5/20/04 Interview with Michael Wein, publisher of SMA OnLine, mostly because he was available.
Interviewer: A lot of people have been asking, who is this strange person, Michael Wein. A lot of people see you as an enigma. Let's start with some of the small and easy stuff.
Michael Wein: Well, I was born in Elizabeth NJ 60-some years ago and nothing much happened until I got to San Miguel.
I: Oh, come now, ------- well anyway, how did you get here, I mean, what brought you here?
M: I was looking for a new place to visit and I heard San Miguel was a university town with an art colony. Coming from NJ and NY, I pictured Princeton and Greenwich Village in my mind. So my travel agent took my money, booked the trip, and then told me that it was an 8-hour slow train trip from Mexico City to San Miguel. Floored, because I pictured a 45-minute cab ride from the airport to town, I almost told the agent to "keep the money, I'm not going". Since that trip definitely changed my life, I think it is fascinating that it almost did not happen at all. And, you might notice that I was not very good at "picturing" anything very well, certainly not what to expect here.
I: And then ...
M: Well, I got here (it turned out to be a much shorter deluxe bus ride in 1993 and it is even shorter now) and the first thing I found was that my hotel (Puertecita Centro) was about six horrendous uphill blocks away from el jardin (I had figured on a tiny town with a Centro-named hotel to be overlooking the center of town) and that San Miguel streets were much steeper than I imagined. A woman, Meta, that I had met at a Club Med, had arranged to meet me here - she had been here for over a month at this time and was studying Spanish - and she dragged me around town, huffing and puffing - not her - me - Meta was from Switzerland and was used to the altitude - I was from sea level Manhattan and our first evening was sort of a panting (but not the kind I was looking for) washout. The second day, after being awakened by what I first thought was a war zone - all those gun shots from nearby - then the returning gun shots from further away - I just stayed inside until it was over. When I peered outside to see who was dead and who had won the skirmish, truly frightened by how my stupid vacation plans were turning out, I found some people walking the streets as if nothing had happened. I did not find out until later that the gun shots were firecrackers and they were celebrating my arrival ------- you look surprised? --------- well, what else? --------- anyway, no one else seemed to know what they were celebrating.
I: So you were relieved?
M: I would say so. Hemingway I'm not (actually that applies to both my writing AND my bravery). I pretty much become a wuss the second I hear gunshots.
I: What happened next?
M: Since Meta had to study during the day, I was left on my own, plopped down smack in the middle of a park called El Jardin. It did not take long to meet many people - surprisingly they all understood English - and before you know it I was invited to a party. Ahhhh, my chance to get to meet Mexicans. When we got to the party, I marveled at the fact that there were so few Mexicans in San Miguel. Meta, apparently somewhat smarter or maybe just more experienced with San Miguel than I, told me that the gringos hung out together and this was a gringo party. Ahh-ha, another revelation. Anyway, to shorten this interview, let's skip to the chase. On my third day here - I was later told that this was "magic day" - I decided I just might love to live here. No, I didn't buy a house like some, nor did I make a decision at that time, but I did put into my mind a plan that would get me here almost two years to the day after I made the original decision. Actually, I visited three times in between, the last time being a six month stay "just to be sure".
I: But you were working in New York. Your life was in New York. How did you end that?
M: It was surprisingly easy. Fickle me, someone who loved living in Manhattan, just fell in love with the really new woman in my life, San Miguel de Allende. I slowly resigned all of my clients, I unhesitantly bored all the people I knew with endless tales of this new place, and I sold my mid-town co-op very near the bottom of the housing market. But I was in love and, I've heard, love conquers all. Well, it never worked quite like that in my interpersonal relationships with women, but being in love with a town, well, that's another thing. And so, off I went ..................... off to Mexico ............ on April 26, 1995 (and, unbeknownst to me at that time, never to return to the USA through, at least, the day of this interview).
I: You ARE a strange person.
M: So I keep hearing.
I: What did you do about old friends?
M: At first, whether I was renting or later when I owned a house, I had a guest room just in case. But, it IS a long trip -- 14 hours door to door when I myself came here from New York -- and I don't now get as many visitors as I did when I first moved here. That is the only part of New York I still miss. Friends. They say to come visit them in New York and I just don't do that. I've been known to plan a trip to New York months before the fact and as I near the time to actually do it, I just slowly lose my enthusiasm. San Miguel is my home and my heart is here. New York remains a fantastic memory and I still get excited about it from time to time as I see Manhattan as the location of so many American movies which are shown here.
I: So you don't miss anything about the USA except long-lost friends?
M: Yeah, well, that, and good Chinese food from almost any NY restaurant, and the NY Times delivered to my doorstep the day it comes out, and that's about it.
I: How do you spend your time here?
M: Strangely enough, I've pretty much given up sleeping. In all honesty, I don't need much sleep and normally sleep between midnight and 4am or so. I spend the rest of the time living my life. There are just so many things that I do that I like to do. By 5am, I am ready for the day. I exercise first thing in the morning, and then just attend to the things I have to AND want to do. There is this online newspaper, the MPWC Foundation and the estate planning that goes with it, my mutual fund, my house and employees, communication on all of these things to all kinds of people. Except for a mid-day break that I generally take in or around the Jardin where I sit and wait to photograph things and await other serendipitous happenings , and which time includes lunch generally by myself so I can do more reading, I work at things from morning until evening and sometimes late into the night. Although I call it work, it is enjoyable unpaid work and I love it. Actually, I wish I had more time because there is even more work I'd like to do, like sculpting, creating a Toastmasters organization, bettering my Spanish, even more reading, and more movies (I love movies) and I'd like more time just for thinking. Of course, the thinking always gets me in trouble because then there are more things to do.
I: What do you like about San Miguel?
M: Originally, I loved the huge availability of theatre here. I once calculated that if you counted every English language "production" in one year, including The Playreaders, The Shakespeare Readers, The Players Workshop, and all of the other groups that put on productions, there were about 60 different productions in an average year. Wow, even now that astounds me. But what I like most is that if there is anything at all that you want to do, you can do it here, as long as you are willing to create and promote it yourself. I've started things as diverse as a comedy improvisation group, a discussions group, a consciousness raising group, an investing with computers group, as well as indulging in my own private interests like sculpting, a charitable foundation, and recently an online newspaper.
I: And what do you dislike about San Miguel?
M: Mostly the talking about other people by gossipy people who don't really have any idea of what and why things are being done and what motivates the people who are doing those things. This town draws unique people, unique in so many different (and generally good) ways. The key word, though is "different". Just being different should not be the core reason for such misunderstandings and the resultant gossip about people. The creativity of people in this town sometimes takes a bad turn when they create fictions about people that have no connection with reality. Years ago, when I was new in town, I heard two stories about me in one 7-day week. The stories were going around and apparently believed by some people. I wonder what these people thought, if indeed they did think, when they heard that I was gay ------- and they also heard that I had raped some woman ----- hey, give me a break, could I be that (well, I don't know what to call it) that I could be both in one week? I never thought I'd have to say it, but, for the record, I can unequivocally say I'm not gay AND I'm not a rapist. Other than that gossip problem, I guess most things are pretty great here. Oh, yes, there IS one more thing that gets me. As I said before, there are many creative people in this town and they come up with good suggestions every day on almost every thing. But, I don't understand why they don't do something about these ideas themselves. All executives, and no workers, will never get anything accomplished.
I: And, how about you? What are you hiding?
M: Wow. That's not a fair question. But, OK, let's see where it leads. Although I am loud and boisterous in print, I am really very shy and quiet in person. There is a gentle side that never seems to find its way into whatever I seem to write. It is a defect that I've struggled with all my life. I am intimidated by people who, in person, can speak up in groups. I am much better when I have the podium and I can then speak in front of people that I have never before met. And sometimes, whenever I don't know much about the subject at hand, I just keep my mouth shut and then people don't know what it is that I don't know. The other side of that is that I generally DO know that which I tell to others. And my past, well, it was not all roses. My family was quite poor during my life with them, and I remained pretty close to that economic level during my early working life. I was fired from my last 4 or 5 employee jobs (apparently I could never be a good team player) and in disgust with myself, I started my own consulting practice as a last resort. My background was in finance and management and it was quite all-encompassing. I was lucky in that the timing was right and I was able to make a fantastic income advising people on how to accomplish whatever it was that they wished to accomplish. Basically, I did that same thing myself too (at least, for myself, I mean) from that point on. But, as I said before, I was never good in groups and I could not be a good employee (or volunteer, either, it seems). I always did better by myself and for myself. That's the main reason I've turned down requests to serve on boards of organizations in this town. I'm just no good at that. I'd only fail them and fail myself. I would just mess up and get everyone mad at me.
I: That's it? No real skeletons in the closet?
M: No, nothing like that, quite boring. Unless you expect me to tell you about the murders and the forgeries and the bank jobs.
M: No, not really. Actually, it never got any more exciting than my childhood fantasy of wanting to lead a gang of crooks. The end of that particular fantasy found me in the "big house" (forgive me, because I always thought in cliches in that early game) and then preparing for the "long walk down the last mile" before they electrocuted me, I imagined my "last meal". It wasn't until years had past, in therapy, that I figured out that that fantasy had more to do with food than the criminal life. No, my past was not that exciting.
I: What's this I've heard about the real reason you don't go back to the USA is cause you are wanted by the FBI or the police or something?
M: See, that's another of those stories that people make up to explain what they can't understand. No, nothing that glamorous - or maybe, exciting is the right word. Nothing that exciting. If that were true, why would I continue to pay US taxes when, after 10 years outside the country, I can legally not pay USA estate taxes and most income taxes. Or why would I have just renewed my USA passport? No, it really is just a boring reason. As a person with more than his share of inane compulsions, mine get in the way of my traveling. I take longer to travel than normal people. I pack earlier (days, not hours). I go to the airport earlier than is required. No, just a boring reason. And this was before 9/11, now everything that I had problems with in traveling is even more difficult than before.
I: And where have you screwed up?
M: How much time do you have? I could fill your tapes with stories and words and countless hours of description. And I could make excuses that it was the other person's fault, but many times It was my own. I think too much. And many times I am filled with doubts about my competence. But, after everything is said and done, I kinda like myself and where I've gotten to. As to those who don't appreciate me, well, I guess that it is their privilege even though I hope not to continue to step on their toes, but they, too, might wish to just get out of the way, from time to time.
I: And women?
M: There's a good example of where I've screwed up. I've made many mistakes. First, there was my wife, Sylvia, and that obviously did not work out, although I take the blame for that. It was not that she fooled me about who she was but more like I fooled me about what I wanted. She was too traditional a woman and I was beginning to become a feminist. Good for me, not so for her. And later on there was Julie, whom I loved, adored, was crazy about, but she became less so with me and she eventually left me. And there were a number of others, including some here in town, but no one in particular today. I can't say that living alone is my greatest wish, but it has its advantages, too.
I: And friends here in town?
M: Well, I have been (although more in past years than now) sufficiently outgoing to meet so many people in town, but I suspect I consider these people acquaintances. Every few years, I count the people that I know in Juarde and the number is astoundingly high, well over 1,000. But to define a friend, someone who I trust completely and who trusts me, trust that includes the ability and desire to share emotional and tangible things, who also shares my sense of humor, my values, my desire for communication, ahhhhhh, well, you know, a lot of stupid minor things like that. Anyway, no, I don't find it easy to find such a person, so I guess I'll have to settle for many many acquaintances. But, as an optimist, I'll keep looking.
I: That's much more than I expected to hear from you. Can you give that yourself?
M: That's not for me to judge, but I do try and sometimes I succeed more than at other times. I guess that the trait that I am most proud of is my loyalty. There are a few people in this town with whom we have approached what I would define as "almost friends" or "closer acquaintances", and when these things end or die out, I still feel the loyalty of continuing to keep our confidences to myself and often when I hear things about them, these ex-almost-friends, I find myself defending them out of loyalty to what once was.
I: What would you like to accomplish, or to be known for?
M: Ha!!! Another tough question. I remember something from a poem (Tennyson, I think - or maybe Bryant) that goes "I am a part of all that I have met ..." and I hope that everyone I have met has taken something away from our meeting - something good, I hope. And, I'd like to continue to be able to lessen the load of Mexican children, many of whom have such a tough time with poverty. The relative financial insecurity I knew as a child was nothing compared to theirs. Since I am not good with children, I have chosen not to deal with them myself but to give money to organizations in town that can, themselves, effectively deal with kids and provide some of the things that they need. And, of course, I'd like this online paper to flourish and fill in the gaps that may be missing otherwise in local coverage of our expatriate community. And I'd really love someday to be known as the 107-year old man who was still thinking creatively just before he died.
I: Anything more you'd like to add?
M: Yes, but then this would never end. Haven't you guessed that my greatest pleasure is talking, and when talking to a captive audience, it is my very favorite thing.
I: Well, thank you.
M: Thank YOU. This really was not as tough as I expected it to be.
Publisher's Note: Can't anybody do something better than this? Please HELP!! It is quite simple to do. The interviewer just writes down his/her questions that seem appropriate for the interviewee. The interviewee, on the other hand, just spews it out, wheat and chaff together. Obviously, a tape recorder is necessary and, if you wish, we will supply the tape for you.
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