Friday, March 22, 2019

Go Beto, go!

The Democratic presidential primary is still a long ways off and at the moment it looks as disorderly as the proverbial herd of cats. But as a devoted voter—I've never missed a presidential election since I became a U.S. citizen in 1970—I have begun winnowing down the mob of presidential wannabes, even if my evaluations may seem a bit premature and even arbitrary.

Let's see. Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 69, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 77, are just plain grating. They get on my nerves, no matter how much they might know about economic policy. And by the way, Bernie, enough already.

My man, at least for now.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, 58, may be a genius, but a short-tempered one who reportedly screams and throws erasers and other office supplies at her staff when she gets angry. Such character trait becomes a little scary in the proximity of a red button.

Senator Kamala Harris of California, 54, could be a possibility, except I haven't heard her say anything memorable yet.

I once saw Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, 49, being interviewed on TV. Physically, he is a tall, handsome and impressive but his sound bites were as canned and insipid as Spam.

The avuncular former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, is just old; for God's sake, he's five years older than I, and I wouldn't even think of running for anything.

Former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, 44, is the sole Latino entry in this multi-gender and multi-ethnic presidential gumbo. I don't know much about him except he's hard to tell apart from his identical twin brother, Joaquín, a U.S. Congressman from San Antonio, who has recently grown a scraggly beard that looks really awful. More information, please.

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is good-looking, articulate and scarily smart (B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard and subsequently attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship), and served as an officer with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan. He's also openly gay and married, which I'm afraid would rile up the horses in the evangelical stables. We should wait on this one.

Separated at birth?
Then there's a conga line of relative unknowns, at least to me, pretending to run for president: U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, 37; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, 52; former Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, 67; Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, 68; Andrew Yang, a businessman from New York, 44; Marianne Williamson, 66, a Texan who is Oprah Winfrey's spiritual advisor, and finally, former U.S. Representative John Delaney from Maryland, 55.

So we're left with Beto O'Rourke, 46, someone Stew and I gave money to during his run for the Senate seat from Texas because we thought he could pull the neat trick of unseating incumbent Ted Cruz, 48, who's a loathsome human being. For one thing, Cruz, who looks like Grandpa from the TV show "The Munsters," is no friend of the gay community. We would have given money to Imelda Marcos if she'd been running against Cruz.

At first, Beto was the longest of long shots but as the race warmed up, he stirred up Texas voters, including quite a few Republicans, with his enthusiasm and charisma. Friends from Texas said they were amazed at the guy's political mojo. 

He opposes building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; supports legalization and eventual U.S. citizenship for children who came to the U.S. without papers when they were minors—the so-called "Dreamers"—and opposes the policy of separating families from their children at the border. Based on those three points alone he's got my support.

On the broad issues of "gay rights," Beto scored 100 percent from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. Beto also supports national legalization of marijuana.

Aside from Beto's specific political agenda, though, we have his persona, which could have a great impact during a campaign to unseat "Individual 1."

Beto has very large hands—huge, in fact—something that's bound to drive "Individual 1" nuts, if you know what I mean. Not that we want "Individual 1," with his child-size paws, to get even nuttier.

Beto has a full head of real hair, not the Kilauea of orange fuzz that "Individual 1" keeps in place with a daily blizzard of hair spray.

Beto is thin, fit and agile enough to sometimes jump on tables and countertops to give his spiels. Compare that to "Individual 1," a Jabba the Hutt decked out in ties a foot too long.

Indeed, have you seen "Individual 1" waddling around one of this golf courses wearing white shorts? As my friends from Texas would exclaim: Mercy!

Beto also speaks truthfully, compared to the daily torrent of lies we get from "Individual 1."

Beto is adept at using Twitter (@BetoORourke), except his messages come in complete sentences with correct spelling and grammar, and no CAPITALS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!! spread around haphazardly like mustard on hamburders.

Beto's fluency in Twitterese may a function of his incredibly long fingers, or just the fact he's not out of his mind like "Individual 1."

For now, Beto is the leader of the pack, although of course, we still have interminably long months of politicking ahead of us before the actual presidential election.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A rainy Sunday reverie

Late yesterday afternoon I was watering one of my garden beds, a chore which four months into the relentless dry season, challenged my patience and optimism.

Surely, in six weeks or so—I said to myself—the rainy season will jolt the plants out of their brownish stupor and the ranch will bloom again.

After a light dinner and some mindless channel surfing, we settled on a Netflix documentary about the international natural-rubber industry, centered mostly in Southeast Asia. It was far more interesting than it sounds.

Over drinks, in a veranda with a corrugated-tin roof, an Indonesian plantation owner groused about plummeting world prices for rubber and the dim prospects for the industry.

What caught my attention, though, was the torrential rain in the background, a curtain of water so dense you could barely make out what laid a meter beyond the edge of the roof. 

"If we could just get a couple of monsoon days like that, we'd be all set," I said to Stew, wistfully.

Then we heard a tentative rat-tat-tat of rain drops hitting our terrace, and which quickly accelerated into a credible downpour. Rain! And along with it, a gentle, wet-smelling breeze blowing through the house, rousting the curtains.

"This is real rain," Stew said, as he got up to close the windows in the bedroom.

With my mind soaked by the rain in Indonesia and on our porch, I went to bed, and to a long, and not particularly reassuring dream—about rain.

I dreamed that Stew and I had beautifully renovated a house somewhere, but then it had started to rain furiously outside, and also inside, through a hundred leaks. We frantically tried to stop the leaks with towels, buckets and newspapers, to no avail. The wooden floor boards warped and separated, revealing an impenetrably dark space below. Mold crept up the walls, soon enveloping the interior.

This morning at six-thirty or so, our cat Fifo woke me up with his usual feed-me-right-now meowing.

I don't know how the dream ended.

When I went outside, the rain gauge indeed showed, hmm, maybe a quarter-inch of rain had fallen overnight. The landscape was wet and the mountains hidden behind a fluffy, foggy blanket. Small cobwebs had started to settle on the tops of the knee-high weeds. Rainwater puddled in the fold of some of the agaves' leaves.

Of course, by lunchtime the landscape had returned to its normal sere self.

But as Félix, ever the optimist, once told me, "At least it hasn't forgotten how to rain."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's break out of our own political bubbles

While looking around for other blogs I ought to be following, I ran across one that I found both gripping and moving, written by a young Cuban woman, still living in the island, who offers grim vignettes of the day-to-day struggles of life in that country. A link to her blog, "Generation Y," appears on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Her brief anecdotes cumulatively become almost asphyxiating. They depict an airtight society in which, even after some recent loosening of the valves, the flow of information and personal expression remains controlled by a repressive government apparatus.

We don't have such restrictions in the U.S., you say. Through the seemingly unlimited information offered by print and electronic media we can access any information we want, even if sometimes it's skewed or just plain wacko.

Arf, arf: Go get 'em, Chris
A far thornier problem comes up, though, in the instinctive way in which we censor ourselves: We tune in to MSNBC or Fox News, or log on to a right- or left-wing e-zine, depending on what we want to hear. People who study such things call the phenomenon "self-confirmation loops," or being trapped in information "bubbles."

Several days ago, the Democratic National Committee announced it would bar Fox News, the archnemesis of every breathing American liberal, from hosting any candidate debates during this and next year's electoral cycle.

That's a knee-jerk and self-defeating decision that doesn't help either democratic discourse or the Democratic Party's political prospects.

The reason cited was a long and persuasive article in the New Yorker magazine about how Fox News had in effect become an official government mouthpiece, going beyond its usual tendentiousness to trumpeting any craziness that emanates from the White House—and often even scripting it. It's an eye-opening piece of journalism that I recommend to all readers, of any political stripe.

President Trump promptly tweeted some sort of retaliation against the the fake news media. And blah, blah, and on and on.

So we end up with both Trump and the Democrats in effect stifling the flow of information, the political debate and the chance for both conservatives and liberals to consider what the other side is proposing—and for some voters to shake themselves out of their own political bubbles.

Surely, Fox News evening broadcasts are 90 percent Trumpian newspeak. But I've also reached such a political saturation point that I can no longer stomach the nightly sermonettes by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Larry O'Donnell, even if they both handle facts and the truth far more scrupulously than Fox's Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

Look us in the eye, Stephen
I've also seen Chris Wallace, who inherited his pitbull genes from this dad Mike, do a pretty credible skewering of White House officials like Stephen Miller, the beady-eyed Torquemada behind Trump's immigration policies. There are a few others like Wallace at Fox News. I think it would interesting to see them pounce on the Democratic candidates with some tough questions.

Instead, by shutting out Fox News, the Democrats have forfeited the chance to present their views to persuadable Republican voters who might be ready to break out of their own bubbles.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Return of the killer heirloom tomatoes. We hope.

It's with a humble heart—not gloating, mind you—that I report, perhaps a bit prematurely, a looming bumper crop of five or six kinds of heirloom tomatoes plus lettuces, radishes, peas, carrots, beeets, string beans, chard, squash, cucumbers and other greens, here at the ranch.

Sadly, this is happening while our friends in the U.S. and Canada are still sloshing through ice and snow, not to mention frozen canine mementoes just coming into view. Undaunted by the gloom outdoors, a few of my more enterprising acquaintances will wistfully set trays on the windowsills and watch hapless seedlings crane toward any stray rays of sunlight. Others will resort to germinating seeds under the purplish, ghostly glow of grow lights, a weird cousin of real sunlight.

They have a ways to go before the safe date for setting seedlings outside—May 15 in Chicago. I sympathize with their impatience and anguish. We lived in Chicago for 30 years.

Lettuce show you: Taken Sunday afternoon.
Not so at the ranch, where we had a very mild winter, with only a few overnight freezes, and it's been downright warm since mid-February. Not one to wait, Félix brought up our seed packets from last year and started planting leafy greens four weeks ago, and tomato seeds last week.

For the warmer-weather vegetables we came up with an innovation: Using the plastic boxes the broiled chickens from Costco come in. The bottom tray is black and waterproof and the clear plastic top functions as a perfect mini greenhouse.

We then place them in the glass-block windows on one side of the garage, which are perfectly sized to fit the repurposed containers. They receive the warm western afternoon sun but without the risk of nighttime temperature drops.
Born-again Costo broiled-chicken packages. 

Weird but it works. Eat Costco chicken, lots of it. It's very tasty, and then save the plastic boxes for me.

For a planting medium we use regular dirt, fortified with our homemade compost that's been cooking all winter, and handfuls of vermiculite to keep the mix light. We squirt water on the trays daily, using a plastic Coke bottle with a tiny hole in the cap, to avoid swamping the tiny seedlings.

There are a number of things that we miss about Chicago, most memorably the heirloom tomatoes plate at Cafe Selmarie in Lincoln Square. Selmarie was a combination bakery, breakfast place and restaurant where you couldn't get a bad meal no matter what time of the day you showed up. We once tried the $12 plate of five or six types of heirloom tomatoes that was so colorful, interesting and delicious that we've been trying to replicate it in Mexico ever since.

Glass-block windows double as mini greenhouses
Though most out-of-towners associate Chicago with winter, during the summer fresh vegetables from Michigan, Wisconsin and downstate Illinois flood the city's farm markets. In San Miguel  tomatoes are available year-round but only if your taste runs to Italian plum tomatoes, grape tomatoes and bola, a larger but fairly insipid variety. Black Krims or any exotics are not available.

But ah, envious naysayers might say, you're only in the first inning of this growing season, and in the style of the Chicago Cubs, all sorts of catastrophes might befall as you approach the bottom of the seventh.

True, last year we had a near-Biblical plague of grasshoppers that chewed up everything, even some succulents. Towards the end of the summer we ended up putting mosquito netting on the vegetables, but even then, a few of those buggers would get underneath.

The only relief was provided by our two new kittens, which took to chasing and killing the hoppers that landed on the terrace, but not nearly fast enough to make a difference. We found a very effective insecticide that came with a lengthy list of warnings, in tiny barely readable type, that its use could cause a thousand alarming maladies in humans and animals, from dandruff to diarrhea.

We can expect a myriad other pests, from cutworms to rabbits, and we'll deal with them one at a time, mostly by adding plastic collars, chicken wire and other improvisations that by midsummer have the beds looking like vegetable concentration camps.

But the seventh inning, never mind the playoffs, is still far ahead. Now it's the time for resolutely positive thinking, and dreams of recreating the heirloom tomato special at Cafe Selmarie not to mention a replay of the Cubs' miraculous 2016 season.


Back to tree planting: Two more photos of our tree-planting campaign last week. The two guys are Félix in the hat, and his buddy Juan. They have known each other for years, and Juan is the godfather of one of Félix's kids. They are what you call real buddies, and equally nice guys. In the bottom picture, check out the rocks they had to pull out while digging a hole for Douglas fir. 


Note to readers: I changed the widget for leaving comments. Feel free to try it. I hope it works. Al

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Reader comments, lost and found, sometimes months after the fact

This morning I spent a couple of hours poking around the settings of, the platform for my blog, trying to determine where the reader comments were going. I've received numerous gentle complaints from readers that their comments were not being published, or that they couldn't figure out how to leave comments.

I think I found the answer in the "Spam and "Comments awaiting approval" folders: There were dozens and dozens of comments that for some reason had been shunted there, into sort of a dead-letter limbo. In one posting, the one about the Oscars and little brown people, there were 17 comments that ended up in outer space.

When comments come in, I'm supposed to get an email so I can decide which ones are appropriate, and which should be deleted or sent to Spam hell. But for some reason, I wasn't getting any notifications and the comments were just piling there unanswered.

I don't know why that is happening. I'm not Greta Garbo vanting to be cut off from the world. I welcome comments. If your comment doesn't show up promptly, please resend it to me by email and I'll put it in myself.

Meanwhile, I'll do some more checking of settings and try to fix whatever is the problem. If that doesn't work, I'll start sniffing around WordPress, to move my blog there, as what's-his-name from Pátzcuaro has been harping about for years.

So sorry.


Monday, March 4, 2019

Our campaign to restore a sliver of Mexico's nature

Once upon a time, say, 400 or 500 years ago, oaks—encinos—and other large trees, were said to grow on the mountains that punctuate the horizon surrounding our ranch, and on the nearby valleys. As the tops of the oaks reached for the clouds their roots dug deep into the ground to keep both the trees and the soil in place.

When they arrived in the 16th century, Spanish colonizers imposed their religion and culture on the natives and plundered the land, leaving what we have around here today: ceremonial vestiges of indigenous culture and mangy-looking mountains.

Mexican gray fox:
Come up and see me sometime. 
Friends have climbed these mountains, "Los Picachos," and found edenic oases where the air is cool, and old oaks survive, many too large to hug, along with deer and the occasional Mexican gray fox, teasingly flaunting its luxuriant tail.

We've heard someone is organizing an overnight horseback trek to these hidden spots; Stew and I plan to go.

One memorable morning, several years ago, we woke up to the rush of finding the mountains around the ranch, and our patio furniture, covered with a gauzy layer of snow. Motorists stopped on the highway to photograph the unexpected Alpine vistas that vanished by ten o'clock.

Since we bought this ranch ten years ago, Stew and I have embarked on a project—part quixotic, part retirement pastime, some might even call it early-onset dementia—to reforest our land, stem erosion and recapture, however faintly, what nature might have looked like in this sliver of Mexico in the old days.

The memorable snowfall of 2006
The latest installment of the restoration campaign is the planting of a dozen fairly large trees, between one-and-a-half to three meters tall, to join the 80 or 90 trees and bushes we've already scattered on the property, some by now five and six meters tall, plus the installation of a 5,000-liter water tank, and a pump for irrigation.

Beware dear friends. "Faintly" is the operative descriptor of our efforts. Please don't show up, camera in hand, expecting to find lovely woods, dark and deep. This is a work in progress and you have to  keep it all in perspective.

When we moved here, the land was barren except for scattered cacti, huizaches, gatillos and other virtually bomb-proof desert vegetation, under daily assault from the neighbors' livestock, especially the omnivorous goats. Keep a before-and-after image in mind, and the ranch will look to you practically lush, as it does to me when I walk around early in the morning.

Before: The land as it was before we began construction. 
Gardening around here truly is a constant, two-front battle against a harsh, rocky and arid soil, and  unhelpful variations in precipitation during the year.

Except for muddy patches of black soil that turn into ankle-deep goo when it rains, the main feature of our topsoil is rocks, ranging from gravel to immovable boulders the size of an all-terrain vehicle. When the house was going up, the architect had to hire a backhoe with a jackhammer to carve out the hole for our rain collection cistern.

One mistake we made during our original tree-planting campaigns was to dig holes that were too puny. Now we use a backhoe to excavate holes one meter wide and as deep, and backfill them with a combination of black soil, tierra negra; a sandy type soil called tierra lama; and finally, horse manure from a ranch of a friend who boards about a dozen ponies.

We've also learned which trees tend to survive best. For the most part we've planted different varieties of evergreens—casuarinas, piñón, Michoacán pines, Greggii pines, lemon and white cedars, and one Douglas fir, plus three ash trees that are doing well though growing very slowly. Michoacán pines, with their long needles that shimmy at the slightest breeze, are my favorites. Our latest acquisitions also include three red encinos. 
Two of about ten Greggii pines on our
ranch. This is a Mexican variety
which has done very well for us.

To landscaping mavens our slowly emerging forest might look like an amateur hodgepodge, but I'd rather use the more hopeful intriguing arboreal mélange.

I blame our poor soil on long-term erosion aggravated by overgrazing.  By the end of the dry season, when parts of the landscape look as if they were painted with a blowtorch, goats will eat practically anything, even thorny huizaches. Not long ago, we left two pots of agaves outside the gate and cows ate most of the fronds.

Indeed, water is the second challenge to our reforestation campaign. It rains quite a bit in this area, as much as 30 inches a year, but only between July and October. Our first year here, after several months without a drop, we worried.

Our neighbor Arno addressed the lack of water by digging three connected bordos, or retention ponds, big enough to float a cruise ship. The ingenious, though not terribly attractive, system somehow diverts the water cascading from the mountains during heavy rains.

The ultimate fix, of course, would be to sink a well, an extremely costly project because around us the aquifer is about 350 meters, or  1,200 feet deep, and the digging would have to go through solid rock with a lot of pounding. A heavy duty gasoline pump would then be needed to get the water to the surface.

Instead, we added a squat 5,000-liter black storage tank that we have to refill by water truck every three weeks or so, and use an electric pump to propel the water to all the trees. We tried to camouflage the unsightly tank but, if you catch it from the wrong angle, it looks as if a Russian space capsule crash-landed on the yard.

Our 130,000-liter rainwater collection cistern provides us with filtered water for domestic needs most of the year.  At the consumption end, we've installed drip irrigation hoses to several of our trees and our vegetable beds, and even concocted a system to divert the rinse water from the clothes washer to a large plastic trash can with a spigot at the bottom. Surprising factoid: A couple of loads of wash generate 30 gallons of "wastewater" that we now use to irrigate the trees near the garage.

Tomorrow we're going in the pick-up to get more horse manure—bless those ponies—and wait for the last seven trees to arrive from the nursery.

Then, we'll all sit and wait.

Sunset from our kitchen window.

Hola, dear readers: If you try to leave a comment and it doesn't show up, just email it to me directly and I'll put it in manually. Thanks. Al 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A giant step for Mexico's little brown people? Hold that applause.

Stew and I watch the Oscars, a day or two after they actually take place, with the invaluable aid of a recording machine that allows us to zoom past commercials, logorrheic acceptance speeches, clips of movies we've already seen and other time-wasters, and effectively condense the three-hour marathon of self-indulgence into a more bearable package, one hour or less.

Day-after news coverage also helps us pick out special moments we might otherwise miss. We'd read that Spike Lee's acceptance of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for "BlacKkKlansman" had sent President Trump into a Twitter spasm. Got to watch that. Also Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's rapturous performance of "Shallow," from "A Star Is Born" was reported as a must-watch. It was.

What was clear to us, even with our jerky fast-forwarding and random pausing, is that the Oscars, and apparently the movie industry, have gone through a crash program of racial, ethnic and gender integration, even if some would question the depth and breadth of that transformation. There were so many varied slices of humanity on stage that white males often seemed to be in the minority.

The Oscar for Best Actor went to Rami Malek, a slightly bug-eyed and odd-looking fellow, whose parents migrated from Egypt, was raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and spoke Arabic at home until he was about four years old. Malek portrayed Freddie Mercury, who was gay and perhaps appropriately, the lead of the rock group "Queen," a factoid Malek mentioned. How much more diversity can you cram into one Oscar acceptance speech?

You go, girl. 
My interest, though, focused on Yalitza Aparicio, who played Cleo in the Mexican movie "Roma," directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón. Cleo was one of two maids working in a household of a quite tormented white and middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood by that name.

I thought her performance was stirring and exceptional, though I can't say whether she should have won the Oscar for Best Actress, because I haven't seen all of the films nominated in that category.

The scene when Cleo's boyfriend walked out in the middle of a movie, after she told him that she was pregnant, and she sat stunned on the curb in front of the cinema, was one of the most tear-inducing moments I've ever watched on film recently. If I'd been walking by, I probably would have stopped, held Cleo's hand and asked her if I could help.

Aparicio's non-acting background—zero—and her indigenous roots in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states of Mexico, made her star turn all the more amazing. Her physical appearance—round-faced, short and brown-skinned—also set her apart from people in Mexico's screen and television industry, who are almost all white, including Cuarón.

Liberal circles in Hollywood are in the middle of a rush of self-congratulation following the breakthroughs that have put more women, in addition to African-Americans, Asians and other minorities in the ranks of Oscar nominees and winners in almost all categories.

In particular Mexican directors—all white—almost seem to own the Oscar for Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for "Birdman" (2014) and "The Revenant" (2015); Cuarón for "Gravity" (2013) and "Roma" (2018); and Guillermo del Toro for the "The Shape of Water" (2017).

Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal—both white, handsome and bilingual—also have found acting careers in Hollywood, after their roles in "Y tu mamá también," a 2001 hit directed also by Cuarón and co-written with his brother Carlos. Luna was one of the presenters at this year's Oscars.

There was well deserved and universal acclamation in Mexico for their achievements.

But reaction in Mexico to Aparicio's stardom, initially a choir of oohing-and-ahhing, quickly turned snarky and nasty. A fellow actor called her a "f*****ng Indian." Nice. Another questioned her acting ability: Aparicio just played what most people of her social station are in real life—a maid working for white people. How much skill or talent does it take to portray what you are in real life? A few others dismissed her success as fleeting; just her fifteen minutes of fame that she would be hard pressed to duplicate.

In fact her singular achievement deviated into a discussion of the rampant racism that still grips Mexican society.

I hope Aparicio has many more star turns, and her appearance on screen will encourage others from far-removed corners of Mexican society to aspire to stardom too.

But I'm not so sanguine. She doesn't speak English, so she can't as easily slide into Hollywood fame, like García Bernal and Luna. And most problematic, Aparicio, beautiful and talented as she may be, is short, Indian and brown-skinned, no matter who many designer gowns they hang on her.

I hope Aparicio's fame, even if fleeting, helps bridge the racial divides that still govern Mexico and keep indigenous people trapped at the bottom.. That would be great,  but I wouldn't break out the expensive tequila just yet.