Colors and Courtyards: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel craft shopNow that I’ve been to Mexico, I’m pretty sure it’s where colors were invented. Or if not, then the Mexicans have perfected the invention. It seemed during our trip as though colors were everywhere, so that it becomes almost impossible to describe the ubiquity and chromatic richness that wraps around you in Mexico. Visual aesthetics were so different from what I’m accustomed to, and so much better than the dreary white and pastel emptiness that taints life in American residences. During our bus ride north out of Mexico City, we saw houses painted in bright colors of turquoise, yellow, pink, and purple.

We arrived Saturday afternoon in San Miguel de Allende, a small to medium-sized town in a valley. Buildings in San Miguel seemed to be mostly painted in a kind of rusty red or deep yellow. We arrived without realizing it on a holiday weekend, for Independence Day, which is November 16, so the little town was packed with people eating ice cream and listening to mariachi bands. Even with the small square in front of the church full of people, San Miguel was a relief after the intensity of Mexico City.

School children in costumes

Independence Day parade

It seems appropriate to me that San Miguel de Allende is a city of art, with art schools and filled with art galleries. I cannot speak for other Mexican towns, but San Miguel could surely inspire art, a colored town set in a valley and flowing up the adjacent hillside, with great views of the town below, with saffron and flame-colored houses everywhere, and with a tradition that includes bright-colored clothing (we saw dancers from a children’s parade for Independence Day), with contemporary practices such as the colorful decoration of skulls for the Day of the Dead, and with a long history that includes art (such as Atotonilco church nearby, declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico because of the painted ceiling).

San Miguel de Allende is about four and a half hours northwest of Mexico City by bus, set in a semi-arid landscape. Outside of town is El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden, centered around a small dammed lake. On the hillsides rising above the lake is a landscape of enormous cacti, a place that seemed as rich and alive as walking through a northern forest, but mostly made of fat succulents. The AirBnB apartment where we stayed had a balcony looking down on a tiny beautiful yard, and covering the patio were pots of succulents of such diversity and beauty that I thought This is simply a world I don’t know about.

Flower pot with a succulent

On the balcony, where we sat with coffee every morning

Our main goal in San Miguel was to relax, to do nothing we didn’t feel moved to do. With six days in a small town, in spite of sometimes walking for several miles each day (which we don’t mind at all), we did relax, beginning our first evening with a concert from a jazz festival. Later we went to an art school where we were free to wander around, even watch the artists at work. We browsed through a gallery there, went into a weaving studio full of looms, and sat in the huge courtyard where an orange tree full of oranges had dropped fruit on the ground.

Of course we did things you might predict from where you’re sitting: we went to restaurants (and had Thanksgiving dinner there, which I started with another glass of mezcal), we browsed for hours past the stunning abundance of folk art and crafts hidden in small shops and down alleys full of colored cloth and flashing silver, and we sat in the pleasant square near the church eating cups of papaya or mango, watching people and an occasional street dog walk by. One of those people was the hat man, selling hats stacked on his head, with so many that the stack of hats above him was as tall as he was.

To some extent, the first view of San Miguel de Allende could be misleading, as it looks a bit like an old-fashioned little Mexican town, radiating its colors out to the universe, and with every narrow street in the center of town made of cobblestones. If you get a glimpse through the gates in those colored walls, however, you see that life is taking place in open courtyards that may be beautifully decorated, more than you could imagine in the little cobbled street. I came away with the feeling that so much of the wonder of San Miguel probably remained hidden.

Red house in San Miguel

A fairly typical street scene in San Miguel

Thanksgiving morning, we were woken at 6:00 a.m. by incredibly loud fireworks to celebrate St. Cecilia’s day. Afterward, I sat out on the patio outside our bedroom, drinking coffee and making some notes. Here is what I wrote: “A rooster is crowing somewhere here in the neighborhood, competing with the noise of cars and trucks on the highway up the hillside. A few minutes ago, a truck drove up our narrow cobbled street with loud music, playing so loud that it seemed to be intended as a public service. And now I’m hearing notes from a trumpet down the street. Beside me here on the balcony in a large clay pot is a huge jade plant, the largest I’ve ever seen, blooming with tiny white flowers. Beyond the balcony railing and rising above the high walls around the yard is a bergamot tree, heavy with round green fruit.”

I’m waiting for the time when I go back to Mexico.

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Food and Spirit: Mexico City

[Last weekend I returned from a week in Mexico, and for this week and next, I am going to alter the literary/writing topic of this blog, to write about being there.]

Mexico City street food

An extremely popular street food in Mexico City, cut off in small slices for tacos

The capital of Mexico has a population of a billion people—or if you’re into technical math and actual facts, a population of 20 million, and people in Mexico City drive like polite maniacs. They pull suddenly in front of one another, closely follow the car in front, and push into a line of cars that is already tightly packed. Nevertheless, I never saw Mexico City drivers grow angry or behave aggressively. They drive the way they do because they feel they have to (unlike where I live in Atlanta, where psychotic aggressive driving is normal).

In Mexico City, we found multiple streets devoted to particular types of commerce, such as home goods, plumbing, clothing, or music. Our apartment was close to a music street, and when we walked down that street in the morning to get breakfast (like the tamales I had one morning), the street was very quiet, somewhat deserted, all the shops closed with pulldown metal doors. In the evening, however, that same street was a cacophony of sound and lights and activity. At 9:00 at night, every business was open, selling electric pianos, huge speakers, sound systems, and other instruments, with small bright lights arranged to rotate and flash out the door, as thought the street itself were a stage. In front of a few stores, young women in tight short were paid to stand on the street and dance to the loud music, presumably to draw in customers. Customers who then might—who knows?—buy a guitar or something.

Compared to anything I’ve ever experienced, there was a tremendous amount of activity on the streets in Mexico City, and if you want food, it’s everywhere. This was the first country I’ve ever been to with such ubiquitous availability of food on the street. The city has many restaurants, but in addition, every place we went there were sidewalk stalls selling food, some stalls even with seats for customers to sit and eat tacos and fruit and cactus bulbs and beans. In addition to the stalls, the city must have thousands of tiny establishments the size of large closets, operating from inside a building but with a small counter opening onto the street. You walk up, you buy a taco or cup of fruit, you walk on.

Many different kinds of food are available, and in particular the people in Mexico City seem to like meat and meat and a little more meat. One morning we were walking around looking for a store where we could buy bus tickets and we passed food stands getting ready for later in the day. One place in particular had an enormous vat of boiling water, from which a man was pulling out pieces of meat that I believe were not yet entirely cooked. He was placing what came out of the water on a huge platter—snout, heart, piece after piece, as though a whole pig had been cut up and put in that vat. The scene was like something from Dante’s inferno of street cuisine.

We were three nights in Mexico City, and every night we ate in a restaurant that we loved. The first place, a small cafe recommended by our AirBnB host, had a motto painted on the front: “Aquí es un lugar de respeto y paz” Here is a place of respect and peace. While we were waiting for food, our waitress came by with a stack of books and drawings, which the cafe was selling to customers. If you bought a book, you got a free drink. I bought a book of poetry in Spanish and had my first delightful glass of mezcal, a specialty of the region of Oaxaca (tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is also a different drink).

Another night we ate at an elegant place called La Opera, founded more than a hundred years ago by some Frenchmen. There I had grilled octopus in a spicy sauce, and I continued my exploration of tortilla soup, a delicious dish that most restaurants seem to carry. Our final night in Mexico, we went out with a friend to a gastropub-ish place for some damn good food, including something I went to Mexico hoping to try, chapulines, a type of tiny toasted grasshopper (also a specialty of Oaxaca). Take a small corn tortilla, add cubes of white cheese, guacamole, a pile of chapulines, and salsa—ah, baby, now that’s a Mexican taco. I also had another glass of mezcal, so it was Oaxaca night in my neighborhood.

Diego Rivera mural

Part of a Diego Rivera mural, of Indians dyeing cloth

We stayed in the center of the city, the Centro Histórico, and the very center is a huge open square called the Zócalo, lined on one side by the long high wall of the National Palace. Despite the enormous size of the palace, it is built like other residences under Spanish influence, with an inner courtyard, though in this case with a Really Big Courtyard. Facing the courtyard, some of the walls contain murals by the painter Diego Rivera, showing Indians living before the Spanish came, then crushed by the Spanish, then rising again in revolution.

Near the Zócalo stand the remains of a former high pyramid, the Templo Mayor, that was the center of the city when it was the Aztec capital, a city built on an island in a lake (a lake that is long gone). Thus the Aztecs, then the Spanish, and now the Mexicans have considered this spot to be the center of their society, as though the center of Mexico City is one of those places on the planet where an invisible power flows through the earth.

Another display of power was the enormous cathedral on the Zócalo. Construction on the church began in 1573, deliberately placing it in the old Aztec sacred space, the same way Catholic churches in Europe were built on top of Greek temples, to replace the old ways. Sometimes, however, the old ways do not disappear just because the conqueror builds a church. Although the Mexican people are very Catholic (the Spanish did win that one), we saw ceremonies right beside the cathedral where people were lining up for a traditional healer to perform a limpia (a spiritual cleansing).

Spiritual cleansing ceremony

Limpia ceremony near the Zócalo

The limpia involved the petitioner holding a large bunch of basil while the person performing the limpia held a smoking container, blowing smoke around the person receiving the cleansing. Thus an ancient spiritual ritual was performed next to the largest church in the country.

After a day and a half in Mexico City, we took the bus north to San Miguel de Allende, and next week I will write about that fascinating little town of art and history.

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Oh, I Just Threw Something Together

Decorative swords

Deadly art

The following three things have something important in common: haiku poetry, ballroom dancing, and the carved figures on the front of old ships. Of course I don’t have to tell a sophisticated person like you what they share, but other people might not know. These are all forms of art.

Given the stupendous possible variety in artistic expression (let’s go ahead and throw in painting wall murals, weaving lace, performing rap lyrics, and raking sand in a Japanese garden), we might feel provoked—even though we really do know better—to quietly query ourselves “What is this art thing?”

In a very basic way, whatever a person’s motivation might be, art consists in shaping the physical world. Right? You have to use something to make art, even if it’s just using the sounds you can make or the motion of your own body. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that almost every object human beings have ever touched has been turned into a form of art by someone. Even swords, which are basically long pieces of sharp metal used to kill someone, have been made into art.

If we talk about acquiring skill in art, what can “skill” mean amid such inconceivable variety? I would describe skill in art as having increasing control over the medium, over that part of the world the artist is using. Heightened skill then leads to an increasing ability (1) to make the medium come closer to what exists in the artist’s imagination, (2) to work the medium in more subtle ways, and (3) to express the art with greater consistency.

Suppose, however, an artist does not have great skill, whatever the reason (lack of talent, or lack of opportunity to perfect the talent, or just lack of desire to perfect the talent). Is it possible for both the artist and the audience to be satisfied by art that shows little skill?

I think it is possible. The audience might have an emotional connection to the artist. One of my colleagues at work, for instance, has filled his office with drawings done by his young children. As a very different example, the audience might take pleasure from something unexpected and different. The painter Grandma Moses painted very popular images of old-fashioned rural life in a simplified style, or consider the fame and acclaim gained by Jackson Pollock, who would fling paint onto canvases—I mean seriously, people, he just flung paint.

In general, however, we admire those artists who work hard to learn to control their medium and have more control over the effects, even if we also like people whose art seems less controlled and polished (like early Joe Cocker).

If we consider artistic skill in writing, we could begin with basic control of the medium: (1) knowing the mechanics of written language, in particular spelling and punctuation, and (2) having a strong command over the grammar of the standard version of the language. But as I used to tell my students, knowing the mechanics of writings brings you up to zero. Then you can begin to get people to listen to what you have to say.

The true craft of fiction writing requires skills that become hard to describe, such as having a sense of dramatic flow in a story, knowing how to transition in a satisfying way between parts, or knowing how to make a character seem real.

I’m a huge admirer of craft in art, every kind of art. Craft alone is not enough, but for me, neither is raw, undeveloped talent enough. Being too talented, in fact, might make the artist lazy, and I’m not interested in lazy artists. When talent, whatever that is, comes together with a willingness to work and learn the craft, then amazing things can happen, like Artemesia Gentileschi, Fred Astaire, or Alexander Pushkin.

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Thinking a World Into Existence

Colored leaf arrangement

Colored leaves arranged by Andy Goldsworthy

Picture yourself, if you will, as having no physical existence, just a cloud (although a cloud is physical—so not a cloud) of thoughts floating in space (although “floating” is also physical, but anyway). You might think of your mind this way, as a kind of entity, something we can’t really describe, like a disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space.

I’m not going to pursue this blog entry into the philosophical view that our physical existence is actually an illusion. Oh, no sir, we exist, alright. It’s our minds that I have questions about. And yet something tenaciously continues to insist “I’m here. I’m here.” OK, fine, but it’s spooky. Let’s consider what these minds can do.

Have you ever known a child who didn’t draw, or play with dolls, or use objects to create an imaginary world? “This is the doctor, and she lives on the boat with her duck, but sometimes she uses the rocket ship to go places.” These activities of children just sounds normal, right? It’s what humans do. Every human is creative.

Nevertheless, in the societies that we’ve constructed, we have managed to devise a world in which some people think they are not creative. All humans create, even if they do not write novels or symphonies or bake cakes that look like movie stars. It is a basic aspect of being human.

In my discussion here, what is creativity? You may not write a novel, but you’ve spent your life telling yourself stories, imagining things that you wish would happen (and I don’t just mean, you know, stuff you don’t want to tell anybody). Your mind pictures something that does not completely exist in the physical world, and the thing you think of exists in your disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space (your mind). That’s creativity, the same idea that every religion attributes to whatever gods they worship, from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god to Hindu Brahman to ancient Egyptian Ra. From thought comes existence.

Yet there is a difference among people, or there appears to be, in the intensity with which they pursue creativity. If creativity allows us to escape the prison of physical life, maybe some people have a greater desire to escape. In other instances, creativity is probably not about escape, but about expression. Something inside has to get out, I just gotta dance!

I feel it myself, the compulsion to make something appear where nothing was. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, to look at the blankness of a page and wonder what should be there. It’s interesting to ponder, since creativity is basic to human thinking, why someone chooses a particular way of creating over another way. I feel driven to write, and another person feels driven to build birdhouses.

The first answer that comes to my mind is that it’s because we discover we’re good at something. I would love to be a musician, for instance, but I think I’m not good at it, so I don’t pursue it. And yet I’ve known some craaaaaapy writers, who really loved to write. So maybe we’re drawn to particular forms of creativity for mysterious reasons, like so much of life. It’s a mystery, like our minds.

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I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

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I See That Candy Hidden in Your Pocket

SupermanThursday morning I woke up lying on the floor, chocolate smeared across my face, with dozens of candy wrappers lying all around me. But hey, we’ve all been there. The day after Halloween, right?

This year for Halloween, even though spirits of the dead were walking the earth (granted, many of them less than four feet tall), I decided I would be brave and give out candy whenever they came to my door. So I bought several bags and poured them in a bowl, which I set by the door. I was ready to distribute sugar to the dead. Or to SpongeBob SquarePants. Or princesses.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman,” he said. “I promised Robin I’d get him some candy. He’s in the car.” I looked around Batman and there was the Batmobile sitting by the curb.

I said, “Uhhhh,” and Batman said, “Yeah, look, just put it in the bag here.” So I did.

The next knock on the door, I opened up and only one person was there, a grown woman in a skimpy red and blue outfit with stars and more sequins than I expected. I said, “Are you—”

“Wonder Woman,” she said. “And you know what, I’ll skip the candy. I mean, all that sugar is incredibly unhealthy, right? But it’s kind of cold out here, and this outfit…this is just stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m half naked.”

“Let me get you an old sweater,” I said, and I gave her that.

The next couple of knocks on the door were normal children, or tiny dead people, I’m not sure. Then I opened up and a grown man was there wearing a straw hat, dark blue overalls, heavy boots with mud on them, and a skin-tight gold shirt. “Who are you?” I said.

“Farmboy,” he said. “A superhero.”

I looked at him kind of suspicious. “I never heard of you.”

“I’m not as well known as the others, but I protect against insect pests, in addition to leaf blight, root rot, and powdery mildew. Trick or treat.” He held out a burlap bag.

What was I going to do? I didn’t want him to pull a trick and put powdery mildew on my azaleas, so I gave him candy.

No more superheroes seemed to be showing up after that, which was OK with me. Eventually I ran out of candy and I made some popcorn balls and started giving those out. Late in the evening, though, there was a real loud knock, and Superman was standing there.

He held out a bag and said, “Trick or treat, man,” which he kind of mumbled.

I gave him two popcorn balls, but he looked down in the bag and said, “What the hell?” I explained that I was out of candy, but he told me he hated popcorn and was going to give me a trick for not having candy. The trick was that he turned back time.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman.”

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I want to thank everyone who reads this blog, those who have been reading from years ago as well as new readers who have recently subscribed. I truly appreciate that you give me some of your time to read it. I’ve been writing the blog now for around six years or more, posting once a week. As you can imagine, such an endeavor has been quite a lot of work, not to mention that I also have to work for a living (goddamnit), plus I write novels when I can. At the end of this year I am going to take a break, so these regular weekly posts will continue through November and December.

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Next Question?

Book of Latin words

I’m writing a press release

Not long ago I saw a quote from a politician, or maybe from one of their word puppets, saying they would “not comment on a hypothetical question”. What that phrase means—always, every time you hear it from now until the Apocalypse—is “If I say anything on that topic, everyone will recognize that what I said is stupid and offensive.”

Another way of saying the same thing is “Since I don’t want to be honest, I prefer to hide behind a big Latin word like hypothetical.”

In this case, the word is being used not in reference to the scientific method,* considering a hypothesis of what might be true and then testing to find out. In the diminished, cretinous political usage, hypothetical means “hasn’t happened yet”.

But of course politicians do “comment on hypothetical questions” all day long. When they run for office, if they aren’t busy telling us that their opponent wants to kill baby lambs, when they’re talking about what they’re going to do if they get elected, then they’re talking and talking and talking—let me catch my breath for a moment—and talking about what they will do in situations that haven’t happened yet.

And ha ha!, if you do elect them, then by God, they won’t answer your questions. They’ll call them hypothetical and pretend it’s just not worth their trouble to respond.

Refusing to answer questions is such a basic aspect of political speech that we not only expect it, we just shrug our shoulders. It’s what they do, hah? If you’ve ever listened to a politician being questioned by a journalist, then you’ve heard a person totally ignore the question and instead say whatever random shit they want. It is rare, if it even happens at all, for a journalist to stop cold and say, “Wait. You didn’t answer my question. It’s completely pointless to ask you anything else.”

And it is rare, if it even happens at all, for TV viewers or readers to stop cold and say, “Wait. This journalist didn’t do their job. They allowed the politician to sleaze by with a bunch of noise and never actually answer the question.”

The politician did, however, use a big Latin word. And that’s cool, yeah?

If we are getting trash and lies and deliberate refusal to communicate from our politicians, it is because we’re OK with that. Do you demand clarity and honesty from the politicians who you agree with, as well as from those bastards who you don’t like?

Here are some basic facts of human psychology: 1) We do not like to be embarrassed or punished. 2) Sometimes, nevertheless, we will do things or at least want to do things that will cause us to be embarrassed or punished. 3) If we are forced to talk honestly about these things, we will suffer for it. 4) If we can’t get out of talking, we try to hide or avoid the topic. Even a four-year-child knows to do this.

These basic facts will be the same even a thousand years from now. Politicians—strange as it is on occasion to think so—are human beings, and like other human beings, if they think they will suffer for telling the truth, they will try to hide or avoid the topic, if we let them.

The difference is, they want power over our lives. And if we give them power, then let them refuse to communicate honestly, we deserve it.

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* I certainly don’t mean to imply that these illiterate buffoons would actually know what the scientific method is. Or what “science” is. Or what a “school” is.

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