Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fresh baloney from Whole Foods

Portland —

Shoppers at Whole Foods now have something else to feel smug about.

The eco-grocer says it will stop selling "red-rated" wild caught seafood as of April 22 (Earth Day).

A red rating indicates a species is overfished or that its harvest produces excessive bycatch or undesirable habitat impacts.

New York's venerable Fulton Fish Market, which has moved to the Bronx.
The problem with the red rating is that it comes not from the scientific community, which relies on data, but from the advocacy community, which is driven by emotion — yours.

Congress requires precautionary management of fish. If a species does become overfished — and the vast majority are not — Congress requires it to be managed in such a way that rebuilding will take no longer than 10 years.

In other words, you should have no pangs of conscience for consuming fish harvested in U.S. waters. Moreover, there are plenty of reasons, beginning with your good health, to eat them.

Well-intentioned consumers might ask how advocates such as the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which rate seafood for Whole Foods, can look at the same data U.S. fishery regulators see and come to their alarmist conclusions. The answer can only be that they don't look at the data.

For example, Monterey Bay lists monkfish as a species to avoid because of sea mammal and turtle bycatch in the gillnet fishery and habitat impacts in the trawl fishery. The reality is that gear modification and areas closures have minimized gillnet bycatch, and trawl impacts are negligible on the muddy and sandy bottom where trawlers catch monks.

"Sustainability" is an ideal that has become a buzzword, so think critically on the subject. For example, the Whole Foods business model is predicated on convincing you that by shopping there, you're saving the world.

Act locally and save yourself. For practical advice about eating seafood, visit the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's FishWatch web site at http://www.fishwatch.gov/index.htm.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Custer's last stand


I have at least one more post from Mexico to write, but I want to get back to the theme of cultural differences.

While in Cancun I read Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn."

At one level it is the cavalry vs. the Indians, at the next it is the story of a flawed man and his place in history, and finally it is a story about the clash of cultures.

Once Americans began to push west, the die was cast. No amount of Thanksgiving dinners could have prevented conflict between settlers who sought buffalo, gold and land, and who built railroads, and Indians who hunted buffalo and carried on their own tribal wars and who above all viewed the vast West as their own.

Conflict was inevitable. There was no common language, no common experience, and above all no shared vision of the future.

Ironically, descendants of the settlers, as well as other English speaking modern-day Americans, may feel themselves kindred spirits of the 19th century Indians.

For several hundred years America embodied the dreams of immigrants. Those who didn't speak English when they got here proudly learned it. They Anglicized their names. They forbade their children from using their native tongue. They were Americans. They cherished breathing free so much that they fought against their erstwhile kinsmen in two world wars.

But what was once the land of opportunity is today viewed opportunistically. The shared vision of immigrants is "come and get it." American institutions and traditions are abstractions. That newcomers cling to their culture is partly our fault, because we make it possible for them to postpone learning English for far too long.

America is as vast as it was in the time of George Armstrong Custer, but the world is a much smaller place. Today its legions lay siege to us not with rifles and horses but with cynical indifference to the dreams of our fathers.

Should we worry? Ask Sitting Bull.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Life and work

Three among a phalanx of workers policing the beach  for litter.

Cancun, Mexico —

No task is too menial for the resort maintenance crew. Maids wipe the the railings on the balconies. There are hundreds of them. The balusters are beyond counting. At night young men with snorkels and scrub brushes clean the pools. Other youthful workers are stationed on the steps from the beach to sweep away the sand borne by wind and gringo sandals. If Sisyphus were given this chore, he’d ask if he couldn't have his boulder, hill and stick back.

The other day on our walk we saw two men with push mowers cutting the vast lawn at a hotel along the boulevard. (Not many years ago they would have been bent over with shears.) At Pemex stations there is no such thing as self-service. The pump jockeys stand on the end of each island waving at cars. At night the stations are not especially well lit, but the attendants are out there, waiting to pump your gas. Drive slow.

All of this is a function of cheap labor. But in some places labor is cheaper still. Sunday we drove to Valladolid, about halfway across the Yucatan Peninsula. Coming home the back way we saw subsistence economy at work.

People live in what Americans call shotgun shacks, which is to say they have a door in the front and one in the back and you can stand outside and look (or fire a shotgun) through to the backyard. In some homes shadows dance by the light of color TV, but in others there is no electricity, Antonio tells me. "If they want to have something fresh, they have to go and buy the ice," he says. The doors are open, even at night, gasping for a breeze. Also, the doorways frame the hammocks in which people sleep in the Yucatan.

Children play outside well after dark to to stay out of the super-heated dwellings as long as they can. Scrawny dogs are also out and about everywhere. The settlements are dotted with small stores that sell soda, beer, and whatever. Two hundred square feet would be a big one. There might be a plastic table or two outside. "Everybody sells Coca Cola," Antonio says.

There are small churches as well, and they look just like the stores and the houses, which if nothing else means they come in all colors. On this Sunday night they were full of life and light and music, and my friend J.C., who has a clothing store in Cancun, says the people are happy. He says if they have little by way of material goods they miss even less.

How can this be? How will these people acquire time-share villas, golf club memberships and air-conditioned pickup trucks with back seats at this rate? Perhaps I should quit my job, learn Spanish and lecture the locals about the importance of education and save the next generation.

Perhaps not. Antonio agrees that the people are as happy as any. They raise grapefruit and oranges and their kids go to school. "They have the land," he says.

It is hard to think of Antonio as being paternalistic. He is from Merida and has spent quite some time in the United States. He now lives in El Centro, where he sews for a living and sleeps in a hammock.

Americans tend to think that everyone wants the same things we want. Perhaps that's because so many of us want what the other guy has.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

¿Dónde está el blog

Cancun, Mexico —


At the moment we are living it up in Mexico with a lousy wireless signal. If I can find a workaround that does not conflict with the notion of a vacation I  will be back in a day or so.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A day at the beach

Cancun, Mexico —

The photo at left, taken yesterday, is remarkable for what it shows — bathers in the ocean some distance from the water's edge — and what it does not: pounding surf.

Ordinarily the beach is held siege by 20 knots or more of easterly wind. The breakers explode onto the sand and over the course of the day your sunglasses acquire a misty film even if you're 50 yards or more from the surf, reading under the palapa.

The beach here is renowned for its undertow, and most days red flags fly the length of it. Yesterday a few yellow flags were mixed in. I can't recall ever seeing a green flag here, but at some point I may have. I have been vacationing here, on and off, since 1988.

As calm as it was in the afternoon, if you stood in the surf very long you noticed that every few waves it felt as though someone had you by each leg and pulling you to sea. On rougher days you look up and down the beach and as far as you can see no one is in the water beyond their calves.

Nonetheless, the beach beckons. The water temperature is 80 degrees or more, which feels pretty warm to a Mainer, and the sand is cool even on the hottest days. I have heard a number of explanations for this over the years — the sand contains lime, it consists of fossilized plankton — but in any case, your feet will like it.

In 2007, Hurricane Dean destroyed most of the east-facing beaches at Cancun. (Topographically there is one beach, but there are a dozen or more sections, each named "playa" this or that. We stay along Playa Marlin.)

In 2009, the Mexican government mined two undersea banks for sand, loaded it onto barges and pumped it ashore at Cancun and at Playa del Carmen to the south. Voila! Beach!

One can only imagine the hue and cry in the United States if someone proposed undersea excavation of sand banks in the furtherance of economic interests.

We used to hear that there is a drowning a week along this 14-mile beach. I am skeptical. On many stretches lifeguard stands are no more than 100 yards apart. The lifeguards here are a vigilant and dedicated crew. If you wander out a little too far they whistle you back in. If a rip develops they whistle at you to move. Over the years I've seen a couple of rescues.

For all of that, prudence dictates a healthy respect for the power of the surf. Folk wisdom holds that if you're born to hang you'll never drown, but I wouldn't push my luck in Cancun.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unreal politics

                                                                                                        CANCUN, Mexico —

So what’s going on with Maine’s U.S. Senate race? There wasn’t much new when I Googled this morning, and the filing deadline is just a day away.

I’m amazed at the timidity about an open seat in the most exclusive club outside of Augusta National.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, for example, stood to lose next to nothing if she ran. She’s the junior congresswoman from a small state and the member of a minority party. She is well spoken and can deliver constituent services, and that may be very important to her, but in Washington she has the same clout Aung San Suu Kyi has in Yangon. Maybe less, actually.

Was she afraid of losing to the independent candidacy of former Gov. Angus King? I would not have thought so.

What about Rep. Mike Michaud?

With former Gov. John Baldacci passing up the race, you have to figure he's done with elective office.

That leaves Secretary of State Charles Summers yet to make up his mind, if indeed he has not. I can't imagine him passing up the race, unless he figures he can bide his time and wait for a better opportunity.

But what better opportunity than this?

King was a popular and practical governor known for laptops for kids and the rainy day fund. But squirreling away money in the late 1990s was no big deal: if you had a 401(k) you probably thought you were the next Warren Buffett.

Independents are OK in the Blaine House, but the U.S. Senate is another story. If it’s an exclusive club it’s also a bastion of two-party politics.

Kings says he’d be the most popular girl at the prom when key votes were on the line, but he’d more likely be regarded as a coy mistress. The reality is that he would caucus with one party or the other or bring new meaning to the term irrelevant.

Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman ran as an independent to keep his seat after losing the Democratic primary in 2006. He caucused with the Democrats, who rewarded him with a committee chairmanship. He thanked them by supporting John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. He’s not been heard from since and is not seeking re-election.

That’s not what Maine needs.

Maine is not California. It does not have a battalion in the U.S. House with which to make its way. Nor is it especially productive. Maine need senators who will work within the system to represent Maine’s economic interests.

Yet with Thursday’s deadline looming no Democrats have filed papers. The conventional wisdom is that having King and a Democrat in the field would clear the path for the Republican candidate, who as of now is Scot D'Amboise.


As a result, conspiracy theorists say, a deal has been cut that will see King become a Democrat after the election.

But the conventional wisdom only goes so far. Bill Clinton became the Democratic nominee in 1992 because more seemly Democrats viewed President George H.W. Bush as unbeatable after the Gulf War.

Which leaves only one question. If I start up the beach in the direction of Punta Cancun and ask every fifth sunbather who will win Maine's U.S. Senate race, how far will I get before the policia drop a net over me?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Well south of Maine

CANCUN, Quintana Roo — President Bush the first was mocked for referring to “the vision thing,” but he was onto something.
In the 1960s, the Yucatan barrier island that would become Cancun was a coconut plantation looked after by three caretakers, a series of sand dunes in the shape of a seven that ran for miles in each direction. Quintana Roo was a territory, not yet a state.
There was no airport, no city, no road. One day some bureaucrats woke up and said, “We think this Caribbean tourism thing is going to take off.”
Construction began in the early 1970s. My mother-in-law discovered the place in 1984. By then it was very much a resort, albeit one in which businesses observed the siesta.
Now there is too much money at stake and there are too many gringos underfoot to take time for afternoon naps.
Where my wife and I now stay was dune grass in 1988 when we first came down together. Today it’s in the middle of Zona Hotelera.
The plumbing has caught up with the vision and Cancun is a very sanitized place. Reverse-osmosis plants provide water in the resort, and the bowel-searing episodes of Montezuma’s revenge that once folded gringos half in two are a fading memory.
In those days milk was poured warm from a box and the butter tasted funny. Once each trip we would go to the Blue Bayou, at the Hyatt, for an expensive but reliable — the butter notwithstanding — American meal.
My wife returned from her first trip in love with the place but craving hamburgers and mashed potatoes.
Booze, on the other hand, was an abundant resource, and downtown drinking was a raucous, spontaneous and mostly outdoor affair. There was no such thing as last call, as far as anyone can remember, and at places like Mi Ranchito free tequila slammers came around every few minutes to anyone loose enough to join the conga line wiggling beneath waiters standing on chairs. Which was everyone.
The best part was the peso. At 2,250 to a U.S. dollar, our pockets were stuffed full of money and no one had any idea what they were paying for anything.
Cancun still sparkles by day, but its nightlife has been watered down by all-inclusive resorts and glitzy shopping malls. Yes, the spring breakers are crazy, but what else is new? In our time, people who never went crazy anywhere else went out of their minds here.
Now we sit sober on the beach with our e-readers. Whether or not the tourism bureau saw quite that far ahead I’m not prepared to say.