Monday, September 19, 2016

Escape from Gringo Gulch

While a friend of ours and I had a French Dip sandwich at a new restaurant Friday, and Stew and another friend enjoyed a cheeseburger and steakburger, all with sides of crispy French Fries, a question popped in my head: Are we in Mexico? Neither the sandwiches nor the fries had anything to do with France, and the hamburgers were definitely all-American.

Actually the question had germinated the weekend before when a friend invited Stew and me to an all-Mexican lunch at his ranch prepared by a Mexican woman friend of his. On the menu was a beef broth with chunks of sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots and what-not. Terrific as any soup I've ever tasted, to rival some of Stew's inspired creations. It came with rice with an assortment of vegetables mixed in and decorated with sprigs of cilantro. The main course was small chunks of slow-cooked pork. You put the pork on warm tortillas, accompanied by any or all of a selection of condiments—jalapeños, a red (or green?) sauce, cucumbers, grated cheese, chopped onions and cilantro and others I can't remember.

Caldo de res mexicano: Hmm, hmm good. 
 All-Mexican and all delicious. Why don't we eat Mexican food more often?
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, one of the dirty little secrets of why so many Americans love San Miguel is that it allows them to live in a comfortable gringo bubble. Thanks to an influx of tourists and expats mostly from the U.S. but also Canada and Australia and even a few from New Zealand and Britain, San Miguel has gradually become Mexican-ish or Mexican-light, and less genuinely Mexican. Perhaps that's the inevitable price of living off the tourists.  

You can live here with no more Spanish than "Buenos días" and "Gracias." I've witnessed Americans become miffed with waiters or other service personnel who don't speak English to their satisfaction. Others complain that a recent "invasion" of San Miguel by "chilangos"—weekend visitors from Mexico City—might be ruining our little San Miguel. As pretentious and annoying as young chilangos can be, we momentarily forget that this is, after all, their country.

Indeed, English speakers attach themselves to English-speaking venues like barnacles on a pier. We socialize in English-speaking bridge clubs, churches and volunteer associations. For entertainment we have English-speaking theaters and movies. A small grocery store regularly imports American indispensables like canned Texas chili and even grits.

The self-segregation by Americans is most noticeable in restaurants. Hecho en México is probably the busiest in town and on many days it's packed with nothing but Americans attracted by such delicacies as reuben sandwiches (my favorite) and fish and chips (Stew's). On Mondays you can get meatloaf at the American-owned La Frontera restaurant, on the way in or out of the all-American bridge club venue next door. Variations of Italian restaurants abound, offering the all familiar pastas and sauces but nothing Mexican except the waiters.

Reuben, we're going to miss you. 
Before getting too preachy, let's admit that, even after almost eleven years here, Stew and I are very much trapped in that gringo bubble. For one thing, we don't have any Mexican friends that would invite us to dinner or vice-versa. Stew has surprised me recently with his growing command of Spanish, but it manifests usually when he has no choice but to string some words to get what he wants—or when I decline to play translator.

Our very predictable choice of restaurants recently has been Hecho, Firenze (a quite good continental restaurant), a place called The Restaurant, Cafe Monet, and Fat Boy, a new motorcycle bar with an incidental restaurant attached to it. There are some exceptions, such as El Vergel, outside of town, that offers some good and original Mexican dishes. But in general, Mexican cuisine enters our gullets only accidentally, such as during the wonderful and unexpected Mexican lunch we had at our friend's ranch.
It's only natural to try to soften the inevitable alienation of moving to a foreign country by hanging out at familiar places frequented by people like yourself. But it also negates the excitement of learning new ways of living and celebrating life in a foreign country. Isn't that why we came to Mexico?

Most noticeable to me is our insulation from local celebrations or fiestas, which come and go often without us knowing even what's being celebrated. Just this weekend, on the main road past the ranch, we saw groups of people on horseback going and coming back from San Miguel, probably something to do with the Independence Day celebrations all this month. On other occasions I've seen religious processions of some sort passing by, with people carrying banners and statues of saints while singing or praying. Who or what were they honoring?

On one memorable occasion, I spotted a young couple decked out in full Mexican attire riding a horse, also decked out with a fancy saddle. The guy was as handsome as the girl was gorgeous. Were they on the way to get married or going on their honeymoon? I should have stopped and asked—and congratulated them.

I mentioned to Stew this morning we should accelerate our halting efforts at cultural acculturation. First, we should try restaurants that are not expat hangouts, including taco carts and smaller venues in town preferably those favored by the locals. I'll miss Hecho's reuben sandwiches, but we'll survive.

Second, I'm going to try to keep track of local celebrations, including fiestas in the nearby localities and find out what they're about. Are they marking some religious holiday or secular celebration? We've attended a couple of fiestas near the ranch but mostly looked around and left after an hour or so. We should stay long enough to talk to a few people (but before some of them begin to fall face-down drunk, sadly a common occurrence).  

Finally I'll try to encourage Stew to shift his efforts to learn Spanish from first to second gear. That may prove to be the most difficult step in this program. But there's hope: This morning he was checking a Spanish-language cookbook and found a recipe for a beef broth soup just like our friend served at his ranch. I can't wait.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dropping in on Holy Death

In most of Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, Catholicism is a double helix of institutional dogma intertwined with popular invention and fanaticism. When the hierarchy and encyclicals imported from Europe don't quite address the spiritual needs of the local folk, some just create their own, often more vivid, embellishments of the traditional Catholic canon.

On each of our trips to San Antonio, Texas—a mind-deadening, twelve-hour driving marathon through mostly barren landscapes—we'd noticed signs pointing the roadside Chapel of the Holy Death and had intended to stop and check it out. It's hard to miss: a squat, bright-blue mini-church missing only the usual crucifix on top.

C'mon in, you lily-livered non-believers. 
What went on in the chapel? Why would someone pray to or worship Death? Isn't that against usual human instincts to live? Do Death's devotees solicit help with their daily vicissitudes? And by the way, is Death a He or a She?

Even though I've grown into a grumpy agnostic borderline atheist, I still hesitate to proclaim my skepticism too loudly about either one of the two strands of Catholicism—the formal church or the outlier cults and superstitions like the veneration of Holy Death, quite widespread throughout Mexico, or santería, even more popular in my native Cuba.

Other Latino non-believers often conceal similar doubts and fears with a really lame caveat: "No creo en eso, pero sí le tengo respeto."  "I don't believe in all that, but I do respect it." In other words, you never know.

So each time we went past the shrine to Holy Death, a scuffle broke out in my head between curiosity and fear of whatever went on in the chapel. Fear invariably won. We just kept on driving, weaving through the caravan of semis clogging the highway. Whatever it is, we'd better not mess with it.

Last Saturday, curiosity finally won and it brought to mind some of the mixed-message religious beliefs with which I grew up in Cuba, where staid old-world Catholicism mixes with the feverish, drum-beating African beliefs brought to the island by Nigerian slaves. The result is santería, which thrives despite the scorn of the mainline Catholic church.

Even Fidel, and his deposed predecessor Batista, were said to have their personal santería priests, to help them navigate through the turbulence of Cuban politics. It didn't work out so well for Batista, though he slipped out of the island and on to a very comfortable retirement in Spain.

At home my mother kept a small but centrally located altar to Santa Barbara, a versatile saint who was a central figure in both the Catholic and santería pantheons. Our statue of Santa Barbara was about eighteen inches tall, decorated with a tiny metal crown and chalice, plus a sword she held on her left hand and could be set to point up or down, I suspect depending on my mother's spiritual moods or in case of some family emergency.

Santa Barbara supplies available
from a vendor in California. 
Along the traditional Catholic iconography, at the foot of the small altar, my mother occasionally placed bananas, apples or other fruits in compliance with santería traditions. You never know. So you cover all the bases.

Growing up I developed chronic bronchial asthma, a wheezing, relentless malady I wouldn't wish on anyone. I went to doctors who prescribed inhalers and other medications, in addition to shots of penicillin, the cure-all back in the fifties. All to no avail.

So my parents consulted a santera—a santería priestess or practitioner—who proposed an unorthodox cure. I imagine that by now my parents had given up on the usual Catholic prayers and invocations.

So at sunrise the next Easter morning we went out to the countryside and stood at the foot of a ceiba tree, one of the largest trees in the island. There, the santera, after mumbling what sounded like some Catholic prayer, probably spiced with ñáñigo, a language brought from Africa by the slaves, cut a lock of my hair and solemnly tucked it into a cut she had made on the trunk of the ceiba. She predicted my asthma would be cured when the incision healed.
A giant ceiba tree, similar to the one
that cured my asthma. Maybe. 

It worked.

Or did it? My asthma went away just about the time I came to the U.S. Maybe I was allergic to something in Cuba. Maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe yet, santería might have done the trick. Hence my allegiance to both agnosticism and back-of-the-head respect for religious mumbo-jumbo, even some of the more far-fetched beliefs. You just never know.

The Chapel of the Holy Death, is located about two-thirds of the way home between the exits to the cities of Matahuala and San Luis Potosí in a landscape that is fittingly dismal. The soil is a whitish clay that resembles cracked plaster. Vegetation is sparse except for mesquites and a species of tall cacti tilted in all directions as if they were periscopes peering through the dust for a way out of this unforgiving patch of nature.

Signs of human habitation were equally scarce, mostly a few dingy cafes and restaurants and a vulcanizing and tire repair shop, the typical establishments in parts of Mexico where even bare survival is a daily struggle.

Your choice: Lunch, some freshly vulcanized tires or a live chicken.
We overshot our exit by about a kilometer, where a short and frail woman, carrying a bare-assed two- or three-year-old boy and two other children, promptly approached the car and asked us if we wanted to buy some cacti. Instead of a restaurant or a tire shop she had set up a cactus nursery. Give her credit for ingenuity.

Most of her sere offerings were pathetic but I found a couple of specimens I didn't have. She asked $150 pesos, a ridiculous sum that I promptly paid, so shaken was I by this family's misery. As Stew so often says, such are not rational commercial transactions but acts of income redistribution.

Heartened by our generosity, the woman took us to the patio of her ramshackle dwelling and offered to sell us songbirds, pants, socks, shoes and even a three-inch coyote fang she produced from her pocket. It would make a fine necklace, she said. I passed.

OK, how about a coyote fang?
As we turned around and approached the Chapel of the Holy Death, my trepidations ebbed. It was a bright-blue, almost cheery building that someone kept meticulously painted, with a palapa in front under which a young guy was working on a battered 1997 Ford Taurus. He was installing a string of lights over the windshield, surely the last thing that vehicle needed.

Even before we'd exited the highway I had warned Stew not too giggle, point or show any disrespect to anything or anyone in the shrine. I didn't want to piss off Holy Death, or more immediately, some of his or her followers who might be offended and come after us with a machete.

After a brief and grumpy conversation with the young man working on his car, an attractive bosomy woman carrying a four- or five-month old named Darwin approached us as if to ask about the nature of our business.

I introduced myself and politely, rather obsequiously, asked her if she was a believer in the cult of the Holy Death and could she provide any details. Though she lived next door to the chapel she claimed not to know anything about its function, except that believers came by occasionally to pick up a statue from inside the chapel and take it home for a fiesta.

"Why would you bring a statue of Holy Death to a fiesta?" I asked. She explained that the fiestas were religious celebrations on important religious holidays.

The chapel included a kneeling bench. 
The inside of the chapel was no more than four hundred square feet. The walls were lined with rows of statues, some three or four feet tall, most decorated with lavish costumes that included a hood to cover—you guessed it—a skull. Some of the skulls, life-sized and amber-colored, looked like they once belonged to someone. Bony fingers protruded out of some of the sleeves. The only light came from a skylight and dozens of candles flickering at the foot of this bone-chilling line-up. What looked like a small stone birdbath or baptismal font sat in the middle of the room, and held a handful of wilted red roses.

In addition, one of the walls was filled with framed prayers, testimonials and declarations by people who apparently had been helped by Holy Death. One testimonial was a photo of a tanker-truck driver beseeching Holy Death for his or her protection.

May we help you?
I kept a safe distance from all the testimonials while Stew began checking the backs of the pictures, as if this were a flea market. A passport-size color photo of a handsome thirty-something man fell out from one of the pictures. Was he dead? Or had he been saved from some horrible fate?

Stew was baptized in a small-gauge church in Iowa that unlike Roman Catholicism did not burden him with any sense of religious guilt, fear, hell or damnation. The chapel was no more than a curiosity.  Lucky him.

I respectfully, almost fearfully, put the photo on the shelf—I couldn't tell which framed testimonial it had come from—and urged Stew to keep his hand off the relics, followed by "let's get the hell out of here."

Testimonials or pleas to Holy Death
On the way back to the car I was confronted by a potentially existential dilemma: A spray-painted sign offered votive candles for twenty pesos. Which would it be? Should we risk dissing Holy Death by not buying a candle? Or incur the institutional wrath of the Roman Catholic Church which harrumphs at the cult of Holy Death as sacrilege or worse, and could put me on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates for all eternity?

I paused for a second before my Guardian Angel helpfully whispered in my ear: "Get back in the car and go home, you fools."



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The burden of the might-have-beens

Might-have-beens are a bitch. They make you wonder about and sometimes regret many of the decisions you've made.

Might-have-beens can be constructive, yes, but less so later in life. Earlier on, and assuming one has an active learning curve, might-have-beens can remind you of the bumps on the road so you don't drive over them again.

Later in life, though, might-have-beens can feel fruitless and even disheartening, hindering rather than aiding one's ability to deal with present challenges. They can be a distraction as well as an opportunity.

After a ten-year lapse, I recently started attending A.A. meetings once a week. In a strangely counterintuitive way, going back to meetings is akin to rekindling one's toxic love affair with booze. I don't know precisely why I decided to go to meetings again, but I did bring a certain smugness into the room, feeling as if I were repeating high school English composition or some other subject I thought I'd mastered years ago.

Yep, this the a fork in the road. 
Instead, attending meetings again has been a whack to the side of the head, a reminder of how little I have changed even though I haven't touched alcohol or cigarettes for over thirty years. Listening to others talk about their daily struggles to stay sober—while reciting the all-too-familiar A.A. slogans, jingles and bumper stickers—took me back to my first meeting, immediately after I quit drinking.

I don't drink anymore but I'm still burdened by some of the circular patterns that led me to alcohol in the first place. Might I be in a different place today had I stuck to meetings all along and paid more attention, instead of abandoning that project earlier on because I "didn't need meetings" any more? Maybe, even probably. All I can say is that at least I don't drink or smoke today and that much must qualify as progress. And I'm still open to suggestions I hear from other recovering alcoholics.

An unexpected visit recently from a friend I'd met in my first job right out of graduate school in 1972, a year after Stew and I got together, led me to more second-guessing, mostly about my zig-zaggy career in journalism.

I actually didn't start working in magazines and newspapers until 1978, after I'd quit a cozy but stultifying stint deep in the federal bureaucracy—at the long-gone U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, of all places—and enrolled at Northwestern University.

Along with leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S. alone at age fourteen, quitting the feds was one of the most drastic decisions in my life. It wasn't just thinking outside the box, but going at the box with a chainsaw and starting over, with no job security or even job prospects in sight.

Even in the best of circumstances writing is a precarious way to make a living and yet the only way to get ahead is to keep taking chances. If your last novel bombs, you have to write another one, and if the best newspaper job you can land is in Carthage, Miss., or a relatively obscure publication in a big city, you go there and hope in a couple of years you discover a better gig or someone discovers you. It's the opposite of a job at the post office.

I'd always dreamed of joining the foreign service or getting a gig as a foreign reporter: There's a certain buzz I still get from landing in strange places and trying to figure out how people there live and work, and how they've developed their own versions if not of happiness, at least of reconciliation or resignation with their circumstances. Even today for me traveling is equal parts mindless sightseeing and a chance for a first-hand, albeit fleeting immersion in the politics, history and culture that has brought a country to where it is.

I was offered several opportunities to move to foreign places for various jobs and actually have travelled to numerous countries. Haiti was the one that intrigued me the most because of its intoxicating and unique brew of African and Western cultures, even its peculiar patois. Haiti was as fascinating and inexplicable as voodoo itself.

But every time an opportunity to pursue my foreign dreams arose, fear and endless what-ifs got in the way. My occasional foreign ventures ended up only whetting an appetite never quite fulfilled.

None of this says that by any means my career in journalism was failure. On the contrary, I have quite a collection of awards for my work that used to hang on a wall of my office until I got tired of looking at them: They reminded me of both my successes and my might-have-beens.

But the biggest of my might-have-beens—one I don't recall explicitly discussing with Stew—
is what it would have been like for us to raise a couple of kids. I'm quite certain they would have received as much love and attention as any child raised by a "normal" straight couple, perhaps too much so. I probably would have spent endless night trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. The most attentive, insomniac parent in the world; that would have been me.

It's another might-have-been, which as all the rest cannot be relived. Life is video with no rewind button that allows you go back and edit—or redo—the scenes that didn't quite work out. All you can do is try to plan your next shoot a little better.

Before anyone think I'm on the edge of despair, worry not. I'm quite conscious of my good fortune, most of all having a loving husband and companion for forty-four years even if we weren't allowed to formally marry until three years ago, when the powers that be decided it was alright for us to get married, and no longer live marginalized in some second-class limbo called "domestic partnership."

We're comfortable; we live in what people keep telling us is beautiful home, and for the moment we have no financial or health worries.

So why do might-have-beens keep coming up? Maybe they are just markers, some times upsetting, other times inspiring, to remind us of where we are, where we came from—and what we need to do to best use the time ahead.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Medical breakthrough in San Miguel!

It's tough to imagine an upside to the story of a friend from New York who while visiting San Miguel last week fell down in her room and broke her left humerus, the big bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. And it wasn't a hairline fracture you had squint at the X-Ray to notice, but a clear break a layperson could see even after three tequilas.

But indeed there was an upside: The accident led Stew and I to realize how much medical care in San Miguel has improved since our arrival ten years ago, during which we'd worried about all the what-ifs surrounding a sudden illness or other medical emergency here.

Here's looking at your humerus, sweetheart. *

Our friend's first recourse was the woman in charge of the bed-and-breakfast where she was staying, who in turn called a doctor who ordered an X-Ray of the arm. The X-Ray cost a whopping thirty-five dollars. After that, the doctor summoned an orthopedic surgeon from the nearby city of Queretaro.

The surgeon, a bearded, burly guy in his thirties whose first name was Zeus and who spoke enough English to ask all the pertinent questions, arrived later in the day and examined my friend. He put on a temporary cast and without further delay, loaded my friend into his own car and took her to the local private hospital and scheduled surgery at nine the next morning.

The hospital, now called H+ and completely refurbished, used to be called De la Fé or "Faith Hospital," an appropriate name for such an iffy operation.

Iwas a scary-miserable facility, lacking the most rudimentary modern equipment. I had an X-Ray with a machine that looked like surplus equipment from the Korean War. My friend Billie compared the ambiance in the waiting room of the doctors' office suite to a dingy bus depot. After an emergency landed him to De la Fé, the U.S. consul remarked to Stew and me that he wouldn't bring his cat there for treatment.

The most ballyhooed, and ridiculous, feature of the hospital was its hyperbaric chamber, a pressurized-oxygen machine used primarily to counteract decompression sickness resulting from scuba diving, an odd piece of equipment for a hospital several hundred miles from the ocean.

Except it must have been a money-maker: One of the hospital doctors suggested to Stew that he sign up for a series of hyperbaric "treatments."

"Would it help?," Stew asked the doctor, whose gloomy office looked more like a curio shop.

"Well, it couldn't hurt," the doctor replied.

A billboard on the approach to the hospital, since removed, advertised all manner of medical interventions for just about anything short of a brain transplant—plus the hyperbaric chamber, just in case.

Hmm. No thanks.

Despite its dilapidated interior, and refulgent exterior—the squat, two-story building was a shade of electric blue one would expect to find at a midnight paint liquidation at Home Depot—many expats never ceased to extol the miracles that unfolded daily at De la Fé. Given that for years it was the only game in town, perhaps such sanguine denials were the only way to imagine the possibility of one being taken there in an emergency.

But when Stew and I visited our friend following the surgery to install a metal rod to realign her humerus, the hospital we encountered was like a vision. Thanks to multi-million peso investment by an out of town chain, the old hospital had been completely gutted and refurbished. Brand-new equipment anywhere we looked. A hospital elevator installed to replace a steep ramp between the first and second floors that would have sent a patient on a wheelchair flying into the lobby if the attendant lost control.

Gone and best forgotten was a sad altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, located on the second floor hallway and decorated with flickering votive candles and wilted flowers, that was not reassuring to non-believers like me who'd rather bet on modern medical science.

My friend, who stayed for two days in a private, air-conditioned room, couldn't stop talking about the excellent, first-class care she received, from the surgical team to the nurses. She had been through some serious medical crises and said the care she received here was comparable—and in some respects better, particularly the personal attention—to what she experienced at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

When we went to pick her up, I was afraid what the bill would be. I figured for such major surgery, operating room charges alone would be several thousand dollars. But the itemized statement, for the entire stay at the hospital and all the tests, came to only three thousand dollars—a bargain at three times that.

Now, I'm not encouraging anyone to fall down and break their humerus or a leg. But if you plan to, San Miguel may be the best place to do it.


*BTW, what's that faint shadow between the skeleton's legs??

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A cure for Trumpinosis

Coming on the heels of our two recent encounters with serendipity mentioned in my last posting, I may have discovered how to tune out the constant din of "news" about the presidential election scheduled to take place exactly ninety-seven days, fourteen hours, five minutes and two seconds from this writing. In other words, not a second too soon.

Leading up to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia Stew and I had been diligently, almost obsessively, reading the New York Times and Washington Post and watching the PBS NewsHour. We supplemented such serious reporting with peeks at CNN, with its usual lineup of six or eight babbling bobbleheads, a format reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares but without the humor. Then we had been checking the online Huffington Post which is to news what potato chips are to a balanced diet—addictive but of little nutritional value.

Finally, for perversity's sake, we've occasionally tuned in to Fox News for a dose of magical realism, such as Bill O'Reilly's timely observation that, after all, the slaves who built the White House were well fed and received decent lodging from the government. He was responding to Michelle Obama's speech at the convention, in which she mentioned how awesome it was to wake up in a house built by slaves. I guess O'Reilly couldn't bring himself to say that it was a beautiful speech and just leave it at that.

But following the Democratic Convention, political news has become a hailstorm of bullshit largely thanks to Donald Trump. The worst of it is not that he blurts out something offensive, ridiculous or just plain false, but that news providers feel obligated to repeat it, massage it and hold it up to the light as informational nuggets that need to be pondered for several days.

You're fired.
So we listened, ad nauseam, to reports about Trump saying Putin would not go into Ukraine, even though Russian had already annexed Crimea, which used to be part of Ukraine, in 2014. And on and on, sliding from one idiotic statement to the next, adding nothing to our knowledge of what needs to be done to address the U.S.' real problems of racial inequality, wage stagnation, the financial squeeze on the middle class and such.

It was at this moment, when Stew and I had nearly overdosed on potato chips, that Providence intervened with an unexpected solution—heavy rains, road construction and new and excellent Internet service at our home.

The rains and road construction have increased driving time to town from twenty minutes or so to over an hour, as traffic has been rerouted onto a muddy, out of the way detour that has the feel of driving through some remote part of West Virginia. So we've cut down our visits with friends in town, during which politics and much moaning and groaning about Trump is the inevitable topic of conversation. Zot!

A flash wireless Internet connection also has enabled us to download movies, documentaries and dramas that have preempted the constant political yadda-yadda from our TV schedule. We still record the PBS News Hour but fast forward past Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill and all the political hubbub and go directly to Jeffrey Brown, who's usually reporting about global warming or unusual plant species from the Maldives, Tahiti or some place where no one talks about Donald Trump.

Reading the Times and the Post online will require more self-control to slip past the political bloviation that consumes much of the news and opinion pages and go straight to book and movie reviews, science, travel, recipes, fashion, theater and other topics not likely to get us riled up.

In our reading, it's fiction all the time. No more "Black Flags: The Rise of Isis," by Joby Warrick, a terrific but depressing book that unfortunately reminded us of the war without end in Iraq and Syria, and the biggest debacle in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.

Stew instead prowls Amazon for detective or crime stories while I have settled on "Miss Jane," by Brad Watson, a novel about a girl in Mississippi born with chronic incontinence.

"Whoa! That sounds depressing!" some of you may say. Let me assure you it's a beautifully written and inspiring work, certain to take your mind off the presidential election in ninety-seven days, twelve hours, thirty-four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Make that thirty-one minutes, four seconds.

Just don't forget to vote.  


Friday, July 29, 2016

The beauty in serendipity

"Serendipity," with its musical ring, is a word that sounds like fun even before you know what it means. Literally it means "unexpected good luck" or stumbling into something terrific that you didn't imagine. Yet we often turn away from serendipity, our demand for certainty preempting many pleasant, even wondrous, surprises.

During a recent trip to Spain, and more recently during a walk through our garden at the ranch, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of serendipity—to simply to step back and allow plenty of open travel time and soil space for whatever. It turns out the fun and beauty of surprises more than make up for the initial trepidation of letting go.

When a rose bush ran into nasturtiums, a large rock and a prickly bear cactus,
an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement resulted. 
Before going on a two-week trip to Spain a couple of months ago, we ordered Rick Steves' travel book, plus a couple of almost scholarly explorations of the history, architecture and artistic significance of legendary landmarks like the Grand Mosque of Córdova and Granada's Alhambra. I even read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra." I wanted to be fully prepared.

Then I put together what I thought was a airy day-to-day itinerary, a lot of it inspired by Steves' rather marathonic walking tours and estimated times of completion that alas, don't make allowances for the age of the person doing the walking.

He instead ought to provide sliding time estimates. For instance, the hike from Madrid's Plaza del Sol to the Prado Museum? Twenty- to thirty-year-olds, you should allow thirty minutes; folks over sixty, with ten to fifteen pounds of extra weight, grab a cab.

Even in Europe's giant museums there is only so much great art your exhausted tourist brain and feet can absorb. Our friend Gerard commented that after four or five hours meandering through Amsterdam's monumental Rijksmuseum, the endless collection of Rembrandts became a blur of pictures of "old Dutch guys with big black hats."

Rather, you should check out and admire some of the highlights that you studied in the obligatory college art appreciation class (Jason's "History of Art" anyone?) and then go out for a nice lunch. After that, try a museum with a collection of objects you know little or nothing about. The hell with Jason. Be surprised.  

In Spain, the Alhambra, Córdova's Mosque and Seville's cavernous cathedral are certainly worth every bit of their fame and then some.

Stew (l.) with a new old friend from the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen.
Yet the most memorable moments of our trip were unplanned, such as finding a tiny Moroccan restaurant in Granada, near the Alhambra, run by a short, bubbly guy who was born in Chefchaouen, a tiny psychedelic town in Morocco we had visited in 2007, where every house is painted the same shade of electric blue. The owner was thrilled someone recognized his hometown and we had terrific conversation and chicken tajine. 

For two days my itinerary provided for just "driving around the countryside," a splendid idea that took our us in our turbo-diesel VW Polo, with a manual transmission Stew wouldn't touch, to two towns we'd never heard of: Medina Sidonia with its tumbledown church and Grazalema, the ultimate "postcard-beautiful" village, one of dozens in the "white villages" region of Andalucía.

While looking at the valleys and mountains surrounding Grazalema, Stew proclaimed it to be one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. It was a truly serendipitous moment, or if you're religious, a moment of unmerited grace, as in how did we stumble into this place? 

The unexpected beauty of Grazalema, in Spain's Andalucía. 
Back home, daily rains have greened the landscape around the ranch, and despite much planning and seed-ordering from the States, serendipity has, once again, overtaken much of my landscaping schemes.

I planted our seeds too early and upwards of fifty percent of them died, victims of my impatience. Adding to the confusion is Félix's refusal to pull up and discard any plants, flowers or small trees no matter how out of place they may be. So flowers and vegetables have germinated in odd places after lurking in the compost pile for the past several months. Flowers and vegetable seeds have arrived air mail, wrapped in bird droppings. To boot, there were handfuls of seeds left from last year that Félix saved in envelopes with enigmatic labels like, "big zinnias?" No matter, into the ground they went; nothing must go to waste is his gardening mantra.

A lone zinnia deep in the ornamental grasses. 
The result is serendipitous and charming, a colorful joke at the expense of those gardening gurus who insist one must first make a scaled plan of the areas in the garden to be tamed, followed by careful selection of plantings according to color, textures and heights.

Indeed I have noodled the idea of turning the garden over to chance, Mother Nature or Félix, given that any one of the three options probably will yield much the same results.

Quite often he comes up with ideas at first strange but that ultimately win you over. "Hmm, that's kind of clever!" or "I never thought of that!" Zinnias abutting the agaves? Roses surrounded by nasturtiums? A peach tree—where did it come from?—in the middle of a patch of English lavenders? A dahlia fighting its way through a succulent groundcover? Who would have imagined?

That and more, thanks to the gifts of serendipity.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Feeling free and whole at Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade

Once upon a time, about forty years ago, Stew and I attended our first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. We didn't really participate, join the marchers, wave any rainbow flags or make any noise. We stood discreetly on the sidelines, a safe distance from the drag queens and other scandalous participants: Were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—men irreverently dressed as nuns—or the leather-clad Dykes on Bikes, defiantly revving their Harleys, already part of the parade?

We don't remember. At that time Stew and I were so uncomfortable in our own gay skins that any public demonstration of solidarity with other gay people—out in the middle of Chicago, no less—would have given us a nervous rash even if all the marchers had been pin-striped accountants.

Neither one of us was "out" to our families, neighbors or coworkers, nor did we have many gay friends. Cloistered anonymity was our operating style. At the time I was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, and part of the job application process had been a signed affirmation I was not a homosexual, alcoholic or any other sort of deviant human being.

We lived in a single-family house in the suburbs, thirty miles west of downtown Chicago, with a beagle, a dachshund and a cat named George, named after the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

Last Sunday, Stew and I and two friends attended the Gay Pride Parade in Mexico City and we had a blast. I felt as if all the tens of thousands of strangers milling around the iconic Angel of Independence monument, waiting for the invariably delayed and chaotic parade to launch, were close friends. The warmth, the small talk in Spanish and English, the laughter, were infectious. I felt exhilarated and whole.

For a huge city, Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade is relatively small. Newspapers the day after estimated attendance at between eighty and two-hundred thousand, compared to Chicago's nearly one million. The event had a homey, block-party feel to it.

There were no public officials present and few signs of corporate sponsors—no floats representing large companies or banks—only a few American Express metallic balloons proclaiming solidarity, and vendors of Doritos in special-edition rainbow flag packages. The one, very significant exception this general official snub was Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who mingled with the celebrants.

The vacuum left by the absence of official corporate or government sponsors was more than filled by an explosion of individual expression. Gym bunnies, after months of weight lifting finally got to show their tattooed physiques barely contained by minimalist Speedos, while couch bunnies, who had labored equally hard over their costumes, unveiled their interpretations of Aztec kings, Las Vegas showgirls, Scottish golfers in kilts, operatic characters, and even a bishop wearing a cardboard miter hat with a gold satin tablecloth for a cape.

An hour and a half late, the parade finally meandered down Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's most majestic boulevards, past the U.S. embassy which flew a rainbow flag beneath the Stars and Stripes in honor of the occasion.

Leading the parade was a tangled, four-hundred-meter-long rainbow flag—about thirteen-hundred feet—that took forty-five minutes or so to unfurl, followed by a huge balloon in the shape of a condom. A little farther behind was a posse of vaqueros wearing the intricate, formal regalia Mexican cowboys, and who rode horses that seemed increasingly impatient with the going around in circles waiting for the crowd to move.

The final destination, probably after four or five hours of stop-and-go parading, would be Mexico City's huge main square, the Zócalo, for a rally and more music at the foot of the Metropolitan Cathedral and Mexico's National Palace.

We left after three hours or so of mingling, laughing and meeting people in the motley mob around the Angel of Independence. I wished we had met them forty years ago.

This guy could audition for the part of Jack Twist in the
Mexican version of "Brokeback Mountain."
One of about two-dozen members of the contingent
of Vaqueros Mexiquenses (Cowboys from
 the State of Mexico), who came fully accessorized,
 including a beautifully saddled horse. 
A pair of cowboys in matching shirts. 
Lest anyone miss their presence, the gay vaqueros wore matching shirts and name patches and
brought along a large and horribly
cacophonous Mexican brass bass.
Even the horses got tarted up for the parade.
This one reminded me of Bo Derek in "10"
The tee-shirts said "Yes, we're lesbian moms with
twins. Get over it!" Any questions? 
"Is she gay too?" I asked. "I don't know,
she doesn't talk."
Our friend Ron Anderson, socializing with two cowboys
 who came to the parade on their own. 

News travel fast, even down to Mexico.
Just as Albin sang in "La Cage aux folles":
"Just another dab of mascara to my rather limp upper lash."
Are you Boy Scouts?, I inquired. "Nooo!" they replied, with mock
exasperation. "We're forest rangers, like Smokey Bear, can't you tell?"
An angel, maybe an archangel, fluttering about.
"Prudence," a brand of Mexican condoms, clearly believes in targeted advertising.
"These are just my boots. It was too hot for
my whole leather outfit."
Talk to me or else: A broadcast reporter walked around in a leather outfit,
holding a microphone in one hand and a cat o' nine tails on the other.
When a flowery Carmen Miranda came to Mexico
and brought her adorable daughter dressed as butterfly.

Do you think wearing pink tulle wings
makes me look like a gay pug?
Beefcake tacos anyone?
Is he primping his feathers or checking
emails from his Aztec ancestors?
A princess waiting for her horse-drawn carriage to arrive. 
The mercantile spirit: Vendors sold all sorts of custom paraphernalia,
from penis-shaped chocolates, pirated porno films and lace rainbow flags. 

Whatever it takes to survive in Mexico City.
Thanks Barack Obama: A rainbow flag flew along with the Stars and
Stripes at the U.S. Embassy. The American ambassador also walked
around in the  parade. Can't imagine those sights, or marriage equality,
if we'd had a Republican in the White House.

Pope Luis I, wearing a rather suggestive
miter hat and a table cloth for a cape. 

A lone representative from the Teuhantepec area of the state of
 wearing a typical native outfit. I forgot to ask about the flower pot.
Exhibits One and Two: Why people go to the gym.
Not sure about this get-up except
I wasn't about to make fun of it.
"Brunhilde, is that you?" I asked.
"Who's that?" Brunhilde replied. 
At 1:45 p.m. the parade seemed to be starting. 

Whatever. This couple broke away for lunch and a beer near the starting line.

Until next year.