Coming back to life in Mexico

At the end of summer, to get our Español in gear, we took a trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was the first family trip ever outside the country, and, in a measure of how little we travel outside the familiar rotation to grandparents’ houses, we all needed passports. These we applied for from a bored and tattooed student worker at the UC Berkeley rec center. With competitive swimmers in the background, we dutifully smiled and paid our fees on a gray day in June.

I was sort of resenting the intrusion of a complicated vacation into a life that had become all about meeting deadlines and remembering to pack my son’s soccer cleats. For Grant and me, it was the end of a long, grinding year. But slowly, over the course of two weeks, I did come back to life – reading deeply again, noticing things again.

From my Mexican vacation, I can highly recommend J.M.G. Le Clézio’s “The Mexican Dream, Or, the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations” which I read in the shadow of a conquistador’s church built from the stones of destroyed pyramids. And this brought back to mind a doomed screenplay attempt I once made, trying to scale the story of La Malinche, the complicated woman who was instrumental to the Spanish conquest and became mistress to Cortes. Who was she, really? As the minatory clouds built up each afternoon over the Cortes Palace, we sipped coffee and pondered her character.

xochicalco pyramid

Cuernavaca is the setting of my second favorite book of all time, “Under the Volcano,” where Malcolm Lowry wrestled with his mezcal-soaked demons to produce the most amazingly moving chronicle of a man reckoning with his past mistakes and failures. It’s an incredible book that once you’ve read it, always stays with you. The home where Lowry once lived is now a hotel, by the way. We wandered through its picturesque desuetude taking photos on our phones.

There were the countless, invigorating moments of dislocation, wonderful mashups of context. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blasting down the crowded Calle Tacuba in Mexico City. Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” heard in a Mexico City taxi caroming through the streets at 5 in the morning.

Also great was seeing “Mi Vilano Favorito,” aka “Despicable Me,” in a movie theater off the zocalo. Or even better, seeing “The Great Gatsby” as part of a small evening cinema series in the Robert Brady museum in Cuernavaca. Brady – an artist and collector with a great handlebar mustache, a furry chest, and loads of money – was apparently *the* guy to know in town. After living in Venice he decided to relocate and bought a place that backs up against the 16th century cathedral. There he displayed an amazing folk art collection and threw fabulous parties. His house is now a museum where even the bathrooms are exquisite and everything is staggeringly colorful. Frida Kahlo with a monkey on her shoulder stares with her confronting glance from a wall in one of the upstairs bedrooms, holding her own in a space crowded with paintings and objets. Anyone who has been to the Museo Robert Brady will understand that I now live there in my dreams.

Or maybe my dreams will go live in the Jardin Borda, the gardens said to be haunted by the ghost of Empress Carlotta, the sad, mad, ill-fated wife of Maximilian. You can easily believe in ghosts as you explore the long, moody walkways, fringed with all kinds of exotic plants, and stumble upon melancholy fountains that are silent, shut off until some future, better day.

I’ve writen a self-indulgent lot, but it’s not even the half of it. Mexico was wonderful – full of elegance, life, mystery, struggle, 400-year-old crimes, and much older temples. Plus, incredibly excellent papaya. I am saving my centavos to return.


Music and transit – Asilomar

I went to a conference this past weekend at Asilomar, which is on the Monterey Peninsula, moody and rainswept in February. Somewhere south of San Jose, hitting the radio again, I caught the second half of “Add It Up” by the Violent Femmes, and it sounded so exciting and stripped down and full of awkward rage and lust, it catapulted me immediately back to high school when, one day (skipping classes), some friends and I wandered over to the UofA student union and down, I think on the second level where the mailroom was, found the Femmes playing an acoustic set to a crowd of, like, three, looking all misfit, because instead of drums they had what looked like a plastic bucket or a metal pail, and Gano skinny, sweaty, eyes closed, was singing that shocking ohmymymymymyohmymotherrrr.

It was great to hear that song again after years, especially on 101 South, after driving by the exits of my working past – Fashion Island, San Antonio Road, Oregon Expressway – remembering long-gone commutes and carpools and speeding by them.

Later on, going for a run along the ocean view road, past a sandy golf course and exotic flowering succulents, I got the song stuck in my head again, (ohmymymymymyohmymotherrrr, I would love to love you lover). And it was great, running in the rain, skipping out on a part of the conference, being someplace new, and actually, staying up late and hanging out being a little bit high school. Though nothing’s ever like that again.

I’d gotten the idea stuck in my head that some tragedy had befallen the Femmes, something befitting that utter vulnerable rawness of the set I’d seen as a teenager skulking in the university student union. And when I got home and thought about writing this blog post I looked them up, thinking that maybe the guy had committed suicide or something. But no, what I found on Wikipedia was that the singer had sold rights to “Blister in the Sun” to Wendy’s for something to do with hamburgers!

How perfect is that? Somebody’s hallowed past is another person’s hamburger jingle. It reminded me to enjoy my memories but not get too choked up over them. And if I had to be honest, I’ll admit that the other song I had stuck in my head while I went running in Pacific Grove was the cheesy Flo Rida remix of Spin Me Round (You spin my head right round right round, when you go down). Nothing hallowed there – just radio randomness and a long drive in the rain.