Friday, April 29, 2016

April showers and succulent flowers

My fascination with succulents and cacti initially arose out of necessity—they are the natural denizens of semi-arid areas such as where we live—but has developed into a true fascination with these quirky and frequently beautiful plants.

This aloe grows in a pot in our back terrace.
They come in thousands of contorted and bizarre shapes and most look gruff, spiny and downright hostile. They don't want to be messed with, by humans or hungry goats, and some remind you of that with hair-thin thorns that break off and embed in your skin.

Then comes April and the same succulents now beg to be admired with their bright green growth replacing their dour, grayish winter plumage and most amazingly, flowers in all colors from shrill orange to more discreet shades of rose or lavender. Some are delicate and orchid-like, others tiny and barely visible, while a few grow in giant stalks ten or fifteen feet high that serve as natural alarm clocks to bees, signaling them to get going and make some honey.

Their flowering seasons are brief and not simultaneous, which has the added advantage of forcing me to walk around the ranch to check which cacti or succulent is putting on a show.

This very common aloe grows all over the ranch.
A couple of years ago I tried to learn their botanical names in order to exercise my aging memory but it proved too big a task. I remember a few names such as the agave americana medio picta alba and the aloe family but beyond that, succulent and cacti nomenclature is a hopelessly tangled jungle. For example, I know euphorbia, except there are dozens and dozens of euphorbias most of which don't look at all similar. And so on with the opuntias and mammillarias. 

In fact, I've come to appreciate why Mexican nursery owners rather use made-up names like "Shrek's Ears" or "Helicopter Cactus". Both of them are some type of euphorbia, but who can remember which one?

Small red flowers will form a crown atop this
barrel cactus, which grows wild in the ranch. 

"Crown of Thorns" is an unfriendly-looking succulent
that flowers most of the year.

Mammillaria cactus, with tiny lavender flowers. 

There are about 200 species of mammillarias. I don't
know which one this is, though its purple flowers
stand out atop a white plant. 



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A small eulogy for a great mutt

Gladys, our oldest dog who had a crooked tail, soulful eyes and a great heart but no visible link to any particular breed, died last night of respiratory failure at the vet's office, as unexpectedly as she had entered our lives about nine years ago.

Maybe just a mutt to you, but a queen to Stew and me.

We don't know what triggered her death, except she had become lethargic and stopped eating during her last two or three days. The vet suggested it might have been a toxic reaction to phenothrin, the active ingredient in an anti-flea shampoo we'd used, though the other dogs were not affected. Following reports of toxic reactions, phenothrin was banned in the U.S. for use on cats but not on dogs.

Whatever. We brought Gladys home this morning, put her on a wheelbarrow and took her to a grave that had been already dug by Félix and his brother Esteban, who had come to help. Under a cloudless sky, an improvised, single-file funeral procession consisting of Stew, me and our four remaining dogs, wended its way through the weeds, to what has become a pet cemetery in one corner of our ranch. 

We stood as Gladys, wrapped in an old bed sheet, was gradually covered with soil. Stew, who doesn't have as big a problem crying as I do, knelt by the gravesite and sobbed for several minutes.
Gladys parachuted into our lives when we lived in a condo development in town. We found her walking aimlessly in a pouring rain, the remains of a piece of rope around her neck, and limping as if she had been injured. While vehemently protesting we would not adopt her, I nevertheless built Gladys a dog house behind our building, out of a large plastic storage bin with a blanket inside, and set out food for her every morning.

Naturally she kept coming back for more food and soon started walking, cautiously at first, alongside our other dog Lucy to a nearby park. The two dogs became fast friends and started playing and chasing each other in the park.

Gladys's funeral procession. 
After I don't know how many weeks of this routine, suddenly Gladys sat as if inviting Stew to pick her up. "I wanna go home with you guys!" And so she did.

The vet said Gladys had been either hit by a car or abused, hence her injuries, including a permanently crooked, droopy tail and slightly off-center gait. We've always suspected she had been mistreated or abused because, with the exception of Stew and me, Gladys didn't trust people. Truth be told, for the first couple of years she was quite the dyspeptic bitch.

We've always suspected her previous owner must have been a Mexican woman who hit her with a broom: Every time our maid Rocío picked up a broom to start cleaning, Gladys started cowering and growling threateningly. She kept up that routine right up to the end. She definitely didn't like Mexican women with brooms or mops.

Eventually though, Gladys grew up to be the tamest, friendliest and most attentive dog in our crew of five.  She went to the beach with us a couple of times; riding in the car, even just for two hundred feet up the driveway, was her biggest thrill. She would sit ramrod straight on the back seat, peering out the windows as if she owned the place.
Graveside ceremonies. 

When we took her to the vet two days ago, Gladys at first didn't get up from her cushion. Then Stew shouted the magic words: "Hey, Gladys, want to go in the truck?" Her eyes opened and she slowly stumbled out to the garage and sat by the truck waiting for help to get up on the back seat.

That was her last ride until we brought her home this morning.



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Trying to survive in Planet Fear

A few days ago the latest Consumer Reports arrived along with the AARP Bulletin, the latter something we've never subscribed to but seem destined to receive until we die.

CR's cover featured a half-plastered doctor—a model I hope—with a two-day beard, a crumpled white smock and a jumbo martini in one hand, along with the headline "What You Don't Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You." Inside, the article covers botched surgeries, substance abuse, sexual misconduct and other horrors that might prompt you to avoid doctors and hospitals unless you happen to fall unconscious while walking by an emergency room. The issue had other stories to my mind more relevant to consumers, such as the latest on electric cars and the best washing machines, but the editors instead picked fear as their lead.

Compared to the AARP Bulletin though, CR is a gusher of optimism. The latest Bulletin warns us about dangers in the home, scam alerts, a nursing home murder, ways to prepare for a disaster, deadly viruses, dangerous products (accompanied by an illustration of an exploding kitchen blender), and gangs targeting older Americans.

Excuse me while I fix myself a one-liter martini like the one the doctor on the CR cover had on his left hand.

Along with resentments, fear has to be the oldest and most insidious of emotions. At a talk before the local Unitarian fellowship, Rev. Tom Rosiello pointed out that "Do not be afraid!" is among the most common injunctions in the Bible. One blogger actually counted the number of times it comes up and claimed it's close to three hundred and sixty-five times, enough for a daily innoculation against fear. Indeed, throughout history most religions have dealt with the puzzle of fear by suggesting we just put our fate in the hands of Someone Upstairs.

Russell T. Gourdine' painting "Life: Fear". He explains:
"I chose to paint fear... because fear is something that
 everyone experiences in life. This painting shows a woman
who is fearful of her past." Whoa!
During the current presidential primary season, fear of everything and everyone—immigrants, transgender people lurking in bathroom stalls, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, terrorists, economic insecurity and criminals, to name just a few—seems to have replaced rational discourse, making it look as if the clowns have hijacked the circus parade.

Yet raw fear, much like resentments, accomplishes little. The two sour daily life by distorting it, by focusing our attention on what has happened and what might happen—both of them scenarios largely out of our control and often irrational—and away from what is actually occurring in front of us.

Fear can't be just wished away. It's in our spines and a healthy dose of it is essential for survival. Rational fear could be called prudence, common sense, caution, and it can save us from getting run down when we cross the street or sticking a wet finger in an electrical socket. Stew and I make a round of the house and make sure all the doors and windows are locked before checking out for the night.

Resentments, or looking back, are intrinsically human too. You inescapably look back in your life's experiences, yesterday or years ago, to help you understand and guide your behavior today. If you're lucky such examination will add a measure of balance or even happiness to your life. I think that is what psychotherapy is supposed to do, though if Woody Allen is any indication progress is often imperceptible.

In some cases—most notably my own, though regrettably I realized it relatively late in life—retrospection frequently sours into resentments and becomes seriously destructive, because, just as with irrational fears, grudges and resentments distort your perspective of the now. Would that someone could invent a machine to edit the past, one that could expunge the nasty episodes and people from one's previous existence.

The next best solution might be to emulate the pope and periodically issue a "plenary indulgence" that absolves all the assholes in our lives so we can move on and deal with what's in front of us today. Probably that's not exactly how the pope would describe it, nor do rank-and-filers like me have the pope's supposedly divine touch of global absolution. But I find it a surprisingly refreshing exercise, like taking a shower and putting on clean clothes, even if there are a few die-hard assholes I can't seem to get on my indulgence list.

But if resentments tend to be a private matter, nowadays fear is universal. After a dinner party the other day friends talked about their travel plans. Istanbul? But is it safe? The Netherlands? Isn't that in Europe, pretty close to Brussels and Paris, where Islamic terrorists roam? Egypt? Are you crazy? The whole place is packed with crazy Muslims! Living in Mexico? Aren't you afraid of the narco-bandidos? Or for that matter, the U.S., where some mass shooting takes places almost daily, in the streets, a military base(!), a movie house or a black church?

As the conversation meandered through all these minefields of risks and fears I realized that if we let them govern our lives—not to mention our travel plans—life could at best become only marginally safer but also limited and limiting, borderline intolerable.

The gun-owning mania in the U.S. is fueled by fear, a veritable mass hysteria. Millions of Americans own guns, sleep by them or carry them, concealed or ostentatiously, whether going to the car wash or the grocery store. Many of them interviewed on TV say they want "protection" and that guns provide a feeling of "empowerment," even though letting fear and envisioning anyone you meet on the street as a potential threat is an oxymoronic take on personal empowerment.

How to deal with fears and resentments, to determine which are rational and productive—as opposed to Looneyville and self-destructive—is a question to which I've found no definitive answer. The closest I've come is to try living in the present and to constantly challenge my own perspectives and decisions. To give up on travel for fear of meeting people different from us seems illogical—isn't that why we travel?—though cancelling that long-postponed archeological tour of Damascus until further notice probably is a good move. But wholesale surrender to fear is the ultimate defeat of reason.

Though I initially dismissed Donald Trump's agenda as lunatic—a sort of stream-of-consciousness, spur-of-the-moment babbling—I've gradually come to appreciate the succor his pitch offers to frustrated white voters whose fortunes continue to continue to decline as the U.S. economy becomes more polarized, and dreams of upward mobility for themselves and their children turn into a mirage. These folks are angry and ready to blame anything and anyone, from free-trade treaties to Mexican rapists and Trump is their man.

But even when you agree that their gripes are legitimate, their solutions are not. Resentments, xenophobia and other types of bigotry, plus fear, do not add up to a constructive economic policy. What is scariest of all—and I think that's a legitimate fear—is that given the gotcha politics that paralizes Congress today there may be no plausible solutions for the foreseeable future to what ails the country and the economy.

That's really scary.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Gardening with Félix and Mother Nature

It's a ritual among gardeners, really more like a booby trap of frustration, to amble around the yard long before the planting season arrives and fantasize about exotic combinations of flowers and plants swaying in the breeze, such visions reinforced by the arrival of seed catalogs in January and February, and glossy gardening books that descend from our shelves for an annual cameo. One can imagine too the aromas of lavenders, sages and santolinas even though they are barely emerging from their winter torpor, let alone blooming.

Reason and past experience try to dampen such reveries, but to no avail.

No, you can't grow such plants in your area, a voice barks in the back of my head. It's too cold; too hot; too dry; the soil too lousy. And don't forget those small but ravenous nasties—mice, birds, rabbits, and particularly the motley battalions of insects, whose names I'll never remember in English much less Spanish, ready to assault any and all plants, preferably those I value most.

Most crucially, you need to wait a month, maybe two, after the initial springtime planting urges stir in your gut. In gardening, as in most endeavors, impatience is not your friend. I don't know how many times our gardener Félix has told me that, but I pay no attention because I'm college-educated and obviously much smarter than he is.

This year we had additional problems. We had a few mild overnight freezes serious enough to burn several cacti right down to the nub and in a few cases knock them dead.

Is there hope for our Euphorbia lactea?
We planted a Euphorbia lactea, a gaunt, candelabra-like fellow about a one and a half meters high, also called the ghost cactus because it's all white. We paid good money for it, about fifty dollars, and placed him in a prominent place befitting what I thought would become a "specimen plant," a conversation piece.

After the first freeze though, its branches rapidly turned brown. We rushed to cover it with sheets and plastic bags to protect it from the wind and overnight cold snaps, but by then all its branches had begun to die down, ultimately leaving a bare, frightened stalk.

There's hope yet. The remaining trunk, about two inches wide, is still green and solid, two good signs according to Félix, though it'll be months before new growth emerges. I hope he's right.

I'd thought cacti could withstand just about anything I said to Félix. I'd seen pictures of their relatives standing stoically in the snow and searing heat of deserts in Arizona and New Mexico.

But apparently some succulents don't like the cold. Félix smiled, shook his head at my epiphany, and pointed toward a nearby patch of Tequila agaves most of their leaves brown and limp. Some might recover, he said, and for the rest, it's adiós.

Then came couple of wispy snowfalls and a far more serious hailstorm that shredded and perforated the bright new foliage of trees and knocked the blossoms off one peach tree. A big alder by the terrace looked like it'd been caught in the middle of a gun battle.

Unable to connect the dots, I ran to the plant store with a sample tree branch to ask what sort of biblical plague had come down on our yard. When we showed up with a bottle of ant killer, Félix smiled and shook his head again: It was just the result of the hailstorm.

There were also fierce afternoon winds, kicking up rivers of dust. One storm shook the five slender cypresses in the the front yard in every direction as if they were doing some sort of spastic rhumba. Félix dutifully tied the young trees to the wall.

My annual seeding offensive got off to a very bumpy start too. We ordered about a hundred dollars worth of seeds from two vendors in the U.S., brought down here under some subterfuge because Mexico doesn't allow plants or seeds to come into the country.

The new class of seedlings, waiting for action. 
I did some research and settled on several varieties of tomatoes and vegetables but, of more interest to me, I also ordered several flower seeds I thought should grow here but had never found at the local nurseries. Nothing exotic: Russian Sage, Achillea, Bee Balm, Kniphofia, Gomphrena and others that were supposed to relish dry, sunny climates.

I installed fluorescent lights with a timer on a shelf in the garage, just as we used to have in Chicago, and waited. And waited. Félix was mystified.

Most of the seeds failed to germinate. Too cold in the garage? Wrong planting medium (an equal mix of vermiculite, compost and black dirt)? Too much water? Too little? The few that came up we put outside in a greenhouse-like contraption consisting of PVC hoops and translucent plastic sheeting.

Then one afternoon a merciless wind blew off the plastic cover and that night we had a combination freezing temperatures and hail that pretty much wiped out the entire colony of pre-pubescent plantlets.

But gardening, goddamn it, is not for quitters, I exhorted Félix, and so we started a new batch of seedlings and things are looking up, sort of.

We should have five varieties of tomatoes, plus plenty of leaf vegetables. We coaxed our first batch of spinach out of the ground this year. Asparagus stalks are coming up, not a bumper crop but enough to make a couple of omelets, and we have two batches of garlic and one of shallots.

As for flowers to fill our beds, we've been visiting local nurseries whose absurdly low prices, compared to the U.S., partly make up for the lack of variety.

Back from the dead. 
And despite the uncooperative spring, everything seems to be waking up in the yard on its own, even some prickly pear cacti—a species with smooth rather than thorny paddles—that Félix had found by the side of the road. The mother plant had been literally run over but, undaunted, Félix planted the gnarled, battered remnants. I rolled my eyes.

Two weeks ago he brought me over to proudly show me scores of little green paddles popping up on the old tattered plant—proof, according to Félix, that one should think twice, thrice or four times before discarding any plants. In fact he has saved countless truenos (Japanese privets) and pepper trees, or pirules, that now thrive in various corners of the yard.

I stammered that yeah, but, on the other hand, so what?, you can't save everything Félix, you need to think about this or that.

Then I shut up: I realized that when it comes to plants, there's no point in arguing with Mother Nature or Félix, no matter what my books say or what I think I know.