Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mirror, mirror? Nah, never mind

Never been one for admiring myself on the mirror except perhaps for my thick, formerly dark brown mane, especially after most of my friends began losing theirs regardless of the color. Losing one's hair is a clear sign of creeping, or galloping, old age, one that makes you concentrate on the sink drain rather than the bathroom mirror.

Part of the energy-saving design for our new house is a series of skylights, including a long rectangular one over the bathroom sink. That one supposedly had the added advantage of providing a soft, natural light, not quite like the flattering pinkish glow of some makeup mirrors women use, but certainly one easier on the aging ego than the fluorescent bulbs at cheap motel bathrooms that make you look not just ancient but downright cadaverous. 

But I'm starting to think that at age 64 (mine) the bathroom skylight and windows let in far too much light for any purpose. It's become a case of too much information. 

My hair seems to be remaining in place, though I'm afraid to look too closely at it too. It is way gray and has developed an aboriginal wildness to it that is difficult to control with any type of goo.

When I first came to San Miguel I tried a no-fail coloring shampoo that one is supposed to rinse off promptly after five minutes. 

Never again. I asked Stew to mind the timer but he got distracted and the stuff stayed on for about fifteen minutes, so I came out looking like a cross between Ricky Ricardo and Bela Lugosi. 

"It'll grow out," Stew said trying to be comforting, before I even had a chance to look in the mirror.

At yoga class the next day, some of the women tried to look at my eyes but really couldn't help staring at my suddenly jet-black hair. "What the hell did you do to yourself?" I'm sure they wanted to shriek. Namaste to you too, ladies, for keeping quiet.

Right now I'm leaning toward a buzz cut which will save money on hair potions and time in front of the mirror in the morning. 

The latter seems to be the more important concern. Anymore I tend to concentrate on various features of the bathroom except the mirror. The plaster on the wall over the sink counter didn't come out too evenly, huh, the bumps and creases accentuated by light pouring through the skylight glass which, by the way, seems to be constantly dirty. 

The pictures in the bathroom keep getting crooked, partly because of the wind but also because the cleaning woman does it on purpose, I am sure, just to let us know she dusted everything. She's sort of passive-aggressive that way.

I recently installed a spray bottle and a rag to polish the granite countertop, which is perpetually dusty and splotchy. A bit compulsive but it keeps my attention off that incriminating mirror.

Problem is that as you get older, the more time you have to spend in the bathroom attending to various physical or aesthetic emergencies--to the extent they can be remedied at all.

Now the red-flowered plant on the counter is wilting too. Hadn't noticed that.

Recently I've been forced to irrigate my sinuses every morning, a New Age remedy for constant colds and sinus infections. It also a creates a revolting snorting noise, Stew tells me.

The more frantically I floss and poke around my teeth with special toothpicks with a tiny brush at the end, the worse my teeth seem to get. I used to have cavity-proof choppers but since coming to San Miguel I'm on my third root canal. Maybe people should go in for a global root canal when they turn 60 and get that over with. It would save gasoline and time at the dentist. 

And what's the deal with eyebrows growing out of control? I thought that was an unsightly aberration  limited to Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes". It may be spreading. 

Wrinkles and bags under the eyes also are becoming a concern. When I pose for a picture I don't know whether to smile, and let wrinkles take over my face, or just sit there looking sphinx-like but not quite as crinkly.

Except that unless Home Depot develops some sort of Spackle for Men there's no solution for that dilemma either.  

What to do with the mirror? We could cover the skylight with a translucent plastic to cut down on the light, which is definitely way too much. Or brush my teeth by candlelight before the sun comes up. Maybe replace the mirror with a landscape painting. 

Too little light, though, could be disastrous for my periodic eyebrow trimming.  A slip of the hand could leave me looking like Nora Desmond, who had to paint hers every morning. 

This problem is getting worse by the day. Maybe I should forget the mirror and work on what's going on inside my head. 

Impotence at the border, with no pictures

Short of being locked up in a Turkish prison on charges of smuggling heroine, nothing makes you feel smaller or more powerless than crossing an international border even if one of the sides is your own country.

Last week on the way to San Antonio Stew and I congratulated ourselves on making such good time, about ten hours between San Miguel and the Laredo Bridge #1.

Ten hours of course is not very impressive to veteran San Miguel drivers who claim to make it in eight or nine hours. They must be driving Batmobiles. Even with minimal pee-stops, and driving with one hand on the wheel, the other on a donut and not letting up on the gas, ten hours is our record time.

Celebrations ended abruptly in Nuevo Laredo, though, when we tried to find the Vehicle Importation depot of Mexican customs. We drove left onto a driveway and then back out on to the street--a mere two blocks from the border--when we were waved over by a traffic cop, or whatever he was.

Little Schmuck is about the most printable description I can manage.

He identified himself as Officer Ortiz, shook my hand disingenuously, and informed me I had made an illegal U-turn and was driving without a seat belt. I plead guilty to the seat belt violation; I had unfastened it two minutes before to get out and ask for directions. I didn't make a U-turn.

No matter, except such fastidiousness about traffic laws seemed incongruous in this, one of the epicenters of Mexico's drug war where headless stiffs turn up in the bushes practically every week.

We were not, after all, meandering through some picturesque Swiss village where someone dusts off the petunias in the medians twice a day. Is harassing drivers of U.S.-plated cars the best way Nuevo Laredo can use their police power?

But what to do? I could have unleashed a torrent of epithets: My Spanish repertoire contains enough cuss words to make a madam gasp and reach for another shot of tequila.

After a ten-hour drive surviving on donuts and machine coffee, though, I didn't have enough stamina, so the guy climbed on the back seat and directed us to OXXO, a candies-and-soda chain similar to a 7-Eleven, where I was supposed to pay my "fine."

When we got there, the cashier gave me a tired, another-damn-gringo-moron kind of look, and proceeded to punch in some numbers in the cash register. A receipt popped out with two "commission" charges for approximately six dollars though "Officer" Ortiz told me the total fines came to about thirty-five dollars, which I paid.

It was all a scam, of course. A classic "mordida"--Mexican Spanish for a bribe or payoff--collected by someone whom I'm sure wasn't even a cop. Except there is really nothing you can do. Punching the guy in the face and mentioning something unpleasant about his mother would only make matters worse.

So I came to the only rational solution: Pay up and get the hell out of this dirt hole.

With a sigh we drove another five minutes north to the U.S. border station. There, a young uninformed woman who worked for, hmm--Homeland Security? Transportation Security Administration? Immigration? U.S. Border Patrol? Halliburton?--began questioning Stew in Spanish. He's of Norwegian descent and looks about as Hispanic as Santa Claus.

Switching to English she asked for our passports, where we were going and how long we had known each other.

"Oh, we've known each other about forty years!" Stew chirped, trying to sprinkle some light-heartedness on the otherwise dour exchange.

She didn't get Stew's humor--or didn't like it--and proceeded to check the trunk of the car, open our one suitcase, tap on the car doors, put a slip of paper under one of the windshield wipers, and send us over to Inspection Station No. 2, where there were two other weary travelers already.

At Station No. 2 we got what in the Homeland Security anti-terrorist manual must be called "The Treatment," a completely ridiculous time-waster for both the travelers and the U.S. taxpayers.

We were ordered to unload everything from the car and walk over other side of the driveway, about twenty feet away. Officer Jimenez, as his name tag said, emptied out all our stuff on a stainless steel table and set out to inspect each piece individually as if perusing a cargo of precious moon rocks.

A pill case? What are these pills? Vitamin C, niacin, Lipitor... What's Lipitor? Why do you take it? Why do you carry a small jar full of sea salt? Is this really sea salt? What's inside this white envelope? Why do you carry a quart of motor oil?

The thought "none of your damn business" kept ringing in my head but as with Mr. Ortiz on the other side of the border, one does not dare raise one's voice or ask any logical questions. Here, you're in a twilight zone of individual or constitutional rights.

I just felt relieved, so to speak, that we hadn't packed any suppositories and had to explain their purpose to Officer Jimenez.

On one side of us, the situation was much, much worse. Several members of a Mexican family were asked to stand by their large, Texas-plated Nissan pick-up and submit to their version of The Treatment.

In fairness, their multi-pointed, mountainous load did look a bit odd, like a huge fossil lurking under a tarp. But when the tarp came off it was nothing but a chaotic heap of household junk in the order of boxes, a rocking chair, lamps, more boxes, bicycles, what-have-you's.

That hapless family is probably at the Laredo crossing still, going through The Treatment.

On the other side, a single middle-aged man, I believe also of Mexican descent, stood patiently by his van which was empty, and a couple of grocery bags full of whatever resting on the pavement. In addition to every door in the van, he had been asked to open the hood to expose the vehicle's greasy and tired-looking motor.

Inside the van, the border officer had unleashed a mutt for a prolonged sniffing fest. This dog didn't have the officiousness of a beagle or the imposing presence of a German shepherd.

It was instead a scrawny, orange mutt who kept yipping in joy and jumping from seat to seat: "Whoopee! Is this the most fun game in the world or what?" If there were any bologna sandwiches left in the van, the dog surely ate them.

The dog was finally told to get out, put back on the leash, and given a squeaky toy that he carried away merrily.

Some Americans in San Miguel have suggested that taking photos of offending or offensive officers at the border is a good self-protection measure. That occurred to me, but then I figured I'd have my camera  "confiscated" under some regulation of Homeland Security or the Mexican government.

That's why this blog has no pictures: I was scared.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Broccoli and universal health care

During oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court two weeks ago Justice Antonin Scalia derisively compared the mandated insurance requirement of President Obama's health care law with a theoretical government mandate for Americans to buy and presumably eat broccoli. If the federal government can impose one mandate, why not the other?

It was supposed to be a ridiculous comparison, I think, a reductio ad absurdum, I believe it's called, though my  knowledge of Latin, legal arguments and the rules of logic may be a little weak.

But then it occurred to me that in the case of Mexico talking about universal health care coverage and broccoli isn't a non sequitur after all: The country has both, a surprisingly far-reaching health care system and more broccoli than anyone knows what to do with. It just needs to connect those two resources.

On Monday Stew and I gave Félix our gardener and his wife, two-year-old daughter and months-old boy a ride to the San Miguel General Hospital for a late-afternoon consultation for what sounded like rumbling chest colds in both of the kids. Two hours later we picked them up, a written diagnosis in hand (I couldn't read the writing) plus medications, all free of charge--at least to Félix.

During his wife's pregnancies she also received routine prenatal checks, including ultrasounds, and an eight-day stay at a hospital located two hours from San Miguel when complications arose during the first delivery. Both deliveries involved C-sections and transfusions because of his wife's hypertension and problems with epilepsy. Again, Félix didn't pay a cent.

Several months before, a young relative of Félix riding a bike got hit by a car on the road to Querétaro and was mangled pretty badly. So off the kid went to the General Hospital where he stayed for a few weeks and received what sounded like fairly spooky surgery involving metal rods and screws to mend his spine.

According to Félix, the guy is back on the street, not quite ready to do the samba yet but walking around pretty much normally. Did I mention all treatment and post-operative therapy were free of charge, no questions asked?

Closer to our ranch, neighbor Vicente's 15-year-old daughter--he has 14 children, mind you--fell off a horse and literally cracked her head on a rock. The ambulance showed up, plowed through a dirt road leading to Vicente's ramshackle house and took the girl away to a hospital in Celaya, about an hour away, where she stayed in a coma for about eight weeks. She's back home now, still unable to speak but slowly regaining some movement. She undergoes twice-weekly physical therapy in San Miguel, although this is not entirely free: Vicente has to pay for a taxi to take her back and forth to the clinic appointments in town.

Impressive, but you need some broccoli
The General Hospital is a three-year old facility that doesn't have the grandeur or five-story high atrium of many American hospitals consider necessary, but it is a comprehensive and modern facility, with a CAT scanner and other brand-new equipment. All services are free or absurdly cheap by U.S. standards.

Gringos and wealthier Mexicans who don't want to mingle with the smelly working classes at the waiting room of the General Hospital or other government clinics in town have the option of paying cash or buying insurance and going to private hospitals. The newest one in the nearby city of Querétaro, called Tec-100, in fact has all-new gizmos and facilities, including an American-style grand atrium with potted plants. So there.

Fees for medical services in Mexico are one-half to one-third what you'd expect to pay in the U.S. This seems like less of  a miracle when you take a closer look. Health personnel, including doctors, get paid only a fraction of what their American colleagues earn.

There are no such things as malpractice suits or insurance either, a mixed blessing because you have little if any legal recourse if your medical treatment goes South, so to speak. But that saves millions.

Since private health insurance is used by a relatively small portion of the population, you can also deduct from Mexico's national health care expenditures insurance companies' profits and their costs of marketing and selling policies and other wares.

Though I'm sure drug and medical equipment manufacturers actively hustle their products to doctors and hospitals, the consuming public is not bombarded by hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of direct American-style advertising and marketing for restless foot syndrome drugs and other potions.

Mexican hospitals often are first-class but they lack the edifice syndrome that has infected comparable American medical institutions, usually for nothing more than marketing and competitive purposes.

If Northwestern Memorial Hospital builds a billion-dollar medical temple on the North Side of Chicago, you can count on the University of Chicago Hospitals combine on the South Side to rev up its fund-raising jets shortly to build something even grander. All that fancy brass, marble and ferns adds billions to the national U.S. health care bill.

Of course, the Mexican public health care system--a huge bureaucratic maze partly paid by employers and state and local governments--in the end it's not really free. 

As a famous Mexican economist, I forget his name, once observed, "In this life there are no free enchiladas." That applies to Mexico's universal health care system. And given the Mexican government's legendary propensity for corruption and mismanagement, you can bet there are huge amounts of loose and missing change clinking around in the federal health care empire.

The weak link in Mexican health care, however, has to be the rampant poverty choking so much of the population. In towns just a mile from our ranch, many homes have no indoor plumbing facilities much less water treatment plants. Poverty also engenders health problems caused by lousy diets, with lots of starches, sugary sodas and sweets in the Twinkie section of the local convenience stores.

In fact, diabetes is one of the leading health problems in the country, with an estimated one in ten Mexicans affected by it. Dealing with it consumes more money than any other health problem in Mexico.

Our gardener Félix has a terrific touch for growing vegetables--beets, radishes, tomatoes, spinach, various types of lettuce, arugula, kale, chard, to name a few--but he treats them as if they were radioactive debris not healthy foods. "We don't eat that stuff," he finally admitted one day. Instead he will occasionally bring sweets or a large bottle of Coke to work.

So here's the irony. Despite all the kinks and squeaks, Mexico has something the U.S. is still debating--universal health care. What Mexicans need to do is eat more broccoli, something they have in abundance.

The government should seriously consider a Scalia-type mandate to force Mexicans to eat more broccoli, along with other greens, and perhaps drink less Coke. Mexico is one of the highest per capita consumers of Coke in the world, according to Coca-Cola Company statistics.

It's also one of the world's largest producers of broccoli. Semi trailers full of the broccoli are ubiquitous around San Miguel, except all of it--and most other produce grown locally--is exported to the U.S. I've never seen a broccoli  enchilada or a spinach chimichanga, have you?

The federal government needs to step in. There's a workable universal health care system in Mexico already firmly in place. What the country needs is to eat more of its own damn broccoli.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bloody Week

Although I consider myself a triple-plated Roman Catholic, one who attended Catholic elementary and high schools, plus college, and was even attracted—albeit very briefly—by the idea of joining a Benedictine monastery, I’ve never fully understood the RCs’ obsessive fascination with suffering.

Not suffering as a concept, as in Buddhism which posits that suffering is an inescapable reality of human existence, but full-bloodied suffering as a cornerstone of the entire religious edifice.

Roman Catholicism in Mexico, as in other Third World countries, is particularly vivid in its emphasis on suffering and misery as not just a reality but ultimately a salvific exercise, something that earns you bonus points. Suffering, particularly when self-inflicted, like when prostrate pilgrims trudge to some shrine until their knees are raw and bloodied, greases their way to heaven and eternal salvation, or at least helps them attain some more immediate earthly favor.

According to this vision one could imagine the Pearly Gates looking like the lobby of an inner-city emergency room on a Saturday night, where an angelic triage nurse approvingly moves all the seriously maimed and wounded to the head of the line.  

In most First World countries the visuals of Catholic suffering seem to have been sanitized a bit. There are weeping madonnas and crucified Jesuses alright, but nothing like the horror shows you find in some Mexican Catholic churches. 

A church in downtown San Miguel, next to the public library, has a tortured and bloody Jesus wearing a purple robe and hunched over in agony right by the door. It's gory enough to cause startled visitors to take pause or perhaps turn around and flee back outside to the perpetually cheery sunshine of our city. 

This church is not unique or particularly grisly. Oaxaca has some of the most gloriously baroque--and disconcertingly gloomy--churches in Mexico. Catholic temples elsewhere often have glass sarcophagi with a maimed and wounded Jesus inside, body parts of saints that are venerated as miraculous relics, plus lots and lots of statues of martyrs and saints in various states of grief.  

Occasionally you find a placid St. Francis of Assisi holding a lamb or a Virgin Mary looking heavenward with a hopeful expression on her face. These are a welcome respite from all the blood and tears so common in Catholic churches but alas only exceptions.  

During our first visit to Oaxaca, Stew--a devotedly non-observant Protestant from Iowa--turned to me during a tour of one of the churches and innocently observed: "Catholicism is not a very cheerful religion, is it?" You don't know the half of it, I replied. 

Good Friday in San Miguel, 2007
Holy Week in San Miguel is probably the biggest public spectacle in the local calendar. Much of it is awesome: Blocks-long processions of women dressed in black, holding lanterns that look particularly dramatic against the setting sun. Men huffing and puffing as they carry enormous tableaux of saints or crucifixion scenes on their shoulders, up one of San Miguel's steepest hills. This is a massive show of deeply felt religious faith.

Then the celebrations turn creepy, when the bottles of ketchup and other fake blood come out during the gory reenactments of the crucifixion. This is religion verité to the max, though not quite as much so as in the Philippines where I understand one or two guys are literally crucified during Holy Week celebrations every year. 

Mexican crucifixion pageants leave me intrigued, repulsed or bemused. I can't figure out which. 

Even in photographs: Jim Quinn, a photographer friend from Chicago took a series of beautiful photos of a crucifixion reenactment at a San Miguel barrio but my reaction was much the same, even when the events were one step removed from reality by the lens of his camera.  

Why do such grisly rituals attract big crowds? This weekend San Miguel will be jammed with tourists from all over Mexico and abroad. 

Some spectators no doubt will be spiritually moved. The crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus are central to the narrative of Christianity. 

Just last night I was reading a commentary on the Last Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross, and it was  indeed stirring meditation material even if you are not a very devout Christian. Try this: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." 

But bad actors pouring on the fake blood and suffering, for the benefit of tourists and other gawkers? Somehow that leaves me cold, not inspired. 

This morning I saw a photo in a Queretaro newspaper of the guy who will be playing the crucified Jesus there for the fifth time. The caption didn't explain whether his return engagements were because of his faith, looks, acting ability or stamina, lugging what seemed like a huge wooden cross.

To me he looked like a Brad Pitt with a horrible dye job and blotches of red paint on his robes. 

Instead I find the Jesus at St. Paul's Anglican Church in San Miguel far more compelling. This relatively new and small church's interior is a small gem of colonial minimalism. It's churchy, with an altar, pews and a choir loft, but austere, without any superfluous trappings of religiosity.  

Hanging high over the altar is a large crucifix with Jesus on it, with his arms extended and his robes flowing. It's a resurrected Jesus with what I like to believe is a hint of a smile. 

It's a comforting Jesus, not a depressing or scary one. I really like Him.