Thursday, April 21, 2011

And so, what do we do now?

When it comes to advice about retirement, particularly by AARP publications, about 60 percent of it has to do with making sure you pile up enough money and the other 40 percent with health-related issues. So if you have as much money as Donald Trump, presumably without his comb-over or oxygen-depleting ego, and the body of a 30-year-old sprinter, you're good to go into a happy retirement.

After five years of retirement though, we've discovered another, possibly more important ingredient: Having a passion or some sort of unfinished business to fill all the free time retirement brings. Quitting work is not enough, as odd as that may sound to someone still slogging to work every day.

Some folks try to beat that "what am I going to do after I retire?" quandary by staying on the job until they croak at their desks or younger colleagues complain about their incoherent mumbling and/or unsightly drool stains on their ties. Ahem, it may be time to retire, Jack.

On the other hand, some federal legislators and financial whizzes want to "solve" the Social Security financing problem by gradually raising the retirement age to, say, about 90, so the government doesn't have to pay out any benefits except to a few Jack LaLanne-types who refuse to die. Jack died at 96 and probably pulled his own hearse to the cemetery with his gums.

There are also a few people who love their jobs, or say they do, and fewer still who make a ton of money at it. Retirement is out of the question. God bless 'em.

But most people don't want to work until they die yet haven't quite figured out what do when they quit. No matter how much planning they've done, the first day of retirement is a bit a shock, like someone pulling the plug on an fan that's been faithfully whirring along for 40 or 45 years. What is a fan to do if not whir? Even if you loathe your job, the routine of going to work catapults you out of bed every morning and provides you with a ready answer to the question of how you will spend the next eight, or maybe ten or twelve hours of your life.

A job can also provide an identity and an often false sense of importance. "I'm in personnel, sales, journalism or whatever" has a ring of purpose lacking in, "I'm retired in Mexico." This is particularly true for Americans who are more defined or driven by work than Europeans who on the contrary, can't imagine life without five weeks of vacation sipping cappuccinos.

When I tell someone I'm retired, the next question most often is, "Hmm, well, what did you use to do back in Chicago (when presumably you had some purpose in this world)?" A few times I've felt like responding, "Well I did nothing in Chicago, so you're going to have to take me for what I am doing right now."

When Stew and I first arrived here we both went through our own post-retirement crisis, complicated a hundred-fold by the day-to-day challenges and surprises of life in a different country--the Mexican subsidiaries of Costco and Office Depot notwithstanding. No matter how many times you've vacationed in Mexico or eaten at Taco Bell, it doesn't quite prepare you for the feeling of foreign-ness you find during the first several months here.

I can speak Spanish, which is always helpful if I need a bathroom pronto. Even then, mine is Cuban Spanish which is immediately detected by Mexicans. During our first year of retirement we used to visit a non-profit home for the elderly to play dominoes with the residents and help them pass their time. When I spoke to them, even those who had completely lost their marbles would look at me, pause and ask: Cubano? Stew thought it was hilarious that my efforts to "pass" were detected even by these thoroughly compromised minds.

We've also watched fellow retirees in San Miguel struggle to figure out what to do with their time, even if none would complain about too much free time. Most often you'll hear they are deliriously happy and hadn't looked back for a second.

I'm sure many of them are but occasionally these protestations didn't ring quite true. Stew and I stopped drinking about 25 years ago but had stopped attending AA meetings. In San Miguel I started going again and was surprised (and somewhat relieved) to find a thriving all-gringo, English-speaking AA meeting house that was jam-packed for all sorts of meetings almost round the clock. Folks often complained their drinking had re-started or spiraled out of control since they'd retired, something that, mercifully, neither Stew nor I experienced.

San Miguel also seems to be a mecca for the wu-wu crowd--you know, shamans, incense-burners, pseudo-spiritual gurus, Eastern religions, shantis, crystals, new-fangled meditation techniques and other quacky time-fillers. I've always had a weakness or curiosity about the world of wu-wu, particularly during my senior year of college when I was stoned a good deal of the time. But most of the stuff here is beyond me: This is more like wu-wu-wu.

Volunteer work is the traditional time-filler for retirees. San Miguel is fortunate to have more charitable organizations per capita than probably any other city north of the equator. Almost all these groups have been founded and are staffed by generous retired gringos wanting to help with all the poverty and suffering so evident in Mexico. And it is lots of gringo money and time that keeps all these groups going: Mexican involvement in them is woefully lacking.

But often volunteering is not a passion but a pasttime, a distraction to fill empty days, like playing shuffle-board aboard a cruise that goes on and on. So in San Miguel the good works of volunteer organizations sometimes are clouded by the eye-scratching infighting and squabbles among the members who behave like piranhas trapped in a ten-gallon fish tank. The needs of orphans, hungry families, abandoned animals or homeless old people become secondary to the desperate need of well-heeled ex-pats to have something to do or find a reason to get dressed and comb their hair in the morning.

We also have friends however, for whom retirement has meant up-shifting their lives rather than coasting to an inevitable stop. Carol and her partner Norma, who live strictly on Social Security, have developed a website and blog, and written a couple of books, precisely around the challenge of retiring in Mexico with not a lot of cash. Her website has become a more credible source of news and reporting than the English-language weekly.

Billie, whom I think used to work in personnel—but who cares what she did before?—continues her real passion as a brilliant photographer and recently announced in her blog that she had completed the installation of three (3) external storage drives, with a capacity of 550 gigas. Or something like that. She must have more pictures than the Vatican.

Then there’s George, whom I don’t really know all that well, except he used to be a professional violinist. We still see him driving his 30-year-old Oldsmobile up and down the hills of San Miguel, hands firmly on the steering, his eyes peering just over the dashboard with the determined look of a Navy Seal on the trail of the rest of al-Qaeda. His wife says George keeps coming up with complicated projects as if there’s no quitting time. He’s in his mid-90s. [June 1: Just got word that George Bell, the "George" mentioned above, died in his sleep last night; he was almost 95. His was a great run and a peaceful way to go.]

That leaves me. The first couple of years of retirement were aimless and difficult. There definitely was a withdrawal period.

Building this terrific house snapped both Stew and me out of those retirement doldrums. It was not only the design, construction, animals, trees, gardens and other chores associated with property ownership, but the creation of what some people call a forever home, reflecting our tastes and joys, not merely an address or shelter.

A passion I’d like to develop is from-the-heart writing, even fiction. My previous career at a newspaper I feel put me in a straightjacket of “objectivity” and formula writing. I’ve always been fascinated and envious of fiction writers, and even poets, who write about worlds and people only they know.

Photography is another piece of unfinished business. In high school I shot pictures for the school paper and was pretty good. Someone even approached me about a job as a assistant-cum-slave for one of the photographers at Sports Illustrated. I never particularly cared for sports but have always wondered about that road not taken.

What has never occurred to me so far is going back to full-time work. A former colleague from Chicago visited us recently and excitedly talked to me about a possible journalism gig back there. I don’t think I answered, but my are-you-out-of-your-mind look must have been enough of a response.

“I guess not,” he said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sherwood Forest delayed

In the beginning--as when the Spaniards arrived in this area during the 16th Century--the hills around San Miguel supposedly were densely wooded, including oaks, ash, walnuts, mesquites and other hard woods. But then, between the Spaniards cutting down trees to use as fuel in silver mines and Mexicans collecting wood to make charcoal, the hills were effectively denuded.

Today, looking at the hills from our windows there's more brown barren land than trees, and the latter are mostly huizaches, cacti and other vegetation typical of semi-desert locales. Particularly during the dry season the landscape looks like it has the mange. Nothing like a forest or a woody area.

Perhaps, or probably, because of the loss of vegetation, there's been considerable erosion. Rocks, some damn near the size of riding lawn mowers, are all over our land. There's some black soil, in some places about 18 inches deep or so, but any effort to dig a hole to plant a tree inevitably involves a mano-a-mano combat with rocks.

The are patches of commercial agriculture around San Miguel, and larger and very green valleys farther away, where lettuce, garlic, broccoli and other crops grow, with the help of considerable year-round irrigation.

When we first arrived at this land--architectural plans in hand and gardening fantasies in my head--I envisioned a systematic replanting of mostly native trees that would stave off further erosion, soften the desert-like views and also provide a visual barrier from people who might build around us. A noble and visionary plan indeed.

Nearly 18 months and about 100 trees and shrubs into this project, the results are not exactly promising. It's not hopeless but anything resembling a wooded area around the house is going to take considerably longer.

Some of the problems were man-made, starting with the self-serving advice one often gets when buying saplings or bushes from local nurseries. "¿José, is this a good tree for sunny or shady spots?" The short, cheerful reply more often than not is "¡Sí!" Translation: "I just want to sell this baby and will tell you anything you want to hear to close the sale."

So we planted some trees out in the open that were unsuitable for the location. One example is the "Cow's Foot" or "Orchid Tree", which has large leaves shaped like a cow's hoof and once a year explodes with beautifully intricate, orchid-like blooms. Ours struggled for nearly a year until we moved it two months ago inside the front patio, where it's protected by walls on all four sides. It's now thriving. Some of the trees and shrubs we planted outside just croaked without even bidding a quick "adios."

The other human error was improper planting. Our first wave of 12 or 15 trees was installed by an older guy with a drinking problem and irregular working habits, who didn't dig big enough holes. That's a bad combination. Particularly in this harsh terrain you need a hole that is at least four times the diameter and depth of the original root ball, filled in with good, loose dirt improved with compost. That way the tree can develop a strong root system before taking on the native mix of dirt and rocks.


So Felix is now digging up some improperly planted trees, including two jacarandas, enlarging the hole and replanting them. When he dug up some Pepper Trees and Jacarandas that were nearly dead he found the roots coiled around themselves, unable to penetrate the existing soil. The originally holes were only about 10 inches wide, barely big enough to accommodate the root ball, let alone allow for expansion. The trees were choking.

We also underestimated the relentless power and harshness of the terrain. Nature can be a beneficent mother but also a bitch. The location of our ranch, according to Google Maps, is approximately 6,900 feet above sea level, or about 150 feet higher than downtown San Miguel. And compared to in-town locations which are shielded by buildings and warmed by the reflection of the sun on cement and other man-made surfaces, our ranch if fully exposed on all sides.

Then there's the wind, which kicks up usually late in the afternoon and aggravates whatever weather conditions there are: If it's cold or freezing, it can add to the wind-chill factor; if it's hot and sere the wind can make you feel like you're under a blow drier. During the past few days we've had temperatures in the mid-90s and humidity in the 10 percent range.

It's far preferable than 95 degrees and 95 humidity, Miami-style, but still hard on the vegetation. Félix, Stew and I made a rough census about ten days ago, and about 15 or 20 trees and bushes have either died or are extremely unhappy.

A bit of good news is that the three peaches, one apricot and one apple we planted are doing very well. I suspect the cold snaps we had during the winter might have helped them. Maybe that's it: Maybe we should just plant dozens of fruit trees and start a jelly or apple sauce operation.


So what is to be done? For me, tranquilizers might be a good start along with a humility-inducing drug if there is one. Improving this land both visually and substantively will take years and years. If we bump into a drought or other climate mishap, it might take longer.

Second, Felix is on the right track to replant some of the constipated trees and hope that better soil and the upcoming rainy season will give them a new start.

Third, dust off my books about xeriscaping, or dry-climate or desert gardening. For one thing, in a desert or semi-desert landscape, all vegetation of necessity will be sparse and therefore needs to be chosen carefully. I will research and choose my trees more carefully too, and pay less attention to the local nurserymen's advice about what goes where.

Also we're seriously considering a drip irrigation system that will water trees regularly during the long dry season.

Finally I need patience, lots of it. As I write these lines there are gray clouds hovering overhead that look like water balloons ready to burst. But then we've had the same clouds, and even some thunder, for several days in a row and all we've received are brief spits of rain, just enough to mix with the flying dust and mess up the windows Felix so methodically cleaned three weeks ago.

I've tried staring down those so-promising clouds, and urging them on: "Come on, come on, let it rain." But they don't respond. I guess I'll just have to wait.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ready for Mr. DeMille

It was a terrific and generous offer and then it got complicated. Jim Quinn, a good friend of mine and a colleague at the Chicago Tribune, where he worked as a photographer, offered to do a "shoot" of our new house, which he and his wife Karen like a lot. What could go wrong with such an offer from a great photographer?

We soon found out when we asked Anne, also a friend and interior designer who has helped us with the furniture and finishes of the house, to help us with some "staging."

We didn't really know what "staging" meant until a few days later we saw a television show about how a designer "staged" an empty apartment in New York to help sell it. This imperious and annoying New York City designer/stager brought in truckloads of furniture and ordered everyone around as if she were Scarlett O'Hara tarting up "Tara."

Not to worry, our friend Anne is not that sort of person and she wouldn't tear the place apart. After all, she bought or designed most of out furniture. Still, "staging" turned out to be a weird experience that involved basically fumigating our entire house against any signs that human beings lived here.

Out went all family pictures, travel souvenirs, silly but to us meaningful tchotchkes, magazines and books. Stew's kitchen--usually a pretty neat place--almost became a magazine spread with Mexican jars, cookbooks and towels artfully placed here and there. All pet pictures and recipe clippings were removed from the refrigerator along with any hints that actual cooking ever took place in that space.

On our large dining room table Anne installed the only thing she brought, which was a Mexican-type runner and a huge flower vase with wooden curlicues that added up to a four-feet tall centerpiece. Beautiful and stunning but not exactly reflective of Stew and Al's lifestyle--remember, we're the only two gay guys missing the interior decorating gene.

The office and the bedroom were similarly sanitized of any personal items and even the towels in the bathrooms were moved around.

Stew's blood pressure rose quietly but measurably. "It looks as if we're moving again," he muttered, while I just basically stayed out of the way and drank decaf on the terrace. I did my own muttering though during the next couple of days when I went to look for stuff and couldn't find it.

Anne appreciated Stew's concerns and reassured him the home could be returned to normal living after the photo shoot.

It didn't take that long. Anne left a couple of hours before Jim arrived with a van full of photo equipment. And psst, while Jim was setting up, Stew and I went around replacing some of our personal stuff and photographs. Jim also did some of his own de-staging by making sure that our decidedly non-designer cats got in some of the pictures.

Anne did a great job and the photos look great but the experience was strange. Attached to this blog are some of the beautiful shots Jim took. Thanks go to Jim and Anne and our photogenic cats.

For the complete slideshow, visit:

Monday, April 4, 2011

A brush with fire

After six months without a drop of rain the landscape is straw-dry and waiting to be kindled. Practically every day you see lines of low flames tumbling down some hill or marching across a parched field. San Miguel's rickety fire department may try to put out the brush fires particularly if they threaten someone's property, but otherwise they are allowed to burn until cut off by a road or a natural barrier.

This morning Félix spotted some smoke at a neighbor's ranch about a kilometer away. We figured it wouldn't affect us because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction. Bad call: The wind suddenly changed direction and the flames headed straight for our house at an alarming pace.

If it hadn't been for Félix's alertness and agility--plus some long pieces of garden hose from the other end of the property--the flames could have reached the foundations of the house. Instead, by chasing the line of flames with the hose he managed to stop the fire in an hour and within about 200 feet of the house.

Damage to the small trees we had planted is likely to be minimal, and for that we again have to thank Félix for surrounding the spindly trunks with a circle of rocks about six feet wide. The weeds, bushes and cacti should recover. For now the only visible damage is a patch of burned ground covering about ten percent of the property.

In the middle of all the running-around I had a particularly silly idea--calling 066 and summoning the fire department. After three calls and endless rings someone finally answered and he assured me help was on the way. No one ever came.

Foreigners in San Miguel love to regale each other, and friends and family back home, with tales of our ridiculously low property taxes. Ours are $350 dollars a year. Problem is of course that you pay hardly anything but get about as much in basic municipal services such as fire and police protection.

This experience also demonstrated that our new monster Doberman, Desi, needs some training in crisis management. When everyone started running around, reaching for hoses and shovels, Desi got spooked and ran to his bed in the storage room under the kitchen, there to wait for the emergency to literally blow over.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mayan aluminum siding?

During the time of the Romans, architects learned how to build huge domed structures, the Pantheon in Rome probably being the most famous. Then all that technology and skill was lost during the Middle Ages, and Renaissance architects and engineers during the 1400s pretty much had to start from scratch when they set out to put a dome atop Florence's cathedral.

The agricultural technique of using simple clay pots for irrigation is nowhere near as complex but seems to have undergone a similar trajectory in Mexico: It apparently was used by indigenous Mexicans--who faced the same challenge many Mexican farmers face today of trying to grow food crops with a very limited amount of water--and then the practice disappeared. Now some young Mexican organic farmers, a small but growing and enthusiastic group, has rediscovered clay pot irrigation of small agricultural plots.

The practice consists of burying unglazed clay pots about a 18 inches tall and ten inches wide amid the crops needing water. Water gradually seeps through the clay to adjacent soil, which sucks the water as needed. The clay measures out the water and also filters many minerals, particularly if the water is hard. The pots are supposed to work much like an underground drip irrigation system. After a while the pots disintegrate and you need to replace them.

Two years ago a friend of ours discovered clay pot irrigation and was so smitten that she commissioned about a hundred of the little buggers from a pottery about two hours from San Miguel. Such sudden passions often sweep retired gringos off their feet, particularly those addicted to reading gardening books and articles published by hippy-dippy types from California also with too much time on their hands.

Just check my bookshelves and you'll notice that trend, though I promise you'll never find a composting toilet anywhere near our house, no matter how environmentally virtuous those contraptions may be.

So Stew and I made a couple of trips in our pickup to pick up the pots, which came with lids to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the standing water inside. Our friend planted dozens of pots all over her garden and raised beds but even then she had dozens more left which she offered to us.

I took Félix to a local vegetable plot run by an organic-farming group so he could see the clay pots and how they were used. Félix was sold on the idea--he is very smart and a tireless learner who loves new ideas--and he planted about 15 of them three weeks ago in our corn and pumpkin patch on one corner of the property, and in our raised beds closer to the house.

The results, well, I'm not sure. Is there something wrong with our pots? Did some Mayan fast-talker oversell the clay pot idea, like a pre-Hispanic version of an aluminum siding racket? Should we wait another month or two for the pots to get fully saturated and for the osmosis thing going? Should we have planted more pots, closer together? We installed one pot per square meter, which may not be quite enough.

The water definitely leaves the pots, presumably to the soil around them, but it never seems to reach the top six inches of the raised beds where most of the roots of my lettuce plants are located, along with seedlings struggling to get established.

One problem may be that our soil is very loose with compost and other organic matter, and the weather is hot, windy and very dry. Right now our weather station shows 7 percent relative humidity. That may cause the surface moisture to evaporate almost as soon as the water hits it. Indeed we have to sprinkle the beds morning and afternoons to goose along a bunch of seeds trying to germinate.

Then again deeper-rooted vegetables like carrots may take to the clay pot irrigation technique.

Félix says we need to wait and give Mayan irrigation a chance to work, but I'm growing increasingly impatient with this and other organic and environmental gardening brainstorms.

Last week Félix tried an organic way of getting rid of ants. We have several monster anthills, as big as 10 feet wide, that during the midday rush hour look like the Long Island Expressway. The trick, Félix assured me, was to cut up orange peels into little pieces and spread them around the entrances to the anthills. It was supposed to repel the ants and get them move somewhere else.

Yesterday Félix reported this latest organic gardening venture had failed. The ants didn't flee: They must have just paused for a few minutes, scratched their little heads and then systematically carried the offending orange peel pieces away from the entrances to the anthills. The ants are back to business as usual.