Drinking Heavily and Watching Out for Cockroaches

For some, expat life means socializing and keeping up. The latter activity includes hanging out with friends, gossiping, volunteering for good causes, eating out frequently. Many women I know in Oaxaca spend a lot of time doing these things. I applaud them for it.

Others, both men and women, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking. It’s not just loneliness and cultural disruption, as the common opinion has it. There are two main causes for expat boozIng: one is boredom; the other is disgust with the U.S. political/cultural scene. One more article on Elon Musk and Twitter and I’m ready for a martini.

I don’t socialize a lot, but friends and I have a weekly poker game, which always includes an open bar. Reading, writing, cursing out CNN and the news, and listening to music are activities I pursue to recover my sanity. I’m less addicted to booze than in years past, a good thing.

Oaxaca is in the tropics, after all, and that means cockroaches are always lurking or present. (Don’t believe people who say they never see them.) My compañera in our new house brought her cat here, and that seems to have eliminated most of the problem—but not entirely.

So I conduct roach patrol every morning and stomp on the bastards when I find them. They are not that numerous now, but we older white males seem to have a particular aversion to them. Why is that?

Expats who have adjusted here learn to live with bugs, along with the everyday difficulties of dealing with Mexican bureaucracies, AMLO’s idiotic pronouncements and decisions, the killing of journalists, and the still-horrific numbers of drug murders. To live a life without depending on booze, one must push these things to the background.

It’s pretty much the same with roaches. They are wily creatures who will be here long after humans are gone. Unless you have a bad infestation, just whack ‘em when you see ‘em and, if it’s cocktail hour, pour yourself a short drink.

The pleasures and joys of living here as an expat require one to acquire a certain calmness in the face of mostly unsolvable problems. If you don’t develop that, the booze could take over.

You Think We Got Troubles Now?

Here’s Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorites, on the situation in 2003:

The U.S. Treasury is empty, we are losing that stupid, fraudulent chickenshit War in Iraq, and every country in the world except a handful of Corrupt Brits despises us. We are losers, and that is the one unforgiveable sin in America. . . .

The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world.

 . . . . We are like pygmies lost in a maze of haze. We are not at war, we are having a nervous breakdown, again.” (2004)

Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing Friday about the Alito opinion in National Review:

Alito’s drafted opinion manages to do what so few essays and treatises taking up this subject can do: be truthful and shrewd. The publication of this opinion was a sin. But O felix culpa, this opinion should be anthologized with all the greatest writing on the topic of abortion in the United States.

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times on Alito:

Samuel Alito’s antediluvian draft opinion is the Puritans’ greatest victory since they expelled Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Alito is a familiar type in American literature: the holier-than-thou preacher, so overzealous in his attempts to rein in female sexuality and slap on a scarlet letter that one suspects he must be hiding some dark yearnings of his own.

Have the Dems Finally Found a Voice?

Years ago I coached political people in how to give effective speeches. Only a few had the kind of controlled passion that Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow demonstrated last month. She understood that a speech has to be very personal if it’s going to move you. It has to reflect who you really are.

With the furor aroused by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade debacle, you can be sure that women will dominate the discourse to come. Most men sound foolish and presumptive discussing abortion. Women will inevitably put the issues on a personal level. They will be the best political weapon the Democrats have.

More on Vinyl

Collecting vinyl is a disease, according to a few women I’ve known. (Most women don’t tolerate music played loud either—but you knew that.) In quantities vinyl is heavy, it’s fussy to play, and it scratches easily. Trying to move a big collection takes strong backs, a lot of boxes, and a truck. Vinyl fanciers do have to admit to these charges.

These attributes plus the advent of streaming music killed off vinyl for a long time. Now it’s having a renaissance as witnessed by growing sales numbers and lots of Kumbaya cyber celebration. Google News tells me in the morning about new vinyl pressing plants going online.

So what’s the appeal? I wrote earlier about the better sound of vinyl and how, for me, that makes all the fussiness worthwhile. With the advent of fairly cheap plug-and-play turntables, vinyl becomes accessible to a growing audience of mostly younger fans who relish its kind of tactile connectedness to their music.

But the physicality of picking up a record and placing it on a platter—and the need to get out of my chair to flip it when it hits the run-out groove on side A—has me appreciating each song all the more. Plus, the wonder of seeing a spinning disc with grooves producing harmonic sound never fades.

I’m too old and long in the tooth with vinyl to get a rush like that. For me it’s the warm sound, plus the psycho-physical need to focus on the music, as if you were in a concert hall. Streaming audio (even with expensive high-resolution downloads) forces music to fit into the mental background of what you are doing. The writer of the above quote gets this, and it’s a big factor: “The music isn’t hiding in the background, as it is when I’m streaming digitally. Instead, it’s front and center.”

London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years. Investors rush to acquire music catalogs and copyrights. The calculus of payoffs to all artists (not just the superstars) changes for the better, and that’s been a long time coming.

A band with 1mn fans, each streaming their new album 100 times in a single month, need only get 20,000 of them to buy the vinyl record to gross the same amount. For consumers, vinyl albums resuscitate a culture of gifting and compilations that used to drive a fifth of all transactions.

So it’s not just the big stars but all the scuffling musicians who make out better with vinyl. And so do the listeners.

Mingus at 100

As Duke Ellington said about the people and music he loved, Charles Mingus was “beyond category.” Now there’s been a flood of media recognition honoring Mingus’s centennial, and he may be more famous now than when he was alive. Yet the man was so prolific and complex that it’s impossible to do him justice in any short tribute. Nate Chinen gave that a good effort on NPR.

Since I spent a lot of time with Mingus and wrote a book about him, let me give you a few excerpts that reflect something of the true flavor of the man. In 1972, I taped him on one of his favorite subjects, the hoax of electronic music. He was talking with an Italian journalist who inadvertently evoked a lot of Mingus’s aversions.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich. . . . But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

Of course I fell in with that, as I did with many of Mingus’s opinions. Jazz lovers are often purists to a fault. We also spent much time talking about classical music. Mingus was deeply into that, as I found out later in our talks on Beethoven.

Kids should be educated to music, man, [classical is] not bad music. Our society should be listening to operas and everything else by now. It’s just noise to them, they can’t relax for a minute, it makes them sick. If a guy came in and played a beautiful violin for two-three minutes, they’d go crazy—over an ordinary microphone or no microphone.

Don’t you think they could appreciate Pablo Casals if he was young today? Sure they could, man, if this damn country would push it. I don’t know why they don’t want the kids to hear good music. Is it because it would make them healthy? They might throw their pot away. They might, man. You going to print that? And the young Casals, they’re stopping them.

And of course he hit on the avant-garde, another source of his strong opinions:

If Bird were here today, he wouldn’t be still playing bebop. You think he’d let Albert Ayler or somebody like that cut him? He’d do the squeek-squawk too but only a few bars of it. He wouldn’t do every tune like that. He would be avant-garde at the end of the composition or in the middle as a laugh and then go back to playing the music. . . .

You don’t just eliminate the beat. Music is everything—the beat and the no-beat; jazz wants to beat, emphasize the beat, so you don’t cancel it entirely. Especially if you call yourself black, because African people ain’t gonna never stop dancing. Puerto Ricans, the gypsies, Hungarians, they all have a dance music. You know? But they also have mood music that don’t have a beat to it sometimes, Indians don’t have a beat to it, but when they dance to it, they got a beat to it. I don’t see why these cats are ashamed to have a beat to their music.

Mingus was about so much more than angry protest, though I would finally type him as a turbulent man who saw through the many follies of our culture, and not just in music. But his music is what made him great if not famous. We’ll talk about that another time.

My Vinyl, and Why I Collect It

I started picking up on this stuff when I was old enough to buy records, maybe 14 or 15. There were one or two record stores in Highland Park, the Chicago suburb where I grew up. I learned the joys of browsing and being picky about surfaces. I was in love with jazz (recounted in a memoir here), and the LP (long-playing record) had just come out to displace the 78-rpm shellacs that my father had stacks of.

Vinyl LPs gave you lots of music on one disc and much better sound, though the first discs were recorded in mono, not stereo. To appreciate that sound, however, you had to have good audio equipment which, then as now, was not cheap. In high school and college I got my father involved in hi-fi, and we had some pretty elaborate setups, including reel-to-reel tape.

I bought a lot of New Orleans jazz in the early ‘50s, then got into Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and bebop, and then Monk and Mingus, who introduced me to the “modern” sounds I still treasure. My hoard grew and later incorporated many classical sides. My father dumped the LPs from his collection when the CD came out in the early ‘80s. Big mistake on his part.

When I began to review music as a critic for Playboy and others, my assemblage of albums grew apace. I continued buying records, mostly jazz, while I was reviewing classical and rock for the magazine in the ‘70s. And, yes, I kept some good ‘70s rock. The collection now consists of about 1,500 LPs and maybe 1,000 CDs. I’ve moved it too many times to count.

Which means, I guess, that I can’t do without it. The appeal of vinyl for me is not sentimental or faddish. It’s the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.

As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.

People ask about the pops, clicks and scratches. I’ve always handled records with great care and kept them clean, and I have a vacuum machine for the scruffy ones. Clean sound is worth the effort.

A friend who owns a multi-CD player asked, “Isn’t it a drag to turn the record over every twenty minutes?” My answer was that in the days of 78s, you turned the record every three minutes. So it’s what you’re used to—and how much you value clear and full sound.

The great days of music can be reheard if you take the trouble. Likewise, your own great days of music can be brought back to you, and that’s worth a lot.

Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

 

Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.

Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.

I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.

But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”

Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.

The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.

I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.

Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Greene’s Gazpacho and Trump’s Toilets

The New Yorker

Yesterday the media reported endlessly on Greene’s continuing and insufferable stupidity and the ex-president’s propensity to flush documents down White House toilets. Hard to wake up to this stuff.

I still read the latest in politics each morning on the internet. This practice had begun to ruin my day so I’ve endeavored to change it. I try to make phone calls and email friends, walk to the bakery, get on my exercise machine. I’m still caught up with our political follies, but no longer to the point of writing about them or hashing them out with friends. It ain’t worth the angst.

Since most people can’t face the enormity of what’s happening in the U.S., the media’s fallback is to divert us with the folly of our political happenings. Politics and the reporting thereof have become a burlesque.

Yet I’ve spent too many years in politics not to take it seriously. It’s very hard to do that now. I mark all the many appeals for funds I get from Democrats as spam. I no longer follow Democrats Abroad. Most of the received opinions about the current crisis—the likely onset of a new civil war, gerrymandering, court packing, and so on—I find repetitious and half-baked. Or they keep telling us about the persistent Congressional standoffs.

So maybe we shouldn’t blame the media for telling us ad nauseum about the crocodile who finally got the tire removed from its neck. Yesterday I was looking for some freaky “good news stories” to write about, like the one about preventing Alzheimer’s with toothpaste. The idea was to lighten up the pervasive gloom about current events. I eventually tossed out that approach after realizing that such stuff was just clickbait. The media thrives on clickbait.

Since I spent quite a few years studying and teaching literature I tried to get back to reading more. That worked for a while but I always gravitated to the current affairs stuff on Kindle and got too absorbed in that. Interesting but invariably gloomy.

So I looked at the shelves of books that I had just unpacked after my recent move. Music, history, fiction, poetry, and culture were there in abundance. Could they be a passage to my recovery from boredom and disgust? The books looked back at me as if through a scrim of non-recognition, even though I had read them all and absorbed much pleasure from many. But I felt little urge to pick them up and explore them again.

Even so, I will do that with a few because they represent old pleasures and insights that were and are valuable to me. Literature is life rendered, after all, and mostly from a simpler and better time. It has always been a refuge for me, and perhaps it will be so again. In times like this, we need our sanctuaries.

Old Neighborhoods and New

view from my rooftop

This is the last time I’ll keep boring you with news of my move. Moving is like jumping into cold water. You do get used to it.

A very good piece about the trials of moving is here. Writer Paul Cantor focuses on the things you acquire over time, how important they are to you, how you decide what to get rid of:

Ultimately, the hardest part about moving is sifting through those things, the things you acquire unconsciously, the things you don’t even know you have until you are confronted with the sad reality of maybe not having them, and trying to rationalize what stays, what goes, and what little pieces of yourself, pieces you may not so readily recall in the future, you’re willing to let go of.

I have a large green plastic box I brought with me from the states some twelve years ago. It contains many old family photos, some of my 19th century forebears, lots of pictures of my kids growing up, my high school yearbook, my college and graduate degrees, a grade-school report card, my first Social Security card. There is even some artwork my ad agency produced for clients.

What is the value of such stuff—not only to me but to my kids who will have to sort through it all when I pass? I’ve been stymied with this problem for years and couldn’t face the huge number of decisions it would take to come to terms with all this junk from the past. So I moved with the whole box, and the decisions are still on hold.

What I had to adapt to right away was a new neighborhood, almost like a new culture in this city of Oaxaca. The old town, or Centro as it’s called, is the heart of the colonial city with its many shops, markets, and tourist hangouts. I’m on the edge of that in a little alleyway called Flavio Perez Gasga. It’s an unusually quiet part of town.

My old hood was in Colonia Reforma, just north of here and a more “modern” area where formerly the wealthy had moved to escape the clamor and indigence of the city. Reforma’s atmosphere is more like Mexico City’s, and even the food there is somewhat different. Here in Centro the cuisine is more traditional Oaxacan. There are more door-to-door services, different markets, different kinds of restaurants, a different spirit.

It’s only a mile away from where I used to live but, I’m tempted to say, a world away in ambience and character. I think I’ll like it—and God knows I’m too old to consider moving again.

Thoughts on Moving

Mercado Sanchez Pascuas

I moved to a new house a little over a week ago. Which prompted me to review all the many times I’ve moved since, for instance, leaving graduate school and getting married. It turns out that I’ve changed domiciles some 16 times in those 61 years. Reasons for this instability range from job change to partner change, from responsibility to choice.

For movers I’ve used everything from U-Haul to FedEx. My latest move, about a mile across town, went very smoothly and made me grateful for all the good help I had. But it also brought on a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and irritation. Clearly, my age is showing.

Moving, as we know, brings out the best and worst in people. Stress-wise I would compare it to:

    • taking on a lot of questionable debt
    • a poker game—being sometimes in control, often not
    • the trials of a migrant trying to cross into a new country
    • being grateful for a former tenant who left behind a lot of booze and a big bottle of Tums.

I had great friends offering to help box the 3,000-plus vinyl LPs and CDs I’ve collected over the years. Finally, my new roommate and I did it ourselves, and she provided sort of an organizational roadmap for the move and the services (internet, utilities, etc.) and people we had to contract with.

We had to paint and make a few repairs to the new place. Our new landlady was accommodating and paid for much of this. The local moving crew was friendly and competent. The physical packing and moving was completed in a very few days.

So why did I experience so much fatigue and anxiety? Moving gives you no excuse for harboring old papers, files, and stuff you will never want or need again. Housecleaning means cutting loose from the past, which can be liberating or disturbing. I felt it both ways.

And then there’s the pressure of trying to find new places for all the stuff you brought with you—the clothes, cookware, houseware, underwear, hardware that need to find a new home. This takes time and involves making lots of petty but necessary decisions.

Being here just over a week I find the experience still a little unsettling. And yet I’m right next door to a large farmers market, and other small shops selling everything abound in the neighborhood. People have been friendly and helpful. What’s not to like? Moving at its best seems always to cut both ways.