When I asked him how he was riding out the great recession,
he said it all unraveled after the black horse.
I was riding in his taxi in Tucson, heading west.
Let me make this clear: the points of the compass should always guide us,
and of course the sun. We were talking at dawn.
It was dark, and he was heading west,
west of Pecos in the vast and starry night of Texas.
He put his rig in the hammer lane to pass another trucker.
The intimation of a black horse appeared in his headlights,
the vaguest shape of haunch, the apparition of an equine nightmare.
The horse was facing west. No eye shine. No option.
The slam of rig and black horse orbiting into pieces
in the majestic black night of west Texas.
This changed his life, he told me.
The black horse was his credit default swap.
Now he drives a taxi.
He dropped me at the bus station.
I was heading south to Sonora in the wakening light of day.
Your recent article in The Washington Post about the Mexican marathon runner Germán Silva was very interesting. The mind and body of runners, especially long-distance runners, always baffles me, a non-runner.
I am equally baffled by your fear of rural Mexico. I think you need to get out of Mexico City more. I also think your beat covering drug wars and corruption in Mexico is taking a toll on you and warping your view of how Mexicans go about their lives.
You are part of a bigger problem. The Post and The New York Times– for that matter, every other major American media company – need to deeply rethink their coverage of Mexico. They are doing a disservice to their readers and to Mexico. They are basically distorting reality about life in Mexico.
Think for a moment: if you had been writing about a marathon runner undertaking a journey from, say, Los Angeles to Portland, Maine – about the same distance Silva is running – would you have inserted multiple references to the the possibly of his being killed by a mass shooter, or by a landowner on whose land he accidentally trespassed, or by a county sheriff who decided a running brown-skinned man must be up to no good?
I maintain you could have written a factual article about Silva with more specific detail about the rural areas he ran through and far less musings about cartels and narcotrafficking. You as a reporter need to come to terms with your own fears about the true risks Silva took running across Mexico and the presumed risks you took by spending a day or two with him. Your editors are equally culpable and need to reassess their own biases and misconceptions about Mexico.
You state that Silva is trying to “pivot away from the country’s narcos-tequila-beaches caricature.” You then do your damnedest to perpetuate the caricature.
You write that Silva encountered “checkpoints manned by cartel gunmen.” How many and where and what specific cartels? Those are very important details about the cartel presence in Mexico. Did you ask him if he was sure they were cartel members rather than members of local self-appointed groups who are trying to deter the mafia because their own police forces and elected officials won’t? Both factions, in my experience, set up checkpoints and carry guns.
You quote Silva saying, “If they know you don’t pose a threat to them, they don’t do anything.” In fact, the cardinal rule in Mexico for coping with the reality of cartels is exactly that.
You then dismiss his comment – as if he does not know his own country – as “a pitch.” That rang like a cheap shot to me.
You ask yourself rhetorically about spending time in rural Mexico with Silva, “Was I overestimating the risks?” Yes, you were.
Earlier in the piece you mention that you train as a runner in Mexico City. The air you breathe in that city is, I believe, the biggest risk you are taking as a Latin America correspondent for the Post.
Let me be clear. Mexico is not rosy. IN NO WAY AM I DISMISSING THE DAMAGE AND HEARTBREAK NARCOTRAFFICKING AND THE WIDESPREAD CORRUPTION OF MAFIA ACTIVITY ARE DOING TO THE CITIZENS OF MEXICO. One group that is taking a mighty toll for this situation is journalists. I don’t need to tell you that Mexico is the deadliest country in the world for journalists.
But this deplorable reality has to be put into the context of the daily lives of the 131 million people who live in Mexico – just as it does for 332 million Americans who live in the deplorable context of gun-ownership, increasing vigilantism, and rogue policing in the United States.
David, my husband, and I have lived in Sonora half the year, but for the pandemic interruption, for more than twenty years and we travel widely in Mexico. We are birders and general naturalists, so we are much more often in rural than urban Mexico. We are not afraid.
In Mexico, it is fairly clear who has the guns – the mafia, the police, and the army. I have already stated that this armed conflict – and its crippling of the Fourth Estate, which in turn cripples Mexicans, their culture, and economy – is appalling. But people have to go about their lives, and that is exactly why Silva’s don’t-pose-a-threat rule serves, and it is a rule David and I follow. The same tenet does not apply in the United States. I am always on edge – justifiably, I believe – traveling back and forth across the U.S. to our other home in Minnesota, because the United States is awash in guns. In closed-carry states, I never have an idea who is carrying one. In open-carry states, I am perplexed when I see one. Without my posing a threat, that person could shoot me if he took a notion. Not to mention, there are, I believe, too many angry, disgruntled people – mostly males – in my native country.
Mr. Sieff, you should come out to the campo – or the monte as we call it in Sonora – more. It is drop-dead gorgeous out in the vast rural areas of Mexico and the people are invariably friendly, inviting, curious, polite, laughing – and helpful. I do not have the same feeling about strangers we encounter in the United States. I am a native of Texas. The last couple of times we’ve driven across Texas I can’t even get people in cafes to make eye contact.
I could cite dozens upon dozens of encounters with people in rural Mexico. Here is the most recent. David and I were exploring on a dirt road near Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, in January. We were looking for springs and streams where we might encounter dragonflies. We were in a rent car. Oddly, we encounter a young couple from Germany – clearly unafraid of risking their lives in treacherous Mexico! – in their rent car, only they were stuck. A group of Mexicans had appeared like magic from the forest – Noë Luhan and his family, we soon learned – to help. Before we knew it, and with some embarrassment, we got stuck. Noë and his sisters rounded up members of their extended family and with ropes and muscle they pulled and pushed both cars out of their ruts.
I know my recounting is anecdotal. Could something go wrong on our rural Mexico outings? Of course. But things could go wrong anywhere, anytime in the world. For peace-loving people who do not invite trouble that is called bad luck.
When we encounter Americans in Mexico, either visiting the town where we have lived for twenty years or in other parts of touristed Mexico where the biggest threat is possibly stubbing a toe on an uneven sidewalk, David and I await the inevitable question. “Aren’t you afraid to live in Mexico?” We cringe. It is so tiresome and infuriating. Do these people think we are stupid? Do they think we have chosen to live here because we want to be afraid for our lives every day?
The people asking the question are stupid, and the reason they are is because American reporters keep telling them Mexico is dangerous.
This morning while walking the dogs along Arroyo Aduana we came upon this assortment of materials resembling a house. My first thought was that someone had found a perfectly useful but abandoned door and decided it wanted a home of its own. Surrounding the door are all the necessities and amenities of a shelter – a portal, a plastic bench to sit on in the shade, an adobe brick hornilla for cooking, a roof covered in plastic to withstand more or less the rain, and a beautiful view of the mountains. The house itself, constructed of plywood or cardboard, is puzzling, barely big enough for a cot and, yikes, no windows. There are those among us who would nitpick about the lack of running water, electricity, and bathroom. For me, it is the absence of windows. On our summer nights, when the temperature drops only a bit, that box will be an oven.
The piles of red dirt around the house are an indication of the primary utility of Arroyo Aduana for many in the community. Along most of its banks are aggregate pits where individuals and public works employees come to mine sand, gravel, and rock for construction projects. To my knowledge there are no regulations regarding the extraction of these materials or if there are they are not enforced. From the perspective of the arroyo’s hydrology and the lifeforms it supports, the relentless excavation, removal, and redistribution of aggregate is something of a disaster but of little concern to most people in these parts.
It may be this is a worker’s shack for taking lunch breaks or a shelter for a velador – a night watchman. The latter is really a wild guess. It is hard to imagine there are aggregate poachers who abscond with sand or gravel under cover of darkness. We will be in Alamos for many months, and we go to this stretch of Aduana Arroyo often enough that at some point maybe we will encounter a person at the shack and ascertain its purpose and something about its tenant.
I resist assigning a station to this dwelling or to whomever built it. I will never call this the house of a poor person without a great deal of knowledge about who constructed it and why. That information can be very hard to come by much less decode. In my opinion, interlopers from vastly different classes and cultures who come to Mexico, especially to its rural areas and small towns, have a predisposition to assume a dwelling like this bespeaks poverty. That reflex is rude and insulting and reveals more about the interloper than the builder and occupant.
The day before we came upon this house on our arroyo walk, a friend had come to our place with a chainsaw to cut down a large mesquite tree that had fallen over. He cut the trunk and larger limbs into useful lengths, and David made a pile of the branches for another friend to haul to the city dump. Of course we salvaged the trunk and larger limbs for leña – firewood – which we use in our chimineas to inefficiently provide warmth on our portal and in our house in winter or for the frivolous purpose of firepits to sit around with ourselves and friends. But we already have enough leña on hand. David had the obvious and generous idea to give most of the firewood to our neighbors Chapo and Yobarda. Their daily life revolves around leña.Yobarda does all the cooking over a fire, including her handmade nixtamal corn tortillas.
They came with wheelbarrows to cart off the firewood. It was an animated scene of laughter between neighbors who share a bond beyond language. In the midst of this I noticed Yobarda’s attention was on the big pile of branches. That biomass, which for me was detritus to haul off, was a gold mine of twigs she could use for kindling. I see Yobarda from time to time searching along the Aduana Arroyo that runs behind our houses – a few miles downstream on the same arroyo where the mysterious box house stands – looking for limbs and branches to disassemble for kindling. When folks around here aren’t extracting aggregate from the arroyos, they are dumping garbage and other stuff in them, like bald tires, deconstructed building materials known as escombro, and yard and landscaping waste of the sort Yobarda recycles to start her cook fires.
David helped her and Chapo drag the branches back to their compound. A few days later, when I was passing by, I noticed the limbs had been deconstructed and artfully arranged into a sculpture of sticks and twigs.
The mysterious structure on the arroyo and the neighborly transfer of leña are testaments not just to a necessity but to an enduring disposition to recycle and repair, which runs deep in Mexican culture even as as it transitions into a first-world country. I am a poor re-user of materials. In my comfortable life I have never been incentivized to repurpose goods or objects, and, out of sheer laziness and lack of curiosity, I never acquired the skills to build or repair anything. In a way I am helpless, and this is an embarrassment to me. It is a form of poverty, my scarcity of imagination, and one of many reasons I am reluctant to judge the ostensible poverty of others.
“The ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”
John Maynard Keynes
In 2014 Nick Lemann contacted me about a profile he was writing about Janet Yellen forthe New Yorker. He had a brilliant idea. In his essay, he wanted to assign bird names to Janet Yellen and other prominent economists, including her Nobel laureate husband, George Akerlof.
Two birds are used to describe the monetary policies of economists, especially central bankers who have great power over the lives of ordinary people. Hawks tend favor high interest rates in order to keep inflation low. Doves favor monetary policies like low interest rates and quantitative easing that tend to grow the economy and stimulate job growth.
Oddly, the hawk-dove generalization persists, even though, as numerous observers have argued, the labeling is oversimplified to the point of being meaningless. One proof being that an individual economist can shift from hawk to dove depending on circumstances. Yellen is mostly a dove, but she has and could be again a hawk. Better that each economist have his or her own bird name, based on background, economic philosophy, individual inherent traits, public persona (bombastic, arrogant, measured, modest), what they like to do in their spare time, and morphology (short, tall, thin, plump).
I never specifically discussed with Nick what prompted his idea. As is often the case when colleagues, even ones who’ve not spoken to each other in decades, toss around an idea, I just “got it.” I was immediately on board with his idea.
Nick knew I knew something about giving people bird names. I am the Brown Pelican, and around the Texas Monthly office, where Nick and I overlapped in the 1980s, my coworkers referred to me, amusedly, as such. I am part of a clan of birders who received bird names 50 years ago from the esteemed Texas birdwatcher and mentor of young birders Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. After he died in 1985, his mentees carried on the tradition.
I spent a several hours over a couple of days reading about Yellen and her fellow economists and coming up with bird names for them. Jizz is the term birders use to identify a species by its general appearance and behavior – by the vibe the bird gives off. Jizz birding is a skill acquired with experience. The same concept applies to assigning bird names to humans. I compiled and sent to Nick a chart documenting the bird names for his list of economists and my jizz reasoning behind each. My selections were spot on – not that anyone but I would care.
I named Yellen the Bluebird. Specifically, the Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis. She strikes me as a quintessential East Coaster, born in Brooklyn, educated at Brown University and Yale. Yes, she was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley for years, where she is now Professor Emerita. So? I still identify as a Texan, even though I left Texas almost 40 years ago.
Bluebirds, among American birds, enjoy broad popularity. So does Yellen. In these deeply entrenched and contentious times, she was approved by the Senate as Secretary of the Treasury by a wide bipartisan margin (84-15), an even wider margin than when she was approved as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2014 (59-34).
Yellen’s behavior, as manifested in her monetary policy, reminds me of a Bluebird. She is calm, steady, thoughtful, companionable. I love the fact that she lunched in the employees’ cafeteria when she was Chair of the Fed.
Bluebirds, though often described as sweet, are fiercely protective of their territories. I believe in her unruffled way Yellen fiercely defends her economic principles.
Her lovely, lilting, calming voice is reminiscent of the Eastern Bluebird’s song.
She frequently wears blue.
Bottom line: Janet Yellen looks like an Eastern Bluebird.
On July 11, 2014, I received a brief email from Nick that read, “Remnick killed all the bird names. Sorry.”
I was not really surprised. As much as I loved Nick’s idea – and still think all these years later the concept could have had traction – I knew it would be a hard sell to a boss who “didn’t get it.”
I gained a bit of knowledge about economic policy and the economists who hold sway over our lives. I follow news of the economy and economic policy with greater attention and from time to time I read enlightening books about those subjects (e.g., Robert Kuttner’s 2018 book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism). And, in the end, I was amply rewarded. In the print edition of Nick’s article, the spot illustrations – one of the wonderful hallmarks of the New Yorker for many of us – were of Bluebirds.
Nick’s profile, “The Hand on the Lever,” appeared in the July 21, 2014, issue of the New Yorker. With Janet Yellen the first woman – not to mention bluebird – to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, his piece is a must-read.
Addendum: “Your Economics-Birds Quiz”
Recently, I was reading a fascinating article in The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/constitutional-case-gun-control/600694/ about the constitutional case for gun control, in which the authors mentioned the work of the late Yale law professor Robert Cover. One of his overarching legal principals is the importance of narrative in the context of law. (They write in the article, “According to Cover, narrative is what gives law moral authority, what imbues it with the power not to compel mere obedience, but to embody the legitimate choices of those it governs.”) In a far less weighty realm of thought, Robert Cover is renowned for an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York Timeson April 5, 1979, called “Your Law-Baseball Quiz” in which he challenged readers, in a multiple-choice test, to pair the correct Major League baseball player with one of four U.S. Supreme Court Justice, based on the way the player played ball and the Justice adjudicated law.
To honor a legal scholar who died too young, and to perpetuate Nick’s great idea, if only for my amusement and perhaps that of a few fellow birders, here is your “Economics-Birds Quiz.” Depending on reader demand, I may or may not provide the correct answers in a subsequent post.