Archive for September, 2011

At home

Had a dream last night.

I was traveling somewhere with a large group of people.   I’m not sure, but I think we were an orchestra on tour.   Not important.   We were getting on or off whatever it was we were traveling in:  a plane or a boat.   There was a long flight of stairs, I had a rather heavy bag.  It was packed with all my clothes, plus there were bottles of stuff in it:  perfume, olive oil, honey.

I sat it down at the top of the stairs, and somehow it fell.   I watched it cartwheel down the stairs, tumbling and bouncing, until it finally landed with a crash on the pavement at the bottom of the stairs.   I watched it fall helplessly, hoping that the bottles of liquid wouldn’t break when it landed.   Finally, I went down to investigate, only to discover that everything had broken and my clothes were covered in perfume and honey and olive oil.   I knew I needed to do something right away, so I took the luggage into the building and there was a laundromat there with two machines.

I sorted my stuff into light and dark, and stuffed the two machines with the reeking garments.   Even my shoes went in.   I had no change for the machines, so I went out and asked the people around if they had money.   They all willingly showered me with quarters, and I went back in the laundry and started the machines.   Shortly, the machines began to overflow with soapy water and clothes flowing out the top.  The floor was knee deep in water, reeking of perfume.

I realized I needed more space for the task, so I took an armful of the wet clothes that were overflowing out of the machine and went in search of another washing machine.   Sure enough, across the hall there was another machine and I put the wet things into it.   Then I realized I needed more quarters, so I went out to try to find some more.   As the person I was talking to was looking for change in her purse for me, the alarm clock went off and I woke up.


I walked Ruby early this morning.   We left shortly after 5 a.m., while the world was still illuminated by stars and streetlights.

When I got to the Conservation area, it was very dark in the areas under the trees.   It is the dark of the moon, and a clear night, so the city lights had no clouds to reflect off of and illuminate my way.  I found that the starlight was enough to make the pale chat of the pathway glow dimly, I could find my way.   When I got to where the field was, all along the sides of the path in the grassy mown area there were the fall fireflies, to cold and tired to fly but glowing dimly.   Like always, I reflected on how much it seemed like the grass was reflecting the stars in the sky the way the river does.

I walked the dog, sadly, reflectively.   So much has happened, so much sadness.   I felt like this episode of walking the dog was so similar to my life right now, the dark times and experiences of the last few weeks make it almost impossible to find my way.   And yet, I have walked the path so often, I can find my way even in the darkest times:  my feet follow the way habitually.

Slowly, the sun began to make its presence known in the east.   I looked for the waxing crescent, but never found the young moon.   As the sun brightened, the stars dimmed, until finally I could only see the brightest ones and Jupiter shining high above.   Finally they dimmed too, but the path was ever more visible in the full light of day.

Now if only my heart would brighten too.

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A poem


Lives flow down the slick rock channel of polished dreams

Slide over an edge splitting into drops and rivulets.  Some cohere, some cleave into diamond drops:  sparkling individuals in the crystalline air

All follow the Laws of Gravity and Time to shatter splinter foam into rainbow making mists on the chaotic chasm’s rocks below

The roil collects in the deep calm pool below the cataract–coalescing cohering in ionic ironic love patterns, rippling waves collect errant drops, all rest in the eddy

Only to feel the tug of time’s slope:  to move once more and flow together towards the next precipice.


Ellie Smith

Costa Rica,  9/24/2011

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Yesterday was a wonderful day.   Jeri, her very good friend Monica and I were allowed to use Jeri’s friend Douglas’ car and we drove to the Pacific Coast and spent the day on a very beautiful beach, Playa Herradura, which is near Jaco.

Of course, in the tropical way, things did not occur according to the plan, which was to hit the road at 10.   No one woke up when they expected to.   No matter, the beach was not going anywhere.  We got a call near the time we were thinking to leave to let us know our driver was coming soon.   We waited, reading some good books.   Another call.   The car would not start, they needed a jump start.   A taxi was called from town to provide the necessary juice, which took some time.

That accomplished, she drove to the gasolinera where the lack of water in the battery explained the dearth of power available for ignition.   That remedied, she realized she had forgotten her phone and had to go back home to retrieve it.

Finally she arrived here, full of apologies, and we went off down the mountain to the beach.   The drive was great!   We made a wrong turn at Orotina, and had a little scenic side trip, but eventually we found the right way and arrived at the beach, which was still there, just as we suspected!

We found ourselves hungry, and found a lovely little beach-side soda where we consumed a delicious lunch of steamed vegetables, rice and slightly grilled fresh tuna, accompanied by the ubiquitous Imperial cerveza.  Our driver, very responsibly, drank only ginger ale.  Satisfied, we walked across the little street and found a place to spread our towels and enjoy the ocean.

Once again I was reminded of how important it is to not look too closely at the great beauty that surrounds me, for the close up view of the very wonderful coastline was marred by much trash scattered hither and yon.  I just don’t understand why humans everywhere feel it is just fine and dandy to throw their litter all over the landscape.   I never will.

After enjoying a swim with my two companions, I left them to sun themselves and walked about a mile down the beach to a spot where a lava reef broke the sandy expanse.   Since I was barefoot, I did not want to clamber over the wave polished rocks to the next small expanse of sand.   Instead, I beach combed my way back to my two companions, slowly.

When I arrived back at the towels, my two friends dutifully admired my handful of colored rocks and broken shells.   I could tell they were humoring my childish enthusiasm for the lovely things the ocean had given me that day, but not laughing at me.  It was fine.

It was such a satisfying day, plenty of sun for a while until the afternoon’s rainy season clouds mitigated the heat somewhat.   We lay on the beach, drinking water and talking.   I don’t know when I have laughed so much:   Monica has led a very full life during her 40 or so years, and the stories she shared were told with wry wisdom and satirical humor.

Her experience driving her BMW in Holland and Germany and over the Alps was quite evident as she expertly drove us back over the mountain to Atenas on the old road, past fincas and barrios and little towns, over streams full of rain, through rain forest decorated with bromeliads and ferns, the roadside ditches full of cosmos and impatiens.  Back at Calle Mimi, Douglas made us wonderful hamburgers for dinner and then gave us a ride home before he went off to his job managing a local bar/restaurant.

An altogether satisfying and wonderful day.

Today, I clean the bamboo shades and wash windows here in preparation for our departure, while Jeri goes to town to have lunch with a friend.   She really can’t be here while I do this, her respiratory system would NOT tolerate the huge dust that will rise during this chore.   I only hope that the dust has settled before she gets home.

There are some things we obsessive/compulsives are good for!

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This visit to Costa Rica has a level of surreality that no other one has had.

I have written page after page in my journal as I move through each day with the goal of arriving back in the States with my sanity intact and my friend in alive and in tow.

Yesterday we drove over the mountain range in between Atenas, where Jeri and Jay live, to Palmares, a little town where Jeri had a friend she wanted to visit.  The road was extremely steep and narrow.   As we traveled my friends recalled how it was before it was paved a few years previously, when they made the same journey on the bus.  All I could think was I was terribly grateful we never met that bus on any of the hairpin turns we traversed on our journey!

Our transport was a small car, a Precia with two doors and ticking valves that heroically carried us up the steep twisting road that wound like the garter snake in my garden through coffee plantations, barrios filled with little houses with sad people sitting in the yard, their eyes as empty as the windows of their broken down homes.

Turn a corner, ascend a bit more and the poor barrios would be replaced by the home of someone prosperous, with beautiful gardens that you could glimpse through the barred gaps in the thick, beautifully painted concrete walls that surrounded them.

The contrasts were extreme.

What I find interesting is that the sense of realism is also extreme.  Despite the contrasts, the people who are poor are still cared for by the health care system.   And while they wish they also had money and prosperity, you don’t get a sense of resentment or hate from them.   No, the roads are not taken care of well, but as Douglas said to me last night “If you only pay $25 in taxes every year, you don’t complain about the lack of road maintenance.”

This very realistic statement illustrates the attitude of pretty much every one around.   And while everyone knows that you had better keep your hand on your cell phone, if you don’t and it is stolen at the bar when you turn your head to talk and joke with your other inebriated friend, you just laugh resignedly and get another one and wish you had all your numbers written down somewhere….

Heard a story on that subject from a person whom I shall call Diego for no other reason than that I like that name.   He was lamenting the loss of his cell phone, which disappeared exactly that way when the young lady he was having a drink with appropriated his phone and then gently evaporated into the night.

“Oh,” he said laughing at himself and the situation.  “That phone was old, you know.   It didn’t take pictures or anything, but it worked.   I had it with me when I fell  in the pool a few months ago.   I dried it out but I never could get it to charge up the battery any more because the place where you plug in the charger was all filled up with dirt and rust and stuff.   So I bought another battery, and whenever I was around someone that had a phone like mine, I’d say “Hey, can I use your phone for a while to charge my battery?”   And they’d let me put it in their phone and plug it in and so I kept that phone going that way.”  He smiled sardonically.  ” So, whoever stole my phone isn’t going to have a lot of luck with it, they’re going to find out it doesn’t work!”   He laughed merrily, took another drink of his Imperial lager, and added,  “But it had all my numbers in it!   Now I have to start collecting them all again.”   Then he went off into the back room where we were visiting to have another line of coke.

Somehow, I feel like that story sort of encapsulates the whole atmosphere and attitude of the ex-patriate community in the tropics.  Rueful realism, joie de vivir, substance abuse; deep friendships and ties forged in moments as kindred spirits meet and recognize each other.

There is amazing kindness and camaraderie.  People help  each other get through stuff.   One day person A is in the money while person B has lost his job, his cell phone and is broke.  So person A has person B over to dinner, makes sure he has food and a little something to drink, starts asking around and helping B make connections so he can get his feet back under him.   Person A does this because last year Person C did the same for him and next week when person B has got it back together, he will bring some meat over and they will barbecue and have a nice time.   And they both know that if Person A ever needs help, Person B will be there for him in the same way.

If someone has had an epic party the night before and is wandering around in the early hours of the morning still drunk, no one expects them to feel bad about it.  They have no shame and they laugh at their own condition along with their companions.   Then they may do one of two things: go off to their room to sleep it off, or have a little glass of wine along with their coffee to start the day off right.   Whichever they choose, everyone around applauds the choice and congratulates them for having had such a good time the night before.

To quote Kurt Vonnegut:   “So it goes.”

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I have gotten out of the habit of writing book reviews, so bear with me in my rustiness.

I just read Scott Turow’s book “Ordinary Heroes.”   This book was written in 2005, loosely based on the events of World War II.  In Turow’s own words,  “This book is a work of imagination, inspired by the historical record, but seldom fully faithful to it.”

I found it, among other things, to be a gripping account of a man’s struggle to understand his father.   In this book, the events, battles, exploits set in the closing months of World War II in Europe  merely serve to illuminate the father’s character.   The way the son goes about his search illuminates his own.

The trite cliche “War is hell” could be used to sum up the book, but it is far too simplistic a method of describing this story.   It is more than just a war story, it is a heroic romance; detailing the love of comrades in arms for each other, the love of the ordinary man for the larger than life hero, the love of men for women (and women for men) in all their complexities.  The book is worth reading for this if for nothing else.

The language and descriptions are beautiful.   You feel yourself waiting for the sniper’s bullet, hear the shells tearing through the forests where you hide, experience the exhiliration and joy of surviving, of victory; and the numbness and despair of survivor guilt.

The problems that all the characters face are complex.   One man is a Sergeant fighting at the front.  His story seems plain:  a slightly racist Southern boy learning to respect people for who they are rather than judging them on their appearance.   Later it is revealed that the man is a light skinned black man passing for white:  the only way he would be allowed to serve in combat against what he saw as a great evil.

There are many other similarly deep characters.   In this book, as in war, not all the people we wish to live make it through the horrors of battle.

Turow also manages to tuck some political commentary on the present state of the world into the book, using a main character’s philosophical musings to lay it out for us.   It was this passage (p. 177-178) that made me wish to do more than just the little capsule reviews that you find in my “what I have read” pages.

“I asked what he would do then.

“Wait for the next war, I suppose,” he answered.  I don’t think I’m good for much else, that’s what I’m saying, unless I spare the world the trouble and put an end to myself.   I really can’t envision life in peacetime anymore.   I talk about a good hotel room and a good woman, but what is this?  And I am not so different, Dubin.  Soon everyone will be driven into this lockstep.   War and making more war.”

“So you think we will fight the Russians, Major?”

“I think we will fight.   Don’t you see what’s happening, Dubin? No one has choices any longer.   Not here and not at home.   I always thought that the march of history was forward, less suffering and greater freedom for mankind, the chains of need and tyranny breaking apart.   But it’s not what meets my eye when I look to the future.  It’s just one group of the damned making war on the other.  And liberty suffering.”

“You’re in the Army, Major.   This has never been freedom’s Valhalla.”

“Yes, that’s the argument.  But look at what’s happened on the home front.  I get letters.  I read the papers.  War has consumed every liberty.   There’s propaganda in the magazines and on the movie screens.  Ration books and save your tin cans.   Sing the songs and spout the line.   There’s no freedom left anywhere.   With one more war, Dubin, civil society will never recover.   The war profiteers, the militarists, the fearmongers — they’ll be running things permanently.  Mark my words.   Mankind is falling into a long dark tunnel.  It’s the new Middle Ages, Dubin.  That’s the bit that breaks my heart.   I thought fascism was the plague.  But war is.   War is.”

The final pages of this book make clear why this book is entitled as it is.  This statement, made my Dubin’s mother, is a powerful argument as to what a heroic life consists of.

“We all have much more courage than is commonly imagined.  Every day, Stewart, as I get older, I marvel at how much bravery it takes to go on, to bear the blows existence so often delivers.  I bore mine and was lucky enough to survive to have the ordinary life I desired with your father and Sarah and you, a life that means far more to me than anything that went before.   Does that,” she asked, in a way that made me think she actually expected an answer, “does that make me a hero?”  (emphasis added by reviewer)

A good book.

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