Friday, June 22, 2018

Life in a state of corruption

Mexico will elect a new president on July 1. I confess to following the campaign about as closely as I'm following the general election in Turkey on June 24, which is not too closely.

Even so, I've been impressed how the leading candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has lit up a populist brush fire by vowing to fight corruption and what he regards as an entrenched corporate and political mafia throttling Mexico's national life. Polls point to a comfortable victory by AMLO, as he is called by the media and his followers.

What exactly he'll do is still foggy but it's been threatening-sounding enough to scare the horses of the industrial and business establishment. One alarmed CEO even sent a letter to all his employees predicting doom if AMLO is elected. A new Castro, Chávez, or worse.

From what I've read, including a long piece in the New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson, AMLO has zigzagged in his populism, as any clever politician would, revving up some supporters one week and reassuring others the next.

Besides, promises to fight corruption, extortion, tax evasion, impunity, lawlessness and police abuses—the list goes on and on—are meaningless perennials in Mexican politics. Think of them as promises to put a kilo of carnitas in every pot and new Nissan Tsuru in every garage.

AMLO, we wish you luck. 
And corruption of all types and at all levels, from corporate money laundering down to the seemingly essential practice of having to pay bribes to cops and other public officials—an age-old tradition known as mordidas, or "bites"—is an inescapable fact of life in Mexico, as pervasive as smog in the capital or the sewage smell wafting from San Miguel's make-believe storm drainage system.

Indeed the amounts of money in play are such one could fantasize that if AMLO were to recoup just a small amount—make it five percent—it would be a revolutionary accomplishment, akin to a Mexican Age of Aquarius.  (Hit the link and turn on the speakers on your computer for full effect. Feel free to sing along.)

Following is a local corruption sampler for the uninitiated, compiled during our twelve years in Mexico:

• So we take our old Nissan Frontier truck for its semiannual emissions test, and it fails. We're told it needs a new catalytic converter that'll cost about two-hundred-and-fifty dollars. How can that be when there are umpteen rattletrap cars and pickups chugging around town spewing blue smoke? How did they pass inspection?

Our mechanic Omar, seconded by our gardener Felix, offer a solution: He'll take the truck to a more understanding inspection center he knows about, where the problem will be solved for a far more reasonable sum, of say, two-hundred-and-fifty pesos, or about thirteen dollars.

• A silly expectation that we brought from the U.S. is to receive a receipt for professional services, such as a visit to the doctor or the vet, or printed checks at a restaurant.

Here you usually pay cash, the provider puts the money in his pocket, and if you insist, his secretary will give you a "receipt" with the name of the doctor and the amount paid, handwritten on a three-by-three-inch Post It note. (For larger amounts, such as a stay at the hospital charged to a credit card, you will get a itemized statement).

Likewise, most restaurant bills come as handwritten scratch on a blank piece of paper. Some vendors will offer a "discount", coincidentally equivalent to the Value Added Tax, if you pay cash.

Long and short: This is all part of a virtually universal runaround by vendors to avoid paying taxes. Extrapolate that to the national level, and it adds up to real money.

• A friend who lives out here in the country was waiting for an electricity hook-up by CFE, the government owned electric company. He waited and waited until a helpful CFE installer offered a quicker solution in exchange for, hmm, a small contribution. My friend went along, and he got his connection.

• A truck rear-ended my car about a year ago. I called the police—bad idea!—and we waited, for almost four hours, for more police cars to arrive and a "solution" to slowly materialize.

I thought the truck owner would pay me for the damage, until I saw him pull one of the cops aside and hand him a tight bundle of something. If you say "mordida!" you get an "A."

The said cop then told me that if I pressed charges, my practically brand-new vehicle would be impounded for at least six months while the dispute was "resolved" by the State Attorney's Office. I called the insurance agent, who told me to get back in my car and get the hell out of there.

• A mystery man dressed like a traffic cop stopped us once in Nuevo Laredo and wrote some sort of a ticket on account of my making an illegal left turn, and not wearing a seat belt (I had unbuckled it while searching my wallet and license!)

I would have to pay a fine of three-hundred-fifty pesos (cash, no credit cards please) at a nearby OXXO convenience store (similar to a 7-Eleven). As I paid the "fine" the cashier at the OXXO, rolled her eyes and looked at me pitifully: "You poor gringo pendejo." No receipts or written tickets, of course.

• Now let's talk about bees. About a year after we moved to this house, a swarm of bees moved into our chimney. We stopped by the local Department of Civil Defense, which is supposed to handle such crises. I gave them directions to our house and was told this was a free service.

A chipper young guy showed up a few days later, with a bucket of some noxious chemical that he poured down the chimney. He then told me there was three-hundred-and-fifty peso charge for the chemicals. "I thought it was free!," I said. Then I felt the familiar nibble of a mordida, on my left cheek, if I recall correctly.

• Felix and some friends hitched a ride back from town on the bed of a pickup truck that was stopped for some sort of traffic infraction. The cop brazenly asked for a pretty hefty mordida, which the driver said he couldn't afford. Without hesitation, the cop suggested to take a collection among the hitchhikers on the back. They passed the hat, came up with the money. Problem solved.

How to unscramble such a culture of top-to-bottom corruption is a task impossible for any one human being, so I'm not holding my breath for AMLO. But to the extent he holds out any hope at all, I wish him well.

And if he succeeds, move over Virgin of Guadalupe: Mexico will have a new patron saint.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Into South Africa (Part 3, The animals)

A few of my more suspicious friends have asked me if the animals we photographed, which seemed so cooperative, were cooped up in a special area for tourists to see; sedated so they wouldn't eat people; or so used to seeing tourists with cameras that they'd become essentially tame.

None of the above. Kruger National Park is immense, more than 7,500 square miles, in addition to the private reserves surrounding it. It has a relatively large population of lions, leopards, rhinos, African elephants and African buffaloes, so called the Big Five because they are difficult to hunt on foot, though Eric and Donald Trump Jr. managed to bag some in 2012 and proudly posed holding what seems to be a dead leopard.  What a family!

Both places at which we stayed had outings to see the animals a little before sunrise and then shortly before sunset that lasted about three hours each. Most of the outings were aboard an open Land Rover, with a guide who also drove, and a spotter who sat on a jump seat on the left front bumper. A couple of times we drove and then walked for a few miles.

After the morning outings we retreated to Camp Letaba for breakfast, or a round of drinks and conversation around the campfire in the afternoon, before dinner.

Brunch al fresco. 
At Kings Camp things became more elaborate, borderline extravagant. For the sundowner, out came a cooler with a variety of drinks, cheeses and canapes, to be served over a tablecloth laid out on a pop-up shelf built on the front grille of the Land Rover. After one morning outing we were treated to a full-blown buffet brunch at a clearing under some trees, with waiters and a full pewter service and cloth napkins. No paper plates or plastic forks, please.

At all times the guides carried rifles in case some animal was having a bad day. While aboard the Land Rover, the instructions were just to stay sitting down and avoid shouting or other commotion.

On foot—and we must have heard this a dozen times—we were warned, "Whatever you do, don't run." To a predator, seeing a fellow mammal screaming, waving a camera and running away is like yelling, "Dinner!" And no matter how fast you run, you're not going to outrun a leopard or a lion. Aside from that, we were told to remain quiet and walk single file.

John Adamson, one of our guides. 
Our first Kruger Park ranger, John Adamson, from the Letaba Camp, told us how he'd had to shoot five animals since 2010, including an elephant, when two women started to bother it and then ran away screaming when it came after them.

The elephant picked up one of the women with his tusks and tossed her in the air. Adamson then shot the elephant which dropped dead on top of one of the woman, who miraculously, was not seriously injured. In another case he had to shoot a charging buffalo. Even on sunny afternoons buffaloes are not pettable, koochie-koo types of critters.

These incidents shook up Adamson. Though a expert shooter, he said he'd never had killed an animal before, even a bird, and these situations were tough on his nerves.

On another outing, aboard a van, we ran across a huge male elephant that was blocking the road. Charlie, who was driving, stopped and then inched up to the elephant, expecting it to move aside.

Not so. Instead the elephant started to walk slowly, but very deliberately, toward the van. Wisely, Charlie put the van in reverse but the elephant kept walking toward us. Most worrisome was that the elephant was wrapping his trunk around one of his huge tusks—a sign of aggression. Charlie also said this huge male seemed to show signs of being in musth, pachyderm lingo meaning  "horny and angry."

Elephant vs. van
This game of chicken went on for fifteen minutes, and some of the people in the van were scared. I didn't quite realize what was going on because I was taking photos.

Charlie kept going in reverse and then backed up onto a dirt sideroad, turned around and got us out of there. The elephant began to follow us but then walked away, as if satisfied he'd made his point.

This elephant was part of a group that included several females with year-old calves, and maybe that's why he adopted a protective/ aggressive posture. Indeed as we left, a young elephant by the side of the road began honking, waving his trunk and making unfriendly moves as if to tell us that visiting hours were over.

Other than those we didn't run into any dangerous or threatening situations. One lion, which seemed to be enjoying an early-morning amorous moment with a mate right in the middle of the road, finished his business—lions are fast operators and a lioness in estrus can mate every ten minutes or so, often with different males—just got up and walked away slowly to the bushes by the side of the road.

A hyena pup comes out of her den, 
Other animals seemed thoroughly indifferent to our presence, at least if we stayed twenty or thirty feet away. A leopard lay by its half-eaten prey, and a lone lioness ambled by indifferently.

The early-morning/late afternoon timing of our outings worked well: The animals were up and about presumably after a night's rest, and the sunlight—soft, warm and casting dramatic shadows—was perfect for photography. By midday, most the animals had retired somewhere and the harsh sunlight was not very flattering.

The guides communicated with their colleagues by walkie-talkie of any sightings. One morning, moments before the sun came up, we witnessed a tender maternal moment as a hyena played roughhouse with her litter of three or four yipping pups. The scene belied hyenas' reputation for bloodthirstiness and ferocity.

Hyenas often "laugh" while they eat.
Then again, later the next day, we ran into a pack of hyenas by the side of the road, fighting over the remains of an impala. The hyena's supposedly sardonic or hysterical "laughter" is more like a series of creepy shrieks that supposedly can take on different tones depending on the situation—a warning to the rest of the pack that danger looms or that a potential prey is nearby. At any rate, it's not a ha-ha type of "laughter."

Squamish as I am, the sight of the hyenas eating or hauling away the remains of an impala, or in another occasion, a leopard placidly lying by a half-eaten warthog, didn't bother me perhaps because the victims were already dead. But I've read that watching a pack of hyenas disembowel an old or lame buffalo that's still alive and struggling for its life is tough to watch.

Looking at you, babe. 
There didn't seem to be any lucky or best time to spot animals during the dozen or so outings we went on. One of the biggest aha! moments came as we were headed back to the camp and it was already pitch-dark. Somehow either our driver or our spotter caught sight of a flap-necked chameleon, bright green, about seven inches long perched on a branch of a tree about twenty feet away.

The driver turned off the Land Rover and the headlights, walked over to the tree and brought this startled creature, its nervous, bulging eyes casing the scene, and brought it for us on his palm to photograph and admire. Small and immobile except for his eyes, this fellow was as beautiful as any we saw.

Behold the dung beetle at work. 
Our driver and spotter at Kings Camp, Neil and Donald; and John at Letaba Camp displayed a fascination and excitement about their jobs, nature and animals undimmed by daily repetition or routine. Every creature we ran across, from huge to insignificant (look! a dung beetle!); plain-looking to magnificent; exotic to commonplace was an occasion for discussion and even a few photographs.

The Rotarians' Charlie Hardy and his wife Lois also were taken by this perpetual enthusiasm, particularly for birds in his case. When stopped to see the mother hyena and her pups, I asked Charlie if he had any favorite animals or species he thought were the most beautiful.

After a short pause, he said, "Not really. To me they are all beautiful and exciting."


Of all the delicious South African dishes we sampled, the best ones prepared by the Rotarians' hospitality team, was one called Cape Malay Bobotie, which is a baked ground beef dish. Here is the recipe, directly from Charlie Hardy's wife Lois:


Serves 6

For the mince (ground beef):
800g beef minced
200g (or one large) onion
20g fresh ginger, crushed
40g fresh garlic, crushed
7 cardamom pods
20g whole coriander pods
5 cloves
3 bay leaves
6 dried curry leaves
2 tbsp mild curry powder
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp apricots jam
10 Turkish apricots, chopped
50g currants
6 tbsp Mrs. Ball’s chutney
salt and pepper for seasoning

Heat the cardamom, cloves and coriander in a pan until the cardamom pods have popped. Remove the spices from the pan and add to a pestle and mortar with the curry and bay leaves. Crush all the spices, place in a muslin cloth and knot it closed.

Place a dash of oil in a decent size pot and allow the oil to heat. When the oil starts to smoke slightly, add the onion, garlic and ginger. Gently sauté until the onions become translucent, and then add the mince with all the spices - including the spice-filled muslin cloth. When the mince and spices are thoroughly infused, add the jam, apricots, currants and chutney. Add some water just so the spices and jam don’t burn. Then add some salt and pepper and allow the mince and spices to cook through. Remove from the heat and remove the muslin cloth with the crushed spices.

Serve your Bobotie hot with Yellow Rice (for yellow rice add turmeric or saffron to rice) with Raisins... May be accompanied with Sambals and Chutney.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Into South Africa (Part 2, Getting there)

There are all sorts of safari packages available in Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, South Africa and other countries. Ours was organized by the Rotary Club of Polokwane, a town on the northeastern corner of South Africa, as a fundraiser for a local school for blind children.

The link between the Polokwane Rotarians and San Miguel de Allende is one Natalie Hardy, a good friend from when we both worked at the Sociedad Protectora de Animales here in town. Natalie's brother-in-law, Charlie, is one of the organizers of the Rotarian safaris three or four times a year.

Got all that?

Our group was only eight, an ideal number between traveling solo and having to deal with a busload of people, some of whom invariably have to pee or complain about something every forty-five minutes.

Getting from San Miguel to the starting point of the safari in Johannesburg was a trek, coincidentally a word derived from the South African Dutch word trekken.

And a major trekken it is, Emirates Business Class notwithstanding: An hour from our house to Queretaro Airport, followed by a 90-minute layover before the two-hour flight to Houston. After a three-hour layover in Houston, came a 15-hour non-stop to Dubai, and another four-hour layover, before a 9-hour nonstop to Johannesburg, and from there and another layover, a two-hour flight to Cape Town, followed by a four-hour deep coma at a hotel downtown that could have been named The Not So Ritz.

It seems everyone on the trip had tried to conjure up a different itinerary—flying through London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome or Frankfurt—but with not much better results: San Miguel is just a hell of a long ways from South Africa, especially when you factor in the time waiting to make connections and the curvature of the earth.

The only way to soften the blow of such bone-crushing itinerary is to stop for a couple or three days somewhere in the middle. For us the ideal stopover would have been Dubai. Too late now.

After a few days in Cape Town, where there was said to be a water shortage, we moved on to Johannesburg to hook up with the other safari members. Cape Town reminded us of San Francisco. It's a gorgeous place with certainly enough sightseeing and dining venues to fill up a week, easily.

A word about the Siloe School for the Blind, the beneficiary of some of the money we paid for the safari.

An obligatory part of organized tours these days is a visit to some local arts and crafts center for some artisanal demonstration—get ready to buy something—or to some charitable organization that receives a bunch of addled tourists three times a week—and also expects you to buy something or otherwise make a donation. Or both.

Silo School for the Blind: The greatest show on earth.

The Siloe School was different, one of the most moving places Stew and I have ever visited in our travels. It houses and schools about 140 blind or nearly blind children right through high school. Some were born blind, others went blind as a result of some disease, others still were abandoned when their parents discovered their disability.

The kids put on song-and-dance show for us that was not that great. It was amazing. Their singing was more or less on cue, but their attempts at dancing and simple choreography were not, and you soon figure out why: The kids can't see each other and therefore quite coordinate their movements, despite the one teacher darting back and forth to point their arms or hands here or there.

The children receive an education and often go on to college. We were told two current high government functionaries are graduates of Siloe. Without the school and given the poverty in much of South Africa, God knows where these human beings would have ended up.

As the cliché goes, at the end of the show there wasn't a dry eye in the house, certainly not mine.

Hello wilderness: Kings Camp lobby. 
Back to the safari portion of our trip. We stayed at two lodges, one part of the Kruger National Park and the other Kings Camp, a privately owned resort at a large preserve contiguous to Kruger.

The first place, Letaba Camp, where we stayed for three nights was what you would expect in a American-style campground, with spaces for trailers and campers, plus the private lodge where we stayed and which had eight or ten bedrooms and a open-air dining room.

Despite the comparatively spartan accommodations the food at Letaba, prepared by the Rotarians and which included some local game dishes, was better than at Kings Camp, a crystal-chandelier, white-glove operation where we stayed for the following three nights.

Indeed, Kings Camp's poshness was totally unexpected, like a Ritz-Carlton in the middle of nowhere, with monkeys and impalas peeking in through your cabin's windows for added effect.

Talking about wildlife: Stew just found a rabbit on our living room floor, its head missing. 

Next Part 3 (Finally, the animals)

Into South Africa (Part I, Photos)

Stew and I spent two weeks in South Africa a month ago, the first in Cape Town, the second on a safari at Kruger National Park and at adjacent game reserve. We came back with a batch of photographs that, if I may say so myself, were really nice. 

Along with the compliments, I've also been pelted with questions, among them what kind of camera do you have, did you have an eighteen-inch long telephoto to get so close to the animals, was there a lot of "photoshopping" involved? 

Hmm-Hmm-Good: Leopard resting in the shade after a light meal consisting of
the rear half a warthog. The remaining front half was still lying ten feet away. 
For those who haven't seen them, below are the links for viewing the pictures, in three different presentations. There are 134 photos in the set, the first 30 or so of Cape Town and Pretoria, the rest of the safari itself. If you want to get more information about each individual shot, you might want to use the third option which includes captions

Below are three ways to look at the pictures:

1. Easiest, click here and just scroll down the page. You can click on a particular shot to enlarge it: 

2. Same as above, but go up to the upper-right hand corner, and click on the slideshow icon and the pictures will start appearing automatically. 

3. Finally if you want the pictures and the captions go here: 

Go up to upper right hand corner and click on "Show Info" and you'll get captions. Click on "Options" and you can control the speed of the show, fast or slower. Go to the "Full frame" arrows at the bottom right hand corner and click on that and the pictures will show full-screen.

*   *   *   *   *

Preparation for the trip: Not much, except to Google some images of Africa safaris to see what other people had shot. Far more useful was a photo magazine I picked up at some airport about a year ago, with a cover on photographing a safari. 

It wasn't much of an article but it had two good suggestions. First, back away and try to include in the photos some background information of the animals' habitat and where you found them. 

In other words, avoid all close-ups that will leave you with an album what might seem like a collection of mugshots of animals at an open-air penitentiary. Most everyone has seen pictures of giraffes or lions, but not where they hang out, or of a hyena digging into the carcass of a impala. 

Second, set the ISO to automatic, the camera on shutter priority and then work with the f-stops and depth of field. Or vice-versa. But let the camera do some of the work. A person in the safari had the camera set to "Manual" which required constant fiddling with all the settings. That would work for some people but it would confuse me. 

Camera and equipment: A ten-year old Canon EOS 7D. It's kind of a beast that takes some time to tame, particularly the weight. Hanging around your neck it often feels like a small brick. 

I had four Canon lenses, only three of which I used. 

• The lightest was an 18-55 mm wide angle/zoom kit lens that came with a Canon Rebel that I no longer use. Because it's light, this was the most convenient lens but not the sharpest.

• The second was a 28-135 mm zoom that came with the EOS 7D. It's a terrific  lens, that takes you to moderate close-ups. It's also heavy,  and combined with the weight of the camera it can become a pain. Maybe I'm just a whiny wimp.

• The third lens was a 70-200 mm moderate telephoto that is also terrific, but heavier still. 

• Finally I carried a 55mm lens that is really great and sharp, but never used preferring to go with the versatility of zoom lenses.

All around me were tens of thousands of dollars worth of photo equipment, from the latest  smartphones to two-foot-long monster telephotos. 

To each his own. Smartphones can take some really nice pictures and are convenient because you can arrange it so they are fed automatically into your laptop or desktop at home automatically via the Microsoft OneDrive. 

You can also make short videos with a smartphone, which supposedly you can do with the Canon 7D, except I've never learned how. Using the Pixel 2 phone Stew made some really spiffy videos of lions and other large creatures prancing about. I'll try to include them at the end of this post. 

But, at least in our Pixel 2 smartphone, the photo files are fairly small and so are the opportunities to correct any mistakes or make adjustments to the images afterward. 

Huge telephotos, on the other hand, are unwieldy. The one I own is as long as I want to get. 

(Now it's a good spot to thank Stew, my husband and most able—and patient—assistant who became quite the whiz at whipping lenses out of the bag and switching them.) 

In the next post, the Trekken to South Africa and what our safari was all about. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Alcoholism may have contributed to Bourdain's suicide. As a final tribute, we ought to find out.

Since his suicide in France two days ago, at age 61, there's been a torrent of well deserved tributes and retrospectives exploring Anthony Bourdain's amazing life and career except for one question: Did alcoholism contribute to his mental torments and untimely death?

My husband and I became charter viewers of "Parts Unknown" since it premiered in 2013 on CNN and were hooked by Bourdain's incisive yet lyrical writing, and the show's stunning photography and production. 

I remember a show about the Congo that analyzed the country's collapsing economy under the weight of rampant corruption and bureaucracy. One bizarre vignette in particular—can't remember all the details—showed an old train that went nowhere yet had a paid crew anyway to keep it in working in perpetuity just in case.

Bourdain's trip to Colombia was memorable too, and so was his take on Los Angeles' ethnic enclaves.

The show about East Jerusalem, and Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, didn't shy away from honestly portraying Palestinian life, frustrations and grievances.

Having tried to do that myself while a newspaper reporter I can testify it's as tricky as juggling live grenades, as any expression sympathy for the Palestinians inevitably triggers charges of anti-Semitism from right-wing Israelis, or worse.

Bourdain's brilliant writing was matched by equally inspired photography. I often wondered how long it took his camera crews to set up and shoot such beautiful footage and how many days or weeks it must have taken to edit it all down to a one-hour show.

"Parts Unknown" frequently left you with a sense of wonder and discovery, of "Wow!", that to me is the key to great documentary reporting in film or print.

Naturally there were some duds. The show about Chicago—my hometown—was lazy and unimaginative and took place mostly in the dingy surroundings of a bar on the North Side.

By that time, Bourdain's on-screen drinking, which we initially ignored as just a prop or part of his schtick of a rough-and-wizened character, seemed to increase with every show.

A show he did in Southeast Asia, maybe Vietnam, a couple of years ago, mostly centered on Bourdain and a group of local good ol' boys sitting around a table getting plastered and babbling unintelligibly toward the end.

We noticed the same thing in a show he did somewhere in Belarus (?) where, in the Slavic style, getting drunk under the table is a time-honored tradition that Bourdain seemed to embrace with relish.

We, and friends who are recovering alcoholics, started to grow weary of Bourdain's in-your-face, almost self-congratulatory drinking and the show's growing lack of focus. Sometimes, he looked as if he was half in the bag and the material wasn't that interesting or well thought-out anymore. 

Among Bourdain's many personal triumphs were his recovery from drug addiction, including heroin. I've never done hard drugs but I have known and have read accounts of people who have, and it's an incredibly difficult, almost miraculous path to follow, not to mention staying clean afterward.

Bourdain was very honest in his book "Kitchen Confidential" and in some "Parts Unknown" episodes about his battles with drugs.

But he kept drinking, almost defiantly, showing what might have been the old, and sometimes fatal,  alcoholic mix of denial, arrogance and "terminal uniqueness."

Indeed, he once wrote that "I am a very unusual case. Most people who kick heroin and cocaine have to give up on everything. Maybe 'cause my experiences were so awful in the end, I've never been tempted to relapse."

As if the experience of other drug addicts could somehow be not awful. 

That thinking assumes that substance addictions can be compartmentalized, an old fallacy among alcoholics. I drink wine, but not hard liquor. I don't drink before noon (or only after noon). I'm a social drinker not a drunk.  I never drink at home (one that Bourdain used in another interview.) 

Or the granddaddies of them all: "I'm cutting back" or "I can quit whenever I want". The vast majority of people who have quit smoking, drinking or hard drugs can tell you it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Have one or two cigarettes, or just a glass of wine, and you'll be back to a pack a day or a whole bottle of burgundy in no time at all.  

Drugs—injected, drunk or snorted—addle judgment. That's the reason substance abusers get high in the first place, to escape whatever it's tormenting them. 

But drugs, seductively, also induce delusional thinking, contrary to what users profess to seek. Alcohol, used addictively, is not a bringer of truth of jollity but of depression and hopelessness, and a major contributor to suicide. 

We do not yet know what made the suave and outwardly Superman-confident Bourdain finally snap. I'll miss him, whatever it was. And post-mortem psychoanalysis is admittedly highly speculative and possibly unfair, particularly so soon after his death. 

I hope, though, that the legions of Bourdain friends and admirers, once they get over the initial shock, try to seek out what really happened to him and how alcohol may have been a factor leading to his death—and do that as a final tribute to an amazing person. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Roseanne or Samantha? I pick neither

Just got back from a couple of weeks in South Africa, a vacation whose most relaxing aspect was being largely disconnected from the endless political skirmishes, conspiracies and name-calling back home. Most of the places we stayed at didn't even have working Wi-Fi. You just kept looking for zebras or leopards instead, which proved to be far more interesting than news from States.

That changed soon after we returned when, even before leaving the Houston airport, we had already been confronted with the scandale du jour over Roseanne Barr's racist tweet about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, and the conservatives' immediate riposte that comedian Samantha Bee's description of Ivanka Trump was just as offensive. Bing-bang. So there!

This was an easy one for me: I can't stand either Barr or Bee. I've never felt even an itch to watch Roseanne, either in her previous show or the latest incarnation. And as far as Samantha, I watched her show a couple of times and found her relentlessly off-color tone tedious and juvenile.

But I do have a horse in this race, come to think of it. When I worked at the Chicago Tribune I had the chance to interview Jarrett a few times, when she was chair of the Chicago Transit Authority. I found her unfailingly courteous, well informed and the epitome of classy. 

On a scale of ten for offensiveness, though, Barr's tweet about Jarrett scores about a fifteen. Just because Jarrett was born in Iran where her parents worked for five years doesn't make her a closet sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood, except in the minds of inhabitants the far right's slimeosphere.

And comparing black people to apes, that's something Barr tweeted once before with regard to Obama national security advisor Susan E. Rice. Enough said.

Still, I don't find Bee's description of Ivanka Trump, or Bill Maher, who called Trump to an orangutan, as offensive as Barr's tweet.

Bee was making a point, albeit using really crude language, about Ivanka's cowardice for not denouncing her father's immigration policies,  which have affected immigrant children. It was couched as a "from one mother to another" observation:

     You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child. But let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt! He listens to you! Put on something tight and low-cut and tell your father to fucking stop it! 

Yikes, really offensive and, worse, not funny or an effective way to make what could have been a good point about Ivanka's two-faced public persona: A feminist, working mother of  sorts who doesn't use her clout to do something concrete about her convictions.

Still not as gross, by a mile, as comparing black people to apes but gross enough to confirm my decision not watch her show.

Or John Oliver on the Comedy Channel. He's a terrifically bright guy who makes some really good points except they are often peppered with so many fuck's and shit's that his rants are really annoying and counterproductive, particularly if he presumes to persuade someone with different points of view.

I'm not writing this in a cloistered convent. I can handle, and even use, cuss words once in a while. But they should be utilized sparingly, like explanation marks, caps in emails or habanero peppers in Mexican dishes. Just a dab will do you. Too much will reveal you as a gross, unimaginative clown, and burn the roof of your mouth too.

Trump an orangutan? That's pretty funny and probably related to his hair and girth. If anything,  orangutans deserve an apology. But nooo, Trump instead sued Maher, who joined thousands who have already crossed the sensitive Mr. Volcano Hair and been hit with a lawsuit as a result.

Bee apologized, and so did Roseanne though she later backpedaled by blaming her insanity on Ambien.  I'm sure behind closed door Bee was told to tone it down a notch—but not so much to turn off her loyal followers. The show must go on.

As for Trump? He couldn't bring himself to censure or at least distance himself from Barr's odious racist tweets. Instead he tried to turn this debacle into a forum about his favorite subject—himself—and whined about how he's been mistreated by the media.

I miss the wild animals.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Snapshots of a flash visit to Boston

The bell tower was as impressive
as Old South Church's history. 
For all its colonial charm and perfect climate, life in San Miguel can become claustrophobic and, hmm, even a bit of a snooze. A few days in big-city Boston last week were a welcome jolt, even if the reason for our visit was to attend a memorial service for a good friend from San Miguel.

Friendships in San Miguel come easily but at a cost. We have more friends here, particularly gay couples, than we ever had in Chicago but alas, because of the demographics of our social cohort, illnesses and deaths also are depressingly frequent.

Bill Amidon was one of those memorable but too-brief friendships. He was a vociferous New England liberal with intense and mischievous blue eyes and a sense of humor to match. We met him and his quieter wife Pam through the San Miguel Community Church though, truth be told, Bill and God seemed to have but a distant relationship.

The memorial was held at the venerable Old South Church in downtown Boston established in 1669. How old and venerable? Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams were among its members.

A cellist was among the performers at Bill's memorial.
The sanctuary reminded me of a beautiful forest—woody and dark, majestic yet warm and embracing. Given Bill's agnosticism, the service followed a surprisingly conventional Christian liturgy. Pam said she wanted it that way to comfort her and her family. We understood. It was a moving experience.

Bill rhapsodized so often about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its home, the famed Symphony Hall, you'd think it was his own private combo.  So in honor of Bill, and frankly for our own sheer pleasure, we went to a concert the night before his memorial. 

Strike up the band. 
As expected, it was a memorable experience. Bernard Haitink led the orchestra in Brahms' Second Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 2, the latter performed by Emanuel Ax. 

The hall, reputed to be among the three or four best-sounding musical spaces in the world, was rectangular rather than horseshoe-shaped like Carnegie Hall or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's home. The seats were old and worn and the wooden floor squeaky but the feeling was intimate and the sound amazing, just as advertised. 

The audience skewed very young and casual, perhaps because of the concentration of colleges and universities in Boston. Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and unruly haircuts were seen. While  many orchestras complain about aging audiences, the BSO didn't seem to have that problem. 

One final curiosity: At least for the performance we attended, the BSO's concertmaster was a woman, a rarity among symphony orchestras. 

From our last visit to Boston in 2013, when we got married in the neighboring town of Stow, Stew and I remembered the huge Barnes and Noble bookstore on Copley Square. We had to stop by again. 

Come in and browse. We might be gone soon. 
Large bookstores are a vanishing pleasure anywhere, even in larger cities, and a non-existent one in San Miguel. 

Downloading books from Amazon? Not even close to the sensory high of sitting at a bookstore, browsing through a pile of books and taking in that new-book aroma of ink and glossy paper. 

Sadly, it turns out B&N itself is on the endangered list. We tried to support it by buying two photography magazines and a book about minimalist Japanese architecture. 

A landmark we missed in our last visit was was the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. The building designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei and sited on a privileged location on facing Boston harbor still stuns as a modern masterpiece.
A time when America reached
for the heavens.
A walk through the exhibits also can be an exercise in teary nostalgia for the days when the country seemed to be inspired rather than bitterly divided and manipulated as it is today.

I tried to imagine what the Donald J. Trump Library will look like, what narrative it would present—a wall with non-stop projections of his most noxious tweets?—or even where it would be built, given that the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers likely wouldn't want it anywhere near their city or state.

With the guidance of two former Bostonians who now live in San Miguel, one of them the minister who married us, we made a quick tour of New England historical sites, including the bridge near which the famous "shot heard around the world" was fired, to trigger the war for independence from the British. We visited the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson home, and of course, drove by Walden Pond, which was closed to swimming a few years back due to bacterial contamination. I hope that Thoreau, an early environmentalist, didn't hear about that.

After listening to stories about Emerson, Thoreau and other early American thinkers, it seemed to me that they were truly revolutionary, including their views about religion, nothing like some of today's evangelical  Christians often try to make them. Far from devout, born-again types, these guys not only thought outside the box but often seemed to recognize no boxes at all. 

Load up your muskets and aim for the guys on
the other side of the bridge. 
After that flash through colonial history, we fast-forwarded to the twentieth century to visit modernist architect Walter Gropius' home in the town of Lincoln—possibly the highlight of our one-day tour. 

Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus architecture movement, refused to follow any of the rules of conventional design. Among the precepts of the Bauhaus, which later included other modernist luminaries like Mies van der Rohe,  were "less is more" and "form follows function."

His small house indeed is marvel of inventive design, with surprises in every room. From the street it looks bunker-like and unwelcoming, with glass-block walls and a tier of smallish clerestory windows.

Keep it simple, Walter said. 
But the rooms inside are bathed in sunlight, thanks to large north-facing windows. The windows and the large deciduous trees he planted  were an early form of passive solar design, to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The dining room was one of my favorite spaces. It had a small round table, just big enough for him, his wife and two guests—any bigger gathering, he said, was not conducive to good conversation—and lit by a pinhole fixture recessed in the ceiling that projected just enough light to cover the table top.

As a person allergic to mob-scene entertaining, I could relate to Walter's ideas. When it comes to parties, less is indeed more.