Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Christmas story: Bah! Humbug? Not at all.

have a conflicted relationship with Christmas. While I enjoy the gift-giving, the family get-togethers, the decorations, and the memories,  I can't quite embrace the elaborate religious packaging, or even a portion of it.

So I winced last Sunday in church, as I listened to the gospel reading, Matthew 1:18-25, which purported to explain the strange circumstances of how Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God, all the while remaining a virgin.

Strange indeed. Joseph, an average bloke and carpenter by trade, was engaged to Mary, and  understandably apprehensive by her unexpected pregnancy and ready to quietly call off the engagement.

Then an angel of the Lord arrived to calm his nerves: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." And so Joseph married Mary, but refrained from having marital relations until after Jesus was born.

On any other day, I would write off this far-fetched Christmas fable as just that.

A fairy tale it may be, but one too beautiful for me to abandon. 

But not on Christmas Day, when the days are short, the memories long, and people the world over hope and pray for peace and understanding, no matter how long the odds. Improbable as such stories may seem any other time, on this day somehow they ring true. Or at least we fervently hope so. 

It's a day to suspend judgment on the abracadabras of Scripture and instead concentrate on the teachings of the prophet Jesus, which two thousand years later, still stand as an exhortation for people to lead decent, moral lives, no matter what their specific religious or denominational beliefs may be.

The celebration of His birth, whenever it was, exactly, is cause enough for me to celebrate, to rekindle ties to friends and family, and to experience the joy of giving to others who may be less fortunate than I—while trying to ignore the commercialized pandemonium that envelops Christmas today.

One of my fondest Christmas memories is visiting my maternal grandmother, Herminia, and my spinster aunt Estela, who lived with her, to partake on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena as it called in Cuba, of one of the grandest meals imaginable.

The two of them cooked on an unpredictable charcoal stove, which had to be stoked and coddled constantly, to reach perfect temperature, a skill hard to fathom in this age of microwaves and convection ovens.

The Nochebuena feast she and my aunt created under such primitive circumstances then became a  yearly Christmas miracle in itself.

The meal went on for a couple of hours at least, and closed with various types of dessert, and a ceremonial sip from a dusty bottle of Domecq Viña 25, a sweet Spanish sherry, that appeared out of nowhere, and went back into secret storage for the rest of the year.

The day after I would laboriously write a letter to the Three Wise Men, extolling my own virtuous behavior during the year which merited receiving a long-shot but essential list of  toys. I would hand the letter, addressed to the Orient where the Wise Men lived, to my parents to mail.

To buttress the reality of this story, on the eve of January 6, my parents would leave three glasses of milk and some cookies on the kitchen counter to refresh the weary visitors from the Orient, when they came bearing gifts. 

Miraculously, the milk and cookies would be gone the morning after.

I would then dash to check under the Christmas tree to see how much of my fantasy list of gifts had actually materialized. Most of them usually did, confirming for me that the miracle of Christmas was real indeed.

Friday, December 20, 2019

What to do in a gloomy winter day?

Wednesday awakened every bit as cold, gloomy and clammy as it was in Chicago when we visited over Thanksgiving, about 35 degrees and windy. I cancelled plans to putz around the garden as soon as I stepped outside. Then we discovered our internet connection, and along with it, the internet radio stations that provide background music, news and noise all day long, had also left the building. Stew tried to break the unexpected quietude with some music from our Canadian satellite TV, except that apparently the free music channels had been eliminated during the last service "update."

Ellie: And what am I going to do today?
Félix showed up as if he were auditioning for Nanook of the North, wearing double hoodies and a knit hat. To avoid working outside, he dreamed up a paint job in the garage, with the door closed, of a wrought iron table. Even the dogs gathered glumly around the Christmas tree, not knowing what to do with themselves, and went back to sleep.

After breakfast, inside the house, the silence felt like a vacuum. 

What to do?
So I went for the heap of magazines and books on a small table by the side of the La-Z-Boy in the office, and I found the weighty semi-monthly "The New York Review of Books," to which I've subscribed for a couple of years, but not often actually read to any great extent.

The Review immodestly bills itself as a publication "inspired by the idea that the discussion of important books is an indispensable literary activity," along with, I suppose, "The Paris Review," "Lapham's Quarterly," and the "London Review of Books" to which I do not subscribe.

If I'm a fair representative of this universe, I suspect a good many of the subscribers to these hifalutin publications are "aspirational subscribers" who hope the intellectual content will filter into their brains, as if by osmosis, even if they read only one article per issue, if that.

Nanook don't want to be outside today.
There are others, though, like my friend Steve C., who reputedly vacuums every word of The Economist, a brainish London-based newsweekly, while simultaneously admiring the sunsets from his villa in Melaque, a Pacific Ocean resort. It takes all kinds. 

Instead, for many people these magazines accumulate neatly on the coffee table, mostly untouched, and the collection culled periodically, with virgin copies piously donated to the public library. Some people I know confess facing the same dilemma with their copies of the "New Yorker" magazine, which I actually read.

In my defense, the Review is a tough beast to tackle. It's tabloid-size, with oceans of tiny type, that are, occasionally and mercifully, broken up by large ads. Concepts like open design or large, stunning photographs to hook the reader, have yet to reach the Review. 

Typically, the articles are thousands of words long and test the attention span of a casual visitor. Some are about current events (Trump!?) but mostly are reviews of books about relatively arcane topics such as the Renaissance painter Verrocchio, under whom Leonardo da Vinci studied.

But with gloom outside and silence inside, I buckled myself to the La-Z-Boy, and with a mug of coffee in hand, read most of the Dec. 19 issue of the Review.

Here's the news: It was a most enjoyable and fascinating three hours. 

I read about the rites and rituals of the 'Ndrangheta, as the Calabria-based branch of the Italian Mafia is called. Despite its criminal mission, the 'Ndrangheta is dominated by religious rituals dating back hundreds of years. An example is the custom of men kissing each other on the cheek. A novice undergoing initiation goes around kissing each of the senior members twice on the cheeks, except for the Big Tuna, or capo società, who gets three kisses. If someone comes and kisses you lightly on the lips, it's time to run for the nearest exit, because that's a sign you've been marked for execution. 

Another article was about Haiti, which was colonized by the French, who imposed the most brutal plantation system in the world, under which slaves were literally worked to death. The French assumed a "natural" annual death rate of five percent of the enslaved workforce, and just rounded up more slaves as replacement. Even after it was freed by France, Haiti was forced to pay onerous "reparations" to France, that all but guaranteed eternal misery for the country. I visited Haiti twice and, for some reason, it holds a special place in my mind.

A third article was about the Oregon standoff in 2016, when some heavily armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and in the ensuing melee one of the protestors, with the odd name of LaVoy Finicum, was shot to death. I walked away from the article persuaded the standoff was mostly farcical right-wing theater, rather than a genuine protest.

None of these readings are likely to fatten my retirement portfolio or teach me how to tune my car, but all were nevertheless worthwhile, by, if nothing else, taking my mind from the grind of daily, repetitive, and often vacuous "current events," particularly politics, and Trump and his impeachment. There's a vast world of ideas, history and events out there, we sometimes forget, beyond the quotidian, and often trifling, "breaking news." 

It was as if my La-Z-Boy had been transformed into a first-class seat for a three-hour flight to places and events I didn't know or remember, with not even flight attendants fluttering over me, offering food or drink. 

But by early afternoon, this fanciful plane was forced to land: The sun came out and the internet came back to life. It was time for lunch and for the usual noise of daily life to return.

The unexpected spell was broken.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Growing old alongside our pal Lucy Mae

While volunteering at the reception desk of a local animal shelter, shortly after arriving in San Miguel, a woman came in with a battered birdcage holding a pitiful white puppy inside, with a bloated pink belly and soulful eyes. She had found a cardboard box containing three or four puppies, a few weeks old, by the side of the road to Los Rodríguez, a nasty piece of residential real estate near San Miguel. All the puppies were dead except for the one customer in the birdcage.

But there was no room at the shelter for any more dogs or cats, no matter how pathetic-looking.

"Here, why don't you take it home and 'foster' it?," another volunteer said, matter-of-factly handing me the birdcage-puppy package. "You take care it for two or three months, until we have room, and then you can bring it back."

I want that doggie in the window.

Sure. What a totally disingenuous and manipulative suggestion! How was I supposed to take care of a helpless puppy, nurse it back to health and then return it as if it were an ill-fitting pair of shoes?

Did this person take me for an idiot?

Naturally, I took the puppy home. Upon arrival, Stew objected to adopting this adorable puppy, but only feebly and for barely two or three minutes.

And so Lucy Mae became the leading character—Momma Lucy as Stew calls her—in our ever-changing conga line of dogs and cats.

During her 13 years with us, Lucy has survived a near-fatal attack by a Doberman; a snake bite that made her face swell so much she looked as if she had golf balls stuck in both sides of her mouth; and a near-death encounter with Stew when she chewed up a cushion of a living room chair.

Now she weighs about 70 pounds but remains in remarkably good health, perhaps even more so than her two humanoid masters.

Traditionally, a dog year has been computed as seven human years, but those estimates have been revised to account for different aging rates, size and breeds.

According to that new formula (see chart on the left), Momma Lucy turns out to be around the venerable age of 82 in human years, compared to my 72 at the end of this month.

Yet she seems to be in better shape than me. She still has a full set of shiny teeth, unlike all my fillings and four dental implants. Lucy grinds her bones a bit more slowly but still impressively for her age.

She doesn't have any cataracts or cloudiness in her eyes, whereas I've had cataract surgery in both eyes. Her hearing seems fine, better than my hearing-aid enhanced hearing.

And her sniffer still can detect butter in the next room as well as it did when she was a puppy and she discovered, and ate, a whole stick of butter in one gulp. It was a life-changing event engraved in her brain: Mantequilla, hmm. 

We both could lose a few pounds, but nothing alarming.

Our agility has declined, mine more than hers. Neither one of us can replicate the100-yard dash of our youth, but Lucy Mae can still work up to a full trot better than I.

Old pals. 
One advantage Lucy has enjoyed is full run of our seven-plus acres of land, along with her other four dog pals, a life-enhancing, plus compared to her cousins that live inside apartments or houses, and seldom go off-leash. Lucy only vaguely remembers a leash.

At this rate, Lucy Mae may outlive me, given her overall excellent health. Or vice versa.

Whatever. One thing I wish for Lucy Mae is a peaceful, quick and painless adiós, on her own terms. As any pet lover will tell you, having to euthanize an old animal, no matter how bad a shape it's in, is one of the most painful experiences in life.

So when it's time, I hope Lucy Mae goes like Scott, a true feline Methuselah, who lived with us in Chicago until he was around 22 years.

In his final months, and following, we suspect, a series of strokes, Scott became almost completely blind and deaf. Still, he always managed, somehow, to find his litter box on the first floor, and then, last thing at night, slowly stumble up to our bedroom on the third floor, climb on the bed and cuddle up between us for the night.

Until one morning Scott didn't wake up. Way to go, Scott.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

My kind of town, Chicago still is

When we arrived in Chicago, two days before Thanksgiving, the reception was neither warm nor surprising: The weather was gray and cold, and a steady breeze drove the freezing drizzle at a thirty-degree angle that felt on the bare skin like pinpricks. The 25-minute wait for an Uber taxi felt more like an hour. But despite that initially unpleasant hello, this trip, like others previously, reinforced our love for the city, where Stew and I lived for 30 years, before retiring in Mexico 14 years ago. 

"How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days," John Burroughs.
It's not as if the city remains unchanged. Our old neighborhood around Wrigley Field is almost unrecognizable except for the venerable ballpark itself. And the city's skyline continues to evolve, to the south and west of the Loop, and upward with ever-taller buildings. Even the landmark neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower, built in 1925 and where I used to work, is being converted to condos. Ouch. And the iconic Crate and Barrel store on Michigan Avenue also has been transmogrified into the world's largest Starbucks, though we decided to skip the long lines to get in.

Direct marketing, Chicago-style
Our comfort when visiting Chicago, however, is not just familiarity but instead a certain bond we feel with the city, its architecture, history and even the bicycle paths that I rode to work for two years, through even the foulest winter weather. Plus, of course, some long-term friendships we've have there.

It's an affectional bond that neither Stew nor I, for some reason, have been able to forge with our present home of San Miguel or Mexico.

Yesterday morning we drove around San Miguel to distribute loaves of Stollen fruit cake to our German friends, and to take care of other errands, ending with lunch at our favorite taco restaurant. The city is a stunning colonial gem, fully deserving of all the accolades travel writers continue to bestow on it, even after some recent bad publicity about the rising crime rate.

When we first visited San Miguel, our reaction to it was overwhelming but hardly unique. We were struck by how the late-afternoon play of light and shadows magically made every old street lamp and old facade a photo opportunity, and turned the lowly street vendor with a donkey into the  centerpiece of a vivid diorama. San Miguel promised retirement in a postcard.

Urban wildlife in Chicago
In those days it was not unusual for first-time American visitors to be so taken by San Miguel that they would buy a house after only a week here. Indeed, we came thisclose to doing that ourselves, until our more skeptical guardian angel counseled us to curb our enthusiasm. We took our time, but eventually bought seven acres of land with a spectacular view of the landscape with mountains in the background, and built a home we really love.

It would be unrealistic to expect that initial frisson to last, though some friends profess to be as enthralled with San Miguel ten years after they moved here as they were when the arrived. Instead, we've had a few bad experiences in San Miguel, notably a legal brawl with someone intending to take a piece of our land, that have dampened our opinion of the city and Mexico.

And during the past three years, San Miguel has been going through a real estate development and tourist frenzy that threatens to transform it, and not for the better. Just yesterday we noticed that an enormous excavation near the Centro, at least 30 feet deep, being encased by walls and columns of rebarbed concrete. It's a new boutique hotel by the Marriott Corp. that will include some luxury residential

In fact, there seems to be an epidemic of new restaurants and hotels, all haute, luxe or boutique. And that picturesque, sunlit vendor and his burro of our first visit have been shoved aside by one of several faux-antique trolleys that clog the streets, filled with tourists aiming their smartphones in every direction.

Memorial to the unknown Chicago cyclist. 

I'm not one to complain about our charming village being "ruined" by tourists and Starbucks. Lacking any beaches, silver mines or oil, San Miguel has to rely on tourists, and all the good and bad they bring with them.

And even amid the tourist and development rush, San Miguel's ideal climate, architecture and colorful public festivals and religious celebrations remain intact, and continue to dazzle first-time visitors. I also feel blessed by the numbers of friendships we've made here, though only a couple are  Mexican.

Perhaps San Miguel's large expat, English-speaking community is a mixed blessing, an isolating bubble, no matter how long we live here. It provides a ready-made and comfortable niche that also makes you a perpetual tourist in the country you've picked as your new home. In my post about the Day of the Dead celebrations I wrote how expats have even carved out even a walled portion of the cemetery where we can remain together—and apart from Mexico and Mexicans—even after we die. 

Sidewalk advice. 
I'm fluent in Spanish, even though a Cuban variety, so language for me shouldn't be an impediment to communication or assimilation into the local culture.

But as much as Stew and I have tried—and tried—to develop friendships with Mexicans, we wouldn't claim to have more than two or three Mexican friends, nothing like the hey-why-don't-you-come-over-for-dinner-Friday friendships we have with dozens of fellow expats. Our gardener of ten years, Félix, is about as close a Mexican friend as we have. 

It may be that what Chicago has, and San Miguel lacks, is the big-city buzz of ethnic and cultural diversity, that makes everyone a foreigner but at the same time a native. In San Miguel everyone is either gringo or Mexican, and we all stay on our side of the street, cordial but hardly blended.

During our brief visit to Chicago we enjoyed not one but two opulent Thanksgiving dinners (one day apart!), plus visits to Greek, Lebanese, Italian and Swedish eateries, lunch at "The Bagel," our favorite kosher joint plus a restaurant designed as a recreation of a Midwestern supper club. I wanted to sample a new Kurdish restaurant but there was no time, or additional holes in our belts. Stew gained nine pounds.

The best matzo-ball soup west of New Jersey. 
At The Bagel, the team of rickety Jewish waitresses have been replaced by, yes, an all-Mexican team, including a transgender cashier. I thought I recognized one of the busboys and introduced myself: Indeed he had been working there for 29 years, though now he's something like a head waiter of sorts. I wanted to take his picture, but he refused. He will remain nameless, because I suspect he's still working on his immigration papers.

At a Starbucks I met another Latin American import, Gerardo, who worked for a window-washing company and was squeegeeing the windows at warp speed. When we left, I congratulated him on his dexterity, despite the cold weather, and he melted. He thanked me profusely and said I'd made his day.

Gerardo, ace window washer. 
Chicago's weather didn't disappoint: It sucked, cold and windy, and overcast until the last day of our visit. I saw cyclists still cruising down city streets, bundled up like eskimos, and remembered how I used to do the same crazy shit.

We ventured for walks around Andersonville, originally a Swedish neighborhood, that is now gay, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and several other things, but this was not the time to walk around the city admiring new buildings or window shopping.  Using public transit cards we rode the el trains, feeling a bit like tourists, and one afternoon rode the Clark Street bus for a one-hour ride from Andersonville to the Loop, just for the hell of it, just to sit back and check out any new sights.

Our friends in Chicago, some from our working days, are, no surprise, older and gray haired (or bald) and some battling with their weight. But for our week there, the 14 years we have been away seemed to vanish.

We're not moving back to Chicago, not to worry. The climate and the cost of living make the city prohibitive. But neither are we signing a lifetime lease in San Miguel, as tourists in paradise.

Chicago: An all-American kind of town. 

Parting thought.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

A mid-rise condo for your collection of succulents

This blog doesn't often stray into the arts-and-crafts area, but Félix and I last week built this clay brick "condo" for our succulent collection that we're both really pleased with, and feel it deserves some celebration.

We needed an attractive, and space-efficient way to display the burgeoning collection of succulents we've collected over the past three years. Most of the specimens now live in individual clay pots or in small groups, lined up on a wrought iron table like singers in a choir.

I had seen some displays made of cement blocks, with some of the specimens transplanted into the two holes inside each block. But we didn't think that was particularly attractive or that the appearance of cement blocks would go very well with the adobe exterior of the house.

We had built a smaller display wall out of adobe blocks, but they started to disintegrate when it rained, particularly the blocks cantilevering out, where we displayed individual pots. Looking back, we may have resolved this problem if the adobe blocks had been waterproofed with two or three coats of roof sealer, or some other type of sealer like Thompson's brand sealer. But I didn't think of that then.

So we opted for jumbo-sized clay bricks, each measuring approximately 16" long, 8" wide and 4" thick.  That's an oddball size for clay bricks, that we had to shop all over town until we found a supplier just outside of San Miguel. Before assembly, we gave the bricks two thick coats of sealer to stem deterioration from the elements.

Assembling the bricks in the formation of a wall, with some sticking out to provide display space, is a jigsaw puzzle game that depends on personal preferences. The bricks were not perfectly even and in a few cases we had to use small wooden wedges to stabilize our creation. 

We ended up with a display wall nine feet long by four feet high. But the wall could be "L" shaped, semi-circular, zigzag, or whatever moves you.

The beauty of this project is that it allows for the expansion of the display's length or height. We are already thinking of adding a couple of feet at one end. The cantilevered spaces, created by setting the bricks perpendicularly to the wall, create ledges where individual pots can sunbathe, or underneath, a bit of shade for those succulents not too fond of full-sun exposure. The wall faces northeast, away from the full-blast afternoon sun.

Or you can place candles in some of the nooks and crannies for some nighttime ambiance.

Total cost for the project—at Mexico prices—was a little more than $55 dollars, and it required 37 bricks. Logistics of finding a pickup to fetch the bricks is, of course, extra, besides labor.

We were pleased with the look and functionality of our project. Plus it's a fun way to spend an afternoon—assuming you live in balmy San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of central Mexico.

North of Kentucky, hmm, you might want to print and tape this post to the refrigerator door until May or so, when the "winter bomb cyclones" have run their course.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

One loud cheer for the 'fake news' New York Times

The New York Times, widely regarded the best paper in the U.S., if not the world, for the breadth and depth of its news coverage, has come under incessant attack by President Trump, and his millions of followers, as a nefarious purveyor of "fake news."

We hear that the Times' news coverage is tendentious, if not downright false, made-up stuff. Lies, damn lies, that distort the accomplishments of the Trump administration. Lies so outrageous, it's best to dismiss the Times as "fake news," the same way you wouldn't bother reading the official newspaper of the the Communist Party of Cuba.

Prince Cyrus in his decrepit realm in the middle of New Delhi.
And if you follow that advice, you'll be missing some of the best newspaper writing around.

Aside from news, the Times regularly digs up some amazing stories, such as Friday's "The Jungle Prince of Delhi," a tale so amazing, and so amazingly well reported and written, at first it strikes you as fiction, perhaps a latter-day sample of "magical realism" writing, in the style of García Márquez or Isabel Allende, with characters and settings that defy credulity, even though, in this case, they are all real. Or who, at first, seem to be real.

It's the story of a mother, and her son and daughter, who until recently lived in a 14th century hunting lodge located in an almost impenetrable jungle in the middle of New Delhi, a city of more than 20 million.

They claimed to be descendants of Muslim Shiite royalty, and effectively mounted a sit-in protest in the VIP lounge of the Delhi train station, demanding to be recognized as such by the Indian government.

It was a bizarre, deluxe protest to which they brought carpets, potted plants and attendants, and which lasted for about ten years. "Indian Princess Reigns in Railway Station," a Times reporter wrote in 1981." By now you're shaking your head.

That's just the beginning of the story, on which the reporter worked on for years, and which took her for interviews with relatives in Britain, Pakistan and phone conversations with someone in Texas. I won't say more because I don't want to disclose the ending.

The story was arresting, touching and moving but not sappy, like so many "human interest" stories about, say, someone missing a leg and an arm, and against all odds, is training for the Boston marathon.

An online version of the Washington Post seems to specialize in those stories, which are supposed to inspire but have instead come to bore the hell out of me. Maybe I'm jaded. 

Best of all, the tale of the Cyrus, the Jungle Prince of New Delhi, and his family, was a welcome departure—an escape— from the numbing rat-tat-tat of news about Trump, impeachment and who-said-what-to-whom.

It was like riding on a magic carpet for a visit to a mythical kingdom that once upon a time was real, or so it seemed.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The autumn of our forgetfulness

Old age is like a car turning over 150,000 miles; no matter how many times you've changed the oil or rotated the tires, things start going clink, clank and pfft. 

In older people, a sputtering memory is assumed to presage dementia. We fret about finding ourselves in the day room of a nursing home, drooling and speaking in tongues, with a nurse or spouse gently patting us on the head or changing our diapers, even though, really, at that point we won't know or care. 

At 71, my memory seems to be pretty much intact, or no worse than it's ever been, except that recently I've been having problems remembering the names of movies and movie stars. 

For a gay man, that's a particularly frightening sign of Alzheimer's: If I can't remember the name of Barbra Streisand's gay son, or how many Oscars Meryl Streep has won, that will erode my credibility among gay friends, who might start ridiculing or even shunning me.  

Some oldsters take up exercises such as doing riddles or crossword puzzles, or even taking nutritional supplements, to stimulate the thinking processes. Think of it as Metamucil for the brain. 

But I've read, can't remember where, that such routines are useless. You might become a wiz at crosswords or Scrabble, or spend a fortune at the organic apothecary, but your memory will be as arthritic as ever, and getting progressively worse. 

Still, one must do something, we can't just wait helplessly for the final deterioration of our bodies or brains.

So I've taken up the hobby of learning the scientific Latin names of all the succulent plants I own, which are close to a hundred. I may have written a post about this daunting pastime, though I can't remember when.

Et tu, Kalanchoe?
I began by first finding a botanical dictionary plus several books about succulents, with lots of color pictures.

My tack is not just to memorize the names but learn the translations from the Latin, as an aide memoire. 

I've also begun needlessly sprinkling foreign words in my writing, preferably French, as another memory-enhancing technique, even at the risk of sounding like a fatuous poseur.   

It's all a serious challenge, especially because I intend to learn the first and last names of the little succulent buggers. 

Not just Echeveria, of which there are hundreds of varieties, but also the complete proper moniker, as in Echeveria setosa. 

A curious aside: This genus of succulents was named in honor of Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy, a Mexican botanical artist and naturalist of the eighteenth century. Thought I'd throw that in now, before it slips my mind.

So setosa, in the case of the Echeveria, means something like "fuzzy " in botanical Latin. But tomentosa, as in Kalanchoe tomentosa, means "very fuzzy." So even this supposedly scientific nomenclature leaves you wondering about degrees of fuzziness. 

Cat or Rabbit Ears: You be the judge. 
I could try to make things easier for myself by using the nickname "Cat's Ears" for the K. tomentosa, but it doesn't sound as learned or impressive as the scientific Latin. 

Besides, its leaves don't look like the ears of any cat I've ever seen, but more like rabbit ears.

It's no wonder that succulent names, even in books, are frequently confusing, except to connoisseurs, or that sometimes you find two or three scientific names for one succulent. 

Or that the differences among some succulents are so minimal that confusion is inevitable. 

Worse, I worry about people who actually know succulents coming over to the ranch for tea and crumpets, from, say, the snooty-sounding group that calls itself The San Miguel Cactus and Succulent Society. 

They could spot plant labels with wrong names and notice me babbling incoherently in Latin, and conclude I've lost my mind—forget about my memory—and go home shaking their heads.


P.S. In case you're wondering, Barbra's gay son is Jason Gould. And Meryl has won three Academy Awards and has been nominated for 21. 

P.P.S. Here's a photo of Félix standing by a display wall that we just built, out of clay bricks, for displaying some of our succulents. Eat your heart out Succulent Society!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

CNN BREAKING NEWS: The buzz is gone away as apian debacle decimates honey production

I could tell something was terribly wrong when I saw Stew's and Felix' long faces, behind the protective hoods they wear when handling our beehives, as they returned from collecting the honey panels from the beehives.

"A real disaster," said Stew, in his usual understated manner. "We barely got half a bucketful of honey."

Except this time he was not exaggerating. After dismantling all three of our beehives, he and Félix could extract only three gallons of honey, compared to 15 or so a few years back. So we ended up with 15 jelly jars of honey, instead of 60 or 70.

For some reason, this year's honey turned out darker than usual.
While they were in the garage during this operation, the dogs and I were safely hiding in the kitchen running about 20 glass jelly jars through the dishwasher, that we hoped would be filled with honey, ahead of 30 or 40 more stored in the basement.

During the five or six years we've been operating our honey business, we've used a unique business plan, according to which Stew and I eat all the expenses and Felix gets all the profits.

Not surprisingly, Félix liked this sweet arrangement, that in a banner year, could bring him as much as $5000 pesos.

He particularly liked that we did all the marketing legwork, instead of him sitting by the side of the road, looking forlorn, with a handmade sign hawking honey for sale, or having to run up to gringo strangers on the street, waving a jar of honey.

Our most productive outlet has been San Miguel's Unitarian Church. Unitarians are soft-hearted, health-conscious folks who slurped up the heart-rending, and true, story of poor campo-boy Félix bottling organic, non-adulterated honey—rumored to help cure everything from baldness to flat feet—in order to raise some extra pesos for him and his family. Sigh.

But then, last year, one sticky-fingered Unitarian walked off with a shopping bag containing about a dozen jars of our honey. Dismayed by this bit of larceny, the only thing we could do was hope that this dastardly criminal at least sold the honey and gave the proceeds to homeless Honduran migrants, impoverished Mexican children learning to play the piano, or some similar Unitarian cause.

This year, however, there won't be any honey for sale.

What caused this apian apocalypse is anyone's guess. It could be climate change—which nowadays is blamed for just about anything that goes awry in the world—or Hillary Clinton's mishandling of her damn emails.

A more real problem might have been poor maintenance of the beehives. One of them was rotted and in very bad condition, and one other abandoned, probably because the queen bee died or moved elsewhere.

Nicotine-based pesticides have been blamed for a precipitous drop in bee populations in the U.S., known as colony collapse, but I don't think that has affected us down here.

This year, though, there was a plague of grasshoppers, that munched on the vegetation, including flowers.

I thought of angrily spraying insecticide all over the place, but Félix—always the clever one—pointed out that strategy might poison the bees too, or the flowers they nibbled on.

So Stew and Félix now are talking about scaling back our apiculture operations and getting rid of the hive in the worst condition, and refurbishing the other two with new queens and a new colonies of bees. We also pray for flash freeze that fries the grasshoppers.

But we can't buy new queens or worker bees, from suppliers in Morelia or Aguascalientes, until early next year. So for the time being all we can do is wait, and ration the amount of honey we put on our cereal for breakfast. Maybe give away a couple of jars to friends—really good friends.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Two American geezers in Munchkinlandia

Having arrived to the U.S. in 1962, at age 14, I missed much of the cultural iconography that guided American kids who grew up during the 1950s.

I missed "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) starring Judy Garland and Bert Lahr; "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; or even some of the mainstream TV fare like "Leave It to Beaver," which debuted in 1957, starring Tony Dow, whom Stew reportedly had an early crush on. I even missed the "Mickey Mouse Club," starring Annette Funicello, which had an initial run between 1955 and 1958.

Since my arrival, and becoming an American citizen five years later, I have put myself through some accelerated cultural acculturation.

I have seen with "All About Eve" (1950) with Bette Davis snarling "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," as only she could; "Gone with the Wind" (1939) with Clark Gable not giving a damn; and even Joan Crawford flinging chicken and waffles in the 1945 "Mildred Pierce."

Still, when a friend from Chicago, with whom we'll be spending Thanksgiving, included a reference in an email to Dorothy clicking the heels of her "ruby slippers" three times, I was stumped. Stew knew it had to something do with the "Wizard of Oz," but not much else.

Ah, now I know who you are!
So last week we rented the "Wizard" from Amazon, and we both loved it. The production was amazing, particularly for a film made that long ago; the music instantly recognizable; and Bert Lahr and Judy Garland terrific.

(I was left wondering, though, how the producers managed to recruit so many singing and dancing little people, formerly known as midgets, to play a squad of Munchkins.  Or were they children? Anyone know?)

Even with the Wiz under my belt, I was unprepared to encounter maybe 50 or 75 live Mexican Munchkins in Querétaro on Saturday.

We had gone there looking a small chest of drawers at a furniture store advertising "Buen Fin," or the Mexican equivalent of the American "Black Friday."

As we feared, the furniture store—and seemingly the whole city of Querétaro—was a madhouse of traffic, jammed parking lots, and people lugging 60-plus-inch TVs to their cars. The furniture store even had a group of about a dozen car jockeys, aged circa 18 years old, manning the valet parking franchise.

Next time, read the signs. 
So we went looking for a place to eat and pulled into a Dairy Queen, where Stew had hoped to get a hamburger or such, except this store served only ice cream, sundaes and soft drinks.

"Let's go next door to Chuck E. Cheese," I suggested. I'd never been to a Chuck E. Cheese and thought it was a mouse-themed hamburger joint.

I should have paid more attention to the sign outside, which clearly warned, in English, "Where A Kid Can Be A Kid."

Talk about a clueless old coot (me).

Inside we found instead a huge indoor game arcade, with a cacophony of games, all tooting, flashing and clanging for attention.

Plus a mob of kids, average age about five, running around screaming, like Munchkins on speed, from one machine to another, with most parents looking on from a distance.

Hungry and undeterred, we went in and ordered a pizza, and sat at booth to take in this unexpected spectacle. Food was so-so and a minor attraction at this place anyway, which looked like a casino designed for kindergarteners.

Batman and vroom, vroom need no translation. 
We were the only unaccompanied men in the place, which made us feel just a tad self-conscious. I generally love kids and approach them to ask their names, and in the case of boys, exchange a fist-bump.

Except here, the thought ran through my head, someone might take us for a couple of old perverts and call the police.

I noticed that everything about this place was in English: The instructions on the games and even the public announcements. The only concession to Spanish I found was the sign with the menu entrees.

It was as if someone had plucked a store deep in Wisconsin, parachuted it on Querétaro, and just turned on the electricity.

Push this here, mi'ijo. 
This place was, in fact, a testimonial to the unstoppable power of American culture and language, which made translations and other adjustments largely redundant.

I bet most of the light-skinned, middle-class Mexican parents at this Chuck E. Cheese's knew enough English to show the kids how to play the games.

And from watching American television and movies, the kids hardly needed an introduction to Batman, race cars, or cowboys and Indians.

If this place were a German- or French-themed franchise, it probably wouldn't work.

But it was American-themed and, for all the occasional nationalistic, anti-gringo blather, upwardly mobile Mexicans can't seem to get enough of American pop cultural exports.

On the way in, an attendant had stamped our arm, which she checked on the way out before releasing the latch on the exit door.

She explained this was a security measure to prevent the little monsters from escaping, or leaving with the wrong adult. Chuck E. had thought of everything.

We left, paused for a second to let our ears adjust, and ran to the Dairy Queen for dessert.

Dessert indeed. We spotted a couple of handsome, bearded guys in their twenties, sitting at a table on a small terrace in front, passionately, and conspicuously, hugging and kissing each other, in broad daylight.

Two guys making out in front of a Dairy Queen: That's when you know American culture really has moved into Mexico.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Fanfare for an uncommon man

Expats sometimes shower their help with almost condescending praise for being reliable, honest, polite and some such. Our indispensable man Félix, the central character in many of my blog posts, is much more than that. He's a wiz; a singular person in Mexico or anywhere else.

During the ten years he's worked for us, we've encountered a few bumps, but nevertheless, we're fortunate that we found him—or that he found us. By now, he takes care of just about everything in the ranch, from the dogs and cats, lettuces and radishes, patching and painting, checking the roof for leaks.

We're reminded daily of his resourcefulness, curiosity and plain smarts. Plus a kind heart: Unlike many Mexican machos, he's not afraid to get teary-eyed when he talks about the death of his grandmother, or his beloved dog Chupitos, which was attacked and gored by a pack of wild dogs. He buried Chupitos in our pet cemetery, along with a dozen other dearly departed pets.

Where this unusual bundle of personal traits comes from, I don't know. Sometimes I think it's just the grace of God.
The gang's all here: (clockwise from lower left) Jessica, Alondra, Félix,
Isela, and Edgar, at his kindergarten graduation. 
It didn't spring from his family or upbringing. He grew up in a home where tragedy seems to have been a constant presence. Four of his five siblings are mentally handicapped, illiterate or both. Three or four more siblings died at childbirth or before reaching adulthood. An alcoholic father presided over the home. Félix only reached the sixth-grade and his reading, writing and arithmetic are iffy.

And yet, when we return from traveling, after he stays here alone taking care of the house, he'll often comment on some book he'd found on the bookshelf  or the coffee table. Apparently he leafs through our books—animals, gardening and foreign places seem to be his favorites—even though he can't read English, or had access to many books while growing up. I admire his native curiosity.

I used to feel sorry for him, but no more. Now, I feel admiration, sometimes awe, for his survival instincts.

We met Félix when we were building the house, and he worked as a gofer, mixing cement, moving rocks or whatever. One day, after we'd moved in, he ambushed me by the gate when we were coming home.

"Alfredo, I need a job and want to work for you," he said, using my first name, and the familiar "tú" instead of the formal "usted."

Boy, this guy has balls, I said to myself. That impression was confirmed later as I gradually found out that by age 21, he had already worked at odd construction and farm jobs after leaving grammar school, and made two illegal trips across the border also, to work in odd jobs near Dallas and send money home to his family.

It turned out too that he was living with Isela, a young woman who was already pregnant with their first child and whom he would marry a couple of years later.

As our gardener, Félix has gotten sucked into my fascination with succulents and cacti. I keep buying more specimens, though my ability to identify the different types, much less remember their arcane botanical names, remains uncertain.

No problem for Félix, who's developed a mental archive of the Aloes arborescens, Echinocactus grusonii, Agave Queen Victoria, and their multitude of cousins, sufficient to correct me when I get them confused, which is often. Anymore I write plant id tags in pencil, so I can erase them if they're wrong.

On the Day of the Dead, Stew and I visited the municipal cemetery and I noticed a patch of a particular succulent growing almost rampantly by a gravesite, that was similar to a far more timid specimen we have in the front patio. But what the hell is the name of it?

On Monday, without prompting, Félix mentioned he'd visited the cemetery too and noticed the same batch of Pedilanthus Microcarpus, and suggested ours probably would do better if they had more sun.  

What the hell? Granted, his brain is 40 years younger than mine, but still, his precocious memory is something I'd normally associate, perhaps unfairly, with an extraterrestrial, not a gardener with a sixth-grade education.

His soft heart for animals—except rattlesnakes, which he promptly decapitates with a shovel—has led to many heartaches and unexpected adoptions.

He once found a tiny newborn rabbit, that we unsuccessfully tried to bottle-feed. And a grocery bag with seven days-old puppies someone had tossed by the side of the road, three of them already dead. We took the survivors to the vet, who said they were too young to survive apart from the mother, so they were euthanized.

Another discovery was a small, whimpering puppy, with a gash over her eye, also abandoned by the road. We kept her and named her Felisa, in honor of her rescuer, a gesture I don't think he appreciated. Mexicans are not used to naming animals after people.

Felix' curiosity and nosiness also leads him to follow Stew and other repairmen around, puppy-like, constantly asking questions about how this or that works. In this endeavor he's helped by his talking: He's a schmoozer extraordinaire, who probably can converse with a potted geranium, even if it doesn't speak Spanish.

Jessica, now 4, and Edgar, 8. 
So he's learned some electrical repairs from me and Tim, a Canadian electrician who's come by a few times. And from Solar Brian, some elementary points about how our solar electricity array works. From Stew, how a dishwasher works. Some gardening from me, and some from Manuel, another very bright young Mexican who works at Luis Franke's nursery.

And so on, so now we have a DaVinci of sorts, who can dip in all aspects of ranch maintenance.

Booze, however, has been a recurring problem with Félix. During a weekend fiesta at his village, Félix got so drunk he was still incoherent the following Tuesday. I feared alcohol poisoning.

In fact, in his village, flat-on-your-ass drunken bouts, sometimes punctuated by fistfights and even gunfire, seem to be a thing, particularly during fiestas.

On another occasion, he crashed up an old pickup of ours and had to pay for a large chunk of the repairs. We didn't make him pay for the whole thing because that would have put him in a financial hole for a year or more.

So Félix declared a truce on drinking nine months ago, which held until last week, when he showed up to work smelling of beer. I explained, once more, that there's no such thing as "just one beer" for someone addicted to alcohol.

There's an A.A. meeting house in his village that he will not attend because, he says, he can control the problem on his own. I'm afraid that won't work, but there's nothing I can do about it.

For all his qualities, and the few defects, I can't help feeling bad about Félix sometimes, his future  stymied by a lack of formal education that keeps him from even pumping gas at a Pemex station.

I also wonder what would have become of Félix, and thousands of similarly talented young men and women in the campo, if only he'd had a less chaotic upbringing, a chance at more education, access to books and other learning opportunities. I could see him as veterinarian, a teacher, a horticulturist. . .

A dozen could've and might've beens readily come to into my mind and probably the minds of most people. But that's an ultimately self-defeating game people play, most often leading nowhere, since life's video cannot be rewound to edit out the scenes we don't like.

In Félix case, though, he seems happy and even fortunate with his life, despite its limited horizons.

Yearly, when we give him his year-end aguinaldo, he'll give me a warm handshake or even an abrazo, and thank us profusely for providing a steady, well-paying job and for our respect with which we treat him and his family.

And, for my part, I'm grateful for all that he's taught me too, principally living in the day, and being content with what life has offered you. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

To live and be buried in San Miguel

Expats who have vowed never to leave San Miguel get that final wish by being buried in a special corner of the Municipal Pantheon known colloquially as the "Gringo Section."

It's a lovely spot, manicured and carefully laid out, that would not be out of place in any small all-American town. It's also walled and gated off from the rest of the far more chaotic part of the cemetery where Mexicans come to rest.

In that, the expat section resembles life: Most expats in San Miguel Americans live among Mexicans but never get to quite mix with them, not even in death. It reminds me of a Spanish saying, "Juntos pero no revueltos,"  or, "Alongside but separate."

Stew and I began visiting the expat section several years ago, when we used to attend the Community Church of San Miguel, an English-speaking congregation, which organizes visits to this part of the cemetery on the Day of the Dead, ostensibly to clean up and decorate the gravesites, though in reality the area is so fastidiously maintained there's really no need. 

For us it's a more traditional gesture of remembrance of friends who died the year before. This year we visited Norm Meyer and his son-in-law "Louie" Armstrong, whose ashes rest in simple side-by-side crypts.  

We brought them a handful of flowers we'd bought by the entrance to the cemetery, along with a metal can to serve as a vase. Total cost of the decoration package came to about two dollars. 

In San Miguel we have a not-for-profit organization, the 24 Hour Association, to which expats subscribe. For a one-time, refundable fee, the association will handle all funeral arrangements, including cremation or burial at the Municipal Panteon, or shipment of the deceased back home. 

Given the age demographics of the expat population of San Miguel, the association fulfills an essential need. 

To reach the expat section, one has to traverse almost the entire length of the entire cemetery, which on Day of the Dead is a cacophonous frenzy of activity, with relatives painting and decorating gravesites. 

The music of bands-for-hire mixes with the tapping of hammers and chisels repairing crumbling gravesites, while the sweet smell of floral offerings everywhere clashes with occasional whiffs of liquor or food of relatives celebrating their dearly departed. 

Day of the Dead also has become a somewhat circusy tourist attraction, which I confess partaking in when we first arrived in San Miguel. Now it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable, as if we were crashing a family affair. 

This year Stew and I visited for only an hour, and mostly the expat section, though I admit taking a few photos along the way. 

Below are some of those images.   

Mountains of marigolds, the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead. 
Vendors outside the municipal cemetery sell all supplies, including painted cans
in which to place flowers, for 60 cents or so.

Traffic jam at the Pearly Gates: The Mexican section of the municipal cemetery.

           A little drummer boy at the gravesite 
            of an unknown child. 

A visitor, deep in her own thoughts. 

On the way to remember the dearly departed. 

The calligraphy may be shaky, but the
sentiments are deeply felt.

May he rest in peace indeed, with a Corona Light in hand, in case he gets thirsty.

The Expat Section:
Right by the entrance to the "Gringo Section" is a
memorial to Stirling Dickinson, one of the first
expats in San Miguel, and who's credited—or blamed—
for calling attention to San Miguel as lovely place for
Americans to resettle. A local street is named after him.

Lament for the perpetual student: "She spoke Spanish, but needed more practice."
In death as in life: Relatives of dead expats sometimes hire Mexicans 
to do the job of cleaning up and decorating the gravesites.
The rear admiral sailed away, but
his widow stayed in San Miguel. 
A lonely cross, waiting to be gussied up.
This poodle and I are both named Alfredo, though he goes
by Alfie. I took no offense. 

Double bill: The girl, in front, is called María José, and her boy twin is José María.
Old Glory standing guard.
Stew and I brought flowers for
two friends, Louie and Norm. 
Barbara's still around, and still a fun broad.