Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nine months and counting

Give or take five minutes, Félix arrival each day is as predictable as the sunrise. Our five dogs gallop up to the gate at around eight-fifteen and when he arrives with his own two mutts you can hear the thundering welcome from our kitchen. He'll dismount his bicycle, lock the gate behind him and slowly walk the five-hundred feet to our house followed by a romping, barking conga line of canines.

Mini cowboy at the fiesta. 
So it's a bad sign, usually a serious case of la cruda—a hangover—when Félix comes in late or not at all. The worst case came last year, following the weekend of his village's annual fiesta. Félix didn't show up for two days, so I drove to his home late Tuesday to find out if he was all right.

I ran into Félix' thin, weathered dad sitting on the stoop of his home who, with a sheepish smile, warned me his son was borrachito, a little drunk, a condition I'd heard the old man was well acquainted with.

Félix was far more than borrachito: His normally quiet wife apparently had exiled Felix to his parents' to sleep off the hangover. She went to get him, and when he finally emerged Félix was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, a black eye and a few other bruises.

"What the hell happened to you?," I asked.

"I fell down coming home," he mumbled.

Félix returned to work on Wednesday morning, and sullenly and abjectly apologized and promised it would never happen again. We docked him one day's pay.

One the eve of this year's fiesta, with a sly half-smile, I urged Félix to take it easy at the celebrations.

He just said, "Don't worry about it Alfredo, I haven't had anything to drink in nine months."

I thought it was remarkable that he was tracking his sobriety, something common at A.A. meetings.

Félix has been working for us for over seven years and the topic of his drinking and the aftermath has come up several times. I'd mentioned that Stew and I have been sober for over thirty years, which Félix at first had some trouble comprehending—that's about as long as he's been alive. I even mentioned that I had attended an A.A. meeting in his village. He knew about the meeting but politely dismissed the A.A. "cure" as something for weaklings, men without sufficient resolve. Not him.

A.A. club in Felix's village.
On other occasions he volunteered stories about the ravages of alcoholism on his village and his own family. For years his dad was a down-in-the-gutter drunk who'd disappear for days at a time and ultimately quit only when he found himself too sick and broke to continue. Félix also has told me about liquor-fueled car accidents and even killings in Sosnavar, and finding, along with the usual beer cans and liquor bottles, empties of denatured alcohol scattered about, warning labels intact.

Though Félix often talks to me with the candor usually reserved for very close friends or relatives, he's never mentioned what happened nine months ago that caused him to lay off the booze. I'm not going to ask.

Yesterday, when Félix showed up for work twenty minutes late, Stew expected the worst. Instead Félix, with a proud smile, announced he'd survived the fiesta without "any problem."

We offered congratulations and to take him and his family out for dinner in April to celebrate his one-year anniversary. We'll be going to Pollo Feliz, I proposed, a broiled chicken restaurant he and his family visit on very special occasions.

Félix shook my hand and gladly accepted the challenge.



Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Mayhem and death on our neighborhood's killer road

At approximately eight o'clock on Sunday, as we turned onto the half-mile-long dirt road that goes from a paved but cratered two-lane highway to the gate of our ranch, we froze momentarily at the sight, barely visible in the distance under the moonlight, of twenty or more people and two pickup trucks, one brown the other light blue, stopped at awkward angles on the right and left shoulders.

My first response was curiosity—what the hell?—immediately followed by fear—let's get out of here!—but I didn't say anything. Stew, who was driving, proceeded slowly up to the second pickup which had the hood and the drivers door open, with the group of strangers milling about.

I repeatedly asked a young guy, holding a beer can and standing unsteadily by the right side of our car, ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué pasó?, but his mumbled, bleary-eyed response was unintelligible. We thought it had been an accident but no one approached us for help and instead the crowd silently parted to let us get through.

When we got home I tried to look through our kitchen window but couldn't make out anything. So we wrote it off to a bunch of kids getting drunk in anticipation of the fiesta at the nearby town of Sosnavar this coming weekend.

On Monday morning Félix filled us in on the details which were too bizarre and gruesome even for this part of the world where, since we arrived seven years ago, approximately twenty people—probably more—have been killed on the road near our house that goes from the busy highway to Querétaro and San Miguel to the backwater town of Jalpa, fifteen kilometers away.

Photo of the SUV, courtesy of "San Miguel Sin Censura,"
a local internet publication. From the photo one can see
how the passenger might have escaped but the
driver was not so lucky. 
According to Félix, his wife and two other locals, two hours before we arrived a pickup driven by an inebriated twenty-one-year-old and carrying a passenger had veered sharply to avoid a pothole about a meter wide. Instead, according to witnesses, the vehicle flipped and tumbled a few times, flinging the driver into the air. It was a violent accident likely at high speed, judging by the oil slick and busted truck pieces, including the battery, air filter and pieces of the dashboard, scattered on the right side of the road.

The driver suffered major injuries to his head, and his left arm and feet were nearly severed. Amazingly, the passenger, another young guy returning from a soccer game, came out of the truck uninjured (was he wearing seat belts?), and ran to Sosnavar, about a kilometer away, to seek help. An ambulance arrived along with fire truck and a vehicle of the Civil Protection department. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the young driver was dead.

Then things got strange. The father of the victim arrived at the scene and insisted that what was left of the silver SUV be pulled away from the scene immediately so the police would not get a hold of it. So the young guys that had gathered at the scene (apparently) hitched the busted-up vehicle to another pick-up and dragged it diagonally about five-hundred feet across a field—a trail of tire tracks, truck parts, knocked-down fences and flattened prickly pear cacti and huizache bushes was still visible Monday morning—to the corner of the dirt road where Stew and I ran into the blue and brown pickups and the drunken observers.

Photo of the wreckage
I took Monday morning
But the silver SUV involved in the accident was nowhere to be found. Félix heard it had been dragged over to Sosnavar but he doesn't know where. There are conflicting stories regarding why the father of the victim was in such a hurry to get rid of the pickup. One story is that he didn't want to pay for the police to have it towed away and stored as evidence; another is that the victim was carrying a gun. Neither the driver's wallet nor the gun have been found.

Whatever the reason, Félix says, the police have lamely washed their hands in the case. With the crashed up vehicle missing and the accident scene trampled, they've argued, there's nothing to investigate, though they have fined some of the suspects in the disappearance of the SUV.

As in most accidents on the road to Jalpa, a drunk driver, usually a young man, was the protagonist in this case. The other common link is the absence around here of even any routine police presence whatsoever, never mind check points for breathalyzer tests or any other effort to combat an obvious public safety problem.

Two kilometers away, on a particularly sharp turn on the Jalpa road, at least ten people have died when they missed the turn and their trucks, usually carrying passengers on the bed, turned over. When the road was repaved two years ago, the state government installed a half-dozen warning signs on each side of the dangerous turn, but alas, local entrepreneurs ripped off the signs and traded them for cash at the recycling center. The signs have never been replaced.

Five kilometers in the other direction, a young man who had recently returned from the U.S. and was carrying five thousand dollars in his wallet was killed in another truck accident following a soccer game. First responders helpfully took the guy's money before calling for an ambulance.

Post-game brawls at soccer matches, when most everyone is good and plastered, have led to at least one fatal shooting.

For my money though, the most horrific accident took place three years ago a kilometer from our ranch, when a young boy riding home at night was hit by a drunk driver; both the boy and the horse were killed. The ambulance came and removed the boy, but the city's Ecology Department never came to pick up the horse carcass even after repeated requests. So the horse lay there for about a month while feral dogs and vultures feasted on the remains.

Félix left work early this afternoon to attend the funeral mass and burial of the latest victim of our killer road. The dead guy was somehow distantly related to Félix, as it's usually the case in Sosnavar, a town of about a thousand people, most of them apparently related to one another. At two o'clock the afternoon silence was punctured by six or eight lonely fireworks marking the end of the mass.

Félix came back at around four-thirty, almost speechless, to return our truck and report that most of the victim's family and friends had shown up drunk at the church and then at the cemetery, and that for some reason the family had decided on an open casket service for what was left of the young man.

I was planning to attend Sosnavar's fiesta this weekend, still scheduled to go despite the tragedy, to hang around and take some photos. I think I'll skip it.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

The most beautiful Christmas tree in Mexico and possibly the world

Last night was Christmas Eve and there was nary a light around our ranch except for millions of stars dangling like crystal ornaments from the pitch-black sky and the multi-colored LED lights Félix and Stew had wrapped on a perfectly shaped evergreen we planted near the house several years ago and which has grown to about ten, maybe twelve, feet high. It's our official Christmas tree.

It's a sassy, plump and straight evergreen, I believe a member of the piñón pine family, but with no unruly branches. It stands like a sentinel awaiting its year-end star turn when it becomes the most beautiful Christmas tree within miles and miles.

A most beautiful tree, lighting up the desert night. 
By nordic standards, of course, it is woefully out of place. We have no snow unless you count the silly millimeter that fell three or four years ago. Our tree is tucked amid rocks, huge agaves, organ cacti, a carpet of succulents and what remains of the delicate plumes of a clump of pampas grasses. During the summer the grasses rise gracefully over their clunkier neighbors but in fall they wither and seem shaky and fearful, aware the next afternoon gust likely will blow down their plumes and scatter their seeds.
The idea of a designated outdoor Christmas tree arose from our loathing of using "real" evergreens—which around here come from as far as Canada and the U.S.—simply to decorate our living room for fifteen days or so. It takes so long for an evergreen to grow to Christmas-tree size only to be tossed in the backyard. What a waste.

So three years ago Stew picked out this specimen that we had planted years before near the house by the driveway, and he and Félix began wrapping lights and hanging silver and blue ornaments around it. As the tree continues to grow, quickly and perfectly, we are going to have to buy additional strings of lights and a few more ornaments for next year.

Yesterday I caressed the tree branches find out if they had that piney aroma. The branches don't smell at all but they are tipped with tiny bundles of acorns getting ready to turn to needles next year. What I definitely felt from this beautiful tree was its sense of importance: Somehow it knows its seasonal role during Christmas, when only it and the stars dare shatter the darkness.

Tiny acorns awaiting next year's Christmas.
The simplicity of our annual Christmas decor fits that of our Mexican neighbors who may hang some lights, assemble a nativity scene or prop up a small, hastily decorated tree here and there, but nothing fancy. The most involved rituals are the posadas, small house-to-house pilgrimages in the towns meant to reenact, with songs, prayers and candles, the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter as Jesus' birth approached.

That's it. There are no neighborhood competitions to see how many thousands of lights one homeowner can hang on a house without burning up the electrical grid, the blare of "seasonal music" or inflatable Santas tumbling drunkenly in front yards.

Shopping centers in Mexico have taken up the clue from their American counterparts and install shrill, commercially designed light displays and Christmas trees. Several years ago the federal government began promoting a nationwide weekend shopping spree shamelessly patterned after Black Friday in the U.S.

But one doesn't feel any shopping frenzy as Christmas approaches. There is a one-night burst of shopping the day before Three Kings Day on January 6, when parents buy toys for the kids, but otherwise no real fervor to the Christmas shopping cycle. Have you ever heard of a horde of crazed Mexican shoppers trampling each other at a WalMart pre-Christmas sale? In the U.S., maybe.

Inside our home, Stew's childhood cardboard creche, which he bought at a Woolworths in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, some sixty years ago, made its annual appearance. The figures in the nativity scene still have their price stickers, ranging from five to ten cents. The only enhancements are a pine garland we bought a Norwegian gift shop in New York, and some sheep and farm animals made of sugar, left over from the Mexican Day of the Dead.

For the past sixty years or so, direct from Woolworths in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 
It has been even quieter for us as we maintain our boycott of most television programming, to avoid news about what the incoming president of the U.S. might inflict on the country, assuming he knows. Christmas carols occasionally waft in through our internet radio, but mostly from a Dutch-language Amsterdam classical music station. It's the perfect filtering system: soothing music interrupted only briefly by incomprehensible commercials and news reports.

While talking to expat friends earlier this week about Christmas-in-exile experiences most agreed that what they liked most was the simplicity. No airport or expressway jams, no constant blare from retailers to buy, buy, buy. We might buy a gift for a special person, or have a nice quiet dinner at home.

While in Texas two weeks ago, we bought Félix's girls stuffed toys, his boy the inevitable soccer ball, plus a blender for his wife to use in her newly remodeled kitchen and a Felix the Cat tee-shirt for Félix, who turns out never heard of the cartoon character. Ever so Félix, he was appreciative of the thought.

Last night we attended a Christmas Eve service and dinner afterward with friends. This afternoon we're having dinner with friends who have relatives visiting from Britain.

Other than that, I just plan to take a quick walk at night to admire one more time the stars, and our perfect Christmas tree that we will keep lit until January 6.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Long lived Fidel—for way too long

I won't pretend to add anything to the torrent of obituaries marking the death of Fidel Castro, Maximum Leader Emeritus of Cuba, at age 90. For the definitive good-bye, read Anthony DePalma's piece in today's Times.

I can add some very personal reminiscences, though, because for nearly 58 years I've lived with Castro's words and deeds echoing in my head, alongside the sound of my parents' anguished and implacable rancor toward him which I could not comprehend until we all grew older.  

Indeed, during my long-haired college days, when I was taken by the lefty-ish, hashish-enhanced fervor gripping American college campuses, I pored through Ché Guevara's rhapsodies about the new Socialist Man being fashioned out of the revolutionary clay in Cuba, and even some of Castro's hours-long harangues, as if they were holy texts.

It was exciting, fantastic stuff, in retrospect a childlike naivete on my part fueled by a secret pride in how Castro had transformed our otherwise insignificant island of six million, known mostly for whores, booze and sunshine, into a volcano of worldwide revolutionary inspiration, or mayhem, from Bolivia to Angola. Everywhere I've ever visited, except Antarctica, I've found Ché Guevara tee shirts, posters and books celebrating some aspect of Cuba and its revolution. What other Latin American country can claim that? How many other Latin American dictators have received a front-page, twenty-one gun sendoff from the New York Times?
Fidel, during his prime poster days.

Sometime during the sixties I bought three large colorful propaganda posters commemorating Castro's 1968 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, which ultimately was a disaster.  I reverently kept the posters as if they were precious mementos, and later had them framed, thinking they might be worth something someday.

For a while they hanged on one of the walls of our dining room in Chicago, as so much conversation pieces, until my mom came to visit. She didn't say much except she insisted in sitting at the table with her back to the posters. The posters have long disappeared, worth nothing to me except that, ironically, her silent, pained reaction, and my thoughtlessness, helped me appreciate the impact Castro's revolution had inflicted on my parents and on so many Cubans.

My parents left Cuba in 1965, three years after me, and after spending several months in Madrid, living on charity handouts at a shelter for refugees, joined me in New York. Except for the singular, and significant, achievement of sending me through college and graduate school, their life in New York was no Horatio Alger replay. Both in their mid-fifties, with no mastery of English or marketable skills, they survived on low-paying jobs, my dad for decades at a non-union printing shop that at age sixty-five sent him off to retirement with no more than a pat on the back and a Social Security check. My mom, a public school teacher in Cuba, only got as far as a working as an orderly at an old people's home despite her ferocious determination to get herself ahead and me through college. Hers was a union job that at least provided a meager pension and some medical insurance until she died.

To my parents Castro was as an incendiary a subject as Donald Trump was at many Thanksgiving family dinners this week. I once found a crinkled picture of my mother shaking hands with Castro when he visited Santa Clara, except that after their love affair soured she had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously excised Castro from the picture, as if a tumor, leaving a photograph of herself shaking hands with a hole. As for my dad, I once asked him what he thought should be done in Cuba and he said, "Mi'jo (my son), the only solution is to go back there, machete in hand, and kill every communist in the island." No room for detente or compromise in my dad's world when it came to Castro.

For years I chuckled at my parent's Cro Magnon politics but as we all got older, and I retired at fifty-seven, I learned to understand and appreciate how devastating it must have been for them at a similar midlife pivot to lose everything they had spent a lifetime building to the communist hurricane that ravaged the island. Just as they thought they'd had reached a modest level of middle-class comfort, including a baby blue 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air and my dad's printing and stationery business in the somnolent provincial capital of Santa Clara, it all vanished overnight.

Dreams of my parents: A 1954 Chevy Bel Air 
Communists dying at the blade of my dad's rage? I could finally comprehend.

Still, I'm awed too at the impact Castro and the Cuban revolution have had on the world, even though back home the island's economy is still spinning its wheels in the muck of one failed socialist experiment after another. American visitors are now enthralled by the old American cars farting black smoke around Havana— in my living room I have a photo I took of a Havana-plated 1957 Chevy—but I wonder if the tourists grasp how indescribably depressing it must be for the classmates I left behind to find themselves living in a decrepit tourist curio shop after nearly sixty years of revolutionary privations.

I keep a shelf-full of books about Cuba, as a shrine of sorts, ranging from antique history tomes, early takes on the revolution, Andrés Oppenheimer's spectacularly premature "Castro's Final Hour"—published in 1992—plus memoirs and historical fiction mostly by Cubans in exile. Amid the books is a small pewter reproduction of the capitol building in Havana.

My favorite writer is Mirta Ojito, who for a while reported for the New York Times and wrote "Finding Mañana: A memoir of Cuban Exodus," and more recently Richard Blanco, who read one of his poems at Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration and later on the occasion of the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. In 2014 he published Prince of Los Cocuyos, a delightful memoir of growing up Cuban in Florida.

But by far my most memorable and tragic writer was Reinaldo Arenas, who dared to live an openly gay lifestyle in Cuba and defy the crush of government censorship and persecution. He left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and committed suicide in New York at age 47. His stirring "Before Night Falls" memoir was turned into a movie starring Javier Bardem.

So the old man, the one Cubans once admiringly called El Caballo, or The Horse, to signify his outsize physical and personal presence, is finally dead, his body cremated instead of mummified like Lenin, Mao or Ho, to be venerated by the faithful at an imposing mausoleum. I expect many reverent memorials to be held around the world, including here in San Miguel de Allende, where a small cadre of faithful Marxists sponsor occasional tours of the island to marvel at Castro's achievements.

I must confess a certain pride in all the talent, literary and otherwise, that has emerged from the small Caribbean island during the past sixty years. I'd even admit to a perverse admiration for Castro, who put Cuba on the world geopolitical map by defying the odds, the U.S., cut-offs of Soviet aid and innumerable other calamities that would have vanquished a lesser man.

Except any such admiration is quickly extinguished by the realization of how much destruction Castro's megalomania brought to so many people in the island, most especially my parents.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two weeks after the Apocalypse

Yesterday morning I spoke on the phone with Rogelio, a mellow, slow-talking childhood friend from Cuba who after I mentioned Donald J. Trump raised his voice several decibels and erupted into a torrent of expletives not suitable for a family blog like this. He said he hadn't slept the night of the election and had felt nauseous the day after, before skidding into nearly a weeklong depression.

His reaction was typical but probably the most extreme was that of a friend who said she was so upset she ate a whole pecan pie right out of the box. She is still cursing Trump, two weeks after the election.

To say we are all just sore losers is a false and unfair equivalence. I was disappointed when George Bush Sr. defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, particularly after the racist Willie Horton ad aired by the Republicans; dismayed when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to George W., in 2000 even though Al Gore had won the popular vote; and doubly dismayed when Bush was reelected in 2004, with the catastrophic, multi-trillion-dollar Iraq War already thundering in the background. I'm sure Republican friends were angry too when the Kenyan-born Barack Obama was elected and reelected. But we all accepted the results and moved on.

This is different. For all the faults and misjudgments of the Bush father-and-son team, and later Obama, they were basically honorable people with political agendas we didn't agree with. Now we've turned the presidency to an out-and-out racist, xenophobe and misogynist, who lies almost as often, and as casually, as he breathes. It feels as if he is about to desecrate the highest office and the White House, bringing along, for added insult, a former topless model to pose as First Lady.

Michelle and Barack, whatever your faults, we're going to miss you.

The first reaction Stew and I experienced after the election was the usual stage of grief—denial. Not that we didn't believe Trump had won but that we could shield ourselves against that reality by not watching or reading any news. We even abandoned the PBS News Hour, then headed by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, our favorite news team. To worsen matters a notch, Ifill died unexpectedly a few days after the election.

Then, for a moment, I embraced the "accepting the things we cannot change" fatalism proposed by some. But I don't buy that. I like Rogelio's rage much better—if only a bit more focused than yelling at friends on the phone, and seasoned with some historical perspective and even optimism.

Indeed, both Rogelio and I came to the U.S. in the early sixties and since then have witnessed this American democracy that is now our home go through some awful, seemingly catastrophic crises that would have plunged a lesser country into dictatorship or civil war.

Think of it: Today is the fifty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was followed by the killings of his brother and of Martin Luther King, and attempts on two more presidents. The political fabric of the country was ripped by race riots, wars, domestic terrorists, and seemingly unbridgeable political chasms. All this may seem like distant history but should reassure and help us get through this latest low point.

A starting point is a searching, bipartisan post-mortem of how our political discourse has turned so poisonous and illogical. How did working class Americans, who for decades were well served by labor unions embrace a Republican party—think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—that has set out to undermine or destroy labor unions? Or how did Democrats—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—join hands with Republicans to become shills of Wall Street interests that led directly to the economic debacle of 2008 that punched middle-class Americans right in the gut? Why do Republicans, historical supporters of open markets and free trade, now talk about walls and trade wars? And hey, didn't Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic paladin Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005? And didn't Ayn Rand—libertarian goddess and guiding light of Rep. Paul Ryan—vehemently defend personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to choose whether to have abortion?

It's a screwy political era we live in, no doubt, in which winning at any cost trounces reason, principles or comprehension of other points of view. As Toni Morrison eloquently wrote in The Nation, "...when the political discourse is shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules. Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles, all the while the swings and slides of governance remain empty."

To pull political discourse from the present swamp we'll need new leaders, probably some unknown to us right now. I wouldn't dare to propose any Republican candidates except there has to be a better lineup than the cavalcade of clowns we witnessed during the primaries, like Texas vacuum tube Gov. Rick Perry and others who just refuse to go away. Republicans need candidates who can articulate an economic and political platform that stands on something other than attacks on groups of Americans deemed to be different—be they immigrants, gays and lesbians, blacks or Muslims—that promote the discord that has led us to the present conundrum. If the emerging Trump cabinet is any indication, Republicans are a long ways from that ideal.

The Democrats too, need to find some new leadership and quit pretending that a jigsaw puzzle of special interests equals the national interest. Clinton, smart and capable as she may be, was no such inspirational figure. Instead she was a bruised and battered warrior with a sense of entitlement that it was "her turn." Millions voted for her with resignation rather than enthusiasm. To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Hillary, you're no Jack Kennedy."  Who the new Kennedy might be isn't clear. The Democrats have just four years to find him or her.

But perhaps the most essential but challenging ingredient to a political renewal is a sense of individual and communal compassion. The coal miners in West Virginia are not "deplorables" or white trash, but working folk desperately clinging to the only way of making a living they know. Mexican immigrants, even those who are undocumented, are not rapists or criminals but people who work to bring you the cheap and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you demand at Whole Foods. Muslims hanging on to sinking boats in the Mediterranean are not all fearsome terrorists but the latest image of souls trying to survive a horrible situation, just like the boat people from Cuba, Haiti or Vietnam, or the Ellis Island hordes that included Stew's parents from Norway.

If the rage, disgust and exhaustion most Americans feel after the recent presidential cycle is channeled into compassion for each other and a faith in the proven history, it can pull us out of this mess, I'm sure. We've done it before.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How should we remember the dead?

Despite the reading of some irreverent and even humorous poems by Billy Collins about death and dying, Sunday's Unitarian Fellowship service for the Day of the Dead was a somber affair. We commemorated the passing of both, prominent members of the congregation as well as people known only to individual congregants. About a dozen people,  their words often drowned by sobs and tears, spoke briefly about relatives and friends they had lost.

I sympathized with their grief. When my mother died, I couldn't stop crying loudly and sometimes uncontrollably, for about a week even though, in truth, we didn't have the warmest of relationships until her final two or three years.

It may be that the sudden absence of someone—not distant memories, pleasant or otherwise—is what unleashes the grief. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that waking up to a half-empty bed after her husband died was the toughest ordeal, that it felt as if some part of her had been torn away.

Remembering the dearly departed. 
While I appreciate and respect others' mourning, I've gradually embraced the more celebratory tone of Mexico's Day of the Dead, when the dearly departed are said to come back for a visit to exchange memories with the friends and relatives they left behind.

On November 2, either at homes or cemeteries, altars are assembled containing pictures of the departed and some of their favorites items, even a fifth of tequila if, to be honest about it, Uncle Pepe was known as a bit of tippler. At cemeteries, in a tradition that may resemble a picnic with food and drink and even songs, some relatives congregate around freshly cleaned and decorated graves to reminisce about grandma and others who've moved Upstairs.

To someone raised in Catholic traditions that glorify death, suffering, blood and tears as essential signposts along the road to eternal salvation—just walk around a Mexican church and check out the expressions on the statues—the festiveness of the Day of the Dead may seem scandalous, sacrilegious.

It's not that Mexicans are incapable of grieving for lost ones. A month ago, Félix reported that a brother-in-law in his forties had died overnight after a long fight with kidney disease. His eyes filled with tears and it took all of Félix's macho self-control to avoid outright crying. I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug, after which he told me all about José María, his family and how long he'd been sick. Félix and his the family will go to the local cemetery tomorrow to visit with José, and also one of Félix' sisters who died from a tumor when she was just twenty-one, and two other siblings who were stillborn.

After an initial period of grief—of detachment—I like the idea of celebrating and reminiscing about the dead, warts and all, rather than mourning them in perpetuity. Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously explained the contradiction in Mexicans' attitude toward death and grieving as ultimately one of acceptance.

"The Mexican...is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 

So this year Stew and I have put together our own Day of the Dead altar over the mantle of the fireplace, with the requisite orange marigolds, votive candles and photos of our dead relatives whom we will remember: Both of our parents (Mario and Georgina, and Thorleif and Frances); our grandmothers, mine maternal (Herminia), Stew's paternal (Verda); my paternal uncle Alejo and my cousin Gustavo, a lovely, dog-loving human being who succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide while still in his forties. Naturally we've also included some of our pets that have gone on to claim their eternal reward of kibbles.

We don't expect to be chatting with any of them or pretending that we don't miss them. In one of his more ironic poems, Collins notes that people die in order to make room for the next generation—to get out of the way—so younger folks can step up with new ideas presumably for improving this world. Next in line at the departure gate will be us.

That reality is not necessarily sad or joyful, just our turn in the inevitable cycle of life. I just hope to get a chance to visit Downstairs once a year to peek on how everyone is doing.



Friday, October 28, 2016

'Tis the season of the spiders

Just in time for Halloween, and the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, spiderwebs have appeared all over the ranch. Some are small, maybe six inches across, others can span gracefully and grandly for three or four feet, sometimes from one bush or tree to another. A few are works in progress, just a lone strand between two bushes, as delicate and perilous as the wire that carried aerialist Philippe Petit between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

All in a day's work.
It's an awesome display, particularly early in the morning when the sun, barely peeking over the horizon, backlights the spiders and the dewy landscape. It's as magical as it is ephemeral: You've got to put off your breakfast for a hour or two or you'll miss the show. By the time it warms up most of the spiders and the glistening dew will vanish, as nothing more than a vision.

Both Stew and I are entranced by the beauty of the cobwebs. That makes us arachnophiles, or "spider fans" though our affection has its limits. Last year we were introduced to the dangerous brown recluse spiders, one of which almost killed one of our dogs.

Apparently we are a small minority in a world dominated by arachnophobes—spider haters. Seeking to unravel some of the mysteries of spiderwebs I looked in Google and before anyone had any kind word about spiderwebs I had to suffer through three or four pages of comments, questions and suggestions on how to kill, smash and otherwise get rid of them. Some of the posts were hysterical, with four-letter words as if spiderwebs were monsters poised to destroy people's homes.

The dawn's early light, before the fog dissipates, it's the best time to admire spiders.
Around here, spiderwebs are clearly seasonal. They appear just as summer is letting out its parting sigh and most every plant and animal is readying for winter. The patches of rambunctious zinnias, that this year grew four feet high, are shriveling but not before scattering their seeds in preparation for next spring. As the flowers vanish so do the butterflies, which two months hovered in small flocks but now are down to a few laggards picking over whatever flowers are left.

Bees seem to be hunkering down too, though they don't know that next week Félix and Stew will be disrupting the hives to harvest the honey. For some reason last year we had a very meager honey harvest but these year they have peeked in the hives and it looks as if we should be back to four or five gallons of honey. We have boxes of jelly jars ready to be filled.

Dueling webs. 
British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not exactly a chirping bundle of cheer, described man's existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." And have a nice day, Tom.

Spiders' existence may be solitary and definitely short but none of the other. According to the OregonLive site, spiders shed their skins four to five times a season, before the adult females begin building the webs in late summer or fall to lay their eggs and, alas, die, presumably the eggs to lie dormant until spring to start the cycle again. No word about the fate of the males.

One of a number of spiders in our ranch. Not sure of its exact name. 
A  few more engineering points. A web's filaments, made of liquid protein—and which comparatively speaking are as tough as steel—are secreted by the spider at night and blown by the evening breezes until one sticks to something. The spider then goes back and forth on that initial strand to strengthen it and from there build the concentric web. Towards evening, many spiders eat the web and start building anew. Spiders, aside from their astonishing engineering skills, are excellent insect predators too.

So next time you see a spiderweb don't go running for a broom or start recycling childhood horror stories. The same thing for bats, another voracious insect-eater. These guys are much better than harmless—they are actually very beneficial.

Just go out early in the morning, stand back and admire the spiders' astonishing handiwork because in a few more weeks, it will all be gone.

A week after this post, the Washington Post published this article about a young girl's fascination with a spider: