Saturday, September 30, 2006

'Mexico is my Paris and my Rome'

This New York Times travelogue sounds like a great trip - the writer followed the trail of a 19th century diarist, whose memoirs inspired portions of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, from Veracruz to Michoacan.

That's a fun way to travel - following the footsteps of past writers. In Turkey once, Kathy and I spent a month traveling the western coast tracking the events in Herodotus' Histories. It was one of our best vacations ever, and I'll certainly now never forget my ancient Greek history as a result.

There's so much to see in Mexico, too - much more than most Americans realize. I love the line, "Mexico is my Paris and my Rome" - I couldn't agree more! And unlike the 19th century diarist, I've been to those two cities. I love them both, but I'll take Mexico.

Friday, September 29, 2006


is quite a dog. Via Crime and Federalism.

It's a girl!

My daughter gave birth to a baby girl last night (my goddaughter, actually, though we raised her from when she was twelve) - I'm going to see the child today for the first time!

Ouch! I turn 40 in a couple of months - too young to be a Grandpa, I thought. Funny how nobody asked me. Congratulations Mikel!

UPDATE: Her name is Tytionna Renee Durst and she weighed just over six pounds. Hopefully I'll have pictures soon.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Longview as Tortilla Junction

Times are changin' when a tortilla manufacturer in Longview, TX can't expand fast enough.

La Fama Foods, established in Longview in 1982, currently generates 144,000 corn tortillas every hour. Their proposed new facility would expand flour tortilla production from 70,000 pounds to 120,000 pounds per week. All told, La Fama uses 200,000 pounds of flour every week, so they want to build a silo to store it instead of wasting space and manpower with bags. Wow - that's a successful business, and a LOT of tortillas.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Galveston sunset

My friend Amina sent this picture from Galveston. The Texas Gulf coast doesn't really have what you'd call "beautiful" beaches, especially by the time you get as far north as Galveston, but it has its moments.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Austin lucky to have electric utility transfer

For at least a decade, large employers and downtown business interests have campaigned against Austin's "transfer" of profits from the city-owned electric utility to the city's "general fund," and apparently those interests are preparing to make another run.

The Statesman's Kate Alexander today tries to portray the City of Austin's "transfer" of profits from the electric utility, Austin Energy, as some nefarious plot to unfairly tax residents ("Is Austin's use of utility fees appropriate?," Sept. 24). While I've not always been a fan of the way the City runs the utility, the argument against transferring profits to the general fund is a red herring.

Bottom line, Austin finds itself in a unique position. First, it still owns its own electric utility and so is immune to the market vagaries that plague other Texas cities. Profits from TXU in Dallas go to investors - profits from Austin Energy go to property tax relief. Which is preferable?

More importantly, as the center of state government and with the University of Texas here, Austin finds itself with more non-taxable central city real estate than any other Texas city. (Tax abatements given to several large employers exacerbate the problem.) Much prime real estate that in other cities would be a source of tax revenue in Austin is off the tax rolls. That means that higher utility fees, especially in central business district, help make up for the complete lack of local taxes paid by state government to the city.

Some of the large high-tech manufacturers like AMD and Motorolla would be the biggest beneficiaries of eliminating the "transfer," while average taxpayers who'd have to make up the difference would be the losers.

Austin's lucky to own it's own electric utility and we should maximize the public benefit from this valuable resource. Reinvesting utility profits in the city isn't some scam - it's one of the most important benefits from the city owning its own electric utility in the first place.

Cities who get their electricity from private companies can only wish they had the luxury of deciding where profits from consumer utility payments will be spent.

UPDATE: Reporter Kate Alexander responds: "Just one clarification: the story focused on costs paid by the enterprise departments on top of the transfer."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

By the grace of God

Bumper sticker slogan seen this morning on side of 18-wheel truck:
"American by birth, Southerner by the grace of God." (w/ rebel flag)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Earliest Olmec writing discovered

While traveling in Veracruz in 2004 and this summer, Kathy and I learned a lot about the Olmecs, the ancient society which is essentially the mother culture for all of native Latin America - Olmec society originated in the jungles of what's today southern Veracruz state, and the giant heads they left behind have become iconic of their ancient, still-little-known influence.

The Olmec's art featured wonderful stylized scupltures - both tiny ones that often included fun, happy facial expressions, and also the dour giant heads for which they are most famous. (Some of the stone heads are supposedly from 1200 B.C. or even earlier.) The Olmecs have become Kathy's favorite artistic period during our various forays into learning about pre-Colombian art.

Now, apparently, Olmec writing has been discovered on a stone block found near the San Lorenzo site. Apparently much of the writing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was about corn. If authentic, the find would mean the Olmecs had a written language possibly as early as 900 B.C., hundreds of years earlier than previously thought: in other words, a written language had developed in Mexico about 3,000 years ago. Reported the Boston Globe (Sept. 15):
The inscriptions are carved in a rock called serpentine. The block is about 14 inches long, 8 inches wide, and 5 inches deep. The side with the writing is concave, leading the authors of the study to speculate that the block may have been written on, then sanded blank, many times.

The writing system appears to have died, because there are no signs of direct influence on other known writing systems. The oldest previously known text in the Americas dates to about 500 BC, and was used by a people known as the Zapotec, who also lived in what is now Mexico.

The Olmec arose on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico around 1200 BC, in what is now central Mexico, and they faded from history about 400 BC. The farming of maize played a vital role in building their civilization, and the scientists said that three of the 28 different symbols used on the stone appear to depict maize.

The Maya civilization overlapped chronologically with the Olmec and lived to their east, centered on the Yucatan peninsula. Mayan civilization began about 500 BC and went into decline in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. The Aztec lived in central Mexico like the Olmec, but far later, roughly from the 14th to 16th century AD.

Olmec is an Aztec word meaning "people from the rubber area." Rubber plants are common where the Olmec lived.

The two best museums to learn about the Olmecs in Mexico are in the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, and also at the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City which, on the Olmecs, has a good collection but perhaps less thorough than in Xalapa (the Mexico City museum focuses on several different pre-Colombian cultures, while the museum in Xalapa, one of my favorite Mexican cities, focuses on cultures in that region). I understand from our friend Judith that there's another excellent museum featuring the Olmecs in Villahermosa in Tabasco, but I have never been there.

We enjoyed studying about the Olmecs on our two vacations in Veracruz, and learned enough to know that this is a neat, important archaeological find.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why doesn't Major League Baseball open a franchise in Mexico City?

Larry James offered a marvelous list of questions about immigration that I referenced on Grits for Breakfast. One of the most provocative : Why doesn't Major League Baseball open a franchise in Mexico City?

Why indeed? What a brilliant idea. I think it'd make a ton of money. Here are some reasons why:
  • Baseball has a long history in Mexico and a built-in natural fan base. The Mexican League has 16 teams, whose fan base could be mined and marketed to nationwide.
  • Mexico City could fill a big stadium. It has 20+ million people, as big as any US market, and as the first Mexican MLB team it would draw fans from nationwide.
  • Millions of Mexican immigrants and first-generation citizens of Mexican descent in the United States offer continent-wide subsidiary merchandising opportunities.
  • Baseball players would still cost millions of dollars, but labor costs for everything else from building or modifying a stadium to mopping the bathroom stalls would be cheaper in Mexico. That would improve margins every year.
There are probably other reasons for and against, but that strikes me as a workable idea. Now all I need is a couple hundred million dollars or so to get the plan rolling, and we're in business!

Lake Catemaco, tierra de los brujos

I never wrote up our trip to Lake Catemaco, as promised, but the Houston Chronicle has a nice feature in their travel section from September 10 about the area. We visited some of the places she mentions, but none of the brujos (witches/shamans), even though Kathy perhaps rightly suggested I could use a good "spiritual cleansing."

UPDATE: Here's an English-language blog from Lake Catemaco.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How many miles home?

While driving in Mexico Kathy, Judith and I laughed that the mileage signs (in kilometers, actually) were wildly inconsistent, especially out in the hinterlands. You'd see a sign saying a town was 12 kilometers away, drive a mile or two, then see another sign saying it was 14.

In Texas, mileage signs are all measured from the steps of the county courthouse, so it's consistent heading into any county seat that the mileage is basically measured from the center of town.

Driving home from Houston this weekend, it was oddly comforting to know that when the sign said I was 29 miles from Austin, I knew exactly where I was and how long it would take me to get back home.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Enjoying Houston

Kathy and I had a nice 16th anniversary getaway in Houston this weekend. Kathy and I are lucky - it's been 16 years and I still love her, probably more than when we were kids. We've had a great life together so far.

In Houston, we stayed downtown in the theater district and visited two museum exhibits - a collection of pre-Colombian gold artifacts at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the final weekend of the Body Worlds exhibition in the Natural History Museum.

Body Worlds was jam packed - we'd reserved tickets for 9 a.m. this morning (Sunday), and it was utterly full well before we got there, even though the exhibit was open 24 hours per day for its final weekend. Folks who hadn't purchased tickets ahead of time didn't get in, and they really missed something unique. It was an amazing display of technological prowess - literally cross-sections of human beings, frequently displayed as art in sculptural poses.

Maybe it had been hyped too much (several people had told me about it, Kathy had talked it up, and I'd seen several of the images online), or maybe it was the massive crowd that inched by the exhibit cases at a pace that would make snails scoff, but I enjoyed the pre-Colombian art exhibit more, of the two. I felt like I needed to know more about medicine, anatomy, and the human body to really get all the benefit from the exhibit that was there to be had.

Still, it was pretty cool. As art, I especially enjoyed a piece of a man holding his own skin, pulled off as one piece. Another, labeled the "Wizard," depicted a skinned man holding his own innards in front of him with his muscles splayed out from his body like some bizarre Indian headdress. Most famously, a skinned horse and rider with their innards displayed, the rider tri-sected, holding the horse's brain out beside the animal's head.

I wish I'd been there on a day when there were less people, but I was glad to get to see an exhibit that's become a worldwide phenomenon. When we were in Mexico City, another version of the exhibit was going on.

By comparison, the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday was less crowded and a much more pleasant museum experience. We viewed an exhibit of pre-Colombian gold jewelry that was a fascinating complement to some of what we viewed in Mexico. Most pre-Colombian gold in Mexico was melted by Cortes and his thugs into gold bars; the gold in the exhibit was almost all from South America, mostly Colombia and Peru.

Especially interesting was seeing pieces of jewelry we'd only seen in stone images in Mexico - especially elaborate nose rings so large we thought they were chinpieces to the massive headdresses depicted. No. Those were nose rings that were sometimes plates of gold 8 inches wide and 6 inches high, elaborately crafted, often covering the wearers whole mouth. Similarly, large earrings very similar to those depicted on the gigantic Olmec heads from southern Veracruz were on display, filling in a lot of the details you miss looking at a 2,500 year old carved rock.

Last night we ate at a Cuban restaurant on Bissonnett called Cafe Piquet that I highly recommend, both for food quality and general value. They served us a really wonderful dinner - my roasted pork came with wild rice, black beans and garlicky yucca. Kathy had, but she had a dish called Vaca Frita, which was shredded beef with garlic and onion, and plantains instead of the yucca. Then we both enjoyed a nice flan and espresso afterward, before going to see the movie "The Illusionist."

Houston was oddly a nice break from Austin - a real, big city with big-city acoutrements like museums and good ethnic food, despite the heat and humidity. We had a good time.

Friday, September 01, 2006

God is no hero

I'm a prolific writer, but never much of a poet. Still, I wrote these while on vacation (Montepio is in southern Veracruz on the coast), and thought they were decent enough to post on this blog:

Montepio, Mexico
God is no hero.
God is no villain.
God is. That's enough, no?

Must we be saved?
From what?
In time, death will take us all.

Some people think God is only God if we may have "victory over death"
But I think God is God because we are delivered unto death,
And because life continues regardless.

Who gives a fuck about saving the world?

Montepio, Mexico
Who gives a fuck about saving the world?
The world doesn't give a fuck about us.
The world isn't here for us, it's just here.
That's how we should be, too.

There is beauty in the world, but it's not for us.
It's there for beauty's sake alone.
Enjoy it if you want to, or ignore it, it doesn't matter.
Beauty exists but it doesn't care what we think about it.

There is goodness in the world, and evil, too,
But only if you think too hard,
Only if you think too much about yourself.
Think less, just be, and evil threatens no more than the setting sun, while goodness becomes a shooting star, at most of fleeting interst.

God exists and is there for us
In the pulse of the ocean tide, in music's rhythm, in your heartbeat and your breath.
God exists if you ignore good and evil, ignore distractions like beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain.
God exists for those who love life and death equally, for whom winter and spring are valued in equal measure.

God exists, and once you know that, who gives a fuck about saving the world?