Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mucho Macho at the Hecho Barber Shop

San Miguel scales new heights of urban sophistication at an astonishing pace.

A French bakery that calls itself an "Atelier du Pain" opened a month ago. Meanwhile, a new "Interpretation Cuisine" restaurant that offers a weekly tasting menu of six or seven delicious spoonful-size servings was so successful it moved to a much fancier location in the Centro. Naturally prices went up, to a still a bargain of $450 pesos.

Two weeks ago we noticed that the city had even purchased mid twentieth century-style compacting garbage trucks to replace the old system of an open dump truck with three or four disposal technicians aboard, knee-deep in garbage and fielding stuff tossed by a guy on the ground, while simultaneously swatting flies and keeping an eye on anything of value in the stream of debris.

Out in the boonies regulation dumpsters have appeared too, even in small towns, so folks frustrated by the lack of regular trash pick ups don't throw it along the roads.

Can't argue with modernity, I tell you.

Where macho men hang out. 
Of most interest to expat men, particularly those who have any hair left, is the opening of a barber shop dedicated to male grooming called "Hecho Hombre."

Not sure what the name means exactly. "Man Made"? "Made Man"? Whatever. Stew and I have become regulars.

Before Hecho, men only had two choices for haircuts.

One was the ancient Mexican-style barber shop where typically a guy who learned the trade from his uncle cut your hair for thirty or forty pesos. Cheap enough but you were likely to walk out looking like a rustic from Pátzcuaro, in town looking for a decent restaurant.

Shortly after we moved to San Miguel twelve years ago—true story—I spotted a shop near the Jardín that struck me for its silence when I walked in. No radios, no customers, no "buenos días" from the barber, no sound at all.

As I began to explain the cut I wanted, the barber shook his head and pointed to three heads for his electric clipper lying on the counter. The barber was deaf-mute.

The three clipper choices ranged from "a light trim," "medium well" and "you're in the Army now." I opted for the medium well. Though I was both awed and sorry by the man's predicament and tipped him generously, I didn't go back again.

Desperate to get a decent cut, some expat men resort to frilly women's hair salons, decorated with crystal chandeliers, plaster reproductions of Greek statues and copies of "Hola" magazine with breathtaking reports about the latest joys and travails of European royalty.

You soon discover that the coiffeurs at these salons are mostly interested in dye jobs and intricate cuts and styles for expat women, who'd sit on the chair for hours looking like Martians with little tinfoil bows stuck in their hair.

M. Israel Magaña, Maître Coiffeur
I was definitely not interested on a dye job. When I arrived in San Miguel I tried one of those coloring jobs out a bottle and the resulting jet-black mane made me look like a Halloween version of  Ricardo Montalbán.

When visiting one of these salons I distinctly felt neglected, as if men's cuts were something to fill gaps in the schedule while waiting for the more profitable women clients.

Not so at Hecho Hombre, where men are kings.

The shop is tiny but meticulously designed in a style I'd call Macho Retro. The color scheme is mostly black and white and the chairs the old-fashioned type that have been restored. Reading material includes GQ in Spanish and sports magazines.

Another satisfied customer. 
Greeting you at the door is a young guy with a fabulous black Babylonian beard that sets the tone. As a sort of maître d' he juggles appointments that can be made in person, by phone or online at Hecho's website. He then offers you a bottle of water or a shot of mezcal, as you wait your turn for one of the two barbers.

I've settled on Israel Magaña, a shy 21-year-old who must weigh about a hundred pounds. He has some barbering-related tattoos, including a pair of scissors under his sideburns, and holes in his earlobes.

Over the course of thirty or forty minutes he sculpts your hair carefully and meticulously as if he were dusting a hand grenade. That's the kind of attention I like.

The result is perfection. One time he was so proud of his work that he pulled out a camera and took my picture.  Vanity your name is Alfredo.

My latest tonsorial masterpiece. 
On the way out you're offered mints and a hot towel to wipe your face, as you peruse shelves of male grooming products. I understand Hecho offers old-fashioned shaves with hot towels and skin emollients to pamper you and soften the old wrinkles a bit, and even wax for moustaches. I don't have enough whiskers to indulge in any of that.

I was so elated after my last visit I walked out without paying the $250 pesos for my cut.

Not to worry: The Babylonian guy chased me down the street to ask for his money.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

At the gas pump, curb your expectations

A month ago a perfectly usable PEMEX located on the way into town was demolished and barely three weeks later—in what must be a new Mexican construction speed record—it was replaced by a gleaming bright-green BP station, as in London-based British Petroleum, although those two potentially problematic English words were nowhere to be found.

Welcome to a new world, or at least a new color scheme.
The re-uniformed gas jockeys, who must have been sent to intensive enthusiasm school, greeted customers as if they were cousins who'd just returned from a nine-month stint the U.S. hanging drywall, and extolled the virtues of the new operation as they filled our tank.

Will the gas be any cheaper? I asked. No, one guy answered, but the BP gas is superior and better for your engine because it contains a secret ingredient called "Tecnología Active." Stew and I rolled our eyes.

Meanwhile, I read that PEMEX has opened five stations in Houston, where it also co-owns a refinery with Shell Oil Co. Some of the PEMEX stations in Houston come with an adjacent Taco Shack.

Friends reported yesterday that gas at a Costco store outside of San Antonio was going for around two dollars a gallon or half of what PEMEX charges its compatriots south of the border.

Surely, PEMEX must be selling cheap gas in Texas otherwise how could they have any business? Does that mean cheap gas may be coming our way?

Slow down, pardner, you're going too fast.

But if BP and PEMEX keep selling gas for the same price down here, what's the point of having different gas stations, except for the more cheerful BP green scheme and the turbocharged staff?

Surprise at the pump. 
Does the appearance of BP here foretell the advent of real price competition at gas stations in Mexico, or perhaps the gradual dismantlement of the government-owned, epically corrupt PEMEX monopoly which Mexicans have cherished for decades as a family heirloom and a symbol of national pride?

Too many questions, bubba.

Initial customer reaction indicates Mexican consumers don't care about—or don't know—the difference between PEMEX or BP. Yesterday the new station had a line of customers out to the sidewalk, as usual. The gasoline could be coming from the Caspian Sea.

Can we expect—in our lifetimes—to see gas stations at Costcos and Walmarts in Mexico selling discounted gasoline? And PEMEX putting up signs with the prices of the various fuels, so drivers can decide where to get their gas?

Better sit down, guy. Now you're hallucinating.


Monday, December 4, 2017

The Met ought to compensate the victims of Jimmy's indiscretions

When the pedophilia scandal first enveloped the Catholic Church, its first line of defense was denial or trying to distance the institution from the predator priests. Church officials lied about the problem or blamed it on isolated miscreants.

Then it commissioned a study that among other things suggested the incidence of pedophilia and homosexuality in the Church's ranks were partly the result of the breakdown of traditional moral values or the libertinage of modern times.

Or whatever. That fanciful baloney, of course, ignored the long history of homosexual hanky-panky in the Church, going back to, hmm, at least, Pope Julius III (1487-1555).

Julius, who mercifully reigned for only five years, had an eye for young boys and fell head over heels for a 15-year-old street hustler named Fabian, whom he adopted as his "nephew," renamed Innocenzo and made a cardinal.

Julius III: What's new pussycat? 
There is indeed very little new under the sun as far as Catholic priests preying on altar boys—or the institutional church sweeping the problem under the very expensive carpets at the Vatican.

Now we have James Levine, the legendary music director of the New York Metropolitan Opera until last year, and guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's  summer Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.

Being gay myself, I know quite a number of friends known among ourselves as "opera queens", who can at the drop of hat give you breathless interpretations of, say, the second act Alban Berg's "Lulu".

To the last, these opera queens say that the "Jimmy" Levine story is very old and widely known, and it must have be so to the management and directors of the Metropolitan Opera who let him go on molesting  young men unimpeded, shielded by his fame and star power.

The Met's suspension of Levine seems as a worst case of too little and too late.

In the case of the Catholic Church, truth and justice caught up with the institution, if only after decades of denials and subterfuge, to the tune of billions of dollars paid in reparations to the victims.

In Ireland, once considered an island colony of the Vatican, the damage to the Irish church's finances and reputation has been incalculable.

In the U.S. it's sad to think of all the good the church might have accomplished if instead of billions for reparations it had invested that money to sustain Catholic schools in the inner cities. But at least the Church owned up to the problem.

The question now is whether the august cultural institutions that apparently condoned Levine's behavior are going to get out their checkbooks and compensate the victims—and apologize to them individually—or just get a pass on the strength of florid apologies.

Is the The Old Vic theater in London going to own up to its responsibility to the fifteen or twenty young actors and staffers Kevin Spacey allegedly harassed while he was artistic director from 2004 to 2015?

And so on with regard to other institutions and organizations—the Weinstein Company, NBC and CBS come to mind—which so far have fired the individual perpetrators but failed to own up to their organizational  failure to pay sufficient attention to what was going on or looking away once they did.

Say what you will about Fox News, but when the sexual harassment scandals there erupted the Murdoch brothers not only fired the aggressors but compensated the victims—big time.

Which brings us to Mexico, which according to various reports, is one of the world capitals of mistreatment of women. A fellow blogger just published a post,  "The Rape Culture in Mexico," with lengthy details and documentation about this tragic problem which seems to be part of the country's genetic makeup. Though Mexican politicians and bureaucrats give the problem endless hoo-hah and blah-blah, little is done to combat it. Read it and weep.

And another footnote. To help celebrate my seventieth birthday on December 30, Stew got us tickets for the Metropolitan Opera's new production of "Tosca" on New Year's Eve. Last I checked, Jimmy was supposed to conduct. Now what?


Friday, December 1, 2017

MouseBusters™ on the case. No more.

Until this year, our two cats, Paco, 16, and Fifo, 12, did a credible job of keeping wild critters, particularly mice and rats, out of the house.

This week, though, we discovered they'd surrendered their hunting badges. It may be Paco's old age or Fifo increasing rotundity and laziness, but when we spotted a small mouse in the kitchen a few days ago the cats didn't show the slightest hunting interest.

Hold our calls. We're retired now. 
Félix and Stew were greatly alarmed by the appearance of the mouse in the kitchen and yelped about "ratas" that kept growing in size and number at least in their imagination. On day two of the rodent crisis, the ratas had mutated into a herd of predators the size of small raccoons.

I insisted on calling them "guayabitos," which is the proper name for little gray mice—quite cute, actually—instead of ratas, which to my mind are the industrial-strength rodents that reposition the garbage dumpsters in Chicago's alleys at night.

Paco's retirement I can understand. He came with us from Chicago and recently has been howling at night as if in pain. The vet told us he has arthritis and sometimes it hurts him to walk.

Once, after looking listless for a few days, we took him to Dr. Alma, a vet so deeply revered by the expat community that she seems to be on the brink of canonization. She palmed off Paco's case to a young assistant who when we met him was decked out in a smock so filthy he looked like someone who'd just finished a shift at Jiffy Lube.

The next day Dr. Doofus, as Stew came to call him, retrieved Paco from the back room, put him on the counter and dramatically announced he had advanced feline diabetes and no more than six months to live.

Yikes, poor Paco!

That was eleven years ago. We've never been back to Alma or Dr. Doofus. Except for his arthritic joints Paco today keeps placidly ambling around at night and sleeping during the day. Once a week he might go out and around the house, exiting by the kitchen door and returning through the garage.

Life is good but his hunting career is over.

Even in his salad days, Paco's hunting style could be described as Newtonian: he let gravity do most of the work. He would spot a mouse perilously tiptoeing on the canopy over the terrace and just sit and wait underneath until the mouse fell down in front of him. Paco would slap him with his paw and that was it. This strategy could take several hours. 

Fifo, on the other hand, has always been an aggressive hunter of birds, mice and rats who at day's end would leave a trail of sparrow and hummingbird feathers and mouse bones on our terrace. It was an amazing show because Fifo never fully opens his eyes and looks as if he's permanently stoned.

Recently, though, he's retired from the hunting racket too, after apparently concluding it's easier to sit around and wait for canned food to come his way than go looking for his dinner.

So to deal with the guayabito in the kitchen we had to retrieve a live-trap we'd bought here made of fencing mesh, a piece of wood and a spring-loaded door. It is a crude, almost medieval-looking contraption, something kids would make in grammar school shop class and get a C+.  I don't know where it came from.

Out on parole. 
On the first night we heard the trap door slamming and the following morning found a tiny mouse, about three inches long plus tail, poking his nose through the mesh. Of course we didn't kill him. Félix took him away from the house and let him loose.

In the basement storage room things got more grisly. I had bought four sticky mouse traps which Félix positioned on top of the shelves. Next day there were five or six dead mice stuck to the traps, plus another one that was stuck but still alive. Félix asked if he should try to carefully pry loose the toes of the survivor and let him loose too.

Stew voted against that act of kindness. I didn't want to look at any mice stuck on the traps.

The storage room situation is baffling because that's where three of the dogs sleep. I guess they don't hear the mice over each other's snoring.

My vote is to let the mice run around in the storage room at night, past the dogs' noses, and leave it at that. There's an infinite number of mice outside and I refuse to buy any more traps or be responsible for the misery of mice stuck to the traps, especially those that may be still alive.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Honey forecast: Lousy, reasons unknown

All outward signs pointed toward a bumper harvest of honey—good rains; nice cover of flowers, both wild and planted; mild temperatures—but for some reason we got only a fraction of the usual production this year.

The number of monarch butterflies and their more exotic cousins also seemed to be sharply down. The only bumper crop this year was a late-summer invasion of thousands of ravenous grasshoppers eating everything in sight.

Three years ago we harvested three five-gallon buckets of honey; last year two and this year only three-quarters of one bucket, or three gallons. That's pretty sad.
Much mess about very little honey. 

About a month ago, Félix and Stew checked the three hives and were alarmed to find one full, one half-full and the third completely dead. In the spring they had introduced new queens to two of the hives and one of those turned up completely empty.

Ours being a stand-alone and fairly primitive operation, it's going to be tough to determine what's caused the downturn.

We don't have universities nearby with agricultural extension services buzzing with experts as they do in the States, but there are commercial honey operations around here and maybe they'll know.

The only source of information that comes to mind now is the supplier of honey paraphernalia in Morelia, Michoacán, so we need to get Félix to call them to get the information chain going.

As to what happened to the butterflies, that's anyone's guess. Maybe nothing except our anecdotal reports.

I had read some alarmist articles from the U.S. that blamed a sharp decline in honey production and bee populations on the use some fertilizers containing nicotinic acid. The European Union had banned the use of that fertilizer.

Immediately surrounding our ranch the level of agricultural sophistication or the use of any type of chemicals has to be close to zilch. We are talking subsistence farming at its worst.

But farther afield, maybe five miles or more from here there are vast irrigated fields of all sorts of leaf vegetables, and caravans of trucks hauling them to the U.S. So maybe some bad stuff could be blowing our way and knocking out our bees.

There's not much to be done until the spring, particularly the introduction of new queens to our hives, but to start asking questions. For now all we can do is hoard the new honey for ourselves and maybe close friends—but only if they beg.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

On Thanksgiving morning

Gratitude comes easily when everything in our lives is hunky-dory which, unfortunately, doesn't happen very often and when it does, it is usually but for a fleeting moment.

Rather, we reflexively tend to look forward or backward, or right or left, and get distracted by the reality of a sick friend, a sore back, something we forgot to do or fix.

That's why gratitude has to be enjoyed on the fly, so to speak, when the good fortune of the moment flashes before our eyes like a beautiful, unexpected snapshot.

Early morning show. 

This morning, Stew and I went for our daily morning walk with our dogs Lucy, Domino, Felisa, Roxy and Ellie, plus a small orange stray with a corkscrew tail whom we've named Malcolm, and who's decided that food and company are far better at our place than at wherever he came from. He lives under a bush outside our gate, ever ready to give us a twenty-one-gun salute whenever we go by, and considers himself a member of our canine gang. 

We took a rutted road, whose destination we have yet to discover, through corn fields that by now have been picked clean, the dried stalks and leaves neatly bundled in symmetrical conical bundles that look like teepees. 

The angled early morning sun highlighted both the golden autumnal colors and the dramatic shadows. A nip in the air—the water in our birdbath awakened with a thin topping of ice—gave our jaunt an extra snap.

But not before we paused to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of this place where we live. An impressionist painting authored by nature just for us. How privileged we are to live here!

This afternoon we'll go over to Don and Richard's, a couple from Chicago who are among our best friends, for Thanksgiving dinner, to enjoy the food and their company. 

Today is one for daylong gratitude—not just a moment—when good and beautiful things confront us, unsolicited and free of charge.

Tomorrow may be different but I hope I find at least a few minutes to be grateful. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Water Lady will see you now

Looking like a piece that had broken off the International Space Station, a decrepit well-digging rig landed about a kilometer away from our ranch a month ago, launching yet another episode of the tragicomic novela about our community's water supply.

Who's sinking the new well, huh? And does he/she have a permit from the local or state water authority? The People want to know.

Central yet beside the point. 
Will this rickety new well—in addition to a monster well sunk not far away by the former mayor of San Miguel for the benefit of his new vineyard and a rumored new housing subdivision—threaten to deplete the aquifer, three hundred thirty meters below us, that provides our water?

None of these questions rise to the level of rocket science. They could be settled or arbitrated by a government authority. It could determine fees, finance maintenance and generally manage operations for the benefit of all.

Dream on. We're in rural Mexico, where many  communities have their own water committee. Ours is  usually led by woman Stew and I have come to call the Water Lady.

It's not an easy job. One Water Lady was supposedly fired for stealing the water money. In her defense, the rumor went on, her husband was a miserable drunk who stole the family's food money and left her no alternative but to dip into the water fund.

Indeed, "system" is too strong a word to describe our water distribution arrangement which more closely resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Atop a hill, there's an ancient masonry holding tank that is fed by a pipe from a large electric pump located downhill by the wellhead, about a kilometer away.

Gravity then feeds the water in the holding tank to residents through a haphazard maze of galvanized pipes and rubber hoses with cutoff valves here and there.

At our ranch we have a one hundred and thirty-five thousand liter rainwater collection tank that is brimming by the end of the rainy season. It is supplemented, on Saturdays and Sundays, when water arrives via a one and a half inch rubber pipe, for about four or five hours each day.

If there's no water for a couple of weeks, Félix and I, or some other neighbors must track down the Water Lady du jour to find out what happened.

Uncertain as it may sound, this arrangement has kept us in potable water, which we run through a series of filters before using it. We've only had to summon a water truck once, to deliver ten thousand liters for about fifty dollars.

The water fee is one hundred pesos a month, or about six dollars. We pay six months in advance to slyly buy influence with the Water Lady and her committee, which are always short of money because many of the Mexican customers don't pay at all.

I suspect that perennial money shortages have led the water committee to sell more and more hookups, called tomas, to Americans and others building new homes. New tomas go for a princely thousand dollars or more. But the system that was designed to serve thirty households now has twice as many customers.

Yet selling more tomas to cover operating and capital expenses is unsustainable in the long term and puts greater stress on the rickety and overburdened system.

An American who studied the system—and has a personal stake in a reliable water supply because he is trying to sell his ranch—met with engineers of SAPASMA, the local agency theoretically in charge of regulating the water supply in the entire municipality including the rural areas. He was told that the stone reservoir and the cobweb of hoses and pipes are in such disrepair that an estimated two million liters of water are lost yearly.

Logically, the town urgently needs a 1950s-style metal water tank standing on four legs to pressurize the flow and reduce leaks.

Dream on again. Who's going to pay for it? Not SAPASMA, unless the neighbors agree to install water meters and pay for consumption.

Many, if not most, of our neighbors are very poor and live life a day at a time. In addition, mutual trust, community cooperation and civic involvement are not a strong traits of rural Mexicans who one cynic said would have a hard time getting together to watch a fire.

Here's Félix' explanation of why residents in his community of Sosnavar, about a mile from here, opposed water meters. When the water is turned on, he explained, air blows through the pipes first before the water actually reaches the customers. The air makes the meters spin even though there's no water for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of service.

It's not fair. Folks would be charged for water and air. Sigh.

Just as things were getting boring, an American woman who's a bit mercurial and a bit peculiar, and who also wants to sell her ranch, took matters into her own hands by attempting to organize the Mexican residents against the evil person who is sinking the new well.

In a series of increasingly shrill and downright nutty e-mails, she accused the American owners who at one point she called "Aryans", of disrespecting and misunderstanding the Mexican campesinos.

For a minute it looked as if the dispute over water was about to boil over into a class warfare, led by an angry American who can't speak a lick of Spanish.

On Monday, she drove a group of neighbors to the state water commission office in the city of Celaya, about ninety minutes away, to demand it slap a cease-and-desist order on the new well. They were told to go back to San Miguel and take up the issue with SAPASMA.

Though I somewhat respect the American woman's initiative, barking at the offending drilling rig is not going to solve anything. It could be dismantled tomorrow morning and our barely functional water system wouldn't function any more reliably.

After the revolutionary fervor dies down, perhaps the American who spoke with SAPASMA and I could bring one of their engineers to talk with the residents and the Water Lady in charge.

A Water Summit,  if you will.

Meanwhile, the well-digger's distant and rhythmic thumping will go on for at least another month.

Actually we've found that once you get used to it, it becomes a sort of white noise that can help you fall asleep or at least forget the endless squabble over water.