Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A would-be Mexican superman

Ever since we hired Félix seven and a half years ago, when he showed up at our gate practically begging for any kind of a job, he's proven to be a source of both awe and sadness, one of the smartest, hardest working and most decent family guys I've ever encountered but one too who'll never amount to much for reasons entirely beyond his control.

Yesterday he brought a branch from a sycamore
 tree with the beginning of an infestation of muérdago, or mistletoe in English, an aggressive parasite that despite its cheery Christmasy name and attractive yellow flowers can take over and kill even a large tree in just a couple of seasons.

We walked over to the sycamore and he pointed to a few muérdago buds poised to begin their lethal careers. He explained how birds eat the seeds and then drop them on other trees. Wrapped in the bird's droppings, which the ever-polite Félix calls po-pó,  the seeds are also incredibly sticky, as if covered with mucilage, ready to adhere to the nearest host.

Félix with sycamore branch infected with muérdago
So Félix is now patrolling for muérdago, in addition to trees that are budding, or not, bird nests, snakes and any other signs of life or potential trouble in our ranch.  That along with remembering both the vernacular and botanical names of a myriad plants—how about nassela tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) which for some reason is spreading everywhere, or an ungainly pachipodium? He knows them all.

"Gomphrenas are coming up," he announced yesterday, pointing to half-inch plants popping out of the ground in one of our otherwise dormant flower beds. I could barely see the sprouts let alone recognize their identity.

Some of this horticultural information Félix picked up from a course on organic farming that I sent him to at the San Miguel Botanic Garden, and some of it has come from me as I show him internet articles (in Spanish whenever possible) or pass on whatever gardening information I have.

This morning I explained the difference between epiphytic plants that grab onto the host but otherwise live off the air and rain, such as orchids and air plants, and true parasites, like the muérdagos that invade the innards of whatever tree they land on.

Muerdago seed, small and brown and right in the middle of the
 photo, stuck on a branch of the sycamore and ready to go to work. 
How's Félix going to remember this arcana? Don't worry, he will. Even accounting for the fact that he's nearly forty years younger than me, that son-of-a-bitch has a curiosity, along with powers of observation and memory, and a brain to process the incoming data, that never ceases to amaze.

When he was still a teenager he entered the U.S. without papers and worked at various construction sites for a year before coming home complaining that he missed his family. That may have been the U.S.' loss and Mexico's gain.

Félix awesomeness is all the more so given the maelstrom of his upbringing. His father, he has told me when we've discussed alcoholism, was a down-and-out drunk who'd go missing for days only to show up without shoes or in soiled pants. The old man quit only when a doctor warned him he'd die soon otherwise. Even now, he suffers from severe diabetes, probably caused or aggravated by his alcoholism.

Epiphytic air plants attached to a huizache tree. 
Of Félix' eleven siblings, five were stillborn or died very young, he's told me. Four of the seven survivors are illiterate, and of those, three show signs of mental disability. Félix limped along to complete the sixth grade before being enlisted to go find a job and help support the family.

Despite his obvious intelligence, Félix's writing and reading are labored (his grammar and spelling are marginal), and his arithmetic, which he says was his favorite subject, doesn't take him much farther than adding, subtracting and multiplication. Fractions, percentages and divisions are beyond his grasp.

With a wife and three children to support, there's virtually no chance of Félix going back to school, so hopes for the future rests on three kids. I've talked with Alondra and Edgar, and played with them on the computer, and they seem very sharp and quick to learn. But it'll be a miracle if Mexico's anemic and corrupt public education system carries them very far. To attend the prepa, a type of pre-college high school, they would have to travel to San Miguel by public bus, assuming they meet the entrance requirements. Let us pray for a miracle.

Small bud attached to the sycamore, which I thought was filled
with seeds of some sort. Félix says they are insect eggs, 

maybe butterflies.
This morning I offered Félix a small notebook computer Stew no longer uses and to teach him how to use the internet. To my surprise, he turned me down. "I'm just not interested," he said, but added he'd like his older kids to learn. So now we have to find an internet cafe or some other wifi connection in his village and someone to sit down with at least his nine-year-old daughter to teach her the basics of online searches and using email, or just becoming familiar with a keyboard.

We often hear or read about singular human beings who rise above tougher-than-tough circumstances to become movie actors, scientists or teachers. But beyond being momentarily inspired or moved, we then forget about the other ninety-nine percent of the potential sharpies who never make it and what a shame that is—for them and for the rest of the world.


Monday, February 20, 2017

San Miguel's Fake Spring

While our compatriots back home suffer through daily charges and countercharges of "fake news," in San Miguel we're in the middle of our fake spring, a teaser season that comes about three months before the rains and the real spring arrives. 

Fake spring brings warmer temperatures, mid seventies at midday and mid forties at midnight, and plenty of sun, which prompts some wild bushes to flower and the bees in our three hives to stir and dive-bomb any blooms in sight. But it's really just a ruse by nature to get us to go outside and look around. 

Jarrilla bushes lead our fake springs
"This is the worst time of the year," said Stew last week, as we walked through the landscape of brown weeds and leafless trees that cover most of the yard. The weeds in particular are prime kindling for brush fires that tend to burn uncontrolled. They are also hiding places for rabbits, snakes, mice and other critters.

"Not so!" I heard some bees yell back at Stew, as they merrily attacked a few trees and bushes already flowering. The yellow blossoms that nearly cover the jarrilla bushes almost vibrate from the commotion of the frantic bees. Some small butterflies are also reconnoitering for flowers.

For people, the beautiful jarrillas are a mixed blessing. They have a vaguely putrid smell and can cause an allergic reaction, and if you get too close you risk getting stung by some crazed bee. Still, along with the huizaches, a gnarly, thorny relative of mesquites, I'm thankful for these two wild bushes for providing a much needed shot of color this time of year.

Huizaches, thorny but beautiful
That's not all. Last week Félix noticed that our peach trees also are flowering and our pata de vaca, or cow's foot tree, has a few delicate lavender blossoms. The magnolia is also nurturing some huge buds that will turn into floppy white flowers. In addition, Félix walked into the kitchen yesterday with a four-inch asparagus and news that more are on the way.

This year's fake spring was spurred by a very mild winter—I don't recall a single frost—and a couple of faint drizzles, or chipi-chipis, as I heard one Mexican call them.

A few months back I read that fruit trees need to be pruned to promote fruiting this year and healthier foliage the next. News to me and Félix.

So I checked the internet and pulled out pruning instructions in English and Spanish. We still are not sure what's the proper way to prune, to help rather than disfigure the tree, so we proceeded very gently.

Pruning is a heartless business. One set of instructions said that as much as forty percent of the branches need to go, something Félix and I felt was a bit excessive, even cruel. Except for the lone apricot, our other fruit trees already have flowers and even tiny fuzzy peaches.

The first of this year's peaches
I read too that when the fruits arrive in earnest one should pinch off four out of five babies to ensure production of one large fruit instead of four tiny ones. In past years we've gotten tasty but stunted peaches the size of golf balls. Production wasn't helped when our dogs devised a game of standing on their hind legs and pulling off the low-hanging fruits.

Amid the exuberant peaches we also have one apricot, cherry and plum tree, all about four years old. They have produced zero fruit, despite my consultations of the internet and my gardening books. Maybe this will be the year. An Israeli variety of apple called "Anna," that was supposedly adapted to our harsh soil, died two years ago and its soul went back to Jerusalem. A year-old guava tree is leafing nicely but so far not flowering.

Either way, yesterday Félix and I pruned all the fruit trees the best we could, and fertilized and watered them. Onwards.

Asparagus (asparaguses? asparagi?) are popping up too. Félix discovered the tiny spears, all but the width of a pencil, and Stew ate one of them and pronounced it delicious.

That's a good omen for the next gardening season, three months or so from now when every inch of landscape around will turn kelly green and we will have forgotten the impatience and frustrations of our fake springs.

Palomita, one of Félix' two dogs, already has started working
on her tan. She's one of the world's great mutts. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A week at the beach, without Gladys

We had taken her on our yearly one-week stay at the beach only twice but already it had become a family tradition. Of an undeterminate age, except old; or breed, other than a street mutt, the ever-chunkier Gladys had learned to jump excitedly on the back seat of the car, do a few tight turns and claim a small space amid the plastic coolers, suitcases, sundry groceries and junk. We are off to the beach!
One the road again. 

Gladys was a perfect traveler. During the first two hours of the then eight-hour trip (now seven thanks to a new road), she'd peer out the car windows as if she were taking in the views or getting ready to offer driving directions. Once we had to stop at a tire shop to get a flat fixed, and she kept an eye on the mechanic as if to be sure all the work was done properly. But after a while she would just curl up and go to sleep except for pit stops for coffee, gas and sanitarios.

Cynics out there would snark that Stew and I were just putting thoughts in her head and that Gladys was just happy to ride in the car to the beach, a hardware store or anywhere. That may have been true the first time, but I'm sure not the second time. By then she knew she was headed to a week in the sand during which she would be the sole attraction.

Dogs remember memorable events, and some are etched in their brains in capital letters, in between exclamation marks. When she was barely a year old, Lucy one of our other dogs, got a stick of butter and devoured the entire thing in about ten seconds. Hmm, good. I'm sure to this day she has a tiny neon sign in her head that urgently flashes ¡MANTEQUILLA! whenever Stew is making toast our using butter in the kitchen.

Likewise, after her first outing Gladys had her own alarm inside her cranium: ¡PLAYA! Upon arrival she darted towards the sand and the shoreline, no directions needed. This ain't no hardware store!

Our beach of choice is Barra de Potosí, a fishing village with an ever-growing chain of private homes and small hotels about a twenty-minute drive south of Zihuatanejo. The beautiful beach is almost deserted and the few walkers or joggers often have their dogs in tow, deliriously running and sometimes jumping into the ocean. The star of the show during our stay last week was a seventy- or eighty-pound black Labrador-ish named Chapulín ("Grasshopper") that couldn't get enough of the sea and kept doing an impression of body surfing.

On our first trip we kept Gladys on a leash, afraid she might get into a fight with other dogs, but we soon realized they were all having too good a time to bother with intra-canine brawls. Besides, Gladys would rather chase crows that from her perspective must have looked like B-52s, or scare one the delicate white herons tiptoeing at the water's edge. Of course she never caught anything. None of the dogs did. But the running around sure was a blast.

At sunset, when every creature seemed to slow down to a more contemplative pace, Gladys did too. She might exchange a last-minute sniff with a dog passing by but that was it. Finally she would lie down on the sand quietly and look at the dazzling display of a fireball growing ever larger and then plunging below the horizon.

What was she thinking? Who knows. Was she marveling at the beauty before her? Her good fortune that two humans found her in a parking lot after someone had abandoned her? Or that for one week she enjoyed our undivided attention, having her belly rubbed or head scratched endlessly, with no competition from our other four younger and more nimble dogs?

Whatever was in her head I'm glad I took one last photo of her during these late-afternoon reveries. She surely didn't know, and neither did we, that would be her last trip to the beach and her last photo.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Raining cats and dogs, hallelujah!

Dogs and cats, of all sizes, ages and stripes, keep coming, in cardboard boxes or repurposed birdcages, at the end of frayed ropes, or wrapped in blankets in the arms of their owners. Freaked-out cats howl while some chihuahuas, bug-eyed and trembling, appear to be on the verge of an anxiety attack. For the return trip home, when their dogs might still be a bit woozy from the anesthetic, some owners come prepared with a wheelbarrow.

Which way to the groomer?
For the past ten years Stew and I have volunteered for the spay-and-neuter campaigns of Amigos de Animales, called "blitzes" and held twice or three times a year, and are surprised each year that the stream of dogs and cats showing up remains unabated.

That's good news on two fronts. Sterilizations reduce the number of unwanted and abandoned animals in San Miguel. Continuing demand for Amigos' services is also an indication Mexican pet owners are embracing the spay-and-neuter message.

At the blitzes owners are as varied as the pets: a fancy lady carrying a sweatered poodle; a macho rancher with a cowboy hat and boots escorting a German shepherd; grandmas dragging their equally weary-looking dogs. Most auspicious is the number of kids who bring in their dogs and cats.
At the two-day blitz held last weekend at a Lions Club in San Miguel, one hundred eighty animals were sterilized on Saturday, and another eighty one on Sunday. Since Amigos was formed fifteen years ago by Arno Naumann, an American expat born in Chile, approximately eighteen thousand three hundred animals have been sterilized at the blitzes and at Amigos' mobile clinic.

"Manchas" ("Spots") and his owner, waiting. 
Doors open at nine but the line begins to form an hour or more before. In Mexico, where waiting in line often seems like the national pastime, owners with their dogs and cats in tow are unfazed by the prospect of a two-hour wait. Street vendors take advantage of the captive clientele.

Stew and I are in charge of weighing all the animals, an important job because weight determines the amount of anesthesia administered. It also gives us the chance to meet each prospective patient and its owner, and provide a leash if the animal comes without one.

Few pure-bred pets show up, though this year we saw at least three pugs, an Irish setter and two litters of blue-eyed Australian shepherds, probably ten in all. Approximately sixty percent of the animals are dogs and the rest cats.

But it's mostly a cavalcade of mutts and generics that defy any categorization. Some are timid, others friendly or scared, very few are aggressive or biters. Some really nervous patients leave behind a memento of their visit. Cats are placed in nylon mesh shopping bags to prevent their escape and to facilitate handling and the injections of anesthetic.

Under the influence: Pug waiting to be sterilized. 
I kept track of names this year and found some good ones. In an homage to the Orient, a pair of cats were named Yin and Yan, and another one Mao. Interspecies monikers included Abeja ("Bee"), an angst-ridden chihuahua called Lobo ("Wolf"), and a cat named Nemo. Some owners tried their hand at English names: Kreysie and Yak (Jack?). Hollywood was represented by a bitch named Zsa-Zsa and a German shepherd called Doris, and astronomy by two cats called Luna and Venus. My favorite was a cat named Fu. "Fu what?" I asked. Nothing, just Fu.

Almost all of Amigos' funding comes from American donors, though some owners leave small donations as they leave. The vets used to be all local volunteers but most of them are now provided by the State of Guanajuato's Health Department.

A friendly hand: Cat in the recovery area.
By eleven o'clock, the assembly line-like operation is running at full steam—owners waiting for the animals to be anesthetized; vet trainees shaving the bellies (or whatever) of the animals; a team of ten vets doing the surgeries; plus owners petting their pets lying in the recovery area. The room begins to look like a bus station, except for the quiet. Occasionally an animal not happy to be injected will shriek, but otherwise the atmosphere is surprisingly calm. As they leave, owners are presented with a small blanket.

Two, possibly three more blitzes are planned for this year, in addition to the mobile clinic making the rounds twice a month of some of the poorer neighborhoods or outlying rural towns.

If the past is any indication, dogs and cats will continue to rain on the spay-and-neuter campaigns of Amigos de Animales. Hallelujah to that.

Cat in a bag waiting to be registered.

The young leading the young. 
I'm ready to go home, how about you?

A rancher pets his German shepherd. 

This guy is seriously scared. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Desperately seeking Oscar

Our lone eight-screen cineplex in San Miguel is modern and air-conditioned but it has limitations: Understandably, it largely caters to local audiences who seem to prefer wham-bam action movies played loud enough to rattle the ceiling tiles, or blood-and-gore horror flicks that give horny teenage boys an excuse to cuddle their shrieking dates.

Accordingly, this week's offerings include "The Return of Xander Cage," "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter," "Monster Trucks," "Assassin's Creed," and "Shin Godzilla."

Hardly appropriate fare, is it, for expat geezers long past their dating-and-groping phase or not interested in Vin Diesel muscle-man action epics

So let's pause right here to thank San Miguel's thriving industry that produces and distributes pirated flicks in various forms and helps us keep up with Hollywood during the crucial weeks between the Oscar nominations and the actual awards.

Unfortunately this being a "don't ask, don't tell" type of enterprise, I can only give the scantest details.

One might ask, for instance, where these movies come from—the Mafia, drug cartels or just enterprising guys trying to make a living? It's not as if ripping off movies is legal in Mexico. Sometimes hints appear right on the screen: "For awards reviews only", "Not for distribution" or warnings to that effect. But who knows what that means.

This fuzzy image was downloaded from the internet. 
In San Miguel we don't know or ask where the pirated flicks come from and if we did, we wouldn't tell you.

Without these free-lance purveyors, we wouldn't know for sure what Meryl Streep is nominated for this year, except she must be nominated for something. We hear it's "Florence Foster Jenkins," which is supposed to be hilarious but, alas, never made it to our local cinema.

A few ethical souls in our community refuse to buy these movies on grounds that it's tantamount to stealing, no better than shoplifting. Picky, picky. Stew and I don't have such exacting moral standards so occasionally we'll indulge in a over-the-transom DVD, but not too often because the quality, especially of the audio, can be iffy. A garbled dialogue that sounds like Hungarian makes it difficult to follow the plot.

I can only reveal that at the center of this dynamic operation is Juan the Ripper (a pun on Jack the Ripper, get it?) who appears to have access to practically every movie making the rounds in the U.S., particularly those up for some award. Customers can consult a list Juan keeps of all the nominees for the various awards and which DVDs he has available.

Juan is a soft-spoken, sleepy-looking fellow in his forties, who runs a cafe downtown that serves inexpensive meals and excellent Oaxacan coffee and sells movies—hundreds of movies and even PBS documentaries such as "Downton Abbey." The DVDs are just forty pesos, or less than two dollars each, a price Juan has valiantly maintained even as the peso's value against the dollar has plummeted.

I can't reveal the address of Juan's cafe or his last name. Sorry.

Another entrepreneur named Daniel—can't reveal his last name either—offers a more permanent and complicated solution to movie-starved expats by hooking their TV to some sort of gizmo or software that lets you bring in Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming options otherwise unavailable in Mexico. One of those pieces of software, or IP blocker, is called hidemyass.com. Enough said.

There can be some hiccups in Juan's DVDs, produced at a manufacturing facility rumored to be located somewhere in his cafe. The video portion is usually excellent, the audio a little more problematic. Subtitles is something Juan's engineers haven't mastered yet.

Occasionally a DVD will fail, such as the copy we tried to watch on Friday at some friends' house, of "Fences", starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. About twenty minutes into it, when Denzel was sawing lumber with his son in the backyard of their ramshackle house in Pittsburgh, the DVD jammed. After several attempted fixes, including a couple of whacks to the DVD player, the show was aborted. Although one of our hosts—a serious cinephile—volunteered that the Washington character, Troy Maxson, seemed to be "very bitter," we never learned about what.

But hey, whaddya want for two bucks, Blue-ray with Dolby sound?

Besides, Juan will replace any defective DVD. You can go back, and back, and back again, until you get a good DVD. Meanwhile "Fences" might pop up at the local movie house, and we'll finally be able figure out what Troy Maxson was pissed about.

I think it had something to do with baseball.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women tackle Trump

Although living in Mexico we're about six hundred miles away from the nearest handful of American soil, distance didn't diminish the shock here of Donald Trump's election: A vulgar, vile and dishonest man had become president of our country, defying opinion polls and predictions. Just before the election, over dinner at the local Firenze Restaurant, a journalist friend from New York had warned me to remember how the Brexit vote in Britain had confounded experts and pollsters. Same thing could happen in the U.S., he said. I should have paid attention.

After the initial shock, most of the San Miguel expat community, a largely liberal bunch, sank into despair followed by dread. Two friends talked about applying for Mexican citizenship: The American most hated by Mexicans had become president of the country Mexicans fear most, and that could complicate expats' lives.

A few days after the election, at another restaurant, a visiting minister at the church we attend occasionally, was visibly shaken as he talked about the implications of Trump's election for immigrants and civil rights.

Off to the barricades: Our neighbor Grace Lovelace protesting in
 San Miguel's main square a few days after the election of Donald Trump. 
Indeed, despair and dread fused into one, as folks speculated about the fate of hard-won advances in environmental policies, women's rights and a myriad other liberal policies, with Trump reigning with few if any constraints by Congress.

A friend said he was teary-eyed watching Obama's farewell speech.

Stew and I had a tortoise-like reaction and retreated into a news-free carapace that we thought would protect us from more bad news, depression and a sense of powerlessness.

Only a woman neighbor, Grace Lovelace, refused to cower in silence. She kept sending irate emails and shortly after the election joined a small group of people at San Miguel's central square to protest Trump's election. Grace, a former archeologist, and her husband George, a former epidemiologist, run a permaculture ranch where they raise goats and produce cheese, along with soaps and weaving such as scarves, and organic produce. They wear identical eyeglasses, braid their long gray hair and lead a generally unconventional lifestyle.

Vickie Behm, a gifted artist who publishes
a weekly illustration in her Sunday Evening Post, created this one
after attending the Women's March in Washington.
I admit my first reaction to her flurry of emails was to roll my eyes. I warned her that her head might explode with all her anti-Trump fury. You need to settle down, I counseled, maybe try meditation. Instead she continued preaching to me against doing nothing. At the minimum I should sign online petitions and donate to environmental and women's rights groups.

Vickie, an old friend from New York, was similarly irate about the election and vowed to attend the Women's March in Washington the day after the inauguration. She even gave me a preview of a poster she was going to bring, describing in unflattering terms the size and prowess of Trump's male endowment.

These women, and over a million others who marched to protest Trump in the U.S. and abroad, were right to protest and agitate. There was even a Women's March in San Miguel's Juarez Park that attracted about a thousand demonstrators, both Mexican and expats.

While many of us men bitched and fretted, women took to the streets. Indeed twice as many protesters flooded the streets or Washington as did celebrants at Trump's inauguration the day before. Good for those courageous women.

The media seemed to find its cojones too in its coverage of Trump. Sunday's headline in the online edition of the New York Times read: "Trump Falsely Hits Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift," while other vehicles, including some conservative organs, condemned Trump and his press secretary for a flurry of lies about the size of the crowds at Trump's versus Obama's inaugurations. Forget "misrepresentations," "misstatements" or "disputed narratives." The Washington Post used the old-fashioned term "lies" and it awarded the Trump team Four Pinocchios or the "Pants on Fire" designation for its statements. Trump's spokesperson Kellyanne Conway instead described them as "alternative facts."

Three days after inauguration I don't feel quite so glum about the future of the U.S. thanks to Saturday's Women's March.  That demonstration should inspire similar protests by other aggrieved groups. Newspapers and broadcasters might  designate truth squads, similar to the Washington Post's Pinocchio team, to call out Trumps lies and distortions. That plus a series of scandals and disclosures about our new president still brewing—where are his tax returns?—might shorten his time in office. Just two days after moving to the White House, the Trump era now seems like a bumpy but not interminable ride.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nine months and counting

Give or take five minutes, Félix arrival each day is as predictable as the sunrise. Our five dogs gallop up to the gate at around eight-fifteen and when he arrives with his own two mutts you can hear the thundering welcome from our kitchen. He'll dismount his bicycle, lock the gate behind him and slowly walk the five-hundred feet to our house followed by a romping, barking conga line of canines.

Mini cowboy at the fiesta. 
So it's a bad sign, usually a serious case of la cruda—a hangover—when Félix comes in late or not at all. The worst case came last year, following the weekend of his village's annual fiesta. Félix didn't show up for two days, so I drove to his home late Tuesday to find out if he was all right.

I ran into Félix' thin, weathered dad sitting on the stoop of his home who, with a sheepish smile, warned me his son was borrachito, a little drunk, a condition I'd heard the old man was well acquainted with.

Félix was far more than borrachito: His normally quiet wife apparently had exiled Felix to his parents' to sleep off the hangover. She went to get him, and when he finally emerged Félix was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, a black eye and a few other bruises.

"What the hell happened to you?," I asked.

"I fell down coming home," he mumbled.

Félix returned to work on Wednesday morning, and sullenly and abjectly apologized and promised it would never happen again. We docked him one day's pay.

One the eve of this year's fiesta, with a sly half-smile, I urged Félix to take it easy at the celebrations.

He just said, "Don't worry about it Alfredo, I haven't had anything to drink in nine months."

I thought it was remarkable that he was tracking his sobriety, something common at A.A. meetings.

Félix has been working for us for over seven years and the topic of his drinking and the aftermath has come up several times. I'd mentioned that Stew and I have been sober for over thirty years, which Félix at first had some trouble comprehending—that's about as long as he's been alive. I even mentioned that I had attended an A.A. meeting in his village. He knew about the meeting but politely dismissed the A.A. "cure" as something for weaklings, men without sufficient resolve. Not him.

A.A. club in Felix's village.
On other occasions he volunteered stories about the ravages of alcoholism on his village and his own family. For years his dad was a down-in-the-gutter drunk who'd disappear for days at a time and ultimately quit only when he found himself too sick and broke to continue. Félix also has told me about liquor-fueled car accidents and even killings in Sosnavar, and finding, along with the usual beer cans and liquor bottles, empties of denatured alcohol scattered about, warning labels intact.

Though Félix often talks to me with the candor usually reserved for very close friends or relatives, he's never mentioned what happened nine months ago that caused him to lay off the booze. I'm not going to ask.

Yesterday, when Félix showed up for work twenty minutes late, Stew expected the worst. Instead Félix, with a proud smile, announced he'd survived the fiesta without "any problem."

We offered congratulations and to take him and his family out for dinner in April to celebrate his one-year anniversary. We'll be going to Pollo Feliz, I proposed, a broiled chicken restaurant he and his family visit on very special occasions.

Félix shook my hand and gladly accepted the challenge.