Saturday, April 29, 2017

Getting ready for the annual rain dance

Non-San Miguelites, particularly those hapless folks recovering from yet another winter in places like Chicago or Montreal, may view our climate enviously: Current forecasts call for overnight temperatures in the mid-fifties, noontime highs in the mid-eighties, and brilliant sunny skies as far as anyone can predict.

Indeed we haven't had any measurable rain in months. 

Great, huh? Not quite. After so many sere weeks, San Miguel natives—human, animal and vegetable—wake up with a pleading eye toward the sky, looking for any sign of rain or at least dark clouds.

Our three Michoacán pines are the most beautiful trees in our ranch
but they take a lot of precious water. 
Today our humidity index is eleven percent. Some might argue that's preferable to summers in Houston or Miami, when transiting from an air-conditioned space to the soggy outdoors feels like getting hit in the face with a banana cream pie, but that's only a matter of preference.

This is the season when potted plants agitate for water twice a week, and your skin and lips feel taut and dry, as after a cheap face lift, not that I've ever had one, or expensive one either. I'm just imagining.

On an annual basis we receive somewhere between twenty and twenty-five inches of rain, which is not too bad. Phoenix gets only eight inches a year, and San Diego about eleven.

Our problem is one of distribution. For four months, usually June through September, we get soaked, even swamped, but the rest of the year there's barely a drop of precipitation.

During the first four months of the dry season we don't miss the rain so much, and may even gloat about the strange blessing of a sunny and warm Christmas season.

Then the sunflowers and cosmos that cover the fields get wiped out by the wind and everything turns brown except for desert-hardy denizens like cacti, mezquites and huizaches. Brush fires are common, the carbonized fields they leave behind adding to the bleakness of the landscape. Winds and dust pick up.

Cacti survive the dry season handily, but the rest of the plants
dry right down to the ground 
Sometime in March, when the temperatures rise slightly and the days grow longer, we get a teaser fake spring. Some cacti and succulents set flowers and we sigh with relief, but in vain, that rain and greener days are at hand, when in fact we have a month or two of dry weather left.

So at the moment we typically grow a bit nervous about our water supply We rely on a swimming pool-size underground cistern, about thirty-five thousand gallons, that's fed by rainfall and fills surprisingly rapidly. A couple of good rains it's all it takes.

We also get water from a distant community well once a week for a few hours, but that's more like a squirt than a reliable source.

All the water we use goes through a series of filters to screen out dirt as well as bacteria.

Our new irrigation system is a jungle of
connectors, filters and timers. 
Right  about now we wonder if this will be the year when we have to summon a water truck to give the cistern a quick shot. We installed a connection in front of the garage when we built the house, just in case, but in seven years we haven't had to use it.

This year we also extended our drip irrigation system to supply the trees in half the yard, with a thousand feet of irrigation hose we dragged down from San Antonio.

We tested it on Friday and the system—installed by Felix, who's added the installation of drip irrigation systems to his palette of talents—seems to work perfectly, each emitter dribbling exactly two gallons of water per tree per hour.  We figure two hours a week per tree should be enough. The foliage will let us know if we're right.

Meanwhile, Stew will keep an eye on both the sky and the water level of our cistern. If recent history is a reliable indicator, rains will begin in about a month to six weeks, proving our seasonal water worries were, once again, all for naught.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Filling up at San Antonio's collection of historic gas stations

The expressway construction craze that began in the 1950s was not kind to traditional downtown districts, including that of San Antonio, Texas. Monster expressways slashed through the heart of the city, redirecting much of the downtown's residential and business blood toward the booming suburbs. Hundreds of old buildings were razed to make way for the onslaught of concrete and asphalt, and just as many were abandoned, condemned to a slow death from neglect.

Vast amounts of money have gone into the resuscitation of the city's downtown, including the restoration of many of the surviving historic buildings and neighborhoods, and the construction of a beautiful River Walk. Despite all the improvements, San Antonio's central city has a Disneyland, tourist-oriented feel that lacks the buzz of a downtown where people live, party, shop and do business twenty-four-seven.

What seems to have survived this wave of destruction and reconstruction are hundreds of tiny pre-World-War II gas stations. A few are virtually intact, the same as they were when the owners walked away perhaps during the tough economic times of the 1930s. Fewer still have been converted to modern uses that respect original architectural details. Dozens have been turned into taco or ice-cream stands by Mexican owners with electric color palettes in mind. Many are empty and tottering, looking as if the next strong wind might knock them down.

Regardless of their condition or aesthetic significance, these ubiquitous relics appear to survive under an impregnable bubble. I asked some locals and no one knew exactly what kept the stations from being demolished. One mentioned the work of a "a bunch of gray-hair preservationist ladies in tennis shoes." But there also seems to be an unwritten commandment against messing with these small, vulnerable structures.

You quickly learn to pick them out by their basic bone structure hidden under a myriad architectural disguises—Art Deco, Mediterranean, Tudor or utilitarian 1950s modern. Spotting them along some of the main thoroughfares—Fredericksburg Road, San Pedro, Broadway, St. Mary's Road—became a game for Stew and me. Stew had the far better eye.

Below are some samples from our gas station tour of San Antonio.

(1) 1021 Laredo Street. This station, built around 1938, has a 
ghostly aura. Except for the missing gas pumps and the boarded-up 
windows and doors, it looks pretty much as it did when the owner 
shut it down. Nowadays it sits, looking rather helpless but 
untouched, tucked between an arterial expressway, a huge 
billboard above and a noisy dog kennel behind. Across the street 
is a modern Candlewood Suites hotel. If that billboard ever 
blows down, it's all over for this tiny gem.  
(2) 1021 Laredo St. This was the main door. 
The blue tiles at the foot of the walls are typical 
of this style of gas station. The ceiling under the 
canopy, maybe pressed tin tiles once, is now gone. 
The molding around the door looks Art Deco to me. 
Humble Oils, founded in Humble, Texas in
1911 eventually became Exxon.
(3) 1021 Laredo Street. The gas pumps are long gone, 
but the post for the air hoses, neatly painted red, remains.
(4) 1021 Laredo Street. The peaked tin roof and 
the ziggurat tile 
pattern can be found in other gas stations in San Antonio.

(5) King William District. Located at one of the entrances of the 
King William Historic District, this former Texaco station's cabin 
style reminded me of something one would find in the backwoods 
of Wisconsin. Not much was done to it when it was converted 
into a drive-through beer and snacks store with a small outdoor sitting 
area. Many of the homes in the nearby King William District have been
so fastidiously and fussily restored that looking at them 
for too long makes your teeth hurt.
(6) 1502 No. McCollough Ave. This store's basic design, 
the peaked tin roof and the detail over the door, reminded us of the 
Art Deco look of station (1). But the Aztec Sun Blast paint job is 
definitely not Art Deco. The object under the right pillar is a badly
beat-up public telephone.
(7) 1502 No McCollough. The posts holding up the front canopy 
don't look original, and probably there were some ceramic 
tiles at the top and bottom of the exterior walls.
(8) 3502 St. Mary's Street. This is now Pugel's Hot Dogs. A 
thoughtful preservation. The owner kept the two entrances to the 
service bays, now covered with glass doors, and otherwise 
did little to change the exterior of the building. 
(9) 3502 St. Mary's. Other than installing a new window between 
the two front doors, the owners left everything intact, including 
the ribbon of ceramic tiles.
(10) 2324 No. St. Mary's Street. The signage on this restaurant 
must have been done by a tattoo artist on drugs. The front posts 
don't look original, but the rest of the Mediterranean flair is all there.
(11) 1726 St. Mary's Street. Crouching timidly between an 
expressway on one side, a monster-size billboard above and 
a construction site on the left side, this specimen has the look of 
an endangered species. But its trim above survives as do the two service
entrance doors. And judging by the hundreds of other old gas stations 

still standing in San Antonio, I bet no one is going to bring any harm
this one, no matter how battered it may look.
(12) 2222 N. San Pedro Ave. This is a curvaceous beauty, 
all its corners seductively rounded, along with the full-length bay 
windows, and the round porthole windows. There's a service 
bay on one side and a second one on the other side. A
sign suggested someone had bought the property and might be
readying to bring it back to life.

(13) Bliss Restaurant, 926 S. Presa St. A no-expense-spared 
conversion of an old Humble station into a $$$$ restaurant. The 
original station had the same lines, tin roof and tilework as 
the one on Laredo St. (pictures 1-4). The original building was
expanded to such an extent that the finished building
almost eclipses the original structure.

(14) Bliss Restaurant. The main room at Bliss, 
which were once the service bays of the original 
gas station. The brick walls and the roof 
beams were left exposed. Very cool space.
(15) Purple vision: one of our favorites, though I forgot to put down 
the address. Yes, purists might quibble about the 
color scheme or the placing of large pots of cacti on the roof 
of the canopy. But whoever owns this former station did respect
the basic Mediterranean design, including the two rounded 

service bay doors.
(16) Period-appropriate artwork. The owner 
must have commissioned the 1930s-style artwork.

(17) A bit of purple humor at the purple gas station. 
 (18) A touch of Tudor. During the 1940s a so-called Tudor Revival
style became the rage in residential building. It was completely
made-up, having little or nothing to do with Henry VIII or the 
other Tudors. This gas station seems to have been built of brick
and then sheathed with wood and plywood.

 (19) A coin operated air pump victim of a collision.
(20) I can't imagine these chimneys ever
worked, wood fires being not a good idea
at a gasoline station.

(21) Grand prize winner (no cash involved). This former Mobil
station is located at one of San Antonio's primo locations—the
intersection of Broadway and Austin Highway. It's been through
a few reincarnations according to a friend, before turning into
an upscale women's clothing store. The luxe exterior of the
gas station has remained pretty much intact, with the area under
the canopy closed in to provide additional retail space.
(22) Details, details. Though the restrooms were
moved, the architect kept the original 
doors and lighted signs. 
(23) Night vision. The rotating neon Pegasus on the cupola of 
the building was restored to full working condition. In Greek
mythology, Pegasus was a winged horse that carried
thunderbolts for Zeus. Pegasus was first trademarked by the
Vacuum Oil Company, and through later iterations became
Mobil Oil, which ultimately merged with Exxon. 


Comments? Stew and I admittedly didn't do much original research, other than asking friends and then driving all over San Antonio looking for gas stations. So, if anyone has additions, corrections or amplifications please feel free to leave them in the "Comments" section below this post, and I will publish them. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Memories of press censorship

"The first thing dictators do is put an end to the freedom of the press, they establish censorship, there's no doubt that freedom of the press is the first enemy of a dictatorship." *

The author of this admonition was none other than Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, shortly after taking power in Cuba in 1959. And as a man true to his word, by the time his regime had plunged into dictatorship less than two years later, he had abolished freedom of the press and seized all privately owned organs of mass communication.
Or as Louis XIV said, "L'état, C'est Moi"

I was only twelve years old or so but remember the events in fairly vivid detail, perhaps because there was already a flicker in my brain signaling an interest in journalism and writing.

By 1961, newspaper articles with the slightest whiff of controversy, or which carried anything the regime viewed as false or subversive information—today's  "fake news"—began carrying what were called "coletillas", or "footnotes."

Written by government sympathizers employed at the newspapers, usually typesetters, they supposedly presented an accurate version of events. Initially it was a challenging, even amusing game to decode what exactly had happened and why the government was trying to suppress it, not unlike deciphering Soviet communiques.

A typical coletilla, at the end of an editorial in the venerable Diario de la Marina in 1960informed readers that "the contents do not conform to the truth, nor the most elemental journalistic ethics."

But by the beginning of 1961 all independent newspapers had gone out of business along with other independent media and censorship had become a deadly serious matter.

In case any journalists missed the point, the Maximum Leader told a gathering of reporters that "Newspapermen have a great task ahead... [they] must coordinate the news among all papers and orient public opinion jointly... always remember that the revolution comes before the newspaper."

I don't pretend to have been a child prodigy but I sensed the oppression growing all around me: the Catholic school I attended was shut down, all the newspapers and magazines my dad used to bring home for me to read either disappeared or turned into stilted gibberish.

"Hoy": "A Daily at the service of the People."
The deliciously air-conditioned library of the U.S. Information Agency, where I used to page through Life and National Geographic, looking at the pictures but not understanding a word, one day also shut down and its contents hauled away.

In my hometown of Santa Clara, a two-horse provincial capital deep inside Cuba, our lives felt as if someone was turning off the lights one by one, leaving us in the dark.

I left Cuba on February 9, 1962, a date I remember as if it were my second birthday.

About twenty years later, when I'd become a journalist, I visited Nicaragua, where the Sandinista Revolution was roaring full-throttle. I visited the offices of the newspaper Prensa Libre and witnessed its daily production cycle—and Cuban-style press censorship all over again.

Before going to press, someone had to carry all the galleys of the next day's newspaper to a government censor. He would scrutinize the entire issue and with a black marker cross out any "fake news" or otherwise objectionable copy.

The day I was there the censor exed out a photo of a black Mercedes—clearly belonging to a government muckety-muck—that had crashed with a lesser vehicle. It carried the caption "Deluxe accident on Avenida [something or other]". The censor didn't appreciate the humor.

One of the editors told me that sometimes so much material was censored the paper could not publish.

It's darkly ironic that countries with the most long-winded constitutional protections of freedom of the press and expression are also the most egregious violators of those rights.

Try this, as a sample of meaningless gasbaggery, from Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution: "Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of a socialist society." Who decides what are the objectives of a socialist society?

Or this, from Venezuela's 2010 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media, amended in 2010. It bans content that could "incite or promote hatred"; "foment citizens' anxiety or alter public order"; or "disrespect authorities."

Birds of a feather: Venezuela's Maduro visits with Cuba's Castro. 
Saturday Night Live or any of the late-night shows today on American TV would be out of business, particularly regarding the "disrespect" clause. Alec Baldwin would be in jail.

On the other hand it's hard to beat the majestic simplicity of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press..."

The economy of the wording—no subordinate clauses or qualifiers here—is precisely what makes the First Amendment one of the most powerful and memorable pieces of political writing in the world.

Indeed, Americans of any political persuasion should memorize it, cherish it and be duly alarmed whenever an elected official proclaims that the "media is the enemy of the people" or "the opposition party," or suggests that only he or she knows what's good for the people.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

It's time to dust off the Bible

And, behold, on the week before Palm Sunday, a small miracle took place: Stew and Al found themselves reading and highlighting passages from Scripture.

I hadn't opened my college Bible in so long that its pages are starting to look as yellowed and fragile as folios from the Dead Sea Scrolls. And alas, Stew's Bibles are heirlooms inherited from his father and written in Old Norwegian, full of curlicues, and as accessible as Klingon. We ended up reading the Bible on our Kindles, which was a great deal handier though not as atmospheric as having the big book in front of us.

This week's surprising turn of events was prompted by the minister of our church, who is leading discussion groups preceding Holy Week. He suggested certain readings from the New Testament touching on Jesus Christ's Passion and Crucifixion.

Reading the Bible was interesting but
we didn't get any special effects from Above. 
Our church may be the only one in town that offers two levels of religious fervor, which you can call regular and decaf. The regular service at 11:30 follows a more traditional, Episcopalian-ish format that includes communion, confession and a gospel reading, followed by a sermon. Almost the whole shebang.

Stew and I prefer the 9:30 decaf service which is more like an informal discussion, some times led by one of the participants, others by the visiting minister. The church is lucky to count with a team of excellent visiting ministers who intervene occasionally to keep the decaf service from turning into a meandering kaffeeklatsch. 

During my years in Catholic grammar and high school, and Catholic college, I received a healthy dollop—more like a shovelful—of Scripture. Indeed the margins of my Bible contain many now-incomprehensible annotations. None of those drills prevented me from falling off the Catholic wagon eons ago, largely over the Church's oppressive stance toward gay people. .

Stew's grasp of the Jesus story remains practically nil despite my occasional evangelizing efforts during our nearly forty-five years together. Sometimes I suspect his irreligiosity might be genetic.

After all the years—decades—of my Bible sitting on the shelf, I was surprised to find it, at least the New Testament, still compelling reading, filled with powerful images and stories and even high drama.

Behind the stories there are also life lessons—insights—that one can benefit from even without buying into the stories of Jesus' divinity or his distracting habit of performing miracles every other week.

One can find parables and other stories about loyalty, honesty, generosity, faith, self-doubt, love, hope and generally all those emotions and quandaries confronted by people trying to lead decent lives. Not saintly but just decent, and not two thousand years ago but today.

As for miracles, including Jesus' resurrection, I still regard them as one of the most imaginative—and effective—marketing campaigns ever devised, that convinced skeptical masses that Jesus was indeed far more than just another charlatan or rabble-rouser. It works even today.