Monday, June 26, 2017

Invitation to a shooting

Americans who buy guns to feel safe
may be their own worst enemies

My 67-year-old brother-in-law Greg is a model gun owner. He's trained in the proper use of a gun and has a concealed-carry permit as well as other licenses.

He says he needs his small arsenal for personal protection, though I'm not sure from whom.

During the summer he and his wife live in a very beautiful sliver of Minnesota near the banks of the Mississippi River, where in my experience bee-sized mosquitos are a much larger threat than armed bandits.

Model 3701, Caliber 380 Auto, Capacity 6+1, Barrel Length 2.75"
Msrp: $259.00

In the winter, they migrate to another small, equally picturesque town northwest of Orlando, Fla., there to join hundreds of retirees fleeing northern winters. 

In an email a couple of weeks ago, he related an incident that illustrates how, ironically, America's obsession with firearms, supposedly for personal safety, creates a society more dangerous for everyone.  

At the time of this incident most of the residents in the condo complex had already returned north. It was dark and Greg was hauling a couple of bags of garbage to the dumpster when he noticed a "couple of black guys" with their shirts off, loitering in the parking lot. He asked them to move off this private piece of property. 

They refused and instead asked Greg, "you got any money?" 

He replied, "Nope."

Then one guy keeps walking toward Greg and says "I gotta have your wallet."

At this point, Greg pulls out his Ruger .380 automatic pistol out of his pocket and replies "I don't think so."

Greg never steps out of his home unarmed, he told us the last time we visited, evidently not even to take out the garbage.

One of the members of threatening duo puts up his hands, "like I'm going to give them the Trevor Martin/George Zimmerman treatment," in Greg's words.

Martin was a 17-year old black high school student, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt at the time he was shot to death by Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watchman who was armed and later said he feared for his life. Zimmerman was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

I don't for a second dismiss Greg's concern about being assaulted. I'm acquainted with street fear first-hand.

I grew up on the West Side of New York—prior to gentrification and latte cafes—and even drove a taxi on weekends in Manhattan to subsidize my college expenses.

One time a fare I picked up kept directing me to a dark, deserted area under a soaring Riverside Drive overpass by the Hudson River.

I remembered being told that to catch the attention of the police in an emergency I should turn off the headlights and drive with only the parking lights on. In this case it worked: A patrol car began following me and at the next corner my fare jumped out of the cab and fled into the night.

Obviously my passenger—I don't remember his race—was up to no good, and if I had had a gun with me I might have pointed it at him even before sending the SOS that aborted the incident.

In Chicago and now in Mexico, Stew and I have done the gun-ownership math and concluded that in a confrontation with a couple armed thugs decades younger than us, gun-waving would be far more likely to get us killed than act as a self-defense equalizer.

Putting myself in Greg's shoes, and allowing for his understandable fear, my mind takes me to a series of what-ifs that don't make me feel safer. In fact, his gun increased the odds of an act of petty thievery turning into a murder.

I don't know much about guns but I know enough to realize that when someone is pointing a firearm at you you haven't much time to study all the possible outcomes.  Your mind races and your index finger reflexively reaches for the trigger.

What if one of the young black guys had been carrying a gun himself and whipped it out, threatened by Greg's Ruger? Not an unlikely scenario at all, given that right now there are enough firearms in circulation for every adult in the U.S.

Or what if one of the would-be assailants had reached to scratch himself or made any move that Greg might have considered threatening? Is it time to shoot, possibly an unarmed person simply because he was young, black—and in your white mind—threatening?

Two or three trips ago to San Antonio, Stew and I were waiting at the parts counter of a Ford dealer and I was confronted by a gray-haired fireplug of a guy, about fifty, who shoved me slightly and growled "I was here first, buster!"

In fact he wasn't and my first reaction was to tell him to buzz off. But then I remembered that I was in Texas, one of the most gun-happy states in the country and the message flashed in my head: "This stupid m.f. may have a gun."

Stew who witnessed the encounter later told me he had the same reaction. I backed off. Get your oil filter first, buddy. We're in no hurry at all.

Even allowing for his fear and nervousness, Greg pulling a gun had escalated a trifling provocation into a potential shooting that could have left someone dead or wounded.

My reactions—not very macho, I admit—would have been to either drop the garbage bag on the spot and make a beeline back to my condo; continue walking toward the dumpster as if I hadn't heard anything; or simply throw my wallet on the pavement and bid the two young guys a pleasant evening.

Credit cards and cash can be readily replaced. My head or some internal organ, not so easily.

Perhaps I would have summoned the cops, which Greg did, and who arrived in a few minutes, and let them take care of the problem.

None of my reactions, I know, are very testosteronal or likely to inspire an upcoming episode of Law and Order. But at least in retrospect they might have been the sanest and safest options.

Instead, Greg later reported the incident to "an ex-Marine buddy" who lives in the condo complex and who now also carries his .38 revolver.

Are the geezers at the complex safer for all this gun-rattling? Or have we increased the chances of a pointless shoot-out—similar to those that occur every single day in the U.S., leaving people dead or wounded?


Sunday, June 25, 2017

An anniversary to remember

Looking back on a relationship 
many said shouldn't be
On June 20 Stew and I celebrated our forty-fifth anniversary. That's four decades plus five more years that we have been together. It's been quite a run for a relationship that initially was condemned by preachers, ignored by legislators and scorned by most everyone else, as if the whole world were intent on making a hash of it.

Despite the external flak, though, the relationship has survived for pretty much the same reasons heterosexual marriages survive: A mutual commitment by the two partners as someone famously said, "for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health." Plus many, many more "etceteras."

For the most part it has been exhilarating ride with some occasional bumps. Indeed, at times we questioned whether the effort was worth it or even if we could survive as a couple at all. Ultimately the answer was yes on both counts.

Our relationship remained nothing but a private affair until we were formally married in Stow, Mass. —marriage license, church ceremony and all—on September 28, 2013.

Thank you, Barack Obama; U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for his eloquent write-up of the majority decision recognizing same-sex unions; and for the thousands of lawyers, judges and activists who made same-sex marriage possible throughout the U.S. two years later.

Memento of a memorable anniversary
Our anniversary date of June 20, 1972 is really arbitrary. It marks when Stew and I took off to live in Chicago, after two years of graduate school at Indiana University's main campus in Bloomington, an idyllic enclave of open-heartedness in an otherwise very conservative, closed-minded state.

At IU, which even then had an officially sanctioned gay students group, I began learning how to be comfortable with myself and other gay people.

Stew and I bought a small brick bungalow on a half-acre thirty miles outside of Chicago, where we fantasized we were just another couple starting their life together—an Ozzie and Harriet except for the matching private parts—even as reality insistently pounded at our door.

The only neighbor who would speak to us in a neighborly way was Henry Patterman, an old widower next door who either out kindness, loneliness or obliviousness to the obvious, effectively embraced us with a "hey I don't care if you're gay" attitude. We returned his friendship with our company.

But the wife of  the couple who lived next to Henry was so outwardly hostile that she warned her sons to stay away from us, as if we were roving pedophiles or homosexuality was as communicable as chicken pox.  She demonstrated the venom and irrationality of homophobia though we later found out she was hardly its only practitioner.

In retrospect, maybe we gardened or renovated the house a bit too much and that blew our cover. Otherwise our lives were thoroughly scandal-free, borderline boring.

During those first four years we began learning the intricacies of a relationship, each of us being quite different yet remarkably similar sorts. Stew is smarter than me but his brain is tilted in the direction of mathematics and finance, while mine tended toward the faggier fields of art, writing and, yes, gardening along with a few other Martha Stewart-ish skills (though we always paid our taxes).

But Stew and I both like animals—hence our current herd of five dogs and two cats—with Stew going to the extreme of walking the dogs to the basement and checking everyone in for the night. Every night.

He feeds another herd of six or seven Spanish-barking dogs who hang out outside the gate of our ranch, and briefly converses with them, neither side understanding a thing but everyone walking away a bit happier for the effort.

Ultimately, I've found that relationships, gay or straight, may resemble two overlapping circles, with the area in the middle becoming the glue that holds the two people together.

Should the circles overlap too much, life can get stifling and the partners resentful. Not enough and the relationship eventually strains and withers from a lack of commonality.

Managing that balance has been a work in progress since Stew and I got together, with the circles drifting closer or farther apart over the years. This balance requires honesty, flexibility and constancy.
We bought a house in Chicago from a gay realtor who steered us toward a ramshackle three-flat in the vicinity of Belmont Avenue and Halsted Street, which not long after our arrival became the epicenter of the city's gay neighborhood.

Many of our neighbors, we noticed right away, also seemed to be interested in more or less lavish renovations of Victorian homes, and tending their tiny city gardens. Hanging baskets of impatiens or geraniums were de rigueur.

Boys Town. Homo Central. The starting point of the annual Gay Pride Parade, which eventually developed into a raucous to-do attracting more than two hundred thousand people, including the mayor and governor down to straight yuppie couples, their kids and Labrador Retrievers in tow and of course, representatives of the Chicago branch of the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,

Inside this cozy ghetto life was comfortable and protected, providing all sorts of social needs from bars and restaurants, to Wrigley Field and gay-friendly churches and garden shops.

But from outside the news grew more threatening. Latter-day Torquemadas such Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—with the Republican Party providing political cover—launched a rageful campaign against gay people, cynically using this toxic dynamic to build their congregations, fortunes and political base.

We were reminded of this when we found someone's blood, later identified as that of a gay man who was beaten nearly to a pulp, smeared on the back gate of our house. Was he trying to get into our backyard to escape his attackers?

Inside the ghetto, too, promiscuity, alcohol and drugs—and later the AIDS epidemic—cast a pall on everyone, including Stew and me. Young friends were dying and no one seemed to know what to do.

For our part it's not an exaggeration to say that joining Alcoholics Anonymous thirty-plus years ago saved our relationship and possibly our lives. As an added life enhancer, we also quit smoking shortly afterward.

To celebrate our forty-fifth Stew came up with the splendid idea of spending a week in Santa Fe, N.M., and we wandered around town and to nearby Taos and Los Alamos, in a rented Ford Mustang convertible. We visited our friend Roger, who five years ago lost his partner to AIDS, and who introduced us to his long-time friend Vesta.

As a memento of this anniversary, Stew bought a beautiful piece of Navajo pottery.

Forty-five years after launching our life together the changes in society around us have been amazing. There is no reason to argue at the Avis counter over the family discount, whisper at the hotel reception desk that we really want one king-size bed, or feel awkward at introducing Stew to strangers as my husband.

More than a husband, partner, lover or whatever you want to call him, Stew has turned out to be a hell of  a good friend—the best anyone could hope for—a man I trust and love even if he snores too much and oddly, is not that interested in gardening.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Blessings from Chairman Trump

If you want to keep your job,
just keep reciting your blessings

Among the flood of bizarre moments to come out of the Trump White House, yesterday's photo of the first full cabinet meeting, and the story behind it, really stand out.

The subject of the meeting, which could have been "Hosanna to the Chief!", began with a self-congratulatory soliloquy by Trump, followed by expressions of praise by cabinet members, each more fawning than the last.

Most obsequious was White House Chief of Staff Rance Priebus who thanked the president "for the opportunity and blessings that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people."

The word "blessing" flew around the room so shamelessly The Old Man Upstairs must have been cringing.

The scene reminded me of photos of Communist leaders surrounded by sycophants on their feet deliriously clapping and shouting approval.

North Korea's Kim Jong-Un is seldom photographed without a retinue of army hacks wearing flying- saucer-size hats and clapping and smiling, zombie-like, to celebrate the launching of the latest rocket, whether it went straight up or into a pack of hapless cows at a nearby pasture.

Whatever you do, keep clapping baby. 

When Castro was still alive and guiding the Cuban economy directly into the muck, masses of supporters would gather under the brain-broiling tropical sun of Havana to cheer the Maximum Leader's words which would often gush forth for five or six hours.

But most memorable of all the stories of Communist dictator-worship came from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who described a huge convention hall full of lackeys who went on and on, on their feet, applauding a speech by Joseph Stalin.

"At last, after eleven minutes of non-stop clapping, the director of a paper factory finally decided enough was enough. He stopped clapping and sat down—a miracle. To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down."

"That same night, the director of the paper factory was arrested and sent to prison for ten years... [D]uring his interrogation, he was told: 'Don't ever be the first one to stop applauding.' "

I wonder if Chief of Staff Priebus—who's been reported to be the next probable victim of White House intrigue and infighting—had the Soviet factory director in mind when he refused to be outdone in his praise of Chairman Trump.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A plea for political correctness

Though condemned by the Right and the Left, 

a bit more political correctness would benefit us all 

A couple of years ago, during a luncheon at an idyllic countryside restaurant outside San Miguel, I inadvertently dropped the "R-bomb", when I referred to mentally disabled people as "retarded." 

A good friend of ours at the table, who has a mentally disabled daughter, very gently, almost affectionately, stopped me and said, "Al, I so wish you wouldn't used that word. It's so hurtful for people like my daughter." 

She told me her daughter was disabled, mentally disabled, if you will.  

I appreciated the correction, and also that my lunch companion was such a good friend that she didn't take lasting offense at my thoughtlessness. 

But even then, the dismissive phrase "politically correct" flashed in my head, though just as quickly I realized the distinction was not an empty social artifice but a matter of being respectful—kind—to a person who was different from me and whom I hadn't even met. 

Indeed we have no right to say what other people prefer to be called. The notorious "n-word," for example, has been banned from polite vocabulary by those who are affected and stigmatized by it—African Americans. Comedian Bill Maher learned that recently. 

It's a tough habit to acquire that I by no means have mastered. Sometimes it requires a two- or three-second delay to rephrase a thought before I say it or hit the "Enter" key, or to consider what the other person is saying before dismissing it with my prejudices. 

On a national scale the lack of civic respect has turned political dialogue into something like a windshield shattered into a million pieces and which keeps us from seeing anything past our noses. 

The mutual respect required for a democracy to function has turned instead into a perpetual shouting match. 

During the last presidential election, "political correctness" became the epithet du jour at the Republican convention, angrily spit out from the podium as if it were a fish bone stuck in the speakers' teeth. 

On the other hand, unspoken smugness hung over the Democratic gathering, as aggrieved folks on the other side, such as unemployed blue collar workers, were dismissed as untutored yahoos or bigots. 

During the last few years of my mom's life in Chicago, I had an epiphany of sorts about the politically-correct advocacy for the physically disabled. 

I had grown to quietly resent mounting government expenditures—my tax money, goddamn it—to accommodate the relatively few people with physical disabilities, by installing lifts on buses and ramps and curb cuts on sidewalks and other measures to accommodate the wheelchair-bound. 

Then my mom ended up on a wheelchair. On an outing to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I came to appreciate it all—the ramps, wheelchairs, handicapped-accessible bathrooms and restaurants, no doubt costing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars—without which my mom would not have been to enjoy this wondrous place on a Sunday afternoon.  

I appreciated the advocates' insistence that we do not shunt the physically disabled to the margins of society.  

In Mexico during the past two years, I have also learned to appreciate the issue of immigration to the U.S. from the Mexican side. 

I have met dozens and dozens of people—including our gardener Félix and two of his brothers—who have spent some time working in the U.S. without visas or other authorization. I would describe them all as desperate people trying to make a living, and none as threats to civilized society. 

Yet they are called "illegal aliens" by some, as if they were Martians who stole someone's parking space, or worse, "rapists," "criminals", to be lumped along with terrorists, radicals and other strangers into the category of "Other," whom we can feel free to demonize and abuse for political purposes. 

I'm all in favor of the U.S. having secure borders and an enforceable system of immigration, a project far more complicated than just building a wall or deputizing every Barney Pfeiffer in the U.S. to harass every brown-face they bump into.

We can start by adopting the politically correct descriptor, adopted by most major American newspapers, of "undocumented workers." 

It recognizes that these are people who with their labor keep large sectors of the American economy afloat—think meatpacking, agriculture, restaurants, hotels and nursing homes, among many others—and do so in our midst without our official permission.  

Defusing the issue of immigration by skipping the name-calling could help us do both, devise a more functional immigration system and recognize how immigrants benefit the rest of us with their labor. 

Perhaps there's room for a National Shut Up and Listen Day, to include even college campuses where opposing, usually conservative voices, have had hard time getting heard recently because someone's interpretation of political correctness won't allow it.

My definition of political correctness—respect and tolerance—would allow both, Ann Coulter and Bill Maher to say their piece. Those who choose, could go listen to them, politely. 

Those who can't stomach the thought, should ignore them. After all, being ignored is the one thing provocateurs hate the most.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Governing is not at all like running a business

Pretending that government can be run like a business
is foolish for both politicians and the country. 

During last year's presidential jamboree, and Ross Perot's short-lived run for president in 1992, I heard many friends say—sometimes pounding their fists on the table for emphasis—that what America needed was someone who could run the country like a business!

Presumably that person would cut waste, use the latest business accounting principles to balance the budget and perform other miracles that would "drain the swamp" as someone famously said.

The problem, as President Trump keeps demonstrating time and again, is that running the government and a business are not the same thing. 

For a preacher to promise to run his church with the same sharp eye and efficiency as the hardware store next door—as if consoling distraught widows and selling lawn mowers required roughly similar skills—would be dismissed as laughable.   

Little guy with big charts.

A significant part of the problem with Trump's chaotic presidency so far is that he does not have the political experience to temper his expectations and those of his supporters, and to muddle through the tedious consensus-building legislative process. 

That process is not necessarily a sign of incompetence or bureaucratic torpor but of how things work in a participatory democracy. We're not America, Inc. or worse, an autocracy like Russia run by Trump's bro', Vladimir Putin.  

Add to that Trump's profound ignorance of basic national and international affairs and his reported aversion to reading and learning, and you've got a White House operation that looks and sounds like someone running nuts and bolts through a blender. 

In Trumplandia—before he moved to the White House—I suspect corporate budgets, projects and deals were prepared and approved, and pronto, behind closed doors. Trump didn't have to deal with public opinion polls or the unrelenting scrutiny of the media. If the v.p. of something or other didn't perform to his satisfaction,Trump could can him or her without worrying about public outcries, congressional hearings or special prosecutors. If you didn't want to make public your tax returns or some details of your business wheelings and dealings, hey, so you didn't.

Politics and democratic government require lobbying, negotiation, compromises and most of all finesse and time, none of them skills Trump seems to have. Building a consensus among your supporters and even with the opposition is a necessary part of getting your agenda enacted. 

Even the most worthwhile pieces of legislation can get caught in the Washington meat grinder if you fail to take your time and consult with all the appropriate poobahs, agencies and departments, and even some of the lower-level tadpoles in the bureaucratic swamp. 

During a press conference following former FBI director James Comey's testimony before the Senate, House Speaker Paul Ryan offered perhaps the lamest defense of the continuing debacle that is the Trump administration. 

"He's new to government," Ryan said. "And so he probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationship between DOJ, FBI and the White House. He's just new to this." 

So ladies and gentlemen, next time shome business whiz promises to set the listing ship of government by using corporate expertise and algorithms, run the opposite the way. And if the person is crooked and dishonest to boot, run twice as fast. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Recent discoveries in cat feeding

Does our cat suffer from "whisker fatigue"?
Is that more interesting than politics? 

With America as troubled as she is, riven by political intrigue and class warfare, and my brain's capacity for bad news almost at the limit, my attention has turned lately to more recondite items in the daily newscycle.

For example, did you catch the June 1 report that scientists had detected the collision of two black holes that resulted "in a pit of infinitely deep darkness weighing as much as 49 suns, some three billion light-years from [earth]?

Not as thrilling, I'll grant you, as the Cubs winning their first World Series in what felt like a billion years, but kind of interesting nevertheless. 

But at least trying to figure out the business with the black holes kept my mind, albeit briefly, from obsessing about what former FBI Director James Comey might reveal about President Trump, if anything, in his testimony before the Senate tomorrow. 

Only four days after the news of the black hole smash-up, I ran into another fascinating—kind of— article about a disorder in cats known as "whisker fatigue" that might explain why cats make such a big deal about eating, and coincidentally, about another feline problem known as "cat acne." 

Whisker fatigue occurs when a cat's sensitive whiskers rub against the sides of a food bowl that is too deep. Cat acne arises when their chins rub against cheap plastic food bowls harboring bacteria. 

At first, some cat owners and vets scoffed at such problems, much less the need to buy specially designed cat food dishes, but they eventually were persuaded. Of course, someone now is marketing a bowl that reduces the heartbreak of both maladies, starting at $19.95. 
Stew and I were intrigued with this report—the hell with Comey and Trump, we said—because our sixteen-year-old cat Paco seems to be getting crankier by the day about eating and about life in general.

We picked up Paco at the pound in Chicago, where we found him waiting helplessly in a cage apart from the rest of the cats up for adoption. 

Potential health problem: Notice Paco's
whiskers rubbing against the food bowl. 
We didn't know the significance of Paco's isolation until a couple of weeks later when we discovered to our dismay that he was afflicted with Urinary Misfire Syndrome (UMS). 

It's a chronic problem that causes him to miss the litter box when he pees. Paco will hit a bullseye about three-quarters of the time but other times miss by a several inches on any side of the box. 

We've consulted with various authorities, including Martha Stewart's former pet expert Marc Morrone who suggested something by e-mail that didn't work. 

Over a period of years, we reluctantly concluded that maybe Paco is just not too bright.

In his dotage, Paco has picked up a couple of other problems. He's grown tired of preening himself so his long and fine black fur is clumping up in dreadlocks that I have to trim while I watch television and he sits contentedly on my lap purring.  

Recently Paco's fussiness about food also has increased markedly. We know because Paco is not one to suffer in silence. He'll either meow in protest at the top of his lungs, walk away from his food dish or bat it on the floor if he doesn't like the selection.  

Stew has attempted several different feeding trials: Cat food in foil bags, Whiskas versus Felix brand, stringy cat food instead of the clumpy, pâté-style, dry vs. canned. 

The most promising discovery came recently when Stew determined Paco really, really likes ham. Not any cheap kind, but top-shelf pork ham, sliced very thinly and cut into bite-size pieces about a half-inch square.

We know because in anticipation of his next serving of ham Paco walks around frantically, as if he'd snorted some crystal meth, and lets out high-pitched little meows that I think mean "Give me ham!" in feline lingo.

Apart from being expensive, Paco also vacuums the ham so quickly that it causes him to throw up later, so that's not the solution.

Oh, boy, I can't wait until the Comey hearings tomorrow. What time do they start, I wonder.

So the news about whisker fatigue and chin acne came at a good time. Paco is a likely sufferer of the whisker business because he has very long white whiskers that are noticeable against his otherwise completely black fur.

This morning we tried two different dishes, one stainless steel about four-and-a-half inches in diameter, and a plastic Whiskas dish we got free and is shaped like a cat's face, with two ears sticking out on top. We are grateful to be retired and have so much available time.

Nice dish, where's the food?
Results are inconclusive but seem to indicate that Paco generally doesn't much care about the size or material of the dish, as much as what's in it.

We were going to try some other dishes, but Paco got bored and just sauntered off dismissively, oblivious to us calling his name.

But wait, I just found out the details. The Comey hearings before the Senate's Intelligence Committee start at nine a.m. Central time.

I might tune in once in a while at least, unless two more black holes collide or there's a report of a cure for that annoying UMS syndrome in cats.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ready for their close-up

Félix and Lucy await a 
possible brush with celebrity

subscribe to a relatively new magazine called Modern Farmer whose editorial focus, I think, is to explore new frontiers in farming and food production, with frequent asides on environmental news and politics. It's very slickly produced, including stunning photography of sometimes exotic farm animals such as Malaysian chickens, and goats the likes of which you've never seen around your neighborhood.

A Malaysian hen: Ya talkin' to me?
As a former journalist I enjoy leafing through such a beautiful publication, even if growing new-fangled varieties of fava beans is not at the top of my agenda.

Indeed, on occasion Modern Farmer features might seem borderline pornographic to someone my age.

Take a twenty-something couple who tires of the Wall Street hedge fund grind and spends last year's bonus check on matching bib overalls and pitchforks, and buys an abandoned farm somewhere in Pennsylvania where they experiment with wind-powered goat-milking equipment.

Fascinating, yes, but far-fetched to a gay couple in their late sixties retired at a small ranch in Mexico and who can barely keep tomato and zucchini seedlings from keeling over.

Still, a recent email from MF offered the possibility of us connecting with the avant-garde farm set. The magazine wants photos of farm dogs and what better subject that our own mutt Lucy, with Félix, our gardener extraordinaire?

We got Lucy as a puppy ten years ago from someone who'd found her abandoned by the side of a road. She has developed into a splendid sixty-pound ranch dog, who guards the place with an authoritative bark and is the undisputed leader of a pack of another six dogs, two of which belong to Félix and come to work with him every day.

Lucy has even been injured on the line of duty, when she got bit by a rattler and her snout swelled as if had a baseball caught in her mouth.

Below is the picture I submitted. Feel free to solicit, write, harass and otherwise lobby Modern Farmer to put this irresistible duo in the magazine. Tell them Lucy sent you.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The United States just pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement. So what?

Trump's decision is cynical and stupid, but this 
environmentalist just can't get worked up about it. 

Last night it rained at the ranch, furiously, but only for an hour. It was hardly enough to officially end the dry season but comforting to hear that the clouds haven't forgotten their function is not just to decorate the sky. 

The rain came after a couple of days of worldwide condemnation of Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate change accord. 

It's cynical political pandering for Trump to pretend his decision will bring back dying sectors of the U.S. economy, most notably coal. The foundries of South Chicago and Pittsburgh are dead and gone and it's contemptible and cruel to lead workers in those industries to hope otherwise. 

It's also embarrassing for Americans to witness their country join hands with Syria and Nicaragua as the only three nations in the world to reject the agreement. Cooped up in a phone booth with the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Daniel Ortega—on any issue—is not where the president of the U.S. ought to be, even if by now most people agree that Trump waddles to a different drummer. 

More important, his attempt to put the environmental movement in reverse, including the rapid growth of green industries and energy conservation, is not going to get much traction. 

New York is not going to junk its fleet of clean and fuel-efficient hybrid taxicabs in favor of belching, eight-cylinder Crown Victorias. Nor is the electric industry's march toward natural gas, and wind, solar and other renewables, going to recede to make way for King Coal's return. 

But Apocalypse sooner? Not by a long shot. 

Yet the constant alarm over climate change has taken a toll on my brain—and patience too.

                                                                                    (National Geographic photo)
A couple of years ago, Stew and I saw writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz on TV being asked for her reaction to some climate-related catastrophe predicted to occur some fifty years in the future. She looked at her wristwatch and said, "Meh. Don't worry about it!" 

I tend to agree. 

When we built our house in Mexico eight years ago, Stew and I went to considerable lengths and extra expense to build a green house. 

We carefully positioned it on a small hill to capture the sun's warmth during the winter; employed adobe bricks made a couple of miles from here, rocks from the site to build the foundations and clay roof tiles rescued from an abandoned building. We insulated the concrete roof with a layer of volcanic rock, and included clerestory windows and skylights to provide cross-ventilation during the summer. We put in a rain collection system and a large cistern that provides much of our water. We use solar energy for our electricity and hot water, in addition to water-conserving plumbing fixtures and drip irrigation in our garden. 

All this effort has worked splendidly well. The only external energy input is propane for cooking gas and space heaters during the winter. 

Two world-famous Donalds. 
By now, though, I'm tired of the constant din of climate changers predicting an imminent end to the world. I feel as if we've done all we can. We already gave at the office. We don't want to spend the rest of our lives biting our fingernails. And so on.

As for Trump, if he wanted to confirm his position as a world-class fool, he's succeeded admirably. Too bad he had to tarnish American leadership and reputation in the world along the way. 


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Where's home, anyway?

After eleven years here, Mexico should
be home to us. But it's not that simple. 

In a recent post, fellow blogger Steve Cotton wondered if his house on Mexico's Pacific Coast was a "home" or merely a "house."

For expats that's not a fatuous question. Stew and I vote in Chicago, our last foothold in the U.S.; have a private mailbox in Laredo, Texas, where get our mail and which functions as our official address in the U.S. We visit the U.S. regularly, mostly San Antonio, to attend to medical matters, shop and watch movies not likely to make it to San Miguel.

A uniquely Mexican moment: A fully
attired ten-year-old mariachi singer
belts out a song at memorial service
for the sister of a good friend. 
But our house, which we planned meticulously and built eight years ago, and which we've referred to on occasion as our "forever house," is in Mexico.  It's a space in which I feel totally comfortable, all the more because I share it with my husband, five dogs and two cats.

The surrounding seven-and-a-half acres are equally beautiful: A walk outside with the dogs early in the morning, at sunset, or on a starry night will readily flush any bad moods out of my head.
And yet it feels like a walled-in resort. The minute I step outside the gate, I find myself in Mexico, a country I'm not emotionally attached to or whose flag I salute. Fascinating and beautiful as it is, it's not home. 

Some expat friends vehemently claim to live immersed in Mexico and its culture. Except in the case of a few long-termers who have a Mexican spouses and children, I don't believe such conversion stories.

Fact is the vast majority of expats here live in an airtight bubble inside of which they find all the elements needed to survive while remaining American, including restaurants, churches, clubs and volunteer organizations where they can socialize with other expats—all in English.

I'd bet that at least sixty percent of the expats in San Miguel don't know enough Spanish to order take-out pizza—except from Pizza Pig, whose owner is from Iowa.

When they first arrive, expats get caught in the frisson of Mexico's foreignness, and excitedly attend and photograph every one of San Miguel's parades, processions and fiestas.

But by the second or third of year of noise, traffic jams and incessant fireworks, the thrill wanes and it all becomes, truth be told, annoying as hell. During these events, some expats may leave town until the racket is over.

It's crossed my mind to write a Mexican version of the delightful "A Year in Provence," by Peter Mayle. Stew and I certainly have more than enough anecdotes and adventures, humorous and otherwise, to take me through the first one hundred pages.

Problem is that unlike Mayle I have haven't met enough Mexicans who have invited me into their homes and vice-versa, to populate the rest of the book.

Despite clichés of happy-go-lucky Mexicans chanting "mi casa es su casa" on their front step to every passerby, I have found Mexicans to be unfailingly polite and formal, but also reticent and leery of strangers.

As much as I've walked through the towns near our ranch, I still can expect silent, perhaps curious glances, but no spontaneous "buenos días" or even a shy smile.

There's an obvious economic divide: Just about about every Mexican within shouting distance of our place is very poor. Maybe it's that poverty, and widespread illiteracy, that forms an impenetrable moat around our ranch which, from the neighbors' perspective, must look like a Newport mansion.

The one exception, of course, is Félix, our gardener, dog-minder, security guard and community affairs advisor. We've been invited to all of his family's events, including weddings, baptisms, first communions and most movingly, the funeral of his grandmother whom he mourned deeply.

I have spoken to or read blogs from some Americans whose attachment to Mexico seems to be based on a deep resentment toward the U.S. and everything American. Quite often these self-avowed political exiles swear Mexico is their last stand yet can't stop talking or writing about all things American, particularly politics.

Others I know migrated to Mexico largely for economic reasons.

Neither Stew nor I share such views or issues. We're proud to be Americans even in this time of partisan warfare back home.

We inhale American culture—movies, news, commentary, books and art—largely through the internet, yet know hardly anything about similar subjects in Mexico.

We retired in Mexico because we were tired of northern winters, the very high cost of living in Chicago, and the monotony of America's consumer culture, which can make the country look like one continuous strip mall, from Chicago to San Antonio to Ft. Lauderdale.

Mexico was, and is still is, a different and exciting place to live, that can still offer moments of heart-stopping magic, such as the full-lung serenade by a ten-year-old fully dressed in a mariachi outfit during the memorial for a sister of a good friend. You don't get moments like that back home.

Yet after all these years Mexico remains fascinating but foreign.


Monday, May 29, 2017

A Vietnam memory on Memorial Day

How talking to a young serviceman
rekindled an old serviceman's pride
Vietnam may have receded so far in the past that few Americans remember how badly G.I's were treated when they returned home. It's a fading memory, except for us, the veterans of that war. 

I still remember yard signs in 1967 and 1968 that read "Sailors and Dogs, keep off the Grass" and taunts when we wore our uniform in public. Most of us do not want to discuss or relive our Vietnam experiences because we were often blamed for the conflict.

An encounter with a young Navy man last week during a flight from San Diego rekindled my pride in having served. My seatmate was a young Navy man, just as I had been, and we talked about our different roles and experiences in the service. His pride in serving his country was obvious as we chatted for an hour or so about his pursuit of a Navy career. 

As we departed the plane, he touched my arm, looked at me and said: "Thank you for your service." I was so startled I got a lump in my throat and could barely whisper: "Thank you too, young man," as tears came to my eyes.  

Our nation's pride in its military men and women today is moving, particularly this recognition of those of us who served in Vietnam.

Fred York
U.S. Navy, 1964-68
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico 

(Fred is a good friend who lives in San Miguel with his husband Ron. He submitted this letter to the editor of the San Antonio Express-News.)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The elephant in the room stirs again

Security in Mexico worries expats but 
we don't even want to talk about it. 

On March 13 a woman friend was kidnapped in broad daylight in downtown San Miguel. She's still missing. The event was confirmed by the U.S. Consular Agent here, who passed on the news to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. 

But for several days afterward local law enforcement officials maintained they didn't know about any kidnapping or have any "credible information." Call later, we're out to lunch. 

Stew and I heard of the kidnapping of our friend on Monday.

In fact someone on the Civil List, an expat internet bulletin board, had reported the kidnapping early on. Dozens of postings with theories, conjectures and opinions flooded the site and eventually the moderator cut off the conversation thread. Shut up already.

Crime and personal safety in Mexico are the topic of endless questioning by people back in the U.S. and a puzzle to us living here too. We just don't know.

Lack of reliable information is at the heart of the problem. Most Mexicans I have spoken with have little use for the police, which they consider corrupt and useless. So most crimes are not reported and there's a dearth of basic forensic information, such as DUI arrests, assaults and even home invasions. 

A year or so ago, an American couple who lives about ten miles from us, was robbed and pistol-whipped. The husband suffered serious injuries to one eye. The couple duly filed complaints and other requisite paperwork with the police and the Ministerio Público, the local version of the State Attorney's Office. I don't recall that a word of this incident appeared in the local newspaper. 

And although the identity of the assailants was known by everyone in this small community, the police did nothing to nab them. The culprits, who are also suspect of a burglary of another American's home nearby, remain at large. Forget about it and move on. 

Police generally don't respond to requests for information—assuming they have any—on grounds that any disclosures might upset delicate investigative machinations in progress. Don't ask because they won't tell.

A more informal code of silence, most often called denial, operates among expats too. 

Several years ago, a woman who has since left left town—but who long reigned as an oracle on all things San Miguel—vehemently insisted to me the death of an elderly man had been caused by a stroke rather than foul play, even though the poor guy had been stabbed several times and his place ransacked. Hell of a stroke that was.  

Worse still, some expats try to reassure themselves by inventing alternative motives and scenarios. In the case of our friend, someone told me he had met her and "she looked like a bitch," a remark both cruel and offensive. Blame the victim. 

"So she deserved to be kidnapped?" I asked.

In all fairness, the local police does respond to traffic accidents with two or three patrol cars, flashing lights and uniformed personnel who fill out all the forms, summon an ambulance or a tow truck and usually tie up traffic for hours. On some holidays the Mexican army also will deploy trucks with helmeted, masked soldiers caressing heavy weaponry, as if a Sandinista invasion were imminent. 

I doubt the local police is actively working on solving the kidnapping of our frie nor do I expect the kidnappers will eventually be arrested and punished. Far more likely my friend's family will work out some ransom deal and she will be released unharmed. We fervently hope so. 

But wait. Someone just told me the kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity, and that the real target was a very wealthy woman who has since left for the U.S. What happens now?

Meanwhile, last night four taxi drivers were murdered and two more wounded on the outskirts of San Miguel, in a bizarre execution-style shootout. Will we know who's responsible? Not holding my breath. 


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

When the Succulents come out to play

Despite their often gruff appearance,
succulents have a tender, flowery heart

Succulents are split-personality plants, scornful and hostile one day, inviting and flirtatious the next. Cacti, a member of the succulent family, in particular sport razor thorns that warn strangers not to come near, but then, maybe the next day, or month or year, will set seductive flowers that whisper, "Come closer and look at me, baby."

This most common succulent is
a "mother in law's tongue" or "snake
plant." Most common until this
morning, when it sprouted
a beautiful plume of flowers. 
Ever since we moved to the ranch about seven years ago, we've collected a motley and growing group of succulents, some of which we keep in pots, others outside in the ground. At first, our attraction to succulents was a response to the semi-arid terrain around us which stifles all but the hardiest vegetation. We get a fair amount of annual precipitation, between twenty and twenty-five inches, but it comes in one three- to four-month drench.

The rest of the year, when there's practically no rain, and even a few nights below freezing, it's a game of survival. There's no time for showing off, and succulents turn inward, living off the rain they've stored in their fleshy leaves or wherever. Many succulents, even some bowling ball-size barrel cacti, don't make it.

Right now, after a couple of decent rains, the survivors are coming alive and celebrating by popping flowers, but you need to pay attention because many of these enchanting displays are but one-night affairs.

Yesterday afternoon a potted cactus sitting by the dining room door sent off an amazing white flower, that this morning awakened modestly folded up.

It might reopen tonight or be gone forever. I've even read of succulents whose flowers open up only at night, when they mount their own private show under the moonlight.

This elusive flower, atop a nasty-looking cactus,
opened last night, folded this morning but now
it's open again. Who knows. 
Before you conclude I'm a seasoned succulent-ologist, let me make it clear that my cactus collection is a most unscientific and garbled affair. I don't know the names of ninety percent of my succulents. The botanical names are too weird to remember, even when I manage to pin them down.

For example, the Euphorbia gang, like the sparrow family, seems to have a hundred different members, sometimes very similar to one another, other times not at all alike.
Too much for an old brain. If anyone reads this and wants to submit corrections to my botanical Latin, please go for it. I won't be offended.

Félix and I call this a "brain cactus." That's all we
know, other than it's beautiful. 
I troll the local nurseries looking for any succulent I like and don't have. I've found some samples while traveling in Michoacán, Guerrero or Mexico City. Succulents and cacti are tough to find because they are slow-growing and the profit margins are thin, and apparently not many people are interested in them.

That's too bad. Succulents are hardy plants, require little water or attention and can sit on a window sill minding their own business when the weather is miserable outside.

They'll keep their distance but one day, when you least expect it, present you with the most beautiful bouquet.

I believe this guy belongs to the
"mammilaria" family. Right now it's
setting tiny purple flowers.

This cactus, about the size of a baseball, looks like a miniature barrel cactus. It's about to set flowers, probably bright purple, that will cover its head. 

The cascading number is a common
"donkey's tail" or 'Sedum
Morganianum", probably after someone
last-named Morgan.  I don't know
the names of the other ones. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Looking at an alder, early in the morning

Early in the day is not the time to make plans
but rather to contemplate what's around you

It may sound odd, particularly to those still employed, but the freedom to do nothing when one retires brings a certain guilt, not to mention boredom. What should we do to justify our consumption of the earth's oxygen and sunlight during the next twenty-four hours?

Most retirees in San Miguel seem to embrace hobbies, volunteering and socializing with a fury, as if any blank space in their calendars were a mortal sin.

During her late eighties, her physical faculties failing, my mom counseled me that "you've just got to do something to pass the time." So she knitted, went on trips with other old people, attended classes. It's a simplistic-sounding regimen that sure beats depression, drinking or other fake ways to replace what used to be the nine-to-five grind.

Even after eleven years, occasionally I find that retirement—having the freedom to do whatever I want, including nothing—can be stressful in its own right.

Following Stew's lead, a few months ago I began jotting down daily "to-do" lists in a small red notebook. The lists became a mixture of what really didn't really need doing, with a few urgent items that called for more time that was available during my waking hours.

A couple of years ago my friend Fred was visiting and he said "I bet you come out here on the terrace and have a cup of coffee every morning." In fact, I never did, in no small measure because I was dealing with my to-do lists.

Anyone who's visited our house marvels at the views from our back terrace: A sloping valley below, covered with black soil awaiting sowing, or later on in the season, stalks of corn swaying in the breeze; small herds of sheep and cattle lumbering around, going one way in the morning and returning at sunset; a man-made lake behind that; and still farther away, partially hidden behind a bluish haze, a small mountain range.

It's an amazing grace to have that spectacle right beyond our terrace,  a shame we don't take more time to enjoy it.

So, following Fred's advice, this week I've been crawled out of bed before my second cup of coffee and sat in an old patio chair for a half-hour, forty-five minutes, to contemplate the landscape to my left, and to my right, the rays of sunlight flickering  through the alder abutting our terrace, the leaves always shaking nervously at the slightest breeze.

Thanks for the reminder, Fred.

It's not all quiet, though. The five dogs have quickly caught on to my routine and now come discreetly, one by one by one, and lick my right elbow and demand a scratch on the chin or a pat on the head, followed by a few kind words they will not understand but enjoy thoroughly anyway. From there, they go on with the rest of their days, which include mostly nothing interrupted by eating and few barks now and again.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Stop spreading the news

In today's toxic political climate, 
not knowing what's going on may be 
the best way to retain your sanity.

By all rights those of us who have retired in Mexico behind the Tortilla Curtain should be spared the political chatter and acrimony that permeates even conversations at strip bars back home.

But even here, seven hundred miles south of the border, every cheer and groan by both liberals and conservatives continues to disturb our retirement calm, thanks to the internet, social websites and satellite TV. 

Internet news sites in particular, popping up on our tablets first thing in the morning, get our guts churning even before we get out of bed.

Good morning! has been replaced by For God's sakes, what now?

Once upon a time the internet promised a limitless horizon of information, including current events, that would help broaden our intellectual and political perspectives. 

Instead it has created a myriad "confirmation loops" that people tap into to essentially hear what they want to hear. You've got your Breitbart News and I have our Huffington Post (though the latter tends to concentrate a bit more on facts than delusional conspiracies).

Today we can presume to be informed without having opposing voices rattle our intellectual cages. 

Can't read a damn thing? That's perfect. Go read
a book instead. You'll feel better. 
During the presidential campaign, and especially after Donald Trump was elected, Facebook turned into a hysterical—and bipartisan—playpen, though most people, of course, modulated whose posts they wanted to read and respond to, and so safely kept noodling their own biases.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a medical doctor who  during the past twenty years has written a raft of books about new age lifestyles and diets, has proposed the notion of a "news fast."

He argues that news from whatever source is so anxiety-inducing that for the sake of your mental health it's best, once in a while, to tune it all out for a week or longer. 

It's not just abstaining from politics, but news of any kind, about political assassinations in far away countries or families weeping because their mobile home was blown over by a tornado.  

That made sense to me, even at the risk of sounding like a disconnected zombie at my next social engagement.

However, kicking the "newsbite" habit can be as hard as quitting smoking. I can't follow through for more than two or three days. 

An article last month in The Guardian—which naturally came to me via the paper's e-mail daily news summary—argued that "news is bad for you, and giving up reading it will make you happier." 

The author's arguments are persuasive and extensive: News misleads, has no explanatory power, inhibits thinking and may even be harmful to your body, among other deleterious effects. 

For me, the biggest frustration with news is the feeling of powerlessness—horrible things are happening and there's nothing I can do about them, except maybe write another check to Doctors Without Borders, so it can attend to the next natural disaster at a Third World nation I've never heard of. 

Still, I intend to launch my indefinite news fast, soon. I've started by listening to nothing but Classic FM Nederland, an internet station that plays soothing  classical music and whose newscasts, in Dutch, I can't understand.

That should free up considerable time to finish "Red Notice," by Bill Browder, a real page-turner of a book, unfortunately with a news hook—the rampant corruption in Russia, America's new amigo. 

Stew, who may have started his own news diet without telling me, finished it and immediately slid into a story about the kings of Norway and Denmark during World War II. Bliss.

I encourage you to suppress your daily news intake and do some breathing meditation. It'll make feel better.

But just don't do it before you read David Brooks column today in the The New York Times. It's wickedly funny. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An early symphony of rain

The rainy season began last night. Maybe. 

The sis-bam-boom of thunder and lightning, and the crescendo of fat raindrops pounding the skylights, was a welcome spectacle last night, assuming it was the overture to this year's rainy season.

The all-night rain ranged from furious to gentle and back again but it never seemed to quit. Our cheapo rain gauge went missing, but judging by the amount of rain that collected in the dog water dish outside the kitchen door and the bird bath by one of the bedroom windows, we must have received at least one inch of precipitation.

Certainly it was enough to rinse off the roof of the house. Now we can shut off the two overflow valves so the next rain goes into the cistern under the terrace.

The rain also revivified the tender growth on some trees that appeared a month ago, but later had second thoughts and began to shrivel for lack of moisture, to straighten up and look alive.

I don't know if it happened last night during the rain but our young guava tree, only about a meter and a half tall, was sporting three small white-and-lavender flowers this morning.

Going from flower to fruit sometimes is a slow and tricky leap, so I'm not having visions of guava paste and cream cheese yet. We have cherry, plum and apricot trees that have flowered for the past three years but it was all a tease with no fruit following.

On Friday, contractors also had just finished resurfacing our  access road with a fresh coat of tepitate, a local sand-like dirt used for paving, and a good rainfall will help pack it down.

The only miscue on our part was the installation of an irrigation system that we finished last week. It seems superfluous now that we have entered the rainy season.

But have we?

Shush. Better not get too excited. Mid-May seems a little early for the rains to begin. Maybe climate change is speeding up the seasons.

I'd just better quit right now before I jinx this happy turn of events.