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. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Goose has landed, let's celebrate it

Poking from the manicured colonial skyline of San Miguel, with its weathered domes and steeples, we now have a new, shiny and fairly gigantic goose.

At first it looks like one of those inflatable creatures car dealers rent to promote a sale, made of fabric and kept constantly wobbling by a fan underneath.

But from the high vantage point of the Libramiento, the bypass highway that girds San Miguel, you realize this goose, sitting contentedly on its own puddle of blue water, is not some makeshift creation.

Meet Señor Goose: Towering but kinda cute. 
It has that slight smirk geese always seem to have, but this one is not moving in the wind or going anywhere. In fact, from a certain spot in the Libramiento the goose seems as regal and towering as San Miguel's churches and other landmarks, as if had flown in overnight and decided to roost right in town.

According to one of the newspapers, lawsuits already have been filed by preservationist sourpusses and fussbudgets whose aesthetic sensibilities have been upset by the appearance of the goose, which admittedly is hard to miss.

Stew and I figured it to be about sixty feet high, from the sidewalk to the tip of its head. We also hope the suit is summarily dismissed by a judge with the proper sense of humor and perspective.

We're rooting for the San Miguel Goose.

Just give it time and it's bound to become another San Miguel landmark, certainly far more creative and unique than some of the cell phone towers and microwave antennas that surround the city, or the banal faux-colonial structures that keep popping up as if the last new architectural trend around here took place sometime in the mid-eighteenth century.

For sure the Goose is far more interesting than the condominium building, seven or eight stories high, that went up a couple of years ago and now towers over the town, clinging to the Libramiento like an overgrown barnacle.

Stew and I drove down to visit the Goose--it isn't that hard to find, you just keep your eye on its head rising above the surroundings--and the closer we got the more we were awed.

Howdy neighbor!
Standing at its foot, ours was a jaw-dropping, head-scratching reaction that usually goes along with "Geezus!," "What the hell?" or some other more colloquial expressions.

Unfortunately, the man responsible for this creation, reportedly an American last-named Kagan and who is a naturalized Mexican citizen, didn't want to talk to us even after a couple of visits and several phone calls. Too bad, because I would have congratulated him for his creativity and unmitigated  chutzpah, and his willingness to put his money behind his unorthodox idea.

From what we could gather from outside and from talks to a couple of workers, who didn't want to say much, the Goose is the centerpiece of a combination motel and shopping arcade built around a large parking lot that has been under construction for over a year.

A sign outside the permanently shut gate announces the Hotel Buenos Sueños, or "Good Dreams", which is not exactly the reaction of a woman who lives across the street, who calls the Goose una locura, or a "crazy stunt."

The entire project is called Plaza San Arvino, supposedly in honor of the patron saint of the shiftless--a bit of humor that for now remains a mystery.

The Goose is not by any means a shoddy piece of construction and it could fit nicely into a theme park, albeit one with Jurassic Park-size creatures.

The skeleton of the structure is made mostly of rebar, and various other metal reinforcements, carefully molded and assembled. The proportions are accurate and lifelike, reflective of a real goose's head, neck and body, though outsized in relation to the neighboring, and totally unremarkable, buildings.

The plumage, I was told by one of the workers, is made of fiberglass molded around the metal bones. Details simulate the plumage, and the wings supposedly lift slightly to provide ventilation on hot days or nights for the ballroom underneath. The eyes are made of stained glass and will be lit from inside. Several spotlights that surround the base will ensure no one misses the Goose at night.

Despite the careful detailing and workmanship, the Goose has become known as the Duck, "El Pato," to Mexicans in the neighborhood, even though one of the workers patiently explained that if you look at it carefully it's unmistakably a goose. Others think they see a swan.

I vote for a goose. Its neck is too long for duck and too short for a swan.

But why a goose? Why not an elephant or panda? Mr. Kagan is not talking but one of his workers said that "everyone loves a goose."

Not quite everyone: There's a yellowing "Obra Suspendida" ("Project Shut Down") sign on the gate from the city's building department. Judging from the age of the sign and the continuing construction, it's clear that Mr. Kagan is not worried about sanctions from the local design police.

Or maybe he knows something the rest of us don't about the workings of the municipal government.

Fact is that outside the Disneyfied central area of San Miguel, where strict restrictions abound not only about the design but also the color and height of the buildings, and what can be remodeled and how, much of the town is pretty much an architectural free-fire zone.

One of the most remarkable buildings on the Libramiento is a lime-green, two-story building decorated  with cement frogs and until recently a lively brothel, called "Las Ranas" or "The Frogs," the animal symbolism as enigmatic as the Goose.  It's now closed and for sale.

Indeed, most of the Libramiento is lined with half-finished buildings, slums, tire repair shops and other  eyesores that don't add anything to San Miguel's reputation as a World Heritage Site.

In the subdivision of Los Frailes, two monstrosities stand out: A full-size, Cinderella-style castle and a home with pieces of glass embedded on the mortar, trying to emulate a Gaudi-type design.

I'd rather have geese, ducks or swans any day.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Looking for a (good) Mexican clip job

Some people may say that as guys get older haircuts become less important because the luxuriance of one's mane is inversely related to age. I'd argue the opposite and not just because, at 64, a fair amount of my follicles are still merrily fornicating and reproducing on my scalp.

If anything, as you get older regular trips to the barber for thirty or forty-five minutes of unadulterated vanity, of looking at yourself on a mirror while somebody fusses over you, are even more crucial to the male ego and self-esteem. And compared to wrinkles, sagging this-and-that, and other gravity-induced phenomena, your hairline is still something that can be at least partially managed.

We recently paid a visit an eighty-plus-year-old guy and his wife, great friends, who were celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. Norman had taken some care to comb his hear stylishly for the occasion and looked damn handsome. It's never too late.

Indeed if you've reached the point in your life when you've not only lost most of your hair but the only thing you can think to do with the few diehard strands is to corral them with a rubber band into a scrawny pony tail, I'd say: Buddy, you may be closer than you think to that day room in a nursing home.

Locks management is not easy in one's later years. I just finished collecting and framing some pictures of Stew and me during our forty years together and it's amazing how when you're twenty- or even thirty-something, your hair looks fine no matter what.

Fresh out of graduate school I sported a wavy, Jesus-like jungle of dark brown hair that occasionally reached my shoulders. Sometimes I cut it short or in-between. To judge from the pictures, it didn't make much difference.

Exhibit A: Site of the latest tonsorial mishap
With that luxury of youth long gone though, I've been casting for barbers in San Miguel who can come up with a good haircut.

Yesterday I tried a new "Estética Unisex," as most hair salons are called in San Miguel, that had been recommended by someone at the gym.

It was a one-chair establishment belonging to a young woman so shy she seemed almost afraid to come near me. She asked whether to use clippers on the side and scissors on top, which sounded like plausible plan.

While she was working my attention drifted from the mirror to an ancient television set tuned to a documentary, of all things, about wigs. Elizabethan wigs, French wigs, drag queens with wigs.

The last segment showed a contest in Brazil in which the guy who placed second was so irate that he jerked his head back in theatrical disgust and his mountainous wig flew off his head. The scene of a bevy of drag queens on all fours looking for the missing wig, and of the guy frantically trying to place it back on his head, was a moment made for live television.

But back to my head and my real hair, which didn't come out looking so great. The clipped sides are OK enough, but the top is so choppy and badly cut it looks like a corn field ravaged by a hail storm.

I can hear some of you say: For three dollars and eighty-five cents, what kind of haircut do you expect? Better than this, I insist.

For the last truly spectacular cut I would have to go back to Chicago, where a haircut at a fancy salon was a one-hour floor show, starring Patrick the stylist and a libidinous shampoo boy from Poland who could hardly say much more than "shampoo" but gave you the most sumptuous scalp massage of your life. Other assistants served as a sort of a corps de ballet who fluttered about and inquired if you wanted a manicure, body waxing (or what part exactly?) or some special hair or skin potion.

In addition to hair styling Patrick was one of the most accomplished female impersonators in the city. One Halloween he went on a walkabout on North Halsted Street, Chicago's gay neighborhood, in full Liza Minelli regalia.

His Liza was so convincing that a burly Chicago cop tried to pick him up. Not arrest him, mind you, but pick him up. 

Patrick's multiple talents notwithstanding I left him when the cover charge for the show, including tip, reached something like $80. I sheepishly wandered back to my old barber, a chatty Puerto Rican named  Bob who charged only $30, though you had to endure the same mindless tales about him and his Greek wife every time you visited.

Shortly after we arrived in San Miguel I went several times to a sad and lonely barber on Diez de Sollano Street, right in the center of town, who offered one of the quietest and fastest haircuts. Also the cheapest, at two dollars and fifty cents.

The thin and serious gentleman, always dressed in a sparkling white smock, turned out to be a deaf mute. There was not much discussion about styles, the weather or world events, as he just lined up the three attachments to his hair clipper on the counter and asked you to pick one.

He then buzzed your head from all directions and in ten minutes you were done.

One day I went back and the shop was closed. I never figured out why he didn't talk or hear.

After the deaf mute gentleman came Pavy who became pregnant shortly after we began seeing each other. Pavy insisted on working to the very end of her term, when she was so enormous I feared she'd go into labor while trimming one of my sideburns.

A baby girl eventually arrived and Pavy pretty much lost interest in my hair. Never much of a talker, she now seemed thoroughly bored by our dates. Our tonsorial affair fizzled.

Then came Juan, a young, soft-spoken and thin guy with a cascade of dreadlocks hanging down to his tailbone. He was a smart but very diffident person, an odd trait for a hair stylist.

The only topic that seemed to animate him was politics, when he set forth his aggressively leftist views and conspiracy theories. Did you hear why the pope came to Mexico recently, shortly before the presidential election? It was all a set-up to get Catholic Mexicans to vote for the PAN, the conservative party. Even if true, it didn't work for the PAN which lost resoundingly.

One day, while he was about to cut a lock of hair, he paused and asked a profoundly odd question, coming in the middle of a haircut: "What do you think of Communism?" I remember being startled but not what I said.

Despite Juan's eccentricities his haircuts were not that bad. What drove me away was the increasing cost of his services, which had reached seventeen dollars a visit.

Am I not worth it, to paraphrase the folks at L'Oreal? Did I forget that you get what you pay for?

Juan may be indeed the best I can hope for in San Miguel, as long as he shuts up about politics.

In the meantime, I may have to resort to that ultimate prop of old retired guys: A baseball cap.