Kia needs to fix these cars

Foxy takes her daughter to school every morning in a 2013 Kia Optima. She has to stop, then turn left across one lane of traffic diving downhill around a blind curve, into a stream accelerating uphill from the right, cars coming fast in each direction.

It wasn’t working too well.

“When I step on the gas, the car starts to go, but then just stops! I took it back to the dealer, but the guy in the service department said it was part of the traction control, and I was just pushing the gas too hard.”

I took the wheel for a few days. It didn’t seem that bad. I could make it happen, but not without being pretty aggressive. So the service guy was probably right, it was just traction control.

Then it rained.

We were in a busy intersection with about five lanes in each direction, counting turn lanes. I was first in line at the red light, on a slight uphill grade. Green. Step on gas. Car goes… maybe two feet. Suddenly stops. Another few feet. Stops. By now, I’m well into the intersection starting and stopping my way on through.

“That’s really ugly,” were the first words out of my mouth. I hope. Followed by, “That’s not right.”

“See?!” said Foxy.

“It acts like it’s driving only one wheel, and when that one slips, the traction control hits the brakes,” I say. From then on, I turn the traction control off so I can at least predict what’s going to happen, and wonder if Kia will then say it’s my fault if there’s an accident.

The Optima is a front wheel drive car. When a front wheel drive car accelerates, weight shifts to the back wheels, reducing front wheel traction. Okay. The tires aren’t new, but they’re not bald. Okay. That’s the end of excuses, as far as I am concerned. I’ve driven front wheel drive cars before. This is wrong.

Next stop, Internet. Turns out, a number of people have complained about this, including reports to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I take notes.

Coincidentally, a few days later, Foxy gets a call from the dealership, asking how she likes her car. She mentions the problem, and sales guy points out that even though she bought it used, the car is still under warranty. That’s all I need.

I drop Foxy off at work and head down to the dealership, wait for the manager on duty to get off the phone.

“I’ve never heard of this,” he says.

“I’m surprised. There have been a number of complaints, they’re easy to find online, and some reports to the NHTSA. Here’s  where you find them, and here’s the part number needed to fix it. Would you like to write it down?”

I may not be much of a wrench, but I can go online.

Sales manager says he has to talk to service manager.

“Would you like me to come along?” I ask.

“No, let me see what he’s doing, first,” sales manager says.

Ten minutes later, he takes me back to the service manager. We all sit down.

“Not really heard of this being a problem” says service manager, who seems like a very nice guy.

“Well, here’s a couple of places you can find records of complaints,” I say. “And here’s the part number that solves the problem.” That part number had been posted by a guy in Louisianna, who I now want to buy a bowl of jambalaya: 1 58920 − 2T550, Hydraulic Unit Assembly, or an HECU, which I’m told stands for hydraulic electronic control unit.

Somewhere in that conversation, the term, “one wheel peel” comes up. Exactly what I felt at the rainy intersection.

“I’m willing to be flexible,” I say to the two managers. “She can give you this car back, and we’ll look for a car someplace else, or you can put her in a different car, or you can fix it. But we can’t let her take her daughter to school in a car that isn’t safe. We just can’t do that,” I say, making sure that all three of us understand this isn’t just my problem, and especially not hers.

The sales manager leaves the room at that point. Service manager says he has to make a phone call. When he comes back, he says there is a part that might make a difference, he can’t guarantee it. But he has authorization to install it under warranty. He’ll keep the Optima, and gives me a loaner.

Foxy picks her car up a week later.

“It doesn’t spin and stop! It drives like a normal car!”

Cool. I get to be a hero for… a few minutes. That’s good enough. I appreciate the dealership stepping up and taking care of this, finally, once confronted by hard evidence. They were polite, friendly, professional, and surprisingly, I liked the drivable little box they gave us as a loaner car. It’s got soul.

But how many Kia’s were sold with this problem? Just the 2013 models? Just the Optimas? How many women, and men, who don’t have decades of experience with all sorts of drivetrains at all sorts of speeds in all sorts of conditions, were told, “You’re giving it too much gas. That’s a safety feature.” What will these cars do in the snow? How many of these cars will go out of warranty, and how many customers will be stuck with what could be a $1,500 bill?

Or get hit by a truck in the middle of an intersection because a car they could not afford to fix just wouldn’t GO!

Kia, the company, should do more. It should not be left to owners to individually resolve this problem. Kia needs to recall any car with this issue, and Kia knows what cars are affected and who owns them. Vehicles with this design flaw should be repaired and drivers should not be charged. Kia the company should accept this responsibility.

What color is your “blue?”

Back in the early days, when the internet was trying to define itself, different web pages sometimes looked different on different brands of computer, depending on which browser was being used.

The pages would be “rendered” (drawn) differently, depending on algorithms used by both the sending and receiving machine.

For grins and giggles, let’s pretend that each “me” of us is a user, and what we think of as “what’s real” is simply the way our browsers (brains) render the input we receive from others machines that, in turn, have to render their inputs, and often do so imperfectly.

What’s drawn depends as much, or even more, on the receiving machine’s algorithm as it does on the dots and dashes transmitted by the sending machine. We all are building and changing our algorithms daily. Most of us, anyway. I know a few who haven’t changed much since the 70s, but that’s another topic.

I bring this up because it’s important to think about why we think the way we do, and to understand that we can hold fast to our “rendering” of reality without much certainty that it is “objectively” true.

In fact, there ain’t no such thing.

Thailand?

“More coffee?” I’m trying to prolong the conversation.

“No, really, I have to go,” you say.

“Me too,” I say. “How about we go together? Thailand?”  You give me a very strange look.

“Thailand? Thailand is half-way around the world.”

“Not quite. Halfway would be off the tip of South Africa. In the water. Not much of a vacation, but I’d probably go there with you.”

“That’s insane,” you say.

“Haven’t we covered that? I prefer crazy.”

“You prefer being crazy over being rational, maybe,” you say, almost like that’s a bad thing.

“You get it! I knew we had something in common!”

“We don’t,” you respond quickly, reaching for some clarity.

“We should,” I respond. “Look at all the fun we could have.” I have no intention of letting clarity anywhere near this conversation.

“You can’t ‘should have’ something in common. You do or you don’t,” you say with slight exasperation. That’s just one of the things I like about you, the way you show frustration with me so easily. Some try to hide it.

“It can’t be both?” I’ve got you now, but you don’t see it coming.

“Having something in common and not having something in common? No, that’s inconsistent.” You pride yourself on a consistency I’m about to turn into a hobgoblin.

“We have coffee in common,” I say.

“That has nothing to do with this,” the rising tone of your voice tells me you sense the trap.

“We don’t have lipstick in common,” I continue, as if you had not said a thing.

“Stop it.” You see it clearly, now.

“So, obviously, we have something, coffee, in common and don’t have something, lipstick, in common. Happens all the time. In fact, having and not having something in common is something we all have in common.”

“I’m leaving,” you say.

“We can be in Thailand this time next month if you’ll say ‘yes.’ ”

“Why Thailand?” you ask, closing the door again.

“Beautiful beaches, beautiful sunsets, good food, good times, laughter. Yadda yadda. All that, but more important, adventure!

“What happened to Bocas Del Toro?”

“You didn’t respond to Bocas. I’m upping the offer.”

“The food is better than in Bocas?”

“You ever go out for Bocas, or do you go out for Thai?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“There’s one in there somewhere. I might look for a boat there.”

“Where?”

“Thailand. Isn’t that what we’re talking about?

“I don’t know what we’re talking about any more.”

“Then let’s just sit here and enjoy each other’s silence. I like that, too. More coffee?”

You shake your head, but you’re still sitting here. I take that as a hopeful sign.

“Why a boat?” you ask a minute later, a little bit curious.

“Have to get home somehow.”

“You would take a boat back from Thailand?” you ask, with some incredulity.

“Not without stopping in New Zealand. Want to go?”

“Who are you again?” Now you’re trying to avoid the question.

“The guy you met for coffee. What do you think?”

“I think you’re very different than I expected.”

“In a bad way?”

“Not bad, just… different.”

Bocas

“Would you like to go to Bocas del Toro in March? Let’s stay a month. Get out of winter.  I know a great little place on the water.”

“But I don’t even know you!” you said.

“You would after a month in Bocas.” I say this with a smile, but it’s pretty much true.

“But you don’t even know me!”

“I would after a month in Bocas.” I was being flippant, I admit it.

“That’s just insane.”

“I prefer crazy.”

“You can use either word,” you say. “They’re synonyms.”

“No, I meant, I prefer crazy. Prefer it over the ordinary, or the conventional, or the really truly rational. I’d rather not spend the last of my days being too rational.”

“Why do you say ‘last of your days?’ Are you sick?”

“No. Just crazy. And that’s not a synonym for sick.”

“So why are these the last of your days?”

“Each today is the last of your days. By definition.” I say this with a smile.

“That isn’t how that’s supposed to be used.” You’re getting frustrated.

“But that’s how I prefer to live.”

“What if you don’t like me?” you ask. I don’t blame you for being a little nervous.

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t suggest we go to Bocas together.”

“What if I don’t like you?” you asked.

“I guess you go home. Or go to Belize. No, that’s not a good idea, I may go to Belize after Bocas, and if you don’t like me, there might not be room for both of us. It’a a small country. So how about it?”

“How about what?”

“Bocas del Toro. Or Belize. Thailand? Bali? Fiji? I’ll pay for airfare and the hotels. We’ll split meals unless we fall in love.”

“What happens then?”

“That would be a really great way to spend the last of our todays, no matter how many we have left.”

“May I think about it?”

“Of course, but don’t take too long.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I don’t want to spend the last of my days waiting. That would be insane, and I’m not crazy.”

Kitzhaber stung by butterfly

On February 18, 2015, Dr. John Kitzhaber, former governor of Oregon, fell from a cliff 100,000 feet above the floor of the Willamette Valley. Though he was climbing with others, he fell alone. His legacy, found near the capitol in Salem, did not survive.

Many focus on the last moments of his climb, and wonder how an avid outdoorsman could succumb to such a fate.  An autopsy has shown, like many men of his age and “lone-wolfness,” Kitzhaber suffered a malfunction linked to the “Y” chromosome, leaving him vulnerable to a sting by the blind butterfly, Femme Fatale.

Femme Fatale has evolved attributes that attract the susceptible, usually a man with strength and resources who can contribute to her wing span and survival through summer storms. Attached securely to the back of his neck, the butterfly has access to neurons between brain, heart and testes.

There is evidence Kitzhaber may have been stung at least once before by a similar species, rendering him even more susceptible.

Those not exposed to butterfly venom will not grasp the reality-distorting vertigo it induces. Laws of physics seem suspended. Solid walls, inviolable boundaries, the very ground and certainly the mountain path traversed by the former governor, are as if painted on soft curtains that shift and billow in ever changing breezes churned by the butterfly’s softly pulsing wings.

From the outside, it’s as if the sufferer has lost touch with “what’s real” and is blind to appearance, context or consequences. From the inside, it’s as if “what’s real” is just out of reach, pushed farther and farther away by toxins of need, greed and illusion.

Inducing a state of false symbiosis, Femme Fatale attaches her goals to those of the victim, and values are twisted to appear mutual. The result is an exceedingly convincing illusion that the path towards her desires is a path shared and will bring fabulous, if intangible, reward.

The blind butterfly knows only that resources she needs to keep flying are available. Flying is her only goal. Often a butterfly will leave a trail of the broken until the day she loses her shimmer and is seen as another creature altogether.

Ultimately, that’s the tragedy. Right to the point where she takes wing again, those stung by Femme Fatale feel a wondrous future waits just around the next bend in the path. It may be a different path and a different future than they envisioned before the toxins took hold, but it becomes the only one they believe in.

It’s common for them to exclaim, as footing is lost in the loose dirt of illusion, “I love her!” just as the butterfly releases her grip and lets them fall to their fate, while she flies to embrace another.

Convenient fictions

I’ve come to believe that all of us are often wrong about why we believe what we believe. We rarely go through any sort of analysis of how we came to our conclusions.

For the most part, we bring our history to an experience, slap a convenient pattern on it that pretends to be an explanation, and leave it at that.

This is certainly true of writing. But in writing, at least the kind I do, I get to admit that I am creating fiction. My point is that we all do this all the time. We create fictions of what is happening almost as soon as it happens. Then this fiction is regarded as a fact that influences future impressions.

Which build and influence future impressions that build and influence future … yadda yadda.

Rather than thinking about it, the “truth” (if such a thing exists out of context) emerges over time as our impressions sift themselves, the more valuable (but no more “correct) rising to the top. These impressions tend to reenforce themselves.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary part of surviving in this world, this wondrous ability to create and believe in patterns we create to explain; cause and effect, if you will.

Man used fire long before he understood how oxygen and carbon release heat when combined. Eons ago, his explanation worked well enough that he had fire when he needed it. The fact that he was entirely wrong about the causes of combustion didn’t matter.

That ability to create patterns to guide our behavior extends not just to fire. It helps us survive social situations as well. We avoid angry drunks spilling out of the bar when we don’t want to fight, and duck the lady at church who wants to talk about her grandkids for an hour when we have a pie burning in the oven at home.

But occasionally our patterns hinder us. If we were badly victimized, we will tend to  perceive victimhood; angry people find things to be angry about, fixers find things to fix, preeners are disappointed when adulation isn’t forthcoming, etc.

I’ve found this especially true the more attached we are to issues of relationship, politics, values. I’m not talking about Ford versus Chevy.

It’s how our brains are wired. I won’t go into the science. It doesn’t matter in this discussion. What’s important is to acknowledge that it happens, that we are often more “right” the longer we take to form an opinion or take action, that we are on safest ground when generous toward those with whom we disagree, and leave our minds open.

It’s hard work. But so are a lot things.

It’s real

About seven minutes ago, I sent off the final draft of my new book to a publisher in Seattle.

They like this book, they wanted this book, they are going to pay for editing and proofreading and printing and will do all the things publishers do to a book before they try to sell it. They are very enthusiastic.

It’s hard to describe how wonderful this feels. Not loud and boisterous wonderful, but quietly fulfilling wonderful. Like seeing my daughters graduate, or holding their own in an adult conversation. Having the apple trees thrive.

According to our contract, they want to have the book available to readers on August 15. That’s a pretty tight time frame, and that’s pretty cool, too. In fact, there’s only one thing that isn’t amazingly wonderful about all this.

I had to write it under a pseudonym. That’s just how it played out. It’s going to be a while before anyone can know that it’s mine.

 

 

How this works

When I started writing last month in Costa Rica, I had no clue what I was writing about, why I was writing, whether it was or would be anything. I wrote because that’s what I do. If you’re curious, it begins here.

I said as much to Dick about halfway through the trip when he said he thought it should be a book: Books need to be about something.

All I had were verbal snapshots. But after a while, I noticed the snapshots were really of people, in this kind of interesting environment. After a little while longer, I sensed that there was coherence to it, even if I still didn’t know what the unifying principle was. Yes, it really does work like that.

I was sending it out to people I thought might be interested, and the response back was incredibly supportive. Not only was that favorable response a significant reason why I kept on, it forced me — you forced me — to include important visual details.

If you had not been there and I had waited, those details would have been lost, because I would have waited and then had only ideas, and the imagery, the environment that was so important, would have begun to fade.

But it still wasn’t about anything. It did not have a theme.

Two days after I got back I was trying to figure out a title for what was basically a collection. I think I’d written about the plane trip. Well, I know I had, because that one was actually written by hand on a yellow note pad when I could not connect to the internet in San Jose. I don’t know if I had transcribed it, though.

About that particular piece: I  told “Valerie,” and also “Olivia” and “Alycia” while I was in Bocas, that I’d just realized I was going to have to subject myself to the same process. Not to do so would have been unfair, dishonest. Later I would tell one of my favorite readers, “I could not ask of them what I was not willing to give.” That’s all I knew, so I did it.

After I got to Oregon, I was trying to think of a title for the collection. I went through several possibilities while sitting in my chair and letting my unintentional chew on the problem while I looked at the mountains.

Journey? No color. Slide Show? No again, similar reason but closer, maybe.

Then all of a sudden, I got a huge shove right in the middle of my chest. It almost took the wind out of me.  “Butterflies.” Of course. What an idiot. Obviously, I was writing about butterflies. These wonderful, incredible, occasionally tragic people were butterflies; delicate, resilient, often but not always beautiful, very different individuals with similar needs and desires.

With that came the answer to the problem posed by Dick  when he said it should be a book. What’s it about? It’s about the life cycle: seeking, struggling, transition. Butterflies do it. We do it.

Is that original? Not even close; butterflies have been used as metaphors since long before we knew there were things such as metaphors. Are we butterflies? Of course not.

It would work.

I will reorganize things. I will probably take people from one place and put them in another to create “story,” an emotional beginning middle and end. I will flesh out some places where I left things too sparse.

I’ll do more research on butterflies themselves, so I can make the metaphor solid. I’ll add these sparingly — I’m not going to hammer readers with science. A paragraph or two in each “chapter” to illustrate how it fits into the whole.

Then, “Butterflies” will will be a book. Like a butterfly, it will have gone from being one thing to being something else, very different. It will hopefully retain the bright colors of the previous generation — which would not be there were it not for those of you who allowed me to send you what I was seeing and feeling as I was seeing and feeling it.

I won’t do much of anything for a month. It has to sit for a while, undisturbed, while I get some distance from it. Then I’ll tear into it again, change it, fix it, redo that a few times, and then it will be done. It will be a very small book that will hopefully cause readers to feel reading it was worthwhile.

I can’t thank you enough. All of you.

~Erik

Butterflies

He turned sideways in the aisle to move past passengers still struggling to jam slightly too-large carry-ons into the overhead compartment. I groaned inwardly, because I knew exactly where he was going to sit.

It had been a long couple of nights in San Jose. My room was right next to the bar, and synthesized music pounded incessantly on the wall above my head. It was cold and the blanket inadequate. Each night I huddled with my hands between my thighs to keep them warm.

I drifted off not long after I sat down on the plane, and dreamt I was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was me. I’d been looking forward to leaning up against the window and sleeping my way through the entire flight, maybe use the footwell of the empty seat next to me to stretch out.

That wasn’t going to happen. I knew it as soon as I saw him.

He was wearing greenish cargo shorts of some sort, with too many pockets full of too much stuff so they bulged in too many places; flip flops, and a shirt that might have been white once, a long while ago, but was so wrinkled it looked like it had been wadded up and tied with tight rubber bands. He was three days away from his last shave, and his hair, though clean, looked like he combed it with his fingers.

“Hi,” he said as he sat down. He dropped the small day pack he carried to the floor, shoved it under the seat in front of him with his feet.

“Hi. I wondered if I wouldn’t run into you on this flight. I was hoping for a nap.”

“Yeah, well…” his voice trailed off into a smile. “It’s good to see you again. I didn’t know if you noticed me hanging back there.”

“Not at first,” I said. “Have you been behind me the whole trip, or just since Quepos?”

“For longer than you know. Let’s leave it at that for now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why have I been behind you, or why are we leaving it at that?” he responded.

“Yes,” I said. His clothes had the slightest odor, I can’t say that it was unpleasant, but I could not identify it. It might have been food, or perhaps just the dense muskiness of being stored without air in his backpack.

“It seemed like you were doing some sort of research that might be of interest, we decided to find out.”

“Of interest to whom? Are you with the government? U.S. or Costa Rican?”

“Not really,” he said. “I work for more of a development agency, of sorts. Let’s leave it at that for a moment. Want a Coke?”

“They’re not serving. We’re barely off the ground.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“So, is your development agency a non governmental organization? Private company?” I asked.

“Stubborn, aren’t you? No wonder all those people spilled their lives out to you.”

“You know about that?”

“I thought that’s what we were talking about.”

“Is there an echo in here?”

“No,” he said. “I think it’s just the drop in cabin pressure.”

“So, somebody you work for or are involved with thinks that what I’ve been doing is of some interest from a development point of view?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

“Thats why you’ve been following me around?”

“No, I was following you, though that’s not the right term for it, to see if you were being honest or just out to exploit others.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

“Ouch.”

“You did okay,” he said, trying to soften the impact.

“Ouch.”

He got a tired expression on his face, and I swear he rolled his eyes, but caught himself and looked at me as directly as he could, given we were seated side-by-side in cramped airplane seats.

“Alright. You were as honest as you could be, and while you did stray a little close to the line at times, exploitation is hard to define when it comes to art. Do painters exploit their models?”

“Nice analogy,” I said.

“I’ve picked up a few pointers. The main thing is that you didn’t exploit for cheap or easy reasons. And you were honest. Those are high marks where I come from. Accept it and let it go.”

“Why sit next to me now, when you’ve tried so hard to stay out of sight?” I asked.

“Because we’re about done. You’re going home, and I needed to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll want to ask you some in turn,” I said.

“Fair enough, but do you mind if I go first?” he said.

“I suppose not. Go.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

I laughed out loud, because his question hit right in the middle of the bullseye. That was the very question I’d been asking myself. I looked out the window while I assembled my thoughts. He was able to stop the attendant and he even reached over and dropped my tray table. It took me until the two Cokes had arrived to give him an answer.

“I thought I would. I figured it would be Rebecca, of course, then thought it would be Olivia, how her potential was tempered by vulnerability. Alycia for her faith and serenity. Valerie’s blend of intelligence, wisdom and passion was stunning, and Avi’s innocence, honesty, and strength made him  “amazing,” to use his favorite word. Ed made me sad and of course, so did Pantalones, but that was no reason to reject them. So I don’t know. I didn’t get quite deep enough into the others, I suppose, or deep enough into myself where they would resonate.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“I learned I can live small and still feel fulfilled, as long as I have art. Rebecca, Valerie and Olivia made me realize how selfish I can be.”

“Why?” he asked, actually looked confused.

“By how much they give, are willing to give, the extent of their sacrifice. It may be a female thing,” and then I immediately regretted saying that. But by the way he smiled, I think he saw the regret and let it drop.

“What else did you learn?”

“How thin are the differences.”

“What do you mean?”

“We focus on the differences between us, between people or between people and animals, even between people and the ocean. But at so many levels, we are really all the same, at least have the same rhythms, and it is the rhythms that unify. I don’t have better words for it than that.”

It was his turn to look away and think for a while.

“What was your favorite place?” he asked.

“Bocas del Toro.”

“Because of Olivia and Alycia, Avi and Valerie? You know they won’t still be there if you ever go back,” this he said with a real look of compassion in his eyes. “Would you want to live there?”

“Probably not,” I said. “I think it was the water. I like Bocas, I will go back and maybe for a longer period of time, but I don’t want to die there. The Pacific Northwest is my home.”

“Okay. Last question. Why did you go? What were you looking for?”

“That’s two questions,” I said.

“And there will be followups. But humor me.”

“Adventure. Connection. Love, maybe.” I don’t think I’d admitted that even to myself before he asked.

“Did you find it?”

“No.”

“Really? What about the story of Olivia and Alycia? What about Avi and Valerie?”

“Well, yes, I saw their love, how they loved and how they were loved. I meant something else.”

“Something more personal?

“Something more my own,” I admitted.

“Let me ask you this. Do you believe you can perceive an emotion you don’t experience?” He was looking at me intently as he asked this, so I was a bit wary, careful with my answer.

“No, my guess is that perceiving the emotion is experiencing it.”

“Hah!” this exploded out of him, was so loud it startled me and caused the man on the aisle seat to look over, even though he was wearing headphones and watching a movie. “Good boy! So if perceiving emotions and experiencing them are the same, can we agree that by perceiving love, you experienced it?”

“That was a trap. Yes, I’ll agree I experienced a form of love and connection, but not the way I want to be loved and connected.”

“Well, let’s get to that. My guess is that if you have this capacity for love, you have been loved. Correct?”

“Okay.”

“What happened?”

“Different things at different times.”

“You fucked it up.” He managed to say that with compassion but I don’t know how.

“Mostly. Yes.”

“Why?”

“Different reasons in different relationships.”

“Really?” he asked, now in the same tone of voice people use when they say “seriously?” indicating a level of stupidity hard to believe.

“My exwife said I let go of what I want to reach for what I can’t have.”

“Sounds like a wise woman.”

“Yes, and your point would be…?”

“Oh, don’t get that way. I’m on your side,” he said.

“That remains to be seen,” I replied.

“Fair enough. So why did you fuck up your relationships?”

“Short version?”

“Please. For now.”

“I’m going to have to see you again?”

“Let’s stick to our topic for now, Evasive Boy.”

“The short version is that I didn’t find a partner to play in my playground.”

“Really? No one wanted to commit?” He said that “really” with the same tone of disbelief.

“There were some important differences.”

“I’m sure there were. Who focused on them?”

“I think I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my core values.”

“Values?”

“Okay. Desires. Wants. Aspirations.”

“So you sacrificed companionship instead? So you could live the life you wanted?”

“That seems a little harsh,” I said.

“The truth can be,” he threw back quickly. “But we’re not done. You may appreciate the outcome. What have people said about your little stories?”

“I would say for the most part readers have been very receptive.”

“Good Lord. ‘Very receptive?’ What in Hell are you hiding from?”

It was my turn to sigh. I don’t like talking about myself, and compliments make me uncomfortable. Especially when I am forced to recount them.

“Feedback has been very positive,” I said at last.

“Why?”

“Oh, Christ, I don’t know.”

“Bullshit.” He spat that word out like he had a mouthful.

“Because I shared something that I was seeing.”

“That you were seeing?” Now the sarcasm was thick as sour cream. “You were acting out your lifelong ambition of being a video camera? A seismograph? No editing involved, just recording?”

“Of course not. What I saw, what I felt, how it impacted me.”

“And readers liked this? Why?

“Because I engaged with them.”

“Engaged with readers, or with your subjects, with your butterflies?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Why did these people talk to you?”

“Why am I talking to you?” I shot back.

“Exactly. But let’s answer my question first.”

“Because I asked them questions?”

“Would they have opened their hearts to just anyone the way they opened them to you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“You suppose not? Let me repeat: What in Hell are you hiding from?”

“They opened their hearts to me because… I cared about them. But they couldn’t know that so…”

He waved his hand in preemptive dismissal of my argument.

“Didn’t you once say that much of our personal communication is not verbal?”

“Yes.”

“So, let’s assume they knew that, in your own way, you loved them.”

“That’s a little strong.”

“Granted. But I’m not prepared to say that love is just one thing, and nothing else qualifies.”

“Me either,” I said, mildly offended at the implication.

“Then stop doing it.”

“You are a pain in the ass. What is it you do again?”

“I’m in the development business. So if the people you talked to knew, in some way, that you loved them, and you shared that experience with readers, you shared love, right?”

“You have stretched this far past the breaking point,” I said.

“I don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that if you were able to summon the courage, that’s exactly what your readers would say if you asked them.”

“I thought they loved the writing.”

“There’s lots of wordsmith’s out there. I’m going to repeat the question: What were you looking for?”

“Answer’s the same. Adventure. Connection. Love.”

“Did you find it?

“In a way, I suppose. I perceived it, and by your definition, experienced it.”

“More than that. You showed love, received love, shared love.”

“But I didn’t hold love in my arms.”

“To say you have nothing because you don’t have everything seems a little selfish and small, especially coming from you: you who can love the father of a girl he abandoned for a principle; who can love an armored up tough girl trying to find fairness in a world where it’s in short supply; who can find love for a drug and alcohol addled cripple who can’t keep his pants above his knees, an old surfer chasing the future as if the past did not exist. I’m leaving out your daughters and all the others because they are too obvious. All that love, and you want to hold it in your arms?”

“I want to be held.”

“You are a writer. You need to hold yourself. That’s what we do.”

“We?” I asked.

“Just a second. Let me track down the attendant. I need a Coke.”

Of course, he never came back. The plane was full. I walked the aisle back to the bathrooms, saw people come and go out of each. I looked into first class until the attendant chased me out. I asked if a man had come up and asked her for Cokes, and she said no one had, besides me.

I know he didn’t get off the plane before I did. I thought once I caught a glimpse of him, but I was mistaken. But my guess is that I will bump into him again, somewhere out on the road, probably chasing butterflies.

End

Paradise

Vicente and Johanna found paradise nine years ago, but they may still get out. The loan will be paid this year and who knows… maybe someone else needs a chance to own a hotel where soft breezes caress with a cashmere touch, flowers bloom even where abandoned, the surf a playground offered for free.

It was a long time since breakfast and I’d said goodbye to Bocas in Panama. The water taxi took at least a half hour, then there was the bus to Costa Rica. The walk across the bridge over the river border was surreal, gaps between the planks and rusted girders big enough to swallow a foot right up to your waist.

The shuttle was newer and very comfortable. I opened the window.

“Close windows, please: Air conditioning!” said the young driver’s assistant riding shotgun.

We went through banana plantations, thousands of bunches grown beneath broad leaves, in blue bags to protect the fruit from insects. Every once in a while we’d motor past a group of workers surrounded by piles of green bananas on the side of the road.

When I got to Puerto Viejo, the sandwich board on the sidewalk said “A good day starts with a great cup of coffee” and pointed upstairs. It seemed written espressoly for me. Sorry. The cafe was owned by an Italian baker (with a pencil thin mustache!) on the second floor of a dilapidated building I mistakenly thought was on the main drag when the shuttle dropped me off in downtown.

“Eeees hot, whew, no? Not often theeees hot,” he said.

“You are Italian?” I asked him,

“Why YES!” he exclaimed, surprised. I was thumbing through the guide, asked him for directions and he recommended a hotel just up the street. The little cabinas were $35 and buried in this lovely jungle garden. Aside from the isolation of the cabinas, the heavy thick foliage meant there would.be.no.breeze. If I wanted air conditioning, it was $60.

That was a surcharge that just seemed unreasonable. There was something about the desk clerk. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, then. It felt like a soft resentment, but I let it go, thinking it was just a matter of style. I had a place for the night.

“If you want a second night, I need to know by nine in the morning,” the clerk said.

“I’ll let you know,” I replied.

Because it was close, I checked out a hotel around the corner. The clerk was attentive, the rooms she showed me were on the second floor, so if there was a breeze it might at least rustle the curtain. There were comfortable chairs in a tiled common area, coffee available all day, brewed to order, and a dog who was a tennis ball junkie, but subtle about it.

I told her I would check in the next day and walked toward downtown for a real lunch.

I’d gone about a block before I realized just how hot it had become. I turned around and went back to the first hotel and asked if she would let me out of my stay.

“You want to leave?” she said, and without another word got my $50 bill out of the drawer, I gave her back the exact change she had given me. The actual coins. I checked into the absolutely spotless hotel owned by Vicente and Johanna, instead. I was told to take my flip flops off before I walked upstairs to the rooms and I’d need my key to get in after 8 p.m.

Vicente is from Chile, Johanna from Germany. They met when Vicente was studying and working in Germany. They wanted to be someplace tropical, talked about going to Chile, traveled around the world for nearly a year on plane tickets that did not cost much more than round trips from Germany to Chile and back.

They stayed in this very hotel in Puerto Viejo. It was for sale. They bought it. That was nine years ago. It will be paid off this year.

The streets of Puerto Viejo are confusing by day because they connect to a road that wraps around a small point on it’s way south. So you can walk down two streets that are perpendicular to each other and end up on the same road, like leaving the center of a circle along two right angle radii. You still hit the same perimeter, just in two different places.

At night it’s even more confusing, because landmarks seen in the daylight disappear. The shops are open and brightly lit, selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Every other storefront is a restaurant or a bar, vendors cook chicken and beef kabobs on the corner, fanning charcoal with a paper plate until it spits and glows and sears the meat, and sell them for $2.

The main road is both highway and sidewalk, because the sidewalk is broken and narrow and occupied in places by booths selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Motorbikes zip between pedestrians picking their way along the edge to avoid being whacked by a car, SUV, delivery truck or giant regional bus. Rasta music blares from speakers, Ultimate Fighting shrieks from a wall of TVs.

Everywhere the smoke of marijuana, incense, street food, smoldering leaves and burning plastic blends like a carcinogenic haze.

I couldn’t find Laslows to have the fish dinner I promised myself. I went back to a spot I had seen.

“You probably want the salad?” said the waiter, pointing to the cheapest thing on the menu.

“No, I would like the chicken and rice,” I said.

“Oh, the CHICKEN!” said the waiter. I could not figure out why he seemed to resent I was sitting at a table in his restaurant facing the scene on the street.

“What would you recommend?” I asked, trying not to reflect the attitude.

“We are a fish market,” he waved at the counter. “The sea bass is very good.”

So I had the sea bass. It was okay, too.

I threaded my way back through the smoke, noise and traffic to my hotel. I fell asleep late because I’ve developed an addiction to ginger ale and cola in Costa Rica and the sugar lights me off for at least a couple of hours. And I needed to write about  Bocas. The burning smell was not mitigated by being away from the main drag. In fact, it was worse at the hotel. I went into my room when the mosquitoes started drilling into my legs.

It was the dogs that woke me up. Not the hotel dogs, who muttered their barks, but dogs from the house just below and a little back from my window. There were two of them. Excited. Shrill. Tied up. Running back and forth the length of their rope yipping, yelping, whining barking. Between the two of them, it was a cacophony of anxiety.

I looked out. There was a large black man working in the yard. The dogs seemed to want his attention, but he was deaf to them. They ran back and forth, back and forth, ran at him, stopped just before their tether would have snapped them around by the neck, did it again and again and again and again.

After working for a while I walked down to buy the beach cloth I’d promised myself, huge, red and gold with bright suns vying with moons for attention. But the woman who had it wasn’t there, and the ones who were there did not have what I wanted, though what they did have cost much less.

I walked the mile and a half down to a beach I’d been told was worth visiting. I realized I’d not eaten and was ravenous,  got a quarter chicken with rice and a delicious ginger laced lemonade from a street vendor with dreadlocks. I sat on the sand near speakers booming out a wonderful Reggae I’d never heard. A Black woman, a girl really, walked up.

“You want a $10 massage? I got the table set up.”

I’d walked past her table on the way to the sand, she was working on a very sunburned white guy. The sign said, “Massage $30, locals $20, backpackers $10.”

“No, gracias, I’m going to finish my lunch.”

She shrugged and headed down the beach.

A father played with his son in the waves. Dad was hugely muscular and ebony black. His son was alive with energy, chasing the boogie board up the beach when the small waves got it away from him, lifting his feet out of the water back to dad, washing sand from the bottom of the board as soon as he could. Dad would reach down for his hand and they would walk again back out to deeper water.

As I walked back toward town, young white guys bragged about how hammered they were. It did look like it was going to be a long, long Saturday for them.

I followed a family through a grove of dark and gnarled trees back toward town. Thier littlest boy tripped and fell right in front of me. He was silent for a moment then started to wail in a voice every parent knows. I bent over and set him back up on his feet without him knowing what happened. He looked up at me in silence and then ran to mom, who gave me a warm smile and said, “Gracias.”

In the afternoon I talked to Vicente. I told him I needed to go back to San Jose the next day or the day after, and asked him about transportation.

“Which day do you want?”he asked.

“It really doesn’t matter,” I said.

He tried to call, but there was no answer on a Sunday. “I will keep trying and let you know,” he said.

That evening I found Laslows.  I’d walked by it at least a half dozen times the night before. Locals said Laslows had the best fish dinner in Puerto Viejo, if not all of Costa Rica, or maybe the Caribbean. Laslows looked very much like Mama Mias Pizza next door. That first night I thought they were the same restaurant and didn’t ask, which is why I didn’t find it. The next night I asked.

Laslows doesn’t have a sign, because everybody knows where it is. Laslows isn’t always open, because sometimes Laslow doesn’t catch any fish. And when Laslows is open, there is only one dish on the menu: the fish just caught by Laslow and prepared the way Laslow prepares fish by the guy Laslow trained. It is served to people who know about Laslows and are sitting at one of four small tables or three tiny stools at a “bar” which is mostly a half dozen bottles of booze on the counter and another half dozen bottles or so on tiny shelves behind the bartender who “can make anything anybody orders.”

Including drinks for people dining next door at Mama Mias, if they ask.

Laslow looks Italian with broad shoulders, bald head and mustaches. He plays with an unlit cigar as he sits in the corner; his tiny wife washes an occasional dish but looks like she feels out of place and the Black girl beside her seems to do most of the work. Laslow’s blond, tall and skinny son, Robbie serves the meals and talks about putting the fish they don’t cook and serve into an onion bag with a hook and pulling up a 100 lb. grouper. He pulls out his phone and shows the photograph.

Robby is moving nearly as fast as the tall, good looking bartender who is from New York but upstate and talking so fast I can barely catch the words about his camping in Oregon with his girlfriend he didn’t even take his camping gear figured he’d buy it there but she just hated the cold and the wet until about the third night after he taught her to build a fire with one match and she did it the first time even he didn’t do it the first time he tried and she really loved camping after that everything gets so mellow with no hassles about finding motels whatever…

Laslows was worth it, when I found it that second night. Best meal I’d had in a month.

The next day, I found the woman with the beach cloth I wanted, and she beat me at negotiating. When we’d done the deal I smiled.

“Gracias, Senora,”

She smiled wide and shook my hand.

“Mucho Gusto,” and I think she meant it. I headed back to the beach for an obligatory sit on the sand on my new cloth. One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen was sitting nearby, her dark skin smooth, nose prominent, her dreadlocks pulled back and wrapped in the rainbow weave used by so many here that it no doubt has a name.

At first she was carefully eating a quarter chicken like the one I’d had the day before. I noticed her forearms were longer than mine, her muscles more pronounced. She must have been well over six foot two. When she was done, one of the ubiquitous beach dogs walked up and nosed the container. She reached over and with the most gentle caress possible, stroked the back of the dog’s head while talking to him so softly it must have been a whisper. The dog wagged its tail.

Eventually she opened the carton and let the dog lick the contents, then stood, took the container to the garbage, came back and sat on the sand where she started writing in a journal of sorts. The already filled pages were ragged, which meant she’d been working on whatever this was for many months, at least. She would write a few words, look out at the sea where her daughter played, then mouth the words she was writing as if tasting them, and write some more.

I wanted to to ask what she was writing, of course, but I was intimidated by both her grace and her concentration.

Her daughter ran up crying. The woman adopted a look of concern, leaned back for a moment for a better view of her daughter’s lip or nose, I could not be sure. Reassured that the injury was not significant but recognizing that the tears still were, she unwound a large scarf or small beach cloth the same color as mine, wrapped it around her wet daughter, and held her in her lap.

She didn’t say much, the holding was the communication.

Eventually the little girl released herself from the embrace, stood up out of her mother’s arms and ran off, safe again and ready to explore the world, once again. Everything this woman did flowed from a languid, perfectly pitched intention to whatever the need was at the moment.

I still could not ask what she was writing. Eventually she got up, asked something of the man who was spinning Reggae, waved in the direction of her husband or partner or daughter I couldn’t see and disappeared.

When I got back to the hotel, Johanna called out to me.

“I made your decision for you. You are going tomorrow on the 2 p.m. shuttle. There was only one seat left.”

“That’s perfect. Thank you,” I said.

I stayed up later than I intended, working even though I’d skipped colas with caffeine, but I did finally fall asleep. It was the screaming that woke me up.

Men’s screams and shouts at first, it sounded like it was right in front of the hotel. Men screaming and yelling and shouting in Spanish. Then a woman screamed several times. They weren’t fake screams, it sounded like she was suffering from violence. Then again, “Aller! Aller!” Or something like that. I expected to hear gunshots or sirens, but there was neither. Eventually it stopped.

The next morning I was on my fourth cup of coffee or so. Johanna came out with a towel and wiped away two cat hairs that had landed on the glass at some point. I asked about how they came to own a hotel here in Caribbean paradise.

“You take wonderful care of it,” I said.

“Yes, well, we try. This is our home, too,” she said.

“Then you heard the screaming last night, too.”

“Ah, yes. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to,” she said. Apparently one of the husbands of the neighboronthecorner returns periodically. Last night he was run off by one of neighboronthecorner’s sons. I wondered if it was the one who smoked enough reefer it was possible to get high on the other side of the fence separating the properties.

“For the first three years, one of us was here at all times,” Johanna said. She and Vicente never left together. Not to go to dinner. Not to walk the dogs on the beach. The neighboronthecorner was difficult. One of the men, I didn’t get if was one of the sons or one of the husbands, regularly peed near or through the fence on the back of the hotel’s coke machine.

“I asked if he could stop peeing on our machine. They said, ‘You want I should kill you?’ ” Johanna said.

As to the dogs belonging to neighborwiththedogs, at first there was only one dog. Then there were two. Johanna said she asked if the dogs could at least be moved to the front yard, but was told they had to protect against burglars, presumably those entering the property from the highly secure hotel where I was staying.

“It’s just a lie,” Johanna said. “The reason they don’t put them in the front yard is they would bother the Tico across the street. The Tico would just kill the dogs. I’ve been told many times I should just kill the dogs, but of course I am not going to do that.”

I said there is a certain disadvantage being one who plays by the rules. She looked at me a little differently for a moment. I mentioned the burning plastic.

“It is easier to burn it than carry it away,” she said.

Johanna has been in Puerto Viejo for nine years. She told me she did not have a single friend in the community.

She said she understood the resentment. “The government of Costa Rica sent no money here. Ever. They didn’t even let Blacks to the other side of the country until the 1960s,” she said.

“Vicente has tried. He tried to get them to stop burning, explaining it was so bad for the health. ‘You don’t like it go back to your country,’ he was told. He found out there was a machine here that ground up branches? He got a couple of people to help for a couple of weeks, but then no one showed up, and the machine didn’t show up again.”

Vicente wanted to talk when he heard me mention a sailboat. Vicente is thinking about a sailboat, too. The loan is paid off this year.

Vicente told me his dream had been to start what he called a “university” in Puerto Viejo, but I think he meant a trade school. Right now Vicente is teaching Spanish to foreigners. He wanted to provide an education to locals so young men and women could learn to be electricians, plumbers, maintenance workers.

When I said I didn’t think education could work without opportunity, he said, “There is much opportunity!” None of these professions had someone who would show up and do the work.

As someone who has done very little of most of these, I wondered whether my skill set would be useful here. I thought about it for a little less than half a moment. I thought about The Italian baker. Johanna. The drunk white guys on the beach. The quiet air of resistance, if not resentment I felt below the surface. The smell of burning plastic.

“But no,” Vicente said at last. His dream of providing opportunity and an education here would leave with him. The heros of the youth of the town were drug dealers and robbers, men with guns, girls, and machismo. The bad guys were guys like him, or me, or Johanna who had come to town. We made people feel bad because we expected them to show up for work, do what they say they were going to do, when they say they would do it, Vicente said.

On the way out I met a woman from Norway, a hydraulic engineer. She had just finished working on a project to rebuild a hydroelectric dam in Liberia destroyed by the civil war. Her task mostly done, she was told to take a month off. She and I laughed about learning to watch where you walk or put your hands in countries where poisonous snakes were often fatal.

Then we got to the real snake. She told me there had been many injustices in the distribution of wealth when Liberia was founded. This she could understand, but what was just shocking to her was the attitude of “successful” Blacks toward their less successful Black neighbors. Having suffered from racism, they were racist.

“It was just awful. They would say things you would never hear anywhere else.”

“They regarded the differences not as a result of chance or opportunity, but proof of inferiority?”

“Yes. And what they don’t own is run by the Lebanese, including much of the government.”

“I thought Liberia was supposed to be a return of Blacks to a country, a redress of slavery, without racism, a land of opportunity for the oppressed. I thought it was a success,” I said.

“That’s what I thought, too. That’s what’s in all the books. It’s simply not true,” she said.

I wondered how those men on the side of the road next to piles of bananas felt when we drove past in our air conditioned newer Toyota shuttle. I wondered what the woman at the first hotel thought when I came back and untook my room. I wondered what the waiter really thought when I tried to keep my budget leaner than my waistline.

There I was, complaining about paying too much for air conditioning none of them could ever afford, no matter how hot or sultry the day; wondering why the food was so expensive, forgetting they have to eat, too; dickering over a $2 difference for a beach cloth because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of by a woman who’d lost her history, had no hope for the future, and faced injustice she could never conquer.

Resentment? Imagine that.