Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Zen of Underpants

Ever since I moved to San Miguel de Allende, I’ve begun to appreciate the art of doing nothing.  I don’t mean in the formal sense like meditating. Nor do I mean in the Seinfeld sense of making a big to-do out of daily trivia. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the art of not doing anything in particular.
I have three favorite places in which I practice this high-powered inertia. The first is the jardin, San Miguel's town square bordered by the rose colored parroquia, side-walk cafes, and vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to dried flowers. I go into town a few days a week to pick up my mail. Then I head for the jardin and take up residence on one of the wrought iron benches in the sun or in the shade of one of the manicured laurel trees, depending on the day. I get through my mail, mostly junk forwarded from the states, pretty quickly. Then I just sit there.

The parroquia bellringers don't do anything
in particular between bonging out the hour

Lots of other people just sit there, too. There are locals, gringos, young, old, single people, couples. Occasionally, some over-achiever will strum a guitar. But it’s the little kids who are truly unclear on the concept. Apparently unaware that they could be home sitting in front of the TV doing nothing, they rebelliously play with balloons and bubble makers or other low-tech toys.

Their parents sit watching them: not talking on the phone, listening to their iPods, texting, or tweeting. What’s the world coming to?
The second place I don’t do anything in particular is the local botanical gardens. I tend to picture Kew in England and the Huntington in California when I think botanical gardens: formal, pretty, landscaped. But El Charco del Ingenio is more of a large, enclosed wilderness area. A nature reserve with three different zones – high desert, canyon, and wetlands – it’s home to lots of waterfowl and is a winter stopover for Northern birds. One of these days I’m going to take the Audubon tour so I can learn to identify all the vibrantly colored birds that I see darting among the cacti, but that would be doing something. Right now, I go there an hour before sunset and just walk.

I suppose walking is technically doing something. But I’m not also wearing a pedometer or heart rate monitor, one of which I would always have on when I walked in California, where walking had a purpose. My favorite route in El Charco is along the banks of the presa, the man-made lake.  Ducks are great at not doing anything in particular. They just … float. When I get to the dam wall, I walk out along it and stand in the middle, facing the canyon and watching the setting sun get all crazy on the horizon.  I saw a beautiful fox doing the same there once.

When that gets too hectic, I switch to the lake side and wait for the big fly-over. At dusk, the water fowl take to the skies as one.  Hundreds of them head off towards the north, the whirring of their beating wings breaking the silence.  I don’t know where they’re going; probably to the big lake on the other side of town where they tuck in for the night, exhausted by all that floating.

The third place I don’t do anything in particular is the roof terrace of my casita. This is dangerous territory because it’s in such close proximity to where I should be doing something; namely working at my computer.  I can see it from where I write, and it exerts a strong pull. Sometimes I just gaze out there looking for inspiration then figure if I'm not doing much I may just as well be out there as in here.  

There are a number of different seating options and views on the terrace. Sitting one way, I can commune with the neighbor’s dog, Carmela, who recently had a litter of puppies so we know what she’s been doing.

Sitting another way, I can watch the full moon come up over the wall.

Sometimes, though, I just watch my neighbor’s underpants drying in the breeze.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Streets of Laredo

I just got back from a 3-night, 2-day trip to Laredo, Texas, a city bisected by an eight-lane highway that has one-way streets lined with box stores, motels, and chain restaurants on either side of it. The Laredo visitor’s bureau website yielded an empty “events” page. The “to-do” page recommends the mall – famous all over South Texas, it claims. I know there's a historic center; but I never found it, mainly because the 40-degree weather and bitter rain were hardly conducive to exploring. I wasn't even inclined to take pictures.

The only picture I took on the streets of Laredo

What I did spend a lot of time looking for was a cup of coffee at breakfast time. There is a Starbucks in the mall’s food court, which doesn’t open until 10am. A sweet check-out girl at Target told me there was another and while I was driving around searching for it, I spotted a red neon Krispy Kreme sign glowing through the drizzle. They open at 6 am; make a decent latte; and if you arrive at the right moment, they give you a free donut warm and fresh off the assembly line! Just to add icing to the fritter, there was a tableful of cops there chowing down on donuts. That experience was the highlight of my entire stay.

I love you Krispy Kreme

Laredo was doubly disappointing because mostly what I’ve heard about it is that old ballad, The Streets of Laredo. It’s a lament about a young cowboy who’s been shot and the most haunting version is by an ailing Johnny Cash made just a few years before his own death. I got the impression from it that Laredo was some kind of dusty Texas frontier town on the banks of the Rio Grande, right out of the pages of Lonesome Dove (the sequel to which was called Streets of Laredo.) I should have known better because I’ve been disappointed by songs about cities before.
When I was a kid growing up in Africa in the 50s and 60s, we had great radio stations that kept us up-to-date on all the latest music from both England and the United States. We lived in an entirely British ex-pat community so the English music seemed more familiar and accessible. Also, we’d get bundles of newspapers and magazines from family back home that would come by sea mail. They’d arrive about six week out-of-date but would fill us in on the life and times of the singers, not to the extent of today’s tabloids, but still I knew what Cliff Richard’s favorite color was. Cliff was my first crush and before you watch these videos and snicker, a little pop trivia: John Lennon was a fan and The Beatles four-man line-up was based on Cliff’s backing band, The Shadows, who became stars in their own right.

Cliff Richard. Eat your heart out Justin Bieber

Cliff notwithstanding, the American music and musicians were way more intriguing to me than the British ones. It was all so foreign and glamorous. They used cool sounding expressions like “see ya later alligator” and “hot diggity, dog ziggity.” (Did anyone really ever say that?) They sang about proms and drive-ins and cars called Mustangs and Thunderbirds. No one ever mentioned genres so I didn’t know country from blues from gospel from pop. It was all just music and I either liked it or didn’t.
Mostly, I loved those songs about places. My mother’s sister had married an American soldier during World War II and had sailed out to New York as a G.I. bride. Now I had five American cousins who lived in some incredibly exotic sounding place called Wildwood, New Jersey. I was sick with envy since my parents had dragged me off to darkest Africa! How lame was that?
Anyway, I was enthralled by the idea of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee, Fats Domino’s Walkin’ to New Orleans, and Marty Robbins’ El Paso among others. More than anything, I wanted to go to those undoubtedly fabulous places.
I took off for the states for the first time when I was 21. In those days, you could get a $99 Greyhound Bus pass that gave you unlimited mileage for three months. So I flew to Ottawa to first spend time with my Canadian friend Judy.
Beautiful 70s girl Judy on that trip to Canada.

And still beautiful in 2010
Just proving that great songs and great friends
never get old

Then I set off alone and “went off to look for America;” which along with mention of other cool places like Pittsburg, Saginaw, and the New Jersey turnpike are lyrics from the Simon and Garfunkel song, America. Because by then – 1971 – there had been an entire new crop of songs come out to whet my wanderlust.
American cities in the early 70s were for the most part at the peak of the urban blight years and far from song-worthy. There had been a big out migration to the suburbs leaving city centers prone to decay, crime, and graffiti. It was also a jittery time. The passing of the hippie era was leaving a lot burn-out cases in its wake. I remember New Orleans, in particular, to be characterized by stoned, aggressive young pan-handlers everywhere on the streets. Vietnam War protests were still going on and Kent State had happened the year before. The women’s moment was cranking up and the Black Panthers were scaring everyone to death. In Washington D.C. I was surrounded by a group of young black men with huge afros. “You know what you are?” they taunted me. “Ugly. And you know why? Because all white girls are ugly.” Their rage left me shaken and sick and is still vivid in my mind 40 years later.   
By now I was little more educated about music. In Memphis I went to Beale Street looking for the birthplace of the blues. It was largely run-down and boarded-up.  I also took the bus tour to Graceland. Elvis lived there and you couldn’t go in. As we drove through the grounds, the guide pointed to a young dog scratching its armpit on the lawn. “That the ol’ hound dog E-vis wrote about,” he said.
Little foreign girl in the back of the bus piped up, “No it’s not. It’s way too young and in any case, Elvis didn’t write Hound Dog.” When 40 furious Elvis fans turned to glare at me, I slunk down in my seat and kept my counsel through the rest of the misinformed spiel.
Lest it sounds like I’m being excessively negative, I did leave my heart in San Francisco; I think Chicago is a rockin’ town, which might be the same as a toddlin’ town but I don’t know for sure; and New York is so great it deserves to be named twice (although I tended to like the sleazy 70s Times Square more than the current Disneyfied one).  

Pictures from The New York Times of 70s New York
I also love LA. My mother recently reminded me that I used to sit in my room repeatedly playing Santa Monica Pier by Noel Harrison (son of Rex) in the 1960s – long before I ended up living in Santa Monica for 16 years.
However, to be on the safe side, I’m never going to Biloxi, Mississippi. By far my favorite place name song is Biloxi by Jesse Winchester. I first heard it in the mid-1970s and have never once listened to it in all the years since that it hasn’t given me goose bumps and made me tear up. Although about Biloxi, the lyrics are so evocative of people and places and experiences I was having at the time the song first came out that I find it almost painfully nostalgic. I originally had the song on vinyl but couldn’t find it in any other format for years. Then when I was in Austin (a city Texas does get right!) a few years ago, I found it in one of their fabulous music stores on CD. It’s now on my MP3 player.
Jesse Winchester is one of the best songwriters our generation (Bob Dylan said it so it must be true), but his own singing career was pretty much derailed when he fled the US for Canada to avoid the draft. Biloxi is such a beautiful song I wanted to share it. But I searched the internet high and low all I could run across was a recent poorly recorded version that really doesn’t do it justice.  If you’re inspired to track it down, you can find it on Pandora.
I went to Laredo to renew my temporary car import license for Mexico and will have to do it again in six months. Laredo is not calling for a second visit but another option is to go to Brownsville, Texas. And there is that great Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Paean to Minoxidil

Over Christmas I had visitors from the states. When they asked what they could bring me, the only thing I wanted was a supply of minoxidil. I was down to my last precious dropper full.  It is available in Mexico, but it costs more for a one-month supply that I was paying for three months worth in the states. When my friends bearing gifts arrived with six bottles; gold, frankincense and myrrh would not have gotten a bigger reception from me.
Why the hysterics? I consider myself to have reasonably good skin and more-or-less straight teeth. But God must have been holding me by the hair when She dipped me in the gene pool, because what should have been my crowning glory has mostly been my Achilles heel.

In its first iteration my hair was mousy brown and baby fine. As a child I desperately wanted big, fat braids like the other girls in school, but mine were thin and more like little plaited rat tails. During high school, I tried to tease my cow licks into submission. 

My Teens: Teased
In my 20s I wore my hair long and could coax it into a nice little wave by sleeping in rollers and using lots of Aquanet।

My 20s: Rollers and Hairspray
By my 30s, which coincided with the shag years, I was already prematurely graying. At first, I quite enjoyed the novelty of it. Strangers would stop me and remark on my “courage” for not coloring my hair. A hairdresser, Tony Ray, and I even co-wrote a book called The Silver/Gray Beauty Book that can still be found from second-hand booksellers.

My 30s: Salt and Pepper Shag
When I hit my 40s, the attention ceased. I realized why when I saw myself on television while I was promoting a different book I’d written. I was no longer prematurely gray: I’d grown into my hair and now I was just a 40-ish woman with drab, colorless hair that just blended with my pale, Celtic skin tone. So began the strawberry/ash/champagne/baby blonde years: I tried them all. I should have bought shares in L’Oreal and Clairol. My hair turned out to be extremely color resistant and needed strong chemicals, which fried it and caused it to look even thinner.

My 40s: The Blonde Years
When, when my hormones left, they took a whole of what was left of my hair with them. In an attempt to make it appear fuller, I permed it and it took on the attributes of an unraveling Brillo pad. I wore it long and up; I cut it boy short; I tried bangs. But there was no disguising my receding hairline and visible patches of scalp.

I was pretty much on the verge of despair every time I looked in the mirror. Truly, this was affecting my quality of life. I was beginning to think I’d have to become one of those elderly women who wears a wig or never leaves the house without a hat. I would sometimes sit behind women with thinning hair in the theater, or stand behind them in the market checkout line, and empathize with the obvious machinations they’d been through to try and disguise the problem. I got to recognize the butch, spiky cut on women trying to be defiant about the fact that they no longer have girlish tresses. Then there were those who grew what they had long and wore it in tortured up-dos, the female equivalent of a comb-over.

My 50s: Hair So Bad Had To Wear a Helmet

Then I met a friend’s mother—a wise and beautiful woman in her 70s—with great, thick hair. I wailed to her about how lucky she was. “Oh, no,” she said, “Mine used to be just like yours.” And then she whispered the magic word in my ear: “minoxidil.”

OMG! It was like learning the old broad’s secret handshake.

I’d heard of minoxidil, of course, and also by its brand name, Rogaine. What I knew was that it’s largely marketed to men as remedy for male pattern baldness. A women’s version came out later but there was talk about it being less effective. But my friend told me it really does work for some women, including her, and I’m happy to report it really worked for me.

It takes dedication: you have to apply it religiously twice a day and don’t start to see results for a few months. I had a fairly quick response. About two months after I started using it, I saw little dark dots along my hair line. They turned out to be stubble. My hairline filled in very quickly and I grew out my bangs for the first time in years. The rest of my hair also thickened. I was so happy with my new head of hair that I stopped dying it blond to discover that my new natural color is pure silver. Now, almost unbelievably to me, I actually get compliments on my hair! This is for the first time, at 60; who would have thought it?

My 60s: Got My Hairline Back
No More Bangs!
Before you all rush out and buy some minoxidil, there are caveats. One downside is that you’ll likely grow a beard. After some trial and error, I discovered the way to avoid this is to not apply the second daily dose at bedtime because it rubs off on your pillow and subsequently on your face. I apply it around dinner time so it dries before I go to bed. And I wash my face thoroughly right up the hairline before hitting the sack to make sure any residue is gone. Another reason to do this is because the minoxidil stains fabric. If you get it on your pillow cases or sheets, it leaves an indelible orange mark that looks as though you’ve been drooling Tang.

When I first started using minoxidil, it also caused my scalp to itch. I gutted it out and that eventually passed. (I found that shampoos that don’t have laurel sulphates helps.) Also, you have to use the minoxidil forever. I buy the men’s version because it’s stronger and the women’s has a perfume-y smell and costs more. If you stop, the re-grown hair falls out again. At least that’s what the manufacturer says and it might well be a marketing ploy. But I’m not taking any chances: I plan to be buried with a bottle clutched in my cold, dead hand and my full head of hair spread out alluringly around my face. Well, that's my vision anyway!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Lists

Almost every time you tap into the media this week, you’ll hear how the first baby-boomers are turning 65 this year. And just as frequently, you hear how this generation is re-defining aging and retirement. Today on one of the morning television shows, some psychologist was talking about how we should all be making our “bucket lists;” a term I’ve come to have an aversion to.
I dislike it for the same reason I’ve never bought that book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz, which has been a best-seller for years now. The title is certainly compelling and when it came out I thumbed through it several times in the bookstore. Undoubtedly it has a certain Arabian Nights appeal: “Sorry, Grim Reaper, you’ll have to come back another day; I haven’t seen Angel Falls yet.” But I resisted buying it or any of its many spin-offs.  I figured the pressure would be just too great. The book would sit on my shelf making me feeling guilty for vacuuming the rug or walking the dog instead of exploring the Kasbah or hiking the Appalachian Trail.
I have to confess, though, I did make a photocopy of the Mexico section of the book in the library before I left California. There are 20 entries, including the town of San Miguel De Allende.

Our lovely town of San Miguel de Allende
made the 1,000 Places list

Apart from that, I’ve experience two of the others: the market in Oaxaca and a Mexican Day of the Dead. I’ve never really paid much attention to the other 17 as I don’t want to limit my experiences here to a check list.

Day of the Dead

I frequently had out-of-town visitors in California. Nothing made me crazier than people who refused my offer to take them on a guided insider’s tour but would say, “We’ve ‘done’ Hollywood; now we want to ‘do’ Malibu.” They were often so busy keeping score and peering through a camera lens that they missed the essence of the place.
I’m not sure if Schultz’s book and that Bucket List movie are responsible, but there’s also a big craze for people to make lists of 100 things to do before they die which show up all over the internet. Most are singularly unimaginative: if everyone who claims they want to sky dive actually did, the heavens really would be raining men.

Was Magritte thinking about his bucket list, I wonder?

And to the person who has “make soap” at number 12, I say, “Did you know there’s a whole aisle full of it at Walgreens?”
Others provide fascinating reading. You have to admire the lofty ambition of the person who wrote “learn the meaning of life,” and the baser goals of the one who aspires to “fart in a crowded place.” I particularly appreciate the whimsy of the listee who wants to “hide a dollar where a kid will find it.” But I was stumped by “go snout hunting.” I wondered if it was a hunting method or whether a snout is some poor critter that’s unaware its demise is number 98 on a to-do list. However, when I Googled it, I discovered that it’s a fishing thing. When trout raise their noses out of the water to catch flies on the surface of the river, fishermen know where and when to cast for them. The things you learn on the internet: I could have gone my whole life without knowing that and I bet you could have, too!
But I digress.
While one hundred to-dos seem more manageable than one thousand, I worry about what happens when you finally cross off number 100. I’m too Irish and too superstitious to tempt fate that way. Besides, contemplating all this makes me aware of my mortality, and who wants that on a daily basis? I’d rather put the emphasis on being alive.
For my part, while I do think that to be truly alive, I need to keep having novel experiences, challenging myself in fresh ways, making goals, and thinking about how to improve my sense of well-being, not every experience needs to be a list-worthy event. I think when I focus on the big-ticket items, I stand to miss those little special micro-moments that occur every day. And lord knows, San Miguel de Allende offers those opportunities in spades. Every day here is something of a magical mystery tour if you just go with flow.
Take this day for example. I decided to go along for an early morning ride with a couple of friends, one of whom was looking for a gadget for his gas heater. Before we got to the store, he needed to stop off at Senor X’s house. Senor X turned out to be fabulously wealthy and his “house” was a mansion, practically a castle, filled with exquisite antiques and art. Yes, folks, there was a Picasso painting leaning against a sofa because there was no room for it on the walls.  We had breakfast in his kitchen and after a tour of the breathtaking property, Senor X insisted we accompany him to an old hacienda he was restoring.  After a wild ride into the countryside we arrived at the beautiful, half-ruined ancient compound.

A 200-year-old yucca tree in the
courtyard of the hacienda

One of the rooms that was finished was the bar! More people joined us and by 11am we were having a tequila party. I was introduced to a new drink: a charro negro, which is tequila and Coca Cola. (Someone really ought to write a song about it.) Then it was time for comida.  We all piled into (now chauffeur-driven!) cars and went to a nearby town that I hadn’t been to before. We had a long, leisurely meal in a lovely courtyard restaurant. More people came and went as the afternoon spun out. Our original little group got home about eight hours after we left on our errand: and no, my friend never did get his gadget!
 Now whoever would have put a special day that on a list?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year's Moment

This little story has three chapters.
Chapter One. I couple of years ago, I edited a book for fabulous intuitive counselor and life strategist, Colette Baron-Reid. It was called Messages from Spirit: The Extraordinary Powers of Oracles, Omens, and Signs and is about how we get divine guidance through symbols all around us, often found in the most mundane of places. This was a familiar concept to me as my own mother used to read tea leaves. But even if you’re not inclined toward such ideas, becoming more observant is still a way to appreciate the world around you.
Chapter Two. After an amazing year of exhilarating change, I decided there would be no heavy duty resolutions for me. But I recently came across a Mexican saying that I decided would be my words to live by in 2011. Lo bailado y lo comido nadie se lo quita. Translated, it means “What one danced and ate cannot be taken away.” I love this, and plan to make the new year one of dancing and desserts and revel in the enjoyment of them.
Chapter Three. Last night – New Year’s Eve – I decided to stay home because I knew there would be lots of fireworks; this is San Miguel de Allende and we do love our fireworks here! They terrorize my little dog Henry, and I wanted to be here to comfort him. I had a lovely evening, sharing a take-out Chinese meal and a bottle of wine with my friend, Eleanor, and then called it a night.  Before I went to bed, I made a cup of hot chocolate. (Okay, this part is a bit embarrassing: hot chocolate and an early night on New Year’s Eve?) Anyway, it wasn’t until this morning that I glanced at the cup I’d left on the table and saw the symbol left there for me.  You tell me it’s not a number 11 with an ecstatic figure dancing beside it. And it was writ large!

A Happy, Juicy New Year my friends!