Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Medicare knocking at my door

What was meant as a glib reply to a friend's e-mail yesterday unexpectedly set off some ominous arithmetic in my head: On Dec. 30 I turn sixty-five and officially join the Medicare "generation."

Our family doctor of some twenty years marked Stew's induction into the ranks of the elderly last year with a prostate exam, of the digital kind, and a jokey "Welcome to Medicare!"  Next time I'm Chicago it will be time for my own government-paid, head-to-toe physical and probably the same quip.

Becoming an AARP member, or not having a full-time job, are not as definitively indicative of life's final stretch as getting your very own Medicare card, which actually arrives a month before your sixty-fifth birthday.

AARP will sign you up and then clobber you with useless mailings, solicitations and lame publications as early as your fiftieth birthday, while you may still be working, and keep at it until long after you die unless some thoughtful relative mails in a cancellation notice in your stead.

And with the ever-so-"flexible" and "efficient" American economy, your employer can lay you off and effectively send you into retirement without waiting for your fifty-fifth, sixty-second or any such arbitrary birthday. Losing your job is not necessarily a marker of old age or incompetence anymore. Often it's just bad luck.

The ticking of the Medicare clock, however, is precise and inexorable. If you choose to continue to work after your enrollment, goody for you, particularly if you love what you do and you're not doing it just out of economic necessity.

Indeed, I'm jealous of octogenarian artists, writers, scientists and other inspired sorts who whistle away the hours in their garrets or laboratories until they keel over their easels, typewriters or beakers without even a final "ciao." Way to go, I say.

That bliss, sadly, is relatively rare. Besides, even joyful work doesn't necessarily extend your life though it certainly simplifies choices: It saves you the chore of  deciding whether you'd rather spend a month in the Patagonia, take up scuba diving, write a novel or do anything else other than work.

As I approach the sixty-five-year-old threshold--hey, there are three days left--what I feel most is the pressure of time, both short- and long-term.

During the recent funeral of an uncle I noticed the Laniers seem to be long-lived tribe. My dad died a few days before his ninety-fourth birthday; my uncle at ninety-two; and my aunt Ofelia at ninety-six, though during her last couple of years her mind kept flickering like a fading shortwave station.

My mom lived to be eighty-eight. Stew's family is also of durable Norwegian stock, good for about  ninety years, the last couple of which Stew's dad spent in a nursing home reaching for the ass of a young nurse he fancied.

Our actuarial tables would suggest that Stew and I might be around for another twenty years or so. A friend counseled us to divide that remaining time into three parts: The go-go years, when we can still climb Machu Picchu and trek through the Galápagos; the slow-go years, when cruises with off-shore excursions may be more appropriate; and finally the  no-go years, which we might spend in a nursing home like Stew's dad, though in our case hoping for a comely male nurse to join the staff.

When we retired our friends kept posing the same tiresome question: But what do you do all day long? The question, though well-meaning, to me had a whiff of contempt, as in "what do you when you're out to pasture or otherwise useless"?

It's a question that becomes more impertinent and irrelevant every day.

Fact is that anymore I find time becoming a tyrant, not because of any boredom and emptiness it might bring, but because of the constant proliferation of interesting things and projects swirling in my head, clamoring to be mastered or at least attempted before the no-go years.

Priorities suddenly are a preoccupation, though I haven't developed a system for ranking--or abandoning--projects because I have only twenty or twenty-five years in which to accomplish them.

I would like to write something substantial, a book-like creation, though the subject eludes me. Photography, an on-and-off hobby since I was a teenager, suddenly is taking more of my life now that I have more time and money to devote to it. Gardening beckons too, though I don't know if it's an avocation or in the hostile terrain of San Miguel a challenge, in the order of man-versus-nature.

Having more time to read also constantly reminds me how much I don't know. And with the usefulness of any new knowledge suddenly unimportant--remember, I'm not cramming for a final exam or to impress my boss--I'm free to careen from one topic to the next.

I'm now on a tour of the battlefields of the American Civil War, which I know little about, after which I could take up a novel with no special practicality except it's a fun read. My tolerance level also has dropped significantly. I don't put up with boring books, articles, TV shows or movies. I don't have to. There's not enough time.

It's a pretty enjoyable existence I'd like to keep go-going as long as I can. And I'm not going to let the addition of my Medicare card to my wallet wreck the feeling.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chucha Comes Limping Home

Ever since we bought the land for the ranch, almost five years ago, even before we broke ground, a wreck of an old mutt named Chucha became our constant companion. It was love at first sight you might say, at least on her part. We already had two dogs, who weren't too keen on a third one moving in, and we also figured Chucha already belonged to someone else. So we didn't encourage her entreaties much, other than a pat on the head and a kindly word whenever we saw her. 

But Chucha wouldn't give up. Indeed she was relentless: Our new house would be a great place for her to live, she'd decided, and her charm campaign continued even after the fence went up around the property and she ended up on the outside. 

No matter. No hard feelings. Chucha still showed up at the gate every morning and often late in the afternoon for what became a routine of a dollop of food, and most important, ecstatic, feet-in-the-air belly rubs by Stew or me. If we came back late at night, we could count on Chucha and two other "campo dogs," Negro and Brenda, which we suspect were her progeny, to be waiting by the gate. No food was expected at these late-night trysts. Just a little more petting and a sort of group hug Stew had developed.

Don't ever give up.
A campo dog in Mexico is the countryside equivalent of a stray dog in the city, a free agent with no particular owner or home that lives by its wits and whatever food it can scrounge. 

But really, campo dogs is a too-easy euphemism for the lives these animals lead. Cars, other dogs, predators, hunger, human cruelty, disease and other mishaps almost guarantee a short, lonely and miserable life. It’s a miracle--and a testimony her sharp intelligence and instincts--that Chucha lived to be a scarred and grizzled ten- or twelve-year old bitch. 

For the past two weeks Chucha's visits had become irregular and we'd noticed a worsening limp. After missing her feedings and belly rubs for several days, she finally showed up yesterday, noticeably thinner and hardly able to walk. We loaded her into the pick-up where she laid placidly on the back seat on the way to the vet. 

The vet showed me her right leg was badly swollen, the result of an infected insect or snake bite, or a possible tumor. He diagnosed some antibiotics and Chucha finally got her wish: We brought her home and set her up on the back terrace with bowls of food and water and a cushion. She ate a bowlful of food canned food and swallowed her pill but looked muy triste, "very sad," as our gardener Félix describes ill or injured animals. 

Oddly, or because was so obviously weak, our dogs didn't bother her at all. Last night Chucha died quietly, saving herself the agony of a slow, painful death and us the misery of having to put her to sleep. This morning Félix, Stew and I gave her a tearful burial in our ranch. 

We don't know for sure the time of death, but suspect it was 12:30 a.m. That's when our dog Lucy, who normally sleeps by the side of our bed with the other two dogs, started barking and jumping on the bed to wake us up. Stew thought she was agitating to go outside but instead she led him to the kitchen door that opens to the terrace where we had left Chucha. 

Not knowing what was going on, Stew put Lucy outside anyway. Not until the next morning did we figure that Lucy somehow--don't ask why--had sensed that Chucha had died and had tried to let us know. 

Our sadness about Chucha dying is partly soothed by the thought we gave her five very good last years, splendid, in fact, by campo dog standards. She received veterinary care several times, steady food and water and most of all affection, including those delirious belly rubs she so much appreciated. And in the end she got her one wish: To move in with us. 


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Of Boobs and Boobies

No doubt thanks to Divine Providence, we were reminded of the fatuous creationism debate in America just before we left three weeks ago on a trip to the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin's original laboratory for his theories about natural evolution and survival of the fittest.

In a recent interview with Gentleman's Quarterly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio--both a Tea Party acolyte and the Republican Party's Great Latino Hope for 2016--was asked how old he thought the earth was. I would have confessed I didn't know exactly and guessed something in the range of tens or hundreds of million years old (current scientific estimates put it at 4.5 billion years).

My guess would have been a plausible answer for Rubio too but he instead tiptoed around any specifics apparently to avoid any blowback from the sizable contingent of creationist boobs and other religious fanatics that populate the Republican Party these days.

A Blue-Footed Boobie, a star attraction in the Galápagos.
Rubio said it was all a mystery, that he didn't know, maybe six days or six eras, you know, man, nobody knows, man, you know, you know. It was a craven reply by someone certainly smart and educated enough to know better.

By the time we got back from the Galápagos, Rubio had amended his answer to 4.5 billion years and mentioned that his own Catholic Church--not exactly a loosey-goosey outfit in matters of faith and Scripture--had long embraced the theory of evolution.

But on to the Galápagos Islands, with its vast population of far more entertaining boobies, blubbery sea lions and impassive iguanas and tortoises. This unforgettable archipelago is as remarkable for its remoteness and forbidding terrain as for its teeming, often unique wildlife.

Getting there was a trek that took us on a ninety-minute flight from Quayaquil, Ecuador, directly west over the equator to the island of San Cristóbal six-hundred-plus miles way, where we boarded a small cruise boat.

You can only visit as part of small groups escorted by park rangers who will take you only to certain islands and spots, keep you within marked trails and remind you to take nothing with you except photographs.

If you're looking for a party-hardy getaway where you can throw empty beer cans at your buddies, this won't work. Indeed, a few weeks before our visit a young German tourist was caught smuggling iguanas in a suitcase and for his enterprise was sentenced to six years in an Ecuadorian jail. It shows you there are boobs everywhere, even where they make Mercedes-Benzes.

Do go home without me, if you know what's good for you. 
Our ship, fairly typical of those that ferry tourists around the Galápagos had only eight two-person cabins and including the crew carried twenty or so people total. This was hardly a splish-splash hydrofoil. Its two noisy two- hundred-sixty horsepower engines could muster no more than eight knots, which I understand is the equivalent of a funeral cortege on land. To reach some of the more remote islands would have taken our boat about twenty-two hours of huffing and puffing.

Our guide was the long-haired, blue-eyed, forty-something Jaime Domínguez Rodas, a naturalist with twenty years experience and a reserve that sometimes concealed some of his vast knowledge. He was also an amazing photographer, blessed with talent and the opportunity to explore all corners of the archipelago at leisure.

Darwin's five-week visit to the Galápagos in 1835 was a typically British exploration saga. With so many explorers, pirates, buccaneers and traders poking around here, Antarctica, Africa and a myriad other places I've often wondered how there were enough Brits left to mind the Empire.

Once you visit a few of the islands, though, it's not hard to see how the Galápagos Islands would have triggered evolutionary notions in a naturalist's head. They are remote and largely untouched--no country had claimed them until Ecuador did in 1832--and also relatively apart from each other. Though they are all of volcanic origin--volcanoes still hrrumph and spit lava periodically--there are also many distinct ecological zones and habitats, from relatively lush, to barren and to stark, reddish volcanic rock.

Darwin's eureka moment evidently came when he noticed that finches in the Galápagos had evolved into fourteen distinct species, particularly their beaks, according their habitats. He obsessively took notes and filled suitcases with plants and stuffed birds that he took back to England. Twenty more years of research led to the "Origin of the Species," a tome I haven't read but understand is quite impenetrable, up there with "The Wealth of Nations."

Small Ground Finch, thinking about what to evolve into next. 
Curiously his evolutionary theories triggered a furor among the religious classes in England who bellowed--much like some American evangelicals do today--that the world had been created 4004 years before the birth of Christ. Some English biblical scholars had even nailed down the exact month, day and time of creation.

What we found to be definitely, conclusively true was that the animals in the Galápagos, evolved or otherwise, are one gregarious, friendly bunch towards humans, perhaps because their isolation has spared them much exposure to human cruelty. Sea lions with pups days old sunned themselves on the beach, oblivious to human visitors. One young pup insisted on running up and rubbing his nose on Stew's legs.

Fantastically weird iguanas went around their business--which is mostly sitting on the rocks doing nothing--and also paid no attention to us. Even albatrosses and boobies with fuzzy chicks didn't squawk, run away or create a fuss. Lumbering giant tortoises, some about five feet long, stared back at the cameras and dismissively trundled away when their close-up had run long enough.

Five days was hardly enough to meet all the fauna. We saw Blue-footed and Masked boobies but not their Red-footed cousins. Also spotted were marine and land iguanas but not the legendary giant iguanas, five or six feet long, that supposedly live in other islands. We only saw two flamingos, standing immobile on one foot with their heads under one wing, looking like plastic lawn decorations.

And speaking of plastic, how about the Blue-Footed Boobies, whose legs and feet, bright blue and shiny, looked like prostheses rather than normal extremities.

Our snapshot of the Galápagos Islands was just that. I figure it would take a good month to visit all the islands, including the more remote ones, and three or four hours a day of trekking through rocks and other unfriendly terrain.

You must also be sure to allow a couple of hours a day, particularly at sunrise or sunset, to contemplate in awe God's creation. Whether over six thousand or six billion years, you've got to agree She did a magnificent job.


For a slide show of the Galápagos, please visit:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A husband by any other name

Two days ago I received a call from Roger, a junior high school classmate from Cuba who lives in central Florida with George, his companion of about forty years.

I haven't seen Roger, whom I knew as Rogelio in Cuba, for about fifty years, but I remember him vividly because I had no small crush on him. He was the tallest guy in the class, with the dark good looks of a Latin matinee idol. In class pictures, when we were lined up according to size, Rogelio always ended in the middle of the last row, towering regally over his classmates, with me a couple of places to the left or right of him.

Roger's phone call didn't bring good news. He spoke nervously and quickly in Spanish, stumbling over the medical terms necessary to describe George's condition, who has been very ill for the past several weeks. The Spanish equivalents of "lymphatic cancer," "perforation of the intestine," "colonoscopy," "chemotherapy" and so on didn't come easily to me either.

As I tried to comfort Roger, I struggled momentarily with what to call George, whom I've never met. Is he Roger's partner? boyfriend? companion? roommate? lover? Instinctively, I reached for "husband," which also caused Roger to pause awkwardly for a split-second, as if he'd never thought of the term before.

But what else should one man call another with whom he's lived the greatest part of his life, and who now may be close to dying, if not "husband"? Particularly at this moment all the euphemisms and subterfuges that have been drilled into the heads of gays and straights alike for so many years seemed cruelly inadequate.

I still remember the mild jolt when I heard U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, not too long ago and on national TV no less, refer to the man he had legally married in Massachusetts as his "husband." Then I realized that husband was exactly the right word.

In societies, the most insidious way majorities oppress or marginalize minorities is through labels. You're not one of us. You're a fag, a maricón, a spic, a dyke or a something else. And probably as self-defense, the excluded groups begin to use those words as if frequent use might neutralize their venom.

Gays also have invented a small lexicon to describe our long-term relationships but with little success.  "Partners" sounds like a vague business or legal relationship rather than an intimate union. Someone came up with "life partners" but that is just an arid a descriptor. "Lover" has an illicit sound to it, like a relationship you have on the side, or maybe a sexually turbo-charged arrangement, as if gay couples kept a copy of the Kama Sutra on their nightstands for constant reference. "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is downright high-schoolish and flighty. "Companion" or "roommate" is something you find on an apartment lease, not a reason to buy matching rings.

"Husband" or "wife," however, always remained beyond reach, primarily because it was exclusively  connected to conventional marriage, an institution off-limits to gay couples. Not too long ago we were told that the best we could hope for were "civil unions"--an insipid moniker if there ever was one--because marriage was an exclusively heterosexual institution between a man and a woman. As in Adam and Eve and because God said so.
The right ring for the right finger.

For a few years I subscribed to the defeatist "civil union" verbiage on the grounds that strategically, as some people argued, gays should just settle for what they could get in a hostile political climate.

I'm glad that those intractable agitators among us decided to hold out for marriage and not a faint simulacrum.

Fact is that times have changed thanks to the work of those agitators, and the phrase "same-sex marriage" doesn't scare the horses the way it used to. In the election last month voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, which also has been endorsed by President Obama.

Yep, it's time for Stew and I to abandon the "partner" gobbledygook and embrace "husband" even though we haven't been legally married anywhere.

And those so-called "commitment rings" we bought twenty years ago from a woman-owned jewelry store on Belmont Avenue in Chicago shall henceforth be known as wedding rings, and move to our left hand, where most wedding rings reside regardless of the sex of the couple involved, and where our rings belong as well.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Old Men and the Cinema

Movies are one of the great deals in San Miguel.  With a government-issued “Third Age” discount card tickets cost about four dollars, and that includes premieres which, inexplicably, sometimes show up here a few days before the U.S. The discount doesn’t apply to 3-D movies and that’s just as well because all those special effects can tax the senses of some of the seven guys in our moviegoers group, all of us après-Medicare, and each with particular infirmities.

“Third Age” (“Tercera Edad”) is a charming Mexican euphemism for “over the hill” or “old as dirt.” It reminds me of the Billy Crystal line about the three ages of men: boyhood, manhood and you look fantastic! (particularly if you forget your dentures and the person offering the compliment is staring at your gums).

Ultimately Third Age cards are superfluous because who are we kidding? Certainly not the eighteen-year-olds at the box office who can spot a gringo geezer from across the lobby and will print a discounted ticket before you even ask.  

Local movie bargains have their limitations. Mexican distributors have ascertained that the intellectual level of audiences in San Miguel to be about ten inches off the ground, so flicks tend toward the wham-bang variety; the more guns, blood, noise and vampires the better. No point waiting for a Fellini or Bergman retrospective at our cinema.

A local café owner tries to fill that culture gap by selling hundreds of DVDs, the provenance of which is a mystery as profound as the Immaculate Conception. Like so many other things in Mexico, where his movies come from falls under the category of don’t ask, don’t tell.

His vast catalog includes everything from arcane PBS and BBC films and documentaries, film classics and TV shows, to recent releases. Juan, or Jack the Ripper as his known among expats, on occasion sells movies—all of them first-quality and all for forty pesos—to coincide with their official release in the U.S. One of the Bourne films actually got here before it opened in the U.S.

Most English-language movies here are subtitled except those for children, which are dubbed into Spanish. Subtitling can lead to problems. A couple of years ago gringos were excited about the arrival of the appropriately-titled Brad Pitt film “Babel.” Problem was that the dialogue was in English, Berber (a Moroccan type of Arabic), French and Japanese—with Spanish subtitles. Meditate on that, particularly if you can’t read Spanish.

After our movie group has agreed on a movie, and a place to eat beforehand, seating arrangements are the next hurdle. One of our members lost sight in one eye so he prefers to sit in the middle and close to the screen.

But two of us who have tinnitus prefer to sit towards the back so we don’t aggravate the ringing in our ears. That’s a particular problem at our local cinema where the teenagers romping around in the control booth like to set the volume loud enough to rattle the light fixtures.  When we went to see the latest James Bond movie my friend thoughtfully ran to the bathroom to get a length of toilet paper which we shared and fashioned into ear plugs. I felt as if other people were staring at the wads of toilet paper sticking out of our ears, but so what. 

Another member of our group has a problem with his left knee, and he likes to sit at the left end of the aisle, so he can extend his leg. But a couple of people in our group also have jittery bladders which usually send them fleeing to the bathroom about forty-five minutes into the movie. To avoid stumbling over other people with better control of their bodily functions, they prefer to sit at the right end of the aisle, close to the exit.

How should we accommodate all these age-related preferences? Split up and let everyone sit wherever is most personally convenient? Add a doctor or nurse practitioner to our group to decide on the best compromise seating arrangement depending on who came along and their personal ailments?

Someone said that getting old is a pain, and never is that clearer than when you go to the movies in San Miguel—no  matter how cheap they are.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Great Border Crossing Plus Seven

Stew, with his remarkable recall for dates and events, casually mentioned on Sunday that November 7 would be the anniversary of the Great Border Crossing. I, the one with a far foggier grasp of birthdays and most other significant historical markers, replied: "The what?"

Indeed Wednesday was the seventh anniversary of our voyage from Chicago to Mexico in a Volkswagen Passat station wagon, which also carried two howling cats and a geriatric dog with dicey bowel control, and so much stuff that both humans and animals were pinned in place with barely a few inches to move in any direction.

It was not as dramatic as the Mormons' trek to Utah, cowboys dodging Indian arrows or Pilgrims praying and getting seasick on the way to New Wherever, but for us it was a momentous move, one that would take nearly a couple of years to recover from but ultimately couldn't have turned out much better.

In a pop-psychology magazine I remember reading that retirement and relocation to a different city, never mind a different country, can be among life's most stressful experiences primarily because you're not quite sure what you’re going to find at the other end.

Some people consider that uncertainty exhilarating. At church last Sunday we talked to a couple--neither partner in the spring-chicken age bracket--who has relocated regularly every seven years, just for the kicks of something new.

They have lived in San Miguel for eight years, one year past their “scheduled” moving date, so on the first of next month they will head for Pátzcuaro, another photogenic colonial town about three hours from here. They had talked about moving to Ecuador or Morocco, but I guess they're slowing down.

Señores Stew and Pooch in San Miguel
Stew and I on the other hand had lived in Chicago for thirty years. In fact, Stew had spent his entire life suffering through blizzards, ice storms and other wintry miseries in various parts of the Midwest, namely Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and finally Illinois. My move from Cuba at age fourteen certainly counts as a Great Crossing, but after that I’d led a relatively settled life too, ten years in New York and then Chicago.

But at around age fifty-seven, both of us had come down with an acute case of "gotta get out here" fever. Both were sick with our jobs and particularly with northern winters.

The prospect of another February in Chicago loomed as a daunting Prozac moment. February is when Chicagoans turn a shade of beige as a result of sustained lack of sunlight—or orange from too many hours in tanning salons--and the ground is covered with a grayish, big-city winter mush that barely conceals  several months' worth of dog turds.

We had visited other possible retirement cities from Vancouver to Santa Fe, and pretended to search for a destination in a rational, matrix-like way, weighing different factors, among them cost of living, gay-friendliness, climate—that, above all—and cultural life.

We've been asked a thousand times why we chose San Miguel as our landing place and I can't come up with a single answer. We'd visited San Miguel only twice before and only for a few days each time. I recall being struck with the mildness of the climate, the endlessly photogenic beauty of the town, particularly at the end of the day, but really not much else.

So after all our computations and pretense of logic, we ultimately surrendered to impulse without doing much arithmetic and not unlike our friends moving to Pátzcuaro.

Our VW Passat is not a covered wagon. It has air-conditioning, satellite radio, comfortable seats and other amenities. Yet the five-day southward journey, across landscapes unbroken by any snow-topped volcanos, verdant jungles, herds of exotic fauna or archaeological sites, did evoke in us great sympathy for the original band of Mormons.

Cutting across Illinois lengthwise is boring enough to short-circuit most of your synapses. And then you hit Cairo, Ill., once a thriving city at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers but any more the most dismal ghost town imaginable.

Past that, you're faced with the prospect of traversing Kentucky or Tennessee, I can't remember which. And on and on and on. We also gained an appreciation for the sheer enormity of Texas. It's huge, gigantic, interminable, particularly coming after Oklahoma.

Finding a motel involved quite a bit of stealth because—yet something else we hadn't thought about—although there may be a few pet-friendly motels none are quite so friendly as to welcome two howling cats and our incontinent, forty-pound mutt.

So we resorted to asking for the room farthest away from the reception area (“we want peace and quiet”) and then sneaking in the animals under the cover of darkness. We had a bought a wire crate for our Pooch which we had to assemble and take apart every night. Each night we also had to persuade the cats to eat something, check out the cat litter tray, and please not hide behind the refrigerato so we could regroup promptly first thing in the morning.

For all their fright, the cats eventually settled into a trance-like routine that involved both squeezing into a single carrier, and remaining motionless and silent for hours. For his part Pooch decided that sleeping four-fifths of the time was the best policy.

Pooch was the greatest dog until the very end, the best animal companion we've ever had. He died two years after we arrived in San Miguel, at seventeen years old or thereabouts.

The initial details of settling in San Miguel—finding an apartment, waiting two months for our furniture and other belongings to arrive and then discovering we should have left most of it in Chicago—were daunting. Two people who had led quite stable existences bumped into an almost complete lack of regimen, the points of reference of their lives suddenly upended.

Most distressful though, was the loss of our roots. We didn't know anyone here. All the markers, large and small, that gave our lives rhyme and direction—our jobs, our house, our friends, the screeching Chicago el and countless others—went missing.

And after complaining endlessly about our jobs, we found that the lack of a job and in particular a daily routine, was most disorienting. Suddenly you have all the free time you had yearned for yet don’t know what to do with it.

Our two cats recovering from their trip. Ziggy, the
orange tabby, died a few months ago.
There was much thrashing about during the first eighteen months, including four moves, searches for counseling from both professionals and also layman expats, and for me a renewed stint of Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

It was not a good time and to this day I’m baffled by the people who claim to have landed here, instantly fallen in love with everything San Miguel and never looking back to their previous lives. That was far from our experience.

The turnaround for us was building our house, a long-postponed dream. We had talked and planned and read books and articles and here we were finally able to turn ideas into brick-and-mortar.

Our new house, completed almost four years ago, turned out to be everything we wanted, one of those rare life experiences when expectations neatly coincide with reality.

It also firmly planted us in Mexico. As Stew keeps saying, other than a few relatives, we have no longer have physical connections with the United States and wouldn't even know where to go if we had to move back.

That has forced us to stop looking at Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican ways of doing things through the lens of American expectations.

One day during the construction of our house Stew—a home inspector in his previous life—complained about something not being "like we do back in the States." The architect calmly explained, "Yes, but we're here, not there."

We're hardly Mexicanized. Stew's Spanish still sounds like a weak impression of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose public, mano-a-mano struggles with the language have earned him the nickname “El Bloombito.”

We watch Canadian satellite television; go shopping on the “Other Side,” namely Texas and Chicago; and eagerly await the arrival of new American movies. We just saw the latest James Bond epic--two days before it was released in the U.S.--and it was terrific, particularly Javier Bardem and Judy Dench.

Undoubtedly some aspects of daily life in Mexico remain annoying. Take for instance our dealings with a technician from Telcel, who started installing a new wireless telephone and internet system two weeks ago and still hasn’t finished. For this guy mañana is more than an ethnic stereotype: It’s a principle to live by.

Yet I haven’t found any aggravation that can’t be salved by a quick walk around the ranch, especially early in the morning or by moonlight. At this point in our lives there’s no other country or house where we'd rather live—particularly when February comes around.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

So close yet so far away

During two recent outings, one a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago to the nearby city of Querétaro  and the other a one-day photo safari last Wednesday led by a professional photographer now retired in San Miguel, Stew and I were again slapped on the face with the realities of poverty and economic inequality in Mexico.

Querétaro greets motorists coming in from San Miguel with a new and extravagant ten- or twelve-lane boulevard landscaped with ground covers, twisty jacaranda saplings, oleander bushes and other greenery still being fussed over by ground crews. Subdivisions of new houses painted mostly a blinding shade of white blanket the hills on each side of the road. A new shopping center, rumored to become the largest one in the country when it is finished, also is going up next to the boulevard, with about five or six gangly cranes swinging buckets of concrete overhead.

Fall landscape we found outside of San Miguel during
our Wednesday photo safari.
The state of Querétaro's ebullient prosperity is not compartmentalized, like so much of the wealth in Mexico City, for instance, where a five-dollar, thirty-minute cab ride will take you from Gucci and Ferragamo boutiques in Polanco to rickety taco stands and tire vulcanizing shops in some slum choked with traffic and fumes.

A year ago we drove quite far into the state of Queretáro's countryside and were dazzled by the reach of its good fortune. Newly paved and striped roads with shiny signage; Mercedes Benz minibuses with   kids headed to new public schools; signs for coming-soon sewage treatment plants, soccer fields or roofed and lit basketball courts flanked with bleachers.

But trip from Querétaro back to the state of Guanajuato is a jarring riches-to-rags slideshow even though the two are adjacent.  Twelve lanes wither down to four, then two and if you head for the countryside, you'll soon be on winding dirt roads with craters, puddles and rocks menacing to anything other than pickups or horses, while brown dust, typical during the dry season, swirls around wherever you go.

Our guide, former National Geographic photographer Robert DeGast, drove his pontoon-like 2000 Chrysler Concorde LX, which he referred to as a "pimp mobile," quite capably, nudging it along through the obstacles with a mix of gentleness and exasperated cursing.

The day-long tour led us to a series of chapels, some brightly re-painted by misguided government historic restoration crews. Others were just ruins in waist-high weeds, with dark and foreboding interiors decorated with barely visible murals of arrows, chalices, birds, crowns of thorns and other enigmatic biblical symbolism that even a former Roman Catholic priest in our group could not quite decipher.

An abandoned chapel. 
One of the last stops took us to the settlement of Ciénaga, population a couple of hundred people if that, where we stopped to see what was left of a chapel atop a small hill. By now my feet were bothering me so I let Stew and the others in the group do the reconnoitering.

On his return Stew was noticeably shaken by what he saw: Women trudging along with buckets of water because the above-ground steel water pipes had long ago rusted and come apart; ten-year-olds, who should have been in school, coaxing small herds of goats with sticks; a man yanking a struggling burro loaded with dried corn stalks. And above all, the silence of a place where not much ever happens except the occasional bleating of a donkey or the whoosh of a gust of wind.

Once again Stew muttered that during our travels some months ago through Cuba, a country besieged during the past fifty-four years by endless economic calamities, both natural and man-made, we never encountered the poverty--make that the grinding poverty--that we often have run into in parts of Mexico.

There's plenty of poverty in other areas of Mexico alright, in places like the southern state of Chiapas. But there it's partly camouflaged by the verdant landscape and the bright outfits of the natives, their exotic languages and beautiful handicrafts, which make the penury of their lives somehow seem a bit quaint and less shocking to visitors.  

In our state of Guanajuato the pockets of poverty are unvarnished and Honduras-like. I'm sure state  government economists would vehemently dispute such comparisons, citing hopeful statistics and pointing to charts with zigzagging lines trending ever upward.

It just doesn't seem that way, however, when you butt head-on into some of the poverty we found during our Wednesday safari.

Or when you talk with our gardener Félix as I did the next day, when I presented him with a small electronic calculator. As I explained the buttons, I gradually realized he'd  never learned multiplication or division, let alone the concept of percentages. Stew, far smarter than me at math, will have to teach Félix some basic arithmetic. Short of winning a lottery, what sort of life prospects does Félix and his family have?

Yet forty-minutes or an hour away, in one of Querétaro's dozen or so industrial parks, right next to the city's brand-new international airport, young Mexicans are assembling components for jets for the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

Why there and not here? A better educational system? More honest and efficient state government? Fate? As far as I know, Querétaro doesn't have any rare natural resources, like oil or uranium. In fact its rocky landscape closely resembles that of Guanajuato.

And thus far Queretaro's runaway prosperity doesn't seem to spreading our way, though a few auto assembly plants have set up shop on the other side of the state of Guanajuato, near León and Irapuato.

I'm sure there are rational economic explanations for these gross inequities though with my mathematically addled brain I doubt I'll ever understand them much less be able to pass them along. For the time being, my stories and pictures is all I can offer.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ahead of the tech curve in San Miguel

On Thursday Newsweek announced that as of the end of the year it will not longer publish a print edition--the one some readers regard as a "real magazine" that you can flip through nervously while waiting at the dentist's office--in favor of a series of electronic blips known as a "digital edition."

San Miguel is hardly a Mexican Silicon Valley, or even a Silicon Ditch, but the realities of geographical isolation and the limitations of transportation and mail delivery have unwittingly pushed expats here into the age of digital reading far ahead of our contemporaries in the U.S. If you live here and want to keep up with current events and the latest best sellers, the web is the most direct, and sometimes the only route there.

Several local entrepreneurs have tried to set up daily delivery of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but as Mexicans would say, ni modo--no way. The last guy who offered to do that asked for the money in advance, kept the cash and none of the customers ever saw an inch of newsprint.

If I'm in Mexico City on a weekend sometimes I indulge on the guilty pleasure of the Sunday edition of the Times but it costs approximately fifteen dollars, and more often than not it never reaches the newsstand at the hotel where we stay.

Magazines, real ink-on-paper editions, reach San Miguel via a private mail courier though often two or three weeks after publication. By the time I got to see the New Yorker cover about the first presidential debate, the one with a cartoon of Romney debating an empty chair, the second debate had already taken place. Magazine readers in San Miguel have to be patient. Either that or fire up their iPads or Kindles.

Books fall into the same trap. You order them from, which may deliver them promptly to the courier station in Laredo, but then they get waylaid in the swamp of Mexican customs for three weeks or more, plus you have to pay courier charges in addition to shipping and handling in the U.S.

Business is slow at the Barnes and Noble on Chicago's Near North Side.
I ordered a book about the Civil War on September 21 and it still hasn't arrived. If I had downloaded it to my Kindle, I would have been to Gettysburg by now.

Except that digital editions may be quick and efficient but any more I resent having to read books, magazines and newspapers on a small screen, on which important elements such as photographs, cartoons and graphics are reduced to tiny, ephemeral fractions of themselves.

Even if I've already read the New Yorker application on my Kindle, I still relish going through the real printed edition, dated as it may be, to check the cartoons and full-page photos, printed on real paper, while sitting on an old La-Z-Boy we brought down from Chicago.

As for books, maps of Civil War battles and photos of Robert E. Lee probably will look far more imposing in the book I ordered--if it ever gets here--than even on my high-definition Kindle.

I doubt the New Yorker will abandon its print edition but you never know. Last time we were in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune in the news boxes was barely recognizable: The paper had shrunk from a broadsheet to a mini version that was actually smaller than what used to be called a tabloid.

Bookstores, where you could peruse and fondle actual books before buying them,  also had nearly vanished. All Borders bookstores were gone and there was only one Barnes and Noble shop left on the Near North Side of Chicago. It looked like it was breathing its last.

iPads, iPhones and Kindles seem to have pushed printed material out of the way. Chicago buses have become surreal conveyances filled with self-absorbed zombies fondling their devices, checking their e-mails or rearranging their apps on the way to work. Where there used to be conversation now all you hear are the clicks of electronic devices or stray bits of music escaping from the iPod of the person next to you.

Like it or not, in San Miguel we're keeping up with the digital age. An English-language bookstore in town called El Tecolote (The Owl) which carried a fair selection of art books and best sellers shut down about year ago, the victim of a decline in American tourism and high prices. The store charged full cover prices plus a surcharge for delivery into Mexico, which made a coffee table book almost as pricey as a medieval manuscript.

One skill I still need to master, though, is texting on my cheapo cell phone. A sign at a bus stop on Chicago's North Avenue advised impatient customers to call a transit authority phone and type in the code for the particular location in order to get an estimate of how long it would take for the bus to arrive.

I fumbled and fumbled with the tiny buttons on the phone and I'll be damned if by the time I was ready to hit "send" the bus wasn't already there.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bee Day arrives

The much anticipated day to collect the honey from Stew's beehive finally arrived last Friday, and a ho-hum feeling buzzed through my spine. The project had been going on since February, with free bee stings for everyone including the dogs, which had learned to flee whenever they saw or sniffed any bee-related doings. Most of the time the beehive just sat there, bees buzzing in and out, without a hint of what was going on inside.

Adding to the anti-climax was all the lore about bees everyone's heard since childhood. About their industry, tight social habits, unimaginably complex society. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" which celebrates their speed while giving violinists cramps. The 1924 Continental Insurance Building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, topped by four stone bison that represent strength and also support a huge glass beehive which is lit blue at night and honors the legendary thrift and hard work of bees, while presumably reminding passersby to go visit their insurance agent. Enough about bees.
Smoke calms the bees prior to
opening the hive. The white box
is the one containing the best
honey, made from wildflowers. 

Indeed, the only members of the bee world who've gotten bad rap are the drones, the males who just hang around and do no work except mate with the queen, a crucial function when you think about it. The drones die shortly after mating which makes their gesture the ultimate example of sacrifice for the common good--and of killer sex. Recently, lethal "drones" or pilotless aircraft have become a key part of the U.S. military arsenal, though I can't figure out why they got that name.

My cynicism toward beekeeping vanished, however, when Félix, decked out in a beekeeper outfit that was about three sizes too big, opened up Stew's beehive.

Sincere apologies are in order to everyone--Stew, Félix and particularly the bees--for my lack of appreciation of their work. I was dumbstruck.

The formerly empty wooden boxes--sixteen by twenty inches, each holding eight frames, about five by seventeen inches--were loaded with bright-gold honey and wax, dripping and glistening in the sunshine.

Empty, the boxes weigh about five pounds. Now loaded with the sweat equity of tens of thousands of bees laboring through the summer, they weighed over fifty pounds each. 

Stew extracted the honey from only one box, which had been inserted, late in the summer, into the stack of boxes that make up the hive. Two other boxes are called "honey supers" and were also filled with honey though made from sugar Stew had fed the bees when he first set out the hive, to feed the original crowd of ten thousand bees, plus the queen, and get the party going The final box at the bottom of the hive, about twice as high as the others, is called the brood chamber, and is the home base where the queen and the bees live.

The sugar-derived honey in the first two "supers" is not considered very valuable or tasty. The honey in the last super, however, which the bees made from flower pollen, is the real stuff that we collected. If you add all three super boxes, the bees produced a total of between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty pounds of honey and wax since Stew put out the hive.

Stew the proud beekeeper. 
There aren't enough zeros in a calculator, or cells in my brain, to even begin to estimate or picture what went on in the hive during the summer. Stew started with ten thousand bees and ended with approximately sixty thousand. That final census of course doesn't include the deaths of thousands of the sex-crazed drones or those bees squashed while trying to sting someone.

Making honey is an unimaginably laborious process by tens thousands of bees flitting in and out of the hive hundreds of times a day as they collect tiny bits of pollen that they then combine with some sort of enzyme to create the final product.

How many times did the bees have to go back and forth to create one hundred and fifty pounds of honey? Told you there weren't enough zeros in a calculator and the results would be meaningless anyway even if there were, because the numbers would be so large.

Part of the success this summer must have been the above-average rainfall which led to a rampage of wildflowers, particularly in our ranch where they are protected from livestock by fences.

Extracting the bees from the wax comb is a relatively easy process using electric centrifuges in which you place three or four frames at a time and flip on the switch. But motorized centrifuges can cost thousands of dollars.

Our dog Lucy kept a vigilant eye during the
extraction process for any stray drops of honey.
So Stew and I extracted the honey manually, which took several hours and was a colossal mess in the kitchen. There was gooey honey all over the floor, counters and several sets of bowls, knives, needle-nose pliers and spatulas, in addition to drowsy bees still stuck to the frames. Fortunately our dog Lucy loved the honey and stood guard to lick any droplets that fell on the floor tile.

We separated the honeycombs from the frames and cut them into small squares that we put on a strainer over a bowl. The crystal-clear honey dripped down slowly, like extra-virgin olive oil. For later batches we got impatient and zapped the cubes in the microwave and squeezed them gently through the strainer with a potato masher, which sped the flow but gave us slightly murkier honey.

The very first batch, the "extra virgin" was particularly light and had a tangy taste to it. The inaugural jar of honey went to our friend Billie.

We only got honey from one frame and put the combs from the other seven in plastic bags and into a sealed cooler chest for later extraction. Sealed well, the honeycombs are supposed to last for several months.

By late afternoon the kitchen looked like a greasy spoon diner after a weekend rush.

A myriad details and refinements await Stew's apiculture project. Honey from mesquite and huizaches is supposed to be the best, but I can't imagine how you persuade bees to stick to certain kinds of flowers, particularly since they cover a three-mile radius from the hive during their frantic rounds. I guess you could keep extracting the honey after each wave of flowers.

Ta-dah! One of the first jars of honey. 
Or how to collect the wax. We used pre-made honeycombs to get the bees going but we can't figure out where the new wax went. A rented centrifuge might be in order next time.

But the most pressing question at the moment is also the most basic: What do we do with the thirty-four pounds of honey and honeycombs we have so neatly sealed and stacked in the basement? Suggestions from readers are welcome--particularly other than "I want some."


Thursday, October 11, 2012

One cheer for optimism

San Miguel de Allende at times feels like Medicare Junction. It can be full of bad news, illnesses and other problems that tax one's optimism while, ironically, reminding us how essential optimism is to a sane, healthy life--however many years of it we have left.

The, hmm, "advanced" demographics of a retirement outpost like San Miguel--hell, among the expats here someone in their mid-50s is considered practically a juvenile--inevitably bring along personal and health catastrophes, including death.

Since we moved here seven years ago, Stew, 65 and I, 64, have learned a lexicon of medical problems, procedures and illnesses we had never heard of or encountered before.

Alzheimer's--naturally--but also Parkinson's, Gehrig's, Chron's, Hodgkins', Bell's and countless other ailments with someone's last name attached to them, plus the gory details of fractured these-and-those, which usually require a Home Depot-full of nuts, bolts and plates to mend, followed by months-long convalescence.

Just like with retirees elsewhere, in San Miguel a simple lunch can morph into an impromptu  symposium on ailments, symptoms, and aches and pains, and the best doctors to take care of them.

By the time dessert arrives your guts are churning as you anxiously palpate yourself for any suspicious lumps or sores. Do I still have all ten toes?

Indeed, when Stew and I moved to San Miguel, we subscribed to the Mayo Clinic Newsletter but recently decided we'd read enough about everything that can go wrong with the human body. It's bad enough to monitor real problems without obsessing about myriad other anatomical malfunctions, of which there are thousands.

Death has crashed our circle of friends in San Miguel during the past six months. One friend died of AIDS at 57, a friend's husband succumbed to cancer at 75. A few other friends await the outcome of  various incurable cancers.

It's easy--and normal--to be pessimistic and downright pissed with all these bad news, specially since you might be the next target. I'm certainly not immune from blue periods or feelings of helplessness.

Except there's no point in embracing pessimism as a life perspective.

It could be my first-generation immigrant genes. Leaving your country and going to an unknown spot--across an ocean or a border, or on the other side of the exit door of an airport--immigration requires nothing if not optimism.

As you await to take that leap you keep whispering to yourself: "I'm not one-hundred percent sure what's on the other side, but there we go."

A few months ago I visited several of my junior-high classmates in Cuba who didn't take that chance and instead held on to circumstances they thought were surer or safer options. I don't blame anyone for their choices, but despite the fears and hardships migration entailed for my family and me--the streets were not paved with gold after all--I'm sure glad we came to the U.S.

Optimism beats pessimism every time.

In San Miguel, Stew and I have learned, almost instinctively, to gravitate not to friends who are worry- or trouble-free--we don't know any of those--but to those who keep looking forward, a key ingredient of optimism.

On a cruise to Antarctica four years ago, we met a woman who is now in her eighties. Her husband didn't want to go on the cruise, so the heck with him, she went by herself. She turned out to be not only one of the most intellectually engaged and well-read people I've known, but one who is also in great physical shape thanks to weekly tennis games, Pilates exercises and three- or four-mile walks around town and, of course, standing appointments at the beauty parlor.

For 2013 she is looking into a trip to Mongolia to visit a friend. Stew and I considered going along  except we don't know what's there to see in Mongolia except taciturn yaks and camels trudging through sand storms.

Even after the grievous loss of her husband of 55 years, another friend is slowly relaunching her life as a single woman. She is going back to her photography, a lifelong hobby she'd put on hold after her tragedy, and is now talking about taking acting lessons. Sometime in high school someone told her she had some talent. I look forward to seeing her on stage. Next year she's also visiting France with some friends.

Optimism--to keep looking ahead--is not a denial of reality or a lack of smarts, but the only choice that makes sense even after some of life's serious blows. Think of it: What other rational choice is there?


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guess who we are having for dinner

End-of-life issues have been troubling me lately, specifically, What do you do when a hen stops laying?

A recent egg shortage in Mexico has rekindled our plans to build a chicken coop but there are many details and ramifications that need to be explored.

Our gardener Félix is all excited. He keeps a rotating cavalcade of animals in his own yard, including turkeys, hens, roosters, two dogs and two cats, one of them blind, and at one point two young donkeys both of which one day disappeared overnight. Chicken coop, chickens, eggs, no problema, as long as you guard against foxes and coyotes, he says.

Then again, Félix is a farm boy from a family who slaughtered a cow, two pigs and God knows how many chickens just to feed the crowd at his wedding party.

That's not where Stew and I are at in our agricultural development.

Stew says he's excited, or at least politely pretends to be, though he hasn't spent more than five minutes actually considering the details and responsibilities of chicken husbandry, if there is such an avocation or endeavor. He pointed to his favorite chicken coop design--the smallest and easiest to build--from a selection offered in "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies" and that's the last I heard from him about the topic.

Our, or should I say, my, interest in a chicken coop precedes the recent egg shortage. I hate to support factory-style egg producers, like Bachoco in Mexico, which raise chickens in compartments half the size of a shoe box, then squeeze--metaphorically though it wouldn't surprise me if they did it literally--every egg they can out of each hen. After that it's off to the slaughter house for the birds which are crammed in green plastic containers piled up ten-high on a flatbed truck.

At a traffic intersection sometimes you pull up to one of those trucks and catch the pathetic sight of a frightened bird peeking at you out from behind the plastic bars on the boxes.

It's a sad scene that brings to mind Peggy Lee's mournful tune, "Is that all there is?" You wish you could approach the truck and whisper to her (to the hen, not Peggy, who's long gone to the poultry farm in the sky): "I'm afraid so, Sister Hen, at least for you."

But after than fleeting, moving scene, Stew and I might drive to a restaurant and order Pollo a la milanesa, which is the breast of a chicken pounded a quarter-inch thick, breaded and fried. Then we eat it.

Our squeamishness about the killing of animals doesn't extend to embracing a vegetarian diet, something Stew and I have repeatedly tried and failed at after only three or four days.

Sad truth is we don't mind bumping off Sister Hen, as long as someone does it for us and also plucks, decapitates, disembowels and dismembers her and puts the remains on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. It's all a matter of degrees of separation between the deed and our plate.

A couple of years ago, we began buying eggs from Félix who collected them from chickens living in his yard. His chickens presumably led happy, fulfilling lives though really, Who the hell knows what goes through the mind of a hen or what her life aspirations are? But ultimately the eggs were not very good.

They were smallish, thin-shelled and with very fragile yolks, nothing like those mutant creations--in various designer colors no less--that Martha Stewart used to flaunt at the TV camera. The reason for the low quality of eggs from Félix, Stew surmised, was poor diet. Félix chickens just scrap along eating worms and this-and-that, and not that much of it either.

Eggs from our own well fed, fancy-pants hens, living in luxurious digs, would provide us with jumbo eggs, ready for collection in a wicker basket. These sassy, productive layers--the fifty-three percent of the chicken world so to speak--would vote Republican if they could.

I still have to get to the part in the "Dummies" book that explains how to find the eggs--do the hens just leave them around the coop, helter-skelter, or pile them neatly and then carefully sit on them?--but I'm sure we can figure that out with Félix' assistance.

But that's the easy part. It gets difficult when the hens stop laying and just spend their days peck, peck, pecking around like some retired gringo volunteers at not-for-profit organizations in San Miguel, just trying to pass the time.

I imagine these post-menopausal birds would keep producing manure which would still be very good fertilizer. But who ever heard of a coop-turned-nursing home for just cranking out manure? And if you keep bringing in young hens without getting rid of the elders, soon you'd either have to expand the coop or it will start looking like Hong Kong at rush hour.

I'm afraid that death followed by a dignified Chicken Fricassee may be the only solution. Friends have suggested we just give the aged birds to Félix--where would we be without this guy?--whose wife would dispatch and "dress" them for us.

Even then, I'm afraid we might start naming the chickens while they're still clucking, which would make them pretty unappetizing when dead. "Here's Southern Fried Chicken," we'd tell your dinner guests. "She was formerly known as Honey Boo-Boo."

This chicken coop business, I tell you, is going to take some further research.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

At a real Mexican county fair

San Miguel's annual county fair, which runs for three weeks around the time of the month-long Mexican independence celebrations in September, attracts thousands of locals but hardly any foreigners. That's too bad.

It's not the monster state fair in Dallas, or the dazzling, open-air Cirque du Soleil spectacle Stew and I were lucky to see in Quebec City a couple of summers ago.

Our fair is small and inelegantly sited next to the city's landfill, just outside of town. Most rides are tired hand-me-downs from carnivals somewhere in the U.S. and seemingly held together with layer upon layer of enamel paint. And how many miles of duct tape does it take to assemble this show, particularly its labyrinthine wiring?

It costs a little over two dollars to get in and the randy young guys who come wearing their fanciest outfits and their hair meticulously gelled get frisked thoroughly at the gate. Old guys like Stew and I are just waved through the line, making us feel old, harmless and foreign. Gringos. Güeros. 

Despite that recurrent snub, Stew and I have attended the fair for the past three years. Along with the small-town fiestas, and the one-ring circuses that traipse through town, with their motley crew of bored-looking animals, the fair offers the most authentic glimpse of Mexico and Mexicans that you're likely to get in San Miguel.

To continually stoke the tourist industry San Miguel holds endless processions and parades, fireworks displays and other public spectacles, many so overproduced and packaged that for year-round residents they become ho-hum. The four a.m. avalanche of fireworks on the day of St. Michael the Archangel, the town's patron saint? The daylong Good Friday processions? Check and check.  

By comparison the fair is anything but Disneyfied. Strings of colored lights hang almost randomly from crooked posts. Kids shriek with the thrills of the pokey, creaky rides, while the mothers stand by watching, always intently, sometimes nervously. There are pauses in the action, when a fuse blows or a guy has to crawl under a balky ride to fix or tighten some critical component. A multitude of aromas assaults you as you walk around--fresh bread, sizzling lumps of meat slowly twirling around awaiting to become tacos al pastor, and the cloying, old-fashioned smell of cotton candy.

This year we were lucky to go with Billie, a great friend and photographer with a preoccupation about light. She wanted to capture those twenty, thirty minutes just before sunset, when the fading sun gives everything a unique warm hue, a bit like faces by candlelight.

That didn't work out so well this year because the usual fiery San Miguel sunset was partly eclipsed by a gray sky. Even then, I learned to appreciate Billie's fascination with the "right" kind of light.

There weren't many people at the fair either when we went on Friday and we wondered why. It turns out last week was not the final week. It's this week, and attendance and excitement should rev up: The admission price has been lowered to a little over a dollar.

Slow night at the gambling table. 
At those bargain prices, I plan to visit the fair again and see if I can catch a better look at that last light of the day that so fascinates Billie.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Tuning in and out of the presidential race

Among the many benefits of living in San Miguel is its foreigness, its physical separation from the U.S., despite the several thousand American expats who live here. Whether by car or plane, the U.S. and its rancorous political wars, are about ten hours away.

That insulation is not hermetic. There is satellite television and radio, the Internet, the weekly dump of magazines from The Other Side--as Mexicans often refer to the U.S.--plus the dinner party chatter which now invariably revolves around the presidential election.

If you're a Democrat, it's all friendly chatter, and you tend to assume there must not be any Republicans in San Miguel although I know one. Republicans probably have their own dinner parties to which we're not invited.

News from the Blonde Team
But following the elections, and all the attending blather, is optional. You can keep your TV tuned to cooking and travel shows, reruns and nature shows and skip CNN, MSNBC, network news and Fox News. Definitely Fox News.

Occasionally you can dip your beak into the news pool, get a sip--who's ahead?--and skip the rest. And yes, be sure to drop your absentee ballot at our one-man U.S. consulate and then vamoose from the rest of the political racket.

I, on the other hand, wake up swearing to wean myself off from political news, commentators and speculators but never succeed. It's a fierce addiction.

Part of the attraction is sheer entertainment. Take the Republican primary carnival: Even Ringling Bros. couldn't round up a more colorful parade of clowns. At the end, the GOP picked Romney apparently because he was the least ridiculous of the bunch. Except he turns out to be a hollow, mannequin figure with no concrete ideology except to endorse whatever it takes to maintain his candidacy afloat.

His selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate--the boy genius of the House of Representatives--was supposed to be a master stroke. Ryan was presented as a fiscal wizard with a satchel-full of solutions for the federal budgetary morass. Except he either doesn't have any solutions or is unable to explain them to the rest of us tax-paying schlemiels.

I find the quadrennial political spectacle not only fascinating--its protagonists, the zigzags in positions, the occasional revelations and possible surprises--but ultimately useful.

Indeed, the American system, even with its huge wastefulness of time and money, and endless gasbaggery and machinations, works pretty well if not necessarily picking the most capable candidate at least capturing the fractious will of the electorate. (Alright, there was the 2000 election when the Supremes stepped in and preempted the opinion of the majority. No system is perfect.)

The primary contests run forever, but I'd rather have a drawn-out process, and intense scrutiny of the candidates, than the rabbit-out-the-hat method used by so many other countries.

For fifty-four years Cubans have been presented with the choice of the same bearded rabbit. Recently they traded the usual old rabbit for his slightly younger brother, but Cubans are still stuck with a bearded rabbit.

In Mexico, even after recent reforms, the parties anoint their candidates through an opaque hocus-pocus that looks more like a papal conclave than a democratic contest.

Consider that if the recent Republican primary had been sealed and delivered in only two or three weeks, we could have been saddled with whomever was ahead at that point.

It might have been the affable pizza mogul with an eye for the ladies or the born-again Torquemada still grappling with the morality of contraception. Or perhaps Strangelove Newt, musing about travel to Mars or Cowboy Perry who couldn't remember exactly which federal agencies he wanted to eliminate, much less talk about space exploration. Or the perpetually startled-looking congresswoman from Minnesota who got the birthplace of John Wayne the cowboy mixed up with that of John Wayne Gacy the Chicago serial killer.

So after a tedious process that involved umpteen debates, the Republicans picked Romney, the guy who once went on vacation with the family dog in a crate tied to the roof of the car. Dull but safe (though not for the dog).

Brothers and sisters, it could have been much, much worse.

A month before the general election most Americans may be fed up with the interminable presidential campaign and the almost daily opinion polls, but not me.

Another secret video could appear to finally knock out Romney's campaign. Or the principal of a hard-core madrassa in Indonesia might reveal that a young Barack could indeed recite the Koran from memory. That'll give the blonde news attack team at Fox something to cackle about until Nov. 6.

From the relative isolation and safety of San Miguel I can watch it all, or turn off the dial when it becomes too much even for me. For now, I'm staying tuned.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

And so to bed

Embedded in the part of the brain that controls my biorhythms there must something like an anti-alarm clock. For as long as I can remember it has gone off around two o'clock in the afternoon to whisper in my ear: "Time to take a nap." To reinforce the signal, almost non-stop yawning ensues, along with somewhat blurred vision and an urge to head for the nearest bed, couch or any other soft, horizontal surface.

While growing up in Cuba, the culture indulged my biorhythms. As I recall, we had a couple of hours off for lunch, time enough for a quick bite and a slightly longer nap before returning to school. The cost of that forgiving schedule was a school day that ran until about five o'clock. 

Zzzz: Just collecting my thoughts.
The U.S. is not that accommodating with early-afternoon napping aficionados. At work you're expected to run to a caloric refueling station, known as the company cafeteria, vacuum some food off your plate and return to your task station within an hour, preferably sooner. 

If some urgent project or deadline is pending, you may not even have a chance to visit the cafeteria and be reduced to snarfing some prepackaged food at your desk. 

In the present American economy, in which many workers find themselves trapped between the demands of hyperproductivity and fear of layoffs, any time for napping is particularly inconceivable. 

Retirement should be a time to ditch all those constraints and indulge my napping instincts but it's not that easy. 

Telling someone you can't meet them at two o'clock because that's your nap time sounds indolent even in a geezerville like San Miguel de Allende, which is located in Mexico, no less, which has its own traditions of mid-afternoon comidas, siestas and other forms of relaxation. 

Instead, napping during daylight hours evokes a certain feeling of fuddy-duddiness, like meeting someone at the door at noon while still in your pajamas. Geez, don't you have anything better to do with your life? 

My grandmother Herminia used to take long naps, with her cat Cachucha contentedly lying on her lap,  and without the benefit of a bed. The two dozed off regularly on her rocking chair around one or two o'clock in the afternoon, the warm, humid air of Cuba overpowering the perennial noise that came from the ivory-colored Philco radio nearby. 

But you could understand that: Grandma was in her eighties, for God's sake. And anyway, after an hour or so she'd get up, and with Cachucha in tow, head for her neo-medieval kitchen, equipped with a charcoal stove, and prepare some fabulous dinner. 

A nap was just not a sign of sloth but rather her version of revving up her culinary engines prior to another takeoff, like a ancient but trusty DC-3 rumbling down the runway. 

My dad didn't take afternoon naps but instead succumbed shortly after dinner, on the front porch of our house.  He would leave the doors of the living room open so he supposedly could sit outside, where the air was cooler, and still watch the television inside. 

I remember his routine clearly because one day he sat snoring loudly on the porch and small frog jumped inside his wide-open mouth.

In a weekend New York Times column, David K. Randall argues against the tyranny of eight consecutive hours of sleep that all Americans have been taught is essential for good physical and mental health. (Rethinking Sleep

My grandma may have been right after all, and so are the napping instincts she may have passed on to me.  Indeed Randall says that the nightly drill of eight-hours of sleep is a relatively new concept: After-lunch napping is an age-old tradition throughout much of the world, from China, to India and Latin America. 

It is not a symptom of chronic laziness but a good habit to recharge and reset your mind, and one which helps your creativity and  productivity. A split-sleep schedule is not an aberration to be combated with pills and exercise, but a natural and healthy impulse. 

Google now allows employees to take a quick nap at their desks every afternoon. President Bill Clinton was known to doze off for a half-hour in the Oval Office after lunch to recharge his batteries, though in retrospect parts of him may have awakened a little bit too recharged. 

The other extreme is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who behaved rather bizarrely during the Republican primary, perhaps because he didn't get enough sleep. 

According to a new book by Jay Root, Perry has long suffered from insomnia and other sleep disorders which likely contributed to his dismal performance during the debates with fellow Republicans, though many Texas friends tell me Perry was never the brightest bull in the herd, sleep or not. (How Rick Perry Lost His Edge)

It's only 11:37 a.m. But two and a half hours from now, it will be nap time for me, so don't anyone come knocking at my door then.