Poetry

I’m just in from five days on the road, here to Ciudad Guzmán by way of Guadalajara and back, so the post is going to be a bit of a medley.

The heat is here but fierce, and we’re up past forty centigrade in the daytime. It’s almost eight in the evening as I write and it’s easily ninety or so in Fahrenheit here in my open-to-the-outside-air-hallway.

Like this but minus two months and plus fifty thirty degrees

Like this but minus two months and plus  thirty degrees

From now until the start of June, life gets a little less bearable. The fería started this weekend, and first you wonder why they’d pick these of all days to hold it and afterwards you wonder why they didn’t plan to fall asleep drunk through all of May, too, and how you yourself will manage to do it without the help.


 

I picked up two books of poetry, Keats and Yeats, over Christmas. Collections, better said, and I haven’t made much progress. I’ve only had poetry once, from a great AP Lit teacher in high school—with guidance, I get the intellectual pleasure of picking the things apart, and I like the greatest hits as much as anyone, “Two Paths Diverged” and “Walking by Woods” and all that. But alone, I’ve had trouble taking the time to sit and read, so when I went on this trip, I brought only Yeats (and The Fall, but it’s short enough to finish in an hour or two and it’s thirteen from here to Ciudad Guzmán), and, well, I’ve been reading.

The thing is that I think I might be doing it wrong. I want to read poetry because I have a vague jealousy of Englishmen who can quote Wordsworth and Tennyson and Yeats and Keats à propos and off the cuff. So I’ve been reading-as-hunting, looking for whichever lines strike me and putting them down for later committal, rather than trying to parse or discern narrative flow or pay all that much attention to any stanzas that don’t grab me right off. Better or worse, that’s the only way I seem cut to do it, so here are two of Yeats’.

The Falling of the Leaves

Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,

And over the mice in the barley sheaves,

Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,

And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.

 

The hour of the waning of love has beset us,

And weary and worn are our sad souls now;

Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,

With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.

Continue reading

The Feria

The feria is on here in Jalpan, and it’s the best one there’s been in a while. This is an election year, and it’s the last chance for the outgoing municipal government to do things up big—whether or not the pesos could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s something like what I imagine a small-town fair might have been in yesteryear in the US. Carnival rides, music venues, and half a hundred small eateries and bars cover our big soccer field-rodeo complex (my favorite bar name so far is Alcoholegio, something like Alcohollege; they’re ersatz establishments and they get to re-do the nomenclature every year).

I’m told the musical lineup is great, and there’s a concert every night, from older-timey Recodo:

Feria 4

Through stoner-rap band Cartel de Santa:

Feria 7

To the huge banda act Kommander:

Feria

To the lucha libre fight than ends proceedings this Sunday.

Feria 3

Continue reading

Talk

Socrates tells us that truth exists only in conversation, that once we’ve written it down, we’ve lost the thread of it. We only know he tells us because his student Plato wrote all that down, so there may be some value to the scribing, too. Even a society as small as Classical Greece or Classical Athens couldn’t preserve knowledge by oral tradition alone.

I’m a believer in the implied process of the Socrates-Plato duality—find the truth in conversation, in informed, exploratory, Socratic debate, and then write as much of it as you can honestly preserve. There’s a clarity to the Socratic dialogues that’s lacking in, say, the work of any given German philosopher. It exists because Plato preserved (or, maybe, recreated, or, maybe, invented) Socrates’ dialogic process in each conversation. If you look at the end result of The Republic, an authoritarian, communist, caste-delineated music-less society dreamed up in order to define ‘the good,’ it’s zany. If you were getting it from Kant, it’d also be impenetrable. But, through Plato, Socrates leads you there point by point. Revealed truth by talk.

Which is all to say that I think my brain is melting. Dying, frying, dribbling out my ears. For want of talk. Some of you might have noticed the blog’s been sparse for more than a month now. A symptom.

Let me roll it back. I don’t mean just any conversation. The summer after college, I worked as a waiter and lived with five guys a year my junior who I hadn’t met before I moved in. Five of the smartest guys I’d ever had the good fortune to know, as it turned. Once we’d warmed to each other, we discovered a mutual enjoyment of hookah and that one roommate had smuggled a quality pipe, coal, and tobacco back from the Orient. Two or three times a week after I got off work, we’d go out on the porch and breathe wreathes and talk.

Talk

Continue reading

Time to Face the Change

There’s no such thing as climate change doubt here in Mexico, not the way we have it in the States. Part of that’s because the subject’s never been politicized and the Mexican curriculum is federal. Same goes for evolution, probably not coincidentally—no room for fourth grade teachers to start editorializing during science class (course, they’re Catholics here, not literalists, so there’s no religious problem either). But the other reason, I think, is that it’s become impossible to ignore the evidence.

In the US, in Europe, we enjoy largely stable climates, and the effects of the change are, to us, far off. The whole southwest of the United States is experiencing a prolonged drought, but it’s a drought-y kind of region and more importantly is dominated by climate change denial. Heat stress has weakened our national forests to the point that bark beetles are soon going to replace trees entirely, but unlike in Mexico, people don’t live in our parks, and the problem’s low-profile despite its unprecedented disastrousness. Big storms get play, Sandy and Katrina among them, but they come infrequently enough and are distributed enough that they don’t, to us, constitute a trend.

Here where I live, though, the climate is fucked up. Last year was the first in living memory with no dry season. This year is the second. We have three seasons, more or less. What you might call the winter lasts from November to mid-February, although the cold’s a function of cloud cover more than anything—a sunny day in December’s going to hit the high eighties at least. The hot, dry season lasts from mid-February til the start of June. Not a drop of rain and temperatures in May that crest 45C. They tell us we’re getting to 40 next week. June to November is the wet season. Hot but not hot as hell and torrential in the afternoons.

Sploosh

Diluvial

Continue reading

Bury the Lede

Things decay in the campo. They break down, fall apart, succumb to the entropic forces of heat and wet and hard use. Shoe soles crack, fray, come to pieces, holes wear into socks and shirts and packs, mud and road dust creep into everything. Even cuts turn to scars more often out here.

In spite of it, I’m taking better care than I ever have before, better care of everything. The easy (because they’re self-motivating) things, like obsessive flossing and overuse of gauze and antibiotics to keep teeth and limbs from falling out and off. But the smaller and more tedious things too, cleaning where before I would have let lie, repairing and restoring where custom would have me replace.

I have an orange Jansport backpack. Dad brought it home to the house in Michigan more than six years ago expecting (I imagine) to use it himself. I stole it that same night (I think), and my first act of possession was to shear off half of its straps with a pocket knife because I didn’t like the way they looked. I’ve used that pack in the intervening years for school and every trip I’ve made under seven days, and it’s held up. But my laptop’s heavy and seventeen inches large, just a bit wider than the Jansport, and last October the seams around the shoulders finally blew out. I’ve sewn them back together twice now, black and white thread reaching further and further from the original stitching to find purchase.

I'm a natural

I’m a natural

I tore out the bottom of my hiking pack transporting hardwoods for my amateur-but-really-professional-carpenter father, and the dual color thread stands out even more brightly against its olive drab.

I brought twelve pairs of socks back to Mexico from the US the first time I went home and tore the heels out of all of them in three months of sweaty summer use. Then I darned them.

I darned them all!

Darned and in need of re-darning

Now I’m looking for a wooden mushroom and I’ve started pre-patching all my new pairs against the creeping serrano deterioration.

The highway that fronts my office is the only artery of communication through the mountains and half the day we can’t hear anything for all the engine-braking. Every morning we come in to another millimeter of road dust on our desks, and I’ve become intimate with the insides of my laptop, prising it apart and cleaning it and piecing it together again. I brought a keg of Oxi-Clean home from that same first trip, and the TSA opened and upended it in my pack after check-in. I spent two days tweezing the white particles out of my motherboard, blowing the detergent from each individual connection.

My whites are whiter than ever

My whites are whiter than ever though

Continue reading

Smaller Is Better

Trey and I each have a favorite beer. His is the Hexagenia IPA from Fall River Brewing, a small-batcher made with water from the same and you can only get your hands on it in Redding, California or thereabouts. My favorite, shit you not, is the DC Brau spring seasonal Yonder Cities, which is only around DC from Marchish to Junish (and may, I’m now discovering, have been discontinued). I have a hard time believing that, were both of them available everywhere, they’d still be our favorites.

 

Look at it though

Look at it though

First, because there’s a value we find in novelty, whether through regionality or seasonality. A quantifiable value and a big one, if you look at Starbucks pumpkin spice sales figures. Two, because I don’t think they’d be as good when they’d gone from small-batch to major distribution. Both halves of that thought are important, but I’m dealing with the latter.

Trey and I advanced the idea between ourselves, mostly in terms of craft beer, that it might be honorable to keep a company small. I don’t know if I can say ‘good’ out of hand, because by some metrics, it isn’t—you’ll make less money, for sure, and definitely fewer profits. More, there are some things you can’t do as a small firm—huge infrastructure projects, the really big machines; most of the stuff, in short, that Boeing and GE do. But in general, we thought, the more and smaller are the businesses that make up your economy, the better.

The brain trust

The brain trust

Let’s start big because that’s easiest. Semi and regional monopolies plague the US, many or most of them created by merger, buy-out, and Congressional award. The newly merged American Airlines Group is now the world’s largest carrier, and by some accounts second only to United in awfulness. Their combine with US Airways resulted in increased delays and cancellations, heralded the demise of free domestic checked baggage and the installation of ever more cramped seating (as well as massive reneging on agreements with their five unions).

Comcast and Time Warner are in many places the only options for internet service, and anyone who’s ever dealt with them knows that the connections they provide are shoddy, their tech support bad and overwhelmed, and the personnel doing home visits so overbooked as to be entirely unreliable.

Electronic Arts is the biggest name in video game publishing, and it got there by buying, cannibalizing, and closing smaller independent studios. Those who’ve been through or followed one of their disastrous recent launches, the out-and-out theft they’ve perpetrated through their digital distribution platform Origin, or was a fan of Westwood or Maxis or a myriad of other companies knows that quality always declined following the takeovers.

Continue reading

Escape

I’m helping to copy edit the travel book of a friend of mine in Istanbul. He just turned in his second draft, and I’ve been looking at it for the last hour. It’s making me think that it’s finally time to talk about the ten days I spent in that city and all the thoughts his book brings up besides.

He is dog?

In all his glory

My best woman friend from college, Alex, her Peace Corps application languished a few months too long, so she applied to Teachers in Turkey and they snapped her up inside a week. I went out there and did nothing like I was supposed to. I spent one morning in Sultanahment and the bazaars and only because she had a lesson to teach that day. All the rest of my time passed in Kadikoy and the other parts of the Asian side, meeting her friends, attending dinner parties, drinking on the Bosporus.

But for the language, Istanbul would be my ideal city. Massive, the cultural and political heart of its entire country, cosmopolitan and polyglot, gleaming on the European side, dripping with history, and bohemian to the east, affordable and chockablock with cafés and hookahs and smart young expats who’ve escaped the work culture of the States and gone abroad to write and teach and make art and play music. A city torn by dissent, wracked by protests over the KDP and Kobane at the time and still possessed by the warmth and hospitality that make Mexico so endearing.

Alex and Ernie and Anna and Jari and Valentin and Sadaf and Maedeh are living the kind of life that I wish I were brave enough or unbeholden enough to my folks to lead.

As long as nobody's singing an impromptu Marseillaise

It’s better, on the whole, than it looks right here.

Unafraid to cut ties with the assembly line shuttling from high school into college into debt into work into the grave. Which is more or less the thesis of Ernie’s book.

Continue reading

And Then There Was One

I roll out of bed at three, having woken up hours earlier and given into my malaise, drifting in and out of sleep before the final plunge off the mattress. I eyeball my kettle, full of old grounds, and tiptoe through a week’s worth of webs and spider husks, wondering if I’ll get up the ganas to sweep. Typical Sunday. My phone rings and the number’s too long to be domestic, so I know it’s Trey, and that cheers me up as I wait for him to call again. I saw the guy just enough over Christmas to remember how much I’ve missed him since he took a job with the state of California.

Look at him

Look at him

It rings a second time and we go through our how do you dos before he tells me Janessa’s had an accident in Panama, that she’s in the hospital down there, gone into surgery, leg full of pins. I’m doing the math as he’s talking—we’ve got forty-five days out of country to recuperate on medical leave, and two bones in the leg spell more than that.

Two down...

Two down…

Another volunteer got medically separated for a fucked up ankle, did it stepping off a bus. I ask Trey what it is with us volunteers and getting down from stuff. He laughs and tells me to be careful and we hang up.

I call Ben and break the news just this one time, to get it out of me. I keep thinking I left them both in a rush in the city, that it was the only time I haven’t said “take care” to another volunteer as they left for a trip. I pull out a cigarette, me who never smokes in daylight, and my hands shake through a cup of cold coffee. The next month bears out all our hurried calculations, and Peace Corps in DC medically separates her before the forty five are up. Not sufficiently ambulatory. After fourteen months, I am alone in site.

Continue reading

Yo No Sé Qué

I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago.[1] It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.

Case in picture

Case in picture

Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.

The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.

Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.[2]. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.

After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.

Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.

Seriously they're real cute

These kids man, the photos don’t do them justice

Continue reading

(In)efficiency

I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

Continue reading