Sunday, December 22, 2013

The gift of a simple Christmas

Right in the middle of reports about disappointing Black Friday sales—will they ever be enough?—and how someone hacked Target's computers and stole credit information on 40 million customers; and did you hear that Beyoncé gave away $37,500 in gift cards to customers at a Massachusetts Walmart during a surprise visit; and Fox News continued its seasonal grousing about the "War on Christmas"; and TV stations hawked their Christmas specials while newscasters prepared their predictable reports of chaos at U.S. airports because of holiday travel—amid all that—last night Stew and I attended our simplest and most moving Christmas celebration ever.

The Mexican tradition of Christmas "posadas" is also observed in parts of the U.S. where sometimes it has been greatly enhanced with choreography that includes donkeys, choirs, candles, piñatas, bands and participants dressed up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and other characters. For all we know, Radio City Music Hall may be working on its own posada spectacular for next year with the mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the high-kicking Rockettes in a knock-'em-dead closing number about the time when Joseph and the pregnant Mary finally found a place to spend the night.

'Tis a gift to be simple. 
Instead the posada last night, in the dirt-poor town of Sosnavar a couple of miles away from our ranch, was perhaps as faithful to the original Mexican tradition—and indeed to the biblical Nativity story—as one can get. There was no artifice or hoopla animating the celebration except the deep religious faith of the fifty or sixty participants, gently chanting and praying as they walked through the dark streets of this town carrying a small altar, wrapped in plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, housing statues of Mary and Joseph.

The origin of the posada tradition—the word "posada" in Spanish means "shelter" or "inn"—is based on the story of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem so she could give birth to Jesus. The couple supposedly didn't have any place to stay and had to go door to door asking for shelter. Like most religious traditions this one may be a little bit fact and a lot subsequent embellishment.

The posadas take place on nine consecutive nights—to signify the number of months Mary carried Jesus in her womb—and culminate on Christmas eve. Each night the altar is solemnly carried from one participating home to another, there to spend the night and await the next posada.

Looking for shelter. 
Last night was moonless and cool. In Sosnavar, where there are no street lights, the only breaks in the darkness came from an occasional string of Christmas lights in someone's home and a clear sky strewn with stars. The festivities were marked—as is the case with practically any event in Mexico—with the hiss of a few cheap firecrackers ripping through the night and exploding with the sharp pop of a gunshot.

The posada started at seven-thirty sharp, one of the few on-time events we've ever attended in Mexico. People had gathered expectantly in the backyard of a home where a platform of stones and cement blocks was illuminated by a bare light bulb and decorated with two palm fronds tied in the form of an arch and several balloons, most of which already had busted leaving the shreds hanging limply. Atop this simple platform rested a movable altar wrapped in clear plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, and housing statues of Joseph and Mary.

A woman led the participants through a machine-gun recitation of a rosary, the Hail Marys and Our Fathers flying back and forth so fast between the participants and the leader that the words were practically unintelligible to me. The faithful, though, wrapped in shawls and blankets and some carrying babies, kept up the pace. A few knelt on the bare ground. Carols and other songs broke up the staccato prayers.

After a half-hour of prayers and singing, four women took two lengths of lumber and placed them on their shoulders while two others put the rickety altar on top. Solemnly they marched into the dark streets, amid more singing and praying.

The route to the next house, where the altar would stay overnight, was not only ink-black but treacherous with stones. Sosnavar has but a few streetlights and not one inch of paved streets. The new San Miguel mayor promises to alleviate both deficiencies soon. The only lights guiding the way came from a few flashlights and the glow of cell phones.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of tentative walking we arrived at the new home for the altar. The gate was also decorated with fronds and balloons and we were met by three women who began a chanting back-and-forth with the women carrying the altar.

Joseph and Mary pleaded for shelter with the innkeepers who at first resolutely, almost rudely to my ears, refused them:

Joseph:
Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in Heaven
Will reward you.

Innkeeper:
You may go now
and don't bother us anymore
because if I get angry
I will beat you. 

Didn't sound like the makings of a Merry Christmas.

After more pleas, the innkeepers relent:

Tonight is for joy,
For pleasure and rejoicing
For tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God, the Son.

The procession went into the yard and gathered around an altar rather similar to the one in the previous home. The one bulb lighting the ceremony went out but after some wiggling and shuffling of extension cords, it came back on and the prayers and chanting resumed.

Let there be light: The altar will rest here until tomorrow. 
In fancier posadas the pilgrims are offered atole, a corn-based drink neither Stew nor I have ever tasted, a piñata filled with candies and small gifts for the kids, and even some food and music.

But Sosnavar, true to its poverty, had nothing to offer except prayers and carols. After the ceremony was over, everyone quietly trudged back home in the dark, to gather again the following evening.

It's just as well that posadas here remain as simple and unadorned, with nothing to get in the way of the religious faith of the participants.

I've always felt sorry for the folks in Sosnavar for the forced simplicity of their lives, including their faith in God. Last night I felt a bit jealous instead.

###










Friday, December 13, 2013

Miracle on Kilometer Five

Miracles, such as those performed by Jesus Christ, are pivotal beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. After His death the tradition of miracles flourished, even exploded, as the Church began canonizing deceased mortals deemed by the Pope to have entered heaven on account of their piety, good works or overall saintliness.

One of the requirements for admission into that select club is proof that the saint-to-be interceded with God on behalf of an earthly supplicant by performing a miracle. Actually two miracles, one to be beatified or declared "blessed" and another to be finally declared a saint.

A miracle close to home. 
Miracles can be generally defined as events that are inexplicable by any laws of science or logic, most commonly cures of otherwise incurable diseases, after someone prayed to a particular saint for help.

The roster of Catholic saints and their miracles must run into the thousands; I couldn't find a specific tally. The late Pope John Paul II alone canonized four-hundred-and-eighty-two individuals. If you figure two miracles for each that's nearly a thousand just during his papacy.

I don't quite know how the Church classifies saints according to specialty. There is one who looks after beekeepers (St. Ambrose); comforts people with earaches (St. Polycarp) and another who protects gravediggers (St. Anthony the Abbot). No occupation seems too trivial for some saint's attention and the list keeps growing: St. Isidore of Seville is now the patron of the Internet. (For a complete list of Catholic saints and their specific interests see: http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/patrons.aspx )

Which brings us to the road to Jalpa, which goes by half a kilometer from our house and may have been the site of a miracle just yesterday—the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe—although it's very unlikely this one will ever catch the attention of the Vatican.

About three weeks ago Félix made and installed a sign at the junction of the Jalpa road and the dirt trail that leads to our house. It was an extremely homemade-looking affair, involving a two-by-three-foot piece of plywood painted yellow with "KM 5" highlighted with reflective strips we'd bought at Auto Zone.

So crude is the sign that during the day it's hard to make out what it says, though I never mentioned that to Félix for fear of hurting his artistic sensitivities. He was quite proud of the sign and mounted it on a piece of pipe we liberated from the remains of a chain link fence nearby.

The reason for the sign, in case anyone cares, was to help visitors find our place as in, "Turn left when you see the Km. 5 sign." Or more accurately it turns out, "Turn left at a yellow sign with reflective tape on it even if you can't make out what it says."

Félix warned me the sign probably would be stolen or destroyed. Three days ago it fact the board disappeared, despite various anti-theft measures. Félix had even stapled the reflective tape to the plywood. The only thing that remained was the pole which he had planted in cement.

We both looked nearby, in the culvert and across the road but couldn't find it anywhere. We just wrote it off to vandalism.

Then yesterday Félix went to his in-laws to place a dozen red roses at the foot of a homemade altar honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe—Mexico's most revered religious icon, arguably even more so than Jesus Christ Himself.

And lying near the altar was the missing sign.

Félix' mother-in-law had spotted it the day before while walking on the road to the town of Biznaga next door to our ranch. At first she'd just left it there. On the way back, though, she picked it up and took it home. What she intended to do with it is the one part of the miracle that hasn't been revealed to us yet.

Mind you, neither Félix nor I had prayed to any saint for the return of the sign. Had we been more diligent Catholics we could have asked St. Fiacre for help, him being the patron of drivers. Or St. Anthony of Padua who assists with lost objects, or if everything failed, St. Jude, the patron of hopeless causes.

An hour ago Félix returned from reinstalling the sign with bigger bolts and wire reinforcements.

In case you want to visit the site of this (possibly) miraculous event, the directions are simple. On the highway from San Miguel to Querétaro take a right on the road to Jalpa, drive exactly five kilometers and there you'll see it on your left.

Unless of course one of the local youths has stolen it again.

As religious as I try to be I wouldn't count on a second miracle.

-30-

 




Thursday, December 12, 2013

Blogging about Mexico

I can't remember exactly how I bumped into this blog about Mexico but I find it fascinating. It's written by a man in Salamanca who evidently travels all over the country, visiting and doing research about various places and doing some pretty interesting photography. There's not much personal information in the blog and I've asked him for some details: Is he a historian, photographer, artist, professor?

The blog is in Spanish and the level of his grammar and vocabulary is definitely not entry level, but even if you can't understand it all, his photographs, evidently taken with a small pocket camera, are impressive.

Recently he posted a short essay about circles and then a series of photos about circles, from a rose window in a cathedral to basins and drain holes. Cool stuff:

http://vamonosalbable.blogspot.mx/2013/12/el-circulo-y-su-manifestacion-en-la.html

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When Félix met Felisa

About six months ago Félix reported he had flunked the eye exam for his drivers license because vision in his right eye was badly degraded. An eye doctor then detected the beginning of a detached retina that called for laser surgery as soon as possible, a lousy diagnosis for a guy in his mid twenties.

It turns out Félix had had a bad bump and cut many years ago that was never treated properly. When his brother Esteban gives him a monthly hip-hop buzz haircut I can spot a half a dozen scars on the scalp that Félix attributes to this, that and who knows. I can see the scars because I'm about nine inches taller.

Félix tried to arrange for the emergency surgery at the General Hospital but was told he needed to get a referral from the local clinic near his home, which in turn sent him to another clinic in the La Lejona neighborhood at the other end of town. That bureaucratic round-robin went on for two days with no surgery in sight.

Finally, Stew and I popped for the $5,000 pesos for the operation at the local private hospital. We both have had retinal surgery and know the seriousness of the problem. We also didn't want to end up with a one-eye gardener simply because he couldn't afford the surgery.

Since the surgery Félix seems to have recouped his hawk-like vision. Once again he's able to point out objects a mile away with annoying accuracy while Stew and I stand there like a couple of muttering fogies, as in "What the hell are you looking at?" or "Let me get my glasses."

Anyway.

Last Saturday Félix came back to our house to claim one of his dogs that routinely returns to our ranch after dark, I suspect because the food is better here. The wily Palomita has even dug a hole somewhere under the fence that lets her come and go with impunity.

As Félix turned the corner from the paved to the dirt road that leads to our house, he saw a small bundle of fur barely moving under a thorny huizache tree by the side of the road. He stopped and bingo, found a skeletal puppy with a nasty cut over its right eye. He reported the finding to us and returned to the scene with emergency water and dog food. For a mucho-macho Mexican, Félix is a marshmallow-soft with regard to animals.

We went to check and, whatcha gonna do—Stew immediately blurted—you can't leave a starving puppy under a huizache tree to fend for herself, what kind of a person are you, and she'll probably die, and blah, blah, blah. Maybe we'll find someone to adopt her, Stew said and yea, right, I replied.

You know what comes next: Dog #5.

Like the overwhelming majority of abandoned dogs in Mexico, this is a female and she was apparently tossed from a car and hence the wound. The vet said she's but a few weeks old.

Félix explained the rather sexist Mexican protocol regarding dogs. Female mutts are the least desirable because they're not considered fierce enough to serve as guard dogs or valuable enough to sell. Plus the litters just keep on coming.

Let me show you latest fashion dog breed: Euro Mutt. 
And like the rest of our dogs, the breed of this latest specimen is a mystery. One distinguishing feature is a wandering right eye, just like French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Could this be a new breed? A type of Euro Dog? I doubt it but it's something I can tell our friends when they inevitably ask: Another dog? Are you nuts?

To honor X-Ray Vision Félix for his discovery we've named her Felisa.

I'm not complaining. We're glad to see Félix eyes are working excellently and that Felisa, just in two days is gaining weight and wagging her tail uncontrollably. Except that between the cost of the surgery and his finding yet another dog, Félix' eye care is turning to be an expensive proposition.

--30--



Friday, November 22, 2013

Night workers

Living in a beautiful place ironically can make you oblivious to the beauty that embraces you. It becomes familiar, you take it for granted.

Our bedroom's two large windows are positioned to capture both the southern sun's warmth during San Miguel's coldish winters as well as its rise from behind the mountains on the east. If we timed our sleep cycles properly the sun could function as an unforgiving alarm clock, steadily lighting and warming up the bedroom with no snooze button within reach.

All in a night's work.
Yet any more we tend to bury our heads back under our pillows and miss a daily spectacle that is never quite the same. This morning the sun blasted up determinedly through a cloudless sky, as if impatient to begin the day. But yesterday and the day before it had to punch its way through the fog and clouds for hours, each side taking the upper hand but only for a few minutes at a time. Was it going to be sunny or cloudy? Was the sun having a hard time rousting itself out of bed too?

Yesterday Stew finally got up and pulled up the blinds he had lowered the night before to hide the glare of a fluorescent full moon.

Cobweb world. 
And just ten or fifteen feet outside the window he found a wondrous spectacle: dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of cobwebs spanning between tree branches and spent fall flowers as far as the eye could see. Beads of dew made the webs and the vegetation glisten while the sun, still struggling to poke through the fog, added its own eerily subtle lighting effects.

Some cobwebs, as wide as two feet across, were veritable feats of acrobatics and engineering, held in place by silky guy wires, its owners perilously hanging in the middle waiting to trap some unfortunate. Other webs were much cruder, resembling sloppy spools of white hair laid out by individuals not nearly as skillful or patient.

As I walked around the yard I was in awe, like a three-year-old catching his first sight of a full moon.

What's going on here? Were all these spiders, or whatever they were, up all night frantically stringing their webs? How do you hang a gooey length of string, probably only a few microns thick, from branches two or three feet apart, and from there weave a fragile yet deadly web?

Impressive as they may be cobwebs outside are nothing if not ephemeral creations: By noon most of them were gone or damaged so their owners would need to start all over again the following night. How can this endless labor be worth it?

I'm sure members of the Entomology Society of America ("The World's Largest Organization Serving the Needs of Insect Scientists") have answers to my juvenile wonderings about spiders and their work though they're only likely to engender more questions.

At the end of the day, Stew—a great spotter he's turning out to be—called me to witness another natural spectacle at the opposite end of the house: a waning sunset with twin shafts of dark orange rising from behind the mountains like searchlights. It only lasted a few minutes before night fell and it was time for the spiders' Sysiphean labors to begin.

Time to get to work. 
Gotta start paying more attention—to both Stew and the world outside our bedroom windows.

###


Thursday, November 7, 2013

A pain in the pompis in any language

About the only downside of our marriage in Massachusetts was that Stew and I both got sick with what felt and sounded like serious respiratory infections. We gulped syrups and other cold remedies to no avail and were ready to try anything, including a stop at a pharmacy in the North Mexico City bus station—the last leg of our long trip home—that advertised the services of a doctor.

There was no doctor but a couple of smiling young women in white smocks asked a few questions and handed us bottles of antibiotics and in a small room behind the counter, told us to drop trou' for a shot of penicillin in each of our butts.

"¿En las nalgas?" I asked, using the Cuban word for "butt".

"Sí, pero en Mexico se dice 'pompis', " the nurse/clerk said helpfully, thus introducing me to the Mexican word for "butt" or "ass."

Bing, bang, and three-hundred or so pesos later for each treatment we were on our way. At least the storefront pharmacy had a dressing room-like cubbyhole in which to perform these interventions discreetly, away from the eyes of fellow bus travelers.

"I don't ever recall getting penicillin shots at a bus station," Stew said, though we both recalled getting them for any cold, or practically any ailment, when we were kids.

And so began our latest encounter with Mexican medical care, which for the most part has not been too reassuring. Stew has suffered through a botched carpal tunnel syndrome operation that left him in pain and with three numb fingers, in addition to a bungled diagnosis for a detached retina that sent us on a trip to Chicago for emergency eye surgery. Most recently a local orthopedic doctor told Stew he most likely needed a knee operation for a torn meniscus. A second opinion at a hospital in Texas showed there was nothing wrong with his knee except the onset of arthritis. Uh-oh.

As is usually the case in colonies of past-a-certain-age folks, sometimes referred to as geezers, talk of ailments and doctors to cure them consumes an inordinate amount of breath among expats in San Miguel. Social gatherings sometimes sound like a parking lot full of 50s Chevys, honking and sputtering about dimming headlights, leaky radiators or creaky ball joints.

In addition to symptomalogies and cures, in Mexico we also debate, sometimes heatedly, whether medical care here is worse, equal or perhaps even superior to that in the U.S.

Take our only local hospital the condition of which was until recently, appalling. After a visit to the emergency room a couple of years ago, U.S. Consul Ed Clancy told me he wouldn't take his cat there, never mind his wife or himself. Though I tend to agree with the honorable consul many gringos here swore it was a fine medical institution.

Fortunately a bigger hospital in nearby Queretaro recently took over the local facility and invested quite a bit in such novelties as a CAT scan and a recent-vintage X-ray machine, plus paint, new ceiling tiles and functioning light bulbs. Reportedly a good portion of the former medical and nursing staff also were placed in the dumpster. Things are looking up, along with the prices which although considerably higher than before are still much lower than in the U.S.

The day after we returned to San Miguel and my condition worsened, we went to an old-time clinic downtown called Our Lady of Health run by a trio of a father and his two sons, all of them doctors. The young ones were on vacation so I checked in with the paterfamilias.

He was a man I'd guess in his seventies, whose gentle countenance was beyond avuncular. His ancient consulting room, dimly lit and decorated with parchment-like diplomas and commendations, some faded by age and humidity, made you feel as if you'd entered a small museum.

He told me to sit on an examining bed that looked menacing until I realized there was no way my feet could fit in the two prominent stirrups. He whipped out an old-fashioned glass thermometer from a glass jar containing alcohol—no newfangled disposable or digital thermometers for this fellow—shook it vigorously to jostle the mercury, and stuck it under my tongue.

While we waited for the thermometer I glanced around the room and settled on a venerable ultrasound machine with a tiny screen, its keyboard covered with a piece of yellowed plastic sheeting and so old it couldn't possibly tell the difference between twins and kidney stones.

The doctor asked all sorts of questions and along the way talked about the difference between a horse cough (a "muermo" in Spanish) and "tos perruna," or canine hacking. I don't remember which one described my cough. The consultation came down to another prescription for antibiotics and another shot of penicillin right in the old pompis with instructions to return the next day for a second dose.

He wasn't in the following day, but the receptionist helpfully grabbed a syringe, loaded it with penicillin and told me to go in the back room and drop trou' yet again.

Bing, bang, fifty pesos for the second shot or approximately four-and-a-half dollars. By this time Stew had decided he was feeling much better, thank you, and no more shots in the pompis for him.

Just about that time we saw a PBS' "Frontline" documentary about the overuse of antibiotics and the consequent appearance of "super bugs" that don't respond to any known treatments. An excellent but unsettling show, my gut and pompis at the time being filled with penicillin, amoxicillin and what-have-you.

Take one and call me for another one. 
Indeed, several years ago the Mexican government passed a law requiring a doctor's prescription for all antibiotics to prevent overuse though the two young women at the bus station pharmacy obviously were exempt.

A couple of days later it was off to the newly refurbished hospital to check with a pulmonary specialist, an earnest and seemingly overworked man in his forties. He was nothing if not thorough and went on to prescribe two X-rays, a CAT scan of my chest plus a bronchoscopy, one of those hose-through-the-nose procedures I don't recommend to anyone.

Along with that came hundreds of dollars worth of prescriptions, for Cipro and other antibiotics, inhalers, antifungal and antiacid pills to settle my stomach, adding up to what felt more like medical carpet-bombing than targeted treatment. For his consultations and all the tests, the bill came to over two-thousand dollars.

In case you're wondering, I've fully recovered physically if not mentally. When I asked the doctor for a diagnosis he gave me good and bad news. There's nothing wrong with my lungs, no tumors, lesions or any other ominous signs.

The bad news is that for all the testing and drug-taking, the doctor couldn't figure out what was wrong with me.

-30-




Friday, October 18, 2013

Service for an Age of Marriage Equality

The following were the words for the service at our wedding:


THE MARRIAGE OF
STEWART HAMMER AND ALFREDO LANIER
Saturday, September 28, 2013

at The First Parish of Stow and Acton

The Rev. Tom Rosiello, officiant

OPENING WORDS

It is my privilege to officiate at this wedding. Until just a few years ago,
when two individuals of the same sex who loved each other and were committed to each other wished to make a legal commitment to each other, they were denied that opportunity to marry. But so much has changed in our society and for the institution of marriage.

Stew and Al, today we celebrate not only your love and commitment to each other, but also equality in the institution of marriage. Here in Massachusetts and now in many other states and several other countries, we are able to recognize your the love as a legal marriage with all the same legal rights, benefits and responsibilities as any other marriage.

We pause in gratitude to give thanks for those whose struggle made this day possible. At the same time, let us not forget that the struggle continues; that most gay and lesbian folk are still not able to marry. May the experience we share here today help to advance the right of marriage for all who seek its benefits and wish to take on its responsibilities.

Yes, much has changed, but much more remains the same. It is, as it always has been, one of life’s richest blessings when two people find each other, fall in love and know that they have found the person with whom they want to spend their life.

In your case, that happened a quite while ago.  Today is more of a celebration of what already is than what will be. It is a celebration of the love that has grown up between you over more than 40 years and united you to each other; a love that I am sure has known good times and faced life’s challenges. I am sure it has been a wonderful journey during which you have come to truly know and understand each other, as well as to love each other and that is as it should be.

Marriage is not a commitment made lightly or unadvisedly, but one entered into reverently and thoughtfully, and with the knowledge that true and abiding love is life’s highest achievement and God’s most precious gift.

PRAYER

O God, spirit of life, source of love,
May we be ever grateful for the many gifts
Which are ours to share:

For the joy of friendship,
the bonds of family, 
and the many opportunities to learn,
grow and contribute to our world. 

Today, we are especially grateful for
that most perfect gift, the gift of love,
which enshrines and ennobles all
our human experience. 

It is love that can bear all things,
believe all things,
hope all things
and endure all things. 

It is love that can fill the simplest of experiences with
the great joy and love that can bring the most profound comfort,
even in the most difficult of times.

May that powerful love,
pure and honest,
respectful and holy,
embrace you this day and
continue to grow each day in your lives. Amen. 


DECLARATION OF INTENT

Stewart and Alfredo, you have lived your lives together committed to each other.  So now I ask you together, are you ready to pledge your mutual love, respect and fidelity, and be joined together in marriage?

 IF SO PLEASE RESPOND: "WE ARE"


READING
(From the words of the 19th century Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker (slightly adapted)
It takes years to marry completely two hearts, even of the most loving and well assorted. A happy wedlock is a long falling in love. Young persons think love belongs only to the brown-haired and crimson-cheeked. So it does for its beginning, but the golden marriage is a part of love which youth knows nothing of. A perfect and complete marriage, where wedlock is everything you could ask and the ideal of marriage becomes actual, is not common, perhaps as rare as perfect personal beauty. People are married fractionally, now a small fraction, then a large fraction. Very few are married totally, and they only after some forty or fifty years of gradual approach and experiment. Such a large and sweet fruit is a complete marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long winter to mellow and season it. But a real, happy marriage of love is one of the things so very handsome that if the sun were, as the Greek poets fabled, a God, he might stop the world and hold it still now and then in order to look all day long on some example thereof, and feast his eyes on such a spectacle.
 EXCHANGE OF VOWS

The meaning of marriage
begins in the giving and receiving of words.
You cannot join yourself to another
without giving your word. 
And this must be an unconditional giving,
for in joining yourself to another
you join yourself to the unknown.
You have already walked a long way together,
But you still have a journey ahead.
You each still have hope, dreams, plans.
Some will become realities
and others will not.
The truth is that you cannot know
the road you will walk together.
 What you commit to today
in the vows which you will now make
is the way in which you
will together walk each step along that road.

VOWS
(please repeat after me)
I Stewart, take you Alfredo,
to be none other than yourself,
Loving all that I have come to know about you in the past 41 years
and trusting what I still may not yet know,
I will continue to respect your integrity,
be faithful to you,
and have faith in your abiding love for me
through all the years we have together
and  in all that those years may bring.

 I, Alfredo take you Stewart
to be none other than yourself,
Loving all that I have come to know about you in the past 41 years
and trusting what I still may not yet know,
I will  continue to respect your integrity,
be faithful to you
and have faith in your abiding love for me
through all the years we have together
and in all that those years may bring.

BLESSING OF RINGS

O God, source of all blessing, bless these rings and those who will wear them. Like the precious metal of which these rings are made, may your love remain the most precious possession of your life.  Just as these rings will encircle your fingers, may loyalty, commitment and mutual respect encircle your relationship.  May these rings always be a visible sign of your love and devotion to each other.

EXCHANGE OF RINGS

As you place the ring on your partner’s finger, please repeat after me:

Alfredo, I give you this ring as a sign of my love and faithfulness to you. 
Stewart, I give you this ring as a sign of my love and faithfulness to you.

 BENEDICTION

This marriage is an event in a lifetime of love.  Neither I, nor all of society, can truly join you today. By your words this day, and by the love you shared every day for all these years, you have joined yourselves together.


We pray that you will be equal to the demands of all your tomorrows. May you keep the promises you have made this day and be a blessing and comfort to each other. May your marriage always be a shared adventure, rich in moments of serenity as well as times of excitement, strengthened by challenges, uplifted by achievements, and enriched by mutual respect.  May you find in each other companionship as well as love, understanding as well as compassion, healthy challenges as well as easy agreements.  May your lives be full and rich, not so much with material things, but with those things that matter most: family, friends good health and a life of purpose.  May your joys be many, your sorrows few and your love everlasting. AMEN

PRONOUNCEMENT

Stewart and Alfredo:  As you have declared your consent before God and those gathered here, I, by the authority vested in me by this Unitarian Universalist church and by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts declare you to be legally married and entitled to all rights and privileges of that institution.


###

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Perfect Day: September 28, 2013

We got to the church an hour early, not that we were anxious or anything.

Or maybe we were. I know I was, at the strange prospect of getting officially married by a minister, in a church, and not in a "commitment," "civil union" or other faux-marriage ceremony gay couples have invented over the years to try to legitimize their relationships in a society that regarded them with disdain if not outright condemnation. Our marriage would have the official seal of both a minister and of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And we'd receive that and much more: The warm wishes of family and close and distant friends, and even some strangers.

New rites at an old church. 
So here we were, at the First Parish Church of Stow and Acton, about twenty miles northwest of Boston. It's one of those historic white clapboard churches in New England whose austere beauty and quaintness seem almost inconceivable outside of a Saturday Evening Post illustration. Though the present building went up in 1848, after the previous structure burned to the ground, the historic trail of the congregation goes back to 1683. It struck me as ironic that a new-fangled ceremony like a same-sex wedding should take place at such a historic venue.

Tree leaves had begun to change color. In case we lost our bearings along the way, highway signs pointed the way to Lexington and Concord, and even to an exit to Walden Pond should we have felt the need to channel Thoreau and ponder the meaning of life before or after our trip to the altar.

This is the kind of church that has its own Paul Revere bell (damaged and recast after the 1847 fire) that is activated by a rope hanging through the ceiling of the lobby. Turns out that after Revere's brief but notable career warning the locals about the oncoming Brits he set up a renowned foundry in Boston that cast bells destined for church steeples and other public buildings in many of the former thirteen colonies.

The floors of the austere, almost Shaker-like temple, were wide-plank wood that groaned softly with every footstep. Pews had small, rectangular boxes tucked underneath, decorated or upholstered in a variety of designs. "Kneelers?" I asked. Not by a mile. This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most members don't do kneeling and some even balk about too much talking about Him (or Her). The boxes are just footrests.

Hutchins organ, built in
1892 and recently rebuilt.
The gold-colored organ at the front dates back to 1892 and was recently restored, and an 1832 Willard clock at the back of the church still uses wooden gears to mark time, with some gentle coaxing from a member of the congregation. You can forgive this horological relic for losing about five minutes or so a week.

When we arrived at the church, past roadside stands of pick-your-own apples and mutant-size pumpkins, along with other end-of-season vegetables and fruits, two church volunteers were in the parking lot behind a makeshift table selling, yes, homemade apple pies.

The Rev. Thomas Rosiello, the minister of the church and who would later marry us, introduced us to the pie vendors who greeted and congratulated us with such warmth they could have been our own moms, except I'm not sure our real mothers would have reacted so effusively at the news of their sons marrying another man.

Perhaps they would have. My entire clan of Cuban relatives in Miami, including my step-mother, certainly treats Stew like one of the family, and we also received congratulatory e-mails from Stew's brother and his wife. Times change, sometimes astonishingly fast or slowly, depending on your perspective.

Provincetown Town Hall
Before this trip to the church, driving through this part of Americana that looked like a three-dimensional postcard, we had spent a few days in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, where we applied for our license, or "Intent to Marry Application," that had to be submitted and approved by the Town Clerk three days before the actual marriage.

Provincetown is beyond gay-friendly, even after the AIDS crisis killed a substantial proportion of the gay male population. Locals told us that gay women began to purchase some of the businesses previously owned by men which made lesbians more visible. Don't know if that anecdote is true but you certainly can't miss the large number of gay women and Subaru Outbacks in town.

A Provincetowner's idea of a garden water feature. 
It's certainly the place to apply for your marriage license. You'll be congratulated by the clerk in the Town Hall and anyone else waiting on line. No scowls, rolled-up eyes or judgmental glances from anyone.

No problemas except possibly from a homeless man who sat next to his shopping cart on the steps of city hall, better to evaluate the stream of passersby. "Stop holding hands, goddamn it!" he yelled at two amorous guys walking by. "You're starting to look like a couple of lesbians!"

We then spent our three-day waiting period on Cape Cod, including a side trip to Nantucket Island, just about the primmest enclave Stew and I had ever seen. The year-round population is only about ten thousand and tourist crowds were down as the nippy autumn breezes blew. Nantucket has a rough, workman history of fishing and whaling a few centuries ago but today it looks like a fantasy village designed by Ralph Lauren and managed by Martha Stewart who makes sure the flowers in all the window boxes are regularly deadheaded and puffed up.

A perfect Nantucket window box.
Stew and I had selected Massachusetts for our wedding because of the gay-friendliness of the state and particularly Provincetown, and some other serendipity. Mark and Tom, a gay couple who'd lived in Provincetown and now live in San Miguel, pointed us to the right people to call including the Town Clerk. Through a Unitarian congregation in San Miguel we had met Tom Rosiello and his partner Malcolm who offered to perform the service at the Stow church and celebrate the event with a lunch afterward.

We had thought of waiting for Illinois to approve marriage equality and have the service in Chicago but the requisite minority in the state house didn't materialize at the last minute during the last legislative session. So on to Massachusetts, which Stew had never visited anyway.

I had no notion of what to expect during the actual wedding ceremony which was small—the two grooms, the minister and a friend of the minister who took the pictures. That's about as small as a wedding party can get unless the minister is also one of the grooms and can officiate and say "I do" simultaneously.

Attire for the grooms was "snug business casual," as in suitcoats, dress shirts and pants that had been sitting idle in the closet since we retired eight years ago. It's amazing how garments can shrink while just hanging there.

A wedding candle to hold forever. 
Rev. Rosiello reviewed several options for the wording of the brief service. Stew and I settled on one that included a brief history—or celebration—of how fast the movement toward marriage equality had come in so few years, followed by a dedication for a couple that had already been in a long-term relationship, the vows and the exchange of rings. We also lit a wedding candle, which we're going to light at every anniversary from now on. I was so nervous I could barely repeat the vows or remember the actual order of service, except it was brief and beautiful. A copy of the service is coming and I will post it when I receive it.

On the way out of the church, the photographer grabbed the rope of the Paul Revere bell and gave it a few joyful yanks to let the world know that after forty-one years together Stew and Al had finally married. Rev. Rosiello and his partner Malcolm treated us to lunch at a restaurant on the site of a short-lived Utopian agrarian community established in 1842.

Rev. Tom Rosiello and the newlyweds. 
When we got back to Boston, Stew hugged me and said, "This was a perfect day."

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Test Your Wildlife Management Skills

Here at Rancho Santa Clara, located almost in the very middle of Mexico (pronounced meh-HEE-ko by the locals, just so you know), keeping the local fauna at bay is a year-round challenge, particularly during the rainy season when many species sneak into our living space probably because they don't want to get wet any more than we do. It's been raining or at least drizzling for the past several days and we've had more than the usual number of critter intrusions, a situation I want to use to test your wildlife control skills. Consider this a teachable moment.

1. You open the lid of your gas grill and inside you find a gray mouse placidly nursing three or four babies. What do you do?

  • a. Grab the spatula from the wrought iron grilling tool set you got for Christmas and beat the entire mouse family into a pulp, while cursing loudly. Make sure to thoroughly clean the grilling surfaces afterward with a garden hose. 
  • b. Turn on the grill to 350 degrees for grilled mice, medium rare. 
  • c. Gently open the grill lid, take a picture of this adorable scene of maternal love, apologize profusely to Momma Mouse for the intrusion, and leave a couple of lettuce leaves to tide her over until she can go out to fetch her own groceries. 
  • d. Take a cue from our maid who shrieks at the sight of mice and refuses to sweep the terrace for the following three weeks. 
Grilled mice: Who can resist?
2.  A medium size bird has sneaked into your living room and is desperately trying to escape.
  • a. Wait until the bird has crashed into every window and knocked itself senseless. Deposit the little feathered friend in the nearest trash can. 
  • b. Grab a shotgun and go for it.
  • c. If you don't get it at first, reload.
  • d. Let one of your cats handle this avian crisis.
  • e. Get on a stepladder and with a broom swing wildly and uselessly at the intruder like a complete moron. Keep going until you are either exhausted or fall off the ladder.
3.  You spot a medium-size green frog on the kitchen floor (or in the bathtub or the toilet). 
  • a. Knock her out with a cotton ball soaked with tequila and proceed to relive your high school science class by cutting her open with an Exacto knife. Try to recall the layout of a frog's internal organs.
  • b. Hack off her legs and add them to your dinner salad to see if they really taste like chicken.
  • c. Tell Stew there's a frog in the house. 
4. You step into the shower stall and you find a spider, a couple of inches long, ambling by. 
  • a. Throw the shower floor mat over it. 
  • b. Aim the shower head at it to see what a drowning spider looks like. 
  • c. Find an index card or something like it and gently coax the spider out of the shower stall and hope it's gone by the time you're finished showering. 
  • d. The same as choice "c", except you call one of the dogs and see if they'll eat it. 
Correct answers, maybe: 

The following answers have not been vetted or approved by the Humane Society, the National Wildlife Federation or anyone who knows anything about animals, wild or otherwise. The answers just reflect what Stew and I do in these situations, based on experience and marshmallow-soft hearts when it comes to critters. 

1. The mouse family: "c" is the only logical choice. I mean, are we the only ones who think gray mice are cute, what with those large black eyes that look like marbles, the round ears sticking up and the twitching whiskers? And baby mice? Let's not go there. Granted, large rats, eight inches and longer, like the one we found dead on the garage floor last week, can test our definition of "cute." That's why we let one of our dogs take care of that problem.
2. Birds are a particularly tough challenge because they fly and tend to poop on you when panicked. So yesterday we just let Fifo catch the bird, and then we grabbed Fifo and gently took the panting bird out of his mouth without roughing one feather. The bird was out of the house, Fifo's self-esteem was puffed up and we didn't get bird poop on our heads.

3. Frogs are a constant aggravation and don't think for a second you can just flush the problem down the toilet. These are Olympic-caliber swimmers who'll be staring at you pleadingly next time you lift the lid. The only solution is to let Stew do his usual Tupperware and index card magic trick: Carefully position a Tupperware bowl on the visiting frog and then slide the index card under it. Take the whole package outside, being careful not to drop the frog. You don't want it to get a concussion.

4. For some reason our master bathroom is like Greyhound station for insects travelling nowhere. While you sit you can look down and watch a conga line of spiders, ants, moths, crickets, water bugs and beetles going around your feet. It beats reading some old magazine. Sometimes the bugs stick around, other times they disappear. Call it one of Nature's Great Mysteries. They don't bother us, so we don't bother them. 

I end with some late-breaking news. Stew peeked under the cover of the gas grill and the entire mouse family has decamped without a good-bye or even eating the pieces of lettuce I'd left for the mother.

Damn ungrateful varmints. 

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Right between the eyes with drug prices

Following cataract surgery there's a lengthy list of prescription eye drops you have to use that will gradually help clear up your vision but whose cost might leave you cross-eyed. There's the Vigamox, Prednisolone and the Fluorometholone but the whopper is Nevanac eye drops, 1.0 ml solution, manufactured by Alcon Laboratories, Inc. of Fort Worth.

The price of Nevanac at a Walgreens in San Antonio, Texas was $445.99. That is the actual cost of the drops, not some imaginary sticker price.

That's no typo, either: Four hundred forty-five dollars and ninety-nine cents, for a three-milliliter dispenser a little bit smaller than my thumb, for a twenty-two-day supply. After Stew's cataract surgery, the doctor prescribed two additional refills, so the total cost for Nevanac alone—just one of six different eye drops he was told to use—comes to $1,337.97. Stew's Medicare Part D drug insurance covers about half the cost of Nevanac, so his total out-of-pocket comes to approximately $668.98.

Authentic tears from the Virgin couldn't cost this much. 
Now it gets interesting. When Stew went to get a refill for Nevanac at Costco in Queretaro, Mexico, where no prescription is required, the cost was $301.00 Mexican pesos—or $24.08 U.S. dollars—for a five milliliter bottle, compared to a three milliliter bottle in San Antonio.

If you figure it on a per-unit basis, a milliliter of Nevanac in the U.S. sells for $148.66 dollars while in Mexico it goes for $4.81 dollars. That is for the identical medication, manufactured by Alcon in the U.S., except for the larger bottle and the fact that here it's sold through a Mexican distributor.

In other words, Nevanac, one of a number of medications you must take after cataract surgery, costs nearly 3,100 percent more in the U.S. than in Mexico.

If you figure that Alcon still makes a profit on the Nevanac sold in Mexico, the price difference is staggering. Half the markup is paid by Part D Medicare Supplemental Insurance, which costs about $18 a month, and the other half by the patient, in this case a guy named Stew. If Stew did not have that supplemental coverage he would have to pay the entire cost for this and any other prescription drugs.

One likely explanation for this price discrepancy is that Mexico—like most countries in the world—imposes strict price controls on drugs, whereas in the U.S. the Medicare system has been explicitly prohibited from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. In effect, prescription drug prices are whatever the pharmaceutical companies say they are and that's it. This sweetest of all sweetheart deals was part of the Medicare drug benefit law devised by the Bush Administration and approved by Congress in 2003, and which went into effect in 2006.

The result is that, for example, the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor cost $124 a month in the U.S. and only $6 in New Zealand. And on and on, from Celebrex to Cymbalta and most other prescription drugs.

Oddly, not all U.S.-made prescription drugs are cheaper in Mexico. From our personal experience, the over-the-counter prices of Ambien, Lipitor and Cymbalta are almost exactly the same in Mexico as in the U.S.

The price differential for Nevanac, however, has to be one for the record books, no matter how you look at it, particularly through cataract-free eyes.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Small-time crooks

He's a slight but genuinely Mexican man, so our gardener Félix is not prone to bouts of crying, blubbering, trembling or fear-stricken stammering—least of all in public—yet that is what he was doing when he came into my office ten days ago.

"Alfredo, they are going to kill my family!" he said without any preambles.

"Who, what, why?" I said, shocked by the message as well as his helpless appearance.

Amid sobs he said that while we were away in the morning he had received a phone call demanding five-thousand pesos (about four-hundred dollars) otherwise someone would come by his house and kill his family, presumably his wife and two kids and perhaps also his parents and siblings who live next door.

I almost joined Félix in his panic until I paused and thought: Wait, even for Mexico this scenario is pretty far-fetched.

If someone were going to extort money, they'd pick a businessman or lawyer not a gardener from Sosnavar living in a one-room house. How did the would-be extortionists get his cellular phone number? How would they know where Félix lived?

Toll-free placebo: Call us and we'll do nothing
I tried to calm him down but that only prompted more outlandish details. The callers had identified themselves as the Zetas, a dreaded gang of narcotrafficking killers, who claimed someone using Félix' phone had tipped off the military authorities in Guanajuato as to their whereabouts, leading to the loss of a large cache of weapons.

As far as I know, I said, the Zetas are nowhere near Guanajuato and only operate in remote areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Besides, Félix said he hadn't called anyone about any weapons. If you met Félix you'd realize he doesn't quite fit the profile of a daring government informant lurking by a lamppost wearing sunglasses and a fedora.

The only thing I could think of was to call 066, the Mexican equivalent of 911 and report the extortion attempt, but immediately realized that would hardly calm Félix' nerves because on numerous occasions he had expressed his undiluted contempt for the police whom he claims do nothing but shake down people. He may have a point there.

The operator dismissed my claims and said extortion calls are rampant and don't mean anything. "Next time just hang up and don't worry about it," she said.

"Well, aren't you going to do anything?" I asked.

"No," she said.

So I put Félix on the phone so maybe he could get a rise out of the emergency operator. He retold the entire story, with more graphic details, pregnant pauses, and Mexican slang and sobs, but the operator remained impressed.

Next idea from Félix was to go into hiding for two weeks with his family until the assassination threat passed.

"You can do anything you want but I'm not going to pay for this crazy horseshit, either by giving you time off or lending you the extortion money, so you'd better calm down and think about this because it doesn't make any sense," I said.

By now the only thing I could think of was to take his phone to the phone company to have the chip and the phone number changed, which cost me about ten dollars.

The uniformed mopes at the phone company were as unimpressed with the situation as the emergency operator. "Those calls are rampant and the only thing to do is hang up," one of them said.

But Félix remained in a panic and ran home to take his family to an undisclosed location where they remained for several days, though he continued to come to work.

Since then I've talked to several people who confirmed just what the emergency operator and the phone company folk had said. In fact many of these extortion calls have been traced to jails, where prisoners apparently sit in their cells, dialing numbers in sequence—as in 109-3123, -3124, -3125, etc.—until some sucker takes the bait and deposits the money in a bank account.

By now questions, obvious ones, are probably buzzing in your head. Why doesn't the government trace the phone numbers that appear on the cell phones of the prospective victims? If the calls mostly come from jails, why do they allow the prisoners to have cell phones? Couldn't the government track down the owners of the bank accounts to which the money is going?

Ah, I'm sure many latter-day Perry Masons out there can come up with other investigative leads that could put an end to these scams.

But so far the only action the state government seems to have taken is to put up billboards with special toll-free numbers to report extortion attempts, staffed with operators ready to counsel callers to just settle down.

"It happens all the time, don't worry about it and just hang up."

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wedding bells and all that jazz

Same-sex relationships typically begin with a bump in the night and until recently never were allowed to rise above the furtive, the unmentionable, not something you'd bring up in church or at a Thanksgiving dinner, or expect to find celebrated in the local newspaper's social page.

That mum if not explicit disapproval weighed on the relationships regardless how long the couples were together: Stew and I have been together forty-one years; Don and Richard, forty-two; David and Myron, thirty-seven; Perry and Greg for forty-three; Charles and Robert lived together over fifty years until Robert's death after a long illness did them apart a few years ago. Indeed, you start to believe marriage didn't matter or didn't apply to people like you anyway.

After so many years of oppression, and there's really no better word, reaction among gay couples we know to the prospect of being able to get legally married has ranged from glee by some who rushed to the nearest marriage bureau, to stammering disbelief and indecision. For the latter, it's as if they'd been faithfully mailing their entries for thirty or forty years and finally the sonovabitch from Publishers Clearing House shows up at their front door and they don't know what to say or do.

Stew and I pretended that getting married was not an urgent or even emotional issue. It would be nice but we could wait for Illinois to approve marriage equality, which seems likely within the next year.

Or not. Stew, pretty much on his own, methodically began putting together a wedding trip to a state that allows same-sex weddings and settled on Massachusetts, to some extent because he's never been to New England. There are hotel, car and flight reservations, a specific locality in which to get a marriage license, a minister to officiate and a jeweler to sell you wedding rings.

Yesterday, Stew unveiled the results of his labors. We'll fly to Boston and drive to Provincetown on Monday, September 23 to apply for the license, and get married on Saturday, September 28 at 11 a.m., at the First Parish Church of Stowe and Acton, a Unitarian congregation just outside of Boston. Rev. Thomas Rosiello will officiate. Jan Dee Jewelers, a small gay-owned shop in Chicago, where we'll stop on the way to Boston, will have our wedding bands ready for us.  The only detail pending is finding a fourth person to take a picture of the event.

This morning when I made the announcement at the church we attend tears rolled down my face and I could hardly get the words out. After dismissing it for months as an abstract technicality, a mere piece of paper, the reality and significance of marriage—of having our relationship, for so long hidden or dismissed by others as illegitimate or unimportant—actually recognized by a third party and being able to celebrate it publicly, finally came to me.

I am, unexpectedly, really happy and excited about getting married.

But there's yet one more detail pending that Stew mentioned over lunch. We need to put together a guest list and pick a place for a wedding reception to which we can invite all our friends, gay or straight; men and women; married, single and undecideds. Finally out in the open, under the beautiful San Miguel skies.

Amazing.

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mark your calendar

This week, the week of August 25, the MEGA supermarket in San Miguel de Allende started putting out Christmas merchandise. Considering Mexicans go on celebrating until January 6, this may be the longest holiday season in the Christian world.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Attack of the recluses

For a semiarid patch of land that at first looks dormant if not barren most of the year—at least compared to my vision of a jungle alive with the nervous rustle and chattering of monkeys and birds—our ranch is in fact teeming with critters though not many large or colorful ones that would make you reach for your camera. Occasionally a purple finch or vermilion flycatcher will flit by, or a tiny colorful snake quietly sneak under the door, but it seems as if most of the birds and terrestrial animals around here were designed to blend in with the nondescript brownness that hovers over the landscape most of the year.

Still. During the rainy season enough insects, birds, carnivores and other fellow travelers come out of the ground, or somewhere, however briefly, to remind you this land is hardly devoid of life. After dark, dozens of small toads gather up in the front patio, a throaty chorale forever rehearsing but never quite hitting a tune. Rabbits hop past the headlights of cars, rushing to an appointment somewhere. V-shaped flyers swoop by too, either swallows or bats of some sort. Tiny mice gather up in the outdoor light fixtures or any protected spot such as the folds of the awnings over the terrace. And during a full moon the volume goes up, way up, as farm animals, joined by dogs and coyotes, spend the night exchanging messages of love, warning or just mindless noise.

It's the animals hidden in the ground that we've grown to fear, particularly because they are prone to attack our four dogs: snakes, scorpions, and most recently venomous spiders.

A small rattler, about two feet long, bit Lucy, our biggest dog, about six months ago and gave her a golf ball-sized lump on the right side of her nose that took a couple of weeks to clear up. There seems to be some learning curve developing though: Lucy has lost most of her appetite for chasing rats or digging up animals that pop up or down out of holes in the ground.

The Brown Recluse Spider is about two inches long.
The vet called it a Violin Spider, for the mark on its
head resembling a violin. 
Two days ago it was Gladys' turn to get bit, this time by a venomous Brown Recluse Spider, which are not particularly aggressive unless a dog or other intruder sticks their nose or paw in the hole where they live. We found Gladys on the garage floor, motionless and bleeding from one paw. Off to an animal clinic, where two young vets quickly and accurately diagnosed the problem.

Snake bites, they explained, leave two punctures but spiders only one. The site of the bite by this type of spider develops necrosis, where the venom essentially kills living tissue. The venom spreads quickly up the leg, which swells almost immediately, and into the body, where it can kill the animal in short order. If we hadn't hauled Gladys to vet immediately we believe she would have gone into shock and died.

Fauna vs Fauna: Gladys got bit on the
 right leg. The mark on her left leg
is where the vet inserted the IV. 
Our affection for Gladys certainly doesn't stem from her looks. She is the muttiest of mutts and displays no pedigree or other distinguishing traits except "quadruped" and "dog." We found her on a parking lot in town, frantically fleeing from something or someone, with a piece of rope still hanging from her neck. When we finally seduced her with food and a plastic box to keep her out of the rain, she became the most loyal pet. Too loyal perhaps because initially she wouldn't let any strangers or other dogs come near us.

Gladys probably was either hit by a car or beaten by her previous owners because her rear drive train doesn't quite work smoothly and her tail is permanently down and crooked to the left.

I told you she wasn't much to look at. But her imperfections, and affection, are precisely what have endeared her to us.

The vets scraped the dead skin on one of her toes, and made two incisions that they used to force out the venom—a mix of blood and a gelatinous fluid they called "bad blood"—by gently massaging her leg downward. After a couple of days in the clinic and a number of these treatments, the swelling has gone down and Gladys is home and starting to walk again. She's still on antibiotics and a bit lethargic.

For Gladys—and us—the moral of this near-miss should be not to be fooled by the apparent lack of wildlife in the desert or stick our noses or hands in front of it when we run accross it. We've learned that. We hope Gladys did too and passes on the warning to her canine compadres.

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