Coming to Oaxaca

Three days after I arrived here in September 2009, I was with my new Mexican friends celebrating Independence Day in the Zocalo. So were roughly a thousand others, and we were so densely packed that the crowd’s movement moved you. Some pinche ladrón lifted my wallet, containing a lot of cash, recently retrieved from an ATM, and all my credit cards, driver’s license, etc. Not quite the welcome I had looked for.

I had flown in from the U.S. at night, looking apprehensively out the plane’s window at the sparse lights of an unfamiliar city surrounded by mountain darkness and thinking, “Now it begins. What am I into?” I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety, being launched on one of the great gambles of my life. With only a few prior friends in Oaxaca, I had little money and no Spanish. My father would have said, “John, you’re just not prepared.”

Somehow I had the confidence to move on and change my life. As reported last week, there were many things pushing me to make this move. I knew the anxiety was normal though it was nonetheless powerful for that. Slowly I began to adapt to living in Oaxaca, finding the city’s life vital and energizing, its complications more or less predictable, its people more welcoming than I expected.

I rented a fine house near the Plaza de la Danza, which later proved to be kind of a disaster. But I settled in and got to know the neighborhood, the markets and shops, a couple of neighbors.

The first big problem was Customs. I had shipped all my possessions—about 2,000 pounds worth, including a large music collection and stereo equipment—by making a deal with FedEx. But, unknown to me, the stuff got held up in Toluca, and I finally hired a customs broker to get it released and delivered, after much agita and tsuris.

The typical irritations one encounters in Mexico when dealing with its bureaucracies—the ubiquitous paperwork and rubber stamps, the impenetrable processes—require patience and understanding. When you first encounter the system, as in shopping for healthcare, you may think you’re living in Mozambique. Yet Mexico is not by any means a third-world country.

You develop patience by growing to understand the culture, by making friends (both gringos and Mexicans), trying to learn Spanish, and finally by learning to relax and enjoy the extraordinary benefits of the place: the low cost of living, the glorious climate, the food, the welcoming people. One reason I found I could adapt was because I had lived and worked in so many different U.S. locales.

The problems of being an expat in Mexico can be intimidating. Some of the pros and cons are described here. The rewards you’ll find will depend on your personality, your aims and goals in life and, mostly, on your attitudes toward change. Finally, I think it’s kind of a crapshoot for everybody. The winners will learn how to play the game.

Expats Exposed


“The Best Places to Live in Mexico as a U.S. Expat”: Good, keep them out of Oaxaca.

Who are these itinerant people, and what are their stories? For twelve years now I’ve been living with a bunch of expats from the U.S. and Canada who have come to Mexico for many different reasons. I’ll be talking to some of them in future posts. The point will be to reveal something about what moves people to leave a familiar culture for one largely unknown. For now, I’ll try to explain what this move has meant to me politically and culturally.

So let me give you a few excerpts from things I’ve written about moving on in my life. From the conclusion to Moot Testimonies, a fictionalized memoir published about a year ago:

I expatriated myself ten years ago in part because I was broke, in part to get away from American politics and culture, in part to start a new life. One takes a modest pride in being an expat because it is a conscious opting out. (An exile usually signifies someone who is excommunicated, banished, cast out.) As an expat, I’m in no way a Mexican immigrant: I don’t want Mexican citizenship and I like the indeterminate nature of living here. Expats will never be part of the Mexican polity or culture, and most of us accept that. Being an expat is a way to try getting beyond your former experience.

Earlier, in another attempt at a memoir, Jive-Colored Glasses, I tried to explain the political and cultural motives behind my move:

After a number of visits there, Mexico seemed my best option. For one thing, I found cultural and political life in the U.S. increasingly impossible. By 2009 when I moved out, real commonality had all but ceased for most people, and class warfare was a term being bandied about. The liberal elites were living lives as circumscribed as those of the working class (though they didn’t realize it), and both groups were still captivated by the myth of human progress. For culture, the elites watched PBS; the working class (many of whom were not working) watched American Idol. I felt little connection to either group.

 . . . My last three years in the U.S. after [working for] the Navy and before Mexico were spent in the state of Maine, living with my sister on an idyllic farm with Angus cattle, beautiful short summers and long ice-bound winters. . . . The solitude of Gardiner, Maine, was hermetic and hard to break out of. Instead of inspiring my creativity, the natural beauty of the place brought me an emptiness of spirit. Maine was forever economically depressed. And I was far too preoccupied with finding work and keeping the woodstove going, never getting the relief that a good walk in the woods should bring. It was what a lot of folks in Maine experienced: the bucolic blues.

But living in Maine does something to you. I had that in common with my friend Conrad who passed on about six years ago. We both had careers in academia and had developed similar misanthropic views about politics even though we counted ourselves as part of the liberal majority that so predominated in Oaxaca.

After his death I put some words in his mouth, again from that fictionalized Moot Testimonies attempt. Conrad had become one of the more important and loved people in my life. He understood the finer points of what it meant to be an expat.

I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.

After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence. Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons.

In our ways we both were trying to express the dissatisfaction that comes from looking at life as identity politics. It becomes more discernible when you’re living abroad. I don’t know what to call myself these days, but I guess liberal will suffice.

Surfside

The building went down in an area that I used to know well. The appalling collapse of the Champlain Towers South triggered for me a number of thoughts, as I’m sure it did for you. We read into disasters like this not only our observed failures as a society—which Florida for me represents on a grand scale—but our inability to protect ourselves from future calamities that we know are coming.

My parents, when they were alive, lived in a condo in Bay Harbor Islands, just a few blocks across Indian Creek from Surfside. I went to Surfside often, for bagels, for its Jewish ethnicity, its bazaar of stores, the beach and, nearby, the chic Bal Harbour shops. In recent times, Surfside has gotten built up, with more and more condos and an influx of people from all over.

Florida and its developers (commercial and political) have told us it may take years to find the cause of this disaster. They have ignored the unmistakable signs of climate change as a factor. They have also permitted, nay encouraged, the development of Miami and its barrier islands, building high-rise condos on a limestone bed that is totally permeable to constantly rising sea water. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that more buildings will come down. We seem temperamentally unable to deal with the effects of climate change that are staring us in the face.

Journalists are particularly cautious about making any such conclusion that climate must be accounted for. They don’t want to scare people and they don’t want to be found mistaken. I think it’s a fairly sure bet that more buildings will fall and more people will die, notwithstanding the engineering analyses. Florida has too many folks acting like the frog in the slowly boiling water.

Susan Matthews of Slate puts it this way: we might be entering a world “where building collapses are just another thing that journalists cautiously acknowledge as catastrophes that might be exacerbated by climate change, but we end up just dealing with them, just like we have learned to deal with the heat waves and the fires and the droughts and the hurricanes.”

May God save all those buried people.

Hearing the Music Again

Fifteen years ago I woke up one morning to a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Still in the stupor of sleep, I swatted it and thereby ruptured my eardrum. I knew I was in trouble when two otolaryngologists told me my hearing was badly impaired and that nothing could be done about it.

So, besides the typical high frequency loss one gets from aging, I was hearing about half of what I should in my left ear. My love of music was the first casualty. I had (and have) a big collection of vinyl and CDs, a very good stereo, and a love of jazz and classical since childhood. I’ve been writing professionally about music for years. That story is here.

First to go were the cymbals and higher frequency sounds. A blanket had been draped over my speakers. Bass players were under water. I learned to ignore the problem, telling myself, “My hearing is not that bad.”

But the major handicap was conversation—in meetings, bars, restaurants, at work—and distinguishing voices from background noise. How embarrassing to repeat those typical responses of the hearing impaired: “What?” “Say it again, please.” When you knew you were missing something, you sometimes just nodded to gloss over it.

I was to learn what a racket the hearing aid business is. For $2,000 I bought a then-state-of-the-art ReSound hearing aid for the one ear. After several visits to the dealer, it never was tuned right and had a metallic, tinny sound. Five years ago I took it to a shop in the U.S. (there were no dealers in Mexico), and they said it was too old to reprogram.

Over time I just learned to compensate and come to terms with being handicapped and partially isolated from the life of sound. Two years ago I bought a Bose contraption with a collar around the neck so I could better hear the inscrutable audio from most movies. Cumbersome, though it worked fairly well, I thought. But for music, it sounded like what you’d hear on a CB radio.

In the United States last week, I visited Costco (that bold symbol of America) and bought a new hearing aid, a Phonak KS10 that they sell for $1399. For this you get a very thorough hearing test, high-tech programming and customizing, and a host of features to adjust the sound. You control most parameters through a Bluetooth connection on your phone. Phone calls come directly through the hearing aid.

The KS10 is truly state-of-the-art and has brought me back to some kind of sonic reality. Music heard this way begins to approximate what a fully hearing person can hear. And it works across the frequency range without much distortion.

Hearing loss produces its own kind of reality distortion. You avoid difficult situations where hearing can be marginal. You instinctively measure your ability to respond. You mask your disability. All these behaviors have mental and emotional consequences. I hope those days are behind me, and I’m blessed that the music is back.

Choices and Observations: Reengaging with the U.S.

costco interior

As most of you know, it costs a lot to live here, and not just in dollars. To live in the United States these days you constantly adjust your thinking about what you buy or don’t buy. And because the political situation is such an imponderable mess, you just put on your blinders each day.

My kids live in Charlottesville, certainly not (in most ways) a typical U.S. town. Home to a major university and a lot of wealth, there are maybe 8,000 black people (19% of the total population) living at the lower economic end. White people mostly live firmly separate lives from them, and those with bucks enjoy a kind of preppy culture, fed by the university and its traditions.

My kids have two boys, aged 4-1/2 and 1-1/2. They recently bought a big new house and are living the good life, though there are always money concerns. They buy a lot of stuff. Costco is the staple of life for folks like this, and it’s one of the great success stories of Charlottesville. The store size and the immense quantity of stuff available boggles the mind of a Mexican vecino.

Costco’s prices are good though you have to buy in quantity. Everything is big, including the shopping carts. The quality is excellent, the store help quite accommodating. People love the concept—and talk about it. At a dinner party I heard much about the variety of wines, cheeses and gourmet items. What a massive consumer culture informs the U.S.!

Politically, the left-right split normally prevents any kind of political commonality, so people here generally tune out its nasty cultural implications, disregarding them because there are no obvious solutions and because the triggers are hidden and dangerous. For liberals, it’s easy to talk about the latest Republican outrage or laugh at Matt Gaetz, but such conversation can be short-lived. Ventilating just doesn’t get you very far, and one gets fed up with the negativity.

So the genteel side of life in Charlottesville controls a lot of what happens here. And that’s not all bad. I know some music faculty here, but it’s hard to imagine far-out jazz finding an audience. Still, a jazz scene somehow flourishes, often minus black people. All the extremist splits in American society are here, most of them covered over. Cultural survival requires it.

P. S.  Costco wins with the millennials and everyone else.

The Vicissitudes of Air Travel

In a few days I will proceed to Virginia on a family visit. This will take me through four airports in 17 hours, with boring layovers, overpriced food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. You know the drill. I love my family, so these are costs that must be borne.

I also love airplanes—anything but the Boeing 700 series and most commercial airliners. They embody the very definition of a hostile environment: uncomfortable constricted seating, bad food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. Close to 200 people in an aluminum tube breathe recirculated air and line up for maybe two bathrooms.

I’m old enough to have experienced the joys of flight differently. In my early teens a friend and I would ride our bikes out to the local small airport and cadge rides in single-engine Pipers and Cessnas. At 15, a friend of my dad’s let me fly (momentarily) his Ercoupe. To get to college, I commuted in Constellations, DC-3s, and the Boston & Maine Railroad.

Ercoupe

These were experiences in which transportation inevitably became a personal adventure, not a mass movement. Your senses were engaged, not dulled.

Super Constellation

In the mid-2000s I did communications work for the Navy at NAVAIR, its major aircraft test and developmental center in Maryland. It was up-close work with engineering feats like the Osprey and the F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. I got no rides, but working on these projects was a revelation in discovering aircraft design and complexity.

V-22 Osprey

The Navy is a highly controlled environment. Commercial flying today is anything but. For over a year Covid kept us pretty much masked, depressed, and at home. We’re all being let out of our cages this summer. The Wall Street Journal reports that passenger volumes are way up, and they predict “a very bumpy summer.”

Fares are rising, middle seats are no longer empty and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more congested. Meanwhile, some airports are understaffed to handle demand, many airport restaurants are still closed or at limited capacity, some terminal seating remains blocked for social distancing, and passengers scuffle with airline staff over not wearing masks.

So the travel environment becomes ever more alien and different from the explorable, enticing world it used to be. Last night I watched a wonderful film, My Octopus Teacher, the story of an intrepid filmmaker who penetrates a forbidding habitat to form a friendship with an octopus and understand its underwater world.

I’m reminded that flying used to be like that—a discovery and a journey into the potentially hostile world of the upper air. Like too much of what we encounter today, flying has become robotic and routinized. It has lost its soul.

Interminable Hate

The situation in Gaza shocks everybody and offers no ready solution. It’s another instance of how ineffectual present-day world politics has become. And most people don’t have time or inclination to understand the depths of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like the Hundred Years War, and who knows what that was about?

Going back to the 1920s, Jews and Arabs were at odds even before the founding of Israel so it’s nigh on a hundred years. In the 1950s I was growing up in a Jewish environment generally opposed to Zionism as a solution to the refugee problem. I still feel that traditional Zionism and the long-favored “two-state solution” is no answer. The two sides have to learn to live together, and there’s no sign of that happening.

The apartheid and the bombs being launched by the far-right Israel government have made Gaza into a ghetto, says one correspondent, with a constant sense of peril and uncertainty.

“Even when things are quiet or seem quiet, they aren’t quiet. There is a shortage of electricity, of clean water. Gaza is coastal, but people can’t swim safely in the sea because there is so much sewage,” he said. “Nothing is stable. No one can make a business. All of a sudden, there is a war or an escalation or the crossings are closed and there is collapse of supplies. Plus, there are the restrictions from Hamas. It restricts personal freedom for women and girls.”

Well, maybe this moment will be different, as one Arab scholar hopes. Maybe the Palestinians have learned how to organize and displace Hamas influence. Maybe the UN and world political powers will move Biden to exert some serious force on Israel. Can Democratic pressure in Congress do anything? The U.S. has little credibility after its years of promoting and financing Israel’s assault on its neighbors and its own Arab people. “At the very least, Mr. Biden needs to make clear that support for Israel and support for Mr. Netanyahu are not the same thing.”

A good summary of the events leading to the current conflict and some hopeful if dubious resolutions is here. American diplomacy has forever failed to mitigate, much less resolve, the crisis. Two Middle East pros offer some suggestions for how Biden can take a more robust approach to diplomacy to counter years of America’s toadying to Israel’s aggressive moves. Indeed,

the administration’s seemingly unqualified support for Israel’s right of self-defense sounds strange when 20 times more Palestinians have been killed and tremendous damage has been done to Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure. One might hope that as Israel’s closest ally, the U.S. would understand urgently that no matter how many airstrikes and artillery shells fall on Gaza, Israel will not deal Hamas a strategic blow, let alone a defeat. More likely, Israel will declare “victory” but again settle for a period of quiet until the next round.

One can hope that sentiment is too pessimistic. But if the only alternative is interminable hate, that must be unacceptable. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs concluded its report this way:

Many around the globe, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been surprised by the images of Jewish mob violence, but the sentiments they embody did not spring up overnight. They have long been cultivated and endorsed at the highest levels of the state. Tamping down ethnic incitement is a matter of self-preservation for the Jewish majority, because the alternative, a steady escalation of civil strife, is already on the horizon.

Riding Out the New Normal

Music helps, and so does a good dinner with friends, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the human adventure these days. One’s faith in politics turns out to be a chimera. Religion offers nothing but the phantasm of hope. Reason is displaced by zeal, Aristotle by Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one tough customer but his views on the nature of man and society are coming back. He argued that “if society broke down and you had to live in what he called ‘a state of nature’, without laws or anyone with the power to back them up, you, like everyone else, would steal and murder when necessary.” Life without strong leadership would become in his words “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Well, our strong leaders have become brutish in their quest for power, totally failing their followers—Trump (the prime example), Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro—all truth deniers and narcissists, all failed leaders. One who clamors to join the group is Netanyahu, now pushing for open war with the Palestinians.

In the U.S. and elsewhere the political urge has taken on a Wagnerian quest for mythical power and the fantasies that enable it. Yet there is no Valhalla in sight. I keep hearing echoes of Germany in the early 1930s. For rank chauvinism, Trump’s apostles in the GOP lead the parade.

Stooges like McCarthy and howlers like M.T. Greene (whom AOC guardedly called “deeply unwell”) have created a new theater of the absurd. The only reason now to watch the nightly news is to see what kind of new delusion they have come up with. At the same time old neoliberal gods are being dethroned as, for instance, revelations appear about Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein. Melinda, at least, knew she had had it.

Finally, the human adventure itself could ultimately come off the rails through climate change inaction and denial. Everyone knows this and yet the paralysis continues. In the struggle to acknowledge the primacy of the ecosphere, our great leaders have inevitably come down on the side of the techno-industrial society, if you can call it that, though for years it’s been known that continued material growth will lead to disaster.

Hobbes could not have foreseen this exactly, but he knew that the

right of each to all things invites serious conflict, especially if there is competition for resources, as there will surely be over at least scarce goods such as the most desirable lands, spouses, etc. People will quite naturally fear that others may (citing the right of nature) invade them, and may rationally plan to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Moreover, that minority of prideful or “vain-glorious” persons who take pleasure in exercising power over others will naturally elicit preemptive defensive responses from others. Conflict will be further fueled by disagreement in religious views, in moral judgments, and over matters as mundane as what goods one actually needs, and what respect one properly merits.

Eleven years ago William E. Rees (University of British Columbia) wrote these still pregnant words: “The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be ‘in flight from thinking.’”

The philosophers, for all their ranting, won’t get us to return to reality. I don’t know what will.

The Crystal Ball Is Foggy, or Is It?

Troubled times create the need to fashion the future. We have no shortage of crystal ball predictions regarding the precarious nature of GOP politics these days. Last week we had a glut of these.

One I especially liked was George Conway’s prediction that Rudy will finally sing, putting his boss at dire risk. (“All this [craziness] boggles the mind of anyone who has followed Giuliani’s lengthy career. It’s as though someone dropped him on his head.”) Another prediction: the Dems could well retake the House in 2022 despite all forecasts to the contrary. One such prognosis focused on the recent past: how Trumpism has become an institution and what that could mean.

More of these ball-gazings are recounted here. The best, I thought, came from Minnesota ex-governor Arne Carlson (R), who put the GOP’s turmoils over Liz Cheney into a good historical context.

“What [House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy] doesn’t realize is he may be the next one to go,” Carlson said. “The people who set the guillotines in motion ultimately have their necks under it, as they get into these endless battles about who’s more loyal, who’s more pure.”

Which got me thinking about the French Revolution and its aftermath, and George Santayana’s famous line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Trump’s present-day reign of terror over the GOP for me has all kinds of echoes to the events of 1793-94 in France. Robespierre was no Donald Trump but his fears of the opposition eventually led to his own head rolling, along with 17,000 others.

The final aftermath was, of course, Napoleon—from which outcome let us at all costs be preserved. The emperor, you’ll remember, made a career out of megalomania and his preference for undisputed rule and conquest.

Napoleon’s use of propaganda contributed to his rise to power, legitimated his régime, and established his image for posterity. Strict censorship, controlling aspects of the press, books, theatre, and art were part of his propaganda scheme, aimed at portraying him as bringing desperately wanted peace and stability to France.

He finally ended in exile on the island of Elba where he died. By all reports the place was no Mar-a-Lago.

Gun Fight at the FedEx Corral

It was not really a gun fight, just another crazed asshole named Brandon Hole blasting away at fellow workers, apparently at random. Eight died, many were wounded. As usual, police were looking for a motive—which often implies some kind of rational action. Well, it could be something like, “My package came late and you guys never apologized.”

Mass shootings carried out by crazy people are just a small part of the total. Violent gun deaths in the U.S. last year numbered about 20,000, with injuries approaching 40,000. These include mass shootings, cop shootings, gang shootings and community violence. Add to that about 24,000 yearly suicides involving firearms.

Those numbers, it seems, aren’t high enough to justify serious gun restrictions (or removal, per Australia). There are some 400,000,000 guns circulating in the Land of the Free. Try getting them. Yearly cancer deaths in the U.S. are predicted to be close to 609,000; Covid deaths the past year were at least 579,000. After a week of national news about cop shootings and Biden’s proposed band-aids, one thing is certain. Congress will not be moved. In their calculus of murder, a lot more people will have to die.

Gail Collins just wrote a good column summarizing the impossibilities of the situation. In it she quotes a Representative from Texas:

“The government is never going to know what weapons I own,” declaimed Representative Chip Roy, a Texas Republican. “Let me be clear about that, it’s not gonna happen. We have a God-given right to defend our families, defend our state, and defend ourselves against tyranny, and we will do that.”

“Yeah, blame God,” she concludes. One also notes that the Texas House just approved a bill allowing no-permit gun carrying. And these gun nuts are not just confined to Texas. They are all over Congress. People like Lindsey Graham, Steve Scalise, Lauren Bobert, and of course Joe Manchin should be voted out, along with most of the GOP.

But they won’t be—for one reason: A large proportion of Americans, inspired by decades of shoot-em-ups on movies and television and flagrant misinterpretations of the Second Amendment, are in love with their guns and will never give them up. They are the ultimate gun lobby.