Sunday, February 18, 2018

Front seats at a rare whale show

It was, as Stew put it, "a National Geographic moment," when nature puts on a live show rarely witnessed outside the pages of a glossy magazine or a nature documentary.

Late Thursday afternoon, with the surf quieting down, we heard loud and sharp plop-plop-plop sounds, like thunderclaps, that we soon identified as coming from a humpback whale swimming about a half-mile out from the porch of our waterfront bungalow.

This huge customer was doing a tail-slapping routine in addition to other pirouettes.  The sound-and-splash show went on for a good half hour: Was the whale angry, playing, hurt, doing a mating routine or warning competitors to stay away from its territory? One could only guess.

Plop, plop, fizz,, fizz.
Stew and I had had encounters with whales before, some at quite close range, but none as lively as this one. During a cruise around Antarctica we saw a whale in the distance, barely more than a spot, probably a blue whale, we were told, the largest species of all. 

In Baja California Sur, we went on an early morning whale-watching expedition several years ago. It was foggy the whole time but gray whales were out in force, gently circling our small boat, occasionally turning an inquisitive eye toward us once and then diving, their huge tails, maybe fifteen feet wide, exposed briefly as they gracefully disappeared into the water, barely making a ripple.

I only saw it once or twice, but being the target of a whale's gaze, however briefly, can be disconcerting. Who's looking at whom? Or as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle  insistently asked in "Taxi Driver," "You looking at me?"

But whatever they thought of us--probably nothing but curiosity--these huge animals--up to sixty feet long and weighing forty tons--were anything but threatening, except for the danger of one of them flipping the boat with a playful whack of its tails.

Another surprise was their rough skin, covered with barnacles and other parasites, in addition to scars and bruises. It was nothing like the vinyl-smooth skin of the orcas at Sea World.

Whales migrate from Alaska during the winter to give birth in the warmer waters of California and Mexico. During a boat ride here on Wednesday we didn't seen any whales, only one dolphin, and a school of tuna-like fish, about two feet long, that Mexicans call "barrilete".

But our young guide said that last year a female humpback had stayed around all winter and given birth, with mother and calf then heading back north, presumably to enjoy the Alaskan summer. 

During a trip to Iceland last August we also encountered another pod of whales--can't remember exactly which kind--that were equally non-threatening but kept a safe distance away from us, perhaps because the larger boat we were on might have signaled caution.

We sailed from the small village of Hjalteyri, on the northern coast of Iceland, with a ebullient and typically blond young guide. In Iceland even the dogs and cats seem to be blond. Sailing gear included vinyl insulated bib overalls, and we were served hot chocolate and cinnamon buns. Though not freezing cold, Icelandic summers are decidedly unMexico-like.

In Iceland as well as Norway, which we had visited three or four years before, whale meat appeared on the menus and at fish markets. Whale meat, in case you're curious, is a black, gelatinous and totally repulsive substance.

Grand finale. (Photo by Margaret River)
Back in Barra de Potosi, in front of our bungalow, the one humpback kept banging its tail on the water repeatedly and at one point--a real treat--it dove, disappeared for a a minute or so, and then shot up in the air until two-thirds of its body was out of the water, crashing noisily afterward. Imagine something the size of a school bus, if not larger, jumping out the water. We had never seen a "breach", a neat trick you see in nature shows but seldom witness in person.

What was this humpback so excited about? According to one internet site, a humpback slapping its tail or its considerable body fins (about fifteen feet long each), and technically called "lobtailing," can mean a number of things. The male humpback may be cruising for a mate, or trying to scare off competitors. Or it could be trying to shake off barnacles and other incrustations from its skin. Or perhaps trying to corral a school of small fish the better for eating.

Someone else who was watching this show, after spotting another whale farther out in the distance, cast a vote for the whale shooing off competitors.

Stew and I instead picked another hypothesis to explain the lobtailing by this mammoth visitor: Just like us, this whale was just happy to be in Mexico, enjoying the wonderful weather.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On guns: Couldn't have said it better myself

From today's Washington Post:

America's ritual of outrage 

By Anthea Butler

It is an American ritual, engaged in on almost a monthly basis. A mass shooting. Screaming. Frantic families. Shell-shocked survivors. Carnage. Grim-faced police and emergency responders, and news reporters smelling blood in the air, angling for the right shot of grief-stricken friends and family.
Then, the tweets and statements flow. “Thoughts and prayers” is the most popular. It is used as an absolution, to cleanse lawmakers from the guilt of taking National Rifle Association money, and to placate the small voice inside that says, “This could be me.”
Religious leadership devoid of action is meaningless at times like this. Mass shootings are so frequent that even the leaders of religious groups join the chorus of rote, providing meaningless speechifying. The Catholic bishops pray, the Southern Baptists lament about the failure of society, mainline denominations issue statements and other religious groups express their sorrow. Occasionally, some actually march. But often nothing happens. Even religious leadership has become inured to the suffering. Many are only in the business of burials, and pontificating about sexuality or abortion.
So with the Parkland school shooting, we can quit pretending that thoughts and prayers mean anything when we can't expect action to follow. They certainly don’t when the NRA and gun manufacturers can insure silence by giving hefty contributions to lawmakers.
Pious words mean nothing without action. Faith without works is dead, the Bible teaches. If your local priest or pastor just asks you to pray, and not to resist the evil of gun violence and the sale of assault rifles, you are complicit. If you have an AR-15 in your house for “recreational” purposes, your money has gone to a corporation to make more weapons to murder people.
The founders and framers who spoke of a "well regulated militia" never could conceive of that right imperiling the lives of American children. The greatness they envisioned for America is being destroyed by the NRA and the elected officials they have purchased. We have fallen into a bleak cycle of violence and death, but it is up to us to break the cycle of ritual outrage.
Anthea Butler is a professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

In the company of pelicans

On this quiet beach, where not much goes on except the rhythmic crashing of the surf, brown pelicans have captured my attention. They come out in droves at sunrise, largely vanish at around noon and might reappear a couple of hours before the sun sets.

With their huge beaks with a pouch underneath, tiny beady eyes, dull markings and boxy bodies--they weigh about five to ten pounds--pelicans look like manufacturing rejects. Certainly not runners-up in a bird beauty contest. They are difficult to admire until you pay closer attention.

A squadron of pelicans, out on patrol.
Think of swans, with their glistening white feathers, long and curvy necks and their aristocratic carriage. Several pieces of classical music celebrate their beauty but I can't imagine what a ballet titled "Pelican Lake" would look like.

Or the scandalous color and plumage of flamingos, carrying on like the drag queens of the avian kingdom. Perched on their stilt legs they look down on everything and everyone around them

Brown pelicans, other other hand, are a dull shade of brown except for some white underneath their wings and bellies. On the top of their heads a few also have a blotch of white that looks like a bathing cap.

Floating on the water, and certainly walking on the ground, pelicans are anything but graceful.
On the water they bob rather than cruise, their long beaks tucked in. On land, they lumber on their stumpy legs.

Compare that to the comical little shore birds that spend their days tap dancing at the edge of the water, going just deep enough to catch some tiny crab while trying not to get their ankles wet.

But keep looking at pelicans and  soon they will soon beguile you, at first with their goofy appearance. Was God chuckling when he created such unlikely creatures?

Stew manning the Pelican Research Station.
On takeoff from the water, pelicans look uncertain and clumsy but that lasts only a few seconds. Once airborne, particularly as part of a flock, they are amazingly graceful, batting their wings for a couple of yards and then gliding for twice or three times that distance. They can fly on a V-formation or a single file, the latter resembling a silk ribbon undulating in a soft breeze. Often they will drop down to within inches of the water, looking for the small fish they devour all day long.

Indeed, their fishing technique is the pelicans' most amazing feature. As they cruise fifty feet or so above the water, they will tilt their beaks down, or right or left, and then plunge with surgical precision to snatch some small fish. Their moves are as elegant as they are efficient, specially compared to gulls and other sea birds that flap around in circles and splash the water, almost doing a belly flop and sometimes coming away empty.

Shorebirds dancing by the water's edge.
Pelicans will plunge almost vertically, wings extended back and finally flat against their bodies the few seconds before they puncture the water, much like an Olympic diver. From shore they seem to be pretty accurate too. They emerge almost instantly with a pouch full of water, about two or three gallons, and a frantically squirming fish trapped inside. With one swift motion the pelicans spit out the water and position the fish head first; sometimes you can see its tail sticking out from the beak. And down it goes, still squirming in the pelican's gullet. Usually the pelican will float on the water for a couple of minutes and wiggle its tail contentedly before taking off on another fishing run.

Most impressive, I've seen pelicans diving and fishing for nearly an hour after sunset, when it's almost dark. I can understand how owls with their huge eyes can hunt when it gets dark, but pelicans? With those tiny eyes?

I haven't seen it but have read that pelicans are quite gregarious and live in large colonies. They mate for life and both males and females share parenting. A quite excellent bird despite its looks, if you asked me.

It's almost five o'clock now and the sun is heading to its hiding place behind a rocky island on the horizon, and sure enough, a few hungry pelicans are starting to fly by, getting ready for their final meal of the day.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

And so, on to the beach

To people hunkered down in snowstorms and subzero weather up north, hearing someone living in ideally temperate San Miguel complain about the weather must sound like insufferable whining. Oh shut up! What do you know about cold or winter misery?

Home for the next two weeks.
Except memories are short and feelings about the weather are relative. It's not remotely as miserable in San Miguel as it is in Chicago, Toronto or Boston, that's true, but it's been uncomfortable enough that we have a right to complain and head for the beach.

That's what Stew and I did on Monday: Pack our bags, pet the dogs and cats good bye, wish Felix well and trek out to Barra de Potosi, an idyllic strip of beach, a six-hour drive from home and about twenty minutes south of Zihuatanejo on the Pacific Coast.

At home the view from our bedroom window had become depressing enough to trigger a medium-rare case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The  landscape is uniformly sere and brown. Organ and prickly pear cacti, pines and other evergreen sentinels futilely try to break up the monotonous palette but they don't stand a chance. A plague of ravenous grasshoppers during the first half of the winter had also denuded much of the greenery that was left. You pray a careless smoker doesn't start a brush fire such as the one that devoured the vegetation and damaged several trees on our ranch four or five years ago. 

The subfreezing temperatures, and the relentless wind, that we experienced in New York over the New Year's holiday should have inoculated us against feeling cold in sunny San Miguel, where thirty degrees overnight is a frightful Arctic wave. But you are where you are, and our house with its tiled floors and single-pane windows at night seemed incurably clammy no matter how much wood we threw in the fireplace or how many space heaters we enlisted.

Our dogs, curled up into furry doughnuts, would plead with their eyes to stay in the garage--just this one night--instead of the basement. "We won't mess up anything," they'd say, and for the most part they wouldn't. For the most part, except for Domino, the single male in the pack of five, who can't resist anointing one of the car's tires, just once in while and just for the heck of it.

But enough complaining. Now we're on the porch of our bungalow, twenty feet from the beach, and another hundred feet from where the waves constantly caress the sand except late in the afternoon when they whip up a bit of a dander.

But what do you do all day? Some friends grow anxious if there's not something to do, all the time. Isn't there a tour we can go on? A boat to go fishing, perhaps? A crowded restaurant where other people's chatter will help us pass the time until the next meal? What's on TV tonight anyway?

Is the internet working? Ah, I must confess I haven't kicked my news habit. Reading about Trump is like craning your neck when driving past a gruesome car accident: Your curiosity is embarrassing but you can't help yourself. (A grand Red Square-style military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue? Is Putin part of the organizing committee?)

Otherwise we haven't even been nudged by boredom. Reading is consuming most our time, finishing up books and magazines that had been languishing on the nightstand or on the Kindle, and trying new ones. Books about the tsunami in Japan several years ago and the expedition by Aurel Stein--one of  those archetypal British explorers in the mold of Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackelton--who a hundred years ago went looking for Buddhist treasures along the Silk Road. Or Mary Oliver's lovely "Dog Songs," a book of poetry that so reminded Stew and me of our own mutts. Next up is "Here in Berlin" by Cristina Garcia, whose "Dreaming in Cuban" I read several years ago. Have only read ten percent of Berlin, but that's enough to fall again for her lovely writing.

The sky is clear. It's about eighty degrees, with a gently blowing breeze. Aaron Copland's arrangement of the Shaker melody "Simple Gifts," from his "Appalachian Spring", finished playing on the radio a few minutes ago. A small group of people just gathered on the beach and are pointing to a whale puffing and cruising about a half mile from shore.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Should retirees be grateful to Trump?

A year into the Trump presidency the continued rise in the stock market—actually a continuation of a bull market and economic recovery that had begun under Obama—has fattened our retirement portfolio handsomely. And the Republican tax cuts—a wet kiss to corporate America—can't help but propel the continued rise in the stock market, and even the world economy, a few more years.

Here's a question liberals may not want to raise above a whisper: Should we be grateful to Trump for the money he's making us despite his repugnant social policies? Are we faced with a choice between greed and principles?

Is what's good for Trump and his billionaire
friends good for the country?
I'd say not so quick. The Republican tax cuts are bound to push the federal deficit further into the trillion-dollar stratosphere. Republicans who call themselves "deficit hawks" suddenly are not so worried about the debt, deficit or federal borrowing, and instead invoke the usually alchemy that tax cuts will pay for themselves as a result of the increased economic growth. That sounds plausible but it's never materialized in real life.

Tax cuts for the rich and the corporations also are likely to aggravate the income inequality and the wage stagnation that supposedly fueled the rage among the working classes and their support for Trump. The latest Republican tax "reform" package, which is skewed toward corporations and the very wealthy, has little in it for the Mr. and Mrs. Working Joe. Expect further political and economic frustration and acrimony rather than a Pax Republicana sweeping the land.  In fact, when today's working class retires I doubt it will have much of an retirement investment portfolio to worry about.

Still, I suspect the fallout of huge federal deficits won't be felt for several years and fall on future generations. Then again, Stew and I don't have any children, and quite frankly we don't spend much time worrying about future generations. For the duration of our lifetimes, however long they may be, one of our main concerns is to enjoy our money, the more the better, and to the fullest extent possible.

It's the old après nous le déluge attitude—cynical as hell, irresponsible, even amoral, but I'd be lying if I professed to feel otherwise much of the time. There are only so many things, from climate change, North Korea and race relations, to name a few, that we can worry about when we fall out of bed each morning.

Except the déluge might come much sooner than that, or did we already forget the debacle of 2008 that followed uncontrolled federal spending during the George W. Bush years—trillions for the ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan— coupled with a fanatical belief in deregulation? The government in effect had surrendered its oversight responsibility over the mortgage and lending industry. When I hear Trump and the Republicans trumpet deregulation of everything that moves, and even repealing some of the legislation passed to avert another 2008, that is something to worry about in the short term.

So is Trump's ignorance and mental instability, particularly in foreign affairs. We're told he is generally under adult supervision, but when he goes off on Twitter rampage comparing the size of his nuclear button to Kim Jung-un's, I do worry that the man is just plain nuts and that the current prosperity might be cut short by another war, possibly of a nuclear variety.

Who's worried about facts and the truth?
Most depressing of all is the degradation of civic discourse, bipartisan comity, race relations, even the very concept of truth and empirical reality—reformulated as "alternative reality"—that has taken place under Trump's first year. Qualms about decency in public life  among Republicans, and their usual cheering section of evangelical preachers, seem to have been put on the back burner too, as they stand by Trump regardless of his horribly corrupt character. How does Stormy Daniels fit in their "family values" platform?

Barring Trump's impeachment or resignation, this circus has three more years to go, even if Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress this year. A more likely outcome will be the continued politics of gridlock and mutual partisan destruction that Trump has exacerbated immeasurably. If not the worst president—remember George W.—Trump will go down as the most destructive to the civic and political fabric of the country.

So fear not, Stew and I are not letting avarice dampen our contempt Trump. We'll just use the extra money to take a couple of bonus trips abroad and—perversely—send more money to the Democrats, above all for fierce voter recruitment and registration efforts across the country, in preparation for 2020.

That strategy worked in the senatorial race in Alabama and in other places and it's far more productive that just cursing Trump over our daily morning coffee—tough as such restraint may be.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

And now, a short suspense story: How we liberated our pickup from the San Miguel auto pound

On Dec. 10, our trusty 2000 Nissan Frontier pickup was in a head-on collision with another pickup. On a scale of one to ten, this mishap scored a four or about the equivalent of a broken nose.  It's all fixable and fortunately there were no serious injuries thanks to the sturdy burro bumper on the Nissan and its airbags which, surprisingly given its age, performed flawlessly.

In fact, the damage itself was the least of our headaches compared to the six weeks of bureaucratic gyrations it took to "liberate"—that's what the process is called—our poor pickup from the San Miguel's auto pound.

Waiting to be liberated since ca.1981
If there were a special circle of hell reserved for cars it would resemble this facility, known as the corralón—or the "big corral"—and tucked away behind a remarkably large, unmarked and ugly building with crenellated walls and turrets that looks like either a penitentiary or a crude imitation of a castle.

Strange backdrop to a strange operation. 
There are few signs of order at the corralón. Rather it's one chaotic acre after another in which hundreds of rusted, mashed-up remains of vehicles of all types—from bicycles to cars, motorcycles and semis and tanker trucks, Pepsi trucks and what-have-you—have come to rest, each one marked with a date of arrival. It was sobering to think of what happened to the people inside some of these vehicles. 

This is no temporary holding facility. One car had a 1981 license plate and most of the vehicles were covered by years of rust, dirt and assorted junk that suggested indefinite prison sentences. Think of it as a roach motel for cars, where they check in but likely will never drive out, or not any time soon. We know two people who had their cars impounded, one for six months the other for two years.

Did your motorcycle turn up missing?
The corralón is owned by a man named Chucho who also owns a towing company called El Mercadillo. Whenever there is an accident, the transit police will summon one or more of Chucho's trucks to haul the damaged vehicles to Chucho's corralón, no questions asked or choices offered. Chucho is your man, like it or not. 

In the U.S. the owners of the vehicles involved in relatively minor accidents will curse and scream, and then exchange drivers licenses, registrations and insurance information, receive a police report and arrange for a tow to the mechanic or body shop of their choice.

But this is Mexico, where most drivers don't have insurance, which is not required, or a way to pay for damages. In our case we hit the jackpot: The other driver had no insurance, money, Mexico plates or even a valid registration. His only documentation for his late-model Chevrolet Aztec pickup was a faded photocopy of a bill of sale from a dealership somewhere in Texas.

Nothing to fear: Chucho is here. 
He was also hauling ten passengers including himself, three in the cab and seven more al fresco on the bed of the truck. Two ambulances arrived to take the injured, none of whom showed visible injuries but who nevertheless clutched  different parts of their bodies in what looked ominously like the Whiplash Mambo.

Both vehicles would be held at the corralón—effectively as ransom—as the incident worked its way through the bowels of the local State Attorney's Office, located in a new, bright- blue building on one of the entrances to San Miguel.

We realized there's a certain logic to the corralón: Given the general lack of auto insurance or cash to cover damages—and Mexicans' aversion to pay for anything or obey traffic laws—the only way to force settlement of claims is to impound the vehicles.

Even then, many owners just surrender their vehicles rather than pay for damages. Though mostly wrecks, there were also dozens of relatively new vehicles whose owners had figured it was cheaper to just walk away. 

If one or both of the parties involved in an accident has the ready cash, the matter might settled on the spot to avoid the corralón. Or someone might quietly negotiate a mordida, a little contribution to the police officer's private retirement fund, to help him forget the whole thing. In case of serious injuries, of course, there are no quick outs.

Abandoned by their owners?
Unfortunately for us, the usually torpid wheels of Mexican justice were grinding even more slowly following the accident because of the approaching Christmas holiday, which runs from Dec. 24 to January 6, plus a few more days before and afterward, during which hardly any activity transpires at any level of government.

Our insurance company assigned us a stocky, gruff woman attorney to negotiate the payouts to the other driver. Our truck was on the wrong lane, so in fact we were at fault. Part of this lawyer's negotiating strategy, though, must have been not returning our insistent phone calls to find out the date of the hearing, which we had to ascertain on our own.

When the day arrived, the aggrieved passengers in the other vehicle showed up, each claiming fifteen hundred pesos (about eighty dollars) in medical expenses which our lawyer promptly conceded. But two of the injured weren't there and the case was postponed two more times.

We finally received our "liberation notice" for our truck which we had to take to the state police office from which we got another document, and go to another state office to pay a fine (about eighty dollars), and back to the state police with the receipt, before finally driving to the corralón to liberate our Frontier.
The caretaker's home and guard cat. 

In all fairness, we were impressed by the efficiency and speed of the State Attorney's Office in handling this matter once they got to it. Or maybe we were just relieved to get out of there at all.

The corralón was guarded by a friendly, middle-aged man who lived in a very modest dwelling, borderline shack, with his wife, a cat  and a wiggly young puppy. They were most accommodating but seemed surprised that we had come to claim our pickup. They remembered our green Frontier but not where they'd put it.

After a half-hour walk around the pound they spotted it—in a corner of the lot, buried behind several rows of trucks and other victims.

Outta here. Hope to never see you again.
 "Do you still want it?" the man asked me, rather incredulously, indicating that he'd have to mobilize a tow truck to dig through the rubble to get to our pickup.

It took two and a half hours before our Nissan Frontier, bruised but still rolling, emerged from the corralón, its front end hoisted by a tow truck also owned by Chucho, who charged us for the towing to and from the pound plus a daily fee for the privilege of staying at his corralón, for a total of thirty-two  hundred pesos, or one hundred and seventy-five dollars.

The Frontier is now resting peacefully at a mechanic/body shop, curiously enough, right next to the other vehicle involved in the accident. Omar, the owner of the shop, was surprised as well that we had been able to extricate our vehicle from the clutches of the pound, which according to him, is a stop of no return for most of the cars that end up there.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trump revives memories of my "shithole" country

My trip to Cuba with my husband Stew in 2013 in large part was a pilgrimage to try to reconstruct my childhood, abruptly interrupted in 1962 when, at age fourteen, I had been shipped off to Miami with thousands of other children, presumably to save us from the communist apocalypse about to engulf the island.

What was my hometown of Santa Clara like now, I wondered, the house I grew up in, the school I attended, my grandmother's house where I'd so much enjoyed her fabulous cooking? What did my school chums who stayed behind look like after more than fifty years? How had they dealt with life's struggles and been formed by them?

Even if I'd had tattooed the admonition "You Can't Go Home Again" on my forearm, and recited it like a mantra on my way to Cuba, I wasn't ready for what I encountered.

I expected most of my old friends would be fatter, wrinklier and balder but not to find them leading such static, dead-end existences. One eked out a living transcribing government boilerplate, pecking clean copies on an antique typewriter. Another, who had evolved into a rather scary drag queen, lived off tips playing and singing at Santa Clara's best, and decidedly pathetic, restaurant.

My cousin, also named Alfredo, had become a pathologist and worked at a local hospital but in his home I recognized the battered furniture in his dining room as that of my grandmother, the same on which she had served Christmas Eve dinner for so many years. That's all they could afford on his measly salary.

These tableaux resembled dusty and faded museum dioramas. Some of my friends and relatives had initially embraced the revolution and even volunteered for the some of its hare-brained ideas, such as cutting sugar cane or fighting revolutionary wars abroad. But in the end survival had become everyone's chief preoccupation.

I was prepared to find Havana a city in ruins that once, before Castro, supposedly had glittered. I had been there only once when I was too young to appreciate it.

But I was crushed to visit and walk through my old house in Santa Clara, where I'd grown up, played with our pets, practiced reading and memorized multiplication tables. I knew it was no mansion but I was shocked, even a bit ashamed, when I took Stew there.

The house, a very modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom even in good times, was now home to an elderly couple and their younger daughter who could barely maintain it. It wasn't quite squalid but depressingly close to it. On the way out I gave the equivalent of fifty dollars to the couple, so they could fix the broken panes in the front window. Other houses in the neighborhood looked as if they'd been washed over by a tsunami decades ago and never repaired.

My old homestead, with the new owners. 
Diehard idelogues will insist Cuba remains an exciting Marxist work-in-progress, while some Cubans in Miami will rhapsodize about its beauty, sophistication, even glamor, before Castro ruined everything.

Truth is that, using Pres. Trump's definition of the word, Cuba is and was a shithole, its poverty not as asphyxiating as Haiti's or that of some African countries, but certainly not a Scandinavian utopia populated by white folk hard at work on another sleek furniture line or depressing movie.

Trump's remarks underlined his bigoted and mendacious nature but most of all his impenetrable ignorance, in this case about the mechanics of immigration.

By definition, people flee desperate situations: war, famine, persecution. It's a form of the survival instinct. It's been said that Norwegians, with five weeks of vacation, free college education and health care hardly have a reason to move to the U.S. today.

But Stew's dad and grandparents migrated from Norway early in the last century, when that country was a hopeless shithole of failed crops and poverty. So did the Irish in the nineteenth century during the potato famine. Vietnamese fled after the fall of Saigon. Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. today are overwhelmingly poor. Successful professionals and the literati here stay put to enjoy their cappuccinos in the swankier sections of Mexico City.

Yet migrating is also among life's most harrowing experiences, comparable to living through an invasion by a foreign force or the breakup of one's family. It entails abandoning home, friends, language, culture—all that is reassuring and familiar—in exchange for a uncertain promise of a better life in a strange place.

Think of the thousands of people from all over Africa who've thrown themselves in boats clearly unsafe and overcrowded to make it across to somewhere in Europe. Remember the expressions of fear on the faces of those who made it. Also remember their valor.

Indeed, only those people with extraordinary courage, enterprise, faith—and unmitigated cojones—take the chance.

And it's this process of self-selection that historically has enriched the American bloodline: New arrivals may be smelly,  wear weird headgear, worship different gods and speak another language, but America has benefitted from, in effect, this reverse brain-drain.

Beginning shortly after the revolution in 1959, approximately 1.3 million Cubans migrated to the U.S. During the first several years, the arrivals were an orderly and amicable middle- and upper-class bunch who arrived by plane, a deluxe type of immigrant.

As the years passed, though, and life in the island grew more desperate—turning into an ever deeper shithole—the exodus reached further down the socioeconomic scale and the refugee stream, largely unfiltered by the U.S., turned into a motley crew arriving in rickety boats sailing through the shark-infested Florida Straits. God knows how many thousands didn't make it.

This immigrant influx—Cubans, Colombians, Venezuelans and other Latin Americans—is what re-energized South Florida, and particularly Miami, which during the sixties was on the verge of becoming a ramshackle retirement destination. Miami today is a giant tourist and business hub worth billions of dollars to the Florida economy, thanks to the immigrant hordes. The same could be said from ethnic neighborhoods in Houston, Chicago and New York, among others, brought back to life by immigrants.

Trump's race-based calculus ignores this history and assumes that white people from Western Europe should be preferred over immigrants from shithole countries, with the exception of overachieving Asians whom he apparently assumes would be an asset to the U.S. because they are all either brilliant scientists or violin prodigies. Ironically, in the 1920s the U.S. had in place race-based quotas that excluded Asians and didn't look too favorably on Jews and Eastern Europeans either.

By now I should be inured to Trump's stream-of-idiocies and vile remarks. But as an immigrant I was particularly offended and hurt by Trump's racist take on immigration. As an American I worry too that someone as ignorant of American history and the American experience should be pretending to lead an urgently needed overhaul of my country's immigration system.