Bike Computers and Mathematical Miscalculatons

I remember when I lived back in the old country and I wanted to buy something or have something repaired the process was simple. I would just drive to a store that sold what I wanted, maybe even check out a couple of stores, and make my purchase. For repairing something portable, my first choice would be he vendor. If there was no warranty, I’d check the yellow pages for a repair person. A little inconvenience but I’d usually come away from my purchase or repair happy. Even if I had to wait a day or two I’d more than likely have my item in new condition leaving me worry free…for a time at least.

My bicycle has had a computer for the past couple of years. It kept track of my daily and total mileage and times for my runs. But back in December I noticed it wasn’t recording the mileage accurately. In fact, it was way off. I changed the battery in the computer twice and in the sensor but it made no difference. My bike mechanic was out-of-town when I went to his house to buy another one. Then we didn’t have the $35 I paid him for the first one. So I did the only reasonable thing for a compulsive record keeper. I stopped riding.

Santa Ana is a big city. I don’t know it well. I have to take two buses to get to most of the places I do know. We don’t get a phone book with Yellow Pages to look up bicycle shops. So Google helped me locate three. Google map allowed me to draw my own map on paper putting familiar landmarks on it so I could figure out which buses to take and where I’d be able to walk.

The first shop I went to wasn’t there. There was some construction going on and nobody selling on the sidewalk remembered a bike shop. Not even by name. So much for marketing in El Salvador’s second largest city.

I walked several painful blocks to the second. It looked so modern I thought there must be a mistake. It was obviously geared (good pun?) for racers. We have many bike clubs for people with money to buy racing bikes and all that goes with them. I’m not in that elite category. The man behind the counter showed me two computers. One sold for $75 and the other for $52. I told him I was primarily interested in recording distance and time. The first one showed speed, distance, and temperature all at once. It also had other features my defunct computer had and more. I figured I deserved it and I paid for it. I took it home and mounted it with some difficulty because my spokes are fatter than racing bike spokes. Who knew? But though the hour and the temperature were showing, I couldn’t get it to mark the distance or the time.

So the following day I rode my bike to the bus garage in Chalchuapa and loaded it behind the last seat and away I went to Santa Ana. My fare was 30 cents for me and 60 cents for the bike.

At the shop the two young fellows did this and did that but couldn’t get it to work. They changed the magnet attached to the spoke twice. They changed the computer once. It wouldn’t register. After a couple of hours I settled for the cheaper model. I didn’t wait for them to change KPH to MPH or to set the clock. I rode the 15 miles back to El Refugio.

The next day I attacked the lengthy multi-language instructions on how to set the various functions. I wasn’t having any luck due to the difference in construction of the new one with the two others I’d had. I messaged the store and the gentleman and I had a series of polite exchanges while I learned how to do the settings. When I was done and had ridden the bike and determined I was now fine, I wrote a thank you note appreciating their patience and desire to give customer satisfaction.

Yesterday I took my first official ride of about six miles. Today I doubled that. My legs feel good. I felt good. But as I was writing this, I realized that when the fellow gave me cash for the difference in price, he gave me $13. That might be because when we were initially discussing the difference between the two computers, I had asked what the difference was other than $13. In shock at the high prices, I miscalculated the difference in my trembling mind. I hope I was not taken advantage of. I’m too tired of travelling to the city on crowded, uncomfortable buses to claim the $10 and will assume responsibility for the error and voicing it. I am just so happy to be riding again and looking forward to getting back into that routine after a two-month hiatus. Meanwhile, I will do my best to attend the gym at least three times a week to keep my upper body in shape. As far as recovering my mental prowess, there’s no way I will escape the inevitable forgetfulness and miscalculations that accompany aging.

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I’m Old!

Roger William Brown 1939

I’m old! I don’t know exactly when it happened but I’ve grown old. I’ve tried to stay young. I’ve fought the good fight but the later rounds have worn me down. I’m tired. I’ve lost my punch. I often feel like throwing in the towel would be a blessing.

I’ve always taken pride in being able to do physical things that my contemporaries had long ago given up. I enjoyed amazing teachers, coworkers, and anyone in general with my mental prowess. I have never thought of myself as being the best at anything. Too often I’ve just made do when I could have excelled. I guess it’s a form of the laziness I criticize others for. Whatever I did, whatever life problem I felt was solved was enough. I’ve put off things intending to do them in my retirement. Well, I’ve been retired for more years than some people have worked. I feel very incomplete.

It hits me when my children and grandchildren have birthdays and when Christmas time comes around. I’m too far away and without funds to finance a trip. It hits me when for the last several Christmas Eves and New Years Eves I haven’t been able to make the mile-and-a-half trip up to my wife’s family property and I end up home alone listening to the ubiquitous blasts of fireworks and keeping the frightened dog company. It hits me when I listen to my favorite country singers and recall so many wonderful memories I have of them…and realize they’ve been dead for years and decades. It hits me when my daughter practices her Tae Kwan Do kicks and I’m afraid to “play” with her for fear of my ankle or a knee failing to support me. Then there’s the pain.

Roger William Brown & Beverly Joan Smith 1953

The arthritis in the ankle I broke thirty-seven years ago is sometimes shockingly painful and the reflex of trying to shift my weight to the other foot leaves me grabbing for anything near that will support me. My worn out knees usually are fine for walking but too often rebel and each step is a stab in one or the other or both. But standing still as in waiting for a bus is as almost as painful as having kidney stones. Bicycle riding is a release from the pain but the routes I’ve enjoyed riding for several years are now the places where people are assassinated by the pandilleros, the gang members. I’m not seeking martyrdom, just a safe path to travel on that won’t damage my tires or end my life.

This self-imposed confinement to the house has given me opportunity to make up for lost years of not writing. I have unfinished songs. But who would hear them? Who in El Refugio would understand them? I have unfinished stories. But sometimes I just can’t remember what I wanted to say many years ago. I have folders full of essays, experiences, and letters some of which were put on Corel Word Perfect years ago and a few “translated” to the Microsoft Word format that now need editing to make them readable. I’ve never transcribed the journals I wrote on my several mission trips to Central America. Someone might be interested in reading my notes especially if I post them with photos and videos. 

Roger William Brown 1986

I wrote in my last blog how strong Margarita is. It grieves me to see her doing so much of the physical labor in maintaining our fruit trees and vines, our vegetable garden, and the beautiful flowering plants and bushes. Luís is now helping when asked. He doesn’t “see” work and how much it would help his mother and me if he’d take a little initiative. That’s something I hope we’re both working on. Margarita is unquestionably physically able to do some lifting that I no longer can do. Whether it’s a result of multiple surgeries, loss of muscle mass despite working out at the gym…too infrequently…or just the fact that at 82 (in a couple of weeks) I’m not the muscle man I used to think I was.

I’m not at the point (and hopefully not near it) of needing help to go to the toilet or take a shower. I can still feed myself quite adequately and even prepare my own meal if my sweet wife isn’t here. But I find myself too often just plain tired. I seem to want to lie down and sleep but my culture forbids it. The day is for work and the night is for rest. Sleep at 8:00 p.m. comes easy. Sleep after lunch does not. At least not for me. Our two kids can spend most of the day on their beds doing whatever they do with their cell phones or, like Luís, sleeping for several hours until late afternoon. I’m not necessarily sleepy, just tired. Tired like old man tired. Tired like the people we visited in the retirement home last Friday. Just don’t want to move tired.

Three Generations of Browns: Roger, Preston, Ari 2012

How and when did all this fatigue and joint ache from shoulders to toes begin? I suppose it’s been progressing all my life. I just hadn’t noticed it creeping up on me. This monster with many faces suddenly confronted me and I wasn’t prepared for it. No liniment, no pills, no injections, no massages, and no prayers by well-meaning people can relieve my body and brain from this physical and mental weariness. My milieu is out of sight in my rear view mirror. I’m running out of gas in an alien ambience and my AAA card has expired like my California Driver’s License and the voice with which I used to enjoy singing. My precious little daughter is morphing into a physically and responsibly mature woman before my eyes. She’s never called me by any paternal title and my going-on-two granddaughter has learned to call me Roger rather than abuelito. So, where do we take it from here? My window to the future is closing. There is almost nothing from my past that I could possibly recreate or name as a reasonable goal for the future. There will be no babies to raise, no audiences to swell my ego with applause, no home run tournament trophies, no students to watch grow under my tutelage, no prizes, vacations and money to be won on game shows, no long drives with Wanda Jackson or stand-up-and-take-a-bows from Hank Thompson, no joyful and spiritually rewarding  personal and church-sponsored mission trips to Mexico and Central America, no cross-country motorcycle rides, and no new pretty ladies seeking my attention. My successes are vicariously gained when my daughter wins a competition or when one of my nieces-by-marriage (or not) gives me the warm, strong, lengthy hugs that little girls are great at.

I’ve been putting off posting this for a while hoping that the Christmas day depression would be replaced by the joy of doing, of being, of perhaps becoming. I accept my mortality and do not fear the inevitable. I have experienced the passing of my elders, most of my peers from childhood, school companions, coworkers with whom I have maintained contact over the decades. My sports heroes, my country music idols, and celebrities whose acting, singing, dancing, and comedy I’ve enjoyed have been replaced by young people whose art and language I don’t understand…nor do I wish to. Each new day seems to present new physical and mental obstacles which I can’t avoid for some reason. I must be getting old. No, I have gotten old.

My Amazing Wife, Margarita

As a man in his 80s, I’m not amazed by much in life anymore. I’ve lived through a lot and I’ve seen Americans piss their country down the drain by electing the worst possible candidate to the presidency. But what does amaze me these days is how my beautiful wife thinks. Margarita never had a bank account, never had the concept of saving for emergencies let alone the few luxuries that are available to country people in El Salvador. She’s learned a lot from me about finances. I’ve done my best to share with her and our daughter Adriana the value of saving and planning for the future.

Now let me advise you that the personal or family economy here is a fraction of what it is in the U.S. Everyday purchases are much cheaper. Incomes are proportionately less. Medical care is free and most of us don’t concern ourselves with taxes. My Social Security isn’t much and it’s been our only source of income for a family of four.

There have been expenses in recent years that would not be imaginable for Margarita as a single mother of four before I entered the picture. She lived in a shack with no toilet and an improvised shower outside. She cooked over a cement stove with wood she had to find and carry back to the house. Electricity was a recent addition and powered the few lights in and outside the house. She did whatever was available to make enough money to feed the kids. She walked 1 1/2 miles each way with the younger kids to school in the morning and then again in the afternoon to attend the child development program at the school. She did her best to raise the kids with Christian values and in my opinion she has succeeded.

We’re married nearly eight years now. Our oldest son was murders by the local terrorist maras. Our oldest daughter is married and we’ve been blessed with a granddaughter who is now two. Our third child has had some problems since his father’s untimely death not long after his brother’s assassination. Our daughter is now thirteen and has had experiences, personal growth experiences that she more than likely wouldn’t have had were it not for my love for her mother and for her. She’s the star in my heaven but she doesn’t take too much advantage of that.

We live in a fairly modern home with a toilet, shower, running water in the kitchen sink and outside to water the vegetable and fruit plants we grow along with the flowers and bushes that adorn the property. We are blessed with the Internet, TV, phone service and electricity to run whatever. We have our own rooms and no one needs to double up on a bed. We’ve got screens on the doors to keep the mosquitoes and flies to a minimum. We’ve got an adorable dog who is Adriana’s.

But the food we buy and the appurtenances that make our lives more comfortable plus Tae Kwan Do lessons for our daughter and gym fees for this old man haven’t allowed us to put away a lot of money for dental costs, gear for our yellow-belt fighter, and the upkeep of my nine-year old bicycle. Margarita decided to help with the finances by preparing various snack treats which are popular and inexpensive here. She sells them most afternoons in our driveway. In the morning she takes the microbus to Chalchuapa to buy whatever she’ll need for the afternoon’s sales. She comes home and works preparing the ingredients with one hand while preparing our lunch with the other. When our daughter gets home from school and we’ve eaten our meal, she helps her mother peeling yucca, chopping cabbage, stewing tomatoes for the salsa, and boiling potatoes. By 2:30 or so, Margarita has a fire going in the barrel stove and the giant wok is heating up the oil in which delicious pastries of vegetables, roots, and corn will be cooked and placed in pots to keep warm for the passers-by who pay a quarter for a small bag of her goodies. It’s a lot of work but she has learned to keep records of her expenses and sales to insure there’s a profit for her time and labor. She’s doing well.

Today is where the amazing part took place. This is the six-month dry season. Her little tienda is sheltered on one side by the house and above by a broad flowering bush that covers the driveway entrance sufficiently to keep the hot sun from burning her bronze skin. She had spoken to me before about the possibility of erecting a more efficient shelter for when the rainy season begins in May. Today, she told me the details of her plan and it is certainly feasible and not at all costly. We rent the house from a friend who is thrilled to have us as tenants. We care for the house and property as if it were our own. We have made some significant improvements here and he has reimbursed us for some of them. I doubt he would refuse a request for Margarita’s shelter. But wait, there’s more.

Location of Margarita’s fast food enterprise. Overhanging bush gives afternoon shade. The barrel is her stove.

I have always given Margarita a $25.00 allowance which may not sound like I’m a big sport, but here it goes a long way. She buys vegetables from local vendors and treats for the kids. But she still ends up asking me for money for bus fare, a quarter for the miller to turn the corn into dough for tortillas, and other incidentals. Lately, she’s been more independent as a result of her business. So it should have been no surprise to me to see her prepare papitas today. She makes French fries and squeezes some catsup and mayonnaise on top then sprinkles it with some grated local cheese. Everyone here loves them and some people can’t pass up a papita stand. I saw on her work table a new red catsup squeeze bottle and a white one for the mayo. She reasoned that she can prepare more than the four offerings she’d been selling. But wait again, there’s even more.

She currently has to either go to her old house and cut firewood with a machete and ask her brother or our son-in-law to transport it down to the house, or she has to buy it from one of the vendors who carry it on their backs. She now wants to learn the cost of a propane-fired “wok” to save on the labor and wood costs, to use the cheaper and more easily controlled gas to cook her foods. She’s been thinking. I am so proud of her and will support her as always.

Today she decided to do the remodeling of the chickens’ habitat that she’s been talking about. She is adept at construction with bamboo poles, poles from tree trunks, making doors out of bamboo and chicken wire, and roofs out of corrugated sheet metal called lamina. She was into it this morning so I went to do the shopping. When I returned she sent me to the hardware store to get some seven meters of two-meter high chicken wire. I got it onto my bicycle and brought it home to her. Then I got out of her way. By evening we had an enlarged living space for our layers and meat providers and a separate section for younger chickens to keep them from the mean old roosters who would peck the males to death. This, added to the chiquero for newly hatched chicks and the separate coop for our miniature chicken family gives us space for more than the thirty-plus birds we have now. It was done just in time as we await the hatching of sixteen eggs under one regular-sized hen and eight to ten Bantams. My contribution was to use the electric drill to reinstall the hook and eye for the door to the new complex. I couldn’t have done as well.

Young Chicks in New Home

You have to know my wife and how her faith has helped her to deal with hardships and tragedies to understand why these seemingly simple decisions and idea creations are so special. Life for country people hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. The cell phone has been the greatest innovation since the wheel was introduced. Building, farming, transporting are done in the tradition of their indigenous ancestors. People here accept early death, tragedy and sickness as the will of God and their faith seems unshakable in the face of civil wars, U.S. intervention, gang threats, and a seductively oppressive government whose hand is in everything. I have the deepest respect for my neighbors, especially the women, who have endured hardships that are virtually unknown north of the Rio Grand.

I sometimes grouse to myself about how illogically people come to decisions here. I know enough to not express too strongly how I would have done something differently. My mission training taught me that but I had to live here a while to understand why. It all works out for the good, as Paul explains to the church at Rome. But when Margarita spends most of a day doing wonders with basic materials and some hard physical labor, I know how special she is and how lucky I am to have her for my wife.

Seven Years with the Right Woman

I’ve been blessed in many ways since I became a short-term missionary in Central America. But the greatest of all has been having Margarita de los Angeles Olmedo Cevallos as my wife. In El Salvador, to be legally married one must have a government official perform the ceremony. We were married by the Governor of the Department of Santa Ana on May 7, 2010. Then to have the marriage consecrated by one’s church, a second ceremony is performed by a licensed clergyman or clergywoman. We were married in Primera Iglesia Bautista Nazarea here in El Refugio on Nov. 14, 2010 by our pastor, Hno. Darío Martínez.

The path from then to now has not always been smooth. There have been disappointments, tragedies, frustrations, and financial worries. But overall, we have moved forward learning how to meld diverse cultures, language barriers, a vast difference in educations and real-world experiences, and a different understanding of the word “parenting”.

I’ve learned to live without many of the standard luxuries that come with being a middle-class American. Margarita has come to enjoy the material benefits that come with being the wife of a middle-class American.

I’ve learned the hard and costly way that the Salvadoran government is little more than a racket and I shouldn’t have expected them to allow me to become a naturalized citizen. This policy deprives me of the rights and responsibilities of that status including the right to own property, work, get a driver’s license, or participate directly or indirectly in the electoral process. Thus I must support my family on my thin Social Security stipend.

We endured together the cold-blooded murder of our son Juan. Another “unsolved” assassination by maras. This was followed by the untimely accidental death of our remaining son Luís’ biological father.

My post-graduate degree, graduate degrees, and a lifetime of studying are barely applicable in a culture that follows practices that are part pre-Columbian, part colonial Catholic, and part modern- superstitious.

Despite the Christian nature verbally espoused by almost all Salvadorans, the high rate of unmarried girls bearing children by multiple fathers hasn’t abated. There is a pattern of treating male children like princes, waiting on them and not teaching them to be responsible adults. This sets young men up for lives  of partial employment or crime. Girls tend to follow the footsteps of their mothers under the belief that babies are a blessing—even if you can’t feed them, clothe them or shelter them. 

Extortion of small business owners and the government itself is accepted by people used to authoritarian dictates from politicians, prelates, and punks. Every phase of life here is controlled by one or another of the three “powers”.

These and other cultural factors play into the frequent frustrations and need to accept my inability to change illogical and unsound aspects of life here.

But Margarita is a treasure amid the various cultural clashes that seem to affect me more than her. If she gets mad at me and gives me the cold treatment, it never lasts more than a day or two. I just wait, though not without some trepidation, until I hear her singing praise songs. When she gives me a good morning or a kiss as she’s leaving, I know things are back to normal. Her normal, not necessarily mine. And that’s OK.

Luís, who will turn 16 in January, learned nothing from the discussions and threats his older brother endured before he “grew up” and became a man. He is finally going into 8th grade after flunking 7th grade twice. He is basically a parasite enjoying the fruits of my labor while his mother pampers him with meals on demand and can’t bring herself about to make him do some work around here that is a strain for me, or carry the groceries that my knees won’t let me tote and from which (among other heavy work) she suffers constant aches and pains.

Adriana, on the other hand, at 13 can prepare meals, care for her dog, run the vacuum cleaner, help her mother with the chickens, and do other age-appropriate tasks. She makes us proud of her grades, her interests in outside activities, her sarcastic but not insulting humor, her ability to correct my Spanish faux pas, and her attempts at understanding the adult world after hours of indoctrination by Disney, soap operas, and horrible TV movies.

So, here we are after seven years. There’ll be no candle light dinner at a restaurant. No romantic dancing. Not even a movie. Life is plain and simple here. We’ve done some hugging and kissing. I don’t know if she’s done any reflection on the past seven years. But she’s still here and that’s a good sign.

That number made me think of the Eddy Arnold song I learned to sing before I had a clue as to what it meant. I’ll share it with you. It’s not Margarita and me.

 

 

Questions and Answers

(Originally written July 9, 2010. Edited twice before posting July 30, 2016)

 

I received this in an Email 3½ years ago from a life-long friend. I answered it as well as I could from my then two years of living here in El Salvador. I’ve just been going over some documents I’ve been saving, clearing some out, and bringing others up to date for posting on my blog, kountryking’s kastle at https://kountryking.wordpress.com/.  

“Does it ever happen that one of the young men or women from El Salvador has dreams of becoming a Doctor or Lawyer and goes off to college?

What you need there is a union. Do you think the new government will make the labor situation any better? You need someone with money and a big heart to come along and give the folks who are willing to work a share in the profits of a business or hotel. Talk to Oprah!

You are so kind and unselfish to have devoted the rest of your life to helping these children. Even if you save one you save a nation. I am proud to be counted among your friends.”

 

My response: Professional people exist. We have universities and medical schools. They, like churches and seminaries, try to find patrons to establish scholarships to encourage young people to study. Even the government knows we are lacking in quality doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc. if we are to build our little country. My friend Adalid got his degree in accounting and works for World Vision, a charitable organization…but not as an accountant.

As I’ve indicated, lawyers that I’ve met don’t know that much about the law. Teachers I work with seem to count on their experience and personal attitude rather than the education theories I studied at Cal. Lutheran U. We don’t produce Nobel Prize candidates in any area due to poverty primarily and secondly because we don’t have the means to provide the learning tools and quality professors to teach. It’s all about dollars that we can beg, “borrow”, and sometimes steal from Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. We are everyone’s poor relatives along with a good chunk of people from other parts of the world besides our own.

I mentioned attitudes among teachers. Our limited knowledge of what’s going on in our professional areas outside Central America keeps us from moving the bar a little higher. We don’t seem to know exactly to what we aspire. There are a ton of people like me in countries like this one who run into a wall with our stories of educational opportunities in vast, beautiful, well-equipped universities, health care in clean medical centers with the best trained doctors and nurses and modern equipment, advanced medicines for most ills, etc.

So the struggle for helpers like me runs against the lack of money and natural resources with which to do business to obtain it, and an attitude of defeatism and dependency on patrons and patron states.

We do have unions among teachers and other professionals. The FMLN party is socialist and by nature is involved with the needs of the workers. But workers or landless people can only demonstrate futilely when there are few jobs and little money for wages, health insurance, or the perks Americans have come to take for granted…until now. We have children’s marches in the capital for food, for housing, and education.

There is a boy about 10 or 12 who paints up as a clown and rides the bus back and forth between Santa Ana and Chalchuapa. He has a home-made maraca in his hand for rhythm as he chants humorous rhymes, sings songs, and must tell jokes (I don’t understand what he’s saying but I hear people laughing.) then walks down the aisle and back collecting coins. It’s a normal occurrence here. For me it is hard to watch. I can’t see one of my kids ever having to have begged, sung or danced for coins to buy lunch and supper for his family. I watch people on their way to work give him change. I don’t. I learned in my years in Mexico, watching haggard mothers with their children around them in rags and also looking sad and forlorn, the smallest at the breast and the toddler holding the bowl for alms, that these people become dependent on charity rather than seek available training to learn a trade.

Right now, the world is in economic chaos. But in “normal” times, there is work available for more people than are willing to do it. Not everyone or even most, to be sure. But the attitude of dependency is strong and as ingrained in the culture as beans and tortillas.

The bottom line is that there is a different reality here than in the U.S. We live in two different planes that as yet have not intersected. I’m just trying to help them meet in a good place.

 

January 18, 2014

How perceptions can change in just a few years! The U.S. electorate debates immigration reform, welfare and social services reform, minority lag in education and employment, and how to provide all the benefits Americans of my generation were accustomed to as young men and women, established family folks, and retirees while waging wars in heretofore remote lands inhabited by people whose cultures and ways of life we can’t begin to understand.

Since my first response to my friend’s questions, I’ve married a woman who has lived here all her life. She gave birth to four children by four different fathers, a condemnable act in my old world. I watched inexperienced and poorly educated management forced to close the church school in which I volunteered as an English (and more) teacher. My experience and education constantly bucked the local norm of illogic, rationalization, and misinterpretation of God’s influence and participation in daily events.

After the school closed, the focus of our church was an after-school program sponsored by a major Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) designed to provide additional physical, spiritual, and academic benefits. But this is a society where corruption and self-aggrandizement is another norm led to the church losing that ministry. The church itself was corrupted by those same leaders who fired the pastor for preaching against these false prophets and the church split.

In my first experiences here in Central America, I witnessed the poverty, the seeming helplessness and hopelessness of almost all the people in the towns and villages in which I worked. I became attached to people who were hard-workers, faithful church members, dutiful parents, and caring brothers and sisters in Christ. Their vocal prayers were passionate and heartfelt. Their gratitude for petitions answered and patience for those not yet addressed was obvious. The children I taught for three years were like the children I taught in California. They fit the bell-shaped curve in performance and interest in learning. It took a while for me to realize that they were well-schooled in giving me what I wanted in order to endear themselves to me. Not for better grades. Not for future educational considerations. Not even to make mama proud. They all in one way or another wanted to set me up for some kind of financial help.

I had been helping the family of a child I had met in 2003 when she was about 3-years old. Who doesn’t fall in love with a waif who comes to a stranger in church and sits on his lap? When I returned to El Refugio for permanent residence I became, I felt, like a part of their family. My principal, also our pastor, gave her a “scholarship” in our school. But as time moved on I became more aware of the many ways that I was being suckered and lied to. Friends warned me but now I wasn’t sure if these friends weren’t being helpful to their own ends. I broke off with the family and had no contact with them for three years.

Last May, I decided to visit them. Either they would welcome me or let me know I was not welcome. My first visit was a joy. I received hugs and played with the latest additions to the family. On my second visit my motive for coming was questioned. My response relating to an emotional investment I had with the child and the family despite the unhappy separation warranted a visit to see if a friendly relationship could be established. I put it in a way that indicated I was not there to contribute to their economic well-being and so I was literally given the cold shoulder and left without so much as a God bless you.

My observations of much improvement to their living condition told me they were not hurting relative to their neighbors which didn’t surprise me. The mother is quite adept as a con-artist and the children have been taught their roles from babyhood. This is not atypical among the poor in El Salvador.

People don’t attend church for spiritual strength but to go home with collected food for the poor or leftovers from a party or celebration. They “join” a church if there’s a part-time job that will pay a few badly needed dollars a week. If the job goes, they go too.

So, what do children learn? They learn to use their charm, their cuteness, their ability to act like they care to get a dime, a quarter, a dollar, a pair of shoes, new clothes for Christmas, a cell phone, a bicycle, a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, and so on. By the time they reach puberty they’ve learned to steal, lie with a straight face, and create alibis and fairy tales. The girls are capable of seducing young men who may or may not have some capacity to offer them and the child they will inevitably bear them a measure of security albeit temporary. The fellow, socially immature and probably himself the product of the acceptable practice of womanizing, will move on once his pregnant girlfriend loses her appeal. No harm, no foul here.

My wife’s older daughter moved out at sixteen to live with a man eight years her elder. He lives with his mother and sister while his dad is in the U.S. studying for the ministry. They’ve been together almost three years without benefit of matrimony. She is pregnant. He has a job and works rather steadily. They’ve got a place to live and she’s got money for clothes and gifts for her younger siblings. She is a Salvadoran success story.

Her older brother is almost 21. He still lives with us and works sporadically. There is little work here in El Refugio. He doesn’t wish to seek employment in one of our larger cities. His mother doesn’t encourage him but will transmit my displeasure at having a fifth-wheel adult under my roof and free-loading. Her culture sees his situation as normal. I see it as parasitism. If nobody has work for him he hangs out with his friends and only shows up at meal time when his mother phones him. This is the local norm.

He’s always got a story about leaning computation or getting an electrician’s license. It’s been more than two years since he graduated “high school” and nothing has changed for him. There is no point in young people dreaming about becoming a doctor or lawyer or of going off to college unless he’s got parents who as professionals and responsible parents are prepared financially to help him or her. My friend Adalid, mentioned above, is the rare exception to the fate of the young men I’ve watched grow up and wither once their public school careers have ended. A few other young people have been attending college for years and have little recourse to employment once they receive their diploma.

An interesting aside: We have the El Salvador version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on TV. The top prize is a mere $200,000. Most contestants are either studying in college or have a profession. They usually have no problem reaching the $200 fifth question level. But between questions six and ten, they miss on questions that most American 8th graders wouldn’t have to ponder. I’ve seen a school principal bomb out on a simple question of geography. Spanish is not my first language and I know little about soccer and Salvadoran history but I often answer the questions that the audience can’t agree on.

So the question about education and advancing the country in the world market is answered by a simple, nobody seems to give a damn. Unions can stop work, block highways, carry signs, and make demands. Nobody bothers them. They get on TV. The public gets annoyed for their being inconvenienced. Nothing changes. At least not significantly!

I think the administration that has been in power for almost five years has striven to improve the welfare of working people. Even I’ve benefitted from its programs and I’m not yet a citizen. We have a long way to go and I hope the poorly educated masses are not taken in by the bold and impossible promises by the more charismatic opposition candidate.

On outside investment: I’ve learned first-hand that investment in El Salvador comes at a price. There are many hands to grease and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful in your endeavor. Should you be fortunate enough to establish your business you then have to face extortion from one of our infamous gangs. Our infrastructure is still mostly in the 19th or early 20th century. If something goes wrong in your enterprise, do not expect much more than sympathy and “that’s the way it goes” from anyone.

 

July 30, 2016

Margarita and I are living in our third rented home. I have been waiting for well over two years for my Naturalized Citizen documents. This is in violation of my constitutional rights and keeps me from enjoying what they consider privileges of citizenship. Oh, my medical care is free and I can’t complain about the service. But I can’t vote, own property, buy a vehicle in my name or get a license to drive.

Of the four children we had when we married six years ago, our oldest son, Juan, was murdered in cold blood on his job by the gangs. María and Milton are married and have given us an adorable granddaughter. Luís is now 14 and paralyzed with fear after his brother’s murder. Adriana is 12. She gets good grades in school and studies ballet on Saturdays. We have a good landlord and enough property on the lot to keep 30 chickens for meat and eggs. We have a year-‘round garden that keeps us in tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, frijoles, chili peppers, peppermint, radishes and herbs. We also have potted plants and flowers. It’s an ideal life for a retired gentleman and his industrious country-girl wife.

My aged legs and a hernia have kept me from my erstwhile routine of distance bicycling and working out in the park three or four days a week for over a year. That leaves a lot of time to be bored and angry for not having my citizenship, missing out on a nice payday at the now cancelled “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and not having at least a motorcycle so I can enjoy this beautiful country. Since I can’t legally work at a legitimate job like teaching, I can’t really do most of the things I used to do during my first three years here. I fear succumbing to physical and mental atrophy from a lack of using my muscles or my brain.

The current presidential campaign in the U.S. has been very emotional for me. Although I’ve lived in El Salvador now for over eight consecutive years, I’ve been part of this country since 2003. But I am an American and a concerned voter. But I can’t share the essence of my feelings with my dear wife because she has a 3rd grade Salvadoran education and knows nothing of U.S. history or our political process. It’s different here. We use U.S. currency but people don’t know who George Washington is let alone Sacajawea and her story. How can I explain our fear of a Trump victory when Central Americans have been living with their own Trumps since the Spaniards arrived in 1522? My excitement over a woman being nominated for the presidency doesn’t resonate in a region which is used to female heads of state. She related to my cheers and tears while I watched the Democratic National Convention like I would if she were to be filled in on the latest adventures of Disney Channel’s “Soy Luna”.

My life is not what I anticipated it would be in so many ways. But I’m here for the duration. At eighty and with strange things happening to my athletic body and my MENSA qualified brain, I don’t know if my maternal longevity genes will sustain my life to where I can see my daughter achieve her dreams…and mine for her.

My little part of El Salvador has seen economic improvement during my residency here. The “poor” aren’t quite as poor. Everyone has a cell phone. TV dish antennas soar over shabby hovels. The women are exceedingly fat, a condition which begins at childhood and which expands with each addition to the family. Men find work enough to sustain their families. Lots of new businesses have popped up and even modernized along our stretch of highway and in our “downtown” center. The mayor provides fiestas and expositions to keep us amused and well fed when they occur. He’s improving our streets as funds become available…although they deteriorate at the same rate as always. New colonies are being carved out of the hillsides and uncultivated land. Our teenage girls are flooding the local clinic for prenatal and postnatal care. Babies having babies. El Refugio isn’t under the same threats as other municipalities from gang violence. But we do hear from time to time of a murder in the more rural areas. Established neighborhood homes are continually being improved. Partially built homes are finally being finished as money comes in from the U.S. from family members working there. Vacant lots heretofore used for cultivating corn and beans are now seeing new construction started. Our police now have a new four-door pickup truck with seats in the bed for extra passengers. Our town has met the national standard for literacy among adults. So we’re not doing too badly for an under developed little nation.

The government seems to be finally putting the gang leaders where they belong. The Attorney General seems to be fighting corruption in both national and municipal governments. The gangs seem to be on the defensive or running to other countries. I say “seem to be” because we don’t get all the news from our media. We’ve had reporters and journalists forced to resign because they asked the “wrong” questions of the “right” people.

So as long as I can, my mission will be to provide for my family and share my small bounty with others. I will do my best to teach my precious daughter how to change her life view from that of her predecessors to one more in line with contemporary thinking in the modern world. I know I can’t answer all the questions, not my own, not my wife’s and not my daughter’s. But I’m going to do my best to try.

 

 

 

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it. (Micah 4:4)

Since our church school closed at the end of 2010, I haven’t held any kind of job. I wasn’t paid for teaching and that was fine. When I returned to El Refugio in 2008 I was blissfully single and not thinking about a wife and certainly not a family. My pittance of a Social Security retirement stipend went into the bank and my expenses were so miniscule that I was saving money almost every month. Whether I was renting a room or a small house I had all the comforts I needed. I bought a TV, a refrigerator, a small propane gas stove, and a microwave. I had my computer, TV, and land line phone for less than $60 a month and that was $20 or $30 more than my rent. I could always find a woman or teenager who would hand-wash my clothes for $5. Food was cheap. The microbus ride to Chalchuapa to shop in the not-so-super-but-adequate market was a quarter each way. I had no car. Didn’t need gasoline, car insurance, or repairs and service. I enjoyed helping individuals and families who were in need and supporting my church with service beyond teaching English and rational thought to kindergarten through sixth grade kids and teaching theory to the docents. In my off hours from our half-day school I visited the sparse service and event attenders, the sick, and the dying. I attended their funerals once they passed. In the early morning I could still jog five kilometers before showering and making my breakfast. In the evenings I would visit with church members or make new friends in the community. I was very active and adapted easily to life in rural El Salvador.

During those years I spent some time learning the courtship procedure according to the culture. I passed more than a few evening at the homes of available women, mostly mothers, but not seriously thinking of starting a relationship in my seventies. I was Hermano (brother) Roger (joyfully mispronounced as “Royer”) and content to sleep alone at night. I was not in a position to be Roger Brown the Kountry King and womanizer par excellence. There was much I had to absorb by osmosis because few would lay out the rules or explain why so many females had children starting in their mid-teens and those children had multiple fathers. It was not for me to judge but certainly went against everything I’d been taught from childhood about family structure.

I was rather astonished at being, how shall I put it, accepted as a perspective beau at my age. The lesson was that although I was old but healthy I was a gringo. Gringo in these parts means “a guy who has more money than 99.9% of the men here in town”. I was keen enough not to let myself get involved with any woman whose concentration was on what my wallet could provide rather than my company and simple conversation. 

As a teacher, I visited my students’ homes as a means of communicating who I was and what I wanted to do for their kids. I also got to know who was really into education and their children’s futures. Most of the homes were without an adult male. There were usually multiple children. Siblings, cousins, and sibling/cousins where a fellow had children by two sisters. All new to me. The mothers did what they could for money. Some cut, carried and sold firewood. Some washed clothes for women who had jobs outside the home. Some sold whatever in the markets of nearby towns. Some worked in the fields sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables, coffee or sugar cane in their season. Others had “husbands” who were in and out of the family’s life and often shared with other “wives”.

Mothers and/or older siblings always accompany their children to school and pick them up afterwards. I rarely saw a father. I engaged the moms in whatever conversation my Spanish permitted to get to know them as people. I did the same when I taught special education and bilingual fourth grade classes in the U.S. I believe in the child-parent-teacher circular relationship in which we are all participants in the child’s development. But I soon found myself singling out women who from appearances and small talk were amiable and made me feel comfortable. I watched them relate to their children and how their children related to me during class hours and outside of class. I learned to see how subtly a woman or even a young child could con me into a dime for a snack (which might be breakfast for the child) or a dollar to take a child to the local clinic before it was all free. Mothers know that kids are cute and a hug will melt a gringo’s heart. This gringo had spent enough time in Mexico and Central America to know how that worked.

But at one house about a mile and a quarter from the church and school, down the highway and up a steep hillside dirt road, lived a woman who impressed me before I had the presence of mind to approach her. Every morning she brought a young boy and a tiny preschool girl to school. Every Noon she was their to take them home. Every afternoon she brought them back for our afternoon program for integral child development. And later she’d be back to pick them up.

She dressed as all the country women dressed. She wore no makeup. Her hair was obviously long and rolled into the traditional bun. Her arms and legs were well muscled and her shoulders were strong. She walked so gracefully, not like a runway model, but like a proud, positive woman. She had a beautiful smile that never seemed to leave her face. I knew nothing about her and it would have been unthinkable to expect someone else to answer my questions about who she was and what was her social status.

I noted she was always the first to volunteer for fiestas, meetings, and whatever the church, school, and afternoon program needed done. In a while I decided to visit her home and bring some toys for her kids. That was always my custom. She had a daughter in the public school and a son about to enter the high school. He was the “man of the house”. They all belonged to a little Pentecostal church nearby while our church was Baptist. At the house I’d be offered water. There was no refrigerator for milk or soda. There was no snack bowl. We talked and the kids played with the toys I’d bring. She knew all about me and the women I’d been seeing. She even knew I was engaged to one (who later broke up with me).

The two younger kids and I played while Margarita and I talked. She had some kind of knowing smile on her face that made me wonder what was up. When I needed someone to wash my clothes I asked her if she was interested. I pointed out that she wouldn’t have to walk all the way home and back on wash days. Before long she was visiting me and I was visiting her.

One day we were talking on the sofa and I teasingly asked her what she would do if a man asked her to marry him. She said she’d take good care of him. I had to think of what that might mean. Words in one culture don’t necessarily mean the same in another I’d learned. I hadn’t really thought about all the ramifications of marrying a woman with four kids. By then she’d told me about their four fathers and why they weren’t with her. She was honest and I appreciated that. She had told me about her conversion from her father’s Catholicism to becoming an evangelical. 

I went to her church several times. There were rarely ten people including the pastor. Margarita always wore long skirts and a white kerchief on her head. I always felt welcome but it was very conservative for a liberal Baptist. Sometimes we’d go to my service in the morning and hers in the afternoon.

In all this time she never asked me for anything. That made a big impression on me. I never once thought that maybe she was just smarter than some of the other women and felt it was wiser to live as they had been living believing that would draw me closer to her and we’d eventually be married and she’d have all of me…and mine.

Women in Central America had approached me on my mission trips to ask me to take their child back to the U.S. when I left or to send clothing or cash when I got home. They were adept at using their kids to butter me up, show me affection, call me papi or tío. Never with Margarita. In fact it bothered me that four-year old Adrianita never seemed comfortable when I’d pick her up. She didn’t cling like other kids. She’d just look towards her mother as if to say, “Uh, how long do I have to do this?” Neither of us pushed her towards accepting me as other than her teacher.

We were married in a civil ceremony according to Salvadoran law in May of 2010. We had a church ceremony six months later. It took us a while to find a house big enough to accommodate six but we finally found one. We stayed there a while until the landlord wanted to sell the house. So we moved to another house but we weren’t really happy there. My dog Duke went to live with my brother-in-law and allegedly ran away. Older son Juan was made to find a job and support himself while daughter Maria moved in with her boyfriend and his family. She’s married now and we have a granddaughter almost a year old. Juan was murdered by gangs while on his job with the town. We’ve now found a perfect house for us with a big yard and both kids have their own room. Luís is now 14 and will enter 9th grade in January. He keeps to himself for the most part but recently has been invited to quinceañera parties and has even participated in some fútbol games. He really loves the sport. Adriana has been and is my princess. She’s taken dancing and ballet lessons and at 12 loves clothes and music videos. I enjoy spoiling her. She’s got a little fluffy dog named Buffy (pronounced “Boofy”) with whom she plays a lot and cares for. I’m trying to get her interested in a free English language program I downloaded for her yesterday.

Margarita works too hard. She takes care of me in ways I never imagined a woman could or would. I love her more each day God gives me. She’s up before I can even wake myself and is still going strong when I’m yawning and craving the solace of our bed and her liniment massages of my aching legs.

I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to before my hernia surgery. I just don’t have the energy nor desire to ride and work out. I spend my time between my laptop, our vegetable and flower gardens, our chickens, and playing with Adriana’s puppy. More often I find myself sitting on a plastic chair in the shade of the güisquil ramada talking to our two miniature chickens or Buffy while peering through the bushes at people passing by on the street. It is so peaceful. Everything growing is green except for the red, pink, purple, orange, and yellow flowers. The tomatoes are red. The sky is light blue. Despite my increasingly expensive battle with a government that doesn’t want educated foreigners as citizens, I am somewhat at peace. Micah was right. I may not have a grape-vine or a fig tree but I have what flourishes here in El Salvador. His prophecy works for me.

 

 

I’m Feeling Like a New Father These Days

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At 80 I’ve been feeling like a new father now that Adriana has a puppy. Buffy is a smart little dog. She understands a sharp NO when she pulls the screen filter I put in the shower drain so I wouldn’t lose my ring now that my weight is down. Likewise when she stops licking my hand and starts nipping at it in puppy play and I say NO, she stops. I’ve been trying to teach Margarita and Adriana to mimic me rather than talk in a sweet high voice like you talk to a baby. Buffy’s been responding to “Good girl!” when she goes outside to do her business. But she’s been seen digging near and under the back gate. Nobody bothered to give her the NO. Rather they just filled in the excavation with the soft dirt or put a large rock in it which then hindered the legal opening of the gate. They think differently here.

I’m not ready to leave Buffy alone in the house. I remember the damage Duke the Wonder Dog did in our first house when left alone. Buffy is much smaller than Duke and she’s more tranquil. She loves to run and chase her ball. She’s content to chew on her rubber duck and a stuffed doll that Adriana gave her. But I’ll feel better once I’m sure she can handle being alone in the house in the morning when the kids are in school and Margarita is visiting her mother or off praying somewhere.

Therefore my biking schedule is in tatters. It’s been shady, cool and relatively comfortable to ride at 7:00 or 8:00 until 11:00 or so when the sun was low. But now the sun is to the south and it gets hotter more quickly. By the time I get home from a later-than-normal start I am exhausted. Now the dry season begins. That means fewer or no clouds to block the sun. No dark rain clouds at all to let the breeze hide the temperature. So if I can’t get out early, I tend not to go out at all. I don’t think I burn quite as many calories pulling weeds or cutting branches from the bushes. I do get to walk Buffy as a break from the computer.

I confess that I enjoy being home with Buffy. We play together little bits at a time. I relish her affection and marvel at her exploits as she investigates her new home and outdoor environment. If I watch TV from my recliner, she’ll try to climb up with her little tail wagging. I have to pick her up. She’ll get on my chest and lick my chin. Then she’ll do an about-face and make herself comfortable between my legs. Sometimes I have to wake her up after a movie is over so I can get up. 

I think the best part of being at home is when Adriana comes home from school. Buffy is so happy and so is my daughter. She picks her pup up and caresses her like a baby. She’ll have such a smile on her face that I want to cry. I am sure that Buffy has strengthened the bond between us and I am happy.

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