Sunday, March 31, 2013

Famous Last Word

Today would have been my dad's 96th birthday.

As he lay dying nearly a quarter century ago, immobilized and intubated but still conscious, we were trying to figure out how to help him tell us what we could do for him or what he was thinking.

I recalled how he had taught me Morse code back in my Boy Scout days, but signaling dots and dashes turned out to be clumsy business for somebody not capable of much more than eye blinks.

So I just made up a chart of the alphabet and gave him a pencil to hold in his mouth as a pointer.

His first message, and also his last as it turned out, was a single word.

"Coffee," he said, and then let the pencil drop from his mouth. He didn't have the energy to focus any longer on trying to be sociable.

But he really did love coffee. A long career as a naval officer had given him a deep craving for the stuff, even the third rate swill served up in officers' messes and pilot briefing rooms.

I'm quite sure he'd have liked nothing better as he suffered his way toward his final hours than to have been able to drink a cup. At the same time he knew, and he knew that we knew, that it wasn't going to happen.

So his last word to us was both an expression of longing for what was once a commonplace pleasure, and an ironic comment, a wisecrack, on his misery and helplessness. It has struck me many times how much of himself he managed to express in two syllables.

This afternoon it was warm enough for the first time in several weeks to get in the pool, and Pam served me a margarita while I stood in the water watching Elizabeth play with some of her squeezy squirt toys.

We hadn't so much as mentioned my dad, let alone that today was his birthday, but for some reason she asked me, "Did your father like margaritas?" I had to rack my brains for a memory of him drinking one. Pam assured us that he did.

Then, once more out of the blue, Elizabeth astonished me by asking, "Did your father like coffee?" This time I knew the answer for sure.

Yes, Sweetsie, he did like coffee very much.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


That's Lupita in the red shirt, crouched on the sidewalk next to the electrical transformer. She shows up there late in the day once or twice a week, especially on religious holidays or other times when there's a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area.

It's a block or so from the iconic bell tower of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe that overlooks the town square. We'd be able to see her easily from our terrace if there weren't a couple of houses in the way.

But we can certainly hear her.

Her voice is an anguished wail that pierces through every other sound in our busy neighborhood. Crowd noise, unmuffled bus motors, band music from the gazebo on the square, the bass beat from the dance clubs, parades that pass by on the street nearby, and even the largest of Our Lady's bells -- it all fades to background noise when Lupita lifts her voice.

It's a song of suffering rising to a howl that sounds like pain, grief or a body and soul in some even greater unnamed torment. It goes on for long minutes, sometimes hours.

In other neighborhoods where I've lived, Lupita's screams would immediately bring a crowd of Samaritans and paramedics. The first time I heard her a couple of years ago, I hastened down to find out what the trouble was. She was around the corner from the location above on a darkened block, seated on the dirty sidewalk much as she is in the photo, with her legs sprawled to one side and her head and hand against her wailing wall.

I stepped toward her, but when she noticed me she became very agitated, averting her face, shaking her head and waving me off. She didn't seem hurt, and she had food. So I backed away, and after a little while I went home not knowing what else to do.

The next day I asked neighbors what they knew about her, which turned out to be not much. They said she'd been around for a long time, apparently slept somewhere else, and got regular food handouts from one or another of the nearby restaurants, including the big plastic jugs of orange soda she likes. Merchants kept an eye on her, I was told. She wasn't really in any trouble, and everybody left her alone.

Whenever I thought about her in the months afterward I considered whether, in the absence of social services that could really care for her, it might be evidence of at least some compassion that Lupita was allowed to do her disruptive thing with no official interference, right in the center of a town that prides itself on its touristic curb appeal.

Yesterday I wondered whether the guy who runs a gift shop just outside the left edge of the photo might be able to tell me more of her story. As so often happens, more facts undermined first impressions and produced a lot more questions.

My informant was able to tell me Lupita's name, and also her age, 47, actually a good bit older than I thought. He didn't know what ails her, but like me he's guessing it might be Tourette syndrome. He told me she lives with her brother and elderly mother in Ixtapa, a Puerto Vallarta suburb.

The big surprise was that Lupita lived for years in a state home for the disabled. But several years ago her mother took her out so she could help with the family business, which is begging. The mother, in her 80s, has stationed herself for many years a couple of blocks away where she accosts tourists approaching the church.

Lupita can't be contributing much to whatever her mother brings in. She runs off do-gooders who approach her as I did, and from time to time she launches feeble but still troubling physical assaults on passers-by, including my shopkeeper source. He believes at least some of her cries are expressions of anger directed at her mother, who is certainly within earshot as we all are.

He knows as much as he does about Lupita because in addition to having observed her at close quarters for quite a while, he has tried more than once to interest city agencies in resuming custody of her. They know the whole family pretty well.

In the U.S. the benchmark for an involuntary committal is "danger to herself or others," and it might seem Lupita could meet that standard. But my guy says that when he suggests that a social worker come by to speak with Lupita when she arrives outside his store about 4:30 p.m., the apologetic reply is that the agency closes at 3p.

So, there's some compassion for you.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nation Building

Back in the 1600s when my own colonial forebears in New England were starving to death in huts made of sticks and mud, the Spanish were raising structures like these all over Mexico.

I think this building was originally part of a seminary. It's in Patzcuaro, a lovely town south of Morelia known for its gracious central plaza and the scores of sellers of beautiful ceramics and textiles who line its narrow streets.

What keeps striking me as remarkable as we get to know Mexico is how vast, rich and varied the architectural legacy of the Spanish empire is all over the country and presumably the rest of Latin America.

Roman arches and Moorish filigree adorn the avenues of even modest towns. Massive and ornate cathedrals, colonnaded educational, ecclesiastical or government buildings, aqueducts, fountains and statuary are everywhere, built for the ages out of whatever rock was handy. In this case it was cantera.

In the United States, what few small buildings survive from our early years of European settlement are limited access tourist attractions long since surrounded and overwhelmed by generations of helter skelter growth.

Whereas here, people still worship, study, transact business or make and enforce the law in the oldest structures in town. Even in major cities like Guadalajara, the artifacts of Spain's colonial ambitions still dominate everything around them.

How did those busy Spaniards manage in the New World to replicate or even exceed the architectural accomplishments of their homeland while my English-speaking forebears were bunking with their livestock in hovels that have long since fallen down?

I'm only guessing, but I'll bet part of the answer was their ability to suborn or compel the indigenous population into providing much of the labor, and the fact that many of these highly civilized people were accomplished engineers and stonemasons long before their oppressors arrived.

One thing's for sure, my Anglophile history education really shortchanged the impact of Spain on my hemisphere.

I was astonished last year to pick up Charles Mann's book "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" and read that long before the Pilgrims had carved their first turkey the conquistadors had made Mexico City the most cosmopolitan city on Earth and the first true center of global business.

From the site of Montezuma's former capital, gold and goods flowed not only back to Spain but west to the Philippines and then to China.

One of the features of this 17th Century opening to Asia was that when the Chinese saw the kind of furniture and fashions their new trading partners liked, they quickly made and sold copies back to them, infuriating Spanish merchants and artisans whose customers naturally preferred the cheaper knockoffs.

Sound familiar?