberty Airport is EWR.  Sometimes the IATA codes make no intuitive sense.

A guy at the Oyster Card shop at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) noticed on my passport I was from Minneapolis and he said to me, Mary Says Please — his Heathrow mnemonic for MSP.  There’s an international airport language.

I learned the existence of more regional airlines of Europe like WOW Air, LOT Polish Airlines, and another Polish airline which flies in and out of Warsaw Chopin called WIZZ Air — no evidence WIZZ Air had any connection to the Kysylyczyn suitcase.

By my count seven different airlines and five sovereign nations participated in its journey, counting Canada although our neighbor seems to want to remain anonymous.  Countless people somehow collaborated to locate and transport a single misplaced suitcase to its true destination in this world.

One suitcase.  Lost and found.  In the time frame of the Suitcase Saga, and just since, the greater world has experienced planet-stunning events.  Hurricane Harvey basted Texas in a barbecue of putrid stew.  Irma blew away the illusion of the good life in Florida and leveled society in parts of the Caribbean.  An earthquake rubbled Juchitan, Mexico, a place so obscure nobody knows where it is relative to Cabo or Cancun.  There’s genocide in Myanmar on the border with Bangladesh.  North Korea toys with a hydrogen bomb and sends missiles over Japan like bottle rockets over the neighbor’s house across the street.  There’s an opioid crisis within the cultures of pain.  Dreamers of a thing called DACA face mass deportations to countries unknown and foreign.  Wild fires storm the forests.  A volcano called Katla rumbles beneath Iceland and fixes to blow its glacier into the sky.  That’s not all.  That’s just the past weeks.  That’s just some of the bold headlines.

And yet a bunch of people collaborated across five countries to rescue one American family’s vacation suitcase.

Nicely done.  Thank you all.  Including the Canadians who would rather not be recognized — talk about a network of secret agents.

At the top of this story is a picture representing Icelandair.  This is how it sees itself.  Take a good look at it and imagine which character represents Asta and which one Lydia — probably not the one in red.

Nex year Roxanne and I plan to visit Iceland.  Fly a deal on Icelandair.  See volcanoes.  Hot spring thermal baths.  Mountains.  Fjords.  Midnight sun, or maybe northern lights depending on the season.  Perhaps by then we’ll know the origin of Michel’s great-great grandma, but if not we’ll make one up.  It’s a small and friendly country, they say.




My Last Confession Was


I am sorry for all my sins

for farting in the barroom from all those gins

for teasing my sisters with safety pins

for making fun of fat girls with double chins

for stealing lunch money from the charity bins

for watching european girls sunbathe in their skins

for stylizing opiates after Ho Chi Minhs

I’m so sorry for all my sins

for barfing in the barroom from all those gins

for using cuss words at the Minnesota Twins

for tipping outhouses just for grins

for leering after ladies with alabaster skins

for criticizing Jesus in the church of Original Spins

for harassing muslims for growing out their chins

for kicking crippled old ladies in the shins —

just for grins

I’m truly sorry for all my sins






Tear up your red shirts

Dress yourselves in bogaine

Cartwheels in hoop skirts

Alejandro Romaine

Call the bunny fundamentalist taxi

Ride until the meter hits maxi

Get that double bubble out of your mouth

Looks so rude like your soul’s gone south


Whoa whoa Black Saturn


Seal off the stand pipes

Wash your hands in turpentine

Misread the bold types

Swishing in the Serpentine

Loot the funny pandemonium outrage

Suck the wind and blow a power outage

Stand up straight and put your shoulders back

Be so bad like they cut you slack


Ooh ooh Black Saturn

Whoa oh Black Saturn


One of these days you’ll get your degree

You’ll have an excuse to set yourself free

One of these nights you’ll get a job

Carve a wooden knob, pick corn on the cob


Ooh ooh


Sign all your pictures

Hide yourself in plain sight

Wear Stafford t-shirts

Affect a smiling overbite

Picture sunny lights painted on darkness

Choose bon mots to answer snarkness

There’s an eclipse due high in the sky

It’s the moon and the sun, you won’t fry


Oh oh Black Saturn

Woo hoo Black Saturn

Oh yeah Black Saturn







The Shitheads


Pronounced Shith-e-ads, it refers to adherents of a philosophy called Shith, named for Shitheus, a 2nd or 3rd century Roman mid-level territorial imperial governor of a region in Gaulius.  Corruption allegations did him in, accusations affirmed that he amassed vast land for himself, too much Gaul.

Any record of Shitheus and Shith philosophy survive today mostly courtesy of WikiLeaks and Wikipedia for their diligent digitalysis of historical research.

Among the basic precepts of Shith:

Always throw waste into the river.  Or burn it up into the air and toss the ash in the river.  Rivers flow to seas where the dumpwater disappears into the horizon where beyond there be dragons.  Let the dragons deal with garbage.

Never make peace, especially with allies.  Keep your friends close and your enemies closer to the extreme.

Always lie.  Truth can be manipulated to conform to any point of view so why bother with logic and linguistics, just make up a story.  Never mind if no one believes you, the more reason to keep lying because if no one believes you there’s no recognizing a standard baseline for truth.

Political opponents should always be rounded up and escorted to a sequestered place where they may consort among their own kind and be kept apart from disrupting the social order with contaminating ideas.  Greek style athletic fields were ideal for places like this.  And rock quarries.

Only one religion allowed but several deities were recognized by the state.  Gods and goddesses were often submitted to the populace for popular vote, a Shithead scheme to foster a symbolic sense of republican democracy.

The poor of Shithead society were encouraged to eat their own children first before resorting to sell them as meat on the open market.

Slavery was common back then so it was assumed everyone not of the noble class could be enslaved at any time for any reason.  Essentially all women, even noblewomen, were slaves.

The official line of the Roman empire of the day was that the borders were boundless, nowhere beyond the pale, but Shith philosophy foresaw the eventual takeover of Rome by the Barbars, and Shitheus a couple centuries ahead of his time identified christians as the number one threat to the internal stability of the empire.  He himself predicted by a hundred or so years the eventual move of the imperial capital to Byzantium by Emperor Constantine, leaving Rome defenseless and in the custody of the pope and a few helvetic mercenaries.  Shitheus preached a philosophy that attempted to militarize the up and coming christians to defend the empire against barbars, franks, turks, moors, anglos, saxons, mongols and you name it, whoever bordered the empire.  Shitheus tried to get Jesus elected to the state sponsored pantheon of deities.

Abruptly at the height of power Shitheus was removed as territorial imperial governor and accused and convicted of high crimes and treason.  He was sentenced to be beheaded and his history erased after his writings were intercepted and purged by order of the emperor’s tribunal that found him guilty.  He escaped to a fringe hinterland.  In an ancient twist of digitalysis, his philosophy persisted to influence leaders for almost two millennia even though his name and reputation were officially stricken from all historical records, and any references to him by name or inference were buried by dark ages historians and scholars as false (fake) history, called the Myth of Shitheus.

Even fake history repeats.







Mother’s Day came and went like the walleye fishing opener.  Father’s Day will pass like Grandma’s Marathon.  Spring has arrived in Minnesota.

The neighborhood streets have been swept clean of the leftover winter crud just ahead of the annual tree bud, pollen, blossom and seed fallout from arboreal awakening.  Fallen blossom petals from boulevard crabapples tint the street pink.  Maples launch helicopters.  Natural litter.

I haven’t seen this phase of spring at our house in five years.  The past five Mothers Days we celebrated in Paris, Zug, London, Lake Como and Rome, all with our daughter and her family living in Europe, except last year when we planned to visit again but they moved home sooner than planned but Roxanne and I went to Europe anyway.  We would go away in April (air fare what it is if you go to Europe you might as well go a month) and return before Memorial Day to an overgrown yard (maybe mowed one time by our son Vincent to discourage wildlife nesting) and morass of weedy garden we fondly call the jungle.  We usually arrived in time to see our sparse gangly, spindly poppies bloom but too late for daffodils and tulips and usually missing out on the neighbors’ lilacs and the riot of crabapple.  We would pick up with the hostas, lilies and phlox.  Weed the weeds.  Catch up.  As Minnesota goes it’s already summer in progress by the time we came home.

This year it’s good to be here.  Instead of someone else’s spring — Vondelpark, Rigi, Tuileres, Hyde Park, Parque del Retiro, Parc Guell — it’s good to be right here.  Home.  Buffalo Acres.  The day to day of April and May.  Who knew we have six red tulips in the jungle, a pink one and one white?  We have a daffodil — yellow!  Pink peonies?  Really?  All the autumn and winter detritus removed a month sooner, weeds clear, those poppies are shorter and sturdier this year.  Roxanne sprouted zinneas, bachelor buttons, cosmos and sunflowers in a rack of indoor starter pots on the window seat last month and they transplanted nicely — Minnesota nicely — in the weeded gaps in the jungle flower beds.  Roxanne has thinned the rampant prairie grass and laid cypress mulch around the borders of the house and garage where the day lilies dominate.  We have pruned more bushes so far than we would usually do by mid-July, just to have something to do.

The birds are back.  The sun rises before six and sets after eight-thirty.  Yellow dandelions — by the time we saw the dandelions they were white puffballs.  And cute little purple flowers amid the grass — some call it Creeping Charlie but I call it Ground Ivy.

Meet my old friend Moe — Moe Delaun.

It feels more rhythmic this year keeping up than playing catch-up.  A month gallivanting around Europe then leads to a frantic catching up at home.  This year we’re pitching in at home at a relaxed speed.  When we were in Europe we sometimes talked about things awaiting us back home, well now as we do these things at a zen pace in real time we discover more put-off domestic details to attend to, chores and projects to undertake to pass the time and tidy up for the closing stages of life.  Poking in the garden gives me moments to remember and savor our travels and the places we’ve gone and not feel sorry for a bucket list of unfulfilled dreams.

Married 45 years next year Roxanne and I have lived a charmed life, simply put.  Our romance nearing fifty years goes like the eternal flame of the sun.

They say some men marry their mothers.  Not me.

Mothers Day reminds me every year how different they were as people, as women and as mothers.  About the only two things they had in common were each were strikingly good looking and both highly intelligent.

My mom passed away eleven years ago just a while after Mother’s Day and just before the Memorial Day weekend.  Sudden.  Heart attack.  Not quite 73 years old.  I used to cringe at the approach of Mother’s Day for its conflict between attention to my mom and the mother of my own kids, plus Roxanne’s mom and eventually our own daughter becoming a mom — for me it was like a holiday of anxiety like some people experience Thanksgiving.  When my mom died the liberation simplified Mother’s Day so much for me it was like the transformation of Scrooge.  I could pay more attention to the mothers I really liked, Roxanne and daughter Michel.  The past years in Europe gave the day an exalted and exotic status.  The more recent passing of my mother-in-law simplified things a little more.

This year for some reason I’m given to what Huckleberry Finn called the fan-tods, a melancholy bout of reflection.  I feel guilty I wasn’t nicer to my mom.  I wasn’t mean.  I just wasn’t nicer.

For example I never took her to Ireland.  It’s every son of an Irish descended American mother’s duty to take her on a trip to the Old Sod, but I resisted, put it on my much younger brothers Sean and Kevin who never did it either (though they came close, Sean went with her to Paris when he was in the Air Force stationed in Belgium, and Kevin once went with her to Hawaii to visit Sean, again stationed in the Air Force).  I knew deep in my heart I could not travel with her.  She was no Roxanne.

My mother’s name was Colleen Kelly.  She was known far and wide as Kitty.  Charismatic, she was regarded as colorfully eccentric to outright mad crazy.  Her grandchildren called her Mimi.

I was her oldest child.  Oldest of ten.  She called me by my middle name, Michael, or Mickey, and for the first four or so years of my life I thought I was Michael Sturgis and my nickname was Buff or Buffy.  You may wonder why my surname is that of my mother, Kelly, and not my father, Sturgis.  My father, Dick Sturgis, allegedly and admittedly named me Buffalo Michael Sturgis instead of Michael Kelly Sturgis behind my mom’s back, filling out and signing my birth certificate at the hospital while my mom reveled in the heroics of her labor and delivery.  He named me after his best friend in the world, a guy named Buffalo Denny, who died in a car crash in Michigan when I was about ten.  It was a hard loss for my dad to bear but he claimed he got over it.  As he used to say, none of us gets out of here alive.

Dad was Richard George Sturgis.  Dick Sturgis.  Dad loved his name was Dick.  Proud to introduce himself as Dick Sturgis.  Business card said Dick Sturgis.  He was a car salesman.

Sold Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Rambler, whatever was hot.  Made a good living.  Always drove a big new demo.  (Mom always drove a late model Cadillac convertible.  With so many kids we needed a big car and mom refused to drive a station wagon.)  He loved selling cars, closing deals.  He worked usually six days a week, open till closing.  He would have worked seven days a week if Minnesota law allowed car dealerships to open Sundays.

He sold imports for a while.  As a joke one weekend to get Mom’s goat he brought home a demo Renault Dauphine, that of the two horns, town and country, honk honk, bee-beep.

Dad’s favorite story was the time he sold a Ferrari Mexico Coupe.  His friend Mr Denny, my namesake, had followed Dad into the car business and they worked together at Riviera Imports on Hennepin Ave.  Guy came into the showroom and fell in love with a scarlet red Ferrari 340 Mexico Coupe.  Didn’t have the cash and couldn’t get financed.  He offered a stack of utility bearer bonds.  Mr Denny was my dad’s boss, the guy my dad went into the office to okay tough deals.  They took the bearer bonds, drew up the papers and closed the deal.  Soon as the coupe was out of sight towards Lake Calhoun, Mr Denny and my dad took off downtown to find a broker by closing time to cash the bonds.  Turned out they were worth thousands over face value and earned them both the fattest commission ever in 1950s dollars.  Plus they heard from the customer the next day, called long distance from Albuquerque, he needed to order an engine because he’d blown the coupe’s engine doing 180 mph in the New Mexico desert on Route 66.

I cannot say my dad and I were close. Being the oldest kid meant I knew him the longest, not that I knew him well.  He was kind to all his kids, all ten of us.  Never laid a hand on Mom except in self-defense.  He simply wasn’t around much.  When he was around or we went places and did things together he seemed like a fun guy.  He was not our disciplinarian — no wait till your father comes home because that could be really, really late into the middle of the night.  He worked.  He hung out after work with his friends.  He played golf .  He drank.  He womanized.

Mom kicked him out for keeps when I was in 8th grade.  Kevin wasn’t even born yet.  I was 13.  Mom organized a ceremony, filed papers for the sheriff to evict him.  She might as well have hired a color guard.  In front of the neighbors.  My sisters cried.  Mom explained to us that Dad wasn’t around anyway, he might as well live somewhere else, we wouldn’t miss him.

She immediately went on a dating spree.  It lasted decades.  Years later when my sisters and I talked about Mom we imagined she was making up for the adolescence she lost married to Dad at sixteen.  Married at sixteen and not even pregnant.  Dad was eighteen.  Grandma Mary, Dick’s mother, tried to politely describe how hot Dick and Colleen were hot for each other.  Efforts tried to keep them apart — Colleen sent to boarding school, Dick exiled down to his uncle’s farm — but Colleen ran away from boarding school when the nuns kicked her out and she tracked Dick down at the farm.  Dick converted to Catholicism for Colleen.

There must have been some kind of fraud committed to get their marriage license.  Grandpa Kelly, my mom’s dad, was a lawyer and probably could have found grounds for annulment, but apparently he told Colleen, you made your bed so lie in it.

Their teenage marriage presaged the era of Chuck Berry and you would have hoped his song about the teenage wedding would come true:  C’est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.”

It took about fifteen years but ten kids later it all crashed.

Along with the divorce decree Mom took advantage of the court to change her name back to Kelly.  While at it she legally changed her kids’ names to Kelly too.  We were all minors awarded to her custody after all.  So I became Buffalo Michael Kelly.  At the same time she changed the youngest kid’s first name from Peter to Kevin.  If she was really out to get revenge on Dad I don’t know why she didn’t change my full name while she had the chance.

She called me Michael until I started kindergarten, when school insisted on calling you by your true legal name — no nicknames allowed, especially at St Simon of Cyrene.  My name exposed a sore point with my mom, the shame from the nuns and devout Catholics for not naming her child after a saint.  She faced this at my baptism and corrected herself by naming her next two Kathleen and Bernadette.  But with the fourth child she lapsed — there is no St Molly.  Or Kerry.  Sean may be a play on John, or not.  Then Meaghan, Heather and Mavourneen.  Then Peter, who within his first year would be Kevin.  All suddenly Kellys.

The real Kellys — Mom’s kin — didn’t like that though Grandpa Kelly was dead, Grandma was remarried and Mom’s only siblings raised Kelly were sisters and married, none left named Kelly except now Mom.  And us.

I did not mourn my loss of being named Sturgis.  I still don’t mind even though it divorced me from from my father’s heritage, sketchy as it is.  My Grandma Mary, dad’s mom, already had a different surname, McMann, having divorced my grandfather after WWII, remarrying and starting a new family, migrating to Ft Wayne, Indiana.  Her family name was Farmer, and since she only had a sister and her own father was an only child, there were no known relatives named Farmer.  They say my Grandma Mary’s mother’s name was Mueller, maybe Danish, born in Iceland and migrated through Canada.  My grandfather George on my dad’s side was pretty much a ghost, completely absent and uninvolved in our family — people said he was intimidated by my mom.  Mom said he didn’t like children.  I only recall meeting him twice when I was a little boy and don’t recall a warm, beguiling grandpa.  I think I resigned my dropping the name Sturgis less than disloyalty to a dad and his clan than going with the flow.  At thirteen my family fell apart and my life crashed.

Within the parish of St Simon of Cyrene our status imploded with the scandal of divorce.  Shunned.  Rumors raged about an affair with a popular parish priest named Father Kevin who abruptly got transferred across the archdiocese.  Mom was summarily and almost ceremoniously excommunicated from the Catholic Church, though she pretended she wasn’t whenever it suited her and she continued to take holy communion at other parish churches the rest of her life whenever she wanted to be Catholic.  (Dad was excommunicated too but couldn’t have cared less; Sundays instead of mass he could be found drinking coffee at the Krispy Kreme, smoking Camels and reading a paperback by somebody like Mickey Spillane.  The divorce relieved him eternally from Easter Duty and liberated him for more golf.)  I graduated eighth grade as Buffalo Kelly with transcripts from St Simon of Cyrene.  Mom enrolled me at the Academy of St Bernard high school, a college prep program, defying a perfect chance to integrate me into the public school system because my mom didn’t trust public schools, especially for her gifted eldest son.  Years later she told people I attended Stanford when I was actually at San Diego City College.

In a short time we lost our house to foreclosure and more or less got run out of town, the Sturgis deadbeats.  Exiled from our cozy suburban residence, we embarked on a series of commorancies — temporary places to live — in the inner city.

It could have been a fresh start.  Single mom, ten kids, an opportunity to prove something and do extraordinary things.  Instead we leaped headfirst down the rabbit hole of dysfunction.  Our mom could have organized us as the family who persevered and created a home culture of quality aspirations.  Instead she led us into haphazard anarchy treading down a mill of despair.  She wasn’t just a bad role model, she was no role model at all.  Oddly she preached the air of nobility when in fact she led us in the ways of the riffraff.

Lip service was paid to values of getting an education, practicing good manners, owning personal responsibility and treating others with respect and dignity.  No fungible guidance on how to behave.  Didn’t read to her little children.  No plan to sustain stability to survive and prosper as a family unit.  We could have been contenders.

I say “we” because I choose to accept some of the blame.  As the oldest child I failed as a leader of my siblings to set an alternative example and maintain order to our household.  I realize it wasn’t my role to be parent and guardian to my nine sisters and brothers.  I and my two next sisters, Kathleen, called Leenie, and Bernadette, and to an extent the next one, Molly, rather wise and street savvy beyond her years, all under the age of 16, formed an alliance to keep things going — laundry, housecleaning, feeding the little ones, dressing them, reading to them, in Kevin’s case (we still called him Petey) changing diapers — covering for Mom day to day while she was out gadflying and days when she barely got herself out of bed.  We used to have a cook and housekeeper helping us do chores, and now we did it all ourselves — good thing the kindly lady taught us how.  We couldn’t keep up.  We fell behind in school, except Bernadette who had priorities and was the first to crack and say, this isn’t my job.  We had no social lives.  No extended family.  No parents.  I gave up.

With a new name our family could have made a new life of at least above average prosperity if Mom had used her intelligence and personality, connections, peculiar tastes and talents to persevere somehow in basically raising her kids to, in turn, persevere in intelligent pursuits and develop talents.  Instead she burned every bridge, freaked out, played the victim, overdosed, told everybody to go to hell and we all squandered chance after chance to be normal.

Dad meanwhile drifted further away living his own version of the playboy life.  Hugh Hefner.  Frank Sinatra.  James Bond.  Vito Corleone.  He fought the divorce, though ineptly — Mom scorned him he didn’t fight enough, acted weakly — and lost.  He was delinquent in support payments from day one into eternity.  Mom had trust fund income from her late father’s estate, enough, my dad reasoned, to sustain a decent, average household economy if managed unextravagantly, in his opinion.  She schemed to deny him visitation with his kids because he withheld child support and spousal maintenance, so he held back making support payments because she had her own money and wouldn’t allow him to see his kids.  This went on forever, literally, which was long after Dad virtually disappeared from just about everyone’s life.

Within two years of the divorce Dick Sturgis left the Twin Cities in disgrace.  An accused swindler, known deadbeat, philanderer, boozer and cheat, he would say he was a sharp negotiator, shrewd businessman who played by the same rules as everybody else.  No criminal charges pending, he stayed employed somewhere, maybe despite his reputation, and maybe because of his notoriety, until the last year or so of his life, until his charm wore off and his health gave out before he even reached Social Security.

The time around my parents’ divorce was the unhappiest years of my life.  At first I refused to concede that it made any difference in my life.  I denied my parents had any real influence on me.  They fought so wickedly, there was promise of peace and quiet if they kept apart.  I used to secretly hope they would break up just to stop the fighting, and then when my wish came true and the fighting changed to something else, and I began to understand more what they fought about and realized they were trying to destroy each other with bad choices, almost deliberately.  I blamed them now for their selfishness, destroying our family making reckless choices.  I blamed them for corrupting me into believing that they were the adults who knew what they were doing.  I figured if Mom could gin up the confidence to get married and go on her own at sixteen, then surely I her gifted child of almost that same age (aided further along by technological advances of the 20th century — don’t think that didn’t figure in my judgment) with a little help could manage our household until Mom stabilized and things could get normal.

I had hope something good would come of the divorce but it kept getting worse.  Dad took off for Wisconsin.  Mom embarked on a series of boyfriend trips to places like Acapulco and Honolulu, escalating the dating binge which lasted most of the rest of her life, searching for her own Ari Onassis.  Maybe Dick and Colleen were victims of all that Free Love of the 1960s.  Maybe it was the epidemic of identity crises sweeping through the culture in those days.  Mom and I argued.  I would passive-aggressively accuse her of child abandonment and she would scold me for disrespecting her and telling her what to do, then slap my face.  Once I dodged the slap and she smacked a door jamb and told everybody I broke her finger.

Ultimately I gave up.  I ran away from home.

Somehow Mom finagled our new parish to subsidize my tuition to the Academy of St Bernard, an all boys school, but midway through my sophomore year the school was contemplating not having me back as a junior.  I was not gifted.  I got a job at a cinema, and with a little money of my own I stayed out late, came home when I pleased, hitch-hiked flagrantly, drank beer and whiskey.  After passing my driver’s test (in one of Mom’s boyfriends’ Grand Prix) I took up driving around in cars borrowed from parents of naughty girls, cruising the parkways in the middle of the night listening to the radio and looking for places to park.  I smart-talked adults.  I cut classes.  At St Bernard I got caught passing a pornographic poem about Adam and Eve.  When the principal — the Dean of Men, he was called — let me off with a warning, he impressed me with his milk of mercy when he stressed he would not inform my parents this time.  He didn’t know it would make no difference.

Dick and Colleen were way beyond this or any future wake up calls regarding the nurture of their kids.  We are fortunate indeed to not have ended up way worse.  Some of us wandered and the younger ones were virtually born into a wilderness.  We could have been devoured by predators or lost in the flood, all together or one by one.  As things turned out, we all outlived our parents and their mistakes without committing fatal mistakes of our own, unguided or unwittingly flirting with danger or bumbling into life ignorant and unaware of higher expectations or opportunities to do better.  Helped or hampered by white privilege, our family never came under investigation by the system of child and family protection.  Even if anonymously tipped off, the social workers were busy working welfare cases far more dire and egregious of abuse and neglect than our mere white trashy dysfunction.  Even white trash privilege offers expectation that a family like ours can figure it out and survive without bureaucratic intervention.

Two of us served prison time.  Both as advanced adults.  Molly went to the state pen in Pierre, South Dakota for repeat drunk driving.  Bernadette did time at the federal pen at Lexington, Kentucky for kidnapping a newborn infant from a hospital nursery in Las Cruces, New Mexico the year after our dad died.  Molly’s crime illustrates her stubborn sense of exceptionalism and the family propensity to alcoholism.  Bernadette’s is significant because she was the most accomplished of the ten of us, a masters degree in nursing and working on a doctorate in public health, and she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  Her defense presented a case that severe childhood abuse caused her to have multiple personalities and an uncontrolled other and not the real Bernadette masterminded the kidnapping of the baby.  To prove her defense she presented a story of horror at the hands of our mom’s brutality and rage, and named me as Mom’s chief enforcer, putting us both on trial charged with driving her insane.  She expected Leenie and Molly to corroborate her stories and expected me to confess and testify, to get even with Mom and set her free.  We all had grudges against Mom but this was hardly the time or place to get even, so none of us were willing to go into federal court to condemn our mother just to help Bernadette skip the consequences of kidnapping a baby.  Of all us siblings, Bernadette was crafty and bold, one who had run away from home the furthest and maintained the greatest distance — some of us joke that she is our family’s only Only Child.  She told the US attorney our mom used to threaten to give us away to the Indians if we misbehaved.  She didn’t strengthen any bonds portraying us as a sub-trailer trash clan.  Her anecdotal fabrications and exaggerations weren’t far off the mark but they just weren’t true.  I for one spent hours with the FBI and US attorney being questioned in anticipation of being called to testify for the prosecution.  In the end the judge rejected the insanity plea.  She lost on appeal.  She served time.  She remains remorseless about her strategy, and the irony remains that our mother’s abusive and neglectful behavior probably did drive Bernadette crazy.  Along with the rest of us one way or another.

Delinquencies.  Depression.  Identity crises.  (Bernadette apparently had four.)  Therapy.  Drugs and alcohol.  Therapy.  AA.  Religion.  Two penal incarcerations.  Could have been worse.  No psycho killers.

Success stories?  Leenie became a special ed teacher.  Molly owned a roadside cafe in Deadwood.  Kerry is a manufacturing superintendent.  Meaghan a registered nurse.  Heather is a champion equestrian and runs her own cleaning business.  Sean enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school and retired to Florida as a Top Sergeant after 27 years.  Kevin, whom we still occasionally call Petey, owns a piece of a business that remanufactures manufacturing equipment.  Mavourneen is an office admin in upstate New York.  Bernadette practices holistic medicine under the alias Dr Lourdes Sturgis somewhere in west central Virginia.  All functionally employable, even me.

Dad eventually turned up a little over a year before Bernadette kidnapped the baby.  On a Greyhound from Miami, where he lived in Liberty City where he had a flophouse room at a sort of halfassed-halfway house after being released from detox, and where he wore two pairs of pants to keep his wallet and cash in the pockets of his inner pair, Dick Sturgis returned to the Twin Cities with a secret case of melanoma and an obviously bad liver.  Fired from his last job telemarketing hearing aids in south Florida for being drunk on the job and tipping over in his chair (lost the appeal on his workers comp case) he moved in with his father, who was long retired from the highway department down in Miami Beach.  Then Grandpa George died and his brother, my dad’s uncle Bob representing grandpa’s estate, kicked Dad out of the house.  When the time limit for his stay at the shelter in Liberty City ran out, he cadged bus fare to Minneapolis.

He moved in with his aunt, his mother’s sister, Aunt Winnie — for some odd reason we kids called her Aunt Weenie — rhymes with Leenie — behind her back.  She was a dear gnarly lady who loved to read fiction like John O’Hara, always sympathetic to us wild kids though she never did anything.  She lived alone and widowed in a senior high rise, well into her 80s.  Like Dad she liked to drink.  They chummed it up like it was some kind of old times.  Dad expired one afternoon in Aunt Winnie’s bathroom in a bloody mess from gastrointestinal hemorrhage induced by heavy drinking.  Aunt Winnie felt badly about it the rest of her days but laid some of the blame on me for not responding to a voice message she left on my home phone while I was at work, and when I got home he was already dead.  The medical examiner told me there was nothing I could have done, he was dead as soon as he hit the tile.

Mom paid for his cremation.  She also got his spousal benefits from Social Security.

Mom lived about fifteen years more than Dad.  It can be said that in the years after kicking the last of her brood out of the nest she settled down and took a semblance of control over the drama of her life.  Too late for us kids to benefit but by then none of us were dependent on her to survive.  At some point she began to depend on us, for emotional outreach, to reconstitute our past to reinsert herself into our own version of extended family and make herself know to her grandchildren.  She matured, showed some impulse control and discipline in conducting her personal life.  It may have been the influence of a boyfriend who actually gave her good advice she listened to.

During the wild years after the divorce Mom was shunned by her family as the black sheep — they actually called her that to her face — which by extension is why my siblings and I barely know our cousins to this day, and few of us remember our grandma on Mom’s side, or our aunts, Mom’s sisters.  We were all shunned — except Bernadette who got a job as an assistant au pair for one of our aunt’s neighbors — as bad influences on the cousins.  Only when Grandma died did Mom begin to reconcile with her sisters, but that did not include the rest of her brood — they called us a brood, and also a tribe and a pack.

When Grandma died in the 1980s Grandpa’s trust fund dissolved and Mom finally came into some assets.  A lot of us held our breath watching to see if she would blow her inheritance and buy the Brooklyn Bridge.  She bought a townhome — no kids — in a modestly posh suburb.  She got a reputable funds manager and attorney.  No longer living hand to mouth on the stricture of the trust income — Mom never worked except as a local fashion model when I was little — and dodging creditors, hoping God would provide, now she paid her bills on time, balanced her checkbook and filed back tax returns.  She got a part time job as a restaurant hostess to pay into Social Security.  She bought a Camaro convertible.

For a minute there I thought she might get her high school diploma and go to college.

It’s one thing to forgive your parents for not being perfect, but it’s another thing to let them get away with not even being good.  Good parents make sacrifices for the welfare of their children.  My parents sacrificed their children.  Mom would say she did the best she could, but I doubt it, I know she could have done better and she didn’t.  Rather than punish her and Dad forever in my heart I’m inclined to believe living well is the best revenge.

“Don’t judge me,” Mom would say, and I would judge.  “Buffy, God put you on this earth to be my son, not tell me what to do,” she said — when she called me Buffy I knew she was displeased.  And I would criticize.  She did what she wanted regardless.  It was all I could do to recognize being sucked into the same friction and spite that demonized my dad.

I lived with my dad off and on in my teenage runaway years, in Wisconsin and California before he dropped out of sight.  You could say I mooched him good.  I say we weren’t very close, didn’t confide in each other much, kept a certain privacy, but I observed him more than he observed me.  I did not want to be like him, suave and convivial gentleman as he was.  He was old school debonair.  A playboy.  Ladies man.  Sharp dresser.  Republican, even in the face of his socialist mother and aunt.  I did admire his taste in Aramis cologne though.  I even tried golf as a little kid, never got any good at it and never shared his game.  He never taught me how to rebuild a carburetor.  As I did with my mother, I eyed Dad from the perspective of of the inside outsider who thinks he knows too much, only with Dad I kept my cynical opinions to myself.  Let him do the talking about politics, not that I feared him I just didn’t need to bait him to hear him out.  I told myself there must be a universe out there that didn’t depend on fast talking wheeling and dealing.  We could talk sports but I did not appreciate his concern for the over and under, as I didn’t make bets.

When he would reminisce about my mom he was clear she was the love of his life.  They didn’t have ten kids from sleeping in a narrow bed.  There was cold resignation and willful detachment when he spoke about their past and sometimes he confessed he was glad it was over, like a stint in the army.  He said he thought it was the best for the kids he stayed out of their lives, kept things uncomplicated from the strife with Mom.  He accepted that Mom poisoned our minds against him as if he deserved it.  “You know Colleen,” he’d say.  “She always wins.”

When he eventually showed up the summer before he died he knew he faced some hairy eyeballs.  At our little memorial thing we held at my house with his ashes in the plastic bag inside the plastic urn, Mom acknowledged it took some guts for him to show his face and look us in the eye.  No one disagreed even as some testified they would never forgive him for ditching us.

When Dad reminisced about his old friend my alleged namesake Mr Denny, he would get chillingly unsentimental as he concluded reciting the facts as if he were a third party to their friendship, almost third person.  Yet in his blue eyes there was a glimmer of a persona who wanted to express uncharacteristic emotion, love and grief, that he rationalized away like he rationalized away his lost marriage and fatherhood.

Mr Denny had all the world going for him.  He was on his way to open his very own Chevrolet dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The world by the ass.  Just out of Indiana, south of Kalamazoo, there was an accident and he died.  Back then we called them car accidents.  Today they are called crashes, as though there are no accidents.  Dad never ventured into the details of the crash that killed his friend, whose fault, only that it was a Sunday night, not especially late, and his friend was driving alone on a highway in Michigan on his way to open his very own Chevy dealership in Grand Rapids and bang he was dead.  That’s how my dad would tell it.  “None of us gets out of here alive.”

Mom on the other hand had an exquisite funeral at the Basilica, attended by everyone who ever knew her who was still alive (except her old night club friend Mona, who couldn’t get a flight out of Florida) and they tolled the bells at the procession out of the cathedral’s front doors and down the stairs to the hearse for Colleen’s last ride in a Cadillac.

I never took my mom to Ireland, or became a priest, but eventually I scattered her ashes in Galway Bay.  Best I could do.

The first time I saw Roxanne was at a Target store where I was standing in a checkout line to buy a Mother’s Day card for my mom and Roxanne was the Target cashier.  Roxanne was the prettiest girl I ever saw in my life.  Our encounter was purely transactional, overwith as quick as you can say $2.03, but I saw she wore a nametag with a dymo label — Roxanne.  So began the courtship of the mother of my kids.

Unless it was a Hallmark my mom would hardly read it, no matter how verbose the prose.  Other brands like American Greeting and Carlton cards to her were low class.  To tick her off I would give her cards from Papyrus and Shoe Box.

Roxanne and I don’t exchange cards anymore, just engaging glances and blown kisses.

We are better parents than my parents.  I know that’s self righteous.  I recall a time when I didn’t believe I would ever have kids, afraid I would screw them up.  (I also used to fantasize that if I ever had kids I would get a court order to keep my mother away from them so she wouldn’t somehow screw them up.)  I didn’t want the responsibility of misguiding a fresh life.  As it was, Roxanne and I were married five years before we had Michel and I was 30 when Vincent was born.  Roxanne deserves celestial credit for bringing about the best from our kids and evoking the best from me as a father.

Instead of exploring more Europe, running away from home to ruminate the past of western culture, making up for a lost education, catching up with things my parents were apparently unaware to pass on as important to know, this spring I’m staying home.  Memorial Day would be our usual homecoming holiday.  This year I’m already here.  Stuck in my own roots and history, struck by what informs my own character.  Memorial Day is officially to commemorate dead soldiers and sailors, but for me — it’s dubious whether my family tree includes anybody who served in the armed forces, though Roxanne’s dad served under Patton and her grandfather served  during WWI — I tend to include all the dead in my commemoration.  My parents.  My mother who died on a Memorial Day weekend readily comes to mind.  Memorial Day is like my own personal Dia de Los Muertos.  The past five years it’s been an occasion mixed with reveries of Mother’s Day in exotic locales with daughter and grandkids and jealousy that my parents didn’t raise me in Europe.  Or take me there on vacation.  Or send me there to college.  This year, at home this whole while, my fingers dirty with my own dirt, American soil, putzing in the yard and contemplating having this hundred year old house painted so it looks nice another ten years, it’s as much like Thanksgiving for me as Day of the Dead.  Nothing turned out so bad.  It is what it is, and if I’m unhappy I have only myself to blame.

I’m actually happy.

It doesn’t matter to me whether I am or am not remotely related to a fallen lieutenant who died at Little Big Horn — I don’t see how we could be related if the men in that family traditionally went to West Point — or whether my dad’s dad was named after George Armstrong Custer.  I am relieved I got through life without my name associated with a motorcycle festival although I could have drank and dined forever telling tall tales about being named Sturgis.

After my dad died Aunt Weenie told me my dad’s friend Mr Denny’s real name was Byron, Buffalo was his nickname.  It doesn’t change a thing.  No matter.

Whatever genetic combination that composes me, I am nobody’s copy.  Not even as much likeness as one tulip in the jungle one spring to the next.  No pretensions of noble blood of any tribe, there’s no tracing ancestors of my own at the empire capitals of Europe but rather to trace the paths of my descendants.  My grandkids could have been in Manchester to see Ariana Grande.

In its common context the term “American soil” is mostly used as something being defended, but it literally means the dirt in yards and gardens like mine.  I can guess that ten thousand, or one thousand years ago no wild peonies grew on this lot, or tulips, crocuses or daffodils, as it was not somebody’s lot back then but possibly a fen or a glen.  I am stuck with it now, the hundred year old house and it’s detached garage, but everybody has to live somewhere.  Ending up here is not so bad.  The neighborhood may only go back a hundred years but the culture of the people around this land goes back thousands and thousands, comes from a population of various people who in some way imported themselves and their ways from some other place than this continent except the aboriginal native people, who also have been said to first arrived crossing a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska.  On days like this.

My people are mutts.  We are a litter of mutts.  Woof.  Domesticated.

Hear the birds at dawn.  They chatter all day, birdsongs in tongues.  Bird rap.  Mating songs, call and response.  Later in the summer they won’t sing so much, so urgently, so all at once.

Another year.  Mothers Day.  Memorial Day.  Fathers Day.  I am a better parent than my parent isn’t saying much, their bar set so low.  This old homestead, my Buffalo Acres, is where my kids grew up.  Where I raised my kids.  I look around this place and I can see measures of memories of ways I was a good parent, a good father.

Except for once when my teenage daughter lit into me about risking all our lives for choosing to live in the ghetto, my kids have expressed no resentments against me or their mom, though they tease me from time to time about when I would cloister myself upstairs in the loft to write a book as if I lived up there with an imaginary family.

Michel is modest with verbal praise.  Vincent says if anything we were too nice and not strict enough.  That makes me feel good because I see what good people he and his sister are and what good lives they live, and I can proudly think my kids took advantage of parental too-niceness and turned it into a positive outcome.

In myself I see my parents, but not as a copy.  I like to think I see actualization of their best traits, my dad’s gift of gab, his memory and recall, his taste in clothes, and I admire in a strange way the cynical edge he used to perceive the world and yet he played along.  I catch myself and my brothers using mannerisms like his and wonder if it’s from our physical similarities, because neither Sean nor Kevin spent enough time with Dad to learn to imitate him.  One the phone my son Vincent sounds like the voice of Dick Sturgis speaking.

Mom comes out in all us kids, especially my sisters as can be expected.  I feel we are fulfilling her potential.  Bipolar as she was, when she was manic nobody could match her zest for life.  We channel her arrogance as self confidence tested by our own trials and errors.  My sisters who benefited from the assertion of feminist power in their lifetimes got no support from Mom, who clung to a biblical belief that women should always subjugate themselves to men, who believed mothers should not work outside the home and scorned her daughters for pursuing jobs and careers, who espoused ladylike behavior and despised feminist politicians, especially Hillary Clinton who wore pant suits.  Mom’s most admired women included Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant and Nancy Reagan and she used to make fun of Eleanor Roosevelt for having a weak chin and buck teeth.  Michele Bachmann was her kind of gal.  I don’t know where Mom came to embrace arch conservative politics, maybe originating from her father, a corporate attorney, or her mother, a self-styled southern belle, but it seemed when I was a kid she raised us as JFK liberals.  After the divorce she veered off towards Billy Graham and consorted with evangelical partisans and bible study conservatives.  She had a crush on George W Bush, thought he was one handsome devil, and one can only speculate what she would think of our current president.  She didn’t live long enough to see Barack Obama coming, but she was always on guard against Hillary Clinton — it was almost funny how Mom saw her as an archvillainess, and when we wanted to mess with her we only had to mention Hillary Clinton’s name.  It’s unfair to wish our mom had been like Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, or even Aunt Weenie or her sister Grandma Mary, but Mom had ample chance to catch on to progressive politics but chose not to go there.  In some ways she benefited from feminist cultural changes in her lifetime without supporting the cause, like getting the wages without having to join the union.  Still, my sisters benefit, Roxanne, my daughter, and my grandchildren benefit from the gains women have made in modern society in my lifetime and fulfilling potential my mother did not dare to develop.

My daughter Michel has some of my mom’s good looks.  I see the future there.  I see my mom if she had gone off to college and worked for a living, had a good life and dear marriage without so much drama and baggage and still have an interesting life.  If my mom had had a good mother, and she did not.  As I aspired to be a better parent than my mom, I see Michel and Sid trying to be even better parents, and that means the cycle of generational dysfunction is broken, I am confident of that.  The last thing I want to teach my grandkids is that it’s normal to disrespect grandparents.  Same with my own kids who grew up around Mimi and formed their own impressions of the Kelly matriarch without the help of my exposition, and I am chuffed that they remember her with kindness.  It was only recently, maybe when she was living in Europe or just after she got back, it dawned on me Michel’s voice sounds like my mom’s.  She may have inherited Mimi’s vocal chords, or maybe my sense of hearing is adapting to my memory, but I hear my mother’s voice in my daughter.  That comforts me.  It recalls a time in my life when I was unconditionally loved, when I was Michael or Mickey.  It echoes what my mom sounded like if she were a mom like Michel.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride, my dad used to say.

If Michel ever calls me Buffy I know I’m in deep trouble.

Taking another quote out of context, William Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Funny when you come across a saying like that in your mind when you’re pruning yews.  Looking at the house and eying it up for a paint job that might last another ten years, I should live so long.  Past.  Future.  Now.  Dead.

Mom’s heart gave out in the ER of a Colorado trauma hospital.  She was not alone, Leenie was with her.  Mom was visiting Leenie on a long weekend — just because you moved away from Minnesota you didn’t get to avoid Mom, she would come visit you.  Mom had a heart attack at Leenie’s, and Leenie drove her to the trauma center where she died.

I got the call about 3:30 in the morning.  It came as quite a shock.  Everybody knew Mom had cardiac risk — her father died of a heart attack at the age of 59 — but it seemed Mom possessed an eternal flame, nobody saw it coming, herself least of all.  She seemed immortal.  She lived like she was a goddess.

Eleven Mothers Days Memorial Days ago.  We all realistically believed Mom would age into gradually degenerating health but live long enough to spend all her assets on palliative care.  Not so.  We thought we would end up looking after her like she never looked after us, and in one night we were orphans.  If it took our entire lives to get over our miserable childhoods, in one night it was all over, no more Mom to bind us, no more need to think of Mom in the future tense, she was suddenly past.  Part of my grief was dealing with feelings that it was the best thing that ever happened to my sisters and brothers that they were suddenly free, but I dared not say so.  All these years hoping Mom would finally get fixed, love us the way we each wanted to be loved, behave in a manner that did not embarrass us, stop ragging about our flaws, accept boundaries and respect our privacies, in one night everything was solved.  No more recriminations.  No more need for a fix.  It tells me something that nobody called me to remember her passing.

All caught up with yard chores in time for a rainy day.  The atmosphere here at the 45th parallel trends warmer overnight even as the days are not too hot, a hard freeze way unlikely.  With atmospheric changes come storms, but the air is stable today if damp.  The forecast says partly sunny.  It’s amazing how lush and green the vegetation is this year.  Like this is how everything always should be.  Equilibrium.

Serene.  In the canon of faith based recovery programs is a philosophical gem they call the Serenity Prayer.  It essentially asks of oneself to accept what one cannot change and to take courage to change what one can, and hopes for the wisdom to know the difference.  It’s that last part, knowing the difference, the wisdom part, where I stall.  Ruminate.  Look for the secret patterns.  Where does responsibility begin and end?  What is courage?  The weather ball is green — no change foreseen.

If not change, at least there is maintenance.

I have been blessed with a charmed life.  Graced.  It’s about what comes next — I’m getting old now, chronologically.  In percentage of life expectancy I can say I’ve already lived most of my life’s adventure already, yet I’m in a place where I can pick and choose the quality of what remains.

If this spring is different from others it’s the observation of the full passage of the season, a culmination of an era rather than a beginning.  A reverse of autumn, un-fall, this spring goads me to look backwards and inwards for something to link myself, some kind of unified field theory of my existence, an internet of things about myself, a je ne sais quois, something that defies words but is not a new beginning but defines what is.  That’s apparently all I ask.  I would like to see Grand Canyon again.  And Eiffel Tower.  No going back in time, I go there in my mind, and if I go again it will be new.  Somewhere in my memory bank is my long ago childhood, someplace not lost, noplace to return.  Lessons learned.  What I look forward to is summertime and I’d rather not start the cycle over with amnesia.


Nanny to Daddy State

100 days of what?

It’s a sexist meme but let’s look.

Interest in a book called “The Fourth Turning” arises from a general fascination with cycles.  We happen to live in exciting times.  As is the appetite for explanation of the Now, let’s play along.

The Nanny State takes care of its citizens.  Wipes their noses.  Examples in the United States abound.  Social Security and Medicare.  Workers Compensation.  Section Eight housing.  Title IX.  Title X.  Unemployment insurance.  Public Assistance, aka Welfare and Food Stamps.  Medicaid.  Obamacare.  School Lunch — some would argue public education in general.  Public transportation.

Fringe conservatives, neocons, freedom caucusers, alt-rights, anarchists, libertarians, illiberals and other extreme thinkers opposed to state sponsorship of a caretaking society may name countless more such examples, but these are the commonest sore spots thus conspiring to undermine independence and individual initiative and purge self-reliance and reliance on God from human character.  Make that American character, as in America first.  These are the institutions of the state said to engender fatal dependence upon the state.  People get accustomed to having their noses wiped and others object to paying for and enabling the snot rags.

Critics of the Nanny State, or Welfare State, argue the social inefficiency of liberal social engineering as failed strategy creating more problems than it has solved.  Where such governments show actual success at achieving measurable social harmony along with maximum human rights, such as nations of Scandinavia, it is roundly pointed out the economic costs to each country’s GDP putting the average standard of living at beneath American middle class standards of aspiration, and cost a lot in taxes.  It’s always the taxes.  Sometimes it’s the social engineering’s fault but always it’s the taxes even where liberal policies work.  The taxes and the national debt.  It’s a matter of conservative principles.

Europe gets credit as incubator of nanny states.  England gets most scrutiny, perhaps due to its constant democratic self-examination, but France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain all get faulted for providing too generous benefits to its citizens and residents.  (One is not sure where Switzerland fits.)  Not a failed state among them.  None a perfect democracy.  All one time world empires.  If the common nanny state emerged here in Europe as a form of social contract responding to the aftermath of World War II, it certainly asserted a collection of ideals going forward, learned the hard way, how to form humane democratic states.  Americans might like to think the Marshall Plan influenced this outcome.  It’s this humanity now under attack for having open borders, resettling migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from inhumane conditions.  A grand mass migration of people is occurring and it frightens people to see infiltrators in their space.  Who can blame these migrants for seeking a good life?  Blame the nanny state for generously subsidizing more vagrancy and the erosion of national culture.

In America the nanny is about to get fired.  Sacked.  Given the shoo.

The seminal importance of “The Fourth Turning” is like similar popular obsessions over the Book of Revelations (and its offshoots like the Left Behind series) and the writings of Nostradamus (Alas, Babylon) to divine prophecies that define or self-fulfill current events.  The Heisenberg theory applied to history, it can be entertaining.  And can stimulate serious discussion and evaluation of cycles and trends on the planet occurring before our very eyes.

The sociopolitical meme appears to be turning from Nanny State to Daddy State.

The archetypal strong man takes over to rule over the unruly disorganized overly democratic masses in order to bring stability and ostensibly prosperity  and security to the nation — what people really want.  The strong man promises ultimately to grant what best for the people.

This is hardly a new method of governing — as old as tribal humanity.  See it in the animal kingdom.  The empires of the ancients.  Sovereigns of Europe. Popes.  Genghis Khan.  Kublai Khan.  That Napoleon thing.  Adolf Hitler.  Lenin and Stalin.  Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho.  Chiang Kai-shek.  Idi Amin and Moammar Khadafy.  The Ayatollah.  The Shah.  Fidel.  Pinochet.  Hugo Chavez.  Rodrigo Duterte.  Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Kim Jong Un.  Bashar al Assad.  Vladimir Putin.

A patriarchal pantheon.  In addition one hesitates to classify emerging statespersons such as Marine Le Pen, but perhaps she will not matter.  More difficult to classify Theresa May — maybe so, maybe not.  Angela Merkel comes from the nanny school.  One has an even harder task classifying the likes of Queen Victoria, Cleopatra, Indira Gandhi or Catherine the Great, so I’ll stick to focus on clear Daddy State regimes.  What would the sands of Arabia be like without the Saudi monarchy, after all?

America’s classic strong man was FDR , and it is ironic FDR is credited for creating the American nanny state.  Barack Obama, among other firsts, was perhaps history’s first male nanny.


The American fuhrer, Donald Trump, President Hump, is now more than 100 days embarked on his mission to remake the country in his own image and likeness.  Fuhrer knows best.  Don’t question him.  Don’t doubt his authority.  You can get disinherited.

He rants like a drunken abusive head of household come home from bar closing.

He never laughs, certainly not at himself.  Can’t take a joke.

He brands the news media as the enemy of the people.  Wants to manage the news, control information, invent facts, and subverts the common practice of issuing press releases through a press secretary by posting Tweets and tossing non-sequiturs like bon-bon bon mots at the tourists.  When quoted he complains the news is fake.  His press secretary has no credibility but no one else wants the job.  Faker or fakir?

A recent ranking of countries by freedom of the press placed the United States somewhere in the 40s.  Seems modest.  Maybe we don’t wish to brag but America enjoys a delicious and generous quality of press freedom, how else a bumpkin like me gets a website much less President Hump himself uncensored license to spout gibberish and expect to be taken seriously.  In another country he might be in jail or assassinated.


He skipped the White House Correspondents annual dinner, a traditional convivial roast fest which might have got ugly if he had shown up, if nothing else in memory of Don Rickles — remember, the fuhrer never laughs and can’t take a joke.  Instead at that same moment in real time he hosted a rally in the capital city of Pennsylvania where he addressed a hippodrome worth of avid admirers for about an hour, denouncing the media, promising jobs and health care, thanking the armed forces, winking at China and vowing to build a border wall against Mexico, rousing his crowd all frothy and sublime until you can almost hear them chant, sig heil.

Witnessing this display for any liberal must have felt like being in the Moral Majority in the 1970s if Hugh Hefner were elected president.  At least Hugh Hefner read books.

There’s a bunch out there who call themselves The Resistance.  Who might they be?

Most opponents of the fuhrer can take heart knowing there is evidence of fair mindedness and reason across the land.  The numbers of his fans are not increasing, despite what he thinks, and as he turns to his fans for another rally fix he’ll find it’s the same old mob, time and time again.  That may be as well, it helps identify the grievous among us.  He has no new ideas.  He attracts no new converts.  He will alienate the rest and bore the brightest.  He’ll fib his way along.

There’s a card carrying GOP Hoosier Daddy named Mike Pence working in the wings, just in case.

Meanwhile there no ignoring the fuhrer and his inner circle deconstructing the administrative nanny state and reconstructing a daddy state in its place, regardless of unpopularity, under scrutiny of the free press, against all professional advice, contrary to science, in the face of academics, no matter what anybody says including boomers and millennials, or even Congress.

He doesn’t care if Congress passes a bad health care law as long as it fulfills his promise to repeal Obamacare.  It’s a win for him.  So now he objects to the ACHA (American Health Care Act) being dubbed Trumpcare, and rightly so, it’s fake, he is Trump but he does not care.  Humpcare.

See how Trump admires dictators.  He praised Putin during his campaign.  He hosted El Sissi.  Invited Duterte.  Erdogen visits in May.  Says Kim Jong Un is a “pretty smart cookie” he would be “honored” to meet.  You almost wouldn’t be shocked to hear him say for all he knows Assad and Hitler weren’t such bad guys except for the poison gas, they just had a rough time trying to rule their countries under duress.  When more truth comes out about Russian election meddling you can expect to hear him say the Russians have proven there is no such thing as democracy.

The Russians always lie, so no one on earth believes them, so they lie.

One thing a majority of citizens approve of is the fuhrer’s actions as civilian commander in chief of the armed forces, namely his missile blitz against Assad.  One badass daddy licks one bad daddy.  Well staged.  He said in his campaign he had generals, and he has generals.  (Mike Flynn was a general.)  In a few weeks he will tour the Middle East, his first venture outside the USA since being president.  Will he attract throngs?  Will he simply meet heads of state beyond the view of the public eye?  What kind of mischief can President Hump stir up outside our borders?  Should we allow him back in?

I’ve been to Belgium, and it is not a hell hole.

He just said out loud it might be a good idea to have a shutdown of the federal government in September.  Like it’s a cleansing exercise at his daughter Treblinka’s spa.  Teach us all a good lesson.  We’re all grounded until we shape up.

In his faux state of the union speech, which stands out as his most reasoned address to date, the fuhrer spoke of a new chapter for America.  We should have known he meant Chapter 11.

Chapter 11?

He’s a real estate guy.  His universe is built on leverage — borrowed money — mortgage loans secured by minimal collateral, sometimes unsecured or undersecured.  Big debt.  You know he won’t release his tax returns because he’s leveraged way over his ears, and the parties to whom he’s indebted would not surprise you and yet blow your mind.  Nothing illegal but blatantly oligarchic for someone passing himself as a man of the people.

In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, who’s zoomin’ who?

Show us your golf scores!

Did I hear right, he referred to Sen Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas again at the NRA convention?  He’s truly run out of material.  Look back at the early days of the GOP candidate debates and you see Donald Trump emerge and set himself apart as a stand up comic, campaigning as a right wing Mort Sahl.  Oh if it were funny…

The fuhrer’s chief of staff called the 9th Circuit Court “going bananas” for its rulings against Trump’s proclamations against immigration and withholding funds from cities.  The court system is the administration’s opportunity to further slip on a peel.  It would be justice if Gorsuch turns out to be a stricter constitutionalist than the fuhrer intended.

Can Hump really roll back Obamacare by proclamation?  Rescind national monuments?  Get away with licensing the pollution of air and water?  Condemn the planet to antiscientific global disintegration?  Force our children to eat coal?

If he were a smart daddy he would come up with new material, fresh angles, ideas he can pitch as ahead of the curve.  So he promised to build a border wall coast to coast against Mexico.  He could say, I’ve been thinking about the wall and I came up with this fabulous idea.  It’s going to be an invisible virtual wall, this wonderful high tech border wall made of the most state of the art lasers and wi-fi and microwaves and drones and satellites, the most imaginative engineering and physics you can imagine.  Why spend all that money on brick and mortar that can go to infrastructure projects?  Why waste rebar?  Why go through the hassles of aggravating land owners over eminent domain, or the blockage of the Rio Grande, the scenic blight, environmental pollution, the inevitable hassles in the courts, when we could build a virtual wall and achieve state of the art security with 21st Century technology at much less the cost, more quality for the money I tell you.  And since the technology works both ways, maybe Mexico would offer to chip in!  Believe me.

No, he won’t see it that way.  He’ll go on conniving with his henchmen more ways to dupe the country.  He’s no visionary, he’s a con man, pure and simple.  His most telling metaphor is his tried and true rally staple recitation of the entire lyrics of the song “The Snake”, as he did again to close with huge fanfare his 100 days at Harrisburg, PA.  He presents it as a parable of how kindness to immigrants will turn and bite us.  In reality he is the snake.  He never hid his true nature from us.  We knew all along he was a snake.

The drama of the Hump presidency unfolds with absurd surreal majesty like a pageant of the Emperor’s New Clothes meets the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  Salvador Dali, who had a green card, would be LOL.  Call it the Dada State.


So where’s Mama?


Crybaby President


What have we done?

What do we do next?

The first question ruminates the words of Paul Simon from “The Boxer” —

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

A woman too.  As for the disregards — to regard comes from a visual root, to see something, which suggests a reference to the song “Magic” by Bruce Springsteen:

“Trust none of what you hear, less of what you see, this is what will be, this is what will be”

People say we get the government we deserve.  A fine-tuned machine, by one account.

We have elected the most charismatic and mercurial egomaniac to emerge as a public figure in our lifetimes the President of the United States.  We elected him.  He won.

A man who campaigned relentlessly for xenophobia, nationalist anarchy and anti-intellectual demagoguery got elected fair and square by the free voting electorate according to the law of its beloved Constitution.  This was not a putsch or a coup.  This did not come about by mob rule or insurrection.  Not by ballot fraud.  This was accomplished by a year-plus campaign culminating in a free election.  Donald Trump.

Who voted for this guy?  These people are fellow citizens to be reckoned with.  These people have hopes and desires, demands and expectations of the new administration to act on their behalf.  What do they want?  What will Donald Trump deliver?

A large swath of conservative people voted to rid the executive branch of the liberal party, at whatever cost.  They do not see liberal values as progressive in the right way for the country or the culture.  On the contrary, they see the social goals of liberals as a form of tyranny.  Regulations of food, air, water, weapons, energy, property rights and business practices all impede freedom, they say.  Political focus on the civil rights of minorities makes some citizens feel uncomfortable and left out.  Dispossessed.  Counter disgruntled.  The government spends too much money, and everywhere it’s wasted, especially on social programs.  Taxation isn’t fair.  Immigrants are social liabilities who either steal jobs or soak up welfare benefits.  Compulsive health insurance is government socialized medicine.  Global trade kills jobs.  Gangs kill cities.  Liberals aren’t nearly tough enough on gangs.

Theses are some of the mainstream things I hear why voters went GOP this time, if not wholeheartedly for Donald Trump.  Already discussed is the influence of digitalysis — the collection of private cyber data for unauthorized publication — contributing to the upending of Hillary Clinton and much attention to efforts of Russian operatives to spin it against her campaign.  Americans are loathe to concede their free choice could be compromised by Russian propaganda, but they received fair warning it might be coming from Donald Trump himself when he previewed the suggestion in a presidential debate the Russians should hack Hillary Clinton, suggesting there might be something there — something like what, a link between pay-for-play with the Clinton Foundation, the State Department and the Trilateral Commission.


Hillary Clinton to her eventual discredit campaigned like a nerd girl running for student council.  She remanded a linear campaign focused on platform talking points of liberal and progressive goals.  The moral highground seemed obvious.  It seemed obvious to her that human rights — children’s rights, women’s rights, the rights of asylum seekers and the poor and downtrodden of this world — should be of greater concern than the petty complaints of white privilege.  It seemed obvious to her of the certainty that she represented the virtues of being on the right side of history.

How prescient when one of the few times she broke character debating Donald Trump she called him a Russian puppet, and the two of them bantered back and forth like second graders:  You’re the puppet, no you’re the puppet.  Puppet!

I know you are but what am I?

Hillary Clinton failed to define herself as someone who would make America greater.  By default we get a president who won’t even accept he won.  Even if he does, would it make the criticism go away?

The president is a crybaby.

He disrespects his own office.  He disrespected his candidacy, his opponents, the electorate and the institutions of his country.

It’s all about him.  Were he a poet he could claim poetic license, but his verse rings rank and foul with unholy lies and half lies.  He said in the campaign, he’s the only guy who can.  He’s a brand.  An entity.  He’s going to makeover this country in his image, combover America with dyed hair.  Of course he has a plan, an unbelievable plan, an agenda, it’s his plan, his agenda.  Did he not speak plainly enough in his campaign?  How many quotes back do we need to go?

He built a fan base out of a cult following of people who admired his behavior and that he told it like it is.  His most admired quality besides being rich is that he says outrageously rude things and gets away with it.  He has no pretense of political correctness and people love that.  He hijacked the Republican party and stole away the Tea Party and the GOP sold its soul to put Donald Trump in the White House to push conservative legislation to downsize government, except the military.  So far Trump’s populist base favors the results so far from Congress, but the fan base might not see enough loyalty from legislators who may sense the President is playing them with shenanigans.

There used to be a caucus called the Liberal Republicans.  Dick Nixon was considered one when he was in Congress.  Nelson Rockefeller was one.  In Minnesota we had Senator Dave Durenberger.  Today any politician with a trace of liberal philosophy has been chased out and exiled from the GOP, sometimes turning up as independents, like unradical unleftist Democrats often do.

Donald Trump is his own guy.

Doesn’t need the party.  Doesn’t need Congress.  Not the intelligence community.  Not the courts.  Not polls.  Not the Fifth Estate.  He just needs fans.  That’s why he continues to campaign.


The people who voted for him include significant numbers of people who voted a straight ticket and crossed their fingers and only thank their creator that the Devil Witch didn’t get elected.  There’s that “Thanks Obama” punchline, people who politically oppose the Dems for being Dems.  Most of them would say they would have preferred Lyin’ Ted or Little Marco or Rand Paul, but they would rather give Donald Trump a try than trust Hillary Clinton.

The population who voted for Trump who puzzles me are the women.  Aside from the many straight ticketers who could not abide Hillary, who crossed over the gender line to endorse this so-called sexist pig?  This beauty queen trafficker.  Deprecator of Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly and Elizabeth Warren.  Vilifier of Rosie O’Donnell.  Bragger of grabbing coochie.  There must be a lot of female voters out there attracted to Bad Boys, especially rich ones.  Is it like the women who write love letters to guys in a penitentiary they don’t even know?  For some women Donald Trump is like an outlaw rock star.

Bad Boys, Billionaires and Bigots.

Fascination for being rich enthralls people.  It follows that the envious and the emulators support Trump’s enterprising attitude.  In the event they too hit the big time they don’t want to pay taxes either.  They want to keep secret accounts too.  When the illegal immigrants are gone then the poor can get kicked off welfare to take the vacated jobs.  For some people the middle class is just a stepping stone.  Nothing gets in the way of making money.

The portion of the people — yes, they are people, as in We the People — who elected Donald Trump who concern me the most are the ones Hillary Clinton called a basket of deplorables.  The basket.  In another rare spontaneous wisecrack she defined an estimated half his supporters, which in sheer numbers is one big basket.  He draws rallies like Billy Graham.  There’s people who would take a grenade for the guy.  Donald Trump could literally shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and they would still love him, and he knows it.  Talk about a cult of personality.

Every time I see him give a speech I hear jackboots in the background.  Every Twitter rant sounds like marching orders, coded signals to get ready.

Even if the estimation of half his voters is way too high, the deplorables — not to confuse with Les Miserables — are the very ones the crybaby is appealing to, whom he’s been addressing all along, who identify his message as their own and would carry out deplorable acts to get their way.  In the name of their demigod, Donald Trump.

This is why Donald Trump worries me, he has had such success projecting his personality on American society by guessing right at reaching the lowest common denominator.

His latest conceit, that a “sick” (sic) President Obama tapped his phones, is so believable among the birther mentality we could see a demand for a special prosecutor to look into innuendo that the surveillance ran through Hillary Clinton’s server.  Then we’ll learn it was hacked by Russians and intercepted by the NSA, CIA and FBI then leaked to Wiki.  Digitalysis by the numbers.  If the DNC had actually hacked Trump’s tax returns don’t you think they would have been leaked by now?

Yes, we vetted him over a year and elected him anyway — well almost three million fewer of us than voted for Hillary nationwide, but he won by electoral votes.  Not a landslide, but he won.  What do we do now?

Somewhere in the scheme of things we owe ourselves an examination of conscience.  In each our own lives we first have to reckon what kind of person we are and want to be.

Then we have to look after our families and communities and recognize our common affirmations.  We need civil dialog as we strive for solutions to social problems.  We need to make the effort to stretch our understanding of others of a different mind to arrive at common enlightenment.

To be specific to Donald Trump there is an urge to resort to low satire, call him Hump our Douchebag Fuhrer.  Call his daughter Treblinka.

Then I think about Barack Obama and the cruel things the obstructionists said about him.  Donald Trump has not nearly the grace to hold up with nearly the dignity, and I don’t want to see this presidency degenerate into a horrifying mirror image of the last, depersonalizing and dehumanizing the President like unmerciful trolls — not that Trump wouldn’t do that to you if he felt he had to.

I would refrain from stomping on Ivanka because she has expressed support for Planned Parenthood and women’s empowerment issues enough to make one wonder if she even voted for her dad.  Women are going to put more influence on Donald Trump’s administration than he may think and he depends on them more than he may know — can he imagine a day without Kellyanne Conway?  His election has invigorized women to demonstrate their political and socioeconomic power and we’ll see a lot of culture clout the next four years.  Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly are gone, and it shouldn’t come to Lysistrata, but there is movement to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment, and it poses an opportunity for Donald Trump to reveal his true colors about women.


On policy he should be challenged at every forum.  If he gets something right he should be acknowledged.  If he contradicts his own mission or double-crosses those displaced workers he panders to he should be called out.  If he negotiates bad trade deals or reneges on treaties he should be shamed.  If he fakes the press and lies the news he’ll be found out, believe me.

I am not objective.  I am white and quite privileged.  I am not disenfranchised or unempowered, nor do I feel left behind by the times.  I thought the country was great already and going the right direction and take issue with those who think the opposite.

To his hard core supporters be gentle but firm.  Give them wide berth to wear their prized Deplorables badges and do not abridge their constitutional rights.  Let them manifest themselves so we can know who they are and what they really stand for.  Let them out themselves.  Do not engage them or bait them with violence.  Bypass their confrontations with alternate channels of persuasion.  There has to be a way to educate people who fear an armed insurrection of Somali immigrants in caravans of taxicabs and minivans.  Let the fools reveal themselves as idiots by and by, and we’ll move on, this too shall pass.

Resist despair.  Take heart.

Look people in the eye.  Do a good job.  Wear a safety pin on your lapel.  Keep the faith.  Pay attention.  Don’t get suckered.  Assume positive intent.  Be the nicest one.

In Minnesota there once was a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution to explicitly prohibit same sex marriage and after all it became the first state to make it legal by legislative action, not by the court.  Be careful what you wish for, ye who wish to rule the world.

In Trump’s case pay attention to his fine-tuned machine.  If it breaks down and the wheels come off he won’t be able to hide it under a clandestine pit stop.

He can’t fire everybody.  He’s the apprentice now.  The mid-term election is just next year.  Constituents have the power to hire and fire the House and Senate, which goes both ways with Trump-era legislation.  He can’t fire voters.


Sid my son-in-law observes that you never see Donald Trump laugh.  Sometimes he smiles, you see him smirk, but you never see him laugh.

Ask him why America should trust a businessman who dodges his bills and goes bankrupt.  Ask him for his tax returns.

Hound his subordinates.  Chase after the Steves, Bannon and Miller, seek after cabinet appointees and staffers like paparazzi and question whatever they say.  Saturate Congress with attention.

If this presidency folds up its bridges of access and retracts itself into a fortress like Trump Tower, don’t expect Congress or even Mike Pence to rescue Donald Trump from his perceived enemies of the people, by the people and for the people.

My friend Jim offered caution to the President when Trump first disparaged the intelligence community and he wondered out loud if maybe Trump whined enough about the CIA being like the 3rd Reich a black ops team under the 25th Amendment might show up one night at Mar-a-Lago, put him in a bag and whoosh him off to an undisclosed location, never to be seen again.

How can Donald Trump expect America to be great when he makes us look like morons?  He embarrasses us to the world.  The crybaby better grow up.




Nobody holds hands like my little girls.

My little girls still include my daughter Michel, now a generation away from being little.  She still is not tall but it was ages since we held hands, ages from that awkward vague random age when it wasn’t cool to be seen at school or the mall holding hands with your dad, somewhere between nine and thirteen.  I get it.  Yet I do recall the feel of her palm and tight little fingers.  I am reminded by the palms and fingers of her daughters, my grandchildren, my little girls Clara and Tess.

They are 12 and 9 now.  Old enough to cross the street untethered to a grown up — most streets — or hand in hand with one another.  Still, on a walk around Lake Harriet with ice cream cones or strolling down the main mall at the U going to the Weisman, they will glide their palms into my fingers as we stroll and talk.  There is no time to feel self-conscious but only to savor the sublime grasp of their small lifelines and fingers in mine and the transference of enduring grace and the soft energy of simple love.

The moment Clara was born I was there behind a curtain where I could hear her first inhalations.  She didn’t cry, just sort of chuckled.  After a few awesome breath catching moments bonding with mom and dad, the nurse drew the curtain aside and brought her out to weigh her and clean her up.

“Hold her while I set up the scale,” said the nurse and placed Clara in my arms.

In that moment I experienced the most profound life altering flash.  I looked into that baby’s blue eyes looking up into mine, eye contact, and put my finger into her tiny grasp and said, “Hello Clara, my sweet sweet baby.”  This was the highest high, cosmic intensity, the most beautiful awareness of the soul of the universe.  At that moment I knew in my heart and soul my life meant something good, and this goodness was not fleeting but sustaining everlasting joy.  This exalted fulfillment — my first grandchild.


Thus Clara opened the way for Tess.  Someday I hope I can appropriately express to Clara how grateful I am for that moment and its effect on my life ever since.

Tess is another story.  I used to wonder if I compensated with Tess, making up for the two years and eight months she wasn’t around, when Clara was an only child.

Tess was born almost an hour before I held her.  Around dinnertime, waiting for Michel to go into deep labor, Granma Roxanne and I took Clara out to Burger King.  The Burger King featured a playland for kids made of colorful conduit tubes to climb around in like hamsters.  We let Clara climb inside.  When Michel’s husband Sid called Roxanne’s cell phone to say Tess was on the way, we called up into the tubes to tell Clara it was time to go.  She by then had climbed to the top of the tube maze and cried out she was lost and didn’t know which way to come down.  We tried to talk her through the route but she wouldn’t budge.  Too narrow for an adult to to climb in to get her, a boy about seven offered to go up and escort her out.

By the time we arrived back at the hospital Tess was weighed, bathed and swaddled.  Sid’s parents were already there and holding the new baby.  Michel relaxed in the rocking chair.  My first face to face with Tess she looked crabby.  Unlike Clara, who was born bald, Tess had a full head of dark hair.  She wore a wizened face.  She seemed to demand an apology for being late.  I held her.  She squirmed.


The first impressions of my grand daughters no way eclipsed the megaton experiences of the births of my daughter and son.  Fatherhood bestowed its own blessings, not least from my son Vincent whose masculine handshakes, fist bumps and abrazos inspire me to this day.  Vincent has his own story.  This is about my girls.

Clara and Tess were both named after me.  Their middle names are each Michel, their mother’s name.  My middle name is Michael.  Sid’s middle name is Michael.  When it comes up at school or an airport customs station they say it’s their family name.  When I asked Roxanne if she resented not being a member of the Michel Club, she said no thanks, it’s enough to bear just being a Kelly.

Michel’s middle name by the way is Angela.  That’s why her family, school and social (but not professional) nickname is Angel, or The Angel.  Never Angie.  And never never never Mike, Mikey or Mickey.

Clara is named Clara after Sid’s maternal grandma, Clara Stix, who is 99 years old.

To me the word Clara conveys a consistent expression of clear understanding, as in the Spanish expression clara.  Clear.

I recall a precious quote attributed to someone named Billy, age 4:

“When somebody loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know your name is safe in their mouth.”

From the first eye contact between us the day she was born, Clara and I have clear communication.  I take credit, in part, for her vocabulary and syntax and know her today as an articulate young lady not shy to look you in the eye.  We all like to think our offspring precocious.  Early on Clara organized objects and directed play.  I let her — encouraged her — to boss me around as I played the role of the customer/bus driver/pupil in her scenarios.  I gave her crayons, paper and markers.  I played music on the stereo.

When she was a baby I waltzed her in my arms to Madonna’s “Baby’s got a secret.”

“Mmmm mmmm, something’s coming over, something’s coming over me…”

You may observe in me the signs of a devious, insidious and sinister Master Plan.  Based in proud success parenting Michel and Vincent into adulthood, here with Clara — wow — what an opportunity to really grandfather this bright kid, really show her the world.

The first time I brought her to the Minneapolis Institute of Art we happened into the gallery of medieval european paintings which features detailed depictions of the Crucifixion.  Barely three years old, Clara began to cry and wanted to know why those people — how could those people — be so mean to that man?  Why?  What did he do?  She cried and sobbed pointing to the man with nails in his hand, bleeding from his head and side, unable to look away.  I carried her to distraction at the next gallery, consoling her tears but virtually speechless — there was no way I could say like oh don’t worry, that didn’t really happen, nobody was ever really made to suffer and die in such humiliation in this old world.

A lesson in granprogramming.  First do no harm.  Be careful what you wish for, especially wishing on behalf of somebody else’s child.  She was Michel and Sid’s kid and I had no right to risk her ruin.  I promised to mentor Clara as much as she mentored me.  Roxanne and I set up a college fund so maybe she could someday study a semester at the Sorbonne.


Clara nicknamed herself Sparkles.

She identifies her looks with her father Sid, less with her mother.  What Clara doesn’t realize is how much she resembles me.  Not now, and not that she was very white and bald the first year of her life, or that we both have blue eyes.  I was fair and blond as a child and there is a resemblance between us in old pictures of me in black and white.  I understand why a pretty girl would feel less pretty compared to resemble a bald and wrinkling man of the third age and favor being likened to a handsome guy like her dad, who also has blue eyes.

Tess is Tess.  Not Teresa, or Tessa, Contessa, and only to her mama is she Tessy.  I call her Kitty.  I asked her permission, and she asked why, and I said because you remind me of my mom.  Tess resembles her mom, who both resembles Roxanne and my mom, who went by the name of Kitty and was once a fashion model.  She passed away just before Tess was born, so she never knew her.  Do you miss her, Tess asks.  Every day, I reply.

Tess saved Clara from the awful fate of being an only child.  Clara was pushing a precocious three years old when Tess showed up to challenge Clara’s sovereignty.  From Tess’s inception Clara was schooled to the expectations of being a big sister.  Michel told how she had a talk with Clara the night before Tess started infant day care at Clara’s pre-school, and Michel asked Clara to look after Tess because Tess was new there and had no friends yet.  Clara said back to her mom, “She also has no teeth.”

Tess and I didn’t bond like Clara and me.  She was Granma Roxy’s girl from the outset.  I had to earn Tess’s affection.  She didn’t snuggle up to me.

As we were saying our good byes at their house after a family dinner I moved towards toddler Tess to hug farewell, she stiffened, stepped back and shouted, “Get out of my house!”

Another time soon afterwards she was left alone in my care.  We were on my front porch, she had some toys, and abruptly she gestured she wanted to go indoors.  I didn’t want to go inside, content to sit and read on my porch swing and so encouraged her to keep playing with her toys out on the porch.  Too small and uncoordinated yet to operate the screen door, she began to scream.

A penetrating high-pitched scream like a diva on metabolics.  A full lung’s worth.  Aside from awe for the child’s vocal power my first thought was one of the neighbors was calling the cops.  Soon as she exhausted her lungs she inhaled deep and let rip again, a higher note yet, Tess’s fierce face like an enraged christmas caroler.  “My goodness,” all I could say, “you can really hit those notes.  Keep going.  I think you can be a singer.”

Granpa Buffalo Kelly calmly rocked in his porch swing waiting for the child protection cops while the baby diva belted high E.  Showdown.  Opportunity to establish what kind of grandparent I wanted to be, tested here at my house, one on one, by some kind of beast of the east, a bullying tantrum to get her whimsical way, not even asking much less saying please.

Eventually she began to cry.  Big tears.  Sobbing she asked if we could go indoors.  She let me console her, and we picked up the toys.  No incident like that ever occurred again.  We moved on.  We made lunch.


Though she remained Granma’s Girl for several years, Tess and I bonded faithfully on her terms.  Like with Clara we played whatever Tess wanted, only Clara sought consensus or contentedly played alone whereas Tess implied compulsion and resisted solo activity.  My devotion to Tess for her own right made me conscious she wasn’t Clara and it seemed sometimes I owed Tess the two plus years Clara had as a head start.

Their sibling rivalry manifests along personality lines.  Clara is contemplative and deliberate.  She is given towards an artistic eccentric temperament.  Tess is overt and plain spoken when grumpy.

It took years for Clara to accept Tess as a bona fide character beyond her big sister shadow, just as it’s taken Tess years to catch up where Clara leaves off.

Once I overheard them playing in the bathtub.  Tess seemed to have a dialogue going with her toys.  Clara was singing to herself something bluesy.

“I woke up in the sky.  You woke up in a dead fishy’s mouth.”

If this was directed at Tess, Tess made no reply, apparently kept playing toys.

They both love to sing.  Both have lovely voices and can carry a melody.  Kiz Bop.  Bedtime with the Beatles.  101 Best Kid Songs Ever.  Annie.  John McCutcheon.  CDs and FM radio in the car.  Their parents have eclectic and modern pop tastes.  Sid has been a deep fan of My Morning Jacket.  Michel first introduced me to Counting Crows.  At barely three Clara got a listen to Andrea Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro” and made it her song a while after the cute phase, but it showed taste and what she could do vocally even if she didn’t know the words, sort of made them up phonetically.  I plied her with Shakira songs in Spanish.

John McCutcheon said he told his grand daughter not to take up the banjo, that girls who play banjo don’t get dates.  After Taylor Swift no grand daughter will ever believe him.

Tess has a throatier voice and actually does a decent Shakira impression.  Just as I used to rock baby Clara to sleep in my arms to Madonna’s “Secret” I used to rock Tess to sleep with Shakira’s “Something”, a song about looking into someone’s eyes and finding the existence of God.

“You accept me like nobody, and I will always love you baby…”

It was about the time Tess was born Clara took up gymnastics.  All cartwheels and a balance beam a foot above the mat.  For a few seasons she ran track and field.  Swimming.  Pre-school led to kindergarden and grade school.  She sang at school choir.  Granma Roxy and I attended meets and concerts.  Grandparents Day was a sweet deal.  Sid and The Angel’s family the Kysylyczyns lived in a suburb east of St Paul on the way to Wisconsin, not exactly close neighbors or even nearby neighborhoods but at least a straight shot via freeway away.  We were cosmopolitan metropolitan grandparents, lucky to have them this close.  (And Sid and Michel probably considered us far enough away — an independence consideration.)  Near enough to babysit.  Gladly.  Sleepovers.  Most Fridays in the summer Roxanne took off work and went to their house for the day or took the kids to the beach.  I looked forward to retirement as a future hanging out with the kids any day I wanted, attending their events and plays, volunteer reader at their school, helping with homework and projects, going to shows and museums and amusement parks and Wisconsin Dells.  Baseball games.  Fishing with Uncle Vincent.  Pizza nights.  Apple picking.  Fourth of July.  Christmas.  All those amazing things you can do with grandchildren between birthdays.


Future so bright, as the song says, I had to wear shades.  This grandfather gig was a sweet deal.  The modified and improvised Master Plan was going like a proverbial Swiss watch and I could never have asked for a more ideal family relationship.  I was learning about childhood all over again through the eyes of my own experts.  I was there for them to find answers to fresh questions, give support to their discoveries and provide love and support to their day to day.

Clara was six and Tess not even four when I had retirement in my sights and visions of Camp Granpa Kelly — my future contribution to their summer day care.  I was living the dream in grandpa paradise when Sid and Michel introduced the idea that in six months they would all be relocating to Switzerland.

For at least three — maybe five — years.

It wasn’t for sure yet.  They hadn’t officially said yes and there were details to work out.  Sid works for an international information corporation headquartered in the Twin Cities and they wanted him to go manage some assets at their Swiss office in a town called Zug.  Nobody could conclude this was anything but a stunningly fantastic opportunity for all of them.

So much for my vague imperial master plan.  Just when I had everything to give — future Wicked tickets, a city of lakes and parks, library cards, Minnesota historical sites, Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America — life turned on me in the weirdest way.  Here I dedicated my life to Clara and Tess, and what do I get?  They go away and run off to Europe.

Deep in my heart I knew this was by far the better deal.  Chance of a lifetime.  Deep heart BS, it was no brain obvious.  It would be insane to pout over such good fortune for my girls and their mom and dad.

Call it a Sting lesson — if you love somebody set them free.

Six months was hardly enough time to get used to the idea.  Sid and Michel were offered a “look see” and flew to Zurich for a week finding their way with the corporate guide.  Sid’s company treated him and their family with utmost fair compensation for upending their regular lives so Sid could take this assignment.  They found a three bedroom apartment in a town next to Zug at the foot of a mountain along a lake in a valley  about 20 miles south of Zurich and about 15 miles north of Luzern in the foothills of the high Alps.  On a map.  The kids would attend an English international school.  Michel would not be able to get a work visa right away so she was not expected to work outside the home.  They leased a Skoda sedan.

They put most of their belongings in storage, shipped a freight crate of things, leased out their suburban house, packed every suitcase they could cadge from kinfolk, and after the longest long goodbye in family history we ended up at MSP airport hugging and weeping at the TSA entrance.  Sid told me, “Stay healthy.”

I gave Clara and Tess each a Sacajawea US dollar coin to save until they came back home, to remind them of home, the USA.

Too soon it was time to part, for them to pass through security and board the 7:40 red eye all nighter to Amsterdam and off to a new life far away without me.

“Free free, set them free…”


This was summertime five years ago.  I grieved, milked sympathy.  I put up more pictures in my office.  The Swiss Family Kysylyczyns would get one specifically paid-for home visit per year and they elected to always make it four weeks around Christmas.  As for the rest of Sid’s allotted personal time off, it wasn’t long before Michel broke the truth not to expect them back in Minnesota other than Christmas.  Three years in the heart of Europe suddenly seemed to Sid and Michel a very finite time to explore the surrounding continent — no offense, Minnesota.

We Skyped most Sundays, noon our time, seven p.m. theirs.  Even when they looked onscreen like Georges Braque cubist portraits it was better than no contact at all — what Roxanne’s dad might have said was better than a poke in they eye with a sharp stick — especially when the audio was any good.  For all its glitches, interruptions and bad video and audio connections, Skype saved my heart.

Roxanne had Facebook.  I wrote e-mails.  I wrote stamped letters.  Michel called on the phone and chatted with her mom like mothers and daughters do.  It was important not to be forgotten, and important not to forget.

Roxanne and I turned the situation around to our best advantage.  This was our chance to explore Europe.  We could visit the kids and use their place to base tours.  We could be Bumpkins Abroad.  We schemed from the very day Michel said it was six months away to budget and plan to go to Europe as much as we could.  As much as Michel and Sid would welcome us.

Here we got off lucky.  Michel and Sid never seemed to tire of our visits.  Since Clara and Tess shared a bedroom — Ikea bunk beds — the third bedroom was kept as a playroom library with an Ikea daybed, where Granma and I slept and kept our stuff when we visited.  On one wall hung a giant poster of Paris in monochrome except the Eiffel Tower in a golden hue, an Ikea print that symbolized our mission.

We made six trips to Europe in four years, including the last one after Sid, Michel and the girls suddenly repatriated to Minnesota, so they weren’t even there to visit any more.  Before they moved to Switzerland, Roxanne and I had been to Europe exactly twice, and we were already in our 50s — once to France on an extended trip surrounding an international scientific convention Roxanne attended in Dijon, and once on a Kelly family pilgrimage to Ireland.  In our forty-some years together she and I have been all over America and especially our region, the obscure middle of this continent.  We have gone to Canada, Mexico and a tiny bit of the Caribbean outside the US borders.  We have not been to Asia, Africa, Oceania (except the northern tier, Hawaii,) the Middle East, South America, Australia or Antarctica, ever, although we have met or met up with people from most of those places (who might hail from Antarctica?) while wandering Europe.  Only the past dozen years or so of our lives did we set foot in Europe.

We are not sophisticated people in the realm of world travelers.  We are Americans.  There’s no Grand Tour of classical romantic education on my curriculum vitae from my younger days, no memoirs of a post adolescence vagabond adventure en europa.  Roxanne did not backpack from Iberia to Istanbul the year between high school and university and she did not study at Toulouse.  We are American bumpkins.


Our grandchildren by contrast have already lived much of their lives embedded and unconsciously enthralled in the cultures and lands we could only imagine when we were their ages, and until recently could only imagine most of our adult lives.  Clara and Tess have been to at least a dozen countries in Europe and North Africa.  They have held hands to cross streets and canals in some of the most monumental cities of western history.  They speak and read high German and sometimes spell words like color colour.  They have skiied the Alps.  They can read basic Greek street signs.  They know kids from Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France, South Africa, Turkey, Scotland and Massachusetts.  They are used to hearing people speak in tongues.  They know how to ride trains.

I do not expect them to vividly remember Vienna but there was something gained from strolling the boulevards of Mozart once upon a time.  The deep effects of exposure to so much culture may never be measurable.  We can say it gave them untold insight to serve them all their lives.  Already at their new schools in Minneapolis they are finding other kids who lived in foreign lands once upon a time.  The value of this insight beyond what may have been gained by ordinary bumpkin childhoods presumes outcomes we cannot foresee based on Granpa values.  I will say this, I am very jealous and wish I’d had a childhood like theirs in Europe.  Of course they don’t realize how special their experience was because they are children and don’t know any different.  They take their lead from their parents, who realize how exceptional their situation was but neither let it go to their heads nor let it get them down.

I forget that Michel and Sid felt separation too.  Sometimes it seemed for them it was one glorious adventure but day to day realities and routine practices require support from our closest people sometimes, and it is good to share good things.  That’s where Skype helped.  We smuggled care packages of taco and enchilada spices, Skippy peanut butter, Twizzlers and books.  Sid and Michel took turns reading to the kids at bedtime.  They took a shine to a series we sent them about Betsy and Tacy set in Mankato, Minnesota about a hundred years ago during the childhood times of their living great grandma.  The girls wanted to visit where Betsy and Tacy grew up.  Living in the land of Heidi, Clara and Tess wanted to visit a town not a hundred miles from where they were born.

When Granma Roxanne and I came to visit it was magical.  The first thing we learned (besides how to catch the train from Zurich airport to Zug) was how to say “Gruetzi” — hola, aloha, hello, the Swiss German way to greet people on the street.


Sid and Michel always planned excursions.  The first trip they rented a Volkswagen Touareg so all six of us could drive to Munich, stopping to gaze at the castle at Neuschwanstein.  At Munich we saw the rooftop glockenspiel at Marienplatz and Clara lost her first tooth at the Rathaus beer hall.  (The tooth fairy at our hotel paid up in Swiss francs.)  Too late for Octoberfest (which is in September) we strolled through the English Garden park on a beautiful autumn day and stopped for bratwurst and kraut at an outdoor beer hall serving Hofbrau beer adjacent to a Chinese tower.  On the drive back to Zug we bought a chocolate birthday cake at an Agip gas station — the station with the logo of a six legged doggie facing backwards over his shoulder and breathing flame at its tail — and back at the apartment we cut the cake and celebrated Tess’s fifth birthday.

Agip petrol new.jpg

Subsequent family excursions took us to Paris, Paris Disney, Normandy, Montreaux, Lake Como and Venice, either in the same rented Touareg or by train.  We went to Rheinfall, Europe’s Niagara near the German Swiss border.  We walked the beaches of Normandy in the solemn footprints of the brave.  Near Brittany, in France where you can hardly swing an incense burner by the chain without hitting a shrine to Archangel Michael, we walked the pilgrimage on the dry causeway to the Gothic monument on the sea at Mt St Michel dedicated to our family namesake.

Clara, Tess, Granma and I found the Statue of Liberty in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and Clara skinned her knee trying a cartwheel on a gravel path.  Together we all gazed at the Mona Lisa.  At the Zurich Kunsthaus we canvasses of Monet’s water lilies as big as a kitchen.  Clara and I rode and re-rode the pharaoh’s roller coaster at the French theme park Asterix.  We’ve hung out high up on the Eiffel Tower.  We’ve hiked Zugerberg and ferried Zugersee.  Heard vespers sung in Latin in the reverb of the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame.  At Luzern we saw one of the saddest things Mark Twain and I have ever seen, the grotto sculpture of the Dying Lion.  We have seen fireworks at Menaggio over Lake Como, Italy.  In Montreaux we walked among eternal music along Lake Geneva’s Christmas market and the next day rode the funicular up the mountainside to visit Pere Noel at the snow capped top.  Together with the kids, the little girls.  All these things and every savory moment of indulgence in the very trivia of their lives kept me from losing out on who they were and who they were growing into being, just because they lived a quarter of the world away.


Four years away is a long time.  We did not allow the the time and space to estrange us.  We attended choir concerts at their school, met their teachers and friends.  Tess took up soccer.  Clara kept up competitive gymnastics.  Granma and I couldn’t help but miss all the other concerts, plays, meets, matches and other events, but we showed up enough to get how much these things meant to them and to feel their joy and sense of accomplishment.  In second grade at their school they were assigned to paint a self portrait in acrylic on a fairly large canvas.  Clara is a serious and bemused, wry pose of fauve color expressionism.  Tess — painted just before coming home, barely enough time to cure before shipping — is insurmountable overflowing impressionistic joy.  They are both adorable people.


It’s natural for a grandfather to be proud of his grandchildren, and I allow for my kinship bias as they are my two favorite people on the planet in my life.  I see in them the best of what I see in myself and what kind of person I can be.  They are intelligent and kind.  They are confident and unafraid of the world, given certain boundaries.  They give other people a chance.  They respect people’s privacies.  They know how to be true friends.  How to ask and answer questions.

Sid quotes a favorite professor who said, the more you see the more you know the more you see.  His daughters have seen a lot in their four years in Europe.  They are growing into fine young women.  One does not need Title IX to expect they are capable of whatever they undertake and will not be held back by any force, least because they are girls.


At the Tate Britain Clara asked me , “Granpa, why are there so many paintings of women — naked women — and so few paintings by women artists?”

Think I had an easy answer?  I try.  Let me begin and end with a painting that translates as Luncheon On the Grass.  At the Tate I counted exactly zero women artists but zero female nudes.  Since then I have composed a list in progress of female artists starting with Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Marie Vigee Lebrun and Marianne Werefkin, for the day she asks me to name some names.

At Zurich they have an extensive collecton of medieval triptyches of the Crucifixion.  It was awkward to come upon them with Clara, for me, but Clara regarded them with a childlike squinting objectivity as she lingered a little, took her time through the gallery, and I escorted her at her side at her pace, explaining nothing.

She said, “Remember at the MIA I cried when I saw paintings like those?  I was afraid somebody could do that to me.”

About a month or so ago I was driving her to gymnastics practice after school and she said out of the blue from the back seat, “Granpa, I don’t think anybody knows who God really is.”


Clara is a writer.  She keeps notebooks and journals.  She makes lists of character names.  She writes stories of girls in peril.  She has a natural narrative voice and a way with written language.  She rarely finishes her stories, abandons them without endings and moves on — I don’t know what that is a sign of but I somehow trust Clara to know in her own way what stories are worth ending and what are practice exercises in musing.  She is proud that I published a novel, though it was 25 years ago, way before she was born and she’s never read it — probably shouldn’t read it either so long as To Kill A Mockingbird and Bean Trees are in print, disgruntled horror story that it was.  She makes iPad videos with herself and sometimes Tess lip synching music like the reggae “Here Comes Trouble” by Chronixx.  On her Christmas visit before last she proclaimed herself to be my publicist for a day and produced a video of an array of stuffed animals (and a Tess cameo) all posed reading copies of my novel, sitting around the furniture of my home like this cuddly fluffy book club engrossed in copies of my novel set to the song “Disappearing” by the War on Drugs.  The books she found were unsold copies stored in my loft closet.  She’s after me to write a new book.


I am humbled that she is proud of me for what I reflect back as a dubious achievement.  One positive thing, I actually finished something.  The downbeat is that maybe it should have gone unfinished.  I cannot belittle the book in her eyes because I don’t want her to think I’m ashamed, but I all but hide it away around here.

Another different ride to gymnastics practice and from the back seat Clara asked me about doubt.  Was it okay to have doubt?

“Yes, it’s okay to have doubt,” I answered not offering myself as the family expert, though I am.  “Doubt is a reasonable check and balance.  It keeps us honest about what we want and what we think.  It’s not healthy to be absolutely certain without looking at the other side.  Doubt gives us a chance to evaluate what is right.  Doubt can help us be more sure what’s true.”

A week or two later she told me nobody really knows God.

It was hard for Clara to leave Switzerland, her school and her friends in the middle of fifth grade.  She achieved success at gymnastics and academics.  She belonged to the school’s prestigious choir, so short she stood in the front row and looked so into it, every song.  Her final semester at the international school she won the part of Auntie Em in the school production of the Wizard of Oz.  Because of her voice in the auditions they created a solo reprise rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from Auntie Em’s point of view.  They say she played Auntie Em with compassion.  A long way from the new kid in second grade from the States, and practically overnight Switzerland was gone and she’s back in the States starting over, not even finished fifth grade.  It was sad but it was built into the bargain, after three or so years they would eventually have to go home to America.


Tess came into the age of reason, turned seven in Switzerland.  She too lost a baby tooth at a German beer hall — I wasn’t there but I saw a picture.  She lost a lot of baby teeth in Europe.  A bright polite conversationalist, she will begin by asking politely, “May I tell you something?  May I ask you something?”

Being American expats pressed Michel to be most mindful of good behavior.  Ambassadors of their country and family.  I overheard her remind Tess in a grumpy mood over a schoolyard tiff, “Your job is to be the nicest one.”

Tess learned to read and write in Switzerland.  Cursive.  Not just the grade minimum, Tess tries to read at a higher grade level or two, chasing Clara.  Tess learned cartwheels and backflips.  She sang herself into the choir’s junior varsity, the Young Voices, who were chosen to sing in Zurich’s old town giant scaffold Christmas tree — another event I did not attend but saw pictures.


She says she loves math.  She wants to be a veterinarian — has a lab coat, a clinic and toy animal patients.  She loves horses.  She’s got all the time in the world to catch Clara.

The most meaningful outcome of their years in Switzerland was the ultimate bond between the two sisters.  They shared a bedroom — and lived!  They watched out for each other.  They fought over each others privacy.  They shared books and songs, apps and devices and sometimes clothes, and a mom and dad.  They were paired forever by fate, destined to join forces forever.  Sometimes they fought more like brothers.  Sometimes it’s like they read each others minds.  Their love is obvious.


These are my observations, actually witnessing their — as Tess puts it — real life.  Not the imaginary product of some ideal wish list ginned up by a granpa left behind who sees a Facebook photo once in a blue moon and a badly staged Skype — no, this was real life.  And life was lovely.  The kids were truly all right (without Granma and me hovering around six months at a time) and actually prospering.  Not feeling left out, we felt privy to their confidence.  By our fourth visit there was no anxiety about estrangement or being out of sync.

As early as July before their third Christmas visit Michel expressed a wish to spend at least one extra week surrounding Christmas instead of just four.  This meant She and the girls would have to travel one way unaccompanied by Sid, who for compliance with the terms of his Swiss work permit could not be outside Switzerland for more than 30 consecutive days.  The issue was with Michel who is terrified of flying.  She somehow gets through it every time.  Short hops aren’t too bad, but the 12 hour transatlantic can be murder for her, especially when turbulent and nothing to see out the window.  She keeps somehow from freaking out and remains a calmly intense and reasonable good sport role model for the girls, and credits Sid her husband beside her.  She wasn’t sure she could endure the transatlantic alone with the girls.  She needed another adult at least.  She asked around among other American expatriates going home the first week of December, willing to tough out a final leg alone if somebody could at least let her fly with them across the sea to Atlanta, Boston, JFK, Montreal or Detroit, but there was nobody.  Michel truly sincerely wanted to come home five weeks for Christmas.

What we won’t do for our children.  I offered to fly there and escort her home for Christmas.  I would arrive a week ahead — enough time to adjust from jet lag and take in some Christmas markets, meet Sami Clas.  So I wouldn’t feel lonely and she wouldn’t be sad, I booked a ticket for Roxanne.  Around the first of December we flew to Zurich to rescue Michel.


Sami Clas is a character based on the bishop St Nicholas.  In Zug he arrives by boat on the lake in a ceremony to commence the Christmas season.  Sid and Michel arranged a home visit to Clara and Tess from Sami Clas while Roxanne and I were there.  He arrived at the door in his red robe wearing his miter and carrying his crook, his long staff and symbol of his bishop’s authority.  He was flanked by two Schmutzli, silent shadowy figures in austere brown hooded robes who symbolize the dark elements of winter.  Legends say the Schmutzli carry bad kids off into the mountains never to be seen again.  They stood with their heads bowed, faces obscured, either side of Sami Clas who took a seat in the good chair in the living room and read from a leather book a list of positive accomplishments Clara and Tess achieved over the past year, things only a Sami Clas would know outside the family.

This same visit we rented the Touareg and drove to Montreaux, hung out at the Christmas market along Lake Geneva, ate raclette, rode the ferris wheel and found a shrine to Freddie Mercury at the beach.  Next day we ascended above the clouds to the blue sky at the top of Rochers de Naye to visit Pere Noel, as they call him in the French region — no schmutzli here, just nice alpine helpers.  Out the windows the mountaintops rose up from a sea of fluffy swirls like islands in whipped cream.  We got off the tram halfway down the mountain into the prevailing overcast to have lunch at a dining hospitality academy and hiked a trail where interactive musical art installations busied the kids making melodies from the sounds of the contraptions.

Another excellent adventure with our Swiss Family Kysylyczyn.  It never really was a rescue mission.


The last time I’ve held Michel’s hand was takeoff from Shiphol Amsterdam airport that Christmas trip.  I was Dad.  For her it was an immensely drawn half minute of panicky uncertainty while the aircraft picks up speed and lifts off the runway.  Michel was born five weeks premature and spent the first few days of her life in an incubator where Roxanne and I could only touch her and hold her tiny hand through portholes most of the time.  The first times I held her hand, just the tip of my index finger in her tiny grasp.  Now convincingly in the air and entering the clouds above Amsterdam and nothing bad happened, she gave my palm a firm squeeze of thanks and let me go, the worst was over.  It reminded me of the last time before that when she held my hand and let go, her wedding day, two times that day, when she gave me an assurant squeeze before she took my arm to walk her down the aisle, and again at the reception when we completed the father and daughter dance, “My Girl” by the Temptations.

During the Swiss expatriation Roxanne’s dad passed away.  In a way it was sudden but mostly his demise came as a systematic cascading decline of the body and mind to where the inevitable meets the eventual.  In the hospital he said to me, “There… there oughta… there oughtabe a law!”  What he meant clearly was a law against getting old and dying, which is the natural law whether we like it or not.  When he entered hospice care we notified Michel.  She, Sid and the girls exercised Sid’s bereavement benefit to fly home.  It’s a wonder we didn’t name her Eddie.  Michel was born on his birthday.

At hospice he hung in almost a week.  One morning while the rest of the family who were at the hospice met briefly with the nursing staff in the kitchen to talk about expectations for the day, Michel lingered alone with her Grandpa Ed dozing peacefully.  At his bedside she held his hand and said nice things, and that’s when Grandpa Ed exhaled his last.  I cannot imagine a gentler way to pass away.  I should be so lucky.

Roxanne’s mom said later, “No wonder they named her Angel.”


The trip to Europe the following spring we planned a family vacation in Venice.  This vacation would include Vincent and his wife Amelie.  This would be the third spring and possibly the last opportunity to visit the Kysylyczyn family in Europe, before we learned they would be extended a fourth year and made plans to come back a sixth time.  Roxanne and Michel by this time were experts at finding and booking excellent, affordable accommodations anywhere we went.  They reserved an apartment that slept eight near Piazza San Marco.

We would only need to sleep seven.  Our rendezvous in Venice coincided with a performance of Clara’s school choir scheduled to sing at St Mark’s Basilica.  Clara would be traveling with the team.  The venue changed from singing at St Mark’s to singing at a little town Catholic school nearby on the mainland, but the rest of the choir’s field trip itinerary stayed intact.  From the morning Clara boarded the tour bus at Zug at the school car park she traveled with the choir.

In Venice we caught glimpses of her on canal bridges, on the Piazza between tours of St Mark’s and the Doge Palace dressed in their uniforms like the school girls in the Madeleine stories.  I got to hug her twice, saying hi at the restaurant where the kids ate supper, and ciao after the concert at the little Catholic school.  Otherwise she was busy.  This was my first encounter with Clara committed to an activity transcending family.  The independence becomes her.  You see it now in her game face with her gymnastics team.  Back then it was the light in her eyes when she sang with the choir.  Never looking lost in a crowd.  At ease with her peers.  This visit to Venice essentially being about Clara without Clara was a sign to me Clara was letting go of my hand, setting me free.


If fell to Tess to be the grandchild, the niece.  The child leader.  She took my hand as we walked upstairs and down and crossed the bridges of the myriad canals of Venice, she the tour guide companion who had been there before with her other grandparents and assured me we would not lose our way.

When we settled into the apartment, accessed from the alley through a medieval door with a modern electronic lock, Tess sang for Granma and me the Skye Boat Song, the classic Scottish hymn about the Bonnie Prince sailing to his homeland.  Never faltered one note or one lyric.  Later when Vincent and Amelie joined us from Amsterdam she sang it again for them, never faltered.

At dinner at restaurants she was polite and ate all her food.  Her conversation was engaging.  She never got grumpy or complained on long walks exploring the tangled old city.  She bought a feathered opera mask.  We found a park, a green space beyond the Lido where she could do cartwheels and run around, and she was happy.  She was the nicest one.

“May I tell you something Granpa?”

Anything you want.

Free free, set them free…


That Christmas we went to Montreaux and we escorted Michel home a week ahead of Sid, they stayed at my and Roxanne’s house that first week, this old house where Michel and Vincent grew up.  The kids use Michel’s old bedroom (Vincent’s is now the TV lounge) — actually the kids have the run of the entire house.  It’s a safe and tidy place with nothing to hide that’s not well hidden, so to speak: I wouldn’t expect to find Clara and Tess poring over our tax returns anytime soon, but it could happen — Clara unearthed a case of my novel hidden in plain sight.  While she made iPod videos, wrote, drew pictures, made lists, played pop radio and watched American TV (oh Disney) all downstairs, Tess staked out the upstairs loft.  She built a city up there of all the dolls and houses and animal figurines and Legos and little people like Polly Pockets collected over thirty something years of childhoods, sprawled like an urban sprawl along a highway across the loft carpet alongside the bookshelves and the desk, carefully arrayed not to block normal grownup passage and thus to allow her keeping it set up the better part of the week.  She temporarily loaned Clara the stuffed animals for her video.

On white typing paper Tess drew a picture of a town colored in red and green and made it into a sign with an arrow, which she taped to the wall along the stairway so the arrow pointed upstairs.

Tess Town

Magic Words Sola Mola Toy

Tess made a Christmas card for her mother that year.  When Michel opened it Christmas day she read it out loud.  You could see from the artwork and the text graphics that Tess had worked on this card carefully, not casually.  Michel read the sentiments of how Tess loved her mama, and it ended with this statement:

Our family is permanent.

Thank you Tess and Clara — Kitty and Sparkles — and Michel and Sid who made you and gave you to me, my dear grandchildren.  Through your eyes and ears and voices I am privy to discovery and rediscovery of the essence of being human.  I love you.

Thank you for going away and enabling me and Granma Roxy to follow after you and to explore places and see things we may never had a chance to know if not for you living in Europe.


Six times we flew over there and back.  From our first visit we made time to go off on our own and book passage to a series of places.  Switzerland by itself is a marvel of sights.  In the Alps we’ve felt like we’ve stood at the top of the world.  One road trip with Michel and her Skoda brought us by GPS to a tiny Czech town where Roxanne’s grandmother was born.  We have walked battlefields near Colmar.  We have walked the city streets of great capitals.  We’ve browsed the countrysides, crossing borders on trains and buses.  We’ve wandered the excavated city of Pompeii and drank lemonade from lemons grown below Vesuvius.  We hiked the trail Mark Twain hiked at Rigi.  We rode taxis, city buses, boats, cable cars, subways and tubes and followed endless maps to navigate ourselves in and out of lost, finding where we were and where next.

My grandchildren enabled me to tour several of the world’s finest art museums.  Thanks to Clara and Tess I have seen with my own eyes an incredible abundance of the most exquisite and sublime original works on the planet, images and buildings I only knew and thought I would ever know from lectures, slides and books.

I cannot express how grateful I am.

Every spring for four years Roxanne and I would be gone a month or so.  We would see the kids a week or ten days, not always in succession, at their place, take an excursion together, then she and I would go off on our own chasing castles, cathedrals, platzs and piazzas, cafes, monuments, dwelling on the fly among people talking in tongues.  We met a lot of nice people.  We learned to eat left handed — knife right hand, fork in the left.  No trip ever went badly, and that says a lot considering the intense events that occurred in Europe those years.

Our biggest gripe is of ourselves and our persistent inability to learn to pack lightly.  Roxanne refers to those times as being our Senior Backpacking Tours, but the joke there isn’t that we didn’t stay in hostels but that our luggage were no backpacks.  The bane of the adventure was our travel day, lugging our heavy suitcases aboard trains and up strange streets looking for the hotel.  London and Paris underground stations are mainly accessible by stairs — not conducive to big suitcases.  Like the themes of those Alice and Jerry books back in gradeschool, If I Were Going and If I Were Going Again, we tell ourselves we need to learn to pack lighter and smarter.  That and stay longer at one place, near a laundromat with an outdoor pub nearby like in Barcelona and Chamonix.

For Clara’s tenth birthday, the year of the choir trip to Venice, Granma and I took her to London to see Wicked.  We flew EZ Jet in and out of Gatwick.  The terminal to me for some reason suggested a WWII airfield where we stood in queue at the customs booths with passports in hand and it seemed half of us at least should be in some form of service uniform besides the customs agents themselves behind glass, all of us ready to hand up our papers and our orders.

Rox and I handed up our passports, then Clara hers with the required to-whom-it-may-concern letter signed by her parents consenting us grandparents permission to transport this minor child across an international border.  The customs lady asked, “Where’s mum?”

Instinctively Granma began to speak but was stopped by a flick of the agent’s eyes.

“Back in Switzerland,” Clara answered.  “These are my grandparents.”

“Why are you entering the UK?”

“We’re going to see Wicked.  It’s a play.”

Another sign the kid is growing up, answering for herself.  That’s the idea from day one, holding her and looking into her newborn eyes, getting her ready to answer for herself.


I tease Tess telling her she has lovely blue eyes, which is only true under certain light.  She says her eyes are green, like her mom’s.  Under certain light Michel’s eyes used to look blue too when she was a little girl, and I tried to catch it with a camera, but they were green.  Clara’s are blue, though.  Definitely blue.

The day they flew back to Switzerland from the Montreaux five-week Christmas we rode to the airport in three cars.  Clara and Tess rode with me, singing school and Christmas songs from their car seats in the back seat without the radio on.  We were on highway 5.  Out of the blue they began a duet from the top, a complete rendition of “Illegal” by Shakira.

“You don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /  You said you would love me till you die /  Far as I know you’re still alive  /  Baby, you don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /          I’m starting to believe  /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart  /  Open heart, open heart /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart”

There could be no greater proof — if I ever felt insecure and needed proof — that Clara and Tess love me.  They must have learned the song on their own to sing to me.  Of all the singers they could have covered they chose my favorite singer.  All I could do was drive and listen.  They sang it flawlessly, verbatim, note for note.  Yes, those kids love me.

Much as my future relies on these two little girls, my strategy has grown simple: be nice to them now and someday twenty years from now maybe they’ll take me out clubbing once in a while to see live music.

Now they live in west Minneapolis, a few neighborhoods away.  We haven’t Skyped in more than a year.  Sid and Michel sold their place in suburban St Paul to a young family who fell in love with it as a place to raise kids.  The Kysylyczyns moved into the city, close but not too close.  It’s like they never left, only better, there are all kinds of reminders and mementos all over their house of the life they lived as expatriates four years abroad.

They had the family Christmas at their house this year.  Real life.  Mimosas.  Unwrapping gifts from beneath the tree.  No Schmutzli.  The kids gave me a priceless CD they burned entitled Kitty and Sparkles of songs they recorded to karaoke, mostly Christmas songs but also priceless renditions of tunes from their latest pop discovery, the Disney movie Moana.  (No Shakira.)  We talked about some Christmas we should spend a vacation in Hawaii.  Vincent came up with the idea we all rent a cabin somewhere down near Zion national park in late June next summer and explore the desert Southwest, see Grand Canyon, all by way of Las Vegas.  We’ve done similar arrangements to the Boundary Waters with him and Amelie in the past summers while the Kysylyczyns were off avoiding us in favor of touring Europe — laughter, cue sibling rivalry jokes — leaving the brother to look after us poor lonely old folks all by himself.

I unwrapped a present from the Kysylyczyn family.  It was kind of heavy.  Sid said Clara picked it out.  It was a paperweight.  Bronze in appearance and texture, it was a casting of a narrow pile of half a dozen ballpoint pens.  I unwrapped it and read aloud the inscription on the base:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing – Benjamin Franklin

As they say in Spanish, “Clara, mis carinas.”