Wednesday, June 21, 2017

19 Years and Counting...

     When I answered an ad in the Biloxi Sun Herald for part-time summer work at something called The Department of Veterans Affairs, I had no idea it would completely alter the course of my life and point me in the direction of a career I had never imagined.  It was 1998 and I had just moved to Mississippi.
     With my BS in Journalism and PR and being six credits away from an MA in Education Administration, I had never considered healthcare administration as a career option.  It was simply not on my radar.  I applied for a job in the Insurance Billing department and had plans to complete my degree by Christmas and pursue my intended career in collegiate student services with the ultimate goal of becoming a Dean of Students.
    I didn't get the job but Rebecca (Becky) Gustin recommended me to the Chief of HR and I was offered a position in their department.  My first day in HR, I met four wonderful ladies who would become my 'Mamas', help me navigate the unfamiliar territory of federal government and take care of me especially when my mother died.  Elaine Cooper, Nita Gross, Pat Finnegan and Belinda Corley may be just names to you, but to me they are a part of my heart.
     At the end of the summer, another 'Mama', Diane Sicuro, placed me into an internship program for college students which put me on a path for a permanent position once I finished my Masters in December.  A quick note about what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it and have supportive family and friends:  during the fall of 1998, I worked 40 hours per week at the VA, 30 hours per week as Assistant Manager of a McDonald's and completed graduate school on a campus more than 10 miles from my home without a car.
     In 1999 I met Jackie Collins (not the author) when my boss assigned me to help her get ready for an inspection.  We immediately clicked and she became my mentor and helped bring about some of the most significant changes in my career.  She hired me to be her Administrative Officer (like an Office Manager) for Prosthetics in 2000.  She then helped me get prepared and gave me a sterling recommendation and a big push to become the Chief of Prosthetics (like a Department Head) in Alaska at the teeny-tiny VA in Anchorage.  As a note, Prosthetics in the VA is more broad than the private sector.  Prosthetics provides everything patients use in their home (hospital beds, eyeglasses, computers, wheelchairs, iPhones, home oxygen, shoes, braces, walkers, environmental control units) as well as programs that will remodel your house and place adaptive equipment in your vehicle.
     Once I was in Alaska, Jackie was promoted to VISN Prosthetic Manager (like a Regional Manager) for VISN 10 in Ohio.  She recommended me for the Chief's job in Cleveland, Ohio.  I showed my thanks by turning that department around and making it into a well-run, efficient operation.  I always show my gratitude for someone giving me a chance and hiring/promoting me by being an exceptionally hard-working and creative employee.  Your boss doesn't need to hear you say 'thank you', they need to see you say 'thank you' every day by being awesome.  A little tip from me to you.
     While in Cleveland, Jackie told me they needed my voice in Washington, DC.  She was adamant I apply for a Policy Analyst position so I could go help them 'fix' Prosthetics at the national level.  I agreed to apply for the position just to stop her from bugging me about it, feeling confident I would never be selected.  To my surprise, but not hers, I was chosen to move to DC to help shape the policies for the Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Department.  Country was about to go to town, y'all.
     When I got there, I found policy writing and program management was something I truly enjoyed and at which I excelled.  I would never have imagined it would have been possible my redneck tail would have been allowed to shape this particular section of healthcare.  After two years, an opportunity came for me to become the VISN Prosthetic Manager in VISN 1 which encompassed all six New England states.
     I ventured into the frozen tundra of New Hampshire and completely revamped their operation from a systems redesign perspective.  My work was recognized by the Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operation and Management as Best Practice in my VISN and then ultimately Best Practice for the nation.  I graduated from the Leadership VA program as my goal is always to be the best leader I can be.  I also oversaw the Togus, Maine Prosthetics Department's transformation and award as the first national Prosthetic Service of the Year.
    After my presentation to every muckety-schmuck in DC, I was asked by Dr. Billie Jane Randolph to come back to DC to create an oversight program mimicking the facility reviews I completed in New England.  She and I had met earlier in the year in Manchester, New Hampshire, during a taping of a 60 Minutes episode on Prosthetic innovations.  We bonded while avoiding the cameras as we weren't cleared to be on TV, so we hid out and ate snacks and shared our stories, both of us being from the boonies; she much more fancy than I.
     My 90-day detail back to DC stretched in an 11-month detail and she became my mentor and 'Mama' and we found we worked wonderfully together.  The program was extremely successful and we re-shaped Prosthetics across the country.  I accepted a permanent position in DC placing me in charge of Education and Training for Prosthetics for VA.  In my element, we had numerous successful educational conferences, all within the proper guidelines, unlike those people from GSA who got in trouble (see previous blog, April 14, 2012 "Is a Clown at a Conference Really Kidding?").
     The opportunity came to move to Palo Alto and fix their failing Prosthetic Department and Dr. Randolph encouraged me to think about what was best for me as I had grown progressively unhappy living in DC.  I can only take so much politics before I become jaded.  Moving to California was the best decision for many reasons; one being having room for my father to move in and for me to start this blog.
     Revamping the program in Palo Alto, my team and I received the national Prosthetic Service of the Year Award in 2012, showing again standardization and accountability are always the path to success.  I also got a new mentor in Palo Alto, Tony Fitzgerald, who helped mold me into the executive I am today.   In addition, I completed the Excellence in Government Fellowship in 2013 which helped prepare me to be a high-functioning and successful executive.  I have been in my role as Assistant Director in Long Beach for two and a half years and I couldn't be happier.  My work has shades of being a Dean of Students as I oversee all the Employee Engagement and Development programs in addition to various administrative functions like Education, Environmental Management, Police and Emergency Management, Occupational Safety and Health, Prosthetics (of course), Veterans Travel and Transportation, Volunteers and Food Services.
     The best part of my job is I get to do what I love and help veterans like The Dad every day.  It almost feels unfair I get to earn a living and feel good about what I do.  It's a win-win situation, which aren't common, I know.
     19 years, 10 jobs, 9 states, 8 mentees, 7 mamas, 6 hospitals, 5 cars, 4 awards, 3 mentors, 2 leadership programs and always 1 goal:  Awesomeness.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Stephen Curry, Bad Football and Tiaras


                Now that the NBA Championships are over and the Golden State Warriors won (insert team chant here), there has been a lot of drama and sadness and other negative emotions for those who supported the Cavs.  I was happy Stephen Curry and his team won.  He looks like a nice person; like someone who loves his mother and helps the disadvantaged. 

                The year before I enrolled at Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, MS (Go Bears!) their football team was ranked #6 in the nation for junior college football; in the nation, not the state.  That’s some pretty good football playing right there. 

                My Freshman year, their record was 0-9-1 and the one team we tied was Coahoma Community College, which at the time hadn’t actually ever won a game, possibly in the history of their school.  The fans and team members were disappointed in the season and as a member of the marching band and Student Body President, I, too, was appropriately saddened.  It wasn’t until my Sophomore year I found the upside to losing.

                As most people know, the one game you want to win in the school year is Homecoming.  It’s the most attended game of the season.  In order to do well in front of your largest home crowd, you try to play the team with the worst record.  Coming off our poor record, it began to dawn on me as the season progressed there was something special afoot; something magical involving tiaras and convertibles.

                Football is not very interesting to watch; poorly played football even less so.    As a dedicated trumpeter in the marching band, I attended all games and was thrilled to notice a trend of playing multiple schools at their Homecoming games and this meant seeing all the Homecoming Queens and their Courts.  Royalty, sparkly dresses, pageantry; these were my kind of football games.    Of course the Queen-related hullabaloo was interspersed with actual football which was fine because any time I wasn’t tooting my own horn (literally), I occupied myself by going to the concession stand for nachos and/or Frito Pie or talking to the dance team who loved them some Dusty, mostly because I was funny and overweight and therefore a consistent source of heat.  These poor beautiful ladies were always cold in their tiny sequined bodysuits.

                Our record improved to 2-8 the next year and I saw at least four Homecoming Queens including one who was over 6’ tall at Pearl River Community College.  Oddly enough the two schools we beat were the worst team in the state (again, Coahoma) and also the State Champions (Gulf Coast).  I’m unsure if Southwest has been better or worse in the intervening years.  I admit I don’t follow football unless it’s the New Orleans Saints or Ole Miss and then only via Facebook posts. 

                So, take heart LeBron and all the other Cavs (are there other Cavs?), there is an upside to losing.  For me it was momentary glamour in the boonies.  For you it’s gazillions of dollars, so quit crying you big baby. 

                And that’s all I’m saying for now.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Assigned Seats


This is my first try at short fiction.  Like always I write in false author voice.  I hope you like it.


                “Hurry up Bailey!”  I yelled just like I do every Sunday morning and Monday morning and Tuesday morning; you get the picture.  “We’re gonna be late!”

I know I shouldn’t yell since we’re on our way to church and I should be more, well, Jesus-like, but I yell all the time.  No need to fake it just because it’s Sunday.    It’s usually Bailey who’s yelling for me, since I’m late for everything and I don’t necessarily feel bad about it but for some reason I feel guilty being late for church. 

I didn’t grow up being late for anything, my Mother made sure we (my brother Spencer and I) were always on time, which to her meant 15 minutes early.  Since my divorce, I’ve had to start a routine of new apartment, new church, new school (I’m a teacher) but the one constant in my life is I’m always running late.

I know you’re thinking Baptists don’t get divorced and that’s usually true.  I didn’t have a choice.  My selfish ex-husband simply walked out after 22 years of marriage because he “didn’t get a chance to enjoy my 20s”.  I guess he didn’t enjoy the time we spent moving around the country while he served in the Navy.  I thought we had a great life; sure, we fought sometimes, but I can’t imagine doing that with anyone else.  Just goes to show you should never marry a pretend Baptist; he never went to church with us, leaving me to be the spiritual leader of our family.  I guess you can pursue a noble profession without being a noble person.  And why would anyone want to re-live their 20s?  No thank you.

I’m not bitter.  I’m just irritated and a little embarrassed.  We just don’t talk about it.

Even though I am late I always have a seat near the back row on the left at the Friendship Baptist Church in Yellow Finch, a small church in a sizeable city in the panhandle of Texas.  Small enough not to make me nervous but big enough to keep most relationships at the surface level.   It’s not that I don’t want new friends, it’s just…well, I guess it is I just don’t want new friends.  New friends want to do stuff and go out and drink and eat and other than Taco Tuesdays at Rosa’s, I just want to go home after work and curl up with a book or an episode of The Bachelor or Pretty Little Liars or something else Spencer judges me for watching.

At Friendship, I can give a quick nod or a ‘Good Morning’ and keep on going; a ‘God Bless You’ if it’s required.  It usually isn’t.  Even though we’ve been going to this church for almost a year, I don’t know very many of our seat-neighbors, at least by name.  Bailey and I refer to them by description.  Sweet Old Couple (SOC) sit to our right. I make sure I sit on the outside edge for escape purposes, bathroom or early exit in equal measure.  Jeanine Leather sits directly in front of us.  It’s an inside joke.  Our first Sunday there, I noticed her name engraved on the cover of her Bible.  When I mentioned it to Bailey after church, she burst out laughing saying, “Mama!  It said, ‘Genuine Leather’.  Oh, my gosh, that’s hilarious!”  She will not let me forget about it, laughing long and deep, pointing at me standing uneasily in her high heels and designer dress her Uncle Spencer sent her from California, where he’s been for the last five years.

Bailey is 5’ 11” at the age of 16 and still getting used to her new form like a more graceful but still stumbly-limbed baby giraffe.  She’s determined to master her long legs quickly and she sometimes trips and stumbles as much as she glides.  She is embarrassed by nothing it seems; I am embarrassed by everything, including my bangs which I can’t stop trimming at home with toenail scissors because they don’t look ‘right’ about a week after each haircut.  I try to explain it to the lady who cuts my hair and she nods and mmm-hmmms me, but it’s the same every time and I just gave up. 

My weight, which I exaggerate, according to Spencer, but I don’t feel emotionally equipped to manage.  I always said I felt fat when I was skinny in high school and college but more out of a sense that I was supposed to say it than actually thinking I was fat.  Now, I just avoid mirrors if possible.

My divorce, which was unplanned and this move to the Panhandle, also unplanned, has left me feeling a little bit lost.  I moved here to be closer to Bailey when she started college and I have no nearby family for the first time since the beginning of my marriage.  Bailey skipped her junior year of high school after her Dad left; it shook both of us to our core, although we haven’t really discussed it much other than to vent when he forgets birthdays or graduations.  He always was selfish, now that I think about it.

The last of our immediate seat-neighbors, The Mayor (he isn’t the mayor but is well-dressed and very polite like politicians used to be) always makes a point to tell Bailey how pretty she is and then tells me he can tell where she gets her beauty, which is a lie but one I always accept because he’s just so nice, like someone’s Grandpa from a Hallmark movie.

I really don’t know what I look like from the neck down.  I wasn’t kidding when I said I avoid mirrors.  Even in photos I make sure I stand behind Bailey or am only photographed from above.  Bailey picks out my clothes and does my hair and make-up most days.  I trust her and I just don’t care anymore.  She is as stylish and tasteful as Spencer.  I don’t know how I missed that gene from my mother but I did and I’m scared to make a mistake so I don’t try.

Bailey tells me, “You look pretty Mama” and I choose to believe her.  She is stunning, like a model from a magazine.  I don’t know how my husband (I guess I should call him my ex-husband but I don’t like that phrase – it sounds vulgar somehow) and I did it, but we managed to produce a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, all long legs and confidence.  I don’t know where she gets that.  I never had any confidence and Spencer didn’t until he left the South but he and I have told Bailey how amazing she is since she was a baby and she believes it.  She is fearless and sure of herself and I am glad.  Her life will be much different than mine.

We finally squeal into the parking lot and rush toward the door, slowing to the appropriate speed when we get to the front doors, which is one of the reasons we sit so far back.  When we open the door to the sanctuary something feels off.  Something’s not right.  Bailey stops short and then whispers, “Someone’s in our seat!”

“What?” I say, thinking I misunderstood.  I can’t see around her because I’m only 5’ 7”.  Someone in our seats?  How?  It’s our seat.  Didn’t SOC say something when they sat down?  Did Jeanine Leather sit there with her monogrammed Bible and allow them to sit unaware they were in a reserved spot? 

I see it’s a young couple with an almost newborn baby so I’m pretty sure they were so distracted they simply sat in the closest available seat with the clearest exit path.  Why don’t they take the baby to the nursery?  It’s going to start crying as soon as the pastor, Brother Charles, starts his sermon.  Friendship Baptist is one of those fire and brimstone Baptist Churches that I grew up in.  Spencer stopped going to Baptist Churches about 10 years ago.  He says we’re too hateful.  I know people can be mean about gay people but I’m not hateful and I’m Baptist.  But I understand fire and brimstone isn’t for everybody.  I’m used to it and I don’t think I could go to a different church.  I went to Spencer’s church when I was in California last year and it was a nice little church but I just need to be kept on my toes.  I sometimes feel bad about myself when I leave but God wants us to strive for perfection.  Most days I don’t make the cut but I try.

Bailey and I scanned the pews and I try to quickly figure out a new seating plan before the ushers get concerned and we cause a scene.  I mentally ran through everyone I could remember in our section of the church and tried to remember exactly where the habitually late Stressed Out Mom with Cute Teenage Son and Overweight Couple sit so I wouldn’t cause them any issues when they finally arrived after the announcements but before the special music.  

Seat assignment is something dear and true to Southern Baptists.  It’s like the Christian Flag at Vacation Bible School; you don’t really pay much attention to it but you definitely notice it when it’s missing.  

I decide the best place is behind Weird Shoe Guy where no one sits because the sun streaming through the stained-glass window will make you sweat no matter how cold it gets outside.  We made that mistake our first Sunday here.  SOC told us to move behind them that next Sunday, which was sweet and how we got their name.  I call them old not being rude but because they are really, really old.  I don’t know how old, but they are at least in their 80s.  If they’re younger than that then they look terrible for their age.  I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine, I’ll bet.  Everyone knows me as Bailey’s Mom.  Bailey’s hard to miss in any crowd especially a small church with a tiny youth group.  The first Sunday, it was like someone from Hollywood was visiting or someone had a new baby, the way everyone oohed and aahed. 

Once we settled in, I immediately begin to regret my decision as a trickle of sweat ran down my back.  However, right on cue, as soon as Brother Charles stepped to the microphone, he startled the sleeping baby and the wifely member of SOC whispered to the parents of the newborn that we had a nursery and they left following her directions, giving us stress-filled, apologetic smiles.

As soon as they cleared the doorway, the husbandly member of SOC waved us over and Bailey and I moved as quick as a misbehaving child trying to avoid a parental thump to the back of the head to our assigned seats.  Once we got situated, we and our neighbors visibly relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief.  All was right in the world again.

Now to listen to the sermon.  It’s about Moses and Zipporah meeting at a well and then getting married.  Apparently, in Biblical times, a well often served as their version of Starbucks because Isaac and Rebekah and even Jacob and Rachel met at a well when the women were there drawing water.  One more reason to get my water at the Sonic.  I am not about to try and meet some man for a date who is going to start trying to tell me what to do.  I ain't got time for that. 
I almost said Amen out loud.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Revisionist History

     The incident from last week (when I lost my religion) reminded me of an essay I wrote in Costa Rica at the Writer's Retreat of San Buenas.  I know you've been made privy to all my musings and ponderings from that time, but this particular essay I hadn't yet shared as I wondered whether it was relevant.  I think it is.
     "I had relatively few bullies in my formative years, mostly The Dad.  There was one guy, however, in high school with whom I only had one interaction but it reverberated for most of my senior year.  I won't tell you his name, but will simply call him Football Player.  Football Player was much like The Dad; red-haired, almost my height and thickly built with muscle under a layer of fat.  He and I didn't move in the same social circles but were both in Nola Faye Boyd's Honors English class, although it was the only advanced class I remember us sharing. 
     The one incident happened the day we watched the film 'Romeo and Juliet'; the 1960s version.  After the brief nude scene (a very quick shot of Juliet's buttock), our class fairly buzzed due to this anomaly in a town akin to those in 1950s television shows.  I can't remember if his or my reaction to this scene started something or whether it was irrelevant, but toward the end of the class Football Player decided to engage with me. 
     Although I was an honor student and toed the line most every day, I liked to sit on the back row of class, just like a Baptist does in church.  Football Player sat across the aisle on my left.  Apropos of nothing he called me 'faggot' under his breath.  I chose to ignore the word, although it sliced through my chest like a rapier.  I consider this to be one of the most violent words; it's purpose always to wound.  Not getting his intended reaction, he said, again, more loudly, "Faggot!" 
     I half-heartedly told him to shut up as I was embarrassed and honestly not equipped for an altercation.  He just sat and glared at me.  Once class was over, he didn't seem to want to let it drop.  He said, "Faggot!" again as we stood to leave.  My best friend Paige, who sat in front of me, said to me, 'Ignore him", and to Football Player, she said, "Shut up!"
    As we left the aisles near the teacher's desk he walked over to me and backed me into the corner, poking me in the chest and said, "Say something, faggot!"
     I said, "Leave me alone!"
     One of my more unfortunate traits used to be when I got truly angry, I started to cry.  When Football Player jabbed me in the chest again, I was crying and not knowing what to do and without any fighting skills, I decided to remove the unpleasant situation from my immediate vicinity.  I yelled, and pushed him as hard as I could across the room into a row of desks by the classroom door.  He sat up, dazed and as surprised as I was.  I continued to cry.  Mrs. Boyd stood in the doorway in stunned silence. 
     Football Player stood on wobbly legs with the help of his girlfriend and limped from the room, looking at me in confusion.  My friends surrounded me and told me, when I was angry at myself for crying, "It's ok to cry."  Mrs. Boyd asked me how I was and I apologized for what happened and left the room.
    As the reality of what happened slowly sunk in, I walked somewhat proudly into the hallway.  I still couldn't believe what had happened.  As it does in most small schools, word traveled quickly and I heard the report of our 'fight'. 
     "Football Player made Dusty cry in Mrs. Boyd's class."  "Football Player made you cry?  Damn."
     When I protested that I had won the fight, the repeated response was, "You cried.  How can you say you won if you cried?"
     I guess sometimes losers get to re-write history if they are assumed to be winners.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Losing My Religion on the Sidewalk Yesterday


                Warning:  This particular posts has a couple of cuss words, but only for context.

Last night I experienced something I haven’t since I moved to Southern California, especially in the liberal bubble that is my neighborhood, Belmont Shore.  I experienced vehement anti-gay behavior and it was somewhat shocking.

                I needed to go to the bank and find something to eat for dinner so I set out for a nice walk down 2nd Street, which is the primary destination for everything you could possibly want from food, clothes and libations to jewelry, gifts and caffeinated beverages.  I adore my neighborhood and as usual it was just starting to get busy as it does around 5:30 pm; still early enough to snag a table for dinner without reservations.

                As I just returned from a week-long business trip and I hadn’t gotten my clothes from the dry cleaners, I was wearing one of the more sedate ensembles in my wardrobe – light blue Polo, navy chinos and, because I like a dash of style, two-toned navy wingtips with coordinated belt.  This is my version of blending in with the regular people. 

                I was headed toward the bank when I found myself behind a tall gentleman walking his dog; a terrier of some sort.  He abruptly stopped in front of Saint & Second, one of the restaurants with outdoor seating.  When he stopped suddenly, I attempted to step around him when his dog darted away from him and circled behind me, effectively wrapping the leash around my legs, causing me to trip and almost fall.  After I righted myself, I was still wrapped in the leash and I said, “Excuse me.”  He ignored me.

                I then attempted to step over the leash on his left but was unable.  I backed out of the way and attempted to go around him on his right, saying “Excuse me” once again.  When he again ignored me, I stepped beside him and saw he was petting someone else’s dog.  I said, “Can you please watch your dog.  He almost tripped me.”

                He replied, “Yeah right.”

                When I attempted to explain what happened, he suddenly straightened up, looked at me for the first time and said, “Fuck You Faggot!”

                My initial thought was, “This is the least gay outfit in my closet.”  I didn’t say anything out loud as I was too shocked.  He then proceeded to repeat this phrase and also included instructions on activities he felt I should engage in that Bill Clinton doesn’t count as sex.  And he repeated “Fuck You Faggot!” at least five or six more times.  My hands became clenched fists and I wanted to hit him but I didn’t want to go to jail or lose my job so I held back.  I would like to tell you I took the high road and simply walked away but I am embarrassed to say I replied, “Fuck you, asshole.  If you say faggot one more time I’m calling the police!” 

                I realize he did not see Jesus living in me in that moment, but what can I say?  I was angry.

                He walked away repeating the FUs, but removing ‘faggot’ and repeated it until he was far enough away where I no longer heard him.  I was so angry I didn’t really know what to do.  Thank goodness I have the little internal voice, which I assume in Jesus or my mother, who keeps me from fighting, but I understand now how easy it is to want to hit someone, and I have never picked a fight in my 46 years on this Earth. 

                Fight or flight is the animal reaction to a stressful situation but since I had neither fought nor flown, the natural adrenaline kept coursing through me for at least the next 20 minutes or so, keeping my heart rate elevated and driving me to buy and eat a gigantic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup cookie. 

I was troubled by the situation the rest of the night and even this morning.  I felt so helpless.  I couldn’t do anything about the situation.  I couldn’t stop him from saying what he said unless I was willing to break the law, which I am not.  I do however; have a better understanding of why and how activists are created.

                I share this, I suppose, to remind you hate is everywhere, even in liberal, multi-culti Southern California and it seems people are more comfortable than ever spewing their hate since November. It’s a crazy world, y’all.  And I guess that’s all I had to say.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Costa Rica Diaries, Part 8


February 2, 2017

 

Today was a very productive writing day.  At breakfast I was thinking about an essay I wanted to write about our jungle guide, Oscar, when Ray and I saw what we think are the same two parrots from the other day, which led to this quick essay.

 

I just saw what I think are the same two parrots Ray and I saw the other day.  They were green with yellow tips on their wings and they were flying in formation, one just behind the other, on the right.  I don’t know if this formation is for the air flow and lift like geese use or something akin to misogyny in the bird world but I wonder the impetus to travel at the same time each morning.  Do birds have a routine, clocking in and out?  Do they forage for food in a grid pattern like police searching for a missing person?  Do birds have jobs?  Are these two commuting to heir appointed perch somewhere up the mountain?  Do they notice me watching them?  Do they question the presence of this random house sitting precariously atop a hill like something made of Legos placed by a child giant with little regard to the physics required to reach the driveway in an earth-bound mode of transportation?  These verdant hills, teeming with life, are dense enough to hide even the largest of creatures.  Maybe the parrots are the sentries sent to ensure the humans remain unaware.

 

A few nights ago we watched the movie ‘Barfly’ at the behest of one of our teachers, Will Viharo. 

 

We just watched Charles Bukowski’s ‘Barfly’ starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.  I didn’t connect with the premise or the characters whose lives revolve around drinking but I appreciate the glimpse inside a life that exists not too far from mine, depending on the choices I could have made.  It’s set in Los Angeles in the early 80s although the city itself isn’t one of the characters.  It could have been anywhere.  While I thought Mickey Rourke’s performance was a caricature with the ridiculous gait and poor posture, I do understand how he became famous as he comes to the edge of the fourth wall and dares you to take your eyes off him.  Faye Dunaway is believable and a surprisingly sympathetic character even though she cheats, lies, steals and pulls out a preppy woman’s hair at one point.  I will admit I did enjoy some of the dialogue; so real, so witty.  “I don’t hate people, I just find myself happier when they’re not around” and “The more things you believe in, the better off you are” and “I don’t like you.  Well, that’s just the way the world goes.  I don’t like you either” are but three of the most memorable.  I’m always appreciative of learning new things to broaden my view, to crack my bubble just a little more.

 

My jungle adventure, if you can call it that, has had me thinking about how other people view me.  Would I understand who I was if I met me?  I know I always attempt to create a backstory when I see someone outside the norm but I wonder if others do the same?  My mother always said, “Just because you’re talking about people, Dustin Terryll, doesn’t mean they’re talking about you.”  Thus, my second essay about the jungle debacle.

 

Oscar is the name of the young man who helped us into and then almost immediately out of the jungle this morning.  He is one of the workers here at the villa.  He stayed back with us, the slow ones.  When he saw we were struggling, he cut branches into walking sticks with his machete and wordlessly handed one to me.  When we asked if we could return to the villa early, he silently acquiesced and immediately began carding a walkable path to the road so we wouldn’t have to re-trace our perilous steps through the river.  Unsure of how to even thank him with more than a woefully inadequate muchas gracias, I wondered what he thought of me; this pale, overdressed American trying to push myself too much in a literal jungle.  Does he even think about us?  Is this just another day working in an environment that includes a steady stream of foreign travelers?  Are we an anecdote he uses to amuse his family around the dinner table or is he the silent type who processes internally and shares little needing to conserve his energy for things like rescuing gringos from themselves?  I imagine I’m thinking about Oscar more than he is thinking about me.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Costa Rica Diaries, Part 7


January 31, 2017

Last night Nick (Halverson) and I discussed the many similarities between rural Costa Ricans and rural Southerners in the US.  Regardless if there is a change in income, many remain in their same tiny houses; you only know their fortunes have increased because they build an enormous electronic front gate, buy a more expensive car or a much larger flat screen TV.   They also burn their trash in barrels.  I laughed as my nephew asked for and received his very own burn barrel for Christmas his sophomore year in high school.

Our retreat is in a beautiful private home well off the beaten path.  A location like this wasn’t unfamiliar to me as most of my childhood and almost all of my Christmases even now have been in houses outside a tiny town in the rural South and Texas.

After dinner tonight, we were discussing haiku after I told a story about meeting one of my favorite authors, Douglas Coupland, at a book signing/reading in Anchorage, Alaska and he quite cleverly read from John Grisham’s The Client instead of from one of his own books. While reading a passage he stumbled upon a haiku about a hushpuppy.  This led to Zach Roz teaching us how to write haiku and each of us trying our hand at the five syllable-seven syllable-five syllable poetic structure.

My offerings:
Practicing Haiku
After watching Mickey Rourke
Seems beside the point

A Brita Bottle
Costa Rican water source
No diarrhea!

February 1, 2017

Today we had a jaunt in the jungle after our morning writing class.  I had to turn back relatively quickly as did Tom (Shaw).  I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and felt slightly dizzy from the oppressive humidity.  Tom had to go to the hospital because of his blood pressure due to the humidity.  Tonight on the way to dinner, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall then had a delicious dinner at a tilapia farm where, oddly, not everyone ate tilapia.  You could catch the fish yourself and they’d cook it if you wanted.  I chose to eat what had already been caught and cooked by others.  Far be it from me to be an immigrant taking someone’s job from them.

We stopped for ice cream at the local tiny store, their version of a quickie mart.  It was very small and they had one of every item manufactured in Costa Rica, China and other countries.  You couldn’t fit an additional whisper on the shelves.  I felt very much at home, remembering the tiny store down the road from my grandparents’ farm in Alsatia, Louisiana from my childhood.

 We later watched  one of our instructors Will (Viharo’s) dad in the movie “Bare Knuckles” and everyone made funny comments about the acting, the clothes, the choreographed fights and , of course, the flute.  John Kapelos did five years at Second City Improv (the home of talented Canadians) and can riff like a pro.  He is hilarious!

 My jungle-themed essay from our afternoon class:
I know the definition of intrepid and I know it doesn’t apply to me, but I decided I couldn’t come to Costa Rica and not at least wander into the jungle, even if only by accident.  I had been instructed on which rubber boots to buy from Amazon (the website, not the river) and I borrowed a jungle hat from my truly intrepid friend Jamie.  I was feeling rakish having written a haiku about my ensemble:  Washable silk shirt, lovely linen pants I wear, Costa Rican Prep.  I wasn't dreading this event as I had been assured the terrain we were to traverse was flat.  A motley crew of poetic wanderers in the capable hands of mostly silent native Costa Ricans, we set off at varying speeds.

I’ve lived in north Louisiana.  I’ve visited south Louisiana, farther south than New Orleans, in the summer.  I thought I knew humidity.  I did not.  Imagine touring the French Quarter in August wearing an angora bodysuit, jogging everywhere you go.  The air was so thick you could almost grab a handful of it.  Imagine trying to walk through a memory foam mattress over loose rocks in ill-fitting rubber boots trying to keep your spirits up by throwing out what you intend as witty asides comparing the jungle stream to the Bogue Chitto River in South Mississippi.  I’m not sure if that’s the reason the most adventurous of our group (Zach and John) strode ahead at a quicker pace, but I don’t blame them.  I was being so absurdly chipper I was starting to get on my own nerves.

I began to have trouble breathing in the soupy air and noticed my fellow slow-traveler (Tom) had taken a seat on a rock to catch his breath, too.  I seized upon the chance to rescue us both by suggesting I could be easily convinced to return to the villa without further ado.  Tom, God bless him, concurred.  I admitted to Tom and our consummate host, Nick, that although I grew up in the country and had hiked and explored the woods and rivers of Louisiana, Mississippi and East Texas, it has been more than twenty-five years ago and it feels almost disingenuous to claim that history.  It’s like I’ve co-opted someone else’s childhood for dramatic effect, however accurate it may be.  I keep saying I am not that guy, but I must come to terms I have become that guy; City Slicker, Gringo, Greenhorn, whatever you call it.  I’m soft, people.  Soft like a down pillow.  But I’m okay with it because at least this down pillow agrees to leave the couch and be thrown into the wild (be it woods, plains or jungle) from time to time.