Side Effects

It seems like every year, my allergies get worse. They come on in mid-March, knock me on my ass for about a month, and then leave during the middle of April. This year is no different — except they came on earlier and stronger than ever before.

I first noticed problems just before we left for Belize. Because of Oregon’s very mild winter, certain trees and flowers were beginning to blossom just after Valentine’s Day. I had some sneezing and sniffing, but then we left for a tropical climate and things were fine.

It was when we returned from our trip, however, that my troubles began. Almost immediately my eyes began to burn, my throat itched, my sinuses clogged, and I was floored by sneezing fits. The first week of March was awful.

During the second week of March, I had a bit of a respite. Whether from the Zyrtec or from the rain, my allergies took a rest. But the third week was worst of all. Last Tuesday, I was basically non-functional. I scratched out a quick post for Get Rich Slowly, but then I retreated into the bathtub for five or six hours, where I found some measure of relief.

My days were miserable, but my nights were worse. Because I couldn’t seem to find any medication that would alleviate my symptoms, sleeping became nearly impossible. On a normal night, my sleep chart looks like this:

Light grey indicates that I’m lying down. Dark grey indicates I’m asleep.

As you can see, I normally get into bed at about 10pm, fall asleep within half an hour, and sleep the whole night through. When Kris gets up at 5:30, I’m not really aware of it, but my sleep pattern is disrupted and I toss and turn until I finally wake up at around 6:30am.

That’s normal.

Here’s what my sleep has been like lately:

Light grey indicates that I’m lying down. Dark grey indicates I’m asleep.

This is a total mess. First of all, I’m napping during the day because I’m so tired from not getting sleep the night before. Then I’m trying to go to sleep early. In reality, I’m not able to doze off until about 11pm, but even then I’m unable to sleep for more than one cycle. (One of my sleep cycles is about 90 minutes, almost like clockwork.) And for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, I’m either tossing and turning so much that my body bug thinks I’m awake, or I actually get up and go downstairs to read and write — like I am right now. (It’s 2:15am.)

And through all of this, I’m miserable from congestion and sneezing and sore eyes and a scratchy throat.

What I really need to do is see an allergist, of course. I need to get tested, and then start receiving shots to cope with whatever it is that’s setting me off. But I’m a Roth, and we Roths don’t like doctors, so I haven’t taken that step. I think I soon will.

By the end of last week, I thought I had things under control. I was pumping myself full of Allegra or Claritin or Zyrtec, depending on which seemed to be effective at the time. I was rinsing my sinuses with my neti pot. And I was trying to stay indoors.

On Friday afternoon, I met Craig for dinner in downtown Portland. After dinner, we walked over to see the Trailblazers game. My allergies were bothering me, but not too much. I’d prepared in advance. As we strolled toward the Steel Bridge, we passed beneath a bunch of flowering ornamental cherry trees. Almost immediately, my eyes began to burn, my throat began to itch, I was sneezing, and my sinsuses clogged. Ugh. During the game, I was miserable. I had trouble sleeping that night and, especially, the next night. (Which is the evening the above “bad night” graph is from.)

Finally, I went to see a doctor on Sunday morning. I was at the “immediate care” clinic when it opened at nine.

The doctor listened to my symptoms sympathetically. “And what about a fever?” she asked as she examined me.

“I don’t have one,” I said.

“Actually, you do,” she said. “And it’s fairly high. This may have started as an allergy problem, but it’s grown worse. You have a sinus infection.” She prescribed an antibiotic and Claritin-D, which contains pseudo-ephedrine.

Now, when I was younger, I took pseudo-ephedrine all the time, primarily in the form of Sudafed. But this stuff is no longer available over the counter in Oregon. Because it’s the raw material for methamphetamine, it’s a controlled substance available by prescription only. I haven’t had pseudo-ephedrine in years. (Not in this house, anyway, which means nearly six years.)

The good news is: The stuff works. By Sunday afternoon, I could breathe again. My sinuses were clear. I felt almost human. Here’s what my sleep graph looked like last night:

Light grey indicates that I’m lying down. Dark grey indicates I’m asleep.

Note that from 9 to 10:30pm, I was laying down in bed watching The Amazing Race with Kris, so that doesn’t really count. And after about 7am, I was actually awake, but in bed reading. So, between 10:30 and 7, I got some sleep. It wasn’t perfect sleep, but it was much better than it has been. The main problem was I felt like my sleep was very very light. I didn’t feel well rested.

All day today, I felt great. My sinuses were mostly clear, I felt alert, and I worked hard. After a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, I worked for ten hours straight. It was only when Kris got home at around 6pm that I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. That’s pretty odd, since normally I’m hungry all the time. I forced myself to eat a modest dinner.

But the real trouble began at bedtime. We watched an episode of The Amazing Race and then turned out the lights to go sleep. “That’s strange,” I said. “I’m not tired.” Still, I did my best to doze off. I slept fitfully for about three hours (or two full sleep cycles). Then, at about 1:30, I woke up, ready to go to work. I was startled to see that it was the middle of the night.

And so here I am, sitting at the kitchen table with two cats at my side. (The cats love it when I can’t sleep; they think it’s a game.) A quick check online shows that I’m suffering from typical side effects of pseudo-ephedrine: I’m not tired, I’m not hungry, but I’m not really altogether here, either. Sounds like a perfect state of mind for “busy work”, of which I have much to do. But I know I’m going to be in bad shape in the morning.

I guess I’d better make an appointment with the allergist. I don’t want to go through this again next year.

Spider-Man in Invasion of the Dragon Men

There are some things I treasure from my youth that kids today will just never get to experience. Film strips in school, for one. Buying your favorite song on a 45rpm vinyl record, for another. And, most of all, those book-and-record sets you could get from the local department store.

When Dave gave me his hi-fi record player recently, one of the first things I listened to was my book-and-record set of The Hobbit. I love it still after all these years.

While browsing at the Marvel Masterworks forum (where I’ve been mostly a lurker for over five years, though I visit it every night), I discovered a lost treasure. Apparently some enterprising folks have taken it upon themselves to actually record some of these old book-and-record sets and upload them to YouTube.

For example, here’s Spider-Man and the Invasion of the Dragon Men, a set I actually owned as a boy:

While listening/watching, I was grinning from ear to ear. I remember this distinctly, and have thought of it many times over the years. I never thought I’d have a chance to hear it again, though.

There are other book-and-record sets on YouTube, including:

If you’re a fan of these recordings, too, then hold onto your seat because I’m going to let you in on the mother lode: Check out The Power Records Pages, which has audio files and image files on separate pages. Wow!

The Lugubrious Life of Benjamin Button

I’m cleaning out some of my old text files, and I found this movie review, which I wrote last spring. Since tonight’s Oscar night (and this film was nominated for Best Picture last year), it seems like a good time to share it.

You know, a lot of times when I see well-reviewed movies, I like them. And even if I don’t, I understand why other people might. But there are times when I see a critically-acclaimed movie that I just don’t get it. So it is with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a recent movie about a man who ages backward. He’s born old and dies as an infant. (This is just like Mork from Ork’s son, if you’ll remember.)

Benjamin Button is not a bad movie; it’s just a bland movie, with nothing in particular to recommend it. The filmmakers want for the plot to be heavy and laden with meaning. It’s not. It’s almost poignant — but not quite.

For me, one of the most bizarre aspects of this film was how clumsy some of the shots seemed to be. I don’t tend to think of cinematography or staging as “clumsy”. Most of the time when we see a Hollywood film, things are so polished that they’re orders of magnitude beyond clumsy. But in this movie, there were a couple of times that I thought to myself, “That was awkward.”

(And here I wish I’d noted an example, but it’s been two weeks since I drafted this, and I can’t remember a specific instance of what I mean.)

Still, the film has its moments. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Button writes to his daughter:

It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

That’s brilliant stuff. I buy into this mindset 100%.

And here’s a terrific bit of dialogue that’s wasted in this film. Benjamin and Daisy, the love of his life, are “meeting in the middle”. He’s growing younger and she’s growing older. At this point, he’s about 26 (though looks 50ish) and she’s about 20. They go out to dinner. She pulls out a cigarette:

Benjamin: I didn’t know you smoked.
Daisy: I’m old enough. [beat] I’m old enough for a lot of things…

In a different movie, that could have been great. In this movie, it’s just sort of flaccid, as is much of what happens here.

Though I didn’t hate this film, I liked very little of it. My favorite part is probably the five or ten minutes during which Benjamin lives in the Russian city of Murmansk. He strikes up an affair with the wife of an American spy. While everyone else is asleep in their hotel, Benjamin and this woman spend time downstairs in the lobby, in the kitchen. They stay up all night and then separate in the early morning hours. It’s as if they live in an empty world that belongs only to them.

There’s no emotional center in Benjamin Button — none that you can believe, anyhow. It all feels contrived.

Winter Vacation 2010, Day Seven: Homeward Bound

Black Rock Lodge
Black Rock Lodge from along the Macal River

Alas, Friday saw the end of our time in Belize. We spent a quiet morning reading and watching birds. We wrote in our journals. We ate breakfast and lunch, savoring our last meals from the lodge’s excellent kitchen.

The food at Black Rock Lodge deserves a special mention. It’s great stuff, though not great in the same way you might think of a great restaurant. Instead, it’s great in a home-cooked way.

Breakfasts and lunches are ordered from a limited menu. They include traditional American fare (yogurt, french toast, tuna sandwiches, hamburgers) as well as Central American stuff (fresh tropical fruit, nachos, quesadillas, burritos). I loved the fact that I could order a breakfast with one slice of french toast, two scrambled eggs, a slice of ham, and a dollop of refried black beans. Delicious! (And I learned that I love refried black beans, something I hadn’t had before. I’m hooked now.)

Jungle
The Belizean jungle as seen from Black Rock Lodge

As I mentioned before, dinners at Black Rock are served family style. Each cabana is assigned a seat ever night, usually next to somebody you haven’t dined with before. Everyone chats and gets to know the other guests. You only have two choices for dinner: meat or veg. Otherwise all guests (and staff) eat the same thing.

Dinner starts with fresh bread and soup — and what soups we ate! They were delicious! Even soups I might not care to try turned out to be fantastic: cream of celery, cucumber, pumpkin and coconut, potato dill. Following the soup, we’re served a salad (a different salad every night) and our entree. And then, at the end, comes a small dessert.

Here, for example, is a typical dinner menu:

  • Fresh-squeezed juice
  • Fresh-baked rolls
  • Cream of celery soup
  • Onion salad
  • Herbed snapper with linguini and peas (for meat-eaters) or curried lentils and chickpeas with peas (for vegetarians)
  • Coffee cake (literally coffee-flavored cake)

As I say, the food was great, but not in a restaurant-y sort of way. More in a “my mom is a great cook” sort of way. Some things that helped to set the food apart:

  • Most (all?) of the produce is fresh from the lodge’s own garden.
  • The poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from the local Mennonite population.
  • Dishes are tasty without being complex.
  • Portions are reasonable, not jumbo-sized American portions.
  • All the food is real food; there’s nothing artificial.

Before we left, I asked the kitchen staff if I could take their photo:

The Kitchen at Black Rock Lodge

As you can see, this looks more like your average church kitchen than a commercial kitchen. Very homey. Also before we left, a couple of the guests requested the recipes of their favorite soups. We didn’t get to try the tomato-lime soup below (it was served the day before we arrived), but we hear it’s fantastic:

Tomato-Lime Soup

2 pounds tomatoes
2 onions
2 tablespoons complete seasoning
1/4 cup lime juice
salt to taste

Wash and cut tomatoes and onions. Cook until soft. Blend. Put to boil for 10 minutes. Stir in lime juice. Serve hot.

Black Rock's Garden
The Black Rock garden

We did, however, get to try this celery soup, which is much much better than you could possible imagine:

Cream of Celery Soup

2 bunches of celery
1 big onion
1 stick of butter
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons complete seasoning
3 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons black pepper
6 cups water
1 cup milk
1/4 cup lime juice

Wash and cut onion and celery. Sautee onion and celery with butter. Add seasoning. Add water and milk. Bring to boil until soft. When the mixture has cooled, blend. Stir in lime juice. Serve hot.

Rock Formation

On Friday afternoon, we joined Brian and Lauren and the couple from Saskatchewan (Leon and Pat) for the two-hour drive back to Belize City and the airport. Elvis (our guide for birdwatching and the nighthike) drove us to the airport.

As we started down the bumpy six-mile road to the Great Western Highway, Kris lamented that she hadn’t seen an iguana in Belize. It seemed like all of the other guests had seen one, but not us. And what did the seemingly-magical Elvis do? He slowed the van and pointed to a fence-post at the edge of the orange orchard. “There’s one,” he said.

Iguana

But he didn’t just show us one iguana. For the next six miles, he pointed them out all over the place along the side of the road: on fences, in trees, sunbathing on rocks. (And he pointed out an enormous iguana roosted in a tree above a gas station in San Ignacio.) Elvis didn’t just point out iguanas. He stopped and showed us a crocodile that lives in a pond near the Black Rock property. Plus, he and Kris spent the next two hours showing each other birds they spotted in the air and on the roadside.

As they shared their love of nature, Kris and Elvis chatted. She learned that he works 12 days at black rock, and then gets 3 days off. (Some of the other employees work 10 days on, 4 days off.) He commutes 1-1/2 hours by bus to get to work, then lives on site, then commutes home.

As we drove south of Belmopan, Elvis pointed out the brick house he built over six years next to his older wooden home. He has six children, the oldest of which is 17. He doesn’t like driving jobs (such as hauling us to the airport) as much as nature jobs (like birdwatching and nighthikes). Elvis — and all of the other folks at Black Rock — was fantastic, and we hope he gets to do plenty of nature-oriented stuff in the future. It’s in his blood.

Our flight home was uneventful but jarring. The layover in Houston seemed like we were in a foreign country. It’s amazing how in just a week you can forget the omnipresent American media (remember, I noticed the same thing after returning home from Europe in 2007), our egotism, and our obsession with fake food. (I’m very guilty with the fake food stuff, no question.)

On the flight from Houston to Portland, we were seated in front of a pair of loud, annoying women. One of them owns a dessert place here in Portland, and she drove us nuts with her self-centered inane babble. Plus, she kept kicking Kris’s seat. I won’t say which place she owns, but let’s just say I won’t be having a piece of cake there ever again. (Which is fine since I didn’t like her stuff, anyhow.)

Even as we were driving home at one in the morning, I was already thinking about where I could travel next. Mac and I will spend a week in Alaska during May. I’ll be doing Cycle Oregon in September. And then Kris and I will spend three weeks in Europe later this year. But what about next year? And the year after? I like this travel stuff, and I want to do more. Who knows where the future will take me…

Winter Vacation 2010, Day Six: Birds of Belize

One of the great things about staying at Black Rock Lodge was there was so much to explore just on the grounds themselves.

The Grounds of Black Rock Lodge

We could have hiked up the hill to see the cave, gone further to the scenic view, or climbed all the way to the top. We could have floated further down the river. We could have biked along the 6-mile gravel road that leads toward San Ignacio, looking at the birds and iguanas and, yes, the crocodile. There’s so much we didn’t do.

On our last full day in Belize, we decided to take advantage of some of the lodge activities. I’ll quote from Kris’s journal:

Thursday. Early morning bird hike with Elvis. Absolutely the best. 1-1/2 hours not very far from the lodge. Saw about 30 different species including the keel-billed toucan, national bird of Belize. Elvis was amazing at spotting the birds and locating them from their calls.

Giovanni and Elvis
Giovanni (one of the managers) with the guard dogs, and Elvis with his spotting scope.

Then a quick breakfast and off to horseback ride with Louis. We rode Romeo and Mercedes. As usual, J.D. has the pokey horse, so we end up switching. 3-1/2 hours and I am so sore at the end! Right knee, especially, but a fun ride, very challenging, with trotting and cantering at the end. Saw a flock of ~20 montezuma oropendola flying up from the canopy.

Kris and Louis Saddle Up

Kris is right that I always seem to get the pokey horse. Worse, I’m the world’s worst horseman; I have no talent for it. Romeo and I were basically immobile. Kris was sad to have to give up Mercedes, and so was Mercedes. She and I didn’t really get along, though she did actually move for me.

It took me a long time to figure out how to trot properly. For an hour or more, I just sat in there and let my ass (and other parts) slam into the saddle. It was so painful! (I eventually had to cup my private parts with my hand when we trotted.) After some tips from our guide Louis, I managed to find a position that let me trot with a little less pain. (Thank goodness!)

We made our way along the road to town, then cut through the orange grove. As we took in the sweet scent of the blossoms (seriously, one of my favorite smells ever), Louis paused to pick an orange for each of us. Then we continued on our way up into the hills.

Eventually we came to Tipu, a small Mayan ruin. Leon (from Saskatchewan) and Louis chatted about the ruins (and about horses):

Leon and Louis at Tipu

I posed in front of the gorgeous valley view (which a photo cannot do justice):

J.D. Overlooking a Vista

On our return trip, Louis stopped to ask the orchard’s caretaker if we could have some coconuts, and he agreed. Louis cut them down with his machete, hacked open an end, and gave us each one to drink. Kris loved the milk, but Leon hated it. I was somewhere inbetween.

Back at the lodge, Kris spent the afternoon roaming the grounds with the camera, photographing the birds of Belize. We’ve been saving up these bird photos all week. Rather than space them out, we’re going to give them to you all right now. Some things to note:

  • We’re very amateur photographers, and we know that.
  • Photo quality varies. In some cases, the birds were moving. In others, lighting was poor (dawn or dusk). And in many instances, the animals were far away, so we’ve had to crop tightly to get a photo of reasonable size.
  • Also, we’re amateur birders. We’ve done our best to identify these, but in some cases, we’re sure to be wrong. (And in some cases, Kris and I disagree. That’s not a King Vulture, for example, no matter what Kris says.)

So, here you are. The birds of Belize…

Let’s start by looking at this handsome fellow, the keel-billed toucan, the national bird of Belize:

Keel-billed toucan

There were tons of cattle egrets all over the place. They particularly like to hang out with the dozen horses as they roamed the grounds of the lodge:

Cattle egrets

On our early morning bird hike, another guest (Andy) loved these violaceous trogans:

Violaceous trogan  Violaceous trogan

This little gray catbird is a cutie. She gets her name because she purportedly makes a noise like a cat, though it’s not like any cat I’ve ever heard:

Gray catbird

Here are two birds with American names, the Baltimore oriole and the Kentucky warbler:

Baltimore oriole  Kentucky warbler

And here are two woodcreepers, the ivory-billed woodcreeper and the olivaceous woodcreeper (which is small, and photographed from a distance in dim light):

Ivory-billed woodcreeper  Olivaceous woodcreeper

From woodcreepers to woodpeckers — here are the black-cheeked woodpecker and the pale-billed woodpecker:

black-cheeked woodpecker  pale-billed woodpecker

There were so many hummingbirds around the lodge. We photographed tons, but most of the photos didn’t turn out, as you can imagine. This white-necked jacobin is quite nice, though:

white-necked jacobin

Kris likes hawks, so was quite pleased to see this juvenile black hawk hanging around the lodge:

juvenile black hawk  juvenile black hawk

On our early morning bird-watching expedition, Elvis spotted this white-crowned parrot peeking out of his nest. We’re not sure how he saw it since it looks like just a nub on a tree. (Actually, Elvis has done this so often, that he knows where the birds live, so he probably knew to look here.) Eventually, this little guy came out for a snack.

white-crowned parrot in nest  white-crowned parrot

Here’s a blue-crowned motmot and a cinnamon becard (no relation to the jean-luc picard):

blue-crowned motmot  cinnamon becard

Here’s a bird we could not identify:

Unidentified bird of Belize

There were lots of yellow birds in the jungle, including the kiskadee and the white-collared manakin:

Kiskadee  white-collared manakin

At Tikal (in Guatemala), we saw a couple of birds we didn’t see in Belize, including the ocellated turkey (which is sort of iridescent blue and green) and the unidentified bird on the right:

Ocellated Turkey  unidentified bird at Tikal

Also at Tikal, we saw Kris’s favorite bird: the montezuma oropendola. While riding horses, we saw an entire flock of them moving through the jungle canopy. They’re beautiful. So beautiful that I’m including two photos (neither of which do them justice):

montezuma oropendula

montezuma oropendula

Here are two vultures: The common turkey vulture we see in Oregon, and another one that Kris is calling a King Vulture, but which I think is something else:

Turkey Vulture  Vulture

Here are two tanagers. The first is a yellow-winged tanager hanging out at the lodge’s compost pile. The second is a beautiful crimson-collared tanager.

yellow-winged tanager  crimson-collared tanager

And, finally, my favorites: The collared aracari from the lodge. They flew in every morning and afternoon to have a snack at the banana trees. They’re beautiful:

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

We saw lots more birds than just these, and took more photos than I’ve shared. Kris is sure to be cranky that these are the only birds I’ve posted, but not everyone is as into birds as she is. (As she left for work today, she paused at the doorway. She was doing something with the jays — I’m not sure what. “I’m trying to train them,” she said. I didn’t ask in what way, but don’t be surprised if the next time you see her, Kris is followed by a flock of scrub jays.)

“Was it worth it?” Kris asked at the end of our trip.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“The five months of writing? The book? Was all of that a fair trade for one week in Belize?” We used my advance on royalties to fund this trip.

“No,” I said. “It’s not a trade I’d make again. But if the book earns back the advance, it might be worth it. Besides, that’s not how I look at it. The book is one thing, and Belize is another. They both have their goods and their bads. I’m glad I did both.”

Kris and J.D. on Horseback

Tune in tomorrow for one last look at Belize, including a look at the lodge’s kitchen (and a couple of soup recipes)!

Wrist, Keys, and Whine

You know what? I think I have the old foldedspace groove back. All week long, I’ve been wanting to write stuff here for all my friends and family. Cool, huh?

First up, I want to complain about how old and fat and clumsy I am. As I’ve already written, I conked myself on the head at the beginning of February. I eventually went to the doctor, and he told me I was fine.

Well, a few days later, I crashed while riding my bike. I was riding with Bernie on a fine Sunday morning, and we’d just passed underneath the tram at the base of the hill. We came to a streetcar platform, and Bernie went right. I went left. I knew right away it was a mistake: The tires of my bike slotted into the groove of the rails. I shouted an obscenity and took a tumble, bashing my right knee and right wrist into the pavement.

“Are you okay?” Bernie asked.

“I’m fine,” I said, but I wasn’t. My head hurt (remember, this was just days after I’d seen the doctor about my head injury) and I was nauseated. I sat down for a few minutes. Then we rode on.

My wrist and knee hurt all week, but I didn’t think much of it. I suspected it was just bruising. But all week in Belize, the wrist ached more. It hurt all the time (though just a little bit), and if I bumped it the wrong way, the pain was intense.

“Go see a doctor when we get home,” Kris said. So I did. This morning, I drove to Gabriel Park, where Dr. Petering took some x-rays.

“Well, we’re not really sure what’s wrong,” he told me. (Sigh. This is what doctors always say, which is why I tend to not want to go to them.) “It may be broken, but the x-ray doesn’t show it. More likely, you’ve just damaged some soft tissue. In any case, I want you to wear a splint for two or three weeks, and then come see me if it doesn’t improve.”

“I’m a writer,” I said. “Will this cause problems?”

“Hm,” he said. “You’ll still be able to type, but it may be a little clumsy.” Yes. Yes, it is. Very clumsy, indeed, especially if I need the backspace…

Dropping keys
In other news, I was browsing through Chris’s site today when I stumbled upon a month-old entry, which contains the following from the Sufi poet Hafez:

The small man builds cages for everyone he knows,
While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long for the
  Beautiful
    Rowdy
      Prisoners

Oh. My. God. This bit of poetry is so awesome, perfectly encapsulating my current world view. I’m so sick of small men (and small women) who build cages for others; I’m drawn to those tall sages who move through life, dropping keys to help set others free.

Do you build cages for the people you know? How can you stop this? How can you start dropping keys instead? The answer for each of us is different, yes? For me, I drop keys at Get Rich Slowly. You might drop keys in other ways. But whatever you do, set people free, don’t cage them in.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

Note: This might be a good time to mention one of my favorite Japanese proverbs: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” This is another of my personal mottos. No matter how many times I fail at something, I get up and try again.

A final complaint
One of the benefits about blogging here regularly again is that I can whine in all the little ways I like to do. For example, have I mentioned that I rented an office? It’s a small space (about the size of a spare bedroom) just up the street from the house. It’s fantastic: I come up here and I know it’s time to work.

Anyhow, I like my neighbors in the office building, but there’s one thing that drives me nuts about the office next door. It’s home to a massage thereapist, and she’s very nice. But she’s also chatty with her customers. As Kris could tell you, I need silence (or music) to work; I don’t deal well with conversation. (Which is one reason I hate NPR — noise pollution radio — because I can’t think when it’s on.) So, when Jeannie has a client in and they’re chatting away, it’s almost impossible for me to work!

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: I just turn on the classic country tunes and I can no longer hear the gossip.

Ah, it feels good to whine in public again!

Winter Vacation 2010, Day Five: Caves Branch River

On Wednesday, we signed up to do cave tubing at Jaguar Paw. But because another couple at Black Rock Lodge — Brian and Lauren from Long Island, New York — had already signed up for a similar excursion from a different resort, the management asked us to tag along with them. “It’s more expensive, but we’ll give it to you for the same price,” they said. And so we did it.

Victor drove us from Black Rock to San Ignacio to Belmopan (the capital of Belize) to the Ian Anderson resort on the Caves Branch River. Along the way, we chatted with Brian and Lauren, whom we had not met before. Again, they’re another interesting young couple who likes to travel. (Brian owns a small parcel of land in Costa Rica, and hopes to one day build a house there, I think.)

At Ian Anderson’s we joined folks from two other resorts. Our party of nine piled into an old school bus. Our guide Pablo sat behind the wheel, and we started our journey.

To reach the river, we drove about two miles over a bumpy dirt road that wound through an awesome orange grove. (Awesome because the scent of the orange blossoms was so strong and so delicious.)

The Road through the Orange Grove

I wish I’d managed to get a shot of the hills that lined both sides of the orchard valley. With the low morning clouds hanging over the forest, it was absolutely gorgeous.

At one point, our rickety old school bus actually forded a river bed. Fortunately, the river we crossed was just a stream, though the bed itself was very broad (and filled with stones, not mud). Eventually, we reached our destination, unloaded the tubes, and walked to the river.

Preparing to Enter Cave

The day was much cooler than the hot and humid days that had preceded it. It was maybe 22 degrees centigrade, and the water was again about 17 degrees: All very comfortable. (Though the area around the river was filled with these nasty biting horseflies, which made things a little less fun.)

After a short paddle, we reached the mouth of the cave, which looked rather innocuous from the outside. You’d never know there was anything in here:

Cave Mouth

Looking back at the entrance once we were inside made me wish I had my SLR with me instead of a little point-and-shoot. I could have spent an hour playing with composition, trying to get a great photo out of this:

Looking Back at Entrance

Instead, I had maybe 30 seconds.

Once inside the cave, we alternated between paddling in the water and getting out to carry our tubes.

Carrying Tubes through Cave

We paused now and then to look at the cool stuff: a set of rapids (or was it a waterfall?) that disappeared into the wall of the cave, the bats perched in the ceiling, the artifacts left by Mayan people hundreds (or thousands) of years ago.

And, of course, the caves were filled with stalactites and stalagmites and other interesting rock and mineral formations.

Rock Formations

After tubing upstream for a ways, we piled out and climbed into the cave’s upper reaches.

Climbing into Cave

Here, our guide Pablo sat us down to give us a brief lecture on Mayan culture, the history of the cave, and the nature of the artifacts that have been left behind.

Pablo Lectures about Mayan Pottery

After we were finished exploring, Pablo spread a sheet on a relatively flat “beach” beside the river. We made a lunch of salami tortillas and hard-boiled eggs while chatting with our companions. At one point, we all turned off our headlamps to experience the total darkness. It was a little bit frightening, but it was fun.

It was so fun, actually, that we did it again after lunch. To exit the cave, we climbed into our tubes and floated on the slowly-moving current. At times, we’d all turn our lights off so that we were floating in the dark. Without light, and with a uniform temperature all around (we’d become accustomed to the water), it was impossible to tell whether we were moving or not. It was eerie, but neat.

According to Kris’s notes, we were in the water for four hours, though it certainly didn’t seem that long. I could have stayed on the water all day. I really enjoyed the tubing.

After exiting the cave, the group paused for a few minutes so that the brave souls (most of the group) could leap from a cliff (maybe 20 feet high?) into the swimming hole below. We cowards (including me and Kris) had fun watching.

The cave tubing was a great time, and I’m grateful to Erica for recommending it to us. Here’s a five-minute video that chronicles our journey to Belmopan and back. (For the shots where we’re driving, I’ve had to remove the soundtrack; there was way too much wind noise.)

Back at Black Rock Lodge, dinner was amazing, as all the dinners had been. The food at the lodge is great, but in a home-cooked sort of way, not a commercial kitchen sort of way. The lodge grows its own produce in an organic garden, and they buy poultry, dairy, and eggs from the large Mennonite population in Belize.

The soups at the lodge were particularly amazing, especially the cream of celery, which sounds gross but is actually fantastic. Look for a more extended rave about the kitchen on Friday, including the recipe for that celery soup!

Kris and J.D. inside the Cave

A note on water temperature: I keep describing the rivers in Belize as cool but not cold, and being about 16-17 degrees centigrade, but that’s just a guess. I don’t actually know how to judge river temperatures. I’m basing these guesstimates on the fact that room temperature is 20 degrees (or 68 fahrenheit), and the water felt cooler than that, but not uncomfortable. Of course, it may be that skin-on-water functions differently than skin-on-air. Maybe in water, you need body temperature (37 degrees) to fell comfortable, which would mean the water was closer to 30 degrees. Any scientists care to clue me in?

Winter Vacation 2010, Day Four: The Macal River

After Monday’s long and tiring tour of Tikal, Kris and I decided to take it easy on Tuesday. We spent the morning on the porch of our cabana: Kris took photos of birds (look for all of our bird photos on Thursday), and I read and smoked.

Me in a Hammock in Belize

When the heat and humidity increased, we made our way to the unused yoga pavilion, grabbed a couple of drinks (I had a red “fruit punch” Fanta and Kris had a lime juice), turned on the ceiling fans, and continued reading. The Macal River roared below us. It was bliss.

The Macal River runs through the Cayo District (a district is like a state or province) in western Belize. There’s a dam just upstream from Black Rock Lodge, and the folks who run the dam open and close the gates at seemingly random intervals. Sometimes the water level is high; sometimes it’s low. When the water is high, as it was on the night I tried to swim across the river, the current moves swiftly and the waterfall is shallow. But when the water is low, the current is very gentle and the waterfall is steep.

Floating on the River
In the afternoon, we got a closer view of the Macal. We hiked about a mile upstream carrying tubes, life jackets, and helmets. We put ourselves into the warm water (maybe 16 or 17 centigrade) and pushed off for the lodge.

We floated.

We floated.

We floated.

Every so often, we’d come to a series of rapids, which gave us a bit of variety and allowed us to get soaked. Because the water was low (and the current slow) when we started our tubing adventure, I often found myself high-centered on rocks and boulders; I’d have to stand and walk to deeper waters. But mostly, we floated.

As we floated, we soaked in the sun. We splashed in the water. We pointed out the birds, big and small. We looked at the trees and the rocks and the sky. We took our time.

After about an hour of floating, we neared the lodge — and the waterfall we knew was coming. As we approached, we could sense the pace of the current increase. (We didn’t know it at the time, but they’d opened the dam and the water level was rising.) We could hear the roar of the falls.

“If you make it over the falls without flipping, your first beer of the night is on me,” Giovanni (the day’s manager) had told me. I gave it my best shot, but my best shot wasn’t good enough. I flipped, though I managed to hold onto the tube.

Tim Tubes the Macal River 1

Tim Tubes the Macal River 2
Note: This is not me. This is Tim making the run when the river is high.

I watched Kris make her run. She did it! She stayed on, and the crowd of onlookers cheered — but then she lost her balance and went under.

I made a second run at the falls (in order to retrieve Kris’ lost tube), but this was worse than the first. I lost my grip and went under, sucked beneath the falls and kept there by the suction. I felt like I was under for 15 to 20 seconds. (“Nah,” said Giovanni when we got back to the lodge. “It just seemed that way. It was maybe a couple of seconds.”)

Note: Twice during this trip — during my failed swim across the river, and when I was trapped under the waterfall — my mind raced to a book I finished reading recently: Shadow Divers. This book is about SCUBA divers who hunt for shipwrecks. One of the profiled divers has a motto that goes something like, “Take care of the first problem.” By this he means, when something goes wrong, take care of the problem immediately, and just take care of that problem, instead of panicking and creating additional problems. Sound advice.

In the late afternoon, we sat in the lodge with Tim and Shana, and Simon and Catherine.

When Spiders Ruled the Earth
Note: If your name is Jeff Roth, you probably want to skip this section.

After dinner (snapper and linguini), Kris and I took a one-hour night hike. Our tour guide, Elvis, equipped us with spotlight headlamps and led us along the trail above the Macal River. Elvis, an experienced hunter and self-trained naturalist, pointed out birds, scorpions, tarantulas, and spiders. Especially spiders.

Tarantula

In fact, it’s impossible to describe just how many spiders we saw. We’re not talking hundreds of spiders or thousands of spiders, but millions of spiders. When our lights shone on them, their eyes sparkled in the night like tiny stars of yellow, blue, and green. It was amazing — and more than a little frightening (especially when they moved).

Here’s an audio recording of the first ten minutes of our night hike, which includes tilapia, a scorpion, a centipede, a nightjar, a couple of tarantulas, and thousands of spiders:

After the hour-long trek through the stifling heat of the jungle, we were soaked. “It’s hot,” Elvis said at one point. When the natives think it’s hot, it’s hot. Back in our cabana, we took cold showers.

This was a sad evening in a way, because it meant saying good-bye to two couples we both liked: Tim and Shana, and Simon and Catherine. But who knows? Maybe we’ll see them again someday.

How much stuff does one man need?

It seems like every time I travel, I come home committed to win my war on Stuff. This time was no different. I lived out of a single carry-on bag while vacationing in Belize last week, and even that felt luxurious. Now I’ve returned to a house packed with doodads and gewgaws, knick-knacks and baubles.

The more I purge Stuff from my life, the more I travel, and the more I see (and read) about how little others need to get by, the stronger my conviction to reduce what I own, as well. I’m in awe of my friend Leo from Zen Habits, for instance. At his secondary blog, mnmlist, Leo has been chronicling his attempt to reduce the number of thing he owns. At first, this was his 100 Things Challenge (he wanted to own just 100 personal items). Recently, he’s upped the ante. It’s now a 50 Things Challenge. Wow.

I’m not ready to go to this extreme — not even close. But I am beginning to wonder: How many t-shirts does one man need? How many jackets? How many books? And how in the heck did I end up with more than ten pairs of shoes? Ridiculous! How much Stuff does one man really need?

Small Steps

Over the past three years, I’ve made great strides in ridding my life of Stuff. I’ve sold or given away thousands of books (yes, thousands). I’ve purged a garage full of computer parts. I’ve managed to turn off the rationalization switch in my brain and learned to simply donate my Stuff to charity instead of saving it for “someday”. And about a year ago, I started my slow-motion clothes purge.

Based on a Get Rich Slowly reader suggestion, I moved all of my sweaters and button-down shirts to an unused closet. For the past several months, I’ve gradually pulled one shirt and then another into my regular closet as I actually wear them. Unworn shirts and sweaters stay in their temporary holding space. At the end of this process (which should be in June), all of the shirts I’ve worn in the past year will be in one closet, and the Stuff I don’t wear will be purged.

Do you know how many different shirts I’ve worn over the past nine months? I just went upstairs to count. My “good” closet contains 17 button-down shirts and three sweaters. My closet of unused clothes contains 30 shirts (two of which haven’t even been taken out of their packaging) and 11 sweaters.

Sometimes I think I’m the village idiot. I don’t even wear two-thirds of my wardrobe? It’s like I’m just throwing my money away. But rather than beat myself up over this, I can use the info going forward.

For example, Kris and I made a trip to REI before leaving for Belize. I fell in love with one shirt, but I almost didn’t buy it after looking at the price tag. $40? For a shirt? Get real! I rarely spend more than $20. But then I realized: If I really love the shirt and it’ll live in my “good” closet, then spending $40 is much better than buying two cheap shirts I never wear. I bought the REI shirt in two colors (rust and aqua), and I’m glad I did. (But maybe I should get rid of two other shirts from my “good” closet to make up for this.)

I’ve begun to realize it’ll take a few more years to finally get rid of the worst of my Stuff. It took me two decades to acquire these things; it’ll take a bit of time to unload it. But how will I know when I’m finished? How much Stuff does one man need?

The Magic of Thinking Small

It was interesting to see how small the average homes were in Belize and Guatemala. In the U.S., the average new home was 2349 square feet in 2004 (up from 1695 square feet in 1974). In Central America, homes seemed to be maybe 600 or 700 square feet.

Guatemalan Houses
Note: From talking with some of the folks who live there, I think people in Belize want bigger homes, but can’t afford them. It’s not like they’re choosing small homes because they think it’s virtuous.

Seeing these small homes made we think: What would I choose to own if my space were limited? Could I really rationalize my comic book collection? Forty-seven button-down shirts and fourteen sweaters? Two bicycles? My burgeoning pile of shoes? Which Stuff is worth owning, and which is not? And if it’s not worth owning in a small home, why is it worth owning in a large home?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I’ll continue to puzzle them out.

This weekend, one of our neighbors held a yard sale. Kris and I went across the street to chat. “Wow,” Kris said. “It looks like you’re selling everything.” She scooped up the neighbor’s canning jars.

“In a way, I am,” our neighbor said. “I’m moving into a smaller place, and I have a couple of weeks before I have to be out of this one. I’ve already moved everything I want to keep, and I’m selling everything else.”

“That’s awesome,” I said. “I wish I could do that.”

But who says I can’t? Why can’t I pretend that I’m moving into a smaller place? If I did, what would I keep? What is it I really value? How much Stuff does one man really need?