In Spanish class, my second teacher asks me about the intricate, creative lessons my first teacher plans for me. And then he says he has prepared nothing, but there are two words on the whiteboard, leftovers from the last lesson, and I am welcome to take one.
He recommends tela, fabric, and says, okay; write.
I think, yes, it is really that easy to just go, no fancy instructions are necessary (though they are appreciated).
I want to take a side route and get all of the cliches out of my system, the fabric of life bits that float to the surface of this broad prompt.
The hard thing about writing in Spanish is the limitation on my words and what I have the capacity to narrate.
In Oaxaca fabric stores line one of the streets off the zocalo. I am often drawn into these labyrinthine businesses as hummingbirds seek petunias, impatiens, day lilies, and lupines.
I do not know the names of these flowers in Spanish. Thus, they are banished from the poem. And, I’m off in search of another inspiration that will match the 20% claim I have on this language. I assess the value at 20% because people consistently ask me to quantify my language knowledge in these terms, something i go along with (therefore, reporting 20%), but I insist it is absurd.
Even if I really did know 20% of the language, my lack of knowledge of idioms and culture would cause me to register at a negative number (-40% or something equally preposterous).
The dictionary guesses I want Portuguese and reports that tela is screen. I think of telanovellas (soap operas), the television screen, and the broad cloth that makes a movie screen like my teacher’s white board that contains this broad prompt and that becomes its own large cloth, like a sail, to send me off into the ocean to sail.
  • “The fabric of existence weaves itself whole.” –Charles Ives

How does “way lead on to way,” as Frost warned/reminded in “The Road Not Taken,” how does the fabric seem to weave itself?

Why Would Someone Do That to a Baby?

HD drama

Jack-in-the-Box and Home Depot Parking Lot

Standing in the gravel of the planter box between the Home Depot and Jack-in-the-Box, we had a rather large circle of up to eleven at some points in our conversation. We were talking about a certain politician’s plans for building a giant wall and the problems it might pose to the US as much as Mexico when we all noticed a man with a stroller crossing the parking lot. He was arguing vociferously into his cell phone.

Because his volume had captured our attention, we were all witnesses as the woman he was arguing with on the phone rolled up beside him in a black Honda Civic. And, trying to pepper spray him, she showered the baby in the stroller.

It took me a couple of whole minutes to register what we had just seen and to grasp that some of my students had been exposed to the particulates carried by the breezy afternoon. Pepper-sprayed a baby!

The whole scene focused on the stroller. A man in a rusty old truck threw open his door as he was still rolling and poured water over the girl to try to stop her awful wailing.

A woman rushed into Jack-in-the-Box to get more water. Another gave me the car’s license number as I was on the line with the Sheriff’s department.

All of us saw exactly what happened. (We just didn’t believe it.)

I dismissed the students and stayed around to offer my statement. The man who’d been sprayed could not hold his daughter because, just as she, he had cayenne oils all over his clothing, skin, and hair.

Because she was too young to have words, she continued to shriek after paramedics arrived and treated her.

Daniel, one of the English students, asked me in Spanish, “Who would pepper spray a baby?” Though I knew it was a rhetorical question, I responded, “It doesn’t make sense in any language.”

On my way home, the afternoon’s events raging in my brain, I carelessly wiped my sleeve across my face. My lips burned nearly as much as my mind.

In class, the next day, we debriefed the incident. One student confided that she could think of little else. Another, a veteran, shared that, were we in battle, this woman would be guilty of a war crime.

*According to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Start with an unequivocally evil act, and help readers empathize with, but not condone the actions of, the evil-doer. This reminds me of a poem titled “The Torturer’s Apprentice.”


The Torturer’s Apprentice

by Doug Anderson


Almost a man now,

he used to shudder

when the old man

slipped hatpin under fingernail

but now he’s got

the master’s calm,

the seducer’s whiskey drift

to ply his subject

to give up his neighbor, tease

from him how many,

where and when.

Next month he’ll have his first,

no more dabbing the old man’s brow

with a cool towel,

no more sopping up the blood,

spraying air-freshener

to mask the lingering stink

of fear and anguish.

They’ve saved a little nun

for him, some dear thing

who still believes

that deep down people

are good.

(From the anthology Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, FROM Curbstone Press, edited by MartÍn Espada. Get the collection for the rest of this poem. It is a powerful anthology.)



sunsetwatchers sunsetwatchers2

Photos: Sunset Watchers and Sunset, A-Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

I love The Sun (http://thesunmagazine.org/). The founding editor Sy Safransky often offers a glimpse into his personal notebook. He has compiled these notebook entries; I read the most recent installment, Many Alarm Clocks, in small selections on an irregular basis. When I do so, I am looking for inspiration for my own writing—and human—practice. The good news: his wisdom suffices for both goals.

In his entry titled, “Three Days in the Wilderness,” he reflects on revision:

Readers sometimes ask how much I edit my own writing. I edit until each paragraph has lost the ten pounds it gained over the winter. I edit until each sentence can survive three days in the wilderness on its own. My father taught me to look at a sentence and, if it didn’t deserve to live, shoot it between the eyes. Ignore the pleas of the women and children. Take no prisoners, he said.

I think about my own quiet father and how he offered no specific advice for a sentence, but what he taught me as he showed me how to break and train a horse, patch a pipeline, or use a sluice box was really about writing, made me ready to revise.


Casa Crespo


I decided to take a cooking class at Casa Crespo.  After watching a video of Chef Oscar Carrizosa on his website: http://casacrespo.com/redescubre-mexico-buick-mexico/, I decided I could probably make it through four hours of cooking class–if there were more people.

When I went to sign up, I was the only person on the books for the day.

I arrived, and there were two other students, and then two more arrived.  I was relieved.

We started off with a mug of hot chocolate (or coffee, but they make their own chocolate) and bread with jamaica jam.  Delicious!

Then, we made our menu together:

  • Mole fiesta/bueno, a mole with seventeen ingredients, including chocolate (we would have this with chicken and in our tamales)
  • Avocado gazpacho
  • Regular and squash blossom and cheese tortillas
  • Guacamole: avocados and garlic pulverized in a molcajete and topped with diced mango
  • Four salsas: regular (tomatoes, onions, garlic), regular with toasted avocado leaves, regular with crushed worms, and regular with cumin
  • Quesadillas with epazote and squash blossom or with grasshoppers
  • Empanadas with cheese or with spinach and mushroom
  • Chiles relleno with chicken and mole sauce tamales
  • Sorbet with mezcal and orange juice


After planning our menu, we headed to the market and to the corn mill.  We picked up some ingredients, had a fresh juice break, and got corn milled for masa for tortillas and a different mixture for tamales.

Then, with the help of a couple of sous chefs, we were off and running.  I was happy to see that my classmates were about as adept as I am with kitchen utensils.  We all expressed a mix of enthusiasm and intimidation.  We did a good job of sharing the tasks and letting everyone have a try.

In the middle of the afternoon, as our mole and chicken were stewing and our tamales were steaming, we headed up to Casa Crespo’s terrace and had a beer.

We ended the meal with a shot of mezcal and some chocolate samples.

The eating went on and on.  We had to sample everything, and when we did it was so delicious, we could not help ourselves.

At one break in the symphony of yumming, I asked the others which course was everyone’s favorite.  After tremendous deliberation and much admiration for the mole recipe, we unanimously agreed that the chili stuffed with tamale stuffed with our mole and chicken was probably our masterpiece.  At the same time, the dish we all agreed we would likely replicate is the silky avocado gazpacho.

This multi-sensory adventure as so many of my experiences here made me feel uncomfortable and ignorant, but, in the end, I cannot help but be happy with what I learned.

crespo2  crespo4 crespo5 crespo6 crespo7

The Final Spanish Lesson and the Four Elements


Step One: Name the elements in Spanish (El Fuego (Fire), La Tierra (Earth), El Agua (Water), and El Viento (Wind).

Step Two: Associate adjectives with each of the elements (I’ll spare you the details).

Step Three: Take away the names of the elements, and associate four different roles (or people’s names) with the adjectives.

Step Four: Add in connectors.

For fire, I put teacher. For earth, I put a preacher. For water, I put a salesperson. And, for wind: a tourist.

I recommend it. What I discovered, perhaps because of the use of the elements, was that these roles necessitate sharp contrasts in character: the teacher can be noisy and serious; the salesperson: tranquil and savage.

I can’t believe ten hours (an hour at a time) can feel so long (during the excruciating hour) and have flown so swiftly and sweetly now that I am at the end.

Fruit Stands

fruit stand!

Okay, so plastic food, once one starts looking for it, is more ubiquitous here than one might think. And, I know why: Altars. When some people make diorama altars, they use varying sizes of fake foods, including fake beers and plates of mole.

So, I got a basket of pears and grapes and apples and bell peppers and lemons and corn and carrots and onions—and one egg. I also got a stash of play money.

I gave them each 1,500 pesos to start and told them they were to sell their produce. We talked about words such as sweet, delicious, sour, bitter, juicy. They each made a sign for the store. I encouraged them to make a store name and to offer sales and deals to draw their customers, their classmates, in. Their goal would be to make the most money from their peers. I worried that this might be too much of a popularity contest, but then I saw their strategies.

Making his poster, David asked me to translate the phrase for: No Loans. He didn’t want any deadbeat customers.

Miguel said he wanted to sell a box of tomatoes. I reminded him that he neither had a box nor tomatoes. He did have one banana and his book bag. He decided to offer this as Sack of Banana. One banana in a blue bag: 200 pesos! He didn’t even bother to try to sell the rest of his produce. He said that he’d keep it to feed his “family.” He, needless to say, did not win.

David kept working on his sales strategy. He decided that he wanted to add his bag of chips to the mix. He sold individual chips for 1000 pesos each, and the others flocked to his market to exhaust their fake money on his junk food. He won.

This activity taught them: colors, flavors, fruit and vegetable names, how much, how many, and more. Plus, they now know how to use the word thousand to count their piles of fake money.

fruit stand

fruit stand 2



I love going to the movie theater in Mexico and I love comedies and it was raining on Saturday. Melissa McCarthy’s new James Bond inspired film made me happy for many reasons. Primary among the reasons is that I could keep up with the humor and the plot. It is a lot to juggle in the dark, but I can laugh in most of the right spots and understand some of the hilarious nuances of character—including the incessant lies and antics of one of her colleagues, the outrageous disguises and backstories for McCarthy’s missions, and the effectiveness of abusive discourse in the face of a spoiled princess.

The next step in my education is to be able to listen, understand, and simultaneously predict the twists—and there were many in this underdog story. But I am still too preoccupied with the first two to be looking at foreshadowing and verisimilitude. Thus, I must continue to go to the comfortable Cinepolis to further advance my studies.