Zachary Klein

zachI know. Boston’s been flirting with record high temperatures this past week. But so what? We’re a third of the way into September and no amount of heat and humidity can shatter my cringe as winter approaches.

I remember the last one all too well:PIC1So I cling to my fast fading memories of summer. And honestly, there aren’t all that many. This wasn’t a kick-out-the-jams season since we’re in deep reno prep for a long overdue overhaul of our living space. We rent out the first floor apartment, live on the second, and have our offices on the third.










By “prep,” we’re talking about packing up everything from the kitchen, pantry, and a good chunk of the living room and hauling it to the third floor to stuff into our offices and anywhere else we can stack boxes.PIC3


Which meant no long trips but didn’t mean no fun. We took a couple of weekends to visit cousins in Western Massachusetts, who have a sweet home on Lake Buel in Monterey.

PIC4Of course it was also wonderful to stay in Brooklyn and drive to Connecticut to visit our grandchildren, who are on the move now—crawling, pulling themselves to their feet, and making all sorts of strange sounds.PIC5





Between the family visits, Sue and I continued our ongoing tour of “not particularly first rate cities”—a weekend in Portland, Maine, and, a day in Salem, Massachusetts.

Ahh, what sacrifices we make for CULTURE. Portland Museum of Art (PMA) was showing a exhibit culled from eight Maine museums called Directors’ Cut: Selections from the Maine Art Museum Trail. It was a hell of a lot easier to view the best of each museum gathered in one place than scrambling around—no matter how beautiful the roads might be. This wasn’t leaf-peeping season.


Andrew Wyeth-Turkey Pond.


Marguerite Thompson Zorach

The exhibit placed images by distinctively different artists next to each other to treat us to the breadth of visions inspired by the state. For the most part it was successful, showcasing the talents of Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, and Andrew Wyeth alongside works by Lois Dodd, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, or Robert Indiana.





Winslow Homer-Sunset Fires.

Winslow Homer-Sunset Fires.

Robert Indiana-Eat with Fork










As is the case with many small city museums, Portland’s is a nice size—that is, you don’t start blurring out by the time you leave.

Poker Night from A Streetcar Named Desire

Poker Night from A Streetcar Named Desire

And there was certainly no blur when we visited the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem to see American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

While the exhibit focused on Benton’s years in Hollywood, creating huge poster-like paintings that captured a sense of story (and were often about great movies), the show included a number of his earlier, more political paintings—some of which were surprisingly (at least to me) powerful. The man didn’t like what we did to Native Americans and abhorred slavery.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Of course you can’t visit museums without proper nourishment. Each of these two cities had a number of good restaurants, though Portland takes the prize. Rapidly becoming a real artisan, locally sourced foodie town, our favorite meal was at Fore Street.

Pic12The atmosphere was New England coast casual, but the food was not. And people know about it. Fore was banged out for months, but if you were willing to check in at 5 p.m. and hang at the bar for about an hour until they opened the restaurant, it was possible to be seated. ‘Course, I’d be pretty much willing to wait at a bar any time of day, but this time it let us score the best meal we had all year.

PIC13Lunch in Salem’s Finz Seafood and Grill didn’t match Fore. But we left with wide smiles and full stomachs having split a FINZ Burger that came loaded with fried oysters, melted onions, boursin cheese and bacon—and then, there were those fish tacos.


In between our “not ready for prime time” tours, we went to a number of friends’ parties, including our traditional July 4th at Bob and Randee’s house. Always great people time with super food. (Hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here.)

The other party that jumps out was Mike and Carol’s 50th wedding anniversary. Mike had been working for close to fifteen years rebuilding a ramshackle carriage house that was crumbling behind his beautiful Dorchester Victorian. We hadn’t been over in a while and the carriage house, where the celebration was held, just blew us away. As did the pig roast and band. It had been a long time since we’ve heard live music at an indoor/outdoor private party. A whole lot of happy.

There were two more day trips to Rhode Island. One to Newport with Bob and Emily, sans Sue, Randee, and Michael, where we sat on a windblown beach protecting our subs from marauding seagulls.



With Emily

With Emily

And finally at summer’s end, a group excursion to Pawtucket R.I. to see the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox.PIC16Upon reflection, summer turned out to be a fine time. And while we were fooled (according to Snopes) about having a once in a lifetime view of Mars on August 28th, it was still something to see.PIC17Luckily, we were easily able to fall back asleep. Musta’ had to do with schlepping those boxes.

“This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but to say that it is the worst is mere petulant nonsense.” ~ Thomas Henry Huxley








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