Monday, December 25, 2017

On turning 70, gratefully

Sandwiched between Christmas and New Year's, my birthday on December 30 traditionally has been half-forgotten but not this year, when I will hit the big Seven-Oh. 

Birthdays that end in zero are usually met with anticipation; they mark a passage to a new stage in life. When we turn twenty,  college graduation and the beginning of a career—even marriage—lie ahead. And so on. 

At sixty, your knees begin cracking, your back creaking, amid the prospect of retirement. You may hear some old people argue that sixty is the new fifty but that's delusional baloney. 

At seventy, time is definitely running out. Your inevitable slide down the ravine of old age is here, ultimately followed by the Big D. Seventy is not the new sixty. Seventy is old.


It seems there are three ways of dealing with the challenges and uncertainties of life in your seventies. 

Some propose to take it strictly one day at a time, which can turn into a form of denial—just don't think about it. 

Reexamining the past and what one has accomplished is a minefield of could've beens and might've beens. Even geniuses are tortured by morning-after doubts and second thoughts—and most of us are not Mozarts or Einsteins to begin with. 

When you live in a geriatric fishbowl like San Miguel de Allende the future can seem daunting too. You are surrounded by a cohort of old expats, many of them good friends, who are falling apart, falling down or having trouble standing up, or you hear about crippling illnesses you never knew existed. 

Friends die regularly sometimes after long illnesses or tragic circumstances. Someone I know who regularly visited a ninety-year-old living alone to be sure he was alright, one day found him sitting on the toilet, dead. I pray for a more elegant exit.  

It's the ultimate existential dilemma. If you do a search of this blog under "aging" you'll find several posts in which I massage this topic from various angles, with no conclusive answers.

The past can't be ignored but trying to edit it, as if it were a clumsy video, is useless and counterproductive. But it can be interpreted constructively, even positively. Humility is key. 

When I look at my own history, coming from Cuba alone at age fourteen, staying at a refugee camp and then in three foster homes, two of them abusive situations, followed by career and personal twists and turns worthy of the meanest roller coaster, it amazes me that my life turned out as well as it did. 

I did OK. That's it. There's no place for either vainglory or abject apologies. Humility is in order, followed by gratitude. Onward. 

Certainly my biggest blessing is having hooked up with another man who for the last forty five years has been a true friend, cheerleader and occasionally shoulder to cry on. Together we've survived crises such as alcoholism, unemployment and emotional zigzags that might have beaten us down had we tried to face them individually. We have retired comfortably.

By definition the future is sketchy unless you know a credible palm reader or own a crystal ball. Drop me a note if you do. 

While in San Miguel we've witnessed illnesses and deaths, but also been lucky to have friends who have gracefully entered their eighties and even nineties with grace and with their engines firing on all cylinders. I try to learn something about either their courage in facing adversity or the secrets for enjoying every new day. 

Two common traits seem to be resoluteness and optimism, which in some situations do not come easily. But we must persist: The alternatives are nothing if not self-defeating. 

And so off to New York on Wednesday for a week to celebrate this landmark birthday. We plan to see a musical and a new production of Tosca by the Metropolitan Opera, the latter conducted by a Mystery Maestro, now that James Levine has vanished. 

We'll also work our way through an impossibly long list of new movies that probably will never make it to backwater San Miguel, along with ethnic restaurants, a couple of museums, and time with good friends we have not seen in too long. 

This is an occasion for Stew and I to enjoy, even reward ourselves, for a reasonably happy life and to remember to be grateful for it. 

###

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A few words about the meaning of religion

This morning Stew and I attended a service of the Unitarian Fellowship in San Miguel. We don't attend Unitarian services regularly but were attracted by a program of beautiful Christmas music performed by four very talented local artists. 
Sandwiched in between the music we read the following reflection about the meaning of religion that seemed particularly relevant in this year of civic acrimony and discord even over the greeting "Merry Christmas!". 
The author of this reflection is Vincent B. Silliman (1894-1979), a Unitarian minister, poet and hymn writer. 

Let religion be to us life and joy.
Let it be a voice of renewing challenge to the best we have and may be; let it be a call to generous action. 
Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are,
which bids us serve more eagerly the true and the right. 
 
Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, 
understanding, and service to suffering humanity.

Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that which is only partly known and understood.

An eye that glories in nature's majesty and beauty, and a heart that rejoices in deeds
of kindness and of courage.

Let religion be to us security and serenity because of its truth and beauty, and because of the enduring worth and power of the loyalties which is engenders;

Let it be to us hope and purpose, and a discovering of opportunities to express our best through daily tasks:

Religion, uniting us with all that is
admirable in human beings everywhere;
Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind,
which each may help to make actual.
Vincent B. Silliman

Friday, December 15, 2017

San Miguel's roadside Michelangelo

Probably because I don't know much about art or artistic techniques, I've always thought of sculpture as the pinnacle of artistic expression. It certainly seems the most difficult to execute.

Paint brushes bend and you can always paint over your mistakes or whatever you feel didn't come out just right. Leonardo did that often with many of his paintings, relentlessly seeking perfection, or because he just couldn't quite make up his brilliant mind, or his notorious attention deficit disorder kept calling him to a myriad other projects, such as designing a catapult or a flying machine, or exploring the intricacies of the human body by dissecting cadavers.

Simple tools of the sculpting trade. 
Even painting frescoes, glass-blowing or silversmithing seem easier than sculpture because the media are more malleable or you can correct your mistakes.

During a trip to Tuscany, Stew and I were awestruck with the detail Michelangelo could squeeze out of formless chunk of marble: David's fingernails and veins, his pulsing muscles, his distant gaze, even David's pubic hair. In his Pietà, at St. Peter's Basilica, the folds of the fabric covering the Virgin Mary are doubly amazing when one considers they were chiseled out of marble.

It's not only difficult to get that detail out of stone, but it must be the most nerve-wracking of labors. One stray whack of the chisel or hammer and there goes one of the Virgin's fingers or hand.

Madonna of the Libramiento.
Over the past eight or ten weeks I've marvelled at a man perched atop a crude homemade wooden ladder, hammer and chisel in hand, slowly wresting a representation of a Virgin of Guadalupe out of what began as a featureless, ten-foot-tall hunk of rock.

On Tuesday, December 12, Lupita's feast day, he wasn't working but he or someone else had placed a can with  flowers at the foot of the finished statue.

It's not a David or a Pietà but at least to my eyes, a very accomplished representation of the traditional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, including the folds on her tunic, and the two small angels hovering over her tilting head, the sunrays in the background.

It's all the more remarkable coming from José Godínez, 45, an untrained sculptor—unless you count thirty years of experience—whose workshop is nothing more than a gravelled space scarcely twenty feet deep, off the heavily trafficked Libramiento, or bypass highway, that wraps around San Miguel, and about a mile downhill from the Luciérnaga shopping mall.

Sculptor at work.
The only cover over Godínez's "atelier," which is littered with large pieces of sculpture, is a plastic tarp kept aloft by wooden poles. A large and rather macabre stone skull with a piece of a car's gearshift stuck on top, sits by the side of the road atop a rock with a sign that tells motorists "BAJALE!" or "slow down".

Godínez is a very handsome man, with a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache, a deeply lined, weathered face, and penetrating blue eyes, who wears a large, floppy hat. His manner is gruff, impatient with visitors interrupting his work to ask questions.

Indeed, getting him to talk about his work is not easy. His answers come in two- or three-word unembellished bursts, as if afraid to blurt out some trade secret.

His latest Virgin of Guadalupe is 2.2 meters tall, he told me, or about eight feet tall, and he's worked at it for over two months.

That's not his largest Lupita, he hastened to add. Earlier this year he created a four-meter-tall version for someone's garden.

He doesn't work with any fancy stone, but with rock that comes "from inside the earth", a sort of volcanic material. I volunteered "basalt" but he said that wasn't it, though he didn't have any name for it. Basalt is dark in color and this rock looked more like limestone but finer-grained and denser.

Road sign. 
Godínez began sculpting when he was fifteen years old, and said his inspiration didn't come from any individual teacher or training but "from the heart" and he learned simply by practicing and getting better with every blow of the hammer.

He pulled out a dog-eared, dusty notebook and showed me one of his earliest creations, a statue of his mother, plus photos of some of his work in mesquite wood, which he said is even harder to work with than stone. One of his pictures was of a huge pair of doors for someone's house.

How much does he expect to get for his latest Lupita, I asked. He paused and said about eighty thousand pesos, or approximately $4,200 dollars at the current rate of exchange, and to my mind a very reasonable price for such an impressive work.

With that tidbit of information, Godínez went back to work on a circular stone pedestal, about six feet in diameter by two feet high, that will be placed under the sculpture of Lupita that he just finished. The exchange with him left me not much more enlightened about how sculptures are created, but ever more awed at people who have such talent.

###


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nine reasons why the cold wave that grips San Miguel doesn't bother me that much

To hear folks in San Miguel groan and kvetch about the cold snap during the past several days you'd think we were at the dawn of a new Ice Age.

Our cleaning lady showed up Monday seemingly mummified under numerous layers one of which might have been a blanket.

The follicly challenged visiting minister at our church last Sunday wrapped his head with a scarf and shivered while waiting for the service to begin. He and his wife live in Tacoma but San Miguel's cold seemed to get to them.

I'll have none of that. As a matter of fact, I'm rather enjoying the coldish snap we've been having which has brought overnight temperatures down to only 27 degrees F.  For Canadians that's probably downright balmy.

Reason #1: Colder temperatures make our morning walks, about two and a half miles, brisker and a better exercise. So brisk was our walk yesterday that even our dogs were dragging, begging to go home already.

Reason #2: We get the chance to have lunch on our tiny table in the front patio, which we don't use during the summer because it's too hot out there.

Buen provecho.
Reason #3:  We get to drive forty five minutes with our friend Ron to the town of Adjuntas del Río, where the main industry is making mesquite furniture, and where they'll sell you a pickup-full of scrap mesquite for firewood for about $20 dollars.

Wintertime entertainment for $20 dollars. 
For any environmental hypochondriacs out there who might be wondering if the wood was harvested responsibly, using ecologically sustainable or renewable methods, I can only say,  "In Mexico? Yeah. Sure."

After picking up the wood the three of us went on for lunch to Dolores Hidalgo to fill up on pork carnitas wrapped in corn tortillas and condimented with chopped onions, parsley and a hot sauce, a  gastronomic pile-up the Mexican Dietetic Association considers the epitome of well balanced meal, especially if you wash it down with a beer or two.

Reason #4: At the end of the day we don't have to go out looking for our cat Fifo. With this cold weather Fifo is finished with his rounds and back at the kitchen door by noon.

When it gets cold, it's better inside.
Reason #5: We get to light up our fireplace, which on a cold winter night becomes the centerpiece of our home, particularly during Christmas.

That's when Stew decorates the mantle with lights wrapped around a cardboard crèche his parents bought at a Woolworth's in Cedar Rapids, Iowa about sixty years ago, and which he has carried around since, along with three cement gnomes which are planted in our front patio.

Christmas and a wood fire. 
Some of the plaster figures in the crèche still have prices, ranging from five to ten cents. The population of the crèche increases yearly and now includes some sheep made of sugar (from Mexico's Day of the Dead) and an outsize Christmas ornament in the shape of a beagle.

Reason #6: The cold weather makes us grateful for all the time we spent designing and building a "green" house that includes, among other features, adobe insulation, skylights and large south-facing windows that let in the sun to help warm the interior.

Our large east-facing window in the bedroom awakens us with views of the sunrise over the mountains and reminds us that no matter how cold it gets here, at least we have nearly constant sun as opposed to the wintry penumbra that makes people up north seriously consider jumping out a fifth-story window in February.

Reason #7: We bring some of our succulents and cacti inside where we get to admire anew their amazingly weird beauty.

Vacationing succulents. 
Reason #8: The cold snap might finish off the damn grasshoppers before they eat up everything in the yard.

Here's hoping for the end of the grasshoppers
which seem to be getting bigger. 
Reason #9: The best reason came this morning when we read that Roy Moore, devoted Christian and child molester, had been defeated in Alabama. That gave the Sleazeball-in-Chief  and his former sidekick and freelance saboteur Stephen K. Bannon, a richly deserved poke in the eye.

Merry Christmas, Roy. 
That news made me feel warm all over, no matter how cold it is outside.

I'm really psyched to celebrate Christmas now.

###

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mucho Macho at the Hecho Barber Shop

San Miguel scales new heights of urban sophistication at an astonishing pace.

A French bakery that calls itself an "Atelier du Pain" opened a month ago. Meanwhile, a new "Interpretation Cuisine" restaurant that offers a weekly tasting menu of six or seven delicious spoonful-size servings was so successful it moved to a much fancier location in the Centro. Naturally prices went up, to a still a bargain of $450 pesos.

Two weeks ago we noticed that the city had even purchased mid twentieth century-style compacting garbage trucks to replace the old system of an open dump truck with three or four disposal technicians aboard, knee-deep in garbage and fielding stuff tossed by a guy on the ground, while simultaneously swatting flies and keeping an eye on anything of value in the stream of debris.

Out in the boonies regulation dumpsters have appeared too, even in small towns, so folks frustrated by the lack of regular trash pick ups don't throw it along the roads.

Can't argue with modernity, I tell you.

Where macho men hang out. 
Of most interest to expat men, particularly those who have any hair left, is the opening of a barber shop dedicated to male grooming called "Hecho Hombre."

Not sure what the name means exactly. "Man Made"? "Made Man"? Whatever. Stew and I have become regulars.

Before Hecho, men only had two choices for haircuts.

One was the ancient Mexican-style barber shop where typically a guy who learned the trade from his uncle cut your hair for thirty or forty pesos. Cheap enough but you were likely to walk out looking like a rustic from Pátzcuaro, in town looking for a decent restaurant.

Shortly after we moved to San Miguel twelve years ago—true story—I spotted a shop near the Jardín that struck me for its silence when I walked in. No radios, no customers, no "buenos días" from the barber, no sound at all.

As I began to explain the cut I wanted, the barber shook his head and pointed to three heads for his electric clipper lying on the counter. The barber was deaf-mute.

The three clipper choices ranged from "a light trim," "medium well" and "you're in the Army now." I opted for the medium well. Though I was both awed and sorry by the man's predicament and tipped him generously, I didn't go back again.

Desperate to get a decent cut, some expat men resort to frilly women's hair salons, decorated with crystal chandeliers, plaster reproductions of Greek statues and copies of "Hola" magazine with breathtaking reports about the latest joys and travails of European royalty.

You soon discover that the coiffeurs at these salons are mostly interested in dye jobs and intricate cuts and styles for expat women, who'd sit on the chair for hours looking like Martians with little tinfoil bows stuck in their hair.

M. Israel Magaña, Maître Coiffeur
I was definitely not interested on a dye job. When I arrived in San Miguel I tried one of those coloring jobs out a bottle and the resulting jet-black mane made me look like a Halloween version of  Ricardo Montalbán.

When visiting one of these salons I distinctly felt neglected, as if men's cuts were something to fill gaps in the schedule while waiting for the more profitable women clients.

Not so at Hecho Hombre, where men are kings.

The shop is tiny but meticulously designed in a style I'd call Macho Retro. The color scheme is mostly black and white and the chairs the old-fashioned type that have been restored. Reading material includes GQ in Spanish and sports magazines.

Another satisfied customer. 
Greeting you at the door is a young guy with a fabulous black Babylonian beard that sets the tone. As a sort of maître d' he juggles appointments that can be made in person, by phone or online at Hecho's website. He then offers you a bottle of water or a shot of mezcal, as you wait your turn for one of the two barbers.

I've settled on Israel Magaña, a shy 21-year-old who must weigh about a hundred pounds. He has some barbering-related tattoos, including a pair of scissors under his sideburns, and holes in his earlobes.

Over the course of thirty or forty minutes he sculpts your hair carefully and meticulously as if he were dusting a hand grenade. That's the kind of attention I like.

The result is perfection. One time he was so proud of his work that he pulled out a camera and took my picture.  Vanity your name is Alfredo.

My latest tonsorial masterpiece. 
On the way out you're offered mints and a hot towel to wipe your face, as you peruse shelves of male grooming products. I understand Hecho offers old-fashioned shaves with hot towels and skin emollients to pamper you and soften the old wrinkles a bit, and even wax for moustaches. I don't have enough whiskers to indulge in any of that.

I was so elated after my last visit I walked out without paying the $250 pesos for my cut.

Not to worry: The Babylonian guy chased me down the street to ask for his money.

###

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

At the gas pump, curb your expectations

A month ago a perfectly usable PEMEX located on the way into town was demolished and barely three weeks later—in what must be a new Mexican construction speed record—it was replaced by a gleaming bright-green BP station, as in London-based British Petroleum, although those two potentially problematic English words were nowhere to be found.

Welcome to a new world, or at least a new color scheme.
The re-uniformed gas jockeys, who must have been sent to intensive enthusiasm school, greeted customers as if they were cousins who'd just returned from a nine-month stint the U.S. hanging drywall, and extolled the virtues of the new operation as they filled our tank.

Will the gas be any cheaper? I asked. No, one guy answered, but the BP gas is superior and better for your engine because it contains a secret ingredient called "Tecnología Active." Stew and I rolled our eyes.

Meanwhile, I read that PEMEX has opened five stations in Houston, where it also co-owns a refinery with Shell Oil Co. Some of the PEMEX stations in Houston come with an adjacent Taco Shack.

Friends reported yesterday that gas at a Costco store outside of San Antonio was going for around two dollars a gallon or half of what PEMEX charges its compatriots south of the border.

Surely, PEMEX must be selling cheap gas in Texas otherwise how could they have any business? Does that mean cheap gas may be coming our way?

Slow down, pardner, you're going too fast.

But if BP and PEMEX keep selling gas for the same price down here, what's the point of having different gas stations, except for the more cheerful BP green scheme and the turbocharged staff?

Surprise at the pump. 
Does the appearance of BP here foretell the advent of real price competition at gas stations in Mexico, or perhaps the gradual dismantlement of the government-owned, epically corrupt PEMEX monopoly which Mexicans have cherished for decades as a family heirloom and a symbol of national pride?

Too many questions, bubba.

Initial customer reaction indicates Mexican consumers don't care about—or don't know—the difference between PEMEX or BP. Yesterday the new station had a line of customers out to the sidewalk, as usual. The gasoline could be coming from the Caspian Sea.

Can we expect—in our lifetimes—to see gas stations at Costcos and Walmarts in Mexico selling discounted gasoline? And PEMEX putting up signs with the prices of the various fuels, so drivers can decide where to get their gas?

Better sit down, guy. Now you're hallucinating.

###






Monday, December 4, 2017

The Met ought to compensate the victims of Jimmy's indiscretions

When the pedophilia scandal first enveloped the Catholic Church, its first line of defense was denial or trying to distance the institution from the predator priests. Church officials lied about the problem or blamed it on isolated miscreants.

Then it commissioned a study that among other things suggested the incidence of pedophilia and homosexuality in the Church's ranks were partly the result of the breakdown of traditional moral values or the libertinage of modern times.

Or whatever. That fanciful baloney, of course, ignored the long history of homosexual hanky-panky in the Church, going back to, hmm, at least, Pope Julius III (1487-1555).

Julius, who mercifully reigned for only five years, had an eye for young boys and fell head over heels for a 15-year-old street hustler named Fabian, whom he adopted as his "nephew," renamed Innocenzo and made a cardinal.

Julius III: What's new pussycat? 
There is indeed very little new under the sun as far as Catholic priests preying on altar boys—or the institutional church sweeping the problem under the very expensive carpets at the Vatican.

Now we have James Levine, the legendary music director of the New York Metropolitan Opera until last year, and guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's  summer Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.

Being gay myself, I know quite a number of friends known among ourselves as "opera queens", who can at the drop of hat give you breathless interpretations of, say, the second act Alban Berg's "Lulu".

To the last, these opera queens say that the "Jimmy" Levine story is very old and widely known, and it must have be so to the management and directors of the Metropolitan Opera who let him go on molesting  young men unimpeded, shielded by his fame and star power.

The Met's suspension of Levine seems as a worst case of too little and too late.

In the case of the Catholic Church, truth and justice caught up with the institution, if only after decades of denials and subterfuge, to the tune of billions of dollars paid in reparations to the victims.

In Ireland, once considered an island colony of the Vatican, the damage to the Irish church's finances and reputation has been incalculable.

In the U.S. it's sad to think of all the good the church might have accomplished if instead of billions for reparations it had invested that money to sustain Catholic schools in the inner cities. But at least the Church owned up to the problem.

The question now is whether the august cultural institutions that apparently condoned Levine's behavior are going to get out their checkbooks and compensate the victims—and apologize to them individually—or just get a pass on the strength of florid apologies.

Is the The Old Vic theater in London going to own up to its responsibility to the fifteen or twenty young actors and staffers Kevin Spacey allegedly harassed while he was artistic director from 2004 to 2015?

And so on with regard to other institutions and organizations—the Weinstein Company, NBC and CBS come to mind—which so far have fired the individual perpetrators but failed to own up to their organizational  failure to pay sufficient attention to what was going on or looking away once they did.

Say what you will about Fox News, but when the sexual harassment scandals there erupted the Murdoch brothers not only fired the aggressors but compensated the victims—big time.

Which brings us to Mexico, which according to various reports, is one of the world capitals of mistreatment of women. A fellow blogger just published a post,  "The Rape Culture in Mexico," with lengthy details and documentation about this tragic problem which seems to be part of the country's genetic makeup. Though Mexican politicians and bureaucrats give the problem endless hoo-hah and blah-blah, little is done to combat it. Read it and weep.

And another footnote. To help celebrate my seventieth birthday on December 30, Stew got us tickets for the Metropolitan Opera's new production of "Tosca" on New Year's Eve. Last I checked, Jimmy was supposed to conduct. Now what?

###

Friday, December 1, 2017

MouseBusters™ on the case. No more.

Until this year, our two cats, Paco, 16, and Fifo, 12, did a credible job of keeping wild critters, particularly mice and rats, out of the house.

This week, though, we discovered they'd surrendered their hunting badges. It may be Paco's old age or Fifo increasing rotundity and laziness, but when we spotted a small mouse in the kitchen a few days ago the cats didn't show the slightest hunting interest.

Hold our calls. We're retired now. 
Félix and Stew were greatly alarmed by the appearance of the mouse in the kitchen and yelped about "ratas" that kept growing in size and number at least in their imagination. On day two of the rodent crisis, the ratas had mutated into a herd of predators the size of small raccoons.

I insisted on calling them "guayabitos," which is the proper name for little gray mice—quite cute, actually—instead of ratas, which to my mind are the industrial-strength rodents that reposition the garbage dumpsters in Chicago's alleys at night.

Paco's retirement I can understand. He came with us from Chicago and recently has been howling at night as if in pain. The vet told us he has arthritis and sometimes it hurts him to walk.

Once, after looking listless for a few days, we took him to Dr. Alma, a vet so deeply revered by the expat community that she seems to be on the brink of canonization. She palmed off Paco's case to a young assistant who when we met him was decked out in a smock so filthy he looked like someone who'd just finished a shift at Jiffy Lube.

The next day Dr. Doofus, as Stew came to call him, retrieved Paco from the back room, put him on the counter and dramatically announced he had advanced feline diabetes and no more than six months to live.

Yikes, poor Paco!

That was eleven years ago. We've never been back to Alma or Dr. Doofus. Except for his arthritic joints Paco today keeps placidly ambling around at night and sleeping during the day. Once a week he might go out and around the house, exiting by the kitchen door and returning through the garage.

Life is good but his hunting career is over.

Even in his salad days, Paco's hunting style could be described as Newtonian: he let gravity do most of the work. He would spot a mouse perilously tiptoeing on the canopy over the terrace and just sit and wait underneath until the mouse fell down in front of him. Paco would slap him with his paw and that was it. This strategy could take several hours. 

Fifo, on the other hand, has always been an aggressive hunter of birds, mice and rats who at day's end would leave a trail of sparrow and hummingbird feathers and mouse bones on our terrace. It was an amazing show because Fifo never fully opens his eyes and looks as if he's permanently stoned.

Recently, though, he's retired from the hunting racket too, after apparently concluding it's easier to sit around and wait for canned food to come his way than go looking for his dinner.

So to deal with the guayabito in the kitchen we had to retrieve a live-trap we'd bought here made of fencing mesh, a piece of wood and a spring-loaded door. It is a crude, almost medieval-looking contraption, something kids would make in grammar school shop class and get a C+.  I don't know where it came from.

Out on parole. 
On the first night we heard the trap door slamming and the following morning found a tiny mouse, about three inches long plus tail, poking his nose through the mesh. Of course we didn't kill him. Félix took him away from the house and let him loose.

In the basement storage room things got more grisly. I had bought four sticky mouse traps which Félix positioned on top of the shelves. Next day there were five or six dead mice stuck to the traps, plus another one that was stuck but still alive. Félix asked if he should try to carefully pry loose the toes of the survivor and let him loose too.

Stew voted against that act of kindness. I didn't want to look at any mice stuck on the traps.

The storage room situation is baffling because that's where three of the dogs sleep. I guess they don't hear the mice over each other's snoring.

My vote is to let the mice run around in the storage room at night, past the dogs' noses, and leave it at that. There's an infinite number of mice outside and I refuse to buy any more traps or be responsible for the misery of mice stuck to the traps, especially those that may be still alive.

###

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Honey forecast: Lousy, reasons unknown

All outward signs pointed toward a bumper harvest of honey—good rains; nice cover of flowers, both wild and planted; mild temperatures—but for some reason we got only a fraction of the usual production this year.

The number of monarch butterflies and their more exotic cousins also seemed to be sharply down. The only bumper crop this year was a late-summer invasion of thousands of ravenous grasshoppers eating everything in sight.

Three years ago we harvested three five-gallon buckets of honey; last year two and this year only three-quarters of one bucket, or three gallons. That's pretty sad.
Much mess about very little honey. 

About a month ago, Félix and Stew checked the three hives and were alarmed to find one full, one half-full and the third completely dead. In the spring they had introduced new queens to two of the hives and one of those turned up completely empty.

Ours being a stand-alone and fairly primitive operation, it's going to be tough to determine what's caused the downturn.

We don't have universities nearby with agricultural extension services buzzing with experts as they do in the States, but there are commercial honey operations around here and maybe they'll know.

The only source of information that comes to mind now is the supplier of honey paraphernalia in Morelia, Michoacán, so we need to get Félix to call them to get the information chain going.

As to what happened to the butterflies, that's anyone's guess. Maybe nothing except our anecdotal reports.

I had read some alarmist articles from the U.S. that blamed a sharp decline in honey production and bee populations on the use some fertilizers containing nicotinic acid. The European Union had banned the use of that fertilizer.

Immediately surrounding our ranch the level of agricultural sophistication or the use of any type of chemicals has to be close to zilch. We are talking subsistence farming at its worst.

But farther afield, maybe five miles or more from here there are vast irrigated fields of all sorts of leaf vegetables, and caravans of trucks hauling them to the U.S. So maybe some bad stuff could be blowing our way and knocking out our bees.

There's not much to be done until the spring, particularly the introduction of new queens to our hives, but to start asking questions. For now all we can do is hoard the new honey for ourselves and maybe close friends—but only if they beg.

###

Thursday, November 23, 2017

On Thanksgiving morning

Gratitude comes easily when everything in our lives is hunky-dory which, unfortunately, doesn't happen very often and when it does, it is usually but for a fleeting moment.

Rather, we reflexively tend to look forward or backward, or right or left, and get distracted by the reality of a sick friend, a sore back, something we forgot to do or fix.

That's why gratitude has to be enjoyed on the fly, so to speak, when the good fortune of the moment flashes before our eyes like a beautiful, unexpected snapshot.

Early morning show. 


This morning, Stew and I went for our daily morning walk with our dogs Lucy, Domino, Felisa, Roxy and Ellie, plus a small orange stray with a corkscrew tail whom we've named Malcolm, and who's decided that food and company are far better at our place than at wherever he came from. He lives under a bush outside our gate, ever ready to give us a twenty-one-gun salute whenever we go by, and considers himself a member of our canine gang. 

We took a rutted road, whose destination we have yet to discover, through corn fields that by now have been picked clean, the dried stalks and leaves neatly bundled in symmetrical conical bundles that look like teepees. 

The angled early morning sun highlighted both the golden autumnal colors and the dramatic shadows. A nip in the air—the water in our birdbath awakened with a thin topping of ice—gave our jaunt an extra snap.

But not before we paused to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of this place where we live. An impressionist painting authored by nature just for us. How privileged we are to live here!

This afternoon we'll go over to Don and Richard's, a couple from Chicago who are among our best friends, for Thanksgiving dinner, to enjoy the food and their company. 

Today is one for daylong gratitude—not just a moment—when good and beautiful things confront us, unsolicited and free of charge.

Tomorrow may be different but I hope I find at least a few minutes to be grateful. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Water Lady will see you now

Looking like a piece that had broken off the International Space Station, a decrepit well-digging rig landed about a kilometer away from our ranch a month ago, launching yet another episode of the tragicomic novela about our community's water supply.

Who's sinking the new well, huh? And does he/she have a permit from the local or state water authority? The People want to know.

Central yet beside the point. 
Will this rickety new well—in addition to a monster well sunk not far away by the former mayor of San Miguel for the benefit of his new vineyard and a rumored new housing subdivision—threaten to deplete the aquifer, three hundred thirty meters below us, that provides our water?

None of these questions rise to the level of rocket science. They could be settled or arbitrated by a government authority. It could determine fees, finance maintenance and generally manage operations for the benefit of all.

Dream on. We're in rural Mexico, where many  communities have their own water committee. Ours is  usually led by woman Stew and I have come to call the Water Lady.

It's not an easy job. One Water Lady was supposedly fired for stealing the water money. In her defense, the rumor went on, her husband was a miserable drunk who stole the family's food money and left her no alternative but to dip into the water fund.

Indeed, "system" is too strong a word to describe our water distribution arrangement which more closely resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Atop a hill, there's an ancient masonry holding tank that is fed by a pipe from a large electric pump located downhill by the wellhead, about a kilometer away.

Gravity then feeds the water in the holding tank to residents through a haphazard maze of galvanized pipes and rubber hoses with cutoff valves here and there.

At our ranch we have a one hundred and thirty-five thousand liter rainwater collection tank that is brimming by the end of the rainy season. It is supplemented, on Saturdays and Sundays, when water arrives via a one and a half inch rubber pipe, for about four or five hours each day.

If there's no water for a couple of weeks, Félix and I, or some other neighbors must track down the Water Lady du jour to find out what happened.

Uncertain as it may sound, this arrangement has kept us in potable water, which we run through a series of filters before using it. We've only had to summon a water truck once, to deliver ten thousand liters for about fifty dollars.

The water fee is one hundred pesos a month, or about six dollars. We pay six months in advance to slyly buy influence with the Water Lady and her committee, which are always short of money because many of the Mexican customers don't pay at all.

I suspect that perennial money shortages have led the water committee to sell more and more hookups, called tomas, to Americans and others building new homes. New tomas go for a princely thousand dollars or more. But the system that was designed to serve thirty households now has twice as many customers.

Yet selling more tomas to cover operating and capital expenses is unsustainable in the long term and puts greater stress on the rickety and overburdened system.

An American who studied the system—and has a personal stake in a reliable water supply because he is trying to sell his ranch—met with engineers of SAPASMA, the local agency theoretically in charge of regulating the water supply in the entire municipality including the rural areas. He was told that the stone reservoir and the cobweb of hoses and pipes are in such disrepair that an estimated two million liters of water are lost yearly.

Logically, the town urgently needs a 1950s-style metal water tank standing on four legs to pressurize the flow and reduce leaks.

Dream on again. Who's going to pay for it? Not SAPASMA, unless the neighbors agree to install water meters and pay for consumption.

Many, if not most, of our neighbors are very poor and live life a day at a time. In addition, mutual trust, community cooperation and civic involvement are not a strong traits of rural Mexicans who one cynic said would have a hard time getting together to watch a fire.

Here's Félix' explanation of why residents in his community of Sosnavar, about a mile from here, opposed water meters. When the water is turned on, he explained, air blows through the pipes first before the water actually reaches the customers. The air makes the meters spin even though there's no water for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of service.

It's not fair. Folks would be charged for water and air. Sigh.

Just as things were getting boring, an American woman who's a bit mercurial and a bit peculiar, and who also wants to sell her ranch, took matters into her own hands by attempting to organize the Mexican residents against the evil person who is sinking the new well.

In a series of increasingly shrill and downright nutty e-mails, she accused the American owners who at one point she called "Aryans", of disrespecting and misunderstanding the Mexican campesinos.

For a minute it looked as if the dispute over water was about to boil over into a class warfare, led by an angry American who can't speak a lick of Spanish.

On Monday, she drove a group of neighbors to the state water commission office in the city of Celaya, about ninety minutes away, to demand it slap a cease-and-desist order on the new well. They were told to go back to San Miguel and take up the issue with SAPASMA.

Though I somewhat respect the American woman's initiative, barking at the offending drilling rig is not going to solve anything. It could be dismantled tomorrow morning and our barely functional water system wouldn't function any more reliably.

After the revolutionary fervor dies down, perhaps the American who spoke with SAPASMA and I could bring one of their engineers to talk with the residents and the Water Lady in charge.

A Water Summit,  if you will.

Meanwhile, the well-digger's distant and rhythmic thumping will go on for at least another month.

Actually we've found that once you get used to it, it becomes a sort of white noise that can help you fall asleep or at least forget the endless squabble over water.

###

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The 'winner' of the sex scandal sweepstakes

For the past eighteen months, going back to the final heat of the presidential election, Americans have nearly drowned in a tsunami of sleaze, with perpetrators and victims trading accusations, alibis, explanations, revelations, legal maneuvers and lurid details.

Perhaps the only moment of clarity came yesterday when comedian Louis C.K., actually admitted that the accusations against him—masturbating in front of five women—were true and he almost owned up to the grossness of his acts.
Louis C.K.: Hero among scoundrels?

He stepped up to edge and expressed "regret" and "remorsefulness"—rather than an outright personal apology to the victims—but at least in his rambling, too-long statement he recognized the inappropriateness of what he did.

Compare that to how our current Sleazo-in-Chief, of "grab their pussy" infamy, just walked away from the statements by sixteen women who accused him of sexual harassment, in effect by calling them all liars. Or how Bill Clinton at first denied the sexual assault accusations against him with the astonishing assertion that oral sex by "that woman" wasn't really sex.

And after all this outright lying, both men survived the scandals, at least for the time being in the case of Trump.

Then came Alabama U.S. senatorial candidate Roy Moore, whose public persona rests on a pedestal of Scriptural sanctimoniousness, particularly with regard to gay people. First he denied anything untoward happened with teenage girls, then admitted a weakness for teenage girls but only above a certain age. Yes, Roy, we understand.

A few of his supporters leaped into a logical abyss by arguing that since the Virgin Mary was only fourteen or so when the older Joseph got her pregnant, well you know, what ol' boy Roy did, hmm, wasn't all that weird.

Mercifully, a chorus of ministers and theologians intervened immediately and howled their disagreement with such reading of Scripture, calling it ridiculous and blasphemous.

Most distressing of all is that, just like Trump and Clinton, Moore might still get elected even if his history of shameless hypocrisy makes his acts all the more repugnant.

Moving to the gay corner we find one of my ex-favorite actors Kevin Spacey, who used the booze alibi and then announced he was gay, both of them lame excuses. If anything drunkenness makes you doubly responsible—for your drinking and your acts while drunk.

And as for his "coming out," please, that's like Oprah courageously tweeting that's she's black. Everyone knew Spacey was gay and that doesn't excuse jumping on a fourteen-year-old.

Then there's Harvey, who tried to have his lawyers stifle revelations by the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine. Nice try.

Amid all this miasma of denials, lies and equivocations comes Louis C.K.'s statement. Almost on the first line he does what Trump, Clinton, Weinstein and Moore couldn't bring themselves to do: He admitted the accusations were true. That's progress.

Second, he also admitted that his actions were abusive not only sexually, but because he was in a position of power over these younger women who were trying to get into the comedy business.

"The power that I had over those women is that they admired me," his statement said. "And I wielded that power irresponsibly."

Can't imagine Trump uttering such words; his dictionary doesn't contain the world "apology."

"There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for," C.K.'s statement continued. "And I have to reconcile it with who I am."

C.K.'s current purgatory, though, could be just a tad more redemptive if I heard that he had personally apologized to those women individually rather than through a "group regret."

The irony is that C.K.'s comedy act, which could be very funny and which I enjoyed, was often based on sleazy one-liners and situations that in retrospect qualified as sexual harassment.

Not to worry, I'm not about to excuse his actions. Right now I could not watch his routines without the image of his actions ruining the jokes.

He isn't that funny anymore, but at least he took a stab at being honest.

A small moment of grace

Someone once told me that "grace" is not some dramatic, God-driven event with angels with trumpets marking the occasion, but rather an unexpected moment of joy or revelation.

I had one of those moments last Easter when my friend Anita emerged from her small and chaotic kitchen in San Antonio with a ham and all the fixings for an unexpected, amazing dinner, which Stew, I and her shared on an improvised table in her living room. I told her this was definitely a moment of grace.

Grace in action: The moth is on the right-hand side, clinging to the
hem of the plastic cloth. 
This morning, while sitting on the terrace enjoying the perfect weather and views of the landscape I had a moment of grace: small, private and amazing.

I think I witnessed a white moth clinging to the plastic tablecloth and undergoing the final moments of metamorphosis. The caterpillar and the striped caterpillar were still attached, but it seemed as if the moth was trying to break free.

I got my phone to try to take a photo but I'm afraid it didn't come out very well. Still, after five more minutes of gentle struggle the moth broke free and flew off. I don't know where the striped caterpillar went, or if it just became part of the moth.

Right after breakfast, cup of coffee in hand, I usually sit outside and read a chapter from a book called "Emotional Sobriety", which I recommend to everyone whether they recovering alcoholics or not. A chapter a day starts my day on a calm note no matter how much trivia I might have fluttering inside my head.

But I didn't do my reading this morning: I felt as if witnessing this small miracle was my meditation and moment of grace for today.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tooling about in a slightly odd Italian machine

When we went on a solo driving tour of Italy a couple of weeks ago, Mother Hertz unexpectedly let us borrow a nifty black Alfa Romeo Q4 Giulia Veloce for ten days. 

Before you start having fantasies about Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren vrooming about on the Italian Riviera in a Alfa Romeo convertible, their Gucci silk scarves fluttering in the wind, allow me to dampen your imagination a bit.

No Marcello behind the wheel. 
This was Al and Stew, scarf-less, driving a far more modest Alfa Romeo with a four-cylinder diesel that had decent acceleration with a respectable growl from under the hood. It had oversized wide tires that really grabbed the winding  backroads in the Tuscan countryside.

Except for the day we went to Pisa, when a relentless downpour made it look as if the famous tower was really sinking into the mud, we had glorious fall weather, mild temperatures and landscapes of vineyards turning color as far as we could see. 

The car also had a couple of peculiar features: a lane-changing sensor and an often incomprehensible English-Italian navigation system.

The lane sensor would let out a honking sound through the music system whenever the car strayed onto another lane without the benefit of turn signals. The first time we heard the ominous honk-honk, we didn't know what it was or where it came from. We have no idea how this lane sensor worked.

It took several miles and randomly turning various knobs on the dashboard before we figured it was a uniquely Italian safety feature. Honk-honk. 

Italian wine country.


The navigation system was a study in bilingual confusion. It was set to English, so a female voice with a proper British accent—think Judi Dench—imparted the directions, while the actual street names were mumbled by either Judi trying to speak Italian or Sophia under the influence of something.

"In one hundred mee-tahs, turn right onto Garagiolafettuccinemarzippano!"

"What did she say?" we would ask each other, while we tried to match the Italian directions with street or road signs, often in vain.

At one point, mixed-up directions put us on a dirt road that dead-ended at the front gate of someone's house. We backed up and got on another dirt road for about an hour before the Alfa Romeo led us to a proper highway.

Confusion reached a crescendo, so to speak, as we tried to find our hotel in the medieval walled town of Siena, which one enters through one of several stone gates. We went around at least five times in a big circle a couple of kilo-mee-tahs in circumference, the Athena Hotel nowhere to be found.

Finally I suggested that Stew drive into the town, and presto the hotel appeared about fifty mee-tahs on the left. It seems that the Italianesque part of the directions contained a crucial detail: Drive through the gate into Siena, not past it.

A very nice car nevertheless but may I offer a couple of suggestions to the Alfa Romeo engineers.

Please make the navigation system a binational affair with Judi reading the English and Sophia tackling the Italian parts of the script. 

And O mio Dio! do something about that honk-honk safety warning.

###

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A case of puppy love

Each of our five dogs has its own sad-sack story and that's why they joined our household. 

We're buddies. 
Ellie is an orange, short-haired something-or-other with a broad head and face somewhat reminiscent of a pit bull except she is small and weighs only about twenty pounds. Her most distinctive traits are her bowed rear legs and an unnerving tendency to fall over unexpectedly when she loses her balance. In the past few days, we've also discovered she may have epilepsy.

She showed up at our front gate a year ago in bad shape, emaciated and with a nasty infection in her right eye. She acted very submissively, almost pleadingly, whenever Stew or I approached her. So naturally we felt sorry and took her in and after a few hundred dollars worth of antibiotics, spaying and shots, she joined the gang.

Roxy, a hulk of a mutt that weighs about sixty pounds, was found on the streets of San Miguel by someone at a nearby ranch. Someone must have seen in Roxy a way to make pesos, perhaps because she had the looks of a Rottweiler or some such, but she was abandoned at a few months old when it became clear she was not breeding material. 

One thing Roxy and Ellie share, though, is that both are missing their tails. I cringe to think they probably lost them Mexican-style, with a whack of machete when they were a few weeks old. Roxy also had part of her ears cut off. 

Their missing tails make their enthusiastic greetings all the more touching—they wiggle their one-inch stumps and part of their rear ends.

Roxy and Ellie also have become BFFs, or Best Female Friends.  

A couple of days ago during our morning strolls in the fields near our place, Ellie just keeled over on her side, panting frantically. Stew tried to pick her up but she wouldn't respond, until about five or six minutes, she walked a few more steps and fell on her side again. A friend suggested those may have been epileptic seizures. 

Stew asked me to bring the truck so we could bring Ellie home, so I left with the other four dogs. But about fifty feet on the way back, Roxy noticed Ellie was missing and ran back to where Stew and Ellie were waiting. Roxy sat there looking at the two and wouldn't leave. 

When I arrived with the truck, Stew put Ellie in and Roxy jumped up too and kept sniffing Ellie on the way home. 

Was Roxy concerned about Ellie? Did she sense something was wrong? How did these two completely different sorts pair up? 

have no idea how dogs forge their own links to other dogs, except each one has a distinct personality. I don't believe dogs "get upset", "hold grudges" or poop on the carpet to "get back" at their owners. 

Their brain cycles are not that complex and revolve more around unquestioning loyalty and love for their owners, which is why they become part of our families. 

Our big white Lucy is clearly the leader of the pack; where she goes the others follow. 

Domino, the only male, spent the first eighteen months of his life at the local shelter, mostly in a cage. We think he has a case of PKD (Post Kennel Disorder) and has only recently calmed down. He remains a loner whose main trick is to sit and offer one of his paws whenever anyone approaches. His idea of play is not to chase one of the other dogs but to roll on his back, feet in the air, howling merrily, all by himself. 

Felisa, the smallest of the group, is the most attached to Stew and me, wagging her tail in a circular motion at the smallest provocation. She may be the most hyperactive and often gets on Roxy's nerves who communicates her impatience by letting out a basso profundo growl that sounds like the idle on a Harley-Davidson.  

All and all, a happy bunch, complemented on workdays by Félix's own mutts Palomita and Luiso, the latter one of the dumbest and laziest dogs I've ever encountered. It's tough not to like him, though, character defects and all. 

### 







Monday, November 6, 2017

When Santa Clara came marching in, followed by her cats

The lives of the saints bear 
close scrutiny—or none at all

Hagiographies are tough to fact-check: Religious fervor and the fact most saints lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago conspire against definite answers.

And so it is, I found, with Santa Clara (St. Clare in English), who lived nearly eight hundred years ago in Assisi, Italy, a contemporary of Francis, the town's most famous citizen and one of the most prominent figures in the vast Roman Catholic roster of saints.

Et tu, Clara?

Cynics in fact have suggested that Francisco and Clara were close—really close—but I wouldn't propound such a disrespectful rumor. But who knows?

When we bought our ranch in Mexico we needed a name for it, even though at seven and one-half acres it's more like a ranchito or a ranchette, rather than a hacienda with its name over the main gate.

Stew remembered my hometown in Cuba was Santa Clara, an otherwise forgettable place except for its being a provincial capital and the location of a monumentally ugly mausoleum—even more so than Lenin's in Red Square—that houses the immortal bits and pieces of Ché Guevara recovered after he was killed in Bolivia.

The name Rancho Santa Clara stuck but I had no idea who she was, so some quick and dirty Internet research was in order. I found she is quite an important figure in her own right, credited with an almost impossibly chaste and saintly life, and a number of miracles.

One of the alleged miracles was her relationship with cats. Some have said she trained or sweet-talked some felines to do tricks, such as fetching a skein of knitting yarn when she dropped it on the floor.

Forget raising the dead or curing the lame, I thought. Teaching a cat to do anything must be the most awesome of miracles plus a good bit of yarn in itself.

When we built the house the architect had left a three-foot-wide hole on the eastern wall of the living room so we commissioned a small stained glass window of Santa Clara holding a cat to fill the hole. 

We hired Gustavo, a local ironworker, who had spent a few undocumented years working at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, on the western edge of Chicago, repairing the famous architect's stained glass windows, to make one of Santa Clara. 

We gave him an Internet picture of Santa Clara, sporting a habit and a halo, and holding a fat black cat. Santa Clara has a hint of a smile, almost like the Mona Lisa's, though she seems middle-aged and not a great beauty.

Our Santa Clara and we're standing by her. 
What Gustavo came back with, though, looks more like a twenty-something tart dressed up as a nun, with a white, obese cat in her arms. I guess we underestimated the difficulty of capturing Clara's subtle saintliness in stained glass, but it was a good story to tell people who came to visit.

Stew and I became so smitten with Santa Clara that during a recent trip to Italy we drove up to  Assisi to check out first-hand the story of Francisco, Clara and the cats.

Assisi is a beautiful mountain top town, first settled by Etruscans centuries before Christ, and was the highlight of our trip. We visited the huge two-level church where San Francisco is buried and a smaller church, housing the remains of Santa Clara.

Near Santa Clara's church, at a gift shop with a million tchotchkes honoring her and Francisco, I asked for a mug, ceramic tile or anything showing Santa Clara with a cat. The woman understood some English but not my question. I tried again, using my embryonic command of Italian embellished with some gestures and even cat sounds.

"Santa Chiara? Gatti? Meow?" The sales clerk laughed at me incredulously.

Could our cat story be some Italian baloney?

Puzzled, we went on to the Santa Clara church and found an ancient nun sitting behind a small desk to the right of the main altar, set up as question-and-answer booth about all things Santa Clara.

I tried my Italian again but she didn't have a clue what I was saying so she summoned a young guy who spoke English and transmitted my question about Santa Clara and cats.

The somber nun broke into uproarious, toothless laughter. My inquiry must have been the funniest or most ridiculous one of the day, maybe the week. Standing a few feet away Stew giggled.

We went downstairs to the chapel with Santa Clara's tomb. The chapel was beautiful but dimly lit. I checked every corner for a sign, a picture, an inscription— anything with a cat—but found nothing.

But to people who come to visit our place I'll keep peddling the story about Santa Clara and her cats.  They don't need to know the truth, whatever it is.