Monthly Archives: May 2013

This, Our Year of Renewal

Los funcionarios del Registro Civil no tendrían tantas carreras en una eventual segunda ronda pues no votarían quienes cumplan 18 años después del 3 de febrero.Allowing official documents to lapse in Costa Rica is a nightmare, which is why I keep close tabs on them. When I saw four items pop up on my computer’s calendar this past January, I groaned. My poor husband asked what was wrong. When I explained, he wasn’t very sympathetic but he never deals with this sort of stuff.

What sort of stuff, you ask. Well, our Costa Rican cedulas de residencia (national ID cards) must be renewed by July and our US passports updated by November. My Washington State and both our Costa Rican driver’s licenses were also due to expire in June… or so I thought.

I traveled to the states in April and renewed the Washington driver’s license. It took two trips to their DMV, because, silly me, I failed to notice on their website that driver’s licensing is closed on Mondays (all other licensing services remain open, however).

It seemed oddly familiar.

I’ve talked about it before, but I will repeat, Adam Gopnik got it straight when he compared French bureaucracies to weight lifting equipment. “Each Ministry is a bit like a Nautilus machine, designed to give maximum resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure.” His point being that the French rarely go to a gym to lift weights or run on StairMasters in fellowship with kindred spirits the way Americans do. Rather, they treat getting things done in any office of the government as an aerobic workout in itself. The same camaraderie Americans enjoy with fellow exercisers, the French get with fellow misérables in the queues. This applies to Costa Rican bureaucracies, as well, although friends who have lived in both places assure me that France takes the prize.

I approached the Costa Rican driver’s licence renewal with some trepidation. My concern: the cards had expired. This happened because of the due dates. I had tracked my US driver’s license, due 06-03-2012, and our Costa Rican licenses, due 06-02-2013, forgetting that the day and month are reversed in the two countries. So, when I set about renewing the Costa Rican license in late May (with plenty of time to spare) I suddenly had that panicky feeling you get when you realize your pocket’s been picked or you’ve misplaced your keys. It was not due in June but due last February!

I’d also read that MOPT/ COSEVI passed new rules for driver’s licenses last year. It used to be they would honor a current license from any other country. All you had to do was get a medical checkup, trot down to the San José office with some money (of course), and they’d issue a license. Not any more. Now you have to be a citizen or a resident with a current cedula (applicants need not apply). Our resident cedulas were up to date, but as I recalled our licenses were pinned to our US passports.

The first trip to COSEVI was strictly recon. I presented our licenses, passports, and cedulas. The portly guy behind the desk never batted an eye. He adjusted his belly, leaned forward, and flipped through our documents, then tossed them back on the counter in front of me. Bring your immigration paperwork showing you were issued cedulas, copies of your cedulas, the dictamen medico (medical checkup), and bank deposit slips for five thousand colones each. He never mentioned the expired license. Neither did I.

It took two weeks and two visits to the office in Limón. I was sure it would be three, the usual number of stabs it seems to take to kill any task here. The rest of that time we spent getting the medical paperwork and finding time when the bank wasn’t jammed with tourists.

The second trip to COSEVI was nip and tuck. We got through two sets of paper shufflers and were waiting in queue when the machine that prints out the plastic cards broke down. Employees bent over the device and probed its insides. Minutes ticked by. Other employees were summoned from paper shuffling to confer.The clock moved closer to noon. Finally, they called over the woman who’d processed our paperwork. She flipped up covers, un-battened hatches, and reached deep into the organs of the beast to retrieve a jammed card. More levers flipped, shutters clattered shut, and—bing!—it was online again.

We have an appointment in June to renew our residency cedulas, and then it’s on to the US Embassy.

Two down, two to go.

By November I’ll be buffed up like a veteran weight lifter.

[This essay originally appeared in The Costa Rican Times, May 29, 2013.]

Present Tense, Two Memoirs

Present_Tense_Card-m

Past exhibition-Spanierman Modern

I am a serial reader, so more often than not I have at least two books on my bedside table (or on my Kindle). This past week I finished reading two debut memoirs, Torre DeRoche‘s Love With A Chance of Drowning and Liz StephensThe Days Are Gods.

These are vastly different, these two memoirs, one is an adventure story, the other a literary tour de force, but both had one thing in common: both authors chose to write largely in present tense.

This is not an easy trick. To keep the book moving forward and reflect back while staying in present tense requires a skilled writer. When I’ve used it my sentences tend to be stilted. “I come into the room and discover my husband dissecting a frog.” (Just an example.) Now that sentence is fine and pulls the reader right into the scene. Holy smokes… he’s doing what?  I can do it for short spurts, but eventually I end up writing something like, “I come into the room and found my husband dissecting a frog.” In other words, I want to move back to past tense.

I think, or I thought until I read these two books, that  present tense is difficult in memoir. The memoirist tends to write looking back at past events; we see the person who experienced those events long ago and offer up reflections based on who we are now.

I suppose it depends on what sort of memoir it is, though, because these two authors manage it well.

DeRoche (Love With A Chance of Drowning), writes a story of action, of things happening in the here and now. She struggles with a new life aboard a boat and deals with her extreme fear of water,  gets to know her new lover, his family,  as well as all the adventures a sailing life offers. Present tense works wonderfully well here, pulling the reader along for the trans-Pacific voyage. The reader feels as though they are in the boat (without tangling up the lines or tripping over Torre and Ivan).

Believe me, you are right there in their little 32-foot sailboat, Amazing Grace, as DeRoche writes:

16242289 “There’s no doubt about it: we’re going to die. It’s night and the wind is vile. The waves are reaching as high as our radar antenna, which must be twenty feet from sea level. We’re staggering down each angry wave, and my stomach keeps bottoming out.

Amazing Grace isn’t so amazing right now, nor is she graceful. She’s tumbling like she’s hammered on salt water. Our life is in the hands of a drunken boat.

Boom! A wave collides with fiberglass. Who knew water could sound like a bomb explosion? These bombs are hitting every minute or two—a horrifying bang, followed by a sharp lurch sideways. My body rolls in my small bunk, and I’m thankful for the canvas lip that keeps me from flying sideways.

Boom! I wait, trembling, praying for her to come back upright. The angle seems too steep. What is our tipping point, anyway? How far can we keel over before we tumble and get swallowed by the jet- black ocean?

Boom! Another wave-bomb hits—a clean uppercut to a staggering drunk. We’re definitely going down. Somehow, she finds her way back upright but then overcompensates in the other direction.

Boom! A heavy crest comes down from above, washing the topsides with fire hose pressure.”

 

Stephens (The Days Are Gods), on the other hand, writes about a time when she and her actor-turned-welder husband move to Mormon country, Utah, where she completes her MFA but also searches for “home.” She creates a world where the reader resides inside the head of the writer. We know what she is feeling or thinking at any given moment as she feeds her goats, buries chickens killed by a neighbor’s dog, and tries to get to know her neighbors. But we are also experiencing her reflecting on those events from her current perspective as a writer. How Stephens does this is a real skill of construct and form.

 

Stephens-DaysAreGods.indd “Yes, I still feel the frisson of unexpectedness in moments, but it comes more and more slowly, less and less often-maybe when I’m standing in front of a morning class, realizing that I’ve already fed a dozen chickens in the dark of morning, when I’m just about still asleep, climbing two pipe fences at six months’ pregnant to dig layer feed out of the bag in the tack room, nudging aside my not-intelligent charges to set the metal feeder among them, weaving through drowsy horses to trudge back to the house. As much as I want to feel I belong, as I lose my sense of outsider resonance – shedding the irony I was after all trying to outrun – I feel sometimes as if my sounding is off, my bearings indistinct.”

 

As different as these two memoirs are, the immediacy and intimacy of present tense works so well in both cases. Both authors occasionally flip to past tense when writing back story and future or subjunctive when postulating, but the bulk of both works is present tense.

I feel lucky that I pickled them both up and read them at the same time.

Gilbert, McPhee, Lamott, and the Shitty First Draft

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.” ~ John McPhee

IMG_0996I’ve had a terrible time returning to my writing lately, pushing on through what is possibly the shittiest first draft of all time. The work came to a complete halt after a month of intensive writing last November in which I managed to write 30,000 words (the good part) but also discovered some pretty unsavory truths in the process. I realized that a lot of what I’d written would need to be deleted entirely or at least seriously rewritten, the arc of the story was no longer what I thought it should be, and a recurring theme kept insisting on being told.  I was not comfortable with any of it. The whole memoir imploded after that; it was all too much. Marge Piercy describes this aspect of the writing as “eating bricks for breakfast.”

Despite all of the whining, recently a couple of very interesting and encouraging things have happened to me.

I stumbled across a guest post by Richard Gilbert over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a writing blog I enjoy reading. Gilbert was blogging about his soon to be published memoir, Shepherd: A Memoir (due out in the spring, 2014). This led me to his blog and a piece he wrote about John McPhee and writer’s block. He started the post writing about the name of his blog, Narrative. It is now often confused with the lit magazine of the same name. He wanted to change it and thought 4th Draft would be a good title. When he googled it, he ran into John McPhee’s latest essay on writing in The New Yorker, Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes.

Gilbert went on to talk about things he learned along the way while writing what he thought would be a year-long writing project. Seven years, many revisions, and four drafts later,  he now has what he considers a worthwhile effort. He is remarkably humble about the process.

I found comfort hearing about a writer encountering the same issues I’ve had while writing my own work-in-progress. He, too, found his story was not about what he thought when he first started writing it but, instead, found far deeper and richer themes. It was not until the second draft that he began to be able to say, Yes, this is what it is about. I wrote to him and thanked him for the post, saying how much it had meant to me. He wrote back,  saying it pleased him that I found some of it helpful. He also said what my comments told him is that I am deeply immersed in my own work, and, like a magnet, attracted to what I need.

I got hold of a copy of the McPhee’s New Yorker essay and read it. I found such solace listening to a great writer talk about the agony of writing the first draft. He says he hates everything about it. The writing stinks, he feels worthless and wonders why he ever chose a writing profession, his ideas are stuck, and getting it onto the page is agony. In a letter to his daughter he describes the first draft,

 “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”

Dear God, do I ever know how that feels. He goes on to talk about the second, third, and fourth drafts, which sound much more encouraging. It even sounds like fun by the third draft.

But that shitty first draft is a must.

Coincidentally, I was in the states recently helping my 94-year-old mother move from her home of twenty plus years to a very nice assisted living facility. (So nice in fact I said to a friend, If this is what assisted living looks like, move me in!) During the sorting and packing process we came across many things: original newspapers announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, a family Bible, print date 1815, and other things not quite so interesting.

In the give-or-throw-away pile was a small leather case with a tiny tooled flower on the cover. I undid the miniature c-clasp, still intact, and opened the rectangular case, one side padded in claret red velvet and the other with a gold picture frame of something called a Daguerreotype, a vintage direct camera image on a silvered copper plate. The image is oxidized now, nothing remaining but a gold rim framing a blurred area. My mother did not want it, and, unsure why, I  put it in my luggage.

When I got home and found the little picture frame, I thought to myself, This is silly. Mum is right, I always save these sentimental things. It is of no use, or value, and more practically, what am I going to do with this thing anyway? But I put it on my writing desk next to a photograph I keep of my IMG_0993parents taken around their 70th wedding anniversary. A few days ago I looked at the little frame and it hit me, the hand-to-forehead jolt.

I remembered why I saved it or at least some part of me remembered.

Years ago, when I first thought seriously about writing, I read Anne Lamott’s now famous book, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994). In it she wrote about a one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk, because, she says,

 “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”

I wanted a one-inch picture frame of my own after I read that, and I looked and looked but never found one. How serendipitous that I should find one now, now when I finally understand what she was writing about, how getting that first draft onto the page takes focusing, not on the whole, but simply on an individual scene, one description, or one conversation, just fling it onto the page like mud against a wall, bird by bird, so I can see what I have for the next draft.

I like the little frame because it came from my father’s family, but, more than that, I love that it has a blurred image of possibilities… something like the first draft of a book.

Ants, and A Mild Case of Insanity

Ant

If I can get rid of ants, anyone can.

As those of you who read this blog know, we live in the jungle. I’ve often said our kitchen is one inch from nature; one inch is the thickness of our single-wall constructed house and our native hardwood flooring.

The One Inch precept has made me a fastidious housekeeper. Leave one blob of mayonnaise on the counter, and bugs will arrive to scarf it up. Leave the dishes unwashed overnight in the sink, in the morning they will be crawling with little crawly creepy things like cockroaches, or worse, ants.

I hate ants. I’ve examined my aversion to them, because I don’t hate nature in general; in fact, I am the one who will capture a bug in a glass jar and remove it to the out-of-doors rather than kill it. I have no animosity toward spiders, scorpions, or even wasps. But show me an ant, and I start obsessing about how to exterminate it. I think it is their unremitting self-determination I find so daunting. Frightening, really. That, and their violent relationship with other ants, which reminds me of us. Humans.

I recently heard about a scientist researching cancer, how he based his treatment to target it. Because cancer cells divide rapidly, and tend to hide within the normally dividing human cells, he focused on organisms that use swarm intelligence, and specifically  ones that never give up. Ant colonies. Place anything in their path and they will find an alternate route. They are the squirrels of the insect word.

Last year we had an ant outbreak that just about drove me insane. I scrubbed the counters within an inch of their lives, sprayed them with ammonia or Clean Green. All of which had the effectiveness of water. Ants scattered out over the my counter tops casually bumping noses and sending messages, no doubt about some delectable food find.  Every morning, when all I wanted was a peaceful cup of coffee, I did battle them for fifteen minutes or more. I eliminated bacon from our diet—not a bad thing, I suppose—because the grease attracted them in throngs. Bacon has also become outrageously expensive in Costa Rica, but that is for another post. Or, read my friend’s blog on the subject of increasing taxes on food and other items.

I moved the small compost container (with snap-on, air-tight lid) from the counter to the kitchen table. I quit using the countertop by the stove to prepare any food. And still ants ran roughshod over those work surfaces. I’d find them coming up the side of the counter. I sprayed. I applied poisons— I know, I know—between the counter and the wall. A few days would pass and there they were again like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I’m baaack! Heeeer’s Johnny! [Note: this has been edited due to mass cultural confusion, mixing up Poltergeist’s, They’re Baaack!–my original post– with Nicholson’s cry from The Shining. Just trying to be accurate here] Anyway…a thick stream of them coming up the side of the stove, panning out like river deltas, covering my counter. When I began thinking of things like flame throwers to kill them, I knew I needed a permanent fix.

I went to my trusty Macbook and googled ants + eradicate + traps. Countless sites (herehere, and if you prefer video, here) referred to a mixture of boric acid and sugar. It was purported to work, but I was despondent because I’d tried that a couple of years before and it didn’t work for me. However, I realized, I had made a liquid mixture, as recommended. Hmmmm, maybe if the mixture is dry the ants will track the boric acid to their nest and infect the whole mess of them.

What the hell, I thought, I’ll try it. So I mixed the boric acid and powdered sugar in a 50/50 dry mix and made cocaine-like lines along the back splash of my countertop. It took a day, but I noticed the ants began to focus on the bait. In fact, within two days they attacked it like addicts, snorting up my little lines of white powder. They ate so ravenously I had to replace the thin lines almost every day. I said to my husband, “Well, if this is a far as we get, I’m happy to have them away from my space.” I was able to prepare food on the same countertop; the ants stayed with the bait at the back of the counter, eating and tromping around in the mix. They trailed back up the back splash, through a crack, and disappeared behind the counter.

I left them alone.

The method is not fast, but it has been impressively effective. Within two months I had little to no ants. And because the mixture was up on the countertop, I did not have to worry about the dogs getting into it. This is something to remember: boric acid is poisonous to children and pets, so if you use it, keep it away from them. You can do that by putting the mix in a jar and punching holes in the lid, but my outbreak (and mental wellbeing) required the ants find the bait post-haste. It would have taken too long for them to find it inside a jar.

How does it work? According to Debbie Hadley in her About.com article, How to Make and Use Homemade Ant Baits,

 “Boric acid works primarily as a stomach toxin on ants. The worker ants will carry the bait food, loaded with boric acid, back to the nest. There, the ants in the colony will ingest it and die. The boric acid seems to interfere with their metabolism, although scientists aren’t exactly sure how it does so. Sodium borate salts affect an insect’s exoskeleton, causing the insect to desiccate.”

I don’t know about that, but I know it works. Hadley and others recommend the liquid mixture, but, as I said,  it did not work for me. The dry mix is easy to control, and, once the ants focused on it, I increased the amount of boric acid in the mix. Eventually it was a 3:1 mix, more or less (this is not rocket science), and the ants never stopped going for it. They loved it. I removed the bait when they appeared to be gone. When I saw another small outbreak–probably a new hatch– I replaced the bait. Four months later, none. Zero. Zip.

Hoo-ah!

We haven’t had an ant problem now for about a year, but I can never get lax in my housekeeping. The other day I left some chicken scraps on the counter after making a chicken sandwich with mayonnaise (always a magnet). When I came back after lunch there were about ten ants orbiting the countertop. I squished them with my thumb and then sprayed the counter and the back splash with vinegar, which also works; I’ve written about its excellent properties before.

No more ants…. for now. But I am always aware that they lurk a mere inch from my kitchen.

 

More resources:

13 natural remedies for the ant invasion  by Kimi Harris

How to Stop an Ant Invasion WikiHow

Getting Rid of Ants  The Frugal Life