Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the edge of a new year

Firecrackers are popping outside, and the kids sleep soundly through it. That's something I'm phenomenally grateful for. I'm big on new year's resolutions and just resolutions in general. I think I resolve something new every week or so, just based on a person's casual suggestion or something I happen to see.

So it's more challenging to sort out what could be a meaningful resolution for 2010. I know I'd like to do more creative work, something to do with writing a piece about Jenny. But what's most on my mind is trying to live greener.

Oaxaca has a scary dry season, if you ask me, and it gets me worried about water and about resources in general. And my mind always drifts to garbage. So I've sourced out some biodegradable plastic bags that I carry with me in my purse. Whenever I'm shopping, here in Mexico, the kingdom of plastic bags for everything, I whip out my bio version and use it instead, and empty it out at home to reuse later. I've bought a few of my favorite vinyl market bags (though my Mexican students said it made me look like their grandmas) in various sizes, so I always have something to carry somewhere.

I also want to reduce our paper usage. We've made the switch to cloth napkins easily. I was worried because we have no dryer that keeping up with napkins would be too challenging, but napkins fit in any wash load and dry on the clothesline almost immediately. I've never used paper towels, but I've had to persuade the household to use the cloth rags I have around instead of paper.

Starting my compost pile was successful, thanks to my friend Sadie's guidance. I will boost it by expanding the number of pots in which I keep all the great veg and fruit scraps.

Someday soon, it will be planter boxes on the rooftop. I want to grow veggies, fruit and herbs. We have our rainwater catchment system for watering.

I'm always impressed with Oaxaca and Mexico in general because, despite the lack of infrastructure, people here get by on so much less consumption. In the whole green picture of things, it's the reduce part of the equation that matters the most. I posted this all more concisely on my Facebook status, vowing for less crapola in 2010. I'll be seeking out other methods for attaining this noble goal.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Expat Paranoia Sydrome Redux

A short piece I wrote on this very blog, "Expat Paranoia Syndrome," is the story of the month over at Expat Women. If you haven't read it yet, you can check it out on the website:

Expat Paranoia Syndrome

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Moving to Oaxaca and then--

Moving to Oaxaca with kids was not a huge leap for me but realizing that we've been here over two years does startle me. I wonder if I start to take my surroundings for granted. We spend our days rushing Max to Colegio Teizcali and Geni to her new Waldorf school that she loves, then we work, get Max and Geni to after school things--when you get down to it, what's the difference between living here and living there?

For me, the difference is in the details, that much of it happens in Spanish, in buildings painted indigo or terracotta or orange, with graffiti and agua fresca everywhere.

I've framed my week around certain rituals I dearly love. There is the organic market at Xochimilco, where I get my torta with wild greens, Coloradito mole sauce and cactus, and a chai and a tejate on the side, because who can choose? There are my weekends at the Casa de Cultura, listening to children practicing indigenous dances and classical music. Our Friday morning breakfast date at Itanoni, a restaurant dedicated to maintaining biodiverse species of corn, sparks many happy conversations between me and Steve. The markets, the revolutionaries, the wrestling posters, the chuggy buses, the cacti, the calendas, the kiss on the cheek from neighbors and friends--it's all part of my walks to pay the bills or pick up tamales.

Our third year here, and I've found I work a little too much and we don't venture to villages as frequently. The quantity of visitors has declined, and certain bureaucracies frustrate me more than fascinate me. But, through all of it, I equate Oaxaca with my destiny. There is no other place I know so messily beautiful, so profoundly moving, even in the smallest details, the brooding shapes of cloud shadows moving across the mountains or the sounds of brass bands in the distance.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

turn and face the strange

Sometimes I think I'm walking around, living my normal life, but I find myself catching my breath as if I'd just been punched in the stomach. That's how I've felt these past couple weeks, doing the same whirl of parties and classes and work and adventures and, all the while, grinding my teeth and waking up with crashing headaches.

Geni's teacher at school does not seem to get her, does not seem to want her and, in fact, may actively dislike her. It's a shock when, the last two years, her teachers loved her deeply and she them, but I try to remember how very few teachers understood or even noticed me. It was part of my mission as a teacher, to look the traditionally overlooked students in the eye, to get to know them so I could recommend a book at the library to them or remember their birthdays.

Geni's just four, after all, this is preschool, it should all be games and songs and happiness. And the funny thing is I think it is, a lot of the time, happy days at school for Geni. Just not for her teacher. Geni has speech delays and motor skill delays. She's also mischievous, this I know. But can't her teacher see all the love she has, and the joy and the creativity? It sucks the air out of me to think about this.

I tell myself it is better to know the situation and move forward, so I am. I've found a lovely school for Geni and am hoping Geni and her teachers will find common ground.

I'm too tangled in emotions to dwell on this now but, someday, I'll write about this with some order and some insight, and hopefully I will sound wise instead of lost.

It's times like these where a sister could come in handy, to remind me not to sit in my soup and moan about it, to remember that it is Geni's perspective, not mine, that truly, deeply matters in situations like this.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

It's a thin line between

Dia de los Muertos has come and gone. My third one here in Oaxaca, but it felt so different this time around. I understood more, for one thing, particularly some of the symbolism behind the altar objects and the stories behind the folkloric figures.

But there's something else, too, and it has to do with how terribly slow I am to feel part of what's around me. I watch and watch and definitely enjoy describing what I see and hear, but fully participating requires another leap.

So it was somewhere in the midst of the calenda processional with the brass band and my dear friend Liz hissing dance instructions to me that I realized I had become what I typically observe. We were jumping and spinning, with kids dressed as death, devils and skeletons winding around us, and I saw the cameras pointed at us.

Max noticed it, too, while playing and dancing at the San Felipe cemetery. "Mommy, the people took movies of me!"

There's always a kind of limbo in being here, stretched between two cultures, really not fully immersed in either one, and it takes something as beautiful and enveloping as Day of the Dead to make me forget to be an outsider.

Perhaps it was Alba welcoming me to sit at his ofrenda, a gravesite he and his family decorated with symbols representing fire, water, earth, the living and the dead, and the narrow lines between all of them. Maybe it was the red wine! The swirl of goings-on and the constant music and flowers and candles and copal incense began to feel like something out of a painting, or maybe a dream. It reminded me of an Aztec belief that life is just a dream and only upon death do we awake.

If so, I imagine Jenny on the other side of that thin line of flower petals, a line that a puff of wind or a bit of water could blur or break, even if it's just for one night.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Altared States

My favorite time of the year approaches--Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I wrote "Altared States," a piece about Oaxaca's unique take on the holiday as well as some of the traditions around it. Go Galavanting, an online travel magazine geared toward women, published my article. Here's the link:

Altared States

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Freak and Geek

Something I never get used to about living in Oaxaca is how I'm, in essence, a freak. I'm a big tall lady with a big Jewish afro and I'm not, you know, a quiet person. In my most insecure moments, I think every laugh on the street is a laugh at me. But now I've joined a health club and I stand out even more.

I'm the type who gets bright red in the face and sweats when I work out. To the point that people in the U.S. even noticed at times. In Mexico, where many people not only do not seem to sweat, but they also do not appear to mess up their hair or clothes while working out, I feel like a sweathog. Yeah, I'm Vinnie Barbarino or probably Arnold Horseshack and I'm strutting in saying "Hey, Mister Kot-ter," while everyone else comes and goes speaking of Michelangelo.

It's not like I have ever aimed to be cool or anything, but I wouldn't mind the advantage of occasionally being able to keep a low profile.

It hit an all-time low this morning when I went to Pilates. The Spanish instructions had me a half beat behind everyone else. I towered over everyone, all the more apparent with my bright red face. And then they brought out the medicine balls. Is that what they're called? Those giant exercise balls. We were supposed to balance ourselves supine across them in order to lift or stretch or exhale or inhale, but I found myself uncontrollably rolling around the room.

Panic rose in my throat, but I kept one goal in mind: just don't roll over anybody. If I can get through the class without flattening my classmates, I can call it a success. But will I ever go back?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Half as much

I've been busy since school started with serious party-hopping which means many pinatas to be broken. I've also had some great fun hanging with new friends such as Lauren, Sadie and Heather. The upswing in social activities means that we do way less village exploring and it means that we wind up at home between parties rather than out and about.

I'm a Cancer and I like hanging out at home, but something shook me the other day. I was walking out of my Osho meditation gathering and saw a house for rent. The house was on Jacobo Dalevuelta, right next to the house Steve and I rented when we lived here 12 years ago.

All of a sudden, I saw a different life unfold for me, where we lived in the centro as opposed to in a quiet-ish neighborhood. Where we'd be smack between two parks, across from a yoga center and right by a Friday tianguis. It would be the hubbub life, where you step outside your door to see what's going on. Twelve years ago, we would stand on our balcony and listen for the calenda processionals, dashing out to follow the brass band.

I felt myself longing for that version of Oaxaca. But does that version include kids and getting them up to Volcanes for school every day? Crossing bloody Ninos Heroes de Chapultepec--in essence, commuting? It seems silly to commute to take kids to school when Steve and I both work at home full time and enjoy the fact that we can take a back country road to the school and get there in 10 minutes. And that I can walk back in 25, stopping for a cactus smoothie breakfast on my favorite median strip.

I like rituals and checking in with neighborhood people, but I also like ambient buzz. Maybe we don't have enough of that around here?

Then I wondered if the old life I romanticize about includes the ability to have Jenny around. It reminds me of something I said to my grief group therapist a couple years ago, that I lead a second choice life with Jenny gone. I've reconciled that somewhat because I suspect many people don't even get their second choice life.

Then I remembered something Jenny said that I think I blogged about before. My dad once told us, "We Makofskys always have to work twice as hard for half as much." Jenny said, delighted, "Half as much! I love half as much. That's enough."

Monday, September 07, 2009

House of Cultcha

My lovely friend Nina introduced me to the wonders of La Casa de Cultura. Here is one thing Oaxaca's government seems to get right, funding an ornate building with arches around two inner courtyards, with creative arts classes going on in classrooms tucked behind the arches.

I took Max to his Introduction to Theater class there on Sunday, and spent the time listening to violinists practicing, watching ceramicists forming dinosaurs and catching glimpses of children practicing folkloric dances.

The experience made me think about the childhood I'd like Max and Geni to have, growing up pursuing creative endeavors at La Casa de Cultura. At one point, Max caught sight of a boy his age carrying a large canvas with the beginnings of an abstract painting. "That's what I want to do!" he insisted. And chess. And science. And origami. All of it amid the galleries and colonial architecture, the strains of songs and stomping feet, like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Back to School Again

I've got the school supply list for Colegio Teizcali's preschool in front of me, which caused a certain amount of headaches. Here's the list, including some of my bad translations:

1 workbook with small squares
1 workbook with big squares
2 professional notebooks for drawing, each 100 pages
1 double-lined notebook in the style of Italian binding
2 pencils (for writing, not drawing)
2 boxes of wooden colored pencils (24 colors) tagged with name
1 plastic pencil box tagged with name
2 pairs of rounded point scissors
1 "migajon" eraser
1 toothbrush, little cup, two toothpastes with flavor (except mint), tagged
1 comb or brush for hair
1 industrial gray robe with long sleeves (for sale in "Boneterias) or "mandarla hacer") with the name embroidered
2 educational games for the class library (puzzles, blocks, memory, "chalupa" [Ed. note--isn't chalupa a dish at Taco Bell?]
1 box of 24 crayons
1 small towel for hand-cleaning
1 big shoebox with the top covered in ultramine shade paper with her name
For swimming: bathing suit, swim cap in the color indicated by the swim teacher, goggles, sandals, and towel or bathrobe

It makes you tired, doesn't it?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Welcome Back to Teizcali

We've begun our third year at Colegio Teizcali, so you would think we'd start to feel like old pros, but there is still the first day of school nervousness and confusion. The principal, maestro Daniel, sets up a path of flowers for children to follow as they enter school. I was pleased to see Geni chose not to throw herself down on the flowers and succumb to sobbing like she did last year. Instead, she just hid her head in my shoulder.

I was prepared for this year to feel different, like maybe I'd lose a little bit of the wide-eyed newcomer's wonder in things, but nothing beats having the kids at school all day to bring back some of that everything-is-new-again excitement. My walk home, past the bright concrete buildings, hidden gardens, rusty metal signs and women cooking on comals in doorways, was like meeting old friends. I stopped by my juice lady for a cactus smoothie but, due to my slow meanderings, got there only after she had run out. She promised me, "I'll set aside a green one for you tomorrow." Which she did.

I set to spending the day writing like a demon, finishing up an article on telenovelas--soap operas--for Aishti, and a bunch of web writing that wasn't nearly as interesting, all the while kicking myself: never plan a packed work day on the first day the kids are back in school. The first week, really, because you need to be flaky.

Geni's teacher at Colegio Teizcali is Maestra Alma, a teacher so wonderful that Steve was inspired to say, "She just might be as good a teacher as you are." I think she might be better...a bit more patient than I ever was. Max has Maestra Clara, a teacher who earned fame for transforming her classroom into a haunted house last year. We can only hope for such grand permutations this year.

But I believe the highlight of all the changes and the returns this week has to be what happened today. We discovered another neighborhood street market. Nothing pleases me more than a tianguis, an open-air Mexican market that extends for blocks upon blocks.

This market, in the Infonavit neighborhood, had many of the standards--a couple ladies ladling tejate, my favorite drink; booths of piratas or bootleg DVDs and CDs; the newly-popular Indian clothing puestos; croc knockoffs; and Tokidoki-like purses of Japanese cartoon characters. There were a few surprises as well, such as a crepe stand, a manicure booth, a waxing booth, modern paintings, a guy selling exotic leafy plants out of the back of his pickup truck, and a practical joke and magic trick stand.

It was a Fellini movie moment as the man at the magic stand did trick after sleight of hand to advertise his wares. We oohed and aahed and purchased three for Camillo's birthday present, and then Max got a container of moisturizing cream with a fake snake coiled inside, ready to spring up at any sucker who took up Max on his offer of hand cream.

The magician puffed on fake cigarettes packed with talcum powder and I felt the market watching us watch him. Who gets to be this lucky?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Boolean Operators & Pippi Longstocking vs. Ikea

Sometimes I forget how interesting and odd that sister of mine was. Luckily, I have the Barnard Zine Library and Jenna the librarian to remind me. She has just posted Jenny's graphic organizer, "Boolean Operators & Pippi Longstocking vs. Ikea," from an old issue of "Have You Seen the Dog Latley?".

We've both always been very big on Venn.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Know You're a Sister When

My friend Carole introduced me to a website called The Sister Project. There' a writing exercise on there, where you finish the phrase, "You know you're a sister when..." I like this exercise, because it reminds me that I still get to be a sister, even though Jenny's gone.

when you appropriate her memories, not being able to distinguish if something happened to you or to her.

when you have someone to fill in the blanks of your random associations. I called Jenny once and said, "What is the word I'm trying to remember? The one that the book Me and the Terrible Two was all about?" She didn't have to skip a beat. "Nepotism."

when you don't have to think about what you're saying.

when half your clothes are actually hers, and vice versa.

when you dream about her and all the world of having her comes back to you like it is just there waiting for you, if you could just summon it up at will.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

So you think you can dance?

I cannot pay adequate tribute to our 8-day journey from California to Oaxaca, especially since, after we returned home, we all came down with the stomach flu. I blame the bootleg Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor and arcade off the highway in Puebla.

Puebla, in general, was not good to us. We found ourselves in Friday's late rush hour, stuck at an OXXO (sorta Circle K) essentially giving up. We could not wrangle our way through the mess and the gnarl, so we decided to make the 4-hour drive to Oaxaca on the almost-done tire over the rocky road. And then, like a beacon, the City Xpress hotel popped in front of us. A strip mall. A generic trying-to-be boutique hotel, flanked by a bowling alley and a aforementioned Chuck E. Cheese. Max said, "This is the nicest place we've stayed the whole time." You can take the boy out of the suburbs, but...

Why lead with the low points, though? I could mention the Mazatlan mini-vacay, with a 10pm visit to a quickly disappearing Olas Altas beach as the tide came in. I kept yelling to Max, "Only five more minutes!" but it was truly beautiful. On the way out of Mazatlan, I leaned out the car window and asked a roadside vendor for a bottle of fresh, cold coconut water, which is sold at many busy intersections. Mexican road trip food has it all over U.S. road trip food (except for Poblano pizza).

The definite high point caught me by surprise. We were all cranky over the recent loss of Snuggles, Max's favorite stuffed gorilla that he left in the hotel room in Los Mochis. I suggested we take a half-day vacation from our road trip, and veer off to Guanajuato, a place Steve, Jenny and I used to hang.

It worked. GTO is a city of subterranean streets, tunnels, bridges and cobblestone alleyways, all of which appealed to Max's "I'm lost in a labyrinth" and Geni's "I'm Velma from Scooby Doo" fantasy mentalities. I dragged my kids along to see all the old favorite haunts, and they did not complain. They loved the gardens and crumbling remains of the ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel de Barerra. Max willingly discussed the artwork and its symbolism at the all-Don Quixote museum, one of my little strange treasured places. And they even hung for a 9pm visit to Truco 7, the funky kinda bohemian cafe where we scored blacky purply mole enchiladas. It reminded me why Guanajuato was always our second choice, after Oaxaca.

Coming home to Oaxaca, we're caught in this strange time warp of waiting for school to start but also trying to get better from the stomach bug. I can tell I'm starting to improve, though, because I was researching an article and came across a mention of Bollywood Booty dance fitness, and I got excited, thinking, "I will have a Bollywood Booty." Now that I'm two years into this Oaxaca lifestyle, and perhaps have this freelance for a living thing figured out (knock wood), it's time to focus the year on dancing, I think.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jenny Makofsky's cartoon "The Beats" on view

One of Jenny's standout ongoing contributions to our old zine 'Have You Seen the Dog Lately?" was her comic "The Beats". The strip followed Bart and Beulah Beat, two beatnik best friends who made observations about philosophy, pop culture and pop tarts, all in beat-speak. Anyway, one of Jenny's best strips, "Post-Monsterism", is now posted on the website of the Barnard Zine Library. Get your "Beats" fix on:


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pacific Northwest Heyday

Welcome to my first blog post as a 42-year-old. It is not the highpoint of my trip al norte, what with it being 3am and my balancing my laptop on my knees as I type in the bathroom of the Medford Motel 6. But the past week in the Pacific Northwest has held many highlights:

*Stopping at Granzella's free olive bar on the way up
*Eggplant burger at Gepetto's in Ashland
*Berry-picking at Sauvie Island
*Walking Alberta Street
*Hanging with Jen and meeting baby Marley at Wilshire Park
*Dancing at the NIA studio with Megs
*Playing in the water area at the Children's Museum with Max and Geni
*Aladdin's twice for veggie Mediterranean
*The all green paintings show at the vegan shoe store
*Singing "The Night Chicago Died" in honor of Jenny at The Alibi Tiki Lounge with Mary Lou and Meg
*The Stella meet and greet for Max
*Playing Frogger at Ground Kontrol with Steve, Max, Geni and Meg
*Powell's with my mom, Steve and the kids
*Seeing J.R.'s new paintings
*Hiking to the top of Multnomah Falls with Max
*Chilling for four hours in Alberta Park, watching Max and Geni swim and make friends
*Indian sides and talking love, sex, marriage and babies with the Stephanies
*Explaining to my friend why she might want to have sex with her boyfriend before breaking up with him
*The water and light show at the Enchanted Forest
*To come: a morning playing in Lithia Park along the creek

Friday, June 12, 2009

Go Moto

One of the advantages of our strange location in Oaxaca (not quite in the center of things, not officially the municipality of Oaxaca) is that we live near moto-taxi country. Motos run on the back roads only, because taxistas have licenses for the main roads.

A typical moto consists of a motorcycle front with a little roofed cart attached to the back. Usually no doors. The windshield sports a nickname, possibly quite descriptive and sometimes in English, such as the man with the "Night of the 1,000 Loves" moto-taxi last week who asked for a Spanish translation of the nickname and then laughed delightedly.

When the car is broken (often), we grab a moto to get the kids to school, joining the legions of mommies and daddies hauling babies, backpacks and market bags into these lightweight taxis.

Paying for a moto is a fixed price affair, 5 pesos per person, although you never know what happens with kids. Some throw in the nena for free and others go for half price.

Since the motos have to stick to a pretty defined, limited area, the routes do not vary widely. I used to go into a long description of where Colegio Teizcali was located before a friend was kind enough to point out that all I have to tell the moto-taxista is that I want to go to "la posta", which, I believe, is the large post located on a corner across from the school. To get back home, rather than awkwardly trying to pronounce Rio Quiyotepec and then trying to direct us there, all I have to say is "a la antenna", which is a giant antenna structure two blocks from our house.

Moto-taxistas are big on swerving. They like to turn off the engine and coast down hills. They hook up CD players, Ipods and flashing lights to pimp their rides. They are often young, maybe pre-driving age, and there is a healthy portion of women operating them.

When we ride moto-taxis, my kids become puppies with their tongues flying out of their mouths in the open breeze. Every bump, ditch and turn is up for speculation--will we make it?--and conversation--we made it! Graffiti is brighter, the air a little less diesel-tinged and the markets something to avoid rather than to dive into. Whenever we take a moto up to Colegio Teizcali, the kids tumble out laughing and thrilled, like we just got off a roller coaster. And me, the one gripping onto Geni to keep her from jumping for joy, holding the backpacks between my knees so they don't get lost as we sail over a speed bump, trying to grab onto the driver's unbolted seat to hold us all in place, I love it all dearly, too.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Post Mastectomy Alternative Clothing

It has been a hell of a two years since my mastectomy, weighted down with a heavy silicone prosthesis and one of those very modest bras meant to hide the slightest hint that you ever had surgery but that show when I wear the slightest v-neck, scoop neck or skinny strap tank top.

Because these sturdy, practical items are in need of replacing, I've started doing some online research to find alternatives to the very modest, cover-it-all-up options for post-mastectomy patients.

I'm extremely happy to share a blog entry I found, addressing my challenge:

Post Mastectomy Supplies by Hester Hill Schnipper.

She talks about various options, and links to a wonderful website called BreastFree.

BreastFree, in turn, links to many places to order lighter, different breast forms, cool tank tops, and all sorts of stuff.

I wanted to share this information in case anyone else out there is searching for new options.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Super Seco

New dimensions of Oaxaca have been revealing themselves to me lately. Firstly, there's the wonderful ecstatic dance experience I've discovered at Casa del Angel yoga center. It's called Osho Moving Meditation, I believe, and it combines manic, freeform, barefoot dancing to live drumming with sudden, absolute stillness. It reminds me of the great Freeze Dance game you play with preschoolers, or that old statues game I can never quite remember all the rules for that I used to play with friends in the backyard at Vestal, New York.

I finally hit the other "big" organic-y natural market in Oaxaca, at the old railroad station. It's very lovely to see a market under the old signposts and waiting area for trains to arrive. I wish there was still a railroad system here. Our friend told us he and his girlfriend used to take the sleeper train to Mexico City, which included dinner served in the dining car and foldaway beds. Deluxe! The market itself was small, but there was a vendor selling organic seeds so I have now sourced the beginnings of our organic rooftop garden. And I also found a woman preparing fresh blue corn tortillas to make wild mountain mushroom tacos.

We also finally ventured to Atzompa, spurred by the incredible pottery show we saw at the State Folk Art Museum in San Bartolo Coyotepec. The pottery here is glazed, unlike pieces in other villages around Oaxaca, and it is phenomenally, shockingly cheap. We came home with a trunk load of plates, bowls, planters, garden boxes and dishes for catching water overflow, and we spent under 50 dollars.

My dad comes for a visit soon, and I'm already beginning a mental list of the places we'll go. Yes, of course, Italian Coffee Company, Oaxaca's version of Starbucks, my dad just can't stay away. And there will be the everyday things, too, like coming to Max's final presentation at school and his 8th (8th!) birthday party at Poing Poing, the super doble fiesta de Max y Inoa. Super-seco! With a Madagascar theme, in honor of gender neutrality.

But just in case you thinks it's all organic honey and bougainvillea over here, take heart: our new rooftop patio is sporting a split beam, the key supporting beam, and sagging dangerously. The connecting pipes in our water catchment system has fallen down due to, well, rain.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Imagined Birthday

Felicidades, Jenny, you would have been 40 today. I'm trying to conjure up what you might say or think about it. You'd wear a great shirt or some killer black boots, and your sparkly hair clips. You would meet Megan and I at Cafe Royal, which I don't think exists in the exact same form anymore. You would have a nonfat latte, no cinnamon, and a croissant. We'd try to get the couches.

Meg and I would force you to open your gifts and exclaim over each bit of wrapping paper, sticker-covered gift tag and contents within, most likely having to do with art, craft, kawaii, folklore or an inside joke. We'd talk about work, passerby, Max, our families, guys, movies, books, zines, politics and plans, always plans. It'd be the season of the fun list, after all, where we comprised goals for summer diversions, like having a gourmet picnic during Shakespeare in the Park, or stenciling up a neighborhood with a secret slogan.

Then we'd rush off to our various corners of the universe, but you'd have a day full of celebrations. People, maybe the Eating Club, taking you to lunch or dinner, preferably for something ethnic and spicy chased with some fried plantains. You might hit a movie or a cafe, or people might expect you to come to their houses and grace them with your presence. The party would go late, and then you'd come home and tell me the details and show me the goods.

If you were in Oaxaca with me, we'd have started the day with the kids tackling you in bed. You could have joined us in mango for breakfast and a mototaxi ride up the mountain to school, where each bump merits a laugh or speculation over whether we can make it. We could have walked home, commenting on the stellar banana plant in blossom or the vintage rusted Wonder Bread sign hanging by the Walkway of the Secretaries. We could hit Cafe Cafe for organic cappuccinos and pan dulce and then go to a museum. Or we could hike to the waterfall in San Felipe. For comida, I'd take you to La Biznaga for cocktails and salmon or shrimp in tamarind mole. Your gifts would be artesania from the villages or daily items from Abastos.

We would sing old pop songs and old-timey tunes loudly, off key.

Can I summon up this day for you, and you for this day? Because 40 is something special, I think. xoxo

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Do something brave

It's three days until Jenny's 40th birthday, and I find it only fitting that I'm reflecting on what Hilair told me she does to remain inspired by Jenny: do something brave.

There are a million small moments of bravery, I think, like when Max told me he was ashamed that I mentioned my mastectomy to Liz, a parent at the school who works for a gynecologist and knew where I could find a new prosthesis in Oaxaca. I told Max he could be proud of me for fighting cancer, but my insides wanted to cry when he said that to me. Maybe the bravest thing is to reflect on what happened to me nearly two years ago, because I don't let myself think about it, read about it or even look too closely in the mirror.

Another type of bravery, I think, is meeting new people. We spent the weekend visiting the houses of new friends. On Saturday, it was Miguel, Rosa and Kobe for an afternoon talking about art, writing, children, gardens and books. Rosa shared a story about how, years ago, she was sitting in the zocalo when she was approached by a man. He said he was a painter and asked if she would model for him. She agreed. The painter turned out to the maestro Rodolfo Morales, and the painting was the famous huge mural in the municipal palace. In the painting, she is making some kind of offering.

On Sunday, we spent the afternoon at the home of Sadie, Anthony and Jasper. Sadie made a delish Puertoriqueno lasagne, with plantain stuffed inside. We sat on the porch and watched the children play and sing and, in Geni's case, sometimes pee, and it seemed to unfold like a beautiful (if flawed by occasional reminders of body functions) movie. We talked about compost and travel, painting and families. The world continues to offer up fascinating people to meet.

I'll be seeking out something symbolic to do or to connect with in the next few days. I'm struggling over this, foundering over what it should be, maybe something to do with art or some kind of happening. I will have to be somewhere and be receptive so I know that it's right for Jenny and me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Get on the life rollercoaster

A day of ups and downs. It began with Geni's teacher encouraging me to come to flag ceremony to see Geni in action, marching to the patriotic song. I show up, only to see Geni firmly placed on the sidelines, not participating, while her classmates march and sing. I felt bad for her, even though she was happily playing with her shoe, because I worry about her being left out of things. She's behind in language and in her motor skills, and I perceived that the teacher might find it easier not to include her. I walked home feeling down, but found my newest green juice lady, which generated some cheer.

I got home and finished my article on Japanese artist Kenichi Yokono for Hi-Fructose, which was a blast. Then, I found out my tutorial "How to Make Out with Pop Rocks" got published, albeit not where I had hoped (I wanted it on, but it's on eHow). Here's the link so that you, too, can start making out with pop rocks.

It's actually quite informative, I assure you.

Then, we got to take Geni to the early childhood stimulation center, if that's how it translates to English. This was her first appointment. The psychologist is hoping that she can boost Geni's motor and language skills via her method of rehabilitation. Geni loved the session, and will continue going three times a week.

So Geni's happy, but I can't get over this possible snub. I tried removing myself from the emotion of it, to look just at the pure series of events, but it still seems like she was excluded. She loves Colegio Teizcali, to the point where she waits at the door every morning with her backpack in hand, asking "Maestra? Maestra?" She runs into her classroom without looking back. This is what I tell myself: This is what matters. Her perception of events are more important than mine here, right?

I needn't live her pain when she has had no pain but, the crux of it is, if she's can't express herself to me, how will I know the depth of her feelings? I remember a mother posting on a forum about her silent child. She said, "I long to know his inner world."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Need a Pitcher Not a Belly Itcher

I have been feeling way too dependent upon my weekly writing gig, which offers tons of work at mediocre pay. So, I've been trying to branch out.

I do the usual, applying cold through ads, putting in some bids, writing notes to my contacts, but I avoid writing pitches, and I can't figure out why. I have a list of good magazines to pitch, and a ton of ideas, but I've become lazy, I think, with all the work, and the idea of going through the whole pitch-and-get-rejected process seems insurmountable.

I'm stuck in this syndrome of writing for short-term goals, but not looking at the long-term and broadening my client base.

Two months ago, I was on the beach, and found this man selling extraordinary paintings on the street. I interviewed him on the spot, bought a handful of paintings--he was the ideal outsider, visionary artist, taking a traditional Mexican art form and completely reinterpreting it with his visions. His work just jumped out at me, and I wasn't the only one. As I talked to him, almost everyone who passed by stopped to take a look at his work. I took a bunch of pictures and knew I had a story. I assembled a list of alternative art magazines, but the pitch drifts somewhere out of reach. How can that art and the potential article about it keep me up all night with excitement and, by day, elude me because I don't want to write the pitch?

The good news is that I've garnered some excellent gigs in the past couple days, including a quick tutorial on "How to Make Out with Pop Rocks Involved", a review of an art show inspired by monster movies and, my favorite, a piece on Stacy and Clinton of "What Not to Wear". Pop culture paradise.

Somewhere, in here, is a lesson for me, but I'm not ready to learn it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Mathematics of Laundry

With four people in the house, including a grubby preschooler, we have to do a load of laundry about every other day. Laundry in Mexico is interesting, at least my version, because we have no dryer, so everything goes on the clothesline for my over-analysis of whether it has been cleaned to a worthwhile state.

And I am the only one who does laundry--the sole portal through which all filth must pass, which drives me to some puzzling conclusions about what happens with laundry.

I'm not talking about the lost sock syndrome over which so much has been written. It's everything else that winds up on the clothesline. Like the other day, after hanging it all up, I tried adding it all up. Why was it that Genevieve's only piece of clothing drying on the line was her giant green tank top that she wears as a mini-dress, accompanied by eight pairs of underpants? Am I to believe that, over the course of two days, all she wore was a saggy tank top and four pairs of underpants per day? It seems unlikely and uncomfortable.

Then there's Steve who, in this hot weather, seems to enjoy wearing two or three black T-shirts per day, no pants, and an extraordinary number of socks that I do not even bother to match up.

Max is more predictable. Lots and lots of pajamas and shorts, but no shirts. I know his habits, loving to jump into pjs as soon as possible, alternating from this routine only to wrench on his too-small Ninja costume to see if it has magically enlarged to accommodate him in the past week. He, too, seems to wear a lot of underpants, if the clothesline tells no lies.

This is what I am left to wonder, is if the clothesline is just an abstract symbol, representing the chaos theory of our weekly lives, whittled down to the essentials, the socks, the underpants, whereas the embellishments, the hand-knit sweater great grandma made in the sixties, the light-as-dandelion-spores shirt I bought in the market, get sucked into the black hole of the laundry that will never be washed, never worn again. My dirty laundry broadcasts my failures--no, that's too strong of a word--my never-realized intentions. But maybe that's okay? I mean, it's just laundry.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Expat Paranoia Syndrome

Well, Colegio Teizcali and every other primary school in Mexico has been closed for a couple weeks now, and this may be the cause of my sense of reason tipping.

It was set off a couple nights ago when we got a random phone call at midnight. The phone rang and then beeped, indicating there was an urgent message. This unto itself was strange because very few people know our cell phone number, even fewer people use it, and no one calls us a midnight.

I checked the message and it was a man stating my full name, a long list of letters and numbers (beginning with T-H)and a message that I could not make out, not a word of it, for the life of me. I listened about seven more times, jotting down the random letters and numbers. I caught the word "urgent" and I thought I heard the word "vehicle". There was an address and an insistence that we show up to withdraw ("retirar") something.

I am not a worrier, but my heart was pounding in my ears. I ran upstairs to our terrace shouting, "I think our car's been stolen", but there it was, sitting on the street.

And here is where Expat Paranoia Syndrome sets in. Because I live in a foreign country where a certain amount of daily life remains incomprehensible to me, my mind leaped to many unrealistic conclusions. Someone was about to steal our car! It was a warning.

And then my mind wandered to kidnapping. We had to withdraw money from the branch ("sucursal", they said) because they had our kids. But they didn't, our kids were in the house, asleep. Or were they? I checked. They were. But how long would they be there, snug in their beds? I had Steve check all the locks.

Who knew my full name, my cell phone number, and wanted me to withdraw something urgently? Was someone following my wanderings from Colegio Teizcali down to the Volcanes Friday market, to the cactus juice lady on Martyrs of Cananea Street by the Elvis Tortillas shop and then to my bank? I am a creature of habit, I know, and my rituals are downright predictable to the minute, I suspect.

I laid awake feeling like I was in the movie I had just seen that evening "Get Shorty". You never know when a gangster or a mob boss or an investor and his bodyguard might slip into your living room and turn on "David Letterman", do you? And, in a foreign country, with a message I didn't understand, and no working knowledge of how to call the police via my cell phone (or even knowing if police in Oaxaca are a good thing to call, when most evidence points to the contrary), I felt the only solution was to stay awake and ruminate.

In the morning, I stopped the guy that was delivering water to our house. I handed him my cell phone and asked him to listen to the message, that it was urgent and I was worried. He looked at me seriously, listened for a minute and said, "It's DHL. They have a package for you. You need to withdraw it from their branch."

And, you see, this is why Expat Paranoia Syndrome is so insidious. Because, as far-fetched as my midnight wonderings were, it is also ridiculous that a DHL employee would call me at midnight and leave an urgent message to pick up a magazine.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Our Journey to Ixtlan

Somehow we've been living in Oaxaca for nearly two years and managed to miss going to the mountains. Sure, there was the time we coaxed our reluctant vocho up the first peak, to get a blast of cool, fresh air, before careening back down to Oaxaca proper.

We decided that, with the swine flu epidemic supposedly raging somewhere just out of reach (maybe in Texas?), we might as well go camping. Now, I'm not a camper. I was a Girl Scout for a couple years, but I was in it for the HoeDowns (and Thin Mints). I don't like sleeping in tents and waking up in cold dirt and a semi-warm shower located across a public campground. And I really have to ignore that "we're getting everything dirty" obsessive streak of panic that runs through me.

Camping near Ixtlan de Juarez, the mountains to the north of Oaxaca City is altogether different. You go to the town center and stroll around until you find a sign about ecotours. You call the numbers on the sign and no one answers. You check your guidebook and call those numbers and get someone. Just not someone who knows what you're talking about when you ask about "hay una cabana disponible para esta noche?"

As you wander aimlessly around the zocalo, chasing after your three-your-old, you see the only open door in the center. It's the office to the ecotour company, randomly open on a Sunday afternoon during a holiday weekend with a flu scare on. You go in and they shrug. "Sure, there's cabins. Just head on over there."

Sure enough, a simple 4.3 kilometers away, after several prominent signs, we found the ecotour campgrounds. We drove down a gravel road, parked, and found ourselves in the midst of a pine forest, not a sight to which I'm accustomed in Oaxaca. It was so...California, down to the overly dry conditions.

It was my kind of camping. Cabins with beds and furniture. There are fireplaces and logs. There are porches for lounging around. Private hot showers (well, hot for two minutes).

We took the kids down a trail that led across a rope bridge to a cave, where we could hear bats squeaking. Then, it was to the ropes course. Max and I rented mountain bikes and careened down to a river where we threw our shoes off and chased tadpoles. We watched trout swimming in the pond before trudging and semi-riding our bikes back up the mountain. We ate fresh Oaxacan cuisine at the lodge and collected pine cones. The next day, Geni and Max tried horseback riding. Geni threw a tantrum when we pulled her off the horse, crying "burro burro burro!"

And all of it about a 40-mile trip from our house. How about that? And I would have thought this an impossible thing for me to say just a week ago, but I look forward to camping again soon. But next time we bring Carolos Quinto chocolate bars, Maria cookies and bon bones for the Mexican version of s'mores. Can't believe I forgot that stuff.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dia del Nino and My Rant Against Trazzler

It's strange circumstances, to be sure, but it's Day of the Child in Mexico. We remembered at around noon, so we went off to Chedraui supermarket to buy a cake and celebrate.

So, it might be the cake talking, but I'm in a bad mood. This freaking Trazzler travel website that I hate deeply keeps sending me newsletters and there is no way to unsubscribe. They say you can unsubscribe, but I just get in an endless loop of complaints that won't be registered without my email, which they say is not registered. Then how am I getting this useless, annoying newsletter in the first place?

I originally thought I'd apply to write for Trazzler which, upon reading the fine print, looked like a terrible idea. Very scammy. I read on their forums that some users are beginning to think Trazzler is a scam, too. If not a scam, then Trazzler is at least unethical and annoying, with no contact email addresses and a help forum that won't let me publish my query. With Trazzler, I am like those suckers who got lifetime magazine subscriptions through AOL and could never cancel them, doomed to pay for bad magazines for an eternity. I am Sisyphus pushing that heavy rock of Trazzler spam emails up the hill.

Boo Trazzler!
Trazzler, I do not like you.
Trazzler, I agree with those on the forums who beg to be set free from your spam.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Neighborhood and Swine Flu

It's day two of the quarantine or whatever you want to call it. I've had a lot of people writing me, asking what it's like to be in the belly of the beast, though, really, we're more in the knee, somewhat below all the action.

I'll begin by saying we live outside the immediate town center, about a mile or so to the northeast. Here, it's been quiet. A little too quiet. There are far fewer gas trucks blaring their "Oaxaca" song and dragging chains behind them. The old vocho that chugs around with a megaphone on top, announcing "Tortillas! Tortillas!" has not been making its circuit. No such luck with the orange truck, though, Steve's nemesis, that has a tape reeling over and over about fresh oranges from Veracruz, juicy and sweet, fresh for your juice, for your kitchen, from Veracruz. Hardly a nieve ice cream pushcart, announced by a honking horn.

The real absence, though, is the children because, no matter what block I'm on in Oaxaca, from the busiest highway to a random dirt road, there's kids running, backpacks slapping their backs, mommies carrying impossibly big babies (rare to see a stroller or even a baby pack) and the constant laughing, shouting and crying that goes along with all of it.

So I was surprised to find our Tuesday street market on in my neighborhood, full of vendors, but very few customers. The customers that were there were not crowding the prepared food booths as much, but there was still quite a bit of trying on shoes and examining designer knockoff purses. Some vendors and customers wore blue or white face masks, but most did not.

As I walked from here to the west side of the town center yesterday afternoon, about a 45 minute walk, I noticed that, as I approached the tourist part of town, more businesses were open.

I passed the ADO first class bus station and saw a mobile vehicle parked at the doorway, stocked with medical equipment and staffed by people wearing face masks. There was a small satellite dish atop the vehicle, generating, I believe, a wireless signal, because the medical staff had laptops. People were standing at the tables and gathering pamphlets and flyers. Just a few feet away, inside the bus station, the tourist information kiosk was open for business.

There was a big book fair on in Llano Park, with probably five times as many vendors as customers, but that could have been the hour. On a tree was nailed a forlorn paper sign: zumba class was canceled. To think that the only person who bothered to notify people of a closure was the teacher of the outdoor zumba class. Here, too, there was a mobile health vehicle.

I cut through Conzatti Park, where there were no teenagers making out, a major shift in the park demographic. From there, I walked on the outer edge of the grounds of the Santo Domingo cathedral, past the open doors of the Oaxaca Spanish Magic language school. I peered through their courtyard and spied two people semi-dozing on patio chairs--not magic, but not an infernal hell of a pandemic, either.

I arrived at La Biznaga restaurant, where I was meeting friends. The staff all wore face masks. There was only two tables occupied, but one was filled with young Mexican hipsters, drinking cocktails. Only one had a face mask, loosely hanging around his neck.

By the time we left La Biznaga, a couple hours later, the quietness was more noticeable. By 7pm or 8pm, Oaxaca usually wakes up. Stores reopen after siesta, restaurants start filling up, bars open their doors. None of that was happening. It started to feel like...Portland, Oregon, after 9pm, not a late-night kind of town for the most part.

Today was equally mellow, though we snuck out to the park and found a couple kids on swings and two teenagers, skateboarding while wearing face masks. It was so laid-back around here that I was honestly surprised when I found out the WHO raised the alert level to phase 5.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What to do when there's nothing you can do

Bizarre times, these days, with Mexico closing down all the schools until May 6th due to swine flu. We are nowhere near the major outbreaks, though my friend told me Oaxaca has its one and only case over two weeks ago, in which the person died at the hospital and they shut the whole hospital down. But, since then, nothing that I know of.

Not only are we to keep the kids out of school (and they've only been back one week since their two-week spring break), but we cannot go to the usual kid energy-guzzling places I adore, such as bouncy castle heaven Poing Poing, TerraLandia (Gymboree-ish, but with more challenging stuff), Cinepolis for first run movies, Pochote for old movies, toy stores, the children's library, the English library, Las Brisas swim park, the Hacienda de Santa Marta buffet and play area, the children's area of the Stamp Museum and of the Textile Museum--it has made me realize how many kids' places I'd racked up in my mental itinerary of things to do.

So, I'm digging out the old camp and day care memories, channeling Jenny who was so good of making fun out of thin air plus, sometimes, a little bit of stuff. We started this afternoon by making homemade limeade and squeezing limes, sampling the results in shot glasses and painted gourds.

Tomorrow, I think, will be fort day, with blankets and pillows and stuffed animals camping with us. Perhaps a picnic lunch on the rooftop.

There will be days lazing by the kiddie pool on our terrace and evenings around the warm, cozy DVD player. I've already looked up how to make playdough (if I can just find "crema de tartar" at the market). Perhaps some flashlight games. Build a puppet theater or, my lazy way, a finger puppet theater. Maybe it's time to sketch out a mural for the garage wall. We could plant a garden or at least get rid of dead plants and replace them with some tough cacti. And isn't it time to go through all of the old toys and clothes and make up boxes for donation?

Somewhere, in there, I will get some work done, as well as attempting to apply for a couple gigs to heal the wound of my killed story.

So, it sounds doable here, in blog land, but that doesn't account for the mess and the cranky, the bedtime fight and the homework that is still supposed to get done. Not to mention Geni's long-standing proclivity for flooding rooms. If I can make it through this week without screaming at them (you know, a bark or two is totally acceptable in my book), well, then, that would be startling. Let me make that my benchmark: no screaming. I'll check in and let you know how it's going.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What happens to a story killed?

Does it dry up
like a Lindsay Lohan in rehab?

Really, it's just sagging like a heavy load right now. And the story just sits there, killed.

I should figure out the way to negate this having happened, like send out 10 pitches and apply for 10 gigs next week.

But, right now, a bad movie on cable will do the trick.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

From Strep to Pinotepa in Three Days

Watching Geni's little throat minute by minute, wondering if the little white dots coating it will be moidered by antibiotics in time for her to strut the streets of Oaxaca tomorrow.

Because the time has come for another calenda, little Geni dressed in the Pinotepa costume of a flowered blouse and flouncy skirt, parading with the 20-some preschools selected from throughout the city. It's firecrackers and showers of candy, cloth-covered globes and cellophane colored lanterns, banners and a live band, the streets closed so tiny children can announce the annual preschool indigenous dance festival, known as Guelaguetza Infantil.

And, if I weren't so tired, maybe I'd be prouder, but Geni sick is not a pleasant person during the nighttime. The only thing that chilled her out was watching YouTube videos of Dana Carvey singing "Chopping Broccoli".

The upside of all the chaos and the sleep deprivation: we found a great pediatrician, perhaps the best ever. I'd write her name if I remembered it. Beatriz Sumero is 50 percent of her name. She's on Murgia street, I believe, half a block to the west of the Alcala. She interviewed me and talked to Geni and slowly, slowly built up Geni's confidence so she could do a thorough checkup. Geni was happy, I was elated. I mean, I didn't have an appointment, and she snuck me in first, ahead of when her 5pm appointment showed (she's only open 5-8pm). No insurance, no problem, the cost out of pocket was 300 pesos, or about 25 bucks and she spent half an hour with us.

She even said my favorite words a doctor can utter: "I hate to prescribe antibiotics". Good things. But, of course, with strep throat we needed to bring in the antibiotics, so let's just get this kicking in so that my Geni can perform at the Guelaguetza. Maybe I have the makings of a stage mother...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Las Oaxaquenas

I had breakfast with my Oaxaquena posse this morning and I again was struck with what luck I have had making friends in a foreign country, speaking in a foreign language. To be sure, there are huge gaps in my understanding that seem to arise more from cultural differences than linguistic differences, like the look of shock Flor gave me when I treated for her breakfast as a belated gift. Al norte, it would be so easy to insist, "I'm treating!", but here it felt like I had done something terribly strange.

The strangeness aside, though, my friends always shock me with some little bit of information, an insight into their version of contemporary Oaxacan culture, that makes me appreciate them so. For example, they often complain about machismo or women not being able to stand up for themselves in certain situations, and it just goes against this stereotype of the more traditional Mexican woman. They rehearse strategies for speaking with their husbands about touchy subjects, and we all argue about approaches and commiserate.

I walked home feeling elated that they would welcome me and trust me so, but I might also have been fueled by the two cups of coffee I drank, not a typical ritual for me (but necessary because La Geni spent midnight to early morning grumpy with a slight fever and I awoke thinking I could not bear to socialize in Spanish for three hours).

What Oaxaca and just expatriation does to people is of an eternal fascination to me, because I am only starting to understand the magnitude of our decision to sell everything we own and live in Mexico. For me, it was a test sort of, a wondering, if I could really live somewhere foreign and feel like it was home, especially in regard to forging new friendships, something which rarely comes easy to me. It's never smooth but, in some ways, foreign friendships can be more freeing, because you have to let go of so much of your worries and your past, unless you have the time and the grammar to adequately express it all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Well, the Semana Santa silent processional with crucified Jesus no sooner cleared town than we had an alebrije and a black pottery festival in the appropriate villages. Having gotten a chunk of freelance work, I finally bought some bigger pieces of artesania, like a hand-painted alebrije-style chair for Genevieve and an intricate necklace of black pottery beads wrapped in silver wire.

Next up was the festival of the Tercera Raiz, a festival of the culture of black Oaxacans. There was live dance and music in the public plazas, including a band with percussion played on the giant jawbone of a horse or a cow.

After the spring break crush of tourists cleared out, I thought the hype might die down a bit, but then I got word of the CuentaCuentos festival, a series of storytelling events around the centro. I took Max to the stately library building with its massive courtyard and creeping vine giant plants and we heard stories by Peruvian and Brazilian storytellers. I was excited because of my sister Jenny's illustrious career as a folklorist, performance artist, storyteller and front porch gossiper, but I also worried that Max might feel too old for the scene which was full of little ones.

I needn't have worried. The performers unrolled these beautiful story quilts and, lo and behold, they were three-dimensional, with pockets and puffy parts hiding and holding props, figures and all sorts of surprises. Max was entranced and we stayed until the end. I imagined Jenny sitting with us, taking mental notes, because she would want to discuss every little thing later on the living room couch. Which is where I sit now, having the conversation with my blog, hoping that at least one little detail of the evening I experienced would resonate with her.

Coming soon are the Humanitas Festival, celebrating the cultures of the Mixteca, Puebla and...Spain?...and the Guelaguetza Infantil children's folk dance festival, in which Genevieve and her classmates from Colegio Teizcali are supposed to participate but Geni may choose instead to burst into tears or stand like a deer in the headlights.

And, if you're in town, do not forget Steve's annual mole enchilada party this Sunday at 3pm, a great new Oaxacan tradition.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Your Year-Round Film Festival

I'm reading the book Julie & Julia which, upon my Googling the title, has come to my attention that it was also made into a movie. So I feel a little unoriginal reading it now, with it being made by Nora Ephron and Julia Roberts being in it but I can be excused because I really have not gone to movies much since having children. Sometimes I fantasize a life of going to a different movie every night, like my dad does (happily taking advantage of his senior discount).

The movies I see now tend toward the animated variety which, in some cases, is all right, as in the case of the surprisingly semi-feminist "Monsters vs. Aliens" which kicks Disney's ass in the possibilities for skinny pretty girls department. Sometimes the movies are not quite so great, like "The Other Egg Movie and a Chicken" a made-in-Mexico "children's" movie that makes much of the fact that egg is also used as a metaphor for private parts. Ah, the double entendre. These are the films of Cinepolis, Oaxaca's version of the mall multiplex, complete with overpriced popcorn and surprisingly good Nutella crepes.

Other movie possibilities are at Pochote cinema, the free art theater under the aqueducts that I love so dearly. Not all films are that comprehensible to me there, but the experience is beautiful. Pochote figures into my "someday a nightly movie" fantasy.

There's cable, too, which we got for the first time in our lives. Cable seems to favor all of these violent action films I've never heard of that always have either a guy shooting someone or a woman about to be attacked. Not my favorite themes.

And then there's la pirata. Ah, the bootleg DVDs, it's a big, big deal down here. People set up stands full of them, and there's a whole routine for buying them. You have the vendor bring up the DVD menu on a little TV or player in the booth. You go through the menu and a couple scenes to make sure the quality is OK and, if it's important, that there is an English option. Very recent movies follow the joke on "Seinfeld", having been filmed directly in the theater, with people passing by the screen, audience laughter, popcorn spilling, the whole enchilada.

Imagine my delight last week when we happened upon reels upon reels of classic "Batman" episodes from the '70s. But, as often happens when we try to actually buy things in Mexico, no one could figure out what the price should be. They finally guessed at a price and it was far too high for our meager budget, so we passed. Little did I know Max would then spot "The Egg Movie" part one, without the chicken, and forced us to buy that for him.

Someday, a movie every night, and no eggs as stars.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'll take the bus this time

I think that's how the Jonathan Richman song goes, about the delights of bus travel. But try convincing my bourgeois son Max that a bus is a better way to go than a taxi. He likes the directness of taxis, but it's the things off your route that are always the most promising.

I was on the Oaxaca city bus, one of my favorites because it had been painted a lurid red through the interior which went great with the purple tinted windows. A guy got on and gave the driver a look. I'd seen that look before. It's this quick look of asking permission, to which the drivers typically nod.

When he got on, I could see he had a large display shelf slung around his neck. He was selling pens. But not any pens--Papermates. He pronounced each syllable Spanish phonetically, like pah-pare-mah-tay. He was working those Papermates, slashing ink on a little pad of paper and showing the results. And then, yes, he pushed the Papermate and it became a flashlight, not with any power to illuminate anything per se, but with a glowing tip.

The passengers seemed noncommittal. But I am always fooled by Mexicans' stony stares. There is never a discussion, not even a rummaging for change. They just suddenly wave their 10 peso coins in the air and grab at the item for sale. Which they did. They were going nuts for the Papermates! And he hadn't even gotten to the free gift. Highlighter pens. The whole bundle was going for under a buck, including the ineffective flashlight pen.

The women across from me were trying out their new pens. They called the vendor over. There was a problem, you see, that the flashlight wasn't shining brightly. He switched theirs and then, they couldn't help themselves, they bought another set.

I was happy to see my stop coming because the excitement had me tempted to score some Papermates and, really, I just did not need them.

As I got off the bus, two clowns got on. Who knows what they were selling.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jenny Makofsky the shining star

She knew all the words to the theme song of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air".
She argued based on reviews of books she hadn't read.
She played smackdown wrestling with Max. He always won.
She worried about him losing affection for his auntie.
She spent a lot of money on clothing and a lot of time on finding clothing bargains.
Movies. Once, we saw a crummy movie about to start on television (it was "Miss Congeniality"), and we gasped together in excitement.
No coffee, not since the crying at the museum line incident.
She loved sweets and snacks.
She read the ends of books first, so the suspense would not override her enjoyment of the story.
She read reviews of movies before seeing the movies, and liked spoilers.
She carried bags jammed with stuff and papers. When she filled a bag, she set it in her room and started another one.
When she was little, she'd play side 2 (I think) of the "Robin Hood" record over and over again.
Later it was David Bowie, The Doors and The Beatles.
Later it was Hole and Nirvana.
In elementary school, she scored higher on the ESP test than I did. She could read minds!
She wanted to hear your version of that jump rope rhyme or counting-out game, jotting down each word and comparing it with those of other people.
She wanted the details of that story, please.
She had humorous dreams integrating pop culture figures.
She once told Meg and I the entire plot of a "Mr. Belvedere" episode as we awaited the beginning of the Shakespeare in the park production.
She loved her eating club. They always over-ordered on the plantains.
She was a most loyal, sentimental friend, who stuck up for someone when others would not.
She collected stationery, black boots, alebrijes and rubber chickens.
She was my best friend, my social outlet and my shared memory. It saved me a lot of effort.
She was a love, and many people called her soulmate.
Jenny Makofsky, my beautiful sister, to the stars through difficulties. She took it all too far, but boy could she play guitar.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I found an old story of Jenny's

Jenny loved jokes. As a child, she checked out compendiums of old jokes, read them repeatedly, and memorized them so that she could tell them. I found this great story she wrote about jokes and thought I would share it.

Only When I Laugh

These days, it's hard to think about Woody Allen without getting creeped out. But I remember before he was creepy, before he married his stepdaughter. When he just seemed funny. Annie Hall was my favorite movie in those days. I liked the way he began and ended the movie with jokes. He starts with the one about the two women in the Catskills, remember? You know, they're sitting around, kvetching about the food, and one of them says, "Isn't the food terrible here?" And the other one says, "Yes, and such small portions!" He goes on to say -- that's what life is like. It's full of pain and misery and heartache and loss. And it's also much too short. Such small portions! I think sometimes about what the opening joke would be for the movie of my life. I think a lot about jokes, even though I know that it isn't always a good idea to do so. For example, there's a joke that one of my middle-school students told me once. It goes like this: How is a giraffe like a turtle? They both have long necks. Except for the turtle.

I told this joke to my sister and she said, "You know, a turtle does have kind of a long neck." "You're thinking about the joke too much," I said, "it doesn't work if you think about it too much."

But even though I know this -- that it's dangerous to think about jokes too much, because then they stop being funny -- I still think about jokes all the time. I always have. When I was a kid, I would check joke books out of the library, huge treasuries of jokes with names like "Bennet Cerf's Cavalcade of Laughs." And I would study these books,and analyze them, as if they were the Talmud. One joke that confounded me for years was this one: A man walks into a coffee shop and says to the waitress, "I'd like a cup of coffee, with no cream." She answers, "We're out of cream, but I can give it to you without milk."

God, this was baffling to me. I couldn't for the life of me make sense of it. It was like some kind of freaking zen koan. I asked my mother to explain it, but she never could -- to my satisfaction. Why, if there was no cream, was there even a problem? Maybe this should be my opening joke for the movie of my life. I could explain -- that's what life is like. People are always offering you solutions that have nothing to do with your problems.

But is that really how I feel, about life? In my life, and in my jokes, I am more frequently drawn to wordplay. My third grade students like to tell me this joke: Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7, 8, 9. I always answer back: Have you heard about the new corduroy pillows? They're making headlines!

But neither of these jokes really work as the definitive opening joke for the movie of my life. Actually, the corduroy pillows one doesn't even work as a joke for third graders. I always get the quiet stare in response. I can almost hear them thinking, "Headlines? What is she talking about?"

There is no heckler as harsh as a third grader when your jokes don't measure up.

Except a 6th grader. I told a group of 6th graders this joke: Have you heard about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food, but no atmosphere! When they didn't laugh, I said, "Oh, maybe you didn't understand that joke." "No, we understood it," they said. Ouch. That hurt.

Maybe you think that, because I am a lifelong teller of jokes, this is the response I fear the most. The quiet stare. The steely look. But actually, when I told jokes as a kid, after carefully memorizing those quips from "The Omnibus of Fun," or whatever other joke book I'd checked out, my most dreaded response was not silence, but laughter. I would stand in front of my family, reciting joke after joke, expecting -- what? Tears? Applause? I'm not sure. But if they dared to laugh at me, I would become enraged.

Once, after they laughed at one of my stand-up routines, I was so furious with them that I sequestered myself in the bathroom for a half-hour. When my mother came to check on me, she found me sitting on the cold linoleum floor, tearing up the toilet paper piece by piece, exacting my terrible revenge on all of them.

Considering this behavior, maybe the right joke to open the movie of my life would be this famous one: There is a man who has been shot through with bows and arrows; arrows are just sticking out of his back. And someone sees him and says, "My god, doesn't that hurt?" And the guy with the arrows says, "Only when I laugh."

MY own vignette, about not wanting my family to laugh at me, reverses the meaning of that joke. The joke itself begs the question, Why would a guy all shot up with arrows be laughing? Why would he laugh, when he hurts? But in my case, the question is, why should it hurt, for them to laugh?

I outgrew that reaction, of course. Later on, I figured out that it was good to be the one that people laughed at. See: it only hurts when you don't laugh. Maybe that is the clue to my opening joke. I want my joke to say, "Life is absurd; it's hilarious; just laugh at it. It only hurts when you don't laugh."

Of course, sometimes there is pain. And what do you do abou this? What if there is heartbreak? Well, if there's heartbreak, then maybe you sculpt your broken heart into a Marcel Duchamp sculpture. Maybe you push at it and prod it until it reels in its own absurdity. How can you not laugh at pop art?

And maybe there is loss (there's bound to be loss). And if there's loss, then maybe you turn it into a song, a song that makes you smile every time you sing it, because it's so damn funny. Just listen to the difference between these two songs: (singing)

On top of old smokey
all covered with snow
I lost my true lover
For courtin too slow.

As sure as the dewdrops
Fall on the green corn
Last night he was with me
Tonight he is gone

And then there is this version:
On top of spaghetti
all covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball
when somebody sneezed

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Humberto Batista's strange, beautiful assemblages

I recently wrote an article on "The Wild Visions of Oaxaca's Painters" which included a section devoted to my friend and great artist Humberto Batista.

We bought our beautiful papaya, pear, and Olmec head painting, "Viva la Raza" from Humberto. He has also been working on assemblages that incorporate antiques, found items and bits of random hardware and junk shop kinds of things, and it has this beautiful nostalgic quality. They look like totems or talisman.

Humberto is fascinated by the theme of "el nahual y la muerte", which is essentially the notion of human beings containing an animal being or soul that is wild and joyful, and how that concept is reconciled with the inevitability of death.

I'll post pictures of his assemblages soon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Rising, Like Phoenix, From the Ashes

It was about 30 minutes out of Los Angeles when the car windows stopped working. And the fuel gauge, temperature gauge, air conditioner and the tiny little fan that you never think about but is actually quite important that is hidden inside your vent. And the seat belts in the front.

But I wanted to get out of California before we got caught in some traffic jam, so we sped on until Max threatened to pee in the car.

We made Phoenix our goal. A big city, lots of cheap motels on the outskirts, an easy spot to find dinner. We jammed on with our broken car. At a truck stop, we stopped to buy fuses, but they only had some of what we needed. Steve was determined to conduct a full fuse makeover to see if the various problems would go away, so he got what they had and we moved on, the seat belts just hanging there lifelessly in front of us, as if to mock us about the fixer ticket we were sure to get.

Phoenix is far, so we stopped at rest stops and raced each other to the vending machines and back again. Before kids, I was never a rest stop person, I was like Calvin Trillan in that essay Jenny read me, putting the car in neutral at red lights and running to switch drivers, all in the name of making "good time". There is no good time with children. But good times, yes! Like Geni singing to us from the car seat or Max spending two hours muttering to himself in an alien voice, lost, somewhere.

It turns out Phoenix does not exist. I don't understand it. We looked and looked for it, we even exited at a sign that seemed to imply Phoenix, but it wasn't, it was just an empty business park, like a deserted movie set for the movie "Phoenix". Is Phoenix an empty business park?

We wound up on an empty, dark street way far from the freeway, with no restaurant in sight and the kids crying from hunger. In the distance, like a beacon, I saw a neon sign with a red K. If I hadn't seen "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" in college (maybe thrice, even), I would not have known what I was seeing: Circle K. We pulled up, bought crap, had a picnic on the cold car hood in the dark while some serious street action rolled around us in the parking lot. I went back in to ask the cashier that all important question: "Where are we?"


Tomorrow: Tumbling tumbleweeds

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On and on and on the road

It occurred to me by day three of our infinite road trip from California to Oaxaca, Mexico, that I had never done anything like this before with my children or even with Steve. Our longest car trips had been a couple days to Portland or Seattle and then back to Oakland. I watched them sleeping in their hotel beds and wondered what on earth I had been thinking to not only agree to this road trip, but to actually be the person who thought it up, convinced others, and planned it. No one to blame but myself.

I learned things about Steve that before, I had only suspected: When in doubt, he drives fast, perhaps to flee a situation. He's not the car-singing, car-game type. He forgets to check the price of that three-dollar bottle of water at the supermart. He not only hates papaya, but he believes the person who deigned to serve it to him did so with malice. Steve was also full of pleasant surprises, thankfully, like when he jammed his booty into the back seat as I screamed along at 80 mph, so he could set up the laptop and catch a little “Scooby Doo” with the kids. Or how, when we would run out of cash, he would magically pull a $20 out of his pocket. He also guarded our possessions with his life, hauling a guitar, mandolin, two laptops, mountains of stuffed animals, clothes, and Hanukkah presents into room after room and out again.

Day 1 was the ride to Los Angeles, where we were full of hope, anticipation, clean laundry and visions of Disneyland dancing in our heads. We arrived at the evil Hyatt Regency Orange, my Priceline “bargain” which is lovely but is staffed by people as mean as I remember them being six years ago when Jenny and I were there. I think the beautiful suite, bargain price, and free shuttle to D-land made up for the visible sneer on the receptionist's face when she saw I was a “third party payer”, i.e. Priceline customer. But, let's face it, I was going to have a great time no matter how disappointed she was with me, so it was time to move on.

Meggie met us at the hotel, greeting me with, “Oh my god, they are so rude here!” Then we set off to buy tix for the next day and to admire the rocking Tokidoki selection of items at the Vault store (I was doubly pleased because I just got an assignment to write about Tokidoki for a fashion magazine). We also toured the Rainforest Cafe like goggle-eyed babes in the woods, oohing and aahing over their beautiful assortment of plastic animals.

We hit D-land at 8am the next day, maps and intricately-drawn plans in hand about how to run to the first ride and how to itinerize the rest of the day so we broke what I like to call The 20-Ride Barrier. I do not call a trip to the D. successful unless we get in 20 rides, ten of which should be before lunch. With little kids, it was more challenging, but luckily there is the Fast Pass system where you get an appointment to wait in a shorter line, so I made my personal goal easily. Max hung with the scene for 15 hours straight, until I begged for mercy. It was 11pm, misting, cold, and Space Mountain was still advertising a wait of 75 minutes, so we hit the gift shop to score Geni a Peter Pan action figure set and then hobbled to the hotel shuttle stop where Max huddled shivering on a concrete bench and considered crying but then decided to reminisce about Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, one of my favorite rides as well. I mean, you go to hell, with a shimmering devil and all.

Tomorrow: Forcing my kids to eat dinner at the Circle K mini mart in Phoenix.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Oaxaca Reads My Mind

Last July, when we came back to Oaxaca after visiting family in the United States, my adopted city felt like an acquaintance who you run into on the street and to whom you can't think up anything to say. This time, returning to Oaxaca feels like arriving at the place I chose.

My first day back, the city keeps reading my mind..It began this morning, when the house was just a mess from construction workers. I called Angelina to babysit (because we all needed a break from each other after 8 days on the road together) and she told me her sister-in-law could come as well to clean up the place. Shortly after, they arrived with the construction worker who set to finishing our rooftop garden with palapa roof.

This left me the chance to work, so I packed up my laptop and walked to the center of town. There lies Cafe Brujula, which I believe translates to the witchcraft cafe, home to what may be Oaxaca's only chai. Unfortunately, it is also carb heaven/carb hell depending on your perspective. I found myself desperately wishing for a fruit plate to offset my weakness for their bagels and such. There appeared on the corner, across from the cafe, a woman selling a tray of mixed fresh fruit which I got with the usual lime and chili.

Inside, the wireless connection was great, an art show was on and the chai perfect. I set to writing. After a couple hours, I headed out to Llano Park to meet Steve, Max and Geni, but I saw a new gallery on Calle Juarez, so I popped in. While I was looking at the paintings, the gallery curator said, “You know there's an installation.” This is one of my all-time favorite phrases. Jenny, Megan and I often traveled hours to hit art installations, like the funky junky Michael McMillan environments made of trash and old belongings, or the room-sized Voudoun altar at Baltimore's Museum of Visionary Art.

This one was modest in comparison. It was set in a series of adobe mud rooms, in the dark. As you walked through, slowly these shrine box apparitions of wax embedded with remnants glowed to life and then faded, while some sort of melancholy music played. I became overcome with my great fortune and decided to feel a little sad about how lucky the morning had been, like my experience of Oaxaca is a work of heartbreaking beauty.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

RIP Oscar Grant

My heart is breaking for Oscar Grant, the African-American man shot by a white BART transit cop this week. He was the father of a 4-year-old girl. He's the age that my first group of elementary students that I ever taught would be right now.