Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thinking about buying a gun

Paranoid chatter in the U.S. media about guns and mass shootings during the past several weeks shows you that if absurdities are repeated long and often enough they eventually acquire some plausibility. So much so that Stew and I, the ultimate firearm virgins, recently talked about buying a gun for self protection at our ranch in Mexico.

Even after living for ten years in New York, and then thirty years in Chicago with Stew, I've never seriously considered owning a gun. Neither one of us has been in military service or has ever held much less fired a weapon of any kind.

So naive am I about the subject that I once talked to someone about just wanting a gun to shoot a burglar or other assailant in the foot, shoulder or other non-vital area, as my idea of self-defense.

Your camera or one of your eyes?
This guy laughed and explained that I completely missed the point of using a gun: You're supposed to aim for the chest or the head to kill the person ostensibly threatening you, and worry about the details later. There are no halfway measures in a shoot-out.

The closest I've come to an assault weapon was talking to an Israeli soldier, of all places, at the one gay bar in Tel Aviv about fifteen years ago. That's how I learned, up close and personal, that the Israeli army indeed didn't have any qualms about enlisting gay men.

Yet unsettling talk in San Miguel about crime recently got Stew and I talking about a buying gun, to the point of visiting the U.S. consul to get his thoughts.

It's not all groundless paranoia. Our ranch is about fifteen miles out of town, with a house that while hardly baronial does stick out amid the surrounding poverty and could make us a potential target.

Mexican law enforcement is famously corrupt and inept, particularly in a two-pothole town like San Miguel. Worse still, Mexican criminal law is a spaghetti bowl of conflicting and self-defeating regulations and jurisdictions almost designed to provide immunity to criminals rather than protect the public.

Crime in San Miguel does not remotely resemble the narcotics-fueled mayhem along the U.S. border, about ten hours from here by car yet regularly reported on CNN and other media outlets as endemic throughout the country.

Thanks for asking, but no, we don't have to swerve around dead bodies on the way to the church or put on a Kevlar vest before watering the front yard.

Still, crime around San Miguel seems to be ratcheting up gradually. I use "seems" because there's hardly any concrete information or statistics on which to base your level of fear. So you have to go on rumors which tend to inflate as they bounce around.

There have been a few confirmed incidents recently scary enough to make you gag on your morning oatmeal. During the past six months, two stiffs, hogtied and their heads covered with plastic bags, were found about ten miles up the road from us near the town of Jalpa. Then the owner of the local broiled chicken franchise was kidnapped in broad daylight. Was he one of the hogtied stiffs? Nobody knows.

Add to that several home invasions involving machetes, guns and who-knows-what--one victim almost lost an eye--and keeping a gun begins to sound like, hmm, a not-bad idea. A close neighbor showed us the Nancy Reagan-size pistol he carries in his pocket at all times, just in case. He also employs an armed night watchman.

But just as paranoia starts to boil in your head, logic and logistics bring you back to earth.

The U.S. consul cautioned that although it is theoretically legal to keep a gun for self-defense in one's home, the realities of an American expat killing a Mexican citizen has the ingredients of a really ugly political situation. Remember the spaghetti bowl that passes for criminal law in this country?

But let's think about the scene of two armed burglars--their adrenaline and experience with weapons presumably much higher than yours--breaking into your home while you're sleeping or watching television.

By the time you reach for your cherished gun and start shooting, your odds of coming out alive go down to damn near zero. More likely the ensuing and chaotic shoot-out will leave you or someone in your family dead. Or maybe both.

Frustrating but true is that you're ultimately better off handing over your camera or iPad to the intruders instead of reaching, Rambo-like, for your gun, machete, baseball bat or whatever. A camera is replaceable, a limb or one of your eyes is not.

Lamentably that scenario is not very heroic or suitable for a thirty-second television spot by the National Rifle Association. But is the most sensible and realistic thing to do in such a situation, whether in San Miguel or New Orleans.

Before that happens, it's far more useful to padlock gates and windows, get a gang of noisy mutts--Mexicans, including burglars, are for some reason deathly afraid of dogs--leave lights on, hire a watchman for when you're away and take a number of other measures far less dramatic or catastrophic than buying a semi-automatic, whatever that is, and commence shootin'.

Ultimately, the paranoia involved in buying and keeping a potentially lethal weapon so diminishes your quality of life that it seems hardly a worthwhile exercise. Who wants to have to check that their gun is loaded in the night stand and ready to kill someone before going to sleep every night? Or have a firearm within reach anywhere in your house?

If life around our ranch becomes that perilous, it'll be a clear signal that it's time for us to move, though judging by the gun-induced mayhem and hysteria back home, I'm not sure it would be back to the U.S.


For a different, if not very persuasive (to me), point of view I just read in the New York Times, read this:

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Howlin' at the moon

When he took out our dog Domino last night for a quickie, Stew ran into a high, full moon and a limpid sky chuck-full of stars. Later that night I looked outside and noticed as well the eerie platinum glow that covered the landscape.

A soundtrack accompanied the view. A myriad critters, among them coyotes and roosters, were up and about, intoning noises of approval, disapproval or maybe just conviviality. The burros were the most vocal, braying incessantly, I don't know if to celebrate the striking celestial display or complain that it interfered with their sleep.

By the silvery moon: A metal deer yard ornament.
(ISO 5000, 30mm, f5.6, 14 sec. exp.)
I wonder why a full moon causes such commotion among animals, and also, I've heard, among plants.

Dogs outside never stopped barking and howling. Our own three in the bedroom slept fitfully, letting out periodic little barks, peeps and yelps of annoyance, like they were telling their compadres outside to shut up already. Or maybe the moonlight slashing through the windows caused them to have bad dreams.

Cats make their own full-moon noises but those are too discreet for us to hear. Our cats normally sleep on the bed, lying motionless and immovable on each side like bronze bookends, but last night they weren't there. I spotted one of them, Fifo, sitting on the ledge of one of the bathroom windows, mesmerized by the sights and sounds outside.

This morning the cats returned to their usual spots on the bed but later we noticed that they had eaten every single scrap of canned and dry food put out for them, a rarity for this persnickety pair. Maybe it was something about the full moon, or a night of nervous pacing about, that whetted their appetites.

When we awoke there was no view from our bedroom. There was a fog so dense that it felt as if someone had drawn a gauzy curtain, about five feet beyond each window and around the entire house.

The dogs must have interpreted the fog as a clue to sleep an hour later. Outside it was completely silent too, the other animals also making up for a sleepless night.

But by eight-thirty or so this morning, the sun had already rent the curtain of fog.

Our dogs were up and about doing their downward dogs, shaking and wagging and demanding to go outside. Their wild companions also had resumed their usual mooing, tweeting, barking, howling or whatever other special ritual each one has for welcoming a perfectly sunny and balmy day at our ranch.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Housekeeping tips from Stew and Al

Since neither Stew nor I were raised in Downton Abbey-like splendor, we're not used to having permanent household staff. Having a couple of people working for us here in Mexico is a new experience that has entailed a bit of a learning process.

In Cuba, during the hazy, pre-revolutionary days, I vaguely remember a woman who used to come and cook for us, a luxury for which my dad and I were deeply grateful because my poor mom couldn't cook her way out of sack of black beans.

In Chicago, many decades later, Stew and I experimented briefly with a home-cleaning service that would send a woman, one who typically had arrived from the hinterlands of Eastern Europe a few days before, for three or four hours a week. That experiment with household staff went bust because of the high cost and impossibility of communicating with cleaning women who spoke mostly what sounded like Serbo-Croatian dialects.

As I recall these brawny women would fearlessly throw themselves on the floor on all fours and scrub the pattern right off the linoleum but were stumped by the cleaning of shower stalls, refrigerators and other modern Western appurtenances.

In Mexico we've been fortunate--extremely fortunate--to have found Rocío, the woman who cleans our house five hours twice a week, and Félix, the young guy we insist in calling a "gardener" but is actually a polymath of sorts who can paint, patch cement cracks, reattach pieces about to fall off from one of our cars, wash the dogs, plant a tree and house-sit when we are away.

And indeed our good fortune at having the two of them working for us has increased over the years, as we've accommodated ourselves to their idiosyncrasies--and viceversa.

May we introduce you to vacuum cleaners. Dust is a perennial problem here because it blows constantly during the dry season during which we still keep some windows open. Yet during the first few weeks of our relationship, about five years ago, Rocío shied away from our high-suction, high-decibel Hoover, even after I taped Spanish translations next to all the buttons in the machine.

It was as if the vacuum was either alive or radioactive.

She would insist on sweeping the area rugs with a broom or banging the dust and cat fur out of the furniture cushions, a process that mostly riled up the dirt up into the air.

After a series of mechanical malfunctions--Stew kept reattaching parts and patching up electrical cords that kept coming apart, hmm--Rocío finally came to love our Hoover to the point we might have recreated the dilemma of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. He's the guy who taught the brooms how to haul water but the couldn't get them to stop.

Nowadays, the blessed vacuum is roaring practically the whole time Rocío is around--there it goes again--while Stew and I hide in the office or just flee. This morning I went on a motorcycle ride to nowhere in particular. One day soon I'm sure we'll find Rocío vacuuming the dander off one of the cats.

Still, Rocío is nothing if not thorough in her chores and makes it a point to subtly letting us know. She'll dust the pictures but leave most of them slightly askew so the place looks as if there's been a slight earth tremor. It's sort of her signature. Our burgeoning collection of ceramics is another target of her ministrations: They'll be moved slightly here or there or in a few cases dinged or broken.

So next time you visit don't try to pick up anything to admire it: All the valuable and semi-valuable pieces are attached to the walls or the shelves with Velcro. Just admire the rugs, which are guaranteed to be dust-free.

Félix is enterprising about keeping himself busy but with some exceptions. He's never said so, but window-washing, a major job in our passive-solar house, seems to be a point of contention in his repertoire, I suspect because it might appear to be "woman's work." He'll do it after a few requests, but usually when no one is present, particularly Rocío. He'll rather turn the compost pile for the sixth time in a week than pick up the squeegee.

But ahh, washing the cars--or any auto-related activity--is quite a different matter. Félix will go about washing one of the cars inside and out and spend the better part of a morning at it. Waxing and polishing it will take an additional hour or two.

You don't dare complain because after all that TLC the darned thing will look practically new. There will be Armor All on all the interior plastic surfaces, and on the lining of your lungs too, for a few days following one his beauty treatments.

When he is finished Félix all will point out any new dings or other imperfections, no matter how minor, since he last cleaned the vehicle. We recently had our pick-up repainted and when we came home Félix examined every square millimeter of the job before declaring it, ¡Muy bueno!

While we're traveling, Félix and his wife and two young kids will move into our office which has a bathroom and doubles as a guest bedroom. He's never mentioned it but I believe the biggest thrill for him and his family is taking hot showers, a luxury not available at his one-room home with no indoor plumbing. After they used a whole bottle of antiseptic hand soap during one of our recent vacations, we learned to leave ample grooming and bathing supplies for everyone to enjoy.

One thing Félix takes seriously is security. After one trip we discovered he kept a machete under the bed, for what I'm not sure. One other time, apparently during a high-alert period, he recruited one of his brothers to stay with him. It wasn't clear either whether the brother provided an extra pair of eyes or just calmed Félix's nerves with his presence.

Félix has mentioned a few times that we should consider getting him a gun. Two big-city sissies like Stew and I have never even held a gun, never mind bought one. And we're not about to do so and then give it to the gardener. In a foreign country, no less.

The last thing we want is to return from a vacation to the scene of Mexican shoot-out, and in particular to find bullet holes in the ceramic pieces we'd so carefully Velcroed in place.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

13,000 snips and tucks and still counting

Forty-five minutes before registration was to begin, at eight in the morning, dozens of patients of all sizes and fur shadings already were waiting in the front porch of the Independencia Dance Hall, located  in one of the outlying barrios of San Miguel.

Stew, our gardener Félix and I showed up around nine and set up our weighing station, a key measurement that determines how much anesthesia each patient gets. Too much and they may sleep for  hours. Not enough and one could awaken in the middle of the operation.

Accurate weighing requires the patient to stand still for about thirty seconds, all paws on the flat, two-by-three-foot panel of an electronic scale, preferably without peeing with fright or biting one of us. It can be tricky.

A doughy, wrinkled St. Bernard--later verified to weigh about ninety pounds--seemed to invite pats on the head but let out a less friendly, full-throated woof when someone tried to get too familiar.

A very pre-op male Chihuahua awaits his turn. 
Bug-eyed Chihuahuas, dozens of them, displayed many of the personality quirks typical of the breed. Some nervously accepted a friendly tickle under the chin but most cowered or bared their fangs with the ferocity of canines ten times their size. Looking and behaving incongruously seem to be salient characteristics among Chihuahuas.

In another weight category was a massive black mastiff--I couldn't tell the specific sub-breed--which was a mountain of muscles and drool that frightened everyone yet rewarded less cowardly humans with frantic wagging of his stumpy tail and licking of any hand or face within reach of his tongue. This guy flunked aggressiveness training.

Not so visible but often heard were cats who arrived in nylon grocery bags or cardboard boxes with breathing holes cut out through which you could occasionally see a protruding pink nose and hear a faint meow.

The occasion was a three-day spay-and-neuter "blitz" sponsored by Amigos de Animales one of the most effective, bang-for-the-peso non-profits in San Miguel. By the end of the blitz, 184 cats and dogs had been sterilized. Stew and I have been volunteering and donating to this group since we moved to Mexico seven years ago.

Waiting and waiting: The man on the right, wearing the baseball
cap was carrying his cat in the shoe box. 
This time we brought Félix who had a grand time weighing dogs and cats, shaving and vacuuming their undersides after they had been anesthetized, carrying them to the operating table and to the recovery area afterward. Anything as long as it didn't involve the sight of blood, which macho Félix seems to dread despite his protestations. He had so much fun that on the last day his wife and one-year-old Edgar came along to watch daddy in action.

Indeed, by ten o'clock on Sunday, Amigos had surpassed the 13,000 sterilization mark since the organization began its work eleven years ago.  If you figure each sterilization prevented the birth of four to six unwanted kittens or puppies, each of which likely would have had their own litters--and so on and on--pretty soon the arithmetic progression will exhaust the number of zeros in your pocket calculator.

Other animal welfare organizations in San Miguel run shelters and adoption programs and even facilitate adoptions from Mexico to the U.S., all of them worthy efforts. But after witnessing the mayhem of hundreds of homeless and abandoned dogs desperately foraging for food and often getting run over by cars or killed in fights with other dogs, Stew and I have settled on Amigos' spaying-and-neutering campaigns as the most effective solution to this awful situation.

Rampant pet overpopulation is the central problem.

Two young customers at last weekend's blitz. 
Over the years we've been volunteering with Amigos there has been a change is Mexican attitudes toward sterilization of pets. It is more generally accepted as a good and responsible thing to do for your pet. It's encouraging too to see young kids bring their animals and understand the value of spaying and neutering. Also there are more pure-bred dogs showing up at blitzes--terriers, Dobermans, poodles and usual yappy crowd of Chihuahuas--in addition to the conga line of mutts resulting from endless breeding.

Curiously there are also many more male dogs coming in, a gradual--and significant--shift in the traditional sexist belief that pregnancy is primarily a female problem, even among pets. To this day some Mexican men recoil at the mention of castrating their dogs, as if that would violate the solemn pact of solidarity among all testicle-owners, human or animal.

At the blitzes, dogs showing up with ropes or wires around their necks get new collars and leashes, and a groomer cleans up the fur, trims the nails and cleans the teeth of some of the dogs while they are half-dazed after the operation, usually for an hour.

The actual operations are performed by two vets working for Amigos and a rotating number of volunteer vets from San Miguel, nearby Querétaro and even Mexico City. Donations go mostly for surgical and medical supplies and rental of the hall for the weekend.

If some readers feel one of their hands instinctively reaching for a checkbook or wallet to make a donation, please e-mail me at and I'll give you the details. Hey, donations are even deductible from your U.S. taxes.

This Doberman flunked out of aggression school too. 
The weary expression on this
woman's face seemed to say:
Enough puppies already

Dressed for the occasion: This guy showed up with a
bandanna that read "Hi Dude!"

Ya talking to me???
A candidate for the grooming station.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happy New Delusions

The new year, every new year, brings out the delusional in us. We resolve to meditate each morning at sunrise, perfect our tree pose in yoga or become devout vegetarians. Resolutions, delusions.

My own and rather grand delusion, triggered every December by the arrival of seed and plant catalogs, is to plant a garden in which everything grows with a symphonic sense of timing and order. The tomato seeds sprout just in time for them to become sturdy little plants eager to take hold in my loamy, compost-enriched soil and produce perfect fruit, along with the various varieties of chiles, pickling cucumbers, butternut squash and other imaginary bounties thriving in my raised beds.

The surviving garden: Kale, arugula, lettuce and a leek.

That never happens, of course, particularly here in San Miguel with its slightly out-of-sync seasons and unforgiving soil. But that's what delusions are: Projects so far-fetched they have little or no chance of becoming reality except in our imagination.

In the case of my raised beds, which I've partitioned and redesigned endlessly on paper and with strings and stakes planted in the ground, the result instead is likely to be another cacophony of weeds, leaf vegetables, shapeless tomato plants bearing cracked and bug-nibbled fruit, plus a couple of rogue zucchinis that I will insist taste better than anything at the supermarket. Indeed, last year's zucchini vines kept veering off over the edge as if they were trying to escape the tumult in the raised beds.

Still we had some successes, significant enough to rekindle my gardening hopes. Delicious and fresh greens still keep coming and salads can't get any fresher than this: The ingredients travel only about fifty feet from the beds to our plates.

Unfortunately the labeling sticks gradually disappeared over the growing season and we don't know which varieties of what thrived or perished. By now the arugula is cavorting with the mesclun, the spinach elbowing the Swiss chard and who-knows-what. It would be nice, if for nothing else but my self-esteem as a gardener, to have the plants in neatly labeled rows, just like in the Johnny's Seed catalog that arrived a month ago.

Tomatoes were the biggest surprise: They produced fruit right into mid-December, a phenomenon experienced by other local gardeners. Again, a labeling failure prevented us from determining which tomato varieties survived so late in the season. As we approached Christmas an avalanche of tomatoes of different colors and sizes, ever more wrinkled and misshapen, accumulated on our kitchen window sill. Still, all of them--whatever they were--tasted great.

Chiles con Flowers: Jalapeño growing in a pot,
to the right of the arrow. 
The compost pile secretly nurtured a bumper crop of volunteers that popped up in the oddest places: Jalapeños in a pot of flowers, Mexican yellow tomatoes practically everywhere, and leeks that we originally grew from seeds that blog reader Bill Barnes had given me, emerged in two or three different places. Green beans appeared at random, I presume the progeny of last year's plants or leftovers that went into the compost.

Surprises are always fun but I keep hoping for a more orderly, sightly garden.

But on to this year's delusions.

We have ordered several designer greens, including a variety of dandelions (aka "chicory")--can't wait happens with that--plus watercress and mizuna, which is a sharp-tasting green reminiscent of arugula, plus nasturtiums for decoration in the beds and on the salads. We also have planted mesclun, frisee and romaine lettuces that seemed to prosper last year.

Back for another season will be the Brandywine and Black Krim tomatoes, which to everyone's astonishment actually grew and set fruit, plus the Mexican yellow tomatoes that grow rampantly. In addition, we're taking a stab at cauliflowers; Valley Girl tomatoes; a "watermelon" radish which is red inside (we tasted some last year and they are delicious); Claremont and Coastal Star lettuces and stumpy variety of carrots, supposedly bred to grow in recalcitrant soils like ours.

Here comes the whatever. 
It all sounds like a fairly well organized operation except already there are some signs of chaos. In our seeding trays, in which we mixed in some compost with the soil and vermiculite, tiny leaves are popping up everywhere: Are those the seeds we planted in each clearly-labeled cell? Or the ubiquitous Mexican yellow tomatoes, leeks, jalapeños and other riff-raff that came along with the compost?

Félix says it's too early to panic. When the seedlings grow their true leaves we might be able to differentiate between the good, the bad and the vegetables. But judging from our record last year I wouldn't bet on it.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The predator within

On several occasions our gardener Félix, with a great deal of admiration in his voice, has described our dog Lucy as a “real ranch dog.” He loves Lucy almost as much as his own two dogs.

At sixty pounds or thereabouts, Lucy is an impressive canine of undetermined pedigree. I see faint Labrador-ish traces on her face but people tell me it’s all in my head. Her fur is short, bristly and all white except for two black blotches on one side. She has an enormous, powerful chest that tapers toward her small back which is supported by her muscular rear legs. A foot-long tail can wag wildly when she is happy or turn rigidly straight, almost perfectly in line with her back, when there’s some serious business at hand.

Even at six years old—middle-age for a dog her size—when Lucy runs at full throttle she kicks up a contrail of dust and gravel that makes her seem a bit like a cheetah or some wild animal The other four dogs in the pack, two ours and two belonging to Félix, don’t even try to keep up.

Leader of the pack
Indeed, Lucy is the queen of the pack. She’ll rassle with the other mutts, all smaller than her, but when she walks away that’s the signal for everyone to settle down. A quick growl or impatient look may underline the point.

With visitors, Lucy’s annoying slobbering is anything but menacing. But if she spots a stranger, human or animal, on the outside of our fence she’ll put on a growling, snarling display fit for a trained guard dog. Alone with Stew, Félix and me, Lucy has never displayed any aggression.

So what makes her a “real ranch dog” I asked Felix one day, and he replied calmly: “The way she can hunt.” He could have elaborated: “And the way she can also kill and occasionally dismember and eat her prey.”

For a pet that sleeps on Costco dog mattress in the living room and at the foot of the bed, eats a mix of dry and canned dog food, wears a collar with a name tag and does a few tricks, it's always a shock to be reminded of the predator side of Lucy.

She was not a wild creature rescued from a forest. When someone found her abandoned on the side of a road, she was only a few weeks old and weighed no more than five or six pounds including a bellyful of parasites. We were only supposed to “foster” her for a few months until she’d be ready for adoption at the local shelter. The ridiculous fostering pretense lasted less than a day. She stayed.

Parasites, mange and other health problems out of the way Lucy grew prodigiously and in less than a year had turned into the large, restless animal that she is. But until we moved to the ranch she had never run loose, exploring other animals and plants at her leisure, guided by nothing but her nose and basic instincts.

Full-speed ahead
Since then, she's caught snakes, rabbits, birds, rats, mice and probably a number of other creatures meandering by. Just yesterday we saw a bird that looked like a pheasant and Stew and I both have seen roadrunners in the ranch, imagining them going "beep-beep" as they scurried away. 

I've seen Lucy hunting something under a cactus or under a rock, crouching down, her body so tense it looks spring-loaded, her front paws kicking up dirt. No use calling her name or trying to intervene in the moment: This is the ultimate case of mindfulness, of concentrating on one thing and forgetting the rest of the world. 

Fortunately for the local wildlife, what makes Lucy so threatening and overwhelming--her size and brute force--prevents her from making many kills. A rat, mouse or even a rabbit can dash under a cactus out of reach of Lucy's paws, snout and formidable teeth. 

Aside from the burst of adrenaline in the predator and prey, and the spectacle--which usually attracts the other dogs who stand around waiting for the outcome--such confrontations end up in a draw. The would-prey is left alive but scared out of its wits, and Lucy with nothing to show but a couple of cactus thorns stuck on her nose. 

Her heart pounding, tongue dangling out, and ears up, Lucy will then walk to the nearest water bowl for a drink--and promptly revert to her normal persona of a galoot of a dog sleeping in front of the TV.