Sunday, August 19, 2018

With a little help from our friends

What would you think if I sang out of tune? / Would you stand up and walk out me?/ Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song/ And I'll try not to sing out of key. Oh I get by with a little help from friends...  
You will often hear that second only to its ideal climate, the ease with which one meets other expats and collects a burgeoning list of social contacts is one of San Miguel's main attractions as a retirement destination.

It's true: During the ten years we've lived here Stew and I have met more people than we knew in Chicago after thirty years.  Every week we go out for dinner, church or other occasions; others we know immerse themselves in volunteer activities that soon become almost the equivalent of full-time employment, except for the pay.

As my late mom used to say, finding ways to "pass the time" is important when you retire to a blank agenda. 

But I wonder about the distinction between acquaintances and social contacts that keep us occupied and friendships, that far rarer and more precious commodity that is a blessing indeed, particularly when physical distances and the passage of time have frayed family ties and other connections. 

For one thing, friends are steadfast, acquaintances more transitory. In San Miguel acquaintances from church or other places will rush in to the side of someone seriously ill—unquestionably a welcome gesture—but almost as fast the flow of visitors and the phone calls will ebb, especially if it looks as if the crisis is going to require a sustained commitment of time and help, or when someone else in need summons for help. 

Friends stick around. I can think of three Chicago friends with whom Stew and I stayed in contact—literally for decades—through the roller coasters of each other's lives: successes and failures, career gains and losses, economic ups and downs, or health crises.

Friends might counsel but don't condemn. We can always talk openly with these friends, with no tsk-tsk's, aha's or I-told-you-so's or recrimination, much less fear that something we say might endanger our affection for one another.  

Vickie was such a friend. Stew and I knew her for nearly as long as we have been together, from our first jobs out of graduate school, right through numerous and embarrassing career, personal and romantic fumbles, right up to the end, earlier this year, when she died following a relatively brief but harrowing battle with pancreatic cancer.

We visited her and her husband in New York a couple of times and gossipped about old friends and joked awkwardly about her "jaunty" post-chemo buzz cut. Though there were periods over the years when we didn't communicate much, our friendship survived to the end.  

In three weeks we'll be visiting two long-time Chicago friends, who met us in New York in December to help celebrate my seventieth birthday. We dined, we went to Broadway plays and reminisced. This time, no doubt we will again talk endlessly about our lives and concerns, sometimes singing out of tune but with no worries that anyone is going to walk out on anyone.

What sustains acquaintances over the years so they eventually become friendships? What's the glue that holds them together? I have no answers except, maybe, those unknowable energies called "love" and "affection." Whatever it is, it's a precious gift that one instinctively clutches close to the heart.  

In his first epistle to the fractious church at Corinth, the apostle Paul offers a definition of love that also describes the concept of friendship if one just substitutes a few words:  
[Friends] are patient, friends are kind. Friendship does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Friendship does not delight in evil but rejoices with the the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I'm not so cynical as to dismiss acquaintances with whom we spend good times and whose  company we enjoy in San Miguel but I wanted to specifically honor the handful of true friends that Stew and I have here and at home, and express how much they mean to us.

Lyrics from "With a little help from our friends," by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1967)
First Corinthians 13:4-7 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Fleeting moments of grace

"Grace" is a concept usually associated with theology, as in how God's grace saves sinful humans from eternal damnation. I look at it from a more earthly and ephemeral perspective: Unexpected, wonder-full moments of beauty open to us if we only take the time to pause, look and savor them. Maybe both ideas of grace are the same, just packaged differently.

A moment of grace came to me a few days ago while I was taking a shower. Our circular shower has a eye-level window that offers a 180-degree panorama of the landscape around the ranch—an awesome view in itself. Outside the window I noticed a small toad, about an inch-and-a-half long, sitting on the ledge, perfectly still, looking straight at me inside, water falling on my head.

Somewhat flattered by the attention, I stared back. The exchange lasted several minutes, as if each were saying to the other, "Watcha you lookin' at, man?"

I wondered where these toads come from, here during the rainy season and gone the rest of the year, and where they spend the winter.

What was it thinking while looking at me so intently? "Nothing" cynics would say, but I don't believe that. It hadn't rained here for a few weeks, and I'm convinced the toad was fascinated, maybe envious, of all that water cascading and steam billowing just on the other side of the glass.

Hello and good-bye 
After a while, this small visitor hopped away only to return the next day, almost to the same spot. We examined each other, it hopped away, and I never saw it again. I felt grateful by the toad's two visits—two moments of grace that broke my routine of a quick, mindless shower.

Succulent plants are full of surprises too, though they don't come too often. Except for show-offs like agaves that sprout enormous seed plumes, most succulents are not only shy but downright hostile.

They are generally twisted, convoluted and really not too beautiful—unless you conflate "beautiful" and "weird"—and covered with nasty thorns to further shoo away visitors. Leave me alone. Get away from me.

Then one day, any day for there's really no set blooming schedule for all species, they'll send out a flower, usually huge and orchid-like, that's completely out of character with its ungainly host.

It's a moment of grace too, but you have to enjoy it right away for it is fleeting—usually one day before the flower shrivels up—though some blooms last longer. You have to be alert and ready to enjoy it.

Cactus buffet. 
Recently an untouchable round, barrel-like cactus with a thousand thorns—I gave up trying to figure out these customers' botanical or common names—sprouted a single, beautiful white flower. I stopped to admire it and photograph its awesomeness. The flower dropped off in a couple of days.

Close by, a gnarly, pretzel-like cousin I suspected might be dead because it didn't even seem to have any leaves, put out three bright red flowers that slowly opened over several days.

"Hey, I'm not dead. Far from it."

Indeed, the next two days a gorgeous butterfly perched on one of the flowers, feasting on something,  for maybe as long as a half hour, ignoring my attention and picture-taking. The next day, it was back for more.  Collecting pollen? Drinking nectar? Whatever for?

I could have Googled butterflies, pollen, flowers, nectar or whatever to find out exactly what was going on. But that would ruin a moment of grace that is best just enjoyed rather than examined. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Marijuana for dogs

Our dog Ellie is a peculiar creature that looks as if her myriad genes were cultured in a blender. She has a broad, somewhat flat face that suggests there might have some pitbull blood in the mix but she is quite small, about twenty tightly packed pounds, and doesn't show much interest or aptitude for guard duty, except joining the other dogs in an occasional barking chorale. She is also noticeably bowlegged, which combined with her boxy girth and general clumsiness makes her an interesting sight when she runs and does a bunny hop rather than a doggy trot.

A purebred Mexican Muttsky
Apparently when she was a puppy someone thought she had some noble blood or potentially valuable pedigree, so they chopped off her tail and ears in the expectation of selling or breeding her as a purebred.

What a cruel waste. When that greedy fantasy didn't materialize, she was set loose and ended up at the gate of our ranch looking frightened, emaciated and indeed, barely alive. We adopted her and she promptly chunked out thanks to a manic appetite, a trait she retains to this day.

Roxy, another one of our dogs, suffered similar mutilation at the hands of someone who saw her as a breedable Rottweiler, Doberman or God knows what. Today she's a large mixed-breed dog missing her ears and tail. With her tail missing, she signals excitement by wiggling her rear end instead. 

About a year after we adopted Ellie we noticed she had what seemed like epileptic fits. When running or overly excited she'd keel over on her side, unable to walk, breathing rapidly, her eyes wide open as in a trance. 

We've taken her to the vet a couple of times but he said there's really nothing to be done. Epilepsy in humans is a neurological disorder that would be difficult and expensive to diagnose in a dog. Besides, there isn't any specific treatment, he said. We should just put Ellie on a cushion when she has a fit, and wait for it to pass. 

A friend in San Antonio, though, suggested we try marijuana compounds that are used to treat anxious or hyperactive dogs, and in some cases epilepsy. I rolled my eyes, but Stew promptly went online to explore such miracle cure. 

Treating dogs with some sort of marijuana derivatives is apparently quite mainstream: The market for such concoctions doubled between 2008 and 2014. But what is sold for pet relief is CBD, an extract from marijuana different from THC, the cannabis component that gets people high and presumably could send your dog into orbit too. So even if CBD doesn't cure anything there's no need to worry Fido will get stoned or develop a sudden craving for pepperoni pizza. 

Dog Potion #9
Stew found PetRelief, a product made in River Falls, Wisc. and available through for $24.96 for a one-ounce spray bottle. If the dogs pictured on the website are any indication, the stuff is dynamite because they all look blissful, borderline dopey. 

The ingredients however, are a mystery: The label reads, "Proprietary blend of all natural ingredients. Essential oils." It is applied by spraying some on your hands and rubbing it on the dog behind the ears and on the belly, twice a day.  

Go ahead. Laugh, snark or chuckle. Make fun of Ellie and Stew—except that the stuff seems to work. We've been using it for three weeks and she has been fit-free and mellower than usual. Right now, at two o'clock in the afternoon, she is sleeping soundly on her bed in the living room—though probably dreaming about a large pizza. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

A cure for current events anxiety: Bake!

Feeling as if we're drowning in a wave of depressing news from the U.S., for the past few months Stew and I have drastically trimmed our daily consumption of current events.

According to some reports, symptoms of current-events overload—insomnia, anger and anxiety, among others—are widespread and affecting partisans on both sides of the political crevasse that divides America. Political discourse has been replaced by snarking and growling at anyone who disagrees with you.

So Stew and I have winnowed down the amount of news and other disquieting inputs, primarily through television and online, that threatens our peace and quiet. We started by skipping TV news, particularly CNN, with its babbling, bobbing heads and endless chyrons blaring some "breaking news." If a particularly obnoxious figure, say, Rudy Giuliani—the full-time pooper scooper of the Trump administration—accidentally pops up on our screen, one of us will reflexively lunge for the TV remote.

Perversely, I occasionally tune in to Fox News to see how their spinmeisters will twist, embroider and flip-flop news unfavorable to President Trump. It's the journalistic equivalent of alchemy and it's curious to watch, but for no more than five minutes.

Neither can I resist, curiosity temporarily trumping my mental health concerns, checking out some bizarre bit of news, such as the appearance of the QAnon conspiracy club at some recent Trump rallies. If you really believe Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring from a Washington, D.C. pizzeria and Barack Obama was born in Kenya, QAnon might be a good fit for you.

Our censoring campaign extends to talk shows, even those pretending to be comedy, most of which any more revolve around politics. No Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher or Sunday morning programs that dice, slice and mince every tidbit of news.

Dark, depressing TV dramas are out too, at least for me. We watched a few episodes of Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a scrawny, burned-out alcoholic defense lawyer. For Billy Bob, born with a face resembling the proverbial forty miles of bad road, the part is not much of a stretch. Yes, he heroically saves poor guys on the verge of getting mangled by the justice system, but to get to that redemptive climax you have to trod through so many unhappy people—all of them with cynical scowls tattooed on their faces—I don't care to see it any more. Stew, though, a fan of crime novels, seems to enjoy the show.

From l. to r.: Comics Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and hosts
Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.
And just as we were ready to give up on television, we discovered the Great British Baking Show on PBS, a cooking show so amiable, pleasant—and just plain nice—that it's the sort of thing to watch a hour before you go to sleep while sipping a cup of chamomile tea.

Unlike some American cooking shows that thrive on cutthroat competition and sometimes tormenting or humiliating tearful contestants, everyone on the Baking Show is civil, even helpful to each other.

The premise is to have twelve amateur, but clearly experienced bakers, prepare three different confections, as requested by the two hosts, Mary Berry, 83, a quite famous cookbook and TV presenter in the U.K., and Paul Hollywood, 52, also a celebrity baker in Britain. Two women comics help keep the show from taking itself too seriously.

It takes place in a tent on the grounds of a Downton Abbey-style manor in England, its splendor highlighted by beautiful photography even if it seems to rain constantly.

The contestants are really an interestingly mix too, representing today's Britain: A turbaned Sikh, a guy from Ghana, a South Asian woman, grandmothers and housewives, students and young people as young as seventeen years old, and a construction worker who turns out to be an amazingly good baker.

Baking challenges go all over the place, from fussy, light-as-air French pastries to heavier—much heavier—British creations such as Pork Pie with Chicken and Apricots. Oi. One show even included American-style doughnuts which were introduced in Britain during World War II, to satisfy American soldiers. The Technical Challenge is particularly onerous because contestants are given recipes with skimpy details and they have to fill in the blanks.

After the assignments are announced by the two women comics, they yell "BAKE!",  and the contestants are given anywhere from two to five-and-a-half hours to come up with a pie, pudding or whatever.

Even seemingly simple bakes get incredibly complicated, sometimes not so successfully,  at the hands of anxious contestants trying to outdo their competitors. Berry and Hollywood sample each of the creations and offer their opinions which can be sharp but never mean. The baking challenges get more complex as the season goes on and the number of contestants is whittled down.

At the end of each show, they pick the Star Baker for the week but also send someone home. The show concludes with hugs all around, tearful for those disqualified and congratulatory for the survivors. The show maintains its convivial tone right through the final credits.

This is a perfect show—so civil and pleasant—for these troubled times that are anything but. Even if you try some of the recipes and gain a few pounds, you'll sleep better.

[The Great British Baking Show airs on PBS, Amazon Prime and Netflix]