Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bruce Jenner, transgender superstar

Before we begin, let me bow at the altar of political correctness and assure everyone that I have nothing against transgender persons. Life is a very complicated affair even in the best of circumstances and everyone has the right to make whatever choices they believe will make them happy and whole, including transitioning to the opposite sex. Indeed that has to be one of the most difficult decisions a person can make. I'm in awe of the courage that takes.

I too admire Bruce Jenner for going public with his decision to become a woman though, really, it would be hard for a guy who makes his living in front of a television camera to keep such news under wraps. In his case outright disclosure would seem far preferable than the drip-drip of daily speculation, gossip and harassment by paparazzi.

Also let's hope that his widely watched interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC advances the cause of transgender people and in particular helps reduce the suicide rate among that beleaguered and misunderstood segment of the population, that according the ABC program, numbers 700,000 or so.

With those caveats on the table I must also confess that I found the approximately ninety-minute Jenner interview (net length after commercials) cringe-inducing, a bit like a freak show. Stew and I fidgeted in our seats in front of the TV and I think our reaction had more to do with the messenger than with the message. Two gay friends also told me they turned it off after a twenty minutes or so.

There are many "perhaps's" and "maybe's" why I felt that way. My reaction may have more to do with my own deep biases and preconceptions than with Jenner's interview. Perhaps.

I must confess that after lusting after him during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the memory of his fabulous physique and face then versus his appearance now—neither a particularly good-looking woman or man—was off-putting. His scrawniness in particular was not flattering to anyone of either sex. And why the plastic surgery, which—my opinion—has not improved his looks?

But those are superficial, maybe catty observations. I plead guilty.

More specifically annoying was his diva-like demeanor, perhaps an inevitable result of spending so much time in front of a camera, particularly as part of a "reality" show with the Kardashians, the royal family of self-indulgence and vapidity. A humbler, more anonymous transgender person could have been a far more affecting and informative spokesperson (though probably not attracted that much attention.)

His sex or appearance notwithstanding, I don't think I would enjoy having Jenner over for dinner; his carrying on would become quite insufferable shortly after the salad course. Or not: His behavior might more subdued or less annoying if no cameras were present.

As it was, "The Interview" (with capital letters, as ABC marketed the program), attracted seventeen million viewers, or about twice the population of New York City. Jenner is about to release a documentary about his transition to a woman, so the trans publicity wagon is just revving up despite his insistence that The Interview didn't involve any self-promotion.

What proportion of the viewers wanted to be informed and how many were drawn by simple titillation, I don't know. Stew and I were just seriously curious to find out more about the transgender issue. Some straight folks think that being gay gives you an inside perspective on the subject. In fact, I'm a gay man and I haven't a clue why a man would want to transition to a woman. Or dress as a woman except as a Halloween joke.

But as a lecturer on the subject I found Jenner not very informative. At several points during the interview, Stew and I groaned, "Huh?"

If Jenner knew of his inclination (if that's the right word) or desire to be a woman, why did he keep getting married, having children and taking female hormones? Those contradictory decisions would make him a seriously confused or self-centered individual, maybe both.

If he wants to be a woman, wouldn't he be attracted to men? Unless, that is, Jenner ultimately envisions himself as a lesbian, which Sawyer asked and he denied. He also denied being gay and his rather vehement defensiveness made me a bit uncomfortable even as he also denied having any problems with gay men. Huh? and Huh? again.

Brief interludes with medical professionals didn't help my understanding much.

I, and I suspect most of the country, are just beginning to get acquainted with the transgender phenomenon and hence my reaction to The Interview.

We would have been much better served, though, by a less breathlessly hyped show—perhaps on PBS's "Frontline" with its monotonic narrator guiding us through the story of a transgender nobody and what she/or he went through, with expert interviews filling in the blanks, But I doubt seventeen million viewers would tune in.

As the topic evolves in the media some of my questions and "maybe's" will dissipate, along with—I hope—the societal bigotry against young kids undergoing that harrowing mental battle over who or what they are, often without support or understanding from parents, teachers or friends.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Climate change? Yes, I believe so

During an interview on Face the Nation, GOP presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pretended to articulate his position on climate change. But instead of a candidate who presents himself as a young avatar of new ideas he came off sounding about as lucid as someone singing "The Star Spangled Banner" while brushing their teeth. (Rubio on climate change)

Rubio's talking points were reminiscent of those used by the tobacco lobby some thirty years ago during the debate about the harmful effects of smoking, namely, to raise doubts about "the science."

"Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe...," Rubio said. That sounds like the tobacco industry's old litany that the "science [was] not there" and therefore there was no justification to restrict the sale of cigarettes. Indeed, that strategy of disinformation fended off government regulators for about twenty years.

Backhoe-proof rocks dot our land, particularly downhill. 
Claims of ignorance seem to be a common mantra among a number of GOP candidates concerning climate change and what can be done about it. It's either, "We just don't know enough" or "I'm not a scientist," Duh. Next question. (GOP candidates on climate change)

I'm not a scientist either, not by a long shot, but looking out my window at the mangy mountains around our ranch, I believe I may have had a mini-epiphany just in time for Earth Day which is today: Humans can inflict incalculable damage to their natural surroundings and that can lead to degradation of the fauna, flora—and the climate.

My epiphany actually came on Monday, when we hired a backhoe to dig jumbo holes, about 1.5 meters wide and a meter deep, to plant seven more trees: two Mexican sycamores; one called a "Mexican maple" which I was assured will thrive in our impoverished soil; three stumpy, contorted coral trees, that have little grace except a short-lived blast of red flowers once a year and an ability to survive harsh conditions; and two "truenos," that are a bit like ficus trees.

Earth Day 2015: A Mexican sycamore,
one of seven trees we planted this year.
Even in the most propitious spots on our ranch backhoes can barely excavate more than barely a meter before running into solid rock—frequently not random "rocks" in the plural but giant lone specimens about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Most of the one-hundred-odd trees we've planted are located uphill on the land where the topsoil is marginally deeper. Downhill lies an almost impenetrable layer of rock with little vegetation except cacti and super hardy mesquites, huizaches and other desert fare.

Friends, including Félix, who have climbed some of the surrounding hills and mountains (Stew and I are too lazy for that) report vestiges of what this area used to be like. They have found actual craters that remind us of considerable volcanic history, probably hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, that dumped rich volcanic ash and dirt on the ground.

Xeriscaping: To use the unlimited supply of
rocks on our land, we've created several rock gardens,
populated mostly by cacti. In the background are the
three greenhouses in which we grow seasonal vegetables
Other relics include huge oak trees, some with trunks almost a meter in diameter, growing isolated or in small groups that point to the existence—incredible as it seems now—of forests of oaks and other hardwoods. Félix says he's also seen small herds of deer up on the hills.

But when the Spaniards arrived the forests virtually disappeared as the wood was used to fuel mining and other extractive endeavors. "Sustainable logging" was not on the menu then and I doubt the get-rich-quick Spaniards would have embraced the concept anyway.

Clear cutting led to soil erosion that we can still see during torrential rains when muddy rivulets carry whatever soil is left sometimes along with some sizable rocks. Our amateur landscape restoration efforts at the ranch, aside from planting trees and bushes all over the place, also include using rocks to create small terraces to mitigate runoff and collecting rainwater in a cistern the size of a swimming pool.

More recently, ignorant and unsustainable land uses such as overgrazing have further denuded the land down to bare dirt in some places. Before we fenced off our land there was barely any grass growing as hungry sheep and goats ate practically anything in sight even the thorny branches of huizache bushes.

So the landscape around us today—the result of indiscriminate human activity exacerbated by rapid population growth—is semi-arid with degraded soil and mountains with barren crags where forests used to be.

It's nothing like Arizona or New Mexico, with their single-digit annual rainfall and true deserts. We receive between twenty and twenty-five inches of rain a year and valleys around here still sustain cultivation of vegetables mostly for export to the U.S. But increasingly such farming requires extensive irrigation that is in turn depleting the aquifers.

As in California, eighty percent or so of the ground water here goes for agriculture. That sector, which provides thousands of jobs and income for the area and for Mexico, is not likely to accept any water restrictions. Instead we have thirsty golf courses recently popping up on the outskirts of San Miguel.

The result of overgrazing is scalping of the landscape. On the
upper right-hand corner is a new vineyard, set up about
a year ago and which required drilling a huge well. 
I'm not a scientist, to repeat the Republican mantra on climate change. But somehow I'm persuaded that unbridled human activity and exploitation of the land can affect the environment. I can see compelling evidence as I look out my office window.
And if our local experience is but one frame in a dismal epic of global environmental depredation I can easily believe that climate change is not only possible but likely occurring and accelerating.

During the twentieth century human population roughly tripled to seven billion, tens of thousands of square miles of forests have been cut down and annual emissions of carbon dioxide are measured in billions of tons a year, making large cities practically unfit for human habitation.

Yep, I'm persuaded that human activity is affecting the world's climate, mostly for the worse.

Native cactus is bloom. I don't know its name. Félix calls it
 "cardón" but I don't think that's right. 
(A great book on the subject is Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.)

As for the "devastating effect" any policy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would have on the U.S. economy, as Rubio fears, well, I must confess I'm not an economist either.

But on this subject I'd tend to err on the side of prudence: Taking action to control the human impact on the environment might be costly in the short term but not nearly as much so for future generations as doing nothing.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

GOP: The Party of Hopeless Causes

Judging by its furious reaction to President Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba and its position on other major policy issues, the GOP ought to consider replacing the elephant on its logo with an image of St. Jude, the Roman Catholic patron of hopeless causes.

With regard to Cuba nearly all the presidential candidates and party elders reflexively reprised Cold War chants: "Allowing a brutal dictator to attend (the Summit of the Americas held in Panama last week) undermines the future of democracy in the region," intoned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in an opinion column in the National Review. And so on and so forth from Texas Sen. Attila the Cruz, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, among others.

Was he a closeted Republican?
What year is this again? 1960? 1972? Or 2015? Right now Cuba does not represent any conceivable threat to the U.S. and while its government is no one's idea of Jeffersonian democracy, it's no more offensive than that of the Saudis or the mainland Chinese, whom we count among our dearest and closest trading partners.

Think of George W. walking around the Crawford ranch in 2005 holding hands with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as if he were a visiting uncle—or President Obama bowing to the same guy while visiting his palace in 2009. What's the apoplexy with Obama and Raúl Castro exchanging a stony handshake?

Only Sen. Rand Paul begged to differ. "The 50-year-old embargo just hasn't worked," he said. "If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working."

But that was during a radio interview last December. By now Paul probably has changed him mind, just as he flipped on reducing military spending. He wanted to cut it but now wants to increase it.

Even allowing that Republicans wouldn't give Obama any slack even if he discovered the key to controlled nuclear fusion, and that we're entering that dismal period of pre-primary pandering and bloviation, continuing the U.S. economic and diplomatic war against Cuba makes no political or factual sense.

About two-thirds of all Americans favor lifting the embargo; so do, by a narrow majority, Cuban-Americans in South Florida; so do all nations in Latin America; and so do all the countries in the United Nations except for Israel and the U.S.

Indeed, the embargo went into effect when I was twelve years old and living in Cuba. I'm now sixty-seven retired from a career in the U.S. and living in Mexico.

Fidel was Cuba's  jefe máximo when the embargo went into effect. His brother Raúl has since inherited the scepter. If such glacial dynastic change is your idea of progress, then the embargo is a resounding success. Otherwise it's time to try something new.

Instead, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he favors a "tightening" of the embargo against Cuba, which is like tightening the noose on a guy that's been hanging from a tree for fifty-five years and just refuses to give up.

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians is another ship that has left the dock but that the GOP keeps trying to bring back, most recently through state laws called "religious freedom restoration acts." Such sham laws supposedly protect God-fearing bakers, pizzeria owners and other vendors from having to serve gay couples—as if any self-respecting gay couple would serve pizza at their wedding reception.

Not at my wedding reception. 
Most recently enacted in Indiana the laws were said to echo the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act approved unanimously by Congress in 1993, to protect Native Americans who smoked peyote during religious ceremonies.

But in reality the Indiana law was at best redundant and at worst a consolation prize to the local evangelical "base" of the GOP, restless by the seemingly imminent, though hardly certain, ratification of marriage equality by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer.

Indiana came under a furious backlash from corporations, civil rights groups, newspapers and the public, which recognized the law in Indiana for what it was: An attempt to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians. This is another hopeless cause Republicans ought to abandon.

Indeed Republicans should give up on hopeless causes. But that's a habit that's damn hard to kick: They would have to come up with original and constructive ideas. That would be tougher still, especially during a primary season when pledging support for the same old causes is the safest way to get the presidential nomination.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

New beehive, new business plan

A month ago Stew, Félix, our dog Gladys and I set off for Morelia to pick up a third beehive, a seven-hour expedition that included lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Félix was fascinated by the lakes, birds and other sights along the way and delighted with the chicken which he had seen advertised on TV. He bought an additional combo package for his family.

The starter beehive package cost about $150US and contained several thousand agitated bees plus a queen bee in a separate chamber the size of a cigarette pack. Along with the new hive Stew introduced Félix to basic accounting and the profit motive.

Only one bee escaped inside the car. It buzzed past the imperturbable Gladys a couple of times before disappearing somewhere. There was more excitement outside when we ran into a freak snow squall that some Mexican drivers took as a cue to speed up.

Lookee honey, it's snowing! Step on the gas!
Until the new bees get established, fly around the yard and begin making their own honey, they need to be fed a one-to-one sugar-water mix twice a week. The first feeding was due immediately after the new hive was quickly assembled.

But on that day the weather was slate-gray and dank, just the of kind of conditions that make bees very irritable, a lesson Stew and Félix learned when they tried to poke around a hive and feed the bees one cloudy day three years ago. Gangs of irate bees went after anyone nearby, human our animal. Domino, a spotted Dalmatian-like mutt, got stung and ran under the bed and would not come out for a couple of hours. The maid was afraid to leave the garage. The cats hid in the closet.

This time Félix and Stew waited until the third day when the skies turned warm and clear, perfect for checking the new hive and for the first serving of sugar syrup.

As they approached the new hive, however, a swarm of thousands of bees, looking as determined and menacing as a squadron of tiny fighter planes, buzzed over their heads, going north in the direction of the house. Not a good omen.

Had the new bees abandoned their quarters because they were hungry? Was a swarm of wild bees trying to take over the new hive? Was there some terrorist warfare among the bees from the other two hives? Were wild bees trying to rob the honey from our old hives?

After the menacing swarm flew by, Stew and Félix removed the top of the new hive and found the new bees from Morelia calmly buzzing about as if they had been knitting or chatting about fútbol scores. No reason for alarm or explanation of where the threatening-looking bees came from. Probably just visiting from the next ranch.

Buenos días, bees: Stew and Félix check
 one of the old hives. The bottom box is the
"brood chamber" and the top four boxes are
the "supers." Stew uses a smoker to
calm down the bees. 
A beehive is a stack of wooden boxes sixteen inches wide and twenty inches long, painted white or some light color. Standard Mexican beehives are sized differently than those used in the U.S. so the components are not interchangeable.

Either way a beehive is a machine as awesomely intricate as a Swiss watch except it's organized and run by insects acting purely on instinct ingrained over thousands, maybe millions of years.

The bottom box, about twelve inches high and with no top, is the "brood chamber" where the new bees traveled from Morelia and now live, lay eggs and reproduce, on eight vertical "frames" with pre-installed wax panels. Another compartment holds the sugar syrup. A slot on one side allows the bees to come and go and look for flower nectar and pollen to make the honey.

Atop the brood chamber rest shallower boxes called "supers," six inches high and with no tops or bottoms. The supers are where they bees store the honey on additional frames with wax panels. As they make more honey, more supers are added by the beekeepers. A wood lid covered with tin tops the hive.

When the supers are covered with honey, it's extraction and bottling time.  After several inspections and feedings, everything in the new hive seems to be working fine though there won't be any honey to be collected probably until the fall. The two old hives are nearly full and their honey should be ready by the end of May.

Along with the new hive, Stew announced to Félix a new deal for his honey business: He's going to have to pay us back for the new hive and bear some of the other costs of the operation. Until now we've paid all the costs while Félix takes all the sales money which last year reached over $600US on fifteen gallons of honey. The way Stew set it up Félix now will kick back twenty-five percent of new sales until the new hive is paid up.

I feared Félix might get upset or lose interest with the new financial demands but just the opposite happened. He thought the terms were reasonable and now he is really interested in the welfare of the bees—his small business—and checks the new and old hives twice or three times a week. He and his wife have been discussing a new pricing scheme I suggested, based on net weight of the honey bottled in different size jars, and checking competitors' prices.

Gordon Gekko may have been right about motivating power of greed.



Saturday, April 4, 2015

The answer is not in the stars

Somewhere in their condo in Chicago two friends of ours keep what they call The Wall of Good Intentions. It's a space to post sticky notes with things they need to take care of. Sometimes the good intentions—such as sorting through their vast collection of cooking and astrology books which has spilled into the garage—are technically doable but not anytime in the near future, if ever.

Stew and I maintain separate Walls of Good Intentions but mostly in our minds, where usually they remain unfulfilled, there to glower at us for our lack of organization, laziness or inability to get our lives in order.

The corner of good intentions. 
Actually, Stew jots his intentions on a small memo pad he carries around, side by side with grocery lists and other mundanities. And while it might take him a few days he actually accomplishes most of them, perhaps because they are small, manageable tasks, like shining a pair of shoes or disconnecting the room heaters and putting them in the basement.

In my estimation Stew lacks daring and imagination.

My mind floats at a much more elevated level, where grand plans are conceptualized if alas, seldom realized. Some people say I'm unrealistic, maybe a tad neurotic. I don't shine my shoes but commit to do yoga and meditation every single day. I don't sort through clothes that need to be dry-cleaned but conjure up grand landscaping projects, to which Félix listens politely but with a dismissive or terrified look in his eyes that seems to say, "I'm sure this will pass, or at least I hope so."

Stew thinks I'm nuts, particularly because he gets swept up in many of my cockamamie ideas.

Take astronomy, a vast undertaking indeed. Coming home at night I've often paused by the gate and looked in awe of all the stars that dot the clear and impenetrably inky sky over our ranch. While I admire the stars the dogs sometimes run away down the road and Stew has to go find them.

The night skies fascinate me because I never learned even the basics of stargazing, in the order of the Big Dipper versus the Little Dipper.

So, rather typically, I dove into the subject full-throttle: I sent away for astronomy books, borrowed a telescope and a stargazing book from a friend and downloaded apps of the night sky into my Amazon Kindle tablet.

But why stop there, I figured, so I signed myself and Stew up for an eight-hour primer conducted by a former astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

Stew put the telescope together but could not fathom how to use it or where to aim it. He was never able to spot even the moon, though I could spy on Don Vicente's ranch, downhill from our place.

Trawling thorough the internet I found various guides for looking at the stars. Also I downloaded the telescope's user's manual which turned out to be useless, written in bad English by someone with a great deal more knowledge of astronomical lingo than either Stew or me.

The astronomy class started out auspiciously, peppered with fascinating tidbits about the stars, planets and galaxies. As the course progressed though, things got more complicated. The last class, when the teacher escorted us through introductory cosmology and concepts like "black holes," "dark matter," "singularity," how the universe is actually expanding and the possibility of "other universes," it all became very baffling.

Perhaps the fatal blow to our foray into astronomy came when we missed the one show-and-tell outdoors when the teacher actually pointed to the sky and named the stars and planets visible to the naked eye.

In turns out I'm not Galileo. In fact, the part of my brain reserved for mathematics and other scientific pursuits has never worked well and if anything, is deteriorating with age.

So—with Stew's help—this morning I put our friend's telescope back in the box.

Come Monday Félix is supposed to hire a backhoe and send for two loads of black dirt for a rock garden I envision by the entrance gate.

Maybe I'll wait. Félix will be relieved if I do.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Taken for a ride in Mexico

While cruising around on the internet a few days ago Stew found a report on the Fox News site—a news source we generally avoid except for laughs—that cars sold in Mexico don't have to meet many basic safety requirements imposed in the U.S., Canada or Europe, such as air bags or anti-lock brakes. In fact, the dirt-cheap Nissan Tsuru which is ubiquitous in Mexico and used largely for taxicabs scored zero out of five stars on safety tests. See:  Unsafe cars in Mexico

That reminded us of our friend Doug who ten years ago bought a new VW Pointer here that came with neither seat belts nor airbags. That's about as reassuring as the Russian-made Mosvka sedan Stew and I rode in Cuba. Barreling about 80 mph down Cuba's only expressway, with palm trees whooshing by and an angry driver hell bent to get back to his wife in Havana before sunset, all I could think was that if a tire blew we'd all end up in Key West. 

When we bought our Ford Escape a year ago we found another peculiarity of the Mexican new car market: there is no price competition—none. Sticker price is what it is and there's no bargaining or haggling no matter which make or where you buy it. In fact, there are no rebates or any other enticements to lure you to a different dealer or brand.

If you're thinking of running over to Texas to buy a new car at a better price, and whistle happily while you cross the border, forget that too. Mexican import laws make it impossible for individuals to import cars less than ten years old.

I am not a lawyer, but in the U.S. such pricing policies would be considered, dunno, a cartel? anti-competitive practices? restraint of trade? collusion? a total screw job for José the Mexican consumer? Certainly they would be challenged by the government which would also enforce tougher safety regulations to protect its citizenry.

None of the above. In Mexico it's called "reality" and Mexican drivers pay for that cozy arrangement enjoyed by car manufacturers and dealers.

Worse, new cars—and particularly used cars—are more expensive here than say, in Texas where the supply of vehicles of all types is virtually unlimited. So according to the Fox News report, some new cars with all safety features can costs less, or at least the same, in the U.S. as one without them in Mexico. 

Stew and I didn't compare Ford Escape prices in Mexico and the U.S.—why give yourself an ulcer if there is nothing you can do about it?—but I'm sure that between the sixteen percent value-added tax on new vehicles plus the lack of price competition in Mexico we could have gotten the same car in Texas for a couple of thousand dollars less.

By the way, Stew made sure that our Escape, which was assembled in Louisville, Ky., came with six airbags, anti-lock brakes and all that despite the ominous sticker on the windshield: "For Sale in Mexico Only." I wonder what's missing compared to a similar Escape sold in the U.S.

Options are another interesting factor in car buying. For some reason, probably Late Onset Midlife Crisis, (LOMC) Stew and I recently went foraging for an Audi SUV with a manual transmission, ideally with a turbo-diesel engine. Manual gearboxes are still quite common in Mexico.

No go: Audis with a manual only come in the smallest, cheapest model. The same for BMWs and Mercedes. VWs seemed to have the largest number of models with a stick, but again only in the cheapest models.

(Stew now is talking "revenge" by buying a Mustang with a 500 cu. in. engine, which is sold in Mexico with a manual transmission. Dream on buddy.)

When I asked the saleswoman at the Audi dealer in Querétaro why there were so few options compared to models in Europe, she rolled up her eyes and said, "Sir, you're in the Third World, not in Europe." Give her an A for candor.

Give an A for candor too to the guy in the Mexican government in charge of the department of auto safety standards. He admitted that Mexico didn't impose the same basic safety requirements as Europe or the U.S. because car manufacturing is a huge sector of the Mexican economy—$30 billion to be exact, cranking out three million cars a year—and it would not be prudent to pester that golden-egg layer with government safety regulations.

"It's a complicated subject because of the amount of money car makers bring to this country," he explained.

And how do we like our Ford Escape? We're pretty happy with it, no problemas during the first year.

My only unfulfilled wish is a turbo charger and a manual transmission to help out the Escape's somewhat anemic four-cylinder engine. Neither was available. This year Ford is offering a turbo in Mexico but caramba, no manual transmission in the horizon.