Tuesday, May 03, 2016

When I was Archie at Riverdale High

There were gorgeous years in there, when I had my first chance to live alone and got an apartment on College Avenue in Oakland, right across from the Edible Complex. Back then, there was a club called the A Line that played live jazz and I'd open my windows and have the music float in at night.

But the true magic happened outside, as in immediately outside my apartment. Because I was in the middle of bookshops, cafes, burrito bars, and bakeries, my block attracted everyone. At least everyone I knew. I only had to step outside to cross paths with someone from college or work or a pal from behind the bookstore counter.

Over the years, I handed over that apartment to my dear friend Meggy, who then passed it on to my sister Jenny, who then got it to our camp counselor buddy Mira. What this meant was years and years of loved ones associated with the place and its environs.

One day, it was either Jenny or my husband Steve who said that the apartment and College Avenue was Riverdale High. You could not go more than a few steps without finding Jughead, Betty, Veronica, or, well, yes the occasional person you wanted to avoid, Reggie. So we'd report our "Archie" moments to each other, which sometimes involved just running into each other, to boot. Oakland is a village.

What I did not understand then, and too fully, painfully realize now, was those were not just good times, they were freaking golden times. And I know we were good about it and reveled in what we had, this group of friends always circling about and popping by. I would cross my fingers because I felt so lucky, too lucky. But I didn't know I was going to lose my dearest friend of the bunch, my sister.

I know all the cliches. You cannot get that time back. Appreciate each moment. Live every day as if--whatever. These all ring true to me, but they are not enough.

I want to believe that there is something even deeper, even richer. Some perfect split second of truth that I could somehow access from that time. Dig into it, breathe it in, feel the sun to fog of 5pm in Oakland, and how that far-off gaze can suddenly snap into a moment of recognition. Archie! You're here again? Didn't I just see you at Pop Tate's?

There she is. Jenny laughing at something, reading something, suggesting something just very daily life yet outlandish, like getting dim sum. Now? I hope I said yes. I'm pretty sure I said yes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Web of Lies

Life, my friends, is good. Let me open by saying this before descending into complaining.

Here in Oaxaca, we live in a corrupt municipality, a mere block from the less-corrupt official city boundaries. We belong to Santa Lucia del Camino, notorious for dirty political dealings, even in a city, state, and country known for them. Then little bits of the dishonesty creep into our infrastructure, such as when the district's garbage trucks all stop working, for months at a time, and suddenly the private trucks swoop in. I'm happy for the substitute service, but you have to pay about 10 pesos per can of trash they haul away, whereas the district trucks (including their repairs) are supposedly covered by our property taxes.

The latest development in the Santa Lucia saga, then, is the internet, or lack thereof. Last weekend, it just went out, which is not uncommon, but we could not summon it back. As is the case for my semi-bilingual family, this demanded a call to our provider's labyrinthine voice mail system and, no matter what I attempted to press or say or command, my Spanglish did not suffice. So we did what people in the olden days did to get their internet back on--we walked into the service center. I won't bother to describe the bowels of Cablemas to you, as I assume they resemble those of Comcast or whatever. There the service lady informed us that, indeed, our whole municipality of Santa Lucia had been propelled back into the dark ages, due to some switch being turned off and not turned on, or another issue that I suspect might have been the local government not paying their bills.

I asked, "How long until this switch is turned on?"

She gave me the zombie-pleasant look that customer service reps bearing bad news must always be trained to give. "Nobody knows."

This is the classic Oaxaca answer. And, unlike the United States, there is no yelling or getting angry when you hear it. I mean you could, and you could be the sort who demands a manager or starts shoving papers across the counter to prove your longevity as a customer, but the answer does not, will not change. Nobody knows.

I tried a halfhearted, "Our work depends on the internet?"

She nodded. In a way, so did hers.

The irony was, there we were on Calle Amapolas, quite possibly Oaxaca's loveliest expanse of blocks, lined with trees and--you guessed it--one cafe after another, all with Wifi.

This, then, has been my morning commute for the past week. Rather than merely walking from bedroom to hallway, I now pack up the computer and venture to what our family has always called "the cafe street" to try a new place every morning. In fact, I had office hours at 2 cafes yesterday. I've noticed a few things:

1. The world does not need me as much as I think it does.
Without fail, I open my computer in a state of near-panic, thinking of all the messages and deadlines I might have missed. Yet the space of a few hours passing means I have typically received about 25 emails in spam and 25 more than belong in spam. That's it. I'm writing this blog post right now because I rushed to my morning cafe session only to find an empty work desk and no pending messages of any value.

2. I still know how to read books.
I could blame my slower reading pace over the past decade on a lot of things, including master's degrees and children, but the true culprit is the computer screen. Though I still read all day, every day, I rarely pick up books for more than a half hour at a time. In the past few days, I've gotten through a novel and a memoir and have a stack on the waiting list. What a relief that my books waited faithfully for me all these years.

3. I battle existentialism-related fears.
Living in Oaxaca puts me quite inconveniently distant from family and many friends. On top of that, I have no landline, no US cell phone, no convenient mail service, and (since the last windstorm) no signal for my Mexican cell phone unless I go on the roof. My principal methods of outreach are email, Facebook messages, and the occasional Skype call, all impossible to use at home right now. Sometimes, at night, I sense that we are in a walled fortress with no method of communication or contact with the outside world. Or is there an outside world?

4. Perhaps a quiet mind is not for me.
It is instantly clear to me that having no internet at home takes away the buzz of daily distraction. It also forces me to connect more with the world and our neighborhood, which is partly why I love living in Oaxaca. My adopted city has a much more outdoor and neighborly culture than most places in the United States offer. Yet, on days when I have a lot of deadlines, I engage in intense reading, writing, editing, and messaging for hours and never speak to or see anyone. So this newfound existence is superior, right? Breaking free of the web puts me that much closer to Buddha mind or could have me suddenly achieving great intellectual feats. Well, I have to say that, at a few days in, the results are inconclusive.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tule Village Adventures

It started with a note home from school: "Geni necesita una falda." Geni needs a skirt.

This message could mean a number of things, from a school uniform request to some new rule being implemented. Upon pursuing the topic with Geni's teacher, Jukari, it becomes clear that Geni needs a folkloric dance skirt done in the traditional style, made to measure, for the Thursday Zapotec dance classes. By next week, please.

Wouldn't you know it that Geni's classmate, J., has a grandma in Tule village who makes these skirts? We followed the directions given by Rosalea, the third grade teacher, who told us to approach the tree, walk around it, and head toward the block with the little mezcal shop. There we would find a tiny storefront filled with folkloric clothes and a workshop with J.'s grandmother inside.

But looking for a mezcal shop next to a folkloric clothing store near the Tule tree is like telling a tourist to head for the store under the neon sign in Times Square. Every block with its own mezcal shop! Folkloric clothing for days! The only option is to ask every single store owner where J.'s grandma, the seamstress, is.

Three sets of instructions later, we stumble upon the shop, so close to the giant Tule tree that its upper branches provide shade through the doorway.

The grandma emerges from the back courtyard holding a baby and greeting Geni. She's the outfitter for the entire student body of Colegio Stanley Hall, Geni's elementary school. The girls at the school's Zapotec dance classes all wear tiered skirts trimmed with lace, with enough extra fabric that they can gather the skirts by the edges and raise the edges over their heads without revealing their legs. Quite a feat, really.

But where is the fabric for the skirts? Grandma disappears under tables and begins a looooong treasure hunt through various plastic bags, leaving us in charge of the baby.

Endless reams of fabric everywhere but, apparently, the just right fabric is not there. I know how this story goes, having lived seven years in Oaxaca, and I want to cut to the chase rather than do the "come back four times" thing. I tell her we will take any fabric, that it does not matter. We need the skirt by next week!

Grandma takes Geni's measurements and writes them down on a tiny scrap of paper that most certainly will be immediately lost. How could it not be? She also asks for 250 pesos up front, no small sum. But all that extra fabric will bring up the total to 500 pesos, if she can just locate the fabric.

What color does Geni want? She watches Geni but then realizes Geni has not seen any of the choices. She descends again to locate swatches, samples, anything. She finds a patch of green.

"Yes, green! Si, verde!" says Geni, surprisingly agreeable.

Grandma's eyebrows knit in worry. She is out of green, even though it is the only sample she has located for us. She offers purple.

I am anxious, in only the way a US person gets when in a Oaxaca village with school demands breathing down her neck. "Si, si!" I say.

Geni says, "No."

I coax and plead with Geni, knowing we will not get the skirt in time unless we can agree to this mythical purple fabric. She finally acquiesces.

I place the order, pay, and get a receipt. As we turn to leave, Grandma says, "Come back soon to see the purple fabric and make sure it's what you want. I'll try to find a sample of it by Monday."

Of course you will, abuelita. There is no speeding up when you are on Oaxaca village time. I just have to remember that this is a good thing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Still In Love With Oaxaca

I've been back for a week since the end of our summer travels, yet I haven't been to the zocalo yet, nor had mezcal, or even been to a shop. But I'm not jaded, I could never be. It's just that daily life has taken precedence over being able to settle in slowly and appreciate all Oaxaca has to offer. We're starting our seventh year in the city of Oaxaca, a year full of changes for certain.

Max decided to try 7th grade in the United States (which you couldn't pay me to do, not when it went so poorly the first time). He's enjoying the suburban life of skateboarding, not to mention his first experience of attending school fully in English.

Geni is enrolled in 2nd grade at Colegio Stanley Hall, a tiny, beautiful school a couple blocks from the famous Tule tree. Hers is a village school, with weekly lessons in Zapotec and a PE curriculum that consists of learning Oaxaca's regional dances. So, perfect.

For the first time in my freelancing career, I hit home with a giant contract. So much writing to do, and on a topic I love: 65,000 words. The downside: Due in October.

Steve succumbed to his lifelong attachment to screenprinting and brought himself a little machine and some water-based ink.

So, what's to love in this very domestic return to Oaxaca? Primarily, how gorgeous everything is. We have a September rainy season, by the looks of it, and the mountaintops are shrouded in fantasy novel-level fog. In fact, we will navigate through that this weekend as Geni has requested a camping trip as her birthday present. But the city is so beautiful too, with the green cantera stone almost glowing in the diffused light of afternoon.

So I haven't made it to some of the more famous Oaxaca spots yet, but I did go to a village comedor and the tlayuda came with local mushrooms that were divine! And the used clothing stands at my neighborhood tianguis are more hopping than ever: all denim 25 pesos.

I've also managed to get to two outdoor Zumba classes and had the requisite killer margarita at La Biznaga. Some of the most fun was going to the tiny papeleria in my neighborhood to get Geni's schools supplies, because I now know how to work the 35-item list rather than just handing it over to the clerks at the Provedora Escolar school supply warehouse. No archaeological sites yet, but a great visit to the Hecho en Oaxaca show with murals and mixed media pieces by Dr. Lakra, Swoon, and The Date Farmers.

Through all of this laid-back life, there is the constant of missing my little boy. I know he's happy, though, and that means everything. He sees the California suburbs as something other and fascinating, just the kind of experience I yearned to escape. He skateboards on sidewalks and through cul-de-sacs. He meets friends at the mall or to play video games. When I ask him about his school day (7th grade! In English! All new people! So very far away!), he tells me, "I hung out and talked to my friends." So there it is, the beauty of his daily life. Cheers, Maxito!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Ecotouring Oaxaca: Cuajimoloyas

We've stayed at a lot of little cabins in the woods in Oaxaca, including the major ecotourism sites of Ixtlan de Juarez and Apoala, as well as the lesser-visited spots of Llano Grande and, most recently, Cuajimaloyas.

Last weekend, we met with 17 others people to trek around and explore Cuajimoloyas. This place is distinctive. You enter through the little pueblo which, for us, meant cutting through thick, gorgeous fog that left dewdrops clinging to young pine trees and vines. A roadside wood building houses the local agency where you sign in and pay for your access fee. Here is where you can also pay for guides to take you on the five-hour hike or the three-hour hike, as well as a few others. There is a zip line over a canyon for 200 pesos, or a shorter zip line in the forest for 40 pesos. Because we were with Oaxacans who know the area, we chose no guide and to stay in the more accessible part of the forest, which held cabins and even little wood shack comedors with women cooking blue-corn quesadillas and brewing Oaxacan hot chocolate (and even good coffee, I'm told).

Everyone sat down for breakfast in the midst of what felt like a relatively young forest--I'm guessing that we were in "recovering from clear-cut" territory. The kids discovered a series of pools feeding into each other, the classic sign of river trout breeding.

I sat in the kitchen with the woman working the comal. She told me she and her daughter walk an hour with all their supplies to reach the forest and cook at Comedor B-- (Bocadillo? Boquita?). And then she told me something brilliant. She said, "In two weeks, the first wild mushrooms will be ready to pick in the forest. Come back and I will make you trout stuffed with them." Indeed, Cuajimaloyas is the site of the annual Feria de Hongos Silvestres. People pour into the forest to spend the weekend, which is usually in July or August (during rainy season), to go on guided walks with experts that identify the different types of mushrooms and which ones are safe to consume.

Then her 10-year-old son ran up. He had been playing with my children and now wanted to show all of us the waterfall. We now had a guide, whether we had wanted one or not, but it felt lucky to have a local boy the same age as our children, taking us, stopping to play, call to animals, catch bugs, and point out sources of pure drinking water along the way. And I spied the beginnings of some near-fluorescent orange mushrooms, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

We cut across pastures and saw bulls charging around playfully. Bright green frogs and tiny brown spiders hopped between tall grass and rocks. The kids played catch and release with grasshoppers. The walk ended with us sliding down a muddy mountainside to a modest waterfall, with just enough mossy boulders to bring out your inner mountain goat. The children insisted on getting as muddy as possible, and all pompis were good and wet upon our exit up the slope.

Sure it's beautiful and a grand departure from the more established ecotourism sites with their conference rooms and their adventure playgrounds, but what also make Cuajimaloyas special is also its incredible accessibility. We reached the site in barely over an hour's drive and were in the midst of the forest almost immediately. Our adventure was an incredible break from the urban life of downtown Oaxaca and a chance to see the impact of the early rainy season in all its brilliant green, flashy orange, and mushy brown.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Write Write Bang Bang!

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of my switch to full time freelance writing, I can officially say that the worrying never stops. Today was my first day of not having an assignment in months and, though I had prepared mentally for this day, I found myself thinking, "Is this it? Perhaps I've filed my last story or seen my last accepted pitch."

Today, I kept waiting for the magical email or Facebook message that never came. I checked all my recently completed assignments and assignments to come and stalked all my favorite writing sites, but there was no incredible convergence that resulted in a magical gig landing in front of me.

Until 2:17pm. A project manager offered me an editing gig for the rest of the week. Which is why I really must say right here, right now, that it takes a kind of thick-skinned, roll-with-it, Zen master of a personality to be a freelance writer, and I have learned to pretend to be that kind of person.

It turns out that freelance writing and editing demand a good amount of pretending.

Like pretending to take a picture of my precious son when I'm really photographing something right behind him that I need for a story.

Or saying I spoke to someone who said I could do this or go there or take that--oh, it wasn't you? Then it must have been your boss.

Something I never find the need to lie about, though, is the unglamorous nature of my chosen career. I've filed stories from the dark bathroom of a Tucson Motel 6 and from a video poker parlor at a Virginia truck stop. I've said yes to wild deadlines, like ghostwriting three chapters of a technical book in three days. In fact, the wilder the deadline, the better I seem to perform, that little anxiety pumping down my arms and to my fingertips as I type.

So I'd like to think five years of having my own freelance writing business means I have some kind of proof that I can do this, that it means it's a viable choice for the next five years. But the days of slow work prompt me to wonder about making it for even the next five days.

Then there is the deeper question: Does that little bit of fear keep me hungry? Without the fear perhaps I'd be without the gigs. I'll ruminate on this and let you know what I think on the six year anniversary of my freelance career.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Where the cash goes

You don't write checks in Oaxaca, not for a pair of jeans and not for the electric bill. It's a cash-based economy for the most part. I've gotten used to taking out chunks of change to cover everything from school tuition to the down payment on our house. And, once I have a little cash, it's all too easy to spend. Unlike the United States, which often demands driving somewhere or finding something open at an odd hour, Oaxaca's corners, byways, and pueblos do business around the clock.

First there's the phenomenon of the corner store. This still exists in some U.S. cities, at least in high foot traffic areas, but in Oaxaca it's a staple. There is a miscelanea (a store that sells miscellaneous items) in every neighborhood, and some have multiple. They might sell the junk food and soda you would see at a California corner liquor store, but they also have fresh fruit, veg, ingredients for baking, salsas, fresh pan dulce and the like. The better stocked miscelaneas, though they might be so tight you can hardly turn around in them, have a seemingly limitless stock of any item you wind up needing, such as lip gloss, light bulbs, and party favors.

But shopping in Oaxaca gets even more convenient than walking to the corner. We have various peddlers, vans, and vochos that come by, knocking on our door to sell mountain honey, dried hibiscus blossoms, tejate dough, probiotic drinks, oranges, tortillas, fish, and pan dulce.

My favorite type of convenience shopping is at intersections. Any long red light at a major intersection is an open invitation for vendors to jump into the line of cars and sell stuff through the car windows. The toy of the moment is always on offer, be it a bouncing Sponge Bob doll on a furry pipe cleaner or a wind-up baby chick. Bags of limes, boxing gloves, plastic airplanes, Zapata moustaches, chicklets, roses, and churros wrapped in pink paper--we've gotten them all en route. It gets so, on the way to a party, we'll stop at a favorite intersection to buy a gift, and another to get a food item to bring.

I credit all this street activity to the fact that Oaxacans walk and take public transportation everywhere. Yes, there is un monton de drivers buying items through their car windows, but what supports that corner store culture and the street peddling around the clock is that people get out of their homes and, instead of pushing the garage door opener, they push a stroller or carry their babies and they walk to get their shopping done, vinyl market bag on shoulder and cash in hand.