Sunday, May 30, 2010

The day television died

While "living off the grid" may mean an ascetic or rustic lifestyle to some, we try to use technology to keep the deprivation factor to a minimum. We have two cellular phones and Internet service through the cellular network. A Sirius satellite radio is playing almost constantly through the stereo system. We recently bought two Amazon Kindles that are small wonders: Through the slightly subversive-sounding communications system known as "Whispernet," we can download a 600-page tome in less than 30 seconds.

We even have--or had--a satellite television system that brought us all manner of programming, ranging from the magisterial Charlie Rose to the over-caffeinated wackos on the Food Network's Iron Chef America who run around peeling, slicing and dicing everything in sight as if cooking were some sort of circus act.

Yes, a satellite television has crisis developed in San Miguel over approximately the past two weeks. First we lost the major networks and then several days later we couldn't get any programs at all, except the listings at the top of the screen. About three days ago even the program listings disappeared, though they returned yesterday. This morning MSNBC and CNBC came back only to vanish a couple of hours later.

Losing one's satellite TV connection would not be a five-alarm crisis in most places except that in San Miguel it is the main link to U.S. and world news for many ex-pats who don't speak Spanish. With all the extra spare time retirement brings, many of them also enjoy watching three episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" back-to-back, or four-year-old Home and Garden TV shows of giggly young couples buying their first home before the real estate market crashed.

Compounding the crisis is the not so minor detail that U.S. satellite TV service in San Miguel is, well, essentially bootleg. It gets here pretty much the same way so many DVDs, CDs, videos and other entertainment options arrive in Mexico: Over the transom, under the table or through the kitchen window, depending on your vendor or technician.

When something goes awry, your customer service options are well nigh non-existent, except to complain to the local guy to whom you paid about US $900 for the hardware, installation and the setting up of a mystery billing address in the U.S. Usually these guys gladly and efficiently fix glitches in billing or programming. When a TV satellite 20,000 miles up over North America starts acting weird, that's another story.

A few days after the satellite signal vanished, a friend phoned the satellite service provider in the U.S. to ask what was wrong. I explained to Ron his query might be considered by some as an example of brass cojones, akin to buying a pirated DVD for 80 cents and then calling Warner Bros. to complain about the picture or sound quality.

Except that in the case of satellite TV we not only pay for the equipment and installation but also a monthly fee of nearly US $70 depending on the programming package. This is full-price bootleg.

News of the satellite crisis spread quickly by word-of-mouth and on the Civil List, an Internet bulletin board where gringos voice all sorts of concerns from lost dogs to clogged sinks. Almost instantly the message string on this topic grew to dozens of comments and hypotheses, with some of the latter becoming more and more far-fetched.

The fact is that in a small environment like San Miguel with no hard local news outlets or reliable sources of information--and many people with too much time on their hands--bullshit grows rampant, like crazed bacteria gurgling out of a Petri dish.

Three days ago Stew and I went for lunch to La Palapa, a modest dining establishment located on a dusty lot under a plastic tent and which serves the best and cheapest shrimp tacos in town. An older gringo at one of the plastic tables loudly drawled on that the problem was that solar flares had knocked our TV satellite out of orbit. Judging by his grizzled, sleepy-eyed appearance he may have developed his theory over a bottle of bourbon the night before.

We've also been told that the errant satellite might bump other TV satellites creating sort of a celestial pinball effect that could eventually plunge North America into the TV equivalent of a nuclear winter. Or that Satellite 119, which apparently provides much of our TV service, had crashed somewhere in Russia. We heard the last one at a party yesterday.

Those hypotheses could have merit except that Stew's brother in Minnesota informed us his satellite TV service by the same company we have was fine, solar flares or not.

That takes us to most prevalent explanation, one involving Carlos Slim Helú, owner of the telephone company in Mexico and seemingly most anything that makes money here on in Latin America. He even owns a substantial bloc of New York Times stock. Slim is one of the three richest men in the world, along with Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett. Indeed the March 2010 issue of Forbes declared Slim to be the richest cahoona in the world.

Though many admire his business acumen, in Mexico he is often regarded suspiciously and criticized for his monopolistic tactics. Anyone who has that much money, some Mexicans would tell you, must have some shady deal going on.

One of Slim's recent ventures was--aha!--to acquire the Dish TV network franchise in Mexico, a factoid that immediately set local conspiracy theorists abuzzing: That oily billionaire is somehow blocking American Dish TV reception to force folks to switch to his Mexican network instead.

Aside from the fact that the number of subscribers to American Dish TV in Mexico is insignificant to a multi-billionaire like Slim, it's also most improbable that the average American or Canadian ex-pat could be forced to watch Mexican television even if it were the last entertainment option in town and someone had a gun to their heads.

Whatever the real reason, here we are in the tenth or twelfth day of no TV.

Satellite radio offers some relief, including daily broadcasts of MSNBC, with Chris Matthews' screaming, Keith Olbermann's scowling and Rachel Maddow's smirking and eye-rolling--but without having to look at them. Now that's an improvement.

On the other hand, without the diagrams and horrific footage, 60 Minutes' recent exposé of the BP oil spill would have been incomprehensible.

Some have suggested subscribing to a Canadian satellite service, eh, which offers most American TV fare plus CBC and presumably all the hockey a human being could want. On their list of offerings there's also something called the "Sex Channel." Canadian sex doesn't sound very exciting at first but imagine what those eskimos in Yellowknife do with during those endless winters. It could be interesting.

Besides if someone doesn't fix this damn satellite soon, we could get desperate.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Grandma's patio

New or old, grand or modest, there's always a favorite spot in one's house. A family room with a battered La-Z-Boy recliner that over the years has been the victim of coffee spills or cat clawing but still remains the most comfortable place for reading a book or watching TV. Or a workbench in a dark corner of the garage, lined with dozens of cans and jars of screws, bolts, washers and rusty pieces of you-never-know hardware, ready for an operation on a dead vacuum cleaner or some other household equipment. For cooks--I'm not one them--I imagine the kitchen is that sweet spot.

Six months after moving into the new house, the entrance courtyard has become that perfect place for me. Quiet and secluded, it's a great place to drink a cup of tea or just close your eyes. I even mumble to myself occasionally. Not to worry: A shrink once told me that was not a sign of craziness as long as I didn't overdo it or argue with myself.

It's in the courtyard that I wrote part of this blog. At this time of the year the space is half-shaded and cool, compared to the back terrace which is sizzling hot. Two hummingbirds are zipping around, along with several butterflies. The only noise is the water filter in the fish pond and the soft meowing of two of my cats sitting behind the screens, no doubt plotting how to get out and eat the hummers.

This space also has the odd effect of bringing me back to Cienfuegos, Cuba, to the patio in my maternal grandmother's small house, where I spent the happiest moments of my childhood. I'm 62 years old now yet her overgrown, chaotic patio remains a favorite spot in my memory.

There are some eerie similarities between her courtyard and mine. Many of the plantings--elephant ears, crotons, philodendrons, ferns and even an orange tree--are the same. But the plants are the least of my fond images, which have to do more with the emotional warmth and unconditional love I always felt in her house.

And her cooking: If the Michelin guide rated Cuban cuisine, grandma would have gotten a three-star rating hands down.

Interior courtyards are part of most houses in San Miguel and throughout Latin America, even modest ones. They muffle street noises while whispering to the visitor, "Welcome, come on in." They may offer a shady nook with weathered chairs and tables, and the soothing tinkling of a fountain.

A courtyard was always in our vision for the new house. In the seven-and-a-half acres where we ultimately built, noise is not a problem except for the occasional braying burro or gurgling turkey. But this small lush oasis is a welcome relief from the semi-desertic surroundings, which are brown most of the year and can desiccate one's spirits as much as one's skin.

Ours is only 20 by 25 feet, a bit smaller because one of the walls is rounded. As I remember it, my grandmother's patio was no big colonial landmark either.

As I planted our patio I tried to recall all I had read about landscaping small places and container gardening and seen during visits to other gardens. I think I achieved the proper mixtures of foliage textures, heights, flower colors and so on. I'm very happy with the results even though the main event, a 15-foot "trueno" tree (a Chinese privet, according to Google) which was supposed to be the focal point, promptly went into transplant conniptions and lost about half its leaves. During the past two weeks it has miraculously revived and is sprouting new leaves throughout.

Still, my garden may lack a certain element of, hmmm, disorder and spontaneity. It may be a bit too much like one of those rooms featured in home and garden magazines that are perfectly decorated yet off-putting because they reveal nothing about the personality of the owner.

I'm sure my grandmother didn't follow any design scheme when adding plants to her patio. New specimens, which usually arrived in rusty tin cans, were simply those that caught her eye while walking through the market. Upon arrival some were planted on the ground, others stayed in the cans and were placed under other plants or nailed or wired to any blank spot on the wall. In the hot, humid Cuban climate not many plants died though many became terminally scraggly and misshapen in this temple of laissez-faire gardening.

Her house was L-shaped, with the courtyard nestled in the inside of the "L" and walled in on the other two sides. The rooms were organized railroad-style, one after the other, beginning with a sitting room on the short leg of the "L" which faced the street--and where no one ever sat--then a real living room with a small Philco radio, followed by two bedrooms, a bathroom, a dining room and finally the kitchen.

There was no television so the fickle Philco was the main source of entertainment. One memorable program was hosted by a man named Clavelito. He must have been a Caribbean version of Oprah, Dr. Phil and Shirley MacLaine, all rolled into one. Clavelito would counsel listeners, suggest various herbal cures and even channel good "magnetic" vibrations through a glass of water they were advised to place on top of the radio.

Nonsense some of you may say, but to a five- or six-year-old it was part of the old tales and magical realism that made grandma's house unforgettable.

The backbone of the house was the long patio. All the rooms opened to it, and from it received light, air and the aroma of any plants in bloom. Unless it was raining, one traversed from room to room through the patio. The breezes flowing through the patio also carried the smells of my grandma's cooking everywhere.

Grandmother lived with my spinster aunt Estela and their regal, long-haired cat Cachucha. As it was often the case in the old days, from among five siblings Estela somehow was drafted to be the one who would take care of grandma. I never met my grandfather and no one ever talked about him. I couldn't say how Estela felt about her designated-caretaker role; she never married or complained. She just carried on.

Grandma and her beloved Cachucha glided into senility simultaneously, hand-in-paw. Grandma gradually forgot the names of family members though not their faces, particularly mine. Cachucha gradually gave up preening herself and took up absent-mindedly sauntering about the patio with turds hanging from her furry tail like precious mementos from her last visit to the litter box.

At this point I must confess that the center character in this warm scene was...Alfredito. I was the youngest and favorite grandchild and the child Estela never had. All rules and regulations set out by my strict mother were quickly ignored as soon as she and my dad walked out the door. News that I would be staying at grandma's so my parents could go away was like hearing the Three Kings would be making an extra summer visit to bring more presents.

Alfredito also got to enjoy grandma's and Estela's wondrous cooking--whatever occurred to me. Their kitchen was antique, downright rustic. The tiny GE refrigerator, a size we would now call "apartment-size" was constantly clogged with ice and frost. The stove was a combination gas and coal contraption that only the two of them could understand, let alone master. I don't recall seeing a shelf with cookbooks: The recipes must have sprung straight from my grandmother's head, with Estela patiently playing second fiddle.

Grandma's insistence on fresh ingredients complicated things further. Arroz con pollo called for a live chicken whose neck had to be twisted and its feathers plucked in hot water in the bathtub. The final dish required pimentos, peas, saffron rice and God knows what else, and was the arroz con pollo to end all arroz con pollos, even if the effort took hours of pot-banging and coddling of the cantankerous stove, and left the kitchen, dining room, bathroom and back portion of the patio in a shambles.

As I looked proudly at my entrance courtyard a couple of mornings ago, and thought about my grandmother's patio, some improvements came to mind, a few of which will take time. I can't wait for the plants to outgrow the neat areas I've assigned them and start pushing and shoving each other and become a lush, untidy garden like grandma's. I'll speed up the march toward uncertainty by bring up all my pots from storage and filling them with whatever catches my eye on my next trip to the nursery.

Stew had suggested that we sand and repaint the three gnomes so they look nice 'n neat. They do look bedraggled after all that travel; one even lost part of his pipe.

I don't think so. Grandma would just leave them the way they are and wait for the vegetation to cover up any bruises.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Attack of the Mutant Zucchinis

I've never grown zucchinis so I'm not sure what a normal, regulation-size zucchini is supposed to look like. But somehow I fear the ones I've got going in my garden may be E.T./Steven Spielberg hybrids. The second one we've harvested weighs around two and a half pounds, measures 11 inches--and it looks as if it wasn't completely done growing.

Plus there are three or four more coming along just from this one plant. On another corner of this bed there's another plant that is just beginning to flower, though according to my labels it's a different variety so maybe it won't grow as large. What continues to be curious is that everything is this horse manure compost-enriched bed seems to be thriving, almost unnaturally, whereas in the other bed enriched with sheep manure the plants looks shrimpier if not downright unhappy.

At any rate, there's a lot of zucchini down the road and so I'm grateful to blog reader Dinah Ragsdale of Lindale, Texas for sending me a terrific recipe for Honey Zucchini Bread. It's moist but holds together, and is sweet without being cloying. Best of all it's really easy to make, according to Stew.

I tried it on our gardener Felix, a critic always a bit leery of gringo confections (except for Classic Coke and sugar-dusted "donitas"), and he loved it.

Honey Zucchini Bread

3 cups unsifted, unbleached, all purpose flour
1 tsp. each salt and baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
2 cups finely grated unpeeled zucchini
3 eggs slightly beaten
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 2/3 cups honey
1 Tablespoon vanilla

Heat oven to 325. Grease 2 loaf pans (8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2) In a large bowl mix together all dry ingredients. In a medium bowl mix eggs, oil, honey, vanilla and zucchini. Add wet ingredients to dry. Mix only enough to moisten. Do not beat. Batter will look green but don't fear. Add 1 cup chopped nuts if desired. Pour into loaf pans and bake 1 hour. Cool on rack 10 minutes then remove from pan and complete cooling on rack. This bread freezes well.

My twin sons, now 38, loved this recipe and would make it for us. They knew their way around the kitchen...we thought. Only one time did the zucchini bread (sweet enough to call cake) not turn out good. It was a mystery until the next night when, making a Greek salad, I discovered that the cucumber had disappeared.

Note: If you use smaller loaf pans, such as the foil single use kind, you would need to reduce the cooking time. Probably need to test with a toothpick so you don't over cook. It would probably make 3 or 4 of the smaller sized loaves.

Now I must search the Internet for any recipes for fritters, soups--just about anything involving zucchinis--just before the 11-12 varieties of tomatoes start their own riot in the garden.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

About Buddha, roadrunners and zucchini

A central Buddhist principle is the reality of suffering. For one thing, from the minute we're born we inevitably get older, more infirm and ultimately die. Karpow. Kaboom. Kaput.

Buddhist philosophy also posits that a great deal of suffering is self-inflicted by our clinging and attachment to worthless things or non-productive thinking. We cling to resentments, regrets and thoughts that cannot be changed. It's not possible to rewind, much less edit, the videos of one's past life. At the other end, we fuss and obsess endlessly about things that might happen in the future even though we have no control over them either.

The solution to this clinging-induced suffering, according to my limited knowledge of Buddhism, is mindful meditation. You settle your mind by concentrating on the moment rather than what was or could be.

If only it were that easy. Most mortal minds are not that easily focused or pacified. Thoughts swirl around like an endless merry-go-round. Mindfulness is a tough drill.

Some practitioners suggest tricks like concentrating one's gaze on an object, like a candle, or simply keeping track of the rhythm of our breathing.

Since moving out here last December I have found myself in moments of unintentional, effortless mindfulness.

Two days ago I was lowering the blinds in the office and saw a real live roadrunner no more than ten feet outside the window. It wasn't running but meandering in slow circles.

"Take a good look at me pal," he seemed to say. "I don't come visiting that often."

I followed his advice and stared. What a weirdo: It had a tail about as long as its body, a long beak, a crest over the head and disproportionately powerful legs and feet. What kind of evolutionary logic accounts for such a goofy critter?

The moment didn't last long. Wile E. Coyote came into my head and then I half expected the roadrunner to go off in a trail of dust: "Beep, Beep, your assss..." And then another unmindful thought: "Damn, I should have grabbed my camera!"

More routinely I find moments of mindfulness while working in the vegetable garden. What is that small green shoot coming out of the ground? Weed or seedling? Or marking shallow rows with a knife, gently depositing seeds and mentally wishing each one a quick and happy germination. Or pruning back one of the giant leaves of the zucchini plant that's about to engulf some nearby tomato seedling.

Even watering takes on a zen-like aspect, as I stand back and marvel at all this greenery that barely six weeks ago was an envelope full of seeds on its way from Burpee Seeds in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

The soil mix in the two raised beds has worked splendidly, even though not everything has grown or developed equally. One curiosity is that the bed enriched with horse manure compost seems to be more prosperous than the one where I used sheep compost. Don't know if there's any science to that, or it's just that I planted different things in the two beds and one of the beds was prepared a week later.

The soil on both beds seems dark and loose, like something out of a TV garden show.

A zucchini glut looms. The one plant has fruits growing so fast that Stew asked me if I had fed it Viagra.

Lettuce, all five or six varieties of it, also is thriving, even though I planted the seeds too close to one another so rather than neat rows I have multi-colored heaps of leaves. Red, green, frisee, mesclun, arugula--who knows?--except they are the freshest, most pungent-tasting greens we have ever eaten.

The Illini X-tra Sweet Corn in the bed with horse manure was knee-high by the Cinco de Mayo, but the Peaches and Cream variety in the sheep manure bed is only about ten inches high. The two cucumber bushes are roaming menacingly in the direction of the Illini corn, but the two cantaloupe plants in the other bed seem stunted, next to a batch of bush beans that started out with a bang but now show signs of sunburn.

One unqualified success is the crop of fifteen (15!?) tomato plants of various types--cherry, three heirloom varieties, beefsteak plus a couple of Mexican jitomates. Way too many plants and varieties, for sure, except as an experiment to find out which varieties will grow here. There isn't a single bug or sign of disease yet among them.

Flops I've had a few. Basil and other herbs generally have refused to grow from seeds or plants. Carrots are finally sprouting but ever so lazily. I'm not holding my breath on the chives either.

Despite the insistence of American garden books and catalogs on "full sun," I've had to install protective netting. The intensity of the sun in San Miguel is amplified tenfold by the altitude (about 1.2 miles above sea level), the unremitting, rainless days and finally a nearly constant, desiccating wind. When I put out the seedlings I protected them with pieces of plastic soda bottles that seem to have helped.

I don't know if the Buddha did much vegetable gardening, how successful he was at it, or how far mindfulness is going to take me and my garden.

At some point it seems I need to look back--not regret or bemoan, mind you--and think about what flourished, what didn't and why. Then I must look forward--in a non-obsessive manner, of course--and learn from the successes and mishaps, as I plan next year's garden.

For now, though, my vegetable beds are the closest I've come to regular mindful meditation.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hot Springs

It was admittedly a false hope, a burst of groundless enthusiasm that was bound to crash.

Following the unusually heavy rains during the two weeks straddling January and February, when we received approximately 10 inches--or approximately half of what we normally receive in an entire year--the ground was covered with a bright-green five o'clock shadow that I interpreted as an unmistakable prelude to spring. Even tiny wild flowers ventured out of the ground.

San Miguel's yearly Candelaria outdoor flower show and sale in early February, an official marker of spring around here, was partially rained out this year. But the legions of plant and flower vendors from the neighboring towns arrived anyway, some of them offering even fancy tulips, the bulbs wintered in refrigerators somewhere, I imagine.

Compounding the delusion, the cacti adorned themselves with flowers in various shades of yellow, orange and red that looked like Easter bonnets. (In fact, the display came right around Easter.) Even the normally featureless and stolid organ cacti indulged in their own bit of frivolity, by growing rows of colorful flowers along the ridges of their trunks.

The three olive trees we had planted (two Spanish "Arbequina" and one a California "Mission" variety) were covered with tiny white flowers. The flowers on the Arbequinas were particularly auspicious because that variety is supposed to be an early producer. Our trees are about two or three years old, really too young to produce much, but there's always hope.

Quick, look up the varieties in Google to see what we're supposed to do with the tons of olives headed our way. I found out the Arbequinas are smallish olives that can be eaten but are generally used to make oil. The Missions are larger and if left on the tree long enough turn into your typical black olive.

What does one do with the imminent bounty? Soak the olives in brine, pickle them, put them in jars, or get my feet ready to stomp on them to get the oil? Or is that for grapes? Who knows?

It was all a quick, mid-spring fantasy.

Except for one afternoon when some dark clouds swirled around menacingly, we haven't had even a faint sign of rain for about ten weeks. The promising green fuzz on the ground is gone. The cacti have lost practically all their flowers and returned to their usual somber selves. The tall candelabras of yellow flowers that had sprouted from the aloes also have withered.

On the olive trees the white flowers that were followed by what looked like tiny round fruits--and which for a moment triggered some extra-virgin olive oil visions in my head--alas are gone too, though the trees are healthy.

That acre of bright-green patch I could see amid the otherwise arid landscape visible from our terrace, and which I had guessed was alfalfa, is gone too. The small herds of livestock, now augmented with weeks-old offspring (I particularly like the baby burros whose heads seem to be two-thirds ears) are again listlessly scrounging the otherwise barren ground for any stray blade of greenery. Indeed, the only green plants left standing are mostly cacti, mesquites, huizaches and other desert survivors whose barbed-wire foliage and limbs render them inedible even by the hungriest goats.

For foreigners used to the "April showers bring May flowers" ditty, the seasons in San Miguel can be baffling. Spring begins in February, when it's hot and it doesn't rain. Toward the beginning of June, the hot weather eases and in July and August our brief but intense rainy season begins. Spurred by the moisture, tens of thousands of cosmos and sunflowers cover the fields during October and November. Isn't that when the leaves are supposed to fall off as the trees go dormant?

December and January may be the only months that seem somewhat true to form. The air gets nippy and the days shorter though the weather remains sunny enough for Northern visitors to gleefully poke each other and say: This is winter? Many spoiled long-term San Miguel residents head for the beach though, to flee the unbearable "cold."

Yet, except for brief and rare spates of unpleasant weather like we had in January, the views from our house never cease to amaze. One of the two large bedroom windows faces east and frames spectacular sunrises, and in some precious nights, an awesome moon appearing majestically from behind the mountains.

The southern scenery includes the gardens we have planted--not too colorful right now, I admit--but with their own postcard views of Biznaga's ancient and tiny church framed by misty mountains.

Several visiting friends have told us that the northern view from the terrace, largely of a farm with an old stone house next to a small pond, with more hills in the background, almost looks like a movie set. I tell them that it is, and that to complete the effect we indeed had had a few truckloads of sheep and goats brought in to meander about and occasionally stumble over the stone fences.

A week ago I decided that instead of watching the sunrise out of the corner of one eye while lying in bed, I would grab my camera and follow my two dogs as they darted outside, in their case not exactly to watch daybreak but to attend to more pressing concerns.

Over a period of no more than an hour the scene changed hues from starry black, to grayish-blue and then increasingly vibrant shades of orange. An inaudible alarm clock rousted the birds which started chirping all at once, with a few braying donkeys joining in. The customary shades of grayish-green and burnt-brown of the cacti and the grasses, now backlit by the rising sun, seemed to be on fire.

It was a scene of a desert landscape, winding up to another hot, sunny day. It was not the start of a spring day like I'm used to, but nonetheless an awesome spectacle of natural beauty. I sat on a rock to watch it unfold and soon enough my mutts Lucy and Gladys came up from behind, panting. We all sat for a few minutes, while I took it all in with my eyes and they with their twitching noses.