Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guest-Blogger John Scherber, Author of Into the Heart of Mexico: 5 Expat Meccas

My San Miguel de Allende-based fellow-American, fellow writer and bodaciously successful publisher of San Miguel de Allende Books-- if you're lucky enough to attend this year's San Miguel Writer's Conference, look for him in the conference's bookstore-- John Scherber has a new book out, timely and informative reading for anyone considering a move south of the border: Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path. 

Herewith his guest-blog for Madam Mayo, featuring five of the several places he went to speak with expats for the insider story:

Everyone has been to Cancun. Everyone has heard of the large expat colonies in San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala. Exploring the expat phenomenon, I wanted to do a book about those living in places without much support from their own kind. Was this a different kind of expat? Or only one with better Spanish? The towns they lived in would each be a character in this story. Here’s where I went to talk with them:
  1. Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato. A near ghost town, with a population that fell from 75,000 in 1900 to 200 in 1950. Now it lingers around three to four thousand, with two dozen expats. Its ambience is crumbly chic, as most of the ancient town continues to dissolve into the soil. On the hill above, the hulking remains of the old mining buildings await their apotheosis.
  2. Patzcuáro and the lake villages. An unknown number of expats reside in this small city among an exuberance of native crafts and arts. An alpine setting rich with tall trees and unsuspected joys.
  3. Puebla. México’s Chicago-style town. The expats are from all over, drawn mainly to its industry. English speakers are a small minority of this group and are not close. At the edge, the volcano lives and breathes.
  4. Zacatecas, another mining era charmer. At nine expats and a gorgeous urban fabric, I wondered when it was going to be discovered.
  5. Oaxaca. The jewel of the south. A larger expat community, but I spoke with three people who weren’t much connected. Sixteen ethnic groups ply their ancient, magical trades.
-- John Scherber


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>Find all Madam Mayo guest-blogs archived here.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

More About the Mysterious Dr. Krumm-Heller and His Book, Für Freiheit und Recht (For Freedom and Justice)

My book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual is available in Kindle and days from being available in paperback. One of the main characters in this novelesque tome of nonfiction is Francisco I. Madero's personal doctor and fellow Spiritist-- and German spy-- Dr. Arnoldo Krumm-Heller. I have blogged about him previously here and here, and just the other day, historian Heribert von Feilitzsch posted a long piece about Krumm-Heller's  Für Freiheit und Recht. (For Freedom and Justice: My Adventures in the Mexican Civil War). 

Von Feilitzsch also recently blogged about Krumm-Heller's escapades in stirring up trouble along the US-Mexico border. 

(Take home point: Apart from playing an important role in the German and Latin American esoteric scene, Krumm-Heller was a far more important figure in the history of the Mexican Revolution than most historians recognize. He also had a lot to do with Pancho's Villa's defeat at Celaya.) 

If you're at all interested in Mexican history, von Feilitzsch's blog is well worth reading-- as is his riveting sleuthwork, In Plain Sight: Felix Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico. 

(For those a little foggy on Mexican history: Francisco I. Madero, Mexico's "Apostle of Democracy," led the Revolution of 1910, took office as President of Mexico 1911, and was murdered in a coup d'etat led by General Victoriano Huerta in early 1913. Civil war then erupted, a Chinese puzzle of shifting alliances... in Krumm-Heller's view, Venustiano Carranza was the rightful heir to Madero's democratic government. Complicating matters was the outbreak of WWI in 1914; the German government, using agents such as Krumm-Heller, tried to foment trouble on the US-Mexico border in an attempt to keep the United States distracted. Important aside: the German strategy regarding Mexico was more than a little byzantine, and not all agreed on whatever it was.)

It took some hunting, but I did manage to find a pristine first edition of Krumm-Heller's Für Freiheit und Recht from an antiquarian bookdealer in Germany, but you, dear reader, can read the whole enchilada for free on

BIG FAT CAVEAT: it's chock full of full of swatistkas, alas, and this, of course, leads most readers to jump to end of the usual equation, Swatiska + German = Nazi. But the book was published back in 1916, before Hitler's Nationalist Social Party came to prominence, a time when the swastika-- an ancient symbol out of India-- did not carry the sinister connotations it does today. Krumm-Heller meant it to suggest German patriotism-- the book was aimed at getting the German government to recognize Carranza's in Mexico-- and auspiciousness. It is a symbol you can find in many Buddhist temples, by the way. 

Over on my webpage for my book, where I offer some resources for researchers, there's a link to the chapter about Francisco I. Madero by Krumm-Heller in the book Trilogía heróica, also published in 1916. As with Fur Freiheit und Recht, it is a work of propaganda in support of Carranza, whom Krumm-Heller considered the true heir to Madero. This is a very rare little book--more a pamphlet actually; as it does not have a spine. I aim to translate this chapter as soon as possible. In the meantime a quote (my translation from the Spanish):

"It is generally believed that Madero was a fanatical Spiritist whose wife was a medium who evoked the spirits to help him solve the difficult problems of governing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Madero was an illustrious Hermeticist, a distinguished Orientalist, a high initiate in esotericism, a highly respected Mason who, in the many moral trials to which he was subjected, demonstrated profound knowledge of the great philosophers, such as Kant, Spencer, and Shopenhauer, and he was the author of an unpublished book about that sacred book of the Buddhists, the Bhagavad-Gita."

More anon.


Friday, January 24, 2014

The Future of Bookstores

Author and blogger Carmen Amato has asked how me and other bloggers how we see the future of bookstores. It's a question I'm delighted to contemplate because, from the time I was a small child, bookstores have been a Mecca for me, and, as an author, when it comes to selling my books, an oasis of delightfulness-- though sometimes, alas, a fata morgana, now that on-line booksellers such as have drained off so much of their business. Indeed, as a book buyer, for convenience, selection, and price, I long ago went over to and other online booksellers. And as an author I am now seeing more from Kindle sales than from my print books. (In fact, for my latest book, a niche topic, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, I bypassed traditional publishers and bookstores altogether. I had thought it might be nice to place it with a university press. Then I did the math. Ha.)

That said, I am saddened by the way so many brick-and-mortar bookstores have turned themselves into glorified coffee and tchotchkes-made-in-China shops poorly staffed and oftentimes (not always, I hasten to add) by people who seem they might be more knowledgable about, say, pumping gas. As for the sort of hackwork most stock by their cash registers, Joe Queenan described them best: "by Punch for the edification of Judy." In short,  the typical chain bookstore bums me out-- and the coffee isn't that great, either. I have yet to sit down at a clean table in a Barnes & Noble café. Don't get me started about the restrooms.

Well, I don't think brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the dodo, but if they are to survive, they will evolve, and dramatically, to become much more than bookstores as we have generally known them. For example, a brick-and-mortar bookstore might offer:

Library services, such as those offered by New York City's Society Library-- not just books for loan, but a research desk, large well-lit tables, and small but comfortable and quiet private offices for writers / independent scholars (especially valuable where public library services are problematic);
More curated selections by more knowledgable staff;
Artist books;
More-- way more-- books by local authors;
Rare books;
Collectible ephemera; 
A place to bring in rare books and have them appraised (why not every third Thursday of the month?);
A place to order up a letterpress book of one's own (why not bring in the local letterpress guy every second Wednesday of the month?);
A place to learn about book design and book cover design;
A place to take a marbled paper workshop or how to make pop-up books;
A place to take a weekend seminar on Tolstoy / learn French / history of Rome / Mesoamerica (books included);
Meeting room for writers groups / book clubs / movies / yoga; 
 A machine to print out one's book (a few do have this already, e.g., Politics & Prose with its Espresso Book Machine);
and so on and so forth.

They will also dramatically improve their on-line shops to compete with the likes of not so much in terms of selection, but ease of use and prompt customer service. A few already have. Recently, I have been impressed by the rare books dealers using .

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. And I'll bet bucks to cabbages that there will be people writing and reading 'til Kingdom Come. So whatever "bookstores" morph into, it's going to be interesting.

Time capsule: Here's my 2009 blog about bookstores for Red Room.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

M.M. McAllen's New Book Maximilian and Carlota: Europe's Last Empire in Mexico

News over on my other blog, Maximilian-Carlota: A  blog for Researchers of the French Intervention/ Second Empire:

M.M. McAllen has just published Maximilian and Carlota: Europe's Last Empire in Mexico, available from Trinity University Press. I read it in draft form and thought it a superb addition to the bibliography. If you happen to be anywhere near San Antonio, Texas, hie on over to The Twig for her book presentation on Saturday February 8, 2014 at 4 pm, and get your signed first edition. It is sure to be a gripping read-- and a collector's item.

(The Twig is a lovely little bookstore. I read there myself back in 2009 on tour for my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. As I recall there are several good restaurants around the corner-- so why not make a night of it? The event at the Twig is free and open to the public, by the way, and does include refreshments.)

Check out these bodacious reviews for M.M. McAllen's opus:

"On the 150th anniversary of the installation of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg as emperor of Mexico, McAllen offers an authoritative, detailed, and engrossing account of the rise and fall of Mexico’s Second Empire... McAllen ably demonstrates how the Second Empire’s collapse was one of the most spectacular personal tragedies and political failures of the 19th century." — Publishers Weekly

"This is a thorough, complete history of Mexico’s second empire. The author leaves nothing untouched."
— William H. Beezley, professor of history at the University of Arizona
"Maximilian and Carlota is a deeply researched book about a period of Mexican history that, while vital for understanding modern Mexico and its relations with the United States and Europe, is of perhaps unparalleled cultural, political, and military complexity for such a short period."
— C. M. Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
“Mexican history offers a phantasmagoria that beggars the imagination. Most writers seem to focus on three distinct eras: Conquest, Independence, and Revolution. But perhaps the most surreal, tragic, yet oddly comedic era in Mexico has gone largely unexamined, until now. M. M. McAllen has written an important book that not only reads like a novel of fantastic inventions but is key to understanding the soul of Mexico today. ” — Luis Albertio Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

And with many thanks to Gayle Brennan Spencer, who blogs at Postcards from San Antonio, I have been alerted to what looks like an excellent show at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, to go along with McAllen's book. Here's the press release:

New Exhibit, Maximilian and Carlota: Last Empire in Mexico, Accompanies Book by Mary Margaret McAllen 
SAN ANTONIO— The Witte Museum presents a new exhibit, Maximilian and Carlota: Last Empire in Mexico, opening February 1 through March 30, 2014 in the Betty Coates Textile Gallery. The rule of Maximilian and Carlota, Emperor and Empress of Mexico in the 1860s, is examined in this exhibit and accompanies the release of the book, Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico written by South Texas scholar Mary Margaret McAllen, published by Trinity University Press. 
The exhibition features art and artifacts that have never been exhibited from the Witte’s permanent collections and several important private collections. Formal portraits of Maximilian and Carlota that were recently donated to the Witte Museum will be on public view for the first time. Newspaper articles, vintage photographs and objects from the Mexican Royal Court of the Emperor and Empress of Mexico will also be displayed.
Maximilian and Carlota: Last Empire in Mexico is generously supported by the City of San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development. The exhibit is included with general museum admission.
With over 400,000 visitors annually, the Witte Museum promotes lifelong learning through innovative exhibitions, programs and collections in natural history, science and South Texas heritage. For more information visit 

Read more blog posts about this tumultuous period of Mexican history.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

John Kachuba, Expert on the Dead, to Lead Day of the Dead Expedition in Mexico
My metaphysical amigo, Metaphysical Traveler John Kachuba, author of several books on (eeeee!) ghosts, is leading a cultural tour to Mexico October 29- November 3, 2014-- a great opportunity to travel into the heart of Mexico on some of its most special days of the year. (I say "some" because actually Day of the Dead is celebrated on two days.) So here's his guest-blog:

The Mexican perspective on death is different from that of other cultures. Mexicans share the traditional western view of death as the end of all things and they fear death and mourn for the dead as do other cultures but they also have a strange relationship with death that is contrary to the Grim Reaper image.
That relationship may stem from the indigenous cultures that worshipped various gods of death and that offered sacrifices—sometimes human sacrifices—to propitiate those gods. The syncretism between these indigenous beliefs and Catholicism brought by Spanish invaders transformed an already extant belief in an afterlife into something more accessible to the mind. Death was no longer a permanent state since spirits existed in an afterlife and were thus able to visit with those left behind. In some ways, death lost its sting, resulting in a more comfortable, accepting relationship with it. 
Nowhere is this relationship better exhibited than in Mexico’s centuries-old Day of the Dead festival—Dia de Muertos. Actually, more than a single day, the festival begins on October 31 and runs through November 2. As Spanish priests worked on converting the indigenous peoples to Catholicism they at first tried to ban the festival which had been in existence for centuries, rooted in the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. The native peoples challenged the priests’ attempts to halt their food offerings to the dead, explaining that their offerings were no different than the bread and wine the priests offered in the Mass. Rather than antagonize their potential converts the priests wisely conflated the indigenous celebration with the Catholic holidays of All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

The angelitos, the spirits of deceased children return on All Hallows’ Eve while the adults return on All Saints’ Day. On All Souls’ Day families go to the cemeteries where they offer food, drink, incense, candles and even music to their departed family members. The cemeteries on that day are busy places, full of flowers and candles and families offering food and drink to their deceased loved ones Musicians, sometimes entire bands, may be hired to play music for the returning spirits.
Although there are some variations throughout Mexico, the usual customs of Dia de Muertos include cleaning and decorating with candles and flowers the gravesites of deceased relatives and building elaborate home altars called ofrendas in memory of those same departed relatives. The beautiful ofrendas typically contain lots of candles and flowers (usually marigolds), pictures of the loved ones and offerings of their favorite foods and beverages. It is believed that the spirits of the departed relatives return to their homes during the festival so the food and drink will refresh them. The spirits will partake of the spiritual essence of the food; the family will eat it afterwards. One might also find a bowl of water and a towel for the spirits to clean themselves with after their long journey; pillows and blankets may be left out for their rest. The general idea is to encourage the return of the spirits so that they may hear the family’s prayers and discussions about them.
Skulls and skeletons are iconic images of Dia de Muertos, made famous by the 19th century illustrator and engraver José Guadelupe Posada. They figure prominently in decorations and displays while celebrants frequently wear skeleton costumes and makeup during exuberant celebrations that rival Mardi Gras. There are special foods associated with the festival, notably the calaveras, sugar skulls, and pan de muertos, bread of the dead, often made in the shape of bones. 
At once, both a somber joyous celebration, Dia de Muertos is a colorful and exciting festival not to be missed. . .  and now you have a chance to join in.


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P.S. Before you go, pick up a copy of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, which includes, yes indeed, several stories about los muertos. And while you're at it, download the Kindle of Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution.

>Visit Madam Mayo's guest-blog archive, which includes John Kachuba's guest-blog from 2012, Five Literary Ghosts. Other recent guest-bloggers include Lisa Carter's Five Tastes of Spain for Armchair Travelers and  Jim Johnston's Five Things to See in Mexico City's Historic Center with Your Feet Off the Ground


Monday, January 20, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Cryptocurrency Edition

Back in the Pleistocene I used to work as an economist, so in my armchair capacity I still take an interest in certain topics. A conversation about Bitcoin with a fellow economist got me thinking... is there anything new under the sun? (Must youth be ever-callow?) Naiveté abounds, yea, even amongst the grey-suited poobahs of the European Monetary Union (daft from the get-go, monetary union without the girding of fiscal policy union; the consequences took a while to manifest, but indeed they have).

Herewith a batch of links on Bitcoin, mostly from the excellent Marginal Revolution blog:
The Economics of Bitcoin
How and Why Bitcoin Will Plummet in Price
China and the Soaring Price of Bitcoin
On the Future of Dogecoin, Bitcoin, and Other Cryptocurrencies
China Moves Against Bitcoin
The Marginal Cost of Cryptocurrency
Bitcoin-like Innovations without Cryptocurrency
Recommended reading:
Ponzi's Scheme
And this might seem far-afield, but not really: The Art Crowd


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Paper vs Digital: The Three Stages (So Far) of Awareness

Digital vs Paper?
1. Not aware, not interested, love my paper.

Profile: would not use a Kindle if you paid them. Hates that grandchildren and pedestrians are constantly distracted by their hand-held devices. Uses one easy to remember password for everything, on a scrap of paper tucked under the keyboard. Off-line for days, even weeks at a time; otherwise, constantly telephoning grandchild for help with computer.

2. Wow, digital is way cool and totally better!

Profile: hasn't picked up a paper book or magazine in 3 years. With FB, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, expert at the zombie-thumb-twiddling-sidewalk-shuffle. 1984, huh? Oh, that, tl;dr. Stores all passwords on downloadable encryption sw.

3. Not so fast, grasshopper.

The French offer a little humor on the subject.

More anon.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Sherlock Holmes and Spiritualism

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on
(this is a screenshot; does not link)
What a rich resource is! I'm on there almost daily, researching one or another other of my writing projects. Recently I surfed upon a ten minute video on of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talking about his novels and-- starting about 5 minutes in-- Spiritualism. It was such fun to watch the rare footage of this long-ago best-selling novelist (I say, that accent is infectious!). Had Francisco I. Madero survived his presidency (alas he took a bullet in the back of head in February 1913), I am quite he would have heartily applauded this chat.

(Speaking of which, book update: My Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual, is out in Kindle and still.... ayyy.... still... almost ready for paperback. Any day now, any day. And the Spanish edition, translated by Agustín Cadena as Odisea metafísica hacia la Revolución Mexicana, Francisco I. Madero y su libro secreto, Manual espírita, my editor tells me, will be available in mid-February.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also the author of The History of Spiritualism  (free ebook on

More about and rare books anon.

***UPDATE: A couple of interesting pieces in Lapham's Quarterly:
Miles Klee Sherlock Holmes in Fairyland
A.N. Denver The Father and Son Who Belived in Fairies


Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Visit to Swan House: Presidio Texas' Unique Adobe Teaching House Inspired by the Legacy of Hassan Fathy

My article for Cenizo Journal, winter 2013, is now available on my webpage.  (I read this and did a Q & A for PEN San Miguel de Allende, listen in anytime here.)

I first spied it from a Jeep on Casa Piedra Road: a huddle of oddly shaped brown buildings baking in the sun. I'd arrived at its modest gate after a mile and a bit of crunching over gravel up from the Rio Grande near Presidio on the U.S.-Mexico border. What interested me then—I was just starting my book on far West Texas, focusing on the probable route of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the would-be conquistador of Florida who got lost—was the landscape. Such raw, open vistas were easy to imagine seeing through that ill-starred Spaniard's eyes. From a cloudless dome, the February sun beat down on the rocks and tangles of mesquite and clumps of prickly pear cactus, and ocotillo that stretched on for what must have been, for anyone on foot, a merciless number of miles. To the northwest loomed the bulk of the Chinatis, to the east, the jagged and lavender Bofecillos, and into Mexico, the Sierra Grande.

..."That's Simone Swan's house."

...My guide, Charlie Angell, brought down the window to show me the object, until then mysterious to me, of our detour. He'd been showing me the sights along the Rio Grande- the Hoodoos, Closed Canyon, and the narrow shallows in the river at Lajitas where Cabeza de Vaca, then nearly eight years into his odyssey, may have waded across. Even today, in many places along the river, you could walk right up to its bank, pitch a stone, and it would thunk onto someone's alfalfa field in Mexico. Coming up Casa Piedra Road, we'd seen no one-just a flash of a jackrabbit. Already Charlie was making the U-turn back to Presidio.

..."It's Egyptian," he added.

...This, in a land of décor inspired by what I had come to think of as Ye Olde Cowboys & Indians, struck me like thunder. Well, was it like the inside of a Disneyland ride? Did she worship Isis? Once home, I Googled.

...Simone Swan, it turned out, is an adobe visionary with a distinguished career in the arts, including many years with Houston's Menil Foundation; her house, not Egyptian, exactly, nor a whim, but a work-in-progress used by her Adobe Alliance, a nonprofit for teaching earthen design and construction. And the Egyptian influence? Hassan Fathy.

...Not Fathy as in "Cathy," as an Egyptian acquaintance was quick to correct me, but Foh'tee.

...Another Google search bought up his book, published by the University of Chicago Press in translation from the French, Construir avec le peuple, as Architecture for the Poor. When I got my hands on a copy, I learned that Fathy was Egypt's greatest 20th century architect, renowned for rescuing ancient architectural features and techniques for building with mud brick, a material he passionately advocated for as abundant, and, when used appropriately, comfortable, ecological, sanitary, and beautiful.
In his photo, he might have passed for an elderly Mexican lawyer with his halo of gray hair, mustache, red turtleneck and poncho-like burnouse. He squinted from behind his glasses in an expression at once pained and kind—entirely understable once I learned of his battles with the Egyptian bureaucracy, then enamored of Soviet-style steel and concrete housing, and his nonetheless unyielding commitment to building housing for and with the fellaheen, the peasants who lived in abject poverty.

...Born in 1900 into a wealthy family in Alexandria, Fathy did not set foot on one of his own family's many farms until he was in his twenties, and when he did, the wretchedness of its workers' houses shocked him. His solution, in part, was to build with better design and mud brick. Mud could be dug up easily, bricks could formed of the mud, animal dung, and a bit of straw, and then left to bake in the sun. The challenge was the cost of timber for roofing and, for brick vaults, timber for propping them up during construction. Egypt imported its timber from Europe. Then World War II broke out.

...Ancient Egyptians built vaults, many of which had survived for hundreds, even thousands of years, without using wood, but how? Every one of Fathy's attempts to construct a roof without wood collapsed in a heap of bricks and dust. But then his brother, who was working on the Aswan dam, mentioned that the Nubians, the dark-skinned people of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, roofed their houses and mosques without using wood.

In an a matter of two visits to Aswan, Hassan Fathy found the masons, barefoot and in turbans, who showed him their technique of roofing by means of parabola-shaped layers of adobe bricks laid at an angle against a back wall. The bricks had extra straw for lightness, and a groove, made by the scrape of a finger before they'd dried, on one side, so as to give the mortared brick "grab." Mortar was a mix of sand, clay, and water. Using no tools other than an adze, and a plank for scaffolding, two men threw up a fine mud-brick roof over a 10' x 13' room in one and a half days.

...Marveled Fathy, "It was so unbelievably simple."

...When Simone Swan was living in New York, a house with two courtyards came to her in a dream. And it seemed like a dream to me that, less than a year after I'd first glimpsed Swan House from the road, I was sitting with its owner in the Nubian vault that was the living room, the shell high above us aglow with the orange light of morning. A graceful eighty-something with a crown of snow-white hair, Simone Swan was telling me how, at mid-life in the 1970s, she had gone to Paris for the Menil Foundation's exihibition of the surrealist Max Ernst's paintings, and at a dinner party, met a filmmaker who had just wrapped a documentary on the world's greatest architect.

...Simone laughed. "I said, Hassan Who?"   . . . . CONTINUE READING

Thursday, January 09, 2014

My Uncool "Cool Tool": Grandma's Recipe Box Solution to Internet Password Management

The uncoolest "Cool Tool" ever?
A super cheap & easy-to-grok paper system ideal for some people.
Personal organizers take note.
Since I know many of you who follow Madam Mayo are writers, and many are my workshop participants, guys, this one's for you.


Oh, what a chuckle I had the other day morning to find my post about Grandma's Recipe Box Solution to Password Management on Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog. Though I admit, I was dismayed by the  torrent of grouchy comments. After having published several books, I'm an old war horse for this sort of thing, but this time, ouch, even as I chuckled, I took a little shrapnel. Since I thought it might be useful for other writers, here's the backstory-- and the two lessons for me as a writer, as I see them.

Backstory: I'm a huge fan of Kelly's Cool Tools blog. Featured tools range from the beautiful free ebook, Butterick's Practical Typography, to the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Charcoal Starter (a $15 miracle), a solar lamp,  a book on how to grow your own seeds, and the $600 Hilty PX-10 Transporter. Whether high-tech or low-tech, new or ancient, it's a blog about tools-- whatever works. So when I saw a call out for Cool Tool blog posts, I thought, ah ha, I'll write up my low-tech, super cheap but amazingly useful desk tool: a plastic recipe box and index cards for keeping track of my ever-proliferating Internet passwords. In its humble way, this system works beautifully for me. I remember how I used to struggle to keep all the many email addresses and passwords in some semblance of order-- and how others I know struggle with that, too. (For instance, one relative keeps his passwords on Post-Its stuck to his computer monitor, another pins them to a bulletin board by his desk, and another, alas, keeps them, or rather it, in her head: the same easy-to-remember password for everything.)

I dashed off my Cool Tools blog post in about 5 minutes. The blog editor said he liked it, send more.

Well, fine for my ego, but I had not stopped to consider my readers. (Which is ironic; I just spent most of this year thinking very deeply and very carefully about my audience for a book about a controversial and, for some, disturbing subject.) Distracted by the holidays, I just hit that "submit" button to Cool Tools as sunny, helpful me. And as my readers here at Madam Mayo-- also a sunny, helpful and literary bunch-- would probably appreciate it, so I thought, oh, I'll just rerun the Cool Tools post on Madam Mayo when it comes out, two birds with one stone.

If I'd thought about it for, like, thirty seconds, it would have occurred to me that, not all, but probably most readers of the Cool Tools blog are younger, tech-savvy guys-- or at least they want to see themselves that way, surfing in for their daily dose of cool. And a blog post about Grandma's recipe box method for keeping Internet passwords would most likely rub their fur the wrong way. 

A head-slapper, I know.

Immediately comments came in like, April's Fool Day, right? And, Did Cool Tools get hacked?

The multitude of indignant comments have not enlightened me about using encrypted on-line services for managing Internet passwords; I knew all about that back when. (I didn't grow up in Palo Alto for nothing.) And I can certainly understand that mobility-- having one's passwords in the palm of one's hand at all times-- is key for many people (you know who are, texting in your sleep). For many, their office is the last place they'd want to leave all their passwords. And, gosh, some people seem to think their house could burn down at any moment!! (Could be true if they live in Malibu.)

I do love my Internet password management system, I stand by it, and I am confident-- and subsequent, more positive, commenters have noted-- that it could work well for many people. But if I could rewrite the opening of my Cool Tools blog post, I would have said:

This is a low-tech and easy-to-grok system for those with the following profile:
* A less than photographic memory; 
* An appreciation for the need to use unique and difficult-to-guess passwords for their various Internet accounts (shopping, blog, twitter, FB, YouTube, websites, etc); 
* No (or a very low) need for digital access away from one's desk;
* A highly secure and private home office or studio;
* An appreciation for why the KGB recently bought typewriters.
So this system might not be for you-- though it just might be for someone you care about who fits this profile. 

The lesson is not that such an opening could have avoided negative comments. It's a free country (or at least pretends to be), different people have different opinions, and if some have nothing better to do than spew in the comments section of a blog, well, may they be Buddha in their next incarnation. When writers publish, whether in print or on-line, there are always reactions of all kinds. Taking negative comments seriously, ruminating about them, that's an amateur's game. But when comments do bother me... and the overall tone of these did... it's because some part of me knows I could have done better. In this instance-- lesson number one-- I could have more respectfully considered my probable audience.

Or, as Grandma would have put it, not everyone likes duck stew, but whatever you do, don't serve it cold.

What's the second lesson? Under the crap, find the pony. The comments of those so indignant at the uncoolness of my paper-based system got me thinking: why paper? And what's the problem with assuming a digital solution is always superior? Later that afternoon, I went for a walk and couldn't help noticing how many people were shuffling along like zombies, twiddling their thumbs on their hand-helds. And it occurred to me that old-fashioned paper systems-- when appropriate for the user-- can, ironically, serve as the most avant garde of tools to help loosen the digital leash.

That is my next Cool Tools blog post, if they'll have it: The Filofax planner.

Key idea: the power of organization in service of a productive and creative life-- a life requiring digital prowess, yet rich with large swaths of digital-free time. How to balance that, the digital and the digital-free? On other words, how to leave the hand-held at home and yet remain on-the-ball? Highly efficient paper systems can come in.

I'm also thinking about how this ties into collections of rare books. It's all about organizing, organizing as adding information.

More anon.

P.S. More on writing down passwords.


Monday, January 06, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Butterphilia Edition

Weston Price Foundation on Why Butter is Better

Food Renegade on Why Butter is a Heath Food


My favorite pudding recipe which, of course, includes butter.

The Guardian on butter

Seth Roberts weighs in:
Arithmetic and Butter
Acquired Butterphilia
Butter and Heart Attacks in Sweden

One of these days my book, Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution, really will be out in paperback. Still fiddling with the cover and the maps. It's been a long day. Now for some butter.

COMMENTS (If you're a margarine person, don't bother.)

Friday, January 03, 2014

Bruce Berger's The End of the Sherry

I like to say that books are thought-capsules that can travel through time and space-- e.g., here I am rereading Cabeza de Vaca's 16th century Naúfragos, his memoir of (who'd a thunkit?) far West Texas, and other yonder beyonds. But the fact is, thanks to our books, we writers often make friendships in the here and now. Bruce Berger is one such. He's the author of Almost an Island, one of my very favorite travel memoirs, as well as a passel of other works about Baja California and the deserts of the southwest United States. When my book about Baja California, Miraculous Air, came out in 2002 and apropos of that he-- out of the blue-- sent me an autographed copy of his latest, Sierra, Sea and Desert: El Vizcaíno, well, though we hadn't yet met in person, we were good friends. 

So what shows up in my mailbox this Christmas but his autographed latest, The End of the Sherry-- and just as with Almost an Island, as I read, I am not only in awe of his poetic prose, but laughing out loud at one thing or another on almost every page. 

The End of the Sherry is his coming of age as an artist story-- set all the way back in the 1960s, when he played piano in Spain for three years. With his love for music, enthusiasm for travel, his poetry, appreciation for beauty, for the quirks and peculiarities of all kinds of people, and always served up with that scrumptiously puckish sense of humor... reading Berger is the best way to start out the new year.