Pen Pals

One of my best writing decisions had nothing to do with writing at all. It involved listing my e-mail address in the back of my books. I wanted to make it easy for Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese to acquire the movie rights for an ungodly sum.

Neither of those gentlemen has contacted me yet. But, as a nice unintended consequence, I’ve developed a network of pen pals from all over the world. Somehow, my books have accumulated more frequent flyer miles than I have. At various times, I’ve corresponded with readers from Italy, Germany and Japan (and that’s just the former Axis powers). I also have a standing invitation to visit an e-friend who lives on a vineyard in Australia. I haven’t taken him up on it yet because it’s too far to go for a long weekend.

But my favorite e-mail buddy by far is George Bergin. George, who happens to be a Las Vegas ex-pat, lives in a village about 40 clicks (that sounds cool, although I have no idea what a “click” is) from Cabo San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula. I never knew George when he lived here, but a mutual friend sent him a copy of “Dice Angel” back in 2002, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. I came very close to meeting him once, when my wife and I took a cruise to Cabo. But I screwed up our meeting place and we never connected in person. George, gracious guy that he is, instantly forgave me (which made me feel even worse).

George has lived in Mexico long enough to change the spelling of his name to “Jorge.” One of the reasons we get along so well is that he’s a terrific writer. He’s way too modest to say it, but he could be the John Steinbeck of Baja if he were so inclined.

I asked him to send me a short bio and here’s what he wrote:

“Both my wife and I had insurance jobs in Las Vegas. Fifteen years ago, we quit and retired to a small Mexican fishing village. We love to fish, love the tropics and opted for early retirement. Mexico was close and friendly and cheap. It all worked out for us just as we had planned. I was 58, Lynda was 52, so we still had the strength and youth and energy we needed to start fresh in a brand new place with a new lifestyle. You can’t fish everyday, so after awhile I taught myself to write fiction as a hobby. It was fun and frustrating, but in the end I now have a considerable body of work; more than 200 short stories and essays, two books. I haven’t tried to publish the manuscripts (about Mexico), but I have sold many of the stories to magazine and E-zines.

Here, reprinted with Jorge’s permission, is one of them:


Yesterday the beach was a miniature war zone. Squadrons of dragonflies, wave after wave of tiny helicopters, strafed the beach, making a million sorties as though they followed some unseen leader with orders to move west but stay between the shore and the palms. The mission: find and eat every small bug.

While I was pretending to be a heroic war correspondent risking my neck to give the world real time sights and sounds of the action along the beachhead, two Mexican fishing boats roared through the surf and up onto the beach. Pepe and his brothers said their hellos. Pepe said the sigarones, the dragonflies, signaled rain. When I asked him when we could expect the rain, he answered with his grinning-pirate look which said it pleased him to be vague.

His brother Juan said they come out after a rain. Juan had the look and demeanor of a Mexican Archie Bunker. Whom should I believe? If we throw out the miserly constraints of time, they were both right.

This is how I spend my time in Mexico—having to choose between two or more answers to every question. The land may be mostly implacable granite and prickly cactus, but it is pure quicksand for anyone looking for a hard-and-fast answer to anything.

To better communicate, I have forced myself to be a better listener. I have not learned enough. I use the words siempre and nunca, always and never, as the conversation dictates. These words are rarely spoken in this pueblo—perhaps used little in all of Mexico. In a land where nothing is what it appears to be, I should expect to hear probables and posibles, a vezes, quisás mañana. (probably, possibly, at times, perhaps tomorrow) The language demonstrates the basic fatalistic view of the Mexican people. Fatalism defines the culture, pervades every sector of society.

The bending and warping of time is not culturally unique, but it stands out like a cockroach on a wedding cake when compared to the atomic clock exactitudes we Americans are so proud of—the “seventeen jewels that dictate the rules.”

The western world misinterprets the Mexican time view and world view, and therefore sees the Mexican people as non-productive and lazy. Time, taken in the abstract, the Mexican way, offsets the Judeo/Christian stigma of guilt. Time-bending allows Mexicans to  enjoy the leisure and forgiveness of a mas or menos¸ more or less attitude about how they run their daily lives. Being a day early or three days late does not call for a trip to the confessional, a single mea culpa. When two compadres joke with one another, the word lazy, flojo, is often used, but it evokes laughter, not scorn.

Only now, after spending a few years in Mexico, am I beginning to understand and appreciate the subtlety of these quirks of culture. One day I may reap some of the benefits myself. I won’t bore you with a long list of wonderful side effects, but we can both feel the obvious orgullo de patria, country pride, a Mexican worker must feel, arriving a week late for work, upon learning that his whole crew was laid off several days ago.