Sunday, February 26, 2017

The courageous profile of transgendered people

On the topic of transgenderism I declare myself to be naive, even ignorant, yet also profoundly persuaded by the courage of transgendered people.

Contrary to what some might think, gays don't have any inside information on the subject. I'm gay and have been in a relationship with a man for nearly forty-five years, but I've never known a transgendered person personally. Or maybe I have, their transition having been so successful I didn't even notice.

Unlike some folks who remember their school years, particularly high school, as a time of carefree joy, I recall a time of no small personal insecurity, when kids transition into adulthood and adult sexuality, amid fears of fitting in, being too fat or too skinny, pretty or not, too pimply or unpopular, or having sex for the first time. In my case I had to deal with the trifecta of trying to learn English, being the only Latino in my high school and being gay.

Yet I cannot imagine the travail of transgendered kids, who during their childhood or teenage years realize the sex checked on their birth certificate is the wrong one, and how they work through that reality with uncomprehending parents and school officials and classmates, and in some cases embark on hormone therapy and other medical interventions to reconcile their anatomies with their true gender identity. The strength of their personal conviction gives a new meaning to the Shakespearean injunction, "To thine own self be true."

Such transition takes a degree of self-awareness and courage I cannot imagine. These folks are not to be scorned, ostracized much less pitied, but rather admired and supported.

Instead we have national debate, supposedly about which bathroom transgendered students should use. Part of it I suspect is a rearguard campaign by conservative and religious groups not yet reconciled to the sea change in popular sentiment and the legal recognition of gay rights, including the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Arguments against acceptance of transgender people sometimes draw on the Bible—"God does not make mistakes" presumably including the sex with which a person is born—or fears of grown-up perverts entering the girls bathrooms to oogle at young girls. The latter scenario was used by Sen. Ted Cruz in commercials during the presidential primary. Shame on him. Are we ever going to tire of politics as an exercise in beating up on people different from ourselves?

It is transgendered kids who are in imminent danger, particularly from being bullied and tormented inside and outside of the school environments. In fact the rate of attempted suicides among transgendered youth is staggering, as high as thirty percent according to one study.

The protection of transgendered people shouldn't be left to vagaries of local interpretations and prejudices. As with any other types of individual rights, discrimination against transgendered people should be banned at the federal level.

I doubt I will ever fully understand the reasons behind the phenomenon of transgenderism, gender dysphoria and so on, and the anguish transgendered people must go through. But I am quite certain that they are individuals deserving of respect and admiration. They have mine.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A would-be Mexican superman

Ever since we hired Félix seven and a half years ago, when he showed up at our gate practically begging for any kind of a job, he's proven to be a source of both awe and sadness, one of the smartest, hardest working and most decent family guys I've ever encountered but one too who'll never amount to much for reasons entirely beyond his control.

Yesterday he brought a branch from a sycamore
 tree with the beginning of an infestation of muérdago, or mistletoe in English, an aggressive parasite that despite its cheery Christmasy name and attractive yellow flowers can take over and kill even a large tree in just a couple of seasons.

We walked over to the sycamore and he pointed to a few muérdago buds poised to begin their lethal careers. He explained how birds eat the seeds and then drop them on other trees. Wrapped in the bird's droppings, which the ever-polite Félix calls po-pó,  the seeds are also incredibly sticky, as if covered with mucilage, ready to adhere to the nearest host.

Félix with sycamore branch infected with muérdago
So Félix is now patrolling for muérdago, in addition to trees that are budding, or not, bird nests, snakes and any other signs of life or potential trouble in our ranch.  That along with remembering both the vernacular and botanical names of a myriad plants—how about nassela tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) which for some reason is spreading everywhere, or an ungainly pachipodium? He knows them all.

"Gomphrenas are coming up," he announced yesterday, pointing to half-inch plants popping out of the ground in one of our otherwise dormant flower beds. I could barely see the sprouts let alone recognize their identity.

Some of this horticultural information Félix picked up from a course on organic farming that I sent him to at the San Miguel Botanic Garden, and some of it has come from me as I show him internet articles (in Spanish whenever possible) or pass on whatever gardening information I have.

This morning I explained the difference between epiphytic plants that grab onto the host but otherwise live off the air and rain, such as orchids and air plants, and true parasites, like the muérdagos that invade the innards of whatever tree they land on.

Muerdago seed, small and brown and right in the middle of the
 photo, stuck on a branch of the sycamore and ready to go to work. 
How's Félix going to remember this arcana? Don't worry, he will. Even accounting for the fact that he's nearly forty years younger than me, that son-of-a-bitch has a curiosity, along with powers of observation and memory, and a brain to process the incoming data, that never ceases to amaze.

When he was still a teenager he entered the U.S. without papers and worked at various construction sites for a year before coming home complaining that he missed his family. That may have been the U.S.' loss and Mexico's gain.

Félix awesomeness is all the more so given the maelstrom of his upbringing. His father, he has told me when we've discussed alcoholism, was a down-and-out drunk who'd go missing for days only to show up without shoes or in soiled pants. The old man quit only when a doctor warned him he'd die soon otherwise. Even now, he suffers from severe diabetes, probably caused or aggravated by his alcoholism.

Epiphytic air plants attached to a huizache tree. 
Of Félix' eleven siblings, five were stillborn or died very young, he's told me. Four of the seven survivors are illiterate, and of those, three show signs of mental disability. Félix limped along to complete the sixth grade before being enlisted to go find a job and help support the family.

Despite his obvious intelligence, Félix's writing and reading are labored (his grammar and spelling are marginal), and his arithmetic, which he says was his favorite subject, doesn't take him much farther than adding, subtracting and multiplication. Fractions, percentages and divisions are beyond his grasp.

With a wife and three children to support, there's virtually no chance of Félix going back to school, so hopes for the future rests on three kids. I've talked with Alondra and Edgar, and played with them on the computer, and they seem very sharp and quick to learn. But it'll be a miracle if Mexico's anemic and corrupt public education system carries them very far. To attend the prepa, a type of pre-college high school, they would have to travel to San Miguel by public bus, assuming they meet the entrance requirements. Let us pray for a miracle.

Small bud attached to the sycamore, which I thought was filled
with seeds of some sort. Félix says they are insect eggs, 

maybe butterflies.
This morning I offered Félix a small notebook computer Stew no longer uses and to teach him how to use the internet. To my surprise, he turned me down. "I'm just not interested," he said, but added he'd like his older kids to learn. So now we have to find an internet cafe or some other wifi connection in his village and someone to sit down with at least his nine-year-old daughter to teach her the basics of online searches and using email, or just becoming familiar with a keyboard.

We often hear or read about singular human beings who rise above tougher-than-tough circumstances to become movie actors, scientists or teachers. But beyond being momentarily inspired or moved, we then forget about the other ninety-nine percent of the potential sharpies who never make it and what a shame that is—for them and for the rest of the world.


Monday, February 20, 2017

San Miguel's Fake Spring

While our compatriots back home suffer through daily charges and countercharges of "fake news," in San Miguel we're in the middle of our fake spring, a teaser season that comes about three months before the rains and the real spring arrives. 

Fake spring brings warmer temperatures, mid seventies at midday and mid forties at midnight, and plenty of sun, which prompts some wild bushes to flower and the bees in our three hives to stir and dive-bomb any blooms in sight. But it's really just a ruse by nature to get us to go outside and look around. 

Jarrilla bushes lead our fake springs
"This is the worst time of the year," said Stew last week, as we walked through the landscape of brown weeds and leafless trees that cover most of the yard. The weeds in particular are prime kindling for brush fires that tend to burn uncontrolled. They are also hiding places for rabbits, snakes, mice and other critters.

"Not so!" I heard some bees yell back at Stew, as they merrily attacked a few trees and bushes already flowering. The yellow blossoms that nearly cover the jarrilla bushes almost vibrate from the commotion of the frantic bees. Some small butterflies are also reconnoitering for flowers.

For people, the beautiful jarrillas are a mixed blessing. They have a vaguely putrid smell and can cause an allergic reaction, and if you get too close you risk getting stung by some crazed bee. Still, along with the huizaches, a gnarly, thorny relative of mesquites, I'm thankful for these two wild bushes for providing a much needed shot of color this time of year.

Huizaches, thorny but beautiful
That's not all. Last week Félix noticed that our peach trees also are flowering and our pata de vaca, or cow's foot tree, has a few delicate lavender blossoms. The magnolia is also nurturing some huge buds that will turn into floppy white flowers. In addition, Félix walked into the kitchen yesterday with a four-inch asparagus and news that more are on the way.

This year's fake spring was spurred by a very mild winter—I don't recall a single frost—and a couple of faint drizzles, or chipi-chipis, as I heard one Mexican call them.

A few months back I read that fruit trees need to be pruned to promote fruiting this year and healthier foliage the next. News to me and Félix.

So I checked the internet and pulled out pruning instructions in English and Spanish. We still are not sure what's the proper way to prune, to help rather than disfigure the tree, so we proceeded very gently.

Pruning is a heartless business. One set of instructions said that as much as forty percent of the branches need to go, something Félix and I felt was a bit excessive, even cruel. Except for the lone apricot, our other fruit trees already have flowers and even tiny fuzzy peaches.

The first of this year's peaches
I read too that when the fruits arrive in earnest one should pinch off four out of five babies to ensure production of one large fruit instead of four tiny ones. In past years we've gotten tasty but stunted peaches the size of golf balls. Production wasn't helped when our dogs devised a game of standing on their hind legs and pulling off the low-hanging fruits.

Amid the exuberant peaches we also have one apricot, cherry and plum tree, all about four years old. They have produced zero fruit, despite my consultations of the internet and my gardening books. Maybe this will be the year. An Israeli variety of apple called "Anna," that was supposedly adapted to our harsh soil, died two years ago and its soul went back to Jerusalem. A year-old guava tree is leafing nicely but so far not flowering.

Either way, yesterday Félix and I pruned all the fruit trees the best we could, and fertilized and watered them. Onwards.

Asparagus (asparaguses? asparagi?) are popping up too. Félix discovered the tiny spears, all but the width of a pencil, and Stew ate one of them and pronounced it delicious.

That's a good omen for the next gardening season, three months or so from now when every inch of landscape around will turn kelly green and we will have forgotten the impatience and frustrations of our fake springs.

Palomita, one of Félix' two dogs, already has started working
on her tan. She's one of the world's great mutts. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A week at the beach, without Gladys

We had taken her on our yearly one-week stay at the beach only twice but already it had become a family tradition. Of an undeterminate age, except old; or breed, other than a street mutt, the ever-chunkier Gladys had learned to jump excitedly on the back seat of the car, do a few tight turns and claim a small space amid the plastic coolers, suitcases, sundry groceries and junk. We are off to the beach!
One the road again. 

Gladys was a perfect traveler. During the first two hours of the then eight-hour trip (now seven thanks to a new road), she'd peer out the car windows as if she were taking in the views or getting ready to offer driving directions. Once we had to stop at a tire shop to get a flat fixed, and she kept an eye on the mechanic as if to be sure all the work was done properly. But after a while she would just curl up and go to sleep except for pit stops for coffee, gas and sanitarios.

Cynics out there would snark that Stew and I were just putting thoughts in her head and that Gladys was just happy to ride in the car to the beach, a hardware store or anywhere. That may have been true the first time, but I'm sure not the second time. By then she knew she was headed to a week in the sand during which she would be the sole attraction.

Dogs remember memorable events, and some are etched in their brains in capital letters, in between exclamation marks. When she was barely a year old, Lucy one of our other dogs, got a stick of butter and devoured the entire thing in about ten seconds. Hmm, good. I'm sure to this day she has a tiny neon sign in her head that urgently flashes ¡MANTEQUILLA! whenever Stew is making toast our using butter in the kitchen.

Likewise, after her first outing Gladys had her own alarm inside her cranium: ¡PLAYA! Upon arrival she darted towards the sand and the shoreline, no directions needed. This ain't no hardware store!

Our beach of choice is Barra de Potosí, a fishing village with an ever-growing chain of private homes and small hotels about a twenty-minute drive south of Zihuatanejo. The beautiful beach is almost deserted and the few walkers or joggers often have their dogs in tow, deliriously running and sometimes jumping into the ocean. The star of the show during our stay last week was a seventy- or eighty-pound black Labrador-ish named Chapulín ("Grasshopper") that couldn't get enough of the sea and kept doing an impression of body surfing.

On our first trip we kept Gladys on a leash, afraid she might get into a fight with other dogs, but we soon realized they were all having too good a time to bother with intra-canine brawls. Besides, Gladys would rather chase crows that from her perspective must have looked like B-52s, or scare one the delicate white herons tiptoeing at the water's edge. Of course she never caught anything. None of the dogs did. But the running around sure was a blast.

At sunset, when every creature seemed to slow down to a more contemplative pace, Gladys did too. She might exchange a last-minute sniff with a dog passing by but that was it. Finally she would lie down on the sand quietly and look at the dazzling display of a fireball growing ever larger and then plunging below the horizon.

What was she thinking? Who knows. Was she marveling at the beauty before her? Her good fortune that two humans found her in a parking lot after someone had abandoned her? Or that for one week she enjoyed our undivided attention, having her belly rubbed or head scratched endlessly, with no competition from our other four younger and more nimble dogs?

Whatever was in her head I'm glad I took one last photo of her during these late-afternoon reveries. She surely didn't know, and neither did we, that would be her last trip to the beach and her last photo.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Raining cats and dogs, hallelujah!

Dogs and cats, of all sizes, ages and stripes, keep coming, in cardboard boxes or repurposed birdcages, at the end of frayed ropes, or wrapped in blankets in the arms of their owners. Freaked-out cats howl while some chihuahuas, bug-eyed and trembling, appear to be on the verge of an anxiety attack. For the return trip home, when their dogs might still be a bit woozy from the anesthetic, some owners come prepared with a wheelbarrow.

Which way to the groomer?
For the past ten years Stew and I have volunteered for the spay-and-neuter campaigns of Amigos de Animales, called "blitzes" and held twice or three times a year, and are surprised each year that the stream of dogs and cats showing up remains unabated.

That's good news on two fronts. Sterilizations reduce the number of unwanted and abandoned animals in San Miguel. Continuing demand for Amigos' services is also an indication Mexican pet owners are embracing the spay-and-neuter message.

At the blitzes owners are as varied as the pets: a fancy lady carrying a sweatered poodle; a macho rancher with a cowboy hat and boots escorting a German shepherd; grandmas dragging their equally weary-looking dogs. Most auspicious is the number of kids who bring in their dogs and cats.
At the two-day blitz held last weekend at a Lions Club in San Miguel, one hundred eighty animals were sterilized on Saturday, and another eighty one on Sunday. Since Amigos was formed fifteen years ago by Arno Naumann, an American expat born in Chile, approximately eighteen thousand three hundred animals have been sterilized at the blitzes and at Amigos' mobile clinic.

"Manchas" ("Spots") and his owner, waiting. 
Doors open at nine but the line begins to form an hour or more before. In Mexico, where waiting in line often seems like the national pastime, owners with their dogs and cats in tow are unfazed by the prospect of a two-hour wait. Street vendors take advantage of the captive clientele.

Stew and I are in charge of weighing all the animals, an important job because weight determines the amount of anesthesia administered. It also gives us the chance to meet each prospective patient and its owner, and provide a leash if the animal comes without one.

Few pure-bred pets show up, though this year we saw at least three pugs, an Irish setter and two litters of blue-eyed Australian shepherds, probably ten in all. Approximately sixty percent of the animals are dogs and the rest cats.

But it's mostly a cavalcade of mutts and generics that defy any categorization. Some are timid, others friendly or scared, very few are aggressive or biters. Some really nervous patients leave behind a memento of their visit. Cats are placed in nylon mesh shopping bags to prevent their escape and to facilitate handling and the injections of anesthetic.

Under the influence: Pug waiting to be sterilized. 
I kept track of names this year and found some good ones. In an homage to the Orient, a pair of cats were named Yin and Yan, and another one Mao. Interspecies monikers included Abeja ("Bee"), an angst-ridden chihuahua called Lobo ("Wolf"), and a cat named Nemo. Some owners tried their hand at English names: Kreysie and Yak (Jack?). Hollywood was represented by a bitch named Zsa-Zsa and a German shepherd called Doris, and astronomy by two cats called Luna and Venus. My favorite was a cat named Fu. "Fu what?" I asked. Nothing, just Fu.

Almost all of Amigos' funding comes from American donors, though some owners leave small donations as they leave. The vets used to be all local volunteers but most of them are now provided by the State of Guanajuato's Health Department.

A friendly hand: Cat in the recovery area.
By eleven o'clock, the assembly line-like operation is running at full steam—owners waiting for the animals to be anesthetized; vet trainees shaving the bellies (or whatever) of the animals; a team of ten vets doing the surgeries; plus owners petting their pets lying in the recovery area. The room begins to look like a bus station, except for the quiet. Occasionally an animal not happy to be injected will shriek, but otherwise the atmosphere is surprisingly calm. As they leave, owners are presented with a small blanket.

Two, possibly three more blitzes are planned for this year, in addition to the mobile clinic making the rounds twice a month of some of the poorer neighborhoods or outlying rural towns.

If the past is any indication, dogs and cats will continue to rain on the spay-and-neuter campaigns of Amigos de Animales. Hallelujah to that.

Cat in a bag waiting to be registered.

The young leading the young. 
I'm ready to go home, how about you?

A rancher pets his German shepherd. 

This guy is seriously scared.