Saturday, October 14, 2017

On the road again, ready or not

Once upon a time—it feels like a hundred years ago though it's closer to twelve or thirteen—I reached a peak of physical fitness by bicycling to work, about six miles each way, through any weather Chicago threw my way.

Old Glory, ready to roll again. 
Depending on conditions, each morning I'd put on my black Spandex biking shorts, a black-and-yellow nylon shirt and a bright blue helmet, with reflective sunglasses to match, or bundle up in lined pants, jacket and gloves, and take off into the sunshine, rain, snow, sleet or whatever. My friends now wouldn't have recognized me.

Except for getting "doored" one time when someone was getting out of a car, plus couple of spills, I never had an accident. I got a cut on one hand one time and went to the emergency room for some minor patching but the next day I was at it again. Falling off my bike in front of others hurt nothing but my ego. 

My pace ranged from furious through bad weather to day-dreamy and leisurely, sometimes with my hands off the handlebar, when it was sunny and balmy, and racing through the bike paths weaving through Chicago's lakefront parks would have been an unforgivable affront to the gorgeous scenery.

I don't recall what triggered my pedaling frenzy, which lasted about three years, but I think it was more psychological than physical. I wasn't happy at my job and an hour of bicycling before and after work seemed to flush the toxins out of my head.

Now I realize there were great physical benefits too: My stamina gradually increased to the point I barely broke a sweat on my travels plus my weight dropped to maybe one hundred eighty five. One a six-foot-two frame, that made me damn near thin. 

Then came retirement. The bicycle I brought down from Chicago collected dust and lay buried behind other seldom used junk. But during my annual physical in San Antonio a month ago, the doctor broke the news: My blood sugar was elevated and I needed to lose about fifteen pounds through a reduced-carbohydrates diet and exercise. 

So out came the bicycle, dusty and its tires nearly flat, and off I went to pedal again on the paved road near our ranch. My maiden ride was a humiliating debacle. I could hardly ride for a mile without running out of breath and in fact—ouch!—had to walk part of the way home.

Could I be that old, fat and out of shape? Apparently, a resounding yes to all three.

So on a diet plus walking with the dogs for about a half-hour each morning, I've lost three pounds. Stew says he's lost six. I don't believe him.

I've cleaned my old bicycle and intend to get pedaling again. It isn't going to be easy and I'm going to wait for a few weeks before looking for those Spandex biking shorts.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A surprise in every taco

This morning I showed Félix a photo I took of an Icelandic horse, a rather stumpy but powerful fellow with a beautiful long mane. I thought I'd shock Félix by telling him that some people in Iceland eat horsemeat.

It's what's for dinner. 
Hah! You have to get up early in the morning to shock Félix. 

Sure, he said, in Mexico you never know what street vendors use for their taco fillings—meat from horses, various parts of the cattle head and even bull penises that are called tacos de viril, or roughly "virile tacos." A euphemism if there ever was one.

I thought Félix was putting me on but then I remembered that fellow blogger Felipe Zapata has spotted penis tacos for sale in Pátzcuaro. I don't recall if he sampled one. 

Félix expounded that you can make tacos from goat meat, but male goats need to be relieved of their testicles a few weeks in advance otherwise the meat can taste pretty foul. He didn't say what modifications are required before preparing female goats.

The possibility of dog tacos came to me several months ago while reading a really funny book called "I'll Sell You a Dog," by Juan Pablo Villalobos. It was a running gag about the dogs-for-tacos trade in the capital. The book was fiction but apparently some folks in Mexico City believe dog meat tacos are for real. Félix doubts it.

Tacos stuffed with various parts of a cow's head, or tacos de cabeza, definitely are sold in the capital. Specialty head tacos might be sesos (brains); lengua (tongue); cachete (cheek); trompa (lips) and even ojos (eyes).

There's hardly anything more phony or arbitrary than picky eating and I am a repeat offender.

At a la-di-dah restaurant in Mexico City several years ago I sampled, with great hesitation, beef carpaccio, which is seasoned raw meat, as an appetizer. It was tasty though now I wonder which part of the cow it came from, or if it was a cow at all. 

In Iceland, I was put off by horse meat but readily ordered beef. I once argued, lamely, that horses looked noble and friendly, not suitable for eating. But what about our bovine friends? Granted, they don't look too bright but cows can hardly be considered conniving or perfidious.

Pork, which I really like, comes from an animal that is supposed to be quite bright and friendly, and even cute in the right light. I almost gagged, though, when a restaurant in San Miguel served me suckling pig which I realized, too late, was a tiny baby pig, with hardly enough meat to bother eating.

Try it, you'll like it. 
In Iceland we also took a pass on eating puffin, an adorable quail-size bird that Icelanders consume with gusto. We opted instead for chicken, which have more meat and are not as lovable.

It wasn't until a month ago that I sampled octopus, which I had avoided because the sight of their suction cups turned me off. I finally cut a piece off a small octopus, looked away and put it in my mouth. It was good.

Stew and I have been trying to broaden our menus, with Stew way ahead of me so far.

He even ate guinea pig in Peru, though he had the kitchen debone it to avoid the traditional road-kill presentation of a little animal only slightly larger than a rat, feet and all, its eyes staring at you from the plate.

With some disgust on his face Stew confirmed that yes, it tasted like chicken. I took his word for it.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Muslim prayer for the United States

From the Washington Post
Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University’s School of Arts & Sciences, delivered the opening prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday. Starting in 2003, Antepli was a chaplain at Duke, Wesleyan University and Hartford Seminary. He was nominated to give the prayer, which is offered days the House is in session, by his representative, U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). Price introduced him as “a prophetic voice for peace and justice, an engaging teacher and counselor.” Antepli’s is the eighth Muslim prayer offered in the House since 2001, and the first in three years, according to Duke:
The Holy One,
As your creation,  we call you by different names, experience you through multiple paths. Our human diversity is from you. As the creator of all, you made us different. Enable us to understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences. Teach and guide us to turn these differences into opportunities, richness and strength. Prevent us from turning them into sources of division, polarization, hate and bigotry.

This incredibly diverse nation of ours is one of the most successful attempts to understand your wisdom in creating us different. We are far from being perfect but came a long way in creating a multi-cultural, multi-religious and pluralistic society by making in America: “You will be judged by what you do, not by who you are” as one of our foundational promise.
The Most Compassionate One,
The Most Forgiving One,
Even if and when we forget you, please do not forget us.
In your most holy and beautiful names we pray,
NB: No big deal but: If you can open this link, check out Paul Ryan's defensive posture, with his arms crossed, and also read the first reader comment to this article:

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why are political disagreements today so disagreeable?

Political arguments, even within the family, are nothing new: Think the hippie era, the Vietnam War and the time Sis announced over Thanksgiving dinner she had joined a free-love commune near Taos.

Ever since the last presidential election, though, disagreements have become more rancorous, even seemingly unbridgeable. 

I know people who avoid family visits for fear of shouting matches over politics, particularly when Uncle Bob has had his usual one-too-many. Stew and his brother, the latter an avid fan of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, recently reached a détente—no more barbs about politics, in particular race relations or guns. Period. Cordial conversations about about cars, pets or hurricanes are fine, but race and guns are not.

The lightning-fast growth of the internet, and the so-called social media, during the past twenty years or so, certainly have fed, perhaps even created the current climate of acrimony. The internet can open the door to credible information as well as loony rants.

Yes, my dear friends, there is a Flat Earth Society, a forum for "free thinkers" propounding "alternative science."

Does that include "alternative facts" à la Kellyanne Conway? I skimmed the Flat Earth website and detected a certain facetiousness. Not so sure about Kellyanne. 

Twenty-four-seven cable news also has helped close minds rather than inform. Left-wingers go to Rachel Maddow, and right-wingers gravitate to Sean Hannity, though in fairness to Maddow she has a vastly better record for accuracy.

People hear what they want to hear. I've watched them both. Now with cable news we have outlets devoted to pandering to our biases.

Today people inhabit impenetrable political bubbles. In the church Stew and I attend, there are some alleged Trump supporters and far-right congregants. "Alleged" not because their political preferences are not allowed but because no one wants to trigger unpleasant disagreements.

There was even a rumored invitation-only gathering of Trump supporters before the election, that  didn't make it into the weekly church bulletin. Who knew? Not me, since people I tend to socialize with generally can't stand Trump.

The Tweet Meister penchant for outright lies and igniting distracting and fatuous arguments certainly feeds the polarization of American political discourse. I remember arguments about Dubya and his administration but not the level of vitriol we suffer now.

Jack Hanna for president!
Sometimes it feels as if everything has become polarized, including the formerly mellow comedy and late-night shows. Without exception those shows have turned monologues into shrill liberal rants that are too much even for shrill liberals like Stew and me.

Where's Jack Hanna and his animals from the Columbus Zoo when we need them?

Over the past few months I have tried to poke through my admittedly progressive bubble, but that's hard work. It forces me to process information critically instead of swallowing the usual liberal lines without chewing.

The New York Times, that failing newspaper so despised by Trump, actually has made some moves to balance its bench of opinion columnists, to include people like conservative Bret Stephens. He was supposed to have questioned climate change theology in a previous life and his appointment caused a minor kerfuffle among the Times' touchy liberal hordes.

The Times's editor periodically will also run digests of news articles from conservative publications on a particular issue.

I have tried, really hard, to read Breitbart News and visit Alex Jones's website but their tendentiousness is so blatant and predictable it defies credibility. At the other end I find the Washington Post news coverage nowadays so relentlessly anti-Trump that lately it's begun to bug even me.

This state of affairs is not good for American democracy, which encourages opposing points of view but also a civil common ground. The optimist in me believes our system also has a built-in gyroscope that eventually helps temper the political conversation. I hope that damn gizmo kicks in soon.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Our neighbors' unencumbered religious faith

Theologians, philosophers and mystics have spent centuries plumbing the mysteries of religious texts and what God may have meant when, from up above, He commanded, spoke or thundered to someone, down here below.

Strike up the band.
And every year I'm reminded that all that intellectual and spiritual firepower may have been wasted on the people in the small rural villages that surround our ranch. They just believe, and on certain dates and according to certain rituals, they act on their undiluted faith, no questions asked or complicated exegeses required. Sometimes I envy that kind of simple religious conviction.

The faith of our mothers.
Last Saturday, as they have done every year since we've lived at the ranch, a handful of people from La Biznaga, a village visible from our bedroom, gathered on the road carrying a shoulder-borne shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe or some other religious figure, and launched a daylong, nine- or ten-mile procession in honor St. Michael the Archangel to the main church in the center of San Miguel.

This feast is a trifecta that commemorates the end of Fiestas Patrias, the month-long Mexican independence celebrations, the feast day of San Miguel's patron saint, and perhaps the end of summer too.

Rocket man. 
The weather was clammy, gray and windy this year, the same as other times I've witnessed this procession. Led by three or four take-charge matrons, it stepped off punctually at eight o'clock, to the sounds of prayers, hymns and the inevitable fireworks.

As it headed to town, people from the neighboring towns of Santa Juana, Sosnabar and Providencia, plus other faithful that seemed to come out of the bushes by the side of the road, joined the procession.

Some were on horseback and carried banners identifying their hometowns, and carried additional shrines covered with flowers. A older and disheveled fellow, who looked as if he had started the celebration the day before, clutched a handful of fireworks and walked along setting them off periodically to announce the approaching procession.

A mile into the procession, a brass band, its members dressed in bright red uniforms, appeared from nowhere and took the lead. Now  we had a real procession that would build up to hundreds of people when it reached San Miguel.

Mini cowboy
The band broke out in tunes with no discernible melodies, as do most bands in public celebrations around here. It wasn't really music but a festive cacophony of bangs, snorts and toots played by guys who didn't seem to care what fellow band members were playing.

One of several shrines or altars. 
Some in the procession may have been imploring God to help with some personal or family problem, as they repeated hymns and prayers intoned by a woman carrying a portable megaphone. Others just walked silently.

Naturally, Félix and his wife Ysela were in the procession and I asked him what he was praying for. "Nothing in particular, just protection, that we don't have an earthquake like they had in Mexico City," he said.

His faith is anything but complicated. His kids are baptized, will receive First Communion, be confirmed into the Catholic Church and eventually will get married by a priest, perhaps accompanied by one or two offspring born before the formality of church wedding.

Church attendance beyond that will be sporadic, when someone dies, someone else gets married or  baptized, and on special holidays.

Our man Félix. 
I asked Félix once what went on at an Palm Sunday celebration in the nearby town of Jalpa, and he said there were fireworks, music and a "guy dressed like God riding a donkey."

And that's close enough.

There is no point in explaining to Félix that the earthquake in Mexico City was not of God's design or that the guy on the donkey represented Jesus, supposedly the Son of God, when He entered Jerusalem.

Félix's faith doesn't require such details yet it carries him as he comes to work, raises a family and remains a solidly decent guy who gets drunk once in awhile and then promises never to do it again.

His faith can be tested, though. He told me that last year he and a friend were ambling along in the procession, when the two old ladies carrying one of the mobile shrines unceremoniously handed it to them to carry the remaining five or six miles. Félix said his legs almost gave out toward the end.

I noticed this year he and his wife stayed a safe distance from any of the shrines and kept a low profile.

Now we're rolling. 


For reasons I don't understand, I'm getting a lot of bogus comments—spam—probably from a robot program. 

I welcome comments from one and all readers as long as they remain cordial, but from now on I also must ask that all comments include a name, even if it's a made-up name, of the person submitting the comment, rather than "Anonymous" which I'm going to have to to delete. 



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

As mass shootings become ever bloodier, American politicians keep shooting blanks

Félix, our jack-of-all-trades assistant at our ranchito, comes from a dirt-poor family plagued by illiteracy and other problems. Felix himself only reached the sixth-grade before going off on his own to work at whatever he could find, including a stint doing manual labor in Texas.

Yet if you were to dismiss him as a pitiable dumb Mexican it would be a grave and totally unfair judgment. Félix has a sharp brain that must keep whirring even when he sleeps. He and his family follow current events closely, including news about the U.S., plus sports shows and nature documentaries on an old TV set we gave him.

Sometimes he comes to work asking questions about some craziness in the U.S. he'd heard about and for which we have no answer.

Félix, this morning, about the massacre in Las Vegas: How can someone in the U.S. buy two dozen weapons, including quick-fire rifles and ammunition to match, and then bring them into a luxury hotel in broad daylight? Don't they have security guards at hotels in the U.S.? Didn't anyone at the hotel ask any questions? Why do these horrible mass shootings keep happening and the American government doesn't investigate and take steps to lessen the chances of their reoccurence?

When we visit the U.S. we're constantly peppered with questions about the killings and the horrible security situation in Mexico, which is admittedly alarming.

Now is our turn, for us living in Mexico, to ask some of the same questions Felix raised this morning.

Stew pointed out this morning that at least in Mexico—small consolation—the perpetual violence and killings can be blamed on the drug cartels, and largely confined to certain parts of the country. That helps us rationalize the situation and allay our fears.

In the U.S. there are no such qualifiers. You can get shot dead at a gay disco, a church, a cinema or a social service center in the middle of a Christmas party, for a variety of reasons or none at all. Geography makes no difference.

Some blame Islamic terrorists except they account for only a fraction of the mass shootings. One could shut out all Islamic immigrants and round up all the Muslims on American soil and that still wouldn't explain much less prevent mass shootings such as the one at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, or at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C. to name just a few—and tragically way too many—such incidents.

must confess that when I heard the news from Las Vegas my initial reaction was numbness, almost a shrug. Here we go again.

Get ready for cable news to unleash the usual barrage of pictures of wailing mothers; tearful strangers placing offering of flowers and candles on the still blood-stained site of the tragedy; preachers rolling out the usual pious cliches—and most offensively, politicians proffering their "thoughts and prayers" to the victims and extolling Americans to remain "united."

United behind or around what? What does a constant stream of thoughts and prayers do except get us through one tragedy until the next one inevitably occurs?

Stew and I used to watch a TV series called "Mayday!", which despite its title was engrossing rather than alarming. Each show reenacted a plane crash and then the exhaustive investigation into what caused it, followed by what measures were implemented to prevent similar accidents, whether the causes were mechanical malfunctions or human error.

Not such learning curve occurs with mass shootings. I was convinced that the Sandy Hook massacre of twenty children (children!) would surely lead to an examination of gun laws and possible legislation to try to lessen the chances such tragedies would reoccur.

But after the public uproar subsided, and the gun lobby unfurled the usual propaganda about the Second Amendment and the need for everyone to own guns, national amnesia set in.

If anything, the opposite happens after these mass shootings. At this moment there is legislation pending in Congress to expand gun owners' "rights" to, among other things, ease restrictions on the use of silencers on firearms ostensibly to protect the hearing of shooters.

I'm just waiting for Felix to hear about that bit of lunacy and expect me to explain it.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rain, roaring creeks and wildflowers

After four or five days of one- to one-and-half-inch rains the ranch is swamped and glorious.

The same over-grazed, almost scalped land we found ten years ago now is covered with wildflowers. Amid the stolid agaves, which not even a hurricane could budge, the delicate wildflowers constantly dance and sway to their own music at the slightest breeze. Several varieties of ornamental grasses, some four feet tall and most of whose names I don't know, join the garden party too.

Downhill from our house the normally dry arroyo has become noisy and unruly. We can see the nearly torrential flow though all we hear is the soothing whoosh of the water, last thing when we go to sleep at night and the first when we wake up in the morning.