Archives for the month of: November, 2013

I am making a meal tonight that my mother would without a doubt enjoy and remember. And my mother is not a foodie. She hates to cook and isn’t interested in restaurants which partially explains why she lives primarily on the simple and healthy things like good bread, yogurt, vegetables, and fruit. But this meal she would enjoy.

On my way back from breakfast I wandered through the butchers’ section and saw a man slicing up a large cow’s liver. Whenever I see him cutting liver it is a key indicator that the freshest of the fresh had just arrived that morning. This man cuts but doesn’t sell so I stepped around the corner and asked the next butcher for half a kilo.

He surprised me by pulling a plastic bag off the lower end of a hanging bunch of offal that included the heart, lungs, and liver of a young calf. He cut a quarter of the liver off and then sliced it into to thin pieces. Cost? 10 pesos ($0.80) for what quite possibly could be the best, unquestionably the freshest, and quite likely the most succulent liver I’ve ever bought.

Liver and onions. Better – calf’s liver and onions. The stuff of childhood. Poor people’s food. Grandma food. Country food. Food that doesn’t much exist anymore in the United States. And this is comfort food of the first order; food to make one weep. And so I wish you were here with me tonight mom because I know how much you would enjoy this because it was you who taught me about the simple pleasure of this humble dish.

So how to prepare it? As simple as it sounds. I am going to first saute some onions in a little butter then slide in the liver and cook it until it’s barely done and then serve it with a crunchy baguette, and a bitter salad of greens, purslane, and sliced spring onions.

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I’m not, which is too bad because the Christmas celebration starts tomorrow; early. Very early. In fact too early which is part of the problem.

There is no doubt that I will be blasted out of bed long before daylight by surround sound fireworks. And not the little stuff oh no, it will be the big howitzer class rockets because tomorrow is an important day here in Mexico. December 1st is the kick off for the 12 Days of Christmas.

There will be massive amounts of ordnance shot from 4 different cathedrals that coincidentally lie on all 4 compass cardinal points; meaning I am surrounded.The closest church being 2 blocks to the west and the furthest two being 6 blocks to the north and south.

In conjunction there will be a parade up my street at 5:30 am. Not a procession mind you but a parade. Processions I perceive as generally quiet affairs while parades have things like marching bands. This all happens at 5:30 because it is important that they arrive at the Sanctuario no later than 6 am.

This parade will have upwards of a thousand people, at least three bands, and anywhere from 50 to 100 men on horseback. There is even drinking involved; especially by the cowboys. I know I couldn’t imagine being on horseback at dark-thirty without a bottle of tequila to fight off the pre-dawn chill.

The area just wrapped up 8 days of celebration last week that had bullfights over in Jiquilpan on the 20th, Mexican masked wrestling in the local arena on the 22nd, and live mariachis in the plaza every afternoon and evening to celebrate St. Cecelia; the patron saint of music.

Fiestas are serious business here. The St. Cecelia Fiesta was preceded by the Day of the Dead Fiesta that climaxed on November 2nd. I can’t remember the fiesta before the Day of the Dead; fiestas just kind of all run together.

Christmas doesn’t end until February 7th when the life sized nativity scene finally gets taken down in the plaza. I can’t imagine anything more cool than being a little kid in Mexico; a place where Christmas is 2 months long. There will be daily activities and parades throughout those 2 months. Every trade from carpenter to shopkeeper has their own parade day. I might march with the huaracheros this year. I was invited to last year but I considered myself too much of a newbie then to be worthy.

As a grouchy old gringo bastard I personally dread both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There are street parties with music that go on until 6 am. Everybody participates; it’s tradition. Imagine if you will people camped in front of your house with a fire going in the street, cooking food, drinking tequila and playing music all freaking night long.

It’s almost 7 am and the sun is finally coming up although it won’t crest the mountain for another half hour. The sky is tangerine colored with streaks of blue and orange. I like this time of day. The only sounds are church bells, roosters and the occasional dog or two

Breakfast is an hour away. I am thinking pork short ribs in mole sauce, frijoles, and tortillas fresh off the grill.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Cheers. msg

Ah, Mexico.

Forensic technicians search for human remains in a mass grave on the banks of the Lerma river in La Barca. Photograph: Alejandro Acosta/ReutersForensic technicians search for human remains in a mass grave on the banks of the Lerma river in La Barca. Photograph: Alejandro Acosta/Reuters

At least 33 mutilated corpses have been found buried in an area of western Mexico where drug cartels are battling each other, officials said on Friday, the latest in a series of grisly finds amid a scourge of gang-related violence.

The bodies, which showed signs of torture, were found in 19 ditches in La Barca, on the border between the states of Michoacan and Jalisco, where a clutch of rival cartels operate.

Experts began searching the area based on comments from 25 municipal police who were detained, accused of links to criminal organisations. Some of them had said corpses of people killed by rival gangs were dumped in the area.

“It looks like a minefield … The excavations have been carried out based on the declarations of the detained police,” an official at the attorney general’s office told Reuters, declining to be identified for security reasons.

“We haven’t ruled out that there could be more bodies.”

Mexico has suffered from a wave of drug-related violence, with about 1,000 people a month dying in gangland killings. About 80,000 people have died since 2007 in cartel violence.

President Enrique Pena Nieto has sought to shift the focus away from drug violence that dominated his predecessor’s term and onto economic reforms he is seeking to push through Congress.

Pena Nieto vowed to focus on reducing violent crime and extortion rather than going head to head with drug bosses. However, the steady stream of killings has continued unabated.

Reuters

The skies here in NW Michoacan have this almost daily drama with these spectacular sunsets (mostly dry season) and spectacular sunrises (predominantly wet season). I should be ashamed to say that I have – minimum – a couple of hundred photos of sunrises/sunsets taken from my 3rd floor terrace.

In the 3-4 week gap between seasons; it is possible to get both spectacular sunrises and spectacular sunsets.

These two photos are both of the same sunset (albeit looking at the clouds to the NE) that was kicking off 5 minutes ago.

I don’t know if I could do 6 months of hard winter again (N.Michigan) or 6 months of gray rainy season (N. California) especially after having witnessed this climate.

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Part of last night’s sunset:

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A couple of night’s ago. Thirty minutes before sunset:

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Electronically speaking, I am way out in the proverbial woods in more ways than one. I live in Mexico and all my devices from phone to laptop are reaching their end of life.My Nexus One (the original Google phone) will be 4 years old in January and its battery, if nothing else, is only a few months away from failing. My 10″ Lenovo netbook (great keyboard) is the same age and now makes grinding noises on power up.

I am returning to the states for a brief visit next month so it is imperative that I replace a few items while I am there to take advantage of the lower prices and better availability of the higher end stuff.

There are a couple of problems however. I can’t seem to find either the right phone or the right laptop that I want at the right price points.

Regarding the laptop, there are the cheap and light chromebooks but they fail my selection criteria because their design proposition presumes 100% connectivity and cloud-computing. At the other end of the spectrum, the ultrabooks fail because they are just too damned expensive (and who wants some hybrid Windows 8 device anyway?). And the smaller, more traditional netbooks don’t make the grade because they are [still] too damned underpowered.

Phones. Too many problems [for me] with companies like Samsung selling so many phone products that have just enough differentiations to be majorly annoying which makes it too easy to buy the wrong phone (outdated specs) and still pay the big asking price.

What [ideally] do I want in a phone? Dual SIMs, dual core (not quad), Android 4.3, NFC, expandable with a decent amount of memory, and of course the latest version of bluetooth.

What do I want in a laptop? Small form factor  10″ – 12″, light, dual or quad core, Windows 7 – 64 bit, traditional and easy accessible hardrive, and RAM to at least 4 Gb.

So what am I going to buy? Phone? – nothing for another 6 months. I will buy a replacement battery as insurance for my Nexus One ($10 from Amazon) and try to keep it going in the mean time. Laptop? – nothing for right now. I have a bootable mirror-imaged hard drive for my netbook in standby so it will be an easy fix when the present one makes its lastly grinding noise and fails.

But I am going to do a stop-gap by purchasing a 7″ tablet – the newest Nexus 7 32Gb LTE that does support NFC and USB OTG. It also has GSM phone infrastructure built into it but doesn’t make calls (why Google?). The 4G LTE piece is ostensibly for data but who really knows because Google isn’t talking. Will a newer version of Android (4.5?) provide a dialer? I mean do they really expect people to buy a separate SIM (and data plan) for this tablet or do they expect people to move their existing SIM from their phone to tablet to phone? The good news, while the 32Gb Nexus 7 is unexpandable via micro-SD, it does support USB OTG; which theoretically anyway seems to be much better. And it supports NFC; which I think is going to become increasingly more important as we roll into the future.

Oh, and I am buying a cheap bluetooth QWERTY keyboard to use with this new tablet. A man’s got to be able to blog, right?

This story showed up in the Latin American Herald Tribune (a Caracas newspaper) this morning. It is a story about more of the same violence. The local bad guys, Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) cartel, continues to fight a 3-front war against the rival bad guys to the north – the Jalisco Nueva Generacion (New Generation), the vigilantes, and the federal police.

These 20 found dead are not part of the same body count of the 25 people that were murdered in my area (Sahuayo, Michoacan) between Oct. 27th and Nov.11th.

I have 2 recent related posts (Oct. 27th) ‘The bad guys turned out the lights’ and ‘News from the Belly of Mexico’ (Nov. 11th) about events that either precede or parallel this particular story.

No one that I talk to locally have any idea what’s going to happen next except to say that no one sees an end to the violence in sight.

20 Bodies Found in Mexico During Search for Kidnapped Cops

MEXICO CITY – Authorities found the remains of 20 people distributed among eight clandestine graves while they were searching for two federal police who went missing earlier this month in the western state of Michoacan, sources in the Mexican Attorney General’s Office told Efe.

Neither of the missing agents is among the dead, the sources said.

Some of the victims were bound and gagged and bore signs of torture, while most of them sported tattoos.

In the early hours Friday the cops announced they had found 16 bodies, but updated the number hours later after finding the remains of another four.

“A total of 20 bodies have been discovered up to now during the work of excavating the eight graves,” the sources told Efe.

Authorities suspect the 20 bodies belong to “people who have some tie or relation” to gangland strife in Michoacan, one source said, referring to clashes between the rival Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) crime outfits.

Rene Rojas Marquez and Gabriel Quijadas Santiago, both investigators with the AG’s office, went missing Nov. 3 while on assignment in Michoacan.

Superiors lost contact with the agents while the two men were traveling in an official vehicle, which was later found burned.

More than a score of municipal police officers and three civilians are in custody in connection with the disappearance of the federal investigators.

Based on the statements from the suspects, the AG’s office believes Rojas and Quijano were arrested by corrupt cops who then handed them over to cartel gunmen.

The AG’s office has doubled the size of the contingent looking for the kidnapped agents.

Michoacan is one of the states where the federal government is focusing its security operations because of the strong presence of drug traffickers.

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A modern brick by and large is not a very exciting thing. And a pile of bricks are probably a nuisance; an obstruction or at the very least an eyesore. And in the developed west, brick is ignored or maybe in some minor way still appreciated by a few for the beauty that they bring to the façade of mostly older homes, schools, churches, and libraries. Brick used in this nonstructural way is an attractive but costly alternative to less expensive options like PVC siding and as such must be amortized over many years to realize the financial benefit.

A Mexican brickmaker gave me the cost lowdown on locally made brick. He told me that 20 years ago a brick cost 2 pesos and a kilo of tortillas cost 2 pesos. Now, tortillas cost 18 pesos per kilo while a brick still costs 2 pesos.

The fundamentals of brickmaking here in Mexico is this: mix clay mud with cheap binder like sand, shovel the wet muck in 8 brick molds, let dry in the sun, then stack them over a some burnable energy source, then torch it and then keep the fire going for the better part of a day. And all that work for a measly 2 pesos per brick. I don’t know what it costs to make an adobe brick these days because nobody builds with adobe anymore at least not here where the fired bricks are so cheap and plentiful.

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In 2000 BC, 14,400 mud bricks cost the equivalent of just 504 fired bricks. The cost ratio gradually improved to where, by 600 BC the cost difference was down to a factor of 2X – 5X. But those were building bricks – structural – and the added strength that came from firing the brick was a justifiable cost given the improvement in compressive strength. Quite probably unbeknownst to the builder, but viewed historically, this improvement was important for the advancement of civilization. And the co-development of architectural structures with more complex shapes and larger sizes were in large part due to the bootstrap of ancillary technologies like science and engineering but still predicated on advances in the [material] sciences of mortar and concrete.  For example, the Pantheon in Rome constructed in the 2nd century AD stood with the largest dome for 13 centuries. That is singularly very important architecturally. To support a dome of that diameter (43 meters) speaks volumes about the technological prowess of the Romans.

The modern use of brick as a true building material isn’t realized until one steps into the developing world. Here in places like Mexico one can still see the full spectrum of its true use as a structural material. In Mexico (and Peru and others) architecturally speaking, the 16th century sits along side both the modern as well as the ancient. The structures broken down to their least common denominators; no matter the historical index point – be it 3500 BC, 1600 AD, or the present – are those ever present  commonalities of brick, mortar, and concrete. The only differences are that the specific material compositions are dependant on where the building happens to be on the historical timeline. But make no mistake; these simple [yet improvingly more complex] materials were the instrumental technologies that enabled the building of every single civilization on the planet.

And there is both an art and science to bricklaying and a skilled mason can make walls with wonderfully pleasing geometries that contain great strength. Brick is beautiful. They are texturally pleasing and possess warm earthy color components. And believe it or not, a bucket of wet mortar smells good: earthy with middle notes of chalk and lime.

Bricks are practical. They are the real world version of the Lego’s toys; except formless. If you can imagine it; you can build it.

A brick is satisfying. It’s nice to hold a brick in your hand. They’re heavy which somehow maps to trustworthy in another part of our brain. Some get that patina over time that makes us temporarily forget about the scarier side of aging like entropy, decay and death.

And they’re versatile in non-building ways too. You can stack them and put things on them like books or rusted out old cars. I used the one in the picture to break into my house by smashing the 3rd floor glass in the otherwise securely locked iron door (the key was on the other side of the glass).

When I was nineteen I worked for a blocklayer and my job consisted of moving tons and tons of concrete blocks from one pile to another; all by hand of course. Another summer I helped pour concrete slabs and driveways. In ’99 I built a house where I did a lot of the foundation work myself. So I have some proverbial skin in the game when it comes to the use of these materials.

Over time my appreciation has widened as I traveled and was privileged to marvel over some of the great buildings and monuments of antiquity. I began to ask questions and look for the answers to things like how are those things put together? What makes them stand up? And just what is the history of mortar, concrete and brick?

A beautiful and interestingly comprehensive book on the use of these and other indigenous building materials can be found in ‘Built by Hand’ by Eiko Komatsu. It is picture book that shows the world wide use of brick and some wonderful examples of the creative architecture that has been wrested from such an amorphous material. One doesn’t need to be a student of art history or architecture to see what modern thinking reaffirms; that these building materials are inexpensive, widely available and highly adaptive. So, at one level – from the reasoning to the diverse applications and practices; little has changed in six thousand years.

I see exposed brick almost every waking minute of every day and most of it isn’t pretty but damned if I haven’t fallen in love with it’s most splendid utilitarian nature. The lead character for my second novel (same as my first) is a master structural engineer who for reasons developed in my first story bails out of his career in his ‘40s to explore alternatives, eventually moving to Ecuador where he among other things builds an adobe house.

Most of the story line for the first novel takes placer in Peru and over the course of several trips to country I became slightly obsessed with the pre-conquest architecture; as in, how did they do what they did. I actually read an entire book just on the civil engineering works at Macho Picchu. Some US university civil engineering program sponsored a field study trip then published the book. And I read it without yawning [even once] because to truly understand what the Inca engineers did was mind-blowing in its absolute thoroughness. Impeccable work. Without the underlying civil infrastructure: maintaining slope for drainage, creating deep gravel  foundations for water management, and all the other cool things that they did, there probably wouldn’t exist the pristinely preserved UNESCO World Heritage site as we know it today.

I read somewhere along the way that the Incas were the Romans of South America. And the Roman’s were the master builders of the world for 600 years. Roman Legion’s were composed not just of soldiers but engineers as well. If you were conquered by the Roman’s then chances are you got new plumbing in the way of a better water system, new roads and other technological accoutrements that served to turn front line barbarians into citizens of the empire. A great example that is largely unknown is that the Romans’ teraformed a vast portion of the northern Sahara Desert which they did through a series of wells and aqueducts with secondary and tertiary water distribution systems. And they maintained those reclaimed desert areas until something like 300 AD.

So when I started writing my second novel I felt that the story had to have some component of building construction as a character. As Ridley Scott said, ‘The landscape in a western is one of the most important characters that the film has. The best western is about a man against his own landscape’. And I liked that and decided to apply it. Paul starts building with no more than a shovel. He has the experience of designing the supportive cores of skyscrapers but he quickly discovers that those skills are just as useless as the availability of modern tools are scarce.

He’s 5 miles from town and there are only 4 miles of road. The terrain is harsh: rock, river, dense vegetation and steep mountains.  At some point out of frustration he makes fun of himself and says, ‘One man, one shovel, one wheelbarrow doesn’t amount to more than 10 or 12 hours of labor for any given day no matter how skillfully they’re applied’.

So I decided part of my story was to parachute this modern character into a technological primitive world. I also wanted to create a character with all of those admirable DIY characteristics; a refresh if you will on Heinlein’s legacy of man as a most capable and multi-disciplined life-form‘where specialization is for insects’. I wanted a tool-wielding man-of-action, who was at heart a problem solver. Not some stupid McGyver bullshit thing but instead taking a more composite view of the single biggest takeway skill of engineering; namely that of problem solving. The most rudimentary form being, break a single big problem up into several smaller problems.

In my humble opinion, structural engineers are the ‘Guys’. You can’t get an undergraduate degree in structural engineering; it’s master’s program only because of the specialization. Life or death kind of stuff. Big liability stuff; f***up once big time and your career is over kind of thing. Structural engineering is one of those professions that still has integrity. Where there is still accountability. A structural engineer can’t hide behind things like bad numbers because numbers don’t lie. And where making things that prematurely break still means something.

And so, because I know even less about structural engineering than I do about civil engineering – or adobe for that matter – I was forced to do some research into the area if for no other reason but to learn the principles and history of building with brick, with adobe being the most ancient.

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The rest to follow are my notes from handwritten paper. I thought it might be useful to see this summary of the history of bricks against a back drop of some of the other related information that I am also currently writing about. Like the recent post I did called ‘Anatomy of a wall’ where the photo showed exposed adobe bricks where the concrete stucco wore away due to combined forces of weather and neglect. The ‘5 Heads in a Sack’ post had a long paragraph or two on brick-making as it is done in this Mexican valley in the present age with the observation that it hasn’t changed locally in millennia with one possible exception. The fuel sources that the brickmakers use to fire the brick are inventive and extremely cost conscious. It is not unusual for local brickmakers to reclaim the energy from the unused hydrocarbons locked in old tires. After witnessing an example of such I remind myself that ‘in Mexico you are free’; my mantra for when witnessing extreme environmentally or sentient-being unfriendly shit. I further remind myself, ‘you take the good with the bad’. And you can’t change world by shouting at people or throwing your body on a heap of burning tires. Or maybe you can, but I leave that for majorly more eco-sensitive persons than myself.

I also did a post called ‘Architecture of the Inca’, which followed on after the one called ‘House Building’ where I recollected the filled cinder block chimney that I built back in ’99. I didn’t mention in that particular post about all the design and other work that went into structurally supporting that 60 ton/45 foot tall chunk of concrete that stuck up through the center of my house. Just a note: the foundations for the interior load-bearing walls were poured as the same time as the slab and the chimney foundation. Re-enforcing steel bars (rebar) tied everything together. I dug the foundations and both designed and personally placed and tied all the rebar together by myself. The rebar and the single concrete pour insured that the respective foundations were made monolith and integrated with the immense surface area of the slab. This design foreshortened the possibilities of the walls settling or the chimney tipping over or sinking towards the center of the earth. You only have to see something like that grand 16th century Metropolitan Cathedral that is/was sinking on the edge of the main plaza (zocalo) in Mexico City to realize just how important it is to get the civil/structural engineering pieces right. Foundations are one-shot propositions and there are no do-overs, giant erasers, or delete keys.

So for me the study of the history of brick was about tying together all the incomplete information that had been bouncing around in my head into some sort of historical summary that captured the major milestones where the technology got an uptick. And yes, bricks, brick-making, mortar, and cement are all technologies. Understanding them historically is a peek through yet another window into understanding the rise and development of civilization.

Another side note: I did all of my reading and research in two of my most favorite places in the world; the Reading Room in The Library of Congress and the second floor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, both in Washington, DC. If you are interested in the subject of brick I heartily recommend ‘Brick: A World History’ by Campbell and Price.

My brick notes: The technology of fired brick first appeared on the historical scene in 3500 BC. In order for a brick to vitrify (a chemical reaction that makes the brick harder and stronger) it must be heated to a temperature of 900 – 1150°C for 8 – 15 hours.

All bricks are made from clay and the chemistry of clay is very complex and because the composition of clay varies by geography it made the understanding of clay even more complicated. Clays contain traces of oxidized metals that respond well with silica’s and other compounds to long firing times and in the doing create chemically strong bonds that makes for a better load bearing brick.

The predecessor to fired-brick was air-dried brick generally known by many as adobe. The percentage of clay determines the properties for both air-dried and fired-brick. Air-dried bricks are made from a clay containing mud and mixed with straw and other locally available material to give it strength.

Ancient walls were immensely thick due in part to the fact walls of half a brick in thickness were not sufficiently strong enough to support more than their own weight. Bricklayers strove to lay their bricks in such a way to create the strongest wall possible. The modern term ‘bonding’ speaks to the various patterns to which walls are constructed by way of alternating what bricklayers call headers and stretchers. Header bricks lie perpendicular to the face of the wall while stretchers are laid parallel.

Mortar, like brick, is another technology that has evolved over time. The earliest mortars were no more than mud daubs. But as the Stone Age was overtaken by the Bronze Age and technology of hotter fires evolved so did the chemistry of creating stronger and more resilient and binding building materials.

The first evidence of a mortar of any sophistication was found in the ziggurat of Sialk built in Iran in 2900 BC. The technology of mortar had improved by the time the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids were built 300 years later. Those early Egyptian architects and engineers used a combination of mud and clay or clay and sand for their limestone constructions. Later pyramids were mortared with combinations of gypsum, clays, or lime and sand.

The next evidence of the technology improving again was with the Greeks in 500 BC when they began adding volcanic ash to a purer form of lime then after which adding sand thus creating the first hydraulic cement. A hydraulic cement is one that can cure underwater just like today’s Portland cement. So with the Greeks came both the earliest use of concrete – where concrete was made from a slurry of cement, aggregate, and water – and the related use of creating stronger mortars by way of cement mixed with sand.

The Romans built from the work of the earlier Greeks by using an improved chemistry which added crushed terra cotta, aluminum oxide and silicon dioxide into the mix.

It’s interesting to note that the technology of cement, so widely used in the Greek and Roman worlds was then lost for the better part of 2 millennia where even as late as the Middle Ages, Gothic cathedrals were being constructed with only lime based mortars.

The technology was eventually reclaimed but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that modern day Portland cement was invented and patented. Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC) as it’s known today is the result of a closely controlled formulation of calcium, silicon, aluminum, and iron and trace amounts of other elements crushed and then heated together before gypsum is added in the final grinding process to regulate the setting time of the concrete.

Concrete doesn’t dry; it cures. Curing involves an exothermic reaction called hydration where water is subsumed in the reaction. Hydration is the combination of several complex reactions with some occurring concurrently.

So, for me to write from the knowledgeable perspective of my lead character I needed to have some historical basis of understanding of the underlying technology of the adobe he was using in his house building. Why did Paul use air-dried brick rather than the more superior fired-brick? And contrast that answer with why adobe, generally speaking, is with more expensive to build with these days in a place like Mexico? Fortunately I can now comfortably answer those questions and in the doing write a more credible story where building and problem solving are in themselves a minor character in the story that I want to tell.

I just shipped a pair of these.

These are the latest and I am personally very happy with them.

We made a couple of changes. The whole stay on your foot thing (a problem inherent to clogs) is fixed and we tried some new leathers, so that upped the quality a bit.

The recycled airplane tire sole  – which we use with all of our sandals (and shoes) – means long wearing footware.

And last but not least, the special midsole delivers long lasting comfort.

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I thought to use this title sometime back, stealing in equal parts from both Dostoevsky and Zola. Today the title seemed apropos for more than one reason.

Food. I just celebrated Super Menudo Sunday at Maria’s with a big bowl of spicy, chewy, gelatinous goodness and fresh tortillas hot off the grill. I went to a birthday party last night and had a couple of pickled pig’s feet and had a big helping of the most outrageous jello concoction that I have ever seen in my life. It had 6 different fresh fruits layered into it, including star fruit. The jello/gelatin piece was clear and transparent which really showed off the fruit. This was very much different from the jello and canned fruit concoctions that I grew up on as a child.

Another food tale, also with a childhood origin. I made my first batch of pickled pig’s feet (manos de puerco) 2 days ago. I picked up the habit as a little kid from my mother but never actually made them until now. So we did 2 kilos worth which I’ll split today with the woman who lives 6 doors down who came up and showed me how. The most interesting ingredient apart from the lovely little pig’s feet is that the principle brine ingredient is freshly made vinagre de pina (pineapple vinegar). We only had to walk 4 doors up and cross the street to buy 2 liters of it (12 pesos) from a lady who makes the stuff in her house. I got to hold her very cute 8 month old baby girl while we waited. Don’t you agree that holding a healthy, happy, and recently changed baby has to be one of the most life affirming and joyful activities in the world?

Maribelen sat next to me at the table and I got to listen to her rather breathless catch up and introductory descriptions for all of the 26 family members that were present for her birthday party. I was the only non-family member there. I extricated myself early with the white lie of a prior dinner invitation so that the celebration could have more of that family kind of intimacy.

After I left the birthday party I stopped into Pancho’s cantina for a night cap. The place was less than a quarter full. Other than Pancho, Chelis, the big carnitas guy, was the only person I knew in the place. I caught up on some gossip most principle of which is that 25 people have been killed locally in the last 2 weeks since the Saturday night (Oct. 27th) that the bad guys turned out the lights; a story which I reported on a few posts ago.

Incredible. That’s 25 dead people. Local dead people. Local murdered dead people. I asked Pancho again, ’25 people? Are you sure’? He arched an eyebrow and peered over his reading glasses and said, ’25 are just the ones that I know about’.

He went on to say that no one – especially those with any serious money – were going out in the evening. Everyone was drinking at home, maybe having a buddy or two over but that was it. No one was out after dark. My sphincter shriveled to the size of a pore as I realized it would be a long dark walk home from the cantina.

Same players; same old story: the bad guys from the Jalisco shooting it out with the local bad guys. I asked Pancho, ‘So where does it go from here? They hand-grenade the local power plants? How do you top that? Okay, you kill a bunch of the other bad guys? But what’s next’?

His answer was an enigmatic shrug meaning who knows?

And one of my juice guys died last week. He was only 29 years old. Apparently he fell (how/where?) and hit his head. I liked him and a lot of other people felt the same way. He was a hard worker with a positive attitude who delivered a good product at a reasonable price. He’ll be missed.

My right heel and right Achilles’ tendon are majorly messed up. I went in and got the thing x-rayed (30 minutes/320 pesos) 8 days ago. The x-ray revealed an improperly -becoming mostly un – healed old fracture in the end of my heel. It happened a long time ago. It must have because I don’t remember it. When is anyone’s best guess but I am thinking it must have happened somewhere between happy hour and dinner.

The tendon wraps over this trauma and the Achilles’ chronic inflammation- a nonrelated problem-  has been putting pressure on the poorly healed fracture and in the process, making it worse too. So I limped around for 2 weeks before finally giving into the nagging reality of the pain. The doctor gave me some steroid based anti-inflammatory/muscle relaxant stuff.  Giant horse capsules that I need to choke down for another 2 weeks. The stuff is so powerful that it is typically only prescribed to people with the worst and most debilitating kinds of rheumatoid arthritis. The good news is that the swelling in my heel has dropped 50%.

The bad news is that I’ve had to significantly shorten the cocktail hour as I was fearful that my liver wouldn’t be able to stand the added competition. I reckoned that my liver, the fearsome organ that it has been for all of the these years – quietly and heroically breaking down the alcohols from anything from tequila and beer to soju and fermented cat piss  – just might not be to task with a bio-mass adjusted toxicity equivalent of adding a truck load of powerful pharmaceuticals into the mix. I am still going pro at this point and liver failure would permanently upend my future drinking career. Sigh.

And if that wasn’t bad enough – I also obviously can’t run. And to not run is to be something less than my usual monster self. And I am kind of seeing a woman now (we’ll leave that story for another day) and the whole not running thing is majorly screwing with my mojo.

Yesterday turned into a very social day. I ran into Minerva, my favorite mom, in front of the Inglesia while waiting for Manolo who I was meeting for breakfast. She surprised me with an impromptu invitation to her eldest daughter’s 15th birthday party at 6 pm. I was momentarily panicked as I had no idea what to buy as a gift. But who would turn down an invitation to see the two of the cutest girls in the world? There was Maribelen and then her impish and adorable 8 year old sister, Jimena.

I ran into Sergio a little bit later as I on my way down Calle Victoria. He shouted at me from his car as he was pulling out of his mother’s house. He had his 18 year old daughter with him. He told me to hop in. I wanted to go to the modern super-mercado to shop for a gift. We made a stop at his son’s school to watch a couple of minutes of his son’s soccer match before a brief stop off at his house so he could change for his own soccer game. Sergio deftly handed off the task of gift shopping for Maribelen to his wife and daughter and they promised to drop off the gift in a couple of hours.

I ended up at Manolo’s big, sprawling house in one of the gated suburbs to help him configure his new Window’s tablet while his maid fixed lunch. True to their word, the gift(s) got dropped off before the end of lunch and I was relieved that I no longer needed to worry about the whole present thing. Only a mom or another 15 year old girl knows what a 15 year old girl wants for her birthday.

My neighborhood is gradually becoming more personal as I get to know more people. My Spanish is definitely on the uptick as I am using it more and more with people in day to day situations. I stop and pet the white Chihuahua, Estrella (Star) and talk to tiny Carol every afternoon.  Then there is Carol’s grandfather; the Mexican version of the Keebler’s elf who doesn’t talk so much as uses sign language. His wife and I generally ignore one another in spite of the fact that she tends tiny Carol a good part of the time. She quite frankly unnerves me with her evil right eye that points orthogonally to the other.

Then there are all the other people on the street that I talk to as well. The juice lady, and her husband, Pelon. His brother, Jesus who lives a couple more doors down. Then there is the lady that works at the lavenderia. Jose who lives next door to that. The carpenter 2 more doors down. The guys in the barbershops. (Men still hangout in barbershops here and they still use the old fashioned straight razors). And I buy compost and periodically talk to the plant genius, Jesus who tends after all the greenery in the plaza.

And then there are also the people I see every morning in the Mercado. And I see some of the same and sometimes even more in the afternoon if I happen to wander into the Mercado again.

These interactions all happen within 4 short blocks of one small city tucked into the northwest corner of Michoacán. As I write these words, I perceive an opera with people singing and shouting out their daily lives from the streets and rooftops of a neighborhood that is becoming a little bit more mine every day. And I am personally witness to the fact that there’s sufficient music and drama here to power even the most epic of operas.