Friday, April 24, 2009

La vanidad

The other night my husband had the channel on one of those cable news shows where people argue at high volume. That evening, the topic was Miss California’s statement about gay marriage, and a panel of pundits were loudly taking turns (a term I use generously) defending her and tearing her apart.

The point that everyone missed: this is the Miss America Pageant. My husband’s initial reaction to the whole situation, even before analyzing what she had to say, was "I can’t believe they still have that thing. Why does anyone care what a beauty contestant thinks?" Indeed. Why do we still have that thing? I know some people think that Miss America hearkens back to a more wholesome time, but there has never been anything wholesome about it. Any way you cut it, it is public debasing and exploitation of women who, seeking validation in something so superficial and fleeting as physical appearance, hollow-headedly conspire in their own objectification. Miss America reinforces our society’s skewed perception of women as mere pretty pleasure-givers. Proponents of beauty pageants argue that they teach self-confidence. Hooey. They undermine self-confidence by teaching that a woman’s value lies in being Barbie-grade “beautiful”, and that the girl with the shiniest teeth and best bikini-body wins in life. By that standard, Mother Teresa with her imperfect teeth is not a role model, and neither is anyone whose belly is a little saggy from bringing a child into the world, nor anyone whose nails are less than manicure-perfect from hard work. ¿Qué? Beauty pageants reduce the value of femininity to sparkly dresses, tiaras, and camera-perfect make-up and hair. The pseudo-profound questions that the judges ask them are a mockery of the true intelligence and articulate expression that so many women cultivate.

I’m not saying pretty is bad. I’m not saying that a person, male or female, shouldn’t take care of their appearance (and hygiene, please). A good haircut or a good dress can help a person feel more confident, but it shouldn’t be the main source of confidence. What I’m saying is that the pursuit of beauty shouldn’t swallow up a person’s identity, and that it should never define a society’s value-judgment scale of womanhood. If we insist on judging, there are better measuring rods out there.

In her later news interview, Miss California reaffirmed and defended her stance on gay marriage. In a way I admire her for standing up for her beliefs, for refusing to take the politically correct position. What I don’t admire is her phrasing, her insistence that she was being "biblically" correct. Did she miss all those parts about modesty? About vanity? About looking not on the outward appearance, but on the heart? The Bible euphemistically refers to homosexuality as "abusing" the body. Would she defend parading in a bikini before the eyes of a lascivious crowd as something other than abuse of the body? Is that body, made public property, a worthy vessel of the Spirit? If she's going to claim moral high ground, maybe she should pay more attention to holy writ than to whether her roots need a touch-up. Admittedly I’m no saint, but I am suspicious of the soundness of the moral foundation of someone whose heart is so set on the vanity and praise of the world.

Was it a loaded question? Yes. An inappropriate question for the venue? Probably. Maybe she didn’t win because of what she said. Entirely possible. And maybe she didn’t win because the other girl had better hair or eye make-up or perkier boobs. We’re kidding ourselves if we say that the quality of these women’s minds matters to their audience. I have to wonder, what weight do our views on marriage, heterosexual or otherwise, carry in a nation where we still celebrate such an assault on real womanhood? Just wondering.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


There is something freaky going on with my husband's job, and it distresses me. Please don't ask questions, I don't know the answer. Given that the situation is delicate and I don't understand it anyway, I will write about something absolutely unrelated. Our life in Peñasco is mired in confusion, but the Mississippi of fiction is mired in something much juicier.

My husband is a patient and un-jealous soul. He is resigned to the fact that when I pick up a novel that really grabs me he will lose me a little during the reading of it, and nobly fails to feel the least bit threatened when my heart goes adolescently pitter-pat for a man that exists only in the literary ether.

I am currently reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and I am in love. I am in love with the prose, the story, the words, the eloquent half-page run-on sentences, and the flawed people that populate the pages. That, and I have a desperate crush on Charles Bon.

Charles Bon represents the worst of all that has ever made me swoon, long before I matured to associating “sexy” with stability, work ethic, motivation, fidelity, and an absence of relationship drama (all of which is not to say I don’t love my husband’s sexy hair). But I am seduced. In the same way that Jason Compson Sr. tells Quentin how Charles didn’t have to seduce Judith Sutpen because he’d already gotten Henry under his spell and so Henry seduced his sister with the idea of Charles on his behalf, so Faulkner has vicariously seduced me with his description of Charles, and the Frenchman didn’t have to lift a finger. Jason Sr. describes Bon’s apathy (almost ennui), his careless way, and I think it’s kind of sexy. Is it surprising that I find his sentiments toward his bought woman tender and magnanimous? That there is appeal to his pragmatic argument that they, women reared solely to love and be loved, are the last truly chaste women in the Americas? That his laissez-faire approach to life (because who cares about the Adam Smith and a free trade economy?) makes me want to sit under the oaks, smelling the magnolias and watching the river crawl past? It’s that mellow c’est-la-vie that makes Louisiana creole culture so appealing. It would be that way even without the food (and you all know how I feel about food. Oh, pralines, chicory and beignets, bisque and etoufée. . .)

New Orleans, the city itself, is a seducer, and by association are its natives. The sultriness of the air paws at you. A New Orleans drawl pauses to kiss the earlobes before the sound makes its way inside the ear. It is a low, soft voice that obliges the listener to lean in a little closer to the speaker, making even a conversation of virtuous content feel sensual and intimate. Even a low laugh from grey-eyed grandmother calling me "bou" or "chère" is warm and rich like molasses. It is a distinct voice. That is how I hear Charles Bon’s voice. Even without imagining dark creole features and penetrating eyes, the drawl tugs at me. I heard that voice in my head when I read the letter written in stove polish.

The stove-polish-ink-on-pilfered-French-watermark, the un- love letter, drew me in. It is devoid of frilly romance, devoid of compliments (aside from "I will not insult you by saying". . .) and I love yous. Its pragmatism, its fatalism, its honesty, its eloquence make those pretenses superfluous. The fatalistic laissez-faire is infectious, so much so that when Henry kills Charles by the front steps the seduced reader fails to hurt, except for the loss of such a lovely being. The blank tragedy of it is sultry, the kind of emotion experienced in the dusk with the eyes half-closed. Judith understood, and so it is the letter that remains, not what WAS but what IS, passed to Mrs. Compson to safeguard that letter’s moment of stark ironic beauty.
It’s a good thing I was officially sworn off men for a while when I lived in Louisiana, and probably a better thing I didn’t spend much time in New Orleans. Listening to that voice for days uninterrupted would have gotten me sooner or later. Some women may go in for more understandably romantic types like Edward Cullen, and that certainly makes loads more sense (and don’t even ask how I know that name, blame it on mass media because I have not wasted any precious reading time on that book). Leave it to a supernerd like me to get sucked in by a pragmatist, bigamist, French-creole beauty of a man in a decidedly unromantic bit of prose. Grotesquely, I vaguely remember having a hopeless crush Quentin Compson for the intricate, if depraved, inner workings of his brain in that last day before his suicide, when I read The Sound and the Fury in high school. I suspect that was unhealthy, but his mind is so very, very lovely.

Having spent time in the Mississippi of flesh and blood and terra firma, I do not have particularly warm feelings for the place. But Jefferson, Mississippi I may not mind, for all its flaws and the wrecked lives of its inhabitants. From the distance drawn by pages and print and fiction it’s a beautiful place (and right now anything greener than Peñasco is a little bit of heaven). From that same distance Charles Bon is the most beautiful man (not) alive. (Be assured that my husband holds my off-paper equivalent of that esteem).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


My husband and I got back Sunday night from a quick road trip to Los Angeles. He only had a few days off at the tail end of Holy Week (not two weeks like the rest of the country, thanks again un-Mexico). We had originally planned to spend the time kicking around southeastern Arizona ghost towns with the in-laws, the highlight of which was to (hopefully) be a night at a haunted B&B in Bisbee which, apart from the usual spooks, features a hooker-haint who reportedly entertains guests with an otherworldly strip-tease from the foot of the bed. The in-laws had not been informed of these particular details; they are not believers like us, and we figured we’d mention it (or not) after the fact, if we managed to stay a night there.

Alas (or not so deep a sigh), plans changed. My husband’s great uncle died, and my in-laws decided to go to the funeral in L.A. instead. We decided to join them A) out of respect, B) because we’re not sure how many more opportunities we’ll have to seen my husband’s aged grandfather in this world, and C) why the heck not? Neither of us had ever been to that part of Cali before (he used to live in the Bay Area, but had not ventured that far south). I admit that at first I was hesitant; the image I’d always had of L.A. was a plasticky one, and didn’t think I’d find much to do since I’m not in the slightest interested in buying a StarMap and stalking the Pretty People. Gack. I couldn’t care less. What’s a Hollywood-apathetic girl to do? LOTS, we discovered. Much to my pleasant surprise, I *heart* L.A. We seriously tossed around the idea of living there. Quite seriously. Now I want desperately to find a job lucrative enough to take up residence in Santa Monica, maybe Pasadena. More accurately, I want my husband the attorney to bring home sufficient bacon, and post-PhD I’ll get a gig at one of the many universities. Because, let’s be honest, a humanities professor is never going to make that kind of money.

In retrospect, the drive out may be evidence of a lapse in good judgment. We left fair Peñasco at a late hour and drove through the night in shifts, pulling into the L.A. metro area around 6am. Ouch. We stopped in a Kmart parking lot and tried to sleep a bit, to no avail. So, we found an ATM that dispensed spendable green dollars instead of multi-colored pesos, procured some breakfast, loaded up on diet Coke, and made a day of it. By the time we checked into our hotel late that afternoon we were zombies and it took my thirty-something body longer to recover than I’ll admit, but we still managed to have a rip-roaring good time.

Among the joys we crammed in:

-Driving around the city and taking in the view of Angelino humanity in its mind-boggling heterogeny

-The Getty Museum, where in the portrait gallery we discovered my brother’s eerie twin, a Fulano-de-tal 16th-century financial advisor to Carlos V

-Lunch at one of those macro-biotic vegan cafés, because we needed to cleanse after eight hours on the road. After salad-spare weeks in Peñasco, it was delicious mouthfuls of green heaven.

-Strolling Santa Monica Boulevard, including some shopping in which my husband scouted out a very pet-able velvet jacket for me. Why is it that my husband is always the one to spot my best shoes and jackets?

-The carnival rides on Santa Monica pier and requisite funnel cake (after the rides).

-People-watching on Venice Beach.

-Truly talented street performers, including Russian acrobats!!

-Black bean soup, jerked chicken and fried plantains at a Caribbean joint.

-The LaBrea tarpits and the Page Museum. I discovered:
1. I love sabertooth cats just as much as I did as a little kid;
2. While they may have gone extinct millennia before the Grimm Brothers and a continent away, paleolithic Dire Wolves are straight out of a fairy-tale nightmare;
3. I have a new respect for paleontologists, particularly the black ooze diggers, since during the course of NO archaeological excavation did I ever get as sticky-filthy as they do.

-Navigating Pasadena to meet a friend, followed by his guided driving tour of much of L.A. In comparison with my current environs, even the seedier areas didn’t seem so bad, given their paved roads, minimal trash in the streets, and lack of third-world dogs.

-Giving gursha to my husband and aforementioned friend in a dimly lit and delicious Ethiopian restaurant (if you’re scandalized, get your mind out of the gutter and look it up). Quote of the evening: "If I’d known what kind of food they have over there, I’d never have sent money to the Ethiopians when I was a kid". –Our friend, after swallowing a mouthful of spiced lamb and lentils.

-Live Coltrane-imposter jazz at a club in VanNuys.

-Copious quantities of ice cream and gelato.

-And yes, we spent a little less than an hour in the bustle in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and got an eyeful of the freakshow in the surrounding blocks. Mostly I was surprised at how tiny Carmen Miranda’s footprints were in the concrete.

-But we didn’t get to go on The Price Is Right. No chance for Drew Carey to tell me to ComeOnDown!! This is why we have to go back. (That and a garlic restaurant I heard about).

All of that, and we squeezed in the great-uncle’s half-day funeral and some good visiting time with my husband’s family. The interment was very nice and good words were said, but the cemetery was insane. It sits on a steep hillside overlooking the valley. It has a beautiful view (for what that may matter to the deceased) but the graves are set in a precarious slope and I worried for the welfare of the more senior members of the family and for all of our ankles as we hiked up to the open grave. I guess when level real estate is at a premium, one invents (barely) workable solutions.

So, I know I have to take into account that I’m living in a place that makes all infrastructured civilization hover on paradise, but I really was taken with the city. Yes, the traffic is hell, but better than Atlanta or Mexico City. The beach is just as pretty as Peñasco (but much colder, *shiver*). The views are gorgeous. The people are friendly. The air was surprisingly clean (maybe the smog is a summer problem?). The weather was beautiful. It is refreshingly cosmopolitan—even mentioning the ethnic diversity seems redundant. Fresh vegetables and fruits are plentiful year-round. "Organic" and "locavore" are options, not mystery concepts. Name a cuisine and it’s available to satisfy my cravings and curiosity. Every heat-level chile known to man is in somebody’s cooking. It is the Vanity Fair; the seeker can find anything and everything she might want or need. I understand why so many people want to live there. Maybe me, too.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Déjenme en paz

I'm having a crappy day today. I just am. This happens sometimes. And here's the silver lining: When I live in a place with few friends and one close one, the only person to look at me and ask "are you alright?" is my husband (that would be my one close friend). No friendly acquaintances or polite strangers picking at the cracks in my unconvincing I'm-okay mask. Heck, I don't even have to wear one! It's a relief, really.

I'm an optimist.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

¿Por qué no la compartes?

Mexicans must think I am the stingiest person in town.

Silly norteamericana that I am, I assume that my neighbors prefer that I keep it down. That’s how it is at home, right? I shut the windows and keep the volume at what I think is a reasonable level.

Not my neighbors. When they put on some music, they open the windows and crank it so high that the already dissonant strains of banda are further distorted—the volume at which both bass and treble buzz. Unfortunately, buildings here are not typically insulated against either weather or sound, and so it comes right through the walls. And it goes late into the night, even on weeknights. Businesses do this, too, so that when you drive past the music rattles your wheels and your teeth. It certainly gets my attention.

I am dubious that it has ever crossed their minds that there exists a person such as I who cannot stand banda or norteña, because it seems to be universally adored in these parts. How on earth could someone not love this music? If you want to try it out yourself, search “Los Tigres del Norte” or “Alicia Villareal” on youtube and you will not only hear it, but be dazzled by the costumes that I, in my close-mindedness, have deemed ridiculous. (Parenthetically, if you want to see some scary-tight mariachi pants, look for Alejandro Fernández and you’ll get some cheesy ballads out of it, too).

So now I feel stingy, because I don’t share. In fairness, I’m afraid that if my music competes with theirs an ugly volume war will break out. I have memories of this from my freshman year in the dorms. Would they mind, though? Maybe it’s unfair to say this, but banda and norteña are already so cacophonous to my ear that it might not make a difference. Sure, add more sound! they might tell me. Let’s all bring something to share! It's a bad musical potluck where the flavors of all the dishes clash. I don’t, though. Out of shyness and a desire not to offend my neighbors (without really knowing that it would offend them), I keep my music to myself.

I am beginning to suspect that ¡sube la radio! is as important in north Mexican culture as ¡Viva Villa!.

Friday, April 3, 2009


There’s a little something about the culture here that’s been frustrating me. I know that I should accept it, that I’m the foreigner that therefore I should be the one to make the adjustment. That’s all good and well. Fine. I’ll say that I have adjusted to it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still be frustrated by it. I’ve overcome exasperation, at least, and am settled at annoyed acceptance.

Here it is: in my book, Mexicans lie. Only the don’t think they’re lying. They would likely be extremely offended if I called them on it. Lying, you see, is deliberately and maliciously obscuring the truth. They aren’t doing that. It’s the opposite of malicious. I’ve gathered that they believe they’re making sure I’m happy by telling me what they think I want to hear. They are going out of their way to make sure I don’t get upset by telling me something unpleasant. In a way, it’s very considerate of them.

When I moved to Mexico for the first time in 2003, I learned early on that keeping things pleasant and making sure everyone is happy is an overarching cultural value here. I think this is part of why it can take so long to get some things done here; you can’t proceed until you’re sure that everyone involved is not only on the same page, but happy about it. I’ve observed repeatedly that meetings, conversations, classes, dinner—anything, really—stops and hovers at smoothing over upset feelings, and we can’t move on until we’re satisfied that no one in the room is upset. Reflecting on it now I think I’ve unconsciously picked up on that in my teaching, because I find myself repeating “¿todo bien?” and looking around the room for consternation. If people don’t grasp it, I give additional examples, alternate explanations, memory tricks, whatever works, until the confusion passes. I don’t need them to be happy about it, though. They can loathe the subjunctive with their whole souls for all I care, as long as they can conjugate and know when to use it.

This happens frequently when I’m trying to get my hands on something that I need, and the store is out of it, or the person I need to talk to isn’t in. For example, I go to the grocery store, actually several of them, only to find that everyone is out of tomatillos. Yes, we are in Mexico and there are no tomatillos. In the wasteland of Sonora where nothing will grow, everything has to be trucked in (it gets pricey, hence the outrageous cost of living here) and the trucks aren’t always reliable. They get held up at state and international borders, military checkpoints, tollpoints, and other nonsense that hinders efficiency. I digress—back to the tomatillos. So, I ask the produce guy if they have more in the back. No. When will there be more? This afternoon, he says. Naïvely satisfied with his answer, I come back in the afternoon. No tomatillos. This goes on for three days, every day someone telling me that the truck will be here later in the day. Finally I find some at a fruitstand. They are sad looking but acceptable, and I take them home and roast them and turn them into the salsa that I have been madly craving for four days (by the way, convenience foods haven’t made inroads here, so I have to make most things from scratch. That’s right, I can’t buy fresh salsa at the deli. What deli?) Even if they don’t carry what I’m looking for, never have and likely never will, they smile at me, shrug, and say “tal vez mañana”. Mentiras. Which leads to another important lesson for living in Mexico: “Mañana” doesn’t necessarily mean tomorrow. It means, “not today”.

There is an exception: at the bank, they are straightforward with the truth. Of course, you can’t fudge telling someone that the wire transfer number is correct when the transfer won’t go through, and you can’t tell someone that their debit card has arrived when the mail from Mexico City hasn’t shown up for over a week and a half. So, they tell me what I don’t want to hear, and yes, the truth is frustrating. I can take it in stride, though. It helps that they deliver the disappointing news with the sweetest voice they can muster.

And that’s my culture clash. I am still the foreigner (and how). No matter how Latina I may be, I grew up in mainstream culture in the United States. It’s difficult to reconcile my black-and-white, Puritan North American ideals of truth and lies to the gentler Mexican concern for avoiding the unpleasant, even if the solution is short-lived. I hate to admit this, but despite speaking the language, trying to understand and adapt to the culture, blah, blah, blah, I am still an Ugly American. True, I don’t go in for loud public drunkenness and insisting that everything be done in English and US dollars, but I accepted some time ago that I will never go native in Mexico, especially not rural northern Mexico. My first instinct is still to say what’s on my mind, and to share what information I have when someone asks for it, even if the truth isn’t happy-making, because I assume that when someone asks a direct question they want a direct answer. If I don’t know, I say so. So, my automatic reaction is to think that Mexicans lie. I’m sure they think I am rude and blunt (with some justification). So, I try to bite my tongue and resign myself to repeated petitions for goods and services I might require, for people who dodge my questions with a pleasant voice and a big smile.

So, um, thanks? Gracias, México, por preocuparse tanto por mi bienestar. Sé que solo quieren que lo pase bien.