After last week’s column about Mexico, a close friend pointed out that Sue and I had been in Mexico as tourists (true) and, as such, saw the best face of the country (also true). Went on to express her admiration of Mexican peoples’ working and family ethos. Then added that Mexico’s judicial system is based upon “guilty until proven innocent,” something that is radically different (unless you’re a person of color in the US) than our own “innocent until proven guilty.” I immediately searched Google. Evidently, in June 2008 Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, signed a law of national reforms of both federal and state level justice systems which included the presumption of innocence and a defendant’s right to a public trial. The entire series of reforms are to be completely implemented throughout the country by 2016. Also, my friend neglected to mention that Mexico has no death penalty, an attitude a hell of a lot more civilized than here.

She also wrote about the high level of violence due to drug cartels and named a number of areas that included a high proportion of border towns. Absolutely true and horrible for ANYWHERE, but here’s the rub. Cartels in Mexico control approximately 70% of the foreign narcotics that flow into the United States which includes, according to the US State Department estimates, 90% of the cocaine that enters our country. Let’s get real here, we’re the cartels’ consumers. How about a sane drug policy that would significantly reduce the associated violence both in Mexico and the United States?

But these columns were never intended to bite into Mexico’s social structure, legal system, immigration issues, or violence—as real as they are. We were tourists and my hope is simply to present facets of our neighbor most Americans never get to see. Believe me, there will be plenty of political posts from this seat. Just not today.


IMG_2587We chose to visit Oaxaca because Sue had been there a number of times (long ago) and thought I’d love the town, people, and its amazing history. Luckily we ended up with a high octane dose of all these things by chance. Turns out we visited Oaxaca City during the highlight week of the State’s 482nd birthday. With huge posters announcing their “Cultural Blockade,” streets were closed to cars to allow for a multitude of events including public story-telling,



street sculptures,


marimba jazz bands,

a 482 piece orchestra,





and outdoor fashion shows,

and even outdoor fashion shows.

We had stumbled into an amazing 24/7 party where entire families, from infants to grandparents, participated together. No spring chickens, even we realized that 482 years is something to celebrate.  And so we did.


While the festival was an incredible rush, it was Oaxaca State’s complex history that was truly an eye-opener. Three millennia before the 1521 Spanish invasion, this region contained about16 different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, and traditions. Monte Alban had been inhabited over 1,500 years by a succession of peoples—Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs and served as the Zapotec capital for thirteen centuries. Tough to swallow but Monte Alban was a city of 40 to 50 thousand people that, for no known reason, was abandoned beginning around 850 A.D. No known reason. That’s one long term head-scratcher. Now Monte Alban along with Mitla (the second largest city in Oaxaca during the Zapotec heyday) are two of Mexico’s most famous archeological ruins.

The Aztec capital of Gran Tenochtitlan — (which eventually became Mexico City) — fell in 1521 to Hernan Cortes of Spain. After the fall of the Aztecs, Oaxacan Zapotecs attempted alliances with the Spaniards. Instead Spain set out to conquer Oaxaca and grab all the gold and silver in its mountains–a shitload of money in them thar hills. But 20140425_172229the Oaxacan peoples were conquered, not by Spanish arms and soldiers, but by religious psychological warfare and an army of priests and friars. In 1560, the Dominicans reported that the natives were converted, completely docile and submissive.

Or dead. It’s estimated that in 1519 when Cortes arrived the population of Mesoamerica was around 25,000,000 people. By 1605 75% to 90% were gone—primarily to European diseases against which the natives had no immunity.  A pretty grim annihilation.


Spices that create mole

We spent eight days in Oaxaca City and barely scratched its surface but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that two of its most famous products are many different types of mole and a particular type of black pottery.







The last part of our trip was four days in Mexico City. Since we’d been there before and had visited most of the major tourist IMG_2746sights and museums, we decided to stay at a small hotel located between two interesting neighborhoods—La Condesa and Roma. Although recently known to be artsy, the architecture is an incredible mix of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and modern. (This mix is partly due to earthquakes which destroyed some buildings and left others standing so the rebuild created a mélange.) In fact, one of Mexico City’s most famous Nouveau buildings is located in Roma.IMG_2780






There are many art galleries in the two neighborhoods and we found one small museum that was presenting an exhibit of artifacts donated by individuals that represented their broken relationships, along with the person’s accompanying story. 2Rasta2773


As if in contrast to the exhibit, on the sidewalk outside the museum, people kept putting locks proclaiming their love for each other on iron fences.







There were a ton of hidden treasures in both neighborhoodsIMG_2811 and, despite one trip outside to the city’s new modern art museum, Museo Soumaya, after four days there was still more to see in these two neighborhoods; restaurants, parks, and walks.IMG_2736



I’m an urban guy with concrete in my blood so cities fascinate me. And Mexico City sits right up there with Paris (my favorite), New York, and San Francisco.

I’ll end this piece where I began. I know there’s an ugly underside to Mexico. An ugly underside to every country, really, and I hate those horrors. But there are times to grab hold of life’s pleasures, and some of life’s greatest pleasures exist south of our border. I just wish everyone had a chance to enjoy them.

The world is like that — incomprehensible and full of surprises~Jorge Amado


Sue and I have been to Mexico a half-dozen times over the past twenty years. Before we go people always warn us about horrible healthcare, kidnappings, drug cartels, pickpockets, and murder. Although these things can occur, they do much less frequently than people believe and we’ve never had a speck of trouble.

For example, fear of the Mexican health system doesn’t carry much weight. According to Felicia Knaul, Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, “As of April of 2012, every Mexican, regardless of their socioeconomic situation, has access to the financial protection in health that shields them from facing the terrible choice between impoverishment and suffering or even death.”.

What never hits the news is that thousands of Americans retire to Mexico because of its healthcare system, which is of high quality and low cost.

Be nice if we could say the same about here.

Truth is, for many reasons that only begin with immigration issues, most Americans have a distorted view of our neighbor. One that really only sees Mexico as home to beach resorts, and a jump-off for illegal migrant workers.

Mexico is so, so much more.

It’s the experience of visiting a country that had multiple cultures coalesce into an exciting, often mind-blowing blend. A blend that includes the beliefs, customs, accomplishments and esthetics of past Mesoamerican empires with cultures thousands of years old, Spanish rule, Catholicism, land grabs, and revolutions. For example: On one of our trips we visited San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountaintop city considered Cristobalthe “cultural capital” of the state of Chiapas.

Here we saw glimpses of ancient Mayan culture as well as the city’s Spanish influences. We visited Casa Na Bolom museum, an anthropological center dedicated to the protection of the Lacandon Maya and the preservation of the Chiapas rain forest.

It was outside the Center when Jake and I made our first indigenous friend. Jake was just learning to read, sitting in the courtyard studying his book. I don’t remember its title but the cover picture showed a sled dog in snowy Alaskan terrain. A local resident was entranced. He had never before seen snow. Jake saw the amazement in his eyes—so much so that he offered the man the book to keep. A couple of days later we saw him carrying his textiles on his back while tightly grasping the book in his hand. When he noticed us, he rushed over and leafed through the pages, excitedly showing us each of the pictures. It was a sweet, sweet moment.

P’atzcuaro, located in the state of Michoacán (home of the amazing Monarch butterfly migration), was founded in the 1320s. After the Spanish conquest, this beautiful mountain/lakeside town briefly became the capital of New Spain. History moved on, which might have been a good thing for Patzcuaro’s indigenous population, given the cruel, relentless domination by the Spanish.

patzz1Instead, Lake Pátzcuaro became the area where Pátzcuaro’s first bishop Don Vasco de Quiroga (known as Tata or father) ignored the Spanish demand to enslave the rebellious native population. As an alternative, he encouraged a system of town-based, self-created craft specialization for economic survival in this Brave New World. Those specializations still remain and make the region around the lake home to some of the IgnatioWithCopper1most beautiful crafts in Mexico.

Walk into Santa Clara de los Cobres and you hear the sounds of hammers beating copper into beautiful plates, vases, and table tops. Move on to Capula for intricately painted pottery. Lace from Aranzo, and ceramic devil creatures come from Ocumicho-to name just a few.

This is not a country of sombreros and machete-swinging San migueldesperadoes as so often portrayed. In fact, San Miguel de Allende is home to 12,000 to 14,000 US expatriates and retirees out of a population of about 80,000. Not an insignificant number. Its marketplace is filled with shops owned by some Americans as well as Mexicans. There we had an apartment on a hill above the city center and at night the entire town looked like wondrous jewel.

But for all St. Miguel’s beauty we prefer areas with fewer Americans. So on that trip we also spent time in nearby Guanajuato.

Guanajuato is not a jewel-like city. Capital of the state with the same name, there’s no aesthetic comparison to San Miguel de Allende. It’s a bustling town located in a narrow valley. Many of its streets run underground through tunnels built centuries ago as attempts to protect the city from floods. Unfortunately the tunnel system didn’t work so floods have left high-water marks on numerous of its really old buildings. But it was the best Guanajuato could do (and had to since the surrounding mountains contained gold and silver that were being mined to empty by the Spaniards) so tunnels were rebuilt over the existing ones. Eventually modern technology allowed flood waters to run under the tunnels which are now used for roadways.Tunnels Since they kept building on top of ruined, flooded buildings as well, driving underground often gave us an opportunity to see foundations and cellars that are hundreds of years old. For the historians among us, the first War of Independence began in the state of Guanajuato.

I’m writing about Mexico because, first, it’s a country I love, but also because I think we, as Americans, have a terribly inaccurate understanding of its greatness. We’ve bought into stereotypes that have little or no basis in reality. Our national refrain about Mexico is “don’t drink the water.”

And while that’s true, it misses the beauty, history, and different ways of life. How about buying bottled water and drink the beauty of Mexico’s diverse culture and countryside instead?

My next post will talk about Mexico City and Oaxaca.

The future has an ancient heart ~ Carlo Levi

City of Light

(Thank you, Sherri Frank Mazzotta for stepping in while I practiced for my music recital. Greatly appreciated!!)

This is the “City of Light,” the “most romantic city in the world.” But we may never see any of it if we can’t get out of the airport. First, we have to figure out how to buy train tickets from the ticket machines. We’re tired and cranky from the overnight flight. Hungry. And just want to get to our hotel. This is how our vacation begins.

The lines for the machines are long, and the instructions written only in French. When it’s our turn to insert a credit card, the machine advises us to do two things, neither of which we can understand. There are no staff to assist; no strangers willing to interpret. We push buttons, move levers, but no tickets appear. With the crowd seething behind us, we finally move to a longer line—to buy tickets from an agent at a window.

“Let’s just take a taxi,” he says.

But I shake my head. “The traffic in Paris is horrible. It’ll take us twice as long.”

“I don’t care.”

I say, “No.”

He looks angry, and I pretend not to notice.

We buy our tickets, ride the train into downtown, and finally arrive at our hotel.

It’s a beautiful building on the Left Bank. Our room is on the top floor overlooking shops and cobblestone streets. I’m eager to shower, find food, and explore the city. I’d been here years ago in my 20s and was excited to be back. But he’s talking about a nap and taking our time and it’s all I can do not to scream.

This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

It’s late afternoon by the time we get outside again, and hotter than it should be in September. We’re still in a haze from jet lag, making our way through thick crowds of people. The sun seems too bright; the cars move too quickly on the narrow streets. We pass cafés and tabacs and creperies, but can’t decide where to eat. We’re timid; dizzy with hunger, but daunted by the chalkboard menus scribbled with words I’d never learned in high school French classes. When we finally choose a café and order food, it’s a relief. But the food is mediocre, unsatisfying, and I somehow feel defeated.

Afterwards, we take a cruise down the Seine on a bâteaux-mouches. Quietly, we study the monuments and museums along the quays of the winding green river. A woman approaches us with an armful of roses. She nods at the flowers, then at us, but my companion tells her “no.” She looks at me with pity.

We disembark from the boat but walk in the wrong direction. Turning a corner, we end up near a stone wall where a woman sits astride a man, kissing him passionately. I smile, it’s so quintessentially French; so perfectly clichéd. Still, I’m embarrassed. Envious. I think, this is what we’re supposed to be feeling in Paris, isn’t it? But I know that’s just a romantic fantasy; no more real than Doisneau’s famous photo of a couple kissing. As the sun sets, we head back to our room, too tired to do more. It’s only our first night, I think. We have time.

We sleep nearly nine hours and wake up feeling energized. We tour the Cathedral Notre Dame. Browse books in the stalls along the Seine. Walk through the Luxembourg Gardens. Our dinner that night is decadent, delicious. We leave the restaurant feeling woozy and relaxed. We’d had a good day.

We have other good days, too. But by mid-week, he realizes he’s getting sick. We can’t find a drugstore or anything even close to Nyquil. He gets grumbly. I feel annoyed that he’s sick, and then guilty for being annoyed.

Still, we head out to the Louvre with thousands of other people to stare at a surprisingly small Mona Lisa. We search for Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Eat éclairs at a patisserie. We end each night early, heading back to our hotel to read in bed. Part of me is disappointed, because I’d hoped we’d be out at wine bars or the Moulin Rouge. Though I tell myself it’s because he’s not feeling well, I know it’s something more: Somehow, over the years, we’d lost our sense of adventure.

As the week goes on, things get worse. He doesn’t like the Metro, doesn’t feel safe on it, and wants to take taxis everywhere. This infuriates me more than it should.

We used to travel well together, and I don’t know when that changed; when this low-grade irritation began to buzz inside my head, inside my heart. Not just while we were on vacation, but most of the time. I’m not enjoying myself, I realize. And neither is he.

Our fury comes to a head at the Eiffel Tower, when I want to wait in line to see the view from up above, and he doesn’t.

“Can you wait down here?” I ask. “Or back at the hotel?” 

Instead, he begrudgingly gets in line with me. It’s humid. The line is long and moving slowly. I try to make jokes, to point out interesting things about the Tower, but he’s silent and miserable. It starts to rain, and we don’t have an umbrella.

“This sucks,” he says, “I don’t want to do this.”

“Go back to the hotel,” I say again. But he won’t.

We press into the elevator with what seems like hundreds of people, and it takes us to the first level of the Tower. It’s cloudy and difficult to see—though I’m no longer excited to see anything. Couples hold hands and wrap arms around each other. Kids smile as they peer out into the distance. There’s barely room to stand. I look at him, but he refuses to look back.

Afterwards, it takes an hour to return to our hotel. Now that it’s over he’s talking again, thinking about dinner. But I’m worn out; choked with unspoken anger. This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

Days later, we head back to the States. I stare out the window as our plane lifts off, relieved but saddened by the undeniable truth that nothing lasts forever.

“Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.”


I’m reconsidering the country and I’m not talking about the U.S., Israel, or even what should be the Palestinian State.  I’m talking outside Boston’s Beltway–aka, my idea of wilderness.

A bit of background.  Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I spent the early years of my life in Carteret (Exit 12, N.J. Turnpike).  Now Carteret was no sprawling metropolis.  It was the kind of small town loaded with bars, churches, and factories.  One where kids ran after the mosquito spray truck ’cause the smell was intoxicating.  But it was also a town when, not smogged from its factories’ exhale, you could see the New York skyline.  For me, country meant the empty lots scattered through town where I chased grasshoppers and lightning bugs, and the park where I played Little League.

I now live in New England, where rural is a spit away and many people I know have always spent some serious time in the hinterland.

When I first moved to Boston from Chicago, people used to pull me along to their cabins, farms, and tiny structures they optimistically called “country houses.”

Sorry, but I’m in the Fran Lebowitz camp.  As she said, “I am not the type who wants to go back to the land; I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel.”

My idea of civilization has always included running water and, most importantly, bathrooms.  We didn’t claw our way to the top of the food chain to shit in the woods.  Which was what my early years of going to the
country often entailed.  Sure, there were outhouses, but I was toilet trained decades ago.  Who wants to use a wooden porta-potty for days at a time–let alone ever?

Especially someone like me who prefers my own bathroom to all others.

In those days, if I really felt I had to go (both to the country and the bathroom) I devised ways to cope.  One way, really.  Kaopectate.  Yep.  I slugged that gunk like an alcoholic sucks down a bottle of whiskey thinking
it might be his last.  And it worked.  I could go nearly a week without excreting anything other than urine, and that usually from the porch if it were night.  The dark and quiet scared the hell out of me.  Who knew
(besides The Shadow) what awaited in the pitch black miles away from any streetlights.  I didn’t want to know.

Truth be told, days weren’t much better.  People wanted to hike and the problem with that was simple.  Unless I’m chasing a ball, the only thing worse than running is walking.  And walking uphill worse than that.
And god forbid I was dragged out into the boonies during winter.  That meant cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.  There are things more painful than traipsing to nowhere.

But age and upward mobility (mine and virtually everyone I know) does have its rewards.  Going out to visit friends in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine no longer means suffering a case of constipation.  Everyone has bathrooms, most have lakes, and nobody minds if I don’t swim in them or
shlep around them.  Sitting on the porch and reading has become acceptable.

In other words, I can actually pretend that I’m home.  There may not be a lot of wonderful things to say about aging (dinner conversations among us old Jews often have to do with everyone reciting their own litany of ailments) but these days going to the country with friends or relatives is most definitely one of them.

In fact, I just returned from my cousin’s half home in Monterey, Massachusetts, deep in the Western part of the state.  I say half home since he and his wife live there about half the week all year round.  An area of my state that houses summer homes for Bostonians and New Yorkers.

Rife with cultural activities (Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, Jacob’s Pillow, a world famous modern dance company, Shakespeare and Company…) we aren’t exactly talking rural.  This is my
kind of country.  Satelite TV.  Birdwatching, but from a deck.  Plopping down in a comfortable seat in a tented pavilion, enjoying Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis.  My kind of “great outdoors.”  Especially when it includes great friends.  It’s doesn’t get any better if I’m gonna leave my beloved concrete.

I’m just a spoiled city rat, unwilling to spend my time in a retrobred context.  I wasn’t a Boy Scout, Cubbie, and the only knot I ever learned to tie was for my shoes.  I want to enjoy my country time without slurping bottles of Kaopectate.   And these days I do.

Q: Why is New Jersey called “The Garden State”?
A: Because “Oil and Petrochemical Refinery State” wouldn’t fit on a
license plate.

Photo Shoot

I first heard about photo shoots in college from a friend whose father photographed food products for print ads.  Came as a surprise to learn he regularly emptied his product down the drain and carefully poured the rival brand of cooking oil into the now empty bottle.  “Their’s looks better than ours.”  Also surprised—though in retrospect not sure why—when I heard that he carefully opened a cream-filled cookie and loaded it with more cream from others in the box.  “Makes for a better looking cookie.”   I kept eating those cookies, but it reinforced my belief not always to trust what your eyes tell you.

And that was the first thing that jumped to mind when I learned that Sue and I were going to stay at an underwater hotel off the Florida Keys for one of her assignments. (In those days she was a feature magazine writer and if the assignment was interesting enough I’d roll along for the ride.)  Staying in an underwater hotel was interesting enough.

There were only two catches—we had to pass a diving resort course—no problem once they loaded enough weight onto Sue to get her frightened inflated lungs underwater (no need for that with me, I had plenty of my own weight) and she would have to do a photo shoot in the hotel to illustrate the article.

Now that was an eye opener.  Photographers swarmed inside and out looking for shots and angles.  Setting up the lights inside and especially outside underwater was amazing and time consuming.  Especially since the water surrounding the hotel’s porthole was so silty that a guest had to shoot wads of American cheese food (provided by management) out a pneumatic tube to lure anything aquatic to a porthole.

Me, I curled up out of the way and spent part of my time watching the photographers and the rest eyeballing the rivets that held the hotel together.  Even with all the action going on, Das Boot was never far from mind.

Years later Sue had another assignment, this time with a food stylist.  She described seeing the same type of illusion making my friend’s father did—only advantaged by technology and technique.

Ever see a mouthwatering heap of steaming spaghetti?  That “smoke” is often a product of soaking a tampon in water, nuking it in a microwave and burying it in the middle of the bowl.  Real spaghetti heat doesn’t hang around long enough for photographers to get their shot.  I guess the moral of the story is: Don’t eat a picture of pasta.  Or at least be careful where you bite.

Last Sunday was my turn.  As many of you know, I’m in the process of turning my books digital.  Although I now own the rights to my words again, the original covers were already someone else’s.  My friend and artist and art designer, Michael Paul Smith generously agreed to create new ones.  One glance at his work (check my links page) will explain why I am delighted.  And for those who would like to have his art at home, he recently published a hardcover book called Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town. ( or at

After he re-read my Matt Jacob novels, it was time to shoot the cover for the first, Still Among the Living.  He wanted to shoot on our kitchen’s enamel top table.  He asked me to put on my Matt Jacob head and gather some of the things he’d have hanging around.  But Michael also give me a long list including a greasy pizza bought the night before (for the perfect congealed look), a .38 with its bullets. First I scoured the Internet for a prop gun.  Seems they only come looking like cheap plastic or a very expensive facsimile.  Quandary time.  Then I remembered my neighbor, Nick, was a hunter and asked him whether he had a .38 and bullets.  He didn’t, he had a friend who did, and he could borrow and transport it given his gun license.  His friend, responsibly, wanted him to be with the gun at all times, so we were gonna have a prop wrangler at the shoot. (Pun intended.)

The day before, I gathered a bunch of Bakelite, bought cigarettes, dug out some old time menu paper from my father’s bar along with mechanical pencils embossed with “Klein’s Tavern,” rolled a few joints (oregano, of course), dirtied up some ashtrays, found my copy of Mark Harris’s book The Southpaw and felt good to go.

Until 1 AM when I realized I had forgotten the damn pizza.  I grabbed my phone hoping to find some place that delivered or was at least still open.  Even on Saturday nights Boston closes early.  I scored—though the man kept asking me what I meant by extra grease.  I explained it was for a photo shoot the next day and I needed the box to have blotchy grease stains.  He reluctantly agreed as long as I didn’t show the store’s name on top of the box.  Delivered and leaching oil, I went to sleep.

Sunday morning Michael arrived with his tiny electronic camera and painter’s lamp (he never uses any fancy equipment, which makes his art all the more astounding).

Michael surveyed all the stuff I’d collected for him to choose from.  He immediately began to arrange the objects that, when assembled, would represent Matt Jacob inside and out.  He took more than a half hour to pick and position on the enamel top table.  He also had his photo shoot tricks, like lightly dipping cigarette butts into coffee so they looked like the nicotine had drawn through (all of us had been smokers so were afraid to light up).

Then I called Nick who came right over.  He took the gun out of a soft case and started to hand it to Michael who pulled away as Sue also cringed.  Nick assured everyone it wasn’t loaded and showed us the bullets in his hand.  Michael took the gun, sprinkled the bullets in and outside the pizza box and proceeded to shoot (pictures).  Finally finished, Nick took the gun home and the three of us sat down and ate cold pizza.

Michael has sent some first takes on the cover—amazing.  In the upcoming week, we’ll work on hammering out the fine details.  But now Sue and I are just back from New York City, where we visited our son Matthew, his girlfriend Alyssa and the Museum of Art and Design with an exhibit, Otherworldly, which is running through September 18th and is featuring some of Michael’s work.    (You gotta scroll down to find his work—the artists are named in alphabetical order.)

It’s going to be even more fun when we’re ready to shoot the cover of TWO WAY TOLL.