Sunday, April 13, 2014

Who Says You Can’t Teach An Old Dog

Who Says You Can’t Teach An Old Dog
            When one grows up and spends much of one’s life in the country of “far from”, in the land of the irreducible minimum, one develops specific habits of adaptability. One telling example in my life is a trait that my friends from elsewhere call my “siege mentality”. You might recognize it by my refrigerator and freezer crammed with so much food that I have to lean into the door and wrap it with a ratchet tie-down strap. Unlimited shelving in the basement was stocked with all manner of non-perishable foods and goods. Who else would have one hundred eight rolls of toilet tissue and suffer heart palpitations if the stock falls lower than two cases?

            We, who live far from everything, in the land labeled the last frontier, that’s who. We never know when the snow will falleth in malicious clumps, the wind bloweth the roads closed, and the apocalypse cometh. I’ve been there. When I was eighteen, living at the end of a dirt trail south of Dodson, we were snowed in from November through April. For Christmas I made cookies with flour, molasses and corn flakes. To replenish my larder my husband drove the work team with hay sled to town. We got mail once a month, horseback. No, I never slogged to school barefoot, through six feet of snow, uphill both ways. But that winter indelibly imprinted on me. If fifty pounds of flour is good, one hundred pounds must be better.

            My lifetime habit was to look at things as if there might not be enough. I have changed. If you were to open my refrigerator today, you might say, “But it is empty.” I say, “I see a tomato, an onion, a poblano pepper, a jalepino, two beets, milk, butter, cheese and two eggs. The fruit bowl on the counter is opulently filled with a mango, key limes to make limonado, tamarindo, an avocado and a potato. I have masa for tortillas and flour to make bread. Beans simmer on the burner.”  Who could ask for more!

            With a dozen little markets (My basement had a larger stock of goods than some of these emporiums.) within a three block radius, why worry. Every day I walk to get what I think I need or want. I can hop a bus to the large Mercado at Centro or to any number of big box stores including Wal-Mart.

            Everything is different south of the Border. I see things differently. It is not just the neighborhood markets with milk and eggs, brooms and bleach. Many services come by my door.

            Mario drives by in his water truck every day. When my empty jug is sitting outside my door, Mario shoulders a fresh twenty liter jug of water and brings it, not just to my door, but inside, sets it on the counter while I wash the jug and upends it onto the ceramic dispenser for me.  For this service I pay twenty pesos.

            Juan is usually parked a couple blocks away with his water buckets and cleaning cloths. While his customer is in the restaurant at the Solomar, Juan washes and polishes the client’s car. One day with my minimal Spanglish I asked him if he would come wash my van. We negotiated a price. Granted, he didn’t show up that day or the next, but eventually he came, scrubbed my poor grit encrusted van and made her shine. For this I am happy.

            Everyday I see others: the housepainter with the twenty foot extension ladder balanced on the front of his bicycle cart, the cardboard recycler, the junk man, the man with the truck for hauling things either to or away, the ice vender, the propane truck, the man who picks up bottles and cans (residents leave them on the edge of the sidewalk for him). If I need help, there is a good chance I can find it on my street.

            A couple weeks ago I heard a shrill whistle. The knife man, sharpening stones balanced on his shoulder, was striding down the middle of the street. I rushed to the kitchen to get my chopping knife, which I could sharpen myself, but I also need a small repair.  I was too late. The knife sharpener had gone around a corner and out of sight. I’m listening for the whistle. I laid my knife on a cabinet by the door. He’ll be back.

            I’m returning to Montana in April. I know that my newly trained eyes will fasten onto things I cannot find in Mexico. My challenge will be to ignore them, and like a good Montana woman, make do with what I have. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 27, 2014

Not the Gunfight At the OK Corral

Not the Gunfight At the OK Corral
            This morning I sat in front of my casita, reading a book, sipping tea, enjoying the breeze on my face, when suddenly five truckloads of Mazatlan Policia screeched around the corner and, positioning the trucks to face both directions, blocked the entrance of our street.

            Without hesitation, I abandoned book, chair and teacup and melted through the screen door into the inner recesses of my apartment. I didn’t bother to lock the screen or shut the door. Why would I? These people could go where they wanted. I wasn’t going to stop them. There were at least forty, maybe fifty men and women. Some dispersed around the corners and down the street, searching empty lots and checking each entrance. One of them looked through my screen. Evidently I didn’t fit the profile.

            Four apartment entrances front onto our street. At least two dozen fully uniformed federal police, hardware hanging off their bodies, heavily armed with pistols and machine guns, milled about in the street and in front of our doors. They wore face masks to make identification and retaliation difficult.

            My neighbor Ted softly called out to me by my back door, “Pssst, Sondra. Do you see what is happening outside?”

            I joined Ted out in the back patio, an area we share. We both showed the effects of adrenalin rush. Well, in other words, fear.

            In conversations over these last few months Ted and I have rolled our eyes at the exaggerated US news reports of crime and violence here in Mazatlan. We each have been in and out of every neighborhood of the city. Never have we felt unsafe. Never mind that both of us are old enough to avoid hanging out in low places.

            But I have got to tell you, that between us, in the next few minutes, the rumors flew. “It’s got to be drugs.” “Which house do you think is the target.” “Do you think they will search every house?” “What will we do if there is a shoot out?” “I wonder if it is the neighbor down the street who tries to cause us trouble.” “She got in a pickup with Arizona plates four days ago and hasn’t been home since.” “Ah ha.” “Should we stay back here in case bullets start flying?”

            However, the effects of adrenalin begin to wear off. The heartbeat returns to normal. Blood pressure plummets to acceptable levels. And I had to use the facility. Cautiously I went inside. Two armed men were stationed outside my door. I could see activity in the street but nothing that made me anxious.

            I grabbed some mending and returned to the patio. When I finished that, I had some hand laundering to do. Mindless chores ease the mind. I began packing my bags to leave for Montana in a few days. No, no, this was not a decision of the moment spurred by the actions in the street. I had been planning the trip for several weeks.

            Hunger set in. I didn’t feel like cooking. The troops were still outside my door. I conferred with Ted at the patio. Except for strategically placed guards, the majority of the Policia stood at ease. We decided to join one another for lunch at the corner comida. That meant we had to walk through the door guards, street guards, corner guards.

            Turns out, we joined two dozen police personnel for lunch. Many of them greeted us. One personable young man came to our table and asked where we were from, typical conversation with tourists. We learned that El Presidente of Sinaloa was in the imposing government building across the street and these folks were here to guard him.

            These men and women were on our street, guarding the President and us, for three hours. I felt, well, protected. But a sudden loud percussive noise might have caused me to hit the floor, face down.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 3, 2014

What If the Hokey Pokey Is What It’s All About?

What If the Hokey Pokey Is What It’s All About?
It was close to four o’clock when I left my apartment to walk up the street to get a liter of milk, no specific destination in mind, just a purpose—buy milk. I could go to the frutera and buy milk and fruit. Or to the Farmacia for milk and an apple turnover. Or to the Oxxo for milk and pan dulce, a sweet treat for the next morning. Or to any of a dozen other small markets for milk and whatever might catch my eye.

Instead, I crossed the street to Tony’s on the Bay, seated myself at a table overlooking the beach, the waves, and the islands across the water. A shrimp dinner would be nice, I thought. Over chips and salsa I read every item on the menu, hesitating between garlic shrimp and an avocado shrimp salad. When the waiter appeared at my elbow, my mouth said, “Chilis Relleno, por favor.” It was what I most wanted.

Tony’s shares beach frontage with two other restaurants, and is tucked between Chili Peppers and Loco Loco. They are separated only by distinctive colors on the floor, the back walls and tablecloths. It doesn’t matter which one I choose. They each serve good food. While waiting for my meal, I watched people on the beach, gathered around tables with huge umbrellas, sitting on blankets in the sun, or digging trenches around sand castles with the children.

A large family led by their grandmother came into the restaurant. The waiters scurried to put together three and then four and eventually five tables as more showed up. The grandmother and I glanced across the tables at one another, exchanged a look of understanding and smiles. I knew if she and I only spoke the same language we would discover we shared worlds of experience.

Behind me, a couple from Bellingham, Washington came in off the beach and were seated. They were soon joined by another couple, obviously friends, serendipitously met on the beach. I listened shamelessly to their conversation. I grinned when the Bellingham woman said, “We are here only three weeks this trip. I already have mapped out every meal at a different favorite restaurant. Of course, I know it won’t work like that.”

And I knew I liked her. But I never turned around to look. She sounded like me and my friend Kathy from British Columbia. Over the years of our shared trips to Mazatlan we learned to let go, skip the plans. It added sizzle to wake up and see what adventures the day would bring.

It is wonderful to have the luxury of slowing down, of being able to look at life differently. Being in a different place helps, but that is not the whole story. The luxury comes from not having to adhere to any kind of schedule. There is no shoulda, woulda, coulda hanging over my head.

All my life, when I awoke, I swung out of bed with definite tasks or duties in mind. Most of us can say the same thing. We woke up and went to school, or milked the cow, or drove to the job, or mopped the floors or had coffee at the diner or saddled the horse or cleaned the brushes and set a blank canvas on the easel.  We had a definite purpose, a destination, whether physical, mental or creative.

I had no idea how important these last several months of ease, lack of purpose, idleness and sloth would be to my overall health and welfare.  At first I had to beat down panic as I realized I was gradually coming to accept a life of laziness. I suffered through weeks of reading a novel a day, of “playing solitaire till dawn, with a deck of fifty one”.

This whole last week, a week like any other, with good news and bad news, I have been aware of one over-riding giggle down inside my center. It sounds sappy to say it, but I am happy. We don’t hear that word often, but it is the only one that fits, that explains how I feel.

What if, think about it, what if, the hokey pokey really is what it is all about?

When I left Tony’s full of good food and salt air, I walked home, content. The milk? I’ll get that manana.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 20, 2014

In My Next Life

                                                                In My Next Life
            “In my next life, I’m going to be a man. When I’ve punched the time clock, I’ll be off work, done for the day.  Go home, grab a brew, the remote, grunt, and wait for dinner to appear. I won’t cook. I won’t clean. I won’t do dishes. Mess, what mess? Do laundry? I’ll wear them again tomorrow. Fold clothes, why? Prepare lunch to take to work? Nope. I’ll buy something at the store. I’ll scratch my privacies in public and grin, think it’s normal. Think burping and passing gas is sexy. Then late at night, when the old lady has finished her work, I’ll get frisky. Yep. I’m coming back as a man.”

            My daughter, she made me laugh. I’m of the last unenlightened generation of women who grew up thinking all the above was normal. And I gleefully cheered from the cusp as the world of behaviors between men and women slowly changed.

            “Honey,” I reminded her, “when you met him was there anything in his raising that made you imagine life would be different. His mother was in charge of the kitchen. His father was in charge of the television. And then where did he go from home—into the Navy, not exactly a training ground to lead a guy to explore his feminine side. Get a grip, sweetheart. He was set in his ways when you married him.”

            “I know, Mom, but I thought I could train him to do some things differently.”

            “Yes, Daughter, we all thought that.” And why did we think we could change any man? The feminist movement? 

            No, it was literature. Fairy tales and fables, those childhood stories we drank with our mother’s milk. We grew up believing if we kissed a frog, he would turn into a prince. We had it backward. The truth is that we kiss the prince and he turns into a frog.

            If I fell into a swoon and slept for a hundred years while brambles enclosed my palace  bedroom, would a prince on a white stallion prance along, give me the kiss of life, put me  behind him on the horse and ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after in a magical kingdom. No. Unequivocally, no. What I’d get is old. And miss out on a lot of life.

            If i were lost in the forest, running from the wicked queen with the poison apple and found shelter in a wee little house with seven wee little men, would that elusive prince find me, rescue me, and restore me to our true queenly place in life. No, I’d find keep on being a drudge to seven little men, without pay.

            We women bought the romantic myth of being discovered when all seems lost, that a man would battle his way across desert and over treacherous mountain passes to claim his one true love. Women love this myth, the quiet, conforming “good” girl gets the hero while the “fast” woman, the temptress, stumbles and falls into a pit. It’s the same story as the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise never wins the race. It is pretty to think that way but it is a lie. The hare always wins.

            We grew up believing these stories, these lies. Who wrote them? Men. Hans Christian Anderson. The Brothers Grimm. Aesop. All these writings are types of romance novels. They were written for a niche market. Women.

            And in all fairness, I suppose it is the same for men. For sure no man wants to get stuck with the wicked witch. However, the only true childhood story, the one that makes sense, is Br’er Rabbit. “No, no, not the briar patch. Don’t throw me into the briar patch.” But of course, that is where the fox throws Br’er Rabbit, right into the thicket where he was born and bred. He knows every twist and turn through the brambles and scrambles to safety. But this clever Uncle Remus folk story, popularized by Joel Chandler Harris, was never held up as a model for women. We eventually learn to tell the difference between foxes, toads and princes.  

            No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. I know women who are handy with wrenches and men who love to take over the kitchen. In today’s world, and I applaud, there generally is a more equitable division of labor between partners. That might mean more “prince” days than “toad” days. That’s okay by me. I recognize my own “witch” days.

            But on those days, my girl, when you find you’re pulling the wagon in tandem with Mr. Macho, might as well finish the dishes, bathe the kids and tuck them in, grab a romance novel and lose yourself in the fairy tale.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 13, 2014

A Cautionary Winter’s Tale

A Cautionary Winter’s Tale
            There is nothing humorous about my story. It is a story that I need to tell, a personal story of my son-in-law Chris and the icy grip of winter.

            Chris, my daughter Dee and granddaughter Antoinette moved to Glendive last fall from Tulalip, Washington. Chris, who hails from Florida, had been in the Navy most of his adult life, most of it in Pacific climes. Chris is a big man, tall and lanky with a few extra pounds for insulation. He is such an outdoor person that it takes an extreme stretch of the imagination for me to imagine Chris behind a desk. Montana has given Chris his first taste of Real Winter, but nothing like the portion served up to him this week.

            Chris had an appointment at the VA Hospital in Bozeman. This required him to take two days off work. He left Glendive after work on Tuesday. He was almost to Billings when the motor in his car blew up. A friend rescued him, towed the car into Billings and took Chris to the airport to secure a rental car from a nationally known name-brand rental company which I’ll not name but the name contains the last letter in the alphabet.

            He stayed the night in a Billings motel and headed to Bozeman early the next morning. An hour out of Billings, near Columbus, the motor on the rental car blew up, an identical repeat of the night before. Chris called the rental company. The clerk told him a tow truck was on the way. It would take an hour.

            We Montanans are on intimate terms with weather’s split personality. We know it sweet; we know it ugly and vicious. We treat it with respect. We take precautions. Chris was in a rental car, on the way to a doctor’s appointment, dressed for winter but with nothing extra; naked, so to speak. His winter survival gear was back in the first disabled vehicle. The thermometer showed minus twenty-four with wind chill at minus thirty-five.

            After waiting about half an hour, a Montana Highway Patrolman pulled up behind Chris. Chris sat in the patrol car talking with the officer for the next half hour, grateful for the warmth and shelter. The patrolman had to respond to a call up the road so Chris returned to his disabled vehicle, thinking, no problem, help should be here in a few minutes.

            Another hour passed. Chris had sent several incoherent messages to his wife who was teaching school and getting more worried by the minute. When the AAA company dispatcher called to ask Chris if help had arrived yet, Chris could barely talk. Finally, the dispatcher asked Chris where he was. Understand, the dispatch is from a national center in California. Once the dispatcher understood the situation, she panicked. The tow truck had not left the shop. Moments later the truck was on the way, but, still an hour out from Billings.

            When the driver arrived, Chris could neither talk nor get out of the car. The driver tugged, not gently, shoved Chris into his cab, and turned the heat full blast while he hooked up the car. By the time Chris got back to Billings he felt thawed, and being Chris, didn’t do what he should have done, which was go to the emergency room immediately. I take this as evidence that his brain was still frozen. (Sorry, Chris.)

            The story gets really ugly now. At the rental car office back at the Billings airport, the agent refused to refund Chris’s money and charged him mileage and an extra fee for not filling up the gas tank of the car which was hooked up to the back of a tow truck. Corporate policy. And criminal behavior.

            Another friend brought Chris home to his grateful family. I ask Dee Dee to check his feet daily. As of today, he still has all his toes.

            Please, please, please, fill a sports bag with extra clothing, survival blankets, water, candles and matches, boots and mittens. Add to that whatever you think you might possibly need. Then like the spy in the old cold-war movies, lock the bag to your wrist whenever you climb in the car.

My own survival gear includes all the above plus a shovel with collapsible handle, flares and orange danger triangles to place on the road, front and back of a disabled vehicle. I added a tarp for shelter from the sun. I’m in sunny Mexico for the winter, but I never know when the life I save might be my own.

The Montana Highway Patrolman no doubt saved Chris’s life; him and the dispatcher who thought to check tow truck status. Our family thanks you both.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 6, 2014


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Out of order

The four posts following were placed out of order because somehow I lost them and they have been found!