A Twelve Year-Old Looks at Economic Policy

wiley 4

Editor’s note: Following is a (brief) blog post from Wiley 4. We’ve been trying to make him write one every 2 months, but we haven’t been super religious about it. Here are his most recent thoughts on something every 12 year-old ponders…minimum wage. Feel free to engage in debate with him, if you so choose.

Opinion Article

by Wiley Long

Topic-Minimum Wage

Minimum wage is a heavy topic in the United States and I believe that every person has a different opinion about it, clearly, this is not a black and white topic.

So, right away-Do I believe there should be a minimum wage?-No. But why don’t I believe that there should be a minimum wage in the United States is a bigger question.

In the United States we have freedom, we have the right to work for any price we agree to work for. If someone wants to pay someone $2/hour to make hamburgers at MacDonald’s, and that person agrees to work for $2/hour to make hamburgers at MacDonald’s than they should be able to do that. $7.25/hour is a pretty normal price that I think – even if there wasn’t a minimum wage –  most people wouldn’t go too far below. On the other hand, in Vermont where the minimum wage is $9.15/hr, that just seems unfair for a small business owner who maybe owns a tiny little restaurant who has to pay someone $9.15/hr to sweep their floor.

In the end, it’s one of those things that I just don’t understand how people for minimum wage don’t get. Anyway, I hope that one day, things will be different and maybe anyone reading maybe changed there mind a bit.

Up On a Roof

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A family selfie at the best rooftop restaurant around.

Tonight we ate The Last Supper, although there was no water being turned into wine, and no multiplication of the fishes and the loaves. I realize I’m mixing my biblical stories here, but bear with me.

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Night falling from the roof. Stunning skies were the icing on the sunset cake.

It was our last supper on the roof of this house we have lived in for the last year. A giant rental house with way too many antiques and monogrammed linens, but arguably the most stunning view in town. A house with an expansive rooftop where we sat with family members, and with new friends and old, and stared off towards the western horizon at the setting sun sparkling off of the reservoir. We took deep breaths and pointed at multi-colored clusters of houses and church spires and distant traffic lights. Sometimes we said it out loud and sometimes we all just thought it, but no one sat on that roof and didn’t realize how great it is to be alive.

A little over a year ago we crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo and drove directly south for ten hours to set up shop in a town where we knew no one. We formed friendships with people at lightening speed and with unsurpassed ease. The people we met were from different places and different backgrounds. They had widely varying political viewpoints and parenting styles. They were lawyers, musicians, entrepreneurs, chefs, doctors, artists, and farmers. Lots were from Mexico and the U.S. Others were from Canada or France, Ireland, England, Spain, El Salvador, and South Africa. They were like us, but they weren’t. We had never felt so enfolded.

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Wiley and his buddy Dutch brave the icy waters of Los Pozos.

We put our unilingual kid into a bilingual school in which he had no friends, yet he thrived. We joined a gym, we volunteered, we shopped at the markets. We went to the festivals and the art gallery openings and the music and the parades and the parties and we ate at the restaurants and drank with the locals at the cantinas. For months we didn’t leave home because we were so overwhelmed with all there was to do. Then we traveled far and wide, to places with names like Todos Santos and Merida and Xilitla and Patzcuaro and Tequisquiapan.

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It’s OK, I’m a veterinarian.

We saw the monarch butterfly migration. We attended the full-blown Mexican wedding of dear friends. We saw my favorite band play the first shows they’ve ever played in Mexico. We dangled over the edge of the fourth deepest sinkhole in the world, and visited the fourth largest monolith in the world. We swam in hot springs, repelled down cliff sides, and galloped on horseback across the plains.

Perhaps the most amazing product of this year away has been that we have become so much closer as a family. This has been the biggest and most delightful surprise. We spend more time together, and we do more things as a family, than we ever have before.

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Power to the People! In front of the statue of Morelia on the island of Janitzio in Michoacan.

And now school is over, and our timeline says it’s time to go back. Only we can’t. The truth is that we are happier here than any of us ever thought we would be. Whatever expectations we had have been exceeded many times over. I miss my clients and their pets. I miss snow, but only a little. I miss affordable almond butter. I miss my friends and family back home. But with every passing day this place feels more like home to me than any other place I have ever lived.

Lots of you have asked, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make this announcement sooner. We actually made the decision several months ago, and I let the clinic where I used to work in Fort Collins know of our plans back in January, so that they could tell my clients. But they sat on the news for some time, and only made the news public recently, so I felt that I couldn’t say anything until now.

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Gizmo, blissfully happy upon learning the news that the act of peeing will no longer involve traversing 2 microclimates.

So tonight was the last supper, but not because we’re leaving San Miguel. We’re moving out of this house because we knew that we couldn’t leave our cats in Fort Collins for another year, and we can’t have them at this house. We found another place where we can have them, and we’ll be moving there after we return from a trip home to the States in August. It’s not as grand as our current digs, but it’s comfortable, and it also has a roof with a great, although somewhat lower, less commanding view. But losing altitude also means much easier access to the house – no walking up enormous hills three times a day, which the dogs will appreciate as much as we will.

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High above Zihuatenajo Bay.

So look out U.S. of A. – we’re coming for you! We’ll spend a blissful month in the bosom of family and friends, starting at our beach house in Alabama and ending in Colorado, where we’ll collect our cats, and be back here in time for school. And if you didn’t get that visit in last year, you’ve been given a reprieve. The door is always open, so come visit. Who knows – maybe you won’t want to leave either.

No More Tears In Heaven

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(Editor’s note: I wrote this post very shortly after the incident happened, which was in late March. I haven’t been able to publish it until today. I’m still making sense of what happened. I’m sure I never will completely.) A few months back I noticed a cord with a plastic pull hanging in our garage, associated in some way with the garage door apparatus. I speculated aloud as to what its function was, and my husband, who was standing nearby informed me that shortly after we had moved in he and my son were in the garage together. My son, who was eleven at the time, had seen the cord, which is only easily in reach when the garage door is in the “up” position, had pulled the cord, which disconnected the door from the automatic lifting device and subsequently caused it to come crashing down on its tracks. Luckily no one was standing under it, because they surely would have been crushed (had the “someone” been one of our two small dogs) or sustained a serious injury (had the “someone” been a person, like my child or husband).

Not in a fond way I was reminded of the time several years prior when my husband had related, several months after the event, the story of his successful execution of the Heimlich maneuver on the same son mentioned above. A true carnivore, my son, who had barely enough teeth to masticate meat at the time, had placed an enormous piece of flank steak in his mouth and choked while trying to swallow it. No one in my family seems to understand why discussing this incident inflames me, since in their assessment, everything turned out fine. And in their estimation, telling me about it in a more timely fashion would not have changed the ultimately positive outcome.

In the life of any person there are certainly many such incidents. Near misses. Almost calamities. Flirting with disaster, thank you, Molly Hatchet. As parents the hairs on our arms stand up as we allow ourselves a brief contemplation of “what if?”, and we smile and offer a silent prayer of thanks as that tiny package containing half of our DNA and all of our hearts runs off towards the next adventure.

At least, that’s how it usually happens. In a way so incredibly tragic that I am just now able to start to comprehend it, it didn’t happen that way for a friend of mine here. At a birthday party over the weekend her son, who was only five years old, drowned in a pool-full of kids, surrounded by several attentive adults.

How did it happen? None of us really understands it. I was only there to drop off my son, who was spending the night with the older son of my friends, who were hosting the party for their younger son. I got into a conversation with a couple of other parents from our school. We have recently staged something of a “bloodless coupe” and placed four new board members, all parents, which has energized the community quite a bit. We were having a spirited discussion about curriculum when I heard my friend Erica screaming for someone to call an ambulance.

It was all so unreal. One second I was talking to friends, and the next I was sprinting after my friend Chuck, who was hurtling over chairs and benches on his way to the pool deck. Even then in my mind I was thinking that at worse someone had fallen and cracked their head on the pool deck. But when we got to the side of the pool we found an unresponsive little boy with blue lips surrounded by frantic adults.

Someone had started CPR, but for better or worse, the crowd parted for Chuck and me. Somehow my brain went to that place that it’s supposed to go to when you’re trained to deal with emergencies. Airway. Breathing. Compressions. A-B-C. I rolled him to his side and cleared his mouth of vomit. I probed under his mandible for a carotid pulse, and felt nothing. Chuck started compressions, and I started mouth-to-mouth, pinching his nose and blowing into his mouth until I saw his chest rise. I had never actually done CPR on a human, and I remember when I got certified that mouth-to-mouth is controversial, since unconscious people almost always vomit, but it seemed like I had to try. In a fully-stocked veterinary clinic I would have placed an endotracheal tube and hooked the patient up to an oxygen machine, but clearly I couldn’t do that, so I did what at the time seemed like the next best thing.

I don’t know how long we tried to revive him on the pool deck, but it probably wasn’t long before someone made the decision that we needed to take him to the hospital, because waiting for the ambulance would cost us precious time. Here in San Miguel even if the ambulance does come it is likely not staffed by trained EMT’s, like ambulances are back home. So really all you’re getting is a fast ride to the hospital with sirens. My friend Erica, who lives in a tiny town six hours from here, told me that once a cyclist got hit by a car in front of her house, and when she called the ambulance, she was told she’d have to bring them gas money before they’d come.

So I think that ultimately the decision to drive him to the hospital was the right one, because we were only a short distance away. Chuck and I raced from the pool to the first car we saw with a driver, Chuck carrying his body and me cradling his head. We laid him on the floor of the back seat and started CPR again, and continued until we pulled into the emergency bay at the hospital.

For some reason it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get him back. Even as I was repeatedly checking for a pulse and not getting one, I thought his color was improving. And I wanted so badly for him to live! To come back to us and resume his ridiculously short life! To come back to his mother, who cherished him beyond measure. But after only about ten minutes in the ER our friend Ricardo, who is an MD here in town and had met us at the hospital, came out to tell us that he was gone.

It was so overwhelmingly impossible to believe this news. I remember in vet school our Emergency Medicine professor showed us a study that someone did comparing people’s perceptions of how often comatose people are revived in the ER, versus the reality. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but suffice it to say that TV hospital dramas have skewed our beliefs far towards the positive side, but the reality is that most of these cases don’t make it. And I don’t know whether his chances would have been any better in an American ER or even an ER in a bigger Mexican city. I don’t even know how long he was under the water, but surely it couldn’t have been long. How did it happen so fast?

I spent some time over the next couple of days wondering if there was more I could have done, or something I should have done differently. I asked myself why I felt that I needed to be one of the ones working to save him. After all, I’m a dog doctor, not a people doctor. I remembered another story from vet school, this time about a couple of doctors from the vet teaching hospital where I went to school who were on a plane headed to a conference when that Hollywood-moment occurred and the flight attendant asked over the intercom if there was a doctor on the plane. My vet friends related that they waited a minute, looking anxiously around them until, seeing no call buttons go on, rang theirs. When the flight attendant arrived and they told her that they were veterinarians, uproarious laughter ensued from the seats around them. Some asshole even yelled out, “Hey, we’ll let you know if he needs his nails clipped!” to chorus of even more laughter.

So yeah, we vets have some insecurities about what you think of our abilities. I can’t really even say what made me lay my hands on this boy, except that I felt that I had to. And honestly I don’t know if it was even possible to save him at that point. Sadly, we’ll never know. But I think I did the right thing by trying.

Death. So final. So many questions left unanswered. So much pain. Why did this happen? Surely, I’ll never be able to answer that. This little boy’s poor mother is lost. She’ll never hold his hand as they cross the street together again. She’ll never struggle over homework with him. She’ll never anguish with him because a girl turned him down for a date, or hold a grandchild in her arms.

The community is reeling, surely as it would be after the tragic loss of any child, but this little boy was heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that even those who met him only once and briefly were touched by him. Everyone remembered meeting him, and remembered his dazzling smile. We’ll never see him grow up, never know what he would have become.

A few days ago I watched sunset from the roof of a house in the beautiful and slightly funky beach town of Zihuatanejo, where we are spending a week. It was one of those fiery orange ball sunsets, oozing into the Pacific Ocean like a popsicle melting on a on cement in mid-August. Realizing simultaneously the beauty of this sunset and that my camera was downstairs, I mentally calculated whether I could make it down and back in time to get my phone and photograph the sunset. I decided that I would rather just enjoy the sunset, and wait until another day to get a picture. But, of course, there was no other sunset quite like that one on any of the other days that we were there.

Ultimately I guess tragedies remind us to watch more sunsets through our eyes instead of through our viewfinders. To be kinder, and to judge each other less, or at least less harshly. To say “I love you” more. To say, “you’re beautiful”, or “you make me smile” to each other more. To live in the moment, and to do things today rather than tomorrow. Because none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow. Life is a gift and a wonder and you’d better squeeze everything you can out of today. Because tomorrow it could all be over, for any one of us.

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay, Canta y no Llores!


The author of today’s posting is Wiley Long, IV. It’s about his recent experiences with his classmates at camp. Please enjoy!

This is a blog post about Quinta Camp, which was a camp I got to go on for school with a couple other bilingual schools too. My mom thought it was necessary that I point out that it was all in Spanish, so, there you go and please enjoy.


Wiley, with his buddy Kit in the foreground, arriving at Quinta Camp

I arrived at 2:00 in the afternoon to get on the bus. It was one of those nice luxury buses with comfortable seats and a bathroom that you would take on a trip to go to another city if you had no other means of transportation. I sat down in the very front seat. Pelón, the owner/main leader of the camp gave a talk to the parents about how it was totally safe and that there was nothing to worry about. Then, we set off. We drove all the way to the other state, San Luis Potosí, and then turned on to a smaller road that was basically a strip of asphalt through the forest. We parked at an indention in the road next to a white garage and I thought we were finally there, but I was wrong. The luggage was put into two trucks and a trailer and we all climbed into an extremely “this could break down any moment” feeling red school bus and set off down a rocky dirt road. I checked, none of the gauges worked, and I don’t think there was a hand brake. It took about 45 minutes and it felt like I could of ran there faster but eventually we got to Quinta Camp.

When we arrived it was about 6:30, so the whole trip had taken about 3 ½ hours. There were five cabins, three for the girls, and two for the boys.


Wiley and his fellow campers

For the rest of the day we just got settled into our cabins, got situated with everything, and had dinner (enchiladas potosí). At night we went to the main cabin for casino night. Everyone started with ten poker chips and you had to win more by playing games (I won big in roulette). At the end of the night the poker chips were cashed in for candy and we went to bed at 2:00 in the morning.


Wiley performs “El Cielito Lindo”, probably the most famous Mexican folk song (only because it was used in Frito’s advertising in the U.S. in the 70’s) to the delight of his fellow campers

Then we woke up… the same day, around 9:00. After eating breakfast, we all met in the basketball court to be assigned our activities for the day. Our cabin the Halcones (Hawks), were assigned rappel, then canoeing, then rifle. After this, we ate lunch and we were assigned for the cave. We crawled in through the cave in two groups; I was in the first group. We went crawling through the tiny space with our chests against the muddy wet ground. There are lots of spiders and apparently tarantulas but we didn’t see any of those. After that that we just hung out until dinner. After dinner we went to our cabin to practice for a skit. We ended up doing a skit about Quinta Camp as a village with the different people of Quinta Camp and Pelón as people in the village and I got to sing Cielito Lindo, a traditional Mexican song.


Campers in costume

The next day we got up and did kayaks, the iceberg (a floating thing that you climb on in the middle of the lake), zip line, we went on a hike, we did the quinta games, and the slide. At night we did a treasure hunt. Everyone brought their flashlights to the mess hall and they turned off all the lights. Pelón told a story about pirate treasure and then he would slam the silverware and the girls would scream like crazy. We lost the treasure hunt, but we won pretty much everything else.


The last night of camp, and the 70’s disco party

On Saturday, we had archery and paintball. Then we did this thing in the lake that was basically a race based in groups. Two people would swim to the kayaks and then would give their life jackets to two people there and they would go to the canoes and so on. Our cabin won. As we were freezing from the cold lake and it was raining and no one brought towels we walked over to something called Commando. It was basically a mud run and there were obstacles and stuff then we all went back and took showers. For dinner there were hotdogs and after that it was the dance. We all went in with our partners than sat at tables with the rest of our cabin. The beginning was just so you could eat candy and talk to your friends about Quinta Camp being over, then they had the awards. They were for things like “Barbie” and Johnny Bravo” and “Duracell.” After that we all left and stood outside while they changed it into a disco. Then we all went in again and danced until 3:00 in the morning.

The next day we got up, packed up all are things, and left on the bus. When I got back, My parents had just gotten back from Mexico City, so they hadn’t gotten there yet and I had to wait awhile. Then they came, and I was back home.


She Drives Me Crazy

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The burro, perhaps a more suitable method of conveyance than a car on the roads of San Miguel.

If you plan to drive in Mexico, you should know that while they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the U.S., and the laws are basically the same, owning and operating a car in this country has its challenges. They don’t do things the way we do, and it seems that you’re just supposed to know that, as I have yet to come across any driving manuals in print in either English or Spanish. For better or worse, a driver’s license issued by an American state grants you the privilege of driving on Mexican roads.

Highway driving can be especially nerve-wracking here. There are many divided highways that you might compare to our interstate system, and which are in great shape and easy to drive on. These roads typically require the payment of tolls, but after a few hours of driving behind chicken trucks, tractors, and cars clearly suffering from some automotive malady you welcome the chance to pay someone to drive on a better road.

But sometimes the only option is a two-lane highway, and there are some things you’d better know before you set out. For starters, know that the shoulder is not a place for you to pull over to check your GPS or text your friend that you’re on your way. Mexican drivers boldly pass other cars on the highway, and it seems that the double lines down the middle of the road are mere suggestions. To that end, it’s expected that if you’re approaching a blind curve, or if a car is coming towards you in your lane in an attempt to overtake another car, you will pull your car onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. It’s perfectly fine, and again even expected, that you’ll continue on the shoulder at a high rate of speed. Knowing this, it might become apparent to you why road cycling is not a very popular sport in this country.

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Just another construction project that extends well into the road.

You also don’t stop in the lane with your blinker on waiting to turn left across traffic when it’s clear, either. This would, after all, force those behind you to wait until you turned off the highway, and Mexican highway drivers don’t like to wait. So what do you do if you want to turn left? You get over onto the right shoulder and sit, with your left blinker on, until both lanes are clear and you can cross the road. I’ve heard it compared to the “jug-handle”, for you New Jersey drivers out there, without the helpful signage and actual road.

And while we’re on the subject of blinkers, know this: in many parts of Mexico, if you put your left blinker on while driving down the highway, it’s a message to the driver behind you that it’s safe to pass. You can imagine how THAT could get totally awkward if you thought you were signaling your intent to turn left and the guy behind you thought you were politely telling him to go around you, ON THE LEFT. Maybe disabling your blinkers in Mexico is an idea to consider.

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Two lanes, plus parked cars. Sometimes you have to smear a little lube on your car to get it past another one.

San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the central historic section is more than 500 years old. The streets are paved with stones, and are oftentimes not much wider than the average compact car. At some point someone decided that signs would clutter the look of the place, so there are none. When approaching an intersection, it’s expected that drivers will treat it as a four-way stop. While on the surface it might seem that this could be chaos-inducing, it works very well, and I have seen very few accidents since moving here.

Driving a car in Mexico is not only hard on the driver, it’s hard on the car. There are man-eating potholes and random rocks sticking out almost anywhere you drive. Roadways drop away without warning, one-way streets aren’t marked and streets are built with pitches that would never be considered in the U.S. I know, because I live on one. Our car, by no means pristine when we arrived but without noticeable body damage, is now like Courtney Love: she’s got a few marks on her.

In San Miguel there is a level of courtesy afforded by most drivers that I have not seen elsewhere. One time in Cairo I was standing on the concrete island in the middle of a divided roadway waiting to cross the other half of the road. Somehow I dropped my purse, and I bent over to pick it up. As I stood up again I felt the whoosh of a taxi cab as it sped by me at an alarming rate of speed, with horn blaring. If I had still been bent over, my head extending into the roadway, there is no doubt I would have been decapitated, and not in a clean way like Marie Antoinette got. In Egypt, a horn is more of a here-I-come-and-I-WILL-run-over-you warning device.

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Beautiful, if narrow.

Here there is less of an urgency about getting somewhere it seems, which I realize may not always be a good thing. But when you live in a 500 year-old city, you have to accept that for the garbage truck to pick up your garbage, it has to lumber its way down your narrow, one-lane street. And inevitably a line of cars forms behind it, and no one lays on their horn or extends their fist out the window and shouts obscenities. You’ll get there when you get there.

But woe betide you if your car has a mechanical failure in Mexico. Just before the New Year, the clutch went out on our car. While not a simple repair in the U.S., getting our car fixed in Mexico took on new dimensions of difficulty when we were told that our model of car is typically sold in this country with a six-speed transmission, not the five-speed that we have. Shipping an entire clutch assembly from the U.S. was prohibitively expensive, we were told, but having someone pick it up in Texas and drive it down would not be. So we called Audi of Dallas (not exactly the low price leader, but dependable) and had the part driven to San Miguel by a guy named Carlos, who apparently makes a living doing things like that. Unfortunately this meant that our car was out of commission for several weeks while all this got sorted out.

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Our garage tucked behind a wall of dirt and a trench.

And now, ironically, we are well into the second week of a public works improvement project on our street that involves removing the water main that runs down the center of our street (one of the oldest in town, I’m told) and replacing it with new pipe. Seems like a good idea, as a couple of months back we woke up on a Saturday morning to a raging flood in the street courtesy of a broken pipe. But digging up a cobblestone street and putting it back together is kind of a big deal, and there is currently a two foot-wide trench down the middle, which is keeping our car snug in its garage. Since this started last Monday I’m averaging walking a little over nine and a half miles a day. Even with the 10% margin of error claimed by FitBit, that’s some considerable ground. I asked the stone mason working one street this morning how many more days he thought this would take, and he gave me the classic Mexican “maybe tomorrow” response, which was accompanied by a look that let me know plainly that he thought there was no way in hell they’d be done tomorrow. From the looks of things, I doubt it, but maybe walking is easier than driving after all.

Welcome to the Jungle

wiley 4 on horseback

Heading out for a day in the saddle near the archaeological dig at Canada de la Virgen. No, we don’t need no stinking helmets, and yes, you can gallop if you want.

Fourth of July fell only a few days after we moved into our house here last year. Not knowing anyone in town and in search of like-minded company on a uniquely American holiday, we piled into a cab with the dogs and the kid and went in search of a party we had seen advertised in the local gringo paper. When we got there things were winding down, so we got back into the same cab and had the driver take us to the main square.

Later in the evening, after a couple of margaritas and some sauntering about town, we headed home only to discover that I had lost my keys. So early in our stay here we had not yet put the house manager’s phone number or email address into our phones, and it took some wheeling and dealing to finally contact someone and get ourselves back into the house. I had no idea where I had lost my keys, the collection of which included not only the house key but also my key to our car and to the locks on the roof-top carrier. It seemed likely that I would never see them again.

the family on horses

The whole family on horseback. We do make a pretty bunch of horsemen, don’t we?

I was stunned when one day, at least two weeks later, a cab screeched to a halt on the street beside me and the driver leaned out of the window and dangled my keys. Apparently he had been keeping an eye out for me so that he could give me my keys back, and although I must have looked like Female Gringo #498, he recognized me on the street. Stunned, I whipped out 200 pesos and gave it to him as a reward, which he clearly didn’t expect but graciously accepted.

This experience set the tone for the level of honesty we came to expect in San Miguel. Of all the things people asked us when we told them we were moving to Mexico for a year, easily the most common one was a variation of, “Aren’t you worried it’s not safe there?”, to which we typically replied, well, it’s not safe almost anywhere, but no, we’re not that worried. In contrast, the mass shootings that occur in the U.S. with frightening regularity are far scarier than the threat of drug cartel kidnappings.

The truth is that I have never experienced even a moment of concern at any time of the day or night since moving here. True, we live in an upscale neighborhood and tend to stay in the tourist-filled areas of the Centro, or center of town, most of the time. And while we do hear of crime, especially in the more working-class neighborhoods, in general this town exudes an atmosphere of safety and well-being.

But those things do happen. I just finished a book that I highly recommend if you’re feeling particularly upbeat about life and need something to depress you and even the playing field. It’s called Prayers for the Stolen, and it’s about a group of pre-teen girls growing up in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, near Acapulco. The story takes place in modern times when drug lords routinely “steal” beautiful young girls from their families and turn them into sex slaves. Almost all of the men and fathers in the town have left for the United States and steady work, and the women are essentially defenseless, except when they can pass their girls off as ugly boys by cutting their hair short and blacking out their teeth with markers, or hiding them in holes when convoys of black SUV’s thunder into town to pluck up their next victim.

The book is a work of fiction by a Mexican writer who lives in Mexico City, but it doesn’t take more than a cursory examination of the headlines to see that the threat profound violence is a routine part of life every day in some parts of this country.

A Mexican woman from San Miguel was kidnapped last May, and was returned to her family this past November. No one seems to want to talk about the details, but her son was a student at Wiley’s school. Reportedly the family was wealthy and owned restaurants, and speculation was that sufficient “protection” money had not been paid. There will likely be no arrests, and the family has since moved to Europe.

concrete bamboo

Concrete bamboo in the surrealistic sculpture garden in Xilitla, San Luis Potosi

A couple of weeks back a few of us – and by a few I mean twenty-five grown-ups and kids – traveled a little over two hundred miles over winding mountain roads with switchbacks and hairpin curves to reach a little town in the state of San Luis Potosi known as Xilitla. Xilitla is the home of a very dear friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday. It’s also the nearest town to a bizarre sculpture garden hidden in the rainforest amongst banyan trees and waterfalls. The garden, created between 1947 and the 1980’s by an eccentric British semi-exile named Edward James, attracts an interesting mix of hippies, tourists, and art-lovers.

We had just arrived and headed out from our hotel, which was in the jungle near the sculpture garden. The group had spread out such that the leaders were about fifty yards ahead of the folks in the rear of the group, which included one of my friends and her two kids. I was just ahead of them by about fifteen yards, when I heard her yelling and saw and heard the foliage beside the road thrashing wildly. Two men wearing ski masks had jumped out of the jungle, torn my friend’s purse and camera from her shoulder, and plunged back into the jungle. One of them had a handgun, or at least something that looked like a handgun.

We ran ahead and herded the group back in and returned to the hotel, while the police were called and a search ensued for the perpetrators. The kids were understandably scared, and a place that had so recently seemed so friendly suddenly became sinister and potentially dangerous in the light afternoon drizzle. The pursuit turned up nothing except for Kim’s camera, which had been discarded and still functioned. The jungle was full of trails and groups of campers, any of whom may or may not have been the thieves; there was just no way of knowing at that point. The police took notes and wrote reports, but of course no arrests were made, and it is highly unlikely that any ever will be.

The incident shook everyone up, and for me I had to push down the urge to get my kid and get back on the road to San Miguel. But at the risk of sounding flippant you have to keep going; you have to get back on the proverbial horse and not give in to the bad guys. I don’t know if the adults communicated with something akin to telepathy that we needed to remain calm and normal for the kids, show them that we deal with these things through the proper channels, but then we move forward. But somehow we did just that, and soon enough we were making jokes about the incident in the way well-adjusted people do.

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Why yes, that is my son rappelling off a 150-foot cliff

In general there seems to be a slightly more fatalistic view of living life down here. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, and maybe that’s a completely inaccurate statement made by a casual observer. But lots of people here, gringos and Mexicans, ride motorcycles and ATV’s without helmets. Mexicans routinely pack a family of 3 or 4 onto a scooter. It’s very common to see babies riding behind the steering wheel in the lap of the driver.

You undertake a lot at your own risk in Mexico, and it’s also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pin liability on someone else for an injury you incurred pursuing an activity voluntarily. At the sculpture garden we visited in Xilitla, there were staircases leading two or three stories in the air with no handrails. We went horseback riding and rappelling back in January, and no helmets were provided, not even to rappel off a 150-foot cliff.

christie rappelling

And that’s me doing it, after him. He begged to go first.

On the other hand, you almost never see children under the age of 15 alone, or in unsupervised groups. Parents walk their kids to school every morning, and pick them up in the afternoon. And if you could protect your child from any possible outside threat by bundling them in blankets, hats, scarves, gloves, and ski masks when the mercury drops below 65 degrees, Mexican children would be the safest kids on the planet. This extends to small dogs as well.

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Gratuitous end-of-story picture of me and Delicato, my horse. He said I was the best rider he’d ever had.

I guess you never know what might happen, regardless of where you are. Sometimes you get your keys returned to you, and another time you might be a victim of (possibly) armed robbery. You can live in fear and stay at home, or you can flaunt your nose at potential dangers. Or you can try to be reasonable and educate yourself regarding your surroundings to the extent possible. You can trust your instincts and know that ultimately, you can’t mitigate every risk. There are typhoons and tidal waves, car crashes and crazed gun-toting maniacs in movie theaters, leaking nuclear reactors and life-threatening sicknesses. Where you go and what you do is a personal decision for each of us, but In the end, I make the choice to live life and embrace the beautiful experiences it promises.

My Big Fat Mexican Wedding


Our most successful joint venture, our son, holding our wedding rings.

Somehow, Wiley and I have been married for twenty-five years. There was a time in my life when I thought only old people had been married that long. Long enough to struggle through those years of the banal giving of wood, paper, and clocks, to the promised land of silver. Silver is heavy, and it’s worth something. It holds its value, and it’s durable. It gets tarnished, but it polishes right back up again with a soft cloth and some effort.

Building a life with another person sounds romantic and poetic at the outset, but it’s damn hard work. Not to say that we’ve fought excessively during the last quarter century, although we have and certainly we’ve left tooth marks on each other that have faded over time. But being committed to another human being means that you go through life together. While that may seem like the most obvious of declarations, sharing your life with someone means that what they go through, you go through. Better or worse. No matter how badly you might want to shout, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” as the saying goes, and run far away, you stick around, you dig in your heels, and you deal with whatever comes your way. “Your”, in its plural form. Both of you, together.

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Stopping for a beso in the streets of San Miguel, under the watchful gaze of the mojigangas.

Wiley and I have gone through our share of upheaval and change, and through it all only thing I have known for certain is that he would continue to love me, no matter who or what I became. Well, short of becoming a serial killer, I suppose, although I wager that despite overwhelming DNA evidence and skeletal remains being exhumed from the backyard, Wiley would be still fighting for another appeal on my behalf.

In addition, there has been significant and undeniable chemistry between us since the moment we met that persists to this day. Lots of people have denied the importance of that aspect of a relationship, but they don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about, to put it bluntly. Or they’re lying to themselves.

Perhaps the most important reason we’re still together also sounds the most trite, but here it is: we have fun together. We love adventure and adrenaline. We love going places and doing things that most people wouldn’t consider. We love standing in the front row at concerts and singing along while raising our fists in the air. We love throwing big parties with lots of people and staying up late.


Filemon doesn’t think too much of marriage, apparently.

So it should come as no surprise that we decided to commemorate our twenty-fifth trip around the sun together with a Mexican wedding extravaganza. We had a personal celebration on the actual day, which was August 26th, here in San Miguel. We spent the entire day together, exploring parts of the town we had never seen, and eating and drinking our way right though the center of it.

A friend suggested a New Year’s Eve party, and to both of us that seemed the perfect idea. In fact, when we initially looked at the house we are living in, we stood on the roof and envisioned what a big party up there could be like, with a live band and fireworks exploding over the town square and the magnificent, Cinderella’s castle-like church known as the Parroquia. Turns out we got exactly what we wanted.

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The Parroquia and Filemon, ready for the party.

We invited a number of friends from back home, and were pleased when we started getting emails back with flight arrangements. San Miguel is not the easiest place to get to, nor the cheapest, so it was extremely gratifying to know that friends from home would want to make the trek to celebrate with us. Also in attendance were many of our new friends from San Miguel – ex-pats and Mexicans alike – which cemented a lot of our fledgling friendships.

Mexican weddings are legendary for their extravagance as well as their length. Not that we wanted to pretend that we were in our twenties again and have an honest-to-goodness wedding, but we did want to co-opt some of the more festive aspects of a boda into our celebration. Party-planning reached Olympic levels of difficulty as several of the vendors I dealt with had no English, and I had only my marginal Spanglish with which to arrange details. In addition, given the cash-based economy of this area, I had to max out my ATM withdrawal capacity over several days leading up to the event and walk around with envelopes full of pesos cryptically labeled “MARIACHIS”, “ARMANDO” and “MOJIGANGAS”.

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Parading through the streets.

I planned things in something of a flash-mob fashion, having everyone meet in front of the Parroquia at 5PM on New Year’s Eve. My stomach clenched in a sickening way as we stood there at ten until five and I entertained what-if-you-threw-a-big-fat-Mexican-wedding-and-no-one-came thoughts. I let out the breath I had been unconsciously holding as I started seeing familiar faces in the crowds of people on the square, along with mariachis, our friend Armando and his wedding burro Filemon (more on this later), and the traditional ten foot tall mojigangas, or wedding puppets. Let’s get this party started, y’all.

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Arriving at home, high over San Miguel, gang in tow.

It’s traditional in San Miguel for the wedding couple to parade through the streets following a burro festooned with flowers. They are accompanied by hoards of well-wishers and a mariachi band, along with the wedding puppets. Small ceramic cups with ribbons through the handles are passed out among the crowd and are filled with tequila, as it’s considered auspicious for the couple to receive toasts from the hordes of followers. Our party swelled in numbers as we passed through the streets of town on our way to our house for the party. Over sixty cups were passed out and we went through the better part of two large bottles of tequila in about 45 minutes. There’s no telling how many people were filming us and taking photos of the parade as we made our way home.

Once at our house we adjourned to the roof-top for cocktails. The bartender hadn’t shown up yet, but luckily our friend Lacy, who came all the way from New Zealand for the festivities, knows her way around a bar took charge of the situation. Then our friends Ann and Sam, who have been married even longer than we have, led us through our wedding vows for the third time.

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View from the roof, shortly after sunset, New Year’s Eve 2014.

It could not have been a more perfect evening, with the sun setting behind the mountains as we finished, and dusk casting a soft orange glow over everything. After dinner we danced until the wee hours and then chowed down on pozole, the traditional Mexican soup of pork and hominy, before falling into bed near 3 AM.

Still Standing in the Doorway


I was admiring the roses when I read the news. They were beautiful, and a deep, almost salmon, pink, just opening, and completely unblemished. How is it possible that three dollars can buy twelve perfect long-stemmed roses?

I was lost in their beauty, and lost in loving the life I live when I broke away as I often do for the summons of my phone. I was stunned to read that a well-known, often-referenced veterinary behaviorist had committed suicide. She had hung herself, at age forty-eight. Two years younger than me. I didn’t know her, but I had read her papers and watched her videos. She was a gentle and kind soul, a veterinarian who had gone into small animal practice after school only to be struck with the realization that so, so many euthanasias happen because of behavioral issues. Cats that pee outside the box. Dogs that are fearful and aggressive. She went back to school to try to figure out how she could help, and she did, likely thousands of people and their pets. But for some reason it wasn’t enough, and a couple of days ago the pain of getting up and doing it again for one…more…day…seemed, at that point, too much. And at that moment, ending her life was for her, the best choice.

Please don’t mistake me. I don’t pretend to understand. I only tell you that I have looked down into the abyss. I have safely trodden the rim, and have never considered stepping in, but I do know what despair looks like.

Perhaps more than any other medical professionals, the veterinarians I know, myself included, take our failures hard. And I don’t just mean failing because we don’t know enough, or we aren’t good enough. I mean failing to help. And it doesn’t even seem to matter if help was even possible. I’ve seen vets despair when euthanasia is the only humane option, for a pet that they’ve extended the life of multiple times. I’ve seen vets despair when it’s the only option for a pet and an owner they’ve just met thirty minutes prior. For reasons I don’t understand, we hold ourselves to unrealistic ideals and expectations that we set ourselves, and that no one could possibly measure up to.

I write this not because I have the answer. I don’t. But I have felt the despair. It would be a lie for me to tell you that I have contemplated suicide, and thank God I haven’t. I am lucky to have people who love me, and need me, and cherish my presence here on Earth. I come home after terrible days, filled with death and sickness and people who just wish they had never gotten the pet that they have, and I am enveloped in love. I am listened to, and I am cared for. Afterwards, somehow it all gets filed in its place. Maybe Sofia Yin didn’t have that. I can’t imagine living without it.


A 36 year-old me, wearing some sweet overalls I bought in India and waiting in the Kathmandu airport on a plane that would take me high up in the Himalayas. The plane was late, and that was a problem, because if we didn’t take off before noon the plane would certainly crash in the mountains,given the high winds that kicked up everyday around that time. We landed safely, and I embarked on a life-altering journey.

I decided to become a vet while trekking through the Himalayas. My husband and I were a little more than mid-way through a year of travel, and I had left behind a successful and lucrative career in software sales. It was fine, and I liked it. There was no reason not to plan to return to it. Except that I kept thinking that perhaps I had “phoned it in”, as they say, and not really looked for what I wanted in a career, and that perhaps I had just taken the job that was offered. It’s funny how getting away for a time opens your mind to possibilities, and makes you think about the choices you’ve made in life.

So there I was, wandering through the Himalayas. Not truly wandering, because there was a guide, and an ill-defined path, but at this point in the ten day journey there were big, wide-open spaces, and it was hard to get lost. Scree fields, and swift rivers to cross over suspension bridges, and long, flat rock fields. And for some reason Wiley and I were hiking separately, with a distance of a quarter mile or more between us. I don’t know if he was lost in his thoughts, but I most assuredly was.

I was thinking more and more, obsessively if you will, about the idea of becoming a veterinarian. I hadn’t told anyone, not even Wiley, that it was on my mind. It seemed long past crazy. I had spent more than ten years in software, investing time in becoming who I thought I was. The thought of pursuing another career – wait, not just another career, but one in a completely separate field, and one requiring six more years of schooling – seemed ludicrous.

As I walked I started thinking about how six months or so prior we had been in the jungles of Peru. We had traveled the Amazon River to see wildlife and the people who lived there, but also to experience a ceremony involving a centuries-old hallucinogenic drink called ayahuasaca. There were six of us involved in the ceremony, a group that included me and Wiley, as well as a West Point army physician and his wife. It turned out to be a fairly horrific experience, and I was not only the only one in the group not to puke but also the only one to experience visions. I saw ancient Peruvians in the room, and they were handing me gifts, which I could not see, but somehow knew to be important. They were as real and three-dimensional to me as anyone else in the room.


Circa 2000, me and Sebastian the dog who lived at our lodge in the Amazon in Peru. He and I got along famously. Maybe he knew something I didn’t at the time.

The next morning I told the shaman who had facilitated our journey about my visions. She told me that people often see very ancient people during ayahusaca experiences, but beyond that didn’t offer any real insight other than that it meant that I was developing a connection with my past. And then she looked at me and told me, in a matter of fact manner, that I was a healer. Startled, I said no, I sold software. But she insisted that I was, and then corrected herself to say that I was meant to be. So on that day in the Himalayas I was thinking of her as well, and what she had said to me that morning.

You pass only a few people, and maybe a couple of yaks as you’re walking in the Himalayas. The day was startlingly brilliant, and the sky was completely void of anything other than the sun. We were trekking though an area that was somewhat boxed-in compared to some of the wide-open fields we had been through the previous days.

Let me interject and say that I’m one of the most grounded people you’ll meet. I don’t really believe in fate, or luck, and I often struggle with the existence of a higher power, although I’m not ready to write that one off quite yet. My supernatural experiences, a la séances and summonings, ended pretty much simultaneously with my slumber party days, packed with my Ouija board. I don’t believe in ghosts, or witches, or even visions, for that matter. My rational mind most definitely has the upper hand at any given time.

I remember glancing upwards and to my left, to see a sheer granite face rising one hundred yards from the valley floor. There I saw, as clearly as if it were real, written in a cursive style of hot pink and turquoise letters reminiscent of something adorning Barbie’s dream house the phrase:

Why the Hell Not???

I stopped, and I stared at the message for several seconds, then shut my eyes, shook my head, and opened my eyes back up. The message was gone, but it’s clear to me that it had been real, and that it was addressed to me. The intent seemed clear, and I interpreted that vision to mean that there was really nothing stopping me from going to vet school, and that somehow I was meant to be a vet, and it was high time I got on with things.

Once I got home and started figuring out just how one goes to vet school, I began to understand what I was up against. At the time there were only twenty-eight vet schools in the U.S. and Canada, and despite having class sizes that varied from 80 to 130, each of them got over 1000 applications per year. And having a business degree meant that I had to complete at least three semesters of required classes in subjects like organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology, before even applying.

But somehow I got in, and here I am. And I’m desperately in love with my career, but I can also see why it might possibly drive someone to contemplate ending their life, as hard as that is for me to say. The emotions I feel on a daily if not hourly basis while doing my job – despair, joy, anger, fear – are not for the unstable, or those without a network of support. The rewards are many, but the price is great. They told us at graduation that to those whom much is given, much is expected, and they were right.

So I want to write a book. Because I think that maybe people like Sofia Yinn, while they had so much to give, got very little back, and that’s just wrong. And it breaks my heart to think that others like her, with such talents and such gifts, might succumb to the despair, without seeing the light, without recognizing that they do so much good everyday of their lives. Without giving themselves back some of the love and caring they so freely give out to others. Perhaps it will be therapy for me as well.


Prayer flags and a Himalayan peak. Peace lives here.

At Least I’m Enjoying the Ride

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St Michael, the archangel, patron saint of San Miguel. Or at least his likeness. Apparently he stepped on the devil and sent him back to hell, right here in San Miguel.

Perhaps I flatter myself that you think of me, but you may have noticed that my postings to this nugget of literary goodness have dwindled as of late. Gone are the weeks when I was able to get at least two blog posts up, and several witty Tweets and Facebook postings to boot. I just covered one eye and peeked at my WordPress dashboard, and egads, my last post was on September 27th.

But whether it shows or not, I put a lot of thought into these posts. In fact, at times I would compare producing them to giving birth. After a while I just want them out, even if potentially paralytic drugs or surgery are required, but I’m also a lot little on the type-A side, and I can’t just spew words and hit “publish”. So I walk around town and I contemplate, and I write a little, and then I come back to what I’ve written and hope to find some meaning there, unfortunately sometimes not for days.

A New York Times article recently made the social media rounds. It told the story of a man who made a video during an emergency on a JetBlue flight in which one of the engines blew and the cabin filled with smoke. He obediently strapped on his oxygen mask and promptly pulled out his iPhone and recorded the entire event for YouTube. I just checked YouTube, and as I write this over a million people have watched this guy’s video.

By the way, I’ve heard more than enough about the airline at this point to convince me to avoid JetBlue at all costs. But I digress.

The ultimate point of the New York Times article was to ponder the question of whether we are all spending our time recording history instead of living it. While more than many people I appreciate the importance of documenting our lives, I agree that we might consider some restraint as we load the cloud with footage of our kid struggling through “Fur Elise” at a piano recital or another moment of a cat doing anything.

I once watched a fellow tourist videotape (yes, this was in the days of actual video recorders with actual, tiny tape cartridges in them) an entire Balinese dance. It was well over 2 hours of subtle head-bobs, foot stomping, and eye movements (Balinese dance is not for adrenaline junkies, I need to point out). Three thoughts kept me from concentrating on the show: 1.) Who is going to have to watch this once this guy gets home? 2.) God, the light from his screen is annoying!, and 3.) Does he get AT ALL the irony of watching what’s happening real-time in front of him on a 2″x3″ screen?

So I’ve been living my life, clearly as opposed to recording it, and it’s gotten quite full, actually. In the years following his retirement, my father-in-law was fond of saying that he did not know how he ever had time for a job, because his retirement activities kept him so busy. At the time we laughed uproariously over the idea that one could actually be busier in retirement than in full-time employment. I am now, however, perhaps seeing his side of things.

I’m sure you’re all getting misty-eyed over the thought of how busy I am while I spend a year not working. It’s doubtful that there are any adults who haven’t fantasized about how they’d like to pull a Johnny Paycheck and tell the boss where to put it. But how would you spend your time, if you weren’t working? Would you volunteer? Would you learn to knit? Feed the homeless? Drink more? Drink less? Write a book? Exercise until your abs resurface?

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The Alborada, one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. It started at 4 AM and consisted of 2 things: people having fireworks flung at them from the front of the cathedral, and people in motorcycle helmets repeatedly firing rockets into the air. For one. solid. hour. Again, in honor of Michael, the Fun Archangel!

All have their merits, although some are more worthwhile than others. Ultimately you have to decide what is most important to you and prioritize. Because the honest truth is that once you announce to the world that you have free time it won’t be, for long. There are so many things to do here in San Miguel – take art classes, learn Spanish, volunteer, hike, bike, eat, drink, study culture and history, or just sit in Parque Benito Juarez and enjoy the brilliant fall weather.

As a veterinarian I have some unique gifts to share, and it’s never hard to find someone who needs them, and there’s certainly plenty of need in Mexico. I volunteer every Thursday at the local animal shelter. It’s been extremely heart-wrenching but also rewarding. I’ve seen more parvo virus in 2 months than I saw in seven years of practice in Colorado. I have NEVER seen distemper in my life, but I’ve seen several cases here already. Both are preventable with appropriate vaccination. But whether people don’t know or don’t care about vaccinating their animals, many of them don’t in Mexico, and seeing a puppy die a completely avoidable death is terrible, and I’ve seen it much too often. But I’ve also spayed and neutered lots of animals, and treated lots of sick ones.

I got a free pass to go to a big veterinary meeting being held about an hour and a half away in Leon, and Roxanda, the vet from the shelter, and I went together. It was very cool being back with colleagues, walking through the exhibition hall, and hearing a few lectures. In the weirdest case of small-world syndrome I’ve ever seen, one of my own professors from CSU, Howie Seim, was lecturing on surgery, and (bonus!) in English!

I’ve also been able to get a regular workout routine established, which is wonderful. Three days a week Wiley and I work out at a gym just down the street from Wiley IV’s school. We kiss him goodbye, then workout, finishing up just before nine in the morning. Add on the walking I do, usually at least seven or eight miles daily if you believe my FitBit, and I’m probably in the best shape of my life.


Me, doing something I think that’s called a pike, on an iron ring. This was right after I started circus class. I can do many more potentially dangerous things now.

About six weeks ago I began to hear about a woman here in town who teaches circus tricks to adults and kids. Two of my friends harassed me into going with them one morning. It was scary and hard and painful, and I was hooked. The instructor, Ceci Corona, was a ballerina for years, and now she runs a local circus troupe called Gravityworks, and teaches circus to kids and middle-aged moms with a death wish, like me. After the first few classes I felt as though I had been run over, and most decidedly did not look like Cirque du Soleil material on the equipment. But I’m starting to get the hang of things, and it’s amazing how you develop strength in places that even working out with weights doesn’t touch. I doubt that I’ll run away and join the circus anytime soon, but I’m loving learning some cool moves and becoming more flexible.

And there’s lots of other stuff keeping me busy, like twice weekly Spanish tutoring, various school obligations and meetings (I somehow accepted an office in the PTA at Wiley’s school), and shuttling Wiley IV to guitar lessons or art class and to and from school. I also got inducted into a group of women writers who meet monthly to drink wine, eat dinner, and share our writings. Most of us would like to write a book and the group members help each other to coalesce ideas into themes and outlines. Oh yeah, and I decided I need to learn how to knit. In my free time.

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Dancers in the Feast of St. Michael (the Archangel, which is what I believe he prefers to be called) parade. It went on for over two hours and the variety of costumes and dancers was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Add to all of this my on-going obligation to CSU’s vet school admissions committee, for whom I’ll soon be reviewing over 150 applications, and the fact that I agreed to write copy for each of Wiley’s three company newsletters, and maybe you’ll start to see why I’ve been doing more living life and less writing about it. But I’m taking it all in, and keeping my eyes open, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Word Up

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Wiley and our neighbor Armando, and Armando’s burro. Armando speaks English like I speak Spanish. We have many confusing conversations in Spanglish.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, September 27, 2014: I’ve thought about it for a few days now, and I’m not sure there’s anything more humiliating than learning another language. After years of living life as a polished, articulate speaker, one able to even orate in front of large groups with apparent casualness (and CLEARLY plenty of humility), one is suddenly reduced to two- and three-word sentences, often containing incorrect verb conjugations and improper pronunciation. It’s like being a baby all over again, only instead of adorable and charming you are deemed pathetic and annoying.

When we moved here in July I had what I thought was a passing comprehension of Spanish. I’m well past Menu-Reading 101, and have for years been quite accomplished at getting another margarita or beer or asking where the bathroom is. Although I can ask where something is located, I often have no idea what the person answers back, so frequently getting somewhere on foot involves asking for directions multiple times. The man or woman who invented Google Maps deserves something akin to the Nobel prize, because more than the mapping of the double helix or peace in South Africa it has changed my life for the better.

This level of Spanish will serve you well if you never plan to venture outside of Cancun. Everyone in Cancun speaks English, except maybe for the maid who cleans your hotel room, and that’s probably true of Miami or New York also. Outside the coastal resort areas of Mexico, or certainly in Central or South America or Spain, it’s nice to know more. And definitely, if you’re going to be living somewhere for a while, like us, it just seems appropriate.  Respectful, if you will. Even though I can make myself understood in most situations, and if I couldn’t I know many fluent speakers of both languages I could call on for help, I want to speak more Spanish.

One of my reasons for wanting to master Spanish is that I’ve never seen so much preventable infectious disease as I see at the shelter here, where I volunteer one day a week. I want to be able to walk up to someone and say, Gosh, your tiny daughter and her tiny Chihuahua puppy are adorable, stumbling down the sidewalk together, but did you know that there’s basically a carpet of parvo virus all over Mexico? Haven’t heard of parvo, you say? It’s like canine Ebola, that’s what it’s like. And I’d rather not see your one pound dog dying an agonizing death next week when I go into the clinic.

But I don’t want to be so fluent that I fall victim to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are thick on the ground here. Someone has scribbled something in chalk on our front door, and I believe it’s a secret code they share which means something like, don’t bother, heathen gringos live here, I’ve heard their devil music as well as the lascivious clink of tequila bottles in their trash and you’ll never communicate with them anyways. So right now they don’t knock on our door, but if our Spanish gets too good, that could change.

Sometimes I think I should just get a Mexican friend to write up a little testimonial about parvo for me, and have cards printed that I could hand out. Then I realize that makes me look an awful lot like a Jehovah’s Witness.

Because lots of people come to San Miguel to stay for a while, there are several Spanish language schools here. We looked into classes at a couple of them, but with Wiley continuing to work every day it quickly proved difficult to find something that we were sure we could commit to every week. Someone mentioned having a Spanish tutor, and this seemed like a fantastic idea. Our friend Erica accepted the challenge one day in a casual conversation, and it’s likely that her alcohol consumption has increased since then, with the shear weight of the task of trying to teach me her second language.

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Erica and her daughters Maya and Ella. I think she should be called “Santa Erica”, for the enormous amount of patience she displays despite telling me the same thing four times in five minutes.

Erica moved to Mexico after getting a degree in Spanish from the University of Texas (Sorry Longhorns, I’ll never be able to call your school “UT”.) and promptly fell in love with and married the son of the mayor of the small town to which she moved. She’s been here nearly fifteen years, and to my ears her Spanish sounds completely fluent and colloquial. She is a fantastic teacher, combining instruction in the necessary rules of construction and grammar with the important slang and curse words, such as the very helpful “chingona” (a female badass), and the most useful forms of the f-word.

Maybe you know this about Spanish, but nouns have gender. This includes very obviously non-male-or-female items, such as cups (“tazas”, feminine) and telephones (“telefonos”, masculine). So right off the bat you can make yourself sound very stupid to a native Spanish speaker by asking for “el taza”, since “el” is the masculine form of the article “the”, but as you can imagine it’s pretty challenging to keep the gender straight on a bunch of stuff that doesn’t look sexy, or sexual. After a while you start thinking you’ve got it figured out, and things start making sense, and then someone breaks it to you that the word for dress (“vestido”) ends in an “o”, which should make it a masculine noun, but it doesn’t, and you really just want to go sit on the floor in a corner, grasp your knees, and rock gently back and forth.

My current nemesis seems to be sentence construction. In our lessons Erica will ask us to make up a sentence describing the other person, and I will be struck mute by this challenge. In English, you might say, “he said”. In Spanish, this gets combined into one word. You use the appropriate form of the verb to indicate who the subject is, and it becomes only, “habla”. In addition, in most cases the adjectives come AFTER the nouns, so there is no more “pretty woman”, it’s “mujer bonita” (And please note that “bonita” ends in an “a”, because if you were talking about a really good-looking dog, for example, it would be “perro bonito”, because dogs are all masculine, even if they’re not. People say this to us on our walks, which makes me laugh, since my dogs are far from beautiful. Perhaps “perros chingonos” is more appropriate.). Overall, I think it’s likely to be a more straightforward way of speaking, but you can see how again you can make yourself sound incredibly stupid and unintelligible to a native speaker.

Luckily, the locals around here are incredibly tolerant of the gringos and their attempts to speak what was once a beautiful language. Unlike the French, especially those in Paris. I remember getting off a plane, after basically being awake all night in the comfort of a coach-class airline seat, only to be made to cry by the clerk at the front desk of a hotel, who responded to my meager attempt at French by shouting, in perfect English: “WHAT IS IT YOU ARE TRYING TO SAY???”. I’m guessing she had just been turned down (again!) for the job as the face of Chanel or Yves St. Laurent, because not only are all Parisian women mean they are also beautiful and wafer-thin, so perhaps it wasn’t about me. But the reaction of the person on the receiving end of your efforts goes a long way towards determining how long you will keep up with your struggle to speak their language. And as many of you no doubt know, you can study a language in a book for years, but until you live amongst those who speak it, you will never truly learn it.

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Wiley and some of his buddies from 6th grade at one of the local hot springs.

And as my man Shakespeare said, there’s the rub. Living here we hang out mostly with native English speakers. Wiley IV has lots of Mexican kids in his class at school, and gets instructed half of the day in Spanish, so he’s making real progress. Me, I hang out with the other moms and dads, and even though lots of them speak Spanish, it would be absurd for us to all stand around speaking it, given the differing levels of skill. So I have to make an effort to practice, and hopefully I will start to get the hang of things. And one day I will be a chingona de Espanol.