Monday, October 31, 2011

Fall falls on the ranch

Autumn is the time of year when we're especially reminded that we no longer live in the American Midwest. Here jack-o'-lanterns will go on sale by the side of the roads in mid-October, even if most Mexicans really have no clue what Halloween is all about. And a few restaurants will advertise Thanksgiving dinner specials. But none of it rings true.

Fall in the northern tiers of the U.S. is a curtain rising on winter, the final act of the year. Spent leaves cover the ground with a moist and colorful carpet that squishes underfoot. Trees turn into stark wire sculptures outlined against the unnaturally clear skies.

The entire cast of nature seems to be in a frenzy to take cover from the imminent onslaught of winter. Millions of birds fly overhead, the vast majority fleeing to somewhere more hospitable. Squirrels frantically hide nuts and fruits even though they'll immediately forget where they put them.

The entire spectacle of fall says "run for cover, winter is coming!" At retailers, gardening tools and pool supplies disappear overnight and are rudely replaced by heaters and insulation wares, while the media rhapsodize about comfort foods and families gathered around a roaring fire.

Immediately after Thanksgiving comes the Christmas avalanche of trees and ornaments, while carols play nonstop everywhere, from elevators to parking lots. Ho, ho and more ho. The only encouragement to go outside is the need to hang Christmas lights or if you have enough money, to dash to the airport for a vacation somewhere else.

In San Miguel, the definitive sign of autumn arrives in early October, when it stops raining--abruptly and utterly--and the humidity plummets. It will drop down to the single digits by mid-December and your skin will feel sere as rawhide.

Lack of rain will turn the landscape to various shades of gold, even though most of the trees will stay green, along with cacti and other desert plants that shrug at the arrival of the dry season.

Most of the trees here--mesquites, huizaches, pirules--have tiny leaves that hardly perspire and that's how they survive without moisture for months on end. Also their roots. Ever try to dig up a mesquite? Even a young tree is likely to have tap roots going fifteen or twenty feet straight into the earth in search of any buried drop of water.

For the farmers, fall is judgment time when nature reveals the results of all that ground work they put in earlier in the season. This year nature was stingy, even cruel. Early rains around May and June filled farmers' heads with visions of bumper crops but in the end we only received half the normal rainfall. So the crops withered, and most of the dreams of plump ears of corn, bean pods and squash never materialized.

All that's left for farmers, like Don Vicente, whose ranch abuts ours, is to collect the dry stunted corn stalks and gather them in tepee-like piles that will later be used to feed livestock. It's an all-manual job that involves men and women of all ages, and even young kids, hunched over with machetes under a sun that  now mercifully sags over the horizon rather than blasting from directly overhead.

Our temperatures drop significantly at night. We've already had a couple of nights of below-freezing weather that left a half-dozen jalapeño and serrano chiles we had finally coaxed out of the ground looking like they'd been electrocuted.

Our herbs--an odd collection of basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and thyme--were hastily transferred to clay pots and are now huddled in a corner of the terrace from where they watch the sky apprehensively. Basil and parsley surely are not going to survive many cold nights.

But during the day, temperatures rise to a near-perfect mid-70s, with constant breezes and sparkling skies. Day after day, for weeks on end. At night there are so many stars dangling above you feel like you're living in a planetarium.

There's no reason for anyone to hide inside during the day. Hummingbirds are arriving, not fleeing. In fact Félix the gardener has a mini bumper crop of lettuces and other leaf vegetables already going in raised beds whose only protection is plastic sheeting after dark.

No need to fear snow either, though a couple of years ago a freak storm dumped about an eighth of an inch of the stuff on the startled vegetation. I barely got a chance to take pictures before it had all melted around 10 a.m.

If there is anything here reminiscent of Midwestern autumns is the resetting of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time, but even that ritual comes a week earlier in Mexico. That means that our three dogs who are used to licking our faces at 6 a.m., clamoring to go outside, now do that at 5 a.m., despite all efforts to ignore them. Some things don't change.

[P.S.: Some readers say they are unable to post comments on the blog. I don't know why that is. If you have that problem, send me your comments and I'll post them myself. My e-mail is ]


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Following the bouncing exchange rates

For many Americans in San Miguel tracking the exchange rate of the Mexican peso vs. the U.S. dollar is a pastime with potential payoffs as well as guilty feelings.

When the dollar goes up, or the peso down, expats whisper excitedly to one another about running to the bank to exchange a bundle of dollars and take advantage of a mini windfall. In fact if the exchange rate goes from 12 to 14 pesos to the dollar, our cost of living as reflected by the greater buying power of the dollar, theoretically increases by nearly 17 percent.

When we were building our house, the value of the peso kept dropping during the nine months of construction, which we figured reduced the cost of the project by a significant amount.

There were also some favorable (for us) turns in the exchange from the time we put a down payment on the land to the actual closing six months later, that we figured saved us about $3,000US. In this case, the deal was denominated in dollars which had gone down in value.

But Don Lucas, the 85-year-old rancher who sold us the land, was a cagey sort whose abilities to make a buck have not been at all eroded by age. I suspect he sensed he had somehow been screwed out of some pesos and later refused to repave the right-of-way to our property, as promised in the sales agreement. That cost us nearly $5,000US.

Then again, Lucas has a well established reputation for trying to shaft everyone he comes in contact with--Mexican or American--whether he's selling a piece of land or a burro. For him, it's just a way of doing business.

Point is that whatever we "saved" in the buying of the land pretty much was eaten up by the unexpected expense of paving half a kilometer of road.

Exactly what propels the dollar or the peso up or down is a mystery to me.

From where we stand, the American economy looks dim and prospects of an early recovery even dimmer given the political impasse in Washington, which could be described as, ahem, a "Mexican standoff."

Meanwhile, the Mexican economy grew by 5.5 percent last year and is expected to go up about 4 percent in 2011. At the moment Mexico's is the 11th largest economy in the world, according to the World Bank.

Visit the neighboring state of Querétaro and there is so much housing, road and factory construction you can almost hear a mariachi version of "Happy Days Are Here Again" playing in the air.

So why is the exchange rate almost 14:1 now compared to 10:1 in 2008? Why is the peso going down and/or the dollar up?

I dunno.

How a favorable exchange rate benefits Americans is also hard to figure out. Bananas and onions at the produce market suddenly become cheaper, a boon to foreigners and certainly a bust to Mexican vendors whose currency and merchandise suddenly is worth less.

But not quite. Large Mexican enterprises--the telephone company and retailers like supermarkets and Costco--have the sneaky habit of raising prices when the dollar goes up, supposedly to compensate for higher import costs.

Our monthly internet fee with the telephone company went from around $599 pesos in June to $698 this month--with no explanation or warning from Carlos Slim, the owner of the phone company and the first, second or third richest man in the world depending on how the Dow Jones market is doing.

In his defense, Carlos might argue that increased costs for imported equipment or whatever justify the 16.5 percent price hike, which neatly follows the approximate fall in the value of the peso since June. Except his labor and other local costs didn't go up that much.

No point in calling TelCel, the company that sells the wireless internet gizmo that we use, to demand an explanation. Whomever you get on the line won't have an explanation or share it with you if they do.

At the end of the afternoon, though, it's the rank-and-file Mexicans who get the worst deal. The costs of many sundries go up but their income generally doesn't. And once large companies or retailers raise peso prices they are not likely to reduce them later to account for currency fluctuations.

Americans in San Miguel, some of whom never cease searching for things to feel guilty about vis-a-vis Mexicans, will somberly lament the impact of the falling peso on poor people.

A few years ago we  gave our maid a raise to make up for the shrinking peso which had gone from 11:1 down to 13:1 between 2006 and 2009. Of course, the peso subsequently went up and Rocío got herself a deal, ending up earning about $5US an hour which is a very handsome pay for a maid. So we don't do that anymore.

Soriana, one of two large supermarkets in town, recently installed digital price labels on its shelves complete with a sensor, a system which presumably allows easier changes in prices.  It's hard to tell if the prices are changing up or down. I'd bet on up. 

As I write this Stew is on a shopping blitzkrieg at the Costco in Querétaro, another instant bellwether of rising prices on account of changing exchange rates. I'm betting on increases there too.

So much for any windfall from the rising value of the dollar.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Looking at the bright side

At the suggestion of my friend Billie, a couple of days ago I began plowing through "The Artist's Way," by Julia Cameron. "Plowing" is not used loosely. What I got from is an anthology of her three books about creativity, a tome which looks and feels as formidable as the Koran.

In fact, the first 100 pages or so of it may lead some readers to quietly walk over to the bookshelf and put Cameron in their New Age or Wu-Wu collection, next to the "Road Less Traveled," "Buddhism in Three Easy Steps" and the Dalai Lama's greatest bumper stickers.

Except I'm neither an atheist nor allergic to 12-step programs or Wu-Wu-ism in general, and after the good money I paid for the book, by G-d, I'm going to read it. Too early to guarantee I'll finish it, but so far so interesting.

Cameron's plan is to release the bottled-up or blocked creativity that's in our heads, specifically the right side of our brain, or for that matter all around us.  A myriad factors block our creativity, particularly a chorus of finger-wagging Censors telling us to remain on the safe, logical, left side of our brain, because our creative impulses are for some reason impermissible, impractical, foolish.

Law and medical schools are full of people who may have been better off--certainly happier--if they'd stuck with playing the flute or becoming a chef. The Censors may include parents, cousins, siblings, partners, one's own trail of bad experiences or failures, fear or what-have-you.

My own chorus is not quite the Mormon Tabernacle Choir but large and loud enough to stifle many of my ideas and ready to strike up a tune at any time. By the sound of Cameron's book, I'm not alone.

The first step in her book is to write a three-page "morning paper"--long-hand and unedited--of anything that comes to mind. Every morning. Gripes, stories, observations, wishes and whatever, that you just file away unread in an envelope. As a career writer, one thing I'm told to avoid is "writing" the morning paper by noodling or pre-editing what goes down on the page.

It's easier read than done. The Censor wakes up bright and early, I think earlier than the rest of me. The first day it took ten minutes before a word landed on the page. Ballpoint or fountain pen? Why doesn't the fountain pen work? I should unclog it before I start no? Let me find a notebook. Nope, don't have one, need to get a special notebook at Office Depot. Maybe I should put out my new dog first before he poops somewhere. All this and other mental detours before I started.

As I understand it, the purpose of the morning papers is to help you jot down all the "logical" stuff in the mind and with that out of the way start tip-toeing to the right side of head, the creative, subconscious side, presumably a storage bin or stifled or censored notions. Indeed, from what I recall, my first morning paper had a lot of should's rather than I will try this or that, or just plain W.T.F.'s.

But hey, one mustn't massage this too much, lest logic and censors and choke spontaneity and creativity.

By the way, I did unclog the fountain pen after the first morning paper, and went for a yellow pad.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

A night at the General Hospital

At around 7:30 p.m came the call, just as Stew and I were ready to have dinner. Félix, our gardener/handiman/watchman, wanted to redeem my offer to take his wife, who is eight months pregnant, to the hospital if an emergency came up. She'd been having pains since that morning and had not been able to reach the doctor at a nearby health clinic.

Not the most articulate guy even when he's calm, Félix now sounded like he was speaking in Morse code.

Félix lives in Sosnavar, which he calls un pueblito, "a little town," five minutes from our house. It has only about a thousand residents, most of them straddling the line between poverty and misery.

At night Sosnavar becomes a true terra incognita to outsiders when they discover there isn't a single inch of paved street or sidewalk, much less street signs, and only a half-dozen street lights. Ruts weave around rocks and trees and lead you to an open space which must have been set aside for a town square that never materialized.

Towering over Sosnavar, quite incongruously considering the surrounding penury, is the white dome of the Catholic church, with a cross at the very top that is lit up at night. We can see the dome from our kitchen window.

So intent was I in avoiding trees or rocks on the way to his house that I missed Félix, his wife Ysela and two-year-old Alondra standing in a dark corner waiting for me, and I had to drive back.

Not wanting to retrace my way through Sosnavar's Martian landscape, back to the main road, I just gave Félix the keys, asked Ysela to sit in front, and Alondra to come on the back seat with me. This was the start of a three-hour, first-hand glimpse of Mexico's public health system and the serpentine logic and traditions that guide reproductive decisions by poor Mexican families.

San Miguel's General Hospital was built by the state government about three years ago. It is impressive. I had been there twice before, once to get Stew an X-ray of his foot and on another occasion emergency care for a gringa who lived in our condo complex and had taken a bad mix of prescription drugs. The attention was prompt and professional, with shiny, fresh-out-of-the-box medical machinery  standing at the ready, including a CAT-scanner. No problemas except the staff was unable or not in the mood to even mumble a single word of English.

By now, signs of wear-and-tear, and general weariness, already permeate the waiting area of the combination outpatient clinic-emergency room where people wait, and wait, to be seen by a doctor. It has the glum ambiance of a bus station with no definite arrival or departure times.

There was no waiting for Félix' wife. Pregnant women feeling pains and other people with ominous symptoms are escorted immediately into the emergency room through a pair of glass doors guarded by a couple of short but imposing female guards in uniform with nightsticks dangling from their belts.

Félix, Alondrita and I now just had to wait for one of the guards to announce Ysela would either be admitted to the hospital or for her to walk out on her own and go home.

Alondrita readily killed time with some giggly playing and running with a boy her age whose parents, along with dozens other people in the courtyard in front of the hospital, also waited for word from one of the guards.

Chit-chatting with Félix for hours can be challenging. He's not one to have an opinion about the Republican presidential primary or climate change. I once tried to explain the Irish potato famine and he just looked at me politely but blankly.

He's a very bright guy; it's just that he and I look at the kaleidoscope of daily living from different ends. Of necessity his perspective is one of day-to-day survival.

So he told me about Ysela's first and rather complicated pregnancy. It turns out she has epilepsy and high blood pressure and Alondra had to be delivered by emergency Caesarean section at a government hospital in Irapuato, a mid-size city about two hours from San Miguel. Ysela was hospitalized for eight days during which Félix sat and slept on the benches in the emergency room.  

This time around Félix and Ysela, aware of the potential medical complications, frequently visit either a small clinic in Corralejo, a Sosnavar-size town a couple of miles away, a doctor in San Miguel, or in this case the general hospital. 

Félix clearly worries about his wife, enough to ask his boss for a ride to the hospital at 7:30 on a Monday night, but he seldom has shown any emotion to me. At age 25, he seems to have the impassiveness, stoicism--or resignation--of someone twice his age. 

The only time I've seen Félix choke up was when Stew found Chupitos, his favorite dog, dead on a field across from our land. They had to load the mangled carcass on a wheelbarrow, cover it with a black garbage bag, and wait for a backhoe to come and dig a grave. Félix was visibly shaken. 

After a couple of nervous pauses, Félix talked about the size of Mexican families, and who-had-how-many-kids. Take the case of Lucía, a Sosnavar woman with 74 grandchildren. That's 7-4, or seventy-four. He calmly explained that Lucía, one of his father's sisters-in-law, had, hmm, 12 or 13 children, so given the laws of addition and multiplication, 74 was not a number that difficult to fathom.

Last weekend too, some woman in Félix' vast cobweb of a family had buried a seven-month fetus, her second still-birth in as many years. The woman already had six daughters and a boy, but she and her husband insist on having another boy. Both of the dead babies were boys, Félix pointed out, suggesting I don't know exactly what. That she continue to get pregnant until a baby boy survives?

On the next breath, Félix mentions that none of his brothers has a job at the moment, despite several children to support.

I fight the impulse to ask questions, much less preach, as I listen to these Sosnavar family tales. How can someone living on the edge, if not chest-deep, in poverty end up with 74 grandchildren? Why doesn't the couple with seven children, and two consecutive still-births, just quit? And by the way, after Ysela has this one baby, shouldn't she quit too, given her potential complications arising from her history of blood pressure and epilepsy? I'm not a doctor, but hers could be considered high-risk pregnancies.

But out of respect for Félix' privacy I don't ask. He's one of the most thoughtful and decent guys I've ever run across, capable of making his own decisions. Besides, as a childless gay man I feel singularly ill-qualified to pass judgment on questions of who-should-have-how-many-children-when, specially in a foreign land with its own cultural mores and customs.

Beginning in the 1970s Mexico has had an aggressive birth-control campaign that has drastically reduced the national birth rate to a level comparable to that of the U.S. But those macro statistics haven't necessarily filtered down to the level of pueblitos like Sosnavar. Indeed, Félix noted that birth control information, pills and condoms are readily available at the small clinic in neighboring Corralejo, but some people don't want to deal with any of it.

For one thing, given the paucity of pensions among the poor, having a sizable brood is one way of ensuring someone takes care of you when you get old.

The night air cooled rapidly and I moved into the waiting room.

On the way in I noticed a rickety man in his 60s with a mangy beard, hunched over on the floor holding his head between his knees. I recognized him as Don José--I never got his last name--whom we had hired to plant the first dozen trees on our property before construction began. I remembered he had a slick line of bullshit and a major drinking problem and that one day he just disappeared. Most of the trees he planted died as their roots strangled themselves because Don José had not dug holes large enough.

I didn't last very long in the waiting room when I realized it was a cauldron of germs with wheezing and sneezing all around me, and noticed a man sitting next to me holding a colostomy bag.

Finally Ysela came out through the glass doors, still holding her belly but now with a faint smile on her face. She handed Félix the prescription and he ran next door to the pharmacy to fill it, also at no cost to him.

The diagnosis was cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder usually caused by a bacterial infection. The prescriptions were for an antibiotic, an anti-spasm medication of some sort, and generic Advil. The day after she was feeling much better.

As we headed back to the truck, Félix pointed out that Don José had moved, or someone had moved him, and was now lying just outside the waiting room, covered with a blanket and sound asleep.

We all climbed in the truck. Tired from a long night of playing, Alondrita huddled close to me on the back seat and immediately fell asleep, and we headed back to Sosnavar.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Annus mirabilis

That's Latin for "a miraculous year", such as 1905 when Einstein published his theory of relativity. About an hour ago a San Miguel municipal official in a pickup stopped by to deliver news not as earthshaking as E=mc2, but astonishing nonetheless.

The road connecting the ranch to San Miguel, never a main thoroughfare even in the best of times, had developed crater-size potholes, some three or four meters across and 20+ centimeters deep. So in a burst of civic optimism I took pictures of one of the potholes and attached it to a letter to the mayor, asking her to have the road fixed.

I mentioned my initiative to Félix the gardener and Rocío, a woman who comes to clean our house twice a week and they both had a hearty giggle at my naivete. Either there's no money to fix the road or if there was, someone probably stole it, they agreed.

Letter and photo in hand I went to City Hall early this week and was not encouraged. The place was a cacophony of citizens petitioning city officials and other functionaries for something.

Leaving my petition felt like tossing a wine bottle in the Pacific Ocean with an SOS note inside hoping it would reach New Zealand.

That was two days ago and this morning--zowie!--a hand-delivered written response from City Hall.

Alright, alright, the road hasn't been fixed yet. If that happens 2011 may become a magnum annus mirabilis, if there is such a thing. Albert would be jealous.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Pointer-ish sort of guy

It's always a dangerous thing to let my partner Stew wander unsupervised around the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, San Miguel's animal shelter. Sooner or later one mutt will make goo-goo eyes at him and Stew will be ready to put it in the back seat of the truck.

This time around a beagle named Jack caught his eye, but once the dog let out a beagle-type howl it set off bad memories of our late beagle J.D. Named after Jerry Donald, someone we knew at the time, what J.D. lacked in brains he made up in stubbornness. He was never housebroken and as if to spite us, lived to the ripe old age of 17. We didn't hate him, but J.D. was a tough guy to love.

After Jack, Stew zeroed in on another smallish S.P.A. dog named Chino. It was friendly enough, a short-legged guy vaguely reminiscent of a corgi, with a thick mane of black curly fur. Chino and I didn't hit it off. It looked to me like a nursing home lap dog.

Undeterred Stew began working his way up a row of cages at the shelter, with the encouragement of Lynn Weisberg, a friend who volunteers at the S.P.A. Then Stew met the guy above, named Domino. Lynn came up with the odd name because its black spots reminded her of a domino tile.

Domino is about 18 months old and had spent a year at the S.P.A. As far as shelters go, dogs there have it pretty good: They get a couple of meals a day, three hours of romping with the other dogs, and the rest of the time they sit in a clean cage. Some dogs sit and sit waiting to be adopted for as long as five years. The S.P.A. won't euthanize any dog unless it is terminally ill or dangerous.

Disturbances--visitors, a stray cat walking across a nearby rooftop, or another dog walking around loose--inevitable sets off an eruption of howls, barks and whimpering from the 50-odd canine population. By the time Stew had finished his tour every dog seemed to be clamoring: Take me! Over here! Look at me!

I'm not sure why Stew picked Domino, a pointer-type mutt, but off he went into our pickup, to join our other two dogs and three cats at the ranch. He's about forty pounds, with a splatter of spots on his white fur and an enormously long tail.

The first day was not a good opener. Domino refused to come in or let either one of us come near him, so he spent the whole night outside in a pouring rain. The next day we asked Lynn to come by and see if he could get a hold of him.

She did, and counseled patience. Domino had spent most of his life in a cage. The sight of two complete strangers trying to approach him and seven-and-a-half acres of open space was bound to jangle Domino's nerves.

It worked. Domino has settled down considerably over the past four days though housebreaking is still a work in progress. If initially he didn't want to come in the house or have anything to do with us, now he likes to stay close by and we have to shove him out the door to go play with the other dogs.

Best of all, Domino doesn't care about our cats, which return his indifference. Our last attempt at an adoption, a Doberman we named Desi, almost killed one of our dogs and at one point had the head of one of our cats in his mouth. Desi went back to the woman we adopted him from. It was not a happy experience.

Whenever we adopt an animal Stew says they must feel as if they've won the lottery. I don't know how Domino feels but I do feel good about adopting him. I'll feel even better when we come up with a different name.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuning in to the cacti

The precocious cactus and its lute. 
Sometimes we need to accept pleasure when it comes and not ask questions.

On Sunday, with nothing else to do, we invited a couple of friends to go to El Charco Botanic Garden, a small jewel just outside San Miguel, to check out a demonstration of, yes, a cactus playing a lute.

Initially the demonstration left me mystified, but as in Whaat?!  rather than Wow!

A sensuously shaped string instrument made of beautiful carved woods indeed rested at an angle on a small platform covered with Mexican shawls. From the lute two thin wires went to a pot filled with cacti, about five inches high. One of the cacti was pierced by acupuncture-type needles attached at the end of the wires.

Thin needles and wires connected
the cactus and the lute.
And yes, from inside the instrument, which was described a Plasmath Lute, came soft, delightful and random plicking and plucking sounds. Nothing to whistle on your way out, but I could buy a CD of this talented duo to help me relax or even fall asleep.

The signs, in Spanish and English, credited Ariel Guzik of the Laboratory of Research of Resonance and Expression of Nature, for this creation, but shed no light on what it was or how it worked.

An Internet site described Guzik as a Mexican who "designs and produces mechanisms and instruments to enquire into the various languages of nature."

How does it work? How does it work? Is this for real?

I followed a thin white wire going from  underneath the lute to the nearby wall, over the roof of the greenhouse and on to the other side, where it went into a solar-powered box with a small transformer inside. At the lute end there were no signs of speakers or any other sources of the entrancing music.

Finally I gave up as my curiosity surrendered to the music. Whaat!? became Hmm!

These four potted cacti were described as the "audience."
The night before our visit there had been a serious downpour that  awakened the flowers and other plants at the garden just as they were ready to slip into winter dormancy.

We're not supposed to have rain this late in the season and cacti are not supposed to play lutes.

But it was all too beautiful to ask why. So I just enjoyed it.


An unseasonably late downpour the night before seemed to have awakened the plants at the botanic garden.
Dramatic combinations of succulents and cacti turn up where you least expect them. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time for Newsweek?

Historically I've subscribed to more magazines that I can possibly read because, one, I tend to be a compulsive magazine reader, and two, I'm also cheap and loath to pass up a bargain even if it's for something I don't really need. So when I'm offered some ridiculously low subscription rate--some alleged "professional rate"--for even a magazine in which I'm only marginally interested, I tend to take the bait.

So over the years we've subscribed to such sundry titles as Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Bon Appetit, Organic Gardening, Harper's, Martha Stewart's Living, Reason, Dwell, Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and even the Economist, which every week provides 50 percent more information about the state of the world than the average human can possibly absorb.

Lately I was considering Lapham's Quarterly, a book-sized publication with each issue dedicated to one topic, such as food. One friend recommended it as a "good magazine to keep by the can" presumably because you can gradually work your way through all the relatively short articles as you tend to your bodily functions.

Yet over the past several months I have gradually edited down our list of subscriptions. On the one hand I've grown tired of all the shrill and pointless political noise in the U.S. The self-mutilating debacle over raising the debt ceiling may have been the corker for me.

Second, I want to expand my reading horizons, especially since, ahem, at 63 time is not limitless. My reading habits have been heavy on politics, economics and generally non-fiction, and light on novels and history. One of these days I intend to even tackle poetry; and "tackle" it will be because reading poetry is something I find very frustrating.

A few magazines are staying. One is the New Yorker which I hardly read cover-to-cover but which most always delivers something arresting, one of those reading moments that leave you mumbling "Wow that's interesting," like James Surowieki's "Financial Page" columns. Or a really good writers like Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Toobin. And the cartoons and cartoon-captioning contests.

Garden Design is voyeurism: Photo features of beautiful garden designs most of which won't work here because San Miguel is a semi-desert climate. National Geographic has beautiful photos and peeks at corners of the world you never imagined existed.

But I'm not sure about Time and Newsweek both of which I started receiving a couple of years ago thanks to some super cheap "professional rate." About a year ago Newsweek went into a coma: Under the editorship of Jon Meacham it had become a soporific collection of essays, with no particular appeal.  And as the magazine lost advertisers by the week, it felt as if it was literally vanishing.

Enter magazine Wonder Woman Tina Brown, who had revived Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and whose arrival was billed in apocalyptic terms such as "if anyone can bring Newsweek back, it's Tina Brown." So I gave Brown a couple of months--probably not long enough--to see what she could do.

Newsweek seemed to get louder, more discombobulated, and went from boring to vapid. Time magazine remained its solid self, so I cancelled my bargain subscription to Newsweek, which has been sending me desperate pleas to re-up ever since.

As the editing dust has settled a bit, I'm having second thoughts. Newsweek is evolving into a interesting read. The October 10 issue has a cover about sperm donations of no interest to me, i.e., "how to get pregnant fast, cheap--and in public." But then it offers articles about comedian Jon Stewart touring with the USO in Afghanistan; Anita Hill 20 years after the Clarence Thomas hearings and a report on the Taliban that opens with a stunning two-page photograph.

Tina Brown throws in quite a bit of newsie tidbits that are not particularly informative, but overall the layout of the magazine is more open with more use of photography and graphics. I'm not one of those who scoffs at photographs taking space that rightfully belongs to words: A good photo indeed is worth a thousand words.

By comparison Time looks constipated. The October 10 "Special Money Issue",  devotes nine pages to junk like "The 5 Things You Should Never Buy Again" and "The Extremes of Couponing". Several pages are "briefings" about world, national and science news. An interesting four-pager talks about the collapse of the solar panel manufacturer Solystra after it had received hundreds of millions in federal subsidies. Compared to Newsweek's "Omnivore," Time's "The Culture" is awesomely dull.

News weeklies inhabit a tough corner of journalism. They pretend to provide news but really can't compete with daily newspapers, much less the Internet or television news which is updated constantly. That problem is worse for us because we receive magazines a week late. So they need to spin or find new angles to topics or people we we're already familiar with, such as Newsweek's piece about the Taliban or Jon Stewart's USO tour. That requires good writers and columnists but particularly much imagination on the part of the editor.

Wait, should I cancel my cancellation of Newsweek? Keep Time too?

Or cancel both and just get my news and analysis from the New York Times' Internet version to which I already subscribe (about $5 a week, the greatest bargain around)? Accessorize my commode with Lapham's Quarterly?

Right now I'm in the mood for reading more fiction or non-fiction divorced from current events, like my current Kindle selection, a book about Italy under the Borgias, who make the Sopranos look like a 4-H Club.

Another endangered subscription is Vanity Fair, whose mile-long articles, in tiny type and buried in heap of fashion ads, are getting on my nerves. How about editing down the articles and allowing more space for larger type, eh?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A fair to remember

Set against the crimson sunset, San Miguel's fairgrounds looked like a Shangri-la of striped circus tents, fluttering Mexican flags and hundreds of twinkling multicolored lights.

As we drove up to the dusty parking lot the sights were not quite a mythical--ticket booths and guards frisking everyone as they entered--yet the excitement of going to an annual country fair remained. You strain your neck at first, trying to figure out what's there to see, which way to go: Food to the right, mechanical rides to the left. The voice of carnival barkers hawking must-see, never-seen-before spectacles. How is this different from last year?

September is a huge month for San Miguel. It's Independence Month, celebrating events and heroes that in 1810 set in motion the eventual freedom of Mexico from Spain. San Miguel and neighboring Dolores Hidalgo were two towns at the center of it all.

Plus it's the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, which concludes with insane fireworks display at 4 a.m.--the alborada, in the town square. Insane for the amount of gunpowder used as well as the absence of even the most rudimentary safety measures: Rockets fire from all corners of the square and the rooftop of the old municipal building, while a packed crowd oohs and aahs at the noise and lights or ducks for cover when the spent munition comes back to earth. It's insane and exciting.

And for the last two weeks of the month there's also the San Miguel Fair, our equivalent of a state or county fair in the U.S., though much more modest. Years ago I remember attending the Texas State Fair in Dallas which, as it befits anything Texan, seemed as big as Rhode Island.

Stew vividly remembers the county fair when he was growing up in Iowa. There were not only
Ferris wheels and roller coasters but pavilions and more pavilions holding contests for everything: the biggest watermelon, tastiest pie, handsomest chicken--or cow, sheep or whatever. The possibilities for winning a ribbon were endless.

San Miguel's fair had a dimly lit livestock area with enormous sheep representing strange breeds, and some cows patiently ruminating and looking like they couldn't wait to go home.

There was also weird stuff. A tent close to the entrance supposedly housed a woman with a body that was half-snake and had come to San Miguel all the way from La Habana, Cuba! A recording of an announcer describing her bizarre anatomy was followed by a plaintive female voice inviting people to come visit. I didn't quite understand the half-snake, half-woman schtick, and she didn't sound very Cuban anyway. I took a pass.

Another tent housed a Komodo dragon, an albino boa and some other animal rarity, which we were assured were all LIVE! Not in a jar or plastic model! For your own safety, please stay away from the display cases! Didn't fall for that either.

But the core feature was the rides and games, and the delighted customers, mostly children. Nothing exotic, mind you: Bumper cars, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and various other rides whose main attraction was the thrill of going around in circles, whether in a little airplane, car or boat. The only daring ride was a 30- or 40-foot high tower that raised people up to the top, paused for a split second and then dropped them to within six feet of the ground, for an adrenalin jolt of about 30 seconds.

Stew noted that there was no roller-coaster.

The games were all far-fetched, especially since almost all the customers were kids who'd have to fetch a rubber duckie with a six-foot fishing pole, shoot a balloon from 15 feet away or perform some other impossible feat.

For someone used to first-tier county or state fairs or amusement parks, the San Miguel event is small-potatoes. But to the locals--particularly kids--it's an irresistible once-a-year thrill, a chance to be dazzled, whipped around by some contraption, eat cotton candy, or dreamily walk around holding hands with your girl friend for a couple of hours, all for about two dollars.

This was our second visit and I plan to come back next year.

Fairs are so fascinating. 
My brothers love this ride. I don't. 
Waiting for customers and planning my life. 
Too much alfalfa, not enough exercise is not good for your figure. 

Not the biggest Ferris wheel in the world, 
but certainly one of the fastest I've ever seen. 

Bumper cars, a perennial favorite: Boy is this fun or what?
Impossible to win, but fun to try. 

It wouldn't be a proper fair without cotton candy, would it?


Sunday, October 2, 2011

The biggest, baddest angel of all

September 29, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel is marked in bold letters in San Miguel's religious calendar. No surprise there: The town is named after that feisty angel.

Except for celebrations surrounding Holy Week, it's the biggest event of the year among the faithful, and even among those who score only más o menos on the religious fervor scale. Probably one-third of the municipal and private fireworks budgets go up in smoke that day, everything from the kaboom of large bowling bowl-size pieces to the far more common rat-tat-tat of lighter and cheaper artillery.

Michael is no wuss of a saint. A ten-foot statue in the median of the street leading to San Miguel's bus station shows him wielding a huge sword, his face contorted with anger and his wings spread out in a warlike manner, while his left foot rests on the throat of the Devil. Indeed, Roman Catholic hagiography depicts Michael as a mucho macho figure who led the angels in their victorious charge against the devil, rather than the type of angel who'd sit on a cloud plucking a harp.

Part of the celebration of St. Michael's day are processions--walkathons--originating as far away as nine or ten miles in the countryside and converging on San Miguel's main square and church. One of these pilgrimages began a half mile from our ranch, in the village of La Biznaga, and I decided to walk along.

It began as a smattering of 15 or 20 people carrying a small glass case containing St. Michael's statue but  in a matter of only one mile or so it grew into a major event, with hundreds of people, dozens more on horseback, banners, Mexican flags fluttering in the cold wind and a spirited brass band who couldn't carry a tune if it tripped over it.

As the procession stepped off at 8:30 a.m.--punctually, a surprising touch for any kind of Mexican event--the first thing I noticed was the pace. I figured that a group of devout old matrons, teenagers and assorted kids would likely amble, meander or cruise leisurely through the countryside. This was more like an aerobic trot that had me struggling to keep up while trying to shoot photos. Riders joined the pedestrians at the same pace or faster; I don't know who was trying to keep up with whom.

After a couple of miles the procession slowed somewhat. After three miles--with about four miles to go to the center of town--I called Stew to come pick me up.

Some of the women whispered prayers and sang songs, under the leadership of hefty, no-nonsense grandma. But there was nothing resembling the seriously solemn tone of the Good Friday procession in San Miguel that takes practically all day. This was more like Casimir Pulaski Day in Chicago, where thousands of Poles dress up, bring out high school bands and 4-H Clubs banners and just walk through downtown.

It seemed like a man's type of religious procession too, with hundreds of cowboy hats, riders with fancy boots and spurs, and boys balancing on their fathers' saddles. One scrawny yellow dog, presumably belonging to one of the lead riders, walked officiously alongside in perfect formation except for periodic dashes to the bushes to take a pee.

As a further challenge to my flat feet, that night Stew and I went to the annual San Miguel Fair that was in full swing. The place was packed. I wonder if the determined grandma who led the Biznaga procession all the way downtown--seven or eight miles--was there too.

Standard bearers leading the horseback contingent

A grandmotherly type was the parade marshall.
A double musical threat.

The smallest and most determined band member.
Out for a ride with dad. 
My dad worked long and hard in the U.S. and 
brought me this leather jacket. 
My favorite image from the event. 
Another father-and-son team, though not so fancily attired. 

Non-walkers cheered on those people in the procession.
One of the few women riding in the procession, and a very beautiful one at that. 
This photo and the four following: Boots styled at the procession,
some brand-new, others well worn. 

This gentleman went all out: new hat, jacket,
 chaps, saddle and boots. Even the horse looked new. 

An hour after it started, the procession had grown to almost a quarter-mile long.