Friday, March 31, 2017

Real friendships are forever

Sometimes we receive letters, or more likely emails nowadays, from which we instinctively turn away before we're done reading.

Such was the email Stew and I received yesterday from Vickie, a dear friend for more than forty years, telling us she'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That's a bad type of cancer, I thought initially, as if there were any good cancers. "For Chrissake!" was Stew's reaction.

Her pancreatic cancer, though, was detected in the very early stages and there's a good chance, or so we hope, it can be arrested or even eradicated through chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments.

This latest problem follows a series of other major illnesses and encounters with cancer Vickie has had that would have knocked out a person with less resilience and resolve.

Living among retired expats in San Miguel, most of them old, we should be used to such bad news. Church newsletters often read like casualty reports from the war against time, listing people who are sick, injured or near death, sometimes afflicted with maladies we've never heard of.

A tall, burly and handsome man in his early seventies, a former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is diagnosed with pulmonary melanoma. Isn't melanoma a skin cancer that is readily identified and treated? Apparently not. Wham!

Even so most of these people are acquaintances rather than close, long-time friends. That added psychic distance softens the impact of tragedy.  Advanced age and long-term illnesses can make a person's demise something to be expected too.

Vickie is different. She is a very close friend and we've known her seemingly forever.

We met at the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission outside Chicago, which despite its ominous name was a edenic research facility spread over seventeen hundred acres dotted with rare white deer and a flock of mute swans. It was a birdwatcher's hot spot.

Vickie and I worked in different departments and in truth neither one had much to do directly with laboratories, atoms or energy. Ours were mainly government paper-shuffling gigs, Vickie's in public affairs and mine in personnel.

Nevertheless both required high-level security clearances from the federal government. Back in the nineteen-seventies, being gay was considered a mental disorder that automatically made you subject to blackmail and therefore a security risk. To bosses and coworkers, Stew remained a ghostly character, a nameless roommate, and my sexual orientation a constant risk.

The early years: Stew with his 1960-something AMC Rebel, a rescued couch, 
and Vickie's dog Frosso, in front of Vickie's two-flat in Chicago. 
Except for Vickie, who as much as told me, right from the start, "hey, we're friends and I don't care about security clearances, your being gay or if you have a boyfriend."

I've since realized that such mutual trust, acceptance and openness are essential to a good friendship.

So the three of us became a small pack, sharing gossip and personal dilemmas, even the endless mechanical problems of Vickie's irascible Fiat which wouldn't start when the temperature dropped below freezing, a fatal flaw in Chicago.

Getting her car started was a twice- or thrice-weekly soap of battery-jumping, clutch-popping and cursing in the snow. One time we had to push the Fiat down North Avenue, one of Chicago's busiest thoroughfares, to get it going.

Vickie had a master's degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri and she also was a prime mover in my decision to follow my true interests, quit the much-detested government job and go for my own master's in Journalism at Northwestern University.

That's what good friends do too—believe in you and whisper encouragement when you feel unable to decide which way to move, or whether to move at all.

She eventually left the government also, and our lives went on to become a spaghetti bowl of new jobs, lost jobs, bumpy relationships, including Stew and I separating for two years, and seemingly ridiculous projects such as rehabbing decrepit Chicago buildings that inevitably took three times more money and physical and mental energy than anyone imagined.

Much alcohol was involved in our lives during those years too, though fortunately all three of us quit drinking along the way, in our own ways and time. We might not be around if we hadn't.

Vickie had some interesting boyfriends. I remember meeting an architect who lived in a Mies van der Rohe condo building on Lakeshore Drive. I am very self-conscious at parties, and at a gathering at this guy's place a medium-size dog sitting primly under the piano caught my attention.

I kept looking at it but it remained motionless. Finally I mentioned to Vickie the dog's apparent great training and she laughed: her boyfriend loved that dog so much that he had had it stuffed when it died. The joke was on me—and Stew, who was there too.

Indeed, Vickie stories could fill its own blog. She ultimately married Glenn, a guy who worked for me at a small publication. The two have been married for over twenty years and Glenn's love and attention for Vickie may be a bigger factor in her recovery than all the chemotherapy in the world.

Vickie is a super-talented artist who has been drawing snapshots
of New York City. This is the invitation to the opening of an exhibit
of her pen-and-ink work. She said she sold hundreds of the drawings, but given
how much work they required, she probably netted
about twenty-five cents an hour.
For ten years or so our friendship waned after she and Glenn moved to New York, and we lost touch. But last December they visited San Miguel for a week and it was as if Vickie, Stew and I had never been apart.

And now she has cancer.

At the church we attend, folks would dutifully add Vickie's name to the weekly prayer list. I do not spurn or mock their sentiments. That's just how many people cope with serious problems.

Except that for me such rituals seem like such a cop-out, a refusal to admit the reality of personal powerlessness.

Are we trying to convince ourselves we're doing something, even though there's really nothing to be done except rely on the chemotherapy and survival statistics and hope Vickie's inner strength gets her through this health crisis?

I wrote to her and expressed our sadness at her situation. I also mentioned that Stew and I had been toying with the idea of visiting New York in December to celebrate my 70th birthday.

Now we're definitely going, despite the challenge of finding affordable accommodations. I told her we just might have to build our own life-sized Nativity Scene on the small patio in front of her tiny apartment. Stew and I would stay there for a week, dressed as Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

But who is going to be who? Neither Stew nor I exactly look like any Virgin Mary we've ever seen, but I'm sure Vickie will have some ideas about that.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

After Trump's health care fiasco

For the past two days pundits have been sorting through the debris left by the implosion of the Republican attempt to "repeal and replace" Obamacare and are now looking around for someone to blame.

The most risible and illogical rationale is Trump's own, which blames the Democrats for standing solidly against the Republican attempt to obliterate, like it or not, one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the Obama administration.

Now, the morning after, it's worth considering what could still be done to improve America's rickety system of health care for those who can't afford it. But with Trump in charge—a man of little vision except his financial and personal aggrandizement—the prospects do not look good.

Tiny fingers do the talking. 
There were many missteps and bumbling actors in this debacle but the primarily responsibility falls on Trump, for selling his plan to undo Obamacare not next month or next year but immediately—as he deemed himself uniquely qualified to do—even though he didn't have much of a clue what Obamacare was about or what was wrong with it, let alone the intricate legislative machinations required to replace it or fix it.

"Nobody knew health care could be so complicated," Trump exclaimed a month ago, with a mixture of surprise and exasperation.

If he had given the issue even cursory attention—which of course would have involved considerable reading, not one Trump's favorite pastimes—he would have learned about Hillary Clinton's failed stab at health care reform, and the endless months of negotiations to get Obamacare enacted.

My cat Fifo could have figured the complexity of the problem and he's not the brightest feline in the cathouse.

Fifo sez: Obamawhat?
Under Trump, bombast, hyperbole and plain lying took the place of analysis and tedious negotiations with the members of his own party, let alone the Democrats or the American public, to shape a consensus on this very thorny problem.

Obamacare is a DISS-ASS-TER, Trump kept saying, while holding the little index finger and little thumb of his smallish right hand in a circle for added emphasis. Polls showed Obamacare to be unpopular and Trump figured that knocking it was a political no-brainer.

During the final and frantic negotiations over the fate of the Republican health care bill, Trump reportedly told members of the ultra-orthodox House Freedom Caucus, "[f]orget the little shit and let's focus on the big picture here."

Not surprisingly, the recalcitrant conservative House members took umbrage at the president dismissing their concerns as "little shit" in favor the "big picture," i.e. scoring a big win for Trump by approving what had become a centerpiece of his litany of hot-air promises.

As if to underline the Trump's message, Stephen Bannon essentially told House Freedom Caucus members to put up and shut up: "Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill."

In the end, of course, Trump's "little shit" congealed into a big, steaming loaf of the stuff, leaving him and the Republicans looking like it too.

The heart of the Republican plan to reform Obamacare was to reverse billions in taxes imposed on high-income folks in order to fund the program, while leaving America's health care coverage for the uninsured that much more tattered. That proposal seems to be dead for now.

Still, dreamers can dream that after the Obamacare fiasco, a bipartisan team could come together to try to fix the program's many admitted shortcomings rather that destroy it--even though in Washington's poisoned partisan atmosphere that is a long shot indeed. 

More likely is that Trump, unable to admit defeat, will instead try to further weaken Obamacare through funding cuts and other forms of sabotage and then claim "I told you so" if it fails.

Sadly, scenario number two is more likely. After all, this is all about Trump and his outsized ego, not what's best for the vulnerable uninsured population in the U.S.


Late-breaking news: I finished this posting on Sunday afternoon and it ended on a down note, i.e. there was no likely way Democrats and Republicans would come together to find some common ground on health care. 

Time to stop laughing, Barry. 
I woke up Monday morning with news from the New York Times that after the GOP mishmash over "repeal-replace", there is now some talk of trying to find bipartisan solutions for reforming the nation's health care system. 

Also in the Times there's a piece about The Weekly Standard, a publication trying to set itself as a conservative voice using "facts, logic and reason." Breitbart News and Alex Jones, and a good part of the Fox News team need not apply. 

Imagine that.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Eulogy for an old burro

Around our small ranch animals are constantly born while others die. For those raised for food, mostly goats, sheep and cattle, their stay on earth is brief and uneventful until their last day. Donkeys, horses and ranch dogs live longer but only for as long as they can perform their jobs.

Then there are the fatalities, animals that get hit by cars, are abandoned or get into fights they lose, whose deaths might be quick or lingering, depending on the circumstances. The latter are painful to for us to deal with and we're lucky to our gardener Félix to help us.

Along with a preternatural memory, and acute senses of hearing and vision, Félix has a unique link of affection and kinship with animals—a vibe—that's rare for someone who has lived all his life in rural Mexico where animals mostly are for food and trade.

I've asked Felix how he developed his instincts for animals but he's never given me a good answer. I remember, though, that when he found his favorite dog Chupitos dead near our ranch, the victim of feral dogs or coyotes, he was near tears as we buried her. Other times he has angrily muttered about people being cruel to animals by mistreatment or neglect.

Felix can pick out the distant chirping of baby birds hanging precariously in a nest on a tree, or the frantic rustle of rabbits through the brush—or the pitiful sound of puppies abandoned by the side of the road.

Once, he found a grocery bag with seven puppies, barely a week old, only four still alive. Separated from their mother so early, there was no alternative but to take the survivors to the vet to be euthanized. Félix couldn't understand the cruelty of someone abandoning the puppies.

Félix tending to the burro. 
Then he found another puppy, maybe a month old and badly injured, under a roadside huizache bush. Our guess is that someone had tossed her out from their car. Félix led us to her and asked what we should do.

What do you think? So we spayed and patched her up, named her Felisa (after Félix) and three years later she's still with us, a beat-up runt not likely to evolve into a beauty.

Thanks to Félix we've also seen baby rabbits, injured birds and rattlesnakes, though the latter he quickly decapitates with a shovel. I've tried to show him how to dispose of snakes humanely, put them in a bucket and take them out to a nearby field, but even softy Félix has no use for rattlers.

Yesterday after lunch Félix reported finding a nearly dead burro. We went to check and indeed found it lying by the side of the road, breathing laboriously, blood coming out his mouth, his eyes wide open, frozen in uncomprehending terror.

We brought a bucket of water which Felix fed the burro with a plastic bottle, as he rubbed and caressed the animal's head and ears.

Then what? Even Félix said the animal was beyond saving, so it was a matter of how to put it to sleep. He, and later a neighbor, suggested finding a gun, except we couldn't find anyone who had one. None of us knew how to use a gun either.

Felisa shortly after arrival. 
Stew called our vet, Ricardo, a young and very competent guy who has saved two of our dogs from bites by brown recluse spiders and rattlesnake bites, though a third, Gladys, died in his office.

Ricardo confessed he didn't know much about large animals but after some insistence by Stew—we couldn't allow a long agonizing death for the animal under the blazing sun—he agreed to come by in forty-five minutes.

While we waited for Ricardo, Félix knelt by the dying animal and kept caressing its head and nose and pouring water into his mouth, which it seemed to lap up eagerly.

This was an old though small donkey, guessing by the yellowed and stained teeth. Like so many animals of burden around here, it showed signs of a life of hard labor. It had lacerations all over his body and particularly on his front feet as the result of its owner tying the front legs together to keep it from running away—a common practice.

Ricardo administers a few final rubs.  
The burro tossed jerkily a few times and even managed to turn himself around, but it was futile. One of his hind legs seemed to be broken and the bleeding out of his mouth suggested internal hemorrhaging, probably from getting hit broadside by a car.

Ricardo arrived with his girlfriend, also a vet, checked the animal gently and pronounced him beyond help. He'd brought a long needle and two bottles of medication, the first a relaxant, the second a poison to stop the heart, a common sequence when euthanizing dogs and cats. He injected them on an artery on the neck of the burro and rubbed gently after each shot.

As expected, the donkey first quit moving and after five or six minutes its heart gave out. As a farewell he took a long pee.

Last shot. 
Once, in Chicago, we found our veteran vet Tony visibly shaken and upset at the end of the day. He had euthanized several animals that day, he said, and no matter how sick or old the animal, or merciful the killing, he could never get used to doing it.

So was the case with Ricardo and his assistant who were stone-faced and silent as we all stood around the dead animal. He confessed he had never had to put a large animal to sleep and was nervous. His fee for the visit and the euthanasia was fifteen hundred pesos or approximately seventy five dollars.

Lack of alternatives quickly answered the question of what to do with the dead burro. The garbage truck wouldn't come until Thursday and probably wouldn't pick up a two- or three-hundred-pound animal anyway.

So Ricardo suggested, and we agreed, it was best just to leave the dead burro there to serve as food for the wild dogs, coyotes and vultures that wander around these parts.

Friday, March 17, 2017

When Pope Francis spoke to me

No matter how prettified San Miguel's colonial Centro becomes, street beggars refuse to go away.

And why should they? Beggars have been part of San Miguel forever so why should they pack up and go so as not to offend the sensibilities of tourists who will be here for only a week, or two or spoil the town's ever more commercialized colonial charm?

In a recent article Pope Francis spoke about beggars and his words struck my mind as well as my heart even though I hopped off the Roman Catholic haywagon long ago and generally don't keep track of Vatican pronunciamentos.

He said we should give to beggars, no questions asked, and also talk to them and even physically touch them. Go ahead and hold their hands for a second or two.

Francis says: "Reach out and touch that beggar."
His words also took me, in a roundabout way, to the debate in Washington over health care for the poor and what the government should do about it—if anything.

Panhandling and poverty are desperate conditions people don't voluntarily embrace.

Most beggars in San Miguel's Centro are women with ragamuffin children who set up shop in church courtyards or outside busy shops, where customers and supplicants can't avoid at least brief eye contact. The beggars' pitch is usually an extended hand, sometimes reinforced with a pathetic look or mumbled plea.

When we're confronted with them—people who may be dirty, smelly or disheveled, their lives disfigured by poverty, violence, substance abuse or maybe illness—our instinctive reaction is avoidance, just the opposite of what the pope preaches.

The Pope said that not only should we give money to beggars but reach out and touch their hand, even exchange a few words. We must not ignore or prejudge them.

Giving something to someone in need is always right, Francis said, and should be done with "compassion and respect." He doesn't want us to absent-mindedly flip some pocket change and keep on walking as if it we were contributing to the tip jar at the Italian Coffee Company.

"Tossing money and not looking in their eyes is not a Christian way of behaving," Francis said.

Even before I read the Pope's exhortation I was offended by the Republican proposed reform of Obamacare, which looks like a reverse Robin Hood affair that would transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to the rich in the form of tax breaks and not offer much to the needy.

According to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, millions of Americans would end up with no health insurance.

It reeks of contempt for the needy, in this case uninsured Americans. The Republicans' logic is that government aid "deincentivizes" people from working and makes parasites out of them. It's just a replay of the eternal battle between the job creators and the freeloaders.

Applied to beggars, some would likewise argue that giving them money only enables their alcoholism, laziness and irresponsible behavior. Better to just walk on by, as if your neglect will teach them a lesson. It might be good for them in the long run, however long that is.

Following Pope Francis' exhortation, I'll start carrying some coins, and start brief exchanges with beggars in San Miguel to hear bits of their story and what they are about. I don't expect any revelations but just hope the beggars I approach won't feel ignored or dismissed.

It might make me a more generous and sensitive person.

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican spear-carrier in the charge to dismantle Obamacare, should get on his government-paid limo and travel outside Washington for a couple of weeks.

He should visit with the people who now rely on Obamacare—black, white, brown, destitute or working poor—to get some flesh-and-blood feedback about what would happen to those families if the draconian Republican health care reforms are implemented.

Ryan, a devout Roman Catholic, should heed the Pope's exhortation. The experience might change his mind.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

U.S. manufacturing revival? Dream on

In Herr Trump's piñata of hollow slogans, hyperboles and plain lies, the one about "buying American and hiring American"—with its implicit promise to resuscitate a manufacturing sector that withered away decades ago—stands out as one of his most appealing and appalling promises.

Exhibit A sits on the shelf next to the TV in our living room and it's a very cool, lighted 1950s style (maybe Art Deco) clock, which we probably found at a flea market years ago and is one of the few artifacts to survive our move to Mexico. It usually keeps perfect time except on cloudy days when our solar electric systems lags and the clock may lose two or three minutes.

Model 146, as advertised on the internet. This one was sold,
and ours is not on the market. Sorry.
Its most interesting feature is a sticker on the back that lists its place of manufacture, none other than Chicago, by the Mastercrafters Clock and Radio Company, 1750 W. Fullerton Ave. It's the same Chicago where mostly unionized workers used to make steel, electric drills, televisions and radios (Zenith) and a myriad other geegaws and doodads, large and small.

That employment stratum first skedaddled to cheaper and warmer climes in the southern U.S., then to Mexico and on the Far East. Chicago now has either high-paying jobs in banks, financial exchanges, law firms and so on, or low-skill, marginal gigs of the "Good morning, welcome to Walmart!" variety. It's called the "service economy."

If I understand the Trump pitch correctly, he wants to strong-arm American manufacturing firms to stay put in the U.S., or perhaps even come back, through the use of tax penalties, threats, abandonment or renegotiation of free-market treaties and other forms of billy club-type persuasion. He's had hard words for some foreign manufactures too. Believe me.

And if he pulls this trick, and those rusting industrial mastodons along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago come back to life, hey, I'll be the first one to cheer.

I don't expect I'll have to. Global markets and free trade—assuming the absence of currency manipulations, dumping and other hanky-panky—are the most logical path to continued economic growth and for American consumers the most beneficial system. [Geezus, what's wrong with me? I'm starting to sound downright Republican!)

Those markets have to be free, though: Trumpian claims that he can nudge, deal, tickle, shove or otherwise bully American manufacturing and trade, as if he were punching buttons of a TV remote, are a fraud, one of many of his.

Aside from our clock, Stew and I last week came face-to-face with the reality of globalization when we ventured out to find a new car, a quest temporarily or perhaps permanently suspended after our accident with the 2013 Ford Escape, which has soured me on internal combustion.

We looked at Mitsubishi pickups (made in Thailand); Ford Rangers (Argentina with engines from South Africa); VW Amaroks (Argentina); Nissan Frontiers (Tennessee for the gasoline engines, Aguascalientes, Mexico for the diesel models) and so on. The states of Guanajuato and Querétaro are flooded with factories making everything from Chevrolet trucks, GE kitchen stoves, components of Canadian Bombardier jets and EU Airbus helicopters.

VW Amarok, made in Argentina: Bratwurst with a dash of chimichurri. 
On the brain-deadening drive to Texas from San Miguel we invariably see hundreds, probably thousands, of semis going in both directions, bringing pieces of something one way and the finished somethings the other way.

(We of course also have the illegal narcotics trade with producers and customers on both sides of the border, but that's another story.)

It's an intricate web of trade presumably developed not by cunning Mexican politicians or villainous American corporate moguls but by rooms full of weenies with MBAs (some no doubt from the University of Chicago Business School where I worked for awhile) their eyes glued on monitors displaying spreadsheets with hundred of variables, and trying to answer the perennial question, Where is the best place to make such-and-such?

The crucial factor is the "competitive advantage". Mexicans bring cheap labor to the table, along with loosey-goosey environmental regulations, with Americans providing the design and engineering technology, plus a consumer market with an insatiable appetite for every conceivable kind of crap ever invented or yet to be conceived, at the lowest possible price.

The ones left out of this global trade system are the American workers once employed in high-paying, unionized marketing jobs that have largely vanished. If we are to believe the post-mortems of the election, most of these folks voted for Trump, vainly hoping he can bring back their jobs and livelihoods.

It ain't going to happen and the shattered hopes of those voters will go down as the cruelest hoax played on the American electorate.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Mexico story: Getting rear-ended and screwed on the same day

This week did not begin auspiciously. Six weeks ago we had left our motorcycle at the local hole-in-the-wall Suzuki dealer, located next to an auto electrical supply store oddly named "The Mummy," to see if they could sell it.

There were no buyers, so Monday morning we picked it up so Félix could drive it back to our house. Immediately he noticed the speedometer/odometer was not working, and a few miles down the road—fortunately in front of a gas station—the bike ran out of gas even though we had left it with a full tank.

Stew, the more suspicious of us two, immediately figured the dealer had driven the bike for weeks, used all the gas, and disconnected the odometer so we wouldn't notice.

¡Claro que sí!—Yeah, sure!—Félix replied when I passed on Stew's observation. But no big deal, he bought some gas and reconnected the odometer when he got home.

Then the day literally took a turn for the worse.

As I waited in my Ford Escape to turn a corner, a huge dump truck lightly rear-ended me causing enough damage to crease and buckle the rear gate. The nervous, apologetic young driver got off the truck and assured me his boss would pay for any damages.

¡Claro que sí!, I said before calling the police.

While Stew and I waited for the police, a small sideshow unfolded next to us in the parking lot of the Auto Zone store. An ancient VW Rabbit careened across the parking lot and over the curb before coming to a stop on a stretch of grass. The seemingly unexcited driver got out and walked into the store presumably to buy some brake-related accessory.

Twenty minutes later a dapper motorcycle cop appeared, wearing aviator glasses, skin-tight shirt and blue pants, a helmet tilted to the side just a tad, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Erick Estrada of the old TV series CHIPs.

Erick told us to move the car and the truck across the street under a tree by the gas station to wait for the insurance agent and the owner of the truck to begin negotiations.

I said the agent would arrive in forty-five minutes. Erick let out a sarcastic snort and said, "Two hours."

In the meantime a police SUV and three more cops arrived, plus a beefy young guy wearing a greasy blue tee-shirt that barely covered his midriff. He said he represented the owner who'd arrive shortly.

¡Claro que sí!,"  I thought wearily. But looking at the bovine expression on this character's face I began to suspect this brush with Mexican traffic law was not going to end well for me.

The insurance agent arrived a half-hour later, aboard a red rattletrap car whose main features were
scratches, dents and missing trim. José Luis Valencia was his name. He seemed to be a nice guy whom I thought was on my side—until I realized otherwise.

Shortly afterward, the owner of the truck appeared, looking very much the part of a Studly González, with neatly starched shirt and jeans, a jeweled silver belt buckle the size of small saucer, a neatly trimmed moustache and jet-black hair slicked back with just a little dab of Brylcreem.

He approached us and casually apologized for the siniestro (accident) and assured us we would be paid for the damages. ¡Claro que sí!, I muttered, though coming from Smarmy Studly this latest assurance convinced me I was being greased and massaged for a major screwing.

WANTED: Señor S. González.  If you see him, please
call me immediately. 
After several minutes of hush-hush negotiations behind our car between the insurance man and Studly, with much pointing and chin-scratching, the insurance adjustor approached me and announced a "solution" too good to be true.

It was. The owner of the truck would pay the deductible on my insurance—which coincidentally came up to almost exactly the on-the-spot estimate of the damage. Pay attention now.

"Well, give me the money then," I said, which amounted to approximately six hundred dollars. I hoped this would settle the matter.

"Oh, no, I don't have it with me," Studly said. "I would have to go back to the office and deposit it in your bank account." He diligently took down my bank account number and gave me his name and phone number.

I know what you're thinking: "You schmuck! That's a phony name and phone number and you're never going to see the money or Studly again.

And, ¡claro que sí! that's exactly what happened.

"Bullshit," I said to the insurance adjustor in my sternest voice, before he explained some fine points about Mexican traffic law and car insurance.

Unless I signed a document being prepared by Erick to the effect that the accident had been a hit-and-run, and thus freeing the truck owner from any responsibility, both vehicles would be impounded by the Ministerio Público, a law-enforcement appendage of state government whose usefulness to the citizenry some Texans would equate to "tits on a bull."

The Ministerio would then duly launch a formal investigation of the accident, presumably with judges, note-takers, lawyers and other dramatis personae befitting a judicial proceeding, while the two vehicles waited at the auto pound for a resolution of the siniestro. 

I quickly remembered two friends, Ricardo and Mallory, whose cars had been impounded by the Ministerio and not released for several months, and other horror stories about the Mexican judicial system. This sounded like a really bad idea.

So I was given two choices: accepting Studly's phony offer or having my car towed to the pound to wait for the wheels of Mexican justice to creak very slowly.

I called Carmen, the insurance agent and she did not hesitate with her advice: "Get in your car, don't sign anything and get out of there!"

And so, after more than three hours of talking and waiting under the tree by the gas station, we drove home with our dusty banged-up 2013 Ford Escape.

Is this the end of the story? ¡Claro que NO! 

Today Wednesday we're dropping in on Carmen with two body-shop estimates to demand a more equitable resolution. And infinitely flexible as all things are in Mexico, including traffic and insurance laws, I'm confident she will find a better solution.

¡Claro que sí!



Saturday, March 4, 2017

Too early to rehabilitate George W.

Absence might make the heart grow fonder but the recent gushing over George W. Bush as not-such-a-bad-president-after-all is myopic if not delusional. Compared to the present occupant Bush's eight years at the White House might look like the Age of Wisdom, but that's setting the bar about an inch off the ground.

Granted that Trump's perpetual scowl/smirk, three-foot-long red ties, and his orange hair make him look like an angry clown posing as president. It's scary.

Dubya's nervous and disconnected smile, on the other hand, was less scary but not exactly reassuring. Without the benefit of a teleprompter his syntax and meandering trains of thought often led nowhere. His small, pleading eyes suggested gears slowly turning in his brain but not quite meshing. His discombobulated pronouncements often left you wondering, Is this guy really in charge of the nuclear arsenal?

Best friends? Let's wait a while. 
The dishonesty of both of these two guys is also epic, even if the frequency varies. Trump's lying is so frequent, outrageous and often gratuitous, that newspaper fact-checkers must be working triple-time. Compared to Trump's compulsive mendacity and gaslighting, "Lying Hillary" comes out looking like a gal who wouldn't chop down a cherry tree.

But then we have Bush, whose deceptions were not as casual but had a disastrous results nonetheless. Can we pause to recall the weapons of mass destruction goose chase, the "yellow cake" fuel going to Iraq from Niger and the blithe predictions that the Iraq War would pay for itself? Or Secretary of State Colin Powell embarrassing himself at the U.N. Security Council by waving a vial of something that turned out to be nothing?

The Bush White House tried to walk back some of these whoppers by blaming poor or misleading intelligence. Except that such "evidence" was used to gin up popular and congressional support (Hillary?) for a foreign policy project that has metastasized into a regional conflict and directly contributed, if not created, the global terrorist menace that still goes on—"Mission Accomplished" publicity stunts notwithstanding. When the results of a policy are so dire, "gee, we made a mistake" just doesn't cut it.

Additionally, the multi-trillion, Iraq/Afghanistan wars, paid by federal IOUs, plus the equally disastrous economic policies of the Bush administration that led to the 2008 economic meltdown, have left the country treading water in a sea of debt.

Naturally, Republicans have tried to blame the debt on the Black Guy or profligate federal subsidies for such extravagances as public television, which in 2010 received about .0001 percent of the federal budget. The blame more rightly belongs on the White Guy with the clueless smile.

If there's a trait that partially redeems Dubya is that he lacks the vulgarity and sheer meanness that Trump displays so casually, with respect to women, Muslims, minority groups particularly Mexicans, and even the physically disabled. It's hard to imagine George W. bragging about sexual assault, calling Mexican immigrants "rapists and criminals" or mocking a physically handicapped reporter present at a political rally.

In fact, shortly after his inauguration Bush visited the then-president of Mexico Vicente Fox, vowed to forge a "special relationship" between the two countries and shortly afterward introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that unfortunately didn't go anywhere in Congress. And after September 11 Bush paid a visit to a Washington mosque to plea against retaliation or prejudice against American Muslims. That was a classy move.

There is a softer side to George W. too, that he has shown in recent appearances at the "Ellen" and "Jimmy Kimmel" shows. In the latter, Bush displayed a terrific, self-deprecating sense of humor. He told Kimmel that "the best humor is when you make fun of yourself," and illustrated the point with a couple of examples of his own malapropisms, such as "misunderestimate." Can't imagine Trump, that most brittle egomaniac, cracking jokes at his own expense.

Indeed, the New Dubya—or maybe the Dubya we didn't know—seems to be an affable guy, both sharp and very funny. His disarming lack of guile compared to the vileness Trump routinely wields as a political tool could almost make us forget the disastrous policies of the Bush administration.

Almost, but not quite.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Caught in the gaslights

The first three English words I learned when I arrived to the U.S. in 1962 came courtesy of the New York City subway and were, if I recall correctly, "No spitting, loitering or eating." I jotted the words and looked them up when I got home, a habit I maintain today.

English has to be the most generous of all languages because new words come flying over the transom practically every day, few questions asked. A week ago I was informed by the people at Merriam-Webster of a word I'd never heard of—shunpike. It's a route one takes to avoid a turnpike. Silly but true.

Merriam-Webster, which updates its dictionary periodically, may be the closest thing we have to an English language police except perhaps for style books used by editors.

But Merriam-Webster is nothing like the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española which attempt to keep their respective languages from being contaminated by anglicisms or barbarisms.

It's a hopeless battle when it comes to computerese. In Spain some purists insist on ordenadoras, but most of the Spanish-speaking world goes with computadoras. As for feedback, some enterprising Spanish linguist proposed retroalimentación, a mouthful of syllables, for feedback. It gets worse when English terms are transliterated on the fly, and to hack becomes hackear. ¡Uao! ¡Qué horror!

No such compunctions exist in American English, which has an endlessly open mind to neologisms wherever they are found, back in the patio, up in the mezzanine, or under the pergola. But even Merriam-Webster has limits: There is no "No problema."  

Recently I ran across "to gaslight," a verb that apparently has been around for awhile though I'd never heard it. Merriam-Webster only recognizes it as a noun, "a gas lighting fixture," but not as a verb.

"Damn, that dishonest media is at it again!"
These days it's frequently used to refer to the torrent of facts, factoids, hyperboles and outright lies that pour out of the White House with the intention of obfuscating the public, compounded by hysterical reactions from the lefties.

Go back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC and by the end of the evening you will have gaslit yourself into a migraine. Or is it "gaslighted"? We'll have to wait for Merriam-Webster to come up with the proper conjugation.

To explore its origin, a few weeks ago Stew and I rented "Gaslight," a 1944 film ("La luz que agoniza," in Spanish) starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury playing a mouthy maid in a debut performance that got her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

As the story goes, the husband, played by Boyer, feeds his wife, played by Bergman, false and confusing information, including turning the gas down periodically to make the gaslights flicker. Soon Bergman starts believing she is losing her marbles, pretty much like some American voters may feel nowadays.

Gaslight the movie has a happy conclusion I will not reveal, except that applied to today's political situation in the U.S., it's an ending some Republicans may not welcome.