Friday, January 28, 2011

Loving animals in a foreign land

In a blog last August I talked about Chupitos, a hard-luck mutt that had shown up when we were building the house and which our gardener Félix had adopted, along with her two puppies. His kind gesture saved the three of them from certain death. We had the trio spayed, dewormed and vaccinated, and accordingly they put on weight and grew shiny coats. Félix brought them to work and we fed them morning and afternoon each day.

Occasionally another mutt, Chiquilín, who belonged to Félix's parents, also came along for a quick bite. Chiquilín was an elderly character, with a mangy coat, no teeth and a tottering gait. Most of the time he looked disoriented and for a good reason: His eyes were clouded with cataracts and he was hard of hearing. Getting his attention required some shouting and maybe waving your hands close to his nose. In the canine food line at our ranch, including our own Lucy and Gladys, Chiquilín was the only one who got servings of straight canned food or dry food soaked in water, so he could gum his way through the meal.

For a while we felt sorry for Chiquilín until we realized what a waste of time and emotions that was. Animals, no matter how bedraggled, don't feel sorry for themselves--it seems that self-pity is not in their emotional vocabulary. Each day they do what they need to do and carry on with life. Have you ever seen a lame dog complain about her missing leg? They just limp along wagging their tails as if everything were fine. And so it was with Chiquilín and his multiple disabilities. Sometimes he even tried wrestling with the other, much younger dogs.

One morning two months ago Chiquilín didn't show up here or at his regular home and Félix immediately suspected the worst. The next day he went looking for Chiquilín, following his usual route between our house and his parents'. He found him dead, near to the gate to our ranch, but with no scratches or signs of injuries. It may be that he was headed toward our property to collect his morning ration and just croaked from old age. Félix put him a wheel-barrow, took him to the farthest corner of our property and buried him.

This morning was Chupitos' turn. She hadn't shown up at his house last night and first thing today Félix set out to look for her, again following the trail between our place and his. By eleven o'clock he'd found nothing, so Stew went searching for her too. Shortly afterward Stew found Chupitos' mangled remains. It seems she had gotten into a fight with a pack of dogs who hang around our gate also waiting for us to feed them, and Chupitos had lost.

Félix, visibly shaken, kept sniffling which I guess is the closest thing to crying a 24-year-old Mexican male will allow himself. So Stew and Félix loaded Chupitos on the wheelbarrow to await burial in another far corner of the property. For some reason Félix doesn't want any animals buried close to our house.

Ever since Stew and I moved here five years ago, there's been a daily clash between our ideas about animal welfare and those held by common folks in Mexico, particularly those living in the dirt-poor villages around us. Life is very, very tough for most people. Why should it be any different for animals?

One of Felix's most unusual traits indeed is his affection for animals. The times I've been to his one-room house, which he shares with his wife and daughter, I found that he also keeps two cats, one of them blind, two donkeys and--until today--Chupitos and her pups.

Specially among farmers, animals are seldom the objects of love and affection, but rather utilitarian beasts or commodities. Yesterday Stew and I went to a sheep farm to pick up three sacks of manure for our compost pile. Naturally I had to pick up a baby lamb and pat it on the head. Stew joined in. The farmer's wife giggled nervously at this show of strange gringo behavior: Come on folks, lambs are food, not cute critters to be petted.

Also yesterday, on the way to town, we gave a ride to a young mother, a teenager for sure, with beautiful fine features and green eyes, the latter most unusual among Mexicans. She was carrying a tiny baby bundled in a blanket, whom she said was suffering from "gripa" or a common cold. A few times the baby let out a ghastly, phlegmy cough that rattled my bones. The mother said she was going to the general hospital, about five miles away, a trip which I guess she had planned to undertake by foot in the blazing sun until we showed up.

You can forgive her is she's unable to worry about the welfare of animals around her--skeletal stray dogs, a daily road kill of cats, dogs and sometimes donkeys or horses, and various other horror stories.

Chupito's demise also brought something to mind: It may not be a good idea for humans to butt into the secret world of dogs. As we were finishing up the house about a year ago, a scrapper of an old mutt kept hanging around as if she were determined to move in along with the furniture. She was not a thing of beauty, what with blotchy black fur, one lazy eye, a gray snout, no teeth and a nervous twitch on her face. She wags her tail so furiously that her whole body wobbles as she walks. Naturally we began feeding her and nicknamed her "Titties" because of her saggy nipples, the result of several pregnancies.

We soon learned that despite her sorry mien, Titties was an Alpha Bitch, someone not willing to share her space with our Lucy and Gladys. So forget adoption. Then two more dogs joined her at the gate for the daily handout of food by Stew and Al. Then four more for a total of seven.

It turns out they all belonged to Don Vicente, a rancher who lives downhill from us in a ramshackle house that's probably closer to a hovel. Titties real name turned out to be "Chucha" and evidently Vicente's plan for feeding all these canines was to let Stew and Al do it. Can't blame Vicente except that at last count we were going through almost three 50-lbs bags of dog food a month.

We tried to break the routine but the dogs kept showing up at the gate, hungrier, bonier and more pathetic by the day. So we started the feeding drill again. The most recent addition was a black-and-white, Benji look-alike which we found out had a litter of six puppies two weeks ago. How long before they joined the others begging for food?

Most ominously, fights and snarling matches erupted daily among the outside dogs and between them and Chupitos, her two pups and our Lucy and Gladys, on the other side of the fence. Among Vicente's dog pack there seemed to be a furious debate over who was going to be the head of the pack, as Titties' supremacy literally came under attack.

It's likely that Chupitos, who often insisted on walking home by herself at night, got into a fight with the outside dogs which chewed her to pieces. We don't know much about canine society and groups, but it's clear that feeding Vicente's growing pack of dogs is a kind notion gone awry. Stew says we should stop that routine immediately.

In the mean time, we're waiting for a backhoe to show up to dig holes for four new trees--three evergreens and one mesquite--and a resting place for Chupitos.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Never too old to be happy

According to Mr. Conventional Wisdom, that notorious bullshit artist, happiness in life is an inexorable downward slide. We may be happy when young and carefree, when zits and sex are our main worries. Or perhaps during the 30s and 40s when we fall in love, buy a house and develop a career, and if we're lucky pile up some money and possessions and even a bit fame.

Not so when you retire and get old. Not older, mind you, but seriously old: Like when you stumble past your sixtieth birthday and head for the home stretch. Except the end of this horse race is a hole in the ground not a bottle of champagne or a cheering crowd. Even if you live to be 90 years old, an unusually long run, when you get to be 60 two-thirds of your life is already over.

So a recent article in The Economist magazine (Dec. 16) that a friend e-mailed to me caught my attention: It says that beyond middle age people actually become happier. In fact, the trend in day-to-day feelings of happiness, plotted over a lifetime, looks like an inverted bell curve. People are relatively happy during their teens, but then things start getting gloomier and bottom out at middle age. Past that middle-age gulch, there's an upswing in happiness and well-being.

Didn't sound too plausible to me either. Particularly in a community of gray-haired, retired ex-pats like we have in San Miguel, where at times you feel part of a caravan of sputtering '48 Chevys. You keep hearing about other people's mechanical problems: leaky oil pans, balky transmissions and worn-out break pads, or who fell down where or broke what. Friends mention diseases and ailments you'd never heard of before and which sadly, sometimes involve close friends.

Such preoccupations are reflected on the Civil List, an ex-pat Internet bulletin board where a good part of the chatting revolves around about doctors and treatments--from mainstream to wu-wu to out-and-out quackery--for what essentially is the incurable condition known as "old age." A couple of weeks ago someone on the Civil List was looking for a "lymphatic draining masseuse." Yesterday I heard about a local doctor who treats macular degeneration by injecting stem cells around the eyes. Quick, someone notify the Mayo Clinic about all these breakthroughs.

All this talk begins to affect you. Is a nasty cough a prelude to throat cancer--how many packs of cigarettes did I smoke and for how long?--or a creaky knee an unmistakable symptom of some sort of catastrophic degenerative disease?

Yet according to the article, life bottoms out at around age 46, and things begin to look up after that. "Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure--vitality, mental sharpness and looks--they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness."

The research is complicated. Obviously, a number of factors are involved, such as gender (women are slightly happier than men), personality, and personal circumstances. But the inverted bell curve pattern holds true throughout the world, with some curious variations. For Ukrainians the midlife crisis comes at around 62, while the Swiss experience it at 35. But most people are reportedly most unhappy during their 40s and 50s, and the global average for the low point in personal happiness is around 46 years old.

It seems the key variable in geezer happiness is growing acceptance of one's circumstances. Older people are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less likely to anger, according to the article. Lofty expectations that stressed you out during midlife become more realistic. A Pulitzer Prize or a show of one's photographs at New York's Museum of Modern Art are not likely but that's OK: A few appreciative comments from friends about one's photography, watercolors or writing work just as well now.

Just a few years ago, when I'd be trying to please a boss, win a prize or getting a whopping raise, such acceptance might have seemed rather lame, even pathetic. Indeed the first 18 months Stew and I spent in San Miguel, when we were both still in our 50s and thus younger that most of the ex-pats we came across, such acceptance seemed tantamount to resignation or defeat. Life was effectively over.

Yet in the past two years, as we went past the 60-year-old mark, the home stretch has become actually enjoyable. What my boss thinks? Fuck it, I don't have one. The resale value of our home? Who cares? We've built a home that's our Life Home--one that exactly suits our needs and comfort demands, not the demands of the real estate market. (Anyway, the real estate market in San Miguel, like in many parts of the U.S., effectively croaked about two years ago, along with expectations of double-digit stock market returns.) Do we have enough vacation to go on a whale-watching trip to Baja California next month? You bet: Life is a daily vacation.

The effect of acceptance has been one of liberation rather than resignation. Buddhists believe that suffering is both inescapable but also inextricably tied to "clinging" or desiring what we don't have. I don't claim to have mastered acceptance much less Buddhist "enlightenment", but I find that the tighter I embrace the concept of "what is, is" the calmer and happier I become.

The hole at the end of the homestretch is still there and it moves closer every day. Might as well get there whistling rather than kicking and screaming.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dread of flying

On December 27 economist Alfred E. Kahn died. On that day, Stew and I also found ourselves trapped at Newark Airport--which had all but shut down because of a blizzard--cursing at airports, flying and particularly the dismal condition of airline passenger service. You can't blame Kahn for the weather, but I like to hold him largely responsible for the general nosedive in the quality of airline service which has gone from pleasant, even genteel, down to something that more closely resembles a rush-hour ride in a Mumbai jitney.

When we arrived at Newark to catch our flight back to Mexico, we waited about two and a half hours to reach the check-in counter, and just when we got there we heard our flight was in "the final boarding process" so there was no way we could make it.

We were then sent to the third floor of the Continental terminal to an area called "Flight Re-accommodations," where we waited in line for seven (7) hours to be re-accommodated into another flight, on standby, the next day. (That's Stew above, during his turn to sit down while waiting for his re-accommodation.)

Though there were at least seven or eight computer terminals at this counter, there were never more than four agents and only one or two most of the time, hence the slow pace of the proceedings. Evidently the airline didn't view the mounting chaos as an emergency that merited ordering all employees to report to the airport immediately.

When you stand in line for seven hours, conversations develop about all sorts of topics, like one with this guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul Simon, including an intricate comb-over covering a vast bald spot. While waiting, he mused about how he missed his wife's cooking, especially her unique spaghetti and spinach dish. We were so hungry the concoction sounded almost good.

A few places ahead of us there was a tall, nerdy and hyperkinetic 20-something, who was headed for school in Japan. He blathered non-stop about a variety of throughly uninteresting topics, including how he was going to warn his parents that he could only come home once a year. Betcha the old folks will be grateful for the extra peace and quiet.

But at least in our group--Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 4--the mood was generally one of jokey resignation. Whenever an extra agent showed up, however briefly, he or she was greeted by a round of applause.

Not so at the neighboring Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3, where there were twice or three times as many passengers, probably about 300, in various states of disgruntlement that included foot-stomping, booing and shouting. Five airport police officers arrived at around midnight to break up some pushing and shoving. At around 1:30 a.m. all people waiting on this queue were herded single-file into another area, presumably to have their flights re-accommodated at Areas Number 1 or 2.

Back at Area Number 4, at around 2 a.m., we received two standby boarding passes for a flight at around 9 a.m. later that morning. Unfortunately, this queue was not for checking in baggage. For that we would have to wait until 4 a.m. when the janitors finished cleaning and polishing the floor at Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3, which would then become be the Flight Check-in Area.

Baggage check-in started quietly there until another 300 or more passengers piled in with their mountains of luggage--what do people carry in those monstrous boxes?--and the mood turned sour. Most of the credit for that wind change goes to an agent named Ana, who with her sulfuric temper managed to antagonize practically every passenger within earshot. She was indeed a nasty, little monster with beady, implacable eyes and thin lips that scared the bejeezus out of you, no matter how exhausted you were.

For the benefit of Latin American passengers her rantings alternated between English and Spanish. Once, she ran off to an airport phone to summon the police. Probably an angry Colombian or Costa Rican had threatened to smack her over the head. Can't say I blame him.

But as we approached the check-in counter, about 90 minutes later, we were greeted by Willie, who was in charge of the other end of the mob and seemingly intent on neutralizing Ana's obnoxiousness. He was dapper, in his 40s, with a bushy, graying moustache and most important, a booming voice that would carry over a thundering herd of cattle. Willie was also bilingual and he serenaded the crowd with jokes, and gentle coaxing and laughter, as if he were the star at a rowdy Las Vegas show.

It worked. Even after, let's see--almost 12 hours waiting in various lines?--we finally checked in and walked away smiling.

Granted, the Newark experience was greatly aggravated by the weather (that's New York City, above). Almost 1,200 flights were cancelled at Newark alone and presumably most of those passengers condemned to wander the airport for hours or days, like zombies with luggage.

But even when the sun is shining, flying has become a drag on the body and spirit and for that I largely blame Alfred Kahn who in the late 1970s, as the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, pushed through the deregulation of the airline industry. In his campaign he had some strange pals, like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Deregulation nowadays is a conservative article of faith that often hasn't panned out. Under Clinton and particularly under Bush #2, the banking and mortgage industry were deregulated, which took us directly to the near-meltdown of the banking system and later hundreds of billions of taxpayer bailouts to bring it back from the edge.

The U.S. deregulated while Canada kept its government controls on banking and mortgages. Give you one guess whose banking system emerged largely unscathed from the recent banking debacle.

Deregulation of the airlines was to bring about competition, which in turn--another capitalist article of faith--would bring lower prices and better service. It did bring us some low-cost carriers like PeopleExpress and Southwest Airlines. It has also bankrupted God-knows how many other airlines and transformed even elite carriers like Air France into flying oxcarts.

Admittedly, pre-deregulation carriers lived in a cozy, unreal world, in which certain routes were assigned by the government and fares established according to some rules never entirely clear to the customers. Flying was indeed somewhat of a luxury: Ever wonder where the expression "jet set" came from?

But constant pressure for lower fares now has engendered a dive to the bottom of the barrel, led by no-frills carriers. On the flight up to Newark a young woman next to me asked for a blanket and the airline attendant looked at her bemused, as if the passenger had asked for whole roast beef, medium rare.

Indeed, some carriers charge $7 for the luxury of a blanket, in addition to food--charging for airline food, now there's a challenging concept--and luggage. Has anyone thought of putting a coin-operated lock on the lavatories?

Some defenders of the system, though, may have a point. Cheap passengers have let airlines know that they will put up with practically any indignity or inconvenience as long as it yields lower prices, and the airlines have been eager to oblige. Several years ago someone even floated the idea of ultra-cheap "seats" to Europe in which the passengers would actually rest against a ledge instead of sit.

Come to think of it, after standing at Newark for 12 hours, eight hours to Paris sounds plausible.

But cost-cutting may have made a U-turn and come to bite the passengers, who supposedly get cheaper fares but end up paying for a number of things, like checking two suitcases, that used to be provided free.

After the five-hour flight to Mexico City, I was as agitated as those poor suckers in Flight Re-accommodation Area Number 3. Damn airlines.

Stew, however, disembarked calm and seemingly refreshed. In the last-minute boarding mayhem by the gate, his name for some reason didn't appear on the standby list. So the agent re-accommodated him once more, this time up to first-class--that rarefied reserve so reminiscent of the pre-Kahn, pre-deregulation era.