Tribute to My Father (read by a friend today at his memorial service)

Morgan was not the easiest father in the world. My nephew, Joshua Reiss, once remarked when he was quite young, that there were two kinds of grandparents:  hard and easy. When Rosina asked him which she and Morgan were, Josh responded—and without hesitation, I might add— “hard grandparents.”

But, the older Morgan got—or perhaps the older I got— the easier he became. And, looking back at his childhood, his “hardness” stands to reason. He came from a hard generation.

Raised by a single-parent father in Depression-era Albina— a neighborhood known for its immigrant street-toughs— my father grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Portland. He pulled himself up, learned how to survive, educated himself through the public library system, and was lucky enough to meet people who encouraged him to succeed. Morgan worked odd jobs through grade school and high school, making ends meet in a household that— in his words— “was so hard, I really don’t know how we did it.”

I think he was tough because he knew “the worst of hard times” and he wanted better for his children. He did not want to see us squander any opportunity. And, in later years he was a wonderfully caring father to his grown children.

He taught all of us so much,  I thought I’d talk a bit about what I learned from him.

Morgan, as any who knew him, had an acerbic sense of humor, but for many years that was lost on us as children. He would offer up withering comments about “The Laws of Physics” when one of us burned our mouth on a baked potato or something. But I have to tell you, the concept of latent heat has stayed with me over the years. He often made wry comments about when we grew up and had our own children. He said he planned to drop by and laugh at us. But, in fact, when any of us had difficulties when our children were growing, he offered his sincerest sympathies.

His cynicism and sardonic wit stayed with him until the very end. In his final year—and living in a memory unit in McMinnville—he dryly observed to Rosina, “There are a lot of really crazy people in this place.”

In my mid-thirties I dated a man, who, after I’d quoted Dad for the umpteenth time, asked me, “Was your father a personal friend of Mark Twain?”  Of course he wasn’t, but I think they would have enjoyed each other.

He was also a practical teacher.

As a very young child he taught me how to shear a sheep. And how, if the sheep dies from fright (or perhaps old age), you can finish the job to at least salvage something from the incident.

He certainly taught all of us not to smart off in the back seat of the car. All my siblings have memories of his lightening-quick arm whipping around in a broad arc. Anyone not experienced enough to duck got a blow to the head. Those of us who survived tittered helplessly behind our hands.

Dad knew— and taught us by observation— that there is almost always a mechanical solution to any problem, and if there isn’t one available, there is no reason why you cannot make one. He built tools for every purpose and continued to well into his 80s. The last thing I remember him creating were some wonderfully utilitarian wooden folding stools, and a copper rose trellis that still stands at his last house in McMinnville. Unlike other trellises I’ve seen, the one he designed is light, perfectly proportioned, and sturdy.

I spent hours with him in his workshop at the Black Butte Ranch, and he taught me how to weld and the importance of good tools— “Buy the best you can afford, and take care of them for life.” Return a dirty or misused tool to him, and you would be sorry.

Never run with blasting caps.  That story can probably go untold at this gathering, but I can tell you that I’ve never done it again.

Never divulge secrets others entrust you with. When we lived in Washington D.C., Dad drove me to school every morning. On occasion we ate breakfast with Drew Pearson while Morgan gave him insider information for his muckraking column, The Washington Merry Go-Round. They talked openly in front of me— a twelve year old— knowing I would not repeat what I heard.

Never give personal information over the phone to people you don’t know. Morgan was head of the Democratic Party in Oregon, at a time when the Republican Party owned the state. He helped to get Democrats like Wayne Morse, Maureen Neuberger, and Edith Green elected, but not without creating a lot of enemies. I learned to say my parents were “busy and could not come to the phone” whether they were home or not.

He taught us the importance of organized labor and a decent wage. Not only did he teach us, but he led by example, supporting The Oregon Reporter, an alternative newspaper started by striking reporters at the Oregonian and The Oregon Journal during the 1960s.

He taught all of us how to drive a car. FAST. There is a family story about a trip I took with him from the Black Butte Ranch back to Portland in his little Volvo P1800 in well under the already recording-breaking time the rest of us drove. He taught all of us how to properly take a corner and the joy of driving a stick shift. I’ve been told by many a passenger that I drive like a man.

Around my 18th birthday, he took me out to a bar in Portland. He knew the owners would serve me. I think mine was scotch; I know his was bourbon—An Old Fashioned, made with Old Taylor, and no sugar was his standard for years. After we’d both had a few of drinks he said, “You seem to have a pretty hard head for liquor,” and he warned me that it could be just as problematic as being a cheap date.

Watching the news with my father was an exercise in critical thinking. By the time I went college and took the class of the same name, it was like kindergarten. Always look to the motives behind any politician, he said, and question why someone wants to run for office. And…. he once posed a question that I’ve thought about over the years, “What would you be willing to do in your career to get a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court?”

He taught all of us the importance of voting along party lines, government regulations, of staying out of debt, being leery of the stock market, voicing opposition to stupid decisions, and— above all— to be true to ourselves.

He had an uncanny ability to see the consequences of any action taken. Whether it was bad legislation or a personal decision, Morgan often saw the ramifications over the long haul. He often butted heads with politicians and bureaucrats who did not share his insight.

One person who appears to have understood this is Jack Bogdanski, an Oregon political blogger and professor at Lewis & Clark Law School— and who might be in the audience today. He recently wrote in an astute tribute, “Morgan was still publicly commenting on politics when he was nearly 90 years old. In a 2001 op-ed piece in the Oregonian, he blasted deregulation of private electric utilities in Oregon, warning that corporate greed would push rates for consumers through the roof.” And Morgan was right….  predicting Enron as well as the big crash of 2008.

He was probably the most ethical man I’ve ever known.  He once made a football bet and lost to my son, aged ten or so. He honored the wager and went with Sam to see Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood, part II. Anyone who knew Dad knows what a sacrifice that was. I think a stiff drink was required after that outing,  but he did it.

In the long run, my dad taught me a lot, but I would say his biggest gift to me was that uncanny ability to anticipate consequences. It caused him a good deal of hardship in his political career—because he was not willing to look the other way or take the path of least resistance. But he was almost never wrong.

Morgan used to say, “You only live once, but if you do it right… that’s all you need.” Certainly he lived a big and full life. He was a rancher, a politician, a businessman, as well as a sailor with an innate talent for navigation. He and Rosina lived in Europe, Washington D.C, the Bahamas, and many points in between.

He was a tough and principled man who came up in tough times. He was a big man—a big thinker—and we could use a lot more men like him.

 

 

Whirlwind

Last Tuesday we got up at the usual time to walk the dogs. The weather looked dark and broody, like it might rain. We debated but decided to go anyway. We cannot see the Caribbean from our house although we can hear it. If we had seen it, we probably would not have left the house.

We walked the short mile down the paved road and took the long beach access called Cruickshank Road. At the sea we confronted a black sky but continued  on toward the mouth of Ned Creek where the dogs like to play in fresh water. It started to rain.

We all huddled under a leaning almond tree to wait it out, but the sky looked more malevolent by the minute.

Let’s go,” my husband said. He didn’t need to say it twice. We hurried back to Cruickshank Road, and, already soaked to the skin, I stopped to leash up the dogs.

“Suddenly a huge wind slammed into us from the sea, hurling us backward. Our two little basenjis were dancing on tiptoes wanting to get free. Electricity sizzled in the air and the clap of thunder was so loud it shook my body.  Almond trees and palms began to sway and limbs cracked overhead. My husband was already twenty feet ahead of me yelling, LET’S GO!

I am not long-distance jogger, but I took off at a dead run, the two basenjis keeping pace. The road was as dark as night and I heard huge limbs crack, tearing through lower branches, and fall in the jungle. Every time I looked up all the branches were waving about like giant pom poms. The gunshot sound of breaking limbs drove me on. At one point, out of breath, I slowed to a walk, but it wasn’t long before I broke into a run again. There were two trees already down across the road, hung up on other trees from a previous storm. Widow makers, for sure. We dashed under them hoping the driving rain and high winds would not dislodge them. The little basenjis kept looking over their shoulders for my husband and the other two dogs. I kept saying, Let’s go, let’s go.

Out on the paved road again I stopped, waiting for my husband who was only a few seconds behind. Wet through and through from the driving rain we pushed on together for the house. About halfway there the electric lines sizzled, a transformer popped, and the street lights went out. At least we had a wider expanse of road and could see trees before they fell on us, but the wind was whipping around making us worry that a branch might be swept into our path. We started running again.

Finally home, I was drying off the little dogs on our back porch when I heard a loud “thump.” I looked out to see a pejibaye  palm drop not ten feet from the house. A dozen abandoned Oropéndola nests spread out over the lawn like dirty mesh bags.

Alan stood in our open-air garage and watched the storm lash the jungle around us. It was as though a cyclone passed through. We could see the path it took and hear it ripping out trees. Trees bigger around than two people could span snapped off 20 feet up, their tops flung fifteen feet away.

Our neighbors across the road built their house and cabins in deep jungle and we heard trees going down over there. I wanted to run over, find out if everyone was okay, but I was also afraid to enter their property until the winds died down.

The whole storm took less than 30 minutes to pass. As soon as it did, we went out to check on everyone. One neighbor’s house was cut clean in half from a fallen tree, the guts of their meager possessions strewn about as the rain came down in sheets. Miraculously no one, including their baby, was injured. It will be weeks cleaning up after this. There are trees down all over our property and widow makers still hang up in trees, but we are okay. Our neighbors are, too.

Local wisdom says, Never build your house under a tree, at the bottom of a hill, or next to a river. I am glad we heeded that advice when it was given.

Essay is Live at Blue Lyra Review

Blue Lyra Review

“The words a father speaks to his children in the privacy of the home are not overheard at the time, but, as in whispering galleries, they will be clearly heard at the end and by posterity.” -Jean Paul Richter, writer (1763-1825)

 

I am happy to announce that my short nonfiction essay, Death Comes Calling, is now live at Blue Lyra Review. This is an inaugural issue and I share space with many fine poets and writers including Marge Piercy, one of my all-time favorite poets. Many thanks to the wonderful editors over there; Matthew Silverman and Adrienne Ross, you rock! This is especially bitter-sweet as I wrote this essay shortly after my father passed away this past April. It is nice to see something positive come from something so sad.

 

 

The Placa Palace, or How to Get Your New License Plates in Costa Rica

CR License plateWe got our new license plates. To most people they are  almost indistinguishable from our old license plates, but notice, please, a small Costa Rican flag in the upper right corner, and a nearly invisible map of the country in the lower right corner. There is also a vertical line on the left. That’s it. The number is the same.

We heard, or more probably read, that every car in the country was going to have to get new plates. Come December, when the entire country has to get new tags for their cars, the government announced they would not issue the 2013 marchamos without new plates.

I called the Registro Nacional a few weeks ago and asked about the process. No, they could not do it by Internet. No, I would have to come to the office in San José personally and pick up the new plates. No, no one could do it for me. I needed to appear and present my documents, papers for the truck, and the plates.

The idea of the entire country’s driving population traipsing through the Registro was frightening enough, but I knew if we put this off until the fall there would be lines around the block. Any little thing wrong with the paperwork, and it would be two trips, or most probably three. So, we went last week.

The first thing that went wrong was my fault. I admit it, I forgot to bring a copy of the corporation paperwork that the truck is registered under. It’s complicated, but suffice it to say a lot of Ticos do this to avoid being sued for everything they own. By law an accident victim can only sue the owner, so if the owner is a corporation and the only thing the corporation owns is the car… well, you get the idea.

I solved my stupid error by passing through the Registro’s  brand spanking new document section and retrieving a copy of the corporate papers. I was amazed to note how efficient the place had become since we last visited. I asked several people where I needed to go, followed the trail, and  found orderly lines clearly labeled. More importantly, there were plenty of clerks to help so I retrieved the papers in no time.

Then it was on to the Placa Palace, or where we needed to get the new license plates, also called placas. Again the lines weren’t bad and I managed to get through the first steps and paid for the stamps. (Always in bureaucratic countries, it’s the stamps.) Armed with these I approached the window of step number three. A very kind man looked over my documents and then beckoned me with one finger to lean into the slit in the bullet-proof glass. “We have a problem,” he said. “The corporate papers have a passport number that does not correspond to the one you gave me.”

Then I remembered. “Oh, that passport expired and the Untied States issued me a new one with a different number.”

He shrugged. “You will have to get a certified letter from your lawyer stating that you used to have that passport number, but now you have a different one.”  And bless him, he typed up exactly what I would need and sent me on my way.

I called our lawyer who was at the Legislative Assembly. I figured whatever she was doing, it was probably more important that our plates. But we agreed to have dinner that night, she would bring her computer and printer and we’d get the paperwork done.

At dinner she realized we needed to change the corporation paperwork to show our new identification. This involved a second lawyer who would draft the new paperwork and would have it for us by noon the following day, just in time to have lunch.

At two-thirty the following day, we still had not gotten back to the Registro. She had to pick up her assistant, who coincidentally was accompanying her kindergartener on a field trip, the second lawyer was late, and lunch was bad.

There are times in this country when it’s best to let go and just accept that things will either get done or they won’t. This was one of those. At one point my husband asked, “What the hell are we doing?” To which I answered that I hadn’t a clue.

Eventually, and in typical Tico fashion, we arrived at the Registro an hour and a half before they closed for the weekend. Our lawyer’s assistant accompanied us to the window where we were told that the letter she’d written was incorrect.

Turned back again.

The assistant got on his phone and called our lawyer at her office. She typed up another document and drove it over. Armed with this, we went back to the window, and eventually got our plates five minutes after closing time.

So, it might not seem like much, but it was an accomplishment.

Adam Gopnik, who, in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon, describes the average Parisian’s encounter with the never-ending bureaucracies, which invade daily life. He says, “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.”

And I noted in the time we waited for our plates that at 15,000 colones ($30.00) a vehicle, by the time all registered vehicles have paid, it will pay off the new remodel of the Registro Nacional. Brilliant. I do not know who Dale Dauten is, but he apparently said, “Bureaucracy gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits.” I feel like a midwife.

So, the good new is, we are all set to get our marchamos in December, and, lo, I can do that by the Internets.

 

Water, Water Everywhere

rainThe rain started with a pit, pit, pat on our metal roof,  the sound relief.

It had been stifling hot for weeks on end, and like the old ladies here, I took to carrying a cloth to wipe my neck and arms as the humidity climbed to high-five the temperature already in the 90s.

We got up at five to go on our daily beach walk with the dogs, and even so they were panting and scouting for water on our return. If we slept in until six, it was too hot. By noon all of us melted like chocolate bars left on a dashboard in a Texas summer. In the suffocating heat, dogs retreated under chairs or my desk to lie flat-out on the cool floor, and I spent most of my days at my desk with a fan blowing.

Over the weekend the weather seemed to swell like a boil. The afternoons stifled any activity except the buzzing of insects. Evenings gave us no breeze; it felt like a sauna.

And then Sunday night the rains came, pit pitting at first, and then they burst forth in a wall of water that thundered down soaking the earth. The smell of moss and grass and  primordial jungle rose up and blew in the warm wind. I saw flashes of lightning and counted out the miles–one-one thousand, two-one thousand–until the bang.  Sometimes the air filled with electricity but the thunder was way off up the coast or out to sea. But these tropical storms are unpredictable, and by two in the morning it had swung over our heads. The sky lit up casting shadows in the night and BANG! BANG! BANG! the thunder shook our bed like an earthquake, letting us know the storm was right here, right now. That is when all the dogs, both inside and outside dogs, came in the house for the night.

There have been news reports of widespread damage along the southern Caribbean, but we are safe. Not even any leaks. The past few days have been cool in the mornings and the world is fresh again, revived after the storms.

 

Farewell to a Writer, with a capital W

Barking Mad & Cailean November 2008I met Ross Eldridge through my online writing critique group, The Internet Writing Workshop (IWW). As a mark of his writing ability, I felt I knew him personally even though we had never met.

His prolific works were always filled with life, wit, charm, and British intellect at its very best. I loved his long and looping essays that started in one place, and like any good, long story, encompassed many subjects before returning to wrap up at the end.

We corresponded outside the workshop and I came to know him and his little dog, Cailean, through his blog and irregular letters several of us continued long after he left the critique group. So when I heard this week he recently died of cancer, I felt as though I had lost a good friend. One of his last Tweets: “Well, if this is cancer, I don’t think much of it.”

Rest in peace, Ross.  Wherever you are, I hope they have plenty of paper and pens available (or computers, I know you’d love that!), and an ample supply of small Dachshunds for you pleasure. Maybe just one; I know that would make you happy. I would love to hear from you about the people you see on the other side and how things work over there. Write me a letter because I miss your voice.

God speed, my friend.

You can find his essays at Barking Mad in Amble by the Sea and there is an extensive set of essays at the Camroc Press Review/ Ross Eldridge.

 

Letting Go

let goI’m back to my blog, finally. It’s taken me a bit after the death of my father (here is a nice obit). I am better now, more rested, and more at ease with my emotions.

It took two things.

Over the past month I have journaled extensively about the experience, and, lo, a short prose poem that poured out of me one morning was accepted last Friday for publication in June. More about that later when I get formal notification, but I’m very excited this one got picked up.

Also, I went to see my chiropractor and acupuncturist last week. I’ve written about Daniel before; for me he is a miracle worker. Anyway, I told him about my dad’s death and he agreed that losing parents is a hard marker in life. We feel older and more mortal, the new gatekeepers of death. I expressed my anguish over the experience and he looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do you want to let go?”

God, yes!

Then he touched a finger into outer aspect of my lower bicep, about four inches above my elbow, and said, “This is the point of letting go.” I lay on his chiropractic table, and after he finished adjusting my neck and shoulder, he needled me in that very spot (along with several other sites).  I rested there for maybe 45 minutes with those fine needles wobbling with any movement, but I felt at ease for the first time in months.

The relief was almost instantaneous. When I got up I was aware that I could think about the issues surrounding my father’s death and no longer become overwhelmed by emotions, and I can now let feelings come and go like we breathe, effortlessly and without clinging to good feelings or bad. I needed so badly to let go, but I was grateful that he asked if I was ready.

I have been fortunate to have Daniel in my life, but as my daughter said, “Don’t you think those people appear in your life when and where you need them?” Could be. I used to have a wonderful massage therapist back in Oregon when I was going through a lot of stress about 25 years ago.

To augment the acupuncture I have continued to put finger pressure on those points above my elbow, and they are tender to touch. How interesting is our body and our reactions to stress. How amazing that we can heal ourselves without drugs or psychotherapy. Our bodies want to be well; we just have to give them a chance.

I have also been listening to a wonderful meditation from Meditation Oasis podcasts called, not surprisingly, letting go. Those tapes are wonderful and very restorative. They also have ones for stimulating creativity, grounding, and many others. Love them.

L is for Leaving A to Z Challenge, or How I was Unable to Continue

Just a note to visitors from the A to Z blogging challenge, I have to drop out due to a family emergency. I have enjoyed this month’s challenge and will definitely  look at doing it next year. Please feel free to stay on my subscription list, I will be posting after this crisis has passed, and I will keep your writing and look forward to reading them at some later date. Blog on, people.

K is for Kilo

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

cocaine05Okay, I’ve run aground; K is a difficult letter in the Spanish alphabet. There are all sorts of K words, but they are mostly translations of things like Kant, Karachi, Kurdish, etc.

So today  I thought I would discuss Kilo. Most Americans know it as a unit of weight; one we refuse to use in our weights and measures system. Remember when the USA was going to switch from the imperial to the metric system? What a disaster. Americans just refused to do it.

I became accustomed to the metric system when I worked as a nurse, and it is such a no-brainer I’m surprised Americans are reluctant to make the switch. 10 X 10= 100, 100 X 100 = 1000. What could be easier? But we get caught up in the conversions… let’s see, a kilo is 2.2 pounds… so that makes my ten pound bag of sugar… how many kilos?

Americans are more adept at associating kilos with drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Columbian cartels and the Mafia. I think Americans think it sounds more like a foreign invasion if it’s in that foreign measurement. Screaming headlines like: COSTA RICA SEIZES 900 KILOS OF COCAINE. Well, clearly, this is a foreign problem. But, whether the reports are in metric or Imperial, the problem is All-American. All drugs grown or manufactured on this continent are headed for that market.

Both Panama and Costa Rica share the dubious distinction of being narrow countries on the isthmus connecting South America with the rest of Central America. Consequently, there is a logjam of drugs headed north.

The fishermen who live in Manzanillo talk about the Two Waters, the area off the coast where big boats with powerful motors run up and down the coast. They have found jettisoned packages of cocaine and brought them home. Certainly a better return than a boatload of pargo. There were a couple of bad boys down here that took to running that course at night, looking for the boats and stealing their cargo. One can only imagine the gun battles out there on with bullets flying in the salt spray. Their boat mysteriously caught fire one day. It exploded, killed one and burned the other two badly. Dangerous work.

If the contraband is not running on the sea it is laboriously making its way overland on ancient Indigenous trails. We often hear the US DEA planes flying overhead, and for about six months one year we heard loud regular explosions at night. Alan, who spent a year in Vietnam, knew immediately what it was: aerial reconnaissance, looking for marijuana fields and transport routes.

The only arrests we read about in the papers involve low-level targets. The big fish always seem to get away, and the kilos keep flowing north.

 

J is for Hij’ue Puta!

Costarican idioms (loosely interpreted)

¡Hij’ue puta! (pronounced Way-Poota)

Okay, if you are sensitive close your ears; this one’s a swear word. It’s also the one most used in Costa Rica.

Literally it is translated as “shit whore,” but it is used the way we use son of a bitch or the F word to express shock or indignation.  Or, it can be used to express amazement. ¡Hij’ue puta! that girl is gorgeous.

hognosed pit viperJust seen a snake?  ¡Hij’ue puta!

I saw a snake once. I was speechless. Not one swear word out of me.

I wrote about it and the essay appears on Gordon Grice’s blog, Deadly Kingdom.

Here is the beginning:

Costa Rica is home to many of the world’s deadliest snakes, including thirteen species of pit vipers. The largest of these is the bushmaster (Lachesis muta), but it is the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), or terciopelo, that locals fear the most.

When we first moved to Costa Rica our neighbors repeatedly warned us about them. They believed if I merely saw a man bitten it would bring bad luck. I wasn’t keen on seeking one out, but sometimes a snake is just where it is. 

One February morning back in 2007 my husband and I drove to the county seat to pay our garbage bill. I dressed casually in shorts and a tank top for comfort in the tropical heat. Alan parked our old, dependable Jeep pickup in front of the municipal building and I asked if he wanted to go with me. Getting the predictable answer, I left him there and walked in. Ten minutes later, I was back. I climbed into the truck and started to tell him about my success over bureaucracy. 

 Then something caught my eye.”    (Click here to read the rest of the essay.)

 

Note: the photo at the top of this post is of an eyelash viper I spotted on our property a couple of years ago. Below is the fer de lance, responsible for the largest number of snake bites recorded here every year.