“Franklin”

courtesy Flickr

Courtesy- Flickr

We have known him since he was small, maybe six or seven, I’d guess. If my husband and I were passing through Puerto Viejo, often as not we would find him on the side of the road with his oversized pants bunched up with a cord, his flip-flops coming apart, his thumb out.

The first time we met him, I rolled down the window of our Jeep pickup and asked his name. Let’s say he said it was Franklin (not his real name).

“Well, Franklin, don’t you think your mother would be worried about you getting a ride from strangers?” I asked.

“Uno no stranger, Uno live in Punta Uva, right?” he asked right back. Hard to argue with that.

“What do you want to go to Punta Uva for, anyway?”

“Not Punta Uva, Lady. I’s want to go to Cocles, see my cousins.”

I opened the door and pointed to the two bucket seats. “There’s no room in the cab, Franklin.”

“I jus’ ride out here on the back,” he says, jumping on the bumper, and hanging onto the truck topper for support.

This might sound dangerous, and I suppose it was in a way, but I grew up with parents who allowed their kids to ride on the fender of our old Reo truck. From the time I was five or six—Franklin’s age— I straddled an old headlight with one leg clamped tight by the motor bonnet as we rattled down the last few miles of gravel road to our Willamette Valley farm in Oregon.

I didn’t figure Franklin was going to get hurt; the roads on this Caribbean coast were so bad back then it was hard to go more than five miles an hour.

And so it was that we stopped for Franklin when we saw him, gave him a ride, and watched him grow. He was a smart kid, curious, and outgoing.

But as Franklin grew so did the area where we live. The roads got better, tourists came, and with them came all the things tourism brings: music, parties, and drugs. First it was ganja. Now it’s crack.

A couple of years ago we ran into Franklin again. Instead of the ragamuffin clothes of his youth, he was wearing a Tuanis- Pura Vida t-shirt, silky purple gym shorts, and name brand leather sandals. He was in his early 20’s, I imagine. He and his brother had started a band and were playing the bars.

My husband said, “You be careful, Franklin. That’s a rough life with lots of drugs.”

“Yah, yah. I knows it,” he said. “Uno come hear me play sometime.”

We never did because we are not night owls, but we saw the posters and figured he was doing okay.

He wasn’t.

Now he seems to be— how do they say it in the addiction business?— searching for his personal bottom. I see him on the outskirts of Puerto with the rest of the Usual Suspects, bumming tourists as they come out of the bank, offering to carry groceries, begging. Sometimes he has no shirt or shoes, sometimes he is so dirty you can tell he hasn’t bathed in a week or more.

One day he hit me up for money and I told him I wasn’t going to give him anything.

“You know me, though,” he says.

“I know you, Franklin, but what I’m looking at is the drugs, not you.”

“Come on, I jus’ want a little somethin’ to eat.”

“If you weren’t into drugs, you’d have enough money to eat. All I”d be doing is giving it to your dealer.”

“My daughter, she need to go to the doctor.”

“I’ll tell you something. I had a kid that was an addict, and I finally said No to him. You are not even in my family, so imagine how easy it is for me to say No to you. I am not giving you anything as long as you are out here on the street using. Go home to your family. Get clean.”

I haven’t spoken to him since. Sometimes he sings to me as I pass by. “I love you, Lady, yes I do….”

It hurts to write off a kid I’ve known since he was little, but as long as he’s working the long con there is no way I’m going to rise for the bait. Little good it will do, I suppose; the tourists come and go every week and there will always be someone who takes pity, thinking the kid is destitute, a mendigo. He’s not. He is an addict.

My family’s story ended well, everyone healthy and clean. I only hope Franklin survives long enough to get straight.

Cédula Renewal Wars

Do-not-get-frustrated-in-direct-sales

Last week my husband and I endeavored to renew our Costa Rican cédulas de residencia, the national ID card.

I called the Banco BCR hotline, BCRCITA (900-003-4639), for an appointment. Aside from the call costing 300 colones a minute, and being immediately put on hold because, “dear customer, all available operators are busy, please be waiting on the line,” the appointment maker was friendly and efficient.

Two years ago, we were in and out in fifteen minutes. This year, the appointment has been the only easy part.

We arrived in Limón 20 minutes early, a good thing because I did not know the Limón Banco BCR had moved. We found the new location, took a seat among the hordes, and listened to the overhead mechanical voice announce ficha numbers and to which booth the holder should report: Ah, setenta tres, posición cinco…. We did not need a ficha, and after about ten minutes a clerk called our name. She asked for our documents.

I have a rule of thumb in this country, known for its obscurantism. When dealing with bureaucrats, I never pull out all my documents at once. If I do, I find they will ask for the one I do not have. Best to present them one at a time hoping my papers exhaust their time, interest, or (insert your own word here).

I gave the clerk our old cédulas and our passports. She asked for proof of payment to CCSS (the Caja), the mandatory government health insurance company. I gave her a payment stub from June. She asked for the actual CCSS carnet, or voucher, which I handed over. I thought I saw her trying to peer over my file folder to see what cards I still held in this poker game, but it might have been my imagination. Then she asked for a letter from the bank ensuring we spend the requisite amount of money each month to qualify us as residents in good standing. I handed over the letter. She read thoughtfully. Then she looked up.

“Entonces, Señora, this letter shows your bank account is linked to your passport number and not your cédula.” There it was, the stickler. I argued my point. The account belongs to my husband and me. Anyone can clearly see that, passport or cédula, we are the same people. I was sent to another booth for consultation. It was there I was informed that a cédula is now required by the good people at immigration.

Our new clerk said we had to return to our bank in Puerto Viejo and a) have the account changed from our passport numbers to our cédulas and b) have our account verified as to our correct information. “The last time you did this was in 2008,” he said. I was aware of that regulation. Back in 2008 the Costa Rican Financial Regulatory Agency – SUGEF – demanded all banks under its supervision update their client account information to bring the accounts into compliance with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism acts. We had complied, but I was unaware that it had to be updated every two years. I asked if he could do this while we waited.

This is when I discovered that Banco BCR branches have information only about their particular branch on their computers; the Limón branch cannot access accounts from Puerto Viejo, ni vice versa.

So it was back to Puerto Viejo for a chat with the clerk there. Indeed, she said I needed to verify our account and she could do that when we brought a receipt for the electricity, or the phone, with our physical address. Catch-22. In my quest for efficiency, I pay all our bills online and the receipts go to our apartado, post office box. “Well,” she said, “you can use the receipt for the property taxes from the municipality.” Later, at home, I checked. The address the municipality used is referenced by Hotel Suerre, which was torn down by the government several years ago.
I took the receipt into the bank the next day and waited for the same teller to be freed up (another rule of mine: always get the same clerk, otherwise who knows what other requirements may pop up). Our clerk was unfazed by the non-reference point in our address. “But your house is close by this, yes?” Yes. “Okay, then we will just use this and make a note of your actual address.” We could have done this any number of other ways, like me just stating our address, but, hey, she took it.

Then it was on to changing our account from the passport to the cédula number. Do not even ask, because there is no option for simply adding another piece of ID; it’s all or nothing. It would have been faster to close out the account and open a new one and it certainly would have saved trees. After a ream of paperwork and fourteen signatures, we were set. Only problem, they had to annul our credit card and close my online banking account (with saved information on at least ten accounts I regularly pay into). Just a month ago I laboriously matriculated to all those accounts, complete with special codes emailed to me by the bank (again, new regulations). Now all evaporated into thin air.

She promised to have our new credit card by the end of the week. At that point I will be able to start a new online banking account. I have made a new appointment with BCRCITA for our cédula renewal in Limón.

When I told our lawyer that we finally complied with all the requirements of the bank and immigration, she said, “Para hoy, Sarita, para hoy.” For today. For today. I take some comfort in that. It is good to remember it is not just expats who are inconvenienced and frustrated by these rule changes and regulations; Costa Ricans suffer the same fate. We are all in this labyrinthine system together.

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

 

Semana Santa, Crime Sprees, US Embassy Warnings, and a Grateful Expat

beach lifeYes, it that time again; Semana Santa, Holy Week, in which seemingly all the Central Valley descends on the two coasts of the country. The hotels are full, bars and restaurants are over flowing with customers, and we are staying in for the week. Yesterday there was a steady stream of traffic in front of our house. Where years ago a car might pass once a day, now there is a four-wheeled river.

If you pave it, they will come. I ventured out for some supplies this morning but made sure I did it before seven in the morning, long before the revelers got up to ease their aching heads from the night before.

Narcoboat_newsfull_hOf course all this is a boon for business, and it is happening in spite of a US Embassy warning issued just last week advising North Americans to avoid the Caribbean due to recent crime spree. There have been a string of violent hotel invasions over the past several months as well as a drug bust in Manzanillo on March 12.

In that incident a high-speed panga with four (FOUR) 300 horse motors—that’s 1200 horsepower, folks, and a whole lot of speed—carrying about two tons of cocaine was run aground in Manzanillo by the Coast Guard. Four men fled into the jungle and faded into the local population. The white stuff was captured but not the men. But all that said, the Pacific side of the country fares no better; there were several similar drug busts on the Pacific in the past few months. All in all Costa Rica has captured about 20 tons of cocaine this year alone… on both coasts, all headed north to a guaranteed market.

It has always been the assumption of the people on the Caribe that Pacific investors and hotel cartels put out bad publicity about the Caribbean around the holidays. That might have been true in the past, but this time the Caribe has things it needs to address. And I see the government and the police have formulated a plan to fight crime. The idea is to allow people a toll free number (1176) to call and anonymously report crime or suspicious activities. I hope it works.

The only issue I see is that people here are afraid to report because they do not trust their police or the government and they fear retaliation from the criminals themselves. Healthy concerns.

For now, though, it’s nice to see the cars full of people from San Jose coming to the Caribbean to celebrate Easter, and I hope they have a good time. (And as always I hope they clean up their trash when they go.) The small inconvenience to me is slight in comparison to the success of businesses here. May they prosper and give legitimate employment to all the young people who need work to live a life without crime.

Happy Easter. Feliz Santo Domingo. Have a good time, everyone. Play safely and even if it means my house shakes with the bass beat of a local bar, so be it.

On a side note: I still do not understand fireworks on Good Friday, the day it is believed that Christ was crucified, but I’m Buddhist not a Catholic. Just saying.

Film Reel Rolling Backward

A celluloid life

is easier

Splice and mend

cut out the mistakes

Erase the grief

 

The year I spent fucking my way across Europe

Sam & Dave spilled out over pirate airwaves

off the Isle of Man

 

Possibly that

could be discarded

Culls for the cutting room floor.

 

I was Mustang Sally

doing desperado sex,

on-the-run-no-questions-asked sex.

unprotected sex

In a time of free love

 

What I needed

most

was comfort

Relief from the pain

 

Cut and splice

his death

so shattering it could have been my own

So young

 

But we cannot roll back the film

We go on

All those mistakes

make us who we are

 

[Scintilla Project prompt, day 10: 1. Sometimes we wish we could hit the rewind button. Talk about an experience that you would do over if you could. If you would like to sign up for this storytelling fortnight, click here, or on the icon in the right menu. It’s Scintilla. It pushes your boundaries.]

Lost Without Translation

Costa Rica News – ”Stop the car!” I yelled at my husband. “Maybe that guy knows where the place is.”This is an all too familiar cry when we are driving anywhere in the Central Valley. We are both excellent drivers, but the bulk of the driving has fallen to him. I invariably ride shotgun, acting as navigator, and that involves asking for directions more often than not.
giving directions in costa rica
The man I spotted had what I look for when making inquiries. He was older, trimming a big red bougainvillea that overflowed from his yard into the street, so I assumed he lived there. And he appeared to own a car. One was parked in his drive, anyway. This last item is almost essential, because, with luck, the directions he gives will be for a driver and not a pedestrian. I’ve gotten those, and we’ve run into one-way streets, alleys, and dead ends. I have used taxi drivers parked by the side of the road. They are great. And on more than one occasion I’ve actually taken the taxi and had my husband follow in the car to find the correct address.

On this particular day we were trying to locate a wrecking yard in San José, Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. The address on their website said—no kidding: in San José, La Uruca, Barrio Corazon de Jesus, 800 meters north (road to Heredia) at the intersection of Pozuelo.

This is not an anomaly; this *is* the approved address system of Costa Rica. If you are a local, you probably know right where these places are, but if you are an expat or a visitor, good luck. It’s a bit like directions the old farmer gives when you’re lost in rural America. “Go up this road until you come to the Burns’ place, turn north, and continue on… oh, maybe a mile or two until you get to the corner where that old oak was hit by lightening back in ’96.”

It’s hopeless. Even if you do follow the directions to a T, you often discover the hypothetical tree is no longer there. For instance, there are addresses that mention the Coca-Cola Building in downtown San José. Coca-Cola moved to another location—across town—years ago, and the building is now a flea market, but many businesses close by still refer to it in their address (From the Coca-Cola building 50 m north and 25 m east, between avenida…). That sort of thing. And the 50 meters north or 25 meters east address makes having a compass in the car indispensable.

We were familiar with Uruca, a section of town known for its traffic jams and the Office of Immigration. I had no idea where Barrio Corozon de Jesus was. I searched desperately on our old, and not very detailed, roadmap as we inched along in traffic.”Road to Heredia,” it said. Okay, I found Heredia on the map. Dot to dot. It must be the road we’d seen at the bottom of Uruca, at the huge intersection that was often a free-for-all of cars and trucks. We needed to turn right at that point, but what in hell was “Pozuelo?” I beavered through my trusty Spanish-English dictionary. No entries.

“We are going to have to turn right pretty soon,” I said. “You need to get over in the far lane.” Easier said than done. Costa Ricans, like the rest of us, are polite face to face but can be rude and pushy behind the wheel. As we edged across two lanes of traffic and a chorus of horns, I became vaguely aware of the smell of sugar baking, something buttery.

I was checking our map when we drove straight past the turnoff. A couple of blocks later we looked for a place to turn around. That is when I saw the man trimming his bougainvillea and yelled at my husband to stop.

I showed this portly stranger the address, and he pointed to where we had come from. He said we needed to turn left for Heredia. “But what is this?” I pointed at the word Pozuelo. He gave a me quizzical look and pointed up and across the intersection. I looked up and saw the huge billboard-sized sign: POZUELO. Of course, Pozuelo, the bakery, the one that makes all those sugary cookies. I thanked him, feeling rightfully foolish, and said I was lucky it wasn’t a snake.

We took another stab at it, made the left turn and headed toward Heredia. 800 meters later, not counting overshoots, turnarounds, and the need for more directions, we found Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. They did not have the auto part we needed, but suggested another wrecking yard that might, Repuestos Pana: in San José, North Granadilla, Curridabat, University Latina, 4 kilometers east.

 

Mentors: Looking Through the Interstices

CalligraphyAll during high school, or until I was old enough to drive myself, my mother faithfully dropped me off at the front door of the art museum in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Evenings, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I entered the deserted museum–– uniformed guard in the front foyer–– and made my way past whatever current exhibit was on display, then down the marble hallway to the stairway at the back of the building. For three years of my life I took a two-and-a-half-hour class led by Lloyd J. Reynolds, master calligrapher and iconoclast professor from Reed College.

The art museum allotted him a long narrow space just wide enough to fit twelve or fifteen desks with slanted tops. Narrow windows at the top of the room were covered with wire mesh for security; fluorescent tubes our only real source of light.  The room was often empty when I arrived. Over the next half hour others drifted in and settled themselves unpacking canvas art bags. We took up our pens in silence and retrieved our papers from our large black art folders. There was no need to be told, we were there to work.

Calligraphy is the art of making letters. That is the simple definition. It is not a skill like print lettering or stenciling, but a covenant between the artist and the paper. I was to find later that at its pinnacle it is a dance––a kind of performance––in which the artist is able to express himself with a spontaneous, yet disciplined, outburst on paper. A master calligrapher stamps his work with so much personality it becomes instantly recognizable as his own, as does any Cezanne or Picasso. Like any art form, it starts with singular focus, constant practice, and the application of will.

Reynolds usually arrived on time or slightly after the hour. He kept his white shoulder-length hair slicked back, and his thick, black-framed glasses seemed to accentuate his usual scowl.  He marched down the aisle between the desks, toting his enormous briefcase and puffing on his ever-present pipe. Once at the head of the class he would take off his coat to reveal a disheveled black suit, white shirt, and a narrow black tie. Next, he would unpack his briefcase and organize himself for class.

EXEC-06-1.400x400

Michael Ziegler Photography: Lloyd J. Reynolds, calligrapher

I always remember him arriving in a foul mood, or perhaps he was distracted or tired or something else a 16-year-old would not understand. Most of us knew not to press him until he was well into the second half of the class. He took his time getting situated and, once organized, proceeded up the aisle to see what we were working on. And we better be working on something, otherwise we would be admonished, yet again, that we could just as easily be doing nothing at home. When the occasional uninitiated joined the class, with thoughts of a new hobby, they didn’t last long.

“You must hold the pen just so,” he said, as he demonstrated with an enormous calligraphy pen that made two-inch wide strokes. The letters floated effortlessly off his hand and onto the art tablet he set up on an easel at the head of the class; six strokes and a perfect capital M stood anchored to the ground, its solid and yet flourished edges standing tall. A collective groan rose from all of us.

“Why do you even bother if you aren’t willing to do your best?” He would ask, relighting his pipe or taking a few puffs.  Lost in thought for a moment, Reynolds seemed to contemplate his own words, and we could sense him mellowing. And I realize now, forty years later, that we were doing our best, but he pushed us for all we could give.

One of his former students, calligrapher Clyde Van Cleve, once said this about Lloyd Reynolds: “He had little patience with uninformed intuition. He celebrated the beauty of a circling kite and knew the importance of the string.”

The string––practice––was the key to everything, he told us repeatedly. To make a flourish look spontaneous and light on the page there must be true artistic discipline behind it. Only a master can make it look easy. As we bent over our letters endeavoring to meet this goal, slowly his attitude would begin to shift from ill-humor to a call for understanding the pattern of things––all things.

Once warmed up, he would segue into his lecture for the night. It might be about a script he was particularly interested in at the moment, Carolingian or Gothic, but it Golden rectanglewould soon became a lecture about Charlemagne and European history in the eighth century, and then on to how print presses changed not only lettering but writing as a whole, showing us the links between what we write today and the same letters written long before us. Or he would start out by talking about the Golden Rectangle and by the end of the lecture he would encompass Euclid, Pacioli, and Da Vinci. We could feel his enthusiasm rise as the lecture progressed. He took us with him on his journey into art, and history. At fifteen or sixteen I didn’t know who Pacioli was, but he made me want to.

By the end of any given class he was alive and energetic, a champion of our work. Renewed by his own enthusiasm, he would always tell us before we left for the night, “Now, go home, and make beautiful letters.”

Taking a class from Reynolds was an apprenticeship in life. Through him, I began to discover that even the mundane held meaning. It could be true of cooking or any other creative outlet. Anything I attempted could simply be routine but I could, if I wished, turn it into art. It was up to me.

 

[Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13]