Monday, March 31, 2008

Karma Chameleon

I just finished watching Ray Reyes of Menudo fame covering Boy George's "Karma Chameleon", and I have to say, go man! What a supreme cutie.

And those lyrics hit home: "Every day is like survival..." I've been up nights obsessing over house/money, money/house and then stopping myself because who cares?

Today set my teeth on edge. I called Bank of America to initiate the international wire transfer. I knew about the $35 fee, but it was too good to be true that it would end there. They quoted me an exchange rate that had me paying them another $1500 commission. Just to get my money. I banned Steve from even discussing this dismal development, because it compelled me to eat an entire tube of Chokis, the delicious chocolate chocolate chip cookies we scored last weekend.

I do love Chokis.

I am a split personality on this money thing. I am quite possibly the most careful, nitpicky person in the world about finances and spending. But the other side of me says that, at some point, you have to let go, or else you're making money your ruler. My dad the commie has always said that his childhood dream was to be like Scrooge McDuck in the old cartoons, sitting amongst stacks of gold coins. I sympathize.

Then I received a fortuitous email this afternoon. I just landed an excellent six-month writing contract. And the editor picked up every one of my 12 pitches (I had been worried I'd gone a little pitch-happy, but thankfully no). So maybe the Karma Chameleon smiles at me now, saying that what Bank of America steals from me I can compensate for. Still...that bloody bank!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Scary but True

We bought a house. I've done this now three times, this buying/selling a house, but this time it's in Mexico and what in the world do I know about buying a house in Mexico?

It's extremely excruciating to try to understand real estate, legal, business vocabulary. Sometimes they use a word over and over again, and I have no idea, and then I ask a factual question about the thing they had just gone on about for many paragraphs.

I have to ask it again: What do I know about buying a house in Mexico? Right now, a few things. There is no multiple listing service. You find an agent, they sell only the houses they represent. There is no way to see the properties from driving around. Everything is behind giant concrete walls and gates. There are very few websites dedicated to real estate in Oaxaca. I have found the few that are, and the prices seem directed toward gringos. The newspaper has very few ads, mostly just listings by agents. Most people sell their houses themselves and sometimes would rather hang on for years than bargain the littlest bit.

But, still, we bought a house. It's new and very urban, packed between a couple other houses and no yard, though there is an inner courtyard, a real favorite house feature of mine. And so we're developing the roof into a rooftop garden. The builder is putting in stairs from the terrace and bars around the roof's periphery to stop wayward kids. I've sketched out a little palapa-type hut with a tin roof supported by posts upon which we can hang a hammock, and a spot for yoga. I've plotted, with my pen, container gardens, hopefully some vegetables. I've planned an outdoor shrine, and an area for bamboo to grow and give us privacy. Steve, in an astonishing turn at conventionality, has insisted upon an umbrella table.

Did I mention that this house is still being built? And that we don't know how we are going to get our ever-weakening dollars transferred over here without paying a ginormous fee? And that I met with the notary today, which is Mexico's version of a real estate lawywer, a supposed disinterested, objective party, and still don't understand the documents she drew up? Add to this that we own nothing, absolutely nothing, having sold off all our assets up north, so we will actually need to buy a house of stuff, the kind of stuff I haven't thought about since college, like mirrors and frames and silverware. Suddenly, I must acquire things, and kind of rapidly.

We're going to live on Calle Sauces, in the Reforma district, across from Tortilleria Elvis. But I know what you're really wondering--will we still have the free guest space? Yes! There is a separate guest quarters, with full bath, on the back patio. Someday, when the dust settles and I am able to sleep again, I will paint the guest room a beautiful blue, perhaps to trick our visitors into believeing that we live near the coast.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Don't Cry for Me, Genevieve

My dear Genevieve Rosa has been going to school at Colegio Teizcali for about a month. She's in maternal, the room with the toddlers and post-toddlers, whatever they are called. Pre-preschoolers?

She cries big fat tears at drop off and pick up, yet spends her days dancing and singing. The teachers, Liliana and Olgita, are so loving toward her, but rather strict with me, always kicking me out of the classroom.

And then there's the classroom. It was jarring at first, its relative emptiness. There are no tables with manipulatives or playdough or anything, really. There are art supplies, a bookshelf with about 10 books, about 20 broken-down toys, and that's it.

I was surprised because this is a private school and part of our tuition bill is for school supplies. It seemed kind of stark. But then I talked to some moms, including some expatriate moms. One of them, Liz, told me something very significant: "We're used to so much stuff. They don't really need it."

She was right. I watched Genevieve and the others. They dance together and hold hands. They get sponges and wipe down the courtyard. They walk around the classroom babbling, and follow the teachers to visit other classes and watch the older kids at work. The children are content. They don't seem to miss the toys and actually play with each other. Perhaps this is the kind of experience that makes Mexicans a more communal culture than the United States. A world away from the cult of the individual.

And the most joyful sign of Genevieve's adjustment to school is that, when we come to collect her, she is covered in paint and food and sparkles.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Home in Oaxaca

The true beauty of having a near-constant influx of houseguests is that they make you appreciate different aspects of your home and your city.

Peri dolled up our courtyard for Steve's birthday. She picked some bugambilia growing at the side of the road, added cake, saint candles, teacups, and a skull, and transformed our patio.

Likewise, our current guests have us visiting remote villages, hitting town for guitar shopping, reserving the Monte Alban ruins at nighttime for an equinox party, taking in indigenous dance at an ethnobotanical garden, dining on biodiverse local corn creations at Itanoni, checking out indigenous herbal steam baths (called temazcal) with a neighborhood healer, and sampling mole at the chocolate factories. It's a far cry from our more daily life existence of cooking, cleaning, working, and homework, and it reminds me of why we moved to Oaxaca. All the possibilities.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Everyone Loves a Carnival

My entries have been published in two blog carnivals. My "Paper Flowers" write-up is in the Carnival of the Cities and my "Market Day" piece is in Mom's Blogging Carnival. Hooray!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

White Knuckles in Oaxaca

I like to obsess about money. Before we moved here, I made all sorts of charts and plans about how we could manage to get by in Oaxaca, on less income, but less expenses as well. Part of the equation involved us living off our interest without touching our principal.

Well, thank goodness that wasn't the entire equation. The U.S. economy is in the toilet, and our interest--which was supposed to generate us about $1800 per month on which to live--has dwindled to $1100 per month, and probably heading down fast.

The Fed meets Tuesday, and I can only imagine what might happen after that. The crumbling economy is a scary thing to ponder.

But this experience is teaching me to be more like Steve. He's had his own businesses for his whole adult life, and has learned to count on the ebb and flow of freelance dollars. I never understood it before, how you could depend on the unfathomable and unpredictable (it sounded like chaos theory), but now I see that what seemed like the most predictable thing--savings with interest--is far less steady than getting an influx of creative gigs. So, I got two more freelance writing gigs this week. I never saw this coming, becoming a freelance writer and, more significantly, depending upon being a freelance writer. It's a little like riding a roller coaster, fun and scary at the same time.

I must say that suddenly it also seems imperative that we buy a house here, to get rid of some of our increasingly worthless dollars and have a fixed asset. When will this craziness end? Or, when will I stop caring so much about it?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Market Day

In Oaxaca, every day is market day, you just have to go to the right neighborhood. Mercado de Abastos hops on Friday and Saturday, the same days for El Pochote. In my hick neighborhood of San Felipe del Agua, there's a small mercado in front of the church on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And, unfortunately, every day is a potential Gigante day. It is the bane of my existence that we find ourselves shopping at a big boring supermarket at least once a week, rather than going to the cheaper and better little markets. How else to score diapers, milk, yogurt smoothies, school clothes, whatnot in one fell swoop? I keep promising myself that, once the kids are older, we will shift to the market model.

This morning, I sensed the potential of Gigante approaching. So I begged Steve to walk with me to the neighborhood fruit and veggie guy before we headed home. I knew I couldn't walk all the heavy purchases up the side of the mountain without him.

He's on Calle Jacarandas, right after our favorite pizza place, Mambo Italiano. He sings all day and calls all the women, "Mi Reina", My Queen. Whenever I ask him what a particular exotic item might be, he tells me, "marijuana". It's funny for everyone in the shop every single time.

This morning, I was determined to get us enough produce to quell the Gigante demon. We tore the place up, scoring eight pears, 25 long-stemmed strawberries, a pineapple that smelled like sugar, five tiny beautiful zuchinnis, two onions, a bunch of bananas, two mangos, some unidentifiable wild-looking greens (perhaps...marijuana? I didn't dare ask.), lots of tomatoes, a chico zapote (untranslatable, as far as I know), a grapefruit the size of a small planet, and a bright bunch of squash flowers, perfect for soup. When the guy said 80 pesos (about $7.50) for the lot of it, I felt like singing with him. Then I got home and realized we're out of diapers...and toothpaste...and sunscreen. The spectre returns.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gifted, Shmifted

I've always disliked the notion of labeling children as gifted. As a teacher, I find children excel in their individual areas, and that the ones that people like to call "gifted" just happen to excel in a certain approved of area.

That said, I am pleased to announce that Max is gifted. His area of genius is in his propensity for telling jokes. On the way home from school, he caught sight of a couple of big dummo SUVS wrangling at the intersection. He said, in a perfect Bronx Bugs Bunny accent, "Where'd those guys get their licenses--clown school?"

Well, I just couldn't have been prouder. And it was hardly diminished by the fact that Max later disclosed to me that he was merely quoting Shaggy from a "Scooby Doo" episode. After all, it's all in the timing.