Sunday, February 24, 2013

Travel Tales: Zacatecas, Mexico

Five or six years ago, I was having a drink with friends I hadn't seen in a while. Ellen asked me what I had been doing lately, so I told her about a trip I was going to take the following weekend. I was planning to drive about 225 miles north to explore the city of Zacatecas in the state by the same name.

Ellen told me that she and her husband had planned to travel a lot when they moved to Mexico, but they didn't speak much Spanish and were worried that they would have problems. They wished that they were brave enough to travel around like I do. I said, "Well, why don't you come with me?" She looked at her husband who said, "Sure. Go. Have fun!" So the following week we were off.

The worst part of the drive was going through Guadalajara - a long trip with lots of traffic through an area of town that was new to me. The city just kept going on and on forever, it seemed, but at least I had a navigator. Finally, we left the city behind and dropped down into the barrancas - the huge canyons on the north side of Guadalajara. It was the rainy season, so we dropped into a rain forest with waterfalls plummeting down both sides of the canyon. Unfortunately, there was no place to pull over to enjoy the view or take photos.


About an hour shy of Zacatecas, we came to the town of Jerez, in which Lonely Planet says "saddle-bound rancheros drink outside the saloons." It seemed like a good place to stop for lunch.

After a nice traditional lunch, we decided to explore Jerez a bit before continuing our journey. As we headed toward the cathedral - which is always a good place to start exploring a Mexican town - we saw a couple men ride by dressed in very nice charro suits. They each had a can of beer! Lonely Planet was right!

We continued toward the cathedral and found many more dressed-up men on horseback. They were lined up facing the entrance of the cathedral. It turned out that there was a wedding going on and they were waiting to greet the new bride and groom when they came out. The church must have been full of their wives.


Zacatecas is famous for it's silver mines. The local natives had already begun mining here before the Spanish arrived. 

When the conquistadors found out about it, they didn't waste any time moving in a taking over. In the days when the Spanish ruled, the mines around Zacatecas supplied 20% of the silver that was being sent back to Spain. 

The center of the town is dominated by the cathedral which was built in the first half of the 18th century. The front is covered with detailed carvings in the Mexican baroque style.

The photo above, of the side and back, was taken from our hotel. Unfortunately, we never found a good place to get a shot of the whole front of the building.

There are many colonial buildings around the town, but I find that I prefer the ones that are not much more than ruins. 

I am intrigued by all of the arches that are left standing for many years after the rest is falling down. It demonstrates how important all of those arches were to the overall integrity of the buildings.

I'm pretty sure that this is the former Templo de Santo Domingo. (Sorry, it's been a long time.)

All of these photos of arches were taken here. I felt like I could just walk around in here all day exploring this wonderful old place.


Very near the Templo is the Museo Pedro Coronel. This museum is in an old Jesuit college and contains one of Mexico's best art museums, including 20th century works by Chagall, Miro, Picasso, and Kandinsky.

Later, we found our way to the Museo Rafael Coronel, who was a brother of Pedro and son-in-law of Diego Rivera.

The best part of this museum is the 3,000+ masks that were used in traditional ceremonies and dances. (I hear there are 7,000 more in storage.)


Another highlight of our trip was a ride on the Teleferico from one hillside to the top of La Bufa - the hill on the other side of town.
Ellen and I had to make a decision - the mine tour or the teleferico that crosses high above the city. I have claustrophobia and she has a fear of heights. I offered to wait while she did the mine tour, but she decided that she could handle the ride through the sky.
As we crowded onto the big car, I mentioned to the "driver" that she was afraid of heights. He immediately began a conversation with her that, with language and accent difficulties, took all of her concentration to keep up. Almost before she even realized that we had left, we arrived on the other side. She had a pleasant conversation and I saw wonderful views of the city.
We still had a short walk up the hill to get to the monuments and museum at the top of La Bufa. It was still fairly early, and the Huichol Indians were preparing to sell their goods on the side of the path.
It was interesting to see the women line up and sweep the entire width of the road at the same time. That should help keep the dust off of their merchandise.
Back in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution, the government had control of Zacatecas with 12,000 troops. Pancho Villa rode into town with a much smaller group and was able to outsmart the unsuspecting government forces.
The people of Zacatecas were very happy and have commemorated the event with a museum on top of La Bufa.
Revolutionary heroes are venerated all over Mexico, and the children just love to dress up and pretend they were part of it.
Ellen and I had a wonderful trip, but, more important, she learned that it really is possible to explore Mexico with very little knowledge of the language. Although I get much more out of it because I can understand what is going on around me, the Mexican people are really very patient with anyone who tries to communicate. and there is often someone around who can help.
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Monday, February 18, 2013

"Do What You Love..."

"...And you'll never work a day in your life."  In my mind, this is referring to creative things: writing, drawing, painting, quilting - and it's a big lie. But I'll get to that in a few minutes.

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I never went to art school. All of my life, but especially since high school, I have loved making art. I should have gone to art school. Actually, I should have gone to any college way back when I graduated from high school. But I didn't see that as a possibility for me back then.

I did finally go to college when I was 38. I started in a community college and then transferred to a university. But I never took a single art class.

I wanted to. I always paid attention when they set up student art projects in one of the galleries on campus. I always told myself that I could do that, too. Sometimes I even went home and made my own version of whatever I had seen.

But then I told myself that, no, I had to major in something that I could make a living from. So I graduated with Distinguished Honors with a degree in Multi-Ethnic Studies.
And then I opened a quilt shop.

Art as a Business

It was an accident that got me interested in quilting. I took a class in Folklore and my class project was a paper about my mother's quilting group. But to make my project really good, I decided that I should show the steps for making a quilt. By the time I finished that project, I was a quilter.

This was in the early 1990s and the popularity of quilting was growing like crazy. the more I learned, the more I realized that it actually made a lot of sense to open a quilt shop. I did the research and opened my shop before I had even graduated. (I only needed a couple more credits, though, so it was easy to finish.)

I was very much a beginner when I opened that shop, but I worked eighty hours a week to get it going and learn what I needed to know. I loved quilting. I loved working with fabrics. I loved trying every new idea that someone came up with. I loved helping customers choose fabrics. I loved teaching quilting classes. But I hated running that shop! I hated all of the time I had to "waste" running the business - dealing with paperwork and employee problems. I hated the business part of the business.

So I got rid of the business. But I kept on making quilts. I still taught at quilt shops and other venues. I still earned my living by doing custom machine quilting out of my home. And I was selling quilts through a cooperative art gallery. That was fun while it lasted. Then I "retired."

The problem is, being an artist is not something that you can retire from. It is in your soul, something that never goes away. So I kept on making quilts because I just couldn't seem to stop. Then one day I looked around my studio and realized that I have over a hundred quilts - many finished and many in various stages of construction.

What in the world am I going to do with all of these quilts? I told myself that I could try selling them via the internet, so I started my other blog. The problem is, once again, it is a business. I find that I can't get myself interested even in dealing with posting the photos and information to sell the darned things. I know I have to get it done, and I will one of these days, but that isn't what I want to write about here.

Art for the Love of It

I just read a book called Art Schooled: A Year among Prodigies, Rebels, and Visionaries at a World-Class Art College. The author follows students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Of course, this really made me regret that I didn't go to art school way back when. I would have loved being immersed in that environment!

The book describes the classes the students are taking and the projects they do for those classes. It got me thinking about all of the art books I have in my home library.  I have art history books, books about famous artists, books about how to make art - lots of different types of art. I practically have my own art school right here in my home.

The only thing I don't have is the critiques and feedback. But that is the wonderful thing about being retired and making art just because I love making art. It doesn't matter if anyone else likes it as long as I have fun making it.

I'm not making quilts anymore; that seems like too much like work to me now. But I am enjoying learning about different styles of art and art movements through the years. And I don't have to take a test later to see what I've learned. I am learning more and more about drawing and watercolors. I've decided to use some of my photos from my travels as inspiration. I'm looking forward to "studying" Paul Cezanne while I stay for two months in his home town of Aix-en-Provence.

Right now I'm working on a sketch of the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain. If I like how it turns out, I'll add some colored pencil to the sketch. If I still like it, I might even share it with you. But if you aren't impressed, I don't want to hear about it. That's the best thing about it - I'm doing it for myself and I don't have to please anyone but myself.

What is Your Dream?

One of the wonderful things about being retired is that we don't (hopefully) have to earn a living. We can each do whatever we want to do. We can follow our forgotten dreams from our younger days.

It isn't important that you like what I'm doing, whether it's what I write here or what I draw. When I'm writing my blog, I'm writing what is important to me or what is on my mind today. Sure, it would be nice if you care enough about what I write that you want to continue reading, but I will continue writing whether you come back or not.

That works just the same for you. What is important is that you do what you've always wanted to do. Don't worry about whether you are good enough. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. The only thing that matters is that you are having fun doing it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Vi Hart

I just found out about the amazing Vi Hart yesterday when my friend sent me a link to one of her videos. That video led to another and then another and another. Now I'm addicted and can't stop watching these videos. I think you will react the same way when you see them.

And if you already know about Vi Hart, why in the world didn't you tell me about her sooner?

The thing about these videos that makes me really mad is that if I had seen them fifty years ago it would probably have led to a major change in my life. I would have stayed interested in school. I would have continued getting straight As. I would have realized at a young age that math and science are so interesting. I would have gone straight from high school to college instead of waiting until I was almost forty to rediscover how wonderful learning can be.

I found three ways to see Vi's stuff. The first is at is her blog. The second is through Khan Academy. And the third is on You Tube. These may get you the same videos or they may have some different ones, so check them all out.

This is the shortest post I have ever written, but I hope you will use your usual reading time to watch some of these videos. I promise that you won't be sorry you did.

And if you know about other sites like this, please send me a comment to let me know about them. And if you know anyone young, male or female, please share these sites with them. I know they will love them and it might change their lives in time to make a difference.

Have fun!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

What is Happiness?

I'm in the middle of reading Search Inside Yourself by Google software engineer-turned-guru Chade-Meng Tan. He teaches meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness, and compassion classes to Google employees. His discussion of "joyful mindfulness" got me thinking about happiness: What is it? How do we get it? Am I happy? Are you?

Great thinkers have been trying to come up with a definition pretty much forever, but I wonder if a single definition can really define happiness. Maybe it is something different for each of us. Or maybe not.

Eric Hoffer said that the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness. I can see his point. If we are always looking for something we don't have and expecting its acquisition to make us happy, we are bound to fail.

Descartes said "Happiness does not consist in acquiring the things we think will make us happy, but in learning to like doing the things we have to do anyway."

Many years ago, a friend of my mom had a sign on her wall that read "Bloom where you are planted." I guess that was a 60s version of Descarte. I never really understood that sign when I was young, but it makes perfect sense to me now.

We can't control everything in our lives, but I think happiness is something we can control. We can focus on the bad stuff in our lives and feel miserable, or we can choose to concentrate on the good stuff and feel happy. It is a decision that we make constantly.

There are always people who believe they will be happy when they have enough money. But what is enough? Beyond the basic needs, having more money only brings a little bit more happiness. Think about people in the news that you know have lots of money. Do they really seem happy? Or do they have more problems in their lives than you've ever dreamed possible? The problem is, there is always something else, something bigger, something better. When does it stop?

In Sociology 101 I learned about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - a pyramid with real needs at the bottom: food, clothing, and shelter. These are things that we all need, and it would be pretty hard to be  happy without them. But once we have those basic needs covered, we can turn our attention to the top of the pyramid: self-actualization - love, understanding, happiness, a feeling of being really alive, self-sufficient and yet still a part of the world.

A psychological definition of happiness might include the pleasure we get from eating wonderful meals, taking warm baths, or having a massage; being engaged in some challenging activity that we enjoy; having close relationships with friends and family; feeling that our lives have meaning, with goals to achieve and opportunities for growth; and the pride of accomplishment, successfully reaching our goals.

The Buddhist religion teaches that unhappiness, or suffering, comes from always wanting something we don't have, and happiness comes from overcoming those cravings. That doesn't mean that you can't set a goal and work toward it; but don't let it take over your life and make you miserable. Instead, concentrate on developing opportunities for loving kindness and compassion in your life. A desire for the happiness and welfare of all beings can bounce right back to you. You get what you give. It's your karma.

Besides, helping those in need can show you just how wonderful your life really is.