Friday, July 29, 2016

The beauty in serendipity

"Serendipity," with its musical ring, is a word that sounds like fun even before you know what it means. Literally it means "unexpected good luck" or stumbling into something terrific that you didn't imagine. Yet we often turn away from serendipity, our demand for certainty preempting many pleasant, even wondrous, surprises.

During a recent trip to Spain, and more recently during a walk through our garden at the ranch, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of serendipity—to simply to step back and allow plenty of open travel time and soil space for whatever. It turns out the fun and beauty of surprises more than make up for the initial trepidation of letting go.

When a rose bush ran into nasturtiums, a large rock and a prickly bear cactus,
an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement resulted. 
Before going on a two-week trip to Spain a couple of months ago, we ordered Rick Steves' travel book, plus a couple of almost scholarly explorations of the history, architecture and artistic significance of legendary landmarks like the Grand Mosque of Córdova and Granada's Alhambra. I even read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra." I wanted to be fully prepared.

Then I put together what I thought was a airy day-to-day itinerary, a lot of it inspired by Steves' rather marathonic walking tours and estimated times of completion that alas, don't make allowances for the age of the person doing the walking.

He instead ought to provide sliding time estimates. For instance, the hike from Madrid's Plaza del Sol to the Prado Museum? Twenty- to thirty-year-olds, you should allow thirty minutes; folks over sixty, with ten to fifteen pounds of extra weight, grab a cab.

Even in Europe's giant museums there is only so much great art your exhausted tourist brain and feet can absorb. Our friend Gerard commented that after four or five hours meandering through Amsterdam's monumental Rijksmuseum, the endless collection of Rembrandts became a blur of pictures of "old Dutch guys with big black hats."

Rather, you should check out and admire some of the highlights that you studied in the obligatory college art appreciation class (Jason's "History of Art" anyone?) and then go out for a nice lunch. After that, try a museum with a collection of objects you know little or nothing about. The hell with Jason. Be surprised.  

In Spain, the Alhambra, Córdova's Mosque and Seville's cavernous cathedral are certainly worth every bit of their fame and then some.

Stew (l.) with a new old friend from the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen.
Yet the most memorable moments of our trip were unplanned, such as finding a tiny Moroccan restaurant in Granada, near the Alhambra, run by a short, bubbly guy who was born in Chefchaouen, a tiny psychedelic town in Morocco we had visited in 2007, where every house is painted the same shade of electric blue. The owner was thrilled someone recognized his hometown and we had terrific conversation and chicken tajine. 

For two days my itinerary provided for just "driving around the countryside," a splendid idea that took our us in our turbo-diesel VW Polo, with a manual transmission Stew wouldn't touch, to two towns we'd never heard of: Medina Sidonia with its tumbledown church and Grazalema, the ultimate "postcard-beautiful" village, one of dozens in the "white villages" region of Andalucía.

While looking at the valleys and mountains surrounding Grazalema, Stew proclaimed it to be one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. It was a truly serendipitous moment, or if you're religious, a moment of unmerited grace, as in how did we stumble into this place? 

The unexpected beauty of Grazalema, in Spain's Andalucía. 
Back home, daily rains have greened the landscape around the ranch, and despite much planning and seed-ordering from the States, serendipity has, once again, overtaken much of my landscaping schemes.

I planted our seeds too early and upwards of fifty percent of them died, victims of my impatience. Adding to the confusion is Félix's refusal to pull up and discard any plants, flowers or small trees no matter how out of place they may be. So flowers and vegetables have germinated in odd places after lurking in the compost pile for the past several months. Flowers and vegetable seeds have arrived air mail, wrapped in bird droppings. To boot, there were handfuls of seeds left from last year that Félix saved in envelopes with enigmatic labels like, "big zinnias?" No matter, into the ground they went; nothing must go to waste is his gardening mantra.

A lone zinnia deep in the ornamental grasses. 
The result is serendipitous and charming, a colorful joke at the expense of those gardening gurus who insist one must first make a scaled plan of the areas in the garden to be tamed, followed by careful selection of plantings according to color, textures and heights.

Indeed I have noodled the idea of turning the garden over to chance, Mother Nature or Félix, given that any one of the three options probably will yield much the same results.

Quite often he comes up with ideas at first strange but that ultimately win you over. "Hmm, that's kind of clever!" or "I never thought of that!" Zinnias abutting the agaves? Roses surrounded by nasturtiums? A peach tree—where did it come from?—in the middle of a patch of English lavenders? A dahlia fighting its way through a succulent groundcover? Who would have imagined?

That and more, thanks to the gifts of serendipity.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Feeling free and whole at Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade

Once upon a time, about forty years ago, Stew and I attended our first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. We didn't really participate, join the marchers, wave any rainbow flags or make any noise. We stood discreetly on the sidelines, a safe distance from the drag queens and other scandalous participants: Were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—men irreverently dressed as nuns—or the leather-clad Dykes on Bikes, defiantly revving their Harleys, already part of the parade?

We don't remember. At that time Stew and I were so uncomfortable in our own gay skins that any public demonstration of solidarity with other gay people—out in the middle of Chicago, no less—would have given us a nervous rash even if all the marchers had been pin-striped accountants.

Neither one of us was "out" to our families, neighbors or coworkers, nor did we have many gay friends. Cloistered anonymity was our operating style. At the time I was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, and part of the job application process had been a signed affirmation I was not a homosexual, alcoholic or any other sort of deviant human being.

We lived in a single-family house in the suburbs, thirty miles west of downtown Chicago, with a beagle, a dachshund and a cat named George, named after the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

Last Sunday, Stew and I and two friends attended the Gay Pride Parade in Mexico City and we had a blast. I felt as if all the tens of thousands of strangers milling around the iconic Angel of Independence monument, waiting for the invariably delayed and chaotic parade to launch, were close friends. The warmth, the small talk in Spanish and English, the laughter, were infectious. I felt exhilarated and whole.

For a huge city, Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade is relatively small. Newspapers the day after estimated attendance at between eighty and two-hundred thousand, compared to Chicago's nearly one million. The event had a homey, block-party feel to it.

There were no public officials present and few signs of corporate sponsors—no floats representing large companies or banks—only a few American Express metallic balloons proclaiming solidarity, and vendors of Doritos in special-edition rainbow flag packages. The one, very significant exception this general official snub was Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who mingled with the celebrants.

The vacuum left by the absence of official corporate or government sponsors was more than filled by an explosion of individual expression. Gym bunnies, after months of weight lifting finally got to show their tattooed physiques barely contained by minimalist Speedos, while couch bunnies, who had labored equally hard over their costumes, unveiled their interpretations of Aztec kings, Las Vegas showgirls, Scottish golfers in kilts, operatic characters, and even a bishop wearing a cardboard miter hat with a gold satin tablecloth for a cape.

An hour and a half late, the parade finally meandered down Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's most majestic boulevards, past the U.S. embassy which flew a rainbow flag beneath the Stars and Stripes in honor of the occasion.

Leading the parade was a tangled, four-hundred-meter-long rainbow flag—about thirteen-hundred feet—that took forty-five minutes or so to unfurl, followed by a huge balloon in the shape of a condom. A little farther behind was a posse of vaqueros wearing the intricate, formal regalia Mexican cowboys, and who rode horses that seemed increasingly impatient with the going around in circles waiting for the crowd to move.

The final destination, probably after four or five hours of stop-and-go parading, would be Mexico City's huge main square, the Zócalo, for a rally and more music at the foot of the Metropolitan Cathedral and Mexico's National Palace.

We left after three hours or so of mingling, laughing and meeting people in the motley mob around the Angel of Independence. I wished we had met them forty years ago.

This guy could audition for the part of Jack Twist in the
Mexican version of "Brokeback Mountain."
One of about two-dozen members of the contingent
of Vaqueros Mexiquenses (Cowboys from
 the State of Mexico), who came fully accessorized,
 including a beautifully saddled horse. 
A pair of cowboys in matching shirts. 
Lest anyone miss their presence, the gay vaqueros wore matching shirts and name patches and
brought along a large and horribly
cacophonous Mexican brass bass.
Even the horses got tarted up for the parade.
This one reminded me of Bo Derek in "10"
The tee-shirts said "Yes, we're lesbian moms with
twins. Get over it!" Any questions? 
"Is she gay too?" I asked. "I don't know,
she doesn't talk."
Our friend Ron Anderson, socializing with two cowboys
 who came to the parade on their own. 

News travel fast, even down to Mexico.
Just as Albin sang in "La Cage aux folles":
"Just another dab of mascara to my rather limp upper lash."
Are you Boy Scouts?, I inquired. "Nooo!" they replied, with mock
exasperation. "We're forest rangers, like Smokey Bear, can't you tell?"
An angel, maybe an archangel, fluttering about.
"Prudence," a brand of Mexican condoms, clearly believes in targeted advertising.
"These are just my boots. It was too hot for
my whole leather outfit."
Talk to me or else: A broadcast reporter walked around in a leather outfit,
holding a microphone in one hand and a cat o' nine tails on the other.
When a flowery Carmen Miranda came to Mexico
and brought her adorable daughter dressed as butterfly.

Do you think wearing pink tulle wings
makes me look like a gay pug?
Beefcake tacos anyone?
Is he primping his feathers or checking
emails from his Aztec ancestors?
A princess waiting for her horse-drawn carriage to arrive. 
The mercantile spirit: Vendors sold all sorts of custom paraphernalia,
from penis-shaped chocolates, pirated porno films and lace rainbow flags. 

Whatever it takes to survive in Mexico City.
Thanks Barack Obama: A rainbow flag flew along with the Stars and
Stripes at the U.S. Embassy. The American ambassador also walked
around in the  parade. Can't imagine those sights, or marriage equality,
if we'd had a Republican in the White House.

Pope Luis I, wearing a rather suggestive
miter hat and a table cloth for a cape. 

A lone representative from the Teuhantepec area of the state of
 wearing a typical native outfit. I forgot to ask about the flower pot.
Exhibits One and Two: Why people go to the gym.
Not sure about this get-up except
I wasn't about to make fun of it.
"Brunhilde, is that you?" I asked.
"Who's that?" Brunhilde replied. 
At 1:45 p.m. the parade seemed to be starting. 

Whatever. This couple broke away for lunch and a beer near the starting line.

Until next year. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mexit, meet Brexit

As we returned on the bus from Mexico City on Sunday, we approached the city of Querétaro and the sight was one of explosive economic growth.

Indeed this city of nearly one million is the fastest-growing in the country right now. There are brand-new expressways, shopping centers, residential and commercial construction everywhere you turn.

Behind this growth during the past several years are dozens of industrial parks with huge hangar-like steel structures housing some Mexican but mostly foreign companies such as the France's Airbus (helicopter assembly) and Canada's Bombardier (jet engine components).

Although I didn't do a headcount, the largest number of tenants seemed to be American companies, attracted to Mexico by its low labor and operating costs. Call it the upside of free-trade.

Industrial parks in Queretaro.
What would happen to this feverish economic activity if the U.S. embarked on a nasty, Brexit-like divorce from Mexico, particularly if the grounds were Donald Trump's xenophobia and demagoguery rather rational economic calculations?

I suspect the results might resemble the mounting crisis now shaking the United Kingdom. Brexit was sold as an nationalistic and economic elixir but in fact it was poisoned by immigrant bashing and intolerance. It may turn out to be a case of the normally cold-headed Brits cutting off their noses to spite their ears.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mexico's most annoying tradition

Much more dangerous than incendiary salsas, tainted water or marauding bandidos, Mexico's hundreds of thousands of speed bumps—in many sizes and shapes, sometimes marked but usually not, and lurking anywhere frequently for no apparent reason—stand at the ready to jolt motorists into fits of cursing.

This morning's New York Times carried a brief piece by reporter Damien Cave about the curse of Mexican speed bumps. Damien, you don't know the half of it.

At their most basic, speed bumps or topes (toe-pays) are a cheap and nasty Mexican solution to the very real problem of speeding cars.

On the way to the nearby town of Celaya, in the middle of nowhere and with little warning, you run into a string of five or six topes—and five wooden crosses huddled on one side of the road that tell the reason why they were installed: Apparently five people lost their lives trying to cross the road.

Topes near schools, busy pedestrian crossings or construction zones make sense. But the vast majority just pop up overnight, unexplained and at apparently illogical locations.

On the Richter Scale of topes, the ones on San Miguel's Calzada de la
Luz are relatively benign, except there are more than a dozen
on a piece of street less than a mile long. 
Several years ago San Miguel drivers celebrated the opening of a marvelous silk-smooth highway that shaved ten or fifteen minutes from the drive to nearby León airport. Within a week or five, however, a series of ten or fifteen topes appeared. They seemed to be of the homemade, asphalt variety which suggested neighbors had taken matters into their own hands.

The screeching of brakes and teeth-gnashing all but eliminated the time savings and convenience of the new road. But just as quickly, someone—the government? irate drivers? the Almighty?—went by and scraped up most of the offending speed bumps. Some survived and others were replaced, and at the end of this brief but intense speed bump war we are left with five or six of them.

A double string of little turtles looks innocent but it can
bring out every rattle in your car. 
There are no engineering standards governing the height or width of topes. The most innocuous ones are simply a length of thick rope across the road, usually to signal a military or police checkpoint ahead.

Most colorful are the tortuguitas ("little turtles"), or metal half-spheres, yellow when new and imbedded in the pavement. They can deliver enough of a jolt to spill your coffee but at least you can see them coming.

The most lethal tope is the combination speed bump and crosswalk, up to nine or ten inches high and with a flat top four to five feet wide. Unless you approach them almost dead slow, your car's front end will be on one side and your rear wheels still on the other—while your muffler and undercarriage scrape bottom. The deep gouges on many of the topes around San Miguel tell that story.

Our first car in Mexico was a VW Passat stationwagon that suffered innumerable scrapes. The low-slung profile made it a great road car with handling so sure its wide tires seemed glued to the pavement. But in San Miguel—Mexico's national obstacle course with a combination of cobblestones, potholes, narrow streets, cyclists and topes around every corner—the Passat didn't stand a chance.

Many other low-riding car models are similarly vulnerable. Toyota Priuses are hopeless and even most of the menacing Dodge Chargers of the Policía Federal seem to have had the bottom of their fiberglass noses chewed off by topes. 

A little-used road leading to a subdivision on the edge of town.
Why is a speed bump needed here? Because, why not?
A fun aspect of this tope mania, though, is to watch visiting chilangos—a not too endearing moniker for blowhard Mexico City visitors—in town for the weekend and trying to wow their girlfriends with their Mercedeses, BMWs and the occasional Ferrari, and instead losing parts of their mufflers in our little jungle of pinche speedbumps.

Topes, annoying and destructive as they are, survive because they are cheap and effective. They save the cost of installing traffic lights (San Miguel has none, and its many Stop signs are mostly decorative) and certainly of having a trained police force to prosecute speeders.

So the problem feeds on itself—drivers ignore speed limits because they know the police is not going to do anything. Even when they spring into action, cops often are out to collect bribes rather than enforce speed limits or other traffic regulations.

On the approach to the U.S. border, near Laredo, there is a stretch of road notorious as a shameless speed trap. There are curves, exits, lane changes, loopy loops and other traffic features—each stretch with its own speed limit—and an endless stream of clueless gringo drivers who neglect to speed up or slow down accordingly. Like shooting fish in a barrel, many get stopped by the police though usually a cash contribution to the officer makes the problem go away.

And to the New York Times reporter, here's a free piece of advice on clearing topes without wrecking your car. First, slow down almost to a crawl. Then tackle them at a sharp angle, so at least one of your tires remains on the tope and you don't bottom out.

If that doesn't work, I dunno, have you considered buying an SUV?


Monday, June 13, 2016

Gay lives matter

Sunday started out gloomy at our ranch in Mexico and it only got grayer as the day went on. We woke up to dense fog that erased the mountains that usually delineate our horizon, while clouds descended so low they seemed to settle atop our house, making us almost feel trapped.

Then around eleven o'clock our phone started chirping and vibrating incessantly on the kitchen counter, signaling newsflashes from CNN that twenty people had been shot dead in Orlando, a number that after noon had risen to fifty, including the killer, plus fifty-three people wounded.

As I recall CNN didn't mention the word "gay" or "gay bar" initially, and the New York Times' rambling opening report only mentioned "gay" once. No complaints there. Reporters and editors understandably were caught by surprise and assembled whatever scraps of information were available.

But as the day progressed, commentators and politicians—except for President Obama and Hillary Clinton and other usual liberal suspects—immediately pivoted to speculation that centered on terrorism. Conjecture quickly gelled into "fact" after the killer was identified as a U.S. citizen but who had an Arabic-sounding name and was the son of Afghan immigrants. Bingo.  

That was not an unreasonable suspicion or supposition except it missed the gorilla in the room: The site of the massacre was a crowded gay bar and all the dead and wounded were gay men and women. Those were incontrovertible, readily available facts that needed no speculation or interpretation and had some bearing on the evolving story.

A gay bar and a refuge for gay people.   (AP photo)
Might not homophobia been the principal cause—more so or as important as—possible Islamic terror links or the wide availability of assault weapons? Might not homophobia—the hatred, ostracism and condemnation of gays and lesbians—that right-wing politicians have embraced as central article of faith and has become a GOP political talking point during the past fifteen or twenty years, contributed to the Orlando massacre? Such suspicions would hardly be a stretch.

It's not as if this gay bar was the first one to be attacked, by bigots and sometimes even police. In 1973 a deliberately set fire at a bar in New Orleans killed thirty-two people and there have been thousands of incidents of homophobia since that have led to the death or injury of gay people.

But on Sunday all the talk was about radical Muslims, led by Donald Trump who never misses an occasion, no matter how grotesque or inappropriate, to advance his demagogic agenda in person or in this case through "I told you" tweets about Islamic terrorists that mentioned nothing about the victims being gay.

A good friend in Chicago recently wrote me that the current political debate and climate in the U.S. nowadays are "beyond comprehension." Imagine how much more disheartening and confusing it must be for Stew and me, living ten or twelve hours driving time from the closest inch of U.S. soil, and trying to follow events back home by watching and reading about them on electronic gadgets.

Following the Orlando massacre, few politicians specifically lamented the deaths of 49 gay people or the scourge of homophobia that might have motivated the killer.

The exceptions were President Obama, who took time to recognize "all our friends—our fellow Americans—who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered" affected by the Orlando massacre, and Hillary Clinton, who reassured the gay community "that you have millions of allies across the country. I am one of them."

For his part, Sen. Ted Cruz issued a statement that is a masterpiece of cynicism. While presumably strongly condemning the killing of gays and lesbians he really aimed his fire at Democrats and specifically Obama for not putting enough effort into eradicating Islamic extremists.

Beware of Republican homophobes bearing gifts. I doubt that either the president, Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party support or coddle terrorists. Far more likely, Cruz is trying to use the issue for political advantage.

Besides, I'm suspicious of someone like Cruz who, in the dying days of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination launched yet another jihad against gays and lesbians, this time under a totally disingenuous campaign against bathroom access for transgendered people.

To use a hackneyed escape clause, it's too early to say how the story of the Orlando massacre will play out. It could fuel the rush to fear-mongers like Trump; engender a growing recognition of the reality of homophobia; or rekindle the drive for some sensible gun control legislation. Sadly, I'm betting on the first of these three possibilities, at least in the short term.  


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Slouching, very slowly, towards Vegetarianville

After nearly 44 years together Stew and I have developed an instinctive telepathy. While on vacation in Granada, Spain, ten days ago, a dinner at a restaurant triggered in each of us reflections about our eating habits that resurfaced during a conversation yesterday.

At the Estrellas de San Nicolás restaurant the cuisine was what I would call faux haute cuisine, or piss elegant in the vernacular. The menu was a bulky, leather-bound tome, and the entrées printed in a fine, curlicued cursive type that was nearly illegible, and seasoned with lots of French that had me going from Spanish to English and back again, trying to figure out what to eat. The prices were certainly haute, culminating with desserts for 12 euros, or 15 dollars, and up.

Worse, most of all the food was mediocre, falling far short of its pretentious billing. The one compensation was the view: The panoramic and unforgettable sight of the Alhambra at sunset.

What dawned on us yesterday was our unspoken but similar reactions to the menu. For a variety of reasons we wouldn't touch most of the items offered. We don't eat lamb, veal, or God forbid, suckling pig, or snails, clams, octopus or fish served whole with its head intact, one eye looking at you pleadingly, or pretty much any animal-based dish that too closely reminds us of the original. And those are just a few of our dietary objections.

Yesterday Stew and I agreed that we could be in the middle of yet another one of our vegetarian epiphanies, which in the past have been brief and predictably thwarted by the appearance of an irresistible dish, like Cuban-style pork roast or Southern fried chicken.

Say "no" to soy bacon. 
An awful meal also can shove us off the vegetarian wagon. Some forty years ago, during a visit to their home in Minnesota, Stew's brother and his wife served us for breakfast a soy-based imitation bacon, with perfect bacon-like stripes, microwaved to a crisp perfection and then sprayed with brown coloring meant to give it a more realistic appearance. Hmm. It triggered in Stew and me a post-traumatic, anything-but-vegetarianism reaction that lingers to this day.

More recently, a friend here in San Miguel invited us to dinner without warning us that, in a fit of concern for all living things, she had embraced veganism just a couple of nights before the engagement. It was a disastrous, rice-based concoction that triggered the lamest of compliments: "Gee, that was interesting!"

Veganism is out of the question. It's a noble aspiration, very close to sexual abstinence, and it would take a lot of research and development unless we hire our own $100,000-a-year vegan chef as Ellen DeGeneres or Bill Clinton have done.

But another stab at vegetarianism is an idea that keeps coming back, reinforced by childhood memories and recently, living in a small ranch in Mexico.

Stew's uncle Harvey and my dad each imprinted in us our deep love for animals, which of course conflicts with killing and having them for dinner. Customers at my dad's printing shop in a small town in Cuba periodically brought live gifts from the farm, such as ducks, rabbits, chickens and even kittens and puppies.

Once a chicken arrived at home and duly given a name, it was hard to kill it and eat it, though there were exceptions. My maternal grandmother Herminia, a short, stern character with her gray hair always tightly collected in a bun—and who was a phenomenal cook—would prepare arroz con pollo when we visited. Nothing would do but fresh chicken, the kind of freshness that required a live bird that, shortly after arrival, would let out a shriek reminiscent of a bris, on its way to be plucked in a bathtub of hot water.
Arroz con pollo anyone?

When arroz con pollo arrived no one talked about animal welfare. Even my dad tried to assuage his own feelings by explaining that the business with the chicken, ahem, was quick and painless, nothing to get weepy about.

Reading and watching shows about animal welfare have compounded our carnivore qualms. "Milk-fed veal" involves the confinement of a very young calf to ensure its meat is tender. "Suckling pig" means offing a piglet before it even knows how to oink. To get fois gras you need to force feed a goose to abnormally enlarge its liver. And so on; perhaps too much information.

Stew and I find other dishes just repulsive. Octopus tentacles with the suction cups staring at you? Sucking the innards from snails? Brains, liver or tripe? No thanks.

In fact, the end of our lamb-eating days came in a farm in Scotland when we arrived in the middle of the lambing season and the kelly-green landscape was covered with hundreds of the meandering little buggers, cute as bugs and innocent and dumb as rocks.

Right now our ranch here is surrounded just-born lambs and goats and veal-grade calves that remind us of our dietary misgivings. Our gardener Félix, an animal softy himself, has a more agrarian view of things. They run around grazing and whatever, he says, until they are killed and eaten. It's silly to go around naming one's individual lambs or goats. For his wedding blast his in-laws contributed a whole cow and someone else a pig.

Stew and I have talked about some carnivore alternatives that respect our concern for animals. But that is a difficult rationalization to follow in Mexico where the animal rights movement hasn't even left the barn. Range-fed beef, humane slaughtering, free-range chickens and other Whole Foods niceties are not on the table. Pigs and cattle are "processed" at a city-owned slaughterhouse and you don't want to even think what goes on there.

Maybe gradual flirting with a vegetarian diet is our most realistic approach, like one or two days a week. Pastas, vegetarian chili and other meat-free dishes.

It's going to be a long, arduous road though, to give up roast pork, ham or fried chicken.

Plus Stew and I are pushing seventy: We'd better find the exit to Vegetarianville pretty soon.


Friday, May 6, 2016

The age of electile dysfunction

When tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister of Italy—a notorious era when the country was a flying circus of bimbos, corruption and scandals—Americans could afford to snicker. 

You know, those wild and crazy Italians; only they would think of electing a billionaire with strange skin tones and a slippery grasp of facts, figures or truth in general. Those Italians—over there—just can't get their act together to watch a pot of rigatoni.

Silvio, are you laughing at us?

But now that Americans have Donald Trump, an orange-haired Berlusconi, stirring his own pot of demagoguery and hate—and inching his way to the White House—we're not laughing. 

Stew and I read an e-mail summary of The Guardian, an English daily, and watch some BBC newscasts, and it's unsettling to watch the rest of the world react to the U.S. electoral process with a mixture of bemusement, scorn and alarm, as if saying what the fuck?

It is difficult too to explain the Trump phenomenon to Mexicans, a politically cynical bunch if there ever was one, used to corruption and political clowning as a way of life.  

Shortly after moving here, Stew took a volunteer job teaching English to young Mexicans who would often pose unanswerable questions about American politics. 

"Maybe we could understand why Americans elected George Bush the first time," a student once asked Stew, "but twice?" 

To answer that, Stew would have had to explain Karl Rove and dirty politics, the corrupting influence of big money in U.S. elections and other details that may have sounded awfully similar to the Mexican political system. And after that, there would have been little time left for English grammar. 

It is just as difficult for me to explain the rise of Donald Trump, who was universally dismissed as a freak show only six months ago. Indeed, I feel defrauded by the American democratic system for allowing someone so repugnant to come so close to becoming the nominee of one of two major political parties.  

Some analysts say Trump may have tapped a vein of resentment among white Americans who see themselves losing their historic demographic and political advantage, especially after enduring almost eight years under a black president. 

Others theorize that working folk in the U.S. feel the economic system is rigged against them. What's good for "job creator" Mitt Romney turns out to be not as good for the struggling middle class. Trump is the guy willing to fix the problem or at least pay attention to the victims. Trump may be a serial fabulist but when people are pissed they tend to skip the fact-checking or the fine print.

Or perhaps Trump is a vile demagogue who'll say anything to rile up his supporters. 

More perplexing is why the Democrats have failed to formulate a credible alternative to Trumpist lunacy and sleaziness. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders has led a progressive campaign that has captured and enraptured a large, young following but his proposals, for instance, for single-payer health insurance and free college tuition don't sound too realistic. I shudder at the prospect of what the Republican wolves in Congress would do with them and four more years of gridlock.  

Then we have Hillary Clinton who is plain old and not just chronologically—she and I are contemporaries—but in her ideas, which sound as exciting as leftover meatloaf. In foreign policy, for instance, I'd like to listen to someone present a new vision that doesn't involve American men and women fighting wars and drone-bombing the natives the world over, in perpetuity. We can't afford any more blood or treasure in such adventures. She sounds like a hawk, which means more of the same. 

Or a candidate that would recognize the legitimate grievances of labor unions and the workers they represent, and the fact they've been sidelined by a new economic order that favors Wall Street financial manipulations. Instead we have Hillary who has made a fortune in speaking fees in Wall Street and won't even reveal the content of her talks. 

A few weeks ago I received one of those jokey emails, this one about the new phenomenon of "electile dysfunction" supposedly affecting millions of American voters thoroughly unaroused by the choices they face in November. 

And all I could say to myself was, "Yep."