Friday, June 28, 2013

When even what is shouldn't be

Being neither a Southerner nor a rider, I'm not about to get on any preachy high horse about the Paula Deen debacle. I admit to being mystified, though, how an extremely savvy and wealthy businesswoman, no matter how distraught she might feel or what part of the country she comes from, could drop a grammatical mega-turd like "I'm is what I'm is." But even on that I could be off base; maybe there are Southern patois I'm not familiar with.

Indeed, over lunch I asked two close friends, one Texan and the other Mississippian—who still sport genuine drawls—about the controversy and neither seem disposed to get too excited about Deen's use of the N-word, although I can't imagine them ever using it. The reaction seemed to be a brief, embarrassed pause, along the lines of "it happens."

After spending my entire professional life in Chicago, among many African American colleagues, a couple  explained to me why "nigger" had become the N-word, something so offensive no one, particularly non-blacks, should dare use or even spell out. No matter the context, it is too ugly a term to be uttered in civil conversation.

James C. Moore, a commentator on CNN, again illustrated this sensitivity by recalling the story of a 17-year-old black farmhand who, less than a hundred years ago, was chained to a tree in Waco, Texas and burned alive, for a murder many historians believe he did not commit. Parts of the charred body were sold as souvenirs to the cheering crowd of about 10,000 whites, many of whom, no doubt, had the N-word on their minds if not their lips.

African Americans being touchy about the N-word? Yes, I can understand that, and I can't see how  Deen didn't, someone who was born and raised in the South and indeed made her considerable fortune peddling Southern-ness.

Though far removed from that scenario, San Miguel, with its sizable population of Southern expats, mostly from Texas, is about as close to the South as I've ever lived.

Too close perhaps, I have felt a couple of times. During the presidential race an acquaintance from Dallas casually, and without any particular inflection, mused over dinner that if Herman Cain and Obama both were nominated "we'd have a couple of nigs running for President." Stew was having his soup and paused in mid-slurp, the expression on his face not one so much of offense but astonishment, as if someone suddenly were speaking Latin or some other dead language.

Stew later recalled that growing up in Iowa, the N-word cropped up frequently, and was even used by his dad, but that fifty-some years into the civil rights era it was clearly a word too offensive to be used by anyone. Or so Stew thought.

On another occasion the same guy cut closer to home—my home—by referring to Latinos as "greasers" and in the case of Mexicans with Indian features as "slope-heads," a term I hand't ever heard but didn't sound too endearing. I mentioned this to two other friends from Texas and their reaction was a roll of the eyes and another embarrassed shrug.

In 2008, in a round of e-mails with fellow Cuban-Americans talking about the Obama candidacy, the N-word popped up once or twice, and the comments, cartoons and attachments to some of the messages also took a noticeably racist turn. I was surprised that Cubans my age, who had personally felt the headwinds of ethnic and racial bias when they arrived to the United States, and called "spics" and worse on several occasions, would be so insensitive, clueless—or forgetful—about the hurtfulness and inappropriateness of certain words.

But enough already, before I get on that preachy high horse I'd promised to avoid.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Praise of Occasional Trash

Kindle tablets allow you to "sample" books from Amazon and peek at the first fifteen or so pages before committing the twelve or fifteen bucks it might cost to download the entire thing. It's a system that invites intellectual pretense.

I might run across a book reviewed by the New York Times that sounds like it could be a good challenge for my aging brain, like mental vitamins, even though in truth, the write-up itself is so bombastic and convoluted I can barely figure out the subject matter. But it sounds like a serious read and I download a sample anyway.

Or I might catch Charlie Rose thoroughly engrossed in a discussion with the author of a book about, say, breakthroughs in cosmology. It sounds urgent, or at least important—what's the origin of the universe anyway?—something I should know about so I can be as well informed and serious as Charlie himself.

Not until I'm finished with it. 
Even if I don't buy the book, or even sample it, I always  wonder how guys like Rose or Bill Moyers can read so much. Do they have a team of brilliant, unpaid interns working backstage ten hours a day, frantically reading and highlighting the salient points, then transcribing them to five-by-seven index cards for these hyper-erudite television hosts to peruse before the authors show up? I'm convinced nobody can be as smart or read as much as Charlie Rose.

Then there are the classics I should have read in high school and college but for some reason didn't, even though I attended fairly decent schools. Commentators cite them as if anyone with a middling education had read and digested them and is able to quote passages from memory thirty years later.

Most annoying is when recognize the titles and authors. "The Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad is one I remember from college but never read. Something about Africa, I believe. Was I asleep? So a sample is waiting in my Kindle.

I'm not a complete dilettante. I can read classics I missed in my earlier years and be wowed by them. I'm embarrassed to admit that until a year ago I had never read anything by John Steinbeck. But once I got into "The Grapes of Wrath" I found his writing so amazing both Stew and I went on a Steinbeck binge that lasted a couple of months and also included "Travels with Charley" and "Of Mice and Men." It's never too late to revisit your college reading list.

Then there are those books that I plow through because someone said they were great and for which I paid good money. Take "Paris," a new historical novel by Edward Rutherfurd that I just finished reading. It's a monumental 800-page story of the city, from sometime around the thirteenth century right up to the student riots of 1968, told through the eyes and experiences of an intricate helix of characters and their descendants, who keep bumping into each other through the centuries.

It's not a bad book, particularly if you are roughly familiar with Paris and its landmarks, like Notre Dame and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Rutherfurd is no Steinbeck but he is a good writer who must have spent years on research. Yet "Paris" does go on and on: Around the halfway mark I felt as if I was wading across a river of molasses with the other side nowhere in sight.

But I finished it, damn it, and for my reward I'm having a well deserved, trashy interlude with "Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys," by Peter Evans. I found it in a bookshelf of freebies at the church Stew and I attend occasionally.

It's a super-quick, intellectually unencumbering read: I started it two days ago and I'm a quarter of the way through it. How great? In a breathless quote on the back cover Liz Smith, former gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, New York Post and Newsday, opines that it "[A]dds an entire new dimension to the Kennedy years. What a book! What a read!"

You bet! There's enough manure in there to gag a compost pile. Jack and Bobby Kennedy's sexual appetites make Bill Clinton look like a rookie. Jackie and her sister Lee were no vestal virgins either. And the sex life of the short, gnomish Ari Onassis sounds like a sleazefest worthy of Caligula. Yow! I can't imagine what Evans is going to dig up in the remaining two-hundred pages!

We're not talking about presidential history or fine policy analysis but trashy anecdotes ladled with sex, sex and more sex! One of Onassis's mistresses recalls how he used to lick her between the toes and move up from there, while other women revealed how... Nah, I 'm too embarrassed to go there. If you want to find any additional details you'll just have to check your church's lending library.

But for the sake of research I must continue even if the book cost me nothing and I could just return it to the church. I can't stop now.

And as soon as I finish, I promise to go back to "The Heart of Darkness" or maybe "The Unwinding," a new book by George Packer about, I think, how America is going to hell. Another one of those. I'm sure Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose are thoroughly familiar with both of them.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Peeing Puppies and Privacy

Leave it to our new puppy Roxy to finally get me worked up about the growing intrusions into my private life by the government as well as internet and electronic communication providers.

I don't know if it's political fatigue, laziness or a surge in my Buddhist mindfulness but recently I had  been ignoring even major political and civic issues—such as reports of government surveillance of phone calls—primarily because I feel impotent to influence any outcome.

But the following ad on the right-hand side of my Gmail inbox jolted me out of my stupor:


Your Puppy Will Never Pee or Poop Inside. System Works in 6 Days!


Two days before a post in this blog, published "free" by Google, had mentioned that I had a new puppy I was trying to housebreak. I believe the incriminating words were "pee" and "puppy." Google's computers and algorithms went to work, meshing and mashing words in my posts with my email account and helpfully suggested I check with TheDogTrainingSecret.com/Puppy. Please feel free to visit the site if your dog is taking indecent liberties with your floor too.

Are you talking about me?
Similarly, after Stew finished making reservations for a trip to Paris and Istanbul, our inbox and other sites I visit suddenly were decorated with pitches for hotels and other attractions at both destinations. I ignored them—I can't recall ever buying anything as a result of that type of internet plugola—but I'm sure there were ads for baguettes and shish-kebabs in the mix too, and even a recipe or two for kebabs stuffed in a baguette or a baklava-and-crepes combo plate.

I'm not nearly naive enough to think that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and similar outfits operate pro bono. Their business is to help retailers and service providers hook up with customers who are "qualified," that is, presumably interested in their products. Thus the overt plug for dog training. But I suspect there is much more information-trading in cyberspace about my lifestyle, shopping and other consumer habits, sometimes along with my email address, so interested parties can connect the dots of my personal life in ways that I haven't even imagined.

Indeed if you think of all the internet vendors and service providers I use, from Amazon.com, iTunes, Gmail, Blogspot.com and others as overlapping circles, the free space left in the middle—my private life—shrinks by the day. Perhaps that's the high price of all those free internet services.

The recent debate over mass government surveillance of telephone conversations has riled some folks on the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit and Rand Paul's hair looks even stranger than usual as he too plans to sue the government.

But according to public opinion surveys the vast middle lump of the American public, about sixty-two percent, is not too bothered by what seems to be gross government encroachment into privacy and personal rights, largely as a result of a Pavlovian response to the word "terrorism." Presumably included in the consenting portion of the population are liberals who would normally be leery of  any government snooping and at the other end, right wingers forever fretting about "jack-booted thugs" breaking into their home to snatch away their guns.

Yet under the Bush administration the government was allowed to peruse personal emails and now under Obama our phone conversations can be monitored too, and with wide approval by a public too scared about terrorism to disagree.

Most alarming is the promiscuous use of the word "secret" which turns the debate into a circle. Secret memos by the executive, secret hearings in Congress, secret decisions by special courts created to deal with secret decisions by secretive security agencies, and in the end the public doesn't know diddly because the whole thing is, you know, secret.

And unless there's a thunderbolt from the judiciary upending this trend, intrusions into our private life are largely irreversible. I don't expect the federal government five years from now to declare it's inspected enough emails and phone calls and therefore it's shutting down some of its data-mining computers and giving our privacy rights back.

Indeed, I voted for Barack Obama partly because I expected him to close the American gulag in Guantánamo and claw back some of the constitutional rights that had gotten away from us during the terrorism fear-mongering following Sept. 11. Guantánamo is still open and Obama is instead broadening government intrusions into our private lives.

When asked on Friday about the secret surveillance controversy, Obama sounded annoyed or perplexed by it. "And if people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here."

Yes I trust Obama on this issue far more than Dick Cheney but that's not saying much. Count me among the motley thirty-four percent of Americans who in the latest poll said they were not comforted by government assurances that in the end it will do the right thing to protect our rights.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

A surprise-filled day

What started out a week ago as a quick run to pick up a load of compost from a neighbor's horse ranch, by the end of the day had led to us to meet another Chicagoan who's lived in San Miguel for twenty-two years and, most unexpected, to adopt a three-month-old puppy.

The neighbor's ranch—make that a Ranch with a capital "R"—has about ten horses, some belonging to the owner and others just boarders, in addition to stables and paddocks, service and storage buildings, an impressive hacienda-style manor, and a small, circular enclosure that looks like a miniature bullring. It turns out the previous ranchero was also a torero, and apparently a quite successful one. The wife of the present American owner is a dressage aficionado, à la Ann Romney, and uses the enclosure to practice.

From the perspective of a low-flying drone this spread is located just on the other side of a low hill we see from our terrace though in size and impressiveness it could be tens of miles away. The really down-to-earth American owners are not only friends but also sell us turbo-charged horse manure compost for the price of a donation to their church.

While a ranch hand shoveled the manure onto our pickup, Félix, Stew and I spotted this skeletal Doberman-ish puppy that someone had found abandoned on the streets of San Miguel and brought to the ranch the day before. Her short and inauspicious existence hadn't soured her outlook on life or friendliness toward animals and people alike.

The irrational puppy train of thought immediately started rolling toward its inevitable destination, with the usual stops at the stations of "oh, the poor thing!", "she's so cute! and "she likes you, look how she licks your face!" Yep, Félix, Stew and I asked about her and left shortly afterward with a truckful of compost and a fourth dog we named Roxy, after one of the lead characters in the musical "Chicago."

Her ears hacked off by some greedy jerk who probably intended
to sell her as a purebred left Roxy looking like the Flying Nun. 
Actually, adopting Roxy was really my idea, with surprisingly little resistance from Stew and an assist from Félix who loves animals.  

So far Roxy is far smarter than her cohorts, which are already fed up with her energy level and constant entreaties to roughhouse. In a week she's learned her name, "come," "sit" and "stay" and is studying the meaning of "don't pee in the house." We suspect she was bred to be sold as either a Rottweiler or a Doberman but turned out to be neither —her legs are too long to be the former and nose too stubby to qualify as the latter—and was abandoned.

As with all animals her less-than-perfect appearance doesn't seem to affect her self-esteem.

On the way back we stopped at another ranch which Félix, who knows everyone within a ten-mile radius of our place, said belonged to a fellow Chicagoan. In fact, Félix' dad and older brother had worked there as bricklayers about fifteen years ago, and sometimes Félix, then about twelve, came along to watch.

And so we met Jim, who was a week away from his seventy-seventh birthday, and whom we had over for some bratwurst and sauerkraut a few days later. He arrived in a battered pickup with one of those old-fashioned, crane-necked stick shifts that travels to the floor somewhere under the dashboard. He quickly assured me that despite its sorry appearance the vehicle had a "great engine" still beating inside.

Jim's sparse hair is all white, and his build thin and wiry, as someone who still putters around the ranch every day. A white shirt and chino pants a couple of sizes too large hung loosely on his frame. He is in great shape for his age.

Jim lives with a Mexican family whom he has apparently adopted: a blacksmith, his wife and five kids. He seemed to have very few contacts in the expat community of San Miguel and none left in Chicago. We hope to get to know him better. He must have great stories to tell about all his years here.

Indeed while some Americans here prattle on about the beauty of San Miguel, it's near-perfect climate, the artistic and cultural offerings and and so on, Stew and I most like the climate—maybe a little too desert-like a couple of months a year, but we'll settle for that—and the number of interesting people we've met here. Some are interesting as in interesting-interesting others interesting as in, hmm, kinda odd.

Either way, after seven years in San Miguel we have more more good friends than we had in Chicago after living there for thirty.

About interesting people—let you guess which variety—I just chatted with Bee Bob, the roving apiculturist, who stopped by in his rattletrap Volkswagen Beetle to check on our four hives, up from the one Stew had originally installed a year ago. Bob is very excited about a honey extractor he just purchased which we need to inspect and admire soon. It's about the size of a top-loading washing machine, he says.

What to do with all the honey is still a topic in play.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Paging Dr. de León

Just as Florida gets ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León's search for the Fountain of Youth—supposedly somewhere in the northern part of the state—out comes Smithsonian magazine in its June issue with an article saying the legend is baloney. In fact, according to a University of South Florida researcher, a political rival made it up years after de León's death to make him look ridiculous.

So with Ponce out of the picture the only two sure things left for the old folks in Florida are the early-bird specials at Denny's and endless lines at polling places on election day, especially if they live in black and Democratic-leaning neighborhoods.

In San Miguel though, fountain of youth legends gurgle on in the minds of many residents, feeding hopes that the symptoms of aging—which after a certain age flash persistently in one's mind like the "Check Engine" light on the dashboard of an old sedan—can be averted, turned back, cured, alleviated or otherwise made to go away.

I was introduced to this phenomenon shortly after we moved to San Miguel. Looking for something to do I signed up for a workshop on supposed Mexican indigenous healing methods.

The leaders of the discussion asked each of us to describe a personal ailment and as the question bounced around the room I heard about back pains, post-menopausal problems, arthritis, bum knees and other typically geriatric complaints. When the question reached this one woman near me she paused and just said "stomach problems" followed by  "flatulence." The room fell silent as we all dreaded additional details. She spared us. When my turn came I put everyone at ease by blurting out "insomnia."

The few younger people in the room, some rolling their eyes, fled the workshop at the next break. But the older folk stayed, to excitedly exchange stories of nearly miraculous cures, esoteric treatments and herbal potions, spiced with occasional complaints about how the pharmaceutical-medical-industrial complex conspires to conceal these effective yet economical remedies.

A sign at a local pharmacy offers medical
consultations for $25 pesos, or about two dollars.
However, the psychologist advertised below charges
$100 pesos for a 45-minute session and appointments
are required. 
Since then I've heard about not just the more conventional alternative medicine methods, such as acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation or various types of massage, or even that old standby, colonic irrigation.

Can we talk about Cranio-Sacral and Somato-Emotional Release, suggested for the treatment of everything from Temporo-mandibular Joint Syndrome, Pre- and Post-Surgery Trauma and "many other conditions," by one local provider? Ever hear of Lomilomi massage or Zhineng Gigong medicine? Neither had I. Chelation or Environmental Essence therapies, anyone? If all these fail, and your money holds out, there's always the burgeoning area of Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy.

But, sorry, if your money does run out you don't get any of these treatments because none are free.

Most talked about in the past few years are stem-cell injections. As I understand it, stem cells have the ability to recreate themselves to mimic other cells so that if they are injected into a knee, for example, they can spur regeneration of a worn cartilage and give your knees a new start.

A local doctor has a thriving stem-cell treatment practice, in some cases using stem cells extracted from the placentas of sheep in Switzerland, to treat practically anything. A neighbor in his late seventies spent a thousand dollars on such interventions but alas reported no change in his life except afterward the three sheep at his ranch looked at him kinda funny.

Yet for all the easy fun to be made about some of these quack cures I ultimately sympathize with the quiet desperation felt in a community of people getting old together and feeling their bodies deteriorate. I'm there.

If Pulse Eletromagnetic Field Therapy  might conceivably alleviate your daily back pain, and you have the money, why not try it? And who can argue if afterward you proclaim that you feel better? A thirty-something medical researcher dismissing it as the "placebo effect"? But what the hell does she know about getting old?

During a recent vacation in Europe my bad feet acted up and if a street gypsy had offered me some far-fetched cure for a few euros, I would have taken her up on it.

Ultimately the wisest observation about aging may have come Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in  lyrics they wrote in 1966: "What a drag it is getting old!" 

Indeed. I wonder, though, if Mick and Keith had any idea what they would look forty-seven years later: two bony guys, almost seventy years old, their faces crisscrossed with wrinkles as deep as crevasses.

Except they're still jumping around and screaming on stage as if they were in their twenties. That raises the question: Do those two paleolithic rockers know about some age-defying treatments that are being withheld from the rest of us geezers in San Miguel?

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