I made a thing! I’m learning how oil pastels work. They seemed like the right medium for this saturated color and light, seen in the Don Cenobio Hotel in the town of Mitla.

IMG_7155 cropped

We went to the Guelaguetza last night! The festival actually lasts officially for a week and unofficially for several weeks beforehand, since Mexico doesn’t hold a week-long party when a month-long party will do. Oaxaca has the highest percentage and variety of indigenous people of any state in the country, and the Guelaguetza celebrates the many local traditions from all over the state: handcrafts, food, music, dance, religious rituals. So we have been going to parades and artisans’ booths and so on, but the cherry on top is the three-hour performance of traditional dances at the beautiful stadium designed specifically for the festival.

After each group performs, the dancers throw bread, bananas, chocolate, baskets, whisk brooms, etc. into the crowd. Munchkin scored one of the tortillas used for tlayudas. They are the driest, most boring tortillas I’ve ever tasted, and it turns out they grow on you after a while. Maybe I’ll even order a tlayuda now.


The entire crowd sings along when the group from La Mixteca comes on. “Canción Mixteca” is a love song to one’s native land, wherever that might be–wave a hat and join in! “Quisiera llorar, quisiera morir, de sentimiento” (I want to cry, I want to die, of emotion).

I encountered an unwanted export today: big-box customer service (that really should be in scare quotes). In contrast to the generally helpful-but-not-pushy attitude one gets in small shops, the big chains have clearly absorbed the business model of most of their U.S. counterparts: training your staff to be knowledgeable and helpful about your products is a waste of money.

Chadraui is a big supermarket with a bit of everything else, like Kmart or Target would be if their main focus were groceries. I popped in this morning to get aluminum foil and a nail brush. I roved up and down the “health and beauty” section for a while, then went to the counter, where three young women had nothing to do, 9:15 a.m. being a pretty quiet time. There are a couple of words for brush and I don’t know which one is correct, so in Spanish, I said, “I’m looking for a brush”–using the word for hairbrush or toothbrush–“for cleaning your fingernails . . . ,” and mimed the act. She cut me off with a nod, saying “lima.”

“Una lima?” I said, to make sure I had it right.

She nodded.

“Dónde están?” I asked.

She pointed over a few aisles and said “Acesorios.” I couldn’t tell what aisle she meant and they weren’t numbered, so I asked if she meant where a man was standing, and she said yes.

Over to the man, who was stocking shelves. Nothing much there except shampoo. I waved at her, and she came around the counter and over to me with a faint air of being where she shouldn’t be–do you suppose they are penalized for leaving their post? I followed her to the next aisle over, where she pointed down the aisle about three meters, said, “Acesorios,” and beat it back to the counter.

It was true, there were about 150 accessories there; I’d bypassed them because they all looked hair-related. A few weren’t, but none of them appeared to be a nail brush, and none of the empty hooks, as far as I could tell, said “lima.” Even though I was exasperated that she couldn’t be bothered to come a few feet farther and show me the item I was looking for, I was determined to look thoroughly, which took awhile. I did find a faux-Frozen “Juego de Manicura” with a tiny little brush. It looked like a good scrubbing would break it in two, so I passed. Fortunately, I could find the aluminum foil all by myself.

When I got home, I looked up lima and it is not a nail brush. It’s a nail file.

I suppose it’s expensive to train bored, minimally-paid, non-career-track employees about where everything is. It’s cheaper to have the bare minimum of staff at the cash registers and drum into their heads that they should not leave to show a customer a product than to train them to walk the customer to the exact location, go find someone else if they can’t find it, follow up with the customer to ask if it was the right item, and give a friendly “I’m so sorry!” if they come up empty. But I’ll go to a nail salon later today, where I’ll get a friendly greeting from someone who is probably the owner, she’ll listen to my description properly, and if she can’t sell me a whatever-it’s-called, she will tell me three places that can, with detailed directions about how to get there.


The news is all about how Melania Trump was channeling Michelle Obama last night. But the Congressman from Iowa’s 4th District was busily repeating old but, sadly, energetic white supremacist lies.

“Where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” —Rep. Steve King, July 18, 2016

Whether the people who contributed more than “any other subgroup” are “old white people,” as King originally said, or “Western civilization,” as he said in a quick definitional retreat, it means simply: we’re the superior race.
But many people may nod along because it’s the history they learned. Sure, that’s us! We’re the cradle of civilization! And then when the evidence of other peoples’ accomplishments becomes too much to deny, we deftly sweep them up into our tent. Egypt, with all its accomplishments, can’t possibly be African–it’s “ours” (Western, white–Steve King’s kind of people). The Babylonians developed algebra centuries before Christ–oh, then they must be part of Western civilization too! (Even though they’re the bad guys in the Bible and seem to have been located in . . . oh dear . . . Iraq.) By the way, speaking of math, the supposed birthplace of Western thought, ancient Greece, was embarrassingly late to the foundational concept of zero. The Egyptians, Babylonians, and Olmecs were busily using zero while Socrates’s contemporaries were still dismissing it.
And then there’s agriculture, astronomy, music, literature, art, religion, philosophy, navigation, etc., all shaped by the contributions of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the pre-“Columbian” Americas, even though in U.S. American education, these contributions are often afterthoughts at most.
I remember when an English professor at my college asserted that the syllabus of his early-American lit class was composed of white male writers because others just hadn’t contributed. Students started posting flyers all over campus: “Professor, have you heard of:” followed by a long list of African-American and female writers of the time. I don’t know if it changed his views, and I doubt very much that such a stream of “people you should have heard of” would change Rep. King’s. But that list changed me forever. So, not for King but for the sake of anyone who might be thinking, quietly, “He’s right . . . ,” please comment with some of the greatest contributors to human thought and culture who were not “white people.”

(Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en español)

I finished reading Maya’s Notebook! What a good book. It deals with drug addiction, the 1973 coup in Chile, police corruption and crime in Las Vegas, post-traumatic stress disorder, prostitution–but it isn’t an “issues novel.” It’s about growing up and love, family and the power of certain places: in particular, Chiloé, a Chilean island.

Isabel Allende’s characters and places could teach me or any writer a lot about the art of description. She can draw three personalities in one paragraph. For example, look at this portrait of the narrator Maya, her grandfather, and her grandmother:

If I start talking about my Popo, there’s no way to shut me up. I explained to Manuel that I owe my taste for books and considerable vocabulary to my Nini, but I owe my grandfather the rest. My Nini made me study by force, saying that “the letter enters with blood,” or something barbarous like that, but he turned studying into a game. One of those games consisted of opening the dictionary at random, putting a finger blindly on a word and guessing the meaning. We also played idiotic questions: Why does the rain fall down, Popo? Because if it fell up, it would wet your panties, Maya. Why is glass transparent? To confuse the flies. Why do you have hands that are black on top and pink underneath, Popo? Because there wasn’t enough paint. And so we would go on, until my grandmother would lose her patience and begin howling. (58, my translation)

I told my daughter about the questions game and now we play it too.

I love Allende’s talent for weaving humor together with serious issues. Here a government tries to recover the body of a drowned man:

They brought helicopters, sent boats, threw nets and let two divers down to the bottom of the sea, which did not find the drowned man, but they recovered a motorcycle from 1930, encrusted with mollusks, like a Surrealist sculpture, which will be the most valuable piece in our island’s museum. (437, my translation)

Reading a novel in Spanish is a good way to learn the language, as is living in Mexico for a while, but I will need something else. A class, to give me training in grammar. A self-imposed lesson in all of the forms and expressions of “poner”: poner, ponerse, disponer, puesto . . . After having looked up so many of these verbs and expressions on the way to finishing this book, I believe that if I understood all of them, the world of Spanish would open to me. They’re everywhere.

Another good exercise is this one that you’re reading: translating some of the entries of this blog into Spanish. (Or, as in this case, writing it in Spanish and translating it into English.)

Corrections are welcome.


(Click here to read this post in English)

Terminé de leer El Cuaderno de Maya! Que bueno libro. Se trata de adicción a las drogas, el golpe en Chile en 1973, corrupción policial y crimen en Las Vegas, el trastorno por estrés postraumático, prostitución–pero no es una novela des <<asuntos>>. Es del crecimiento y el amor, la familia y el poder de ciertos lugares: particularmente, Chiloé, una isla de Chile.

Los caracteres y lugares de Isabel Allende podrían enseñar mucho a yo o cualquier escritor sobre el arte de descripción. Ella puede dibujar tres personalidades en un párrafo. Por ejemplo, mira este retrato de la narradora Maya, su abuelo, y su abuela:

Si empieza a hablar de mi Popo, no hay forma de callarme. Le expliqué a Manuel que a mi Nini le debo el gusto por los libros y un vocabulario nada despreciable, pero a mi abuelo le debo todo lo demás. Mi Nini me hacía estudiar a la fuerza, decía que <<la letra entre con sangre>>, o algo así de bárbaro, pero él convertía el estudio en juego. Uno de esos juegos consistía en abrir el diccionario al azar, poner el dedo a ciegas en una palabra y adivinar el significado. También jugábamos a las preguntas idiotas: ¿por qué la lluvia cae para abajo, Popo? Porque si cayera para arriba te mojaría los calzones, Maya. ¿Por qué el vidrio es transparente? Para confundir a las moscas. ¿Por qué tienes las manos negras por arriba y rosadas por abajo, Popo? Porque no alcanzó la pintura. Y así seguíamos hasta que mi abuela perdía la paciencia y empezaba a aullar. (58)

Le dije a mi hija sobre el juego de preguntas y ahora nosotras lo jugamos también.

Me encanta el talento de Allende por tejer humor junto con asuntos serios. Aquí un gobierno trata a recuperar el cuerpo de un hombre ahogado:

Trajeron helicópteros , mandaron botes, tiraron redes y bajaron dos buzos al fondo del mar, que no encontraron al ahogado, pero rescataron una motocicleta de 1930, incurstada de moluscos, como una escultura surrealista, que será la pieza más valiosa del museo de nuestra isla. (437)

Leer una novela en español es una buena manera de aprender la lengua, como es vivir un rato en México, pero yo necesitará algo más. Una clase, por darme entrenamiento en la gramática. Una lección autoimpuesta en todas las formas y expresiones de <<poner>>: poner, ponerse, disponer, puesto . . . Después había buscado tantos verbos y expresiones dichos en ruta de terminar este libro, creo que si entendía todo de ellos, el mundo de español me abriría. Ellos están en todas partes.

Otro buen ejercicio es este que estás leyendo: traducir algunas entradas de este blog a español. (O, como en este caso, escribirla en español y traducirla a inglés.)

Se agradecen las correciones.

My wife Joy is also blogging about Oaxaca. She takes great photos and is very funny. Check it out!

A funny thing about being in Mexico: although I’m not taking a class or working with a tutor at this time, just being here is giving a boost to a longtime project, that of reading Isabel Allende’s novel El Cuaderno de Maya in the original Spanish. I started reading it in 2013, I think, and I often joke that Allende has published three books in the time it’s taking me to work my way through this one. It’s the truth.

We own the English translation (Maya’s Notebook), and I could read it in a couple of days, but I worry that that would sap my motivation, and so I plod along in Spanish. Usually I read a couple pages at a time, once or twice a week, just enough to keep ahead of my weekly meeting with my Spanish teacher. Our hour is mostly spent in my reading a paragraph aloud in Spanish, then translating it into English, then our discussing any questions or mistranslations, and going off on various tangents of language, culture, or literature. Then we repeat. It is an excellent way to learn the language. Guillermo brought in a couple different novels; one by Junot Diaz was just confusing, but when I’d read the first couple of paragraphs of Maya (which you can read here, or in English here), I was so captivated by the character’s voice that I didn’t want to stop. So we knew that that was the one.

Last summer, I set myself the goal of finishing the novel by the end of 2015, but could not keep up the necessary pace of 2-3 pages per day. But here in Mexico, I am motoring through at a pace of 10-12 pages at a sitting and have read about 80 pages in the past couple of weeks. It’s just so much easier now. I love her writing, and I can’t wait to find out what happens. And I have time. And Allende’s language is all around me.

My main sabbatical project is to make art, with a goal of doing so for several hours almost every day. The past few weeks, however, have been mostly “preparing the studio”: packing up our house for the renters, cleaning and repairing and buying and sorting, getting all our traveling ducks in a row (traveling ducks, how cute), and once here in Oaxaca, house-hunting and such. And I was on study leave for four weeks, so was doing a lot of writing and reading. I read Christ for Unitarian Universalists, by Scotty McLennan, which was well-written and interesting; and Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups, by Joan Goodman, whose interesting topic was overshadowed by the prose, which was dire even by dissertation standards (it clearly was written as a dissertation); and a boatload of fiction, including, at last, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy–well, the first book and a half of it so far.

All necessary before the arting could begin. But I knew I would be glum if I didn’t do some art along the way, so I’ve been drawing, doing ceramics, or sketching notes for future pieces, and am now in the rhythm of doing some art every day. I’m almost done with my first piece in clay at Ishuakara (I don’t know how it came by a Japanese name; I keep forgetting to ask), and have another I’m hankering to start. All three of us can work there and have been doing so.

Several nights ago, in the fertile time of half-sleep, I thought of a series of pieces that seem so obvious and in keeping with things I’ve been thinking about for years that I couldn’t believe they had never come to me before. I won’t write about the project here except to say that it’s about the ambiguous nature of decay. I will post photos as I begin to make the pieces. One wrinkle: I am completely ignorant of printmaking and I am pretty sure that this series wants to be prints. An iron for the wrinkle: Oaxaca turns out to be a positive hotbed of printmakers, printmaking teachers, graphic arts collectives, and printmaking history. So I’m going to learn printmaking. While I am occupied with other things I am doing a little research on the different kinds of printmaking (I am telling you, I’m ignorant–I have heard of lithography and etching and monoprint and silkscreening, etc. etc., but since I don’t know how each technique works, I have no clue which one/s is/are best suited to the vision in my head).

Last night, on the way to a dance performance, I picked up a seedpod with such cries of delight that my peri-adolescent daughter treated me to half-disgusted condescension: “You’ve never noticed those before? I have.” Nope, never have, and don’t know what they are–I’ll have to go back and look at the tree–but this morning I drew it, intending this first pass to be very simple and monochromatic, almost schematic. As is always the way with drawing from nature, the process helped me see things about this lovely subject (I was going to say “object,” but it’s a subject) that mere looking hadn’t shown me. Can you see the mistake?: at one point, not yet wise to the necessity of keeping a finger on the podlet I had just drawn, I lost track of where I was and mixed up my figure and ground. Escher would have made something brilliant of that, but I just laughed at myself.


Our new friend Sam took us to San Martín Tilcajete, one of the towns famous for alebrijes, figurines (typically animals) that are carved from copal wood and then painted elaborately. His friend Benito Fabian Ortega is one of the artists and his whole family makes them. Six of us piled into a moto taxi–three adults crammed into the back, Munchkin on a lap, and Benito hanging on next to the driver with one hand, holding his toddler daughter on his lap with the other–and went to their workshop/home/gallery. I wasn’t sure if I should photograph their alebrijes, but you can look up the word to see what I mean, and add “Fabian Ortega” to see this family’s amazing artistry.

Here is the munchkin with a menagerie of alebrijes that have been carved, but not yet painted:


Later, Benito’s nephew brought out a different kind of menagerie and he, Benito’s daughter, and Munchkin played with them. I’ve seen a lot of dragon alebrijes but no dinosaurs so far.



You would think they had enough carving to do for the market, but someone couldn’t resist embellishing this tree. The whole compound was like that, an exaggeration of the Mexican tendency to exert creativity and create beauty, whether it be on boundary walls, floor tiles, or what have you. The Jewish concept of the “adornment of a mitzvah,” which I absorbed as an artistically-inclined Jewish child, is more alive in this country than any other I have visited. In Judaism it means that one does not just do what is required (a mitzvah is a commandment) but does it beautifully. All one must do to fulfill the commandment to begin the Sabbath with candles is stick a couple of candles upright and keep them lit for half an hour, but if at all possible, one uses beautiful candlesticks kept just for that weekly purpose; leftovers would be enough to fulfill the obligation to give to the poor, but Maimonides teaches that one should give them one’s best cooking. That generosity of spirit is everywhere in Oaxaca, as it was in San Miguel de Allende, where we lived in 2010.

One of the brothers saw me pointing my camera and said I had to come up on the roof. I thought he meant I’d get a good angle on the yard, which was where I’d been taking pictures, and I did, but he also wanted me to see the view. I swear Oaxaca has a corner on the world’s greatest clouds.


I noticed this hill off to my right and he said it was called Maria Sanchez. “¿Quien era Maria Sanchez?” I asked. He explained that she was a woman who had died there. According to legend, the large hill was her head, the smaller ones off to the left her breasts, and so on. I would have liked to find out more details–how did she die? why was she immortalized in this way?–but I’d been in Oaxaca for only a week at that point, and “rusty” would be a generous term for the state of my Spanish. (It still is, but it gets easier every day to comprehend what people are saying.)

I summoned enough to tell him that in the town I grew up in, Hamden, Connecticut, there is a hill called the Sleeping Giant. It’s the town’s most prominent geographical feature, which lies within a state park of the same name. Climbing one of the giant’s hips to a WPA-built “castle” at the summit was one of the repeated, always fun adventures of my childhood, which I want to repeat with my own daughter on a visit in the not-too-distant future. The college where my father taught is nestled in its shadow; the town likes to refer to itself as “land of the Sleeping Giant,” and I went to Sleeping Giant Junior High School. The giant, as told by the Quinnipiac Indians, is Hobbomock, who wreaked havoc (apparently with good intentions) when he stamped his foot, and was put into a permanent state of sleep by a more peaceable spirit. Our host seemed unsurprised by the similarity, and in fact when I looked up “sleeping giant” to check a couple of details just now, I discovered that there are similar legends in Kauai and Ontario.



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