Thursday, July 14, 2011


“Es muerta,” Antonio says, shaking his head sadly. We look at the tree, trying to see whether any part of it might be saved, but finally decide that it is only good for a little firewood and that it will take two truckloads to cart the rest to El Dumpay.

Antonio only speaks a little English and I speak no Spanish at all, but we manage to communicate through gesture, good will and a little mind-reading. I know that he is not yet thirty but has two sons, one of them twelve, going on thirteen. I know that he is a strict and devoted father who must be home when school gets out and his wife goes to work. He seems to support his parents in Mexico, and more than once has taken in a relative who had nowhere else to go.

Back before he had papers, Antonio went door to door looking for work. I told him I didn’t really have anything, but if he would leave his telephone number, I would call him when I did. He wrote and erased, wrote and erased, and I thought that anybody who wanted that much to get something right would be good to know.

He and several relatives painted my house by hand, with brushes. Antonio didn’t mind washing windows or cars, did all his estimating and billing in his head and never made a mistake, even when he had taken advances for lunch or materials. I worried about how he would keep doing all this when he grew older. I wished he would take an English class or try to get a contractor’s license, but he was too busy working to do much of anything else.

I made business cards for him so he wouldn’t have to keep writing and erasing.

“Maggie, minuto, come,” he says, and I trudge over to the fence where he is cutting up the dead tree with a handsaw even as the sound of chainsaws and chippers blast away from neighbors’ houses. He shows me a decayed stump some eight feet high, two feet in diameter at the top, five inches at the rotting bottom, upright only because it is leaning on branches. The stump had been hidden by the dead tree Antonio was taking out.

“Oh, my God,” I say, picturing orphaned children, Antonio or me squashed as flat as the coyote in Loony Toons. “Be careful! Don’t do anything! Wait until somebody else comes!” Holding my breath, I nervously pull away some logs as Antonio casually clips a few branches, mentally measuring where the stump might fall.

Then he pushes the stump and it falls to the ground with an enormous earth-shaking thud.

“One truck,” he says “for this at Dumpay. Forty-seven dollaria.”

“Not worth it,” I say, and we wordlessly agree to leave the stump where it fell.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Deus Ex Machina

I have an uneasy truce with the machines. This may date from an astonishingly low grade on a mechanical aptitude test I took in high school or from the description of a war against the machines in the Sixties Bible, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf: “(They) praised machinery as the last and most sublime invention of the human mind. With its aid, men would be equal to the gods.”

I have been nudged and bullied into dealing with machines. I had to learn to drive at age 40 because there was no school activities bus to where we lived in the country, and the kids wanted to play football. I can drive if there aren’t too many left turns, but my present car has so many mysterious computerized functions that even the dealer can’t tell why the alarm goes off at random.

In fact, the whole darned house is computerized: The coffee maker, the kitchen range, the television and its remote, the sewing machine, telephones, stereo, alarm clock, answering machine, calculator and camera. Ed gave me a Global Positioning thing after we kept getting lost, and once I get more confidence about left turns, I have every intention of using it.

The turntable which was going to turn all my vinyl records into compact discs, however, I donated to a choir auction. The box had never been opened. Sometimes you have to flat-out acknowledge defeat. I can make compact discs from audio tapes, however, which is a dubious skill since everyone else deals with iPods now instead of compact discs. I have a machine which is supposed to make JPGs from old slides, but I haven’t yet taken it out of the box.

I got my first computer because I wanted e-mail. It took a week to get up the courage to open the box. When I plugged the thing in, it didn’t work, and I phoned up a friend and cried. The problem proved to be the plug, not the computer, and so I have had the usual computer snags and problems ever since.

The newest machine is an iPhone I actually requested for my birthday. To activate it, one had to have the latest version of iTunes on the computer, and to support that, one had to have a more recent operating system than I have. This is what I mean by being nudged and bullied. Meanwhile, I am just using the iPhone as a telephone, and it works just fine.

The phrase “deus ex machina” or “god from the machine”, by the way, comes from Horace, who deplored the Greek tragedians’ use of cranes (machina) which were used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage, where they would neatly wrap up a rambling drama.