31 December 2009

The Stairwell Mural

The main problem with murals, as I have said before, is that one cannot take them down, crate them up, and take them on tour. If one is a fan of murals, as I am, one must go to the mural. The mural is never going to come to you.

I came to appreciate better the second great problem with murals when I saw Diego Rivera's mural depicting the history of México in the stairwell of the National Palace in México City. There is no way to photograph murals in order to give someone else even an approximation of what they are like in the flesh. I have looked at a lot of professional photographers' attempts at this on the internet. They all fail miserably. And so knowing in advance that I am going to fail, too, I am going to show you some photos anyway.

There are many Rivera murals in the National Palace that he painted between 1929 and 1945. I am only going to address that mural in the main stairwell. Diega Rivera was not an admirable man. We need not go into details here. However, this mural depicting the history of México is incredible. It includes depictions of over 1,100 figures from Mexican history. It was painted with paint that Rivera formulated himself using natural dyes and other natural pigments from Mexico.

The main stairwell consists of three walls, the two smaller side walls and the large central wall capped by five arches. The mural covers these three walls. In photos one can usually only see three of the arches of the central wall because columns on the second floor make it difficult to get a wide angle picture of the entire central wall. One climbs the stairs, goes around to the railing on the second floor, and gapes a this thing. The right wall depicts the ancient, mythical world of México, and the left wall depicts two alternate visions of the future of México. The big central mural sets out the meat of modern Mexican history under the five big arches.

When one sees photos like this, it simply appears a mishmash. So I tried to take just a few detail photos to give you a better idea of thing.

The Inquisition.

Spaniards Torturing the Indigenous Folk.

The Mexican-American War of 1847 is depicted at the top of this panel.

Land, Liberty, and Bread.

29 December 2009

Uva uvam videndo varia fit.

A problem has been solved. A mystery is no longer a mystery.

You will recall that in Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Augustus McCrae fashions a sign for the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium. A man who valued education, Gus felt compelled to add a Latin motto to the sign. Even though he had no idea what it meant, he chose, "Uva uvam vivendo varia fit." [Emphasis mine.] He chose that motto only because he thought it looked right.

This has bothered me for years because Larry McMurtry never tells us what this Latin motto means. I have finally figured it out. Gus mispelled videndo, carving vivendo into the sign instead. Therein lies the problem.

Uva uvam videndo varia fit literally means, "A grape changes color in seeing another grape." The sense of it is, "a bad friend makes you a bad person," or "a good friend makes you a good person."

No need to thank me.

A Plan

Fuente de Cibeles, Col. Roma, Ciudad de México

Back to México City again. . . .

On Sunday afternoon, December 20, La Mexicana and I jumped off a bus in Colonia Roma. It was my only foray outside the downtown district, El Centro Historico. Colonia Roma is high end. We hit the outdoor terrace of a great restaurant, El Jolgorio, next to the Fuente de Cibeles, a replica of the great fountain in Madrid of the same name. Knocked back a couple of espressos and some pastry and read the papers for awhile.

Down the street was an outdoor market.

It was close, close quarters inside this market.

I found myself standing next to a little booth selling sports stuff while La Mexicana was looking at knocked off Prada somethings, I think it was.

And there looming up in front of me. . .deep in Colonia Roma. . .deep in México City. . .deep in México itself. . .was a University of Iowa football pullover sweatshirt! I whooped and called La Mexicana over to view it. She was strangely unimpressed. Nevertheless, I took this to be an omen. A supernatural directive.

One week from tonight the University of Iowa football team plays the Georgia Tech football team at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Now of course as everyone knows, I have completely sworn off spectator sports with the exception of the occasional fútbol game. But we never say “never,” do we?

Back when I regularly indulged in spectator sports and would at times be looking forward to a big *Hawkeye football game, I was never so concerned with whether my innocent farm boys would win or lose as I was with whether they would embarrass and humiliate themselves. People from the coastal areas of the United States tend to think people from Iowa are dipshits. I think this is because they usually have Iowa confused with Idaho. . .or Ohio.

The Hawkeyes have never faced an option offense like that used by those maniacal, illiterate thugs who have been hauled in from parts unknown, paid a six-figure annual salary in crisp American dollars, and supplied with fast cars, women and cocaine in order to keep them playing amateur football for Georgia Tech University. The Hawkeyes could very well find themselves standing around in front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers in the middle of the Orange Bowl scratching their butts and watching the other team play football. Looking like dipshits in other words.

After pondering the appearance of the sweatshirt in México City, I have become convinced that the Hawkeyes will embarrass and humiliate themselves in Miami next week unless I watch the game and prevent that from happening with the force of my own will.

I think that I shall walk up to Manolo's Sports Bar that evening and ask the guys if they will put that Orange Bowl game on the big screen. I shall then watch it. I hope there is no one there supporting the Georgia Tech team. There is always the chance of a scuffle in situations like that, you know. At this point in my career, I would hate to have to try to send a Georgia Tech fan sliding on his ass backward across the floor of Manolo's. Right there in front of his woman and all. I am too old for that business any more. I break a metacarpal every time. And of course there is the real chance that I might find myself sliding on my own ass backward across the floor of Manolo's. Which is no fun. In front of the women and all.

I have not explained before that Manolo's is actually an adjunct of Casa Payo, an Argentine restaurant. When a restaurant bills itself as "Argentine" here, that means only one thing--beef. Of course I have sworn off beef, too. However, on that evening I shall also send word over to Casa Payo that I require a cheeseburger, una hamburguesa con queso. . .with everything, con todo. . .with fries, con papas.

I shall then eat a cheeseburger with fries while I watch a college football game on television. La Mexicana knows her fútbol inside and out--better than I do in fact--but her grasp of norteamericano football is comically tenuous. Nonetheless, she is determined to attend. I shall round up Frank and whomever else I can hornswoggle into this endeavor, also. A table of six would be excellent. A table of four will do.

Sounds like a plan.

*If those of you from other parts of the world could refrain from asking me what a “Hawkeye” is, I would appreciate it. It would require several paragraphs in the attempt.

28 December 2009

Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.

There is always ten percent who do not get the word. Today I was among that ten percent. The event today at the ring was not a corrida. I thought it was strange that a corrida would be staged at noon on a Monday. But then I thought, “What the hell do I know? This is México. I don't know anything for sure about México.”

27 December 2009

Perfume on Tacuba

But first back to ciudad de Méxcio. . .

and Calle Tacuba, my favorite street.

Tacuba is just enough off of the beaten path in the central district to be a bit quieter, a bit out of the hurly-burly.

The National Art Museum is on Tacuba. It is one of the very old buildings that survived the earthquake but continues to slowly sink into the old lake bed.

An unintentionally artsy pic.

Down a way is the venerable Café Tacuba, founded in 1912, a famous little place that is a world class restaurant.

The book stalls in the alley off Tacuba.

But it is the perfumeries that caught my interest on Tacuba. There are several of them. I myself do not partake of perfume except that I cannot avoid perfumed bath soap here. Mexicans love perfume. However, I do find it a fascinating subject ever since reading the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murder by the great German novelist, Patrick Süskind. You can read two or three pages there if you wish, by the way.

The little gals in these perfume shops can knock off any famous perfume you wish or create a custom scent for you. They measure everything out on digital scales, add the pure scent to alcohol, or a combination of pure scents, with an eye dropper. They put it in a pretty little glass container for you. These containers come in various sizes and are quite fetching. And of course, everything is dirt cheap.

The ladies mixed up scents for all three of my companions, including the irrepressible Mark. It was just plain fun.

Perfumed to the gills, both of 'em.

Apropos of nothing, a successful Hispanic rock band named themselves Café Tacuba, by the way. I should write Café Tacvba. They changed the “u” to a “v” in the name to avoid problems with the restaurant. I do not think that would be enough to avoid problems in the United States. However, that would come within the ambit of a patent and copyright attorney. I have no expertise at all in that area, and I referred every client with a patent, copyright, or trade name problem. Every single patent and copyright lawyer whom I met through the years was weirdness itself.

Anyway, here is Café Tacuba. . .er, I mean Café Tacvba. Try them. You will like them.

A Statement of Intent--I Mean It--I Really Do--I Am Going to Get This Done.

Two things have conspired to cause me to paw over memories as only old men can paw over memories. The first is that I am going to the corrida again tomorrow.

This will be the first time that I have ever attended one in cool weather. It will be different, perhaps drastically so. Tickets are sold in three main groups: sombre or “shade,” which are the most expensive; sol y sombre, or “sun and shade,” which are middling expensive; and sol, “sun,” which are cheap.

For the first corrida that I ever attended, I sprang for the sombre tickets. Never again. It was a typically turista thing to do, and there they were. All moderately to severely drunk. . . . Let me not be too condemnatory there. I, too, have attended drunk. Let us be clear about that. . . .But there also will be the self-appointed aficianado explaining the difference between the picador and his horse to the women. There will also usually take place the obligatory discussion of the morality of the thing. In loud voices. Loud voices.

26 December 2009


Admittedly, I put up Kubla Kahn on Christmas Day as a filler with all due apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But I received a very interesting comment.

John has pointed out a new article in the New York Times Travel Section entitled 36 Hours in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There is included a link to a moderately interesting slide show. This article appears on line today but will be the featured article in the Travel Section of the Sunday edition tomorrow.

I was startled to notice that it is currently the most emailed article from the Travel Section. I was more startled to note that for a a time it was the second most emailed article from the entire New York Times site according to the listing on the home page. So I read it with interest. It is a fair, journeyman-like job for a travel writer writing for people in the market for a travel destination. Not just any travel destination. A travel destination suitable for inclusion in their list of previous travel destinations. You know. That crowd.

This statement about the town was puzzling to me, however: Old-timers started grousing about its Disneyfication.

I can only wonder which old-timers the writer spoke with. From my point of view, there is no “Disneyfication,” or I would most certainly have noticed it. Old timers may grouse about the increase in the cost of living—a cost of living that has increased only in the tourist haunts and establishments that cater to norteamericanos. They may grouse about the construction of a shopping center on the edge of town that included an Office Depot. They may grouse about the construction of a Mexican Walmart, the Megastore, on the edge of town. But “Disneyfication?” I am at a loss to explain why anyone would be grousing about such a thing, which in fact does not exist here in any form.

But then again, perhaps I am the most gullible of the gullible. When I encounter an old, stooped gentleman in the street leading two donkeys with bags of vegetables on their backs uptown, I believe. I believe that the bags are full of product from the old man's field that he is off to sell, hopefully at a small profit. It never occurs to me that he might be a hired actor in costume and the bags full of the concession product of a large corporation that has fabricated all this.

When I put my hand on the side of a building that appears to have been constructed in the time of New Spain, it feels like stone. It does not feel like papier-maché or plastic. Perhaps some multinational corporation has developed a new papier-maché or plastic that perfectly mimics stone. I suppose that I must concede that anything is possible.

The old beggar women appear real to me and in the midst of real destitution.

The mariachi players seem to me to be real mariachi players earning tips for themselves in order to feed their families, not a return on investment for some remote stockholders.

Mexicans who stream to the churches here seem to be earnestly seeking the confirmation of their own blood offspring in the faith, or sincerely celebrating the marriage of a daughter who actually exists, or mourning a real death. I am certain that these people would be shocked to learn that none of it is real, and they are actually only capering about for the amusement of visitors.

None of the tortillas, produce, meat, or pastries that I purchase in the little stores near where I live are shrink wrapped.

The place is not plastered with signs warning me of the danger of severe physical injury or death if I undertake some mundane activity in an unsafe way and disclaiming any liability if I do.

I do not sense that I live in a place where culture has been displaced by commerce; where the shared goals and beliefs of the people are exemplified only in advertising; where my identity is a fungible one and I am solely defined as just another consumer.

I could go on.

Really though, I would like to know who the hell it is who is complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the place and what the hell it is that they are seeing and sensing that I do not see or sense at all. Maybe I am missing something.

25 December 2009

Kubla Kahn, or A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

24 December 2009

Same Old Stuff

As I have pointed out so many times here, old people love food, don't they? The career is behind them, and they have the pension, or what is left of it. No more fast cars or motorcycles. They no longer play touch football or anything of the sort. Lucky still to be able to walk around after a fashion. They listen only to music in 3/4 time. They have lost interest in recreational drugs except for that one glass of wine that is good for the heart. The sex has dwindled to one or two false starts per month. Life has boiled down and boiled down to one thing. . . . . food. They love to watch television programs about it, love to read about it, love to talk about it, and love to eat it.

Las Posadas

We will get back to México City. There are a couple of other things I wish to show you from there, but they can wait until later.

Last evening I took in another great Christmas meal. Stephen, Allyson, and Frank laid out a spread in the little cabana on their roof commencing at 5:00.

Nothing extraordinary to report there. Just another extraordinary meal with good company.

During the evening as the dinner party progressed, the neighborhood folks were carrying on a posada in calle La Palma below. How do I explain a posada? Let me try.

Las Posadas literally means “the inns.” During the nine days preceding Christmas beginning on the 16th, these little gatherings occur in neighborhoods all around the city. It is a neighborhood thing. Las Posadas is a Latin American tradition with its origins in Spain. It is intended to commemorate the trials of Mary and Joseph as they searched for an inn in which to stay.

Groups of children wander through the street carrying candles, singing, and knocking on doors of homes. The people in the homes ceremoniously turn them away until finally they go to the door of the home designated for the little party that ends the evening. The party takes place in the street outside that home. Refreshments are distributed, and then the children get to take whacks at a piñata.

This is the best I could do in photographing the ragtag procession of children up and down La Palma from Stephen's roof. They had supplemented their candles with sparklers.

After the dinner party La Mexicana and I hit the street so that I could walk her home. The piñata part of the party in the street had started a few doors away. In her inimitable fashion, La Mexicana waded into the fray and started chatting up everyone around.

The piñata was suspended from the middle of a rope. One end of the rope was affixed to the second story of a building on one side of the street. The rope extended across the street to a second story balcony on the other side of the street. An older teenage boy on the balcony was jerking on that end of the rope making the piñata bob and weave above the children's heads as they took turns taking whacks at it. I hung back, the only gringo in sight. The piñata had not suffered much damage yet. The children were having difficulty busting up the thing.

Somebody passed the baton to La Mexicana. She took her whacks and did a decent job of hitting the thing after a couple of misses. Then, much to my amazement, one of the ladies brought the baton over to me. For a split second I considered graciously refusing. Instead, I waded in. The kid up on the balcony had fun with me. I completely missed it three times to everyone's delight. Then I got lucky and smashed it. Candy rained all over the place, and I just bent over and covered my head while a stampede of children rushed in around me screaming and picking up the candy.

A little old lady brought over two big bags of homemade candy, one for La Mexicana and one for me. Is it not odd that the poorest people in the world--poor as church mice--are the most generous, the most insistent on sharing what little they have? What is the deal with that?

It was a delight. I loved it. I felt like a hero. And for the first time in a long time, I got a Christmassy feeling inside.

22 December 2009

Fun in the Snow

Okay, northerners. Get a load of this. Do you see these fabric Quonset huts? There were several of them in the middle of the Zócalo, the main plaza.

School was out on Friday. These Mexicans are crowded around the fabric Quonset huts watching in fascination as their children fuck around in artificial snow inside. Various snow related activities for the children were set up in the Quonset huts.

For example, here are some children getting ready to buzz around on tiny snowmobiles. As you can see, the artificial snow is pretty pathetic by Canadian standards. Today it was a chilly but sunny high of 70°F. (21°C.) here and about the same in Mexico City when we were there--with the addition of smog of course.

These gentlemen are shoveling artificial snow, or what is left of it, into the quonset huts.

Which reminds me. We need a blast from the past:

Merry Christmas to everyone.
Feliz Navidad a todos.

The Triple Alliance

I took these pictures of high-reliefs portraying the three leaders who formed the Aztec Triple Alliance in the 1400's primarily for Four Dinners. I know how he loves to wrap his tongue around Aztec names and savor the sound of them.

When looking at the artistic portrayals of these Aztecs, it is easy to forget that these guys were probably no more than 5 ft. 5 in. (165 cm) tall and weighed no more than 140 pounds (10 stone) if they worked out regularly. Obviously in the artist's mind, they did work out regularly--running on Aztec treadmills, working those Aztec weight machines, punching the heavy bag or punching the occasional alien captive in their Aztec gyms before cutting out his heart.

On the other hand, maybe they were physical giants and that is the reason they were the leaders they were. Who knows?

Notice that two of them were also famous for their poems. Renaissance men, in other words. Click on the picture for a legible version if you are so inclined.

A Trivial Explanation

All of the pictures in this entry were taken in the vicinity of the Zócalo, the main plaza.

A little piece of trivia--an explanation for English speaking folks. Many of you already appreciate this. Some do not. The name of the city is simply “México.” La ciudad de México. The city of México. When I was still new here, I might hear someone say in Spanish that they were going to México next week, for example. My mental reaction was, “What the hell are you talking about? We're standing in México right now, for chrissakes.” They of course meant that they were going to Mexico City.

Mexico City is located in the Distrito Federal, comparable to our District of Columbia in the United States. In fact, Mexico City fills the Distrito Federal, just as Washington fills the District of Columbia. (Mexico City license plates have Distrito Federal on them.) In any event, to eliminate confusion Mexicans often refer to Mexico City as “D.F.” just as we refer to Washington as “D.C.” in the United States. In Spanish it sounds like “Day Ef-ay.”

Altitude is an interesting subject. Sherry inquired about this below. I will repeat my response here. I personally did not feel the effects of the altitude, although two of my companions, Mark and Gwen from Vancouver, said they did. San Miguel de Allende, where I am living, is at 6,266 feet (1,910 meters) above sea level. I have of course become acclimated to that. México City is higher at 7,300 feet (2,240 meters), but apparently not enough higher to require me to acclimate more.
The altitude definitely does kick the asses of visiting fútbol players, however. If Denver is the "Mile High City," then México City is the "Mile-and-a-Third-Plus High City."

Photo by Adriana.