Tag Archive for Sarah Corbett Morgan

Boredom Abounds, But Is That Bad?

 

Photo by Thomas J Abercrombie (courtesy National Geo)

Photo by Thomas J Abercrombie (courtesy National Geo)

I’ve often marveled at my husband’s ability to find pleasure in the mundane. He finds projects around the house and property that need attention and applies himself to them without complaint. He is currently scraping, sanding, and repainting individual pickets on our veranda. On the other hand, I vocally suffer from what Dostoevsky referred to a “the bestial and indefinable affliction”: Boredom.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across an essay by Joseph Epstein, Duh, Bor-ing, originally in Commentary Magazine, and then again in Best American Essays 2012, that I contemplated what boredom is exactly, and why it is not such a bad thing.

Like Epstein, and probably most other tweens and teens, I was brought up short by my parents when I complained about being bored. Epstein’s father told him to beat his head against a wall and he’d soon quit feeling that way. My mother was equally sympathetic; she told me only boring people got bored and to get out of the house. It was a version of the children-are-starving-in-Africa answer to my complaints, brushed aside as being unimportant and predictable.

According to Epstein, some people are more prone to boredom than others, and I guess my husband and I are proof of the opposites attract theory of marriages. But even he is apt to be temporarily bored by a dull speech or a hour-long wait in the doctor’s office. We all have it from time to time. Even animals become bored. I think my little basenji, who loves to run on the beach, was bored to death when recuperating from a broken leg. When we finally took him for his first walk, his whole face lit up and we could see his inner dogginess ignite realizing there would be a life for him outside the confines of his kennel.

There is transitory boredom, ennui, weariness, apathy, and or dissatisfaction. This can also descend into longer term monotony and eventually clinical depression. But Epstein seems to say that every human being has uttered the teen phrase, I’m bored, at some point or another.

I found it interesting that Epstein suggests that boredom occurs more often when there are high levels of distraction—Facebook? Twitter? TV? He also notes that primitive cultures seldom complain of the affliction. And I have watched any number of people in this country work at drudge jobs that would drive me insane, but I have yet to hear one complain about it.

But neither Epstein nor my parents bothered to suggest to us the possible benefits of boredom.

It seems to me that boredom forces us to look closely at ourselves. It puts our existence into perspective and can steer us into a place of contemplation and reflection. If we can push past the frustration of sitting—without action—we can come out the other side with something to show for it. This is the challenge of meditation, of yoga, and of writing.

We writers lock ourselves in rooms and purposefully create this kind of environment, specifically to induce reflection and creativity. Inspiration. Sit long enough and thoughts will come and pages will be written.

I wonder what it would be like if parents told their children that their boredom was good for them and that it proved they were imaginative people. Would it change how we look at it?

Book Review is Live

Stephens-DaysAreGods.inddMy review of Liz Stephens’ stunning memoir The Days Are Gods is live over at The Internet Review of Books. I’ve written about this book before, so I was very pleased when IRB picked up the review.

It is definitely worth reading– the book (and the review).

21 Ways You Know You’ve Lived in Rural Costa Rica Longer than “A While”

 

This piece first appeared in The Costa Rican Times  August 19, 2013. It appears to have taken on a life of its own; so far it’s had 55 shares on the CRT website and who knows how many others after that. We write and send our babies out into the world where they either thrive or wither…

Courtesy_The Costa Rican Times

Courtesy_The Costa Rican Times

When people first come to Costa Rica to live permanently, typically they are in awe of everything they see. Soon, as most of us discover, life becomes simply a life of routines rather than a continual unfolding adventure. Here are 21 ways you know you’ve lived in the tropics long enough for it to become a way of life, not a vacation thrill.

1. You haven’t closed a window against the weather in over a year; in fact, you have lived in the open air for so long a closed window or door feels confining.

2. You never (ever) pick up a crumb off the table and eat it (even if you’re pretty sure you just dropped it). There is a 50/50 chance it could be a lizard turd.

3. Drinking water with ants floating in it is no longer disconcerting, you simply scoop them out with a spoon or just drink the water, depending on how many there are.

4. You wash all the clothes you plan to take on a trip abroad to avoid giving some fellow traveler a mold allergy attack.

5. You are unfazed by hot and steaming clothes when you unpack in any foreign city.

6. Moisturizers are redundant.

7. Sharing your house with lizards, anoles, ants, and spiders seems acceptable; in fact, lizard eggs in your dresser drawer is the new normal.

8. A Hummingbird trapped in the house is not a panic moment. It simply means you get a net and remove it.

9. You do not flinch when beetles and other crawly things (some the size of Volkswagens) park on your night table or dive bomb the light while you are reading. Instead you calmly capture them and remove them to the out of doors.

10. Rather than leap into the air when you feel something on your neck, you merely brush at it, and then look to see what it is.

11. You are philosophical when you put on your running shoe and discover a toad has taken up residence there.

12. Dressing up means putting on a clean tank top and your newest shorts.

13. Sandals are your dress shoes.

14. You recognize macaw and oropéndola calls rather than a robin’s or a nuthatch’s.

15. The horrific noise at the crack of dawn, the one tourists think is made by crocodiles, you recognize as howler monkeys calling to each other. They are your alarm clock.

16. You no longer stop in awe and snap photos when you see a sloth crossing the road, instead you stop to make sure no one runs over it.

17. “Eat locally” means rice and beans plus a stewed meat of some sort. You no longer ask for a menu.

18. You rinse the sand off before getting into the shower so you will not have to re-plumb the drains.

19. You no longer expect or rely on electricity 24/7. If it goes out while you are baking bread, you leave the loaf in the oven and hope latent heat will continue to cook it, or a casserole, or a roast, or a pie, or….

20. “High-speed” Internet simply means it is functioning.

21. You’re resigned to the fact that the only things you are able to view “streaming” are vines from trees and water off the roof.

And finally, when you tell someone, “Pura vida,” you recognize the layers of meaning behind this phrase–from irony to sincerity– and use it accordingly.

 

 

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.

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.