Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The GOP, shocked and maybe awed

While it worked, for more than thirty years in fact, the Republican political strategy of divisiveness—the use of "wedge issues," to pit social, racial, religious and political groups against each other in order to gain political advantage—worked quite well.

Southern white voters abandoned the Democrats in favor of the Republicans, even if they brought brought with them their dirty linen of racial prejudices.

Then came the posse of evangelical preachers, the Moral Majority, who couldn't tire of bashing gays, feminists, and other infidels. The passage of state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage became routine.

White America felt righteous about its righteousness, and the GOP thought it had a winning hand.

It all worked well until last week, when those venomous strategies blew up, with a big assist from the U.S. Supreme Court. Presidential candidate Donald Trump's hair really seemed to be on fire.

Yet the growing and previously loud choir of GOP presidential candidates—from the real-shots to the you've-got-to-be-kidding's—mostly mumbled their shock at the implosion of some of the GOP's cherished causes.

To top it off, Bristol Palin, former ambassador of sexual abstinence and daughter of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (Let us now pray: "There but for the grace of God go we...") revealed that she was pregnant, out of wedlock and for the second time, daddy to be announced later. Tell you, the Republican morality universe is going to hell.

Republican strategists should view this as a warning flag. 
But even before the U.S. Supreme Court, all in one amazing week, upheld Obamacare, marriage equality, and lawsuits to fight housing discrimination, the foundations of the GOP's divide-and-conquer strategy were already faltering.

An attempt to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which was denounced by several corporate leaders and even the NCAA, as a rear-guard play to legitimize discrimination against gays, sent Gov. Mike Pence into fits of double- and triple-talking, as he supported the law, denied it had to do with discrimination against gays, but then promised to revise the language, just to clarify everything.

While House Republicans kept voting to repeal Obamacare—at least fifty-six times—and offering nothing to alleviate the plight of the medically uninsured, millions of people quietly signed up for the program, which admittedly had a very unpromising launch.

The first substantive legal challenge to Obamacare was turned back by the Supreme Court, so the GOP filed another challenge, based on six words that seemed to contradict the other million words in the mammoth law. Didn't work again.

But the most significant shift in public opinion may have been on the topic of race, even if we're still far, far away from the racism-free American utopia some Fox News pundits have trumpeted.

The protagonist in this shift was the tiny camera in smart phones, which bystanders used, time and again, to document egregious acts of brutality, mostly by white cops against African-American victims. It was like a mirror America could not turn away from.

Then came the massacre of nine people at a black Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white punk with fantasies of starting a race war.

Suddenly the stench of racism in the country could be not be ignored, nor the Confederate flag blandly dismissed as just a symbol of Southern history.

Even at that tragic juncture, the response of most GOP presidential candidates was muffled by fears of offending the all-important Southern white voters. Jeb Bush finally denounced the flag as a racist icon.

Still, this blizzard of bad news, and ominous warnings, could become epiphanic if it led the GOP to rethink its strategies.

Americans, particularly younger ones, favor marriage equality for gays and lesbians by wide margins, and all the GOP preachers and their denunciations are not going to change that. If the GOP can't muster a round of applause for gay marriage, grudging acceptance might have to do.

Obamacare is here to stay too. Perhaps a well thought-out campaign to change the parts of the law Republicans find offensive—instead of futilely braying about repeal—could help the GOP regain the respect of scores of voters tired with the party's negativism.

Of course, Republicans would run the risk of improving a law they have spent so much time trying to destroy. That would be ironic, I grant you. Except that, remember, Obamacare is here to stay. Nothing you can do it about it, so let's try fixing it.

Immigration? Let's talk about Trump's revelations of Mexican rapists and narco-traffickers being sent to the U.S. by the tens of thousands. The reaction to such idiocy came from all corners and fast, and ultimately even embroiled the Miss Universe pageant.

The GOP beating up on immigrants, or Mexican-bashing if you will, a policy that may have once serenaded the ears of angry whites in the party, is now a toxic strategy.

Racism, an ugly national vein the GOP repeatedly, and not-so-subtly, tapped as it tried to destroy the administration of America's first black president, will remain a reality for generations to come.

But I would like to dream the conciliatory moves by some Southern Republicans, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, over the Confederate flag debate, could be a sign of reflection, and even an admission that times are a' changing.

Long shot, but worth fantasizing about.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Where the Caribbean invades Mexico

The first thing to know about Tlacotalpan is its summer heat. It's a soppy heat that wraps itself around you and won't let go. Even an hour before arrival, our car's dashboard thermometer fibrillated between ninety and one-hundred degrees, before it finally stabilized at ninety-seven degrees, with humidity to match.

I complained about the heat and Stew hit me with one of his one-liners: "It's no worse than Texas." That's true. In June, San Antonio's midday temperatures casually go past one-hundred degrees and no one even notices.

But there is one significant difference. For all its swampy climate, Tlacotalpan is incomparably more beautiful than most any Texas hamlet of eight-thousand souls you've ever seen.

Out for a walk and a ride in downtown Tlacotalpan. 
At first glance this town almost looks contrived, too picturesque for day-to-day habitation. Its streets are immaculate, the houses painted in a palette of electric shades of greens, yellows and purples you don't find in other landmark colonial towns in Mexico, such as San Miguel de Allende or Pátzquaro, where historical preservation fuddy-duddies allow just three or four shades of sober hues. The only two departures from Tlacotalpan's hallucinogenic color scheme were the two churches on the town square, one painted white, the other a light rose.

Touching up the colors and roofs: Unlike San Miguel de Allende, with
its inward-looking houses, in Tlacotalpan most houses 
have front 

porches that passersby can use for shelter from the rain or sun. 
The town's surroundings are different too, as a Caribbean island is different from inland Mexico. Alleés of stately palm trees line the roads and entrances to ranches; immense mango trees droop, as if exhausted from the weight of the fruit (roadside stands sell mangoes for practically nothing); colorful crotons, normally sold in pots elsewhere, here grow to be trees; flocks of blooming birds-of-paradise plants flutter in the wild; almond trees have leaves almost as big as frisbees. On some stretches of road, trees on opposite sides reach out to one another, as if embracing.

An alleé of palm trees on the approach
to a sugar cane hacienda.
In place of the ubiquitous fields of corn found in most of rural Mexico, the landscape around Tlacotalpan is covered with waves of sugar cane, as far as the eye can see, swaying rhythmically, in tune with the breeze. The cane we saw was only half the size it needs to be before the harvest at year's end, during the dry season. This year's harvest looks promising.

This could have been my grandmother's old house in Cuba.
About forty minutes outside of Tlacotalpan we visited a sugar mill—an ingenio, the same word used in Cuba—its huge grinders, centrifuges and smokestacks eerily still until the end of the year, when, in a frenzy of activity called the zafra—the same word as in Cuba—it will rumble to life and devour every stick of cane within miles around, turning it into tons of sugar.
San Cristóbal sugar mill, awaiting the next sugar cane harvest.
Amazingly, harvesting technology hasn't changed that much since I left Cuba fifty-five years ago. The cane is carried to the mill in metal carts pulled by tractors, instead of carretas pulled by oxen, but the core labor is the same: cutting and trimming each cane stalk using sweaty, machete-wielding human hands.

It's grueling and dangerous work that, during the nineteen-sixties, overcame scores of idealistic, pasty gringo youths, with Ché Guevara tee-shirts, who went down to Cuba to express their solidarity with the revolution by participating in the zafra and instead, were laid low by heat strokes, sunburns or fingers sliced by the razor-like machetes.

Cane wagons wait for the sugar harvest to begin. 
The town around the Ingenio San Cristóbal, looked only slightly more modern than those I remember in Cuba. Shacks, empty buildings and abandoned cars laid prostrate around the huge mill with its five smokestacks, as if pleading for it to come life.
Tlacotalpan, too, was in the grip of el tiempo muerto, the "dead season." The town awakens only five times a year, I was told by Alejandro, a shy, young university student moonlighting as a waiter in his family's restaurant.

Tlacotalpan's main square, populated mostly by palm trees. 
There's La Fiesta de San Miguelito (St. Michael the Archangel) during four days at the end of September; New Year's Day; La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, the town's patron saint, also for four days at the end of January; and then Holy Week with its religious processions.

The fifth event, as important as tourism for putting money in people's pockets, is the zafra, at the beginning of the year, which summons all able-bodied men to do battle with the sugar cane, by then six or seven feet tall.

One of the two employees at the town's
Recorder of Deeds office, which is equipped
with lots of cardboard file boxes
 and an ancient typewriter.  
We missed all of Tlacoalpan's exciting moments. During our visit, its metabolism hovered only a notch above lethargic. The dead season lived up to its name. At eight, or nine, or ten o'clock in the morning the most activity on the street in front of the hotel might come from boat-tailed grackles quarreling on the ridge of its tile roof.

The only organized activities we witnessed were two funerals, one on each of the two days of our visit, wending their way into the main church.

According to Alejandro, whose family's restaurant conveniently faced the central square, the first funeral, attended by a couple of hundred people, was for a seventy-nine-year-old woman, a grandee, a descendant from one of the town's original settlers.

A most loyal companion: A dog attending
the funeral mass of its owner. 
The second funeral, the next day, was attended by only two dozen people who carried a smallish coffin for a twelve-year-old boy, who had died from whatever had kept him on a wheelchair most of his life.

The most notable mourner was a black dog, at the first funeral. It laid right in the middle of the nave during the entire service, undisturbed, doing battle with its fleas. When the mass ended, it matter of factly got up, shook, and led the funeral procession out of the church, across the square and down a side street. That mutt was loyal to its owner right to the very end.

Tlacotalpan's longest dead season in fact began about a hundred years ago. Located at the confluence of two branches of the Papaloapan River, it was the point where agricultural goods, most notably bananas—"the green gold"—were transferred from river boats to ocean-going ships and out to the Gulf of Mexico. When railroads linked the interior with the more ample port of Veracruz, Tlacotalpan became largely irrelevant to commerce.

On the riverside: The far side of the Papaloapan River is muddy, while
the near side is bluish-green. 
The two branches remain a point of interest, though. On the far side from the riverside park, one river branch is muddy and brown, while the one closer to shore is greener and seemingly cleaner. The two different-colored streams continue to flow, side-by-side, their waters never merging until they reach the open sea.

Harmless as the rivers might appear, hell happens occasionally. In October 2010 when a hurricane deluged the state of Veracruz, the Papaloapan rose about ten feet and flooded the entire town. Undaunted, the locals cleaned up and bought more paint, and colorful Tlacoalpan was back in business for the tourist season around New Year's.

Typical rocking chairs, made of cedar, help you relax
while the wicker keeps your butt and back cool. 
On the second day we had our farewell dinner in the terrace restaurant of the four-story Hotel Doña Lala, on the riverfront park. The temperature had dropped to ninety-one degrees but it felt much cooler because of a steady breeze.

We tried to prolong our pleasant dinner, but alas, the restaurant at the mostly empty hotel closed at five-thirty. It was time to go.

###



Parting shot: This Mexican driver, spotted on the way to  Tlacotalpan, 
apparently missed the controversy over the Confederate flag. Most 
likely he bought the rig in the U.S. and never heard of Robert E. Lee. 


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Friday, June 26, 2015

On the first day of full dignity for gays

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision today, legalizing same-sex marriages throughout the United States, comes six days after Stew and I celebrated our forty-third anniversary together, on June 20.

The date is somewhat imprecise, as we didn't have—indeed, we were denied—the benefit of even the most modest civil ceremony or other recognition of the beginning of our life together.

We had met a year before, in graduate school, and decided to make our last day at Indiana University, when we packed our sappy James Taylor albums, bell-bottomed pants and other 1970s memorabilia, into Stew's green 1970 Mercury Montego, and headed for Chicago. That would have to serve as our anniversary.

We instinctively headed for Chicago, a big city, where we both could find jobs, and have a better chance of living a life relatively free of harassment from neighbors, employers, ministers. We sensed that anonymity, not celebration or ostentation, to be the key to our potential happiness as a gay couple.

Forty-three years is a long time. It still surprises straight couples. I suspect some of them, even those who consider themselves card-carrying liberals, can't quite believe that two people of the same sex could live together that long. Hell, some of them can't comprehend how any two people could stand to live with each other that long, never mind sex, religious affiliation or anything else.

Stew and I have gone through a lot. We've moved, bought and sold houses, been hired and fired, felt elated and crushed, made and lost money, and even separated for a couple of years when we both battled with alcoholism, some thirty years ago.

We went through these all-to-human crises a bit like fugitives, or second-class human beings, even as society's mores and opinions regarding gay couples evolved, particularly in the politically progressive canton known as the North Side of Chicago.

When we finally tied the knot, in Stow, Mass., September 28, 2013,
Rev. Tom Rosiello, officiating. 
Even then, Stew was always introduced as a "friend." Could he come to the office Christmas party? Nah, people wouldn't "feel comfortable." At his brother's wedding in Wisconsin, I stood in the background as if I'd come as Stew's baggage handler or was an all-but-forgotten relative from Nebraska, crashing the event.

Wills and final testaments had to be constantly revised, refined, expanded and stored safely because the rights straight couples take for granted—property inheritance, automatic beneficiary benefits, and right to medical decisions, among others—were not ours to enjoy.

In a legal contest between a surviving "partner" in a relationship with no legal standing under the law, and a busload of greedy relatives in town for the burial of one of us, guess who had the upper hand.

I remember trying to visit Stew at the emergency room of a major Chicago hospital and being told "only relatives" were allowed to enter. I was eventually permitted to go in, but not before thinking, "I've lived with this person for thirty years or so. I'm as much a relative as anyone."

When the feeble concept of "civil unions" surfaced several years ago, I initially embraced it, thinking that was the best gay couples could hope for.

No. Was I to plea with the emergency room receptionist to let me in, because Stew and I were "civilly united"? What the hell is that? Why should Stew and I have to fly economy while straight married couples get to go first class, and for no reason at all except that's what the airline arbitrarily decided?

The denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, and subsequent separate-but-equal subterfuges, essentially deprived Stew and I of our "dignity," a central concept in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's arguments over the years in favor of equal rights for gay men and women, as elucidated today by Liz Halloran, in an article on the NPR website.  

During this confirmation hearing in 1988, Kennedy—a Reagan appointee—was asked what rights come under the constitutional protections of individual liberty. He replied:

"A very abbreviated list of the considerations are: the essentials of the right to human dignity, the injury to the person, the harm to the person, the anguish to the person, the inability of the person to manifest his or her own personality, the inability of a person to obtain his or her own fulfillment, the inability of a person to reach his or her own potential." 

Full dignity in the eyes of society, that's it. That's what Kennedy was talking about. The right Stew and I have to lead our lives, as we choose, without fear or apologies.

After forty-three years, the United States finally recognized our right to full dignity in the eyes of the law.

It feels good.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

How I lost my faith in prayer

Over the past eighteen months, a random chain of events has effectively wiped out my faith in the power or even the sense of prayer.

Chief among these events was, ironically, our attendance at a newly organized church in San Miguel. Then came the death of a contemporary named Louie, whom we knew only briefly but came to really like, with the warmth normally reserved for a long-time friend, and sharing the grieving on the part of Louie's relatives and friends. The final blow was the sight of Stephen Hawking, as played by Eddie Redmayne in a recent movie, grotesquely contorted in his state-of-the-art wheel chair.

About a year ago Stew and I began attending a simple church service, that included a ritual called "Joys and Concerns," during which attendees were prompted to deposit flower petals in a chalice, and share some joyful or sorrowful event occurring in their lives.


Sorrowful news, usually related to someone's health problems, inevitably dominated this exercise, and also the weekly prayer lists in the church bulletin. No surprise: this congregation is well past the Medicare enrollment age and we're are all falling apart, sooner or later, one way or another. News of someone's decline, and death, is not really news.

Let us pray. But for what and to whom?

Enter Louie, a bald-headed Brit, retired rear admiral with the Royal Navy, tall, rugged-looking, whose joyful personality and stentorian voice dominated the conversation. Stew and I met Louie only a few times but really got to like him perhaps because, in addition to his winning ways, he was in his late sixties, more or less our own age.

Louie was a tennis player, and during a game, he fell and banged his head on the court. When doctors checked him, they found a brain tumor that, in about a year or so, killed him, despite the best medical care in the world.

Let's pray for Louie, and I did, until I began to wonder what I was praying for.

That Louie would be miraculously cured against all odds? That God shower his mercy on Louie and spare him, over hundreds of thousands of similarly afflicted human beings, most of them with nowhere near the quality of medical care Louie received in London?

I decided that I could hope for Louie's recovery but hardly pretend to manipulate the outcome by praying.

This was the time, too, where researchers discovered that most cancers and tumors, likely including the one that killed Louie, are the result of "random genetic mutations."

In other words, while it is a good idea to try to fend off lung cancer by quitting smoking or undergoing preventive screening for some treatable cancers, in the end, shit happens.

It happens to good guys like Louie, and to Ned, another friend, both of whom died prematurely from cancers and tumors, and for no logical reason I can think of.

Let us pray, but again, for what? Is that all we can do?

Indeed, while Louie and Ned were dying I became seriously allergic to the hackneyed and insufferably sanctimonious phrase, "I'll pray for him (or her)," so commonly bandied around in churches, primarily because folks, really, don't know what else to say or do in the face of tragedy.

Yet Stew and I developed our own response, a very undramatic routine of regularly checking on the grieving relatives; maybe offering to bring them a bucket of take-out food (from the one awful Chinese restaurant in town); inviting them to go out to some restaurant or event, and other modest efforts to try and break through the fog of grief that choked our friends' lives at the time.

We didn't effect any miracles. Our friends died. The survivors cried, and we hugged them. We attended memorials. Life moved on. That's all we could do.

Last year I was also struck by the irony of Stephen Hawking's brilliance and his lifelong battle with Motor Neuron Disease, which normally kills people a few years after diagnosis. Fifty years or so after his diagnosis, Hawking keeps going, his brilliant mind racing through theories most people cannot fathom, while his body remain a crumpled heap.

Did someone pray for Hawking to stay alive? Did he pray for his own survival? The answer to the second question I suspect is a definite "no," given that he is a devout atheist.

Why does he remain alive while people with similar diseases almost invariably die? Who knows?

If anything Hawking's work in cosmology, and the origins and vastness of the universe, confirms in my mind our individual and collective insignificance, which makes prayer and the belief that a god will intervene in our personal tragedies, if only we would fervently pray for it, an arrogant delusion.

To some people, my cynicism no doubt complicates the grieving process immesurably; it removes the usual crutches of prayer and unfounded hope, including the big one, about the existence of a Heaven to which we will go, when all else fails, which, trust me, it will.

But rather than despair may we concentrate our attention on each other, the ones still around, and extend our love and interest in them, during their periods of concern—and also joy.

Meanwhile, skip the chalice and the flowers.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

How to bring back Havana's faded beauty

Media coverage of Cuba is so intense and breathless nowadays you'd think the island had emerged from the bottom of the Caribbean six months ago.

Even Gentlemen's Quarterly, in its current issue, has a fashion feature—spectacularly vapid even by GQ standards—showcasing some Cuban-American actor I'd never heard of, modeling clothes no normal man can afford, against the dismal reality of ruined buildings and ancient cars that is Havana today. I suspect the model's designer shoes probably cost more than the average Cuban earns in a year.

The sudden hubbub is not what irks me. Al contrario, may American tourism to Cuba open up completely, and soon, and rain much-needed cash on the long-suffering Cubans.

That certain charm of poverty and dilapidation. 
What bugs me is the tone of the coverage, much of it celebratory, gaga, and ultimately myopic. Photographers swoon over the enchantment of the tropical light bathing the ruins of buildings, most with people still living in them, that cover much of Havana. Car buffs, meanwhile, are captivated by the rattle-trap cars that cough along the eerily empty streets.

The scenes are admittedly arresting, fed by equal parts of curiosity and novelty. For more than fifty years Cuba has been ninety miles away from the U.S., and yet, for American tourists, as remote and exotic as Pyongyang.

But why doesn't the sight of a once beautiful country, now lying in pieces, arouse some reportorial curiosity, to wonder what caused this multi-decade disaster—an eternity, for sure, for people who've had to live through it—and how can Cuba recover from it?

This week, Public Televisions's News Hour, chimed in with its own tour-de-naiveté, Jeffrey Brown reporting from Havana. (For the record, we watch the News Hour nightly, and I have come to covet Brown's luck to get all the fun, short-sleeve assignments, while Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff remain glued to the news desk, talking about racism, terrorism and worldwide mayhem.)

The key to happiness according to Ché: Centralized planning. 
While in Havana, Brown got to amble through the colonial section of the city, guided by Eusebio Leal Spengler, the official city historian. Leal is in charge of the daunting task of piecing back together the once spectacular city, ravaged by the fiasco of socialist economics during the past fifty years.

One of Leal's restorations in Old Havana. The
grillwork alone is worth a UNESCO medal. 
Hurricanes and other acts of God are only in small part responsible for Havana's shameful deterioration. The overwhelming reason why the city has fallen apart is that there hasn't been any money available to maintain, let alone restore, anything. The Cuban revolution can claim many miracles, but prosperity isn't one of them.

Leal, a talkative, chubby middle-aged man sporting sunglasses and a white Panama hat, proudly touted his restoration accomplishments, like a hacienda owner waving at the fields of sprouting new crops.

Three years ago, Stew and I saw the slivers of Old Havana Leal has restored, and his projects are in fact excellent, almost museum-quality, and much more impressive than some of the restorations we've seen here in San Miguel, which often consist of yet another schmear of cement and paint.

Indeed, the restored part of Old Havana has a Disneyland quality to it, as if someone had dictated the work down to its most minute detail.

Waiting for Eusebio: Most of Havana's
beautiful buildings still wait to be rescued. 
Someone, in fact, has. The Chinese tschoke store or the charming ice cream parlor were not placed there by some Cuban entrepreneur but by Leal's office, as part of the decoration of the old city. Everything you see in Old Havana is planned, owned, restored, and operated by the government, in the spirit of a giant franchise.

Yet, such obsessive government control—the basic premise of Cuba's disastrous socialist economy—is what led to the wholesale deterioration of the city in the first place, and what is going to prevent its resurgence any time soon.

What Havana needs, and which neither Leal nor Raúl Castro is willing to permit, is billions of dollars in private investment—some of it no doubt from Cuban-Americans in the U.S.—rather than more socialist micro-management.

Ah, but do you really want McDonald's and Starbucks to take over Havana? That's the old refrain you hear from some folks, who then urge you to visit Cuba soon before it's "ruined" by the "American tourists coming in."

Sadly, to a large extent Cuba and Havana are already ruined. The most optimistic spin on the devastation is that because there has been no money to fix or do much of anything, at least many of the city's grand old building still stand. In tatters, but still standing, and I suppose, we should be grateful for that.

A Cuban Toyota waiting for a ride.
Private investment and historical preservation are not antithetical. Both forces have come together to save and restore hundreds of architectural masterpieces in my former home of Chicago, a city with its own, vast collection of them.

In Cuba the same synergy should be unleashed to bring back Havana from the edge of destruction.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Gringolandia's joys and laments

Almost ten years after Stew and I retired in Mexico most of our expectations have been fulfilled. We built a beautiful all-solar house to satisfy both our needs and whims and for much less than the project would have cost in the U.S.

With some exceptions our living expenses are lower and the nearly perfect climate of San Miguel certainly beats Chicago and Boston winters as well as Houston and Tallahassee summers. Or Minnesota year-round.

The biggest rewards are visual: From most windows and the terrace of our house we see mountains, valleys and herds of sheep and goats meandering about. Cue in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony."

San Miguel's gorgeous colonial center never seems to get old. By comparison the assault of constant retailing that scars so many American cities deadens our senses: Home Depot/Walmart/Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Petsmart. . . each strip mall with its own twenty-screen cineplex playing the same five or six movies.

View of the valley and the mountains from our back terrace
a few minutes ago, with rain moving in. 
Still. San Miguel and Mexico remain foreign, places that Stew and I call home largely by default: we'd have no other retreat if we had to move out in a hurry, say, just ahead of a volcanic eruption or a peasant revolution.
Mexico has not assimilated us or vice-versa.

We live in a largely closed, self-referential Gringolandia that exists side-by-side with the rest of Mexico, as two circles overlapping only slightly and only occasionally. Americans and Canadians, and a much smaller contingent of Australians and New Zealanders, dine, pray, socialize, shop, do volunteer work and celebrate among themselves.

One curious exception I discovered recently is the Shalom Jewish Community Center of San Miguel, whose small, no-frills synagogue has about thirty Mexican members.

Yes, expats consume lots of tacos and enchiladas—though seldom more venturesome Mexican fare for fear of illness—and mostly at restaurants where we expect to, and regularly run into, a roomful of familiar English-speaking gray heads. Hug-hug. Kiss-kiss. Hi-hi.

I'm not complaining about our social lot. We've developed a far wider circle of friends, particularly gay couples, than we had in Chicago and also have met and befriended quite a few Canadians, many of whom indeed say "eh?" after every third sentence, and come from a huge and beautiful country.

This is also a sophisticated expat community, with far more scientists of all sorts (including an astronomer from Chicago's Adler Planetarium), lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, college professors, photographers and assorted eggheads one would expect to find in a such a demographic sliver: the number of foreign permanent residents in San Miguel is estimated at only ten thousand or so.

Just heard this morning that the husband of a good friend we met at church is a former Rhodes Scholar. As a Canadian would say, impressive, eh?

Yet meeting and socializing with Mexicans remains a challenge as dense as a brick wall.

In fact, after all these years and some effort we have yet to meet any Mexicans with whom we would regularly exchange dinner invitations, let alone add to the list of close friends. When we lived in a condo development with owners of both nationalities there was no social interaction between the two groups, aside from mumbled pleasantries while walking the dog. We know a half-dozen gay Mexicans too, but only two have ever been to our house and we have yet to be invited to theirs.

Language is the most obvious and impenetrable barrier that keeps gringos jabbering to themselves. English is a natural security blanket for monolingual expats a bit intimidated by the raucous and sometimes chaotic Mexican world outside their homes.

The most critical endorsement a dentist or doctor can get is that he or she "speaks perfect English," although, as Stew and I can verify, language and professional proficiency are not synonymous. We've met a number of incompetent providers who speak flawless English and sport eyes as blue as Paul Newman's.

Learning Spanish at the half-dozen or so language schools in San Miguel is a wistful rite of passage newcomers undertake but quickly abandon; after a few weeks the language tapes and books go to the back of the closet next to the winter coats.

Listening to Americans wrestle with Spanish, mano-a-mano, can be cringe-inducing but I admire the effort anyway. Many more gringos just point to things or fire away mindlessly as if Mexicans are expected to speak English.

Still, my reasonably fluent Spanish hasn't opened any social doors. Vernacular Mexican Spanish is its own kettle of posole and it doesn't sound at all like my Caribbean Spanish.

At an old-age home for the indigent where Stew and I volunteered, a disoriented resident, I suspect with more than a touch of dementia, inquired politely the first time I met her: "¿Cubano?" 

Colloquial expressions can be tricky. We met an ancient guy named Tacho, whose body had been crushed probably by a stroke that somehow had left his mind untouched. He couldn't talk or move much but his eyes—they could turn wily, smiling or withdrawn—made up for any words. He was a mean domino player who'd been nicknamed "el tiburón" or "the shark."

One day we noticed Tacho was missing and an attendant told me he'd gone "upstairs," which puzzled me because the nursing home was a one-story facility. It turned out "upstairs" was a polite equivalent for "dead," as in Tacho had "bought the farm" or "kicked the bucket."

But in my observations over nearly ten years I've also concluded that Mexicans tend towards the taciturn, shy, inward-looking and solitary, as Octavio Paz noted in his aptly titled "The Labyrinth of Solitude." They can be difficult to befriend, particularly if you don't speak the right kind of Spanish or look too foreign. Neither Stew nor I are good at blending in: Stew is a blond Norwegian and I'm six-foot-three-inches tall, always sticking out in a crowd of Mexicans like a cornstalk in a pumpkin patch.

¿Mi casa es tu casa? About to open on the outskirts of San Miguel,
this famous eating establishment could become a meeting point for the
Mexican and ex-pat community. Hmm. Probably not.

Note that "inward-looking" and "taciturn" are not equivalent to rude. Quite the opposite. Mexicans in my experience tend to be extremely polite, respectful, almost formal. I'm constantly addressed as "usted," a formal version of "you," and sometimes—ouch!—as "Don Alfredo" a formal designation I thought was reserved for old men. I guess I qualify.

Among Cubans and Puerto Ricans social niceties are looser, voices louder. (T-shirt spotted in Miami: "I'm not yelling, I'm Cuban!") When Stew and I visited Cuba three years ago folks on the streets often approached us to start a conversation, ask questions, tell stories—language barriers be damned.

Once, we curiously approached a group of men working on an antique Cadillac on a street in the town of Cienfuegos and shortly were offered a sip of rum and a detailed description of the Frankenstein mechanics needed to keep a car running in Cuba: a diesel engine from a Russian truck; a transmission from an East German sedan and a monster air conditioner that formerly cooled a bus.

At no point did anyone stop to think that my blond hubby Stew couldn't understand a goddamned thing they were saying. The chatter went on.

Actively approaching Mexicans who live in the dirt poor villages around us is even more daunting. You are viewed almost suspiciously: What are you doing here?

With our gardener Félix as a guide and host, we've attended his wedding, invited his family to celebrate the kids' birthday at the local broiled chicken restaurant, visited his parents and grandparents, even taken family members to the hospital when they got sick.

The biggest compliment for my efforts came from Félix a couple of years ago when he blurted out that his parents thought we were "buena gente," or "nice people."

Flattered and curious I asked why.

"Porque ustedes conviven con nosotros," he said, which roughly means "because you socialize with us." He considered that an admirable if quirky character trait on the part of a gringo patrón.

Indeed, we have attended fiestas, pilgrimages, village meetings to discuss repairs of our cranky community well or a project to fix the tiny, one-hundred-year-old chapel. We have given countless rides to people when the buses don't come, and made many other friendly gestures.

By now the folks know Stew and me and recognize our red car and green pickup; that much is established. For the most part they no longer look at us suspiciously.

But I don't think we'll ever get past that distant, formal cordiality.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Social media way too social for me

Not wanting to be left behind by the rush of the "social media," which was sparking revolutions in the Middle East and turning Hollywood ciphers into celebrities, I created my own Twitter and Facebook accounts about six years ago.

It didn't take long for the trickle of tweets in my Gmail inbox to turn into a steady and annoying stream of nothing. What people had for breakfast or lunch, not that it was anything interesting like alpaca steaks or scrambled alligator eggs.

Or someone I knew who was on a bicycle marathon somewhere in California and tweeted huff-by-huff alerts about his exact location and physical condition on the order of "just pulled into Cucamonga and I am beat" or "had a flat tire outside of Sausalito."

My career as a twitterer—or is it tweeter?—ended soon afterward.

Gladys and I three years ago.
 It's a real picture though she was a
 few pounds lighter and so was I. 
My Facebook account blossomed too with requests from people wanting to be friends and notifications of messages, pokes, folks writing on my wall or "changing their status," or requesting that I please "like" something.
Just yesterday I received a Facebook-generated friend request from Omid Mehdipour in Tehran. I have no idea who he is or how he got my name. He looks like a handsome, serious sort and perhaps it would be interesting to hear about daily life in Iran from an electronic pen pal and find out how much chit-chat the mullahs monitoring the internet will tolerate before Omid is sentenced to fifty lashes for offending something or someone, possibly Allah himself.

Even before I looked up Omid on Facebook an e-mail arrived about having forty-one pending messages from friends, in addition to two pokes, one friend request and one notification.

It turns out Omid has four-thousand fifty "friends" including Dipak Shankhalpara Gajjar and Emei Fillz Kardirebeyogu, the latter a very attractive woman if that was really her. I've found people often post photos of their dogs, cats, favorite movie stars or baby pictures. Either way, no doubt Omid is a popular guy.
Of the hundreds of friend requests, and other Facebook pings and pokes I've received probably ninety-seven percent are from people I don't know; one percent from people I do know but don't particularly want to hear from—and perhaps two percent updates by real, live-and-kicking friends such as a recent note from a San Miguel woman who had to return to the States to look after a daughter with cancer.

I'm not dismissing the value of Facebook as a handy communications conduit for keeping in touch with friends and family, a circle which in my case might number a hundred people if that.

But as these real contacts metastasize into thousands, tens of thousands, of people, companies and causes, who has time to manage the flow? And at what point does the torrent of megabytes become a silly waste of time?

Indeed, Pope Francis, his social media council at the Vatican and I seem to harbor similar misgivings on this. That's why Pope Pancho doesn't have a Facebook page, despite having millions of potential "friends" around the globe: It's too time-consuming to sort through all the crap, even when you have staff.

But he does have a Twitter account (@Pontifex) though his one-hundred-forty character missives, the Lord forgive me, so far don't seem to be earth-shaking. Sample: "We will never be disillusioned or lose our way if we are guided by God."

It's a lovely thought but not enough for me to dip into the Twitter whirlpool again. 

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