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

Wild Women On Holiday

Wild Women On Holiday
            My friend Kathy from British Columbia flew in this week. For the next three weeks I will be with Kathy on holiday, staying up the street six blocks from where I have my apartment, at the El Cid Resort. Evelyn from Harlem in New York City will join us in a few days.

            The three of us have a propensity for getting in trouble. We don’t intend trouble. Trouble, like a heat seeking missile, finds us. As another friend says with a shrug, “It happens.”

            Although Evelyn, Kathy and I come from diverse backgrounds, we share a love of laughter and fun, books and music. We enjoy doing things we’ve never done before, exploring places new to us. 

            Like the time we took a bus from Acapulco to Mazatlan. On a snack stop at the bus terminal in Tepic, we got off the bus to get an ice cream and stretch our legs. We didn’t dare wander too far. When we’d finished our snack and went back, the bus was gone. So was our money, our identity, our passports, our luggage.  All we had taken off the bus with us was a few pesos for ice cream. In that moment of realization at three o’clock in the morning, alone and friendless in a strange town, with not even a handkerchief in which to sob, we did the only thing we could do. We looked at one another through saucer eyes and burst out laughing. Holding our guts laughing. Finding the humor laughter. Holding off the panic laughter. For five minutes we provided entertainment to the forty or so folks around us. They laughed too, at us, with us, who knows.

            Finally a young man with English language skills took pity, explained to us that the bus simply left to take on petrol. It would be back. The bus returned.

            Another bus adventure occurred the time we signed up for the Christmas shopping tour to Guadalajara. This time Kathy’s husband Richard came along. We got to the first stop, a flea market of gigantic proportions, coincidentally, at three o’clock in the morning. We were stunned. What would we do at that time of night? Well, who could have known? The streets were packed with vendors and shoppers.

We joined the throng. We had two hours to shop. Keeping track of one another was impossible. When any one of us stopped to look at wares, it was as if we were cut out of the moving herd. Kathy stopped to listen to street music. I noticed Evelyn checking out some wild exotic jewelry. I worked hard at keeping track of the street where the bus was parked, making sure I didn’t go too far afield. Not twenty meters from the bus I found a small shop crammed with sewing notions.

            Evelyn and then Kathy met back at the bus. I joined them from the little tienda where I was picking laces and buttons. Where was Richard? Kathy had lost him. Other passengers were returning. They soon realized our predicament. Where was the tall skinny gringo? We fanned out, scanning above the crowds. One of our fellow passengers found him several blocks away, unconcerned, quite contentedly enjoying the hubbub of shoppers, music, jugglers and other entertainment.

            After a full day shopping, late at night, we boarded the bus for home, everyone talking softly. Sure enough, about three a.m., the bus broke down. It wasn’t our fault. We don’t take responsibility. It was just part of the adventure. We sat stranded on the side of the road several hours before a relief bus could pick us up and carry us on to Mazatlan.

            We haven’t planned anything definite for this holiday. We haven’t bought bus tickets. We are considering a trip to Magdalena near Guadalajara, to tour an opal mine. If we plan it right, if we take a morning bus and stay overnight, we might be able to avoid the three o’clock in the morning adventures. Not that any of us are superstitious.

            However, so far: We have locked ourselves out of our room. We started a trip downtown without shoes—not an option. We ordered a meal with no money. We stood in the elevator and waited for it to shoosh us to the lobby without pushing a button.

            When Evelyn arrives we can triple the fun. We aren’t looking for it. No invitation has been sent out. But Trouble might find us. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 23, 2014

Exactly Like That, Only Different

                                                Exactly Like That, Only Different
            I stand in the center of the “store”, tape measure in my left hand, drawings in my right hand. I’m here to order furniture to be made for me by craftsmen from Concordia, one of the villages where men have specialized in making a particular style of furniture for the last couple centuries.

            Furniture defined my life and my livelihood for more than thirty years. I left all my wonderful pieces behind when I crossed the border to sample life in a different country. But in a final frenzy before I left Montana, I made cushions from down with the intention of one day standing exactly where I stand today, backwards as usual, ordering furniture to fit my cushions.

            I became enamored of the heavy wood frames with thick leather seats, on a tour of Concordia several years ago, years before the thought of spending extended time in Mexico was anything more than a sigh. This furniture is very much in the Spanish style, ornate and substantial. If you are old enough to remember the Mediterranean furniture craze of the ‘60’s, think Mediterranean only more so. More decorative, more floral scrollwork, more turnings and finials and all on a grand scale.

            My brilliant idea is that here, surrounded by furniture, I can explain to Senor Alberto exactly what I want. Immediately I see this is not going to be that easy. I want the seat to be made like this piece in the middle (with significant changes) but the back to be made like that piece two sofas over, only not so severe, more open. Comprender? Si? No? I thought not.
            So I start with something easy. I choose two rockers from a row of nearly identical rockers. I carefully pick one bay and one brown, the bay slightly smaller. The leather sling seats and backs are made with Brahma steer hide, thick and tough, which will soften and mellow over the years. I sit down and breathe in the horsey leather smell. Yes, the bay and the brown.

            Back to the hard part. Back to the couches. Senor Alberto stands respectfully waiting for my instructions. See, here, I like this low seat with the leather “patches” defining the three seating areas of a couch. My seat cushions are thick, so this height should be perfect. But the back is too ornate. I want it simple.

            When I need an interpreter, I travel with Carlos and Rudy, two friends who have proven helpful in more than one sticky situation. “Rudy, I don’t want all the curves and carves and finials and gew-gaws on the back. How do I explain.”

            “Rustico,” he says. He points to the couch on the left. “Is this what you want for the back?”

            “Rustico, Senor Alberto.” I stick with the couch in front of me. “But with a few curves on top.” With my hands I carve the air above the couch, to indicate small flourishes.

            Senor Alberto takes notes, makes drawings. I look at them and nod, hopefully.

Back to the order desk. Now for measurements. I had my tape with me so I could indicate in both inches and centimeters exactly how deep and how wide I wanted both the couch and a matched chair. This should be the simple part. I begin with the chair. 63 ½ cm wide and 65 cm deep. I brought a line drawing indicating the same.

            I am bombarded with questions. Both Carlos and Rudy enter the fray. Inside or outside dimensions? What means wide? What means deep? At this point four sets of arms make motions, hands spreading in multiple directions. We look like windmills, each moving the air different directions.

            How hard can this be? I grab a child’s chair as a model, spread my tape for the front to back measurements, then the side to side measurements. I check Senor Alberto’s drawings. Good. I hope. I give him the couch measurements, less confusing. 183 centimeters can only be side to side. Right?

I choose a cedar wood from the mountains. Color? A dun, like that table top over in the corner. I haggle over the price with Alberto until we agree and are both pleased.

I have absolutely no idea what furniture will be delivered to my house next month. What will it look like? But I have confidence the cushions will fit. Because if they don’t, I’ll remake them!

Sondra Ashton
Looking out my back door

October 16, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

As Luck Would Have It

As Luck Would Have It
            We all know one or more of “those” kinds of people. Maybe you are one. Well, then, more luck to you. Not that you need my wishes. You are the type who could break a mirror on Friday the thirteenth, carelessly walk beneath the open ladder, ignore nineteen black cats crossing your path, and fall into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

You make money buying lottery tickets. You win the snowmobile door prize at the Volunteer Fire Department’s fundraiser. Whenever there is a raffle, you buy one ticket and win the prize.

You get the good seat at the ball game while I’m peeking from behind the post. You snare the last sought-after-item on the shelf while I stand empty handed. You walk into the pizza parlor and as the lucky one millionth customer, are presented with a certificate for free pizzas for life.  I’m next through the door. I purchase rolls of raffle tickets and never win so much as a John Deere cap or Insurance Company calendar.

Do you think I sound resentful? Me? Well, maybe. A little bit.

Let me tell you about my latest brush with Lady Luck. I enjoy playing cards. I win some; lose some. No big deal. Playing is fun. That is why it is called “play”. Some days the cards come my way. Some days they don’t. I like a complicated game, something requiring a smidgeon of skill along with holding the right cards. 

My friend and I play a card game or two or three most mornings. Over the last several weeks we have enjoyed a particular, rather complicated game, one with a gigantic pile of cards, one with several strategy points. Some days I am lucky. Some days she is lucky. Some days we split the difference: Win one; lose one. To fracture a cliché, ours is not to win or lose, but to enjoy the game. Our mornings are full of banter while we deal and play.

All well and good. Until three weeks ago. How can I explain what happened. The cards abandoned me. They turned on me. They began to hate me and showed their hatred by sticking out their collective tongues and chanting neener, neener, neener. I swear this is truth.

Three days pass and I don’t win a game. Four days. Five. Nada. The cards seem to swoon over my friend. They love her, adore her, leap into her hand in perfect order. We play longer hours, more games. She wins every stinking game. Sometime into the second week, we quit bantering. I handled my cards with a grim determination. She not only beat me, she skunked me, time after time. I felt like I sat stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, engine off. She buzzed around me doing ninety in her little red sports convertible. Toot! Toot! Know what I mean?

“What’s wrong with me?” I forced through clenched teeth in the third week of being a loser. “Why am I not getting any cards? I’m not making bad plays, laying down the wrong cards. I’m not playing any cards. I don’t mind losing if I at least get to play. Well, I do mind losing every game for three solid weeks. I feel like something is wrong with me.”

“The cards come,” she said. “I just play the cards as they come. This isn’t fun for me either, you know.”

I snorted, embarrassingly close to tears. After she left, I went to my best friend, my trusty Oxford English Dictionary.

Luck. The action or effect of casual or uncontrollable events affecting (favorably or unfavorably) a person’s interests or circumstances: a person’s apparent tendency to have good or ill fortune: the imagined tendency of chance to bring a succession of (favourable or unfavourable) events. Italics are mine.

I grabbed the deck of cards and stomped out the door and down the street to a quiet little park and parked my posterior beneath a banyon tree. Making sure nobody could hear me, I growled to the deck, fingering each card, “Listen up, you flippity pieces of cardboard. I feel like you hate me. For pity’s sake, you are inanimate. You have no power. You can’t do this to me. But if you don’t turn the tables and begin shuffling my way, I’m tossing you in the trash, one torn and tattered card at a time. Got that?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. But the following morning, I won the game. A hard-won contest, card for card battle to the finish. Lucky me.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 9, 2010

Fool’s Gold Is Where I Find It

Fool’s Gold Is Where I Find It
            Half way back from my morning walk, I reached into my pockets, all four pockets. One at a time, naturally.  I’d forgotten my keys. The last thing I do when I leave my apartment is turn the lock in the doorknob. In a flash of memory I could see my keys—in the bottom of my bag—in the house. I felt a combination of desperation plus an urge to throw up. Over-reaction? Certainly.

             My mind was pre-occupied. A friend is hospitalized and the family is gathering. But still . . . still, I felt like a fool, a silly sort of fool (rather than a major fool), to have caused myself this minor inconvenience.

            I don’t mind feeling like a fool. A familiar feeling. I have years of experience. I even went through a period of time where I deliberately practiced doing foolish things—self-prescribed therapy.  

            One day in the mid-eighties I had just left the bank, head in the clouds, when I stumbled on an uneven hunk of pavement. Immediately my face burned bright red and I scanned the street to see if anyone had noticed me. My mind, ever-ready with a pithy comment, said to my body, something like this, “Stupid idiot. Clumsy fool.”

            But in that instant of “seeing myself”, my red face, my worry that someone might have seen my awkwardness, I “got it”. Everybody stumbles on rocky pavement now and then. It is neither a crime nor a sin nor a misdemeanor. Instantly I understood that I held myself to some impossible expectation of behavior that brooked no awkwardness, no mistakes, that needed me to “look good” in certain haphazardly defined ways. Had I sprawled on the sidewalk, helpless with broken bones, I suppose I would have had to simply fold up and die on the spot.

            Lord knows I’ve done some major-league foolish things in my time. Those things I preferred to tuck away on the top shelf of the hall closet, along with family skeletons, and lock the door. I don’t pretend to know my whole mind, but that day when I stumbled, what if all the foolish deeds burst out of the over-stuffed closet for everybody to see and judge. I seemed to me more concerned that nobody “see” than that I might have hurt myself. I didn’t say I was healthy.

That day, on Jensen Way in Poulsbo, Washington, I understood how silly, how truly foolish, was my over-reaction. I also realized how totally self-centered my response. And I determined on a plan of action. I would deliberately do some foolish little thing every day.

Simple little foolish things. I had fun with my project. I wore silly hats. Or mis-matched socks, thirty years ahead of a modern fashion statement. I pasted gold stars on my forehead for a job well done. I had to first go buy the box of stars, in itself a foolish thing. Nobody would make eye contact with me when I had a gold star on my forehead. Try it. Walk into a grocery store and watch the clerk get vitally interested in a box of mac ‘n’ cheese.

So, foolish me; today I forgot my keys. Mentally I dressed myself in motley, complete with cap, bells and baubles. I detoured around to the fruteria on the corner, jigged a little song and dance, and asked Quito if he would call a locksmith for me, por favor, and continued on home. I perched on the planter in front of my house and waited for the locksmith to show up to let me in my house.

In those twenty minutes I devised a plan of action: Henceforth when I take my morning walk, I will lock only the deadbolt. That should insure that tomorrow I go out the door, mis-matched socks on my feet, a gold star pasted in the middle of my fore-head, and house keys clutched in my fist.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 2, 2014

When I Grow Up, What Will I Be

When I Grow Up, What Will I Be
            In a note to a friend I mentioned that I have lived my life in chunks. The years on the ranch. Years raising my children. Years recovering furniture. Years in theatre.  Years in city government. Those sorts of chunks. Some chunks overlap. Some chunks I have tried to bury far from memory. Others I treasure. All are part of what makes me, well, me.

            I wonder what will define this particular chunk of my life. Lord knows, it is different from all the others.

            Looking back, I can find clues to what led me to decisions I made. For example, when I needed work that would enable me to be on hand to care for my children, I made a list of things I liked to do; of skills that I had accumulated.

            Actually, three girlfriends, each of us floating in the same boat, got together one day. We brain-stormed to come up with lists of interests and talents. Martha wanted to be a nurse. She said, “I can clean toilets.” So Martha cleaned houses to put herself through nursing school. Karla said, “I like yard sales and finding bargains.” She began collecting items for the weekend flea market. These many years later, Karla still makes her living at the flea market.

            Two of the items that stood out on my list were my sewing machine (I began sewing when I was eight) and tiny rooms of furniture and accessories I created in shoe boxes with discarded paper, paint, glue and junk, (also when I was eight, nine and ten). So recovering furniture seemed an obvious choice to me. The clues were all in front of my face.

             It didn’t take a lot of training to add to the skills I already had. For a good number of years I fed my family and paid the bills with the work of my hands and my creativity.

            Now I have entered a new and outrageously different phase of life. For a variety of reasons and physical necessity, I live a life of sloth and ease. I sold all my accumulated gear and made a beeline south where I found a small apartment in Mazatlan on the coast of Mexico.

            Should today be my last day on earth, I do not want “sloth” to be the defining word on my tombstone. I’m a do-er. My chunks of life have all been defined by verbs. Suddenly I am a noun, a be-er.  At times, I am a most uncomfortable noun, itching to “do”.

            When I examine my simple life, I don’t find much to put on my list. I mop each day. One could “eat off the floor”, not out of personal fastidiousness, but in my struggle to keep all crumbs away from critters: scorpions, cock roaches, centipedes and pesky little ants. I’d hate if “she mops” defined me.
            Many days I play a Mexican card game I learned on the beach. I’m pretty good. We play for fun. Gambling has never appealed to me as a viable vice. The few times I’ve gone to casinos with friends, I’ve donated my designated twenty dollars “fun money” on the nickel slots. During rehearsals for “The Queen of Bingo”, Billie and I went to bingo nights at the Elks to get the real feel for the game. Neither of us ever won a card. I still cringe when I think of a night, nearly fifty years ago, when a group of friends played a particular type of poker and I lost my shirt, so to speak. So that isn’t it.

            And I read. That comes closest to defining me. I’m a reader; you could say a promiscuous reader. I lose myself in a book for a portion of each day. That is my pleasure, but I feel a compelling tug to be out and about.

            Something will come along to give me do-purpose. But that little something has not shown up yet. Friends say, “Be patient.”

            I heaved a sigh (I’ve longed to write those words.) and looked around. In the years I’ve made trips here, I’ve bought every trinket and gadget sold on the beach. I have a copper pitcher, wooden boxes, clay bowls, silver jewelry, ironwood dominoes, leather parrots, a rusty iron pelican, woven rugs, blouses and serapes, hats and sunglasses. If I gathered it all, I could occupy at least one good season as a beach vendor. I’ve been told I look Mexican. My Spanglish is improving. “Beach Junque for sale. Happy hour. Almost free. Ten pesos.”    

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 25, 2014