Friday, July 29, 2016

The beauty in serendipity

"Serendipity," with its musical ring, is a word that sounds like fun even before you know what it means. Literally it means "unexpected good luck" or stumbling into something terrific that you didn't imagine. Yet we often turn away from serendipity, our demand for certainty preempting many pleasant, even wondrous, surprises.

During a recent trip to Spain, and more recently during a walk through our garden at the ranch, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of serendipity—to simply to step back and allow plenty of open travel time and soil space for whatever. It turns out the fun and beauty of surprises more than make up for the initial trepidation of letting go.

When a rose bush ran into nasturtiums, a large rock and a prickly bear cactus,
an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement resulted. 
Before going on a two-week trip to Spain a couple of months ago, we ordered Rick Steves' travel book, plus a couple of almost scholarly explorations of the history, architecture and artistic significance of legendary landmarks like the Grand Mosque of Córdova and Granada's Alhambra. I even read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra." I wanted to be fully prepared.

Then I put together what I thought was a airy day-to-day itinerary, a lot of it inspired by Steves' rather marathonic walking tours and estimated times of completion that alas, don't make allowances for the age of the person doing the walking.

He instead ought to provide sliding time estimates. For instance, the hike from Madrid's Plaza del Sol to the Prado Museum? Twenty- to thirty-year-olds, you should allow thirty minutes; folks over sixty, with ten to fifteen pounds of extra weight, grab a cab.

Even in Europe's giant museums there is only so much great art your exhausted tourist brain and feet can absorb. Our friend Gerard commented that after four or five hours meandering through Amsterdam's monumental Rijksmuseum, the endless collection of Rembrandts became a blur of pictures of "old Dutch guys with big black hats."

Rather, you should check out and admire some of the highlights that you studied in the obligatory college art appreciation class (Jason's "History of Art" anyone?) and then go out for a nice lunch. After that, try a museum with a collection of objects you know little or nothing about. The hell with Jason. Be surprised.  

In Spain, the Alhambra, Córdova's Mosque and Seville's cavernous cathedral are certainly worth every bit of their fame and then some.

Stew (l.) with a new old friend from the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen.
Yet the most memorable moments of our trip were unplanned, such as finding a tiny Moroccan restaurant in Granada, near the Alhambra, run by a short, bubbly guy who was born in Chefchaouen, a tiny psychedelic town in Morocco we had visited in 2007, where every house is painted the same shade of electric blue. The owner was thrilled someone recognized his hometown and we had terrific conversation and chicken tajine. 

For two days my itinerary provided for just "driving around the countryside," a splendid idea that took our us in our turbo-diesel VW Polo, with a manual transmission Stew wouldn't touch, to two towns we'd never heard of: Medina Sidonia with its tumbledown church and Grazalema, the ultimate "postcard-beautiful" village, one of dozens in the "white villages" region of Andalucía.

While looking at the valleys and mountains surrounding Grazalema, Stew proclaimed it to be one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. It was a truly serendipitous moment, or if you're religious, a moment of unmerited grace, as in how did we stumble into this place? 

The unexpected beauty of Grazalema, in Spain's Andalucía. 
Back home, daily rains have greened the landscape around the ranch, and despite much planning and seed-ordering from the States, serendipity has, once again, overtaken much of my landscaping schemes.

I planted our seeds too early and upwards of fifty percent of them died, victims of my impatience. Adding to the confusion is Félix's refusal to pull up and discard any plants, flowers or small trees no matter how out of place they may be. So flowers and vegetables have germinated in odd places after lurking in the compost pile for the past several months. Flowers and vegetable seeds have arrived air mail, wrapped in bird droppings. To boot, there were handfuls of seeds left from last year that Félix saved in envelopes with enigmatic labels like, "big zinnias?" No matter, into the ground they went; nothing must go to waste is his gardening mantra.

A lone zinnia deep in the ornamental grasses. 
The result is serendipitous and charming, a colorful joke at the expense of those gardening gurus who insist one must first make a scaled plan of the areas in the garden to be tamed, followed by careful selection of plantings according to color, textures and heights.

Indeed I have noodled the idea of turning the garden over to chance, Mother Nature or Félix, given that any one of the three options probably will yield much the same results.

Quite often he comes up with ideas at first strange but that ultimately win you over. "Hmm, that's kind of clever!" or "I never thought of that!" Zinnias abutting the agaves? Roses surrounded by nasturtiums? A peach tree—where did it come from?—in the middle of a patch of English lavenders? A dahlia fighting its way through a succulent groundcover? Who would have imagined?

That and more, thanks to the gifts of serendipity.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Feeling free and whole at Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade

Once upon a time, about forty years ago, Stew and I attended our first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. We didn't really participate, join the marchers, wave any rainbow flags or make any noise. We stood discreetly on the sidelines, a safe distance from the drag queens and other scandalous participants: Were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—men irreverently dressed as nuns—or the leather-clad Dykes on Bikes, defiantly revving their Harleys, already part of the parade?

We don't remember. At that time Stew and I were so uncomfortable in our own gay skins that any public demonstration of solidarity with other gay people—out in the middle of Chicago, no less—would have given us a nervous rash even if all the marchers had been pin-striped accountants.

Neither one of us was "out" to our families, neighbors or coworkers, nor did we have many gay friends. Cloistered anonymity was our operating style. At the time I was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, and part of the job application process had been a signed affirmation I was not a homosexual, alcoholic or any other sort of deviant human being.

We lived in a single-family house in the suburbs, thirty miles west of downtown Chicago, with a beagle, a dachshund and a cat named George, named after the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

Last Sunday, Stew and I and two friends attended the Gay Pride Parade in Mexico City and we had a blast. I felt as if all the tens of thousands of strangers milling around the iconic Angel of Independence monument, waiting for the invariably delayed and chaotic parade to launch, were close friends. The warmth, the small talk in Spanish and English, the laughter, were infectious. I felt exhilarated and whole.

For a huge city, Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade is relatively small. Newspapers the day after estimated attendance at between eighty and two-hundred thousand, compared to Chicago's nearly one million. The event had a homey, block-party feel to it.

There were no public officials present and few signs of corporate sponsors—no floats representing large companies or banks—only a few American Express metallic balloons proclaiming solidarity, and vendors of Doritos in special-edition rainbow flag packages. The one, very significant exception this general official snub was Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who mingled with the celebrants.

The vacuum left by the absence of official corporate or government sponsors was more than filled by an explosion of individual expression. Gym bunnies, after months of weight lifting finally got to show their tattooed physiques barely contained by minimalist Speedos, while couch bunnies, who had labored equally hard over their costumes, unveiled their interpretations of Aztec kings, Las Vegas showgirls, Scottish golfers in kilts, operatic characters, and even a bishop wearing a cardboard miter hat with a gold satin tablecloth for a cape.

An hour and a half late, the parade finally meandered down Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's most majestic boulevards, past the U.S. embassy which flew a rainbow flag beneath the Stars and Stripes in honor of the occasion.

Leading the parade was a tangled, four-hundred-meter-long rainbow flag—about thirteen-hundred feet—that took forty-five minutes or so to unfurl, followed by a huge balloon in the shape of a condom. A little farther behind was a posse of vaqueros wearing the intricate, formal regalia Mexican cowboys, and who rode horses that seemed increasingly impatient with the going around in circles waiting for the crowd to move.

The final destination, probably after four or five hours of stop-and-go parading, would be Mexico City's huge main square, the Zócalo, for a rally and more music at the foot of the Metropolitan Cathedral and Mexico's National Palace.

We left after three hours or so of mingling, laughing and meeting people in the motley mob around the Angel of Independence. I wished we had met them forty years ago.

This guy could audition for the part of Jack Twist in the
Mexican version of "Brokeback Mountain."
One of about two-dozen members of the contingent
of Vaqueros Mexiquenses (Cowboys from
 the State of Mexico), who came fully accessorized,
 including a beautifully saddled horse. 
A pair of cowboys in matching shirts. 
Lest anyone miss their presence, the gay vaqueros wore matching shirts and name patches and
brought along a large and horribly
cacophonous Mexican brass bass.
Even the horses got tarted up for the parade.
This one reminded me of Bo Derek in "10"
The tee-shirts said "Yes, we're lesbian moms with
twins. Get over it!" Any questions? 
"Is she gay too?" I asked. "I don't know,
she doesn't talk."
Our friend Ron Anderson, socializing with two cowboys
 who came to the parade on their own. 

News travel fast, even down to Mexico.
Just as Albin sang in "La Cage aux folles":
"Just another dab of mascara to my rather limp upper lash."
Are you Boy Scouts?, I inquired. "Nooo!" they replied, with mock
exasperation. "We're forest rangers, like Smokey Bear, can't you tell?"
An angel, maybe an archangel, fluttering about.
"Prudence," a brand of Mexican condoms, clearly believes in targeted advertising.
"These are just my boots. It was too hot for
my whole leather outfit."
Talk to me or else: A broadcast reporter walked around in a leather outfit,
holding a microphone in one hand and a cat o' nine tails on the other.
When a flowery Carmen Miranda came to Mexico
and brought her adorable daughter dressed as butterfly.

Do you think wearing pink tulle wings
makes me look like a gay pug?
Beefcake tacos anyone?
Is he primping his feathers or checking
emails from his Aztec ancestors?
A princess waiting for her horse-drawn carriage to arrive. 
The mercantile spirit: Vendors sold all sorts of custom paraphernalia,
from penis-shaped chocolates, pirated porno films and lace rainbow flags. 

Whatever it takes to survive in Mexico City.
Thanks Barack Obama: A rainbow flag flew along with the Stars and
Stripes at the U.S. Embassy. The American ambassador also walked
around in the  parade. Can't imagine those sights, or marriage equality,
if we'd had a Republican in the White House.

Pope Luis I, wearing a rather suggestive
miter hat and a table cloth for a cape. 

A lone representative from the Teuhantepec area of the state of
 wearing a typical native outfit. I forgot to ask about the flower pot.
Exhibits One and Two: Why people go to the gym.
Not sure about this get-up except
I wasn't about to make fun of it.
"Brunhilde, is that you?" I asked.
"Who's that?" Brunhilde replied. 
At 1:45 p.m. the parade seemed to be starting. 

Whatever. This couple broke away for lunch and a beer near the starting line.

Until next year.