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.


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. 


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Why do you go to church anyway?

Is it cynical to attend church
mainly to meet other people?
While in the U.S. church attendance continues to decline, during our eleven years in San Miguel we've noticed that English-speaking churches here seem to be growing almost as fast as restaurants and art galleries.

No doubt previous religious affiliations point some expats to certain denominations, but I suspect the chief driver of church attendance here may be largely social: To meet other expats and make friends as much as to formalize one's relationship with the Almighty.

Come by and meet someone. 
The largest and least traditionally God-centered congregation is the Unitarian Fellowship. It shuns even the word "church."

On a sunny Sunday it may attract almost two hundred people—a motley stew of atheists, Jews, lapsed Christians and others, along with ponytailed, gray-haired liberals still grousing over Vietnam War-era causes.  Another prosperous venue is San Miguel's Jewish Community Center.

Both groups supplement their religious offerings with discussion groups, lunches and dinners where people get to know each other, a particular attraction for English-speaking Americans who may feel disorientation, even loneliness, living in a foreign, Spanish-speaking culture.
Stew and I are irregular members of the San Miguel's Community Church, a relatively recent group that offers two services—a full-strength, Episcopal-ish liturgy at 11:00 and at 9:30 a small discussion group for a dozen or so people like us who prefer a lighter, less dogmatic sip of religion.

To this morning's early service someone brought Osa, an affable, beefy mutt, who insisted everyone rub her behind the ears while they discussed how to deal with chaos in their daily lives. It may sound like an arid topic but it proved quite thought-provoking, as were the comments from the floor which ranged from old-time religion to no religion at all.

For Stew and me, our views regarding God and His/Her intervention in our daily lives remain, hmm, very sketchy. Yet Stew and I enjoy thoughtful, if sometimes arcane discussions even when laced with Scriptural references. Exchanges are invariably cordial and respectful.

Just as much, though, we like checking up on the friends we have made through the church and supporting its charitable efforts which last year came to almost twenty-five thousand dollars, a significant bundle of cash in Mexico. The Unitarians also distribute around thirty thousand dollars a year to social service groups.

Are Stew and I cynical for attending church partly or largely for social reasons? Or for abandoning the Community Church on certain Sundays when the Unitarians may have a more interesting speaker, and touching base with our friends there?

Might we be on a slippery road to hell for our sham religiosity, spending more time conversing with our friends rather than the Person Upstairs?
For the flip side of this existential dilemma, check out a short video in this morning's New York Times of a drive-in church in Florida where congregants park their cars on a vast grassy knoll and listen to the service, in isolation, on a dedicated radio frequency.

I recommend the video, it's great: https://nyti.ms/2uhbdQ1

When you arrive, you are given a sheet with the order of service, a small plastic cup with wine (or grape juice?) and a tiny communion wafer that you're supposed to consume on cue.

The camera scanned past some of the congregants, including a large woman, her stomach pressing on the steering wheel, rapt with the minister's words; someone in a convertible with a black Lab, the dog's ears at full attention; and another person who brought a cat, all of them listening to a distant minister clad in a red polo shirt and speaking from behind a clear plexiglass pulpit.

Halfway through the service an usher on a golf cart drove around to take up the collection.

The visitors come to listen to the minister, maybe even God, but apparently want nothing to do with one another. At the end, everyone turns on the ignition and goes home with not even the benefit of a coffee hour during which they could meet other attendees.

How does this drive-in church handle more intimate affairs like funerals? Put the casket on the golf cart while the mourners mourn in their cars with the air conditioning and radio on?

And still, if the depressing existentialist philosopher who noted that "hell is other people" was literally correct, that would put the solitary churchgoers in Florida on a more direct path to Heaven than Stew and me with all of our friends.

I can just imagine St. Peter's charge against us at the Final Judgment: "Attending church under false pretenses."


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forget emails. Just call.

"Now they tell me!" said
Donald J. Trump, Jr. 

During the past few days I've soured on that modern addiction to e-mails, a communication medium that frequently creates confusion and misunderstanding and can even get one of your mammaries in the wringer.  

Yesterday I called my friend Barbara to find out how she was doing after a nasty accident in which she sliced open one of her arms from her wrist to nearly past her elbow. 

I could have sent a short, hi-how-are-ya email, as I tend to do, that would have fulfilled my social obligation to inquire about the welfare of a sick or injured friend, but without really exchanging much warmth, emotion or detail. 

In other words, a formality, a way to communicate but not really.  

Instead I called her and we spoke for about twenty minutes—about the briefest conversation possible with a Texas talker like Barbara—in which she filled me in on the details of her recovery, how one of the Mexican neighbors whom she hardly knew took her to the emergency room, how good and surprisingly inexpensive was the medical care she received. 

We enjoyed communicating with one another, as they say, in "real time."

This morning we called Richard to wish him a happy birthday, the actual number of years at this point a closely guarded secret between him and his husband Don. Richard was out on some errand but Don said he'd pass on the message and I'm sure he'll call back and we will talk about movies and exchange gossip and jokes, anything but his age. 

The most insipid type of modern communications has to be the "e-card" prepared and sent, for a fee, by one Jackie Lawson, a mythical interpreter of personal feelings who's really a computer somewhere in South Dakota. 

It's the sappiest and most impersonal way to express any message, be it sympathy or congratulations. 
It usually involves an illustration with moving birds, trees or rabbits, harmonized with equally saccharine e-music. 

It would be a profoundly moving gesture if friends actually sat down and doodled the cards themselves, no matter how ineptly. But it's not: Instead you pick a topic from a computer-generated menu and for a modest fee—ka-chink!—Jackie will capture and transmit your most sincere and heartfelt feelings. 

I've been surprised how normally terse people can open up at the sound of a sympathetic voice. Recently our friend Don's wife Sheryl died—not "passed away"—and rather than an emailed condolence Stew called him in Canada. They spoke for about a half-hour, sharing loving memories of Sheryl that even the most eloquent email could not convey. 

There is also the grenade-like peril of impulsiveness in emails, which are not nearly as private as we think. 

I should have called first?
One time an explicitly amorous message between a woman working for me and my boss accidentally crash landed in my email inbox. Uh-oh. 

Another time a raunchy observation that I meant for one person got bollixed up by the "reply to all" option and went out to a hundred people I didn't even know. Make that a double "uh-oh."

In the old days of written correspondence, involving pen and ink, there was a lag time between the brain and the tip of the pen, and your feelings were tempered by the physical presence of paper and your words in front of your eyes, be they love or anger, or sleaziness or other lower emotions not suitable for third parties.  

Not so with emails. Just ask Trump Jr. whose impulsiveness, combined with his towering arrogance and dimwittedness—a volatile mixture—put him and his tweet-happy dad in deep trouble, as if they needed any more.

Maybe he should have pondered, hmm, who is this Russian Mata-Hari and why is she calling me? Maybe I should find out—call someone—before replying "I love it!," setting up meetings at Trump Tower, with however many people, and then having to spend several weeks discombobulating, dissembling, consulting with lawyers and trying to roll back what couldn't be. 

Next time, Donny, call first.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Elon Musk's Tesla pulls into San Miguel

Electric vehicles are headed for San Miguel.
That surprised the hell out of me.

Sometime last week, with as little fanfare as organ cacti popping up in the countryside, six shiny Tesla electric car chargers appeared in the parking lot of the Luciérnaga shopping center in San Miguel, by the Office Depot store.

We of course had heard of billionaire Elon Musk, and his rockets and electric cars, but we never expected to see any of his creations in Mexico, much less in San Miguel, in our lifetimes.

Oh we of little faith.

Be still my heart, and my checking account too. 

(Amid all the Trump-inspired palpitations and wing-flapping over immigration, I can't resist mentioning that Musk is one 12 billionaires who came to the U.S. as immigrants. He came from South Africa. Others on this list are Russian Sergey Brin (Google); French-Iranian Pierre Omidyar (eBay); Israeli Isaac Perlmutter (Marvel Entertainment); and Hungarian-born financier George Soros. I could have made the list (Cuba) if I had only paid more attention in school.)

Stew and I saw a Tesla at a showroom in Amsterdam two years ago, though before that we already had noticed the growing presence of electric car charging posts in other large European cities.

Sitting under banks of halogen lights, that Tesla baby was a vision. It had a mirror-like paint we had never seen on any other car. That and its futuristic lines made the vehicle look as if it were gravitating six inches above the showroom floor. Otherworldly.

Still, when we saw the Tesla charging stations in San Miguel our reaction was eye-rolling mixed with snarkiness.

Plug me in Scottie.  
After a bit of research, though, the vision of Teslas in San Miguel doesn't appear that far-fetched.

Tesla already has a dealership in Mexico City, in the hyper-posh neighborhood of Polanco, on Calle Presidente Masaryk, Mexico's equivalent of Rodeo Drive. Whether it's a Tesla, a Brooks Brothers shirt or a Cartier diamond, it's no problema in Polanco.

In fact, when the dealership opened last year, it quickly received deposits for fifty units.

As for some logistics: The long-range Tesla now on sale ($44,000) can go 310 miles between charges.

San Miguel is 170 miles from Mexico City, so even if you run into traffic or a dead burro blocking the road, you should be able to make to the Best City in the World with no problema at all.

One missing detail: How do you pay for
the electricity? I assume by credit card. 
Conveniently, the highway from Querétaro/Mexico City feeds right into the Luciérnaga shopping center. You can pull in, adjust your Ray-Ban mirrored sunglasses, fiddle with your rakish Hermès ascot, wave condescendingly at the less fortunate souls ogling your car—and plug her in.

Assuming the posts at Luciénaga are superchargers, the batteries on your Tesla should be charged in about a half-hour (for 170 miles), long enough to stretch your legs and have some churros or empanadas at Chocolates & Churros, owned by former soap opera actress Margarita Gralia and located next to the Cinemex theater.

You can also plug in your Tesla to a conventional outlet, in which case a full charge will take overnight.

However, this being Mexico—where aspirations sometimes run ahead of reality—you must make allowances for the superchargers at Luciérnaga being out of order, or if you arrive in the middle of thunderstorm, the electricity being out altogether.

Still. Gimme one.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Waking up to Donald Trump

These days perusing the headlines first thing in the morning often is like taking that first sip of coffee and discovering someone has laced it with Tabasco sauce. You gag. You spit. You say "What the hell?" or worse.

Wednesday and Thursday were Tabasco days. Via one of his early morning tweets, which have come to resemble lightning bolts from a demented Zeus, Trump banned transgendered people from serving in the military. In a separate action later, the Justice Department intervened in a discrimination suit filed by a gay employee and took the side of the employer.

The transgender ban shocked most everyone, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and gay activists but most of all the military. No one had lobbied for the ban—certainly not the Pentagon—and there are no studies or reports to justify the action.

Trump said he had "consulted with my generals and military experts" but none could be identified by the White House or the media. Another day, another lie by our president.

Trump's tweet stated that "our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

"You're fired!"
Except there is no evidence anywhere. nor complaints by anyone, that the estimated six thousand transgender military personnel—out of some 1.3 million people in uniform—had disrupted any of the country's security objectives.

As for the costs, someone already figured that the military already spends more on Viagra than on any transgender-related medical interventions, which amount to a gnat on the butt of the mammoth Pentagon budget.

Any more, I've developed a knack for defensive newsreading which guides my thumb and eyes to slide down my tablet, past the headlines about the cyclonic lunacy that grips Washington, and on to calmer waters such as book and movie reviews, travel stories, even the business page and daily recipes.

But the news about the transgender decision was a thumb-stopper. I first felt anger at the gratuitousness of Trump's decision—an arbitrary edict based on no facts and purporting to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Politically it didn't win Trump many friends even among Republicans. There wasn't any cheering sweeping the country.

And pity those long-suffering gay people in the Republican Party, some of whom even support Trump, and who now find their efforts to fit in more daunting than ever.

The only logic may be that Trump once again, and not unlike authoritarian rulers, tried to distract public opinion from his crisis-prone administration's other problems, by creating a phony issue. Fake news indeed.

All that aside, what I felt most was sadness for the transgendered people in uniform who have served loyally and now face possible expulsion from the military or a tortured coexistence within it as second-class soldiers. They deserve better than this.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Victory! Vinyl LPs live!

Comments on my blog yesterday, about whether I should keep my collection of vinyl LPs, leaned in favor of keeping it with an outlier voice from Pátzcuaro grumbling that I should toss it.
Stew and three of our highly-trained dogs
looking under the stereo cabinet to
assess the nature of the problem. 

Vox populi won and Stew and I today spent the better part of three hours digging through a nest of wires in the stereo cabinet, dusting, checking, rechecking—even reading instruction manuals—trying to figure out what went where.

Before lunch we had all the wires reconnected and the components working—the bulky Harmon-Kardon amplifier, the Nakamichi CD player, even the four cheapo outdoor Radio Shack speakers.

Everything whistled along except the fancy-schmanzy turntable, which generated a bad hum plus a terrible scratching sound whenever the needle landed on the record.

We were ready to order a replacement needle-cartridge assembly, which on Amazon sells for $80 and is described as sort of a relic you ought to be grateful to find, even though the turntable is only about ten years old. That's how fast sound reproduction technology has evolved.

"Ground control, the stereo situation looks hopeless."
 I also thought of taking the turntable to a stereo repair shop in Querétaro, the most advanced city near us short of Mexico City. But I feared I would only find a tattooed nineteen year old with numerous body piercings who would politely look at me and ask, "What does this thing do?"

Except that in my experience, whether it's cars, motorcycles or refrigerators, Mexicans have a preternatural knack for fixing things even when they have no idea what they're doing, which is often.

But just when I was ready to give up, Stew came into the office and yelled: "I fixed it!!"

The answer appeared at the top of page five of the turntable manual, which indicated that under the rubber mat on which you place the records you would find a switch for "phono out" and "line out". Flipping it to "phono out" solved the problem and everything now is working for the first time in years. (Picture below)

We are not sure what the magic switch does or how it got switched to the wrong setting.

While going through the records I found some real oldies I'd forgotten. One in particular I might mail to Felipe Zapata to help him break through gloomy fog that sometimes envelops Pátzcuaro.

It's a 1965 recording of Joan Baez singing anti-Vietnam War songs.

Does anyone have his address?


The turntable, up and running. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Is it time to toss my vinyl LP recordings?

I don't need my old LPs but
somehow I can't let them go.
In the beginning there was the vinyl LP recording, and the LP became high-fidelity, stereophonic, quadraphonic, "360 Stereo" and more, with a detour for tape cassettes, compact discs and most recently MP3 files. Except for cassette tapes, I still have most of these media and equipment to play it, except I hardly ever use it.

Growing up my dad had a custom-built stereo system—an unheard-of extravagance for a lower middle-class family—that looked like a sarcophagus with four legs. It had a huge speaker and two smaller ones hidden behind a cloth screen, a turntable, an amplifier and about two linear feet of storage space for his treasured LPs, almost all of them classical music.

He even owned, but seldom played, a handful of 78 rpm records, scratchy and brittle in brown-paper envelopes and dating back to the Stone Age of music recording.

When he found a new recording, a special occasion in our backwater hometown, or received one he had ordered from Havana, our family of three would gather solemnly in front of the record player as if we were about to participate in a seance.

Any takers? Or should I keep them?
Officially only my dad was allowed to use the record player, which he did after the requisite ritual spritzing of the LPs with some liquid cleanser and polishing with a small felt cloth.

But when he was at work I would sneak in a few raucous, full-blast concerts of my own. He pretended not to notice. I think he was glad I shared his taste for long-hair music.

My dad died almost ten years ago, shortly after our move to San Miguel.

When the Fidel took power in Cuba and the island's middle and upper classes stampeded toward Miami like a herd of frightened buffaloes, families were supposed to turn over their houses and everything in them, except personal belongings that could be squeezed into a duffel travel bag.

If we were going to abandon our country, Fidel said, we'd have to abandon everything in it.

Families sold or gave away all they could during hushed, nighttime transactions. Weeks before the departure date homes became strangely denuded, except for a chipped serving plate on the dining room table or a lone picture hanging on a wall where faded squares clearly betrayed the presence once of a gallery of family photos.

Meanwhile, the houses of trusted neighbors and friends turned into souks crammed with two or three sets of china, mismatched furniture, dozens of throw pillows, multiple saucepans.

My mother, with her more bourgeois preoccupations, fussed over every piece of decor no matter how tacky. It was hers and she was not going to let some goddamn communist have it.

But what hurt my dad the most, a stab at his heart, was the loss of his record player and the modest collection of records he had so painstakingly amassed over the years and now was disappearing, one by one. A treasured recording by Arthur Rubinstein, one my dad had played over and over, his fingers sometimes fluttering over an imaginary keyboard, now gone, along with all the other LPs.

He never said who was getting them or the massive record player that one night vanished too. There was nothing left and he was clearly devastated by the loss. He never tried to rebuild his record collection after he came to the U.S. I don't recall that he ever owned a decent-quality stereo again.

That would become my unwitting responsibility. In college I began to buy and upgrade stereo equipment regularly and collect LPs, along with some music tapes, a hobby that frequently exceeded my meager budget. Those records travelled with me to graduate school and then to Chicago where Stew and I settled in 1972, and to San Miguel where they reside in a custom-made entertainment center.

Several years after college compact disks appeared, and so I started collecting them, followed eight or nine years ago with an iTunes library of MP3 recordings playable in iPods, all neatly stored, I hope, in my own tiny sliver of the "Cloud" somewhere over California or Oregon.

Except that with most technology, including recording and recording media, additions and improvements almost immediately become redundancies.

The CDs and the CD player made LPs and my turntable obsolete. Now my iPod, loaded with nearly four thousand "songs," is about to be nudged aside by the smartphone that can hold my music plus appointments, telephone numbers, weather reports, grocery lists and seemingly all the mundane data of my life.

My new friend, the tiny Bluetooth speaker.
When we built this house we wired it for speakers which are now superfluous with the arrival of a baby bright-red Bluetooth speaker that can turn into a speakerphone, or stream, via the Kindle Fire tablets or the smartphone, music from distant radio stations. So we have four unused outside speakers, plus a fairly expensive pair of indoor speakers that gets dusted but never used.

I have contemplated getting rid of the LPs at least, possibly also the CDs. Among the LPs would be the Beatles' Abbey Road album, in mint condition, which some of my friends in college played backward, for hints to the supposed disappearance of Paul McCartney. (You would have had to be there—and quite stoned—to understand what that was all about.) Also, Ravi Shankar, two Santana recordings, plus the box set of Georg Solti's recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies.

Probably a couple of hundred LPs, all in perfect shape because just like my dad, I always spritzed and wiped them before playing.

Somehow, however, emotion trumps practicality on this decision: No, I really don't need all those LPs but tossing them would somehow violate the memory of my dad, who's probably whistling some classical tune somewhere.

A better though not simpler solution would be to untangle the wires now choking the hardly used amplifier, CD player, DVD player and speaker routing box—a maddening task—dust off the turntable and let Paul, Ravi, Carlos and Georg stop by for an encore performance.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

By the dawn's early light

It pays to get up early
to catch an unexpected show

A day's first and final hours of sunlight, the "magic hours," are supposed to be the best time to take pictures. It's true. 

At around seven-thirty this morning I went out with my camera, followed by our dogs, to take pictures of the ranch. 

At that time sunlight comes in timidly, at a lower angle. Later it will beat directly from above and flatten everything, making you squint.   

Early on, dew makes the foliage sparkle and a passing puff of fog might add a bit of mystery. 

Birds are beginning to stir amid the early-morning stillness and fresh smells come from the wet grass crunching under your feet. 

Dogs have no time for contemplation. Their hyper noses glued to the ground, they do figure-eights as if this were their first time outside and everything was new. 

Even without a camera, you're in for quite a show. 

--The End--

Friday, July 21, 2017

Of matzo balls and arroz con pollo

How the dots of Cuban Jewish history
finally came together for me in San Miguel
In 1998, more than thirty-six years after leaving Cuba, the newspaper I worked for sent me to cover the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to the island. It would be a trip filled with revelations, a return to a place that to me looked and felt cozily familiar but also alien, even scary. I recognized the stately palm trees of my childhood but found them battered by almost forty years of Communist ideology and privation.

The first revelation was reconnecting with relatives with whom I'd lost touch, or others I didn't know even existed such as the Afro-Cuban branch of my family tree. The details of how the Laniers became a biracial corporation didn't come clear until a few years ago while talking with white relatives in Miami. But that's another story. 
The second revelation came from another Cuban I'd communicated with before my trip and whose last name was Levy (or Levi), which to my ears sounded more Jewish than Cuban. 

Chevet Ahim is the oldest synagogue in Cuba, founded in 1914
He told me there had been a small Jewish community and even a synagogue near the main square in Santa Clara, my somnolent hometown deep inside the island. Unfortunately, after returning to Chicago I lost track of Levy and his story. 
Growing up in New York I had many Jewish friends—including Al Linsky, an unforgettably kind gentleman who sponsored my parents so they could come from Spain to the U.S.—but it had never occurred to me there would have been a Jewish community in Cuba.

Two weeks ago, and almost twenty years later after meeting Levy, I met Ruth Behar, a Jewish Cuban-American anthropologist visiting San Miguel who during a lecture at the Jewish Cultural and Community Center filled in the missing details about the long presence of Jews in Cuba that indeed dates back to Columbus' arrival.

The only hint about the presence of Jews in Santa Clara, which I didn't grasp as a child, was hearing my dad, who owned a printing shop and stationery store, occasionally mention polacos, with whom he had some business dealings.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Havana founded in 1953.
The polacos, Spanish for Polish, provided me with the missing link—the Jews Levy had talked about and Behar mentions in her book "An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba." The polacos were Santa Clara's Jews.

The first Jew to set foot in Cuba may have been Luis de Torres, a translator Columbus brought along who knew four languages, none of them of any use in communicating with the indigenous Cubans.

Or was it Columbus himself, as some researchers claim? It's not far-fetched: The year of Columbus' departure from Spain coincided with the reconquest of Spain by the Roman Catholic crown and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. So, many Jews converted or pretended to and emigrated from Spain.
The original trickle of Jewish migration to Cuba gradually increased and diversified. Turkish Jews fled the tottering Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, and were later joined by European Jews fleeing persecution, many from Poland—including, I'm sure, some of the polacos in Santa Clara. Many European Jews moved to Cuba as a second-best option because restrictive immigration laws would not allow them to come to the U.S.

Behar estimates that at its height, the Jewish community in Cuban numbered around fifteen thousand.

Though most of the Jews settled in Havana, a substantial number went on to other places in Cuba, including Santa Clara, where a synagogue was established in 1929 in the city center, not far from my dad's business. 

In one of the moving sections of her book, Behar profiles one David Tacher Romano, for whom restoring Jewish presence in Santa Clara has become a mission. She calls him the Moses of Santa Clara. 

He has restored Santa Clara's Jewish cemetery, which I'd never heard of, and with the help of a Jewish Cuban-American woman living in Atlanta, even built a Holocaust memorial containing stones brought from the Warsaw ghetto. Tacher also planted a pine tree using sand he brought from the Negev along with water from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. 

Tacher's story, as told by Behar, connected the dots, sketchy in my mind, of the story of the polacos in Santa Clara.
David Tacher Romano, a Jew who led the reconstruction of the Jewish cemetery in
Santa Clara, and the installation of a Holocaust Memorial, the only one in Cuba. 
Behar and her family departed as part of the first Cuban exodus during the 1960s and she didn't return until 1979. Her visits since then have become almost compulsive as she has sought to trace the Jewish story in Cuba through the triple perspective of an anthropologist, a Cuban and a Jew.

In fact, listening to her emotive presentation rekindled my interest in revisiting Cuba for a third time, a project I keep putting off even though Stew is ready to return at a moment's notice. The eastern- and western-most provinces which I've never visited would be on the itinerary, as well as the beautiful port city of Cienfuegos where I still have some maternal relatives, and now Santa Clara's Jewish cemetery and Holocaust memorial.

Several years ago I ran across news that the Spanish government had released a list of purportedly Jewish last names helpfully compiled by the Spanish Inquisition. "Quinonez" was on the list, which would be a close-enough spelling of my maternal last name "Quiñones".

I emailed my cousin in Cienfuegos, whose name is also Alfredo, to ask if he knew of any Jewish roots or connections in our family or Jewish presence in that city. He'd never heard of any.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Little League graduation

Think herding cats is difficult?
Try kids doing a graduation waltz

Last Saturday Félix' five-year-old Edgar graduated from kindergarten and there was a celebration so incongruously elaborate—and irresistibly cute—you'd have to be dead not to smile. 

About forty kids graduated, a third more boys than girls for some reason, and the dress code was equally formal but hardly equal. The girls wore green tight-fitting, custom-made dresses, with frills, ruffles and endless embellishments, topped with cascades of curls and a usually a tiara. 

The boys arrived in "one-size-fits-no-one" baggy gray suits with clip-on ties that quickly became undone. 

Even at this early age it was fun to notice the difference between the girls—tallish, flirty, self-confident and even a little bit vain—versus the boys—clutzy, self-conscious and generally clueless.  

The ceremony began with an honor guard that escorted the flag around the covered school yard, and then led everyone in the singing of the Mexican national anthem, a rousing piece of music a little reminiscent of Le Marseillaise. 

After that, I can't remember in which order, there was a waltz-like dance, with some girls assigned two boys, plus other bits of choreography that fell apart at the hands of the young kids charged with executing it. Here are some pictures of the event:

The ceremony began with an honor guard duly stamping their feet. 

She may become a soap opera actress. He, hmm, maybe a politician.

Decked out in earrings, necklace and a tiara, she was ready
for the show. He wasn't sure.

Edgar's "date" was taller than him and not at all camera-shy.

Edgar (c.) marching around with his classmates.

One of many mini beauty queens.

Edgar in his regulation ill-fitting gray suit.

Not sure, but Edgar didn't seem very
impressed with his diploma.

The grand finale included an elaborate dance that
could have used just a bit more rehearsal time.