No Clue

At the first hotel in Costa Rica, I realized I had no clue of where to head next. But I had a month and could take it a day at a time.  After all, I never expected to to have an interest in butterflies. 

My first exposure to butterflies was decades ago, long before I’d heard anything about the “butterfly effect,” or metamorphosis, or anything to do with the bug, which really didn’t interest me.

It was from Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, who wrote something to the effect: “I dreamt I was a butterfly, happily flying among the flowers. Then I awoke. But how do I know that I am not a butterfly, dreaming I am Chuang Tzu?”

 More recently, I came across a couple of facts about butterflies that struck me as wonderful and bizarre. The first was that in its metamorphosis, the caterpillar essentially dies, its body turns to soup, and from this soup, a butterfly is assembled.

To me, that’s like making a rooster out of chicken broth.

The second was that in the migration of butterflies north in the spring, the butterfly that arrives is not the one that left the south. It is the fourth generation: It takes three generations of birth, life and death to get north, and the fourth generation of butterfly goes south again to winter in the very same tree as its great, great, grandparent. Four soups ago.

That challenged my notions of  “an individual.”

In the hostel in San Jose going through the Lonely Planet,  I decided my first stop had to be the Monteverde Rainforest. I called up a hostel in Santa Elena recommended primarily for their honest advice, made my reservation and faded early, about 8 p.m.

Admittedly, there are  lows traveling this cheap. But there are  highs, too, that for me outweigh the troubles. I’d walked for miles through the city. I’d taken photos of architecture and guitar players, enjoyed the sights and sounds. I especially liked the rotunda where teens were breakdancing while adults sat on benches along the promenades.

At dinner at the hostel, I had a burger and watched 20 somethings start to get drunk on the upstairs deck. Which I didn’t need to remember in quite that much detail. I was probably asleep by 9.

I woke up at three o’clock to the sound of violent retching.

“Whoa, she’s really sick,” I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. I wondered if it was the pot or the vodka the kids were consuming, the sugar in some of the godawful drinks.

“Whoa, he’s really sick too,” I thought a couple of minutes later. I figured I knew which couple it might be.

I was wrong. When I finally got up at 5 a.m., showered and sat in one of the alcoves waiting for coffee to be available at 7 a.m., three girls had taken up residence on the sitting shelf outside stalls of the communal bathroom. Every 10 minutes or so, one of the three would go into one of the stalls and loudly throw up the water she had been drinking. Unless she hadn’t been drinking any, then she’d sing the high notes of dry heaves.

“You are so sick,” I said with sympathy as I walked past. It was sincere, I did feel bad for them.

“Food poisoning,” said the young woman. “The seviche.”

“That’s awful. I’d figured it was the vodka.”

“I don’t think so, we all had the vodka,” she said. After thinking about that, I let it drop. The misery on their faces was something I could still feel, nearly 30 years after last drinking vodka or anything like it. And mostly avoiding seviche in second world kitchens.

I finished the book I was reading, left it behind on the couch and headed out the front door. A book?! I can read on my phone! But leaving things behind is one of the treats of on the street travel. You get lighter the longer you’re out there.

I’d been told to head to the Coca Cola Terminal to catch the bus up north to Santa Elena. A cab driver was at the door. And I jumped in.

We had driven 10 minutes when we came to a park. One of my favorites from my walk the day before. It had the rotunda, and was about a five minute walk from where we started the cab ride 10 minutes before.

“Ah, no,” I said to the cab driver, who spoke no English in that moment. At least I didn’t hear any. But he could tell from my pointing at where we were on the map, and where we started, that our route was far from my favorite. Eventually we were close enough to the bus station I told him to let me out. He didn’t argue.

For 10 minutes I threaded my way through stalls and vendors who had taken up occupancy on already narrow sidewalks, my backpack making me larger sideways than straight ahead, my big bag bumping behind me on the broken pavement. It was hot, the sun was out, the streets busy, cab and lorry drivers seemingly speeding up and on the horn up when I was only half way across an intersection. I was thankful for the miles I’d spent on the river trail at home, the hours in the weight room. It made it pretty easy to haul me and my stuff through the city.

To the wrong bus station.

A cab driver there told me the buses to Santa Elena left from the station in the north. I’d been misinformed. Squinting at the map, and trying to summon enough of my nonexistent Spanish to understand the flea-size print, I decided he was right. He offered to drive me to Santa Elena.

“Three hours,” he said. Three hours was how long it was going to be until the next bus left the station for a five hour ride. But he was saying it would take him three hours to take me to Santa Elena. I told him no, and grabbed the handle of my bag and threaded my way through industrial streets to the bus station for northern destinations. I got there an hour after I left the hotel.

I could have walked there directly in 20 minutes.

I bought my ticket and went to sit in a cafe where I tried unsuccessfully to boot up my computer, had a bit of lunch. Eventually I sat next to a woman from Santa Elena who spoke nearly no English, a younger couple from Poland whose English was quite good, and a young woman with red hair the color of aged and lacquered copper. We watched each other’s bags while we went to the bathroom one last time.

When the bus pulled out of the station I was sitting next to the woman with red hair, 26 years old and from Holland. She was still a university student, and has been traveling for four weeks on a two-month trek through Central America.

She had already been through Asia on a similar adventure, one that took about six months and included riding on the back of a motorcycle for three days through Viet Nam, a trek in Indonesia. Now she’d snorkeled in the Caribbean of Nicaragua, was hassled at the border for not having a specific exit date and nearly denied entry, and like me, is looking for giant butterflies in Costa Rica.

I told them I’d once been on the road for nearly two years in the 70s. The young man from Poland lamented he had gone to work before he started to travel, now he is limited to two week stints. His girlfriend had a dream catcher tattooed on the side of her neck.

We rode for five hours through the low but steep sided hills of Costa Rica. My bus mate told me Holland was quite flat.

“I don’t like having an agenda, an itinerary,” she told me. “If you have an agenda, you don’t see something new, but who you already are. I’d miss so much.” I’d already used that line in a book, or I would have stolen it. She was studying social psychology, would probably teach others. She had been an art student, but could not find enough purpose in that.

When we got to Santa Elena after dark, she went to find a room at one hostel, I trundled off to find my room in another, where I’d called ahead. I’d decided that for the next couple of days, I wanted my own bathroom.

“Oh,” I turned around. “What’s your name?” I thought I’d at least like to know with whom I’d shared the ride and conversation.

“Cheyenne,” she said to me.

“Excuse me?”

“Cheyenne,” she repeated, laughing at the expression on my face.

I turned and walked away, knowing I’d never learn why a young woman from Holland who looked like she’d not seen a day in the sun with hair the color of copper had a Native American name.

After I checked in, I had dinner in Morphos, a restaurant decorated with giant butterflies.

Final countdown

In little more than a day, I’m off to Costa Rica. Took a photo of home, and a dinner from the last week to test the camera and the links. (Click here for photos. Please let me know if something is not working).

Those pictures are also to remind me what I get to come back to when I’m stuck  for a day or two in a bus station where fluorescent lights draw clouds of bugs with teeth, stingers, or suckers, and the hotel, if any, is too far to walk at 3 a.m.

On the other hand, my hope is to see butterflies larger than your hand. And listen to a cacophony of  howler monkeys. To get there, you have to go there. In some places, avoid a couple of poison snakes, and poison dart frogs. Covered in DEET and netting, too, I suppose.

But the ocean beaches are spectacular, I’m told, and warm weather will be a welcome respite. It snowed here again this morning. I’ve been told by experienced travelers that Costa Rica is the most beautiful place they have ever been. Two days of work left and 30 hours to get it done, and I can hardly wait.

It’s been decades since I’ve trekked with no agenda, time targets roughly defined by “or so.” I’ll be in San Jose for a day or so, Jaco for a few days or so, Golfito and David and Boquete for a few days or so each. Back in a month or so.

More to come.


Unforeseen changes

Surprises every turn. Over Christmas, a friend invited me down to Costa Rica. He’s down there at a newish job, had lovely things to say about the area, the country, and I’d always wanted to see it. He’s got a house a minute from the beach where he’s learning to surf, friends, and knowledge of the terrain. But I wasn’t sure if he really meant it or was just being nice, and I had things to do.

Oh yeah.

Then a couple of weeks ago, he reiterated the invite, and asked if I would assist his lovely and fun fiance to get there as well. We talked about logistics, he booked our flights, round trip for me and I’ll be gone for a month.

Oh, yeeaah.

As a result, I have an adventure in front of me, a new old dog waiting when I get back, days full of laughter and great company as she and I pull it all together for her life transition, I try to finish a book and maybe complete a major business transaction with untold but significant impacts on my own life.

Oh, yeeeaaah.

When they’re ready*

Decades ago a dear friend, Bill, drove up my driveway with a very young boy. His brand new wife, a very unstable woman, had just committed suicide. The boy was her son.

Bill left the child with my wife and me for the day. We had a good time, if I remember. He played on the deck in a huge stainless bowl full of water. Late in the day, Bill came back and picked up the boy.

I don’t know when I realized Bill was trying to place his lost son with a family who could care for him. My wife and I weren’t ready. It was some time later we adopted our daughters from India, and they taught me some much needed lessons about unconditional love.

Years later I was meeting with my lawyer, Max, who was also a friend of Bill. We were laughing and doing legal business when Max told me Bill had visited him the same week he’d visited me. Max and his wife, Teresa, did not hesitate. They accepted the boy into their hearts and their family. The next couple of decades were not easy. But their commitment never waned.

Some years passed. I was again in need of Max’ legal fangs, and went to his office. On the floor, on a huge pillow, was the skinniest dog I’d ever seen. She barely struggled to her feet when I came in the room. Max mentioned that she was a bit of work, getting her out to go to the bathroom, lifting her in and out of the car. She didn’t have many days or weeks left, he said.

“Why don’t you put her down?” I asked.

“She isn’t ready,” quickly came Max’s reply.

You have to realize how much this startled me, coming from one of the toughest people I knew, an Irishman from Chicago who could make his blue coffee cup turn red with his every-day language.


“She isn’t ready.”

From there we argued about the Catholic Church, abortion, the I.R.A., the death penalty, homosexual priests,  etc. He was a damn good lawyer and had no problem defending what seemed to me contradictory superstitions. But he walked his talk, and taught me something by his actions, if not his words.

Not that I wasn’t receptive. I have been laughed at by more than one person for putting spiders outside, even houseflies. For using live traps for my kitchen mice, and driving them a half mile away so they wouldn’t beat me back to the house. That was all part of a deal I made with my higher power when a couple of pets suffered during a time I thought it was okay to kill porcupines. Long story.

Last week, I was helping a friend, Stacy, wrap up local business before she left the country to join her fiance and start a new life. One of the items on the agenda was finding a vet who would euthanize her two old dogs. Molly, who is quite old, has cancer and not long to live; the smaller one has cataracts. The clock was ticking.

I took over that difficult process. With the help of friends on Facebook, I found a kind local vet who would come and transition the animals. Everything was set to happen on Saturday. I was ready to foot the bill.

Before you judge Stacy, you need to know she is one of the most compassionate human beings you could ever hope meet. She assists people in grinding poverty, and in the last days of their lives. But Stacy had to go, and there was no one, even her ex who shared the dogs’ history, who could take them. And the dogs lived for her voice. This was mercy, not callousness.

On Tuesday I joined another of her friends who had a van to move Stacy’s furniture. I met the two dogs. Rubbed ears. Got sniffed. When I got home, I paced my living room for more than an hour. One thought kept pushing me around.

“They aren’t ready.”

All night and the next day I chewed on the fact that I was facilitating death, and they weren’t ready. But I could not take two dogs, especially a small yapper, and had no place for either while I escorted Stacy to her new love and life in Costa Rica.

Yes, I will mention the rainbow I saw to the north when I came to my decision. And pretend it’s irrelevant.

Right after which, Stacy left me a text: the small dog had a home! Some friends had come through, but could just take the little dog. I waited. I was willing to wait a day or two, too, while things resolved without my effort, but I was smiling a rainbow of my own.

Stacy called an hour and a half after texting.

“My heart is a little less heavy,” she said, as she asked for the telephone number to tell the vet there would just be one animal to euthanize.

“I’m going to lighten it the rest of the way,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Molly can stay here with me. I talked to the house-sitter earlier about taking on an old dog while I’m gone, and he said ‘sure.’ When I get back, Molly will be here with me until she’s ready to die. If it doesn’t work out for you in Costa Rica, you come back for her. If it does, I’ll have a life-long friend, even if that life isn’t too long.”

All I could hear were sobs on the other end of the line, because I was crying myself. I don’t really know why, except I knew it was my job to be the boatman to take Molly from this shore to the next.

Sometimes things work out just how how they’re supposed to, and that feeling is overwhelming. My tears were in gratitude for being where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there, that I would be there when Molly was ready, and not send her on her way before she was.

I’m also looking forward to taking her to the beach, which I’m told is one of her favorite places. Mine too.

*Names have been changed.

Functional style

My daughter K.C. and I are on the road, now, taking her back to college. Privilege is the chance to discover my children as adults I can communicate with and respect, as well as love more than air. We’ll credit their mother.

K.C. is more of a city girl than her sister. She likes the ambience, the lights, the cuisine, though she was a bit taken back touring the Portland of my hard-spent youth. But it’s part of “city,” and my goal has always been that she will walk with care but not fear, anywhere in the world. She does, and we’ll credit her father.

There’s a building I see from the hotel while I wait for her to wake so we can hit the road. It’s new since I left town, with a flat roof that cantilevers over tall windows. I like it mostly, and think how I like design that works with natural forces, rather than forcing itself.

We can air condition a solar oven, but why would we if overhangs and trees can shade, relate us to where we are, if a quieter place can grace with humidity rather than assault with an icy chill from vents along the wall of a too-bright room?

But the energy wasted is only the price of a latte or two here in PDX, and that’s a choice, a value, far from absolute. On the hill is a concrete cube with glass corners: different, dramatic, a place to launch the imagination over city lights at night, and I’m sure it gives its owners a smile every time they enter that room.

This post is not as incoherent as it seems, I hope. Maybe it has to do with gratitude, how we take “here” where ever we go, how diffuse that can be.

Remember the future

Yesterday, I bought my first robot.

Also yesterday, my Link (cellphone to you) upgraded itself to Android 4.4.2, though I had to manually invoke the “Android RunTime” upgrade.

Today I read about Google buying Boston Dynamics, a company that makes a robot that runs like a cheetah faster than a man, and while I couldn’t quite see the lounge chair on my porch with the satellite view in Google Maps, I can see the front door of a friend’s house. And my Link can guide me from my remote Oregon hilltop to a deli in San Francisco if I ask it to.

At one time, getting lost was the adventure.

They are are floating Google cameras down the Grand Canyon, and two thousand cars  photograph the streets of Hyderabad, India every day. When I was in India the first time, it was on the other side of the world. Now I can drive the streets from my easy chair.

Everything. Is. Being. Digitized.

This column started to be about how we might expect to see a flood, with frozen ground covered by snow, if warm, wet Pacific storms head our way for Christmas as they often do. But something happened on the way to the laptop. A friend recalled the flood of 1964, which we both remembered, then we both realized at about the same time that was a half century ago.

I learned to read from Asimov, Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Delaney and the others. They took me to worlds where anything that could be imagined could be true, a place better than where I lived. I wrote a paper in sixth grade that described such a place.

I live there, now. Its job done, my vacuum cleaner just put itself away.

You need to cry

When was the last time you cried? From loss, joy, relief, fear, gratitude? When was the last time you let yourself be that vulnerable?

Well, I’ll recommend it, especially on Thanksgiving. Because, I think, there is no way to really, truly give thanks without shedding a tear. Otherwise, you’re holding back. Not nearly thankful enough.

Yesterday a friend gave me a book, and I’m recommending it to you. There’s a couple of them, in fact. But first, know that these books will make you cry tears from being embraced by someone who knows, who cares, who has seen every thing you’ve been  through, and can see through you, as well. They will bring tears back to your eyes from things you’ve been hiding from yourself. That’s good.

Each was written by someone twice as smart as I ever thought I was, and twice as wise as I will ever be. Each was written by someone who may, just may, have a bit of the antidote for the toxic, inauthentic, self-absorbed yet indifferent world some of us can’t seem to find our way through. Each was written by a woman with strength that would intimidate a roomful of warriors.

Warning: these books are at times explicit, but always honest, human, literate; they will make you cry because of what the writers are not afraid to look at, not afraid to see, not afraid to feel. These books are emotional fire storms.

They will give you reason to say thanks.

“tiny beautiful things,” by Cheryl Strayed.

“Bluets,” by Maggie Nelson.


In writing Chalice, and now again researching It’s Nobody’s Fault, I stumbled across the idea of “who” we think we are. This “sense of self” actually has a home in the left hemisphere of our brain, and it basically integrates all sorts of inputs.

Dr. Michael Gazzaniga has called it the “Interpreter.” I call it “Weaver.” Three quick thoughts, then I’ll leave it alone, for now.

First, it is important to know that one of Weaver’s primary jobs is to give reasons for what is happening in our world. Weaver is constantly weaving yarns of various colors into cause and effect, weaving them to make up our “reality.” That’s what Weaver does. Weaver explains. Always. Constantly.

Secondly, the fabric Weaver creates out of all these inputs is only as good as what Weaver gets by way of information. Some of that information is bogus. Not only external information, but internal, as well. My amygdala may fire a flash of fear through the circuits, and Weaver won’t know it’s a false alarm. Weaver will know only that there has been a signal of fear. Weaver will find an explanation for that signal, usually external, because Weaver explains. Always. Constantly.

This has been called “Tigers in the grass.” We evolved to run from tigers, so we run when the grass moves, even when it is only the wind.

Finally, it is possible to catch Weaver in the act. It’s a two-step process for me. First, I recognize that my unnatural calm may be the result of the chamomile tea, nervousness might be the coffee, the twinge is from seeing a car like one driven by someone I used to know, getting up to do something may not be because it needed to be done five minutes ago, but the result of a memory that just drifted through I did not want to face.

In other words, what I think is happening, even with my own emotions, is not necessarily what is happening. It feels real, Weaver says it is real, but it might not be.

Then I sit and watch Weaver work. That gives me space. It takes a few minutes now, it used to take longer, to put Weaver in his place. He doesn’t stop weaving or explaining, because Weaver explains. Always. Constantly. But, after a few minutes, “I” am no longer being yanked around at the end of his leash.

On hearing “no.”

In hearing “no,” I think we also succumb to “what if.”
What if he/she/they had said “yes?”
Then I would be rich/validated/happy.
And would not have to feel the pain of “no” anymore.

You’re right. Those very things often go through my head. Finding happiness ourselves is easier said than done…

Easier said than done, because we’ve been taught to look in the wrong places.

“This moment” is woven, on a loom of evolved wiring, from strands of bird song, thanking me for the seed, tragic news of a typhoon and a shooting, from the zing of this morning’s coffee and lull of last night’s chamomile, the slight pain of a sprain from yesterday’s run, echos of childhood loss, all etc.

Our brain does this weaving, always, but often with yarn that is too thin, of the wrong dye, sometimes of the wrong wool. But weave it does, constantly, because it is Weaver, and the cloth is “me.”

To protect us, Weaver learned to double the knots of fear and pain, to twice the count of hoped-for gain, even when loss is of something only imagined. So “NOs,” when they come, pack twice the wallop as the “Maybe?” pushed across the table by Weaver, with a shy smile.

The trick?  You’ve said it so many times: Be real, let go of the knots, be kind, breathe, do what you love and for the right reasons, be honest, have faith. Repeat. It’s not easy getting past Weaver to the barrels of yarn. In fact, it’s damn hard, because Weaver weaves even that effort into patterns it already knows. But, it can be done.

You’re just a wave, you’re not the water.*

At the end of his wonderful 2011 book, “Who’s In Charge,” Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist, writes: “Understanding how to develop a vocabulary for those layered interactions (at the interface between mind and brain)…constitutes the scientific problem of this century.”

Not just the interface between brain and mind. Also the interface between self and other, pieces and the whole, man and society. That was the job of philosophers: To develop a new vocabulary, because the vocabularies that evolved since we stood on two legs have failed to keep up.

We’re blinded by these limits of our inherited languages, the evolved systems of our brain, and the obvious material success of abstraction. Except for mystics, who spoke in riddles: everything is nothing, the void, being itself, be here now.

But the words, and the images, have  been right in front of us the whole time, we just couldn’t see: It’s a wave, an organization, created by simple sets of rules, that communicates across the interface between systems.

A school of fish has coherence, but there isn’t time for a message to spread to each fish to turn “left.” The school remains organized because each fish inherited simple rules about how far to stay from its neighbor. Rules about proximity keep a flock of geese together in the wind.

Similar rules allow traffic to flow on the freeways. We don’t think of water molecules as having free will, but the very same mathematics that describe the flow of a fluid describes the flow of traffic. Someone hit their brakes when their coffee spilled, and set up a whorl that persisted for hours.

All we know at the interface is a set of simple rules. Don’t change lanes if someone is there. Don’t rear end the car in front of you. Those rules result in behavior that is wave-like when viewed in the aggregate.

Quantum mechanics gives us fits. A photon is either particle or wave… depending on how we measure it. A wave with no medium but one that is organized, and at times described as “coherent.”

We can’t imagine an ocean wave without water. But we can imagine that wave as an organization of information about an earthquake that occurred hours ago and thousands of miles away. Time and space. Look closer. Several waves. Closer still, a single wave. Peak and valley. Each part of the wave reflects information about the earthquake, a hologram, a fractal.

Clarity decreases the tighter we focus, according to Heisenberg. The wave disappears, organization disappears, when we look only at a water molecule and don’t know where it’s going.

What’s worse: that monad may be influenced by more than one wave at a time. Another wave from a squall near Hawaii interferes with the earthquake message, sends information that reenforces or perhaps cancels, temporarily, the movement of one molecule. Our driver pulls to the side of the road to let an ambulance pass. Different rules apply, then don’t, and traffic flows like water.

Blended chords wash over us, conveying laughter, or sadness. Remove the oboe, then the violins. Look small enough and the last musical note is nothing but a blip, as frequency disappears. Then, what we see is the result of what we have chosen to look at, and it’s no longer a symphony.

At the interface, simple rules convey information between systems in ways that seem like magic, when spoken in our old languages, to brains that evolved subsystems to dodge snakes and run from tigers. That brain never needed to know that neural net subsystems process, reenforce and cancel, to achieve results feeding other nets, waves of information flowing in both directions.

We talk as if we live in a binary world. Yes/No, zeros/ones, self/other, alive/dead. But we do not. We live in a world of potentials, of gradients, of transmission — of waves that bounce, bend and reflect upward and downward, information conveyed by simple rules at the interface that lead to organization, causation in both directions.

Mathematician Gödel blew up one of the grandest efforts of philosophy in the 20th century with the observation that any self-referencing system could not be both coherent and complete. For wonderful explanations of this, see Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by  Douglas Hofstadter.

But if we assume that any such system both refers to itself and does not, then incoherence, or incompleteness, disappears. Is that itself incoherent? Not if we let Gödel pet Schrodinger’s cat, a potentiality, a wave, peak and valley, pressure and not, created by rules that govern observation of elements in the subsystem.

Waves exist because of alternation over time communicated by rules between elements. For a single molecule, there is no wave, just a monad in waiting, ready to follow rules that don’t apply until it moves. Hit the brakes to keep the distance, then accelerate, change lanes to fill the gap and traffic flows like water, or sand through an hour glass, described by simple equations that do not reference free will.

Here is the tricky part. Where do those rules come from? Why does the spiral of sunflower seeds match the spiral of a conch, and both match the spiral of this galaxy? Fractals may be Fibonacci’s children, but math does not govern, it describes something that does. What is that? Being as such, the Hand of God, a chance collection of rules that may or may not apply in the universe of dimensions next door?

I don’t know. But a key to the door may be that simple rules between entities create organisms of information that have the power of causation  between systems and subsystems that otherwise seem unrelated, to our old paradigms. I believe this crossing at the interface can best be described by the mathematics, and metaphor, of waves.

*Jimmie Dale Gilmore