Going to Starbucks for the Garbage

Starbucks has now been up and running in Morelia for less than two weeks, and I’m ashamed to report how many times I’ve visited the place, even if it is a five-mile drive from my house. The Starbucks experience is actually something new for me, having visited only two Starbucks establishments in my entire life which weren’t housed in an airport. The efficiency of Morelia’s franchise amazes me, even if it does mean having to schlep a cup of espresso with my very own name emblazoned upon it to my table, something that just never happens at this town’s other coffee houses.

But I don’t go there for the coffee, even if it is steaming hot. Or for the pastries, the music, Wi-Fi, the touch of Estadounidense corporate enterprise, or the chance to see and be seen. I really don’t even care that Starbucks may have an enlightened labor policy. I go to Starbucks, because they’re giving away used coffee grounds, all neatly wrapped up in the very same foil bag in which the coffee was delivered to Starbucks, sealed with a decorative label, and presented in a basket boasting of a free gift.

My own coffee grounds never find their way into my garden at home, because doing that is just too much effort. Free coffee grounds are another matter, especially when they come in a gift-wrapped package. It’s not a matter of caring about the environment or helping Starbucks get a reputation for going green. It’s a matter of simple economics. Free and gift make all the difference in the world.

Starbucks has cleverly seduced me into becoming its unpaid garbage collector.

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Medical Refugees

Some Estadounidenses come to Mexico for the swaying palms of a beach side resort, others in search of pyramids and treks through artisan villages. As long as the motor car has been around, it’s also been a favorite for roadtrips. But more and more are in search of affordable medical care.  And not just at clinics advertising discount dental care or plastic surgery spas..

In The Dallas Morning News, Alfredo Corchado and Laurence Iliff write about Estadounidenses who travel to Mexico for medical care that’s simply more accessible than anything available in their home country.



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When the President’s at the Next Table

calderon What do you do if you just happen to be having lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Mexico City, and President Felipe Calderon and his entourage just happen to walk in? If you’re having lunch with Ricardo Carreon, regional director of Intel Latin America, you plot to ask for his autograph. And then you whip out your brand-new Canon G7 and ask to have your photograph taken with him and his wife Margarita Zavala. Read Ricardo’s Blog for more about how the story played out. [Photo by Rodrigo Sandoval]

El Bulto (Excess Baggage)

What happens when a left-winger is conked out during a 1971 uprising in Mexico, goes into a coma, and re-awakens two decades later? This 1992 movie reveals a compelling history of the changes that took place in this country from the late 1960’s to the 1980’s.

Online Communities

Online communities predate the World Wide Web and other aspects of the Internet. Since the early days of Usenet (USEr NETwork), developed nearly 30 years ago for university folk to communicate among themselves, lawyers have participated in online communities, both for social as well as professional reasons. And even before that, a Bulletin Board System, or BBS, enabled users to exchange messages in the ether. Because those systems required distant users to dial in on a telephone, incurring long-distance charges, participation was primarily local and, consequently, small. Pioneer users had to familiarize themselves with the likes of gopher, Veronica, Archie, Jughead, FTP, and the Unix grep command, concepts that seem as quaint today as platen, typewriter ribbon, and foolscap. Not surprisingly, most citizens of online communities were computer enthusiasts.

Read on at the Technology & Practice Guide special issue of GPSolo magazine. And yes, I wrote that article.

The Eyes of Michoacán are upon You

One thing or another frequently takes me to Chicago or beyond. After I’ve fulfilled the purpose of the trip, which always means putting in hours in a conference room off in some hotel or office building, I try to steal away a couple of hours in places like the Miracle Mile or Bal Harbour Shops, checking out whatever’s on sale at Neiman Marcus or Saks, grabbing some Indian food, and hitting a book store. 48 hours away from Michoacán always leaves me jonesing for home, and that feeling of home always rushes back once I’m standing at the check-in line at LAX, O’Hare or George Bush International Airport. Now, it’s easy enough to always run into someone you know at one of the two departure gates at Morelia’s MLM, but the same thing happens at any gateway from the U.S. headed south to MLM. The Mexicana ticket agent at LAX tells me he’s from Ario de Rosales, and, sure enough, we know the same people. Ario de Rosales isn’t that big, but our common friend just happens to live a few blocks from me in Morelia. There’s always someone I know headed to Michoacán from Houston or Chicago.

There’s just something about Michoacán that makes everyone want to claim some kind of connection here. It’s like Texas; you never leave those roots behind. There are probably only two things which leave me weepy-eyed, full of pride, and sentimental: the sight of Morelia’s Catedral when I return home and any song about Texas. “The Eyes of Texas” exhorts Texans to go forth and do great things, because all the world’s watching:

The eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the live long day.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them,
At night, or early in the morn’.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
‘Till Gabriel blows his horn!

Little Michoacáns across the U.S. are filled with the same regional pride that Texans carry with them throughout their lives. Refugees from Mexico City who move to Morelia generations after the last of their kin left Michoacán are quick to claim some link, even as remote as having once camped at Infernillo as a Scout or a distant ancestor twice removed who was born somewhere in the state, just like Estadounidenses reach for their Texas connection.

In Chicago Matters, Chicago Public Radio explores the paths to Chicago from Michoacán and back again.

Jimmy Buffett once sang about everyone having a cousin in Miami. He was wrong. Everyone’s got a cousin in Michoacán or Texas.

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The Best Places to Work in Mexico

Everyone has an idea about what would make a great workplace. This afternoon, I sat over my second espresso doble at Starbucks, marveling at the efficiency of the operation at Morelia’s new branch,  wondering how much the baristas were paid. Not that I’m looking for a real job, mind you.

The Great Place to Work® Institute has issued its rankings of the best places to work in Mexico for 2007. Leading the pack is FedEx Express, but coming as the one-hundredth best place was Hooter’s. Somehow I think I’d have a real hard time getting on at that place.

Working away at a government has a certain appeal, I guess, mostly embraced by those who’ve never actually worked for the government. But only two governmental entities made the grade: Secretaria de Planeacion y Desarrollo Regional (SEPLADE) in Aguascalientes, as the 22nd-best, and INFONAVIT as the 52nd-best.

Snail Farming in Morelia

Morelia‘s a fairly sophisticated city, as far as cities of its size in Mexico go. And its culinary offerings just keep on amazing me. One Moreliana, twenty years my junior, tells me that she can remember the time when there was no Comercial Mexicana, when everyone shopped at the Mercado Independencia, and when broccoli was considered exotic fare, available only by driving to San Miguel de Allende.

Between Costco, Comercial Mega, and Superama, Belgian endive, yellow tomatoes, frozen ostrich, white eggplant, dried seaweed, Arborio rice, wasabi in a tube, anguilas (baby eel), giant fish eggs, and canned escargot can be had on any day of the week. But one thing’s missing.

But first I must digress.

Growing up in Southern California in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, I developed a broad range of tastes, in large part to my mother’s belief in Sunset magazine as the Bible for Good Living. Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping were for proles, she said. As for Family Circle and Woman’s Day, well, let’s not go there. Whenever Sunset magazine hit the mailbox, it would be a matter of days before the latest recipe would find its way onto the dinner table. We grew up eating squid, making tofu and pita, and curing olives before any of those activities became fashionable.

And then appeared in Sunset’s very pages an article about transforming slimy garden pests into dinner fare. My mother could hardly contain herself, challenged now by a prospect which exceeded the thrill of making us bento boxes for school lunches. For several days, she eagerly plucked snails from the yard, placing them in a bucket filled with cornmeal, just as instructed by Sunset magazine, and told us eating snails was all the rage in France. I prayed for an earthquake, for an atomic bomb to hit us, for bubonic plague to eradicate us, anything to prevent the day of reckoning when she would actually serve us snails for dinner. Fortunately, as the days passed, luck struck, and we heard no more about the snails. The bucket on the patio disappeared. It was better not to ask, although we made sure not to eat meatloaf or spaghetti sauce or anything in which the snails might’ve been disguised in the weeks following. She never brought up the snails again, and, looking back, I surmise that she may have lost the nerve.

Andy Becker didn’t, and in his Salon article “Adventures in Snail Hunting,” he takes off where my mother left off. His blog, Wall Fish, is devoted to backyard exploration and snail hunting. I do not want to eat dinner at his house.

My siblings and I all fled at the earliest opportunity to a snail-free Iowa, where we were just as aghast to find Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches and canned green bean casserole were considered gourmet. And, after a polite interval, we each ran away as far as we could.

My garden in Morelia has snails, and lots of them. I fancy the notion of wearing stiletto heels as I pluck and squish them, but now I’m wondering if I’m squandering an important revenue source. I haven’t seen any fresh snails for sale in all of Morelia. Should I approach the best restaurants in town to see if anyone’s interested?

Piedras Verdes (Mystic Stones)

After Mariana’s wealthy adoptive mother tosses her out, she embarks upon a life filled with drugs and decadence before hooking up with a spiritual sort on a pilgrimage. She searches for the father who abandoned her as an infant when her birth mother was killed in this edgy, hip film.


If You Wear Crocs, You Could Be a Commie

red Two years ago, a friend raved about Crocs, insisting that they were the wave of the future. I shelved her fashion advice in the same category reserved for interior design tips offered up by straight men. After all, she hadn’t likely gone to bed with Rush Limbaugh as many times as I had.

And then last month, two men whom I trust, certifiably heterosexual, red-blooded, beef-eating, Field & Stream-reading, all-American guys, revealed themselves shod in Crocs. And within plain view of the U.S. Capitol. This had to be some kind of joke left over from their days as fraternity brothers. When I suggested that these plastic shoes were akin to Birkenstocks, only worn by homosexuals, liberals and the infirm, they insisted that I try them on, adding that the shoes had been freshly washed. They even offered to buy me a pair. Straight men in committed relationships have never offered to buy me a pair of shoes. But they did feel comfortable, even though at the end of the day, a bed of nails up against the soles of your feet can also feel good. The next day found me wandering around at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where I relented and bought my very own pair. Travel to the U.S. can do weird things to a person.

I still wasn’t ready to wear them without first getting permission from the Republican Party, just like someone might get a special dispensation from the Chief Rabbi of the World before nibbling on bacon or the Pope before having a steak on Good Friday. While those requests were pending, before my very eyes appears a picture of George W. Bush wearing Crocs. Obviously, this could be a doctored image put forth by Communists, terrorists or Hillary Clinton.

I’m not taking any chances. What do I care if shoes can be safely put in the dishwasher? (Who wants shoes laundered along with the dinnerware in Cascade?) Moreover, I’m deeply concerned that shoes cobbled from man-made materials will put the shoe-crafting industry out of business. After all, Chinese imports have deeply hurt the Mexican shoe trade. The next victims could be the houses of Ferragamo and Gucci. If you think I’m kidding, just consider how they’ve branched out into non-leather wares. Soon only the very wealthy and the very poor will be wearing leather shoes. Legions of shoe-shine men will be put right out of business.

Writing in Slate, Meghan O’Rourke dismisses Crocs as just another passing fad. I hope she’s right.


Mitt Romney’s Mexican Connection

In 1885, in the face of some messy business over loving too many women, Miles Romney set off from Utah to Chihuahua to raise his family and create a refuge for fellow Mormons about two hundred miles south of El Paso and Cd. Juarez. One of the children he brought with him was Gaskell Romney, who went on to sire a son in Colonia Dublán who would go on to become President of American Motors, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and presidential possibility — George W. Romney.

As the Mexican Revolution broke out, the Romneys headed back North to Idaho and Utah, the five-year old George W. Romney in tow.

The Mexican connection didn’t come to an end. Twenty-six years later, in 1938, the family’s lawsuit “Gaskell Romney v. the United States of Mexico” finally was heard, and Gaskell was awarded $9,163, which gave him a leg up.  He gave half of the award to his son George.

In the 1960’s, when George was considered a presidential candidate, the issue of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came up, questioning whether he was a “a natural-born citizen,” since he’d been born to U.S. citizens living in Mexico. The issue soon became moot.

And now George’s son Mitt, having just finished a term as Governor of Massachusetts, is a possible Republican Party candidate for President.

He’s never been to Colonia Juarez, but he still has kinfolk living in Mexico. Overlooking the matter that Mitt Romney clearly is the most handsome of the pack of presidential contenders, what’s his position on Mexico?


Riding the Chicken Bus

Many tourists seem to take great delight in saying that they’ve ridden the chicken bus in Mexico. I have a hard time understanding the appeal of getting on a superannuated bus with rusty brakes and sharing a ride with livestock, no matter what the savings might be.

Autobús avícola  The current issue of Industria Avicola, a poultry and egg magazine, has an advertisement which bears sharing. Autobus Avícolas IC has developed a model which can be configured to transport variable quantities of poultry or passengers in air-conditioned comfort. For those adventure-seeking tourists who seek the full experience of riding with poultry,  this may be the ticket.

Through the Eyes of Gabriel Orozco

Post minimalist artist Gabriel Orozco sees life through a different lens, challenging others’ perspectives on the expected and the unexpected. The 2002 documentary film about him reveals his view of the world — and a Mexico that’s not promoted internationally.


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My Anchor Babies

Gustavo Moreno* works for a bulge bracket investment firm in New York, and he wrote me this evening. With his permission, I’m sharing his comments.

I’m writing you about what happened to my family and me yesterday in New York City, given that you can relate to my experience of living in a foreign country are much more familiar with Mexicans and the Mexican culture than most Americans are.

My wife and I are Mexican citizens and from Morelia. We came to the New York metro region under a work visa, we’ve lived here for ten years, and we are now U.S. permanent residents. I work in investment banking for a bulge bracket U.S. firm. Needless to say, and yet, here I am feeling compelled to state, we are law-abiding citizens who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes in the past ten years.

Yesterday my wife and I decided to go into Manhattan from our home the New Jersey suburbs. Joining us were our two daughters, our au pair (who is also from Mexico) and my brother. We were joyfully strolling down Broadway talking among ourselves in Spanish, of course, which I’m sure you’ll understand is perfectly normal behavior for native Spanish speakers and minding our own business. Out of the blue, a woman approached us and sarcastically referred to my daughters as “anchor babies.”

I am normally pretty hard-skinned, but I have to confess that this made me quite angry. I blurted out a profanity (which, of course, got me in trouble with my wife for using such language in front of the kids) and alerted everyone in my party what the woman had just said. Apparently, I was the only one who had actually heard her. My family was much cooler about the remark than I was. My 25-year old brother laughed it off, saying “Does she realize where she is?” (In New York City 40% of the population is foreign born.) He added “I guess she must go around saying this to every other person she meets on the street. I know she’d have to call this to the kids of most of my colleagues on the trading floor.”

Am I being overly sensitive about this? I don’t think so. Anchor baby is obviously a loaded term. In my culture, it’s considered impolite to even refer to someone as “he” or “she” instead of by his or her name if that person is present, and mothers will correct this misstep with a stern: “El o ella tiene su nombre” (“he or she has a name”). So, I find it beyond rude to refer to a stranger’s kid by a label, even if it were a less emotionally loaded one. Think about it: how would you feel if a stranger referred to your kids as “child tax credit babies” or something like that? Calling someone’s kids “anchor babies” seems almost unfathomable. Think of the inherent chauvinism and xenophobia in assuming that because we are speaking a foreign language and look non-American we: a) are here illegally, b) had our babies in the U.S. in order to one day get American citizenship ourselves and live off the generosity of American taxpayers.

I’m not even dealing with politics here, but with mere politeness. What drives an apparently otherwise normal person to harass a person she doesn’t know like this? I wish I could report that our harasser was an obviously fringe character or displayed obvious signs of ignorance and lack of sophistication; in fact, she seemed like an average New Yorker. I agree that American-style political correctness can at times be almost grotesquely funny, but I much prefer it to insensitive name calling and labeling. Labeling is often the first step in dehumanizing the “other,” which is a dangerous slippery slope. Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in a lesser known variation of his famous (or infamous) experiment, showed that people were much more likely to voluntarily harm a stranger who had done no harm to them if they “accidentally” overheard the researcher using a derisive label in referring to the stranger. I obviously don’t want to take this argument too far. I think I am already assigning far too much importance to the hateful words of a random stranger. However, I do think both sides of the immigration debate need to tone down the rhetoric. There are clearly valid arguments on both sides, but labeling and name-calling are utterly unhelpful, leading only to further polarization.

As an aside, I think the concept of anchor babies is largely a myth. First of all, having an American baby will not necessarily save an illegal alien from deportation; that has been clearly established by well-publicized cases. Second, an anchor baby cannot really apply for a green card for his or her parents until after he or she is eighteen. After that, there’s usually a long wait of several years before parents can get permanent residence. Finally, having an “anchor baby” does not give the parent rights to receive Social Security payments and other government benefits. I really don’t think that the illegal aliens who are having babies in the U.S. are doing so in order to get a green card thirty years down the road. There are other myths that are used by both sides in this debate. Another one that comes to mind is that illegal immigrants are draining Social Security funds, when in fact, it’s been well-documented that the Social Security Administration records a significant amount of Social Security contributions made under a false Social Security number, and thereby cannot be claimed by the people who made those contributions, so illegal immigrants are in fact subsidizing Social Security. I did not want to get into politics. It’s unfair because I’m only giving one side of the argument here. As I’ve said, there are valid arguments to both sides. I’m all for fair and objective debate of these arguments, but ad hominem attacks and labeling are clearly not constructive.

*The name has been changed, but everything else is absolutely true.

Fighting for a Way of Life

Charles Kent Bullock of Bullock’s Feed in Artesia, Don Spearman of Animal Nutrition and Supply in Carlsbad, Tony T. Ortega of Mesilla Valley Feeds in Las Cruces and Johnny Unias Montoya of Johnny’s Service Station, Raul Trevino of Lewallen Supply and Pradip D. Bhakata of the Hilltop Inn are standing up for their rights — and the rights of Everyman. They’ve joined the New Mexico Gamefowl Breeders Association in a lawsuit against the State of New Mexico for violating rights protected under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Legislation enacted in New Mexico would ban cockfighting — a sport which even George Washington enjoyed.

Louisiana, too, has joined the pack in banning rooster duels.

Cockfight Now it’s perfectly understandable why cockfighting might be illegal in place like Vermont, but Louisiana and New Mexico?  You’d think legislatures would have better issues to legislate upon instead of treading upon well-established cultural values. I’m willing to bet good money that the guys who voted to ban teleological totems have never set foot in las peleas de gallos.

All of this is yet another reason why Mexico’s a great place to live. We still honor the tradition of the good fight in these parts.

And the image above? That’s “The Cockfight,” painted by Jean-Léon Gérome, and hanging in the Louvre, Paris. Cockfighting’s not just a redneck sport.

The Independence Day Camel

The first 4th of July party I can remember attending was a gathering of the American expatriates and locals at the American Embassy in Ankara. The food, the flag, the fireworks, and the requisite trappings of a 4th of July event made no lasting impression upon me. But there was one aspect of that celebration that did make an impression, forever shaping my idea of what a proper 4th of July was supposed to include.

A few years would pass, years that always have a fourth day during the month of July, but whatever happened on those dates left no lasting memory. Finally, when I was in second grade or thereabouts, on the 4th of July, in Los Angeles, the essential element of the 4th of July re-surfaced. Finally, someone had the right idea about what the 4th of July was all about.

camel And that was a ride on a camel. The 4th of July isn’t about barbeques and potato salad, displays of patriotism, the rockets’ red glare, or The Star Spangled Banner. Not for me, it isn’t. It’s about camels.

A 4th of July celebration just isn’t complete without a ride on a camel. Now, I could easily swing past Morelia’s Benito Juarez zoo to see a camel any day of the week, but that’s just not the same. Riding a camel makes a 4th of July authentic.

When Tyrone Power Played Pedro de Vargas in Morelia

Sixty years ago American idol Tyrone Power came to Morelia to film the parts of “Captain from Castile” which were set in Spain of 1518. The film crew went on to Uruapan to shoot the backdrop of Mexico in those days of the Conquest, then to the smoldering Parícutin, which had erupted only four years before, which stood in for Popocatépetl, and finally to Acapulco to shoot Cortez’ landing. 

Spending a month in Morelia, which numbered less than 100,000 souls at the time, he took time out to see the city, went to a Lion’s Club luncheon, and even organized a baseball game with the gringos playing against a Mexican team. He would go on to invest in a small property on the south side of town, which later became known as the Hotel Villa Montaña, returning years later with Ava Gardener. But that’s a story for another day.

Let’s watch a scene from “Captain from Castille.”

The 2006 Election — One Year Later

One year ago, at the end of the day, I published these thoughts to a mailing list of some 2,500 mostly American lawyers.

The longer I live here, the more Mexico seems like the U.S. I’m not sure whether the country really has adopted more Estadounidense ways, or whether it’s just become more familiar to me. The boundaries and distinctions have blurred.

Today is Election Day in Mexico. Campaigning and surveys, by law, came to a halt days before the election, and even Fox News was blacked out. Alcohol sales have been banned for the entire weekend. After watching television coverage of President Fox and his family voting this morning, I headed out to the local Italian restaurant for breakfast over the Sunday paper. Plying me with extra espresso, the owner put me into service watching the place while he ran out for eggs, the help all out voting. One of the department stores announced a late opening time, so its employees could have time to vote. It’s unusually still for a Sunday in these parts, the same kind of Twilight Zone quietness that pervades the city when an important futbol game’s in progress. Or a religious holiday. No one talks much about the election or the candidates. Maybe they’re just being polite.

A thumb blackened by indelible ink identifies those who’ve voted. I have no idea how thumb-free voters are marked. In Morelia are international observers from Portugal and France. The most common name of a voter in the entire Republic is Juan Hernandez Hernandez; in Michoacán, he would be known as Jose Garcia Garcia. Or so says the newspaper.

In Mexican presidential elections past, you always just knew who would win. Even in 2000, the front-runner was ahead by a substantial margin. Everyone just knew that Vicente Fox would be president. We knew that by the dawn following just who would govern the country for the next six years. This time, it’s just not clear.

The afternoon is as still as Good Friday, not even the local dogs barking or cars revving up their engines. Even giant bamboo is still. It’s as if everything and everyone around here is just waiting for something, but we don’t know what it is.

The winner is anyone’s guess, but I know whose face I want to see gracing every public office for the next six years.

It’s 8 p.m., and I am online, nervously checking the election results and flipping channels on the television. This is far more nerve-racking than 2000, back during Bush v. Gore, when I sang and danced and whooped and hollered upon hearing the news, only to be shocked minutes later.

The early results show Felipe Calderon ahead, and, between exchanging e-mail with friends and excitedly comparing the results on the phone, I surprise myself by cheering “Go, Felipe. Come on, Felipe.” Calderon’s going to win. For moments, I’ve become the hairy-chested guy with a beer in his hand, goading on a futbol player in the final minutes. Never mind that the votes have already been cast.

But wait. AMLO announces that he won, and then Calderon announces he won.

Suddenly the lights go off. No television. No Internet. Everything goes dark. What is going on? And minutes later, a thunderstorm of biblical proportions comes out of nowhere. I race around unplugging everything, grab some candles and a flashlight and wait. Sometimes the power outages are over in fifteen minutes. The Nearly Perfect Doberman races outdoors, only long enough to grab something that resembles a dead animal and takes off flying upstairs to the bedroom. Chalking it all up to paranoia and thinking he probably only grabbed one of his stuffed animals, I go on up. And I see the glistening eyes of something on the floor. Having no idea whether it’s a rodent or a opossum, I grab a bath towel, cover it, and toss it out the balcony. (It revealed itself to be a dead bird the next morning.) Now, if I believed in conspiracies, and if I didn’t know that this was nothing more than a typical Michoacán summer storm, I would swear sinister forces were at work.

And like that November morning in 2000, I will awaken not knowing who has won. Nothing is official yet, and the Federal Elections Institute has declared that it’ll wait until Wednesday.

A year has now passed since the election.

That Sunday evening, one which I’ll remember for the rest of my life, suddenly Calderon’s shoes began to fit. And as the days of suspense wore on, he became more and more presidential, filling the part and wearing the clothes. He stood up just a little straighter, he became more dynamic, and he exuded the charisma that just hadn’t been there before. I could swear that he’s grown taller. Like a flower rising out of a desperate weed patch, he bloomed, toughened by the battle. During the Sunday evening and the two months that would follow before he would be definitively declared the winner, he did more to inspire leadership than all of the campaign promises of any candidate for any office. And he made a difference.