Friday, February 13, 2015

Is that aging that I hear?

If during a romantic dinner your mature date keeps craning his neck over the table it may not mean he's trying to steal a kiss or ogling your chimichangas. It could be the old coot just can’t quite hear what you’re saying.  

Or if you’re a preacher at one of the expat temples in San Miguel and some of the congregants stare at you strangely, as if trying to read your mind, maybe they are. It’s not that they are ready to accept Jesus into their hearts. Nah. More likely they can’t quite make out what you’re sermonizing about and are baffled by how Isaiah ended up in the belly of a whale.

Yea, hearing aids are another speed bump on the road between Medicare eligibility and the Six Feet Under cut-off. And an expensive jolt it is: Yesterday I went for a exam and two hearing aids and the bill came to $2,300 U.S. That's less than half what I was quoted in Chicago but still not a cheap afternoon.

Watcha' say? And at this point, should I care?
The trip to this point began a couple of years ago when I developed tinnitus, or buzzing in the ears. Fortunately I don’t notice it much unless I'm in a very noisy situation like a busy restaurant or one of those mega-decibel Iron Man movies.

Tinnitus is generally the result of damage to the hearing apparatus, in my case caused by listening to Santana and Blind Faith with earphones, volume turned way up, while smoking dope and eating pizza. That was eons ago, in college, when all my body parts worked perfectly except apparently for my brain and common sense.

And, ah, tinnitus is also often triggered by old age. Surprise.

Admitting that you need a hearing aid takes a while, in my case about a year, a process that involves one’s spouse yelling about the problem and one yelling back for him to get that sock out of his mouth and speak clearly. One can also blame it on weird foreign accents, like Australian, Canadian or Texan.

I think it's also called denial.

This dapper dude opted for the deluxe device. 
Another obstacle is cost. Hearing aids are in a class of essential medical devices, along with orthotics and eyeglasses, that are almost criminally overpriced and only minimally covered by insurance, if at all. Ever wonder why Gucci, Pucci and Fucci Minucci all hustle their own lines of eyewear?

Worse, there’s no alternative, particularly if you live in Mexico. In the U.S. a number of companies offer mail-order hearing aids some with money back guarantees. But American vendors don't extend such service to customers in Mexico.

Outfits like Costco offer “free exams” which are a bit like free grief counseling at a funeral home. The undertaker provides a complimentary box of Kleenex and a few minutes of hand-holding before hustling you into the showroom, where the $25,000 Forever Grandma line of mahogany caskets awaits you. And Costco's hearing aids in Mexico are actually more expensive than independent clinics despite its “free exam”—and some trashy reviews posted by dissatisfied customers in the U.S.

So onwards. Come Tuesday I should have those little buggers stuck in my ears.

Just don’t talk behind my back—I’ll hear you—and please, whatever you do, don’t tell me how you can hardly see the little wires coming out of my ears.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Teach the children (to input) well

My latest project may be one of those foolers that turns out to be far more complicated than one figured at the outset: How to escort a timid six-year-old child into the realm of computers, particularly a girl who has never as much as pressed a letter on a computer keyboard and whose parents's exposure to electronics is limited to dialing a cell phone, watching television and blasting a boombox inside their battered 1998 GMC Jimmy SUV.

The girl is Alondrita, Félix' eldest daughter, who's emerged from a particularly acute case of the Terrible Two's—when she'd react to a friendly gesture with a scowl or a screaming fit and was generally insufferable—and blossomed into a charming, giggly and even flirty girl not afraid to give me a hug whenever we meet.

Ready for her close-up
After two one-hour classes on a notebook computer, mounted on a small drafting desk on wheels, I've found too that halfway to her seventh birthday Alondrita has barely started to read, a challenge that's going to delay any games or other computer derring-do that requires her to recognize on-screen words and commands.

Stew and I have known Alondrita almost since she was born and were quietly worried about her abilities. Despite having only a sixth-grade education, Félix is as smart as anyone I've ever known personally but three of his six siblings, a boy and two girls, are mentally handicapped and illiterate. So Stew and I feared that perhaps Alondrita might have inherited some of those deficient genes.

Not to worry: she readily picks up and remembers information, and during our last class even corrected me when I showed her a picture of white bear that I described as a plain oso. "That's an oso polar," she said. To me, all indications are that she's a smart and delightful kid.

In fact she recognized all the animals in pictures I showed her except for a bat and an iguana, thanks no doubt to Félix keeping his TV tuned in to Animal Planet in Spanish as faithfully as Republicans have theirs locked on  Fox News.

Looking for an "A"
Stew and I also were concerned about the lack of outside stimulation for a girl growing in a one-room house with no indoor plumbing, in a rural Mexican town of five- or six-hundred people. Félix told me recently he's never been to a movie house.

We had noted that many kids younger than Alondrita—albeit whiter and from better economic circumstances—would sit at restaurants and play with their smart phones or computer tablets and ignore all conversation at the table. Even in Mexico computer literacy starts at an early age and apparently so does computer-related rude behavior.

The problem I've noticed is that Alondrita apparently hasn't been taught much. I remember reading and writing quite fluently at her age, though Mexican schools might operate on a different time zone. I'm not a teacher or ever raised any kids either so I hesitate to pass definitive judgment on her progress.

As we head for our third class this weekend in a corner of the garage, with either Félix or his wife standing by like hawks nervously keeping an eye on one of their chicks, we'll type vowels and then try to connect them with consonants to form syllables.

I'm sure that Alondrita will catch on quickly. She's learned the location of many of the letters as well as the Space, Enter and Backspace keys, though for some reason she seems afraid of the mouse. Meanwhile, I'll start prowling the internet for games and other learning aids in Spanish.

Another unexpected challenge, though, is her three-year-old brother Edgar who is stuck in the two-year-old phase and very jealous of all the attention Alondrita is getting. He loiters around the garage during our lessons, pestering the dogs and kicking things around.

I wish the little shit would get over it. 

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Doing the U.S. immigration two-step

About a year before President Obama's announcement that the U.S. would seek to reestablish diplomatic relations Cuba, one of my cousins still in the island began lobbying me to help his daughter Odette and her three kids get out of the socialist island paradise. The more pronto the better.

My cousin, also named Alfredo, and I hadn’t seen each other for about fifty years when Stew and I visited him in Cuba in 2012. I had never met his daughter or her kids either. We two Alfredos were never particularly close but his apparent desperation to get his family out of Cuba has rekindled our familial ties.

One of my cousin's granddaughters, and potential beneficiary of the
1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
Initially Alfredo and his daughter proposed an “Escape from Planet Fidel” novella starring me as as an "employer" who would offer Odette a "job" at our Rancho Santa Clara, so she could get a phony work visa from Mexico and from there enter the U.S. through the Texas border. I scotched that script right off: I was in Mexico on a temporary resident visa and could not get mixed up in some immigration flimflammery.

The cornerstone of this drama—and a revised version now in rehearsal—is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act which grants political asylum, permanent residence a year later—and the chance to apply for U.S. citizenship five years after that—to virtually any Cuban who physically touches American soil.

It’s ironic, or perhaps cynical, that even as U.S. conservatives rail against blanket amnesty for undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans already in the U.S. or coming over the border, blanket amnesty is in effect what the 1966 law grants Cubans. The historically solid popularity of the Republican Party among Cuban-American voters in Florida, hmm, may have something to do with the double standard. 

The thin logic behind the law is that Cubans are political refugees fleeing Communist oppression while Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are economic refugees fleeing poverty. The political refugee argument may have had some merit at the height of the Cold War, but any more most Cuban arrivals seek a better economic future as much as freedom of expression.

And who can blame them: My cousin Alfredo is a pathologist at a big hospital in the southern town of Cienfuegos who makes the equivalent of $30 dollars a month.

Indeed, Hondurans trying to escape drug gangs and the reign of terror in Tegucigalpa nowadays probably have a more credible claim to political asylum than most of the Cubans.

The unfairness of the policy, however, has started to irk even the Cubans in Florida because newcomers increasingly are turning out to be criminals, Medicaid scammers, money smugglers and other riff-raff  who can be arrested and jailed but not deported because, hey, Cuba doesn’t want them back.

Some of the new arrivals also go back and forth to Cuba bringing merchandise for sale on the black market in the land of their former persecution. This boondoggle has to be one of many giggles Fidel has had at Uncle Sam’s expense.

The unjustness of the law is particularly blatant to me because of the many undocumented immigrants I met in Chicago, many of them now good friends, who must sleep with one eye open for fear of deportation. I have also witnessed a sorry caravan of desperate Central Americans wending its way through San Miguel on the way to the U.S. border where, unlike the Cubans, most will be turned back. 

Bicycle driver in Havana: Political or economic refugee?
Meanwhile, my second cousin Odette continues to revise an updated plot for getting herself and her three daughters out of Cuba. It turns out that her husband—news to me—made his way to Austin, Texas a year ago, entering through El Paso. In typical immigrant style, Julio is double-jobbing his butt off in construction during the day and at a restaurant at night, to save enough money to bring his family through Mexico.

Odette already came to Mexico on a work visa about a month ago via Cancún, where she stayed for ten days, thus establishing residence here that would allow her to bring her daughters along on the next trip. From what I hear, the paperwork is being handled by an immigration fixer in Cancún, though in contrast to smugglers of illegal migrants, called coyotes or polleros, her machinations appear to be legitimate.

Odette’s fixer, though, wants $6,000 dollars for his work,  half of which is supposed to come from me in the form of a loan. Though I’ve spoken with her and Julio on the phone, I know them only slightly so the collateral is pure faith.

After some hesitation, I agreed to the loan, with some encouragement from Stew, who reminded me of the many people who helped me when I came to the U.S. as a frightened fourteen-year-old. Now it was my turn to return the favor, he said. 

Big-hearted guy that Stew, that’s why I like him so much.

So we are waiting for the next episode to play out sometime in June, when Odette and her three girls will arrive in Mexico City, where we’ll meet them, put them in a hotel overnight and then on a bus to Nuevo Laredo.

Meanwhile, Stew and I will drive up to the border and regroup with Odette and the girls. Then we'll cross the U.S. border together where they will claim political asylum, a process that’s supposed to take a couple of hours. Or at least that's the plan. 

After a year apart, no doubt it will be a tearful reunion between Julio, Odette and the three girls. I will be there with a camera to record the memorable event.

At that moment I doubt I’ll be thinking about the unfairness of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Parting shot: This socialist dachshund in
Havana was trained  to growl if someone
 waved a (fake) dollar bill in front of his nose,
 yip if you showed him a Cuban peso.   


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