Monday, July 24, 2017

Would it hurt my dad if I got rid of my old LPs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, July 22, 2017

By the dawn's early light

It pays to get up early
to catch an unexpected show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--The End--

Friday, July 21, 2017

Of matzo balls and arroz con pollo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Little League graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edgar (c.) marching around with his classmates.

One of many mini beauty queens.

Edgar in his regulation ill-fitting gray suit.

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bad news rains on San Miguel

What to do when nasty rumors
suddenly come true? 

Recently I've received news of outbreaks of San Miguelophobia, particularly in the picturesque mountain town of Pátzcuaro, where the sun goes up and down every day, and in the heavily air-conditioned Pacific Coast resort of Barra de Navidad, where in August even iguanas wear sun protection. There might even be a case of it in Redmond, Calif., wherever that is.

Those afflicted keep knocking San Miguel for being a formerly beautiful colonial town now overrun with tchotchke stores catering to obnoxious American tourists. There is no basis for those stereotypes.

Alright, maybe some. Several years ago I attended San Miguel's solemn Good Friday procession, with its long lines of veiled women dressed in black, clutching rosaries and crucifixes and whispering prayers.

Then I noticed that an amply proportioned, middle-aged woman, wearing hot pants, a too-skimpy Texas A&M sweatshirt and a cowboy hat—all in shades of pink—had climbed on a lamppost to get a better view of this most sacred spectacle.

I cringed and for a second wished that a bolt of lightning from an angry God would hit the lamppost the woman was perched on—or at least that I'd been wearing an "I'm Canadian" t-shirt.
And now the flood of American tourists, which had ebbed following the 2008 financial crash in the U.S. and reports of rising drug cartel violence in Mexico, may resume following a bizarre report in Travel and Leisure magazine that its readers had designated San Miguel de Allende as "Best City in the World." In the whole, wide world. On the entire earth. En todo el mundo. 

“San Miguel is one of the most authentic, creative and cost-effective destinations we’ve visited,” says a T+L reader of the colonial city, a part of which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Over the years we’ve discovered more great restaurants and activities, but the town still maintains its Mexican heritage, culture and charm.”

Move over Florence, San Miguel is Number One. 
Who is this reader? Is (s)he afflicted with some cognitive disorder? Does (s)he ever get out of the house? Perhaps a mezcal overdose during the visit to San Miguel?

Yes, San Miguel is very nice but how does it come ahead of fourteen other destinations on the list, such as Florence, Barcelona, Rome, Cape Town or even Oaxaca? 

The article in T+L mentions that San Miguel is cost-effective, which I guess is true compared to Italy or Spain. Or that it has some nice restaurants and hotels, also true—but compared to Rome or even Oaxaca, famed for its cuisine? 

What I fear now is a double-whammy: Hordes of T&L readers coming to town in addition to the swarms of Mexico City chilangos, most of them hiding behind Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and driving Porsche Cayennes, BMWs, Range Rovers and even an occasional Lamborghini, that already choke San Miguel on weekends  

The badmouthing by those San Miguelophobes might come true.

Dear reader, pray for us.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

From sere to jungly in two weeks

It's time to plant now that 
the rains have finally arrived 

As Saturday Night Live's premier journalist Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, "It just goes to show you, if it's not one thing it's another." 

A month ago the ranch was tumbleweed-dry, the levels of the rainwater in the cisterns had dropped down to eighteen inches and brush fires rolled across the weedy fields, uncontrolled. Nearby a brush fire reportedly consumed most of eighteen square kilometers and fried nearly all the vegetation at a friend's ranch. 

A patch of Aeoniums amid Agave tequilana ("Tequila agaves")
Meanwhile, farmers fooled by last year's early rains had plowed and planted their fields in late May and now muttered about a looming drought. 

Then two weeks or so ago it started raining, seemingly non-stop. In reality our rains have a perfect sense of timing, starting around six or seven in the afternoon and through the night, but allowing several hours of sun in the morning and early afternoon to charge our solar batteries. 

Still, the sudden deluge is a challenge for the dry-weather or xeric garden I'm trying to create. Two or three weeks ago the ground was cracking and almost impenetrable, even with a pick, and now we have small lagoons, small streams zigzagging toward the low spots and soil turning into something with the consistency and stickiness of chewing gum.

A drop of rain looks like a diamond at
the center of an Echeveria plant.
Anyway, it's time to launch my landscaping plans, which I'd been noodling in my head for weeks. 

First task was weeding and chopping down dead plants, no small a task that required the temporary hiring of Félix's young brother Esteban. Many of the cacti, particularly the old prickly pears, had rotted leaves and branches, and even the agave's lower leaves needed to be pruned off.

But there is only so much clearing we can do without hiring a backhoe. Some weeds and bushes, such as mezquites, huizaches, gatillos and a weed Félix calls "sandredago", are thorny, desert-tough customers with roots a meter or more deep. They are nearly impossible to dig up so we let them stay and work around them.

Some succulents we're trying to propagate in our small greenhouse.
Then comes the even harder part: What do we plant in the blank spots left by the clearing?

Landscaping design I would argue is as difficult as high cuisine. Good chefs have a vast repertoire of spices, ingredients and condiments in their heads, in addition to techniques and experience they can summon to create a great dish.

The same with a good landscaper's knowledge of different plants and where they grow and how they'll look when grown.

As an amateur gardener, my plant palette is very limited. I rely on about a dozen books and magazines  I've collected on succulents, cacti and desert gardening. The latest addition is The Bold Dry Gardening, which I bought while visiting Santa Fe's Botanical Garden.

A garden we began last year. The prickly pear in
the foreground are Indian Ficus that we
found by the side of a local road. 
Then I shamelessly borrow, plagiarize or steal any ideas that catch my eye—hey, why would they put so many photos in gardening books if they didn't want you to steal the ideas?

We also make adaptations for the soil and climate in our ranch, and the limitations of nurseries in San Miguel which don't seem to stray too far from the same-old combos of geraniums, English lavender and daisies, year after year.

One exception is a nursery run by Louis Franke, an American who introduces new plants every year. For the past few years he's been introducing new varieties of ornamental grasses that remain unknown to other local nurserymen. This year he is selling a bright-red grass which might be a Japanese Blood Grass, though I'm not sure and neither was the young guy who waited on me.

I've also spotted a couple of good no-name nurseries I know only by their location near a landmark. One is located near La Luciérnaga shopping center and is the most disorganized, jungle-like operation imaginable, spread over a couple a acres. Yet if you explore you can find clusters of succulents waiting for adoption.

The tall grasses are Mexican Feather Grass, one of my favorites. In
the foreground is a rampant, low-growing plant with
yellow flowers called Bulbimia. It'll take over the garden if you let it. 
Another nursery is near a place where we pick up our mail and is also run by woman who keeps bringing up new varieties (new to me at least) of succulents available nowhere else, the names of which she doesn't know.

Indeed finding the name of the plants can be a challenge. In San Miguel there is no neat labeling or pricing of potted plants like you find in the U.S., so nursery people often just make up names ("Shrek's Ears Cactus")—and prices—and I negotiate a small discount at the end, though in truth plant material in Mexico is dirt-cheap.

Sometimes I find plant names in one of my books, other times I go with made-up names such as "fox tail grass," a short ornamental with beautiful white plumes. There is no such variety in my books, so Félix and I have settled on "the grass with the white plumes."

So it goes with dozens of other succulents and other plants in our gardens. Besides, to remember all the different varieties of euphorbias and opuntias would be as taxing on my old brain as learning all the different kinds of sparrows.

The most inexpensive source of plants, particularly cacti, certainly has to be a nursery we could call "The Here and There." Last year Félix spotted a different-looking type of prickly pear cactus that had been nearly flattened by a car at a nearby road. We picked up and planted some of the pieces and now we have a thriving patch of Opuntia ficus indica, a type of thornless prickly pear with smooth, shiny leaves.

So between the pictures in the books and magazines, our own ideas and recollections—and a trial-and-error system of placing potted plants next to each other to see what they look like—Félix and I gradually fill in the garden areas, which we have delineated with rocks.

Rocks of all sizes and shapes are the most plentiful natural materials in our ranch, sometimes, it seems, more so than even topsoil.

We planted some gardens last year that have come up nicely. One however, where I pretended to create a rose garden, is not working out at all. A year ago I ran into a nursery having a sale on rose bushes (a dollar a plant, how cheap is that?) and bought about ten, which now are not looking very enthusiastic about life.

The bedraggled rose garden reminds me of a line in the Woody Allen movie "Midnight in Paris," when one of the characters advises her daughter, "cheap is cheap, you get what you pay for."

So true of my would-be rose garden. I might have to break down and buy better specimens.

Next post: Preparing the soil, selecting and placing the plants. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What fuels Trump's high approval ratings?

His approval rating is 35 percent or so. 
It ought to be closer to zero.

The blow-up over the weekend regarding Donald Trump Jr. and his apparent encouragement of Russian operatives to meddle in the U.S. election—I love it!, he exclaimedis amazing on a couple of levels.

Little Don must be stupider than a sack of manure. How can you get caught negotiating with avowed Russian operatives offering to tamper with the U.S. elections, and then confirm it over a string of emails? One move is patently illegal, the other incredibly dumb.

Opponents are talking, again, about a smoking gun that will lead to impeachment, resignation or some other finale to the Trump nightmare, but I'm not holding my breath.

No matter what Trump says or does, Republicans in Congress are loath to raise their voices because they need him to get their long-delayed legislative agenda implemented, apparently no matter the collateral damage inflicted on the long-term prospects of the party or the country.

More baffling still is Trump's steadfast support among a minority but rock-solid segment of the voters.

Bible-thumping, God-fearing, family-values evangelicals? Why do they back someone as morally compromised as Trump, who lies as casually as he breathes without regard to other people's reputation or the effect his mendacity might have on the country? Tolerating or ignoring Trump's behavior for the sake of getting abortion banned, or other religious agenda implemented?  

People frustrated by the liberal Eastern elites' alleged control of the media and the government? The White House now brims with billionaires, starting with Trump, whose economic and cultural interests have nothing in common with unemployed coal miners or the retired guy working as a greeter at Walmart in Peoria to make ends meet.

The so-called Republican health care reform in particular would be a massive wealth transfer to the wealthy through tax cuts while undermining or abolishing programs to help lower income Americans have access to basic health care. Why would those folks support Trump, unless they are suicidal?

If America's foreign policy and standing in the world worried you, you should be terrified now at Trump's astounding, embarrassing, ignorance of foreign affairs, and his unrestrained admiration for Russia's Putin, a world-class thug.

And did I mention that Trump often acts as if he's mentally ill, particularly in his thermonuclear reactions to the slightest criticism? Some psychiatrists supposedly are working on a book about that.

Yet that thirty-five  to thirty-nine percent bloc of Trumpistas remain unshaken and blame the whirlwind of chaos surrounding his presidency on lies by the media, liberal conspiracies and other externals.

I certainly would not dismiss them all as bumpkins or raving racists. I know several Trump supporters who follow the news and can defend their opinions. Bless their hearts, as they say in Texas.

Yet I must think the center base of Trump's support has to reside in the gut, rather than the brain, of his supporters, people that resent having been ignored for too long and see him as their chance to finally bang their fist on the table and be taken seriously.

Even then, I don't understand how Trump's erratic behavior could address their grievances unless this is all an exercise in ranting for ranting's sake.

Add to that others that have been deservedly marginalized, such as the white supremacists and extreme right-wing nuts now coming out from under the rocks, and it's a scary stew.

I've heard both liberals and conservatives lament that "this is not going to end well." I'm starting to believe it.  


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In Mexico, in No One we trust

Capitalism requires trust among the players. 
Maybe that's why it doesn't work so well in Mexico.

Two-and-a-half years ago we got the notion to apply for an ATM card from Interbank, a mutant of Intercam, the financial organization where we'd kept our money for close to ten years. 

We talked to Victor, a bespectacled bank clerk and lone occupant of a stifling, barebones office on the second floor of Intercam's tiny branch in a shopping center on the outskirts of San Miguel. 

Forget handshakes. What's the color of your house?
So many questions Victor asked it felt as if we were applying for a job at a North Korean missile factory. Parents' names, place of birth, former employer and line of work, plus innumerable documents, from passports, visas, statements from banks in the U.S., property tax receipts, a copy of the deed to our house and phone bills.  

In addition, Victor asked for a physical description of our house, including the color of the front door. 

Such inquisitions of potential customers are not unusual. Two friends who had applied for a cell phone account at Telcel, which owns a near-monopolistic share of the cell phone market in Mexico, put me down as a reference. And so someone from Telcel called me to ask about the color of my friends' house in the Los Frailes neighborhood of San Miguel. 

I chirpily replied that it was a shade of orange and one of the best paint jobs I had ever seen! The Telcel sleuth didn't appreciate my stab at irony.

Banks, retailers and other service providers likewise function amid a blizzard of paperwork and procedures that point to an endemic lack of trust in Mexican society. 

Transactions that can be zipped up in minutes in the U.S. by using a credit card, which guarantees payment, get mired in Mexico's world of suspicion, questions and investigations.   

Outside of San Miguel, particularly at gas stations, our U.S. credit cards often have been rejected. Ticketmaster will not take U.S. cards for phone or internet orders. You can buy tickets via internet for the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, but not for the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. 

Nowhere in our travels, from Norway to the Patagonia, have we had our U.S. credit cards rejected so frequently as in Mexico—most recently two days ago at Home Depot in Queretaro. No reason given. 

Service providers sometimes will accept personal checks that then bounce when a gimlet-eyed bank clerk detects a suspicious middle initial or a curlicue on the letter "a" that doesn't quite match the one on record. We've had a dozen checks bounced but never for lack of funds. 

A simple retail transaction can turn into an intricate tango. To buy a spool of thread at the Parisina fabric store you first ask a floor clerk who takes you to another clerk behind the counter who shows you the item in question. 

If that's what you want, she'll write a sales slip that someone walks to a cashier, perched behind a tall glass booth looking down on the sales floor. After you go pay the cashier, and have your receipt duly rubber-stamped—whomp!—you present it at a third counter where someone fetches the item you're looking for.   

I've never met the owner of Parisina, a nationwide chain, but I sense the dude doesn't much trust either his customers or his employees.  

Phone orders involve a different rigamarole. Vendors won't accept a credit card number but instead give you the name of their bank and their account number. 

You march over to the local branch of the bank and deposit the money in the vendor's account. You then go home to scan or take a picture of the receipt that you email to the vendor, who will verify the deposit. 

If it's all good you get a tracking number that you use to check when the merchandise arrives. Ah, but you better remember to bring not one but two photo id's, in our case a drivers license and our passport to pick up the parcel.     

Granted, distrust in Mexico is not mere paranoia. The country is riddled with corruption, from the highest levels of government down to local store owners trying to cut a few corners on their taxes. Vendors will unspool tales of shoplifting, check-kiting and worse. You just can't trust anyone, they say. 

The cost to Mexico's economy of this climate of distrust would be hard to calculate but I'm sure it's enormous, starting with the cost of reams of paper, photocopiers and personnel to handle the process.

On a more macro scale, this distrust-driven inefficiency no doubt retards the growth of the economy, particularly the retail and internet commerce sectors. 

If too loosey-goosey credit, and outright fraud, drove the American economy almost over the cliff in 2008, the opposite keeps the Mexican economy from growing. Here, distrust is choking the goose of a consumer economy honking to lay golden eggs. 

By the way, we did get an Interbank ATM card—three months after submitting our application and signing an agreement twenty-eight (28) pages long, full of incomprehensible whereases, conditions and codicils, in tiny type.  

Stew and I might have donated our kidneys to the bank for all we know. 


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Shirelles meet Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Mama said there'll be days like this,
There'll be days like this, mama said."

Monday, if I recall correctly, started out sunny. We had breakfast and I went on to my newly found routine of sitting on the back terrace, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the sunrise.  

As I listened to my favorite classical music station on my Kindle, I jotted down a brief, thoroughly unambitious to-do list for the day. 

Ralph W. Emerson, dressed up for
Concord H.S. prom.
There were no breakthrough medical discoveries, profound thoughts about the meaning of life or other biggies on tap, but instead two or three relatively menial tasks such as starting a bunch of cactus cuttings in the modest greenhouse Félix had just put together, and walking around the yard with the dogs to check on what plants were coming up. It promised to be a calm, relaxing day.

Then small snafus crept in, which combined with the miraculous process of "catastrophizing," I allowed to ruin my whole day. 

"Catastrophizing"—and I'm one of its leading practitioners—is the old practice of letting molehills turn into mountains.

My secret formula is to start out with one or two firecrackers to which I add a half-cup of imaginary napalm, some made-up dynamite plus a pinch of uranium and presto, I have a hydrogen bomb ticking inside my head. 

In retrospect, Monday's triggers are embarrassing to mention. Félix showed up in our pick-up that he had borrowed for the weekend, except the gas tank was quarter short; the remote for the garage door opener was missing; and the headlights, fog and tail lights were doing some sort of winking dance that could only be controlled by disconnecting the battery.
We, worry?

Félix had no plausible explanation except that things went bump in the night at a car wash where he took the truck to be cleaned.

There went my to-do list—and my whole day—by first trying to fiddle with the garage door opener and failing that, looking for a repairman. Meanwhile, I forgot to transfer to the car three bags of gravel I needed for gardening, plus the shovel, all of which ended at the mechanic where we took the truck to be fixed.

No garage door opener, no gravel, no truck, no gardening. A catastrophe brewed.

With my head still on a spin cycle Tuesday morning, I did my usual navel-gazing on the back terrace and a note fell out of my notebook.

It was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson who, even in Concord, Mass. in the 1800s, seemed to be familiar with days like Monday:

Finish everyday and be done with it. \
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities
no doubt have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.

Tomorrow is a new day:
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with
your old nonsense.

This day is all that is 
good and fair.
It is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations, 
to waste a moment on yesterdays. 

Or as the Shirelles paraphrased Emerson in their 1961 single:

Mama said there'll be days like this,
There'll be days like this, mama said. 

Couldn't have put it better myself, girls. 


Monday, July 3, 2017

Regime change in our beehives

Despite bad weather and nervous handlers,
two new queen bees are now buzzing in our hives

Last week Felix and Stew set out to replace the queen bees in two of our three hives, a tricky ritual even during optimal conditions—bright sun and warm weather—that became trickier during the torrential rains we've been having for several days.

Our three hives. Bees roam as far away as a three-mile radius
from the hives.
The two queens to be replaced had been at their posts for about two years and Felix and Stew thought it would revitalize the two hives and spur more honey production if we got replacements, which they did from a supplier in Morelia, for $620 pesos or approximately $30 dollars, including some very fancy overnight shipping.

Neither speed nor punctuality being a given for any transaction in Mexico, everyone was astonished when the little buzzers arrived two days later in a very fancy cardboard box labeled "live bees."

Félix and the bees from Morelia. 
Inside were two small plastic cages, each about the size of large thimbles, securely glued in place. Each cage contained a queen plus several helper bees, sort of ladies-in-waiting, to keep the queen company during what must have seemed, from the bee's perspective, a harrowing, four-hour trip through pot holes, toll booths and (for all they knew) even gangs of armed narco bandits.

The bees arrived with a supply of food that looks like a small wad of chewing gum that seals each tiny cage while providing nourishment during the trip.

Royal transport: Each queen bee arrives with several other
"helpers" in this plastic cage that carries enough food for three days. 
To replace the old queen and install a new one, one must take apart the beehive, which is made up of two or three wooden boxes or "supers" stacked on top of a bigger box called the "brood chamber." The latter is where the queen over time lays hundreds, maybe thousands, of eggs that somehow create lots more little bees, and honey. That's about as detailed as I can get.

The supers each contain eight frames with wires holding sheets of wax where the bees deposit the honey. At the end of the season the keepers extract the honey by running the frames through a hand-cranked centrifuge, a crude and messy spectacle in our small operation.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This week the mission was to look around the brood chamber, spot and kill the old queen—a quick execution that takes place between the index finger and the thumb of one of the keepers—and placing the cage containing the new queen and her helpers in the brood chamber. The other bees already in the hive quickly pounce and eat the remaining wad of food still sealing the cage and by doing so release the new arrivals. Pretty nifty.

Problem is that bees don't appreciate humanoids disturbing the hives, and will let you know by attacking any square millimeter of exposed skin, sometimes even penetrating clothing with their stingers.

Keepers protect themselves with ridiculous-looking hats, gloves and veils, an ensemble that makes them look like nuns from outer space. Light-color materials are recommended, for bees seem to be attracted or annoyed by dark colors.

For their work with the hives, Stew and Felix each carried a smoker which is a tin can with a nozzle and loaded with shreds of cardboard from egg cartons that are lit. The smoke, pumped by a bellows, has a soporific or mellowing effect on the bees, a bit like marijuana. They tend to lean back, relax and send out for pizza—unless you blow too much smoke up their probosces. That makes them really angry.

Smoke gets in their eyes. Félix and Stew in full bee-smoking gear.
It's best to mess with the hives on a sunny, warm day when most of the bees are out buzzing about, presumably looking for

During cloudy, clammy, rainy conditions, just like we've had this week, the bees mostly stay inside the hive, muttering and cussing to each other about the lousy weather and vowing to pounce with full fury on any fool that dares to take the lid off the hive.

Enter Felix and Stew. They kept checking the weather on the smartphone, and looking pleadingly at the clouds which only got plumper and darker. Waiting was not option because the queens and the helpers in the little cages have only enough food for three days and we would lose th $620 pesos if they didn't move fast.

So during a brief pause in the rain, when the sun even peeked out for ten or fifteen minutes, Felix and Stew geared up and set out to replace the queen bees.

And Lordy, they actually managed to find one queen, kill her and put in the new one. The next day they attempted an encore in the second hive but that didn't go so well, as they couldn't find the old queen bee. They left the new queen, figuring it would kill the old one anyway.

Given the adverse weather, the queen switcheroo went well. The only casualty was Félix getting stung on the tip of one finger.

He and Stew barely had time to collect the equipment get out of their nun suits before the torrential rains resumed.