Anthropology

After writing so much about wildlife, atmosphere, and fascinating experiences culinary, historic, and geological, perhaps it is time to write about just folks. Who lives on this chicken farm, and in this funky little town on the Caribbean coast?

Let’s start with the four guard dogs, as they have enough personality to qualify in my book: brave Lassie, overbearing Max, skinny White Dog, and the outcast, Osa, who in her loneliness plays with stones as if she is daft. They bark at us every morning, but know us and stop. They have their own soap opera of intercanine relations; currently Lassie is wearing a veterinary Elizabethan cone from her machete wound, and limping due to an attack from Osa, who saw her moment to be top dog for once.

As for the four human residents, one is a child. Some people like all children just because children are young. I don’t. But I like her. She sings a lot and likes dolphins and pipas. She is not spoiled. The other three are grownups: the couple who own the farm, and another volunteer. We enjoy the company and all that we learn from our hosts about sustainability and living in a foreign country. We also have weekly potlucks with Mike and Yvonne. Last time there was pejibaye hummus, roast chicken (of course), and butternut squash. We brought the (north) American classic, s’mores, and everyone toasted marshmallows over the fire. Their neighbor Cedric, from France, had never had this delicacy before. He thought the melty white puffs looked “like goat nuts,” and I don’t know whether he thought they tasted much better, but he tried it all in good humor.

But even with just five adults in residence, the question arises: is community living possible with a minimal amount of drama? Because I haven’t seen it yet, with the exception of certain tight, religious communities that are wonderful and peaceful but always have some unfortunate, face-palm dealbreaker, like women’s rights or gay rights. Or even just being Christian, which is great for them, but I’m not, so it would not work.

I mention this because drama is here too, not only among dogs. Two of the grownups have a mismatch in chemistry, and are badly at odds in every interaction. J and I are trying to stay a million miles away from it, despite living just ten feet from one party. We have lots more experience than we want in this sort of thing. But still we yearn for community. Is it possible?

All the folks on the farm speak primarily English, but I get Spanish practice when interacting with the two day employees. I talk with Gerbacio, a friendly teenager devoid of teen attitude, who weed-whacks the grounds with impressive speed. He’s hoping to get into la universidad in San José, despite having no money. And there’s Johnathan, a young farmer with mad skills in concrete, construction, chickens, just about anything, especially making repairs despite the frequent absence of supplies.

In town, we have been introduced to dozens of our host family’s friends and acquaintances, most of whom are fellow expats. We have met people from South Africa, Israel, France, Spain, the US, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Canada. It is a vibrant, affectionate group. Most are small business owners and either retirees or parents of a young child or two. (The ways to get residency here are as follows: put $100,000 in a Costa Rican bank; start a business; or give birth to a Costa Rican citizen. QED.) They congregate at the Caribeans coffee shop on Saturdays to socialize, pick up CSA shares and buy free range chickens.

Ex-pats are effusive about the tranquility and beauty of the tropics. And about the freedoms of their new country. The ones most spoken of are minor freedoms, however: being able to build a fire on the beach, or drink wine in a car. I can’t get too bent out of shape about restrictive beach regulations in the States… I save my ire for governments that refuse to prosecute rapists, for instance.

There is also some complaining about infrastructure from those who grew up in Europe or the States. Sometimes they critique Tico governance: corruption, inefficiency, and the difficulty of getting straight answers. (It is a culture where people so dislike disappointing others that they would rather make up an answer than admit to not having one, so I hear.) This is true, but again: the government isn’t invading or bombing anyone, and indeed, has no sabers to rattle. There has been no military here for sixty years. I think that’s worth a lot.

The town in general is lively and diverse. There are indigenous people, Afro-Caribbeans, Costa Ricans of Spanish descent, and most people fall into multiple categories. Plus many travelers; el turismo is the main industry. Our neighbor from Arizona says there’s no separation or prejudice among the people here. That has to be an exaggeration, but it seems much better than a lot of places. The African Americans were the first non-indigenous settlers to the Caribbean coast; they came as low-paid workers from Jamaica when the big fruit companies came, Dole and Chiquita. They have great pride, and must, because the citizens from the west have a history of legislating without their input.

Wages are very low by our standards, but still coveted enough that Nicaraguans cross illegally to work the fruit plantations. There is free education (including college) and public health care. The poorest Costa Ricans are not as poor as those in many other countries. I wonder about income inequality… it can’t possibly touch that of the USA, with its CEOs and bankers, can it?

Around town, people are friendly. There are many offers of taxis and weed and souvenirs. There are hippies, vagabonds, rastas, and just plain citizens. There are more restaurants and lodgings than anything else. There are more good restaurants than in all of Missoula. Tonight, we are spending the night here, as it is our “weekend.” We will walk along the beach, swim in the pool, and I will get a drink of Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana, which is extremely good and also sentimental for me. Maybe we will find some live calypso music. Tomorrow we will go snorkeling. It is like a vacation from our vacation. Then we will go back to the farm, our little community, and see what new wrinkle will have emerged.

Astronauts for Hire!

US FlagThe discontinuation of the NASA manned space shuttle program is the end of an era. But it’s the beginning of a new, brighter, shinier era:

Astronauts for Hire! …by NASA!©  (to the tune of “By Mennen”)

The tragic unemployment of a crew of elite globe-circlers trained in mechanics, astrophysics, engineering, and drinking bubbles of floating water means YOU now have the opportunity to hire a bona fide astronaut to do your chores, errands, child care, and other less than savory tasks. They’ll walk your dog, clean your house, keep your old folks company.

Astronaut for Hire: So, Gramps, you walked to school six miles each way uphill in the snow? I know how you feel! Have I ever told you about the time I ran out of oxygen 238,000 miles from home?

They’ll personally test the functionality of your tumble dryer. They’ll take your kids on the Gravitron operated by the drunk carnie at the sketchy county fair.

Astronaut for Hire: As a veteran of the Vomit Comet zero-gravity simulator, I’m uniquely prepared to deal with rickety and possibly prolonged rides on roller coasters that have been around longer than Space Shuttle Columbia.

Our Astronaut Escort Service will provide a dinner companion overflowing with witty comments for your next office party.

Astronaut for Hire: Newton’s gravitational law? That’s so twentieth century. How bout them Higgs Bosons?

Sexy Lady: (dreamily) What a space cadet!

Our astronauts even offer therapy.

Astronaut: Charlene, I hear you saying that you feel overeducated, overspecialized, underemployed, and possibly obsolete. I empathize with that. But Charlene: the world’s just a tiny, blue marble. So… what does that make us?

Astronauts for Hire!

Astronaut:
We’re out of this world! …Well, we were.

Go USA!

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50/50… but not for 50 million

Recently I saw the movie 50/50, the inspired-by-a-true story of a young man diagnosed with cancer, and of the ways he and his friends and family deal with it. It’s a comedy, though as one might expect, it’s not without drama.

The film was good. But one elephant-sized, real-life component of the ordeal was missing: the cost of it all. Of course a person’s time and emotional reservoir would be fully tapped simply dealing with chemotherapy, possible surgery, appointments, telling people, dealing with their reactions, not to mention dealing with one’s own. But what U.S. American faces an intense medical experience without some thought to paying for it?

The protagonist was employed at a public radio station, which presumably offers health insurance to its employees. Even so, insurance is hardly a guarantee of affordable treatment. And as we know, there are at least 50 million US Americans who don’t even have that.

This isn’t only about accuracy. It could be a side-splitter too. Wouldn’t the bureaucratic nightmare of US health care — HMOs, voicemail labyrinths, hieroglyphic invoices, encyclopedia-sized user’s manuals, government assistance and lack thereof, contradicting and often cruel decisions — be a gold mine for dark comedy?

I’m no more enlightened than anyone about how best to tweak, overhaul, or resurrect our health care system, though I have my opinions and theories. But I do know that most people really don’t want to hear any more about how much it sucks. Another documentary about how screwed we are is not going to spark much productive debate, I’ll wager. The only people who would eagerly watch it would be the people one seeks to avoid at parties, those who find diatribes and misery enjoyable. But a comedy could be just the sugar-coated pill the doctor ordered. To revitalize passion for change. To suggest creative and madcap ways to protest, upend, or even just pierce through the system until we find some beating hearts in there, open to releasing rules, cutting away the web, maybe even dropping a few pennies.

Yikes. This is already fomenting too much hope. I can just feel disappointment licking its chops, ready to rush in when nothing materializes out of this obscure blog post. But still I dream. And of course, someday, somewhere, something’s going to change.

Hey Joe and Nellie Kane

Went out last night just to make a little rout / Met Little Sadie and I shot her down…

Early one mornin while makin the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down

Hey Joe, where you goin with that gun in your hand? I’m goin down to shoot my old lady / I caught her messin round with another man…

There are endless variations on this song. Nobody’s quite sure who first wrote it. I’m told it’s about cocaine and what it does to a guy. Or the beautiful chord progressions, the beautiful melody. Or it’s just the blues. Whatever it’s about, the words are incidental.

So they say. But it doesn’t seem accidental, the overripe American (probably global) tradition of man-kills-woman murder ballads. The musical narration of meting out capital punishment to an unfaithful woman, or to a woman for no given reason at all– just happened, I s’pose, like rain, or a stubbed toe. It’s not that singing about death or even homicide bothers me per se. It’s the frequency of the scenario, and the one-sidedness. If I have to have a murder ballad, at least give me Gillian Welch’s Caleb Meyer, which concerns a woman slaying the man attempting to rape her:

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gon’ wear them rattling chains / But when I go to sleep at night, don’t you call my name...

Self-defense, as opposed to the man-kills-woman lyric… which seems to happen a lot more often when you sleep with that lovin .44 ‘neath your head.

People also stick up for the Hey Joe tradition by mentioning that the perp never walks free. The law invariably catches up with him:

I begin to think what a deed I’d done / I grabbed my hat and away I run / Made a good run but a little too slow / They overtook me in Jericho…

But a cry of remorse, a bit of sorry, maybe even some amends? No, not so much as a politician’s apology (“I regret that some have felt offended by my actions”). We hear I shouted Lordy Lordy have mercy on me only when the judge declares that heavy prison sentence.

There are lots of songs about killed love, lost love, spurned love, ruined love, unrequited love, idealized love. Pain waters music, and music eases pain. But every so often there’s a song born of joy. Simple mutual respect as an antidote to the endless songs of power and revenge. A couple weeks ago my sweetheart brought home an old melody about, of all things, a blended family. It’s another one where nobody’s sure of the author–some say Tim O’Brien, others attribute it farther back.

As a young man I went riding out on the western plain / In the state of North Dakota I met my Nellie Kane, I met my Nellie Kane.

She was living in a lonely cabin with a son by another man / Five years she had waited for him, as long as a woman can, long as a woman can.

I don’t know what changed my mind / Until then, I was the ramblin kind / The kind of love I can’t explain / That I have for Nellie Kane.

Well she took me on to work that day, to help her till the land / In the afternoon we planted seeds, in the evening we held hands, in the evening we held hands.

Her blue eyes told me everything a man could want to know / And it was then I realized that I would never go, I would never go.

I don’t know what changed my mind / Until then, I was the ramblin kind / The kind of love I can’t explain / That I have for Nellie Kane.

Now many years have gone by, her son has grown up tall / I became a father to him and she became my all, she became my all…

I love it so.

P.S. This lyric also must have touched Gillian Welch. The name of the woman in her song Caleb Meyer? Nellie Kane.

Occupied

Been thinking about this a while. Also, ignoring it. It’s been two months, winter is coming on, and the tent cities are scattering. Where will the energy go?

I have not been a part of it. I can’t get excited any more, or think it will do any good. Of the dozens of protests I attended years ago, almost all left me feeling useless, one-sided, low. Shouting simplistic slogans at nobody. Stale songs from the sixties on repeat. The choreographed dance of marchers and riot police, a marionette show of discontent.

The School of the Americas civil disobedience touched me, when I was arrested along with several thousand others, banned and barred from the property, singing songs in memory of the disappeared. But it happens every year, and the durn place is still training military terrorists, with a sugar-coating of human rights. We marched in view of nobody to the immigrant detention center in Georgia, witnessing to an impoverished town of mostly African-Americans whose only industry was low-paying jobs at the private prison. Against war in DC. Against the PATRIOT Act. Mourning the death of Paul Wellstone in Minnesota. The sole lasting point of light was the march for affirmative action in Cincinnati. The only truly diverse protest I’d belonged to, we walked through the neighborhoods to the courthouse together, people joining along the way. Years later, waiting for a bus in Minneapolis, the headline on a newspaper vending machine caught my eye: affirmative action had been upheld in the five states that the legal challenge had affected. Victory. I actually jumped for joy. But what a rarity.

So my experience inclines me to skepticism about outcomes. Who are these people? To get all corporate, what’s the mission statement? To get all English teacher, what’s the thesis? What’s the solution? Do they know that while maybe we’re the 99% in the USA, globally we’re still the 1%? Do they remember that this didn’t start with Lehman Brothers, that lots of people have been living in a recession their entire lives due to intersections of gender, class, ability, and/or plain old bad luck? Moreover, I’ve heard it suggested that the mainstream publicity paid to these protests is part of a deliberately planned timeline that will see most Americans coming to resent these people just as elections arrive, ensuring that even worse governance will ensue.

But one day I saw that Angela Davis was there. She’s righteous. She says that it’s learning how to unite and communicate and respect each other first, then the action will come. I get pissed at the shiny, plastic anchor who keeps pressing her for “talking points” and a cohesive message. Which is pretty much getting pissed at myself, so I back off that angle.

I’ve already put in my lifetime share of participation – and facilitation, god help me – in consensus discussions. And faux consensus discussions. Already been to as many meetings of any kind as I need for the rest of my life, actually. Guess I must be getting old.

We are poised at the end of this empire. Any victory possible will be a ceding, an integration, taking our proper place in the global order. Usually the end of empire is ugly and ungracious. Invariably another rises, just as avaricious, just as hungry. A delicious sliver of me looks forward to watching the fall, is fascinated by living at the edge of the cliff, in a beautiful wilderness, corrupted, privileged, and precious all the same.

So folks, go for it. You’re obviously not perfect. There are isms floating about those camps, as they float around the whole country, polluting the air. But any fledgling democratic movement has my thumbs-up. May your star rise. May this… may anything… work.

The oil jar

The terrorists shot a hole in our oil pipe. They killed eleven people and they made our oil go spurting into the ocean. Hey, that was our special oil! It’s not our fault for wanting it, we have to get to the pharmacy and swim meet and visit Grampa Gary. But it’s their fault that it’s broken now, like black food coloring in the water, getting way too much product in the hairdos of the aquatic life. America threat freedom security attack avenge, says the news. Mandy, I ask, do they hate us?

The terrorists won’t get away with this. So now we’re occupying London and showing the UK a thing or two. Now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Also, the army is trying to understand the culture there, win hearts and minds. They choke down clotted cream and talk with civilians, spraying them with dry scone crumbs, pretending their guns are walking sticks. But they don’t get the comedy, no matter how hard they try.

Dad says not to tell anyone that we used to be British, before our relatives came over on a boat. The police keep stopping him because of his teeth, and he pretends he’s German-American instead. It makes him late for work and the boss is making little tally marks in Dad’s folder and that’s not good.

Mandy is acting really strange. She’s using candles instead of lights at night, because she says electricity comes from oil. She thinks we’re punishing the wrong people, that we shouldn’t be punishing people at all, even though they spawn terrorists over there. She won’t go to the Zip Trip to bring me red vines anymore. She won’t go there at all. She says she never wants to get on a plane again, or even in a car. So she has to go grocery shopping three times a week, she takes the old bicycle and a big backpack, and comes home with wet spots on her back where the milk carton leaves condensation stains, like it’s crying. I try to help her unpack but I drop a jar of oil and it smashes on the floor and leaks, not black but yellow, into all the corners of all the tiles, and I get to crying too. Mandy knows what I am thinking. You’re not a terrorist, she says. Nobody’s a terrorist. We’re all terrorists. Now help me mop this up.

Frank Little’s flowers

Mountain View Cemetery, Butte, Montana. Bordered by a highway, a Super WalMart and the Bert Mooney International Airport. The front acres are groomed, discrete and squared, but the back field sighs on and on, dry and thatchy, to the barb-wire fence at the rear edge. Wild grasses stretch tall and thick there; in the hot wind they are a blowing curtain, veiling and blurring in the shadows of the hazy mountains. Families clump near the entrance, shapes on a silky lawn watered a comforting green. But in the back, an animal slinks across the path, then another: small and red, untame. Two fox pass through their hole beneath the fence, from one secret place to another.

There are graves among the tall grasses, unkempt and abandoned. The graves of a generation who no longer have families to fret over their final property. These acres are for meandering, not paying attention, for considering death on a distant, impersonal level. But stop. Amid the anonymous drought, one completely trimmed, decorated, beloved grave. It rises like a parade float from the earth, hung with red, pink, blue, and yellow silk flowers, a candle with much wax left to burn, a little flag or two.

FRANK LITTLE
1879 – 1917
SLAIN BY CAPITALIST INTERESTS
FOR ORGANIZING AND INSPIRING HIS FELLOW MEN

The only long-gone to be remembered, ninety-three years after death by abduction and hanging, on the edge of town, over a railroad trestle, his murderers never pursued. Among the eclipsing grasses and the foxes stealing memory, this man is still pushing rebel daisies.

Hygiene

In any Walgreens or supermarket, there are aisles and aisles of products labeled for personal hygiene. What is that, exactly? Hygiene: such a sanitary, boring word. Its roots, though, are not at all fussy. It’s from an ancient Greek phrase, hygieine techne, “the healthful art,” which grows from hygies, “healthy,” which meant simply living well, having a vigorous life. This was personified as the goddess Hygieia. Traditionally, she is pictured offering a drink of water to a snake, the symbol of healing. But here and now, Hygieia would be selling antiperspirant/deodorant and breath pills and would certainly keep a few paces between herself and any germ-ridden zoo animal. Hygiene has become a euphemism for don’t be stinky, a guilt trip used by the cleansing product industries.

But if we must have hygiene, even in its current incarnation, aren’t there more important kinds than personal? Raise the bar at least to public hygiene. Handwashing, for starters, but also courtesy, the awareness of each one’s status as not quite the center of the universe. And how about global hygiene, Hygieia’s holy strike against unbecoming mountaintop removal, smog, and oil puddles in the oceans? This would, of course, necessitate institutional, corporate, and governmental hygiene… those messy wars, those untidy balance sheets, those, shall we say, negatively aromatic correctional facilities. So someone bring some Mountain Rain Scented Wipes and let the healing begin.

Kunal’s island

Kunal had forgotten his past. He had forgotten building an airplane of balsa and dropping it into the air. He had forgotten running through a tunnel made of the bent arms of flowering trees, running until he tripped and cut open his chin and cried like the boy he was then. He had forgotten his mother and father, his grandmother and his two sisters. And God; of course, he had forgotten God. But above all he had forgotten the concept of dry. He was dunked and salted like a bean in brine, and if it were possible, even more insensate.

For twenty hours Kunal had been floating in the ocean, fingers frozen around the metal body of a defunct communications satellite which had fallen back to earth, he supposed, after becoming obsolete. He should be grateful that the H.M.S. Verizon had found him at all. If rarities constitute miracles, he had experienced two: his plane falling into the sea, and an hour later, the satellite knocking him in the hips as what he had expected would be his last pint of salt water forced its way into his lungs. He could expect no more luck, of any kind.

But at hour twenty-nine, one more miracle appeared. The satellite struck land. Or was it land? Kunal opened his chapped and sunburned eyes and squinted in the pre-dawn glow at a giant reef. The satellite had snagged in its borders and now bobbed slowly within it, a foreign object being absorbed. Kunal laughed, a sound like sandpaper rubbing metal, and rolled from the satellite onto land. He laughed because it was a land he had read about in the newspaper the week before. It was an island of trash: plastic shopping bags, bottles, and toy packaging, gathered from thousands of miles of littered shorelines by sea currents. And now Kunal and the Verizon were two more pieces of refuse cobbled into its mass.

In a little over a day, Kunal had tired of miracles. His old life was gone: one. Yet he did not die: two. And three: it was the laziest element of human nature that had saved him. He yearned for nothing more than to evade further adventure, to just live, to go on through time and perhaps one day remember trees and balsa wood and grandmothers, when it would be safe to do so. He opened a plastic bottle marked with some kind of writing–maybe Chinese?–and a logo of a blue wave. He drank its leftover half cup of sweet, unsalted, though hot and stale, water. And then he fell asleep, smiling. He dreamed, and dreaming, he began his second life.