Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Social Network

After the recent death of my second oldest friend I was moved to follow my own advice and call the one guy I’ve known literally my whole life. We grew up two houses apart and are blessed with a closer friendship now than any time since we were kids.

We talked for over an hour, bringing each other up to date, often to raucous laughter, on the wives, kids, grandkids, and ourselves. At some point in the conversation he asked, “Are you two in Ecuador for the long haul?”

I told him if he meant “forever” then my answer was, “I have absolutely no idea.” Never could I have predicted our moves from Atlanta to Charleston to Las Vegas and certainly not to Ecuador. But for the foreseeable future, whatever that means, we have every intention of remaining here. Furthermore, I told him, if this doesn’t work out we still don’t see ourselves returning to the States to live again.

“Because it’s too expensive here?” he wondered. There’s no doubt that’s why almost all gringos, including us, are no longer in the US whether they admit it or not. But as I was replying affirmatively to his question a new thought came to me.

I said, “You know what? Even if money wasn’t an issue, even if I could live the same retired lifestyle there I still don’t think I’d go back permanently.”

Here’s why. I went to a party last week with at least 40 people in attendance. A couple of days later I went to another gathering of about 20. There was only one other person besides me at both events. I knew most everyone, and that’s not nearly all the folks I know.

Even better I like these people, and many of them at least pretend to like me. We’re from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. We’ve got beliefs in everything from Jesus to shape-shifting reptilians. But the more diverse the better, I say, because it makes personal interaction so much more interesting.

Is it not the height of boredom to have a long conversation which someone who agrees with everything you say? Wouldn’t it be a lot more efficient to just cut out the other person and talk to yourself?

I asked my friend if he could envision any way, short of moving to a Del Webb community or joining one of those nondenominational megachurches, to duplicate the vibrant social network we enjoy here. He and I were both stumped for an answer.

Cynthia and I weren’t exactly social butterflies in our previous life. “Social caterpillars” would have better described us. While raising the kids our friends, with many of whom we remain close, were seat mates in the bleachers for games and auditoriums for performances. Then dual careers left us too spent, even if we had the desire, to devote the time and energy to many deep friendships.

We get to Cuenca and, surprise, people have the time and the interest. Maybe we always really wanted to enjoy the company of more people but never gave ourselves permission. Whatever the reason, we cherish so much getting to spend quality time and really knowing our friends way beyond the thin veneer of the old “So, what do you do, Edd?” cocktail party patter.

You can study all the guide books, websites, and blogs, saturating yourself with information about Cuenca’s weather (it still sucks, by the way), housing, medical care, and cost of living. The rich social fabric of this place is something you have to experience firsthand, and it reveals itself to you slowly as you relax into the rhythm of life here. It has been our biggest surprise and has added a valued new dimension to our lives.

The positive takeaway from my friend’s death is a renewed appreciation of how important our relationships truly are. And a thankful heart to be living in a place that has filled our world with so many wonderful people. Thank you, Jack. And thank you, Cuenca.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Help

I recently finished reading an excellent first novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. In an early 1960’s Mississippi setting, the book deals with the complicated relationships between domestic help (yes, maids) and the families who employed them.

I grew up in the South during these years but my family didn’t have the money to employ a maid. We were doing good to keep a roof over our heads and food in the refrigerator. And Atlanta largely avoided a lot of the racial tension of those eventful times so I read the book as a stranger and enjoyed it immensely.

Maids are actively employed here and since we now have one the subject matter was of particular interest. For months we cleaned the apartment ourselves, but one day the vacuum cleaner boy abruptly quit. That would be me.

In Vegas, because of the extreme weather, our home was so hermetically sealed that it stayed pretty clean. But here? Well, I’ve mentioned the “casual” construction standards in Cuenca before. Let’s just say our place enjoys excellent ventilation without opening the windows.

With that air circulation comes a lot of dust. Weekly cleaning is essential and it was taking too much of our valuable time away from important things like naps and enjoying long lunches with friends. This expat life is so busy!

Sonia comes every Thursday and cleans this place, literally, from top to bottom. She has her routine and knowing what it is we maneuver accordingly throughout the day to stay out of her way. At first we weren’t comfortable leaving the house while she was here. Although she was referred to us by a trusted Cuencano friend, we wondered, “What if she steals something while we’re gone.”

That attitude lasted two weeks. I said, “If we don’t trust her now, when exactly is the week going to come that we do? And how will we know when it gets here?” Since then we come and go without worry, and nothing will ever be missing.

Many of our friends also have maids, but a number of them observe political correctness and are uncomfortable using that term. Just like the book they say “I have help two days a week” or “I have a woman come every Tuesday.”

There’s an undeniable class system in Ecuador that, sometimes like other cultural standards here, seems rather quaint and old fashioned. Before hiring Sonia we were warned of certain “rules.” At the top of the list was “Do NOT overpay her.” This elicited no argument from us. Gringos are infamous for being either sincere do-gooder’s or simply clueless folks who pay too much for everything, but this practice eventually can create gentrification and higher prices overall which ends up hurting the most economically vulnerable. So we pay about 1/10 what our son coughs up for a maid service in North Carolina.

Another important rule was “Don’t ever be too friendly with your help or they’ll take advantage of you.” This one’s a little trickier. What exactly is “too friendly?” We’re not having Sonia and her family over for dinner anytime soon, but if it’s time for all of us to eat we invite her to sit down and have lunch with us. That’s probably a “no-no.” We don’t care. Plus it gives us a chance to work on our Spanish in a casual setting.

It’s fascinating to time travel like we sometimes get to do living in Cuenca. Individual maids went out of fashion and were replaced with slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am crews years ago in the US, yet here they are as common as a chicken and rice lunch.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall and observe how Ecuadorians treat their maids. I’m guessing the portrayal in The Help wouldn’t be that far off even though it’s now 50 years later. I’m pretty certain we gringos bring a more relaxed, informal attitude to the relationship.

We had a maid for a year or two when the kids were little but aside from that we’ve done our own cleaning the entire forty years of our marriage. But now that we’ve had help for several months we never want to have to clean our house again.

H-m-m-m---. I wonder if that attitude could have broader implications. You receive assistance. You get used to it. You don’t want to work anymore. Sounds eerily like all the welfare and entitlement programs in the US------.

Disclaimer!! Settle down, Social Security recipients (a group to which I proudly belong). We’re just collecting on what we paid in for years. I’m referring to all the good-for-nothing’s sitting on their asses and living off the rest of us.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Food for Thought

Eating a leftover Sloppy Joe for lunch got me to thinking. About microwaves. You see, I heated my sandwich up in the microwave, which triggered the awareness that several of our friends don’t even own one. In fact, a couple of them have said, quoting directly, that they “don’t believe in microwaves.”

While totally respecting the rights of all to say, do, and believe whatever they desire as long as others aren’t negatively affected, that phraseology puts a small household appliance on the same level with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and capital punishment, which is a bit extreme for me.

I’m not overly concerned that occasionally heating a cold cup of coffee, a pastry, or a Sloppy Joe places me in imminent danger. My cell phone, which often sits unused for days at a time, is probably causing more damage to my defenseless left ear. However, if your grocery shopping finds you perusing the frozen food aisles for most of your meals I can see where there could be a concern.

And if you live in Cuenca trying to do this you’d have the even bigger problem of possibly starving to death trying to survive on the choices from that section of the supermarket. Our frozen food department is one row of glass cases about 30 feet long. Two whole portions are devoted to ice cream and other such treats. The bottom of two sections holds bags of ice. A dozen brands of pizza? A zillion choices of Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, and Healthy Choice complete dinners? Fuhgeddaboudit------.

So living here we’ve gotten back to our roots, cooking everything we eat from scratch. Well, we don’t bother baking our own bread with bakeries every few blocks. But even our butter is homemade (by me, of all people! Who’d have thunk it?) which surely must qualify for extra credit. I assure you that batch of ground beef goodness I consumed earlier wasn’t created with a bag of seasonings or a can of Manwich.

Eating fresh, locally grown products with no additives appears to contribute to an impressive payoff. I had a complete physical last week—weight, blood pressure, EKG, chest X ray, and blood work (all of this was completed in a single day, by the way). It is with great pleasure that I report my weight is currently less than when I graduated from high school, blood pressure is 120/80, and everything else is basically perfect. “Magnificent!” my doctor said. A wonderful and entirely underused word, I truly enjoyed hearing it applied to me.

Granted, diet alone doesn’t produce that kind of result. Exercise, genetics, and mental attitude all contribute as well. And, sure, Cynthia and I don’t have commutes, jobs, or kids to raise any more, so we can take the time to shop for and prepare more labor intensive food.

The point of this post isn’t to debate whether microwave ovens belong to the Jedi or the Dark Side, or to hold myself up as some kind of poster child for healthy living. But the epidemic explosion of obesity in the western world, particularly the US, concerns me greatly.

When I was a kid hardly anyone, adult or child, was fat. How could such a radical change happen in only one generation? I think the answer is crystal clear. Too many people are making consistently lousy choices about what they put in their mouths and how often they do it.

The health “experts” cry, “Obesity is a disease! We need more education! We need more programs!”

Hogwash. There’s already enough information out there to choke a horse. The solution to obesity isn’t the latest-and-greatest diet, and there is no pill that will permanently melt fat away. As long as people search for solutions outside themselves they are doomed to failure.

Because there is a “magic bullet,” a simple term that unfortunately seems on the verge of disappearing from our language.

Maybe you've heard it--personal responsibility.

Let’s face it, each of us is ultimately in charge of what, how much, and how often we eat. Somehow the collective consciousness of our culture now chooses to ignore this most basic fact. Perhaps it’s because the health experts wouldn’t have jobs, all the diet gurus wouldn’t sell books and products, and the media wouldn’t have titillating new information to report if people actually took charge of their own health instead of depending on the advice of total strangers.

“But I’m so busy!” you might say. Really? We all get to choose how to spend the same 24 hours each day. So we have to ask ourselves, “Busy doing exactly what?” The average American watches three hours of television a day and spends an hour on the computer. What if that total of four hours was cut to three and the hour gained was used to prepare a healthy, wholesome meal instead of hastily sticking a Lean Cuisine in the microwave so you don’t miss Modern Family? Or if that time was cut in half so a brisk walk could be taken as well?

“But for some people food is more than just food. It gives them comfort. They have a relationship with what they eat.” We’ve come to accept such notions as fact without much questioning as to why this has happened. You know, it wasn’t that long ago the main “issue” folks had with food was simply having enough of it. Perhaps it all started after World War II as more women began working outside the home and convenience foods were invented. Formula was deemed healthier for infants than breast milk. Those “modern” (and horrific) TV dinners were consumed while watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza.

Food production exploded with agricultural innovations, the fast food revolution began, and suddenly the public enjoyed a plethora of choices and with dual incomes extra money to spend. Somehow the shining future of increased leisure and happiness hasn’t worked out as predicted. People instead feel stressed and unhappy. What better and more basic way to ease the gnawing hunger of an empty life than to put something pleasurable in your mouth. Lots of it. Over and over.

But—but—but. Enough. Please, let’s stop BS’ing ourselves and get serious. Decide once and for all that your health is your responsibility. For God’s sake quit saying you “need to lose weight” and do it. Eat less and exercise more. Cut out prepared foods with high fructose corn syrup (the most prolific poison in modern diets) and excess sodium. For sure eliminate diet sodas containing aspartame (truly frightening stuff). None of this is rocket surgery, amigos. All it takes is an ironclad commitment to yourself.

Some of us are born with beautiful singing voices. Others can paint, cook, or work on cars. Each person, however, has a body, the “meat suit” which carries us through this life. If we are negligent in nurturing and caring for this most basic element of our existence, are we really worthy of our other blessings?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I read the news today, oh boy--------

A couple of weeks ago Jack called and we talked for a long time. Cynthia and I needed to eat dinner, but something told me to not cut this one short. Sometime during the conversation he mentioned that he had an appointment to see his heart doctor this month and that he hadn’t been feeling too well. I made him promise to let me know when he found out the results.

I got an email this afternoon that my friend Jack Tolan died of heart failure. The day before his appointment.

My family moved across town in Atlanta when I was 10 years old. It was the middle of the school year. I still remember the traumatic experience of showing up in a new classroom and being introduced to a group of strangers who eyed me suspiciously. Or so it seemed.

Jack was the first kid who made me feel welcome. Thus began a special friendship that has endured for 52 years.

His mother often picked us up after school and took us to Northeast Plaza Lanes, where we would bowl three games for a dollar. In high school we were both Beatlemaniacs. We got guitars, spent countless hours listening to records and doing our best to learn the chords. We even briefly belonged to a band that I think played two forgettable gigs.

After high school we were in and more often out of touch, but at some point I bought a really nice acoustic guitar from Jack that I have since given to my son. That is now a special treasure of our friendship that I couldn’t have foreseen when I acquired it.

We stayed in close contact over the past five years or so and I’m incredibly thankful for the couple of occasions we made time to hook up when I was in Atlanta. During our last communication we spoke of looking forward to attending our 50th high school reunion together.

Here’s something amazing. In all those 52 years I cannot remember a single time that Jack and I exchanged cross words. We always had fun together, whether bowling, going to movies, playing Beatles songs, or just talking. Jack laughed a lot, robustly, and he never took himself too seriously. All who were privileged to know him are blessed with the memory of his love of life and of his family and friends.

Whether you knew Jack or not, here’s a simple thing I ask you to do to honor his memory and enrich both your life and others. Pick up the phone and call the people you care about. Or better yet go see them. No email, instant message, or Facebook. We tell ourselves we’re so busy, but we all get the same 24 hours each day, don’t we? Make the time to create memories, and to nurture and cherish your relationships.

Jack Tolan, I can hardly remember my life when you weren’t a part of it. You were a good man and an irreplaceable friend. I love you, I miss you, and I thank you for so many happy memories.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonder-when-it's-going-to-be-over Land

It appears the malaise that has been our weather for the past few weeks is showing signs of moving on, so I now feel more comfortable writing about this subject. We’re still getting unexpected daily showers but at least they are interspersed with some sunshine, and the temps are definitely warmer.

You see, I really do hate complaining about the weather. I generally think that people who focus on that particular subject just don’t have enough to occupy their mind. That being said, our weather has been so rainy, chilly, cloudy and gloomy for so long that I found myself growing increasingly miserable to the point that I considered joining the ranks of the serial whiners.

Speaking of which, I just finished watching an annoying YouTube video of a new family in Cuenca sitting around their dining room table bitching about things they don’t like here. The comments ranged from ridiculous (“People stare at me too much.” Whatever.) to questionable (“You can’t watch videos with the lousy internet.” Really? I watched that bunch of sourpusses for 13 straight minutes without interruption.) to valid (“Electronics are more expensive.” Everything imported is more expensive, amigos).

But the truest complaint was about all the internet sites that trumpet Cuenca’s perfect year-round “springlike weather.”

First let’s put things in perspective. Winter in Cuenca isn’t really like “winter” as you might imagine where you live. This season it’s been unusually rainy and cold, but the lowest temp was 41 degrees. That may not seem too awful, but remember we don’t have or usually need HVAC systems. So when it never warms up you can sometimes feel colder in your own home than walking around outside. The temps in our apartment consistently ranged from 65 to as low as 55 degrees some nights. As we say in the South, “That’s just not right!” Thank God some wonderful friends recently brought us a heated mattress pad from the States. It has been a lifesaver.

During the “dark days” I often sat here at the computer dressed in jeans and a sweater. On top of that was my bathrobe. And on my head was this weird tall pointy elf hat my daughter brought me from Germany. Going barefoot around the house was out of the question, and I even took to sometimes wearing socks on my hands because I can’t seem to find any gloves around here. Did I look ridiculous? Absolutely. Did I care? Absolutely not.

It is ironic that someone who no longer even lives on this continent but for some reason continues to report on life in Cuenca recently posted an article about the wonderful weather we supposedly always enjoy. The timing couldn’t have been worse, because no one who actually lives here would have ever thought to mention this sore subject.

Locals swear they’ve never seen anything like the nonstop, overcast, nippy weather and are sick of it too. How strange to read that the US has just suffered through the hottest summer in the last 75 years. Down here it seems Al Gore got it backwards—“global cooling” seems to be the problem.

Several days ago we got a peek of sunshine in the early afternoon. This was followed by a horrible hail storm blowing sideways that had Cynthia and me running all over the house with beach towels trying to stay ahead of the leaky windows. Construction standards in Cuenca are somewhat “casual;” our windows aren’t perfectly sealed and depending on the direction of the storm, water can sometimes be seeping in under six windows at once during downpours.

The first time the sun actually came out for a few hours I hurriedly pulled my lawn chair out of the basement to get horizontal and replenish my decreasing levels of Vitamin D. I cannot tell you how good that heat felt on my body. Staying inside can keep you dry but not warm.

I read that our dismal weather has been caused by La Nina, which pulls cold air up through Peru. Thankfully this condition occurs only two or three times a decade. Many have feared we’re experiencing a “new normal” that none of us signed up for.

Right now it’s once again raining but we’re enjoying a balmy 67 degrees inside and I’m staying in front of the TV all afternoon watching the NFL with some buddies, so all is well. Spring will soon be upon us with awesome weather until March. It will be welcomed “warmly.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Health Care that Works

Last Saturday I visited my dermatologist to have a few troublesome spots frozen on my head. Such is the downside of my grooming choice. If you've never had this done it's a simple procedure with liquid nitrogen in an aerosol container that removes possible pre-cancerous areas before they have a chance to become problematic.

There was no charge for this service. Why? Because I had paid for my office visit earlier in the week at his other facility and this was included. Let me explain how the medical system for normal situations works here, and as I do compare/contrast with your personal experiences.

When we want to visit a doctor we call him on his cell phone to find out when he will be in his office. That's right, his personal cell phone. You can already guess this story is going to be interesting.

The doctor says he will be in the office after 3 this afternoon and asks you to come then. Come today? This afternoon? Really? You never have an actual "appointment." You just show up and wait your turn (if you want to be first you can always get there before the doctor arrives, which is often sometime after when he told you to come).

There's a lady at a desk who coordinates the traffic flow of patients for all the doctors on the floor. You tell her who you're there to see, she writes your name down and asks you if you're there for a consultation or followup. If it's a consultation, the fee is $25; if a followup, it's free. Then she either gives you a piece of paper with a number on it signifying your turn or she periodically takes the list to the doctor.

Cynthia didn't know any of this her first time out. When she happily located the correct building and office she bypassed the people curiously sitting in chairs along the hallway and burst through the door. Oops. A classic, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moment. Right inside said door the doctor was at his desk interviewing a patient. You see, here the doctor's office is truly an "office"--no waiting area (it's the hallway with the chairs), no receptionist (that was the lady when you got off the elevator), and no staff. Just a desk and chairs with an examining room in the rear.

Embarrassed, she closed the door and took a seat in the hallway with the others. But wait a minute--where was the dreaded clipboard? You never go to a doctor without filling out sheet after sheet of personal information and medical history, do you? No clipboards, amigos. The physician simply wants to know why you are there and what he can do for you. If he needs other information he asks.

You have your visit. If you need medication he writes it out for you. Not because you actually need a prescription--almost any drug can be bought over the counter. Cheaply. For instance, a statin drug I take costs me $6.40 per month OTC. No, as a courtesy he writes everything down just so you have all the information to show the pharmacist. And you keep the paper for next time.

Once Cynthia didn't have enough money to pay for something she needed. No problem. The pharmacist just opened the box and cut off the number of pills she could pay for then. I've seen people purchase a single tablet from a full box.

Should it be necessary for you to visit a lab he'll write up the test required and tell you where to go. You show up there, get your test done immediately, pay (a nominal amount), and return to your doctor with the results that same day. In this case you get to go to the front of the line since you've already seen him once.

As I mentioned earlier, followup's for the same condition are free. That's why my second trip last weekend cost nothing. My dermatologist does consultations in one place and procedures in another. Why? Remember, regular readers, you don't ask why. What difference does it make?

Oh, and if you're really sick and can't come to the office many doctors here still make house calls. We fortunately haven't needed this service, but I think it costs $35 instead of $25. An outrage!

Overall the system, if it can even be called that, works really well. Instead of the reams of paperwork, bloated staff to handle the paperwork, delays,and exorbitant prices, health care in Cuenca, at least, is focused on good service, low costs, and simplicity.

What a concept!