Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cold vs. Warmth (Boston, MA)

I am so glad that my liner-less trench coat, which served me as a winter coat for the 25-plus years I've lived in Richmond and as a raincoat during my previous years in California and in New York City, finally gave up the ghost, along with its cuffs, pockets, hems, and all seams, before I left for my winter trek; its demise forced me to purchase replacement rain-wear (a sweet and simple aubergine-colored number) and a true winter coat (basic black, reversible, hooded, warm and snuggly). The coat seems to weigh almost as much as I do but doesn't make me look like I've got another person tucked in there with me. The toastiness of my new outerwear, combined with layers of under and mid-level and everywhere wear, do not, however, protect me completely from the elements.

This is not the coldest I've ever been (that was a New Year's day in Richmond, VA -- believe it or not -- when the words coming out of my mouth froze in midair and when my nostrils iced shut), but my face stings and my fingers ache and I think that if I remain outside for 10 more minutes I will require a two-hour roasting in a 350-degree oven to thaw out.

My sister-in-law Susan, niece Adele, and I are trudging through the frigid landscape towards the home of one of Susan's former English as a Second Language students. Ana is from Mexico, and Susan thinks she'll enjoy meeting me, telling me about her family, reminiscing about her homeland, and feeding us all lunch.

We are warmly greeted by Ana, but not by the snarling, barking, totally viscious dog -- the size and appearance of a small rat on stilts -- that strains against its leash in the pantry. When freed, it nips at my ankles. Recognizing that, with one size-5.5 foot I could easily put an end to its furious attack on my tarsis or my whatsis, the rat-dog desists, returns to the pantry, and releases a miniature turd onto the linoleum.

Susan has brought gifts for Ana and her children. I recognize some presents that I gave her from years past -- a cute t-shirt that obviously didn't fit Adele, a massage set (gloves with pressure points indicated; various doo-hickies to run over neck and/or back knots; oils, etc.); I'm glad that they were regifted -- I believe in recycling.

While Ana's children, a bright kindergartner and an active toddler, and Adele float between the kitchen (where we adults are sitting) and the five-year- old's pretty, pink, and frilly bedroom, we women have a grand time, chatting (platicando and talkeando) in Spanish, English, and Spanglish.

Ana ordered a rotisserie chicken from a nearby Latino restaurant over an hour ago; she calls again to give them street-by-street directions to the door. We snack on oreos while we wait.

When the cumin-scented bird arrives, we accompany it -- down the gullet -- with French fries, yellow rice (that Ana has prepared), and Inca Cola (a bright yellow, sickly sweet soft drink that is beloved by all who crave eventual diabetes or immediate sugar shock). Ana also serves us shredded chicken, lettuce, and a mild green salsa, which we encase in wheat tortillas that she's sauteed in oil.

When Ana's husband arrives home, tired and ready to take the family to a doctor's appointment, we say our hellos and goodbyes. Susan explains later that if we had stayed any longer, he would have gone out of his way to drive us home. We head back to the subway station, buoyed by the warmth of the family we have just left and the food that is fueling us. It's still flipping frigid out here.

First Westport in a Storm (CT)

Highlights of my visit to Westport:

Not enough time with my (only and favorite and adorable) brother and his adorable family, including their two adorable dogs. We spend the time talking, window shopping, and laughing (and eating and going to movies. See below).

Laughter: A storefront labeled LCR, which nobody recognizes, I identify as "Lotsa Crappy Rejects, a consignment shop." We watch a TV show about people looking for first or second homes abroad. Ellen (brilliant sister-in-law) describes the usual episodes as depicting British couples oohing and aahing over caves in Andalucia. "We can work with that," they enthuse. "That" might refer to using a river as a bathroom or having ceilings so low that they make walking upright impossible. We agree that chickens should be engineered to be nothing but skin and bones (because the best part is the crispy skin, so why not make it the only part?). You shouldn't be shocked; I am descended from parents who used to order pastrami on rye with extra fat (the pastrami, not the rye).

Food: Japanese -- Hibachi lobster and sushi (at two different meals). Italian -- Veal chop (!) with wild mushrooms and half a slice of pizza (at two different meals). Chinese -- Giant shrimp with baby bok choy; spicy chicken and shrimp with mango; diced chicken in lettuce wrap. At home -- deep-fried chicken (which left us smelling like we worked at a Popeye's franchise for days afterwards); bialys (a round, airy but chewy roll with a sunken center filled with poppy seeds and/or onions)and cheese and perfect eggs-over-easy, courtesy of the delightful Sasha, who excels at egg preparation and dancing but not at both simultaneously, I don't think. Popcorn (tubs and tubs) at the movies.

Movies: Avatar (fantastic in 3-D), Up in the Air (with the swooney George Clooney, and the film was excellent, too), and the Meryl Streep-Alec Baldwin It's Complicated.(It's forgettable.)

I manage to keep the rows in front of us at the movies free and clear of tall people who might block my or anyone else's view. I ask the first woman who had the misfortune of seating herself directly in front of me if she would please slouch. She turns and says that she is short, but I correct her misconception. She moves. The couple that follows her leaves after I innocently remark, to no one in particular but aloud, that I sure hope that the tall people about to sit down are not intending to stay. I stare the next couple down and ask if they are planning to wear hats to make sure they would completely block the screen. They move. Their replacements are appropriately slouchy, so I don't need to say or do a thing, although by that time my family is pretending that they don't know me, and my beautiful 20-something niece Thea is reliving the nightmarish worst moments of having a relative embarrass a teen. But there is a definite method to my madness, as we can see the screen perfectly.

The visit is too short and our meetings too infrequent. We have got to get together more often!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Plane to See (Westport, CT)

As if I hadn't had enough of the snow in Richmond, where it doesn't even belong, I've gone into the heart of snow country in the middle (or the beginning) of winter. I'm in New England, amidst lawns and fields and fences covered in the white stuff that won't melt until June or July because it's so flippin' cold. I am, quite obviously, completely out of my mind. But I had no choice.

I don't get to see my family often, so I have to take the opportunity to do so even when Nature conspires against my nature. I have two weeks off during ChrismaHanaKwanzaa, so I took off a coupla days ago for points north. Let me tell you about the trip....

I get to the airport two hours early, as required. Already have my boarding pass but stop by the USAir counter, anyway, just to make sure all is in order. It's 7:15 a.m.

The clerk asks if I want to change my ticket to the flight that's already boarding. I say no. But then she tells me that my flight, scheduled for departure at 9:27, is already delayed. So I jump on the chance to go while the going is good.

"You'll have to hurry," she warns me.

"What if I don't make it?" I ask.

"No problem. We'll put you back on the original flight."

So I head for the security check point. I pass through without a glitch but with some pleasant banter with the screeners.

As I jog, rolling my roll-on toward the gate, I hear the final boarding call for my flight.

I break into a trot, but that's when my carry-on bag #2 (the suitcase masquerading as my purse) decides to slide around and off the handle of carry-on bag #1 (the rolling suitcase proud to admit its true identity). I attempt to rearrange #2, and #1 slips out of my grip and crashes to the ground.

By the time I've gotten myself and my gear into gear and arrive, sweaty and panty, at the gate, there's no one at the gate. Suddenly, a uniformed attendant appears and asks if I'm on this flight. I nod and she shoves two yellow tickets at me, instructs me to attach them onto my bags, and says that my carry-ons won't fit on the flight.

Frantically, I try to wind the elastics around my carry-on and carry-all-the-rest, all the time contemplating being fitted into the last empty space in the plane (a.k.a. flying sardine can). And I am anticipating that the obese man, who is destined to sit next to me and who should have purchased a double row to accomodate his heft, will be overflowing into my lap and beyond, trapping me like the victim of a volcanic eruption, under flowing mounds of ashy, flabby flesh and fleshy flab, but at least I won't be cold. (Yes, I realize that volcanos spew lava, but work with me here, okay?)

I jerk, upright and uptight, as the gate attendant hisses (yes, HISSES): "Run!"

I charge down the tunnel and reach the door that opens into the airplane, with its smiling stewards performing their preflight rituals. Except that it is quite plain that there is no plane.

There is a staircase (a.k.a. a metal ladder or stadder), however, which I bump my bump-on luggage down. I'm on the ground now, searching for my flight.

About 200 paces in front of me rests a solitary plane. As the sweat on my palms turns to ice, I wheel towards the metal bird that will deliver me to my destination. Its wings sparkle so brightly in the cold winter sunlight! And I am so intent on flying away, so focussed on this particular eye-soar, that I don't see the slicks of frozen water and/or oil (a.k.a. ice) that cause my legs to fly out from under me. I land, stunned, on the knee that always takes the fall, the one that -- just that very morning -- I'd realized with a contented sigh, I hadn't even thought about for a while because it no longer hurt.

I gaze towards the plane, which I now realize has no stadder that I could have scaled, and wonder if they've already sold out my original flight and if I'll be spending my impending staycation in bed, alternating applications of frozen bags of peas with hot compresses on my throbbing knee.

By chance, as I heave myself upright, I look to my left. There is a flight attendant, eyeing me from the top of the stadder of the plane that is awaiting me. A luggage handler scurries over and asks if I'd like to be taken back to the terminal for medical attention, but I no thank him away.
I limp towards the plane, trying to preserve whatever dignity I never had.

The flight attendants all hover. "Are you okay?" they chorus.

"Oh, sure," I say, wincing in a dignified manner, as they remove bag #1 from my grip and take it to be stowed in the bowels of the airliner. "Where should I sit?"

"Anywhere in the back," an attendant answers attentively.

The plane is practically empty. I sit in my own row, actually my own three rows, the other four passengers equidistantly spaced. The obese man who was fated to sit next to me has obviously been stowed in baggage, along with the other things that wouldn't fit into the compartments above our heads, below our seats, or within the cabin.I seatbelt myself in and prepare for takeoff.

Twenty minutes later we are informed that our departure will be delayed indefinitely so that the wings can be de-iced. I consider requesting a doggie bag to place on my knee.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Answer is Snow (Richmond, VA)

One of the reasons I moved south is so I could escape the cold. By the time I'd escaped from college winters in the Snowbelt, I'd already had enough of frigid temperatures, slipping on ice, falling on snow, and watching the streets turn from a brilliant white blanket to brackish, blackish mush.

Here I sit in my kitchen, looking out on a landscape that only Nanook of the North would find inviting. It's the second day that I've been forced to remain at home without any excuse to save me from cleaning my room, doing the laundry, catching up on stuff I've let slide since returning to work at summer's end.

I am not a happy camper. I could be zumbaing. I could be out and about, chatting with friends and strangers, sipping hot tea in a toasty cafe, instead of freezing my tuchis off in my frigid abode. The heat isn't working at all in several rooms; the upstairs bathroom, the study that separates it from my bedroom, and the kitchen are all extensions of the ice box. The temperature won't rise above 61 degrees F in the rest of the house.

I'm wearing so many layers that I can't turn my head. My nose is red and my hands and feet are so cold that I would stick them all under my armpits, if the layers of clothing would permit any bending of joints or reaching of extremities. My only consolation is that they say that people in cold climates live longer. This probably means that I've got an extra 2.5 seconds, if I don't freeze to death first.

As I waddle to the window, I must confess that the tundra-ish appearance of my backyard lends a dash of glamor to the usually barren landscape. Snow drifts hide the piles of brick, the compost heap, the remnant of a garden that never flourished because vegetables need sunlight, and there is none behind our house and under the shade of the neighboring yard's tree.

It's quiet and beautiful and still. Yet I continue to feel that snow is best when it's far away. If you want to visit it or watch it in a movie, be my guest. In the meantime, if you want to be my guest, bring sweaters, mittens, and blankets.

Happy Un-birthday Un-Party (Richmond, VA)

It's the 90th birthday of one of my best friend's mother, a woman I aspire to be like when I grow up. Despite a bum leg, this lady (and she most certainly is one, but is saved by her sense of humor and adventurous spirit) has experienced hunger and poverty in wartime and has traveled the world.

This is not supposed to be a birthday party. We have all been instructed not to bring gifts and not to mention the number I just mentioned; it will merely be a gathering of her daughter's friends who all admire and love Mom.

I am the only one, I think, who takes directions (in this case, anyway) to heart. I've come bearing no gifts. I do not mention any numbers whatsoever for fear that I might err (as I usually do when numbers come into play).

We are a gathering of women of a certain age (although Mom is the most certain, plus the 20-something daughter of one of us, and diverse backgrounds: German, Dutch and Russian immigrants, ESL (English as a second language) teachers and other educators, a baker, retirees, and a congressional aide. A mostly unmotley crew.

Gabi calls with her whereabouts. She's running late, having had to de-grunge after returning from the stable. Why was she riding her horse on this cold, rainy day? somewoman wants to know.

The cognoscenti respond that horses have to be ridden, no matter the weather.
The same person says that she's never been on a horse.

I chime in with, "I don't know much about them, but I've been hoarse."

She asks, "How'd you get over it?"

I respond, "I've ridden it out."

Guess you had to be there, but in the atmosphere of generosity, indulgence, and warmth of all assembled, there is laughter.

And then, of course, there are the desserts: chocolate cheesecake; a yellow cake with white icing; stollen; star-shaped, sugar-dusted ginger cookies; marzipan; dark Belgian chocolates; vanilla cookies dipped in chocolate; liquor-filled chocolates. I take some of every food group to compose my well-balanced dessert plate: chocolate, vanilla, ginger, and green.

Mom holds forth, gracious and charming and lovely. We are all delighted to be celebrating her unbirthday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Black Hole (Richmond, VA)

I've driven down this road before -- the first and only other time I visited my friend Jill #2's house. And once again, I can't find my way back home.

Getting to her house is easy. A right turn off one of Richmond's main drags, followed by a series of rights. But I am learning once more that three rights, when reversed, can make a wrong. And I find myself on the wrong side of the tracks in the small town that bills itself as the "Center of the Universe," but which I feel -- at least right now -- should be renicknamed "the Bleakest, Blackest Black Hole in the Universe."

It should have taken me 20 minutes from her door to my door, but here I am, cursing and not exactly cruising down the same narrow, winding country road, bordered by deep ditches waiting, open-jawed, to swallow up my car and its increasingly freaked-out driver. The guy behind me in his monster SUV is practically driving in my trunk, his lights blinding me without illuminating the path that I'm trying to navigate. I recognize the deserted gas station I've just passed. I can't slow down and can't find a place to turn into and out of the SUV-of-a bitch's way.

I know that there are houses along this route, but none is lit up. I bet I know why: the lone parent remembers to pick up her newspaper at some point during one starless, moonless evening and, weeks or months or years later -- with the help of the FBI, the Air Force, GPS, and MapQuest -- finds her way home. She flings open the door, only to be confronted by the snarling progeny of her poodles or German Shepherds or sharpeis, long-reverted to their wolf-ancestor wildness and prepared to defend to the death the howling, feral teenagers, cowering and pissing themselves in the corner, and who will always be a disappointment to the canines that raised them from infancy for never having been able to compete with the rest of the cubs in terms of looks, communication skills, or instinct.

I drive on, knowing that the road sign that would have led me directly to where I wanted to go had never been erected or had been stolen (perhaps by a pack of feral cub scouts). Up ahead I spy an intersection and make a left turn, praying that the guy on my tail won't continue to tail me. He doesn't.

I make a three-point turn, praying that no kid who's just been granted his driver's license and is trying to impress his carload of friends by pretending he's on a racetrack will ram into me. I'm praying that I won't land in a ditch and be found, thirty years from now, upside down, seat belt firmly belted but half gnawed through, my last thought, caught in my head for eternity, "I wish they'd stop playing "Horse With No Name" for the gazillionth time..."

Someone must have put back the missing street sign, because now I see it. I make my way to Broad Street, to the highway, and homewards. The needle on my gas gauge hovers near empty, as do I.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving Dinner Party (Richmond, VA)

These are some of the things that I am thankful for: growing up in a functional family; a son who is the light of my life; the best friends in the world; work that I love; a body and a mind that function reasonably well; more than enough of everything I need and virtually everything I want.

With so much to be thankful for, I am still a bit depressed on Thanksgiving Day. This is one of my favorite holidays, revolving around the things I most love -- family, friends, and food. Of the latter two, there is great abundance, and I am truly grateful.But I am surrounded by the empty space that family members used to occupy.

My parents are long-gone, and my in-laws, more recently deceased. I miss them all, especially at this time of year. My brother and his family and siblings-in-law with theirs, celebrate the holiday in their respective parts of the country. I wish I had a table to accomodate them all.

As I begin dinner preparations, I feel a lump in my throat. The deepest pain is that our son is not joining us; he is at university, too far away to visit for just a long weekend. He was the maker of stuffing, the baker of pumpkin pie. This year, unwilling to undertake the pie-baking, I purchase a chocolate almond torte and a cranberry-apple galette.

I call my son. He doesn't answer the phone, so I leave a message. "I miss you -- and your cooking." I attempt a light tone, but I feel just plain sad. "I love you...."

Meanwhile, fresh cranberries pop open in the pot, where they jive with a rind-and-all orange and just enough honey to eliminate bitterness, without becoming overly sweet. I remove now-fragrant pecans from the toaster-oven and mix them into the jewel-toned melange, cooling on the counter top.

Italian turkey sausages sizzle in a pan. I smush them with a wooden spoon and toss the crumbles -- no longer pink -- atop a waiting bowl of cubed whole grain bread. I saute a load of red onion in olive oil, add chopped celery, herb it up with rosemary, thyme, sage, and fresh basil, salt and pepper, add chicken broth, and bring it all to a boil. Ten minutes later, I mix everything together with toasted walnuts and slip the stuffing into a muffin pan to form 12 individual crisp-crusted servings (to avoid fights over the corner portions). The remainder goes into another greased pan for leftovers.

I de-string the green beans. The beans will be served at room temperature, sauted al dente in olive oil, tossed with slivers of garlic, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, then salted, peppered, and finished off with a squeeze or two of fresh lemon.

The Romaine lettuce and red chard are rinsed and torn into bite-sized pieces. With quarter of a jar of red Italian peppers and a handful of green olives, they will comprise a simple but colorful salad.

While the turkey browns belly-up in the oven and the root vegetables (beets, garnet yams, turnips) and garlic cloves bake in their olive oil and herb-scented bath, I run the coats upstairs, dust the living room, mop the kitchen floor, clear and set the table for nine.

The cooking smells and constant business lift my spirits.

Carolina, my daughter-by-choice, her partner, and their precocious four-year-old will eat with us. Jeffery (a sushi chef and current student), his wife, Pyu Pyu, and two sons (the adults born in Burma but lived in Japan for 28 years before coming to the States) will. too. The table only seats 10, and I like Thanksgiving dinner to be a sit-down affair.

I silently pray that none of this year's invitees are anorexic. (One year I neglected to question why my two female guests probably didn't weigh 150 pounds put together.)

Pyu Pyu has brought vegetarian spring rolls and Indian (potato-filled) samosas. We eat them as appetizers and bring them to the table, adding ethnic zing to the spread of all-American eats. M. has concocted a last-minute "gravy," and makes us guess the secret ingredient, added to the olive oil, garlic, and onions. Nobody gets it: shredded wheat! We dig in and everything, with the exception of the stuffing muffins that I've burnt, is delicious. We wash it all down with lemonade, sparkling water, and/or red wine.

Former students, Valgine from Brazil, and Ahmed, from Saudi Arabia, arrive and receive filled plates. Jeffery and his family leave; the boys need to go to bed.

Ahmed brings us a Saudi dessert: homemade, fried whole wheat dough balls, pooled in honey. We drink coffee and add vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, semi-sweet chocolate-covered cranberries, and pomegranate seeds to our desserts. We travel with our plates between living room and kitchen, sipping mint tea or strong coffee.

Dinner is tasty, the conversation lively, our invitees charming. Dessert and life and so many memories are sweet. I am so thankful for it all.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Dangers of Exercise (Richmond, VA)

Exercise is dangerous to your health. This unfortunate truth has been hit home to me time and time again.

The first time it hit me, it did so with force. I was 21 years old, pitching a no-hitter in Manhattan's Central Park, with a group of friends, when a man (who had asked to join us) smashed a line drive into my face. Don't believe it if someone tells you that a softball is a soft ball. That sucker lifted me up, then deposited me on the ground four to six feet from my launching pad. I had an out-of-body experience, watching myself fly through the air from a perspective about two feet south of Heaven. By the time the ambulance had arrived and the batter(er) had run away, I was convinced that all my teeth were going to spill out of my mouth. They were the only things that hurt; the ball had damaged the nerve in my face, leaving it numb -- a good thing, as I never felt the pain of my broken jaw, nose, and the bone under my eye. By the time I was back on my feet -- with two black and jagged-red radiating-line-decorated eyes, the gluey remnants of recently removed bandages still visible, and a crooked nose that would ensure that modeling could never be my profession -- I had sworn off soft, base, foot, and basketball or any sport or exercise involving round objects sailing through space that could come into close or far proximity with my face.

My next brush with the perils of exercise occurred years later. I was participating in a calisthenics class, and the instructor decided to break the group into teams and have us race each other. As a woman of already a certain age (but much younger), I was in my element. I used to sprint competitively, and this was a chance to strut my stuff. So, I hit the ground running, until I hit the ground, running. My knee promptly swelled up to the size of a bowling ball. I have avoided running, bowling, and the ground ever since.

I literally and figuratively hit a wall about a year and a half ago, while taking a combat aerobics class. You use moves from various martial arts, but there is no person-to-person contact in this type of exercise. There's not supposed to be any contact with walls, either. But on that ill-fated day, just a few minutes into the warm-up, I was moving forwards and back, when the next thing I knew, I was not. I found myself sitting up against the wall, my wrists hurting like hell, and with no memory of what had transpired. I emerged from the emergency room with a broken right wrist, a sprained wrong thumb, and a lump on the back of my head. I couldn't drive, dress myself, or type on the keyboard for the next two months or more. I managed to obtain a special pencil that attached to the middle finger of my left hand, but I could never read whatever it was that I wrote, so I ended up just using the device as an extended finger to indicate my anger -- if you know what I mean. Since then, I've kept my distance from combat, walls, and anyone or anything I consider backward.

I've probably erased from memory other exercise-related mishaps, but the latest occurred a few evenings ago. I was dancing with one of my salsa buddies, when I stepped on my very own foot. When I removed my shoe later that night, revealing broken skin and a bloody toe, I resolved to avoid referring to dancing as exercise.

Cold Spot (Richmond, VA)

These are the gloomy days, the chilly, rainy days of Richmond. Intro to Winter 101. Have there been four or five or a hundred of these days in a row? Don't know, but it feels as if this grayity has settled into my very bones.

Rain falls in cascades, sheets, cats and dogs, maybe even lions, tigers, and bears. Tempers run short and high.

Everyone looks pale and sickly. I feel rather ill, myself. Congested. Coughing. Sneezy and wheezy.

Surrendering to the malaise, I stay in bed for an entire day and night, mostly sleeping. I cut back on activities, missing dances, classes, and various intriguing events. I will unsnail once the clouds lift and the sun shines.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Going Deaf or Going Daft? (Richmond, VA)

I have an excuse. The music is blaring, so I've got my ears plugged and can hear hardly a word that anyone cares to say. But the woman who's just been introduced to me -- and whose name I didn't hear and would've forgotten immediately if I had (I've never met a name that I could remember without multiple exposures), isn't plugged out or in. She says (and I DO hear this): "I'm going to call you by a nickname."

"No you're not," I respond.

The woman who introduced us helpfully chimes in with a suggestion: "Barbie."

I glare at her. "Absolutely not!"

I look at her friend and offer my own suggestion: "How about if you just call me Barbara?"

"Sure," she replies with enthusiasm, "but what's your real name?"

"Barbara," I say.

"Now, that's really strange," she remarks.

I walk away. The exchange seems weird to me, too.

Tall Tales 2 (Richmond, VA)

Apparently, my doctor was concerned about shrinkage. She ordered a bone density scan for me because petite people seem to be at high risk of breaking their sparrow-like bones.

I dutifully fill out the pre-scan questionnaire. I am accustomed to saying that I am almost 5'l" -- as measured by the Baltimore Aquarium's temporary exhibit that compared height and weight to the size of a baby whale. (I'm smaller). Because there isn't enough room to write "almost," I scribble 5'1" in the space where it asks for my last known height.

When the nurse (who is at least 5'20") measures me, she snarks something like, "Aha! You've already shrunk some! You're only 5'1/2" tall."

That so-called nurse is so so-called tall that she actually compresses my skull by flattening my hair until it becomes ingrown! In addition, I've long suspected and am now convinced that all of the measurement tools in my doctor's office are out of date, balance, and whack. For instance, the scale adds five pounds that someone else must have left behind, it doesn't take stock of the heavy-weight materials used in the undergarments that I wear, and it doesn't subtract the 13 lbs. of water that I drink and the breakfast and lunch I eat before my appointments.

Everything is wrong about this, I'm sure you will agree. Who, after all, would have the more accurate measurements? The well respected, scientifically accurate and internationally acclaimed Baltimore Aquarium or some little medical practice that nobody's even heard of outside of certain ever-shrinking circles in Richmond, Virginia?

Anyone looking at me (except for my son, who is completely impossible when it comes to talking about my height -- he says that I don't have any...) can see that I am MUCH taller than my mother ever was -- even at her zenith: At 5 feet, in her stocking feet, she ended up being taller than all of her friends; she was the only one among them who didn't shrink with age and time. And furthermore, if math really made sense, five feet plus two feet would equal seven feet, right?

And while we're not too far from the subject of my son, I must explain that when he was about four years old -- still knee-high to a grasshopper and about chin-high to his mother -- I made the mistake of telling him that in the final chapter of my favorite book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the family matriarch (Raquel) had become so wizened and shrunken that her great-grandchildren stored her in a dresser drawer and played with her as if she were a doll. This son of mine piped up with his own creative and frightening rift on this already disturbing vision: "Mom," he told me, "when you get old I'll keep you in a shoebox, dress you in clown clothes, and use you as a bookmark."

With this in mind, you will appreciate that as much as I support my son's love of reading and as much as I hope that he will continue to involve me in his life, my need to stand tall, keep my chin up and my shrinkage down is high on my to-do list.

Friday, October 23, 2009

One Shot Before Dinner (Richmond, VA)

It's 3:15 p.m. I get on line in the pharmacy for a flu shot. I'm number 95. I ask the woman who hands me the pre-shot questionnaire ("Have you ever had a negative reaction to a flu shot?" "Are you allergic to eggs?" "Will anybody realize you're acting oddly if you start screeching like an angry monkey?" "Have you updated your will?")how long it will be before I get my turn. She doesn't know and wouldn't care that I have to be at a former student's apartment for dinner at 4:30.

Ahmed lives at least 20 minutes away. I wonder if I should wait or just go next door to the florist, buy a nice bouquet or plant, and arrive at dinner relaxed and on time. I opt for stress.

I am not about to stand idly in line. I'll get some work done. The time will fly by and before I know it, I'll be cradling my wounded arm and wondering if this is my last shot. ("If you notice itching, swelling, or tingling at the site of the injection, call your doctor, rush like mad to the emergency room, and dictate your epitaph to the triage nurse.")

I rifle through my Mexican shopping bag, pulling out folders crammed with papers that will, hopefully, form the basis of a presentation I'm giving to 120 new teachers in two sessions next week and which I haven't had time to think about. I shuffle through the sheets, make mental notes -- always a bad move when you're prone to forgetfulness -- and ten minutes or so later, try to put the folders back. They won't fit, so I just shove them in. They're obviously not taking this kind of treatment from me, so they fight back, flying back out and spreading their contents all along the aisle. Everyone watches me (no, I'm not being paranoid) as I hunt down and gather up my stuff.

I decide to jot down my mental notes. After fumbling through my purse to find a pen, I pull the inker out. In obvious collusion with the folders, it jumps out of my hand, shoots into the air, torpedoes down an aisle, and rolls under a display. Everyone watches me as, on hands and knees, I try to retrieve the impudent implement.

Returning to my place in the line that hasn't advanced an inch in 25 minutes, I balance my Mexican bag on a shelf. The shelf collapses. Everyone looks at me. I shrug and mumble that I'm not going to attempt to fix it, as it will probably break.

I tap my toes, then stand on them. I stretch my legs, first one, then the other. Stretched, tapped, and still standing, I decide to find out how long it will be until I reach the front of the line. "I'll be right back," I tell the people who aren't watching me.

Zig-zagging my way through aisles showcasing cosmetics, candy, and weird things straight out of late-night TV ads or science fiction movies(pastel-colored plastic balls that fluff your laundry; pink pads that remove hair from even your most delicate body parts by simply rubbing; electronic devices that shield you from shrieking monkeys), I make my way to the front of the line, in the back of the store.

"Excuse me," I say in my most ingratiatingly pleasant and polite voice. "I'm number 95. Can you please tell me how long it'll be before I get my shot?"

The nurse stops mid-jab to glare at me, pointing the needle as if it were a sword and I the sorry knight who lost the battle. "We are working as fast as we can!"

"I know you are," I say in my most groveling and ingratiating voice. "But could you please just tell me what number you've reached?"

She practically spits at me: "Sixty-nine!"

I return to my place in line. I wrestle my pen to a notepad and figure out that at this rate, I will probably get shot, if not killed, by about 4:15.

We nano-inch forward. When I am finally within sight of the needle-wielders, the kindly couple standing in front of me instructs me to go ahead of them. I thank them and realize later that they must have been watching the proceedings. When I turn again to thank them, they are nowhere in sight -- probably slunk out the front door, high-tailed it to their car, and sped out of the lot, panting in fear and relief.

I am hoping that the nurse doesn't recognize me. I try to make small talk, in my friendliest, most charming voice. Apparently, charming friendliness doesn't work with everyone. I swear that every bit of pent-up rage that this woman has ever felt in her entire, very long life, went into that one thrust into my arm. I'm surprised that the needle didn't break in two or, at the very least, fly into the air in imitative pen-movements. I almost did.

I lurch out of the pharmacy and into the florist. It takes me 15 minutes to make it back to my car, bouquet in hand (of working arm).

It's 4:30. Not too bad. Ahmed is from Saudi Arabia, and in the class before he transferred out (he had to change nights for family reasons), we had discussed when people arrive for dinner in various countries. In the US, I'd explained, you can be 10 minutes or so late. I remember that in Saudi Arabia, you can arrive something like an hour to four weeks late without a problem.

Ten minutes later, I'm driving through the apartment complex, searching for the right building. I find it, but cannot find an unreserved parking spot. I recall the discussion in my class the night before. My students were telling me that none of their friends visit them anymore, because their cars were always towed for parking in residents' spaces.

I ride around for 10 minutes. Reserved. Reserved. Every spot is reserved. There should have been a sign reading "NO VISITORS ALLOWED." After asking various residents where the guest parking is and getting "I don't know" for an answer each time, I park in front of Ahmed's building and exit my car.

Some rather unsavory looking young men are lurking near the building's entrance. "Will I have a problem if I park here?" I ask.

"You'll get towed," Unsavory #1 responds.

"Do you know where there's a space for visitors?" I ask.

"Never seen one," says Lurker #2.

They both run around the lots, searching for a space. Lurker finally finds one and plants himself there until I pull in.

I thank them and walk to the building. It's three stories high. When I step inside, I realize that Ahmed never gave me the apartment number.

I ring all four doorbells and move to the center of the hallway.

A man opens a door. That's when I realize that I don't remember Ahmed's last name.

"Do you know Ahmed?" I ask in my hopeful voice.

"No English," he says. "My daughter speak."

The daughter comes to the door. She doesn't know any Ahmed.

"He's got four or five children," I say in a more hopeful voice.

They both shake their heads no.

In my most hopeful voice, I say, "His wife covers."

They point straight up.

I climb the stairs and ring the bell. Ahmed's oldest son opens the door, smiles, and lets me in. Ahmed's wife comes over, smiles, and tells me to sit down.

She serves me weak coffee, flavored with cardomom, in a tiny porcelain cup. She places a bowl of dates in front of me and apologizes that Ahmed is not home yet; he's getting a flu shot at the hospital.

I help the oldest daughter with her science homework. I talk with Houda and Abdullah. Houda calls Ahmed to tell him that I am in the apartment.

When Ahmed arrives, about an hour later, he apologizes profusely. Later, he tells me that he thought that I was coming for dinner on the 27th. We had originally scheduled for the 20th, but I'd told him that I had to work until 8pm that night. I thought that we'd agreed on the 22nd. I am mortified. Everyone is gracious.

The family admires the flowers. I admire the dinner (biryani with chicken, almonds, and raisins) and a salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.

Ahmed is late for his class. I am late for a meeting. I thank everyone and say goodnight. They tell me I am welcome anytime.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remembering Peru

I'm talking to someone about my wonderful sojourn in Peru seven years ago. I'm going on and on, raving about the spectacular ruins and setting of Macchu Picchu, the mysteries of the rain forest, the resourcefulness of the Peruvians I met there, and the impression that the Amazon made on me. "The country has 38 of the world's 45 climate zones," I add.

I tell her that it's got to be "the longitude, the latitude, the altitude, and the attitude" that make Peru amazing. And I am absolutely certain that I'm right.

I'll tell you all about it all sometime.

What is the Sound of One Ear Partially Listening?

I am definitely going deaf. Although I'm usually frustrated and annoyed by my loss of the ability to hear what's being said, sometimes I find the results rather amusing.

For example, the other day I was driving to my night job, while listening to the radio. I tuned into a piece on NPR, featuring an interview with a few of this year's recipients of the MacArthur Genius Awards. When the speaker said that each recipient was awarded "a no-strings-attached" monetary prize, I heard: "Each will receive a nose string attached."

My imagination launched into over-drive. I pictured the brilliant mathematician, linked nostril-to-nostril, via a (red) cord, to the highly articulate poet. The fruit of this union of great minds and unseen (but, no doubt, tortured) faces would be a study of the mathematics of rhyme, the poetry of numbers -- or a battle of unforeseen proportion and consequences. Would this be the cosine qua non? What is the probability that such sets of disparate polygons of virtue might produce transformations that,at their very root, are the proof that metaphor, whether gauged by the foot or by meter, can be epic?

I'm not sure what this would mean, either. But then, I'm not good with numbers and rarely, if ever, wax poetic.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Best Weekend of the Year (Richmond, VA)

Yesterday, as I was walking towards the river to attend the third day of the Richmond International Folk Festival, I was thinking that this really is quite a wonderful place to live.

A mere half an hour before the 12:15 start-time of Jorge Negron's Master Bomba Ensemble, whose music I was planning to dance to, I had wandered down the hill to the riverfront. I found a parking spot only two blocks from the pedestrian bridge I'd have to cross to reach the festival site.

The weather was gorgeous: cool, clear, and sunny. A light jacket countered the chill.

Food vendors were already selling to the "early" risers: frozen cheesecake on a stick and fried fair-style food (blooming onions, made-on-the-spot potato chips, and other artery cloggers), Thai curries, Jamaican stews, Greek kabobs, and more. One operation hawked vegetarian global cuisine, so even animal lovers would have no beef.

When I arrive at the Dance Stage, the band is sound checking. I'd already heard them the day before and they sounded even better. I strap on my dancing shoes and start tapping my toes, heels, and thighs to the beat.

The leader of the band is a former Richmonder who'd returned to Puerto Rico. He founded the group a mere six months ago, and I believe that this festival hosted their first public performances.

Two women and two men dance (mostly individually), challenging the drummers to mimic their rhythms. Three men play the drums (sorry if I can't tell you more about the different instruments, but the musicians certainly knew how to bring out the best in percussion). I dance to the infectious rhythms by myself and with others.

Later I mosey over to another stage. While others sit on the hill overlooking this outside venue, I stand unstill watching Greek cabaret singer Sophia Bilides, whose Arabic sounding melodies make my belly and hips ache to swivel.

Tuvan throat singers follow with their own remarkable performance. Sounding like frogs, birds, and humans all at once, they warble their immense love for their horses and, maybe a little less fervidly, their passion for their women. I am less inspired to dance than I am to try to figure out how many simultaneous notes and harmonies originate with each performer or to examine their interesting garments and footwear. (I am close to the stage, so it is pretty easy to do the latter, but not the former; I guess I would have to be peering down their throats....)

Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris sing and strum the blues, Joel Rubin plays klezmer music, the Hummingbirds soar with gospel. I stagger back to my car, hearing the sounds still emanating from the other venues.

All the above takes place on Sunday. I'd already spent hours dancing nonstop on Saturaday to Colombian brass papayera, New Orleans jazz, and Swamp Dogg's rhythm and blues. I'd heard the incredible Indian slide guitarist, Debashish Bhattacharya, and attended a presentation-explanation-demonstration by masters of slide guitar from different countries and styles. I'd listened to Irish musicians and watched Korean dancers. Friday night I'd danced to a zydeco band and an East African group.

I've seen a zillion people I know, sweated in the sun, been moistened by the rain. Music reverberates in my head for days afterward. Not a terrible thing. As a matter of fact, I highly recommend it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Little Lesson for U.S. Men (Richmond, VA)

Ok, guys. "Nice" is not the correct answer when your wife, girlfriend, significant female other, or mother asks you how she looks. "Nice" describes wallpaper. "Nice" is the same as "okay" or "good," and neither of those responses is good enough.

Here are some possibilities for you: Beautiful, great, gorgeous, fabulous, incredible, fantastic, phenomenal, unbelievable, etc. Get the picture?

Use one of these, but not for your mom: Sexy, delicious... You get the idea, don't you?

Take your choice and say it with sincerity, enthusiasm, and conviction and with the appropriate body language and facial expressions.

Additional instructions:

Don't use the same word every time.

Don't wait until she asks. When she appears, make your face light up and say: 'You look fantastic!' or something similar. Believe me, you'll look better to her.

I tell you this because, for the first time that I can remember, a US-American guy told me (out of nowhere): "You are so beautiful." It made my day, maybe even my month. It might have been complete BS, but man, it felt not good, not nice, but fantastic!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Simple Truth (Richmond, VA)

I promised myself that this year -- finally and absolutely -- I would simplify my life: leave work when the workday ends; just say "no" to requests to join more groups; refuse to schedule more than one after-work activity in any given evening; allow time to decompress; and, yes, even clean and clean out the house on weekends.

So, you might ask, how am I doing?

Not so hot, I must confess.

The problem is that, to be honest, I enjoy being busy and engaged.

I don't think it's my Protestant work ethic (I'm not Protestant) that makes me remain at work until I've finished the job at hand and gotten a healthy start on the jobs at wrist, elbow, and shoulder; it's that I like my job(s).

And as far as participating in groups (and I'm not talking on-line groups but ones that hold in-person meetings), I only join those that deal with topics of interest to me (other languages or cultures, for example) and that inevitably turn out to have members who are smart, funny, talented, compassionate, and who sometimes, become my friends.

I don't think I should have to count my night job as an evening activity; therefore, going dancing at 9:30pm after a 10+ hour workday is just one activity, right? And the things I do in between my first and second jobs, such as working out at the gym, meeting a friend for coffee, etc., don't count either, correct? And on those evenings, such as this Thursday, when I'll dart from a 4:00 private dance lesson to meet Spanish speakers (native and wannabes) at 6:00 for conversaciĆ³n and bonhommerie, and then sprint to (arrive a bit late at)a dance event and stay until 11:00, well, what's the problem?

And decompression sounds SO boring and kinda scary. (Compression doesn't sound so hot either, but maybe you can squeeze in a hug? Sorry!) What would I do to decompress, anyway? Stay home and read? I do that when I eat or before bed. Watch TV? Don't get me started. Listen to the radio? That's why God made cars. Lie down and take a nap? That's why God made the hours between midnight and six a.m.

Weekends are when I can pack the most in! For example, just on Saturday, September 25th, I can grab coffee with a buddy at a cafe, hit a coupla yard sales, see two African films before 3:00 p.m., and spend the rest of the day at a festival -- eating, watching dance performances, and taking a zumba lesson. (Zumba = aerobic exercise that combines Latin dance moves with more perspiration than you can imagine streaming from your body, blinding you, and leaving puddles so big you might drown if you don't have a heart attack first or disappear altogether from all the calories you've burned in the 10 minutes it's taken you to realize that you can't breathe or walk, much less zumba any longer). Now doesn't that sound more appetizing than decompressing?

As far as cleaning, I'm with Phyllis Diller when she said, "I hate to mop the kitchen floor. Six months later, I've got to do it again!" If I have to clean when company isn't coming, then I think I need to move into a smaller space, get rid of virtually everything I own -- including my husband, and get a new (or another) job that will leave me with enough money to pay someone else to do my dirty work.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Caller ID'd (Richmond, VA)

Someone who lives with me -- and made me promise that I won't mention his name -- comes home and finds a frightening message on the answering machine...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Winning Season (Richmond, VA)

I really should stop what I'm doing right now and run out to buy a lottery ticket. My luck has been incredible lately, and I should spend the $2? $5? or whatever a ticket costs, because I am absolutely going to win.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Working. Out. (Richmond, VA)

First day at work. I've been out of the office since late June. I left a message on my answering machine saying I wouldn't be back until September. Twenty-some people left me about 36 messages. That's not too bad. Not compared to over 1,600 e-mails that I have to plow through.

No time to plow or even to return calls. Lots of meetings. A new phone system to get used to. Computer doesn't want to cooperate. People are calling, more meetings are being scheduled, my desk is a mound of papers. I'm making copies for a presentation I have to give twice on Wednesday. Running back and forth, forth and back. Greeting people who come into the office, colleagues, friends, acquaintances.

This year I've vowed to drink lots of water, to eat lunch every day, and to leave work when I'm supposed to. I forget to drink. I eat lunch but leave a half hour late. Already an improvement over last year.

Tomorrow and Wednesday I'll be out of the office again, presenting sessions and being present at others. Then back in and back out. My days will get busier and busier. Nights and weekends will fill with meetings, workshops, classes.

I'll soon start feeling exhausted and stressed and as if I were going crazy at times. But I'll never, ever be bored. Every day will be a challenge, each different, some better than others. The time will pass quickly. It will all work out....

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Tall Tale (Richmond, VA)

I joke that I am of average height and that everyone else is tall. But the truth is that I have always felt tall for my height. Except when I'm around other people. And children. I still feel tall when the children are toddlers, though.

In developing nations, at 5'1" I practically tower over others. And I think I'm even taller if we use the metric system, which is probably the reason that this country still refuses to adopt it.

Every once in a while it is brought home to me that I am not as tall a person as I think I am.
Usually, it is when I go to reach something on a supermarket shelf and either have to scale two other shelves to snag the item in question or have to make an offer to a person of higher height that, in exchange for reaching said item, I will happily retrieve an item of equal or lesser value for him/her from the bottom shelf or from the floor.

Sometimes, when I am in a school, surrounded by what appear to be professional basketball players, they turn out to be fourth graders. "Don't they make short children anymore?" I've asked more than once, but nobody has ever responded. Perhaps they couldn't see me.

I have to admit that I was a smallish child. There are pictures of me standing with the neighborhood kids, and I am tiny by comparison. But that's mostly due to the camera angle or because they are all older than me by at least a day or two, and because Asians in the US are, as you know, really, really tall and because my brother had me in a full nelson and I was unable to stand up to my full height.

At about 12 years of age I experienced a major growth spurt and shot up to nearly my current degree of altitude. I could practically look down at my mother, who barely topped five feet. Now, she was a shortie!

For a while there, I was the second tallest person in my little family. My husband, at 6'2", was definitely the tallest. And, until he hit 12, my son was unarguably shorter than I. (Yes, you were, too, R! Don't unargue with me...) But once he turned 12, my son grew not only impatient, but taller. I think he got all his height from me and he even must have gotten some of the height meant for me. But that's genetics for ya!

In the long run, it really doesn't matter much a'tall, does it?

. ..

Friday, August 28, 2009

I Take the Prize (Richmond, VA)

I'm back home for just a few days and already I've won a prize!

Don't get too excited on my behalf. After all, I didn't win the lottery -- or what the Italians refer to as the "Idiot Tax." I was merely the fourth caller to one of our public radio stations, which was thanking contributors to their interminable fundraisers.

What I didn't realize was that they were giving out good prizes, such as meals at restaurants I like or would like to try. Had I just held out a bit longer, I might be telling you about the entertaining play I'd just attended or my delightful dinner at the restaurant I could never afford to visit on my own. Unfortunately, I was the winner of two tickets to an award-winning documentary about the slaughter of dolphins.

After being turned down by the first 16 relatives and friends I asked to accompany me to a film featuring Flipper and friends' finale, I kind of lost the desire to take advantage of my good fortune. Alas, the tickets have expired (along with multiple maritime creatures).

I am hoping that this is just the start of a long run of good luck. Maybe I'll even buy a lottery ticket....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dancing with the Blues (Richmond, VA)

No, I'm not talking about dancing with the police, although I do have a regular salsa buddy who is a former officer. I'm talking about Blues dancing, something I never heard of until last Friday, when I took a lesson -- and put it into practice.

"So, what exactly is this dance form? " the uninitiated (You?) might be asking.

My answer, which is the only one you'll receive here, is that it is three parts swing, one part slink, and some other parts of whatever the heck you want to throw into the mix. The music, especially if you like blues (as I do), is great. My only problem with the dancing is that the most prevalent way to execute it is for the couple to be plastered against each other, which leads to a sense of closeness and intimacy that I just don't want with any man with whom I don't plan to have babies.

A case in point: A late arrival to the session (who'd missed the lesson) was able to manage some of the slinkier movements and then he began to put his own moves on me. Although the results were not what he had in mind, I've got to give him credit for his line(s) , which went something like this:

He: My first ex-wife was a psychologist for (the same school system you work for).

I: What did your second ex-wife do?

He: She was a Harvard-educated professor of Buddhism (at a local university).

I: How about you third ex-wife?

He: That would be you....

No, it wouldn't.

I'm going back to salsa.

Monday, August 17, 2009

First Daze Back (Richmond, VA)

My friend Cheryl will be off to her full time teaching position in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a few days. It's closer than where she spent the last year -- Korea -- but probably just as alien. (My apologies to any Oklahomaker who might be reading this...) Friday night is the goodbye party, and what a party it is!

Cheryl's friends are either contact improvisation dancers, writers, or both. They are artists and/or musicians. A yoga instructor and the esteemed, 90-year-old founder of the university's dance department are also in attendance.

Everyone is a good cook. Someone brought a salad, greens with figs, dotted with with pomegranate seeds. One of the guys baked a peach tart; a sign -- which I choose to ignore -- warns vegetarians that lard is in the crust. Blue corn bread. A huge bowl of blackberries. Figs, fresh from Robbie's garden. Potato salad. A rotisserie chicken, store bought. Crab meat with black beans, green peppers, garlic, onions, and green olives. A salad of tomatoes from somebody's yard, basil-scented, rich with summer. Meltingly warm chocolate-peanut butter cookies.

I am, for some reason unbeknownst even to me, telling the cookie baker about Finland: "World's highest or second highest suicide rate," I tell her. "That's because it's so damned dark most of the year. People are depressed. The men hardly talk. The national dance is the tango. It's the only country in the world where there's a Latin radio station. Latin - a dead language. That's perfect because they're suicidal -- Finnished." I harbor no ill feelings towards Finland or the Finns and am almost sure that some of what I am saying is true.

Male partners in orange shirts and pajama bottoms sit next to each other on the couch, and a female writer who looks familiar (as does almost everyone) watches from a nearby chair. Most of us are dancing in the living room. At one point, Cheryl dons a kimono and dives repeatedly onto one of those huge bouncy-balls favored by Pilates exercisers. A guy in a skirt, a man wearing a cowboy hat, an acquaintance who's a carpenter -- all seem to enter an altered state as they move and groove. We pseudo-tango, belly dance, improvise to the eclectic music selections. Host Robbie, a talented dancer, musician, and more, whips off his shirt, stands at the glass front door, gyrates, and says: "I hope my neighbors are watching!"

Rued Awakening: Homeward Bound

I've spent hours packing my one carry-on suitcase and "handbag" (translation: second suitcase). Weeks ago I sent home a skirt and a top with A. I've used up most of my allowable 3-ounce containers of shampoo, lotions, and miscellaneous liquids and creams. I'm leaving a shirt and a tote bag (along with a tip) for the woman who cleans the room. I should have plenty of room.

After all, I haven't purchased too much: four thin paperback books of cartoons by Alex; a straw mask; two smallish primitive paintings; two ex-votos (one tiny, the other notebook-paper size); four small woven cosmetic bags with floral or geometric designs; a six-strand stone bracelet that's already fallen apart; three bottles of the indispensable Tajin, a mixture of salt, chili, and lime that will last me for a year and that I will sprinkle on virtually everything that's destined for my mouth, from soup to nuts to fruit to ice cream; a small bag of habas enchiladas to munch on the plane, in the airport, or at home (should it last that long). Oh, and there's the book of revolutionary poems that I was given for dancing, to the sounds of a live band, in the plaza in front of a subway station. I'm using every bit of available space to squeeze everything in and, if the bags don't burst, everything will fit.

I try to sleep, but what's the point? I've asked the hotel desk clerk to call a cab and to call me at 3:00 a.m. I'm not sure that he'll do either, so I close my eyes at 1:30 and open them every 15 minutes. I'm not ready to go home but I don't want to miss the plane.

At 3:00 the phone rings. I pop out of bed and answer. No answer.

A quick wash-up. I'm as ready as I'll ever be at such an ungodly, unhumanly hour. I try calling the desk four or five times to get help taking my luggage downstairs, as the hotel elevator hasn't been operating for the last week. No answer, no luck, no dice, no help.

I lug and tug everything down four interminably long flights of stairs. The lobby is deserted, except for the clerk and the taxi driver, who were obviously and obliviously snoozing.

The streets are dark, eerie, and uncharacteristically silent. The cabbie delivers me to the airport quickly and easily.

It is 4:20. My flight leaves at 7:30 am. Even the airline folks are still sleeping. It's too early to do anything else.

I figure that I'd better get something to eat now or I'll have to settle for bags of salty peanuts until I arrive home late this afternoon. I lug and tug my baggage and myself up a flight of stairs to have the worst meal I've not enjoyed since I left the US: tiny cubes of salt, seasoned with freeze-dried potatoes; ice-cold fried eggs; and refried, untried beans on what might pass for a tortilla -- if you are a lover of cardboard with an "off" taste.

On the first leg of my journey home, I am leg to leg with a handsome young man who spends the entire flight picking at his face and neck, staring at the slim or thick pickings, and popping them into his mouth. I am nauseous and look forward to upchucking on him. Unfortunately, I don't.

The flight from Atlanta to Richmond is uneventful by comparison.

Backlog: Last Dance III (Mexico City)

J.C. (not Jesus, but Juan Carlos) is scheduled to pick me up at the hotel at 5:45 p.m. He leaves me a message, confirming that we're on for the evening, but when I call him back, he tells me that there are some complications.

When he shows up at 6 o'something, it's without his car. He needs to stop at the university (where he's getting a Masters degree while teaching economics) to pick up materials for the semester."It won't take too long," he assures me.

We subway to the campus, and it takes a lot longer than either of us expected. By 7:15 or so we've retrieved his car and are heading towards Salon Hidalgo.

We don't arrive for hours, not because the place is far away or difficult to reach, but because Mexico has won a major soccer game against the US and all roads to our destination are blocked by jubilant crowds. Once we're in the neighborhood, we can't find parking, so we end up at a lot near Bellas Artes and ride the metro to Hidalgo. It's after 9pm and Jesus and his friend, with whom I was hoping to dance and to whom I would have liked to have said goodbye, are already gone.

I tell J.C. that he should dance with other women, but he says that he has plenty of nights to do that. The other women are sorely disappointed; this guy, in his 30's, is tall, dark, and gorgeous. He has broad shoulders, a narrow waist, perfect posture, and cheekbones as high as the law allows. He's the best dancer on the floor, and he dances every number with me.

On the way back from the restroom, I'm asked to dance by the "bloodhound." "No, gracias." The guy with no discernible girlfriend approaches. "No, gracias."

Women watch -- I can feel them aiming curses, arrows, daggers, and machetes my way-- as I try to follow J.C.'s smooth, stylish, graceful moves. He's an excellent lead, and I'm feeling pretty accomplished, myself. As I execute (a good word for what I did) a turn, I smack J.C. in the head. Despite my clumsiness and despite his dizziness, he remains gracious and sweet.

By 10:30, the bands have stopped playing, and the waiters have started clearing the tables. The place is clearing out.

J.C. drives me back to my hotel, and we say our farewells with a hug and a peck on the cheek. "See you next year."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Last Dance II (Mexico City)

It's a slow night at the dance hall. Admission is less than $2.00. Soft drinks, bottled water, beer, or hard liquor double the price or more. Two no-name, enthusiastic bands cover songs covered better by others. There's enough room on the floor to move without being stepped on or elbowed often.

As usual, women perch on their seats and wait for someone to ask them to dance. Men peruse the dance floor, stroll past the tables, eyeing us, extending a hand or not. Two strangers ask me to dance. I am lead-footed.

Someone I've danced with sometime ago, but whose name escapes me, leads me out again. He pastes his body against mine and whispers, "I am three months without a girlfriend."

I wish him luck in finding one as I jam my arm between us.

We dance apart, then he grabs me, reels me in, and presses me close. "The song says to hug you tightly."

I push him backwards. "Do you always follow instructions?" I ask.

He laughs and allows the space between us to grow. Then, "Are you alone?"

"I'm waiting for a friend." Honorio is meeting me at 7:45.

"What kind of friend?"

"A good one." I thank him and return to my table.

Honorio enters, wearing a suit. "Take your jacket off," I tell him. It's at least 90 degrees. "It only gets hotter."

We talk a while, in Spanish and in English. Work was fine.... His girlfriend, in France, is coming back to visit in three weeks.... His cousin and he enjoyed our jaunt to Tula.... Pancho's university started up again yesterday; he'll graduate in a year, with a degree in economics and lousy job prospects.... The band that played at a friend's wedding in Teotihuacan was well known and really good. They played all night but Honorio's favorite dance partner had taken lessons and was too good for him....

I'm not.

Honorio is a more accomplished dancer than he'd admitted to being. We move well together, but we won't be tapped for Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance anytime soon. I tell him to find some sweet young things to dance with, but he doesn't. We cumbia until 9:30, then say goodbye until next year.

The mosquitoes that torture me must have taken a vacation, found an easier mark, or be planning something special for my last night in Mexico. I fall asleep watching Desperate Housewives, dubbed in Spanish. For nine hours, I slumber. If I dreamed of dancing, I don't recall a single step.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Last Dance I (Mexico City)

Monday. I walk through my park, a goodbye stroll. I wave to teachers from whom I've taken a lesson or two and to people I've taken lessons with. I find my steady dancing partners: Jose, a narrow curl of a man, bent like elbow macaroni, in his 60's? 70's?, has been a sweet and patient teacher. Alvaro, with his high cheekbones and bulging eyes, is in his 50's or 60's. I think he told me that he makes car loans. He's also a wine connoisseur and, unbelievably, he only started dancing 5 months ago; he's got rhythm and groove in his bones and in his blood. They take turns dancing me to the music of a nearby class. Then we walk over to a union hall, the place to go if it rains or if you just want to dance inside for free.

Along the way I spy a vendor roasting giant camotes (sweet potatoes). Although my stomach is still satisfied with the fish ceviche I'd lunched on three hours ago, my nasal passageways are telegraphing my brain: THERE'S ALWAYS ROOM FOR A CAMOTE!

My friends don't get the telegraph. They escort me quickly past the enticing smell and into the dance space.

I salsa with Alvaro, then with Jose. A friend of theirs, now mine, churns me as if I were Dorothy's house in a Kansas tornado. "You have style," he says.

A dark-skinned man with a scar on his cheek swoops me through turn after turn. He's a strong lead with some original moves, a pleasure to follow. "You dance like a Puerto Rican," he tells me. I take that as a compliment.

Another gent takes my hand and leads me into a salsa. "How have you been?" he asks. "Where is your son?" We took a lesson or two, two years ago in the park, and we've both improved.

I dance, nonstop, until they dim the lights. Then Alvaro and Jose walk me back to the park, where we watch a class kick and slide in the semi-darkness. I mimic the moves a little ways away. A drunk grabs me and slingshots me about. "Gracias," I tell him, backing towards the safety of my guardian-friends, who close ranks to protect me.

Alvaro spins me through a cumbia. Ismael, a 40ish cabbie who stinks of cigarettes but dances devine, catches me up and we twirl. I am a feather in the wind.

"You will teach them something new in Richmond," says Alvaro.

"You can start leading classes in parks in Richmond," says Jose.

"Don't go," says Ismael.

They walk me to my train, but I won't let them go out of their ways to take me to my stop. "We'll miss you. We'll wait for you. We love you," they chime.

"Don't make me cry," I tell them.

My feet hurt and my knee throbs all night long, but I keep dancing in my dreams.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Final Days (Mexico City)

On Thursday I'll be back in the States, so my goal is to pack in everything I want to do into my remaining days in Mexico. These things revolve around saying goodbye to friends, doing some last-minute shopping, dancing (no surprise), and food (no surprisier).

I'll call and, hopefully, see Miriam, Honorio, and Pedro. I'll go with Ingrid to the Sonora (witchcraft) market, and chat with her whenever we cross paths at our hotel.

I promised A. I'd pick up some tiny tiles (azulejos) for her at the Ciudadela Market. From a new shop that opened around the block from my hotel, I'll buy a small woven bag that I can tuck money, ID, and lipstick into and wear while dancing and, perhaps, some additional doos and dads. I want to purchase some CDs from a guy in the stand down the street that I can salsa, cumbia, and meringue to when I'm back at home.

On Monday and Tuesday, I'll stop by my park and take a dance lesson. I'll salsa with Alvaro, Jose, and Ismael for the last time in 2009. Juan Carlos will pick me up on Wednesday at 5:45, and we'll go to Salon Hidalgo. We'll meet Jesus and one of his pals, and among the three of them, I hope to dance my heart out and my feet off.

I'm going to hit my favorite food stands and get my fill of flor de calabaza, huitlacoche, quesadillas, vegetable tortas (think potato pancakes with cheese, but exchange the potatoes for cauliflower or broccoli), nopales, rotisserie chicken, mangos, and chilis rellenos. Grilled corn on the cob with chili, lime, and salt. Ice cream: tropical-fruit flavored or chocolate with nuts or (why not?) both. Salty, spicy snack foods. I might even indulge in some churros and thick, rich, Spanish-style hot chocolate. All this might very well undo my dance-induced weight loss, but what the heck? Mexican food in the States just doesn't taste this good.

The next four days must serve to reinforce the last six weeks, fixing them in my heart and mind, sustaining me until I return next summer.

Home Again (Mexico City)

I am glad to be back in the D.F. (a.k.a. Distrito Federal or Mexico City). Back to the crush of people, the snarls of traffic, the beggars' entreaties, the symphonic cacophony, the sweaty, bustling, sooty beauty of it all.

Here is where I can be alone, and even lonely, among thousands but where I can get my ego stroked simply by asking directions. "Turn right, then left at the next corner, Beautiful," the policeman will say.

Here is where the bright-yellow-suited mambo man, his head cloaked in black cloth and crowned with a jaunty top-hat, his hands black-gloved, turns on his boom box and turns the pedestrian street into his stage. His spats-clad feet glide and slide across the pavement as he moonwalks, cakewalks, sleepwalks -- smooth, sleek, silent. Around a tree and to the beat he chases little children, who scream in terror and elation. He dance-flirts, shaking his ass suggestively at a handsome young couple. He moves, all slink and sex, toward the woman, then embraces and bends the man backward -- to the crowd's shocked delight. When I add my pesos to his dish, he, now sitting, shakes my hand, then tugs me toward his lap. "Oh!" escapes me, surprised and embarrassed.

Here is where I can find, on the street or in a bus station, tamales wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks, stuffed with chicken and mole, with strips of green pepper, with cheese, with raisins and almonds and with God knows what else -- but it all tastes so explosively fabulous! And I can wash them down with guzzles of atole, a corn drink flavored with fruit or chocolate.

Here is where my favorite waitress tells me to eat some of my fruit salad, so the boss won't yell at her for giving me extra, and where the hotel maid hugs me warmly each time I see her.

Here is where what I call the gypsy musicians play 40's Cuban ballads on the steps of Waldo's (translation: The Dollar Store). The pirate-guitarist flicks, strokes, and strums; his brother coaxes the drum; the main singer silkens the air. Only the dogs and the very young hustle by without hearing, slowing, stopping, or listening. The rest of us can't help ourselves. Couples pause, embrace, pour into each others' eyes. Men lean against walls, their faces slack and dreamy. Women stand motionless, mouths ajar, tongues licking lips without even realizing, eyes half-closed, hearts pulsing, heating, throbbing to the beat of the music. We are all in love.

Friday, August 7, 2009

True Confessions (San Miguel de Allende)

I don't want to offend anyone, however, sometimes I can't help but do so. And the truth is, I really didn`t like San Miguel de Allende. Yes, it's picturesque. Yes, the people are lovely. Yes, it's got lots of art galleries, festivals, and culture. But it feels more like the States than like Mexico, which is probably exactly why there are so many gringos there.

You can eat Indian, Thai, sushi, or chi-chi. You can pay more and receive less than you would anywhere else I've been in Mexico, and you might, as one American couple told me, still consider things to be inexpensive. And that's no doubt part of the appeal for expatriates and travellers.

Granted, I didn't get too far away from the historic downtown area, where visitors are most likely to congregate. But so many of the conversations I overheard were in English, so many of the signs and menus and everything else were in English, that I felt linguistically disoriented.

Granted, I only spoke English with two United Statesians who have a house there. I spoke Spanish with the vacationing interior designer from Los Angelos, who was so smitten with San Miguel that she didn't want to leave. I confess to misleading an older gentleman (from somewhere smack dab in the middle of the mid-West) into thinking that I was from a Spanish-speaking country, although I never said that I was. In valiant, broken Spanish, he informed me that he had always loved to dance; he proved it by being quite the salsero. I spoke in Spanish, too, with the formerly-from-Pennsylvania, married-to-a-Mexican owner of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where I took a free salsa-bachata-rumba-meringue-swing lesson with Ivan (of eyes like a doe's, with lashes that mascara would give its wand for, and of a skinniness that a not-so-gusty gust of wind would send spiralling into the great beyond).

Some nice things happened. I was flattered that a dance partner who turned out to be an artist said he'd like to paint me, but not flattered (or dumb) enough to go to his apartment to view his work. I liked my $2.00 breakfast before I left town: yogurt, honey, and granola atop a fresh fruit salad (an apple, a banana, 1/2 mango, a guava, 1/8 cantaloupe, and a stomach pump, if you please). I enjoyed speaking French during the 3.5-hour bus ride back to Mexico City with a charming (French) ex-pat artist and got to view his impressive oeuvre online. But I still am not a fan of San Miguel de Allende.

Okay, I was only there for two nights. Maybe I didn't give it a fair shot. With time, I'd probably discover some neighborhood joints that are more cheap than hip, appreciate the foreign influences, and uncover the hidden Mexicanishness of San Miguel. But there are so many other places to go in Mexico, that sound and feel like Mexico, that I don't really think I'll be back. Unless someone buys me a plane ticket, rents me a house, and pays for my food and entertainment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eating It Up in Queretero

My second day in Queretero, a city of about a million souls. The historic city center is small and beautiful, designated a world heritage site by whomever does that (UNESCO?).

Yesterday, my guide was the friend at whose house I'm staying. Alex is an artist (graphic designer, cartoonist, painter, sculptor) who walked me around the entire historic district as we searched for galleries, churches -- anything open on a Monday. We did get to see a really bloody Christ and lots of statues of the Virgin Mary in the two churches that were accessible. We also took a self-guided tour of the building where a new gallery has opened. Unfortunately, they were between exhibits, so I could only envision what a nice house it would make...
We walk through several beautiful green spaces, one reminiscent of Parque Guell, Antonio Gaudi's colorful, tile-studded park in Barcelona. And we snap photos of the symbol of Queretero, the 4,199-foot-long, pink sandstone aqueduct that brochures and guidebook state was built in the 1700's to remedy the problem of scarce, potable water.
I, however, prefer Alex's version of the story, in which the Marquis de la Villa de Villar del Aguila built the aqueduct (the 18th century equivalent of a billboard?) as proof of his love for a beautiful, young nun. Whether his love was requited or un-, we'll never quite know, but a statue to the Marquis shows him to have been quite an attractive and dapper dude. And, no doubt, he had more enticements and inducements (i.e., money) under his sleeve, in his pocket, or within his pantaloons....
One of the day's highlights was lunch in a tiny (5-table), charming restaurant with yellow, rag-washed walls, blue-painted lintels, and original art. Restaurante Antigua Cocina Mexicana was jammed. As we waited for a table, the waiter informed us that one of the two entrees being offered had just sold out; no more chiles stuffed with guacamole, which was exactly what I had my eye on and exactly what I would not get a chance to have my mouth on. I don't eat pork, the other white meat and the other entree, but the smells were grabbing me by the nostrils and pulling me inside. Plus, it was nearly 3pm and my morning tamales had already worn off. The waiter ran back into the kitchen and said that there was one more chile, which he promised to save for me. (Alex had said that he'd go to the store and buy one, if necessary!)

The restaurant serves only a comida corrida, i.e., a prix-fixe menu of the day. There are fewer choices than in other restaurants I've been to, but the food's the best I've savored in Mexico. For 35 pesos (less than 3 bucks), you get soup (Monday's was a clear, delicate broth, with chunks of squash), your entree with flavorful rice, a salad of lettuce and tomato in a tasty vinaigrette, and dessert (flan -- a rich egg custard). The place is only open for lunch, but they serve breads and other baked goods out of the doorway in the evening, and you can eat their tasty cheese stuffed, onion, and garlic rolls (about 30 cents each) with lunch. Corn tortillas are included in the price of your meal, along with agua or fruit water, this time tuna (not fish, but a green oval fruit that I hate to eat because it contains more seeds than flesh).
Tuesday morning Alex and I breakfast in another lovely restaurant. We both order huevos divorciados (two eggs fried sunny-side up, one bathed in red salsa, the other in green, sitting atop fried tortillas and separated by a line of refried beans). I eat fresh fruit (papaya, melon, and pineapple), he drinks orange juice, we both order coffee. Coffee comes with a choice of powdered or liquid cream substitutes, chock full of artificial flavorings and hydrogenated oils. But who can complain? Breakfast costs less than $3.50 each.
I spend the day wandering into churches, the old theater, the regional museum, and hotels that were former homes of distinguished Queretero residents. The art museum, housed in what used to be a cloister, boasts fanciful columns adorned with half-naked, flute-playing men. Exhibits include the requisite religious-themed sculptures and paintings, but what catches my plain and my fancy are the large paintings of semi-squashed insects (I loved the mosquitoes!) and the photographs of dead ducks, pheasants, and other birds.
Alex is meeting me for lunch at the same place we ate at yesterday. We'd agreed to arrive early in order to be sure the restaurant doesn't sell out the entree we want. Problem is, I can't find the restaurant. Alex drew me a very detailed map (but without noting the street name), and I am hopelessly lost, proving that I have a problem with details and/or that I can't read maps and/or that I can't count to three (the number of blocks the Restaurante Cocina Antigua Mexicana lies from the art museum).
ve been searching for the place for about 20 minutes and it's almost 2pm. I ask directions of various people, none of whom know the restaurant but all of whom helpfully send me back- and forward-tracking around the neighborhood, without success. Eventually, an older woman says that she'll help me find the restaurant.
As we walk around the block together, she quizzes me. "Are you meeting a friend?" "Male or female?" "Mexican or American?" "I might know him. What's his name?" Luckily, I recognize the doorway of the restaurant, so I don't have to provide Alex's shoe size, IQ, or blood pressure reading -- none of which I know.
I'm the first person to arrive, but Alex pulls up on his bicycle shortly thereafter. We both choose the chicken entree, which tastes like a wonderful Oaxacan mole, but which the waiter says is a recipe from northern Mexico. The salad is loaded with nopales (cactus paddles), the rice boasts peas and carrots. We sop up juices and dressings with tortillas and rolls. We drink down a huge pitcher of mango agua. Dessert is bananas in a caramel-tasting cream. The food is so good that we are tempted to lick our plates, the pots and pans, the kitchen counters, and the cook. I want to live in Queretero, so I can eat here every day!
After lunch, we check to see if the spectacularly Baroque Santa Rosa de Virterbo church is open, but can only admire its fanciful Spanish and Moorish-style exterior. We walk back to Alex's house, hoping to nap before our respective evening activities.
Alex is meeting a group of artists to discuss an interactive show they'll be putting on in September. I'm meeting another Alex (I highly recommend this way of choosing friends; if they all have the same name, you don't get too confused) for coffee and then we'll see a movie at the museum where Alex 1 will be. Another lovely day....

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Daytripping (Tula)

Honorio and his cousin, Francisco (a.k.a. Pancho), pick me up at the hotel at 9am sharp, and we're off to visit the ruins of Tula. It's about 90 miles away, and we should make good time at this hour of the day.

According to my guidebook, the town has little to recommend it (unless you're a fan of peace and quiet), but the archaeological site is one of the most important in Mesoamerica. Demonstrating influences of other major sites in its ceramics and pottery shards, architecture, and sculptures, through conquests and trade, Tula linked Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, and other places of note in the PreColombian world.

The on-site museum exhibits a chacmool (reclining figure carved in stone and used for sacrifices), ceramics, and other artifacts, some of which retain their original colors. The most impressive sights at this site are the huge, stone Atlantes figures, with their loincloths, breastplates, and feathered headdresses, made by the Toltecs, and standing atop one of the pyramids. We scramble up narrow steps to snap photos and to admire the sculptures and the view. We wander about the two ball courts and a couple other pyramids and building foundations. Some walls display repeating, incised geometric designs, jaguars, and more. We've arrived before the crowds and depart before the heat becomes oppressive.

Honorio decides that we'll return to Mexico City via a shortcut -- along a newly constructed highway. Because of my wild ride on a "shortcut" in Oaxaca, I get a bad feeling about his plan, but who am I to argue?

Two ominous signs indicate that we might have a problem: We are the only travellers in either direction, and a bird crashes into and bounces off our windshield. However, we practically fly along, making excellent time.

The road ends suddenly, and we are redirected through the arid, cactus-strewn landscape and the dusty streets of small towns. The shortcut has become a longcut. Honorio vows never to use this highway again. I vow to argue whenever I hear the word "shortcut." We spend at least an extra hour and a half reaching our lunch destination of Pachuca.

Once there, we stop at a roadside restaurant and eat flaky pastries, called pastes (pronounced pas-tays), that are typical of the region. Imagine an apple turnover, but scrap the apples and insert savory or sweet fillings, such as pork or pineapple. I order one paste with cheese and mushrooms and another with chicken in green mole. Both are delicious.

We get back on the road and swiftly make our way back to Mexico City. The traffic, once we reach the city limits, is atrocious and it takes forever (translation: a really long time) to get back to my hotel. As Honorio commented on our way to Tula, "It's a good thing that not everybody has a car."

I go to bed tired and early but spend most of the night battling mosquitoes. Tomorrow, I'll be on the road again. No shortcuts, though.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The most important meals of the day (Mexico City)

It's 10:00 a.m. Do you know where your breakfast is?

Mine is around the corner, across the street from one pharmacy, next door to another, at the place where 100 chickens are crisping as they ride the Ferris wheel of a huge rotisserie. And I'm hungry.

This is what 30 pesos (about $2.75, including tip) buys me:
Fruit salad: fresh chunks of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, and pineapple.
Soup: Chicken broth with (my five daily servings of vegetables) onions, carrots, cauliflower, kale, tomato. Plus some grains of rice, a coupla beans, perhaps a chicken wing, an occasional bit of seafood, ham, or fatback. Just add a squeeze of lime and a piece of hot, pickled jalapeƱo pepper, and you've got a huge bowl of deliciousness.
Although I occasionally have a quarter of a roasted chicken (yes, and at home I like cold pizza for breakfast), my usual order is Huevos a la mexicana, two or three eggs, scrambled with chopped onions, green bell peppers, and tomatoes, with a side of chilaquiles, tortilla strips sauteed with onions, mixed with green salsa and cream and topped with crumbled white cheese. A pool of smokey, spicy, red salsa to go with.
Potato chips. I always skip 'em. Who needs the calories?
A bolillo, an airy white roll that's big enough to seat two.
Cafe con leche.

If I'm not so hungry, I'll go to a nearby hole-in-the-wall for a simple dish of yogurt with honey, granola, and fresh fruit, and a cup of not-strong-enough black coffee.

When I go for breakfast lite, I'll indulge in a multi-course lunch (comida corrida, $2.50-5.00, plus tip). Usually it's soup (ex: lentil, cream of some vegetable, chicken with some kind of squash), rice, and main dish (empanadas, chicken in mole or green sauce, crepes stuffed with huitlacoche and bathed in a creamy mushroom sauce), agua (sweetened, fruit-flavored water), and dessert (jello, flan, cookies...). Sometimes, when I'm in the mood for lots of vegetables, I'll splurge on an all-I-can-eat Chinese buffet ($6.50).

If I've done breakfast hevy, I might not eat anything for the rest of the day. Or, at some point, I'll pay 80 cents for a chile relleno or cauliflower/broccoli "pancake", rice, and two tortillas at a stand near one of the metro stops. I add beans, cucumbers, nopales (pickled cactus), and green/red salsa and I'm good to go. Or I'll go to another stand for quesadillas of huitlacoche (corn fungus). Or I'll buy a big cup of mango and papaya chunks that the vendor will drench in lime and sprinkle with chili powder and salt. Sometimes I purchase little bags of big, crunchy corn kernels dusted in cheese; big beans fried and smothered in hot chili powder, salt, and lime; and dried, salted and spiced mango and munch as I walk about. Or I'll pick up a quarter of a roasted chicken from another rotisserie, spirit it up to my room, and feast, while watching CNN.

Despite all my gourmandising, I'm losing weight. The pants that hugged my thighs before I left the States are baggy and saggy. A skirt that pinched my waist now barely hangs onto my hips. I guess I better go eat something....