Saturday, October 14, 2017

On the road again, ready or not

Once upon a time—it feels like a hundred years ago though it's closer to twelve or thirteen—I reached a peak of physical fitness by bicycling to work, about six miles each way, through any weather Chicago threw my way.

Old Glory, ready to roll again. 
Depending on conditions, each morning I'd put on my black Spandex biking shorts, a black-and-yellow nylon shirt and a bright blue helmet, with reflective sunglasses to match, or bundle up in lined pants, jacket and gloves, and take off into the sunshine, rain, snow, sleet or whatever. My friends now wouldn't have recognized me.

Except for getting "doored" one time when someone was getting out of a car, plus couple of spills, I never had an accident. I got a cut on one hand one time and went to the emergency room for some minor patching but the next day I was at it again. Falling off my bike in front of others hurt nothing but my ego. 

My pace ranged from furious through bad weather to day-dreamy and leisurely, sometimes with my hands off the handlebar, when it was sunny and balmy, and racing through the bike paths weaving through Chicago's lakefront parks would have been an unforgivable affront to the gorgeous scenery.

I don't recall what triggered my pedaling frenzy, which lasted about three years, but I think it was more psychological than physical. I wasn't happy at my job and an hour of bicycling before and after work seemed to flush the toxins out of my head.

Now I realize there were great physical benefits too: My stamina gradually increased to the point I barely broke a sweat on my travels plus my weight dropped to maybe one hundred eighty five. One a six-foot-two frame, that made me damn near thin. 

Then came retirement. The bicycle I brought down from Chicago collected dust and lay buried behind other seldom used junk. But during my annual physical in San Antonio a month ago, the doctor broke the news: My blood sugar was elevated and I needed to lose about fifteen pounds through a reduced-carbohydrates diet and exercise. 

So out came the bicycle, dusty and its tires nearly flat, and off I went to pedal again on the paved road near our ranch. My maiden ride was a humiliating debacle. I could hardly ride for a mile without running out of breath and in fact—ouch!—had to walk part of the way home.

Could I be that old, fat and out of shape? Apparently, a resounding yes to all three.

So on a diet plus walking with the dogs for about a half-hour each morning, I've lost three pounds. Stew says he's lost six. I don't believe him.

I've cleaned my old bicycle and intend to get pedaling again. It isn't going to be easy and I'm going to wait for a few weeks before looking for those Spandex biking shorts.

###



   

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A surprise in every taco

This morning I showed Félix a photo I took of an Icelandic horse, a rather stumpy but powerful fellow with a beautiful long mane. I thought I'd shock Félix by telling him that some people in Iceland eat horsemeat.

It's what's for dinner. 
Hah! You have to get up early in the morning to shock Félix. 

Sure, he said, in Mexico you never know what street vendors use for their taco fillings—meat from horses, various parts of the cattle head and even bull penises that are called tacos de viril, or roughly "virile tacos." A euphemism if there ever was one.

I thought Félix was putting me on but then I remembered that fellow blogger Felipe Zapata has spotted penis tacos for sale in Pátzcuaro. I don't recall if he sampled one. 

Félix expounded that you can make tacos from goat meat, but male goats need to be relieved of their testicles a few weeks in advance otherwise the meat can taste pretty foul. He didn't say what modifications are required before preparing female goats.

The possibility of dog tacos came to me several months ago while reading a really funny book called "I'll Sell You a Dog," by Juan Pablo Villalobos. It was a running gag about the dogs-for-tacos trade in the capital. The book was fiction but apparently some folks in Mexico City believe dog meat tacos are for real. Félix doubts it.

Tacos stuffed with various parts of a cow's head, or tacos de cabeza, definitely are sold in the capital. Specialty head tacos might be sesos (brains); lengua (tongue); cachete (cheek); trompa (lips) and even ojos (eyes).

There's hardly anything more phony or arbitrary than picky eating and I am a repeat offender.

At a la-di-dah restaurant in Mexico City several years ago I sampled, with great hesitation, beef carpaccio, which is seasoned raw meat, as an appetizer. It was tasty though now I wonder which part of the cow it came from, or if it was a cow at all. 

In Iceland, I was put off by horse meat but readily ordered beef. I once argued, lamely, that horses looked noble and friendly, not suitable for eating. But what about our bovine friends? Granted, they don't look too bright but cows can hardly be considered conniving or perfidious.

Pork, which I really like, comes from an animal that is supposed to be quite bright and friendly, and even cute in the right light. I almost gagged, though, when a restaurant in San Miguel served me suckling pig which I realized, too late, was a tiny baby pig, with hardly enough meat to bother eating.

Try it, you'll like it. 
In Iceland we also took a pass on eating puffin, an adorable quail-size bird that Icelanders consume with gusto. We opted instead for chicken, which have more meat and are not as lovable.

It wasn't until a month ago that I sampled octopus, which I had avoided because the sight of their suction cups turned me off. I finally cut a piece off a small octopus, looked away and put it in my mouth. It was good.

Stew and I have been trying to broaden our menus, with Stew way ahead of me so far.

He even ate guinea pig in Peru, though he had the kitchen debone it to avoid the traditional road-kill presentation of a little animal only slightly larger than a rat, feet and all, its eyes staring at you from the plate.

With some disgust on his face Stew confirmed that yes, it tasted like chicken. I took his word for it.

###

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Muslim prayer for the United States


From the Washington Post
Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University’s School of Arts & Sciences, delivered the opening prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday. Starting in 2003, Antepli was a chaplain at Duke, Wesleyan University and Hartford Seminary. He was nominated to give the prayer, which is offered days the House is in session, by his representative, U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). Price introduced him as “a prophetic voice for peace and justice, an engaging teacher and counselor.” Antepli’s is the eighth Muslim prayer offered in the House since 2001, and the first in three years, according to Duke:
The Holy One,
As your creation,  we call you by different names, experience you through multiple paths. Our human diversity is from you. As the creator of all, you made us different. Enable us to understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences. Teach and guide us to turn these differences into opportunities, richness and strength. Prevent us from turning them into sources of division, polarization, hate and bigotry.

This incredibly diverse nation of ours is one of the most successful attempts to understand your wisdom in creating us different. We are far from being perfect but came a long way in creating a multi-cultural, multi-religious and pluralistic society by making in America: “You will be judged by what you do, not by who you are” as one of our foundational promise.
The Most Compassionate One,
The Most Forgiving One,
Even if and when we forget you, please do not forget us.
In your most holy and beautiful names we pray,
Amen.
###
NB: No big deal but: If you can open this link, check out Paul Ryan's defensive posture, with his arms crossed, and also read the first reader comment to this article:  http://tinyurl.com/yd28y9nn

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why are political disagreements today so disagreeable?

Political arguments, even within the family, are nothing new: Think the hippie era, the Vietnam War and the time Sis announced over Thanksgiving dinner she had joined a free-love commune near Taos.

Ever since the last presidential election, though, disagreements have become more rancorous, even seemingly unbridgeable. 

I know people who avoid family visits for fear of shouting matches over politics, particularly when Uncle Bob has had his usual one-too-many. Stew and his brother, the latter an avid fan of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, recently reached a détente—no more barbs about politics, in particular race relations or guns. Period. Cordial conversations about about cars, pets or hurricanes are fine, but race and guns are not.

The lightning-fast growth of the internet, and the so-called social media, during the past twenty years or so, certainly have fed, perhaps even created the current climate of acrimony. The internet can open the door to credible information as well as loony rants.

Yes, my dear friends, there is a Flat Earth Society, a forum for "free thinkers" propounding "alternative science."

Does that include "alternative facts" à la Kellyanne Conway? I skimmed the Flat Earth website and detected a certain facetiousness. Not so sure about Kellyanne. 

Twenty-four-seven cable news also has helped close minds rather than inform. Left-wingers go to Rachel Maddow, and right-wingers gravitate to Sean Hannity, though in fairness to Maddow she has a vastly better record for accuracy.

People hear what they want to hear. I've watched them both. Now with cable news we have outlets devoted to pandering to our biases.

Today people inhabit impenetrable political bubbles. In the church Stew and I attend, there are some alleged Trump supporters and far-right congregants. "Alleged" not because their political preferences are not allowed but because no one wants to trigger unpleasant disagreements.

There was even a rumored invitation-only gathering of Trump supporters before the election, that  didn't make it into the weekly church bulletin. Who knew? Not me, since people I tend to socialize with generally can't stand Trump.

The Tweet Meister penchant for outright lies and igniting distracting and fatuous arguments certainly feeds the polarization of American political discourse. I remember arguments about Dubya and his administration but not the level of vitriol we suffer now.

Jack Hanna for president!
Sometimes it feels as if everything has become polarized, including the formerly mellow comedy and late-night shows. Without exception those shows have turned monologues into shrill liberal rants that are too much even for shrill liberals like Stew and me.

Where's Jack Hanna and his animals from the Columbus Zoo when we need them?

Over the past few months I have tried to poke through my admittedly progressive bubble, but that's hard work. It forces me to process information critically instead of swallowing the usual liberal lines without chewing.

The New York Times, that failing newspaper so despised by Trump, actually has made some moves to balance its bench of opinion columnists, to include people like conservative Bret Stephens. He was supposed to have questioned climate change theology in a previous life and his appointment caused a minor kerfuffle among the Times' touchy liberal hordes.

The Times's editor periodically will also run digests of news articles from conservative publications on a particular issue.

I have tried, really hard, to read Breitbart News and visit Alex Jones's website but their tendentiousness is so blatant and predictable it defies credibility. At the other end I find the Washington Post news coverage nowadays so relentlessly anti-Trump that lately it's begun to bug even me.

This state of affairs is not good for American democracy, which encourages opposing points of view but also a civil common ground. The optimist in me believes our system also has a built-in gyroscope that eventually helps temper the political conversation. I hope that damn gizmo kicks in soon.

###

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Our neighbors' unencumbered religious faith

Theologians, philosophers and mystics have spent centuries plumbing the mysteries of religious texts and what God may have meant when, from up above, He commanded, spoke or thundered to someone, down here below.

Strike up the band.
And every year I'm reminded that all that intellectual and spiritual firepower may have been wasted on the people in the small rural villages that surround our ranch. They just believe, and on certain dates and according to certain rituals, they act on their undiluted faith, no questions asked or complicated exegeses required. Sometimes I envy that kind of simple religious conviction.

The faith of our mothers.
Last Saturday, as they have done every year since we've lived at the ranch, a handful of people from La Biznaga, a village visible from our bedroom, gathered on the road carrying a shoulder-borne shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe or some other religious figure, and launched a daylong, nine- or ten-mile procession in honor St. Michael the Archangel to the main church in the center of San Miguel.

This feast is a trifecta that commemorates the end of Fiestas Patrias, the month-long Mexican independence celebrations, the feast day of San Miguel's patron saint, and perhaps the end of summer too.

Rocket man. 
The weather was clammy, gray and windy this year, the same as other times I've witnessed this procession. Led by three or four take-charge matrons, it stepped off punctually at eight o'clock, to the sounds of prayers, hymns and the inevitable fireworks.

As it headed to town, people from the neighboring towns of Santa Juana, Sosnabar and Providencia, plus other faithful that seemed to come out of the bushes by the side of the road, joined the procession.

Some were on horseback and carried banners identifying their hometowns, and carried additional shrines covered with flowers. A older and disheveled fellow, who looked as if he had started the celebration the day before, clutched a handful of fireworks and walked along setting them off periodically to announce the approaching procession.

A mile into the procession, a brass band, its members dressed in bright red uniforms, appeared from nowhere and took the lead. Now  we had a real procession that would build up to hundreds of people when it reached San Miguel.

Mini cowboy
The band broke out in tunes with no discernible melodies, as do most bands in public celebrations around here. It wasn't really music but a festive cacophony of bangs, snorts and toots played by guys who didn't seem to care what fellow band members were playing.

One of several shrines or altars. 
Some in the procession may have been imploring God to help with some personal or family problem, as they repeated hymns and prayers intoned by a woman carrying a portable megaphone. Others just walked silently.

Naturally, Félix and his wife Ysela were in the procession and I asked him what he was praying for. "Nothing in particular, just protection, that we don't have an earthquake like they had in Mexico City," he said.

His faith is anything but complicated. His kids are baptized, will receive First Communion, be confirmed into the Catholic Church and eventually will get married by a priest, perhaps accompanied by one or two offspring born before the formality of church wedding.

Church attendance beyond that will be sporadic, when someone dies, someone else gets married or  baptized, and on special holidays.

Our man Félix. 
I asked Félix once what went on at an Palm Sunday celebration in the nearby town of Jalpa, and he said there were fireworks, music and a "guy dressed like God riding a donkey."

And that's close enough.

There is no point in explaining to Félix that the earthquake in Mexico City was not of God's design or that the guy on the donkey represented Jesus, supposedly the Son of God, when He entered Jerusalem.

Félix's faith doesn't require such details yet it carries him as he comes to work, raises a family and remains a solidly decent guy who gets drunk once in awhile and then promises never to do it again.

His faith can be tested, though. He told me that last year he and a friend were ambling along in the procession, when the two old ladies carrying one of the mobile shrines unceremoniously handed it to them to carry the remaining five or six miles. Félix said his legs almost gave out toward the end.

I noticed this year he and his wife stayed a safe distance from any of the shrines and kept a low profile.

Now we're rolling. 

###

NOTE TO THE READERS:
For reasons I don't understand, I'm getting a lot of bogus comments—spam—probably from a robot program. 

I welcome comments from one and all readers as long as they remain cordial, but from now on I also must ask that all comments include a name, even if it's a made-up name, of the person submitting the comment, rather than "Anonymous" which I'm going to have to to delete. 

Thanks,

Alfredo

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

As mass shootings become ever bloodier, American politicians keep shooting blanks

Félix, our jack-of-all-trades assistant at our ranchito, comes from a dirt-poor family plagued by illiteracy and other problems. Felix himself only reached the sixth-grade before going off on his own to work at whatever he could find, including a stint doing manual labor in Texas.

Yet if you were to dismiss him as a pitiable dumb Mexican it would be a grave and totally unfair judgment. Félix has a sharp brain that must keep whirring even when he sleeps. He and his family follow current events closely, including news about the U.S., plus sports shows and nature documentaries on an old TV set we gave him.

Sometimes he comes to work asking questions about some craziness in the U.S. he'd heard about and for which we have no answer.

Félix, this morning, about the massacre in Las Vegas: How can someone in the U.S. buy two dozen weapons, including quick-fire rifles and ammunition to match, and then bring them into a luxury hotel in broad daylight? Don't they have security guards at hotels in the U.S.? Didn't anyone at the hotel ask any questions? Why do these horrible mass shootings keep happening and the American government doesn't investigate and take steps to lessen the chances of their reoccurence?

When we visit the U.S. we're constantly peppered with questions about the killings and the horrible security situation in Mexico, which is admittedly alarming.

Now is our turn, for us living in Mexico, to ask some of the same questions Felix raised this morning.

Stew pointed out this morning that at least in Mexico—small consolation—the perpetual violence and killings can be blamed on the drug cartels, and largely confined to certain parts of the country. That helps us rationalize the situation and allay our fears.

In the U.S. there are no such qualifiers. You can get shot dead at a gay disco, a church, a cinema or a social service center in the middle of a Christmas party, for a variety of reasons or none at all. Geography makes no difference.

Some blame Islamic terrorists except they account for only a fraction of the mass shootings. One could shut out all Islamic immigrants and round up all the Muslims on American soil and that still wouldn't explain much less prevent mass shootings such as the one at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, or at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C. to name just a few—and tragically way too many—such incidents.

must confess that when I heard the news from Las Vegas my initial reaction was numbness, almost a shrug. Here we go again.

Get ready for cable news to unleash the usual barrage of pictures of wailing mothers; tearful strangers placing offering of flowers and candles on the still blood-stained site of the tragedy; preachers rolling out the usual pious cliches—and most offensively, politicians proffering their "thoughts and prayers" to the victims and extolling Americans to remain "united."

United behind or around what? What does a constant stream of thoughts and prayers do except get us through one tragedy until the next one inevitably occurs?

Stew and I used to watch a TV series called "Mayday!", which despite its title was engrossing rather than alarming. Each show reenacted a plane crash and then the exhaustive investigation into what caused it, followed by what measures were implemented to prevent similar accidents, whether the causes were mechanical malfunctions or human error.

Not such learning curve occurs with mass shootings. I was convinced that the Sandy Hook massacre of twenty children (children!) would surely lead to an examination of gun laws and possible legislation to try to lessen the chances such tragedies would reoccur.

But after the public uproar subsided, and the gun lobby unfurled the usual propaganda about the Second Amendment and the need for everyone to own guns, national amnesia set in.

If anything, the opposite happens after these mass shootings. At this moment there is legislation pending in Congress to expand gun owners' "rights" to, among other things, ease restrictions on the use of silencers on firearms ostensibly to protect the hearing of shooters.

I'm just waiting for Felix to hear about that bit of lunacy and expect me to explain it.

###

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rain, roaring creeks and wildflowers

After four or five days of one- to one-and-half-inch rains the ranch is swamped and glorious.

The same over-grazed, almost scalped land we found ten years ago now is covered with wildflowers. Amid the stolid agaves, which not even a hurricane could budge, the delicate wildflowers constantly dance and sway to their own music at the slightest breeze. Several varieties of ornamental grasses, some four feet tall and most of whose names I don't know, join the garden party too.


Downhill from our house the normally dry arroyo has become noisy and unruly. We can see the nearly torrential flow though all we hear is the soothing whoosh of the water, last thing when we go to sleep at night and the first when we wake up in the morning.


###

Are birds color blind or picky critters?

Birds may have small brains, but they have it 
all over people when it comes to colors.
     While engaging in one of those mindless and expensive habits that keeps the U.S. economy going—wandering around a Lowe's home improvement center looking for nothing in particular—I ran into a bright-blue metal bird feeder to replace the old and battered plastic model that has been hanging from the tree outside our bedroom window for years and lately held together with piano wire.

There was nothing functionally wrong with the old feeder, except that as I walked by the shiny new model sitting on a shelf at Lowe's it irresistibly whispered to me, "Psst, take me home!". And so I did to the tune of twelve dollars.

"Here, birdie, birdie."
     Contrary to what Félix thinks, I don't feed wild birds to keep them from starving. I know there's plenty of flowers and other food out there right now.

It's just that I enjoy seeing them flutter about and splash in the birdbath first thing in the morning, a cheerful show sometimes supplemented by rabbits and rats scurrying underneath.

When Félix noted that birds would not like the color of the new feeder I told him in an authoritative tone of voice not to worry, that birds were color blind, like most other animals like dogs.

Then the birds snubbed my shiny new feeder. Only after we put a plastic saucer underneath and filled it with seeds did they hesitantly start to check it out.

"You ungrateful bird-brains," I thought. "I bring you a new feeder and you turn up your beaks at it!"

     But this morning i found out—in Google, the source of all wisdom—that in fact not only can birds see colors but many species have more color-detecting cells in their retinas than humans.

Dogs can see colors too, but in a more limited range than people, though canine sniffers are unbelievably sensitive.

I finally retired the old plastic feeder and now birds are using the blue model, but grudgingly.

Indeed, I was walking by yesterday and heard a couple of sparrows snobbishly chirping to each other: "What's wrong with humans? Are they color blind or what?"

###

Monday, September 25, 2017

Taking the road not usually taken

Los Rodríguez is one butt-ugly town, particularly if you don't like topes, or speed bumps, and more particularly if you've been driving for hours and this miserable place is all that stands between you and your warm bed at home.

I have no idea how the town came to be. Apparently one day the Rodríguez clan claimed it as their slice of paradise—sort of like The Smiths—settled here and dispensed with such civilized frills as a town square or a clump of trees.

And now we have Los Rodríguez, straddling a road with wide dirt shoulders that trap swirling trash during the dry season and rivers of mud after a downpour. Plus thirteen unmarked topes—count 'em—over a stretch of just one or two kilometers. Kata-plunk, kata-plunk, kata-plunk. 

One might surmise that the founding fathers and mothers installed the topes so that motorists would slow down and partake of the charms and retail opportunities of the place, except the locals seem to take exception to strangers, especially gringo-looking ones, who are greeted with what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here glares.

Félix adds that any pop-pop's you may hear on the last night of Los Rodríguez's annual fiesta are just as likely to be the sounds of cheap fireworks as angry drunks shooting each other.

Take my advice: If you want to visit San Miguel and are driving in from the north, avoid this place.

The proper way to come home after a long trip.
 That's what Stew and I tried to do last week returning from San Antonio although we didn't know where we going. It was a splendid move, a gorgeous winding-down after a long trip.

Skies were clear blue and the temperatures had dropped from the 100s we encountered in northern Mexico to a breezy and dry low 80s. And suddenly we were surrounded by mountains and kelly-green farm acreage, plus open land that at this time of the year is covered with millions of wild lavender cosmos and yellow daisies, popping out of the ground in unison after the rainy season.

If New England has its turning leaves of autumn, in Mexico we have the equally stunning fall riot of wild flowers.

We had been told one way to avoid Los Rodríguez was to approach San Miguel through the historic town of Dolores Hidalgo. Unfortunately, the navigation systems in the car and the phone decided to play dueling banjos and give conflicting directions. Finally, Melinda, the disembodied but authoritative voice of Google Maps in our phone told us to take Hwy. 37 to avoid some congestion or construction up ahead.

Why not, even though the location of Dolores remained elusive. Neither GPS would accept just "Dolores Hidalgo". They wanted a specific address or establishment.

So I entered "Carnitas Vicente," a restaurant in Dolores known for its carnitas, and Melinda took us to its front door. Another stroke of luck.

The remains of a very nice day. 
Carnitas are shredded pork that you season to your taste by adding any one from a selection of salsas, ranging from innocuous to five-alarmers. Then the whole drippy affair is wrapped in warm tortillas. We quickly dispatched half a kilo and ordered another kilo to take with for Félix, his wife Ysela and their three hungry munchkins.

We also ordered a side of guacamole which was one of the best we've ever eaten. Rather than the usual insipid green glob of something, this one was freshly made and had a potent but pleasant spicy afterburn that shut you up in mid sentence and made you reach for the lemonade.

The waitress, Mary (máh-ree) recognized us from previous visits. A pretty thirty-something woman with a shy but flirty demeanor, greeted us with her beautiful smile which for some reason she is trying to enhance with upper and lower braces. Why did you do that, Mary?

Dolores is Mexico's "Cradle of Independence" and the town was decorated curb to curb with flags and other patriotic paraphernalia, commemorating September, Mexico's independence month. Even so, the town lacks the colonial charm of Pátzcuaro, San Miguel or San Cristóbal in Chiapas, perhaps because it has been overrun with stores selling its famous pottery.

Still, the town is a fun place, buzzing with traffic, friendly people walking and chatting. Vicente's two-story restaurant is open to the street and shares its noise and buzz.

During our comida, a white Hummer stopped briefly and disgorged a small gaggle of giggly girls wearing jeans so tight they looked sprayed-on.

Were they Vicente's daughters? Could well be. He has one or two restaurants in town in addition to the main one where we ate, so he could well afford the wheels. Indeed, carnitas have been very good to him, though I can't say the same for the pigs within a square mile of Dolores.
###

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ross Perot's approach is what we need to break the muddle over health care reform

Won't someone please inject some
facts and figures into the health care debate? 

The more the debate trudges on in Washington over health care reform, also known as the campaign to repeal Obamacare, the less I understand even the basic contours of the ruckus. 

So confused am I that I woke up this morning thinking about Ross Perot, the short and very wealthy Texan with a squeaky voice who ran for president in 1992 on the promise of bringing businesslike rigor to the perennially chaotic federal government. The "Straight Talk Express" Perot called his campaign and John McCain borrowed the phrase in his 2000 presidential run.

Perot went on television, on his own dime if I recall correctly, armed with colorful bar graphs, pie charts and other teaching aids, plus a short pointing stick, to buttress his arguments. 

Now, lookee here people.  
Perhaps at this baffling juncture in the health care debate we need Perot's didactic style of politics to bring together both parties and have them explain to the American people just what the heck is going on. Three years after his failed campaign Perot even wrote a little-noticed book on health care reform.  Maybe there's something in it we should reprise.  

These televised teach-ins could be conducted by Rep. Paul Ryan, or perhaps Sen. Rand Paul—both devout followers of Ayn Rand's catechism of minimalist government—or some other prominent Republican leader, and televised nationwide to probably a limited but curious and motivated segment of the American public. 

President Trump definitely would not be qualified—even Republicans would admit as much—because other than continually calling Obamacare a "dee-saster," he doesn't seem to have a clue about what's specifically wrong with the program or how to fix it. You're fired. 

Democrats would be expected to put on their own health care reform show too, presenters yet to be determined.   

My assumptions are that there is something seriously flawed with the U.S. medical system that cries for urgent attention: It's monstrously expensive, more so than comparably developed countries. Worse still, it leaves out millions of Americans (twenty, twenty-five million?) with no access to basic health care. Lots of money for not-so-great results. 

Sorry, Fox News, shunting sick but uninsured people to the nearest emergency room is not anyone's idea of cost-effective or rational health care. 

The cynic in me must confess that I, soon to be seventy years old, don't have a dog directly in this race. Basic Medicare, plus some add-ons, pretty much covers my health care expenses, and Stew and I have enough resources to cover other costs here in Mexico or back in the U.S.

Yet I cannot write off the plight of millions of mom-and-pop-and-three-kids American families squeaking by on minimum wage or thereabouts, and trying to find health insurance that won't kill them with high premiums or deductibles, or critical exclusions in coverage. That doesn't seem fair. 

So here is what I would like to know:

1. What exactly is wrong with Obamacare? Republicans talk about it as if it were some dreaded fungus about to eat America's brain. Obama being a Democrat and black, and an all-purpose voodoo doll for Republicans, hasn't made an objective debate any easier. 

Still, I don't honestly understand what's wrong, perhaps because I've never fully understood how it works. 

Obamacare's elimination of pre-existing conditions clauses sounds like a good idea, though I can appreciate how it exposes insurers to more risk and potential expenses. But that's what insurance pools and actuarial tables are for, no?

In fact, when we retired but were not old enough to qualify for Medicare, Stew and I took a stab at buying individual policies in the much-vaunted "free market" and what we found were not only sky-high premiums but explicit exclusions of anything that might actually afflict us. 

I had a retina operation: So insurance policies wouldn't cover anything related to my eyes. And so on to the point the policies didn't seem to cover much of anything other than getting run over by an eighteen-wheeler.

Obamacare is expensive alright, and someone has to pay for it. Obama tried to cover the cost by taxing the very rich and requiring individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Taxes of any kind, particularly on the wealthy, are a mortal sin for Republicans, but what else is there? I'm listening. 

Time for Ryan, McConnell or Rand to have their Ross Perot moment and pull out their pie charts—or maybe flashy PowerPoint presentations—and explain why Obamacare is the worst, followed by the better ideas they have to replace it. 

Or if they believe in leaving health care up to the push and pull of the free market, I'd like to hear how that's going to work too. We need specifics rather than sermonettes about the horrors of big government. 

Cost-containment in health care must be part of the discussion. How's that's going to happen without some sort of government intervention? I want to hear how we're going to manage the clash of insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains and other special-interest icebergs out to protect their profit margins. 

In fact, we have scant details about a Republican grand vision for health care for America. We hear rumors about obscure and contradictory legislative maneuvers, and last-minute fixes taking place but without the benefit of open hearings or public debate. It sounds like bubble, bubble, toil and trouble rather than an honest plan.

Democrats should get their show together too. How do we control federal budget deficits while adding another hefty line item to the expense side? What is wrong with Obamacare and how do you propose to fix it? And what about all those lobbyists for the medical-industrial complex banging at your door? 

So far Democrats have adopted the old tactic of standing on the sidelines watching the Republicans shoot each other. Recent talk about a single-payer system also sounds like fodder for a college bull session over pizza and beer, not a realistic plan. 

Who would present the Democratic vision? Please, no Nancy Pelosi, Dick Schumer or, God forbid, Hillary Clinton. There's got to be a new player in the Democratic bullpen. Looking for new faces and ideas itself would be a healthy exercise for Democrats.

Ross? Nah. He's 87 years old and happy somewhere in Texas counting his money.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The debate over medical care in Mexico

There aren't many sure shots in life.
Medical care in Mexico is not among them. 
     The constant chatter among San Miguel expats about medical care reminds me of the fleet of old American cars cautiously sputtering, wheezing and farting along the streets of Havana.

Invariably there is something wrong with one of them and opinions abound, expressed with much gusto, about the best way to fix a malfunctioning carburator or gallbladder, and punctuated by a horror story or two about how someone's '57 Chevy expired recently, never to be revived again. Or the shock of a dear San Miguel friend who went in for a routine colonoscopy at nine in the morning and was dead by five in the afternoon, for reasons never cleared.

"If he had taken that car to my mechanic Víctor, he could have fixed it, I'm sure!" someone would offer during a post-mortem comida, only to be contradicted by another equally vehement person who'd argue that the best mechanic—or orthopedist or dentist—is not Víctor but Manuel or Dr. Gonzáles.

     One indisputable fact is that medical attention is very inexpensive in Mexico compared to the U.S.. That prompts many medically uninsured Americans to cross the border to get care, or sometimes to seek exotic treatments not available or illegal in the U.S.

Fancy this: Picture of the new MAC Hospital in San Miguel,
taken from its Facebook page. 
An eye exam with my our excellent ophthalmologist, for example, runs about fifty-five dollars. It would be at least double that in the U.S.

The flipside is that all medical and hospital care here is cash or credit card only, while in the U.S. Medicare would cover most or all of the bills, outrageously high as they might be.

     The imponderable clinker is competence: Does the doctor know what he or she is doing? Is the quality of care and facilities here comparable to those in the U.S.?

That's where opinions and experiences vary wildly among San Miguel expats and also what drives the popularity of medical evacuation insurance.

Doubts over competence are aggravated by lack of governmental or professional oversight. There is no malpractice insurance, a much-criticized and expensive safeguard in the U.S. that does push costs up—but also runs incompetent bozos out of business.

Expats often mention English fluency as a guarantee of professional competence. Having someone you can communicate with is reassuring but not necessarily a substitute for skills and experience.

In addition, there are no internet-based or other sources one can consult to determine the professional credentials of a medical practitioner or his malpractice record, or the medical specialties or mortality rates at a particular hospital for certain procedures.

In this fog of factual information, word-of-mouth and blind faith rule. Patient beware.

     Recently two medical facilities have appeared in San Miguel. One is a mid-size hospital on the outskirts of town; the other an "urgent care" clinic at a strip mall.

We don't know anything about either one except Mexican or multinational medical investors must perceive a viable market in San Miguel with its burgeoning population of expats and wealthier Mexicans. These are private, for-profit operations.

Our diminutive mayor during the opening ceremony.
  (From Correo newspaper)
During the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, San Miguel's mayor Ricardo Villarreal pointedly mentioned the city's growing population of foreign residents who'll surely take advantage of the new hospital.

New buildings and shiny machines, of course, are only as good as the people who operate them. And for testimonials about miraculous treatments or near-death experiences at these two venues we'll have to rely, again, on the grapevine.

     After living in San Miguel for more than ten years, Stew and I would rate medical care here as C-plus. We're confident enough with our medical contacts that we don't lose sleep about receiving appropriate emergency care. But anything more complex or long-term than that would take us to medical facilities on the Other Side. Pronto.

Stew suffered the worst mishap when a much-praised orthopedic surgeon—who spoke perfect English!—botched a carpal tunnel operation on his right hand that had to be redone in San Antonio. Stew's is hardly the only report of bungling by this guy. If he were practicing in the U.S. either his license or his malpractice insurance would have been cancelled long ago.

Apart from that we've run into botched treatments and just flat-out wrong diagnoses that have given us pause. Screw-ups occur anywhere and medicine is not an exact science. Still, we don't want to be part of someone's learning curve or take undue chances.

So here's our current plan. First we have established a relationship with a young doctor at the local hospital whom we would call in case of an emergency. We've used him before and he seems competent, thorough and most important, ready to call for a second opinion if he has any doubts.

We are also establishing a primary care relationship with a doctor in San Antonio whom we can visit for our annual physical and who will keep our medical records. Finally, we both have air evacuation insurance for an annual combined premium of approximately $1,000. Air evacuation to the U.S. runs about $35,000 and is not something you can haggle about in the middle of an emergency.

Meanwhile, Stew and I will be traveling to San Antonio next week to meet a potential family doctor at a major hospital who could be the new Dr. John Glynn, our primary physician in Chicago for about twenty years.

We expect to be doing some strategic shopping, restaurant-hopping and movie-watching too in between appointments.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why is Mexico Mexico and Iceland Iceland?

The differences are legion, but respect for
the rule of law may be the most telling 

     Whenever Stew and I travel to a so-called First World country, returning to Mexico, our home for almost 12 years, is invariably a shock.

The taxi ride from the Mexico City North bus station to the airport, or vice-versa, is an hour of hopping and bouncing, and high-speed weaving and zigzagging, with scenes of urban grit flashing past the windows like a fast-forward slideshow. The first time the experience is a bit exotic, even exciting. Lately, it grates.

The views from the bus that takes us to San Miguel are no less jarring. As we approach San Miguel, on the right-hand side—and a stone's throw from the municipal building—we catch sight of the city's ever-expanding garbage dump—with no fences or boundaries, along with busted road markers and other signs of dilapidation, indifferent government, or both.

That hackneyed expression crosses your mind: We're not in Kansas any more, or Amsterdam, Lisbon or even San Antonio, Texas.  
     Definitely not Iceland, where Stew and I recently spent close to two weeks. It's a spectacularly beautiful, Kentucky-size island, with just 320,000 residents, that seemed so orderly and peaceful it could have been Switzerland as interpreted by Walt Disney. 

Reykjavíc, not Mexico. 
The topic of comparative politics and economic development has always been fascinating to me. Why does tiny Costa Rica prosper placidly in the middle of the perpetually violent and impoverished Central America? How come Haiti is such a pit of poverty next to the not-nearly-as-bad Dominican Republic? Why is there such a difference in per capita incomes among Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which are next to one another? 

Certainly Mexico and Iceland are vastly different along every vector imaginable: size, history, natural resources, ethnicity, not to mention predatory neighbors and climate.

But for all their unfathomable differences, by all rights Mexico should be far more developed and prosperous than Iceland.
     Iceland brushes against the Arctic Circle and is kept from freezing solid by the Gulf Stream that comes up from Mexico, ironically enough. It straddles uneasily across two of the earth's tectonic plates, the North American and the Euro-Asian, that constantly shift this way or that and sometimes announce their moves by belching magma along with ash, smoke and rocks the size of midsize sedans. The climate? On a merry Christmas Day Icelanders might get five hours or less of diffuse daylight, never mind sun, and it'll take several months before the wintry penumbra dissipates and the night/day ratio is reversed. 

Unlike Mexico, Iceland doesn't have many natural resources except cod fishing—an ancient and perilous occupation—and more recently, tourism. Early this century Iceland suddenly erupted as a international financial casino, with billions of dollars, yens and euros flying in and out, a free-for-all that ended just as quickly as it began when all its three banks went bankrupt, presaging the worldwide financial crisis of 2008. 

An economic depression followed that lifted, miraculously, a couple of years later when the country took all the "wrong" steps toward recovery. It let the banks collapse rather than bail them out, and the government guaranteed the accounts of Icelandic depositors but stiffed foreign speculators, in addition to a number of other unorthodox measures. Unlike their colleagues in London and New York, banking executives were sent to prison for their role in the economic catastrophe.
     That last point may be the most symbolic and significant to Iceland's success: The country took the unusual step of sending crooked bankers to a remote prison, at the foot of a glacier and an extinct volcano, to work on their memoirs. That was gutsy move neither the U.S. nor Britain dared to take.

In you've lived in Mexico for a while you probably have gotten inured to top-to-bottom corruption and rampant disregard for the law.

There's the quotidian grind of spectacular killings and gang wars alright, but more corrosive is the lack of transparency, an element of civic morality that leads businesses to deal confidently with the government and each other according to established rules, and citizens to trust the authorities. There are rules clearly enunciated and respected by all the players.

In the 2016 Corruption Perception Index conducted by Transparency International, Mexico scores a dismal 30 points out of a hundred, and ranks 123 out of 176 nations studied. Tiny Iceland scores 78 points out of 100, and ranks 14 out of 176 countries—not as high as the hyper-straight Danes but miles ahead of Mexico.

The connection between lack of a rule of law and poverty—and which comes first?—is hard to unravel but seems elemental.

José Ugaz, chairman of Transparently International neatly described the problem: "In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” Amen, José.

Mexico however might take a some solace in one regard: Icelanders seem to have discovered Mexican food. One restaurant we visited had a large section of the menu devoted to enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican delicacies and another offered tortilla chips and guacamole to nibble on before the main course. The guacamole—how far did those avocados have to travel?—tasted realistic enough.

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A slideshow of my photos of Iceland is available at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/albums/72157685943935123


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Amateur forestry thrives at the ranch

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.
The second best time is now."
               (Sent to me by Anita, a friend in San Antonio)

When we bought the ranch nine years ago, the first thing Stew and I did was put a fence around it. We'd been warned that property lines in rural Mexico could be fluid and contentious and that it was a good idea to put up a fence before the ink on the property survey even dried.

That was the first, and maybe the most important, step we've taken in our campaign to restore our three hectares to what they might have been like before man—and his goats, sheep, cattle, burros and other animals—ran roughshod over it and denuded the land almost down to bedrock.

The "Mexican Eagle" is actually a
falcon and its proper name is
"Crested Caracara"
With the hungry animals kept at bay, vegetation—nothing fancy, mostly weeds, cacti and wild trees and bushes—promptly popped up to create prickly, waist-high and nearly impenetrable jungle.

It covers the entire ranch except for about an acre on which our house and surrounding garden sit. Rabbits, snakes, rats, roadrunners and various birds—including Mexican eagles hovering overhead—seem to enjoy the new landscape.

We then used the native rocks to build small terraces, like necklaces delineating the gardens that would come later, to help keep the soil from washing downhill during heavy rains.

One of our three Michoacán pines, which
weren't supposed to grow around here. 
But the most important—and expensive and frustrating—part of our restoration effort has been to plant about two hundred trees, twenty percent of which have succumbed to our inexperience and the lousy eroded soil.

It's hard to picture that once, before the arrival of the plundering Spaniards, the hills around us were dense oak forests. Félix, who climbed those hills as a child says there are few huge oaks still standing and the occasional scampering deer.

Our experience as arborists being so brief and confounding, it's hard to suggest any rules to anyone attempting what we have tried to do.

One would be to buy large trees, two or three meters high, and dig ample holes—with a backhoe— twice the diameter of the root balls, and then backfill with good black soil mixed with compost. Planting spindly saplings in skimpy holes is largely a waste of time.

Yet contradicting this rule, and most any other rules of tree-planting, there seem to be an equal number of  exceptions.

Félix' allée, which he created from seedlings
from the Trueno tree in our front yard.
In the entrance patio to our house we have a Trueno tree, as it is called here. (I believe the real name is Japanese Privet, or Ligustrum lucidum.) It had a very hard time getting established and then took off. It now flowers and self-seeds prolifically. The bees from our hives love it.

Not one to waste any plant material no matter how insignificant, Félix set out to collect the tiny seedlings from under the tree and nurture them into scraggly foot-high trees. He then planted them along the driveway creating an allée of truenos now about two meters tall.

On the other hand, just yesterday we had to dig up two Sycamores, of good size and properly planted, that died after two seasons. We replaced them with two Boxelder maples (Acer negundo), to join another one we planted a couple of years ago and seems to be doing very well.

The peach tree and the smaller mesquite came out
of nowhere—we didn't plant them. The peach produced
about twenty five peaches this year. 
Another rule that has proven unreliable is to use either native trees or those that seem to grow around here, even if originally from somewhere else.

Our biggest success story is a trio of Michoacán pines (Pinus Devoniana) that we were warned would never make it in our dry climate. They are thriving, the long droopy needles dancing in the breeze.

One customer called Australian pine (Casuarina Equisetifolia), with long needles that seem to whistle when blown by the wind, has survived but not really prospered.

Two winners are the Greggi pines (Pinus Greggii), a dozen of which we bought from an abandoned Christmas tree farm down the road and are doing fine, and eight to ten cedars that seem to be happy also.

One of three olives, two arbiquina variety and
one mission. They have produced 
three olives—one each.
A very common tree to San Miguel called the Pirul (Schinus molle), also called the Peruvian pepper tree, has done so-so here. We have three or four that have lived and just as many that croaked. A huge pirul, the only large tree on the property, is thriving at the end of the drainage pipe from our septic tank.

Three Jacarandas have died during our windy and dry winters.

This is but a small selection of hits-and-misses from our campaign to restore trees to our land. Other winners are three fresnos (ash trees); several peach trees; mesquites; a magnolia (thriving); olives (growing but no signs of olives); two walnuts (very slow growing); four cypresses; three Chinese elms; an orchid tree plus an aster that has quadrupled in size since his arrival five or six years ago.
One of the two new Boxelders, memorializing my mom
and Félix's grandmom. Behind them are one of many
cedar trees at the ranch. 

Regardless of our tree-planting batting average, when I walk around the ranch I cannot help but be gratified with our efforts. The land isn't barren any more, and the thickening forest provides a natural privacy barriers from any future neighbors.

We can think of this mini forest as our legacy to Mexico and also to our forebears.

I told Félix I wanted to dedicate the two new Boxelders, one to my mom, Georgina, and one to Julia, his recently deceased grandmother.

Félix preparing the memorial stones. 
He had never heard of such a tradition but promptly endorsed it. He painted their names on two stone tiles we had in the basement and placed them at the foot of each tree.

We hope Julia and Georgina look after these trees from Upstairs and make them prosper.




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N.B. If there are any readers who really know their trees, or want to help out with our forestry efforts, feel free to leave comments below.


Monday, August 7, 2017

When the lights went out and peace came in

Our solar electric system went on the fritz and
that brought us some unexpected blessings 

Our house is "off the grid"—the only external input is a refill of propane gas every two or three months—and the system worked well until last Friday afternoon when our solar electricity rig crashed, taking down with it all appliances and electronic gizmos. 

We bitched and fretted as Stew tried unsuccessfully to fiddle with the system's inverters and controllers. And so we just went to sleep on a blessedly cool, dark and breezy night.  

The inverter (DC>AC) and the three controllers. 
Lying in bed we marveled about the total silence. No whirring clocks, whooshing ceiling fans, humming refrigerator, no music or radio announcers to go to sleep with and most important, no internet as the WiFi router also went dead. 

It amazes how much electricity-generated noise there is in a house. 

No news either. Trump could have been blowing up the world while we laid in bed our eyes straining to spot through the darkness any feature or shadow on the bedroom ceiling   

The farm animals around the ranch didn't even moo or bray or stir either, as if out of respect for our newly discovered peace. Roosters and turkeys were either sound sleep or too far away for us to notice. 

All the lights went off: the outside spotlights, the LED light over the kitchen sink, the night lights on the hallways and the tiny red standby lights on the TV and the computer. 

Except for some moonlight tentatively peeking through the clouds, the outside was pitch black too. 

We should do this often, it occurred to me—shut off everything, including our mouths, and enjoy the sound of deep, unexpected silence. 

With your senses defeated—nothing to hear, see or smell—the mind turns inward, a luxury it seldom enjoys amid all the distractions The flickering of two votive candles added to the calm of the moment rather than cut through the darkness.

The next morning I woke up relaxed, but Stew, the compulsive fixer-upper, had to ruin everything by checking on the refrigerator, which had maintained normal temperature even when turned off.  

Our mini generator sitting in its
compartment outside the garage. 
Then he turned on the rackety emergency gas generator and promptly the electric gadgets flickered back to life, most disruptively the internet with its stream of news, emails and marketing messages. The coffee pot commenced gurgling.

The generator charged the batteries and brought our electrical system back to normal through Saturday. 

Brian Richards, San Miguel's ponytailed solar energy wizard, showed up early Sunday morning and found that one of our three controllers had short-circuited and would have to be replaced at a cost of approximately six hundred and fifty dollars. 

It's not too much considering the system has worked reliably for six or seven years, even as our neighbors often have been left in the dark, sometimes for three or four consecutive days, waiting for repair crews of the government-owned electric company to detect there was an outage, let alone fix it. 

We thought we were lucky to have uninterrupted electric service and all the noises and disruptions that come with it. 

I'm not so sure anymore. It might good for our minds and senses to turn off the juice once in awhile even if our photovolatic system is working perfectly. 

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