Thursday, June 26, 2014

On the road to The Other Side

Magdalena García is a fellow Cuban refugee and a Presbyterian minister who performed an act of kindness I'll never forget when my mom died twelve years ago. She organized and conducted a beautiful memorial service at her church in Chicago, with music, flowers and a moving eulogy, after the Roman Catholic parish to which I thought I belonged had brushed off my request.

Magdalena's husband Augusto is from Ecuador and entered illegally through Tijuana more than 30 years ago, eventually settling in Chicago, where he became a newsman at one of the local Spanish-language television stations, then went into real estate—and unemployment after the 2008 economic crash. They adopted a baby boy from an orphanage in Ecuador and named him Miguel. All have gone through some good and less-good times and no one can question that to the last one, the three have become an asset to the U.S. as members of that immense, and forever maligned, organization called the American Melting Pot.

Her own family history, religious convictions and concern for people in need have led Magdalena to follow news about immigration. Two weeks ago she alerted friends on her Facebook page to the latest immigrant crisis brewing along the Texas border. Since October an estimated 47,000 unaccompanied children mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, had arrived in addition to God knows how many adults. The reaction by the Obama administration to the emergency, which had been percolating for months, was improvised and chaotic, something the Republicans quickly, and not totally without justification, complained about.

Headed for the promised land: Dionis García Palma (l.) and Gerson Andrés Palomo.
Back at our ranch, Félix the gardener—an oracle on everything from the incomprehensible World Cup ranking system to the local fauna and flora—said he'd heard about the wave of Central American immigrants headed for that mythical-sounding but very real place known in Mexico as "El Otro Lado" or The Other Side.

Sure, he said as if it were universal knowledge, for months there's been a stream of Guatemalans and Hondurans immigrants trekking through San Miguel and heading north. They tend to congregate at the railroad station, since so many ride the trains, hobo-style. Stew and I remember having seen small groups of young men asking for money from drivers who slowed down to cross the railroad tracks, but we hadn't made the migrant connection.

After church on Sunday Stew and I headed for the train station to verify Félix' story. That's where we met Gerson Andrés Palomo, 25, and his friend Dionis García Palma, also in his twenties. They were both from Honduras' squalid capital of Tegucigalpa and had been traveling on foot, catching rides aboard cars, trucks or trains, or by bus when the money allowed—first out of Honduras, then through Guatemala and so far two-thirds of the way through Mexico—for the past thirty-seven days. Gerson said he'd run into many families with small children along the way. Dionis predicted he and Gerson would reach the U.S. border in three or four days, a wildly optimistic estimate.

Indeed, Stew Googled some rough estimates and came up with a distance of about 1,500 highway miles from Tegucigalpa to San Miguel, and another 515 more miles to McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border, for a total of more than 2,000 miles before these guys even lay eyes on American soil. As reference points, figure that Chicago is about 750 miles by car from New York, and Dallas 239 miles from Houston.

Gerson, the most talkative of the pair, was reed-thin and the deep lines and scraggly beard on his exhausted face made him look far older than twenty-five. His naturally cinnamon complexion was darkened further by the road grime he'd collected during his trip. What did he carry in his backpack? He showed me a blanket, a pair of pants, some crackers and a bottle of water.

Three years ago Gerson actually reached the U.S. but was promptly arrested and sent back to Honduras. He didn't sound daunted by the nearly Sisyphean odds against ever reaching the U.S. again, much less getting in, finding a job and settling somewhere. His only contact in the U.S, an iffy one, is a cousin in New Orleans who is supposed to come and pick him up as soon as he arrives safely on The Other Side.

By now Gerson must have noticed the incredulity crossing my face, so he showered me with details to convince me of his story. This time he entered Mexico through Tapachula, he said, a town in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. The first attempt to enter the U.S. three years ago took him to Eagle Pass, Texas, by the Rio Grande. This time he could have paid a smuggler US$7,000 to take him from Honduras to the American border, and another $700 to someone to actually get him across. But he didn't have such money plus he'd heard that many of the smugglers' clients were assaulted and robbed. So he's doing it on his own, financing his trip mostly with some money he'd saved plus panhandling and free food.

I should have believed him because immigrant stories like his are common. Eight years ago it was Félix' turn to make a dash for the U.S. He remembers precisely when he took off from Sosnavar, his dirt-poor hometown about a mile from the ranch: Eight days after his eighteenth birthday. He crossed the Rio Grande on horseback and then, led by a coyote from Sosnavar, walked eight days before someone picked him up south of Austin and took him to Dallas where he ended up for two years, working in landscaping and construction. Homesick, he returned to Mexico only to make the trip to the U.S again a few a years later.

Garson blamed the hellhole violence in Tegucigalpa, orchestrated by drug traffickers and gangs, as the chief reason for wanting to go to the U.S., as well as the inability to find a job in his trade as a drywall hanger. Desperation makes daredevils out of the commonest of people like Gerson and Dionis.

He blamed the high unemployment on the government's doubling of the minimum wage which instead of helping the poor, he said, led many employers to lay off workers to cut expenses.

Curiously, back in the U.S. Republicans also argue that raising the minimum wage will lead to reduced hiring or layoffs, though economic conditions in the two countries are vastly different. It was almost amusing hearing that argument from Gerson who in his disheveled condition didn't look anything like a fat Republican.

His plan for settling in the U.S. is far-fetched, borderline delusional, but if the stars align properly it might work. The drywall hanging and taping trade in Chicago, for instance, is populated largely by Mexican immigrants most of whom get along without the nicety of immigration papers. Construction in Chicago is rebounding.

Yes! I can visualize a happy Gerson in Chicago hanging drywall, making decent money—and freezing his ass off.

After all, Magdalena arrived from Cuba penniless and so did her husband. Félix made the trip twice. And so did I and later so did my parents. And so did Stew's parents who came from Norway, during the early 1900s, when his dad was only six years old. And so did my two cousins in Miami who arrived from Cuba about twelve years ago; now one of their sons is a pharmacist, the other a chemical engineer and an M.B.A. And so did the husband of yet another cousin of mine who entered the U.S. legally last fall and works as a laborer in construction in Austin, Texas, for $10.10 an hour, with more overtime than he can handle. (Under a Cubans-only clause in immigration laws, most immigrants from the island gain legal status as soon as they touch U.S. soil.)

If history is a good indicator, immigrants will keep on coming to the U.S, legally and illegally, and both the newcomers and the country will be stronger and richer for it. I have no doubts.

Reporters are not supposed to pay their sources, but as a defrocked journalist I dispensed with that injunction and gave Gerson $100 pesos (about US$8.50) at the end of our conversation, to tide him over to his next stop.

And as I left them, I silently prayed that as illegal and improbable as their odyssey might be the two of them make it safely to The Other Side.


Monday, June 23, 2014

A killing, then a coronation

Killing the queen bee in your hive is nasty business, nearly as bad as cleaning the mess after putting the honey in jars. This little creature, about an inch long, spends a couple of years, maybe less, frenetically flitting around deep inside the hive laying thousands of eggs that engender the thousands of bees that in turn make the honey which, along with the pollination of flowers and fruit trees, is the purpose of having a beehive in the first place. No queen bee, no honey and maybe no fruits.

Other than by her size, the queen bee is often hard to pick out from the thousands and thousands of bees buzzing around. But as her fecundity wanes the result is easy to notice. Activity and the number of bees in the hive declines and so does honey production. Her days are done.

The killing is not particularly dramatic—squishing her between the thumb and index finger of your gloved hand—and it only takes a second. You can turn your head away or stomp on her with your foot if you're that squeamish.

It shouldn't be that difficult. We swat flies or step on roaches and other insects without a thought, but this particular bug is different. She's worked ceaselessly to sustain the beehive, an incredibly complex society governed by rules and mores I'll never quite understand. She's no run-of-the-mill bug. Killing her feels ungrateful yet there is room for only one queen in a beehive.

Her death, however, quickly turned into a rebirth for the hive as a new queen arrived from Morelia, the capital of the neighboring state of Michoacán, neatly packaged for the trip in a wooden container the size of an old-fashioned matchbox, big enough to accommodate the queen and three or four other "attendant bees". The queens are marked with a tiny dot of paint, the color of which indicates the year they were bred. Green is the color for 2014 though these dots are difficult to see unless you're an expert.

Business class: The new queen arrives in a small wooden carrier,
 along with three or four other "attendant bees"
 that keep her company during the trip here. 
Escape hatch: This hole at one end of the bee
 carrier comes plugged up with a sugary
 substance some call "queen candy" to feed the queen
 in transit and which the resident bees also munch on
 when it arrives. When the hole is finally
 open, the new queen gets out and goes to work.
When the queen arrived about a week ago, Félix and Bee Bob, a sixty-something former hippie and local apiculture maven, first had to take out, and quickly replace, a wood plug from one end of the delivery box to let out the attendant bees. The queen, however, remains in the box until the resident bees free her by eating away the sugar plug, called "queen candy," at the other end of the tiny box that also fed the queen and her attendants while in transit. This process takes two or three days, which is about the time it takes for the resident bees to get accustomed to the smell of the new queen bee's particular pheromones.

Félix and Stew checked the hive three days after the queen bee arrived in her little compartment which had been placed in the hive. And just as the how-to books predicted, her new mates had eaten the sugar plug and the queen had been freed. Activity in the hive appeared tranquil, as if the residents were relieved. You don't have to be Marlin Perkins to be fascinated by this tiny episode of the Wild Kingdom.

Once the new queen is released, she'll go about her business of a life of wanton promiscuity and fecundity and create the bees that will make the honey. In addition, by their buzzing around our land from flower to flower collecting pollen, the worker bees will help pollinate plants, including fruit trees.

On Friday, President Obama announced a program to save the bees in the U.S., which are in the midst of a precipitous decline in population called "colony collapse," along with other pollinators like the monarch butterfly. The president said that the bees' pollination work is worth about $15 billion a year in fruit and vegetable production. The number of managed bee colonies, which are essential for the production of some crops such as almonds, has declined from four million in 1970 to 2.5 million today.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture also will lead an effort to determine why bee populations are imploding. Some environmentalists have blamed the use of a certain insecticide that may have the same disastrous impact on bees that DDT had on bald eagles and other large birds, but no one knows for sure yet.

(A few conservative wing-nuts reflexively took to the Tweetersphere to ridicule Obama's announcement as another form of needless big-government meddling. Bee-rack O-bee-mer! Beeghazi! Aw shut up!)

I don't know if the same decline in bee populations is taking place in Mexico. Our beehives seem to be fine. In fact, in the area immediately surrounding us there seems to be little change in the weather either. Temperatures are a bit cooler perhaps but the rainy season seems to have started in earnest, allaying fears that the drought that ravaged southern Texas and northern Mexico could spread down our way. Everything is flowering as usual.

What I'm worried about now are the marketing and pricing angles of Félix's budding cottage industry, which is set to produce another forty-odd pounds of honey in the next few months. There is only so much honey our friends can eat or for which they are willing to pay US$6 a pint. We may have to find some new friends—quickly—or lower our price and incur the wrath of other local honey producers.

Price wars are not pretty.

But such is life in this brutish capitalist world.



An article from the Washington Post about colony collapse and bee kill-offs

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When people turn off their light

Sundays Stew and I attend a free-form church service that compared to a traditional religious to-do looks more like an informal gathering around a coffee table decorated with a dozen votive candles and a sprinkling of bougainvillea petals plucked from bushes outside the door. The program is a one-pager whose order and content can vary from week to week. In appearance and substance the service is closer to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a comfortable after-dinner conversation at someone's house than traditional church. Our talented organist pitches religious hymns, bits of classical music and even relevant pop tunes.

The second service is a full-strength Christian liturgy, with greeters and ushers, and led by a minister from behind an altar adorned with a flower arrangement, candlesticks, a crucifix and the paraphernalia for consecrating bread and wine and distributing communion. As this service gradually drifted toward Anglican or Roman Catholic ceremonial complexity, including a five- or six-page Order of Service, Stew and I opted for the earlier get-together.

We jokingly describe it as "Church Light" though most Sundays the discussions are anything but. Members, including a retired minister, volunteer to lead the proceedings with a "wisdom offering" about whatever is in their minds within the broad realm of generic spirituality. No baseball or talk about the NBA finals, please. Attendees respond, comment or sometimes politely disagree with the speaker du jour or with each other.

Shannon Wheeler for New Yorker magazine, June 9 and 16, 2014.
As it often happens, this past Sunday's offering was about death and dying, and how we handle emotions. It's not as morbid as it sounds: None of those present wailed or looked at the distance frozen in mortal terror. But the topic is a recurring one, as one would expect in a congregation made up of people in their late sixties and older, and who hear about someone's death practically every week. On Sunday we learned that the wife of the American Consul here had died.

How do we face our own death or that of a loved one? Or as Luke, the discussion leader on Sunday, rephrased the question, How do we prepare for death? Is there such a process, as if we were redacting the lines of our final soliloquy?

This week too Stew and I were faced with a dilemma far more complicated than inevitable death caused by death, old age, illness or accident. Those are deaths expected that can, to some extent, be rationalized. It's sad but not a shock when a long-time cancer patient dies.

But what if someone with whom you're close behaves as if they want to die and moves deliberately in that direction, almost as a slow-motion suicide? Or as Stew put it, how do we watch someone gradually and deliberately close the blinds and turn off
the lights on their own life?

Throughout history religions have tried to grapple with death by projecting, or inventing, an eternal paradise where we can expect to be serenaded by angels (virgins in the case of Muslims) in saecula saeculorum. The answer to the riddle of the finality of death, and our own fear of it, is to deny its reality.

As I grow older and my own death draws closer, I should be clutching heavenly solutions ever more tightly. But instead I am moving in the opposite direction: There is no heaven, no angels or harem of Muslim virgins (not that the latter would do me any good as a gay man). Our reward in life is won or lost right here. This may be my rudimentary interpretation of Buddhist "mindfulness" or the art of dealing with the reality of life's pain by living honorably, decently and in the moment, without wasting too much time looking at the rear-view mirror or guessing what might lie ahead just beyond the next turn on the road.

On Sunday Luke used "Tuesdays with Morrie," by Mitch Albom, to frame part of his discussion about death and emotions. This slender best-seller, published in 1997 and later turned into a movie, is a series of conversations between Albom and Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis University sociology professor in his late seventies who died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1995.

Schwartz did not try to conceal the reality of his own death with biblical aphorisms or formulaic denials. He knew it was soon approaching and seemed to analyze the process, deliberately and step-by-step, leaving behind a trail of wisdom offerings of his own, like "Learn how to live and you'll know how to die; learn how to die and you'll know how to live." I hope I can emulate him.

Yet what Stew and I are witnessing, right near our house, is far more baffling: A man in his eighties who is not only preparing for his death—always a good idea, in terms of wills, disposition of property and so on—but tacitly inviting it in, by postponing and delaying medical care and talking as if it's all over.

Yesterday we found him in the dining room of his home, the table blanketed with pill bottles and papers. In the middle of the mess was the draft of a book he's been working on, tentatively titled "What for?", as in, "What's the point of living?" Not a hopeful sign.

Before we went on a recent trip we talked with him about seeing a psychiatrist or some counselor about what we thought was his deep depression. We gave him the name and phone number of a local psychiatrist, but he didn't follow up. Stew says our friend is just lowering the blinds and turning off the lights.

Although the eighth decade of one's life is hardly springtime—aches, ailments and memory gaps argue otherwise—why waste the life we have left by rushing death?

This case follows the case of another neighbor, a woman in her late sixties, who died from essentially self-neglect. She looked visibly jaundiced but ignored the advice of friends to urgently get medical care until she was all but dead. Our phone calls to her went unanswered. Though we don't know the entire story—was she an alcoholic or somehow mentally ill?— it appears she wanted to die and would not let anyone interfere with her final plan.

A few months ago yet another woman died—by now our corner of the world may sound like Death Valley—when according to a sister who lived with her, "she lost the will to live" and essentially became a recluse.

There's nothing we could have done about the two women or can do about the ongoing case of the man near us. They apparently want to turn out the lights and who are we to meddle? We can visit this friend, and we do frequently, just to let him know that we are here and to remind him to call us in case of an emergency night or day.

Compared to Morrie who was preparing for his inevitable and proximate death thoughtfully and sometimes even cheerfully, the situation with our neighbor is like a play about to turn into tragedy and no one can rewrite the ending.

I can't fathom such despondency. Perhaps that is why at this point people resort to religion and prayers: There is nothing left to do but to implore the intervention of an Almighty to do the Impossible.

"My disease," Morrie once told Albom, "is the most horrible and wonderful death. Horrible because, well, look at me. But wonderful because of all the time it gives me to say good-bye, and to figure out where I'm going next."

"And where is that?" Albom asked.

Grinning somewhat mischievously, Morrie just said, "I'll let you know."

Morrie died in 1995 and went wherever or nowhere at all. But he never turned out the lights or lowered the blinds.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Senior Alert: The Metamucil Threat

It's not as far-reaching or sinister a crisis as say, the Benghazi cover-up, but folks over sixty-five, particularly those with not much else to do, might consider our latest domestic conundrum: Can Metamucil or its chief ingredient, an herb named Plantago Psyllium, harm your dishwasher?

This crisis started a couple of months ago when we visited our in-laws, who spend winters in Mt. Dora, a town north of Orlando. Mt. Dora is a postcard-worthy winter resort with old houses and huge moss-covered trees. Despite its name, and like all of Florida, there's nothing near Mt. Dora that resembles a true mount or even a bump on the landscape. The town, however, sits on a beautiful lake with a year-round colony of alligators that occasionally come ashore for a nibble. Mt. Dora's wintertime demographics resemble those of Fox News: overwhelmingly white with a median age somewhere between late-60s and the Pearly Gates. The week we were there the town rollicked with a 1920s Flappers-theme party in the main square.

We also noticed that before every breakfast Stew's brother Greg whipped up an elixir consisting of a beige powder called Psyllium and some unknown but undoubtedly good-for-you solvent, like almond milk or pomegranate juice. Both Greg and his wife are very health-conscious. He said that regular doses of this drink promote equally regular bowel movements.

Though it is not cocktail party, or even breakfast table, conversation I'm sure that millions of AARPers have discreetly broached this subject with their pharmacists and very close friends.

A potential demon in your dishwasher. 
When you get old, health worries proliferate and in a retirement haven like Mt. Dora or San Miguel, so does discussion of miracle potions and analgesics. In the States, the natural-remedies aisles at Walgreens creep along nightly and must be over a block long by now. Quackery of all types thrives in San Miguel too.

But Stew and I figured Psyllium was worth a try. Even if it wasn't the key to eternal life, the possibility of regular bowel movements during the time we have left on this planet was something worth investigating.

We found Psyllium at the local pharmacy, alongside Metamucil which happens to be the same stuff  but with some artificial flavorings and at four times the price.

First time you try Psyllium, a heaping tablespoon to a glass of water, the need for added flavoring is gaggingly obvious. It's gritty, worse than tasteless and practically insoluble. You stir it vigorously and chug it quickly before the powder turns into a gelatinous sediment.

The only way to take Psyllium—the good researchers at Metamucil figured this out decades ago—is to soften the impact with some fruit flavoring, though practically any flavored liquid will do. Lukewarm pea soup or spaghetti sauce probably will work as long as you slurp it quickly, before the Psyllium particles regroup at the bottom of the bowl.

We put the Psyllium-tainted glasses in the dishwasher and that may have been the start of our problem. After four or five days of this healthy-sounding regimen we noticed that our Bosch dishwasher was ailing. It had gone from whisper-quiet to possibly dead. Stew stopped the machine in mid-cycle and took apart the filter and food grinder mechanism to discover it was covered with a milky-white goo, like some alien excreta you'd see in an old science fiction movie, which had also clogged the holes in the sprayer arms. He cleaned everything out but the problem reoccurred a week later.

With no other explanation available Stew immediately blamed the liquid Costco-brand dishwasher detergent which had an appearance and consistency suspiciously similar to the goo in the dishwasher. An e-mail to the customer service address of Costco in the U.S. was in order.

The most amazing customer-service response ensued. Costco headquarters, wherever it is, wrote to the manager of our Costco store in Mexico and asked him to call us. The Mexican manager spoke nervously with Stew and assured he'd give us our money back and to call before visiting the store to make sure he was there. I think this poor guy was afraid he might be blamed for whatever was going on. Costco headquarters forwarded our e-mail to a purchasing agent in San Diego who asked for the lot numbers on the jugs of detergent. Yet another person emailed us to say they are tracking down the source of the detergent to determine if there's a problem and that we would be advised of the results of the investigation. A round of applause for Costco.

Except that by now I'm feeling a bit dishonest: I didn't mention to Costco the possibility that Psyllium may be to blame or at least a complicating factor.  I was afraid such a bizarre hypothesis would cause our complaint to be tossed on grounds of customer dementia.

On the one hand the Psyllium is supposed to, er, lighten up your intestines not coagulate their contents into a whitish, Martian-looking goo. Yet that is exactly what happens when you mix Psyllium in a glass: It expands just before you close your eyes and drink it. It reminded us of those water-sucking crystals that are supposed to keep your houseplants watered while you're on vacation except Psyllium tastes far worse.

But then it could be the interaction of Psyllium and the detergent, or a Psyllium reaction to hot water sloshing around in the dishwasher. Or the mix of anti-spotting liquid with Psyllium. Or any combination of these. Maybe climate change.

As Fox News analysts would aver about Benghazi, there are questions here that need to be answered.

A few days ago we stopped using the detergent as we await the results of Costco's investigation, and began washing the Psyllium contamination off our glasses by hand. We didn't want to have to call a Mexican dishwasher repairman and try to explain our machine may clogged with Metamucil.

"Meta-what?" he might ask.

"Er, it's a remedy that old people take for constipation that, you see, got in the dishwasher and might have formed a glob at the bottom," I'd try to explain.

At that point the repairman would cuss me out in Spanish for wasting his time and hang up.

This morning Stew and I decided on a yet more radical, all-natural solution: Stop taking the stuff since there was nothing wrong with our digestive functions in the first place.

I'm not going to say anything to Costco though. I want to hear what they come up with.