Monday, July 27, 2015

How violence looks from the other side

Violence in Mexico is the inescapable question every time we visit the U.S. Aren't you scared? Are you safe? Ever thought of coming back to the good ol' U.S.A.? Surely, you must have considered it! Where would you go?

Ten years ago, when we announced our plan to move to Mexico, Charlotte, a good friend, reacted as if we were headed for Zimbabwe. She has never overcome her skepticism. Other friends refuse to visit us because they imagine Mexico to be a giant, lawless saloon—or drug den—where a stray bullet can blow your margarita right out of your hand in mid-sip.

These fears and reactions are based on, and constantly reaffirmed, by media reports—sensational, unbelievable, yet mostly true—about the sorry state of law enforcement in Mexico and the failure of the joint U.S.-Mexican war against the drug cartels which, aside from a few photo-ops of cops looking triumphantly at a table full of plastic-wrapped bricks of cocaine, heroin, or whatever, is a colossal, megamillion-dollar bust.
El Chapo ("Shorty"): Chiquito pero matón
 A week ago PBS aired a truly scary, ninety-minute special about El Chapo who, despite his diminutive physique, has grown to be the most feared drug lord and all-around criminal in the world, and who recently escaped, for a second time, from a Mexican maximum-security prison.

Whichever side of the border you live on, the show was engrossing yet repulsive, one of those spectacles that make you feel like you need a long shower afterward. Most amazing was an lengthy interview with a young Mexican journalist, a woman, who explained, in gruesome detail, how corruption permeates Mexico's law enforcement, top to bottom, corner to corner.

Whether it's enforcing traffic laws or prosecuting the most wanted criminals, everything and everyone seems to have a price in Mexico. Though it didn't state so outright, the show intimated that El Chapo's escape might have taken place with the complicity—"la vista gorda"—of the Mexican government, as a sort of quid pro quo, to avert a national outbreak of drug violence, led by the hordes of El Chapo's Sinaloa drug cartel.
Nasty stuff, except that looking north at the U.S., from the perspective of one living in Mexico, the televised all-American mayhem of daily violence, murders, mass shootings, and killings of unarmed citizens by rogue cops, looks just as scary—if not more so—than anything Mexico has to offer.

For all the crooked cops we might run into on the way to a Mexican movie theater, at least we're not afraid of getting shot by some loon when the show begins, as it happened recently in Lafayette, La. (three dead, including the shooter, and nine others wounded) or three years ago in Aurora, Colo.  (twelve people dead, seventy wounded).

In fact, last week a Washington Post story noted that during the first 204 days of this year there had been exactly 204 mass shootings in the U.S. or, if you please, one daily. Circumstances vary, of course, as well as the analyses and explanations, alibis and rationalizations, offered by politicians, civic groups and others, depending on whether they are pro- or anti-gun control, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

After the Louisiana shooting, for example, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that one solution to movie theater shootings is for movie goers to bring guns with them to the show. Would you like some ammo with your popcorn? That's about as loony as anything we've heard here in Mexico, but it passes for legitimate political debate in the U.S., worthy of screen time on CNN.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a political
 genius whose mind never rests. 
A detailed listing of all the mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 yields no clear trends. While clearly there are a lot of guns around, and a lot of dead and wounded people, no clear solution is in sight except the usual: a heap of flowers at makeshift memorials, a usually overweight sheriff standing behind a lectern, droning on about nothing, close-ups of weeping relatives, and TV news anchors shaking their heads.

There's disagreement even about what constitutes a "mass shooting." Do the victims have to be dead, wounded or some of each? How many dead makes it a mass shooting, two, three or four? Was the cause terrorism, racism, easy access to guns, a family row, or mental illness? Or better still, who the hell knows?

I vote for "who the hell knows," and that is what makes these incidents so frightening, when we sit down here in Mexico, reading or looking at news of violence up there—in the U.S.

I had to chuckle when I read that one of the main distribution hubs of the Sinaloa cartel in the U.S. is Chicago. That means that our friends there—the city that incidentally was the U.S. murder capital for a while last year—effectively live closer to El Chapo's drug network than we do in San Miguel, which is an eleven- or twelve-hour drive from the actual Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Maybe when we visit our Chicago friends in September we should inquire, with our brows furrowed by concern, about their safety.
One factor that to some extent equalizes the violence in the U.S. as well as Mexico is their governments' inability to control it. Mexico is crippled by legendary corruption, while the U.S., among other factors, by a fatuous debate about gun-rights that has undermined any action by the federal government, even after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Conn. in 2012, that left 20 children and six school staff members dead, in addition to the gunman, who killed his mother before the rampage at the school, and himself afterward.

The Economist magazine summarized the political paralysis in America on gun control with it's usual dash of sarcasm: "Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution."

Come to think of it, while impotent to control narcotics-related crime, the air in Mexico City seems a bit cleaner these days too.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

In praise of ugly, misshapen produce

When two days ago Félix brought in a large container of tomatoes from our garden, few qualified for the cover of a food or gardening magazine. Several grape tomatoes looked pretty natty alright, sassy and red, and one baseball-sized Brandywine turned out almost perfect, except for a small insect nip. But they were the minority.

As usual. the tomato crop this year is delicious but hardly pretty.
The ugliest specimens, and fortunately the most numerous, were a half-dozen heirloom Black Krims, whose dark skins, particularly at the top, had cracked open probably from too much rain.
Most grocery stores would summarily toss most of our imperfect produce, on the assumption that buyers also would snub it, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Our homely Black Krims are the most delicious of the five or six varieties we plant.

Indeed, as much as half of the food produced in developed countries, including the U.S., is sent to landfills, in a vicious cycle of waste—wasted water to raise those crops, wasted fuel to transport them to market, and finally, unnecessary creation of methane gas at the landfills where the less-that-perfect produce goes to rot. Methane is one of the most noxious components of the climate-warming gas mix.

Worse, while this good food is discarded, a growing population of Americans falls under the category of "food insecure" or people who do not earn enough to ensure an adequate and healthy diet. At Republican country clubs this group may sometimes be referred to as "lazy sons-of-bitches" or "forty-seven percenters."
Fact is that even in perfect years—just the right amount of rain and not too many bugs—very little of our produce grows up perfect.

Many of the four or five types of lettuce we plant end up with holes or nibbles; carrots develop double and triple roots, and zucchinis acquire strange and, hmm, suggestive shapes and lengths. It's a trade-off for not using pesticides.

Still, the peas this year performed splendidly. If you've never had just-shucked peas from a nearby vegetable garden, put it on your bucket list. They're sensational.
Unfortunately, this year's conditions have been less than ideal. At the beginning of May we greedily celebrated the daily afternoon downpours of rain but by now they have become almost a curse.

Our 130,000-liter rain collection cistern is filled. Félix had to dig a small drainage ditch at the foot of a magnolia so it wouldn't rot, along the neighboring cow's foot. Some trees on the ranch seemed to be stressed from too much rain and as a result are shedding their leaves.

What looked like a bumper crop of green beans two months ago succumbed to rot, mold or who-knows-what, the latter being the biggest menace of all for home gardeners.
In France and Canada, some grocery chains have begun offering "ugly" and "misshapen" produce and fruit at reduced prices. The campaign sounds particularly curious for a grocery store in France, where the pursuit of perfect food is guaranteed by the constitution. In the U.S., some community groups also are taking some of this "inglorious" food production and giving it to people who can use it.

Ugh-la-la: An ad campaign by Intermarché, France's largest grocery chain. 
Stew may have the best solution yet to unsightly tomatoes. This morning, just after I photographed them, he corralled a bunch of tomatoes and led them to a large pot, to become tomato soup.

We also have had scads of shallots coming up somewhere in the back of one of our vegetable beds. I gently suggested a shallot flan, from Alice Waters' "Chez Panisse Vegetables" (p. 261).

Stew says that, no offense to Alice, he needs to meditate on that idea.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Great day for Cubans, especially me

Yesterday Stew yelled urgently during the NBC Evening News broadcast, for me to watch an important video clip: Three Cuban honor guards solemnly marching toward the flagpole at the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. to raise the Cuban flag for the first time in more than fifty years.
My own celebration yesterday. 

The choreography was a bit overcooked; the stiff-legged guards looked like characters in a Prussian operetta, except they were all black Cubans. Yet the sight of the Cuban flag going up at the embassy—which for decades had been nominally operated by the government of Switzerland and until recently didn't even have a flagpole—briefly, and unexpectedly, moved me to tears.

And just this morning, news came from my second-cousin Odette, who finally arrived in Mexico with her two daughters, to be reunited with her husband Julio, whom she hasn't seen in two or three years, by week's end. He lives in Austin, Texas, and works hanging drywall with a crew of undocumented Mexicans.

I'd visited the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. more than fifteen years ago, as a journalist, and remember it as a ghostly sight. The building is a grand mansion, much grander than you would expect for such a relatively insignificant country, with a grand staircase and a grand ballroom where, before the endless decades of socialist penury and austerity, grand parties were held, supposedly one of the hottest tickets in the capital of the Free World.

What I found instead was a building and an operation frozen in time, circa 1960. There were coats of arms stuccoed over the tops of the arches surrounding the impressive entrance lobby, one for each of Cuba's six provinces, which have since proliferated to fifteen under Castro's revisionist map making. The desks by the entrance were beat up; the ballroom expectantly holding its breath for the next gala, surely no time soon.
Three years ago Stew and I also saw the U.S. Embassy in Havana, though only from the outside. It's a 1950s-modern building holding a choice spot on the city's oceanfront promenade, and surrounded daily by a line of hundreds of people looking for papers, visas, permits, anything to get out of this socialist paradise.

Flagpoles installed across the street from the
U.S. Embassy in Havana
Just across the street, the Cuban government had installed a jungle of flagpoles to block the view of a rolling electronic billboard the Bush administration installed on one side the embassy, from which to broadcast provocative messages intended to do little more than annoy the Cuban government.

Sanity had returned sometime later, when the U.S. removed the billboard and the Cubans stopped flying black flags, which symbolized some American outrage I can't remember.

For us the most impressive sight was a brand-new, dark-blue armored Cadillac parked in the courtyard of the embassy, awaiting orders not from the ambassador, but the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section, as prescribed by the diplomatic kabuki the two countries played for decades.

According to NBC News, when John Kerry visits later this summer, he'll be the first American secretary of state since 1945 to visit tiny Cuba, which all along has been only ninety miles away from the U.S.
One of my two third-cousins, headed for the U.S. this weekend. 
People ask my opinion about the sudden melting of the ice wall between the two countries, and I say it's great, exciting, hopeful.

What I think it's going to happen to the folks trapped in the island? I have no idea. I suspect rapid economic change, fueled by tourist dollars and a loosening of the socialist straitjacket that has choked the economy for so long, but under some sort of centralized political control, in the style of Vietnam or China.

Raúl Castro says he plans to retire in 2018, when he will be about eighty-eight years old, and Fidel in his nineties or preferably resting in an impressive mausoleum shaded by palm trees. Not a decade too soon, fellas.

I am particularly happy for the two daughters of my second cousin ,who'll arrive in the U.S. this weekend. Happy that the family will be together again, happy that those two girls will get a chance to explore a whole new life, and to do so in the island kingdom of Austin, Texas. Happy that when Stew and I visit Cuba next year, it will be more like a fun family trip home, instead of a tension-filled passage to a forbidden land.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

A brief introduction to how Mexico's law enforcement system operates

Latest attraction at Mexico's oldest theme park.
When Americans can't quite explain a situation or event, they might just say, "Oh, you had to be there!"

And so it is with Americans who might be baffled by the stupendous inefficiency and corruption of Mexico's law enforcement system, which allowed the July 11 escape of the world's most notorious narco-trafficker, "El Chapo," from Mexico's most secure, state-of-the-art, he'll-never-get-out-again, don't-worry-about-it, maximum-est maximum-security prison.

If you lived here, you would have seen how—instead of outrage—the average Mexican reacted to El Chapo's escape with bemusement, derision, resignation or a shrug. What else is new, Mexicans will ask you. Few, if any, high- or even middle-profile criminals are ever captured, tried and permanently put away.

How does the country's law enforcement system work? It's simple, you'll hear: It doesn't.

If we had a comparable system in the U.S., Timothy McVeigh would have been last seen five years ago camping somewhere in Yosemite National Park, and no one would expect that Dylann Roof would serve much time for the killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

In Mexico, such prosecutions—no matter how high-profile—typically meander along endlessly, get mired in bureaucratic bungling and corruption—and are eventually eclipsed by another, even more scandalous, law enforcement debacle.  

The humor newspaper El Deforma, a close cousin of The Onion in the U.S., hit a goldmine of material with El Chapo's escape.

My favorite "news story" was that the amusement park Six Flags Over Mexico had just inaugurated the "Chapo Tunel," a new attraction over a mile long—the length of the entire park— embellished with such realistic touches as laundry carts, picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and motorcycles on rails. Visitors ride hidden inside the laundry carts, just as El Chapo did in 2001, when he escaped from prison the first time.

Corruption—as in bribes, extortion and payoffs—seems to be at the heart of the system's dysfunction. Kind-hearted American liberals often argue that if the poor Mexican policeman on the beat received a better salary, or equipment, or patrol cars or whatever, he would not be so easily tempted by the lure of "mordidas" or bribes.

Though I have no way of proving it, I suspect that even if San Miguel's street cops were paid $50,000 dollars more a year, the mordida system would abate only temporarily, because even with the enhanced salaries, why not shoot for $60,000 a year, particularly when the entire police department is in on the scam? There's no ceiling to greed and corruption.

My first brush with the mordida system came in Mexico City many years ago, when I asked a transit cop where I could park my car. The official matter-of-factly told me that if I gave him some money, can't remember how much, I could park right on the sidewalk, where he'd "keep an eye on it." I passed on the suggestion.

A while back, here in San Miguel, a pickup with riders on the truck bed—which is technically illegal yet universal because of the erratic bus schedules—was stopped by a local transit cop who, after some throat-clearing, made it clear a nice mordida would induce amnesia.

The driver said he didn't have that much money, and the cop—without pause or shame—suggested the riders should pitch in to cover the entire mordida, which they did.

Or take an American friend who lives about ten miles farther out in the country than us. His lovely Texas-style cottage was broken into about a year ago, and the burglars walked off with an odd loot: Booze, some clothes and a set of silverware—every piece except for the knives. Much police hoo-hah ensued, including dusting for fingerprints and questioning, but the case has languished unresolved.

Félix, our own consultant on matters of ornithology and Mexican forensics, suggested that if our friend contributed several twenty-dollar bills to the investigators, that would greatly enhance their perspicacity and interest in cracking the case.

Félix also said that it was foolhardy for Mexican drivers to turn in crooked cops. All that would accomplish, he said, would be to get one's drivers license taken away or car towed to the city pound, and the financial hit would be far greater than the mordida.

I have one mordida story, my favorite because it involved me. While driving through Nuevo Laredo, a rathole of a town, on the way to the U.S., we were stopped by a man dressed as a policeman, on foot, and wielding what seemed to be radar gun.

He said I was speeding and not wearing seat belts. A fine of about three-hundred and fifty pesos, about twenty-five dollars, was in order. We'd been driving for about ten hours and I wasn't in the mood to argue, so I went along.

The "cop" got on the back seat of our car and gave me directions to an OXXO store, equivalent to a Seven Eleven or White Hen Pantry, about ten minutes somewhere else in town, where we would settle the fine. I paid the "fine" to a young woman behind the cash register, who could barely stifle a laugh. That done, the policeman asked to be driven back to where we'd found him.

About an hour after we crossed the border, it all became clear to me. Shit. The guy was not really a policeman, what he was wielding was a hair dryer not a speed gun, and the babe at the OXXO was probably his girlfriend. This scam took place in broad daylight, in the downtown of a fair-sized Mexican city, a few blocks from the U.S. border.

How could I be so stupid? Hmm. All I can say in my defense is: you had to be there. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Another reason not to kill a mockingbird

About a third of the way through Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch, who we're told didn't play poker, fish, drink or smoke, counseled his son Jem about the proper use of the air rifles he and his sister Scout had been given for Christmas:

"I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Miss Maudie, an elderly neighbor of the Finches, later elaborated:

"Your father's right... Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

So I looked up the Spanish word for mockingbird and came up with "sinsonte" (what we used in Cuba) and "zentzontle" or "centzontle" (used in Mexico). For a sample of a mockingbird's virtuosic singing, and some background chatter in Spanish, click here.
Nezahualcóyotl, a fearsome 
fighter and  also a poet and
 renowned architect in
pre-Columbian Mexico. 
I asked Félix if he'd seen any on our ranch, and he launched into a story—typical of his amazing mind, curiosity and memory—that wended through the history of Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472), a great king, poet, architect and thinker who ruled the ancient pre-Columbian city-state of Tetzcuco, east of today's Mexico City, and whose face appears on Mexico's one-hundred peso banknote.

Félix also shook his head in disgust as he mentioned how, thanks to the greed and ignorance of modern-day Mexicans, these neat little birds are becoming ever more rare.

Nezahualcóyotl was quite a guy indeed. Political leader, architect, prodigious lover—he is said to have fathered one hundred and ten children with a number of, I imagine, quite exhausted concubines.

More important he was regarded as a wise man, patron of the arts and accomplished poet. Mexico's one-hundred peso note not only features his fearsome visage, but also a lovely little five-line poem:

I love the song of the mockingbird,
     Bird of four-hundred voices,
  I love the color of the jadestone
    And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man. 

Art and commerce on the same page. 
Félix pointed this out, which appears in ever-smaller type so the last line is unreadable without a magnifying glass. He also knew about Nazahualcóyotl, though not many details about his life. I downloaded a brief biography in Spanish that his wife could read to his kids. Félix is a slow reader.

But Félix knew all about the cenzontles and their beautiful singing that could mimic any sounds around. He also told me they are becoming ever rarer because of the cenzontles' habit of fiercely defending their brood, which some kids take a clue to destroy the nests.

Renaissance man manqué. 
Also, folks trap cenzontles and sell them at the Tuesday Market in San Miguel. Growing scarcity, according to Félix, has pushed the price up to five hundred pesos, or about thirty-five dollars, a high price indeed.

The scarcer they become, the higher the price, in a spiral that doesn't bode well for the local mockingbird population.

He said he'd seen a few around a bird bath station we've set up that includes bird seed and chunks of peanut butter mixed with seed. Félix also said we may have three nests on the lower side of our ranch, and tomorrow we'll investigate—from a distance, with binoculars.

After all this, I felt bad for the mockingbirds, which are indeed birds of four hundred voices put on this earth for no other reason but to delight us with their ever-changing singing.

I also felt sad about Félix, who is close to thirty years old. With his smarts and incisive curiosity: What would he be if his formal education had gone beyond a meager sixth grade in rural Mexico?


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Keeping sober in an unsober world

When alcoholics sober up one of many quandaries they face is how to reconfigure their social world, beyond their previous circle of friends—many of them unreconstructed alcoholics—and also beyond the initially supportive, but ultimately confining, cocoon of Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and other recovering alcoholics.

Sooner or later Stew and I felt as if we should graduate to the so-called "real" world, populated by folks who drink alcohol, most of them moderately, but also some who can't tell the difference between convivial and blotto.

In fact, whether they be private parties, candlelit dinners, cruises on the high seas or African safaris, the world is blissfully oblivious to the fact that, alas, there are lots of folk who don't drink alcohol for religious, health or other reasons. Some are recovering alcoholics; just as many simply don't like the taste of booze. You need to navigate in that world, one that doesn't always cater to your needs.

We continue to be either amazed, or amused, when a friend or a waiter asks us what we would like to drink and the choices are either twenty iterations of alcohol—or lemonade.

In Mexico we've found a few restaurants that offer wider choices. OKKO, a local "Asian fusion" joint can whip up a couple of different varieties of lemonade, some with mint and other herbs. Aguamiel, a new place, offers a choice of a few non-alcoholic concoctions as well as a bottle of chilled apple cider. Go to Dulce Patria, a world-class restaurant in Polanco, a wealthy corner of Mexico City, and the drinks menu has almost as many non-alcoholic drinks as wine and liquor.

Yeah, there are always the standbys of Diet Coke or iced tea. Blah. But doesn't the management care about a potential clientele of non-drinkers of various stripes? If a growing number of restaurants offer vegetarian or gluten-free entrees, why not non-alcoholic drinks?

Traveling can present its own challenges. We went to the Galápagos Islands, which involved a flight from Ecuador and then several days aboard a small ship with fourteen other passengers. Every day there was an alcoholic happy hour, but for us only Diet Coke and mineral water. I asked the guy in charge of the ship if he'd ever considered a wider selection of non-alcoholic drinks and he looked at me as if I were wearing a Charles Darwin costume.

After approximately twenty years of sobriety in Chicago, Stew and I had learned to navigate around all manner of boozy obstacles. In a big city, dining and drinking alternatives abound. Vegan Tibetan cuisine with yak milk? No problema.

Then came San Miguel, and its expat enclave, in effect a small community with an even smaller community inside. Most retirees by definition have little to do. Socializing, frequently lubricated with ample quantities of wine and liquor, consumes a disproportionate portion of everyone's time.

Aside from the few restaurants with more than a booze-and-Diet Coke drink menu, we've also been fortunate to find several friends who respect our sobriety and stock their fridge with a variety of juices or soft-drinks when they invite us over. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

There's no way to gauge the extent of the boozing in San Miguel, but I'd guess it's more than adequate, thank you. One hint is that during the ten years we've lived here, the number of meetings at the English-speaking AA club has multiplied substantially. That's good news in a way.

Still, socializing for us can be tricky. There's nothing more awkward than being ambushed at a dinner party by someone halfway to plasterdom, who insists on babbling incoherently at your stone-sober face. Do you dart to the other side of the room? Do your impression of a sphinx? Complain that your hearing aids just quit? Or ninety minutes after arrival develop a sudden stomach ailment and run for the door, grandly blowing kisses at the hostess on the way out?

The awkwardness can flow both ways. Heavy drinkers often become fidgety and self-conscious in our presence, as if Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi had crashed the party. The hosts might not realize that Stew and I don't mind drinkers. Most of our friends drink. We keep a decent supply of liquor, wine and beer in our home. It's drunken behavior and rudeness that we definitely mind.

All that awkwardness can cut into your social life, as your name is quietly dropped from invitation lists. Frankly, we don't mind it that much anymore. Life is too short, particularly when you're old, to hang out with people that for some reason make you uncomfortable. We understand.

Perhaps the touchiest situation for non-drinkers is dealing with close, high-value friends whose excessive drinking has become unpleasant. Mentioning your concerns can make you sound like Carrie Nation or a Salvation Army drill sergeant, and ruin a good friendship.

We recently had a situation like that, and an honest talk seems to have alleviated the problem. We doubt our friend gave up drinking but he did acknowledge our feelings and concerns, in a way that, if anything, cemented our friendship.

In other cases, editing our Rolodex may be the only solution to unpleasant drinkers, even at the risk of some isolation in San Miguel's already small social circle. That's tough, but for Stew and me, not nearly as much so as jeopardizing our sobriety.



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Show me your dinero!

Folks sometimes complain about real estate agents and their advertising being more than a little bit misleading, unnecessarily convoluted or maybe a lot misleading.

I found this big sign on one of San Miguel's main boulevards, leading to the center of town. It's a banner about six by ten feet, professionally done. The seller doesn't mince words, though he doesn't sound like the kind of schmuck I'd like to rent from.

Space for Rent: To a business or serious,
responsible person, with a lot money

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Mockingbird flies again

I've been reading about the upcoming release of  Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," the manuscript for which somehow had disappeared, or been hidden or misplaced, sixty years ago. The story in "Watchman" is set twenty years after Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and both books share some of the locales, and characters, such as Scout and Atticus Finch.

"Watchman" won't be released until Tuesday and meanwhile I thought it might be a good idea to re-read "Mockingbird," which I'd first read in high school.

I expected to have forgotten most of it, but Lee's prose and story easily came back, if not all the details, certainly the basic plot and characters, beginning with the ominous introduction of Boo Radley, in the first page.

And shortly into the first chapter, the following familiar description came up:

There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

That's beautiful stuff, and yes, "Mockingbird" is safely stashed somewhere in my head. It demonstrates the lasting impact on me of Lee's prose and that my memory, if jostled, still works reasonably well. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

And can you do Hava Nagila in Spanish?

Undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are nothing if not versatile. They can mow the grass in Long Island, pick apples in Michigan, work in slaughterhouses in Iowa and Minnesota, clean houses in California, and perform a myriad other job Americans don't want to do.

They do all that and more, while earning less than Americans would demand to do the same work. Add insult to injury, too, in the person of Donald Trump.

In New York City, during this year's Gay Pride Parade, Mexicans showed up in yet another line of work—mercenary protesters.

Hmm, you don't Jewish at all.  
The New York Times, and the Daily Beast, an internet magazine, and other news organs, reported that a Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish group that opposes gay marriage, and gays in general, hired Mexican day laborers to show up at the Gay Pride Parade and hold up anti-gay placards.

In an interview in the Times, one Heshie Freed, who identified himself as a member of the Jewish Political Action Committee (JPAC), explained that, "The rabbis said that the yeshiva boys shouldn't come out for this because of what they see at the parade."

Mexican immigrants are good stand-ins; they probably didn't even know what the signs said.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, last year JPAC also hired Mexican day laborers, dressed up as Orthodox Jews, to hold up signs protesting the participation of gay groups in the Israel Day Parade in New York.

In fact, JPAC seems to be a phantom, one-man band, with no street address, and its leader, Heshie Freed, a crackpot that goes by various aliases.

Whatever. Heshie got his fifteen seconds of notice by the New York media.

Mexicans should not take this latest humiliation in silence, though. For next year's Cinco de Mayo, they ought to put together a mariachi band made up of Orthodox Jews, just to hear what "Cielito Lindo" sounds like in Yiddish.


Daily Beast

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Belting oldies in English and Spanish, Gloria Gaynor shows she has survived

San Miguel de Allende is not even close to the road between Hollywood and Broadway, so when a recognizable headliner, even an oldie, shows up in town, it's reason for some buzz.

An oldie but still definitely a star.
So it was with Gloria Gaynor, a disco queen from the seventies, who put on an awesome show here on the Fourth of July, even if Stew and I, and two friends, one from New Zealand, the other from Canada, seemed to be the only gringos around. The curious ethnic composition of the screaming, dancing-in-the-aisles crowd of about fifteen-hundred. was but one of the surprises of the evening.

In case you're wondering, and you probably are, Gaynor is sixty-five years old, chunkier than we remember her and not as agile on stage as she used to be, but looking damn good even from our third-row seats.

Generation Gap Alert: Some in the enthusiastic crowd were not
even born when some of Gaynor's hits originally came out.  
She took a couple of breaks during the ninety-minute show, which covered the expected standards from her own repertoire and from Donna Summer's and Roberta Flack's. During one of the breaks a young trombonist from the ten-piece back-up band took to the stage with an amazing dance number that left you exhausted just watching it.

Apart from the absence of graying gringos, who might have been wearing bell-bottomed pants for the occasion, was the venue, a new small convention center opened about a year ago off the main avenue into San Miguel. From the outside it looks about as glum as Lenin's tomb, but the inside was downright plush, with one large ballroom-size space with a stage and a large lounge/anteroom with a bar.

Then Gaynor tore into the crowd with introductions to her numbers in Spanish—and pretty good conversational Spanish too, not something she picked up a week ago.

The almost all-Mexican crowd, thirty- or forty-ish, seem thoroughly familiar with Gaynor's songbook and eager to sing along. Are we in San Miguel, 2015, or at a gay bar in Chicago, circa 1980?

One glitch was the sound system which seemed to overwhelm the relatively small room and sometimes even Gaynor and her backup singers.

Gloria Gaynor closes the show. She can survive, indeed. 
When it came to the finale—"I Will Survive," naturally—she sang it in Spanish, with the crowd, by now piled up at the foot of the stage and waving their arms, singing along in English. Much screaming, iPhones flashing, a quick encore, and it was a memorable Fourth of July.

For Stew and me, it was the best Fourth of July we could remember, going back the blow-outs in Chicago's lakefront Grant Park. Except we were in Mexico.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

How the F-bomb in films went from offensive to really annoying

When "Gone With the Wind" was released in 1939, Clark Gable's use of the D-word, as in "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," caused a minor stir, for even such gentle cuss word was considered risqué. Today, "damn" wouldn't even be noticed in the torrent of profanities that routinely course through movie dialogues.

In particular, the use of the so-called "F-bomb" has risen from offensive, to either meaningless or downright annoying. (Blogger disclosure: I was not raised in a Cuban nunnery, nor am I averse to a string of expletives when provoked.)
Research, research: Computations involved in this post. 

The "F-bomb" has become gratuitous, like much movie nudity. A well placed "fuck!" or "shit!" may be perfectly apt in a conversation among hoodlums, who wouldn't be expected to use "golly!".  But like nudity, it needs to be well placed, unless of course, you're watching pornography, when the more cussing and nudity the better.

The suggestion of sex, with a sprinkling of nudity—I think it's called titillation or teasing—can actually be more effective and erotic than wholesale undress, particularly when the results are not that attractive.

Take Harvey Keitel's butt, please, which he and/or the director Elizabeth Jane Campion, decided to share with the movie public in the 1993 flick "The Piano." It's gratuitous nudity and worse, unpleasant to look at. Far more "ugh!" than "ah!", more "did you have to?" than "hmm, look at that!".

So it is with the F-word, which in some movies is used with such carpet-bombing abandon—literally hundreds of times—that it's a wonder there's any room left in the script for other probing terms, like "the", "is", and "what?"

Two nights ago, with no other entertainment readily available, Stew and I visited our local Blockbuster outlet, which along with Radio Shack, continues to thrive in San Miguel, long after the original chains vanished in the U.S. We think of those two stores as the retailing equivalent of Jurassic Park.

The DVD selection at Blockbuster included some new releases but also lots of musty oldies, like "Saturday Night Fever," in yellowing plastic boxes.

We settled on the James Bond-ish 2014 film "Kingsman: The Secret Service," starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine. It also starred Mark Hamill, nowadays no Star Wars bon-bon anymore. Hamill was unrecognizable.

Twenty minutes into the film, Stew asked, "Have noticed how many times they've used the word 'fuck' "? In fact, the use of the F-word and its various conjugations, was astonishing. Along with the other four-letter words, it became really obnoxious. Like Keitel's bare ass, most of the cussing in "Kingsman" seemed totally dispensable.

Last year Variety magazine ranked recent movies according the use of the F-bomb, and Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, came first. The word "fuck" was used five-hundred and six times. Divide the running time of the movie in seconds by the number of F-bombs and we hear the word approximately every 21 seconds.

One can understand the use of the word on special occasions, as when Vice President Biden, unaware of a open microphone, leaned over President Obama, during the signing of the Affordable Care Act, and exclaimed, "Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal!"

John Oliver, the squirrel-like British comedian on HBO, also drops F-bombs, but judiciously and for good effect—he's very funny. He uses the F-bomb like someone would use red pepper on a pizza—carefully.

How many times did they use the naughty word in "Kingsman"? I replayed the movie on a laptop, with subtitles to ensure maximum accuracy, and alas, I only counted one hundred and twelve occurrences.

That's about once per minute, not that bad really, compared to the "Wolf", but, when added to the other cuss words, including some British imports like "wanker" and "bollocks," it felt like aerial bombardment rather than sniper hits.

By golly, Olivia, you look really mahvelous. 
Which brings us to Olivia de Havilland, who celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday on July 3 and still looks great.

She played the gentle Melanie "Mellie" Hamilton in GWTW, and even today punctuates her conversation with nothing naughtier than "golly," "marvelous," and "splendid." Mellie was the foil to the evil, unscrupulous and scheming Scarlett O'Hara, who probably deserved a good "fuck you!" more than anyone in film history.