Sunday, February 1, 2015

Okay.  So I got sick there for a while, sicker than I've ever been in fact, with bronchitis for over 6 weeks, which pretty much sapped any desire I had to paint or blog for a while.  It also kind of sapped all my enthusiasm for being anyplace in the world except home in my own bed in Salt Lake City where there isn't any Mexican Oompah music playing at full blast at 2 am, as there was regularly from neighbors on both sides in the place we were staying until December.  Then came the holidays, where we actually went to Cancun for a week before going back to Salt Lake for Christmas.

Tracy and I always pooh-poohed this kind of Mexican vacation that so many of our friends and family have taken over the years:  pulling into a resort and planting yourself on the beach while they bring you drinks with little umbrellas in it and at some point you get up and stumble over to the buffet of crappy all-inclusive resort food.

Or worse, you get sucked into a timeshare that is kind of exactly like joining a cult.  At some point you're sitting down in a room with wide-eyed people in suits, hopefully with friends you've dragged along, like some kind of multivitamin multilevel marketing scheme from Utah County.  I mean, I wasn't born yesterday; I've seen South Park.

Jive plastic places like Cancun do not even remotely resemble what Mexico is really like, we argued.  You might as well be in West Palm Beach.  Emphatically not our thing, we insisted, clinging to our Lonely Planet guidebook, feeling superior and planning our next trip to someplace with an improbable number of X's and the suffix uatl at the end of its name.

Then Tracy's folks went and totally bought a timeshare in Cancun, and invited us all to come down with them for a week during the Christmas break.  All right, we thought, but then we're going somewhere else afterward, somewhere inland, for another week and spend Christmas in some real Mexican town.  I mean, how bad could the Beach Resort Vacation really be?

Now I'm not going to say that we were completely wrong about it, and then try to get you to come to a half hour meeting with me, but I will say that there is definitely a reason why people like to do this particular kind of vacation.  Turns out lying on a beach with a good book and a cerveza with your family around you is pretty darn therapeutic, especially when you are just coming off six weeks of bronchitis.  True, it's nothing like Mexico, but bad it emphatically ain't.

Our first trip there I read Marcel Pagnol's My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle in their entirety to Sofi (except for the last two pages, where in typical French fashion he feels like he has to kill everybody off in as tragic a way as possible).  The title sounds like something out of the Mormon Fiction section, but is in fact Pagnol's memoir about growing up in the countryside in the South of France.  So even though our bodies were lounging on a manicured beach in Mexico, our minds were crawling around the hills of Provence catching cicadas and chasing thrushes out of the lavender.  I say two emphatic thumbs up, avec ou sans the last two pages.

Meanwhile, Sofi drew in her sketchbook the entire time, which is more than I can say about how productive I was artistically.  I have to admit it was a pretty awesome way to spend a week overall.  It was here that I finally perfected my approach to tanning, which is to slather on the sunscreen 45, lie mostly in the shade for the entire week and wait for that happy day when some clever geneticist invents a spray-on Stem Cell Mestizo #5 lotion.  This approach is not for the impatient, but it works for me.

When we weren't lying around dreaming about the French countryside, we were playing in the water, and it has been really awesome to watch Sofi go from being very apprehensive about the surf to becoming a sea otter in the last couple of years.

She also has her little cousin Ellie to play with while she's down there, and it has been great for her to be the big kid for a change, the opposite of her usual experience with her older sibs who are now both in college.

There's also an absurdly beautiful Infinity Pool and at least four different hot tubs at this sweet place that Straussy's parents bought into, and while I stick by my assessment of timeshares in general, I gotta say that this particular one is a super cherry setup.  I have said no to meeting invitations a total of twice in three years and so far nobody has come to my room with an E-Meter or some "literature".  Notice also I am not telling you the name, as I'm perfectly content for all of you not to "buy in".  Go find your own cult, people.

I'm glad it's not one of those All-Inclusive Resorts, however.  At the first of the week we just go buy groceries and cook for ourselves the entire time.  There are kitchenettes in each unit and several common BBQs to choose from.  And the Cancun Costco sells booze!  Swoosh!

This is about the extent of my experience of the Cancun Night Life

We Strauss/Slaughs are not big night owls, though there's a huge Cancun nightlife scene if that's your bag.  I dunno.  We're always there for the Winter Solstice and we're right on the far eastern edge of the Central Time Zone, so it's completely dark by 6 pm and the sun rises at like 5:45 am or something.  This means we're usually sawing logs by the time Señor Frog's is even opening for the night.  I love to sleep with the windows open and listen to the surf all night long, and sometimes, far away, there is the sound of bass thumping from a distant dance floor.

The sunrises are also almost embarrassingly pretty, and I'm of the opinion that as cliché as it sounds, enjoying long walks on the beach is not just something to put on your OK Cupid Profile.  It's hard for me to think of a better way to spend a morning.

It happened that the first time we went to Cancun was the week of the Winter Solstice in 2012, which you may recall was a time when many assorted religious, new age and numerology crackpots as well as the odd Hollywood movie producer thought might be when the world was going to end.  This was all supposedly based on the fact that the Mayan Calendar was set to come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.  Lots of hay was made about the 12-21-12-ness of it all (though of course that's not how the freaking Mayan Calendar would have read, Der), with not a lot of rumination about earlier disappointing recent Apocalypses such as Y2K and 2011's May 21 Rapture, apparently called off due to bad weather.  Some folks just really can't wait for it all to end, I guess.

Anyway, there was just no way I was going to be anywhere else than on top of or at least in front of a Mayan temple on the solstice of the end of the Mayan Calendar, so I rallied the troops and we planned an excursion out to Chichen Itza, a place I've wanted to visit my whole life.  Unfortunately, due to various scheduling issues, we had to settle for going a couple of days before the Return of Kukulkan and perhaps a host of bloodthirsty Mayan and/or Aztec Overlords, on the 19th of December.
Abraham and the skeptic

I talked with our tour guide Abraham on the two hour drive out into the jungle, and he agreed that the popular understanding of the Mayan calendar prophesying the end of the world was mistaken, reassuring us that the world was not going to end in two days, but then he went on to say that there was merely going to be a planetary alignment with all nine planets (Pluto's not a planet, but I wasn't going to argue) with the galactic center, which would then result in 3 days of darkness.

Abraham layin down the facts.
I asked Abraham how exactly that was going to work with the total darkness thing, and he said that it was because Venus would be between us and the sun.  I pointed out that this had already happened back in June during the Transit of Venus, and that we'd all watched it with telescopes and special filters on Library Square in Salt Lake City, and that Venus had only been this tiny dot passing in front of the much larger solar disc.  He nodded politely, with the patronizing look of a man who still thought we totally should have sprung for the Travel Insurance.

Anyhoo, Abraham had lots of interesting other stuff to say about this crazy game the Mayans played with these heavy rubber balls that they had to bonk up through small stone hoops at the height of basketball nets with, like, their hips or something, while the king and all the aristocracy watched and cheered from on top of the walls.  And if I understood correctly the winners, not the losers, then got sacrificed to the gods right there on the fifty yard line instead of the post game interviews.  Finally, a sport for those of us who were always picked last in gym class.

Chichen Itza certainly felt more authentically Mexican than anything else we'd experienced that week, which isn't to say that it's not a major tourist trap filled with tchotchke shops and people hustling you constantly.  Some of the stuff is most definitely the same old mass-produced crapola you see everywhere in such places in Mexico, but there were also some real artisans making and selling handmade work that was really cool.

We bought a hand-carved wooden mask from these Mayan woodcarvers Abraham hooked us up with (who knew there were still Mayans?) that we've been really happy with, and he even has a little Chichen Itza pyramid on his head to remind us of the place when we're back home.

When you go to Chichen Itza, make sure to make a stop in this charming little town called Valladolid.  If you have time (we didn't) you can also go swimming in one of the cenotes, or sinkholes filled with water, which are like little grottos.  This had been our original plan but ultimately Chichen Itza proved to be a long, hot and humid day and we were all hungry and super grouchy by the end of it, with a two hour drive still ahead of us.  Also, when you go to Valladolid, do not space out and leave your debit card in the friggin ATM.  Luckily, I realized this just in time, and I ran back in a panic to see the next guy standing there looking at my card still poking out of the slot while the machine beeped like a McDonald's French Fry Machine.  ¡hijole!

Two days later on Dec 21st, Tracy, Sofi and I greeted the Solstice and the dawn of a new Mayan Era in the Temple of the Scorpion, which just happened to be right next door to our Timeshare.  I totally talked Kukulkan out of killing all of you and eating your hearts.  He was actually a great guy, and we've stayed in touch.

My son John-David, who does not have a
palm tree growing out of his head.
The next year our big Mayan outing was to another set of ruins called Tulum, which is much closer to Cancun, coastal and far less stiflingly hot and humid than Chichen Itza.  This time we were also joined by my son John-David, who was out for Winter Break.  Going to ancient places like this is crucial for getting a sense of where you are relative to the age of the world, I think, especially for those of us who live in the States and may not actually be surrounded by any structure older than 100 years old on any given day.  There are several members of Congress that I think this could greatly benefit from this.

You can't see him, but he's back there.

Along the way to Tulum we popped into a pretty cool little coastal town called Playa del Carmen where a guy actually asked John-David and me if we wanted to come into his place and "meet his sister."  We said No Gracias, though I'm sure she was a lovely person.  Later some kids asked us if we wanted to come see an alligator, which also sounded interesting, and indeed there was totally one living in this crappy trash-filled pond behind a little Virgin de Guadalupe Shrine that was in the rear of their shop.  Somebody ought to clean that mess up, I thought, but I suppose I wouldn't want to do it with that big lizard in there either.

Ultimately, the shrine and the kids were a lot more interesting than the reptile, which like every alligator I've ever seen just sat there like a freaking log, surrounded in this case by old cheetos packages, used tires and antifreeze bottles.

Well, I guess I need to wrap this sucker up.

So essentially we go back to Cancun again and again now.  It's a trip we look forward to and schedule for the same week in December every year, a place where a kid can make sand angels or a sandman and celebrate the holidays by swimming right up to the bar and ordering a virgin strawberry daiquiri for herself and her little cousin, because Happy Hour means two for the price of one!

Unlike the other places we've gone in Mexico, I can't imagine how I would ever make any art about this place.  It's too slick and geometrical and yes, too bourgeois for me to ever find my way around it as a subject, so we've always used it as a place to springboard to another part of Mexico that has something we can sink our visual teeth into.  Someplace where there is some culture that has emerged out of this country we've come to love over the years.

It's also just way too damn purdy.  Like many American artists, I think I'm kind of self-conscious about putting anything too picturesque into my work, as if we've all somehow become embarrassed by beauty, though I'm probably a little less shameless in this regard than some.  This may sound a bit weird but in Art School that shizzle is pretty much drummed right out of you and it is seen as super unsophisticated to paint something unapologetically beautiful just for the sake of enjoyment.

There are of course a lot of purdy pitchers painted by artists these days; just pick up a copy of Southwest Art and you're gonna see just a bunch of sunsets over Red Rocks (as well as a whole lot of seriously morose Native Americans), and to tell you the truth I have never in my life, before or after Art School, cared one bit about any of that stuff.  I simply can't imagine trying to paint anything like that with a straight face, and yet I find that I crave this kind of beauty around me on a regular basis, just not paintings of this kind of beauty.  A real sunset over real red rocks?  You bet, though not so much the morose Native Americans (though I totally get it, people).  Also, I never wonder whether a real sunset would match my couch.

What I have ultimately learned from Cancun however, is that someday when I cash it in, and it turns out that Reincarnation is the deelio, I am totally coming back as a pelican.  I don't know if there's a list you have to get on for that or not, or if you have to know somebody, but I am telling you those things are totally working a sweet angle.  Look for me in the surf, is what I am saying, people.

Bradathon Livingston Pelican.
I will never paint anything remotely similar to this.
This year was of course different from all other years, as we did not have plans for going anywhere amazing after Cancun, having just come from someplace amazing (though truthfully I wasn't really appreciating it much those last few weeks while I was coughing up my own weight in phlegm).

Instead, this time we went back home to Salt Lake for Christmas, where I could climb in my own bed, or a reasonable approximation of it anyway at my folks' house (ours is rented for the year) and indeed there was not the least hint of Mexican Oompah music there.  We spent some quality time with the fam and the older kids who were on break from College, and had a couple of meals with friends before hopping back on a plane for Leon and the rest of our stint down here in San Miguel.  Even though as a general rule I pretty much hate Christmas and the rest of winter in Salt Lake, I have to say it was a really nice break.

Though when we got off the plane and were finally on the road back to San Miguel on New Year's Eve, in teeshirts with the windows rolled down, and then made our way up our quiet little street strewn with holiday flags, I have to say it felt great to be back.


  1. Have a tasteful trip. See you soon.

    1. Oaxaca may have been a little bit like this: