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.




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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.

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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: http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=1468

"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.)

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