My First Year in Mexico

“Aren’t you scared?” Alfonso, my new brother-in-law, asked as we concluded a family visit near the Texas border before my husband and I headed for the city with the strange-sounding name: Guadalajara.  Of all the things I had felt as I left Texas to move to another country, scared was not one of them.

The drive was long, but I was overjoyed to be in the interior of Mexico at last.  A twelve-week college missions trip in Juarez, barely across the Texas border, with a weekend side trip to Chihuahua, had made me want to see more. We stopped in Monterrey, where I met my husband’s Tia Chucha, then we drove on to San Luis Potosi, where we stopped for the night. I’m not sure that I clapped my hands like a child when we finally saw the lights of Guadalajara in the distance, but I was that excited.

Some friends who had already been there for a year invited us to stay at their house while we looked for an apartment, but we didn’t get their letter with the address of their neighbor who would give us the key. We knocked on the door of the house across the street to ask if perhaps they were the designated keepers of the key. They weren’t, but they insisted that we stay with them, and for a week we had a bedroom, breakfast and dinner with that generous family.

We found a place to live–a furnished third-floor apartment and took care of business at the medical school and the American School of Guadalajara, where I had been hired to teach sixth grade. The apartment was cool and comfortable, but it was too pricey for our budget, so we moved down the street to more affordable old-fashioned suites. Bathroom and kitchen were decorated with beautiful blue tiles, and the yard had full-grown banana trees.

In February, we heard there was a vacancy in an apartment building on Morelos Street.  The apartment was unfurnished, so it was less expensive than ours, just 600 pesos or 48 US dollars, and it was bigger, with three bedrooms, an open patio for washing and hanging clothes, and a maid’s room with its own tiny bathroom.  We moved in with a formica table, plastic-covered chairs, and a bed, gradually acquiring other pieces of furniture as we were able to pay for them. We found a woman to come clean the apartment once a week. When our first son was born, she came to work for us full time. Esperanza stayed with us through four more houses and fifteen years.

Teaching sixth-graders at the American School of Guadalajara was a challenge.  I had to master the science and math lessons just ahead of the students, since I was prepared to teach English and journalism.  The students spent half a day in an all-English self-contained classroom and the other half in all-Spanish.  I had two groups of all-English.

The school was a two-story cinderblock building around a large open courtyard with open-air hallways facing the courtyard.  Behind the buildings was an open yard with a soccer field, a volleyball court, and basketball hoops.  The office and library were near the entrance.  A teacher’s lounge, bookstore, and snack bar were located in the classroom building.

The students wore uniforms–dark blue pants and pinstriped shirts for the boys, pinstriped shirtwaist dresses for the girls, navy cardigans for all.  They were well-behaved.  Monday mornings students, teachers, and staff gathered in the courtyard to salute the U.S. and Mexican flags, carried proudly by as they were paraded by a color guard, chosen for their good grades and excellent citizenship..  They stood up when teachers entered the classroom, and they said “Thank you, Miss!” when they were dismissed. There was a break between the English-Spanish switch, and “lonches” (sandwiches made with a bolillo (French bread) split in half and filled with ham, lettuce, and jalapeno chiles) were available at the snack bar, along with other treats.  There was no formal lunch hour, since the students were out in time to go home for traditional mid-day meal around three o’clock.

Edna Mardus was the librarian. She was usually surrounded by kids, whom she knew well enough to make tailor-made recommendations of books she thought they would like.  My school librarians had always seemed to be in charge of protecting the books from our grubby hands!  In the teacher’s lounge, Edna had book recommendations for teachers too, and she always had interesting stories of her own to tell. So did her husband, Fred, who taught math, physics, and chemistry. Fred and his identical mirror-image twin were born in South America on February 28, 1904, to Hungarian parents.  He loved to tell what the one-in-a-bazillion odds were of someone like him and his twin brother being born.  In 1968, the whole school celebrated Fred Mardus’s 16th (64th) birthday.  The well-traveled Marduses were gifted storytellers.

They were the first of many people with amazing stories that I met during my years in Guadalajara.

Whole Foods for Whole Bodies

When a typical westerner goes to the doctor with a headache, we expect a prescription for a pill or shot or liquid that will “attack” the headache. We probably would not go back if the doctor massaged our feet or stuck needles in random body parts or told us to give up meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and processed foods to make the headache go away. The truth, however, is that any of these treatments could be more effective than pills, shots, or liquids because the head is connected to the rest of the body.

A body is a whole thing with many inter-related parts. Isolating a brain or a pancreas or a heart or a blood vessel may be helpful for scientists trying to understand how they work, but all the parts work together in awesome ways to keep the body going, slow it down, or kill it. Even when it malfunctions and fails, a body is awesome. It knows what to do, and has a lot of alternative strategies, but when the substances it is given are conflicting and chaotic, it will eventually fail.

This interconnected human body is not built to be nourished by the flesh, eggs, or milk of other animals. How we became omnivores that have survived eating all kinds of things is a fascinating anthropological and biological story, but it’s a whole other long story. Our ability to adapt to adverse environments has given us shorter lives filled with more pain than necessary.

My Illness, Myself

How the Medical-Industrial Complex Turns Patients into Consumers

The ideal medical consumer suffers from one or more chronic ailments that are treatable but not curable with drugs. They want to convince them that they will need these drugs for the rest of their lives. The medical-industrial complex in the United States is a disease-management system rather than a health-care system.

Pharmaceutical corporations want us to embrace our diseases, cherish them, find comfort in support groups, treat them forever but never banish them, never shed the identity bound up in the phrase my disease. They have given sexy names, like Erectile Dysfunction and Overactive Bladder, to certain unmentionable symptoms, promoting them from mere symptoms to full-fledged diseases. Join the Type 2 Diabetes Fraternity with B. B. King (RIP). Solve, but don’t heal, Your Acid Reflux Disease. Find Friends and exchange stories of misery in the Society of Migraine Sufferers.

“Me and B. B. King have a lot in common,” says this appealing round-faced adolescent. “He has diabetes. I have diabetes.” B. B. King strums his famous guitar and laughs paternally. Testing becomes a ritual of bonding between the aspiring guitarist and the master. There are reasons to treat diabetes, to invest in sexy little testing devices, but there is no motivation to seek a cure. Diabetes is who they are. There is no mention, of course, that there are people like Marc Ramirez, who reports that he and his wife Kim reversed Type 2 diabetes by adopting a whole food plant-based lifestyle. It’s more fun to share an illness with an idol.

This middle-aged woman calls herself “a problem solver.” However, she tells us, she has not succeeded in “solving” what she calls “my acid reflux disease.” Solving. Not healing. Not eradicating. She goes back to her doctor, although we are not told when or why she went to him in the first place, nor why the doctor didn’t tell her the whole truth to begin with (“over time, the esophagus is eroded”). So, with a little prodding from this enlightened patient he prescribes Nexium. “I don’t just feel better,” she says in closing, “I AM better.” Better. Not well. Not over it. Not healthy. She is not just grateful for that little purple pill. It will be as much a part of her life as her acid reflux disease*. The ad does not, of course, direct us to articles like this one: Plant-Based Diet Alleviates Reflux as Effectively as Medications. She doesn’t want to know. Acid Reflux, by the way, is a symptom, not a “disease,” but Acid Reflux “Disease” is who she is, and Nexium is her drug.

Elizabeth Moss makes it painfully clear that her character is A Migraine Sufferer. It is her identity. If I am equally miserable, she invites me to join her. Migraines will always be part of who she is, and Excedrin is her drug of choice. Don’t tell her about the Physicians’ Committee Plant-Based Prescription for Migraines because she–or her character, anyway–is well on her way to becoming a good little profit generator for pharmaceutical companies.

Apparently, in spite of dire warnings of death and permanent damage in the ads themselves, people are embracing the “my disease” lifestyle, and there are big bucks in it for pharmaceutical cartels and a bloated medical establishment.

INDUCED DEMENTIA: AN OPEN LETTER TO JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY

I’m going to tell you straight up what is driving me crazy. It is the very thought that Donald John Trump could be elected President of the United States of America AGAIN.

Many people innocently thought the seemingly harmless rich guy who played the role of Boss on a reality-TV show might be capable of solving some of our country’s problems. They were not much aware of his real-life past, or if they were, they optimistically told themselves and each other that he had grown up or maybe found Jesus. Three years ago, I didn’t know one-tenth of what I do now about Trump’s dubious morality, pathetic ignorance, failures at business, fiscal irresponsibility, pathological narcissism, tenuous grasp of reality, and lack of any qualification whatsoever for leadership, but I already knew enough to make me skeptical. I now have heard and seen terrible things from his own lips, gestures, tweets, and plea-bargaining lackeys, things that even People magazine could never have dreamed of. I don’t, however, blame those who three years ago said, “Let’s give it a shot.”

Throughout my life, I have disagreed with a lot of people on a lot of subjects, important and trivial, but we have shared a core of common perceptions about reality and the words we used to describe it. I have been lied to, and the lies have been denied, but when real-world events could no longer be denied, the lie was acknowledged, however grudgingly. Not all lies in my life have been uncovered, of course, but after all is said and done, there has been a working agreement with even the most despicable characters and scammers as to the difference between truth and untruth.

When a loved one, who was suffering from dementia, said she had never seen me before in her life, I could not agree or disagree with her. She was not lying, but neither was her statement true. Those of us who loved her had tried to argue with her about some small inconsistencies in things she said until finally we had to acknowledge that her realities did not match ours. She was trapped in a nightmare, and though she crossed back over occasionally into the world of the awake, we could not penetrate her nightmare reality when she was in it.

I am not disappointed in Trump. My expectations and hopes were extremely low, leaving little room for disappointment, but I have been surprised and shocked at the depth and breadth of his revealed and even bragged-about cruelty, sexual depravity, greed, ignorance, and–why not say it–mental illness. I AM, however, beyond disappointed by a shocking number of his co-dependents with whom I cannot agree or disagree in the same way that I could not agree or disagree with my loved one as she crossed over into a reality of her own that I couldn’t penetrate. I am beyond disappointed. I am disconcerted and alarmed, and I have no idea what to do. I feel as if I am in one of those nightmares where you scream and scream but no one hears you.

It is painful to face harsh realities, but there have been benefits and out-of-the-comfort-zone growth. Trump and his enablers have driven me from reading and believing hagiographies about the USA and its founders and leaders to researching and trying to grasp history, including those episodes that make my tribe look bad. They have made me doubt everything from democracy to capitalism to free enterprise to evangelical Christianity, where my roots ran deep. They have made me look beyond “good” words like liberty and homeland and “bad” words like socialism, beyond utopian IDEALS to practical IDEAS (regardless of their deserved or derisive labels) that might solve problems.

The religious among those co-dependent enablers who now embrace so many things they once despised and preached that I should despise, like adultery, lying, meanness, and naked Ladies, whether First or farther down the line, drove me to really study, with curiosity and an open mind, the Bible that I had professed to believe for so long and from which they were thumping out so many contradictory “truths.” They made me suspicious of any religious fellowship, leaving me to seek God on my own rather than cling to a community and trust members and leaders of that community to clarify right and wrong for me.

But there are times when I would like to be proven wrong, to wake up from this demented reality and find that it was just a nightmare.

Battle of Bunker Hill. Engraving from painting by John Trumbull.

A statue in front of the Public Library in Sharon, Massachusetts, honors Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827), who served 17 months in the Continental Army, disguising herself as a man and enlisting under the name of Robert Shirtliff. She was wounded in 1782 and was honorably discharged at West Point, New York, in 1783. MORE ABOUT DEBORAH SAMPSON GANNETT.

AMERICAN HOPE

On this July 4, 2019, there is much to lament in our country. Kurt Vonnegut said that ten percent of the people are cruel, ten percent are merciful, and eighty percent can go either way. In spite of what we see in the news, which by nature focuses on the disruptive and dangerous, many people persist in helping fellow humans who need a hand or a home or a haircut or an encouraging smile. Here are a few of the merciful ten percent or maybe of the eighty percent who have chosen to do good, whether or not it’s in fashion.

President Jimmy Carter, who at 94 still teaches Sunday School and works on projects for Habitat for Humanity, alongside his wife of 70 years, First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Tony Adkins, the dancing doctor who brings joy to his young patients by dancing with them.

Mark Bustos, a hair stylist who gives free haircuts to the homeless during his off-work time.
Doctors Without Borders
Ordinary teachers all over the country giving it all they’ve got every single day.

…and many, many more, the essence of what has always made America great in spite of our failures, which many of us deeply regret. Happy Independence Day 2019.

BEING #1 IS OVERRATED

I’m always humbled and amazed by a corps de ballet. Some of the dancers may long to be the prima ballerina, but most of them find satisfaction in creating beauty with discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, and very little individual recognition. You can rank a thousand dancers on any criteria–endurance en pointe, highest jump, most pirouettes. One of them will be first and one of them will be last, but the one who is last will be darn good, and the difference between the number one dancer and the thousandth will be small.

There is no limit to the ways that human beings can rate and rank each other, and from the time we are very young, we hear that we should always aspire to be number one. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with trying to be number one, but if you think you are a failure whenever you don’t make it, you set yourself up for a pretty sad life.

Being number one in some things, like wearing the most t-shirts at one time (Canadian Ted Hastings, 260, 2019), is just not that impressive and having the world’s longest fingernails (Ayanna Williams of Houston, Texas, combined length, 18 feet, 10.9 inches, 2017) is just gross.

I would be proud to be the parent of the “worst” dancer in the best corps. On the other hand, I would probably be a little embarrassed if an offspring of mine won the Guinness record for number of t-shirts on the body or longest fingernails in the world.

I’d rather be last among the best than first among the worst.

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