Saturday, July 29, 2006

Among the Jalapeños

After a few days in Xalapa (the Spanish sort of renamed it "Jalapa," or perhaps co-named is more like it since both names are ubiquitously and interchangeably used) I feel like I'm finally starting to unwind. A little.

It's hard not to feel better when the air is cool and clean and views alternate between nearby mountains, colonial architecture, and narrow streets filled with vibrant pedestrian traffic. And the food! Boy, let me tell you folks here can cook, and the best food frequently comes dirt cheap in the market stalls, where 25 pesos (a little less than $2.50 American, at current exchange rates), will get you a three course menu with an agua fresca, which is essentially any kind of juice you can think mixed with water and sugar - think lemondade with oranges, papaya, mango, etc..

For breakfast, though, we've been migrating back to a place that's clearly a local central city favorite, La Paroquilla, where the white-coated waiters pour cafe con leche from two steaming hot pots -- one with strong local coffee (from the neighboring village of Coatepec), and one with hot milk. This morning's breakfast was a brilliant version of poached eggs in a wonderful chicken-broth base. Tomato, onion, spinach, and jalapeño peppers flavored the broth, with chunks of Mexican white cheese floating alongside and two beautifully poached eggs floating in the mix. Add a basket of Mexican sweet breads and you've got a meal that tastes like the pictures in Diana Kennedy's cookbooks look.

This hilly city surprises with every corner turned, but the best part, I think, is the friendly people. They're different from folks in the states, I think. For starters, most of them seem happy. People smile and laugh together here more than at home - on the streets, in the shops, just walking along. Maybe it's that mi español no está muy bueno, so I'm paying more attention to people's faces, but I really think that's true.

Yesterday Kathy and I wandered the streets east of the city's center and wound up in a wonderful old park (it'd have to be old to boast trees that thick) with five fountains that's obviously a neighborhood favorite, especially for bringing kids. Two different vendors in this mid-sized neighborhood park were offering pony rides while others sold balloons or sweets or rented little battery operated toy cars for toddlers to drive around in, typically with Mom or Dad scurrying alongside turning the wheel periodically to avoid trees, passersby and other obstacles.

Last night we met Roy Dudley, the unofficial gringo mayor of Xalapa. He's a wedding photographer who married a gal from Xalapa and never left (wise man, says me). His article on the web titled "Xalapa de mis sueños," or Xalapa of my dreams, is one of several that constitute perhaps the best web-based resource on the area in English, at least that I've found. He introduced himself in a restaurant and invited us to his table where we drank a stiff local version of sangria laced with vodka and filled with floating chunks of pineapple.

While mariachis played and two dancers performed who were part of the band (the man took over occasionally for harp solos while the gal rested), Roy translated word for word the often baudy songs. Perhaps the funniest was a tune about a man who bought his girlfriend a pair of gloves as a gift after accidentally damaging hers while on a date. But the store clerk accidentally wrapped up a pair of women's panties instead. The note the fellow wrote ot go with the gift said something to the effect that, "I got you another pair of these because I felt so bad about tearing yours last night. I'm sorry about that, my passion overcame me. I know these will fit, the store clerk was just your size and she tried them on to make sure."

And all the while the dancers danced.

Roy also turned us on to a local eatery where we'll be having lunch tomorrow - we had to stop by today to tell the woman our order because she makes it all by hand, the meat marinates overnight, and she needed to know how many tamales to make. Roy knows the town like the back of his hand, and everybody obviously knows him. Most gringos who come down here seem to find him eventually, and like us I'm sure their stay is improved when they do.

The previous night we heard a terrific 11-piece band play Veracruzano-style samba music while dozens of couples danced in front of a stage beneath the main zocalo in the center of town. A surprising number of Veracruz bands feature harpists, and I mean a full-blown five foot tall stand-up harp - usually it's used as a rhythm instrument, keeping time like you would with a bass guitar except high up on the treble end. They had a bass player too, an electric guitarist, mandolin player, a flautist, trumpet and trombone, electric piano, and a variety of other often-changing instruments. The crowd seemed to know many of the tunes and quite a few of them were excellent dancers.

It's cool to watch really good samba dancers go at it, and one couple seemed especially talented, spinning and gyrating with a purpose and precision that somebody like me with two left feet can only watch and admire. But the best samba dancers I've ever seen where elderly couples in Veracruz City when we were there two years ago. Folks who, if you saw them walking on the street, might seem old and fragile on the dance floor came alive with a remarkable grace and fluidity - the young folks we watched on Thursday may dance with more speed and power, but seeing folks in their 70s do it makes you think samba isn't just a dance, but seems to somehow capture the fundamental rhythms of Caribbean life. Reggae sounds fine outside Jamaica, and Russian mazurkas can be played by any orchestra, but somehow samba music to me seems more attached to its geographic setting. I like it well enough when I hear it in the states, but here in Veracruz it comes alive, pulsing like the Gulf coast waves pounding the beach, like some musical heartbeat shared by everyone in the region. At home, every generation likes different music: Young folks like hip hop, folks my age listen to rock and roll or folk music, and folks my parents age might favor big band music or jazz. Here, when they spark up the samba music, everybody from 17 to 75 ambles toward the dance floor.

Not as much politics in the street here as in Mexico City, and fewer signs in home and business windows accusing the government of voter fraud. But a semi-permanent protest has been set up in front of the main cathedral across from the municipal building, and several thousand people protested yesterday, said the paper, though I didn't see it myself. I'm actually trying not to think much about politics, thank God.

This blog post got a little longer because a rainstorm prevented me from leaving the Internet cafe without getting soaked, but it's over and I'm heading back to find Kathy at the hotel. More next time. And for the record, the high was about 75 Fahrenheit today, which was Austin's low last night -- eat your heart out Texans.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Finally, vacation in Mexico

It's our first full day on vacation in Mexico - we flew into Mexico City yesterday - and I'm already feeling better for being out of Austin and away from the job. Damn I love this town. If I could figure out a way to earn a living, I'd move here in a heartbeat.

We got up late (for me) and had a terrific breakfast at one of my favorite little diners in central Mexico City - I had a fat tamale Oaxequeña and fruit salad, while Kathy had Monterrey-style eggs, plus we both enjoyed lovely Mexican pastries and even good coffee (for years you couldn't find a decent cup anywhere in Mexico, to my knowledge, outside of Veracruz state). I love eating in Mexico!

Everywhere you look downtown are protest signs from the recent elections, which the leftist PRD party believes was stolen from their candidate by the PAN representative -- it's a Florda-style electoral mess that's currently playing out in the Mexican courts. You constantly see signs (in storefronts, apartment windows, and handbills on every spare piece of bare plywood) that say "No Al Pinche Fraude," which roughly translates to "No Damn Fraud."

Apropos of that sentiment, in the zocalo this morning the PRD held an event where Lucha Libre wrestlers put on a performance "Por La Lucha Democratica," putting on high-flying staged routines in a tiny, tiny ring while party activists sought petition signatures from the crowd and handed out literature. As wrestling it was awfully hokey, but as Kathy pointed out the fellows were brilliant tumblers and if you viewed it as acrobatics instead of a fight, it was a pleasant, fun thing to watch. The crowd was into it, and many obviously knew the individual wrestlers by name and engaged in various chants on their behalf at different points. A wrestler named "Marcello" (sp?) appeared to be the most popular among the young ladies.

Aftwerward we wandered over to the massive market a few blocks east of the zocalo, and walked around looking at the amazing foods, crafts, and sometimes hilarious brand-name knock-offs -- I especially laughed seeing the characters from the movie Cars made into piñatas. The food from the street vendors looked amazing, but we had such a big breakfast we put off eating until late afternoon, when we plan to head back over to get in on the street fare before they close up for the day (catering to workers, the street vendors often go away in the evenings).

We're going to spend more time in Mexico City on the end of the trip, but tomorrow take off for Xalapa in Veracruz where we plan to spend most of our time. No telling how often I'll check in to post, but Kathy promised somebody from work she'd check her email today, so I'm taking the opportunity of sitting in an Internet cafe to get in a little travel blogging.

For you Texans - the high today will be about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (the weather's similar in Xalapa), and last night it was cold enough to make me wish I'd brought a jacket. I'll be thinking of y'all with sympathy as you endure the 105 degree heat. ;-)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Must we eschew power to avoid corruption?

If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, to avoid corruption should one avoid acquiring and exercising power?

That's the question on my mind in Llano, TX this morning as I sat by the Colorado River reading the July 10 & 17 issue of The New Yorker. (Kathy and I drove out for the day yesterday and spent the night at the historic Dabbs Hotel.) I was struck how, to me anyway, that theme cropped up in two very different articles - a review of the movie The Devil Wears Prada by David Denby, and a review of several foreign policy-related books by George Packer.

As I mentioned in my own brief review, The Devil Wears Prada didn't quite tie up all its loose ends, and I think Denby identified one of the most important and dissatisfyingly trite aspects of the film's outcome in his closing paragraph:
It presents the heroine's career options as a simple choice between power and honor. It's the same choice that "Wall Street" offered Charlie Sheen's fledgling financier twenty years ago - either become vicious Gordon Gekko or hold on to your soul. "Working Girl" proposed that you can join the establishment without turning into a beast, but someday I'd like to see a film suggesting that you can be the boss without giving up your intellectual ideals, and that the alternative - rejecting power - has its corruptions, too.
That last sentence especially hit home for me as a political activist. Lately I've once again run up against the frustratingly common, counterproductive notion that rejecting power is somehow especially noble - typically touted by folks whose political organizing philosophies are rooted in reform movements from the 60s and 70s.

Quite a few lefty organizers hold that basically all leadership is bad - at least unless it comes from some "authentic" oppressed person. I can't tell you how often I've heard progressive activists tell me the goal of political organizations should be to operate like some leaderless collective, where ideas and strategies bubble up from the "affected community," which they consider synonymous with the "grass roots." Organizers may be needed "at first," one frequently hears, but their goal should be to make themselves unnecessary.

So someone please, tell me: What social problems in the world have been resolved to the point that those committed to seeking solutions can say they've worked themselves out of a job? Racism and the aftermath of slavery? The War on Poverty? The War on Drugs? The African AIDS crisis? When do we get to stop, or instead wouldn't it be wiser to commit to the long haul? And wouldn't those who ARE in it for the long haul over time develop knowledge, experience and connections that would make them more effective leaders than someone without that background?

In fact, doesn't it do a disservice to a political movement to deprive it of experienced leadership? Aren't we harming outcomes for the so-called "affected community" when political movements reject the concept of leadership? (I actually think the politically correct phrase "affected community" is a poorly chosen term - we're all affected by these social crises, to varying degrees, or else it's easy to blow them off as somebody else's problem.)

In a surprisingly large number of instances this rebellion on the left against leaders has led to a rebellion even against the notion of political movements identifying concrete goals. After all, setting a goal implies leadership, and a rejection of other possible goals someone else might prefer. In this mindset, "organizing" is an end to itself, not a means to changing harmful laws - at most it's useful to mounting opposition to bad policies, but a terrible model for promoting a pro-active agenda.

Forty years ago liberals didn't think that way. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington, they did it to help pass the Voting Rights Act. Today many lefty activists insist that political organizing shouldn't focus on changing laws, but to "empower" the community. "Empower them to do what?" I've asked repeatedly over the years. Most often the answer is basically that the goal is to build self esteem, not to accumulate actual political power, which to complete the circle is considered fundamentally suspect.

The George Packer article contained a similar core theme, but on a topic unrelated to anything as trite as the fashion industry - how to respond to the rise of radical Islamism and the war on terror. Packer critiqued a book by Peter Beinart called "A Fighting Faith" that argues American liberals should develop a strategy to suppress radical Islam that is based on the global-engagement with Communism posited by Cold War liberal anti-Communists like Sidney Hook or John Kennedy.

Packer notes that a weird sort of neo-isolationism has arisen on the American left that's replaced the liberal internationalism of somebody like Kennedy. Much of this obviously is a thirty-year old hangover from the Vietnam War and the result of the baby boomer generation's disillusionment with interventionist liberal anti-Communism of Hook, Kennedy, et. al.. That approach may not be realistic or productive in the 21st Century, Packer notes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States remains the by far the world's pre-eminent military and economic superpower, which puts us in a position of involvement in the world's affairs whether or not we trust our government officials to handle them. Writes Packer:
A serious American foreign policy toward Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without the triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again.
Here's what fascinates me, and maybe it says more about me than anything these two writers were trying to get across (though both excerpts came from the articles' conclusions): Both these writers identify problems caused by a political philosophy that power corrrupts and therefore should be avoided.

Ironically, though, power is required to confront abuses of power, and that's what this highly problematic philosophical, cultural underpinning of American liberalism avoids recognizing: We need leaders. If we don't have leaders, we're screwed. If we wait for the most disenfranchised among us to establish the wherewithal to lead, those already in power will steamroll through their agenda. And who does that help? Not the "affected community."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Paint by numbers

The painter dabbed her brush in indigo goo and applied it to two remaining sections of the canvas labeled number 11, then she was done. "It's brilliant," exclaimed her friends. "Wonderful," her family told her. The style seemed so original and the execution so fresh. The picture's brushstrokes were airy where appropriate and in other spots dense and heavy where the scene demanded it. Everyone who saw the painting thought that it was remarkable to have created such a masterwork from a paint-by-numbers kit.

The painter's pride swelled along with her confidence. "I am a brilliant painter," she thought. "Just look at this masterpiece I've created." So she purchased another paint-by-numbers kit with similarly spectacular results. She hung that one prominently in her living room and subjected every new visitor to a mandatory viewing until one day someone asked to buy it. She was thrilled, and sold several more for modest fees to folks around town.

Everyone agreed they were very well-crafted paintings, especially, one visitor added cruelly, considering they were produced from paint-by-numbers kits.

But that last remark stung. Why was her painting lesser than any hanging in a museum because it came from a paint-by-numbers kit? Was not the artistry of the execution what's important, the airy brushstrokes and large globs of paint distributed across the landscape? Who could even see the silly lines when she was finished, and besides, she went over them ALL the time.

So the painter decided the next painting would be one of her own creation. She used light, airy brushtrokes in parts and dark globs of paint in others and all her favorite colors, since they no longer had to be selected based on some pre-set number scheme. She enjoyed herself quite a lot and it was very fulfilling, she thought, to produce one's own original art.

When it was finished, though, the painting was not like the others. Its figures were deformed and awkwardly posed, the landscape childishly drawn, if impeccably colored. But the painter was thrilled. " I am SUCH a brilliant artist," she thought. "Just look at my wonderful work."

To her dismay, others did not have the same reaction. No one offered to buy this painting, and when she showed it to friends their reaction was muted and cautious. "Don't worry about it," one said, "you can always go back to painting by numbers."

"I don't need to paint by numbers," the painter replied. "I am a great artist. I'll never paint by numbers again."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Podcasting the future of web content: Amazon Fishbowl

Bill Mahers' Amazon Fishbowl is perhaps the most impressive podcast delivery vehicle I've seen yet. Check out the episodes going back to the pilot in May. Writing on a blog is so passe', I know - this is definitely the future of the web. Low-cost to produce, simple to download, and a screen shot small enough to fit on the larger hand-held video phones, I-pods, etc. Television, if I had to bet, will ultimately fuse with this model to deliver its content online in a similar fashion, not displacing broadcast productions but diversifying and adding value to them.

The blending of the show with Amazon's business model is especially brilliant - one segment, for obvious reasons, promotes books, another features a musical artist, and they've partnered with a major vendor, UPS, for a segment where stars go to fans homes to personally deliver the new album they've ordered. Very slick, an impressive, well-thought out execution of a pretty visionary idea.

As Maher frequently says to his guests, television is SO Twentieth Century.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Vacation planning: A month among the Jalapeños

Purchased airline tickets, housesitter arranged, four weeks in Mexico here we come. Let me tell you, I'm ready. We're leaving toward the end of the month and spending most of the time in Xalapa, birthplace of the Jalapeño pepper and home to some of the best coffee in Mexico. (You also see it spelled "Jalapa," whereby its citizens become "Jalapeños.")

Xalapa is the most like Austin, TX of any city in Mexico, or maybe Austin 20-25 years ago. It's the state capitol of Veracruz. A river runs through the middle of town, and it's got a big university that dominates central city life. In Mexico, Xalapa is perhaps best known for the diverse music and other cultural output centered around the university, which is home to a well-regarded music school. The city is less sprawling, industrial and filled with urban problems than the much-larger Veracruz City downstream on the Gulf Coast. Day trips away from Xalapa are cool archaological sites, hiking, canoing, etc., so we're going to home base there and venture out from Xalapa a day or three at a time for most of the month, is the plan.

My big goal is to convince Kathy to actually buy retirement property there, I keep half-jokingly telling her, but first things first: I need a vacation.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Poor dogs

Every year July 4 scares the crap out of the dogs. I just checked on them, and all three were pretty freaked out: Margaret was hiding under the house, Domino was under the table on the screened-in porch, while Indeaux was running around frantically, worried.

I wish there was a way to make them understand there's nothing to be afraid of.

The Devil Wears Prada

Kathy and I went last night to see The Devil Wears Prada, a delightfully well-written and performed comedy based on the popular novel of the same name. Meryl Streep brilliantly played the executive editor of Runway, an influential fashion magazine, and Anne Hathaway offered up a sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist suffering through a miserable but enlightening stint as Streep's assistant.

Hathaway has a captivating beauty, a really nice screen presence that held up well to the indomitable Streep. Plus journeyman Stanley Tucci more than held up his end of the show, along with the rest of the supporting cast. Despite my utter lack of interest in the fashion world it held my interest (nearly) until the end.

The movie's closing, though, was a catastrophe (spoiler alert). I haven't read the book but the director went for a chick-flicky ending where Hathaway and her boyfriend played by Entourage-lead Adrian Grenier get back together, or seem to, except he's taking a job in Boston and she's applying for journalism gigs in New York. The whole scene, and its denouement, didn't really make sense.

More annoying, after the movie spent a great deal of capital explaining to the audience why average people should care about fashion, the trite turnabout by Hathaway's character at the end seemed to belie that lengthy set up. I wonder if the Andy Sachs character in the book made such a full-blown turnabout?

In all, though, well worth the cost of admission, if only because of Streep's hilarious performance, and the emergence of the lovely Hathaway as a leading lady with whom to be reckoned.

An aside: This was the first time I'd been to the Alamo Theater out at 183 and 620, the only Alamo venue in Austin showing this particular film. It was packed, with a long line out front filled with unhappy folks who weren't clever enough to prepay for tickets online. As always, the half hour of clips collected before the previews nicely set the tone.

Many of the pre-show clips were hilarious old fashion videos from the 50s and 60s, promoting a vision of glamor that, like Streep's character, possibly has seen its day pass by. Possibly. But then, every time one thinks that's true - that the public's fascination with glamor has ended - those fantasy visions pop back up Phoenix-like from the ashes just as Streep's character did in the movie, reborn anew each generation from our own narcissism and insecurities. It was an apropos homage to the fashion world portrayed so ruthlessly in the film, and a welcome addition to the whole moviegoing experience.

Launching Huevos Rancheros

Since 2004 I've operated a blog called Grits for Breakfast that focuses on Texas' criminal justice system. That blog covers a relatively narrow topic compared to my real range of interests, so Huevos Rancheros was created to provide an outlet for perhaps less frequent but more diverse writing than what readers expect on Grits.

Huevos Rancheros continues with the breakfast-themed name, but with a broader focus. I'm not sure what will go on here - upcoming vacation photos from Mexico, perhaps, or thoughts on movies, plays, books, etc. - who knows? Most of the political stuff will still wind up on Grits, I imagine, and I feel under no obligation to update this site nearly so frequently. I'm creating this just for grins, because some days the things I want to write don't fit into any of the narrow categories in which the world seems to request my input.

Thanks for stopping by. Check back again sometime.