Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Friends of old churches mourn today

People focus on different things when they travel; Stew and I tend to binge on religious buildings.

The reason behind this habit is, to a large extent, practical. One can't see everything everywhere one visits, and places of worship are often the sightseeing equivalent of one-stop shopping: They are the biggest and most central structures in town, with minarets, bell towers and other soaring decorations that rise above other rooftops, and indeed, are meant to impress believers and skeptics alike.

Inside, churches celebrate the history of their hometowns, by showcasing the work of the most accomplished artisans, architects and engineers, throughout the building itself or in special "treasuries" requiring special permission and fees to visit. Tapestries and paintings adorn the walls, dozens of sculptures the altars.

Much was lost at Notre-Dame, particularly the history.
Statues of notable citizens—kings, scientists, explorers and conquerors, and even some genuinely saintly locals forever remembered by the faithful, are scattered about. Also many relics, some gruesome, like a finger or other incorruptible part of someone's body; others, like slivers of the "true cross," that stretch the credulity of all but most devout believers.

Stew and I have been to Paris a number of times, and we've visited Notre-Dame every time. It was a cornucopia of all those things that attract us to churches—in spades. Quite coincidentally the last time we visited was during its 850th anniversary. I wish we had taken more time to feel and smell the musty history of the place. Maybe even pray for a minute or two.

For us, its physical beauty and incredible engineering have been the main attractions of Notre-Dame and dozens of places of worship that we have visited. Typically we sit on a pew, preferably away from the hordes of tourists meandering by, and quietly let our eyes roam in wonder over all the material details.

Who built this amazing edifice, hundreds of years ago—and how—without the benefit of any fancy tools except, principally, pure human genius? How long did it take to design and assemble the tens of thousands of pieces of this mosaic or that stained glass window?

Most impressively, how do these gothic edifices, that appear so light on their feet that they sometimes seem to defy gravity, actually remain standing for centuries?

To begin trying to answer the last question, you need to walk around outside of Notre-Dame and check out the dozens of flying buttresses, looking like spider legs, that keep the walls from splaying out and the roof from collapsing.

Alas, other than the finished monument, the builders of Notre Dame didn't leave any blueprints, computer disks or other clues to guide the reconstruction work, though it seems funding won't be a problem. Barely 24 hours after the fire was doused, the reconstruction fund already had attracted several hundred million euros in donations and commitments.

Neither will be the challenges of reproducing gargoyles, columns and other pieces. This and other gothic masterpieces have been photographed and studied in molecular detail with the use of lasers and other tools that will guide the recreation effort. Early reports say the main structure of Notre-Dame—incredibly—is still sound though most of the wooden roof is gone.

For all our fascination with the physical details of Notre-Dame, and other other churches we've visited, I now wish we had spent more time fantasizing about the people who built them; the kings and paupers that walked through them; the joyful and despairing who prayed at them; and most of all, the religious fervor—a form of madness?—that led to its construction in the first place, sometimes over hundreds of years.

I'm sure Notre Dame will be pieced together in a relatively short period of time, maybe six or seven years, and thanks to the use of the latest materials and building techniques, the rebuilt version will be good for another 850 years. What surely will be missing though, will be human imprint, the feel of its history, which no lasers or other modern construction methods can recapture. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tribalism reaches outer space

As if life weren't baffling enough at sea level, news came last week that, for the first time, astrophysicists had photographed a black hole, several billion times the size of our sun and located 55 million light-years away from the earth. A light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles.

Here's looking at you, black hole.
Then, about a nanosecond following the news, a second photo began making the rounds, of Dr. Katie Bouman, 29, an angelic-looking brainiac from MIT, covering her face in amazement at the snapshot appearing on her computer monitor. Initially, she seemed to get the credit, or an undue amount of it, for writing the algorithms that made it possible to take the photo.

Bouman: Wow!
The trusty social media, Twitter, et. al., sprang into action and a political fight erupted. From the right corner of the universe, some suggested Bouman may be a publicity-greedy chick hogging too much of the credit.

From the opposite political end, some perceived the photo as an affirmative action event that might inspire young girls to look to the sky and dream of becoming astrophysicists, a field in which women are woefully underrepresented. 

But the credit, right-wing trolls chimed in,  rightfully belonged to white male scientists, in particular Andrew Chael, 28, a graduate physics student at neighboring Harvard University.

Both Chael and Bouman rushed in to explain that the writing of hundreds of thousands lines of algorithms (whatever they are) was a collaborative international effort involving human beings of all sorts of demographics (including Mexico!)

As if to buttress Chael's credibility on this matter, the Washington Post pointed out that he is not only a white male, but also an "openly gay man!"

Chael: Gay and proud in
outer space. 
Wow. That factoid left this gay reader wondering: What does Chael's sexual orientation have to do with black holes, cosmology, algorithms or any of that stuff?

The historic photo of the black hole, by the way, also confirmed one of Einstein's arcane theories. Should we mention that Einstein was straight and Jewish, lest someone mistake him for a bisexual Dutch Calvinist?

And so, a mind-boggling story of scientific achievement that had hovered in outer space but for a few days, came crashing back to earth to be sliced and diced along tribal lines of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity and other head-counting. About 40 of the 215 black-hole researchers were women, according to the Times. 

While this was going on, Chicagoans also elected Lori Lightfoot as mayor. She checked all the political correct boxes and then some: An African-American, woman, gay, and married to a white woman.

Both candidates in the final runoff were black women, prompting the Washington Post to ask in a headline whether a black woman could bridge the "city's racial divides."

Racial divisions certainly are a long-time problem in Chicago, but for right now, I would argue that tackling the city's gazillion-dollar pension funding shortfall—a black hole in itself—and not the new mayor's race or sexual orientation, was a far bigger issue.

If a straight, red-headed Ukrainian candidate had offered a credible solution to that looming financial crisis, I would have said, "Go for it, Ivan!"

Official photo of the new mayor of Chicago.
During the campaign another issue came up: Lightfoot's height. She is really short, not much more than five feet tall.

So a local columnist mentioned this on  the day Lightfoot won: “Just about every black person I talked to about the mayoral race expressed serious doubts that a ‘short black woman with a white wife’ stood a chance of winning over the majority of voters in Chicago.” So there. 

In truth that could be a problem. I can just imagine Chicagoans' Second City inferiority concept flaring up anew at the sight of a photo of Lightfoot standing next to New York's Mayor Bill De Blasio. He's six-foot-five-feet tall. Plus his wife is African-American. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Best restaurants in San Miguel if you're over 60

In his March 30 column, Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist and formerly the paper's food critic, wrote about how his tastes in restaurants have evolved now that he is over 50.

To write a comparable piece here would be ridiculous; there are more restaurants in some blocks of New York than in all of San Miguel. On the other hand, for the price of one good dinner in New York you could feed five, maybe ten, of your closest expat friends here.

Besides, San Miguel's demographics are way different. Let's say more mature. Forget Bruni's 50-year-old cutoff. Here it's more realistic to aim for the age bracket between 60ish and Meals of Wheels.

I'm not a current or former dining critic, though that shouldn't disqualify me from opining about dining. San Miguel is a mecca for personal reinvention, so I can be a dining critic and you a late-blooming impressionist painter even if you didn't pick up a paintbrush until after your first Social Security check arrived a year ago. No problema. 

All that said, San Miguel is a great restaurant town, and getting better all the time, though prices also seem to be rising often not quite hand-in-hand with the level of quality.

There's also a certain pissiness, to use a French expression, creeping into the restaurant scene. It's not just the real tablecloths and napkins, which are a nice touch, but the obligatory quart-size wine glasses, the tablespoon of something-or-other plopped on a plate as big as a hubcap, and other haute-cuisine pretensions, accompanied by an eye-popping check at the end.  "Zumo" fits that bill nicely.

"Chamonix," on the other hand, serves terrific food, in a great atmosphere, at reasonable prices, and amazingly, the owner or one of the servers will recognize and greet you when you arrive. "Firenze" checks all those boxes too.

Zee plane: Part of the eclectic decor at "Muelle 13"
Stew and I don't drink alcohol, so our perspective on cost may be skewed, though we're quite disposed to pay a good price for a good meal, booze or not. In Zihuatanejo, one of our favorites is "Tentaciones," a restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the bay, a magical dining experience particularly at sunset. The soup-to-nuts tasting menu will set you back $75 dollars per person and it's worth it.

Did I mention the one San Miguel restaurant charging $150 a person, plus tips and drinks, for a seat at the chef's table for some dining lollapalooza? That might work in New York or Dallas but not here, not even if Julia came out of the grave and cooked the meal herself.

For us, $35 or $40 dollars each for dinner is at the high end, and we expect more than the usual green enchiladas; we want something a little inventive that shows there's a chef in the kitchen, not just someone's mother-in-law banging the pots and pans.

"El Vergel" out on the way to Dolores Hidalgo is a very good value for lunch, as is "Nirvana," with one of best views in San Miguel. We've also become enamored of "Le Mexicain Bistro," even if their attempt at a French name may be backward. Their breakfast and lunch offerings are interesting, particularly their take on salmon and cream cheese. "Turk" across the street at first seemed to be an interesting proposition of Mediterranean food, but their very limited menu wore thin very quickly.

"Muelle 13," a modest seafood place decorated with old surfboards and other maritime junk from someone's basement, is also a very good value. An added attraction is Lucas, a self-assured mutt that ambles through the four or five restaurants along Stirling Dickison begging soft-hearted gringo diners for handouts. Lucas eats well. 

Not exactly Fisherman's Wharf, but "Muelle 13" offers
good seafood at reasonable prices. 
I'll admit to not being a particularly adventuresome diner; if Stew and I find a place we like, we'll go back and back again, though we are open to new suggestions. Any ideas, let us know.

"La Frontera" is one of those, particularly on the nights when they offer their meatloaf, chicken or filet mignon specials. The owner Noren will greet you, and if not her, her ever-effervescent partner Johnny, and the waiters know your favorite drink. Not a very hoity-toity dining experience but one that will satisfy both your stomach and your mind, in a conversation-friendly noise level.

The most important ingredient of a good meal though, are simpático dining partners. Please leave your politics at home. No one want food fights over Trump, or a recap of last night's sermonette by Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Practically any other topic will do, even a description of the impressionist landscapes you've been working for the past three weeks. 

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Horses, a young girl and three old guys

Locals call the squat mountains surrounding our ranch Los Picachos—"The Peaks"—which is way too grandiose; most are no more than scraggly hills. Google Maps says our ranch is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and the Picachos could not be much taller than another 500 or 700 feet. During the dry season the Picachos turn particularly barren and dreary, some resembling the scraggly heads of old men, with only scattered tufts of brownish green hair left.

Friends who've hiked some of the Picachos, though, returned with far more exciting tales, about crater-like holes atop pointy hills, evoking this area's distant volcanic past. Also they reported seeing  exotic trees and animals—exotic at least for us living down below—such as old oaks, deer, coyotes, foxes and lots of snakes.

Since moving to the ranch some ten years ago, I've wondered what goes on up there.
Two weeks ago our friend Ron mentioned there were horseback rides to the tops of some of the Picachos. It might be an exciting adventure or at least a gear-shifter in the daily tedium of looking out the window first thing in the morning to check if it'd rained overnight, even though we know damn well that's not likely to happen for at least another three months.

So we said, let's go.

In retrospect, this project had "hare-brained" written all over—the notion of three out-of-shape septuagenarians with no clue about riding, spending six or seven hours atop a saddle. But for me it turned into both, a quite serious accident and a real mind-opener. During the two long days at the hospital I had time to remember Esperanza, the 21-year-old daughter of Don Vicente Rico, my neighbor, who six years ago broke her neck on a rock when she was thrown by a horse, and who has never been able to walk again. It even allowed me to wrestle with my idea of gratitude: Who or what should I thank for surviving a serious, but not permanent, accident and why a young girl next door was not so lucky.
Our five-man cavalcade to the Picachos began at Calderón, a ramshackle, no-there-there smattering of mostly unfinished houses, off the main road from San Miguel to Celaya. At an open rendezvous point we encountered five or six chunky men—whom the tour organizer kept calling "cowboys," I suspect to add a bit of frisson to this mundane occasion—and a couple of pickups loaded with bales of hay, tents, plastic coolers and other supplies for our expected overnight stay at an open area atop a Picacho known by the bad-vibe name of "Palo Huérfano" or Orphan Stick.

Our orientation about riding was about as brief, if not briefer, than our actual riding experience. Hold the rein with the left hand, tug it right or left to point the horse here or there, pull back to make him stop. My horse, an eight-year-old palomino criollo called Dorado had a beautiful blond mane on a 1,200- to 1,500-pound frame of taut muscle. He showed no apparent streak of skittishness or meanness. Still, when one slowly caresses the necks and sides of these animals one I can feel the idea of horsepower and wonder if, gentle as they may seem, animals this size could ever be one-hundred-percent predictable.  

Dorado, my docile ride until he wasn't. 
The plan was a three-hour ride up to the campsite. Pity my poor skinny butt, I thought, especially  after an overnight stay in a tent, followed by a similar trek back down, through mountains, dirt roads, sometimes dense brush of prickly bushes, and rocks, everywhere rocks, with no open paths.

For the first hour, the ride was tedious. Slummy Calderón quickly disappeared behind us, and to the left the only vista was the four-lane highway to Celaya, winding through canyons of recently carved stone and concrete, and farther still, a view of San Miguel and its polluted water reservoir, the presa. 

Your mind wanders when you are killing time, and you tend to think of anything more interesting than the matter at hand. I was surprised by the sheer size of the presa. I wondered how San Miguel's water scarcity problems might have been alleviated or even solved, if the city's fathers and mothers had had the foresight not to dump sewage and other debris into the presa, which from a distance could pass for a placid recreation area.

Dorado, left, sharing a moment with Stew's no-name horse.
We turned right when the road dead-ended after two or three kilometers, and from there we entered the gate of a cattle ranch, on which the riding was going to get considerably less easy.

David was our affable lead, the Mexican version of a good ol' boy. He was round-faced and smooth- skinned which made him look considerably younger than 44 years old. He had a smattering of facial hair struggling to become a credible goatee. His hat was larger than the normal ranchero topper and his belt, decorated with silvery details, battled with the beginning of middle-age spread.

David was bilingually chatty. He had spent ten years south of Dallas working construction, after which nostalgia brought him back to Mexico, leaving his brothers and parents behind. He works at construction here and regularly goes back to visit. He owns a monster, Texas-plated 2011 Dodge Ram with a Hemi-something moose of an engine, and occasionally leads these horse tours for extra money.

David and Dorado.
"My family all have papers," he said, for a moment making me feel as if my questions in Spanish had made me sound like an undercover U.S. Border Patrol Agent. Never had the thought even occurred to me, I chuckled.

About 90 minutes into the ride, which was slowly becoming steeper and rockier, the other leader, Juan, yelled out "Do you guys want to gallop?"

At this point our pace was in fact meandering and poky. David pointed to a mountain, which appeared to be at least two kilometers away, and topped by a red Tinker Toy jungle of bright-red telephone antennas. He said our destination camp was on the other side of the transmission towers. About now the ride was starting to feel like a Sisyphean schlep: The antennas didn't seem to get any closer no matter how much we rode.

Ron said "yeah!" but Stew and I waited. To an inexperienced rider, the sensation of galloping, the sheer brute force underneath you but barely under your control, is frightening. To keep from bouncing helplessly on the saddle like a sack of potatoes, we'd been told to maintain control by tensing the legs up on the stirrups, which seems contrary to what your thighs instinctively want to do, which is to tighten around the saddle, as if to embrace the belly of the horse. Besides, your nervous legs quickly grow tired.

Either Stew or I quickly yelled "NO!" to the invitation to gallop and Ron didn't last more than 20 seconds. Though the campground was still far, we'd have to take our time.

About a half-hour later, Stew's hat blew off and David stopped his mount to go get it. But as soon as David dismounted—and with no provocation whatever—his horse made a U-turn and headed downhill, riderless, at full, lightning gallop and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust. David instructed Juan to chase after the errant horse, and so he did, also at full speed.

Going after the horse that got away. 
While we waited, David told us he'd never had had that happen before and that, anyway, a horse couldn't gallop much farther than two or three kilometers before running out of breath. So we waited for about 25 minutes or so until Juan showed up with David's exhausted ride.
Back at our ranch, one of the most thrilling and graceful equestrian stunts I have witnessed are teenagers racing horses full-speed and bareback, apparently controlling the animal by hunching over its neck and grabbing its mane or a rope.

Occasionally, as when 15-year-old Esperanza was thrown on the ground and broke her neck, this dazzling pas-de-deux between man and beast ends tragically for one or both partners.

As our ride progressed, and I became more exhausted and less sure of myself, I thought of Esperanza, or Esperancita, as her mom calls her. Even after surgery and years of twice-weekly physical therapy, the only thing she can offer visitors is the welcome of her enigmatic smile. You wonder what she is thinking. She wears thick eyeglasses apparently to correct some damage to her vision caused by the fall.

She lives in a small casita Vicente built on one corner of his ranch, furnished with a bedwheelchair and small altar displaying a Virgin of Guadalupe along with another smaller statue of a young boy with its hands extended heavenward in prayer, as if begging for a miracle.

Esperancita, waiting. Esperanza in
Spanish means "Hope."
Outside, a pack of motley dogs, which Stew and I feed daily, is Esperanza's only company, except when her parents bring food and a van appears to take her to physical therapy once or twice a week. Last Christmas I brought her a lemon pound cake from Costco, which she and here family seemed to enjoy immensely. Her father Vicente reciprocated with bags of black beans harvested from his ranch, and recently, a chunk of terrific homemade queso fresco.
After the second hour on the trail, one of the leaders of our group suggested we go off-road as a shortcut to our destination. We didn't seem to be gaining on the red transmission towers.

Cutting through spiny, desert brambles didn't make things easier for the horses which began to get skittish. Besides, in order to reach our shortcut to the top, we first had to go down steeply, almost vertiginously, on a slope littered with rocks some the size of volleyballs.

One by one the horses bucked and refused to move. Later Stew and I talked about how, telepathically, we'd shared the same panicked thought: We were afraid of one of the horses breaking a leg, an injury almost invariably fatal for the horse, not to mention the rider if the horse lands on top of him. Maybe these are silly fears for experienced riders, but not to us.

I think it was Stew who muttered to the team leaders that perhaps we should dismount and gently lead the horses down. The leaders though, insisted on click-clucking, and tapping the the horses with twigs, to keep them going.

So far, tip-toeing to the bottom of that ravine was the second scariest point of the ride. The most frightening came at the beginning of the ride down the next day, when my gentle palomino freaked out, reared up while I was trying to mount him, and threw me and the saddle six feet up in the air. At least that's what Stew told me. I couldn't remember a thing.
When we finally reached the campsite, the set-up crew had already been at work for an hour of so. The vista of San Miguel from that height and distance was not one for oohs and aahs because a thick layer of either fog or smog covered the city, whose features didn't become clear until after the dusk, when the lights gradually began to light up. The horses munched on the bales of alfalfa and later were led somewhere to spend the night, while a dozen head of cattle, including a calf only a few weeks old, came out from somewhere and inched up to the perimeter of the campsite, the better to stare at us. Clearly, this was familiar territory for them: The campground was paved with cow pies around which we tip-toed around attentively, particularly after dark, not always successfully.

One of the large oak trees we found at our campground, which
reminded me of live oaks in Texas. None of our guides knew
which species they were, they guessed white or chinese
oaks. They were impressive but their numbers had been greatly
reduced a few years back by some sort of disease. 
As night fell, and the beer, tequila and mezcal began to flow after dinner, Stew and I, the only abstinent ones in the party, crawled into our tents and sleeping bags to shiver and sleep through the night, in equal measures. It was not a relaxing sleepover even though neither Stew nor I awoke as sore or exhausted as we'd expected. At breakfast we seemed to be the only ones wide-eyed and fully alert for the avalanche of fried eggs and bacon.

Shortly after breakfast, when I tried to climb on the saddle for the ride back, using a tree stump for foot stool, the normally tranquil Dorado reared up and went berserk.

For what happened I have to rely on Stew because I can't remember a thing past starting to put my left foot on the stirrup. Stew later told me that the horse had bucked as if spooked by something, throwing me clear up about six or seven feet up in the air, while the saddle came loose and flew off the horse's rear end. The horse kept bucking and jumping wildly for a few more minutes.

Stew said I landed on the ground with thump, but that none of the crew, some already nursing beers at ten in the morning, seemed to know what to do with either the horse or me. Stew said he screamed for someone to help him get off his horse so he could come to help me. I don't know who helped me back on my feet, but I recall coming-to sitting one one of the blue plastic folding chairs nearby.

Initially I wasn't either out of it or fully aware what had happened, except for Stew asking me repeatedly if I recalled the actual accident or hitting the ground. Later he said he feared I had hit my head or neck on a rock and suffered some brain damage.

Ron was already on his horse and the so-called cowboys in charge didn't seem particularly concerned, and in fact one suggested I get back again on the saddle, once it was strapped back in place. Stew emphatically said no and loaded me onto one of the pickups for the ride down to the starting point. We reached the meeting point, about 30 minutes later, to wait for Ron and a couple of the people from the crew to get there on their horses.

I don't recall much except sitting on the passenger side of the truck waiting for the final stretch of the ride, and seeing a few of the ranch hands still sucking on beer and chatting among themselves. No one, except Stew, asked me how I was doing. David finally approached me to say that everyone falls off a horse sooner or later, and that they then just get back of saddle—a hackneyed consolation that  sounded particularly so at the moment.

When Ron finally arrived and got off his horse he could barely move or straighten up, so Stew drove Ron's truck to the emergency room of the new MAC hospital in San Miguel, one of a national chain, where for an hour or so I was examined, X-rayed and questioned about the accident by an emergency room attendant, an internist and an traumatologist, before being IV-ed and admitted. There might have been other people looking over me, I'm sure.

The initial exam rendered no signs of broken bones, particularly along the spine, but as the examination progressed it quickly became a ying-yang of good and bad news. The no-fracture finding was followed by the somewhat less-good discovery that one of my vertebrae had been slightly knocked out of place. The traumatologist played with my lower legs, feet and toes and didn't detect any sign of paralysis or loss of sensation. That was good to hear, but followed by a second discovery of a small fracture on one of my ribs that had led to a small puncture of my right lung, which had deflated. The escaping air had created a bubble outside the lung that prevented it from fully inflating when I breathed.

I was brought down to a small operating room off the emergency room so a catheter, almost hair-thin, could be inserted into my chest to bleed the air pocket that had developed in my chest. The operation was done at midnight and declared a success. Not quite so fast. An X-ray the next morning showed the air was again accumulating in a cavity over my right lung because the catheter had become twisted on its way in. A new one was inserted and functioned properly.

The surgeon was a tiny, take-charge Asian woman who directed the operating room staff without any display of hesitation or doubt. Her last name was Lim and it was not until the next day that Stew and I realized that she was the daughter of Antoinette and Joe Lim, two of the most memorable members, both now dead, of the Community Church that we attend occasionally.

Not an inch taller than her daughter Grace, Stew and I both fondly remember Antoinette, always arriving meticulously coiffed, as if going to opening night at the opera. She was also one of the most genuinely Christian persons we've ever known—a truly generous and non-judgmental person, even to a gay couple like us whose relationship, I'm sure, didn't at all jibe with Antoinette's hard-core evangelical beliefs.

I have much and many people and things to be grateful to, during this most serious injury I've suffered and the only one that has sent me to the hospital. Trying not sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, I am most grateful to my husband Stew who reached out to help me after the accident when others around seemed too hungover or otherwise immobilized to react.  And also grateful for the prompt and excellent medical care I received. Thankful that my dead-weight fall on my back, which could have turned into some lifelong disability, somehow didn't.

Then thanks to God, with Whom I have no intrinsic disagreement, only some profound doubts. For instance, how do I thank Him (or Her) for sparing me more serious injury but, for some reason, sentencing young Esperanza to life in a wheelchair? I have only visited her at her casita once, but will never be able to get her faint, welcoming smile out of my head, particularly now that we've been joined by fate and horses. Maybe it's time for another lemon pound cake.

San Miguel barely awakening amid the early-morning fog.