Friday, December 31, 2010

On the brink of a new year

I really love making New Year's resolutions, and I wonder why that is. Perhaps because I'm rule-oriented? Anyway, I cheat a little, rarely making a resolution to do something I haven't already been doing. Here's some random resolutions, then, for 2011:

Bake bread.
Wear better shirts.
Hike more.
Pitch stories.
Write a good zine that doesn't sound slick and commercial.
The subjunctive.
Watch movies.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Imperfect Tense

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

I quoted this Leonard Cohen song recently, on my Facebook page, and it has stuck with me. I think it captures the essence of Oaxaca, a place so messy and imperfect, filled with music and, well, with cracks in everything. And the light gets in.

I'm wanting to stretch out my hand for Jenny to hold as I watch the river fade to a creek in Huayapam, as I see the new graffiti damning URO and PRI spring up on walls in the centro, as I watch my children run through the parks and the streets of the place they call home.

I feel regretful for not having made a more cohesive tribute to Jenny in these nearly seven years since she died. I wanted there to be this great epiphany, this moment where her stories and folklore and humor and art came together and told me what to do with all of it. But maybe I need to let go of the perfect offering and be thankful for the bits of light, the flashes of memory I've had recently...

Whenever we had an extra seat in our row on an airplane, we'd call it the garage and throw tons of stuff in there.

Jenny valued sleeping in a hammock more than almost anything.

Brandy reminded me that Jenny tracked her tiramisu samplings at various restaurants.

She bequeathed her leather motorcycle jacket to Max. It's hanging in my closet.

She was always torn between going back to the places she loved and visiting new places.

She kept lists.

We ran on the giant sand dunes, and watched the breeze change their patterns.

Whenever I did crunches, she got on the floor, as close as possible to me, to do crunches, too.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


I've just read a story over at the ExpatWomen website about the family lunch tradition in Brazil, and it has inspired me to reflect on the Oaxacan comida.

The word "comida" can mean just a meal, but it can also mean THE meal, the big kahuna. In Oaxaca, I've found most people follow the traditional schedule of having comida at 3pm or so, when the children get home from school. People take off work, or bring their kids to the workplace, and start the process of cooking several items. There's usually corn tortillas, maybe a broth-based soup with veggies or lentils, whole beans or bean paste, some type of main dish like tasajo or mole enchiladas, and an auga, or a fruit water.

But comida means more than just the food. The whole cultural concept of having the main meal closer to midday than in the evening reshapes the day. Most people in the family find time to hang together and it can be loose, with kids running around, friends, neighbors, maybe a modicum of homework getting done. Rather than the standard lunch half hour or hour I saw in my variety of jobs (though I was often the "eat quickly at the desk" type so I could leave earlier, when possible), comida goes on. People read the paper, practice instruments, make out in the park, whatever, but it seems to go on for a good couple hours. Maybe in my old days in Oaxaca, 15 years ago, this was called siesta, and shops closed. Now some shops stay open, but people may have their kids on their laps and be dining in the middle of the shop.

This major comida time also creates what we call comida rush hour. Everyone picks up and leaves at 2pm or so to collect children, get food, start cooking, or whatnot, and it can be more jammed than the morning or evening traffic. What it also creates, however, is what my family calls "the golden window." The golden window is a space of time, usually between 3 and 4pm, in which you can zip through town, go grocery shopping, pay bills, and not encounter many other people, except those slowly dining at comedors, puestos, and restaurants.

When people visit me in Oaxaca, I sometimes try to hold them off from eating lunch. It's very hard, 1pm hits and they don't want to keep looking at folk art or snapping pictures of graffiti. They don't understand that if they can just wait one more hour, the eateries around them will transform. Waiters pull out sandwich boards listing the comida of the day. It's a fixed price menu, featuring everything from agua, salad, soup, main dish, tortillas and sometimes dessert, and it usually costs under four bucks, maybe five or six if you want to go gourmet. And it's almost always wonderful. Steve and I scored a comida at Maria Bonita last week (it's our date "night" at 3pm)that included tostadas and bread, green salad with avocado, vegetables in shrimp broth, pan-fried fish, orangeade and fruit in honey for dessert, for 60 pesos.

The final aspect about comida that I find quite profound is that, due to its early hour compared to the United States version of dinner, people go out again. Sure, many have to return to work or second jobs or puestos they have set up in their garages. But just as many head out for the parks with their kids, or to walk around, or to slowly shop, filling vinyl market bags with fruits, veg, tamales. The city opens up, for this second afternoon shift, just as my al norte compatriots are getting stuck in rush hour traffic.

Of course, the question always arises, when my visitors try to wrap their minds and stomachs around this schedule: If you eat your main meal at 3pm, don't you get hungry later? The answer: Of course! When am I not hungry? Then it's time to roll out the cena, or dinner, which is a lighter affair, though my son, Max, hasn't gotten wind of this concept. For kids, every meal is comida but, for me, comida is something special, that golden window of time, food, and family.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Oaxaca adventures

Every year, I turn to Steve and ask, "What if we were in Oaxaca just for a year? What if it was almost over?" Because we're on our fourth year here, and I can't imagine leaving.

It sucked when we got back during rainy season to see our house wet, green, and stinky. It sucked to move out, figure out repairs, and keep the kids happy through all the changes. But we spent those rainy days walking to the Biblioteca Infantil, or watching old Pink Panther cartoons under the aqueducts of Pochote. We ventured to Huayapan, where Taller Colibri, our school is located, and learned more and more about the pueblo, like who makes the best, frothiest tejate and which corners hide the twists and turns of the river rushing down from the mountains.

I never knew when I moved to Oaxaca how certain details off the beaten track would captivate me, how I love a cobblestone bridge and a waterfall surrounded by carrizo more than going to the zocalo, or how I spend more time at my favorite tianguis then I do in el centro.

Our visitors come to town and we still take them to Yagul and Hierve el Agua, but we also take them to tiny puestos in the market and mezcal shacks at the side of the road, loving the small, daily Oaxaca as much as the guidebook Oaxaca.

So, somehow, simultaneously, our itineraries for the year get smaller and bigger. We have to buy Elvida's coffee beans, grown at her plantation in the mountains, every Saturday, but we also have to see the surreal limestone cave formations near Zachila. We must follow our secret river trail up to the treehouse our friends discovered, but we also must see the turtles liberated at Mazunte. I am due at my free hip hop/Zumba class in the neighborhood park every Monday, but am also reserving time to get down to Juchitan for the annual intrepid seekers of danger muxe vela. Here's to another year of adventures.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Oaxaca Dead Dog Zine

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca is in full effect. I've just added the finishing touches to our family shrine, remembering my sister Jenny Makofsky, Steve's brother John Lafler, my Nana and Papa, Grandpa Abe, Uncle Mike Tanzer, Steve's Aunt Mary Jane and other loved ones who we hope can transcend the boundaries, rise from the elements, and visit us, either through the songs we sing, the dreams we have, or the stories we tell.

Our altar goes beyond the traditional orange and purple flowers, candles, copal incense, papel picado, jicaras of water, and Oaxacan chocolate. We have bright orange plastic jewelry, Hello Kitty hair clips, screen-printed stickers of punk Aztecs, a book of Tim Biskup's paintings, a Tibetan tangka cloud painting, a glass coke bottle of tissue paper flowers, a Japanese toy, alebrije wood carvings, Buddha statues, a collage I made of beasts in the forest, witchcraft powder and blue glass stones (for the ocean, which holds the ashes of some of my family members).

I'm paying extra attention to Muertos this year, as I'm writing a "Have You Seen the Dog Lately" zine about it, and stashing good luck charms, artwork and funky Oaxacan finds within its pages. If you'd like to order a copy, send me 5 bucks through Kickstarter (details below).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Have You Seen the Dog Lately? in print

Thanks to an invitation/suggestion by the Revenge of Print campaign, I'm entering the challenge to print a real paper version of "Have You Seen the Dog Lately?" this year. I've set up a crowdfunding site on Kickstarter where you can order a copy of "the Dog" which will have a Day of the Dead and Oaxaca pop culture theme, including some funky cool only-in-Mexico inserts and ephemera. I'm both excited by the project and a little sad to think how Jenny should be here getting glue stick all over her fingers and arguing about fonts. Maybe I'll enlist Max's help on that front.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Some highlights

I've always been about moments rather than the big picture, and I want to share some moments from the first three weeks of our new school, Taller Colibri.

On our observational tour to list simple machines, we had to stop to let a gigantic tractor cross in front of us, its gears madly turning, leaving gouged mud in its wake.

Jacobo designed a full-on roller coaster that successfully made a wheel fly through the air.

Pancho coaching Max on how to hit a soccer ball with his head.

Geni at recess, opening up seed pods and showing them to the baby goats.

Over a few days, Samuel crocheted a tiny cap for a finger puppet.

Max set to work writing a book in the handmade notebooks Suzana had made.

Steve took the older group to the Graphic Arts Institute, where they pored over Leonardo DaVinci's sketches of machines.

Maestra Suzanna, the world's best teacher, taking the class on daily walks to the nearby river, where the kids keep a journal of its changes.

Maestra Rachel created a journeyboard lesson for the kids, who are now slowly painting a pictoral tale.

Every few days, someone asks hopefully, "What do we do tomorrow?" It's a beautiful life.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rain on me

I haven't had the space in my life to properly blog about this, but I think it's important to reflect on the fact that it can be tough when things go wrong and you live abroad. When we got back from our very long, very drawn-out summer vacation, and pulled into Oaxaca, the kids were ecstatic. It was 11pm and raining and they could not wait to get back to their rooms. We stepped into the house to find the power turned off. And the upstairs somewhat flooded and definitely still dripping.

Max wept and gnashed his teeth, though Geni seemed to take no notice of the changes and happily set to playing in the darkness and wetness. I felt like melting into the floor. It was too much, all of it, and I couldn't see a way to fix our lives. Steve's and my room was dry, so we all slept there, curled in the big bed, and I stared at the darkness and felt my stomach hurting.

So many thoughts ran through my mind: Do we call this house a mistake and move on? Should I fly the kids back to California and try to get someone to clean up this mess which will surely take a year and cost us too much money? Do we try to find the guys we paid to fix the roof before we left?

In the morning light, I saw mildew growing on Max's walls, furniture, toys, books, and everything still dripping. The wood laminate floor bowed with the moisture and humidity in the house. I was going to have to make life feel normal for the kids, even though I felt kicked down, hard.

And then, a slow unfolding. Houses in Mexico are not like houses in the United States. In Mexico, they flood, they leak, you patch them up, you seal the roof, it slowly dries out. You wash away what mildew you can with vinegar and water or diluted bleach. You launder everything. And it all costs so little, nothing like what it would cost to clean and repair a flooded house in California.

Still then, I heard news from friends. All their houses had leaked or flooded. They had tarps over their roofs, buckets everywhere, closets and drawers filled with water. Someone had a river of mud wash through the first floor of her house, and now lives on the second floor. The stories get more dramatic, too. Far from Oaxaca city, but still in Oaxaca state, a good deal of the Isthmus is underwater. People use boats to navigate the streets. My problems got smaller.

It's three weeks since we pulled into town. We're living in a lovely apartment for the month, as our house slowly dries out and we get work done. For me, this is the lesson of living abroad, where handling a perceived crisis feels so lonely but getting through it makes you feel like you have the world on your side.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Back to school

I feel such relief. All the gorgeous setting up, Rachel's work in the garden, people brainstorming had added up to something phenomenal. It was the first day of our new alternative school in Oaxaca, Taller Colibri.

It started with us all welcoming one another by the big black rock that stands in the front yard. Then, Rachel took them back to the garden, where they planted corn. They picked lettuce, basil, fennel, and cilantro, added cucumber and carrots, and made a salad for snack time.

I left after that, but Max reported a day packed with adventures. He built marble mazes, strategized gateways by adding modeling clay, rode his bike to the river to study how the current carried natural objects over a waterfall, and prepared deviled eggs for lunch. I picked up a boy a little sunburned, covered with mud, and not ready to leave.

Genevieve also got to ride her bike, read stories with Maestra Suzana, hike to the waterfall, and play in the grassy green field with goats.

I feel joy and hope. My children have a beautiful new school!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Setting up the School

Whenever, wherever I taught in my life, I started with a messy, junk-filled classroom, typically very dirty. I would spend days sorting through used-up workbooks, spilled substances and grimy lost and found items to figure out what I could clean, salvage, donate, recycle or trash.

Our new school is decidedly different. Rachel visited over the summer, clearing the yard and setting up a dramatically beautiful garden, with walkways for the children so they can approach different vignettes of space to take care of the plants, fruits, herbs, and vegetables. In front, she created a rock fence and a gravel pit for playing with trucks and buckets.

Setting up inside was a matter of dusting off furniture, moving it around and envisioning the possible uses of different spaces. We have a drama and dress-up corner with a mirror, a rest area with textiles and cushions, a music and book library area, and a wide open workspace for art projects, math structures and science experiments. The terraced outdoor space has sports equipment and a kitchen area for cooking projects. Then there's outside, the wide open green space where goats and sheep roam, and nearby the burros graze.

So much good, creative energy emanated from the new space, that I knew the students would love it. Indeed, my children who accompanied me started working the minute they entered the space, while I was trying to set it up.

Thus begins the school year for our beautiful project, Taller Colibri. Colibri means hummingbird in Spanish, and reflects the dedication we'll have to ecology and nature as well as our high-flying hopes.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

chang chang changeddy chang shebop

Everything is de cabeza here in Oaxaca-land. The election is coming and the evil PRI candidate ("Eviel" is, in fact, his name) has his image plastered hither and yon, as does the ever-confusing Gabino, who has managed to gather almost every opposing party to endorse him.

At home, here on Calle Sauces, it's not much better. Our roof is leaking mercilessly, which normally would not keep me up at night, but we have wood floors upstairs--not our choice and why they did this, I'll never know, and they are the wood laminate cheapy kind that starts to bow and sway with even a whisper of moisture.

So why not host a teenage guest when all this is transpiring? And plan a new school, and weed the heck out of its yards, and try to sneak in work when and if the kids go to sleep?

The past month stands out with some crystalline Oaxacaesque moments that I cannot ignore, however, such as Mario, my one-time English student, running across the street to tell me he's entering university in the fall. I like that, how your students from all the years past and all the places you have taught just expect you to be proud of them. And I always am.

One morning at the Xochimilco market, I sat talking with Rachel, Michelle, Yamaleni, and other friends, as the children sat perched in a tree and the marimbistas played.

And under the Pochote aqueducts, to see "Grease" for the dance and music cinema festival, but what I heard was my friends Art and Laurencita singing all the words to "We Go Together" and it made me cry.

We're headed away from Oaxaca for vacation, but I feel desperate for it to stay with me. Will the striking teachers really occupy the Guelaguetza auditorium and stop the festival? Will PRI steal the election (again)? Will our roof get repaired? How could I possibly miss the art opening of the giant-sized alebrijes, or the movie about the Pixies, or my favorite organic applesauce lady returning to the market on Rayon?

This is the Oaxaca pull, how it gets under your skin, because all the little things matter so much. Leaving, at least temporarily, is good in this way, giving me perspective on the place I've grown to call home.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Triangle drive

I'm staring down the face of a too busy summer, wondering how I got here again. Every time I catch my breath I tell myself "stay here, don't start adding," but there's always something, something. On Thursday, we depart for al norte, the 7-day drive to California. In Cali, it's Max's birthday at Santa Cruz boardwalk, a trip to Fairyland (and meet up with friends and family there, hopefully), tennis camp for the kids, pool parties at a couple friends' houses, Steve's book signing and concert, visit with my Mom, meet my Dad for Chinese food, and maybe do some work?

Then we drive across country, eventually ending up in Boulder to visit more family and friends. From there, Steve flies with the kids to Boston while I continue driving until I see them there! I've never driven across country alone and, while I love being alone and love going long distances, I feel nervous. I hardly drive in Oaxaca, due to completely not being able to figure it out and fear, so maybe I feel out of practice.

On the east coast side, we will hang with Steve's family before heading south toward Mexico, stopping in Philly to stay at my aunt's apartment and maybe stopping at various Native American sites on the way down so Max gets his fourth grade social studies curriculum in one trip.

I was busy at work on an article about summer activities for children when I remembered the golden activity, the thing that erases all fighting and woe. Water. A sprinkler, a bucket, a baby pool, a beach visit--water in all its forms blisses out our whole family, especially if cloud cover or shade is in the equation.

Somewhere in there, I also want to find time to dance barefoot, read a New Yorker, watch a movie, see a play, hike Point Reyes, scour a used bookstore, score cheap art supplies for our new school, and have dim sum and Indian food. It's starting to feel like New Year's resolutions all over again.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Birthday surprise

My dear friend Liz organized a gathering for me yesterday, a super-early birthday celebration. She filled the table with friends Oaxacan, Australian, US and chilango, and the conversation flowed into Spanish, English, and Spanglish. I felt so grateful for these kind, opinionated, creative women who love to talk about art and complain about homework, compare favorite markets and order their favorite dishes at Itanoni, our traditional meeting place.

Tina talked about insulating her house with Tetrapack, which is made from flattened milk cartons. Her mother-in-law spoke about her beautiful neighborhood of Coyoacan, in DF. Humberto had paintings to work on and people to meet, while Heather spoke of returning to Oaxaca someday, as she's leaving at the end of the month.

The morning was cool and rainy, and the Oaxacan women were bundled up in near-Winter looking clothes, while the expats wore their lightweight blouses and t-shirts. Our contrasts were telling, but the surreal timelessness of the morning, as if we had always been there and would always be there, made our coming together seem like destiny. Here's to Oaxaca friendships!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Our Oaxaca Waldorf back-to-school physics unit

As I'm researching alternative and Waldorf schools online and planning for the first weeks of our Oaxaca Waldorf school and constructivist curriculum, it occurs to me that others may benefit from the fruits of my research. I've planned a physics unit for our back-to-school curriculum, and thought I would post it here.


Days 1-2:
Introduce materials: balls of different sizes, objects to measure distance, marbles, marble run materials
SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 1: Ask a question.
How do we make objects move at different speeds?
Draw/write predictions in science and nature notebooks.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 2: Do background research.
Children explore materials.
Discuss observations.
Write and draw children's observations for them to elaborate upon in their notebooks.
Introduce vocabulary of force and motion.
Ask children for examples demonstrating force and motion.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 3: Construct a hypothesis.
Pose questions for the next experiments.
How to increase force? How to decrease force?
How to increase motion? How to decrease motion?
Students can draw/write their hypotheses in their notebooks.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 4: Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment.
Children brainstorm ways to test their hypotheses.
Children discuss the results.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 5: Analyze data and draw a conclusion.
If children did not measure their results, introduce the concept of analyzing how to quantify the level of force or the level of movement to illustrate their findings. They may suggest timing how long it take a ball or marble to travel a distance, using objects to measure how far something rolls, or another method. Give them time to explore systems of measurement and methods for ensuring accurate measurement.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD Step 6: Communicate results.
Discuss/write/draw results of measuring force and motion.
Students can show the results on a graph or chart if they wish.

Day 3:
Repeat same experiments using the variable of friction.

Spark the students' imagination by asking methods for slowing down marbles on a marble run, or for stopping them. Ask what outside substances or elements can accomplish this feat. Test these elements and chart results to compare with the previous days' results.

Day 4:
Go on a walk and look for evidence of force and motion. Children may notice the wind blowing, birds flying, someone bicycling, etc. Prompt students for examples of how friction can slow down these examples, or how increased force can affect the motion. Student can take notes or draw sketches in notebooks to remember these examples.
Writing connection:
Return to classroom.
Have students use the notes from the walk to create a story or poem based on force and motion. The story may be a literal description of the walk, or it may use elements of the walk as inspiration for a story about the wind, a roller coaster, wheels, or other things that evoke the theme. Students can practice reading their stories with the teacher or each other before reading it with a preschool buddy.

Day 5:
Field trip activity:
Bike riding, scootering, skateboarding and force and motion. Use or design ramps or hills to affect motion.

Day 6:
Write about the field trip activity as a group or individually.
Apply the learning about force and motion to discuss and write about how you would design a roller coaster.
Storytelling: Share stories about amusement park rides or other fun activities using force and motion.

Day 7:
Read about machines that involve force and motion.
Brainstorm a list of machines and inventions that integrate force and motion.
Select a simple machine to sketch, design, and build. (Some easy possibilities include a pulley, a lever-based machine, a balance, a pinwheel, or a ramp).
Make a list of materials and scavenge what you can from outside and inside. Circle the remaining items for the teacher to bring in the next day.
Draw a few sketches of the simple machine.

Day 8:
Refer to sketches and build a simple machine.
Test the capability of the machine and refine its design.
Share the results with the class, teacher, and preschool group.

Day 9:
Draw a comic strip showing the sequence of how you made the simple machine.
Extension: Read other stories about simple machines.

Day 10:
Drama, music, and dance connection:
Create a movement-based piece about force and motion. It might involve miming walking against the wind, pretending to be on a roller coaster, or pulling a heaving load.
Perform the piece for the preschool class.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Critical mass

Since I posted about our opening a new Waldorf-inspired primary school and preschool in Oaxaca, I've received many inquiries and positive comments, and it buoys me for the work ahead. Many thanks to everyone for your interest and offers to teach and visit and support the school! I find it so fascinating how a blog can help create community.

Max asked me yesterday, "Will I be able to ride my bike at recess at the new school?" I told him how I had been planning a science unit on force and motion for the first month of school, integrating homemade marble runs (and using them to explore roller coaster design), creating simple machines, and testing different skateboard and bicycle ramps. His jaw dropped. It's wonderful how liberating designing constructivist/alternative/Waldorf curriculum feels compared to how planning and implementing traditional curriculum felt.

Next week we visit the Huayapan site for the school and set up the beginnings of a garden so that plants, vines, and flowers will begin to grow during rainy season and welcome the children back to school at the end of August. Thanks again to all of you who have shared your experiences and energy for this project.

Monday, June 07, 2010

On Opening a Waldorf-Inspired School in Oaxaca

The plans have been brewing! When I spotted the perfect, simple country house in Huayapan, just a small leap from where we live (and, significantly, the birthplace of my favorite beverage, tejate), I saw a school bloom there. The large, black rock in the front yard, the fruit trees in the overgrown backyard, the long roofed terrace for art and music classes, the green space opposite the house, it all inspired me.

And, luckily, it inspired others in my group, too. We're moving an established Waldorf (and Montessori and Freinet) preschool, along with its brilliant teacher, to a country location, and adding a primary program.

I'll teach there two days a week, a gardening/cooking bilingual mom will teach there two days a week, and Steve will take the group on field trips most Fridays, with additional Fridays dedicated to project presentations, performances, or potluck meals with families and children.

An alternative Waldorf school in Oaxaca!

Here is what we're using so far for the Waldorf program at the Oaxaca school: gardening, cooking, music, drama, storytelling, natural materials, handicrafts (but using Oaxaca textile art, taught by an expert Oaxaquena), nature, movement, foreign language (Spanish/English, naturally), song, poetry, and community projects.

We're swapping out some of the more Eurocentric main lesson curriculum for Oaxacan and Mexican legends, archeology, folklore, art, and such, plus having students pick a project focus with which we'll integrate instruction in reading, writing, science, math, language, social studies, and more.

The school opens August 29th, and will have a low tuition. If you are interested in the project and the school, please feel free to be in touch. Here is the daily schedule:

9:30-10:30: Cooking, gardening, physical education (to take advantage of cooler morning hours)
11-12:00: Main lesson, with projects integrating reading, writing, language, storytelling, art, social studies, science, and math.
12:00-12:30: Math/science extension or supplement if the project doesn't naturally incorporate it.
1:00-1:15: Silent reading, journaling, or drawing.
1:15-1:55: Drama, art, music, song.
1:55-2:00: Goal-setting for the next day's projects

Monday, May 31, 2010

Problemo Solved

It's nice when something just blows over, isn't it? Living in Oaxaca for three years has taught me the beauty of waiting and seeing what will happen.

It reminds me of buying our patio chairs. We knew the chairs we wanted, the kind you see in Puerto Escondido made of rebar and plastic string. Yes, it sounds elegant, doesn't it? Everyone we asked told us the same thing: buy them on the side of the road that goes out to the Etlas. We knew the spot, so we pulled over one Saturday and had a look.

The chairs were lined up in a rainbow of colors. But they were expensive. I wanted ten chairs, so I asked the guy about a discuento. He said, not for these, but I have another style I can show you that's cheaper.


The next 15 minutes have him looking for his cell phone so he can call a guy with a truck who can pick up a chair to show me the style. Steve said, "Now we're here for an hour." I knew he was right, and I decided to be okay with it, even though I knew I didn't want the other style of chair. You just can't turn someone down like that.

The guy came, the truck left, the truck came back, and the chair was lovely. I told the men, "I really want ten of the other one, but I know you can't possibly sell them to me for a discount." Which they then did, all because I waited.

So the fury and the helplessness of yesterday's vague blog post just melts down the drain. Someday soon, when I confirm the particulars, I'll reveal the next great project of my life.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rage against machines

That's the theme song of my life, though I tend to reject or dismantle machines rather than raging against them.

I've had the great privilege of carving out my life. Circumstances and luck, both good and bad, had me cartwheeling to the situation of my dreams, living in Oaxaca, freelance writing, and having the time to appreciate life, my family, my friends, art, and my surroundings.

So when I get slammed up against a wall of hierarchy and negative energy, here in the place I've chosen, in the life I've fashioned, I look for the path. The path is not the corporate model, not a business model, not the capitalist, consumerist dream--it's the road less traveled by, the one that makes the difference.

The current problem I'm encountering is too sticky to delve into fully. In general, I find some people fall victim to thinking that people should not be heard, should not be represented. I know this type, the self-satisfied elitists who somehow think they know better, but what always surprises me is the type upon whom they prey, the willing head-nodders. Where do these people come from? Are they guided by fear?

I'm happy to realize I've shaken off many of my fears, my tendency to unquestioningly follow rules, in favor of doing what's right. In my work as an educator, I appreciated that notion of justice over law, just as I used to tell my students that fairness meant each student getting what she needs, not each student getting the same thing. I'll use this philosophy to guide me though the next phase of my life.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I will survive

I just walked by the neighborhood giant corporate grocery store, which blockades of protesters had closed down. Nearby, a driver was taking a snooze in his parked water truck as the radio blared "I Will Survive."

These both seem like signs, things that would have fascinated or delighted Jenny, so I'm writing about them here for her birthday gift. She would have been 41 today.

I had breakfast alone at my favorite cafe, Itanoni, but I imagined her there with me, and with out birthday breakfast buddy Meggie, amid stacks of gifts and the blah blah blahing of constant talk we always managed to produce. There was something about those birthday lattes, the caffeine made us superheroes (if just for one day) flying along to a disco soundtrack. We had ideas and inspirations, we were the new visionaries! So now, when I feel more alone in my radical meanderings and surreal musings, I envision Jenny's vote in my favor. She was always supportive, but her unconditional support of me increased tenfold when she died.

The thing about Jenny was the Jenny of her, how she recounted the plot of a "Mr. Belvedere" episode to us during intermission at the San Francisco Shakespeare in the Park. How she argued the merit of books she hadn't read, but she was always right. How she had picked a favorite tree to live in at Redwood Regional park. She wanted the mystery, the corn maze and the pictographs. She was open to experience and she pried me open, too. She knew things. She wasn't scared of love.

She hides in the tiny and the shiny, in the deep rich earth, in the leaves pushing around the wind, the backs pressed up against Soriana's metal gate, the beats between the lyrics.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Death of Marat

Jenny loved "The Death of Marat". We had both seen the image in Moira Roth's 20th Century Art History class at Mills College. Jenny invested a huge amount of time pushing me around the Louvre, trying to locate the painting, a fruitless journey, as it's hanging in Brussels. I think she liked the painting because Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison recreated the image in "The Doors" movie.

It turns out others were deeply affected by the painting as well. It shows up in an R.E.M. song "We Walk." But the painting makes me think about "Sheep Go to Heaven," the great CAKE song, (a favorite band of Jenny's), quoting Samuel Beckett:
And the gravedigger puts on his forceps.

It's a later lyric in the song that captures my mood as Jenny's would-have-been-birthday approaches.

I don't wanna go to sunset strip
I don't wanna feel the emptiness

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

She got the beat

Jenny loved beatniks, the poets, the counterculture performance artists of Greenwich Village, the pulp fiction novel covers warning of the dangers of being beat, and, most of all, her own cartoon The Beats, starring Beulah and Bart Beat, and their dog, Kerouac. Sometimes they played bongos or recited poetry, but the Beats typically talked pop culture, current events, and daily life kind of stuff. My favorite Beat cartoon has one admiring when the other throws a pencil across the room and the pencil lands in the pencil cup.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mexico destiny

One of Jenny's favorite things was Mexico, of course. We came at least once a year as adults, I'd estimate. Cheap SunTrips packages to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Zihuatanejo and such, but also flying our favorite dodgy airline, Taesa, to hit Guanajuato and explore its alleys and tortilla offerings.

Jenny wanted to figure out the secret of how to live in Mexico. She thought we could sell the Oakland house, buy a cheap beach house in Bandon, on the Oregon coast (they were cheap when we were contemplating this idea), and have enough left over to live in Mexico part of the year.

What we never realized was how to let go of keeping part of our lives in the United States. If we had seen that possibility then, maybe we would have made the move in time to shift the line of dominoes leading up to her dying. But it seems that it took Jenny dying to push me into the realization that I could give up the U.S. part of my life, except for the loved ones who I do visit when I can and to whom I write.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Magritte Postcard Museum

Jenny loved Rene Magritte. When she first came to Mills, to Orchard Meadow, she discovered the prior resident of her room had played a practical joke, covering the ceiling and walls with glow-in-the-dark messages and paint that you only saw when you turned out the lights at night. She hated it, and called me up in tears.

But, after she got used to it, she discovered it had sparked the interest of her friends. People began visiting the room to see the glow-in-the-dark messages. She decided to turn her dorm room into a museum, and posted Rene Magritte art postcards throughout the room. She kept a book at the entry for visitors to sign.

When Max picked Rene Magritte as his research topic for a project at school, he did so because he found her old postcards in a basket. He said to me that he could tell before checking which images were by Magritte. He laid them out carefully and set them by his bed when he slept. When he presented his Magritte project to the class, he brought those cards. I watched as each child held each card, as if it was a work of art itself, turning it, considering it, and telling others the joke, puzzle, or other interesting visual trick to find.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pirate Jenny

I met a Gemini Jenny at a party last weekend, and I thought how right that is, with Jenny's birthday coming up this May 27th. She would have been 41, which seems like a just a speck of time, really.

Jenny made lists of her favorite things. She was inspired by a zinester that published lists and drawings on the subject, so she maintained her own. I thought I would post one of Jenny's favorite things here tonight.

She loved Bertolt Brecht, and took a class about him and his work at San Fransisco Freeschool. Maybe she had a little bit of Pirate Jenny in her, which inspired her to collect Ute Lemper and Lotte Lenya albums.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Sometimes, when I'm between inspirations, I wonder what will be the next concept to captivate me and drive me, to keep me up at night, researching, interviewing friends for any last bit of information. Well, I'm onto the new thing now: unschooling. I've always felt suspicious about homeschooling, having met many a homeschooled child in my education career. Their social skills, emotional maturity, and sometimes academic abilities were...odd, like they just couldn't cope with the whole school entity and how to enter it. Now I'm thinking, why should they?

And so I'm researching unschooling, at least as a philosophy if not as an actuality, not yet. The organized curriculum-free, child-led education. Imagine! Imagine if the things that interest Max most--filming short monster movies, writing magazines about toys, drawing treasure maps, building a Tiki fort on our roof, riding his bike for hours, hiking, reading art books at the Graphic Arts library--what if that was his education, maybe supplemented by art class, day trips to archaeological ruins, gallery visits, organic gardening. It's very appealing. It's all about flow, in my mind, how his motivation pushes him deeper into concepts. Of course, then I think it's also all about "flojo"--Max's lazy approach to life, how he loves to sleep in, wake up and read books in bed. But, maybe that's not a terrible thing. Maybe it's what he needs. Or maybe it's the kind of activities children do because they need to decompress from the pressures and boredom of school.

I'm wondering where this will take me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Language Bomb

I'm not the type to worry about milestones for my children, but Geni's lack of speech had me in a tailspin. I think part of the problem is how verbally oriented I am, and how easy it was to communicate with Max when he was her age.

So Geni turned four and I just kept waiting for that magical moment when we could actually converse. And it's starting to happen. She's been at a Waldorf preschool for four months now, with one teacher who speaks only English and the other only Spanish, and it has set up the ideal support network and stimulation for her.

Geni now speaks in whole phrases in English and Spanish, and asks and answers short questions in English. She lets me read and read to her, when she used to throw the book across the room.

She code-switches, using Spanish around her Oaxacan friends and English around her foreign friends.

I still wait for the big things, the stories, the abstract concepts, the back and forth of true conversation, but now I see it's possible. I cannot believe that four months in her new school (plus all of her skills therapy) are enough to push her to this new level. One of her teachers, the wonderful Suzana described it to me as "a language explosion."

Her favorite phrases: "I don't want it." "Where's daddy?" "Go to school?" "I'm Genevieve. I'm Geni." Yes you are, Geni, and I'm very proud of you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beach Party

We're back from five days at the beach. This time around, we hit the less-visited areas, beginning with Puerto Angel. Much is made of the nudie hippie druggy yoga scene around Zipolite, but all we saw ere tall waves crashing on an open stretch of beach. We dined on on fresh grilled fish at a Frenchman's restaurant, swinging in hammocks under the stars while sipping margaritas. Nutella crepes for dessert.

The first couple days we hung in Puerto Angel, at a small beach called Playa Panteon (cemetery beach). This spot was pure old Mexico, with Cordelia's small hotel spilling onto the sand. The waves were gentle enough for Max to swim there for hours. We skirted the rocks and managed a swim to a sand bar and cave hidden in the boulders a little way out from the shore. Max shined with the accomplishment.

A tour of nearby beaches allowed us to snorkel at Playa Estacuhite, where I spotted the same blue glittery fishes Jenny, Steve and I found in Zihuatanejo 13 years ago. It felt like Jenny visited me, or at least sent a sign. We went to the more remote Playa Boquila, rough, cool and just swimmable enough on a turbulent day to feel challenging but not overpowering.

Onto a new beach town, San Agustinillo, the favorite of many. It was gorgeous, of course, a stretch of sand with boulders, tide pools, crashing surf, and the requisite line of palapas, hammocks and surfboard rental spots to provide entertainment, food, cocktails and shade. The drawback was it no longer felt like Mexico. Lots of European tourists and businesses owned by non-Mexicans, the latter which is my least favorite aspect of traveling in supposedly hip places. It's lovely to get the veggie food, yoga options, alterna culture, but the locals do not get as much of the tourists' money in this model.

Mazunte on the beach felt the same way. Luckily, locals use the beach, surfing it, swimming it, playing soccer on it, jamming on bongos by it, so it doesn't feel devoid of Mexican people and culture. Mazunte in town felt more Mexican, with the women running the natural cosmetics shop (partially started with a grant from The Body Shop to discontinue the killing of sea turtles and consumption of their eggs and move the economy toward a conservation model) and a beautiful ecological reserve devoted to the life of sea turtles. Onto La Ventanilla Beach, wild and hot, and lined with lagoons you can tour by non-motorized boat. We stopped at an island and drank from coconuts chopped open by machetes.

I could go on, but I think I'll conclude with Geni's poem she dictated to me about the beach:
Green water.
Blue water.
Green, green water.
It's a turtle.

Friday, February 12, 2010

i'm required to go there with her

There's a lot of things to miss about Jenny, and one is the easy way we talked to each other. I just read an old email she wrote me, one of the last ones, but I pretended I just got it from her. Here it is:

Serena I wish you were here because Gaudi is coolio, he is so cool, cooler than gelato, and I should know, because I´ve eating some.

I have never seen buildings like this. You are required to come here with me and see these buildings. You are to look Gaudi up on the internet right now and enter Casa Batllo, I think that is how you spell it. Or don´t look it up, either way, because i bought a little book and i´ll show it to you and you will cry.

The buildings! The spires are like ice cream cones (and i should know), and Casa Batllo has no straight lines, just curves and sea shapes and blue tile. Oh god, it´s cool.

Food is good too. We already have a favorite tapas place, right near the hotel. And we enjoyed our pizza at lunch, though we were surprised when, after we both ordered the menu of the day (salad, a bottle of water, bread, pizza and chocolate mousse), that we both got a pizza and in fact, we each got a large pizza. Then i looked around and saw that everyone in the whole place had their own pizza. Geez.

Very fun! I´ll try to write again soon. Kiss to Max.

I'm thinking up my reply.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Speak Zapotec

I've been on some adventures as I have tried to meet the goals of my new year's resolution to live more green.

The complete switch to cloth napkins and rags was nothing. They really work better and look better than their paper versions, anyway.

Recycling issues are another thing. There is no curbside recycling in Oaxaca. In fact, garbage is a whole different ballgame here. You do not leave cans out on the street for pickup. Instead, you wait for the lovely tinkle of a bell or, in our neighborhood, the blasting behemoth of a horn. Then, everyone in the vicinity runs out, most often holding old burlap dog food bags or buckets rather than full-on trash cans. They converge at the truck in one of those classic Mexican non-lines that everyone understands the logic of, except me. Some people pass folded cardboard boxes or bags filled with plastic bottles to the collectors, who sometimes hang it on the side of the truck and sometimes throw it into the back with the garbage. So that does not look like recycling to me.

I noticed that at the Casa de Cultura, a government building where the kids take art classes, signs about the environment. Soon, some receptacles showed up, labeled cardboard, plastic and tin. No one seems to use them. I started clearing out our kitchen cupboards so I could bring a load of recycling down. I sorted it all out and stuffed my things into the bins according to instructions. But, for some reason, I wonder...will they get recycled?

Which brings me to the great epiphany. I've begun asking the people at the street markets who sell yogurt, honey, juice and other liquid things if they want containers. Now, when I load my shopping bag with biodegradable plastic produce bags, I also pack in containers and lids of all sizes so I can give or return them to the various vendors. This act feels more powerful than the other green things I have done this year. It's only the cost of my time walking to the market, and it gives them something they need for free. It uses no energy, like recycling does, and it gets me embroiled in many conversations and situations with the vendors. I'm looking forward to trying to give back my honey container to the old woman in front of my neighborhood park who only speaks Zapotec and seems very suspicious of me. It's the re-use part of this cycle that's proving the most entertaining.

Monday, January 25, 2010

digging deeper

I'm loving our third year here in Oaxaca, because we are slowly exploring different corners of the state. Our earlier trip to Juchitan, where we saw the Muxe vela, began with a catholic mass with the cross-dressers in attendance. My favorite part was seeing their signs painted on silk flags that they leaned against the church. There were images of a person half man and half woman and another of a man dressed in full traditional Isthmus regalia.

Steve and my dad had another adventure last weekend. They made the 5-hour trip to Huautla and sought out Ines, a shaman who lives near the village's Casa de Cultura. She leads ceremonies with the region's famous mushrooms. She also sings, chants, burns incense and speaks the indigenous language of Mazteco in an altar room set up for this purpose.

My friend Lauren introduced me to a couple jewels within the city of Oaxaca, including the red plush couches at the Teatro Macedonia Alcala's cafe bar. The scene is lovely and bohemian--I feel like I'm in an Audrey Hepburn movie when I'm there. And the margaritas are 35 pesos.

Then there's my to-do list for new places opening in town. La Jicara is at the top of the list. My friend Nina told me about this place. It is a restaurant as well as a lefty/indie bookshop. Steve dropped by and said the place is filled with handmade and hand bound publications with stenciled and screen printed covers. My mind immediately flies to the projects I could do within such a medium.

Other adventures I want to try: the Santiago Apoala region of glyphs, caves and a waterfall; the funky new tiny restaurant that opened next to the Art Center in San Agustin Etla; the soon-to-open Cafe Morocco near Parque Conzatti; the Sunday bicycle ride from the Alameda; and watching a big lucha libre match in a stadium setting.

What I'm learning is that, if you have the patience and the desire, you can discover Oaxaca's subterranean beauties. I am looking forward to showing off our finds to the next round of visitors.