Sunday, January 29, 2012

On the Move with Chesty and Rocca

Here's the third installment of the true story of how my husband and I sold everything and moved to The Republic of Panama.  If you've tuned-in late, just drop down and read the previous couple of blogs.  Think of this story as House Hunters International - the rest of the story.

Okay. So, the dogs. Chesty and Rocca. Male and female. We got the male first and the Veteran’s Administration sent Jack to school in Hutto,Texas to learn to train the dog to assist specifically with his disabilities. Because part of the dog’s job is to watch Jack’s back, Chesty is big. He weighs just over 110 pounds. That’s a lot of dog to take everywhere with you, so Chesty had to be trained to behave perfectly. No screwing around here or the whole deal wasn’t going to work. It took a lot of time and cussing and patience and fussing and energy to achieve this goal.

Our biggest mistake, I believe, was in naming the dog after a Marine. Chesty Puller. The Marine. At any rate, precisely like a Marine, the dog had to be re-trained every day. Like a Marine, Chesty was the handsomest thing on any block, especially in his red and blue working-dog cape. And, once again like all Marines, he forgot everything he’d ever known the very instant a pretty woman paid any attention to him. Still, eventually, Chesty was ready to begin his working life.

Then, because we have very little common sense between the two of us, and this is going to become increasingly clear to you as I continue with this story, we got a female pup to train as a backup for Chesty. Making herself comfortable in our home in the desert, our baby girl, Rocca, now weighs 148 pounds. Fully trained, she is calmer than Chesty and more protective, but not as attuned to Jack’s moods. She’s also the undisputed boss of our macho Marine-named boy. Except, of course, on those occasions when she has a need for that lovely appendage he carries between his legs. Then she’s the quintessential southern belle.

All right, so now you’ve got the picture a little more clearly. We’re bored. We’ve been in Arizona long enough for the minimalist beauty of the desert to have long ago worn off. We’re ready for our next adventure and, on this journey we’ll be traveling with two humongous canine companions.

The house is on the market, the recon flight is booked and we’re entertaining ourselves by reading everything we can get our hands on about The Republic of Panama and visiting all the chat rooms for ex-patriots living in that central American country. The place continues to sound good. We’re told that the Caribbean island section of the country, Bocas del Toro (translation: Mouths of the Bull) is thirty minutes from a hospital and a Price Smart. So civilization is within easy reach, but far enough away not to encroach too aggressively. We figure we’ll get a little panga boat instead of a car and take the local buses once we get to the mainland. When we go out for the day, we’ll be able to leave the dogs with the maid or the gardener. Everyone down there has one of each according to our research. It’s the way of life in Latin America and expected as a boon to the local economy. Panama is looking like an undiscovered tropical paradise. Clear blue water, little verdant jungle islands edged in white sand and most of the comforts of home too. Plus, they speak English.

Okay, okay, okay. I know. Way too good to be true. But you’ve gotta remember how bored we are, how desperate to find something with which to entertain ourselves besides looking deep within our souls to discover the truth that surpasses understanding. It’s time to move on and Bocas del Toro in The Republic of Panama looks good. We’ll go and check it out and, if it looks as good as everything we’re reading, we’ll head on down. If not, well, Jack assures me it’s a big world out there. Here’s how that conversation went:

“I don’t know Honey,” I say. “I mean, if it were just you and me, then I agree, we could go anywhere. Assuming we can find a buyer for the house. We could just leave the money from sale in the bank and travel the world and explore. But we have these two giant dogs.”

Try to see this with me, the exact condescending tilt of Jack’s big white-haired head, the slight cocking of the left eyebrow indicating irritation, the precise tone of voice as though speaking to a not-too-terribly-bright child.

“Why do you have to be negative?” He sighs. “There won’t be any problem with traveling with the dogs. Trust me.”

“But, maybe we should wait to sell the house until we know exactly where we’re going.”

Yes, I know. It was me who had the bright idea to move in the first place. I’m the one who mentioned greener pastures, where the summers didn’t feel like walking into a pizza oven each time I stepped outside. But we seem to be building momentum at an alarming rate. I can almost feel that boulder shifting its position ever so slightly above our heads.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On the Move with Chesty and Rocca

Here's a page or so of a non-fiction book about how I ended up living for a few years in the Republic of Panama. The previous post is actually the prologue of that book.  Disconcerting that the sentiments fit so well into my life now, but what're you gonna do? I'll post a little bit every day.  See what you think.  This will make you feel better about your own marriage and, if you're not already in love with one, probably discourage you from ever getting a large dog.


We sit, my husband, Jack, and I, in our old-people recliners, watching CNN and petting the fur- covered, 150 pound trunk-less elephants we call dogs at our house, contemplating another winter in the high desert of Arizona.

“You know what?” I ask my husband rhetorically.

He doesn’t answer. We’ve been married long enough that, first of all, he knows one of my lead-ins to a discussion about our lives when he hears it and, secondly, he’s trained his brain to simply filter out nine tenths of what comes floating out of my mouth.

Knowing this, with no encouragement whatsoever, I continue, “It feels like we’re just sitting here waiting to die.”

He turns his head and looks at me.

A minute later, he says, “Yeah. It does, doesn’t it?”

After breakfast, I say, “Let’s move to someplace green and warm with a beautiful blue ocean.”

This, right here, turns out to be the equivalent of saying, “I’ll bet we could strap these two giant dogs to our backs and, even at our age, we could just leap right across that rocky abyss over yonder. Don’t worry about those loose boulders. We’ll be fine.”

By noon, I’ve been on the computer and found Bocas Del Toro in the Republic of Panama, a thousand tiny islands in the southern Caribbean, right across the border from Costa Rica. Palm trees, pale, cerulean-blue water and monkeys. Too close to the equator for hurricanes. Plus, every internet site assures me, they speak English. Our new home? By early afternoon, Jack has called a realtor and set up an appointment for her to come out, take a look and tell us what we might get for our adobe brick house and five prickly desert acres.

We keep doing our research about Panama. Everything looks good. It’s affordable. The political situation is stable. Noriega’s in jail in Florida. Right? The government has set up lots of appealing incentives to encourage immigration and investment. The islands look beautiful. White sand beaches and clear blue water. The place looks like heaven. And they speak both Spanish and English. Hard to believe, but, what do we know, we’ve never been there.

We did live on the Caribbean coast of Mexico for six years. In a trailer set up in a tiny beach community called Pamuul. Gringos, all gringos in this place. Lots of Texan spoken there, but nothing but Spanish outside the community. Of course, Panama has had a huge community of Americans for years because of the canal. So I guess they learned English while our forefathers were fighting off yellow fever, building, and then managing, the waterway for a hundred years. Yeah, that makes sense. That must be how an entire, albeit tiny, Central American country became bi-lingual. The internet wouldn’t lie. Right?

Okay. So, a week later, the house is on the market and we’re booked on a reconnaissance flight to Panama for the first of November. That’s forty-seven days away. I was going to say we were making progress, but, in retrospect, moving toward our chosen goal is probably closer to the truth.

You need to know about these dogs we have, these Italian Mastiffs or Cane Corsos. Chesty and Rocca. But before I can tell you about the dogs, I have to fill you in on a little information about my husband.

Jack is a former Marine. He served in Vietnam. Well, he was there when there was a lot of shooting. Who the hell he or any other military personnel were actually serving over there is still up for debate. The point is, our government sent him and, in all ignorance and patriotism and innocence, he went. Into the quagmire. Six months in country, he disarmed a landmine the Marine Corp way. Put his fingers in his ears and stepped softly with the toe of his combat boot. Or, so he tells the story. At any rate, he died and, given the place he was leaving at that moment, he was happy to go. Except the damn corpsman dragged him out of the nice, warm, peaceful light and slam back into the pain and stink of the jungle.

So, it’s thirty years later and, except for the constant pain and raging PTSD, he’s pretty much gotten over the whole war experience thing. He’s still pissed at the corpsman, but he’s managed to live with it and make himself a good life. There’s not much to be done with the physical pain, but one of the ways he deals with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is by having service dogs. Another way he handles the residue of the trauma is to make chronically impulsive life changing decisions based on nothing more than an overriding sense of boredom. But you have, perhaps, already caught on to this.

The dogs are trained to let him know when someone is coming up behind him, to cover his back when he’s in public, to distract him when he gets anxious and to reassure him when he’s nervous. It works slick. We haven’t had to flee a grocery store leaving a full cart of food since he got the first dog. We even go to movies now. And restaurants. Of course, he still sits with his back to the wall and he persists in believing that the name of Ted Turner’s ex-wife is Jane Fucking Fonda, but, really, he’s pretty much recovered from the whole war trauma thing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Marriage and Drinking Your Own Urine

You know that guy in Utah? The one that went hiking around Moab and ended up trapped by the boulder from hell and had to hack off his hand at the wrist with a pocket knife? I’m beginning to think of that tragic tale as a near perfect analogy for marriage.

I mean. Think about it. The guy works like a fool just to get himself to this glorious, starkly beautiful environment of lurking death. He be-bops along, enjoys the rose tinged boulders, thinks he’s the luckiest, cleverest fool in the history of the world to have discovered these deep clefts and smooth surfaces.

Next thing he knows, he jumps down into this inviting crevasse and looks up just in time to see this bitch of a boulder falling through the air to pin his wrist to the side of the mother of all rocks. You know he’s gotta be looking up at that stone prison falling toward him in slow motion, like an innocently smiling virgin stepping inexorably down the aisle, and part of his brain has got to be screaming, “N-o-o-o!”

And the boulder. Let’s think about that for a minute. Birthed by the bedrock, prepared for eons by rain and wind and the natural erosion of the mother rock to fall with no more thought than, well, than a bride going to her goofily smiling groom. Slipping, as easily as nature herself, through the golden, red-tinged air, to fall precisely, pinning the hapless young man to the side of the canyon he thought to plunge into with the reckless joy of ignorant youth.


So he’s pinned.

He spends a day or two trying to think his way out of his predicament. He denies he’s stuck. He wiggles and squirms and stretches and moans. He enjoys a sunset or two. Prays to the God that created the freaking boulder. Watches a couple of killer sunrises. Decides to cut off his hand to save the rest of his life.

If you’ve ever been married, go ahead, tell me you’ve never been right there.

But, nuh uh, nope. That hand’s not coming off that easily. His tiny little pocket knife is not going to cut through the solid bone of the good wrist given him by a loving Lord.

So he waits. He gives up. He resigns himself to living the rest of his short, miserable life, trapped by this rosy stone to the side of the bedrock. He waits. If he’d had a TV, he’d have watched it, remote clutched firmly in his good hand, proof of his amazing control over his life.

He thinks about all the people he knows who seem to skip merrily through their little jaunts in the countryside. He wonders what the hell is the matter with him that he didn’t just leap over the abyss and keep enjoying his sunny freedom.

He remembers the life he had before he trapped himself in the wilderness. So long ago now, it feels like it happened to someone else. Someone happy. Someone free.

Maybe he thinks about his mother and the lies she told him about the joys to be found in committing to that leap of faith. He waits. He drinks his own urine. Watches the fuzzy black images of the circling buzzards.

He waits. He thinks about what he’d do with the rest of his life if he could just get out of this mess. He drifts for a while in a haze of pre-death exhaustion. He thinks about those dark, feathered portents of rot and decay gathering silently over his head, drawn by the smell of the gangrene. He smiles. He waits just a little longer, letting his hope build his strength and courage.

Then he plunges his tiny steel blade into the now rotten bone of his wrist. Even now, nothing is quick or easy. He cuts and scrapes and digs for the joint. He screams and rants and gives up a dozen times. Only his sure knowledge that he will die if he can’t escape, keeps him hacking away at his stinking flesh.

In the end, he’s free. Missing a part of himself, half-dead from the ordeal, but free. And still miles from safety or any solid hope of survival. Now he puts one foot in front of the other, prays he’s lucid enough that he’s navigating in the correct direction, and just keeps walking. For many, many steps, long past the time when common sense dictates he give up, curl peacefully in a fetal position and embrace his death, he walks. One painful step at a time. Not letting himself think about the reality that he’s hacked off a vital piece of his own body. He just staggers toward what he hopes is the direction of progress and life.

Having done all he can to save himself, it’s a combination of luck and love that save him. Other hikers, strolling blissfully along on their own adventure, stumble across him, very nearly dead on his feet, though still standing. At the same time, his mother, frantic for days now at his disappearance, has begged, prodded and threatened the authorities into putting a helicopter in the air to look for him. That helicopter is less than a mile away when he’s discovered by the happy family of hikers.

At the hospital, the experts bring him back from the dead. Then they cut off his arm again. Higher up and cleaner. They rig him up with an artificial hand. He even has a prosthetic with a climbing hook. Unbelievably soon he convinces himself he’s come out of his ordeal better than new. He gets on with his life with a new joy in each new dawn. He rushes right out and looks for another virgin wilderness to explore and enjoy. After all, he’s better prepared this time. Why, he even has a steel hook to replace the soft, vulnerable puny hand he had during his first ordeal.

Admittedly, I might be having a bad day. But, seriously, isn’t that whole trapped-in- the-desert-drink-your-own-urine ordeal a perfect analogy for marriage? That platitude that everyone tells you when you’re going through a rough spot in your marital life? You know the one.

“If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”


Life can be hard enough that it leaves you crippled and panting on the side of a forsaken road, just praying for the rot to set in so you can scrape, hack and saw your way out of yet another disaster, leaving an additional appendage to feed the earth off of which you’ve managed to drag your sorry ass.

And yet, we love, we risk, we throw ourselves into that narrow canyon and thank God for the opportunity.  Because love, when we get it right, changes everything.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Six Degrees of Freedom

According to shipbuilders and mariners, there are six different motions a floating vessels can make.

Rolling – the oscillating movement of a vessel from side to side

Pitching – the rise and fall of a ship on calm to moderate seas.

Yawing –The back and forth movement of ship caused by a high seas in a confused state.

Heaving – The rise and fall of a vessel in high seas.

Swaying – The side to side swing of a ship in moderate seas.

Surging – The propelling of a vessel in a sudden forward movement when powerful waves hit the vessels stern.

It’s the nautical name for these six movements that intrigue me: 

Six Degrees of Freedom 

Reminding me that:

 no matter how rough be the sea we navigate,

no matter how difficult it may be to keep our bearings

 as life rolls, pitches and yaws, our footing heaving, swaying and surging beneath us,

All we need do to keep our freedom

Is to

Not sink.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Blackbirds and Death

Light explodes the dark
Blossoms of red, white, and blue
Blackbirds fall from skies

Red wings in black night
Freedom stolen, cold, hard death
Join hands, stay alert

Once again, while fireworks celebrated the remembrance of freedom, redwing blackbirds have fallen from the night skies.

Odd that only the explosions over NW Arkansas have this effect on birds.  Makes me suspicious that, for our own good no doubt, someone is hiding the truth.

Makes me consider the possibility that the liars are the same people who insist on the necessity for the new law enabling the government to pick up and hold any one of us, indefinitely, on suspicion of supporting terrorism.

Not proof of being a terrorist, but suspicion of supporting terrorism.

In my mind the image of those plummeting blackbirds is superimposed over the picture of protestors hunkered down while a uniformed protector of our freedom sprays pepper spray directly into their faces. I keep seeing Japanese rounded up for internment camps, Indians marched on trails marked with death and sorrow.

Without the freedom to fly, what will we become?

Is no one else frightened that we’re falling into a cold world of darkness and death? 

Is it time we joined hands and figured out a way to get past our differences?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dal baht and Elephant Sweat

It’s been over ten years since I’ve eaten dal bhat, the national dish of Nepal.  Rice and lentils, that’s all it is. We backpacked around Nepal with a guide, SK, who found us the first morning of our trip and attached himself like some crazy super-glue-alien-creature. Seriously, we fired him no less than a dozen times on the month long trip and he just kept coming back.

 We spoke only one phrase in Nepalese.

 Namaste, y’all.

In restaurants we were at his mercy and he ordered dal bhat, every damn time.  Which is what he’d eaten twice a day his entire life.  Presumably, he liked it.  We liked it.  The first six times we ate it.  After that, not so much.

Every morning, even when we changed guesthouses in the middle of the night, there SK would be, with a big accommodating smile. 

“Why you no like me.  Mother, father, I show you good things.”

When we snuck off, rode a bus a couple-hundred miles to the Indian border, and booked an early morning elephant ride, there was SK perched on the elephant when we arrived for our jungle trek.

Yesterday, for the first time in over ten years, I got a hankering for dah baht. When I pulled the recipe from between the pages of my old notebook, the smell of elephant sweat floated up into the air with the yellowed page.  An image filled my head of a young macaque monkey sitting in a sunny circle under huge trees where his family swung and chattered. The monkey raised his hand at me when I swung by on the back of the elephant, mimicked my wave of hello.

Here, finally, is the point of this post.

Smells trigger memory harsh blood-red flashbacks or soft, velvety shadows of feeling and longing. 

In this instance, the case of the elephant sweat, just the thought of the dal baht triggered a false smell which set off the memory.  That’s powerful stuff.  Be good, as writers, to use it in our work. 
Oh yeah, and Happy New Year. May all your smells be good.