Living on Sponge Cake

I'm a gringa who has moved to Mexico for six months to live with an average family in the Yucatan Peninsula--Cancun, to be exact--in order to accomplish a few things: improve my Spanish, complete the manuscript for my first novel, and escape my thirtieth birthday as well as Thanksgiving, U.S.-style Christmas, and the cold weather of my small Midwestern hometown.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Not so hard to say goodbye

The journey's end is sooner than anticipated. For me, though, it comes not a moment too soon. I've had enough with the illnesses, insects, humidity, and--worst of all for my writing--the numerous toddling children whose parents bring them by the house daily to say hello. In just two days, on January 4, I'm heading back to the flat lands of Midwestern nothingness that seem to be the best spot for me to complete the second draft of my novel and then work my way through fine-tuning as I try to figure out how the hell to get the pince puto libro published.

I've dug out a sweater, a sweatshirt, and some jeans for the trip--I'll be landing in Detroit, and I've reached the point where 70 degrees Fahrenheit feels cold. I can't imagine what 50 or 20 feels like. And I'm a bit unprepared. But I'm happy to be going into hibernation mode nonetheless.

I've already packed the majority of my things, having triaged my belongings (those triage bitches are bitches) to sort what stays in Mexico and what returns with me to the Land of the Large. I have yet to check the Homeland Security website to determine which of my face creams, hair gels, and eye drops are still considered a threat to national security. Hopefully the panic surrounding personal hygiene products and refreshing beverages has subsided somewhat in these months. I never heard news of any attacks using anti-aging eye cream and a bottle of Evian as weapons, so I assume those fears, like most, were ridiculously unnecessary. I look forward to going through customs, with it million officious Napoleons who live to wreak havoc on innocent travelers' lives.

Looking back in an anticipatory nostalgia, remembering the Sears that sold 200 dollar jeans and Chanel cosmetics--more like Sak's than Sears; the vendors in the market grabbing at my hands, saying "Mi amor, something for your ex-boyfriend?"; the nights of drinking to soothe my aches, pains, nausea (seems a contradiction, no?), jungle bug bites, and loneliness; the countless papaya breakfasts; the sushi and Starbucks in the heart of this tropical nowhere; tangoing with an Argentinian hottie for the clients in some random restaurant; listening to theories of how the Kabbalah, the Mayan codices, and the Hindu Vedas all agree that aliens will come soon and will take no prisoners; the many hours spent squished in the backseat of the car with four other people driving to gods-knew-where; getting salsa lessons from my Cuban Spanish teacher who tried not to laugh at my attempts to shake like Shakira; I can only say: What a long, strange trip it's been.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Excerpt: 100 Ways to Pass the Time in Indiana

1) Go shopping alone, pretending to be embarrassingly drunk.

2) Sell nickelbags of oregano to high school kids. Fun, legal, profitable.

3) Heckle at random trials in the hopes of being found "in contempt," just like on TV!

4) Play golf in rich people's yards. They take it as a compliment.

5) Attempt to unionize the local crack whores.

6) Start own Christian sect for personal monetary gain.

7) Break and enter homes at random only to re-arrange furniture according to Feng Shui principles.

8) Find out firsthand the quickest way to be involuntarily committed.

9) Introduce self as Arpella van Cleef.

10) Use metal colander as bike helmet. Inform others of the need for protective gear.

11) Wear stripper shoes to corporate job interviews and ask if the health plan covers Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.

12) Sit in the airport lounge asking passersby, "Hot enough for you?"

13) Wander around hollow-eyed in the business district dressed in professional attire, sipping beer from a 40 oz. bottle in a brown paper bag.

14) Go to job interviews shirtless. Look down at self, notice the shirtlessness and say, "God, I hate this dream."

15) Wearing clever disguise, introduce self as magnet wire heiress.

16) Shave legs in public fountain. Ask for help with backs of knees--always tricky.

17) Tell people they have been selected to be a contestant on "The Biggest Loser." If they say they did not register to be a contestant, look them up and down and ask, "Why not?"

18) Introduce self as founder of Church of the Reformed Magdalene, a devout group of retired Catholic prostitutes.

19) Impress out-of-town clients by taking them cow-tipping at 2 a.m.

20) On resume, use address and phone of local nuthouse for your own. When you do not receive a job offer, file discrimination charges against potential employers.

21) When a guy in a bar hits on you, talk about your favorite movie, "Fatal Attraction." Show him the copy you've kept in your purse since 1995. Once he excuses himself from the conversation, follow him around the bar until he leaves.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

We surrender to the alien gods

Last night I went to a posada given by the Heaven's Gate people from Ani's academy. I was tricked into going. She asked whether I wanted to go to a posada. Thinking, of course, of the delicious food and plentiful drink I would receive, I said "Claro que si." Then and only then did she inform me it would be given by her most special cohorts, the alien-crazed wackjobs. Who, by the way, do not provide wine, beer, rum, or any other fine Caribbean beverage for their guests' sipping pleasure. They do wear magnetized bracelets, talk about going to "mental control" seminars in the 70's, and buy all their party food pre-made at the supermarket.

There's one really big plus to these people: They're the only group I've ever encountered who think I'm really wise not to have children. (You know, with all the alien wars we're going to be experiencing beginning in just 5 short years.) It's nice to be fully supported in my decision to remain child-free, even by total wackjobs.

So, long story short, I had to sit through all that shit without even the benefit of the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from a nice glass of wine. And it was a lot of shit. We had to go out and march through the neighboring streets with lit candles as Nati shouted out the "sacred numbers" and the rest of the group chanted back "ahora probis" or something like that. I thought to myself, as I walked along the wet road, my pant legs getting muddier by the second, my far-too-sober brain reeling in profound annoyance, that while I had done a lot of strange things in my life, especially in my younger, stupider days, nothing compared to that moment.

Strangest-moment-of-my-life-so-far-Award goes to: Alien Posada in Cancun, Dec. 13, 2006.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tenderness goes a long way

So. It's Wednesday.

Ani's at her "class" of people in "the academy" who believe aliens are coming soon--mind you, it's not a religion, it's science, and that means it's A-ok. It's absolutely not related in any way to the New Testament idea of the Second Coming and Apocalypse. Totally different. Aliens! See, aliens! Totally different. Yes, end of the world. Yes, some taken some left behind. But no, no. Totally different. Cause they give their money to a Californian, not the Vatican. See?

I'm medicating my jungle chiggers (67 bites at last count, not including places where the sun don't proverbially shine) and delightfully variant vomiting/diarrhea with two beers, two merlots, and .25 mg of Xanax. Hmm. Maybe 3 merlots. We'll see how much of it comes back up first.

I'm also medicating with Van Morrison and Sam Cooke. Now these men are what happiness is. These men are what life is made to live. These voices are the voices of sanity, of love, of beauty, of meaning. Screw religion, screw science, screw everything. Everything but them. I've studied English in all its forms for years upon empty awful years. But Van Morrison and Sam Cooke are who taught me its true usage. Plaintive. Utter. True.

Or that might be the Mexican beer, Chilean merlot and (if there is a god, it blesses) American Xanax talking. Impossible to tell. Which is exactly my point. The poor cerebral cortex is so easily misled, misdirected; the sleight-of-hand of a million magicians makes up reality.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What's in a name?

The full name of the country I’m writing this in is “Los Estados Unidos de Mexico.” The United States of Mexico. The full name of the country in which I was born is “The United States of America.”

Many people nowadays are mightily offended when people from the country in which I was born refer to themselves as “Americans,” though the same people are not offended when people from the country I’m writing this in refer to themselves as “Mexicans.” Why is this? Why is it preferable to refer to oneself as being from “The United States” when there is more than one United States? Why is it not equally offensive to draw on the assumption there is only one United States in the world?

I think people who live on other parts of the American continents feel people from the country in which I was born are being verbal imperialists when they refer to themselves as “Americans,” because, after all, everyone who lives on the two giant land masses conveniently situated between Europe/Africa and Asia/Oceania can correctly be called American. I don’t think United States of Americans are being such imperialists, at least not in this example—they are only abbreviating for ease of conversation, just as all people from countries with long names do. Further, I don’t think people from the United States of America can help that their country’s founders decided to name the country after the continent. It’s a bit confusing, but there is really nothing inherently offensive in it. Our founders simply were not very imaginative when it came to naming things.

Therefore, unless the countries of the world are prepared to force the United States of America to officially change its name to, say, Disneylandia or Gringolandia, I feel they should carefully re-consider whether people born in that country have as much right to refer to themselves as Americans as people from the country directly to the south of it have to refer to themselves as Mexicans without further explanation or apology.

Just as people from Argentina are not expected to refer to themselves as “Republic of Argentinians.” Just as people from China are not expected to refer to themselves as “People’s Republic-ese” Just as people from Brazil are not expected to refer to themselves as “Federal Republic-ese.” Just as people from Guyana are not expected to refer to themselves as “Co-operative Republic-ese.” It would be silly and ridiculous should all these changes suddenly be required of other countries, wouldn’t it? Why then is it not silly and ridiculous to require people from the United States (of America that is, not the United States of Mexico) to refer to themselves by the type of nation-state they live in and not by the actual name of the country?

All this business about names—I think it stems from a general love-hate relationship with people from the country in which I was born. The world loves the “American” Dream but hates “United States” foreign policy. The world then confuses United States foreign policy with linguistics. Our leaders want political hegemony, therefore our tongues must also intend world (or at least continental) domination through use of the one single horrible unspeakable presumptive offensive word: American.

Shakespeare said it best: Much ado about nothing. Also, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

An American by any other name would be as despised.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil

I love my school.

If you know anyone who wants to wire me some money so I can continue going there for more than one final week (making three total, barely enough to scratch the surface of the million verbs I need to learn and the trillion hours of conversation I need to be able to actually speak the language), by all means have him/her contact me. Hah.

Being poor sucks. Not as hard in Mexico (food and rent are sooooo cheap here), but when it comes to things like wanting more education it’s hard anywhere. My clothes are all too big for me, too, and I can’t afford to get new ones so I look hilarious all the time, all baggy like I’ve just lost a bout with salmonella. Spanish-speaking salmonella clowngirl, that’s me. Awesome. (Funny how every time I live outside the U.S. for any length of time I lose weight without trying. Almost like there’s something wrong with the food available there. Like maybe all of it is super-injected with high-fructose corn syrup and steeped in trans fats.)

I hate money, the concept of money and the need for it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. It is the only thing I ever truly worry about anymore. Such a vicious circle—I want to write my crap sellout mystery novel to make money to live on while I write good stuff, but first, in order to write even the crap one, I have to have miraculous, inexhaustible sources of cash or I don’t get the fuel I need to live on and write from. So annoying. Why artists ever rebelled against the patronage system I have no idea. We still have to sell out and do things solely to make money. Only now we never know whether the money will come in, when, etc. It’s just another happy byproduct of “democracy,” like the middle class-as-beast-of-burden, the atom bomb, racism, and aggressive xenophobia. Awesome.

Here are the lyrics to the song I think of a lot down here.

Thanksgiving is coming up, and I think I’m going to take a cheap bus to Merida with German Jeny for the weekend. I love that I can pretend it’s July and not November. I love that it’s sunny and rainy and I slog to school through knee-deep dog-poop water on Avenida Yaxchilan. Because it’s not snow. Because it’s not home. Because there’s nothing here that makes me sad when I see it (except maybe in an abstract woe-for-the-world way). A place without memories is a place without pain.

German Jeny says she watched the news when she visited New York earlier this year and it reminded her of the propaganda they used to broadcast when she was a little girl growing up in East Germany. She couldn’t believe it. She was immediately disillusioned of her romantic notions of the U.S. “How do you ever find out what’s really happening?” she asked. We don’t—hence the innumerable conspiracy theories abounding nowadays.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Random Thoughts While Waiting for a Tow

As I sit here, well into the fifth hour of our steam-room afternoon by the side of the highway in the state of Yucatan, I'm wishing I had some of last Sunday's dinner, prepared by my fiance's father, a chef from Spain, and served at a local hotel: Squid-inked paella negra, tortilla Espanola, jamon serrano, manchego, chorizo, marinated artichokes, good bread, vino tinto in a glass that by the constant miracle of excellent Mexican service was always full.

I'm wishing for water, water, water. Cold, fresh, sweet water.

I hate being so disappointing an American to the Mexican people I meet, who seem to believe life is really a beautiful dream there in the land of bullshit and silicone. The guy re-tiling Ani’s bathroom (a sweet Mayan guy from Chiapas, always described as an alma blanca, a pure soul) asked me if bathrooms in the U.S. are made of gold. I answered, “No, diamonds.”

I can see hopeful faces dimming when I explain I am not a personal friend of Johnny Depp, I live in a tiny apartment instead of a rococo mansion on 80 acres of golf-course greenery, I can’t even afford to go to the doctor regularly let alone buy myself the pair of Hummers and the Lamborghini every American surely must keep in her garage. I suppose I could lie and make my life in the States seem grand and interesting, but then people here would think me cheap instead of poor. Somehow I can live with “poor” more easily.

Even when I tell them I’m writing a novel, they ask if it’s like Stephen King and when will it be made into a movie. I’m feeling my direction is backward to the movement of the world.

Listening to my (thank god for it) iPod: Joni Mitchell singing her version of Yeats' Second Coming. (Poem linked below.)

“Surely some revelation is at hand.” I suddenly see the appeal of the New Testament, the need for revelation, salvation from some unearthly source. When we try for ourselves these things do not come--likely cannot. The best we can hope for are a few crippling insights—tips of revelatory icebergs—we must swallow and try to forget. Knowledge is unhelpful in navigating that shapeshifting mass of unrecognizable structures and wild emotions which, mashed together and strained through the sieve of cultural mores, compose reality (things we only "know" due to res judicata, precedent, the stories our grandparents told us--different grandparents, different realities, different knowledge).

At least with religious revelations we are spared contact with reality, and we can go on ignoring it. Angels and flaming towers and white lights and all that—it is not here, is not us, is not our squalid little lives. The end of the world is a comforting thought; it must be or it would not be such a persistent theme in the history of human belief systems. Those who believe their earthly snobbery will result in eternal snobbery—saved over unsaved, taken over left behind, Brahmin class over untouchables, oil-rich Republican fundamentalists over welfare moms, poor over rich camel-through-a-needle's-eye types, Orthodox over Reform—are more comforted than most.

Silly people, dreaming of an eternity where everything is cause and effect instead of wholly unfair, unexplainable, as in this life. Despite their general aversion to science, their ultimate faith is in logic--the logic of causality. I think they are in for great disappointment.

Days like this, hot days, crazy days, make me think of Hemingway despite my general disinclination toward him. Hemingway my ass. There is still nothing new under the sun. My generation is just as lost as his if not more so, overshadowed as it is by the innumerable Boomers and their well-intentioned colonization of consciousness. They gamely insert themselves into others' shoes trying to empathize. In truth they are only stealing shoes.

I should cultivate an image of the hard-drinking adventuring author. It sells, yes? It's expected. But I'm not sure our culture buys that image of women as readily as of men. I'd just end up looking like a haggard old witch. Notice how they never say a woman is "ruggedly handsome." She's either beautiful, young, well-bred/decorous, or a haggard old witch. You see my dilemma. At this point beautiful and young are both outside the realm of the possible, so I must focus on being well-bred. Nowadays the well-bred no longer worship cocktails as emphatically as they do teetotalling judgmental godheads. Nick and Nora no more. Lillian Helman, Dorothy Parker, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, adios. Martha Gellhorn--well, she was considered a haggard old witch even in her time. Hemingway, you old bastard. Good thing you caught up to yourself before she did. Although you denied her her just deserts.

Welcome to life with the legacy of the Moral Majority--no more innocent fun. Now everything good is thought dirty and shameful and wrong. Even if we don't believe in Puritan morals, we have to watch our step or there'll be a hell of witch hunt--lives ruined for no real reason, scarlet letters branding all of us. A for Allowing yourself to laugh in public, B for Bitchiness, C for Crying in sadness, D for Delighting in something you love, E for Erring, F for... well, you get the picture. Thanks a lot, ye reformed, guilt-peddling hypocrites. Maybe, just maybe, you're overdoing it to make up for your misspent youths. (Koo koo ka-choo, God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson. You all married your young Miss Robinson and shoved her mother's bony old Pucci-clad skeleton in your closets.) I'm not the first to say this, I know. Nothing new.

At any rate, Moralizers, Boomers, your many gifts to my generation will ensure the following generation is nuttier than Zelda Fitzgerald's fruitcake. But here; let me excuse you: Not your fault. No one responsible. Way of the world. Natural order. Darwin-eat-dog.

Ah, here is the tow truck. We’re on the road again—sort of. Next stop, Wonderland.

A story for Kate

My friend Kate, a former colleague from my brief stint in the movie biz, asked me, before she met my fiancé, whether he was the type of guy who would drop everything and go help one of my friends if s/he was having car trouble or was stranded. I answered, unhesitatingly, “yes.”

He’s proved me right, from half a continent away.

Ani, Fernando, Mami and I were driving to Valladolid on the 31st. It’s a Spanish colonial town about 2 hours from Cancun by toll road. Just after we passed into the state of Yucatan from the state of Quintana Roo, we got a flat tire. At first we weren’t upset—we had a spare tire and all the tools we needed—a few minutes of work and we’d be back on the road. However, the security bolt that requires a special key to take off had been damaged and we couldn’t get the tire off no matter what we did. Ani tried, Fernando tried, I tried, and three people stopped to help but no one could get the tire off. Ani’s cell phone ran out of credit so we had no contact with anyone in Mexico. Things were looking grim by the third hour of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, we had not brought water or food since the trip was supposed to be a short one. Finally, a group of highway maintenance workers stopped to try to help us. They couldn’t get the tire off but they had lots of water, so we were spared utter dehydration under the strong sun.

Fernando had a U.S. cell phone that couldn’t dial Mexican numbers, but I decided to try calling my fiancé in Indiana to see if he could in turn reach the folks back in Cancun. It worked, and my fiancé dropped everything he was doing at work to contact his brothers and father in Cancun, get back in touch with us, and coordinate our rescue. Eventually roadside assistance came to help us, and after six and a half hours of waiting, we made it to Valladolid, where a dozen large bats swooped around us as mechanics drilled through the wheel to finally remove the flat tire. We exchanged stories about vampire bats and La Llorona ( pronounced “la Your-oh-na,” a Banshee-like Mexican ghost, literally “the crying woman,” who would surely have come to haunt us had we stayed on the highway through the night). It was Halloween night, after all. I counted up the number of people who had attempted to take off the tire—lucky thirteen.

In Spanish, the verbs “to hope” and “to wait” are the same, differing only by context and usage—“esperar.” I realized the sensations of hoping and waiting are indeed nearly identical and almost always go hand-in-hand. The Buddhists believe that to spend one’s life hoping is equal to spending one’s life waiting or fearing—all are future-focused and require lots of mental effort that takes one out of the present moment. But if one’s present moment is being stuck for half a day in the middle of nowhere in sweltering heat without water, getting pinker by the minute, waiting is mandatory and hope is what keeps you from despair.

All’s well that ends well, though, and we made it to our hotel without further incident with car trouble, vampire bats or La Llorona. We ate cochinita pibil, pig roasted in banana leaves with yummy spices, and sopa de lima, a broth-based chicken soup with limes added for flavor. We all had a beer, bought some fresh coconut ice cream from a street vendor (he also had corn ice cream—a strange flavor for me), and went to bed, exhausted.

The following day was gorgeous, and we trekked around the streets of the picturesque town, hitting the markets, restaurants, cathedrals, and street vendors. If you go to Cancun, be sure to leave time for a day trip to Valladolid for a glimpse of the “real” Mexico—but take a bus so you don’t have to worry about car trouble!