January 31, 2011

From the air to our milk

Last time I wrote I was up in arms about the trash burning activity that goes on in our town, and how it releases toxic fumes into the air.  I sent out an email to my friends and got a lot of thoughtful responses on what might be done: one recommended we start an education and recycling program in our town's schools, another recommended I attend an environmental fair to talk with the municipal trash managers, another recommended I contact the State sustainable development agency, and yet another gave me specific phone contact for a couple state biologists working in agencies dedicated to this sort of topic- I am hoping the last one might result in the fastest response- I'll keep you posted.

I have been thinking about all this more and more, especially when nursing my baby to sleep at night.  I can't help but feel I affect her in so many ways, making her smile when I smile, she laughs when I laugh, how incredible it feels to be able to satisfy her hunger from my own body and see how it results in so much growth on her part!  But then, there are the negative ways I influence her that trouble me so much- see her face all quizzical when I cry, and now, this worry about how I am probably contaminating her through my milk. 

Sadly, the baby was already getting her share as soon as she was conceived.  Not to add to the millions of things on a mom's to-worry list, but the term "pre-polluted" is now flying in reference to the level of contamination in fetuses and babies due to mothers' exposure to environmental contaminants.  I think it's really easy to just shut out and ignore these inherent risks that come with bringing children into the world, but instead of saying "well, there's nothing I can do about it," why not support legislation that seeks to safeguard unborn babies' health.

Now that she's nursing from me several times daily, my mind returns to the concern of how the contaminants I take in through my food, water, air I breathe, clothes I wear, and other chemicals I come in contact with, are processed by my body and concentrated in my milk.  The Natural Resources Defense Council has a great page about Pollution & Mother's Milk, and I plan to stay tuned to this issue to take as much action as possible to reduce the levels of environmental pollution that leads to contamination of breastmilk.

I can't say that contaminated breastmilk is any worse than formula feeding- they too are bound to be contaminated, since both rely on the Earth as their source- but it does sicken me to think that no matter how careful I am, there is no way to prevent my baby from receiving toxic chemical through me.  That is why although I have been an environmental activist all my life- speaking out for the helpless wildlife that is destroyed every year simply by our ignorance, and for the quality of our water that runs like blood through the rivers of the world, now, with a child, I feel extra-motivated to get active on causes that protect babies- they are so innocent and defenseless to the onslaught of toxic chemicals our world is filled with.  Please do your part as well, such as urging the U.S. Congress to ratify the The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).  The babies of the world will thank you.

January 23, 2011

Aire Puro (When Will I Breathe It Again?)

This morning when I woke up I took my daughter into the bathroom to change her diaper and opened the window.  Later we went back into our bedroom, and after a while returned to the bathroom.  When I went in the door I was hit in the nose by a acrid whiff of that unmistakeable odor of burning plastic.  It's a chemical, slightly sweet, always offensive smell, when I notice it outside we stop what we're doing and go inside with all the windows closed.  I quickly shut the window and turned on the fan. I've never lived in a situation like this before, but I know residents of Los Angeles and Mexico City deal with this quite often.  Usually we're lucky to have very clear air here on the north side of the city of Queretaro, because the prevailing winds come from the north and sweep most of the smog to the south side of the city.  That makes for terrible views from the national park at the top of Cimatario, the mountain flanking the south side, and we can see that cloudy greyish yellow haze across the valley from our house, especially in the rainless winters.  In our town, we experience our own forms of smoke when people burn their trash in their backyards.  This morning I was so disturbed by the waft of toxic air billowing into my house that I felt compelled to write to my friends in the environmental community, asking for ideas on what we can do to solve this.  Below are links to more information about the connection between trash burning, air pollution, and dioxins (one of the most carcinogenic substances on Earth).  They state "A recent study found that residential trash burning from a single home could release more dioxin into the air than an industrial incinerator." Yikes.  We're in trouble.  I think I've found my next pet environmental project here in Mexico. =(

January 15, 2011

Allergic to Injustice

A good friend of ours was staying with us this past week.  He was here to discuss our plans for collaboration on a writing project which I am very much looking forward to.  So in a way, it was more than just a vacation stop -we were "working"- but even so we got the typical tourist looks while we were showing him around town, well, the backpack and fair skin with blue eyes are usually a dead ringer.

One of the things I enjoy most about having friends visit is the inspiration it gives me to fire up all burners in the kitchen.  I mean, we eat well when it's just the three of us, but somehow we get into a predictable routine of certain staples, I guess they are our comfort foods.  But when we have company, I feel more compelled to go the extra mile and show off what some of the most delicious local dishes are, such as those I compiled in my cookbook.

This time around, I was especially lucky that I knew several corn-based recipes, because our guest has a gluten intolerance that precluded him from joining in chowing down on any foods that had wheat or wheat derivatives as ingredients.  When he first told me this, I nodded and made a mental note, but I must not have registered the gravity of this requirement, because I kept slipping up and offering him things with wheat, especially beer.  Once we finally got the hang of it, eating mostly corn tortillas, gorditas, and anything of the fruit, vegetable, or dairy variety, I felt like we had it down pat.  Then we were preparing a meal of arrachera (skirt steak) and potatoes, when my husband threw in some worcestershire and soy sauces.  My friend happened to notice (thank goodness), and told us he wouldn't be able to eat it.  We were shocked but he was right.  Sadly, the brands of sauces we had both contained gluten, and so we guiltily ate our meal while he ate some quickly made quesadillas

After that incident, I said I'd have to write this down.  He claimed I'd refer to him as the annoying friend, but quite the contrary, I appreciate his stay because I never realized quite how many foods had wheat in them.  I mean, breads, pastas, cookies, sure- but beer and soy sauce?  The ingredient really runs deep in our culture, much like corn syrup, sugar, or salt- as that last two are something another friend is trying to avoid in the preparation of her baby's food. 

There are so many things that we ought to avoid in our diets, you'd think that food is the biggest problem in terms of health.  Anything we put into our bodies- the water we drink, the air we breathe, are all suspect these days.  GMOs are the latest consumer item that we could really stand to suffer from- hopefully the government will step in to protect us from the pressures of industry to water down consumer safety standards.

Although I have a mild allergy to soy, and have seasonal hayfever, these are things that can be controlled.  I avoid or limit my intake of soy, and I take an antihistamine in the late spring and early summer.  But what about other, more intangible forces to which we can be allergic to?  How do they affect our health and mental well-being?

I got the undesireable answer to this question the day my friend left.  The topic we had been discussing has to do with my husband's undocumented immigrant status in the U.S.  It's a subject that brings me great distress, since it's affected our lives so harshly and in every aspect.  For that reason, I don't talk about it regularly, and pretend to have mostly resolved in my mind. When in fact much pain still lingers below the surface.  I happened to mention something about how I felt it was unfair that most of our ancestors in the U.S. had such an unfettered access to immigrating to the States, before harsh law controlling immigration were passed, and how now it's so much harder for people to move back and forth.  I said how I didn't feel as bad for myself in having to live in Mexico as a result of my husband being unable to get papers as I feel sorrow for him not being able to realize his own dreams.  Tears sprang to my eyes, but I pushed them away as quickly as they came.  The discussion ended, and I forgot I was feeling so bad.

The next morning, the feelings resurfaced  but I tucked them away again so as to not appear overemotional.  Even my husband feels bad when he sees I am so bummed about certain things.  But my attempt to hide my true feelings had its consequences.  My back began to throb in pain and by the time I tried to walk down the stairs, my posture was contorted to the side with spasming muscles.  Unfortunately, this is a condition I know all too well, since 2001 when I first moved in with my husband.  After visiting many modalities of physical therapists I finally read a book lent to me by a friend called Healing Back Pain, and realized my pain was due to repressed anger.  The author describes the causes much differently than I do here, but a way to see it is almost as if swallowing my distress causes an allergic reaction in my body.

The thing I'm reacting to is a perceived injustice, something that upsets me, but that I feel I have no control over.  At first it's a conscious effort to not think or talk about it, but over time it becomes second nature.  A buildup of suppressed feelings for me can lead to disabling back pain.  Luckily I knew this is how my mind and body interact, and I reminded myself it was important to not fear the pain, and focus on clearing my mind.  At first, I was lying on the living room floor.  But later, after a good cry, I was back on my feet.  In the past, I'd had bouts of pain that lasted for 2 weeks.  I missed work because of it.  One time it got so bad that my husband had to carry me.  But today, after making the connection, I was almost back to normal by the evening.

It's a little scary to think that our minds have so much power over our bodies, to the extent that we feel we may lose control.  It's instructive that we need to be sensitive to the influences we subject ourselves to, or at least be open-minded about what can affect us, and not lose sight of the connections between things.  I do not just get sad about my own personal problems, but feel a real indignation when rights are infringed worldwide.  They can plague me just the same.  My allergy to injustice is real and not just perceived.  But rather than stick my head in the sand and ignore issues, or take some pill to help relieve my "symptoms," I must address the root causes and work toward healing ourselves of these ills.

January 9, 2011

Patience (el gran reto) in Mexico

A good friend of ours was supposed to get into town this evening, flying in to the Queretaro airport from Ciudad Juarez. There for the last four days, he's been covering stories similar to ours- American/Mexican couples who've, one way or another, been separated or forced into living situations other than the "ideal" as a result of one of the partners having an undocumented U.S. immigration status.  I was looking forward to his arrival.   When my husband told me he'd called and said the flight had been cancelled, I felt bad for him, but I was on a massage table at my friend's house -we barter professional services- and so I had to put the annoying thoughts away. Back home, instead of preparing to go out and pick him up, I went about my business as normal, put the baby to bed, and called another friend in the States to chat.  I sent him an email recommending patience in the next 18 hours, when the next flight arrives.  Four years ago, I might not have had the same reaction.  I now realize the change I swore would never happen has indeed occurred.  Like it or not, I am "becoming Mexican."

A week or so after Margo & I first arrived here in 2006, I had to go to the Instituto Nacional de Migracion to register my presence in my new residence, namely, Queretaro.  You know how the old U.S. passports had the spot where you fill in your mailing address in case it gets lost, and how you have to sign the document for it to be valid?  Well, I figured that was the same for the Mexican visa booklet that I'd been issued back in San Jose at the Mexican consulate, a place I'd had to go to several times to complete my paperwork, no easy task in itself.  So in the truck on the way to the office, I found the spot where it said local residence and three blank lines, and diligently filled in my information.  After waiting what felt like a couple hours for my turn in line, we stood at the counter, handing over my documents.  The agent scanned my things briefly, when making a face, she asked me if I had written inside the document.  "Si," I replied half proudly, half nervously, wondering why she was asking me.  "Sabes que eso es un delito?" she asked me.  Do you know that's a felony?  My heart sank. 

To make a long story short, I had to re-apply for my visa, from Mexico, which was a lot harder than the application I'd done in the U.S., which is saying a lot.  I couldn't understand why, I was overwhelmed with frustration, and upon leaving the office, I walked across Avenida Universidad and sat on the grass overlooking the river below, and contemplated throwing myself in.  I was truly beside myself.  I think I actually cried.  Margo couldn't understand at all why I was so upset and therefore was not that great at consoling me.  In fact I think he said various things along the lines of, what were you thinking to write in that book?  Which of course only made me feel worse.

That event, and countless other tangles with Mexican bureacracy over the next year or two only served to make me more and more despondent.  It seemed no matter how airtight my applications were, no matter how punctual we were to appointments, nothing could speed up any process, all paperwork indicated a complicated spiral of visits to copy shops, a relative's house for several witnesses' signatures, or a failed attempt in which we were told to go to the office across town, or that offices didn't open until next Monday, or that we ought to call back in four weeks.   It seemed to require a full-time job just to perform the most basic tasks like paying taxes or renewing a license .  Every time we went, I'd complain a red streak.  Margo would get cross, and I'd get more insistent.  He started suggesting I not join him on trips to government agencies.  If you're wondering why we spent so much time on these things, it's because all transactions need to be made in person- over the phone or online is just barely starting to make it on the scene here.  I brought the issue up with my sister-in-law.  After telling her how I felt and wondering aloud why no one complained to officials about their terribly inefficient systems, I naively asked her why none of them ever got fed up.  She earnestly replied that they'd never known anything different, and it wasn't likely to change anything by complaining.  This was impossible for me to understand.

Until now.

For a long time, I thought I had the lock on bitching about things that drive me mad about Mexico.  My poor husband is reminded every year when I reapply for my visa, just how important that "apoyo moral" moral support letter they ask for from the spouse, really is.  But then, as if imperceptibly, my perspective seemed to change.  I began to defend Mexico from outside criticisms to a whole host of people- friends, family, unknowns on blog commentaries, etc.

When a friend came to visit for an extended period this past summer, I unleashed some pent-up "quejas" (complaints), but she met them stride for stride.  At one point, "me rebaso" she beat me to the punch- and I began hearing her very justified commentaries about various things- the delayed status of road construction projects, the poor signage on highways, the way people wait (or don't) in lines, and so on, but I heard them with different ears.  All of a sudden, although in theory I agreed with her, I realized how my earlier comments must sound to Margo.  All right already, OK, you've got a point, but what the hell can I do about it???

It was at that point that I noticed how much less I take issue with ostensibly annoying aspects of life in Mexico than I used to.  Maybe it's like the fraternity hazing mentality, you bond with those with whom you suffer.  Soon after that near-suicidal incident by the river, my head swirling with self-pity as to why had I moved my life thousands of miles south into a land so foreign it might as well have been halfway across the world, I swore to myself, and to anyone standing in earshot, that I'd never accept the pace of Mexican life, how slow things go, or substandard service.   But four years later, I look back and I see that "this too shall pass."  Of course, I still prefer that I be attended to more rapidly, that lines be shorter, that the title to our house could be delivered in less than 5 years, but I now see less reason to get so uptight about the failings of customer service.  It won't do anything to accelerate what I'm waiting for, and why guarantee my husband another headache?

I just take a deep breath, head for the "quejas y sugerencias" comment box, and if there ain't one, crack a joke and save my energy.  I'll be needing it for the next visit downtown.

January 4, 2011


Some things have a way of just putting things in perspective.

Like the power going out.  What do you do when you can't 1)turn on the lights 2)charge your cell phone 3)turn on your computer 4)turn on your router  5)wash dishes 6)use the blender 7)use the washing machine 8)shower?  Those were a few of the things I had to do without from yesterday 9 am to today 10 am.  This experience made me realize what a wimp I have become.

I used to camp regularly. Not just car camping but backpacking.  You know, voluntarily going without showers for days, cooking over a one burner portable gas flame, carrying around all your water, food, clothing, and bedding on your back up and down mountain paths?  So what's wrong with me? Why did I bitch so much for the last 24 hours when I simply had no access to 120 volts?

Time, I would wager, is the problem.  Too long it's been since I've strapped on my external frame and set boot to the trail.  I have all sorts of great excuses.  Husband hates hiking, only accompanies me on short walks just to humor me, no really good parks or trail systems to be had here in Central Mexico, garbage, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, scorpions, bandidos, stray bulls, had a baby, etc. etc.  But I know in the back of my mind that hitting the wilderness scene is something I very much want to do with the baby when she's older, and when we have the means to visit the right spots either up in the States or find some treasures down here.

The reason I make this commitment, as far off as it may be, is I don't want her (myself included) to lose sight of the value of the simple things we are afforded that we all too often take for granted.  A roof over our head, wheels to carry us, energy to drive our daily lives, and so on.  Recently I sold my car for the cash and we've been schlepping around the 3 of us in the front seat of Margo's single cabin Toyota pickup until we find a double cab pickup.  I've been whining & moaning about squeezing my fat ass into the space between Margo & the baby's car seat, one butt cheek on the driver's seat and the other on the passenger seat.  Margo's started to feel quite bad about a noisy round of complaining last night, and I had to stop and ask myself, when did I become such a primadonna?  I used to ride my bike 3 miles to campus and back every day (in the snow!)

Owning a home has quite a bit to do with it.  Little by little, if you're lucky, you go climbing that socioeconomic ladder, and forgetting about the lower rungs you once stood on.  For example, I cannot fathom how Margo & I, and all our possessions, once shared one room in another family's home.  Yet this act of sacrifice was what allowed us to save up enough $ to later build a house.  I am not morally opposed to collecting creature comforts but when their acquisition starts to compel you to want more and more, and when you cease to be able to appreciate the vast number of conveniences (comparatively speaking to the rest of the world) you actually have, I think it becomes a problem.

Since I'd gotten some cavities during my pregnancy, my New Year's resolution was to cut down on sugary snacks/drinks between meals.  But, assessing the situation, I think another one is due:  to better appreciate the bounty of my life, and not spend so much time obsessing about what I lack.  I'm guessing I'm not alone among those for whom this resolution could be a real stress-reliever.  Happy 2011, Year of the Rabbit!

January 3, 2011

Selected Blog Archives from 2006-2010 (Yahoo)

These posts encompass the time from when I first moved to Mexico with my husband Margarito, to our first winter with our daughter.  Together, they cover a lot of territory!


Movimiento Acuario is now The Succulent Seer

Four years ago, when I began preparing for our move to Mexico, I began blog called Movimient Acuario.  It was on my yahoo account (pre-gmail).  Now, in 2011, I've had enough of Yahoo.  It was almost fine with me that they had changed their blog URL more than 3 times in the last 4 years...but the two things I couldn't handle were 1) there was no one URL linking to an index of my blog, but rather, every new post had a specific URL.  Which meant I'd have to share that new URL every time I posted.  Quite annoying.  2) The next thing was that anytime you tried to go to the profile, or to the help desk, the page would never pull up.  So I got fed up.  And I am now here on Blogger as "The Succulent Seer."  I hope you enjoy reading up on what's happening with me here in the Altiplano of Central Mexico.  I give you fair warning, my topics can range widely from cacti to conservation to contemplation of motherhood to cultural conundrums in a foreign land to cynicism on politics. No, I didn't plan for that to be an alphabetical list.