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.