Wednesday, April 15, 2015

GOP: The Party of Hopeless Causes

Judging by its furious reaction to President Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba and its position on other major policy issues, the GOP ought to consider replacing the elephant on its logo with an image of St. Jude, the Roman Catholic patron of hopeless causes.

With regard to Cuba nearly all the presidential candidates and party elders reflexively reprised Cold War chants: "Allowing a brutal dictator to attend (the Summit of the Americas held in Panama last week) undermines the future of democracy in the region," intoned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in an opinion column in the National Review. And so on and so forth from Texas Sen. Attila the Cruz, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, among others.

Was he a closeted Republican?
What year is this again? 1960? 1972? Or 2015? Right now Cuba does not represent any conceivable threat to the U.S. and while its government is no one's idea of Jeffersonian democracy, it's no more offensive than that of the Saudis or the mainland Chinese, whom we count among our dearest and closest trading partners.

Think of George W. walking around the Crawford ranch in 2005 holding hands with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as if he were a visiting uncle—or President Obama bowing to the same guy while visiting his palace in 2009. What's the apoplexy with Obama and Raúl Castro exchanging a stony handshake?

Only Sen. Rand Paul begged to differ. "The 50-year-old embargo just hasn't worked," he said. "If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working."

But that was during a radio interview last December. By now Paul probably has changed him mind, just as he flipped on reducing military spending. He wanted to cut it but now wants to increase it.

Even allowing that Republicans wouldn't give Obama any slack even if he discovered the key to controlled nuclear fusion, and that we're entering that dismal period of pre-primary pandering and bloviation, continuing the U.S. economic and diplomatic war against Cuba makes no political or factual sense.

About two-thirds of all Americans favor lifting the embargo; so do, by a narrow majority, Cuban-Americans in South Florida; so do all nations in Latin America; and so do all the countries in the United Nations except for Israel and the U.S.

Indeed, the embargo went into effect when I was twelve years old and living in Cuba. I'm now sixty-seven retired from a career in the U.S. and living in Mexico.

Fidel was Cuba's  jefe máximo when the embargo went into effect. His brother Raúl has since inherited the scepter. If such glacial dynastic change is your idea of progress, then the embargo is a resounding success. Otherwise it's time to try something new.

Instead, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he favors a "tightening" of the embargo against Cuba, which is like tightening the noose on a guy that's been hanging from a tree for fifty-five years and just refuses to give up.

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians is another ship that has left the dock but that the GOP keeps trying to bring back, most recently through state laws called "religious freedom restoration acts." Such sham laws supposedly protect God-fearing bakers, pizzeria owners and other vendors from having to serve gay couples—as if any self-respecting gay couple would serve pizza at their wedding reception.

Not at my wedding reception. 
Most recently enacted in Indiana the laws were said to echo the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act approved unanimously by Congress in 1993, to protect Native Americans who smoked peyote during religious ceremonies.

But in reality the Indiana law was at best redundant and at worst a consolation prize to the local evangelical "base" of the GOP, restless by the seemingly imminent, though hardly certain, ratification of marriage equality by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer.

Indiana came under a furious backlash from corporations, civil rights groups, newspapers and the public, which recognized the law in Indiana for what it was: An attempt to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians. This is another hopeless cause Republicans ought to abandon.

Indeed Republicans should give up on hopeless causes. But that's a habit that's damn hard to kick: They would have to come up with original and constructive ideas. That would be tougher still, especially during a primary season when pledging support for the same old causes is the safest way to get the presidential nomination.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

New beehive, new business plan

A month ago Stew, Félix, our dog Gladys and I set off for Morelia to pick up a third beehive, a seven-hour expedition that included lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Félix was fascinated by the lakes, birds and other sights along the way and delighted with the chicken which he had seen advertised on TV. He bought an additional combo package for his family.

The starter beehive package cost about $150US and contained several thousand agitated bees plus a queen bee in a separate chamber the size of a cigarette pack. Along with the new hive Stew introduced Félix to basic accounting and the profit motive.

Only one bee escaped inside the car. It buzzed past the imperturbable Gladys a couple of times before disappearing somewhere. There was more excitement outside when we ran into a freak snow squall that some Mexican drivers took as a cue to speed up.

Lookee honey, it's snowing! Step on the gas!
Until the new bees get established, fly around the yard and begin making their own honey, they need to be fed a one-to-one sugar-water mix twice a week. The first feeding was due immediately after the new hive was quickly assembled.

But on that day the weather was slate-gray and dank, just the of kind of conditions that make bees very irritable, a lesson Stew and Félix learned when they tried to poke around a hive and feed the bees one cloudy day three years ago. Gangs of irate bees went after anyone nearby, human our animal. Domino, a spotted Dalmatian-like mutt, got stung and ran under the bed and would not come out for a couple of hours. The maid was afraid to leave the garage. The cats hid in the closet.

This time Félix and Stew waited until the third day when the skies turned warm and clear, perfect for checking the new hive and for the first serving of sugar syrup.

As they approached the new hive, however, a swarm of thousands of bees, looking as determined and menacing as a squadron of tiny fighter planes, buzzed over their heads, going north in the direction of the house. Not a good omen.

Had the new bees abandoned their quarters because they were hungry? Was a swarm of wild bees trying to take over the new hive? Was there some terrorist warfare among the bees from the other two hives? Were wild bees trying to rob the honey from our old hives?

After the menacing swarm flew by, Stew and Félix removed the top of the new hive and found the new bees from Morelia calmly buzzing about as if they had been knitting or chatting about fútbol scores. No reason for alarm or explanation of where the threatening-looking bees came from. Probably just visiting from the next ranch.

Buenos días, bees: Stew and Félix check
 one of the old hives. The bottom box is the
"brood chamber" and the top four boxes are
the "supers." Stew uses a smoker to
calm down the bees. 
A beehive is a stack of wooden boxes sixteen inches wide and twenty inches long, painted white or some light color. Standard Mexican beehives are sized differently than those used in the U.S. so the components are not interchangeable.

Either way a beehive is a machine as awesomely intricate as a Swiss watch except it's organized and run by insects acting purely on instinct ingrained over thousands, maybe millions of years.

The bottom box, about twelve inches high and with no top, is the "brood chamber" where the new bees traveled from Morelia and now live, lay eggs and reproduce, on eight vertical "frames" with pre-installed wax panels. Another compartment holds the sugar syrup. A slot on one side allows the bees to come and go and look for flower nectar and pollen to make the honey.

Atop the brood chamber rest shallower boxes called "supers," six inches high and with no tops or bottoms. The supers are where they bees store the honey on additional frames with wax panels. As they make more honey, more supers are added by the beekeepers. A wood lid covered with tin tops the hive.

When the supers are covered with honey, it's extraction and bottling time.  After several inspections and feedings, everything in the new hive seems to be working fine though there won't be any honey to be collected probably until the fall. The two old hives are nearly full and their honey should be ready by the end of May.

Along with the new hive, Stew announced to Félix a new deal for his honey business: He's going to have to pay us back for the new hive and bear some of the other costs of the operation. Until now we've paid all the costs while Félix takes all the sales money which last year reached over $600US on fifteen gallons of honey. The way Stew set it up Félix now will kick back twenty-five percent of new sales until the new hive is paid up.

I feared Félix might get upset or lose interest with the new financial demands but just the opposite happened. He thought the terms were reasonable and now he is really interested in the welfare of the bees—his small business—and checks the new and old hives twice or three times a week. He and his wife have been discussing a new pricing scheme I suggested, based on net weight of the honey bottled in different size jars, and checking competitors' prices.

Gordon Gekko may have been right about motivating power of greed.



Saturday, April 4, 2015

The answer is not in the stars

Somewhere in their condo in Chicago two friends of ours keep what they call The Wall of Good Intentions. It's a space to post sticky notes with things they need to take care of. Sometimes the good intentions—such as sorting through their vast collection of cooking and astrology books which has spilled into the garage—are technically doable but not anytime in the near future, if ever.

Stew and I maintain separate Walls of Good Intentions but mostly in our minds, where usually they remain unfulfilled, there to glower at us for our lack of organization, laziness or inability to get our lives in order.

The corner of good intentions. 
Actually, Stew jots his intentions on a small memo pad he carries around, side by side with grocery lists and other mundanities. And while it might take him a few days he actually accomplishes most of them, perhaps because they are small, manageable tasks, like shining a pair of shoes or disconnecting the room heaters and putting them in the basement.

In my estimation Stew lacks daring and imagination.

My mind floats at a much more elevated level, where grand plans are conceptualized if alas, seldom realized. Some people say I'm unrealistic, maybe a tad neurotic. I don't shine my shoes but commit to do yoga and meditation every single day. I don't sort through clothes that need to be dry-cleaned but conjure up grand landscaping projects, to which Félix listens politely but with a dismissive or terrified look in his eyes that seems to say, "I'm sure this will pass, or at least I hope so."

Stew thinks I'm nuts, particularly because he gets swept up in many of my cockamamie ideas.

Take astronomy, a vast undertaking indeed. Coming home at night I've often paused by the gate and looked in awe of all the stars that dot the clear and impenetrably inky sky over our ranch. While I admire the stars the dogs sometimes run away down the road and Stew has to go find them.

The night skies fascinate me because I never learned even the basics of stargazing, in the order of the Big Dipper versus the Little Dipper.

So, rather typically, I dove into the subject full-throttle: I sent away for astronomy books, borrowed a telescope and a stargazing book from a friend and downloaded apps of the night sky into my Amazon Kindle tablet.

But why stop there, I figured, so I signed myself and Stew up for an eight-hour primer conducted by a former astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

Stew put the telescope together but could not fathom how to use it or where to aim it. He was never able to spot even the moon, though I could spy on Don Vicente's ranch, downhill from our place.

Trawling thorough the internet I found various guides for looking at the stars. Also I downloaded the telescope's user's manual which turned out to be useless, written in bad English by someone with a great deal more knowledge of astronomical lingo than either Stew or me.

The astronomy class started out auspiciously, peppered with fascinating tidbits about the stars, planets and galaxies. As the course progressed though, things got more complicated. The last class, when the teacher escorted us through introductory cosmology and concepts like "black holes," "dark matter," "singularity," how the universe is actually expanding and the possibility of "other universes," it all became very baffling.

Perhaps the fatal blow to our foray into astronomy came when we missed the one show-and-tell outdoors when the teacher actually pointed to the sky and named the stars and planets visible to the naked eye.

In turns out I'm not Galileo. In fact, the part of my brain reserved for mathematics and other scientific pursuits has never worked well and if anything, is deteriorating with age.

So—with Stew's help—this morning I put our friend's telescope back in the box.

Come Monday Félix is supposed to hire a backhoe and send for two loads of black dirt for a rock garden I envision by the entrance gate.

Maybe I'll wait. Félix will be relieved if I do.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Taken for a ride in Mexico

While cruising around on the internet a few days ago Stew found a report on the Fox News site—a news source we generally avoid except for laughs—that cars sold in Mexico don't have to meet many basic safety requirements imposed in the U.S., Canada or Europe, such as air bags or anti-lock brakes. In fact, the dirt-cheap Nissan Tsuru which is ubiquitous in Mexico and used largely for taxicabs scored zero out of five stars on safety tests. See:  Unsafe cars in Mexico

That reminded us of our friend Doug who ten years ago bought a new VW Pointer here that came with neither seat belts nor airbags. That's about as reassuring as the Russian-made Mosvka sedan Stew and I rode in Cuba. Barreling about 80 mph down Cuba's only expressway, with palm trees whooshing by and an angry driver hell bent to get back to his wife in Havana before sunset, all I could think was that if a tire blew we'd all end up in Key West. 

When we bought our Ford Escape a year ago we found another peculiarity of the Mexican new car market: there is no price competition—none. Sticker price is what it is and there's no bargaining or haggling no matter which make or where you buy it. In fact, there are no rebates or any other enticements to lure you to a different dealer or brand.

If you're thinking of running over to Texas to buy a new car at a better price, and whistle happily while you cross the border, forget that too. Mexican import laws make it impossible for individuals to import cars less than ten years old.

I am not a lawyer, but in the U.S. such pricing policies would be considered, dunno, a cartel? anti-competitive practices? restraint of trade? collusion? a total screw job for José the Mexican consumer? Certainly they would be challenged by the government which would also enforce tougher safety regulations to protect its citizenry.

None of the above. In Mexico it's called "reality" and Mexican drivers pay for that cozy arrangement enjoyed by car manufacturers and dealers.

Worse, new cars—and particularly used cars—are more expensive here than say, in Texas where the supply of vehicles of all types is virtually unlimited. So according to the Fox News report, some new cars with all safety features can costs less, or at least the same, in the U.S. as one without them in Mexico. 

Stew and I didn't compare Ford Escape prices in Mexico and the U.S.—why give yourself an ulcer if there is nothing you can do about it?—but I'm sure that between the sixteen percent value-added tax on new vehicles plus the lack of price competition in Mexico we could have gotten the same car in Texas for a couple of thousand dollars less.

By the way, Stew made sure that our Escape, which was assembled in Louisville, Ky., came with six airbags, anti-lock brakes and all that despite the ominous sticker on the windshield: "For Sale in Mexico Only." I wonder what's missing compared to a similar Escape sold in the U.S.

Options are another interesting factor in car buying. For some reason, probably Late Onset Midlife Crisis, (LOMC) Stew and I recently went foraging for an Audi SUV with a manual transmission, ideally with a turbo-diesel engine. Manual gearboxes are still quite common in Mexico.

No go: Audis with a manual only come in the smallest, cheapest model. The same for BMWs and Mercedes. VWs seemed to have the largest number of models with a stick, but again only in the cheapest models.

(Stew now is talking "revenge" by buying a Mustang with a 500 cu. in. engine, which is sold in Mexico with a manual transmission. Dream on buddy.)

When I asked the saleswoman at the Audi dealer in Querétaro why there were so few options compared to models in Europe, she rolled up her eyes and said, "Sir, you're in the Third World, not in Europe." Give her an A for candor.

Give an A for candor too to the guy in the Mexican government in charge of the department of auto safety standards. He admitted that Mexico didn't impose the same basic safety requirements as Europe or the U.S. because car manufacturing is a huge sector of the Mexican economy—$30 billion to be exact, cranking out three million cars a year—and it would not be prudent to pester that golden-egg layer with government safety regulations.

"It's a complicated subject because of the amount of money car makers bring to this country," he explained.

And how do we like our Ford Escape? We're pretty happy with it, no problemas during the first year.

My only unfulfilled wish is a turbo charger and a manual transmission to help out the Escape's somewhat anemic four-cylinder engine. Neither was available. This year Ford is offering a turbo in Mexico but caramba, no manual transmission in the horizon.


Friday, March 27, 2015

A church in search of a mission

As it begins its seventh year of operation the inter-denominational Community Church of San Miguel, to which Stew and I belong, faces the crucial question Alfie was once asked: “What’s it all about?” This is an existential quandary that goes beyond incidentals such as whether the church needs a bigger choir or different flower arrangements.

Historically, churches have taken their creedal and liturgical cues from a visionary founder, in the order of Mary Baker Eddy or John Knox, or later from denominational lore, as in the case of Methodists, Roman Catholics and other mainline churches. Some rely on the fire of a charismatic leader to fill the pews on Sunday, like Joel Osteen’s  Lakewood Church in Houston and other megachurches with Walmart-size parking lots.

Alas, the genesis of the Community Church was not nearly as lofty, inspirational or focused: Some parishioners at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel, an English-speaking, buttoned-up congregation, became embroiled in a very personal and bitter feud with its pastor Michael Long and ultimately a dozen or fifteen members walked out and convened their own "church." 

In the beginning: The beautiful grounds of
 St. Paul's Church in San Miguel.
Indeed, the split was nasty, rancorous and to some extent petty—hardly the most productive soil on which to plant the seeds of a new religious organization. Certainly the separation had little to do with liturgy or theological nuance.

Initially the new church was led by two retired Episcopal priests and a deacon who had officiated at St. Paul’s and gave the new group some direction. An “outreach” program was created to distribute tens of thousands of dollars donated by the congregation for charitable projects.

Those founding elders left after three or four years—the two priests because of age and ill health, and the deacon and her partner mostly as a result of infighting with some members of the congregation.

With their departure the church lost whatever liturgical or theological moorings it had. In effect, lay members were left to fill in the blanks as they went along and purely by default adopted, almost to the letter, the Episcopal order of service the dissenters had left behind at St. Paul’s.

The only "professional" guidance now comes from visiting ministers who are offered free airfare and housing but who preside for periods of approximately two months. They come from various Protestant denominations but here they celebrate the same Episcopal-ish mass or liturgy.

Three years after its founding, and over the strenuous objections of some of the church’s founders, a new, less encumbered service was created by members unhappy with the Episcopal/Anglican rigmarole of the main event. At its core, the minimalist new service so much resembles an Alcoholics Anonymous or Quaker meeting in that all members voice their opinions about the discussion topic of the day. 

Except for joint services on Easter and other holidays most attendees at the earlier, lite service don’t interact much with those who attend the full-strength, Episcopal  liturgy. The new service in effect has become a mini-denomination of its own, confirming the fears of elders who opposed its creation.

About now, there’s a sense among some of the members that as the initial insurrectional fervor fades—and with no theological underpinnings or rationale to help guide it—the Community Church faces a potentially fatal loss of momentum.  

So a new committee has been convened to develop strategies to attract new members. Even the participants of the early, more informal service are grappling with Alfie’s Dilemma: What’s this all about?

A few members have whispered about a thermonuclear option. Since the offending Michael Long has retired and our main service is nearly identical to St. Paul’s, why not shake hands, pass around the peace pipe and disband the Community Church?

St. Paul has its own English-speaking minister—a retired Episcopal bishop, no less—and the church has a beautiful facility with a closetful of vestments and liturgical paraphernalia.

But I suspect the cardinal sin of pride gets in the way of any such official rapprochement even though several individuals have quietly returned to St. Paul’s fold.

During the early service last Sunday Stew posed several trenchant questions for which no one had any ready answers: What makes this congregation different? What’s our special niche among the various religious groups already in town? What’s our mission? How do we explain to outsiders what we do and why we exist? Where do we fit in the vast firmament of Christian denominations?

Indeed, what's this all about?

To collect money to fund various charitable projects in town? That’s the role of a not-for-profit, of which there are literally over a hundred already operating in San Miguel. You don’t need candlesticks and communion wafers to help the poor.

Where’s our prophet to articulate the religious beliefs and liturgical practices of  this so-called church and lead it beyond its original and rather uninspiring creation story?

Those questions are crucial to the church's long-term survival. I'm not very sanguine there are any answers.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tacos with your Tosca?

One of the happiest developments around these parts recently, aside from the nearly six inches of rain that we received over the past week, has been the appearance of the Metropolitan Opera of New York's high-definition simulcasts at a theater in Querétaro, a booming city about forty-five minutes from the ranch.

No, you don't experience the frisson of seeing the real thing in New York City, but for approximately ten dollars a ticket plus whatever you munch on during the performance, Met HD has to be the best entertainment value here or anywhere.

Neither Stew nor I can be considered opera queens, one of those urban sophisticates who simply must buy season tickets to Chicago's Lyric Opera or the Met in New York, even if all they can afford is a far-left perch on the fourth balcony, a foot below a chandelier.

Low-budget divas: Most of the people in the audience in
Querétaro are Americans from San Miguel. 
For those discerning souls, fevered discussions during intermission about the night's opera, over a flute of champagne if at all possible, are almost as much fun as the show itself.

Stew and I have seen a few operas, most of them well-known, the so-called workhorses of the repertoire: Think "Carmen," "The Barber of Seville," Gounod's "Faust," "Madama Butterfly," "La Bohème," "Tosca" and others in that category. I even went to see a production of "Lulu"  by Alban Berg, a notoriously "difficult" confection sung in German that somehow kept me enthralled, all the more so because I had finagled a free, molto primo orchestra seat at the Lyric in Chicago.

But you won't find Stew and I fluttering about in the lobby during intermission discussing musical minutiae or previous productions we might have seen. That's largely because, a) we know hardly anything about music, and b) we scarcely can remember plot lines from one opera to the next, except such gross details as Mimi's breathing difficulties in "La Bohème" and how Lt. Pinkerton treated poor Cio-Cio San like total shit in "Madama"—and how we wished his ship would sink on the way back to America.

Indeed, limited operatic knowledge is what makes the Met HD simulcasts in Querétaro tailor-made for neophyte divas like Stew and me.

Tickets are inexpensive enough, so when we don't like the opera we can just mutter enigmatically "that was certainly interesting" to our friends on the way home. No big loss, and far better than having sat in an uncomfortable $150 seat watching something we didn't understand much less enjoy. "Whose idea was this?" one of us might ask the other on the way out.

And in Querétaro's brand-new, 60-seat cinema, you get Singapore Airlines-style leather seats with electric recliners, small side tables with lamps and extra-wide aisles so that during the first fifteen minutes of the opera Ninja-like waiters can hop around bringing you any munchies or drinks listed on a fifteen-page menu. Anything from slider burgers and beer, sushi or croquettes. Just don't be shocked on the way out that the theater looks like Wrigley Field after a double header.

Something not to your liking? Press the button on your seat's armrest and a young Mexican guy dressed in black will come running to try fix it.

Alas, there are a few hitches. Subtitles are in Spanish, and there have been a few problems with the feed from New York though they were fixed promptly. A couple of productions ago, the audio lagged behind the video but the problem was solved after a brief pause. Last week the satellite transmission was breaking up because of a fierce rainstorm, but that was fixed too after a three- or four-minute pause. Just press that button on the armrest.

Interestingly, video and audio quality were actually better at two Met productions we saw at Mexico City's enormous National Auditorium a couple of years ago.  Interesting because this is a four- or five-thousand-seat modern theater designed for pop music and other mass productions that yet has excellent sound reproduction, acoustics and sight lines, and a screen as big as a fútbol field.

Better news still, at least for executive directors of opera houses worried about falling attendance, the two Met HD productions we saw in Mexico City were completely sold out to a demographic that tilted heavily toward young people and even families with kids.

Now for perhaps the biggest surprise: Stew and I have enjoyed most of the operas we've attended, most of them unknown to us. There were a few clinkers, like Béla Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle," whose endless screeching and bizarre plot propelled us to a quick exit at the end. That was certainly interesting.

One thing we've learned along the way is not to worry too much about the plot and to keep an open mind, as a pianist friend of ours recommended.

Most opera plots are too ridiculous to worry about the details. Who loves whom, who killed whom, who jumped off from which balcony, who cares? Just allow yourself to entertained, sometimes dazzled, by the beautiful singing and productions.

There. I'm starting to sound like a seasoned opera queen, and only for ten dollars a ticket.  Can't wait until the next season.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Jews and I

At age sixteen, two years after my arrival from Cuba in 1962, I got an after-school job as a bagger at a Safeway grocery store in Long Beach, New York that paid one dollar an hour plus random tips of dimes and quarters from shoppers impressed with my expertise at keeping the cantaloupes and canned goods from smashing the eggs and  the tomatoes.
 Long Beach is one of the barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island but it was not a posh destination like the Hamptons or Fire Island. Rather it was a middling-class commuter town, the terminus of one of the Long Island Rail Road lines, and it had a large population of Jews, a good portion of whom lived in mid-rise retirement buildings along the boardwalk.
Bagging groceries has never been a brain teaser but it was exciting enough for me because the money I earned paid for my weekend escapades to New York City, just an hour away by train. The monotony of the job allowed me to plan my jaunts too, which usually consisted of walking around Manhattan gaping at the skyscrapers and the huge avenues choking with people and cars.
While bagging groceries I also noticed that a couple of the women shoppers had numbers crudely tattooed on their forearms, something I thought strange until later, when I learned about the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. I wish I had asked the women about their tattoos. Despite the horrors they memorialized these older ladies seemed kind enough I suspect they would have held my hand and told me their stories.
Later, at my next after-school gig at the Long Beach Public Library my hourly pay went up to $1.25 an hour and I met Alfred Linsky, a paunchy, gregarious Jew who supplemented his retirement income by doing odd jobs, such as driving around town delivering packages and emptying the book-return boxes.
Perhaps because he and his wife were childless, Al virtually adopted me, guiding me through such initiation rites as learning how to drive and the meaning of trenchant all-Americanisms like, "Kid, in this country there's no free lunch."

But by far their kindest gesture was to sponsor my parents—total strangers—so they could get out of Cuba. In effect the Linskys guaranteed that my parents would not become "public charges." I guess Al liked me enough to assume my parents would be nice people too. One of my countless life-regrets is that I never properly thanked this couple for their generosity.

Living in Long Beach through junior and senior high school was my introduction to Jews, a group I never heard about growing up in Cuba except in Catholic school, where we read about an exodus from Egypt that somehow led the Jews to Jerusalem or thereabouts.

A few years ago, though, I learned that in my hometown of Santa Clara there was a tiny Jewish community whose members were called "Polacos," which in Spanish translates as Polish, not "Polacks." They must have been Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany.
Surrounded by such a large Jewish community in Long Beach I learned about Jewish holidays, menorahs and yarmulkes but the more I learned the more questions arose in my mind. Why did so many of them seem to be so generous, like Al Linsky? Why didn't the horrors of the  pogroms, ghettoes and ultimately the Holocaust turn Jews into a introverted, hateful or at least resentful tribe?

How could the couple of ladies with concentration camp tattoos etched on their skin survive such abysmal experience and still go shopping at Safeway—indeed, go on living— and smile gently at the Hispanic bagger and give him a quarter tip?

And most of all, what was the obsession with Israel? In Long Beach, fundraising for Israel—bonds, Hadassah, hospitals, universities and Israel-whatever—seemed to be a perpetual chore.

Such questions, even allowing that I was a seventeen-year-old Cuban immigrant, now seem terribly naïve or plain ignorant. Except that today, even after ingesting considerable amount of prose and films about Israel and the Holocaust, and visiting Israel twice, such questions still resonate in my mind. They are not naïve questions after all.
Early May Stew and I are going to Israel and Jordan, his first trip to the area. In preparation we've both been doing some synchronized reading, most notably Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."

Shavit's love of Israel comes through his eloquent writing along with the profound moral dilemmas that led to the creation of the country and its development into a mite-size superpower whose internal and foreign policies affect certainly its Middle Eastern neighbors but also Europe and the U.S.

Last Sunday, halfway through our reading, Shalom San Miguel, the Jewish community center in town presented a discussion of Shavit's book, led masterfully by Sharon Leder and Milton Teichman. Combined with the comments by the 30-odd attendees, it turned out to be one of the most enlightening discussions about Israel's history and the Jews that I've ever attended.

Palestinian Arabs fleeing the town of Lydda, 1948. Photo by David
Boyer, published in the Oct. 21 issue of New Yorker magazine. 
On the way back to the car Stew said that combined with his reading of Shavit's book, so much information made his brain hurt. Mine too.

My two trips to Israel, both as a journalist, were nothing if not a study in contrasts—the first was guided by a Zionist group and the second by a spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first kept me safely on the Israeli side, visiting kibbutzim, archeological sites, and various sites illustrative of the history of the Jews and Israel, and the country's astonishing economic and scientific accomplishments.

The second trip took me to the mirror, or perhaps shadow side of Israel, on the occupied territories of the West Bank, the Palestinian refugee camps, the Gaza Strip and the Israeli settlements.

The latter gave me an idea of the difficulty of implementing a two-state solution: Most Israeli settlements are not improvised pup-tents-and-kerosene-lamps operations but full-blown cities built on occupied land formerly held by Palestinians.
The stereophonic, reductionist and often hateful rhetoric that I heard was distressing. When I asked one of my Israeli guides what happened to the Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, he blandly, and somewhat disingenuously, answered that "they were afraid of the Israelis and fled."

Then again the resentful Palestinians I found on the West Bank did not fit the image of placid sheepherders who were pounced on by the rapacious Israelis. Their hatred for the Jews was scary.

Neither scenario is entirely true, Shavit points out. During the war that preceded Israel's independence, the Jews carried out a policy of "transferring" Palestinians out of Israel and wiping out Palestinian villages. His vivid description of the deportation of the Palestinian population of the city of Lydda, around the time of Israel's war of independence and within a 24-hour deadline, is wrenching and horrifying.

But on various occasions the increasingly resentful Arabs also engaged in random acts of murder and terrorism against the growing Jewish population, in a cycle of violence that persists today.

In Gaza's teeming refugee camps, presumably populated by Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, the loathing for all things Jewish seared my eyes and mind. Faded, hateful graffiti and posters of young men who earned the honorific  "martyr" by killing some Israelis or blowing something outside Gaza's fence seemed to be the only adornment on the crude concrete buildings housing the refugees.
Worst of all, the situation seemed totally static: Many of the refugees have known nothing but life in the sixty-year-old camps—and hatred of Israel and Jews. And that stench of hatred that envelops the Gaza Strip has nothing if not thickened following the merciless bombing by Israel last year, which killed hundreds of both Palestinian combatants and civilians. And so on.

Indeed, the two-state solution that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to leave peacefully side-by-side—always a Kumbaya-like pipe dream—has been pushed further into the future by the apparent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu who during the closing hours of the race declared his opposition to a Palestinian state.

So off we go to Israel and Jordan in May, which I assure Stew is a dream trip, particularly for a history and archeology fanatic like him, despite all the bad political karma.

But I don't expect any epiphanies or answers to the questions about the Jews I wondered about when I was a teenager and still swirl in my mind today, unresolved.