Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cracking the door open on Cuba

The announcement that after nearly 54 years the United States is re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba has been cheered by most countries around the world, particularly in Latin America.

That’s no surprise. On October 28, 188 members of the U.N. General Assembly voted in favor of a non-binding resolution urging an end to the American economic embargo against Cuba. Only two nations voted against the resolution—the U.S. and Israel. The micro-nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained. That was the twenty-third time a majority of General Assembly members has called for an end to the embargo.

Cobbler in Havana waiting for customers.
It’s no surprise either that most Republicans and Fox News, the agitprop branch of the GOP, were practically apoplectic regarding Obama’s historic change in policy. In the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the U.S. today Obama would be roundly condemned by Fox News and the GOP even if he discovered a cure for cancer or the key to nuclear fusion.

Most vociferous were Cuban-American politicians, particularly Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is 43 years old. I don’t know if Rubio has done the arithmetic but the U.S. broke relations with Cuba about eleven years before he was born. Maybe it’s time for him to rethink his position.

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” Rubio fumed on Fox News. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush joined in the fulminations and so did other Cuban-American politicos mostly from Florida. Only a handful of Republicans supported Obama or held their fire.

What is certain is that the embargo has not done anything to nudge the Cuban government toward democracy or an open-market economy. Old age has inflicted more damage on the Castro dictatorship than American policy.

What the embargo has definitely done is make the life of the average Cuban infinitely more miserable while feeding the state-of-siege mentality in the island that ironically helps to prop up the government.

So why does the diplomatic war and the economic embargo against Cuba live on—like a sort of Flat Earth Society—against all logic, sense of proportion or evidence that it does anything to achieve its stated goals? 

Indeed, to understand the frame of mind that keeps the embargo alive you would have had to talk to my dad, or failing that—he died seven years ago a month short of his ninety-fourth birthday—to his wife who is in her eighties and inherited the job of keeping the anti-Castro fury going full-blast within my family, like a never-dormant volcano. When I spoke to her yesterday afternoon, she lamented that even the Pope had “turned liberal” by spurring the U.S.-Cuba negotiations.

Young woman watching a dancing class at
at the ballroom of the former presidential
palace in Havana. 
My dad was an autodidact, someone with not even a high school degree but a sharp mind and a voracious appetite for reading about practically any topic, from history to the sciences.

He was gentle and soft-spoken to the point of reticence, except when either one of the two Cs came up in conversation—“Cuba” or “Castro.”

He would then go into a Mr. Hyde-like transformation, as his face would redden and he tossed aside logic and facts and compared Castro to Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun or worse, and Cuba as a bottomless gulag sunlight never reached.

I learned to nod and listen. There was no point in arguing.

I had learned to understand that his tirades came from a well of sadness, bitterness and anger that dwelt deep inside a man whose life and bearings in the world had been suddenly destroyed by a political debacle beyond his control.

Unlike the personal fairy tales you often hear from Cuban exiles in Miami, neither my dad nor his family were wealthy. No vast holdings of any kind are coming my way when the regime changes in Cuba. Instead the Laniers were a clan of absent-minded professors and eggheads who probably couldn’t balance their checkbooks much less pile up any significant amount of money.

Standing at the threshold of middle age, though, my dad and mom were relatively comfortable in a lower-middle class niche that included a small printing and stationery shop, a very modest house that I visited during my two trips to the island, and a baby-blue 1954 Chevy sedan. My dad caressed and took care of that car as if it had to last another fifty years. It’s probably still putt-putting somewhere in the island but it’s no longer his.

New owners: The retired couple who now
 live in my former house in Cuba.
Then in 1965 that precarious existence was upended when my parents left for Spain and then the U.S., where I'd arrived three years earlier. He and I ended up washing dishes side by side at a restaurant in Long Island, N.Y.

My parents had divorced by then and he and his new wife set out to forge a life and an identity literally out of nothing. He eventually went to work as a printer, his trade in Cuba, for not much more than minimum wage and to retire on Social Security in Miami. His wife worked at a dry cleaners.

To my dad, Castro destroyed everything. Among the older generation in Miami you’ll hear my dad’s lament repeated hundreds of thousands of times, probably embellished, but tinged with the same rage and bitterness that won’t cede an inch to facts, reasoning or the passage of the years.

Moreover, South Florida radio and TV stations that have cursed the Castro regime daily for decades and turned Miami into an political echo chamber, impervious to contrary opinions or policies.

This group also mobilized politically around their common and implacable hatred of Castro, coalesced around the Republican Party and elected its single-issue bloc of local and congressional legislators. Recent presidential campaigns have involved obligatory visits by the candidates to some restaurant in Miami to assure everyone the anti-Castro hostilities will continue until he and his pals are gone.

But that reflexive opposition to normalizing relations with Cuba is wearing thin. Old-timers like my dad are dying off and being supplanted by a younger, assimilated cadre of Cuban voters who are not so obsessed with the embargo and in fact wish for resumed relations so they can travel freely to the island.

Last time my husband Stew and I were in Miami I was struck by the ubiquitous advertisements in Spanish for traveling to Cuba, sending money to Cuba, buying cheap phone cards to call Cuba, sending parcels to Cuba, getting relatives in Cuba to visit Miami.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba in an area where supposedly the majority of the population vows allegiance to a policy of isolating the island and choking the dastardly Communist regime in saecula saeculorum.

Front porch of a home in Havana. 
The many refugees that vehemently support the embargo in fact also flout it by sending hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and goods to the island yearly and lining up at the airport to catch the next flight to their homeland. Last year approximately 600,000 people from the U.S. visited Cuba, the vast majority Cuban-Americans.

A more compelling sign of a generational and political shift is that in 2012 Cuban Americans, albeit by a thin majority, voted for President Obama.

Polls by Florida International University also indicate an inexorable and overwhelming shift in Cuban American opinion in favor of renewed diplomatic relations most notably among younger generations.

Ultimately I agree with my late dad that the Cuba of his days is gone and has been supplanted by a repressive regime, a catatonic economy and a demoralized populace.

To visitors today Havana presents an almost apocalyptic vision of a once-beautiful ship that has been abandoned at sea to corrode almost beyond recognition by decades of neglect and the incessant pounding of the waves.

It’s just that my dad’s vision of our homeland, and that of others like him, is grounded in the past, choked with bitterness and despair. Mine looks toward the future, with uncertainty but also hope.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The decline and demise of everybody

One of the oddest books I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, is Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?”

She’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine and her book, illustrated with cartoons, handwritten text and a few photos, zigzags with hilarity and grimness through a reality no one wants to talk about: The inevitable decline, and most often messy and tragic end of one’s parents, and by direct extension, ourselves.

Chast is the one at the right of the couch. 

No wonder her parents wanted to talk about something more pleasant. Credit Chast’s humor and talent as a writer and cartoonist for her ability create a book such taboo topic.

At our church, the non-denominational Blessed Lady of Medicare, a few months ago someone handed out a questionnaire called “Five Wishes” that congregants were supposed to fill out to specify their last wishes for burial, the sort of memorial they want and other end-of-the-road details no one really wants to think about let alone put down in writing.
It’s a sensible exercise given the demographics of the congregation. Quite often the weekly church bulletin reads like a litany of people with “conditions” and those who’ve succumbed to the final “condition,” i.e. death. 

The questionnaire doesn’t seem daunting until you realize the prospective stiff in question is you.

Stew and I picked up a couple of copies. Stew didn’t want to deal with it at all. I took both of copies and dutifully buried them in my nightstand under a stack of magazines and books. Occassionally I would pull out the questionnaires, look at them, harrumph, and promptly re-bury them as if they were contaminated with kryptonite.

Both questionnaires eventually disappeared. I must have thrown them out. I just don’t have Chast’s sang-froid.

The early church service we attend is more like a discussion group but other than prayers for the ill or the dead-and-gone, the subject of death and dying—our own or that of our loved ones—rarely is up for extended discussion. And when it pops up it’s usually wrapped and Fedex-ed Upstairs quickly with a brief note about life everlasting or a comforting scriptural passage.

Of recently I’ve adopted what I describe as a Buddhist take on dying.  It's probably a glib denial under another name.

I try to concentrate on the moment and to be a reasonably decent person right now.

I’ve concluded that obsessing about one’s eventual departure, which is certain, and the circumstances, which are anything but, only extends the potential unpleasantness of it all from the future to the here and now.

It ruins the day, and done daily it ruins the life we have left.

Indeed, there have to be more pleasant things to talk about.
The genius of Chast’s book is how methodically and unflinchingly she took notes and drew cartoons about her parents’ last few years, from the beginning of the end, to the very end, including some indignities and dilemmas like her mother’s incontinence, her father’s dementia and the mounting bills for nursing homes, ambulances and the services of a saintly Jamaican nurse, among others.

I recommend Chast’s book. Despite the topic, it’s not all depressing. If anything, I found many parts of it inspirational, particularly her courage in writing the book.

I’d bring it up at church though I don’t think it would be received with much more than a polite groan.

May I also recommend a new HBO show called “Getting On.” It’s set in a geriatric ward of a hospital populated by folks with all sorts of physical and mental problems who are attended by medical and nursing staff with problems of their own.

Yes, it’s a comedy and it’s hilarious. Trust me.  


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tuning in to Mexican politics

Just before leaving for lunch a few minutes ago, Félix received a phone call from his wife Isela who had some big news: A truck had dropped off a brand-new 23-inch flat-screen television set at their house, with no other explanation except it came courtesy of Mexico's photogenic president Enrique Peña Nieto.

This cornucopia apparently extended to all households in Sosnavar, Félix' town with a population of 800 or so, and other impoverished hamlets nearby such as La Biznaga, Corralejo, Doña Juana, Providencia and La Campana. A rough guesstimate would be that a couple of thousand TVs dropped out of the sky on the towns around the ranch.

And that's just the latest in a gusher of government services to swamp this part of the world in the last year. Fifteen kilometers of a highway going near our ranch were paved recently, though not very well, and the road now has striping and cat's eyes, reflective signage and other mid-twentieth century amenities to keep people from driving into the ditch at night.

An oversize billboard advises drivers it all came from to the Federal Government of Mexico.

In addition, the main street in Félix' town, going from the highway to the church, roughly about one kilometer, was paved with concrete a few months ago and received new sidewalks with curbs nattily painted yellow, and speed bumps.

Likewise, the main road to La Biznaga, a small town visible from our bedroom window, has been neatly asphalted over.

Mind you, neither one of these towns had ever seen one inch of paved streets during the one or two hundred years they've been on the map.

And then there were lights. Maybe hundreds of street lamps have been installed to make the dark countryside sparkle at night like a Christmas tree.

But a more telling sign of the political tug-of-war around here is a billboard, located by the garbage dump on the way to San Miguel, that has been painted and repainted at least three times during the past two weeks.

For many months the billboard had trumpeted the accomplishments of the state government of Guanajuato, whose governor belongs to the National Action Party or PAN, a right-wing, Republican-type apparatus. Coincidentally, the color scheme of the billboard was blue and white, the colors of the PAN's emblem.

Two weeks ago the same billboard was painted over to proclaim that San Miguel was a "municipio priísta" or a bastion of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Indeed, the current mayor of San Miguel, Mauricio Trejo, as well as the president of Mexico belong to the PRI, a leftish party that holds the largest number of seats among all the parties in the national legislature.

Appropriately, the color scheme on the billboard changed to white, red and green, the colors of both the Mexican flag and the PRI's logo.

Four days or so later the billboard was painted over by the state government and so we went back to white and blue.

Two days ago, the last time we drove by, a crew was painting over the PAN billboard once again, to restore the "municipio priísta" message. We'll see how long this dueling billboards battle goes on.

Félix, one of the most cynical political creatures I've ever met, one who professes not to trust any politician or policemen of any stripe or party, laughingly told Stew that everyone one in Sosnavar now is ready to vote for the PRI.

As well they should, I say.

Unlike a 1928 Republican flyer in the U.S. that only promised a "chicken for every pot," when the PRI in Mexico promises a 23-inch, flat-screen TV set in every home, they deliver—right to your front door.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Waking up to a world full of cobwebs

This morning Mexico went off Daylight Savings Time so we turned our clocks back last night. I'm never sure if we gain or lose an hour in the process, maybe neither.

Stew woke up grousing about the soupy morning fog that lapped at our windows, coming after several days of iffy, partly cloudy weather. You get spoiled by a climate where full sun catapults you out of bed each morning three hundred or more days a year.

This piece of spiderwork was about eighteen inches across. 

Resting after a hard night of work.
This morning the fog brought an eerie landscape of cobwebs that spiders spent all night creating, a spectacle I remember once before. A mix of fog, mist and dew, plus the low sunlight at dawn, created a spooky scene Edgar Allan Poe would have liked.

A ground-level enchanted forest.
How do spiders cast the threads of their webs
from plants that are several feet apart?
Stew and I walked outside for a half hour oohing and aahing like two five-year-olds seeing cobwebs for the first time. The dogs, their fur soaked by the morning dew, dutifully followed us though theirs was a businesslike strut as if either they had seen this show before or had more important things in mind. 

The cobwebs came in all shapes, most the usual star-like configurations tenuously hanging between plants, other seemed like bundles of fine yarn lying on top of the ground covers while a few enveloped groups of plants with a gooey embrace. There were hairlike cobweb filaments spanning trees yards apart. How did a spider do that and why? While some webs were neat and finished-looking others looked disheveled and ratty.

These didn't get too far off the ground. 
Then it dawned on my that maybe that's the purpose of the change in time: To force us out of bed earlier—or later?—so we can catch a stunning spectacle of nature we'd otherwise miss.

A wrapping of cobwebs in time for Halloween. 

Location, location, better to trap any insects trying
 to get between these two organ cacti. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Last night Negro put himself to sleep

It's sad when a pet dies, really sad, but not quite as much so when it dies by itself, sparing you the awful task of putting it to sleep, putting it down, putting it out of its misery. Pick your own euphemism. Any hackneyed turn of phrase will do except admitting you decided to end the life, to kill, a most loyal companion.

Negro, was the mellowest of campo dogs, one of those free-roaming customers who lived, ate and stayed out of the rain by his wits and supplemented his precarious fortune by sidling up to any human who was kind to him.

Even before our house was finished five years ago, Negro, Chucha (his mother?) and Brenda (his sister?) accurately spotted in Stew and me two softies who were good for a handful of dog food once, two, even three times a day and, just as important, a reassuring pat on the head every time. All they had to do was show up at the gate of our ranch.

Negro was fifty or sixty pounds of canine mush, all black (hence his name) always ready to run to our gate, tail wagging, usually followed by the other two dogs and sometimes a fourth named Osita, or "Little Bear," whenever he spotted our car or pickup approaching.

Predictably, the two teams of dogs, the outsiders led by Negro, and our five insiders, led by Lucy, would launch into a round of raucous barking at each other.

The outside foursome, or now a threesome, technically belongs to Don Vicente, the rancher down the hill from our place, who never seems to care much for them except allowing them to stay in a tin shack at night and when it rained.

For the past week or so Negro had been glaringly missing from the gate—normally he would come at least once a day to get some food—and so three days ago Félix went looking for him. He found Negro lying by the tin shack, emaciated and barely moving.

In our pet cemetery lies our cat Ziggy, or Ziggi as Félix spelled his name.
We took him to the vet—Negro returned the favor by peeing all over the back seat of our pickup—where he was diagnosed with a respiratory infection, though he looked far worse. When he didn't respond to a couple of injections of antibiotics, we ordered a blood test that revealed all his organs and vital signs way out of whack. He was nearly dead.

The young vet said he'd give Negro another round of antibiotics but Stew and I started that dreadful talk about "putting him to sleep", an expression I loathe because it sounds so sappy and evasive. If Negro didn't come around by Saturday, we'd have to end his life.

Negro spared us that awful decision: He died on his own last night at the vet's office.

Félix and his nephew are digging a new grave at our pet cemetery for Negro, next to his suspected mother Chucha, and Chupitos, one of Félix's dogs, and our cat Ziggy.

Stew is on the way to the vet who was supposed to do an autopsy to find out what exactly killed Negro. One possibility is poisoning.

I'm here writing a story, which is my escape in stressful situations.

I would like to think, wistfully for sure, that Negro tried to repay the kindnesses we extended to him and his family over the years by sparing us the decision of  "putting him to sleep."

Even if that's not really true, thanks, Negro.


My blog about Chucha:;postID=6297721931355461361;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=80;src=link

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On the road north again

While immigration reform languishes in Washington, Mexicans from around the ranch keep marching on north, illegally, to look for work. The last departures were two of Félix' three brothers. One forty-year-old brother left eight days ago and already called from Dallas to report that he's alive, well and working at a construction site. A twenty-three-year-old sibling left yesterday.

I'd thought that stricter border patrolling by the U.S., which made illegal crossings more dangerous, and better job opportunities in Mexico's growing economy might have dampened the urge for workers to take such a chancy and dangerous route to a better life.

That equation may be true at the macroeconomic level but clearly not among the poorest of the poor in the countryside around us. For these desperate people, too uneducated and unskilled to benefit from Mexico's improving economy, the only way to survive still is to head north where there is demand for their labor and well paying jobs.

As Félix describes it, the trip north is almost like going on a rough camping trip. Both Félix and his brother had gone to work near Dallas about five years ago, at a construction site building Walmart stores. (Even wonder how Walmart makes its billions of dollars in profits? Squeezing their employees with low wages and marginal or no benefits and using building contractors who hire cheap illegal labor from Mexico may be part of the answer.)

Félix came back after several months. I sense he was homesick. When we hired him five years ago I remember him asking if ours was going to be a permanent gig because otherwise he was ready to go back to Texas. We're grateful he decided to stay, and probably so is he.

According to Félix, smuggling workers to Texas is still a very lively business. Each town has one or more coyotes or polleros who will take anywhere from four to as many as twenty or thirty workers across the Rio Grande. His brother went up in a small group of four, and had to pay $2,500 dollars to the coyote, plus his bus fare across Mexico up to the border.

"Dollars" is in italics because that is a fortune for people around here who work only occasionally and then in back-breaking agricultural or construction jobs that most often pay as little as $80 a week. When workers start their jobs in the U.S. they gradually pay off their coyote fees. In fact, it was Félix's former employer, a subcontractor with a construction company, who called him and his brothers three weeks ago and offered them jobs.

Despite the billions spent by the U.S. in personnel and high-tech surveillance gadgetry along the border, crossing the Rio Grande and getting into Texas still sounds almost like a B-grade adventure movie. On the Mexican side, entrepreneurs sell rides to the other side on horses, boats or on homemade contraptions. Unless flooded, the river is a modest stream. Once on land, the coyote takes his clients across open fields, and sometimes private land, to a meeting point along a road where they get picked up by a smuggler and taken to their final destination.

The coyote who took Félix' older brother is still doing good business though there are reports of heightened security. For example, closed-circuit cameras now are mounted on the windmills used for pumping water that illegal immigrants drink. Despite this and other obstacles, his brother made the trip across the northern third of Mexico and to Dallas in a little more than a week.

Still, it must be a wrenching decision to leave one's family and children and undertake a trek north whose outcome is anything for certain. It also reflects the continuing desperation of many Mexican workers untouched by the apparent prosperity gushing around them. 

About forty-five minutes from us an enormous and spectacular shopping center—the "Antea Lifestyle Center" as the advertising proclaims—recently opened and includes high-end retailers such as Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Crate and Barrel plus a huge Palacio de Hierro, Mexico's equivalent of Neiman Marcus. New housing subdivisions surround the shopping center clear out to the horizon. 

What feeds this retail frenzy is presumably the appearance of a dozen industrial parks in nearby Querétaro, a booming city of about a million, offering well paying jobs in aeronautics and other sophisticated industries. On the other side of San Miguel several automobile assembly plants also have sprouted around the boom town of León. 

In the middle of all this, in San Miguel's rural areas, populated by people like Félix and his family, despair persists. Félix, is 26 years old and is smart, enterprising and hard-working but has only a sixth-grade education which affords him some basic math and reading abilities, but marginal writing and spelling skills. The brother now in Dallas has a second-grade education and is functionally illiterate, as are Félix' two sisters and another brother. The brother who left for the U.S. yesterday has only a fifth-grade education. 

As much as we respect Félix abilities, enterprise and basic decency, his prospects for benefiting Mexico's new prosperity are dim. For his siblings the chances are even dimmer, closer to zero. Even a job pumping gas at Pemex, Mexico's oil monopoly, requires a ninth-grade education plus and working writing and math skills. Neither Félix nor his siblings need apply. 

The brother now in Dallas has seven children and in Mexico managed to land only occasional jobs in construction. Two of his teenage boys work in agriculture jobs paying the rough equivalent of $80 to $90 dollars a week. When he left, according to Félix, his brother was mired in debt acquired trying to keep his family afloat and an ancient pick-up running. 

Now in Dallas, he is reportedly earning $11 dollars an hour, bolting and soldering together prefabricated steel structures which are then refinished into retail stores. When his job ends in Dallas, he's headed to Louisiana for more construction work. How long he will remain the U.S. is still unclear but given his prospects back in Mexico, I suspect it will be a long while. 

On Monday morning, at 8:30 sharp, Félix shuffled to our kitchen door, clearly hung over. He told me couldn't work because he "had gone overboard with the cervezas" over the weekend. I didn't ask what he was celebrating and thanked him for being honest about his condition, instead of feigning some ailment, and sent him home. 

On Tuesday, as we were about to leave in the car, Félix tapped the window. When I rolled it down he was fully recovered and visibly happy: His brother had made it to Dallas safely.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Loving and loathing Las Vegas

When we arrived in Las Vegas, our second eyeful looked like a Potemkin skyline featuring the Chrysler, Empire State and United Nations buildings, along with Grand Central Station, the main building at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, among other New York City landmarks.

Except these were for-real buildings, albeit one-third or so the size of the originals, substantially constructed of steel, concrete, stone, brass. They had been fused together by some miracle of architecture, engineering—and most of all torrents of imagination and money—into a monumental hotel-entertainment-gambling complex named "New York, New York." A roller coaster pirouetted outside atop, in between and around this collection of faux landmarks like a bee buzzing a patch of very strange flowers.

"New York, New York" as seen from the crenelated
ramparts of the "Excalibur" across the street.
So if you want a hotel room on the tenth floor of the "Chrysler Building" overlooking the "Statue of Liberty," the staff at "New York, New York" probably can arrange if at a certain price which like most attractions in Las Vegas will be a multiple of whatever you planned to spend.

As Stew gazed at this visual mayhem he made perhaps one of the most naive observations ever made by a visitor to Las Vegas: "That roller coaster is inappropriate, out of place."

"The roller coaster?" I said. "I think just about everything about Las Vegas is going to be garish and inappropriate. That's the whole idea."

This exchange came after our first eyeful of Las Vegas, when we checked into the Luxor Hotel, a thirty-story glass replica of an Egyptian pyramid topped by a searchlight pointing straight up into the night sky.

To accommodate the shape of the structure and still leave space for a huge interior atrium required some tricky engineering to run the elevators, by now old and rattly, on a track at a 45 degree angle on each corner of the pyramid. Giant replicas of pharaohs and other faux-Egyptian bric-a-brac also are impressive at first, but tired and dusty close-up, like most of this 21-year-old Vegas landmark. If Ramesses II were still around he would have had 'er redone long ago.

There's an endless number of things to mock and snicker at in Las Vegas, particularly if you think of yourself as some well traveled sophisticate. Yet by the second day, Las Vegas—in all its shameless and over-the-top garishness—begins to win you over: Like one of Liberace's ermine-trimmed capes, this place is both awful and awesome.

Greatest fountain show on earth, every fifteen minutes. 
How could anyone think to cram pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, the bell tower from Venice's St. Mark's Basilica, high-rise buildings topped with Roman cornices, medieval turrets and the Eiffel Tower within a couple of miles of each other? That's what Las Vegas is all about, where building codes may cover fireproofing and structural integrity but leave everything else to the imagination of the builder.

Still, as you watch the breathtaking fountains of the Bellagio Hotel—located in a lagoon several acres wide and across the street from replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera—shoot up thirty or forty feet into the air and then dance and wiggle seductively to music playing from hidden outdoor speakers, your snickering fades as your mouth begins to drop.  Whoever thought of this spectacle and how many tens of millions did it cost?

If Chicago is "The Windy City," Vegas is the city of "What the ----!?"—and proud of it—and no amount of snootiness can keep you from eventually laughing with Las Vegas rather than at it.
"Honey, tonight why don't we take a Venetian gondola
 with a singing gondolier to a Mexican restaurant?"

As you wait for the light to change, on you right there's a fully decked-out Elvis impersonator driving a 1956 pink Cadillac with plates "56 Elvis." Following that comes a tan-colored Humvee driven by a beefy guy in military drag: He'll take you to one of several shooting ranges outside the city where you can shoot pistols, machine guns and AK-47s to fulfill all the Rambo fantasies your credit card will tolerate.

Young body, very old trade. 
By the entrance to the Caesars Palace shopping mall and all its classic nude statuary, a very well built and very contemporary man wore nothing but a Stetson, cowboy boots and diminutive Lycra shorts with stars and stripes. He was plying a very old trade I suspect.

But for all its outdoor dazzle, the true life of the city beats in air-conditioned, windowless caverns where machines constantly blink, chime and bang in a trashy, round-the-clock cacophony designed to keep gamblers gambling.

At the Luxor the gamblers were low-budgeteers—cutoffs, flip-flops, raggedy tees—who drank beer and chain-smoked while absentmindedly pushing the Play button on the slot machines. The casino looked like a place where the poor come to get poorer.

At Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, though, there were tuxedos, cocktail dresses and a more upscale ambiance but the visual and audio racket of the machines was the same. At the Paris Casino, amid Parisian landmarks such as art nouveau Metro entrances and an amazing crepuscular trompe l'oeil sky, we found a Mexican Day of the Dead slot machine with Spanish instructions.

That was where Stew lost seventy cents faster than he could even say "­¡Híjole!" or figure out what he was supposed to do. I'd warned him about those one-button bandits.

Stew's Doom, where he lost 70 cents. 
Despite differences in the clientele the bones of the casinos seemed predictable as if they followed some agreed-to guidelines based on science, tradition or gambling psychology. Ceilings were relatively low, except at the Paris Hotel, and there were no windows or clocks in sight. It felt as if casinos embraced you and didn't want to let go as you coursed through the huge hotels just trying to find the way out.

I'd fantasized about the majestic, tuxedoed ambiance of James Bond casinos but what we found in Las Vegas was closer to the utilitarian hustle of a train station. There was an occasional whoop or holler but generally these gambling venues seemed joyless and mechanical.

Even if you don't gamble or drink, Las Vegas restaurants—justifiably reputed to rival any anywhere—can amaze and perhaps trigger a call from your credit card company to check it's really you spending all that dough.

"Twilight" in "Paris"
Our lack of reservations and preparation only allowed us a couple of nibbles. Dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, overlooking the Bellagio fountains was memorable and so was a late lunch the next day at one Bellagio's maze of restaurants. Almost every name chef is represented in town: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay and on and on. Our simple Bellagio lunch, at Todd English's Olives restaurant though excellent, came to $150 with no alcohol and a shared dessert.

Entertainment and shows ranged from world class to a few crusty numbers like Donnie and Marie Osmond, and even the almost 70-year-old Rod Stewart. When is Florence Henderson coming to town?

We opted instead for the Broadway musical Jersey Boys at the Paris Hotel and the "Le Reve" at the Wynn hotel both of which were amazing. Criss Angel's show at the Luxor was awful. Ticket prices are Broadway-like, around $150 a piece or more.

What we'd forgotten was that Las Vegas has long been a legendary venue for both weddings and divorces. Indeed, there were giggly couples in formal wedding gear going up the escalators, at the shopping centers, wandering through hotel lobbies and meandering dreamily on the sidewalks. There were also sour-faced folks shuffling around kicking the lampposts who must have been the ones in town for a divorce, or those who lost their rent money at the slots.

Amid the Roman statuary of Caesars Palace's
gardens, a young Mexican girl poses for her
Quinceañera portrait. 
Most hotels have wedding "chapels" typically decorated with voluptuous flower arrangements erupting from huge marble vases and classic architectural touches in faint taupe and mauve palettes meant to suggest a dignified atmosphere but which instead reminded Stew of funeral parlors.

Two weeks after we left Las Vegas, and about a year after Stew and I got married in Massachusetts, Nevada lifted its ban against same-sex marriages, imposed in 2002 by voter referendum. I always thought it ironic that libertine Nevada which derives most of its income from gambling, boozing and legalized prostitution had such a fit of religiosity regarding people of the same sex getting married.

If we had known Nevada was going to legalize same-sex weddings we could have been married at Caesars Palace instead!

I can envision Stew and I solemnly marching to our nuptials through one of Caesars' many lobbies or shopping malls, wearing matching togas and sandals, with sprigs of olive branches around our heads, with some of our friends alongside throwing rose petals on our path.

People in Topeka or Peoria might wince and howl in disapproval but hey, in Las Vegas they would hardly turn their heads away from the slot machines and if anything, might give you a thumbs-up.


Monday, September 22, 2014

A small branch of a huge tree

Two weeks ago I visited the local Alcoholics Anonymous outpost, in the town of Sosnavar, pop. 800 or so and a kilometer away from us, and was struck by the awesome superficial differences—and similarities—among the millions of members and tens of thousands of branches of this remarkable organization.

In Sosnavar meetings are held in a stone granary dating back at least a century to when the town was a large hacienda and everyone worked for the owner much like in an antebellum Southern plantation but without the formal institution of slavery.

Different venue, same stories
The windowless granary felt dank and cave-like. The only natural light filtered through a few translucent plastic roof panels, half covered with dirt and leaves. Later someone climbed on a chair to screw in the lone and anemic bulb, connected to an extension cord that went out the door, garlanded over a couple of trees and disappeared somewhere in the property next door. As soon as the bulb went on a moth began circling it, projecting its shadow on the stone walls.

When I got sober in Chicago, about a year after Stew, I got to attend a myriad meetings and meeting houses, where I ran into just as many differences in people and stories of recovery.

Some meetings catered to special groups, such as gay men or women, ecstatic evangelicals or dour atheists. Some followed a special format such as reading excerpts from the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous or listening to individuals talk about their personal travails. A few took place in discreet meeting rooms of corporations or hospitals presumably to protect the privacy of prominent attendees. One "gay" meeting I used to attend in the basement of a Catholic Church was held by candlelight that gave it the ambiance of a séance.

For pure spectacle, though, my favorite venue was the Mustard Seed, a converted Chicago firehouse not far from downtown. The name, I presume, referred to Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and landed in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch on its branches."
The seeds that landed at this meeting house, though, were more like motley wildflowers blowing in from all social and economic corners of the city: smelly homeless men; all age groups including a few teenagers; folk with years of sobriety or just days; laborers in their soiled work clothes; natty professionals in Armani suits; Gold Coast dames in fur coats smoking nervously as if waiting for miracles to occur—which often did as when individuals were able to cast, or at least hold at bay, their personal demons. Meetings were held and still are 
from early morning until late at night, though at a different location. 

Home, as humble as it may be.
Yet I never ran into an AA affair quite as dismal or startling as the one in Sosnavar. As I grabbed one of a half-dozen plastic chairs, the type usually found at beachfront cantinas, a voice in my head whispered incredulously: "Jesus Christ, if someone walked in here feeling miserable about their drinking, this joint could drive them over the cliff."

The seven o'clock meeting didn't start until twenty-past, in accordance to traditional Mexican punctuality. Even then, attendance consisted of only three other guys aside from me. A fifth guy showed up later but he was drunk and incoherent. Everyone was cordial but somewhat surprised by the arrival of a six-foot-three-inch güero, a white guy. My attempts at chit-chat in Cuban Spanish didn't break the ice.

Still, I stayed out of respect and later, growing sympathy and solidarity with this group of men trying to recover from alcoholism. As dissimilar as we were in appearance and the Spanish we spoke, we shared a common affliction.

The props, though some damaged by water leaks and general lack of housekeeping, were typical of AA meeting rooms throughout the world: posters of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions; a small book of daily meditations; framed photos of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the two founders of AA; a table, a few chairs and a wooden lectern from which hanged a sign with the name of the group and date it was founded—not quite two years ago.

Instead of the inevitable AA coffee pot this group had a two-burner hot plate, a sauce pan, a five-gallon jug of drinking water and plastic cups for instant coffee and tea bags. The draw from heating the water caused the bulb to flicker nervously and occasionally go out altogether, in which case there was a flashlight at hand.

Health concerns about smoking haven't reached Sosnavar and so there were tin cans everywhere filled with ashes and butts. In a room this large cigarette smoke was not bothersome, and when I heard my three companions' tales about alcoholism and their struggles to recover I realized that smoking was the least of their problems.

The guy with the longest period of sobriety—20 years—was named Cruz. Though he had deep lines crisscrossing his face and gray stubble from a skimpy beard, I couldn't guess his age. The ravages of the sun, backbreaking labor plus in his case a life of hard drinking, conspired to conceal his true age. He could have been seventy or fifty years old. Later I figured that whatever his age the feat of staying sober in Sosnavar, where there are no fancy rehab centers and until two years ago not even a local AA meeting or any kind of encouragement, should qualify him for a Nobel in survival and raw cojones.

He talked very little and kept his straw hat on except when he got up to the lectern to speak. His delivery was barely audible and almost prefunctory, which combined with his rustic brand of Spanish made it hard for me to understand. He chain-smoked, elegantly holding the cigarette in his left hand, between the thumb and index finger while flicking the ashes with his pinkie. His message was one which any recovering alcoholic could nod to, about how his pride always got in the way of admitting he had a problem.

Cruz concluded by thanking God and AA for the "good and happy life" he enjoys now. Looking at his ragged clothes and face I thought that was an ironic remark until I realized how much more of a disordered mess his life must have been before quit boozing.

Then it was Gregorio's turn at the lectern, who was a younger, much more talkative and affable fellow probably in his early thirties. If you listened to his mind-boggling life story through a partition you would have guessed he was at least seventy. From his father he learned to drink pulque, a cheap tequila-like type of booze derived from cacti, and later, at eight years of age, denatured alcohol that he mixed with Coke to soften the horrible taste.

I found Gregorio's vivid way of expressing himself as amazing as the details of his life. His delivery was not florid or dramatic but the descriptions were detailed and bone-chilling. Stories about entire nights of hallucinations when he felt his body gravitating off the bed and floating away while ant-like monsters crawled on his skin, plus, in his case, the less dramatic stories of mistreating his wife and kids.

"Ultimately I realized that suicide is the worst sin in the eyes of God and drinking was my own suicide," Gregorio concluded.

A round of the customary AA applause followed and then came my turn to speak. It felt like being shoved on stage to do a comedy skit right after a set by Joan Rivers or Robin Williams.

I stammered, hemmed and hawed, and cleared my throat several times before I explained how I had stopped drinking with the help of AA, my best friend Stew and Jim Winters, a friend with whom I have lost contact.

Anything I said sounded totally lame compared to what these guys had been through until I started connecting the links of denial, arrogance, resentments and other alcoholic traits that I and these lowly Sosnavar alcoholics had in common.

They nodded knowingly as I talked and I suddenly I didn't feel so out of place anymore.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

And so Arno bought a baby donkey

Summers in the country bring countless newborns, from long-legged foals to fluffy lambs and tiny frogs perched on window sills seemingly frozen in place. Sadly, many of these babies include puppies and kittens abandoned by their owners, assuming they had owners in the first place.

Not beautiful but cute indeed. 
I find all of these animals cute, adorable, lovable and all that—I even like baby mice—though newborn snakes can challenge my sense of lovey-dovey-ness.

Two days ago by the side of the road we spotted a baby donkey, no more than a few weeks old, and which—without a contest—gets the ribbon for the cutest bugger in the prairie. He seemed to be by itself.

Our neighbor Arno, head of Amigos de Animales, a group that provides low-cost or free spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, also had seen the tiny burro looking lost. Arno has a ranch about the size of ours, seven and a half acres, where he runs a sanctuary for eighty plus dogs, fifteen donkeys, an one-eyed albino mule, plus a half-dozen sheep and God knows what else.

These babies come equipped with adult-size ears.
Arno immediately set out to investigate who owned the baby donkey and why he was wandering around on its own. A couple of blah-blahs later, the donkey joined Arno's menagerie. Its mother had died shortly after giving birth, he found out, and her owner didn't care much for the baby donkey, also a female, which was left to fend for itself.

Yes, Arno bought the donkey, for $150 pesos or a little more than ten dollars.

What makes baby donkeys so attractive, if that's the correct description, is hard to describe. The ears are way too big; the bodies come covered with a rough, long, curly fur that hides their eyes; the hooves don't seem big enough to support them so they seem to tip-toe unsteadily. Not a beautiful sight, but one you instinctively want to reach out to and pat on the head, a compliment this girl donkey readily accepts.

Of course, what Arno paid for this animal is but a tiny down payment. Donkeys can live up to thirty years and with the pampering the animals receive at his emporium this one will easily fly past the normal life expectancy.

Yes, a cute critter indeed. No, Stew and I don't have any plans to adopt any donkeys or more of anything right now.


Monday, September 15, 2014

A near-fatal canine drama

Dramatis canes: (in order of appearance)

Lucy: A Labrador-ish fifty- or sixty-pounder found abandoned on the side of a highway when she was a few weeks old and turned over to the local shelter where we adopted her about seven-and-a-half years ago. On the alpha ranking in our pack of five dogs, she's the queen bitch, the leader.

Gladys: The San Miguel mutt from Central Casting. We found her in the parking lot of a condo development where we used to live, a year after we adopted Lucy.

She had a piece of rope still around her neck and showed signs of either a recent accident, perhaps getting hit by a car, or abuse by her former owners. We bet on the latter because she initially reacted very aggressively (or defensively) to cleaning women wielding brooms or anyone who came near Stew and me.

Gladys and Lucy teamed up famously and Gladys became Number Two on the alpha order. She never has been aggressive toward Stew or me. On the contrary, she's one of those stray dogs that seems eternally grateful someone adopted her.

Gladys is considerably older than Lucy, we figure she must be about twelve by now, fairly rotund and not moving nearly as quickly as the others in the pack.

Domino: A hapless male with black blotches on white fur (hence the name) that we found at the pound, cowering at the rear of his cage. Domino landed at the pound as a puppy where he spent the first eighteen months of his life. He is very timid, though he can suddenly turn on strangers when startled. On the alpha order of this pack, Domino ranks as clueless.

Roxie: Massively built, an undetermined mix of Rottweiler, Doberman and something else. Beautiful markings, weighs an all-muscle fifty or sixty pounds. We found her a year ago at a nearby ranch when she was three or four months. Extraordinarily sweet and blubbery with us, Félix and Félix' family—but very aggressive with strange dogs, farm animals or people who might approach the gate of the ranch. When crouching, growling and baring her teeth, she's menacing.  Roxie would be third on the pecking scale, though visibly eager to move up.

Felisa: A most mixed-up of mixed breeds: short legs and stumpy build; longish body like a Dachshund; splayed front legs a bit like a Basset Hound; thick, coarse fur reminiscent of a German Shepherd and a too-long tail that wags furiously whenever she is awake. Now a ten-pound twerp, Félix found her under a bush in April when she was the size of a large rat. Her bark is more like a shrill yelp.

Roxie is her model, idol and surrogate mother. If Roxie is Edgar Bergen, Felisa is Charlie McCartly, ready to bark, run or do whatever Roxie does.

Act One

On Saturday morning the dogs are nervously milling in the kitchen waiting for food, except for Gladys who is still on her cushion not wanting to get up. When Stew accidentally taps Gladys with the kitchen door, she lets out a painful yelp that triggers a furious reaction from the other dogs, except Domino who stands by the sidelines.

Lucy, Roxie and Felisa simultaneously attack Gladys from all sides with the clear intent of trying to kill her or inflict serious injury. Stew calls me and we separate the dogs and stop the fight.

If we hadn't caught this attack in time, Gladys surely would have been killed or badly harmed.

Gladys is left cowering on the floor, eyes bulging, her body trembling uncontrollably. She's terrified.

We don't know what to make of this attack, particularly by Lucy, Glady's lifelong sidekick. For the next two days Gladys stays to herself, away from the other dogs, though she is eating normally and going outside for her needs. We can't find any injuries or anything wrong with her.

Dowager Gladys: Chubby, gray-whiskered and not too agile.
Photographed the day before she was nearly killed. 
Act Two

We call our neighbor Arno who has eighty-plus dogs at his ranch, and ask him for advice. He says that dogs often turn vicious toward other dogs they perceive as sick, weak or injured. He has a dog with epilepsy that has been attacked when she's had convulsions. Our vet concurs that dogs will attack a member of the pack they perceive sick, hurt or near death.

An article I found on the internet confirms those opinions:

"Some people who keep groups of dogs together have faced the grisly scene of coming home to find the pack of dogs has killed an elderly or sick member. Would this perhaps be nature's way of giving a quicker and more merciful end to a dog in the wild with no chance of survival? The behavior by the dogs who do the killing is certainly instinct, and not murder. Horrendous as it seems by human standards, this reminds us that dogs are not humans."

Gladys seems fine, particularly now that she has calmed down—except she is clearly the oldest member of the pack and slowing down.

Act Three

The other dogs sniff Gladys curiously, who stiffens up with fear. By herself, Gladys runs around the yard merrily, but she keeps away from the others when they are all together.

Act Four

Almost three days after her fur-raising experience, things are returning to normal with one probable exception: Gladys clearly has lost her Number Two spot on the alpha order of our five-member pack. She is now sidelined as the grandma.

So what have learned?

One, we can't leave Gladys alone with the other dogs when we're not here.

Two, no more dogs. I've said that before but this time I'm really, really serious, despite what soft-hearted Stew might say. I'm really serious. No kidding around.

Three, Mother Nature at times can be a cruel bitch, in more ways than one.

Curtain down (though this might not be the last act.)


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Annie get your gun? Or probably not.

I used to believe, naively, that a "home invasion" was a melodramatic synonym for "burglary" until two weeks ago, when at about ten-thirty at night four punks in their twenties broke into the small ranch of a retired American couple in their late sixties who live a few miles deeper into the countryside than us. The assailants tied up the woman and then seriously beat up her husband when he tried to intervene, despite pleas to the burglars to just take whatever they wanted and leave them alone.

The couple's ranch looks like the original Ma and Pa Kettle spread, what with a vegetable garden, chicken coop and small corral with seven goats, rather than a rich gringo's fantasy of a Mexican hacienda. A substantial portion of their income comes from selling goat milk products, such as cheeses and yogurt. One of the biggest losses was a stash of pesos they had saved to fix the roof of the house. Around here they are known as kind souls and unreconstructed hippies, she with graying braids over her shoulders, he with a pony tail, both with matching round eyeglasses.

The assailants reportedly went at it for an interminable forty-five minutes and their motive seems to have been equal parts theft and gratuitous violence. Similar home invasions have taken place elsewhere in the countryside but also in the heart of San Miguel, in some cases driving the victims to leave town if not Mexico altogether.

Annie Oakley looked like a confident, empowered
gal though her hair needed a little work. 
Where is the police you might ask. The San Miguel police came to the couple's ranch alright and one of their first questions was what possessed them to live so far out in the country, which is like scolding a rape victim for wearing a too-tight pair of jeans. In response to another burglary nearby a few days later, when the owner was away, the cops officiously dusted the premises for fingerprints.

No one expects any arrests or results; Mexican law enforcement is famously inefficient at solving any crimes. The system is more like a bottomless cold-case file. If anything officers seem more adept at shamelessly shaking down citizens, usually poor folks. Three months ago we heard a story of a traffic cop stopping a pick-up near our ranch carrying a half-dozen people on the truck bed, a technically illegal but universally common practice. When the driver said he didn't have enough money to pay the mordida—as bribes are known in Mexicothe cop calmly suggested he ask the riders to pitch in. They did and so the case was "solved."

Which takes us back to guns. The couple whose home was invaded are part of a small cluster of Texans with small ranches and the first response from the group was to buy guns—an idea that for the first time resonated some with Stew and me, lifelong liberal wusses on the subject of firearms.

A couple much closer to us who'd never touched a gun in their lives—she's an Italian architect and he a pianist from Ohio—even enlisted a local to demonstrate how to use a revolver and try some target shooting. Nobody hit anything during the outing, a bad omen for a nascent vigilante campaign.

Stew and I have installed a couple more deadbolts and padlocks, adding two more keys to a collection that anymore resembles what the warden would carry at a medium-security prison. We also ordered a remotely activated alarm triggered by a fob on a key ring.

Still, the fear of assault and injuries beyond the loss of property hovers over our minds. Stuff can be replaced far more easily than a broken jaw, lost teeth or possible eye damage, all of which our neighbor—the one with the goats—suffered during the invasion of his home, aside from the bone-chilling fear that still haunts him and his wife.

Following a previous posting in this blog about guns, Stew's brother Greg, an enthusiastic gun owner, argued with us that owning a gun most of all gives you a sense of empowerment, the confidence that you're no longer a hapless victim waiting to be pounced on.

Right now that argument rings a bell. Stew and I have talked about getting a gun and walking around the ranch at night, shooting into the air, howling at the moon while grabbing our crotches and generally putting on our our best impression of a couple of macho Texas ranchers. Wouldn't all that theatrical racket scare off potential home invaders?  It might. Or they might just laugh at the show.

Then there's reality. First, there's the challenge of getting gun permits and the legal morass that would be created by an American shooting, possibly killing, a Mexican citizen, even in self defense. Dealing with the Mexican legal system is like falling into a pool of molasses from which you might never come out.

Our gardener Félix, an eminently sensible Mexican, made a second point: The scenario of two old gringos—no matter how loudly they howl or how empowered they feel—fighting off four or five young Mexicans, some of them armed, doesn't sound like good odds. The scene of a ballsy owner protecting his castle against a gang of intruders still seems like something out of a National Rifle Association comic book—amusing, interesting or reassuring—but not very real.

Still, I'm going to call the government agency in the nearby town of Irapuato in charge of gun licensing. We might even talk to the guy our neighbors used for some target practice, just to see what a gun feels like in our hands.

But owning a gun and keeping it in the night stand? Not quite. No matter how much we try to channel ol' Annie, we just don't seem to connect—yet.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Locavores, eat your heart out

Growing up, my diet was stunted by two major constraints: My father was a very picky eater—meat, rice and blackbeans, mostly—and my mom was a terrible cook who could turn even excellent ingredients into mush almost as if on purpose. At the foster homes where I stayed when I came from Cuba the fare wasn't much better, hitting bottom with the last family I stayed with. They were immigrants from Belfast, the housewife a devout practitioner of British cuisine particularly in her knack for roasting meats to between desiccation and incineration. A thin cloud of smoke from the kitchen served as an indication dinner was about ready.

Stew's family, on the other hand, was blessed with the talents of his mom Frances who could rummage through the refrigerator or the pantry and conjure up a great meal in minutes out of whatever she found. Stew remembers a few mishaps, such as the time his dad lit the charcoal grill in the basement of their house in Cedar Rapids. Or when the neighbor's Basset Hound ran off with the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey that was resting on a tray in the garage which doubled as an energy-free refrigerator during the winter.

But those were exceptions and none Frances's fault: I can't recall a bad meal at the Hammers. Still, this was the American Midwest at the height of the Betty Crocker Era, so menus relied heavily on meats and gravy while arugula, kalamata olives and vegetables in general, aside from iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, were regarded with suspicion.

It's what's for dinner tonight. 
When we moved in together, Stew and I brought our limited palates and they didn't expand much despite regular ventures to the myriad ethnic restaurants within a mile of our home in Chicago and the presence of a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's also nearby. Too much alcohol before and during meals probably didn't help.

All that has changed since we moved to our small ranch in Mexico, whose garden has become a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits neither one of us would have considered before. Lemon cucumbers, a couple of types of squash, five or six kinds of tomatoes, including three heirloom varieties, along with various types of beets, radishes, carrots and a seemingly endless cavalcade of different lettuces plus Swiss chard and kale that continue producing during our mild winters.

Big-city locavores define locally grown produce as that grown within 100 miles of where it's sold. Most of our produce comes within 100 feet of our kitchen and it's all organic unless the sheep and horses that contribute manure to our compost snort cocaine during full moons.

Last night we had home-grown peas, which redefined my idea of what peas ought to taste like. Stew sauteed them in butter with a little bit of salt and that was it. Quick and simple unless you count the half hour it took for the two of us to coax the little buggers our of their pods. There's supposed to be a little string to zip the pods open but we couldn't find it.

Soups have become Stew's culinary forte, largely to accommodate all the vegetables Félix brings from the garden. Stew's copy of Marian Morash's "The Victory Garden Cookbook" is well dog-eared and stained.

The bounty from our garden hasn't turned us into vegetarians, much less vegans. Félix has turned up lumpy fennel roots neither Stew nor I can deal with. Who planted that stuff? Stew likes beets a hell of a lot more than I do. Chilis, which Félix plants and caresses, have limited appeal beyond the common Jalapeños and Serranos. Two tiny volcanic Piquín chilis rest on the kitchen window sill looking menacing. I expect them to eat through the ceramic tile.

The vegetable garden hasn't been foolproof either. Sweet corn just doesn't grow for us—despite some of friends' bragging about theirs—and neither do strawberries, which sprout lush foliage but little fruit. Okra didn't even peek from the dirt and just as well. I tried it somewhere and its oleaginous texture was a turn off. And Idaho potatoes smuggled in from the States just rotted in the Mexican soil.

The laws of produce supply and demand remain elusive. We would have liked more peas but they're finished, except for a batch from seeds we brought in from Portugal that are starting to flower. There's more Swiss Chard and kale than two human beings can eat; Félix refuses to take any home as if the stuff were radioactive. Lemon cucumbers, which look like lemons until sliced, were not a big hit though we got several.

We might envy some big-city treats like concerts, bookstores where you can fondle the merchandise while sipping an espresso and the real feel of an ink-and-paper version of The New York Times.

But locally produced vegetables? Fahgettaboutdit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


When Stew and Félix last checked, about a month ago, their two beehives, particularly Stew's, appeared to be in a state of deep lethargy. The bees were buzzing around alright—both Stew and Félix were stung seriously enough to require medical attention—but the bees didn't seem to be making any honey. The rectangular frames on which the bees deposit the honey were practically barren.

It was an odd, even somewhat alarming, situation because we're in the middle of a very green summer, with plentiful rainfall and flowers popping everywhere, both wild and those that Félix has planted. Around the English Lavenders, here almost as common as weeds, there seemed to be a traffic jam of bees, but there was activity elsewhere too, including a patch of gaudy zinnias, Mexican sunflowers, gazanias and even some sunflowers.

A patch of English Lavender, with Mexican Feather Grass
 (golden color) and Mexican Sunflowers (bright red).  
Felix, who is averse to discarding anything—probably the result of growing in poverty—had saved a packet of sunflowers the wild birds had snubbed during the winter along with dahlia bulbs I thought were dead.

In front is a battalion of yellow flowers supposedly from
 South Africa and whose name I don't know.
What I do know is that they are extremely aggressive,
 marching out in all directions, and are very resistant to dry conditions. 
He discreetly planted them and a week ago showed me the results of his frugality: A batch of dahlias in a corner of the back garden, and sunflower plants practically everywhere, as if the seeds had been tossed from a helicopter. The sunflowers in the vegetable garden are ready to open.

"You shouldn't throw so many things away," Félix admonishes me regularly.

So where were the bees and their honey? Had we been hit by the plague that has decimated bee colonies in the States, particularly California?

Sorry, but we have no answers to those questions, even hypothetical or anecdotal, let alone scientific.

But the pall over the bees and the honey production apparently has lifted. This afternoon Stew and Félix discovered seven supers loaded with honey.

"Supers" are boxes in the hives each holding eight rectangular "frames" on which the honey collects. I wonder if our bees' fondness for lavender plants will affect the taste of the honey.

Entrance to front patio: At the bottom, Mexican sage,
 and over the wall, "Llamarada" vines.
Stew and Félix are very happy apiculturists right now, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a hand-cranked stainless steel centrifuge for extracting the honey, from an apiculture supply house in Aguascalientes, northwest of here.

That should minimize the mess of collecting and bottling the product and substantially increase production because under the previous extraction arrangement the owner of the centrifuge claimed half the honey as his fee.

Profits? Hmm, er, well. The centrifuge cost around US$400, including shipping. A friend of Stew has offered to split the costs if we let him use the extractor. But factor in the labor costs of maintaining the hives, packaging and labeling, and profits for this operation might not rise too far above the U.S. minimum wage.

There's also the emotional toll on the residents of Rancho Santa Clara. As I write this, two of our dogs are hiding under the desk after getting stung by a bee that got in the house. Our old dog Gladys flew into our office whining and didn't stir for about an hour.

The honey is great stuff though. Friends have mentioned it and a few weeks ago, during a coughing fit, I made a side-by-side comparison of Stew and Felix's honey versus the commercial stuff from the local supermarket.

No contest. Ours is far better—really and truly. So when I give the word, buy some, eh? Sorry, last year's production of about 20 jars is already exhausted.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Profiles of courage and survival

What began as a relaxing retirement-type project, to digitize stashes of family photos and documents and convert them into an online photo book, has instead turned into a replaying of the hard times my family went through after the political whirlwind of 1959 and the subsequent installation of the Communist dictatorship in Cuba that survives to this day.

I knew the outlines of my family's tale, their having to leave the island and abandon the things they owned and loved, such as the family home and my father's collection of classical music LPs. But the documents, scraps of paper and other memorabilia I uncovered just last week has helped me fill some of the holes in their heartrending story and appreciate the pain they must have gone through.

Indeed, in their own unheralded way my mom and dad emerge as courageous or at least indomitable people who would not bow to a hurricane of adversities.

My mother collected most of the memorabilia I found. It's almost as if she feared people would not believe our family's tale of survival so she'd better save some of the evidence. But some of the scraps I must have saved myself even though I don't remember doing so. Did I instinctively stash away those items as mementos of a family I might never see again?

I left Cuba alone in February 1962, sent into exile by my parents who feared what would become of their only child under a Communist regime. The middle class in Cuba was rattled by daily rumors that all children, particularly the boys, would be forcibly sent to the Soviet Union (not true); or subjected to Communist indoctrination (certainly true) or conscripted into the Cuban army for service in Africa or God-knows-where (partially true).

As I read about the tragedy of Central American parents today sending their children to the U.S. to escape the poverty and criminal mayhem at home, it reminds me of the terror my parents must have felt. Just yesterday, Stew and I ran into a young Honduran family that included a young child and a baby, all filthy and malnourished, begging for coins at the parking lot of Luna de Queso, a local deli. The father said they hoped to reach the U.S. soon. These folks looked as desperate as my parents must have felt.

And just like some of the Central American kids arriving alone in the U.S. I spent three long months at a refugee camp in Florida while the authorities decided what to do with me. My initial destination turned out to be a maternal uncle whom I had never met and who lived in fourth-floor walk-up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, daughter and a fat, un-housebroken mutt named Cachucha. It turned out to be an infelicitous interim arrangement when it became clear that my parents would not be coming to the U.S. to claim me any time soon.

To this day I wonder what my parents were thinking to send their only child, who had just turned fourteen, to a strange and huge country like the U.S., with no definite address or destination except an assurances that some charitable organization would pick him up at the Miami airport. Did they figure that the Castro regime would fall in a matter of months and the family would be happily reunited in Cuba? Or that they would follow me out of the island shortly if the initial ideal scenario didn't pan out? That there simply were no good alternatives?

Neither one of the first two options materialized. The Missile Crisis in October 1962 led the Cuban government to shut down the daily flights out of Cuba, while the commitment by the U.S. not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the offending Soviet missiles cemented the political status quo in the island.

In effect we were stuck, me attending junior high school in New York and my parents in Cuba trying to find a way to get out of there. That impasse took three years to resolve when my parents flew to Spain and then to New York in 1965.

After my uncle notified my parents he was no longer willing to house me, I bounced through two other foster homes in Long Island. Included in the latest cache of documents I uncovered are carbons of long letters my mother wrote to two of my favorite teachers at Joan of Arc Jr. High School on the Upper West Side, essentially pleading with them to look after me. I remember both of the teachers fondly—Veronica Mazzarro and Geraldine Schiff—two extraordinarily kind human beings who did indeed informally adopt me, a frightened teenager trying to learn English.

Dreams of a father: A mock-up of a business card
for his Cuban-born son. 
My mom occasionally would grow impatient and send me telegrams nudging me to write more often, in the style of a complaining Jewish mother. For his part, my dad, who was a commercial artist in his younger days, sent me a prototype of a business card proclaiming I was a "Cuban born Chemist and Engineer." In his own way—he was not much of a talker—he was encouraging me to finish high school and go on to college. Though a very intelligent guy and insatiable reader, my dad was the only one in his family who never finished high school.

Mother's complaint: Why don't you write?
The family business in Santa Clara, Cuba was a small printing shop and stationery store that employed probably no more than a dozen people. Older Cuban exiles in Florida often boast—prompted by nostalgia or garden-variety Latin gas-baggery—about the fabulous family wealth and vast land holdings they left behind. I tell American friends that Cuba would have to be the size of Brazil to contain all the imaginary plantations and cattle ranches exiles prattle about.

In the cache of scraps collected by my mother I found a couple of business cards for my dad's small business as well as an ominous-looking and barely legible official document, in onion-skin blue paper, detailing the inspection of his business prior to its confiscation by the government. My dad was in his mid-fifties and the business he and my grandfather had taken twenty or so years to build was taken away by no other authority than the florid signature of a mid-level bureaucrat. All gone overnight.

My dad's last business card
When I visited Cuba in 1998 I found that the building still stands but all the printing presses and other equipment had been hauled out years ago to make room for a warehouse for foodstuffs. The family home, a very modest affair that would have fit nicely in Chicago's bungalow row except for the architecture, also was in ruins except for the wrought iron rocking chairs still in the patio, mute witnesses to the total destruction of my family's life in Cuba.

My parents' exit for Madrid was equally disgraceful, a final spit on the face by the Communist government as they left the island. I found a small printed note advising travelers how much they were allowed to take with them into permanent exile, mind you, not a weekend jaunt to Bermuda. Three each: shirts, pairs of socks, underwear, handkerchiefs and ties. One hat. A tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap per family, both manufactured in Cuba. A razor, but NOT ELECTRIC. A wristwatch and a wedding ring valued at no more than $60 pesos. Anything exceeding these limits was confiscated on the spot and probably pocketed by the airport inspectors.

Final insult: What you were allowed to
take into exile.
The list also includes some requisite documents from the Department of Urban Reform, I suspect certifying that the family home and all its contents had been duly surrendered to the government.

I knew my parents spent a few winter months in Madrid awaiting their visas to come to the U.S. but didn't realize the penury of their lives at the time until I discovered a ticket for what seems to have been a soup kitchen issued by a welfare agency of the Spanish government. Looking at this innocent piece of paper I remember that my proud mother had once confided—but only briefly, as I suspect she was humiliated by the experience—that sometimes they went hungry and cold during their sojourn in Spain, where they wore heavy winter coats donated by some charity.

Their arrival in New York was not a happy end to the family story, though considerably happier than it would have been if we had stayed in Cuba. During my two visits to Cuba, and talks there with relatives and classmates at the Catholic school I attended who had stayed behind, "There but for the grace of God go I" became one of my most cherished mottoes. There would be plenty more hardship for our family in the U.S., but nothing like what I witnessed in Cuba.

My mom's meal ticket in Madrid. 
For starters, my parents' acrimonious divorce had been finalized before they left for Spain, something no one had mentioned to me.

In his typically cryptic fashion my dad advised me that he and my mother would be arriving in the same Iberia flight from Madrid "together but separate." My mom's furious dreams of reconciliation, of a second wind for their marriage in a new country, went nowhere. I went to live with my mother, and dad with his new wife who arrived shortly.

For a while my dad and I worked weekends washing dishes in the basement of Carl Hoppl's Restaurant, a huge establishment on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, Long Island, that had wondrous mechanized conveyor belts on which we placed the dirty plates that cascaded from upstairs all night. The shift ended by the hosing and scrubbing down of the floor and other surfaces by the then all-Cuban crew. Some things in the U.S. labor market don't change much: Hispanics still preside over menial restaurant jobs except now they are mostly Mexican and Central American.

Eventually my dad found a job at a small printing shop in nearby Lynbrook, where he stayed until retirement to Miami on Social Security. His employer offered no retirement.

My mom found a job as a "nurse's aide," a wishful repackaging of the title "orderly", at a nursing home run by Nassau Count, helping out with the washing and daily care of bed-ridden residents. Despite her lowly position and meager pay—a precipitous come-down from her previous career as a school teacher—she considered herself fortunate to have a secure government job and became an outspoken member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Above all, she never seems to have lost her self-esteem or drive to survive. In this trove of family memorabilia I found small business cards advertising her services as a Spanish teacher ($3 an hour) and a dress-maker: