Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dear Miss Manners and Other Stories

                Dear Miss Manners and Other Stories
            Know thyself. I am the first to tell you that I am selfish and self-centered to an uncomfortable degree. I would take a melon scooper and remove those traits if that were possible. I don’t have impeccable manners; I know that. I like to blame my imperfect childhood. I never had a mother to teach me the niceties. To compensate, I became hyper-vigilant. I watch you to see how you do it. Imitation is a form of flattery.

            Unless it isn’t. Unless I see less than desirable traits. The particular trait I would like to isolate and stomp to death is “the sense of entitlement”. Where does this come from? I see it in rich and in poor, in healthy and unhealthy, in high class (What does that mean?) and in every other strata of society.

            The horrible thing, that which makes me cringe, is that just by being American, I know I carry pieces of this seemingly un-erasable cultural trait. The Ugly American is alive and well. The Canadian is no different. So I hang onto my hyper-vigilance, hoping to nip any actions of mine before they offend another person, of any culture.

            By living in a foreign country, it seems I view ugly features like entitlement through a different magnifying glass, one with few smudges.

            Case in point. Kathy and I were on the beach, lounging under a resort palapa. Yes, we exhibit entitlement just by being there. A group of young people on holiday, corporate workers from a company in Chicago, spread out on the stretch of sand next to us. These fellow tourists, I’m sure, are all good folks, nice people, hard workers. Maybe they had begun celebrating a tad too early.

            Jorge took food and drink orders, one man, on this busy day, running his legs. He turned to go up the stairs to the restaurant with a fist full of orders. Oh, but wait just a minute. Mr. Chicago and company wanted three buckets of beer, shrimp platters, chips and salsa for the group; get the picture. Chicago’s arm swung in circles, fingers snapped, and he screamed, “Hey, Taco.”

            Jorge heard the call, reversed stride and took the order. I mentally dug a hole in the sand and buried myself. Later in the afternoon, I cornered Jorge and apologized for the behavior of the Chicago group. 

“We’re not all like that,” I said. “I know. It’s part of the job.” Part of the job. Sad, that.

            Entitlement rears its ugly head in various ways. Same resort. A couple from California scooted down to the beach every morning before six; the sun not even up. They secured four lounges, two tables and a couple chairs, dragged them beneath a palapa, laid out towels, books, shoes, and lotion: the message—we’ll be back soon. Most days, they never showed up. The new message—we want this particular area reserved for us, just in case. Yep, we’re pretty important.

            This is Mexico. There is a cultural ethic here of manners, of politeness, even in situations which would strain any one of us. Mexican people are inherently polite. Because of that, our inherent rudeness looks nastier. But place is irrelevant. These incidents could have happened anywhere, anywhere in the world.

            So a woman from my neighborhood, happens to be a Canadian woman, went to a ball game a couple days ago, her ticket in hand. A man sat in “her” seat. The seats are numbered, so you could say she had a point. The stadium is huge. It’s a baseball game. There were empty seats next to, in front and behind.

            “Shoo, move.” She waved her arms in get-out-of-here motions. “You are in my blankety seat. You. Go. Get. Get the blankety out of here.” She used language that I never heard in the corral at branding time.

            The man was rather stunned. He indicated she could sit in the empty seat next to him. “Senora, do you know who I am?”

            “I don’t give a . . .” Well, you get the picture.

            What I know, and I know with my knower, is that she could have graciously sat down next to this gentleman and had a conversation, like, “Which team are you rooting for? How about a ten peso bet. I’ll take the team from Culiacan. Good game so far, eh?” And I would place a hundred peso bet, with perfect assurance, that the woman would have been invited to the after-game party, a guest of the Mayor of Mazatlan.

            Dear Miss Manners, Please help me remember that I am human. You are human. We all are human. Nothing else much matters. Sincerely,

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 11, 2014

Three-Week Evelynda

                                                Three-Week Evelynda
            We met in Mazatlan several years ago. Evelyn is also from Harlem—not Montana—the Harlem in that Big City eastern seaboard state. A world traveler, Evelyn takes trips every year to different countries. She is an intriguing, well-read and versatile woman. She annually spends three weeks in Mazatlan at the same resort where I stay with my friends, Kathy and Richard.

            As we came to know Evelyn, we realized we like to do many of the same things; we diverge from the usual tourist paths and explore new territory. Evelyn is a master at nosing out new adventures. She is the one who found us the Christmas Tour Bus trip to Guadalajara just a few years ago, the trip where we were stranded along the roadside several middle-of-the-night hours after the bus broke down, one of our favorite experiences.

            We kept missing connections this year; didn’t spend as much time together as we intended. So we crowded as much of ourselves into Evelyn’s last few days as we could. The four of us would meet at my casita before heading off to our destination. It was Richard who first posited the question, “What would it take for you to stay longer than three weeks, Evelyn?”

             Hold that thought. Evelyn side-tracked the question skillfully but earned the nickname Three-week Evelynda. She flew home. Two couples, long-time friends of Richard and Kathy, flew in, along with the returning hummingbirds.

            Now I have not met these four persons, but I am happy to join with Kathy in planning a range of activities they might enjoy during their introduction to Mexico. Being who we are, with excitement and anticipation, we compiled a list not found on any tourist map.

We headed the itinerary with a trip to Cerritos, where we enjoy the most succulent fish prepared in huts without basic amenities such as electricity, where ice and water is trucked in by barrels.  Gleefully, we added a ride with Carlos, by pulmonia, out to the docks where the shrimp boats tie up for the day. Bring cameras for a primo photo op. A swing past the little tortilla “factory” for tortillas fresh off the rack, warm and delicious with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt.

Oh, we must take them to the tienda out on Santa Rosa Boulevard where the furniture from Concordia is sold—and the best panaderia in Mazatlan along the way, just a couple back streets to the north. Don’t forget an evening with our other friend Carlos, at his restaurant for the most unique cerviche and pescado empapelado. Our mouths were watering.

Do you think they would enjoy a massage with Elena? We must show them the fighting cocks at El Quilete. We could rent a van and take a day trip out to Tiacapan, with stops at Esquinapa and Rosario along the way. Oh, the possibilities.  Oh, the fun we can have.

What we had forgotten, in our excitement, is that this is the four friends’ first trip. They had not tasted all the tourist things; sights and activities we had done our first years here. They were not interested in leaving the “golden zone”. They were not interested in wandering off the map.

Rejection felt personal, like when a friend doesn’t think your child is cute. Kathy backed off, suggested a list of the usual tourist activities, and let her friends be tourists, slowly and gently.

Return to the question Richard asked Evelyn: What would it take to make you stay longer than three weeks? Evelyn is quite happy to come to Mexico every year. But she is also quite happy to go home to New York City at the end of her three weeks in Mazatlan.

If Evelyn were to turn the question around to Richard, Kathy and I, we would have to answer that it takes a love affair. We three have fallen in love with Mazatlan. Long ago we tired of the well-trodden tourist pathway. For us the resort is simply a bedroom, a place to return at evening after a day exploring Mazatlan, learning the city, talking with its people. For us, three weeks is a flirtation. For Richard and Kathy, two months is not long enough. For me, living in my casita near the beach and the bus line, six months is not too long. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 4, 2014

Monday, December 1, 2014

Thanksgiving in Mazatlan—More Than a Word

            Thanksgiving in Mazatlan—More Than a Word
            There is a man who sits on a low trolley at a certain intersection roadway along the Malecon, a broad walk next to the seawall which runs about six miles around the harbor. I suppose one might call him a beggar. He is not homeless. I call him a dispenser of blessings, a beamer of joy. I don’t know his age, maybe in his forties. He looks like the Smiling Buddha sitting on his platform, useless legs twisted beneath his body.

            The first time I actually “saw” him, and I still don’t know his name, was several months ago when I was on my way to the specialist I see for Regional Sympathetic Dystrophy, which has made walking extremely painful the past two years. What made me catch my breath, made me really see the man, was when he looked straight into my eyes with a look so full of love for humanity, I could hardly breathe. My immediate thought was, I have legs. I had been so caught up in the pain that I forgot that I have legs, forgot that I can walk.

            Sometimes I stop to shake his hand and leave a small thanks offering, not nearly enough for what that man gives me. Always, he looks straight into my eyes and smiles with his entire face, smiles with his entire being. If there is a secret to living in gratitude, that man found it and shares it daily. When I don’t stop, he waves and beams me the same glorious smile. If I could have a brother, I want that man for a brother.

            And the strange thing is that, with a brother like him, I can’t help but look around me and see my world differently. I can talk only about my own world, a beautiful but also frightening place. There is no real security. Sadness and loss can happen at any time. So can goodness and love. I could be wrong. This is what my life says so far. I’ve learned to collect small joys.

            Last Thursday Kathy’s husband Richard flew in to join her at the resort. I returned to my little casa. I’m back in the comfort of my ordinary routine, spiced with small trips to Cerritos, Juarez and El Centro with my friends.  

Kathy phoned, “Let’s get one of those wonderful whole grilled chickens and celebrate US Thanksgiving at your casa.” Kathy and Richard are from Pender Island in British Columbia. Kathy and I already celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving. (Richard had to enjoy it vicariously, via our report of dinner at the Marina).

The chicken, the best in Mazatlan, on the authority of Carlos, my pulmonia driver, is grilled at a street stand near my doctor’s office. You have to taste it to believe it—even better than southern fried chicken when the bird is farm raised, clucking around the chicken house just this morning. While Kathy and I will chop ingredients to make the fixings, guacamole and salsa, Richard will walk to the Panama bakery to get a guava pie. I’ll press the tortillas. Add fresh cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, and rice. We’ll have a proper feast.  

We three friends have known one another many years. We have no secrets, no forbidden subjects. We trust each other. We’ll fill our afternoon with talk and laughter and sharing troubles and thanks along with the good food. Sharing troubles lightens the load. Sharing thanks multiplies them. Mathematical fact. I am rich to have friends like these.

I think about the man on the trolley, my brother. How did he learn that? How did he learn to find the joy? How did he learn to do more than stand aside and observe the joy, to watch it pass by? Somehow, somewhere along the way, this man who never walked, invited the joy inside. I’m not trying to make him into something he’s not. I’ll bet he’s human, he’s real and he has his bad days too.  

Yet, in some mysterious way, just knowing he is there, despite all the rocks in the road, beaming from his corner of the world, makes me feel this is a good life. In fact, the smile on his face is just like the shape of the moon tonight, smiling across the dark sky.

Happy Thanksgiving from me to you, my friend.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 26, 2014
A Typical Day In The Neighborhood  
            Take the other day, a typical day, as typical as any day can be when home base is a beach resort on the Pacific coast of Mexico. We’d eaten tropical fruit and sweet rolls, in a cafĂ© overlooking the beach. Then we pulled lounges beneath the palm fronds of a palapa and watched the waves rolling, fish jumping, shrimp boats trolling by the islands, and the ferry from La Paz smoking up the horizon. That activity easily consumed a couple hours.

            We lamented that we have so few days left to do things together. Over the past year we made plans to do many things, go many places. Our list never made it on paper and just as well. Kathy and I have not marked off half the items in these five weeks hanging out with one another. Our intentions are good. Follow through mediocre. Distractions great. See above.

            “You know what we haven’t done?” asked Kathy.

            “Almost everything,” I responded. “What do you have in mind?”

            “Massage with Elena.” Elena is my magical wise woman massage therapist, with whom I began therapy on my hip and leg but hadn’t seen in weeks, since I started treatments with a sports medicine specialist.

            I picked up my phone and asked Carlos, my friend, interpreter and pulmonia driver, if he were free to take us to Elena. “You be ready in fifteen Mexican minutes,” Carlos responded.

            We dashed upstairs (via elevator—19th floor), and in almost fifteen minutes were outside the lobby to meet Carlos. But Elena was in Cabo San Lucas where she had been called to help out after the devastation of the hurricanes. Elena is famous in Mexico, by word of mouth. I doubt you can Google her. She was flying back that same afternoon. We arranged to meet her the next day.

            Meanwhile, since we had peeled ourselves away from the beach, since we had a driver, since we had time and opportunity. .  .  “Plants,” I said. “Carlos, por favor, can you take us to a neighborhood nursery. I want plants.”  I had three beautiful clay pots I’d bought in San Marcos, a year ago. When we painted my apartment a couple weeks ago, we had moved my camp chairs, a coffee table and my easel into a covered part of the courtyard to create an outdoor “room”. Filling the pots would make me feel truly nested and satisfy my latent farmer. 

On the way to the plants, we drove by a tortilla “factory”.  “Stop!” Kathy shouted. “Can we back up so I can see this.” “This” was a ten by ten meter room with an open window to the street. A man plunked a huge ball of dough into the hopper of the machine. Out the other end the machine spit perfect tortillas which progressed on a moving rack through an oven and continued rolling to a platform where a woman stacked them for sale. We were invited inside to watch. Before we left we bought a dozen tortillas for four pesos, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them warm.

We zipped down a couple side streets to the nursery. I wanted everything. This happens. I get this urge to have a house, a yard, a garden again. Then I think through the process, remember how much work it requires and the want fades. I focused on greenery suitable for my shady courtyard and picked three plants more than my pots could comfortably hold. But, truly, I didn’t take half what I still wanted.

Carlos lugged my bags of soil and my boxes of plants through my apartment and back to the courtyard for me. Blessings on that young man. Kathy and I filled pots, created beauty, washed our dirty hands and walked the long way around, back to the resort, a few blocks south.

Tomorrow is a big day. In the early morning we go back to Elena’s for “yesterday’s” massage. Kathy’s husband Richard is flying in for his three week vacation. They will kick me to the curb. My bag is packed. I’ll return to my apartment to enjoy my newly painted walls, my corner courtyard “room”, my small pot garden, and resume my own routine of typical days. Today we celebrate Mexico’s Revolution. That must be a good omen.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 20, 2014
            Music Knows No Borders
            Kathy and I peeled ourselves out from under the palapa on the beach, changed into street clothing and took a pulmonia down to the Plazuela Machado. We had two things in mind. We like to experience the monthly First Friday Art Walk at least once each year, to make the rounds of several favorite galleries to see what is new in the art world.  Best of all, Jim Morrison and The Doors were performing at the Teatro Angela Peralta.

            Okay, so Jim Morrison, poet, songwriter and lead singer, died in 1971. Hector Ortiz brought Morrison back to life in an outstanding musical tribute. Using his own band, Ortiz has personified Elvis, The Bee Gees and Morrison. This night Ortiz and the band performed with the Camerata Mazalan, an orchestra of musicians of international prestige performing semi-classical and popular concert music.

            The Teatro Angela Peralta, a formal concert hall, is one of the beautiful restored historic buildings in Mazatlan. When we entered the open-to-the-skies lobby, elegant with marble floors and walls and sweeping staircases, we quickly forgot the elegance. The stage was set for a trip back to the 1960’s. On a center dais perched a chromed and sparkling, tricked out Harley, surrounded by small tables set up to create the atmosphere of a typical hippie coffeehouse.

            Kathy and I had purchased tickets for the cheap seats, in the nose-bleed section, in the center of the last row of the third balcony. We had the best seats in the house. We sat “front row” for the theatrics all around us.

The moment the musicians began playing, Morrison, in signature leather pants, concha belt and velvet shirt, bounded onto the stage. The entire theatre rocked with an explosion of energy that never abated throughout the entire concert. Ortiz is an outstanding musician and actor. He “became” Morrison. It was uncanny.

            Picture the orchestra at the back of the deep stage, The Doors in center stage, and Morrison in front swaying and dancing with the microphone. From the orchestra all the way to our last row of seats, feet tapped, hands clapped, arms waved. With the first bars of intro music to each song, a roar of excitement and recognition, lifted to the ceiling. People sang along, belting out the words. The Teatro has narrow aisles, yet, many people found a way to dance, if only at their seats, even in their seats. Many youth, and a few not so young, stood, swaying and bouncing, through the entire doings. Stage lighting was exceptional. A screen lowered behind the orchestra showed clips from Morrison’s films. The entire production flowed without a glitch.

            The audience, with a sprinkling of Americans and Canadians in Mazatlan on holiday, a small number of young Mexicans and an overwhelming number of Mexican persons of a “certain age”, like me, all “rocked” to such songs as “Light My Fire”, “Riders On The Storm”, “People Are Strange”, “LA Woman”, and a touching “The Unknown Soldier.” The joy was infectious. It was “our” music.

            The woman next to me, with broken English and mucho body language, asked me if I had gone to Morrison concerts in my youth. “Nada, back then I only rocked babies,” I answered, my arms held in the universal position of cradling a newborn.

            How fortunate I felt to be able to hear Jim Morrison sing through the artistry of Hector Ortiz. I felt especially blessed to experience this concert at the Angela Peralta Teatro with this night’s particular group of people. Truly, music knows no borders. No borders of age. No borders of language. In music, we all wear the same skin.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 13, 2014
            Living the Zen Way, With Panic
            My friend Kathy and I lounged on the beach, mindlessly watching the waves roll in. Tide was high so the waves were literally underfoot. We each had a book open but upended on our laps.

            “I love it the way my mind goes empty while I’m on the beach like this. It is so Zen,” said Kathy.

            I took ten seconds to give her statement thought, an uncharacteristic move on my part, before I replied. “Umm hmm. Sun, surf and sand seem to have that effect. ‘Living in the moment.’ It is a state of mind we are supposed to strive to attain. It is pretty much how I’m living every day. But, Kathy, I think it sucked out all my brains.”

            Let me give you an example. Like everyone else in the modern world, I use the ATM machines to purchase pesos with my brand new convenient Debit Card from Bear Paw Credit Union. And being in Mexico so much of the year, I have gone completely paperless. Commendable, right?

            Recently, I needed to acquire a bundle of pesos. I had ordered furniture to be made for me in the little village of Concordia, a couple hours south of here. The owner of the shop, where furniture is made in the old way, runs his business in the old way—with cash.

At the ATM machine, one may withdraw only $2,000 pesos each day, about $153 USD. That is the way it is. And the machines know. Just try to exceed the limit. I mean, the machine inquires whether you want another transaction. It just doesn’t mean you may have one. A machine with a sense of humor.

            So I pulled $2,000 pesos out of my account fairly frequently to stockpile pesos to pay for my furniture. Maybe the machine keeps track of one’s pattern of activity; I don’t know. Previously I only used the machine two or three times a month. After three consecutive days the machine seized up and refused me cash. In fact, it swore at me and said I had a “hot card”, go away and don’t come back. It spit the card back into my hand as if it were dirty. How could it be hot—I held my card in my hand!

            I took my not-stolen card to the next machine, and whoo, same story. I was afraid the Policia would show up any minute so I sneaked home on the back streets. I immediately went on line to check my account, which I knew had money. There large as life, under account activity, three transactions were posted on the same date. Since confession is good for the soul, I confess I don’t check my account daily. I make sure everything balances once a month. I don’t have much to check.

            I did what most people would do; I panicked. I called my daughter and had her check with the bank to see what happened. Meanwhile I built stories in my mind of dying on the street in a foreign country with nary a peso in my pocket since I could not access cash.

But the nice woman at the bank “reset” my card, whatever that means and I was good to go. That is fine, but what about the three transactions that left my account simultaneously, without me having three bundles of money in my fist?

            My daughter said it takes time when there is a banking problem and since the problem was with the bank in Mexico that gave me the money, it might take longer than time. I calmed down, Zen again.

            A week later, I checked my account again. All was well until Tuesday when four transactions were sucked out. Repeat the above.

            Next Monday I discovered another three transactions had left my account on the same day. Computers get the job done instantaneously. Mega panic. More phone calls. I realize that you are shaking your heads in amazement. I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person. Once again my daughter is on the phone with the bank. I am on the computer with my daughter. She is trying to explain the process to me. After a few minutes of back and forth, I happen to glance at my calendar. The “ah-ha” light bulb flickers above my head, the same head which has been living in the sun-sand-surf moment, and finally, I “get” it. Monday’s posts are for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The middle weekend there was a holiday, thus explaining the four transactions. Two people and a computer could not get through to me. A simple paper calendar from my insurance company in Harlem made it clear.

            “Kathy, I think I am too Catholic to be Zen.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 6, 2014

Inspired By My Olla: Colors of Mazatlan

Inspired By My Olla: Colors of Mazatlan
            Every house or apartment I have ever moved into had white rooms. Oh, I just remembered, that’s not totally true. One was shades of putrid pink. Sooner or later, I transformed every wall in every house with colors of my choice.  

            Several months ago Gogi, my landlady, was sitting in my living room visiting. Gogi is Mazatleca but she spends most of the year in Sun City, California, where her daughter lives. I asked if I might paint. “Sondra, you may do anything you want,” I heard her say. I did. I know those are the exact words she used. Immediately I saw the colors dance around the room.

                        My friends in Harlem have teased me for years about how whenever I had visitors, I managed to put them to work on major house and garden projects. “How can you do that?”  “Did your friends know you had fifteen yards of bark chips in your driveway before they arrived?” “Did they have a clue that you had ripped out the carpet and had boxes of wood flooring stacked in the living room?” “Why do they keep coming back?”

            My olla, my traditional clay bean pot, has a marvelous array of warm, light-reflective terra cotta hues. Easy as it was to make my color choices, getting to the job was more difficult. Physically, I couldn’t do it. I needed help.

            Kathy, from Pender Island in British Columbia, a friend through sixteen years of mutual projects, and I were sitting in my living room, phase two of Project Olla. I held my olla in my lap. “Let’s use this light color for the main walls and this darker shade for trim and at least one wall. We’ll paint all the walls the same two colors. This place is too small to use more colors. Oh, except for the door. I see blue on the front door.”

            “I can see blue,” Kathy agreed.  “Let’s go buy paint.”

            Mazatlan is a city of over eight-hundred thousand people and an equal number of vibrant colors. I have an unlimited choice of paint (pintura) stores, including Sherwin Williams. I chose Comex, a Mexican paint company with a tienda on every other corner. I bought brushes, rollers, a lighter shade and a brighter shade.

            Despite the fact it was afternoon and 96 degrees in the shade, my friend and I began slinging paint. We started in the kitchen. With the lighter color. Only the lighter seemed much brighter on the wall than it did in the paint bucket. Once begun, finish the job, right? That is the way I was taught. Goodness, the room seemed, well, intense. I returned the next day and hung pictures and set furniture in place. Ah, the room quit dancing the samba and settled down into a welcoming and cheerful dining area.  

            The following day we returned to Comex to buy a gallon of white. I wanted to mix white with the paint left from the first gallon, the “lighter shade”, to tone it down a smidgeon for the remainder of the walls.

Now, what happened could have happened in any paint store in any country. Even Sherwin Williams in Havre, Montana. The man misunderstood what I wanted and shot colors into a gallon of white to duplicate the same bright and cheerful terra cotta. “No,” I sort of screeched. It took four persons to find a solution. I walked out with a gallon of the color I wanted. Pretty much. Plus a liter of dark blue for the door.

Kathy tackled the blue door and I began painting the “lighter-light” terra cotta, close to salmon. The darker paint is tangy, like tangerine. I painted a blotch of each, side by side, and hey, this works! We finished the door and painted a first coat on the hallway and bedroom. All the furniture is crammed into the middle of the rooms so we can drag ladders around the perimeters. We sleep at the resort where Kathy is staying. My bed is piled high with pillows, baskets and books.

The third “paint day” I unlocked my door, heart in my throat. I want to like the results. My rooms welcomed me with a warm glow.  Today we finish. The rooms are brighter than I had intended. But . . .

I love the jubilant effect. My neighbors like it. I hope Gogi likes it. She said I could paint it. “Do anything you want,” she said. She did. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 30, 2014