Friday, May 3, 2013

An un-Civil Kind of Post

Pity Susan, whoever she might be. I don't know her last name or even if she actually lives in San Miguel. For all I know, Susan might be a pseudonym for a guy from Nebraska named Irving.

All I know is that this mythical Susan-person is the moderator of the Civil List, an internet bulletin board with almost eighty-two-hundred members who exchange comments, longings, random thoughts—a lot of those—questions large and small, complaints—even more of those—in a seemingly endless, meandering stream of collective consciousness. Check it out:

On an average day over one-hundred postings come in and are electronically distributed to all the members. Wisely, many of them have opted for digest packages of a dozen of so postings at a time instead of receiving each posting separately, which would be like getting stoned to death with popcorn as Archbishop Fulton Sheen once described listening to confessions at a convent.

The focus of the Civil List is life in San Miguel and its tone is supposed to constructive, measured and polite, hence the name. At least one other bulletin board does not have such constraints and there I understand the arguments and name-calling can turn Jerry Springer-ish.

Remember, a large number, if not most, of the members of both lists are retired and have plenty of time to spend at the computer sending each other messages or writing blogs, or pursuing a life of painting, sculpting or other non-time-sensitive pursuits. It's not like most of us have to run off to work.

But even on the Civil List the discussions heat up beyond the civil boiling point and that's when the mythical Susan intervenes, in the manner of someone impatiently grabbing a water pistol to keep the cats from scratching the furniture. Or quite often some discussion threads unravel into gibberish and she'll cut them off with her more civil version of "Shut up already!"

It's difficult to imagine the patience required to perform her job, starting with, presumably, having to read hundreds of posts daily, many riddled with misspellings and wobbly grammar, leaps of logic or simply adrift from any factual moorings.

This is the Civil List, friends, not The New York Times.

It's precisely such lack of any credible media in San Miguel that has made the Civil List so popular, the equivalent of an expat newspaper or radio station. I confess to being a member and glancing at the digests because, you never know, there might be something out there ready to bite me, like some change in vehicle or immigration laws.

But over the past few weeks even reading the digests has becoming like hoping for gold nuggets to pop  through an avalanche of gobbledygook.

First you have the inane inquiries: "Where do I get the bus to Mexico City?" (at the bus station?) or  "Where do I buy a travel-size tube of toothpaste?" (have you tried a drugstore?). As a friend of mine observed, "Some people here need to get out of the house."

Second in frequency and contentiousness is the innocuous-sounding question, "Does anyone know of a good dentist?" That inevitably triggers volleys and counter-volleys of posters defending their dentist or skewering someone else's.

Most recently someone recommended my own dentist, Dra. Guadalupe Tejeda (not TejAda as her name appeared in numerous postings), and that started a string of venomous postings charging her with several odontological misdeeds. Finally someone wrote that they were going to print all the postings and bring them to Dra. Tejeda, who'll probably conclude the brains of her gringo patients are as mushy as their teeth.

Susan, where were you?

In my experience, Dra. Tejeda is occasionally late for appointments and that she mumbles so fast in Spanish I'm never sure if she wants me to open or shut my mouth. Other than that, she's fine.

The most recent and perhaps longest debate in Civil List history concerns changes in the Mexican immigration system which apparently will force some expats to nationalize or import their American or Canadian cars, instead of continuing to drive them with temporary permits.

Should I drive my car to Chihuahua, Querétaro, Celaya, Nuevo Laredo or Guadalajara seeking the miracle of trans-nationalization? The brainstorms go on and on.

Indeed, this thread has been singularly long, contradictory and even misleading. I know of a few people who took one of the cures suggested on the Civil List and each lost US$450 to a shifty lawyer in Ajijic, near Guadalajara. And despite all the keystrokes and megabytes wasted on this topic I don't know of a single person who has successfully nationalized his American wheels.

As you may have gathered, I need to take a break from the Civil List, cold turkey, maybe for a couple of weeks.

Then I'd better give some serious thought to what the hell we're going to do to nationalize our 2000 Nissan Frontier pickup and 2003 Volkswagen Passat station wagon, both of which are registered in South Dakota.

Why South Dakota if we came from Chicago? That's another story. All I can tell you is that idea actually came from Civil List—and that it was a good one.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Booze and the campo

As much as I have tried to understand the lifestyles of the folks who live in the small towns surrounding the ranch—by visiting with them, giving them rides to San Miguel and talking with them, attending fiestas and religious occasions and doing small favors, among other gestures—life there often remains as incomprehensible as a Chinese soap opera.

The most recent episode took place this weekend and sent our gardener Félix to the emergency room of the general hospital with cuts and bruises on his scalp, left temple and eye, and on his right hand. According to him, he was at a wedding where some guy jumped on Félix' teenage nephew. When he  tried to break it up, the aggressor—who was wearing a set of brass knuckles—threw Félix on the ground and beat the daylights out of him.

Attacking someone at a wedding? With brass knuckles? Why did the other guests apparently stand by while Félix was on the ground as if they were watching a cockfight? What the hell kind of wedding is this?

Sadly, this was a fairly common fiesta in the Mexican campo. During the three-and-a-half years we've lived here we've heard of shootings and stabbings during soccer games, and brawls large and small during town fiestas and other festivities.
Down at the fiesta. 

We've been to some of those events and can attest that alcohol, if not a fuel is certainly an accelerant to some of these encounters, which typically erupt when someone's macho-ness is called into question in some way.

Town fiestas—including religious celebrations that start out with a morning mass and much pomp and religiosity—inevitably start sliding off the rails by midday when cases upon cases of beer appear from nowhere. By sunset the noise level drops noticeably as a lot of people leave and those left behind are well nigh plastered.

At Félix' own wedding party on a Saturday we left at around three o'clock after we noticed that an increasing number of the guests had lost their ability to focus or speak clearly. Félix didn't come to work the next Monday.

Sometimes I believe Félix has adopted me as a surrogate father or confessor, as when he tells me sad tales of alcoholism in his own family and in the town where he lives. His own dad, he has told me, was a down-on-the-gutter drunk who quit drinking mainly because he was too old and broke to continue. I suppose that's as good a reason to quit as any.

So a few times I have imparted on Félix the basic Alcoholic Anonymous pep talk, if you can call it that, about the symptoms of the disease and the fact it is often inherited. He nods somberly, thanks me and apparently stays of the wagon for several weeks, I suspect if nothing else for fear of losing his job.

I asked Félix if he was drunk during the fighting incident and he said he had only one beer, which became two when I asked him how he was feeling the next day. I suspect it might have been more like four or five.

Both Stew and I hope that if Félix has a problem with alcohol he's able to deal with it soon. Living with a wife and two kids in a one-room house with no indoor plumbing, amid a tribe of unemployed kin would be, as some would say, enough to drive anyone to drink.

Except that from personal experience we know that whatever problems Félix has, booze will only make them ten times worse.