Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Desi to the rescue

In addition to his duties as gardener, painter and fixer-upper, our own Renaissance man Félix also works as watchman when we are away, spending nights in our house. Recently he's become more insistent, always politely, about his security concerns. Following our last vacation, when we went to watch whales in Baja California, Félix kept talking up us getting a gun, a couple of big dogs or both.

He would never use the "s" word, no full-blooded Mexican man would admit to such feelings. But it sounded as if Félix was...hmm...could it be?...may be just a bit...scared? Of course not, he said, except he also let out that one night he had asked his older brother Juan to come over and keep him company, on account of "strange noises."

So we started looking for a dog and two days ago spotted a likely candidate through Save a Mexican Mutt, a local group organized by an American couple who pick up stray or abandoned dogs and take most of them to the U.S. for adoption. Reportedly some U.S. animal shelters have no dogs to adopt while in some circles it has become chic to adopt a muttzerella from Mexico.

A Doberman male had turned up at SAMM and judging from photos they had sent me, this guy looked like the part. It's not common for SAMM to find pure-bred dogs, but this one seemed to be. Kelly Karger, who runs SAMM, says he's put on 15 pounds since he was rescued in San Luis Rey, one of San Miguel's poorest neighborhoods. It's hard to understand why the owners abandoned such a beautiful animal, except they probably had no money to feed him.

Today he showed up and he lived up to the billing: A full-size Doberman indeed, with a chopped-up tail but intact ears, probably weighing about 90 pounds--or about as much as Félix--and a deep growl reminiscent of the rumble of a 1960s muscle car. His mission is to scare off intruders by his menacing presence and bark and he certainly can do that much.

We just won't tell anyone he also seems to be somewhat of a wuss. Everyone was a bit apprehensive how the Doberman would react to our two dogs, Lucy and Gladys, and Félix's Luiso and Palomita. But when they all met nothing happened except the requisite sniffing of each other's privates, as in "Hola, how are you, pleasure to meet you, I think." After that, everyone just took off and started playing. If this guy is not a wuss, he's certainly a very cordial guard dog.

Originally we had named him "Ché" as in Ché Guevara, but then changed it to "Desi", to go with our female "Lucy." After I'd started calling him Ché I'd realized both of my parents would turn in their graves if they found out I had named a pet after the loathsome commie revolutionary.

That name doesn't belong on a pet, my mother would sputter, unless it's a slimy, disgusting animal, like a weasel, and then you shouldn't have adopted it at all.

What's wrong with you son, are you a pinko or something?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The limits of conservation

While still planning the construction of this house, we received a terrific piece of advice from our friend Roger: Make sure one of the bedroom windows faces east, so you can enjoy, while still in bed, the daily spectacle of a sunrise. We've since read that's a pretty standard consideration when siting a house but we'd never thought of it until Roger mentioned it.

And so we did what he suggested. The master bedroom has two large windows, one facing east and the other south. Each morning the east-facing window frames a theatrical spectacle of color. The sky behind the mountains gradually turns a brighter shade of orange, as if someone on a light board were gently fiddling with different levers, knobs and switches. Naturally the basic colors are much the same each day yet the precise mix varies slightly from day to day, depending on the ground fog, haze, temperature, humidity or who knows what. The foreground--a winding road, farm fields of various shades of green and brown with a dry river bed cutting across--remains in the dark for about fifteen minutes into the light show, when the sun gradually reveals the rest of the scenery.

Thanks for the suggestion, Roger.

The other window faces south and though the views are not quite as dramatic, the sun streaming in the late morning warms up the room during the cold months. (One worthwhile idea that was never implemented was to install eaves about two feet wide over each south-facing window, like eyelashes, to shield the room from the early summer sun and heat. Instead we just pull down the blinds.)

The other suggestion from Roger didn't quite pan out: Get an ultra energy-efficient Bosch dishwasher. It turns out the Bosch is very frugal on water but a pig on electricity. The secret to Bosch's stingy consumption--a full load with as little as 2.5 gallons of water--apparently is that tiny sips of water get sloshed around interminably. The shortest cycle ("Rápido") goes on for an hour and the longer cycles can have the machine humming, and sucking electrical juice, for over two hours.

We rethought our use of the "Rápido" setting earlier this week when the dishes kept coming out half-clean. The hell with it, we decided, let's go for the "Auto" setting which lets some little computer chip inside the machine decide the "optimum" combination of water intake and length of the wash, up to a whopping 187 minutes. How the chip decides the level of grunginess is a mystery. I believe it has something to do with the turbidity of the water cycling around.

That in turn my depend on the cuisine involved in last night's dinner. Gooey, saucy Italian dishes are sure to trigger the extra-long penalty cycle, like a car wash struggling to scrub off cow pies stuck to the fenders of a pickup. The dishes from a more sensible dinner, say a petite nouvelle something-or-other, are more like a dusty Mini Cooper just needing a quick rinse. Despite increased salad and vegetable consumption from our garden, our diet still trends toward the gooey side.

Whatever it does, the Auto setting gets the dishes sparkling clean. As for conservation of electricity and water, we're sorry to report that we no longer care.

Hey but why should we be sorry? Under San Miguel's relentlessly sunny weather, the photovoltaic panels are generating a little more than 15 kilowatts a day, which is more than we need. As for tomorrow, there's bound to be more sun and more solar electricity, and the monthly bill will still be zero pesos. Three months away from the next rainy season, our rainwater collection cistern also remains about 85 percent full.

So for the time being, why conserve? There's no incentive. That is until it gets cloudy or we hit a drought. That could push us back on the conservation wagon--and pronto.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Yoga redux

When we first arrived at San Miguel five years ago, Stew and I joined a beginner yoga class held three times a week in the solemn setting of a 250-year-old former convent downtown. The room's 20-foot-ceilings, enormously thick walls and huge, creaky door seemed to fit the contemplative, ancient aura that I associate with yoga.

Our favorite yoga teacher then and now is Alejandro, a long-haired Mexican in his 30s, whose improvised 90-minute routines flow seamlessly. He is clearly an accomplished yogi and also a perceptive instructor, aware of the limitations and general un-yogishness of the AARP group, mostly women, who attended his classes. There was also the fact that unlike some of the other instructors--some of them Twiggy-thin and apparently triple-jointed--Alejandro, while not fat, is developing a discreet gut. One more reason to like him. He's one of us.

After we moved out to the ranch a little more than a year ago we drifted away from our weekly yoga routine. Stew and I never crawled out of the beginner level but still by the end we could do plausible simulations of most of the poses Alejandro demonstrated. And besides, when the doctor asked during our annual physical what we did for exercise, we could legitimately say "yoga." It's not exactly training for a marathon but it sounds a heck of a lot more energetic than "nothing" or "sitting on our butts eating guacamole."

On Monday morning we attempted to relight our yoga routine but setting was all different and Alejandro wasn't there. Part of the ancient roof at the convent had collapsed (no one was hurt) and the building is closed for renovation.

So the classes moved across the street to the very modern and uncontemplative setting of the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio. The main room has a wall of mirrors and halogen lights and a disco ball hanging from the low ceiling. To the right a curtain made of silvery tinsel undulates at the slightest breeze or movement. The furniture is vaguely Mexican in style but painted black and accented with black-and-white zebra throw pillows and tall peacock feathers nested in mauve vases.

One almost expected John Travolta to burst from behind the tinsel curtain and reprise his Saturday Night Fever routine, the one in the skin-tight white suit, except it was 9:30 in the morning and by now Travolta probably weighs about 75 pounds more than during his brief disco reign in the mid-70s.

The crowd of about 15 yogistas, most Travolta's age if not older, were led by Yolie, a tightly wound young woman. It was supposed to be some sort of "mixed level class", a description I should have taken as a bad omen. Indeed, Yolie began with gentle moves that rapidly revved up into a series of Sun Salutations and Tibetan pretzel-like postures that had my eyes fixed not on Yolie but on the clock at the front of the room.

I tried to concentrate on a young woman in front of me but that only fed my frustration. She was svelte and gorgeous in black leotards, and apparently had been doing yoga since grammar school. Next to her was a teenage girl who was almost as graceful and limber. Not only could they follow Yolie's poses but these two sometimes added extra touches of complexity.

So I took my gaze to the left, where I found a much older and more ample woman whose slow moves, stolid mien and shaggy hair reminded me of a yak. Even my pathetic yoga moves were better than hers.

Then there was Stew to my right who sometime during the 90-minute class had developed a yoga routine of his own, sometimes matching Yolie's, sometimes not.

Around 10:45 the class culminated with a shoulder stand, but instead I adopted the Dead Man's Pose, a legitimate yoga pose that has you lying on your back with the hands on the sides of your body and eyes closed. But I didn't even get that right: I just kept looking at the disco ball and thinking about John Travolta.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Clash of the worlds

As you drive from our ranch, you'll go on a short stretch of dirt road, then take a right and travel for another three miles on a road that dead ends at a brand new highway. There you'll have a choice not only between turning right or left, or going to San Miguel or Queretaro, but also of visiting the First or the Third World.

Mexico's ambiguous place on the First World/Third World spectrum reminds me of the myth of Janus, the Roman god with two faces. He supposedly looked both toward the past and the future, and if you stretch the story just a bit, toward progress and modernity with one face, and backwardness and poverty with the other.

Mexico has enough ultra-modern razzle-dazzle to fool you into believing you're living in the First World or thereabouts. Queretaro just built an imposing boulevard with eight or ten lanes lanes--can't remember just how many--meticulously landscaped and with overpasses, lighting and expressway signage good enough for Los Angeles. The suburbs surrounding Queretaro have thousands of houses neatly laid out as far as the eye can see, with an occasional golf course or strip mall in between. Are we someplace in Nevada? If you don't like suburban living, billboards advertise high-rise condominiums, one of them called Central Park, closer to the center of the city. Yes, as you cruise down the city's impressive entrance you can spot one slummy-looking neighborhood on the left side, with rattletrap houses clinging precariously to the side of a hill. But which American or European city doesn't have its share of slums?

However, when you consider Mexico's history of epic political corruption, the national sport of tax evasion and its barely functional law enforcement system, somehow the place doesn't look like Canada or Finland anymore. Even less so if you factor in the narco wars which over the past five years have killed 35,000, and give some San Miguel gringos pause about quickie driving jaunts to McAllen or Laredo, Texas to do some shopping.

San Miguel could be the Third World face of Mexico, despite the continuous arrival of luxe hotels and restaurants and its lovingly maintained historic Centro that so enchants visitors and residents alike. Just step away from the Centro into the surrounding towns--where half of the population of the municipality of San Miguel lives--and it's light years away from the modernity of Queretaro, which is only 45 minutes away. It's not the asphyxiating squalor you find in Haiti, El Salvador or Honduras and other countries of the true Third World, but it's close enough.

(Sorry, putting Mexico in the Second World doesn't really work either. That label traditionally has been applied to Soviet satellites whose populations lived in an economic and political limbo that was a nasty mix of dictatorships and semi-retarded economies. Check out places like Turkmekistan, wherever the heck it is. Mexico is not Turkmekistan, a fact for which all of us who live here thank God every day.)

Last week we were exposed to the First and Third World sides of Mexico thanks to two carpentry projects for our house. For one we wanted an old set of doors that could be retrofitted into a room divider between the kitchen and the dining room. That search took us to the shop--a fanciful description of a workspace that looked more like a hovel--where a nervous middle-aged man carved crude designs on wood using a chewed-up chisel and a hammer with a metal stub in place of a handle. I can't vouch for his salary, but I bet it's less than $50 a week.

In the end we didn't buy the doors. We spoke to the shop owner and they were absurdly overpriced, particularly considering that the craftsmanship was two flights of stairs below even what local gringos would call "Mexican Rustic." I would refer to it as "Mexican Crap."

Then came Juventino, our carpenter from Queretaro, who brought us a headboard for our bed, whose Moorish-style design he had found on the Internet. The woodwork is intricate, borderline exquisite, with layers of different woods forming geometric patterns. I can't even fully explain the finished product: You'll have to come here and look at it. Stew and I were awed. After all, we're veterans of scores of half-assed carpentry projects where the pieces typically fit almost but not quite. We were doing Mexican Rustic before we even knew what it was.

How did you do that?, we asked Juventino.

Welcome to the world of digital carpentry. It wasn't that hard, Juventino calmly explained. The first thing you do is turn the original design into a computer-aided file that contains the exact dimensions of all the different layers (to get the concentric designs) and the location, shape (round, V-shaped or square), depth and width of each groove. Then toddle over to a laser-cutting shop with your AutoCAD file in hand, so that a machine can cut the layers, in this case three layers of 1/4-inch plywood, to your precise specifications. Laser cutters can be programmed to cut plastic, wood and even cloth, though not glass. After that you take the top layer of wood, and the AutoCAD file, to a shop with a digital router that will perfectly create all the intricate, interlocking grooves. Put everything together, apply some stain, install the fancy frame, spray a few coats of varnish the whole thing and you're set.

Or so Juventino tells me. Just thinking about creating an AutoCad design with tolerances and measurements in fractions of a millimeter gives me a migraine.

When Juventino left, Stew and I drove back to the rustic design shop selling the doors and instead bought a lawn ornament that represents a deer, more or less. It's about five feet high, made out of scraps of rusted metal, rebar and an old muffler. The hole for the tail pipe on the muffler coincides with the location of the deer's butt, which we thought was kind of clever. We put it in front of the house and we really like it. It's the kind of craftmanship we can understand.

For additional information about AutoCAD, laser woodcutting or digital routers, check out the following websites. Please seek adult supervision before attempting to build anything.