Cuba in February (1)

Feb 15th. To Cuba.

NB: I have made wonderful friends in Cuba. Their real names do not appear in what follows. Perhaps I’m being ridiculously paranoid, but… better they be safe from criticism and me not sorry.

I land in Havana from MexCity at 7:30 pm. Customs takes longer than anywhere I’ve been in recent years, and there is a mass of French tourists just off the plane from Paris. We form files, and approach the Customs officers, who function at glacial speed.

Since Cuba has attracted a massive amount of propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum, and since there are so many false things said about it, I will begin with a few spoilers.

First, it is true that Cubans live in a controlled, centralized economy whose bureaucracy is in strong evidence in some sectors (transportation, immigration, policing, and domestic regulation, for example). The bureaucracy is inefficient, absurdly slow, and self-buttressed against change. Nothing moves quickly here; customs, money-changing, banking, and other official functions are ridiculously inefficient, with the officials having no incentive to make them less so. Simply buying a bus ticket is a nonsensically time-consuming, frustrating act, with one single ticket seller dealing with hundreds of people wanting to buy a ticket, and making very overt signals about not being forced.

Second, the Cubans do not sense themselves as not being free citizens, in the sense that daily life is not lived in any state of fear. If anything, Cubans are impatient, bored, with governmental restrictions, and like people everywhere, they cynically seek ways around them. They make money however they can, and the CUC (the tourist dollar, worth some 20 times the local currency) is in high demand.   Jobs in the service industry net much more than jobs in the socialized economy. A waiter at a hotel earns more than a doctor. Cubans do not confuse the economic inefficiency of their country with a living in a dictatorship. It is clear to them that a dysfunctional economy is exactly that: a dysfunctional economy. That is not to say that Cuba is a free society, in the terms Canadians, Europeans, or citizens of the USA understand. The lack of freedom is felt in two most pressing ways: the difficulty of leaving the island, and the restrictions on information, powerully represented by the extreme restrictions on internet communication and government monopoly over radio and television.

Third, change is coming. The cell phone and the rising use of the internet are undermining revolutionary culture no less than they are undermining culture everywhere I have been, including in my own country. The quaint notion of a politicized classless society in which everyone is prepared to pull for The Commandant’s vision is only kept alive in posters and slogans on walls. Pure collective action on behalf of everyone’s neighbour is no more viable here than it is wherever humans compete for resources (that is to say, everywhere).

Fourth, the tourist here, whether Canadian, French, Italian, or Russian is a mere resource to be mined, in most people’s mind. Unless you have the very good fortune to have made friends before coming to Cuba, do not come expecting quick friendships; the combination of a xenophobic state education system and a public amazed by vast material wealth of foreigners combine to make the tourist tolerated rather than loved. And the tourists themselves, with their low-grade desires, proudly boasting that they only need three words of Spanish (“dos otros cervasas!”) do themselves no credit. In Veradero, overfed Canadians, meandering down the boulevards and drinking beer at all hours of the day must make a strange and off-putting sight to the Cubans, whose underpaid labours in the underclass make a lie of the revolutionary mythos as told by Che and company.

Feb 16th in Veradero

It is a grinding irony here in Veradero that the two most saleable images are those of 1950s cars and of Che Guevarra. For Canucks of a certain age, there is an undeniable charm in being passed by, ferried around in, and surrounded by these charming old juggernauts, their wheezing old engines kept inefficiently alive by some alchemy of mechanical necessity. They chuff down the streets spewing vast quantities of carbon compounds behind them, and yet one cannot look at them without an aching nostalgia for a decade when everything was working in Canada’s favour. Four kids to a household (six if you were Catholic), God safely confined in our bland Churches, most of them United, good men and true running things, the tolerant absence of racism (save for that reserved for the natives, and because of the absence of other races), the stalwart functionality of all things within a duty-bound stolidity. And here are these old chunks of metal, glass, rubber and Bakelite, reminding us that some part of that near-forgotten world still exists.

What irony then, that the nostalgic image second in importance is that of Che. Che, whose radical brand of revolutionism was too violent to put under the yoke of practical socialism that Castro needed to govern with, is now available in a hundred variations of the T-shirt, hat, or poster. Now a vaguely naughty pleasure of those middle aged tourists who perhaps (although not likely) spent guilty hours as undergrads reading On Guerilla Warfare, and wondering to themselves if they would have the courage to make war.

I meet up with my friends Roger and Audrey, who are staying at one of the local all-inclusives, and with Carlos, whose connection with Roger goes back years. Carlos is anxious to see us settled comfortably, to help however he can.   He is very grateful for the musical gifts Roger has so thoughtfully collected from his excellent Vancouver musical connections. (As Roger ages, I’m more and more impressed with his resourcefulness and his true generosity of spirit.) Roger and I want to play some music. Carlos seems to interpret this as a need to play publicly; we just want to jam, but space is at a premium—the all-inclusive hotel is not open to those not sporting a yellow wrist-band, and Carlos and I are both camped in tiny digs. This doesn’t prevent him from guesting us onstage at his rock gig, where our more pure blues offerings don’t go over with the tourist crowd nearly as well as 80’s screamer rock.

Feb 19. Day four in Cuba. A bit of poor luck with the weather. After two days of ideal vacationers’ sun, the front that had been threatening for a day arrived, and yesterday was a day of rain and wind-not unpleasant, but hardly beach weather. Today, the North wind blows over the island, and the surf crashes onto the beach in short vicious waves which hit the beach so frequently that one wouldn’t have the time to stand up between blows.

Varadero is on a peninsula of land; the south-east side is protected, but there is no beach as such, so no swimming for me. The town itself is a narrow series of avenues running parallel to the main road, and is daily paraded by tourists—most of whom are staying at the all-inclusive resorts—and by townspeople going about their business. They gawk at each other, curiosity on each side, some envy on one, a defensive guilt on the other. For the most part, a balance has been struck, and there are islands of real good will and whiffs of animosity on each side. The Canadians and the Europeans have a tendency to drink too much beer. Young men, and women too, stroll down the morning avenue clutching cans of “Crystal”. These hockey-loving yobs can be found in every settlement from Cancun to Yellowknife. Nevertheless, we are more polite, at least when sober, than many. I know I’m among Canadians when people apologize when we collide.

The dialect of Spanish spoken in Cuba has taken me back to Square One. Words are formed further back in the mouth near the soft palate, giving the accent a mumbling quality that is surprisingly foreign, almost as though there were still traces of North African influence. Cubans have indeed explained to me that their accent is closer to purer Spanish than that of Mexicans… closer to it Iberian roots.

Roger’s friend Carlos is an odd duck—he is both intelligent and slow-moving, both sincere and ironic, with a surprisingly quick thrust of wit. He wants to know all about the blues, but it takes us several days to finally sit down and play together. One constantly feels that there is a subtext underlying one’s relationship with Cubans.   They may like you, but they remain guarded. This reticence is more clearly explained when I go to Cienfuego.

Feb 21: Fantastic jam at Tom and his wife’s place.  Tom is a Calgarian, who winters in Cuba, and knows the scene here. He and Judy have a rented apartment in the Southern end of town and they have agreed to host a jam. We arrive at 11 a.m. carrying instruments, and the Calgary contingent has invited friends and laid out snacks and beer. Carlos has invited his whole band, including W, who although he’s a high-skill, high-speed player (the Cubans love power guitar playing) shows up willing to learn some blues and share some of their own music. Finally I get to hear some CUBAN music, and play for hours on various guitars. My music is graciously accepted by all. Roger and I have a great time, and Roger is in great form, loose, happy, pounding drumsticks on chairs in time to the Cubano rhythm.

Feb 23 in Cienfuegos.

My friend Roderigo meets the bus as it pulls into the station, and we greet with a hug. He grabs one of my bags (all my Cuban friends insist on carrying whatever is heaviest) and we walk down the calle to the home of two of his close friends, Juan and Anita.   They greet me so graciously that I immediately know I’m in the right place.

Roderigo. came over his morning as I was enjoying an excellent breakfast laid out by my hosts and asked would I like to go the bank and change some money. So we strolled down to the bank where they informed me that I could access my Mastercard account, have the money changed into American Dollars, whence changed to CUCs (Cuban Univeral Currency) at the rate of .82 to the dollar, meaning I’d lose some 40 per cent getting a dollar CND to mean something in foldable currency here.

Down the street, from vendors who scatter when the code word “agua” is heard if the cops get nosy, it is possible to exchange American dollars almost at par.

On the way back, we passed the Cienfuegos Dramatic Society, a very beaten up old house that is home to the theatre group, one of the oldest in Cuba, R assures me. We met the actress who’s starring as the Virgin Mary in the next play (on Wednesday, and I get to see it!) which is about three women in a boat who are trying to float to the USA, and are almost dead when the Virgin appears to them. The actress who was to play the role of the Virgin in question was a sexy 30-something. She liked my joke about being qualified for the role.

She told us about a wonderful-sounding play by a local star writer about beef; to wit: a committed communist is married to a very practical woman. Occasionally when the train comes through town, it runs over a cow, and the townspeople rush out and cut some meat off the corpse. This occurs one day, and the wife, whose daughter is pregnant and needs protein, insists that her husband go out and illegally harvest a little of the beef. He is caught by the police, who take him to prison, where, shamed by this fall from grace, he kills himself. In the ultimate scene, the family and wellwishers are at the funeral when a train comes by and kills a cow. Everyone runs out to grab a slice of the meat.

I loved the story; it was as though Dario Fo had breathed his spirit into the soul of Cuba. I would like very much to get a hold of this writer and see his plays translated into English for possible production.

February 23rd In my 24 hours here in Cienfuego, I’ve had a more authentic visit to Cuba, thanks to my excellent hosts, than in the week I spent in the tourist town of Veradero. Here, I am getting a view of how the Cuban economy actually functions.

Cubans buy things using the Cuban peso, worth a fraction of its value in pre-revolutionary days. Essentially, this currency is not negotiable outside of Cuba. Tourists cannot use the peso; they exchange their money at the airport for the CUC, which is a currency not recognized by the rest of the world’s banks, or anyone outside of Cuba. It is essentially a kind of scrip, used for the sole purpose of aquiring of hard currency by the government, and it is illegal for Cubans to make the transactions themselves.

The restaurants, for example, collect, by government policy, double from the tourists what they collect from the locals, and collect it in that falsely valued currency which, by exchanging for it, has already cost the tourist a portion his or her money’s value. This Byzantine cross-exchange of currency leaves a European tourist, or a Canadian, tourist like me paying a premium for visiting the country, especially as, ironically, the Cubans insist that the hard currency they are going to value is the American dollar.

(NB:) I have learned that, since my stay in Cuba, the Cuban government has decided to scrap the CUC in favour of a re-valued peso, and deal only in that currency. This liberalization will mean, I suspect, that Cubans will deal directly in informal situations, in offshore currency, which is precisely what the old policy aimed to prevent. This is a significant crack in the old wall which I suspect is a bargain made with the USA, part of the Obama administration’s stated policy to bring down the embargo.

That Castro long ago abandoned the older industries of Cuba in favour of tourism I can well believe. According to a Cuban friend, the Cuban sugar industry was abandoned in favour of tourism, and the workers who had technical jobs in the factories wept as the machinery was destroyed and taken off to be sold for scrap. The result is that the world’s oldest sugar industry, along with the knowledge developed over the centuries, has been irretrievably lost, and the island’s sugar is now imported. Other stories of economic dysfunction about the island’s beef industry, about the failure to develop any salt-producing capability, about the fishing industry, abound.   El Comandante was right to open the island to tourists like me; he has provided a steady source of foreign currency, but the heavy hand of the bureaucracy lies on the shoulder of the industry. I presume that once Americans begin to come here and insist on better service, shorter waiting times, and more smiling agents, that more of the island will look like Veradero, where the false bonhomie of the service industry, and the desperation for money is so strongly felt.

Here in Cienfuegos, the atmosphere of cynicism pervades. People seem not to acknowledge that the new face of Cuba is going to be the service industry. Certainly my host’s and hostess’s graciousness is unfeigned; but the fact that two highly trained professionals can make more money running a B&B than they can practicing their professions is tragically wasteful. My brother Gerry, a reborn economic Conservative, would blame it directly on the demand economy, and he is no doubt partly right. The market has been subverted, and the consequences are, literally, absurd. “Absurd” is an adjective that I have heard here many times. “Our life here is absurd; the situation is absurd; this economy is absurd.” It was very interesting that when the actress (whose name could not catch) described to me the play that I’m to see tomorrow, in which three women, hoping for the great dream of life in Miami, nearly starve to death at sea and are visited by the Virgin Mary, I automatically assumed that it was an absurd comedy. No, she assured me, the play is a drama. I’m very interested to see what the result is. Is it Dario Fo, or “Lifeboat?” I can’t wait to see the audience’s reaction. Juan taught me a new expression yesterday: “Al mal tiempo, Buena cara.” (In bad times…a happy face.)

The architecture of Cienfuegos is stunning, both for its antiquity and its decay. In the nearly destroyed interior of the small theatre we visited, two piles, one of sand and one of rock, dominated the small audience area, waiting for the day they can be used in some building project. This makes me suggest to the aforementioned actress that they mount a production of Happy Days.   She had never heard of Happy Days, or of Samuel Beckett, and insisted that their mandate must be “to tell our own stories.” I admire the sentiment but found it curious that theatre people anywhere in the world had not heard of Beckett.

In the Colonial-era public buildings and private homes, there was real attention to beauty. The big civic theatre (the Terry Theatre, after its founder) is like the Monument National in Montreal, with its huge raked stage, and triple-tiered balconies, its painting of the muses on the ceiling and beautiful iron-work. Everywhere, things go to rust. The muses are crumbling, the edges of stone and plaster are crenelated, garbage accumulates. The countryside is literally covered in discarded plastic, the 20th century’s most ugly, most ubiquitous legacy. It is enough to make a sane person weep to see how much cast-away crap there is that accumulates in the fields as jetsam; it is as though Cuba had decided to stop doing the wash, to stop sweeping up, to put away the paint brushes and the mason’s tools, and wait out the decades. Bus stations are filled with lineups of people looking bored; no one knows when the next thing is happening. Yesterday we passed by a crowd in the streets, perhaps sixty people waiting listlessly. My companion asked one of them what they were waiting for: yogurt.

Those who have bureaucratic jobs, who dispense money, tickets, information, have a shocking ability to ignore you, turn away from you indifferently, to answer with a tone of cynicism or indifference that would get them fired from any decently-run organization. I have actually found myself fantacizing about some American corporate Sergeant coming in and bawling people out about their abominable public service. “Wake up people, if you don’t start taking some pride in your job RIGHT NOW, you’re OUTA HERE!!”

Where does The Noble Idea that is The Revolution devolve into this torpid indifference to the public good? What ideology would replace productivity and expertise in the sugar industry with the false friendliness of the tourist industry? (Was it the association of slavery? Surely there is some way to grow and harvest sugar cane that is less degrading than grinding slave labour?)

I want to know the good that Cuba has done. It is not Angola, nor the other socialist failures where my Cuban friends remind me that Cubans have spilt a lot of blood. What have these people gained since Batista? We are told that the educational system and the health care system are better, that literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America. I’m prepared to believe that. For one thing, I have seen at first hand how the campesinos of Mexico live (quite simply on the narrow margin of survival, with child labour, ubiquitous begging and hustling of anyone who looks like they might have more than you do.) This is also not a society that tolerates violence. The police do not carry the big weapons we see in Mexico, and although their authority is feared (cynically, of course), it is not by physical intimidation. The cartel and the military-style policing are absent here, although the informer and the snitch are not, and when people speak of illicit things (even to give the Canadiense a break in restaurant prices), they do so in low conspiratorially softened voices.

Feb 25th. R informed me via my Calgary friend (who had come to Cienfuego by coincidence) that I was playing at the Terry Theatre tonight. He sprung this on me as we were hanging out having afternoon beverages at a beautiful old café on the main square, and was highly amused by my discomfiture. (“Just think of your guitar as a beautiful woman!” he says… I decline to tell him that people who think of their guitars as tools for making music don’t find this advice helpful.) Anyhow, my discomfiture is largely put on; I’m delighted to be asked to play, and if they like what I do, so much the better. We march over to a place on the Parada, a hair-dressing salon, and R asks to be let in to where the band is practicing. We go into the tiny back-room studio, which is filled with old gear and young musicians, and R introduces me and tells them that he’s set it up with the manager of the theatre’s coffee house that I’m to go onstage with them. I can see the skepticism in their eyes: who is this old white guy they’ve been saddled with? But I suggest a few tunes, we talk about the structure, and before long, we are all jamming away happily.

That night, R and his whole family, along with my hosts, show up for my Cienfuegos debut. I get up after the band’s first set and join them for three tunes, which the audience likes, and I retire from the stage to kind commentary by band and warm applause. After the second set, the band members pack up their gear and each makes a big point of coming over and thanking me. I feel equally grateful, and tell them so. I also get a chance to donate my last set of Mexican-bought strings to their guitar player, and his real pleasure is more than obvious. They tell me that the singer and guitar player in their band are playing Friday with their big band. I might get to play, but, as they point out, it’s not up to them. I assure them I’ll be there, but to listen, not to elbow my way into stage time.

After the concert, about one a.m., we spill out onto the streets, finishing the bottle of inexpensive rum that one purchases whole from the bar (inexpensive beer is also available, along with expensive cola). We are a two-generation party, with R’s wife and two of his children. We have a very typical Cuban experience. A group of young men is hanging out on the street corner. I wonder if they represent a threat (a group of young men hanging out on the streets of Edmonton well might, if they’d be doing the wrong drugs, or had too much booze). As we approach, one of their number throws his arms open and everyone embraces. These kids are friends of the family. People don’t fear violence in this city the way they do in other places. We pour them the last of the rum, and I reflect that it is exactly these kinds of experiences that I came here for. Cubans don’t believe in the Workers’ Paradise, they believe in human kindness.

These people that I have been adopted by are VERY GOOD PEOPLE. They are generous with what they have, they love to hear music and tell stories and share meals; they like to hang out with one another. They greet one another joyfully and affectionately, they make sure that they connect with their neighbours, and they love their children.

My friend’s soulfully beautiful, intelligent daughter speaks with clarity and some bitterness about her condition. Her hard-won degree in Design needs to be engaged; she longs to be giving, to be useful to the world, to earn enough money to relieve her mother’s suffering (her mother suffers from an obscure medical condition where he own body’s defenses are attacking her joints).   This girl would tear up some Canadian office in the field of art and design, she would disarm with her latin beauty, conquer with her honest glare, and succeed with her obvious talent where your average young Canadian would stumble over his or her own sense of entitlement. I showed her Jeunet and Caro’s film Delicatessen, and she ate up both the imagery and the content like a hungry person, getting all the humour and feeling all the horror. It was a pleasure to watch, sidelong, as she watched the film, headphones on, while the older people talked. This is exactly the kind of student that I loved to have in my classes, that every prof dreams of. I imagine the kind of conversation that she would have with my daughter Keltie about life and art; how wonderful it would be to have them meet.   Tragically, she doesn’t have the dual citizenship that her father and her brothers have been blessed with. Her father can travel abroad on his non-Cuban passport; she cannot. At the age of 26, she is already turning cynical and my assurance that “change is coming; the technology of information that powers change everywhere cannot be held out of Cuba forever” is met with a patient irony.

Feb 25. You don’t know Cuba until the day when your host is informed that your ancient MacBook is not charging. He has expertise in electrical matters, so he grabs the machine and the charger, and begins prodding them with his meter. When he discovers that the charger is the culprit, he says, “I must take this to a friend of mine—has all the tools.” I follow along, and we march through the early morning streets of Cienfuegos (I amuse him by singing, to the tune of the ballad “Streets of Laredo”: “As I walked down… the streets of Cienfuegos…”) We arrive at a fairly beat-up apartment building where his friends live. A front-end loader is digging dirt up from the ongoing construction project that is the building’s foundation. As it backs up, one of the workers gets stuck behind the machine, and there is alarm as work halts and the man is rescued by every other man on the worksite. Much relief as we all learn he is all right, just shaken up.  This brings the work project for a halt. Then we climb the four floors to the friend’s domicile; a narrow railcar of a dwelling at the front door of which his wife greets us as she stuffs laundry in a portable washing machine which sits on the balcony. The electronic whiz in question is in the back room, which serves as workshop and bedroom by the clever placement of his bed overhead, an arrangement the bisects the room horizontally. At his desk, two computers, their guts exposed, are running some old version of windows. His multimeter and an oscilloscope are on the small table along with his modest assortment of old tools.

When he learns that his friend’s guest has a problem, he drops whatever he was doing and sets to the task of prying the charger apart. Being an Apple product, it I designed not to be fixed, but replaced with another expensive Apple product. “Damn Apple,” I mutter, and my host says “Apple no match for Cuban people. You see.” He’s right. Using a mixture of technique and muscle, the friend pries the offending part into pieces and pounces on it with his multimeter, finding the problem in about ten minutes’ time. After some monkeying, soldering, testing, the part is back together again (well, as much as the “don’t touch this part” engineering permits), the part is plugged into the computer where there is satisfaction all around at the fact that it’s functioning, and the friend smiles for a photograph and denies any need to be paid, despite the great good that a 20-CU note would obviously do him and his family. He makes a joke that amounts to “damn the embargo!” and we all laugh.

I coin a phrase for the occasion “La Resistancia esta inutile!” They both smile and we shake hands and leave. It’s good to see the real Cuba.

Every morning Juan and Anita serve a fruit plate that contains a medlar fruit. A medlar is some kind of relative of an apple, small and brown. When they cut it lengthways, I’m reminded of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

“…that fruit/that maids call medlars when they do talk alone.” Mercutio is making an off-colour joke, and seeing the fruit laid bare this way, it’s not hard to tell what “fruit” he refers to. How did Shakespeare know about medlars? Were they common in Elizabeth’s reign?

Mexico City in February

Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes

MEXcity-BellesArtes11

Ken imitates Leon
Ken imitates Leon
detail from Rivera
detail from Rivera

FEB 5: Mexico City

On the fifth, Stewart, Pat, the teens and I ride Dario’s truck down into Taxco and breakfast together, then part affectionately and I enjoy the downhill walk to the bus terminal. I sit playing my little guitar, which impresses the locals just a little (the fact that a gringo sits playing, I mean) and eventually board the bus. The trip to MexCity is uneventful and I arrive in time for the taxi driver from El Terminus del Sur to proceed at a snail’s pace through the afternoon traffic trying to figure out where we are going. He finds the Hotel Habana in time for me to sign in, buy some beer and comestibles, and settle in for some alone time before Kathy Fisher arrives. We’ve agreed to meet and spend a little time in Mexico City before she goes off to a literary conference in San Miguel which focusses on Women’s Lit.  She’s late arriving, having been bounced through Huston. We are happy to see each other, although we are both somewhat awkward to be sharing a hotel room. Mixed gender in a six-bed dorm I’m used to; two friends sharing a hotel room is a slightly different negotiation.

Next morning we walk to the Zocalo, delighted to be simply amazed by the grandeur of the scale of the vast public square and the imposing buildings around it. We find our way into the Gubernator’s Palace, where we marvel at the beauty of the gardens and open courts, and proceed to pay homage to Diego Rivera’s murals on the history of Mexico.

The first thing that strikes my Canadian sensibility is that there is nothing cautious or compromised about the work. Shaded as the main mural is in the stairway of the West wall of the palace, the colours come to life the moment you come out of the direct sunlight. The ochre oranges, reds, and yellows that are ubiquitous in Mexican art are in wide swaths everywhere in this major work. Beginning on your right, there is a clear narrative: Aztec life was harsh and structured in almost unimaginable ways. It was however beautiful and made sense by its own measure. It had a fixed hierarchy and was comprehensive and comprehensible to those who lived it. Then you move to the centre panel, which presents the great disaster of Mexican history, the Conquest, crushing brave and beautiful warriors under the armoured horses, the iron-clad and (because of their helmets) anonymous gargantuans egged on by their greedy and corrupt money-grubbers and priests. A group of campesinos cringes behind the single truly pious priest for succour, but they are mere fodder for the cynical soldiers who know that this resistor-priest has no real power. It is the grotesquely bloated and angry priest, who might have stepped out of a painting by Breughel, who has the ear of the military governor.

Floating above the scenes of violence, horror, cannonade, and bloodshed are the law-givers and the revolutionaries of Mexico, busily fomenting just revolt and formulating constitutional law.

The wall on the left looks forward to a bright future in the Socialist Workers’ Paradise.   Here we find Marx, Engels, and Lenin pointing the way to a world where industrial workers are allied with farm labourers and with scientists as they battle onwards towards the classless society. All ends happily.

On the smaller panels which are on the 2nd floor arcades, Rivera expands on the theme of pre-Columbian agrarian paradise and of post-Colonial horror. People who appear not unhappily as tithe-paying peasants delivering part of their corn harvest to the priest-warriors reappear as mutilated victims in a post-Conquest world where intolerable torture is meted out under the Inquisitional zeal of the universally corrupt Church, paid for by the robber barons of the Old World.

One wonders how the murals could be housed in any government building. The most liberal governments Canada has ever had would not permit a narrative so bluntly frank about the conquest narrative, much less the unrelieved Marxism that is celebrated and indeed prescribed, in Rivera’s work.

We tour the rest of the palace to which we are permitted access, including a small gallery and the Governor’s Council Chamber, where the two throne-like chairs on a five-foot dais are confronted by a semi-circle of chairs for the councillors. I think Privy Council would be the Canadian equivalent. Our Parliament puts only the Speaker above the combatants in his role of referee/advisor. A much preferable structure for governance, in my view. However, as our government has been run since Trudeau’s day from behind the closed doors of the Cabinet chamber, the righteousness of our symbolism has lost some of its force.

Kath and I exit the Palace, wander into the Zocalo and pay a visit to the Cathedral. A mass is in progress, the thin, mostly female congregation kneeling reverently under the great weight of massive chandeliers, gold-plated iconography, and the image of Christ suffering for them. The priest is wearing a lapel mic, which allows him to speak in a flat, unenergetic mumble, while the celebrant singer, clearly a young girl not confident in either her musical or oratorical powers, trills out her songs in a tremulous alto.

We walk West along 5th of May Ave towards the Palacio de Bellas Artes, stopping to marvel at the Art Nouveau grandeur of the Post Office, before passing the Palace’s amazing exterior. Kath’s guidebook recommends coffee on the 8th floor of the Sears building, which does indeed deliver a view of the P.d.B.A from in front and above that is wonderful. No less so is the bustling life on the steps and in the plaza in front of the Palacio, people seen in foreshortened view from our beautiful if pigeon-infested eyrie. When we gather our energy to descend from Sears and enter the Palacio, it is a revelation. Built over at least three architectural movements (Bauhaus/Art Nouveau/Art Deco) and on a very grand scale, the building is a pleasure to be in.   The red and white marble is offset by black, silver and brass highlights. The open space vaults over you. The lobby is on three levels, the upper two of which boast murals by Rivera as well as by other greats. The familiar themes of oppression overcome by The International, of mankind on the near edge of a great evolutionary leap forward are very present in Diego’s work (this is the work that was banned from the Rockefeller Center once he had made its political intentions clear to the Rockefellers).   The other murals are far more harsh in their narrative: war and oppression presented in their grisly detail with no relief from travail until the inevitable Victory of the Working Class. (The use of capital letters seems to be required here.)

I find myself wishing that we had enough confidence in our own democracy to let such fiery, passionate works into our large public buildings. Imagine being challenged by art the way the vast mural by (I believe) Alfaro Siqueiro on the second floor of this building challenges us: a muscular woman, with near-comicbook breasts bursts forwards at us, breaking out of her chains as she takes spiritual flight. Wow.

Feb 7

I awoke from such an instructive dream. I was ambiguously a guest of a desirable woman in the house of strangers. The other two people were a woman and a young man who emanated talent and a strong animal energy. It was clear that my presence in the house upset a balance that had been established. This became clear when we sat around a beautiful dining table, and there was some discussion of some kind of decorative, artistic work that was to be done on it. I had a few suggestions to make, which clearly frustrated this young fellow; he was in fact so irritated that he could barely contain his anger. There was a kind of temporal jump-cut at this point in the dream, and the four people of the household were once again at the table. We were about to begin some kind of restoration work on the table, but I was aware that the young man was again boiling with irritation, afraid that I might drop several drops of sweat on what was clearly now HIS table. We three stood back from the table to observe and allow the young man to deal with the table as is he saw fit.

There followed one of those formalistic, time-wasting egoistic displays that one sees sometimes: the young man busied himself with taking the table cloth, some thicker padded material clearly intended to protect the precious wood, and displaying his mastery and competence by carefully folding it, leaning over it and lovingly flattening the seams, refolding it, opening it out again, folding it again, all as a kind of demonstration of his own mastery and power. We others grew more and more uncomfortable watching him; he was so passionate and energetic, and yet so absurd. It was clear that the situation was reaching a pitch in which his precious status quo –as the alpha male of the group- was either to be somehow abjectly acknowledged, or challenged in some kind of pissing contest. Everyone was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He finally turned to me (along with the others) and said (or somehow communicated the thought): “What are you waiting for?” (I believe that the two women in the room were asking the same thing of me.)

At this moment, the dream became a kind of lucid-dream koan. What indeed was I waiting for? I replied, “I see that you are displaying your competence and your aggression. It is very impressive.” This response unbalanced the young man somewhat, but he took it as a challenge. I could feel how he now felt on the edge between fighting with me and actually acknowledging that his display was absurdly defensive and pointless. I felt myself shifting consciousness up through levels of dream state, and freed of the as it were drive of the plot of the dream, I was able to come up with the best answer to his question: “I’m waiting for you to reveal your better nature.”

At this, the dream characters faded, no longer needed, since this was clearly the answer to the koan. The huffy egoist in the dream was of course myself, and he felt stuck, unable to proceed with the work on the table, because he was more concerned with his status in the household. There are many approaches to dealing with those who want to help. Guarding one’s precedence as the expert is the last thing that will move the work forward. But as all characters in dreams represent parts of oneself, the answer to the koan is… reveal my own better nature.

February 8th.

The Trotsky House.

This is surely one of the stranger “tourist” destinations in the world. There are some monuments to tragic events that the traveler should absolutely include on his or her itinerary: if you’re in Cambodia, pay respect to the victims of the Pol Pot regime by visiting the SG21 museum; if in Poland, Germany, or Czech, visit one of the sites of Jewish tragedy and absorb the horrifying magnitude of industrial murder; if you’re a Canadian in France, go weep for the dead at the Vimy Memorial.

To visit the Trotsky House in Mexico City is to contemplate the death of Russian Marxist idealism. The house is interesting enough as a display case for the pictures and documents collected there, but the true effect of visiting is to see what must have been a pleasantly modest house reduced by stages to a defensive shell. The family’s living arrangements became, with the repeated assassination threats and attempts, more and more confined, the doors to the inner chambers replaced with thick metal hatches. It is almost quaint and pitiful that Leon Trosky, that warrior-intellectual who accompanied Lenin through the brutal first years of the Russsian Revolution and was the Commissar of the Red Army during its horrifically systematic wiping out of the White forces during the civil war period, that very man would up his life a prisoner in his own house, quaintly feeding chickens and living in fear of the fate that finally caught up with him one August day in 1940.

I have never been an admirer of Trotsky. Although many leftists throughout the world mourned him as the greatest leader the Soviet Union never had, and think that under his leadership, the Russian experiment would have been saved the horrors of Stalinism, there is no proof that it would have been spared the horrors of Trotskyism. Nevertheless, a visit to the house is a sobering reminder of the plodding inevitability of Soviet revenge, and to see the windows turned into rifle blinds, the bullet holes in the walls, to picture Trotsky at his desk with Ramón Mercader standing behind him, ice-axe in hand… well, it is a sober contemplation.

From the Halls of Montezuma…

In a strange twist of fate, I have been spending more time in the company of a Major in the U.S. Marines than I would have thought possible. It came about like this: Kathy and I arrived at the Kahlo House a mere 70 minutes before it was scheduled to close for the day, and there was a long line. She asked the people in front of us how long they had been waiting, and struck up a conversation with the very sociable woman, who, although latino in appearance, was markedly American in manner. She was there with her husband and daughter. Kath, who knew that I was feeling very little like standing in a lineup, suggested that the husband and I go off and have coffee, and wife suggested that she could text us if the line got going. So the two of us guys, happy to be freed to go off and talk guy stuff, went off and found a tavern and ordered beers. Eddie turned out to be a Marine, serving in Mexico in some kind of advisory/liaison capacity with the Mexican military. I didn’t enquire too deeply, but when I told him about Nick Turner’s experiences in Afghanistan (and about my own, in the 1970s), he warmed to me and we had a very civilized conversation. I was downright amazed to hear his overtly liberal opinions (he likes Obama, for example), and was astounded by his personal history. He was born in Columbia, and moved to the USA (first to Miami, then to NYC) with his mother when he was very young. He enlisted in the Marines as a very young man, and advanced through the ranks. He is now a Major in the Corps, but so unlike any stereotype of a Marine Major that I probably looked as though I was inexplicably shaking my head throughout our conversation. We thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company, and when we got the message that the line had advanced to the door, we went back to the museum and spent 45 minutes touring through the place.

The most remarkable things about the Kahlo House are the artifacts from her disabilities. Disfigured by polio, and then having suffered a serious spinal and leg injury in an auto/tram accident as a teen, Frida’s body was supported through her lifetime by various prosthetic devices for her leg and her chest and back.   It is truly impressive that she accomplished so much artistically, socially, and yes, sexually (among her lovers were Rivera—of course—Anais Nin, and famously Leon Trotsky).

After the visit to the Kahlo House, Kath, Sue, Eddie, and their daughter and I repaired to a restaurant and had a prolonged conversation about politics, the military, Canadian-American relations, the state of the world, and other gratifying topics. They drove us to our hotel in their nice Nissan SUV, and we agreed to meet again.

February 9th

After five rather whirlwind days with Kathy Fisher, I’m a solo traveler again, and content to be so. We had quite a decent chat last night as we lay on our separate beds. We talked a bit about the stuff that had been wonderful about the visit, and what had been challenging, including the push-pull of control of agenda, and the differing styles that any two travellers experience. In the morning, she prepared to go off and attend the women’s writers’ conference in San Miguel, which features some truly impressive names in FemLit. She and I had pleasant breakfast, and she piled her stuff into a taxi bound for the Terminus del Norte, from which northern-bound busses leave Mexico City.

Feb 11

Pat and Stewart had come down to Mexico City from their mountain home to put the girls on the plane back to Canada, so I met them for breakfast at El Café Popular, famous for its breakfasts; more fun and interesting talk about families, politics, the teachers’ strike (which is currently tying up the whole downtown area, the teachers having taken over a large area of the Zocalo, and having camped out on MexCity’s main artery). Stewart is cynical. He tells the story of how the woman who was President of the teachers’ union campaigned on a platform of transferring both job and pension to relatives and friends, and how she was subsequently arrested. We parted with good will, and an invitation to return to Taxco and a repeat of the invite to stay at their place in Toronto in July, which I will certainly do when Candice Fiorentino and I arrive to bring Anatolia Speaks to the Toronto Fringe.

Then a long walk east of the Zocalo in search of a towel and a haircut. I walked through blocks and blocks of the garment district, saw scores of stores selling the same fabrics, hundreds selling plastic knick-knacks. I asked for help finding a barber and was give polite but ineffective directions (a common experience in Mexico). I tripped on a curb, went down in a heap without anyone offering help or comment. I got kicked out of a store selling dollar-store items for wearing my backpack. I stopped to buy socks on display, and the proprietor seemed to say that because they were 5 pesos, they were not for sale (??). The police (on account of the teachers’ strike) had barricaded all traffic going into the Zocalo except pedestrians. In the Zocalo itself is the protest area. A stage has been set up, complete with professional stage lighting and sound, but it is blocked from general view by tall wooden walls. It’s fine to protest, as long as you can’t be seen, this seems to say.

The police and security forces are everywhere downtown. They lean on buildings, they smoke, they joke with one another and eat from the street vendors. Young women bearing assault rifles do their makeup, young men leaning on riot shields look off into the distance, unsure about their place and hoping that they don’t have to do their duty and bash some heads. Or worse.

The organ grinders grind away. I’ve already tossed my pesos into the hats. On the West side of the Cathedral, tradespeople sit behind their backpacks, each with a shingle leaning on the pack which advertizes his specialty—gas fitting, painting, general labour, carpentry. A market in workers, a workers’ market. I’ve already walked several miles today, and I’m more exhausted than I want to be.

Light rain this afternoon. I retire to my little hostel, watch several episodes of The Fall, which is an intense Brit procedural set in Belfast (in itself interesting), and noting the very unflinching feminism of the writing. Gillian Anderson’s superbly-crafted character coldly fucks a fellow cop she sees on the street because he’s got a great body, all the time insisting on his sexual passivity. Meanwhile, the scene is juxtaposed with hard-cut shots of the serial woman-killer and his abuse of women. What this is supposed to say I have no idea, but the film’s gender bias slaps you in the face repeatedly: the male cops are at best ineffectual, every piece of cop incompetence is acted out by a male cop (and vise-versa); it goes without saying that the serial killer’s horrific treatment of women (he targets the successful, young, and beautiful) is hate-able.

Anderson’s supervisor on the Belfast squad—her status as London detective makes her suspect by her Irish colleagues— is a kind of moral weakling. In a weird writing twist, he has a very forced scene where he shows up drunk, treats her almost violently in his desire to sleep with her, and then, once she has punched him and neutralized him, sits and bemoans, “why are women so strong?” Her answer: “because men are aberrations: they are born with a birth defect.” No doubt this sort of writing gets a lot of cred in the Irish film industry; for my part, it’s simply a bizarre thing for a male writer to indulge in, a kind of gender-self-abnegation.

After my movie indulgence, I haul out the guitar and give myself a workout, not making it back out on the street till after 8 pm. Oddly, of the few restaurants in the area of the hostel, only one is open, so I end up eating another street sandwich. I did however, stumble across The Street of Music Stores, quite nearby, as it happened. More than a dozen music stores all in the same area (like the garment district this morning), most with an array of knockoff electrics, and cheap Spanish-style guitars. One store did stock a bunch of Fenders, several American made (I’m not chauvinistic about Yankee craftsmanship—I was actually shopping for Mexican-made Fenders, and couldn’t find one!!). This warrants a return visit. I did pick up some strings and a cable to give as gifts in Cuba.

I’m starting to figure out the general tone of this town, I think. The people whose job it is to serve the tourist industry are efficient and polite. Everyone else is indifferent to us gringos. The people of the DF (Distrito Federal) are like the citizens of any of the world’s major cities: self-conscious of the fact that they are living at the centre of things. Even the damage of the 1985 earthquake, which is still evident in huge cracks in stone walls and visibly empty apartments and offices, is a kind of badge of honour for the citizens.

I revisit Chapultepec Park (Mexico City’s massive central park) and the surrounding sites, including the Museo de Antropología, one of the world’s great museums, this time concentrating on the upper floor, whose displays are about current Mexico. Seven years ago, I toured the main floor exhibits (which take hours to view with any detail), concentrating on prehistory until the Conquest. I have to say that this part of the Museum is the best. The modern Mexico that is presented in the upper floor is not one that I’ve seen anywhere on my travels. It feels as though the displays are all forty or fifty years out of date, and the imperative to offend none of the many ethnic and cultural groups that make up this vast country has resulted in a very bland presentation.

Chapultepec Park is beautiful. You can walk for half a day under its canopy of trees. Families crowd into the park on Sundays to picnic, wander the market, eat ice cream, paddle on the small lake. A group of people of a certain age gathered under trees on the Walk of Poets (which features busts of great Mexican writers) to play beautiful folk music for the pure pleasure of jamming. (This was one of my favourite musical experiences in Mexico.)

Near the museum, you can (as Kath and I did) watch the old flying dance, the Danza de los Voladores: Four men in traditional costume climb a 30-meter pole to a platform on top. Then they each wind a rope around the top of the pole, and the musician then climbs on top of a platform at the peak of the pole and plays the flute. At the appropriate moment, the four mean launch themselves from the top of the pole and for a magical ten minutes, they spin around, descending, heads to the ground, as their ropes unwind, the flute player never stopping playing, and the other dancers holding ritual positions as they waft through space. The physical endurance alone is very impressive, and the sight is inspiring. Once the men are on the ground, the collection plate goes around of course, and they deserve every peso they collect (not a vast amount, I would guess). I approached the men as they stood untying themselves from their ropes and asked them about the knot they used. They were happy to show me that the only knot that they trusted their lives to was the bowline.

I wish there were more fruit stands downtown—people have an endless appetite for wheat, corn, and meat, and I can only ingest so many Cubana sandwiches before my system begins to revolt.

Feb 12. The Delores Olmado Museum

The lengthy metro ride from the centre of the city to the Museum, in the southern part of the city, (in the Thirties, it was a suburb) is such a deep experience of Mexican culture. I must rely on the helpfulness of strangers, and of course… they come through. On the train car, there are constant crowds. They are no kinder than, no less kind than such crowds everywhere. What we do not have in Canada are people who come on to train cars to sell books and ointments, hawking their wares with rhythmic patter. No one in Canada trips through the car with salsa music played far, far too loud, selling pirated CDs of the artists.. No beggars with one foot mangled from some horrid injury come stumping through the train loudly proclaiming their medical condition and the course of treatment that will help them, of only you will contribute. No blind musicians busk for two stops. No passionate student rides from one stop to the next on the LRT, haranguing about U.S. oil companies and their Imperialism and conjuring one and all to buy his leftist mag.

When you ask a subway security officer in Edmonton for directions to the nearby museum, does he produce a pen and draw a map?

Arriving at the Delores Olmado Museum I am taken aback by the beauty of the gardens, the carefully groomed botany of Mexico, the excited peacocks urgently shuffling their displays at pea-hens. Geese and pigeons and sparrows sing and squawk and get on about the business of making love and making a living.

I wish Kath and I had come here in search of Frida Kahlo, whose works in this small gallery devoted to her express such profound pain and despair that it hurts to look. Like having to watch someone in mortal sorrow, irreconcilable. Her formal studies in surrealism are much more interesting than I expected, and her symbolist work about her miscarriage is profoundly sad. I felt short of breath. There is a lot there about fecundity: breasts and vaginas weep, the sky rains milk, or sperm, or something, and Frida looks out at us accusingly, the soul of all women who suffer penetrations and childbirth (and all its complicated horrors) as martyrs in the cause of procreation.

By contrast, Diego’s galleries reveal the gradual maturity of the artist, whose cubist studies of the 1910-15 period gradually give way to more realist art, more didactic. As Diego ages, he shucks aside the European training in formalism and turns his gaze on his Mexico, saying, “Look at this, my countrymen, look at the beauty and the suffering, look at the heroes who fight for justice!”

How driven the man was is best revealed in his very last works, painted in Acapulco in 1956-57, where he was dying of cancer and a guest of Delores Olmedo. He studied the light at the end of the day in a series of paintings that feel like a man struggling to wrest out of paint and brush the most precise account of the miracle of light that is sunset. And he still had an eye for the girls, evidenced by his quite delightful study of two girls in The Hammock, although there is a wistful air as well—the girls are modestly dressed in 1950’s bathing suits, the kind that look almost structural in their unnatural contortion of the female form–and their shared pleasure in life is, alas, no longer for the artist. Their smiles are for themselves alone.

At three thirty or so, there is a massive clap of thunder. What I swore was the mewing of a distressed cat turned out to be the distressed mewling of a peacock in the garden. Like my dear little dog Zoe, the birds hate the massive inexplicable power of the storm.

Feb 13. I have changed hostels, and am now staying at the Hostel Catedral. From the fifth floor kitchen, I could easily toss a pebble onto the roof of the Zocalo Cathedral. I am more or less living above the remains of the greatest Aztec city. I had breakfast this morning with a very interesting, sympathetic Uruguan economist named Emiliano. His passionate accounts of the recent election of a left-of-centre former prisoner of the (of course) CIA-backed dictatorship, of Uruguay’s four World Cups, of the general rise of the people from poverty, and the beauty of the country, inspired me to visit. I will get Emiliano’s contact info tonight.

(done. I will someday go to his country)

Feb 14th: At the futbal game.

Valentine’s Day, and I am a willing non-participant. I really wanted to see a BIG soccer game in Mexico, so I bought a scalper ticket a few days ago, stopping on my way back from the Delores Almada Museum at the Estadio Azteca (from the sublime to the jock) to wander near the ticket booth until I was offered a ticket for a hundred and thirty pesos above the face price.  The local favourites (Los Americanos) are taking on Los Jagures. I gird myself for an exciting night of great soccer in a stadium with 100,000 people.

The event, as it turned out, was a bit anticlimactic. Only about 10,000 fans came to the game. The massive stadium, truly impressive in scale, was largely empty. I’m not sure why this is—both teams have a following, I’ve read. But the home town supporters declined to show up en masse.

The police, however, DID show up in force, with riot shields. They looked bored, or vaguely amused. There were several hundred cops on the scene, perhaps 500 or so, making a ratio of about one police officer for every 20 fans.The commercialism that we observe in all professional sport was very evident. Corona is a big advertiser, as is “Bimbo!” a bakery brand. Any thought of buying a fan t-shirt was quelled, as I don’t want to wear, or subject anyone else to wearing, a shirt with the letters BIMBO across the chest.

In contrast to Canadian sports fans (at least in terms of their voiced response) the male fans certainly knew what the real purpose of the cheerleaders was, for when the pretty girls in tight clothes paraded onto the field carrying the various sponsors’ flags, a loud chorus of wolf whistles came from the stands. As ever… sex sells.

The game was played on a high level indeed. Although the best Mexican players probably play elsewhere (England, Spain, or Italy, where the big money is), I’m pretty sure that either of these teams would embarrass, for example, the Toronto or Vancouver teams. Sadly, they were not evenly-matched—the Americans were beating the Jaguars handily (4-0) when I left 15 minutes into the second half.

My favourite moment (apart from the impressive athleticism on the pitch) was a brief show at half-time. The beautiful eagle that is the mascot of the MexCity side was on display before the game, and fans could have their picture taken with it, for a price. At half-time, the bird was carried onto the field. A man took a soccer ball on a long rope, and whirled it around himself in giant arcs. When the eagle was unhooded, it swooped across the field and chased the ball down, to loud cheers.

It is my last night in MexCity for two weeks. Tomorrow, I fly to Cuba.

Up In The Hills above Taxco

LaPeral-3Taxco/Tetipac

The bus trip lands me at El Norte, the Northern bus station of Mexico City, and I blow 175 pesos on a cab ride to the Southern Station, which turned out to be a foolish expense, since the traffic crawled through the vast city so slowly that I would have proceeded much faster on a bicycle (and much faster still if I’d gutted up and taken the subway). Then a fight through Friday afternoon crowds to get a bus to Taxco, the ride landing me in that town too late to get a combi-bus the 20 km to Tetipac, the town Stewart Scriver’s place is near. More expense, more hassle, no one knows anything about “la Casa de los Canadiensas”, and I wind up at a Mexican hotel in this hamlet, listening to the cattle lowing outside (which is anything but unpleasant). Anyhow, here I am, having exercised more bad Spanish on the unsuspecting locals than they possible deserved. Hopefully, I’ll find Stewart and Pat’s house tomorrow. Meantime, sleep beckons…

Jan 31

Over the past 24 hours, I have stretched my meager Spanish well past the breaking point In the morning, I woke deeper in a Mexican experience than I had previously been. I meandered for a while in the hillside town of Tetipac, bought oranges, and had coffee (Nescafe with sugar) in a taquilerilla. Everyone was frankly curious about the gringo in their midst, two young men attached themselves to me. Both wanted me to know they had worked in the USA, and were happy to try their rusty English. One was hard at work in the bakery, trying to get their machine to work. He guided me to the next-door eatery and asked on my behalf that food be cooked for me. The proprietor who a moment before had found me too odd an apparition to cook for, began cooking huevos. My mentor’s first question: “Do you want cervasa? Tequila? Smoke something? “ I look at him blankly, tell him I don’t smoke. He looks at me conspiratorially. “No crack?” (I think: CRACK?? AT EIGHT IN THE MORNING IN A TINY MEXICAN VILLAGE??)   I say: “Never.” He, incredulously: “Never?” He’s amazed to find a gringo sitting in a taquilliria at eight in the morning who doesn’t want to smoke crack. “What an odd person,” reads the thought bubble clearly evident above his head.

As I’m eating my eggs, the town drunk meanders in and tests his own dusty English… Well, not English, he’s speaking Taquila-ese, and is clearly not popular with the proprietor or his wife, who are now sympathizing with me. He’s dressed much as the town drunk would be in any small Alberta town i the middle of rodeo weekend:  cowboy boots with metal toes, black Stetson hat, mother-of-pear buttons. lThe drunk, who had worked as a roofer in Texas, follows me into the street, wheedling ten pesos for a morning drink, and dogs my footsteps, embarrassing everyone in the street, until the cabbie I had engaged earlier arrives, having confirmed my destination, to give me a lift back up the road towards Taxco and the little acreage that is La Peral where Stewart Scriver and family live. On the road, it turns out he also has had a U.S. sojourn in New York, and we have a pleasant ride up the mountain in semi-competent bilingual conversation. This is how I am awkwardly going to learn this language.

El Peral

We arrive at the settlement on the hill: El Peral. I am greeted by the elderly wife of Sr. Dario, the part-time caretaker,. Her name is Lapita, one of the most naturally sweet people I’ve ever met. Soon Pat (Stewart’s lifetime partner) arrives. We walk over the swinging footbridge and up to the three stone houses that constitute their foothold on the mountain. Stewart has gone up the hill, where there is occasional cell coverage, so Pat and I sit sociably on the porch and share stories and histories. Their grand-daughter is present, with her friend Lily, who is entirely part of the family. They are beautiful, modest young people. Lily is Chinese, Trish half-Cree. They listen politely. Pat and Stewart have created an amazing life story. Both educated middle class Canadians who broke out of the mold when they opened a second-hand store in Toronto’s Kensington market forty years ago, and eventually turned it into one of the city’s cultural landmarks, importing crafts, clothing, and curios from their own cross-planet travels.

Pat offers me one the use one of the three houses (stone cabins, one might call them). Stewart not having arrived, Pat sends the girls up the mountain to find them. I go along, exercising my bad ankle on steep paths through pine, cedar and small, tough Mexican oak trees. We find Stewart on the brow of a hill, in text conversation with, among others, his brother, my friend Steve. Stewart, somewhat to my surprise, hugs me, and there follows a one-hour educational hike filled with history, geology, botany zoology, and the sociology of the region.

This area reminds me of the smells of Jasper park. The air is brisk (cold at night), and clear, redolent of pine and cedar. There is no level ground, but there are amazing small fields of compressed volcanic ash, pleasant to the feet, and small clearings giving views of distant mountains and valleys. Two volcanoes are visible, one 100 km away in the high, clear air.

Feb 1

How delightful to have wound up hanging out with Stewart Scriver and Pat Constable, with young Trish and her sweet-natured friend Lily. This mountain retreat is in sharp contrast to every urban landscape I’ve been in in the past months, a trio of houses perched above a stream whose waterfall is audible from the deck, whose simple architecture includes a most necessary woodstove and simple cooking facilities, whose luxury appointments are the comfortable wooden chairs which overlook a pine-scented valley in which one can only occasionally hear a mechanical sound of any kind. I reflect that it’s hardly surprising that Stewart’s brother Steve wanted to retire to Wolseley, Sask, since he has many of the same delightful amenities.

Today, after a relaxed time of getting everyone up and fed and coffeed, we took the combi, an ancient VW van, into Tetipac, that truly Mexican town where we were undoubtedly the only gringos around to share market day. It is much more pleasant to wander the streets than two days ago, in the bright sun of he Mercado, knowing where I’ll be sleeping tonight. I should mention that the young women Lily and Trish stood out much less than Stewart, Pat, and I. Notwithstanding the difference, we were treated with consideration and grace in each of the stores and stalls we visited, and accepted as odd anomalies.

The streets are being constantly destroyed by water erosion, resulting in unending infracstructure repair. It’s a survival contest to walk them, balancing over 2 by 6 bridges over deep chasms, sliding down hills of gravel. In the town square, men in cowboy hats lean against walls and smoke cigarettes, sip their pre-noon beers just like they were waiting for the next bronco ride in the Princess fall rodeo (rodeo is a popular sport here, too). Women keep shop and stall, generally, and keep the wheels of commerce creaking along, Mexican fashion. Stewart and Pat flow through this environment with comfort and familiarity. We stop for goat tacos at a street stall. The Mexican practice is to take all the meat and chop it fine, so one knows no more which part of the animal that one is eating than if it were in a sausage. I suspected a bit of eyeball in my taco. I disregard it, splash on more hot sauce. We guy oranges, onions, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, mangoes, ppapaya, apples, cabbage, a sink plug, toilet paper, and a BBQ-style lighter for the stove in my cabin.

I notice that when we wanted to take pictures of the stunning valley view as the road climbs up out of Tetipac, the driver was aware enough of what transpired in the back seat of the Volks van that he slowed down and favoured the left hand side of the road in order to facilitate the picture-taking. More English is spoken in Tetipac than one expects, or the locals acknowledge.

A day later, we visit the market in Taxco, which is by contrast a major city. This town is so vertically-constructed that the upper levels, on the surrounding mountains, are part of a different ecosystem. On the main square, before the very beautiful cathedral, the VW taxis wheel in a counter-clockwise dance around the topiated trees and the churros dealers crying their wares. They vie with the kitsch dealers of curios. It is a charming and functional town, one which few Yanquis have on their itineraries, in spite of the very active silver trade that is evident in every fourth shop’s displays. The market is set up Tuesday, on a series of steep, winding, interconnected streets below the cathedral. It is as though Escher designed a marketplace in a laberynthine series of streets and steps, covered by tarpaulins and declared a free trade zone.

The landscape around El Peral (Stewart and Pat’s property) is mountainous high chapparal. The property encompasses a spring, a section of the creek that falls as a waterfall into a beautiful bathing hole (which is too cool to be tempting in this 15-degree weather), several dominating hills, and part of an ancient road, which although wild and dangerous to those who might step unwarily, was clearly cobbled with stones, many large enough to tear the transition out of any automobile—mule paths, in fact. We went on one hike a day around and beyond their land, climbing up and up through forest, across compacted adobe, which Stewart points out has an antibacterial property which makes it sell for absurd prices in Canada (and in fact, nothing grows on it). We forded the creek numerous times over logs and over stepping stones, the two girls skipping more nimbly than I. They are charming souls, delicate, sensitive, sensible people, very considerate sharers of the days’ caminos. My pacemaker gets a good workout, and an hour’s hiking in that crisp thin air under a canopy of sky of the clearest, brightest blue was exercise of the sublimest sort.

I must write a brief word in praise of Dario and his wife Lapita, who are the resident caretakers of El Peral, living in a house near the road. He is a very competent repairman, gatekeeper (he has a local reputation for ferocity) and gardener. He asked Stewart for money for a firearm a couple of years ago, and showed up with a .45 automatic. His wife Lapita is an angelic, gentle soul, whose kind smiling eyes would disarm a regiment. I certainly think they have (mostly) disarmed Dario, at least in the spiritual sense. Every time the two young women are within range, she takes the opportunity to give them some small gift. She is childless, so she treats the girls as a grandmother-manquee. Knowing I was leaving this morning, she presented me, a propos of nothing, with the pen with which I first wrote these lines.

I’ve spend several hours listening to Stewart and Pat’s stories; they are utterly fascinating, whether they are talking about how they struggled to make their store work, about the odd and wonderful people whom they have met as a result of running the store, or about their travels. They have war stories of travel from so many countries that it boggles the mind. Their after-dinner tales of flying into Mandalay in the nineties are stunning, the kind of stories that are publishable, the kind of stories that few people outside the military (and few within) have had the opportunity to experience. Stewart told me of the diary kept by a Bangkok cabbie during the Vietnam war which is filled with entries from the American soldiers on R and R. I told him that if he would give me the material, I would promise to write a play based on it.

I am content here. It has taken me the full three days to come down and adjust to the non-event-ness of the place, but I think I’ll be very happy to be here at least until I return to MexCity and its mad haste.

The New Year in Mexico: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel

After another lengthy bus ride (this one not ridden by hangover), I arrive after dark at San Miguel de Allende, one of the homes of the Mexican independence movement. I am overjoyed to see my friends David and Marlene, two of the most extraordinary cultured and kind people I’ve ever met. The Wilsons spend several months a year in SMA, and are now thoroughly acquainted with how to get along here. They’ve rented a high-ceiling-ed, quite eccentrically decorated house about a kilometer’s walk from the beautiful Zocalo of the city, known to the locals, with its pink church and its cultured trees as The Jardin (pronounced “hardeen”).

Dave and Marlene make me welcome, feed me, give me a glass of wine, and I prepare to renew my relationship with this city, which I last visited some six years ago.

Jan 19

Yesterday, Dave and I walked several km up into the hills Southeast of town.

We walked back down through Benito Juarez Park, as fine a public garden as any I’ve seen. When we got home, dog-tired, Marlene arrived to announce that the concert we had been planning to attend had been moved till four pm.

On stiff legs, I kept pace with her until we arrived at the church where the Las Vegas String Quartet were about to play. I was glad to settle into a pew. There followed two hours of excellent music. The Mozart piece was pleasant and predictable, the apotheosis of high classical musical thought. However there followed two 20th C compositions, one American (13 fiddle tunes, or “If it ain’t broke, it’s surely bent.”) and one Chinese (Chrysanthemums). The latter bent the pentatonic scale well past breaking point without ever feeling self-indulgent. They finished with a Beethoven quartet, opus 39. Such passionate, athletic musical ideas, unapologetic about leaving us hanging on one idea, only to jerk us into another emotional region or pensee, threatening to resolve many times in the final movement before coming to its powerful, definitive, triumphant conclusion. It was like watching four people take flight for two hours, tumbling, rolling, dangerously diving, surviving near misses, and then landing themselves (and us) in an open field, the mind freed for a while, from the mundane.

I met a woman during the intermission at the concert who intrigued me. Introduced as an Austrian cousin of one of Marlene’s acquaintances, she responded to my blandly polite opening of “I have a dear friend who lives in Vienna” she came back with “Vienna is a boring city! All they have are old buildings, museums, pictures! There is no green space! Nowhere for children.” I assured her that, coming from somewhere where there were but few old buildings and beautiful pictures, but much green space, I had thoroughly enjoyed my few days in Vienna. She leapt to the subject of walking. “I have a friend who spent sixteen months walking from Austria to Japan.” When I supposed that he might have had to walk through the Southern Himalayan mountains on this very impressive journey, she corrected me and assured me he had walked a more northerly route through Siberia thus through the Taiga. This provided an opening to mention the book Tiger by John Vaillant. Apparently her friend had had an encounter with a Siberian Tiger. She cracked, “Tiger—good kitty!—not tamed!”  This felt like a challenge, and I shamelessly mentioned my own plan to travel the Canadian prairies by boat. “What kind of boat?” She asked, as though if I had answered with some Lesser Kind of Boat, she would have attacked me. “A canoe” seemed to be an acceptable answer.

When we went back into the church for to hear the Beethoven (both the woman and I had agreed that the Mozart was something of a confection), I felt I had been offered a challenge, one which I declined to take up. I would have gladly fenced with this woman after the concert, but Marlene and the rest of our concert-goers had a dinner appointment, and the concert had run late, so we left post-haste.

When I contemplate my condition, I am not sadly pining for female company, but it certainly is a pleasure on those rare occasions when one excites me with enough animal energy to attract that part of my Nature.

Yesterday, I packed my swimming gear and found (with some difficulty) the bus route to La Gruta (The Cave), one of the local hot springs resorts about 15 km from San Miguel. The local bus will stop for you near the place, and you can get down and hike the few hundred meters into the well-kept gardens, cafes, and pools that form the resort. Pools of varying temperatures are available, the hottest of which is a tunnel leading to the cave that gives the place its name. the cave is in fact a large man-mad cauldron of hot water with a large vault of a ceiling through which there are a few openings that admit rays of sunlight that light up the place like an Indigo Jones stage design. A pleasant couple of hours of bathing, and then back onto the road. I stand on the roadside reading, and a car pulls up.   There is a woman driving. “You want a lift?” says an Aussie accent.   I get in. The driver is an eccentric, energetic woman who lives in San Miguel. Her name, she says, is Azzah. She’s been living in SMA for several years, and seems to have pretty thoroughly traveled the planet. When we get to town, I tell her I’m scouting out the location of the Shelter Theatre, and she tells me she’ll be at the open mic on Tuesday night.

January 20th

It is my birthday, my 61st. Perhaps I will drink a bit of tequila tonight by way of celebration. I have been to the guitar luthery/studio of the kind and talented Sergio Huesta, who makes beautiful instruments, ones I would be proud to own… If I were flying directly back to Canada. That $800 would be well spent on a very good instrument and in support of a fine craftsman. But alas, the right conditions don’t pertain. I’m anticipating taking a guitar to Cuba, and quite possibly leaving it there, so the cost is prohibitive. Not even as a self-birthday present, helas.

We passed through the “Tuesday Market” today, a massive collection of hopeful merchants under canvas that sets up once a week on top of the hills above town. Booth after booth peddling goods produced in Asia, many of them bearing the trademarks identified with the USA. The Mexican goods included crafts, leatherwork, furniture, shoes and food. In near despair of finding a guitar, I sat and played two much-used generic knockoff electrics being sold by the only stall in the market that specializes in things musical. Questioning the vendor about the price of the less beat-up of the two, a Les Paul copy/disaster, I learned he wanted 2000 pesos. Poor bastard, I was so desperate he could have had me for a thousand (thrice its garage-sale worth in Canada), but I felt quite offended to be treated like such a cretin, and I left without bargaining.

I have no words of wisdom on turning 61. I’ve already made the choices which have landed me here in the sun. I have given myself the huge gift of a new life, and I hope to be worthy of it. I am still very much in transition, and I’ve made no lasting decisions about anything, except the following:

-I feel quite at home in SE Asia, particularly SE Taiwan

-I like the Vietnamese

-I want to go to Indonesia

-Health permitting, I will:

-take a canoe across the Prairies

-bike through France

-boat or bike more in Holland and the Low Countries

-most important on the bucket list: try to be a good human being who is of use others; help my boys to grow up and Keltie in whatever ways I can.

I did spring for a new guitar in the shop near the Jardin.  It’s a little Spanish guitar, so my whole technique will have to adjust, but it’s light, portable, and quite playable.

That’s about it. Another January 20 passes on the planet. I’m still breathing, still above the grass, still a Walking Man.

A sign on a local San Miguel bus (in Spanish:) God bless this Camino.

Another (in English:) Only God Can Judge Me (which seems to me something of a forestalling threat, coming from the proprietor/driver of a public vehicle).

Werner Richter, the most brilliant practical linguist I have ever had the privilege to know, wrote me a very warm birthday letter today, expressing his longing to be moving about the world as freely as I am, and sharing subtextually how demanding it has been caring for daughter Michelle, who has had some developmental challenges, and who was named, I believe, partly with reference to my former wife.   They must have looked at M and me and seen what a loving, happy relationship we had back then (in 1991 or so) and hoped for the same affection. I well remember the bliss I felt back then; it is one of the great good fortunes of my life that I experienced this. I don’t often see it in the relationships of others. I hope that the new marriages that I’ve witnessed in the past few years (Kate and Dave, Nicky and Christie, Lynn’s girls) have such intense romance. I wish it on Candice, that exempularly beautiful soul. Human beings cannot bear too much truth without having a superbly supple core. The truth can be harsh, deeply mysterious, shocking, and can weigh you down with responsibility: truthseekers tend to sacrifice relationships .

Jan 21

Yesterday, I attended the open mic as the Shelter Theatre, which is in fact a former bomb shelter, such a pitiful refuge from thermonuclear devices that one wonders what they could possibly have been thinking in 1962. There were 12 performers, some 20 audience members. The performances were amateur, but in the better sense, and interesting. We heard songs by Dylan, Donvan, Van Zandt, Roy Orbison, John Denver, and a few originals. I made well-intentioned introductory comments about enjoying hanging around with Americans (“I don’t hear your accent very much in my home town in Northern Canada—not many of you seem to come that far north as tourists, for some reason” (laughter).. “I don’t get down to the USA much—your countrymen don’t seem to want me there…long story” (knowing laughter). My tunes: Jesse Winchester, me, Elmore James (“In honour of Elmore’s 100th birthday”, which would get a rise out of most Edmonton crowds, but this white California-dominated crowd doesn’t even murmur.) My new little Spanish guitar feels light and unfamiliar, a toy in my hands. Afterwards Tom (one of the Yanks whose playing I liked best) approached me and asked me how long I’d be in town, offered to bring his Strat for me next week, so I guess I played ok. As the evening wound down, the Aussie woman (Azzah) offered, of all things, a Russian torch song. As I leave, I tell her, “you are quite mad, you know.” She grins. I go home.

Watched Happiness (the film) with Dave and Marlene.  I like this film very much; its thesis is that human happiness and material plenty have only a small influence in producing happy human beings.  More important are family connections, community support, and some sense of spiritual practice.

Dave provided the “objective” commentary. It is little wonder that he feels he must challenge the film’s theses: the film suggests that happiness has an element of mystery, that it lies more in release than in tenure of one’s beliefs, of the things of this world, of the very definition of oneself, and the scientist Dr. Wilson is far to much of a materialist (in the proper philosophic, as opposed to the newer sense) to brook much talk about letting go of control. The search for Truth is in fact one of the great vanities; the scientist wants to know how things work, the Buddhist asks, “who am I to declare myself the conqueror of this or that particular mountain?” I assert the rightness of neither point of view: who am I to do so?

My own particular quests are not for Truths, but truths, rather in the same sense that I don’t believe there is a Method for actors, only methods. Which method? Which method WORKS? Truth on stage or on screen is a mutable and fleeting quality, as fleeting as time itself. I have absolutely seen cases where peeling the onion of a character’s “truth” left the actor with nothing but the peels of a dis-integrated onion. Similarly, I have seen actors give compelling performances when they had no idea what they were doing or how. They simply flung the onion into the void and followed it like a parachutist.

January 27th Guanajuato.

The bus climbs through dry cactus arroyos and upper grassland, uncultivated except where there is moist bottom land. The landscape is virtually unpopulated. I see not a single cow, goat, or sheep, although we do pass a burro or two, and I spot the odd hacienda perched on the side of a hill with a glorious view of the tawny yellow landscape. Last summers car-racing blockbuster plays on the video screens above my head, the images of rich, sexy, as ‘twere RACY lives of beautiful Europeans competing with the immediate life around me, with the quiet burble of Spanish, with the stunning, harsh landscape.   It creates a “verfremdungseffekt” that Brecht would have found delightful.

An hour or so from San Miguel we reach the outskirts of Guanajuato, the usual non-descript piles of brick and concrete that (in Mexican style) often remain unfinished, perhaps for years. The ride ends in an unattractive bus-yard. I climb down and walk through the station, out into the clear 10 a.m. sun. As Dave pointed out the other day as we looked up at a steeple set against an azure-blue sky, the thinness of the atmosphere at 6200 feet makes objects stand out from their background as though photoshopped (as I write that neologism, I realize I can’t actually spell it).

I look for a local bus, se one that has “Centro” painted in white n the windshield, and board. It’s a surprisingly long ride up the canyon towards the heart of this city which nestles between two mountains (I use the word in that unrestricted sense which would include a large hill like Tunnel Mountain in Banff).   The bus travels through a few long tunnels—raw passages cut through the living rock that were once mined by (I imagine) native Mexicans making new Mexicans vastly rich. How much wealth disappeared off to Spain, to France, who left Catholicism and the heads of rebels hanging from the corners of the Granery, that massive and imposing structure in the centre of town where the 1862 rebellion won a hard-fought and temporary victory.

The bus comes to a stop near a long plaza of otherworldly charm, graced by fountains, statues, and manicured trees whose lianas take root around the bases. With typical prairie-boy desire for a longer view, my first impulse is to climb up out of the valley, so I find a road leading up, and climb, choosing whatever upward paths offer themselves until I arrive, sweating, my pacemaker working overtime, at a road that runs along the brow of the Westernmost of the two mountains. I can get a good long view of the town from here. In the late morning sun, it is a stunningly beautiful setting. I stand contemplating, thinking, anomalously, about women. Thinking quite erotic thought about very specific women, and wondering where the

Sudden flash of life-affirming sexual warmth came up, so to speak. Partly from mere continence: months of it this past fall.

I make my way by steeply-descending streets into the Old Town, through narrow pathways wending through scenes of lively commerce: people selling tacos, eating them, selling fruits, crafts, clothing, the ongoing negotiation, and quiet competition, that is life in the agora. I arrive in the University quartier, stumble on a beautiful outdoor rotunda where I can smell good coffee. Where I write these foregoing words.

January 30th. I left San Miguel this morning, bidding goodbye fondly to Dave and Marlene, whose generosity to me is so wonderfully vast, and getting a cab to the central de autobus, where I arrive two minutes before the bus leaves to Mex City. Having learnt that Roger and Audrey, those excellent people, are going to be in Cuba in the first part of February, I decide to move my Cuba visit to coincide with theirs, and book a plane ticket for the middle two weeks of Feb. This means moving my other plans forward, and visiting Stewart Scriver in Taxco BEFORE I meet Kath Fisher in Mexico City. So I pack up my new Mexican guitar and my other stuff and bid Marlene and David goodbye.

Mexico in 2014-15: Puerto Escondido, Vallarta, Gaudelajara

MEXICO IN 2014/2015

Dec 26-27

The landing in Cuidad de Mexico is harsh, having red-eyed it to Toronto from Edmonton, spent a worried hour in the departure lounge, where they boasted individual tablets at each seat in the absurdly costly cafeteria, none of which connected effectively with the Net. Then onto the plane at 8:30 to another 5.5 hrs ride in a small seat, marking time with bad Hollywood until it lulled me into all too brief a sleep before landing.

Arriving in Mexico City, I was a little too exhausted for much excitement, and had to collect myself to get through customs (without any hassle-they ask you to hit a button, which randomly generates a red or green response—if you come up green, you can carry your luggage through without question). I had hoped for luck with a spontaneous flight on Viva Aerobus, but no luck. As Brian had promised, Mexicans do travel around Christmas. Screw it, say I to myself, I’ll take the bleeding bus to Puerto Escondido. After an absurdly expensive 16-minute taxi ride to the bus station (Grrrr- I don’t mind paying fairly, but I hate to be taken, as it were, for a ride!), I arrive at the station and book a ticket to Oaxaca (a five and a half hour bus ride for which I pay less than twice what I paid the cabbie). I can’t say I’m looking forward to it much.

Sitting in the bus station, I realize how nice is the huge dome that covers it, and I sit sipping good coffee and listening to the soft murmur of gentle conversation of women to my left as I not wholeheartedly study my cardinal numbers in Spanish. Uno, dos, tre, quarto…

Tonight I will happily spend money on a decent hotel room in Oaxaca, and continue my trip to P.E. tomorrow, I think (in vain, as later events show).

When you get a chance to slow down for a few moments and observe, you realize how Mexicans are such family-oriented people. Men carry babies, mothers cuddle toddlers, kids run about. There are very sweet-natured folks around me, and I find myself relaxing, for the hundredth time in the past several months, reordering my mind and seeing not foreigners, but people, social animals without ill motive or malice. We are trained to distrust strangers, to have that automatic reaction when we think about Mexico City—it’s dirty!– it’s full of thieves!—its air unbreatheable!   None of this is true. Mexico City is full of very human beings carrying on with their lives and loving their children. If economic pressures are higher than Canadians are used to, this truly gives rise to some kinds of crime, but one thing is certain: I’m safer in this bus station than I would be on Whyte Ave on Friday night amongst the drunks.

To my relaxed eye, the people here in the bus station, subject to the waiting game that is holiday travel, seem sociable, calmer than the burghers of Edmonton, who, rushed in traffic in the cold, dissipate their energy in combative frustration.

The bus ride to Oaxaca is an uneventful six hours’ slog on a series of big toll highways clogged with traffic, the bus driver doing his best to stay on schedule by driving like he was in a rally. We arrive merely half an hour late, at 12:30 in the morning. My plan to splurge on a hotel room is dashed by the utter unavailability of a room within walking distance of the station. So I buy more coffee and a snack and wait for (as I thought) the 9:30 a.m. bus to Puerto Escondido. Finally, at four-thirty, stiff from trying to sleep on the steel chairs, I step up to the ticket counter, and the agent informs me that the bus does not leave until nuene-trente MANANA. I sag. Twenty nine more hours on the road?? As though the idea had just occurred to him, he suggests I might want to take a taxi to another terminal ten minutes away, and get the five a.m. bus to P. Escondido from there.

I grab a cab and arrive at the dirt yard that is the small bus company’s compound. I climb aboard the 12-passenger van that I’m sharing with other bleary-eyed passengers, and the van labours up into the hills for the 5-hour ride over steep winding roads to Puerto Escondido.

The ride is remarkable for its visceral, ear-popping, dizzying climbs, drops, and turns. I feel the twinges of car-sickness for the first time since I can remember. It’s also remarkable for its amazing views, by feats of daring and competent driving by the stoic at the wheel, and for the sociology of traffic in the hill country. Three children walk line abreast up on side of the road, while behind them accumulates a line of vehicles; an incongruous torch-bearer runs ahead of another line of traffic; an ambling horseman on a boney pony meanders down the side of the narrow road, tolerant of trucks, cars, and busses that career past.

When we stop for a break, the driver pulls off the road, barely managing not to obstruct it.   We descend into a small yard in front of a low-ceiling-ed compound with tables and chairs and a taco stove, and where the use of toilets (seatless, paperless, but nonetheless welcome) adds 3 pesos to the price of your drink and biscuits, or freshly-fried tortillas.

Then another 2 hours of squirreling through the mountains, and the very welcome descent into the coastal plain and the port. It takes me a visit to the local internet café to locate Brian and we are eventually united as he directs the taxi I had taken to our rendezvous into his neighbourhood, and to his house in the Southern suburb of Puerto Escondido called Los Tamarindos.

Brian has done a superb job with his Mexican getaway—the adobe-orange so common to the Mexican palate, virtually unknown in Canada, is the primary exterior colour. The house is capped by an attractive palapa (a leaf-roofed canopy). It has 3 upstairs bedrooms and an open kitchen-dining-relaxing area on the main floor. It also features a covered patio off the kitchen, glory to the daytime writer. The yard features a cool pool that seems to retain its refreshing 22 degrees even on a hot day.

Brian has, of course, already made many useful contacts in the community with tradespeople, restaurateurs, writers, etc. His talent for contacting interesting people continues to impress me. What equally impresses me is his domestic capability. He’s proud of his house, and attends to its needs, keeping a clean and ordered household while spending many disciplined hours writing every day. It should surprise no one that Brian Paisley (PhD Hon, O.C.) carries on a competent, sociable life in Puerto Escondido; it might surprise those who know him to watch his patient garden care.

Puerto Escondido is, considered as a Mexican town, a comfortable backwater that attracts the surfing crowd, and is tilted towards the international youth movement.

The mercado is huge, mostly covered, full of good food, clothing, household stuff. There are many useful shops on the street, selling musical instruments, tacos, meat, laundry services, pharmacy, hardware, car parts, and the kind of dollar-store goods that none of us can now do without. There are two supermarkets that sell everything from juice to motorcycles. Transportation is by communal trucks where you pay siente (7) pesos por una lift up and down the main drags. I describe this truck transport somewhat later.

The ocean is five minutes’ walk from Brian’s door, although the classic white sand beach is not for the sun-shy or for those who don’t like swimming in constant surf (I prefer shade, and rock-bottom swimming where you have a chance to see some living things). Nevertheless, it is a joy to be able to walk into the Pacific surf, or simply to sit contemplating the ocean.

It is New Year’s Eve. Tonight we will go along to the Split Cocoanut, a beachfront eatery where they have live music. Before that, though, another friend from Ottawa, an old Escondido hand who owns a beautiful restaurant, has extended an open invitation to watch the Canadian Junior Hockey team take on the American boys. I’ll be there.

And then…

2015

Jan 4th

I sit in Osa Mariposa, the hippie hostel/bar/gathering place near Brian’s place, enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day, the 30-degree heat relieved by a fresh breeze whose effect on the ocean waves I intend to check later.

Last night Brian came to meet me at the Split Cocoanut, site of a supposed jam, but in fact a repetition of the New Years gig played by “Southern Fried,” the group fronted by a guy who thinks so much of himself that the audience watching him are not so much played for as played AT. He sits with his eyes closed, strumming and singing not incompetently, but in a remarkably consistent slow and unenergized dynamic.

I reflect that this might by what might happen to any ex-pat American whose talent is enough to play here, while not big enough to get a gig in his Southern Cal home. His one concession to higher tempo is a version of a Jethro Tull classic pronounced not with Ian Anderson’s nasal, gun-them-down precision, but as

Inna shofvelling ma-ness, locamodif bref/Runs the all-time loser, haa-long to ‘is def

He feels the siren howling, nmnnn breakin’ at his brow’/ But somebody stow the anvil, anna train it wone slodow, no it wont slodow…

It doesn’t matter that I’m not writing actual words—no more was he singing them.

The contrast with the jams I’ve played in Edmonton is extreme. It puts into steep relief the competency of what Mike Chenowith does at the Gaspump every Saturday. Mike’s definition of a jam is inclusive: every musician who shows up plays. Mike orchestrates with great care who plays with whom, putting musicians together who can support each other on stage.. The result is set after set of music the least of which is more dynamic than what the lads created last night on the beach.

Last night’s version of “Helpless,” a song I am simply tired of hearing, was dedicated to “all my Canadian friends.”   As Canuck nostalgia, I’d sooner listen to tires spinning in the snow, or a ski-doo refusing to start, than another de-energized rendition of Young’s plaint, played slower than Neil played it last time he’d had too much [fill in the blank] and failed to plug in the autotune on the vocal track.

Frustrated? A little. One senses a pothole in Mexican beach living: the self-satisfied, self-sufficiency of the ex-pat, drinking quarto cervasas a night, speaking eight words of Spanish, and trading shitty weather and Canuck work ethic for inexpensive pesos and days that bleed into one after another, relieved by booze and shallow beach friendships.

I know as I sit here that I have to keep moving, in this social and meteorological climate, or relax into turpitude.

Jan 6. Brian and I took the “collectivo” into town this morning to shop. The C is a small pickup whose box is covered by a blue tarp stretched covered-wagon-wise. Six to eight people can sit on the benches, up to three can hang off the back, standing on the bumper. Two to six passengers can sit in the cab, depending on its configuration.   At seven pesos per ride per passenger, averaging eight customers per run up and down the highway and into town, up to the Mercado and back (a twenty-minute run, more or less) I imagine that the drivers must gross some 240 pesos an hour. This seems like a good gig, even if expenses in gas, oil, tires, fees, repairs, and whatnot eat up half of the amount. A decent living by the standards of the town.

It’s hard not to be fascinated as one walks the streets. There is a particularly Mexican way of going about one’s business: purposeful, slow, polite to one’s known neighbours. This latter category does not include me, by the way. Contact with the strange gringos makes people shy and ashamed a bit, it seems, since no one here wishes to be taken for a servile underling, No one has any illusions about the economic disparity between Mexicans and their Northern neighbours. The cool reception is not resentment, I think: it is pride.

Young Mexicans generally have a more outgoing, upbeat attitude: they are more at home in the internationalized, internet-fuelled culture that us Northerners represent. They are more optimistic that their future does not include that economic disparity that has plagued generations of latinos.

There are still beggars on the street of Escondido, I’m sad to report. The aged and the infirm, have no other option than to sit and quietly ask for money. This is not ubiquitous. By way of comparison, I believe I would be much more frequently panhandled on Davie Street (Vancouver) than I was today. The notion that Mexico is a place where one is constantly accosted is not just nor is it up to date, at least not in this town. In fact, the aggressive approach of the drug-driven street people of Edmonton or Vancouver is much more obnoxious than any encounter I had this morning.

At the market, one finds stall after stall of neatly-presented vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, garlic, onion, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, herbs, and fruits of many kinds, predominantly citrus and bananas. Mango (sadly) is not in season, although papaya is, and, of course, cocoanut.

The sidewalks are steep, irregular, and flawed, so that one must constantly keep an eye on one’s footing, or else step unexpectedly down, or turn one’s ankle, as I did this morning.

Nevertheless, I am gradually finding my way in the climate, getting used to the idea that you have to move about early in the morning, slow down at midday, and begin to be more active in the evening.   There is a reason why Mexicans have been so often characterized as slow-moving: you simply do not, and cannot move quickly under this powerful sun. No one who has ever watched a Mexican work would make the accusation of laziness. Canadians do move faster in general, but our climate doesn’t punish us for moving fast; it kills us UNLESS we move.

The pleasantest nights so far have been those when Brian and I have carried a couple of lawn chairs down to the beach under a full moon, and sat drinking red wine and talking about life and art on a brilliantly lit (on the blue end of the spectrum) beach unoccupied by any but ourselves. The waves whoosh in, the breeze blows fresh from five thousand miles of Pacific Ocean.

Jan 9

This morning I took a turn down to The Point (La Punta) to take snaps of the charming structure of the Lychee Restaurant where Brian and I dined two nights ago. Perhaps the most charming building I’ve ever dined in, the Lychee’s gently curving cocoanut-frond ceiling is as wonderfully relaxing to sit under as the sand under ones feet is balm to the toes. I would happily dine in such a place 150 nights a year. After that, the kilometer back, and a swim. I came into town to pick up my laundry and drop Brian’s off, and as I left the store a man called out to me from across the street My wallet ha fallen onto the sidewalk as I fished for money, and he stopped me before I had walked 10 paces. By doing so he saved me a world of grief over a missing wallet: saved by the kindness of strangers…

I feel like I’m on the verge of something unique and really fun with the sci-fi piece I’m writing for Jon. Every time I sit and concentrate on writing, another scene comes up and I’m grinning as I write…I can feel the plot rounding nicely towards a satisfying conclusion with very little effort on my part (a rare experience for me: mythos is always my weakest suit).

It’s as though 55 years of Saturday matinees, film noir, space movies, and westerns are simply flowing out of my pen. I recorded the first 20 pages last night, and –poor conditions and the barking frenzy of neighbourhood dogs notwithstanding– I could tell this was going to be a nice road to travel for an actor.

We watched the new film about Enigma last night (The Imitation Game) with Cumberbatch in the lead role of Alan Turing. Although some history was sacrificed to the main narrative, which was, not unexpectedly focused on the struggle of a gay genius, one has to be thankful that “gross indecency” is no longer a charge laid against homosexual practice. At least not in any country I’d live in.

I had hoped that the narrative would cover more detail about Bletchley, and about the processes of decryption, but who cares about history nowadays? I’m still driven a bit nuts when a British film in 2014 still refers to the life-giving flow of goods during that Battle of the Atlantic as coming “from America.” Although I know that for Brits, there’s a linguistic slide where Canada an the USA are conflated as “America,” I would surely love to hear a British film say, “we were damn fortunate to get so much food and so much materiel from CANADA, and acknowledge that it was not Americans, but CANADIANS who, in taking increasing responsibility for convoy protection, were solely responsible for shepherding ships across the Western Atlantic by the end of the war.

But the fate of a Canadian is always to be taken for granted. Sometimes this is not a bad thing. Who thinks of Canadians in Afghanistan? Fortunately, not too many Muslim extremists, so far.The news from Paris is more than depressing, it makes me very angry indeed. The avowed purpose of certain terrorists is to drag us into an ongoing conflict with Islam. Westerners who give it any thought at all must see that it is precisely those institutions which guarantee individual freedom, those institutions that represent everything progressive and liberal that are the ones that must be protected. That a couple of guys with AK 47s could conceivably silence Western intellectuals is offensive in the extreme; it drives one towards the armed camp of those who actually want what the jihadists want. I am conflicted in my feelings; while I know that there is no point in some revenger’s tragedy of an asymmetrical war, I want those God damned murderers to pay, not only for the crime of murder, but for the crime of assaulting those very freedoms which they do not want because they do not know how to value them, the second crime at least as serious as the first.

Jan 16-Vallarta to Gurdalajara

In some back part of my mind, I have been searching for this city for years. Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico, of some 8 million, and I have spent a paltry 24 hours here, most of them in a burnt-out physical state brought on by too much booze on Wednesday night while visiting Tom and Lynn as a fellow guest in the luxurious gated community Puente Nita, north of Puerto Vallarta. Our visit there was delightful, although there was a quite extraordinarily bizarre sense that I was visiting not just a resort in Mexico, but a completely different kind of culture, one inhabited by people I knew existed but whose existence I could barely accept, much less understand.

Puente Mita is completely owned by one corporate entity. Lynn’s brother told me that the whole development, which occupies the entire cape, or point, is about 1500 acres, and this was easily to be believed. Upon entering the gate (where a security guard carefully checks one’s credentials), one drives up a refined country road, where the golf courses and indeed the signs of other habitation are hidden from the road until one comes to one of the “bays” where 6-storey condo buildings are situated within view of the sea.

I arrived late, the driver who had been sent explaining several times who I was and with whom I was staying (there was some confusion, as the condo was rented in the name of Bill’s girlfriend Karen Ritchie). It was only in the morning when I woke up on one of the two large beds in my ensuite bedroom whose toilet was appointed in the latest marble-finished style, and stumbled out to the main social area, a vast space generously opening onto a vast covered balcony overlooking the sea, that I got a real impression of how very like a movie, how very unlike anything in my experience, that this luxury was…

The thirty-six hours I spent there were a lovely visit with my friends, and Lynn’s brother generously drove us up the coast to the small village of Sayulita which has become the kind of tourist Mecca where people shuffle up and down the streets in search of the best meals and most perfect views of the sea, while the Mexicans shill hats, crafts, holiday experiences, and booze.

We perched at a seaside joint to try to order food (and failed, since the owners were not ready to start their day). The grossly overweight platoon of Americans who occupied the table next to us supplied that comic-opera vision of the U.S. tourist whom I have seen but rarely in my travels. Whining in complaint, they regretted that “this wasn’t the experience that we expected” and “Ah’m goin back to the awl-inclusive,” presumably with the intent of piling their plates very high with deep-fried chicken and pulled pork, and supporting their elephantine bulks.

If this seems cruel, it is only reportage of what we (Tom, Lynn, Bill and I) saw. When we were safely out of earshot, we looked at each other laughing. Could such stereotypes actually be real?

I spend my time in the pool, the ocean, or reading I Claudius by Robert Graves, while sucking back one of the excellent Margaritas that the staff of “the beach club” part of the resort gladly make for you for 30 pesos. When I trade a few pesos for this used book a few days ago at at the hostel near Brian’s place, he looked at me askance: “Why would you want to go back to that?” My answer is and remains that good prose is worth reading anytime and anywhere, and I remain ever-grateful to Graves for his stunning WW I memoir “Goodbye To All That,” which is required reading for anyone curious about either the First World War, or about the inner workings of combat fatigue.

In the luxury condo, we cooked and ate in the evening, and had a fun conversation which ended in late night carousal, Lynn and I facing off, as we do at regular intervals over our differing philosophies about child safety. (I have let us say a higher threshold for risk tolerance.) Lynn and I argue as naturally as breathing. If we were in perfect agreement about anything in the world, we’d no doubt avoid the subject in favour of something we could lock horns about. I only hope Lynn enjoys this as much as I do.

In the morning, battling my hangover, I waited for the promised arrival of the driver to take me to the bas station to travel to Guadelajara. As he didn’t show, Bill volunteered to drive, and Tom came along for the ride. We motored down the coastal highway, which is delightful until you come to the version of civilization called Vallarta, which is a Mexican town of very little charm indeed, and struggled to find the bus station. Having asked five different people for directions, and got four and a half different answers, I finally asked to be let off to find my way to the Terminus on my own. As it turned out, it was 20 yards from the place they dropped me.

The 4.5 hour ride to Guadalajara. was less delightful than it should have been, since I was still dehydrated and achy. Nevertheless, arriving in that city was a real pleasure. I had chosen to say at the Hotel Frances, a building some four hundred years old, in the very centre of the old town. Ancient colonial architecture is everywhere. The grey and white limestone was well used by the Spanish conquistadores, and the public space is open, and well used by the citizens. Long arcaded walks lead through streets where there are no autos. Musicians and street performers play in bars, on the street. The thousands of symphony musicians, university students, young artists, no less than the older people of the town, enjoy each others’ company in the cool evening air. Commerce is carried on on lots of levels, from the proprietors of small carts to the ubiquitous 7-11, and there is a sense of ownership and relaxation that I have felt in few cities anywhere. Wherever else I travel on this or any other Mexican sojourn, this is a city I want to spend time in. I felt myself wanting to introduce myself to someone and present my credentials, an impulse I rarely have.   I want to declare to someone, “I am an artist! Please let me into the inner life of this city.”   For someone who actually prefers to wander the planet anonymously, this is a rare feeling.

I am now on the bus to San Miguel de Allende, a city that I look forward to revisiting, having spent such a short time there a few years ago, and that in that awkward relationship-saving mode that often happens when couples travel together. Now I can truly explore SMA on my own, and stay open to the cultural experiences that I want to have. I’ll also shop for a guitar , since the only option that was even half viable at The Guitar Shop in Guad was a Squire Strat that I neither really wanted or wanted to pay for, the oddball proprietor of the store having asked $120 for a guitar I could pay considerably less for by searching Kijiji in Edmonton.

So I am luxury-bussing (by the low standards set by Greyhound Canada) through the high plateaus of central Mexico on an excellent highway as The Lego Movie unfurls its constant motion for the ADHD crowd. The landscape is not unlike parts of Southern Alberta foothills, absent the looming presence of the magnificent Rockies, the soil being rockier and redder than ours, and the climate very dry. Condors, eagles, and buzzards wheel above it, and small signs of human industry are everywhere. I must say that one doesn’t see cactus and palm trees anywhere in Alberta, nor various other signs that we are indeed in Mexico.

Roger B has hinted that Gerry’s in some discomfort in the hospital. I must phone tonight and find out what’s going on..

I have finished The Palladin (for some reason, I cling to the unnecessary extra “l”), and I’m really pleased with the results. It’s a silly piece of theatre, but it is so in a smart entertaining way, I hope, and I think it will give Jon a great platform from which to foray into the audience’s pleasure centres as he is so ably inclined to do. Hopefully, it’s a show with which he can make a good living for two years.

What Widgets This Way Come? -3D printing

The 3D printer

(after watching the documentary Print the Legend.)

It will become increasingly clear over the next few years that three-dimensional printing is a shift in industrial process as important as the move from wind and water power to steam. I make this assertion as a technological innocent, a sixty-year-old who has trouble keeping up with the new software that I regularly have to deal with as I try to keep some semblance of relevance in the post-industrial world.

The reason that 3D is a critical leap forward is not hard to parse, and has been dealt with by many more savvy people than me, but it bears repeating. The thrust of industrial development since the age of steam has been towards standardization, for the simple reason that the media of industrial processes function best by producing this way. This is why Henry Ford is celebrated as a great innovator. He didn’t invent the automobile (an assertion I’ve seen made, clearly by people who don’t understand how to read dates), but he did figure out how to codify a process for manufacturing them which made them affordable for the people who worked in his factories.

What the 3D printer makes possible is for industrial process to become decentralized:  In a world where  design and production are all but the same thing, it is  not only what is produced that is revolutionized, it is the concept of production itself.  The designer become the maker, in the way that they were when human beings sat with wood and blade, but with technologies even now available,  the wood is nearly any material, and the blades can cut with the precision of a Ming dynasty ivory artist. The consequences for artisanship are not all positive; in a world where we can design a new heart on a cell phone and execute it in plastic resin, craftspeople who deal in wood, metal, and glass will be not much more in demand than people who built aeroplanes out of wood and cloth. They will have henceforth to be like theatre artists, whose social function has been taken over by newer media, but whose creativity is both important to those media, and can be practiced for specialized audiences.

The possibilities for creativity in the use of this new modality will be infinite. It is interesting that in all the pictures I have seen and in the documentary film that inspired this essay (Print the Legend), very little of what has been produced by this new technology is new. The biggest media splash that has been made over 3-D printing is about making guns. However, the same could be said about the industrial process of hyper-oxidized smelting which created iron. It was of course weaponized, but it also opened possibilities from rail transport to particle physics.

The new printing technology is usually presented as a better way to produce objects that are already produced by older industrial or craft methods: widgets made of plastic.  This is analogous to the use of the Gutenberg press to print nothing but Bibles.  This not to say that the wide availability of Bibles was not revolutionary; it was, since it was critical in decentralizing religious authority.  That was however, as much a by-product of the process as a goal.  I do not personally have the imagination to picture what brand-new objects will be made by the 3-D printer, but I am as sure that there will be revolutionary developments as I am sure that we have witnessed a social revolution in our eating habits because of the microwave ovens that came from telecommunications (which derived from weaponizing our 20th century understanding of radio waves). The consequences of the new industrial process of printing books were no less than the Reformation and all that followed. Who can tell what the consequences of printing ANYTHING are going to be?

November 2014

American Sniper–Let God Sort Them Out

In writing about the film Fury, I praised it for its disinclination to engage in the usual false geopolitical assertion that America Saved The World from Nazism in 1945. Failing to speculate geopolitically is not a virtue in the case of Clint Eastwood’s new biopic American Sniper.

Although told with a cool efficiency that has become Eastwood’s signature as a director, and although it gives Bradley Cooper (who also produced) a chance to bulk up, so to speak, his already very impressive range as an actor, this film offers a blank in historical memory so egregious and so bold that you can’t look at it without feeling like you’re looking at a remake of Pork Chop Hill, or some other relic of the Cold War.

To make this film, Cooper has undergone one of those actor transformations that take your breath away. Playing the scion of a Texas rancher, he shows us a hardy man who has ambitions to be a bronc rider, an honourable plainspoken Texan Sergeant York, who seeing his country attacked, reacts quickly and resolutely to fight its attackers. He joins the Navy Seals (motto: “kill ‘em all and let God sort them out”) and, in the collage of training exercises that follows, shows how adept he is with a target rifle, thus marking him for that special cadre of soldiers whose imperative is to kill through a high-powered telescope.

The film’s parallel narratives focus on his soldiering and his relationship with his girlfriend/wife, very ably played by Sienna Miller portraying a gal who has so much pluck that it takes a hero to tame her. Their relationship, starting with their pissing contest over drinks at a bar (well, puking contest, it turns out, one which she loses) is the stuff of films like In Harm’s Way about the WW 2 navy that I watched as a kid: girl falls in love with sailor, girl releases him to his duty, girl must deal with the fact than that his duty is more important than her.

If this narrative sounds familiar, it is. Because of their reverence for the subject matter, which is precisely the life of one particular, and very real, American sniper, the writers and the director alike have chosen, with a stubbornness that is so marked as to be downright bullheaded, not to part from their main point. We are shown that Chris Kyle was a great American soldier (sailor, if you must), making the right soldierly moves at every turn, and paying a terrible price for his single-minded patriotism. In one of the film’s really gritty scenes, he must make the unmediated choice whether to shoot a mother and her child, and the harshness of the choice provides one of the film’s deepest moments.

However, what is virtuous in other films about other wars (Iwo Jima being an excellent example) seems like folly here. The best war films are about soldiers –this is however most true about distant wars whose politics are long settled. This was long a problem in making films about the Vietnam War. As the great documentarian John Pilger eloquently pointed out, any film about the Vietnam War that concerns itself only with the tribulations of the American soldier is very far from the point. Two million Vietnamese lost their lives in that conflict, mostly to bombing, mostly from vast heights; that’s an elephant in the closet that it’s hard to shut the door on.  The historically crucial disconnect between the attack on the World Trade Center and Iraq is not dealt with in American Sniper; it is tacitly denied: Kyle watches the attack on TV, then goes to join the Seals, then is in combat.  The Iraq war is justified by association.

The Iraq invasion was not D-Day; Saddam was a bastard, but he was not Hitler, and the darker motives for the Iraq war, its horrific cost, and its quite unfinished and ambiguous aims, these are similarly huge issues, and a narrative that demonizes all those Iraqis who resist American might makes me cringe. I found myself wondering not how much courage it took American marines to bust into houses in Iraq, but how much courage it took to fight back. If this had been one of the film’s intentions, I would laud it. But this film, Like Sergeant York or Pork Chop Hill, is not concerned with the humanity of the enemy—they are grouped together as mere targets, like the puppet Germans that York shoots in 1918, and demonized like “them slant-eyed Gooks” of Pork Chop Hill.

The most generous assessment of the invasion of Iraq is that it succeeded in removing one of the world’s psychos from power. Michael Moore aside, prominent historians of war and geopolitics alike have been unable to find further logic behind the Bush administration’s war aims in Iraq. It is at least safe to say that, addressing a nation full of righteous anger for the World Trade Center atrocity, one of the ugliest crimes of this or any other century, and persuading the United States with the lie of “weapons of mass destruction,” the Bush administration dragged that nation into a mire that not only resulted in the usual horrors wrought in the fog of war, but bankrupted the treasury for a nebulous and unknowable political end.

I apologize for the philippic against the Iraq War, but it seems to me that any film about a conflict so ill-conceived and disastrous cannot ignore this context. It is not necessary to insist that World War Two was fought for righteous reasons; to ignore utterly the moral issues of the Iraq adventure is to tacitly justify it..

This is a well made war film on many levels. It’s just about the wrong war, and for my money, the very real documentary footage (from Moore’s Fahrenheit 911) of young artillerymen listening to head-banger rock as they lob shells into Bagdad, killing from afar with no telescopic sight, laughing like Hell’s Angels at a beach party, remains a more important image by far than the flag draped over one American hero’s coffin.

The Unexpected Virtue of Theatre

Michael Keaton is not an actor who’s easy to love. He famously blew his career out the window, or perhaps up his nose, and then made a gradual recovery through not particularly memorable roles, his one stop in Shakespeare a travesty of misunderstanding of Dogberry, one of the funniest roles in English drama.

Emma Stone is on the other end of the actor’s career path, a woman blessed or cursed with the greatest set of eyes in the movie industry (how ironic that the art house where I saw the picture was previewing Big Eyes before showing Birdman). This is the first film role I’ve seen her in which allows her to stretch herself 180 degrees against type.

To say that neither of these two actors has been stretched, or has succeeded as well, as they do in this film is to aim high praise not only at them, but at director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose co-writing of the screenplay is sparkling and brisk, but whose most important quality, to judge from this film, is that he likes to watch actors work.

Birdman is a backstage movie about the theatre, a postmodern The Dresser, concerning itself with the mental health of people who pretend for a living. It’s an interesting concern, as anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the madness of the stage knows. Edward Norton’s character Mike attests, as he is courting the young daughter of the playwright/producer/lead actor of the company, that the only time when he feels like he’s not lying is when he’s on stage.  It’s a sentiment that calls out existential confusion, either expressed gravely in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (quoted at the emotional climax of the film) and by Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (“every exit here is an entrance somewhere else”).

Riggan (Keaton) is an aging Hollywood star, formerly famous as comicbook Birdman.  He is trying to revive not only his acting career, but his sense of self-worth by mortgaging the remains of his film-star fortune to produce his adaptation of a story by Raymond Carver. In a kind of meta-film coup, the film takes a kind of credence from the mental image that we have of Keaton wearing the cape of another winged creature in an 80’s blockbuster. He is ably seconded by Norton and Stone, as well as an always-capable Naomi Watts. Tellingly, one of the finest performances in the film is that of Lindsay Duncan, who plays the Times critic who is about to torch the new play stillborn, misguidedly in order to defend Broadway against the ravages of Hollywood. This declares the film as a celebration of theatre, as the actor’s-daydream revenge that the story takes on the critic is the stuff of theatre peoples’ dreams.  It is through theatre that the characters receive not only a sense of absurdity and existential punishment, but the blessings of comedy.

What also tells us that the film’s primary concern is with theatre is the long-take technique that Inarritu employs throughout. He puts his camera on a dolly or a steadycam unit, rolls film, and asks the actors to do the work of delivering the story. The New Yorker angrily dismissed the long shots as a gimmicky quotation of earlier filmmakers (notably Goddard), but I can’t agree. As a theatre person, I’m only too happy to let the camera serve not as a motion-capture device for the editor, but as a recording of extended moments of performance. In a long shot where Stone and Norton fence while sitting on a parapet above Broadway, the two Hollywood stars go at the scene with the relish of fine stage actors, ears wide open for each other, revealing hidden vulnerabilities and desires subtly but surely. Interestingly, the text (a conventional jousting tryst between soon-to-be lovers) is mere convention—a game of truth or dare—but the acting gives it enough levity to keep it afloat.

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a surprising film, with its magic realism and its cinematic quotation of master filmmakers. It is not altogether satisfying, since its surrealism doesn’t quite seem to match the primary theme; it is, however, full of quick, subtle humour, a love of theatre and its denizens, and of the fun, unfettered spirit that comes to directors when they decide that it’s okay to bend the rules.

December 18, 2014

The Big Red Leap: Baumgartner’s Step Into Space

Red Bull versus Apollo

I’m of that vintage that, as I type, I can still remember the muscular effort it took, the particular mechanical, as it were pianistic feel of typing an essay on a portable Remington. The medium I’m typing on now also served as an information delivery system for the much-distributed video of Felix Baumgartner stepping off a sub-orbital platform into literal thin air. I am by the way typing faster, much more effortlessly, more carelessly, since any mishit keys result in much less dire consequences, such as restarting a page with a fresh leaf, or the frustrating use of that undergraduate savior, White Out.

I use the commercial, rather than the generic name for that substance because it’s easier to recall. In the same way, Baumgartner’s feat is easier for many to remember as “the Red Bull thing” because that’s how it’s codified in our heads. That’s how it’s been very purposefully codified in our heads, because Red Bull’s branding of such events is important to that company; they want to be identified with such extreme derring-do, as is only appropriate for a company whose big product serves as a medium for caffeine delivery.

I can also remember watching, on that ubiquitous information delivery system of the sixties, a somewhat more complex stunt carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1969. NASA didn’t at that time need the backing of a corporate sponsor. We didn’t watch The Nescafe Moon Landing. We were highly aware that behind Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the surface of the moon was a U.S. government bureaucracy so rich and powerful that they had literally spent a chunk of the national treasury so that he could plant that flag in the lunar dust. Some of us were even vaguely aware that the national effort behind that endeavor was part of an arms race with the Soviet Union, the kind of sharp end of research and development whose broader shaft was working its way into our broadcasts from places just north of Saigon.

I watched the Moon Landing, which certainly earned its capital letters, alongside my grandfather. He was eighty years old at the time, having been born in 1889, and I’ve often wondered, as indeed I did at the time, what he could have been thinking. When he had been my age, he had been looking at the stars as he lay on a buckboard, or perhaps with his head resting on a saddle, looking up at what must have been a stunning view of the heavens, completely free of man-made debris, in the middle of the high plateau somewhere near Ekalaka, Montana. His commentary on the event was, as usual, succinct. At the end of the broadcast, he muttered, “that’s quite something.”

There was a further irony that I was vaguely aware of: because my mother was in one of her “I’m banning television from this house” phases, we were watching at the home of one of those odd people my parents were in the habit of adopting into their eccentric lives. It was that of Helen Janzen, a single mother who had made her way to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where we lived, from the chaos of post-war Germany. She was a thin, chainsmoking woman who spoke with a thick German accent, and it was characteristic of my parents that they included Helen in our lives; in 1969, you might reasonably expect the next broadcast after the moon landing to be something like Combat!, or Hogan’s Heroes, which presented German-speaking people either as demonic targets for the bullets of bold American G.I.s, or buffoons who were targets of American wit.   World War Two, that momentous event which had brought to life the Military Industrial Complex that was also bringing you the Moon Landing, was very much in the background of our thinking, and the U.S.A. had no less of an information monopoly on it than they had on moon landings.

Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module and famously garbled his line, which should have read, “One small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.” We believed him. Americans, who were footing the bill, believed him. Canadians believed him, and to judge by the crowds that watched the event all over he world, people of many nationalities and creeds also believed. I would never look at the moon again the same way. Those were heady times.

Apparently, Felix Baumgartner’s pithy quote as his stepped off what has come to be known as The Red Bull Platform (which has not, I believe, earned the capitals I’ve given it here, except for the product that forms the modifier of that phrase) was “I’m coming home.” This was another marked contrast to Neil Armstrong’s statement, which was optimistic, far-sighted, and outward-oriented, as is only appropriate for one whose only brand affiliation, apart from NASA and the U.S. government, was the Greek god whose primary attribute is reason. Mr. Armstrong was pointing the way to mankind’s conquest of space. Felix was performing on behalf of a soft drink company, or perhaps I should say a semi-hard drink company.

Not that I wasn’t impressed with his feat. It must have taken extraordinary fortitude to strap himself into that module, and to have placed himself in the position, having arrived in the stratosphere, to have thought, “well, I’m not getting down except by jumping into the arms of whatever Providence awaits me. Hope the parachute works.” Such a proof of pure guts is so far beyond most of us that even Neil Armstrong and company might have preferred their government-sponsored capsule to Mr. Baumgartner’s privately sponsored one. I realize that it is very unfair to compare these two events, but one can’t help it. Both involved a man in a spacesuit taking a very bold step, both were performed for the camera to a worldwide audience, and both involved images of the earth seen from that perspective that humankind could hardly imagine, much less visualize, when my grandfather lay looking up at the stars from under his blankets on those cool Montana nights. My grandfather’s step into the void had, by the way, been to board a train in Saint John, New Brunswick, one of North America’s oldest cities, as a very young lad, and chuff off into the American West. That too must have taken great courage.

NASA continues to operate, one presumes, on the edges of the American frontier of know-how, and if their contribution to the arms race might seem more modest, it is no doubt still central to American military interests. I wonder how much of NASA’s research and development, for example, contributed to the technology built into drone aircraft. By contrast, Red Bull isn’t going to produce a technological breakthrough, unless you consider expertise in commercial branding as a kind of techne, in the ancient Greek sense. As one of those people who’ve been watching America from a somewhat off-centred perspective my whole life (my grandfather still spoke with a kind of hybrid Montana-New Brunswick accent when he remarked on the Moon Landing), I can’t help but feel that stepping off the Red Bull Platform to come home is a highly symbolic act. Some people are denigrating it, even calling into question Felix Baumgartner’s courage. I think they’re nuts to do so. It was a bloody bold stroke, by any measure. Maybe what makes them critical is the sense that in comparison with that signal event of from our collective Baby Boomer youth, this seems petty and commercial.   Commercial it certainly is, but then again no one is going to turn the lessons learned by the intrepid Germanic-American Mr. Baumgartner into a cruise missile or a killer drone. Hats off to you, Mr. Baumgartner. As my old grampa would have drawled, in his bluenose-western drawl, “that’s quite something.”

Interstellar: We ARE in Kansas!

Interstellar, by Chris Nolan

We ARE in Kansas, Dorothy

By Kenneth Brown

Notwithstanding Matthew (“I’m my own god”) McConaughey’s excellent work in this film, I could barely keep myself interested, or indeed even awake at certain moments, in spite of the earsplitting volume at which Hans Zimmer’s baldly programmatic score was blared at us every time something of significance in the plotline made it necessary for the filmmaker to grab us by the ears and direct our attention to it. Such desperation in the final cut of a movie soundtrack usually points to a lack of punch in the screenplay.

What really bugged me about this film was a quality that’s common to other films of Chris Nolan’s. He is constantly telling us that everything on screen is Significant, which means that he’s made everything of equal insignificance. Every minute of the film seems to demand a “saving the world” resonance, so much so that the actual saving of the world, when we finally get to it after 2 hours and 2 many minutes, actually feels more like a denouement than a climax. Look at all that sweat and toil that the hero went through… okay, it’s done now. And the big emotional reward, when child re-unites with the lost father, the big payoff, is underplayed, and the two are once again parted. Okay, that’s done, on with the romantic resolution. Boy gets girl… except that there was never any chemistry between McConaughhey and Anne Hathaway to start with, so, well, that’s just another formula filled. The screenplay’s oddly weak ending seems to be saying, “well, you’ve seen all the Big Tricks, you can fill in the emotional subtext stuff for yourself.”

Ever since Nolan announced himself to the world with the groundbreaking Momento, I’ve been hoping he’d do something as good. And although the second Batman film (let’s call it “Joker” film) was fascinating, it was so because of a once-in-a-lifetime (alas too short) performance by an actor. And hurrah for Christopher Nolan for giving that actor space to work. It’s a real strength of his directing.

Why am I complaining about Interstellar? Because it feels like the artist is painting on a canvas that is too big, that the screenplay’s ambition forces the director to do amazing tricks one after the other, thus the Significant Moments problem. The fact is that the screenplay’s ambitions are too big for ME; it keeps presenting me with ideas that there’s no way I can get my head around (and that one doubts that his characters could actually get their heads around). This is a problem if you want your story to be about characters learning, responding, thinking and changing, and not about how clever the director is.

Once again, I feel like I’ve been asked to care about the people in the story more than Nolan himself cares about them, judging by the way he moves them around in his created world as though their decisions matter less than the structure on which Nolan hangs a bunch of cinematic Big Ideas.

This screenplay is as illogical and artificial as Inception, held together with duct tape and legerdemain, and ultimately failing to add up as egregiously as that film. The freaky ideas about time, space, gravity, and (be still my beating heart!) LOVE are offered as plot logic in a manner so blunt that I imagine that this film, thirty years hence, will seem as fatuous in its science as Flash Gordon seemed to my university cronies of yesteryear. Matt’s character Cooper perseveres in the face of all sensible physics, managing to communicate from a gravitational anomaly to his daughter and we’re given to understand that the anomaly somehow bends around on itself to the point where the daughter, having copied a few lines of Morse Code (not the densest medium of idea transfer), is able to solve a problem that has escaped quantum physics to date, thus enabling mankind to generate a planet where we can all be safe.

Well, not all of us, it seems.  Like all the superhero franchise movies (and this IS a superhero movie), this one can’t do without constantly reminding us that the world will owe its continued existence to America, predominantly white America. The stars and stripes are everywhere in this film. Space is an American lake, and as I watched the film in the company of two hundred very distinctly un-White, un-American people in Taiwan, I wondered uncomfortably how they received the message.

I know how I received it. It has a certain amount in common with The Wizard of Oz: the wide mid-western country setting beset by bad storms, the there-and-back-again plot that returns to that setting, the Tin Man who has to find his heart, the Cowardly Lion, the false Wizard, and little orphan Dorothy, who must symbolically find her way home. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more it’s evident that Nolan’s Big Idea in the film is not Mankind’s Survival at all, it’s to remake the 1939 classic for the 21st Century. Considered thus, it’s well worth a look. Bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to loud noise.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see Chris Nolan make another film as tight as Momento; in that picture, he invited us into a rabbit-hole about time, and in fact, about how filmmaking is so much about the movement of time. Better that rabbit-hole than the worm-hole, where all the facts get shoved into a magic box, only to come out as… Kansas.